Dreams – Futuristic, Nostalgic, Genuine

hat young urban planners want right now is for everyone to realize that they like and want walkable communities. Because if everyone wants it then it will be easier to get it. We think that these changes we want to make will make humanity happier in general.

Daniel Burnham, the first great American urban planner of the Columbian Expedition and of many cityscapes including Chicago’s lakefront and Magnificent Mile, thought this, too. Of the implementation of cars, he said “When this change comes, a real step in civilization will have been taken. With no smoke, no gases, no litter of horses, your air and streets will be clean and pure. This means, does it not, that the health and spirits of men will be better?” (From Devil in the White City, p. 378)

He wasn’t only wrong that cleaner air (our air is much cleaner than any air Burnham breathed back in the 1890s) would come with the automobile, he was wrong that cleaner air and streets would make humans’ health and spirits better. Our health suffers from laziness and exhaust. Our happiness is hard to find when all this technology helps us forget to be grateful and mindful.

I think it was good for the planners of the World’s Fair in Chicago to dream so big. I disagree with Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City’s author, in saying that he steered America toward its own greatness of architecture and landscape. Modernism took a huge toll on the undeveloped land of our country throughout the 20th century. Why should we be building greek-looking buildings, people like Frank Lloyd Wright asked. That’s not our heritage. You can now see the  our heritage’s design, the prairie house, in any city. It is beige/brown brick, one story, with horizontal lines and large windows.

People at WorldChanging and other “Think bright green future” blogs stress the importance of thinking of new solutions instead of going back to old ways of thinking, such as the small town model accented in New Urbanism. But all those images of futuristic buildings and green landscapes with the sun shining impossibly bright are just as frightening as a post-apocalyptic dirty industrial landscape with muddy skies and polluted ground. At least, they are to me. I am afraid to assume that’s a better world for the generations to come, for our children. We are in an age where we don’t like to assume, claim, or presume anything about anyone else. Parents are letting their kids make their own choices more and more.

I’m not saying this is all bad, but it raises the question of what we are to do with what we have on this earth today. When we artistic types write poems, paint pictures, make films or sculptures, we realize how fully what we have read, seen, experienced impacts what we will create. We spend a lot of our work paying homage to those who have gone before, who have made us see ourselves in a new way. Taking what we have learned, we create new art that is relevant and fresh to our present circumstance, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, it will have delved into the unspoken currents of our collective emotions and will stay relevant for ages to come.

So as you create new dreams for yourself and the ones around you, don’t worry about trends. Just make sure you are being genuinely you. Most large dreams have several thousand flaws and bad outcomes, but no one blames the genuine motives of the creator.

This is from the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Americans put this vision far into the future and continued building prairie house suburbs. Maybe we like the idea of places like these, but not for ourselves.

The plans and dreams of our future continue in the same fashion. This image is a plan for South Korea. Phallic?

The Green Projects???

WebUrbanist Post called Retrofuture Urbanism

How do you envision America’s future?


Paving Over Our Own Habitat

I love this line from The Boulevard Book:

“We became aware that the boulevard epitomizes a completely different paradigm for urban street design–one that embraces complexity and coexistence of movement over simplicity and separation, and one that insists that access to abutting uses is as central to the functionality of city streets as swift through movement.”

That’s why I’m learning how to draw and diving into design and trying to do this the right way. I sometimes give up on things because they’re too hard. But it’s usually the most complex of tasks, the things we work hardest on that make us happiest. It’s correlation, not causation, because who would work so hard on something they didn’t love?

It’s easy to drive down 28th Street or US-131. It’s also easy to speed and get into an accident. It’s also easy to ignore the landscape, the backdrop to your everyday existence, the people in that landscape who are your neighbors. It’s probably easier to plan areas for cars because there’s no resistance against that anymore. But that doesn’t mean it’s right.

I bet my science degree friends would agree that everything about the created world is incredibly complex, that the more we study it the more mysteries we find. A city is equally complex. We study how it works but there are still many mysteries. It has a life of its own, and it’s not under our control. Creating banal, boring places for cars with ugly stores and endless parking lots simplifies and paves over the life of our cities. We lament when a shopping mall gets built over a thriving marsh, but we’re part of that natural system we say we’ve escaped from. We’ve destroyed habitat: our own habitat.

Why Grand Rapids needs Bus Rapid Transit

It’s been embarrassingly long since I’ve posted. I’ve been doing some cool stuff with GVMC. For the past two weeks we have been going around to different townships and planning out how we’d want future populations to be allocated (10 acre lots? Suburbs? Towns?).

We’ve also been doing stuff with Brownfield money, and today after an interesting conversation, I’ve realized how important the Silver Line was.

The Silver Line was a proposed bus route that would run up and down Division, a main corridor of Grand Rapids. It’s also a crumbling corridor. Division has a rep of vacant buildings, XXX stores, and homelessness. It got voted down, and everyone I know was saying “they already have a bus, and no one new would use it.”

What didn’t get communicated, back in May, was that this bus-line was more than a bus-line. It was going to be fast–it’d have its own lane, control over traffic lights, go as fast as a subway. It’d essentially be a subway but in bus form. Commuters could take this bus rapid transit to work downtown, instead of driving themselves up and down US-131 every day (which, by experience, I KNOW gets really bad during rush hour).

Along with bringing hundreds of people downtown, where they don’t have to worry about parking, this line would make the surrounding properties tons more valuable. With office-job people commuting and looking out the window at stores, this ignored street would not be ignored anymore, by default.

The government has already given us money to rebuild and clean up contaminated and blighted sites along Division. The structure is already there–it is a walkable street with churches, clubs, restaurants, and infrastructure. All it needs is a new face.

Imagine Division Ave becoming like State Street (that great street) in Chicago. It would add a whole new dimension to Grand Rapids. It would connect towns south of Grand Rapids, too.

The main point is, you older people with families may want a big yard and no people around, but that kind of landscape alone sucks the economy dry. You’ve forgotten the young people, who want a place that’s a place (so many have left Michigan for Chicago, what does that tell you?), these young people who become young professionals who almost drive our economy. No wonder Michigan is doing so poorly, all the legislation supports penny-pinching families! Where’s any thought to any other age group? We need our places back.

But all of that rested on a BRT line, which all of you voted down. Tsk tsk tsk.

Woonerfs–Shared Streets

Firsly, the Grand Rapids Press had a big fat article on the front page on Wednesday about installing sidewalks on 28th Street. Is this not a direct response to my Letter to the Editor?  I’m going to say it is!!! YAY!

Also, I found this great webpage with tons of examples of “traffic calming” strategies, but most of them are actually encouraging towards bikes and pedestrians. From the Federal Highway Administration??! Fascinating!   My favorite new word is woonerf–a shared street found in Europe and Japan. Basically a street where people can walk and bike, and cars can mozy through, too, if need be.

What all these new bills mean for urban planning

A press release from Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP) reports that “smart growth best practices and improved transportation choices” could lessen the amount Americans drive by 10%.  Sell all the clunkers you want, this is tons more effective.

The disconnection of our government got a little more connected this year. HUD, DOT, EPA, everyone’s starting to work together, having realized that different aspects of life are deeply interconnected. Here’s my little summary of what the different bills would do for urban planning (money! yay!).


The H.R. 3288: Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010 has been passed by the House. More about this under “Sustainable Communities.”

The Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009  is proposed to include an Office of Livability within the Federal Highway Administration, and would create a more holistic view of transportation within the DOT instead of viewing it as a fund for cars.

The Clean Low-Emissions Affordable New Transportation Equity Act (CLEAN TEA) is an effort to get more funds toward green transportation projects. An estimated ten percent of this bill’s funding would go toward improving transportation “and lower greenhouse gas emissions through strategies including funding new or expanded transit or passenger rail; supporting development around transit stops; and making neighborhoods safer for bikes and pedestrians.”  (COMPLETE STREETS PLEASE!)

Sustainable Communities

In March, HUD and DOT came together for a partner project: “Sustainable Communities.” The EPA has also joined this effort to “help improve access to affordable housing, more transportation options, and lower transportation costs while protecting the environment in communities nationwide.”
In short, the six principles Sustainable Communities promotes aim to

provide more transportation choices,
promote equitable, affordable housing,
enhance economic competitiveness,
support existing communities,
coordinate policies and leverage investment, and
value communities and neighborhoods.

H.R. 3288 has provided funds for this project: of the $150 million dedicated to this account, $100 million would be used for grants to link transportation and land use planning at the regional level and $40 million would be used for competitive Metropolitan Challenge Grants to promote local reform and reduce barriers to building affordable and sustainable communities.


The ACES bill has a cap and trade system for large sources of carbon. The system trades  permits as a market-based approach to capping greenhouse gas emissions. This means that possibly,  developers who use smart growth practices could also get emission allowances for creating places where driving is reduced.
The GREEN bill (HR 2336) was introduced on June 11 and has not been passed by the house yet. It would include information on energy-efficient location mortgages, grants funding only applicants who meet the green community criteria checklist and the green buildings certification system, the residential energy efficient block program, which would grant funds to communities to improve energy efficiency of single- and multi-family housing, and sustainable development and transportation strategies in comprehensive housing affordability strategies.

There you have it. Yes, the government is spending gazillions of dollars, but if any area needs it, it’s housing and transportation. Have you SEEN Division Avenue?????

Grand Rapids Renewal Efforts

In my bubble of Grand Rapids, I was subjected to the “creation, fall, redemption, renewal” equation throughout my Christian education. It didn’t help that my church held the same beliefs. I became wary and tired of having to write all my papers through this perspective, including an especially ridiculous one about water, probably the broadest topic in the entire universe. Except the universe.

The Christian Reformed theology stresses that the world will be renewed before Christ comes back, and it is our job to help the Holy Spirit renew it. I can theologize about this forever, but I really wanted to write about my new internship with Grand Valley Metropolitan Council and what they’re doing to renew parts of our city.

First there’s the “complete streets” program, based on the demand/belief that roads should be ways of travel for cyclists, pedestrians, and automobile drivers. There are bike lanes on parts of Wealthy street in East Grand Rapids, and GVMC is one of many groups trying to make a law for bike lanes on all streets within the city. This is a dream come true for me, and it may seem small because it would only eliminate the walkers and bikers from cars’ way, but for the biker and walker, it is a world of difference. It could mean my being able to bike to the grocery store. Or for those who take the bus, it would mean not having to walk through fields and commercial lots and driveways to stand at the bus stop.

Also, GVMC has gotten Brownfield money (money from the government specifically for assessing and redeveloping contaminated lots) for the Division gateway into the city. Division is getting a rapid bus system by 2012 for commuters as an alternative to US-131, and this means, for developers, that the street will be a more desirable spot for developers. Add that to the brownfield incentives, and you will see renewal on Division.

As soon as new bike trails, buildings, sidewalks, and roads are built, they are simultaneously torn up, worn down, graffiti’d, and generally ruined. I’m not sure any place on earth will ever reach perfection, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from constantly growing, changing, and making mistakes.

New Grand Rapids Neighborhood Grabs Smart Growth Philosophy..Sort of

I was driving down 44th street today. It’s a boulevard that I don’t frequent much. I associate it with condo developments without sidewalks…not a place I want to be. But I almost slammed on my brakes today when I drove past Cobblestone At The Ravine.

Whoa! You look like Seaside!

I did two Michigan left turns so I could go into this new development. The houses/condos were set close to the road with no garages in sight. There was a large grassy median. The houses were actually attractive. Some of them already had residents, though the development was clearly new.  A little girl was riding her bike, watching me press my nose to the window in awe of her living space.

It’s actually happening. Sure, the shared playground has a “private space” sign and this development is in the middle of nowhere and not necessarily affordable to everyone, but something is visually changing about architecture. Planning that makes sense. Finally!

I find the blurb about these non-burbs really funny: “a new neighborhood that blends the best of yesterday with all the benefits and advantages of today! This imaginative and inviting new community offers you a real sense of arrival… of knowing you’re home even before you reach your front door. Conveniently located on the corner of 44th St. and Shaffer Ave., you’ll find that Cobblestone at the Ravines focuses on not only how you live, but where you live. Homeowners and their families will enjoy a casual recreational lifestyle within the community. Stretch out by the pool in summer or splash around in the fabulous spray park. Chat with neighbors while your children enjoy the play areas. Or start your day with a fast-paced walk or an easy jog along one of the quiet streets that wind throughout the community.”

Very interesting!

The Best-Laid Plans: O'Toole's Scheme at Generalizing Planning

The Best-Laid Plans by Randal O’Toole argues that the planning field in America is inefficient and ineffective: O’Toole tells us it’s simply not necessary.

His first focus is on something he knows well: Forest Planning. He spends the first 50 pages detailing how forestry planning does not work, and makes some great points: how can one predict tree growth, lumber prices, and demand in the years to come? How can one predict forest fires?  Being unfamiliar with the lumber industry, I took this chapter with more than a grain of salt.

Now I’m reading the second chapter, which is focused on urban planning. He rails against urban planners for over-simplifying and generalizing neighborhoods and uses and for having personal agendas without concern to the complex needs of the community; and he also accuses planners of fabricating and misusing statistics to get what they want.

One of his biggest examples was his claim that planners have stated that obesity is caused by sprawl. He writes that obesity has a correlation, not a causation, with sprawl, and that low income is a much larger and proven factor in obesity rates. I would never argue this. You have seen my many posts on walkability and fitness and how my own city living has caused my weightloss. But I would never claim that urban sprawl CAUSED obesity. I don’t think any planner with half a brain would claim this.

In effect, O’Toole is generalizing urban planners and making rash claims about them, while he argues that they generalize and make rash claims.

Another argument of his that bothered me was about community. He mocks Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, for taking the fall of bowling leagues and steady rate of actual bowling to mean a decrease in community among Americans.  “It never occured to him  that people might be bowling with families and friends,” O’Toole writes. Wam, bam. Sticking the knife in Putnam’s argument. He ignores the fact that Putnam has followed up Bowling Alone with Better Together, a book full of stories of how communities have pulled together and started successful programs to solve their community’s specific problems.

He also fails to realize that of course families and friends hang out and go bowling, all the time, especially in suburbs, because suburbs were meant to isolate and idolize the nuclear family.

I whole-heartedly agree with O’Toole that community can happen in a strong way in suburbs, and he’s right that large cities have no neighborly relations (living in the Gold Coast for three months is my proof, you may be able to poke a hole in this).  He says public transit isn’t right for every area, that the strict New Urbanist guidelines put on development will be destructive in the long run. Again, truth to that. But shouldn’t Americans have a choice? I think we’d both ask this question. Shouldn’t a person be able to choose the bus over the car? Shouldn’t someone be able to walk to a store, or a church, or anything? If a planner sees people walking on the side of busy streets that have no sidewalks, why wouldn’t the planner just put sidewalks there?

I am not being clear if I totally agree or disagree with O’Toole. It’s because he has some good arguments, and a good new perspective on planning. I think he’s right: too much money and time go into failed governmental plans. It’s wasting our tax dollars. I’ve always been okay with raising taxes if it meant bettering the life of those who have no means to, but I never considered in detail how the government may be ill-spending tax money. It’s an important issue. It’s still not about getting the lowest taxes possible–it’s more about how little we know about how little planners know what they’re doing with the widespread, federal plans for a diverse, complex nation.

I just got a little bit more supportive of small government. Shouldn’t be a surprise with my LiveLittle motto, I guess!