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The Seeds of a New Investment in Cities?

Plans have been drawn to turn the LA Rivers concrete bed into a green corridor. Source: NY Times

Plans have been drawn to turn the LA River's concrete bed into a green corridor. Source: NY Times

Now is the time to reinvent American cities, says Nicolai Ourousoff recently in the New York Times.

The country has fallen on hard times, but those of us who love cities know we have been living in the dark ages for a while now. We know that turning things around will take more than just pouring money into shovel-ready projects, regardless of how they might boost the economy. Windmills won’t do it either. We long for a bold urban vision.

With their crowded neighborhoods and web of public services, cities are not only invaluable cultural incubators; they are also vastly more efficient than suburbs. But for years they have been neglected, and in many cases forcibly harmed, by policies that favored sprawl over density and conformity over difference.

The article goes on to suggest initiatives in New Orleans, Los Angeles, the Bronx and Buffalo, and the solutions laid out are physical in nature, concentrating much on parks as environmental and economic investments. This includes reinventing the LA River as a strip of green that unites instead of divides demographically distinct neighborhoods, reinvigorating Buffalo’s parks and reconnecting it to its lakefront, and re-envisioning New Orleans through new natural and public spaces.

Making efforts difficult, Ourousoff correctly points out that federal policy towards cities is quite fragmented. Parks are in Interior (and also in Transportation for trails and HUD for community development block grants), housing in HUD, transit and highways in transportation, economic development in Treasury and Commerce, with more by the Army Corp and Forest Service in other departments. But given this, he writes about how changes could make the above projects happen:

Getting the projects I’ve described off the ground is not as impossible as it may seem. Only last week the federal Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development announced the creation of an urban task force that would promote the development of sustainable communities linked to public transportation — a small but encouraging step in advancing a more integrated approach to urban growth.

In September the White House and Congress will also have a rare opportunity to rethink the antiquated transportation authorization bill, which comes up for review once every six years and funnels hundreds of billions of dollars each year into highway construction and repairs.

Given that the administration has already made sustainability a priority, that money could be redirected to other projects, like efforts that reinforce density rather than encourage urban sprawl. It could be used to replace crumbling expressways with the kind of local roads and parks that bind communities together rather than tear them apart.

We may be seeing the seeds of a new urban policy being planted. How they will grow we don’t quite know.

Community Garden Round-Up

The news program 60 Minutes recently featured Alice Waters and the locally grown food movement, visiting the Edible Schoolyard that Waters helped create. The school garden offers a great example of connecting kids to the growing and making of food. Also, Citiwire recently featured an article from Farley Peters on an increased government role in gardens. The pieces reminded us of two articles from Parks & Recreation magazine on community gardening (and parks).

  • Most recently, last fall the magazine had an article (pdf) about how cities can create new community gardens and how parks departments and related agencies can address them.
  • An article from 2006 also addressed these issues and more specifically how cities have set up gardening programs.

Lastly, somewhat unrelated to community gardens, but to the larger food policies in the U.S., is the long-form article Michael P0llan wrote for the New York Times magazine last fall. Pollan sees an entirely different set-up for how food is grown and provided to consumers – mentioning a need for more farmers’ markets, crop/grazing rotations that reduce dependence on oil and locally grown food.

Detroit’s Dequindre Cut Gaining More Attention

We posted last year about Detroit’s new Dequindre Cut trail, and want to again share a piece from Metropolis magazine on this great project. (The article webpage also features some great pictures of the new trail.) The Cut is the type of project that can show the role of parks, trails and other investments in public space in the revitalization of older, de-industrialized cities, Detroit being perhaps the granddaddy of them all. Here’s an excerpt:

Detroit’s Dequindre Cut is a walking-and-cycling trail running below street level along a stretch of abandoned rail line just east of downtown. Designed by JJR, a locally based landscape-design firm, the project cost $3.75 million, a drop in the bucket compared to the $110 million the region has already invested in greenway development. Still, the graffiti-lined trench has captured the area’s imagination like no mere bike path could. “The physical characteristics of the Dequindre Cut are unmatched anywhere in this region,” says Tom Woiwode, the director of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michi­gan’s GreenWays Initiative, one of the project’s main funders. “It’s developed a level of enthusiasm that we’ve never seen.”

The trail’s first phase is a mile-long segment that includes restrained landscaping, two strips of asphalt (one for pedestrians and the other for bikes), light­ing, security phones, and benches. A full half of its width is left untouched to accommodate a prospective light-rail line. But what the trail connects is as important as how it looks. Its three access points are the recently redeveloped Detroit Riverfront; Lafayette Park, a well-established residential community that boasts the world’s largest collection of Mies van der Rohe buildings; and the southern end of Eastern Market, a popular outdoor market with specialty shops and restaurants.

Parks as Happiness Boosters

At Slate.com, Gretchen Rubin, writing for her Happiness Project blog, interviews Julie Morgenstern, who Rubin says “has done a lot of thinking about happiness, as it relates to managing our possessions and time.” Morgenstern’s response to one question provides a nice perspective on the value of city parks in keeping us uncluttered in the mind.

Rubin: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (Mine is reading children’s books.)
Morgenstern: I go to Central Park. Being around people … the many characters, stories, scenes, energy, and warmth of others pulls me out of my own troubles and lifts my mood. It’s an instant antidote.

An expert on organizing one’s life thinks that parks are good rechargers. Sounds good to us.

New Federal Livable Communities Partneship

A partnership for livable communities on the federal level? A U.S. Dept. of Transportation and the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development initiative will do just this. Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood actually has a blog, where among other interesting posts, he writes about the opportunities of the new partnership. Here are the four goals of the partnership that he outlines:

  • More choices for affordable housing near employment opportunities;
  • More transportation options, to lower transportation costs, shorten travel times, and improve the environment;
  • The ability to combine several errands into one trip through better coordination of transportation and land uses; and
  • Safe, livable, healthy communities.

Among other things, the Secretaries are aiming to effect metro-wide planning efforts to address these issues through their regulatory abilities. In addition, they plan to conduct research into what exactly makes communities “livable” and provide a set of measures. This effort looks promising, in that it brings in disparate tasks within the federal government to create a unified strategy on urban development. Along with transportation and housing, we see parks and vibrant public spaces as part of the fourth bullet above: safe, livable, healthy communities. In addition, with dense transit-oriented development, comes an additional need to create quality neighborhoods through nearby parks as well.

Read more about the partnership here.