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It’s actually dark at night, the leaves are browning and yellowing on the trees, and the snow marches down the mountains toward the city.  Must be autumn.

September was a silent month on the blog but a busy month in real life – and October, though busy and starting stressful, will not be similarly silent.  Which is to say, I’ll post soon.

And November is conference month!  I’ll be in Fairbanks for the APA Alaska Chapter festivities, and heading to Baltimore to throw down some wholesale produce distribution knowledge with the Society of American City and Regional Planning Historians (SACRPH).  And in the meantime, frantically tying together the loose ends in my life to make way for some new threads.

Last Warm Days on the Coastal Trail

Last Warm Days on the Coastal Trail

Autumn Along the Seward Highway
Autumn Along the Seward Highway

 

Better bottle this early morning sunlight soon...

Better bottle this early morning sunlight soon...

As all things government-spending-related become topics of general debate rather than just policy wonks’ geek-out of choice, the activities of that government move into the spotlight.  And as our cities get more popular and our problems of modern living more complicated, the field of planning (land use, environment, transportation, housing, economy, other) has been lauded as the solution or attacked as part of the problem.

There’s no easy way to characterize and dissect American attitudes toward planning, and certainly no one solution to the “right” kind of planning and at what cost.  Generally speaking, though, people in my generation (finished school, starting their first job or three, married or not, moving to a new place in the city, enjoying “urban” amenities like coffee shops and parks and concert series, walking or biking to work) seem to generally view urban planning as a positive thing, where older generations tend to be more skeptical.

While recognizing this is itself a generalization, I wondered if I could explain it with another generalization:  people my age tend not to be property owners, and those older (who tend to be skeptics) are.  To them, “planning” is not about finding an affordable apartment or having a bike lane or community garden, but about how much their property taxes are, who is telling them whether they’re allowed to put an addition on their house, and whether installing a roundabout in their area will increase traffic along their street.  Not to mention homeowners’ focus on the quality of their schools, since much of the district’s expenses come directly out of their property taxes and since, if they have children, they may have made the decision to live where they do based on the schools.

No wonder they may gripe about planning!  If all they ever see of urban planning is the Board of Zoning Appeals and their water bill and annual or tri-annual tax assessment, and maybe a road improvement which increases traffic congestion or impacts their parking spot at work, no wonder they complain.  They don’t take the bus, so a new route isn’t too exciting; they spend a lot of time working on their house or in their own backyard, so they don’t go to a public park except maybe for the Fourth of July fireworks; and they’re busy living their own lives and aren’t generally called on to articulate the long-term vision for their community.  They care about paying the large bills (mortgage, utilities, taxes, school and children, car payment) they have to worry about.

This isn’t to say that people my age don’t own cars or some form of property, or inherently care more about their community (some would argue they care less, being more transient) or automatically use these public resources.  They do, however, tend to be less burdened with taxes and possessions and are in a place where they’re more open to and able to try new things; have less money, so rely on things like renting an apartment or taking public transportation or spending time in free public spaces; and may use their free time to engage in civic projects like community gardens or social activism or environmental justice work or just spending time enjoying urban amenities.  As cities, and by extension planning as a field, become the next cool thing – even Scientific American got on the bandwagon and just had an issue celebrating cities – those who haven’t yet been burdened with the full costs of modern living seem to overlook the bureaucracy and focus on the bigger, more interesting picture.

So assuming all this speculation has identified a decently solid truth, I further wonder, is this the natural progression of generational attitudes toward planning?  Or will this enthusiasm “stick” as my generation buys property, settles down, has children who need schooling, and who will eventually get stuck with the bills?  There’s already mixed evidence about whether suburban living will continue to appeal to young families, but from my very limited and anecdotal evidence, it does seem that school-age children (and/or the desire for a more traditional household living situation) will drive some people out of city neighborhoods to somewhere more suburban, less complicated bureaucratically and planning-wise.  If young people will inevitably grow out of their love of urban living and support of greater institutional involvement of the life of a city, then we should worry (again) about our cities in the next few decades, if they will again enter a low period.

If the attitude is not simply related to age and level of responsibility, however, maybe we’re really in a larger period of change.  Maybe we still need to focus on convincing the homeowners and soon-to-retire generation (who after all, still have the power as property owners) that some changes with planning are a good thing.  But maybe we also have the larger shift in attitude on our side, in the long run.

And of course there’s one huge group I have not touched on:   the elderly.  Those who may or may not still own their own homes, and who are still paying those bills (though maybe not a mortgage) like their working counterparts.  Many of those people were also young when cities were rapidly growing in the US, however, and may see a city neighborhood in a more positive, perhaps more nostalgic way.  As they age, they become more dependent on others to get around, are less able or willing to drive everywhere, and they may or may not be interested in the housework associated with “aging in place” versus settling in a denser and more active community with other seniors.  As they interact less with planning bureaucracy but face more of the issues that planning addresses, will their attitudes also change for the better?  How do their attitudes now differ from younger generations?

As with any issue or question or field of work which relies on public discourse, planning needs to care about how it is perceived by the general population.  Ultimately, planners are only there to educate and advise the public about decisions it will make about its own community and future.  The underlying perceptions of planning have an effect on each individual project or debate, and the success of our field depends in part on our awareness of and ability to positively influence those perceptions of us and our work.

Along North Avenue, from Chicago’s west side well into the suburbs, at several major intersections lone men stand on the median strip of concrete – or just on the pavement between the two centermost lanes – holding a stack of newspapers.  They start selling well before most people get in their cars to go to work, but remain there – in all weather – until late morning, when most commuters have already gone by.  They sell the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and possibly the Daily Herald out past the numbered avenues of Melrose Park.  Wearing mesh vests to stay more visible in the low morning light, they are an unusual sight on multi-lane arterial roads, standing in the middle of the street selling newspapers.

As a print subscriber to the New York Times, and previously the Tribune, I never had occasion to buy a paper, but always felt bad for the men on the median, especially on bitter cold Chicago mornings, or when piles of snow had turned to brown slush.  Sure, it’s a job – but surely not a good one.  I did see some people purchase papers while stopped by red lights, holding coins out through their cracked windows, and maybe they had a regular “newsman” at a particular corner.  Even if I hadn’t a subscriber, though, I probably would not have bought one – after all, when would I read it?

The big arguments about why newspaper circulation is declining – a lot – are the usual suspects:  the decline of reading and intellectual pursuit, the rise of the Internet and television news, general phasing out of newspapers as a respectable, reliable, and up-to-the-minute source of information.  These are all surely important, though definitely debatable, particularly the “dumbing of America” argument.  Nor is this a new phenomenon, according to the Washington Post:

“The decline [in circulation in 2005] continued a 20-year trend in the newspaper industry as people increasingly turn to other media such as the Internet and 24-hour cable news networks for information. Newspaper industry officials also blamed the National Do Not Call Registry, which has forced newspapers to rely less on telemarketing to secure subscribers, and a shift in strategy among major newspapers away from using short-term promotions to acquire new readers.” – Washington Post, 5-3-2005

Think about 20 years before 2005:  1985.  No Internet, cable news just starting (if it existed at all, really?), and a culture on the verge of massive media change – MTV launched in 1981, a critical milestone in TV culture.  If the decline in newspaper readership predates the Internet in its popular form by at least 10 years – and certainly more time than its current form – then maybe that’s not the main cause, or at least not the earliest cause.

Back to the newspaper sellers – they’re basically doing the same job that paperboys and others have done for decades, both on street corners in big cities and (in the case of home delivery) at suburban doorsteps.  They are also doing the same work as the coin-operated paper boxes in downtowns and city neighborhoods, where people on their way to the bus, train, or office can stop and buy the morning news.  The difference is, they’re delivering them to people in cars, not out on the sidewalk.  Even those who drop off the paper on the porch in the morning, are mostly doing so for people who will end up driving to work.  And the biggest population of adults who don’t go to work in the morning – the elderly – are also those who tend to still subscribe to the newspaper and read it regularly.

Is it too much of a stretch to speculate that maybe our large-scale shift in transportation behavior, i.e. commuting to work by car to perform primarily white-collar jobs, has heavily contributed to the decline of newspapers?

Sure, the Internet makes news easier to get, iPads and the like are seen as “killer devices” for paper media, and people watch more television than ever for information and entertainment.  But if you think of reading a newspaper as an action requiring time, inclination, and the information source itself, commuting by car (having to drive) eliminates a big chunk of time when the newspaper might otherwise be read – in the morning, when you’re waking up and getting ready for the day, not fully functioning but wanting to find out what’s going on.  Having to drive to work takes up most attention that transit users can give to other things like reading.

It is also significant that the phenomenon of “morning drive” talk shows, and other sources like NPR’s “morning edition,” get wide listenership no matter the actual quality of the show.  You’ve got a captive audience in the car, probably two peak listening times at the beginning and end of the work day, and they want to get at least some idea of what’s going on in the world before they get to where they need to be.

There used to be evening newspapers, to get what happened at the end of the day, and some studies have shown that people tend to spend most time reading on their iPads and Kindles in the early evening.  Perhaps they’ve simply displaced their reading time to be after work, but it also means they cannot read the newspaper (or any other device) on the way home either.

The biggest exception to the newspaper decline seems to be the New York Times, probably the most well-known and respected newspaper in the U.S.  Coincidence that its primary readership, New York City and surrounding area, largely commutes by public transit if they work in the city?  And similarly with D.C.’s Washington Post?  And the Tribune and other papers publish variations on Chicago’s RedEye, a fluffy smaller-format paper that’s free and strategically placed in red boxes by train and bus stops.  It’s just enough information to get you up to speed on big national and local news, and includes some fun things to do that week and a crossword.  It’s free, quick to read, and as far as I can tell, popular with transit riders even if it’s mediocre quality.  It serves the morning-newspaper need.

So, it would be really difficult to actually determine a causal link between the rise in commuting by car and the decline of newspaper readership, and certainly the Internet, TV, and “instant gratification” attitude toward information play no small part in this trend.  But I think it’s worth considering how our land use and transportation decisions have affected other aspects of our lives, and what impact they have on our routines.  The newspaper sellers of North Avenue are a half-hearted attempt to bring the newspaper into our cars, since we cannot get out and get them on the sidewalk.  The problem is, we’ve eliminated the time in our day we used to have to actually sit down and read it.

[I’ve been meaning to post this for months.]

During our group project for the CRP New York City workshop, we specifically studied the neighborhood around the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, an old industrial area around a historically-working waterfront, now becoming a mix of warehouse space, unfinished office and craft spaces, a few residential units (in addition to the large housing project on its edge), and an influx of creative activity like artists, performance venues, trendy bars, and randomly a Holiday Inn Express.

Being generally unfamiliar with New York City and very familiar with Chicago, it struck me that the Gowanus area looks and feels (perhaps smells) a lot like the Clybourn/Goose Island industrial corridor two miles northwest of the Loop.  Both have a lot of old, messy industrial uses – some of which still exist, others which have left only brownfields – along a formerly working waterfront, in Clybourn’s case the Chicago River.

The forces of gentrification and redevelopment have been at work longer in Clybourn, however, perhaps in part because the river is not a heavily, notoriously polluted Superfund site.  While Finkl Steel and a few others have held on in the area, by and large the area along North Avenue and Goose Island has flipped to become retail (and a bit of housing), especially home furnishings like Restoration Hardware, Design Within Reach, and Crate & Barrel.  The two most buzzworthy developments were the flagship Whole Foods (May 2009) right along the river on Kingsbury, and the Apple Store and renovated Red Line stop (Winter 2010) at the edge of the industrial development.

Comparing aerial views of the two highlights their similar scale, location near a highway, and situation between two dense residential neighborhoods – Wicker Park and Lincoln Park in Chicago, Carroll Gardens/Boerum Hill and Park Slope in Brooklyn.

Clybourn Corridor and Goose Island, Chicago, 1000 ft

Clybourn Corridor and Goose Island, Chicago, view at 1000 ft

Gowanus Canal and Brooklyn, New York City, 1000 ft

Gowanus Canal and Brooklyn, New York City, 1000 ft

More interesting than their shared history and layout, however, is their possibly shared future – specifically, the degree to which the changes in Clybourn portend how Gowanus will develop as the Superfund cleanup moves forward.  Both already have a large Home Depot, both will soon have a large Whole Foods with several yuppie-friendly gimmicks:  the Chicago store has a lovely riverside patio, a huge food court, and a demonstration kitchen which gets regular use.  The Brooklyn store will have a rooftop garden for ultra-local produce, possibly waterfront access, and likely many WF amenities which are possible when building on such a large lot.  Both also have a kayaking presence, though the Gowanus Dredgers certainly take on more risk than the rental places along the Chicago River!

While neither area had a large residential community per se, both were home to many industrial jobs, probably for over a century in both cases.  And both have those who have some degree of fondness, or at least tolerance, for the messy, smelly, bustling, “wild west” they used to be.  In Chicago’s case, the legacy of shady activity along Weed Street comes to mind; in Gowanus’ case, the area still struggles with some drug activity and prostitution, though probably not the “roving gangs of hookers and drug dealers” claimed to exist by one resident.  The influx of trendy stores and office lofts represents real change, however, and what Clybourn is now, Gowanus likely will be.

What lessons for Gowanus can be drawn from Clybourn?

First, that change is inevitable – even its reputation as one of the most polluted sites in America will, with the help of the federal cleanup, likely not stop development in the long run.  The recession has slowed development city-wide, but New York is an aggressive real estate market, to put it mildly.

Second, that unless told otherwise, developers will probably bring big-box retail as the natural successor to large industrial spaces.  While Clybourn is now cleaner and probably safer, it is not very walkable – big parking lots separate building from street, and North Avenue has narrow sidewalks and fast-moving cars (when they aren’t clogged with traffic).  Given Gowanus’ proximity to dense and growing Brooklyn residential neighborhoods, more work should be done to make it a natural bridge between the two, not a barrier, by keeping some of the large-format stores from building replicas of what we have in the suburbs.

Third, that it is possible to keep some vestiges of the area’s past life, if only symbolic.  Chicago recently finished restoring a small railroad bridge which connects North Avenue with Goose Island, now a pedestrian walking path (but with “Live Rail” signs, which I’m not sure actually mean anything).  The Whole Foods and kayak rental places allow access to the water, but the height of the bank makes it clear that this is not another North Avenue Beach.  The Goose Island brewery, Smith & Hawken, and several other stores occupy old industrial warehouses which have been retrofitted, though many of the retail buildings (and certainly the NoHo residential tower) are new.  Although most of Gowanus’ old industrial buildings might not be worth saving for public health or financial reasons, keeping as much as possible of the old brick and stone buildings can at least maintain the area’s character, which is what has attracted much of the new activity in the first place.

The planner is, of course, going to conclude that Gowanus needs better planning.  But in this case, and based on what has already happened along the Clybourn Corridor in Chicago, it seems to be true.  Change will happen, and the area will likely not remain industrial, except perhaps at its south end toward the Gowanus Bay.  Once the Canal itself becomes a water amenity rather than an environmental liability, it will become a desirable place to be; the large, underused lots are rare in New York and will become prime locations for suburban-style retail, unless more guidelines are put into place ahead of time to create denser, more walkable development which benefits the neighborhood.  Taking the good aspects of Clybourn and learning from the bad, Gowanus can perhaps become the same, only better.

I’m leaving the city.

Coming back from downtown tonight, I had a lot to think about (most of which I’m not going to post here).  At first I resented all the Lollapalooza goers who had taken over “my” city streets for the weekend – milling around on Michigan Avenue, clustering with cigarettes outside hotels, shuffling along El stations, littering and loitering.  I was going to a friend’s place for the day anyway, so I didn’t have time for sight-seeing, but just on principle:  couldn’t I spend some last moments in Chicago with the peaceful, generally empty streets at night?

This, however, is not the point.  Cities, and particularly Chicago, and particularly its public streets and parks, are for everyone.  Just because I am for the moment a city resident, and one who probably walks more than the average resident, my claim to the city as someone who “understands” it isn’t the right attitude to have.  Perhaps I’ve appreciated more of the city’s moods than some of those just in for the Lolla weekend, but for this weekend it really is their city as well as mine.  It’s easy for locals to grumble about the traffic and bother of special events (I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself), but it is these events, along with the everyday activity, that make the city what it is.  It’s okay to avoid the crowds on a summer weekend – but you nevertheless have to appreciate their right to crowd around, and the significance of those crowds for where you live.

And for someone like me, already saying the last parting words to their city, the crowds are a reminder that life goes on.  The city continues to move.  It is the product of its people, but does not rely on any one person to keep it going (okay, exception in Chicago, Mayor Daley).  Maybe I don’t want to remember Michigan Ave with the concert-going throngs; but maybe that’s the best way to remember it.  Vibrant, busy, an exciting place to be.  How many people have been excited about this event all summer, getting to come to a big city like Chicago?  It’s easy to get used to living here, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that it really is a special place.

I also couldn’t help but think about my own mental map of the city – an emotional geography overlaying the grid – and how much I’ll carry with me.  The city and I have grown pretty close.  A lot has happened here in three years.  If and when I come back to visit some of the places on my map, those visits will necessarily be ones of physical place but also temporal place – remembering when I was there and how I felt about it.  Some places I’ll be happy to visit.  Standing under the Bean at Millennium Park or walking over the river at North Avenue.  Other places I’m not so sure.  Will it still hurt to walk along Armitage?  Can I go back to the Museum of Contemporary Art or look at one of the bridges anytime soon?  Probably not.  But they’ll be there waiting, either way.

I’ve always been a strongly place-oriented person, even if I didn’t realize it until pretty recently.  Planning is therefore a good field for me.  History is more about time, which I have much more mixed feelings about, and anyway I think cultural history is more about a particular place (and its people, of course) than it is about the unfolding of time in a chain of causation.  Being place-oriented, however, means it hurts like hell to uproot.  I know very well that it’s a good time for me to go, not least to clear my head in less memory-saturated air.  But it’s not an easy thing.

I’m leaving the city.

But I’m taking a lot of places with me.

Leaving Chicago