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12 February 2009

Ruminations on Urbanism

Or, "What We Wish We Could Get Paid For"

Amy: I HATE articles like this. What the F are you trying to accomplish by publishing reports like this???

Cleveland is one of the most miserable cities because it snows a lot and because Lebron James will be a free agent soon?!?! I want to bitchslap the people that did this. Give me a freaking break.

Josh: Okay, America, some of the shittiest places to live are:

St. Louis

Which leaves me with the following options, apparently:

Move to NYC, the only acceptable city or move to a suburb where everything is covered in gold and it rains skittles and nobody has to lock their houses or cars and there is no weather or racism or unhappy feelings.

Amy: NYC thinks they are magic. It would be OK if they thought they were magic if they stopped writing articles about how the rest of the world sucks! Plus, I hate Skittles.

Paul: My definition of magic doesn't involve piles of garbage bags on every street with urine running out of them.

Erik: Paul, every (inner) city over 300,000 people smells like urine. For me, a city is livable if can you walk less than 50 yards to a deli at 2 AM (safely) and get beer and cereal, while actually passing normal people who are also still awake. Jane Jacobs 101.

That was not meant to sound like pretentious New Yorker-ness. But it did, and I'm sorry for that. We do have to figure out the trash problem, though. Good call. We should do it like medieval Europe, and just let pigs and goats run around in the streets.

Amy: That's not really Jane Jacobs 101. Jane Jacobs 101 is more like...people actually look out their windows and care about what's going on in the street.

Anyways...New York is indeed awesome, I just wish all the people (that most likely live in New York) that write these articles would just stop. It's not helping anything and their criteria for sucky cities is always ridiculous...because the criteria is always something that exists in EVERY SINGLE CITY.

Erik: Actually, to be technical then, JJ-101 is probably "how to encourage diversity in cities." JJ102 is probably safety and civic pride.

I agree that those rating systems are complete crap. Like, is it some sophisticated algorithm of crime, real estate, amenity, blah-blah...? And even if so, it's still brazenly inaccurate.

Amy: point was that I've always interpreted Jane Jacobs' theory as being that great cities come from the history of the mix of the PEOPLE living together, not really the mix of amenities and proximities. It's the relationship and attitudes of people that build over time, not necessarily that your deli is downstairs and the bar down the street.

I just think all this stuff being published lately is completely discouraging people from living in ANY city. (And doesn't seem like it's totally more frequent lately? WTF?) It's like they are just going through every "bad" aspect of life and being like "Does that exist here? If yes...then let's publish it in Forbes about how things SUCK right now!"

Bla. Makes me mad.

Paul: Well said, Amy. I wasn't so much making a commentary on NYC itself (maybe a little) as pointing out that there are horrible features in every city. There is no Utopia. So I agree with Amy: Stop trying to make yourself feel better by writing denegrating articles about other cities. It's not productive. I've wasted too much time addressing this already when I should be doing something positive.

Erik: True, Amy. I agree. But she does mention proximities quite a bit, when talking about how to keep a street lively and therefore "self-policed." That was my point about the deli -- the fact that it's safe to walk there at all times of day. For me and for kids. But it has TONS to do with residents watching the street and giving a damn, that's very true.

I do think there is a recent mini-movement to discourage city-living. There is also a common fear that you can't raise children in cities. I think that's complete and total crap. People jump to such hasty conclusions.

Amy: Oh yeah I know...she's all about proximities, technically. But she always brings it back to the long history of the specific neighborhoods (and specific residents) and wraps it up by telling the personal stories of how each person contributes somehow.

I think the fear that you can't raise children in cities comes from the fact (yeah, it's basically a fact) that large city school systems are crap. That's definitely a huge problem.

Paul: It's a perceived problem, not a genuine problem. The fact is that less than 1/3 of people have school aged children; the rest are empty nesters, single people, or career people, all of whom can easily be convinced to move into a city regardless of school performance. While schools can't be ignored, there are plenty of other tasks that can be done to build population and encourage diversity, safety, etc.

I have recently gotten the opposite feeling, Erik, that there is a trend to move back into cities. My perception is perhaps skewed by the amount of work we are doing in Youngstown to encourage city living, but I still feel that the promise of easy suburban living is breaking.

Amy: Well, it's definitely a problem in Cleveland. I still think it's the main reason that many people think that you can't raise kids in cities.

There might be actually be a trend to move back into cities, for sure. But I think there's a definite trend in the media right to portray cities in bad light more than suburbs. And it's a trend in the NATIONAL media...not in the individual media of the cities. Because I know Cleveland, and Youngstown, and Pittsburgh are really trying to get positive news pieces out there.

Jim: Yeah I am tired of the national media ranking cities. We all know that they are all different for many reasons. The thing is that the media doesn't put weight on any of the indicators they use...and people weight all of the indicators differently anyway. Not to mention the fact that they can't put every indicator into the study. People have many reasons for living where they live...not just the 5 that are used in typical studies.

And they never rate the suburbs...unless it's for the "best in the USA." And...those are all suburbs that are rich ones anyway.

Really the studies all come down to money usually...and which place is nicest...because it has more money...and less maybe a bit less rain than a competing city....well I like rain, it allows us to use our own water and not run out!

(I just realized I sounded a bit like Sarah blaming the media. I only blame Forbes Magazine...not all media ;)

Paul: No no no, I understand schools are an issue in that many people with children are fearful to put them into those schools, but I don't define it as a problem because, when it comes to city revitalization, there are many other avenues city planners can take that will draw other demographics in. In that manner, you can begin to stabilize/gentrify the city, which inherently has a positive impact on schools. Again, schools can't be ignored, but the view shouldn't be taken that without good schools, we can't have a healthy city. That's all. I mean, trust me, Youngstown City Schools aren't doing so hot, either. :(

Erik: It's so funny how little architecture has to do with all of that, too.

If you make those vacant lots tax-free and at low-cost (on tax-payer's dime) for 20 years, they'll fill up. If white kidfollow them and the s went to inner-city public schools, the money would
schools would get better.

Way too over-simplified, I know. But it's amazing how much it comes down to tax policy and economic incentive. Undeniable.

I argued with a professor during 5th-year about how Pittsburgh was doing a great job with tax policy reform (by taxing the land instead of the "improvements" on the land), but he refuted me like it was his job. (fart noise with mouth)

Paul: I dunno, I don't think cities have necessarily been getting more bad articles, but rather more articles in general. Again, that's only my perception, I don't actually keep track of it. I would attribute it largely to Obama's long background as a community organizer. People have recently become more interested in that topic, and by translation, cities in general.

Erik: Let's do a "10 Worst Suburbs" in the USA article. We can post it as a big blog. And the 10 we choose should be really cute-looking, but we can say things like, "Aurora Illinois has a severe imbalance of land-use and zoning; it has such-and-such kidnapping rate per capita (more than Chicago's inner-city); its watershed is completely destroyed from mis-managed development; it's housing values have done such-and-such despite it's peaceful atmosphere; it costs $4.19 in gas to go to Wal-Mart; etc.

I think it would be funny.

Amy: There's definitely been a surge since Obama's been in the news...I hadn't even noticed the correlation until you pointed it out, Paul. I thought maybe it stemmed from all these people in the suburbs not being able to afford their McMansions anymore and being "forced" to live in the city...and instead of seeing their own ridiculous spending as the "negative", they see the city as the negative.

Of course I'm not keeping track either...but it just seems that way to me (that they are mostly negative). I guess that it goes along with what Jim was is easier to track NEGATIVE aspects than the positive. But really I don't think there's a way to quantify "good things" and "bad things" in the first place. So I guess I just wish they'd write nothing at all rather than try to rank negativeness.

Seriously we could make anywhere seem like hell on earth just by the criteria we choose.

Brandon: The school discussion is really interesting. We had a large discussion about it at work not too long ago. One of our co-workers isn't comfortable in sending his daughter to Pittsburgh Public Schools...even with the Pittsburgh Promise pledge. In the few meetings where I met the principals of the Pittsburgh Carrick Schools I just don't believe that sending your kid to the city public schools will automatically mean that they are receiving less of an education than they would receive at suburban schools. It depends greatly on parental involvement. Many intelligent people come out of city schools, go to college and make something of themselves. I know the city schools here aren't doing well...but is all measured in standardized tests...etc. That brings along the data discussion that Jim brought up earlier.

Paul: Yes, the foreclosure crisis is another likely causal attribute. I thing the blog would be funny, too, Erik, but it would only reinforce the us vs them mentality. :( I don't have anything against suburbs in theory, but in practice, they are leaches.

Jim: I understand that, Paul...but suburbs give people options of tax structures. They can choose where to live and they pay for services...i.e. pay tons in a nice suburb and get nice schools and a nice community center or pay less and get a nice house but you don't really care about the school district. This isn't my how I want I think everything should be equal..but without competition or choice everything may be worse off.

Amy: And there are definitely good suburbs! Technically Lakewood, Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights and even places like Mt. Lebanon...they're all suburbs. But they are phenomenal cities by themselves now.

Really, I think the big problem in Cleveland Public Schools right now is safety. Even ignoring whether the kids get a good education. Most of the schools don't have buses serving them so the kids have to walk along busy streets during rush hour. The schools are falling apart and sometimes don't have heat. Many still are filled with lead paint. It's just not somewhere you want your kid spending their day, you know? Plus, Cleveland schools have a TON of money. It's not even an issue of property value, foreclosures, not enough money going into the system, etc etc. They have money! But you have NO IDEA what the money is going towards! It is all corrupt. So, that's why it's such a problem.

Jim: Cincinnati doesn't have the nice inner ring burbs Cleveland and Pittsburgh have...unless you count Covington Ky...but it does have nice neighborhoods in the city.

Columbus is a giant suburb...with the original city in the center. I love the Short North and German Village and Clintonville...but dislike the suburban Easton or Polaris areas. They were smart, annexing tons of land...they have more tax revenues in new and old areas, unlike Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati which are landlocked. Youngstown isn't...but the burbs there would never allow annexation. I think that is a problem though...because townships like Boardman shouldn't have as much power as they have without becoming a city.

Amy: I kind of think that often it's the people in suburbs that suck...not actually the policies or the structure of the suburbs themselves. Like the kind of people that GENERALLY (I'm not saying everyone) move to the suburbs just don't really like other people. They only care about themselves and their own kids and want "space" away from other people. They only want to interact with other people when they absolutely have to.

Paul: Wait Jim, I said suburbs are good, just that they often go awry. I'm all about choices and competition.

Oh, I guess I generalized when I said "they are leaches." I should have said "they are [often] leaches.”

Erik: Sometimes I wonder about the following:

If you consider humans to be -- by nature -- social beings that prefer to be communal, then their natural state would be to live close together, not mind riding mass transit together, not mind walking a crowded street, etc. I sometimes think that the exclusive, "separative" nature of suburb living makes people unhappy without them really knowing it. Suburban folks usually talk to neighbors, yes, but only a handful. And even though "urbanism" is, generally speaking, a relatively recent phenomenon (compared to agrarian cultures of the past), all major civilizations in history can be attributed to a large city (Cairo, Rome, Jerusalem, Istanbul, ...), hence adding to the argument of human nature becoming more functional in denser environments.

Obviously this statement can go in a dozen different directions (transportation revolutions, race, etc.). But I'm trying to get at the root of "being happy" and how it relates to lifestyle and the environment you're in. Sometimes I think my dad, raised in an actual small "town," is now paranoid and elitist now that he's in the suburbs. He's still social, but there was a strange transformation that took place. My point is, maybe it's totally a subconcious thing, something deep within.

Anyway, maybe too dense for work-time hours.

Amy: No, I think about the exact same think Erik. I just tried to keep it light by saying that people that live in suburbs suck because they hate other people.

Erik: Haha, I know. Light is probably good. It's 2:20 and I'm in my post-lunch coma phase.

Amy: Oh and totally going to throw is out there too:

I think a huge reason that there is (sometimes) a backlash against cities is because of Christianity/Judaism...other monotheistic powerful religions. Because when people in cities realize how powerful they are when working together as opposed to start to realize that you don't need God. And God probably doesn't least not in the way your pastor is telling you he does. And that humans are really quite useful, smart, and important on their own.

But...I tend to think that religion is the root of most problems, so, yeah.

Paul: I think you are overemphasizing the role of being social and underemphasizing the role of egotistics. More than wanting to be close to other people, humans want to be better than other people. They demonstrate their perceived status by buying a house away from the mills, where it is cleaner. Then they buy a house that is bigger. Then they buy a house that has acreage. It pushes them ever further from the city. It's all an attempt to impress. Maybe if we all had plumage sticking out of our butts, we wouldn't have to buy bigger/better houses to impress each other; we could just sit back on our haunches, inflate our throats, fan our plumage, and make deep gutteral noises.

Amy: I would trade a big house for permanent plumage any day.

Jim: We are forgetting two things:

1. Undeveloped land is cheap and generally doesn't need cleaned up (like greyfield and brownfields).
2. Americans like new things...that's how we are. So we'd rather buy a brand new house instead of an older house that is better built. New trumps quality.

Brandon: It's also interesting that with that mindset that we have crumbling old infrastructure and many of our cities are much older (building wise) that European counterparts. Yet...even though Americans want “new new new”...they don't want to destroy our old cities, yet also don't want to live there but still want them to be kept in tip top shape. Now...we didn't have a world war here that destroyed huge parts of cities...but it's just interesting. It makes me think of our European Cultures professor in Italy that stated that the US has the oldest government now.

Erik: Amy, your point about the big religions is really interesting. Also Jim, you're right -- there is financial incentive to be in suburbs -- and that's the problem. We should make it so that virgin land (or even farm land) is super precious and expensive. Then you'll see the REAL flock to cities, haha. We do have the oldest government, don't we? I never really think about that. Paul, in terms of egomaniacal "being-betterness", you could still buy a 30th-storey penthouse loft and throw mad roof-top pool parties, but your argument still holds in general. Because it's about perception of what is actually better. Personally, I'd take the penthouse before the psuedo-plantation, but then again, I'm a latte-sippinng urban lefty. ;)

Amy: I would like to expand on the religion thing right now but I'm currently working (at actual "work") on a masterplan and I should concentrate on that.

Jim: South Paw, eh Erik? ;) Yeah we need to have laws on conservation...or how about an urban land boundary? I understand letting the market handle we are a capitalist country...but in terms of land values that has just aided suburban sprawl. Now land values in inner cities are cheaper than a lot of land on the fringes...but it's not large enough for development or needs to be cleaned up. We need more regulation and incentive to help us along...

Paul: Game, match, and set, Erik. Your point is well taken, and I, myself, could be called the poster child of flight. I moved into a place that is better than most in a neighborhood with few inhabitants in an effort to distinguish myself from other people. Granted, my flight was in reverse, but the point remains that I am pushing away from the norm as a way to fan my feathers.

The idea of ego playing some role is an associative one, applying equally when moving out of the city, or back into it. The direction of flow depends on lots of other factors I suppose. We could probably continue this and write a thesis, using this discussion as a source.

Amy: Generally, my thesis is:

Life's a bitch and then you die.

I can even come up with BILLIONS of examples proving my point.

Paul: I question your ability to come up with billions of examples. You're gonna have to prove it.

Amy: You might be right. Maybe millions. Because I don't think billions of people have died yet.

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