Early in my career as an Urban Planner, I attended networking events excited to shake hands and proclaim "I’m an urban planner!” After a consistent series of confused looks, I quickly realized that Urban Planning was not as common a profession as I had thought. Now ten years into the profession, with a strong professional network built, I'm still puzzled that people ask, "what is it that you do exactly?".  After fumbling through conversations trying to explain what an Urban Planner does...

"You know, that new project downtown...well, no I didn't design it...no, the city didn't build it exactly...never mind...yes, I work for the city, that's what I do. I'm a city employee..."

 ...I've come up with a more concise description. I've also come up with a pretty cool analogy. So the next time you're trying to explain to your family, friends, and non-design colleagues at the cocktail mixer what the heck you do everyday, the conversation should go a lot more smoother.

So what is it that you do exactly?

Simply put, an Urban Planner coordinates development in a city. The analogy - well, we're like Orchestra Conductors. Like Conductors, Urban Planners must understand each section's unique role (government agencies, developers, politicians, community members), anticipate the next note to be played (demographic and development trends), and guide the orchestra through a harmonious performance (development review and regulations).  We are the guy, or gal, standing at the unique vantage point overseeing the orchestra, and waving the baton in odd motions. From the audience's point of view, it seems like random uncoordinated movements (“why the heck did they approve that?!”). But to the orchestra and audience members who are really paying attention, it’s a well-coordinated series of movements and decisions. Guidance, that if followed, will lead to harmonious development, I mean, sound - that everyone will enjoy.

 Don't be concerned. It all makes sense.

con·duc·tor  [kuhn-duhk-ter]  

noun

1. A person who conducts; a leader, guide, director, or manager.

2. A person who directs an orchestra or chorus, communicating to the performers by

motions of a baton, his or her interpretation of the music.

3. URBAN PLANNER

Examples I would use...
Like an orchestra, city development is a series of notes, played by different sections in harmony.  If one section is flat, the whole composition or development suffers.  

Photo: Southeast Nashville Community Center, Library, and Predators Ice Hockey Team Practice facility under construction.

Nashville Planners worked with public agencies to make sure that a quarter mile off-site sidewalk  was included in the plans for the new facility.  Without it, pedestrians would have a difficult time walking to the new complex from surrounding neighborhoods. Without the sidewalk, the development would have fallen flat. With it, the development is harmonious, providing safe pedestrian access to the new development.

The Conductor studies the composition well ahead of time and understands each section's part of the composition. Planners, like Conductors, must understand all components of development review. From the street and transportation components, to storm water, and other public utilities. To guide development, planners must understand how these elements work together.  

Photo: 23rd and Elliston

The project, 23rd and Elliston in Mid-town Nashville, required coordination of street components including a bike lane, wide sidewalk, and building setback. The result is a street that is safe and fun to walk along.

The Conductor uses the baton to guide how fast or slow, loud or soft, the orchestra plays. Planners use demographic and development trends to determine how rapid cities may change.  For example, change can be the result of the number of people moving into or out of a city. Change can also occur based on the type and amount of new housing units needed, the frequency of transportation routes, or the number and location of schools. Planners use trends to predict changes and to recommend ways that a city should adapt.

Photo: The Gulch

Places like The Gulch in Downtown Nashville, respond to market trends with a mixture of retail uses and various housing types. Millennials and Baby Boomers are buying in walkable places and that have a diverse range of housing.

Oh I get it!!

I hope this helps you explain to others what an Urban Planner does. I also hope it explains the important role that Urban Planners play in the development of cities. If they're still not convinced - hit 'em with this:

Imagine showing up to the symphony, only to hear an unorganized musical performance. With no leader in sight, every section is doing their own thing. Playing notes that sound right only to their section.

Now picture a street with no sidewalks or sidewalks that are too narrow. Or an abandoned commercial strip that needs new businesses, or obsolete housing. Well, that's the result of uncoordinated and uninspired development. Without a conductor-leader, development in a city falls flat.

Now you've won them over.

So I encourage every Urban Planner to channel their inner Conductor...

...because without us, it's all just notes on a piece of paper.

 

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On a random Thursday night, my husband and I decided to try a new spot that a family member recommended. In the neighborhood called Cleveland Park on the east side of Nashville, the restaurant called The Pharmacy, has been serving up great hamburgers for the past several years.  As we walked through the door past a waiting crowd, my husband commented that in the late nineties we wouldn’t be just casually walking around in this part of East Nashville. Since that time however, this corner of Cleveland Street and McFerrin Avenue and the neighborhoods around it have undergone significant change. I have to believe that the two restaurants, The Pharmacy and its sister restaurant The Holland House, had a little bit to do with that. Image

In neighborhoods across the country, small coffee houses and local restaurants boasting ‘local food’, are creating momentum in up-and-coming neighborhoods. As I’m writing this article I sit in Portland Brew in East Nashville, the cornerstone of a growing neighborhood center that includes a local Mexican restaurant, a vegetarian spot called the Wild Cow, and growing residential development; and it’s not just an urban thing – its also happening in suburbia.

In the community of Antioch, a suburb 15 minutes southeast of downtown Nashville, sits a local restaurant called 360 Burger. Opened during a time when the regional mall and other big box retailers were going out of business, the restaurant was a sign of hope for a community hard hit by the recession. Across the way in the defunct regional mall, new mall owners began advertising new food court selections from local international food vendors before new retailers, hoping that food would be the natural attractor for new customers.

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So the question is, in revitalization strategies should local food be the common thread?

I think so.

Even in the worst parts of a city where disinvestment is wide spread, it’s often the local restaurants that stick around. They stay in business by serving the people that had to remain, and the people who travel back to a dissolving area for some ‘food nostalgia’ – especially if the food is exceptionally good.  So how do we include food in the revitalization strategy – here’s what I think:

Urban planners and city officials should work with local restaurateurs to identify areas where potential restaurants could open and target those areas for revitalization strategies answering questions like - Where is there potential for foot traffic? Can vacant retail spaces be outfitted for new restaurant space? Once those areas are identified, traditional housing strategies (infill and affordable housing) should be focused in those areas.  Urban planners and city officials should work with food entrepreneurs to develop appropriate incentives and fast track approval processes that would assist restaurateurs with a speedy opening.

Similar to the food truck movement, where food entrepreneurs can test new and fun concepts without the risk of a brick and mortar location, a “mobile test kitchen” program should be created to test food concepts in different neighborhoods. This way, restaurateurs can test the market before making large financial risks. Similar to this idea, local chefs are testing out concepts at local farmers' markets and through local non-profits. One such program and test kitchen is operating at Casa Azafran, a community center for Nashville’s growing international community. Similar programs but with business planning and loan assistance may be beneficial in helping a business owner go from testing phase to reality a lot quicker.

Food Truck

Finally revitalizing communities should market existing restaurants online and through social media in order to attract others. If business owners see that there is support of the existing food scene in an area, the perceived risks of opening may be eliminated.

Food always brings people together and I firmly believe that food can also bring communities together.  I encourage urban planners, city officials, and community organizers to really tap the food entrepreneurs in your community to see how we can harness the energy of the local food movement and neighborhood revitalization to effect real change. Food, unlike retail which can and has moved to an online marketplace, will always require a physical location that people can travel to, to see, smell, and consume their food. And its not always about eating, it’s about social interaction, and a sense of community. We would be foolish not to understand the power of this and pay more attention to food’s role in our communities.

Don’t believe me? Well, just chew on that the next time you follow a food review to a 5 star restaurant in a derelict part of town, and wonder ‘why’d they locate here?”. They saw potential and well, the neighborhood will benefit in the long run.

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Local restaurants have been a part of the revitalization scene in Nashville for years. These restaurants opened in neighborhoods at a time when the market was lukewarm because they saw potential. Here’s a few to name:

Germanton Café – Germantown

Marche Artisan Foods – East Nashville

Mafioso’s – 12th Avenue South

Taco Mamacita – Edgehill Village

Watermark and Rusans – The Gulch

The Garden Brunch Café – Jefferson Street

360 Burger – Antioch

SpeakNow!

Food for thought: What’s the food scene like in your city?

 

November 2012 Target announced that it was closing the Antioch Tennessee store in southeast Nashville. After weathering several other retail closings and the closing of the Hickory Hollow Mall – a large regional mall in southeast Nashville - the announcement of Target leaving sent a shock wave through the community.  “Save Our Target” petitions, and news coverage of protest outside of the store commenced just days after the announcement.

Unfortunately Antioch TN – a fast growing suburban community in southeast Nashville -  is experiencing what many other communities across America have experienced – Suburban Retail Decline.

What is Suburban Retail Decline?

Suburban Retail Decline is as an urban planning issue that surfaced in recent decades. As retail and development continued to sprawl or “leap-frog” to newer opportunities and as urban mixed-use centers became the entertainment and shopping experience of choice, older suburban retail areas filled with vacant strip centers and dying malls that were left unnoticed. In addition to these common land use trends, social and economic trends also added fuel to this fire. The recession coupled with changing shopping preferences and the over saturation of suburban retail in some markets, made it difficult for older suburban retail areas to survive.

Cause: Suburban Sprawl and Retail Competition

Suburban sprawl and retail competition contributes to suburban retail decline. Retailers and developers overlook existing infill sites (sites with existing infrastructure in a developed area) to develop in greenfield sites (vacant sites where new infrastructure may be needed) in outlying areas. In the case of Antioch TN, retail development leap-frogged to greenfield sites in outlying counties, and impacted the Hickory Hollow retail area’s primary and secondary trade areas.

Hickory Hollow Mall retail area in Antioch TN, reached a primary trade area of 20 miles and a secondary trade area of 40 miles. Within this trade area lifestyle centers with traditional suburban retailers developed. To put 20 miles into context, this primary trade area reaches Murfreesboro TN – a growing city 20 miles south of Antioch TN. When The Avenue lifestyle center developed in the city of Murfreesboro with similar retailers, this impacted Hickory Hollow Mall’s trade area. Similarly, Providence Market Place, a lifestyle center in the growing city of Mt. Juliet TN roughly 15 miles from Antioch TN, also pulled shoppers from the Hickory Hollow Mall trade area.

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Cause: The Recession and Changing Shopping Habits

Within this decade, the country experienced a recession. During that time homes and jobs were lost, and as a result, many spending habits changed:

  • Shoppers began to spend money on necessities only. For this reason, grocery and discounts stores such as Wal-Mart, Krogers, and the Dollar Tree are doing well in weak or rebounding suburban retail markets.  Specialty retailers (in Antioch, Best Buy and Pier 1 for example) suffered because those items were not considered ‘necessity’. As a result, many large specialty retailers downsized their store format and/or closed under-performing locations.
  • When shoppers did spend money, it was within a new shopping experience; new mixed use neighborhoods, suburban lifestyle centers, and online shopping. Lifestyle centers – outdoor walkable malls – and emerging mixed use neighborhoods were more appealing than the older indoor mall format. In Antioch TN, when the regional mall began to decline, many Antioch residents sacrificed a 20 minute drive to these new areas, while others shopped online.

The Solutions

There are universal and nationally recognized solutions to the suburban retail decline. They include Re-use, Redevelopment, and Re-greening of existing infill sites.

  1. Re-use includes the re-use of vacant big-box suburban retail buildings. This has been successfully implemented in the Antioch community. Nashville State Community College purchased and re-used a former Dillards. The City of Nashville purchased a former JCPenny and is re-using the building as a park and community center. Several churches in the area have also reused big –box facilities, thus revitalizing dead strip centers. 100 Oaks is a local but also national example of the reuse of dying mall for mixed use center, with medical, retail, and entertainment uses.
  2. Redevelopment includes complete redevelopment of a suburban retail site. Local Nashville example includes the Harding Mall. Harding Mall was a small community mall, that was completely razed and redeveloped into a Wal-Mart.  There are some great national redevelopment examples that set a precedent for redevelopment: http://realestate.msn.com/slideshow.aspx?cp-documentid=27670258
  3. Re-greening includes revitalizing large parking lots with green space. The City of Nashville’s Park, Library and Community Center includes reclaiming three acres of the existing suburban parking lot for a park and walking track.

In all of these examples, public – private partnerships were and will remain crucial to the success of revitalization. In many cases, innovation is also a must have implementation component of these strategies; it takes vision and thinking outside of the box to re-purpose a building or retail site in a changing suburban market.

There are also proactive grass-root steps that suburban communities can take to assist in revitalization efforts:

  1. Maintain an online database of available properties. Work with realtors and local governments to catalog, prep (e.g. appropriate zoning, development incentives), and market properties and buildings for re-use or redevelopment.
  2. Conduct a grass-roots economic and demographic survey. Declining retail areas with vacant and underutilized properties often send the message of indifference and lack of spending power. A grass-roots survey may reveal real market needs, and true spending power.  Survey results may be helpful in attracting new retailers and businesses.  Utilize free tools like Survey Monkey, social media, neighborhood networks and canvasing to get the word out.
  3. Launch a grassroots re-branding campaign. Utilize social media to spread a unified message about the community. Develop a business friendly slogan that builds community spirit and pride.
  4. Support existing businesses. Start a “Shop Local” campaign. Show the businesses that have weathered the storm that you care. Use a free web site creation tool and build a website to list all the local businesses. Doing so will make it easy for residents to find, support and sustain those local businesses.
  5. Start a “Business Watch Program”. Similar to a Neighborhood Watch Program, partner with local police officials to monitor the business district. Use a Business Improvement District – a special assessment district – to pay for additional lighting, signage, and landscaping. Doing so will display a unified effort and will help deter crime.

Conclusion

The residents of Antioch TN must know that they are not alone. Google search “dying malls” or visit Deadmalls.com and one would find dozens of suburban communities that are facing similar issues.  But many have recovered and Antioch can recover as well.  The first steps are the implementation of the above ideas. The next step requires more long-term thinking about the future of this suburban retail area. Fortunately for Antioch TN, in 2013 the City of Nashville will begin updating its Comprehensive Plan – the guiding plan for the city and county. In this process, the Antioch community can think about its community’s role in the City/County and the Middle TN Region, over the next 20 – 25 years; this process will be key in setting guidance for moving forward.

As of the writing of this blog, the future of the “Antioch Target” is uncertain; petitions are still being signed, and no official word from Target has been issued.  What is certain is that there is an engaged citizenry that cares about the future of this community. Hopefully, this blog will provide Antioch TN and other suburban communities, insight and ideas on how to proactively move forward.

What do you think? Join the conversation and Speak Now by leaving a comment below.

Tifinie Capehart is an Urban Planner and Community Engagement Strategist. Need ideas about how to engage your neighbors in a specific community issue? Start the conversation with CitySpeak at info@cityspeaknow.com

My husband often jokes that he would rather live in a ‘real city’ than another “ville”. He associates the tag name ‘ville’ with smaller cities. Meanwhile, he believes that larger cities have cooler, more direct names, like ‘Chicago’, ‘Miami’, ‘New York’. These cities, he believes, also encompass better transit, more culture, and fun neighborhoods. While he is correct that larger cities have better amenities (as our travels to all three of the aforementioned cities have revealed), I believe that the ‘villes’ of the world are also becoming cool cities in their own rite. They too are receiving upgrades in transit, more diverse populations, and better neighborhoods. It is fact that every city has to grow into what it will ultimately become; buildings change uses, people migrate to and from, and transit systems grow. So how does our own city of Nashville, measure up? Is it growing, or staying the same? And how do the residents of this city adapt to the natural growth that will take place? Are Nashvillians ready for their city to become…a City?

Nashville’s Growth

Transit…

Nashville currently has a train from Lebanon to Nashville. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is proposed along West End – Nashville’s growing employment and retail center. The BRT may have dedicated lanes and platform stops. Other similar bus/transit enhancements are active on Gallatin Pike, and are planned along Murfreesboro Pike, both suburban corridors. When density increases (the number of people working and living along the corridor), a true BRT system with dedicated lanes and platform stops could be a reality on these corridors as well. In other cities transit has boosted economic development around train stops. Cities like Washington DC have been very successful with Transit Oriented Development – residential and commerce have developed around the transit stations boosting employment and residential opportunities for various neighborhoods.

Rendering of the Proposed East West Connector - Bus Rapid Transit Nashville http://www.eastwestconnector.org/

Diversity…

In the very near future, Nashville will be a majority minority population. Governing magazine reported in a recent article (http://www.governing.com/topics/economic-dev/gov-new-black-south.html#next)  that African Americans are migrating to suburbs in large numbers. This is happening across the country and in Nashville. In one of Nashville’s suburban communities the African – American population has increased by 83 percent. Other races and ethnicities are growing as well; Hispanic/Latino population and Other Races (Middle Eastern, etc.) have both increased by over 200 percent.

Density and Housing…

The housing market has changed – baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964), young adults, and people affected by the housing downturn are looking for similar product – rentals and neighborhoods with amenities.  This new product looks like neighborhoods in the Gulch, Germantown, and the suburban version, Lenox Village. Old neighborhoods are becoming new – 12South, North Nashville, East Nashville are going through revitalization as new homes are renovated and new commercial services serve new residents. Get ready too, because suburban areas will see new residents as people look for more affordable housing, near good schools, and open space.

Are you ready?

This is an exciting time for Nashville, but how can you as a current resident, or resident of any ‘Ville for that matter, get ready for changes that your city may see. Here’s my take on how you can embrace the change.

  1. Embrace your new neighbors – They may look a bit different from you. They may be older, younger, and they may not speak English. Despite these differences remember that they want the same things you want – a safe place for their family, and a place to call home. Diversity has its benefits.  In the last several months, my husband and I have had dinner with his business partners who are from India, who are neighbors with a family from Africa. In the Green Hills library (an affluent section of Nashville) my husband helped an older Jewish woman sign up for an over 50 dating site. :) Get ready and embrace diversity – it opens your mind and senses in a way that is rewarding for everyone involved.
  2. Hop on the train, or bus, or trolley - Many great cities have great transit. In many places transit is no longer an amenity, it’s a necessity. Imagine if you could not afford a car – but you could afford a $40 monthly train or bus pass. In many great cities, that’s all many people have. Also think about this, as tourist don’t you love leaving your car at the hotel, and getting around with ease on the transit system? Well think about having that feeling all the time. Leave your car at home, and travel with ease to work and to major events on great transit. If you like that idea, understand this, transit doesn’t just happen, it takes political will, and the will of the people to invest in it. So when the time comes to support transit in your city, hop on board and wiz by the drivers siting in traffic – I promise you – it will feel great.
  3. Say “yes” to great design – When that new apartment building or condo project is planned in your back yard, don’t fight it - work to make it work for you and your neighbors. Everyone needs a place to live. Remember your first apartment out of college, or the studio you lived in as newlyweds? Yes, everyone needs a starting point. The difference however between a really great residential development and a bad one is simple...it's the design. Therefore, you should require great design to make sure it fits in with your beloved neighborhood.  Look for pictures of great development online, catalog pictures from vacations to your favorite city. Give them to your political representative, the planners in your city, or the developer. I promise – they will work with you. Request great design, but don’t count out a multi-family project just because it’s not a single family house.

Grow with Nashville…

Great cities don’t just happen - they are grown. Chicago, Miami and New York grew by innovation and residents who supported change.  Mass transit, diversity, and great neighborhoods with housing for everyone, were all on the growth agenda.  If Nashville residents follow the three tips above, then one day you may hop a train, have a conversation with a business man from Latin America, and visit a friend in a new high rise in Midtown. Then there will no doubt that the city of Nashville would have grown into…a City.

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From my previous blog, I advised visitors of New York to walk, walk, and walk some more. Walking allows you see something new and interesting at every turn. When my husband and I walked the 44 blocks from Little Italy back to Time Square, we were delighted to find an H&M at every turn (good shopping is a favorite pastime.) But all the more interesting were the parks, plazas and pocket parks sprinkled throughout the island of Manhattan. Like small oasis in the middle of the ‘concrete jungle’ these open spaces were like a breath of fresh air amidst the urban scene. Picture Alice in Wonderland, and her encounter with the Cheshire Cat or the impromptu Tea Party with the Mad Hatter – these happenstances while odd and off-putting, added whimsy and excitement to her trip down the rabbit hole. Much like Alice, this Planner in urban wonderland was confronted with concrete waste lands turned into active plazas, lush parks with landscaping so think it silenced the hustle and bustle of the city around it. Then there was the pocket park, placed strategically amongst the shops and businesses with just the right amount of solitude and playfulness for reading a book or entertaining a child. Finally, the ‘height’ of the trip, the Highline, an abandoned elevation train repurposed into a linear open space and tourist attraction. Ironically, the city offered a different open space for every inhabitant of this urban jungle.

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(Public Square in the Soho area)

When Innovation Meets Necessity…

New Yorkers love their open space and I could see why. When living in a vast land of concrete, buildings and commerce, having access to spaces provide room to ‘breath’ becomes even more important.  The city’s leadership understood the need of its residents and took a creative solution for repurposing abandoned areas of concrete into enjoyable plazas with moveable tables and chairs. (Although later I would learn when reading a Vogue article covering a prominent New York politician that everyone was not happy with the Broadway ‘chairs’). Nevertheless, Broadway and a few other exceptional streets that run at an angle in the grid system would be subject to pavement reclamation. At certain intersections those streets would create an awkward triangular space that was dedicated to travel and turning lanes. The City reorganized several intersections to enhance pedestrian movements, and provide plazas in the remaining triangular space.

The plazas were buffered with large rocks and planters. Amidst travel lanes, the simple planters and rocks created a safe buffer between pedestrians and cars. The design of the intersection (angled with strategic turning movements) also served as traffic calming measures (traffic that is slowed due to perceived or actual impediments in the travel lane). The plaza itself was denoted by green pavement markings.  Within the plaza were movable seating and tables that allowed plaza visitors to create their own seating arrangements.  The innovation inspired me to think about the unusable spaces in my own Downtown Nashville. When I cross those spaces, I now envision people reading a book or lingering on lunch breaks, rather than a vacant concrete island.

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The Park Oasis

My husband and I visited two parks on our walk; Washington Square and the famed Bryant Park. Both parks were like the Alice in Wonderland experience; we had no idea that we would run into each park. But despite the surprise, we happily engaged each space.

Washington Square was a lush green oasis in the middle of the large intersection. Once inside the space, it had a great sense of intimacy with brick walkways, seating areas, and dense foliage.  We felt completely surrounded on all sides with beautiful park space, and for a moment I forgot we were in the ‘big city’.

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(Washington Square's cozy pathway)

Bryant Park was an interesting space, because for years I’d never associated with…a park! To me it had always been the corner stone of New York’s Fashion Week and Project Runway, NOT trees or lunch time visitors. As quickly as we stumbled onto Bryant Park, the admiration I’d had for ‘the tent’ just as quickly transferred to Bryant Park’s large green and historic landscape.  There was ample seating and chic navy umbrellas branded with “Bryant Park” so that you don’t mistake where you are; as if you could. The space was as grand as my favorite Nashville park, Centennial Park; although I’d trade wooden picnic benches for chic nave y umbrellas and wire-mesh table and chairs. Just like mom jeans, picnic benches have their place, but there is always a better jean and fit to assist in looking more polished.

Bryant Park was more than just a fashion destination, it’s a people destination. It’s the kind of space that made you want to linger for hours. Whether your past time is people watching, working remotely, meeting with friends, or taking a quick lunch break, Bryant Park was designed for all those activities.

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Going to New Heights at the High Line…

The HL situated above property on New York’s West Side transcended its primary use as a linear park; it was also an attraction that is now a must do for New York site seeing. With crowds aligning the HL it was easy to distinguish the tourists from the residents. The residents were lingering carefree with nothing more than a book, a set of keys or in some cases a stroller with baby in tow for an afternoon stroll. The tourists (like myself) were walking around wide-eyed taking photos of the most mundane and typical park amenities (yes, I have a picture of a bench in my photo catalog). With rain in the forecast, us tourist were also well equipped with our umbrellas and tour bus ponchos. But you know what – who cares. Who cared if we looked like crazy urban planning groupies (I actually heard a woman talking to a group … “we can do this same thing on the elevated rail track in our city – its totally doable!”). The work that went into creating this wonderful space deserved the drooling that it received that day. A round of applause for the HL, its staff and supporters for providing NYC with an attraction that fits nicely in the itinerary between Statue of Liberty and Rockefeller Plaza.

More information on the High Line http://www.thehighline.org/Image

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New York City Wrap Up…

I have to say – I truly LOVED my first trip to New York. My husband who’d purchased the trip for my 31st birthday didn’t fully realize the impact that this trip would have on my professional and personal life. Would I love him for it – of course! Would he get extra brownie points for it – definitely!  But would he know that it would help be truly believe that I could be and DO anything in this world – nope. Even that revelation surprised him. For me, visiting New York opened me up to new possibilities. I always thought living and working in New York would never be possible for me, much less visit. But it was. I never though that one of the largest cities in the world could feel so warm and welcoming; but it was! It definitely opened up my mind and spirit in ways even I didn’t expect. But I’m so grateful that it did.

Now I have a new appreciation for this thing called Planning. I have a renewed since of my purpose within my line of work. The unspoken theme at this year’s American Planning Association Conference (APA) was ‘Fall Back in Love With Planning’. Well this trip definitely helped me do that. And now I operate in life, in love, and in career with a New York State of Mind.

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(The Writer and her Husband) :>

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"Don't call it a comeback - I've been here for years!" I hear LL Cool J yell that iconic hip-hop phrase as I write this blog. A hip-hop battle cry, I picture him, bouncing around the boxing ring, trying to knock out the naysayers who ever said his raps were less than great.  Well I feel the same way. I feel like figuratively knocking out those people who said that this community was and will never be great again. The one's who say "I told you so". Yep I'm planning a comeback.

I'm working in a suburban community in my city. Like other suburban communities across the country, it has been affected by changing demographics and economy. This community has also been affected by negative perception issues charged by several 'high-profile' crime events. Despite this the community is still fighting to improve its stature and to prove that it has never lost its greatness; somehow I to have ended up in the ring.

As planners we use the public engagement process to 1. gather people's input and 2. educate people about good planning principles. But let's also start to think about the engagement process as way to 1. dispel myths and provide facts, 2. garner support for community initiatives, 3. help market an area around something positive such as a planning process. I've find myself doing all of the latter.

I'm fighting myths about dying retail, the location of affordable housing, and socio-economic myths that residents have about each other. In all rounds I've found it hard to keep my balance. Often hit by negative comments from the public or the residents themselves even. But I keep fighting. I fight with facts, examples, and even my own resident-testimony. I never give up the good fight, because if I do, what will that leave? It could leave the City with a community in unrest, still struggling to understand how to move beyond its social ailments. It could leave a community that has yet to reach a consensus about its future - and where there is no vision the people shall perish. It could result in an balanced development pattern that is top heavy on what developers want and lacks what the people want. So I keep fighting.

When you're planning a comeback, that's just what you have to do. As planners sometime we play that role - the battling boxer in a ring, fighting to save the integrity of a community that we know can be great. We began using tools and techniques that help us spread a message that goes beyond land use, but get's into the soul of a community. This is where people live, work, attend school, raise their families, go to church on Sundays and the grocery store on Saturday's - so if we don't fight for them who will?

LL Cool J went on to release 13 albums with his record label. This was a great feat in the volatile world of hip-hop. But those iconic words helped bring him through a legendary rap career. I hope those words allow me to bring this community through a legendary comeback and onward to a sustainable future.

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Authortifinie capehart

For a young urban planner striking out on her first blog site about all things planning, design, and community outreach – to fashion her first entry about her first visit to New York City is pretty fascinating. Therefore I dedicate this first blog to my husband who God placed in my life to make this dream of visiting New York come true. Having talked about going to New York as a milestone 30th birthday trip, I missed the mark because of poor planning. But here I am one year later arriving at LaGuardia Airport; so thank you honey for this gift, and giving me a wonderful experience to write about. Because New York is so major it commands a major blog! Therefore this first series is split into chapters. I hope you enjoy each one. New York Sate State of Mind Part 1

“Neeeeww Yoooorrrk, concrete jungle where dreams are made of!!”

Flying into the city of New York was euphoric. As we flew over the tip of Manhattan Island My husband and I sang the anthem made famous by Jay Z and Alicia Keys. My husband having been to New York two times before me knew what awaited him upon landing; but I didn’t. The city looked so serene from the plane - not like how TV or movies have portrayed it to be – a “jungle”, untamed and wild and devouring anyone who is unfamiliar with its terrain. It actually looked very intentional and welcoming! Every skyscraper, every bridge, and port seemed to be strategically placed by design. So would I find a jungle beneath the skyscraper ‘cover’, or would this first time New York tourist find a more, manageable terrain? I was clamoring to find out.

The Lay of the Land…

First order of business – figure out the terrain.

The island of Manhattan is approximately 13.4 miles long and 2.3 miles wide. Our hotel was situated in Times Square (the infamous Sean John billboard with P Diddy was outside of our window). Throughout the trip, being in this central location helped us find our bearings on a map; so for you would be first time NYC tourists, I would recommend staying in Times Square because its easy to locate when lost or asking for directions. Then during your next visit stay somewhere off the beaten path out of the way of all the other first timers in Times Square.

Thanks to the New York Planning Department website I would quickly learn that Manhattan is divided into four distinct areas - Uptown (moving north toward Harlem), West and East Sides (which is divided by Central Park in the middle), and Downtown (moving south towards the Financial District and the site of the World Trade Center). If you want to get more nuanced, you can begin to call out neighborhoods and districts – Flat Iron District, Soho, Meatpacking District, Greenwich Village and others, or upper and lower east and west sides.

Next order of business - learn the grid system as it keeps the island easy to navigate either by foot or by car. Broadway is the only angled street on the grid and when it crosses other streets, it makes for odd concrete waste lands – but the city has done a great job at repurposing these areas into squares and parks, which I’ll get to later in Part 2.  The grid is made up of avenues and streets. Avenues take you north and south, while the streets take you east and west - that tip is credited to the double decker bus tour my husband and I took on our second day.  When there is heavy traffic on the grid, you get “grid lock” – another insight I stole from our tour guide.  So far the terrain seems pretty manageable thanks to a well functioning grid system and walkable streets.

Walk, walk, and walk some more…

Our first full day in New York, we took a cab and traveled south from Times Square to a Soho eatery for breakfast. On the way we noticed the frantic pace in which everyone was walking. Everyone and I mean EVERYONE looked like they had 5 minutes to be on time to an appointment. It was fascinating. It made me think however, “Come on New York, everyone cant possibly be in that much of a hurry.”  So I hypothesized that everyone has trained themselves to walk at a fast passed cadence, keeping up with the flow of pedestrian traffic.

For you suburbanites out there (me being one myself) picture the expressway in your town, and picture a car driving 55 miles an hour, in the 70 mile per hour passing lane, in rush hour traffic. Yea, exactly - move it or lose it buddy. Pedestrian traffic on the streets of New York is no different. If you walk slowly you will get run over. Therefore how can so many people walk the streets of New York at any given time at such a frantic pace? Well let’s talk about the concept of walkability.

Planners often talk about walkability but what the heck does that mean? Well it means that my husband and I could walk 44 blocks from the southern tip of the island to Times Square without getting bored because of the great store fronts. It means that we could walk side by side without bumping into one another or other people (although my husband would argue that there wasn’t enough room for my annoying shopping bags that kept hitting him in the arm every few blocks).  In short, there were very WIDE sidewalks and interesting streets.

In some locations sidewalks looked to be as wide as 32 feet (without measuring, I estimated that the four concrete segments in the sidewalk were 8 feet in width). Keeping with the “expressway” analogy, a 32 foot sidewalk in New York has several travel lanes. Let’s start with the Storefront Lane. This lane is for people window shopping or pausing to read a restaurant menu. The storefront lane could also accommodate outdoor dining, or in our case, a husband waiting for his wife to come out of retail establishments.  Then you have the two travel lanes or pedestrian passing lanes. This is for the ‘I’ve got to be somewhere in 5 minutes” pedestrians. You better keep up in these lanes, pay attention, and navigate. Then there is the curb side lane – this is for hailing a cab or shopping the street vendors.   Oh and where are the utilities you ask, underground my friend, underground.

The most important lane in my opinion is the ‘storefront lane’. This is what adds interest to the ‘pedestrian commute’.  Storefronts with window displays, sale signs, featured dishes, and fresh baked goods, helped our 44 block walk seem like only 5. I could’ve walked the entire island because at every turn there was another interesting sight. As eyes are the windows into a person’s soul, New York storefronts are the windows into a neighborhood’s soul and character. Similar to eye contact with another human being, a street with active storefronts can help breed a sense of trust and safety for a first time visitor to a large city. A storefront can help serve as measure of walkability and interest.

Visual interest along a street is very important. Even in the days when New York’s train system consisted of elevated lines (elevated lines were removed from major corridors in Manhattan in the 1980’s) second story retail windows were designed to be larger so passengers on the trains could see the goods for sale. Those second floor windows are still in use today for those tourists on the double decker buses. Okay, not really – but the windows are still in use today even without the elevated rail lines. The point is that walkability is mostly about making a street interesting for a pedestrian so they always choose to walk over riding in a car.

The second most important section are the ‘travel lanes’. In New York people have clearly chosen to privilege walking over driving and for obvious reasons (cost of premium land and therefore a lack of parking and great transit). But because they are not driving they have to get there by foot – and fast! Sidewalks need to be wide and ready to handle heavy foot traffic. If not, you’ll end up with angry pedestrians because they cannot move about efficiently during peak times of travel – suburbanites, does this sound familiar? Instead of road rage – you get…sidewalk rage!

Therefore, in honor of the New York pedestrians who have carved out their importance in the city, I wish to adopt a Complete Sidewalks philosophy!  Similar to the Complete Streets philosophy that encourages moving all types of travelers (car, bus, bike, pedestrians), I think that every sidewalk should accommodate all the ‘travel’ lanes needed for pedestrians to move about efficiently. While distinguishing various zones for a sidewalk is common practice for many urban planners, some of our peers in government and engineering forget that pedestrians are important! Travel to a place where driving is the second mode of transportation and propose a 5 foot sidewalk – you’ll definitely get the “what were you thinking” response.  We need to begin thinking that just how we travel by car to get from point A to B – pedestrians are doing the same. Walking is not just for recreation, it is a travel mode.

So will that complete sidewalks philosophies catch on with our cohorts? Eh, I’m not sure. But what I do know for sure is that walking the terrain of this urban jungle was pretty enjoyable - and easy! A gridded street system, lovely store fronts, and accommodating sidewalks made the 42 block walk very delightful; so much so that our walking excursion was the best part of the trip.  Not only did we do some great shopping, but we also lingered in beautiful and intriguing squares and parks. So I would recommend to any NYC tourist whether it’s your first, second, or third time – walk, walk and walk some more! Start in the storefront lane, and ease your way into the travel lanes. While the faster pace may take some getting used too, walking the streets of New York is well worth the risk. Because if you’re in a car, you might miss something interesting at the next turn.

Next time – New York State of Mind Part 2 “Parks, Plazas, Pocket Parks – Oh MY!”

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Authortifinie capehart
CategoriesThe Planner
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