Archive for the ‘National’ Category

Best Buy, the U.S. electronics retailing chain, recently announced the locations of 48 stores to be closed.  The chain has been struggling for a while, and strategically plans to reduce their store sizes and shift towards a new line of storefront shops specializing in mobile devices.  This could be a symptom of the End of Retail.

However, based on a google map evaluation of each store slated for closure, I found that they are:

  • 50% are in exurban and small town locations
  • 39% are in suburban areas and small cities
  • 13% are in central cities.

Looks in line with the End of Exurbia meme instead.


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Jane Jacobs, in the seminal Death & Life of Great American Cities, espouses the emergent traditional fabric of city streets and districts. Throughout the book it is implicit that residents, if asked, know what is best for their neighborhood, and these insights are in opposition to plans of idealistic planners, politicians and financiers. The well-intentioned official plans would actually destroy the functioning of the neighborhood, and the average person-on-the-street would recognize it and oppose it, if their voice is allowed to be heard.

Greenwich Village, New York (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Urban)

Jacobs’ guidelines for successful city districts rest on a very high population density and diversity of uses, to provide the continuous “sidewalk ballet” of passersby, public figures and “eyes of the street” throughout the day and evening, even on quiet side streets. Shopkeepers keep an eye on neighborhood children; the mailman gets to know elderly residents who relax on front porches. Without this ballet the street cannot police itself and could become undesirable or dangerous. She decries the extensive “gray zones” that filled the outer portions of many cities, with a population density too low to support the “sidewalk ballet” yet too dense or industrial to be a green, pleasant suburb or a small town.

However, the vast majority of North Americans today live neither in the idealized small town community or the Jacobean city district. Instead, we live in an atomized suburban world of automotive arterials, television, internet, membership gyms, big box stores, programmed children’s activities, anonymity and long commutes. Small towns, suburbs, large cities, regardless: we essentially live the same lifestyle. Virtually every neighborhood, from the suburbs to the cities to small towns, functions as a “gray zone.” This is due as much to culture as to urban design.

Even in Greenwich Village, the prototypical city district, Jacobs noted that residents of the new elevator apartment building across the street didn’t interact with the neighborhood as much as the older residents. Those eyes on the street didn’t add as much. She implied that this was due to the building design. I believe was a marker of cultural change. Why would a resident of a fourth-floor apartment be more connected to the street if she walked up stairs to her flat instead of took an elevator? The new residents were simply less connected to the neighborhood than existing residents, who had been woven into a local fabric that took decades to develop. That local fabric didn’t die overnight; it would fade away slowly. But in newly constructed buildings, it would never develop at all. The rise of television was the symptom of an inward turn in North American culture, away from front porches and balconies towards the living room. Rising prosperity meant that you could rely on yourself to solve problems, instead of involving the neighbors. The automobile meant that you could shop and maintain friendships anywhere, not just your immediate neighborhood.

Outside of a handful of districts in cities like New York, Toronto, Boston, San Francisco, our neighborhoods have been converted to suburban functionality, where supermarkets are driven to and jobs are strictly separated from residences. Virtually every city in the United States, including New York, employs zoning codes developed for suburbia: setback requirements, open space minimums, height maximums. In Jacobs’ world the average neighborhood resident knew these requirements were antithetical to their neighborhoods, along with renovations to improve traffic flow such as freeway construction and street widening. Jacobs’ grassroots pro-city point of view was about preserving the existing neighborhood fabric. But sixty years of suburbanization has flipped the script: today’s residents implicitly know that free parking, wide arterials with free-flowing traffic, setbacks and separated uses allow their neighborhoods to function most conveniently.

Typical Seattle neighborhood scene (Source: Google Streetview)

Since the 1990s the limitations of the suburban model have been recognized by a growing “urbanist” movement: endemic traffic congestion, air pollution, loss of community, and global environmental problems like climate change and resource consumption. Urbanists look back appreciatively to Jane Jacobs and her insights in Death & Life of Great American Cities, looking for guidance. What does she say about urbanization, the process of converting greenfields, suburbs or gray zones into successful urban districts? Very little. Jacobs describes, historically, the ingredients of a successful urban district, in the face of a challenge to preserve that success against attrition.

Today’s urbanists face a challenge of cultural change. Many if not most political leaders and planners espouse urbanist principles: they want to create walkable live-work-play neighborhoods. Yet they are limited in action by opposed residents. We urbanists believe that converting to an urban structure will yield many benefits. But what if a majority of a neighborhood’s residents like it the way it is? Jane Jacobs faced a different political and cultural environment, and cannot tell us how to convert gray city neighborhoods and suburbs into thriving urban districts. We have to develop new tools.

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I have an article up at the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association, a trade newsletter for the wastewater utility business (my day job).  The article summarizes the big sustainability challenges we face, and some steps utilities can make to become more sustainable and resilient.  The article can be found here, beginning on Page 18.

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It’s been a bit quiet over here at Build the City lately. I ran into trouble with an open-source GIS program, then got busy at work, and then took a two-week vacation to Europe. I will write some observations about the cities I visited in Europe (eventually), but today I saw an article in the Oregonian that caught my attention.

The census tract with the highest population density in the City of Portland shifted between the 2000 and 2010 censuses from NW 21st to the area around PSU.  What is notable is the population density cited for this census tract.  The article uses the strange metric of people/10,000 square feet, but when I do the math it comes out to around 27,000 people/square mile. 

For comparison, Seattle has two entire neighborhoods (Belltown and Capitol Hill) and five census tracts  that exceed this population density.  Seattle’s densest five census tracts are in Capitol Hill (45,000/sq. mi.), Belltown, the U_District and First Hill. 

This article about Portland is typical, because among the three big cities in the Pacific Northwest, Portland is by far the most spread out.   Below is a table that compares the city size and population density among four neighboring cities.

 Notice how the City of Portland takes up almost four times as much space as the cities of San Francisco or Vancouver, yet has a lower population.  Resulting in an average population density less than many suburbs.

Population density of northwest cities over the past 50 years (people/square mile)

Population density matters for Portland, because more people on a given block lead to more customers, which leads to more variety in local services, which leads to a convenient lifestyle on foot or on transit, which leads to building a city.  Portland has only a few neighborhoods where this dynamic has progressed, and therefore many residents find the need to use bicycles to reach daily destinations (2-mile radius).  Portland has the advantage of a consensus around progressive transportation, but it has a long uphill road to sufficiently populate its city.  The City of Portland could house 2,060,000 people at the City of Vancouver’s current density.

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How methods shift perception of population growth

The Seattle Times recently reported on 2010 census data by tabulating the “fastest growing” cities in Washington State and writing a feature about Snoqualmie, on the top of the list at 396% growth since 2000. As with many media outlets, they ranked areas based on percentage growth, not absolute numbers of people.  In the table below are the 10 fastest growing cities, ranked on percentage growth as printed in the Seattle Times.

10 Fastest Growing Washington Cities Ranked by Percent Growth

Footnote: Percentages based on initial 2000 census data. Seattle Time table based on adjusted 2000 census data.

Note that most of these towns are rather small.  It is easy to grow by 200% if you start out at a population of 2,000.  You may not have heard of many of these towns. But if you looked them up on a map, you would see that most of these towns are on the urban fringes of the Seattle-Tacoma metro area. The takeaway could easily be that urban sprawl and small town living are very popular.  Policies such as growth management have failed, and most people have chosen with their feet to move to the exurbs.

But what if we ranked “fastest growing” cities by the number of people that moved in?  In the table below the top 10 cities in Washington state for 2000 to 2010 population increase are listed.

10 Fastest Growing Washington Cities Ranked by Total Growth

This list is very different from the first list.  The three cities that appear in both lists are highlighted.  Larger cities may add a lot of new residents, but their percentage growth is less than small towns because they started from a larger base.  Yet, one more modification is needed to accurately compare growth between cities.  Some of the cities in this list, such as Marysville, increased in population mostly due to annexations of adjacent previously populated areas.  Washington State keeps records of populations of annexed areas, so I subtracted these populations from the population increase reported in the 2010 Census.  In the table below the 10 fastest growing cities in Washington State are ranked based on population increase, excluding annexations.

10 Fastest Growing Washington Cities Ranked by Total Growth, Annexations Excluded

Now the list of the fastest growing cities is similar to a list of the largest cities in the state.  Only one city, Issaquah, an outer Seattle suburb, remains from the original list.  The City of Seattle tops the list as fastest growing.  Tacoma is notably absent, but large cities in other parts of the state grew strongly.  Two of the three tri-cities are listed, Kennewick and Pasco.  So are Spokane and Vancouver, the Portland metro’s second city.  In the Seattle metro area, the fastest growing suburbs are established (and affordable) middle-ring suburbs such as Renton, Kent and Auburn.  The takeaway from this list is different from the first list: most people moved to large towns and suburbs; and the most of all moved to Seattle, the fastest growing city in the state.

Please keep in mind, when developing stats, do you want to calculate magnitude of growth, or magnitude of growth compared to the initial base?  If the former, look at absolute numbers not percentages.

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For the citymusic selection of the week (it has been awhile) we look towards Detroit.  Black Milk has been a solo hip-hop artist in Detroit since 2005.  This track came out in 2008 – proclaiming to Detroit  that “no you’re not losing yet” in the best braggadocio for which hip hop is known.

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Why do I write about cities?  What so attracts me to urban environments?  There are factual reasons that cities are preferable over suburbs and the countryside, often cited on this blog.  But my preference goes deeper, to a visceral emotional level.  I will attempt to put the sources of this preference into words.

Architecture.  I love the architecture of buildings (what else is architecture?).   Rural landscapes are defined by the near absence of buildings.  In suburban settings buildings are designed to be hidden, set back, subdued, never to upstage the focal point of nature, trees and greenery.  The suburban project is an attempt to merge the bucolic rural landscape with the practicalities of home, work, shopping.  It produces not great architecture by design.  In a city, however, buildings cannot be hidden.  They are the city, lending endless variety, new and old, well-kept and run-down, art deco and victorian and post-modern and modern, all on the same block.  One-story, office, six-story, condo, commercial, two-story, hotel, twelve-story, retirement center.  Always something different to feast your eyes on.

Community.  I am a shy person, easily self-entertained.  If I met one hundred thousand people, with maybe five I would click and we would become great friends.  The odds are low.  In a city constantly surrounded by people, with residents from everywhere with every interest known under the sun, the odds are slightly better.  How many people could you meet while driving home on the freeway?  How many people could you meet on a well-attended city bus or subway?  Cities aren’t designed for isolation.  Good cities form strong neighborhood bonds and support institutions.  People seek the city for its crowds, public ceremonies and celebrations, sporting events, critical masses of nightclubs, art galleries or political bicyclists.  Elsewhere people avoid crowds.  I seek them out.

Innovation and influence.  A diversity of experiences leads to new mixtures of ideas that drive every field forward.  Cities are made greater for their serendipitous interactions.  How many musical genres have been invented or transformed in New York City?  How many in the great plain states (with the same population, spread out nearly 1000 miles)?  New ideas are created in cities, and then rapidly transferred and adopted in other cities.  Slowly these innovations spread across the countryside around the world.  Cities set the cultural tone for nations, including within them most leaders and taste-makers, giving them outsized influence economically and culturally (but not always politically).

Sustainability.  Cities have been sustainable communities for millenia in all but the worst of war and societal collapse.  The larger the city, the fewer resources each resident consumes.  Cities can offer as high a quality of life as suburban areas, but its a different quality of life.  One with less travel and fewer personal resources, but with more convenient services and community support.  We live in a world of depleting natural resources and accelerating climate change (induced by our global combustion habits – i.e. burning fuel).  Spreading advances in agriculture mean that fewer and fewer people are needed to farm, and for the first time in human history a majority of us are living in urban areas.  But what type of urban areas?  Dense cities allow efficient living in the face of scarcity, create strong communities and give rise to the innovations we need to maintain prosperity.

The sweep of history.  Humanity started in a garden, cultivating fruit trees.  As time passed large-scale agriculture and industry and cities and trade and empires and megacities developed.  The controlling narrative in American culture, the Christian story, is about redemption and restoration of a lost idyllic paradise.  The Christian scriptures conclude with a vision of the restored people of God: the holy city, the New Jerusalem.  The story does not end with a renewed garden, but with a vision of a city described as 1,400 miles square  and 7,392,000 feet high.

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