The Good Plan

When Planning Doesn’t Matter

By | The Good Plan | 3 Comments

After sitting and writing for an hour on how urban planning can encourage safer spaces for women, I recalled another article I read this week entitled “Bad Urban Planning is Why You’re Fat.” I had little tolerance for the article. Sure, maybe many of you live on cul-de-sacs. Perhaps you live on the side of a highway and have reduced walkability. Is it my fault you’ve chosen to eat Cheetos instead of an apple? No. The innate mentalities of individuals are going to dictate their actions regardless of setting. So while I composed an entire article on well-lit spaces and planning measures needed to reduce crime, I realized that a woman in danger is going to be a woman in danger, no matter how well lit a public space may be.

When it comes to conquering the city, I have this underlying sentiment of invincibility allowing me to believe I can walk home risk free at 3am. I realize this is far from brilliant — I realize I tempt fate: walking barefoot around Rio at 4 a.m. because I’d thrown my shoes over a gate, sharing a taxi with a stranger for six hours en route from village to village in the middle of at third world country.

If you are male and of the six-foot-I-can-punch-people variety, let me break it down for you. Traveling as a woman, whether in Baltimore or Egypt, is a very different experience than the one you have. We’re constantly talked to, approached, stared at, and solicited without invitation. We’re seen as weak and conquerable, making us a seemingly easy target for those looking to do harm to others. Because of this we often look down, walk more quickly, and are potentially more bitter or hesitant about our trip down the road. For the record, catcalling turns us off, it’s fucking rude, but this isn’t a piece about your failed pick-up technique. It’s a piece about the good and bad people, and where they choose to roam.

I know well enough to leave a dangerous area when I feel uneasy. I know well enough to cross a street if someone is following me or be wary of the man watching me from the rooftop. I’m perceptive, and I successfully avoid the dark alleyways and sunken sidewalks — but it isn’t a place that will prevent me from being attacked, it’s the people who frequent the places where I choose to go.

Neyaz Farooquee wrote an excellent piece in the New York Times this week attempting to link India’s city planning to the propensity for sexual violence. Farooquee cites human presence and sidewalk lighting as deterrents for violence against women. Another article in The Atlantic Cities cites adds to this list, citing gated communities and stop signs, attempting to correlate vehicle stops and space ownership with gender-specific violence. The truth as I see it, is that bad things are going to happen regardless of space design. Yes, a dark alley will make it easier for a crime to take place without external observation, but assuming that a changed landscape will eradicate the desire or need for someone to tap the vein of maliciousness is ridiculous.

While I, without a doubt, recognize the importance of designing places so they can be perceived as safe spaces, I’m going to be on my guard no matter where I find myself. No single space is going to negate the presence of, for lack of better term, bad people. Not security gates, not the perfectly designed parks, not a secure school. Yes, urban planners should design engaging places that get people outside, regardless of gender, and make them want to walk the roads paved with good intentions. But changing the behavior of the individual is not in our jurisdiction.

Through design we can encourage or discourage gathering, we can make it possible for people to move without needing a personal car, we can put a grocery store on your corner or far away, we can put in a playground — assuring no sexual predator can be within 1,000 feet. What we can’t do is police the neighborhood and drive home the sentiment that targeting females is bad. If someone is intent on causing harm, I think it’s a safe assumption to say they’ll find a way, despite whatever barriers the planner has put in place. At the risk of cheesing my way out of responsibility for the greater good, the issue is societal. Planning can only do so much.  And on that note, if you figure out a way to stop the unsolicited catcalling through the built environment, you let me know — because you, my friend, would be a far better urban planner than I.

IMAGE CREDIT. Wikimedia Commons

On Risk, Tears, and Monkey Bars

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Jamal was one of my closest friends in first grade. I don’t remember much about him, and have no idea where he is today, but most distinctly I remember the way Jamal interacted with the playground. The lower school playground was a good one. Built of wooden towers, its intended use was for people to stay within the Lincoln log-esque structure and climb to the top through a series of interior stairs, safely enclosed by four walls. Most of us abided by these rules, but not Jamal. I remember going to the third story of the playground structure, and looking up at the clouds while he threw one leg over the open sidewall, then the other, climbing down the outside of the tower to the second-story window below. Nothing under his feet, tips of his sneakers stuck into the structural holes intended for bolts, not for toes.

Jamal never got in trouble for his creative use of the playground equipment, but I remember thinking how he could have fallen and gotten seriously hurt. Playground equipment, designed to let children play and move without serious risk of injury, has never hit its stride of standardization. How safe is too safe? How much risk should we let children take? In a world where child leashes and swimmies are still seen on regular occasion, how do we balance risk taking with the seemingly ever-present safety net? While I have no children of my own, I do feel like the toddlers I see at the climbing gym are developing very differently than the five-year olds I witness buckled into an extended-age stroller.

I would imagine most of us conjure up similar images of a playground from our youth — a slide, monkey bars, swings, some sort of not-so-rickety bridge, and perhaps a metal jungle gym. I would bet all of us, at some point or another,  misused this equipment: standing on swings, climbing on top of the monkey bars, or attempting to climb up the fireman’s pole rather than slide down as intended. These self-imposed challenges allowed us to overcome the standardized actions. We went up the slide instead of down, trying to make the soles of our shoes stick to the hot metal slope. We got our swings to go so high the chains refused to stay straight, tempted by gravity to buckle inwards. In the mind of an academic or sociologist, these actions demonstrate the need for a greater challenge. Dissatisfied with what is provided for us, we think about new ways to use our surroundings to provide unprecedented stimulation.

These actions aren’t limited to children. We witness envelope pushing in the teenagers skateboarding on steps or the parkour crews bouncing off walls and running across windowsills. Our environment presents us with the building blocks, we add the imagination to create interaction. In the urban environment and on the school playground, some manufacturers are changing things, in essence, to standardize creativity and risk.  Playgrounds with small climbing walls or zip lines are popping up next to cargo nets. These features aren’t just for aesthetics, they’re meant to encourage increased physicality for kids — building upper body strength and helping hand/eye coordination. Urban planners and entrepreneurs provide similar opportunities — chess boards on sidewalks or built skate parks, interactive light installations or pop-up swingsets on promenades. These interventions encourage our imagination and allow us to change our behavior. The observation can even extend to bike paths; as greenways are created, we’re more apt to interact differently with our environment in a controlled fashion, rather than bicycle down a pedestrian promenade.

We can equate the benefits of risk taking to how adults react when a child falls. There is often a second, after a fall or a break, where a child isn’t sure what happened. They fall off a bike or get hit by a ball, and there’s a moment of silence where they collect themselves, and take inventory of what’s around them. The worst thing adults can do, my relatives profess, is to gasp. This harsh intake of air conveys worry, sending the message that the child might be hurt, and therefore, the child feels something is wrong and starts to cry. Several years ago I witnessed the opposite while ice skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottowa. Growing up with the world’s largest skating rink, kids were falling all over the place and no tears were shed. Falling was a standard risk of the physical challenge. During that key moment of silence, the adult wouldn’t miss a beat, “come on, get up, lets go.” There was no time to cry. This shift in normalcy from gasping and coddling to quick reassurance and continuation, I imagine, makes a huge difference in the willingness of a child to do more activities which might cause them to fall. It’s worth extending this attentive-parent worry to kids who don’t often have present supervision. Are those who fall and don’t risk hearing a nearby gasp of a worried parent more likely to play harder, go faster, and walk away from a fall with less perceived pain? I’d argue yes. when nobody is there to take care of you, there’s really no choice but to get up and keep throwing the ball.

In the daily grind where our senses are often dulled by a routine, these new and shiny installations are essentially new building blocks, challenging our minds to stretch more than usual — seeing our own piece of the world differently. Playgrounds are spaces where kids can learn from others in addition to pushing their own limits. Installing elements that encourage risk taking and help them conquer fear in a controlled environment are lessons many of us, I would imagine, wish we had the opportunity to learn ourselves.

Grand Possibilities

By | The Good Plan | 5 Comments

While I typically shy away from the obvious topic in my biweekly blogpost, writing about the Grand Prix thrills me. To think, the City of Baltimore annually extends itself through one of the most logistically intensive disruptions to the city for an event that many of us couldn’t be less interested in attending.[1]

In truth, I have no idea if the Grand Prix is a big deal in the world of car racing. Usually, when there’s a somewhat big sporting event, I overhear enough chatter about it that someone is always willing to explain how awesome it is to a doubting bystander: Yankees v. Red Sox, The World Cup, March Madness. For goodness sake, I once found myself in a forty-minute conversation at Fraziers as someone explained the history of MMA and cage fighting. I didn’t come away loving the event of which I was newly enlightened, but I knew it affected someone and had a science behind it. I respected it more.

I have yet to hear anyone defend the Grand Prix and enlighten me of its grandeur and history and the athletic prowess of those athletes who drive those advertisement-splattered vehicles. Therefore I can only assume its justification is so widespread that it needs to go unspoken, or that there is simply nobody around to defend the race. But let’s get beyond my need to understand the purpose or the placement or the importance of this event and move on to curiosity. ‘Let’s just go and see! It will be fun,’ we’d say. But we don’t say that. We leave town, we avoid street closures, and most of us simply don’t care.

The Grand Prix has a focus on tourism. Attracting outside individuals and their spending power is enough of an incentive to warrant the disruption to many of our daily routines in this pre-planned city. If our aim with the Grand Prix is to retrieve tourism dollars, and we do that successfully, then there’s really no justification for the complaints of the residents. If the event were geared towards the entertainment of the Baltimore resident, and we derive no satisfaction from it’s execution, then yes; we’re warranted in our bitching – the objective has failed. However, the Grand Prix is not put on for our enjoyment; the objective is to capture the spending power of others by way of their entertainment to benefit our City’s economic development. If that’s the objective, and we achieve it, then who cares if the average Baltimore resident is happy. If the City is making money, then the outcome fulfills the vision. As the host city, we choose to have our lives disrupted for the benefit of others knowing that we’ll receive some sort of return or bolstered financial stability. Of course, if we reap no economic benefits from the event, we can once again question the validity of having our lives disrupted, but lets put economics aside for a minute.

If we ignore the economic income, or lack thereof. If we ignore the potential of the target audience to capitalize on our hospitality industry. Look at the potential. For a city I often criticize for being too risk averse – Baltimore, look what you’ve done? You’ve committed yourselves to restructuring the traffic pattern, repaving roads, disrupting days of pre-planned commute times and paths for something that majority of your residents don’t care about. Baltimore, this is huge. This shows me that you are capable of doing the unexpected and the initially unfavored. Of temporarily disrupting our lives to execute what you consider to be a worthwhile event. Never mind the event has failed to achieve the projected economic benefit, you did it. It shows me you’re hungry for change and willing to do the initially uncelebrated to get there. It makes me want to stand up with the lost boys and through a glazed look in my eyes, whisper ‘I believe in you, Peter. I believe in you.”

Baltimore, your failure to please people with the Grand Prix and your insistence to keep trying is such a step in the right direction. As much as we may bitch and moan about inconvenience, we want you to succeed. We want you to keep taking risks and doing the unprecedented. Like Sailabration. Sailabration was amazing! There would be people lining the waterfront by the time I got down to my water taxi at 8am. Tourists and residents went down to the water from the suburbs and checked out the boats. My office found itself dispersed on the promenade every twenty minutes for three days- watching the Blue Angels practice or waving to the ships that arrived.

Baltimore, the harbor was alive; that was magic, and you didn’t even have to close any roads. But the willingness you have to change our patterns of movement – think what this could do. We could close Pratt Street during summer weekends to mimic New York’s Summer Streets program- opening up the Harbor loop to cyclists and runners instead of restricting them to side lanes. We could get kids into the streets with sidewalk chalk. Install a slip n’ slide on Federal Hill. With all the hype around the Grand Prix and the fact that nobody likes it, imagine what it could be if you chose an event that people did like. Baltimore, do you realize what your willingness to do to the broken allows you the ability to fix?

[1] I throw a footnote in here because I have no quantitative evidence to support this claim. Rather, the observation indicated by “many” correlates with a three-year audio confirmation of complaints, disinterest, and phrases like I’m participating in the Grand Flee to avoid the Grand Pricks at the Grand Inconvenience.”


IMAGE CREDIT. Wikimedia Commons.

Suits vs. Sweatpants: The Urban Showdown

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I am a glutton for nostalgia. I love the memory of how things used to be, inadvertently comparing new experiences to old. So it was with a sense of reminiscence that I stood outside Tio Pepes, fear reverberating through me. With the memory of elegance and lunches with my grandmother in mind, I would be crushed if I walked in to find the fabric tattered, the chairs worn, and diners in jeans. This seems to be a recurring theme for me –  diminished elegance and the rise of informality; how fewer things require coats and ties, flip-flops have become commonplace, and the regal places of days past have crumbled, mimicking so many of the buildings around us.

I felt a similar dread a few years earlier, as I decided to step foot onto the 13th Floor for the first time in nearly two decades. I remembered the Belvedere Hotel from the Bar and Bat-Mitzvah days — pure glamor. But going into the bar (before its recent renovation), I was turned off by the dingy atmosphere and animal print rug. The disinvestment was evident, and it made me sad.

My mother often references going to the airport as a little girl – how her father wore a suit and tie and everyone dressed up for the airlines. Now, sweatpants with words across the bottom are fairly inescapable. Have we dis-invested in ourselves? My thoughts were echoed in a conversation with some Israeli relatives who had recently toured the east coast. I asked what their favorite city had been. They all chose Washington D.C. “It’s so classic, all the men are in suits, everyone is dressed nicely.” They felt that D.C. residents were proud of themselves and had thereby added an element of worth to their city. Not only was the infrastructure in D.C. seemingly shiny, but the way people presented themselves reflected this investment.

Much of how I gauge a place is based upon observation: is there trash in the streets and are there broken porches? This indicates pride of place. Are women walking around alone, and if so, are they carrying a handbag? This is my indicator for safety. Are the lawns overgrown and the homes visibly broken? This is the crumbling of infrastructure. The material things matter too – what types of cars are parked in the area, are there flower boxes? Are there gyms or pawn shops? I remember my mother nixing a potential apartment complex during one of my housing searches because “there were too many motorcycles in the parking lot.” But there’s another factor I haven’t paid much attention to, and that is whether or not people are dressed in a way that make them feel good about themselves — how they carry their bodies down the road — because regardless of what type of neighborhood we live in, we can still invest in ourselves.

What that investment means, though, can be complex. A friend told me an anecdote of a scene she witnessed downtown: A man and woman were preparing to cross the street. The woman was pushing her child in a stroller, and the man had his pants below his rear, his boxers doing much more than barely peeking above his waistband. As the woman with the stroller approached the same corner as the man with his pants around his knees, she turned 180 degrees so as to not have to face the man. Even though they were walking in the same direction, her inability to understand his fashion decisions, and her reaction to his exposed behind, inclined her to physically turn herself around. What she, perhaps, interpreted as offensive was essentially his presentation of self, and therefore played directly into her assumption of place. This was, as I see it, more of a gap in understanding. Both of these individuals were dressed presentably in their own minds, but his decisions led her to assume a level of disinvestment. I’m not advocating for all of us to dress the same; rather that it’s important to understand how our fashion decisions play into the greater fabric of neighborhood perceptions.

I can’t correlate the level of formality with crime. And I can’t correlate fashion with socioeconomic status – as ripped jeans can cost hundreds of dollars, or you can buy them at Goodwill. What I do see, is that how we represent ourselves also acts as the window to our cities. How  we present ourselves alludes to something greater than our individuality — it gives people an insight into the city itself.

IMAGE CREDIT. [Photo from NYC Fashion Night Out by Flickr user MagneticArt.

Planning for the Phoneage

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In the 1970’s, a man named William Whyte documented the behavior of individuals to gauge the desirable aspects of public spaces. Whyte placed cameras around the plazas and streets of New York City to observe how the unassuming moved. The study is essentially a prerequisite in today’s planning school, and we learn to integrate his findings into our awareness of urban design: the relationship to the street is important, the option to sit comfortably will cause people to linger, fenced off places with low visibility will attract undesirables, and in the cold months, people like to sit in the sun.

Whyte not only documented where people went, but watched people watching people. In addition to these placemaking conclusions, Whyte records people reacting and responding to one another: walkers quicken or slow their steps so as to not bump into a passer-by, and those loitering tend to watch others around them. There’s a memorable sequence of the film where Whyte projects an aerial view of a public plaza and the unplanned magic of pedestrians going their own ways at their own pace without any accidental physical interaction comes into relief. Like ships in the night, pedestrians glide by one another, never touching. This scene of graceful passing was my first thought when I saw the 2011 YouTube video of a girl walking through the mall, texting, and falling directly into a fountain pool. I doubt there is any greater example of how human behavior has changed.

The actions of the walker or waiter are different today than they were in the 1980’s. As inferred by the fountainwalker, we simply don’t look up as much as we used to. We often use those moments of waiting or transit to check emails or update our status. If we’re early, perhaps we’ll call a friend for a quick chat rather than wait at the bar alone. Rarely do we allow ourselves to put the phone away and freely watch others — every moment must be occupied, every moment we must interact.

Our addictions to our personal devices detract from our desire to see beyond our world and to watch what is going on around us. These days, we seem to participate in less people watching, and as a result there’s more ‘bumping.’ Walking into people, falling down stairs, getting hit by cars — typing “texting walking fail” into YouTube brings up 9,600 results. Our public space interaction has changed to that of less looking, less watching, and more immersion into our own worlds of self-importance. This leaves a new task up to cities — integrating the self and the cellphone into the public realm to try and maintain our willingness to wait, to sit, to populate.

Cities have responded creatively with the integration of current day amenities to fit our tendencies and technological dependence. While much of Whyte’s physical findings continue to influence public spaces (for example, moveable chairs), several cities have become creative in the social aspect of things. The design of new street furniture doesn’t just give us the option to sit, but to sit and work, put our feet up, or play differently with our surroundings. Perhaps the most on-point installation was the potential of turning corners into coffee shops through charging station locations. Small tables and places to plug in our cellphones would force us to spend time in one place and in close proximity to others, thus encouraging interaction in a non-forced, yet facilitated fashion. Shying away from the structural world, art installations have also become interactive. A traveling exhibit called TXTual Healing allows passers by to send SMS messages for display on a public wall. This has allowed us to travel from our downturned eyes and put our messages into the minds of others.

So while the physical planning elements may hold true, we can’t lose sight of the people for whom we plan. It isn’t my job to restructure the human tendency to look at a glowing handheld device, but it is my job to figure out how to get you to want to look up again.

Below are some of my favorite street furniture links:

IMAGE CREDIT. [trendsnow].

The Perils of Pleasantville

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When I graduated from Chapel Hill, I knew I had to leave town, and it killed me. I felt home, but I knew if I wanted to grow socially and professionally I couldn’t be a big fish in a little pond. I needed conflict and a mess of a government and intellect to find my niche and remain dissatisfied with the daily standard. I know that for my life and drive, being surrounded by culture and city is the fire under my ass to get better, do more, and work harder. It was this outlook that prompted me to critique a close friends’ lifepath the other day, as he started thinking about next steps and leaving his home in Vermont for the Pacific Northwest.

Vermont is a very easy place to be. You can work at an outdoor goods store or you can run around naked and protest public obscenity laws (I lived in Brattleboro during this undertaking. It was a very unsightly summer). There’s local anything, and whatever you do you’re likely to find acceptance. The one thing this acceptance caters to, however, is what I feel is an overarching danger of complacency. When you live in a place that accepts you as you are and asks nothing more of you, it eradicates any fight to get better. I spent a good chunk of my life in Vermont. I attended undergrad in Burlington, spent summers working and playing in the area, and got my first full-time job in southern Vermont before graduate school. By the time I left I was beyond ready. So much so, in fact, years later I dread returning to the state. I feel it was a part of my life, and a very valuable part, which I experienced and successfully left behind. I almost consider it a sense of forced regression when I’m expected to return.

I don’t mean to bash the state. There’s a lot of wonderfulness in simplicity and a ‘no rules’ type of independent living. There’s no doubt many beautiful things come from artists and writers and craftsmen and chefs in the area, and there’s no doubt the environment is at the forefront of the minds of many. But the hitch of living in Pleasantville is that it’s rather dull. When everything is already fixed, my mind doesn’t really know where to go. So I’d read, or I’d write, or I’d go climb a rock, and that would be well and good — but would it make a difference to anyone but me? As I’ve moved back to this city, I’ve relished in the mess, and the creative ways my peers are solving problems. I didn’t find that up north.

We’re fortunate enough to live in a place that remains dissatisfied. Here, the implications of our decisions on lifestyle are so much greater because everything we do can help or hinder our neighbors. This includes deciding where I want to live, where I want to pursue my education, and how I get to work in the morning. We’re in closer quarters in our city, and while that density leads to a constant fight to make ourselves steady in action, it also presents us with the opportunity to affect the world and the people around us in a positive way. Without you knowing it, I’m pushed by you, all of you, every single day, to get better and to do good. When I make a decision or analyze a new element to the city, I think about how it affects the greater population, instead of just me. So yes, I miss other places I’ve considered home, but I do feel fortunate to be somewhere I’m able to strive so constantly to be better. Because everyone around me impacts that greatness. Your greatness makes me better. And I thank you for that.

IMAGE CREDIT. Flickr user Dorrett].

The Disappeared

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Many years ago I lived in a third world country. It was only for a time, but time long enough that I lived with confidence. I walked with intent, had a routine, conversed comfortably with rickshaw drivers and gave directions to tourists. The city was a place of madness. Of beauty and filth and color. And to escape the noise and smog, I often found myself in a three story shop on the far east side of MG Road.

A glass window stretched across the top two stories of the building, and inside lived the color without the pollution of the streets: papers and fabrics, glass bottles, so many over-stimulating elements. I spent time browsing, appreciating the quiet, sitting at a cart in front of the building, writing and drinking chai, meeting friends. In 2010 I returned to the city, flip flopping my way anxiously down the road wearing the same backpack, moving quickly to get to the building embedded in my brain. I arrived at the corner and went too far east — doubling back, confused. I crossed the road to the south and turned back to get a more contextual view. Was my directional off? Memory gone?

The concrete building stood — but barely. The glass façade was shattered and rough shards hung from a single-nailed piece of plywood. The interior darkened, marble steps cracked — no chai seller or step sitting. The store was no longer, vacant, neglected, broken. And I cried. Right then and there in the road — because something I once loved so deeply about a place was left to rot. It was uncared for, and the neglect of something I once considered beautiful had broken my heart, and I projected so much of my sadness onto the city which couldn’t seem to get its act together.

It is this same sadness I’ve found the past several weeks as the crimes and killings in the City of Baltimore have permeated my twitter feed and exhausted my usual defensive stand on my hometown. It’s something far from my world of understanding and I can’t put together why no one has realized that what we are doing in the world of safety and preservation of place isn’t working.

In writing this weeks’ entry, I tried to correlate the brokenness with something from the past. Something that was once broken, but is, for the most part, no longer. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Patterson Park was overrun with the bad things — the violence, graffiti, drugs, and vandalism. It began after World War II when families left urban areas for the American suburban dream, and neglect was reflected in broken and shattered park buildings. The Conservatory was the first to go, razed in 1948 under the premise of making sure nobody got hurt from all its broken windows. In 1970 and 1972, arsonists burned the bathhouse and the music hall. The Casino would burn in 1978.

The turnaround happened when locals started to give a damn. In 1993, the community joined forces with the Maryland Department of Recreation and Parks. Together they pioneered a $10 million capital improvement project master plan for the park and matched the formal requests with sweat equity. Between 2000-2005, over 500 trees were planted in the park. Regular park clean up days and organizations have made the space more defensible, allocating responsibility and setting out an achievable strategy to produce a positive place. Yes, there are still prostitutes, assaults, and crimes, but there are also families, picnics, and playgrounds. The kicker here is that the community worked to defend the park, whereas in my third world country, few people on the street could afford the goods inside, so the fight to save the store simply didn’t exist. The store had gotten into my soul as a refuge, but was simply another obstruction in the daily lives of others.

I’m also left to wonder about this past week’s 300 Man March. On July 5th, over 600 men walked ten miles across North Avenue and back in protest and awareness of the recent violence in Baltimore. I consider myself to be pretty up to date on Baltimore happenings, but also know my world is fairly insular. I didn’t hear anything about the 300 Man March until it was already in progress. I don’t know where advertising happened or how, so I can only imagine it reached the target population it was aiming for in the communities most ravaged by crime and violence this past few months.

I don’t know enough about the crime world to know if these 600 people can or will make a difference in the overall crime rate. In truth, I’m not sure if fixing behavior and fixing a place work the same way. You can’t weed out the bad and replant the good in people — at least, not in a few choice hours on a Saturday morning. All we can do, I suppose, is hope that the optimism is infectious, and hope the side effects of awareness are enough to stop that soul crushing feeling of finding something you once loved broken down and taken away. 

IMAGE CREDIT. [With thanks to Flickr user DataAngel for photo].

When Planning Hurts

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For someone usually upbeat and positive about city planning, I was hit this week by the story of the Baltimore Free Farm, and how the City of Baltimore is poised to sell part of the Free Farm to a developer, citing ‘highest and best use.’ It was an example of the government responding to, what I can only imagine, is immediate economic gratification at the sacrifice of long-term good. And when I tried to think about this week’s blog entry about social justice and urban planning, it seemed a farce to try to tie the two together. Maybe there isn’t social justice in urban planning — maybe sometimes we just get lucky, and other times money continues to dictate decisions of land use.

According to the Free Farm website, these lots had been cultivated for two years, producing hundreds of pounds of free food for the community. I don’t blame the developer; they’re simply doing their job to build and gain revenue. I do, wholeheartedly blame the city — and while I know our words won’t change things, I do hope that they allow the officials to realize what they’ve done and what they’ve displaced in exchange for a buck. I hope they are a bit ashamed of themselves, and in the back of my mind I have the resounding phrase on repeat, ‘this is why we can’t have nice things.’

I don’t like to think of myself as a pessimist or a cynic. Skeptical, maybe, but cynic rarely — I’m not the type to picket line with a sign (What do we want? Farming! When do we want it? NOW!). That isn’t me. Rather, I feel I’m a realist. I sigh and shake my head and move on, bettering the situation as best I’m able. So as I sat around with a group, talking about the Free Farm and thinking of the practical next step.

I not so eloquently exhaled exhaustedly at the suggestion of a fundraiser. My hunch is if the city is selling, they’re selling for money, and the amount of capital that developers can access doesn’t come close to what a group of passionate people can raise at an evening fundraiser with a beer sponsor. We can raise a hell of a lot more than money — love, advocacy, education, engagement, after school activities, facilitating the growth of youth and healthy living for families — but millions of dollars isn’t how we, as changemakers, constitute highest and best use.

If we are going to continue our attempts to better the community, it is the responsibility of those enacting the laws to balance community benefit over economic benefit, and long-term change over immediate satisfaction. Money is necessary for sustainability — I won’t pretend that we should live in some freewheeling socialist society. I do think though that as a public officer there’s a greater responsibility to respond to those making a difference, like providing free food, in a way that perpetuates goodness.

Isn’t this the city in which we want to live? Wouldn’t it be easier to govern a place with less hunger and more access? This isn’t just about those two parcels, its about that stakeholder identification to find people who really care about a place and who are working to make it better — since we know you, the public official, can’t do it all. We’re trying to help; so let us.

IMAGE CREDIT. [With thanks to Bmore Do It Yourself for photo].

A Nudge In The Right Direction

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I hate port-o-pots. I find them gag inducing and would rather relieve myself in the woods than in a confined space filled with excrement. I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. This past weekend I attended an event with approximately 900 athletes, and each time I used the aforementioned bathroom jail, I was blown away by the fact that everyone washed his or her hands afterwards. Despite the rain, cold and fog, and the anticipation of returning to a warm tent and down sleeping bag, people waited calmly by the foot-pumped sinks to use bottles of Method soap — which I feel were fully responsible for our willingness to wait and wash. The bottles of hand soap gifting out fragrant bubbles into our palms was an unnecessary addition to our campsite. While a cheaper alternative like Purell or an industrial pink goo could have presumably provided the same service, the soap bottle — a bit of unnecessary convenience — was above all a reminder for intentional living and healthy choices.

I’ve been reading a lot about the concept of choice architecture — buildings and landscapes that use design to shape how we interact with space and how we make decisions. This soap bottle was the epitome of choice architecture. Choice architecture influences our behavior by providing us with appealing and convenient options that tie into a psychological willingness to perform an action. It’s almost comparable to a marketing ploy — a ‘buy one get one’ deal. Dense hedges on one path wordlessly encouraging us to use another is just one example. The way our world is designed is intentional, thereby encouraging — or discouraging us from making poor decisions.

Convenience, pretty packaging, or location influences so much of what we do and the choices we make. I see it in how I design my own life — putting my alarm further away from my bed forces me to get up in the morning. We all experience choice architecture in the placement of retail and amenity as well. Trader Joe’s is infamously particular about where they set up stores. In this way, they remain a highly sought-after retail anchor. The implementation of choice architecture into city planning is where it gets really interesting to me –- as many cities want to integrate this idea of bright and shiny and convenient into the world of place, rather than ‘thing.’

Consider the MARC train and the recent announcement that it intends to begin running on weekends. I can tell you that without any doubt, this will change my behavior in that I’ll be more apt to come to D.C. and stay overnight, knowing I have the ability to take a MARC train home on a Saturday or Sunday. Whereas I had several excuses before (the Amtrak is more expensive, the weekend trains don’t run frequently, etc.), the weekend expansion has eradicated those excuses. Think of the possibilities that designing a space for ease and convenience can have. The High Line Park is above the traffic and the noise of the city, allowing people an uninterrupted vista of activity.

Simple tweaks to currently underutilized spaces like unbroken benches or lighting could psychologically encourage us to choose to participate. It really all comes back to the human element — what we desire in a space and in our lives, and how or why we can get those things on a regular basis. If soap could get 900 athletes to take an extra few minutes in the cold, imagine what more trashcans could do by the waterfront, or what a fruit and vegetable market could do for the Middle East neighborhood. Solutions don’t have to be terribly complicated, as sometimes the smallest, subtlest tweaks in material landscape can have a large affect on the shift in behavior.



Sunscreen and Spending Power

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On more than one occasion, I’ve heard visitors remark on Baltimore having a beach-town mentality, perhaps supported by much of the waterfront population wearing flip flops on the promenade and those few precious days when the bay smells like a bay should smell.

The constant presence of the water conjures up that willingness to be carefree, and do whatever we can to seek out the refuge of saltwater and sand. The Department of Transportation predicted over 350,000 vehicles would cross the Bay Bridge between Friday and Monday this Memorial Day Weekend, with an additional half a million using other ways to get into the beach areas of Maryland. The Bay Bridge boasted an 18-mile backup at the beginning of the weekend, and as Baltimoreans descend onto the boardwalks the beach towns stood hopeful and ready for their previously quiet landscape to be transformed by the seasonal crowds, providing economic respite from the quiet winter months.

The economy is possibly the most challenging realm for a beach town. Retail and food service industries are difficult to sustain, as significant fluctuation of population challenges these industries to reach economic stability in the off-season. Decreased visitation influences many beach town businesses to board themselves up for the winter, minimizing operational cost, and marooning wage workers for many months. While Baltimore isn’t quite a beach town, we need to plan for seasonal attraction too. The decline of blue-collar industries has made the low-income population of our city more dependent on tourism and related service industries for employment. If we don’t find ways to make those attractions more sustainable, low-income workers suffer and Baltimore as a whole becomes less vital, and less sustainable.

Beach towns are constantly brainstorming and investing in the ability to become year-round attraction for both businesses and tourists. This investment is increasingly more important as tourist season is dependent on external factors like weather, gas prices, and unemployment. If people don’t have money, fewer can head to the beach in the first place. A common approach to creating year-round attraction is through an office of promotion or events. Rehoboth Beach has supported The Rehoboth Beach Main Street organization as the ringleader for community promotion and year-round event planning. The organization doesn’t just seek to lengthen the season by one or two months on either end, but to plan events in February and March, where non-residents would need to make special trips to the beach for reasons other than sun worship.

By organizing events in the off-season, Rehoboth Main Street hopes to draw residents out of their homes in addition to expanding tourism opportunity. Rehoboth attracts approximately 3.5 million tourists each year, translating to $630 million in annual economic impact. Main Street has helped some of these tourists become residents while sustaining their residential population: from 1996-2008, the town vacancy rate decreased from 10 percent to 3 percent, 95 jobs were gained, 16 new businesses were created, and eight new buildings were constructed. In addition to off-season event revenue, off-season advertising opportunities support operating revenues, as greater visibility commands higher advertising prices from area businesses.

The collective push of local businesses has inspired other towns like Hampton Beach, New Hampshire to strive for widespread support, believing that if all restaurants stay open longer, and services keep themselves fully functioning in the off season, tourists will see the town as a destination for reasons other than the beach. Other towns like Portsmouth, Maine remain sustainable through Citywide incentive projects like the Green Card — offering discounts for nearly 100 local businesses. Petoskey, Michigan capitalizes on its historic architecture and miles of waterfront to retain year-round visitors.

Seasonal planning is extremely important in city sustainability. Maybe the creation of an urban beach in Baltimore wouldn’t be enough to discourage the Memorial Day exodus and spending power into local beach towns, but perhaps thinking creatively, and learning a few lessons from true beach towns would make staying local a bit more palatable, keeping some of that $630 million here, instead of invested elsewhere.

IMAGE CREDIT. Wikimedia Commons