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What makes a city lovable?

Lake Harriet at twilight
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Lake Harriet at twilight

Note: After today's post, Cityscape will be on hiatus for the summer. Our plan is to return Sept. 7.

Ranking cities has become all the rage. You know the drill: Best city for dining, biking or dating. Best for working, retiring or shopping. Cities that are the thinnest, best-dressed, best-educated or just plain best.

But just because a city has phenomenal restaurants, leafy streets, or great trout fishing within an hour's drive doesn't make it livable, or even lovable. Gritty places that have endured hard times often draw more affection. Brooklyn or Pittsburgh could never win a beauty contest, but each has an X factor that inspires uncommon loyalty from residents and city lovers. Durham, N.C., is the poor stepchild in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle, but people love Durham so much that every year hundreds line up to "marry" the city, promising to love, honor and contribute to civic betterment.

When we lived in the Bay Area, a street lady who was a ward of the county put up a terrible stink when the authorities tried to move her to a nursing home in the next town. Palo Alto was her only love, she declared, and nobody was going to move her to Mountain View!

That kind of devotion can be created by simply building attractive places, some city planners believe. Install a farmers market, plant some flowers, erect a row of decorative streetlights, et voilà: True love!

You can't build a city on contempt
Sometimes it works, but not always. Boston built a lovely greenway in the space above the Big Dig, but almost no one goes there. Minneapolis built a flashy entertainment complex (Block E) in a sketchy quarter of downtown, but the sketchiness refused to go away. Loving a city, it seems, is a lot like loving another human being. You can't remake a person on your terms; you must accept that person the way he/she is while understanding your own faults, too. Improvement? Sure. But only with mutual agreement to move ahead together.

Jane Jacobs' great insight was similar: You can't build a city on contempt, as the urban renewal movement of the 1950s and '60s was attempting to do. Her classic work, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)," was, at its heart, a love story. With all of its chaos and eccentricity, she loved the traditional city form that planners of her day were eradicating in favor of a kind of superimposed, utopian blandness. In Minneapolis, the "progressive" planning movement tore down hundreds of old brick buildings in the Gateway District and along Washington Avenue in an attempt at "slum clearance." Those blocks became, for the most part, soulless office parks and surface parking lots — lonely, sad places.

"There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder," Jacobs wrote, "and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served."

Minneapolis riverfront on a winter morning
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Minneapolis riverfront on a winter morning

That "real order" is what today's best planners call authenticity. It requires, Jacobs said:

• Short blocks; the more traffic of all sorts, the better. (Chaos is good.)

• Mixed uses; housing next to jobs and shopping. (Convenience and pedestrian activity are good.)

• Buildings of various styles, ages and states of repair. (A sense of history, diversity and organic change is good.)

• Density; lively community life promotes local business, public safety and civic involvement. (Social activity is good.)

Jacobs and University Avenue
Jacobs' ideas are no longer radical. Younger generations of Americans raised in the suburbs — and now priced out of the home-ownership market — have adopted her urban sensibilities. There's a growing market for her "love story."

City planners, too, have come around to her way of thinking, although decades of old habits are difficult to break. My favorite local example involves the Central Corridor light-rail line and the construction havoc it's causing along University Avenue. I'm confident that when the dust clears the line will succeed as a transportation option. But I'm worried about the viability of neighborhood business along the street, primarily because on-street parking may disappear.

The rail line is being blamed for that, but I think the real culprit is the insistence that two lanes of auto traffic be maintained in each direction, even though a parallel freeway (I-94) runs only one block away.

My point is one that Jacobs might have made: Don't sacrifice neighborhood business for the sake of maintaining through traffic. You will have light rail and I-94 for that. Why not allow University Avenue to evolve into a busy neighborhood street, with one lane of auto traffic in each direction and curbside parking? Or if that's not quite acceptable, why not copy First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, where curbside parking is offered for most of the day but turned into a through lane for traffic during the morning and afternoon rush hours? Just because light rail is coming doesn't mean cars won't be vital to local business. If the choice is between a lively local business scene and another lane of through traffic, I'll take lively business every time, especially when there's parallel freeway a block away.

Mears Park on a hot summer afternoon
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Mears Park on a hot summer afternoon

Looking for the X factor
In Jacobs' heyday, all this talk of city ranking would have seemed pointless. A city wasn't something to choose. It was where you happened to be. Your family and friends were there. Your job was there. You made the best of it.

For Jacobs, the "best of it" was a lively street and a diverse neighborhood going about its daily tasks. She saw her Greenwich Village neighborhood as a model. Beauty was fine, too, as long as it didn't hinder what Jacobs called a city's "underlying order" which, to outside eyes often resembled chaos but was actually "organized complexity."

Edwin Heathcote, writing in the Financial Times, draws on Jacobs when he attacks the practice of ranking cities by such "livability" traits as proximity to nature, efficient mass transit and high-quality health care. Vancouver, he notes, ranks consistently at the top of those charts, and he agrees that it's truly one of the world's most beautiful cities, with its stiletto glass towers set against the ocean and snow-capped mountains. But after a few days Vancouver is dreadfully boring, he writes, and he wonders why the world's most popular and energetic cities — places like New York, London and Hong Kong — are seldom mentioned in the best-city rankings.

His piece made me wonder what I love about my own city. I do love Minneapolis-St. Paul, and for complex reasons. I don't love it all the time; between November and April my feelings run closer to hatred. I don't love our eagerness to spread out and dilute our inner districts. I don't love the tone of our politics, not because it's so different from everyone else's, but because it has fallen so far so fast.

But I do love the level of artistic and cultural life and the fact that people can do more things here with less hassle than anywhere else I know. I love the bike trails. I regard the walk around Lake Harriet in the summer twilight to be among the best urban experiences anywhere. Mostly I love our perseverance. Against all odds and despite a harsh climate and a remote location we've built a remarkable city that people care deeply about. We are not a place that inspires love at first sight. But sometimes an acquired taste is the one you end up craving the most.

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Comments (19)

A good example of taming traffic for the benefit of business is downtown Hopkins. Back in the 70s and 80s mainsteet was a straight as an arrow thoroughfare that was a magnet for teenage cruising and a disaster for everyone else. They narrowed it and curved it do actually discourage a lot of traffic and they turned it into a thriving little district.

Steve, I find a dose of MN irony in that "what makes a city lovable" is posted alongside the note that this blog will be on hiatus until summer wanes. Read: we'll be back but first we must get outside while we can!!

The Knight Foundation did a study recently that looks at why people get attached to places, and interestingly it echoes your last paragraph - that access to arts and culture, good parks, etc. are key.

The Knight/Gallop "Soul of the Community" report was just released. Here's a link to the "St Paul" study (which actually comes from data for the whole seven county metro area, not just St Paul). There is also a study for Duluth:

http://www.soulofthecommunity.org/

Interestingly, it found that another aspect of a community that matters most is "Openness - How welcoming the community is to different types of people, including families with young children, minorities, and talented college graduates." I fear that the anti-gay marriage amendment will damage our reputation as a good place to live where all people are welcomed.

I assume a writer of Mr. Berg's well-known caliber is aware that the Jane Jacobs view is coming under some severe criticism that (whether right or wrong) is worth some discussion -- an example:

"The well-heeled historic-district denizens who persuade the landmarks commission to prohibit taller structures have become the urban equivalent of those restrictive suburbanites who want to mandate five-acre lot sizes to keep out the riffraff."

http://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2011/02/jane-jacobs-update...

As a long-time metro resident who saw the starry eyed vision of Cedar Riverside dissolve into the reality of vertical concrete slabs, I tend to agree with the views expressed by Mr. Berg, but we need to watch our flanks on this topic.

Two problems with the idea of eliminating a traffic lane instead of eliminating parking along University:

- Said "parallel freeway" is hopelessly congested as it is, which is in part driving traffic (pun intended) onto University Ave.

- Except in Minneapolis and a segment near Cleveland Ave/Transfer Rd, traffic on University is above the threshold (typically 20K ADT) where a road diet could be utilized.

Two things would need to be done to I-94 to draw traffic off of University: eliminate the lane drops at 280 and at Snelling, and implement MnDOT's concept of a "dynamic shoulder lane" (similar to what they put on 35W north of 46th into downtown).

Even if you figure a 10% drop in University trafffic between the LRT and I-94 improvements, you'd still be above the road diet threshold in much of St. Paul.

The idea of doing something similar to 1st Street would be the best compromise.

Unfortunately, Froggie falls into the same trap city planners did when I was one of the members of the city's 10-year transportation plan update team a few years ago. They cited traffic statistics.

It's not about statistics! It can't be. That's letting cold, hard engineering drive what our cities look like. We must first decide what we want our cities to look like and THEN design the system around that.

University Avenue could function very well with two lanes of traffic. There's I-94, there's the LRT itself, there's Marshall/Selby and a Pierce-Butler extension has been on the books for several years at least. We can handle the traffic. We've forgotten how well a grid system can function.

The good news is that it's pretty easy to restripe. Eventually I hope the city and county will figure that out.

@Kurt,

"The well-heeled historic-district denizens who persuade the landmarks commission to prohibit taller structures have become the urban equivalent of those restrictive suburbanites who want to mandate five-acre lot sizes to keep out the riffraff."

That's exactly right. I see it all the time in Uptown and it's very frustrating. Jacobs didn't advocate preservation above anything else. She advocated a mix of building types. Some old buildings SHOULD go away.

The thing about Uptown is that people have this false sense of "character" about the place. Any character it has (which is not much, frankly) only came about in the last 20-30 years. Before that it was mostly car dealerships. Even today, surface parking dominates the geography.

We ought to fix the Lake/Lagoon one-way mistake similarly to how 1st/Hennepin was fixed downtown. Uptown is fairly pedestrian-unfriendly due to the traffic speeds. I would love to see the segment of Lagoon from Emerson to Dupont removed and the lot returned to full-size for some productive development.

@Paul

I grew up in Hopkins. I believe downtown became the way it is not because of the curvy street modifications (which got reversed in the '90s) but because County 3 was diverted away from downtown when the 169 upgrade happened. That almost killed downtown Hopkins. The city put in a lot of focused effort to develop places like the Hopkins Center for the Arts, the movie theater, mixed-use development and the like.

When I went to school there in the '80's it was in pretty rough shape. The antique shops probably saved it during that period.

Traffic taming, an important step in improving urban life, might actually happen sooner than we think.

A recent study asked drivers what they thought would be the best solution to the traffic glut, offering several options including more public transit. The preferred idea? Narrower cars!

Seems that idea might already be working out: the Hummer is no longer being built, and huge SUV's, though still popular, probably won't survive in great numbers due to the surge in oil prices.

David,

I wouldn't think the curvy street alone would do it, but imagine downtown Hopkins today with the same street it had in the 70s. I grew up next door in St. Louis Park, Downtown Hopkins was dying by the time they modified the street, it had traffic at night, and little else. That cruising got to be a huge problem, maybe I should "our" cruising got to be a huge problem. Eventually I think they actually blocked off the street completely on weekend nights didn't they?

Hopkins has done a great job of rejuvenating downtown, and I'd say the traffic modifications have been a big part of that along with the mixed use condos, new restaurants, movie theater, and center for the arts. If mainstreet were still the thoroughfare it had been none of that would have worked.

If you compare DT Hopkins with St. Louis Park's lame attempt at a new downtown you can see the biggest difference is that Excelsior remains about a pedestrian friendly as a highway in SLP. It's hard to even see the other side of the street in some places. The West End is a little better because the streets are designed to get you in and out of not through the place.

@Paul

Good points about the cruising. I was a little young to understand that sort of thing back then. :) But I do remember the curvy streets and how my dad hated them. Not that he's a particularly city-focused guy.

In any event, you are spot on about Excelsior & Grand. I still fail to understand why it garnered such high praise. I'm glad they developed something there but it could have been so much more, especially with the Southwest LRT on the horizon.

As for the West End, I think that is a good example of a typically bad suburban project. It's a couple blocks of fake/attempted small town recreation surrounded by parking lots. A lot like Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove. It just makes no sense. Why try to build a pedestrian friendly look-alike when it's surrounded by parking?

Again, they could have done so much more with it. You've got the Cedar Lake Trail right there and the coming LRT not too far south. It could have been part of a green corridor connecting beautiful south St. Louis Park neighborhoods through Excelsior & Grand across the LRT (and associated bike trail) into the West End and beyond into Golden Valley and the nice neighborhoods north of I-394. It could have been an anchor in a system to reconnect our metro area. Instead it's a typically bland suburban mall.

The "well-heeled historic district denizens" are the only people who can afford to rescue gorgeous 19th and early 20th Century homes that, in St. Paul's Summit/Selby/Crocus Hill historic area provide long walks through a world that no longer exists but which has both beauty and charm.

By fighting taller buildings, those who purchased and restored these homes and three-story apartment buildings did us a great favor. Taller buildings may hold more people, but do not speak to us of our history.

@Bernice

Absolutely there is history worth preserving. I don't think Kurt was using the quote as blanket policy. But there is a lot of NIMBYism out there and it's often detrimental.

Central Corridor is a good example. I absolutely understand the concerns of residents and share them. The media distorts their concerns as "no new development" when in fact what they want is smart development. However the city's proposed zoning goes too far in restricting what can be built (heights, parking requirements, etc.). It also does not pay attention to affordable housing. It's going to squander a lot of the economic potential of the LRT.

I'm new to your site and this particular column, but I wanted to address your comment about Boston's still-new greenway ("Boston built a lovely greenway in the space above the Big Dig, but almost no one goes there.")

The column you link to, by Boston Globe architecture critic Bob Campbell, generated some vigorous pushback in the Globe's letters columns, and I'm inclined to agree with the pushers-back. While the failure to plan properly for the park reflects poorly on city and state leaders (both of which groups laid claim to the job and neither of which followed through), the idea that the Greenway could have equalled Chicago's Millennium Park seems to me a lot of wishful thinking.

We're left with a park that will, I suspect, grow into the city's fabric over time--and wouldn't that have won Jane Jacobs's blessing? It has suffered from the collapse of plans for buildings that would have brought more people, but an energetic friends group has made some progress on that front with food trucks, festivals, concerts and other programming. The park will evolve incrementally. That's sloppier than would have been ideal, but it seems like a reasonable alternative to the drama of a Millennium Park.

And it's worth remembering that it outclasses by leagues the elevated highway it replaced. The old Central Artery truly DID feel contemptuous of the city.

Speaking of the SLP Excelsior/Grand, Hopkins, etc.... what about the idea of a circulator streetcar....

West Downtown Hopkins
East DT Hopkins / Meet with SW LRT
Louisiana (leave SW LRT)
Excelsior / Methodist Hospital
Excelsior / Grand (head north)
Cross SW LRT near 100
North on 100 alignment (build at same time as the highway rebuild)
Future station at BNSF (future commuter rail funnel east to Target Field)
Station at West End
Meet up with future LRT in I-394 corridor.

Just a thought.

@Matt

Interesting idea! The ridership probably isn't there to support it but I like outside-the-box thinking like this. It's dreaming like this that gets us to consider the "what ifs" about what our community should be like.

From time to time I hear proposals/possibilities of extending the historic Como/Harriet segment, most recently to meet up with a Greenway streetcar. Most of the original SW Minneapolis and Hopkins portions of the old Como/Harriet right-of-way still exists, either in the form of foot trails or very short bike trails. It seems very interesting to me to reconstruct that to create a loop from Hopkins/SW LRT through Linden Hills and then north to meet up with a Greenway streetcar at the Hennepin & 29th transit station. A relatively small amount of that right-of-way actually ran on streets so the traffic disruption would be minimal and utility relocation almost nonexistent.

Fun fact - that ROW included the alley between Irvine and James south of Lake Street. For some reason I bet those homeowners won't want a streetcar running through their alley. But it would probably work along E. Calhoun Parkway as a dedicated ROW. Then it could have an interlined station in the greenway W of Hennepin, with cross-platform connections to Southwest (once we decide to reroute it as a subway underneath Hennepin, and convert the Kenilworth tracks to non-revenue connections between a new 394 line and Southwest :)

Speaking of the "West End" in St. Louis Park, We're all still trying to figure out what exactly it's the west end of? It's the east end of St. Louis Park, it would be the west of MPLS, if it were in MPLS. I suppose it's on the west side of HWY 100.

Why are people so enamoured with parallel parking? No one likes to do it and most of it isn't taking up a lane of traffic but rather taking up part of what used to be a wider sidewalk. Wider sidewalks help a great deal in making a place seem more human friendly. Look at Paris or Barcelona - big sidewalks, little street parking. There are other ways to store people's cars beside on the street. An area doesn't have to loose parking because it looses street parking. The midway area has hundreds of acres, hundreds, of surface parking. What a waste.

About high rises: If people want to preserve all the single family homes in the city (and fewer are worthy of preserving than most think) then high rises will be necessary to get the density required for other amenities to be viable, such as streetcars or high density commercial districts or pedestrian zones. There are places where this is done well - Rotterdam, Vancouver, China - and places where it creates cavernous wind tunnels - New York and Chicago. Notice that where it is done well is where it has been done recently. I notice people have a knee jerk reaction to building height without thinking it through. Building massing is far more important in determining how a structure will effect an area. One 40 storey building can be much nicer than a 12 storey block long building with the same number of apartments. Look at FLW towers for how to do it right, no pun intended.