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How to make Minneapolis-St. Paul more livable & lovable

This is the second of two articles exploring ideas from around the world that might inform and inspire us in tackling issues in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. They are adapted from a report [PDF] for the McKnight Foundation’s Food for Thought series by local author Jay Walljasper. The first story appeared Wednesday.

How suburban D.C., suburban Denver & Vancouver reinvent modern living

 1.  Rediscover low-rise density
 2. Legalize economical housing
 3. Build better high-rises
 4. Reinvent malls for the 21st century

Battle lines are shaping up across the MSP region. On one side stand developers and neighbors who believe that convenient transit, walkable communities, big city amenities, environmental protection and continuing economic growth depend on welcoming more people-per-acre to our communities. On the other side stand developers and neighbors who plead that everything we cherish about our communities is about to vanish in the wake of unsightly mega-projects.

But there’s a middle ground in this conflict — which turns out to be quite a nice place to live. Think of Georgetown in Washington, D.C., Park Slope in Brooklyn, the Victorian Fan District in Richmond, the brand new Pearl District in Portland, and all of historic Savannah. These are low- to mid-rise neighborhoods with high levels of density but a charming and convivial feel.

Density has become a dirty word in these parts because we associate it with ugly large-scale projects that seem to spawn social blight. But Edward McMahon, senior fellow at Urban Land Institute, believes “we can achieve tremendous density without high rises” by utilizing traditional designs such as two-to-four story walk ups that were once common in towns throughout America.”

Unfortunately the best methods of achieving low-rise, neighborhood-scale density are illegal under many current zoning codes — attic or carriage house apartments; granny flats or garden cottages at the back of a lot; unrelated adults sharing a house; small homes on small lots; houses without attached garages; housing above shops, business districts around the corner. 

Making such practices legal again would not only be good for urban vitality but also promote social justice, says Alan Durning, author of "Unlocking Home: Three Keys to Affordable Housing."

“We have effectively banned what used to be the bottom end of the housing market,” he writes.

vancouver west end
Vancouver's West End neighborhood sports a population density approaching Manhattan but still retains a neighborly feel thanks to strong pedestrian amenities and a policy of locating garage doors and drop-off points at the back of high-rises, rather than the front.

A visit to Vancouver may convince you there’s even a place for high-rises in the livable communities of tomorrow.  The West End neighborhood near Stanley Park sports a population density approaching Manhattan but still retains a neighborly feel thanks to strong pedestrian amenities and a policy of locating garage doors and drop-off points at the back of high-rises, rather than the front — which is what destroys the curb appeal of so many high rises here. Close attention is also paid to tapering tall structures so they don’t block neighbors’ sunlight.

MSP suburbs could enjoy even richer rewards than the central cities by embracing density. Towns in suburban Washington, D.C, are thriving by creating a walkable, lively downtowns around transit stops, says Christopher Leinberger, an expert on real estate forecasting at George Washington University.

Declining malls offer another opportunity for building attractive urban-feeling neighborhoods from scratch, like the former Villa Italia mall in suburban Lakewood, Colorado, which was transformed into Belmar, a neighborhood covering 22 city blocks that sports 14 restaurants, 70 shops, movie theaters, a bowling alley, a museum of 20th-century lifestyles, condos, apartments and townhomes.

How New York, Detroit & Oslo create beloved public places

5. Bring back the town square
6. Reclaim streets for people
7. Cover highways with parks

One of the greatest moments in MSP’s history also revealed one of our glaring deficits.  When the Twins won their first ever World Series in 1987, a massive crowd assembled outside the Metrodome in Minneapolis — all whooped up with nowhere to go. They milled around the streets looking in vain for a place to congregate. But downtown Minneapolis and too many other neighborhoods in our region lack central gathering spots where we can come together as neighbors, friends, citizens and celebrators.

The last place in the world we would think of looking for inspiration on community connectedness is Detroit.  But the city’s downtown is home to one of the world’s top town squares.  Campus Martius — a charming a 2.5-acre park created out of a former traffic island to celebrate the city’s 300th birthday — hosts gardens, concerts, ice skating, a café, an alluring fountain, an historic war memorial, lawns and lots of spots for people to hang out. Campus Martius has attracted more than $500 million investment on neighboring properties.  The software firm Compuware brought 4,000 employees in from the suburbs to a new headquarters right across the street.

campus martius
Campus Martius is a 2.5-acre park created out of a former traffic island to celebrate the Detroit's 300th birthday.

But how do you create new public spaces in existing communities without knocking down someone’s home or business. Look no farther than packed New York City, where a series of popular public plazas have been created by closing a lane of traffic here and there on Broadway and 20 other streets around town. Or take a cue from equally crowded San Francisco, where on-street parking spaces have been transformed into more than 35 “parklets” for neighbors to enjoy.

San Francisco also tore down the Embarcadero Freeway in 1991 to reconnect the city to its waterfront, liberating public space and sparking a development boom. Milwaukee, Portland and Seoul, Korea, also dismantled sections of highways to create thriving new neighborhoods or parkland.

Roads can be transformed into public spaces even when you can’t reclaim the pavement. One of the most romantic spots in New York, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with its famous view of the Manhattan skyline, sits on a deck atop the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Chicago built its world-famous Millennium Park atop a rail yard. Seattle, Dallas and Duluth have covered stretches of freeways with green “land bridges” to reconnect neighborhoods. Oslo buried a busy highway in a tunnel to open up the harborfront, which is now one of the city’s beloved destinations. Madrid recently covered many sections of its ring road to develop parks, trails and housing.

How Ottawa, Edinburgh & Harbin, China enjoy winter

8. Make cold weather cheery at holiday markets
9. Brighten long nights with artistic light displays
10. Construct ice castles & ice-skating trails

Most of us agree that winter is the biggest liability of living in MSP.

But is that really true?

Minneapolis ranked 14th among 100 major U.S. cities in a happiness survey conducted by Men’s Health magazine and St. Paul landed at #8 with a grin. The seven cities ahead of us are all wintery spots (including Fargo, Sioux Falls and Madison), with the sole exception of Honolulu. 

Who ranked last?  Balmy St. Petersburg, Florida — with Tampa, Miami, Las Vegas, Birmingham and Memphis all in the bottom 10. In last year’s Gallup Healthways Well-being Index of the happiest states, nine of the top ten feature long stretches of real winter weather, including Minnesota at #3.

So let’s be glad we’re not stuck in the gloomy sun belt and discover ways to better appreciate winter. As the days of December shorten across Germany, Austria and France, people look forward to Christmas markets where they can find a festive atmosphere along with holiday decorations, gift selections and warm food and drink.  New York City imported this tradition with gala holiday markets in Union Square, Bryant Park and Columbus Circle that light up the season. 

skating trail
Ice skaters in Winnipeg enjoy trails that save them from going around in circles.

Our winter celebrations should not end abruptly Jan. 2. Keep the good cheer going as they do in Edinburgh, where artistic lighting displays brighten dark skies; Ottawa and Winnipeg, where ice skating trails are maintained so skaters don’t always have to go round in circles; and Harbin, China, (located near the border with Siberia) where dozens of massive snow sculptures and ice castles arise during January’s month-long International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.

How Indianapolis enjoys a shining reputation by highlighting its strengths

 11.  Stand out as America’s best bike town

Indianapolis was once was the most overlooked big city in America, except for one day each May when the Indy 500 ran. That’s why local leaders embarked on a campaign to transform the city into an amateur sports capital, building on Indiana’s reputation for enthusiastic high school basketball fans.

Launched to boost economic development as well as solidify the city’s identity, the project soon attracted Olympic organizations like USA Track & Field and USA Gymnastics followed by the National Federation of State High School Associations, the American College of Sports Medicine and — biggest of all — the NCAA.  Today everyone knows Indianapolis as a sports town. 

ncaa hq
CC/Flickr/Serge Melki
Indianapolis has cemented its reputation as a sports town with the NCAA headquarters and Hall of Champions.

Our biggest publicity bonanza in recent years was Bicycling Magazine ranking Minneapolis America’s No. 1 Bike City, beating out Portland, Ore. The truth is Portland won back the title two years later, but no one here (or anywhere else) seems to know that.  Let’s keep it that way by making sure we really deserve the honor — not just in Minneapolis, but also St. Paul and the suburbs. 

Bicycling, like amateur sports, bestows us with some very positive associations. Bikes are seen as youthful, healthy, fun, green, family-friendly and economical. Even people who haven’t pedaled over the past 30 years will notice economic and social benefits from living in a place admired as America’s bike capital.

Indianapolis again can provide us with inspiration on how to do it. The just-opened Indy Cultural Trail is an 8-mile bike-and-walk path cutting through the heart of the city that connects cultural attractions, business districts, shopping areas, parks, universities and neighborhoods.

Much of the Cultural Trail physically separates walkers and bicyclists from speeding vehicles — the latest trend in two-wheel transportation called Green Lanes, which encourages more people to ride because they are not shoulder-to-shoulder with automobiles on busy streets. The number of protected bike lanes across American rose from 62 in 2011 to 102 last year, and is projected to double this year.

Further investment in bike lanes would pay off sooner than you think. We are already a leader in the bike industry as home to Quality Bike Parts (QPB), Park Tool, Dero bike racks, and Surly bikes, so establishing MSP as the top city for biking will bring other employers in this fast-growing field to town, just as amateur sports did in Indianapolis. 

How Canada and Slovenia make people happy

12. Add a three-day weekend in August
13. Celebrate our cultural treasures with a winter holiday
14.  Explore new arrangements in working hours

Folks in New York, Chicago, D.C. and Silicon Valley like to boast about how many hours they log at the office. Our comparative advantage in competing with other regions could be a healthy work-life balance, which would attract young people, young families, entrepreneurs and everyone else. We can proclaim ourselves as America’s “Work Hard/Play Hard capital,” highlighting MSP’s high worker productivity and the highest workforce participation in the country alongside prime opportunities for biking, skiing or boating after work; seeing a dance performance, gallery opening and blues band over the weekend; taking the family to a museum, food festival or water park. 

To become noted as a place where people “work to live” rather than “live to work” will take more than a clever branding campaign. It means taking real steps to give folks a break. Most of Canada, which shares our euphoria about summertime fun, takes the first Monday of August off as a public holiday. Minnesota should do the same.  Whatever inconvenience and lost productivity felt by businesses would be more than made up for by the national attention we’d earn as a fun, generous, great place to live.

tron kirk
Visitors tour Tron Kirk in Edinburgh on Open Doors Day.

A wintertime holiday worth adopting comes from Slovenia, where Feb. 8 has been declared Slovenian Culture Day. Numerous prizes for arts and scientific research are awarded amid a festive round of cultural activities. Milwaukee, Toronto and Denver do something similar they call Doors Open Day, an opportunity to tour historical and architectural landmarks otherwise not open to the public. Some combination of these events would make a grand occasion to highlight the essential role of arts and culture in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Obviously, the most important element in gaining attention for our Work Hard/Play Hard ethic is a serious commitment by employers, workers, unions, civic organizations and public officials to explore new possibilities for balancing careers with family and free time. We have a head start with the tradition of “summer hours” in many workplaces, where flexible arrangements make it possible to take Friday afternoons off. 

Our key to prosperity in a region many people dismiss as too cold or too remote has always been doing things better than other metropolitan regions. Our thriving arts community and celebrated recreational opportunities are cherished outcomes of this strategy.But to stay competitive in the future, it’s criticial that we provide people with more time to enjoy all that’s good around here.

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Comments (2)

Two suggestions

1. As the population ages, it would be nice to have housing within the city that is amenable to older people without being traditional "senior" housing. I am thinking of townhomes without large areas to shovel or maintain within easy walking distance of amenities such as public libraries, groceries, small shops. We have many neighborhood centers like this but little housing that is not single family.
2. We should develop some indoor parks with safe walking facilities, landscaped and pleasant, so that older people can walk during the winter while being safe from falling. Right now, the walking options are at malls, in suburbs or require fees that can be prohibitive. Bike trails are wonderful but let's not forget the segments of our population who want to exercise year round but don't want to slip and fall or be frozen.

I was worried there early on

Because Park Slope, Georgetown and Savannah, and to a lesser extent the Pearl District, are the way they are -- old charming and dense -- because of long periods of neglect during which no one bothered to replace the old, dense buildings because there wasn't any reason to. They're great places, but they don't present a road map for others to follow unless there is a way to artificially recreate no one caring for a century or more.

But thankfully the article didn't stop there and gave many thoughtful suggestions. And I wonder if there aren't yet more from the Pearl District, which to my recollection has a fair number of those Vancouver style high rises (or mid rises) among their reclaimed industrial buildings.