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Qualities every city should have: Grading the Twin Cities

Qualities every city should have: Grading the Twin Cities
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
Obviously, the Twin Cities have water features, and they don't just emulate nature — they are nature. Lakes, rivers and ponds abound.

Charles Wolfe, a Seattle land-use lawyer, writing in Atlantic Cities today, itemizes qualities that every city should have. He doesn't focus on impressive monuments like the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower that make city fathers beam with pride. Instead he notes the "impressionistic and, essentially more ethereal 'bookmarks' of experiences in cities around the world." Usually, he adds, those bookmarks evoke aspects of traditional urban life.

I don't agree with all his choices. Some of them seem a little weird, for example, "spontaneous competition in simple places," an example of which is an image of varicolored signs advertising different glass companies on an empty storefront. The signs are decorative, but I don't know whether they would generate any customers these days since most of us go to the Yellow Pages or the Internet to find such services. What Wolfe likes about the signs is that they avoid "rigid regularity." That I can get behind. Walking down a street of cookie-cutter houses or cookie-cutter parking lots can flatten anybody's spirit.

In any case, I think it's worthwhile to look at some of Wolfe's suggestions to see how or whether our Twin Cities measure up. Here's a look:

No. 1: Wood-framed storefronts and proud displays.

"Natural building materials give an organic sense of invitation to an otherwise ordinary world of metal and cement," writes Wolfe. Of course, our wretched winters aren't easy on wood, but one store that Wolfe would approve of and I would like to see more retailers emulate is Heimie's Haberdashery at the corner of 6th & St. Peter Street in the Hamm Building in downtown St. Paul. There's no wood that I can spot, but the building's terra-cotta ornamentation and metal squares work to frame Heimie's windows which show incredible arrays of spiffy menswear that remind one of the days when guys dressed to impress. Walking by Heimie's is a treat for anybody visiting St. Paul.

Our grade: Needs improvement. There should be more stores like Heimie's.

No. 2: Commercial porches with color and vantage points to the streets.

What Wolfe seems to like are what I would call decks, either on the street level or higher. You can find them throughout the Caribbean and in Mexico. They're reminiscent of the plank sidewalks on the sets of old Western movies, but more often these days, they provide outdoor seating for restaurants. Why do people like them? Those on deck have a view of the scenery from high up as well as the passing crowd, which is usually interesting as in, "Look at that guy with the green hair!" Passers-by can gawk at the drinkers/diners and feel as though they're in a place where there's something going on.

One example in Minneapolis is on Main Street, a short stretch along the river that includes several restaurants — Vic's, Tug's, the Aster Cafe, Pracna on Main and the Wilde Roast Cafe. Stroll past them on a Friday afternoon in the spring or summer, and the brick streets, the view of the Mississippi and the crowds sipping wine make you feel almost as though you were in the south of France. Maybe a couple of clothing stores could add to the liveliness. Entertainment areas on Hennepin, in Uptown and in Lyn-Lake could profit by this type of arrangement. Some restaurants have put outdoor dining on their rooftops. That provides customers with a view, but, because those areas don't connect with the street, they don't add to its energy — unless somebody throws something off the top.

Our grade: Needs improvement.

No. 3: Water features that emulate nature.

Obviously, the Twin Cities have water features, and they don't just emulate nature — they are nature. Lakes, rivers and ponds abound. And, city planners and architects have not been stingy with artificial water features either. Parks all over the place can boast of decorative fountains, with the most spectacular perhaps in Rice Park in downtown St. Paul, although Peavey Plaza's water display is not exactly chopped liver. Plenty of office buildings have reflecting pools, ponds or fountains, and a few, like the Hennepin County Government Center, have water inside and out. We've even got a pool with a giant spoon and a cherry in it. The only place perhaps that could use a watery addition: Nicollet Mall. I suppose installing one would interfere with bus and taxi traffic, but it's questionable whether the street should carry any motor vehicles at all.

Our grade: A+++. We've got this covered.

No. 4: Spectacular examples of shopping tradition.

To illustrate this idea, Wolfe shows an image of an unidentified European street, possibly in Italy or France, jammed with pedestrians and flanked by four- and five-story 18th- and 19th-century buildings. The scene looks charming, if a bit congested. I can't think of any comparable shopping venue in the Twin Cities except maybe the State Fair. Unlike Nicollet Mall, sad to say, the fair draws crowds and offers intense (if not always healthful) local shopping and eating experiences. Then too, there's the Mall of America. While the structure isn't the most beautiful on earth, it is definitely consistent with our local tradition — and weather. After all, Southdale was the first indoor shopping mall in the nation.

Our grade: Fair. It would be wonderful if our downtowns could approximate the experience of the State Fair, at least once in a while.

No. 5: Culturally indigenous engravings built into the environment.

Wolfe shows an anonymous plaza whose tiles form waves, important, he says, "to a historically seafaring people." I get a different message from that plaza, that our streets and sidewalks would be more interesting if they aimed to look more visually arresting than concrete slabs. Visit Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo in Brazil and you find sidewalks and squares with waves and geometric patterns formed of Portuguese black and white stones. Even on a boring street, walkers have something interesting to look at.

Our grade: Needs improvement (as does every other U.S. city). It don't know what designs would reflect "cultural aspects," as Wolfe calls them. Maybe we could draw from Native American design. I leave that to the artists among us.

No. 6: Children in public squares.

When I was raising my elder son in Manhattan years ago, I used to ask friends, "When can I safely let him outside to play on his own — when he's 32?" Wolfe rightly equates parents' ability to let a toddler wander more than an arm's length away with the public's sense of safety. While Twin Cities parents do seem able to allow young children to get a few feet further when in playgrounds and on beaches, they no longer allow or encourage their children to walk or bike to school. Nationally, the share of children not traveling to school by bus or car has dropped from 42 percent in 1969 to about 13 percent in 2009. Parents say they fear kidnapping, even though the odds of a child getting abducted by a stranger are about 1 in 17,000.

Our grade: Unsatisfactory, not necessarily because the Twin Cities are crime-ridden but because we believe they are. Without a sense of security, people will stay locked in their cars, and city streets will remain corridors for transport, not places to amble and enjoy.

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Comments (8)

shop windows

There are lots of good shop windows scattered about. You're right that we could use a more contiguous stretch of them in downtown, but a good example might be Eat Street. It has wondrous windows galore. Here are more examples:

Shopping tradition might include farmer's markets. Nicollet Mall farmer's market is an urban wonder, probably as good as it gets for a main street in the TC.

Kids? Go to any of Mpls' small parks in the summertime and enjoy.


"Unsatisfactory, not necessarily because the Twin Cities are crime-ridden but because we believe they are." An important point, crime statistics mean much less to the public than a feeling of personal safety. Lately, concern about crime has been less than worries about the economy. We always worry, it's just what catches politicians attention is whatever is at the top of our worry list.

St. Paul sidewalks have poetry

While the sidewalks of St. Paul neighborhoods are made of concrete, the city is adding poems to the sidewalks when the sidewalks need replacement or repair. Not quite #5, but close!

High-quality public spaces, not crime

I think you're misinterpreting his intention in the Children in public squares category. It's more about having high-quality public spaces with ample space for children to play in than about crime. In other words, do you let your city neglect its public spaces or fill them with cars? In St Paul, there are a few examples of nice, big, open areas where people can gather and hang out and let their children play - you mentioned Rice Park, Mears Park does the same. In Minneapolis most public spaces are either almost entirely surrendered to cars, or else barren and neglected. But I've seen children playing in Peavey Plaza, which is either a testament to the power of the original design or to the intrinsic human need for these spaces, since the City has basically abandoned the square. I suppose I should clarify the difference between a square and a park, too, since of course the Twin Cities has lots of great parks for children to play in: a park is an open space where people go to escape the city; a square is an open space where people go to find the city.

Glad you noticed the other side of the river.

That would be St. Paul's Rice park.

I think you have made some excellent points about what features of design make cities more liveable and enjoyable.

The two level downtown with streets and skyways have dispersed and diluted our "street scape" both esthetically and economically but I don't think I would trade the skyways for a less walkable route in the winter.

I am not sure we would tolerate the poor air quality that goes along with street level dining in places other than low traffic areas. Sitting in the canyon between Dayton's and the IDS in 1973 was a choking experience I can't imagine that has improved.

You are quite right that outdoor street level living is much more pleasant in the low traffic more aesthetic neighborhoods. Focusing efforts there would prove rewarding. I think our different standards for quality of environment may lead us to different expressions of Mr. Wolf's aesthetic as illustrated by his photos. None the less it is something to strive for.

My personal plea would be for more public art.

"Sitting in the canyon

"Sitting in the canyon between Dayton's and the IDS in 1973 was a choking experience I can't imagine that has improved."

Emissions standards have changed a lot since then, and the busses on Nicollet Mall (regular auto traffic isn't allowed) are largely hybrids now. I walk down Nicollet Mall and a couple other downtown streets every day and have rarely noticed air quality issues, though from what I hear it was probably rather bad back in the day.

Variety is important

Maybe Ms. Harris had inadvertently hit on something with her comparison to the State Fair. I only go to downtown Minneapolis when I have to, but I genuinely enjoy the State Fair, and go just about every year, despite the crowds, noise, heat, &c.

Offhand, I’d suggest that what the Fair offers that I don’t see much of in downtown Minneapolis (I can't speak for St. Paul, having spent almost no time there) is, first of all, informality, and the feeling that the fair is essentially a sort of temporary neighborhood that we all belong to. The crowds that show up for the Fair have – to this non-native – demonstrated “Minnesota nice” on steroids. There are more food options at the Fair than I care to think about, and the fairgrounds themselves provide an exquisitely-friendly atmosphere for walking. Vehicles are so rare that they’re forced to basically accommodate pedestrians, rather than the other way around. The Fair also has many, many, many purposeful and pleasant diversions – some more expensive than others – for children and adults alike. Finally, because local officials have figured out that the fair is a big draw, year after year, there is public transit directly to the fair from dozens of area parking lots/gathering places. The buses don’t stop 14 times, transfers are unnecessary, and they get preferred pickup and dropoff spots.

the other, other side of the river

I'm glad Ms. Harris noticed our Minneapolis "other side of the river", the riverfront across from downtown in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood. Mostly, though, I'm glad Harris, a Minnesota native, is back in town for her stories are excellent, a breath of fresh air and new ideas.

Only in South Minneapolis is St. Paul the other side of the river. As the river turns, one gets directions confused. Welcome, Marlys, to the East Side which some people today call going north to NE Mpls. And then there's Southeast which is south of some parts of NE and west of others. Downtown if you go west you're in North Minneapolis. All U.S. major cities were built on water--Seattle included--and in their infancy oriented themselves from that water. So in town--Minneapolis or St. Paul--forget your compass and don't even go with the flow rivers wander and in Minnesota some even run generally north.