Tag Archives: urban amenities

The More Things Change…?

It feels as if I’ve been on “lockdown” forever, and I know others are equally “over” a pandemic that is anything but over. There just aren’t that many rooms to be deep cleaned, that many books to be read, or–in my case–that many blogs to be written.

The rest of the time, then, becomes available for worrying.

I’ve been particularly concerned about what will happen to the center of my city in the wake of Covid-19. My husband and I moved to downtown Indianapolis in 1980, when things were still pretty sketchy, and we’ve celebrated the subsequent rebirth of a flourishing urban core. We’ve been excited to see new homes and apartments being built, we’ve marveled at our inability to patronize all of the new restaurants and bars (although we really tried!). We’ve worried as online retailing has reduced the number and variety of shops.  And we were heartbroken when we drove past all the boarded-up windows in the wake of the one protest that included such destruction.

Predictions about “what will come next” are everywhere. Most aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on (or the bytes they represent), but I tend to respect the scholars at the Brookings Institution, who’ve weighed in with their analysis.

The Brookings report suggests that COVID-19 will accelerate or intensify many trends that are already underway, which makes a lot of sense to me.

The report noted that retailers, along with their landlords and suppliers, were already “responding to multiple industry-wide  trends” (aka “in a world of hurt”) before the coronavirus. Trump’s tariffs hurt an industry that was already reeling from shifts in consumer demand from products to experiences, e-commerce, and the sharing economy. The pandemic is accelerating an already pressing need to embrace new models.

The report is light on specifics, but does predict that profit-sharing leases will be an “increasingly important tool to help new businesses get started, survive slowdowns, and provide a return to landlords who invest in their tenants’ success.”

The report’s predictions about food really comforted me. (Comfort food? Sorry…)

Convergence and hybridization will accelerate in food retail, which will return to be a “revitalizing force in urban life.” IKEA was already a furniture showroom, warehouse, and restaurant. High-end grocers were encouraging shoppers to have a beer. Restaurants were increasingly not just dine-in, but fast-casual or mobile food trucks. Whether through app-based delivery or prepared foods from wholesalers such as Costco, Americans will return to eating much of their food prepared outside the home. In 2017, jobs in leisure and hospitality (which includes all bars and restaurants) grew to outnumber jobs in retail trade. The pandemic is a setback, but not a reset.

On the negative side, the researchers expect that the 50- million- plus low wage workers will continue to face unsupportable housing costs– and that households that previously strained to pay rent will find it impossible. They also see worse labor market outcomes for older workers who lose their jobs.

So what does all of that portend for cities?

Some urban dwellers who have decamped to less dense areas will undoubtedly stay there permanently,  “irrespective of the many amenities and agglomeration economies urban centers have to offer.” But the researchers note that the period following the Great Recession saw major metros gain more population than their suburbs

Why was this happening in a tepidly recovering economy? A good deal was attributable to young adult millennials. Unable to find jobs and housing in large stretches of the country, they found urban centers attractive. Eventually, the economy rebounded, jobs dispersed and many young adults dispersed with them. But large metro areas still prospered even with slower growth, as Brookings’s Metro Monitor 2020 revealed.

What does this mean for the post-COVID-19 period? Much will depend on Gen Z, an educated and racially diverse generation with strong urban roots.

In other words, if Gen Z  wants and needs what urban life has to offer, they’ll opt to remain.

We will face huge challenges once the pandemic is over and Trump is (fingers crossed) a  horrific memory. We will need to restore a functioning and ethical federal government, address our enormous inequalities with social investment and a comprehensive, adequate social safety net–and continue the work of making our cities  vital, livable places to live and work.

 

Portland

We’ve been in Portland, Oregon, for two and a half days now. If I were twenty years younger, I would seriously consider moving here.

We wanted to visit Portland because we are urban policy nerds, and knew that Portland was something of a city planner’s dream. It is. Here, in no particular order, are some of our observations:

Billboards are obviously strictly controlled; we counted exactly five between the airport and downtown, making that 45 minute taxi ride far more scenic.

Streets are a bit narrower than in most cities, and blocks are a good deal shorter–even shorter than the “short” blocks in NYC. Most are tree-lined, and in the downtown area there are flower baskets hanging from hooks on the street lights. Although there’s a grid, it isn’t rigid; there are also streets angling off in various directions. All of that makes walking around really pleasant. Plus, the urban core is amazingly compact.

Bikes are everywhere, and there are dedicated bike lanes.

Perhaps the walking and biking account for another observation: people on the streets in Portland are mostly thin.

There are tons of parks–big and small and interactive (kids splashing in park pools is encouraged). The streets are active–unlike in Indianapolis, parking garages all have first-floor retail, so there aren’t long “dead” areas. And most of the retail seems to be local–although there are some national chains, local shops, bars and restaurants (of which there are so many you wonder if anyone here cooks) outnumber them by a significant margin. (I’ve seen few Starbucks, for example, although there are regional and local coffee shops everywhere.) Hundreds of food trucks offer all sorts of creative cuisines (Mauritania has a cuisine? Who knew?)

I wasn’t able to find out how many people live in downtown Portland, but there are many, many apartment buildings, and a good deal of the retail downtown caters to residential needs. (There’s a huge kitchenware store and three supermarkets–including a Whole Foods. So I guess someone must cook….) And there are regular, rotating Farmer’s Markets; we saw one, and it, too, was huge.

Speaking of huge, Powell’s books. An entire city block. 300,000 titles in stock, new and used. We got there a few minutes before 9:00 a.m., when it opened, and there was already a line.

And everywhere you look, you see public transportation. There are buses and trolleys in traffic lanes dedicated to them–no cars allowed. Light rail. A tram to carry folks up the big hill (with bike parking at its base). Nirvana…

We spent yesterday morning riding the trolley system. The cars were immaculate, the system was easy to understand, and $5 bought a 24-hour pass, good for the bus, the trolley and the light rail. The system is obviously well-used, and by a broad cross-section of riders.

I’ve also been absolutely blown away by how NICE people here are. My husband and I stopped to look at a building, and a man asked if he could help us find something. In a shoe store, the clerk whipped out a map and suggested places we should see–and gave me her card in case I had questions. The motorman on the first trolley we rode not only offered complete directions, but let us know when we were approaching the stop at which we needed to transfer. Servers in restaurants have been equally helpful. Drivers yield to pedestrians–and each other– everywhere, and no one honks his horn!

Portland is pretty similar in size to Indianapolis, and every urban amenity I’ve described is something Indianapolis (and other cities) could do, if we had the political will. But fairness requires acknowledging assets we couldn’t duplicate, like the absence of mosquitos. A climate in which you can evidently grow ANYTHING. No humidity. Mild winters that don’t take as much of a toll on roads, buildings and infrastructure. Mountains, rivers and hills.

I’m sure if I actually lived here, I’d find things to complain about. But from our admittedly limited perspective, this is a city to envy.

Time for Tough Love

The folks who live in Indianapolis’ suburbs are a lot like the kid who moved back into his parents’ basement after college, and despite having a job, doesn’t pay rent or contribute to the grocery money, so he has money to spend on a snazzy new car and vacations.

More than 180,000 suburban residents drive into Indy to work every day. Approximately 50,000 drive out to jobs located in the suburbs. That means we have a 130,000 net influx of people who regularly drive on streets paid for by Indianapolis taxpayers, rely on police protection furnished by Indianapolis taxpayers, flush toilets into sewers paid for by Indianapolis ratepayers…all without paying a penny for those services.

It isn’t just the people who drive into the city to work. Residents of the collar counties have easy access to Indy’s arts, sporting and cultural events and other urban amenities that improve their quality of life without affecting their property taxes. At least in those cases, nonresidents are patronizing important activities–and when they eat a meal in a downtown restaurant, they do pay a small surtax. Commuting contributes nothing.

Indianapolis business and political leaders have talked about imposing a commuter tax for at least thirty years. We discussed it when I was in City Hall. It hasn’t happened–hasn’t even been seriously pursued, to the best of my knowledge. The politically cynical and criminally shortsighted decision to include property tax caps in the state constitution may change that.

Local governments are starved for revenue. We don’t have the money to hire enough police, to maintain public parks, to pave streets and build sidewalks. Important public amenities like the canal are being allowed to deteriorate. The Mayor is trying to cope by selling off public assets–a “penny-wise, pound-foolish” effort that trades up-front money for long-term income streams and shortchanges our childrens’ futures.

Indiana does not have real home rule. Indianapolis lacks the legal authority to raise property taxes. We have to look elsewhere if we are to invest in our public infrastructure and keep our city from going the way of Detroit. We are rapidly running out of public assets to sell off. The logical thing to do is to levy a commuter tax–to insist that the people using our public services pay something toward their maintenance.

Mayor Hudnut used to warn against allowing the city to become a “doughnut” with a hole in the middle. Civic health, he insisted, required patterning ourselves after a “cookie,” solid clear through. Without sufficient revenue, all those suburban residents who depend upon Indianapolis for their employment and quality of life will find their property values diminished along with their job prospects.

It’s time to charge that kid in the basement some rent.

 

 

What Makes a City Liveable?

I have never been to Berlin before, although I have been to Germany several times, and if I thought about it at all, I suppose I expected a rather “monumental” and forbidding Germanic landscape.

I was wrong. This is first and foremost a livable city.

We spent time today doing the usual touristy things: the bus tour with running commentary in several languages, the obligatory looks at famous landmarks–I even bought a sweatshirt at Checkpoint Charlie (it was cold!) But the real highpoint of our too-short visit was the experience of walking around the neighborhood of our hotel.

We walked to a restaurant several blocks away that had been recommended by our son (aka the Tech God). He has been everywhere, and his restaurant recommendations are always flawless-he’s a real foodie. We strolled through streets lined with 4 and 5 story apartment buildings, a mix of restorations and new construction. There were pocket parks everywhere, with children on swings and slides, young people playing table tennis (and in one case, older men playing bocce ball). Bikes were everywhere–and Berlin has the same bike-share/rental that we’ve seen elsewhere. At street level, there was cafe after art gallery (dozens of them, as we are in the arts/gallery district) after retail shop after grocery market after “wein cafe”–all at small, human scale, and all very inviting.

Berlin has an enormous amount of green space–large urban parks and the ubiquitous small “pocket” parks. What it doesn’t have is the monotony of the US suburbs. There were no quarter-acre lots with grass; instead, there were flowerpots and small potted trees on balconies–and the density that makes all of the wonderful urban amenities sustainable.

Once again, mass transit was evident everywhere. The subway, we are told, runs on minute and a half headways. Buses are everywhere. There are plenty of cars and bicycles, of course, but you can get anywhere in short order on public transit.

What really impressed me was the general attention to quality–beautiful windows and doors, etc., rather than the large, poor quality construction that characterizes so many of America’s “McMansions.” (Contrary to what all those “make yours bigger” emails we all get, size ISN’T everything.)

Finally, we remarked upon the sophistication that comes with diversity; as our waiter tonight noted with pride, Berlin is a truly international city–home, he assured us, to over 250 nationalities.

There are remarkable museums and fantastic architecture here, but it is the scale and variety of the built environment, the prevalence of the art and music, and the investment in infrastructure that makes this so livable-and delightful.

If we Americans weren’t so smugly convinced that we know everything we need to know and that we are “exceptional” (in the good sense), we could learn a lot from cities like Berlin.