What makes one an urbanist in one place may not make one an urbanist in another. The Superstar cities have hordes of trained professionals opining on their every bike lane and subway stop. Is the font on our trolley signage consistent with the hoppiness of our most famous I.P.A.? Will the arrival of Whole Foods drone delivery make gluten free beignets harder to find at the farmer’s market?
In other places, like this one, there is almost no analysis of things that are happening from the urbanist perspective. I have no official qualifications as “an urbanist”. I’ve lived downtown for 30 years. I’ve immersed myself in Kunstler and Whyte, I’ve slogged through some Jane Jacobs. (Glad she existed, glad others find her to be insightful) I volunteered with a downtown organization for a few months when I finished college, I’ve worked with a downtown residents group as a liaison and an employee of a neighborhood association, I’ve served on a couple of boards, and, as the Internet has expanded, I’ve read as much as possible about trends in cities and urban life. In New York or San Francisco or Boston or Chicago that would make me one of thousands.
In Springfield I’m called an urbanist. I’ve even been called “a local historian”. It reminds me of when I became my daughters’ soccer coach because I was the only parent who understood the offside rule.
Between Springfield and New Haven a new commuter rail service opened this week. It services an area with well over 2 million people but I didn’t see a single article on CityLab or Planetizen, my go to urbanist news web sites. These are some headlines they did have this week though:
In that vacuum, here, I can make a difference. Way back when I started this blog one of the topics I returned to week after week was parking, but not just parking in the general sense but rather a particular plan to raze a building at the 100% corner of the region, the intersection of State and Main streets, for a surface parking lot. That plan is still alive in the mind of one particular developer, but unlike 5 years ago the standard response to the plan is not “well, of course, the city could always use more parking” to “oh my god, can you imagine a parking lot at the very center of downtown”.
I did that. The very same people who supported the need for parking are four square against it now. I wrote post after post with link upon link to published, peer reviewed papers, and I mocked in the strongest terms possible the backwardness of anyone who could still believe that what cities need to compete is more space dedicated to parking. I’ve heard, more and more, my own talking points repeated back to me: my own turns of phrase, my personal emphasis, even my own puns. I bumped in to a local architect downtown and we started talking about his time on the historical commission and about the goings on with MGM. As we started talking about the work he was doing he mentioned the townhouses just up the street from me. These townhouses:
I started to mention my theory about them and he stopped me and said “I know, just like the Painted Ladies of San Francisco”. The developers he was working with had read my blog. At least on that topic.
Do people in your community know that posted speed limits mean almost nothing, that drivers respond to the design of the road? Do they know how blank walls discourage pedestrians? Do they understand why airwalks are a bad idea? If they don’t, and you do, then YOU are an urbanist. When I explain why making a place more auto-centric actually makes parking more difficult because more people will have to drive I’m an urbanist.
One of the privileges of living in a mediocre place is that it gives many more people of modest achievement opportunities to be more active, and more significant, in the development of their places. I’ve never strived to be the best at anything. Most things which require a lot of work actually aren’t worth doing; putting that effort elsewhere just might accomplish more, and more easily. I could have taken a half hour to carefully proofread Outer Darkness. Instead I wrote this. My wife will tell me if there’s a their where there’s supposed to be a they’re or a there, at some point I’ll notice an on where there should be an and, but in the mean time you’ll have understood the basic idea, and you’ll have learned just how much of an urbanist YOU really are. Or aren’t.