Other City Sidewalks: Chicago and DC

[I’ve recently completed a train trip around the country, traveling for various reasons to a half dozen large and small cities up, down, and around the East Coast and Midwest. My goal on this trip was to take long walks everywhere I went and to try to gauge the levels of walkability, interest, and vitality in the different places that I ended up, to come up with some sort of feel for each of these places. Permit me to tell you about it…]

My first stops on Amtrak Tour '07 were Chicago IL and Washington DC, obviously two of the most important American cities. All in all, I spent almost an entire day in Chicago, sticking to the downtown loop. Of course, the loop isn’t really the place to spend time if you want to walk around Chicago and see what the neighborhoods are like; it’s a very commercial downtown even if people do actually live down there. (I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Chicago in the past and I really like its neighborhoods.) But that said, I've heard a lot about how the city is experiencing a bit of a renaissance lately, becoming more bike friendly and environmentally conscious. Mostly, though, “the New Chicago” seems to be a code word for Milllenium Park, which is a beautiful addition to the Michigan Avenue strip.

Personally, I’ve long thought that Lakeshore Drive is a needless barrier standing between the citizens of Chicago and the blue waters of their chief natural asset, and I sometimes fantasize about shrinking the road to two lanes (like the Mississippi River Parkways) even though I realize it’s often the best way to get anywhere. So, given that the actual lake is kind of a bitch to walk to, Millenium Park seems like it's quickly become one of the best public spaces in the country. I’m not even talking about the Gehry-designed auditorium… No, I really like these public statues/fountains (hey kids, there's an actual lake right over there!), and (most especially) the big blob sculpture called Cloud Gate, through which people can walk and in which people can see, not only their reflection, but a reflective panorama of their entire urban surrounds. People crowd around these two sculptures all day long, and it becomes a great splace for people to relax and enjoy being in the heart a city that often seems like it only cares about business. Say what you will about Mayor Daley and his crony-laden fiefdom, whoever designed Millenium park did a good job. (Is this the kind of superficial, feel-good governance that Bloomberg is also adopting in New York? … the kind of thing that doesn’t really address larger social problems?)

My only other observation about Chicago is that it so much of it seems so new. Apart from the El, which none other than J. P. Sartre once called [Actual Sartre Quote Coming Soon!], it really does seem like a great deal of downtown Chicago has been bulldozed and rebuilt in the last 50 years. There’s not a great deal of smaller-scale historical infrastructure left. In fact, the above photo shows one of the only blocks I could find that seemed to have any sort of wear and tear … I guess its fitting, though, because Chicago really was the city that pioneered both absurd land speculation and the skyscraper.

Walkability: 8.5 ... Easy to get around, unless you want to go to the Lake
Interest: 6 ... Downtown is a little bit boring, actually
Vitality: 9 ... But there are tons of people there anyway
Verdict: Chicago is an exciting blend (70/30) of New York and Topeka

Washington DC, on the other hand… I didn’t spend more than a few hours walking around DC, and I’ve never really spent much time there. I have friends that swear on their mother’s grave that DC is really nice, and that there are entire parts of the city that are fun to be in (e.g. Dupont Circle), but in my many short visits to DC through the years I have been left with a singular sort of despair. And this time was the worst…

Getting off the train at Union Station is nice, but walking around the Capitol area sucks. Not only is there a freeway running right through the heart of L’Enfant’s plan… not only is almost everything in the center of town some sort of monolithic, beige, anonymous office building (Fedralist or modernist: it doesn’t matter)… Not only are many of the people you meet actual wonky bureaucrats (not that there's anything wrong with that)... All that, I can live with. No, the thing that bothers me is the post-9/11 presence of giant concrete barriers at almost every damn intersection in the city. These security measures make the sidewalks almost illegible, and that’s a real problem.

Legibility is an important part of the pedestrian experience. Kevin Lynch, pioneering urban-theory-guy, wrote about legibility in his 1960 book Image of the City, saying that (basically) people need to be able to immediately understand, or visually read, a space in order to feel comfortable in it. This shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone who has ever been lost in a department store or afraid to go down a narrow alley…

But, even if Washington is now safe from car-bombing terrorists, the simple act of walking down a DC street has become something of a labyrinthine gauntlet. For example, on any of these corners it’s not really evident where one should cross the street. It gave me the creeps even before I was weirded out by the omnipresent black-tinted SUVs bursting with assualt-weapon weilding police. All this, on top of DC’s already homogenously boring environment, turns what should be one of America’s best walking environments into a disappointment. There’s very little public life in this town, as far as I can tell, which is ironic considering its almost entirely funded by public dollars.

In fact, the only thing I like about DC is the lack of tall buildings (there are height restrictions in place) and the museums. (Also, I should mention my love for the community of really smart and motivated people that live there.) But my point is that maybe the sidewalks of Washington DC (and, for that matter, the spaces surrounding government buildings throughout the country) should also be chalked up as victims of terrorism.

Walkability: 6 ... Kind of a pain in the ass to walk around
Interest: 8 ... More culture than yogurt
Vitality: 3 ... Needs a permanent Million Man March
Verdict: DC, at least downtown, seems as dead as Bush's congressional agenda


Sidewalk of the Week: University Avenue

For some reason I wanted to go over some conclusions and feedback from the Lake Street in a Day project... The two things that I came away from my walk thinking were (#1) that cities are constantly changing, that streets are kind of like a mosaic of historical change and chance. In other words, because infrastructural transformation takes such a long time (many, many decades), you can easily see the past in the present, and streets reflect more than a lifetime of historical land uses. Not only are buildings from a hundred years ago still around, sometimes standing right next to a brand new piece of architecture, but sometimes their tenants are still hanging on too. So you'll get a place like Ingebretsen's nextdoor to a Latino bakery (or something), and the immigrant history of Minneapolis appears right there in front of you.

Extending from that, (#2) Lake Street today is, primarily, a kind of schizophrenically transitional space stuck between a car-centered strip of parking lots and dealerships and a pedestrian-oriented mixed-use neighborhood (with big box stores). And most of the feedback and comments that I got on this blog (thanks, btw) seemed to confirm what I’d been struck by, namely that these two worlds don’t coexist very peacefully. There’s a great distance between a vision of a street with walkable sidewalks and neighborhood shops and a vision that foregrounds ample parking lots and drive-through convenience.

That said, I was driving down University Avenue on Saturday and came across one way in which parking lots can benefit the pedestrian experience. There were three different outdoor food establishments peddling wares at the corner of Dale and University – it seemed like kind of an impromptu street fair. There was a Hmong farmer’s market set up in the parking lot of the (entirely terrible) Unidale Mall, the Caribeean restaurant had a tent where they were selling things like Jerk Chicken, and a catering business had opened up an outdoor BBQ stand appropriately named Big Daddy’s Saturday Barbeque (they’d moved down the street from their old location). All of this was on a corner that most of the time seems very liminal and anti-sidewalk, with a drive-through Wendy’s, the aforementioned Unidale, and a windowless police station on two of its corners. (Though the new Rondo Library seems to be partly responsible for adding some foot traffic, and symbolic resonance, to the intersection.)

In each of these cases, though, the parking lots have been transformed into sidewalks, thanks to the magic of tents. And while there’s certainly something unavoidably soul-sucking about spending much time in an asphalt desert meant for cars, I guess this is one way to bridge the gap between car culture and sidewalk streets. University Avenue and Lake Street actually have a lot in common: both serve as main commercial corridors for huge, diverse swaths of their respective cities, both were walklable streets that became appropriated by car dealerships and repair shops during the 50’s and 60’s, and both are prime territory for redevelopment.


Sidewalk of the Week: Mission Street

I just spent a week visiting San Francisco for the first time, and one thing I can tell you: San Francisco has huge sidewalks. I guess it's because it had the relatively unique combination of being built during the time before cars, but out in the West where there was plenty of room to grow and expand… "The West" before WWII was pretty empty and wide open, and I guess there was plenty of space to lay out really wide streets. The amazing thing about this sidewalk, though, is that San Francisco never widened their street to accommodate another lane of traffic during the 50’s and 60’s, when this part of the city was surely overwhelmed with traffic. (I guess this had something to do with San Francisco’s excellent transit system, complete with vintage streetcars (!).) This particular sidewalk sits in the Mission District, somewhere around Mission & 22nd, and someone has, for some reason, laid tiles with multi-lingual geographic facts into the street. As an urban geographer, its impossible not to get excited by a sidewalk like this.

In fact, though, almost all of San Francisco has huge sidewalks, and its hard to feel like you're about to be hit by a car when you're walking around the city. Plus, almost everywhere you go there are interesting buildings and shops to look at as you stroll around, not to mention the fact that the topographic chaos makes for nice views and interesting little staircases that run through the neighborhoods.

One thing that you might think, though, is that San Francisco is so vibrant simply because everyone there is so rich... after all its a poster child of gentrification. But when I was there I spent quite a few time in neighborhoods that weren't that yuppified... places like the tenderloin and the Mission, where the streetside businesses sold cheap chinese goods leftover from the 80's if they sold anything at all. But even in these places (and even if they're disappearing), vibrant sidewalk and street life was everywhere to be found. Somehow, San Francisco has managed to maintain its walkable foundations, and historic buildings, and the end result is a real pleasure oustide of a few places near the freeways.

[Another gratuitous shot of a S.F. sidewalk downtown, away from Mission St. Look how wide! Two segways could pass side-by-side!]

Can any city develop a San Francisco-esque, walkable, and interesting street life? That's the real question, and I'd like to say "yes." I'd like to say that vibrant pedestrian-friendly spaces are a relatively attainable goal for almost any city, from Saint Cloud MN to Durham NC to New London CT, and that these sorts of infrastructural changes can be important economic and cultural drivers for entire regions. I'd like to say this, but it certainly helps to have a good economy, land shortage, and a large region of relatively un-bulldozed historical buildings around...


Chain of Lakes v. The Emerald Necklace (Cont.)

Earlier I wrote about a project I had been working on, comparing the creek/river portions of Boston's Olmsted-designed Emerald Necklace park system to Minneapolis' Cleveland-designed Chain of Lakes park system. You can read the entry here, but I had briefly described how my experiences of the two park systems had read surprisingly differently... how the Boston park seemed rather schitzophrenically wild, throwing the stroller from a well-groomed path into a rather unkempt wilderness. On the other hand, the Minneapolis park presented one with a unified pastoral landscape.

Thinking later about these two park experiences, I had came across three different reasons why these two parks parks might present rather different encounters for today's park goer. The rather short list:

#1) Aesthetic ideology
#2) Infrastructural complexity
#3) Political intransigence

The first idea I'd had was that Olmsted, the man behind the Boston park, had intended and planned some sort of experience that would present a "sublime" landscape to the park pedestrian. I’d read somewhere that Olmsted believed in creating an existential experience of the sublime, that this sort of immersive and awe-inspiring interaction with ‘the natural’ could morally improve the unwashed 19th c. urban denizens that teemed through cities at the time. Maybe Boston’s park was like that, and the wilderness that met one’s eye when crossing the river was meant to cleanse the urban soul. (I came across this idea in a 1970's essay by Robert Smithson.)

But, after doing a bit of research on the Muddy River I realized that the river today bears hardly any resemblance to the way the park looked when Olmsted completed it. (This is very different from the Minneapolis park, which is still remarkably similar to the original design.) [insert picture of M.R. park.] One of the main reasons why the two parks are so different today is that the Boston’s project involved a lot of major engineering, a complete reworking of what had been a marshy estuary into a “river” that “flowed” through the fens and into the Charles. Olmsted designed not only the foliage that was planted along both sides of the creek, but crafted islands that sat in the middle of the river, creating a completely immersive pastoral landscape in which people rowed boats and walked for almost thirty years.

But like a lot of great works of architecture, maintaining the Muddy River as Olmsted designed it turned out to be very expensive. One of the more interesting things about this park is that it sits on the border of Boston and Brookline, a politically independent city on the edge of Boston proper with a much higher average income and tax base. Consequently, when it came to maintaining the Muddy River park each city made very different decisions: Brookline chose to clear and re-landscape their side of the river with a freshly paved path and park benches while Boston chose the cheaper option of just letting everything grow. Meanwhile, the ‘islands’ in the middle of the stream are largely disappearing, eroding, and shifting around to the point that they’re hardly recognizable. So, for the most part, today’s experience of the creek-side park reflects a combination of political boundaries and infrastructural maintenance costs that are consequences of Olmsted’s ambitious aesthetic choices in the late 19th century. Minneapolis’ park, on the other hand, was a rather simple dedication of land surrounding an already-existing river, which, partly due to Wadsworth’s famous poem about the Minnehaha Falls, was left in its natural state and featured neither large infrastructural complexity nor political boundaries.

So, to conclude with the question I asked in the previous post, there was a real mix of factors
involved in the two parks' development, but probably the most important single thing was the fact that Boston's creek park was located on a civic boundary, and was therefore susceptible to all sorts of bureaucratic tomfoolery. Voila!


Sidewalk of the Week: Nicollet Avenue

This week’s SOTW is located on Nicollet Avenue at around 24th Street (?) in South Minneapolis. It’s a great sidewalk, very walkable, and there are a few interesting shops along this stretch including a corner store, a pizza by the slice joint, and a large Asian grocery. But what makes this sidewalk so nice?

Looking North, you see a large sidewalk that’s probably over 20 feet wide with a solid, steady buffer of trees, signs, and lampposts between the sidewalk and the street. On top of that, there’s an almost consistently layer of parked cars separating the moving traffic from the pedestrians. There's lots of safe, secure room to work with, and plenty of windows to look into while you walk around.

Looking the other direction is less idyllic. The sidewalk gets smaller by about six feet, but retains a nicely landscaped frontage. There's a parking lot along the street, but because it's fairly narrow, and there's a large, lovely tree at its entrance, the lot doesn't greatly disrupt the feel of the avenue.

This kind of sidewalk is what makes Nicollet between Franklin and Lake some of the most vibrant, resilient streetspace we have in the Minneapolis. However, you can see how this street's walkability might wax and wane as parking lots get bigger closer to the giant street-killing K-Mart or Interstate-94 North of Franklin.


I am sooooo stupid. This is Nicollet, not Lyndale. This is what I get for blogging about Minneapolis while in North Carolina...


This is exactly why a buffer between the sidewalk and the street is so important... Girl injured when car runs onto sidewalk in St. Paul