Testing play streets in Los Angeles

The city of Los Angeles, known for its highways and roads, is trying to turn some of its streets into areas for fun and community activity:

There are roughly 7,500 miles of streets in Los Angeles, and Fickett Street is only one of them. But in this predominantly Latino neighborhood where parks are scarce, residents and activists have begun a design intervention to reclaim streets for civic life, kibitzing and play. From London to Los Angeles, the play street concept, known as “playing out” in England, has become an international movement of sorts, especially in low-income communities that lack green space and other amenities.

The efforts in Boyle Heights, a 6 ½-mile area bisected by six freeways, is a collaboration between Union de Vecinos, a group of neighborhood leaders, and the Kounkuey Design Initiative, or KDI, a nonprofit public interest design firm that helps underserved communities realize ideas for productive public spaces.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has invested $300,000 on 15 KDI-designed pilot play streets this year in Boyle Heights and Koreatown, another heavily trafficked neighborhood. Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of the LADOT, first became aware of the concept while visiting Copenhagen…

On a recent Sunday, Kounkuey unveiled its “playground in a box.” Shade structures stretched across Fickett Street, affixed to loquat trees and no-parking signs, and the plastic “wobbles” created by KDI doubled as Tilt-a-Whirls, BarcaLoungers, and formidable hurdles for teenage skateboarders. Nine-year-old Amanda Alvarado built a McMansion. “Ava, lookit!” she exclaimed to her 4-year-old sidekick in pink pom-pom slippers.

This is a clever idea for two reasons. First, it transforms what is typically a thoroughfare for cars into a space for community life. Many American neighborhoods and communities are full of roads and planning that emphasizes the efficiency of getting vehicles from Point A to Point B. Even if the effort is temporary, the transformation can be a powerful symbol. Second, it does not require long-term investments into new spaces or architecture. The road already exists. Bringing in the equipment takes some work but it is portable and can also be used elsewhere.

At the same time, this seems like an incomplete concept. It feels like a small band-aid for larger issues. As the article goes on to talk about, in a neighborhood bisected by highways, lacking green space, and pushing back against gentrification, couldn’t more be done? How about permanent parks?

When bricks and mortar stores can’t make it even in Manhattan

Heart of one of the world’s leading global cities, Manhattan has its own struggles with keeping brick and mortar retailers in operation:

That’s right: On a nine-block stretch of what’s arguably the world’s most famous avenue, steps south of the bustling Time Warner Center and the planned new Nordstrom department store, lies a shopping wasteland.

Yes, there are bank branches, restaurants, fast-food outlets, theaters, Duane Reades, a vitamin shop and a few tourist-targeted “discount” stores. But mainly there are oodles of empty spaces covered with signs touting SUPERB CORNER RETAIL OPPORTUNITY.

The same crisis blights the rest of Manhattan. The people invested in storefront retailing — real-estate developers, landlords and retail companies themselves — tell us not to worry. It’s a “transitional” situation that will right itself over time. Authoritative-sounding surveys by real-estate and retail companies claim that Manhattan’s overall vacancy is only just 10 percent.

But they are all wrong. Bricks-and-mortar retail is shrinking so swiftly and on such a wide scale, it’s going to require big changes in how we plan our new buildings and our cities — although nobody wants to admit it.

This is an interesting argument to make: even with all of the tourists, wealth, and attention bestowed upon the borough, retail is disappearing from Manhattan. And if shopping disappears, with shopping being one of the favorite leisure activities of Americans, might this negatively affect the business and social life of a Manhattan used to ultra-busy sidewalks?

On the other hand, Manhattan may not be the best example. The median household income in Manhattan is not as high as one might expect, there is not much of a middle class, and the cost of living is high. Add in that Manhattan does have a lot of tourists, workers that arrive for the day and leave at night, and concentrations of residents in different parts of the island. The sheer density of people might suggest that retailers should be able to make it in Manhattan but it is a complicated place.

More broadly, what will tourist locations of the future look like if even more shopping is done online? For decades, the international tourist destination includes significant amounts of shopping. What would fill that space?

The ongoing stark inequality of Chicago and other major cities

Alana Semuels discusses the inequality present in the global city of Chicago but it reminds me that (1)  sociologists have studied this for roughly 100 years even (2) as conditions have both changed and stayed the same.

The contrast between a seemingly prospering city and groups and individuals who cannot access this prosperity is an old theme in the Chicago School of urban sociology. In The Gold Coast and the Slum, Zorbaugh explains how some of the wealthiest and poorest Chicagoans can live in such proximity. Two neighborhoods that are geographically close are worlds apart socially. This is little different from descriptions of industrializing cities in England in the mid-1800s (which helped prompt the work of Marx and Engels) or examining today’s megacities in developing nations where a wealthy core is surrounded by slums and shantytowns.

The reasons for this disparity are both similar and different. Semuels sums up the two major issues:

Why are large swaths of Chicago’s population unable to get ahead? There are two main reasons. The first and most obvious is the legacy of segregation that has made it difficult for poor black families to gain access to the economic activity in other parts of the city. This segregation has meant that African Americans live near worse educational opportunities and fewer jobs than other people in Chicago. City leaders in Chicago have exacerbated this segregation over the years, according to Diamond, channeling money downtown and away from the poor neighborhoods. “Public policies played a huge role in reinforcing the walls around the ghetto,” he told me.

The second factor is the disappearance of industrial jobs in factories, steel plants, and logistics companies. Half a century ago, people with little education could find good jobs in the behemoths that dotted Chicago’s south and west sides. Now, most of those factories have moved overseas or to the suburbs, and there are fewer employment opportunities here for people without much education. Chicago underscores that it’s not just white, rural Americans who have been hard hit by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs.

The segregation of one hundred years ago is still with us, even if it has changed form (from overt discrimination to more covert means). The business district of Chicago was a thriving place 100 years ago as many of the poorer and less white neighborhoods languished. The job front has changed; yet, it is not as if the manufacturing jobs that started appearing in cities with the Industrial Revolution were all that helpful for the lower classes at the time (again think of Marx and Engels).

On the whole, it is helpful to regularly remind people of the complexities of cities. Cities should not be viewed solely as their impressive skylines or booming economies. Even the leading cities of the world are home to many less advantaged residents. Whether the gaps in cities themselves could go a long ways toward determining whether broader social inequalities can be successfully addressed.

Chicago’s road construction in the long term

Curbed Chicago provides an update on the city’s work to resurface streets:

[T]he city rolls out plans to resurface 135 miles of streets, according to an announcement from the mayor’s office.

The work is expected to begin mid-April when the asphalt plants open for the 2018 construction season. The Chicago Department of Transportation and the Department of Water Management are leading the project and plan to resurface at least 275 miles by the end of the year.

Since 2011, more than 1,850 miles of streets and alleyways have been resurfaced (that’s out of the city’s 4,600 miles of roadways).

If these numbers are roughly consistent on a yearly basis, it would take 17 years to resurface everything. On the city’s page for Streets, Alleys, and Sidewalks, there is no description of how long an overall cycle might take. But, there might be some mitigating factors affecting which roadways are addressed: particularly bad pothole seasons that cause damage and draw attention and roads that are used much more than others.

And while residents may not be fond of all of this construction, roadways are a constant work in progress. Given the American emphasis on driving, they get a lot of use for commuting, trips within the community, and delivering goods and services. Poor roads do not look good for the local government and could impede activity. Residents can get unhappy pretty quickly if they feel their tax dollars are not leading to good roadways. Yet, if people truly do not want construction, they should really consider driving less and helping to create places with less driving so that the roads last longer.

Silicon Valley packing up for New York City and other locations

Google’s plans to open a big office in New York City may presage larger geographic shifts:

Google is said to be close to signing a $2.4bn deal to establish an East Coast base in New York City, the latest in a series of moves by tech firms who believe Silicon Valley‘s best days may be “over”…

If it goes ahead, Google would be among a number of tech companies that are looking to expand their New York footprint. Concerns about the soaring cost of living in San Francisco, and worried that innovation may be accelerating faster in other parts of the country, a number of firms are looking to New York and other cities…

The AP said New York had been pitching itself as an alternative to Silicon Valley for years. While tech may never rival financial services and Wall Street as the most important private-sector employer and economic driver, it has already established a legitimate footprint that goes beyond a handful of giant companies…

The news comes as a number of other tech giants are looking to find alternative locations for investment opportunities and expansion. The New York Times said Robin Li, an investor with the San Francisco venture capital firm GGV Capital, recently led a three-day bus tour through the Midwest, stopping in Youngstown and Akron in Ohio, Detroit and Flint in Michigan and South Bend in Indiana.

On one hand, it is not a surprise that New York City is alluring: it is one of – if not the most – important city in the world with its finance industry, influence, and standing as the leading America city. Many major companies throughout the world would consider a location in New York City. If any industry wants to conquer the world – and tech is on that path – New York City is a place to be.

On the other hand, New York City is a very different place compared to Silicon Valley and San Francisco. The notable laid-back vibe that helped give rise to tech start-ups over the decades does not really exist in New York City. The tech industry may be king in Silicon Valley but New York City has plenty of other options (finance, media, fashion, etc.). New York City is several times zones east, making some communication around the world more difficult (but making it easier to connect with Europe). The city and suburbs are on a different scale compared to the Bay Area.

Put this news from Google with Amazon’s search for a second headquarters and there could be a large geographic shift. While it would take some significant changes to move away from the massive Silicon Valley headquarters (including recent efforts from Apple and Facebook), the tech industry may be associated with new locations within a few decades.

Successful Naperville also linked to stressed out teenagers

Naperville is not the only wealthy suburb to experience issues related to anxiety. Here is how one expert describes how community success can be related to worries:

Michelle Rusk, former president of the American Association of Suicidology, said when it comes to community pressure placed on teens to succeed and families to maintain the idealized “white picket fence” life, little has changed since she grew up in Naperville in the 1970s and ’80s…

Experts who work with Naperville students say they are treating more children experiencing signs of distress at a younger age…

Growing up in Naperville, Rusk, formerly known as Michelle Linn-Gust, said she heard stories of big houses with empty rooms because the owners couldn’t afford to furnish them or men who left their wives because they felt they weren’t making enough money.

People move to Naperville because it’s recognized as a great place to raise a family, but maintaining that image is challenging enough for adults let alone kids, she said.

In the 1990s, historian Michael Ebner argued Naperville was a “technoburb” – a suburb with a high number of high-tech and white-collar jobs – and this was accompanied by the development of high-performing schools. Naperville was not always like this; before the 1960s, Naperville was just a small town surrounded by farms.

But, is there a way to get out of this spiral of wealth, success, and anxiety and suicides? As Rusk noted above, Naperville is attractive in part because of its high-achieving environment. In communities like this with residents ranging from the middle-class to upper-class, families want only the best for their kids. Would residents and others be willing to give up some of the success to have better lives?