McMansion owners as against preserving green space

A letter to the editor connects Mcmansion owners with an unwillingness to look toward the public good:

It seems that more often than not folks who live in huge McMansions on private estates, drawing big government pensions and other income streams, are the ones making the biggest noise about keeping things the same in the county (Letter to the Editor, “Snapshot of Rappahannock’s Future,” Demaris Miller, July 19).

Of course they would! They don’t need to worry about finding decent paying jobs or affordable housing without having to move out of the county as so many people here do. They’ve got plenty of fine space to take walks and entertain their grandkids.

The county has many choices for where to go — we could allow factories and warehouses, or suburban sprawl, or tourism with a NASCAR track, an amusement park, skate boarding and all. Or we could stick to a plan for growth that preserves our scenic rural character while encouraging people to visit and share that beauty and spend a little money here. A safe bike and walking path with gorgeous views of the Blue Ridge certainly fits in that category.

The McMansions cited here must have larger properties where owners can enjoy the outdoors. This would contrast with one possible trait of McMansions where they are the result of teardowns.

On the other hand, McMansions are linked here to sprawl. This is a common argument as McMansions are often part of an expanding suburbia where homes, roads, and development gobbles up open land, green space, and public space. Additionally, these are wealthy sprawling suburbanites who can take care of their own financial interests.

More broadly, this letter gets at broader issues involving McMansions and suburbs: just how much growth is desirable? How does a community weigh the construction of housing versus protecting natural space that residents and visitors can enjoy? Growth is generally good in suburban areas and even if certain spaces are protected, the general tenor of development can overwhelmingly change the character of a place from a more rural or open area to a denser one.

 

We need more public art along highways

I recently embarked on the Troll Hunt at Morton Arboretum. The best troll I saw sat on a hill overlooking I-88. One week ago, I viewed this troll from the highway coming back from an early morning trip to O’Hare Airport. Here are two views of the troll looking toward the highway:

TrollOverHighway2

Joe the Guardian at Morton Arboretum. Created by Thomas Dambo.

 

TrollOverHighway1

Joe the Guardian at Morton Arboretum. Created by Thomas Dambo.

This is a busy stretch of road with over 160,000 cars passing by daily (as of 2014). As the pictures suggest, this is not a particularly scenic area. At this point, the highway is at a lower point with a hill to the east near the interchange with I-355 and to the west at the Naperville Road exit. The north side has hills at the edge of the Morton Arboretum and large power lines. The south side has various office buildings and residences. A driver here is in the middle of the western suburbs just over 26 miles from State and Madison in Chicago’s Loop.

Having art here is a great idea. The troll certainly catches your eye as you drive by. It adds whimsy to what is a fairly typical stretch of highway. It enhances the brief stretch of greenery provided by the Arboretum. Perhaps most importantly, it presents something unique and thought-provoking. It is not another billboard trying to catch your attention. It is not a building with a sign displaying its inhabitants. It is not something that your eye quickly passes over. It is there for you to enjoy, to ponder. I do not know if it would make the daily commute any shorter but it may make just a little bit more enjoyable.

Inserting a number of installations or figures along major highways would not take much. This would require the cooperation of private landowners – for example, the Arboretum has six more trolls to see that require admission while only this one is visible from the highway. I realize that this art may not generate much money. Just imagine if the land on which this troll stands could be converted into office space or luxury condos. Or, at the least, a billboard could sell advertisements. Instead, put public art on the sides and tops of buildings. Find spaces between structures. Highlight interesting topographic features. Use private land and structures to benefit many. Give drivers and visitors something to look forward to as they file away yet another highway mile.

 

Bringing art and renovation to outdoor basketball courts

Project Backboard seeks to both renovate and bring public art to urban basketball courts:

The transformation of mural-style courts across America has its roots in Memphis, where Daniel Peterson noticed the majority of courts had fallen into disrepair. It was then, in 2014, that Peterson founded Project Backboard, a nonprofit that has renovated public basketball courts in cities from Los Angeles to St. Louis. More renovations in Memphis, Maryland, and New Rochelle, New York, are underway, and Peterson has consulted on projects in Oregon, Virginia, and Belgium, and talked to several other urban parks departments.

In Memphis, where one in four residents lives beneath the poverty line, Peterson found in 2014 that around two-thirds of basketball courts across the city didn’t even have basic lines: foul, three-point, or out-of-bounds. Backboards were tagged with Coke logos or vinyl stickers. The courts just didn’t work. Today, mostly teen boys and young men play on more than 20 renovated courts, whose 30 public works of art include whimsical silhouettes on Lewis-Davis Park, bright profiles and symbols in Chickasaw Park, and geographic shapes in Pierotti Park.

All of this is in the context of making basketball courts more inviting spaces. This is not necessarily easy to do when some residents dislike outdoor courts:

Fear-driven efforts to shut down outdoor courts seem to disproportionately affect people of color. A so-called “kill-the-hoops movement” has spread across small towns and cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, as a maneuver against guns, noise, fights, and drugs. In 2016, a neighborhood group in Brooklyn proposed replacing basketball courts with tennis courts to curb crime, and was accused of racist motivations.

“Obviously, I don’t subscribe to the belief that inviting more people into an area is going to have a negative impact on your community,” Peterson said. “We think the more people you bring into the community, into public spaces, the more positive impact it’ll have in the community.”

See these earlier posts from 2011: Thinking about the lack of outdoor basketball courts – Part One and Thinking about the lack of basketball courts – Part Two. Compared to some other park options, basketball courts can be relatively low maintenance (concrete, poles and backgrounds, replace the nets fairly regularly) and they require participants to bring little more than a basketball (and you may only need one for a large group). Yet, basketball courts tend to attract young males and this may not be welcomed by nearby residents.

The idea of infusing public art with outdoor courts is a clever one but I am curious about the long-term effects. Do the courts help attract a broader range of nearby residents? Is the artwork maintained? Does the artwork change behaviors on and near the court or perceptions from insiders and outsiders about the neighborhood? I could see some interesting opportunities arise with artwork and competitions; NBA and college teams have similar gotten into some crazier court designs in recent years to create a home court advantage as well as attract attention.

Fighting for dog space in cities

With ownership of dogs on the rise, it is trickier to find public space in cities for the canines and their owners:

It’s not surprising that relations between dog walkers and dog owners are fraught: They’re competing for finite real estate. Market research shows dog ownership has skyrocketed some 29 percent nationwide in the past decade, an increase propelled largely by higher-income millennials. As young adult professionals increasingly put off having families, dogs have become “starter children,” as Joshua Stephens wrote in The Atlantic in 2015. With demand growing, cities and developers are building more dog-friendly zones both in response to and in anticipation of more four-legged residents. Off-leash dog parks are growing faster than any other type of park in America’s largest cities, with 2,200 counted as of 2010.

And when square footage is at a premium, dog parks are the setting of some of the most contentious fights for public space….

Resistance to dog parks takes on a different tenor when animals seem to displace humans in housing-crunched cities. New dog owners are disproportionately younger and whiter than the residents of the cities they move into, and that has real estate implications: For one third of Americans aged 18 to 36 who’d purchased a first home, finding better space for a dog was the primary motivator, according to a SunTrust Mortgage poll. When young, white, affluent dog owners snap up properties in historically lower-income neighborhoods of color—and start advocating for amenities like dog parks, which can bump up property values further—the optics are complicated…

Consider that, on Chicago’s predominantly black South Side, there’s not a single designated dog park, despite the efforts of local dog-owners and city aldermen. To address the needs of lower-income communities like this—as well as gentrifying ones—planners should approach dog parks as they do any other, says Wolch: listen to, and account for, their needs in an ingenuous way. To mitigate the displacement effects of a property value pick-up, affordable housing solutions should come to the dog-park planning table, too.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. It would be nice to know more about the “average” dog park. What does it cost to build and maintain compared to the typical park? How many people does it serve and what population does it cater to? Is it a good public use of space compared to other options? (One thing that article above does not address is whether there is an overall shortage of public space.)
  2. I’m surprised there isn’t more creativity in developing solutions. If land is at a premium, could there be some dog parks inside structures? Imagine a high-rise where one of the amenities is half a floor of dog park space. (I assume this is feasible.) Where there is more available land, such as on Chicago’s South Side, why couldn’t community groups or private interests put together a dog park? Imagine a non-profit that buys vacant lots and improves them for this purpose or an organization that charges a membership fee to their dog parks.
  3. At this point, it sounds like dog parks are more of a luxury good usually located in wealthier or whiter neighborhoods. What would it take to incorporate dog parks into public planning processes and/or see dog parks as necessary parts of thriving neighborhoods? Dog owners could band together and demand dog parks.

Designing “porous cities” for regular interactions by all people

Sociologist Richard Sennett observes a heterogeneous marketplace in India and wonders why more urban spaces can’t have a broad mix of people:

Nehru Place is every urbanist’s dream: intense, mixed, complex. If it’s the sort of place we want to make, it’s not the sort of space most cities are building. Instead, the dominant forms of urban growth are mono-functional, like shopping centres where you are welcome to shop but there’s no place to pray. These sorts of places tend to be isolated in space, as in the offices “campuses” built on the edge of cities, or towers in a city’s centre which, as in London’s current crop of architectural monsters, are sealed off at the base from their surroundings. It’s not just evil developers who want things this way: according to Setha Low, the most popular form of residential housing, world-wide, is the gated community.

Is it worth trying to turn the dream of the porous city into a pervasive reality? I wondered in Nehru Place about the social side of this question, since Indian cities have been swept from time to time by waves of ethnic and religious violence. Could porous places tamp down that threat, by mixing people together in everyday activities? Evidence from western cities answers both yes and no…

If the public comes to demand it, urbanists can easily design a porous city on the model of Nehru Place; indeed, many of the architects and planners at the Urban Age events now unfolding in London have made proposals to “porosify” the city. Like Nehru Place, these larger visions entail opening up and blurring the edges of spaces so that people are drawn in rather than repulsed; they emphasise true mixed use of public and private functions, schools and clinics amid Tesco or Pret; they explore the making of loose-fit spaces which can shift in shape as people’s lives change.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. These thoughts sound similar to what sociologist Elijah Anderson was getting at in The Cosmopolitan Canopy. Anderson asked of American cities: what happens in the rare public spaces where people of different class, race, and ethnic backgrounds regularly mix? Sennett has asked this of international contexts which have their own unique mixes of people.
  2. Key to the mixing of people may be the presence of “normal” commercial activity. Anderson observed a shopping mall in central Philadelphia; Sennett references an electronics market in India. Prices have to be low enough for everyone to have access and there needs to be a range of mixed use activity with some nearby places to work, shop, and eat.
  3. It strikes me that exclusivity is something imposed by the upper classes. One function of higher priced stores is that it tends to keep certain people out. Gated communities, cited by Sennett, are a function of class. As people acquire more wealth, they tend to design or buy into settings where people below them are minimized or removed. Thus, having more porous cities or spaces within cities would likely require significant changes from those with more power and wealth.

Fighting to protect Chicago’s parks from mini-banks, tea stores, and the Lucas Museum

Curbed Chicago sets up the likely coming battle over using public space for the Lucas Museum:

Since late Spring, a small “pop-up bank” operated by PNC Bank has sat in Grant Park. It’s a bright orange and blue shipping container with doors and windows and an ATM. The park district earns $120,000 annually from the small structure, but many folks are not happy with its location in the park. DNAInfo has reports of numerous complaints about the very idea of a bank opening “It seems to go against the nature of the park itself,” a citizen tells DNAInfo.

The Park District is okay with it, obviously, in part because of the payola but also because, according to them, it’s not a permanent structure. In their mind, it’s a temporary vendor like you might find several dozen of in the park during Taste of Chicago. But is it the same? And where are the limits? What if Starbucks wants to open a mini-cafe right next to the PNC to capture the millions of visitors Grant Park will receive this summer? Why wouldn’t they?…

And consider Connors Park, to the north of downtown a few blocks from John Hancock tower. The squat little park is now home to an Argo Tea pavilion which just celebrated its one year anniversary of the location. Initially there was confusion about whether the park was still a park, and if it was okay to sit and enjoy the park without buying a tea. At a celebration for the one year anniversary, staff told us that with recent changes to the signage that confusion has dissipated and that neighbors know they’re welcome…

But the fact that these two issues are even issues at all speaks to the city’s constant vigilance against abuse of the parks, and it explains why despite being a seeming “slam dunk,” the Soldier Field parking lot location chosen for the Lucas Museum won’t come without a fight. This isn’t a quarter-block tea house or a 160 square-foot mini-bank, it’s a massive, multi-million-dollar development that has already captured the attention of the nation. As Chicagoist puts it, The Debate Over The Lucas Museum Has Only Started.

There are two levels to this:

1. What seems like an increased interest in many cities in ensuring that public spaces stay public. What can happen in these parks? Is there enough public space as opposed to private space masquerading as public space?

2. The special circumstances in Chicago that suggest the land near the lake needs to remain for public use. All sorts of ideas can pop up for a lakefront – I was reminded again recently about the older Mayor Daley’s suggestion that Chicago should build a major airport out in Lake Michigan – so having these guidelines has been a big boon. Yet, it is hard for a city that is chasing elite status (perhaps due to its own insecurity) to turn down a figure like George Lucas in such a location. Additionally, such a battle could give opponents of Rahm Emanuel an excuse to pick a battle.

Maybe all this represents one of the major trade-offs in today’s world: just how much do want corporate interests or the interests of powerful people overrule the rights of others? Constructing a museum like this isn’t the end of the world for Chicago but it may seem like another event in a long line of concessions to growth machines.

Chicago rated worst city for parking – but this could have some benefits

Nerdwallet named Chicago the worst city for parking based on the factors of price and number of car thefts:

Takeaways:

  • Chicago is the worst city for parking — and also the most controversial. Parking prices skyrocketed in 2009 after the city made a deal for a group of investors, organized by Morgan Stanley, to operate its meters for 75 years.
  • Though you’ll probably enjoy Hawaii’s capital, Honolulu is an extremely expensive city to park in; it’ll run you $42 a day.
  • There are a lot of car thefts in Oakland — 124.59% more per capita than the national average.

1. Chicago, Ill.

This city is known for its parking woes—especially the controversial privatization of the parking meters, which led to a dramatic increase in parking fees in 2009. A consortium called Chicago Parking Meters LLC operates the meters. You’ll drop $35 a day to park in the city and $289 per month. The city lists the fines you’ll receive for various parking violations on their website.

This spring, Chicago will test its new ParkChicago app, which allows drivers to pay for parking via an app rather than a meter. There are various websites that help you find the cheapest parking in the city. Chicago is one of the cities supported by SpotHero.com, which helps you find parking and prepay. However, if you want to ditch driving altogether, the city has multiple public transportation options. Bus and “L” riders will soon be able to use their phones to pay for rides.

Unfortunately, Chicago also has 33.4% more motor vehicle thefts per capita than the national average. And if you get a citation, you must contest it within seven days of receiving it or pay the fine online.

Parking is heavily dependent on the number of people and amount of space available. In other words, urban density. If you look at the bottom of the list, or “the best cities for parking your car,” they are all sprawling Sunbelt cities. Presumably, they have much more space and are less dense, driving down parking prices.

Of course, there are positives to having bad parking. Such urban densities that make parking more expensive can lead to:

1. Vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods with plenty of housing as well as businesses, stores, public spaces, and culture. Lots of people in a small amount of space can lead to some exciting urban scenes.

2. Plentiful and efficient mass transit. This is difficult to provide when there are a limited number of riders and the transit has to cover a lot of ground.

3. A lot more people walking and riding bikes. This is good for health, limiting pollution, and livelier streets.

4. The space that might be devoted to cars (wider streets, on-street parking, parking lots and garages) can be devoted to other things. For example, see this analysis of snow plowing on Philadelphia city streets that reveals the potential space.