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Places


Ten little cities near DC with awesome urbanism

Central cities are booming all over the US as Americans rediscover the benefits of walkable urbanism. But the boom isn't confined to only big cities. Smaller cities are also enjoying a renaissance of their own.

Here are ten little cities near DC with genuinely great urbanism.


Frederick photo by Gray Lensman QX! on Flickr.

Frederick, MD: With stately historic buildings, fancy restaurants, rowhouse neighborhoods, and the best riverwalk in the region, Frederick is a bona fide quality city.


Hagerstown photo by J Brew on Flickr.

Hagerstown, MD: Less fancy and more blue-collar compared to Frederick, Hagerstown's solid core of 19th Century streets is more like Baltimore than DC.


Cumberland photo by Dave Olsen on Flickr.

Cumberland, MD: If Frederick is a mini DC and Hagerstown a mini Baltimore, Cumberland with its sharply rising hills and narrow valleys is a mini Pittsburgh.


Annapolis photo by Charlie Stinchcomb on Flickr.

Annapolis, MD: With its baroque street grid, 18th Century state house, and as the home of the Naval Academy, Annapolis was an impressive town years before DC existed.


Winchester Handley Library photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Winchester, VA: Winchester has a successful pedestrian mall, and the most gorgeous library in Virginia.


Charlottsville photo by Ben G on Flickr.

Charlottesville, VA: Charlottesville's pedestrian mall is even more successful than Winchester's, while the University of Virginia contributes The Corner, an interesting student ghetto neighborhood, and Thomas Jefferson's famous Lawn.


Staunton photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Staunton, VA: 19th Century warehouse town sister to nearby Charlottesville's academic village.


Fredericksburg photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Fredericksburg, VA: Similar in size and scale to Old Town Alexandria, if it were 50 miles from DC instead of right across the river.


York photo by Joseph on Flickr.

York, PA: Probably the most substantial city on this list, York is a veritable museum of 18th, 19th, and early 20th Century buildings. And its surrounding Amish countryside offers an object lesson in sharing the road.


Gettysburg photo by Tom Hart on Flickr.

Gettysburg, PA: The battlefield is justifiably more famous, but downtown Gettysburg is a charming little place, often overlooked.

Not enough? Don't miss Ellicott City, Manassas, Leesburg, Martinsburg, Warrenton, Front Royal, Culpeper, Harrisonburg, Brunswick, Harper's Ferry, and many more.

To qualify for this list, I excluded cities large enough to have tall buildings downtown (sorry Baltimore, Richmond, Harrisburg, and Wilmington) and any city close enough to DC be accessible via Metro (Alexandria, Silver Spring, Kensington, etc). Otherwise the list is essentially subjective.

We first ran this post about two years ago, but we wanted to share it again!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Arts


How do the places we live shape us? How do we shape them? This art exhibit explores that.

An art show on U Street encourages viewers to think about the difference between shelter and the outdoors. Whether you're outside or inside, your place in the built environment depends on your perspective.


Exhibit-goers take a look at Theaters of the 13th Dimension by Mars Tokyo at Outside-In's opening reception. All photos by the author.

Outside-In is showing at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery on U Street NW. This group exhibition of four artists "explores the dwelling from various points of view," according to the show notes.

The gallery's front window houses Modern Colossus, a work of wood, acrylic, and gouache paint by DC artist Carson Murdach. At once simple and complex, the artwork depicts a city skyline of gray low-rises and skyscrapers towering over an anarchistic assembly of white wooden houses of varying sizes, some with red rooves.


Modern Colossus by Carson Murdach.

The houses cohabitate with other indeterminate residents. White wooden rectangles are painted red on one side, visually and materially identifying with the houses even as they play an unclear role in the urban construct.

Pure white houses, squares and rectangles are speechless about their raison d'ętre. A few upwardly mobile figures have summited the high-rise buildings, perched on rooftops at precarious angles. A few others have strayed off the grid. The landscape is devoid of people.

In his artist statement, Murdach says his work seeks to "narrate cautionary tales of humanity's pattern of civilization."


New Metropolis by Carson Murdach.

Artist Michael Nakoneczny creates three-dimensional structures in the form of houses. "My inspiration and ideas often come from observing and interacting with the funky, decrypted, abandoned buildings, shacks, and houses I seek out while riding my bike up and down alleys and industrial areas," wrote Nakoneczny in his artist statement. He surveys the grounds to collect "whatever catches my eye and can fit in my backpack."


Small Talk, Big Talk by Michael Nakoneczny.

The other two Outside-In artists speak to the urban experience more indirectly. Mars Tokyo creates three-dimensional miniature theaters so small that only one person can view the art at a time. Perhaps equipped with a magnifying glass for a closer look, viewers see universal situations and emotions played out on an urban stage.


Mars Tokyo's Theaters of the 13th Dimension. This is an accidental metaphor for the theme of perspective: you see reflections of me and the opposite wall of art. It's an interesting case of "the medium is the message."

Though he may not be a household name, artist Lee Wheeler is familiar to DC nightlife patrons. His work inhabits popular bars such as the Big Hunt and Lucky Bar on Connecticut Avenue NW, as well as Hill East local favorite Trusty's. He designed the H Street Country Club golf course and his handiwork appears in Rock & Roll Hotel and other H Street NE Corridor hotspots.

Wheeler's contribution to Outside-In is mixed-media birdhouses, "metaphors of things that can threaten, enhance, challenge or transport," said curator Dolly Vehlow.

Is art imitating life or vice versa? Those verbs universally apply to the real-life housing and transportation issues we write about here at Greater Greater Washington.


Crowd at July 29 opening reception.

Outside-In shows at Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, 1632 U Street NW, through September 2. There's an artist and curator talk on August 20 from 3:30 to 5:30 pm. Want to meet up? I'll be there, wearing a fluorescent bicycle lapel pin! If we get a group, we can go for dinner or drinks afterward if there's interest.

Places


The dilemma for young people in Montgomery County

You're a Millennial working in Montgomery County. You want to be close to work, but you also want to be close to the action. Can you find both here? Sort of.


If you're a Millennial in Montgomery County, you might want to live in North Bethesda. Photo by the author.

That's something county leaders have been working on. Three years ago, Montgomery County began its Night Time Economy Initiative to bring in businesses by attracting the Millennial (or young adults born between 1982 and 2000) they wish to employ. Noting studies saying Millennials want to live in urban (or urban-lite) settings, the county has been redeveloping its town centers, building bike lanes, and revising liquor laws.

While the nation's largest generation isn't a monolith, there's some truth to the narrative. The county's young professionals tend to live near its job centers, transit lines, and favored hangouts. That generally means Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville.

That said, for those who want the urban experience, the county has serious competition from other parts of the region, especially the District and Arlington. And if you work in Montgomery County, particularly outside the Beltway, you're forced to choose living in an urban neighborhood far from work or a more suburban area with a shorter commute.

I was thinking about that reading this recent email from Sky, a young teacher moving to Montgomery County and wondering where a Millennial should live.


Hello Dan (or Co.),
I recently read an article about millennials in Moco and am wondering if you would give me some advice about where to live.

I will probably be moving to the area to teach [in Gaithersburg] and would love to know where young singles live around the area.

Like your article said, I certainly want to be close to work, but I also want to have a thriving personal life.

If you have any suggestions, the would be much appreciated.

Thank you!

Awesome blog btw!

Here's how I responded:
Thanks for writing me and for the kind words! You've presented an interesting challenge: you work in Gaithersburg, but you want to be near the action. Those two things are (mostly) mutually exclusive, as much of the region's nightlife is in DC, 20 miles away. That said, this isn't an impossible situation. Of the 20- and 30-somethings I know who work in Montgomery County, they generally do one of three things:

  • Live in DC, and do the reverse commute. You'll have your pick of hoppin neighborhoods with lots of things to do and people to meet, and you won't have to drive home after the bar. You will, however, have to drive to work, though you'll mostly be going against traffic on your way out of the city. Consider neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, Dupont Circle, and Adams Morgan, which are both filled with young people and things to do, but also near major roads like 16th Street and Connecticut Avenue that you can use to get out of the city. This might be the most expensive option, since you'd be paying higher DC rents and paying for the cost of transportation.
  • Live in Gaithersburg. You'll be really close to school, and while Gaithersburg is a lot quieter than DC, there are a couple of areas with restaurants and bars. Kentlands is a nationally-famous neighborhood where you can walk to shops and restaurants. Old Town Gaithersburg has a growing number of Latino and African restaurants that are pretty great. And Rio/Washingtonian Center has a lakefront that's great for hanging out on weekends. The rents are generally cheaper than DC, though transit service is limited (there's no Metro station) so you will be driving a fair amount.
  • Live somewhere in the middle. The Red Line connects Montgomery County to DC and the rest of the region, and stops in several walkable neighborhoods in Montgomery County with lots of things to do and a large number of young people. You'll still get that reverse commute, though you'll pay a premium to live next to a Metro station. Three areas you might want to consider: Bethesda's more expensive, but has lots of places to hang out; Silver Spring (where I live) is more affordable, way younger, also has lots going on, and is closest to DC; Rockville is also more affordable and closer to Gaithersburg, but has less nightlife.
A few weeks ago, Sky let me know that she's moving to Rockville, which offers the best of both worlds: it's close to work, but also has a real downtown and access to the Metro.

For years, Montgomery County has encouraged the creation of more downtowns and town centers in places like White Flint, Germantown, and White Oak, while promoting the ongoing development of urban places like Silver Spring or Bethesda. That's great for people moving to the area like Sky, because it gives her more, and more affordable, choices for where to live. However, we still have lots of work to do in making these places attractive to new, younger residents, from creating more walkable and bikeable streets to streamlining our liquor laws to make it easier for restaurants and bars to open here.

We'll have to follow up with Sky once she gets settled in. But in the meantime: What would you tell a young person interested in moving to the county?

Nine provocative reads on race, equity, and urbanism

Race and equity have a fundamental impact on life in urban places. Even when they're big, hairy, and uncomfortable, these issues are worth discussing and writing about.

With that in mind, here are nine provocative articles for urbanists (or anyone!) on the intersections of race, equity, policy, and life in urban places.


Photo by Julian Ortiz on Flickr.

Everything on this list is an article (not a book), so the time commitment is relatively short.

In putting together this list, several people told me they disagreed with one of the articles, or that an article made them feel uncomfortable or challenged their long-held assumptions. Including each was intentional on my part, though the viewpoints in the articles don't always represent my own, or those of Greater Greater Washington.

1. The Case for Reparations
Ta-Nehisi Coates - The Atlantic
One of the longer reads on this list, The Case for Reparations is a look at the history of discriminatory housing policies and exploitative markets in America. Despite the title, reparations aren't totally the point. Instead, Coates uses reparations to show that if we truly confronted the history and realities of racism in the US, it would mean a really big shift in how we live and act today.

If you read only one article on this list, make it The Case for Reparations.

2. Death in Black and White
Michael Eric Dyson - The New York Times
An essay on the dynamics of white privilege and the white viewpoint in the context of modern America published following the shooting deaths of Alton B. Sterling and Philando Castile.

3. Historian Says Don't 'Sanitize' How Our Government Created Ghettos
NPR Fresh Air (audio option)
An interview with Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute on the history of residential segregation as explicit and racially-purposeful policy legislated into existence at all levels of government in the US.

4. How your parents affect your chances of buying a home
Emily Badger - Washington Post Wonkblog
A super-easy read by the prolific Emily Badger, formerly of CityLab and now at the Washington Post. Until I was compiling this list, I didn't realize how extensively Badger has written on these issues - chances are, you've probably missed this or another good read from her.

5. I, Racist
John Metta - Those People
A discussion and context on the pervasiveness structural racism in modern America, from urban policies to social systems to culture and beyond that challenges some of our ingrained unconscious beliefs head-on.

6. Why you should stop saying "all lives matter," explained in 9 different ways
German Lopez - Vox
Tools for understanding (or explaining) the conflict between #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter.

7. America's Insidious Eviction Problem
Gillian B. White - The Atlantic
An on-the-ground look at how the practice of removing tenants from their homes is exacerbating cycles of poverty, especially among minorities and women.

8. Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter are not mutually exclusive
Major Neill Franklin (Ret.) - The Hill
A brief explanation of the decades of urban policies and funding that have bolstered militarized civilian policing, and how we got to where we are today.

9. The Role of Highways in American Poverty
Alana Semuels - The Atlantic
A history of the use of federal funds to build highways through most American cities, exploring specifically the economic effects that highways had and continue to have on our cities, especially in relation to people of color.

If you have a topic or article suggestion for a future GGWash reading list, email the author. If you have a suggestion on GGWash's growing conversation on equity, race, and class, email GGWash.

Links


National links: How do bikes work? We don't really know...

Physicists disagree on what exactly makes bikes work. Kansas City opened a streetcar line earlier this year, and it's doing really well. A number of US companies are moving parts of their businesses into downtowns but keeping other parts in less urban places. Check out what's happening around the country (and beyond) in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Étienne F on Flickr.

Bicycles. They're a mystery: Even though bicycles have been around over 100 years, we still aren't sure about the physics of why they work. Two competing theories, the gyroscopic and caster, are still being debated. A new research lab could solve the mystery once and for all. (Fast Company Design)

A successful streetcar: Given the poor ridership numbers for a lot of new streetcar projects around the country, it might surprise you to hear that Kansas City's new streetcar line has exceeded expectations. It's averaging over 6,600 riders a day even though it's a relatively short line, it's free to ride and goes through an up and coming district, and there are extensions on the way. (Slate)

Moving downtown... kind of: Many US corporations have long preferred suburban headquarters, but a number of CEOs are moving their offices downtown in hopes of attracting high-skill workers. At the same time, some are keeping lower wage jobs in suburbs and smaller cities, leading to questions of equity. (New York Times)

Where are all the great urban spaces?: In the last fifty years, the US has slowed down on building small streets with human scale buildings, and there's been an explosion of sprawl. If city administrators want great urban places, they need to focus on non-auto transportation and streets that put stores, schools, homes, and churches within walkable distances. (Governing Magazine)

A home to grow old in: Universal design is a way of designing places for people of all ages and abilities. Having a gradual slope instead of steps so that wheelchairs can access a room is one example of the practice. Designers don't always apply the practice to housing, especially those building in bulk, but with so many people aging, it's becoming more necessary to create dwellings that accommodate people through all stages of life. A Seattle company that makes prefabricated housing is focusing on universal design. (Fast Company Design)

Redevelopment in London: For a long time, the area around King's Cross rail station in London was a mixture of banged up and dangerous. But over the last few decades, redevelopment around the district's old rail lines and canals have formed the centerpiece of a great urban place. (Travel and Leisure)

Quote of the Week

"Hoover's zoning program, however, was created specifically to facilitate master-planned suburbs on virgin land. It was never designed to work in existing, built-out areas. So it should come as no surprise that today's city planners struggle to shoehorn urban diversity into suburban zoning schemes that assume car-dominated mobility and a neat separation of uses."

Mott Smith and Mark Vallianatos in the Los Angeles Times, discussing why we need to stop zoning and planning in cities as if they were suburbs.

Politics


Is Tim Kaine a good pick for urbanism? Here's what our writers think.

Tim Kaine is the Democratic candidate for Vice President. Currently one of Virginia's US senators, Kaine was the state's governor from 2006-2010, and its lieutenant governor for the four years before that. We asked our contributors what Kaine has done for and against urbanism.

Kaine was a mayor, so he should understand cities

David Cranor said,

Kaine wasn't just a senator and a governor. He was the mayor or Richmond, which, while not DC, is a pretty big city. If elected, Kaine be only the second VP ever who had previously been a mayor, and he will be the first former mayor of a major American city—Calvin Coolidge was Mayor of Northhampton, Massachusetts New Hampshire which is very nice, but not urban.

No former mayor of a city as large as Richmond has ever been elected to either president or VP. Grover Cleveland was mayor of Buffalo, but it was about 33% smaller than Richmond was when Kaine was mayor. So, more than maybe anyone to ever gets this far, he knows about city leadership, municipal government and the problems of urban areas. I think DC could only benefit from a VP (or a president) with an urban sensibility.

But... Sarah Palin was a mayor too, so it's not magic.

Also, Virginia and Maryland's congressional delegation often opposes DC Statehood (or home rule really) even when politically they might not, because DC having the ability to pass a commuter tax is something they think would be harmful to their states. To Kaine's credit he supports it despite this risk to his own constituents. That's not necessarily an urban thing, but it shows support for DC.

Kaine has a lot of experience in housing

Joanne Pierce pointed out,

Kaine was on the board of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) of Virginia from 1986-1994 and 2011-2013, starting before he got into local politics.

He helped represent HOME against Nationwide Insurance, which had labeled minority neighborhoods as undesirable and pulled its agents from those areas. He also helped represent HOME against General Services Corp, which made apartment brochures that featured more white people and lacked equal housing logos and language. Staff members testified that company management talked to them about how to deter black people from renting in their properties.

Soon after the Nationwide Insurance case he was elected to city council.

Jeff Lemieux directed us toward Vox's Matt Yglesias' write-up on Kaine, which said:
Before Tim Kaine was a senator or a governor or a lieutenant governor or a mayor, he was a lawyer. A lawyer whose very first case was a pro bono assignment representing an African-American woman who'd been turned away from an apartment. The landlord told her it had already been claimed when she stopped by and said she wanted to look at it. She was suspicious and had a colleague call back later that day, and the landlord said it was still available.

Kaine won the case and began specializing in fair-housing issues as a lawyer.

Kaine retained his interest in the subject as he entered politics, winning a $100 million jury verdict against Nationwide for discriminatory lending practices as mayor of Richmond. In the Senate, he's continued to champion fair-housing issues even though it's an issue that doesn't exactly have a ton of appeal to swing voters or well-connected lobbyists.

With Kaine as vice president in the Clinton administration, people worried about housing discrimination will always have an open lane to the president.

Kaine on transit, the environment, and more

Canaan Merchant noted that Kaine had a big impact on transit in our region:

As governor, he was largely responsible for building the Silver Line above ground in Tysons, which happened because the Feds would have walked away otherwise. So he can take a a good deal of credit for the Silver Line but it's also unfortunate that the climate was such that the line could only be done in a way that may be a hindrance to other elements in Tysons transformation.
Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, pointed us toward a Facebook post from Danny Paugher of Virginians for High Speed Rail:
Under Kaine, Virginia launched two Amtrak Regional trains, one to Lynchburg and a 2nd to Richmond which would be extended to Norfolk. Virginia has 4 of the top 6 best performing Regional routes in Amtrak's entire network thanks to his vision and leadership.
Miles Grant said he's thankful for a small change Kaine helped push through:
I'd include Kaine's strong support for Virginia's bar/restaurant smoking ban as a big public health win. I thought it would take years, then Kaine personally jumped in, helped reach a deal with Speaker Howell, and it was done in no time. He gets little credit because it's one of those progressive wins that, once it's in place, everyone loves it and assumes it was always that way.
Julie Lawson isn't so sure about Kaine's environmental record:
In the vein of climate and environmental protection, he has not been great on offshore drilling. In 2006, as governor, he vetoed a bill to end a moratorium on offshore drilling. But as senator he was quite supportive of it, including introducing legislation to expand exploration in 2013. This statement on the issue from his Senate site is written in a tone that does make me think he considers a variety of stakeholders and is open to rethinking his positions with compelling reasons.
Joanne pointed us toward CityLab's article on Kaine's urbanist contributions:
I'm interested interested to learn that Kaine preserved farmland from development. Under the rules, the money is used to buy the rights to develop on farmland for the purpose of not developing at all, preserving the land and helping the working farms. Kaine also preserved roughly 424,000 acres of land to be set aside for conservation and public recreation.

"Along the lines of what Julie said about considering a variety of stakeholders," Joanne said, "it looks like Kaine is an urbanist who also takes into consideration the benefit of land as a public resource. He seems to take a balanced approach to development."

Finally, David Edmondson pointed out that Kaine "got a thumbs-up from Jeff Speck on Twitter, which should count for something:"

Jeff Speck is referring to regulations that said residential subdivisions couldn't be composed of only culs de sac, which are often an inefficient use of public resources and which cut down on how connected areas are. Kaine supported that change. Unfortunately, the Virginia's transportation board rolled back the regulation two years after it passed.

Schwartz expanded on Jeff Speck's input by adding:

Governor Kaine and the Republican House leadership also worked together on other measures to link land use and transportation. The 2007 omnibus transportation bill not only included the connectivity requirements for subdivisions but a requirement that localities identify urban development areas, or "UDA's." Both parties recognized that spread out development imposed significant transportation costs to the state and sought to promote more compact development. Unfortunately, like subdivision street connection standards, UDA's were weakened a few years later when they were made voluntary, instead of mandatory.

Politics


Trump claims to want to save our cities, but his and his party's policies would do the opposite

On Thursday, I turned on the TV to hear from the Republican nominee for President. As an urbanist, I was particularly struck by Donald Trump saying he's the candidate who can save failing cities. That's ironic given that he seems to loathe most of the people in cities, and his party convention approved the most anti-urban policy platform in recent memory.


Photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

This specific part really stood out to me:

This Administration has failed America's inner cities. ... It's failed them on education. It's failed them on jobs. It's failed them on crime. It's failed them on every single level. When I am President, I will work to ensure that all of our kids are treated equally, and protected equally. Every action I take, I will ask myself: does this make life better for young Americans in Baltimore, in Chicago, in Detroit, in Ferguson who have as much of a right to live out their dreams as any other child in America? Any other child.
Trump would have us believe that he's the man who can fix America's cities, despite his lack of policy specifics and a seeming hatred for the diversity that makes our cities (and our country) truly great.

Yet he's running for the presidency from a party whose platform is the most anti-urban it has ever been. Their platform gets to this pretty early on, on page 5 of 66:

The current Administration has a different approach. It subordinates civil engineering to social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit. Its ill-named Livability Initiative is meant to "coerce people out of their cars." This is the same mentality that once led Congress to impose by fiat a single maximum speed limit for the entire nation, from Manhattan to Montana. Our 1980 Republican Platform pledged to repeal that edict. After the election of Ronald Reagan, we did.

Now we make the same pledge regarding the current problems in transportation policy. We propose to remove from the Highway Trust Fund programs that should not be the business of the federal government.

More than a quarter of the Fund's spending is diverted from its original purpose. One fifth of its funds are spent on mass transit, an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities. Additional funds are used for bike-share programs, sidewalks, recreational trails, landscaping, and historical renovations. Other beneficiaries of highway money are ferry boats, the federal lands access program, scenic byways, and education initiatives. These worthwhile enterprises should be funded through other sources.

... We reaffirm our intention to end federal support for boondoggles like California's high-speed train to nowhere.

[Emphasis added]

It seems that while Trump claims he can save America's cities, the GOP wants to make them impossible. That's not good for city-dwellers or anyone else in the country, since cities are the economic engines that power America.

Trevor Noah really summed up the conundrum of the GOP's urban policy in a Daily Show episode on Tuesday. The key part starts around 3:50 in the video.

Yes, many of our communities have broken homes. But often it's because the parents have to face huge hurdles just to get by. Taking two buses to get to their first job, or unable to get to good jobs in the suburbs because there is no transit. Other times, maybe it's because fathers (and sons) were arrested or killed over minor traffic infractions.

And many of these situations are built upon a history of segregation and separation that were the direct result of redlining and a lack of fair housing laws and access to opportunity. Apparently, laws meant to help disadvantaged people find housing or jobs are "social engineering."

Trump went on to describe a horrifying scene in America's cities. Not only have our policies failed urban dwellers, but crime is up, up, up. It's up 17% in America's 50 largest cities, he says.

And that's true. Crime did increase from 2014 to 2015. According to Trump, "that's the largest increase in 25 years."

The fact, though, is that it's the only increase in 25 years. Crime has been falling since 1991 in those 50 cities. In 2014, it hit the lowest point in decades. Trump's inflammatory rhetoric serves only to frighten people into voting on their baser instincts, and it marks a particularly despicable turn in our nation's politics.

Even with a 17% increase in 2015, crime was still lower that year than it was in 2009, the year President Obama took office.

There was a lot to be frightened of in that speech—especially cities and immigrants and Muslims, if Trump is to be believed. That was by design.

Frankly, I'm more afraid of the damage that Trump and the GOP could do to our cities than I am of anything mentioned in Trump's list of terrors of the night. The candidate's xenophobic remarks and his party's disregard for anything or anyone remotely related to cities is horrifying.

I think we should talk about what a Trump/Republican presidency might mean for our cities and our community.

Public Safety


How do our cities' decisions perpetuate racial bias? How do the choices we advocate for?

America's struggles with gun violence and police relations with communities of color have burst, again, into the headlines over the last few weeks. Our contributors and editors have some thoughts about these issues and how they relate to the decisions our cities make around housing, transportation, and much more.


Aftermath of the Philando Castile shooting. Photo by Tony Webster on Flickr.

Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. These and so many more incidents have repeatedly underscored how our society still doesn't truly treat black Americans equally. Americans who don't experience this injustice personally have had their eyes opened. And then, the occasional person reacts with reprehensible violence against the police and drives further wedges between Americans (most recently in Baton Rouge, previously in Dallas).

Not every social problem is related to the way we build cities and better urban design can't single-handedly solve some of America's deepest social ills. Still, our society's struggles with racial bias, whether from police or others, actually is deeply connected with the way American cities work and the decisions their leaders make. Here are some of our contributors' thoughts.

Dan Reed said,

This is about who feels safe and who public spaces are created for. We haven't experienced the worst of this here, but we've had a tumultuous demographic shift in recent years. As a person of color who grew up here, I feel unwelcome sometimes in a place that was once familiar.

This isn't just about police brutality. It's about the pervasiveness of racial bias, however subtle or unintentional, that appears in all of the policy decisions we make in education, transportation, housing, health care, and so on. It's about making sure that everyone in our community the ability to live safe, dignified lives with access to the economic and social opportunities that many of us take for granted.

Gray Kimbrough discussed how public policy has explicitly created divisions:
The built environment has long been intertwined with racism in the US. Housing policy is a clear example, with the underlying racism ranging from completely blatant redlining or other policies that excluded non-whites (e.g. the postwar explosion in VA and FHA-backed loans).
Read more in GGWash:
And then there's infrastructure. Growing up in North Carolina, I noticed that things like sidewalks were much less likely to be provided in predominantly black parts of town. Transportation infrastructure and transit networks have often also been used to maintain the status quo rather than to mitigate the impact of institutional racism.

Limiting the housing options for people of color and underfunding infrastructure in those areas contribute directly to limiting opportunities for whole classes of people. As a side effect, racial segregation of housing limits people's experiences with members of other groups.

This tends not to be a problem for white people, who generally don't have to fear police officers unfamiliar with people like them acting in overly aggressive ways. It can absolutely have devastating effects for people of color when police officers are more likely to see them as criminals by default, at least in part because of a lack of basic interaction due to residential segregation.

Nick Keenan added some specific policy examples:
It ties into two things I've read about Ferguson [Missouri]. One is that people in Ferguson were reluctant to walk places, even short distances, because they were afraid of being hassled by the police if they did. The other is that the municipal budget in Ferguson was dependent upon fines and fees from motorists, and that a grievance of the residents was that you couldn't drive anywhere without risking getting pulled over and ticketed for a minor infraction.

Many experienced cyclists have stories of interactions with police officers where just the fact of operating a bicycle seemed to set the cops off. There was a blog post last summer that got a lot of coverage about how for many people riding a bicycle is the closest they will ever come to not having white privilege.

Tracy Hadden Loh added,
It's all about who has access to what planning processes - whose outcomes are measured, voices are heard, values represented, needs prioritized, etc. Planning is all about navigating tradeoffs to maximize access and efficiency of public goods in a world where most of the acreage/square footage is private. ...

We [all] have our own often unstated assumptions about *how* to achieve planning goals [and] I don't think [we] ask enough hard questions about who the winners and losers will be.

Let's try hard to think about who winners and losers will be as we discuss the many choices cities and counties in our region make. How do the events of the last few weeks, and few years, affect how you think about urban spaces and the issues we discuss?

History


Before moving to DC, Walt Whitman was a Brooklyn house flipper

One of Washington's many adopted sons, Walt Whitman is among the most decorated figures in American literature. A lesser-known fact about Whitman is that he wrote one of the earliest descriptions of speculative real estate development, displacement, and gentrification.


Walt Whitman around 1855. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Whitman's essay, "Tear Down and Build Over Again," was published in the November 1845 issue of The American Review. From the perspective of a housing supplier, he explored urban redevelopment, aesthetics, and the attachments to place longtime residents have.

What makes Whitman's essay unique besides its early date is that it was written not by a housing reformer or displaced resident, but by an entrepreneur making money from the creative destruction of New York City neighborhoods.

"Let us level to the earth all the houses that were not built within the last ten years," Whitman wrote in 1845. "Let us raise the devil and break things!"

Penned more than a century before the Housing Act of 1949 introduced urban renewal to aging and distressed city neighborhoods, Whitman was writing on the eve of his brief career in Brooklyn as familiar urban character: the house-flipping gentrifier.

According to University of Cambridge literary historian Peter Riley, Whitman was itching to get into a booming Brooklyn real estate market. Riley examined Whitman's notebooks and analyzed "Tear Down and Build Over Again" to contextualize how the poet jumped on the real estate "speculative bandwagon."

Between 1846 and 1855, notes Riley, Whitman bought and built several properties. Profits from redevelopment and house flipping allowed Whitman to buy an un-mortgaged home for his family and financed publication of Whitman's first book, Leaves of Grass, in 1855.


Brooklyn row houses around 1935. Photo from the New York Public Library.

Though written 118 years before sociologist Ruth Glass introduced the word "gentrification" to popular and academic discourse, Whitman's essay clearly captures the subject's supply and demand dimensions and the social costs—better housing, good investments (positive) and displacement and alienation (negative) wrapped up in the process.

In modern terms, Whitman effectively described neighborhood upgrading through reinvestment resulting in displacement and the churn of properties from the less wealthy to better off residents.

In other words, Whitman was describing gentrification.

Whitman did have concerns about redevelopment

Though clearly writing as an unabashed capitalist housing producer, Whitman also recognized that the people displaced from the older homes had strong attachments to the properties and to the neighborhoods where they lived.

"Then fled tenants from under roofs that had sheltered them when in their cradles," he wrote. "And had witnessed their parents' marriages—roofs aneath which they had grown up from childhood, and that were filled with the memories of many years."

As Whitman was writing about the loss of old buildings and familiar places by their occupants, he also expressed some disdain for new construction in ways remarkably similar to how contemporary Americans write about McMansions:

"Then there are those who would go farther to view even Charlotte Temple's grave, than Mr. Astor's stupid-looking house in Broadway… To such, greatness and goodness are things intrinsic—mental and moral qualities. To the rest of the world, and that is nine-tenths of it, appearance [emphasis in original] is everything.

He was also witnessing the birth of historic preservation

Whitman also was writing at a time when American culture was developing its own sense of national heritage. By the 1850s, a "Cult of Washington" had emerged that elevated the Revolutionary War hero and first president to near-mythical status.

Besides writing what may be the earliest chronicle of American gentrification, Whitman also captured the birth of America's historic preservation movement. In addition to memorializing Washington through monument construction, there were growing numbers of people concerned about the disappearance of places associated with George Washington.

"… when we bethink us how good it is to leave no land-mark of the past standing, no pile honored by its association with our storied names, with the undying memory of our Washington, and with the frequent presence of his compatriots," Whitman wrote about a decade before efforts began to buy and preserve Mt. Vernon.

"Tear Down and Build Up Again" is an important and relatively un-recognized chronicle of the birth of early American urban redevelopment written by one of the nation's most important poets.

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