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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.

Politics


Arlington's upcoming County Board election is a big one. Here's the scoop on the candidates.

Elections for two seats on the Arlington County Board are on November 3rd. The results will have big implications for the county. Here's a rundown of where Arlington's candidates stand on issues related to I-66, bike safety, and transit.


Photo by Mrs. Gemstone on Flickr.

This is the first time since 1975 where two seats are open on the five-member Arlington County Board. Meet the candidates:

  • Katie Cristol, though a newcomer to the Arlington political scene, won the most votes in June's heated Democratic primary.
  • Christian Dorsey, the second Democratic nominee (he finished behind Cristol in the primary), is a long-time political activist in Arlington, though he has been less visible in recent years.
  • This is Audrey Clement's fifth attempt at securing a County Board seat, though this is her first as an Independent rather than under the Green Party label.
  • Mike McMenamin has had two failed campaigns under the Republican banner, but is hoping to follow in John Vihstadt's footsteps and launch a successful campaign as an Independent this year.
  • Of note: there are no incumbents. Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada were both up for re-election to the Arlington County Board this year, but after John Vihstadt won a full term and the board canceled the Columbia Pike streetcar, Hynes and Tejada announced they would not run again, leaving the two open seats.
Arlington's board has undergone massive turnover in the last four years. After this election, Jay Fisette will be the only active board member who was also around at the start of the 2012 session. Will this be a new board finding a new way forward? Will it search out and implement "Smart Growth 2.0," as departing chair Mary Hynes suggested? Or will it slide back toward the car-dependent policies some of its neighbors are known for?

On Friday night, all four candidates participated in a candidate forum sponsored by the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and the Sierra Club's Mount Vernon Group, all organizations that can comfortably be described as pro-urbanism.

Here's what the candidates had to say:

What to do about I-66

Virginia's Department of Transportation has long wanted to widen I-66, and Arlington has a long history of fighting it. VDOT finally agreed to do a study that would not just examine widening, but also a range of ways to make traveling inside the I-66 corridor easier.

The results of that study formed the basis of the current VDOT proposal for I-66 inside the beltway: High Occupancy Toll Lanes during both peak travel periods in both directions, the toll money going toward multimodal travel solutions. Also, a a commitment to only widen if the conversion to tolls and multimodal solutions were insufficient to handle congestion on I-66.


Photo by Adam Fagen on Flickr.

Dorsey says that the current VDOT plan needs more work and that he is still waiting to see more data on what effect it will have on traffic. He also is concerned that the tolling project is just a setup for pushing through a widening of the highway.

Cristol, the other Democrat, says she still has a lot of questions about the proposal such as what multimodal solutions the tolls will fund, what impact it will have on Arlington's local streets and whether tolling the non-peak direction is truly necessary.

Clement supports focusing on better enforcement of the existing HOV rules via "high tech cameras" that can "definitively determine the number of occupants in a car" and stated that if enforcement is insufficent to improve congestion on I-66, that it should switch to HOV-3.

The other Independent, Mike McMenamin expressed support for widening I-66 and stated that Arlingtonians must face that widening is inevitable.

Build more protected bike lanes?

Protected bike lanes are the new gold standard in bicycle infrastructure, as they're the kind of thing that makes biking attractive and pleasant for everyone, not just the bold or athletic. DC has been moving forward with a network of protected lanes, and Montgomery County has put forth a bold vision for White Flint and is working on a county-wide plan.


Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Arlington, on the other hand, has a bike plan from 2008 that still thinks sharrows are an exciting new innovation in bike infrastructure, and there's no concrete plan to update it.

Cristol supports building protected bike lanes "where possible" throughout the community but also stressed that community engagement is key to bike lanes' success.

In contrast, Dorsey admits that he has a lot to learn when it comes to bike infrastructure, and is open to what people's experiences are. He isn't fully convinced that it's necessary to protect cyclists from cars and noted that he spoke to some cyclists in DC who said they preferred riding in traffic over riding in protected bike lanes.

Clement supports more lanes, but says she's against building more trails because it would require cutting down trees.

McMenamin says he would consider protected bike lanes on a case-by-case basis and that their impact on drivers is a major concern for him.

How to expand transit

With the Columbia Pike and Crystal City Streetcars cancelled, Arlington is re-examining what the future of transit is for the County as a whole and for Crystal City and Columbia Pike specifically. Will it be Bus Rapid Transit? Personal Rapid Transit? Metrorail expansion?

At the forum, all four candidates spoke in favor of improving Arlington's transit network, though McMenamin tempered his remarks by asserting that transit is important but not enough; Arlington, he said, also needs to increase its parking supply.


Photo by Cliff on Flickr.

Both Cristol and Dorsey spoke at length about a transit network that supports car-free living by serving trips beyond the regular commute. They also spoke about the current state of Metro and how important it is to turn Metro around, while acknowledging that Arlington cannot do so alone.

Clement wants a reversible lane on Columbia Pike to speed buses in the peak direction of travel and an extension of Metrorail from the Pentagon to Skyline. Beyond that, she claims that Metro's problems are the direct result of Congress cutting the transit benefit.

Transit-oriented development and parking

Arlington has been a leader in Transit-oriented Development, concentrating growth around its Metro stations to create a series of "urban villages." The county has seen great success, growing its population and tax base without large increases in traffic congestion.

McMenamin says Arlington needs to get "smarter about smart growth" because in his mind, more cars join the road when places get denser.

Clement has issues with Arlington's development practices, but for a different reason, saying that while she likes Transit-oriented Development, Arlington has engaged in too much "densification," which has, in her estimation, increased land values and therefore housing prices.

Dorsey says that Transit-oriented Development is important, but that there are certain types of residential units that can support reduced parking requirements and others, such as large family units, cannot.

Cristol says "stopping development doesn't solve our problems," that "growth is better than stagnation," and that the key to parking reductions is to put alternative transportation options in place.

Arlington residents should be sure to cast their votes in the County board race on November 3rd. What stands out to you? Which candidates are getting your vote? What smart growth messages are getting through to candidates, and which issues do urbanists need to do a better job on?

What Back to the Future got right about cities

Hill Valley, California, Wednesday October 21, 2015: Marty, Doc Brown, and Jennifer arrive in the future in the epic second part of the Back to the Future franchise. Much has been made about the technological predictions the movie got right. But what about the form of the city?


Hill Valley, 1985.

The trilogy is set in the fictional Hill Valley, a small California town. And because the Doc has invented a time machine, the viewer gets to see the town in 1955, 1985, 2015, and 1885. And the transformation is amazing.

In the 1955 version of Hill Valley, life in the town is centered on the bucolic courthouse square. A diner, garage, and other shops front on a grassy park. Sidewalks are busy with a variety of people from different walks of life. Leafy streets surround the town center, and we see Hill Valley residents walking and biking around.


Hill Valley, 1955.

But by 1985, downtown Hill Valley has been transformed. The courthouse square has literally been paved and is used as a parking lot. One of the two downtown movie theaters has become a pornographic theater, the other is a church. A bench notes that Zales (on the square in 1955) is "now in Twin Pines Mall."

Instead of the leafy streets, which presumably are still there, we see Marty's neighborhood, built two miles outside of town. It's a typical suburban cul-de-sac, and lacks the fine-grained detail of the older neighborhoods. We also see Marty skateboarding along a commercial arterial lined with fast food establishments. Clearly, the synergy in 1985 Hill Valley has moved away from the downtown and out to the suburban fringe around town.

The decline of American city was pronounced by the mid-1980s. The shift from the more pedestrian and community-focused small town of the 1950s to the auto-oriented suburb and the urban decay would have been readily visible to movie goers when the film debuted in 1985. Perhaps it is a bit more pronounced for effect in the movie, but the transition is telling.

In 2015, Hill Valley has transformed once again. Now the town has been refocused on the center. The courthouse has been repurposed into a posh urban shopping center. Replacing the parking lot, the square is now a pond, where we discover hoverboards don't work. The Essex movie theater has transitioned from being pornographic to being holographic (the shark still looks fake).


Hill Valley, 2015.

Once again, the courthouse square appears to be the center of civic life in Hill Valley (though the community still hasn't gotten around to fixing the clock tower).

And the suburban fringe, once desirable, has become a slum. Marty is excited to learn he lives in Hilldale, the nicest quarter of Hill Valley in 1985. But as we learn, like many of the once-nice suburban neighborhoods in real life, Hilldale hasn't withstood the test of time well.


Hilldale, a slum in 2015.

Twenty-six years ago, when Back to the Future Part II came out, the reinvestment in central cities wasn't even on the horizon in most places. But today, the urbanist revolution is underway even in auto-dominant sunbelt cities like Dallas and Atlanta.

Whether the filmmakers actually anticipated this change is unknown. I suspect that they were just trying to create a Hill Valley that was diametrically opposite the 1985 Hill Valley. And that meant having a vibrant center.

Regardless of their intentions, the film series does an excellent job of capturing sixty years of urban change, from the traditional format beginning to change in 1955 to a low point in 1985 and finally to a resurgence in 2015.

Public Spaces


Ice cream: your doctor may hate it, but your city loves it

Sunday is National Ice Cream Day, which is great for fans of cold desserts. But it's even better for urban places, because ice cream is a great tool for placemaking.


Moorenko's Ice Cream in Silver Spring. All photos by the author unless noted.

One of the best ways to create a busy, active sidewalk or plaza is by putting food there. Especially ice cream (or gelato, frozen custard, frozen yogurt, and so on). Why? People of all ages can enjoy it, and it's generally cheap enough that most people can afford to eat it.

Most importantly, ice cream melts. You have to consume your ice cream soon after buying it, meaning that people tend to linger outside of ice cream shops.

Of course, ice cream doesn't automatically make a place great. But it definitely helps. Here are a few tips from great ice cream stores and great places around the DC area and beyond.


Getting some frozen yogurt at FrozenYo.

Provide outdoor seating.

"Make your own" frozen yogurt places are a dime a dozen these days. But you'll always see people hanging out in front of FrozenYo in Columbia Heights. It's because there are lots of places to sit outside with your frozen yogurt, from tables and chairs to ledges and even a grassy lawn.

Have big windows.

Like any good storefront, ice cream shops benefit from big windows, which break down the barrier between inside and out. People inside still feel a connection to the street, while people on the street can see what's going on inside. And if there's ice cream inside, people are likely to come in.


Paleteria Fernandez in Port Chester, New York. I really want to go here now. Photo by June Marle on Flickr.

Dolcezza Gelato, which has locations in Logan Circle, Bethesda, and elsewhere does an especially great job of this. Their spin-off location in Fairfax's Mosaic District, Mom & Pop, is basically a glass box in a plaza, which makes for great people-watching whether you're inside or out.

Have a walk-up window.

I scooped my way through college working at Gifford's Ice Cream, the now-defunct local chain that began in Silver Spring in 1938. Customers could either come in through the door or at a walk-up window on the sidewalk. As Dan Malouff notes, walk-up windows give people walking by something to look at while putting more "eyes on the street," which deters crime. They're also great for people with dogs or strollers or anything that might be difficult to carry inside.

Keep it local.

Local shops like Gifford's, Dolcezza, or Moorenko's seem to be one of the few places a teenager can still get a summer job, which is a big deal for placemaking. Knowing the kids behind the counter gives their friends, parents, relatives, neighbors, teachers, and so on more reasons to visit, which builds community ties.

These rules work in suburban settings, too.

Creating street life can be challenging in suburban places where most people get around by car. But ice cream stands seem to be the exception.


Goodberry's in North Carolina. (Ask for the Carolina Concrete.

Goodberry's is a chain of frozen custard stands in Raleigh (and in Canberra, Australia) whose locations consist of walk-up windows in big parking lots. But there's also a little plaza closer to the street with some picnic tables. Even from a car, you can see the activity happening here, which draws people in.

Closer to home, Jimmie Cone in Damascus has a similar setup. As a result, fans call it "the closest you could get to having a local pub setting" in an otherwise dry town.

Together, these things can help to make a great place where people want to gather and have a good time. Ice cream isn't a necessity, but to mix food metaphors, you might call it the cherry on top. What's your favorite ice cream and placemaking experience?

Become a great advocate (and a blogger) for safer streets, transit, and more at StreetsCamp 2015

Next Saturday, June 20, join Greater Greater Washington and urbanist organizations in the DC region to up your smart growth game at StreetsCamp 2015.


Schedule board at Transportation Camp, a national unconference for transportation professionals. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

After 50 years of being auto-centric, our region still has too many dangerous streets, too many surface parking lots that could be housing for new neighborhoods, and too many schools or Metro stations that are unsafe or too hard to walk to.

The groups that advocate to counter this through smart growth and sustainable transportation can't weigh in on every neighborhood detail on their own.

StreetsCamp is a one-day summit where you'll learn background on key issues and advocacy skills to help create change in your community. You'll also get a chance to meet many of our contributors and commenters in real life and connect with people who share similar goals for the region.

The event is $20, which includes lunch. The day will be jam packed with expert-led panels on topics you've read about on Greater Greater Washington, including best practices in street design for walking and cycling, zoning, how we can improve transit in our region, safe routes to school, and transportation equity. There will also be panels on how to blog and organize a campaign.

Share what you learn

We know not everyone can attend, so we're making sure to compile StreetsCamp's most salient lessons here on the blog.

We need your help to do that, though: we're asking everyone to tweet facts and tips you pick up in each session with the hashtag #streetscamp. When you tweet, consider whether others would learn from what you're sharing: for example, "Two-way streets can be safer than one-way streets" fits that bill, while "We're talking about two-way vs. one-way streets" doesn't.

We're also recruiting volunteer curators, and they'll pull the top tips together and turn them into Greater Greater Washington posts. If you're willing to help, shoot kelly@smartergrowth.net an email.

The details matter, and that's why it's essential that more people become informed and engaged in the business of working with their neighbors for safer, more sustainable, more equitable ways of getting around and living together.

We hope to see you there!

Development


Ask GGW: What are the best urban planning and policy books?

A while back, we rounded up a list of urbanist books for kids. But what about grownups who want a bit more detail and background? We asked our contributors for their recommendations.


Photo by Chris Devers on Flickr.

Abigail Zenner's favorite is Happy City, by Charles Montgomery:

Montgomery talks about how the built environment and transportation choices affect on people's happiness. It's written in a way that's accessible, and it really provides good arguments for why these things matter to people.
One book in particular gave Canaan Merchant a better foundation for processing our subject matter.
Suburban Nation, by Jeff Speck, Andres Duany, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk was my introduction to a lot of what we cover at Greater Greater Washington. Before I read it, I knew there were things that made neighborhoods work, but I couldn't articulate them. Suburgan Nation talks about why some designs that encourage walkability are either discouraged or outright banned today, which explains why some in some places make walking easy and pleasant while some only encourage driving.
Brian McEntee's recommendation is Downtown: Its Rise and Fall,1880-1950:
It's a fairly comprehensive history of the various factors (real estate, transportation, prevailing social attitudes) that shaped development and downfall during the a seminal period in American urbanism. It's a history book, not a policy book, but it does help provide a really useful "how we got here' perspective.
Kate Ascher's The Works is Kelli Raboy's manual for understanding the basics:
It's a fun look into the what/why/how of infrastructure operations in an urban environment, specifically using the backdrop of New York City.
Matt Johnson listed four:
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. This is a staple of planning. Written in 1961, it was one of the first attempts to criticize the planning decisions of the time, but Jacobs also predicted a great many things that wouldn't become "obvious" to mainstream planners and engineers until the 1990s.
  • Fighting Traffic, by Peter Norton. This book talks about how the automobile came to dominate our cities. While cars and traffic seems like a foregone conclusion today, it certainly wasn't in the 1910s and 1920s. When the car first came on the scene, there was a battle to save urban streets.
  • The High Cost of Free Parking, by Donald Shoup. A book about parking policy and how there really is no such thing as free parking. Another must-read.
  • Great Society Subway, by Zachary Schrag. A history of the Washington Metro. It's a real page-turner. Schrag talks about the history of building a Metro, DC's fight for enfranchisement, and many other related topics. It's a fascinating biography of the region, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
  • Ben Ross, himself the author of Dead End, said two in particular fly under the radar:
    Jason Henderson's Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco and Japonica Brown-Saracino's A Neighborhood that Never Changes: Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity are two books that aren't as well known as they should be, and both are particularly relevant to current issues in DC. (With A Neighborhood that Never Changes, you may want to skip the rather academic introduction and first chapter.)
    David Alpert's go-to is The Option of Urbanism, by Christopher Leinberger:
    It lays out very clearly the difference between walkable urbanism and what he calls "driveable sub-urbanism," why it's hard to switch a place from one to the other, why it's easier for people building cookie-cutter sprawl to get financing than people building urban mixed-use, and much more.
    Aimee Custis said,
    Human Transit, by Jarrett Walker "is a really terrific primer for non-planners on transit: why it's important, how it works, how it interacts with land use, why some systems succeed while others fail, and how to build a good transit system. And Walkable City, by Jeff Speck is a great 21st century complement to Jane Jacobs, which Matt recommended. Still read Jane, but if you get a little bogged down or want to understand exactly what's happening today, Jeff is a fantastic and engaging writer."
    Chris Slatt offered a book that's heavy on visuals:
    I'm partial to Victor Dover's Street Design. The text is a bit dense and heavy, but there is a ton of great knowledge in there about designing streets and the delicious creamy center is hundreds and hundreds of pictures showing actual examples of great streets all across the globe. His book is excellent for countering the inevitable "well that could never work" response that comes when redesigning for Complete Streets and shows just how far we have to go to catch up with the rest of the world.
    Tracey Johnstone's pick is useful for understanding how urbanism fits into today's politics:
    Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation, by William S. Lind and the late Paul Weyrich makes a politically conservative case for investing in mass transit. The reasons the authors have for supporting transit are a lot like those of any transit advocate: that people who don't ride transit still benefit from it, and that that mass transit contributes to energy conservation and independence, which in turn help with national security.
    Melissa Lindsjo added Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation, by Sonja Hirt, and Jeff Lemieux recommended Retrofitting Suburbia, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson.

    Finally, Brent Bolin asked a follow-up question:

    I am always looking for the go-to primer for elected officials (or community members) that don't understand urbanist issues. I've taken the time to read a lot of these, but when I am interacting with my fellow elected officials, I always wonder what I should be putting in their hands. Let's say that I'm not looking for Urbanism 101, but rather Urbanism 100 (for non-majors).
    Aimee Custis said Walkable City fits the bill, and Abigail Zenner followed up that Happy City "would be great for people who haven't thought about this stuff before."

    Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

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