Why Porland isn’t Easily Replicable

For anyone interested in cities, Portland, Oregon, is the model to follow. The Pearl District is world-famous for its redevelopment of old warehouses into a funky downtown neighbourhood. The city boasts legendary coffee, hip hotels and even a tv show called Portlandia. There is free transit downtown and a gondola to one of the universities. Portland is home to real estate agents that specialize in finding homes for people who cycle and don’t own cars. There are food trucks, community gardens, green buildings, tent cities, neighborhood repair projects and on and on. In short, it’s a hub of city-building innovation.

Can we simply import these ideas to Geneva and hope that they take root? If we build community gardens and hip coffee shops will young people flock to our region and help us to rebuild our economy? I wish it was that easy.

The foundation of Portland’s success is the urban growth boundary (UGB), which was established by state legislation in the 1970s at the behest of a coalition of environmentally-minded local citizens and politicians. The UGB acts like a container for urban sprawl, prohibiting the region from developing farmland and growing ever-outward. The effect of the UBG on real estate is that the value of land inside the boundary increases significantly. Redeveloping unused sites within the city, building houses on smaller lots, or infilling vacant land become more economically viable options when land is scarce. Without a UGB, land on the urban fringe is often the cheapest option for building new homes and so the housing market typically moves outward instead.

As a result of increasing the density within the existing footprint of the region, Portland has been creating a more walkable and pedestrian oriented built environment. It is the dense, walkable built environment that creates opportunities for new businesses, community groups or ways of living to flourish. In short, the growth boundary set the stage by limiting the options for car-oriented, mall-based living.

Obviously, this is an oversimplification on my part. It’s not just about density and walkability. But those are key pieces of the equation. Any city that wants to embrace and build a uniquely urban community needs to reverse the economic incentives for sprawl and figure out how to encourage more people to get out of their cars.


HWS Sustainable Community Development Lecture Series

The HWS Finger Lakes Institute is presenting another greater lecture series about sustainable development. The first lecture is tonight and covers two very important issues in upstate NY – the reuse of vacant land and active transportation. This is going to be an excellent event if you can make it.

February 18: Our Built Environment
Susan Cosentini, New Earth Living and Michael Governale, Rochester Subway
7pm at Warren Hunting Smith Library, HWS Colleges

March 11: Energy and Waste
Khristopher Dodson, Environmental Finance Center at Syracuse University

April 8: Science and Technology’s Role in Sustainability
Rob Englert, Ram Industrial Design, D-Build, and Adirondack Firestone Company

April 22: Sustainable Community Development In Action

We’re a Playful City!

This fall, a new playground was installed down along the waterfront. According to this HWS press release, “the playground is a part of a collaborative project between Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva Community Projects and the City of Geneva through the KaBOOM! organization.” I’m pretty impressed to learn about this collaborative effort. I’m also impressed that the playground was assembled by volunteers (check out the pictures here). And, I’m impressed to learn that Geneva has been designated by KaBOOM as a 2012 Playful City!

photo 1

It’s important to remember that cities have to work for everyone – from kids to older adults. According to Gil Penalosa, former Commissioner of Parks and Recreation for the City of Bogotá, we need to build 8-80 cities. That is, cities that are good for an 8 year-old and an 80 year-old will be good places to live. And one of the most important elements in making cities accessible for everyone is to focus on the public realm by making sure that we have places to walk, run, play, bike, etc. The built environment is key in allowing us to integrate activity into our daily lives – be it walking or biking to school or spending time with friends in a park or playground!

photo 2

Geneva’s playground is a great investment in kids, in play and in the public realm.  I do wish that it was a little bit easier for kids and families to walk to the playground, but I tend to feel this way about the waterfront in general. My husband and I often joke about the need for a gondola or a zip line, but this is perhaps a discussion for another day!  For now, I’m happy to just celebrate the achievements of all those who made the playground happen. I’m certainly happy to live in a Playful City!

photo 3

A couple of favourites

These important books: Walkable City: How downtown can save America, one step at a time by Jeff Speck and How to Be a Woman by Caitlan Moran

This graphic novel: Jerusalem by (Canadian!) Guy Delisle

This yummy recipe: Quinoa stuffed acorn squash

This funny movie: Moonrise Kingdom

This article from Nate Silver: The End of Car Culture

This sigur ros song and video: Valtari

These charming dog prints by (Canadian!) artist, Mark Tetro

These funny flamingos spotted today in Rochester, NY:

Are you going to walkshop this holiday season?

Walkshopping is a great way to get some exercise, enjoy Geneva, run into folks you know and at the same time, support our local merchants.  I’m excited about all the shop local stuff going on in town at the moment, especially the upcoming Cash Mob on Saturday at Area Records as well as the Downtown Holiday Open House on November 30 & December 1.

As someone who is new to the United States, I have to admit that the hype about Black Friday doesn’t really get me excited.  Massive crowds and big malls is not my idea of a good Friday night.  Strolling around lovely, lively, downtown Geneva, however, sounds like a pleasant evening to me!

Car-free in Montreal

This past spring, I spent a few days in Montreal right in the thick of the student protests. For those who are unfamiliar with Canadian politics, the protest began in response to a proposed increase in university tuition fees. Every night, a large mass of people meandered through the city parks and streets with their message of resistance.  It was something else – check out this video, below.

The lively street energy wasn’t just a product of the night-time protest — it was also alive and bustling during the day.  I think the lovely built environment and the transportation network are at least partially to thank for this phenomenon.  I was traveling with a friend who was five months pregnant and we had no trouble managing on foot, bus and subway. We did, however, choose to leave the bike share for next time.

Our hotel was located near UQAM (l’Université du Québec à Montréal) as well as the gay neighbourhood. Saint Catherine Street, the main street in the gay village, was closed to all car traffic and remained so for the whole summer. We wandered this festive street many times and enjoyed the people watching, the food, the art installations and the generally fun-filled atmosphere.  As I headed back to Geneva, I was exhausted by all the walking but exhilarated from the trip. Montreal is a great city for a number of reasons, not the least of which, is the ability to amble along and enjoy the action taking place on the street.

What is Geneva’s walk score?

Walk Score is a website that measures the walkability of a neighborhood based on the number of consumer destinations within walking distance of a house.  Scores range from 0 (car dependent) to 100 (most walkable).  Geneva’s walk score is 85, above Rochester (63) and Canandaigua (77) but on par with NYC. Obviously, certain parts of Geneva (or any other community) are more walkable than others, but the walk score is nonetheless an interesting metric to give you a relative sense of how Geneva compares.

Walking matters for a whole range of reasons, including better health, fewer carbon emissions, saving money on transportation costs, saving money on road repairs, etc.  CEOs for Cities published a paper a few years ago about the link between walkability and housing values.  Since Geneva is looking to maintain or improve its housing stock, encouraging a walkable community seems like an important piece of this equation.  I’m honestly a little surprised that Geneva scored an 85.  I’d like to celebrate this achievement and at the same time, find ways to further improve the pedestrian environment.

Three more reasons to LOVE Geneva

I am slowly coming out of summer hibernation and have a whole bunch of AMAZING things to highlight.  Check this stuff out:

Geneva Photo Walk:  Join local photographer Kevin Colton on October 13, 2012 at 4 pm at HWS for a free Photo Walk of Geneva.  For more information or to register, please visit the worldwide photo walk website.  This event brings together a bunch of things that I really enjoy – walking, photography and Geneva!

Love Geneva The facebook page for this group describes Love Geneva as “an independent, grass-roots movement supporting economic and social sustainability in Geneva, NY”.  This past weekend they organized a cash-mob and encouraged folks to show some love to local hardware store, FA Church.

Bicycle Astronomy:  According to the website, “the idea of Bicycle Astronomy is to pair a long-tailed cargo bicycle with a telescope and run sustainable, spontaneous star parties around the city.”  Living on the west coast I thought I had seen every kind of bike imaginable.  But I was wrong.  I had yet to see a star bike toting a telescope around town.

How innovative is this stuff?  I love that all three initiatives are pedestrian-oriented (the hardware store is in our little walkable downtown).  Gooooo Geneva!

Maria Kalman on walking

When I moved to the U.S., my aunt gave me this wonderful book called And the Pursuit of Happiness by artist and writer Maria Kalman.  The book is a delightful tour through American political history.  Kalman has also illustrated Michael Pollan’s book, Food Rules:  An Eater’s Manual (see video overview here).  I have this magazine cover on my bulletin board at work and every time I look at it it makes me smile – a colourful bird perched on a woman’s head – how sweet!  I just love her work.

I also really love walking.  One of my all-time favourite books is called Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit. The importance of active transportation for the health of the environment, our communities and our own well-being cannot be overstated.  Anyone who has lived in a walkable community knows the enjoyment of walking as a regular part of your daily life.  Here in Geneva, I belong to a walking group, which has been a great excuse to get outside and meet my neighbours.

In this short little video below, Kalman discusses thinking and feeling and the connection to walking.  Enjoy!

By the way, I came across this video in the Brain Pickings newsletter.

Garden Walk Rocked

This weekend was the Garden Walk along Washington Street. Folks opened their yards to anyone who wanted to drop by and explore the garden. It was amazing to see what some people have done with their yards — there are flowers, fruits and veggies, places to sit and relax, ponds, statues and more. In addition to exploring the gardens, we really enjoyed running into friends along the way. We stopped and chatted, walked to another house, chatted some more and carried on. What a great way to spend the morning.

The other highlights from the event include the tree map that identifies some of the trees along Washington Street and the display hosted by two HWS students depicting a proposal for rebuilding the cemetery gate.

Oh and there is one more thing. We picked up a copy of Bloom, by artist Kevin Harwood. Bloom is a charming Illuminated Magazine about Geneva. Read more here.

20120624-164026.jpg20120624-164037.jpg20120624-164052.jpgA big thank-you to the organizers and volunteers who made the Garden Walk happen.