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.

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Does it matter if HWS has an office downtown?

Yes, it does. I recently noticed an HWS office sign downtown on Main Street. I really think this is a great idea for a number of reasons:

  • the more people working, living and shopping downtown, the more vibrant our Main Streets will become;
  • working downtown means that employees can use their lunch breaks to walk to places to eat or do errands (e.g. post office, public library);
  • there is one less vacant storefront;
  • I think the university is leasing the space, which means that the building owner, in turn, is paying property taxes (note: typically, universities are exempt from local property taxes), and;
  • it seems to me that there is something symbolic about extending the built environment of the campus into the heart of the city. I know that there are loads of great campus / community initiatives, but there is something about a bricks and mortar presence that strikes me as pretty powerful.

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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
TBD

Downtown Keeps Getting Better

More exciting news about downtown Geneva! The Local Development Corporation has narrowed down the selection for the Race for the Space competition to two finalists: LIME, a casually eclectic boutique, submitted by Michelle Carter Eades and The Dancing Bear, a retail beer store and coffee to go, submitted by Victor Pultinas and Jenna La Vita (see the press release for more info).  Both of these businesses sound great and would make lovely additions to our increasingly fabulous downtown.

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The Urbanist’s Guide to Picking a Football Team

How does an urbanist decide which football team to root for in Superbowl 2013? Instinctively, I want to cheer for the 49ers who hail from San Francisco, a city renowned for it’s wonderful, walkable, mixed use neighborhoods. Then again, I’m also inclined to cheer for the team whose name – the Ravens – is derived from a poem written by one-time Baltimore resident, Edgar Allen Poe. What am I to do?

Typically, we don’t compare the central city in a large metropolitan region like San Francisco or Baltimore to a small, rural city like Geneva. In this case, however, I think it’s reasonable to make an exception. I’ve pulled together a handful of indicators from the American Community Survey to see how Geneva stacks up to these two football rivals.

If Geneva had an NFL team, it would be supported by a community that looks a lot more like Baltimore than San Francisco. For this reason, I’m going to have to go with the Ravens.

San Francisco Baltimore Geneva
Population 797,983 620,210 13,314
Median age (years) 38 34 30
Percent bachelor’s degree or higher 51% 26% 25%
Percent population over 16 employed 64% 54% 52%
Median household income $72,947 $40,100 $39,269
Median home value $767,300 $163,700 $87,000
Percent of vacant housing units 10% 19% 10%
Language spoken at home – English only 55% 91% 88%
Language spoken at home – Spanish 12% 4% 8%

Source: 2007-2011 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates

Race for the Space

I was downtown yesterday afternoon and learned that Zotos is going out of business.  It’s always sad when a business closes, especially one that you really enjoyed (where else can you buy lovely and sophisticated candles that are made in Geneva?!).  While I was in the store stocking up on half-priced goods, the store manager was telling me about a competition to encourage new businesses downtown called “Race for the Space“.  Maybe when one door closes, another one opens.  The competition is run by the Geneva Local Development Corporation and is designed to award free rent for a year as well as help with marketing, architectural services, etc. to a new business willing to set-up shop downtown.  Pretty interesting, eh?!  Sounds like an innovative idea to me.

Can we ever really bury the past?

Last week we went to Boston for a few days and drove into downtown via an underground highway. Our hotel was right on the water and across the street there was a long and skinny park. The park contained windy pathways, places to sit and a few light installations. Needless to say, there weren’t a lot of people using the park in early January. Regardless of the weather, I had a hard time imagining people using this funny park, surrounded as it is by roads and hotels.

Why does it matter how well-loved this park is? Well, it’s the outcome from the Big Dig, a multi-year, multi-billion dollar project to bury a highway and build a park in its place. Many American cities have highways that cut through the downtown, Rochester and Syracuse included. If you’ve ever had to cross underneath or overtop of one of these highways, you understand what kind of a physical and psychological barrier it can be. Recently, there have been proposals to bury or lower parts of the Rochester and Syracuse highways (see here for Rochester and here for Syracuse).

20130112-170116.jpgMy gut reaction is to support initiatives like the Big Dig that aim to tear down these old highways and build more walkable and connected downtowns. I’m not sure what the future will hold for the highways in upstate NY, but the outcome in Boston definitely gave me pause. Over time and as the surrounding streetscape evolves, I’m sure the park will come to seem like a more integral part of the neighborhood. For now, however, I’m not sure that we can effectively bury the past.
20130112-175449.jpgThis picture was taken in Albany, NY.

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!

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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!

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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!

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