Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Designer's Dozen

I really enjoyed city planner Jeff Speck's presentation at Christian Brothers University last week entitled The City Livable: Modest Suggestions for Making Memphis Great.

Unlike most plans or strategies — say the mayor's three-prong plan to improve the Memphis City Schools, with separate initiatives under each prong — Speck's ideas were very simple and concrete. And, no offense to the mayor's plan, but that made them seem actually doable.

Below are the 12 things he suggested, with some of his reasoning below. (apologies if it's front loaded. At some point, Speck realized he could dim the lights and I hadn't thought to bring my light pen with me. Mostly because I don't have one.)

1. Design your city for humans, not cars

There's been a trend since the '60s to let highway engineering onto city streets, but the wider a street is, the faster drivers feel comfortable going. And the faster people drive on a road, the less pedestrians want to walk alongside it.

(Speck didn't mention this, but if traffic is going 40 mph or faster, pedestrians don't feel comfortable walking next to it. Not coincidentally, I don't think, if a pedestrian gets hit by a car going 40 mph or faster, most are not likely to survive.)

2. stop diminishing your economic advantage

As cities have all become the same, older buildings are a city's distinguishing factor. So to stand out, it would be good to maintain some of our historic buildings. For a comparison, Speck showed a bunch of pictures of older buildings we've torn down and what is there now, including an old movie theater and what's there now: Parking Can Be Fun on Union Avenue.

"Look," he said, "parking can be fun, but more fun than a movie theater?"

3. plant trees

If planted alongside streets, trees are a barrier between pedestrians and cars, which made pedestrians feel safer. Not to mention that they lower heating and cooling costs, absorb water run-off and drastically increase real estate values.

Other communities around the country have already realized all these thing and are really stepping up tree planting.

4. organize neighborhoods around schools around neighborhoods

Neighborhood schools are better for the community, better for transportation costs, better for students.

5. fix downtown first

Several years ago, Speck started hearing good things about Denver and LoDo (its lower downtown historic district) and went to check it out. When he got there, he realized it was only two blocks.

"Two blocks changed the reputation of Denver," he said. "Reputation is important."

Downtown is one neighborhood that belongs to everybody.

6. practice urban triage

Cities trying to be uniformly excellent are often uniformly mediocre.

"You have to pick your winners and your losers. It's not about letting trash gather or not fixing potholes," Speck said. "It's about what place is going to be for pedestrians."

7. fix the 3rd street promenot

"You have these two amazing anchors — AutoZone Park and Beale Street. Between them is a limited pedestrian zone," Speck said.

Limited is putting it mildly. The area from 3rd and Union to 3rd and Beale includes the backside of the Peabody Hotel and parking on both sides. Speck suggested adding some small retail in front of one of the parking garages and using it to pull people across.

8. fix the Main Street, South Main knuckle

Main Street's pretty vibrant. South Main is pretty vibrant. And then you have Main at Linden with the Chisca, MLGW, and a parking garage next to a parking lot. ("When you have surface parking next to a garage, that's bad planning," Speck said.)

9. you deserve just a little urban waterfront

Speck wasn't completely digging the Riverfront Development Corporation's plans for the Beale Street Landing.

"I like the design, but this is not urban. This is ... rural."

Although, now that I think about it, he might have said pastoral. Anyway, point is the same. That's a lot of passive green space.

"You need places to shop, sit, and have a beer and a meal up against the water," he said. "There's an opportunity on Beale to create something urban." Something like this.

10. build the missing monument

Speck suggested building a Martin Luther King monument on the plaza outside the National Civil Rights Museum.

"You would have no trouble funding a monument on that site if you can get it together."

11. stop the outer loop — it's not built yet

So, Speck isn't a fan of sprawl. It's not economical, it's not good for the environment, and ironically, it's not even good for drivers.

"It's actually worse for cars to build sprawl. They all have to go on one arterial road," he said. "We know the model is broken, yet we continue to build it."

And if he needed an example, he found I-269.

"I thought it was being built because of the congestion, but it's being built because the money is there," he said. After citing local air quality concerns, asthma rates, and retail cannibalism, he said, "There is no proper argument for building the outer loop. Period."

12. put cars back on Main Street

If you want to read more about this, go here.

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