What Makes a City Great?

richmond

A view of the Richmond, Va. skyline (via Will Fisher, Flickr.com; made available via Creative Commons license)

I’ve always been an urban enthusiast. I love cities. I love exploring them, examining them, studying them. My husband and I have always preferred a new city to a beach as a vacation destination. Even as I enjoy walking around a new place, I can’t help but take stock of what works–on an urban planning level–and what doesn’t.

A few years ago, when I read the seminal modern planning tome “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” by Jane Jacobs, I found myself nodding along with nearly all of Jacobs’s assertions. The book is not at all academic; in fact, it’s conversational and heavily anecdotal. Jacobs makes points that seem plainly obvious to a modern reader, but they were diametrically opposed to the principles of the early- and mid-century planning movement still popular at the time (whose origins can be traced back to de-slumming efforts).

A few of Jacobs’s salient points:

  • Areas should mixed-use, that is: zoned and used for work, living and play, to ensure vibrancy and safety. There should be “eyes on the street” at all hours of the day, from residents, business owners, workers, shoppers and those out on the town. This “diversity of use” creates a sense of community and place.
  • Pedestrian traffic, and in turn, density, is absolutely essential for a healthy city. Too many people, however, decrease sight lines and damage self-policing.
  • An abundance of tall residential buildings surrounded by unused green pace–especially in the form of isolated housing projects–create a sense disconnect.
  • Parks should ideally be placed in sunny, well-trafficked areas, not in far-removed courtyards or on the edges of neighborhoods.
  • Architecture should be varied to ensure variety of use and economic diversity (since rent for new construction can often be prohibitively expensive for existing businesses and residents).

This is all well and good for cities like New York and San Francisco and London, with existing infrastructure that allows for revitalization and a heavy concentration of pedestrians.

What of smaller cities, especially in the U.S., whose residents have migrated to the suburbs and whose downtowns, zoned almost entirely for work, stand vacant by 5:01 p.m.? Yes, young people are moving to city centers, but is it enough to counteract nearly 100 years of destructive urban policy?

In my hometown of Richmond, Va., downtown tobacco warehouses were converted into lofts in recent years, but some are, according to what would be Jacobs’s outlook, isolated. Yes, they have river views, and they’re a short walk from a number of good restaurants, but their backs front confined courtyards, vacant green space or large parking lots, effectively disconnecting them from the rest of the community and creating safety concerns. The residents’ eyes are diverted away from the street because, well, who’d want to stare at a parking lot? Also, would they want to cross that same empty lot on their own, in the dark, on their way home from a night out?

There’s a mayoral proposal to place a minor league baseball team near this same nightlife area (Shockoe Bottom), which has been the focus of multiple revitalization efforts. The most salient argument against development comes from those who want to preserve the space, which was the site of the second largest slave market in the country. But what to make of the proposal from a revitalization perspective? I haven’t yet done specifics-oriented research to see how many visitors a stadium would attract, but it doesn’t seem as though a seasonal attraction–not even an everyday seasonal attraction–is enough to make sure the area meets Jacobs’s diversity of use criteria. Like the current minor league stadium nearby, it’ll stand empty most days and nights, exacerbating the vacant feel of the ‘hood.

What the immediate neighborhood has little of is large-scale office space, though some are trying to change that. There are few people on the streets before 8 p.m. About 1.5 miles across the James River in Manchester, the Corrugated Box Building, a 40,000 square foot loft-style brick building, houses the Richmond-based offices of Tumblr and a bevy of other creative companies. Seems as though similar office space in Shockoe Bottom would greatly increase pedestrian traffic–a hallmark of a healthy city neighborhood–during the middle of the day. Foot traffic tends to initiate a snowball effect–the more pedestrians others witness, the more likely they are to park and walk around themselves. Pedestrian safety is essential, too, and Richmond, as the 20th most dangerous city for walking in the U.S., has a long way to go.

Car culture is ingrained in a medium-sized city like Richmond. I was reading a positive Yelp review of a buzzy new restaurant out in the ‘burbs. The reviewer listed his criteria for a top-notch spot: unique food, interesting cocktails and…plenty of parking. And I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way. How to counteract that? Side-street, small scale parking decks can help bring in people from the suburbs who are reluctant to troll for street parking. This is especially true for the emerging Broad Street district, where parking can be hard find. Carytown, a quirky nearly mile-long shopping area concentrated along West Cary Street does a good job of hiding small lots and decks off nearby streets. Large lots and decks syphon space and character and shouldn’t be a real option on Broad Street itself.

Richmond has plenty of attractions, but few attractive hotels. Aside from the 5-star classic Jefferson hotel, most are generic corporate giants on a business-only stretch downtown or off the interstate near office parks. An independent arts-focused hotel (from the owners of Quirk Galleryis planned for Broad Street and is slated to open Fall 2015. I hope its opening will signify a shift in momentum. I’m surprised no enterprising person has erected a boutique hotel in a neighborhood like The Fan, a historic Victorian district with restaurants, bars and easy walking access to Carytown, various parks and the museums of North Boulevard. A modern, low-lying, industrial-style hotel like the Renaissance New Orleans Arts would fit right in on West Main Street, the main commercial thoroughfare.

Visitors can help local businesses thrive, but it’s locals who determine the culture and character of their neighborhood, and effectively, their city. I’m optimistic about Richmond. There are a number of creative, committed people who love the city and want to make it a renowned destination. And there are so many things the city does have going for it: a variety of museums–both large and smallunique eateries and shops, one of the most beautiful city parks in the country, historic architecture and varied neighborhoods. RVA is on the rise.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: