The Roads that Divide Us

We often think of roads as things that connect us. They help us get from point A to point B. But they can also be an obstacle, a divider, especially when you’re a pedestrian and these are major roadways or highways. The possibility of having walkable neighborhoods, towns, or cities, has been a major theme in the Shaping our Towns & Cities project. We’ve talked, too, about the problem of urban highways that bisect or isolate neighborhoods. Jeremy Kutner’s Christian Science Monitor article “Downtown need a makeover? More cities are razing urban highways” looks into how some cities are seeking to revitalize their declining downtown areas by getting rid of these roadways that have shut them off. Many of these urban highways are nearing the end of their lifespan, so it could be an opportune time to explore alternatives, including visions of more connected and pedestrian friendly downtown neighborhoods.

–Jeff Prudhomme


Shrinking Communities

The shrinking of some of our towns and cities has been an ongoing topic in the Shaping our Towns & Cities discussions. Here’s an interesting piece by the AP’s Hope Yen about how “Census estimates show 1 in 4 US counties are dying.” Our discussions have circled now and then back to concerns about communities that are being left behind–especially rural and small town communities–as highlighted in Yen’s article. As Yen points out, this decline is not just about rural areas–there is also an emerging phenomenon of metro areas that overbuilt during the run-up of the housing market:

James Follain, senior fellow and economist at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University of Albany, said a new kind of declining city may be emerging in the wake of the housing bust — metropolitan areas that rapidly overbuilt earlier in the decade and then suffered massive foreclosures.

He cited as examples Las Vegas, Miami, parts of Arizona, and Stockton, Modesto, Fresno and Riverside in California. Like traditional ghost towns, Follain says, portions of these areas could spiral down from persistent loss of jobs and population and lose their reason for being.

Of course, as some areas decline, others grow:

Not all U.S. areas are declining. Most places with the fastest growth since 2000 were able to retain or attract college graduates and young professionals who came for jobs and later started families. Metro areas with diversified economies such as Austin, Texas, Raleigh, N.C., and Portland, Ore., all saw gains in college graduates; other places seeing gains or reduced losses in young adults, such as Washington, D.C., Boston and San Francisco, have burgeoning biotech industries.

What policy lessons might we draw from this?

–Jeff Prudhomme

Maker Culture, New Technologies, and Cities

Our cities and towns are shaped in part by their capacity for making, their capacity for some kind of “industry”–broadly understood. This has been a key theme in our project discussions on Shaping our Towns and Cities. Another key theme has been the exploration of the ways that technologies impact the ways we design our communities. One line of exploration has been to ask just what could be the new city-shaping technologies emerging that today. Just think of how the advent and proliferation of the technology of the automobile has changed the design of our communities.

These themes come together when you think about new technologies that could enable more localized small-scale manufacturing–or models of distributed manufacturing. Dave Davisson gives a nice compendium of these technologies and the proliferation of “Maker Culture” in an entry on his “Re/Creating Tampa” blog. With distributed manufacturing, people might not need to design spaces for manufacturing centers. If technologies like 3-D printing proliferate (you’ll find a longer discussion of 3-D printing at the Kojo Nnamdi show here), there could be a profound impact on the ways people relate to manufacturing and the design of our urban spaces.

–Jeff Prudhomme


Different means of transportation lead to different impacts on the shape of our towns and cities. This has been a near constant theme in the Shaping our Towns & Cities project discussions. Most of our discussions have centered on exploring the different ways that our communities have been designed for automotive transportation rather than walking, biking, or rail. This Wall Street Journal article, Cities of the Sky, sent in by one of our participants, brings up the idea of an “aerotropolis”–a city designed around air transportation. Greg Lindsay, the author, writes about Dubai:

It is a textbook example of an aerotropolis, which can be narrowly defined as a city planned around its airport or, more broadly, as a city less connected to its land-bound neighbors than to its peers thousands of miles away. The ideal aerotropolis is an amalgam of made-to-order office parks, convention hotels, cargo complexes and even factories, which in some cases line the runways. It is a pure node in a global network whose fast-moving packets are people and goods instead of data. And it is the future of the global city.

This connects with some other themes of our discussions, such as how we might think of designing cities as nodes in a larger distributive networks (rather than as stand-alone units) and how some community design and development might be intentionally short-term, with the emergence of ready-designed “instant cities” surrounding these global hubs of air transportation.  Lindsay certainly brings up a new twist on many of the ideas and concerns we’ve been discussing so far.

–Jeff Prudhomme

Sports and the City…

Sports and the city has been a prevalent topic in the Shaping our Towns & Cities discussions. We’ve talked a lot about how sports, and local sports teams, can provide an important expression of community identity and a way to bolster civic pride. This can have spill-over effects in the ways that cities and towns take shape as meaningful spaces–or as spaces that convey meaning for the lives of the residents. Along these lines the question has come up about what buildings in the cities and towns of today play the role of the cathedrals of the past–buildings that draw the community together and point to a meaning beyond the mundane routine. Are sports stadiums and arenas the cathedrals of our contemporary cities?

Another aspect of this is the economic dimension, especially when you think of the massive public investment in professional sports arenas. Sally Jenkins at the Washington Post had a great article on this after this year’s Super Bowl, “After a bloated Super Bowl in Dallas, it’s time to rein in the big game.” She talks about the exorbitant prices for tickets, parking, and concessions at Cowboys Stadium–as well as the irony of taxpayers financing a quarter of the construction costs of a stadium whose “innermost marble interiors are totally inaccessible to the average fan.” Of course, it’s not just the Cowboys in Texas. Across the US cities and states have been pouring public dollars into sports stadiums and arenas. Now as communities face deficits and cuts in public education and infrastructure, the question of their investment in our cathedrals of sports looms larger. Jenkins concludes:

But in the end, this Super Bowl taught me a lesson: Luxury can actually be debasing. The last great building binge in the NFL was from 1995 through 2003, when 21 stadiums were built or refurbished in order to create more luxury boxes, at cost of $6.4 billion. Know how much of that the public paid for? $4.4 billion. Why are we giving 32 rich guys that kind of money, just to prey on us at the box office and concessions? The Dallas deal should be the last of its kind.

When an owner grows tired of a facility and leaves, guess who picks up the tab? New Jersey still owes $110 million on the old Meadowlands home of the New York Giants and Jets, and when both teams moved to their new $1.6 billion, privately financed stadium, they got a huge tax break. According to the Wall Street Journal under their old agreement they paid $20 million a year in tax revenues; now they will pay only about $6 million a year. Know what New Jersey’s deficit is? I’ll tell you: $36 billion.

–Jeff Prudhomme

Walkable Neighborhoods

Walkable communities have been a big theme of discussion in the Shaping our Towns & Cities project. The ability for people to walk to the services and resources that they need or want in their daily lives has been discussed as a basic quality of life indicator. It has also been discussed as a way to encourage more social interactions, enhancing the sense of community. Never mind, of course, the public health benefit from all that walking. In terms of fostering community, it’s nice to see this study on Walkable Neighborhoods from the University of New Hampshire.

“We found that neighborhoods that are more walkable had higher levels of social capital such as trust among neighbors and participation in community events,” says Shannon Rogers, lead author of the study and a Ph.D. candidate in UNH’s Natural Resources and Earth System Science (NRESS) program. She adds that those who have higher levels of positive social capital have been shown to have a higher quality of life through better health and economic opportunities, among other things.”

UNH has posted a press release summarizing the study, and there’s an abstract here.

–Jeff Prudhomme

Time on Detroit

Many of the themes that panelists on the Shaping our Towns & Cities project have been discussing come up in Time magazine’s recent installment in their “Assignment Detroit” series, “How to Shrink a City.” How will we manage population changes in our cities and towns–including our shrinking cities and towns? How might public policy encourage greater density of development–including the contraction of our shrinking cities? What role might our industrial policy (or lack of a well-thought out industrial policy) play in the future of a shrinking city such as Detroit? How might the natural environment and the built environment be better harmonized in our towns and cities? Questions like these, and many more, have been swirling around our project discussions. It’s good to see them in a popular format like Time. The series is worth a look.

–Jeff Prudhomme