A Density Gradient

This is a repeat from 2015, with a minor update.

Cities are coming back across the US for many reasons. The unsafe, dirty urban core of legend is being replaced by funky, hip neighborhoods with character and charm. Life in the city can be good, now that the perma-haze of pollution has been tamed. Transit helps make life more relaxing and even cheaper. Young people in particular find revitalized cities to be affordable and great places to meet their mate and then raise kids.

The movement owes a lot to New Urbanism, junking the old industrial model for cities as centers for jobs and emphasizing attractive, functional places to live. We’ve learned a lot. But if there is one flaw in this model it’s the constant emphasis on higher and higher density. There’s always a place for high density in the urban world, of course, but it doesn’t work everywhere.

A better way to look at what makes cities great is a model based on the density gradient – a gradual increase towards the core that is economically and aesthetically sustainable.

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Visions for West Seventh

How do you fit all the public amenities needed for a 21st century city into a 19th century street? Some cities benefited from great forethought, like Salt Lake City, and gave a few extra feet here and there for the public realm. Saint Paul, my hometown, wasn’t as generous.

As I have discussed before, I’m deeply involved in the process of considering transit improvements to West Seventh Street. For me, it’s more than just my ‘hood – it’s a very classic street through a neighborhood that demonstrates many of the best things that cities have to offer. Yes, it needs a little something here and there, and should include better transit.

This is a big public decision, and the public has to be involved. In order to communicate not just plans but the thinking behind them, for true citizen empowerment, it’s vital that we get into how this is going.

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Transit in the Twin Cities

Since I started serving on the Technical Advisory Committee for the Riverview Corridor transit project, I’ve had a front row seat from which to view the planning process here in St Paul. This isn’t the first time I’ve served on a group like this, but it is the most intensive and serious effort so far.

As a built urban environment, this is not an easy place to plan transit. Traversing the West Seventh neighborhood is only one problem – it has to cross the Mississippi eventually, which will be expensive.

I would like to tell you what I think is the ideal place for transit from Downtown St Paul to the airport and beyond, but it would be inappropriate. The process that we are moving through seems so deeply flawed that jumping to a “solution” is simply not what is needed. Whatever comes out of this is likely to be inadequate and jumbled.

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