Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Foibles and Follies of Chasing Stars

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Dallas: Look into the Mirror. It's the voice of reality speaking.

I had been hearing rumors for a couple of months now that Dallas was working on getting the College Football Hall of Fame relocated from hell South Bend, IN as part of the Convention Center and Convention Center Hotel complex. While I never paid too close attention to the story, perhaps either a case of fait accompli or the logical awareness of the worthlessness of the endeavor had prevented any further digging. But, today comes a story from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it will soon be announced that the HoF is moving to Atlanta after its lease is up in 2010.

And, the rumors of the Dallas effort are verified:
The possibility of moving the museum has been on the radar of Atlanta and other cities, particularly Dallas — which had the financial backing of billionaire T. Boone Pickens — because attendance has lagged at the South Bend location.
These are probably the two most logical locations in the country for such an institution. Both are somewhat centrally located and the largest cities of their respective geographic power conferences. Both have yearly big regular season games (although Atlanta's game is a kickoff classic/season opener sort of thing pitting ACC vs. SEC teams), bowl games, large airports, football mad areas, and relatively easy access.

Atlanta does have going for it that it has a downtown Athletic complex (which could be a lesson for Dallas - but not TOO big of a lesson), of course, because they were able to bribe their way into garnering had the Olympics. They have a major university (sorry SMU - your bribery is deemed a much more grave violation in this world of arbitrary lawlessness), are at the nexus of two major Athletic conferences (and from experience home to, like, ten billion Big Ten alums), and are nearer the Eastern seaboard and millions and millions more people. Advantage Atlanta (despite its reputation as a horrible sports town - consider that your silver lining Dallas).

While it would have been nice to have the College Football Hall of Fame here (personally I'm a huge college football fan - and in fact, will be catching a plane in less than 24 hours to get to this week's ESPN gameday location), I get a little bit of Schadenfreude out of this news. As I've mentioned recently, the City needs to learn its lesson that you can't buy your way into being an interesting and vibrant city, not with performing arts centers, not with museums, not with Convention Center Hotels, and not with Halls of Fame. Been to Canton or Springfield lately?

The thing is, despite our best efforts, the stars can never be touched (unless you end up falling into the center of one). Even the metaphorical stars we idolize are never quite the superheroes of our internal fables, especially when they're made of wax. But, those same individuals didn't just happen to end up on the walls. They didn't win any lottery (expect perhaps the genetic one). In most cases however, their honors came after years and years of hard work.

Perhaps, for a moment, we need to personify ourselves collectively as one of these college football superheroes to better understand how to reach similar honors or actualization of our goals of being a world class city.

We need to put in the hard work. Invest in ourselves not in accoutrements. All of the highways, the stadiums, the museums, etc. are the facelifts, tummy tucks, boob jobs, gaudy jewelry and caked on makeup as if it were applied by a shotgun of the typical Highland Park housewife you see in the grocery store.

We have yet fixed the inside --we're not that smart and we're not that healthy and sometimes to do so, it takes a hard, honest look in the mirror, to fix the fundamental issues (or in Downtown's case, honestly address the "cavities" and drill them out) to be comfortable with ourselves and proud of who we are and where we stand in the world, a tolerance of outward things occasionally being a little messy or disheveled, because urbanism is messy. It's complex. Like a bowling ball careening down a lane, it is both entirely out of control, but guided towards its goal by expert understanding and skill at the same time. Let's stay out of the gutter.

As we look to the rest of the world, I'm afraid, in a word, we are "frontin'", unwittingly and clownishly acting out as if we're a world class city, blankly staring thru the mirror (whilst thinking of donuts and diamonds) and reciting to ourselves that we are "good enough, smart enough and doggone it, people like me: willing to spend the money on silly ridiculi, but not the investments and hard work that define the underlying DNA of great cities.
Side note: many of these issues deal with crime and education, but the fundamental purview of this blog is urban form and transportation issues. In fact, crime and education are probably THE two most important, both of which are in need of effective short- AND long-term strategies, but I'm of the opinion that some measure of these can be affected thru good urban design which begets investment, which begets pride, which begets love of ourselves, our city.
All of which brings me to a study that came across my inbox today, entitled "How Far, By Which Route, and Why? A Spatial Analysis of Pedestrian Preference" which surveyed people at transit stations in order to determine the factors affecting their decisions. Often planners utilize a rather blunt instrument, the 1/4-mile walk or 5- or 10-minute walk radii for determining areas of walkability.

The factors not conveyed by this arbitrary circle are the most critical. What are you walking past? In a surface parking lot, spaces closest to the Target front door are a premium, solid gold real estate. I'm surprised malls and strip centers haven't found a way to appropriate market rate pricing to the best spaces.

In any "world class" city (which is a funny term, b/c Dallas likes to call its stuff "world class," but is unable to call itself the same), the limit to how far one is willing to walk may only be limited by how far one is physically able. Personally, I can recall numerous times where I collapsed exhausted after full days of walking through Copenhagen, Rome, Madrid, New York, Philly (yes, I included Philly), Milan, etc. etc.

Walkability scales, as well, to much smaller towns and cities like Malmo, SW or even State College, Pa. that are appropriate sizes for their economies, but are considered some of the best in their class, and therefore are destinations (not repellents). But, in terms of size of population (and economy) that previous list, are the Cities we wish to be competing against for 1) the title of world class and 2) future intellectual capital, businesses, trade, etc. i.e. future assets.

Walkability is driven by "stuff," that messiness, or clutter. We are drawn to see more, walk further, because our walk is interesting, enjoyable, and safe from vehicular onslaught or criminal intent. That "stuff" means access. Proximate access to everything from our most basic needs (food, shelter) to greater needs up the "Maslow hierarchy of urban needs" to more advanced and sophistocated needs or even wants (jobs, educations, community, leisure, social interaction, etc.). Once again, it is structural; a city's ability to deliver all of things builds up to a point once it can achieve all of the others. We're skipping steps.


Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs - with City "steps" added.

The above is a diagram of Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of needs climbing sequentially as civilization and personal achievement are able. A city is a mere physical representation of where a collection or community of people (some might call a city) has achieved, or at the least, grants access to achievement for all of its members. Like any pyramid it must obey by structural rules and a foundation must first be built.

Viability in this instance, would mean the purpose for a City to exist in the first place. Historically, communities clustered first for survival. As survival (via shelter and defense in numbers) was acheived, trade became possible which spawned things like markets at crossroads between peoples, spawning all new economies and places. These places lacked order and were in need of such Livable components as Rule of Law or justice system and access to education for personal advancement.

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Creating a city singularly defined by the car and its spatial arrangements has allowed for essentially a dual class caste system, divided North and South, a city unwilling to deal with its own "messiness". The line of demarcation seemingly being the Woodall Rogers trench moat Expressway between uptown and downtown, which has only moved southward from about the Mockingbird area since the investments in creating walkability, two of Dallas's best and most livable places: Knox-Henderson and Uptown (State-Thomas/McKinney Ave).

Investing in walkability leads to investment. As I said, walkability means lots of "stuff," which is access. People and businesses want to be near other people and businesses breeding multiplier effects of increased and enhanced feedback loops that spur business, make us address our "messiness" or weaknesses, and guide society like the expert hand of a bowler rolling a 300.

Building strictly for cars allows us to run from ourselves, creating places of disinvestment, our left behind urban cores, creating a voracious entropy that spews people further and further away to places like Wylie and Forney, which sound far away even in the fourth dimension let alone the first two. Hint: its a bad thing when your city repels people.

And there is Dallas, sitting lonesome, teary-eyed, and makeup running, full of freeways and no people, lacking the requisite density or tax base to pay for and support itself, a divorcee rejected by another suitor. A City at the exact moment where we can begin to be honest with ourselves and start fixing what really ails us. Will we?

Invest in the city. Make it livable. Make it walkable. Walkable places are sociopetal. Places that attract people attract investment.

And you know what, beyond all those advantages I listed for Atlanta. One thing I didn't mention is that Atlanta is further along on this path as well. Atlanta has its issues (many or all of which come from similar origins as sun belt cities, but also ones ingrained in the American geography/history (see: Leinberger's favored Quarter)) has current leadership that understands the positive feedback loops of urban form and the inherent problems with two-dimensional zoning and its eventuation into sociofugal car utopia, leaving us empty and shallow.

Atlanta's that girl on the magazine we wished we could be.