About This Blog

The author in Greenwich Village back in 2003.
(photo by Karen Zack)
I love cities. Despite the fact that I grew up on a farm, I'm a city guy at heart. I love all kinds of cities: big ones, small ones, towns, suburbs (the good suburbs, that is), villages, old cities, new cities, master-planned cities, and organic cities. Cities—when done well—are fun, exciting, and inspiring. How could you not love them?

That alone isn't enough to motivate me to write a blog, though. I'm blogging because cities are important, and because we've done a terrible job of building them for the past 60 years. There are a lot of people out there writing great things about how to improve our cities, but many of them approach urban solutions from the point of view of an academic, designer, or consultant. I've worked in local government for many years and I will bring that perspective and skill set to the conversation. I know how to use plans and codes to make great places happen. In this blog I will combine that experience with what I have learned in my personal time as a city loverwhen I travel, explore, photograph, and measure the places I love in order to reverse engineer the principles that make them great.

That reminds me...

This is my personal blog. All opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone, and do not necessarily represent my employer.

Why Cities Are Important

Most of us in the world live in some sort of human settlement that is more concentrated than a farm or a little cabin in the woods, and we need them to be great.

We need these settlements to be great because when they're not, our environment suffers. When they're not laid out intelligently we are forced to drive a lot, and that causes us to produce more smog than we need to. When they're not compact we use more electricity than we need to, and that results in yet more smog. When they take up too much space we remove more farms, forests, and deserts than we need to. When they're not beautiful we hide  unattractive buildings behind more grass and landscaping than we need to, which causes us to use more water than we need to.

When our cities aren't great it holds our economy back. The more space that we take up, the more roads and pipes and other infrastructure that we have to build, and that drains the public coffers. When our cities don't make us happy, we move to the next one, leaving underutilized and unloved places (and all of their buildings, infrastructure, and other investments) behind. When our cities don't successfully bring people together to build real wealth, then we have to rely on short-lived gimmicks to raise revenue for services.

We need cities, towns, suburbs, and villages to be great to nurture our spirits. When the hometown team wins the big game, we need a Main Street so that we can come together for a parade. When tragedy strikes, we need somewhere better than the hardware store parking lot for the candlelight vigil. We need places where we can have fun, together. When we want to socialize, we need places to go where we can see and and be seen, where we can meet neighbors and friends in a public setting, and where we can build the bonds of community. Our society in the United States is massive and diverse; to rally together for the common good we need a public realm where we can get to know each other, where we all have a stake in the outcome, where we can build trust, and where we can have shared experiences.

Most importantly, though, we need them to be great because life is short, and if we're going to live in cities we deserve to live in cities that make us happy.

Improving Cities by Improving Choices

We need people around the US (and the rest of the world, but especially the US) to move to efficient places where they can drive less, use less electricity, and take up less space. We need them to do this not because they saw a really great public service announcement on TV and they decided to go out of their way to do “the right thing.” That is unsustainable. If large quantities of people are going to use fewer natural resources consistently over the long term, it will be because the layout of their surroundings makes it easy. We need to make the efficient places so enjoyable and desirable that large quantities of people voluntarily flock to them. This is a free country, so we need to appeal to people with choice when designing our cities. This isn't about forcing anybody to do anything, and this isn't about building only one thing. This is about creating choices and balance.

I want to be clear that I'm not against any particular type of development. I'm not proposing that we force anybody to live in a way that they don't want to live. Rather, I want to create a wide variety of choices, including dense urban ones. I want each type of development to be located in the places that make the most sense, I want each type of development to be very well-designed, and I want each type of development to pay its fair share of its public costs.

(Mark Crosse)
In this blog I will occasionally disparage sprawl. However, I won't be knocking sprawl because it consists of suburbs. Suburbs can be really great. I'll be knocking sprawl because for the past 60 years we have built only car suburbs and have effectively banned everything else; because we placed suburban development where it made absolutely no sense, such as downtowns; because many of these suburbs were poorly designed; and because much of the sprawl was subsidized in some manner, distorting the market as well as the built environment.

I will also, from to time, lament the negative impact that automobiles have on our urban form, our environment, and our safety. However, I am not anti-car. I own a few, and driving can be both fun and useful. The problem isn't that we have cars. The problem is that we have impoverished every other mode of transportation, people who would rather not drive have been forced to drive, and our car trips cover much more mileage than is ideal for our air, our physical safety, and our pocketbooks.

We need choices. We need to have multiple types of cities and neighborhoods available to us, we need multiple viable transportation systems to choose from, and we need a wide variety of housing types available to use. We need choices that can accommodate the needs and desires of a wide variety of people, and we cannot fall into the mindset that causes us to act as if things that we do not personally prefer should not exist.

The Bottom Line

I want to use this blog to explore what makes cities great. I will share with you what I've learned in my 17 years in the urban planning profession, and I hope to start a dialog with you that will hopefully lead us to solutions to some of the great urban riddles of our day. I hope you learn something, I'm eager for you to share your insights with me, and I hope you find this to be a fun place to explore humanity's greatest and most complex invention: the city!