A change in my work responsibilities affected my blogging productivity, but I also picked up a new blogging opportunity along the way. In April of this year I started writing for Forbes as a contributing writer, producing another 35 pieces there and broadening my exposure. The Forbes platform afforded me an opportunity to do things like interview Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed about an interesting and innovative infrastructure project. I’ve just scratched the surface there, and look for more from me there in 2017.
Here are the top ten most popular pieces posted on the Corner Side Yard in 2016.
10. Peak Suburbia? (1/8/16)
“At this time I see suburbs as inhabiting the same kind of place as city neighborhoods in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. The tide had yet to completely turn in the suburbs’ favor, but there were plentiful signs of weakness in urban residential and commercial markets. Preferences were shifting then as they are now — among homebuyers, developers and commercial tenants.
However, suburbs would do well to research what cities did when market forces and preferences shifted away from them, and avoid the mistakes cities made. Beginning in the ’60s, many cities tried to “suburbanize” their environments to compete directly with suburban expansion — large-scale planned residential developments where possible; turning walkable and vibrant commercial corridors into pedestrian malls; prioritizing auto access in ways that gutted existing neighborhoods; attempts to “sanitize” the urban environment, through secure corridors, signage and a strong police presence.
It didn’t work.”
“(N)ow that the pendulum is swinging back in favor of cities, their influence is ascending faster than their population growth. Cities are leading discussions now the economy, on infrastructure, on energy, on housing. For the latter third of the 20th century the suburbs led that discussion. But today, cities have reclaimed that role. Their actual size, in terms of population, matters less today than it did 60 years ago.”
8. A Taxonomy of Chicago (4/21/16)
“Many things about Chicago become clear using this prism. The gentrified and gentrifying communities represent about 29% of the city’s population; the transitioning and isolated communities, nearly 40%. There are clear differences in household size, household income, white and non-white resident percentages and educational attainment across the community types, and even subtle differences in terms of age.
The differences are stark enough to lead one to think that one Chicagoan’s perspective is completely and entirely different from another’s.”
7. Jane Jacobs — America’s First NIMBYist (5/10/16)
“Jacobs famously stood up to uber-builder Robert Moses by powerfully demonstrating the value of great city neighborhoods. She meticulously documented how they functioned, in ways that many mid-century planners either glossed over or flat-out missed. She used her platform as a writer for Architectural Forum to articulate how urban renewal projects were changing the very nature and character of urban neighborhoods. She was able to influence other thought leaders like Lewis Mumford, who joined her cause. In essence, she showed not only what was worth saving, but why.
But here’s where my reconsideration of Jacobs occurs. She found a way to brink back our appreciation of cities.
But she also laid the groundwork for the kind of NIMBYism that prevents cities from making virtually any step forward.”
“Rather than utilize its existing assets, and possibly tackle issues of integration at the same time, (Chicago Public Schools) elected to spend money it doesn’t have to build an annex that, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t need. One could argue that the Lincoln annex puts the two schools further apart, not closer.
And that has been the crux of my anti-upzoning argument. Where upzoning succeeds, it creates more housing in the place where the demand is greatest. Upzoning gives license to the development community to do just that. It also gives license to others — us — to forget about the underutilized parts of our cities, and wait until other neighborhoods are “emptied” so they can be “leveraged” to address the overcrowding in other areas.
This is repugnant.”
5. Notes From An Upzoning Heretic (7/7/16)
“(P)eople don’t make housing decisions or neighborhood decisions rationally. They take in all sorts of information and put it to subjective use, and justify its rationality later. Historical perceptions of neighborhoods linger far longer than their reality. Media perceptions can distort the reality of neighborhoods. Egos can get involved and people select neighborhoods that have a certain cache or brand. For urban neighborhoods in most cities, we find that affluence clusters in certain areas and moves outward slowly. Poverty expands quickly, as those who have the ability to escape it do so, and further destabilize a neighborhood in the process. The end result, again for cities that do not have the same strong return-to-the-city demand or the uniformly high home prices and rents, is affluent enclaves surrounded by expansive and increasingly impoverished neighborhoods.
Upzoning can accelerate this process.”
“It may seem mighty strange to say it, but Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh may be showing the rest of the Rust Belt exactly how you put together a restoration. His approach may be a template for the way Rust Belt cities can recapture their glory.”
3. Shifting Sands in Black America (5/2/16)
“Racism trumps the economy. Racism trumps progressive policy. Where blacks choose to live today is still shaped by racism…
I’ve personally witnessed this in south Cook County outside of Chicago since the early ’90s, as an influx of black homeowners replaced white residents. There was a time when housing values in, say, South Holland were comparable to what you’d see in, say, Buffalo Grove, two cities with a similar housing stock. Now the difference is huge. The same can be said for Prince George’s County, MD outside Washington, DC. It’s still the most affluent majority black jurisdiction in the nation, but do housing values there compare with Montgomery County, MD, or Fairfax County, VA? Hardly.
This is notable in metro Atlanta only because it’s happening now. It’s happened in other places and will continue to happen elsewhere. An interesting research project for someone who might consider it: I wonder about the number and demographic composition of people who looked at houses for sale in south DeKalb in 2000, and again in 2015. I’d wager that in 2000 the numbers were higher, and largely white; in 2015, vastly lower, and largely black.“
2. Something Amiss in Chicago (4/1/16)
“In my opinion the city’s current problems have their roots in its response to the Great Migration, the movement of African Americans from the South to Northern cities between 1900-1930 and again from 1945-1970. The rapidly expanding industrial economy in Chicago desperately needed workers to sustain itself. However, there was little desire for early Chicagoans to be inclusive, and a high social cost for being an African American in a Rust Belt city.
So what was the response? Containment. Real estate practices that prevented blacks from moving to certain areas. Business practices that prevented blacks from assuming better jobs. Governing practices that limited city investment in infrastructure, schools and parks in certain areas.
We know the impacts of this.”
“A thought hit me recently and I haven’t been able to put it away. Are there a set of unchanging laws that sort of regulate how we live at the neighborhood or community scale? I think there are, and they’re always implied rather than explicit. I think some people intuitively understand them better than others and definitely use them to their personal advantage. Those who understand the laws either find or create better neighborhoods, and have a better quality of life.”
There are a couple of other pieces written in 2016 that failed to make the top ten list but were well within the top twenty, and had a particular meaning for me. I was especially proud of these last two, because they touch on two themes that have been consistent in my writing — economic and social equity, and Detroit. Please check these out as well:
- Getting to Equity (1/31/16)
“Affluence seeks to cluster. When it does, it facilitates the spread of poverty into less desirable areas. And while stagnant incomes, a slow job recovery, rising education and health care costs, a shrinking middle class and unaffordable homes can explain a lot, much of the new attention to inequality is owed to the affluent’s newfound proximity to poverty. And while we continue to try to explain inequality in purely economic terms, it has a social and cultural context that we ignore at our peril.
The answer lies in creating heterogeneous communities. The kinds of communities that can accommodate people at multiple life stages, at multiple places on the economic spectrum.”
“There is an opportunity for Detroit to build on its rich urban design legacy to include more of the city, and more of its people, in its revival. There is an opportunity to set the stage for good — even innovative — urban development in the Motor City as the city continues to search for a new economic catalyst.
I believe the city should undertake a capital improvement/revitalization plan that utilizes its grand arterial streets — Gratiot, Woodward Grand River and Michigan avenues — and Grand Boulevard, the parkway necklace around the city’s inner core, as assets and foundations for growth. After that, the city could extend similar improvements to the locations where the arterial streets intersect with the defunct Detroit Terminal Railroad, further out from the city center. Finally, the improvements could be extended even further outward to Detroit’s other boulevard necklace, Outer Drive, near the city limits. Just as interstate highway development had the net impact of opening up outer bands of suburbia to city residents, this plan could open up languishing parts of the city for revitalization.”
I really enjoy writing these kinds of year-end pieces, because it offers the chance to reflect and see what moved me over the course of the year. I don’t intentionally write with an agenda to articulate; when the passion hits me, I write. I’m just glad that it ends up being coherent. I also like writing this because it allows me to see what moves my readers. One of the great things about this format is that it provides new readers a synopsis of what I write about and gives them an opportunity to jump on board.
But mostly I took this on because I felt there were voices in urbanism that were not heard. So much of what passes as today’s urbanism is economics, but I’ve always maintained that cities are social and cultural creations first. If we’re to truly understand cities, we need to understand the social and cultural foundations that formed them.
I’m grateful that my readers respond to the topics I bring up. I want to thank each of you for following me. Happy New Year, and look forward to seeing more from me in 2017.