Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Historic" Photos

I was going through some loose photos when I came across a handful of old photos ("old" as in mid- to late-1990s or early '00s), probably all taken as I tried to finish up a roll of film before dropping it off for developing. Nothing of any quality, unfortunately, but I'm posting them as both a glimpse back at those not-so-distant days, as well as a reminder to myself and encouragement to others to go out there and photograph not just the people, but also the places, that make up your lives. I wish I had taken more pictures, and had spent a bit more time thinking about the images.

I have an actual date on this one: July 1997, taken from the roof of the Calhoun Square parking garage.
I've done the classic "don't" bar across the subject's face here, as I don't have his permission to publish this photo, and he might not like being splashed across the internet sporting both a Hypercolor shirt and a Yankees cap.

Same intersection, different year, different season.
So there you have it; a sampling of some "historic" photos from relatively recent times. Thank goodness for digital cameras; I have a nice new one now, complete with vast amounts of memory, so I can wander the neighborhood taking hundreds of images so that in ten or twenty years I won't be limited to looking at a handful of random filler photo from the late 2000s.

Monday, December 14, 2009

How to Give a Servantless Dinner

December is a busy time for many of us, and I'm guessing that at least some of you will be doing some entertaining over the next several weeks. I think it's also a safe bet that most of Uptown residents don't have servants. If that describes you, you might enjoy some tips from the former Uptown-based Buzza Company, the one-time second largest greeting card company in the United States. With that in mind, here are their top eight tips for a smooth do-it-yourself dinner party:

  1. Do not attempt to serve more than eight persons until you are sure you can do it successfully.

  2. Invite guests who are congenial.

  3. Avoid serving things that are too elaborate and fussy.

  4. Eliminate the necessity of passing things to your guests -- if they are good sports they will enjoy the informality and want to be of assistance.

  5. Have everything piping hot that is supposed to be hot. The same applies to cold dishes.

  6. Iced drinking water, rolls, and butter should be conveniently near at hand.

  7. Never attempt more than three courses, the salad to be served with the dinner.

  8. Table should be faultlessly set, according to directions for the informal dinner. Decorations very simple.

Sounds easy, right? Time to move on to the big decision: what to serve for dinner. Never fear, the party planners at Buzza have advice for that, too. Their suggested menu:

  • Cream of minced clam soup, garnished with wafers, celery, olives, and radishes

  • Crown roast of lamb

  • Peas, sweet potatoes en casserole, pickles, relish, jelly, rolls

  • Asparagus tip salad, mayonnaise

  • Chocolate ice-box pudding, whipped cream

  • Coffee, salted nuts, candy

Worried? Don't be: "There is no reason in the world why the independent women of today [1927]," reassures the author, "young brides and housekeepers (provided they know anything at all about cooking), should hire some Martha-by-the-day to do what they themselves can do with such a degree of satisfaction -- (and incidentally save five dollars or more) !

Just don't forget the place cards.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Green Metropolis, Part II (Chapters 2 and 3)

Chapter two of Green Metropolis ("Liquid Civilization") isn't as directly relevant to Uptown as most of the other chapters, but there's still some good topics for discussion. In short, Owen argues that oil is a, if not the, primary environmental issue today. Even those issues not directly caused by oil are created, or at least enabled, by the existence of oil and its use in modern technology and the ways in which it has shaped the modern world. "Driving is driving," writes Owen, and he argues that if society is really going to tackle the tough environmental problems it's going to take a lot more than just switching over to hybrid cars. More fuel-efficient cars (or use of alternative energy sources) are part of the solution, but an auto-centric society leads to increased sprawl, as well as less incentive for public transportation or communities compact enough for easy walking or biking.

It was in this chapter that I once again started thinking about HOURCAR's role in Uptown. I think HOURCAR is a great program; car sharing does help more people live without a car, yet still have easy and affordable access to one when they do need it. I think that makes both economic and environmental sense. Still, HOURCAR has at times seemed to be too focused on the use of hybrids at the expense of seeing the big picture (although that does seem to have shifted a bit). As recently as May 2009, for example, HOURCAR was saying that they were not going to purchase a pickup truck because hybrid trucks were too expensive. I can understand why they might choose to focus their money elsewhere, but at the same time the most important thing is not that the cars themselves are hybrid (although that's certainly a bonus), but that these cars help more people live without a car. They're obviously still driving, but are probably doing far, far less of if than they would if they had a car of their own. There's a blend to be struck between quality and quantity, and I think at this point the priority of car share organizations should be to blanket the city with these cars. If more cars means going with a non-hybrid then so be it. (In defense of HOURCAR, I should note that their current fleet of cars has expanded, and now includes a wider range of options than in the past. They seem to be trying to find that balance, and given their recent expansion it seems to be somewhat successful.)

Moving on to chapter three, "There and Back," there's a lot good stuff that fits in well with discussions about the greater Uptown area. Some of the chapter focuses on more suburban-style zoning, new sprawl, and long commutes, but Owen also makes some arguments that are more immediately relevant to the city and neighborhood. Some interesting bits from this chapter that caught my eye:
  • There can be contradictions in what a neighborhood or city says it wants and what the actual regulations allow. This is obvious, of course, but among other things Owen asks why "restrictive" regulations are often considered protective, when in fact they often restrict the very features they're intended to protect. This seems to be at the core of many, many discussions about Uptown and any future development. Locals want an urban neighborhood filled with lots of local businesses and services, walkable, great public transportation, safe, and all the rest, yet frequently turn around and in the next breath talk about concerns about too much traffic and a dislike of density, among other topics. To support all those local independent businesses, for example, we either need to have a big enough local resident customer base (which translates into a need for increased density), or we have to bring in a lot of customers from elsewhere, and realistically they're not all going to arrive by bus, bike, or foot. There are ways to balance these various issues, but that means going beyond simply focusing on vague terms like "character" or "green" and instead defining what exactly it is that we want, and what we're willing to compromise or change in order to get it. Recent discussions about some local zoning changes (like the upzoning along the Greenway and along Hennepin and Lyndale) highlight some of these issues.
  • Difficult parking and bad traffic can be a good thing. Tough to find or expensive parking or frustrating traffic jams are a strong incentive to choose alternative methods of commuting. In New York City, Owen writes, reducing congestion "would be a loss for the environment, not a gain." In Uptown, things get a bit more complicated. Uptowners can't hop on a subway (or LRT line) and skip the traffic jams; we sit in buses that get stuck in that same traffic. Traffic congestion might increase the appeal of walking or biking, but it doesn't necessarily help with the bus. On the other hand, I'd rather be sitting on a bus and reading (assuming I can get a seat) than behind a wheel, but that's not the case for many people. So, while bad traffic might increase the incentives for people to choose to live closer to their work, or to stop commuting to Minneapolis from Lakeville, I don't think it has a great impact on Uptown specifically. The parking situation, however, could be a different story. I have no problems with Uptown having increasingly tight parking in the residential neighborhoods. I think the commercial areas need to have appropriate parking available (although not free), but as far as residential parking goes, locals can either rent or buy a place with a garage, deal with street parking, rent a garage space from someone else, or go without a car. Increasingly inconvenient parking coupled with increases in availability of options such as HOURCAR, as well as improved public transportation, could provide the incentive for more local residents to either live without a car, cut down numbers of cars within a family, or otherwise reduce the numbers of trips taken by car. That would be good for both the neighborhood and for the environment.
  • "Public transit itself can be bad for the environment if it facilitates rather than discourages sprawl." This isn't Uptown-specific, but I think it's worth discussing. The Southwest LRT line does exactly that; it bypasses dense urban areas and encourages yet more development in places like Eden Prairie. Another Owen quote: commuter lines (which is what the proposed SW line will essentially be) enables sprawl at the end of the line and does "almost nothing to reduce car use in the central city." LRT might not be coming to Uptown, but I hope we can actually see some movement towards getting real transportation solutions in the city itself. It's also not as if there isn't room for significant transit ridership increases in Uptown and Lyn-Lake; despite the plentiful existing public transportation options the majority of residents are still making most of their trips by car. There is a lot of room for improvement.
  • Free-flowing traffic should not be considered a public entitlement. I like this one. Unfortunately, Uptown once again runs up against the bus problem: slow traffic means buses sit in traffic, too, so slow traffic in the city isn't doing much to encourage switching to other forms of transportation. Still, I think it's an interesting point. Keeping traffic moving should be a consideration when it comes to urban planning, but putting it first and foremost in development concerns (which seems to often be the case) is putting the needs of cars before the needs of people. It would be ironic if it became faster for someone from a more suburban (and less walkable) neighborhood or city along the Southwest Corridor or the Northstar Line and commute into downtown than for someone to live in Uptown and commute downtown. And that brings me to my final thought: commuting to and from work is not everything. Reducing commuting trips by car is important, and does have environmental benefits, but it's only one (relatively small) part of the larger environmental puzzle.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Green Metropolis, Part I

David Owen’s Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability, suggests that the best American model for urban environmentalism is New York City. “Green” living, argues Owen, is not best served by open space, solar panels, or hybrid cars, but is instead achieved through dense urban living. It’s an interesting concept, and one that I, for the most part, agree with. The book is worth reading in its entirety, but in the interest of being able to pick out specific topics to highlight for discussion I’ll post individual entries about each chapter (starting now, with chapter one). While some of the issues are more relevant when discussing larger city or regional planning, much of Owen’s ideas are directly relevant to debates over Uptown and its future. Many Uptowners like to consider themselves environmentalists, and as such, should give Green Metropolis and its argument careful consideration.

Owen’s argument can be summed up as follows:

Live Smaller. Americans live large. Big houses and their trappings are wasteful. New Yorkers live in smaller homes, and use a lot less energy than the average American.

Live Closer. New Yorkers often live close to where they live, work, shop, and play; Americans in general need to embrace this if we are going to make significant positive progress on environmental issues. High density mixed-use buildings and neighborhoods can and should be discussed as an environmentally-friendly housing and planning option.

Drive Less. “Miles matter than miles per gallon.” Owen spends a lot of time on this point. Driving is driving, and from an environmental standpoint focusing on fuel efficiency or form of power isn’t addressing the other major environmental problems contributed to or created by cars, including the many issues relating to sprawl.

In short, high-density urban living is ideal from an environmental standpoint. More people living in dense urban neighborhoods means less sprawl and an overall reduced environmental footprint. It means less driving. Environmentalists need to stop considering getting “back” to nature as the environmental ideal, and start looking at cities as the model for a truly green future.

So how does Uptown fit into all of this? While I don’t doubt the environmental good intentions of some of my fellow Uptown supporters, anyone who has followed local neighborhood issues knows that there’s a great deal of lip service paid to “green” issues like open space, trees, native grasses, organics recycling, and parks. I certainly approve of some of these issues, but I agree with Owen that they cloud the bigger environmental issue. Given the vocal nature of some of the anti-density but self-proclaimed eco-minded crowd, such as former City Planning Commissioner Lara Norkus-Crampton, it’s time that we start to discuss issues like density as an environmental framework. Green living is not just about seeing eagles on the lake or looking at the sky. Adding density doesn’t have to give up livability or “character” or look like Manhattan.

I do appreciate Uptown’s character, meaning its blend of uses, its historic architecture (commercial, industrial, residential, and civic), and its tree-lined streets (less so following years of Dutch Elm disease, unfortunately). I don’t want to see the area’s homes all destroyed and replaced by high-rise apartments. But, despite the “sky is falling” opponents who would suggest otherwise, high density (and yes, high buildings) can and should be integrated into the greater Uptown area. The feeling of the neighborhood may change in parts, but it’s unrealistic to think that Uptown’s “character” will always remain the same. The area has changed dramatically over the years, and despite even the most stringent zoning and area plans will continue to do so, like it or not. We might as well embrace change, encourage it in appropriate areas, and allow Uptown to become, if demand allows, a truly urban neighborhood. While I believe increased density to lead to more livable communities, it’s also the environmentally-correct thing to do. How can we in good conscience call ourselves environmentalists yet not advocate for increased density in Uptown and in the city?

Or, to put it bluntly, why can’t more people (ahem, certain local board members and former planning commissioners) understand that density, including mid-rise buildings on busy streets, has positive environmental implications? (or, conversely, that lack of density can have a negative impact?)

I, for one, find Green Metropolis to be energizing. I’m going to do my part to take back the urban environmental message. “Green” should not just mean support of parks, bike trails, solar panels, composting, or other such endeavors (however worthy); it should also mean something substantial. If someone wants to wear the mantle of “environmentalist” yet oppose projects such as the proposed Mozaic (the controversial proposed mixed-use building behind the Lagoon Theater), for example, then they need to be able to fully explain their reasoning. Everything has its positives and negatives and not all neighborhood goals are compatible, but it’s our responsibility to at least be aware of the implications of our decisions.

What do you think? Can Uptown handle more density? Should Uptown become more dense? Where does increasing urban density fall in Uptown’s list of priorities, environmental or others?
David Owen. Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.
Up next: Chapter Two, "Liquid Civilization," or "Driving is Driving."

Friday, December 4, 2009

Coming Soon: Green Metropolis Virtual Book Club Posts

I've been missing in action lately, but am now fully caught up from "real world" issues, and eager to get back to discussing life in the greater Uptown area. For those of you who are reading along with the Uptown Urban Studies Virtual Book Club, I'll be posting something on David Owen's Green Metropolis in the very near future. He has a lot of interesting points that are very relevant to Uptown/Lyn-Lake/Minneapolis, so there should be lots of good issues to ponder.

I was unable to check my email for a few weeks, so I apologize to anyone who has emailed me and has not yet received a response. I'm catching up on all of that, too.