Greenwich Village Street Scene (wikimedia)

Two posts about urban planning and design for the holiday:

First, Vancouver, BC planner Larry Beasley gave a talk in the DC area and afterwards had a chat with the Greater Greater Washington folks.  He shares how Vancouver made sure that its high-rises made positive contributions to the urban fabric, although he’s not exactly for tall buildings everywhere.  My favorite quote:  “Government has to be an ally of the architect against all the other things that homogenize design.”

Second, a very thoughtful essay in The Atlantic on urban ideals, change, and gentrification. The Manhattan neighborhood that Jane Jacobs immortalized was not timeless, but in fact a snapshot of an area in the midst of the gentrification process.

I’m still digesting these and have nothing to say or add. Now go out and do something worthwhile on this Memorial Day; a whole bunch of people suffered and died to give you the chance.

11 Replies to “Two Holiday Essays”

  1. Walking around downtown Vancouver during the Olympics I was impressed with the height and density of the area. It was still walkable and a nice place to be, certainly a goal other cities may want to emulate. I know many suburban cities around here are trying to develop their downtowns with mixed used multi-story buildings because of constraints of the Growth Management Act. They should pick Mr. Beasley’s brain on the subject.

  2. My wife and I enjoy taking the train to Portland whenever we get the chance. The light rail and streetcar systems are very impressive. In addition, I always come away with the feeling that public decisionmakers in Portland somehow like people more than the ones in Seattle do.

    Is it really just better electric rail and more parks and trees?

    I’ve never had the chance to spend more than a couple of days there. Can anyone with longer experience in both cities give me a fair assessment of what it’s like to live there compared to Seattle, as regards transit and otherwise?

    Mark Dublin

    1. Portland has a lot of other great things about it besides a big head start on light rail. From a transportation standpoint they are lucky to not have subarea equity in Tri-Met. In my opinion there is a much greater understanding that Portland is important to Oregon’s economy than there is of Seattle here. They have had much more freedom to make rational decisions about their future.

      Another thing Portland has going for it–smaller downtown city blocks make for a nice scale and more small retail. Seattle’s megablocks deaden our streets.

      Both cities have some great neighborhoods to visit and live in. Portland is slightly cheaper, but overall similar to Seattle. Portland is an hour and a half from the ocean–a big selling point for me.

      Portland is a great city but it is not in the bigs like Seattle. Our metropolitan area is twice the size and it shows in many ways.

      1. The smaller blocks in Portland are actually because the (greedy) platters wanted a greater proportion of corner lots. But that overstates the difference, Seattle still has fine blocks by US standards ( – has a nice illustration of this). In fact, megablocks is a total misnomer, even for the long blocks (you do know that Seattle has several different block sizes, right?).

        The relationships to the state also need to be clarified a little. Portland is a much larger force in Oregon politics than Seattle because the city itself is much larger proportionally (15% vs. 9%). However, when you look at MSAs, the situation is reversed – 45% to 60%. So, metro Seattle dominates Washington State politics in a way that metro Portland does not. And Oregon is much less reliably Democratic as a whole once you leave Portland, Eugene and Corvallis. At least Vancouver (proper) and Spokane (proper) send Ds to the legislature at a pretty good rate – the same can’t be said for Salem or Medford.

        I’d explain it as the tourist experience – he went to Portland and saw the touristy part which is the downtown, the Pearl and maybe stuff in Forest Park (I’m guessing). The amenities he mentioned serve that area really well but are much less pronounced elsewhere.

      2. Portland to the ocean is an hour and a half by personal vehicle, I assume. (which means not a whole lot on a transit blog) Seattle to the Straits of Juan de Fuca is about that same time via transit: The Victoria Clipper, and then enjoy the plentiful beaches of Vancouver Island.

        As for Seattle’s beaches, we’ve got lots of them, not overwhelmed by scantilly-clad sunburners. A lot of our beaches are in a more natural state, and a much nicer place to adore what’s left of Gaia. Contrast that to walking along the beach on the Willamette or the Columbia.

  3. The Atlantic article and its comments give a lot of food for thought. It says the diversity of Greenwich Village (or any urban neighborhood) was possible only during a transition phase after the manufacturing economy receded and left its infrastructure (warehouses, urban housing, access to mass transit) and before the People With Money bought it up. A comment also cites the decommissioning of the port-related businesses on the southwest coast of Manhattan. I’m not a New Yorker so I’ll assume these are accurate. There’s also discussion on what Jacobs’ ideas were, and whether they were good/bad or realistic/unrealistic.

    I agree with the transition argument, but I also think affordable diversity can be maintained by spreading the infrastructure as widely as possible (as Jacobs also said). If you have only a few human-scaled/walkable neighborhoods, the rich will crowd everybody else out, but if you have a lot of them, there will be space for lower-income people too. The battle may be lost for historic neighborhoods that so many people want to move to, but it may be won as neglected/greenfield/suburban neighborhoods are reclaimed.

    Any other thoughts on how this applies to Seattle?

    1. I’m going to subscribe to the Atlantic as soon as I move.

      Christopher Leinberger also wrote “The Option of Urbanism”, an excellent book with a similar theme. He shows how and why the suburban landscape and mindset developed. In the 1930s the Futurama exhibit predicted an automobile-city utopia (the exhibit was sponsored by General Motors). No housing was built in the Depression or WWII, so 1950s families lived in 1920s streetcar suburbs. “Leave It to Beaver” was not how people lived but how they wanted to live. It was only in the 1970s that suburban market share accelerated, and the 80s when it finally took over and “most people” lived in a Brady Bunch house. That peaked in the early 90s as cities began rising again; then the popular shows were “Seinfeld” and “Too Close for Comfort”, set in dense cities where many people wanted to live.

      He shows how 1800s and early 1900s housing was built to last because it was custom built and a long-term investment. But Wall Street began financing housing (and offices and big box stores) in the 1980s, and investors required a return-on-investment in 19 years. So they focused on making it look nice (granite countertops) at a distance (you can’t see details when you’re driving past a place) while using less expensive materials and cutting corners on quality. Thus why hundred-year-old buildings are still going strong while many new buildings will barely outlast their mortgage. (The same goes for “build to suit” office spaces/big box stores, which are expected to be bulldozed in 20 years.)

      He also shows how the People With Money created a “favored quarter” in every metropolis, in the opposite direction of the historic industrial/poor district. (Where topography allows. In Seattle the industrial quarter is south and the favored quarter is east.) The favored quarter gets a triangle of freeways, with the biggest CEO living inside the triangle and reverse-commuting to someplace further out. So the richest people settle in the favored quarter, and then the jobs follow them, which turns the cities inside out. Working people have to live in transit-challenged suburbs or commute from the city (away from where the bulk of transit is).

      One interesting point in the article is that young people are less interested in cars and big houses than their parents were. The newly retired also see the advantages of walkable neighborhoods. So there’s a growing demographic shift. Elsewhere I read that Ameican car ownership and miles driven peaked around 2002: it’s now going downward. And finally zoning offices and Wall Street have accepted mixed-use developments: they see that those are the places that held their real estate value during the crash. One hopes that the NIMBYs won’t be able to force low zoning around Beacon Hill station and Mt Baker station, because that will look more and more like a mistake in twenty years.


    American Public Transportation Association’s rail conference at the Hyatt in downtown Vancouver from June 6-9, and this year, post-secondary students can attend for free!

    So just come to the APTA registration desk at the conference on the day you want to attend (it’s the Balmoral Room on the third floor of the Hyatt Regency) and bring your completed registration form and your valid student I.D.

    Non-APTA members pay a fee of $1125 US

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