News providers are talking about cities in new, innovative ways. In 2013, The New York Times offered both a slick, interactive look at how New York City has changed during the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as the flashy “A Short History of the Highrise.”
More narrowly focused city and urban planning outlets, including The Atlantic Cities blog, Curbed and Streetsblog are also influencing the conversation on cities. Each offers insight and investigation into urban issues, revealing how journalism can impact the planning conversation in American communities.
This is not a new observation. Portland State University’s Carl Abbott, in his fascinating must-read How Cities Won the West, reveals a history of boosterism in cities across the American West, largely marketed through newspapers. Business leagues and civic groups in budding Western American towns offered tall tales of prosperity and opportunity to Eastern investors and new immigrants. Whet Moser, writing for Chicago magazine, notes that the attrition of newspaper-based planning coverage may be attributable to a rise of online-only sources. Regardless, news outlets, digital or otherwise, and the journalism they support, have maintained an important role in American communities.
At Boise State University’s Community and Regional Planning program (where I am studying), graduate students have become regular contributors to a locally-sourced blog on planning ideas and issues, called Planning Required. Investigations of historic preservation, sustainable development and the visions of early Utopian idealists have highlighted the powerful role journalism can play in academic development and community engagement.
Perhaps an online renaissance of the urban planning beat is upon us?
Last week NationalJournal and The Atlantic Cities jointly served up a series on beleaguered American auto hub Detroit, Michigan, as part of The Next Economy series. Journalist Tim Alberta, musing on the uncertain future of recent Motor City reinvestment amid empty relics of the city’s former grandeur, asks if Detroit can rebuild its middle class:
Stand at the Woodward Avenue overpass above Interstate 75, and you’ll see the two faces of Detroit. On one side is beautiful Comerica Park, a symbol of downtown economic revival, where city residents and suburbanites alike pack in to watch professional baseball in a world-class venue. Then, across the expressway looms an empty 13-story building, with the word “ZOMBIELAND” scrawled across the top.
Alberta also notes a brighter future for Detroit may come with new sources of civic pride, in the city’s upstart microbrewery and tech industries.
While American suburbs have become a popular target of disdain and derision within the larger American narrative, some writers and reporters are helping to clarify, rather than vilify, suburbanization. Jen Kalaidis, writer, Midwestern expat and recent New Yorker, penned a widely-shared treatise about her sobering on urban living, and a sudden longing for the suburban lifestyle of her youth.
Consider the smell of freshly cut grass. The echo of Golden Retrievers barking. A pleasant afternoon chat with your neighbor. Or, alternately, the ever-present smell of garbage, the blaring of sirens, and the aggravation that seems to come with even the smallest of errands.
“Where would you rather live?” asks Kalaidis. She also questions the sustainability of her urban lifestyle — measuring costs of time and affordability not always factored heavily into the equation.
Urban pundit Joel Kotkin, author of The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape, breaks with contemporary theorists who proclaim the country’s young people will flock to cities in coming years. Kotkin wrote in Forbes that as millenials near the end of their “often tumultuous” 20s, they tend to flock to the suburbs.
In Idaho city news, House Bill 480, introduced last month by Hayden Republican Rep. Ed Morse, would make design review requirements voluntary, and would bar cities from imposing aesthetic requirements on developers.
“We need jobs and economic development in this state much more than we need the planning police mandating their vision of beauty,” said Morse during debate on the bill, according to Betsy Russell of The Spokesman-Review. Idaho’s cities and the state’s chapter of the American Planning Association have come out strongly against the bill, arguing it dismantles local control.
Much city reporting, however, remains informed more by politics than planning.
In covering House Bill 480, Idaho Statesman reporter Sven Berg, who sometimes writes about urban affairs in Idaho, made some logical leaps in his analysis of City of Boise design review standards, suggesting an odd set of hurdles that a number of recent downtown building projects might not have faced in a world without design review. Berg editorializes that absent Design Review Committee oversight, Jack’s Urban Meeting Place, the Simplot family’s multimillion-dollar development at the corner of Front and 9th Streets, would be “more colorful,” and it might, he writes, “be finished by now.”
No official sources back up those claims, however. A spokesman for Simplot would neither confirm nor deny Berg’s assumptions. From the article:
“The Simplot family and the Design Review Committee ultimately worked out a solution for JUMP, a museum with education, event and leisure space that’s a tribute to Idaho agricultural giant J.R. Simplot. But four-and-a-half years passed from the time the family submitted its applications to the time the Design Review Committee gave JUMP its blessing.
Simplot spokesman David Cuoio wouldn’t say how much money the Simplots spent on redesigning elements to meet the committee’s demands – except that it was ‘significant.’ Cuoio wouldn’t comment on whether the family believed the committee was realistic during design review.”
The article could have quoted an expert before assuming when construction of the 65,000-square-foot, six-story structure would have reached completion absent design review and it could have pointed out that more than color was on the table; the original project resembled a “a parking garage embellished with theme park elements,” according to criticism from Design Review Committee member Elizabeth Wolf, something the design review managed to mitigate by voting to deny the original plans. For more on the project’s initial rejection, see the minutes from the October 13, 2010 meeting of the Design Review Committee.
Berg also devotes one line to the Trader Joe’s development, a city-block-sized project at 300 S. Capitol Boulevard, home to the popular Monrovia, Calif. grocer, as well as Panda Express and Chipotle restaurants.
The article makes no mention of specific Capitol Boulevard design requirements, which require not just window space and awnings, but wide sidewalks, pedestrian-oriented design and an unencumbered view of the Idaho State Capitol, the result of a process initiated during Dirk Kempthorne’s tenure as mayor. Astute readers remember TBR’s coverage of City of Boise design guidelines and their implementation, “The Rise and Fall of Capitol Boulevard.” Those requirements — and many more so-called “aesthetic” regulations — would become voluntary if House Bill 480 becomes law.
At the least, a planning perspective can bring balance to mainstream media discussions of urban affairs, particularly in a rural dominated state such as Idaho.
You can read the full text of House Bill 480 via the Idaho Legislature’s website.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.