Hostile Spaces And Homelessness

In many large cities, public spaces have been modified.  Metal bars and blocks and bolts and even spikes have been added to benches and ledges and other seating areas, to make it uncomfortable, or even impossible, to stretch out and lie down.  In other places, the public spaces have no seating areas of any kind.  The underlying purpose of the additions and modifications seems painfully clear — to keep homeless people from sleeping or otherwise camping out in the spaces.

ae22fd62-197a-42f7-9714-d9d2702dc70c-2060x1236A recent New York Times article addressed this phenomenon of “hostile architecture” in public places.  The article reported that such actions have “increasingly drawn a backlash from critics who say that such measures are unnecessary and disproportionately target vulnerable populations. They have assailed what they call “anti-homeless spikes” for targeting those who have nowhere else to go at a time when many cities are grappling with a homelessness crisis.”  The article quotes an NYU professor who says:  “We’re building barriers and walls around apartment buildings and public spaces to keep out the diversity of people and uses that comprise urban life.”  Supporters of the modifications argue, on the other hand, that this new approach to public spaces is necessary to help maintain public order and safety and security.

So, what’s a city to do?

Most cities are struggling to deal with homelessness.  In Columbus, which doesn’t seem to have homelessness issues to the same degree as, say, San Francisco or Los Angeles, it’s not unusual to see a homeless person stretched out on a bench or sidewalk from time to time.  No one wants that — including, presumably, the homeless person.  Is it wrong to try to discourage that behavior by adding internal armrests to benches that prevent someone from lying down on the bench, but that aren’t going to bother office workers who are sitting outside eating their lunch, rather than trying to sleep? Are we really to the point where taking steps to prevent sleeping and camping out in public spaces are criticized as contrary to “the diversity of people and uses that comprise urban life,” as if dealing with homelessness, aggressive panhandlers, and public sleeping were part of some rich tapestry of city living?  Or, put another way, by not taking those steps, are city planners enabling conduct that also interferes with the real, intended public use of public spaces — because most people aren’t going to want to hang out in a square filled with sleeping homeless people and their stuff?

Proponents of “broken windows” theory would argue that allowing public sleeping and camping out creates an atmosphere of disorder and lawlessness that encourages criminal activity and other improper conduct.  I strongly support trying to help the homeless, but I also think trying to maintain order and promote the personal security of the non-homeless is an important goal, too.

For Your Health, Get Out Of Town

What’s the best way to avoid being laid low by the flu bug as we head into flu season?  It might be that getting out of town is more effective than getting a flu shot.

crowded-subway-istock-458985557A recent study has concluded that big cities have longer, “more vicious” flu seasons.  One of the researchers in the study explained:  “Larger cities have more organized movement patterns, and these patterns connect pockets of high population density together.”  The density factor is significant given how flu is transmitted.  As the researcher noted:  “Flu spreads from person to person by virus-bearing moisture droplets that an infected person exhales or coughs or sneezes out. This creates what you can think of as a moving cloud of risk around an infected individual.”

“A moving cloud of risk around an infected individual,” eh?  Make you want to go sit on the bus or the subway with a bunch of potentially sick strangers, doesn’t it?

None of this is a surprise to anyone who’s had kids, because it’s just the “preschool effect” writ large.  Once your kids go to preschool and are exposed to a bunch of other germy, sniffling rugrats, you suddenly notice that everybody in the family, including you, is sicker than they’ve ever been before.  Preschool undoubtedly helps to build up the immune system of children, because it is a living testament to the communicability of every different kind of cold, contagion, and virus.  Cities, and particularly mass transit settings in cities, are like one big preschool, where that “moving cloud of risk around an infected individual” is a lot more likely to find you.

Last winter’s flu season was a particularly savage one, and is estimated to have caused 80,000 deaths and a record number of hospitalizations.  If you want to avoid the bug this year, you might just want to get the heck out of town.

Belle Views

Belle Isle is a great example of how a good park can make a difference in a metropolitan area. It offers a beautiful view of downtown Detroit, lots of green space for picnics and dog walking, great roads for biking and jogging, and features like a beautiful white fountain and pond ringed by cherry trees.

There’s also a conservatory and a nifty little aquarium — both of which are free to the public, although a donation is encouraged. That’s a great benefit for a family that is living on a budget and trying to stretch their paychecks. And, in fact, Belle Isle was packed with people today, who were enjoying the amenities and some beautiful weather.

How many American cities offer these kinds of free benefits anymore? Not many. It’s one reason why the Detroit boosters are confident the Motor City will bounce back.

On The Old Commons


Established back in the early 1600s, the Commons remains a popular gathering spot for the people of Boston — and its tourists.  Along with the Boston Public Garden, located right next door, the Commons provides a merry-go-round, a frog pond, a towering memorial to the Bostonians who fought in the War Between the States — and some of the shady, grassy spots that city dwellers crave on a hot summer day.

Helping Birds Make It Home

Who doesn’t like birds — at least, birds other than pigeons?  They are pretty and colorful, they add happy chirping and warbling to our world, and they are a pleasure to watch as they soar, dip, and dive and make us wish we could fly, too.

But birds have a big problem.  Every year, millions of them are killed in urban settings for reasons collectively known as fatal light attraction.  They become disoriented by the mirrored surface of an office building, believe the reflection of a tree is the real thing, and are killed by the resulting collision.  Or they think they have a clear flight path to the tree and pond in the glass-walled atrium and fatally crash into the unseen window. If you’ve ever seen a bird strike a window — from inside or outside — and heard the terrible hollow thud the unfortunate bird makes you probably won’t forget it.

Scientists also worry that the bright lights of cities may be altering migration patterns because the lights interfere with the bird’s ability to navigate by starlight.  In addition, bird deaths from fatal light attraction interfere with normal evolutionary processes.  Whereas survival of the fittest is supposed to mean the genes of the strongest, healthiest birds are passed to the next generation, death from a window collision can strike down even the healthiest of our flying friends.

People are trying to do something about the problem of fatal light attraction.  The National Audubon Society sponsors a “lights out” program designed to reduce light confusion, with local chapters across the country.   In Canada, an organization called FLAP — for Fatal Light Awareness Program — is encouraging the construction and lighting of buildings in ways that will help to minimize unnecessary bird deaths.  And authorities are starting to take notice, too.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just announced that non-essential outdoor lights will be turned off in state-run buildings between 11 p.m. and dawn during the peak migratory seasons in the spring and fall.

Right now, there’s a bird outside my window, chirping with pleasure as dawn approaches.  Fewer soulless mirrored buildings, an end to generic office building atriums, and turning off bright lights during the early morning hours — which presumably would be a financial and energy savings, too — so that birds can migrate safely seems like a small price to pay to ensure that we can continue to enjoy their sweet morning song.

The Long, Hot Summer

There was rioting in Baltimore Saturday night.  Demonstrators protesting the death of Freddie Gray broke windows, smashed storefronts, threw rocks, and vandalized cars.  Gray died from spinal injuries a week after being arrested by police, and his funeral is today.  The Baltimore protests follow protests last year in Ferguson, Missouri.

Gray’s death, the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police, and other recent incidents involving African-Americans and police have raised tensions in our urban communities.  One incident follows on the heels of another, and the barrage seems to be having a cascading effect.  Many African-Americans feel that they are being racially targeted and, at times, brutally mistreated by the police, and the police in turn feel that they are under siege and unfairly maligned for a handful of incidents out of thousands of uneventful apprehensions and arrests.

Those of us who lived during the ’60s remember summers where rioting and violent clashes with police seemed to be routine and block after block of inner cities in America were looted, vandalized, and left gutted and smoking by arson.  Many neighborhoods that were destroyed never recovered and are still haunted ruins even now, decades later.  The ’60s were an especially turbulent time for many reasons, but that doesn’t mean what happened then could never happen now.  Simple protests can turn into riots when people feel sufficiently desperate and hopeless.

At this point, many of us are holding our breath and hoping that we can avoid another high-profile incident that might prove to be the tipping point.  Having lived through the ’60s, I have no desire to see another long, hot summer.

Riverside

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We’ve been spending much of our time during this Jacksonville visit just knocking around Richard’s Riverside neighborhood. It’s an older area just south of downtown, with some grand homes — such as this striking place along the river — as well as tidy apartment buildings, Victorian houses that have been converted to doctor and lawyer offices, nice parks, and a neat commercial area called Five Points — as well as the occasional orange tree.

It’s one of those neighborhoods that draws people because it’s got a lot to offer and is entirely walkable, bikeable, and joggable. It’s what a “mixed use” area aspires to be. Why don’t American cities have more neighborhoods like Riverside?

Car2go 4 Cols

Car2go has come to Columbus.  Walking in to work this morning, I saw two of their cars parked along Gay Street — which is appropriate, because Gay Street is the coolest street in downtown Columbus and car2go is a pretty cool idea.

IMG_1617According to the website and its FAQs, it works like this.  You fill out an application form and make one $35 payment to register after your application is accepted.  You are mailed a membership card.  You download the car2go app to your smartphone then use it to locate cars.  When you find one, you swipe your card, answer some questions, get in, and drive.  You are charged 38 cents a minute for use of the car, and you return it to a metered space within the car2go home area, which covers German Village, downtown, the University district, and Clintonville.  The charges are billed to your credit card.

It’s an interesting idea that is based on a core reality of urban living — owning your own car can be a pain when you live in a city.  You don’t need a car most of the time.  Parking spaces can be hard to find, and figuring out where to put your car can be a hassle.  With car2go, you only have a car when you really need it, and you only pay for it as long as you use it.  The two car2go vehicles I saw today were the small, two-seater models that seem well-suited to their limited purpose.

Will Columbus car2go work?  Beats me.  But if you want to offer an urban living lifestyle, as Columbus does, it seems like a pretty good idea that would fill a void.

 

In The Old Town

IMG_4835Today I was in downtown Manhattan.  And I mean, literally, downtown — in the oldest part of the city that sprang up along the water.

Although the wide boulevards and clean, rectangular grids of midtown and uptown New York City are nice, I like the downtown area.  I like the street names, like Wall Street and Beaver Street and Water Street, that tell you something about where the streets are and what kind of business occurred there back in colonial times.  I like the fact that the streets run every which way and the intersections make no sense and the buildings seem like they are on top of each other.  I like the crowded and chaotic feel of the place.

New York is huge and bustling, with skyscrapers seemingly on every corner.  It’s one of the biggest of the big cities, but when I am downtown I feel like I get a glimpse of the small town on an island from which the big city grew.

Colossal Cupcakes Kudos

IMG_3324You don’t see many really interesting store signs in downtown American cities anymore.  At least, you don’t see signs like the store signs of old.  As I child I loved the bright flashing neon, the painted windows, the cigar store Indians, and the giant-sized representations of one of the store’s products — be it a watch, or eyeglasses, or a single shoe.  Those were among the things that made the central cities so interesting and exciting.  Now, you get signs that are more subdued, as if the shopkeepers are too cool and hip to advertise their wares with signs that scream for attention.  It’s not a positive development in my book.

So, when I was walking down Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland last night, I had to stop and admire the signage for Colossal Cupcakes.  Bright lighting blazing against the night sky!  A glass window frosted with a depiction of a huge cupcake with hot pink icing!  And speaking of icing, the icing on the (cup)cake was a huge representation of a cupcake, all lurid pink and blue, hanging above the front entrance!

I’m not a cupcake eater, but I would have marched right into the store to buy a baker’s dozen and compliment the store owner for being proud of her product.  Unfortunately, the store was closed for the night, so I can only post on our family blog, encourage our northern Ohio readers to give their bakery business to Colossal Cupcakes, and say:  Colossal Cupcakes, I salute you!

(Not) Selling Savannah

Savannah, Georgia is supposed to be a really vibrant and interesting city, and a fun place to call home.  I was there for a brief visit once and liked it.

IMG_2873How do you find out about a city and what it is like to live there?  If you type “Savannah Georgia” into Google, one of the top options is the official website for the city.  With all due respect, it must rank among the lamest websites for any municipality in the developed world.

If you go to the website, you’ll see an odd array of buttons and links.  The six “popular links”  are “Mayor & Council,” “City Ordinances,” “Agendas & Minutes,” “City Employment,” “City Purchasing,” and “Flood Protection Information.”  Are those links really popular?  If you just wanted to find out about a city, would you ever want to go to those links?  And if you were trying to market Savannah as a place for outsiders to visit, would you seriously put any mention of “flood protection” on your home page?

The “News and Announcements” section doesn’t exactly show off Savannah as a place of fun and excitement, either.  For example, one bit of “news” is that 2013 city sanitation refrigerator magnets will be delivered next week.  You wouldn’t think the delivery of a refrigerator magnet would be a front-page news item, but in Savannah it is.  One can only imagine Savannah residents maintaining a state of cat-like readiness and waiting expectantly for that crucial refrigerator magnet delivery.  Do they dance in the streets when those magnets arrive?  And in case you’ve still got an appetite for news after learning about that bombshell, here’s two other, similarly thrilling front-page items:  “Tourism Advisory Committee to make recommendations” and “City crews respond to minor sewage spill.”

I’m not on the “Tourism Advisory Committee,” but I’ve got a recommendation — if you want to attract tourists, get rid of the hilariously bad website you’ve got now, with its mentions of floods, sewage spills, and sanitation refrigerator magnets, and develop an “official website” that depicts Savannah as the lovely, friendly, and entertaining place that it seems to be.

To Infinity, And Beyond

It’s fun to stand next to a very tall building and look straight up the side, to where the building’s lines converge into nothingness far overhead.  When you do that, you are seeing the world from a different perspective — and, of course, the blood rushes to the back of your head, you get a bit dizzy, and you look like a hick to the native city-dwellers.  All of that is just part of the fun.

This photo is of one of the Chevron buildings in downtown Houston.

Urban Birds

Obviously, the downtown areas of modern America cities are not pastoral places.  You don’t expect to find furry woodlands creatures gamboling through traffic, for example.

But there is one creature, besides humans, that seems to deal pretty well with the vast concrete expanse of the urban world:  birds.  And not just pigeons — those loud, filthy, disgusting rats of the air — either.

Plant a tree or two on a courtyard amidst the high rises, and you’re soon likely to find a bird or two or perched in the branches.  On a recent trip to Houston, I saw three different types of birds (at least, they looked to be different to my untrained eye) clinging to branches in the same tree on the same generic corporate office building plaza — chirping, grooming themselves, calling out to their fellow feathered friends, and finally flapping off to some other location.

Birds are good company when you are moving through a downtown area.  A chirp and a flutter of wings may be small things, but they make you feel like you still have some connection to the world that exists beyond the edge of the concrete, asphalt, and steel.

Bonbons In The Big City

The design of corporate plazas often is rote and uninspired.  A lone tree in a planter here, a random piece of abstract sculpture there, a concrete bench or two at the opposite end . . . it’s why so many downtown areas have this grim sense of sameness.

It’s a pleasure when you see some downtown landscaping that is different and interesting, like this collection of topiary bushes in front of one of the Chevron buildings in Houston.  The spherical shrubs look like bonbons in a candy box, or tomatoes on the shelf in the produce section at the grocery store.  Seeing the ball-like shapes as I walked by brought a smile to my face.

Urban Bicycle Security

In most cities, if you want to ride your bike to work, you’ve got few options.  You can carry your bike to your office, if your boss permits it.  Or you can lock your bike to a bike rack, or a tree, and leave it exposed to the elements — and the tender mercies of any mean-spirited, thieving passerby who might want to steal a tire, or cut your bike chain with boltcutters, or leave your bike a twisted hunk of metal just because they happen to be in an unsociable mood.

Today in Houston I saw something I’ve never seen before in the urban bicycle security area.  Apparently installed by the Houston Department of Public Works and Engineering, it’s called Bikelid.  It consists of a metal frame against which you put your bike, and a fiberglass canopy that descends to cover your bicycle to a point about an inch from the ground.  You then lock the fiberglass canopy against the metal frame.  Your bike stays snug and secure under the fiberglass cover until you come to pedal it away.

There were about a dozen of the Bikelid devices in front of one of the high-rises I passed by today, and almost all of them appeared to be in use.  Seems like a pretty good idea to me.  If we want to encourage bicycle commuters, we need to give them a place to store their bikes while they are working.  Bikes are costly investments these days, and people aren’t going to take the risk of cycling to work unless they’ve got a secure area to put their bikes.  And while the Bikelids aren’t the most attractive additions to the municipal landscape, they aren’t nearly as ugly — or as dispiriting — as a bike that has been vandalized.