UrbanGR is a BLOG/site providing a data oriented Urbanist view of Grand Rapids, MI.
What is Urbanism? What is an Urbanist?
There are two Urbanisms.
One, is, as defined by Roberta Brandes Gratz: "Urbanism is that easily misunderstood study of cities and towns that focuses on the total built environment - Jane Jacobs called it the ecology - of a place, the pattern and interaction of streets, buildings, roadways, public spaces, public buildings, and people."
This first Urbanism is a field of study. If you are talking to an AICP (American Institute Certified Planner) they probably are using this definition; this excludes themselves - as trained experts - from the uninformed mass of humanity. Formal education and training is a vital part of an advanced society; yet the results produced by such experts, in practice, is - with worrisome frequency, - disastrous.
An Urbanist, or perhaps, the other Urbanism, includes the former [maybe? many, perhap most, AICPs clearly dislike urbanity], but is more. The second Urbanism - the Urbanist - is collection of beliefs; beliefs born from both data and experience.
An Urbanist believes:
Cities are good, they are one of the principle accomplishments of Humanity. They are not a problem to be solved - they are a solution. Humans created them for pragmatic reasons: safety, convenience, prosperity, and fun.
safety : the most effective path to safety is to be seen. Being alone is the state of greatest danger. Humans are predisposed to look out for one another. A busy street is a safe street, a dark lonely road is a dangerous place. Like the movie tag line: "In space nobody can hear you scream". The same can be said of the suburbs. This is one of many reasons that pedestrians and traffic are not problems to be solved. Pedestrians and traffic are solutions.
"If you don’t have a parking or congestion problem then you are not a good place." - Ethan Kent
convenience : what you need is nearby. Putting a lot of people in a smaller space makes this happens. Otherwise convenience is not possible. It's math. Density is a good, not a problem to be solved. The very real challenge inherent within Urbanism is the creation of quality spaces; we do not need large spaces, we need quality spaces. But we know how to do that, it is a solved problem. We solved it centuries ago. It is a matter of actually doing it.
"If we’ve got parks, restaurants, plazas, and workspace we can walk to, why would we need to build those amenities into our homes?" - Gracen Johnson
- This is also the locus of probably the second most powerful opponent of Urbanism, particularly in America: a cultural fascination with new technology. The first of these to challenge the Urban solution was the automobile. Now tech companies are raising other distractions including door-to-door shipment of everything. Yet, hidden in the math, is the problem with all these solutions: extremely high costs. They do not offer true convenience, or if they do, it is only for the affluent - the only people who will ultimately be able to afford to use them. The low cost of nearby is a result of geometry, not of technology, a constraint which can never be superseded.
- prosperity : convenience releases time. Safety enables risk. Proximity with other people creates opportunity. The lower costs and the concentration of infrastructure releases resources for other uses; which uses? Who knows! Which is the point. Humans are clever and industrious. Those characteristics flourish when placed in a fertile context - which is the city.
- fun : mentally healthy people like people. The correlation of health and longevity to strong social networks is well documented. These networks develop most readily in places which are safe and convenient. Even suburbanites know to "go downtown" to have a good time.
- Cities are dynamic things, they must, and must be permitted to, evolve. The greatest danger to a city is to become captured by the preferences, tastes, and fears of today; resources and people always have the option to go elsewhere. A city must always be seeking ways to help them stay. A healthy city embraces change; a healthy city desires growth. The floor of every train station and bus terminal should be a welcome mat.
- Of course, there are many ways to grow, many choices to me made. Let the arguments begin! But any position which is "No!" is not an Urbanist position. If your answer is "No", you are not an Urbanist. An Urbanist finds a way to say "Yes!". Because cities are little different than a great improvisation in which all the residents must participate; they have too much in common not to seek a way forward, together.
- Here is the most powerful opponent to Urbanism: a belief that a city, or even a neighborhood in a city, can be "done". A desire for stability - stasis - is the most dangerous thing a city faces. When the city itself says "No", the city injures itself, it chooses failure over success.
This site is a meant as a practical layman's fusion of the two Urbanisms.
The origin of this site is born out of frustration.
- Frustration at civic institutions that do not effectively communicate their message. In their defense the local media organizations leave much to be desired and as often as not obfuscate more than they clarify.
- Frustration at traditional news organizations which seem to do little more than cut-n-paste from new releases. I have so often read an article and wondered... have you been there? Have you ever ridden the bus? Did you attend that meeting? Failure to provide context or related information is pandemic. News articles published on the web chronically fail to link to source material or even the organizations mentioned in the article.
- Related to this is a problem of regional definition. It appears that for many traditional news organizations local means pretty much anywhere, and "Grand Rapids" means "western Michigan, perhaps central Michigan, and maybe all of Michigan, or anywhere else for that matter". By "Grand Rapids" this site means the municipal boundary of the City of Grand Rapids, unless otherwise noted. For example, the eastern side of the East Beltline north of I96 is not Grand Rapids. It makes some sense to use these terms loosely when writing about topics like inter-city transportation, but for topics like development where only developments within the city pay city taxes the recognition of these boundaries is critical to understanding the whole story.
- Frustrations concerning, as a citizen, being asked the same questions, repeatedly - "Why are they doing that?". Which links back the the failure of local media organizations. Some of the answers to those questions can be answered here; providing a place to point to.
Given all that frustration, here you are. I hope I can facilitate people having views or positions on local urban issues that are supported by the data rather than empty ideology or general perceptions of who and where we are; perceptions that if ever true at all may be decades out of date.
And data is fun. It often surprises. We may not be who we believe we are.