Sunday, January 18, 2015

New Year's resolutions


One goal of mine this year is to engage in more public discussions of urbanism, particularly its role in local public policy. I think this will require more focus than I'm used to blogging. I like being able to choose subject matter, and to ignore news distractions like partisan politics, scandals, and kerfluffles-of-the-moment (like the current bleating about whether President Obama should have gone to the march in Paris). That still gives me a lot of topics to hop between, and being from and of liberal arts education I do enjoy hopping between topics. But somehow I doubt that variety is the spice of productive meetings.

All of which has me thinking about setting priorities. This means developing a short list of ways the Cedar Rapids metropolitan area could move towards urbanism, defined most succinctly on the wise North Bay Design Kit blog as building and operating communities in ways that make them "fiscally viable and environmentally sustainable." What follows are the results of the first round of brainstorming. Note that I'm torn between processes that I understand (like metropolitan government) and goals that I value but am not sure how to achieve (like improving career opportunities for the poor). Still not ready to focus completely, I guess.

100 4th Ave Sw #401 401, Cedar Rapids, IA, 52404 -- Homes For Sale
New condo development, 100 4th Av SW, swiped from
1. Develop a 24-hour downtown. Downtown and the New Bohemia area to its south have come a long way since the 2008 flood, with more attractions than they previously had. Their development should continue in ways that include all income levels; include residential as well as commercial property; welcomes bicycles and pedestrians as well as cars; and radiates outward to connect with the working-class "core" neighborhoods. A city center that is vital around the clock is more safe, more economically successful, more interesting in a variety of ways, and more environmentally sustainable. Particularly, it provides a base for both economic opportunity and arts-entertainment life that are essential in retaining talented young people.

But young people eventually age. So we need more than condos.

The city should favor economic development that builds connections and creates career opportunities
2. Include the poor. Those in or near poverty have suffered most from the recent economic downturn, but also didn't benefit from the long periods of economic growth that preceded it. Communities need to build connections to them. Mostly I think this means not excluding them, physically or economically, from participating in the development of the city. (There are pockets of poverty in Cedar Rapids, on Johnson Avenue SW or Pioneer Avenue SE for example, that are so remote from economic activity as to be absurd.) I think it probably should also mean considering, at each stage of the city's development, how specifically any project supports connecting the economically vulnerable to jobs and eventually careers.

Cedar Rapids has a number of important services aimed at lower-income citizens, including food banks, free clinics and housing options. These are helpful, even crucial, to people in poverty. But they don't get people out of poverty. That requires, in the words of Michael Dukakis's infamous presidential campaign, "good jobs at good wages."

Route 9, from
3. Improve public transportation. The metro area has an earnest bus system that stops running at 6:20 p.m., and runs looping routes out of downtown that all take exactly an hour. It's hard to say whether the town is over-served or under-served. My hunch is that rationalizing routes and schedules--running buses from where people are to where they want to go, at times they need them--might be revenue-neutral, or even revenue saving. Right now that's not an issue, as the system is mainly funded by federal grants, but that shouldn't be our main consideration.

Intercity rail is on hold as long as Terry Branstad is governor--he's rejected federal rail funding, and in last week's Condition of the State address advocated infrastructure improvements, by which he exclusively meant roads and bridges--but we might at least think about what we'd need to do to prepare for this possibility.

Dlask's Grocery, swiped from Erin McNamara-Ankney via Pinterest
4. Neighborhood stores, preferably locally-owned. Economics seem still to favor gigantism, with Wal-Mart the extreme though certainly not the only example. It would be nice if most neighborhoods had stores people could walk to (grocery, hardware, e.g.), with doors open to the street and parking lots behind. The stores would carry a modest selection of core goods at reasonable prices i.e. not the mark-ups common to convenience stores, New Pioneer and Fresh Market. It would be advantageous if we could somehow favor local entrepreneurship instead of relying on chain stores (and restaurants, to a considerable extent).

The Regional City argues for empowering metro regions as well as neighborhoods
5. Regional governance. Revenue sharing, a no-poaching (of each other's businesses) agreement, and maybe an urban growth limit for the communities in the Cedar Rapids metropolitan area might not immediately affect the landscape, but would have important long-term effects on area density as well as government finances. Residents of Cedar Rapids and the surrounding towns share interests in the metropolitan economy, traffic, parks and museums, among other things. There should be a shared level of government that represents those interests.


  1. Last year, I was volun-told by my supervisor that I would be the HR representative in charge of putting together a list of recommendations for the Mayor of Denver for improving our employees' ability to commute to work via alternative modes of transportation. Being that I am a total nerd when it comes to policy and mobility, I was pretty excited to learn more about our employees’ barriers to alternative transportation. I ended up learning a TON about mobility but also all the issues that are tangential to it.
    With that background and my experiences living here, as I read your list of priorities, I couldn’t help but make comparisons between Denver and CR. Just some thoughts on the topics…
    1. Denver has been a big-ish city for a pretty long time, but I would say we still don’t have a real, 24 hour downtown. I take a boxing class downtown on Mondays that ends at 7:30 and every night when I walk back to my bus stop that is about four blocks from the gym, I’m amazed by how dead downtown is. Very few pedestrians, little traffic, quite businesses. There are always people in the hotel restaurants and bars that I walk by, but I’m generally surprised to even see two people at my bus stop by the time I get there.
    I think Denver’s issue stems from people still fearing our downtown. It’s been a very dangerous place to visit in the past, and it’s been hard to shake the reputation. You are much more likely to see people out and about further away from downtown on the two big streets, Colfax and Broadway than downtown.

  2. 2. Denver really sucks at including the poor. In fact, we pretty much outlawed being homeless a few years back (camping ban) and our mayor’s new five year plan for affordable housing claims that a single person should be able to pay $1150 in rent. The mayor and governor both seem to think the solution to homelessness is to move the homeless away… preferable somewhere no one will see them.
    I know being poor and being homeless is not the same thing, but in Denver, it seems the poor are treated with the same regard. My sister just recently moved to an “up and coming” neighborhood on East Colfax. She communicates with her neighbors who are privileged enough to have access to smartphones/ computers through an app called Next Door. Next Door is like Facebook, but it actually verifies your address through mail so that you only have access the profiles and posts of people in your neighborhood. It’s pretty easy to tell from the posts that my sister’s gentrifying neighbors can’t wait to move all the poors out.
    Her area has a lot of old motels right on Colfax that house poor people who can’t pass background checks or otherwise don’t have the means to leave. The City has succeeded in moving the poor to these far reaches of the city, but with increasing home prices, tons of people moving in and gentrification of the area where my sister lives, it won’t be long before they are pushed even further. It’s clear that a lot of the people moving out there don’t see these folks as their neighbors. They are an issue and they need to be addressed.
    I hope that CR succeeds in being a place that includes the poor as it grows. I see so much potential in a city the size of CR. Denver is ruled by business. If the business development districts want homelessness to be illegal, they’ll figure a way to do it. If they don’t want a mental health clinic or homeless resource center downtown, where all the public transportation leads, it won’t be considered. Obviously business needs a voice and a seat at the table, but there has to be a way to include both the poor and business owners.
    3 And 5 Denver’s pretty good on transit. We have light rails and a lot of buses. But we do have disparity in some of the poor neighborhoods. There are neighborhoods that need more bus lines but it would take more than just a new bus to get the residents in these neighborhoods to rid. They need safer bus stops with better lighting, cheaper bus passes and probably better childcare options to be able to ride comfortably.
    We have a pretty solid regional council, called DRCOG (Denver Regional Council of Government—doctor COG it’s called) that has worked really hard to gather data about where people live and work and how to get them there on public transit. The program is called Way to Go. The council is over 50 years old, and while it’s definitely got its weaknesses, I’ve always been impressed with the work they do on transit.
    I’m not as familiar with how they handle business poaching and urban growth, but I read about them being referee to a lot of regional disputes as Denver expanded in the last half of last century in my public administration classes.

  3. Wow! Thanks for your thorough and impressive comment. I think these issues are a struggle everywhere. A CR friend who writes and blogs for the CR Gazette recently did a favorable profile of Benedict Park Place, a new development in the Five Points neighborhood. Rental housing there is capped by income, but around it is a more trendy area. That sounds from a distance like a start toward connecting with the poor, maybe?


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