Sunday, January 29, 2017

What I Like in a City

Originally published in the Northland Reader now the Reader Weekly, March 16, 2000

As a newcomer to Duluth, I’m not quite familiar with all the plans for changes to Duluth, for example Vision 2001, but I appreciate many of the things Duluth offers and hope to see these features improved.

Duluth offers some transportation choices that makes a city great and to human scale.  Namely, if one is so inclined, one can easily choose to go by foot, bus, or car, in that order.

These choices are not easy everywhere in Duluth, but in Chester Park where I live, I have used all three choices to reach UMD, Mt. Royal, Kenwood, the lake, and even downtown.  I much prefer to walk unless time is a factor.

Walking not only provides exercise and fresh air, but it gives me time to observe and experience an area.  Walking by parks, houses, and shops, there is much to see that is only a blur when seen from a vehicle.

Taking the bus is a second choice if time is short or the weather is bad.  Walking downtown is good exercise but only if I want to spend an hour or more doing so.  With a bus, I can be downtown in one-quarter that time.  Taking the bus provides conveniences that many don’t consider.  First of all, I don’t need to worry about parking.  Secondly, even if parking is easily available, a bus may get me closer to the door.

Taking a car is a third choice if time is important, if I have a lot to carry, or if the bus doesn’t go to my destination.  Time can be important in two ways.  It can take longer to do an errand or the buses aren’t running at that time of day.  I often drive downtown for evening events because they might run past the last bus or because I might just miss an hourly bus.  I take a bus to church downtown but my wife has to drive; choir practice starts before the buses do.

I do have a historical bias for this opinion.  I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio (not one of its suburbs).  I walked to school until I was in high school, then I took three buses.  The buses were frequent enough that I never had to worry about how late practice lasted.  Even when I started college I took a bus and a rapid transit train.  We did most of our shopping in walking distance of our home; otherwise we hopped a streetcar to go downtown.

Since then I have lived in Minneapolis, Rome, Stockholm, exurban Philadelphia, and exurban Minneapolis, I have had extended stays in New York, London, Paris, Helsinki, and Basel, and I have visited many other cities from Leningrad to Los Angeles to Osaka.  (What’s “exurban”?  So far out from the center that there are no sidewalks.)  Many of them offered both walking and public transportation opportunities.  In fact, those I enjoyed the most were those that had vibrant centers where people walked, shopped, wined, and dined until late in the evening.  New York, Rome, Paris, Stockholm, Osaka, and Tokyo are full of lights and activity well past a Midwesterner’s bedtime.  Their centers are accessible until midnight or beyond.  But my favorite was Basel, Switzerland.

Most of the time that I was in Basel I worked evenings.  I could either walk or take a streetcar from my hotel to the customer site and back.  Streetcars ran until one in the morning.  If I walked, it was not past monolithic buildings and parking lots but past parks and shops with interesting displays in their windows.  Within walking distance of the hotel were dozens of restaurants, a couple of grocery stores, many, many shops, an outdoor swimming pool, several parks, and the zoo.

I don’t think Basel was designed; too many of the streets intersect at other than a right angle.  I think Swiss efficiency made the best of the situation over the centuries.

Duluth will never be like Basel for a variety of reasons and many of us would not want that.  But in our vision for Duluth, we can adapt some of the elements that made Basel interesting.

First, we should make existing sidewalks more user friendly.  We could encourage homeowners to cut back overhanging branches and keep sidewalks clear of snow and ice.  We could ticket cars that are parked across crosswalks or even in drives but over the sidewalk.

Second, we should have a more aggressive program for sidewalk replacement or repair.  We should also examine funding; is it fair to make a homeowner pay for a sidewalk?

Third, we should keep streets drier by repairing potholes and low spots.  Why should a pedestrian have to run past a puddle, like on Woodland south of Mt. Royal?

Fourth, we should have more frequent buses and more coverage.  Should our only ways to get to the DECC be by driving, walking over a freeway bridge, or walking a long, monochromatic skyway?  We should have shuttle buses from DECC to downtown at event times, including Omnimax.  We have no skyway to Canal Park but bus service is limited to daylight hours.  We should be able to go by bus on a Saturday night to a downtown restaurant or theater.

Fifth, we should plan new development based on how people will get there.  Should people have to walk across a windy, dusty parking lot dodging drivers more concerned about looking for a parking space?  Should buses have to go in and out of parking lots so that passengers need not walk across said parking lots?

Sixth, we should consider more mixed use like that which some people would like to see on Fourth St. E. between Fifth and Sixth Avenues;  that is, shops at street level, residences and professional offices above.

In other words, let’s remember that cars are only a means, not an end.  Let’s design for people, not just one of their means.