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Archive: Mary Newsom

Will Cities Be Smart Enough to Master the Wired World?

Mary Newsom / Sep 20 2013

For Release Friday, September 20, 2013

Mary NewsomTORONTO – Maybe the game-changer is 3-D printing. Or maybe it’s robotic cars and “autonomous driving,” an innovation that may well mean we’ll never again have to learn to parallel park. Maybe it’s “the Internet of everything” – the idea that sooner or later almost everything will be connected via the Internet.

It’s obvious big changes are coming to cities worldwide and to daily life. During last week’s “Meeting of the Minds” conference in Toronto, much of the talk was about “a smarter and more connected urban future.”

We heard of reinventions, “smart cities” and Big Data. Rogier van der Heide, chief design officer for Philips Lighting, mentioned “a thin layer of technology all over the city.” We heard from people who invented a way you can lay claim, online at least, to an area of your city and create social and information networks for anyone you admit into your network, all of whom presumably carry mobile devices that tell them the information you want them to have.

Already, some 13 billion devices worldwide are connected, said Wim Elfrink, chief globalization officer of Cisco Systems, who predicted that will soar to 50 billion by 2020. Yes, the Internet of Everything, indeed.

We heard about IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge, making grants to 100 cities around the globe, “enabling cities to make transformational changes which have resulted in many new insights.” Turns out my own city (Mecklenburg County, N.C.) was one of the first to receive a Smart City Challenge, in 2010. Who knew?
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‘Sex and the Region’? Well, Maybe Not…

Mary Newsom / Aug 09 2013

For Release Friday, August 9, 2013

Mary NewsomAny day now, I figure the term “inner city” will go the way of “carbon paper” and “adding machine.”

Already, it has a sort of disco, big-hair-and-shoulder-pads aura – a relic of a time when to many Americans the heart of the city was a place of poverty, crime and social dysfunction.

Compare that image to today. Surveys, marketing studies, anecdotal reports and TV shows all point to a Millennial generation in love with city life. To them, “inner city” – if used at all – would evoke excitement and opportunity.

In the ’60s and ’70s, it was a tsunami of middle-class families moving to the suburbs. Today, what’s moving to the suburbs is poverty, a demographic shift documented in studies like those from authors Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution, and documented in their Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.

Yet both images – whether derelict “inner city” or hipster downtowns – focus on the central core. That illustrates one of the biggest challenges facing U.S. cities today: the need to address the whole urban organism of city plus suburb plus exurb. Call it a commute-shed, retail trading zone or metropolitan statistical area. Whatever you call it, study after study shows that cities and their outlying areas are linked. A weak city with healthy suburbs will fail to thrive. So will a strong center city with weak suburbs.
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Learning, Again, Why Plans Sometimes Fail

Mary Newsom / Jun 14 2013

For Release Friday, June 14, 2013

Mary NewsomYou’d think I would have known better. After all, I’ve been writing about growth since before they called it Smart Growth, and I’m still writing about it now that it’s “resiliency,” or “sustainable growth” or whatever the next term is. I can’t count how many times I’ve explained that when you decide where you want urban growth to go, you must also decide where you don’t want it to go.

That’s why last week’s regional planning exercise was an eye-opener. I learned – or rather, learned again – some key lessons:

  • Real life doesn’t always work the way you think it should.
  • The general public doesn’t think nearly as much about these issues as we like to assume they do.

The exercise was RealityCheck2050, part of a multi-year, regional planning project called CONNECT Our Future that’s looking at the 14-county, two-state Charlotte region. RealityCheck, organized by the Charlotte chapter of the Urban Land Institute, hosted 400 people – among them some 30 elected officials.

We started by listening to speakers, including Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute (a Citistates associate), whose inspiring talk included this line – one I’ve heard so often I groaned: “Trying to cure congestion by building more lanes is like trying to cure obesity by lengthening your belt.”

Yet many in the audience laughed. People Tweeted it to their followers. Lesson No. 1: Sometimes city planner types forget other people are not immersed in this subject.

Then we began a game-like exercise at tables fitted out with Legos and a giant regional map. We were told that by 2050 the region of 2.4 million is expected to grow by 1.8 million and add 863,000 jobs. Each table had to stack hundreds of red and yellow Legos where we thought jobs and housing should go. We could mark out new transit lines with orange yarn, new highways with purple, and green spaces with green yarn.

Lego Building
The planning game used red and yellow Legos for new homes and jobs. But we forgot about green space until late in the game. Photo: Mary Newsom
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Resilience: Many Cities, Many Meanings

Mary Newsom / Apr 26 2013

For Release Friday, April 26, 2013

Mary NewsomCAMBRIDGE, Mass. – On the day much of the Boston area stayed indoors for the manhunt of a Boston marathon bombing suspect, I was in town for a conference on “The Resilient City.”

Like almost everyone in Boston, most conference attendees obeyed the April 19 “stay indoors” order. And the whole bizarre experience – seeing usually crowded streets deserted – gave a different twist to the idea of city resilience, one that may help broaden what we think the term means.

Typically, “resilient city” denotes one that can survive and thrive amid environmental degradation, global climate change and massive population growth worldwide. The World Urban Campaign website says, “A Resilient City is one that can withstand and recover quickly from natural or human-made disaster.”

I suppose a massive hunt for a youth believed to be armed and dangerous (in fact he was hiding, wounded, in a backyard boat) would be in the category of human-made disaster. And Boston’s citizenry, by heeding warnings and obediently staying inside, did their part to help assure their city’s resilience to the trauma of the marathon bombing.

Boston, with its history of survival and change over several centuries, is a particularly apt place to ponder what “resilience” really means for a city. Why can some cities stay healthy, while others seemingly can’t? Different cities, obviously, need different strategies.
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The Measure of a Metro

Mary Newsom / Mar 28 2013

For Release Thursday, March 28, 2013

Mary NewsomIn January, Charlotte had 1.8 million people. Today it has 2.3 million people. And no, there was no airlift of half a million residents from the Rust Belt. How can a city gain a half-million people almost overnight? How can a metro area vault from No. 33 in population rankings to No. 23?

The answer lies in the way the U.S. government defines Metropolitan Statistical Areas. The two-state Charlotte MSA gained five counties and lost one, and in the recalibrating – effective in February – it grew by half a million people.

Does this even matter to anyone beyond Charlotte’s ever-zealous booster crowd? Consider two other things that happened this week.

The first: A New York Times article March 24, “The Mayor’s Geek Squad: A Group of Number Crunchers Analyzes Troves of Big Data to Try to Solve the City’s Problems,” highlighted how New York’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning is using data from city departments to track such things as where restaurant scofflaws are letting grease clog sewer pipes, where stores are selling bootleg cigarettes and where fires are more likely to occur.
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A Two-Wheeled Approach to Civic Engagement

Mary Newsom / Mar 01 2013

For Release Friday, March 1, 2013

Mary NewsomIt was a sunny Sunday in February, temperatures edging into the 60s, and the greenway sidewalk was jammed with walkers, parents pushing strollers, and bicyclists. So many cyclists were on the narrow path that I witnessed a narrowly averted, freeway-style chain-reaction collision.

The cyclists’ ages ranged from kids on training wheels to people whose joints were probably creaking the next day. If you wanted to meet a cross-section of the city’s population, that Charlotte greenway would have been a good place to hang out.

One place you would not hang out, if you were seeking a true cross-section of the city, would be a typical Charlotte City Council meeting. I suspect the same is true for most city council meetings in most U.S. cities. It’s clear that hanging out at city council meetings is an acquired taste – one many people never acquire – and it’s also clear that the more voters get involved in government doings, the better the governments will reflect the will of the people. Indeed, the problem of a perceived decline in “civic engagement” has had academics and activists wringing their hands and trying cell phone apps and Facebooking. (Just this week, the Knight Foundation announced it’s giving $9 million to three groups – Code for America, New York University’s GovLab and the TED talks – to underline its belief “in the potential of technology to revitalize democracy.”)

Two days before my trip on the crowded greenway, I’d heard a Texas mayor talk about a decidedly more low-tech way to get people engaged. Speaking in Raleigh at the N.C. State University Urban Design Conference, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price described her “rolling town halls.”
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Suburbs at the Crossroads: How Can They Grow Up, Instead of Just Grow?

Mary Newsom / Dec 06 2012

For Release Thursday, December 6, 2012

Mary NewsomIt’s a common story around the Sun Belt: Rural hamlet near larger town blinks and finds it’s now a booming suburb in the orbit of a much larger, sprawling city. Years of attracting people looking for a small town and a private getaway have built a fabric of large lawns and scattered houses, and more lawns and more houses. Where does it go from here?

When I moved to Charlotte more than 30 years ago, Matthews was the suburb. It lay directly in the path of the major growth trajectory – southeast. The drive to central Charlotte was a reasonable 25-30 minutes. The cute, but miniature, downtown Matthews and a few surrounding blocks of turn-of-the-century houses gave a historic feel and sense of small-town identity to a place that, in fact, was accumulating mostly standard subdivisions and strip shopping centers.

Today, if you drive into the center of Matthews you come to the town’s historic main intersection. Look to the left up Trade Street and you’ll see a two-block long, walkable old downtown of small-scale storefront buildings and just beyond it, shops built along a new street leading to a new Town Hall, all built atop the carcass of a faded, 1978 strip center. A few blocks farther on, a mixed-use group of apartments and stores is going up atop a new street grid.
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In Paris, Looking Back to the Future

Mary Newsom / Nov 08 2012

For Release Thursday, November 8, 2012

Mary NewsomPARIS – I saw the future in Paris. It looks a lot like the past. To be specific, it looks like too many U.S. downtowns, although with flashier architecture.

While in the French capital earlier this year for a conference of urban planners and scholars, we toured La Défense, the huge development just west of the Seine. Half a century ago it was envisioned as the future of Paris, a district of towering offices and wide concrete plazas. Today it’s an office park whose gargantuan cube monument in the middle doesn’t make up for being dead at night.

A view of the vast plaza at la Défense, as seen from Grande Arche.

“I’m amazed to see a development like this in a city known for outstanding planning and design,” said Sandra Newman, a professor of policy studies at Johns Hopkins University who directs the Institute for Policy Studies’ International Urban Fellows program. “What were they thinking?”

“They were probably trying to imitate America,” concluded Georges Prevelakis, an urban planner and Sorbonne professor also at the Urban Fellows’ conference. “This is completely outdated.”
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A Burning Question for Sun Belt Cities

Mary Newsom / Aug 10 2012

For Release Friday, August 10, 2012

Mary NewsomIt was a hot night in a hot city the day after the hottest month ever recorded in the United States. By 7 the temperature had slid from the 90s to the high 80s, as I pulled up in front of a 1960s split-level on a half-acre lot in a vast subdivision of 2,450 single-family homes.

I was 7 miles from the heart of downtown — in Manhattan terms that’s roughly as far as Wall Street to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But this was not Manhattan. It was Charlotte.

Regardless of thermometers, this N.C. banking center has been hot for years now, as people streaming in from across the country and the globe made it one of the nation’s fastest-growing metros. They’re drawn by the image of a prospering city with jobs and reasonably priced homes, a place of shade trees and lawns. Next month the city arrives on the world stage as host of the Democratic National Convention.

Like its Sun Belt sisters — Atlanta, Orlando, Dallas for instance — Charlotte boomed in the postwar era, although a more accurate term might be “post-central-air-conditioning era.” And like almost everywhere in America since the 1950s, growth has looked much like the neighborhood I was visiting: houses only (zoning bans other uses), on large lots, built and purchased by people who assumed all residents would own cars and drive to work, shopping or just about anywhere.

And that’s the weak underbelly of the Sun Belt boomtowns. Can cities mostly made up of this kind of neighborhood — strung together by corridors of big-box stores, fast-food joints and strip centers, all built on an assumption of cheap fuel, clean air and a stable planetary climate — stay competitive as the world focuses on conserving energy and shrinking carbon emissions?
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Global Cuisine and a Surprise “New” Urbanism

Mary Newsom / May 25 2012

For Release Friday, May 25, 2012

Mary NewsomWhat does “urban” mean in 21st-century America? I’ve been having a debate with a local historian over what’s the most “urban” part of the city we share.

Tom Hanchett, historian at Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South, contends the city’s most urban corner is Central Avenue at Rosehaven Drive, along an auto-focused commercial strip of tattered, 1970s-era Americana 5 miles from downtown. By any standard of urban design or city form, it is in no way urban.

But early in May, as Hanchett led 20 people on a “munching tour” of stores and restaurants near his pinpointed corner, I started to understand his version of “urban.” Am I convinced? Read on.

Hanchett is a bespectacled Ph.D. historian whose middle-aged paunch hints at one of his avocations: he’s an avid chowhound who scouts ethnic eateries all over this Sun Belt boomtown of 730,000. I had asked him to lead Charlotte’s first Jane Jacobs Walk as a promotional event for a new website I direct, It was one of dozens of similar walks in some 30 U.S. cities to mark the May 4, 1916, birth of famed urban writer Jane Jacobs, all a project of the Utah-based nonprofit Center for the Living City.

I wanted to hear Hanchett try to defend his assertion that this slice of bedraggled suburbia could illustrate Jacobs’ urban theories. In her 1960s books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and The Economy of Cities, Jacobs championed the vigor and regenerative qualities of cities, and mourned the ravages of urban renewal and grandiose projects. Hanchett was convinced Jacobs would recognize the “urban” in our outing.

We all met at Ben Thanh, a popular but by no means luxurious Vietnamese restaurant housed in a 1977 building whose age is not easily disguised, with a parking lot cratered by potholes.
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