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Archive: Sam Newberg

Tactical Urbanism Builds Better Blocks and Streets

Sam Newberg / Jun 21 2013

For Release Friday, June 21, 2013

Sam NewbergTactical urbanism is blossoming in the United States, bringing the opportunity to change how we look at our neighborhoods and cities, and most important, how we improve them.

In early June, on a high-traffic street in St. Paul, Minn., Andrew Howard and Team Better Block tried some tactical urbanism to help show people see just how cool the street could be.

They narrowed a busy part of East 7th Street in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood by closing a lane in each direction and putting in potted plants, trees and a bike rack.
East 7th Street
Photo Credit: Sam Newberg

They painted in a temporary crosswalk in a spot where neighbors though one was needed.
Photo Credit: Sam Newberg

They set up a playground, art booths, food stands and even a piano in the street.
Street Setup
Photo Credit: Sam Newberg

They placed images and information in vacant storefront windows to help people imagine how that space could be used, especially if the street outside was more pleasant.

Tactical urbanism is a local, grassroots effort that takes a place with having high commercial vacancy and/or fast-moving traffic (and Dayton’s Bluff grapples with both problems) and installs temporary trees, crosswalks, bike lanes, sidewalk seating and temporary uses for vacant storefronts. Essentially, it’s an effort to inspire neighbors to take back their street, to imagine how great the neighborhood can be when people gather and have a little fun. It’s a fairly low-cost way to demonstrate, temporarily, the potential for long-term change.

The events are great, but how can they inspire long-term change?

In a number of ways. People of all ages who attend can leave with a different perspective on how public space can be used. They can get involved, perhaps, by hosting another event, attending a neighborhood meeting and taking part in long-range planning for the area. Or they could lobby public officials for permanent traffic calming or crosswalks.
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Freedom’s just another word? Not for a Jeep-driving urbanist

Sam Newberg / Dec 21 2012

For Release Friday, December 21, 2012

Sam Newberg I celebrated Election Day last month by taking a drive in my gas-guzzling Jeep Liberty. It had been freshly topped off with a full tank of gas, so, like any other self-respecting American, I took a drive.

Why would I, a self-described urbanist, brag about — much less admit — this? I’ll get to that shortly. First, consider something that grabbed my attention during President Obama’s acceptance speech:

“The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on.”

Over several years of community involvement in my neighborhood, I’ve come to understand what President Obama meant. You may or may not agree with his politics, but his point is that voting is just a start. You must be willing in some way to further engage in our imperfect democracy. Take a stand for what you believe, get involved in a civic group and be willing to compromise when others disagree. (And they will.) Whatever you do, don’t “bowl alone.” To make a difference, you must show up.

For an urbanist, this is particularly significant. Decisions about urbanism occur daily at local, state and federal levels and require thoughtful consideration, informed research and rational discussion. Some people will always oppose denser development — which most urbanists generally approve of — or they’ll become incensed when a bike lane replaces a motor vehicle lane on a city street. But in many ways that reaction isn’t a rejection of urbanism so much as a lack of understanding of how many moving parts there are in city-building. Urbanism is complex stuff. For example, transportation and housing policy are intricately linked, and local, state and federal policies affect those intertwined issues for all Americans in ways — often involving the pocketbook — that can produce visceral reactions.

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Arrested Urban Development

Sam Newberg / Aug 24 2012

For Release Friday, August 24, 2012

Sam NewbergAlmost everywhere you look, it seems, you’re stumbling over studies or journalists saying cities are in demand, and suburbs on the outs. And that may, in fact, be happening: According to the Brookings Institution, cities are “thriving” and suburbs are “sputtering.” . Long-range demographic analysis shows demand for city living is increasing. So if the long-range forecasts are accurate and the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) results are more than just a blip, we urbanists should be giddy.

So why am I so gloomy?

Articles in the Minneapolis Star Tribune in July offer a glimpse into the problem, describing where an urban infill project hit a “snag” while suburban projects are reviving.

The infill project in question, a proposed mixed-use development that would contain 500 mixed-income dwellings for a variety of ages, is immediately adjacent to the Lake Street light rail station and perhaps the best transit-oriented development opportunity in the upper Midwest. After three years of planning and neighborhood buy-in (not an easy thing), the project was effectively scuttled by the Minneapolis Public Schools, the site’s owner, which did an about face and decided not to sell its vastly underutilized site.

What is so galling is that just next to that article (yes, I still read the print editions of newspapers) was the piece describing how suburban Eden Prairie’s housing market is recovering, as evidenced by all 23 housing permits issued so far in 2012. (Somehow, the Star Tribune managed to conclude that 23 permits is more than last year’s 32. Wishful thinking, or just sloppy math?)
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Pedaling and Paddling in City and Wilderness

Sam Newberg / Aug 25 2011

For Release Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sam NewbergWhat is the best way to experience and be a part of your surroundings? In city or countryside, this urbanist knows being on foot is tough to beat, but a recent trip to the Boundary Waters (BWCAW) caused me to reconsider. A canoe is hard to beat as the best way to experience wilderness lakes in northern Minnesota. Could a bicycle be the best way to experience the city? Perhaps the canoe and bicycle are kindred spirits.

In his 1956 collection of essays about the Boundary Waters entitled “The Singing Wilderness,” author Sigurd Olson describes “The Way of a Canoe” as an excellent means of experiencing the wilderness. The fluidity of dipping a paddle in the water and the responsiveness of the canoe allows one to truly experience the beauty and wilderness the Boundary Waters has to offer.
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Nimbyism on the Apartment Front: Danger Signals for Us All

Sam Newberg / Jul 31 2010

For Release Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sam Newberg“That site is going to sit vacant for a decade.” That was the comment made to me by a frustrated developer as we left a public hearing after the city council voted down his planned apartment project. Although this scene occurred in a suburb of the Twin Cities, it could have happened anywhere. Unfortunately, it’s replicated time and again across the country.

This begs the larger question: if city after city continues to shoot down economically viable rental housing projects, where exactly we are going to accommodate the expected growth in this country in the coming decades? Furthermore, why are cash-strapped cities passing up economic development opportunities? I’m all for local decision-making, but the result of these decisions, multiplied across our metro areas, simply pushes more growth to the urban fringe — an ecologically and economically wasteful choice.
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Rx For Attracting Companies: Tailored Strategies Essential

Sam Newberg / May 14 2010

For Release Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sam Newberg

The slogan – “Keep Austin Weird,” launched by Austin’s Independent Business Alliance — has caught on as a way to celebrate the Texas capital’s artistic, “hip” side. Indeed, in today’s “flat” world, any appeal to the so-called “creative” classes gets lots of attention.

But are companies really attracted to such culture-public art-music-park focused cities as Portland, Boulder, Minneapolis and Austin for those qualities? Will those attributes actually attract companies?

The answer, of course, is “it depends.” “There is no perfect location. There are always tradeoffs,” says John Boyd, founder of The Boyd Company, a site selection consultancy with over 30 years of experience helping firms make location decisions. Boyd explains that in addition to the bottom line considerations like cost of labor, cost of real estate, and taxes, there is also availability of qualified labor, proximity to transportation, infrastructure, proximity to suppliers – competitors with “quality of life issues.”

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Failing the Density Test: Our Biggest Goblin

Sam Newberg / Oct 30 2009

For Release Friday, October 30, 2009

Sam NewbergHalloween’s ghouls and goblins make for a spooky night in our cities and towns. But nothing fills me with more fright than missing the opportunity to build dense, attractive transit villages around our rail stations, thereby reducing sprawl and lowering our collective carbon footprint.

I’ve seen the upside opportunity in London, New York City, Chicago and elsewhere–housing, offices, shopping and leisure destinations all within a short walk of transit stations. The overriding equation is density, a notion that is frightening to many.

A number of leading urban experts, demographers and think-tanks are forecasting that more cities will develop like this in the future. The Urban Land Institute’s recent “The City in 2050″ is loaded with visions of high-tech, denser cities with improved transit systems and a reduced carbon footprint. Coupled with these visions are studies by the likes of the demographer Arthur C. Nelson, who predicts that demand for large-lot single-family housing will be negligible in the next 20 years, whereas the future of housing development lies in attached housing. Read More »

Much-Maligned Atlanta’s New Urban Magnets

Sam Newberg / Aug 06 2009

For Release Friday, August 7, 2009

Sam NewbergCriticism of Atlanta’s traffic congestion and sprawling consumption of land are well-deserved. Severe air pollution has threatened to choke the city. Right now a bitter debate is raging over whether and how the state will let the city and region pay for critically needed anti-congestion, pro-transit improvements.

But there’s another Atlanta with a radically different image, as I discovered recently exploring some areas close to center city.

A top example–Atlantic Station. I’d been hearing a lot about it in the real estate development and planning world, and knew the project was heralded as a great infill project with good transit. But I was short on the details. So on a recent trip to Atlanta, I decided to visit.

On a rainy day, without prior briefing, I approached Atlantic Station with open eyes. I took MARTA to the stop nearest Atlantic Station, but I still had to walk a considerable distance, including crossing I-75/85. OK–Clearly this crossing/interchange was upgraded for Atlantic Station, and the sidewalk was wide and had a sun shade along much of its length–a thoughtful gesture to pedestrians in Georgia summers. (Only on my return to MARTA did I realize there is frequent shuttle bus service between the development and the station. Still, MARTA is an excellent, if underbuilt, transit system.) Read More »