The Airport City

I recently flew from Minneapolis to Santa Fe, stopping over in the Denver airport. While waiting for my connecting flight I noticed something about the the airport that I had not seen before. Airports, those large enough to support multiple terminals, function like a city. Each one has restaurants, retail shops, transit (the train between terminals and moving walkways), separate lanes for faster moving traffic, and nodes of activity. The airport works like an ideal community, providing a safe environment for spontaneous interaction among the inhabitants.

Denver International Airport (image courtesy of alamy.com)

Denver International Airport (image courtesy of alamy.com)

This may seem like a strange interpretation of the airport, a place where people need to be but hope to spend as little time as possible. However the longer you stop to watch the activity, the more you notice the parallels. Beginning with transportation. Most airports have moving walkways for people looking to get to their destination quickly. These are akin to the higher order streets in a city. Then there is the area for people to walk on either side, the sidewalks. Bigger airports have a train, above or below ground, that runs between terminals, like a light rail line. The only missing activity is the bicyclist, which is probably never going to be added to the airport.

The underground rail line running between terminals at the Atlanta Airport (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The underground rail line running between terminals at the Atlanta Airport (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Next is the commercial activity. Every terminal has hubs of activity containing retail stores, souvenir shops, candy stores, and restaurants. They each have a storefront looking out onto the busy stream of pedestrians. The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport has gone so far as to add a food truck alley, just like their respective downtown's offer during the work week. The ideal city would have a string of pedestrians walking past these types of storefronts throughout the day, just like the airport does to provide activity and interaction.

Shops at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport (image courtesy of minneapolis-airport.com)

Shops at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport (image courtesy of minneapolis-airport.com)

The way people interact in an airport is also desirable in a real city. Everyone at the airport has the same goal, making it to their flight which is hopefully on time to get them to their destination. This common goal makes people more willing to talk to strangers. The number of random conversations that occur while waiting for flights is much higher than in an ordinary city. The airport keeps us there together, unlike cities which do not always provide a hub of activity to draw citizens to the same location. 

The one strength a real city has over an airport is the ability to have people living near these nodes of activity. Except in the movie The Terminal, no one lives in the airport. Anyone catching a red eye flight knows that the airport goes to sleep at night. All the shops close up and most of the people are gone. Too many cities have this same lack of activity. They are lively during the day but close up when everyone leaves the office at 5 pm. This is because too many cities are like airports, they provide the shops and restaurants, but nowhere for people to live so they drive home to their residential enclaves.

Empty downtown public square in Minneapolis

Empty downtown public square in Minneapolis

The airport city seems like a great model upon first glance, but it realistically cannot be replicated in the real world. People feel safe because of the security put in place, but a real city could not copy that. The real city can however draw from the activity nodes, storefronts, and pedestrian focus of the airport to provide places where people want to gather. They should focus on mixing uses, including residential units, designing the city for the pedestrian, and creating public spaces for everyone to use. Then we might start to see cities with more to offer than the airport. 

Stars Hollow's Idealistic Town Square

In the TV show Girlmore Girls, the town square is the heart of the fictional city of Stars Hollow. I watched the whole series again in preparation for the release of the reunion season. What I noticed is the town square in the show functioned like the town squares of early American cities before cars took over and pushed everyone into the suburbs. What is so unique about the town square in Stars Hollow is that it brought the community together, it was the hub of spontaneous meetings, was surrounded by shops, restaurants and residential units, and was designed for pedestrians, not cars.

Aerial image of the Stars Hollow town square during an event

Aerial image of the Stars Hollow town square during an event

Many town squares do a great job of bringing people in through festivals and events. Some so much so that the only time anyone uses the space is if there is something going on. In Gilmore Girls, the town square is more than a place for events, but a space for the community to come together and work towards a common goal. In one episode, the town hosted an all night knit-a-thon to raise money to save the bridge. More communities could use this idea of hosting events that not only bring people in, but get them talking with one another and working towards solving a problem.

Stars Hollow during the Knit-A-Thon event (image courtesy of gilmoregirls.org)

Stars Hollow during the Knit-A-Thon event (image courtesy of gilmoregirls.org)

The town square of Stars Hollow is well known for the spontaneous meetings of neighbors and friends. Because of its location, characters in the show are constantly walking through the space to get to their destination. The location of shops and homes requires many to pass through on their daily commutes to and from work. The main characters often find themselves talking with one another or saying hello as they hurry through. This kind of engagement is lacking from many cities. No one says hello as they pass by. Even when in a public space, people tend to keep to themselves and go about their business.

Spontaneous gatherings occurring in the Stars Hollow town square

Spontaneous gatherings occurring in the Stars Hollow town square

Key to creating the spontaneous meetings that occur in the show are the mix of shops, restaurants, and residential units surrounding the town square. There is an antique shop, diner, movie theater, church, and grocery store all across the low traffic street. It is easy to see why the characters passed through it so often when it was short walk to pick up dinner, grab a few groceries, or run a last minute errand. Many of the businesses had residential units on the second floor providing activity in the area at all times of day. The neighborhoods were just a a block or two off the main street. A successful town square would mimic this mix of uses and residential density. The piazza's of Italy are known for their diversity of surrounding businesses and housing and are some of the more interesting spaces to be in.

Piazza Il Campo in Italy

Piazza Il Campo in Italy

One of the episodes involved the installation of the towns first traffic light to allow people to cross the street to the town square safely. The premise of the episode was the absurdity of needing the stop light because cars moved so slowly and infrequently through the area. The ideal city would be designed in a similar fashion, so that pedestrians have the right of way, not the vehicle. In almost every episode the main characters casually walking across the street from the shops to the square without any issue, rarely any cars to be seen. One city that is making this a reality is Barcelona. For years they have been developing a Superblock program which closes the core streets to traffic and directs all major vehicular movement around the periphery of the nine block grid system. In a way, they are moving towards the environment that was designed in Stars Hollow, but on a larger scale.

While Stars Hollow may seem to be the idealistic town square, I recognize that it can be so because it is a fictional place. Real town squares are not perfect nor are the cities they are in. But that does not mean that we cannot draw some parallels between the town square of the show and those in real life. We can learn a few things from this little town to improve our real town squares for everyone.

A Plaza for Protests

A Plaza for Protests

Today's public squares have become remnants of the city beautiful movement, home to landscaped areas in a picturesque setting. They offer a nice place to sit for lunch, but little more. The purpose of the public square in history is rooted in government interaction and democracy. One that represents this and continues to function as such today is the Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco, California.

Read More

Bridges for Bears

Bridges for Bears

When my family moved to a small acreage surrounded by corn fields I learned about the conflicts between deer and vehicles. While I was never in the clear, I needed to be especially cautious in the fall when driving near dusk. I have had several close calls, one deer leaving a dent in my hood as it glanced the side of the car and continued running. In most areas, this conflict between nature and man is unavoidable, however I recently found out that on some major highways they have found a solution.

Read More

What Makes a Street Friendly

What Makes a Street Friendly

A few weekends ago I held a garage sale to cut down on the amount of stuff I have to move to my new house. After living on my street for the last year and a half, I have spoken to five neighbors total. The only neighbors I got to know live next door to me or across the street. I have seen a few others, picked up on their daily habits, but I could not tell you their names. The day of my garage sale I talked to more neighbors than I had the entire length of my residence. 

Read More

Living Like a Planner

Living Like a Planner

When I moved to the Metro area I bought a house that sits on almost half an acre in a first ring suburb. I also bought a newer car to save on gas for my 30 minute commute to work in another suburban town. The longer I spent in my daily commute, the more I hated where I was living. I realized everything about my way of life was contrary to being an urban planner. Density and multi-modal transportation is what I preach, but I was living the complete opposite. I decided I needed to start living like a planner.

Read More

Growing into 2040

Growing into 2040

It is hard to keep pace with the ever changing trend of where people want to live. One week we seem to be moving back into cities, the next the suburbs are back on the rise. Larger trends like the suburban flight of the 1950's and 60's are easier to see, but the year to year progress is more disguised. Urban cities were finally gaining momentum as people, and millennials more specifically, moved back inward. The city has so much to offer with the ease of traveling by bike, bus, or on foot. No car needed. Many articles have been written in the past year stating the trend has seen its peak, people are moving again to the suburbs.

Read More

A City of Immigrants

A City of Immigrants

People tend to forget that we are a nation founded by immigrants. Few of us can claim our ancestors were native to this land. Everyone here came from somewhere else, whether that be Britain, Czechoslovakia, Germany, France, Poland, Ireland, Japan, or any number of countries that gave us a booming population of hard working and innovative people.

Read More

Three Eagles and Twenty Three Loons

Three Eagles and Twenty Three Loons

I am fortunate enough to have grown up going to a family cabin on a lake in Minnesota. At an early age I fell in love with the state bird, the loon. I remember purchasing my first loon call in hopes of luring them close for a good photograph. It took much effort and determination in order to get a good shot, but eventually I did. This past weekend, on the same lake where a loon was a rare sight, I saw twenty-three loons, three eagles, a number of sparrows and seagulls, and another unique bird. Clearly nature has made a come back on this lake, as it has on numerous throughout the United States.

Read More

The Urban Farm

The Urban Farm

Living in Minneapolis has many benefits, one being the plethora of farmers markets to choose from year round. One problem with the city though is the climate. Our cold winters mean I rarely find local fruits and vegetables after October and before May. While this might sound like a standard problem for northern cities, some are breaking the mold and growing crops year round. The logical answer is a greenhouse out on the rural fringe, however some cities are taking it to the next level. They are growing acres of crops on small city blocks. The answer they have found is a vertical greenhouse.

Read More

How the Great Depression Preserved the Historic Wesley Center

How the Great Depression Preserved the Historic Wesley Center

I recently had the opportunity to tour the Historic Wesley Center in downtown Minneapolis. The former home of the Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church now houses 8 nonprofit groups and hosts outside events. The Historic Wesley Center nonprofit, was formed about a year ago to preserve and protect the building after its viability as a church had expired.

Read More

The Life of Plazas

The Life of Plazas

After recently starting a new job in downtown Minneapolis I noticed the plethora of public plazas available to residents, visitors, and employees. Almost every major tower has an inviting public realm leading to its primary entrance. I see a cleverly landscaped space daily from my office or when eating lunch out on the rooftop terrace. No two plazas are exactly the same, however each one has a standard set of basic amenities.

Read More

Little Mekong Night Market

Little Mekong Night Market

The fourth annual Little Mekong Night Market was held this past weekend. The market is a mix of food, art, music, and cultural performances located in the heart of the Little Mekong District at Western Avenue and University Avenue in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Last year an estimated 18,000 people attended which appeared to have been surpassed this year. The market collaborated their event with Northern Spark, an all-night art event with the theme “Climate Chaos People Rising.” While Northern Spark runs from 9 pm until 5 am, the Little Mekong Night Market is a two-day event, starting at 5 pm and ending at midnight on Saturday and 10 pm on Sunday.

Read More

Trees and the Dust Bowl

Trees and the Dust Bowl

There is still a generation living that can recall the hard times brought on by the Dust Bowl. I think about how my grandparents, in their late 90's now, would have been just teenagers at that time. I recall reading Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck trying to imagine a different Nebraska than the one I had grown up in. I cannot imagine hanging wet sheets over the windows to keep the dust out or wearing a mask every time I went outside. Even worse would be watching thousands of acres of crops dry up before my eyes.

Read More

Complete Streets in Action

Complete Streets in Action

We have all driven, biked, or walked down a street that appeared wider than the traffic it served. Extra space proliferates within the area for vehicles while the pedestrian and bicyclist are forced onto a small, cracked sidewalk or into the street dodging parked cars. We constantly wonder why the road could not be redesigned to accommodate a better distribution of users. Some cities have begun to make a commitment to changing these conditions through a program called Complete Streets.

Read More

Lake Life

Lake Life

Growing up, my family and I made three nine hour trips each year to Perham, Minnesota. The first trip was always Memorial Weekend, followed by a week in June when Walleye fishing was good, then a two week family trip that included excursions to nearby attractions. I was the only one in my class that would vacation in the same place multiple times each year. Most of my friends when more normal vacation spots like visiting a grandparent in Texas or Mount Rushmore. 

Read More

Destination Jamaica

Destination Jamaica

I recently returned from a five day trip to Jamaica for my little sisters wedding. We had incredible weather with only one day of rain, which we ignored and swam anyways. The locals said this was their normal weather most of the year-warm, sunny, and somewhat humid when the wind is not blowing. The resort we stayed at was secluded from the world, nestled into a beach two hours from Montego Bay. It is probably good I am still training for my marathon in June because the all inclusive buffet and unlimited sugary drinks would probably have added a few more pounds.

Read More

Minneapolis MayDay Parade

Minneapolis MayDay Parade

Every year, more than 50,000 people are drawn to the Powderhorn neighborhood in south Minneapolis to participate in the festivities of the MayDay Parade. This is not your typical parade which is demonstrated in the mission statement of the event "to bring people together for the common good through the power of puppet and mask performance." The event uses theater and performance to draw together a diverse crowd. The different puppets, masks, and costumes tell stories of current issues and past struggles. They seek to start a dialogue on a range of subjects such as politics and the environment. In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (HOBT) has been managing the events since the first MayDay Parade & Festival in 1975.

Read More

Anoka's Trail System

Anoka's Trail System

Last weekend I went up to the family cabin to help my dad open it up as we do every spring. Knowing Saturday was going to be filled with raking leaves and moving the dock and boatlift, I decided to bump up my long run to Friday after work. Since I was already in Anoka, I took the opportunity to explore some of the trails and parks that I have only seen on maps. My original intent was to make it up to the Anoka Nature Preserve, a large swathe of land held in a natural state. Unfortunately, a few wrong turns in the southwestern neighborhoods kept me just short of reaching it.

Read More