"Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”  

Jane Jacobs

Ten Things I Learned From IMCL

The International Making Cities Livable Conference held their annual conference the first week in October in Santa Fe, New Mexico this year. Each year a new city is selected based on the innovate approaches that have been implemented by their local governments. Dozens of countries were represented at the conference this year despite political tension, immigration bans, and natural disasters that kept many from traveling. Despite the lower than usual attendance, the sessions were well rounded and provided a wealth of information on how to make our cities more livable.

With five days of sessions, I learned about how different cities across the world approach good design and function. I will attempt to distill what I learned into ten of the most valuable lessons. To begin I will start with our host city. Santa Fe was originally home to the Spanish who enacted the Law of the Indies in 1572. This law shaped the physical layout of the city with rules that dictated the grid form of the downtown and allowed only one town square. By 1850 when the American's arrived, the square was cut in half because it was thought to be too big. This law is where the two story height limit and neutral tone building colors came from. As a preservationist, I understand the need to maintain historic buildings, but Santa Fe has taken it a step too far. There is no distinction from what is old and new, no ability to understand development over time. The entire downtown area lacks any diversity because they have stuck too rigidly to a law made centuries ago. Therefore lesson number one is: historic preservation is important, but should not be used to trap an entire district into a false sense of history.

The similarities in the downtown buildings of Santa Fe, NM

The similarities in the downtown buildings of Santa Fe, NM

Lesson number two is the importance of traveling and meeting people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. I have only been able to visit Ireland, Mexico and Jamaica. By talking to fellow attendees from Germany, Indonesia, Australia, and many more countries, I gained new perspectives on night markets, housing, transportation, and urban form to name a few city functions. I had no idea so many cities were working towards limiting cars in their downtown cores or that it has been largely a success. Someone else put Jakarta on my radar as a place to visit someday.

The third thing I learned was the importance of social networks. Not the kind that elevate your career, but the kind that give meaning to everyday activity. It ranges from saying hello to the shopkeeper on your way to work everyday and counting on a neighbor to help out in a pinch. Too often we demolish affordable housing and assume replacing it in another part of the city is sufficient. A well built city nurtures these social networks and respects that they exist when planning new development. 

Related to social networks is social health, the fourth lesson. Social health is created by designing spaces that allow people to loiter without the expectation of buying something. Sociable environments that lead to social health include populated areas, dynamic and changing activity, seating, and diversity of users. The town square can provide this. Creating these places especially allows older or disabled populations the opportunity to get out and be part of the community. It lessens the feeling of social isolation and contributes to their overall health.

Social activity in the Government Square in downtown Minneapolis

Social activity in the Government Square in downtown Minneapolis

We cannot discuss the successes of public places without talking about the threats which is lesson number five. Threats to public space and civic life include a lack of representation, privatization, social injustice and securitization. These threats were distilled from a recent study that showed things like erasing local history, controlling access by commercializing spaces, over surveillance, and an unfair distribution of space contribute to the deadening of public space. An famous example given was San Francisco starting an online sign up and fee system to use the public soccer fields. The local youth had used this space for years, but this new requirement made it commercialized and limited access by the people that actually lived in the Mission neighborhood.

One of the most interesting presentations was a pictorial observation of the city of Orvieto, Italy. The pictures showed residents and visitors during the Passeggiata, an evening stroll through the main street that takes place each night. Residents of all ages come out to walk the street, shop, and talk with friends and neighbors. Even children and teenagers appear, grouping together to talk or play. Their is a common sense of ownership and bonding that takes place through the social interaction. This tradition many be unique to the Italians, but the lesson we can learn from the Passeggiata is that social interaction and a tradition of gathering together breaks down barriers in communities and opens up communication.

Lesson number 7 is that you can turn a suburb into an urban city with enough vision and political will. Carmel, Indiana is living proof. The city realized it lacked natural beauty to attract people so they turned towards building a working city to draw in new residents. City leaders started by getting rid of all their surface parking, placing most of it underground. Through public-private partnerships they constructed an entirely new downtown that was easy to get to by all modes of transportation. They narrowed streets from five lanes down to two, added 110 new roundabouts, and took out almost all their traffic lights. Carmel went from being a traditional suburban town with too much costly public infrastructure, to an attractive urban city.

Slide showing Carmel, Indiana's new street design

Slide showing Carmel, Indiana's new street design

Having worked in code enforcement during my career, lesson number 8 is one I wish I had learned years ago. Billings, Montana is a city of 115,000 people that had a broken system of enforcement. City staff realized before telling residents to fix their property, they needed to start with the public realm first. They branded the program TUNE UP and listened to residents concerns instead of the traditional method of driving around and leaving enforcement tags on doors. This increased resident confidence in the division and inspired people to clean up their properties without being told to do so. The result of this campaign was increased property values and activation of the dormant neighborhood group. 

Lesson number 9 is one that draws from numerous cities: post World War II transportation can be reversed. So much space is wasted on wide lane roads made for single occupancy vehicles. Cities were once designed for pedestrians with horse and cart as a secondary means of travel. This gave way to the streetcar which is still more efficient at moving people than the car. Cities like Freiburg have banned cars in their downtown (back in 1978) and have reused these spaces as markets and areas for children to play. Cities that want this space, but are not ready to ban them altogether selectively shut the road down during the day, creating space for kids to play after school, but open them during peak travel times. Another option is narrowing roads to accommodate bike lanes and sidewalks with traffic. The mayor of Freiburg said they are working towards a balanced traffic politics. That should be a goal in all cities. 

The final lesson from the IMCL conference comes from a quote by Bobby Kennedy. "The GDP model measures everything except that which makes life worth living." We can focus on the economic outputs of our cities and how well they perform based on charts and numbers, but we cannot forget that cities are made up of people. We have to consider quality of life when designing cities. What makes a street environment welcoming, what gets people out of their homes into public spaces, and what contributes to a "social immune system." Human scale, mixed use cities are the most successful. That is why companies like Amazon are seeking them out when choosing new headquarter locations. Its why companies that left downtown areas during the era of suburbanization are returning. They have come to realize the value of cities that "make life worth living" for their employees.