I am a runner. It began as a way to stay in shape, but I have realized I can use my running to learn from cities. The past few years I moved often, following my career from one planning job to the next. I'm a Nebraska native, but moved to Lubbock, Texas, after finishing college. After a few years I moved to Rochester, Minnesota to be closer to home, but desiring an urban environment I now live in the Twin Cities metro. Each new city has taught me invaluable lessons about how they function and how regions differ.
If you really want to get to know your city, train for a marathon. I would recommend a fall marathon (the Twin Cities Marathon in October is beautiful) so you do not have to waste any time on a treadmill do to lack of daylight or sub zero temperatures (last month we had a week straight where temperatures did not exceed 5 degrees).
This past week I went out for a six mile run on a familiar route. I started from my home in Columbia Heights, an inner ring suburb of Minneapolis where I live with my husband and two dogs. I ran down the only part of my extra long block that has a sidewalk (most of the city has no sidewalks) and stopped at a four lane inner city highway. I waited for the traffic to disperse long enough to sprint across all four lanes because there are no pedestrian islands along the way. Most people do this to reach the bus stop located on the other side.
As I left the sidewalk for the blacktop street, I passed a massive vacant parking lot for a furniture store that left years ago. The vacant space is slated for redevelopment as a Hyvee Grocery store in the fall of 2018. The neighborhood beyond is filled with 1950s and 1960s houses of modest size with a few blocks of early 1900s two-story dwellings. Alleys can be seen every so often, but are few and far between.
I turned south up a hill of densely built houses with small front yards and porches long since enclosed to provide year round comfort from the harsh Minnesota winters. The neighborhood shows its age with towering oak and ash trees lining the boulevards. Parking is on both sides of the two way street with sidewalks adjacent to the boulevard.
My next intersection was a four way stop, much easier to navigate with traffic because of the striped pedestrian crossing and colored pavement. I ran past two large baseball fields, next to a 1990s townhome project, and by a leftover industrial district mixed into a residential development from the 1950s.
I ran into Columbia Park, acquired in 1891 by the Minneapolis Park Board. Somewhere, a few blocks before, I crossed the city limits from Columbia Heights to Minneapolis. Nothing indicated the change beyond the installation of sidewalks on both sides of the street.
As I entered the park, I hopped onto a bituminous trail and passed underneath an old wooden train bridge that smelled of oil and dust. I skirted the golf course (the first six holes of which were built in 1919), a dog park, and an industrial building. Off in the distance I could hear the trains moving in and out of the yard just beyond the industrial building and stack of shipping containers.
I continued on, underneath an active stone train bridge. Faintly, the words Soo Line are visible. As I reached the top of the hill I pushed the crosswalk button and waited for my turn to again cross the four lane highway I traversed about 2.5 miles back. The road is wider at this section, still without pedestrian islands but has a striped crosswalk to delineate the pedestrian zone. The little white figure flashed on the sign and I commenced my run across the street to the base of a very steep hill in the Saint Anthony neighborhood of Minneapolis. As I ran the steep grade, I thought of the natural topography that had been preserved when the neighborhood was developed.
Once I reached the top the scenery changed from the forested park to a series of 1930s bungalows lining the separated trail. I continued down the hill and up the wide trail designed for bicyclists, runners, strollers, and dog walkers to share in the experience. The homes started to get more grand and the front yards larger.
I reached the turning point and started heading back up the hill towards home. The houses changed almost instantly once I left the trail for the narrow sidewalks. The grand tudor and italianate style homes became one to one and a half story renaissance revivals. Most had shallow front yards, some had steep stairs from the sidewalk to their front door resulting from the natural topography.
As I crossed the magic boarder into my town the sidewalk disappeared on one side of the street. Until about three months ago, they were nonexistent. I turned into the neighborhood, void of sidewalks altogether, continued my run in the parking lane of the street and dodged out into traffic every now and then to get around parked cars. I made the turn into my street and meandered around the curve and back down the hill.
In just over an hour I witnessed a series of planning successes and failures. Some projects were underway and others should be, but have little support. I saw decades of housing ideology, road construction, and park planning. Some of what I saw was planned almost a century ago, some was decided at a public hearing last fall, and much was not planned for at all.
Cities are an ever changing form. They have the ability to teach us if we let them. The ideas of a few key people led to the rise of the suburbs and flight from inner cities. It was followed by a rise in planning in a vacuum that ignored the desires of the people that inhabit them. It is time to rethink how we plan our cities. Citizens live, work, and play in our cities. Our planning should reach out to them to find out what has worked and what has not. Running through my town gave me a few ideas.