PLAN TO ATTEND! The NDDC has invited the Strong Towns organization to Northfield for one of their “Curbside Chats”. The event will be held on Monday, February 17, 5:30-7:30 pm, in the Archer House Riverview Conference Room on the lower level. The Curbside Chats are designed city officials and community leaders, but the strong towns are built from the grassroots, so the public is welcome and your voices needed at this free event.
Curbside Chats zero in on three “big ideas” central to Strong Towns thinking:
The current path cities are pursuing is not financially stable.
The future for most cities will not resemble the recent past.
The main determinant of future prosperity for cities will be local leaders’ ability to transform their communities.
I’ve written much on this blog about Strong Towns and ideas related to their mission. Here’s a good summary of my posts. But my interest goes back further than this blog.
When I served on the Planning Commission in 2001-2005, Northfield was approving hundreds of acres and hundreds of units of single family homes. The short term attraction was clear: creating jobs and expanding the local tax base. But longer term issues were raised by the Planning Commission, but dismissed by the Council such as:
If we build housing on all these acres, where might future commercial expansion take place?
If the city doesn’t negotiate with developers about street design and connections, how can the Northfield be able to plan for efficient service delivery in the future?
Will the increased tax revenue pay for the maintenance of the infrastructure added and the cost of delivering services to the new areas?
Strong Towns caught my attention in about 2010 with its message of the financial impact of the way cities have developed in the last 50 years or so. Certainly as a City Council member at the time, I could see that Northfield’s tax revenue was not keeping up with maintenance or service needs, so I was relieved, thrilled, and excited to see the questions I’d already asked be asked by people with more development experience and to see that message go from Brainerd, MN to national news.
Does Strong Towns have all the answers? No, but that’s where you come in. Come think with Strong Towns and your neighbors about the future of Northfield. I’ll be in Finland, but I can’t wait to hear what happens.
Hyvää Uutta Vuotta from Jyvaskyla, Finland where I’ll be spending the next 6 months or so. Jyvaskyla has about 135,000 people (like Northfield, about 25% of those are students) on about 52 sq. miles in Central Finland. For landscape, think northern Minnesota. Lots of birch and pine, many lakes, and usually much snow (but not this year).
Compared to Cambridge, my Michaelmas Term home, with glorious medieval architecture surrounded by Victorian terrace houses mixed with some not very noteworthy contemporary buildings (5 stories is about the maximum; 3 or 4 more likely), Jyvaskyla is a thoroughly modern city of high density high rises (I live on the 7th floor in the center of town). While Cambridge built stone and brick buildings, Jyvaskyla’s old (19th century) built environment was wood and has now been almost entirely replaced.
Sadly, Jyvaskyla “solved” its traffic congestion problems by running the highway between the city and Jylasjarvi – one of the lakes: “For decades, the problem of through traffic had bothered the people of the town and this was resolved in 1989 with the completion of new Rantaväylä roads along the shoreline of the lake.” The center of town was pedestrianized, but the lake is now cut off from the city and strolling around it is unpleasant on the highway side. Could be worse, I suppose, and the highway could go right through downtown the way it does in Northfield. Because the highway blocks access to the lake and new bits of the University of Jyvaskyla, there are underpasses somewhat like the proposed TIGER trail in Northfield to link neighborhoods and the lake.
The other curious piece of Finland planning is the shopping mall – multiple small malls in central Jyvaskyla – in the walkable city center. I admit, when there are so few hours of daylight (I’m used to the cold), artificially lit insides have some superficial appeal. But not much. Timo Hämäläinen blogged about this phenomenon (and summed it up well) which was subsequently picked up by Atlantic Cities; I hope to pick Timo’s brain a bit more in the next month or so.
In the cows, colleges and contentment department, Cambridge beat out Northfield to win my personal Cows and Colleges award. Jyvaskyla has colleges, but is sadly lacking in cattle. More from Finland soon.
“Placemaking” is everyplace these days. My Twitter feed (admittedly heavy on urbanism, land use, and transportation) positively bristles with #placemaking.
The Project for Public Spaces, the epicenter of placemaking theory and practice, says it’s “More than a fashionable phrase, it’s a whole new way of thinking about fostering vital communities.” In Forbes, placemaking is introduced to a wider audience as “a response to top down, regulation heavy environments” and Atlantic Cities has a placemaking topic page.
Placemaking is not new and it’s not necessary – read more at streets.mn
Back in Northfield, a lack of political will to change policy, planning and projects to provide alternatives to private automobiles – walking, cycling, transit persists. There are certainly leaders around town and, at the moment, a majority of the Council who are interested in increasing transportation options. But I don’t think these individuals and the bare majority of votes constitute political will, but more like dedicated opposition to the status quo. Small progress is made here and there, but there is no commitment of the City Council, staff and appointed leaders to build non-motorized transportation into the budget, planning and life of the city. That would be political will.
Here in Cambridge and the UK, there’s political engagement at higher levels of government – if Northfield’s state representatives and Minnesota’s Congressional delegation were as active as MP Huppert in pursuing cycling policy with their parties and the legislature, that would be a big step up and forward. There’s no discussion of get the US Cycling as there is to Get Britain Cycling, for example.
But I sense Mr Huppert is a strong leader who is still working to get the attention of Cambridge and broader coalitions in Parliament and still trying to generate the needed political will to create different transportation vision where cycling is common, safe and legitimate and (the real issue) resources are allocated to make it real.
The Elk Run Biobusiness Park is a project which keeps me shaking my head at the hubris of the Pine Island officials who have supported this “if you build it, they will come” development debacle and the MNDoT logic which threw millions (about $45 of them) of tax dollars at the interchange serving, as yet, nothing.
Latest development: There’s still no development! Not in the business park, anyway. In June, MNDoT held a public open house in Pine Island about its diverging diamond interchange on MN52. Problem 1: MNDoT plans to close direct access to 52 which will isolate existing businesses in order to serve the businesses which might inhabit the biobusiness park some day. Problem 2: Pine Island bet heavily with MNDoT; the deal for the interchange included promises to create 20 biobusiness jobs a year starting in 2013 until 2021 which, if not created, will cost Pine Island $20,000 for each job which doesn’t exist. Pine Island is trying to negotiate so MNDoT won’t call in those chips.
In Northfield, we’ve put pretty good policy in place for encouraging cycling and walking, as well as for building sidewalks, bike trails and on-street bike facilities as we take on street projects. Each new project, however, which tries to build non-automobile facilities continues to meet with resistance from some Council and community members while being championed by others.
For the record, I’m trying to sell my road bikes (the kind one rides in spandex shorts) and keeping my beater bike for riding around town from point A to B in my regular clothes (even skirts), but I’d kind of like one of these.
Northfield Middle School tops my list for local planning failures; it “wins” because its location and design shine a bright light on Northfield’s development pattern over the last 25-30 years. There’s a lot to learn from the Middle School.
I served on the Planning Commission when the Middle School was in development, but in 2001-3 the Commission’s and neighbors’ questions about increased traffic and connectivity didn’t register in the development culture of the time.
The old Middle School (now Carleton College’s Weitz Center for Creativity) occupied just over one city block – about 3.75 acres – on the east edge of downtown. The original building had been the city’s high school and had been expanded several times, but could no longer accommodate the 1000 students (in a growing town). Students used the city park next to the school and athletic fields about 6 blocks away for sports and PE classes.
The new Middle School became the 3rd school in Northfield’s south side campus; the Middle School occupies 60.6 acres at the south end of about 145 acres of school property with Northfield High School at the north end and Bridgewater Elementary School in the middle.
The residential subdivision to the west was designed with multiple culs de sacs radiating off a single loop of street. Within the boundaries of the subdivision, there is obvious logic to the arrangement, but there are no opportunities to connect to surrounding destinations. The only one way out is onto Jefferson Parkway which was “improved” when the Middle School was built by adding a median. Unfortunately, the median makes it unsafe to bicycle on the street because the lanes are too narrow to permit a bicycle and car side by side and the median prevents cars from moving left to avoid cyclists. And, more recent research shows that the cul de sac – collector pattern is less safe than a more grid-like pattern which slows and distributes traffic. On the plus side, walking or bicycling from this side of the school is relatively easy on well connected off street trails.
On the east side of the highway, another subdivision is arranged with long, interlocking streets ending in culs de sac. Again, it makes for pretty patterns within the subdivision, but prevents any continuous north-south travel or east-west connections across the highway.
Highway 246 with its 45 to 55 mph speed limits effectively eliminates any pedestrian or bicycle traffic from the east despite off street trails parallel to the road because there is no safe crossing (and the school district buses all students east of the middle school). I’ve blogged about MNDoT’s new attention to context, but this highway predates this approach.
The end result: All school automobile traffic must funnel through the Jefferson Parkway/246 intersection. The intersection itself was not redesigned to accommodate walkers or cyclists when schools were built, so this logical crossing point is difficult at best and deadly at worst (there’s been one fatality during school rush hour).
What could we do differently for Northfield’s next school?
Educate city and school district planners (and the voters who support school bond referendums and city council policymakers) about how can good school locations coupled with transportation planning can help improve traffic safety, public health, and quality of life. Serendipitously, Northfield school board member Rob Hardy just blogged about the district wellness policy: “all students in grades K-12 will have opportunities, support, and encouragement to be physically active on a regular basis.” One way is to have physical education classes and sports teams; another is to think about siting and designing schools to make it easy to walk or bicycle to reach them (Here’s a summary of issues from the Safe Routes to School partnership).
Long-term costs should be evaluated: Yup, it costs lots of money to redesign intersections and build bike/ped facilities. However, there are also the costs to bus students who might be able to get to school on foot/bike with safer routes, the public health costs of pollution, obesity, etc. from car-reliant transportation. How can the next school incorporate long-term thinking about where to locate and how to connect the school to the community which could avoid the need for retrofits later and realize some of the community benefits immediately?
What’s so great about having a Complete Streets policy? My big policy goal is to link transportation and land use planning to increase the productivity and sustainability of Northfield. To reach that goal requires some consciousness-raising, disseminating information about the costs of development for cities, and many incremental steps. A Complete Streets policy is part of making transportation planning more intentional, better linked with surrounding land uses, and increasing awareness of the critical role streets play in cities’ budgets, safety, economic development, stormwater management, quality of life and, of course, getting around town. By itself, the policy won’t accomplish much, but it is a piece of the bigger picture.
The New Republic has a rather lyrical review of library form and function: The Revolution at your Community Library. Focusing on the architecture of community libraries, Sarah Williams Goldhagen presents examples of “a new building type with a deceptively familiar name.” In so doing, she also elegantly captures the evolution in libraries from a civic repository to places which “offer what no other contemporary building type provides: vibrant, informal, attractive, non-commercial community places where people of any age, class, gender, race, religion, or ethnicity can gather, and can obtain access to resources vital to full participation in contemporary life, including but not only the Internet.”
Northfield Public Library is all these things even if its physical form is still firmly rooted in its Carnegie repository history. When it comes time to renovate and expand the library – the physical enclosure is getting pretty tight – it will be an interesting opportunity to hold on to the historical roots, status as civic icon, and create spaces which continue to foster “full participation in contemporary life.”