Friday, February 19, 2010

Fighting crime and traffic to save a community

CHICAGO/AMERICAN URBAN VOICES. I get off the Red Line train at Bryn Mawr, about six miles or ten kilometers north of the Loop, Chicago’s downtown.
It’s a crisp, sunny day and as I walk east towards Lake Michigan, past a couple of beautifully restored buildings on Bryn Mawr Avenue, it’s hard to imagine that this was a neighborhood on fire just a couple of decades ago. Crime and drugs was killing people, traffic was killing street life in this part of Chicago known as Edgewater.
I’m walking around to get a feel for the neighborhood before meeting one of the persons who played a central role in saving and restoring it to the pleasant and popular part of Chicago it is today.
Mary Ann Smith (right) is the alderman for the 48th ward, representing the local community of Edgewater in Chicago’s City Hall.
She receives me at her local office on North Broadway Avenue, and I’m not quite prepared for the bewildering experience a meeting with this remarkable woman turns out to be. I don’t think I’ve ever met a local politician so full of energy aimed at improving her community, and I’ve met a few.
I ask one question, something about cities and how to best improve them, and she talks the rest of the day.
“It all boils down to quality of life and trying to do things that don’t serve one kind of population at the expense of another”, says Smith.
When I read about Mary Ann Smith in Jeb Brugmann’s interesting book “Welcome to the Urban Revolution” (published last year), I realized that she would be a great example of a person committed to urban improvement that actually helped save a city.
Brugmann compares Chicago and Detroit, two big American cities with a similar background. Detroit collapsed and is today seen as one the greatest urban failures in the western world. Chicago could have gone the same way, but didn’t.
“In stunning contrast, Chicago has transformed itself district by district to resume its position as one of the most productive, creative, and vibrant cities of the world”, Brugmann writes.
A lot of this was done thanks to local community activists, and Mary Ann Smith was one of those before she entered local politics (you might recall another young community organizer on Chicago’s South Side who also entered politics and ended up in the White House).
I spend most of a working day with Mary Ann Smith and her colleagues in and around the alderman’s local office. By the end of the day she has told me the story of Edgewater, we have toured the neighborhood, had meetings with the local community groups and block clubs that form the backbone of the vibrant local democracy that Mary Ann Smith represents.
The atmosphere is relaxed but intense. There is no time to waste. Alderman Smith is dressed in blue jeans and drives around in a small car with a license plate saying “ALD BABE”. She has so many stories to tell and so many buildings to point out that I’m not sure she has an eye on the road as we travel the streets of Edgewater.
“When you walk around the neighborhood its hard to understand that in the 70’s, and even the 80’s, we had owners who burned down their buildings in arson for profit. My children used to look out the windows in the evenings and point out buildings that were on fire. But we decided not to give up our neighborhood”, says Smith.
Her background as an activist began with environmental issues concerning Lake Michigan. Another early issue was traffic and how it affected the local community. She got more and more involved in community politics when she in 1989 suddenly found herself appointed alderman for the 48th ward by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley who had picked her predecessor Kathy Osterman for the City Hall government.
She was first elected in 1991 and in February 2007 she was re-elected to her fifth full term of office.
As she tells the story of her many years of serving her community, she repeatedly comes back to the issue of cars and traffic and the harm it has done to so many American cities (Detroit being the prime example).
Edgewater, with some 60,000 residents within the 48th ward, lies at the upper end of Lake Shore Drive which connects central Chicago with its northern neighborhoods. This is where commuter traffic hits the streets and avenues of the local community.
“We now have some 150,000 vehicles commuting through this part of the city every day”, says Smith.
Early in her political career she began to study the effects the traffic had on Edgewater and she could see a clear connection to the decay of the neighborhood.
“This community was built for public transportation. Chicago used to have street cars every fourth or sixth block, which you can see on old maps. But for every decade the streets were widened to accommodate more traffic. Money for public transportation went down the toilet. You could see how the neighborhood was torn apart by this.”
As the old infrastructure crumbled and the cars took over, people began to leave for the suburbs. In the vacuum that followed, crime moved in and the neighborhood was soon in flames.
But Mary Ann Smith and her activist followers were not willing to give up. At one point in her early years as alderman she even began to physically challenge the drug traders.
“I had this colleague who was a big guy. We would take his jeep and drive around at night to street corners where we new the drug trade was going on. I would take a folding chair and sit down on the street corner. The presence lowered the comfort level for the criminals. It was dangerous, but my idea was that the police wouldn’t allow me to get shot”, Smith says.
This is just one example of the work Mary Ann Smith has done in Edgewater. Safety for the residents has been one of her cornerstones. Improving schools is another, sometimes a challenge in this diverse neighborhood with many newly arrived refugees.
Curbing traffic is a constant struggle. Sidewalks have been widened and the streets of Edgewater have come back to life. The proximity to a greatly improved waterfront at Lake Michigan has made this one of the most pleasant parts of Chicago.
The Bryn Mawr Historic District (left) with its beautifully restored buildings, where crime used to rule, is another source of great pride for Mary Ann Smith. On the other end of Edgewater, to the west, lies the old Swedish neighborhood Andersonville (above, right). Most Swedes have left, but a number of restaurants, shops and the Swedish American Museum reminds you of the heritage in what is now one of Chicago’s most attractive neighborhoods.
The achievement of the Edgewater activists led by Mary Ann Smith is a remarkable story of urban heroism. It goes beyond the struggle for a sustainable future in the environmental sense, even if that has been part of it.
In Edgewater, as in many other parts of Chicago, it started as a struggle for a future, period.
Mary Ann Smith sends me off with a heavy bag of material and impressions that could fill a book.

This is the fourth and final report on my meetings with American urban thinkers and activists in Chicago.

Mary Ann Smith meeting community groups to hear their views on a park.

Walking the beach at Lake Michigan in Edgewater with Chicago's skyline in view.

Mixed land use a key to urban vitality

URBAN PLANNING. Canada’s leading city Toronto has a way of attracting urban thinkers and visionaries to set up shop there. Well-known architect and urban designer Ken Greenberg (left) is on of them.
Earlier this week I posted the first part of an e-mail interview I did with him last week, mainly to get his view on recent urban development in Scandinavia that he saw on a visit last year. I also asked him about his views on important trends in urban planning today.
In an interview for Metropolis magazine recently, Greenberg said that he sees an on-going transformation of cities today as profound as what happened immediately after the Second World War.
In other words; a lot of things that will shape the future of cities are happening right now.
Before we get to that, I asked Greenberg to explain what makes Toronto an interesting place.
“Toronto (and the other major Canadian cities) represents in some ways the ‘other America’. Like siblings sharing much of the same gene pool but with differences we have gone a slightly different direction, in many respects closer to Europe in attitudes and approach. We are growing rapidly now as a mid-size modern world city emerges rapidly from what was a relatively small and modest provincial city”, answers Greenberg and describes this as an “exciting if nerve wracking process”.
“To me the most interesting and optimistic aspect is what is happening socially. We seem to have developed a special talent (admittedly far from perfect and still with many challenges) for successfully welcoming integrating recent waves of immigration to the point where in Toronto over half of the population was born elsewhere and there is no ‘majority’ population, only minorities. According to the United Nations we are the most cosmopolitan city in the world.”
“Torontonians growing self-identification with ‘diversity’ as a positive feature is not just about proximity but about what happens when there is a genuine opportunity for people to come together face to face with the possibility of becoming familiar with each other while at the same time allowing room for mutually defining the relationships”, says Greenberg.
He is presently involved in parts of the vast redevelopment of the Toronto waterfront. Take a look at the video below to hear him talk about this.

What do you see as the most important trends in urban planning today?

The extravagant syndrome where a small part of the world’s population has been consuming a wildly disproportionate amount of the world’s non-renewable resources has now been revealed as fundamentally unsound. Long hypothesized but now a reality we are at the end of abundant and cheap energy supplies placing us on the cusp of profound transformations in the way we live and pushing us to seek a more sustainable urban future. While painful in many ways, this forced transition is ultimately a cause for optimism about the future of cities. As numerous commentators have pointed out our survival as a species is tied to them in ways previously unimagined. With a newfound respect for their inherent capacities, cities and city-building have again become our urgent priorities and they are making a comeback.
One of the greatest challenges is to put our better understanding of what cities can do into practice. This has been occurring through an intensive empirical process of trial and error that leads from one city to another as each contributes new insights to the learning curve. Building on early transitional steps a whole new way of working on cities is emerging that skillfully weaves together targeted public sector and private sector efforts to advance larger visions for more sustainable city growth. In a North American and European context this work is increasingly has to be done in a highly public and contested environment with a right and need for affected communities to be at the table. A new kind of planning tool kit is needed: rigidly prescriptive city plans and traditional zoning ordinances do not hold up well against dynamic market forces rapidly changing social patterns. Flexible frameworks are being pioneered that allow for innovation, hybridization, organic growth, change, and surprise. Rather than thwarting added layers of design creativity by architects and landscape architects, these open-ended frameworks encourage and release them. All of this heightened activity and interest coalesces around the term “urbanism” which is broader and more inclusive than any of the defined professions that contribute to it.
As this convergence occurs we are moving away from compartmentalizing things; blending public and private initiatives; working across disciplinary lines as and engaging civil society in new ways. More and more different kinds of knowledge and skill sets are added in the upstream creative process to expand our understanding of situations of increasing complexity including: engineering specialties, civil, municipal, transportation, marine; economists and market specialists in different sectors including community development; environmental scientists, ecologists, hydrologists; sociologists, community service providers; artists and arts organizations among others. This broad fusion of expertise and knowledge is not compromising - it enables richer and better outcomes.

What mistakes are being made?

We are still stuck with many of the old tools and prejudices trapped in the rigid specialization in concept, form, financing and delivery which characterized the post-war development process. Achieving mixed land use is one of the hardest nuts to crack in making new neighbourhoods. Many of the new places still turn out to be more sterile than we would like, lacking the fine grained and intricate interweaving of living, working, shopping etc that grew up organically in their older counterparts. For example, success in incorporating new street retail into the mix was uneven. In Copenhagen there was still the temptation in some new areas to have an interior “shopping mall” in the plan for new areas, depriving the streets of life and vitality whereas in Hammarby Sjöstad (in Stockholm) the shopping successfully lined the new tramway street and restaurants and cafes were sprinkled throughout the neighbourhood. By contrast in the older neighbourhoods the adaptations were subtle re-workings of long established traditions. Attractive street markets were located in the older squares and along the newly carved out pedestrian streets. In Copenhagen the dominant grocery chain Irma had created a category or Mini Irmas that cropped up everywhere and very impressive was the variety of non-chain specialized establishments for very particular goods or services and tiny popular cafes with only two or three tables, demonstrating that with enough density and overlap, these kinds of small and unique businesses which we often consider unviable can thrive.

There is a lot of discussion around the state of the American (and perhaps Canadian) suburbs today. What is the way forward?

This is the big question. A majority of North Americans now live there but ultimately we are in the same boat in facing the need to alter our living arrangements and make the fundamental shift to a more sustainable way of life. The fantasy that we can buy our way out of this or that there will be a technological fix, a magic new fuel source like hydrogen fuel cells or solar energy reflected back from space that will allow the current sprawling auto-based, high energy consuming way of life to proceed unchanged is just that, a fantasy. The way out of our dilemma starts with the frank and unequivocal acknowledgement that we face serious problems. From that acknowledgment flows the understanding that we too have a need for a similar “re-balancing” in our world and will have to summon the leadership, the will and the resources to make hard decisions in changing course. If there is the will and the means to make changes, it is physically possible while admittedly difficult to “convert” suburbs. Beyond the house, suburban roads also have the potential to be transformed into multi- purpose urban streets, the arterials converted into boulevards shared with transit and cycle lanes. In fact, the groundwork is already laid for all this, and pioneering examples exist in many cities. The major impediments are cultural resistance to change, a fragmented pattern of ownership and an extraordinary tangle of intractable zoning regulations.