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Contemplating the Urban Oasis

keywest Harry Truman solved his problem. Seeking escape from the "White Prison" of Washington, D.C., he discovered the Little White House on Key West in 1946 as his oasis from the international post-WWII storms, political gamesmanship and scandal that roiled his first term as Roosevelt's successor.

He never liked the White House and its trappings, and endured more than his fair share of criticism as president while making critical and accountable decisions during years of crisis. "If you want a friend in Washington," Truman was to have said, "get a dog." After his initial foray to Key West in 1946 for doctor-prescribed R&R, he spent 175 days there during his 2nd term, mostly working in the company of aides and dignitaries, with an occasional poker game with the boys and a fishing trip when his wife and daughter visited.

Harry Truman understood the importance of down time. Between today's constant 24/7 pull of the Internet, social media, "breaking" news updates and demands for professional service and work deadlines, I find myself having a greater need for time spent alone, with family or in the company of friends in some type of public open space setting. The trouble is, it's getting harder to take the big two-week vacation, unplug and disconnect in some wonderful or remote setting. And the long, stressful days leading up to and immediately after that big event make it barely worthwhile. Rather, I've come to appreciate much more the snippets of time over a weekend or on a day here, half day there basis relaxing and recharging in some contemplative urban oasis amid dense foliage, rippling streams, walking paths and strong on-shore breezes perfectly made for contemplation.

Valuing Open Space

We often think of cities as great gathering places offering high levels of accessibility for people to interact and innovate by sharing ideas. But in addition to creating walkable, transit-oriented places, an important part of making cities livable is access to public parks and natural spaces. There is a growing body of research showing that public parks and open space reduce stress, improve health and contribute to economic prosperity of neighborhoods and local governments. While factors like distance and level of maintenance matter, a typical example is a recent study conducted in Greenville, SC, which found that small and medium parks have a positive influence on neighboring property values. This, in turn, can result in higher assessments and thus higher property tax revenues for local governments, potentially off-setting the capital and maintenance cost of greenways, parks and the like. It's certainly wise to try to monetize such benefits in this era of fiscal accountability, but let's not overlook the social and personal value of creating places for people to appreciate nature, get away from the constant marketing and the impersonal institutional surroundings of our daily lives. We all need our escapes.

The Morikami Experience

Buddha in repose at Morikami Gardens

A short drive west from I-95 in Delray Beach, FL amid sprawling six-lane roads and gated suburban enclaves, you'll find The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens. Dedicated in 1975 and maintained by the Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Department, the Morikami features 200 acres of scenic vistas, walking trails traversing six distinct sculpted natural gardens, and a fine Japanese café, museum and classrooms. The gardens provide ample places to stroll alongside streams or sit beside waterfalls and flowering tendrils of Firebush, Mexican Petunias and Alamanda.

A stream flows through the Morikami Japanese Gardens in Palm Beach County, FL.

Like many suburban communities, Palm Beach County has been slow to recognize the importance and value of streets as livable places. As with all of Florida's big urban counties, roads are public places ceded primarily to the speed and efficiency of private automobile travel. Residential and even commercial land uses are generally hidden behind dense buffers of vegetation or walled and gated barriers designed to separate the impersonal public realm from private enclaves. Amid the sprawl and "thou shalt not" feeling of restricted public right-of-way and private gated communities, the Morikami and places like it provide a valuable and rewarding respite of communal open space designed to transport people away from the cacophony of traffic and commercial striving.

Innovative Open Space

While the Morikami is a "drive to" garden oasis that is a true regional and even statewide resource, urban open spaces ranging in size from pocket parks of a few hundred square feet to a few hundred acres improve livability and walkability.

The Trust for Public Land has a nice report on "Shoehorn Parks," covering innovative strategies to squeeze green spaces out of crowded cities. My personal favorite is the use of cemeteries, which served as the principal open space in cities before parks as we know them today. Rooftops, school yards, stormwater channels and streets all can function as usable, enjoyable open space.

The Key West Cemetery dates to 1847 with 75,000 people interred on 19 acres in the "dead center" of Old Town.

The Key West Cemetery is an eclectic bit of history on 19 acres in the heart of Old Town built on the island's highest natural point. The cemetery dates to 1847 after a hurricane forced its reconstruction, and it includes markers commemorating the sinking of the battleship U.S.S. Maine in 1898 and graves of numerous other military veterans, as well as sections for Key West's Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Cuban residents. Even on a hot day in mid-summer, a late morning stroll through the cemetery provides a peaceful and fascinating view into the lives of so many different people. These urban places, both big like the Morikami or small like the Key West Cemetery or neighborhood pocket parks, offer a welcome respite from the stress and anxiety of everyday life, making our communities more livable.

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Planning's Presence in Popular Culture


Planning's Presence in Popular Culture


Maybe it's just me, but I get really excited when I hear or see things planning-related in an unexpected place such as a book, song, or television show/movie. Planning and popular culture seem to go hand-in-hand. What planners do on a daily basis influences the everyday lives of society. Another post on this blog has alluded to this relationship between planning and music. While others have created a list or  article describing the connection between some form of media and planning.

Are there any books, television shows, or movies that you can think of that have subtly, or not so subtly, hinted at planning? Well, besides, one of the most well-known, the episode of Seinfeld where a student about to receive an architecture scholarship decides to be a city planner. This episode has made the line, "Why limit myself to just one building when I can design a whole city," famous.

Watching Traffic Go By: Traffic and Isolation in Urban America

WatchingTrafficGoByThe book discusses transportation policies and systems throughout the history of the United States within the context of popular culture. The author tries to discover why it is that Americans rely so heavily on the automobile and what might have influenced their decisions about transportation. While some topics are covered more convincingly than others, the book finds an entertaining way to appeal to a non-planning audience.

 Promised LandPromisedLand

The 2012 movie is about a natural gas company salesman, Matt Damon, arriving to a small town, where his company wants to tap into the abundant natural gas available in the town. While not a must-see, five-star movie, it highlights some of the difficult situations that planners may encounter in a small-town when trying to make a big change such as an environmental group presence or people who are scared of what may happen to their small-town feeling.

What is Planning?

Only a few instances of planning in popular culture have been highlighted. However, there still remains numerous others to be explored. With so many different forms of media out there portraying the field of planning, why  is it that so few know what planning is or what planners do? Perhaps, it is should be part of our role as planners to make the field more understandable by referring people to instances of popular culture instead of comprehensive plans and zoning maps. Our goal should be to make planning approachable and if we can make it more entertaining in the process through the form of books or movies, well, all the better.

--Amanda Douglas, Cities That Work Blog


When A Picture Says A Thousand Words


When A Picture Says A Thousand Words


Got Graphics?

Explaining stuff, especially the complicated,  with words alone is not always enough.  A little visual aide sprinkled here and there can help the cause.    Infographics, simply put, are visual representations of information.   There are many forms and styles, and they are everywhere these days.   This post hones in on a few choice planning, design, transportation or other related ones that have come across my radar screen.  This is not a 'best of' list, it was not based on a comprehensive survey or search, nor did we have a rigorous selection criteria. Rather it is a subjective collection of 'notable, and noteworthy' that simply caught and held our attention. I say 'our' attention because this collection is not mine alone.  I polled staff at Renaissance to solicit examples of favorite, or noteworthy infographics.  Jessica Dimmick, Stephen Mainzer, David Stamm, Whit Blanton, and Alana Brasier responded to the call (thanks!).  The collection presented here is what came back in the net that I cast.  I'm going to let the graphics do the talking, and keep my commentary brief.   They are presented randomly, and not in any particular order of preference.   We also invite you to grow this collection by sharing the URL of your favorite notable or noteworthy infographic in this post's comments.

The New Yorker magazine recently published this interactive tool for visualizing median income across various subway lines.  It is simple, clean, and one can lose more than a few minutes clicking and comparing if you are not careful.  The notable thing for me was the differences in income not just by line, but by borough, and Manhattan clearly emerges as the wealthiest.  But go see for yourself.

New Yorker - Inequality and New York's Subways

The website I Am Traffic publishes in its resources a very well done series of infographics that are very effective in illustrating dimensions, issues and points relating to biking, pedestrian and traffic.  The example below illustrates general sizes and width of lanes.  But there's more.  Diversity of bicyclistsExclusion ZonesWhy We Dont Share. Sharrows with ParkingBuffered Bike Lanes with ParkingRight Buffered Bike LanesIf There's Not Enough Space.

I Am Traffic - Vehicles and Lanes

While we are on the bike theme, there are a couple well done educational infographics on biking published by Bike Arlington.  The one below is on common biking myths, and this one (to a PDF) is on hot weather tips.

Bike Arlington Infographic - Myths on getting around by bike

As an infographic this may be a little stretch, it's actually more an art piece.  Nonetheless, it's very smart and worthy of mention (and the map geek in me just had to post it).  This website sells maps of different cities composed of typeface. Check them out.

Typographic Maps - Chicago, DC, etc

Perhaps more infowebsite than infographic, The Transcect Collection, offers a picture catalog that helps understand scales of natural and urban form along the transect that ranges from least developed T1 (natural zone) to most developed T6 (urban core, downtown).  The images in this website are an effective tool in helping people visualize the transect by showing examples from real places.

Transect Collection

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita the Louisiana Recovery Authority initiated a Louisiana Speaks regional visioning project.  As part of this effort, a team of consultants led by Urban Design Associates produced a Planning Toolkit.  The screenshot below is the Matrix Illustrated spread on pages 18-19 of this toolkit,which we are placing in this notable and noteworthy collection because it is an effective visualization of both issues and scales, and covers a lot of ground in a two page foldout.

An excerpt matrix from the Lousiana Speaks Planning Toolkit.

This next example is not a planning, design related infographic, but caught our attention nonetheless. It's an illustration of someone's knitting efforts, sales over a period of time and where the sales went.  It's a clever illustration.   The screenshot from Flickr below will take you to higher resolution version of this infographic on their site.

Diagram about Crochet

A blog post on the Sustainable Cities Collective drew my attention to the below "Metrics Framework" infographic that is demonstrating the benefits of various activities associated with urban agriculture.  I like how clean and well-organized it is, very much in a report card (or consumer reports) style of presentation. There is another graphic they did that accompanies this, focusing on Health, Social, Economic and Ecological benefits that is also well done.

Metrics Framework - Benefits and Activities of Urban Agriculture

Finally, this one just made me chuckle.  Dont forget to share your favorites, if you have one, in the comments.

Craiglist, Missed Connections (Human Transit,


--Jason Espie, Cities That Work Blog


The New SimCity: Unleash Your Inner Planner


The New SimCity: Unleash Your Inner Planner


With the upcoming March release of its latest iteration of SimCity, Maxis seeks to stoke the inner city planner in all of us once again. The classic franchise, which started way back in 1989 with the release of the original SimCity, has always strived to make us all into mayors and chief planners of our own living, breathing cities. I played the original SimCity when I was 10 years old, and as crazy as it sounds -- the game had a lot to do with my career choice...and here I am almost 24 years later. [youtube]


You've Come a Long Way, Baby

Video games have come a long way since the '80s, and with each of its subsequent releases: SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4, Maxis increased the level of detail and control that mayors had on their cities. Their latest iteration, simply named SimCity, seeks to take sandbox gaming to an entirely different level.

The game still utilizes single-use zoning (residential, commercial and industrial) as its primary planning tool, but the interactions between these land uses are much more complex thanks to the new GlassBox simulation engine. While the previous versions of the game simulated high-level statistics and then created graphical animations to represent the simulated data, the new gaming engine replaces those statistics with agents. These agents are simulation units that represent objects such as water, power and individual workers. In previous versions a traffic jam animation would be shown to represent a traffic flow problem; the new SimCity will produce a traffic jam dynamically by masses of Sim agents that simulate travel to and from individual work locations. This is heady stuff! You can actually click on individual Sims in the game walking, riding the bus or driving their car and see in real-time where they live, where they work, where they are currently heading and even their individual happiness level.

Testing 1, 2, 3

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take part in the first closed beta period for the new game back in January. While I had not played SimCity in quite a few years -- since SimCity 4 -- it came back to me immediately, much like riding a bike. Instantly, I was transported back to the fond childhood memories that the previous versions had provided me. The closed beta began with a "Getting Started Scenario," which gave a quick overview, and then I was on my own to build and create my city. The beta was limited to a one-hour gameplay period, and then I was forced to start all over. In the limited time I was given, I was able to get a good idea of how the game played and just how much it has improved.


For starters, while SimCity 4 relied on a simple grid pattern much like the previous versions had, the new SimCity is much more free-form. This increases player control on the look and feel of their cities exponentially. For example, laying out a road in any shape and alignment desired will then determine the lot sizes and shapes accordingly to match. Another nice feature is that all of your infrastructure needs (power, water, sewage) are provided underneath the roads, which is a welcome improvement to those of us who were used to manually building power lines and water pipes to service our Sims.

You still have plenty of options when it comes to power generation. From coal, oil, wind, solar and even nuclear -- you get to make the decision, but must be wary of the upfront costs, lifespan and environmental concerns that go along with each. SimCity mayors have total control over what kind of city they want to build. You want a medium-density city? Fine. You want to legalize gambling and have a casino -entered economy? Go for it. However, be prepared to deal with the high-crime and other societal ills that may come along with that decision.

While my time with the beta was limited, Norman Chan wrote a great piece at -- where he tested different real-world development patterns including urban grid, radiating sprawl and cul-de-sac segregation to see how they fared in the new game.

Transportation Planning

As a transportation planner, the most intriguing aspect of SimCity to me is the transportation system. It has always been the most important part of the game for me since I was a child. From the early days of 2-lane roads only in the original SimCity, to the very detailed transportation options in SimCity 4, this newest version takes it to an entirely new level. The SimCity roadway network ranges from dirt roads to 6-lane boulevards with streetcar tracks. An interesting improvement of note is that now the type of roadway built determines the density of development that will occur adjacent to it. Want a high-density corridor like Manhattan's Avenue-of-the-Americas?  Build a grand avenue with lots of transit service to support it. That brings me to public transportation.

Good public transportation, long exclusive to large, dense metropolitan areas, is increasingly being looked to as a priority in many small to medium-sized American cities. This is no exception in SimCity, which includes bus and train (light and heavy) terminals, shuttle buses, streetcars, subways, park-and-ride lots, ferries and planes -- there are a multitude of options to get your Sims out of their cars and connect them to destinations both inside and outside your city.

Regional Planning or a Tale of Two Cities?

Probably the most important new feature of the new game is the multiplayer aspect. Playing with friends adds a new dimension to how SimCity is played. The decisions you make will affect not only your city, but the other cities in your region as well. "Thanks a bunch for opening up that new casino and bringing all that crime my way, Uncle Nick!"

But in all seriousness, planning has become increasingly more regional in nature over the past decade -- and the new SimCity is heading in that direction as well. Cities within a region can make deals for trash removal, power and water treatment in much the same way they do today. You may decide to take a neighboring city's garbage or provide them power for the extra income they can provide, but the problems that come with those deals are left for you to mitigate. Connecting your city to theirs via airports, seaports, rail terminals and highways gives you access to their population and employment. One must consider, however, that this also creates more competition for those denizens and their hard-earned simoleons (the national currency of SimNation).

In addition to regional planning, there is now a world economy. Prices of key resources like food and oil will fluctuate depending on the game's world supply and demand. So if players around the world are selling oil onto the global market, the price of the resource will go down -- of course the opposite is true as well. A little too real? I wonder if I zoom in far enough, will I be able to see my Sims grimace at the pump like I did this morning?



Realistic Expectations?


While SimCity does a great job at making us all mayors and planners of our own cities and regions, it unrealistically gives us unlimited power and control of the city budget, unlimited bulldozing power (eminent domain), and provides no legal hurdles to development. While this makes things much easier than reality -- it's most likely necessary as they probably wouldn't sell as many copies if you had to wait the weeks, months or even years for development to get through all of the public involvement, permitting and possible funding problems that occur in reality. Both gamers and developers alike want as much reality as possible, but not THAT much... SimCity does, however, realistically base population and economic growth on planning policy and documented economic theory, which is about as real as you're ever going to see in a video game.

I highly recommend that you pick up a copy when the game is released in a few weeks. Whether you want to build our own version of utopia or just need a break from the realities of urban planning. Whether you choose to emulate Daniel Burnham, Ebeneezer Howard, Andrés Duany or Robert Moses (I'd advise against the latter), the SimWorld is your oyster.


The Village Green, carnival towns and a musical sense of place


The Village Green, carnival towns and a musical sense of place


a picture of a village green Music defines much about our culture and sense of community. It moves us in many ways. We associate songs, bands and record albums with place, where we grew up, the homes in which we were raised, and the schoolyards of our youth. As a Southerner and Florida kid, that's probably a big reason for my devotion to all things Allman Brothers.

Music is a mental map of our lives. It carries vivid imagery and other senses of touch, taste and smell. What songs remind you of a special place or activity, some lingering association that puts your mind into clear focus? Others have compiled lists of the best planning songs, which is a good topic for debate, but not really my point.

What songs give you a sense a place? What music captures the sense of a city, town or neighborhood; a street, railroad, airport or highway; a park, a river, a beach? Jazz and the Blues, the roots and very essence of American music, clearly tell the stories of our communities and places where we gather. "Take the A Train" and "'Round Midnight" are jazz standards that put me in a sophisticated urban mood, inside some packed nightclub, a martini at ready. Otis Rush's "So Many Roads" puts me in a desolate and distant crossroads of roads and rail lines, desperate to get someplace else.

Preserving society for me and for you

There's no better band for broad themes about places and planning than north London's own The Kinks. Their 1968 album, We Are the Village Green Preservation Society covers a panoply of small town and rural community themes in a time of great societal transition, starting with the first song of the same title. It continues through other songs like Last of the Steam Powered Trains, Monica, Picture Book, Big Sky, Animal Farm, and Village Green, making this the quintessential small town planning concept album:


We are the office block persecution affinity God save little shops, china cups and virginity We are the skyscraper condemnation affiliate God save tudor houses, antique tables and billiards Preserving the old ways from being abused Protecting the new ways for me and for you What more can we do God save the village green.

Power, politics and ego-maniacal moral authority define another Kinks concept album, Preservation Act 2. The 1974 album is a bit uneven, but its dead-on lyrics nail current national themes involving the political influence of money, class conflict, and corruption that mirror issues in the last Presidential election. "Scrapheap City" evokes a sterile place devoid of diversity, culture and beauty:

They're digging up all of the flowers Because they look pretty And erecting identical Concrete monstrosities.

Coal miners and carnival workers

More recently, The Horse Flies' album, The Ocean, is rich with a sense of place. Its signature song, "Veins of Coal," is a haunting tune that's been put to video in a way that helps tell the story of life as a Kentucky coal miner through the eyes of his grandson. But my favorite story about place on the album is the song, Carnival Lips, about the oddities of circus performers, and who really is "normal." Carnival Lips clearly evokes the unincorporated town of Gibsonton, Florida, just south of Tampa. In high school and then in college, before the completion of I-75 through Tampa I drove US 41 - the Tamiami Trail - from Sarasota to Tampa or Gainesville and back hundreds of times. Along the way, we'd pass Gibsonton, the winter fishing destination and residence of carnival performers known as "Showtown U.S.A" and home to the "Lobster Boy."

Picture of showtown restaurant and bar in GibsontonIt's a funky little beaten-down town on the eastern shores of Tampa Bay along the Alafia River, made up of mobile home and trailer parks, aging retail buildings, cheap marinas and weatherbeaten docks, and now some newer suburban residential communities. There was always a sense of mystery and intrigue to the place, from its rich history in the media and with the Hillsborough County sheriff's department. The Horse Flies' song not only brings back my memories of driving through Gibsonton, but like all good songs it resonates in my own mind about the insecurities we all sometimes have.

The world is made up of people like me / Who go to the carnival hoping to see / A great big body and a little tiny head / To help us forget that we're the freaks instead.gibtown_home_side

What song or album is your sense of place?