Today I’m Loving

…because I never miss an opportunity to be an ambassador for my first city love, Cleveland.  This video is wonderful! It shows the spirit of the town and just a fraction of its charm.  I get the pleasure of going there for an extended stay over the holidays.  So much has changed in the short time I’ve been gone. I can’t wait to reconnect.  Please enjoy! And if you have a chance to visit do that too.  Fun lovers and stuff doers will thoroughly enjoy themselves!

Tiny Business Spaces

I opened up the November issue of Planning magazine to find an article on office density.  (Apparently efficient use of space seems to be a trending topic with me right now.)  It explores the growing trend in reducing square footage per employee, citing the reduction from 500-700 square feet of space per user in 1970 to the now 176 square feet in 2012.  With the trend accelerating, square footage numbers are expected to go down even further to 151 square feet in 2017!

It seems that the influencing factors on this trend are following long-time recommendations from the planning field, including desires of the workforce to live close to where they work and increased tenant demands in amenities like walkable environments and access to public transit. But in part, I believe these trends are also taking a cue from the evolution of co-working spaces; you know, the ones where you can rent a desk per day or per month and sit amongst various independent worker bees, creating the next greatest thing since sliced bread?!

It only makes sense.  These spaces derive their value from open access and transference of knowledge by proximity.  They’re, in a sense, innovation labs.  They’ve had enough success to build around 1,800 locations worldwide, with 684 of those in the U.S., according to deskman.com.  Beyond that there are obvious cost savings in building and infrastructure that is saved both by the public and the private developer by squeezing more out of the square footage.  That’s enough for office managers and business leaders to take note, resulting in many of the once traditional office arrangements to rebuild into denser versions of themselves.  Even in the planning field, offices once traditionally segmented by profession (planners, civil engineers, architects) are becoming open, shared space for mixed teams… essentially making mini-think tanks.

While the movement towards more efficient, collaborative space is commendable, the article aptly points to the detailed implications for what this means in our cities and our daily work lives.  Our zoning codes have long supported sprawl – wide open spaces, single story uses, and “x” square feet of space per user.  And that amount of space has historically been rather large.  Now that we’re seeing the trend swing in the opposite direction, both in our living spaces and in our work lives, there are details to mind to. Among the things we gloss over when looking at density – particularly when we’re collectively so amped up about it – is the quality of the air we breathe, whether a retrofitted older building can physically support increased infrastructure, or demands on parking.  What happens when we go from 2 individuals per 1,000 square feet to nine people?  What happens if that business location isn’t fortunate enough to be within a TOD or near a public transit stop?

It may seem like mundane details, but when we’ve been operating from zoning practices that have not been completely (or only partially) overhauled from their inception in the last century, how can we expect to build in ways that support our current lifestyles and technologies?  And its not just the zoning codes.  With it so too goes our building codes.  Many of the issues discussed in the Planning Magazine article have less to do with with zoning and more to do with how proper plumbing and ventilation will work.

It’s certainly a massive undertaking, but this I know for sure:  The practice of zoning (and building for that matter) – whether it’s traditional Euclidean Zoning or New Urbanism – is out of touch with human reality.  Despite recent strides over the last decade to correct some of these missteps, we’re still far from where we need to be.  We’ve taken innate human living experiences and managed to sterilize them into a regulatory game of semantics… and that can more often than not mean we live the way we build: disconnected.

 

tiny places as human spaces

Looking for inspiration on a project of mine, I stumbled across a documentary called “Tiny” (it was a deep rabbit hole, ok?!).  The film follows an individual -and interviews many more – about the conscious decision to live in VERY tiny spaces.  And when I say tiny, I’m talking 130 to 300 square feet!

I’m no stranger to the concept of granny-flats or secondary structures as downsized options.  And I’m sure those of you who live in extremely dense cities are no stranger to a similar idea, particularly if you’re not in the States.  We Americans love our space, right?!  But this takes the concept to a new extreme; and because of that, the people choosing this living style are asking important questions about how we prioritize our lives and how we define home.

Gaining more meaningful lives that set priorities on living simply, having better connection with others, and gratitude for the few material things in their possession, appear to be common themes for tiny home dwellers.  Too, decreased environmental impact, reduced cost of living, and mobility and flexibility play a big role in the decision to live in small homes.  It’s interesting – and maybe an obvious point – that the act of changing our physical space in this way can force these high ideals to surface.

tiny home 1

Perhaps once a one-off random idea a decade ago, tiny houses have become increasingly popular.  In fact, USA Today published an article yesterday on the same topic, citing the same numerous reasons why people are choosing tiny homes.  Even Country Living Magazine showcased these interesting spaces.  There are now plenty of resources that detail tiny space living, including Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and the Tiny House Blog. And according to USA Today’s article, there’s even a Small House Society whose aim is to create a supportive community for individuals making the switch.

Unfortunately for these individuals, most city codes require a minimum footprint of roughly 500-600 square feet.  The reason for this is rooted in life and safety issues (I’m guessing from the days of tenement housing).  Cities aim to ensure proper ventilation, light, and modern day conveniences (like bathrooms) are in place… not to mention preventing overcrowding (think animal hoarders but with people!?).    So to get around this fact (and building permit fees), small home owners build their homes on wheels.  And there’s great pride in the hands-on creative process that allows them to customize their space and separate this kind of living from RV goers.

tiny house 2

It once again brings up similar questions from last week’s post: How will we define our future city landscape?  Certainly the small house movement is not for everyone and those with families would definitely need something larger (500 square feet?!). But are movements like this  and the natural processes of suburban densification begging us to redefine not just our physical environment but how we connect with one another?

It touches upon something I’ve questioned since my graduate economic thesis, which is:  if what we prioritize as a collective whole are the ideals of human connection and environmental sustainability, then why are we not using the tools we have to measure those ideals (i.e. – economic modeling, market analysis, pricing) to properly value these things?  Why do we treat our housing or even our food system like every other commodity when at their core, they don’t function like every other widget for sale out there?

The OTHERS are Coming

Recently, I’ve taken some time away from talking about urban planning-related topics to discuss other work/life-related issues. I don’t know about you, but it was cathartic for me. Although hopefully it was interesting to you! Thanks for letting me reflect a bit. How about we get back to the planning stuff?!!!…

I came across an article in this weekend’s local paper to find a Metro article discussing the inevitable densification of some wealthier suburbs. It was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. The first is because I grew up in the rust belt (for those of you who aren’t familiar with that term, it’s the area of the country that was the industrial epicenter Post WWI until the mid 1970′s.), and I’ve been trained to create innovative solutions around SHRINKING cities; not booming growth ones. Where I am located now is experiencing the exact opposite: an in-migration at roughly 10,000 people a month!

This brings me to the second reason this weekend’s article caught my attention. It’s not often that we get to experience a physical and sociological change in living patterns. Usually we only study them in retrospect with our high school sociology or history teachers! Ten-thousand more people a month?!! Think about that number. It’s crazy extreme! That type of movement creates a whole different set of implications, including traffic conjestion, housing shortages, and water supply. In fact, I’ve been told by some in the real estate biz that people are throwing down cold hard cash – in full – to get a house here.

With that many people moving every month, a domino effect occurs: the central city becomes more congested and expensive to live. Space becomes an issue (Hello, NYC.). People, particularly families wanting more space, good schools, and a reasonable cost of living move to the suburbs. And thus, they avoid the bustling issues of city-life and live happily ever after… or so they think.

The fact of the matter is that the central city is the economic engine for all smaller periphery markets (i.e. – suburban business park and commercial cores). We can’t physically, economically, or socially disconnect from it just because some of us may not like city living. AND when growth occurs at the magnitude my metropolitan area is experiencing, it’s absolutely unavoidable.

Naturally, the article describes citizens being concerned with the densification of their once traditional urban-sprawl suburb. It’s only natural to be scared of change like that. Here they are enjoying their sleepy ‘burb. Suddenly developers are erecting 6 story buildings, complete with *gulp* multi-family housing. Before you know it, the “OTHERS” have arrived and because of them we’re all looting and snorting coke out of rolled dollar bills. SAVE THE CHILDREN!

What if instead of reacting in a limited, pandaemonium-like fashion, we take an approach of limitless, creative possibilities to an inevitable set of circumstances? In my opinion, many people are afraid of densification because of some engrained, inherited notions of the city stemming from the industrial revolution. More importantly though, I think the general public’s idea of what a suburb is (or a big city for that matter), are very limited and confined to old notions. We are in fact in an era that is begging us to redefine what a city – even a suburb – should be. How it should look; how we interact with each other within it; and how ultimately the central city and the suburbs relate to one another.

We can no longer treat our ‘burbs as though they’re these pristine islands immune from the complexities of the central city. They are intrinsically tied to one another. Growing pains are expected but if we can re-imagine how we are to handle this growth, we’ll all be much better off in the end.

I’m working on a project right now that has made me think about the cities of our future as a new kind of city-suburb hybrid. This led me to the following question, and one which I will pose to you: If you could redefine the physical and social landscape of your metropolitan area, what would it look like?

Asking the WHY and a Side of Humble Pie

(photo above is taken from the William Beem Photography Blog: http://williambeem.com/humble-pie/)

Life is distracting and sometimes we stop being present in what we’re doing. That’s why we cut ourselves by accident while preparing dinner or stub our toe on that pesky chair leg that got in the way of our foot! It’s also why we metaphorically injury ourselves in our relationships and careers.

My friend Nate recently reminded me about the importance of being connected to what we do.

A couple months ago I left my eight to five. While we departed amicably, the point of the matter is that while I was – and still am – very proud of the work I did and the improved quality of life I helped to create for others as a result of my work, I was burned out. Plain and simple. My quest for purpose got lost in the daily grind. Public life, with minimal resources, surmounting amounts of work, and an inane amount of political influence was NO JOKE. It just was no longer the place for me, and life is too short to stay in a job that no longer serves your own goals – and as a result you to it.

So now I have time to reconnect once again with how and why I spend the majority of my time. …Great…?

Anyone who has gone through a job transition (and most of us have) can tell you this opportunity is both a freedom and a terror. I’ve been enjoying the time off, the ability to pick up side projects, and touch base with people who inspire and encourage me to go for whatever it is that makes me intrinsically happy (not to mention “editing” any toxic influencers). At the same time, I sometimes have to swallow my pride and be vulnerable …Super… please pass me the humble pie.

There are so many defining questions to answer at this stage: What do you want to do? Do you want to stay in the same field? Where do you see yourself going with what you’re doing? Do you want to move to a new location? *Cue mind spinning to freak out*.

Many career advice columns, coaches, blogs, etc., assume we have the basics down. But from my experience in talking with people, the majority of us really don’t have it down. And it’s because we stopped taking the time to ask WHY. It’s not JUST how we make money that we have to think about. It’s our life desires and priorities. THOSE are the bigger questions. Those are very intrinsic, quietly answered questions. If you don’t know those, then you’re dead in the water. And if you don’t give yourself regular quiet time to connect to your intrinsic desires, then you can’t get to the action stuff. So instead of starting with all the career related questions, why not get quiet and go more basic first: WHY am I looking for a new work experience? I think this question makes us consider the bigger picture so we can align it with what we’re currently doing and determine where we want to go.

Here’s my list and I hope it helps you evaluate your own. Many of them are universal:

To make a living
To find more freedom
To be creative
To do something fulfilling
To have fun
To lead
To improve the lives of others
To connect with something greater than myself
To connect people with each other
To help others feel more empowered
To utilize my varied skill set
To be a source of strength and positivity for others
To do something intrinsically motivated
To see my ideas become a concrete reality

… Again, not all of these things may manifest themselves into one specific avenue. In most cases we all have multiple paths that help us feel complete and whole. But I think it’s a good place to start.

Motherhood, Otherhood, or a Little of Both. Let’s Talk.

Ok. Before you start thinking I’m going to burn bras in your town square, take a breath.  Being a feminist does not have to entail angry underwear hatred…. or hate.

It’s just that gender roles have become such a glaring issue in my life as of late that I can’t help but observe the subversive ways in which we as a culture- as a modern day community – accept and perpetuate that which we know within our deepest selves to amount to nothing more than the denial of basic humanity. We disguise our reasoning for that denial in a fear of a body part we don’t really understand… or worse yet… say out loud. And yet we expect to collectively come to some kind of gender treatise where “bitch” and “crazy” no longer get tagged as a woman’s post-nominal letters in the workplace.

I often hear people talk about the glass ceiling or blatant sexual harassment; and that these things need to be rectified to correct gender inequality.  True. They certainly do.  But mandating better pay or increasing HR punishments won’t make us a more enlightened people.  When do we ever hear a national discussion on this topic that really gets to the core causes of these symptoms… ‘cause that’s what the glass ceiling is, right? A symptom.

It’s so much easier to talk about symptoms. We can see them. We can measure them in some way. We can track patterns.

But this is not the conversation. We need a discourse about the subtler ways in which we experience gender inequalities.  It could be the property owner who attempts to flirt with me before a meeting; or the 50 year old professional woman who asked me as a single young woman when I was going to start having babies; or a male coworker looking right past me to my male boss for an answer I just provided; or even the thought process I admittedly had around whether or not my boss should’ve stood up for me and all of gender equality in what was otherwise a seemingly normal disagreement.  …and then the follow-up thought process of whether or not that thought was fair to my boss. (I’ve since come to the conclusion that is not fair to him. But I had the thought all the same.)

Honestly, it’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.

So how am I are we to know how to behave with one another when we can’t even talk about the subtle ways in which we experience gender roles? How as a women am I supposed to set standards for my male counterparts when we’re so afraid to talk about these subtle experiences for fear of those post-nominal letters, s-e-n-s-i-t-i-v-e?  How are men supposed to help each other rise to the occasion when we place enough machismo stigmas on them that they don’t have a fighting chance to redefine what it may mean to “be a man”?  And how, above all else, are we ladies supposed to be supportive of one another’s personal experiences when we have no real dialogue and thereby no common agenda to stand on?

…I’ve been talking to some wonderfully intelligent and successful girlfriends about my experiences as of late, and I find it as fascinating as it is disheartening that they too have one too many similar stories. I’m particularly intrigued how stand-up male coworkers and boyfriends/husbands either consciously opt out of interjecting when they see a problem or fail to see these subtle experiences as problems alltogether.

I’m marinating on this and hope I can have something meaningful to share about it soon.   For now, I just hope to give some food for thought and to send a reminder to recognize the humanity in others today; particularly those you see as different than you.

That reminder goes for me too.

 

Birds Fly, Fish Swim… Humans Walk

Arguably, my job responsibilities primarily revolve around the implementation of complete streets projects. I say arguably for the simplification of making a point on a blog here, but it’s not entirely overstated. Often times in the process of getting these projects implemented there’s opposition against it – politicians, business owners, even other departments on the same “team” (note the quotes as sarcasm)- for all kinds of stated reasons from the ideological to the lack of technical education. Although my professional expertise factually concludes that most of these arguments are hogwash, partial truths, or ignorance on the topic, there’s always been something much more basic about intelligently designed infrastructure that is rarely described so eloquently as the gentleman in the video below.

When we pay attention to and respect basic human dignity the only choice is to provide a complete set of options for all users… The only choice is equitable access and movement… The only choice is fundamentally simple.