Category Archives: community

Why Is Poverty So Surprising?

When I learned recently from the census data that 31 percent of the people in Provo were living below poverty level, I was surprised. After several conversations with friends and family, I also discovered I’m not alone; it really is kind of shocking to think of every third person in the city living on very low wages (or in some cases no wages at all).

In reality, however, segregation according to income levels or so-called social class shouldn’t be too surprising. This is a common topic in city-related writing — indeed poverty is one of the primary focuses among urbanists — but Richard Florida recently offered a short and useful breakdown that may offer insights applicable to Provo.

Writing specifically about Vancouver and citing a new study, Florida points out that in reality three cities exist: an affluent one, a middle class one, and a disadvantaged one.

Provo and Vancouver are very different places, but the general surprise at Provo’s poverty levels — and even the median income levels, which are low compared to other cities — suggests that there is perhaps some income segregation going on here as well. It’s dispersion is certainly unique to Provo, but if it exists that segregation could pose an obstacle to actually making real change. It’s hard to fix something, after all, that seems invisible or only barely extant.

And in any case, as I’ve been arguing all along improving these levels in Provo will benefit everyone.

Provo has a lot of very well educated, high skill people. It also has a high poverty rate. Is it possible that people in those demographics don’t cross paths very often? Could segregation be an impediment to finding real solutions?

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Let’s Build More Places Like Center Street

Yesterday after I finished an interview for work I walked through downtown. It was late afternoon and the entire area was filled with kids trick-or-treating.

Trick-or-treaters on Center Street. The stores in this area gave out candy Wednesday afternoon.

Kids and parents in the plaza outside the convention center.

Seeing all these families out reminded me of Tuesday’s post about the “trick-or-treat test,” the importance of “door density,” and how great neighborhoods are good for kids and everyone else.

Most of these kids probably went back and trick-or-treated in their own neighborhoods, but they also came downtown for a reason: in the end, it’s a good place for trick-or-treating because it’s a pretty well designed place. There are big sidewalks, beautiful buildings, and trees. Blocks have extra cross walks. Cars can’t drive faster than 15 mph. And buildings are close to the street.

And seeing all of this made me wonder: why aren’t we building neighborhoods that look more like downtown? Sure, every street can’t be lined with stores, and downtown itself is likely to get some improvements soon. But regardless, people like it. Everyone I know who comes to Provo comments on it. And though it may not always be the liveliest place in the world, it’s probably the liveliest place in Provo, or Utah Valley for that matter.

The point here is that all of those elements I mentioned above could easily be incorporated into residential neighborhoods. Houses can be beautiful and located close to the street. Residential streets can also have low speed limits and frequent cross walks. And in the end, more neighborhoods should have many of the elements that everyone loves in downtown.

People love downtown, so it makes sense to build more neighborhoods with similar elements.


Filed under community, Downtown

Give People a Taste of Good Development

Earlier this week, I suggested that improvement in a city should happen incrementally. Then, a couple of days later, I found this post by Otis White suggesting something similar.

Using a pizza metaphor, White calls his idea “selling change by the slice.” The idea, he argues, is to give people a little taste of what successful change is like so that they’ll be more likely to support more of it in the future:

But an awful lot of bold community changes can be tried out before being fully implemented. And if you’re proposing a big change, that may be the smartest way you can offer it: as a test. Find a place in the city where you can demonstrate the change and its benefits so everyone can see it. If it’s as successful as you expect, you’ll dramatically lower the fear level, and by the time you ask citizens and their leaders to accept the rest (a built-out transit system, a mixed-use development in their neighborhood, a new kind of recycling), it’s less like a leap of faith and more like a hop.

White’s post goes on to suggest some great, viable-sounding solutions for actually getting things done in a community. It’s also worth noting that both White’s concept and the one I mentioned a few days ago are similar to Jane Jacobs’ emphasis on “gradual money” that slowly gets invested in a community. She contrasts that idea with “cataclysmic money” that comes on all at once, causes dramatic change, and is negatively disruptive.

This approach seems perfect for a community like Provo where change — in the form of increased density, infill and development — is needed but often resisted. In fact, since I’ve been writing this blog I’ve been told again and again that people just won’t stand for anything slightly disruptive.

The home on the right is a hypothetical addition that would be built on what is currently a wide street. No community would support wide-scale implementation of this concept, but selling residents on a very limited test run might work.

That’s certainly true to some extent, but I can’t help wondering if one of the problems has been the way issues were historically framed. After all, when sweeping projects are mandated from on high by government or wealthy developers even the most rational person can switch into NIMBY mode.

In any case, I like White’s approach. It’s very similar to the way I envisioned Provo converting over-wide streets into housing, but it could be applied in an array of scenarios to help give all of us a taste of good development.

This project would work, but it’s worth testing so everyone can see how that might happen.


Filed under community, Development

Where Biking is Safe

Not all bike riding is created equal. Sometimes it’s really dangerous, and sometimes it’s not.

The Atlantic Cities reported Monday on new research that explores 14 different types of bike lanes and what kind of injuries they’re likely to produce:

As it turns out, infrastructure really matters. Your chance of injury drops by about 50 percent, relative to that major city street, when riding on a similar road with a bike lane and no parked cars. The same improvement occurs on bike paths and local streets with designated bike routes. And protected bike lanes – with actual barriers separating cyclists from traffic – really make a difference. The risk of injury drops for riders there by 90 percent.

In light of this kind of evidence, there’s less and less justification for delaying bike infrastructure construction.

But the article doesn’t just touch on safety.

A bike lane on Center Street in Provo.

Instead, it also points out that people prefer the kinds of lanes that make them safer. Though the researchers were worried that people might prefer less safe routes, the article notes that in fact “people have good gut feelings.”

Making one more logical leap, it stands to reason that much like induced demand for car infrastructure, better bike lanes will lead to more biking.

On a related note, via Twitter Megan Geilman shared the video below with me yesterday and I found it so inspiring I wanted to mention it here. The video details how the Dutch built a world-leading bike system. Not surprisingly, it was by fighting against the kinds of things I criticized in yesterday’s posts.

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Cultivating a Tree Culture

Writing for PlaceMakers, Scott Doyon recently argued that among the seven highly useful keys to a stronger community is a commitment to a strong tree canopy. However, Doyon notes that many communities approach this issue the wrong way:

[…] communities concerned about their tree canopy deal with its preservation through ordinances that prevent tree removal. Not to say that such ordinances are categorically wrong, mind you. Just that, by focusing mostly on trees at the tail end of their lives — the ones that get the most notice and inspire the greatest affection — they steal attention from what should be the greater goal.

Doyon goes on to argue that preservation efforts are unnecessarily divisive. Instead, he suggests that communities should focus on replanting because replanting efforts add to the canopy and don’t drive a wedge between differing factions. Kaid Benfield also later pointed out that the focus shouldn’t be about preservation verses tree removal. Like Doyon, he emphasizes ongoing planting.

An emphasis on replanting trees helps cities evolve without battles over tree preservation.

These points are especially significant for a growing city like Provo because trees can sometimes provide indirect incentives to build sprawl; if no trees can be cut down the only place to build is in undeveloped land where there are either no trees or no tree preservationists. As I’ve recently advocated building more housing in Provo’s existing neighborhoods, for example, one of the most common objections I’ve heard is that doing so would require cutting down trees.

And it would.

But an ongoing emphasis on replanting — combined with gradual building — would mean ongoing replenishment of Provo’s significant tree canopy. That would open the door for more positive infill, along with more trees.

Cities that focus on replenishing their tree canopies will have the flexibility to handle growth — even if it means losing trees here and there.


Filed under community, tree

Don’t Price Families Out of Gentrifying Neighborhoods

Occasionally in Provo someone will talk about their desire to see the downtown neighborhoods gentrify. And while gentrification can get out of hand — and frequently connotes something negative — I’m inclined to agree in this specific case; downtown saw so many years of neglect and poor policy that at least the beginning stages of gentrification would be an improvement.

What sometimes gets left out of the discussion, however, is that gentrification doesn’t mean freezing neighborhoods’ composition. Instead, gentrification requires evolution and building new structures even as the old ones are preserved and improved.

Or at least, that’s the idea behind of a recent article in the New York Observer. The article points out that as multifamily buildings are restored to single family dwellings — a popular, if yet unfulfilled, dream in Provo — the amount of housing for middle class people drops. A smaller supply then increases prices for everyone and ultimately drives up the cost of living.

Translation: converting old houses back to single family homes makes it more expensive to live in a neighborhood.

A historic home in Provo that is badly in need of restoration. This house has also been divided up into multiple units.

The logical solution is to add housing. Though the article doesn’t quite move beyond lamenting the homogenizing effects of gentrification, the goal really is to maintain — or, actually, increase — the supply of housing. In other words, restore the old mansions but don’t price out the young families while doing it.

Like New York but on a vastly smaller scale, Provo has old houses that have been chopped up and used for lower income or student housing. Some of these homes are beautiful and would benefit from restoration. But if that restoration isn’t accompanied with more building in the same neighborhoods, Provo will become a place where families can’t afford to settle down.

Another historic home in Provo that is currently a multifamily structure.


Filed under community, Development

Community Gardens Require Density

KSL recently reported on a “farmer without a farm” in Salt Lake City. In a nutshell, the story is about a guy who has no land so he uses other people’s space to grow things that he then sells at farmer’s markets.

While the information in the story itself is pretty minimal, it illustrates an important but oft-overlooked point: communal gardening only works in places with high density housing. In other words, people who generally participate in community gardening opportunities are those finding themselves in situations like the man in the KSL article.

A community garden in Provo. If communities want to encourage community gardening — and I think they should — they also need to encourage development that includes fewer individual gardening spaces.

By contrast, if everyone has their own backyard garden — or at least the space to plant one — there’s very little incentive to participate in community gardens that might require slightly greater investments of time or money.

In my experience, community gardens are a popular idea. They conjure up idyllic images of neighbors planting, harvesting, and communing together. They can obviously provide healthy and inexpensive food. They are places for people to come together. For all of those reasons, I join with others in believing that they should be more common.

But at least in Provo, the presence or absence of community gardens is entirely symptomatic of broader development patterns. Ultimately, if residents want more community gardens, they’ll have to actively encourage denser development.

One of many gardening spaces at my house. Like many people, I have plenty of space to garden at my house so it’s unlikely that I’d have much reason to participate in a community garden.


Filed under community, Food

Great Cities Keep Their People

For a city to be really great it needs a bunch of people to stick around and not move away. I think this may be one of Provo’s biggest but most poorly understood challenges.

As one of the many people who came to Provo as a college student, I’ve experienced this challenge first hand; many of my friends loved Provo but left because they needed jobs or other things. Those of us who have stayed have consequently watched wave after wave of friends leave.

And this isn’t just an individual challenge. As Jane Jacobs wrote in chapter six of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, successful places are the ones that incentivize people to voluntarily stick around:

They contain many individuals who stay put. This, I think, more than sheer ethnic identity, is the significant factor. It typically takes many years after such groups have settled in for time to work and for the inhabitants to attain stable, effective neighborhoods.

Jacobs’ point holds true for most communities: if people voluntarily stay they have reasons for doing so and eventually choose to invest in the community. If they leave, the community obviously lacked opportunities — for jobs, housing, culture, social life or whatever. More recently, this idea was one of the underlying issues in Brittany Shoot’s piece on Millenials moving away from their small towns.

Jacobs goes on to point out that one key to keeping people is diversity. So, for example, a development of homogenous tract homes targeting middle-middle class people can’t keep younger families just starting out, or older people on a fixed income. The same goes for homogenous cultural scenes, job markets, or other sectors.

Homes and apartments side by side in Provo. Among other things, Jane Jacobs suggested that diverse housing options allow more people to voluntarily remain in a city.

Jacobs also points out that demographic volumes may remain constant, but if actual individuals don’t stick around there are too few people investing in the community. Provo seems to illustrate this concept well with it’s ongoing but highly transient student population.

This concept may also explain recent findings that mobility is highly determinative of civic engagement.

Jacobs herself offers examples of communities that managed to retain people. One of her favorites is Boston’s North End, which despite being considered a slum was a sufficiently compelling place that residents voluntarily remained and built it up. Jacobs was obviously writing a long time ago, but the lesson — when communities entice people to stay they become better — is fairly universal.

The point, it seems, is that getting people to stick around and invest in communities isn’t magic or dependent on things like better advertising. It’s all about opportunity of all kinds — economic, sure, but also social, cultural, ethnic, etc. And that means cities like Provo can also devise ways to get more people to call them home.


Filed under community

Modern Methods For Historic Preservation

According to councilman Sterling Beck, the city council last night approved a grant program to help cover impact fees for people hoping to redevelop historic buildings.

Among other things, the program presumably should help local developer Greg Soter turn an old church into apartments and deal with prohibitively expensive impact fees. As my colleague Genelle Pugmire wrote in August, Soter’s project was put on hold after he was slapped with more than $130,000 in unexpected fees.

In an article posted this morning, Genelle also explained the requirements for receiving grant money:

The council added a stipulation that could still make Soter’s project prohibitive. For Soter, or any developer, to receive the grant money, his building must meet specific requirements. The building must be in the Downtown 1 or Downtown 2 zones, be remodeled for multi-family dwelling while keeping the historical look to the building and must be registered and certified with the Provo Historic Landmarks Commission. The Fourth Ward Chapel meets all but the landmarks certification.

A new grant program will help people cover fees when trying to redevelop buildings like this one, which is slated to become apartments.

This new program is a major victory for Provo. As I wrote in August, developers sometimes face economic incentives to demolish historic buildings. And though I don’t expect every old building to survive, some absolutely should be preserved. Soter’s project is a perfect example of how to make that happen.

Now after years of hit and miss historic preservation, the city is finally providing the economic incentives to make redevelopment of larger buildings more realistic. The program also signifies a recognition that buildings, historic or otherwise, influence more than just their owners and occupants; they’re community fixtures and the community is now investing in its cultural assets.

On a somewhat related note, KSL reported yesterday that a historic high school in South Salt Lake would be turned into a movie studio. That’s a big economic victory for South Salt Lake, but much like the church-apartment project above it demonstrates that preserving historic buildings often requires creativity and repurposing.

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The Declaration of Independence

One of the most remarkable things about downtown Provo, perhaps the most remarkable, is how independent it has stayed. There are more restaurants per square mile than all but the most touristy of places, for example, but no chains.

The result is innovation, creativity and an unparalleled experience. Everyone has their favorite places in downtown and it’s a testament to the diversity of the area that there are so many differing opinions; it takes a lot of hard work and success to inspire wildly different but devoted fans.

Downtown Provo is filled with innovative and independent businesses. A new Facebook page has been created to help foster that environment.

Recently, a friend asked if I’d be interested in jumping on as an administrator for the Keep Downtown Independent Facebook page. And after a quick conversation, I realized it was something I definitely support. As I see it, the idea is to keep downtown Provo filled with creativity and innovation. It’s to keep local money in the local economy. It’s to continue building downtown and making a great place, or a greater place.

Every city should have a page like this, and many probably do. But if you care about building a great city that isn’t generic or like anywhere else in the world, go like the page. And while you’re at it, share your vision for the future of downtown Provo.


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Filed under buy local, community, Downtown, Provo, restaurant