Category Archives: urban

Why No Movable Chairs?

The Atlantic Cities recently reported that people like movable chairs. More specifically, Nate Berg cited a 1980 study by William Whyte pointing out that if given the chance people will move public seating before actually sitting down. Berg also writes that movable chairs are common in New York.

Movable chairs near Union Square in New York. Research has shown that people like being able to move their seating to fit their needs.

All of which raises a question: why is there no movable seating in Provo’s public spaces? Given the under-performance of nearly all of those spaces it seems like movable seating might be a cheap and easy way to increase usage. It’s also working right now at a number of downtown restaurants.

Probably the most obvious objection to movable seating is theft. However, Berg tackles that objection:

“In municipalities there’s the sense that if it’s not bolted down, it will move beyond the park landscape. Well, we see all over the city those little foldup chairs and they’re not bolted down, they’re not even chained,” Price says, referring to the chairs added to pedestrianized plazas and street corners in Manhattan, such as Times Square. “They’re on all the intersections throughout the whole Manhattan landscape right now and they don’t seem to be walking away.”

“I just refuse to let [the possibility of theft] be the guiding force to deter us from trying,” she says, adding that RFID chips will be installed in the furniture to help prevent theft, or at least track wayward chairs down when they’re moved too far away.

Though the life-span of a movable chair is probably shorter than that of a bolted-down bench, Berg’s article — and the research it cites — suggests that chairs may actually be more effective. In that light, it doesn’t really make sense to install only marginally effective seating, or seating that doesn’t work at all, just to prevent theft.

These benches get very little use. Would this plaza be better if it was filled with movable chairs? I don’t know, but some research suggests it might be.

Though theft itself may not be a big issue, the perceived threat of theft is probably a major stumbling block in cities like Provo. It may also be that designers outside of major urban centers simply haven’t considered the benefits of movable chairs.

But either way, this is a doable solution that doesn’t require major investment or changes to the built environment. In that light, it seems at least worth trying.

Chairs in Paris’ Tuileries Gardens near the Louvre. In my experience, these chairs elevate this area from a pretty-but-austere design-centered space into a charming, human-oriented zone. They’re a small addition, but they make all the difference.


Filed under urban

What We’re Getting Wrong About Public Transit

The Tribune’s Lee Davidson reported yesterday that planners are encouraging cities to build denser, more concentrated developments around public transportation. That’s positive news and should result in significantly better cities along the Wasatch Front.

But reading the article, I couldn’t help wondering if we’re still slightly missing the point. While commuter rail and transit hubs are wonderful, they tend to focus on reducing car use for longer trips — going from city to city, for example — while ignoring more common short trips people make while driving around town.

Take Daybreak, for example, the sparkling new suburb in south Salt Lake County that I’ve criticized several times in recent posts. Daybreak gets a lot of things right. There’s rail linking it to Salt Lake City, much higher density than most suburbs, and a stated interest in sustainability. In many ways it’s a great place.

The problem, however, is that planners in Daybreak — as well as nearly everywhere else in Utah — have seemingly ignored shorter trips. With sprawling neighborhoods, few mixed use buildings housing necessities like grocery stores, and a few big arterial (st)roads, users still have to get around by car. Sure, those car trips may be shorter than in traditional suburbs, but they’re still happening and current rail doesn’t change that fact. In fact in most Utah cities, people have to drive to get to public transit in the first place.

Daybreak includes laudable efforts to increase density, such as these apartments. But at least so far, there are few destinations — basic stores, entertainment, etc. — within walking distance of these buildings. Hopefully that will change, but in the meantime some of the benefits of the density are lost as residents make local trips via car.

And unfortunately, people tend to drive around town a lot more than they drive to neighboring cities. Figures vary depending on who collects them, but according to GOOD, “nearly 70 percent of American’s car trips are less than two miles long.” Smart Growth America and the Sierra Club are both a bit more conservative, saying that nearly 50 percent of car trips are three miles long or less.

No matter how we slice it though, we tend to make a lot of really short trips around town in our cars. We drive to the store, to drop kids off at school, or to restaurants. And unfortunately, new rail systems — in Daybreak, Provo or elsewhere — are unlikely to change that.

The oddest thing about this whole situation is that building commuter rail systems is really expensive. It requires leveling land, building bridges, and laying hundreds of miles of track.

Some people will use this commuter rail station in Provo to go north for work or play. But most of the time we spend in transit is more local, where this train doesn’t go. That means we’ve spent a lot of money to make a minority of our trips greener and more convenient.

By contrast, allowing developers to build infill in existing neighborhoods, then adding a bus line here or there to serve the resulting density, barely costs the public anything at all. In other words, we’re chasing more expensive, government funded options while ignoring the cheaper, more effective, and privately funded options that have been available all along.

The point is that much of the attention on transit in Utah right now focuses exclusively on replacing long car trips with long train trips. That’s great, but we also need to look at replacing short car trips with short walks, bike rides, or bus trips. Ultimately, without a decent intra-city public transit system, as well as the density and walkability to support it, building commuter rail is like trying to bake bread without yeast: it just won’t rise.

A TRAX light rail station in Daybreak. It’s great that this exists, really, but clearly the idea is that people will have to use cars to use public transit. The goal, however, shouldn’t be brief car trips, it should be no car trips at all.


Filed under commuting, travel, urban

Impostor Cities Come to Utah

Last week Salon ran an article describing almost exactly the kind of development popping up in Utah right now. Written by Will Doig, “Invasion of the faux cities” points out that people increasingly want to live in walkable urban areas but for a variety of reasons don’t actually want to live in existing urban areas. The result, Doig points out, is that “urban-lifestyle villages” are being built in suburbs.

They function as destinations, used by people who live in the surrounding sprawl, and contain a mix of apartment-style homes, offices and retail. They have restaurants and cafes, maybe a movie theater or bowling alley, and even lampposts and benches designed to mimic those in a historic metropolitan core.

That could very well have been a description of the south Salt Lake County suburb Daybreak or, presumably, the new suburb planned for Vineyard. These places are only marginally walkable, have little or no internal public transit, and generally have “an unmistakable suburban flavor.” And as Doig points out, these places are also often far too tidy and devoid of street life to pass as anything really urban.

This development in Salt Lake County has higher density than many neighborhoods in Utah. There’s also a transit station and shops within a few miles. But there’s no public transit inside the neighborhood and residents still have to drive to get to any stores, restaurants, offices, or entertainment. That may change 100 years from now, but for the time being this neighborhood isn’t much better than archetypically “suburban” areas in other parts of northern Utah. After all, even my parents can walk to a Wal-Mart from their low density neighborhood in Cedar Hills.

The article further notes that “urban” isn’t a veneer that developers can just apply at will:

 Creating an urban place is about more than simply adding mixed-use density and places to stroll.

Doig uses the D.C. metro area as his example, but in Utah these sorts of developments seem particularly perplexing because there’s no need for them to exist; with such low densities in most Wasatch Front cities, it would be far better to build within existing cities than to erect brightly colored but typically problematic new suburbs. In other words, existing cities already struggle enough with suburban problems and creating more suburbs exacerbates the situation.

In any case, Doig argues that these new types of developments blur traditional conceptions of cities and suburbs. But it’s also worth remembering that — contrary to what I often hear — putting a couple of restaurants and mixed use buildings in the middle of a suburb isn’t much of an improvement if the underlying issues remain. And in Utah, that’s exactly what seems to be happening.

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Filed under construction, Development, urban

“Urbanized” Screening Tonight at BYU

BYU’s Documentary Cinema Film Series kicks off tonight with a screening of “Urbanized.” The film was produced in 2011 by Gary Hustwit, the same guy behind the incredible “Helvetica,” and according to its website is

a feature-length documentary about the design of cities, which looks at the issues and strategies behind urban design and features some of the world’s foremost architects, planners, policymakers, builders, and thinkers. Over half the world’s population now lives in an urban area, and 75% will call a city home by 2050. But while some cities are experiencing explosive growth, others are shrinking. The challenges of balancing housing, mobility, public space, civic engagement, economic development, and environmental policy are fast becoming universal concerns. Yet much of the dialogue on these issues is disconnected from the public domain.

I’ve already heard good things about this film and it’s fantastic that there is a free screening right here in Provo. The film will be introduced by Jamin Rowan, a very cool BYU English professor who is an expert on cities and Jane Jacobs, among other things. It’s stuff like this that makes be glad to live in a college town.


Filed under BYU, urban

Best June Posts

Before I even realized it, June ended and July was nearly a third gone. Nevertheless, as is the tradition on this blog, I wanted to highlight my favorite posts from the month that brings us Father’s Day and the beginning of summer.

The Copenhagen Denmark LDS Temple: A Case Study: The LDS Church is preparing to build a temple in downtown Provo. Though the church often chooses a decidedly (and unfortunately) suburban plan when building temples, the church’s facility in Copenhagen shows how urban temples can work remarkably well with their surroundings.

Daybreak: A Case Study and Conclusions: This pair of posts looks at the shiny new housing development in West Jordan  for examples of Utah’s more cutting edge urban design. Ultimately, these posts posit that while the development does some things well, its location and lack of things like walkability dooms it to being just another suburb.

Why Everyone Should Buy Local: This post points out that buying from local businesses provides a better customer experience and benefits the local economy to boot.

“Turn Off the Lights,” Or, How We Waste Resources: In this post, I draw an analogy between underused parking lots and leaving the lights on in your house when no one is using them. The objective here is to use a commonly understood activity — turning off the lights — to understand how parking is vastly overbuilt and underused.

The Original Provo Tabernacle is Now a Garage on 500 North: Before Provo’s current LDS tabernacle was built, the city had an even older building. That building was demolished in 1919, but the stones were reused in a residential garage on 500 West. This post includes pictures of the recycled stones.

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Filed under building, buy local, commuting, Development, driving, economics, local, Mormon, neighborhood, parking, Provo, Provo Tabernacle, urban

Mapping Provo’s Jane Jacobs Walk

The Jane Jacobs walk I’m hosting in downtown Provo happens tomorrow (Saturday) at noon. We’ll start at the courthouse, and follow something close to the route in the map below.

Tentative map of Provo’s May 5, 2012, Jane Jacobs walk.

At just over two miles, that route may be a little ambitions depending on who shows up. Specifically, I’m not sure we’ll actually make it all the way to 600 South and the upcoming Frontrunner rail station, though I wanted to include it on the map because it’s an increasingly important site in downtown Provo.

In any case, I’m calling this map tentative because I’d like everyone to feel that they have a say in where we go; if the group feels like heading down a street not on the map or cutting something out, then that’s certainly what we’ll do. As I said in my original post, I want this to be a walking discussion more than anything else.

And what will a walking discussion be like?

I envision it as a chance to do a kind of “close reading” of the urban environment, much as a scholar or critic might do with a book or a film. I’ve tried to do this with previous posts on portable toiletsneglected benches, entire streets, and many other things. My hope is that with a group of people, we’ll be able to look around and share insights we might never have had on our own.

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Filed under Downtown, Provo, urban

How to Build a Startup Economy

Like just about every city, Provo needs to build up and diversify its economy. One way to do that is to become a startup hub.

With a large university and a young population, Provo really ought to be the home of many startup businesses in multiple industries. Yet the city and the region could do better. Keep in mind that the archetypal startup hub is Silicon Valley.

So how can a city cultivate more innovative startups? Writer and venture capitalist Paul Graham offers some advice:

I think there are two components to the antidote: being in a place where startups are the cool thing to do, and chance meetings with people who can help you. And what drives them both is the number of startup people around you.

Though Graham’s website looks like it hasn’t changed since 1997, the explanation he offers is fascinating and was recently cited as a way to solve London’s problems. Graham continues,

Both components of the antidote—an environment that encourages startups, and chance meetings with people who help you—are driven by the same underlying cause: the number of startup people around you. To make a startup hub, you need a lot of people interested in startups.

Provo is growing, so it’s already starting to tackle the issue.

However, one key to turning general population growth, as well as basic job growth, into actual startup growth is making sure that many people and companies are concentrated in a single area. That’s more or less the same argument that came up in this post on the importance of putting many businesses in downtown, rather than scattering them throughout a region. It’s also a reason to promote dense neighborhoods instead of sprawling communities.

Downtown Provo already has many businesses. However, to create more startup companies, the city needs to cultivate a culture that makes startups "cool" and that brings a lot of hopeful entrepreneurs into contact with one another.

And finally, it’s important to remember that a strong startup culture won’t create itself. Graham even points out that most communities appear to be sprayed with “startupicide.”

But there are ways to reverse that. Smart Planet reported today on efforts in Durham, North Carolina, to bolster that city’s startup scene. The gist of the article is that the city offers incentives for startups, which in turn generate revenue and create vibrancy. In a separate article, Emily Badger notes that the strategy is paying off:

Downtown Durham has 70 startups located within five blocks of the Smoffice, including mobile app developershealth IT companies, and online marketing platforms. The coffee shop itself, Beyu Caffe, has long been an informal meeting place for the neighborhood’s startup set. It’s just three blocks away from the American Underground, the 26,000-square-foot basement of the historic American Tobacco Campus that’s dedicated to the kind of flexible, low-cost leases entrepreneurs are unlikely to find in more expensive cities.

Much like creating a strong arts community, a successful startup culture takes work, investment and creativity. But if done correctly, it has the potential to pay off handsomely.


Filed under arts, Development, Downtown, economics, neighborhood, urban

A White Roof Means a Cooler House

The Atlantic Cities recently reported that dark roofs can make cities and buildings much hotter, while white or light-colored roofs do just the opposite.

Researchers from Concordia University have found [PDF] that even a slight improvement in the reflectivity of these surfaces could lead to a global reduction of billions of tons of CO2. A measly 1 percent increase in white roofs or roads rolled out across the urban world would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by upwards of 130 billion tons over the next 50 to 100 years.

Many buildings in Provo, including my house, have fairly dark-colored roofs. For people like me, replacing the roof any time soon would also be prohibitively expensive.

But as author Nate Berg points out in the article, even small changes make a big difference. In that vein of thought, it might be wise for the city to encourage new development to use reflective materials on roofs.

This idea seems particularly useful in commercial areas and apartment complexes; most of the homes in my neighborhood are surrounded by tall trees and therefore exposed to only minimal sun. Commercial and apartment development, on the other hand, is often surrounded by heat-amplifying parking lots.

Dark colored and parking lot-ringed development just north of Bulldog Blvd.

Provo actually isn’t doing terribly with this idea — as the picture below shows — and perhaps the biggest improvements need to happen over time in residential areas such as my neighborhood. But either way, this is an idea that despite having the potential to make a big difference, often gets eclipsed by the fight over parking lots and other urban-environmental issues.

In downtown, many buildings already have light-colored roofs.

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Filed under building, environment, parking, urban

Why Doesn’t Provo Have a Film Festival?

Thanks to Sundance, Utah has become an unlikely film destination over the years. But Provo has basically ceded all the benefits of that development to other cities. That makes absolutely no sense.

Provo could begin remedying this failure by working to screen Sundance films in town — Ogden does it, after all. But more importantly, the city also should seriously consider staging its own cinema event.

With a large university and a dedicated creative community, some sort of Provo Film Festival has seemed to me like an obvious idea for several years now. Add to that the recent development in downtown and the new airport, and the economic conditions also appear to have aligned for a film festival.

Other cities are already doing this. Just today, I learned that tiny, rural Logan is holding a film festival this month. And Orem, of course, has the LDS Film Festival.

Provo is bigger, more prosperous, and more geographically accessible than either of those cities. It’s also far more cosmopolitan. So why isn’t it home to a great film festival?

Film in general is great, but I think the reason that little places like Logan — as well as more comparable cities like Boulder, Colorado — hold film festivals is because they generate growth. They bring visitors into the city, improve the area’s brand, and — much like music venues — end up being the kind of amenity that young, creative professionals look for when choosing a place to live.

And of course, film festivals are just a lot of fun.

No film festival immediately becomes Sundance and it would take years to build something exceptional. But even from the get-go, a Provo Film Festival would enrich the city, culturally and economically.


Filed under arts, community, Development, economics, urban

Greenwashing and New Development

Environmental consciousness has more or less become the default when building new structures, including in Utah. Think about it, the Utah Valley Convention Center, pretty much any new building on BYU campus, and other buildings come with various certifications assuring the community that they’re eco-friendly.

Much of this phenomenon is a positive thing, but some of it is also “greenwashing,” or an effort to make development seem environmentally progressive whether it is or not.

More specifically, DC.Streetsblog recently explained that greenwashing is currently happening with sprawl. As they point out, it doesn’t matter how environmentally certified a new building is if it’s located far from its resident’s destinations:

“The location matters,” McMahon said. “A project in a sprawl location is not truly green. And a building in an urban location isn’t really smart if it isn’t green.”

The article also mentions how “the greenest building is the one that’s already built” — something reported in this blog post from January — and argues that regulations are still sometimes making it easier to build cheap, low density housing on open land instead of greener housing in centrally located and walkable neighborhoods.

Of course, it’d be nice if we could live in houses on big lots in suburban style neighborhoods and pat ourselves on the back for being environmentally friendly. But we cannot and greenwashing new development, where ever it’s located, will only impede progress.

In addition, the population of Utah County is projected to grow rapidly in the coming years. If all those people move into sprawling neighborhoods on the edges of the city — or, worse, into even more sprawling neighborhoods in nearby cities — we will have failed in many ways, not the least of which will be environmental.

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Filed under building, BYU, construction, Downtown, environment, neighborhood, pollution, urban