Category Archives: Visons

Vision for Detroit, 1807

There was a time when Detroit was in worse shape than today. In 1805, the entire settlement burned. There may have remained remnants of buildings and streets, but for the most part, Detroit was simply a memory.

Just a few years before this fire, America invested in the idea of a completely master planned city: Washington D.C. There had been many American cities planned out of the raw earth, but none compared to the beauty and design of D.C. When Detroit burned, Augustus Woodward looked east for inspiration and found this new vision for the city called Detroit:


In the two centuries that followed, this city grew to nearly 2 million residents and has now shrunk to a little more than 700,000. It’s easy to look at Detroit today and marvel at its losses. But we have to remember that fire. When Detroit lost everything, before the world knew her name, one person rose to draw this vision. He found inspiration in another great American city and drew a plan that became the backbone of an empire. It remains mostly intact to this day.

While bulldozers roam the city demolishing abandoned buildings by the 10,000s, as the earth returns to prairie as it was found over 300 years ago, residents of the city are wondering what could possibly become of this place. When I visited in 2013 I met so many people excited to tell me about the recent improvements: new jobs, new businesses, arts and culture. A few months later, the city declared bankruptcy and Kevin Orr took control of the city’s fate.

I’ll be going back to Detroit this summer and I can’t wait to see what has happened in a year: to walk around and experience it for myself. There’s so much to learn in that place: inspiration, caution, fuel for my endless curiosity, and context for the situation in Richmond and other American cities.

Until then, I’ll be wondering how a Shinola watch can cost $950 while this house was recently listed for $100. Until then.


As I flew out of Richmond last week, I got a rare glimpse of the city at dusk:

River city

I just stared at that settlement on the banks of the James River and wondered what the next 400 years might bring. In the city of Richmond, there is the past, the present and the future. That makes us fortunate and it makes us complicated.

To move forward, we will have to make some sense of ourselves and our story.

In the past few months I’ve travelled all over the country: from Philadelphia to Dallas, to San Francisco. With each trip I’ve found new perspective on this current phase of the development of the city of Richmond. I’ve also found some clarity for myself and settled into four areas of focus for my writing:

1. Current events in context: If I ever write about current events, it will be to analyze and contextualize the story. I spent three years studying the debates in Richmond regarding the construction of the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike. That work left me particularly interested in economic development strategies and plans for improving the American city.

2. Drawings for the future: Like many of us, I’m constantly imagining new uses for old spaces and I’ve decided I’m finally going to get these on paper. I’m actually planning to draw them out. It will probably be pretty ugly at first, but I’m hoping to read a little on technique and improve over time.

3. The psychology of the city: I’ve been noticing for years that the city of Richmond has a certain personality. This personality comes out in furious debates as well as mundane daily life. Since college I’ve also entered the world of cognitive psychology, therapy, management, and organizational behavior. I’ve read books, met with academics, and watched every video I find. Insight from these fields will be my lens for understanding what’s going on in this crazy place.

4. The history of the history: There are so many stories being told about Richmond. I want to take those stories and study them to understand the different ways that we describe ourselves. I’m obsessed with historiography and excited to dive back into that field for a series of posts about the different ways we talk about our past. This is connected to the psychological perspective as well: how we talk about Richmond says a lot about how we think of ourselves.

I want a future for this city that is unique and authentic. I want Richmond to develop a maturity as a place that takes all of it’s qualities and integrates them into a coherent whole. As with personal development, this will require a lot of work. In a way, collective therapy. And all because we believe there is a best possible future for this city and that future must include a coherent, honest, and accepting understanding of the past and present.

As always, more to come.

Stop making public transit a social justice issue

Dear friends, colleagues, and activists in Richmond,

For the past several months I’ve been hearing an “access to jobs” argument for regional transit in the Richmond Region. This argument proposes to connect poor residents in Richmond with entry-level jobs in the surrounding counties.

I’m afraid this approach will not be received well.

Richmond city bus

I believe the statistics and I understand the need for jobs in Richmond on a very personal level. I just don’t think the current approach is savvy. When I see Powerpoint slides depicting the number of people in Richmond who need jobs and the number of entry-level positons in the counties, this is what I hear:

“Hey Henrico and Chesterfield, look, we have all these people that need entry-level jobs and you have all these entry-level jobs. Wanna pay to transport our least-well-off residents to your strip malls and corporate offices so they can take work from your growing poor and immigrant populations?”

Wow. Is that how they managed regional public transit in other cities? By shaming municipalities into investing into something that their own residents don’t yet desire? Is that how we make decisions in Richmond? Do the counties even need Richmonders to fill those jobs? Something tells me that if the entry-level jobs in the counties weren’t being filled employers in the counties would be pressuring their local leaders for regional transit. I have heard no such demand.

I am 100% committed to advocating for a more efficient system of transportation in this region. I am open to the idea of BRT being the model for that system. I want more density, more connectivity, and healthier communities in Richmond. But I don’t think that framing this particular initiative as a social justice issue is going to get us anywhere. Is it a social justice issue? Of course. People should not have to own a car to get a job. Is that the best way to approach the topic with our more conservative and flighty neighbors?

By all means, no.

Busses in America are already stigmatized. Let’s stop exacerbating the problem. Instead, let’s find and emphasize more reasons why our neighbors could benefit from regional public transit. Here are a few to start: safe and reliable transportation for the young and elderly, a chance for residents to work with WiFi on their daily commute, and an option to travel downtown quickly without the stress and hassle of parking. I also read a great article a while ago about the therapeutic qualities of the D.C. Metro and I LOVE this piece by a man who wrote and illustrated a book while riding the train to work. Here’s a video from NextCity with countless more: “God Created Transit.”

The one benefit that I’ve heard mentioned, economic revitalization, should be more celebrated and emphasized! Transit-oriented development has incredible potential in this low-density region and streets like Hull and Broad are full of vacant lots ready for new development. Also, in order to make transit viable we’re going to need the density of nodes along the BRT corridor so it’s integral to the success of the project itself.

I don’t want us to see public transit as an indulgence that the suburbs have to buy in order to cover their sins of wealth and security. Public transit is a relaxing, efficient, and social way to travel. In the past year, I’ve made new friends, reconnected with acquaintances, and laughed with my coworkers on the bus to and from work. I love the bus and I invite the rest of the region to consider whether more of our neighborhoods should enjoy access to public transit as I do.

In short, public transit is a party and everyone’s invited. It’s just that some in this region are going to have to drive to get there.

p.s. thanks for sharing the video @curtrog 🙂

Start at the Edge

As a resident of Richmond for the past five years, I have had the privilege of living through an exciting and dynamic season of change. It seems that after about 60 years of condescension and loss, it’s becoming a good time to be an American city. It’s a good time to be Richmond.

So, with that in mind, I was a little surprised when I read three editorials recently published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch addressing the “issue” of the view of Richmond from the highway. As I read each article, I felt that importance had been placed, not on the city, but on the opinions of passersby. This editorial is a response to those articles and perhaps generations of similar articles that have come before them. I believe that before we have a conversation about Richmond, we need to have an understanding of how the city changed during the twentieth century and more importantly what changed about the way we talk about cities in general.

My undergraduate education on the urban crisis in America presented changes in the city as a process of politics, prejudice, and technological advancement. More recently, I have come to understand the urban crisis as a gradual shift in investment and perception that took the American city, a source of pride, and turned it into a mark of shame. Furthermore, I understand the urban crisis as a rhetorical war between old and new. The goal of the war, as with any, was to frame the other as “backward” and the self as “progressive.” While Richmond attempted to maintain dignity, new technologies seemed dissatisfied with older cities: You’re too compact, too dilapidated, too prone to riot and rot.

As each new suburb was developed it became yet another statement to the American people pointing toward the promise of new, more civilized places with room to roam and play. Within this promise there was also a clear distinction being made from the archaic, dark city where most Americans at the time resided. As with all major shifts, the new way of doing things had to work to undo the more traditional ways of life. Many believe that the post-war zeitgeist of modernization, on a national level, did much to shift popular opinion. But on a local level, citizens of the Richmond metro-region still had to prove to residents that there was a more abundant life to be lived on the other side of the city limits.

This was accomplished through a series of events: The celebrated opening of Willow Lawn Shopping Center (1956), the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (1959), the failure of plans for consolidation with Henrico (1967) and other semi-related moments along the way. Each of these also had their corollary effect on the life of the city exemplified by events such as the closing of Miller and Rhodes/Thalhimers, the destruction of urban neighborhoods, and the political isolation that conclusively trapped and humbled this once-proud American city.

As money and people continued to migrate to the suburbs, local officials turned their attention from annexation to urban renewal. “If we can’t have the suburbs,” I imagine them thinking, “we have to do something about this city.” But rather than invest in what already existed, they fixated on dreams of what could be. “We get it” they tried to say “and we’ll fix it,” just don’t move your family to the suburbs.

As Silver writes, the city then “embraced urban renewal with a sense of urgency unprecedented in Richmond … Consolidation would have afforded vast new areas for growth and would have enabled the city to continue its policy of neglect toward inner-city areas” (254). Now left to embrace the demands of reality, Richmond’s city fathers sold out and destroyed much that today would protected as historical. They were always looking to what the city could be rather than accepting the city as is.

To me, this moment of urban renewal was a sign that the suburbs had won the war. This was the point in the story where it was finally decided that new was in fact better than old: Look! Even the city hates the city. In the decades that followed the tumultuous 60s and 70s, much has been said of the potential of cities, but almost all of it with the understanding that cities have something to prove. To this day, the standard to which Americans hold their cities is strangely high while their commitment to funding urban institutions and infrastructure is remarkably low. As Kunstler might argue, this is because we are no longer a nation of citizens; we are a nation of consumers.

Additionally, it seems that many of us have a powerful aversion to cities because we’re still trapped by the negative stigma established all those years ago. While local boosters proclaim, “Richmond is a city of art and great food!” critics reply, “Parking lots! Potholes! Prostitutes!” And regardless of their merit, these conversations do little to change the paradigm.

In this sadly familiar conversation, the subject is always “the city.” The place that needs to change is the city. The place that we want to love is the city. But this is not the perspective of an insider. Instead, we need to recognize that this critique is one of suburban condescension. The suburbs are still trying to prove their worth and their legitimacy and they are still quick to do so by orienting themselves against the “corrupt” and ” inefficient” locality they are ashamed to call neighbor, but delighted to visit for a basketball game.

We cannot have a productive conversation about Richmond until we move past the negative stigma that outsiders have placed on the city and begin to see Richmond as good once again. We should welcome visitors to come and enjoy themselves in the city, but our ultimate concern must be with the needs and desires of existing residents. Developments in Richmond should be for the city, not at the city’s expense, because that is what we can sustain and appreciate. And no longer should we consider developments for someone else to enjoy.

We have nothing to prove and everything to gain.

This Ignorant Present Revisited

A couple of months ago, I posted a quote from MacBeth that included the phrase, “this ignorant present.” I posted it because, for some reason, the idea really struck a cord with me.

Everywhere I go, I am asked variations the same question, “What’s in store for next year?” When I was a senior in college, I was asked this question. When I was a senior in high school, I was asked this question. I think before every big transition I have been conditioned to receive this question with either evasive answers or a scattershot of ideas and possible directions. Rarely (besides the college acceptance) have I been the sort of person to have an answer. Now, because I am currently working in a one-year program, the questions about the future have sort of carried on right through college graduation and into this year.

And I’ve noticed two things about this process: 1. Questions about the future make me uncomfortable and 2. I find myself asking these sorts of questions all the time. And then I started to wonder if maybe we are sort of all collectively making each other feel uncomfortable or unsatisfied with the present. Am I simply hoisting my discomfort onto my friends by asking them the same question that I myself am tired of hearing? Often, rather than enjoy the present, I am thinking about the future and I find that this ignorant present doesn’t seem to deserve our time in the context of the grand future we are supposed to be planning for ourselves. I know that lots of times these questions are well-meaning (or maybe an attempt on my part to make casual conversation), but I’m tired of the question and I want to respect the present.

I want to appreciate the present.

I also intend to put in serious work getting to the next step of my life … and I understand that I will always need to prepare for the future. But maybe I’m telling myself this as much as anyone else: the present is what we have. Conversations about the future, regardless of their intent, seem a bit assuming. This is, after all, the human experience we’re talking about so no matter what answer I give you when you ask the question (you know you want to) it’s with the understanding that life is going to happen regardless of what I say. So at this point, that seems like the only legitimate answer about what the future holds in store.


And more life.

Whence, What, Whither

Last Saturday I was thinking about Paul Gauguin’s painting “Whence come we? What are we? Whither go we?” So as I thought about the questions, I wrote them out in some random fonts and scanned the page. I got one good scan, but I think I prefer the image below where the scanner randomly cropped it:

This Ignorant Present

I heard a quote from Macbeth that I thought was interesting:

“Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant.”


C-T-D: Conclusion to my time in this place called Tyler

I moved back to my hometown of Tyler in May to begin a brief, post-grad-limbo summer. Since I arrived, I have made it my hobby to explore the city, imagine its potential, and write a series of posts on my ideas. I called this, “Connecting-the-Dots,” because I believe that Tyler (like many cities) suffers from a lack of cohesion and identity. On the micro level, we lack special places (“dots”) fully enhanced with the cultures, traditions, and organizations that comprise our civil society. On the macro level, we lack the connections of transportation and urban design that unite the disparate pieces of what we consider to be a singular unit. I’ve been primarily guided by the question, “Where is Tyler?”

In my attempt to answer this question, I’ve spent my time looking for what I believe makes this city unique: what someone can find here that is not anywhere else in the same way. The places that I love the most are sometimes the places that are most unloved. In other words, the Rose Garden may not be as sexy as Chuy’s right now, but it is unique to Tyler unlike the Austin import. Business in North Tyler might not be as lucrative as its cousin on South Broadway, but it’s more creative, local and artisan. It’s the difference between Janie’s Cakes and the WallMart bakery, Stanley’s and Spring Creek, the Rose Garden and Faulkner Park, Balance and World Gym, La Favorita and Pasado’s.

Unfortunately, all of those places that I believe represent Tyler do not reside together in one awesome, dense, and diverse place. In my opinion, a visitor to this city needs a guide to properly experience what this city has to offer. But suppose there were such a singular place comprised of all the unique Tyler attractions. It would be remarkable. People would come from all over the region to be a part of it’s energy and excitement. Now, suppose there were two. Or three and a street car connecting them. Suppose you could go to one for dinner, the next for a concert and the third for coffee, dessert and drinks and never get into a car or leave your friends. Suppose everyone in East Texas heralded this as the “Tyler experience.” Suppose we leveraged what makes us unique in order to make us uniquely great.

Our city is positioned as a regional leader in oil & gas, the processing of roses, healthcare, higher education, retail, banking, legal and financial services. Suppose we were also known as a creative and innovative community that supports new ideas local aspirations. That is a dream many in this city have been fighting to realize. I believe it’s a dream worthy of this place called Tyler.

C-T-D: The Rose Garden Complex

There are many proud  Tylerites who love the Tyler Rose Garden while also thinking that it needs some work. It’s heralded as the largest municipal rose garden in the nation (impressive), but for  some reason it just doesn’t do it for people. It doesn’t have pull. For the past few days I’ve been thinking about the garden and wondering what Tyler could change to make it a more desirable destination. When I drove there myself, I realized something: The Rose Garden can’t be significant on it’s own.

While there are several components of “The Rose Garden Complex,” they don’t form a cohesive destination. They’re essentially separated from each other by roads and parking lots. As it is, this expanse of asphalt ruins what could be a really cool Rose Garden Complex experience. I wonder if Depave would be willing to help us take it out because it’s got to go. It does not draw you towards anything or direct you to go anywhere. Most of the parking lots don’t even have lines marking individual spots … it is truly formless space.

If you look through the photo album at the end of this post, I think you’ll notice what I’m talking about. I was even impressed and I was expecting a lot of asphalt. I found myself thinking that we patterned our parking lot design after the ship harbor design. It might be because the huge Rose Festival floats need a place to sit and maneuver before starting the annual parade. While that may be the case, I think we can find some parking elsewhere in Tyler … their waiting area on one day of the year shouldn’t hold back the entire space.  Besides, wouldn’t it be more fun to parade through a beautiful space?

Fortunately for Tyler, a blank slate is a great place to start. My mind has wandered for hours these past few days and it finally arrived at the place pictured to the right. It looks like the Tyler Rose Garden Complex, but the center of the picture is grass (light green), trees (dark green dots), and rose bushes (dark green squiggly lines). And a water feature! (blue dot where the paths converge). In this place, the view from Harvey Hall is grand: Down a path bordered by trees, across a great lawn and toward the old fairgrounds and the Rose Garden. There is nothing but trees and grass between Harvy and the Rose Garden so that people can walk from one to another in the cool shade of trees. The Rose Garden itself hasn’t changed much except for the addition of an amphitheater (!) for live converts. (Big shout out to fellow visionary Tom Ramey and others for the idea of making the Rose Garden a music venue).

“Live at the Rose Garden” is the hottest tagline in East Texas because (you guessed it) the backdrop to the concert is the largest municipal rose garden in the nation and for once there is something to do while you’re looking at it. This amphitheater looks like the one from the Portland Rose Garden (to the right), but it’s better because it’s facing the flowers instead of big bushes. Every Friday night during the summer there’s a live concert here and people come from all over to fall in love with the place (and return again). When they arrive, they exit the street car at the stop just outside Harvey Hall on Front St. If they’re driving, they’re directed to park in one of the parking garages (PG) or lots (P) located on the perimeter of the complex. The roads within the complex also have on-street parking and handicapped spots closer to the center of the site. They all meet at the new roundabout in the middle.

Once they’ve parked, they walk down a number of brick paths (red) or bike in the bike lanes along each street (black) to get to the amphitheater. Every Friday night during football season people come early before the games to walk to the lawn that is lit up with lights from the trees. The Rose Garden is even open on these game nights with special events to keep people in the area. All this visiting is great business for the bars and restaurants that opened up in the former fairgrounds buildings! That whole area was rezoned to allow mixed-use infill development so there’s even a small community of people living in apartments with a view of the lawn and garden. They go on walks down the brick paths and do stair runs up the amphitheater in the mornings to stay in shape.

Whew! That place is so alive and engaging that people (even locals) don’t have to have a reason to visit. They just want to be there. Stay tuned for the next place my mind wanders to! I’m thinking it might visit a place that’s more urban … in the meantime, enjoy these photos from the Tyler Rose Complex! It’s ripe for redevelopment.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX Page.

The Rose Complex

Connecting the Dots: Intro

Imagine if Tyler decided to take a few areas, increase their eminence, and connect them to each other. My latest concept, Connecting the Dots (C-T-D), outlines a long-term process of public and private investment that I’ll complete in the next three followup posts.

The basic idea is often called Transit-oriented development. It’s the idea that we need to begin considering land use and transportation as one unified city function. You see, for the past century or so we have built our cities without considering how people will travel  because access to a car was generally assumed. And, I might add, those without cars were not usually considered valuable (i.e. profitable). Cities have grown rapidly and died gradually with this sort of development because 1. The roads cost too much, 2. New developments make older ones obsolete, and 3. New developments often have difficulty maintaining lasting significance past their prime. This paradigm is the Gander Mountain, it’s the church my family goes to, it’s the Hollywood Tyler Rose theater, and it’s the majority of this city.

But it wasn’t always this way. There was a brief time in history somewhere between horses and cars that we travelled on fixed tracks. During this time, (often) private corporations ran street cars through a partnership with municipalities in order to provide transportation for locals or visitors when they entered the train station, “Welcome to Richmond.” Now, it seems that the main city function is to facilitate transportation through the building of roads rather than to provide transportation for the general public. “But,” you say, “Tyler has a bus system already.” Yes it’s true, but in this post I want to argue that the bus system has not succeeded in unifying our city. Besides, we don’t have many significant areas to visit. What we have is a lot of stores, schools, restaurants and other businesses scattered over 49.3 square miles of asphalt, concrete and St. Augustine grass. Where, I wonder, is Tyler in all of this?

C-T-D seeks to revisit that earlier era of development for a 21st Century application. I have decided to start macro with this first piece (perhaps a look at Tyler 10 years down the road) then followup with more micro concepts for each individual node that I’ve proposed: The Rose District, The Square (with my Urban Valley), and a New Node that I haven’t named yet (ideas?). Each of these locations will be connected to each other with complete streets. This will also provide an alternative to cars and increase their viability as destinations. Completing streets will finally reconnect our asphalt to our buildings after decades of disconnected drives. Also, a recent report promoted by Smart Growth America shows that sidewalks and bike lanes increase the economic vitality of a region. That means more jobs! Eventually, we would add light rail trains (or BRT) to these streets in a circuit in order to properly move citizens from one location to the next.

I personally prefer light rail (yes, in Tyler) because it makes such a statement of  commitment to a given space. Light rail is also not as stigmatized as busses. Besides, it’s just plain cool. Check out the loop (below) I’ve devised for the light rail and complete streets:

Of course, in order to connect the dots … we first need dots to connect. This process involves developing three high-density, mixed use, cool (this is not a joke), and interesting nodes. These nodes are special, they have names and unique characteristics and an eminence that draws people to visit.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.

P.S. I recently returned from a trip to Seattle and Portland and I brought back ideas, the book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School,  and a Leuchtturm1917 journal with dots instead of lines. Let the games begin.