Streetscapes: The Value of Small Shops

Small shops help make the Twin Cities vibrant, affordable and dynamic

Storefronts, which change with the times, help make our cities vibrant, affordable and dynamic.
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Photo: Frank Edgerton Martin.   A row of modular shops on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis.

Home to the nation’s first indoor shopping mall (Southdale) and the first megamall (Mall of America), the Twin Cities has a history of thinking big when it comes to retail.

Maybe we should be thinking small.

Styles for retail buildings — indoor malls, outdoor malls, “festive retail” (think St. Anthony Main and Galtier Plaza) stand-alone big box stores — come and go. Small storefronts, on the other hand, have thrived for generations.

Modest in size and usually simple in design, these centrally located structures have proved flexible enough to change with the times and the demands of consumers. That’s why they’ve been able to serve as home to many different kinds of businesses over the years.

Consider the storefronts at Lyn-Lake in Minneapolis or along W. 7th Street in St. Paul. Although they were built in the 19th century, they remain actively used today. Even at major intersections, such as 48th Street and Chicago Avenue S. in Minneapolis or Fairview and Cleveland avenues in St. Paul, small stores have been able to change with the times. Instead of hardware stores and insurance offices, these storefronts now host bakeries, fix-it shops, salons, clothing stores and restaurants.

By adding feet on the street, storefront shops help build community. They also nurture small businesses by providing start-up spaces and offer jobs close to home. Most important, they provide a greater economic return to neighborhoods than larger chain stores, according to several studies.

Unlike national chains and big boxes, small stores make more of a personal connection, too.

Alain Lenne is a daily presence at his shop, La Belle Crepe, in the Medical Arts Building in downtown Minneapolis. In fact, with his French accent and trademark hats, it’s hard to miss him.

Lenne creates a remarkable fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine, ranging from crab Benedict crêpes to pho. What’s really remarkable is that all this happens in a space that is roughly 12 by 22 feet.

Of course, this wasn’t always a crêpe shop. In the 1960s it was home to a Fanny Farmer store. And before that? Well, just check out the transom window over the front door. There’s an etched glass panel that says: “Medical Arts Circulating Library and Card Shop.”

A few miles south is another example of the flexibility of small storefronts.

Located at 704 and 708 W. 22nd St. in Minneapolis, Fox Den Salon and the Caffetto coffee shop are next-door neighbors. The two very different businesses are run out of nearly identical storefront bays. Caffetto’s display windows are covered with posters for upcoming events. The Fox Den’s windows are filled with handmade seasonal displays. Such stores have a personality you won’t find in the controlled environments of skyways and shopping centers.

Striving for balance

Successful small shops face one dilemma: Sometimes they’re too successful.

They can lure more people to an area, and the homes, apartments and condominiums built to house those people chip away at the existing inventory of small buildings with modest rents.

And then the small-scale, personal shops that attracted many newcomers in the first place — the bookstores, co-ops, dry cleaning and shoe repair shops — get priced out of the neighborhood. We already see that happening in Uptown, the North Loop, East Hennepin and Dinkytown.

So how can we balance such new development with affordable rents for the small businesses that neighborhoods — and downtowns — need?

Cities have the power to require affordable housing in new residential and mixed-use projects. Why not do the same to ensure affordable small business in new developments in high-growth areas?

Critics will argue that this would deter new investment. But given the resiliency of small shops, doesn’t supporting them make as much sense as investing millions in public financing for massive downtown projects and sports venues?

American cities have always been in flux, responding to changes in technology, new immigrants and emerging economic opportunities. When parts of a city become nothing more than purveyors of luxury goods and expensive bars and restaurants, our streetscapes lose their rich, diverse character.

It’s time for public leaders and investors to see small shops and the active street life they foster as a basic tool in building a prosperous and creative city — more useful than glamorous boutiques, often more interesting than tall buildings, and more enduring than the latest tastes in public art and landscape architecture soon to reappear on Nicollet Mall.

Frank Edgerton Martin is a Minneapolis-based writer and landscape historian.

For link to original article, go to: http://www.startribune.com/small-shops-help-make-the-twin-cities-vibrant-affordable-and-dynamic/416439153/

Streetscapes: The “Bottleneck”

Is it possible to fix the bottleneck at Hennepin and Lyndale?

A reconstruction project has improved the Hennepin/Lyndale intersection, but stops short of redressing decades of bad decisions.
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RICHARD SENNOTT, STAR TRIBUNE

caption: New York has Times Square. Washington, D.C. has Dupont Circle. Minneapolis has the Hennepin-Lyndale bottleneck

For decades, the hourglass-shaped intersection of Lyndale and Hennepin avenues has been known as the Bottleneck, a crowded junction where cars, bicycles, pedestrians and, once upon a time, streetcars all merged in seemingly endless traffic jams.

A recently completed reconstruction project on the northern end of the Bottleneck (between Vineland Place and Douglas Avenue) has resulted in improved turn lanes, additional green space, new pedestrian-scale lighting and attractive bands of pavers. When the landscaping is completed in the spring, the additional green space and better bicycle and pedestrian crossings will be even more evident.

The $9 million, two-year project clearly made the revamped intersection more attractive and functional. And pedestrians no longer need to run to make the lights anymore. But the project didn’t include the biggest challenge for the Bottleneck: rethinking the massive and pedestrian-unfriendly “spaghetti junction” to the south (between Douglas and Franklin) and restoring what was once a landmark setting.

The city has yet to address how future planning for the entire Bottleneck can help to reintegrate the city after a generation of evisceration by freeways.

The Bottleneck, now more than a century old, is a living example of the evolution of urban planning, or lack thereof. In 1883, landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland developed a visionary plan for Minneapolis’ parks that designated Hennepin and Lyndale as parkways — verdant, wide avenues suitable for strolling or carriage rides. But with a growing population and an increase in streetcars, Hennepin and Lyndale soon became commercial thoroughfares south to Lake Street.

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caption: The Hennepin-Lyndale intersection looking north to the Basilica, circa 1930. From the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society

Around 1900, the junction of these two avenues and nearby Loring Park became the cultural heart of the city. Here, at the foot of Lowry Hill, the archdiocese built the Basilica of St. Mary, Episcopalians constructed St. Mark’s on Loring Park and just to the south, the majestic Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church rose.

In 1927, the Walker Art Gallery opened on Vineland Place. These institutions, along with 510 Groveland and the Armory Gardens (now the site of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden), created a cultural district that evoked the civility of European cities.

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caption: The Bottleneck looking to the southeast. Circa 1945. From the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.

But by the late 1940s, the Bottleneck had turned into a cacophony of streetcars, pedestrians, trucks and a rising tide of cars. Traffic and honored cultural institutions grew up as neighbors side by side.

And then came the freeway.

Looking back, many wonder why city leaders, planners and traffic engineers in the 1960s routed Interstate 94 through this crowded junction, which had already acquired its Bottleneck moniker. Through a tangle of underpasses, elevated flyovers and a daunting merge point, they bluntly layered freeway speeds and scale onto old city streets. Several blocks of commercial and residential buildings were demolished to create what urbanist Jane Jacobs called a “border vacuum.”

Ever since then, this pivotal city space has looked less like a cultural hub and more like a freeway on-ramp.

Room for New Thinking

In 1956, the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act funded freeways to connect cities, but not to slice through them. Yet soon, nearly every U.S. city began to build freeways straight into their downtowns, and often in a tight loop around them.

That’s how downtown Minneapolis came to be surrounded by a sunken trench of freeways and the Mississippi River. The old graceful transitions between neighborhoods, like Whittier and Phillips, and downtown vanished. And downtown itself became an island.

It’s time to build a new kind of bridge — a civic bridge. Given its great architecture and central location, the Bottleneck is one the best locations to start.

Today, planners and transportation advocates nationwide are reconsidering historic precedents long dismissed as impractical, such a return to two-way streets, traffic circles and smaller blocks. They are challenging the conventional wisdom and creating data-driven alternatives for how to update freeways, reconnect historic districts and provide a range of transportation options.

For areas like the Bottleneck and other “border vacuums” across the Twin Cities, here are four urban design strategies we should consider:

Re-create the grid: One of the best ways to mitigate the impact of urban freeways is to rebuild the city grid around them. At the Bottleneck, rather than long exit ramps and merge lanes onto city streets, traffic exiting the freeway should be slowed as quickly as possible, preferably coming up to traffic lights. There, drivers can opt to turn left or right or go forward as in traditional grid intersections. Returning to the grid creates clearly defined crosswalks for pedestrians and slows traffic entering local streets.

Frame the streets: As the grid is rebuilt, the footprints of old freeway ramps and right-of-ways can be filled in with new taxpaying development. Streets such as Hennepin and Lyndale can become distinct public spaces again, linear outdoor rooms framed by building facades that come up to the sidewalk, with trees to blunt the sun and noise from the traffic.

Develop a seamless pedestrian experience: Unobstructed vistas down the streets framed by buildings can help to create a sense of connection for several blocks. Currently, in many locations, freeways create a visual gap or obstruction that severs neighborhoods.

Create mixed uses along the way: Once it’s easier to walk along Hennepin and Lyndale avenues, and from Loring Park to the Walker Art Center, small-scale businesses and attractions such as coffee shops and pocket dog parks can spring up. They help create a sense of variety and engagement.

These strategies are now being tested as cities such as Boston and San Francisco try to redress their freeway-centric pasts. Can Minneapolis embrace such new thinking?

Frank Edgerton Martin is a Minneapolis-based writer and landscape historian.

LINK TO ORIGINAL ARTICLE     http://www.startribune.com/is-it-possible-to-fix-the-bottleneck-at-hennepin-and-lyndale/411984346/

Why we thought he’d never win.

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves”

—From On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt. Princeton University Press. 2005

 

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See philosophy applied:  https://newrepublic.com/article/124803/donald-trump-not-liar

 

Archipedia Minnesota now Online!

 

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Click here to explore a new guide to Minnesota architecture. After several years and much volunteer effort, the first 50 entries of the Minnesota volume of Archipedia are now online. Founded by the Society of Architectural Historians as an all-digital encyclopedia of American architecture, this collection was edited by Victoria M. Young of the University of St. Thomas and myself.

http://sah-archipedia.org/essays/MN-01

You can click above or use this weblink to reach the Archipedia MN site. My hope is that, given the high level of foundation and volunteer support, these essays will remain available to the public at no charge. For now, take a look at the introduction and first 50 entries that cover the whole state and their descriptions by many of Minnesota’s leading architectural historians and writers. Thanks to all who contributed.

Image above: Reflecting pool at the University of Minnesota, Morris—one of the sites covered in Archipedia. Circa 1940.

 

Garden History/Garden Words: Cloister

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If it can be done, the monastery should be so situated that all the necessaries, such as water, the mill, the garden, are enclosed, and the various arts may be plied inside of the monastery, so that there may be no need for the monks to go about outside, because it is not good for their souls.         —The Holy Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter LXVI

The medieval cloister garden is one of the most famous traditions in garden history. Rich in flowers, fruit trees and medicinal plants—the monastic cloister was as a place for spiritual retreat for monks and nuns who had already withdrawn from the temptations of the secular world.

But the cloister garden is more than a retreat. It often served as a gathering point connecting many of the monastery’s buildings. The central water source symbolized paradise and the four garden quadrants recalled the Garden of Eden.

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Our word “cloister” can be both a noun and a verb. It derives from the Medieval Latin word claustrum—meaning a sheltered and closed space.

The cloister “garth” is the central space itself, the garden open to the sky and surrounded on four sides by ambulatories.

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The garth at Salsbury Cathedral, founded in the 14th century

Whereas “cloister” derives from Latin, garth derives from the Old Norse garðr and is related to the Old English geard, meaning an enclosed space or yard. Our words “yard” and “garden” are descended from this root.

The cloister garth and garden was a key space in the social life of the monastery. Beyond a place of spiritual contemplation, the garth was a place for socializing, washing laundry in the fountains, and hanging it to dry in the arcades.

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Advertisement for Toro lawn mowers, c 1955

Contrary to the modern American sense of the front yard as an open, pastoral lawn, yards were long considered walled spaces, often with a purpose. Larger monasteries often had specialized cloisters for medicinal plants, infirmaries, and other functions.

Think of Harvard Yard, Train Yards, and Graveyards. Such enclosures protect and foster human needs including youthful learning, movement, death and memory. Rather than the restrictive sense that we now associate with “cloistered”—an older sense of gardens, yards and cloisters implied the opening of possibilities for nourishment and the events of life.

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Harvard Yard, c 1900

With the rise of medical terminology in the 19th century, many new words were created from combined Latin and Greek roots. In 1879, the English physician Dr. Benjamin Ball coined the term “Claustrophobia” to denote the “morbid fear of being shut up in a confined space.” Here is a very different sense of enclosure from the protective and nurturing one dating to the Middle Ages.

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Photo card, 1906

In the end, many of our words for gardens and landscapes are historically connected. Looking to their origins helps us to think anew, to reconsider older meanings long forgotten.

image at top: Ruins of gothic cloister at Kilconnel Abbey in County Galway, Ireland. 19th c. engraving.

#gardenhistory

#etymology

#cloister

#Harvardyard

 

 

 

Streetscapes: Modern Masters

prince-of-peace-lutheran-church-milo-thompsonPrince of Peace Lutheran Church, designed by Milo Thompson. Thompson was one of the leading architects included in the Modern Masters oral history project.

Oral histories capture a time when Minnesota became a leader in modern architecture. 

By Frank Edgerton Martin Special to the Star Tribune   December 23, 2016

After World War II, a handful of optimistic young architects transformed Minnesota by designing modern schools, churches and civic buildings. Within just a few years, their take on modern design was recognized nationwide. Thanks to a new video oral history project, their stories are now as available as their buildings.

Much of Minnesota’s modern architecture — including O’Shaughnessy Auditorium at St. Catherine University, designed by Curt Green of HGA, and the American Indian Center in Minneapolis by Thomas Hodne — is qualified to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But these structures also have a human history — a rich collection of memories by and about the architects who designed them.

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American Indian Center in Minneapolis designed by Thomas Hodne

To collect these stories, the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians (MNSAH) recently videotaped interviews with Minnesota’s leading modern architects, those who worked for them, and some of the journalists who covered their projects.

These interviews (vimeo.com/mnsah) reveal how Minnesota’s architectural prowess grew to a national presence and became an important part of the state’s economy and culture. They are also rich with entertaining anecdotes about near-mishaps on projects, what it took to win a new commission or what it was like to deal with tough architecture professors.

Architectural historian Jane Hession, who co-conducted some of the interviews, said the goal of the Modern Masters project is “to capture first-person interviews with some of the most significant contributors of modern architecture and design in the state

Gary Reetz, a MNSAH board member, gave one of the first oral histories. Reetz, who started working at HGA in the 1970s, worked with the firm’s modernist founders, Richard Hammel, Curt Green and Bruce Abrahamson. He shared memories, many of them funny, of their distinctive personalities and talents.

Reetz shared a story from the late 1950s that has become part of HGA’s founding lore. The College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., hired the then-new firm to design a performing arts center. Green, always charming with clients, drove a group of Benedictine nuns around the state in his open-top convertible to look at similar projects for ideas.

Several of the nuns recalled this adventure decades later when they hired HGA once again, this time to design an expansion for the building. Green clearly had more than charm. Both the first and second phases of the Benedicta Arts Center are award-wining examples of Minnesota’s leadership in design for education and the arts.

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First phase of the Benedicta Arts Center designed by Curt Green of HGA.

Bette Hammel, wife of Richard Hammel, tells stories, too. But her vantage point is that of a journalist who married an architect and became fascinated by his field.

One of Bette’s closest friends was James Stageberg, a notoriously challenging professor and a leading modern designer. With partner Thomas Hodne, Stageberg designed 1200 on the Mall and a vision for the Minneapolis riverfront in conjunction with the Walker Art Center.

It’s not as if Minnesota’s modern flair is a thing of the past. In fact the state’s distinctive take on modern architecture is typified by David Salmela, a renowned architect based in Duluth.

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David Salmela in his Duluth studio overlooking Lake Superior and the city.

Salmela is nationally recognized for his unique blending of modern and Nordic traditions in houses and other projects. Locally, his most visible projects include Izzy’s Ice Cream near Gold Medal Park in Minneapolis and the community of Jackson Meadow in Marine on St. Croix.

“The beauty of the project,” Hession explains, “is that we have the opportunity to ask an architect like David Salmela … to speak about how the landscape and cultural diversity of northern Minnesota influenced his designs. Or to talk to architectural journalist Linda Mack [who covered architecture for the Star Tribune] about the challenges and rewards of writing critically about Minnesota’s built environment.”

Today, Minnesota’s architecture and engineering firms employ thousands of specialists who work in health care, corporate and cultural design projects across the country. Indeed, we have one of the highest number of architects per capita in the nation.

These firsthand accounts bring to life a vibrant midcentury period when Minnesota became known for modernism and innovative design.

It still is today.

Link to Modern Masters videos:  vimeo.com/mnsah

Link to MNSAH:  www.mnsah.org/

Frank Edgerton Martin is a writer and landscape historian based in Minneapolis. He took part in some of the interviews for the Modern Masters project.

 

The Novelty of Being There: Rediscovering the places where we live

A collection of essays that I started back in college. I’m putting them together as an e-book. Will post more here. 

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The Novelty of Being There

A collection of essays on “sense of place” and the hidden beauties of the world around us

Frank Edgerton Martin

Have you ever wondered why so many American cities began to lose their pedestrian-scale charm about sixty years ago? Have you ever considered how much you might already know about building humane and lasting communities?

Many Americans have begun to ask these questions. We have begun to question the shared character of public space that we have lost in a time when we have so much wealth and technological prowess. This small book lays out some tools to revisit places where we live, to ask new questions of their character and future possibilities. Such a revisit to ordinary places can be surprisingly instructive because the most important places in our hometowns and cities are those that we rarely notice.

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The most important places in our lives are those we take for granted. In fact, we have to forget about our favorite chair as we read it, stop noticing they city’s skyline as we work there, forget about the museum’s famous architecture as we are transported elsewhere by its works. In being taken for granted, our houses, apartment buildings, neighborhoods, offices and schools become the settings where we grow into maturity and pass our lives. In this silence lies their greatest beauty.

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It is a rare moment when experience a “Novelty of Being There”—when we step outside ourselves to notice the regions we inhabit, when we pause to consider how lovely, or unusual, or ingenious their construction might be. And that’s how it should be. The aesthetic moment of seeing the sun emerge from a dark storm cloud over our town in the Adirondacks, the emotional thrill of coming home from college for the first time…these are times when we are both inside familiar places but also newly aware of them.

We see them anew and we sense their possibilities. We may see how they have formed us. We may even gain a flash of insight into how to steward and improve their planning and design. All of this can seem very novel and revealing. But we can’t always live in the stream of such revealing experiences.

Yet, if we never step outside our the daily routines of habitation, if we never notice the places where we live, we will come to have much lower expectations for what their public spaces, landscapes, and communities (however you define them) can become. We can argue that the nature of American life encourages us not be present and aware, to be lost in our thoughts, plugged into music, driving to the soccer game, listening to the idle chatter of celebrity life and sports as we commute, surfing the news.

For many years, educators and environmentalists have bemoaned children’s loss of free time and contact with nature. There is even now the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to describe the sanitized world of structured childhood with lots of car time,  sports leagues and college tutoring. But, our experiential deficits are actually much deeper. We’re not only isolated from “nature” (however you define that), we’re also oblivious to the built world of streets, stores, the design of our own homes, gardens, and public spaces.

 

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Many Americans live in one new suburb that looks just like another; they feel safe and predictable…and that’s not such a bad thing. The blanket of middle class comforts that our society offers— utilities that work, relatively low food costs, gas that’s still pretty cheap compared with the rest of the world—have a calming, even soporific effect. Why notice the world around us when so rarely anything breaks down? Because we are so fortunate, we are so unaware of our material wealth and stability.

This book is not a rant against modern suburbs, in fact, we should explore them as quite varied and fascinating when you look into their histories—and we will discuss them later. Nor, should we assume that, with the growing gulf between rich and poor, soaring health care costs, and other strains, many Americans live stress-free lives. Rather, what I want to say is this:

That we limit our ability to design effective cities and regions because we fail to notice places that are humane and those that are not. We give away our power and wisdom to a myriad of development forces that we hardly understand.

 

Drifting into Oblivion

There are many ways to drift away from one’s home region…and it often doesn’t require geographic distance. Many of us “move away” from our home environments because we are given faulty, shallow “maps” or languages of expression. It’s not just the rental car map. It’s a lifelong barrage of jargon, representational modes, and fabricated desires that create a specialized array of languages of discussing cities, none of them very rich or transferable to people outside the target audience.

City planners use zoning maps with little reference to three dimensions, history, or ecology.

Home builders speak of their homes as “products.”

Regional governments call our cities “Municipal Urban Service Areas” or MUSAs. The services include sewers, water, streets. The “MUSA Line,” the point at which it’s really not cost-effective to build more sewers and water lines.

Architects create sharp isometric aerial views and bright fly-though animations that make new  buildings into sculpture. Often, we have no idea what the buildings will even be made of…and neither do the architects! But they look good…at least while they’re still fictional.

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These renderings and simulations have a propagandistic force. They set the range of questioning.  They can persuade cities to build projects that future generations may regret. Such birds eye views and isometric renderings can look impressive. Their power is that often create a false sense of “being there”. They can distract us from how this future world will really look from the street—which is where we actually live given that we are not birds.

The Gateway Urban Renewal District in downtown Minneapolis tore out almost the entire 19th century commercial district to create a Corbusian future when people would live in the sky. Today, some of the buildings are historic in themselves as mid-century modern works. But they are significant as icons, as objects in urban space—but not as part of human-scaled and coherent urban fabric.

Such specialized words and pictures may help to discuss questions of quantity and economic value. But, they are not a language that everyone who grows up in a metropolis learns how to speak and understand. As esoteric dialects, they do not convey a genuine shared and evolving sense of regional distinctiveness. In fact, much of the vocabulary pervading commercial real estate, city planning, traffic engineering, and landscape architecture avoid the validity of personal experience at all. Emotion does not ground professional “practice” in the architectural marketplace. (Unless of course, as a tactic in marketing “product”).

So why are our cities and suburbs becoming so hot in the summer, polluted all year, antithetical to walking?

Why is a food coop near Lake Minnetonka (lovely on the inside and filled with organic produce) set in a strip mall with no trees and no sidewalks? Why do none of the communitarian-environmentalist staff seem to care?

Because we no longer even notice where we are. Because we have forgotten to talk about what makes places that matter. Because we are focused on the tasks of life at hand with little room to step away. Banality has been normalized.

Thus we are no longer really engaged with the physical regions we call home. We’re somewhere else, mostly inside buildings, inside our jobs, inside our cares, entertainments and responsibilities. We fled the city and the suburb long ago. We have become strangers.

 

Becoming Commonsense Stewards of Design

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These essays explore how most Americans along with our design and building professions have become dangerously removed from commonsense observation of what works in building communities. Rather than planning for the long-term, we too often copy one another, tear-down historic buildings, and focus on object-based design at the building scale rather than the larger fabric of neighborhoods.

We over-emphasize how designed buildings and landscapes “look” rather than how they sound, or smell, or how they will age over time. We design with great visual rationality, yet we forget that familiar places of work and home work best when we forget them. Yet, with their silence, there must also be moments of discovery and reflection.

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Sometimes they happen with the change of seasons, in the fleeting moments when the leaves turn bright, when the first snow arrives We notice once again long-familiar smells and crunching sounds while walking in the woods.

In Los Angeles, residents experience anew the feeling of dry heat and winds sweeping across the desert when the Santa Ana Winds return in autumn. Sometimes these winds can be stirring and sometimes they can create a sense of dread.

This book explores why noticing the world—why our “attentiveness to being there”—is essential to becoming better citizens and stewards of the built environment.

Learning how to “be-in-the-world” again (at least, occasionally) is one of the best tools that we have to return to the humane and sustainable architecture that existed in many American towns, main streets, and cities up until about 1950—before television, before the Internet, before the structured life of children.

My use here of the term “humane” here is  just a means of asking the Big Question: what does relevant, nurturing and equitable community design really mean?

The British architect Christopher Alexander, author of several books about a return to the lessons of ordinary places, calls this idea, “the quality without a name.” It’s not an easy concept to talk about; and very hard to through statistical opinion or in purely visual terms. But know it when we see it; and we can point to places that make sense and those that do not.

That’s what children do before they know the names of things; they point. And often, when they can’t have that candy bar, they start to scream because that is another way of communicating. When it comes to understanding and talking about the built world of everyday life, we do not have to be architects or historians. We can use our personal experiences to point to places that have qualities that may be difficult to name but are clearly there, inviting and memorable.

There are countless examples when the discovery of the beauty of place appears in a moment. And we will visit a few of them in the essays to follow.

 

Elevated Viewpoints

We can think of post cards as another way of pointing, a means to show off how we want our town or business to be seen by others. Like any kind of map, post card photography is the result of choices  made. Elevated view points quite literally posit a “point of view.” But do they reflect the world in which we live?

This early color post card of a cemetery in Winona, Minnesota exemplifies how maps and photographs are often culturally-grounded and edited by choices.

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It’s a striking view of Limestone entry gates, the sinuous gravel drives drawing the eye over the smooth lawns—and into the distant the Mississippi River bluffs. The view seems like a very accurate depiction of a natural and human landscapes. But it is not “objective”.

Consider the photographer’s elevated position. Like many renderings of urban renewal and new museum projects, most people will never experience the site this way. Secondly, notice how the photo is dividend in to three distinct parts: the foreground, middle ground, and background bluffs.

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And yet …great cities and regions have always afforded moments and sites where we can step away to find our bearings in settings that are real. This view of Alma, Wisconsin and the Mississippi River is also elevated. Yet,  this a place where one where one could actually go to see how the river town fits together.

Unlike an architectural rendering or staged post card, this photo is not a removed projection—but the documentation of its character from a special viewpoint. It’s a special visit to a viewpoint we don’t see everyday. But we can go there. In Alma, one can still climb up to this vista today.

Reflective moments happen by retunrning to such vistas or when we go away for a long-time and then come home again. Everything, for a moment, seems new again. Maybe a little different from our past memories. But a world that is very much—noticed.

This is the kind of momentary and revealing experience that we can seek anew.

 

Expanding our Range of Questions

Our sense of “beauty” and fashion changes over time. To ask new questions of where we live, we need seek out the origins of our current definitions of “good architecture,” “wealth and prosperity,” and “expertise” because they say a lot about who gets to speak out, whose experience is considered important, and the vast segments of Americans who are completely left out of the discussion about what they value, about how to build cities and towns for coming generations.

What matters for active citizens is not just the range of the questions we ask about the promise of our cities—but also, by default, the questions that are left out. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse coined the phrase, “the universe of discourse” for this system of socially-acceptable questions and valid answers. Why should this matter for architects, landscape architects, contractors and builders? Why should most of the rest of us who spend our lives in their productions care?

Language will continue to evolve. But there are instances when, as George Orwell argued in his famous essay, “The Politics of the English Language,” words can be changed or fluffed up to mislead us. For our purposes, the politics of words matters because we need a much broader universe of accepted discourse if we are going to rediscover, notice, and share lessons from ordinary places again.

Why is it acceptable to publish jargon-laden writing while it is not considered “academic” to write first-hand accounts of environmental or social experiences in peer-reviewed articles? One is considered scholarly and the other not. Yet, it is, as the philosopher Edmund Husserl argued, “a return to experience itself” that is needed if we are to appreciate the settings of everyday living.

In a graduate school research methods class, I had a professor who taught us the simple dictum: “Everything that exists can be measured; and if it can’t be measured, then it doesn’t exist.

He was a social psychologist and I really liked him. His notions about the value of empirical and statistics-based research completely contradicted everything I had Iearned in at Vassar. It was kind of shocking. But I knew that his claim about measuring made sense if one were studying traffic counts on a highway.

santafetrailmaplarge

Yet,  if that highway happens to be the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas, an old route traveled by native peoples, early explorers, and pioneers seeking a better life— there are much broader questions to ask. It makes sense to listen to the travelers’ own stories through their sketches, memoirs, and journals. That requires a completely different sense of validity and form of measurement. No single approach to research and mapping is “correct”. We need many. We need richer maps of regions, old roads, campuses, and towns with many layers.

Environmental Memoirs

We can consider “environmental memoirs” as one of these layers in our personal appreciation and map of home.  In looking to our own environmental history, it makes sense to consider our own origins, to look again at where we grew up and our journeys through childhood.

Here is how I began an environmental memoir my own:

Metropolitan Origins

I was born in 1958 at Abbott Hospital in downtown Minneapolis, a small old hospital now closed. Even though my Abbot roots make Minneapolis my native city, I did not grow up there. My hometown is actually a much larger place—the Twin Cities metropolitan area whose ever-growing girth encompasses the old twin downtowns and postwar suburbs, freeway office parks and surviving farms. Like many members of my generation and region, I grew up in “the suburbs”—in Minnetonka to be exact, a village ten miles west of Minneapolis, its Victorian neighborhoods and Abbot Hospital.

When I think of the places that I loved as a child—our woods on a windy afternoon, the Skyroom at the Dayton’s Department Store in downtown Minneapolis, my grandmother’s old house on Kenwood Parkway in town, I realize that these places and my tastes for them have stayed with me to this day. For a long time I felt ashamed of the fact that I was born and raised in Minnetonka Village and not a real city. But I am really not a child of Minnetonka either. When one is born a villager in a place like the Twin Cities, one grows up in a much larger chunk of space where cities and villages and farms are united by fate.

In the chapters to follow, I plan to share the landscape descriptions of fiction writers, American pioneers, essayists and others. Many of them will describe the Twin Cities, the place I know best.

Overall, I hope to share three broad ideas:

  1. That the way we usually talk about our cities and regions like my own often cheapens our sense of their possibilities as places.
  2. That the individual beauty of America’s metropolitan regions is best revealed in the most ordinary and simple moments, places, and events.
  3. That urban regions are beautiful when they help us to achieve our calling in life, when the help us to become whole and “united” ourselves.

A “calling” can mean many things, but it is a driving purpose—and we have completely forgotten how to talk about it. That is why my region—and probably yours—are becoming so bland.

 

Moments of Annunciation

In the pages to follow, when I speak of growing up in the Twin Cities region, I occasionally consider what James Hillman, in his book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Meaning calls “moments of annunciation.” These are moments in one’s family’s life and episodes in the history of our home regions forge a lasting impact. In my own case many of these events—the building of a metropolitan park system… the raking out of a streambed— are actually quite heroic even though ordinary people made them happen. Mostly, they are just stories, but stories that are novel because the people within them happened to notice where they were.

Thinking about our environmental histories is a powerful antidote to the forces of contractor banality and star architects, indifferent zoning boards, and town councils that assume that new development is good development if it builds the tax base. Ultimately, returning to and learning from environmental experience can inspire us to ask new questions, to set higher standards, and see greater connections between our own small decisions and the local future. That’s why how we measure and make sense of our hometowns, woods, commercial districts, alleys and offices—matters.

Our own maps and environmental stories can instill within us passion to care for the land. But we have to tend these stories and pay heed to them. We have to slow down for a moment and pay attention to where we’ve lived and how we live today. This is part of the value of writing one’s environmental memoir, of trying to piece together how you came to care for the places that you do. Here is one small memory I have of our house and woods—and a moment of caring for a small stream. It came early on in my environmental memoir writing and enriched me with a new appreciation of my parents.

Set on the top of a hill, our house looked into a sea of arching elm trees at mid-level. But when you walked down the path that led within, these trees seemed huge. They swayed and made a collective roaring sound when the wind blew.

At the age of five, I developed an affection for a kind neighbor, Mrs. Waters, who lived on the other side of the woods. After phone calls with my mother, she would occasionally invite me over for milk and cookies. Such visits required an adventure north through the woods and thus a kind of “trade route” to the other side of uncharted territory.

These were my fist solo trips. There was a good path that led down a hill from our pond to a little stream and then back up again to the northern edge of the woods. Once out of the enormous canopy of trees, I walked through a meadow and then into neatly mowed suburban yards and cul-de-sacs.

I came to know the route quite well; and through it, the immense woods began to gain landmarks. In particular, it was the little stream that I loved. Most of the summer, it was dry. But in spring, when the snow melted, the creek was filled to its banks with rushing waters. It was thrilling to see.

Late one fall, I remember being quite concerned that the piles of leaves in the stream bed would clog up the creek when the waters flowed in the spring. My parents and my little sister Laura came down there with me to rake the leaves out. I remember seeing my parents standing on the banks, talking happily, and reaching down into the little valley with the rakes.

When we took our rakes into the woods to clean out the stream bed, we carried out a simple ritual of caring for the Earth. Even though it was completely pointless from an ecological perspective, this small act, more than any other was, best expresses why I still care about the future of our woods, and Minnetonka, and our region today.

That is why raking out a dry streambed may be so important. After all, leaves decay, water flows downhill; nature has a way of cleaning up the messes that it makes. Surely, as grown-ups, my parents were aware of these simple, rational facts. “Practical” people do not rake out dry streambeds. But my parents wanted to encourage me to care for a place that I loved. Decades later, now that pretty much everything I try to read about architecture no longer makes much sense and my mental maps of our huge metropolis seem so devoid of interest, I ask myself…what could be more lovely?

copyright Frank Edgerton Martin, 2016