Cyclists’ Place in Public Space?

Posted August 24, 2010 by indigocountry
Categories: Insights

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Charleston and Charlotte newspapers have been abuzz in recent weeks over the safety of bicyclists and their place in the public right-of-way.  The saddest news item among this is the death of neighborhood leader and cycling advocate, Edwin Gardner on a short, otherwise quiet street near his home.  Most stunning must be the vitriol spewed by drivers toward the occupation of roadway by unmotorized vehicles in Charlotte.  Articles such as this about the outpouring for Mr. Gardner were followed by a another reporting a petition to SCDOT by nearly two thousand people urging the addition of bike lanes on Maybank Highway once the road is resurfaced.

A melee in Charlotte began with an article titled “A Cycling Epidemic” in the Charlotte edition of Creative Loafing.  The oddity of the title should clue the reader that ensuing facts in support of the position constituted a piece best suited for The Colbert Report.  The cycling community nevertheless took the article seriously and offered a comprehensive rebuttal, followed by a rally of sorts around an event held by the publication.

The attention got the issue on the front page of Charlotte’s daily newspaper, The Observer. Online reader comments in response to the article “were so venom-filled they had to be cut off,” as noted by an editorial in The Observer three days later.  The editorial is titled “Cyclists, Motorists Alike Should Chill, Obey Laws.” Enough said?  Perhaps, yet The Observer published a story just another three days later – “Fall from Bike Spins LA Mayor into Cycle Advocate.


SC Improved, But Not World Series Material for Business

Posted July 26, 2010 by indigocountry
Categories: In States

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CNBC has just released its ranking of all 50 states according to which is best for business.   Scores for 40 measures of competitiveness slotted South Carolina at #31, between Illinois and Arkansas, which was tied with California.  Texas is first, Alaska last.  Our neighbors, North Carolina and Georgia, finished 4th and 10th, respectively.

South Carolina gained six places since 2009 but continues to be held back in the categories of Education, Economy, and Quality of Life.  Underlying measures negatively affecting the state’s scores include a low concentration of “major” corporations; K-12 test scores, class size, and spending; high crime, and poor health of the population.  Conversely, South Carolina scored well in Cost of Business, Workforce, and Transportation.  Low taxes are cited as a positive.

The Palmetto State’s neighbors outscored it in Technology and Innovation, Business Friendliness, and Access to Capital, in addition to the aforementioned low-scoring categories.  Read more at CNBC’s website here.

Gardens Interchange? Gateway to Combahee Ferry Historic District??

Posted July 8, 2010 by indigocountry
Categories: In Countryside

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US-17, Gardens Corner, Beaufort County, SC – June 26, 2010

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US-17 widening: 8 miles, $80 million

These images show the southwestern terminus of the highway widening project.  The northeastern terminus, a bridge over the Combahee River, is a fascinating footnote to the project.  This article in The State by Wayne Washington, published nearly five years ago, details a historical find during environmental screening before construction: a ferry used by Harriet Tubman in 1863 to lead a force that freed 700 slaves. 

This site is near the geographic center and bottleneck of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a program of the National Park Service. (Learn more here.)  This is a great opportunity to erect interpretive information and raise awareness of the corridor and its significance.  The location has been the foot of a Combahee River bridge for a long time; remnants of a suspected pontoon bridge and Confederate earthworks also exist here.  SC DOT’s proposal to acknowledge this history appears here on its website.

Resources for Planning and Leadership

Posted June 17, 2010 by indigocountry
Categories: In Cities, In Regions

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A couple of outstanding resources have been published recently.  First, “The Ideal Workplace: How to Boost Productivity, Commitment, & Job Satisfaction” from Harvard Business Review OnPoint collects articles and stories from the past 20 years of HBR that should help you and your office circle the wagons as you re-emerge from the downward economic cycle.  Get it here.

Second is a special report from the Financial Times, “The Future of Cities: Regeneration.”  The venerable newspaper offers insights into urban planning and design and pulls no punches.  Topics range from vision to finance and fine arts to transit investment.  Discussions touch on Cairo, London, and New York. 

The first author gives both Charleston and Charlotte food for thought for disparate reasons, stating, “The best cities coexist with their history without destroying or obsessively preserving it (“Building on the Past Gives Hope for Future,” Edwin Heathcote, 19 May 2010).

One of the most architecturally striking cities in the world, Chicago is also stuffed with the kind of solid, everyday structures that allow change and adaptation and this keeps it open to innovation and change in a way other cities envy.  Detroit boasts similar architectural quality, (yet) the centre of Detroit is a tragedy on an awesome scale.  Detroit demonstrates the strange absence of any semblance of universal rules.  Cities are paradoxically robust and delicate, their complex systems infinitely adaptable yet also capable of stalling once prices are high enough.

An expert interviewed for the article “Funding and Social Capital Are Key Factors” (Rod Newing, ibid) “recommends the North Carolina model, where the state government reviews all issues (of municipal derivatives) and is conservative about the amount of debt that can be issued.

A third article will surely challenge practicing and aspiring leaders. “Wanted: A Strong Mayor with Vision to See off Rival Centers” (Rod Newing, ibid) asserts, “The mayor and local city government cannot work in isolation. The city vision cannot be restricted to its historical political boundary, but must encompass surrounding areas and the whole region.

While much of this special report cites a need for and encourages city planning, Newing closes his second article with sobering conclusions from Ged Drugan from Manchester Business School’s executive education center:

The megatrend driving regeneration of cities is our lifestyles, which will dictate both the physical fabric and the way we live within cities.  Lifestyles will drive evolution and regeneration of cities, rather than local government planning.

Find these articles on the Financial Times’ website.

Happy planning!

Main Street Columbia? Why on Earth…?

Posted May 17, 2010 by indigocountry
Categories: In Cities

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Public and private investment aiming to rejuvenate Main Street has been significant and sustained for years.  For the record, I am pro-Columbia, so, when business took me to the Columbia area last Wednesday, I took advantage of the opportunity to attend an event titled, “Why Are You Here?”

The event, promoted (and organized?) by the state chapter of the Urban Land Institute, explored the question of Main Street’s identity as a fine and performing arts destination.  The impending relocation of the state’s non-profit cinema, the Nickelodeon, to a once-and-future theater very near the Columbia Museum of Art spurred the discussion. (Click here to see the project.)

The event at the former Fox Theatre was poorly attended, but the enthusiasm of speaking panelists representing the arts was not dampened.  The panel discussed topics ranging from Columbia’s status as a music scene to the attraction of Main Street as a place to set up shop. 

The panelists noted that Columbia is a “tertiary” market for cutting-edge music tours.  Among the reasons: events in Columbia do not draw because the city has no critical mass of nightlife and entertainment venues.  Instead, the city is pegged to draw for popular country music acts and has-beens.  (The exception: innovative jazz.  Go figure.)

Business owners noted Main Street’s unique environment as a reason to invest in the location.  They defended their decision in that their distinctive businesses (exclusive eyewear, acoustic music) necessitate distinctive destinations.  For them, Main Street’s mix of historic buildings and high-rises stands apart – a unique place. 

Recognition of Main Street Columbia as a destination throughout the broader community has been a question mark for at least a couple decades.  Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the city does not seem to have an identity as a strong music scene, with a place on the calendar for innovative acts.  If the metropolitan area’s center is not a destination for its own citizens, how can one expect it to be so for outsiders?

But what of the jazz scene on South Main?  The role of Five Points for nightlife, driven by the college crowd, is long-established. Panelists, moreover, noted the Vista’s niche as a visual arts destination (notably, with some adversarial consternation).  Perhaps Main Street can be the missing link that ties the various districts together, each with a distinct role.  Some leadership seems to exist: staff of the City Center Partnership was in attendance.  One speaker noted the recent election of a forward-thinking mayor (Steve Benjamin).  Their challenge: to reform the image of South Carolina’s capital city as a place and a destination.

Pedestrians Valued on SC’s Most Iconic Drive

Posted May 4, 2010 by indigocountry
Categories: In Cities

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If you were a business owner, how much would you pay so that your patrons could safely reach your front door?  The answer, in Myrtle Beach at least, is $3,000. 

Sunday’s Charlotte Observer reports that hoteliers along Ocean Boulevard approached the City of Myrtle Beach in search of pedestrian improvements.  The City agreed to split the cost of mid-block pedestrian crossings with them 50/50. 

A mid-block crossing in North Charleston, located where no stop sign or signal exists to pause through-traffic

The improvements are part of a larger effort to make Ocean Boulevard safer and more accessible for everyone.  Bicycle lanes will replace two automobile lanes and a left-turn lane will be introduced. Mid-block crossings are needed for pedestrians because signalized intersections are currently too few and far between.

Myrtle Beach is perhaps fortunate that it could afford to reduce the number of automobile lanes on Ocean Boulevard. City-commissioned studies, according to staff, reported that pedestrians could not safely cross four lanes of traffic on this street even in a crosswalk. Many communities do not have the luxury of spare automobile travel lanes.  The answer to their challenge is good urban design and appropriate engineering, not to throw in the towel.  State law dictates that motorists stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk. A rebuttal that crosswalks should not be provided because too many motorists fail to yield the right of way is akin to arguing for abolishment of speed limits on account of motorists typically driving 5 mph above the posted limit or of turn signal requirements because too few signalize their intentions.

The Myrtle Beach business community and city government concluded their changes are appropriate because Ocean Boulevard is a destination. Getting travelers safely and conveniently to this place is more important than getting motorists through it. Evidence that good urban design is good for business. Good urban design is good for South Carolina.

Do South Carolinians Dislike Cities?

Posted May 2, 2010 by indigocountry
Categories: In Cities

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Two articles about two South Carolina cities appeared in the Greenville News and The State (Columbia) within a couple days of each other. The State article reports a 28-storey building proposed in downtown Columbia in the vicinity of USC’s Innovista campus. If built, it would be the second tallest building in South Carolina. The article suggests the project could breathe life into the “struggling” research campus.

Meanwhile, the Greenville News calls its minor league baseball stadium in the city’s West End transformative for the Upstate. Fluor Field’s occupants are, of course, the former Capital City Bombers. The article discusses the impact the stadium has had revitalizing the West End and does not question the City government’s investment to attract the stadium.

Some do question government’s place in investing in city centers. The short answer is Detroit. Given that city’s current condition and reputation, how can southeastern Michigan, let alone the city proper, compete to attract private investment, employers, and talent?

In a recent visit to Columbia, I asked aloud, “Why do people dislike Columbia?” My wife’s response: “South Carolinians don’t like cities.” If this is the case, has Greenville successfully overcome it? Most South Carolinians express dislike for Columbia. The most frequent complaints I hear are heat and concrete.

I maintain that Columbia’s a nice city. Its downtown has experienced significant public and private investment, not unlike Greenville. Shandon and Cleveland Park are both beautiful neighborhoods. Are not Harbison Road and Haywood Road virtually indistinguishable? The actual difference in temperature, of course, is small; it’s not as if Greenville is in the mountains like Asheville. The cost of living in both is quite low, especially in comparison to nearby Asheville, Atlanta, Charleston, and Charlotte.

I offer two notable differences: urban design and shade. Greenville has managed to weave its notable improvements into a single path. One can walk from the Bi-Lo Center, under Main Street’s canopy of mature trees shading sidewalk cafes, through Reedy River Park, past the Peace Center, and on to Fluor Field.

Columbia has most of these components: bricked Main Street, Gervais Street dining, Congaree greenway, the Koger Center, the new Colonial Life Arena. The connection missing is physical and literal. The typical visitor to one of Columbia’s destinations rarely experiences the others.  A critical aspect is the width of Assembly and Huger streets.  The less fleet among us walking Gervais cannot cross Assembly in one traffic light cycle.

And secondly, shade? Such a seemingly minor aspect! But shade is at a premium in cities. It mitigates both, the heat and the concrete.
The idea of urban heat island effect is real. A city is measurably hotter than its surroundings due to the increased presence of concrete and asphalt surfaces reflecting sunlight. 

Shaded area, then, is valuable, preceptibly and tangibly valuable. Main Street Greenville’s restaurants earn more profits thanks to pleasurable location and sidewalk dining; not to mention, this translates to higher tax revenues for the City.  Trees reinforce a mere perception of livability. Greenville even has trees planted in the median of I-385, the most important entryway to its downtown.

Shade cannot be introduced to a city overnight, of course. Greenville planted its Main Street trees in the 1970s. Columbia’s younger trees have yet to reap the same benefits.

Oddly, street trees are very difficult to introduce. Some local government engineering departments forbid them in public rights-of-way altogether. State regulators allow very few species and even then places hurdles in front of them. Most new road projects in South Carolina seem to require wide swaths of concrete and asphalt and even wider rights-of-way, in which mature trees are cleared as if they were extraneous to the city. Assembly and Huger might be easier and safer to cross than most new or widened roads across the state.

As South Carolina expands its transportation network and builds its cities and towns, its governments are actively replicating what South Carolinians do not like about Columbia and discarding what they do about Greenville. And doing so at the expense of municipal bottom lines.