Great Cities Listen to their Citizens- The Nature of Cities

My review of three books that encourage citizen-led design: Great Cities Grow from Great Spaces and Listening to their Citizens – The Nature of Cities


I’m sorely disappointed in how many French Quarter/CBD business and property owners have outlawed bike parking on their gallery poles and are now threatening to cut or pour glue in locks that do park there. This is an assault on those of us who do our best to not over use heavy vehicles that damage those same buildings, as well as those who travel to the Qtr to work at low-paying jobs in service to all of us. Many riders start or finish their work day while most of us are in bed and then are being forced to walk blocks to find a safe place to lock their bicycle, further endangering their safety. Isn’t it better to have constant “eyes on the street” than a bike-free post for someone else to leave their discarded go cup balanced on or to pee against? What’s more is that few of those who have outlawed parking at their building do anything to get more racks or try to find ways to share the streets with us. And many of those here who have needlessly declared war on their human-powered neighbors are tsk-tsking over the actions of the government against DAPL protesters – how will we actually have a future that requires less of these actions you ask? Well, maybe by encouraging walkable/bikeable streets and using public transportation when necessary. I am very saddened by this turn of events among my neighbors.  And no, I do not need nor will allow any bashing of bicyclists here. Of course there are those among us who don’t move their bikes every 10 hours (so precious eyes don’t have to look upon someone else’s property touching theirs) or who ride in such a way as to make it harder for others, but the majority of us who do our best to be fair and careful are the ones who really suffer with these punitive actions. Design your actions in that direction instead. 

Celebrate Jane Jacobs today

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great writer, activist and thinker and so we should celebrate her impact on planning, on sustainable economies and on local sovereignty.

I found her writing in the mid-1990s, aright before I moved to Akron Ohio. If you haven’t been, it is a city that lost a great deal of its small town feel during the bad ol’ days of “urban renewal” with a highway plunked down right at the edge of downtown and massive “disinvestment” (read empty factories and offices) left by the large corporations that had ruled there for generations. By the time I was there, it had become a sleepy bedroom community for folks who commuted 40 minutes north to Cleveland. I also noted the ironic abundance of hiking paths in the gorgeous Cuyahoga Valley National Park that is the area’s greatest jewel, and yet the lack of appealing ways to walk or bike around the actual city. I found Akron lovely, but lonely.  I couldn’t help the constant refrain in my head of Chrissie Hynde’s “My City Was Gone” about her hometown of Akron and her description of how:

There was no train station
There was no downtown
South Howard had disappeared
All my favorite places
My city had been pulled down
Reduced to parking spaces
A, o, way to go Ohio”


I had become interested in planning and how humans move through the built space while previously living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the neighborhood of Shadyside. My apartment was above the five and dime store (still run by the daughter of the original couple) and had lovely bay windows overlooking the commercial street. I would sit there to read and smoke and watch people move about below. As I sat there, I wondered if banning cars on Walnut would benefit it, or would it encourage more residents with cars if they reduced the number of meters. I noted the superior bus system around town and was dumbfounded when they built a freestanding department store in downtown, and even more so when it was immediately supported by workers and residents willing to travel where they had to park or catch a bus and walk to shop. (Interestingly, the city’s economic health took a nose dive soon after my exit from the city and now is just beginning to right itself again, and that department store which has been empty is being developed into something new.)

As always, when I became interested in a subject I searched for as many books I could find about it;  I first found “City” by William Whyte and then  found “The Death and LIfe of Great American Cities.” I devoured them both but after reading Jacobs, I felt as if I had found a teacher. Her practical and direct writing illustrated how human activity and personal interaction should matter when thinking about cities and how the cultural, ecological and economic systems must be designed to work together for the person and not the city manager or the egoist planner and all of lit a fire in my soul. One reason for that immediate attraction to her writing was the deep respect she had for local rule. I knew I had met a fellow activist and one that shared a disdain for unnecessary formality or hierarchy:  Why separate people from sidewalk activity with elevated versions?  Why separate stores from living space? Why separate production from where people live or work? Why ban informal vending in cities? Why add highways where none are necessary?

After Akron, I moved back to New Orleans where I had lived as a teen and through my early 20s. Even though I had been mostly raised in Cleveland, it was New Orleans that had always felt most like home, and a city I always knew I would return to live at some point. Turns out, that point was the year 2000 and at first I moved back to the French Quarter where my mother lived for many years. Of course, Jacobs and Whyte’s teachings echoed in my head as I walked through every block of it, noting the tiny sidewalks full of amblers and walkers, balconies and galleries that shielded a passerby from the afternoon rain and encouraged musicians and shoeshiners to set up shop below. The corner grocery store and drugstores served the community well and while the remaining hardware store had a more upscale feel, it was still a very good place to buy nails or screen repair kits. It was fortifying to be back.

In 2005, the destruction of the city in August at the hands of the shoddy levee management meant that everyone in the city was thinking and talking design and planning and that the next years of recovery were thrilling and scary and collaborative and polarizing and so much more. As residents, we failed our city in many ways during that time, allowing the destruction of our old but useful hospital in order to build a shiny new one 2 blocks away for a billion plus dollars. We allowed the destruction of all available public housing, originally built in the 1940s in townhouse style to build new versions in townhouse style but in wood and not brick this time around. (Of course, the upending of those living there during the years of redevelopment was the point of the entire exercise and has broken up communities and families as expected and pushed the workers of the city  far from where the actual work is located.)

Developers have a strong hold over many of our areas now and investors “from away” have taken hold of large swaths of housing stock to either sit on them empty while waiting for the best return to come along, or changed the feel of the area to something new that has little to do with what is also there or even worse, has kicked out scores of residents to offer entire blocks of short-term rentals to visitors only. There is much more that has been a result of this era being forced upon us, but most relative to this post was the constant refrain in so many heads as we fought it, “What would Jane Jacobs do? What would she say?” In some cases, her observations and teachings have stopped some very bad examples of city planning, added some excellent collaborative work on water management for example and in other cases the inherent activism found in New Orleans then and since simply dovetail nicely with her descriptions of city life when done well.

It was also interesting that during the early days of recovery, the French Quarter became home to thousands more residents as it was untouched by the levee breaks and could absorb those who needed a place to sleep and eat and meet while they worked on their homes in other parts of town. The hustle and bustle of it in those months was thrilling as these 80 or so blocks continued to operate like a well-oiled clock and easily support everyone who needed to be there. Even after many of those folks moved back to their own areas, the comfort of the city center still appealed to many and residential numbers increased between 2000-2010. I am one such resident as my move to the Bayou St. John area of the city turned out to be temporary for the years right before and after 2005 and now I find myself back in the Quarter, I hope for good this time.

The truth is that the Quarter will never return to the population numbers of its zenith, but neither will the Marigny or Central City. The style of living has changed ghettos like the Quarter to single home living or by offering small apartments to a single person where once an entire family lived in the same space. Even though it is fashionable for many New Orleans “super-natives” (see explanation of the term at end of post)  to again complain about the Quarter, the truth is it still works for thousands of residents and workers and visitors and more. It is vibrant all day and all night. It has cars and delivery trucks and buses using its tiny streets, even while sharing space with mule-driven carriages, bikers, skateboarders and drunks. People meet on the street and talk, and they come out to wash their sidewalk and note activity while doing so. They talk to the meter maids and to the guy who hustles for a buck to help workers close up at night. Yes, even in a modern city and time a place designed originally for pedestrians and those living and working in the same space is still incredibly useful. And Jane Jacobs predicted it.

So  even though the Quarter may not still serve the same purpose it did in 2005-2008 or in 1905, it still matters. This city center doesn’t have to remain the Italian neighborhood or hold all of the chicory coffee stands or all of the city’s music clubs to remain necessary. It is allowed to change and adapt as long as it contains “the seeds of its own regeneration” and does its darn best to hold the “unaverage” among the regular better than any other neighborhood.

Jane Jacobs affirmed that for me. So happy Jane Jacobs Day, my fellow Quarterites- I expect to see you on the sidewalk soon.



2 of her many books, always nearby.



Google’s homage to JJ today

• From Richard Campanella’s essay: Transplants arrive endeavoring to be a part of the epic adventure of living here; thus, through the process of self-selection, they tend to be Orleaneophilic “super-natives.” They embrace Mardi Gras enthusiastically, going so far as to form their own krewes and walking clubs (though always with irony, winking in gentle mockery at old-line uptown krewes). They celebrate the city’s culinary legacy, though their tastes generally run away from fried okra and toward “house-made beet ravioli w/ goat cheese ricotta mint stuffing” (I’m citing a chalkboard menu at a new Bywater restaurant, revealingly named Suis Generis, “Fine Dining for the People;” see Figure 2). And they are universally enamored with local music and public festivity, to the point of enrolling in second-line dancing classes and taking it upon themselves to organize jazz funerals whenever a local icon dies.



My take on this take on Jane Jacobs and New Orleans

Post in The Lens by urban critic Roberta Brandes Gratz:


My response:

I always appreciate Roberta’s take on things, even though I think that she (and The Lens) sometimes rely on a narrative that is preservation precious, meaning it focuses on historic corridors and “worthy” buildings over a real housing criticism. Her exultation over the neighborhood corridor boom is a bit odd when in New Orleans, neighborhood mom and pops simply never went away but instead brought back after the levee breaks whiter and trendier than before.
Maybe the real issue is the feeling I often have that too many people still have a vision in their head of a return to the halcyon days of Main Street America, circa 1950, and expect city hall to deliver us a version of that, even though our lives and shopping have changed completely. That thinking limits the potential of old corridors and gives tacit approval to keep them empty until someone can redevelop them as before rather than re-imagining storefronts as low-income rental units or as rooms for unhoused population or shared workspaces or (gasp) even green space where buildings were before.

However, Roberta was spot on in her early assessment of the new hospital zone – about it being a developers boondoggle and about offering those jokers retail leases at ground floor and not about a better hospital than Charity.  That one of its aims wasto kill the street retail of Canal Street of one type by moving it to Tulane and likely make the old street filled with very exclusive shops and hotels- that is already coming to pass.
She is right about the code busting happening at City Hall: the new CZO is a joke. A form-based approach to zoning would be much more appropriate to our city than what we got.
The argument about streetcars is sort of lame, as the Rampart line going to Poland was stymied by the railroad and not by local policy or willingness, and the lack of public transportation is a deep and long problem that is not changed by that type of investment that involves streetcars which are clearly for the visitor.

Of course I am annoyed by her ignoring the French Quarter, my neighborhood, which is still a neighborhood and pound for pound the most active, diverse and mixed use area in the city in any 24-hour period; yes we have millions of visitors in our midst, but also have a somewhat steady population since K (and the changes correlate to the Orleans Parish census), more residents than the Marigny, or Bayou St. John or some other areas. We got our problems and some of them like development (or an overemphasis on festival culture!) are getting worse like every other area, but don’t dismiss us just ‘cuz that is the “supernative” thing to do when talking about New Orleans!

Since she was a many-times return visitor who then bought a home (although I think she may have since sold it) I am surprised at her toss off of the short-term rental issue. It seems to me it requires a thoughtful approach by thinkers like her, as she must know that it has allowed many homeowners to keep their house here and to do repairs and new residents to decide where to buy, and so when used well by principal homeowners, this system can be a boon.

But let’s give her writing the credit it is due: “Jacobs did not try to dictate how things ought to be; she wasn’t prescriptive..Local wisdom, she found, is where the best ideas for change take root. They don’t come from political leaders, planning professionals, developers or credentialed experts.” This is so right and because it is what I try to do in my work, I am glad to see it written so beautifully and simply.


(another response I posted the same day to a VCPORA story in the Advocate on lower population in the Quarter since 2000):

First, according to the Data Center, the numerical changes in our FQ neighborhood correlate to the dip in the entire parish. Second, those changes have a lot to do with the love affair planners and neighborhood associations have with encouraging massive single home renovations over incentivizing real mixed use. And the resident and business associations allowing heavy trucks in by just paying a small fee, actively discouraging bike or scooter parking, allowing film and festival culture to take over our area constantly are part of the problem residents have to overcome. Here are some things associations can do right now to swing the pendulum the other way: work to incentivize rent controlled apartments by offering tax breaks to those homeowners who have little used property (including upper floors of commercial buildings, especially on Chartres, Decatur and Canal), walk to find and fine those who hang key boxes on their gate that indicate illegal STR units, create a citizen reporting app to allow FT residents to file complaints immediately and directly about code violations and stop focusing on tshirt shop raids and instead focus on adding amenities that residents care about.

Walking, French Quarter style 101, Part One

One of the reasons that I started this particular blog was to help decipher what makes the Quarter special enough to be studied for designing cities in the future. No question that living here allows me to see some details up close that might be missed even by frequent visits.
Here is one:
How people walk on city streets runs the gamut from “savvy New Yorker” to “Wyoming cowboy” to “Ohio suburban family” and beyond and let me tell you, these do not always mesh well.
I’ll say firmly at the outset I am not using any of those terms in a derogatory manner. Each style has their reason for existing and their appropriate place. I’m just saying that it is amazing to watch them all coexist on the tiny streets of the Quarter over a New Year’s Eve/Sugar Bowl weekend.
First, here’s some background on me and walking. I grew up first in a walkable town outside of Cleveland that recently won praise as one of the few places where kids still walk to school and, that the city of 52,000 has 9,000 residents per square mile, which (according to some) makes it the most densely populated town between Chicago and New York City. That news was a a happy surprise to me.
However, once I started to travel around the US in the 1980s, I did pick up on the fact that my hometown was definitely different. So, I tell you all of that to stress that I had walked miles daily as a kid and if not on foot, was on bike or skateboard (i.e. human power) maybe 90% of the time and therefore, was not a novice to walking as a primary mode of transportation.

Even so, when I moved to the Quarter with my New Orleans mom, it immediately became clear that I needed to “up my game.” Honestly, it felt like I was dropped into a horse race without blinders or was a salmon swimming upstream for the first few months. Whew! I still remember navigating Royal and Bourbon sidestepping drunks, tourists while slowly making friends with the buskers and workers and realizing I was on display too.
I learned. I learned the hard way, by being pushed off the sidewalk by a tourist suddenly making a veer to the left and I learned from being accosted more than once by The Bead Lady or the Chicken Man, two of our many street characters because I did not see them coming and ended up right in front of them.

or being cursed up and down by Ruthie the Duck Lady as I jumped into her lane as she skated by (I once saw her gaily sing, “MOTHERfucker, MOTHERfucker, MOTHERfucker” with ducks in tow for about 3-4 blocks at the top of her lungs to the horror of the passersby.)


Umm. this is NOT a vintage picture of me stepping in Ruthie’s way, although this woman has a strong Midwestern vibe…

By the 3rd month, I had almost perfected the route through the Quarter which allowed me to move FAST and yet to see my neighbors and pals on my way to school in the CBD. Let me see, it went:
OUT of the door in the 900 block of St. Philip, stay on the Uptown side to skip the smells from Matassa’s bar
STAY on the Uptown side for the next block to escape the hard looks from the nuns at the Mother Cabrini Day Nursery in the 800 block of St. Philip
SWING over to the downtown side for a block to walk along the McDonogh 15 schoolyard (as seen in King Creole, Elvis’ best movie by the way.)
TURN right down Royal and walk on the lake side to look into the bookstore windows and waste too much time on this
MAKE a right on Orleans (checking the St. Louis Cathedral clock first to my left) to get the advantage of the widest street and see the feral cat population before
HANGING a left on Bourbon to take advantage of the cleanest sidewalks as each business had a guy come and hose the sidewalk first thing and then a
MEANDER to the left at St. Louis to see my pals who worked at the hotels on either side of the street and a
RIGHT on Royal to pass by Sloppy Jim’s on the left and Keil’s Antiques on the right to wave to the bartenders/early am regulars and to Jill respectively.
Bending against the wind on upper Royal, avoiding the grumpy doormen at Monteleone (their peers at the Royal Orleans and Royal Sonesta were chattier) and to see Tony the Grey Line Tours guy out front of the Walgreen’s at Iberville for a daily handshake
CROSS Canal,follow St. Charles to Poydras, firmly holding my piece of the concrete against the businessmen who want the entire seersuckin’ street to finally go
LEFT on Carondelet to L.E. Rabouin High School.
On the way home, mostly I veered off Bourbon in the Conti block and headed down Burgundy to see all of the old people on their stoops along the way. Boy do I miss them.

Let me say that I got so good at moving through (head down and a few extra hops to get ahead when moving back to the sidewalk from the street) that I actually have walked past my own mom heading the other way with HER head down and her keys in hand and only knew I had done it when friends with me said, “hey wasn’t that your mom back there?”

So all of that to lay the groundwork for why this three-part post about walking on city streets.

Here are the generalities in no particular order:
•There is a difference from walking in the Quarter on any weekday from any weekend. The amount of truck traffic during the week is so much higher and I have noticed that the presence of trucks tend to push people to the wall side of the sidewalk. They also watch the street crossings a little more carefully. AND since the number of mule-drawn buggies is exponentially increased on weekends, it also has the impact of slowing traffic and encouraging too many people to walk in the still auto-trafficked streets and puts them in danger.
•Europeans are never surprised when you pass them from the side.
•Many people do not take in account the barriers they will have on a sidewalk until the very last moment.
•Amateur photographers are uneasy when you pause on the sidewalk to let them take the photo and often will stop taking pictures when you motion for them to continue, even as you explain you don’t mind waiting for a minute. In fact, they often grow resentful-that is, except for many Japanese tourists; they appreciate it and wave or nod in thanks when done.
•A point shared by my neighbor and pal Evelyn-smart phone photography has encouraged endless indiscriminate photography and has seriously amped up the people standing in the middle of the block looking at the balcony through their electronic eye.
•Additionally, smart phone mapping has reduced the number of people who ask for directions or who orient themselves before heading out to tour and added to that clump of people on every street corner, looking down at their electronic mother. Honestly, I think all hotel and retail folks should be trained to encourage people to come in and ask questions and to use their smart phones in there rather than risk robbery on the street.
•The Segway tours are (mercifully) coming to an end it seems and we have returned en force to walking tours with gallant guides who remind their charges to leave room for passersby. Good- because those Segways were just accidents waitin to happen.
•Bicyclists riding the wrong way for more than a half of a block are a menace to everyone.
•We need to add permanent signs for drivers saying “leave 3 feet to the right” for cyclists and to stop at intersections only when a red octagonal sign signals you to stop.
•No one in Louisiana knows to stop when someone is in a crosswalk.
•People’s inability to navigate city streets can be foretold in their line-forming talent (or lack of it) in stores or in their level of parallel parking skill. (Walking is really about firm decision-making and spatial perception, in other words.)

•The idea of closing Royal during the day and Bourbon at night is very good and should be increased. Get delivery trucks in before 10 am and expand the pedestrian only streets to a few Uptown/Downtown streets. I truly doubt that any of the businesses on either have
suffered because of lack of auto traffic, and would say they actually see a significant benefit. •Wilkinson should be Busker Alley for the evenings as my pal, the Grand Duchess has suggested, and maybe even add Decatur between Bienville and Iberville as another busker area in the evening. Close them, paint musical symbols on the street and allow performers to work for 4 hours before moving to another spot. Allow some street food too on those streets, get rid of the few parking spots and add permanent stools for perching and maybe even some garden beds there.
• They should have more street-facing short benches on Royal and Chartres for people to take a breather. Put markings that they cannot be taken over by buskers or they will incur a 100 dollar fine.
• Add slightly elevated wood lifeguard style chairs on some corners for cops to sit in during evening hours. Incentivize homeowners to add cameras and connect them to Project Nola.
• Add some shade trees in large buckets every few blocks on either side of streets.
• Give awards to those businesses that offer dog bowls, outside seating or that take off the “don’t” signs on their gallery posts. And those with embedded spikes on their steps-shame on you. Just put a strong light or flower pots there instead or, even better, SIT there in the evening and then just hose them off in the morning.

Part 2: What William Whyte and Jane Jacobs taught me about city streets.