the urban prospector

Searching for Golden Opportunities in America's Cities


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A City is a Machine for Creating Networks.

IMG_5835-sHow can someone determine whether or not a use is good for an urban setting? What makes one use better than another? Is this simply an issue of preference, or is there a framework of analysis that can be used to make this determination?

Urban areas are incredibly important. They are hubs of commerce, culture and knowledge. Throughout history, vibrant cities haven’t simply been a hub for one or the other, but rather they tend to come together. Ancient Greece contained several bustling harbor cities with traders coming from across the Mediterranean; markets full of goods and throngs of customers. Greece was also the site of the greatest learning and knowledge; discoveries included the Pythagorean Theorem and the first calculation of the diameter of the Earth. Simultaneously there was also a great amount of literature and drama, including the Iliad and the Odyssey. Continue reading


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Why I Oppose Urban Farming

This farm in Chicago could be put to a better use leading to a more environmentally friendly and energy efficient city. (picture from thegreenhorns.wordpress.com)

This farm in Chicago could be more environmentally friendly and energy efficient if the land was used for development.
(picture from thegreenhorns.wordpress.com)

It hit the news recently that a vertical farm is coming to the Ironbound. The City of Newark, RBH Group, AeroFarms and the Ironbound Community Corporation are working together to repurpose an industrial site next to the Ironbound Recreation Center into a 69,000 square foot vertical farm. I have mixed feelings about this project, which I will elaborate upon over the next few posts, but I like what’s been happening in Newark recently, I like the work that RBH Group has done here and have a lot of respect for the ICC (I worked out of their offices for about 10 months and they do a lot of great work from general social services to education to environmental protection).

I have a serious problem with urban agriculture. Just to clarify, I have no problem with urban gardening or community gardens. I would much prefer to see a personal garden than the traditional lawn and community gardens provide open space and help create a sense of communities in neighborhoods. My problem is with industrial scale agriculture in urban areas. With the exception of a handful of cities, such as Detroit, there are better uses for land than agriculture.

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Small Storefronts Result in Resilient Retail

This shop is the result of a combination of two pre-existing retail spaces. If this store falls on hard times, it can shrink into one half of the space leaving another small storefront available for a new tenant.

This shop is the result of a combination of two pre-existing retail spaces (notice the structural support running down the middle of the store). If this store falls on hard times, it can shrink into one half of the space leaving another small storefront available for a new tenant.

With the current recovery and reurbanization of the US, there is a lot of construction in old industrial cities and suburbs that are looking to be more dense and walkable. As can be seen in places like Jersey City, the retail component of these buildings often involves larger spaces. This poses a challenge because it sets a higher threshold that a business has to cross before it can afford to rent the space. It is much cheaper to rent 500 square feet than 1000 square feet. There are two problems that result from this. First, there is a smaller pool of businesses that can afford to rent such a place. Typically these are larger more established companies and often are larger chains. Secondly, these larger spaces make it more difficult for a new company to get a foothold in the market. Continue reading


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Plan for Replacement

One of the several small shops next to available space in the Grand Rapids Downtown Market. The ability to rent kitchen space as well as retail space as small as 100 square feet is allowing new companies to be created.

One of the several small shops next to available space in the Grand Rapids Downtown Market. The ability to rent kitchen space as well as retail space as small as 100 square feet is allowing new companies to be created.

Everything comes to an end. The dinosaurs of the Jurassic, the Pony Express, Google, and even the chair I’m sitting on either have or will come to an end; if I do not have a replacement for my chair when its time is up, I will be left sitting uncomfortably on the floor. Organizations will falter. Businesses, no matter how well run, will at some point in time fail. Bands will break up. Even the most powerful and respected organizations will at some time cease to exist. Atrophy is universal. In the long run, preservation will not work: the only long term strategy is replacement.

While replacement has different requirements depending on what needs to be replaced, it is almost always an incremental process. Multi-national corporations do not appear overnight. Bands, even the most corporately devised, have small beginnings. Effective community organizations take years to grow into an established force. Rather than focusing on creating large existing organizations, there needs to be a focus on creating the right conditions for small organizations to emerge and organize. The best way to do this is to remove barriers to entry.  Barriers to entry, is defined by Investopedia as “The existence of high start-up costs or other obstacles that prevent new competitors from easily entering an industry or area of business.” Barriers to entry can be removed or lessened in many different ways. Continue reading


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Breaking the Asylum

There were a great number of horrible things done to cities in the 1950’s and 1960’s that today reverberate like hallucinations. In a rush to force space age modernist solutions onto cities, whole neighborhoods were destroyed. While almost every town has one such area, some places are truly exemplary. Albany, NY, is one such place. While Callie and I were on an anniversary trip in the Catskills, we decided to explore the state capitol of New York.

State Offices

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Prioritizing Pedestrians

While writing in further depth about the benefit of the small for cities, I realized that I had glossed over a bedrock principle of my view of urbanism: pedestrian priority. Why should streets be made small? For pedestrians. Why should shops be made small? Pedestrians. Why the hell should we care about pedestrians? Pedestrians. It’s worthwhile to explain why pedestrians are important before arguing that they make other issues important. How do pedestrians benefit society? Continue reading


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Small Thinking For Great Cities

Often times there are parallels that are found between nature and human society. An easy example is evolution which has been used when analyzing music, cultures, technology and business. A conceptual parallel that I would like to explore in depth is the importance of the small. Hydrogen is the smallest atom, yet it accounts for 75% of the elemental mass of the observable universe. It takes a lot of energy to build heavier elements, which means the lighter elements are not only more common, but they also make up a larger portion of the mass of the universe. In the biome, bacteria is likely to make up at the same mass as all plants and animals. There is more competitive space among small organisms than large organisms. Small particles are more reactive than lager ones. While grain is relatively inert, grain dust can cause major explosions. The greater the ratio of surface area to volume, the greater the reactivity. Continue reading