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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Rural Decline or Rural Urbanism

Downtown Hesperia showing its rural decline.

Downtown Hesperia showing its rural decline.

Cailie and I headed back to my hometown of Grand Rapids, MI to visit my family for the holidays. While we were there, I decided to take her through some of the small towns in Northern Michigan and out to the lake (I almost said shore which certainly shows the effect of living in NJ). We stopped in the towns of Newaygo and Hesperia. Newaygo (pop 1,976) is a 45 minute drive outside of Grand Rapids. It has a commercial strip along and an industrial park near the intersection of two state highways. Down the hill, in the Muskegon River Valley, are a series of grain silos, a rail line and the historic downtown. The downtown has a couple of restaurants, antique shops and its own beef jerky shop. Given the urban amenities along with  great outdoors opportunities including hunting, canoeing, fishing and boating, Newaygo is a very cool town. Hesperia (pop 954) on the other hand is not. Hesperia has many of the same outdoor opportunities as in Newaygo, but is in much worse condition. In this town, the main street is lined with vacant commercial buildings. A grocery store and post office seem to be doing well, but everything else about the town seems to be in a state of decay. Continue reading


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Can the Vancouver Style fix Newark’s Parking Crater?

Last week, I wrote about some pretty bad urban design developments in Jersey City. While looking at google maps, I noticed the development around the Newport PATH station and decided it would be worth exploring. I met my girlfriend Cailie at the PATH station to have a waterfront picnic as well as a chance to explore this recently developed urban neighborhood. During this time, I noticed several things

Urban Cul-De-Sacs

The southern section of River Drive in Jersey City has towers clustered around auto oriented cul-de-sacs.

The southern section of River Drive in Jersey City has towers clustered around auto oriented cul-de-sacs.

Along the southern section of River Drive, residential towers are clustered around cul-de-sacs. These cul-de-sacs offer building front drop-off and access to structured parking. In the middle of the cul-de-sacs are mini parks that offer seating for residents. At the entrance to the cul-de-sac is a wide gap between buildings and walking through one of these areas, one can tell that they were primarily designed for the automobile. Sidewalks are effectively cut off by entrances and exits to the garages. The wide entrances remove any sense of enclosure that is essential for good urban design. Along River Drive, these buildings offer ground level retail and restaurants, but in a disjointed fashion. It appears that this is an attempt to create a better pedestrian experience on River Drive, but unfortunately it fails at this goal. Continue reading


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Improving Downtown Newark

Newarks Gateway Center-1930-2012

The area of Newark’s Gateway Center in 1930 (left) and 2012 (right).

The city of Newark, NJ is receiving renewed interest after years of decline. This is not the first wave of re-investment in the city after the 1967 riots, but it happening under different circumstances. When the Gateway Center was built, urban renewal was an auto-centric retreat from city life. Though the gateway center is connected to Newark Penn Station by an architecturally parasitic skywalk, much of the commuting is by car. There are a couple of parking garages associated with the Gateway Center as well as numerous surface parking lots (According to the 2012 Master Plan, within a half a mile of Penn Station, there are more than 20 acres of surface parking lots). The streetscape along the Gateway Center is one of the worst in the city. Here, transit riders could walk on the sidewalk from Newark Penn to their downtown jobs, but between the hostile built environment of Market Street and the welcoming environment of the skywalk, much of the pedestrian travel avoids the street. This style of development is no longer acceptable and threatens to hamper Newark’s renewed growth as an urban hub. Continue reading


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Urban Design in the Hudson Valley

Downtown Saugerties on a busy Saturday afternoon.

Downtown Saugerties on a busy Saturday afternoon.

Recently, my girlfriend and I took a trip up to the Catskill area of New York to attend her brother’s graduation. We stayed in Phoenicia and took some time to explore other nearby towns.

Phoenicia

Phoenicia (Pop 299) is a cute touristy town at the junction of the Stony Clove Creek with the Esopus Creek. This town suffered serious damage during Hurricane Irene in 2011. It has a nice main street, but doesn’t seem to maximize the benefit of its proximity to the creeks.

Saugerties

Saugerties (Pop 3,959) is located at the mouth of the Esopus Creek as it enters the Hudson River. This town has a much more developed downtown area. Shops are clustered on Partition Street and parts of Main Street. An overly wide and car-centric intersection at Market St. and Main St. cuts off a potential extension of this shopping district along Market Street. While it is not unsafe to walk to, the presence of parking lots at the intersection and the additional lane to accommodate higher speed turns creates the feeling that pedestrians are not welcome. Some traditional traffic calming measures in this intersection as well as a couple of pedestrian friendly buildings on the corners would improve the pedestrian atmosphere significantly and allow for this extension of the downtown area. A return to a pedestrian focus has already begun in Saugerties and can be seen in a great conversion of an old gas station/car service center into a restaurant. Continue reading


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Small Streets

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Lombard and 4th in Philadelphia

Small streets are essential for the success of cities. While this is applicable to the street’s entire Right of Way, in this post I focus on the cartway; the area dedicated to automobiles. The ultimate key here is to make streets safer and more enjoyable for pedestrians. Continue reading


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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