Do You Live in a Great Place?

What to say to city leaders who claim the mantle too quickly.

I enjoyed Gracen Johnson’s recent piece on “Up Close and Personal With the Power of 10+.” If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, check out the graphic above—basically, it’s the idea that great cities have 10+ major destinations, 10+ places within each destination, and 10+ things to do in each destination, “layered to create synergy.”

The idea is to make places worth caring about–cities where no matter where you live, people would really miss it if it vanished. The standard actually isn’t all that high—if your city was designed humanely. (A Destination doesn’t have to be Times Square.) Cities used to be designed with the assumption that your neighborhood was a little city within the city, a place that mattered–whether you were rich or poor, whether you worked in a suit or a coverall, whether you were worried about getting your kids into Yale or just getting them a better life than you’d known.

Thing is, a lot of newer places weren’t designed that way.

This was reinforced to me recently when my family visited from out of state. They don’t really enjoy alcohol or coffee, which in fairness would be buckshot to the foot for most cities. They’d already done three of the top four touristy things to do in my area. There are only a few local restaurants that are good enough to brag about to out-of-towners. And it rained the whole time my folks visited, which knocked out the hiking trails and parks.

(This was a huge problem in our case, since Colorado Springs leaders basically use wild outdoor space as the sole justification for the city being a great place to live. I actually witnessed a mayoral debate in which a young person asked the two runoff candidates what they wanted to do to make the city a better place to live for young people…and both of their answers basically amounted to a baffled, “Well, this is a great place to live—we have PARKS!”).

Since 90% of my city is either sprawling bedroom communities or sprawling strip malls with chains, my family and I learned the hard way just how banal the place can be once you eliminate the top couple Things To Do. We made the best of it, but we played a lot of board games, and we definitely considered going to see a movie they’d already seen. Once we’d played out the rapidly improving but still small downtown, and hit up one or two remaining tourist spots, there was little we did with my family that they couldn’t have done at home.

By contrast, I visited friends last week in the Washington Park neighborhood of Denver (Colorado Springs lovers hate being contrasted with Denver, but until they pay attention…). I’m sure it’s not perfect, and it’s still more suburb-ish than not. But it has a lovely city park at one end where loads of people seem to hang out (they were starting up their summer volleyball leagues when I was there). And it’s got a single-block “downtown” with a nice pub and pizza place, coffee and ice cream shop, dry cleaners, etc.–stores that cater to the locals’ regular needs, not those of tourists. Honestly, if I lived there I’d probably walk to 70% of the things I needed on a regular basis. And sure enough, my friends told me, the neighbors tend to know each other. The Wash Park neighborhood is expensive–but that kind of living wouldn’t be, if we treated every neighborhood like it mattered (the reason places like this get expensive is because they’re rare and people instinctively love them).

Yesterday, I filled out an online survey my own city government was running to get feedback on budget priorities. It used lots of jargon. It talked about attracting big companies to town, and thank God, one or two important things like road maintenance. What it didn’t talk about was making the city a wonderful place to live; evolving Places Worth Caring About–it reduced real things like community and beauty and the awesome new businesses on Tejon Street to fake things like “affordable housing,” “features,” and “growth.” It was mostly (though not entirely) concerned with incremental improvements of efficiency on brain-dead policies the city already had, like the eastward sprawl that will, by the time I send my first child to college, probably mean a short plane flight to get to any part of the city that is worth visiting (or living in).

What I like about the 10+ rule is it could be applied even to midsize cities with smaller budgets—and even one that settled for a 5+ rule would probably be phenomenal place to live.

How well does your home stack up using the 10+ rule? If your city’s leaders are unimaginative enough that they think another McMansion development is good because of the short-term revenue boost, or that getting a big corporation to build an ugly office building at the outskirts of town equals economic growth, try finding ways to make your voice heard. Most city officials are good people doing their best, but it’s easy to get lost in the weeds when the people who want a place worth loving don’t poke their heads in with some ideas and input.

Oh, and if you actually know some city leaders, try to make the Strong Towns blog mandatory reading for them.

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