Imagining Great Cities

I was talking last week with a bicycle guy who lives in the Twin Cities, not far from where Jan and I used to live in south Minneapolis.  He mentioned that the old neighborhood now has cachet, so I Googled it. Sure enough

34th Avenue South and 50th Street East, Minneapolis. Photo-CityPages

34th Avenue South and 50th Street East, Minneapolis. Photo-CityPages

Others might be surprised that this very ordinary looking neighborhood is hot.  I’m not.   Jan and I always knew that there was greatness here.  It’s not the kind of greatness that some people see in skylines and sports stadiums.  No, this greatness is 100% about connectivity, accessibility, bicycling, walking, active transportation and living close to home.  It’s vibrant in ways that most people will never understand unless they have the pleasure of living in such a place.

Minneapolis isn’t the only great city we’ve lived in.  We were in Denver (metro) in the early 1980s.  It might surprise some people to learn that Denver was falling apart at that time.  The oil boom went bust and some questionable lending practices resulted in over 20,000 foreclosures metro-wide.  You couldn’t sell a house at that time and many were simply abandoned.  There was a horrible brown cloud of air pollution that descended over the city every winter.   It was ugly.

In 1983, Denver voters threw out the old and brought in the new.  They elected a young, Hispanic mayor from south Texas named Federico Peña who ran on a platform of rebuilding the city from the ground up.  Peña understood marketing and so he exhorted Denver to “imagine a great city.”  Then he went out and led the effort to create one.  On his watch, the city committed to a new airport and was awarded a major league baseball team.

But Peña also led an effort to rebuilt roads and libraries, added performing arts centers and other enhancements to make Denver more livable.  To his credit, a lot of the money went to neighborhoods and, as a result, Denver remains a city of very vibrant neighborhoods served by active transportation.

I say remains because even way back in the 1980s  you could easily get around Denver by bicycle.  Our last home was on the urban fringe (at that time) in Aurora’s Mission Viejo neighborhood.  It was 13 miles from downtown, easily accessible via the Cherry Creek Greenway and numerous surface streets. Along the way, the route passed through Glendale and the Cherry Creek neighborhood at First Avenue and University Boulevard.  I rode downtown often.

Mission Viejo Colorado. Bike Friendly Suburbia. Photo-Google Maps

Mission Viejo Colorado. Bike Friendly Suburbia. Photo-Google Maps

Buckley Road looking north. The strip centers on this corner are made accessible from the rear to pedestrians and cyclists, eliminating the need to navigate parking lots or busy streets.

Buckley Road looking north. The strip centers on this corner are accessible from the rear to pedestrians and cyclists, eliminating the need to navigate parking lots or busy streets.

I could also cycle everywhere in my neighborhood.  There was a commercial node at Chambers Road and Hampden Avenue and later a second at Buckley and Quincy.  All told, there were five to six suburban strip centers on these corners with grocery stores, hardware stores, banks, restaurants, everything you needed and they were all built in a way that connected them with the surrounding neighborhoods.  They were easily and safely accessible by bicycle or on foot.

In many ways, Mission Viejo and Minneapolis could not have been more different, but in ways that most mattered they were very similar.  There was a commitment in both places to the neighborhoods where people actually live.  This included a focus on active transportation and living closer to home.  You could say the same about Portland where neighborhoods from the Pearl to Sellwood make living life a joy.

These places, both urban and suburban, had a street level vibrancy that simply does not exist in places where cars rule.  This manifests itself in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways.

Ogden has a true intermodal transit center that includes rail, bus and active transportation components. It is located right in the revitalized heart of the city.

Ogden has a true intermodal transit center that includes rail, bus and active transportation components. It is located right in the revitalized heart of the city.

Amer Sports headquarters, downtown Ogden. An easy place to access via active transportation.

Amer Sports headquarters, downtown Ogden. An easy place to access via active transportation.

As Jan and I looked for a new place to call home earlier this year, this was the prism we held places up to.  We didn’t even know we were doing it until after it was done.  We thought about going back to these and other places we’ve lived previously, but many are so expensive now as to no longer be affordable.  We thought about other, less expensive places but most of these are big box wastelands and that’s just not where we want to spend our golden years.  Then we stumbled into Ogden…

One of the benefits of old age seasoning is that if you’re paying attention you begin to recognize patterns from a past life. There have been at least two times in my life when I’ve had the good fortune to live in great cities that have integrated active transportation elements into day to day life.  Both times I took my eyes off of what was important and left.

This looks familiar.  This feels similar.  Fool my twice, shame on me.  I won’t be fooled again.  Life is better when lived in vibrant, connected places where biking and walking rule.

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