The future of human-susatainable design

If you've spent 35 minutes driving three-quarters of a mile along Bridge Street in Syracuse the past 18 months, you've probably found yourself just putting your car in park on a 4-lane road to save yourself the over $4-a-gallon gas. From what I understand, it really has been a bad scene over there. I say "from what I understand," because, despite its convenience to work, I just won't take that route unless I'm certain there's no traffic.

One of the things I have noticed going in as part of that larger project is sidewalks. And I just can't be mad at any project that adds sidewalks to a commercial area, especially a commercial area near residential areas, and especially a commercial area with lots of parking lots.

Sidewalks mean that if you live nearby, you can walk safely, rather than on the shoulder of a 45-mph road. They also mean that if you want to drop your car off at the tire shop and then walk to the jewelry store, you don't risk your life walking on the street or across parking lots.

But sidewalks are just one small step in the race for sustainability and human-centric design. If you hate sprawl and the headache of traffic and the inability to get good sunlight in your apartment and can't believe we're going to fit the population of the U.S. into one small city in China, watch this:

There are some really cool things in there. Foldable cars? Holy hotness. There are also some things that start to feel a little dystopic to me. Those moving-wall, re-configurable apartments? Where do the people who live in those places keep their guitar? Or the title to their car? Or a few extra rolls of toilet paper? Well at least, they have all the high-tech, eco-friendly appliances and even the best composting toilet if they wanted to, guitars are quite yesterday.

The bigger thing to me, though, is the concept of the walkable village. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know it's a big thing for me. It hit home when Joel Kidder was killed leaving a bookstore in December 2009. Seriously? We can't find a way to let people cross busy streets safely so they can have a sandwich and then go to the bookstore?

Unless gas hits $5 a gallon and it's a gorgeous day, I probably won't ever walk to work – it's only about 3.5 miles, but there are almost no sidewalks. Good morning, sir, would you like an impact with an SUV going 40 miles per hour with your coffee and morning walk?

I have a grocery store about a mile away. It's in a commercial area called Towne Center, named, I'm guessing, because it was meant to mimic a town center, where you could go and get anything you want. There's the grocery store, a department store, a variety of restaurants, a jewelry store, a coffee shop, a bank, a drug store, a liquor store, a video game store, a furniture store, a crafts store, and a YMCA, and that's just off the top of my head.

What it's missing from the town center feel is a feeling of park-and-walk safety.

First, like I said, this place is less than a mile from my house; the safest walk has me going through some woods, which surround some wetlands, which means that after times of heavy rain or most of the winter, it's not a passable route. The other walk is along the narrow shoulder of a 4-lane, 45-mph road with turn lanes. It's primarily terrifying.

Once you're there, though, the shops are clustered. So you can safely get from the grocery store to a couple of the restaurants, the department store and a few other shops, but be careful trying to get to the drug store or bank, because you're pretty much on your own running across the parking lot. Yep, been there, done that, too.

I just don't get why we don't take non-vehicle traffic into consideration. When are we going to stop designing for businesses, and start designing for the humans who might patronize them?

What makes a walkable city?


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Scroll around that map up there a bit. You see the "A" in a balloon? That sits outside a Barnes & Noble store in Syracuse (if you know the area, it's on Erie Boulevard East).

Across the street from that book behemoth you'll find Honeybaked Ham (a sort-of deli), a Subway, a Panera, a Best Buy, an Office Max, a K-Mart, and Fleet Feet (a runner's shop), among other things. If you spent some time scrolling around the map – which is zoomed in enough for you to tell – you won't see a crosswalk anywhere close to that Barnes & Noble.

I know firsthand, because if I leave my office and cut across the parking lots behind buildings and sneak by the cell phone store, I can walk directly across Erie to the bookstore. It winds up being about an 8 minute walk.

And to get across the high-traffic Erie Boulevard, you pretty much say a prayer and run (even if you're not religious – it's amazing how a 4,000-pound steel box at 45 miles an hour will help you find G-d). I've only made the walk a couple of times, and usually in early spring, the first time it gets warm enough to take a nice walk on lunch.

Joel Kidder apparently preferred walking to and from the Barnes & Noble as well, and on December 4 he was almost across Erie, having left the store, when he was hit by a car and died.

He was a lifelong learner, a professor emeritus in philosophy, and, it seems, an all-around nice guy.

This isn't just a problem for those of us who prefer to walk. If you take the bus around town, you have to cross Erie one way or the other to complete your round trip.

Kidder's unfortunate accident appears to be spawning a discussion about the days when there was a bookstore in downtown Syracuse.

If you put a bookstore there, it's on a bus route, it's safe and walkable, and people would go. There are also two nice book shops on James Street, in another wonderfully walkable neighborhood.

But I would love for the Erie East area to be walkable, as well. I live nearby, I work nearby. If you make only part of the city walkable, you still lose.

How does that go, about it taking a village?

I've been a big proponent of living in the city of Syracuse, and often looked somewhat cross-eyed at people who did a lot of work in the city but lived in the suburbs.

And then, after five years and some change within the city limits, I moved into the Village of East Syracuse.

The move, actually, fulfilled a lot of the goals I used to write about in terms of living in the city – being able to walk to everything I need, being close to work.

And, in fact, when I asked about six weeks ago over Twitter and Facebook what a village is, pretty much everybody said a place that has everything one needs within its borders.

For those of you who loved my last place, you'll be a combination of disappointed and charmed by the new place. It's much smaller, which I think scores on both sides of that coin (much less room for gatherings, but it's not a five-minute walk to change conversations). There are no mysterious hallways, no surprise steps. There's a door on the bedroom (score!).

Within an eight-block walk, I have:

- Two diners
- A restaurant
- A sports pub
- Two pizza places
- Chinese take-out
- A market
- Two convenience stores
- A donut shop
- A bakery
- A park with tennis and basketball courts
- A library
- A thrift store
- Doggy day care
- Barber shops and salons
- Shoe repair
- A jewelry store
- Auto repair

And that's not counting the commercial strip just over the railroad tracks, which I pretty much never visit. It has a Subway, a Dunkin Donuts (that's right, the donut shop mentioned above is a local one), a Wal-Mart, a BJ's, a Staples (OK, sometimes I need a Staples run).

I've been to a couple of the businesses two or three times, and the proprietors have recognized me.

I'm looking forward to riding my bike the 1.3 miles to work on a daily basis, not like the twice-a-summer I was able to pull in my last place, since it was seven miles each way.

The piano in the photo, by the way, is well-traveled. It will be tuned this weekend, and I'll finally get to sit down and play it for the first time in a long (long) time.

I'm happy to be settling in here.

Cities: Urban creativity and good employees

I've been waking up at ridiculous hours this week (like 3:30-4 a.m., and wide awake), and maybe it's the lack of sleep, but something really clicked with me about the Richard Florida interview I woke up to.

Florida is an author and researcher, and his ideas mesh around the concept of a creative class. He's academic director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto.

He says they called it a "Prosperity" institute because of the growth associated with the word.

Anyway, what really touched me about the interview is his idea of the quality of place.

Included in this are the mixing of people and ideas.

If you build a new development, it's basically building a new shell. It has to grow, and it takes decades, centuries.

If you have a city, you have the energy of the people who started the city centuries ago mixed with the energy of the people who are there now, mixed with the energy of everyone who has been there in between.

The people who choose to be there are there amidst all this energy.

As interviewer Peter Day puts it, you need "good old-fashioned muddle" for a city.

Cities spark creativity, they spark life, and let's face it, the people who opt to live in cities already have those things, and feel they can grow from what's there and add to it.

The same, says Florida, goes for places of work.

When employers recognize that their employees have something beyond the little outline of their job to offer to the company, that's step one.

Step two is making sure employees want to be there – not just working for the company, but that they're given a working environment that helps motivate them.

I have step one at my company. In fact, it's grown beyond the local company, to other affiliates and to the centralized editorial department. Fantastic.

But I work in a soulless atmosphere; no wonder I'm not sleeping well.

I live in a house built in 1890. It has hardwood floors, and lots of character.

If I do freelance work, I do it downtown or in the Westcott section of town, which is fairly artsy.

My day job, though, I drive to an office park and sit in a drab gray-and-green cubicle.

Yippee.

In fact, I come to a chain coffee shop to write before work, because it's the only one close with Internet access (even though they block some sites).

And, if I want lunch, the only places I can walk to are that coffee shop, a small mall food court, and a Nothing but Noodles franchise.

To get to those places, I have to walk across parking lots and medians, because if I walked along the road (no sidewalks, by the way), I'd be looking at about a 40-minute walk to get anywhere.

No wonder we all want raises every year: We don't have any atmospheric motivation at work.

On the one hand, that's enough venting before 7 a.m. On the other hand, this is a real problem for American employers. A lot of us have voiced (repeatedly, over the course of more years than I've been there) that we'd like to move the office downtown.

If the company did that, and gave us an interesting place to work while there, the creative juices would be flowing, and productivity would rise. It sounds like that's not just my opinion.

Where the road middles

If you want to drive down Enterprise Parkway in De Witt, NY, you have a choice: You turn off of Bridge Street in East Syracuse, or you turn onto a short connector road from Widewaters Parkway in De Witt.

These will get you to two different ends of Enterprise Parkway.

You cannot get from one end to the other while staying on Enterprise Parkway, if you are driving.

This tree is in the middle.

I like this tree, plain as it appears.

Lest you desire to simply drive around the tree, note that the concrete does not run around the tree, so you will first have to drive over three very large rocks that serve as a barrier, and then you'll have to cross the grass, while avoiding the picnic tables on one side and the wetlands on the other.

In the otherwise pedestrian-unfriendly office park in which I work, this tree is like the last union member, who will not leave the rally until someone not only brings out the ax, but uses it.

Plain as it appears, I like this tree.