Observations from London

As of this writing, the mid-May meeting of the City of Minneapolis Transportation & Public Works Committee had 17 views total on YouTube. I know this because I watched it on a beautiful afternoon last week with other activities available to me, mainly for the discussion of the Winter Maintenance Study. It was an excellent meeting, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Like upwards of 16 of you, I am. And incidentally, I’m roughly 4,000 miles away from another likely viewer of that video. Definitely nothing to feel too special about, but it drives home that I’m far from my tribe at the moment, both in general (i.e. Minnesotans), and more specifically (i.e. urban Minnesotans with strong opinions about urban right-of-way).

I’m in London

IMG_6278This is a long-winded way of saying: hello from London! My family is living here for the year as my wife opens an office for her Mpls-based design firm, and I’m working remotely for my employer back home and spending more time with our kiddos. It doesn’t suck! I’ve spent a previously unimaginable number of hours wandering around a major and unfamiliar city, kids in tow, seeing the sights, and developing ever-stronger opinions about what makes good playgrounds brilliant, and what makes rubbish playgrounds so… rubbish.

At the same time, the terribly mundane photos of urban stuff that clog my phone bear out that I’m not altogether capable of a simple walk in the park. I imagine that’s nice. I can’t really turn off the urban planning part of my brain, and I don’t try to. Like those of you who participate in or watch things like TPW or Planning Commission meetings and read things like streets.mn posts, I don’t pay attention to this stuff out of a sense of obligation – I really do like it. And it really is interesting to see how the same basic challenges are handled in different places.

A sign
An example of the kind of objectively bad pics of urban stuff I specialize in. If you had to guess my age based on these photos, you’d guess high.

I’m going to be writing some posts about fairly mundane urban planning and design stuff I see over here with potential applications in MSP. In this golden era of so many people writing about urbanism, I assume you’ll hear about the big sexy projects over here by other means – I’ll speak to the prosaic details.

Before getting into specific topics, I’ll make a few grounding points in this and a subsequent post or two based on hypothetical challenges to my premise.

Hypothetical challenge #1: Foreign urban planning contexts/systems are too different to compare projects

From what I can see, Londoners are talking about the exact same challenges over here as we are in MSP: transportation, safety, economic development, public health.  And, the solutions are very similar, and sometimes carbon copies. I assume that a lot of that must have to do with sharing the same cultural moment in terms of infrastructure and technology. The docked bikeshare bikes here are (to my eye) the same exact model as Nice Ride’s. There are bikes from a dockless bikeshare company that tried to enter the MSP market last year a block from my house. There are digital kiosks from the same vendor that approached us on deployment in downtown Minneapolis a block away, too. There are traffic calming projects with the same techniques, bus stops that look nearly the same, park buildings being activated by concessions, similar PSAs, and it goes on and on.

It’s the same bike

My going-in theory on all this is that these projects aren’t being addressed by general, murkily bureaucratic forces beyond my grasp or comprehension, but by specific people I can track down who will humour me and have a chat.

That tracks with my own experiences in MSP. I think that most people experience a street being torn up and redone, or a plow going by, or new signage being added in the boulevard and feel a sense that it’s the result of general policies and practices that are inert, abstract, and – above all – impersonal. However, one benefit of doing things like watching the May 15th TPW meeting is that you can see that isn’t the case. It comes down to specific people trying to solve specific problems. I’ll report back after I’ve found some of London’s beautiful urban planning nerds about whether that checks out here, too.


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