Archives for the month of: October, 2009
Downtown Sacramento Skyline

Ed Dermody is a landscape architect from St. Louis, MO that I met on LinkedIn.  He holds a degree in landscape architecture from Kansas State University and has been practicing landscape architecture for more than 20 years. He has many design projects to his credit in Missouri and Illinois as well as in the Bahamas and Saudi Arabia. Ed was also as planning commissioner for the City of Maryland Heights, MO, for over 10 years.

Ed has had the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects, including private estates, low-impact developments, sustainable designs, public and private parks, streetscapes, and waterscapes. Past clients include private resorts, multi-family communities, commercial & retail developments, nonprofits and local municipalities. Currently, Ed is currently working with his local municipalities to develop green infrastructure ordinances that advance sustainable design principles in the St. Louis region.

I recently had a chance to interview Ed regarding the future of Urban Design. Here are a few of his thoughts:

1. You have long been an advocate of urban design. Why do you believe these practices are vital to our nation’s urban revitalization efforts?

My advocacy for this movement began 20 years ago when the benefits of urban design to our communities became apparent. In particular I became intrigued as to how these efforts reduce urban sprawl and “recycle” our nation’s downtown areas.  The big-picture hope is for our lands and properties, long forgotten and devalued, to become viable and capable of supporting larger, more diverse populations, thereby creating a greater sense of community and place.

2. What are the potential benefits to a community from embracing sustainable urban design practices?

Sustainable building practices and site design have proven valuable to our urban areas as they allow for redevelopment of antiquated utilities (storm water systems) and buildings—practices that enhance efficiencies so that ownership and utility costs will be reduced. Significant community benefits are achieved when we reduce consumption levels burdening existing systems, thus mitigating the need to build new infrastructure, such as roadways, storm water systems and electric lines.

Social and economic benefits related to sustainable planning practices are also achieved through a better understanding of the need for balance between housing, retail, employment and public amenities. An example of this is in the case of affluent neighborhoods where employment opportunities and amenities are needed to attract this demographic, boosting the sustained growth of these areas.

Finally, let’s not overlook the importance of diversity as a support system for social institutions and sustainability. Through these networks a sense of community identity is forged, bonding everyone together.  This will then reduce crime rates, increase property values and influence civic connections with adjoining communities.

3. What cities currently offer best-case models of urban design?

Cities like Omaha, NE, Greenville, SC, and Kansas City, MO, immediately come to mind in terms of their commitment to urban design practices. Omaha in particular has taken ambitious steps to generate positive change in urban, suburban and surrounding communities. They have worked hard to redefine themselves—efforts that have increased their regional standing and competitiveness. Infused in their urban design philosophy is a recognition of the importance of cultural diversity and world-class public arts, all factors influencing their sense of community identity.

4. There is so much talk these days about “green design.” What’s your take on the future of these practices?

I believe green design represents a reversal of the design and engineering principles creating during the industrialization of America. As such the future of green design is very promising because the advancement of technologies and our environmental understanding has permeated into the academic communities. Our next generation of planners, architects and engineers will spur new ways of thinking about our environment, bringing green design to a more commonplace practice.

That being said, green design needs to be viewed in a broader context—one where economic, social and environmental questions are given equal play.  As a landscape architect, I believe that environmental sustainability plays an important role in improving storm water run-off, efficient site design, preservation of unique or historical elements, increased beneficial landscape, and protection of the public’s health, safety and welfare. Design becomes most inspiring when these goals are achieved in an artful way, one that blends nature and science into living sculptures.

5. What one person has most inspired your design philosophy over the years?

I would say James Wines through his book De-Architecture (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 1987).  Although he focuses primarily on architectural principles, the underlying philosophies of De-Architecture have allowed me to create design principles that can be applied to any project. These design principles, coupled with Stephen Bungay’s Study of Hegel’s Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 1987), create a framework of design rules and a process to understand fundamental issues. This broader philosophy is a frame work of design rules that govern the design process and ultimately the final outcomes.

texas #2


For those persistent souls seeking to join, or rejoin, the ranks of the employed in the Golden State, here is a word of advice: Don’t mess with California, mess with Texas.

In short, the State of California is currently sucking wind relative to quality job opportunities. Sadly, millions of state residents are suffering mightily as job losses mount, paychecks shrink, and houses are lost.

From Los Angeles to Sacramento, job seekers say finding work has become an exercise in futility. As of this writing, the statewide unemployment rate is 12.2% and rising. Many highly qualified professionals I know, often with advanced degrees, have been out of work for upwards of a year. New graduates are even more disillusioned, many resorting to travel abroad or graduate school until the job market regains some traction. Even the otherwise robust health care industry is not immune, as the pace of hiring for nurses and other health professionals has slowed considerably.

State government jobs, historically a safe haven for those seeking secure employment, have arguably taken the biggest hit. “Furlough Fridays,” a mandate requiring California state workers to take three unpaid Fridays off a month to help mitigate the state’s budget shortfalls, have been particularly devastating to the state’s economy. This has now created a ripple effect adversely impacting local retail establishments that depend on state-worker spending to keep them afloat.

Adding to this madness are the number of unemployed job seekers still holding out for state job openings. So why is this occurring, particularly when the state testing system makes being selected a year-long proposition at best? Applicants would likely say that the perceived long-term security is the heart of their persistence. The problem with this mindset is that the gold-watch days of secure employment and a lucrative pension are likely over. And even if one finds themselves lucky in landing one of these increasingly rare opportunities, the question remains as to whether the perceived long-term security is worth the sacrifices inherent in a contracting state employee pool.

Here’s another interesting aside, this one relative to the private business world: Many of the statewide companies with available jobs are having difficulty finding well-qualified candidates to fill them — an even sadder scenario for the future of commerce in California.There are a number of possible explanations for this, the largest being that the crumbling educational system in California is failing to produce the levels of talent that companies are seeking.

Then there is the state’s anti-business culture, which makes doing business here costly and complex. Medical technology firm Medtronic offers proof of this situation. Earlier in 2009, the company announced it was moving its diabetes products division out of Northridge, California, to a new 150,000 square-foot facility in Texas. Once settled in the Lone Star state, Medtronics plans to hire nearly 1,400 staff over a five-year period. That’s huge! And the reason boils down to simple math: Rumors persist that Medtronic officials found the cost to their company to be $10,000 less per employee per year in Texas than in California.

By the way, it’s now 6:30 a.m. and I’m still on my laptop writing this article from a coffee shop down the road from my house. Seconds ago I exchanged morning pleasantries with a gentleman who then asked me what I was working on. Upon sharing with him that I was writing about the tenuous job situation in California, his eyes lit up. Turns out he was laid off in 2008 and has been out of work for over a year. With no prompting he cites two examples of out of state companies that have purchased failing businesses here. Their state of origination: Texas. “Hum,” I thought. “That’s interesting.”

Here’s the bottom line:  If you’ve got California on your mind in terms of job opportunities or pursuing a start-up business, you might want to think again. So where should one explore? Let’s eliminate Michigan right off the bat. Its 15.2% unemployment rate is the highest in the nation. What about Nevada, California’s neighboring state to the east? Nevada often touts its success in snatching companies away from California’s unfavorable business climate, yet it registers a 13.2% unemployment rate, second highest nationally.

If I had to place my bets on a state in terms of employment and business opportunities, the aforementioned Texas immediately rises to the top of the list. That’s why I contend that job seekers should mess with Texas, not California, or Nevada (at one time the fastest-growing state in the union), or heaven forbid, Michigan.

Why Texas? The pro-business culture has created a high-octane job engine, one where despite workforce cutbacks, 589,500 more jobs exist in the state now than did a decade ago. Its unemployment rate is at 8.1% (compared with the national average of 9.7% and 12.2% in California). And the housing costs there are generally dirt cheap.

According to a recent survey of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, four of the five most robust employment markets nationally are in Texas: Austin ranks first; San Antonio is second; Houston is fourth; and Dallas-Fort Worth rounds out the list with a ranking of fifth.

The only non-Texan city in the lineup is third-place Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Speaking of that town, while having a margarita at my favorite Mexican restaurant in Folsom (CA) recently, I struck up a conversation with the person next to me who happened to be from Baton Rouge. He confirmed that all of the quiet fuss about the job market in that area was indeed true. He noted the stable presence of companies like Dow Chemical, Kaiser Aluminum, and Exxon as key to growth in the area. In addition the area is blessed with a major shipping port as well as Louisiana State University, one of the largest higher-education institutions in the nation.

Okay, back to the Lone Star state. Is all of the chatter about Texas, true? I’m scheduled to travel down to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in February of 2010, so stay tuned for the real scoop. In the meantime, the few Texans I’ve talked with have all responded in the affirmative regarding prospects in those parts. For example, a colleague of mine in Fort Worth shared something she observed recently — a growing number of cars in the corporate parking lots have out-of-state license plates, making one wonder if news is catching on about the state’s milk and honey environment. And a retired Texas state official told me that their state prison system is literally begging for employees. Perhaps not the ideal workplace scenario for many folks, but then again it is a job.

Here’s the bottom line: California needs to get its act together quickly or the sucking sound from businesses and job seekers leaving this state is going to get mighty loud. Our state leaders need to step up and develop a comprehensive economic development plan that supports jobs and prosperity because, absent a strategy, why would one want to fool around with California when they can mess with Texas. Go south young lad, go south.

Coworking is an exciting new phenomenon, rapidly seen as a revitalization catalyst for cities nationwide. As a coworking enthusiast and member of the Urban Hive in Sacramento I am excited to have Marilyn Finnemore, co-founder of Winchester, Virginia based Bright CoWork discuss the merits of this movement and its importance in terms of fostering civic connection in America. Marilyn and I first became acquainted through an esoteric social networking site called Twitter and have since built a conversation around the future of coworking. Our hope is this piece will offer some compelling insights into this emerging trend.

By Marilyn Finnemore

One of the recent trends in progressive cities across America is the emergence of coworking spaces, which offer professionals inexpensive, collaborative, creative places to work as an alternative to traditional offices or working from home.   Unlike sterile, fluorescent-lit telework offices, these new coworking environments recognize the importance of place and our human need for beauty, community, and connection.

Recently, I co-founded a cowork space in Winchester, Virginia: Bright Cowork.  We discovered that the majority of those who’ve joined us fled traditional workplaces years ago to avoid long commutes or escape from the cubicle farm.  Working from home was a dream come true at first, but now they feel lonely and miss the collaboration that makes the best workplaces sources of energy and creativity.   Bright Cowork, like many coworking spaces, is designed with these creative types in mind.  It’s has an open, bright floor plan and moveable furniture that allows co-workers to work alone or in ad hoc groups.  It is full of light, color, and art, and is centrally located in the middle of Old Town Winchester so coworkers can walk to coffee shops, restaurants, the post office, city offices, and everywhere else.

As Old Town Winchester seeks to revitalize and be economically viable in the 21st century, I believe that spaces like Bright Cowork are vital.  These spaces build a connection between these professionals and the City and bring in important energy.  They attract artists, architects, musicians, programmers, and a diverse group of others who believe in collaboration and community, the heart of what revitalizes downtowns like Winchester, Virginia.  Besides being more productive than they’ve been in years, our coworkers are always involved in pro-bono community-focused projects as well, e.g. creating websites for volunteer groups, hosting events, presenting innovative solutions to Old Town Development Board and downtown businesses.   They’re always helping launch a new business or make existing businesses more successful.

I think this type of energy comes from connecting people to Place.  In today’s increasingly suburbanized, boxy world, providing beauty and community may be one of the most important things we can do to promote human wellbeing and the wellbeing of our Cities.

In the book Bowling Alone, author Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, suggests that Americans increasingly are becoming more socially isolated — a trend he calls “an erosion of social capital.” His well-chronicled perspective has since become the mantra of many social media critics: namely, that the Internet is the primary catalyst driving our disconnection.

Downtowns have a long history as centers of civic connection: Parks and plazas serve as gathering points for communal activities and events; coffee houses offer relaxation and conversation; restaurants allow family and friends to break bread together. Geographically central in their proximity, downtowns are easily accessible to local urbanites. And the appeal of these settings is growing among suburban residents, attracted to the diverse, cultural amenities that these environments offer.

The buzz of late in downtown Sacramento is around the convergence of the ever popular in-person Twitter-related gatherings known as Tweetups. “Two parts social and one part business,” says Alejandro Reyes, who along with his media-consulting colleague Sierra Friend, are the catalysts of these events.  Tweetups provide a forum to connect people who either have crossed paths in the Twitter virtual world, or are curious to discover what all the fuss is about. And unlike the online version where messages are limited to 140 characters, attendees can babble on about their personal and professional exploits ad infinitum — fueled in part by free-flowing beverages.

Earlier this year Reyes and Friend set out to determine whether Sacramento residents would be willing to awaken from their reclusive slumber — tweets and all — and connect person-to-person at organized events. While their first Tweetup in a suburban locale attracted respectable numbers, it quickly became apparent that downtown Sacramento would likely serve as a more robust engine for their ambitions. As a result of moving the event to more urbane settings, per event attendance has skyrocketed to upwards of 150 participants.

The contention that social networking is an urban phenomenon is supported by a Pew Internet and American Life Project survey that reveals thirty-five percent of Twitter users live in urban areas. Even more remarkable is the finding by comScore, an Internet marketing research company, which stated the primary user demographic of this social networking site ranges between the ages of 45 and 54.

So what does the future hold for online social networking as a driving force for real-world meetings? Is it a panacea for the social isolation Harvard professor Putnam notes in his critically acclaimed book? Many home-based, small business professionals that I’ve talked to are hopeful that Tweetups and other Internet-driven, in-person events will provide avenues of social connection or even new business opportunities.  And this method may serve as a nationally innovative tool for downtowns that are seeking to attract much-needed foot-traffic and vitality to their areas amid tight economic times.

Eventually a conclusion will be reached as to whether this online/in-person social movement is a Trick or Tweet. What do you think? Send me an email or a tweet. My Twitter handle is @urbanist27 for those of you who want to add your two cents on this topic.