Archives for the month of: April, 2010

As one of our nations most progressive small cities, Davis, California, is already a cool place to live for its 63,000 residents. It is the quintessential American small town, with a Birkenstock vibe and politically active culture. Home to an eclectic mix of environmentalists, students, academics, and entrepreneurs, this bucolic area just west of California’s capital city is a model for smartgrowth livability. Residents with graduate degrees outnumber those in almost every other U.S. city. An abundance of bike paths support the highest per capita number of bikes of any U.S. locale.

Not content to rest on its laurels – or perhaps laureates — Davis is now seeking to further its coolness reputation by becoming America’s first carbon neutral city. This ambitious undertaking stems from the mind of David Gershon, author of Low Carbon Diet: A 30Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds and a catalyst for a movement known as the Cool Communities Campaign. Building on an extensive body of experience including a beta project yielding an average household CO2 reduction of 22% for Portland, Oregon over 300 cities worldwide are now vying for this highest honor. The litmus test: Seventy-five percent of all households must contribute to the reductions targeted for a given city.

Davis may have a leg up on its competition, however. Located in the Sacramento region due east of San Francisco, the city has a longestablished reputation as an ecologically innovative locale. It boasts a series of distinctive firsts: the first dedicated bike lanes; the first city to adopt legislation requiring energy efficiency tied to the local climate—a precursor to California’s Title 24, which was the first state law of its type in the nation. Davis also has a strict growth ordinance to ensure that the built environment is managed in a sustainable fashion.

Downtown Davis, California

Using parameters ensuing from California’s landmark AB 32 legislation on carbon reduction goals, the City of Davis has set up an initial target of reducing up to 50% of the community’s carbon emissions by 2013. Recognizing that half of an areas carbon footprint is at the residential level, city leaders are actively encouraging grassroots participation from the local populous. “Our goal is to position Davis to be at the forefront of the climatic transitions currently taking place worldwide,” says Mitch Sears, director of sustainability for the City of Davis.

A lofty goal, to say the least, but how will the city know when it has hit its target? How will it actually measure success? Sears says that the City of Davis has gone to great lengths to ensure that its carbon reduction efforts are supported with solid industry based data. “We’ve tried to capture information from regional organizations such as the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and the California Air Resources Board, among others, to ensure that our expectations are realistically grounded. That being said, we recognize that the numbers we are using aren’t exact science or bullet proof.”

Daniel Lerch, author of “Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainties,” the first major local government guidebook on peak oil and global warming, says that on a macro scale it’s nearly impossible for most of us in the modern world to achieve “pure” carbon neutrality. However, he adds, this should in no way discredit efforts like those of the city of Davis to make an impact on this pressing issue. “There are many good reasons why we should all try to reduce our carbon footprint, and global warming is only one of them,” says Lerch. “But at the same time, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we can erase our impacts. At best, we can minimize them—and frankly that’s plenty good enough.”

While known for activism and outreach, it remains to be seen whether this otherwise forward-thinking community is truly up for the task. “The single biggest challenge we face is in engaging the community—moving them from interested bystanders to active participants,” says City Director Sears. “Nevertheless, we believe that we’re better prepared to do this than any other city in the nation, based on our long history and track record regarding sustainability.”

Indeed, if there is a city that merits consideration is terms of readiness for this goal, Davis deserve top consideration. Even if the outcome fails to hit the stated target bulls-eye, any substantive reduction will represent a major feat–another first in the city’s cap.

Michael Scott is the Editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at

A recent Pew Research survey rated the nation’s top 30 largest metropolitan areas for livability. Off the top of your head, which city would you guess was named number one in the nation? Portland, the prized jewel of the northwest? How about the Windy City of Chicago? Sunny San Diego? None of the above. Denver, the Mile High city, took the top spot.

Reaching this pinnacle is a tall order, but Denver’s mountainous, mile-high altitude gives the city a decided advantage. Blessed with scenic topography, bright skies, and 300 days of sunshine each year, this 24th most populous region in the nation is poised to capture growing numbers of newcomers who are fast becoming attracted to its progressive, positive vibe.

With a population of nearly 600,000, Colorado’s capital city exudes descriptive adjectives: friendly, cultured, and sophisticated, among those more frequently used. Livability is supported by a wealth of urban, exurban and suburban neighborhoods, with high walkability scores and a plethora of amenities supporting a high quality of life.

Unlike most major cities, Denver’s growth emanates from the heart of downtown, one of the most economically robust central business districts in the nation. The core of this city’s metro vibrancy is the 16th street mallway, an urban planning gem with streetscapes teeming with foot traffic. A catalyst to street retail, dining and entertainment activity is the über-impressive transport bus system, which makes regular stops along this thoroughfare. These hybrid green vehicles provide free rides to a steady stream of people—business professionals, panhandlers, university students, and city visitors—many of whom connect to the light-rail lines traversing the area.

A View Along Downtown Denver's 16th Street Mall

The downtown Union Station promises to further fuel the transportation infrastructure as the city has recently received millions of dollars to redevelop this historic landmark into a transit hub, connecting light-rail, commuter rail, buses, streets and public spaces. This will also expand the pedestrian feeder system, which supports perhaps the most dense concentration of professional sports complexes in the world. Denver is a haven for spectator-sports junkies. For example, in the central city area the Pepsi Center is home to the Denver Nuggets (basketball) and the Colorado Avalanche (hockey). Invesco Field hosts the Denver Broncos (football), and Coors Field showcases the Colorado Rockies (baseball). Soccer enthusiasts can also rejoice. A short distance outside the city, the Colorado Rapids play at Dick’s Sporting Goods Field—considered the largest state-of-the art soccer stadium in the world.

Union Station

Residents seeking close proximity to the spectator-sport scene or abundant social and cultural events should check out the Lower Highlands area, one of Denver’s rapidly gentrifying sections on the fringe of downtown. Another popular neighborhood is Lower Downtown, a bustling set of city blocks featuring beer pubs, fine dining and the Tattered Cover bookstore, a mecca of bibliophiles worldwide. LoDo, as it is affectionately known, is also home to the nation’s largest concentration of Victorian and early 19th century structures.

The Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver's LoDo District

Closer to the downtown core are a wide mix of communities offering livability. The Capital Hill neighborhood, near the state capital building complex, is a cosmopolitan enclave with a strong gay-friendly orientation. It features an eclectic mix of high-rises, rehabilitated houses and evolving neighborhoods. Another up-and-coming locale is the Bluebird District, a 17-block area with stunning views of the downtown skyline. Colfax Avenue, one of its main arteries, once sported an unsavory reputation as a red-light district replete with prostitution and illegal drugs. Bolstered by the reconstituted Bluebird Theatre, a venue regularly hosting well-attended concert events, Colfax Avenue now features a bohemian, artsy crowd that patronizes local coffee houses, galleries, bars, dining venues and independent businesses. This area also boasts the infamous City Park, the most prominent, notable park in outdoor-oriented Denver. Modeled after New York’s Central Park, it contains 314 acres of pristine land on which sit the Denver Zoo and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Other favorable communities include Stapleton and Cherry Creek, although these options are slightly further from the city prime.

Not everything is perfectly aligned in Denver, though. Its notoriety as America’s “Beer Capital” along with its rapid emergence as a booming medical marijuana destination strike some as simultaneously odd and progressive. And the media attention swirling around John Hickenlooper, the highly popular, entrepreneurially minded mayor who announced his candidacy for state governor, has locals murmuring about how the city would fare in his absence. These musings notwithstanding, Denver has a solidly positioned livability niche, which bodes well for the city’s long-term growth and future success.

Michael Scott is the Editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at

Twenty-five years ago downtown Long Beach wasn’t the safest place to hang out. Back then, wandering a city known for its heinous crimes was an unwise choice for even the most street-savvy urban enthusiast. Nowadays, however, there is evidence of a major transformation occurring in the urban core of Long Beach, a change that portends a promising future for the 5th largest city in California.

A few miles to the south of Long Beach is downtown Los Angeles, a booming city with a posh entertainment complex. With such a powerful competitor, one might assume Long Beach to be dead in the water. To the contrary, vibrancy abounds on Pine Street, the city’s major arterial spine for retail and entertainment venues. Taking a page from the infamous Gaslamp District in San Diego, Pine Street features a walkable, outdoor dining corridor that attracts a healthy dose of locals, convention attendees and visitors. There is also a fervent nightlife for the under-30 crowd drawn to the urbane sophistication of the area.

Pine Street in Downtown Long Beach

The Long Beach Downtown District Features Myriad Examples of Restored Architecture and Adaptive Reuse

Indeed downtown Long Beach is blessed with many variables serving as a catalyst for its success. As the 36th largest city in the U.S., it possesses one of the world’s largest shipping ports – a boon to local economic activity. The downtown waterfront is a prized amenity, featuring a pier crammed with dining and entertainment and the infamous Queen Mary ocean liner in the distance. The Aquarium of the Pacific, a sprawling complex located along the water, is one of the most heavily trafficked tourist destinations in the state. The Long Beach Convention Center adds to the economic fortunes by bringing thousands of visitors to the area annually.

A Distant View of the Historic Queen Mary Ship from the Long Beach Pier

Boosting downtown fortunes has been surge in interest in downtown living, a trend supported by the influx of more than 2,300 new residential units in the center city core since 2002. Long Beach locals are quick to attribute the downtown resurgence to a beefed-up law enforcement presence. From beat cops on bikes and on foot to private security personnel adding eyes on the street, perceived safety is evident in the central business district.

Credit also is given to the Downtown Long Beach Associates for deploying a cadre of safety guides to regularly patrol the business district streets. These efforts have led to significant reductions in crime over the past 10 years, thereby increasing the comfort levels of visitors, residents and business owners frequenting the area.

Amid these promising revitalization efforts are concerns that the city’s momentum may grind to a halt due to California’s morbid economic scenario. While tax increments and shipping port funds steadily flow into the city, the dark clouds center on the paucity of critical redevelopment funding for the area. These shortages result from raids of local redevelopment agency coffers to correct statewide funding shortfalls, a situation that will likely temper progress for decades.

The Promenade Section of Downtown Long Beach Features Mixed Use Housing and Retail

One threat to the downtown social fabric however is an emerging division between socioeconomic classes. While historically low-income in its residential demographics, recent years have featured an influx of wealthier residents, particularly in some of the posh high rises along Ocean Boulevard. Differences in lifestyle are clearly visible. The affluent residents prefer drivable destinations over nearby walkable amenities. Social urban outlets such as hip-hop clubs typically incite discomfort among the well heeled.

Another challenge facing downtown Long Beach is a lack of retail identity consistent with community interests. On one hand, Long Beach exudes a rich culture; on the other, the evolving socioeconomic status creates a daunting task to match brand-strategic retailers to a constantly shifting market. To bridge this gap, Long Beach Downtown Associates has spearheaded public participation forums designed to educate areas residents and businesses on the realities of the retail market.

Despite its growing pains, Long Beach has a unique convergence of economic, social, and cultural factors that bode well for its downtown and for turning the tide of this town into a top tier central-city.

Michael Scott is the Editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at