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The Good City, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1338.

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Rochester, New York, 2013.

What if Rochester were a good city? Would it be different than the city we live in today? How would it be different?

I find myself reflecting on these questions because I remain preoccupied with my sense of the difference between a good city and the city we have become, the city of convenience.

First, and reasonably, you may ask: “What is a good city?” This is a worthy question, and one that merits our reflection at some length.

I would say that a good city is a city that is healthy, sound, robust, sturdy and strong. I might further say, hearkening back to the seven ancient virtues of western philosophy, that a good city is characterized by justice, courage, hope, charity, prudence, faith, and temperance.

So we’re not quite there yet…. In fact not many cities score all the way to “good.” But I would contend that achieving “good” is a correct, perhaps the most correct goal of the citizens of any city. And “good” is a very, very difficult goal to achieve in the context of our contemporary urban life.

If a city were a good city, jobs would be abundant; education would be thorough, of the highest quality, and accessible to all. Poverty would not disappear, but the inequities that are so much a part of urban life among the poor would not be the heavy burdens they are today. In shorthand, it would be good to live in a good city. Better than living in most cities today. Melbourne comes close, as perhaps do Copenhagen, Auckland, and Vancouver. Our city is a long distance from the good city.

But today we measure our city’s success by its convenience, defined as “the quality of being suitable to one’s comfort, purposes or needs.” Ironically, this particular definition continues: “the convenience of living near shops, schools, libraries” (thefreedictionary.com). And once we have realized that comfort and convenience have become our new urban yardsticks, we then should ask ourselves: “for whom is our city comfortable and convenient?”


I-490, Rochester New York, photo by Erdman Anthony.

The newspaper here in Rochester yesterday morning offered me a tiny little window on this disconnect between the good city and the convenient city, and provoked me to further investigation. The paper said that in our urban region over 80% of us commute to work alone in our cars, while only 2.5% of us use public transit. Oddly, though the figures come from the U.S. Census Bureau and seem thus to be reliable, 3.4% of us walk to work – more than use transit.

(Just as a frame of reference, 56% of New Yorkers, and 24% of Torontonians commute to work on pubic transit).

Then it was time to dig a little further. In the city itself, 69.5% of commuters drive alone in cars, 7.7% use transit and 6.7% walk to work. Further, I learned that 26% of city dwellers have access to 0 vehicles for their commute.

What can we begin to deduce from these statistics?

Well, first, public transit doesn’t seem to be working very well for anybody, whether suburbanites or city dwellers. Transit use is low in the city and negligible in the surrounding suburbs. When walkers and transit users are nearly the same percentage of commuters, you cannot reason that you have stumbled into a good city, where walking prevails. Instead, you can only reason that the transit system is broken.

In fact, with a little poking, I discovered that the busiest bus line in our region carries 2,270 riders on a weekday, and the busiest bus stop saw 400 users a day (in a location, I note, with almost 20,000 employees). As context, in New York City a busy Manhattan bus line carries 43,000 commuters per workday and in Buffalo, the downtown light rail carries 15,700 riders per workday.

And next, city dwellers have higher transit use than suburbanites, but many fewer have cars. More research required here, but it’s sounding a little like an equity issue. If you don’t have access to a car, and you don’t use transit, are you unemployed (unemployment rates are as high as 40% in some our city neighborhoods)?

And then there is the car/convenience equation. In the last 15 years, nearly $500,000,000 has been spent here on three expressway interchanges alone. This seems a bit obscene in a city ranked as the 5th poorest in the U.S.

So on this Labor Day weekend I am reflecting on the city we have made and how it works, and for whom. And I am trying to imagine a counterpoint to what I see – a better city that could eventually become a good city. The differences seem a bit stark.

More to follow, I suspect.

“When distance and convenience sets in, the small, the various and the personal wither away.”

― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities


In the interest of trying to come to a better understanding of what we believe is a very misguided decision to locate a Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park (STAMP) in Alabama, New York, out in Genesee County, we hopped in the car for the voyage west to the site. The STAMP here is aimed at generating 10,000 jobs, and will have a completed price tag north of $500 million.  About an hour later (yes, we took the expressways, and it was mid-morning, not rush hour), we arrived. Here’s the site:


Actually, here’s the site, looking southeast:

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Looking northwest:

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And here is Alabama, New York:

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Alabama is quite a small hamlet – a few dozen buildings surrounded by farmland. Less than a mile away is the 10,000 acre Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, with its swamps and meadows and woodlands.

The site is within the Genesee County AG-2 district, as designated by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. The stated purpose of designated agriculture districts is “to protect and promote the availability of land for farming purposes.” Genesee County names the site as containing “prime” farmland, and much of the site area is within a designated Smart Growth Zone. In New York State, our legislated Smart Growth Policy says this:

 “§ 6-0105. State smart growth public infrastructure policy.

It is the purpose of this article to augment the state’s environmental
policy  by  declaring  a fiscally prudent state policy of maximizing the
social, economic and environmental benefits from  public  infrastructure
development  through  minimizing unnecessary costs of sprawl development
including environmental degradation, disinvestment in urban and suburban
communities and loss of open space induced by sprawl facilitated by  the
funding  or  development  of  new  or expanded transportation, sewer and
waste water treatment, water,  education,  housing  and  other  publicly
supported   infrastructure   inconsistent   with   smart  growth  public
infrastructure criteria.”

The site’s western boundary, literally, is a reservation for the Tonawanda Band of the Seneca Indians.

Further north – about 6 miles – is the village of Medina, population 6,000, and 14 mile to the southeast is Batavia, population 15,000.

So, what did we conclude during our sojourn? Several things.

Alabama has a lot going for it. Designated and protected prime farmland, a Smart Growth Zone, a nearby National Wildlife Refuge, substantial history for Native-Americans, designated and protected wetlands, great opportunities for activities outdoors.

Alabama is not near a major population center, with existing infrastructure, skilled workers, transit, and brownfield sites already prepared for redevelopment. To get to Alabama from Rochester, workers need to plan on a commute by car – no transit is available to the site – of about an hour.

To put a STAMP out in Alabama, with 10,000 workers, is complete madness. Not only would the STAMP violate nearly all of the assets of the place, and would certainly not represent anything approaching Smart Growth, but a STAMP here would mean missing the opportunity to employ new job creation where it is most logical, and will do the most good – the city. We thought it was a bad idea before we went to Alabama. After our visit, we are sure. This is a legacy mistake in the making. Perhaps better, another legacy mistake in the making.

A last note for our none-Rochester readers. In a recent newspaper article here, it was suggested that a model for this Upstate New York STAMP is the Intel Campus in Hillsboro, Oregon. Just to be quite clear, Hillsboro is less than 15 miles from downtown Portland, and that site is served by MAX, the region’s light rail transit system, with trains every 15 minutes.



A good model. Not Alabama, New York, but a good model, and a great argument for putting the STAMP where it belongs – in the city.



“When things get really bad, just raise your glass and STAMP your feet and do a little jig. That’s about all you can do.” Leonard Cohen.

Up here on the north coast, in western NY, we are trying to figure out how to do the same thing that cities and regions around the world are simultaneously trying to figure out: how to create a more robust and sustainable economy, attract investment, sponsor innovation, and work to solve all of the problems that beset us. We’re all (and here I mean ALL) in a mad dash to find a better future.

Here in New York, the State has been subdivided into eight Regional Economic Development Councils (REDC), and these Councils compete for State dollars to fund projects that theoretically will build foundations for a useable future, help our cities, take best advantage of our assets, and help to map our best futures. The REDCs are made up of elected officials, institutional and educational leaders, and business executives – we hope our best and most far-thinking.

Recently our state elected officials, teaming with our local REDCs, announced a $33 million plan to begin to develop a 1,250 acre Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park (STAMP), to be constructed in Alabama New York.

Alabama, NY

Alabama, NY via Google Earth.

Alabama is almost exactly half-way between Rochester and Buffalo – almost an hours drive from either city – and is currently a little town of 1,800 that is an agricultural community and also home to the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. (Note to readers: the full-build cost of this Park is estimated to approach $400,000,000 or more). I guess our leaders just decided to split the baby on this one, instead of using the very substantial resources already at hand as a home to continuing investment and innovation.

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Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, Alabama, NY. Photo by Zanjui.

Great. Just great. Put the STAMP in one of the struggling upstate cities here, where there are resources, skilled workers, infrastructure, and plenty of available dirt? Nope – let’s start all over in a farm field, where there is no infrastructure, where you MUST drive to arrive, where the development will fail any test examining smart growth or smart investment. Nuts.



A squishy perspective of the proposed STAMP development, top, and an image of the proposed park from TWC News, bottom.

And so I got a bit cranky about this, and penned a letter to our local newspaper. They did not print it. They did print a piece by one of their staff writers, Sean Lahman, and he, thankfully, whacked the idea.

But I am still cranky about this – this is a legacy mistake in the making, and is a crystal clear example of a failure of imagination, real leadership, or even logical thinking. So herewith, my letter:

To the editors:

This is a difficult time for our city and our region. We face budget gaps and dwindling public resources, high taxes, struggling schools, endemic poverty, and many other challenges that need insightful vision and creativity from our political and institutional leaders. We need to refashion our city into an engine of innovation, entrepreneurship, and cooperation, constructing a strong foundation for rapid urban transformation and future urban resilience. But with a recent announcement, it is clear our leaders have lost their way.

Our elected officials and economic luminaries tell us that a plan to construct a 1,200 acre Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park (STAMP) in Alabama, Genesee County, at a cost of $33 million is a big win for our region. In fact, this plan is destructive, ill-conceived, and mistaken.

This park is not itself a bad idea. But it does not belong nearly an hour’s drive from Rochester, in a rural and agricultural setting, and adjacent to a National Wildlife Refuge. This park belongs in our city.

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser tells us that “all successful cities have something in common. To thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively. There is no such thing as a successful city without human capital.” Rochester has that human capital: Rochester is home to nearly two dozen colleges and universities, with nearly 90,000 students. Rochester has long had a robust workforce of skilled innovators. And the human capital of our city can only increase, and assure the vitality of our city, if a STAMP is placed in our urban midst: accessible, bustling, sustainable without environmental compromise, with ideas and achievements feeding and inspiring one another.

Rochester has the human and cultural infrastructure to populate and sustain a STAMP. And Rochester has the physical infrastructure as well. We do not need to build a brand new physical setting for innovation, with all its attendant costs and demands. The physical infrastructure for a STAMP is already here in our city. Eastman Business Park, now wanting for occupants, is just one example of an existing place ready to become a STAMP.

Leaders, hear this: the time to build more sprawling green-field development, many miles from our existing human and physical capital, is over. We can no longer afford any economic, cultural or physical plan that is not firmly lodged in what is already our greatest asset: our people, our city.

Bah. Humbug. Yet another step backwards.


TEDx Rochester

And now my TEDx talk from last November is up and on YouTube. Thanks to Tony Karakashian and the Rochester TEDx crew, and to WXXI for their editing work.




Thinking About Melbourne

As we wander around the world looking for cities that can teach us Rochesterians a thing or two about good urbanism, we occasionally stumble across places that are sufficiently astonishing that they must be shared. And so, herewith is a peek at Melbourne, Australia.

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Melbourne, looking north from Port Phillip Bay and the Tasmanian Ferry Terminal.

Melbourne is a big city, with a population of just over 4 million. And it has lots of things wrong with it – expressways that are traffic nightmares, new road construction, a fair amount of sprawl at the edges – although most but not all of this is industrial rather than the more conventional kinds of sprawl we’re used to – perhaps a few too many big sports stadia (though soccer, cricket, rugby, and tennis are all a stone’s throw from one another), a downtown shopping mall: most of the usual crud that affects almost all cities (if you want to see a real mess in the making, go spend a bit of time in and around Bangkok….). So at the very outset, let me be completely clear: Melbourne is not Arcadia. We have not discovered the Beulah Land. But….

We have been thinking quite a lot of late about what a city should look like and how it should be arranged in order to be better prepared for the changes ahead. What changes, you ask? Well here are a few: very soon there will be lots more people, fewer resources and some scarcities, less wealth, our mobility will be different (less actual movement, more movement via technology), there will be fewer cars, energy will be more expensive, the weather will be different, food will be more expensive, local will make more sense (cost, availability) than trans-national or global. When you ask? Oh, any time now.

But back to Melbourne, mostly ready for its future. During our recent visit we had the great good fortune to be guided and toured about the city by friends who have lived there for many, many years. Not architects or urban designers – phew – but smart people who are quite tuned in to their home place. So we saw a lot, and a lot that most tourists would never see: traffic jams, city edges, many of Melbourne’s beautiful and huge parks, the close-in suburbs, neighborhood nodes and their shopping zones, and more. Not to say our visit was comprehensive by any means, but we did manage to get to most corners of the city. And – wow.

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Afoot on downtown Melbourne’s Swanston Street.

Before we reached the gridded and bustling downtown of Melbourne, we took a look around at some of the edges. In a southeastern suburb (though if felt a part of the urban fabric and was only 6 or 7 miles from downtown, and near the city’s edge) of Brighton, we visited the famed Dendy Street Beach, with its amazing and iconic bathing boxes – 82 of them.

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These cabanas – colorful shacks, really – are now selling for $250,000 each – 10 years ago you could get one for $12,000.

As we had a bit of breakfast, our guides (unprompted from us Rochesterians, honest) animatedly told us about their neighborhood in Brighton, and excitedly about their 20 minute commute to downtown. (20 MINUTE COMMUTE – SOUND FAMILIAR, NEIGHBORS?!?). They often grab their grandkids and travel about the city for 20 minutes in one direction or another to a park (the Melbourne parks are an amazing asset) or a museum or downtown to Federation Square (more about that place shortly) on the streetcar. Yup – in Melbourne the 20 minute commute is on a streetcar. Take a look at the Melbourne train and tram map – it’s truly awe-inspiring!

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And now let’s take a trip down St. Kilda Road and head downtown. The street is wonderfully subdivided into a three part boulevard section: part one is for the streetcars; part two is for through traffic and is adjacent to the trams; part three are the service drives for local access and turning movements. Brilliant.

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Variations on this theme are visible in various parts of the city on major routes, while the trams simply share the rights-of-way in the more dense neighborhoods. Truly, a transit geek’s paradise.

And as the map above illustrates, mobility in Melbourne is more than just trams. The system is a coordinated network of various modes – trains, trams, buses, and more. A network – that’s how it’s supposed to work, right? And thus, a 20 minute commute. But onward.

Arriving downtown, perhaps by tram or train, we find ourselves at the astonishing and beautiful Flinders Street Station.

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And across the street from the station is the city’s main public space, the very odd but entirely tractable, crowded, bustling, and beloved Federation Square. Federation Square is actually a large mixed-use development housing many public and some private functions, museums, retail and restaurants, all built on air rights over the railroads. The buildings are weird, but they frame an amazing and wonderful space that is the living room of Melbourne, and a great jumping off place for a downtown stroll.

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Flinders Street Station and downtown Melbourne from Fed Square.

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St. Paul’s in the background, Fed Square bustling all round, and the weird architecture visible at the right.

After a Fed Square lunch, it’s time to have a walk.

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Yes, the mobility network includes bike sharing.

As if the streets are not wonderful enough in what is called the Hoddle Grid, because downtown was laid out in 1837 by Robert Hoddle in the form of a rotated grid, there are a whole host of fabulous arcades.

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And bunches of snickets – mid-block narrow walks lined with food and shops.

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We enjoyed everything about downtown, and we were completely taken as well by Melbourne’s equally amazing neighborhoods. Cities can be terrific places.

But then it was time to visit yet another Melbourne astonishment: the Queen Victoria Market, the Vic. This unbelievable place, with its roots in 1850, is now the largest public market in the Southern Hemisphere. The market is huge, has more stuff in it than one can comprehend, and it has 2,000 square meters of solar panels on its roofs (about 22,000 square feet), generating more than 250,000 kilowatt hours of power (enough to fully power 25 homes for a year). Here we go:

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The doughnuts are a much prized Vic foodstuff.

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Miles and miles of the real stuff of markets – fruit, veg, cheese, meats.

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Yes, that does say “Kangaroo Fillets.”

We were energized and instructed in Melbourne. It is a wonderful place, and has much to teach about what makes good urbanism, in any hemisphere. I wish we could take our local leaders there for a visit – they might see a few things of value, and learn a few things. Perhaps like this:

Lessons –

The 20 minute commute is not about cars

Mobility is a network

The public realm of blocks and streets and parks fundamentally defines a place

Walkability trumps everything, whether downtown or in neighborhoods

Density is good, whether downtown or in neighborhoods

Even weird architecture can make a great urban place, especially if it is surrounded with fantastic historic urban fabric


Go to Melbourne and see for yourself – it’s worth the trip.


Whew! Talk complete. Amazing how much work a 12 minute presentation can be. Especially when you have no note cards – just an increasingly rusty memory.

You can see and listen to the talk here:


Go to session 4, and then go to the 36 minute mark. Runs about 14 minutes.

Thanks to all of our friends here who were so helpful as this thing took shape. And most of all thanks to my most wonderful Amy, who listened and critiqued and coached with such patience and forbearance.


TEDx Rochester

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We’re giving a talk for TEDx Rochester on November 4th. You can go to http://www.tedxrochester.org/ to learn more. We will be live-streamed around town, so why not take a look and see what’s up?

You can find the live-stream here: http://new.livestream.com/tedx/Rochester. The talks start at 10:00am.

And stay tuned for any after-talk video that may pop up somewhere.

Back to rehearsal….


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