Our Urban Challenge: First in a Series

“What is striking about biking is not that it solves any particular problem but, instead, that is it part of the solution to several.” —  J. Harry Wray

We have several problems in Springfield.

You can begin to survey our problems — or challenges — by reading Springfield’s Competitive Assessment. Another snapshot of our community is available through the American Factfinder provided by the U.S. Census Bureau. Also be sure to check out the city’s GIS maps.

I am going to argue for increased spending on bicycle and pedestrian accommodation in the urban core — an area I’m defining as south of I-44, north of Sunshine, West of Glenstone, and east of Kansas Expressway. This area covers roughly the entire downtown and the old inner-ring suburbs.

I believe that encouraging walking and bicycling in this area — and gently discouraging driving — can play an important role in adjusting to the problems I’m going to outline here (not an exhaustive list). Notice I did not say “fixing” the problems. I’m not at all sure some of the problems can be fixed. But I am sure that more people walking and bicycling can make things better, so it is worth the modest price to begin turning Springfield’s urban core into Bicycle & Pedestrian City.

Richard Florida argues in his book Who’s Your City that place matters, i.e. where you live has a great influence on your economic well-being. Further, he argues that the most talented people tend to cluster in major urban areas where they feed off the creativity and economic energy of other talented people. Still further, the connections between the most economically powerful urban areas allow for mobility and cooperation — creating the feeling of flatness described by Thomas Friedman. These factors create an economic multiplying effect — more talented people, more money, more business, more jobs, more talented people, etc. Springfield is not one of these attractive urban areas, but it could be on a smaller scale. My observations and opinions are going to be a bit less rosy than what you’ll find in the economic assessment of the area by the Springfield Business Development Corporation, although I heartily agree that Springfield has much to recommend it as a place to live, raise children, and do business. Let’s take a look at just a few low lights:

  • Springfield is isolated geographically. The nearest large metropolitan areas are Kansas City and St. Louis. These cities are accessible by car (3 to 4 hours drive time), bus, and air. As the price of oil increases, these transportation limitations will further isolate Springfield. While isolated, Springfield is the largest city in a metropolitan area that includes Nixa, Ozark, Branson, Joplin, and smaller cities and towns in SW Missouri and NW Arkansas. The transportation connections among these cities and towns are limited to car travel and very limited bus service. It is not possible, for example, to travel from Springfield to Branson by regularly-scheduled bus service.
  • Springfield lacks diversity. It is the second whitest city in America. African-Americans make up just 3.8% of the population compared to 12.3% nationally. Other minorities are under-represented, too. The Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce has identified a lack of diversity as a threat to business growth here.
  • Springfield is a poor city. The median household income of $34,656 is significantly below the national median of $52,175. The median family income of $45,648 is significantly below the national median of $63,211. Per capita income in 2008 was $21,845 compared to $27,466 nationally. Poverty is a problem in Springfield — 13.5% of families here live below the poverty level compared to 9.6% nationally, and 32.5% of households have incomes less than $24,999. And 19.1% of individuals — almost 1 in 5 — live below poverty level here compared to 13.2% nationally. Of Springfield’s workforce, 51.7% work in service, sales, or office occupations. You’ll sometimes here people in Springfield counter that the cost of living here is low. True. But what happens when oil is $200 per barrel?
  • Springfield’s transportation situation creates the need to own a car —  44.1% of housing units have 1 car available  and 8.1% have no car available. The bus system remains controversial and under-used.
  • Springfield’s urban core lacks the population (urban) density necessary to create the need for public transportation, and, I would argue, to create a thriving downtown business center.

Springfield does have highlights to be sure — many things we should all be proud of. During the course of this series I expect to crow about the good things, but I will also point out the problems. And I will offer my opinions about both.

Next, let’s take a look at a few things happening downtown:

First, a very good thing.

That was the scene yesterday morning at the Mudhouse on South Street downtown. Keep this in mind as we continue this journey…

I’ve mentioned before that my family is thinking about moving downtown. We currently live within the urban core very near MSU. Developers have been renovating old buildings to create lofts. Below is a picture of the Founders Park Lofts. This is the kind of living situation we’re looking for.

My wife and I expected to make such a move after our daughter graduated from high school. Those plans began to change when our 15-year-old asked to be included. She enjoys downtown. She rides there often on her bicycle to meet friends and enjoy the scene.

These lofts offer an interesting living environment for young members of the creative class. To attract these people there needs to be something for them to do — work and leisure. Pictured below is the Jordan Valley Innovation Center — one of many projects that MSU has undertaken downtown (also including Brick City and leasing other buildings for classrooms and office space) that offer the creative class something to do.

I’ve written before about the renovations to the Square, which I believe will become the attraction that everyone hopes. The design is a big part of the reason — it’s becoming a shared space rather than a segregated space. Now we have to do something abut the Heers building. Slated to be lofts, it is instead sitting empty and creating a hazard.

Finish it or tear it down. But whatever the powers-that-be decide, something needs to happen soon. This building, I believe, contributes to the (false) perception that downtown is scary, dangerous, and dead. If it were any of those things I wouldn’t let my 15-year-old daughter ride her bicycle there.

The Great Recession has dented downtown hopes. Buildings such as the one below sit empty — this one at a prime intersection: Campbell and Walnut. It used to house Well Fed Head Books, which moved out of the urban core.

I hear people lament the loss of this bookstore often; it was a lively scene during First Friday Art Walks. I used to shop there. I do not, however, shop at their new location. I spend my money downtown. Every dollar is a vote. And I vote for downtown.

Hard economic times have also hurt the College Station project — pictured here is the parking garage and the retail space (empty). It also includes Hollywood Theaters. I think it’s great that the city encouraged this project. It will be a great addition to downtown once … what? Well, I’m getting to that.

In order to fill up downtown buildings with thriving businesses it seems to me that we need to fill up downtown with people by encouraging them to live in the urban core. Various downtown interests like to crow about having 6,000 parking spaces as a way to encourage people from the suburbs to visit downtown — and they do for the First Friday Art Walk. What about the rest of the month?

A modest proposal: It’s time to stop thinking about attracting people downtown to visit and instead attract them to the urban core to live.

How do you do that? I have what I believe is a cost-effective idea (that I hope to develop into a plan). It could begin with getting rid of a few of those 6,000 parking paces.

Imagine a scene on South Street between Walnut and McDaniel in which no cars are allowed to park on the street. The sidewalks could be widened enough to allow businesses in that 1-block stretch to use expanded outdoor space. Imagine the Mudhouse, or one of the other restaurants, with seating on the street. Imagine who might be interested in filling in the vacant building space if an open streetscape were created.

Now imagine more streetscapes like the Square — people-friendly places that encourage walking and socializing.

Imagine sharrows painted on the streets — in the middle of the streets — to encourage bicyclists.

Imagine a future in which people who live in the urban core — and people who visit — choose to walk or ride a bicycle because these modes of transportation make downtown an enjoyable environment in which to live, work, and play.

Imagine City Utilities offering an urban core shuttle service similar to MSU’s Bearline — accessible with a transit card.

Imagine…

I think making the urban environment attractive comes before increasing population density. The reasons to move must exist before people will move. One way to make the urban core attractive is to make it easier — better — to get around by some other means than a car. I believe creative classers will be attracted to a place in which they can live greener lives. We might even be able to attract workers for a green economy this way.

I think large, expensive projects are fine (e.g. College Station). But it seems to me that we can begin creating an attractive environment by more cost-effective means, e.g. creating Bicycle & Pedestrian City — welcoming streetscapes, or complete streets, that encourage people to get out of their cars.

I believe members of the creative class will be attracted by such an environment. This means: 1) retaining more recent college graduates in the community, 2) attracting creative classers looking for a small city community in which they can make a real difference, 3) attracting businesses (especially green businesses) looking for a diverse 21st century workforce in an area with traditional American values, and 4) mitigating Springfield’s demographic challenges.

Our urban challenge is to make sure that Springfield isn’t forgotten in a world of large and economically powerful metropolitan regions.

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Comments 2

  1. AndrewP wrote:

    I like the thoughts you have put into this, but can I ask if you’ve given any considerations into housing costs?

    The problem I’ve seen with this concept (we have some of this going on in Downtown Orlando) is that housing costs are (traditionally) way too high. Many of the “creative” people you talk about do not hold down the highest-paying jobs, so housing costs can be a major factor in where they decide to live vs. where they decide to “hang out” …. I would hope there would be some creative inspiration in the housing builds that would allow aspiring singles as well as young families the ability to afford living in this environment.

    In Orlando I’ve watched way too many of our downtown condos sit empty because the original developers targeted the upper-end spectrum of the market and have priced their places accordingly. As I mentioned early, they now sit empty ……

    Posted 15 Mar 2010 at 3:44 pm
  2. Andy Cline wrote:

    Steve… Good question. Our housing costs are low here. So it should be attractive for the creative class. We have more of a cultural problem keeping our creative class from escaping to KC, St. Louis, Chicago … you name it :-)

    Posted 15 Mar 2010 at 4:43 pm