Friday, June 27, 2014

The Politics of Placemaking

I think a lot about cities while I'm running. In particular on my running route through my new neighborhood in downtown Lansing I'm seeing the city through new eyes even though I've worked downtown for over eight years. I think a lot about what makes places great - great places to run, great places to live, work, great places to be. But I also think about how we get there, and I'm always running through the politics of placemaking in my head.

A few weeks ago at the annual Congress for New Urbanism meeting in Buffalo, New York I was thinking a lot about politics. Despite my not so secret desire to be more involved in urban planning, there's a lot of politics that gets in the way. Part of what I do as a lobbyist for cities is navigate the politics. They are real, and they can be really divisive. 

I feel like all of the things we discussed at CNU and all of my work at the Michigan Municipal League is a no brainer. Of course people want public transit, vibrant downtowns, walkable neighborhoods, great parks. How could they not? It just makes sense, and there's zero arguing that, right? Then we hit that wall that is the state legislature/state department/county board/city council/(insert other political entity here). As intuitive as it seems, there are still political roadblocks.

Recently I was discussing the sheer number of traffic lanes in downtown Lansing with a legislative staffer. Captiol Avenue outside of my office has two parking lanes, three driving lanes and turning lanes. It's ABSURD. So much so that I can (and have) laid in the middle of the street. Granted this photo is at night, but it could happen pretty much any time other than peak rush hour...and even then this street needs MAYBE two lanes on a busy day.

I should not be able to do this in downtown Lansing.

I was discussing with this staffer that there is way too much infrastructure. He looked at me and said, "According to whom?" And I was like WHAT?!? Seriously?!? It's SO obvious.

A few years ago Lansing put a bike lane on Saginaw Street, a street that was 4-5 lanes across and needed two of them at its busiest. The bike lane took up a completely unnecessary traffic lane. The feedback from haters on Facebook was shocking. People were scathing. How DARE we take a lane we don't need and dedicate it to bikes? I was honestly shocked. And appalled. How do you people not get it?

As undeniable as I think these principals are, politics does not always agree. That's the challenge with placemaking, although the undisputable research put together by great groups like CNU, The Brookings Institution, and The Project for Public Spaces (to name a few...there are many) has been helping to reshape the conversation.  This isn't a political argument. Placemaking is an economic argument. The focus on creating great places is critical to job creation and talent attraction and retention. This is not a liberal or conservative argument. It's the only one that makes sense - it's a necessary investment.

Despite the challenge of continuing to navigate the politics of placemaking, it's getting easier. People are starting to get it. It's not fluff. It's real, and it's critical. Navigating the politics of placemaking is one of my favorite things to do. So how about if we leave the politics at the door and work together to get something done?       

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Gun Show

In case you missed it despite my shameless bragging, last weekend I completed my first sprint triathlon. I spent several months swimming several times a week along with running several half marathons, buying a new house and basically upending my entire life.  Last weekend it all came to a head, but I really feel like I reached my goal before the race.

I love a challenge, and one of the things I most wanted to see how cross training would affect my body. When you really, REALLY love running, it's hard to motivate yourself to do anything else. There's no other form of exercise I'd rather do. I want to cross train, but I'd rather be running. Training for a triathlon forced me to get out of my comfort zone and cross train in ways I never would've done otherwise. Getting up 5:10 am and heading to the pool two days a week? That never would've happened without serious motivation.

While logging lots of early mornings at the pool I found my body changing and becoming leaner. My running times were insanely fast (for me). I broke my half marathon PR twice and took more than two minutes off my 5k PR. This happened while I was barely running otherwise and doing nothing different other than adding swimming and biking into my training repertoire.

While I generally found the swimming to be inconvenient, I love the results. I am in the best shape I've been in since my mid-20s, and I feel fantastic. One of my goals was to have arms as muscular as I did when I was 25, and I think I've gotten there (or at least I'm close).

My goal: my arms circa 2004. In this photo I'm encouraging my brother to win a karaoke contest.
2014: Imploring my dog to eat her dinner. (Also how much better are cameras in the last ten years?!?)
Initially I didn't think I'd keep swimming after the tri, but now I'm already looking forward to using swimming and biking as a way to help me shatter my PR in the New York Marathon in November. I'll at least take a little break (for sure long enough for another fun abdominal surgery in a few weeks). I know through this training process the kind of results my body is capable of achieving. It was awesome watching my body change and my confidence grow through this process. The triathlon was an incredible experience on so many levels. So now it looks like I need a new challenge. Any ideas?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Why just run when I can also bike AND swim?

I did it. After years of consideration and months of training, this past weekend I completed my first sprint triathlon. I've complained for months about the inconvenience of swimming, and I swore I would do one and only one. I may, however, have been googling other triathlons in the car on the way home. It was a fantastic challenge, and I absolutely loved it.

I was up at 4 am on Sunday a complete nervous wreck. I think there are two big factors that have kept me from doing a tri before this: the swim and the logistics of transitions. My friend and I (along with our awesome cheering sections) headed to the Waterloo Recreation Area in Grass Lake, Michigan (translation: the middle of nowhere.) We arrived about an hour early and started setting up.

I can't remember being this nervous for a race. Ever. I was relatively nervous for the Marine Corps Marathon last year, but it was nothing like this. We grabbed our packets and timing chips (which are velcro bracelets that wrap around your ankle.) I nervously pulled my stuff together and pinned my bib on the tank I would put on after the swim.

All nerves prepping for the race.
Striking a pose after getting marked up.
There was a mandatory meeting on the beach before the swim. Nearly everything about this race was impeccably organized from the pre-race registration to race day logistics. The Tri Goddess Tri race is an all women's triathlon with more than 300 women competing in their first tri. It was made easy for us. Despite the organization I stood on the beach listening to final instructions and trying not to panic.

The face of terror.
My friend is a super swimmer, and she took off with the elite swimmers. I stood on the beach shaking off the nerves and trying to remain calm. I ran into the water still trying to calm my nerves. Unfortunately the first part of the swimming course was REALLY weedy. Here's the thing: I don't love lakes. The idea of an open water swim is pretty much terrifying. So pulling weeds off of me (including from around my neck - gross) during the first few minutes was almost making me panic. Once I got past the weeds I had to work for a few minutes to calm my breathing. I was just repeating the phrase "nice and steady" in my head over and over again. Finally it worked, and I pushed through the swim in 26 minutes and 4 seconds. Not fast. At all.

And we're off!
Into the water

The transition from the lake to the bike was challenging. We had to run up a hill for quite a ways barefoot to the transition. Another thing I dislike as much as lakes is being barefoot. I HATE having my shoes off. I wear shoes in my own house. Running barefoot with grass, dirt and water on my feet is not ideal, but I powered through. One of my tri veteran friends suggested a small pan with water to clean off my feet before putting on my shoes. It was genius and made a huge difference.

Transition time

I quickly put on my tank, shoes and bike helmet and set off on the bike. I must confess - I barely trained for the bike portion. It's biking. How hard can it be right? I did some spinning workouts and took the bike I'd borrowed out twice before the race. I was a few miles in before I realized getting through 10.7 miles would be harder than I thought. Couple that with the hilly course, and my legs were burning. People were flying by me during the bike, and I felt like I was taking forever. I pulled back into the transition area with a time of 42:49.

Starting the run felt like coming home.

I saw my husband and said, "Finally, the easy part!" It felt great to use my legs in the way they like best - running. It took a few minutes to get into the groove, but in about a half a mile I was flying. We turned onto a wooded trail a half a mile in, and I was booking it. I didn't have a single person pass me during the run, and I passed probably 50 people. The other racers were so supportive. Nearly everyone I passed said, "Good job!" or "Get it" or something else encouraging. I navigated the trails and hills with a smile on my face. When I came around the corner to the finish I put it in high gear and pushed it - hard. It felt amazing to cross that finish line giving it 100 percent. I completed the three mile run in 24:05 which is a great time for me.

I wanted to finish the triathlon more than anything, but I had a secret goal of 1 hour and 45 minutes in my head. I didn't want to get wrapped up in time, so I didn't really tell many people. I crossed the finish in 1:36:36, well ahead of my mental goal. I loved every single minute of it (okay maybe not the weeds or the barefoot part but the rest). It was such a fantastic challenge, and I feel strong and amazing. I do feel like a goddess. Seriously.

With my awesome friend afterward.

It appears that competing in triathlons won't allow me to complete races downtown, so I may do one every now and then while continuing to run half marathons on a more regular basis. After all running these towns is pretty much my thing. But the all out challenge of pushing my body and my mind in such a different way was amazing. I love being a tri goddess. Think "I Tri These Towns" has the same ring to it?


Tuesday, June 17, 2014


I'm pretty sure I am actually invincible. Wait - you don't think anyone is? Hear me out. I live with severe Crohn's, and I'm staring down the barrel at abdominal surgery number 5. If I didn't tell you that, you would never even know. I've had skin cancer twice (thankfully caught early and didn't require additional treatment). I run with a recurring IT band injury.  I don't let these things stop me; quite the opposite. These are my motivators. If I hurt, I push harder. If I'm tried, I keep going. Sure, that's probably not what any of my doctors would recommend, but I have one life. One shot at doing this thing right. Stopping is not an option for me. Hence I am convinced that I am indeed invincible.

Every great once in a while there is a crack in my cloak of invincibility that make me wonder if I am a mere mortal. I don't like being faced with that. It's rude. Yesterday we were at my husband's family's cottage to celebrate his birthday and Father's Day. I decided it would be a good day for an open water swim - I've never done one. The triathlon is next weekend, and the open water swim is my biggest fear.

Our cousins offered to swim with me, and my husband and the youngest cousin accompanied me across the lake with a paddle boat to make sure I wasn't run over by a boat or jet ski (which would not have been fun). When I jumped in the water my breath was taken away by the cold. It was so cold that I actually could not catch my breath which is a problem while trying to swim. I did some sort of weird modified above the water breast stroke trying to catch my breath. It was brutal. 

I turned around on the other side of the lake, and I started getting into more of a groove on the way back. I didn't account for the fact that unlike the pool there are ripples on the lake. The water likes to slap you in the face when you take a breath. I was thinking about adding dozens of other people, and I was trying not to panic.

When I got back to the cottage I was exhausted. My husband reminded me that when I do this swim next week this is the point where I'll jump on a bike for more than ten miles. I love a new challenge, and I don't often feel like there's much I can't do. After that swim I felt anything but invincible. I felt vulnerable, and I felt scared.

With our cousin/one of my swim escorts after the frozen swim. On the plus side my arms look like the 25-year-old version.
I tried to put it past me, but this morning the doubts crept back into my head during a long swim in the pool. I've talked about dealing with doubt before. I think it's a natural part of life. It's how we deal with the doubt that is the real test of our character.

Next weekend I am going to swim a half a mile, follow it with a 10.7 mile bike ride and then run three miles. I will admit that I am terrified. But trying new things and pushing myself is what life is all about. If I'm afraid to try things that scare me, what kind of life is that? Here's a little secret: I may not be invincible after all.  But try to convince my mind of that, would you? 

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Place That Feels Like Home

There are many great quotes about home. "Home is where the heart is." "There's no place like home." My favorite quote about home is by internationally renowned Japanese poet Matsu Basho: "Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home."

Despite my being completely in love with our new house, I was very sad to say goodbye to our old house last week. I didn't think I'd feel nostalgic, but I walked through the house aimlessly touching walls and thinking of good memories. It was my husband's and my first home together.  We have been through so much the last seven years - getting married, trying to start a family, traveling, busy jobs - and that house was where we went at the end of a long day. We sat in the formal living room and discussed our days over cocktails. We fought over the one tiny bathroom. We discovered that we aren't very handy.

It got me thinking about the concept of home and what that means. While our house in Lansing is home, I still think of my parents' house as home as well. I think of Norfolk, Virginia as a form of home. There are other places that are home despite their not being one's current physical dwelling. They still feel like home or at least some version of it.

The concept of home is a lot like that certain something that makes places great places. You can't quite put your finger on it, but there is some intangible quality that makes a place great. It can have all the trappings of a good city - good physical design, walkability, green space, all the good stuff - yet something isn't quite there. Home is like that. You can look at an amazing house that checks all the boxes, yet it's just not home. It's missing that distinctive characteristic that turns a house into a home.

I've spent the last few weeks feeling nostalgic about home, and I've also been thinking a lot about the intersection of home and place. I'm also feeling excited about the possibilities of what home as a place means. I spent part of last week in Buffalo, New York at a Congress for New Urbanism Conference where we discussed resilient cities. Detroit is a topic of conversation as is Buffalo (obviously). These are historic cities with the challenge of developing (or redeveloping) the distinctive traits that make places great. Something makes these cities feel like home.

One afternoon I went for a quick run through the streets of Buffalo, and I stumbled upon the Allentown neighborhood. It's clearly in transition, but it's got great shops, restaurants, and loads of charm. It's got lots of beautiful old Victorians and tree-lined streets. Allentown has that certain something that has the bones of a great place. It's the kind of place that one could imagine being home.

Please choose their homes because they can imagine themselves there. There's something elusive that reaches out and touches them. The first time we saw our new house in Downtown Lansing I knew we'd live here. It may have taken over a year, but it's ours. Earlier this week someone told me that I look like I have a glow about me now that I'm living downtown. For me home means walking to work, being downtown, sitting on our front porch and walking the dogs past the Capitol building. It means seeing the lit Capitol dome every night from the living room in the parlor.  

For me home and place are interchangeable. The traits that make a good place also make a place feel like home. We all want to love where we live - both the physical dwelling and the community.  A good place is one that in some way feels like home. Home (and thus place) is, after all, where the story begins.   

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Resilient Communities

Last week I spent a few days in Buffalo, New York at the annual Congress for New Urbanism.  It was my first time in Buffalo (aside from a brief overnight stay a few years ago on the way home from Maine), and I was interested to see another Great Lakes city in the midst of its revitalization.  To be honest I knew very little about Buffalo other than its sports teams and the Anchor Bar (home of the Buffalo wing). 

We stayed at the Embassy Suites in downtown Buffalo a few blocks from the convention center. I must say the Buffalo convention center looks like a Soviet prison. It's concrete and scary, and it is not in any way a welcoming spot for out of town visitors. It seemed like an odd space for a conference with such forward thinking ideas. I work for an organization that hosts large events, so I understand that sometimes it's just a space issue. It was, however, an offputting venue. 

The Congress sessions are filled with information from world-renowned urbanism experts. As a lobbyist it's often difficult for me to handle so much optimism. My world is decidedly pessimistic. But it's these kinds of events that are what help fuel my love of places. They are the events that help me remain optimistic when the political world threatens to bring me down. 

Downtown Buffalo has some incredible buildings. It has light rail. It has a budding theater district with some amazing architectural features. There are some great new restaurants in downtown. It has all the bones to be a vibrant 21st century city. I felt hope there. On our first afternoon we walked through the gorgeous Market Arcade Building and browsed the shops there. One of the store owners asked where we were from. Upon hearing Detroit (one of my colleagues lives there), she said, "Oh wow. I hear Detroit is going through the same resurgence that Buffalo went through a few years ago." It was an interesting comment, and we all agreed that in our minds (maybe we're biased? But I doubt it.) it seems as though Detroit has already surpassed Buffalo in its revitalization. At any rate it was fascinating to hear that the rhetoric surrounding Detroit is extremely positive in other places. 

On our first night we sort of joined a group pub crawl that started at the Pan American Grill in the Lafayette Hotel. The presentation was crowded, and we had a few drinks with some friends we made at the conference. As the group headed to a new venue we begged off and headed to The Lodge near our hotel. It turns out The Lodge is a relatively new place that has a very chic decor AND my favorite bourbon behind the bar - Four Roses Single Barrel. It was a great finish to an insightful first day in Buffalo.

The second day had some amazing sessions including one on resilient city planning featuring Jennifer Keesmaat, the Chief Planner for the City of Toronto. I'm going to let you in on a little secret: I want to be a planning nerd. I use the word "nerd" in the most affectionate way possible, and I only use it because most people I know find urban planning a bit dull. In reality it's absolutely fascinating, and I love it. I am a lobbyist in real life and a wannabe planner the rest of the time. I loved Jennifer's presentation, and it was a perfect set up for the other sessions I'd see later in the week (many on street design).

That evening we headed to Anchor Bar, the renowned home of the original buffalo wing. We had wings (obviously) and cocktails before heading to an event in Buffalo's Silo City.  Buffalo was once the world's largest grain port before the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Now those silos are abandoned and tower over the Buffalo River. The event had presenters and food trucks, and it was a really cool, haunting space. My colleague and I decided we should climb a silo which was a great decision given 1) it was dark; 2) I was wearing wedges (hot pink patent ones - perfect for climbing); and 3) we'd both had a few cocktails. Unfortunately we were yelled at to come back down, and our silo climbing was foiled.

Following Silo City we hit up the Tudor Lounge, a spot that was clearly popular with locals (and not conference attendees). The people watching was clutch, and the jukebox was playing some of my favorite 90s hip hop hits. Given that and some Maker's Mark, what more does one need? We finished the night at The Lodge again (I loved it that much). 

Silo City

Friday was our last day in Buffalo, and I started it in the best possible way - with a group run through the City. A conference that includes a running tour? Yes, please.  The tour included about a dozen of us and ran through downtown and the transitioning Allentown neighborhood. We ran past quaint storefronts, beautiful old homes (some converted to businesses or multi-family units) along tree-lined streets. The running tour was my favorite event of the entire conference. It was hosted by Victor Dover (renowned planner at Dover, Kohl & Partners in Florida) and John Simmerman (President & CEO of Active Towns). In general I found myself being relatively intimidated by the urban planning community because I am not a planner. I loved running with the group and discussing street design and architecture. I may not be an urban planner, but I can fake it with the best of them.

My favorite sessions were on Friday. In particular I loved a presentation by Ben Hamilton-Bailie, an architect by training who specializes in improving streets and public spaces. He talks about the concept of shared space - how cars and bikes and pedestrians can all use the same space without signs or traffic signals. It's a fascinating presentation. I completed my street design filled afternoon by attending a session about a book written by the aforementioned Victor Dover and John Massengale called Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns. Michigan leads a LOT to be desired when it comes to street design. The session was fascinating, and we could use a good dose of Dover and Massengale here.

The Congress had its desired effect - I came home energized, excited, and with a brand new book on street design. I spent the weekend walking around my new neighborhood in downtown Lansing evaluating the sheer volume of traffic lanes. I have a new goal - a boulevard on Capitol Avenue in Downtown Lansing. It's the perfect spot, and all it takes is changing the conversation. I can be rather persuasive when I put my mind to it. And I love a good challenge. Wait until I get some street design reading under my belt. Capitol Avenue won't know what hit it!  

Capitol Avenue, Lansing, Michigan. Road diet anyone?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

I'm in Love, and I Don't Care Who Knows It

When I lived in Norfolk, Virginia I lived in the trendy, walkable Ghent neighborhood. I had a good walk score (75 - very walkable) at my apartment, and I could (and did) walk all the time. I loved being able to walk to restaurants and stores. I had my pick of walking to Starbucks or a local coffee place. It was fabulous.

When I moved to Michigan it became quickly apparent that everyone drives everywhere. I moved into an apartment relatively close to a small downtown, and my walk score plummeted to 45 (car dependent). I had to drive 20 minutes to work, and it was necessary to drive just about everywhere. It didn't take too long until I felt like a local - I got used to the driving.

My husband and I bought our first house in Lansing in 2007, and my walk score got even worse (40 - car dependent).  After more than a year in Michigan I was resigned to the fact that my dreams of living in a downtown and walking everywhere were probably quashed. We even drove to the pharmacy and grocery store just a half a mile from our house. Why walk when driving is so much easier? It became our way of life.

In the last few years I'll be honest - I've been dreaming of leaving Michigan. We played the "where should we live" game and looked online for houses in vibrant neighborhoods. I've pretended we could buy a brownstone in Lincoln Park in Chicago; a townhouse in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia and even seriously considered a row house (along with a new job) on historic Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia.  The idea of living in a downtown began to grow larger than life, and I realized I wanted it back. I needed to be able to live and work in the same space. It became an obsession.

Last year when we first looked at a beautifully renovated Victorian in Downtown Lansing, I got my hopes up. The walk score on this house is 69 (somewhat walkable and a huge improvement). I saw the possibility of walking to work, restaurants, and festivals. There is a daycare around the corner, and I imagined dropping our kids off on the walk to work. I saw the life that I had in Virginia only better - this is the life I have as a real grown up and I share with my husband.

Fifteen months later we realized the dream of buying this house in Downtown Lansing. I worried that I had my hopes up too high for living downtown. I worried that living downtown wouldn't be as wonderful as I remembered. Thankfully, to my relief, it's amazing. I LOVE walking to work. I love running with my dogs on the Capitol lawn. I love being able to walk to dinner and drinks. A few weeks ago I walked to a 5k. We can walk to the Lansing City Market and Old Town. I love absolutely everything about being downtown. I honestly could not love it more.

Michiganders still drive nearly everywhere, and I am so happy to buck that trend. Living downtown isn't everything I thought it would be; it's more. I feel like not living downtown left me missing out on something that I didn't even realize I was missing. Now I feel like I'm living the right life again. I'm in love with my new house, and I'm in love with living in Downtown Lansing.  Life is too short to spend so much time in the car.