Donjek Project: Minneapolis Downtown Open Space Initiative

The year's twilight is a good time to add a postscript to a previous item I wrote, at that time introducing work undertaken to help the City of Minneapolis evaluate the prospect of converting downtown land area to open space. Since that post in fall, 2007, Donjek has been engaged on projects in a similar vein in Little Rock, Arkansas and I have written a number of short commentary pieces on that project and issues surrounding parks.

The City of Minneapolis' Department of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) recently posted the full report of the multi-disciplinary team to its website and the document is available by chapter or as a whole here. There is never a "perfect time" to convert land from taxable to tax-exempt use (history suggests the same), and property and sales tax revenues are at a premium across the country today for core public purposes. Still, what is also evident is that other things equal, urban land stands only to become more valuable in the coming decades thanks to transportation logistics, energy policy and climate change. In economists' terms, the opportunity cost of failing to procure open space for downtown dwellers now stands to grow significantly in the future.

Photo: Courtesy of jpnuwat/Flickr.

Intuition, Criterion for Your Next Project

Got intuition?

I work with parties involved in urban land use and redevelopment, ranging from public agencies to private developers and foundations. In some respects, this field, like many, become more analytical and data-driven. We break down components of location: Road, rail and transit access. Visibility. The quality of pedestrian environment. Hot zones. Proximity to vendors and customers. Market values and discretionary income in surrounding neighborhoods. Mix of adjacent land uses.
Recently, I called a client involved in commercial real estate investment for forty years and asked, what's in a location? How do you evaluate places for their potential? To be sure, he cited all the factors listed above and others. It didn't take long to move through these aspects of location, presented individually, understood to influence each other.

But afterward, the list exhausted, he had more to say. After the division of location into components, there was a remainder. An important one.

Intuition. Or is it thin slicing?

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink. The premise of the book is that we have an ability and tendency to evaluate others and situations on an immediate, subconscious level. Once we establish these "thin slices," in the author's lexicon, they guide (or misguide) us without much consultation from the thinking side. I'm left to wonder how much of my time has been spent residing in the analytic part of my mind, pretending I am in charge while the subconscious pulls all the levers.

On loan in the Donjek office space is an energetic pair of oil paintings created by a friend, whose artistic method for the works was to project an image on the canvas, paint based on the projection, project a different image, repeat. The outcome is a finished work thickly endowed with oil, drawing the eye and teasing the brain to interpret the combinations of strokes a hundred different ways.

Welcome to the places we're redeveloping.

The Future, Coming Soon to a City Near You

In 1543, Copernicus published “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres,” which sketched out a vision that the Earth, as a round and floating form, circled the Sun along with neighboring planets. History will not rank innovations in mapping technology in recent years in the Copernicus league; these tools haven’t initiated fundamental challenges to political and religious orders required to justify that comparison.  However, I have been amazed to see changes in the geographic information systems (GIS) realm, and in related map technology.

Donjek projects have used GIS analytics and images in a range of ways, and I am currently developing new applications of these tools for clients in real estate development, investment, and urban planning (more to come on this topic).  The inspiration for this post, however, is to display how mapping tools can create meaningful observations from opaque bodies of data.
The maps included here represent cell phone usage in the small town of Graz, Austria, and illustrate a novel approach to understanding places.  By identifying roads or rivers or museums or transit stations or academic buildings, maps give us a visual sense of how features and places are connected. Urban maps also depict where centers are, marked by downtowns, plazas, intersections.  Mapping cell phone data is a real-time approach to understanding where centers are, when they are, and perhaps even why certain places function as they do.
About ten years ago, I enjoyed a very rich two weeks in Rome, Florence and the Liguria region in Italy. A particular highlight, among several, was beholding the imposing globe at the Medici palace in Florence. Built in the 1560s – only twenty years after Copernicus’ famous release, and seventy years after Columbus landed in the West Indies – the globe is over six feet in diameter and represents a period of great discovery and curiosity. As I’ve thought of it in recent years, the globe is a symbol of an evolving view – of the shape of the Earth, its place in the solar system, and its far-flung features and peoples.
Could the developing tools for mapping open our eyes to the space around us in some similar fashion? I will stay tuned.

Velcro, Thorny Devils, and Placemaking

Last April, en route to a conference of the International Economic Development Council in Washington, D.C., I encountered a feature story in National Geographic and became lost in the journey.  The topic? The history of Velcro.

Among other things.

Velcro (photographed up close, at right) was invented in 1948 by Swiss chemist George de Mestral who, according to the article, was inspired by the effectiveness with which burrs would become entangled in his dog's coat.  De Mestral could be counted as a pioneer among modern biomimeticists, who seek to create innovation based on the aerodynamic design of a fish's body, the ability of a thorny devil to "drink" by wicking water up its legs from the ground, or the way a desert beetle collects fog for needed moisture.

The thorny devil, and biomimetics generally, is important to urban planning and development, too. Ecology and the benefits of biological diversity are reflected in modern portfolio theory, which suggests the importance of holding multiple assets whose values fluctuate independently of each other.  Some of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the current wave of foreclosures are those communities with monolithic development patterns – very similar single-family homes with limited or no proximity to commercial or retail services or other assets.  Builders and homeowners alike witnessed the positive side of life without diversification during the real estate boom, with values marching upward.  Today, the same parties are experiencing the negative side of the same approach, because a decline in prices for one type of land use is not mitigated by a diverse mix.

The capabilities of today's biomimeticists to understand the functions of plants and animals inspired a response of marvel from me. Human understanding of the complexity of the relationships among the flora and fauna around us is similarly advancing.  Placemakers shaping our cities and metro areas have much to gain from imitating nature, extending from building healthy human habitat to applying the lessons of diversity to our urban economic thinking. 

Photo courtesy of American Museum of Natural History. Map courtesy of Donjek.