In March, my sister Kristin and brother-in-law Shawn retired and moved to the country between Spokane, Washington, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. So my dad, Peeve, and I recently headed out on a road trip to visit and to get away from town for a bit.
Several months ago I wrote a blog about the advice my mentor Dan Whitehurst gave to me when I told him I was interested in revitalizing downtown Fresno and the Tower District. He said to pack my bags and visit as many cities as I could, to learn what I could, and to bring those lessons back to our hometown. As I look back, I think about how wise it was not to tell me how to do revitalization; instead, he sent me on a quest to learn about revitalization. This gift of lifelong learning and exploration continues 32 years later.
Since our road trip destination was located between two cities I’d never visited before, I was quite excited to explore. This isn’t a travel blog—my hope is to inspire you to look at cities with a sense of wonder and curiosity that will make your travel and even your understanding of your own city more meaningful.
What you can learn from walking a city
When you are going to visit a city, look at Wikipedia for a good overview. What’s the population? What does the city’s name mean? Many people know what Fresno means. But I rarely find a person who knows who San Joaquin was (so click the link to find out for yourself). Unless you are traveling to a city where you’re really going to map out all of your activities, a general base of knowledge is more than most people acquire and will jumpstart your observations and insights.
A funny thing about cities is they all claim to be historic. It’s true, of course, because they all have a history. So learn a little about their history. It will make your trip more interesting and you’ll also start to see connections with other cities’ histories. For example, many cities started as a sea port, then cities started along rivers, and then they started popping up along railroads. The commonality is that they began where goods and people could be transported in and out. Another thing you’ll notice about cities is when their bigger buildings were built. Bigger buildings take a lot of resources to build and to sustain, so it’s like looking at the rings on a tree stump. You can tell when they had their booms and busts.
Talk to the locals. It’s hilarious how similar people are across the country (and probably the world). Many people will complain regardless of their location. Everyone complains about weather. They’ll usually complain about their city government and leaders. Unless you are in a handful of big cities or college towns, people will complain that things close too early. They’ll all complain about downtown parking. And some places love to complain about traffic and home prices and rents. But the locals will also help you find the local treasures, though sometimes it takes a bit of prodding to find the best local food and culture. This is a result of the ubiquitous nature of chains. It took all night for me to find authentic southern food in Chattanooga—even the locals forgot they had a place called Bea’s Kitchen.
Once you get into a city, start walking. Look down at the tree grates. Look up at the buildings. Look inside the shops. Even after 32 years of this exploration, I still find new things I haven’t seen anywhere else. In Coeur d’Alene, I saw some really cool public art in the sidewalk area. I was surprised to see that the sculptures were for sale and that the art was curated by the local arts council. What a great way to beautify a city and support local artists. In Encinitas, California, they have downtown banners painted by local artists and they’re auctioned off at the end of the month they’re displayed, supporting their local arts organization.
In Spokane, I enjoyed their downtown but I also enjoyed seeing a couple of recently revitalized neighborhoods and business districts (like our Tower District and hopefully our Chinatown, for example). They have very supportive business associations. They also had a brand new neighborhood and business district that was built across the river from their downtown. It was built on abandoned rail yards. So it was fun to see how the old can come back to life but how a new urban neighborhood can be built using traditional city form and function.
Enjoy cities for who they are
Almost every piece of a city can be interesting. I look at tree grates, business signs, bicycle parking, garbage cans, parking rates, business types, posters in windows to see upcoming events… even gum alley in San Luis Obispo. The more you pay attention, the more you find uniqueness and similarities. Don’t be too quick to rush to judgment—some cities mature more quickly than others, some are buttoned-up, and some are like a goofy friend that is always somewhat chaotic. Just enjoy them for who they are. Remember that every city we like today used to be a mess 40 years ago. They change, and watching as a city figures out who they are and what their niche in the world is can be just as exciting as going to the places that are already farther along.
You don’t have to be an urban planner or an architect to look into what makes cities the special places they are. The leaders of city change have been people who used their powers of observation, not formal training. The matriarch of city revitalization was Jane Jacobs and she learned more from sitting and watching from a sidewalk café than any professional with a degree. And she had a much bigger impact. Dan Burden has changed the way we did streets and sidewalks for walkability. Fred Kent started Project for Public Spaces and changed the way we design cities from a human perspective. Regular people who have taken the time to watch and think and engage with people are the real change agents. You can be one, too.