Category: Urbanism (page 3 of 3)

Old Town Alexandria

As I posted last week, I was in Washington, D.C. over spring break. This week back at school has been pretty busy so I haven’t had time to post more about my trip until now. The first day I arrived in D.C., Saturday, March 10, my friend Spencer and I explored the city of Alexandria. A few miles south of Reagan National Airport, it’s a historic and dense community surrounded by sprawling suburbia and “McMansions” of northern Virginia. A little bit of history – Alexandria was first settled around 1695, and was ceded to the federal government in 1790, for the new District of Columbia. In 1846, it returned to Virginia when D.C. was reduced to the east side of the Potomac River.

The Metro station, where we first arrived at in Alexandria, is located at the western edge of downtown or “Old Town” as it is called. Newer development has been built up around the station, using similar materials like brick and some quasi-historical architecture. Directly west of the Metro station, atop a high hill is the George Washington Masonic Monument. At 333 feet high from its base, it is certainly monumental. In addition, the hilltop also offers terrific views of Alexandria and Washington, D.C. in the distance.

We walked further into Old Town along King Street, a bustling street consisting of mostly commercial uses with various shops and eateries. It was quite busy, being a Saturday afternoon. The majority of buildings here are two or three story row houses or small brick commercial buildings. Sidewalks throughout most of Old Town are paved in brick and the streets are not overly wide. On-street parking protects pedestrians on the sidewalk from moving traffic. Along the side streets, most buildings are residential. Some row houses are extremely narrow, allowing many houses on one block. Each house is different from the one next to it. The variety and amount of row houses along narrow streets creates a network of interesting and walkable pathways throughout Old Town Alexandria.

Overall I enjoyed Alexandria. It demonstrates a harmony between historical preservation and vibrancy. Unfortunately, income diversity is lack in Old Town, as most of the housing stock is notably upscale. However, even though low to moderate income groups could not afford to live here, they are certainly not unwelcome. Unlike other upscale neighborhoods I visited around D.C., Old Town Alexandria did not feel overly pretentious to me and I did not feel terribly out of place. For the most part, Alexandria is a good model for vibrant, urban neighborhoods.

See all my photos of Alexandria here.

My Ideal City

I’m posting another paper from my CRP class, this one describing my ideal city. It touches on some of the things I like about Baltimore and Washington, DC.

My ideal city is probably too perfect to be real. It is most likely a large metropolitan city. The urban composition and cultural offerings of small towns or cities like Ames and Des Moines simply don’t cut it. If I am going to be settled somewhere for a long time (or even the rest of my life), it would be nice to have something new to see and do on any given day. I don’t want a city that I can thoroughly explore in just one day. However, I also don’t desire a city that is endlessly sprawled and sterile of unique or local character. A smaller city with exceptional urban form and culture would be much better than a larger metro made up of only cheap sprawl.

My ideal city is centered around a historic, yet vibrant, downtown that is built up densely with pleasing urban form. Row houses and mixed-use neighborhoods are the norm. There are no freeways slicing through neighborhoods and the automobile is not the dominant mode of transportation. The city provides the convenience of chain retailers and eateries, but is not oversaturated. Locally or regionally-owned, neighborhood businesses dominate, exceeding typical big box stores and drive-thrus.

Strong urban form is very important. I particularly enjoy Colonial era architecture and cities. It’d be wonderful to live in a historic row house in a dense, diverse neighborhood of a great old city. I definitely do not want to live in a modern suburban subdivision. Even older, detached homes in dense neighborhoods aren’t that attractive to me. I realize different people have different tastes, so a good city obviously needs a variety of housing types. However, I’d prefer a dominance of traditional neighborhoods of townhouses mixed with non-residential uses. Less dense housing further from the core should still be designed with urban form and public benefit in mind.

In my ideal city, people of different races, religions, and incomes would be able to live together in harmony. Low-income housing is intermixed with middle and upper class homes in the same neighborhoods. Citizens take pride in their neighborhoods and city. Diverse and mixed-use neighborhoods keep crime down, allowing for more “eyes on the street.” By celebrating its diversity, this city affords a multitude of cultural, educational, and entertainment opportunities.

Sustainability and efficiency is important for a good city. This means environmentally friendly buildings, compact urban design, and of course transportation. The ideal city has minimal sprawl and retains its historic urban form and density. Public transportation is an integral part of the city landscape, comprising of both rail and bus modes. The city also has an intensive bike and walking trail system, providing another legitimate mean of transportation, in addition to recreation.

The closest, real US city to my ideal is probably somewhere on the East Coast. I really like old Georgian architecture and dense urban neighborhoods that can only be found in the East Coast’s historic cities. I particularly enjoy the cities of Washington, DC, and Baltimore. Both cities are rich in historic buildings and urban neighborhoods. I love how in Washington, nearly every decision made about development has been well thought out and planned. Another strong point is its extensive Metro system, allowing residents and visitors, alike, to get just about anywhere without an automobile. Although much of Baltimore is blighted with poverty and crime, its miles and miles of row houses radiating from the Inner Harbor puts me to awe. Even the suburbs appear more attractive to me than those in other regions. Many of them are built up as small urban centers along Metro lines. Others have actually been around for over a hundred years, maintaining their own historic charm. There are obvious drawbacks to the region, particularly social issues. Baltimore is inundated with crime-ridden, dilapidated neighborhoods and Washington is gentrifying at an alarming rate.

All cities have good and bad elements. I look forward to exploring more in the future to refine my definition of what the ideal is. Based on my experiences so far, the ideal city I describe is urban, sustainable, and diverse.

Cedar Rapids

I’m posting a paper I had to write for my CRP class about how I feel about my hometown. I enjoyed this assignment beacuse it forced me to organize all my thoughts and concerns about Cedar Rapids. Here it is:

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is what most residents would call a “good place to live.” That is a true statement in my view. My time growing up there was pleasant; it was safe, friendly, and offered things to do for fun. I’ve always been fascinated with large metropolitan cities and sought to find elements of them in my own moderately sized city. I’ve been doing this since I was quite young, though I may not have always realized it. Up until just a year or two ago, my idea of what makes a good city was pretty ill-informed and naive. I assumed that basically all things about major metropolitans were good, and therefore something to strive for in my own city, whether it be dense neighborhoods, public transportation, or even endless freeways and suburban sprawl.

That was a time when I would excite over a new strip mall going up or a new big box with generous parking. Anything to make the city seem a bit more like a larger city was good. However it would still always lack a true urban core, which in my view now and probably even then, is an essential part of an exceptional metropolitan city.

Aside from a few tiny pockets of urban agglomeration most of Cedar Rapids is sprawled and auto-centric. Downtown is respectable with about a dozen or so dominant mid-rise buildings and an enormous but not overbearing Quaker Oats factory to the north. From a distant view the skyline is large, appearing vibrant and powerful, but the internal experience is thoroughly disappointing. Much of downtown is too open (per the wide river, building scales, and open lots) making it feel incomplete and vulnerable. City Hall and the county courthouse are located on Mays Island in the Cedar River in downtown, which is unique to only two other cities in the world. In between the two buildings is a public green space used for festivals but at all other times it is completely desolate. There’s really no reason to go there unless you work in either of the two buildings. Overall downtown lacks character, vibrancy and is not the urban retreat I’d like it to be.

Resident mentality and civic interest is also an important part of a great city. There is a sense of community in Cedar Rapids but I think the goals of people are largely individual. Most are satisfied with the mundane character of the city and put more effort into their own homes. If you are successful, you most likely live in an upscale suburban home or in a new cookie-cutter subdivision. There are no townhouses and few attractive living options downtown. The older residential areas around downtown are denser and more mixed use, but like most American city cores, have seen better days. Though they are not as well kept and more crime-ridden, the residents of these areas seem to have a much greater sense of community and ownership of their neighborhood. If there’s any community in newer subdivisions it feels artificial and temporary, at best. Residents are much less likely to interact with their neighbors on a daily basis than those in the older, denser neighborhoods closer to the core.

As the city continues to grow and expand, virtually all new housing is in the form of suburban subdivisions or cheap apartment buildings. Like I mentioned before, a few years ago I thought this was terrific, but now I find it depressing and degrading. Cedar Rapids is simply becoming a large suburb and losing its integrity as a substantial city.


In conclusion I consider Cedar Rapids a real city and significant to the state of Iowa. However it simply does not offer the urban physique or attitude I now desire. It continues down a path of suburbanization, ensuring it will never satisfy me. It was a nice place to grow up and will be nice to come back and visit sometime. But that’s about it.

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