In “Walkable City”, author Jeff Speck writes about the failures of past urban beautification programs. He recalls “the famous ’Five Bs’ of the eighties – bricks, banners, bandstands, bollards, and berms – that now grace many an abandoned downtown.”
I smiled at the description, picturing a generic deserted downtown with the elements described. And then I found myself in downtown Council Bluffs, Iowa looking at a real world example.
Banners? No, but the hangers from which they once hung are still there.
Bandstand? I didn’t notice one, but perhaps it was around the corner.
Bollards? Council Bluffs substituted a couple of different Bs with benches and bike racks.
Berms? Landscape buffers instead.
Pedestrians? Nowhere to be seen. No downtown should be that quiet at 3pm on a Friday afternoon. It wasn’t a bad looking downtown, but it was all dressed up with no place to go.
Speck nailed it.
And then the story grew worse. A companion and I ordered sandwiches in a nearby restaurant. Upon learning that we were visiting Council Bluffs for the first time, our server provided a wealth of local tourist information, little of which was particularly helpful or pertinent. Not that we had any plan to stay in Council Bluffs for any longer than needed to eat the sandwiches.
But we share didn’t share our plans with the server, so she went on to tell us how Council Bluffs had put one over on nearby Omaha, grabbing the Indian casino that Omaha didn’t want. And the casino was doing fine things for Council Bluffs, allowing the city to afford a new garden next to the library.
You can imagine the conversation going on in my head. “Let me understand this. You have a nicely decorated but moribund downtown. You’ve imported much of the sin from the neighboring city along with the resulting costs for infrastructure and municipal services. In exchange, you got a new garden for the library. And you’re chortling about how well the city is doing?”
I almost always rise to the bait when urbanism is the topic of discussion. But I had awakened at 4:00 am to catch a plane, flown 2,000 miles, and found my way through a strange town to this place. Plus, I didn’t think the server had the open-mindedness to grasp the key points of my rebuttal.
So I let it the moment pass. I just wanted to be left in peace until she could bring our sandwiches.
When it did arrive, my sandwich was soggy and thoroughly mediocre. I doubt I’ll again visit Council Bluffs. But I can’t erase the memory.
The next meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat will be Tuesday, September 10. As usual, we’ll convene at 5:30 at the Aqus Café, which is at H and 2nd Streets in Petaluma.
This month, Susan Starbird will talk about the Petaluma River Access Plan. Starbird, who is an active user of the Petaluma River, has long championed increased public use of the river.
If time permits, we’ll also discuss “The Smart Growth Manual” by Andres Duany, Jeff Speck, and Mike Lydon. Even those who haven’t read the book should enjoy the conversation.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)