Last winter I wrote about five hours spent in Downtown Denver because I was so marvelously inspired by what was happening there. I have not felt that excited since… until now. A few days in DC and my outlook on life could not be any better.
There is no better time than now to dive into trying to blend sexy real estate projects with strategic community building with necessary economic development. What if we could claim beautiful sidewalks in front of charming restaurants? What if high-density neighborhoods felt comfortable and convenient? What if we could seamlessly transition from home to work to recreation and back again?
Yes, our Federal dollars make beautiful public spaces possible, museums free and underground public transportation efficient in the nation’s capital. But that is not what has me so inspired. Below is a list of ten things anyone, anywhere can do right now. We can get started with this today.
#1 – Sweep your own sidewalk.
From the edge of their threshold, out onto the stoop and straight to the curb, residents and shopkeepers alike are happily sweeping. Not powerwashing or leafblowing, but sweeping. Smiling and sweeping. DC is a cigarette smoking city filled with thousands of residents and millions of visitors. I challenge anyone to find a pile of butts or wrappers or anything else. I also dare you to find someone complaining about cleaning it up.
#2 – Don’t stack the chairs until you are sure.
We arrived late and were starved. The owner of a pizza place that was to close at 11:00 walked to the door and called us in at ten minutes after, when they saw us as potential customers peaking in. Two huge slices, two drinks and two happy customers. If we were it they would have made $11, but because we sat in the window, five other customers came in after closing time.
#3 – Park only where you are supposed to.
No one in DC dares to park on the sidewalk, in a pedestrian plaza or in an illegal spot. In contrast to Memphis, no freely dispensed passes exist for parking on a mall. I can’t imagine a pedestrian tolerating their path being impeded by a construction truck or conventioneer or neighbor parking on the sidewalk. I almost cheered when I witnessed a very nice Porsche being towed from a temporary parking zone in front of a drug store when it stayed past its welcome.
#4 – Make your front yard matter.
Washingtonians embrace the sidewalk, or rather the property that abuts it. The space is often defined with a two to three foot iron fence. Some yards are meticulously landscaped. Others are more eclectic. All are wholly embraced for comfort, whimsy and fun. Bushes, flowers, pathways, chairs, grills and art but never, ever just a grass lawn. Additional living space may be the rationale. Improved relations with neighbors and increased property values are the result.
#5 – Kill your weeds.
People in DC are in a relentless battle against weeds. Government workers pull violating foliage from beds. Doormen armed with Round-Up attack steps and walkways. Grandmothers yank and stomp to make certain their landscape looks good for anyone who might pass. Where was the guy standing in the weeds screaming, “someone should do something about this”?
#6 – Give busses their own lanes.
Dedicated bus lanes caught my eye. They allow buses to move more people, more quickly and in fewer vehicles. They are usually used in cities that don’t have the population for short-distance light-rail trains or in larger cities as a substitute for longer-distance commuter rail. But Washington is using dedicated bus lanes to move people straight through the city without being constrained by other vehicles. However, they do allow bicycles to share the lanes in some cases.
#7 – Give bikes their own lanes.
Anyone who says it is hard to put a bicycle lane in Memphis has probably never talked to the guy who is in charge of doing it in DC. There are one-way streets, bridges and roundabouts everywhere. Yet they still manage to give access to bikers. In one neighborhood, a wide one-way street was redesigned with a bike lane, a row of bollards, parking lane, three lanes of traffic and another curb-side row of parking. Oh, yeah… bicyclers now have their own traffic lanes in the center of PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE!
#8 – Offer exceptional public restrooms.
Bathrooms say a lot to some people about the community they are in. I was moved by the design of restrooms throughout DC from The National Gallery of Art to the Library of Congress to the National Building Museum. Government exists for two essential functions: to provide sanitation and safety. When parks and public spaces lock, abandon or remove toilets it sends the message that the city cannot provide either at the most basic level.
My wife was particularly fond of the unlocked toilets that we could count on anywhere, anytime ranging from Starbucks to local restaurants. I broach this subject for one reason. Memphis has tourist traps that hang signs stating clearly “No Public Restroom”, “For Customers Only” and “Out of Order”. In our parks, bathrooms have been closed or replaced with porta-johns.
#9 – Mix things up.
DC neighborhoods are brilliantly mixed. Historic townhouses next to modern office buildings. Beautiful architecture contrasting with structures that were perhaps not the best idea but somehow it is okay. Ten-story condos behind two-story houses across from six-story hotels down from eight-story offices. This does not appear to be due to any design… not a recent one anyway.
#10 – Hide the parking.
Parking facilities, whether lots or garages, are generally ugly. They impede pedestrian activity and destroy the urban context of a street. And, despite popular belief, obvious parking can reduce surrounding property values and stunt growth.
With the exception of Nationals Baseball Stadium, it was close to impossible to spot any off-street parking. Being a nerd, I looked. I could find some cars pulled behind houses down alleys. I could find ramps going to garages under buildings. I could find an opening here or there that would lead to a structure behind something of actual human use. I could find parking in the center of a doughnut with all of the buildings facing the street.
But unless you look really, really, really hard, you will not see any of this. It is as if there is only on-street parking in Washington DC. And it is lovely.
#10b – Go to Ben’s Chili Bowl
If none of this inspires you, go have an Original Half-Smoke with Chili, Onions and Mustard at Ben’s Chili Bowl. The price is right, the service is great, the place is clean and the food is a welcome break from the seafood extravaganza found everywhere else. Walk around the U Street area and experience how this neighborhood has continually reinvented itself while holding on to a few of its treasured institutions.
This is what we must do. Starting with what we can and working toward what is difficult. DC has started and stopped, been built and burned, and had plan after plan after plan. Sometimes things were accomplished in a year, sometimes in thirty. But it was inspiring to feel the comfort in the people and their places, to see what can happen in short periods of time and to believe that some examples can be taken from their experiences.