Snowy road

Snow on the sidewalk

One of the perennial chores of city dwellers in northern climates is the shoveling of snow from the sidewalk. The common practice for most cities is to require residents to remove snow and ice from the sidewalk adjacent to their property within a few hours of snowfall. Residents who fail to remove the snow face fines and citations for causing a hazardous condition on the sidewalk.

House on a snowy street
House on a snowy street with a shoveled sidewalk

In contrast, city and county highway crews are responsible for clearing snow from roadways. This makes sense considering the scale and efficiency gained by using heavy duty plow trucks. The costs of plowing roads are generally borne by all taxpayers within the municipality.

Ordinances requiring residents to remove snow from sidewalks have come under scrutiny of late by pedestrian advocates. These rules place a serious burden on elderly people and people with disabilities who may not be able to easily shovel their sidewalks. Residents incapable of taking care of their own sidewalk are forced to choose between relying on the goodwill of an able-bodied neighbor, paying for someone’s labor, or risking a citation.

Unevenly plowed sidewalks also make it substantially more difficult get anywhere on foot during the winter. Many trips in urban areas are short and could be completed by walking as long as sidewalks are safe to use. A requirement on residents to clear their sidewalks is a recipe for inconsistency as there will always be some people who are unable or unwilling to comply with the ordinance.

Thankfully, some snowy cities have taken steps to help pedestrians get through the winter safely and efficiently.

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Office meeting room

Does the office park have a future?

Back in the spring, it was hard for me to imagine that Covid would have real lasting consequences on our cities. After all, humanity has dealt with epidemics of disease for countless centuries. However, lately, I have wondered about the future of one specific type of development: the suburban office park.

In my experience, these single purpose landscapes may be the most vulnerable piece of suburban landscape even well after a vaccine is widely available.

Aerial view of an example of a suburban office park outside Ann Arbor, Michigan (Google Maps)
Aerial view of an example of a suburban office park outside Ann Arbor, Michigan (Google Maps)

The pandemic has caused basically every white collar worker to simultaneously take a crash course in working remotely and holding virtual meetings. I suspect that more employees and employers will be willing to allow these habits to continue following the end of this health crisis, especially if they can show that productivity has not suffered beyond an acceptable level.

Part of the reason managers and business owners might allow more remote work into future decades is so they can make substantial cuts to costs associated with owning or leasing office space.

Single purpose office parks are poorly suited to adapt to non-office uses following a global shift toward remote work. While a few light industrial uses may be able to occupy vacant office buildings, I am not optimistic about the future of the suburban office park in the long run.

Indeed, I believe office parks are ripe to be re-imagined as whole neighborhoods that integrate with their surrounding cities.

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Ride at Dawn

This summer I found myself obsessively planning bicycle tour routes. Ironically, this habit started shortly after Strava announced that its online route planning tool would be available only for paid subscribers and, coincidentally, after my smartphone GPS began misbehaving.

I decided to try out Komoot. And once I conquered the learning curve I was hooked on building bike tour routes.

Komoot allows route planning for trips on bike or foot. Planned trips can be loaded onto a GPS to see turn by turn directions. Trips can also be viewed from the smartphone app. Komoot also allows users to upload completed trips from GPS devices.

Here is an example of one of the first routes I planned this summer. I was familiar with parts of this ride such as the Black Diamond Trail and the scenic climb to the North of Robert H Treman State Park on NY-327, but I was unfamiliar with the roads in western Tompkins County that connected these two segments.

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South edge of the Streatery

Aurora Streatery

In late June the City of Ithaca decided to make a single block of Aurora Street into a temporary pedestrian plaza so adjacent restaurants could expand their outdoor seating. With Covid health regulations continuing to limit indoor restaurant capacity, the Aurora Streatery provides a way for some downtown establishments to stay open.

It’s been nearly three months and the orange traffic barrels and concrete barricades are still standing. Everything that was built for the Streatery was temporary, including the wooden ramps that connect the sidewalk (now mostly cafe seating) to the roadway (now a pedestrian thoroughfare).

I applaud the City of Ithaca for making this decision as New York began to ease Covid restrictions and allow more restaurants to open this summer. And, I think that the City should consider ways to allow the Streatery to operate for the foreseable year or more.

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Strolling on the sculpture trail in Seneca Falls

Few villages in Upstate New York have the cache of Seneca Falls. As home to the Women’s Rights National Historical Park and the likely inspiration for “Bedford Falls” in It’s A Wonderful Life, this place has a unique appeal that’s not found in most towns five times its size.

Bridge scene from It's a Wonderful Life
Still from It’s a Wonderful Life

I could easily have spent a full day exploring the historic places in Seneca Falls. The eastern face of the Women’s Rights NHP visitor center features an engraved version of the Declaration of Sentiments along with the names of the women who signed it. The village contains the homes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer among other sites important to the suffrage movement. But between Covid restrictions and a rambunctious toddler, we decided that this wasn’t the right time for a day long history lesson.

Engraving of the Declaration of Sentiments at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park

I found the Ludovico Sculpture Trail while searching for outdoor activities within an hour’s drive of Ithaca. The name and lack of official website intrigued me and led me to add it to a long list of potential stay-cation ideas.

As a place that was free, open, and outdoors, we decided to check it out. We parked at the eastern end of the trail near Bridge Street and set out to see what we could see.

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South Hill Elementary School playground

Playground hopping

This summer we had to get creative and figure out ways to keep Rowan entertained while doing our best to prevent the spread of Covid. That meant we spent a lot more time outdoors than we had ever imagined possible.

While playgrounds were off limits in the early days of the pandemic we did our best to avoid even saying the word aloud. Explaining that “playgrounds are closed” to a two-year-old is basically like telling him that his birthday is cancelled and all his toys have been melted down for scrap. No bueno.

South Hill Elementary playground was closed due to Covid as of April 2020

Thankfully most playgrounds did re-open and research showed that Covid was not easily spread by touching objects. Armed with hand sanitizer, we felt prepared to accept the risk of playing outdoors starting in July.

Now that summer is drawing to a close, it seems like a good time to reflect, and consider: what makes a great playground? In my view, there are at least four factors to consider:

  • Fun – the playground needs to be engaging and offer a variety of activities for kids of various ages and abilities.
  • Parent spaces – there should be space for adults to watch their kids comfortably.
  • Picnic areas – tables or grass for a snack break allow families to spend more time outdoors.
  • Restrooms – when you gotta go, you gotta go.

The ratings below are loosely based on these criteria.

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Cayuga Waterfront Trail near NYSDOT facility

If I had three million dollars…

(Set to the tune of the Barenaked Ladies 1992 hit)

A few weeks ago a NYSDOT maintenance facility in Ithaca went up for auction with a starting bid of $2.85 million. You know it’s going to be special when there’s a fancy video!

The eight acre site is situated between the Ithaca Farmer’s Market and the Cornell Boathouse. It is surrounded on two sides by the Cayuga Waterfront Trail.

Efforts to relocate the NYSDOT facility off this prime real estate have been happening for at least twenty years. Whoever buys this is clearly not going to use it as a yard for road salt, dump trucks, and highway signs. (In case you’re curious, the maintenance facility is moving to a site near the airport.) A 2016 study [large PDF] looked into redevelopment options for the site.

By next week the winning bid should be announced, but it may take longer for details about redevelopment to emerge.

The site is a bit disconnected from Ithaca’s primary street grid – the only route for vehicular traffic is via 3rd Street. Crossing Route 13 on foot or bike at 3rd Street is a bit nerve-racking even when traffic is light. While there are crosswalks, due to the geometry of the intersection it takes a long time to cross the highway on foot.

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Lunch in Hanover Square

Last week I visited Syracuse and ate lunch in Hanover Square. This was the first time I explored downtown Syracuse on foot.

Hanover Square is a triangular pedestrian plaza lined by historic buildings to the south, Water street to the north and Warren street to the east. The plaza is slightly sunken below street level and mostly concrete.

I found Hanover Square an engaging and humane. It was a delightful spot to observe the city and eat a burrito from Otro Cinco. (If it weren’t for the Covid-19 pandemic, I would have eaten in the restaurant and never found this place.)

At the time of my visit there were no cars parked in the square, and it did not appear as though vehicular traffic was permitted. However Google Street View reveals that parking is apparently allowed along the south edge.

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Thoughts on Historic Markers

Lately I’ve started to notice historic markers. I often see them when I am riding my bike on country roads. I wondered, who are these signs for and what purpose do they serve?

I started paying attention to these signs after noticing one for the Underground Railroad on Lower Creek Road in Freeville. Upstate New York was an important destination on the path to freedom from slavery. The sign in Freeville marked a specific home which provided refuge. Specifically, the sign read as follows:

UNDERGROUND
RAILROAD
HOME OF WILLIAM HANFORD
AND WIFE ALTHA C. TODD,
WHO SHELTERED FUGITIVE SLAVES
ON WAY TO CANADA AND FREEDOM

APHNYS

Unfortunately, most historic markers I’ve witnessed are less remarkable. These signs tend to commemorate events that have blurred into the background of history: ends of old turnpikes, sites of early churches, mills long demolished. These markers tend to blend together as they reinforce dominant concepts in American history: European settlement of the American interior, the growth of industry, etc.

Historic markers are subtle cues to the stories that society has accepted and deemed important. They literally embed a narrative in the landscape for future generations to digest. Like statues, historic markers serve as a showcase for the values and beliefs of those who install them.

While historic markers don’t have the symbolic significance of large monuments, they deserve critical attention in my opinion. These signs tell us about the people whose stories mattered. In my experience, these markers too often reflect a history focused on the accomplishments of white people, men, and Christian congregations. People who do not identify with these groups will likely find it hard to understand how their past intersects with local history.

A new historic marker for the Alex Haley birthplace was recently installed in the City of Ithaca. I found it encouraging to see his story officially included as a part of the city’s history. However, this event also reminded me that there is much, much work left to address how racism in the past continues to echo into our present day.

In my view, a historic marker should cause its readers to pause and reflect on their role in history. It can be challenging to confront some facts about the past – particularly when we find our community’s history painful or our ancestor’s history repulsive. However, I think this reflexive discomfort is an important step to acknowledging uncomfortable truth and a prelude to taking meaningful action to address injustice.

Changing historic markers alone will not make our future more just, peaceful, or equitable. Like statues, monuments, and public art, these signs represent a small piece of our cultural consciousness. However, these signs are unique as they are physically attached to the earth and officially authorized by local historians (and often local governments). Their messages and placement are signals to the values which we continue to deem important.

On Race in America

I have found it hard to put my feelings over the last few days into words. Angry, sad, ashamed, disgusted. The brutal and inhumane murders that sparked days of protest are not isolated events; they are the latest crimes in a long history of oppression against black people in America. This is a history that I have learned about on an intellectual level since grade school, but I am only beginning to understand on an emotional level. I am trying to come to terms with the privileges I have experienced on account of nothing but my skin color and unearned ancestry. The simple and boring freedoms I take for granted (like walking around my neighborhood without fear of arrest) are not apparently not distributed equally. It is shameful that it has taken this level of civil unrest to bring this truth to my attention. But now I must confront this monstrous injustice – I am trying to figure out what that means for me. Let me know if you have ideas.

I posted this to Facebook on Friday night.