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Where Is Your Third Place?

There is one thing cities provide in much greater abundance than suburbs: the essential “third places” in our lives that provide respite and relaxation for us outside our homes or workplaces.

Third Place
Third places are defined as one of three places that meet fundamental human needs: home, a first place; work, a second place; and a third place, where we go to find community, relaxation, and simply “be” when we aren’t at home or working.

For all the people who work from home offices, the line between the first and second places, home and work space, may have blurred, but it makes the third place even more important. We all need a common place to hang out, see friends, find conversation, or simply watch the world go by. We seek a place that is separate from our homes or workplaces and all their attendant comforts and irritations.

Third places are very individual. In a family of four, there could be four different third places: church, coffeehouse, club or park. They are where you go to get away from your immediate responsibilities and expectations. You don’t have to do housework or laundry; you don’t have to finish that project or spar with your partner. You are (temporarily) free to indulge your own thoughts, talk or not talk, do or not do anything.

In the city of St. Louis there are many good third-places: local coffeehouses like The Hartford, Shaw Coffee or even the London Tea Room. There are neighborhood bars and cafes where they get to know you and you can stay as long as you like. There are libraries, drop-in centers and parks. There are churches and clubs, both social and athletic. There are museums and entertainment districts like The Loop on Delmar or Washington Avenue downtown. And there are intentional places like Left Bank Books with book groups, author readings and community events. These third places are close at hand, across the street or down the block, most of them within walking distance.

The suburbs of St. Louis are trickier, especially in second-ring suburbs. Newer, more affluent suburbs like Chesterfield and Wildwood have been built with more modern sensibilities about community gathering spots and the intentional communities created by mixed-use construction. You may be more likely to hang out at commercially sponsored third places like Starbucks or the mall, but they exist and are well used.

The second-ring suburbs are in a tougher spot. They belong to an earlier time, before we realized how much we would miss the communal third places that are so abundant in the city. Like the outer-ring suburbs, they may have some commercially-sponsored places like Starbucks, McDonalds or Dennys, but there may be only one or two in a municipality and they are rarely within walking distance. There is a real dearth of small, local businesses like independent coffeehouses, casual cafes or bookstores. Which pretty much leaves the bar, gym or possibly church and almost all of them require driving in your car.

There is a misplaced attempt to fulfill this need for third places in the construction of suburban great rooms, finished basements and fully-equipped media rooms, but all of these fall short. A third place requires distance from home and family. It also requires diversity and randomness in the people you might observe or start a conversation with.
When I lived in Seattle, I could easily walk a few blocks to any of six coffeehouses, each with its own ambience and crowd of regulars. There were bookstores with cafes where you could hang out from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. When I lived in the South Grand area, I had my choice of places to hang out.

In Maryland Heights, I’m stumped. I occasionally get in the car and drive to Starbucks at Westport or I go farther afield to Creve Couer or Chesterfield. More and more, I drive farther to Main Street in St. Charles or into the city to find a third place, but none of them are my third place.

City planners take note: vibrant cities or suburbs don’t exist without a multitude of viable third places. And if you want to attract the young, the creative, the socially engaged, that advice is doubly important.

What I’d like to know, especially if you’re a suburbanite, is where is your third place? Where do you regularly go to hang out, read a book, see friends, or just escape home and work responsibilities? What makes a place your third space? I look forward to what you have to say.

-Deborah Moulton


Riverport Area Should Be Walkable (Updated)

For the first time in my 19 years in St. Louis, I went to the suburban Riverport area last weekend (map) .  I went to the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (formerly known as the Riverport Amphitheater) for Farm Aid.

But this post is about the amphitheater (bottom above) as it is about the entire area along the loop road known as Riverport Drive.  This compact area contains offices, hotels and restaurants – all within easy walking distance of each other.  Sure, nobody is going to walk to Riverport but people should be able to walk within Riverport.

The #34 bus stops at Riverport Drive.  Then what?  Walk in the street to get to your destination?  Are sidewalks and a pedestrian network just too much to ask?

The area includes several hotels.  I know I’ve had long days before driving in a car for hours and after checking into a hotel the last thing I want to do is have to get back in the car to drive to dinner.  Walking should be an option in addition to driving.  As designed, the only option is driving.

I’m not asking for a recreation of a downtown, just tie it all together with sidewalks.

Update 10/9/09 @ 10am:

I looked up the directions to get to Riverport from my place downtown.  It is very easy but it is that last bit that makes it unpleasant.

I love the caution about missing sidewalks.

– Steve Patterson


A Tale of Two Existences

Between recent comments here on the blog and the URBANEXUS gathering downtown recently, it has been striking how vehemently people feel about the urban vs. suburban existence. The vitriol is mostly one-sided, the urbanists against the suburbanites. To most suburbanites, there is little passion for that fight because the city is basically irrelevant to them. Suburbanites tend to fall into three main groups: they have lived in the city at one point and subsequently chosen a suburban path; they enjoy visiting city amenities but don’t want to live there; or it never appealed to them. So what lies behind this divide?

If urbanists disdain the suburbs and speak arrogantly toward those who live there, where is the fuel? I would suggest it is, at heart, anger. The suburbs represent everything they hate: sameness, conformity, uniformity, and detachment or entrenchment from the world at large. But aren’t these all illusions? Aren’t they just as conformist to an urban identity and shared disdain for the suburbs? Aren’t both cities and suburbs created landscapes representative of their times? Aren’t as many people isolated and detached from the world in their urban condos and apartments as the folks who inhabit split-levels, ranch houses and huge suburban great rooms? Is one really better than another? Or are they neither better or worse, just different?

I am the most unlikely defender of the suburbs. I have hated them most of my adult life. I grew up in a small town, 100 miles from any large city, and I didn’t really experience city life until after college when I started my career in Peoria, then Chicago. I lived on the Chicago’s north side, in Lincoln Park before it became ultra chic. Then I moved to Seattle in the Queen Anne neighborhood. I spent my vacations in cities visiting friends in New York, LA, San Francisco and Boston. Nothing else appealed to me and I was horrified by friends and relatives as they abandoned the cities for the suburbs. Not me, not ever, I said.

So here I am, in Maryland Heights, and (gasp) I enjoy it. It’s a second-ring suburb so it’s grown-up, it’s mature, it has huge trees and sidewalks. Its houses were built in the peak era of the rise of middle class. Large enough to be comfortable, but small enough to be considered now as modest in comparison to much larger, new suburban homes and mega mansions. The lawns aren’t huge, the neighborhood is extremely walkable for exercise and recreation, and the energy footprint is modest like the houses.

I have a garden and enjoy yard work after years of container gardening on porches and balconies. I have a giant sweet-gum tree in my front yard and love raking leaves. I know my neighbors. My sister and her family live less than a mile away. My mother lives with me. It is easy to get around and run errands, pick up library books, and every night, for the first time in my life, I park my car in an enclosed garage. I no longer have to get up early to scrape the ice from my windows, shovel myself out of street parking, or get soaked in the pouring rain before I’ve ever left home.

Located smack in the middle of I-270, I-70 and Page Avenue, I can get to the airport in under 15 minutes (important when I commuted weekly to Seattle for my job) and there’s almost no place in the metropolitan area that I can’t get to in about 20 minutes or less. I have fresh, locally grown food available at Thies Farm and the many charms of Creve Coeur Park are less than a mile from my house.

My city is small enough that I can easily attend meetings and interact with city government. I know the people who run my city and I can work both with them and in opposition to them to build a better city with a sustainable future. I have easily met others and formed a residents’ group that will continue to educate and inform the political process.

Maryland Heights is also auto-centric, lacks a town center and informal gathering places, and, like every other place on earth, is sometimes boring. So I think it comes down to this: time of life and love. Our decisions about where to live are not abstract concepts. They are practical and they come with a constellation of considerations, many beyond our control, and many of them related to love.

We fall in love with someone who already owns a house in the suburbs or we move to have a vastly shorter commute to our suburban employer. We move to the suburbs of St. Louis because our toddler will soon be in school and we believe in the value of public-school education, but not in the St. Louis city schools. Our parents grow old and need help and comfort in their old age. They move in with us, into a single-story ranch house with an attached garage, and easy access to medical facilities and grocery stores. We can simply be ready for a change of pace: ready to garden in our own yard, to participate in civic activities, and take care of our extended families while we still have them.

Time is precious. I wouldn’t trade my 25 years as a fervent urbanist for anything. It was the absolute right thing for me. I have come to love my life in the suburbs in service to those I hold most dear. There will be other chapters in my life and I will, doubtless, live other places, including the heart of a great city.

I wish I had been more thoughtful, and less shrill, about my choices when I was younger. I wish I could have been more confident in my own choices without thinking everyone had to feel the same way. I wish I had known more about the value of family ties and the difference between sacrifice and a loving sacrifice. I wish I had been kinder to my friends who married and left for the suburbs.

One of the great gifts of age is a truer appreciation of diversity and how we all make choices for love. My neighborhood is as integrated as my neighborhood in the city, maybe more so, because of all the nationalities that live near me. But it isn’t race that makes us diverse, it’s all the stories of how they came to be here, the choices they made for love, and why this is only one chapter of a long and varied life.

-Deborah Moulton


Suburban Sprawl Descends Into Uncomfortable Middle Age

Most would agree that West St. Louis County is the poster child for urban sprawl. Over many decades, St. Louis development has crept westward through St. Louis County and into St. Charles County, the current epicenter of unrestrained sprawl. As time has passed, much of central and western St. Louis County have begun the inevitable cycle of aging and renewal that is associated with older urban areas.

My focus of interest is primarily on what urban planners refer to as the “second-ring western suburbs” of St. Louis. They are a microcosm of multiple older rural communities from the mid-to-late 1800s that have been folded into larger, newer cities over the past 50 years. They are all facing the need for urban redevelopment in the face of overwhelming evidence that many of the ideas embraced by the original suburban developers have not turned out so well.

In my city, Maryland Heights, this means a city without a town center. If asked, most people would cite either the Dorsett-McKelvey Road commercial district or Westport as our gathering places. One is a basic commercial crossroads and the other is an aging mixed -use development. Both are modestly successful and neither one represents a true central nexus for residents.

Part of the problem is that Maryland Heights is an anomaly in suburban development: it hosts over 80,000 workers during the day and houses only 26,000 residents at night. The reverse of a bedroom community, it often finds itself beholden to business and commercial interests at the cost of the residents.

This was clearly present in the 2008 fight that residents waged against development in the Howard Bend area of Maryland Heights. This area contains the flood plain around Creve Coeur Park and land on either side of the Maryland Heights Expressway from I-70 to the Page Avenue extension. Residents didn’t want to see a massive development (initially arranged around a proposed Walmart) that would back up against Creve Coeur Park. Maryland Park, as the proposed development was called, was set to build a bland suburban mixed-use project that was fully oriented toward cars.

The City of Maryland Heights has spent 20 years working on a comprehensive plan for Howard Bend that is the embodiment of urban sprawl focused on building commercial warehouses and one (or more) large-scale developments for big-box stores and retail. During the Howard Bend fight, residents became fully aware of what was contained in the comprehensive plan. While the process was public, the lack of effective public engagement by the city over 20 years had the unfortunate outcome of surprised residents visibly upset about the Howard Bend development plan. In fairness, residents also neglected their responsibilities by failing to interact with city government and make their wishes known.

Citizens who fail to monitor and influence their city governments are likely to be surprised and angry when the businesses who do engage with the city are given top priority. To combat this usual state of affairs, a group of concerned citizens originally organized under the flag of SaveCreveCoeur.com has developed into a more permanent organization called Maryland Heights Residents for Responsible Growth. As part of the steering committee, we have launched a new website for the community development organization at MarylandHeightsResidents.com

In the future, I will be contributing posts about the more universal aspects of the issues facing second-ring, western St. Louis County suburbs. Issues I intend to cover include:

  • Cities without town centers
  • Stagnant population growth
  • Diminishing open spaces
  • Flood plain development
  • Aging apartment complexes and housing stock
  • Public-engagement successes and failures
  • Community-development issues and specific projects being pursued
  • The role of residents in guiding city development

I look forward to hearing from you. Please use the comments section below or email me directly with topics you’d like to see addressed in future posts.

– Deborah Moulton


The Value of Walkable Neighborhoods

As a real estate agent I often hear people say they’d live in the city but they get more house for the money in the exurbs.  True enough, if you count number of rooms (or garage spaces), square footage and so on you do get more on the edge.  They have to offer something to get people out there. The more is more driving.

With home prices bottoming out in many areas nationally, people are looking for any way to get more for their homes. For some, there is a ray of hope….walkability. A new study says that if you want more dough for your house (tell us if anyone says no) it helps to be in a walkable neighborhood.

That’s the conclusion of the analysis from CEOs for Cities that reveals that homes in more walkable neighborhoods are worth more than similar homes in less-walkable neighborhoods.

The report, “Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Housing Values in U.S. Cities” by Joseph Cortright, analyzed data from 94,000 real estate transactions in 15 major markets provided by ZipRealty and found that in 13 of the 15 markets, higher levels of walkability, as measured by Walk Score, were directly linked to higher home values.

Key findings include:

  • In 13 out of 15 metro areas studied, higher levels of walkability were directly linked to higher home values.
  • In the typical metropolitan area, a one point increase in Walk Score was associated with an increase in value ranging from $700 to $3,000. Gains were larger in denser, urban areas and smaller in less dense markets.
  • In the typical areas studied, the premium commanded for neighborhoods with above-average Walk Scores ranged from about $4,000 to $34,000.

(source | study-PDF)

To many of us this is common sense.  I’m willing to pay more or at least make trade offs to be in an environment where walking is an option.  Walkable inner-ring suburbs have the same relationship as the core, less house but more walkability.  You could not pay me enough money to live in the fanciest McMansion in a drivable (non-walkable) area.

Schools, ah yes, schools.  Many correctly point out that older districts suck when it comes to test scores.  Well, the sucking sound is caused by caring parents who should be contributing money & their time to established districts rather than continually creating new edge school districts.  There is value in your child having classmates from different economic classes.  The ability of your chilld to learn to walk to the store, alone, to get a loaf of bread cannot be traded for a media room.

I’m not suggesting everyone needs to live downtown.  Single family detached with a yard and everything between that and my loft is fine.  But understand that walkability adds value to homes.  By buying a home in a drivable area you are saying you don’t value walkability.  At least not enough to pay for it.

– Steve Patterson