5 Key Indicators That Your City Is Not A World Class City

There are many things that go into making a City a great place. But look around, and if your City has any (or dreadfully all) of these there’s a good chance it’s not a First Tier, World Class City, and it may never be.

#5. It Doesn’t Have a Subway System

Not having a subway is a good indicator that a city doesn’t have the density, is too spread out, and doesn’t take transit or itself seriously enough to be a world class city. Even late comers like Los Angeles have upped their status since building a subway. Size does matter, but there are cities with populations under 1 million with subway systems. While having a subway doesn’t guarantee world class status, not having one certainly disqualifies you. Venice, Italy, for obvious reasons, is the one exception.  



#4. It has a Civic Center, a Sports Multi-Complex, an Arts District, an                  Entertainment District (any or all of the these)

Single Use Districts can kill city life is a New York minute. What happens after 5:00 o’clock at a Civic Center? Nothing – except maybe the homeless move in. World Class Cities have a diverse mix of uses so that no one area goes dead when not in use. If your city “rolls up the sidewalk” at 5:00, or if your football stadium is next to your baseball stadium, which is next to the convention center … well, I’m sorry.

#3. Parking Takes Up More Than 10% of Land Use

Parked cars are really just not that interesting. If a City has devoted a lot of land to parked cars, it’s probably a really boring place to be. 










#2. There’s Freeway Running Through Downtown

Freeways were never meant to be in Cities, and for good reason. Smart Cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle are tearing them down. Contrary to arguments, getting semi-trailer trucks into your downtown at 65 mph is not a good thing.










#1. The Sidewalks Are Empty

People are the single best indicator species of a city’s ecosystem. People on the streets is a good indication that your City is productive, innovative, diverse, and has a strong culture. Cities exist for the sole reason of bringing people together, and the best cities do it well.

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Time to Say Goodbye

I started Great Streets San Diego (GSSD) just a short 5 years ago. In this age of instantaneous response, 5 years is an eternity. But in terms of having an effect on the public realm, it is a very short time indeed. People truly interested in the public realm know that they may never live to see the impact they have, or see the street tree they plant provide shade for generations to come. 

What a short strange trip it’s been, but now the time for it to end has come. Last month I moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, and so my short, intense, and I hope, impactful interaction with San Diego’s streets must come to an end.

I can see your face right now. Yep, you did what everyone does when I tell them I moved from San Diego to Indianapolis. That quizzical look of “are you crazy?”. I get that look from people in San Diego as well as Indianapolis. That, to me, is part of the charm of Indianapolis.

People in Indianapolis don’t quite know what they’ve got in this gem of a midwest city. I hope they never do, or at least never fill themselves with conceit enough to believe that their City is already perfect. It is that drive to improve, to be better, to become something greater that has created a place that not only rivals San Diego, but truly exceeds it in many ways.

I’m not going to bash San Diego as I leave. It sure is tempting, though, especially in light of the recent Uptown Bikeway Project debacle. Oh, no … I remember what befell Jay Porter when he (in)famously wrote about his departure from San Diego and declared it a City where “There isn’t much political will to do simple things to make San Diego a good place to live.”, and “…just wasn’t stoked on where the City was going.”  How many people have to leave San Diego and say essential the same thing for San Diego to get it? (re-read it in this VOS article)

To improve, you have to want to improve, and be humble enough to admit your shortcomings. Indianapolis has that, maybe to a fault, but that attitude has created a good and ever improving City. 

“There is much more to a City than good weather.” That is what I tell all the surprised people who question my motives about moving to Indianapolis. Only then do they seem to agree with and understand my motives for the move. 

This may be the end of Great Streets San Diego, but not the end of my advocacy, education, and work for a better Public Realm. I hope you will follow me on Facebook at “Design4People” and on Twitter @WaltChambers3 where I will continue to take all that I have learned as an urbanist and as person and fight for cities designed with people as the first priority.

Thank you to Roger Showley, Howard Blackson, Mike Stepner, Samantha Ollinger, Paul Jameson, Kathleen Ferrier, and Jim Dax for your friendship, encouragement, and help. Without you, Great Streets would have never been possible. Keep fighting the good fight! 

Walter Chambers

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Throwing Money at the Unknown

Several business owners in West Hillcrest have paired with the Hillcrest Business Association to hire a lobbyist to try and influence the Mayor and Councilmembers against SANDAG’s Bike Blvd Design in Mission Hills and Hillcrest.

Why are they against it? Good question. It seems that have assumed that closing the off ramp from Washington Street to University Ave will harm their businesses and cause enormous traffic congestion on Washington Street.

They have ASSUMED. Let me make that perfectly clear. They DON’T KNOW whether closing the University off ramp will result in fewer customers in Hillcrest and unreasonable traffic congestion in Mission Hills. NO STUDY has ever been done back up this assumption.

How much money are they willing to spend to stop something they don’t even know will happen? $20,000 has been reported.

On the other hand, there are plenty of studies and reports that show that bicycle infrastructure, once in place, does not hurt business, and in many cases improves business along the bike route.  Let’s take a closer look at each assumed scenario.

Reduced car traffic on University Ave in Mission Hills will be bad for businesses in West Hillcrest.

Currently, this portion of  University Ave is often used as a “cut-thru” street to get to places east of Hillcrest. So the REAL assumption here is this: that “cut-thru” traffic is stopping at Hillcrest business, restaurants, and bars.

Now generally, when people are “cutting-thru” a neighborhood, it’s because they want to get somewhere else. They aren’t stopping along the way to their destination. Could it be that some cut-thru traffic spontaneously decides that they need a drink at Mo’s or a loaf of bread at Bread and Cie? Sure, but chances are they’d rather get to where they are going.

University Ave WILL REMAIN OPEN to traffic. Drivers, whose destination is West Hillcrest, will have no problem reaching University Ave. From the North there are 10 thru-streets that intersect University from Washington between the off ramp and 5th Avenue. Coming from the South, there are 8 through streets that intersect University Ave. So getting to University Ave will be no problem for those making it their destination.

Likewise, study after study (you can find them on the SANDAG website) shows that safe bicycle infrastructure increases bicycle ridership. Furthermore, people on bicycles are more likely to stop at businesses because A) Parking is not an issue; and B) they are going slow enough to be enticed by store displays or friends on the street.

Closing the University Off Ramp will force drivers onto Washington Street and will create unmanageable traffic congestion on Washington Street.

Yes, drivers going Northeast on Washington Street will not have the ability to exit onto University and will have to use Washington Street. Does this mean huge traffic jams will develop and remain? Here’s what real-life experience actually tells us.

When NYC decided to close Broadway in Times Square, naysayers screamed about the traffic jams that would happen. Guess what. They never materialized.

Mystifyingly, this phenomenon has happened time and time again when a street is closed to cars or diverted. It’s happened so often that now there is even a term for it: ‘Disappearing Traffic’, also sometimes called “Traffic Evaporation”.

Here’s how it works. People find other routes or change their behavior. Simple as that. I used to leave work 30 min late because I knew that I-8 would not be congested at that later time. Had I not altered my behavior, I would have been stuck in traffic. Who wants to be stuck in traffic?

And guess what. Some people in the neighborhood, given the opportunity to safely ride their bike to a restaurant or shop, may just decide not to take their car … an option which is currently not available to them.

To summarize the FACTS:
1)  University Avenue in Mission Hills will NOT be closed to traffic. Only the off ramp from Washington Street to University Ave will be closed. ALL OTHER cross streets from the North and South of University will remain open, providing plenty of opportunities to access University Ave in West Hillcrest.

2) Washington Street may or may not be more congested due to the off-ramp closure. Real-life experience tells us that drivers will find other routes, change their driving behavior, or use alternative transportation. It’s called Disappearing Traffic or Traffic Evaporation.

So why are smart business people throwing good money after something they don’t even have a clue about? I’m as befuddled as you. And nobody seems to be willing to answer that question.

Walter Chambers

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“…get on the sidewalk!”

Anyone who grew up in the suburbs or a small town knows what it’s like to walk down the middle of the street. It’s pretty common. The streets are quiet – only occasionally will a car come by. And the sidewalks are often in bad repair, and typically too narrow for two people to walk comfortably side by side. The middle of the street has space, sun, and a sense of openness.

Canfield Dr, Ferguson, MO where Michael Brown was shot and killed.

That’s what Michael Brown and his friend were doing on August 9th, 2014 on a quiet, residential suburban street just minutes from his friend’s house, when a police car just happened by.

But according to the law they were jaywalking. Streets are for cars only, even quiet suburban residential streets. So when a police car just happened to come down the street, the police stopped and told them to get off the street and onto the sidewalk. The boys weren’t blocking traffic or endangering any life. But they were breaking the law by “jaywalking”.

Michael Brown apparently said out-loud to the officer what I, too, would have said (but under my breath) -  “Fuck off” – and kept walking. The rest of this sad, tragic story is still playing out…

Walter Chambers

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SANDAG Confirms: It’s University Ave

In a memo to the Hillcrest Community Collaborative, SANDAG has made the definitive case against Washington Street and for University Avenue as the alignment for the Uptown Regional Bike Corridor project. 

The Hillcrest Community Collaborative is a collaborative of Hillcrest organizations, residents, and business owners that supports the “Transform Hillcrest” proposal for the Hillcrest portion of the Uptown Regional Bike Corridor. You can read about “Transform Hillcrest” in this GSSD post.

However, in a move that surprised nearly everyone in the community, because it was counter to Transform Hillcrest, Ben Nichols, director of the Hillcrest Business Association, made a last minute push for a Washington Street alignment, prompting the memo response from SANDAG. The memo should extinguish any remaining opposition to the University Avenue alignment.

Walter Chambers

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One Paseo, two Paseo, three Paseo, four …

There have many lives and redesigns of One Paseo in Carmel Valley. This time they got it right.

The community was right to express their concerns about One Paseo. Likewise, I stand behind the GSSD post dated 24 May 2013, that expressed concerns, and derided its faux urbanism and greenwashing … but which also called for it to move forward.

The process has worked, One Paseo developers listened, and the design now before the community and before the Planning Commission should be embraced and supported. There should be no question; Great Streets San Diego supports the latest design of One Paseo in Carmel Valley, and strongly supports Alternative “B” cycle track on Del Mar Heights Road.

Why support One Paseo? Consider this striking statement by Charles Marohn from a recent article in The American Conservative, “America’s suburban experiment is a radical, government-led re-engineering of society, one that artificially inverted millennia of accumulated wisdom and practice in building human habitats.” That experiment is rapidly failing.

Where some in Carmel Valley see a “forced march towards densification and ever more constricted planning augurs,”, Marohn sees “the unwinding of our great suburban experiment. As government’s ability to subsidize this artificial pattern of development wanes, a return to more traditional living arrangements is inevitable. For thousands of years, cities have been engines of wealth creation.”

One Paseo is the beginning of the transition back to a traditional way of building our cities and towns. Unfortunately, its developers are still saddled with the left over baggage from our 20th century experiment. Leftover baggage such as the now discredited Level of Service (LOS), parking minimums, and a financing system that favors large developments over incremental change.

Even with this baggage, One Paseo has struggled to provide a development that doesn’t prioritize/celebrate the automobile over of people. This is especially evident in the Alternative “B” cycle track for Del Mar Heights Road. By separating local traffic going to One Paseo, from the “car sewer” road traffic, it begins to tame the street. Alternative “B” provides an improved pedestrian experience, and a safer bicycle facility for the One Paseo side of the street. It’s a beginning of what the rest of Del Mar Heights road could become in the future – a multilane boulevard.

While it is true that One Paseo is still an island among other islands of development, the latest design has sought to connect with the neighboring developments. However, this is a bigger problem that One Paseo has inherited from suborn development patterns, and a problem that Carmel Valley must eventually resolve.

“The real issue is not One Paseo, but Carmel Valley. Connecting the isolated “island” neighborhoods, taming its bloated roads, and finding a way to end its automobile dependency are the issues Carmel Valley must eventually address.  Once that has happened, projects like One Paseo will make more sense and will be much more appreciated.”

One Paseo will provide Carmel Valley with a place it desparately needs. GSSD urges The City of San Diego and the residents of Carmel Valley to support One Paseo with Alternative “B” cycle track.

Walter Chambers

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In Case You Have Any Doubt …

SANDAG wants you to know — in case you had ANY doubt — just how much cars are their #1 priority. How? Here’s how they show their car-love through the design of the Mid-City Rapid.

1) First you punish pedestrians by narrowing the sidewalk to make more room for cars.





2) Then you plant palm trees at the sidewalk — you definitely don’t want to provide cool shade or filtered light for pedestrians. 




3) With all that extra room for cars, you create a median and plant the shade trees and ground plants (presumably for cars and buses to enjoy as they whizz by) IN THE FRICK’N MIDDLE OF THE STREET.

Was this designed in 1970? Who in their right mind designs streets like this in 2014? Can SANDAG be sued for malpractice?

(You can’t make this stuff up)

Walter Chambers

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The Science of Why Some Cities Succeed

It seems Jane Jacobs had it right way back in 1960. What makes a city successful? What makes a city a center of innovation, economic wealth, productivity, and culture? This article “5 Key Themes Emerging from the “New Science of Cities”, by Michael Mehaffy and City Lab identifies why some cities out-perform others.  Read the article, but here is a brief, synopsis.

1.)  Cities that provide casual, social interactions between people are more successful. 

2.) Cities with higher density and good transportation options are economically and environmentally more sustainable and “green”.

3.) Human scale connectivity in the public realm is extremely important. “… to the extent that the city’s urban fabric is fragmented, car-dependent or otherwise restrictive of casual encounters and spillovers, that city will under-perform—or require an unsustainable injection of resources to compensate.”

4.) Cities are People, and those that adapt to/with human psychology are the most successful. 

5.) Cities are a form of Organized Complexity, and cannot be thought of as planned, stagnant, “works of art”. They need to be organic in their growth.

As GSSD has said before, every planner, architect engineer, designer, and politician involved in the building of city needs to make it their number one priority to maximize casual, incidental social interaction between people. Doing this requires Land Use policies that focuses on good density, Transportation Policies that prioritize getting people out of cars, Urban Design policies that create a human-scaled, vibrant public realm, and Economic Policies that focus on people, instead of large corporations.

Quite frankly, San Diego is under-performing to the extent it fails to do these things.

Walter Chambers

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The New Huffman 6-Packs

Lessons Unlearned: Why the Huffman scourge has returned, and how it can be stopped.

Huffman 6-Pack Redux. Street Level blank wall with utility meters greet people walking by.

A new crop of infill apartment and condo buildings are popping up in North Park, Hillcrest, and Mission Hills. Like the nearly universally despised Huffman “6-Packs” from the 1960’s and 70’s, these buildings turn their side to the street, presenting an unfriendly blank wall or a wall filled with gas and electric meters to the street. Forget talking to your neighbor sitting on the front porch. Forget seeing people going in and out the front door. Forget seeing any kind of life, light, or human activity from the street.These new complexes, just like the Huffmans before them, are street-life killers. Nothing less than “Citycide”.

No Front Door. No Front Porch. No sign of life. Only a stark grey wall.

How could this happen again? Didn’t San Diego learn its lesson the first time? Sadly enough, there are no active facade requirements or even recommendations in the Community Plans for residential areas. In fact, the recently released Uptown Community Plan Urban Design Element Draft requires active facades only in commercial areas, but not in residential areas. In 2014, walkable residential neighborhoods should be the Standard for Urban Planning. 

Active Street Facade is important. This building kills street-life.

Walkable neighborhoods start at home, not after you drive to a commercial area. Walkable residential neighborhoods are essential to creating community, encouraging walking, and reducing car trips. 

 If you live in Uptown, North Park, Mission Hills, Golden Hills, South Park, or Mid-City, demand good architecture. Another round of Huffman style multi-unit buildings could kill off what remains of street life in our neighborhoods.


You might like to walk by this building if you are into reading gas meters.

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Hillcrest united behind new University Ave. Bike Plan

At one point this past winter, the division and rancor in Hillcrest over the SANDAG Uptown Regional Bike Plan, and especially plans for University Avenue, seemed to be tearing the community apart. Amazingly, however, over the last few weeks, the community has come together and collalesced behind a new proposal by retired architect, planner, and Uptown resident Jim Frost.

The plan, “Transform Hillcrest”, not only has bike advocates excited, but the Uptown Community Parking District (UCPD), the Hillcrest Business Association (HBA), the Hillcrest Town Council (HTC), and Hillcrest CDC (HCDC) have all signaled their support, and have signed on to a request that SANDAG seriously consider the Plan. GSSD also gives the plan high marks for it’s people-centric design that has the potential  to transform Hillcrest.

A View of East University Ave between Vermont and Richmond

Transform Hillcrest is divided into two sections: East University Ave. and Central University Ave. (click on links for .PDFs). The East University proposal removes one travel lane, and places East-West thru traffic on the south side of University and a local access / parking lane on the North side. The proposal increases parking, provides protected bike lanes, accommodates traffic and improves the pedestrian experience. The Central University proposal makes University one-way from 1st Ave to 4th Ave, freeing space for protected bike lanes and parking. 

Central University Ave proposal between 3rd and 4th

The proposal culminates with the previously proposed Pride Plaza at University and Normal, leading to the Normal Street Rambla. These plans have the potential to transform Hillcrest and be a model for neighborhoods throughout San Diego. 

Proposed Plaza at University and Normal

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