Monday, September 14, 2009

Mapping St. Louis urbanism

There is much talk on the blogosphere about revitalizing neighborhoods and improving our city's urban assets. Most of the talk centers around built environment issues. Concerns over building scale, setbacks, demolition of historic buildings and neighborhood walkability are frequently mentioned.

There is such intense debate about the built environment, some advocates of urbanism suggest that parts of St. Louis are not urban. If this is so, then does it mean we could map the urban parts of St. Louis?

STL Rising differs from the above point of view. We see the whole city as urban. We'd add some adjoining areas outside the city to our urban fabric as well, but we'd definitely not remove any parts of the city from what is urban.

The city proper is a whole, with one overall tax base and many distinct neighborhoods and 28 individual wards. When we pay our 1% earnings tax, annual real estate taxes, or buy a gallon of gas, it doesn't matter where in the city we buy it, the tax revenue from the sale supports the whole urban community of St. Louis.

If I'm a city resident, then I'm 1/350,000th of our city's urban fabric. It doesn't matter what neighborhood I live in or what my house looks like. I'm part of the city. When you visit the city, and spend money here or attend an event, then you're part of our city's urban fabric too. STL Rising's position is the most important ingredient in sustainable urbanism is people.

So I'd be curious to hear from others, with anonymous comments welcome. If you believe parts of St. Louis are urban, while others are distinctly not, how do you make the distinction?


Mark Groth said...

Great post! Can't wait to read the comments. I don't think there are entire neighborhoods that are non-urban. I agree there are pockets, but they don't seem to cover entire neighborhoods or wards. I think a good starting point is defining what STL considers urban. Is it mixed use? Is it built to the street? Is it a linear street grid? Is it walkability?

Take Boulevard Heights for example. This neighborhood could be used as the case for suburban planning (or lack of planning), yet there are very urban parts within the confines of BH, which can be witnessed south of Holly Hills, west of Leona, east of Gravois and south to almost the River Des Peres.

Michael R. Allen said...

I don't know who you are talking about, but the very heart of what makes an area "urban" is diversity. That includes architectural diversity.

Rick Bonasch said...

Recent examples of developments which have been cited as non-urban include:

1) Loughborough Commons

2) The Bowood Farms demolition of a vacant home for expansion of their nursery business.

2) The demolition of the San Luis with replacement by a surface parking lot

3) The new CVS under construction at the corner of Gravois and Germania

4) The proposed CVS on the site of the former headquarters of the St. Louis Housing Authority.

I would submit that all four examples are indeed urban if for no other reasons than they are all located within the city of St. Louis and they will all contribute to the city's job and tax base.

Matt M. said...

Your definition of urban sounds more akin to "municipal".

"Urbanism" may be distinguished from mere boosterism by its push for a form of building that privileges the pedestrian over the motorist. Cities are primarily about the possibility of walking or taking transportation to needed services, as well as the possibility with mingling in a public sphere and interacting with people (diversity is a plus). These things are less likely to happen when we're in a car, walk across a parking lot, and enter a suburban-style pharmacy. You may see people you know inside the CVS, but how is this experience to be distinguished from a suburban one?

That said, preservationists may (and do) butt heads with urbanists since buildings that do not quite literally meet the above standards are deemed less important and replaceable (See the San Luis--some urbanists said it wasn't an urban building, and that neither it nor a parking lot satisfy the urban needs of the site).

I fall somewhere in between. I respect historical development patterns as a sound way to approach infill, especially with regard to residential. A three-story brick row house is totally appropriate for Soulard, while a small frame house might suit parts of Boulevard Heights perfectly. Yet I would like to see more business districts in the city walked to--I do define that as quintessentially urban. I would like to see more business owners live above their shops (or around the corner). I'd like to see people shopping at places you couldn't find in suburbs--or the suburbs of other cities, or anywhere else for that matter. Above all, cities should be interesting places! This is a highly subjective term, and impossible to measure in the positive sense. I can tell you what's not interesting--standardized places that don't speak to the peculiar history and culture of a very particular place. So when we lose fine buildings to generic chain stores, we've made out city less interesting.

I am not altogether concerned about CVS having front-facing parking on Gravois/Germania. I'm concerned with their duplicating nearby services, taking down occupied homes (willingly or not), and creating more curb cuts and paved intrusions into walkable and decently attractive neighborhoods.

For me, it comes down to a place being human scale, interesting, and livable. Most of the developments you mentioned simply don't fit on that ticket.

Rick Bonasch said...

There are a lot of municipal functions in what's urban, but not all municipalities would be considered urban.

Rural Missouri has lots of municipalities, but I don't think people consider them urban. They consider them rural.

In Missouri, when people think "urban", they think St. Louis and maybe Kansas City. They definitely think St. Louis.

They don't think about the Bowood demolition or the expansion of the CVS chain. They consider St. Louis urban regardless of those individual real estate activities.

Matt M. said...


Go to the following link for a different perspective: Bostonians.

In it, ArchBoston forumers discuss UrbanSTL--which they deem ironic because "St. Louis is incredibly un-urban".

From other places' perspectives, esp. more "urban" ones, St. Louis is not quite as city-like as what they are used to. Much of this relates to urban form (few spaces between buildings, tall buildings, few surface parking lots and suburban-style buildings, etc.) as well as urban function (people walking everywhere, very visible transit, etc.).

I don't think anyone from outside St. Louis is tracking the CVS expansion into the market. Yet, when they arrive here and see an unremarkable, autocentric landscape of which CVS is a memeber, I doubt they will deem it urban.

Now, at the same time, I agree with you that it's not all that instructive to declare portions or neighborhoods of the city un-urban, but our major streets (centers of commerce and welcome mats to the city) need to be made more interesting and functional for that presently hypothetical pedestrian or transit-user.

I also differentiate "exciting" and "interesting". For me, Soulard and Benton Park are much more exciting than St. Louis Hills, yet STL Hills is still interesting to me on many, many levels. It is certainly less "urban" but, in my opinion, no less welcome as a part of St. Louis's urban tapestry.

Rick Bonasch said...

Thanks Matt and Mark for posting here. This is exactly the type of discussion I was hoping would take place.

Matt, you've hit on another core issue in this discussion: the comparison of St. Louis to other metro/urban areas.

We can all point to more exciting, more dense, more diverse, more attractive, more everything places than St. Louis.

We can also highlight the many things that make St. Louis a great place to live, for what it is now.

We're not Chicago. We're not Boston. We're not Denver. We're not Portland. We're St. Louis and they're not.

They have things we don't have and we have things they don't have. We have our own brand of urbanism, and it is made up of what we are here.

When people come from out of town to visit St. Louis, I can show them wonderful places, throughout the region. I can scare the hell out of them in some places and I can wow them in others.

It's St. Louis. It's our brand of urbanity.

Matt M. said...


On some levels, I agree with you and endorse your comments.

First of all, even continuing to compare to other places, have you ever seen a city that was once as large as St. Louis with such relatively low-scaled buildings? Kind of surprising. St. Louis has always been on the fringe and seen itself with plenty of room to grow, and its built environment (city and suburbs, actually) reflects that.

I would also add that I don't want St. Louis to imitate Chicago, don't think it could, and don't see it doing it anyway. Personally, I think that, despite Chicago's undeniable energy and life, it's a drearier city than St. Louis. I'm an architecture nut, and while Chicago has its high points, the city as a whole has an anonymous feeling to its residential areas and commercial boulevards.

But--do I think St. Louis should continue to make a name for itself in shoddy infill, parking garage construction, an absent planning arm, proliferation of chain/suburban-style retail, starkly geographically and socially divided neighborhoods, and high crime? No. I would like to see the city capitalize on the things that make it unique, not watch them slip away.

Part of what will make St. Louis more interesting and livable is new mind and new idea from other places. I don't want Pittsburgh's super cool "Beehive" coffee shop to open a branch in St. Louis as-is. I want someone with the same inventive spirit to reinvigorate a forlorn little building in a cut-off section of town nearly everyone gave up for dead with something of the same boldness and confidence.

I also want that city's pedestrians, their long and attractive business districts, and that unmistakably positive feeling when you, as a longtime resident or a tourist, can say "I've never seen anything like this before".

Like this!,+Pittsburgh,+PA&sll=38.630706,-90.201603&sspn=0.00932,0.013797&ie=UTF8&ll=40.428803,-79.984696&spn=0.009082,0.013797&t=h&z=16&layer=c&cbll=40.428806,-79.984599&panoid=CHuS8dnMBefIEvkgZYDTTg&cbp=12,268.33,,0,-2.42

john w. said...

The general acceptance of the working conditions of urban St. Louis as being as urban as necessary, because they're incomparable to other cities, is very appreciable to me. What Rick is saying is difficult to argue with, however the detailed articulation of what form-based revitalization and new infill, as provided by Matt, distiguishes the frustrated position of urbanists from simple 'homerism'. If economic vitality can only come in the form of disposable retail shells that by nature are resistant to sustainable urban form, then there is just reason for complaint and demand for better.

Matt M. said...

John W. --

I agree it's frustrating when we make blind comparisons of St. Louis to other cities. My pet peeve, of course, is when St. Louisans shower praise on Chicago and then declare, with no veil over their disdain, we're no Chicago!

I too believe St. Louis has a special brand of urbanism and an even more special story of rising from the brink to be something actually good and appealing.

But other cities' spirit of boldness and progress is not something St. Louis should ignore either. We should want pedestrian-clogged sidewalks, lots of cool little shops and bars to walk to, a varied and efficient transit system, etc. At least, that's what I want for St. Louis!

As I said in a previous comment, this is not the same as saying I want specifically what another city has. I don't. I want St. Louis to be St. Louis. But I do want to see St. Louisans have that same spirit of progress and pride in their city that I observe when I travel just about anywhere else.

john w. said...


I'd say your qualification of what you said is unnecessary because it is not unique. The nuance of your position is typical of urbanists who revel/resent/praise/envy/honor/hate/love but always respect and use as inspirational comparison other cities like New York, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, et al. I believe the grinding frustration of vacancy, demolition and exchange of diamonds for dirt when losing history and building crap is what causes the expressions we hear often, and we'll just have to keep working on what we believe is best for our old city.

LisaS said...

I think there are a lot of definitions of urban--in some ways it's a point of view question. I'm one example of how that point of view changes.

When I first visited St. Louis in Spring 1990, I was so excited when we got to Eureka. My experience of cities was very limited: days driving in the Memphis suburbs, a few nights in New Orleans. Look at all the strip malls! & Six Flags! look at all the subdivisions! wow, we're in the big city for sure now! After we parked the truck at the Forest Park Hotel, we took a quick walk around after putting our bags in the (pink) room. I was amazed. It's almost like New Orleans, I told my boyfriend. At that point, I thought cities were places you visited & then went home.

2 years later I visited again as I was considering grad schools. After 2 trips to Europe--one of those living for 6 months in Rome--my view of urbanity was very different. I wanted to be someplace served by public transit, where I could walk for my groceries and to school, work, etc. 2 years of architecture grad school, with most of my coursework focusing on urban design & architectural history, only served to focus that desire to live in a dense, walkable, multi-ethnic environment. It's been a little disappointing to see the CWE become more of the first 2 & less of the third, but for me, those are the more important parts of the equation, particularly as my kids get old enough to want to do things more & more independently.

I think the nice thing about the City is that we have everything: if you want to live as I do, there are a couple of places to do that. if you want to live in a house with a yard & garage but still be able to walk to a neighborhood restaurant &/or stores, you can do that. if you want to live in the 1950's version of suburbia but close to your downtown job, you can do that too.

What I don't like seeing is the strengths we have that are unique in the region--wonderful historic building stock of all eras, & actual density in some areas--diminished. In the CWE in particular, we've had a lot of that lately. It seems foolish to become more like the areas that exist everywhere else, but that's the tack our leaders--particularly in my ward--seem to be interested in taking.

Matt M. said...

Great comments, Lisa!

And to John, while I respect the bold urbanism of cities like Portland and Seattle, I'll take a residence in Detroit, Cleveland, Cincy, Pittsburgh, and, of course, St. Louis over either of those anyday.

john w. said...

Name whatever ideal ally city you wish... that doesn't really matter to me. There is a lot of work to do in St. Louis, and I'm very comfortable with that.

Matt M. said...

Me too!

Let's get it done!

john w. said...

I actually need to talk to you about something relating to a post you made on the South Grand Streetscape improvements on Dotage... and then beyond that.

Matt M. said...

My email:

Anonymous said...

Successful urbanism requires diversity but it is loathed in the Lou, the result? By next summer, American will restructure its route network to add service at its four major hubs, most notably at O'Hare in Chicago, while pruning unprofitable business, mainly in St. Louis.

In Chicago, AMR will add 57 daily flights, for a total of 487. The move will eliminate nonstop service to a dozen U.S. cities from Lambert. St. Louis travelers looking for nonstop service already had seen their choices plummet from more than 100 cities reachable by nonstop flights to about 70.

No longer an international airport, travelers from Lambert are now lucky to at least to have Chicago. "If you look at this history since 2003, it has been a steady downturn," said Lambert Director Hrabko. As explained by Senator Bond, "the lost flights will leave the St. Louis region with fewer options — and fewer jobs — in a difficult economic climate." Sounds like St Louis got bumped.

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