Dear Echo, Please Don’t.

Earlier this year, I discovered that the Echo food shelf is attempting to make their services “more available” to those in need. According to the Mankato Free Press, Echo plans on buying the two neighboring lots, both which have perfectly good structures dating back to the late 1800s, and tear them down to allow for more parking and easier delivery access—all for the low, low cost of $350,000.

While I believe their intentions are good, I think it’s sad that they believe this will help their mission (especially for such an exorbitant cost). This will do nothing to help the food shelf and will only tear down more of our city’s history.

The buildings for reference.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not attacking the food shelf or anything that they do. They provide a vital service for the community. But to spend such an absurd amount on parking lots, something that has no proven record of doing anything for any business or nonprofit organization, is a depressing commentary on how pervasive car culture has become in the US. The belief that more parking somehow equates to better access to food is sad.

The reason I’m writing this article is to ask Echo to think twice. Downtown Mankato was devastated by Urban Renewal in the middle part of the century. We have so very little of our original downtown left that it would be almost criminal to tear down any more of it. The buildings that are slated for removal have their roots in the late part of the 1800s. While maybe not architecturally significant, it’s a shame to think that they would be needlessly destroyed.  Removing these buildings to make parking lots is anti-community, which is antithetical to the mission of a food shelf.

The irony of this situation is that transportation for the average American (i.e. cars and driving) is more expensive than food costs. In a roundabout way, Echo’s plan, by inducing people to drive, will actually cost an average family more than if they were encouraged to take the bus, walk or ride a bike.

Likewise, if the average food costs for a year is, give or take about, $7,000, the amount of money they would spend building a new parking lot and tearing down these old buildings down, would equate to about 50 families having food for an entire year. Likewise, if you were to cover half a year’s worth of groceries, you would go up to 100 families and so on and so forth.

Many of you probably disagree with me, citing that more parking indicates current success and allows for future growth. While this argument may seem obvious, there’s actually no evidence to show that parking equates to success. In fact, there are a host of problems when you add parking, the least of which, increased rents.

I’m no stranger to roasting people on my blog for stupid decisions—I’ve done it to school boards, developers and the government. However, for this article, I wanted to take a lighter touch and simply ask Echo to look at the broader implications of its plans. We need to look back and see how much we’ve torn down… and how little we’ve built back in its place. Everytime we destroy an old mixed-used building, we’re taking away the space for a new shop, a new office or, I don’t know, a chiropractor.

If you want, I’ll walk you through downtown and show you what used to be there. I’ll show you why our downtown has only two nice blocks. I’ll show you why this decision is the wrong one, why it won’t solve any problems you think you have, and why it hurts our city in the long run.

I’m happy to talk. Feel free to reach out. I’m sure we can come to see eye-to-eye and preserve what little downtown we have left.

Not Worth Defending

I work in the movie “Office Space.” If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s basically the existential crisis of one man realizes that he’s another cog in a corporatist Rube Goldberg machine. He comes to work, laments the mundanity of his job, goes home. A nihilistic, albeit, realistic, interpretation of “Ground Hogs Day” if you will.

I find myself questioning my existence, day in, day out. Why am I here? What I’m supposed to do? How I can leave an impact in the world?

In my semi-descent into madness, I’ve found myself researching, browsing or simply putzing about every subject imaginable. Obviously, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about our new president, his rise to power and the populous movements that have been sweeping a lot of countries.

People are desperate to cling to something. They realize that their time on this earth is short and they want to pass on something worth defending—something that wouldn’t be a far cry from the childhood they had growing up.

What is worth defending? Or maybe we should ask what do we build to defend things? Nowadays, it’s firewalls and RFID locks, but once we built permanent structures to defend our places, like castles, fortresses and keeps.

On my journey through the internet, I stumbled across this picture:

This is Najac, France. It’s a town that never crested 3,000 souls at any point in the last two centuries. I found the picture on a subreddit called r/beamazed. It’s one of the highest upvoted posts of all time and I thought that was interesting. EDIT: Apparently its since been removed due to copyright, so the above picture is actually something close. 

If you pop out to google maps this is the aerial view of Najac:


Beautiful, right?

Except that’s not France, that’s Wisconsin, just East of La Crosse (French in name alone) in the Driftless Area. Here’s the actual aerial view:


Pretty crazy that we have arguably the same topography and same geographic beauty as Europe, yet we build such boring shit.

If you had a transplantation machine, you could easily move Najac right to Wisconsin (or Minnesota) and it would feel right at home. It would, undoubtedly, be the hottest tourist attraction in the tri-state area. Najac, Wisconsin, would literally make millions of dollars annually.

We don’t build places like Najac, though. We double down on row houses out by our new school.

Town Houses nowhere near the town!

This, I think, plays into the populist message we’re seeing in America. It isn’t, in my opinion, based on racism or idiocy or isolationism; it’s based on emptiness. People today feel so disconnected, so adrift in a sea of global information, that they are longing to attach to something. They want to feel like Americans—an elusive, but critical, part of their identity.

I think our built environment can help do this. They can help root people instead of isolate them. They can make neighbors out of enemies and help people find the common ground. They can be places worth defending. If you wanted to feel connected, truly in-tune, with your city and the history that built it, you would start with buildings. You would start with the things your ancestors left for you to take care of and left you to build on top of. 

In Jane Jacobs “A Wealth of Nations,” she writes about visiting the familial Hamlet of Higgins, North Carolina. This was the height of the great depression and, to her surprise, even a rural village tucked away in the remoteness of Appalachia was impacted, but not for the reasons you might think. She recalls how the founders of the hamlet and their families held a variety of skills:
spinning and weaving, loom construction, cabinetmaking, corn milling, house and water-mill construction, dairying, poultry and hog raising, gardening, whiskey distilling, hound breeding, molasses making from sorghum cane, basket weaving, biscuit baking, music making with violins …”

But these skills were not being put to use. An excerpt from this Atlantic article, summarizes what she found:

Candles were a vanishing luxury. After the few remaining cows died, there would be no more milk or butter. One woman still remembered how to weave baskets, but she was close to death. When Robison suggested building the church with large stones from the creek, the community elders rebuked her. Over generations the townspeople had not only forgotten how to build with stone. They had lost the knowledge that such a thing was possible.”

This remote village no longer had the ability to sustain itself. The loss of wisdom, ostensibly, the loss of the skills that had given them an identity, had doomed this tiny town.

It’s skills like this, places built by hand, that feed people their identity. No one really wants to defend their slapped-together rambler built by GOODBUILDZ, LLC. They want to secure a shelter for their family and their “irreplaceable” possessions. However, places that craft identity are places like Najac, places that people rally to save, places that make you feel connected to something deeper. Places like we destroyed in the middle of the century.

Downtown Mankato, C. 1961


I changed the title for this article maybe three or four times. I knew the general idea of it, but I didn’t know what I wanted to call it. So, I went to Google. I typed in “not worth defending” and as fate would have it, the third image that popped up was this:


Jim Kunstler is probably one of my favorite people on the planet. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to him a few times and getting kinda drunk in his hotel room at CNU 22 in Buffalo, NY.

We have so many despondent people in the work force that would kill for someone to employ them to build Najac. People who would love to build a place that has meaning, that has character, that has something. In fact, in France, right now, there is a group of people working on restoring a medieval castle in the exact same fashion it would have been built hundreds of years ago. You can check them out here. It is purely a labor of love, no money, no fame, they just know its important to do. Here’s a picture I pulled off their Facebook page.



With all the talk of North Korea and Russia and nuclear annihilation, we have to ask ourselves if we would actually rally around America. Would we want to defend what we’ve built or do we want to defend the soft, consumerist lifestyle we’ve created for ourselves? Do we really want to make Prairie Winds and its subsequent housing the thing we pass on to our children? Or did we build it to be convenient for the parent? Is it for the here and now? Is it for the Happy Motoring culture we’ve created for ourselves? 

There’s an emptiness that’s descending on America, and if we don’t address it, we’ll soon find ourselves consumed by it. Building Najac wouldn’t be a panacea, but it’d be a step in the right direction, a part of a new identity, a place worth defending.  

 

Video games would suck without walkable cities

I was lying in bed last night, feeling forlorn for the days of my youth (ok actually like a year ago) when I could just sit on my butt and play video games for hours on end. It was relaxing, fun and had the narrative elements of a good book. But alas, since I bought my fixer upper, it’s been just work work work.

That actually got me to thinking though, what was the correlation between video games and our built environment? Actually what would video games be like if they tried to mimic our cities?

Well, quite frankly, they would suck. I mean, like really suck.

If you go down the list and start looking at some of the most beloved video game franchises, you’ll notice that there’s a recipe. Good environments.

Assassin’s Creed, a historical fiction, is a game that would be crippled without walkable cities. You’re a parquoring assassin who jumps from rooftop to rooftop looking for your next target, As you travel the great cities of the world you climb, run and jump, using your environment to your advantage.

via GIPHY

Even Grand Theft Auto, a franchise whose concept is entirely auto-centric, has a surprising lack of empty surface parking lots. Yeah, they slammed a highway through the city, but still, there’s buildings in almost every square inch of that map. If you don’t want to pass empty parcel after empty parcel in a game, why would you in real life?

Speaking of parking… turns out that in simulation games, it’s kind of a problem. A few years back the newest installment of the Sim City franchise dropped on the market. The whole point is to build a realistic city, except that turned out to be a bad way to build a game. Here’s a quote from the game’s lead designer, Stone Librande (what a badass name):

Yes, definitely. I think the biggest one was the parking lots. When I started measuring out our local grocery store, which I don’t think of as being that big, I was blown away by how much more space was parking lot rather than actual store. That was kind of a problem, because we were originally just going to model real cities, but we quickly realized there were way too many parking lots in the real world and that our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots.

Our friend Jarret Walker already wrote an article on this, so props to him.

Go ahead and start thinking of other games, you’ll find the same thing (assuming they apply, I’m not talking about Star Wars here obviously.) All your FPS games like Call of Duty or Battlefield need density to create an interesting environment and a map worth playing. Yes, everyone loves Nuketown, but that’s the exception.

And it’s not just blanket “density” it’s interesting environments, architecture and natural landscapes mixed together, all things that normally would create vibrancy in a city.

If you look at all the detail and care that’s put into the “Gears of War” environments, you’ll notice that someone really wanted to make a beautiful urban environment to serve as the backdrop for the city. Case in point:


But it’s not just built environs either, it’s natural too. Red Dead Redemption, arguably one of the greatest games ever made, was hailed for it’s massive environment mimicking that of southwest America. It spanned from dense forests to open deserts. The sub-urban landscape that are so ubiquitous today can be a scourge on both natural surroundings and our constructed ones.


Seriously, the list goes on and on and on. Think of a few off the top of your head and if they didn’t come out of the Nintendo world, chances are their set in a cool urban environment or something akin to it.

The point is this, if we built the same bland, boring crap we build in the real world in our video games, the market would react and the game would tank. No one wants to run around in a world covered in spaced out building and desolate parking lots.

The question we need to answer is, if we don’t stand for it in the virtual world, why do we in the real world?

You want to be an Ag city? Great. Start here:

A diversified economy is somewhat of a modern phenomenon. As technology and transportation progressed, location wasn’t as large a factor when it came to production of goods. Hallstatt, Austria was pretty much solely built for the salt mines and plenty of cities in Appalachia are still employed by coal.With these industries other merchants make their way to town. Restaurants, brothels, hotels, bars, you name it. They all show up.

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Architecture without urban form: meh.

What’s the best part of Christmas eve? My childhood self leads me to believe it’s seeing all the presents under the tree. The idea that so many gifts have been lavished on us gets us all giddy. Is that one for me? For my sibling? Parents? Who’s it from? What’s inside? WHY CAN’T I OPEN IT?! All of these thoughts whizzing through your eggnog-drenched synapses make the Christmas tree itself look that much more glorious.

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Turn the post office into the library

I’ve been quiet for a while, sorry, lots of stuff going on. Today’s topic: The post office re-use debate.

The post office has long been a staple of Mankato’s downtown. It’s served as a retail presence for USPS, It’s served as a landmark and a reminder of what Mankato used to be.

Now, however, the post office has said that they are going to vacate the building in favor of a more modern facility (I believe they do mail processing as well, hence the need for modernization.) This is great, I complain about government inefficiency a lot so if the postal service doesn’t see that it’s worth it to be there anymore, so be it.

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