When college students cram into homes built for single families, the rot that results is hard to miss. Even if you've never lived in a neighborhood near campus, you'd have no trouble identifying the telltale signs. Trash-strewn yards. Over-parked streets and driveways. Rotting couches on rotting porches. Loud parties into the wee hours.
There is no mystery about why college students make nice, older neighborhoods look crappy when enough of them move in. What is a mystery, though, is why cities and colleges—town and gown—don't seem motivated to do much to prevent the spoiling of these neighborhoods.
Why stop student rot?
But they should be motivated to stop student rot. There are three reasons why.
This wish list of city design and city policy features for Lexington, Ky. was created as a brainstorming step for an exercise proposed on Where, a blog devoted to urban issues. Participants in the exercise were encouraged to "go crazy" and "get creative."
My list—which has not been put in priority order and could include many more items—definitely contains some craziness. But I think most of my wishes are pretty tame. Many of them have been suggested by others. Some are already being implemented—at least in part—in the real world.
A pub and grocery in every neighborhood. Everyone should be able to walk to a good, family-friendly pub for a beer, some neighborly companionship and a decent chicken pot pie. And people should be able to walk—not have to drive—to a corner grocery for a gallon of milk.
Tear down the blueglass monstrosity. Let's demolish the Lexington Financial Center. It sticks out like a sore middle finger. And let's not build a 40-story hotel. We need the businesses currently housed in the big glass boxy thing; we need another hotel. But let's build to scale. We're not a big city, and we don't need to pretend to be one to be successful and charming.
Vital diversity is top planning priority. Encouraging mixed-use, commercial and residential, upscale and affordable, low-income and middle-income, black, brown, pink, olive, beige, new and old, in every Lexington neighborhood—all with the goal of preserving existing vitality and diversity or nurturing its growth.
Zero tolerance for homelessness. If you live in town and are temporarily displaced or can't afford shelter, the city should get you a place to live, pronto. And then make sure you get the help you help yourself to get back on your feet ASAP.
Urban focused local newspaper. A paper that really obsessed about helping readers understand city issues well could help build a constituency for good city living. Here's a proposal for such a newspaper.
Wide sidewalks everywhere. The sidewalk grid should be as complete as the road grid, and the sidewalks themselves should be wide enough so couples could walk side-by-side.
Thriving local, non-chain restaurants. Lexington diners should forsake their chain eating habits and give local restaurants a try.
Stallion Transit. This is Lexington's new regional transit service, and it makes taking the bus something you'll actually want to do. There are more buses, more routes, more bus stops and lower fares. But what makes the experience really cool are the custom-designed mid-size buses. They're sleek, silver, surprisingly roomy and free of advertising. The bus shelters are cool, too, and almost always include a bench.
Stop student rot, end campus prohibition. To prevent student rot from blighting nice neighborhoods near campus, the university should build cool student dormitories and require freshmen (at least) to live there. The university should also end on-campus prohibition, and allow of-age students to drink.
Connect the spokes. Lexington's wheel and spoke road system contributes to this small city's fiendish traffic. If more spokes were connected, motorists could find alternatives to clogged spoke roads.
Powerful neighborhoods group. Lexington needs a strong citywide group that champions walkable neighborhoods and fights developer-pushed sprawl. Read my suggestion for such a group here.
Enough with the eternal red lights! Let's prevent the build-up of stopped traffic from blocking intersections downstream and ease across-town travel by changing the street light cycle more frequently everywhere, but especially on major thoroughfares.
Drain the puddles. Almost any appreciable rainfall here results in big, splashy puddles forming in the streets. Other cities have built storm water sewers—some since ancient times—to handle this problem.
jobHarmony.net. This is an employment program, not just a web site. This is where local employers match up with job seekers. This is where employers work with technical colleges to custom-design and quickly implement skill-training courses for their needs. This is where job seekers and workers can access micro-loans to pay for cars, housing costs, new clothes, new skills.
IncuBank. At this quasi-private sector financial and property management company, local small businesspeople and entrepreneurs can apply for start-up loans and subsidies on commercial space and equipment—and get the chance to open their businesses in prime locations throughout the city.
A state earned income tax credit. The city should push the state to offer a state earned income tax credit in addition to the federal credit. This will help put more money in the pockets of local low-income workers—money that, as it's spent or saved, stabilizes the workers and their families and flows back into the local economy.
Bury the wires. Start putting power and communications cables underground. Take streetlights off overhanging wires and mount them on poles like real cities do.
Start Vine Street with a park. Close the street to thru-traffic at Triangle Park, and make the park a welcoming, vine-covered pedestrian plaza connecting the convention center with downtown street life.
Oh yes, and remove the elevated walkway. Give strollers at the new pedestrian plaza Triangle Park an unobstructed view of Vine St. by taking down the very 70ish elevated walkway sticking out from the convention center.
Two-way streets downtown. No city's downtown should be a mere thoroughfare for people going elsewhere. But that's what Lexington's is.
Give us food carts. Pad thai. Fried chicken. Falafel sandwiches. Soul food. Hot dogs. Gyros. Available for sale. In carts. Downtown. Near campus. On campus. Yummy.
Bust property bums fast. When homeowners, renters or absentee landlords violate housing codes, they should be ticketed or fined promptly.
Tow sidewalk blockers. When thoughtless drivers park their cars across sidewalks, the cars should be towed to junkyards and crushed into blocks of scrap metal. (Well, at least they should get tickets.) Sidewalks are for walking, not parking.
Horseback helpers. Not only should there be more cops on horseback, but there should also be a regiment of mounted and uniformed concierges to help guide tourists and townies alike to downtown destinations.
Stop hiding certain neighborhoods. Lexington has had a habit of trying to isolate and block certain low-income neighborhoods from the rest of the city. It also allows certain high-income neighborhoods to act like exclusive enclaves. This unacknowledged policy should be reversed, and efforts made to stitch all neighborhoods together into one whole city fabric.
Put a dog park/coffee shop combo near downtown. The fenced-in dog park doesn't have to be big. Nestled right next to it should be a coffee shop where you can get a cup and then sit down to talk to fellow dog-owners while watching the dogs.
Do Lexington's leaders understand the value of good city neighborhoods?
If reading the local paper lately is any indication, it's not clear that they do.
I've read opinion pieces by neighborhood residents complaining about the lax enforcement of parking regulations and building codes. I've read news stories about how developers illegally built condos in federally protected wetlands with city knowledge. About traffic engineers who forgot to paint-in planned bike lanes. About how city agencies easily grant variances for new constructions and repairs that clearly violate official policy. About how the Urban County Council—and a silent mayor—killed recommended historic zoning for a neighborhood that's struggling to maintain its character and distinctiveness.
"Newspapers offered a mixed story as new data showed a circulation decline industrywide — by alarming rates at some papers — while visits to their websites grew."
—USA Today, 2006
Unless I start my Sunday by reading a real newspaper—the kind you can spill coffee on without frying a keyboard—I get cranky. Which is why reading about declining newspaper subscriptions worries me. What sort of wretch will I become if real Sunday newspapers go extinct?
But then I think of The Sunday City, and I realize there's hope. The Sunday City is a weekly from my hometown, and it's one of the few papers today gaining print subscribers. Let me tell you about it.