Random Assortment of Thoughts from England
My son and I recently attended a Middlesbrough v. Arsenal match in Middlesbrough, England. It was amazing for several reasons. First, my son and I traveled to England (and France) together for eight days. It was fascinating to spend that much time with a single child. I have six and #2 does not get a lot of one-on-one time with me. So, it was special. Second, the purpose of the trip was to immerse ourselves in soccer.
We toured many stadiums; walked all over the city of London; and watched games of soccer played at a world-class level. It is hard to underscore how fast the players are and how much quality is on display. Specifically, about the game, we were watching the game amidst two passionate fan bases – that are difficult to compare to American sports fan bases. There was a lot of singing – and I could only really understand when the “Boro” fans sang “f***”. The literary allusions and witty remarks were lost on this American. That being said, it was pretty awesome to simply be present amongst that level of passion.
More than simply the soccer, England was amazing because it was so similar to the U.S.A. - but also so different. I was particularly struck by the use of the space in England and its effect on my experience. As I wandered around this small Northeastern town of 174k in Teesside (MSA of 375k), I reflected on why the country/city/region challenged some of my notions about community and specifically about the use of space.
Public spaces in England are vastly different than in the U.S. And it inspired several ideas regarding Omaha, how we allocate space, and how it affects the experiences of Omaha’s inhabitants and visitors.
We toured or attended games in multiple stadiums in England. They are embedded as part of the neighborhood. They are not nearly as expensive as American stadiums. Riverside, for example, was completed in 1994 for £16 million…compared to Camden Yards (about the same size) for $100 million. The Emirates Stadium was completed in 2007 for £390 million…compared to AT&T Stadium in Dallas for $1.45 billion. The cost is kept lower in England for multiple reasons…mostly tied to the fact that there is not public financing of the grounds. The team owns them.
There is no parking around the stadiums. In fact, Riverside was noteworthy because it was like an American stadium – there was a sea of parking lots surrounding the stadium. The grounds in London have virtually no parking – except for the players and team management (so maybe 100 spaces under the stadium. At Portsmouth, there was parking nearby because there was a grocery store that shared the parking lot. It still was a very small number of stalls for a 34,000 seat arena (maybe 1200-1500). Imagine a US stadium without parking. Difficult to imagine, isn’t it? It reminds me of the great loss of Rosenblatt and its unfortunate demise. The walk through the neighborhood was special for young CWS fans. Today, it is not noteworthy.
At White Hart Lane, there were kebob stands across the street. White Hart Lane is not a tiny stadium – it is being built out to have 60,000 seats and will be home to NFL games in the not-to-distant future. It is also home to one of the best soccer clubs in the world, Tottenham Hotspur. It reminded me of Fenway and Wrigley. The US does not build stadiums like this anymore…and it’s a shame. The lack of activity in and around the Century Link Center is disappointing. There is so much parking and so little atmosphere. I know from my work at the Chamber that this was not (and remains not) the plan; however, as it stands, the immediately adjacent areas are not accommodating the vibrant and communal qualities that are common around the English stadiums.
The reality is that in much of America, stadiums create urban deserts- often, in prime urban zones. Limiting parking can solve this. Simply cut it down to a small percent of likely attendees. Force people to either walk or use public transportation. Simply creating an expectation that people will walk, rather than simply hiding the parking behind, over, or underneath buildings may be a good thing in our society. It might slow us down and ensure that fans attend games – not just rich people who can afford tickets, parking, etc. I did not mind walking through the neighborhoods by Rosenblatt for a CWS game. Actually, it elevated my excitement as a kid. Perhaps, convenience is getting in the way of culture and experience.
Moreover, the experience of attending (and leaving) the game was enhanced by the walk. Walking with other fans – both home and away – led to more “atmosphere”. [And at least at Middlesbrough, there was some chance of an actual fight breaking loose.] There was singing, chanting, and other forms of community bonding. The closest American example that I could draw is that it was similar to attending a college football game. While there was no “Go Big Red” or “O-H”…”I-O”, the sentiment was the same.
So, why does this happen on college campuses but not professional environments? I am not sure – but I think the parking almost exclusively causes it. In most cases, US Stadiums reside on or near campus, so most fans have to walk. And the fan walk is part of the experience. What if we simply eliminated 90% of parking around stadiums? What if we let teams generate tax revenue from just those sections of towns on game day to finance the stadiums (Sports TIF)? How would that change sports for the community? I think that it would be for the better.
Walking through the streets of Middlesbrough (about five blocks from Riverside Stadium – where Arsenal had just defeated Boro), I noticed an empty building space that had a sign on it. The sign read “Innovation Hub – make it happen here.” Underneath the sign was a link to a website where people (I assume mostly Middlesbrough residents) can comment about what to build in the open lot. Building or optimizing creative spaces is an important part of creating a shared community value – innovation or recreation or whatever.
One challenge in the U.S. is the insistence that these spaces must be about efficiency rather than connecting people and culture. Throughout my stay in England, I increasingly appreciated the resourceful use of space. The English are judicious with their use of space because it is so limited. For example, instead of centralized access, the English use small spaces to provide decentralized access to “interesting” things. For example, there was an alley behind our hotel, two blocks from Euston Station, where there was nothing but foot traffic. In this alley were a second hand book shop (about 1400 sq. ft.), a tiny Indian restaurant, and a small neighborhood pub. This was not for tourists. It was for residents.
These were local stop off points that added vibrancy to the neighborhood, rather than destinations for every possible book buyer or Indian eater in the world. When we walked down this alley, there were two people sitting on two separate benches (not nice ones – but clean and sturdy) who were writing and drawing. There are many creative spaces spread across the country – not just big ones on university campuses or in downtown “innovation districts.”
This decentralized and purposeful space design not only cultivates a collaborative ecosystem – it also fosters a community-wide innovation ethic because the English must share their very limited resource of space. Decentralization of spaces in England has resulted in many interesting workspaces in many areas of the country. For example, in the United States, we have co-working spaces such as the Exchange. In London, they have similar spaces, but they are often very small – about 1000 or 1500 sq. ft. Moreover, many of the actual offices are small – 800-1400 sq. ft. This is true in many urban environments – and explains why ideas such as shipping containers as offices or homes are appealing. Omaha does not have that type of space restriction – and continues to build more space rather than use space more efficiently.
On a different trip, I toured the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The space usage there was also tight – there were pizza boxes everywhere and a mass of humanity spilling out of organized space into hallways, outdoor seating, etc. In Omaha, that never happens. And again, this perhaps suggests why people want to build more spaces because they want that feel – but the reality is that the feel is created by a scarcity of space, not by building more and designating it as the space for pizza boxes and innovation.
While the US has structurally more modern facilities – cleaner, better plumbing, etc. – it does not have spaces with the rich cultural heritage that the English enjoy…the kind of enticing spaces that foster local immersion, and flavor the experience of working in or visiting these spaces. And that were also built before people had laptops, phones, etc. – all of which run on electricity and sometimes require (or at least strongly desire) tables. For example, when we walked through Chinatown in London – there was no parking because the streets were not big enough for anything other than motorcycles. Contrast that with U.S. streets built for three-car access that avoids any inconvenient cramping, but effectively costs us better use. The density in London, in contrast, forces interactions and motivates companies to find nooks and crannies that are affordable and unique. Density is not just about creativity – it ties utility to cost savings and space maximization.
Moreover, when Midwesterners talk about the Valley or NYC or Boston, we fail to recognize that these are dense, urban areas that require effective use – different in a fundamental way than Omaha, which has a nineteen minute average commute time. Thus, we miss that these places need to create density in working environments due to a lack of space – whereas density does not drive location decisions in Omaha because it is not landlocked, difficult to navigate, or in some other way space constrained.
Thus, we attempt to create artificial density through building projects that are unlikely to result in the same sense of place or same ability to interact. I do not believe that density can be easily engineered. And if innovation is about density (the ability to bump into people), then density should not be built – but instead we should strive for scarcity and dynamism in space.
Focus more of our efforts to build density in existing spaces that are scarce (cool ones to which people are naturally pulled – such as Omaha’s Old Market or Lincoln’s Haymarket). In the Midwest we create innovation districts – rather than spaces that foster engagement beyond general proximity. Our districts are littered with beautiful buildings full of people who never talk – the opposite of the intended outcome. Creating scarcity to achieve community should be the goal, rather than losing our identities to open and wasted sprawl.
For example, on Innovation Campus at UN-Lincoln, there is too much space for natural interactions. A person has to “meet” someone somewhere because everything is big. On the other hand, the Haymarket in Lincoln lends itself to natural interactions because the scarcity of space forces them to happen. The roads are tighter and the meeting spaces are defined – but limited. Three coffee shops on one street corner act as the public square. This is the type of density that will drive interaction. It won’t happen as a result of declaring interactive spaces, but by building natural chokepoints around them. This is also one of the reasons that DO Space in Omaha fails as a community space from my perspective. It is a destination for creativity – not a natural place where creativity is simply around and the space is a conduit for connecting.
Our spaces should not be built as sterile activity venues with a declared discrete purpose. Markets and squares are more likely to create vibrancy than will declared space. Can we not use the Old Market or Benson as our “innovation district” while not declaring it as that, and facilitate smaller space use in those areas for startups? For example, in Omaha there are a variety of hip/trendy/historic neighborhoods. They already exist here. We don’t need to build new spaces. We need to better utilize the ones that are already inclined towards innovation through existing social behavior and company location. The fact that these neighborhoods are deemed “cool” already and just as they are is the key to why innovators (and young people) want to be there. Don’t change them – but instead allow people to use them in new and creative ways.
For example, Dundee Bank has done a great job of creating cool space in old shells that retain the history of the space, including some grimy bricks. In many ways, the Bank is what has made Dundee cool because it kept the original motif while also providing a valuable product/service. Now, Dundee Bank is building out a basement in Benson that can house mini-businesses. This is an excellent way to enliven that district with a new creative space that retains its cultural substance and value.
Building creative spaces is not – however – just about building. Sometimes, spaces are those that we cultivate – such as squares, gardens, and parks.
I have noticed throughout England that the English appear to value public green spaces. My son, age 14, commented “Why doesn’t Omaha have parks like these?” Then, he asked if other American cities did. What he was referencing was the walk through parks and gardens sprinkled throughout all of London. These green areas are not necessarily pristine – as most American parks tend to be. For example, there are dandelions growing in the parks and the grass is sometimes trampled. These parks may be rundown a bit, but and they have sitting spaces, shade, and grass upon which people are walking, talking, picnicking and playing. In other words, these small spaces are used - but they are built to be used. The spaces have a mix of long lasting construction items (concrete, bricks, fountains, etc.) and green space. There is almost no plastic or wood. Why do these spaces exist? Perhaps partly because there is not much yard space in London.
As we walked through Middlesbrough, we noticed these green spaces scattered there as well. I suspect that the English value usage of spaces more intensely than do we Americans who have more of it. Nonetheless, green space usage problems are appearing in England. Newcastle on the Tyne is considering whether to place their parks in a public trust. I think that this is a good idea for US cities to consider. It would be a preemptive measure and a means for city leaders to ensure and preserve public spaces for their grandchildren.
By creating a trust, you also shift some of the legal issues into a separate entity that can manage them without burdening the taxpayer. The designation of an organization that espouses a generational vision for protecting park space is good stewardship for a common good. Moreover, it creates a means to ensure funding (public & private) towards specific outcomes – such as community space, gardens, and the like. Lastly, it creates a forum and means for the public to communicate its desires and interests in an engaged, empowered way.
One big take away for me from the current mayoral race in Omaha is the need for more public discussion about the community’s priorities, public spaces, and goals for using common spaces. This is not intended to be a political statement – but more a community based statement about how to encourage the broader people within the community, and within small pockets of the community, to own their public spaces. Many could not afford it, if left alone, but they should be able to self-determine key aspects of the spaces that they use most.
Five Ideas Here are five ideas that I’d like to see in Omaha. Most of these are things that I have been thinking for a while. This list is intended to start some conversations.
1. I’d like to see the community eliminate I-480 from Creighton to the River. This process is similar to the one that took place in Milwaukee with a similar strip of Interstate. There is a great chapter in the book Wealth of Cities (by John Norquist, former Mayor of Milwaukee) about how an urban interstate spur actually killed the downtown neighborhood. I-480 prevents the natural downtown area from developing well. Knocking down this useless section of interstate would provide the community with new land to open up for better uses – a neighborhood, extended green space, and the new library, whatever.
2. Second, I’d like to see more neighborhood gardens à la the Gifford Park garden (http://www.giffordparkomaha.org/Community_Garden.html). This garden is fabulous. But when I enquired about how to do this in Prairie Lane (my neighborhood), the city responded with a variety of challenges. Two primary challenges were that my neighborhood owns the pool – so that is private land and requires all private funding. The public land at the park cannot be used well because any cultivation would be free game to the public. So, for example, if you spent all summer growing corn, and then a person walked up and harvested all of the corn, there was nothing the city could do. This seems silly and like it is a regulatory problem – not a real problem. The public trust could probably fix this sort of deleterious legalism.
3. More walking, cycling, and public transport access are needed. Our city is built for efficiency on a grid. That’s great. We have to be intentional about how to integrate in new ways to recreate. What about lateral parks along the Papio watershed that do more than provide access to run/bike. What if they had sitting spots tied to neighborhoods and a trail system that was built for commuting. My personal thought is that you could utilize rights of way along the UP mainline or “F” Street to create a really nice east/west corridor for commuting. What if it was covered or particularly well-lit or built out with public art or heated or all of those things. Think about this not for today but in 100 years. Wouldn’t it be amazing? This is not specifically about efficiency, but about creating a better way to live in a community of our size. Having awesome ways to get around, rather than just efficient ways, should be a strategy because it is eminently doable in a city that is relatively small geographically.
4. I cannot name the “best” fountain in Omaha. I know that the biggest is on Con Agra’s campus (or whatever it is called) – but where is the place that I can go and sit and ponder? I cannot name one. There should be a couple that are not built for kids or for show – but just because these lingering/gathering spaces are a key to good public spaces.
5. Finally, let’s use winter more effectively. Can we build hockey/ice skating in public parks – not as a strategy – but because it would be fun. What if we had wading pools in multiple parks that were skating rinks in the winter? Let’s make our sledding areas more intentional, i.e., safer, and clear more space in the winter for sledding, skiing, and the like. As an addendum, what if we thought about ways to make being outside more bearable in the winter – such as public warmers in parks. I am not sure how to do this – but I suspect that we could figure it out. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing would be cool on the trail system. Embracing winter takes some intentionality because we have to plan – but we could do it.
Paying for Public Spaces
As people read this, many will say, “these things cost money.” Yes, they do. One thing that I noticed here is that people pay for things that in America are “subsidized”. The London Tube is expensive – but it is really useful. It is subsidized too. But we also fail to understand that we pay for many things that are elective – but not seen as such. For example, we pay for roads and sewers and power plants. We don’t see those expenditures – but we definitely pay for them. What if we simply included in that list bike lanes, parks, and mass transit.
I am not suggesting increasing our tax burden, but I am suggesting we actually think through where our taxes are paid already. For example, when Facebook announces it will be using only green power and we applaud, we realize that we are paying for the construction of green power plants, not Facebook. Even knowing this, I continue to applaud – but I fear that these externalities are lost on many. I choose to include making my grandchildren’s world part of an externality that I am willing to pay for. This means making my city really great for them, not just for my immediate gratification.
To underline the idea of a public trust, I loved the idea because it seemed to speak to the things about Omaha that makes it great. People here care about the community, but we often put economy or short-term interests ahead of our vision. We are overly practical. Great places are not built solely on practical practices. If we had a public trust, some things would be free because of the public value ascribed to them – but we could also be smart about maintenance and shifting costs to specific users rather than all residents when appropriate.
We could also potentially think about the 100 year cost burden and think strategically about building a long-term plan for awesomeness not just one built on a budgetary cycle. Could we charge $2 for the use of the bikeway from west to east and east to west? Or $1000 for a family pass per year? Maybe. This could pay for maintenance and electricity – maybe. Could we overlay solar panels or wind turbines to help offset energy costs? Would this create alternative challenges? Yes. The key point on paying for things is that this should not be a barrier to our imagination – just part of the process that helps shape and prioritize.
The point of this is that some of what we love about other countries are spaces that were created generations ago – but live on. Paying for those spaces today is peanuts in many cases because generations before us built them, paying for the burden, and making maintenance and fees low because they were seen as permanent aspects of the community. Today, we, in the United States, build very little permanence and so we pay for everything over and over again. We rebuild stadiums every thirty years. We build new libraries every forty years…perhaps we need to take the long view and build for 2200, not 2020. Paying for these spaces over that period of time may provide us with a different calculus regarding what we build, when, and how. ________________________
 Wot the Dickens…very funny sign outside said: “Skinny people are easy to kidnap. You should eat more.”
 This was the only salient, substantive piece of conversation that he generated during the trip – except for about soccer. Being fourteen is a mystery to me because there is so much happening upstairs – with so little coming out as conversation. This sounds like criticism. It is not intended to be. Instead it is to illustrate how clear this view was to even a fourteen year-old who was not necessarily inclined to have his economic development, green space use head on a swivel.