American city dwellers place a high value on their cities’ food offerings, from restaurants to farmers’ markets. We also love historic buildings and good public spaces. Traffic, not so much. These findings are from a new study released last week by Sasaki Associates, a Massachusetts-based design and planning firm.
The study, although limited to six cities, is rich with interesting findings that should help inform the agendas of urban planners and advocates. The findings should also matter to environmentalists, because successful cities are key to a sustainable future. To get the environment right, we need to create and maintain urban environments that people love.
Restaurants and food
In particular, restaurants and other sources of food are among the most popular aspects of city life, according to respondents in six major US cities:
“When we asked city residents what aspects of urban life enchanted them, food kept popping up in their responses. Eighty-two percent of urbanites appreciate their city's culinary offerings.”
Restaurants were also ranked number one among a menu of items that would make residents visit a new part of their city, named by 46 percent of respondents, and number one among a different list of choices when asked to name “the most outstanding aspect of cities people love to visit.” (“Local attractions” ranked second.)
One thousand respondents participated in the survey from Austin, Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. The study was conducted in May 2014.
Architecture and public spaces
City dwellers also place a high value on historic architecture. 54 percent agreed that, “to improve their city’s architectural character,” they “would like to see their city invest in renovating existing historical buildings to retain character while making them more useable.” Only 17 percent felt their city was too quaint and “would like to see more skyscrapers and iconic buildings.”
Similarly, 57 percent will “stop to admire buildings that are historic,” while 19 percent favor “buildings that are modern.” 38 percent admire buildings “that prominently feature public art or very unique design elements.”
Beyond buildings per se, urbanites love parks and other good public spaces. The study’s authors found that most people remember their favorite city experience taking place outdoors, either in a park or on a street. A park or street was named by 65 percent of respondents as the site of a favorite experience, with private buildings coming in a distant second at 22 percent. Government and civic buildings came in at a paltry 6 percent.
Waterfronts were named most popular among public spaces, with large parks coming in second. And substantial numbers of respondents wish their cities would make streets more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians, would support adding outdoor music and entertainment venues, and would like more small urban parks, “such as for visiting on lunch breaks.”
Transportation and parking
Not all is rosy in cities, however, according to the survey. A substantial plurality of respondents – 41 percent – cited traffic as first among city complaints. Yet most respondents are themselves contributing to that traffic, with 58 percent saying that they use cars most frequently among modes of transportation. (Half that many listed public transit.)
Not that I blame them. For many people, convenient, comfortable, and clean alternatives to driving either don’t exist or don’t function in a way that meets their needs.
The study’s authors write:
“When we asked urban residents what they liked least about living and working in a city, traffic was the unsurprising winner.
“Breaking Americans of their car habit has been an ongoing battle. Transit-oriented development is the most-cited solution to encourage a less auto-centric society. (An anomaly, New York has the city-wide density to support a robust transit network.)
“However, the numbers (here and elsewhere) speak loud and clear: we are still auto-dependent. We need to plan and design differently—in a way that will enhance mobility options while still acknowledging our love for the automobile.”
The second-most-listed complaint was a lack of parking.
Ultimately, the study provides great news, at least about the cities surveyed: 60 percent of respondents said they plan on living either where they do now or in a different part of the city. The portion who say they plan to move outside the city at some point, 34 percent, is also a large number. But what a welcome contrast to the situation a few decades ago when central cities were emptying out, suburbs seen as the overwhelmingly preferred domicile for those with a choice.
Not long ago, I listed some questions designed to elicit whether a city is environmentally and socially sustainable. Those questions remain important, regardless of the findings here. But we’ll have a much better chance of reaching sustainability if we provide its ingredients in a form that responds to people’s self-expressed needs, such as those reported here. As I have said before, if our solutions don’t work for people, they will never work for the planet.
Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Huffington Post and in other national media. Kaid’s latest book is People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.
When 200 New York City fast-food workers walked off their jobs in November 2012, their demand of $15 an hour seemed like a fantasy.
But over the weekend, as more than 1,000 fast-food workers from 50 cities gathered in Chicago for the first-ever nationwide fast-food workers convention, the workers' call for $15 looked prescient.
In a little less than two years, the call for $15 per hour has spread far beyond the fast-food industry -- indeed, in its power to inspire all low-wage workers, the "Fight for 15" is akin to the movement for the 8-hour day roughly two centuries ago.
While it's commonly taken for granted, today's standard 8-hour workday did not arrive by accident -- it began as a near-utopian demand from workers in industries like mining, construction, and manufacturing, where 15-hour days were the norm.
But under pressure from strikes that gradually spread across the country, a growing number of cities and companies began granting 8-hour workdays near the end of the 19th century -- and eventually, this standard 40-hour workweek was extended to workers nationwide. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, signed into law by President Roosevelt in 1938.
The call for a $15 per hour wage similarly began as an over-the-horizon demand from fast-food workers stuck in jobs that offer no benefits, limited hours, and a median hourly wage of only $8.69 per hour. Today, however, following nearly two years of strikes by fast-food workers, low-wage workers of all types have taken up the call for $15 per hour -- and this growing movement is already getting results.
For example, in Baltimore earlier this month, service workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital reached a tentative agreement, after the threat of continued strikes, for a groundbreaking pay raise to $15 per hour. If finalized, this pay raise would substantially boost the wages of hundreds of low-paid janitors, cooks, housekeepers, and technicians, many of whom earn just above $10 per hour today.
In Michigan, hamburger chain Moo Cluck Moo raised wages to $15. And out west, workers in the Los Angeles Unified School System--the nation's second largest--just won a near doubling of their wages, to $15. Also in Los Angeles, a proposal to establish a $15 per hour minimum wage for hotel workers throughout the city won unanimous approval from the City Council's Economic Development Committee earlier this year, setting the stage for a vote in the full City Council in the coming months. Local leaders in LA credited the "tremendous energy" created by striking low-wage workers across the country in spurring progress on this proposal.
In November, voters in SeaTac, Washington approved the nation's first $15 minimum wage. And in June, the city of Seattle officially answered the rallying cry of fast food workers, approving the nation's first $15 citywide minimum wage. This historic development was followed just weeks later by the announcement of an agreement in San Francisco -- backed by local businesses -- to refer a measure setting a $15 citywide minimum wage to the city's voters this November.
It's not hard to understand why the Fight for 15 would inspire workers across the economy to take action. Much like the 15-hour days that characterized America's 19th-century industrial economy, stagnant wages and low pay are the "new normal" for millions of workers in the U.S.
For four decades wages have flat-lined even as worker productivity has continued to grow, and low-wage jobs now form the core of America's economy, comprising 8 of the 10 occupations with the largest projected growth over the next decade.
Looking ahead, we can ask: Which state will be the first to set a $15 minimum wage? Which big fast-food company will be the first to guarantee a minimum hourly wage that is double the industry standard? When can we expect to see a living wage become a core labor standard guaranteed to all workers across the country?
As fast-food workers gathered in Chicago to plot their next steps, one thing was clear: Their $15 demand could soon be as ordinary as the 8-hour day.
Jack Temple is a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.