Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Joe Urban at 10 Years – Grocery Stores, the Election and Good Urbanism

Dateline: 6:48 pm January 6, 2017 Filed under:

I write about cities. I’ve done so for 20 years, having gotten my start by writing a series of articles about urban planning in Madison for the Badger Herald while attending the University of Wisconsin. 2016 marked 10 years since I began writing for this website and working for myself. I’ve written about a wide range of topics in that time. They can all be found here. I’ve also assisted in the task of bringing two children in to the world, bought a boat. But it all comes back to the topic of my first post on this site describing my urban awakening.

That lovely spring evening in 1994 on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin is where I fell in love with cities. It was the first time I came to realize how the complex mix of streets, buildings and, most importantly, people, come together to make a great place. I’ve been seeking out and writing about great cities ever since.

Extemporaneous speaking is not my strong suit. How do I know this? When I’m speaking to a group of people I generally cannot remember the word “extemporaneous.” (It’s probably time for a public speaking coach.) Writing allows me to collect my thoughts, research, and consider the right word or phrase. It’s also good to play to my strengths. And so I write. I write about cities.

So what is next? I love State Street as much as I did all those years ago, proof that good urban places have a certain timelessness. I’ll continue to seek and get to know examples of what makes a great city, because I do believe we need this now more than ever. Navigating an increasingly changing world is the challenge. Even something as mundane as getting groceries is impacting our urban world.

Prior to Christmas I repeatedly listened to a radio ad for a grocery delivery service. Its premise was physically going to the grocery store is bad. Negotiate traffic and circle for a parking spot. Fight the crowds. Wipe down the shopping cart handle. Forget your shopping list. Wander and backtrack all over the store for additional items. Make small talk with the cashier. Having your groceries delivered avoids this hell on earth!

This isn’t the kind of world I want to live in. I enjoy visiting the grocery store, and I’m willing to risk getting the flu to do so! Ideally I’d walk there, waving to other shop owners and talking to neighbors on my way. But once I’m there I like feeling the produce for ripeness, sampling cheese, smelling the coffee aisle, and sharing a joke with the cashier or bag boy. In short, cities provide the kind of stimulus to the various senses that humans need to survive, and because cities are imperfect, there will always be a reason to improve them, write about them and promote good solutions.

Maybe the grocery delivery ad airing at Christmastime reminded me of Charles Dickens, another acute observer of cities in his time, but a couple lines from A Christmas Carol come to mind. Scrooge’s nephew speaks of Christmas as a time to be more charitable to our “fellow passengers to the grave.” Yes. This past year has served to remind me how important this is, and the place for this to occur is the city, in places as mundane as the grocery store.

Dickens also wrote that Scrooge, following his interaction with the ghosts, became as good a man as “the good old City knew, or any other good old city…in the good old world.” He paid no heed to those who laughed at his transformation, “for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset.” So laugh if you will as I write future posts about dismantling skyways, measuring lane widths or adding front doors, but I promise you this: I will continue to write about this stuff, advocate for it, and continue to seek good places in our cities where we can interact in a casual and friendly way with our fellow human beings.

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