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The Misadventures of My Very First “American” Bus Ride

The Misadventures of My Very First “American” Bus Ride

This week, we have two reasons to yet again bring back an "oldie but goodie:" 1) Much-needed levity after a dizzying week and 2) We're hard at work preparing our application for Phase II funding from the Small Business Innovation Research program from the NSF! We've got some SUPER cool stuff planned. Get it touch to find out what we've got up our sleeves. In the meantime, without further ado, please enjoy one of the most embarrassing tidbits I've ever shared about my pre-PhD urban mobility naiveté (or, you could argue, the precursor to my post-PhD absent-mindedness) - my very first bus ride...and of course, how urban data and analytics can help others avoid my nails-on-the-chalkboard-level-of-humiliation story. 

Oh, The Places We'll Go (Together)

Oh, The Places We'll Go (Together)

What were the most pressing challenges and concerns for you awesome, relentless warrior place-makers in 2016? And how can we help you (if you would honor us with the privilege) help you crush them in 2017? Today's blog reveals the top four challenges faced by cities and developers who are creating walkable, livable places based on our discussions with over 100 of you so far! In preparation for the official launch of our newly updated software that helps cities create and justify better places, we want to know if these challenges resonate with you and learn more about your placemaking pains. But most importantly, we want to explore how State of Place can help you identify the kinds of changes that would maximize both quality of life and economic development as well as arm you with the data you need to justify the need to invest in these projects and convince all the naysayers. In other words, we want to help save you time, money, agony - and give you back a little bit of your peace of mind - in 2017...






Suburban Mom: English(wo)man in...(Surburban) Detroit?

Suburban Mom: English(wo)man in...(Surburban) Detroit?

This is the first of our COO Michelle Drouse Woodhouse's Suburban Mom series about placemaking - and the State of (Suburban) Place(s). In the first installment in this series, Michelle reflects back on her very urban, spontaneous life sans-kids and how both the introduction of her two daughters and her move to the suburbs of Detroit have influenced her understanding of place and the importance of mobility, inclusivity, and choice.

Pots, Pans, and Place?

Pots, Pans, and Place?


After hearing the news of Fidel’s death, I immediately logged onto CNN to watch live video coverage. I knew it was only a matter of time before Cubans spilled over into the streets of Miami - banging pots and pans next to, of course Versailles and also, La Carreta, in my very own “Weh-che-steh.” Despite the lack of true public space, Cubans, as they oft - and are known to - do, persevered and took matters into their own hands. They crafted their own space of expression, even though they lacked a physical place in which to do so...But despite the beautiful freedom of expression on display in Miami on Saturday, the lack of public space - true public space - was never more glaring, and disappointing, to me. We - as planners and urban designers - we know better. We failed them. We failed to provide true public space - a cornerstone of our democracy. We failed to do our part in shaping our free Republic.

Does Walk Score Walk the Walk?

Does Walk Score Walk the Walk?

While Walk Score has clearly laid out their methodology and its limits, as both a preeminent and easily accessible walkability proxy, it’s tempting to try to use what is essentially a measure of the density of destinations as a proxy for walkability, livability, quality of place, and more. But should Walk Score be used to apportion government spending and/or approve development proposals or plans? My colleagues, Julia Koschinsky, Emily Talen, Sungduck Lee, and I recently conducted a study to truly understand when it was and was not appropriate to use Walk Score as a proxy for walkability tied to policy, funding, and/or project approvals.

It's So Hard To Say Goodbye to...Zombies? Pivoting & Lean Placemaking™ Part Three

(Or Why You Must Stop Saying, Build It And They Will Come!)


By now, I hope you're as excited as I am about the potential for Lean Placemaking™ to resuscitate zombie cities.

To recap:

  • Lean Startup for Cities - Lean Placemaking™ - can help make planning and economic development processes more efficient and effective
  • Cities need to "get out of the building" and engage with the public - and the place - before spending time "inside" planning, designing, building
  • Lean Placemaking™ greatly increases the chances of creating successful, dynamic places and establishing harmonious, equitable public participation

So far, we've gotten through the three of the five key Lean Startup processes, below:

  • Customer Discovery
  • Measure/Test
  • MVP
  • Pivot or Persevere
  • Repeat


On tap today - Pivot or Persevere:

To pivot or persevere, that is the question - one startups tend to avoid at all (or exceedingly high) costs. Confronting this question head on and answering it with the help of the scientific method (Learn, Measure, Build) is an integral part of the Lean Startup approach. Eric Ries describes pivoting as a "structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth." The three previous steps in the Lean Startup process all lead - and help - us to answer this question. Startups must decide whether or not to move forward with their initial concept, move on to a different iteration of that concept, or, in some cases abandon the concept altogether.

A pivot should occur when or if a hypotheses is unverified. A pivot can mean addressing a different customer segment, modifying the problem you are solving, altering the solution, shifting markets, or adapting your growth model(s) (reflecting the three sets of startup hypotheses). Many famous companies have pivoted toward success: YouTube actually started as a video dating site and Flickr started as a video game with an inbuilt feature that allowed gamers to share photos. The list goes on and on. The list of those that didn't pivot when they should have...well, it's likely longer, but not easily "Googleable."


Pivoting for Cites?

Let's pick up last week's example. A city hypothesizes that adding pocket parks (solution) will address residents' belief that there are not enough green spaces within walking distance of their neighborhood (problem). They conduct customer interviews and validate both of these hypotheses. They create an MVP (minimum viable project): a pop-up pocket park in two parking spaces that the customers who they interviewed helped create. But they don't meet the minimum threshold of people they hypothesized would use the pop-up pocket park - in fact, the overwhelming majority of the folks that used the pop-up pocket park are those with whom they conducted the interviews. Do they pivot or persevere?


We Built it But They Didn't Come

You're probably thinking, why wouldn't people use a perfectly good pop-up pocket park? Here's a little story to help answer that question.


East River Park Park Promenade, Source:

Last week, I was in desperate need of getting out of my own building and taking a long walk (as a walkability expert, I lose serious cred if I tell people I haven't left the house in three days!). The question was, where? I needed to clear my head and wasn't up for an urban walk. I had recently heard there was some sort of promenade along the East River that was part of the park in which I'd learn to ride a bike for the first time two years ago. I had no idea how to access it, where it led, how long it was, if it was just for bikers, etc. In my case, I turned to a trusty app, Localeikki (which my amazing friend co-founded), which crowdsources recommendations for great, local places to play outdoors (run, hike, bike, walk, etc.). I figured out the necessary logistics and was deeply rewarded with a majestic - and therapeutic - walk that perfectly balanced urban and green, passive and active. If you had asked me if these types of spaces were missing from my neighborhood, I would have answered with a resounding yes. But the problem wasn't that this type of amenity was missing. The problem was I didn't know about it - or enough about it to feel comfortable using it. The solution wasn't more green spaces. The solution was, well, Localeikki - which turns out is a lot cheaper than creating a new park (cities, take heed)!


From Project to Pivot

Back to our example. During the time the pop-up pocket park was - popped up - the city spoke with the folks that showed up, including the original customers they interviewed. They sought to "learn" why their MVP wasn't working. Were there enough places to sit? Was there enough shade? Did it need a food element? By now you know the answer to all of these questions was no. The only reason their interviewees had come was because they now knew about it - especially since they had been involved in the process of creating it. And the non-interviewees? Most simply came across the space by chance. But one couple there - longtime area residents - described a somewhat hidden, luscious park on the other side of a large intersection that cut across their neighborhood, which they frequented often. The others couldn't believe there was such a gem lurking in their midst!

THE PIVOT: while the problem had been properly validated - residents didn't think there was enough green space within walking distance - the key word was *think*. The City, of course, knew about the park; they just didn't think of it as hidden, assumed residents knew about it, and thought that despite its presence, residents still felt they needed more green space (they had sort of fallen in love with their solution). In creating the MVP and refining the problem, they realized that the solution wasn't more green, but better wayfinding, safer pedestrian crossing across the large intersection, and involving the community in creating appropriate programming for the space. And of course, an app like Localeikki to make the experience more user friendly and welcoming!


While the fifth step in the process, Repeat, is relatively self explanatory, the next blog posts in the series will dive deeper into how to execute - and replicate - this process, including how to structure experiments, including creating good hypotheses and conducting good interviews (which was a contributor to the longer path to pivoting in this example); establishing good metrics; designing MVPs; case studies, and of course, how State of Place streamline Lean Placemaking!

Stay tuned to learn how create optimal placemaking strategies that maximize success - both for the producers and the users. 

In the meantime, get out of the building!

And in the meantime, if you have a question about applying Lean Placemaking, State of Place, or urban design or walkability in general, just grab some time with me and we can personally chat about your needs or situation!

Read the previous post! MVPs as antidotes for zombie cities: Lean Placemaking™ Part Two


MVPs as antidotes for zombie cities: Lean Placemaking™ Part Two


Last week, I began to lay out my plan to "infect" cities - to unleash an epidemic of Lean Placemaking.

I explained why many cities are zombies - not quite failing, not quite succeeding - but that adopting Lean Startup principles could save them from this fate. I argued that cities have a lot to learn from startups' new disruptive approach to business development: spending less time writing an ultra technical business plan that investors may or may not read or programming the "perfect" app, and focusing more on figuring out the most optimal way to solve people's actual problems. For cities, that means "getting out of the building" and digging into the "place" - both physical and social - they are targeting!

Specifically, I outlined how Lean Startup thinking can translate into Lean Placemaking. Last time, we got through the first two of the five key processes. Today, I'll discuss the third process.

  1. Customer Discovery
  2. Measure/Test
  3. MVP
  4. Pivot or Persevere
  5. Repeat

Build MVP Approach:

In Lean Startup terms, an MVP, or a minimum viable product, is "that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort." This doesn't mean the product is "embarrassingly" minimal. The MVP still has to "deliver enough customer value" for the startup to better understand if their solution addresses a customer need (problem/solution fit) and if enough customers have the problem the startup is trying to solve (product/market fit). The MVP isn't about releasing early and often either: validated learning isn't about deploying an early version of a product, acquiring customer feedback, quickly incorporating some of the feedback, and re-releasing the product. This kind of feedback loop is not the same as the learn, measure, build loop we discussed last time. The purpose of the MVP is to help you test your specific, falsifiable hypotheses as quickly as possible.

So what does this have to do with cities?

Let's use the example from the last post: A city wants to build pocket parks in a neighborhood that they believe is lacking in green space. It's already passed the sniff test - or more precisely, the city has validated an assumption about its "customer problem" by conducting 10 customer interviews. The city validated its assumption, as five of the ten customers interviewed indicated that they didn't have enough green spaces within walking distance of their homes. Now it's time to validate the MVP - in this case, the Minimum Viable Project.

Source: ATLUrbanist

Although the city's proposed solution for its lack of green space problem is a pocket park, the approval process for that kind of project is lengthy and its cost, not insignificant. The pocket park itself is not an appropriate MVP. Instead, the city decides to temporarily transform two parking spaces into a pop-up mini pocket park and invites the five "customers" who felt their neighborhood needed more green space (the "early adopters") to be part of the process and test out the space (Stay tuned for how State of Place can help with this process!). This MVP still delivers enough of the value the city wants to deliver to its "customers" - green space - to test the its hypothesis and get further customer insight before investing in a full-sized pocket park. Most importantly, the MVP allows the city to avoid spending a lot of time planning and/or building something nobody wants or needs. 

While in this example, the MVP itself was inspired by what has now become an annual worldwide tactical urbanism event - Park(ing) Day - the purpose of the MVP isn't just about building a temporary green space. In fact, the lean startup warns against falling in love with the product - or in the case of Lean Placemaking and cities, the project. As entrepreneurs - or planners and designers alike - it's easy to fall into this trap, especially given relative training and expertise. But the MVP is about more than just the P - it's about saving precious time and resources by gaining valuable knowledge and validating assumptions before moving forward - or not.


tackle the "or not" scenario in the next blog post in this series in which I discuss how the 4th step in the Lean Startup process, Pivot or Persevere, translates to Lean Placemaking

And in the meantime, if you have a question about applying Lean Placemaking, State of Place, or urban design or walkability in general, just grab some time with me and we can personally chat about your needs or situation!

Read the next post! It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to...Zombies" Pivoting & Lean Placemaking™ Part Three

Read the previous post! Why Many Cities are Zombies (and how Lean Placemaking™ Can Bring Them Back To Life

Read the next post!

Today I'm "Walk"ful for...I Walk Hard for My Money

Kuaile Gan'en Jie cong Shanghai! Happy Thanksgiving from Shanghai!


As many of you already know, "place" is a key part my personal fulfillment (and of course great places contribute critically to enhancing the triple bottom line!). Given that, this two-part blog post will outline ten characteristics of place for which I am thankful in recognition of Thanksgiving! The first five focus on the aspects of place I have come to relish here in Shanghai; the second set (to be posted next week) relay the built environment features about NYC that I've come to appreciate that much more as a result of living in Shanghai for the past two months.


Thanks, Shanghai, for these awesome placemaking features!


1. Street Food


2013-11-23 17.23.02While the number of street food venders has drastically declined over the past decade (especially since the Expo), as a Westerner, this dynamic aspect of place is still a serious delight! Food is a universal language (even when not all of it is recognizable!) that brings people together - a natural conversation starter, an equalizer. I am thankful that there are so many, distinct food venders in Shanghai and hope we can relay how critical they are to creating great places! Shanghai already got this right; let's keep it that way!


2. Dancing in the Streets

2013-10-02 19.53Ok, so you can find this in NYC too, but only because so many Chinese immigrants have brought this wonderful tradition with them! As with food, dancing imbues places with life, and naturally attracts many spectators. I still haven't joined one of the near-daily sessions...soon I hope! Sadly (for me), most people under 30 with whom I've spoken eschew this lovely tradition; it will be interesting to see how it evolves and whether it's taken up by younger Chinese when they get older.


3. Narrow Streets

2013-10-05 12.29.40I love getting lost in the labyrinth-like alleys and narrow streets of old Shanghai. With every turn of the corner, you get deeper into a voyeuristic-like journey in which the most mundane, daily activities like cooking, doing the laundry, and washing the dishes transform into "anthropological" observations of traditional, communal life. While at first you feel like you're invading residents' privacy,  inquisitive looks unequivocally transform into warm smiles welcoming you into their "living rooms." These discovery walks are one of the most authentic experiences I've had in Shanghai!


4. Markets

2013-11-18 11.48.29Many of you know that I love food about as much as I love great places and walking. It should come as no surprise then, that the intersection between food and place make up two of the five things for which I'm thankful! Markets in Shanghai are so unbelievable interesting - spectacles in their own right. They boast so many varieties of produce, grains, and tofu that I'd never seen before (even though I frequented Chinatown quite a bit back in NYC!). A flurry of excitement comes over me every time I go to the market - and that sentiment seems to be shared by my fellow shop-goers. Food is a highly valued part of life here and that's just wonderful! Sadly, food security (or lack there of) is threatening this joyous relationship...



5. Pace

2013-11-23 16.56.43It's hard to fully capture this last one. Shanghai, and other large Chinese cities alike, are experiencing an ever-constant stream of change. Many of the alley ways I've been exploring may no longer exist in a years time. New developments spring up like weeds -  shiny malls boasting the (fleeting) title of biggest commercial center in Shanghai seem to be a constant.  This might seem like a negative - and in many ways it is. But what I'm thankful for is the fact that I'm in the midst of it. I'm experiencing this rapid change, this evolution (some good, some bad), first hand and perhaps in spite of it or because of it, I feel ever-empowered to impact this change, to shape it into a more sustainable transformation.  Case in point: forty-five days ago I started a meetup group called Shanghai Walk & Talks. Today we have 85 members, half of which are Chinese! We've gone on four walks and counting. After every walk, they all genuinely thank me for bringing them together and giving them a new perspective on their city, its walkability (or lack thereof), and how their environment shapes them..."Pace" is on my side here and this is only the beginning!

Learn more about my Fulbright work on walkability here in Shanghai!

Learn more about the ten urban design principles that make up State of Place!



NYC --> Shanghai, 2 days! Slicing It Up Right!

September 8th, 2013. 2 days!!

Famous Joe's Pizza. Union Square.

20130314JoesPizza14th70Having worked up an appetite after what I hope to be the last of my errands, I figured I'd sneak in one last slice or two of New York pie. I went to the recently-opened second location of Joe's pizza - an NYC institution. After patiently waiting for my large take-out order, I opened it up and starting layering on all the typical toppings. Having barely sprinkled a nice dose of parmesan all over my pie, I hear the guy behind the counter howling at me - miss, come here! I sheepishly walked over, wondering what in the world he could be so upset at me over. He quickly closes the  box, explaining that the pizza will get cold in minutes and that I should never open the box until I'm ready to eat it. He said he'd gladly give me containers of all the condiments I needed.

Ok, cute story - but what does this have to do with urban design? (These were my fiances exact words, by the way, when I told him what I was thinking about writing for my next to last blog in this series). A lot, actually. Pizza is so tied in with this City's identity. So is the way one eats it (i.e. folding it in half on a paper plate). And apparently, so is the proper way to take it out! Food is deeply tied into other places' identities as well - Philly's cheesesteaks, Kansas City BBQ, San Francisco's sourdough bread, etc. Food can elicit a powerful emotional response (today's pizza guy, a case in point) and can bring people together in ways the built environment alone doesn't. For that reason, food and urban design make quite nice bedfellows (and certainly helps me indulge in both my passions).

Just a few days from Shanghai, I wonder what food faux-pa I'll make there! I already know I have so far been incapable of ordering the right type of bao!

Photo from Serious Eats:


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