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Covering the Issues

Hope and Change… Greg Hanscom discusses “President Obama and the forgotten urban agenda” for Grist (posted January 17, 2012). At first, things looked good for cities. An unprecedented White House city post was created, grants to renovate sidewalks and foreclosed properties were given, government agencies were realigned. The Sustainable Cities Initiative even brought together the departments of Transportation (DOT) and Housing (HUD) with the EPA, and gave out $200 million to promote transit-friendly communities, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Although tiny compared to the federal highway budget, Congress has largely scrapped Sustainable Cities due in part to a House move against “spending money to support ‘ill-defined rubrics, such as ‘sustainability’ [and] ‘livability.’” Hanscom laments that Obama has largely backed away.

To whom it may concern… Any designer who’s endured a public comment process will find familiar territory in “Bad Wrap.” Harper’s magazine (February 2012) has printed a selection of public comments submitted to the US Bureau of Land Management on Christo’s latest undertaking, Over the River. In this proposed installation, the artist will suspend fabric panels across 42 miles of the Arkansas River. Published here without interpretation or commentary, comments range from the pedestrian to the profound. “I am one of those ‘less is more’ kinds of people,” writes one individual, offering a perhaps unwitting nod to modernist architecture, “I think the Grand Canyon is fine without a whitewash and the Arkansas River is beautiful without a scarf.” The scarf is coming anyway. Construction begins this year.

Tee time… If you build it, will they come? The New York Times Magazine ponders this perennial question in their cover story, “When All Else Fails… Fore!” (December 15, 2011). Author Jonathan Mahler travels to Benton Harbor, Michigan—the poorest city in the state—where redevelopment hopes have been pinned on a $500 million golf resort development, complete with hotel rooms and houses on the greens. Can this possibly be the catalyst to attract a vibrant, mixed-income community? Benton Harbor is one of four “failed” Michigan cities now run by a state-appointed “emergency manager” who has merged fire, police, and building departments into a Department of Public Safety and combined the planning and redevelopment departments into one. It’s a fascinating experiment in municipal management for a city building its way out of poverty.

From screen to page… Keep your eye on the supermarket checkout racks, there’s a new shelter mag in town: HGTV has launched a bimonthly print edition. The second issue (February/March 2012) is predictably chock full of decorating tips and the requisite room makeovers, along with life in famous movie houses and features like “real estate spy.” Perky, happy, and budget conscious, HGTV is This Old House meets Rachel Ray. Less earnest than its PBS-based predecessor, HGTV’s kitchen renovation tale is augmented by chip and dip recipes, not how to build a better cabinet. Will HGTV enjoy the same enduring presence in an already crowded genre? We’ll see.

Smile… It might make you more productive. Harvard Business Review (January-February 2012) devotes a handful of articles to workplace happiness. In “The Science Behind the Smile,” Daniel Gilbert reports that though there have been tortured geniuses, happy people are more creative, and reasonable challenges make them happiest. In “Creating Sustainable Performance,” Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath make a case for “thriving” employees. To thrive, employees need “vitality”—the sense of making a difference—and learning. To foster a thriving environment, employers should empower employees to make decisions, share information about company performance, minimize incivility, and offer performance feedback. Happy employees produce better work. Your bottom line will thank you.