What it Means to be Urban in Rochester

“Cities resemble lovers, offering allure, annoyance, and late-night availability.” -Emilie Buchwald

rochester flagI am a self-described urbanist.

I grew up in a city, I have lived near city centers, and I have relished in the urban renaissance being experienced across the United States.  Here in Rochester, Minnesota I have been a passionate advocate for grassroots long-range planning in its urban neighborhoods surrounding downtown.  And I see latent potential for an extremely livable city actualized by Destination Medical Center.

But before the pendulum swings back in the opposite direction, one must remember that other urban byproducts accompany the positive attributes.  Increased noise, increased hardscapes, decreased efficiency, decreased personal space are to be expected.  You must not expect to enjoy the good parts of urban life without these other realities.  The fact is urban life is not for everyone.

That being said, higher percentages of people are seeking out urban living.  The globalization of information, business, and economies has put intense pressure on cities to attract people to live in them.  Density is not a given, and lack of diversity acts as a deterrent to attracting the creative class.  It is precisely because you can choose to live anywhere that now cities are in fierce competition to attract the new workforce and tax base of the next generation.

Therefore, it is not just the ability to build a custom house in a convenient subdivision near a P.F. Chang’s, but a unique “sense of place” along with the amenities and enrichment of the urban environment that is required.  And each of the communities that I visit and the neighborhoods that I work with has the same desires to enhance and preserve; to increase vibrancy and ensure sustainability.  If that means learning to wait an extra 10 minutes to catch a bus to work as opposed to driving door to door, then we should be patient.  If it means welcoming people of all ages and income levels into our neighborhoods, then we should introduce ourselves.  If it means advocating for a mix of land uses over segregation of residential and commercial, then we can start writing letters to City Council.

And quite frankly Rochester has both.  It has sleepy bedroom suburbs (55th Street NW) and a vibrant city center (1st Avenue SW).  So if urban living is not something you crave, take a pass, and allow those who desire a dose of urbanity to situate themselves proximate to our downtown.

[Below is a link to my PechaKucha presentation from the Mayo Clinic Transform 2015 Symposium.In small and mid-sized towns across the United States, the daily decisions on design are literally making our health worse.  We need to go back to a system where we designed cities for humans. ]


Adam Ferrari

About Adam Ferrari

Adam Ferrari is an Architect living and working in Rochester, MN. He is a passionate advocate for quality design of the built environment and promotes the power of design as a tool to help individuals, organizations, and neighborhoods develop a shared vision of a sustainable future. Adam has a breadth of experience with architecture, urban planning, community engagement, community development, affordable housing development, urban design, economic development, and process design. His firm, 9.SQUARE Community Design, is an outgrowth of his years of work performed in Rochester's neighborhoods, with colleges and universities, as a volunteer with the Minnesota Design Team, and his years with the Rochester Area Foundation. 9.SQUARE was recently recognized as a recipient of the Mayor's Medal of Honor for Industry and has been driving force behind adaptive reuse of historic buildings in downtown Rochester, Minnesota.

11 thoughts on “What it Means to be Urban in Rochester

  1. Hannah PritchardHannah Pritchard

    Yay, Rochester! My hometown…also, is that really STILL the flag of the city? It looks like the seal may have been updated, but for now I’m going to revel in nostalgia for that font. Clearly it was a nod to IBM.

  2. Shawn

    Rochester is never going to have a sense of self until the leaders stop comparing themselves against Minneapolis and St Paul to let the city’s inner self finally come out. The doctors and Mayo aren’t the heart n’ soul of Rochester, it’s everyone else.

    Destination Medical Center as an identity? Doubling down on Rochester as a corporate owned town won’t have the desired results. It’s just not who Rochester is – even if so many work there.

  3. John Charles Wilson

    Rochester Public Transit is working on its new Transit Development Plan:


    During an earlier public comment phase, I mentioned how Rochester has grown immensely and really should “graduate” from a system of downtown-centric loop bus routes to more straight lines with a beginning and an end. I also proposed less variations on routes – their schedule book will make you go “mamma mia”! In addition, they really need more span – present bus hours are 5:25 AM – 10:34 PM weekdays and 8:15 AM – 7:10 PM Saturdays. No service Sundays or holidays. Rochester is a bigger city than Duluth and has worse bus service!

    Please note this may not be necessarily anyone’s particular fault. Rochester’s bus company was privately owned until a couple of years ago. I met the founder of Rochester City Lines, George Holter, and he is genuinely a nice man. His son ran the city buses until the Feds force the City of Rochester to hold a competitive bid. The company still runs commuter buses from small towns all over Southeast Minnesota to Rochester. Now that the City completely controls the system, maybe they will improve the span of service to at least Duluth standards, but I digress….

  4. Keith Morris

    I played around with Google Maps and found that aside from the north side you can easily bike from the edges of town in a half hour or less. All of the urban neighborhoods are a short walk or bike ride from each other. Buses there are rather useless and routes look like someone threw some spaghetti on a map of Rochester and based tge system in that. Going from the heart of Downtown at Chester and Broadway to the rec center by bus, for example, is 16 minutes, but only if you catch the hourly bus. You can walk it in under a half hour or bike it in 13. My question is, why is a city based upon the Mayo Clinic so lazy and configured to favor laziness over walking and biking?

    At the end of the day, what it means to be urban in Rochester is to be square peg in a round hole. It’s a city that embraces suburban ideals. There are hardly any intact blocks and if they find two facing each other it’s like winning the lottery. It’s a long lost cause and frankly not worth any time or effort.

    1. Hazel Stone

      I lived in Rochester for two years, smack across the river from downtown right next to the nexus of all the multi-use paths. Everything I needed was within a 10 minute bike ride of my apartment. The problem is that I was paying $600 for a squalid studio apartment that grossly violated fire code. There’s not even close to enough diverse types of affordable housing in Rochester, especially near the downtown core.

      There is SO much potential for Rochester to build on the strengths they have — 40,000 jobs are tightly concentrated downtown — but I worry that their obsessive auto/”build giant houses on giant lots at the edge of town” focus will undermine that.

      1. John Charles Wilson

        Interesting. I lived in Rochester twice in my life, when housing was more affordable there. In 1988, I rented a room in a house that no longer exists for $135 a month. In 2005, I rented a room in the also no longer existing Maxwell Guest House for $100 a week. “Outstate” Minnesota used to be the place to go for cheap housing. Alas, I now hear even Duluth is getting pricey….

  5. Scott

    Adam, this is an interesting post. I’m curious to know whether you believe the DMC initiative will make Rochester more urban (i.e. dense, lively, mixed uses, walkable, etc.). My limited experience with the city includes spending some time around the downtown core and slightly further out near St. Mary’s hospital. So many places seemed sleepy with blank walls, big parking facilities, and retail concentrated underground/ at skyway level. More parking facilities don’t seem to bode well, but perhaps there are other things that are happening/ planned that will help to turn this around? I’ve seen things like a renovated theater, farmer’s market, and riverside park that sound promising.

    1. Adam FerrariAdam Ferrari Post author

      Scott, I truly believe that DMC could make a portion of Rochester more dynamic and embrace urbanity, but you have to remember that DMC is bound to a finite geography. While their goals are regional and statewide, their ability to effect change at the periphery of the city is quite limited. That falls on the City of Rochester and they have shown absolutely zero interest in embracing urbanity.
      However, my greatest fear is that DMC simply makes a touristy, fake urban downtown (a la Disneyland) that doesn’t integrate with the surrounding fabric. It becomes a resort of sorts. As a citizen of Rochester and community member, that would be a sad outcome.

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