Do you like to travel and explore different cities? I definitely do! While I travel mostly for pleasure (rather than business), the planner in me cannot help but observe, study, and evaluate the places I visit. I suppose I am consciously and subconsciously trying to become a more effective planner. According to Randall Arendt, a renowned planner and fellow of the Royal Institute of Town Planners, planners seeking to become more effective at their jobs should practice becoming observers. In his article “The Highly Effective Planner,” Arendt recommends that all planners carry a small digital camera (or a smartphone) so they can “capture images of things that surprise and delight them and those that produce feelings of sadness or disgust.” (If you are a member of the American Planning Association, you can log in and access Arendt’s article here.) I have previously written about images and their importance to planning (“Images, Instagram, and City Planning“) so I will not be redundant here. I do, however, want to talk about where I have taken many of my photos on recent trips. While it is perfectly fine (and may be even preferable for some) to explore a city on our own using a guidebook or tips from family or friends, I would like to suggest that we supplement this effort with some fun local tours. In particular, this article highlights the following tours that I have experienced in the cities of Chicago, Portland, Seattle, and San Diego.
Chicago is one of my favorite cities. I have been to the Windy City a few times and enjoy every visit, even when I was sick on my last trip for the APA National Conference (“Lessons from Chicago“). And with the exception of that time (when it was too cold and wet), I went on Seadog Cruises‘ River and Lake Architectural Tour each time I was in Chicago. Departing from Navy Pier, this 75-minute tour is a great way to get up-close to all of the city’s most famous buildings and unique architecture. The tour begins with a passage through the historic Chicago Harbor Lock and up the Chicago River. Along the way, riders get up-close views of all the famous bridges and listen to interesting stories, facts, and tidbits about the city’s history. The guides or docents are typically funny and very knowledgeable. I even wonder whether they are part-time architecture or urban planning students! If you are a plannerd like me, you would most definitely appreciate the fascinating stories about some of Chicago’s most well-known buildings, including the Tribune Building, Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), Lyric Opera, Merchandise Mart, and Trump Tower. The tour ends with an exciting speedboat ride (weather permitting) along the lakefront featuring views of Buckingham Fountain, Grant Park, and the beautiful Chicago Harbor. If you are looking for something more mellow or just do not particularly care for speedboat rides, I suggest trying the more leisurely Architecture River Cruise offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
Portland: Walking Tour
Portland seems to be one of those cities that every planner has been to. Well, after hearing so much about it, I finally visited the City of Roses over the summer. There are many things to like about this city as a lot of people have pointed out, including UrbDeZine’s very own Bill Adams and Paul McNeil. Personally, I really enjoyed walking the streets of Portland. Specifically, I went on the “Best of Portland tour” which is offered by Portland Walking Tour and was highly recommended by my sister. (Portland Walking Tour offers seven tours covering different areas and interests.) I learned a lot on this two and a half-hour tour. Not surprisingly, the guide knew a lot about the city and its history; he even had an iPad to show us historic photos which I appreciated. Distance-wise, the tour was less than 1 ½ miles in length, but it felt like we covered a lot of ground, in large part because the city is laid out in smaller blocks. As a planner, I also liked how the tour was designed to cover themes like: livability and sustainability (what this truly means to someone who lives or visits here); urban planning and design (why downtown feels like an European city); alternative forms of transportation (how the city got built around people and not the automobile); public art and the Percent for Art Program (buildings have to set aside 2% of their budget for public art); and urban green spaces, parks, and gardens. For those familiar with the TV show Portlandia, you also hear a lot about it on this tour. If you visit Portland and enjoy alternative modes of transportation, I also recommend taking the MAX light rail (from the airport to downtown) and the Portland Aerial Tram. Also, if you are interested in touring Portland by bike, check out Pedal Bike Tours which offers a variety of bike tours, including one of historic downtown and another called the “Food Cart Crawl.”
Seattle: Ride the Ducks
Whenever I am in Seattle, I like to go on the “Ride the Ducks” tour. While this may sound a bit juvenile or childlike, it is a unique tour of the Emerald City because it features amphibious World War II vehicles called “Ducks” or officially “DUKW.” On this tour, riders get to see Seattle on wheels while exploring the waterfront, downtown shopping district, Pike Place Market, and historic Pioneer Square. After the land portion of the tour, the vehicle then splashes into Lake Union which offers wonderful views of the downtown and neighborhoods surrounding the lake. As a park planner, I particularly enjoyed seeing Gas Works Park from the water. It is a 19-acre public park on the site of the former Seattle Gas Light Company gasification plant located on the north shore of the lake. The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year. The tour is approximately one hour on land and half an hour in the water. Ride the Ducks tours are year-round, but I think it is best experienced in the summer. I did the tour once in February and it was a bit cold and windy! Like Portland, Seattle also has a wonderful light rail system that offers service between the airport and downtown: the Central Link is a convenient, easy, and affordable way to go to and from Sea-Tac Airport. Also, if you enjoy walking and drinking coffee (not simultaneously!), you may want to try the Coffee Crawl offered by Seattle By Foot; for a review of this tour, read this post on LA Eats.
San Diego: SEAL Tour
Just this past weekend, I tried out the SEAL Tour which is very similar to the Ride the Ducks tour. Like its Seattle counterpart, the SEAL tour features amphibious vehicles. (However, the San Diego fleet appears to be newer and bigger than those in Seattle.) Departing from Seaport Village, the 90-minute, fully narrated tour takes riders to the Big Bay, which provides views of Point Loma and Naval Air Station North Island. We also passed by the Maritime Museum, the Cruise Ship Terminal, and San Diego International Airport dedicated to aviator Charles Lindbergh. I have been to San Diego numerous times before, but have not seen many of the places along the tour (check out this map of the tour). In particular, I really enjoyed going through the coastal community of Point Loma for the first time and learning more about the importance of the military (Navy) to San Diego and its economy. Interesting to note is that we did not actually see seals on this tour. We did, however, got very close to some sea lions, California brown pelicans and several other wildlife species that make the bay their home. While on the water, we saw Point Loma with its beautiful homes/mansions lining the hillside, the North Island Naval Air Station (one of the largest repair facilities for fighter jets), Point Loma Submarine Base, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Marine Mammal Training Center, and Shelter Island. The tour guide also spoke at length about San Diego’s interesting maritime past and present, including the tuna industry. While they are not stops on the tour, I also recommend checking out U.S.S. Midway Museum and the brand new Central Library which are both places that I enjoyed greatly on my trip. (See more photos of the library by UrbDeZine’s Bill Adams).
Traveling is an absolute-must for planners. It is very important for us to see other cities, and observe how they are and how they function. This is because there are always lessons to be learned, there is nothing like seeing new and different places, and there are opportunities to be inspired and encouraged. Even if you have already been to the cities I mentioned above, I want to encourage you to try out some of these fun tours because while they are created for tourists, they may just inspire and/or challenge you, and help you to see the cities in new or different ways.
Note: All photos by author.