Archive | April, 2012

CNU20: The New World in West Palm Beach.

29 Apr

In 9 days, a lot of us will be traveling to West Palm Beach in Florida for the CNU20 conference to celebrate and learn more about New Urbanism. I have been invited by CNU to attend as a member of the press. I will be there to represent my blog and my employer, Tindale-Oliver and Associates. Honored and excited, I will be posting live throughout the week on the Plenary and Breakout sessions I attend daily. To get updates from CNU20 as I post them, please sign up for email alerts on the right hand side of this page. Also check me out on Twitter @helmpublicrealm. I will surely be tweeting a lot that week. I can’t wait to get writing and share what will no doubt be an exciting time with you. For those new to this blog, catch up on my previous posts by selecting a topic on the right or click the title at the head of the page to visit the home page.

Below are the sessions I will be writing about daily:

Plenary Sessions:

Looking Forward: New Urbanism and the New World with Andres Duany, Peter Calthorpe, and Others

Friday Night Plenary with Richard Florida

Saturday Morning Plenary Featuring Leon Krier

Break Out Sessions:

Space, the First but Not Final Frontier: Analyzing Space, Uses, and Transportation

Why Did We Stop Walking& How Do We Start Again? The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City

From Balanced Roads to Transit Oriented Development

Florida Mobility Policies: Regional Rail to Enhance Mobility

Clear Thinking: Urbanism + Transit

Functional Classification: The Least Interesting Policy That Dominates Most Everything

Realizing Streets for Everyone, and Getting Someone Else to Pay for Them: Funding, Designing and Implementing Complete Streets

Beyond Bike Lanes: Building a Culture of Bicycle Safety

You might notice the sessions I am attending are mostly transportation oriented. There are two reasons for this: The first, and most straightforward is that I am an urban designer at what traditionally has been a transportation planning and engineering firm in Florida. As the planning demands and expectations for a more sustainable built environment have shifted, it is undeniable that transportation planning and land use design are required to be more integrated. Secondly, and most importantly, the last few years of my career have made it clear that a real change in behavior from people requires public transit. Without it, it is unlikely that you will be able to peel us away from our cars and large parking lots. The result will continue to be devastating. Therefore, it is my commitment as an urban designer to become as knowledgeable as I can about how to make public transit a reality throughout the entire country. I want every individual to easily be able to access a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, light rail, a streetcar, or safe cycling lanes (and I want them all to be connected to one another), in my lifetime. Let the challenge begin…

My regular readers out there will know that I am a fan of the Congress for the New Urbanism, because unlike many of us, they have figured out a way to market (and even make trendy) traditional urban design principles, sustainability, and my favorite: connectivity. They did not reinvent the wheel, they did not come up with huge new ideas. They took traditional urban design principles that every place was built around before the introduction of the automobile, and repackaged them to make them relevant for our modern-day challenges. In short: genius. Often built environment professionals try to figure out the difference between TOD, TND, New Urbanism, mixed-use developments, etc. My answer is: not much. They are all variants on introducing the same age-old traditional urban design principles to the way we develop land today. What all these movements have done is brand themselves around that slight variant. Power to them, and anything that makes traditional urban design principles popular and easily understood, I am in support of. So  in short, yes, I have officially jumped on the CNU bandwagon.

No matter where my journey as an urban designer has taken me I have always met some critics of the movement, and let me address those here before we get this CNU20 party started.

Some of the most famous examples of New Urbanism: Seaside, FL; Celebration, FL; Kentlands, MD: Mesa del Sol, NM

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One of the most popular criticisms of CNU is that the developments appear as if they are stuck in the past, and not addressing what is contemporary and relevant. This trait is mostly identified by the very traditional architecture that in some cases shadows the true beauty of historic styles. The argument: shouldn’t a movement that is addressing the most critical and relevant concerns appear to be modern? My response: Yeah, that’s a totally fair argument.

Another criticism is that some of the big thinkers of the movement do not properly understand the economic impact that the design of New Urbanism developments can have, or at the very least, there is not a clear correlation between physical design and economic impact. They are accused of not realizing that mixed uses are extremely difficult to achieve in some locations, that the development’s “town centers” are often way to small and cannot grow and adapt over time, and commercial uses are often located where they are promised to fail. My response: Once again, I can see this point and in some cases it is warranted.

Finally, one of the last criticisms of New Urbanism developments is that they’re often being built on greenfield sites. This wastes more land instead of retrofitting the acres and acres of suburban wasteland. Umm….yeah, this is partly true.

But here is my response to all of those, and it is very simple. The urban design process is built on layers, the first being the most permanent, the last being the most transient. The first layer (the Underlying Landscape) is the terrain that we have been given. While it can be morphed through some expensive engineering work, it for the most part is very permanent and rarely changes. The second layer (the Street Network), often lasts for centuries. Many of the most used streets in Europe were built by Romans. Of course they have been modernized, but the actual route was first determined by the Roman Empire. When we build roads, we lay very expensive and complicated infrastructure. In reality, the street network we build will always be there. The third layer (Plots), is the way we divvy up the blocks made by the street network. These get tied up in legally and don’t change a whole lot. However, developers come along all the time and acquire lots for their projects. Compared to the first two, plots can change much easier. The fourth and fifth layers (Buildings and Public Spaces) can change comparatively easily and all the time. While we cherish our historic buildings, the average structure has a lifespan of only 40 years. So when we build that buildings that kills the life of the urban realm all around it, don’t worry it can be knocked down, and it often is.

I take the time to explain this, because a lot of the New Urbanism criticism is hung up on the fourth and fifth layers. My point is, is that we have so royally screwed up the second layer and in some cases the third, that we have bigger fish to fry. The connectivity and design of our street network is SO important in creating social and economic opportunities, not to mention allow a public transportation system to run efficiently, that we have to get that right. I love New Urbanism because it makes connectivity, grids, and perimeter blocks trendy. And in almost all the cases New Urbanism developments are very connected with beautiful streetscapes. I honestly don’t really care about the buildings that are being built within them. Because in 100 years they’ll probably all be gone, but that street network will still be going strong.

And yes, it’s not so great that greenfield sites are still being rampantly developed, but this is not New Urbanism’s fault. Development along highway exits will happen in this free market society until there is an enormous shift, it might as well be connected, permeable, and not a bunch of cul-da-sacs. One day when we sort out our public transportation, New Urbanism developments will be able to adapt and therefore be more successful than auto-centric developments.

So there are my two cents on New Urbanism. It ain’t perfect, but what is? The part that is done right, is the most important. I can’t wait to get to West Palm Beach and hear the biggest fore-thinkers in our profession speak. It will be a huge joy to write about it and hopefully see this blog turn into a place for lively discussion. I am honored to be in attendance, and I will no doubt leave as a better designer….and with a suntan!

West Palm Beach – the location of CNU20. Tough life right!? (http://miamiagentmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/west-palm-beach.jpg)

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine alone and do not represent those of Tindale-Oliver & Associates, Inc.

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Film Review: Urbanized

25 Apr

Tonight I had the awesome pleasure of hanging out with some friends to watch the documentary, Urbanized by Gary Hustwit. Just recently released on DVD in 2012, this was my first opportunity to see this inspiring film about world-famous architects’ and planners’ strategies for urban design solutions in cities across the globe.

Urbanized The Book Review

First, let me start with a side note. My husband and I got bikes this past weekend. How could we not? With perfect weather, a well-connected neighborhood with pleasant streetscapes, and always feeling like we’re on vacation, it would seem wrong not to. While I’ve always been a fan of cycling for leisurely purposes, tonight I did something I’ve never done before: I cycled for mobility purposes. One might think this is pretty bad since I am an urban designer, but this is the first city I’ve lived in where all the factors have come together to make it possible…well for me. Charlotte = disconnected, very few mixed uses, and spread out; Boston = umm, 4 feet of snow?; St. Louis = dense college campus easy to walk around and not particularly needed; Baltimore = anyone seen The Wire?; England = umm, rain…all. the. time.

So how suitable that on the way to see Urbanized, we practiced urbanism at its best. Because our destination had little and paid parking, and was easily accessible with bike paths, we made a choice (because it was available), to ride our bikes. So as a disclaimer, I started watching this film in a very empowered state. It was a wonderful feeling to be given the option to make a sustainable and healthy choice, and then choosing to make it.

This film was inspiring, empowering, and motivating at many times. As we watched some of the greats: Ellen Dunham-Jones, Amanda Burden, and my all time favorite, Jan Gehl, do their usual thang, there were some other characters that really shined: Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Candy Chang, an artist who uses public space to share information, and Yung Ho Chang, an architect in Beijing. This film made my love affair with the former continue to grow, and with the latter, blossom.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, Jan Gehl etc.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, Amanda Burden, Jan Gehl, Enrique Penelosa, Cindy Chang, and Yung Ho Chang.

This film made me feel two things: inspired and a citizen of the world. Perhaps it was because I was watching it with five young people who share the same goals and belief that they can make a change, and a loving husband who is always committed to learn more about my passions. Or perhaps because this film reconfirmed for me that I have chosen the career where my talents and passions most meat the needs of the world. Or perhaps because I was watching the rock stars of my profession say things that made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

I felt like a citizen of the world because the film concentrated on cities all over the globe, some of which I was completely unfamiliar with. As Americans we sometimes find it hard to look beyond our boundaries to how other countries handle the same problems. This of course is not unique to us. As a planning student in the classroom and local councils in England there was no time or energy to look beyond the new planning system policies. And of course there is this view by some, that we live in one of the greatest countries with the most educated visionaries in the world. We got ourselves into this mess, can’t we fix our problems on our own?

That may be true, but enter Enrique Penalosa of Bogota, Colombia. Who would think to look to Bogota as an example of cycling culture? Amsterdam? Yes. Copenhagen. Sure. Bogota? Not Really. This guy is awesome. With a population of over 6 million people, Bogota had the growing problem of maintaining infrastructure and traffic congestion. To fix the latter, he recognized the stigma associated with traditional buses (also alive and well here in America), and introduced a bus rapid transit (BRT) system to strengthen ridership. Acknowledging the more affordable cost versus rail and its necessary adaptability of routes in the future it was a perfect solution (and one that should be used WAY more often here.) But what was really creative was that the stations appeared and felt more like a subway stop than a bus stop. Elevated platforms, automated ticket machines, and flashy stations made taking this bus modern, relevant, professional, and cool.

In addition Penelosa put money into a very complex and extensive dedicated cycle network throughout the city. As opposed to linear routes favored by American cities along well-used corridors, Bogota has a mesh grid of paths that infiltrate the city making cycling the favored choice of citizens to get, well, anywhere. Amazing right? Penelosa made clear that first money went to the bike paths, and then to the roads. The film showed cars navigating bumpy dirt roads full of potholes, while cyclists zoomed by on their bikes. Penelosa made Bogota put their money where their mouth is…he got shi*t done in who knows what political opposition. The result of having state of the art, first-world cycling routes, and in some occasions third-world car lanes is inspiring.

Bogota Urban Design and Planning - Enrique Penelosa

Enrique Penelosa, former mayor of Bogota’s lasting contributions: BRT and cycle network.

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Another of my favorites was Candy Chang who works in New Orleans. As she passed delapidated and abandoned buildings throughout the city, she had the idea of using the boarded up windows as a means of communication. Leaving name tags simply stating, “I wish this was a…” and a sharpie she was able to communicate with the whole city. But what really struck a chord with me was that she said “today it is easier to reach out to the entire world, then to communicate with your own neighborhood.” Man, how true this is. And how I wish it wasn’t this way.

Any finally there was Yung Ho Chang who simply shared his memories of taking walks with his parents around the city as a child and running into his friends. As Beijing is viewed as a thriving and healthy city by most, he sadly stated that Beijing has lost its liveability…and that it didn’t need to happen. Perhaps what struck me most about Chang was that when he said this you could see in his eyes that he was mourning the loss of his city as he once knew it.

Finally, Urbnized addressed the controversy of Stuttgart 21 in Germany. While I am sure with a little research I could write a whole blog series (and probably more well-balanced) on this one topic, what almost brought me to tears was watching hundreds of people put themselves in harms way to desperately, carelessly, and heartfully try to stop the demolition of a group of hundred year old oak trees. It was heartbreaking to watch a grown man wipe his tears as he watched them pulled down in seconds by a bulldozer. After all, even during WWII when the city was desperate for firewood to stay warm, they never dared touched those trees. The film left it unexplained, but I imaged that they stood defiantly representing the beauty of nature in the country’s most uncertain times.

Stuttgart 21 Protest Trees

The heartbreaking attempt of protesters to try to save the beloved trees in the way of Stuttgart 21.

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Based on your mood this film will pull at your heart strings and turn you into a sappy mess, or pull at your “brain strings” and challenge you intellectually, and in time as I recover from my inspiring and empowering evening, will probably do both.

Walking: Is it Just for Charity?

20 Apr

This made me laugh…uncontrollably.

There was an absolutely wonderful series written by Tom Vanderbilt in Slate last week titled, American’s Pedestrian Problem. In it he lamented that whenever he went on a walk for utilitarian purposes, people responded with “Are you doing it for charity?” How hilarious, and how sad. But it’s the truth. Today when people go on long walks it’s usually for breast cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, aids, or most ironically, diabetes. We act like going for a walk, the most instinctual human behavior, is something so unique and special that people give money for it.

America’s Pedestrian Problem by Tom Vanderbilt

While I found the data and science of pedestrian behavior and determining the walk score of my new neighborhood (82 out of 100 baby!) extremely interesting, valuable, and entertaining, the last series, “Learning to Walk” struck me the most. What first caught my attention was the title. How ironic that as a 28-year-old car owner, I am not dissimilar from my 8 month old nephew preparing to take his first steps. But what really struck a chord was that this article stressed what urban designers have been taught at the center of their practice, and what very few planners, especially transportation planners, don’t understand: people are inherently lazy (or perhaps call it evolutionary smart), ie: we make the easiest choice.

Perfect example? The little worn paths across the quads on your college campus. Mr. Vanderbilt makes a great point: college students carry the stereotype of having the most leisurely travel times and distances compared to your typical Manhattaner for instance. And boy are there pathways galore across a college campus (perhaps the most pedestrian oriented places on earth), and yet you will still find those little worn paths. Diagonally across the quad, at the corner where two paths meet, and directly up to the “do not walk on grass” sign. If my memory serves me correctly I think I was subject to work-study if I walked on the grass at my boarding school leading up to the prestigious graduation ceremonies. This is the perfect evidence that people choose the easiest path, even if it’s making one of their own.

So why do some planners think shepherding pedestrians a quarter of a mile down a busy arterial to cross at an intersection instead of allowing them the shortest distance between their location and their destination reasonable? And why do they always blame a person for doing any differently? Because at the end of the day, if those planners had to walk in the same conditions (which they most likely don’t…at all), they would probably make the same choice. We must step away from “if we build it, they will come” and move towards designing the built environment to reflect human behavior…as it naturally exists.

A common occurrence: pedestrian barriers. I have actually walked in the street to avoid these to take the shortest route. (twango.com)

Mr. Vanderbilt tells an absolutely heart-braking and infuriating story as an illustration that no doubt will haunt me as the reality of how this country, especially the part I live in, is moving so painstakingly slowly in its progress. Along Austell Road in Marietta, Georgia, a woman who was crossing the street with her four children was charged for manslaughter for the death of her own son…wait for it, instead of the car driver, in possession of a hit and run record, who hit him. You got it, she wasn’t behind the wheel. But because she jaywalked instead of walking her whole family, with 8 short little legs, an additional 2/3 of a mile out of the way of their home, she was first sentenced to more time in jail then the driver.

Holy cow. Any one else furious?

Mr. Vanderbilt’s other interesting tidbits include explanations of why we see narrow sidewalks up against roads with 6 lanes of traffic…transportation engineers wanted to protect drivers from hitting the trees that often lined them to protect pedestrians. So now? Pedestrians are up for a good mow down. I guess the plus side for drivers is that unlike trees, pedestrians have a slight chance of jumping out of the way. This mindset turned into a nasty cycle: because people no longer felt comfortable walking along roads, they stopped, and the lack of pedestrians encouraged some planners to eradicate sidewalks all together. Even today with such a large culture shift in the profession, when shown how concepts of shared space and other pedestrian-oriented street designs significantly improve safety for all users versus bollards and flashing lights that try to corral humans like cattle, some planners still focus on the liability of drivers.The culture of having to make room for people, instead of having to make room for cars, is alive and well… Unfortunately.

Culture shifts take ages, absolute lifetimes. It’s my belief that we will make more of an impact if we stop telling people what not to do, and start encouraging them to make the right decisions. As I have said before, urban design and the built environment is about providing people with choice. When people have a choice, it empowers them, and the result is that they will often chose the right one just by being given it. Telling people what to do and threatening them with big flashing lights and big signs on the side of the road can encourage them to do the opposite. Barbara McCann, a pioneer of the Complete Streets concept, states in this article, “The road itself should send signals. If you have a road with 12-foot lanes and clear zones, it’s safe for you to open up the throttle and you see the pedestrian scuttling across the road and think ‘they’re in my way.’ ” But add a raised crosswalk, trees, and narrow the road, says McCann, and “this is signaling to you, without a stop sign, that there are going to be all these other users, that you need to pay attention.”

Mr. Vanberbilt’s series is full of many great observations, but I will end with this one. There is a difference between providing facilities and providing facilities that will actually be used. As part of a public consultation exercise in a very auto-centric part of Florida recently, a planner for the Department of Transportation was complaining that when people beg for sidewalks in places, DOT builds them, and then they don’t get used. Other planners think that just by providing a bike lane that it will get used. Peter Lagerway, formerly a transportation engineer with the city of Seattle, explains there is a “three-legged stool” required to make walking desirable: safety, accessibility, and aesthetics. If the public realm doesn’t achieve these three things, people will not want to walk there. Just because there is a sidewalk, doesn’t mean that it is pleasing or safe for a pedestrian. The same is true for bicycle lanes. It is a mistake to assume that a cyclist is as hardened as a driver. I would be happy to ride a bike on my short 1.5 mile commute to work if my own lane was shielded from drivers by a physical and aesthetic barrier, but there is no way I’m tangoing with the some of the worst drivers in America.

As a novice cyclist what I want my cycle lanes to look like vs. what they actually look like. Shout out to Denver and Boulder for getting this right.

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I think after reading Tom Vanderbilt’s enlightened series, you might feel a little downtrodden. There is no doubt that the final installment shows how far we must go as a country to provide our citizens with the basic human right of using their own two feet, but there should be encouragement found in the second and third articles. There has been a huge increase in the knowledge of human science and behavior, as well as an increase in walkability in some of the most auto-dependent cities. The awareness is here, mostly, and admitting that we have a problem is the first step to recovery.
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8 Apr

Erin Chantry:

Love this candid reflection of a city dweller now living in the suburbs. It goes to show that our built environment dictates more than just our actions…it also affects how we think.

Originally posted on :

I admit it.  I used to judge people that lived in the suburbs.  Who wouldn’t?  I was a twenty something living in Chicago.  I had no kids, no car and no utilities coupled with cheap rent and a resilient liver.  My biggest worry was catching the next train or if my music was too loud.  I could walk out the front door of my apartment building to endless opportunities for entertainment, food and friends.  When I thought about the suburbs, I would shiver as the theme song from Weeds would start coursing through my veins.  It was all very vanilla.  And that was not the flavor I was seeking as a twenty something.  And yet, despite all of my judgment, I moved to the suburbs.  

 When I compare the city to the suburbs, there are pros and cons to both.  But what gets me the most (and makes me…

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Travel Series: Ahh, the Places We Love…

3 Apr

That place. That place where when you arrive you feel immediately calm, centered, and most like yourself.

That place for me is Hilton Head Island, SC. I left my true home in Charlotte when I was 16. My parents sold our childhood home in the city and moved to the suburbs. It was devastating and at the time I attributed this to the loss of my actual house, but in retrospect it was the loss of my neighborhood and community. Ever since then, when I needed to find a place that provided the same security and sense of love to me, Hilton Head has stepped up to the plate.

Perhaps it’s because it’s the only place I can go to and feel the memories that I had as a child. Perhaps it’s because its been the only place throughout the entirety of my life that I return to consistently. Perhaps it’s because I went there right after my grandmother’s passing to mourn. Perhaps it’s because I took my first steps in Hilton Head. It’s always been there, I love this place.

My favorite places in Hilton Head: Pirates’ Island Adventure Golf, South Beach, the beach at Palmetto Dunes, the Omni Hotel, the Crazy Crab, the Oyster Factory, Harbor Town, and Shelter Cove.

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So when I drove almost a 14 hour round trip for a day and a half on the island this past weekend, I am pretty sure some of my fellow Floridians thought I was crazy. After all, we have the fourth nicest beach in the world 35 minutes away. It was only when I arrived there that I realized how much I needed it. I am a trooper; I went to boarding school when I was 15 and since then, I have had many new beginnings in my life. My move to Tampa and beginning a new job has been amazing and everything that I’ve worked for my whole life. But it’s still a transition, and when I crossed that bridge at 11:40 pm on Friday night, Hilton Head reached its arms around me like it has my entire life and I felt at peace.

There is one special place on the island that means more than all the others…I just have to share it. Charles Fraser, the original developer of Hilton Head Island, was committed to saving an ancient oak that stood in the middle of his planned harbor. He designed it and the rest of Harbor Town, one of the most beloved places on the island, around its preservation. Every night in the summer a children’s singer by the name of Gregg Russell (shout out to Gregg here), sings. He even has little children come up on stage to sing with him. My brother sat on that stage of children before I was born, then myself, and now my nieces and nephews. This show is a foundation for our family. Gregg Russell a great entertainer for sure, but why I love going to his shows decades later is the place where it is held. There is nothing more beautiful than sitting under an oak tree that is hundreds of years old with the moonlight shining through it.

This is all very ironic because Hilton Head Island actually has pretty appalling urban design. Hilton Head has a long history steeped in Native American, African-American slavery, and Civil War culture, but most of what you see on the ground was built in the 1960s and after. It was developed as a resort town, and therefore is divided up into “plantations.” The name, given the island’s history, is very irksome. As a result more than 70% of the island is in gated, private communities. The public can enter many of these plantations, but for a cost and at the discretion of security. Unfortunately, this pretty much goes against everything that I believe our built environments should represent. The result is that the island feels very exclusive…and I hate to say, upper/middle class.

While Hilton Head has a very active cycling culture, it is impossible to be a pedestrian for utilitarian purposes. Sure, you can take a stroll down the beach, or walk to the tennis courts, but if you want to actually leave your plantation you are pretty, well, screwed. The island’s land uses are organized around one arterial highway. It has a completely disconnected street network (but remember, they wanted it that way), and uses that are very spread out. It’s not a big enough place where you couldn’t tackle it on your bike, but these rides are always saved for leisure purposes, not trips to the grocery store. In fact the majority of land along this arterial doesn’t provide a sidewalk at all.

I do have to say Hilton Head did achieve one crowning glory. They saved their trees. As a result the island is for the majority under tree cover, and I a mean beautiful hundred year oaks with hanging moss. They also have strict town ordinances of very little public lighting and natural wood carved signage. I tell you, that is one classy McDonald’s. As a result there is a distinct character, so much so that I can be any where in the United States and say “hey that’s Hilton Head architecture.” It’s not really, it’s just that Hilton Head is very much representative of the early 70s. And yes, they managed to make that charming, trust me.

So yes, there are some great things about Hilton Head and most people who go there love it. But from an urban design and planning perspective it can be very damaging. And there is no doubt that it has, especially early on in its history. It’s resort identity and associated development pretty much forced an entire, quite healthy African-American culture and community from its shores. Even today, if you aren’t among the more well-off visitors you strive to find adequate public beach access or really experience some of the most naturally beautiful parts of the island. As I became an expert in urban design, this has always haunted me…

…but hey, sometimes you can’t help who (or should I say where) you love.

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