Sunday, December 30

The Broadway Hotel

Last night we stayed at the Broadway hotel on the main strip of Phillipsburg, Montana. The town of Phillipsburg, once the hub of a successful mining operation, has dwindled to only a fraction of its former size. Some of the residents have even taken on the slogan, "greatest living ghost town." Yet in the last few years, the town has capitalized on both its history and scenic location to transition into a tourist enclave. When the old Broadway hotel, which had not been functioning as a hotel for about a hundred years, was restored, the town took another step in the direction of revitalization.

The Broadway sits right in the center of town. Kenneth Jackson has pointed out that this was the norm for its time,

"In the middle of the nineteenth century, every city, every county seat, every aspiring mining town, every wide place in the road with aspirations to larger size, had to have a hotel. Whether these structures were grand palaces in the order of Tremont House in Boston of New York's Fifth Avenue Hotel, or whether they were jerry-built shacks, they were typically located in the center of the business district, at the focal point of community activities. To a considerable extent, the hotel was the place for informal social interaction and business, and the very heart and soul of the city."

Yet all of that changed in the 20th century. First, camping locations began to pop up along the highways in order to attract passing motorists before they entered the town. Eventually these were replaced by motels, lodging that was specifically designed around the needs of the automobile. And the motel market was increasingly dominated by major chains that could ensure a standardized reliability, which also effectively dampened the uniqueness of the local context. By the latter decades of the century, the transition was in full swing. According to Jackson, "by 1960 there were 60,000 motels, a figure that doubled again by 1972. By that time an old hotel was closing in America every thirty hours." This reality rings true especially to anyone who lives in a Western town.

While the places to stay in a city were shifting from the center to the periphery, they were simultaneously shifting from places that fostered social interaction to private and anonymous way-stations. This is even evident from the original floor plan of the Broadway, which was kept intact during the renovation. The rooms are all clustered around a central gathering place, with an inviting stove and plenty of tables and chairs. An open kitchen also sits in a central location and is used by employees and guests alike. The new Broadway, of course, has private bathrooms in each room, but I doubt that was always the case. The entire experience encourages at least a "hi" to the strangers staying with you.

What does the location of a hotel say about how a city treats its strangers? Are they welcomed into the "very heart and soul of the city," able to walk throughout the downtown to many of its attractions? Or are they pushed to the edges?

Friday, December 28

How would you like your downtown?

The Missoulian reported today that the Missoula Downtown Association, along with some private support, will be launching a 9-month planning process to envision the future of downtown. A national organization will be chosen in January to run the process, which will include plenty of opportunity for public input. And this master plan should have some bearing on the current city-wide zoning rewrite.

Missoula's downtown has remained vibrant, but I know that it has not always been on such solid economic footing. Somehow it has been able to weather the storms throughout the years, while many downtowns of comparable size have been toppled by them. It could only have been an intentional effort by a large number of concerned citizens - hardly just the natural flow of the market. It's worth spending a few more dollars than you would at Walmart to help Missoula preserve it's unique quality.

And now apparently there will be a way to be even more involved in shaping its character. That's a good thing.

Friday, December 21

Bigger and Bigger Houses

Anti-sprawl folks like to bring up all of the governmental policies that have underwritten the suburban experience in the United States: single-use zoning, the federal interstate act, the G.I. bill, real estate tax structure, and so on. Then there are also the market forces that push in this direction: mass production of development, cheap oil, risk-adverse financing. But at some point we have to come to grips with another simple fact: we Americans have chosen it.

Even in an age when the limits of the earth are becoming obvious, the average size of houses in the United States has still grown remarkably. We not only like our houses big, but we like them spread out onto large parcels of land. In a nutshell, this is the American dream. Obviously, we do this because we believe it will improve our life and the lives of our families in some way. But is this true?

The Canadian magazine the Walrus explores this question in an excellent article entitled, "We want more square footage! Why following the urge to buy big might not make you happy." The writer starts with the premise that the urge to "keep up with the Joneses" could be hard-wired into us from a time when basic survival depended on the constant search for more. Using your neighbors' success as a barometer was a handy way to get yourself motivated. Now, at least in affluent societies, it has become somewhat of an evolutionary appendage, no longer functioning to our benefit. Next, the article runs through a number of studies that analyze the personal consequences of our big houses, all concluding that they do not make us any happier. Honestly, I take any study that purports to scientifically measure "happiness" with a grain of salt, but the underlying principles seem to be right on target. When it comes to where to live, we are a "species programed to make the wrong decisions."

Medieval theologian Bernard of Clairvaux beat them to the punch by about a thousand years.

"Do we not see people every day, endowed with vast estates, who keep on joining field to field, dreaming of wider boundaries for their lands? Those who dwell in palaces are ever adding house to house, continually building up and tearing down, remodeling and changing. Men in high places are driven by insatiable ambition to clutch at still greater prizes. And nowhere is there any final satisfaction, because nothing there can be defined as absolutely the best or highest. But it is natural that nothing should content a man’s desires but the very best, as he reckons it. Is it not, then, mad folly always to be craving for things which can never quiet our longings, much less satisfy them?"

Thursday, December 20

Considering county-wide zoning in Missoula

Jhwygrl, over at 4 & 20 Blackbirds, has recently been suggesting that Missoula ought to implement zoning at the county level. I think this is a good ball that she has started rolling, so I thought I would add a couple of points to help underscore how necessary this is to prevent sprawl. (I'm assuming this is a fairly universal goal around here).

First, perhaps the best place for us to look for how policy impacts sprawl is Boulder. As is often pointed out, Missoula and Boulder share so much in common, both being university towns in the West with plenty of natural amenities and high levels of growth. Although, of course, the proximity of Denver makes the analogy incomplete, It's still worth a look.

Here's a relevant paragraph from Growth Management In Boulder, Colorado: A Case Study (2001)

"The City coordination of planning efforts with the County is the glue that holds all of the planning efforts together. The City and County have maintained relations that lead to cooperative planning efforts from the early days of the Boulder Regional Planning Commission in the early 1950's to today. City and County cooperation in working toward common goals has prevented leap-frog development patterns in the Boulder Valley and other problems that occur when governments compete with each other. Thus, the environmental coalitions that spearheaded the 1959, 1965, 1967, 1971, and 1976 elections have essentially guided Boulder City and County land use planning since then, with occasional scrapes along the way. The result has been the preservation of two-thirds of the Boulder Valley."

In fact, some have argued that planning at the Boulder county level may not have even been wide enough. It has been difficult to prevent bedroom communities from developing right outside of the greenbelt, which essential bypass the purpose of the urban growth boundary. Doing something about this problem requires a State-wide initiative.

Sure, that would be nice. But how is it politically possible? Here's a little suggestion lifted from the book Sprawl Costs,

"Exercises to carry out the regional exercises of power that are needed to stop most outward growth have succeeded mainly when associated with some type of environmental crisis. In Florida, the crisis was encroachment of urban development on the Everglades. In Oregon, it was similar encroachment on the open farmlands of the Willamette River Valley. In Kentucky, it was the widely shared desire to preserve the traditional horse-ranch country around Lexington. In Washington State, it was the desire to preserve open spaces between Puget Sound and the Cascade mountains. Supporters of of similar preservation policies in other regions have also claimed that environmental crises are imminent in order to rally political backing for the legislative changes necessary for their strategy."

That last line sounds a little cynical, as if the crises are manufactured, but sometimes the truth speaks for itself. The trouble is that the pains of unchecked growth are often not realized until it has already happened.

Monday, December 17

Thoreau: America's First Suburbanite

"It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization." - Henry David Thoreau, from the first chapter of Walden pond.

Thoreau made history in 1845 when he borrowed an ax from Bronson Alcott and began developing a small section of Ralph Waldo Emerson's land on Walden pond. This was his experiment in Transcendentalism, etching out a "life in the woods" on the fringes of Concord's society. But the mythology of this experience, recorded later in On Walden Pond, is what really made history. The ideals of self-sufficiency, solitude, and love of nature that Thoreau recorded here have been imprinted firmly onto the American consciousness.

Thoreau's view of Nature underscored this entire project. Unlike his Puritan predecessors, who considered the wild to be a chaotic and dangerous place, Thoreau was deeply steeped in a romantic vision of the natural world. It was a place of peacefulness and purity, where humans could go to revive their primitive vitality. Above all, Nature was the backdrop for self-reflection, a retreat away from the restless mobs living lives of quiet desperation. Thoreau penned some of the most eloquent descriptions in American literature of the beauty of the natural world. The woods were not just a place to observe as a visitor, but the place in which humans could truly live.

Yet, It's well known that Thoreau's actual experience at Walden pond did not exactly measure up to his idealization of it. Thoreau was no hypocrite. He admits as much. During his two years there, he would often make the mile and a half trek back into Concord on the weekends. Emerson's nearby house was a frequent stop for food and conversation, and the young philosopher would famously bring his laundry into town to be done. The train passed right by his cabin, and Thoreau could even hear church bells ringing on a Sunday morning. Walden pond was the iconic suburban haven, if only a little ahead of its time. It really offered the best of both worlds.

At that time only the rich or strongly determined could have their own Waldens, but within the next few decades technological advances opened up the opportunity for a wider range of people. By the 1850's suburbs were being planned and marketed specifically for their communion with Nature. During his last days at Walden, Thoreau worried that the track he had made from the cabin down to the pond was becoming excessively worn with use. He had noticed that others were using the trail. He may have been more right than he realized.

But there is a more charitable way to interpret Thoreau's legacy. Perhaps this suburban pioneer was like early missionaries sent from the West to indigenous cultures. While they may have helped precipitate the flow of colonialism, they also were instrumental in protecting the natives from its deadlier impacts. If Thoreau just stepped out in advance of the inevitable economic shift to suburban development, then his calls to live a simple life could have offered a prophetic check against some of the excesses often associated with life in the suburbs. Maybe smothering Nature with love is at least better than paving it over out of convenience. Who knows?

Wednesday, December 12

All about the Roundabouts

This is Missoula's Beckwith-Higgins-Hill intersection, which is the site of the first proposed roundabout for the center of town. Missoula residents have been batting around the idea of roundabouts for a while now. Public opinion seems to be tilting in the direction of acceptance, but the city council is still awaiting final approval for this particular project.

What's not to like about the modern roundabout? Bob Giordano, of the Missoula Institute of Sustainable Transportation, has done a lot of work to present the evidence for roundabouts and clarify the conditions and designs that make them work. Done well, they enhance the safety of all road users, minimize congestion, cost less to maintain, etc. And all of these benefits are easily measurable statistically, since roundabouts have already been installed in several different types of intersections around the world. Some European cities have even implemented "naked streets" - removing all traffic signals and road signs. Hardly an experimental procedure at this point.

In light of the last post on this blog, it should be added that roundabouts can be aesthetically interesting elements of a city. At least more so than some lights hanging on a wire, in my opinion. As long as nothing obstructs vision, neighborhood groups could put their imagination to work.

I've found most of the lingering suspicion over roundabouts here to be more visceral than anything else. I've heard one person call them "hippie traffic science." (You know, the old sex-drugs-and -enhancing-traffic-flow thing). How these got caught up in Vietnam-era cultural divides is beyond me. Another person just doesn't like following the Europeans in anything.

There have been some more substantive concerns as well. Public services worry about access for emergency vehicles. Some blind activists see roundabouts as more dangerous than traffic signals, because the blind can hear the break in traffic for a red light. Also, a study of roundabouts in New Zealand between 1996 and 2000 indicated that they can actually decrease cyclist safety. This data has led some bicycle advocacy groups in Europe to oppose all roundabouts. However, in the last few years, traffic engineers have developed some ways around this problem. All of these issues have been researched and plenty of solutions are available to allay many of the major concerns.

Monday, December 10

Wolterstorff's "City of Delight"

American philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff made a case back in 1983 for taking seriously the aesthetics of cities. In his Kuyper lectures, he noted how a steadfast commitment to economic growth and technological progress has undermined the beauty of cities.

One problem he noticed was the car,

"When one is traveling in a car in any case it is almost impossible to get enjoyment out of the public environment of the city. Thus our commitment to the car as our principle means of transportation reinforces our tendency to think of the city not as an integrated public environment for our life together, but as a collection of individual buildings. We race at great speed from one destination to another, paying no attention - indeed, finding it impossible to pay any attention - to what lies along our way, insisting only that the traffic move swiftly and that our various destinations be more or less pleasant oases in the bleak urban desert."

He also points a finger at the tendency for contemporary intellectuals to consider beauty a quality for museums and theaters only.

"There is, indeed, no current theory of the aesthetic that leads to the conclusion that the aesthetic dimension of reality is confined to art, and yet the assumption is commonly made that what lies behind art is always the aesthetic intention, and conversely, that the aesthetic does not go beyond art. The aesthetic is thus bound up tightly with art; and the critics' concern with the aesthetic in art never leads them on to where the aesthetic touches almost all of us almost all of the time - in the city."

As a Christian, Wolterstorff laid out a case for what he called a "world-formative Christianity," a faith that moves beyond internal contemplation and toward a social vision of justice. The organizing concept he uses is shalom, the Jewish word for "peace" - but much more. It encompasses a right and harmonious relationship between humans and the divine, humans and each other, and humans and the natural world. It assumes a fairness of treatment for all people, and beyond that a genuine joy shared in mutual life.

"There is yet one more dimension of the relation of the city to shalom that resonates in our consciousness: the image of the biblical writers for our ultimate destiny is that of life in a city - not, be it noted, in a garden."

Wednesday, December 5

Book: City Life

Witold Rybczynski's City Life: Urban Expecations in the New World tells the story of urban planning in American history. His primary focus is on the design aspects of cities, particularly the evolution of different architectural approaches. The style is casual and personal (and enjoyable), intended more as an introduction for a broader audience than an academic thesis.


Paris is known as a beautiful city, carefully designed by planning authorities for 400 years. Why are not North American cities more like Paris? Instead, our cities seem to be cobbled together by disparate forces with no coordinated aesthetic. Fashions change quickly, new technologies replace the old, and our restlessness ensures that "there is something fleeting about the American city." This is the question of this book.

There's no good quantifiable definition of a city, and there are many ways to categorize them. Kevin Lynch considered his conceptual urban models in terms of space: the cosmic, the practical, and the organic. Fernand Braudel, on the other hand, mapped the evolution of cities through time: the open town, the closed town, and the subjugated town. Both models can be combined to give a fuller picture.

Native American cultures created a variety of different city types, always careful to incorporate elements of the natural world into designs. The Spanish colonists planted gridded cities, according to a standardized Laws of the Indies code, while the French built walled cities reminiscent of the medieval era. British colonial towns, with a few notable exceptions, grew organically in an informal pattern. They quickly became the most successful and populous. Williamsburg was a prototypical American town - much greenery, housing set-backs, prominent public buildings - while Philadelphia was a prototypical large city. Abundant land assured a constant desire for growth and change, as well as individual self-sufficiency and domestic ideals.

Alexis de Toqueville gave an outsider's assessment of 19th century American cities. He was highly impressed with New England small towns and the democratic spirit they fostered, but he was less impressed with frontier boomtowns, which seemed to be thrown together to meet the needs of quickly expanding industry. He considered L'Enfant's plan for Washington D.C. overly ambitious. It did take many years for the city to grow into it's infrastructure. New York struck him as unrefined. Impressive looking mansions were actually made with artificial materials. Overall, the American city, while more socially open to different classes than European cities, was "a setting for individual pursuits rather than communal activities."

Chicago, and in particular the Columbian Exposition of 1893, exemplified the great urban boom in America. Ultimately, the commercial city won out over the governmental city. An urbane culture began to spread without an explicitly urban shell, blurring the cultural lines between rural and urban that existed in Europe. The skyscraper, made possible by the elevator, was the revered form of architecture, representing technological progress and commerce. This created a downtown commercial core in cities. Frederick Law Olmsted managed to incorporate large parks into many cities before their level of growth made it too difficult. The harnessing of electricity accelerated these changes in the modern city.

The City Beautiful movement began to inspire Americans to look at the aesthetic organization of their cities critically. Formal public buildings, civic centers, universities, and grand railroad stations were built in a classical architectural style. Many of these architects were interested in social justice issues as well as design. These "horizontal" ideals sometime clashed with the "vertical" commercial ideals of utilitarian skyscrapers. Unlike Europe, height limits were never successfully imposed. The next generation of planners adopted function over form and dismissed the City Beautiful movement as an exercise in vanity and wastefulness.

New York became a model for the commercial city around the world, and it's lessons were often emulated. Le Corbusier, already armed with his own ideological vision, considered Manhattan a step in the right direction toward his radiant city. He proposed radical plans to build the cities of the future from the ground up, but they never really came to fruition. After WWII, the government began several urban renewal projects, as a continuation of the Great Society. Most of these are now considered failures. Public housing created massive single-use zones in cities for the poor and quickly deteriorated. By the end of the 60's American cities were badly injured.

Most people who could afford to moved out of the city. Decentralization had a long history in urban planning theory, and many of the first suburbs were planned "garden cities" in the tradition of Ebenezer Howard. The goal was to capture the charm of an organic small town. Many were gated communities regulated by a homeowners association, but others were built for blue-collar workers. Raymond Unwin emerged as the leading voice of this architectural movement. Jane Jacobs was unfair to consider these architects anti-city. The much maligned unplanned subdivisions didn't really arise until after WWII.

Outdoor, traditional downtowns across the country have largely been replaced by malls. While some may see this as artificial, it must be remembered that it is the people that make up a community.

Americans have long idealized small town life, while also desiring the range of options and prosperity that city life offers. The contemporary American city is really a complex metropolitan area, made up of numerous nuclei and connections between them. Inner-cities have collapsed, and Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of a "Broadacre City" has mostly been realized. Some architects in the "New Urbanist" movement are seeking a counterbalance to the scattered city and trying to build for community. Really, we need "both dispersal and concentration in cities - places to get away from each other, and places to gather - and it's time to stop assuming that one necessarily precludes the other."

Cities may be designed by architects, but they are sustained by a community. While form may be transformed radically through time, the "urban expectations" remain the same.

Tuesday, December 4

When Gentrification is Cut Short

Here is an interesting new (to me) element to toss into the debates over gentrification. New York Magazine looks at Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood, which began a process of revitalization only a few years ago. To use the journalists' analogy: what happens when the wildfire stops?

"What if gentrification isn’t self-sustaining after all? What if, in fact, it’s exactly the opposite: a self-extinguishing phenomenon? What if it’s less a flood than a forest fire—wild, yes, out of control, absolutely, but destined to consume itself by burning through the fuel it needs to survive?"

The article reminded me of Thomas Friedman's classic explanation of globalization in the Lexus and the Olive Tree. He imagined "electronic herds" with no real leader and no long-term vision, shifting money from investment to investment across the globe. The herd has no compassion, shows no favoritism, and is only interested in maximizing efficiency and output. It is morally neutral, pouring huge rewards into some sectors and completely draining others as it passes through. And it moves quickly.

Does this match the "forest fire" of gentrification (and de-gentrification)?

Jane Jacob's warned against "cataclysmic money," either incoming or outgoing, because it inevitably disrupts the fabric of community life. Human beings, who, after all, are the ones who live in these houses and eat at these restaurants, may need a little more time to grow.

Friday, November 30

Courting Families to Cities

Details magazine, trend-setters extraordinaire for young professionals, wrote an interesting story a little while ago, "Is it time to move to the Suburbs?"

"Five years ago Marusin, then in his late twenties, did what a surprising number of otherwise intelligent, mall-averse Americans are starting to do. He relocated to the land of the cul de sac, the garden gnome, and the 4,500-square-foot starter house. “I didn’t fit the profile of the lawn-obsessed, Escalade-driving suburbanite,” says Marusin, a website developer who drives a Prius and now lives in cushy Naperville, Illinois, with his wife, Liz, an interior designer. “But staying in the city—it was beginning to kill us.”

Details even provides a handy guide of the hippest suburbs to live in.

This right here is why the "creative class strategy" of urban development, targeting hipsters with cultural amenities they demand, lacks staying power: 1) coolness is elusive and transient, and 2) cool young people usually have kids eventually and cease being cool. You may need kindling to start a fire, but no fire would last without some logs. Urban areas must attract families to maintain long-term economic growth.

Joel Kotkin made this argument in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday,

"If you talk with recruiters and developers in the nation's fastest growing regions, you find that the critical ability to lure skilled workers, long term, lies not with bright lights and nightclubs, but with ample economic opportunities, affordable housing and family friendly communities not too distant from work. "People who come here tend to be people who have long commutes elsewhere, and who have young children," notes Pat Riley, president of Alan Tate company, a large residential brokerage in Charlotte, N.C. "They want to be somewhere where they don't miss their kids growing up because there's no time."

There is a basic truth about the geography of young, educated people. They may first migrate to cities like New York, Los Angeles, Boston or San Francisco. But they tend to flee when they enter their child-rearing years. Family-friendly metropolitan regions have seen the biggest net gains of professionals, largely because they not only attract workers, but they also retain them through their 30s and 40s."

Kotkin makes another brief point that is worth highlighting. Immigrant groups have been known to cluster around familial networks. In order to attract this vital demographic, cities need to ensure that the diverse needs of extended multi-generational families are served. Grandma Sanchez isn't much concerned about how trendy the downtown club scene is.

But I'd have to digress sharply from Kotkin when it comes to how to deal with this reality. He's pretty fatalistic when it comes to the preferences families have for low-density suburbs, and thus he suggests planners focus on making suburbs more livable and energy-efficient. Sustainable new-urban development is a pipe dream for him. But is it? How can dense urban areas court families?

Wednesday, November 28

StreetFilm Productions

StreetFilms, out of New York City, has produced some wonderful short videos on good urban transportation. The most recent film focuses on the ethical questions involved in automobile use in cities. Mark Gorton of the Open Planning Project interviews Randy Cohen, also known as the ethicist of the New York Times.

As a side note, some people have criticized Cohen's approach for overemphasizing systems of injustice above personal responsibility - i.e. politics trumps ethics. And this tendency does come out in full force here. I'm still convinced that what Cohen has to say is valuable, particularly when it comes to something as systematic as urban transportation.

If you have 9 minutes to spare ...

[Just click to play. If you're bothered by the cropped screen go here]

If you have 30 minutes, there is another film entitled, "Portland: Celebrating America's Most Livable City."

Tuesday, November 27

To annex or not to annex

Often in life the boundaries between things are pretty gray, but when it comes to defining the political boundaries of a city you just have to put a line on the map. There's no way around it. And they change.

Like other citizens across the country, Missoulians have been debating annexation for a long time. Now some of these perennial questions are being pushed back into the foreground. The Missoulian has just published a two-part series on some current annexation battles, as well as an Op-ed (not online) yesterday from the Orchard Homes Neighborhood Association arguing against being annexed into the city. This is all in preparation for a December 3rd council meeting.

Kenneth Jackson, in his book Crabgrass Frontier, gives an interesting account of the history of municipal annexation in America. In the 19th century, city limits would inevitably expand to accommodate population growth, swallowing up any smaller townships in its path. Almost everyone wanted this. Those living on the outskirts begged the city to come and provide modern amenities. Being identified with the city was a source of civic pride, and it brought with it notions of progress and sophistication. The legal grounds for forced annexation were never seriously questioned.

However, in the 20th century the boundary growth of many municipal governments ground to a halt. Much of it was result of an identity shift. Suburban dwellers began to socially distance themselves from downtown, as socio-economic disparities between the two were forming. Basic services were becoming available to them without need for the city government. Urban and suburban philosophies were diverging, and the legal precedent for forced annexation was being challenged in several cases. One of the main consequences, especially in industrial eastern and mid-western cities, was that suburbanites were able to politically isolate themselves from the deteriorating inner-cities, thus accelerating their deterioration.

I'm not sure whether cities in the west like Missoula are going down this road exactly, but you can see some of these same dynamics at work. The bottom line is that all of those who share the often intangible benefits of a city ought to also share the responsibility of caring for the city. Where precisely this line ought to be drawn is a tougher question.

Monday, November 26

A Mashing of Political Alliances

I've never been much impressed with the Red State/Blue State political warfare narrative. There are plenty of institutions that have an interest in perpetuating this story of black and white competition. Of course, the political parties themselves do whatever they can to build internal cohesiveness and demonize the opposition party. That's just how a two-party system plays out. And the media is well attuned to our desire for a sporting event. Weaving a story complete with understandable plot lines and a cast of characters (Pat Robertson, Sam Harris) provides us with information as well as compelling entertainment. Bloggers are notorious for "survival of the shrillest." Often the angriest and most partisan rise to the top of the fierce Darwinian competition for hit counts. I know that I have a tendency fixate on a good ideological battle. Sorry about that.

But all of this betrays the real, complex interactions of beliefs and desires that each of us holds, and it makes it a little tougher to express these views in the democratic system. After all, what logical connection could there really be between issues like abortion, social security, and foreign policy? Loose, at best.

This is one of the things that attracts me to urbanism. It makes hash work of these grand political alliances. Libertarians can't even agree among themselves whether zoning laws infringe upon private property rights or help protect property value. Progressives, with various special interests, also clash, as evidenced when the NAACP sued Los Angeles Transit Authority several years ago. A little while ago, a well-credentialed conservative Paul Weyrich wrote a column on Town Hall praising the governmental transportation policies in Portland, and he inspired a veritable insurrection among the commenters. They reflexively consider Portland a communist enclave. New Urbanists, pining for traditional Main streets and town squares, would seem be the ones committed preserving what Russell Kirk called "permanent things." Or are they elitist liberals stuffing regulations down all of our throats? Even Russell Kirk himself despised automobiles and refused to drive one. Hardly the champion of neo-conservative suburbanites.

I think there is an alternative to either passionate partisanship or bland moderation. It is simply looking at each particular issue in its particular context and having the conviction to do what is right.

Saturday, November 24

A demand for walkable density?

I keep coming across this puzzling discrepancy when it comes to evaluating denser urban housing economically. It seems that different people, all with free-market tendencies, are slicing the same economic data in entirely different ways. I'm not sure what to make of it.

Chris Leinberger, of University of Michigan, advocates for denser walkable communities. He points out that the market is there for it, but outdated government regulations are preventing developers from fully capitalizing on it. From a Smart City interview,

"The market is assessing between a 40 and 200 premium, on a price per square foot basis, for walkable urban product over drivable suburban."

And he considers this a good thing. He points to the high property values of urban housing developments and reasons that demand is there, so we ought to build more to meet demand. In the meantime, he suggests using the extra tax revenue for inclusionary zoning to help those who were priced out the demand-driven upswing. Seems sensible.

On the other hand, Cato Institute fellow Randall O'Toole takes similar data from Portland and goes the other way with it. He claims that, as a result of smart growth policies which encourage denser communities,

"Housing affordability declined by more in Portland than in any other urban area in the United States."

So far they are looking at the same numbers, but he considers this fact to be a major strike against Portland. He reasons that Portland's urban growth boundary has choked off supply, and that's why the prices went up. It has nothing to do with demand. In fact, the average person would rather live in a place like Houston with miles of suburban options.

So which is it? Why are the prices higher? And does this mean that the market urges to build more or stick with the Post WWII suburban status quo?

Friday, November 23

My new favorite radio show

I just stumbled into my new favorite public radio show, Smart City radio. My wife and I are serious NPR junkies, so imagine my surprise when I found a show that combines NPR's trademark intelligent interviews and discussions with my own research interests in urbanism. I don't foresee Montana public radio picking it up anytime soon, but all of the episodes are conveniently available as podcasts.

The last couple episodes I listened to included downtown revitalization, the cultural value of independent bookstores, converting warehouses into useful art, how cites can meet the new desires of retiring boomers - lots of interesting talk from a variety of angles. And, as an extra bonus, Planetizen interjects with some interesting news briefs in urban planning issues.

Wednesday, November 21

Agrarians and Urbanists, reprise

While I was thinking about some commonalities between Agrarian and Urbanist thought in the last post, I came across an essay in the Essential Agrarian reader, "City and Country", that expressed some of my speculations much more thoroughly and cogently. The authors are Benjamin Lipscomb, an associate professor of philosophy at Houghton college, and Benjamin Northrup.

Here are my summaries of some of their main points of intersection between the two "movements":

1. An attention to the impacts of technology. In cities and farms alike, the adoption of certain forms of technology have eroded small and diversified cultures and replaced them by larger monocultures. Growth in farming machinery, has caused small family farms to be replaced by larger corporate monocultures. And the automobile has drained much of the population and commerce from cities. Neither group opposes technology entirely, but rather are keenly attuned to some of its unforeseen consequences.

2. An attention to Boundaries. Both farmers and urbanites have a stake in maintaining a line demarcating "where the edge of the city stops." Farmers compete with suburbs for some of the most fertile land, and urbanites benefit from local farms outside of city lines by having a source of fresh food.

3. An attention to traditional methods. New Urbanists often urge architects and city planners to learn from our past, from a time when cities were designed around human needs and desires. Therefor, there is also an emphasis on traditional architecture, which takes seriously aesthetics as well as function. Agrarians have long valued traditional wisdom and values passed on in small communities.

4. An uneasy alliance with environmental groups. Both urbanists and agrarians share with environmentalists the desire to value land and protect it from rampant consumption. However, both groups are more reluctant to align themselves with the radical fringes of the environmental movement, those which devalue human life in favor of the rest of the planet.

5. A preference for decentralized politics. Agrarians have long favored local control, strong family ties, and individual self-reliance. New Urbanists have also valued the self-determination of local communities, employing the "charette" model of public involvement, but have also begun to organize on a national level. (The authors think agrarians could learn from this example).

Saturday, November 17

Agrarians and Urbanists

It's sometimes supposed that agrarians are the natural enemies of urbanists - that farms and sidewalks don't mix. Jefferson's advocacy for the virtuous "yeoman farmer" is blamed for the dissolution of city life in America, and the romantic Victorian ideal of an English countryside is often considered to have foreshadowed the decline of the industrial town. It would seem that any vote for country living is, at least tacitly, a vote against city living.

There are usually three routes to take when confronted with a nice binary opposition like this:

1. Contradiction. One is right and the other wrong.
2. Charybdis and Scylla. Navigate between the two.
3. Yin and Yang. Both, in their distinctiveness, are mutually collaborative.

Although I'd prefer to call it Trinitarian, I'd like to think that the third option could work between agrarian and urban ideals.

Consider a particular similarity between two dominant figureheads, Wendell Berry and Jane Jacobs. Jacobs earned her stripes confronting Robert Moses' plan for a lower Manhattan expressway. She argued passionately that the project would vivisect her living neighborhood of Greenwich Village and drain it of life. As the story goes, her grassroots campaign eventually toppled the powerful Moses.

Wendell Berry also worked in Greenwich village for a while, but later decided to move back to a rural lifestyle in Kentucky. In the essay A Native Hill, Berry discusses his own freeway of I-71:

"That first road from the site of New Castle to the mouth of the Kentucky river - lost now either by obsolescence or metamorphosis - is now being crossed and to some extant replaced by its modern predecessor known as I-71, and I have no wish to disturb the question of whether or not this road was needed. I only want to observe that it bears no relation whatever to the countryside it passes through. It is a pure abstraction, built to serve the two abstractions that are the poles of our national life: commerce and expensive pleasure. It was built not according to the lay of the land, but according to a blueprint. Such homes and farmlands and woodlands as happened to be in its way are now buried under it."

Although rural Kentucky and Manhattan could not be more different, it's not too hard to hear echos of Jane Jacob's wisdom in Wendell Berry's own observations.

Thursday, November 15

Is Driving the New Smoking?

ok. It may be taking it a bit too far to claim driving as a large-scale public health problem. Or is it?

"If you have otherwise healthy habits and don’t smoke, driving to work is probably the most unhealthy part of your day."

So says Scott Fruin, part of a group of USC researchers who examined the levels of ultra-fine particles inhaled by commuters in Los Angeles. Sure, it is Los Angeles, but the connection would probably still hold anywhere.

"Urban dwellers with long commutes are probably getting most of their ultra-fine particle exposure while driving."

Study recommendation: live closer to work.

Tuesday, November 13

Envisioning Missoula

It seemed like there were over 100 of us gathered tonight at the University ballroom, clustered around a dozen tables with giant maps of Missoula in the center. This was one of the three Envision Missoula workshops that the transportation division of the Missoula office of Planning and Grants is putting on this week. We all had our chance to strew colored tape and glue development projects all over the map in order to find a way to fit the next 100,000 residents into this valley.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a remarkable amount of consensus over the ideas at each table. Many of us traded in our suburban and commercial chips and opted for higher-density mixed-use clusters. Almost all of the groups had either light rail lines or heavy bus systems to connect these town and city clusters. Bike lanes along existing roads, and designated biking and walking trails along former rail corridors figured heavily in each plan. Open space, of course, was a big hit. Our table, in particular, wanted to maintain the agricultural viability of much of the current rural land. There were really very few outright conflicts throughout the whole process.

(I did find it a little curious that industrial growth was not even an option. We didn't get a heavy industry chip to place. I suppose we are assuming the triumph of the service economy.)

One of the things I appreciated most about the whole process was that growth, both population and job, was implied from the outset. Often agendas to protect open space and limit sprawl are perceived to be pure anti-growth obstructionism. Now that we have our seat at the table we want to close the doors to everyone else! That sort of thing. This whole workshop, on the contrary, was an exercise in planned growth - both land use and transportation thrown in together.

The cynic in me inevitably pops up about now. What about market forces? Is this economically and politically reasonable? Shouldn't cities evolve naturally through a gradual process rather than on paper in a workshop? One person at our table joked, "I agree that Missoula would look wonderful like this, but I think I'd like to put my own country estate over here." I thought that was pretty funny, and maybe a little closer to the truth than I would like to admit. As important as this envisioning is, all of it would really amount to nothing at all unless we are each willing to live within our own vision.

It was encouraging to get a feel for where this roomful of Missoulians would like to head in the next few decades. I think it's the right direction.

Sunday, November 11

Tax Policy behind McMansions

Many people have picked up on a certain irony in contemporary American life. As our family size and social networks shrink, the size of our houses increases. It's as if we are attempting to compensate for actual community with large artifacts dedicated to the concept of community. Why are we doing this? While there are undoubtedly cultural values and status cues involved, the simple economic consequences of current federal tax policy could be contributing to the problem.

Clive Crook, in this month's Atlantic (subscription required), weighs the relative value of home-ownership and evaluates some of the tax policies that have been used to encourage it. He finds that tax deductions on mortgage interest rates don't actually meet their intended purpose, to encourage renters to consider purchasing a home. Instead, they encourage the affluent to purchase a larger and more expensive home than they otherwise would. Furthermore, these federal policies skew upward the market's incentives for risk-taking, which is the whole reason we ended up in the housing bubble and devastating bust. Perhaps, as we lay at the bottom of the cycle, the political will to make some changes could be generated. Although there are lots of special interests addicted to this particular form of government largess, Rep. John Dingall (D-Mich)) is taking a shot at it.

Large houses on large plots of land are a concern to urbanists simply because they spread us out. This triggers a feedback loop; the arrangement requires an automobile, which further isolates us socially, leads to homogeneous zoning, and ultimately destroys a city. And the whole system is a tremendous burden on the planet.

Friday, November 9

Book: The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs began her writing career as an outsider launching a powerful critique on the planning establishment, and it appears that she has largely been successful. The Death and Life of Great American Cities is considered a social and literary classic, and it launched Jacobs into near messianic status among those who care about cities, with acolytes from across the political spectrum.

Synopsis: Planners have long been ignorant of how cities actually function. They have concocted theories about how cities ought to function and have applied these theories in destructive ways under the guise of "urban renewal." The two branches "decentralists," who want to spread out cities, and "radiant city" proponents, who want skyscrapers in parks, are really one in the same. They miss the point of vibrant city life.

The street is the essential public space of a city. Heavy use at all hours creates "eyes on the street," which are essential to providing safety. A lively street also allows for a healthy level of informal human contact, balancing between the need for privacy and the need for community. A high ratio of adults and enough sidewalk space allows children to play freely, relieving some of the burdens and costs of parenting. Small parks can benefit an already vibrant neighborhood, but they must fit their context. Out of place or excessively large parks interrupt street life and denigrate its safety. Underused parks can be redeemed by specializing in a certain service or activity. It is most effective, politically and socially, to consider cities in three senses: as whole cities, as neighborhoods, and as districts, each with different needs and strategies.

There are four inter-connected principles for creating healthy cities:

1) The Need for Mixed Primary Uses. Putting residential, commercial, office, small industrial, and public uses within close proximity will create symbiotic relationships and increase the life of a city. People will be on the streets throughout the day.

2) The Need for Small Blocks. Smaller blocks help the circulatory flow the city, and prevent sections of streets from becoming dead zones.

3) The Need for Aged Buildings. Older buildings should be mixed with the new. They not only connect with history and provide character, but they are generally cheaper to use. This allows a broader range of business and housing to co-exist.

4) The Need for Concentration. There is a critical mass of population concentration necessary to support a cultural and economic life. Density has been confused with overcrowding, what happens if there are more people than a physical environment has been created for. This has led to the creation of "in-between" densities that are neither fit for suburban nor urban use.

Diverse mixture of uses is not chaos, but a more developed form of order. It can be more visually pleasing than homogeneous centrally-planned architecture. Diverse neighborhoods should also ease traffic congestion by encouraging people to walk. There are some uses (e.g. junk yards) that can hurt an area, but a diverse and vibrant block should be able to price out these functions. However, it is important to recognize that the scale of a use must be fitting for the particular urban area. Zoning should consider the scale of the uses (e.g. giant factory) above the kind of use.

A diverse urban area can be killed by "over-success." When people and businesses are drawn in, there may be a motivation to multiply the most profitable use, thus killing the originally attractive diversity. There are three ways to counteract this: zone for diversity, place public or quasi-public buildings in strategic locations, simply increase the supply of vibrant neighborhoods. Diversity can also be killed by "border vacuums," large scale single-use areas that disrupt the flow of life in the city. Besides eliminating these boundaries, the problem can be mitigated by building buffers between the areas (e.g. a skating rink on the edge of central park).

Cataclysmic change can also disrupt city life. Slums are places where people move in and out of before planting roots and taking pride in their residence. Government projects intended to replace slums have even more devastating consequences, uprooting entire communities and placing them in dull single-use environments. "Unslumming" occurs gradually, as people who could afford to move out choose to stay. Both slumming and unslumming are perpetual cycles which do not fit with current planning theory. A sudden influx or loss of money can also have a negative effect. The way financial institutions and government departments are structured often encourages either generous investment or complete blacklisting. In the twentieth century, divestment from cities in order to create suburbs has decayed urban areas.

The are some practical strategies. Instead of clearing out entire areas to build projects, the government could subsidize individuals and families in areas interspersed throughout cities. One strategy is to guarantee rents, incentivizing private landlords to accept low-income tenants. Automobile use should be discouraged. Eliminating them altogether is not economically viable, but there are several ways to make conditions less desirable for driving while benefiting the community at the same time. When this occurs, levels of commuting should diminish naturally and pedestrians will be more confident. But trucks and buses need to be preserved.

Aesthetics are important, but abstract notions of art should not replace the actual life of the city. Streets need smatterings of irregularity to provoke interest without disrupting visual order too much. These should be "corners" rather than "dead ends." Eye-catching landmarks, whether large or small, can be a source of civic pride if they are well placed. Even some government housing projects and civic centers can be salvaged. The goal is to weave them back into the fabric of the city. Mixed uses can be introduced gradually and cheaply (e.g. street vendors). All of this will take a politically active and informed citizenry, as well as the government bureaucracy necessary to facilitate such democratic positive change.

There is a method to studying cities. Drawing from the life sciences, the city should be considered an organic problem rather than a rational problem. It is organized complexity, rather than either simplicity or disorganized complexity. In studying cities, one should think in terms of process rather than static moments, reason inductively rather than deductively, and consider "unaverage clues" rather than statistical generalizations. Planners have failed to see cities in this way. Only a diverse city can inculcate true human vitality.

Engagement: These synopses are so long that I don't feel like writing much of an engagement. Anyway, Jacobs' ideas are certainly central to the philosophy of this blog, so in a way the entire project could be considered an engagement. However, there are two important points that I think are often missed. First of all, she states explicitly that her principles are intended only for large metropolitan areas. She does not claim that what works for New York City can be replicated in a small town in Iowa or a Californian suburb. Secondly, gradualism figures heavily in her ideals. High profile architectural projects or large-scale policy endeavors may purport to follow Jacobs' principles, but they are apt to fail on account of their introduction of "cataclysmic" change. They also may miss the third principle, failing to mix the new in with the old.

All in all, Jane Jacobs has reoriented both the methods for studying cities and the goals to which planners aspire. Although I think she may have been a bit too hard on some of the previous planning theories, a good shaking up was certainly in order.

Tuesday, November 6

Thoughts on Sharing the Road

On my way home from work today, I snapped this shot of some new "sharrows" that have been painted on Third street here in Missoula. The intent of sharrows is both to help motorists be more aware of the presence of bicycles, and to help cyclists position themselves in the safest part of the street. The Christian Science Monitor ran a helpful story on the U.S. origin of sharrows in Colorado and some of the controversies surrounding them. Today's Missoulian reported on the new sharrows on Third street. Hopefully, they'll work.

It's not hard to pick up on some tension lately between cyclists and motorists around here. Columnist Bob Wire vented on his experience with irresponsible bicycle riders in an article entitled, "Get your Bike of the Sidewalk, Moron." The article unleashed a flood of comments on the New West site as if dangerously high levels of pent-up road rage were finally given a forum for expression. Ah, the blogging catharsis. Everyone has a story about how they were wronged in some way or another.

Considering that two very different vehicles with very different infrastructure needs share the same roads, it's no wonder that these interests clash. Add to that tension whatever cultural symbols and ethical assumptions may be attached to bicyclists and, say, SUV drivers. Then throw in the fact that commuters are naturally ornery, and you've got a perfect storm.

Sure. Everyone should respect each other, follow the law, and so on, but we have to remember that this bike/car balance is hardly symmetrical. Cars can (and do) kill cyclists, while bicycles can (and do) only dent cars. I ride in traffic, but just one aggressive and impatient driver can make the sidewalk look like an attractive alternative.

Also, since automobiles are currently the dominant form of transportation, roadways and traffic laws are understandably designed around their purposes. Traffic engineers have long been aware that good laws need to be consonant with natural human behavior. For example, the 85th percentile rule dictates that speed limits are most effective when they are set at the speed in which 85% of the drivers will naturally drive. Overly stringent regulations have been shown to be ultimately ineffective because they have such low compliance levels. Take this principle into the design of city street laws, and it makes sense that cyclists will be disproportionately inclined to fudge on some laws. I know plenty of residential stop signs that beg bicyclists to cautiously coast through. The calculations that led to those sign placements were based on the safety of automobiles. I'm not saying cyclists should break the law, but I understand why we do.

Like many people, I'm both a driver and a cyclist. Of course, I want to be respectful and careful in both of these roles, but I recognize the special onus of responsibility that goes with the power I possess when I'm behind the wheel.

Monday, November 5

The Gentrification Paradox

1. Neighborhoods and districts that improve in design and life attract new people.
2. Increase in demand leads to an increase in price - by basic market function.
3. Eventually, the market, with the help of property tax increases, flushes out the previous homeowners and tenants.
4. The ensuing homogeneity undercuts some of of the aspects that originally made the area attractive.

Jane Jacobs called this process "oversuccess". Once an area is identified as a potentially lucrative investment from outside, often only one use is selected as the most profitable. "Cataclysmic money" is then poured into this use from finance institutions, pushing out all other uses. The initial diversity of uses, the shops mingled with parks and different types of housing, is steamrolled over as everything is converted into the single most profitable use. Gentrification is the pejorative term for this process, when high-end housing dominates exclusively and pushes out lower-income housing.

On the other hand, is not making neighborhoods attractive places to live the whole point of urban planning? In the last half century, most people who had the ability to decided where to live chose the suburbs over the city. Short of outright authoritarian rule, the only way to reverse this trend is to make urban areas more attractive. It's pretty simple. Those in favor of gentrification argue that the problem is not with too high a demand, but rather with too low a supply. If there were plenty of urban districts in which people would choose to live, prices would eventually go back down.

I'm sympathetic to the pro-gentrification side, but transitions themselves are hard. As money flows in and out of neighborhoods, real people and real communities are displaced and reshaped. These are not abstract stock portfolios being traded back and forth. Stability is a necessary component of community life.

Missoula's Independent this week ran a cover story on the historic Wilma building downtown. It was recently purchased and will be converted from rental units to condos, selling for a range between $75,000 to $500,000. Some of the former tenants are upset and raising concerns about affordable housing. The whole thing takes on a vibe of class/age warfare.

In this case, I don't think their argument has any merit. There are very few downtown condos of any price range, let alone luxury ones. Most people with money live in the suburbs. Increasing downtown homeownership could only provide more diversity to an area full of commercial and rental uses. And the Wilma is selling a broad range of property values, anyway. The manager of the Poverello house, a downtown homeless shelter, is moving there. I wouldn't call her an over-consuming elitist by any measure. This is a good thing for Missoula.

Still, you have to have some sympathy for those who were evicted and could not afford to buy. Even if a plea is not entirely rational, it is still reveals a problem in the overall housing market of Missoula. Jen and I were evict on moments notice last year for the exact same reason. Even though we understood the situation, it's still no fun to have to find a new place to live by the end of the month.

Even if gentrication can be consider in the long-term interest of a city, the short-term effects have to be adequately addressed as well. And, as Jacobs advised decades ago, some efforts have to be made to maintain that delicate balance of mixed-use diversity.

Friday, November 2

Geometry of Capitals

The abstract concept of a modern nation-state calls for nothing other than abstract geometrical patterns for the nation's capital.

The Hexagon of Canberra, Australia (1913)
Planned by Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin of Chicago.

The Triangle of New Delhi, India (1929)
Planned by Edwin Lutyens under British colonial rule.

The Airplane/Butterfly of Brasilia (1956)
Architect Oscar Niemeyer insisted upon butterfly, but most people see an airplane.

The Oval of Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire (1983)

The Rectangle of Astana, Kazakhstan (under construction)
Astana is fascinating. Newly acquired oil money is fueling some of the most opulent architecture in the world way out in the isolated steppes of northern Kazakhstan.

Thursday, November 1

A Lament for the Trick-or-Treat

The Halloween ritual of trick-or-treating is really the only American cultural event left in which we have to interact with our actual geographical neighbors, even if it is only demanding candy from behind a mask. And it looks like it may be going the way of the Christmas carolers, that is out of existence. Just like everywhere else in the country, hundreds of families drove to the Southgate mall in Missoula as an alternative to the traditional practice of walking around their own blocks. Other families took part in church events, or simply opted out. Jen and I did hand out two pieces of candy to a couple of intrepid ghosts last night, but I know others who had to eat the entire bags themselves.

The transition makes a certain degree of sense. Probably more than anything, parents claim safety concerns. While it is doubtful that Halloween has become that much more dangerous than it was in the past, it certainly is true that our threshold for caution has increased. And not being a parent myself, I'll just refrain from commenting on this. The weather is also a factor. I spoke to an elderly lady yesterday who grew up in Butte, Montana. She remembers trudging through snow in order to go from house to house in her neighborhood. She said she doesn't blame the kids these days for preferring the climate-controlled mall, but she does miss seeing all of their costumes when they used to come by her house.

And then there is just the fact that the growing lower-density developments in exurbs don't lend themselves to walking door to door anyway. Suburban development is usually not organized around facilitating socialization between neighbors. Often quite the opposite.

Halloween has also become a victim of the culture wars. Certain groups of Christians, who previously considered the holiday to be harmless spooky fun, suddenly decided that it was actually rife with sinister pagan symbolism. Tracts on the history of Halloween popped up, and parents were encouraged to find a church-based alternative. Ironically, this attitude then encourages Wiccans and other like-minded people, who previously may have shrugged off the holiday, to invest it with more significance themselves. And the cycle is perpetuated.

I don't want to pass judgment on decisions that families make (I don't even know what I would do). And there is nothing particularly inspiring about the practice of Trick-or-treating itself. Dentists have always hated it, and the old trope about bullies stealing candy surely still has some merit. In other words, I'm not holding onto the tradition out of pure sentimental impulse. However, if Trick-or-treat activity serves as a barometer for the social health of a neighborhood, it's worth noting that the practice is slowly slipping away.

Tuesday, October 30

Three (Loosely) Related Finds

1. Cities are good for the earth.

I caught an Earth and Sky broadcast on NPR last night on why the unprecedented level of global urbanization is ultimately a benefit to the planet. George Martine of the U.N. population report was quoted,

"And we have a world population that is almost 6.7 billion people. If you put say 3.3 billion people out of urban areas and into rural areas, what would happen to natural ecosystems? It would be disastrous. There’s no question about it. The fact that cities concentrate most environmental problems is not because of concentration, per se. It is simply due to the fact that cities concentrate the lifestyles and the production and the consumption patterns of modern civilization such as we know it. So the problem is not concentration. The problem is the kind of civilization that we are promoting and the kind of concentration of wealthy and affluent consumers in cities."

2. Some cities don't move as much as others.

Forbes used television viewing habits, exercise frequency, and obesity percentages to present a list of the most sedentary cities in the United States. I love lists, the more statistics the better.

Carol Coletta, of CEOs for cities, thought about what could be behind the inactivity of Memphis (ranked #1),

"The economically bifurcated population, lack of transit options, unwalkable neighborhoods and favored Southern cuisine are a 'deadly formula' for the city"

3. Transit-Oriented Development works.

A study of TODs in Washington D.C., Portland, Philadelphia/Newark, and San Fransisco reveal that the residents make about 50% fewer car trips.

Sunday, October 28

Can a church be a "third place"?

The phrase "third place" has become a fixture in planning circles. The sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term in his 1989 classic The Great Good Place, and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz ran with it and made some money in the process.


“Most needed are those ‘third places’ which lend a public balance to the increased privatization of home life. Third places are nothing more than informal public gathering places. The phrase ‘third places’ derives from considering our homes to be the ‘first’ places in our lives, and our work places the ‘second.’”

It's a home away from home; a neutral community space that creates a bridge between entirely public and entirely private lives. The book examines a host of examples: bars, coffeehouses, main streets, post offices, beer gardens, restaurants. They are easily accessible by foot, create an atmosphere that encourages lingering, often serve food or drink, and mingle regulars with strangers. Oldenburg suggests that these neighborhood establishments are not only essential to the psychological well-being of Americans, but they are also important for maintaining a vibrant democracy.

Where do church buildings fit into this? Is this a role churches should aspire to? I'm not really sure. The primary distinction is that most churches in the United States only open their doors for several hours on a Sunday every week. Members and visitors flood into the building for a formal worship service and then disperse, the building (and parking lot) remaining mostly dormant for the next six days. Churches also differ, necessarily, in the sense that they cannot be truly neutral. While almost all desire for people from all walks of life to feel comfortable in community, their mission to promote faith precludes the kind of detached marketplace of ideas that a coffee shop offers. This is not a criticism at all, just an observation.

Many churches are trying though, and Oldenburg is regularly asked by churches for consultation. A mega-church pastor in Texas, Randy Frazee, describes his own ideals candidly,

“We committed to the 100-acre-megachurch-campus-off-the-freeway strategy only to discover that we were contributing to the problem. Our mega-church was just one more contrived place that fractured people’s lives. [W]e built the mega-structure that became just one more commute. We need to stop trying to manufacture community within a church and instead go do church in the community. The ideal church structure of the future will be churches with many locations of multipurpose/community center buildings in the middle of neighborhoods.”

Churches following in this model use their facilities for a variety of purposes during the day, and convert to a larger gathering for times of worship. In Missoula, the SHEC community center uses it's sanctuary as an indoor skate park during the day, providing a safe gathering place for teenagers. Other churches are forgoing the purchase of a building altogether, in order to fill into and help support the public spaces that already exist in a community. Missoula's new Grace Pointe church has been holding services in the Missoula Children's Theater. Those who consider themselves part of the "emerging church" also hold the concept of a third place in high regard.

This is still an open question for me, and it will be interesting to see how different churches transition away from the suburban mega-church model.

Tuesday, October 23

Out to Lunch - Back soon

This week is dedicated to the enervating task of girding myself for the GREs, hence the ineluctable dearth of sagacious ponderings.

Wednesday, October 17

Developing Missoula's Brownfields

I thought I would follow-up the last (mostly negative) post with a look at an exciting revitalization project within a stone's throw of downtown Missoula. The Old Sawmill District is currently in the clean-up phase, and construction of a mixed commercial/residential district is slated for the beginning of next year. As far as I can tell, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, the WGM group, and others have done a great job with the site plan. They intend to incorporate vertical mixed-use in the commercial district, with businesses on the bottom and housing on top, and a combination of townhouses and single-unit residences a little further west. There will be a good amount of green space along the river, and it looks like the biking/walking trail system will even be extended.

A presentation given to the city council is available online in pdf format. (That's where I grabbed the picture from).

Projects such as these prove that there are alternatives to simply spreading outward onto greenspace. Even though the project is a bit of a financial gamble, it received unanimous and enthusiastic support from the Missoula city council. Hopefully, the rest of the public can see this as an undertaking worth supporting, and perhaps it could even serve as a model for future urban development.

Also, the Missoulian reported the other day that at least one developer has his eyes on another post-industrial plot of land over in Bonner, and he even tossed around the phrase "affordable housing." But some people want it turned over for more industrial usage. I wonder what will happen over there.

Monday, October 15

Developing Rock Creek

Jen and I spent last weekend camping in the Rock Creek canyon. Rock creek is known as a "blue-ribbon" fly-fishing destination, and for the last few years residents have been engaged in battles to keep the sprawl emanating from nearby Missoula at bay.

An out-of-state (big stigma around here) developer bought a ranch a few years back, and attempted to subdivide it into a low-density neighborhood. The residents of the canyon beefed up the Rock Creek Protective Association and sought to legally prevent the development from happening. The trouble is that zoning really shouldn't be done retroactively.

The Missoulian set up the two positions of the debate like this:

"Residents all over western Montana are facing just what Rock Creek residents did - a subdivision they don't like, a developer who doesn't care, a design that doesn't fit their neighborhood and that threatens the wildlife and environment they love, Menson [president of RCPA] said.

Developers are facing what Barnes did - buying land in good faith, following laws and land-use patterns, then facing the veto power of neighbors who want to protect what they have at the expense of someone else, McCormick [lawyer for the developer] said."

Now there is a newer development, the Ridge above Rock Creek, that is being constructed here. It is being advertised as providing the "true Western Montana Lifestyle." Perusing the website reminds me of the line that Jim Kunstler repeats often, that the suburbs promise a country lifestyle but really give a cartoon of the country lifestyle.

Friday, October 12

Book: Crabgrass Frontier

Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier, written in 1984, is still considered the definitive treatment of the history of American suburbanization. (It looks like it is being re-printed at the end of October).

Summary: American infrastructure is uniquely suburban. We generally live in low density residences, prefer to own our homes, divide sharply along socio-economic lines, and commute long distances. How did we arrive here?

Suburbs have always existed, but the dynamic growth of suburbanization is a modern phenomenon. Pre-modern cities were walkable, distinct from the countryside, functionally mixed, and economically concentrated. The earliest suburbs were undesirable, the results of poor housing and unsavory industries being pushed to the periphery. However, the extremely rich began building country estates further outside of town.

The earliest suburbs proper were borne out of growth in the technology of transportation. Convenient ferries began the population growth of Brooklyn. Railroads, although designed for long-distances, created suburban communities clustered around the stops. The horse-drawn street car enhanced inter-urban commuting. Only the higher classes could afford to commute.

Cultural values also played a role. An emphasis on the nuclear family and domestic life was used to counter-act the morally degrading and crowded aspects of the industrial city. The single-family home in the country was considered a refuge from the problems of modern life. Concurrently, the "cult of nature" associated with intellectuals such as Emerson and Ruskin lauded the benefits of living closer to the natural world.

Entrepreneurs began developing planned communities and marketing them to the wealthy as status symbols. A small number of railroad suburbs, highlighted by country clubs, attracted those who could afford a fare. Poorer immigrants also moved there to provided services to the wealthy. Although few in number, these suburbs served as models and help solidify the ideal of suburban life.

The trolley replaced the horsecar and opened up the peripheries of the city to middle-income residents. Leisure riding was common, and shopping and entertainment were set up as destinations. This could triple the reach of the older walking city. Housing costs were cut by "balloon-frame" construction procedures, and the growing economy allowed many to be able to purchase the cheaper land outside of town. By the late 19th century, middle-class families could afford a detached home in the suburbs.

In the 19th century, municipal governments would grow by annexation, but in the 20th century suburban communities sought to disassociate themselves from the urban core and fought annexation. Major cities stopped growing in size, and suburbs did not have to deal politically with the problems of the city.

The automobile, mass produced by Henry Ford, revolutionized privatized transportation. Interest groups were able to persuade the federal government that a national system of roads was a public good. Public transportation declined as automobiles gained acceptance. More than country or city, suburbs were the beneficiary of the new auto-centric transportation system. Suburbanization boomed in the 1920's, and even continued into the great depression.

Several other government policies contributed to the decentralization and racial segregation of cities. The federal housing authority disproportionately subsidized loans for suburban development. The presence of blacks and other minorities led to an immediate downgrading of property value. They turned preexisting prejudices into public policy. Blacks began concentrating in the inner-cities, and whites moved out to the suburbs. Government efforts at "urban renewal" only exacerbated the divide, because most of the ill-conceived housing projects were located in inner-city neighborhoods.

The Post-WWII baby boom spurred the highest growth of mass-produced suburban houses, initiated by the Levittown development on Long Island. They were located on the periphery, low-density, homogeneous, affordable, and stratified by class. Zoning laws were created to maintain the status quo. This created an attractive option for returning soldiers and their families.

The car became a center of culture during this period, from drive-in theaters to motels. The garage became a household fixture. A federal interstate system allowed long-range travel. Shopping centers and suburban office parks served the new suburban residents. All functions of the city became decentralized. Entertainment, which was originally tied together with pubic life, was brought inside the private residence. Community was degraded as a result.

While some predict the continuation of this trend, certain indicators, such as urban gentrification in some areas, point to a reversal of suburbanization in the future. Energy and land costs are rising, real estate financing may become more difficult, family life is dissolving, and racial divisions are become less pronounced. But the American suburb will never be completely replaced.

Thursday, October 11

A planning citizenry

One of the important developments in the practice of land use planning has been the effort to democratize the process as much as possible. Professional planners are no longer encouraged to see themselves as the experts imposing their vision onto the local populace, but rather as facilitators organizing a grassroots vision into a workable plan. More listening, less speaking. However much this may complicate the process, there seems to be universal agreement that various stakeholders in the community must be involved in order to enhance and validate the results. This has to be a good thing.

Last night I attended a workshop put on by the Ravalli county planning department. The Bitterroot valley is a rural setting that is growing very quickly, with people attracted both to the natural beauty and the proximity to Missoula. Last year the public mandated an entire overhaul of the zoning regulations and set up a one year deadline. Under pressure, the county asked the Sonoran Institute, a firm that assists regional planners throughout the West, to come and help them with involving the community in the writing of the regulations. Last night's meeting was an overview of the nuts and bolts of how to seek consensus in a respectful and hopefully decisive manner.

The presenter laid out a framework for how to conduct meetings. The ultimate challenge seems to reside in how to arrive at a decisive result without disenfranchising any of the community interests. In reality, unanimous consent is impossible. Areas like Ravalli county are inhabited by such a wide cross-section of people, from third-generation ranchers to wealthy retirees. They each have different ideals and different needs. However, the goal is to reach a point when each of these stakeholders feels as if they have at least been listened to seriously, even if their agenda has not been completely met.

I deeply respect this approach, which seems to stand against the starkly polarized and often cynical nature of national politics. At a more local level, it should be possible to arrive at a conclusion without resorting to the raw power of legal fiat. This only leads the winners to gloat in their victory and the losers to become embittered and resentful. That may be tolerable in a larger setting, but it is no way to make decisions among friends and neighbors.