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.

Monday, October 8

An Urbanist Taxonomy

Every academic discipline has its competing schools of thought, and I'm trying to discern the playing field of urban planning before I apply for graduate schools. Categorization makes it a little easier for people like me to make decisions. Here are my brief summaries of three schools of thought, mostly derived from an article by Douglas Kelbaugh, that are currently in the running:

1) New Urbanism. Seeks to apply traditional neighborhood patterns in a human scale. Holds a high view of the influence that design and structure can have on culture and personality. Opposes dependence on automobiles and excessive privatization. Sensitive to the environmental impact of communities. Promotes mixed-use zoning. Attention to finite limits. Models: Portland, Seaside. Criticisms: excessively idealistic, sentimental attachment to the past.

2) Everyday Urbanism. Intentionally non-utopian. Appreciates the "bottom-up" design of communities by the residents for their own purposes. Inherent distrust of experts and intellectuals who may be detached from the public realm. Seeks democratic citizen participation. Focused on the particularity of a place rather than universal principles. Champions vernacular architecture and grassroots ethnic neighborhoods. Emphasizes the sociological. More observational, less prescriptive. Models: Various squatter settlements in the developing world. Criticisms: unable to resist purely market forces, lacking in coherence.

3) Post-Urbanist. [warning: highly biased. Read elsewhere for a favorable impression]. Jacques Derrida run amok in the built environment. Accepts the inevitable fragmentation of the contemporary world. Emphasizes liberty with the intentional breaking of any norm or tradition. Interest in the avant garde and technological visions of the future. Celebrates evanescence and flux. Seeks to shock with audacious architectural projects, often intentionally at odds with its surroundings. Privileges entertainment, consumption, and spectacle on a global scale. Models: Las Vegas, "world cities." Criticisms: ________.

These alternatives are further fleshed out in the Michigan Debates on Urbanism series.

I like Kelbaugh's assessement,

"Everyday Urbanism is too often an urbanism of default rather than design, and Post Urbanism is too often an urbanism of sensational, trophy buildings in an atrophied public realm. We can build a more physically ordered commons than Everyday Urbanism promises and a more emancipatory commons than Post Urbanism offers. Although Europe may hanker for Post Urbanism and the developing world may embrace Everyday Urbanism, the typical American metropolis needs and would most benefit from New Urbanism at this point in its evolution. It is the responsible if less glamorous middle path, which can and should be pursued as passionately as the more provocative extremes."

Thursday, October 4

Who was Ian Nairn?

"Before Jane Jacobs, before James Howard Kunstler, before David Sucher, there was Ian Nairn. Much of what's best in his writings is his sensitivity to streets, to ensembles, to juxtapositions, to places--the whole panoply of what we call urbanism. And Nairn is, more than any architecture critic I've ever read, attuned to and ready to describe how places affect all the five senses."

from an enthusiastic blog post a few years back.

Given that there are only a limited number of us Nairns in the world, my curiosity is peaked a little when I come across the name. I've seen Ian Nairn referenced a few times in urbanist discussions, but all of his books are out of print and not available at any of the libraries around here.

He is known for his delight in cities, particularly London, that maintain their unique characteristics and traditional sense of place. He named the post WWII urge toward a global monotony subtopia, and spent the later years of his short life wielding a pen against it. Yet, on the other hand, he appears to have come out in favor of modernist architecture in general. A little puzzling to me.

I'll have to keep my eyes open for his name in the future.

Wednesday, October 3

They paved paradise ...

The last post dealt with some of the costs associated with automobiles while they are in use, but a new Purdue study investigates the impacts of cars and trucks while they are not in use. Namely, parking spaces.

Bryan Pijanowski, an associate professor of forestry and natural resources at Purdue university, found that parking spaces outnumber resident drivers 3-to-1 in an average sized midwestern county (11-t0-1 for every family). And this estimate does not even include private residential parking or multiple levels of parking garages. That's right. If you and your family live in Tippecanoe county, or probably anywhere else in the United States for that matter, you have about 1600 square feet of pavement somewhere with your name on it.

Other than the obvious fact that any land used as a parking space is not being used as anything else, there are several deleterious effects of this system. Parking lots are a major source of water pollution, and they also contribute to the artificial heating of cities.

The good professor then gives a subtle plug for the walkable urban environment,

"In many areas of the world, particularly Europe, cities were planned prior to automobiles, and many locations are typically within walking distance. This is just one different way to plan that has certain advantages."

Monday, October 1

The price of congestion

I'm gathering that the Texas Transportation Institute's Urban Mobility report is the authoritative metric for traffic congestion in the United States. The 2007 report, released a week ago, confirms a troubling trend in urban congestion. The numbers are numbingly high,

Traffic congestion continues to worsen in American cities of all sizes, creating a $78 billion annual drain on the U.S. economy in the form of 4.2 billion lost hours and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel—that's 105 million weeks of vacation and 58 fully-loaded supertankers.

As my wife can attest, I get a little upset when the I let a couple of pieces of fruit mold before eating them. I can't imagine pouring 2.9 billion gallons of gasoline down the drain (or rather out into the atmosphere) while waiting 4.2 billion hours for the last drop to trickle out. What a catastrophic loss of efficiency?

I've been ruminating lately on traffic pricing mechanisms. How can we assure that commuters pay the real price for their road use? And, secondly, how can we be sure that they are paying this price willingly? To know this there must be viable alternatives in place. The report,

"An extension of [road pricing] would treat transportation services like most other aspects of society. There would be a direct charge for using more important system elements. Price is used to regulate the use and demand patterns of telephones, movie seats, electricity, food and many other elements of the economy."

Raising gasoline tax would be helpful but a little clunky, not fine-tuned to the time and place of the usage. Tolls are pretty inefficient in their own right. Several European nations have been toying with GPS monitoring systems, at first in commercial vehicles. Although, recently this proposal has been dramatically unpopular in the U.K., with many suggesting possible privacy violations.

The Texas Transportation Institute doesn't suggest this option at all. It's likely far to intrusive for the American public. But perhaps driving to work is as much a public act as taking the subway, which can be easily monitored and priced accordingly. Certainly the action of driving has a substantial impact on the public realm, as this report clearly indicates. The privacy of a self-enclosed and air-conditioned compartment is really only an illusion.

update: ok. Here's a rationale for road pricing from an actual economist. A better explanation than my fumbling attempt.