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.