Friday, March 28

A new Clark Fork river

Today is a pivotal day for the Clark Fork river. The largest EPA superfund site ever, right up the road from me, reached a point in the clean-up process when they were ready to breach the Milltown dam. At about 11:30 today the Clark Fork river ran freely for the first time in over 100 years. A couple of us went up to the bluffs overlooking the project to watch the new stream carve its way through the mud around the dam.

It may take a few years, but the cleaner and unobstructed nature of the Clark Fork could profoundly change how we view its use within the urban landscape. In the past the river was seen primarily as a vehicle for industry, either for transport or waste disposal. It's hard to imagine now, but a downtown butcher reportedly used to simply throw his leftover carcasses into the river and let them wash away. In recent years, probably through both a loss of industry in general and an enhanced environmental awareness, we are much more careful in how we use our rivers. After some restoration they could become again a wonderful place for humans to be, and they could provide that essential connection with nature even in the heart of the city.

Here's an example right near where I live: the Eastgate shopping center.

This strip mall occupies about 85,000 square feet right along the Clark Fork, about a two minute walk to the university campus and a 10 minute walk to downtown. It's essentially a gateway into downtown Missoula, coming in from I-90 through the Hellgate canyon. Instead of utilizing this amazing location, the developers opted to construct a standard strip mall facing Broadway and put an empty brick wall with dumpsters along the waterfront. What a waste? But it does give some insight into the older view of industrial rivers. They weren't exactly a community focal point.

Now imagine if the Eastgate center kept its existing retail, but also opened up another strip of shops and restaurants or cafes along the river. A small nicely landscaped walkway could be extended out from the pedestrian bridge to serve these locations, and perhaps a terrace could be built with stairs down to the river to provide public access. Instead of wasting all of this valuable land with a single-story building, two or three more stories of residential units could be put on top. They would be very desirable places to live and provide more vibrancy and safety to the riverfront life. If this were legal in a zoning sense and I had a few million to throw around, I would be all over this. The time is right for a renewed waterfront.

Parks and recreation areas are a wonderful way to use the waterfront areas, but that can't be the only goal we pursue. urban areas can also make use of the clean natural amenity with dense, mixed-use, and publicly accessible development.

Wednesday, March 26

Normalizing weird

I'm all about fostering a locally unique sense of place, but I'm not sure if stealing a slogan from Austin is the best place to start.

Monday, March 24

It's all in a name

A real estate agent by the name of Charles Perkins wrote to his wife in 1864, explaining his job of promoting new cities along the Burlington railroad line. "Towns they are on paper, meadows and timberland with here and there a house, in reality." Perkins' job was to respond to the excitement of urban progress that accompanied rapid western expansion. Developers were dreaming of the next Chicago, the perfectly situated city that would burst onto the scene and rival the glories of ancient Rome. And also make them into the next tycoon.

Perkins went on, "I shall have two or three more towns to name very soon. They should be short and easily pronounced. Frederic, I think is a good name." Many of the names were carefully chosen to evoke the sense of cosmopolitan excitement. Consider all of the settlements with "city" in the title. Kansas City, Rapid City, Sioux City, Salt lake City, and so on. Denver used to be called Denver City, and Helena was once known as Prickly Pear City. Three mining settlements in the state of Montana, Montana City, Nevada City, and Virginia City, are barely even still in existence. And then there are a few with the Greek "polis" suffix. My favorite is the town of Thermopolis, Wyoming (pop. 3172). In the competitive race to be the next Western metropolis, no amount of clever marketing could be spared.

Contemporary real estate developers still haven't lost their tenuous grip on reality, but, interestingly, the spin is spun in the other direction. Suburban subdivisions hardly tout their sophisticated urbanity anymore, but instead come with names that sound more like wildlife preserves than neighborhoods. Just consider some of the newest subdivisions in Missoula. Linda Vista sounds like what you would see looking out over a mountain ridge, not exactly the siding on your neighbor's house. And I wouldn't expect any cattle to wander through the yards of Maloney Ranch anytime soon. Sonata Park is a park at least before the development is built. Then its another subdivision. Same goes for Duncan Meadows.

A modern paraphrase of Perkins may go, "meadows and timberland they are on paper, but housing units built to maximize automobile access, in reality."

Thursday, March 20

Martin Buber on neighborliness

I came across this quote from Martin Buber, the influential Jewish thinker, in 1969:

"The unavowed secret of man is that he wants to be confirmed in his being and his existence by his fellow men and that he wishes them to make it possible for him to confirm them, and not merely in the family, in the party assembly or the public house, but also in the course of neighborly encounters, perhaps when he or the other steps outside the door of his house and the greeting by which they greet each other will be accompanied by a glance of well-wishing, a glance in which curiosity, mistrust, and routine will have been overcome by a mutual sympathy: the one gives the other to understand that he affirms his presence. This is the indispensable minimum of humanity."

Buber is known for a work published early in his career, "I & Thou," which sets the backdrop for this quote. Although it's clearly an existentialist essay, it sidesteps the presumptions of radical freedom and individual autonomy characteristic of other existentialist writings. Instead an encounter with another, fundamentally with God but also with other people, is considered as basic to human existence itself. This sort of dialog is contrasted with the "I & it" relationship that is pervasive to modernity, a relationship which is fundamentally instrumental and designed for the singular benefit of the individual.

This consistent emphasis on relationality also played itself out in Buber's politics. He once said, "Individualism understands only a part of man, collectivism understands man only as a part; neither advances to the wholeness of man." In terms of 20th century architecture, the two options of collectivism and individualism can find expression in both Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. On the one hand there is Corbusier's radiant city, with giant buildings to house people and extensive public parks surrounding them. On the other hand is Wright's Broadacre city, with a separate acre lot for single-family dwellings spread out onto the landscape. Buber advocated for a communitarian third option, for if the "I & Thou" encounter is to be at all authentic the individual and the Other can neither collapse into one nor ignore the other.

According to Buber, these encounters need not be particularly intimate, sustained, or formal. The simple neighborhood is the perfect proving ground for this essential aspect of our humanity.

Tuesday, March 18

The underground egg trade

Last week, a friend of ours set up a brief appointment with us, "meet me at the back of the church right after service." When the time came we obliged and followed her out to her car, where she produced a small bag. We promptly handed her a few bills in exchange for the bag and she drove off. What was the purpose of this shadowy exchange? Chicken eggs.

With capable apologists like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, many Americans are discovering the advantages of locally produced foods. Perhaps this is simply a reincarnation of the back-to-the-land ethos from the 60's, but in other ways it seems to be both more far-reaching and more grounded in the practical reality of the modern economy. The New York Times ran an article about how some educated urbanites have moved into the countryside in order to begin small farms. And they are actually finding viable careers. I thought this particular experience was telling,

"Ms. Wimbish grew up in Tulsa, Okla., a child of the suburbs, and it wasn’t until she moved to New York that she discovered farmers’ markets and the politics of food. She worked the last two summers at Hearty Roots and became hooked on the agrarian life. 'Moving to New York City,” she said, “was what first got me interested in food and farming.'"

Moving to New York City inspired farming?! How counterintuitive, yet it does bear a certain logic. I've blogged before about how urbanism and agrarianism can coexist in a sort of symbiotic relationship, while the blurring of those boundaries evident in the suburbs actually destroys both.

Rod Dreher has this to add about the urban role of sustaining local agriculture,

"Notice that this back to the land agrarian movement is only possible because people who live in the city are willing to buy what the small farmers produce. That's why it's important not to adopt a false duality, and this idea that if you don't drop your urban life and head for the hills, you're some sort of hypocrite. Not everybody is cut out for rural farming -- me, I'm the second coming of Jean de Florette -- but we who are living in the cities and the suburbs can and should help support these farmers by buying the fruit of their land and their labors."

Sunday, March 16

A colloborative map of bike commuting routes

Inspired by BWAMs trip reports and the Boston Bike Map, I've set up a simple Google map for anyone to log their favorite bicycle commuting routes in Missoula. Since cyclists do not always use the standard feeder patterns that cars use, this could be a helpful way to share ideas about the easiest ways to get around town. Who knows? Maybe the local government would find this sort of information helpful for transportation planning.

Here's the map.

How to add your route: (10 minutes)

1. Follow the above link to the map and click on "Sign in" on the upper right of the Google page. You may have to sign out first, if you are logged on with another Google account.

2. Enter the following:

email: missoularoutes
password: routepass

Click on "sign in"

3. Once you have signed in, click on the "edit" button on the frame to the left of the map. A set of tools should pop up in the upper left-hand corner of the map.

4. Click on the line-making tool. Select the starting point of your route and click once to begin drawing. [update: the click has to be very "quick." Holding the mouse down at all drags the map]. Click once for each turn you want the line to make, and when the route is complete double-click to end the line.

5. A dialog box will appear. Now you can name the route and write some annotations if you wish. Choose a color for the route that will distinguish yours from others on the map.

6. Once you are finished, just press on the "save" button in the left frame. That's it. You're done.

Friday, March 14

I can still smell the rubbery seats

Buses are a great way to get around, but Americans don't seem to want to ride them. Transportation analysts can scratch their heads over adding more routes, faster service, lower fares, more consistency, but at the end of the day the real hurdle to overcome is simply the uncoolness that buses exude. In the movie Pursuit of Happiness, the chapter entitled "Riding the Bus" was the point at which Will Smith had begun his descent into poverty. He had to hide his embarrassing bus ride from his Wall Street coworkers. While it may not be the case elsewhere in the world, most Americans believe that the only people who ride buses are those who are too poor to drive.

I have my own little theory about this. I suspect that Americans' deep-seated aversion to buses was ingrained in our psyches during grade school, when we would be shuttled away from home half-awake to spend our days behind a desk. Once high school arrived, the bus was the receptacle for those still caught in adolescence without a license or at least an older friend. High schoolers will suffer through any amount of inconvenience in order to avoid the school bus. A couple years ago, a judge in Indiana struck upon the brilliant idea of punishing teen traffic violators with mandatory school bus rides. One girl broke down into tears right outside the courtroom.

You'd think that adulthood would purge those insecurities out of most of us, but then again maybe it doesn't always work that way. So what do we do? One possibilities is just to scrap buses entirely and work on building an accessible light rail system, which bears none of the same baggage. That would take some dedication. But there may also be a way to thoughtfully improve the image of bus travel, much like ad campaigns have fairly successfully tarnished the image of cigarettes. A place to start would be to make public buses look as little like school buses as possible.

Here's a picture of a bus that I spotted near Copacabana, Bolivia. Who wouldn't want to ride "the cruise of the love"?

Tuesday, March 11

The bike safety dilemma

Advocates for bicycle transportation face an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, there is the temptation to overstate the dangers posed to cyclists, whether through grizzly stories of crashes or citing high-end estimates of fatality statistics, in order to raise public awareness for safety and get things like designated bike lanes put on roads. On the other hand, cycling needs to be seen as a safe enough form of alternative transportation. There are plenty of thrill-seekers out there, but the more reasonable commuters among us would rather take the car than risk our own lives each day.

Bike safety has been in the Missoula spotlight this week, as transportation engineers are considering the removal of a bike lane in the intersection between Mullan and Reserve streets. Right there on the front page of the newspaper several folks, all in support of bicycle use, were wrestling with this dilemma. Is Reserve street a scary place to ride (improve infrastructure) or is it not (encourage cyclists)?

Spinning aside, what are the facts? Is cycling really more dangerous than driving in general? After searching for an answer to this simple question, I'm growing more and more convinced that nobody has a good answer, at least not within a reasonable margin of error. The problem is not the crash statistics themselves. The national FARS database keeps meticulous records for accidental fatalities, and the NHTSA publishes a handy traffic safety fact sheet for pedalcyclists with more details. 784 cyclists were killed in 2005, compared to 4881 pedestrians. The trouble is finding a context for these numbers. Simply plugging in the population to get a per capita figure is no help at all. The per capita rate for dying in a bike crash in only slightly higher than being struck by lightening, 2.5 per million to 2.0 per million. So what? The question is whether the action of riding a bicycle is less safe than not riding a bicycle.

To get a helpful answer you need good data on either total miles traveled by bicycle or hours spent traveling by bicycle, and these estimates are all across the map. Depending on which data set you use, you could claim that cycling has either a much lower incident rate than driving or a much higher rate. I just gave up trying to sort this out.

One thing we do know is that the behavior of the cyclist makes a huge difference to safety. The best practice is to not break out the bottle of Jim Beam before riding, which I assume anyone rationally weighing the safety pros and cons is not going to do anyway. Drunken cycling accounts for a full quarter of all reported cycling crashes. Then there are the obvious precautions of using lights in the evening and night, obeying traffic laws, and (maybe) wearing a helmet. A significant number of crashes, especially when children are involved, have these issues as a primary factor. This means that our tentative cyclist can rest assured that there are ways to personally minimize the danger imposed by cycling. In Missoula, Bob Giordano's Free Cycles offers a "Bike Well" class.

Really, when all of this is taken into account cycling is probably not as dangerous as we fear it is, and there are plenty of ways to make it less so. And if you happen to be as concerned about hurting other people as you are being hurt, then it's definitely the way to go.

Thursday, March 6

Downtown Missoula on the rise

A couple of mundane financial figures speak volumes about the future of Missoula. Two pieces of land were put up for auction recently, one large 500-acre tract about 8 miles out of town and one smaller piece of real estate zoned for mixed-use near downtown. The downtown piece sold for $1.8 Million, over six times its previously assessed value. The nice big piece of potential sprawl did not even meet it's asking price of $10.4 million. It was not sold.

In the recent issue of the wonderful new magazine, Micheal Moore wrote a feature article about the resurgence downtown has seen in the last twenty years. (Curiously, I can't find the article online). Downtown has seen boarded-up storefronts gradually morph into boutique shops, an attractive waterfront, and new residential growth. This trend shows no sign of stopping. Change will be inevitable and quick.

The challenge for Missoulians will be to get out in front of these changes to ensure that they reflect our community's value system. Will all housing be high end? Will national franchises flush out the local businesses? Will pedestrians and cyclists be prioritized over accommodating more automobiles? What form will transit take? What sustainable practices will be utilized? Fortunately, attempts to address these issues are already underway, and not a moment too soon. The Portland-based planning firm Crandall & Arambula held their first public workshop last night to help us though this process.

I'll just list, in no particular order, a few intriguing suggestions that came up during this meeting, either from the presentation itself or through public comments:

- There should be a downtown "living room," a cultural epicenter of the city where public events can be held.
- Pedestrian and bicycle routes cannot be disconnected. Good circulation is essential, especially along the riverfront corridor.
- National chains can help anchor downtown retail, but if they comprise more than 10% local authenticity suffers.
- A convention center is not a silver bullet. It should be a top-tier center if it is built at all, and the planners do not believe we are there yet.
- Financing can come first through some exciting catalyst projects. $1 of public investment should yield $6 of private investment.
- There has to be a provision of affordable "workforce" housing along with market rate housing. Likewise, there needs to be plenty of retail that regular Montanans would use.
- Attention should be given to the gateways at the edges of downtown.
- Better street lighting, more residential units, and a downtown police department would enhance safety.
- There needs to be a streamlined process for cooperating with local government.
- Consider whether developments are senior-friendly, child-friendly, and attractive to young investors.
- Urban agriculture and rooftop gardens could become an asset in the near future.
- Historic buildings, each reflecting the style of its time period, need to be preserved.
- Install a street car system with fixed rails.

Lots of ideas! The next step will be to develop a hierarchy of priorities and work toward a plan that has a fighting chance of being implemented.

Tuesday, March 4

Just not heavy enough

The intersection of Broadway and Van Buren is not very friendly to cyclists, at least not in the early morning hours.

On my commute by bicycle yesterday, I waited through about three cycles of the traffic signal changes and never found my own green light. After a few minutes, the cold Hellgate winds got the best of me and I proceeded through the red light. There were no cars on the road at all, so the danger of being hit was almost nonexistent, yet I have little desire to be among those oft-mentioned reckless cyclists who are supposedly overrunning the streets of Missoula. This situation is a bit like those pedestrian walk signals that technically instruct the pedestrian to proceed to the nearest sidewalk when the red hand starts flashing, yet don't give enough time to get halfway across before the hand comes up. A stickler would never be able to cross.

Altough I could be wrong, I suspect that the light uses a dynamically-controlled sensory system. The green light is triggered by a wire on the road, which senses the large amount of conductive materials that would be in cars or trucks. The trouble is that bicycles don't count. Some cyclists have tried to trigger the systems by wearing special magnets in their shoes, although with mixed results. Local governments have also made efforts to alleviate the problem, from installing camera sensors in the lights to instructing cyclists to stand in specially marked spots. Although there may be a few more false positives, the sensitivity could just be increased or the wires could be laid in a different pattern more receptive to cyclists.

I don't want to make too much of this. My day was not ruined. Yet if Missoula wants to be a more bicycle-friendly community, these little inconsistencies should probably be addressed.

Saturday, March 1

A novice's thoughts on affordable housing

The issue of providing affordable housing is attracting attention in Missoula, where the median income has been growing much more slowly than housing costs. Beyond the obvious concerns about leaving lower-income families behind, this trend could also stunt the region's economic growth. Employers will have to pay more to attract qualified workers to defray their costs of living, and some workers and business will just say "no thanks." Since I'm a newcomer to this longstanding and contentious local issue, I have to work through some of the basic premises first.

What qualifies as "affordable housing?" It seems to me that there are two sides to this definition. The "affordable" side is straightforward: the housing must account for no more than 1/3 of a household's total expenditures. But what counts as livable "housing" is more difficult to pin down. Does it have to be a single-family home on a separate lot? Do rentals count? What is an acceptable state of disrepair? How close to the center of town must it be? It has occurred to me that a major cause of the differences in opinion over this issue could be chalked up to where the definitional standard is set.

And this is why I hesitate to jump head first into being proactive about the problem. Normally, when things start getting too expensive, the sensible reaction is to build smaller and build closer together. It looks like this is happening already in Missoula. Condos, which average at $160,000 a piece, are supplementing the single-family houses, which go for $220,000. Condo prices still seem high, but they are certainly attainable for those making the median income. And the prices may go down as the nascent market becomes more established and housing prices nationwide adjust themselves downward after the bubble burst. Another striking feature of the condo market is that developers seem to be voluntarily mixing a wide range of prices together, something that is a rarity (or even restricted) in so many housing neighborhoods. The new Dearborn condos range from $133,000 to $306,000. Density and diversity are pretty important features of livable communities.

Maybe the real problem is not so much the lack of housing in Missoula but the suburban American dream itself, what we think of as a house when we close our eyes. Domestic ideals that were forged in a time when urban living meant cholera, lack of sanitation, overcrowding, and industrial pollution have branded themselves into the national consciousness when the reality of an urban lifestyle has changed dramatically. As for that hypothetical teacher who may opt to take a job in Des Moines if he can't afford a suburban house in Missoula, he needs to be balanced with consideration for the other hypothetical teacher who passes on the bigger house in Des Moines to live in a compact and vibrant Missoula that has preserved its exceptional natural beauty from sprawl.