Monday, June 30

In praise of garage sales

We just held our own yard sale this weekend, and it set me off thinking about how this part of our culture fits into the concept of zoning. I've always loved garage sales, but I've only recently developed a vocabulary to explain why. I just assumed it was the cheap stuff, but I think there is more to it than that.

A garage sale is really the only occasion in which any commerce is allowed to intrude into a residentially zoned area, if only for a short amount of time. Neighborhoods that are designed to keep outsiders out suddenly become places where outsiders are welcomed and even guided into by signs. I love to explore new parts of town, classified ads in hand. Because of this, they develop social vibrancy in places that are not accustomed to it. These places essentially become mixed-use, and this makes them take on a strangely subversive quality, which is why many municipal governments in the U.S. impose loads of garage sale regulations. Some even require onerous fees in an attempt to stamp out any grassroots attempt at having community. Missoula, as far as I can tell, is wonderfully permissive.

On top of this, elements of households (porches, patios, front yards) that were traditionally intended to be semi-private buffers between private and public space actually function as they are supposed to. Privatization run amok in recent decades has pretty much eliminated the practice of dropping in on friends and neighbors, but this is the one time when that's acceptable. We actually met two sets of neighbors for the first time through our sale. It's only too bad it didn't happen sooner.

Garage sales are also good for the environment (reuse instead of throwing away) and offer a helpful service to people who cannot afford new items for their households. Most other places around the world don't have garage sales, only because informal resale markets flourish already in central locations throughout the city. The quiet little yard sale on a weekend morning is the only time we in the West have allowed that ubiquitous staple of civilization to poke its head out.

Saturday, June 21

A last day at the markets

Today was a beautiful day to wander through the two farmers' markets and one artisans' market in downtown Missoula.

The farmers' market has to be one of the oldest urban establishments. As soon as there was enough surplus agriculture to allow some people to devote time to other pursuits, there had to be a way to trade for food in a location accessible to the whole community. For the last few decades we in the West have engaged in a concerted effort to destroy this ancient practice, in favor of the super-efficient and standardized supermarket, which plugs nicely into the industrial food sector of our global economy. Fortunately, since around 1970, a growing number of cities have made efforts to conserve the farmers' market and the more intimate food system it is based upon.

I just finished reading Bill McKibben's Deep Economy, his plea for a more satisfying and durable localized economy. From the book,

"Every new farmers' market is a small step in this direction. It requires new connections between people who came together to found it, the farmers who come in from the country to meet their suburban and urban customers, the customers who emerge from the supermarket trance to meet their neighbors. The market begins to build a different reality, one that uses less oil and is therefor less vulnerable to the end of cheap energy. But, more importantly, the new reality responds to all the parts of who we are, including the parts that crave connection. One-tenth the energy; ten times the conversations - that's an equation worth contemplating."

Friday, June 20

Reserve street claims another cyclist

The Missoulian reports that a cyclist was killed heading northbound on Reserve St. in the middle of the afternoon on a bright sunny day yesterday. Apparently, a large truck tried to merge onto the Broadway ramp along a portion of the street where the bike lane essentially no longer functions as a bike lane. This is the fourth fatality (that I can think of) in the last couple of years. That's four too many for a town this size. The others were eventually attributed to drunken driving or low visibility in the evening, but this one still seems to be a mystery.

Just yesterday evening, I watched as a white pickup truck made a hasty left-hand turn from Higgins onto 4th St. right in front of a man on a bicycle who was going straight through the green light. He had a kid in a trailer attached behind him. The cyclist, who had the right-of-way, abruptly slowed down to let the truck pass, and he seemed pretty astonished at how reckless the motorist had been. Whether this was simple inattentiveness or a really bad decision, it reveals a problem.

It may be difficult to assign blame in this most recent fatality, but the fact remains that cyclists will always be the most vulnerable road users. They should be given the benefit of the doubt in any of the hundreds of little decisions we make on the roads every day.

Wednesday, June 18

Obama mentions transit!

The place that I'm moving into in Charlottesville will be only a five minute walk from an Amtrak station. Since both my parents and my parents-in-law live in towns with Amtrak stations, I became pretty excited at the thought of using the train to visit them. We wouldn't even need our car at all. Or so I thought.

My excitement dampened considerably when I discovered the hassle involved. Even though there is a direct line between Charlottesville, Virginia, and Newark, Delaware, I would have to switch trains in Washington, DC. The trip would only be available once a day. It would take a total of 8.5 hours (not counting waiting times or getting to the stations), and it would cost a whopping $160 round trip, per person. And this is all on the Eastern corridor, where trains really should work. With costs this high, there's no amount of rail enthusiasm that would keep me away from the simple four hour car ride.

High gas prices are squeezing our transportation system from both ends. Airlines are struggling to stay alive, and cars are becoming less and less viable as well. Instead of seeking out more efficient alternatives, politicians are busy shaking their fists at either Exxon or ANWR ... fruitlessly. But Barrack Obama seems to be, timidly at first, speaking out about another way to move ourselves around.

Last month, in a private lunch with a couple from Indiana, he reportedly said,

"We are going to be having a lot of conversations this summer about gas prices. And it is a perfect time to start talk about why we don't have better rail service."

ok. But let's actually start the talk. In an economic policy speech on Monday (in Flint, Michigan, of all places), Obama did give this little blurb while touting his plan for a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank,

"We can invest in rail, so that cities like Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis are connected by high-speed trains, and folks have alternatives to air travel."

This little morsel of goodness is enough to excite some transit advocates, but paving more highways figured more heavily yet in this very speech. And I can't help but notice the "can" qualifier, which was surely carefully chosen to maximize non-commitment.

A similar wave of excitement passed through last week when Barack Obama met privately with a Bicycle advocacy group and pledged to increase funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs.

Is Barack Obama the candidate that will lead the way through the oil-intensive infrastructure we are currently stuck with? I think the verdict is out. But perhaps he is testing the waters with these careful comments. If you're listening, please continue the conversation! I'd love to be able to ride the train to visit my parents.

Wednesday, June 11

Small developments around Missoula

It's usually the megaprojects and large subdivisions that get all the attention, but the healthiest way for a city to grow is in small piecemeal increments. This allows old buildings to mix together with new ones, and it enables individual builders to put their own unique stamp on the projects. Many of us have been conditioned to fear and resist that proverbial "developer," but development, if its done well, can be a really good thing for the whole city.

Today, once the snowstorm subsided, I took some pictures of three new buildings around town that I think are pretty cool.

This historic building on Spruce Street, which was patterned after an A.J. Gibson design in 1920, is now being completely restored. It had been subdivided for the last several years into apartments. After these renovations, the new plan calls for two retail locations on the bottom floor and two residential units above. Going back to the original mixed-use intentions?

Cafe Dolce's new location on the residential section of Brooks street is a beautiful addition to Missoula. Once it opens in July, I'm sure it will quickly become the social hub of the slant-street neighborhood. The parking is unobtrusively tucked in the back, giving all of the prominent visual space to the outdoor patio and the classical Italian facade. This is a building that was clearly meant for human beings.

This building, dubbed "The Corner," gives shape to the prominent intersection between Brooks and Higgins on the edge of Missoula's downtown. It's location gives this building the potential to become a landmark overlooking the "hip strip" section of Higgins. The required parking is all underground, which is really cool. It is supposed to be a mix of retail and office space, and will purportedly also include an outdoor patio section. At 3-4 stories, this building is the perfect height for this section of town.

Developments like these show Missoula's potential to grow into quite a livable city.

Tuesday, June 10

On with the Missoula smart growth debate

After a month or so of hemming and hawing around the smart growth issue, Jeff Patterson of the Bonner-Milltown land use committee has laid his cards on the table with an editorial entitled "Smart growth" policies devastate communities. You see, cities like Portland and Boulder are not merely uncomfortable to live in, they are simply uninhabitable wastelands utterly devastated by smart growth. Alright, we can look past the hyperbole and get to the substance of his point. A solid critique of smart growth could only help Missoulians decide whether it would work for us or not.

All of his information comes from a 2006 paper written by Randal O'Toole for the American Dream Coalition, a group which, according to their website, promotes "single-family houses with yards" and "automobiles." I suppose that's what they mean by the American dream. Randal O'Toole, who calls himself the anti-planner, has staked his career on the perpetuation of automobile-centered land use patterns. The groups affiliated with this paper would all consider themselves libertarians, but they apparently have a very specific lifestyle in mind that they think Americans ought to be free to pursue.

Here's a factoid cited by Patterson,

"smart growth penalties raise the cost of a $150,000 home to $281,000"

Without any context provided, who knows what this means? We have to look at O'Toole's report. The $150,000 is referring to a particular four-bedroom home that was recently sold in Houston. Where in Houston? Who knows. Does it come with a two hour commute? The $281,000 figure is not in the report at all, but O'Toole does claim that a similar home in Portland would cost twice as much as the one in Houston. At $300,000, maybe that's what Patterson is getting at. But Houston and Portland are apples and oranges. A similar house in sprawling Orange County, CA would be off the charts, but there are so many factors other than smart growth policies to consider. These raw numbers are misleading, at best.

The effects of growth management on housing affordability have been extensively researched, but the results are very complex and not blog-size material. See this well-balanced Brookings Institute report on the topic for more. But it's worth adding that Bonner-Milltown already has land-use restrictions that mandate low densities. Smart growth policies would hardly be imposing regulation on a libertarian's paradise, but merely exchanging one vision of growth for another. And we have to ask ourselves whether
paying marginally more for land may be worth the price of not turning Missoula into the Houston of Montana. Have you ever been to Houston?

A couple of other quibbles with the editorial.

This same MPI study rates Portland, Ore., at the top of the list for unaffordable living due to smart growth penalties and similar planning."

No it doesn't. And Portland is nowhere near the most expensive city in the United States. According to 2005 government data, Portland had an average housing price of $225, 900, about the same as Minneapolis. Not bad for the West Coast, with cities like San Fransisco hitting $726,700. Geez, some perspective, please.


This trend started in California, moved to Oregon and is now on its way to Montana."

There's nothing like the specter of the California menace to get us riled up. But it didn't start in California. The earliest cities to adopt growth management policies were Boulder, CO, and Lexington, KY, and smart growth has been employed by hundreds of locales evenly distributed across America. Smart growth was not thought up by Hollywood celebrities relaxing in their Beverly Hills' estates, I assure you. In fact, the easiest way for Missoula to look more like Los Angeles would be to do nothing about the population influx of Californians looking for their very own chunk of the "last best place."

Finally, the kicker:

We must ask ourselves, with the price of fuel how will those who have been pushed out of town because of unaffordable housing survive the commute to work?"

Huh? The whole point of smart growth is to allow compact development so we won't have to use our cars as much. If someone really wants to live far out in the countryside and also enjoy the economic benefits of an urban area, yes, there probably will be some costs involved. But if smart growth is done well, there will be a nice house available in town when you want it, and there will be land available in countryside to ranch if you'd rather have that.

Monday, June 9

When crime is pushed to the suburbs

The shift in violent crime from inner-cities to the suburbs has been one of those slow transitions the media rarely picks up on. However, over the weekend I read an story by Hanna Rosin on the subject in this month's Atlantic (not online yet).

Richard Janikowski, a crime researcher for the city of Memphis, created a map of their violent crime data.

"The inner city, where crime used to be concentrated, was now clean. But everywhere else looked much worse: arrests had skyrocketed along two corridors north and west of the central city and along one in the southeast. Hot spots had proliferated since the 1990s, and little islands of crime had sprung up where none had existed before, dotting the map all around the city."

Rosin points to changes in urban housing policy to explain this phenomenon. For a good portion of the last century urban poverty was concentrated in public housing projects relegated to the the inner-city, but for the last few decades the Section 8 anti-poverty program has been providing vouchers for low-income residents to choose privately-owned rentals. While this dispersal has allowed the more self-motivated recipients to enter into a middle-class lifestyle, others have merely brought the same problems into smaller pockets scattered around the city.

Nobody is mourning the loss of those concrete government projects, but the suburban living arrangements add a host of new problems. The inner-cities at least allowed close proximity to many social services, as well as most things a family would need for daily living. On the periphery of the city access can be limited. The more dense living arrangements also provided a sense of community and fostered an informal economy, however dehumanizing the space was architecturally. Things are also harder on the police now,

"Routine policing is more difficult in the semi-suburbs. Dealers sell out of fenced-in backyards, not on exposed street corners. They have cars to escape in, and a landscape to blend into. Shrubbery is a constant headache for the police; they've taken to asking bushes be cut down so suspects can't duck behind them."

Where I take issue with Rosin is in her overall indictment of the section 8 program as a cause for all of this. Sure, it may not be the magical solution some of its biggest fans have claimed it to be, but I'm not buying that it is "destabilizing cities" around the country. The concentration of poverty and social dysfunction in the center of cities has been a peculiarity of Post WW-2 America, and it appears as if we are becoming more like the rest of the world in the demography of our cities. This leaves us with the massive challenge of building community for those who need it most in a landscape designed around the dissolution of community.

Interestingly, that challenge may apply from the other side as well. The New York Times today reported on the difficulties rural residents are facing with high gas prices. Metropolitan areas may have to find places for an influx of rural residents as well.

Friday, June 6

More on oil prices ...

Yikes. Crude oil shot up another $11 a barrel today.

On a local conservative blog the other day, I was labeled an "enviro-commie" for my suggestion that we need to learn how to "live within or means" by transitioning away from reliance on oil. I was pushing for a moderate form of the peak oil theory, as reported in the Wall Street Journal. I don't have a crystal ball. Nobody knows exactly when oil will reach the global peak of its production. I was merely leaning on the conservative side by assuming it could happen sooner rather than later, so that we could better prepare ourselves.

No luck.

I'm not surprised that people disagree over these technical geological questions, but I am surprised that the lines always somehow fall on those tired old liberal/conservative categories. To argue that the conservative position is to rush headlong toward a wall with increasing speed, merely because we don't exactly know where that wall is, seems completely absurd to me. And counter to everything I've ever understood conservatism to stand for. It left me wondering whether years of battling the environmentalists on all fronts have left some folks jumpy and armed with a cadre of pre-packed rejoinders should anyone bring up the prospect of living sustainably.

Anyway, it was nice to read Charles Krauthammer weigh in on oil prices this morning. He's even "pumped" that gas is $4 a gallon. At least some Conservatives are getting it:

"Want to wean us off oil? Be open and honest. The British are paying $8 a gallon for petrol. Goldman Sachs is predicting we will be paying $6 by next year. Why have the extra $2 (above the current $4) go abroad? Have it go to the U.S. Treasury as a gasoline tax and be recycled back into lower payroll taxes.

Announce a schedule of gas tax hikes of 50 cents every six months for the next two years. And put a tax floor under $4 gasoline, so that as high gas prices transform the U.S. auto fleet, change driving habits and thus hugely reduce U.S. demand - and bring down world crude oil prices - the American consumer and the American economy reap all of the benefit."

Oh, but won't the market just sort this stuff out?

Thursday, June 5

The automobile and freedom

In America since the 1950's, the car has joined the bald eagle as one of our primary emblems of freedom. That open road through the desert has been imprinted into our imagination through scores of books, songs, and movies. Libertarians such as Frank Lloyd Wright hailed the advent of the automobile as a way to reorient the city around individual liberty. The automobile's ability to confer freedom has even worked its way into our cultural experience of the life-cycle. Turning 16 and receiving a license is the entry point into the adult world (certainly more so than gaining the ability to vote at 18), and the point at which the children take away the car keys from their elderly parents signifies the end of their independence. These are some powerful associations.

However, with several decades of hindsight, it's worth taking stock of the whole situation. Have automobiles really enhanced our freedom?

Loss of Freedom

Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher of modernity, has written about the dominance of "instrumental reason" in the modern world. This is the tendency to ground most of our decisions in a cost-benefit calculation which requires all aspects of life to be reduced to quantifiable units.

From the Malaise of Modernity:

"The society structured around instrumental reason can be seen as imposing a great loss of freedom, on both individuals and the group - because it is not just our social decisions which are shaped by these forces. An individual lifestyle is hard to sustain against the grain. For instance, the whole design of some modern cities makes it hard to function without a car, particularly where public transport has been eroded in favour of the private automobile."

The problem is that, while the automobile did initially expand an individual's range of mobility, the essential infrastructure of society also expanded accordingly, leaving the individual back where he started, only now completely dependent upon the enabling piece of technology. In other words, the various activities that we organize our lives around (eating, sleeping, working, shopping, worshiping, schooling, socializing) have become that much more removed from each other now that it can be expected that we will possess an automobile to traverse the distance.

The results would be simply neutral, except that cars are expensive in a number of ways. As Christopher Alexander points out, their biggest expense is the space they take up. They are also expensive in terms of carbon output and use of finite natural resources. These costs are mostly incurred socially, but the IRS has calculated that the average individual cost of driving amounts to 50.5 cents per mile. Every dollar that goes toward our private modes of transportation is a dollar that we are not at liberty to spend on something else. Every acre of asphalt is an acre that we are not free to use for something else.

But the larger issue that Taylor is getting at is really the exclusion of individuals from civic engagement. Virtually everywhere in America, it is difficult for those who either choose to or are forced to live without an automobile to become full participants in society. This is evident in the American life-cycle narrative. Why is being able to drive celebrated by teenagers? Why is the loss of that ability mourned by the elderly? It's evident that those on the margins of the life-cycle are quite severely restrained in the choices available to them. As is true for those who simply can't afford an automobile or are prevented from driving by a disability.

Furthermore, the freedom granted by automobiles is not cumulative. Each new person who achieves this freedom takes some of it away from somebody else. Remember that it is the open road that seizes our instinct for liberty. As more people are added into the equation, the open road quickly becomes a traffic jam and we feel confined and powerless. As we are approaching the hard limits of land and of energy, as well as enjoying the continuing enfranchisement of more and more people, it's clear that whatever freedom the automobile may have granted to those who are able to own one has a very dim prospect into the future.

Tuesday, June 3

The automobile and disintegration

The technology we use impacts how we see the world, just as our philosophical outlook guides the development of human technology. This basic insight, found in modern thinkers from Marx to McLuhan, has been expressed well by Neil Postman in his book Technopoly,

Technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, and every technology - from an IQ test to an automobile to a television set to a computer - is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore require scrutiny, criticism, and control.”

But Postman is no Luddite. This is not a call to reject all technology out of hand but rather to evaluate whether the various messages conveyed fit well with the overall moral direction one is moving toward. It is a matter of using the tools we create, rather than being used by them. I plan on writing a few posts will contain some personal reflections on how I see the automobile, in particular, impact the way I view the world and live my life.


The modern West has long been characterized by disintegration of the various spheres of life, perhaps finding its origins back in the late medieval period when William of Ockham replaced Aristotelian metaphysics with strict nominalism. By the time of Immanuel Kant, who could still be considered the quintessential architect of modernity, this line of thinking had reached its culmination. Kant famously stood at the intersection of the various strains of modern thought and essentially drove a wedge between them, dividing facts from values, science from art, faith from reason, public from private. Although, at the time, this division was taking place mostly just in theory, on paper, and in discussions it would soon play itself out in the wider culture in some tangible ways.

Development in technology, as well as political and economic institutions, facilitated the ideological fragmentation evident in modernity. The incredible advances in the ability to transport ourselves ensured that the division especially between a private home and a public vocation would become physically manifest, with the birth of the commute as a measure of this distance. Early forms of transportation only allowed individuals a two-dimensional, linear division. Streetcars and rail lines had fixed origins and destinations, and easy access was limited to the particular line. Only a binary opposition could be spatially accounted for with public transportation.

However, with the invention and wide-spread adoption of the automobile, this linear movement in space was expanded into a three-dimensional range. A completely privatized and flexible mode of transportation allowed our society to further fragment into countless different pieces, from personal to social to professional to commercial to educational to political to spiritual. Some philosophers have carried on the impulse of fragmentation to radical new levels, even claiming an "incommensurability," or an utter inability to transmit meaning, between these different spheres and communities. Spatially, some metropolitan areas have been dubbed "edge cities" with no centers from which the parts can be integrated as a whole. Finally, many of us feel as if these divisions sometimes even cut to the heart of who we are as persons.

As a Christian, I've been to church and heard a number of sermons about how my relationship with God ought to effect every area of my life. The pastor wisely points to the temptation I have to compartmentalize the religious portion of my life into a church experience at a particular time and place, while letting my work life and home life on the other six and a half days of the week be untouched by the faith I profess to hold. An uncomfortable light is shone on the duplicity that lies in my own heart and mind, and I become resolved to change the way I live.

Then we all walk out of church and get into our cars. Does not the drive home preach a completely opposite message? That was one discrete place, and now you will insulate yourself from the world until you arrive at another discrete place, your home. The place of the church, with all of its associated memories and imputed meanings, will not be a part of your experience until next week. The perception of the world in between is strictly instrumental. There is that divided life being spatially realized as my tires roll down the street.

Walking home from church tells a different story. Every place I travel through does not feel discrete, but rather physically connected in a seamless way. I can look around and perceive my surroundings. I walk over the Clark Fork river into downtown, passing the coffee shops and bars where I spend time with friends. I'll pass the courthouse where I turned in my vote last week and the various shops where I exercise my important role as a consumer. Finally, I'll arrive at home. Home is certainly a different place than church, but it just doesn't seem quite as far away.