Tuesday, September 30

Trains, for once.

Yesterday was actually a good day for AMTRAK. Buried in all of the media reports over $700 billion was a little senate vote to authorize $13 billion for Amtrak, mostly for safety measures but also to increase capacity for inter-city rail and high-speed lines.

A local group, Cvillerail.org, has been fighting for better passenger rail service through Charlottesville. They have the support of every governing body in sight. I noticed on the Uva blog today that there is talk of adding another daily line through town. In the midst of high gas prices, I'm surprised there is not more of a groundswell for changes like this. Most people I talk to think a viable rail infrastructure would be pretty cool (always referencing a Eurorail trip taken during college) but the conversation usually just stops right there.

Monday, September 29

Crisis not abated

Some passionate language from an engineer/blogger in California,

"This entire nation is dependently wealthy...dependent on cheap Asian imports, dependent on cheap Canadian and Mexican hydrocarbons, dependent on China not purging their dollar reserves, but mostly, dependent on hallucinations...hallucinations that we are somehow exempt from ecology, that we are entitled to perpetual motoring, that we can continue to pave over our prime farmland with strip-malls and exurban housing developments, that sprawl is our economy."

Some might say hallucination and others might say confidence, but surely this most valuable resource of ours has been drained even further today, now that congress has not approved the Paulson/Bush bailout plan. While the crisis has worked its way up the ladder over the last year into the largest credit market firms, it's worth remembering that it still is, at its heart, a housing crisis. The real brick and mortar problem is that there is simply far too much house, in both quantity and sheer size, out there and far too little real money to pay for it. It's also worth noting that the many of these "bad mortgages" we were supposed to buy are on the very fringes of developable land. That imaginary money was conjured up to finance paving our cities further and further away from their traditional centers.

Meanwhile ...

U.S. automakers have also been on their knees this week for federal assistance, and congress did authorize $25 billion to be wired to bank accounts in Detroit. Nobody expects this paltry amount to last for very long. I suppose folks need some way to get all the way out to those houses that nobody can pay for. The good news is that now that we are entering a recession, and demand for driving has slowed a little, we can feel some momentary relief from the steadily rising tide of oil prices.

Friday, September 26

The literal Main Street

Ever notice that many of the terms we use in our national discourse are, in a literal sense, related to urban form? This is interesting to me. “Wall Street” means the entirety of global finance (or at least the U.S. share if that can be teased apart). Yet Wall Street, of course, is also a physical location in lower Manhattan. “Main Street” is shorthand for the national economy as experienced by average citizens. The job market, inflation rate, exchange of goods and service all occur here. Then again, Main Street is also an idealization of specific historic downtowns throughout the country.

Yet these terms don’t fit reality very well. The flow of money really happens in the netherworld of the Internet and emerges physically wherever any shareholder or fund manager happens to be. Even many of the investment bankers who work at a Wall Street address actually take up residence in Connecticut, Long Island, or maybe Westchester County. Similarly, only a tiny fraction of the national economy happens on anything resembling a Main Street. Perhaps Walmart or the Toyota dealership out by the freeway interchange would be a more apt association.

Any pundit or blogger with a passing knowledge of finance is now weighing in on how to manage a “Wall Street” catastrophe, while shoring up levees to protect “Main Street.” I’m still stuck on the words themselves. Somehow we’ve retained these idealizations of both the big city and the small town in our language, even if these forms have, in reality, been exchanged for sprawling metropolitan areas or rural big box store shopping destinations. Maybe as these discussions occur in the “public square,” it’s worth remember that they are actually occurring in the privacy of our homes or offices in suburbia. Not too many soapboxes out there.

Maybe what this anachronistic language tells us is that we have a deep-seated desire for genuine places – even if we have to use a little imagination.

Flickr photo credit.

Wednesday, September 24

An Urban Tyson's Corner

The Washington Post reports that Fairfax County has approved a plan to urbanize Tyson's Corner.

Tyson's Corner was featured in Joel Garreau's 1991 book Edge Cities, Life on the New Frontier as the archetype of an edge city. These gleaming office towers scattered along a freeway interchange were deemed to be the "information age 21st-century nodes where the majority of Americans now live, work, play, pray, socialize, grow up and grow old."

But now it actually is the 21st-century and the original edge city is due for an extreme makeover. Is it too much to say that this is a transition of epochal significance? I guess we'll have to see how the transit lines, tree-lined boulevards, and art festivals actually play out.

Photo credit: Coalition for Smarter Growth

Residential Speedways

This is a residential street in my neighborhood that I travel along during my morning run. When I arrived here this morning, I actually took out a tape measure and measured the width of the street at 38' across! If I were in a car, I don't know if I could resist the urge to slam on the gas and fly down this straight and gently sloped mass of pavement. I bet you could even get some air when you hit the hill.

I should mention that there is both a park and a middle school on the other side of this hill.

Instead of writing my own snide remark, I thought I would just punt to James Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere.

"Highway engineers have developed a standard perfect modern suburban street. It is at least 36 feet wide - the same as a county highway - with generous turning radii. This makes it easy to drive well in excess of thirty miles an hour, a speed at which fatal accidents begin to happen. A perfect modern suburban street has no trees planted along the edge that might pose a hazard to the motorist incapable of keeping his Buick with in the thirty-six-foot-wide street. The street does not terminate at any fixed objective that would be pleasant to look at or offer a visual sense of destination - no statues, fountains, or groves of trees. Such decorative focal points might invite automotive catastrophe, not to mention the inconvenience of driving around them. With no trees arching over the excessively wide streets, and no focal points to direct the eye, and cars whizzing by at potentially lethal speeds, the modern suburban street is a bleak, inhospitable, and hazardous environment for the pedestrian."

Tuesday, September 23

Minimum parking for bars

Dave from the blog Urban Milwaukee digs up this interesting zoning ordinance from Franklin, Wisconsin.

Minimum Required Parking Spaces per 1,000 Square Feet of Floor Area
Other Required Standard(s)
for Off-Street Parking Spaces

Bar or Tavern
Or 1 space per 2 seats or stools, plus 1 space
per employee, whichever is greater

What's the subtext of this law?

It's that you're expected to drive to and from the bar - as simple as that. If any of the patrons choose to walk, bus, or even organize a designated driving pool, this parking lot will remain underutilized. I suppose lemonade must be the drink of choice in the Milwaukee area (although, to be fair, I wouldn't doubt this language pops up in other municipalities around the country).

What happens when zoning encourages and accommodates drinking and driving while federal law prohibits it? Maybe there ought to be more coordination between governing bodies to reconcile this one. It could be confusing for the public.

Thursday, September 18

Free range kids

ok, so I subscribe to Reader's Digest. Really it started showing up in the mail each month mysteriously, and it still keeps coming. I usually just read through the anecdotes about stupid blunders and cute sayings, but in the most recent issue I came across an interesting article (not online). Apparently, a mom whipped up a controversy all across the national media simply by allowing her 9-year old son to find his own way home through the New York subway system. In fact, the mom, Lenore Skenazy, has catalyzed this decision into movement with the clever title, Free Range Kids. (Coincidentally, this exact phrase came up in a lecture I attended that morning by Dr. Timothy Beatley)

"The fact is, children are 40 times more likely to die in a car accident [than be kidnapped], and that doesn't stop us from driving them to karate. Car accidents, after all, are just that - accidents. But we blame parents, the same way we used to blame rape victims, for "letting" anything happen to their children."

I don't have much to say to the parenting side of this, nor can I really gauge how much the media is stoking the flames of irrational fears, but it I can pontificate on how the structure of the places we live in plays a big part in how independant children can be. James Howard Kunstler, in Home from Nowhere, tells the story of his move from suburbia to New York city when he was the same age Skenazy's son is,

"I was very much at liberty in the great city. A child could move about in relative saftey most anywhere in town, even Times Square. Bus and subway fare ran to 15 cents in those days, and, in fact, was free to schoolchildren, who were issued monthly transit passes. It was not necessary, and hardly desirable, to be accompanied by a parent to any of the places I frequented.

My old chums back in suburbia, whom I visited now and again, began to show sure signs of social retardation as we slouched toward puberty. A trip to the Coke machine at the nearest gas station was high adventure for them."

A dense urban environment, with a transportation system navigable without a driver's license, can open up a range of possibilites for children to explore their own environment. The same could be said for a smaller town, with just an exchange of making trails in the woods for walking through the art museam. I grew up on the outskirts of a college town. There was a creek by our house in which all of the neighborhood kids could play, make rope swings, claim territory, or whatever we dreamed of. At the same time, I could walk to Main Street every Saturday morning to explore the shops, spend my allowance on whatever I wanted, and just feel a part of the community. Geez, I'm not even 30 and I'm reminiscing about the "good old days."

Tuesday, September 16

Painting Charlottesville

I just stumbled upon the blog of a talented local artist, John Trippel, who has painted many cityscapes of downtown Charlottesville and the Belmont neighborhood. He's also featured biking and transit in a few of his works. An artist who can capture the life and color a city is a wonderful thing for any community to have.

In a recent blog entry, he tells of his adventures combining a bicycle and bus commute into one. That's something I have yet to try here. It's encouraging to read his account of how the city public transportation system has changed for the better in the last several decades.

Sunday, September 14

Conservatives and Urbanism

When I first wandered onto the political landscape of urban planning, it didn't take long to figure out that the teams had already been lined up neatly along the left-right spectrum. Conservatives were supposed to champion the suburbs, and liberals were the cosmopolitan urbanites (or hippie farmers). The Right wants tacky cul-de-sacs to raise a family, and the left wants to cram everyone into soviet block housing so wildlife can roam the countryside. This immediately struck me as nonsensical, at least from an ideological point of view, probably more the accidental result of current American demographics than any preconceived outworking of values or beliefs. This is one of those issues that ought to transcend these fault lines, or maybe just side-step it. There are plenty of (conservative) reasons for conservatives to ensure that cities stay cities and country stays country.

That's why it was pleasant to read Dana Goldstein's the Conservative Case for Urbanism, even if she did sneak in some unecessary digs against Republicans.

"Policies in favor of dense development shouldn't be viewed on a left-right spectrum and certainly needn't be filtered through culture-war rhetoric, the panelists said. In fact, one doesn't have to be concerned about climate change at all in order to support such policies; values of fiscal conservatism and localism, both key to Republican ideology, can be better realized through population-dense development than through sprawl."

I'd add that it's not only the fiscal conservatives who may want to embrace urbanism, but social/traditionalist conservatives have a lot in common as well. Many have noted that all civilizations throughout history have abided by certain patterns of urban growth, only to be completely trashed, in the name of modern efficiency, by the growth patterns within the last 50 years. This simple fact should be enough to make any Burkean raise his eyebrows.

I understand differences in how to get there, but I don't understand why there is not more consensus on where we ought to go.

Saturday, September 6

Public participation actually works

Public participation has been the official goal of the planning profession for a few decades now. Planners have realized that no level of data analysis abilities or technical design expertise can create, by simple fiat, cities that people actually want to live in. Citizens have to build their own cities, and planners are there to organize and lend a hand in this effort. This role of a "community organizer" is no less important than that of a master architect, but it can feel a bit tedious as all of the messy, overlapping interests and identities of a place seem to be a tangled knot. Sometimes you can hear slight (off the record) murmurs, "why can't they just listen to us experts? This is a matter of design, not politics." But that would take us back to square one.

This is why it's good to hear, from time to time, that all of the messy efforts of democracy are worth the time. I just discovered the insightful blog of a fellow planning student living one state north of me, Rob Goodspeed. He links to a new study by the National Academy of Sciences which purports to show that the level of public participation leads to better environmental decisions. Better both in terms of the quality of the actual polices and the ability to move the policies into implementation. (I don't want to buy the report, so I can't vouch the evidence itself.) This is refreshing to hear.

Goodspeed mentions a couple of other studies related more specifically to planning and concludes,

"I think the lesson from the National Academies panel must be driven home to the urban development community. Since we are so intimate with participation, we lose perspective on its broader importance and role. Given the legal requirements for transparency and professional approaches to participation, the key is to look beyond an obsession with the intellectually vague “NIMBYism” and design processes that foster consensus and prevent Morriss Fiorina’s “Extreme Voices” from having a monopoly. In particular, I think it means designing processes that are less time-intensive and allow involvement on a wider scale of commitment levels."

Here, here.

Wednesday, September 3

A look at pedestrian safety

This week, the Charlottesville city council spent some time discussing techniques to help pedestrians feel more comfortable crossing. Charlottesville Tomorrow has the audio recording of the meeting.

Here are the ten proposals that were approved by the council:

1. “No matter what we do from a physical standpoint, without education we are wasting our time and money” A public relations campaign educating pedestrians about safe crossing and drivers’ awareness.

2. Enforcement from the police department.

3. Work toward American Disability Association (ADA) compliance. Install more understandable crosswalks to help the disabled community.

4. Use Zebra-striped crosswalks. More visible than brick, if not as aesthetically pleasing. (Councilmen Huja thought bricks might actually be more visible. I kind of agree, as least subjectively)

5. All signals at every location should be uniform push-button. Now different styles are used for different places, and it can be confusing.

6. Hand-man signal at every location. No longer walk-don’t walk. (picture from Am New York)

7. Countdowns on all intersections.

8. Eventually, install audible crossing signals everywhere, but start at a few locations (downtown, university hospital, across main street).

9. Install LED flashing crosswalks at six locations (matched with six more from the university).

Tuesday, September 2

Front yard gardening

I just listened to an interview with an architect/gardener Fritz Haeg, and this man has a pretty inspiring vision. Like many other folks, he has grown very dissatisfied with the cultural phenomenon known as the front yard and everything it stands for - wasted space, a monoculture of Kentucky bluegrass all over the country, pure ornament with no function, and a lack of transition between the public street and private house. Yet instead of griping about things (like I do, for instance), he has embarked on a campaign, from Salinas, Kansas to Baltimore, Maryland, to reclaim these private spaces for use as productive gardens.

As an artist, his main focus is to help shift the notion of a beautiful yard. Front yards are visible to the entire streetscape, and their landscaping as long been a way for homeowners to make a personal expression about their values. Although private property, there is a sense in which the front yard functions publicly as well, which comes to mind as soon as you consider how angry people can get when their neighbors never get around to mowing. If the front yard can become a useful space, and one that reinforces the connection we all have with the land and food, it can help enliven and educate an entire neighborhood.

While I'm on the subject, it's worth bringing up a wonderful project happening in Charlottesville down the road from us. The Quality Community Council of Charlottesville planted an "urban farm" adjacent to the Friendship Court apartments on Monticello. It provides a service on a number of levels by providing nutritious food to low-income families, setting up a local organic food source, creating a beautiful shared space, giving a common purpose to the community, and providing some physical activity for kids. I wouldn't be surprised if we see more of these popping up around the country.