Sunday, December 30

The Broadway Hotel

Last night we stayed at the Broadway hotel on the main strip of Phillipsburg, Montana. The town of Phillipsburg, once the hub of a successful mining operation, has dwindled to only a fraction of its former size. Some of the residents have even taken on the slogan, "greatest living ghost town." Yet in the last few years, the town has capitalized on both its history and scenic location to transition into a tourist enclave. When the old Broadway hotel, which had not been functioning as a hotel for about a hundred years, was restored, the town took another step in the direction of revitalization.

The Broadway sits right in the center of town. Kenneth Jackson has pointed out that this was the norm for its time,

"In the middle of the nineteenth century, every city, every county seat, every aspiring mining town, every wide place in the road with aspirations to larger size, had to have a hotel. Whether these structures were grand palaces in the order of Tremont House in Boston of New York's Fifth Avenue Hotel, or whether they were jerry-built shacks, they were typically located in the center of the business district, at the focal point of community activities. To a considerable extent, the hotel was the place for informal social interaction and business, and the very heart and soul of the city."

Yet all of that changed in the 20th century. First, camping locations began to pop up along the highways in order to attract passing motorists before they entered the town. Eventually these were replaced by motels, lodging that was specifically designed around the needs of the automobile. And the motel market was increasingly dominated by major chains that could ensure a standardized reliability, which also effectively dampened the uniqueness of the local context. By the latter decades of the century, the transition was in full swing. According to Jackson, "by 1960 there were 60,000 motels, a figure that doubled again by 1972. By that time an old hotel was closing in America every thirty hours." This reality rings true especially to anyone who lives in a Western town.

While the places to stay in a city were shifting from the center to the periphery, they were simultaneously shifting from places that fostered social interaction to private and anonymous way-stations. This is even evident from the original floor plan of the Broadway, which was kept intact during the renovation. The rooms are all clustered around a central gathering place, with an inviting stove and plenty of tables and chairs. An open kitchen also sits in a central location and is used by employees and guests alike. The new Broadway, of course, has private bathrooms in each room, but I doubt that was always the case. The entire experience encourages at least a "hi" to the strangers staying with you.

What does the location of a hotel say about how a city treats its strangers? Are they welcomed into the "very heart and soul of the city," able to walk throughout the downtown to many of its attractions? Or are they pushed to the edges?

Friday, December 28

How would you like your downtown?

The Missoulian reported today that the Missoula Downtown Association, along with some private support, will be launching a 9-month planning process to envision the future of downtown. A national organization will be chosen in January to run the process, which will include plenty of opportunity for public input. And this master plan should have some bearing on the current city-wide zoning rewrite.

Missoula's downtown has remained vibrant, but I know that it has not always been on such solid economic footing. Somehow it has been able to weather the storms throughout the years, while many downtowns of comparable size have been toppled by them. It could only have been an intentional effort by a large number of concerned citizens - hardly just the natural flow of the market. It's worth spending a few more dollars than you would at Walmart to help Missoula preserve it's unique quality.

And now apparently there will be a way to be even more involved in shaping its character. That's a good thing.

Friday, December 21

Bigger and Bigger Houses

Anti-sprawl folks like to bring up all of the governmental policies that have underwritten the suburban experience in the United States: single-use zoning, the federal interstate act, the G.I. bill, real estate tax structure, and so on. Then there are also the market forces that push in this direction: mass production of development, cheap oil, risk-adverse financing. But at some point we have to come to grips with another simple fact: we Americans have chosen it.

Even in an age when the limits of the earth are becoming obvious, the average size of houses in the United States has still grown remarkably. We not only like our houses big, but we like them spread out onto large parcels of land. In a nutshell, this is the American dream. Obviously, we do this because we believe it will improve our life and the lives of our families in some way. But is this true?

The Canadian magazine the Walrus explores this question in an excellent article entitled, "We want more square footage! Why following the urge to buy big might not make you happy." The writer starts with the premise that the urge to "keep up with the Joneses" could be hard-wired into us from a time when basic survival depended on the constant search for more. Using your neighbors' success as a barometer was a handy way to get yourself motivated. Now, at least in affluent societies, it has become somewhat of an evolutionary appendage, no longer functioning to our benefit. Next, the article runs through a number of studies that analyze the personal consequences of our big houses, all concluding that they do not make us any happier. Honestly, I take any study that purports to scientifically measure "happiness" with a grain of salt, but the underlying principles seem to be right on target. When it comes to where to live, we are a "species programed to make the wrong decisions."

Medieval theologian Bernard of Clairvaux beat them to the punch by about a thousand years.

"Do we not see people every day, endowed with vast estates, who keep on joining field to field, dreaming of wider boundaries for their lands? Those who dwell in palaces are ever adding house to house, continually building up and tearing down, remodeling and changing. Men in high places are driven by insatiable ambition to clutch at still greater prizes. And nowhere is there any final satisfaction, because nothing there can be defined as absolutely the best or highest. But it is natural that nothing should content a man’s desires but the very best, as he reckons it. Is it not, then, mad folly always to be craving for things which can never quiet our longings, much less satisfy them?"

Thursday, December 20

Considering county-wide zoning in Missoula

Jhwygrl, over at 4 & 20 Blackbirds, has recently been suggesting that Missoula ought to implement zoning at the county level. I think this is a good ball that she has started rolling, so I thought I would add a couple of points to help underscore how necessary this is to prevent sprawl. (I'm assuming this is a fairly universal goal around here).

First, perhaps the best place for us to look for how policy impacts sprawl is Boulder. As is often pointed out, Missoula and Boulder share so much in common, both being university towns in the West with plenty of natural amenities and high levels of growth. Although, of course, the proximity of Denver makes the analogy incomplete, It's still worth a look.

Here's a relevant paragraph from Growth Management In Boulder, Colorado: A Case Study (2001)

"The City coordination of planning efforts with the County is the glue that holds all of the planning efforts together. The City and County have maintained relations that lead to cooperative planning efforts from the early days of the Boulder Regional Planning Commission in the early 1950's to today. City and County cooperation in working toward common goals has prevented leap-frog development patterns in the Boulder Valley and other problems that occur when governments compete with each other. Thus, the environmental coalitions that spearheaded the 1959, 1965, 1967, 1971, and 1976 elections have essentially guided Boulder City and County land use planning since then, with occasional scrapes along the way. The result has been the preservation of two-thirds of the Boulder Valley."

In fact, some have argued that planning at the Boulder county level may not have even been wide enough. It has been difficult to prevent bedroom communities from developing right outside of the greenbelt, which essential bypass the purpose of the urban growth boundary. Doing something about this problem requires a State-wide initiative.

Sure, that would be nice. But how is it politically possible? Here's a little suggestion lifted from the book Sprawl Costs,

"Exercises to carry out the regional exercises of power that are needed to stop most outward growth have succeeded mainly when associated with some type of environmental crisis. In Florida, the crisis was encroachment of urban development on the Everglades. In Oregon, it was similar encroachment on the open farmlands of the Willamette River Valley. In Kentucky, it was the widely shared desire to preserve the traditional horse-ranch country around Lexington. In Washington State, it was the desire to preserve open spaces between Puget Sound and the Cascade mountains. Supporters of of similar preservation policies in other regions have also claimed that environmental crises are imminent in order to rally political backing for the legislative changes necessary for their strategy."

That last line sounds a little cynical, as if the crises are manufactured, but sometimes the truth speaks for itself. The trouble is that the pains of unchecked growth are often not realized until it has already happened.

Monday, December 17

Thoreau: America's First Suburbanite

"It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization." - Henry David Thoreau, from the first chapter of Walden pond.

Thoreau made history in 1845 when he borrowed an ax from Bronson Alcott and began developing a small section of Ralph Waldo Emerson's land on Walden pond. This was his experiment in Transcendentalism, etching out a "life in the woods" on the fringes of Concord's society. But the mythology of this experience, recorded later in On Walden Pond, is what really made history. The ideals of self-sufficiency, solitude, and love of nature that Thoreau recorded here have been imprinted firmly onto the American consciousness.

Thoreau's view of Nature underscored this entire project. Unlike his Puritan predecessors, who considered the wild to be a chaotic and dangerous place, Thoreau was deeply steeped in a romantic vision of the natural world. It was a place of peacefulness and purity, where humans could go to revive their primitive vitality. Above all, Nature was the backdrop for self-reflection, a retreat away from the restless mobs living lives of quiet desperation. Thoreau penned some of the most eloquent descriptions in American literature of the beauty of the natural world. The woods were not just a place to observe as a visitor, but the place in which humans could truly live.

Yet, It's well known that Thoreau's actual experience at Walden pond did not exactly measure up to his idealization of it. Thoreau was no hypocrite. He admits as much. During his two years there, he would often make the mile and a half trek back into Concord on the weekends. Emerson's nearby house was a frequent stop for food and conversation, and the young philosopher would famously bring his laundry into town to be done. The train passed right by his cabin, and Thoreau could even hear church bells ringing on a Sunday morning. Walden pond was the iconic suburban haven, if only a little ahead of its time. It really offered the best of both worlds.

At that time only the rich or strongly determined could have their own Waldens, but within the next few decades technological advances opened up the opportunity for a wider range of people. By the 1850's suburbs were being planned and marketed specifically for their communion with Nature. During his last days at Walden, Thoreau worried that the track he had made from the cabin down to the pond was becoming excessively worn with use. He had noticed that others were using the trail. He may have been more right than he realized.

But there is a more charitable way to interpret Thoreau's legacy. Perhaps this suburban pioneer was like early missionaries sent from the West to indigenous cultures. While they may have helped precipitate the flow of colonialism, they also were instrumental in protecting the natives from its deadlier impacts. If Thoreau just stepped out in advance of the inevitable economic shift to suburban development, then his calls to live a simple life could have offered a prophetic check against some of the excesses often associated with life in the suburbs. Maybe smothering Nature with love is at least better than paving it over out of convenience. Who knows?

Wednesday, December 12

All about the Roundabouts

This is Missoula's Beckwith-Higgins-Hill intersection, which is the site of the first proposed roundabout for the center of town. Missoula residents have been batting around the idea of roundabouts for a while now. Public opinion seems to be tilting in the direction of acceptance, but the city council is still awaiting final approval for this particular project.

What's not to like about the modern roundabout? Bob Giordano, of the Missoula Institute of Sustainable Transportation, has done a lot of work to present the evidence for roundabouts and clarify the conditions and designs that make them work. Done well, they enhance the safety of all road users, minimize congestion, cost less to maintain, etc. And all of these benefits are easily measurable statistically, since roundabouts have already been installed in several different types of intersections around the world. Some European cities have even implemented "naked streets" - removing all traffic signals and road signs. Hardly an experimental procedure at this point.

In light of the last post on this blog, it should be added that roundabouts can be aesthetically interesting elements of a city. At least more so than some lights hanging on a wire, in my opinion. As long as nothing obstructs vision, neighborhood groups could put their imagination to work.

I've found most of the lingering suspicion over roundabouts here to be more visceral than anything else. I've heard one person call them "hippie traffic science." (You know, the old sex-drugs-and -enhancing-traffic-flow thing). How these got caught up in Vietnam-era cultural divides is beyond me. Another person just doesn't like following the Europeans in anything.

There have been some more substantive concerns as well. Public services worry about access for emergency vehicles. Some blind activists see roundabouts as more dangerous than traffic signals, because the blind can hear the break in traffic for a red light. Also, a study of roundabouts in New Zealand between 1996 and 2000 indicated that they can actually decrease cyclist safety. This data has led some bicycle advocacy groups in Europe to oppose all roundabouts. However, in the last few years, traffic engineers have developed some ways around this problem. All of these issues have been researched and plenty of solutions are available to allay many of the major concerns.

Monday, December 10

Wolterstorff's "City of Delight"

American philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff made a case back in 1983 for taking seriously the aesthetics of cities. In his Kuyper lectures, he noted how a steadfast commitment to economic growth and technological progress has undermined the beauty of cities.

One problem he noticed was the car,

"When one is traveling in a car in any case it is almost impossible to get enjoyment out of the public environment of the city. Thus our commitment to the car as our principle means of transportation reinforces our tendency to think of the city not as an integrated public environment for our life together, but as a collection of individual buildings. We race at great speed from one destination to another, paying no attention - indeed, finding it impossible to pay any attention - to what lies along our way, insisting only that the traffic move swiftly and that our various destinations be more or less pleasant oases in the bleak urban desert."

He also points a finger at the tendency for contemporary intellectuals to consider beauty a quality for museums and theaters only.

"There is, indeed, no current theory of the aesthetic that leads to the conclusion that the aesthetic dimension of reality is confined to art, and yet the assumption is commonly made that what lies behind art is always the aesthetic intention, and conversely, that the aesthetic does not go beyond art. The aesthetic is thus bound up tightly with art; and the critics' concern with the aesthetic in art never leads them on to where the aesthetic touches almost all of us almost all of the time - in the city."

As a Christian, Wolterstorff laid out a case for what he called a "world-formative Christianity," a faith that moves beyond internal contemplation and toward a social vision of justice. The organizing concept he uses is shalom, the Jewish word for "peace" - but much more. It encompasses a right and harmonious relationship between humans and the divine, humans and each other, and humans and the natural world. It assumes a fairness of treatment for all people, and beyond that a genuine joy shared in mutual life.

"There is yet one more dimension of the relation of the city to shalom that resonates in our consciousness: the image of the biblical writers for our ultimate destiny is that of life in a city - not, be it noted, in a garden."

Wednesday, December 5

Book: City Life

Witold Rybczynski's City Life: Urban Expecations in the New World tells the story of urban planning in American history. His primary focus is on the design aspects of cities, particularly the evolution of different architectural approaches. The style is casual and personal (and enjoyable), intended more as an introduction for a broader audience than an academic thesis.


Paris is known as a beautiful city, carefully designed by planning authorities for 400 years. Why are not North American cities more like Paris? Instead, our cities seem to be cobbled together by disparate forces with no coordinated aesthetic. Fashions change quickly, new technologies replace the old, and our restlessness ensures that "there is something fleeting about the American city." This is the question of this book.

There's no good quantifiable definition of a city, and there are many ways to categorize them. Kevin Lynch considered his conceptual urban models in terms of space: the cosmic, the practical, and the organic. Fernand Braudel, on the other hand, mapped the evolution of cities through time: the open town, the closed town, and the subjugated town. Both models can be combined to give a fuller picture.

Native American cultures created a variety of different city types, always careful to incorporate elements of the natural world into designs. The Spanish colonists planted gridded cities, according to a standardized Laws of the Indies code, while the French built walled cities reminiscent of the medieval era. British colonial towns, with a few notable exceptions, grew organically in an informal pattern. They quickly became the most successful and populous. Williamsburg was a prototypical American town - much greenery, housing set-backs, prominent public buildings - while Philadelphia was a prototypical large city. Abundant land assured a constant desire for growth and change, as well as individual self-sufficiency and domestic ideals.

Alexis de Toqueville gave an outsider's assessment of 19th century American cities. He was highly impressed with New England small towns and the democratic spirit they fostered, but he was less impressed with frontier boomtowns, which seemed to be thrown together to meet the needs of quickly expanding industry. He considered L'Enfant's plan for Washington D.C. overly ambitious. It did take many years for the city to grow into it's infrastructure. New York struck him as unrefined. Impressive looking mansions were actually made with artificial materials. Overall, the American city, while more socially open to different classes than European cities, was "a setting for individual pursuits rather than communal activities."

Chicago, and in particular the Columbian Exposition of 1893, exemplified the great urban boom in America. Ultimately, the commercial city won out over the governmental city. An urbane culture began to spread without an explicitly urban shell, blurring the cultural lines between rural and urban that existed in Europe. The skyscraper, made possible by the elevator, was the revered form of architecture, representing technological progress and commerce. This created a downtown commercial core in cities. Frederick Law Olmsted managed to incorporate large parks into many cities before their level of growth made it too difficult. The harnessing of electricity accelerated these changes in the modern city.

The City Beautiful movement began to inspire Americans to look at the aesthetic organization of their cities critically. Formal public buildings, civic centers, universities, and grand railroad stations were built in a classical architectural style. Many of these architects were interested in social justice issues as well as design. These "horizontal" ideals sometime clashed with the "vertical" commercial ideals of utilitarian skyscrapers. Unlike Europe, height limits were never successfully imposed. The next generation of planners adopted function over form and dismissed the City Beautiful movement as an exercise in vanity and wastefulness.

New York became a model for the commercial city around the world, and it's lessons were often emulated. Le Corbusier, already armed with his own ideological vision, considered Manhattan a step in the right direction toward his radiant city. He proposed radical plans to build the cities of the future from the ground up, but they never really came to fruition. After WWII, the government began several urban renewal projects, as a continuation of the Great Society. Most of these are now considered failures. Public housing created massive single-use zones in cities for the poor and quickly deteriorated. By the end of the 60's American cities were badly injured.

Most people who could afford to moved out of the city. Decentralization had a long history in urban planning theory, and many of the first suburbs were planned "garden cities" in the tradition of Ebenezer Howard. The goal was to capture the charm of an organic small town. Many were gated communities regulated by a homeowners association, but others were built for blue-collar workers. Raymond Unwin emerged as the leading voice of this architectural movement. Jane Jacobs was unfair to consider these architects anti-city. The much maligned unplanned subdivisions didn't really arise until after WWII.

Outdoor, traditional downtowns across the country have largely been replaced by malls. While some may see this as artificial, it must be remembered that it is the people that make up a community.

Americans have long idealized small town life, while also desiring the range of options and prosperity that city life offers. The contemporary American city is really a complex metropolitan area, made up of numerous nuclei and connections between them. Inner-cities have collapsed, and Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of a "Broadacre City" has mostly been realized. Some architects in the "New Urbanist" movement are seeking a counterbalance to the scattered city and trying to build for community. Really, we need "both dispersal and concentration in cities - places to get away from each other, and places to gather - and it's time to stop assuming that one necessarily precludes the other."

Cities may be designed by architects, but they are sustained by a community. While form may be transformed radically through time, the "urban expectations" remain the same.

Tuesday, December 4

When Gentrification is Cut Short

Here is an interesting new (to me) element to toss into the debates over gentrification. New York Magazine looks at Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood, which began a process of revitalization only a few years ago. To use the journalists' analogy: what happens when the wildfire stops?

"What if gentrification isn’t self-sustaining after all? What if, in fact, it’s exactly the opposite: a self-extinguishing phenomenon? What if it’s less a flood than a forest fire—wild, yes, out of control, absolutely, but destined to consume itself by burning through the fuel it needs to survive?"

The article reminded me of Thomas Friedman's classic explanation of globalization in the Lexus and the Olive Tree. He imagined "electronic herds" with no real leader and no long-term vision, shifting money from investment to investment across the globe. The herd has no compassion, shows no favoritism, and is only interested in maximizing efficiency and output. It is morally neutral, pouring huge rewards into some sectors and completely draining others as it passes through. And it moves quickly.

Does this match the "forest fire" of gentrification (and de-gentrification)?

Jane Jacob's warned against "cataclysmic money," either incoming or outgoing, because it inevitably disrupts the fabric of community life. Human beings, who, after all, are the ones who live in these houses and eat at these restaurants, may need a little more time to grow.