Monday, January 28

Exercising my Transportation Options

Planners sometimes talk about enhancing transportation options. In a society where a large majority of citizens have no choice but to commute by automobile, efforts are being made to open up other opportunities and allow commuters a wider variety of choices. Many local governments are striving for complete streets, a public realm that tries not to privilege any of the many uses we have for streets over any other. This is a tough balancing act, but it's certainly a worthy goal.

In the spirit of celebrating the many ways to get from home to work, I decided to test out a new method today. I looked out the window early this morning to find a nice layer of snow on the ground, so I pulled out some cross-country skis and set off on my mile and a half trek through the center of Missoula to work. Fortunately I was on my way before the first plows had a chance to get out, so for most of my route I had a beautiful smooth surface to glide through. The only point where I had to take my skis off was to cross under the interstate overpass. Somehow a ski through the empty city streets in the early morning managed to be both peaceful and exhilarating at the same time.

The way home in the afternoon was more of a challenge. I had to take my skis off and walk in many of the busier sections, and even though I tried to act like a bicycle most motorists understandably didn't really know what to do with me. In many places I managed to find ways to safely weave onto the boulevards between the streets and the sidewalks, and I found a nice shortcut through a university practice field down by the Clark Fork river.

Sure, the whole thing was highly impractical for my situation and a I can't imagine doing it regularly (my skis would hate me for it). But this pastor expresses well the experience when he writes about his own memory of commuting by ice skates through an Ottawa canal:

"'That which gives us poetry' is often not 'that which comes easiest.' To feel the cold air on one's face while gliding to the office implies preparations and precautions not required by a daily commute in a car. But something happens on skates, as the Ottawa commuter knew, that did not happen in a car with talk radio on and a cell phone pressed against his ear. He sensed God's creation -- snow like wool."

Sunday, January 27

Borgmann on Modernity and Cities

Here's something from University of Montana philosophy professor Albert Borgmann from Crossing the Postmodern Divide:

"Cities became truly modern through the catalyst of the automobile. Architects and city planners never favored the car, yet they found its modern logic irresistible. The passenger car, if anything allowed the individual to conquer time and space by means of a universal device. Thus the automobile became the vehicle of modernism, the force that empowered builders to reorder the untidy and irrational structures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Since classical antiquity, streets and city blocks had patterned the fabric of urban life. The street had always been a complex of functions: living space, playground, stage, worship, bazaar, transportation link. Such ill-defined complexity offended the modern intellect at the outset and eventually was overtaxed and upset by automobile traffic. This gave architects license to tear up and discard the traditional urban fabric and to replace it with freestanding high rises at the center and with endless suburbia in its surroundings. The various parts were connected by limited-access expressways.

The assault of the modern project on the urban setting displayed the ruthless zeal of a frustrated revolutionary parent. In this instance, modernism did not set out to raze ancient traditions of conquer untamed nature; it turned upon its firstborn children, the cities that had grown up as modern creatures but had failed to measure up to the standards of a rational and enlightened order."

This was written about fifteen years ago. It may no longer be fashionable to speak in such broad terms of "modernism" and "postmodernism," but Borgmann certainly offers a compelling account of what has happened (and is continuing to happen) to cities in the United States.

Saturday, January 26

Book: Strangers in a Strange Land

I picked up Strangers in a Strange Land: Humans in a Urbanizing World to get an academic sociologist's perspective on the urban condition. The book is really four books in one: part Steven Pinker-style reduction of the human experience to cognitive science, part Jared Diamond-style outline of the environmental forces acting on all of human history, part overview of modern sociological perspectives on urbanism, and then ending with an essay on the problem of socio-economic inequality.

The main point here is that humans have evolved within small groups organically connected with the natural world, and human nature has remained fixed ever since. The process of urbanization has jolted us out of our appropriate environment into large macro-social groupings, rendering us "strangers in a strange land." Put simply, we should all be hunters and gatherers, but we find ourselves in this world of cities. This incongruity is the source of a majority of our problems.

For most of the book, Massey writes as if this is the inevitable result of urbanization. Our ancient ancestors tended to be egalitarian and cooperative within small kinship groups, but the onset of a food surplus and technological advances created larger sociological systems. Within this new urban world, relationships are formed mostly on the level of hierarchies of authority or market transactions. This trend has only continued as human civilization has advanced and become more complex. The account has an almost Marxist quality in its commitment to a deterministic materialism.

Massey does not pretend to offer many solutions. Although he does argue in the final chapter quite forcefully that the only way to avoid outright class warfare caused by urbanism is to impose a strong central government to force people to redistribute wealth and deconcentrate poverty. Still this suggestion has only the feel of a provisional counterbalance, and its moral appeal is lessened by the fact that it is simply tacked on to the end of an entirely amoral account of how we arrived at where we are.

I accept his argument that humans have a hard time processing the sheer quantity of relationships that the modern world affords (although I would call into question whether this varies much from rural to suburban to urban modern societies). It's true that economic inequality, all forms of social segregation, and a focus on individual autonomy have probably been the results the changes that he describes. And these are issues that need to be addressed. Yet there is also something that feels deeply human about cities. The vibrant source of human innovation seems to fit well with our innate drive to be creative. Cities allow us to share the limited common resources of land and energy, and they offer physical expressions of our instinct to group together to solve problems. In many other ways, isolated groups wandering through the wilderness are the ones that seem like strangers in a strange land.

Somehow, we seem to have originated in a garden, and at the same time we are headed toward a city. Neither of these expressions of our character can be pinned down as the definitive expression of human nature. That's just the tension we live in.

Thursday, January 24

Missoula's public planning data

As a Google Earth junkie and an armchair planning enthusiast, I was pleased to find that the city of Missoula offers some Google Earth overlays with transportation data - various borders and traffic counting stations. A separate overlay features some of the projects on the slate for the next few years.

For example, I found that the the traffic into my neighborhood, the lower Rattlesnake, has actually declined a little since 2004, after two decades of steady increases. I wonder if that is just a statistical blip in the data or if it points to a meaningful change. I know that development in the Rattlesnake has certainly not declined.

Imagine how free software like Google Earth could revolutionize the public involvement in land use and transportation planning. All of us could play the planner with a wiki-style interface, and local governments would have substantial insight into the wishes of their constituents. This is a good start.

Friday, January 18

Book: The Good City and the Good Life

For Daniel Kemmis' The Good City and the Good Life, I'll have to digress from my usual linear overview style. While the book has straightforward themes that recur throughout, these are nestled together with numerous personal anecdotes from his experience as mayor of Missoula, classical references, urbanist theory, and journalistic accounts from other cities. The book was really a joy to read, especially as a Missoula resident looking back from a decade later.

The best single statement of purpose is hidden in the middle of a paragraph toward the end,

"The refocusing of human energy around the organic wholeness of cities or city-states promises a profound rehumanizing of the shape and condition of our lives. By attending to the health of the body politic, for example, we are reminding ourselves of the ancient wisdom that individuals cannot be fully healthy, physically and mentally, in isolation, but only as meaningful players in meaningful community."

This general intent is exemplified in a number of specific ways. Kemmis discusses the difference between considering oneself a "taxpayer" (a person exchanging a certain degree of money for a certain level public services) and a "citizen" (a member of the community). This subtle shift in self-identity can make the difference between a fractured collection of individuals intensely defending their own rights and a holistic community working together. Communities, more like bodies than like machines, take time to heal through specific overtures of civility. The actual physical space within cites, whether its the grounds for a farmer's market or a place for teenagers to safely hang out, figures into the process of healing as well.

It may be tempting to cast Kemmis as a starry-eyed idealist at this point (hold hands and sing kum-ba-ya, etc.), but a few key points he makes bring his proposals back toward the realm of possibility, in my opinion. First, he takes a position that priority of the nation-state is waning and will ultimately be replaced by more autonomous city-states, urban hubs working symbiotically with the surrounding rural area. If something like this decentralization of power does happen, it is at least conceivable that these smaller political entities could operate less on the level of abstract ideologies and more on the level of interpersonal relationships. "Politics" ought to be rooted in the polis; "civility" is truly a function of the civitas. His hope is that if cities can be organically-formed for the common good, politicians will be inclined to share their "entrepreneurship of power" with the city as a whole.

I don't think The Good City, and the Good Life is meant to be read as a technical manual for running cities. No deluge of statistics and fine-tuned policy prescriptions. More than anything it's an application of classical wisdom for contemporary cities, meant to inspire readers to become active members of the body politic.

Wednesday, January 16

Lester Brown on Livable Cities

Prominent environmentalist Lester Brown has just released Plan B 3.0, which contains a short chapter entitled "Designing Cities for People." His main point is that cities can be designed around the needs of people or cars, but not both.

"It occurred to me that the ratio of parks to parking lots may be the best single indicator of the livability of a city—an indication of whether the city is designed for people or for cars."

He spares us the long-winded diatribe over everything wrong with the world's cities and skips straight to several hopeful accounts of real change. Consistent with the rest of the book, he suggests that a restructuring of the national tax codes is ultimately necessary to match the cost of operating a car with the real cost it bears on the public realm.

"As the new century advances, the world is reconsidering the urban role of automobiles in one of the most fundamental shifts in transportation thinking in a century. The challenge is to
redesign communities, making public transportation the center-piece of urban transport and making streets pedestrian and bicycle friendly."

I'm left with one question though: how does his promotion of mass transit and bicycles square with his equally enthusiastic support for wind-powered hybrid vehicles.

"[with hybrid cars] drivers can do their commuting, grocery shopping, and other short-distance travel almost entirely with electricity, saving gasoline for the occasional long trip."

He's obviously not speaking of rural areas here, or long-haul trucking. I wonder if these threads in his plan would clash at all.

Tuesday, January 15

Would a cowboy ride a bicycle?

It's funny how certain modes of transportation find themselves mapped onto various cultural narratives we tell in the United States.

Over the weekend, Chrysler cooked up an over-the-top publicity stunt to introduce the new 2009 Dodge Ram. They hired some authentic cowboys from Oklahoma to herd 120 long-horn cattle through the streets of Detroit - all of this as an entourage for their new truck model. The message hardly lacks any subtlety: the modern pick-up truck is the natural heir of the trusty steed, a symbol of rugged individualism and the rancher's ethos. Never mind the fact that cattle don't belong in cities.

And then, on the other hand, there a bicycles. Loek Heseman, from the ministry of health in the Netherlands, recently made a trip to Vancouver and Portland to learn about bicycle promotion in America. He found that bicycles were often symbolically wrapped up in an "alternative lifestyle" package.

"Cycling in North America is clearly a leftist thing, although it ties in with conservative North American values like independence, freedom and the ability to manage for oneself."

How did we end up with these particular associations? Are they intrinsic to trucks and bicycles themselves or have we just haphazardly layered our stories on top of them. I believe that culture matters, and these stories play an important role in how we have opted to structure our cities.

Monday, January 14

A couple of interesting current projects

Country Mice & City Mice is a documentary film project currently in the works about the history of suburban development. They will be focusing on the culture of American suburbs, as well as the local political battles that are waged over land use. If the film turns out to be as insightful and informative as their blog then I'll be eager to see it.

And also ...

Philosopher James K.A. Smith and sociologist Mark Mulder, both of Calvin College, are conducting research into the extent to which evangelical Christian belief and practice contributes to an anti-urban bias in American life. I have yet to find a good study on how religious belief and geographical habits have been intertwined in the United States, but I think it's an especially important topic. From the description,

"The world is becoming increasingly urban. It becomes incumbent upon us then to reconcile these two seemingly oppositional forces: more population residing in the city and more population fearing the city. With recent scholarship we have a better understanding of evangelicals and the racialized society. What is less clear is the relationship between evangelicals and urbanized society. Such research will help to illuminate a powerful subculture of our society and how they think about and relate to the continued social dominance of urban centers."

I'm looking forward to seeing the conclusions of these.

Saturday, January 12

Place after Mobility?

The one inconvenient thing about geography is that it imposes limitations on us. Each of us only has the capability of being in one place at one time, and traveling between places requires a payment in time and energy. Because of these barriers between different places, each place has had the ability to grow in its own distinct way. Human cultures, just like natural ecosystems, need to have a little space of their own without much interference to be able to uniquely flourish and evolve. (Linguists know that mountainous areas have generated a plurality of different languages, while the plains have been far more linguistically homogeneous). The historical correlation between limitation of mobility and cultural uniqueness seems to be set in stone.

But the modern world is intent on solving the problems of limitation. Technological advances in transportation and communications have essentially been eating away at the barriers between places for centuries. The liberalism of our political order, both right and left, highly values personal autonomy and freedom. We have fought hard for our ability to make our own decisions, and this includes the decision to move to a different place and join a different community. I don't want to make light of these achievements, and I realize that I am fully a product of this world. The freedom of geographical mobility is near to the heart of our shared value system.

However, there has been a persistent uneasiness about our power to defeat the limitations of location. We complain about the McDonaldization of cultures, the lack of care for the natural environment, the aesthetic monotony of suburban sprawl, and the economic hegemony of the various Walmarts. Sure, there may be Philly cheesesteaks, Boston clam "chowda", Cincinnati chili and the like, but these foods are available anywhere. I once knew of a N.Y. bagel shop that imported New York tap water in for an authentic experience. These last vestiges of local food identities have become more of a marketing gimmick than anything else. While we fight to transcend place itself, we often lament the loss of a sense of place. Communitarian philosopher Michael Walzer has written,

"Americans apparently change their residence more often than any people in history ... The sense of place must be greatly weakened by this extensive geographical mobility, although I find it hard to say whether it is superseded by mere insensitivity or by a new sense of many places. Either way, communitarian feeling seems likely to decline in importance. Communities are more than just locations, but they are more successful when they are permanently located."

Can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we possess the freedom of movement, not to mention the near universal availability of information, without letting local color bleed at all? I doubt it, but I'm certainly open to any ideas for how this could happen.

Wednesday, January 9

The Power of Waving

Today marked the first "Waving Wednesday," in which fellow travelers along the streets and paths of Missoula engaged in the ancient art of the friendly hand gesture. Missoula's new non-profit organization Bike/Walk Alliance conjured up this idea, and I think it's great. Unfortunately, I didn't get to participate this week. I forgot about waving on my walk to church this evening, and on the way home it was pretty late and no other pedestrians were out. Oh well. There's always next week.

Sure, the more jaded among us may smirk at the saccharine thought of a whole town full of adults waving at each other. It may bring up images of the Truman Show in Seaside, FL or any television series from the 1950's. But what's wrong with that? It beats accidentally cutting someone off in your car and getting the finger and a prolonged honk (so I'm told this happens from time to time). In fact some psychology enthusiasts have even included "road rage" in the official DSM. Maybe a few extra waves will restore some balance to the world of commuting.

And it's not a regulation, stipulation, law, bylaw, ordinance, or even moral axiom. It's just a moment of friendliness that lies somewhere in that shrinking gray area between self-indulgent personal liberty and byzantine legal codes. It's also free, which is much cheaper than an overhaul of Missoula's transportation infrastructure. And it's a nice reminder that we are people who sometimes use vehicles to get from place to place, rather than vehicles who have trapped human beings inside of them until they have been deposited at their destinations.

Friday, January 4

Flirting with the $100 mark

Oil prices just tipped over the symbolic $100 a barrel mark last week, although they have eased off a little since due to concerns that a flagging U.S. economy could lessen demand. It looks like demand for oil may be a little more elastic than economists once thought. Some Americans have been showing signs of changing their consumption behavior, at least in the last few months. Given these interesting developments, it's probably worth a brief remark about how oil prices and suburban infrastructure intersect with each other.

My whole introduction into the small but vehement peak oil movement was by way of Kunstler's most recent book The Long Emergency, and I've been sporadically trying to follow some of the technical reports over at the Oil Drum blog. The basic idea is that global energy demand will continue to grow, while the necessary oil supply is finite. The peak of oil is the point at which the rate of production is maximized, and every barrel of oil from that point on costs more and more to extract from the earth's surface. The patron saint of the movement, M. King Hubbert was pretty accurate when he predicted in 1956 that the United States would reach a peak in its own production in the late 60's. Now many people are applying the Hubbert model on the global scene and coming up with a variety of predictions, from already passed to about 2030.

What this means is that oil prices will go up, if not immediately, sometime in the future. What this means for standard land development in the United States is that, barring some extraordinary technological advances, it is not sustainable economically. Sprawl is a notoriously energy intensive and inefficient system, and at least now it depends entirely on the availability of cheap oil.


"The economy of suburban sprawl has a systematic self-organizing response to the availability of inordinately cheap oil with ever-increasing entropy expressed in an ever-increasing variety of manifestations from the destruction of farmland, to the decay of cities, to widespread psychological depression, to the rash of school shooting sprees, to epidemic obesity. American's didn't question the validity of the suburban sprawl economy. They accepted it at face value as the obvious logical outcome of their hopes and dreams and defended it viciously against criticism. They steadfastly ignored its salient characteristic: that it had no future either as an economy or as a living arrangement. Each further elaboration of the suburban system made it less likely to survive any change in conditions, most particular any change in the equations of cheap oil."

A little hyperbolic? Maybe. But worth thinking about. Global warming has been an ethical challenge, and we have mostly been able to ignore it without incurring much personal sacrifice. But if the oil forecasters are at all right, our world's limitations may stop requesting and start demanding some changes.