Friday, May 30

What's my region's footprint?

There is a proliferation of websites set up to help individual households calculate their carbon footprints, but there hasn't been much consistent data collected to help metropolitan areas assess their own carbon emissions. The Brookings Institute has released a report to do just that: rank metro areas by their carbon output. As a Washington think-tank, the Brookings people have their eyes on federal policy, but this information could also be useful to regional leaders who want some idea of how they are doing. Maybe it could even spark some healthy competition.

Some of the factors are simply out of human control. Cities located in climates that require heavy cooling or heating have a distinct disadvantage, and some cities, particularly in the West, are better suited for cleaner energy sources, such as hydroelectric power, than others in the East that rely on coal. But there are clear ways that cities can better themselves.

Wait for it ...

"Density, concentration of development, and rail transit all tend to be higher in metro areas with small per capita footprints. Much of what appears as regional variation may be attributed to these spatial factors.

Dense metro areas such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco stand out for having the smallest transportation and residential footprints. Alternatively, low-density metro areas such as Nashville and Oklahoma City predominate in the 10 largest per capita metro emitters."

Another thought from the paper worth pursing is that federal transportation policy ought to be characterized by "modal neutrality." Far too often local efforts to promote transit-oriented development are hampered by federal policies that are aimed in the opposite direction. Ryan Advent reports that the federal budget allocated to rails in 2007 was a mere $1.3 billion, compared to the $31 billion allocated to highway spending. On top of this, regulations are often more rigid and burdensome for transit than they are for highways. This can have a profound impact on land use decisions, which are, at least in theory, supposed to be under the purview of the local community. A one-size-fits all policy doesn't fit cities very well.

Wednesday, May 28

Book: The Image of the City

Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, published in 1960, is well-established as a classic text of urban design and planning. The primary insight developed in this small book is that the structure of a city exists not only in physical reality but also in the minds of its inhabitants. This thesis of “imageability” launched another angle from which city planning could be researched and organized around. True to his era, Lynch emphasized such traits as efficiency and tended toward abstract principles, but I think there are still valuable lessons that can be gleaned from his approach.


Each individual holds a unique image of his or her city, a visual representation that guides through daily life and maps out meaning. Researching a sample of these images can help planners discern a “public image” of their city. This can be evaluated in terms of identity, what makes this particular image unique among cities, structure, how the image is spatially formed, and meaning, what values are attached to the image. Planners should resist being concerned with meaning, because it varies too much in a pluralistic society. They should focus on structure and identity, and work toward enhancing the imageability of the city, thus helping citizens orient themselves within it.

Residents of Boston, Jersey City, and Los Angeles were extensively interviewed about the images they carried of their own cities. Boston scored high on identity, but confused residents with its structure. Jersey City lacked both a distinctive identity and clear structure. Los Angeles was built according to a rational structure, but lacked the kind of localized identity necessary to navigate through it. The cities varied widely in how the image was situated in the passage of time, with Boston allowing for far more historical context than the others.

People can mentally adapt to any situation, but there are design strategies that can make urban orientation easier. For the purposes of study, the interconnected design elements can be broken down into five categories: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks.

Paths are the transportation routes of the city and are the most common points from which the city is experienced. They can be made distinct and memorable through variation in design and natural setting. To avoid confusion, there ought to be an obvious hierarchy of streets, indicating which carry a higher volume. Each street need not be absolutely straight, but it ought to travel in one general direction and have a directional gradient to communicate where on the line the traveler is. Paths should have well-defined origins and destinations as well as landmarks along the way.

Edges provide a spatially distinct constitution to elements of the city. The more visually obvious they are, like a waterfront or park side, the better. Edges can be strong, but planners must ensure they are are still penetrable enough to allow connections across them.

Districts are relatively large areas that have enough identity to be named. Each district should be set apart from others through thematic, visual clues. Districts often become defined in terms of class or special use as well. Some districts are introverted, with sharp boundaries and an exclusive association, while others are extroverted, tied more closely to the whole pattern of the city.

Nodes are precise locations that require extra attention from the observer, usually junctions along a network of paths or transit stations. They should be limited to a reasonable amount and made distinct through edges and landmarks. A landmark is anything that stands out that can help an observer orient himself. It could be lavish and visually appealing, or it could simply be a foreground that contrasts sharply with the background.

There are ten important design qualities that apply to each element:
1. Singularity. Sharp contrasts can be used to draw attention.
2. Simplicity. Forms should be easily conceivable geometric shapes.
3. Continuity. Individual elements must be understandable as a whole.
4. Dominance. Some elements stand out from the others.
5. Clarity of Joint. Emphasize strategic intersections and boundaries.
6. Directional differentiation. Asymmetry can help the observer detect direction.
7. Visual Scope. Points at which the larger picture can be taken in.
8. Motion Awareness. Make the traveler visually aware of one’s speed.
9. Time Series. Designing “melodies” in a series that is experienced over time.
10. Names and meanings. Non-physical attributes that enhance design features.

There is a temptation for the designer to miss the whole by focusing too heavily on these parts. It’s also important to resist defining the perceptual environment so clearly that individual perspectives are not able to shape and define it in their own unique ways. The city form should induce the citizen to explore and create as well as find the most efficient route from place to place. Citizens can learn how to perceive their city as a dynamic work of art.

The final objective of such a plan is not the physical shape itself but the quality of an image in the mind.”

Monday, May 26

Adjusting to high gas prices

A great post on Planetizen last week riffed off of the stages of grieving to explain our response to rising gas prices.

1. Disbelief (this is only a bubble!)
2. Anger (how can they do this to us?)
3. Stupidity (no more gas taxes!)
4. Blame (Big oil/environmentalists are at fault!)
5. Greed (give us oil at any cost! Or else.)
6. Acceptance (this is the new reality)

Plenty of folks are still plodding around in the earlier stages of adjustment, but the heartening news is that many Americans have begun to work toward real solutions.

From the New York Times:

"Americans have started trading their gas guzzlers for smaller cars, making fewer trips to the mall and, wherever possible, riding public transportation to work.

For years, it was not clear whether rising prices would ever cause Americans to use less gas. But a combination of record prices, the slowing economy and a tight credit market has beaten consumers down.

Gasoline demand has fallen sharply since the beginning of the year and is headed for the first annual drop in 17 years, according to government estimates

Every indicator that people are seeking alternatives to the automobile is up, from bicycle sales to public transportation usage. This is good, but the trouble is that there is only a certain amount of wiggle room available for short-term changes in behavior. You can cancel that weekend trip, combine grocery shopping with picking the kids up from school, and maybe even switch to a different mode of transportation for the daily commute. However, more drastic changes are hard because the problem is more structural than it is personal. We have built our cities around the automobile for the last fifty years, and real estate doesn't exactly have the agility to respond quickly to market fluctuations. Houses move very slowly.

This is what Paul Krugman was pointing to in his column, Stranded in Suburbia:

"Any serious reduction in American driving will require more than this — it will mean changing how and where many of us live.

To see what I’m talking about, consider where I am at the moment [in Berlin]: in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood consisting mainly of four- or five-story apartment buildings, with easy access to public transit and plenty of local shopping.

It’s the kind of neighborhood in which people don’t have to drive a lot, but it’s also a kind of neighborhood that barely exists in America, even in big metropolitan areas. Greater Atlanta has roughly the same population as Greater Berlin — but Berlin is a city of trains, buses and bikes, while Atlanta is a city of cars, cars and cars.

And in the face of rising oil prices, which have left many Americans stranded in suburbia — utterly dependent on their cars, yet having a hard time affording gas — it’s starting to look as if Berlin had the better idea.

If this isn't a clear call for healthy urbanism, I don't know what is.

Saturday, May 24

Some perspective on density

Everyone is a little uneasy when they hear the word density. The word immediately conjures up images of modernist high-rise complexes or dilapidated tenement housing packed together into a single city block. We hear the noisy traffic, fear the high crime, and see the constant gray of cement and asphalt. Confronted with these connotations, Americans understandably become protective of the space we have grown to enjoy and expect.

But a look at the actual densities of different metropolitan areas around the world can give some perspective to our anxieties.
This graph shows the number of people per hectare for several cities around the world. I used data from planner and economist Alain Bertaub (a larger graph here). Asian cities are blue, first, Mumbai, then Shanghai. European cities are orange: Moscow, Paris, and London. South American cities are yellow: Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Finally, the North American cities are New York, Portland, and Atlanta.

Paris, for example, has strict height limits on its buildings yet still manages to fit over ten times as many people into the same area than does Atlanta. This information helps us see that we are a long way off from becoming that urban dystopia in our imagination. A little more density will not ruin our quality of life.

Thursday, May 22

A T4 analysis of the Lower Rattlesnake

In the last post, I divided the Rattlesnake valley into transects from T1 through T5. Now, continuing the speculations, I'd like to look more closely at my own neighborhood, the Lower Rattlesnake, which seems to fit into the T4 "General Urban Zone." Transect theory is not only a descriptive taxonomy, but there are also various prescriptive measures, sometimes known as form-based codes, that go along with each transect. I'm looking at the SmartCode 9.2, from the architecture firm DPZ, and comparing some of their recommendations for T4 with the existing Lower Rattlesnake neighborhood.

Base Density: SmartCode recommends a base density of 4 residential units per acre, or up to 12 units per acre though a Transfer of Development Rights agreement. A map of Missoula densities from the Office of Planning and Grants shows that the Lower Rattlesnake currently has 6.8 DUAC. Although based on the 2000 census, this probably hasn't changed much. So, we can breath a sigh of relief. Those crazy urbanists don't actually demand that we stack on top of ourselves like sardines. Everything's fine.

Road Structure: The Lower Rattlesnake has a classic gridiron road pattern, which controls traffic flow well in T4. The block perimeters are only about 1300 ft., well within the 2400 ft. maximum prescribed by SmartCode. The streets are wide enough to allow on-street parking on both sides, but restricted enough to keep the speeds down to an appropriate level. This neighborhood is fortunate to still have rear alleys for utility access, which is actually a strong requirement in the SmartCode. Sidewalk coverage is pretty good, but spotty in some areas. Setbacks seem appropriate, but I'm not about to get out the tape measure.

Function and Use: The SmartCode allows limited uses other than mixed residential in T4: small inns or B&Bs, limited offices on first floors, as well as retail and restaurants. There should also be small civic spaces, designated as "greens" or "squares" of between a half acre and 8 acres. The general principle is that daily living, from schools to essential shopping, should be able to happen within a 5 minute walking radius. The housing should also represent a diversity of types and income-levels.

How does the Lower Rattlensnake compare? While most residential units are single-family houses, there are a few accessory dwellings in outbuildings. There is also one apartment complex along the Rattlesnake creek on the periphery of the neighborhood. Missing are row houses and live-work arrangements, such as stores with housing on the second-floor. It would be nice to see more variety of residential options in the neighborhood.

For lodging, there is one B&B on Poplar street, which is a wonderful addition to the neighborhood. More of these could be encouraged. As far as civic space goes, there are two greens at the corners of Van Buren and the Interstate that serve the neighborhood well. They are in a central location that is too noisy to be suitable for residential use. Greenough park, while not technically in the neighborhood, abuts the west side along the Rattlesnake creek. There is one school in the Prescott building, howeer it no longer functions as a public school, but rather as a private one. While this does not detract from the neighborhood at all, it also does not provide the intended good of a walkable destination for local children.

The greatest deficit is in retail and office space, of which the Lower Rattlesnake has none and allows none. What if the busier Van Buren street were opened up to limited commercial and mixed-use development, at least for the few blocks closest to downtown? The traffic on this street limits its residential desirability and increased the commercial potential. It also runs along a perfectly centralized corridor, making no part of the neighborhood more than 3 blocks away. If commercial parking were put in the back of the lot, it could take the form of a classic street car suburb. It may also enhance the appeal of the Mountain Line buses running along Van Buren. Maybe there is no market for this, but it couldn't hurt to at least zone for it and see what happens.

Tuesday, May 20

A Rattlesnake Transect

The notion of a transect was proposed a few years ago by New Urbanist founder Andres Duany as a way to categorize and form the variety of human settlement patterns, from dense urban cores to wilderness areas. The idea is essentially borrowed from ecology, where lines of transects have been used to describe the gradual changes in animal and plant life, and applied to the gradient of dense to sparse human environments.

It occurred to me that my area of the Rattlesnake valley in north Missoula offers a fairly linear and condensed journey from T5 (urban center) to T1 (Nature). A trip along Van Buren/Rattlesnake drive is very satisfying because of the measured flow from one transect to another while still maintaining distinct borders between them.

View Larger Map

This is yesterday's journey in pictures from T1 to T5.

T1: Rattlesnake Wilderness

T2: Rural Rattlesnake

T3: Upper Rattlesnake Neighborhood

T4: Lower Rattlesnake Neighborhood

T5: Downtown

Sunday, May 18

Newspapers make citizens

The editorial board for the Missoulian has done a great job of encouraging public involvement in local planning. Just in the last week, they have run two prominent editorials alerting readers to planning events and ways in which we can help decide the future shape of the city. On Wednesday they announced the second Missoula downtown planning meeting, and this morning they gently chastised the Bonner Milltown Community Council for its obstructionist behavior and encouraged the residents of Bonner to be prepared for the changes on the horizon.

I jabber on about these issues pretty regularly, but it's great to see a respected and widely-read source from the community do the same. Of course, I'm far more biased and willing to share my biases about good urban design, yet everyone can agree that the process should involve as much of the public as possible.

Saturday, May 17

A lifeline hidden in the farm bill

Ok, so the farm bill is chock-full of earmarks. Let's admit it. The very members of congress who valiantly stormed into Washington to "rid it of special interests" all have their hands in the goody bag. The House and Senate are now both thoroughly behind it, and Bush's veto will be nothing but a speed bump. Until this morning, I would have had nothing good to say about the farm bill - lavish subsidies forked over to large agribusiness lobbyists, which make it even harder to be the family farmer from the actual photo ops used to sell the bill.

But this may have changed when I heard of one goody in particular added by Montana's senator Max Baucus: a chance to buy up $250 million worth of Plum Creek land to prevent real estate development.

Max doesn’t want to see these prime hunting and fishing lands turned into golf courses, condos and strip malls,” said Baucus spokesman Barrett Kaiser. “Private timberland is being gobbled up for development, and this provision gives states the tools they need for land conservation.”

I've previously blogged about the dilemma Montanans face when it comes to curtailing sprawl. Many communities have little power in deciding how their cities grow, because so much of the land is owned by a single landowner. Missoula county, for example, cannot impose any zoning regulation without the full consent of Plum Creek, who doesn't have much of an incentive to cut off their real estate options. We're stuck in a frustrating situation.

So, leaving aside the fact that this legislation is buried in a "farm" bill, it's hard to pass up on this valuable tool to conserve some of the most threatened open space and help our cities to stay compact and vibrant. Understandably, critics from out of state are pointing to the money trail between Plum Creek and senator Baucus. David Freddoso writes in National Review Online,

"However green it may seem, this provision is little more than a massive corporate subsidy for a single company."

fair enough. But isn't the reverse just as true?

"However much like a massive subsidy for a single company it may seem, this provision is green."

In other words, it's both. It doesn't just seem green, it is an important conservation tool. And it leaves us in a funny spot between taking the ideological high ground of denouncing these sneaky methods and pragmatically availing ourselves of whatever lifeline is thrown to us in a desperate situation.

I think I'd take the lifeline.

Wednesday, May 14

Gas price insanity!

In case you haven't noticed, gas prices are up. 44% of Americans say this is their number one economic concern, well ahead of finding a good job or paying for health care. The message is loud and clear: we want our cheap gas back!

Responding to the demands of the American public, politicians everywhere are scrambling to do something about it. But what can they do? Congress is now engaged in a heated debate over whether U.S. strategic oil reserves should be scaled back, as if freeing up this .01% of oil savings will even make a dent in the price. President Bush is about to embark on another mission to Saudi Arabia to plead with King Abdullah to amp up oil production. The Saudi patriarch said "no" back in January, but maybe if we communicate that we really, really, really, really want it he'll relent. How embarrassing? And now some senators want to threaten to cut off arms deals, in order to put some pressure on the Saudis.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York:

"We are saying that we need real relief, and we need it quickly. You need our arms, but we need you to cooperate and not strangle American consumers."

But now Iran might cut oil production. Just to watch us squirm.

Of course, we cannot forget that two out of three of our presidential candidates have actually proposed a temporary elimination of the federal gas tax. Only a year after the Minneapolis bridge collapse, and we already want to drain highway infrastructure of its funding in search of quick relief.

And in the midst of this, most hard-headed economists are actually telling us that gas prices are too low to cover their true costs. But, as Hillary tells us, these "elite" brainiacs don't really care about the American people anyway. And passionate environmentalists see higher gas prices as a way to finally goad us into conserving resources and transitioning into a sustainable society. But don't listen to those wacko tree-huggers.

During the course of any addiction, a person will resort to increasingly desperate measures to get quick relief. First, he'll drain through his savings to buy the drug. He'll lose his job and sell his belongings. Then he'll squeeze every ounce of assistance and compassion out of family and friends. Finally, he reaches a point of desperation when there is an existential decision to make: come clean or self-destruct - enter into the painful process of rehab or break into a convenience store for quick relief.

Tuesday, May 13

Kunstler on my radio

For the last few weeks, I've really been enjoying James Howard Kunstler's new podcast, Kunstlercast. He's every bit as acerbic and knowledgeable on the microphone as he is at the keyboard, addressing such subjects as green building, gentrification, starchitects, zoning, landscape art, and just about anything to do with the "tragic comedy of suburban sprawl." I happen to think that most of his opinions are right, but more than anything he feeds into that contrarian impulse inside - even when he's blasting the very profession that I'm entering into.

Here's Kunstler on planners:

"Well these poor bozos, they come out of planning school because they made some bad choice or they were deceived into thinking that they were in a design discipline, and then they spend the next 40 years working for a city piling up a pension plan. They hate their work; they hate themselves for doing it. They realize that the whole thing is a mummery.

Finally they gaze at that golden, glowing finish line of retirement. And then they can go to a place where it’s exciting, that’s mixed-used—a place that, in short, displays all the qualities that they’ve been preventing from occurring in the place they’re in charge of for their whole career. Or they move to Key West, or Europe, or some other place."

Yet many planners still love the guy, which only supports my hunch that the planning profession is probably the most self-loathing discipline in recent history. Ever since Jane Jacobs.

It's also fun to hear some examples from the upstate New York area, where I was born.

Saturday, May 10

Envisioning the new Bonner

The Bonner/Milltown area right outside of Missoula is undergoing several substantial changes all at once, with the removal of a century-old dam and the indefinite closing of the Stimson lumber mill. So it makes sense that the residents would want to think carefully about what kind of town they would like to be transformed into. Last week the community council met to decide whether to apply for an EPA smart growth grant that had been proposed months before. Unfortunately, the public who had gathered there in support of the grant were not allowed to speak, and the grant request was withdrawn by the commissioners only two days before the deadline.

The good news is that the council has decided to make Monday's meeting into a forum on smart growth, inviting some speakers in and emphasizing that the public will be allowed to comment. The meeting will be at 7:00 at the Bonner Public Library. It's too late to apply for the grant this year, but this is a great time to start drumming up support for next year's application. It is important to go into anything like this with a healthy amount of consensus and good information.

Here's how the letter from the Missoula County office of Planning and Grants put the goals:

"To assess the challenges and opportunities that come with these changes, the community [of Bonner/Milltown] is requesting assistance through the Smart Growth Implementation Assistance Grant to envision and articulate a plan for the area that can concentrate growth in existing neighborhood and town centers and encourage mixed uses, help to position the community for emerging economic and demographic trends, utilize current infrastructure rather than expand it, encourage walkability, and maintain a distinctive sense of place. This Implementation Assistance Grant will help the community minimize water quality impacts from development, particularly important because the area sits at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers. These discussions will also foster the sustainable redevelopment and cleanup of a brownfield site, and provide opportunities for housing that current and new residents can afford."

Those who oppose these goals should come up with salient arguments against them, and they should provide an alternative picture of what they would like the Bonner area to change into. The old line that the town should just stay the way it has always been is obviously not an option in this particular case.

Another good way for Bonner residents to prepare would be to look at previous recipients of the grant and see what effects it had on those communities. The EPA website has a list of "success stories" from previous grantees all over the country. It could be helpful to read through these and determine whether this definition of "success" meets your own definition.

Friday, May 9

Book: A Pattern Language

A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander et al., has to be one of the most fascinating books I've ever read. Thirty years later, it has grown into somewhat of a movement. Set up as a do-it-yourself reference book for building everything from metropolitan regions to window panes, it actually serves equally well as comprehensive philosophy of life. The patterns are heavily analytical (Alexander is not afraid to put precise numbers on just about anything) and are presented as "deeply rooted in the nature of things," yet they are intended to be pieced together by individuals in unique ways, even as a form of poetry. The larger the scale of the project, the more gradually it must be formed from grass-roots action and the cumulative input from thousands of small decisions. This is how a town is built, according to Alexander.

The medium of a blog post does not lend itself well to a full-scale summary of the book, because of the sheer volume and diversity of topics covered. The patterns range from highly practical to radical to the point of absurdity, like the suggestion that zoos ought to be abolished and instead wild animals should be unleashed to roam around an interconnected greenway in urban areas. If I could discern one underlying idea, it is that our built environment should be composed around the limits of human proportions rather than according to a modern rationalized form.

Here's my reaction to a few of the more interesting patterns that pertain to urban design:

Pattern #21: Four-Story Limit. There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy. In any urban area, no matter how dense, keep the majority of buildings four-stories high or less. It is possible that certain buildings should exceed this limit, but they should never be buildings for human habitation.

This is the difference between Paris (La Defense excepted) and New York. Alexander takes four-stories to be the maximum amount people would be willing to walk up stairs and the furthest any dwelling should be separated from the vital social realm of street life. He cites evidence to suggest that high-rise buildings are correlated with mental health problems. This is probably the most famous of the patterns, and the precise psychological effects have been heavily debated by environmental psychologists. Yet it fits entirely within the larger picture, that buildings should be created around human potentiality and foster social connections.

Pattern #10: The Magic of the City. Put the magic of the city with reach of everyone in a metropolitan area. No one downtown can serve more than 300,000 people .. between 2 and 9 miles apart. Pattern #12: Community of 7000. Decentralize city government in a way that gives local control to communities of 5000 to 10,000 persons. Pattern #14: Identifiable neighborhoods. Help people to define the neighborhoods they live in, not more than 300 yards across, with no more than 400 or 500 inhabitants.

Here the concentric circles of human interaction are precisely defined. 300,000 is the population necessary to inculcate an undefinable cultural vibrancy that the city offers. Larger than this, and too many people are pushed to the margins. 7000 is the ideal unit for a self-governing democracy, so that no citizens should be two friends away from the highest point of the political hierarchy. Finally, Alexander's picture of the neighborhood has probably been the most influential for New Urbanists. 500 is the maximum number of people who can form a relational identity group that is capable of making cooperative decisions.

All of these levels of "community" are delineated spatially. A neighborhood cannot exceed a 3 block radius from any residence or people would not walk, and it cannot be bisected by a major road, and various geographical barriers can be used to separate out these population groups.

Pattern #18: Network of Learning. Instead of the lock-step of compulsory schooling in a fixed place, work in piecemeal ways to decentralize the process of learning and enrich it through contact with many places and people all over the city. Pattern #26: Life Cycle. Make certain that the full cycle of life is represented and balanced in each community. Set the ideal of a balanced life cycle as a principle guide for the evolution of communities. Pattern #40: Old People Everywhere. Old people need old people, but they also need the young, and young people need contact with the old.

A Pattern Language calls attention to a form of diversity that is often overlooked. Modern institutions, from grade-schools to retirement villages, are often formed around rigidly segregated age groups. As an individual passes through life, he is jolted from one context to another, losing the potential for a seamless fabric of memory attached to a particular place. And as a society, we lose out on the perpetual exchange of learned wisdom and creative energy that has long passed between the young and old. How can these peer groups be geographically integrated throughout the city? Alexander discusses specific ways to design small-scale institutions that can be mixed into the larger setting of the city.

There are hundreds of other patterns. How can design make the most of natural light? How can we minimize the damage done by automobiles? (parking should never take up more than 9% of the land. Pattern #22). What types and sizes of housing are appropriate for different family units? How can design reflect a healthy balance of privacy and community? How can naturally flowing water give life to urban areas?

An endless number of paths to explore. I'm holding onto this book. It took eight years to write but may taken even longer to properly read.

Monday, May 5

Growing some food

With the first signs of a legitimate spring here, we began planting our little garden plot against the house.

It seems that three different major trends are coming together: historically high transportation costs, a renewed appreciation for local foods, and questions about the viability of the American suburban experiment. At the center of these trends, back-yard gardens have been in the news lately.

From the Wall Street Journal,

"Farmers don't necessarily live in the country anymore. They might just be your next-door neighbor, hoping to turn a dollar satisfying the blooming demand for organic, locally grown foods.

Unlike traditional home gardeners who devote a corner of the yard to a few rows of vegetables, a new crop of minifarmers is tearing up the whole yard and planting foods such as arugula and kohlrabi that restaurants might want to buy. The locally grown food movement has also created a new market for front-yard farmers.

"Agriculture is becoming more and more suburban," says Roxanne Christensen, publisher of Spin-Farming LLC, a Philadelphia company started in 2005 that sells guides and holds seminars teaching a small-scale farming technique that involves selecting high-profit vegetables like kale, carrots and tomatoes to grow, and then quickly replacing crops to reap the most from plots smaller than an acre. "Land is very expensive in the country, so people are saying, why not just start growing in the backyard?' "

And Micheal Pollan from his article "Why bother?" in the New York Times Magazine,

"But the act I want to talk about is growing some — even just a little — of your own food. Rip out your lawn, if you have one, and if you don’t — if you live in a high-rise, or have a yard shrouded in shade — look into getting a plot in a community garden. Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know, but in fact it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do — to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind. ...

You begin to see that growing even a little of your own food is, as Wendell Berry pointed out 30 years ago, one of those solutions that, instead of begetting a new set of problems — the way “solutions” like ethanol or nuclear power inevitably do — actually beget other solutions, and not only of the kind that save carbon. Still more valuable are the habits of mind that growing a little of your own food can yield. You quickly learn that you need not be dependent on specialists to provide for yourself — that your body is still good for something and may actually be enlisted in its own support. If the experts are right, if both oil and time are running out, these are skills and habits of mind we’re all very soon going to need. We may also need the food. Could gardens provide it? Well, during World War II, victory gardens supplied as much as 40 percent of the produce Americans ate.

Saturday, May 3

A silver medal for cycling

Missoula has just been recognized (again) by the League of American Bicyclists as a silver level Bicycle-friendly Community. This is a genuine accomplishment, since out the 212 towns that have applied since the program began only 84 have been given a bronze or above. Missoula's commitment to alternative transportation has always been fairly obvious, but it's nice to see how we stack up to an objective nationwide benchmark. Next is gold.

I noticed that the Bicycle-friendly communities website didn't have any pictures for Missoula. We somehow managed to inherit the pictures from Milwaukee, including a random shot of some Santa Claus convention. That won't do. I decided to take a couple of pictures on my walk home from downtown this afternoon, in case the good folks at the League want some royalty-free photos.

Update: A Complete Streets bill has just been introduced in the House, which would require transportation plans to provide fair access to roads for all users. The senate received a similar piece of legislation back in March. This is a bipartisan endeavor that deserves to be passed. The Complete Streets website offers some practical ways that you can lend support to this bill.