Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Getting Urbanism Wrong: Transit-Adjacency

In my last couple of posts, I argued that urbanism is a potent form of environmentalism, but one that can be easily misapplied.  And then I offered examples of urbanism, and environmentalism, gone sideways.

I’ll finish this three-part journey into the environmentalism of urbanism with a look at the potential, and the potential to do badly, of transit-oriented development.

I recently met a local transit advocate over sandwiches at Ray’s.  After chatting about several other subjects, including the possible parklet at Ray’s, my lunchtime companion raised a topic that was important to him.  Looking at the planned mixed-use development next to the downtown Petaluma SMART station, he asked how we could be sure that the future residents would ride the SMART train.

It was an insightful question, so insightful that urbanists have coined a word for transit-oriented development gone awry.  In transit-oriented development, the nearby transit stops are an essential element of the residential lifestyle.  Take the transit away and the entire nature of the development changes.

In transit-adjacent development, the nearby transit stop is a nice amenity, but the residents remain likely to live much of their daily lives in their cars. The disappearance of the transit would make only a small difference in projects.

So my companion was asking how to ensure that the Petaluma Station development would be transit-oriented and not transit-adjacent.

The line between transit-oriented and transit-adjacent is fuzzy and subjective, with data about the demographics of the tenants, the sizes of the unit, and the approach to parking being key elements in assessing where a project falls.  However, even without that data, I’m moderately comfortable pointing out examples of transit-oriented and transit-adjacent development in the Bay Area.

A couple of years ago, I took a tour of mixed-use projects near BART stations.  Although the eyes I brought to that tour are different than they would be today, I think I can still discern transit-oriented from transit-adjacent.

The apartments at the Pleasant Hill BART station, with its many larger apartments and convenient parking is transit-adjacent.  Even in its website, it’s positioned as a luxury apartment complex that happens to be next to a BART station.  If BART were to disappear tomorrow, the ad copy would need to be edited, but the nature of the project wouldn’t change significantly.

I’m sure that many of the Pleasant Hill apartment residents use BART regularly, but I suspect that many of those do a daily calculation of whether they should drive to work or use BART.  In a true transit-oriented development, that computation is never made.  The residents are committed to using transit and many don’t even own cars.

In contrast to Pleasant Hill, the developments adjoining the Fruitvale and Richmond (at top) BART stations are transit-oriented.  Less parking for the residents is provided, the retail stores are arranged to serve folks heading to or from trains, and physical connection between the BART station and the housing is more intimate.

Some may point out that the Fruitvale and Richmond developments serve a less affluent segment of the population.  The observation is correct and offers further proof of a thought I offered in my last post, that poverty, or at least reduced resources, is an indicator of a more green life.  The Pleasant Hill residents can keep a luxury coupe in the covered parking and decide, depending on destination, whether to drive or to ride BART.  Many of the residents at Fruitvale and Richmond don’t have that option.

This brings us back to the question of how to ensure that development near transit stops become transit-oriented in North Bay communities, many of which don’t have the affluence of Walnut Creek/Pleasant Hill, but generally have more resources than Fruitvale or Richmond.

I’ll offer three standards required for transit-orientation.  First, the mix of housing units should be attuned to the people who are more likely to live transit-oriented lives.  Studio apartments for young professionals  trying to pay off student loans by living car-free or for seniors who no longer drive, but still like to travel around, are better transit-oriented residential units than three-bedroom apartments that would attract families with school and recreational needs that can’t be met by transit.

Second, there must be parking maximums and those maximums should be set low.  Singles without cars or families with only a single car are more likely to use transit.

Third, the cost of parking should be separable from the cost of housing.  If every unit has an assigned parking place with a monthly cost embedded in the rent, then it’s easier to justify buying a car.  But if someone trying to live a green or frugal life can save both the cost of a car and another $200 in monthly parking, that person is more likely to rely strictly on transit.

Appropriate architecture and site planning, with visual integration between homes and transit stop, along with convenient walking routes, can further ensure transit-orientation over transit-adjacency, but if the above three standards are met, then the development is already well along the path to transit-orientation.

And now I can return to my companion’s question, how is Petaluma doing at ensuring that the Station Area development will be transit-oriented?

The answer is not very well. 

Although the final distribution of unit types, studio versus one-bedroom versus two-bedroom, will be dependent on a developer submittal and the City entitlement process, there are ways the City can incentivize developers to focus on the smaller units that would tend more toward transit-oriented.  The best tool is to tune the impact fees to encourage smaller units.

Unfortunately, the City has done nearly the exact opposite, with impact fees that are the same regardless of unit size.

Let’s take a simplified example of a developer having 1,500 square feet of space that could be made into three 500 square-foot studios that would likely rent to singles or couples who would use transit daily or a single 1,500 square-foot two-bedroom unit that would likely rent to a family that would need a car to convey kids to school and sport and might generate, at best, one transit rider per day.

Clearly, transit-orientation requires the three studio units.  And the City of Petaluma assesses impact fees that would be three times as much for the three studios as for the two-bedroom unit.  So the incentives run the wrong direction.

To be fair to the City, I understand some of the underlying reason for the impact fee schedule.  Having accrued significant debt and deferred maintenance under the suburban model, the City is trying to capture enough revenue from urban development to balance the books.  But having backed the wrong horse between urbanism and suburbanism, trying to get square by putting a bigger burden on good urbanism feels like doubling down on a failed proposition.

And that’s before we tackle the question of whether a transit-friendly unit in downtown should pay the same road impact fee as a car-oriented unit on the urban fringe, as is the case under the current fee schedule.

The story on the parking side isn’t much better.  The weak link of low maximum parking counts and decoupled parking costs is off-site parking.  A tenant could choose to not rent a parking space, or to keep a car above the maximum allowed, and instead park a car in an adjoining neighborhood, irritating the neighbors and undermining the intent of transit-orientation.

The solution, a parking management district, is clunky, but effective.  Neighbors would be issued parking stickers and only cars with stickers could park in their neighborhood.

When the master plan for the Station Area was prepared, the consultants saw the need for parking management and called for it in the final report.  And three years later, nothing has been done.

So, transit-orientation remains the environmentally-friendly goal.  But my lunchtime companion was correct in worrying about whether the City of Petaluma has the will to avoid the unacceptable fate of transit-adjacency.  Once again, the better environmental outcome might not be realized.

With my next post, I’ll stay in on the topic of the environment, but go a different direction, returning to a favorite topic of how urbanism fares under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Monday, October 5, 2015

Getting Urbanism Wrong: From the Environmentally Inadequate to the Environmentally Oblivious

In my last post, I argued that urbanism is a form of environmentalism.  I further argued that it may be one of the most potent and universally accessible types of environmentalism.  I believe that many people already understood this, but I also believe that the understanding sometimes gets lost at the application to real life.  So I’ll follow up today with examples of how we sometimes fail urbanism, from the environmentally inadequate to the environmentally oblivious.

A few years back, I attended a North Bay meeting about an upcoming downtown mixed-use project.  The speaker, who represented the city, was excited about reduced environmental impacts of urbanist development, but had a philosophical point to share before getting into project details.

He told of a recent labor contract meeting that he had attended as a member of city management.  During the negotiations, the labor negotiator had argued for higher staff wages because the increased earnings would allow the employees to move closer to city hall, reducing their commutes and thereby making the salary concessions green-friendly.

As the speaker told the story, he immediately called the suggestion nonsense and retorted that, given bigger paychecks and the subsidies that our tax system gives to private transportation, the employees with more money would be more likely to move into bigger homes further from town and to buy bigger cars in which to make their longer commutes.

He then concluded with a comment that continues to come back to me on regular occasion.  As I recall his words, he said that “The best predictor of a green life is poverty.”

He was right.  If I’m ever tempted to pat myself on the back for driving an aging hybrid, taking a shorter shower, or lowering our wintertime house temperature by a couple of degrees, I remind myself that it’s the homeless person sleeping under a blanket in a downtown doorway who is truly living a green life.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that we all trade our house keys for blankets and begin looking for empty doorways.  Nor am I suggesting that we shouldn’t try to end homelessness.  But I am noting that there are lives out there being lived in a far less environmentally impactful manner than for those of us with roofs over our heads and that we should therefore never be satisfied with whatever environmental changes we’ve already made, but should instead be constantly seeking ways to go further.  We’re all living environmentally inadequate lives and can do better.

Of course, moving downtown into homes smaller than our suburban homes and making sidewalk cafes and corner pubs our dining rooms and living rooms, i.e., urbanism, is a fine way of doing better.

This thread of thinking ties back to something that author Thomas Friedman writes in his book “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”.  He argues that we need a green revolution and that all we’re having is a green party, that we’re not digging deeply into change to make the differences that need to be made.

I suggest that he’s right.  We’re embracing recycling, hybrid cars, and rooftop solar, but we’re hesitant to buy stuff made of recycled materials, won’t use transit, and still insist on air-conditioning.  Once again, we’re all living environmentally inadequate lives and can do better.

And that brings me to my favorite environmentally oblivious story.  In a magazine supplement to the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle some years back, a Silicon Valley homeowner was interviewed about her new and supposedly environmentally-friendly home.  She proudly confirmed that she and her husband were committed environmentalists and had therefore bought up three adjoining homes, tore them down, and replaced them with a single home with numerous environmentally-friendly features, including bamboo floors.

Let’s do the environmental tally on those transactions.  Three families who could have been living and working in the Silicon Valley are instead commuting from the East Bay because the homes they would have bought no longer exist.  Three livable homes are now in a landfill.  And a major environmental benefit is bamboo floors?

The situation was so ludicrous that I set the magazine aside to write a scathing response.  But life intervened and I didn’t begin my response for several days.  It didn’t make any difference.  The next addition of the magazine included three letters, selected from scores of similar letters, making the same points I would have made.  The homeowner had touched a nerve, but the environmentally oblivious damage had already been done.

For today, I’ll close with a story that isn’t connected to urbanism, but is one of my favorite stories about environmental obliviousness.

“Wings” was a television sitcom that aired for several seasons during the 1990s.  The setting was a commuter airline between Boston and Nantucket, with the cast being the airline and airport staff.

In one episode, a pilot notices that the cups for the free coffee service in the passenger lounge had been changed from styrofoam to paper.  He asked the ticket agent responsible for coffee about the change.

The agent responded with a long and reasonable explanation of the environmental benefits of paper over styrofoam.  The pilot acknowledged her logic, congratulated her on her environmental awareness, and then asked about the large supply of styrofoam cups which he’d noted in the supply room.

To which she replied, “Oh, I tossed those.” 

Environmental obliviousness at its clueless best.

Transit oriented development is another area in which environmental obliviousness is possible.  What should be the key goals of generating transit riders and eliminating cars is sometimes at risk of being overwhelmed by issues of municipal finance and developer comfort.  I’ll explain more in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Friday, October 2, 2015

Even If I’m Unsure What to Call Myself, Urbanism is Environmentalism

After years of aversion therapy, I don’t readily accept the word “environmentalist” being applied to me.  Instead, my immediate reaction is disavowal, followed only slowly by grudging and partial acknowledgment.  But I nonetheless bristle when, as happens too often, someone tries to exclude urbanism from environmentalism.  I know my two positions are inconsistent, but after 62 years of living, I think I’ve earned the right to an occasional inconsistency.  Let me explain more fully.

When the first Earth Day parade passed by, I was standing on the first tee of the local golf course, waiting until the marchers finished crossing the fairway before hitting the opening shot of my match.  I felt no compulsion to join the marchers.  My attention was given solely to tinkering with my swing to keep my opening drive out of the rough.

During the latter stages of my college career, I arranged for professional engineers to speak to Tuesday evening gatherings of engineering students about the practice of engineering.  My fellow students and I heard an extended litany of complaints about trying to meet budgets and schedules while complying with the environmental regulations then newly blossoming.

About the same time, my engineer father complained over the dinner table about a judge assessing damages against Caltrans for not upgrading a state highway to meet current safety standards while another judge was, at the same time, delaying the start of the safety work due to inadequate environmental compliance.

With those experiences from my formative years, I don’t care if I’m ever called an environmentalist.  And I doubt I’d be alone within my generation in having that engrained feeling.  For long years, environmentalist had too many negative connotations within my educational settings and workplaces for my cohorts or me to casually accept being called environmentalists.

But I’m nonetheless eager to call myself an urbanist and to simultaneously argue with those, and there are many, who would distinguish between urbanism and environmentalism.  Indeed, I would argue that urbanism is a form of environmentalism that is superior to what many who eagerly call themselves environmentalists have adopted.

Let me paint the big picture and then describe a couple of situations where a false and unhelpful dichotomy is presumed between urbanism and environmentalism.

Environmentalism can include a great many aspects.  Not all of those aspects are addressed by urbanism, but a surprising number are.  Concerned about protection of forests?  Urbanism with its smaller homes and frequent shared walls addresses that concern through reduced need for building materials.  Perhaps water conservation, especially during the drought, is worrisome to you?  Urban dwellers, in part due to the absence of lawns, use less water.

Perhaps preservation of green space or agriculture land matters to you?  Urbanism, with its walkable paradigm, reduces urban sprawl.  Or maybe you think that hazmat cleanup needs more attention?  Urbanism, with its frequent use of brownfield sites meets that need.  Or perhaps your focus is on the biggest environmental challenge of all, climate change?  Urbanism, with its reduced energy demands for both buildings and transportation, is among the best strategies.

The connection between urbanism and environmentalism is unassailable.  But it often gets overlooked anyway.  Let me describe a couple of recent examples.

A recent article in Politico Magazine lauds passive homes and their ability to change the world.  The first homes described by the author are in an apartment building overlooking a commuter train station in Portland.

I love passive homes and their exceedingly low energy usage.  I’d support a carbon tax such that passive homes attain the marketplace position they deserve.  But most summaries of energy demand assign perhaps 30 percent of total national energy usage to buildings and 45 percent to transportation.  It’s possible that the location of the apartments within a transit-oriented development is just as important for energy conservation as the passive design of the apartments.  But that element of the apartments isn’t lauded.  Indeed, it’s never mentioned again.

Even worse, the article goes on to describe a string of passive homes built on a cul-de-sac.  I don’t know the cul-de-sac location, but unless the homes are without garages or street parking and there is a bus stop at the outlet from the cul-de-sac, it’s possible that a non-passive apartment in a well-designed transit-oriented development will have as much energy saving potential as one of the passive homes on the cul-de-sac.

Once again, I’m not demeaning the passive home concept.  I agree with the article that passive apartment in transit accessible locations can change the world.  But that world-changing potential is equal parts passive architectural design and good urbanism.  And that latter part of the story is being neglected, which undermines urbanists everywhere.

Closer to home, I attend a monthly gathering of self-described environmentalists.  To their credit, they allow me to participate so they, at least to some extent, accept urbanism as environmentalism.

But I was disheartened by a conversation at the most recent meeting.  A financial planner, who focuses on environmentally-friendly portfolios, mentioned that he recommends CVS, the large drugstore chain.  His reasoning, which he gained from industry publications on eco-friendly investing, was based on CVS ending the sale of tobacco products and carefully managing their waste stream.

Both policies are appropriate and I’m pleased that both have been implemented.  But I’m also certain that the environment was better served when we had neighborhood drug stores that could be easily accessed by pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users.  Calling a chain that forced those little drugstores out of business by specializing in enormous stores behind over-sized parking lots as environmentally-friendly verges on absurd.

I’m not saying that CVS management is filled with bad guys.  They saw the dominance of the drivable suburban paradigm, structured a business plan around serving people in cars, and made money, lots of money.  Which makes them good business people.  But if they don’t deserve black hats, neither do they deserve white hats.  And the only way we fail to grasp that point is if we fail to account for the environmental benefits of a more urban world.

Urbanism is environmentalism, a point that we disregard at our environmental peril.

Call me an environmentalist and I’ll growl softly in uneasy acquiescence.  Try to tell me that the urbanism I espouse isn’t environmentalism and I’ll chew your leg off.  Long live inconsistency.

Having broken the seal on the subject of urbanism vis-à-vis environmentalism, with my next post I’ll continue with another couple of stories in this vein.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Narrowing the Spectrum of Street Users

I’ve written several times about “Twenty is Plenty”, an initiative in many towns, mostly European but spreading toward U.S., to reduce speed limits on most streets to 20 miles per hour.  A recent sidewalk encounter gave me another reason to think that Twenty is Plenty is an enlightened concept.

One of my first household tasks each day is walking an elderly Golden Retriever.  Tyson will turn 15 in a couple of weeks.  (There are several different equations for converting dog years into human years.  By the equation I find most reasonable, Tyson’s 15 years will convert to 80 human years.)  At his age, he struggles with mobility and breathing, but a quiet amble around the block gives him needed exercise.

Also, it gives him a respite from sharing a house with two younger, rambunctious dogs.  He can stop and sniff a blade of grass as long as he wishes without another dog shoving him aside.

With his uncertain balance, a leash is often an encumbrance to him.  Plus, if he tries moving too quickly, falling down is the usual result.  So I let him walk unleashed much of the time.

Being unleashed, Tyson often finds a way to greet other early risers, wheedling for a kind word or a scratch behind an ear.  I usually try to keep him away, allowing his targets to continue with their mornings unimpeded, but he can be wily about avoiding my knee nudges.

Thus, a few mornings back, I was standing idly on the sidewalk with the leash folded in my hand, watching the old boy casually sniff an orange tree, when I was surprised by a handful of bicyclists streaming past me on the sidewalk, probably twelve-year-olds on their way to the nearby junior high school.

They were pedaling at a moderate pace, maybe 8 to 10 miles per hour and were giving me as much clearance as the sidewalk would allow.  However, my immediate concern was keeping Tyson, whose failing vision and uncertain hearing might fail to distinguish between a quicker-moving bicyclist and a slower pedestrian, from sticking his nose into the stream of bicyclists, seeking attention and getting a tire in his snout for his effort.

It was only as the last bicyclist slipped past and I secured a handhold on Tyson’s collar that I was able to direct an imperative toward the trailing rider, “In the street!”  To which his response, tossed over his shoulder as he continued on his way, was that his parents had told him the sidewalk was safer.

Well, of course the sidewalk is safer.  For them.  But their presence on the sidewalk greatly reduced the safety for elderly dogs taking morning moseys.  And perhaps also for the middle-aged owners tending to the elderly dogs.

Then I looked at the situation from the perspective of the parents.  If I had a twelve-year-old child, would I want him riding a bicycle on a street that is often a route for speeding and/or distracted drivers

And even if I could convince myself that a twelve-year-old would be okay on the street, what about a nine-year-old, the age at which bike riding to the nearby elementary might begin to seem appropriate?

I began riding a bike to school at age nine.  But my route didn’t include streets as busy as the street on which I now live.  And even then it took me only eight weeks to find myself lying in the street next to my bike with the skin scraped from my nose and a milk truck turning the corner toward me.  (You can tell my age by the fact that milk trucks were still doing home deliveries in my youth.)

As you presumably guessed, the truck driver stopped in time.  He also helped dust me off and send me on my way home, on foot, for cleanup and bandages. 

But the experience stuck with me.  And I’d have a hard time sending a nine-year-old on a bike into the street in front of my home.  And that would be a shame because I’d want that nine-year-old to have the personal freedom to find his own way to the nearby elementary school.  It’s even possible that, with training and safety warnings, I’d encourage the nine-year-old to use the sidewalk instead of the street, even if it endangered elderly dogs and middle-aged walkers.

I’ve previously written about the challenge of allocating street users across a right-of-way, recounting an anecdote from an Oregon project with which I was involved many years ago.  The problem is taking the wide spectrum of users, from senior citizens using walkers to inattentive drivers edging above the speed limit, and dividing them into two streams, one using the street and one using the sideway, in a way that minimizes the risk to all.

It’s not a problem with an easy solution.  And it finds me putting twelve-year-old bicyclists on the roadway with speeding motorists and nine-year-old bicyclists on the sidewalk, endangering seniors with walkers, neither of which feels right.

One way to simplify the challenge is to reduce the spectrum of street users.  Obviously, we’re not going to speed up seniors with walkers, but what if we slow the motorists?  What if we drop speed limits from 30 mph to 20 mph?  How does change the allocation of users?

Personally, I’d be more comfortable letting a nine-year-old ride a bicycle in a street where the speed limit is 20mph.  Not only is the speed differential between the cars and bicycles reduced, but drivers are more able to respond to bicyclists when traveling at the lesser speed.  And that change improves the safety for both seniors with walkers and elderly dogs.

All of which is consistent with what the Twenty is Plenty folks have been telling us for awhile.

It’s always interesting where encounters during early morning dog walks and the resulting cogitations will lead.  In this case, it led to a new way to justify that Twenty really is Plenty.

Next time, I’ll write about the relationship between urbanism and environmentalism, a relationship on which I seem to have a different perspective than some.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Monday, September 28, 2015

A North Bay Parklet?

Parklets, the appropriation of curbside space otherwise intended for cars by amenities such as bike racks, benches, tables, etc., is one of the most recent additions to urbanism’s toolkit.  Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Fund offers photos of the range of activities that can be accommodated in a parklet, with amenities as varied as temporary sod, a bike repair station, and even a flower garden, although I’ll admit that the kayak seems a stretch.

Parklets were invented in San Francisco in 2005.  In only ten years, they’ve spread across the country.  They haven’t yet made many inroads into the North Bay, although that could soon change if a few folks in Petaluma get their wish.

I’ve previously written about Ray’s Delicatessen and Tavern, a defining element of my neighborhood.  In the past few years, Ray’s has become a favored gathering place for its tasty sandwiches, its community tables, its regional selection of beers in a pine-paneled tavern, and its events such as Thursday evening musical jamming.  And now the owners are putting out feelers about a parklet.

I learned about the parklet concept through the communication mode that characterizes effective neighborhoods, a sidewalk chat.  I had made lunch plans to meet a friend to talk about urbanist issues over Ray’s sandwiches.  As I walked the block and a half, I was waylaid by a neighbor eager to inform me Ray’s evil intention to build a parklet that would be a traffic hazard and a neighborhood nuisance, a parklet that would allow Ray’s to remain open later, interfering with the sleep of the nearby good citizens.

(Years earlier, the same neighbor tried to enlist my support in opposing a Little League complex in our neighborhood, a proposal that I ended up enthusiastically endorsing.  She seems slow to understand my land-use leanings.)

Intrigued by the concept of a Ray’s parklet, I parried her arguments as well as I could, extricated myself from the conversation, and continued onward to Ray’s where I hoped to gather a more objective explanation of the intentions.

My friend and I soon attracted the eye of the owner, who confirmed that she and her partner were doing a preliminary investigation of a parklet, including coordination with Petaluma about what the standards might be.  She also advised us that she expected the parklet to calm traffic, reducing the traffic risks at the awkwardly configured intersection, that she had no intention of remaining open any later than her current closing time, and that the current plan for the parklet included bicycle parking with the goal of reducing car trips.

The owner reinforced what I already knew, that she loves the neighborhood and is continually looking for ways to make it better.  To her, the parklet would be a way of doing that.

She concluded with an offer to arrange a meeting with the architect who was preparing preliminary sketches for the parklet.  Unfortunately, I had to decline that offer.  As a member of several City committees that might conceivably be asked to review the parklet plan that she would bring forth, I’m comfortable with espousing the concept of parklets in Petaluma and even with embracing Ray’s as a possible parklet location, but felt that, to retain design objectivity, I needed to avoid prejudging the actual parklet plan.

So, I can’t share the details of what Ray’s may propose, but I can draw a picture of what parklets can do for a city.  John King, the architectural critic for the San Francisco Chronicle summarized the history and potential for parklets.  In King’s words, “The best parklets combine design ambition with a genuine desire to engage passersby.”

King also quotes Robin Abad Ocubillo, the parklet coordinator for the San Francisco Planning Department, ““They can provide focal points where neighborhoods come together, adding open space to neighborhoods where there’s really not great open space.”

King concludes with his list of the top five parklets in San Francisco.  But for those for whom five isn’t enough, Curbed San Francisco provides a map of all 43 San Francisco parklets as of early 2014.  (Someday soon, I’ll make a day trip into San Francisco to sample some parklets, hopefully by public transit and foot.  If anyone wishes to join me, let me know.)

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with its focus on public health, weighs in to suggest that parklets can support healthy communities.

To push the envelope even further, Azzurra Cox of City Lab writes about a “park in a cart” constructed by a theatre group to bring youth play activities to different neighborhoods in the highest altitude city in the world.

But proving that parklets, for all their benefits, can still make for troublesome public policy, Nosh documents the birthing pains of a parklet policy in Berkeley.

Coincidentally, parklets arose again during an even more recent visit to Ray’s.  A young planner, who spent his youth in Petaluma and has now returned to assist aging parents while getting his career underway in San Francisco, had asked to chat about urbanism in Petaluma.  We spent an enjoyable hour in the tavern talking about the opportunities and constraints in our shared community.

But the conversation really took flight when he spoke of the give-back that he had planned for the town of his youth.  Having spent the final years of his college career in Oregon, he was enthralled by parklets and had a cellphone filled with photos of parklets in East Portland.  He now intended to help Petaluma develop its first parklet policy and had already begun meeting with local community groups to gather support.

We quickly lassoed the Ray’s owner, made mutual introductions, shared parklet stories, and agreed that among us were the key members of a team that would bring a parklet plan to Petaluma.

As a result, one of my tasks for the near-term future is helping to identify the best route to that plan.  If anyone wishes to assist, let me know.

This is an effort I’m making because I’m convinced, unlike at least one curmudgeonly citizen, that parklets, whether at Ray’s or elsewhere in Petaluma, would be great community additions.

Next time, I’ll offer another argument for the Twenty is Plenty movement and traffic calming.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Friday, September 25, 2015

Public Planning Councils: My Half-Baked Idea

Over the course of many public land-use hearings, I’ve often heard participants ask why decisions aren’t made on the New England town meeting model, which they understand to be a town-wide gathering to debate a proposal and to render a consensus decision.

I have a number of problems with the suggestion.  I’ll start with the fact that speaker is often unfamiliar with the land-use process, including the knowledge that the town hall model is rarely if ever applied to land-use decisions.  Instead, town meetings usually focus on public policy and finance issues.

Also, the town meeting proponent is usually someone who has never before attended a land-use hearing, likely will never again, and is only attending this hearing because it affects his neighborhood.  As it’s often the case that most of the other attendees on the particular night are also from his neighborhood and are also opposed to the project, the town meeting proponent is effectively suggesting that any neighborhood should have the unilateral right to quash any project.  And that result would be a model for aggressive sprawl because only projects without neighbors could be assured of approval.

Lastly, giving neighborhoods effective veto power over new projects, a power that would sometimes be used because of fear of the type of people who would reside in the new projects, could quickly degrade into discrimination.

Nonetheless, I remain intrigued by the concept of broader public input into land use decisions.  In recent weeks, I’ve noted that there’s much potential value in the ideas generated at the interface between the forces of order, represented by city staff and zoning codes, and the forces of anarchy, represented by public input.  But I also argued that Kristina Ford, in her book “The Trouble with City Planning”, gave too much value to under-informed public opinion.

So I’ll throw out an idea here.  Admittedly, I don’t consider the idea workable, but I like several elements of what it would accomplish.  I offer it here in hopes that readers will be motivated to give the concept further thought, perhaps resulting in a more workable alternative.

I propose that a traditional Planning Commissions be gradually replaced by more inclusive bodies that I’ll call Public Planning Councils.

(Before anyone assumes that I’m proposing a crusade against Planning Commissioners, let me be clear.  This idea isn’t motivated by dissatisfaction with any Planning Commissioners, either individually or collectively.  Planning Commissioners are some of my best friends and I have respect for both their character and their diligence.  I offer this idea only because I think we can do better than the traditional Planning Commission model.)

As I envision it, a Public Planning Council would have an indeterminate number of members.  Any resident of the community of at least 18 years of age would be eligible to become a Public Planning Councilor.

The primary requirement for being a Public Planning Councilor would be having attended fifteen of the most recent twenty Public Planning Council meetings, with attendance defined as being present for the entire length of the meeting or three hours, whichever is less.  (Yes, attendance would be taken.)

Also, Public Planning Councilors must attend at least four outside planning events during a year.  These events could be land use conferences, Saturday training sessions on the land use process, planning commission meetings in other communities, or even book club gatherings about land use tomes.

And that’s it.  Anyone who meets those standards would be a Public Planning Councilor.

For those concerned about an abrupt change in the regulatory process, it should be noted that on the day that a Public Planning Council replaced a Planning Commission, it’d be likely that the only Councilors would be the current Planning Commissioners, assuming they’d met the standard for outside education.  The transition to a Council with more members would be a gradual progression as more citizens achieved the qualifications.

In my community of Petaluma, I’m sure no one other than the current Planning Commissioners would qualify today.  Having been the only member of the public to sit through an entire Commission meeting a few days ago, and knowing that I’d personally fall short of the fifteen meeting standard, I can make that assertion with confidence.

So, what would be the advantages of a Public Planning Council over a Planning Commission?  I find three primary points.  First, the Council would be self-selected from folks willing to put in hard work to learn to do the job well.

Second, because the Councilors wouldn’t need to curry favor among an elected City Council for appointment, they’d be more likely to be at the leading edge of land-use thinking, which is my urbanist angle.

Third, if a Council becomes much greater in number than a current Commission, there might be more opportunities to increase public input into the land-use process.  An example might be subcommittees from a Council who would receive periodic briefings from city staff early in the application process for major projects.  (At present, Planning Commissions only review projects after what could have been months or years of interaction between developers and planning staffs.)

But against those advantages are some towering disadvantages.

For cities that are fighting to stay solvent, the administrative costs of managing the eligibility of an expanded body and of supporting the additional public processes would be unacceptable.  This is the single point on which the idea founders.

Also, there could also be a concern about a developer stacking a Council by having a number of “friends” qualify for Council participation in advance of a major submittal by the developer.  However, the costs of having a handful of people attend fifteen meetings and another four outside events would be significant.  Plus, there would be the chance that some of the folks, with the greater exposure to planning thought, would become less supportive of the developer’s plans.

Lastly, there is a chance of a Council growing large enough to become unwieldy.  Admittedly, this would be a good problem to have, but a solution would be required regardless.  Breaking down the Councils to serve different districts of a city could be a partial solution.

Ultimately, the administrative costs would seem to be the primary obstacle.  And, as I acknowledged at the top, I never expected the idea to be workable.  But I think there is some value in the concept and leave it to my readers to identify tweaks that may make the concept more achievable.

I’m sure there are readers out there who are smarter and more creative than me.  I’d like to hear from them.

In my next post, I’ll write for the first time about parklets, a quirky but potential-filled corner of urbanism.  A parklet concept is currently being floated in Petaluma.  Because of possible conflicts, I wouldn’t talk about the specific proposal, but will offer background theory and reading on parklets, hopefully facilitating a good discussion about the concept.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Autumnal Reading

With fall upon us (and with the hopes for California rainfall increasing), we’ve reached a time of year when I rethink my reading list, setting new priorities for the knowledge I still hope to absorb before the end of the year and remotivating myself to find more time for reading.

Sitting in an office surrounded by bookcases, or perhaps I should describe it as sitting at a desk in the middle of a library, I’m not looking for more books to acquire.  But I’m always seeking help in sorting through the books I already own and in making good decisions about scarce reading time.

Thus, I was interested when someone in an internet chat asked StrongTowns founder Chuck Marohn for the five books that he’d recommend for urbanist reading.  As he was considering his response, I began my own list.  “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs, “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck, and “Suburban Nation” by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Speck occupied the top three spots, with a bevy of other contenders jockeying for the last two openings.

But Marohn surprised me.  He responded that he generally avoided books on land planning, preferring instead to do his reading in the broader field of human history and civilization.

Upon consideration, although I won’t yet set aside my favorite urbanist tomes, Marohn’s reading approach makes a lot of sense.  As I written before, cities are the fundamental unit of civilization, the places where much of what we treasure in our shared history took root.  (I don’t intend to demean those whose distant ancestors spent their lives tilling the soil in remote fields, but even those folks relied on cities to sell their crops and to learn news from the wider world.)

Thus, a reading list that focuses on how civilizations were formed and on the forces that continue to affect civilization today would include insights about the causes that shaped the cities of the past and about the city forms that we should be seeking for productive societies moving forward, both of which tie us back to urbanism.

The five books that Marohn suggested were from only two authors, “Black Swan” and “Antifragile” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, “Collapse”, and “The World until Yesterday” by Jared Diamond.  All five books were already on my shelves, although my reading in them has been more scattered than perhaps it should have been.

(Before anyone feels a need to make this comment, I’m aware that Diamond is often criticized for being seduced by confirmation biases.  I partially concur with the concern, and would argue that the same criticism can sometimes be directed at Taleb.  However, I’d also argue that their fields of investigation can barely be pursued without stumbling into confirmation biases and that there is still much of value in their books even with allowances made.)

As I await the first storm of winter, my plan had been to reread “Walkable City”.  However, with Marohn’s reading list thinking now disclosed, I think I’ll instead turn toward finishing “Black Swan”.  Either way, I’m sure to gather more information useful to building good cities.

In my next post, I’ll go back to a topic I’ve recently touched a couple of times, the challenge of how to insert useful public input into the land-use planning and approval process.  I have an idea to offer.  I won’t call it a proposal.  It’ll be more like a thought exercise, intended to elicit better and more well-formed ideas from others.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Monday, September 21, 2015

Teach, Then Ask

In my last post, I wrote about “The Trouble with City Planning” by Kristina Ford.  Although I suspected that the message of the book had been muddied through the editorial and publishing steps, I appreciated much of what Ford wrote, finding it a good common-sense explanation of why city planning often stumbles.

However, I took issue with one position she espoused.  The difference is probably more a matter of degree than absolutes, but meaningful regardless.  A story from my long-ago youth will illustrate.

I don’t recall having a long-standing dream to make music before the fourth grade, but when my classmates and I were offered an opportunity to take up a musical instrument early during that school year, I and many others quickly signed up.  Perhaps I thought that blowing sweet music on a trumpet would prove irresistible to the fourth grade babes.  (Kathy Fitzpatrick, where have you gone?)

 But the school district in which I attended fourth grade didn’t hand out instruments or instruction to anyone.  They insisted on spending resources only on those who showed a degree of musical aptitude.

So I found myself a week later soon in a cafeteria of fourth-graders, gathered to have our musical skills tested.  The test began with a severe looking grey-haired lady playing two scratchy snippets of music on an aging school district record player.  After the second snippet, she asked “If the first selection was correctly in tune, was the second selection sharp or flat?”

And immediately, fifty fourth-graders were looking at each other, wondering what was meant by sharp and flat.  Sensing our puzzlement, the lady gave a pursed lips lesson, explaining that sharp meant too high in pitch and flat meant too low.

Even though the explanation didn’t provide much assistance, the test nonetheless continued with seemingly innumerable questions about sharp versus flat, which quickly degraded into random guesses.  Sharp-sharp-flat-flat-flat-sharp-sharp seemed equally possible as any other pattern of answers.

As I recall, the test eventually moved onto questions such as distinguishing trumpets from violins from clarinet, but it was too late for most of us.  Our dreams of wooing female classmates with sweet music were gone and we were down to our athletic prowess and/or clever wit as attraction devices, neither of which seemed promising.  (This was a two years pre-Beatles, so the thought of gathering in a garage with guitars was still on the far side of the horizon.)

The problem, of course, was that none of us had been exposed to the type of questions being asked.  I can’t speak for my fellow classmates, but I came from a household where music was a regular part of life.  But I never once hearing anything like “Bing Crosby was a little flat on that version of ‘White Christmas’” or “The French horn was sharp in the Brahms’ Concerto.”  I’d never been introduced to the skills needed to succeed on the test and therefore failed badly.

I know that there is much current opposition to “teaching to the test”.  I concur with the concern, but the musical aptitude test was the complete reverse and it was an even worse approach.

And that’s the problem I have with author Ford.  She puts great weight on citizen input into the land planning process, effectively granting overall control to the citizenry, with the principal function of planning staff being to write down and to administer the rules needed to implement the citizens’ vision.

And while I agree that input from the citizenry is essential, often providing insights about the community that aren’t visible from the planning office, that input has to be informed.  Ford seems to think that a good public meeting at which well-formed presentations are made is sufficient.  I believe that understanding good land use requires far more background.

Furthermore, there is a fundamental difference between fourth graders and adults in how they respond to situations in which their information is inadequate to the task.  Fourth graders look perplexed and get quiet.  Adults become more convinced of the rightness of their limited grasp and become more bellicose.   And that’s not helpful to good land use planning.

To be honest, I don’t know what the right solution is.  It’s hard to convince citizens, no matter how motivated they are to improve their community, to spend the time necessary to grasp the complexities of land use.  Perhaps our current system, in which citizens provide input based on their limited background and understanding, leaving the task of using as much or as little of that input as appropriate to planning staffs and planning commissions, is the best model possible.  If so, we’ll continue to muddle through.  But even if this is the case, exalting the citizen input isn’t helpful.

Nor am I trying to put myself on a pedestal for knowing more about land use than many of my fellow citizens.  It’s true that because of both vocation and avocation, I’ve spent far more time than most in studying and pondering the conundrums of land-use planning.  But, in keeping with the dicta that the soul of wisdom lays in knowing what you don’t know, I’m still coming to grips with what I don’t know.  Continued study and thought lays in my future.

Land use is a messy, complex subject.  To a large extent, Ford acknowledges the messiness and complexity and I recommend her book for that.  But I think she slips a bit on the value of citizens’ input.

If anyone is wondering about my still-born musical career, I can provide a coda.  A year and a half after the fourth grade testing debacle, my family moved to a town where aptitude testing wasn’t used.  And I certainly wasn’t about to admit to my earlier, ignoble failure.  So I was issued a trumpet and instruction commenced, beginning a seven-year journey through the brass section.

By my senior year of high school, I was playing trombone in one of the best high school jazz bands in California.  It was a truly talented band, with at least four of its members later playing professionally.  But the trombones were the weakest section in the band.  Only one trombonist had much skill and I wasn’t that guy.

However, the band instructor recognized the weakness and stayed away from music that would have been beyond the capabilities of the weak end of his trombone section.  We played in the background, looking good, while others made great music.  The last time my lips touched a mouthpiece was a few weeks before high school graduation.  I still think about my days of playing the trombone, but don’t expect to ever return to music making.

Perhaps that’s because I never became good at tuning my instruments, with sharp and flat continuing to bedevil me.  Whether I truly lacked a good ear or whether my fourth grade failure had left a mental block, I don’t know.

In my next post, I’ll acknowledge the beginning of fall with some thoughts about post-summer, pre-holiday reading lists.  Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns recently offered his reading list ideas, which I found striking for someone of his background and interests.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Friday, September 18, 2015

“The Trouble with City Planning”: Half-Buried Insights

My knowledge of the book publishing business is theoretical only.  A few friends, mostly of the delusional sort, have suggested that a book can be found somewhere within my four years of blog posts.  Thus far, I’ve ignored their siren call, flattered by their words, but unconvinced that 1,000-word blog posts, often with only tangential relationships, can translate into a 100,000 word manuscript.

Despite my lack of real world experience, I finished “The Trouble with City Planning” by Kristina Ford feeling as if I’d been present during the birthing of a book that had been led astray by editorial and publishing revisions.  The suspected revisions didn’t destroy the book, but they left valuable insights semi-buried in superfluity.

So, with full acknowledgment that I have no source of information other than my own dubiously-educated observations and guesses, this is how I suspect the book was written.

Fresh from a long stint as the Planning Director for the City of New Orleans, Ford embarked on a book project, setting forth her thoughts, as refined during her time in the Big Easy, on the interaction between planning, the citizenry, and development.

Among other points, she notes how developers sometimes co-opt the planning process through early lobbying of politicians, leaving planning departments playing catch-up, how the public doesn’t understand the relationship between a city-wide plan and the development that actually occurs, how much of the public only looks at a plan when gearing up to oppose an proposal, and how planning goals needn’t represent a consolidated, coherent vision, but can present a range of desirable outcomes among which the planners must sort.  (The last is the point on which I discoursed in my prior post.)

It would have been an insightful book, one that gave shape to many of the observations that I’d been sensing about the planning process, but hadn’t found a way to put into words.

But when it reached a publisher’s desk, I suspect that concerns arose.  Perhaps the publisher had been raised in a household where the parental message was not to offer criticism unless it was be constructive criticism and now found that Ford, with her mostly downbeat albeit valid insights about planning, failed the test for constructiveness.

So, in my imagination, Ford was asked to rework the manuscript to end on a more helpful note.  She complied, appending several chapters suggesting an alternative format for written city plans, a format that she calls Good City Plans.  The direction she proposes, which is to make plans more focused on people, their lives, their hopes, and their dreams, is compelling, but ultimately deficient.  Indeed, I find the Good City Plan concept Pollyannaish.

For one, you’d need to hide currency between the pages before citizens, not motivated by a specific project, would peruse a city plan, no matter how readable.

Also, to implement the concept as Ford envisions it, you’d need planners with the rare talent of writing to a compelling narrative thread.  I’ve read enough planning documents to know that few planners have that skill.

(Not that I’m singling out planners.  Through 35 years as a consulting engineer and cartons of red pens, I know that most engineers are even worse than planners at organizing good prose.)

And yet, even with the more upbeat ending, my imagined publisher still hesitated, wondering whether there was an adequate market for a book about writing better city plans.

Then Katrina made landfall, wreaking havoc upon New Orleans.  To his delight, the publisher had on his desk a draft book written by someone who had first-hand knowledge of how New Orleans came to be particularly vulnerable to hurricane damage.

So the book went back to Ford once more, this time to add in particular insights about the history of planning in New Orleans.  By now wearying of the task, Ford did as she was asked, but her lack of enthusiasm was becoming evident.

Much of the first forty pages explain why New Orleans came to be particularly vulnerable to flooding, with reasons proffered that are both geographical and hubris-based.  A little further in, the troubling planning history for post-Katrina reconstruction was offered, with the unfortunate conclusion that the planning process eventually became more about satisfying the federal bureaucracy than about meeting the needs of the city.  And still further in, anecdotes from Ford’s tenure in New Orleans are scattered through the book.

But overall, the New Orleans connection seems undeveloped.  It may have been a fine marketing angle.  I purchased the book specifically I had plans to visit New Orleans this past summer.  But I suspect that any major city could have provided examples that would have met the narrative needs of the book nearly as well.  Ultimately, the book is about city planning, not New Orleans.

So what we have is a 40-page preamble that unconvincingly ties the “The Problem with City Planning” to New Orleans, a 30-page saccharin afterword that doesn’t provide helpful direction in the real world, and 160 insightful and illuminating pages in between about how planning really works in the trenches.  Luckily for the reader, the 160 pages are good enough that they overcome the weakness at either end.  Good enough that I intend to read the book a second time, with appropriate skimming.

The editorial blunders that I’ve imagined above may have been unfortunate, but I’ve read many books on planning that I’ve found less useful and thoughtful.  I recommend “The Trouble with City Planning.”  I also recommend reading with more attentiveness in the middle than at either end.

In my next post, I’ll take a look at Ford’s position on public involvement.  While I acknowledge her years of experience, I don’t completely accept her perspective.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (