Friday, May 27, 2016

Taking the Next Step – Opportunities for Public Education and Participation, Week of May 29

Urban setting in London
I write about urbanism and enjoy doing so.  I hope I’ve opened some eyes to different ways to configure our North Bay communities, alternatives that will make us more resilient, sustainable, and financially solvent.

However, growing a cadre of enthusiastic, but closeted, urbanists doesn’t change the world.  Instead, those converts must take part in the decision-making processes.  Voting wisely in November is a good start, but attending meetings with urbanist angles and looking for the right moments to put a shoulder to the wheel is also important.

Thus, I present a weekly summary of meetings that urbanists, newly-minted or long-standing, might consider attending and at which they can look for the right time to add their thoughts.  I also note a few other opportunities for public involvement.

Upcoming Meetings

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit, Wednesday, June 1, 1:30pm, 5401 Old Redwood Highway, Petaluma – The SMART Board is scheduled to meet, although the agenda isn’t yet posted.  (Update: The agenda has now been posted and will include the discussion of fares, a subject noted below under Other Involvement Opportunities.)

Sonoma County Transportation and Land-Use Coalition, Wednesday, June 1, 4:00pm, Environmental Center of Sonoma County, 55 Ridgway Avenue # A, Santa Rosa – SCTLC has been a long-time leader in forward thinking about more sustainable land-use options, including early advocacy for SMART.  Their next meeting will consider the next generation of land-use changes, including a discussion of rail options beyond SMART.

MTC/ABAG, Thursday, June 2, 11:00am, Finley Community Center, 2060 W. College Avenue, Santa Rosa – The Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments are kicking off their Bay Area 2040 plan to identify the best strategies for efficient investment of transportation resources.  This will be the scoping meeting to elicit public input on the environment impact study to be prepared for Bay Area 2040.  (Note: This meeting is strictly on the EIR and is different than the outreach meetings that will seek input to Bay Area 2040 and are noted below.)

Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee, Thursday, June 2, 4:00pm, Petaluma City Hall – MTC has delayed the due date for the Short Range Transit Plan, allowing more time for North Bay transit agencies to consider their interconnections with the coming SMART train, but the Transit Committee will still have SRTP decisions to ponder, including possible adjustments to evening service.  (Acknowledgment: I serve as chair of the committee.) 

MTC/ABAG, Saturday, June 4, 8:30am, Corte Madera Community Center, 498 Tamalpais Drive, Corte Madera – This is one of a series of meeting at which input will be sought for the Bay Area 2040 plan on transportation funding strategies.  (Reminder: These are the meetings that were largely shut down by Agenda 21 disruptions during the last planning effort in 2012.  I was at the Sonoma County meeting back then and ruminated at length on the disturbances, here , here, and here.  I still agree with much of what I wrote four years ago.)

Petaluma Urban Chat , Wednesday, June 8, 7:00pm, Aqus Café, 2nd and H Streets, Petaluma –Urban Chat will discuss the Bay Area 2040 with the goal of enticing folks to attend the Sonoma County outreach meeting on June 13.  Those who attended the June 4 Marin County meeting will report on their impressions.  (Note: I normally facilitate Urban Chat, but will be away at an urbanist conference.  Bjorn Griepenburg will facilitate in my absence.)

MTC/ABAG, Monday, June 13, 6:00pm, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa –This will be the Sonoma County outreach meeting for input to Bay Area 2040.

Other Involvement Opportunities

City of Petaluma – The City is seeking volunteers for openings on City Commissions and Committees.  In many years, some bodies, notably the Planning Commission and Pedestrian/Bicycle Advisory Committee, attract more applicants than openings, but other bodies struggle to maintain full complements.  Citizens willing to take an active role on these commissions and committees can be surprisingly capable of making community changes.

California Road Charge – Although the deadline is only days away, volunteers are still being sought to help conduct a pilot study on the use of vehicle mileage charges to replace the gas tax.  Although 7,400 volunteers have already signed up for 5,000 spaces in the study, the organizers are still trying to fill demographic groups they believe are underrepresented.  (I’ve previously signed up.)

SMART – The SMART Board is still seeking your thoughts on a fare structure.  Since I first mentioned this poll a week ago, questioning its over-simplicity, the North Bay has largely agreed with me and gone much further.

A Petaluma architect wrote a pointed email to SMART management asking about connections between fares and whether employees would get living wages, whether the extension to Larkspur would be completed sooner, and whether the second Petaluma station would be build sooner.  To my knowledge, he didn’t get a response.

Perhaps even more importantly, many in the North Bay are greatly concerned by the fares, with the fear that ridership will be depressed if the fares don’t offer a sufficient incentive to overcome the advantages given to cars in our car-centric land-pattern.

I find the point reasonable.  My thought is that fares need to be set such that ridership approximates the initial estimates.  If we’re going to spend the money to build a game-changing rail system, we need to ensure that enough people ride for the game to be truly changed.

Meanwhile, folks interested in the role of SMART in the North Bay may want to mark June 15 on their calendars.  It seems likely that the SMART Board will continue their consideration of fares at that meeting.  (Update: The discussion will instead be on the June 1 agenda.)

Lots of opportunities to get involved.  Please grab at least one and hopefully more.

With the full-scale testing of the SMART train likely coming in June, my next post will offer some perspective on the immediate impacts to the communities to be served by the train.

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Is It Time for Regional Government?

Housing in the Goose Hollow District of Portland
Events might be leading the Bay Area to a fundamental change in our pattern of governance.  I think it’d be a good change although, as on most topics, I remain willing to consider counter-arguments.

Let me begin the discussion with a hypothetical question.  Imagine a large business with operations in many regions.  Within its domain is one particular region where it produces several highly profitable products.

To earn that profit, there are three departments in the region, sales, manufacturing, and shipping, which must work well together.  Each department is organized with a staff overseen by a department manager.

Here’s the question.  To whom should the three department managers report?  Should there be a regional director to oversee interdepartmental coordination first hand?  Or should the departments report to a vice president in the corporate office who would be at a distance and would have more departments in other regions to also oversee?

Perhaps I’ve presented the question with a too obvious slant, but I expect it’s apparent to most that a regional director would be the better solution.  If effective integration is essential to an operation, the person responsible for that integration should be in a position to closely oversee the integration, which almost always means daily eye-contact.  Most readers who have worked for larger corporations have likely experienced this structure as the standard organizational approach.

(I once worked for a corporation that tried the other approach, with each group within an office reporting to group directors in the corporate office.  It wasn’t effective.  Along with most other offices, the office where I worked gave lip service to the corporate dictate, but resumed coordination within the office long before the corporate office gave up the experiment.)

Now, here’s the unfortunate fact.  What is a commonsense organizational structure throughout the business world isn’t followed at a crucial level of government.

Within a region, cities and counties are the equivalent of departments.  The roles of the local governmental units may not be as clear-cut as sales, manufacturing, and shipping, but each city and county is unique, providing a distinctive blend of residential, agricultural, manufacturing, professional, creative, and tourism roles without which the region would be diminished.

And yet much of the coordination between the local governments is overseen not at the local level, but at Sacramento, where the governor and legislature must worry not only about the Bay Area, but also San Diego, Los Angeles, Fresno, and a multitude of other regions and districts.

Regional government isn’t an unknown concept in the U.S.  Portland is often cited as the gold standard, with the only elected regional government in the country.  Minneapolis –St. Paul is often noted as rivaling Portland for regional coordination and Unigov in Indianapolis has also had successes.

But the origins of those regional governments trace back several decades.  With the exception of some rumblings in Cleveland, creation of new regional governments doesn’t have any current momentum.  As a former head of Portland Metro was quoted in CityLab on Portland and Minneapolis-St. Paul, “How is it that you can have these two models who apparently sit atop two very successful metropolitan regions, where costs have been managed more efficiently than other places, where they’ve gotten their regional act together – why doesn’t that spread?  Why isn’t it imitated?”

To be clear, it’s not that the Bay Area is without regional coordination.  There are a number of organizations that fill a coordination role, starting with MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) and ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments).  But their roles are more related to setting regional strategies and serving as conduits for state and national funds than as a true level of government.  To the extent that they have authority, it comes from the control of purse strings.

But there are rumblings of change.  MTC’s Bay Area 2040 plan, now getting underway, will again focus attention on the correct role for regional planning.

Also, using their role as a principal funder of ABAG, MTC is conducting a study into the merger or “functional consolidation” of the two agencies, a possible step toward regional government.  Although MTC is aggressively promoting the idea as good for the region, some journalists are questioning the process and the underlying motives

Within the North Bay, the Press Democrat considers regional government worth possible study, but remains concerned that the North Bay would be trampled under a regional government.

I share the concerns of the Press Democrat, but lean more strongly toward a regional government.  I lived for many years in Oregon and watched as Portland made progress as a region.  They didn’t reach perfection, no place ever does, but they made better progress than they would have without the regional focus.

Alert readers may see hints of contradictions in my intended support for official regional problem-solving.

For one, I’ve always argued for the primacy of cities as the level of government from which economic productivity flows.  However, regional government would put another level of government above cities.  I see the conflict, but will argue that it’s the only possible response to the growth of suburbia.

San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose are the beating hearts of the region and set the stage for much of the economic activity.  It’s hard to conceive Silicon Valley or the Wine Country having the worldwide impact they do without the biggest cities having established the regional framework.

But the other cities and counties also play roles.  If San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose are the triple beating hearts, then San Rafael, Santa Rosa, and Healdsburg are other essential organs.  (This is an analogy that I’d best not carry too far.)  In the absence of strong regional coordination, the flow of oxygen and nutrients isn’t as effective as it should be.

So regional government wouldn’t be about suppressing the biggest cities, but about adjusting the region to allow the biggest cities to excel at what they do best.

Also, barely more than a year ago, I argued that Petaluma Transit shouldn’t be folded into a regional transit provider.  (Acknowledgment: I chair the advisory committee for Petaluma Transit.)  My grounds were that Petaluma Transit was better positioned to respond to the local demands on transit, such as adjusting bus schedules to better accommodate the final bell at local high schools or modifying routes to serve newly opened senior communities.

I still believe that argument, while also seeing the value in more regional government.  It’s the eternal challenge to government of how to provide a friendly, helpful attitude toward local problems while also claiming the efficiencies of bigger operations and coordinated strategies.  But the fact that it’s a hard balance to find doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying.  And any attempt at regional government must decide which functions should be regionalized and which should stay local.

So, I favor regional government, at least until someone convinces me otherwise.  But I’m eager to hear other perspectives.  Feel free to join the debate.

When I next write, it will be to provide a schedule of upcoming meetings and other involvement opportunities at which urbanist thinking can be advanced and urbanist voices can add to the conversation.

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

Monday, May 23, 2016

Link-Fest: Why Urbanism?

College Town district near
Iowa State campus
In my last post, I wrote about making adjustments in the content of these posts.  My goal was to reduce my time spent in writing and editing, while hopefully still encouraging readers to advocate for a more urbanist future.  A regular correspondent wrote to ask if he was correct in deciding that I wasn’t “cutting back”.

It was a reasonable question, but not one with an easy answer.  I responded, “If you want three posts per week in which I try to dig into an urbanist topic as deeply as I can, consistent with the inherent limits of thousand-word posts, not leaving new readers behind, and my own intellectual shortcomings, then yes, I'm cutting back.

“If you’re satisfied with three posts per week, even if they have a different blend of content, including more actionable items and greater reliance on the writings of others, then no, I'm not cutting back.”

I left it to him to answer his question.

Okay, enough about my life and my blogging commitment.  Onward to making the world an environmentally better, more financially stable place for the generations to follow.

I’ve picked the name Link-Fest for the posts in which I rely heavily on links.  I find it evocative of what I want to do, although a bit corny.  It’ll work for now.

My first Link-Fest will take looks from different angles at why urbanism matters.

When I started this blog, my primary reason for promoting walkable urbanism was market preference.  In increasing numbers, people such as me were interested in living in walkable urban settings, but the land-use process was largely rigged to deny them the option.  I thought that sucked and wrote so.

But I quickly learned that there were other, equally good reasons to be an urbanist.  Slowing climate change was a big one, as was the perilous state of municipal finances as called out by StrongTowns.

Market preference, climate change, and municipal finances have remained my big three, but there are many more good reasons in a second tier, with public health, water conservation, and child development among them.  On the last, I remain impressed by findings that children raised in urban settings are generally more intelligent and better problem solvers that their suburban and rural equivalents.

The links below take a harder look at several of these points.

Market Preference: A few years back, much made of the preference of young, unattached millennials to live in urban settings, with many using that fact as proof that drivable suburbia was dying.  Thus, the defenders of drivable suburbia pounced when updated demographics began showing that millennials, as they found partners and began families, also began returning to drivable suburban homes.  The drivable suburban advocates claimed that the market preference for walkable urbanism was a myth.

Not so fast, writes Alec Appelbaum in CityLab.  While agreeing that millennials are moving to suburbs, perhaps for affordability or for schools, he notes that there is no evidence that they want the drivable version of suburbia.  He describes how many suburbs are aggressively opposing the multifamily housing that is essential to the core of walkable urban places.  The opposition is often on grounds that verge on racism or demonize the poor.

(It’s possible I’m naïve, but I haven’t noticed the racist component of the argument in the North Bay, but agree that fear of the poor often plays a role in project opposition.)

I didn’t find that Appelbaum buttons up his case well, but he provides the pieces to construct a do-it-yourself argument that we won’t know whether millennials really want car-dependent single-family homes until we provide the full range of market options.  It’s possible that what they want is walkable, transit-friendly housing in the heart of medium-size towns.  It’s an option we need to offer.

The Shortcomings of Drivable Suburbia: Borrowing liberally from James Howard Kunstler and “Suburban Nation”, sources which he should have acknowledged more clearly, Abalashov, writing in Likewise a Blog, gives reasons why millennials may not be in love with drivable suburbia.  (If the link doesn’t work, this Google search should fill the need.)

Although Abalashov doesn’t break much new ground, he covers familiar ground with fresh eyes and an entertaining approach, delivering the moral outrage of Kunstler without the anger and sarcasm into which Kunstler often slides.

Alabashov describes the genesis of drivable suburbia as “an interdependent constellation of misanthropic zoning rules, building codes, and planning guidelines”, complains that “low-density streets don’t need to be so wide that one almost can’t see his opposite neighbour’s house because of the intervening curvature of the Earth”, and describes the architectural details intended to hide the lack of soul in suburbia as a “neurotic potpourri of superficial ornamentation”.

How can one not be entertained with wordplay like that?

The Sufficiency of Property Taxes: StrongTowns made their bones by arguing that property tax collections aren’t sufficient to cover the cost of the infrastructure we’ve built.  They test the hypothesis in so many ways that it’s fully credible.  But the individual case studies, representing land uses that aren’t prevalent in many suburbs, can sometimes feel underwhelming.

Using the explicit data of Iowa property tax bills, the writer of My Mapstory Blog tries to fill the gap.

With mapping software and a trip into the costs of street repairs and replacement, the writer shows that property taxes are only covering 60 percent of the cost of the street in front of a typical residential home in Ames, Iowa.  When the costs of street elements that don’t front lots, such as intersections, are included, the coverage drops to 40 percent.

It’s good stuff and will hopefully silence a few more of the naysayers who refuse to see the StrongTowns truths.

(I visited Ames a few years back.  It was where I realized that college urbanism was a distinct flavor of urbanism.  The photo above is from the College Town neighborhood adjoining the Iowa State campus.)

The Vacuity of the Suburbs: Returning to the shortfalls of suburbia, a recent photo exhibit by Mimi Plumb portrayed the frequent emptiness of suburbia in the 1970s.  A more complete examination of her exploration of suburbia can be seen on her website

Although many of the photos portray a world that was far bleaker than anything I remember from my youth, several are direct hits on the memories of my roots, a connection that isn’t surprising because the photographer and I share those roots.

For seventh and eighth grades, Mimi and I were schoolmates at our newly opened intermediate school.  I remember her quite well, although I don’t believe we ever spoke.  She was among the ruling elite of the newly maturing girls at Foothill Intermediate.

As a tall, skinny, glass-wearing, scholastically capable but socially awkward classmate, I could only watch in wonder as Mimi and her peers established their regime.  Anyone who has ever wondered how royalty spontaneously arose out of early egalitarian hunter-gatherer tribes need only look at what happens among girls between the sixth and seventh grades.

I’m not saying that Mimi was mean to the lesser girls, only that she held shared dominion.  I truly have no memory of how she used her power, being more concerned with the bullying on my side of the gender divide.  Even after all these years, I have no idea if Pugsley was responsible for the smoke bomb in Grant Taylor’s locker.

(For those wondering, Pugsley wasn’t his given name.  He had adopted the full moniker of Pugsley Aloysius Twinkletoes Denver as a protest against life in the suburbs, a conceit that his fellow students and all but one teacher allowed him.)

As a sign that junior high is long over, I emailed Plumb to say hello across the half-century old social divide and to congratulate her on her photographic successes.  Thus far, she hasn’t replied.  Hmmm, perhaps the divide remains.

Urban Places as Sources of Life Knowledge: It’s not only children who learn better in urban settings.  Raccoons do the same.  Writer Jude Isabella, in a post published in Nautilus describes the efforts by Toronto to find a garbage can that would be safe from raccoon intrusion, a search that has proved surprisingly difficult.

As Isabella quotes one raccoon observer, “If they’re in a greatly enriched and cognitively demanding environment and if there are a bunch of traits that are more demanded by a city environment, they could all be enhanced together.”

If raccoons can intellectually thrive in urban places, imagine how children could do.

This post ran long, a tendency I need to conquer, but this type of content is what I’m seeking with my Link-Fests.  I had fun with the compilation and the writing.  I hope it also met your needs.

With the regional Bay Area 2040 plan getting underway, it seems a good time to ponder the role of regional governments.  I’ll tackle the subject 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, May 20, 2016

Making Course Adjustments

Urbanist neighborhood near Portland, Oregon
After many years of writing this blog, it’s time to make some changes.

One of the most pervasive bits of advice offered to wannabe writers is to write.  Talking about the theories of rhetoric, of plotting, of sentence structure, and of grammar all have their places, but experts say that skill at writing only grows when pen is touching paper or fingers are touching keyboard.

From my earliest days of putting a No. 2 pencil to lined paper, I’ve believed the advice.  And I’ve generally found it to be true, whether as a high school student trying my hand at short stories, an engineer assembling feasibility studies, or an urban advocate putting my thoughts into this space.

Although I’m usually pleased when I look back at my earliest blogging efforts from back in 2011, finding that most of the posts has stood up well enough over time, I also think I can discern that I’ve become a better writer, more aware of logical structure and better capable of addressing the questions that readers will pose before they have a chance to organize their thoughts.  (I have one reader in particular who often congratulates me on the latter skill.  His words never fail to please me.)

But I also recognize that one skill has failed to grow.  I find myself increasingly incapable of producing words at an effective pace.  Instead, as my ability to be cogent and comprehensive has slowly grown, my ability to do so on the clock seems to have declined at an even greater rate.

I publish three new posts each week.  And I haven’t missed a single post in the history of this blog.  (In an oft-told story, a partner and I began this blog together, equally sharing the writing task.  Given the arrangement, we adopted a three times weekly schedule to give enough new content to keep readers coming back.  The partner opted out shortly after launch, my efforts to find a new partner have come to naught,  and I’ve written three times each week by myself ever since.  It was never my plan, but here I am.)

I’m finding the finishing the three posts increasingly difficult, a fact evidenced by my publishing times.  For a long time, 8:30am was my target time for publishing.  Then I decided that any time before noon was acceptable.  Then the afternoon, with the occasional evening, became increasingly common.  Most recently, I’ve decided that I could live with any time before I retire for the night.  As a result, a couple of recent posts have been published at 12:02am the day after my scheduled publishing day.

And it can yet become worse.  Even as I struggle with timeliness, I can see that other factors, personal, familial, professional, and civic, could soon crimp my writing time.

Meanwhile, I’m becoming increasingly concerned that this blog is missing a key element of urbanist advocacy.  Most of what I write is targeted toward opening people to the possibilities and benefits of urbanism, with the goal that they become advocates for better land-use planning.  But even as I gain ground in the educational effort, I find that readers are unsure what to do with the new information, often unaware of how to convert new convictions into community change.

It’s not a question with an easy answer because the pressure points where change can be effected are often elusive.  But the first step is becoming familiar with the decision makers and the processes, which means becoming involved and attending public meeting with urbanist aspects.

To address with these concerns about time devoted to writing while also providing the information that readers need to help change their communities, I’ll be adding three elements to this blog.

First, I’ll write more posts that are more collections of links, although usually organized around a single urbanist topic.  I’d planned one of these posts for today, but have already claimed too much of your attention, so it’ll await my next post.

Second, I’ll provide dates and times for meetings that citizen activists may wish to attend for the land-use aspects.  How well I can track down all meetings in the North Bay is uncertain.  Assistance from other folks in the North Bay would be appreciated.  As of today, the list below includes a review of scheduled municipal meetings in Novato, Petaluma, and Cotati, although next week will be a slow week for meetings at city halls.

Third, I’ll note other opportunities to become involved citizens.

I don’t yet know how I fold these new elements into my current blend of posts.  I have ideas, but will play with different patterns over the next few weeks.

 For today, my first lists of upcoming meetings and other involvement opportunities are provided below.

Upcoming Meetings

Tuesday, May 24, 7:00, Cotati City Hall – The Cotati City Council meeting will include consideration of a November ballot measure to extend the current Urban Growth Boundary through 2048.  It seems a mostly uncontroversial proposal and is consistent with the already adopted General Plan.

Wednesday, June 8, 7:00, Aqus Café, 2nd and H Streets, Petaluma – Petaluma Urban Chat will discuss the Plan Bay Area 2040 process that will set priorities for transportation funding.

Monday, June 13, 6:00, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, Santa Rosa – MTC and ABAG will host the Sonoma County open house for Plan Bay Area 2040.

Other Involvement Opportunities

 City of Petaluma – The City is seeking volunteers for opening on City Commissions and Committees.

California Road Charge – Volunteers are being sought to help conduct a pilot study on the use of vehicle mileage charges to replace the gas tax.  (I’ve previously signed up.)

SMART – The SMART Board is seeking your thoughts on a fare structure.  It’s a rather simple poll allowing folks to easily support only the lower fares.  But before you vote, remember the higher fares will help toward extending the SMART system and completing the bike-pedestrian path.

So there are two of the new elements proposed for the blog.  The third will be introduced in my next post, when I provide several links that try to answer the question “Why urbanism?”

Thanks for being tolerant of the changes that I’m trying to make.  I remain committed to urbanism, but need to reduce the hours I spend at the keyboard, while also providing more direction to readers on how to make a difference in their communities.

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

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Water Conservation Standards: Smarter, but Not Smart Enough

A few weeks back, I opined that calls to lift California’s drought-driven water conservation standards were at best premature and at worst wrong-headed.  Since then, the initial updates to the standards have begun to come forth.  They could be worse.  They could also be better.

Thus far, the State Water Control Board has floated a proposal to remove mandatory water conservation, replacing it with a requirement for water agencies to adopt water conservation plans that will allow them to meet public health and safety needs during three-year droughts.  Given recent weather patterns, it’s a reasonable approach.

But I still fear that climate change might make the three-year drought assumption an insufficient hurdle.  Perhaps not as a mandatory requirement but as an instructive stress test, I’d like to see the water conservation plans checked against a three-year drought followed by a year with 80 percent of historical average precipitation followed by another three-year drought.  I suspect the North Bay could survive the test, but I’m not sure about the rest of the state.

Meanwhile, the Governor and others are imposing water conservation measures, such as not allowing landscape irrigation for 48 hours after rainfall and requiring the use of nozzles for car washing, that will make water saving easier.  Earlier this week, Petaluma adopted new measures that included requiring not only the installation but also the use of pool covers.  As one Councilmember accurately noted, it was a “stop doing stupid stuff” measure.

But nowhere in all the discussion is my favorite approach.  How about encouraging land development patterns that use less water and less water-intensive energy?  Walkable urban development is the gold standard, and not just architecture that looks walkable, but neighborhoods and districts in which it’s reasonable for people to live without cars, conducting their daily lives on foot, bicycle, and transit.  We know those kinds of places use less water than sprawling single-family neighborhoods.

But there are other land-use options that could also make water conservation sense.  Further encouragement of accessory dwelling units is one.  Although my wife and I live on a small lot, we’re in a neighborhood with many lots of 10,000 to 12,000 square feet, with much of the area covered in light landscaping.  Facilitating small supplemental homes for the surplus land could add dwelling units with little impact on community water demand.

Water conversation is great, but treating our current land-use as fixed and then looking for water savings inside the paradigm isn’t digging deeply enough.  For many reasons, of which water conservation is only one, we should spend more time looking for solutions outside the box. 

Before closing, I should note that the low water-use plantings in our former fountain are becoming established.  I anticipate the fountain being covered by the end of summer.  It can be a symbol of our new climate change reality.  And if anyone might wonder, our lawns went away years ago.

When I next write, I’ll introduce a small change in my publishing approach.  Those who email me in alarm every time I broach the possibility of adjustments needn’t be concerned.  I’ll hold the same publishing schedule, but will take a different approach to one post each week.  More details will follow next time, along with a small handful of “Why urbanism?” links.

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

Monday, May 16, 2016

Even If They’re Not Really Leaving, They’re Still Telling Us Something

A recent poll of Bay Area residents found that 34 percent were thinking of leaving the region, with many citing traffic congestion and the cost of living as their reasons.

Despite the polling result, I seriously doubt we’re on the verge of an abrupt depopulation.  I suspect that no more than five percent of the Bay Area population is truly thinking of moving away and that many of those are because of job transfers or retirements.  Plus, there are certainly more than enough folks ready to fill any vacancies.

But that still leaves the question of why so many folks are willing to express the thought of leaving.  My guess is that, although family or professional ties will keep them in the Bay Area, most of the 34 percent are truly unhappy with the commute and the cost of living.  Loud but insincere threats to leave are their way of ensuring that others take note of their dissatisfaction, much like an otherwise well-adjusted youngster threatening to run away from home over a bedtime dispute.

Whether or not they’re being petulant, I prefer not to share my region with people who are unhappy, so I’d like to address their concerns.

The problem is that many of the dissatisfied were weaned on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, “Leave It to Beaver”, “Happy Days” or “Growing Pains” and wonder why they can’t afford single-family homes with expanses of grass and roads that always flow freely, which generally means sprawl.  As noted in the article, “the majority of residents in that poll thought more housing and a better transportation system should be built outside the Bay Area.”  (Of course, we’ve known for years that those solutions don’t work.  Indeed, the flawed reliance of earlier generations on those solutions is a primary cause of our current malaise.)

And even those of a more recent vintage wonder why their urban apartments can’t be as big and well-appointed as the one rented by Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe.

So the challenge for those of us who actively work toward creating better, more functional cities is how to create places that may not measure up to the ideals of television but are sufficient to make people content with their Bay Area lifestyle.

Luckily, I think that’s an achievable task.  But we need to quit putting bandages on drivable suburbia, find a way to treat it as a sunk cost, and move onward to solutions based on walkable urbanism.

The Bay Area Council, the business-sponsored public policy advocacy group who conducted the poll, sees much the same solution.  It’s good that walkable urbanism is finding adherents from across the political spectrum.

Those who read the article to the bottom should have also seen the comments of the low income housing advocate who endorsed rent control, fewer evictions, and affordable housing over luxury housing.  I understand her perspective and share much of it.  But I also think that the evils she sees are the symptoms of and exacerbated by the drivable suburban paradigm.  Her concerns won’t be easy to solve, but the more we focus on symptoms in place of underlying problems, the slower we are to implement the right long-term solutions.

When people threaten to leave the Bay Area, they may not really mean it.  But they’re still telling us something and we should be listening.

Although it’s been only a couple of weeks since I last wrote on the subject, updates came quickly to water conservation standards after the more “normal” winter of rainfall.  I’m not fully satisfied with the resolution, but at least it’s not a full-blown “the drought is over” celebration.  I’ll write 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 (

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Train is Coming, Are We Ready?

SMART train in the shop
I’ve written before about Friends of SMART.  The citizen advocacy group was active in the initial formulation and voter approval of SMART, the coming commuter rail system for the North Bay.  They’ve continued to provide encouragement and occasional constructive criticism as the SMART moved into construction and now nears operation.

I became involved with Friends of SMART when our positions aligned in the discussion about where the second train station in Petaluma should be located.  I then played a role in their battle to allow an effective bicycle/pedestrian crossing at Jennings Avenue in Santa Rosa.

I enjoy hanging out with the folks at Friends of SMART who give liberally of their time to help improve their communities.

Now, it also turns out that being a member of Friends of SMART has perks.  The SMART General Manager recently contacted the Friends of SMART president and invited him to bring the membership for an early morning tour of the SMART shop, followed by a preview train ride from the shop to the downtown Santa Rosa station and back.

Friends of SMART (photo by Chris Stevick)
Thus, I found myself gathering with thirty other folks on a grey morning earlier this week at the SMART yard near the Santa Rosa Airport.

As a civil engineer, I’ve been around a fair number of industrial sites, from hydroelectric powerhouses to steel fabrication yards.  And yet there was still something uniquely impressive about the SMART shop with its sparkling newness, its array of tools and spare parts waiting to spring into full use, and the visual incongruity it offered, with the hulking mass of a train ready to carry passengers but confined for the moment inside a building.

SMART staff
Equally impressive was the SMART staff who spoke with us, comfortably and familiarly citing the various sections of the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) with which rail systems must comply, the procedures SMART was implementing to assure that compliance, and anecdotes from the world of railroading that justified the strict regulatory approach.

Although the train ride was more within the everyday experience of many people, and therefore less new and different, the improved train technology was still impressive.  From the smoother acceleration and braking to the lack of clacking over rail joints, the changes were incremental but noticeable.  Also, compared to the aging interiors of the BART cars, the new and better appointed SMART cars were a very different experience.

But, as positive as the experience was, the view from the rolling train still gave me pause.  Almost a year ago, in writing about the location for the second Petaluma station, I used these words, “If we can’t facilitate the type of places where people would live who would be likely to ride the SMART train, then the train may be an engineering success, but a financial and social failure ….”

Riding the train
Those words were directed at SMART, but can equally well apply to many of the cities along the SMART alignment and also some regulatory agencies.  During the short ride taken by Friends of SMART, we saw the downtown Santa Rosa station where any new housing is still years away and the North Santa Rosa station where the Jennings Avenue crossing remains blocked by fencing, forcing potential riders into a longer and uncomfortable walk, while the Public Utilities Commission ponders a decision.

Looking beyond the extent of the preview ride, Rohnert Park is just getting underway with transit-oriented development.   Petaluma is even further away, with the exception of a project that is more suited to car-oriented families than to bike/ped/transit-oriented millennials or seniors.  Nor, with the exception of local transit service, has Petaluma made much progress with parking or improved pedestrian/bicycles routes.  And Novato, despite a late decision to add an eventual downtown station, will greet the first SMART train with stations that have few homes within walkable distance.

To be clear, the cities don‘t have the sole responsibility for some of these deficiencies.  Other agencies, including SMART itself, share some culpability.  But spreading the blame around doesn’t make it less of a concern.

Earlier this week, I had lunch with a career hotelier.  Our conversation was about the steps leading up to a hotel opening.  He made the point that having the hospitality operation complete and integrated on opening day set a tone that could carry through the life of the hotel, but that making up for a disorganized opening day could take years.

 I don’t think commuter trains are quite as prone to the ”Day One Equals Destiny” equation, but starting strong still matters.  With stories rolling in about low ridership on new rail systems elsewhere in the country, many of them related to a failure to encourage land use that would provide passengers for the rail line, it’s a concern that the North Bay will have so little development in place for SMART’s opening day.

Also, low initial ridership will embolden the critics of the SMART who have predicted few passengers, perhaps allowing them to further slow the needed strategic decisions.

Promoting land uses to integrate with the coming rail service was a task that needed to be tackled on a timely basis.  Unfortunately, the window for a timely response has already closed.  But sooner still remains better than later because the train will arrive whether or not we’re ready.

When I next write, I’ll take note of a recent poll that showed a third of all Bay Area residents thinking of moving elsewhere.  I don’t believe they really mean it, but the poll still tells us something to which we should be listening.

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

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Sometimes Developers Aren’t the Problem

Burdell Building and nearby SMART tracks
Building upon my recent theme that land developers are sometimes pilloried unfairly, with even urbanist icon Jane Jacobs having been splattered by anti-developer sentiment, I’ll write about two proposed projects in my town of Petaluma.  From my urbanist perspective, neither project would meet the long-term needs of my community.  And the developers have little responsibility for either shortfall.

The first project was a proposed multifamily development near the soon-to-be-operating SMART rail station in downtown Petaluma.  It would be sited in a portion of the parking lot behind the Burdell Building, a historical brick structure that was carefully restored 15 years ago and remains a beloved community landmark.

Years ago, the owners began playing with the possibility of adding housing to the site.  The housing would replace a portion of the over-sized parking lot.  It was a great location for transit-oriented development, only 400 feet from the platform for the rail station.

Over time, the owners and their consulting team refined their plan to be consistent with City standards, eventually creating a plan they were ready to submit.

Although I hadn’t made time to look at the architectural renderings, I nonetheless attended the Planning Commission hearing on the project.  I was prepared to enthusiastically endorse the project as the kind of walkable urban development needed in Petaluma.

What I saw at the hearing nearly unsold me.

The first problem was orientation and massing.  The housing would be a long, skinny building, oriented at right angles to the street on which it fronted.  When a commissioner described it as looking like a Motel 6, I ruefully nodded in agreement.

The next bigger problem was the building height.  With a pitched roof on top of three stories, it was taller than the Burdell Building.  Whatever necessary role the housing might fill, the Burdell Building should have remained the dominant feature in the vicinity.

And the biggest problem was the unit count.  Despite dominating the site, peeking over the ridge line of the respected Burdell Building like a rogue Motel 6, the new building would have only fifteen new homes, all multi-bedroom over two-car garages.

With its proximity to the train station, with the bus transit mall only a block further away, and with downtown within a walkable distance, it was a site that called for a dense collection of one-bedroom, studio, and perhaps even micro apartments.   Maybe 30 to 40 units total and perhaps 0.75 unbundled parking spaces per unit with some tenants, due to lifestyle preference, finances, age, or disability, living carless.  (I understand that the low parking count and unbundled parking would trigger parking management issues, but that’s a challenge that the City must soon face regardless.)

None of this is to criticize the owners or the design team, who had come up with a finely-tuned and consistent response to the standards and incentives set forth by the City.  The problem was that the standards and incentives, from impact fees to parking standards, were twenty years or more out of date.

Providing the right answer to the wrong question was a pattern I’d soon see again.

Last week, I attended a neighborhood meeting on the proposed Riverbend project, hosted by the developer.  (I’m not a neighbor, but a reader alerted me to the meeting, so I slipped in quietly, sat near the back, and stayed mostly quiet.)

Much of the Riverbend project would be located on an unusual parcel, currently blocked on all sides by the Petaluma River, SMART tracks, and an unbroken back line of a subdivision and therefore lacking vehicular access.

The lack of access intrigued me.  While I didn’t have a particular development concept in mind, I was hoping for something like New York City’s Roosevelt Island, a long, skinny island in the East River for which the only vehicular access for many years was an elevator from the Queensboro Bridge passing overhead.  The result was a cohesive community that has remained partially carless.  It may seem foolish to hope for something similar in the North Bay, but the world is often changed by people willing to seem foolish.

Nonetheless, my hope was left unfulfilled.

What the developer offered was a conventional bridge connecting the inaccessible parcel to a second parcel, which he also owns, on the other side of the river.  On the two parcels, he proposed a tidy little subdivision of moderately sized homes and well-located parks.  Many of the garages would be accessed by alleys, leaving the street frontages driveway free.

Small lot, alley-served housing project in Oregon
It’s a fine concept.  In fact, it’s the spiritual descendent of an Oregon project for which I was the consulting engineer almost twenty years ago.  (See photo.)  Because it was cutting edge for its time and because the folks with whom I worked were all good folks, the project remains a personal favorite.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s the right model for this site, which is far closer to downtown and needs something less pastoral.

Let me list a few objections that came to mind during the meeting.

Unit Count: The developer described it a feature that the project had only 117 units compared to the 190 that the zoning would have allowed.  I call it a bug.  We only have so much land that is relatively close to downtown.  The fewer homes that are put on that land, the more growth is forced to the fringes where car use will be greater.

Transit-Oriented Development: The developer described the project as transit-oriented development.  With a walking distance of about 2,300 feet from the development to the platform for the SMART train, he may be technically right under some definitions.  But much of that walk would be on a narrow sidewalk alongside a busy collector.  Only a masochist would make that walk a part of their daily commute.

About the only way the project could be called transit-oriented is if it has a frequent bus or shuttle connection to the SMART station.  But making that connection work requires a lot of riders.  See above.

Consistency with Neighborhood: The developer proudly described the project as consistent with the neighborhood, a reasonable selling point when talking to the neighbors.  But if every project is consistent with its neighbors, the entire town would be alike.

Instead, there is value is increasing the intensity of uses nearer the urban core.  In place of zones, urbanists often use urban transects to increase uses as the urban core is neared.  If transects were the land use governance tool for this parcel, bumping the transect upward would have been appropriate to smooth the transition between the existing neighborhood and the industrial and heavy commercial uses that are next on the route downtown.

And the higher transect would have given the greater unit count and possible support for bus service.

Once again, what the developer called a feature, I’d describe as a bug.

Despite these criticisms of the plan, I again assign only limited responsibility to the developer.  He had developed an elegant and reasonable plan that conformed to the land-use rules.  He’s giving the city what the city says it wants through its written standards.  It’s not his fault that those standards, from the using of zoning to the application of density standards, represent the thinking of twenty or more years ago.

Instead, the problem lies with us.  Despite the evidence of climate change and municipal failure caused by the old model, we’ve failed to elect officials who would have pushed to update the rules and we’ve sat by as the planners who could have updated the rules were terminated because of budget constraints.

Developers aren’t always blameless, but more often we’re the ones with the culpability for outdated and inadequate land-use ideas.  We need to do better.

As final note, if some are beginning to wonder if I’m a curmudgeon who dislikes every land use project, I can rebut.  Last evening, I sat through a Planning Commission meeting in which a developer and architect found a path through the planning code to present a project that was forward thinking and a good step forward for Petaluma.  I needn’t describe it here, but I applauded silently when the Planning Commission approved it unanimously.

Earlier today, I had a chance to take a preview ride on the SMART train.  I was impressed by the engineering and the quality of the staff.  I’ll expound when I next write.

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