Monday, May 25, 2015

Celebrating the North Bay Theres

Today, I’ll begin with scheduling notes.  The Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds update that I’ve been promising for the last couple of weeks has moved closer.  However, it’s still a step away from the news that I want to announce, so I’ll defer the update for another post or two.

Also, there is a recently published report on a regional transit strategy that is begging for my comment, so I’ll slide in that topic either before or after the Fairgrounds update.

The result of these adjustments is that I must defer the Petaluma SMART station update, which I had planned for today, until three posts hence.  It’ll be a good change.  There are ramifications to the SMART discussion that will take a couple of posts to fully explore.  It’ll be better to defer the conversation until I can give it the undivided attention it deserves.

Moving around the chess pieces resulted in today being temporarily without a topic.  I’ll use the free day to remind all of us that the North Bay is worth celebrating, both for the distinctive elements of the communities that have been preserved and for the geographical separations that remain.  The two combine to give North Bay communities individual identities, a reality that isn’t always true elsewhere in the Bay Area.

An El Cerrito reader emailed me a couple of months back.  She complained about the nearly continuous development from Richmond to San Jose and about how, although she personally walks for many weekly tasks, most of her neighbors rely on cars for their chores.  Although she didn’t quite connect the dots, I understood her points to be that she believed herself to be living in an urban setting and that she found her local urbanism physically and emotionally unsatisfying.

In my response I noted that having sprawling drivable suburbs bump into and overrun each other didn’t make a place “urban”.  I also suggested that had the East Bay developed with a walkable urban aesthetic it would look different than the current East Bay.  I congratulated her on her walking habit, but noted that unless non-car alternatives were the more convenient transportation alternatives, which clearly hadn’t happened in her neighborhood, the place isn’t urban.

I haven’t heard from her again, but hope she remains a reader and has begun to grasp how her community became the way it is and how it should begin evolving.

The exchange reminded me that I’m happy to live in the North Bay where most communities remain geographically separate.  I won’t claim that the North Bay community leaders of the 1950s and 1960s were smarter than those in the East Bay.  I’ve seen too many Marin County master plans with low-density subdivisions sprawling up hillsides to make that argument.

But the North Bay was spared some of the development pressure that was applied to the East Bay in that era, so it was also spared the legacy of built environments that were shaped by the ethos of the time.

(A couple of years ago, I engaged in a spirited on-line debate with Sonoma civic proponents over a point of land-use philosophy.  One of their arguments was that I had no right to express an opinion because I lived in Petaluma where the eastside sprawls, a development feature that Sonoma has largely avoided, and that I therefore had no credibility.

The argument was an easily dismissed ad hominem attack, but I also argued that the only reason Petaluma looks different than Sonoma is that Sonoma is further from the center of the Bay Area and was therefore less impacted by the pressure for drivable sprawl during the post-World War II era.  I doubted that there was much difference in the wisdom of the Sonoma and Petaluma community leaders of the time.

The Sonoma folks scoffed at my argument, but the loss of an educational moment was theirs.)

Combined with the geographical separation of North Bay communities is a thought that Kent Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council set forth in a 2013 article.

Using Gertrude Stein’s quote about Oakland as his jumping off point, Benfield argues that communities work better when they have points of enduring cultural reference.  These cultural references can be historic downtowns, stately churches, or beloved parks, but their continuing presence from generation-to-generation provides community focal points and preferred inspirations for new development.

Benfield suggests that it was a loss of the cultural references from her youth about which Oakland native Stein was complaining in her famous comment about there “being no there there.”

Here in the North Bay, we’ve retained and emphasized many focal points, from the main street of Calistoga with hilly vista points on both ends to the plaza in downtown Healdsburg to the Sonoma City Hall which may be my favorite sight in the North Bay.

Combining these retaining focal points with the physical separations between cities, many North Bay communities have separate and unique identities.  Novato is different from Petaluma which is different from Cotati which is different from Rohnert Park in ways with which Richmond, San Pablo, Albany, and El Cerrito can’t complete.  Nor can San Leandro, Hayward, San Lorenzo, and Castro Valley.  Or San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, and Campbell.  Or Millbrae, Burlingame, and San Mateo.

We have something remarkable in the North Bay that we should cherish.  But it can be lost, much as it was lost in the East Bay.  Urbanism is the path to protecting what we have, both the focal points and the separations.  It’s up to us to embrace the solutions that urbanism sets forth.  If you agree, I hope your keep following this space.

Next up will be either the long-promised Fairgrounds update or an analysis of a proposed regional transit strategy.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, May 22, 2015

To Pay the Piper Again and Again and Again

I recently wrote about reaching another birthday.  I used the occasion to look into the future of this blog.  But there was another story I could have written about my birthday week.

In the days before my birthday, I had to wait through the line at the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew my license.  The task was the result of a pair of clerical errors at DMV, but it wasn’t the mind-numbing, day-wasting experience that I had feared.  I arrived early, the line moved at a moderate pace once the doors were unlocked, and I was done in less than two hours after I arrived.

But as I waited in line, I had a niggling worry.  I feared that the DMV would deny my renewal because of an unpaid bridge toll.  It was only when I was out the door with paperwork in hand that I truly breathed easily. 

I’ll give a short version of the unpaid toll and ask you to trust me that I’ll connect back to urbanism before I finish.

In early 2010, I received a note from a collection agency in Wisconsin demanding $60 from me, $6 for a toll I hadn’t paid on the Golden Gate Bridge and $54 in assorted fees and penalties because I hadn’t paid the toll earlier.

But there were several problems with the information they provided.  To begin, this was the first I’d heard of the unpaid toll.  There had been no earlier notices.  Next, my middle initial was wrong.  Also, the vehicle noted was a silver pickup.  I’ve never owned a silver pickup, nor even driven one in my recollection.  But most interestingly, on the day the toll went unpaid, I was in London.  At about the time the silver pickup was crossing the Golden Gate, toll unpaid, I was taking a photo of the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.  (Hence the photo.)

I thought my case was ironclad.  I called the collection agency, left a voicemail message listing the facts, and assumed I was absolved.

I was wrong.

Six months later, I got another collection notice with all the same facts, except that fees had continued to grow.  I promptly called again.  This time, I speak with a real person, a very persistent real person.  He has a lot of supposed facts about this Dave Alden who owed them money, multiple home addresses, the names of family members, and information on various vehicles.  Some of the data was truly mine.  Addresses where I lived 20 years ago and even the name of an ex-wife.  He had conflated two Dave Aldens.

I patiently helped him separate his facts into two separate piles, one for me and one for the other Dave Alden, all the time reiterating that it hadn’t been me in the silver pickup.  By the time we finished, he seemed convinced.  I again assumed I was absolved.

Again I was wrong.

Six months later, I received yet another collection notice with even more fees attached.  I made another call to Wisconsin to review the same facts.  This time, the call was escalated to a manager.  At the conclusion of the conversation, I was assured that my name had been removed from the record.

By now, I wasn’t sure if I could believe them.  No other collection notices were received, but I still had trepidation while I waited in the DMV line.

And, very honestly, if the DMV had told me that I needed to pay $200 to clear the matter, I probably would have paid it.  Even though completely in the right, I had familial obligations and couldn’t sit home for a couple of weeks arguing with Wisconsin until my license could be restored.  Luckily, it didn’t come to that.

I’d like to think that I had been unlucky in being wrongly connected to a traffic infraction and in having an increasing mountain of fees attached to the paltry initial sum.  But I would have been only half right.  The incorrect assignment of blame had been unlucky, but the mountain of fees is how the system works these days.

Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns tells a similar story of being dunned for $600 in tolls and fees by the State of Florida.  The facts in his case were different, and he lacked a photo of the Elgin Marbles to support his innocence, so he eventually and begrudgingly paid the tab.

The same concern exists here in the North Bay.  In recent weeks, the Press Democrat has reported on the high fees associated with unpaid tickets and on what advocates for the low-income are saying about the fees, which fall disproportionately, indeed almost exclusively, on the low-income.  The Press Democrat editorial board then weighed with support for fee relief.

(For those with 17 minutes to spare and a tolerance for casual profanity, the StrongTowns link includes an embedded John Oliver video that covers much the same ground, with a soupcon of irreverent and entertaining sarcasm.)

Before moving on, it’s important to note that no one is calling for fines to be eliminated.  If we want to encourage safe roads, it’s essential for fines to be assessed for transgressions such as speeding, rolling through stop signs, and texting while driving.  Similarly, tolls are a small way of putting the costs of infrastructure on those who are use the infrastructure, which is a reasonable goal.  The commentators aren’t arguing that point.  They’re only arguing that imposing extortionate fees on those who struggle to pay the fines and tolls is unreasonable and unjust.

Now, I need to lasso this conversation back around to the subject of urbanism.  The fees that are the source of such rancor are the result of cities and counties struggling to balance their books.  And the books are difficult to balance in large part because we’ve built a world that costs a lot to maintain.   Streetsblog recently provided a summary of the costs of servicing walkable urban versus drivable suburban development.

Compounding the problems, taxpayers choose to disown the costs of the flawed land-use pattern, using self-serving logic to blame government rather the land-use pattern.

So, to retrace the arc from the beginning, we adopted a post-World War II land-use pattern that we eventually couldn’t afford, we then renounced the costs of our poor choice, we then begin to set ever higher fines in an attempt to balance the books, and finally we imposed fees on those who can’t pay the fines, eventually resulting in some being carted off to the modern-equivalent of debtors’ prison.  Sometimes I’m embarrassed for us.

To be fair, there are some non-land-use issues that figure into this story, including a difficult adjustment to a global economy and an unwillingness to address income inequality, but they’re beyond the scope of this blog and, regardless, land-use still has a key role.

Looking at the big picture, ninety minutes of standing in a line at DMV worrying about a possible $200 cost, no matter how unfair, doesn’t seem like much of a cost to pay.  Others have it far worse off.  And our goal should be to address that burden

For my next post, I hope to finally have news to announce on the Fairgrounds effort.  (The on-going delays are frustrating to me also.)  But failing that, I’ll begin writing about a recent development on the SMART commuter train coming to Petaluma.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What is Transit?

(Once again, there’s been no progress on the Fairgrounds update.  I remain surprised by the slowness of the process, which right now is fully out of my hands, but I’ll keep pushing.  Perhaps the pieces will be in place for my next post.)

A feature of the annual meetings of the Congress for the New Urbanism is the Open Source sessions.  Any attendee can propose a topic of discussion, organize a circle of chairs, and begin a conversation.  And many of the topics are well worthy of discussion.  My only frustration with the Open Source concept is that too often there are multiple interesting discussions being conducted simultaneously.

At CNU 23, recently concluded in Dallas, the only Open Source in which I was able to participate was organized by transit consultant Jarrett Walker.  He didn’t have a focused topic, but only suggested that those interested gather to chat about transit.  Despite the imprecise subject, a discussion resulted that offered an interesting insight.

A couple of minutes into the discussion, Walker stopped us and asked the question. “What is transit?”

It seemed a question with a simple answer.  Personally, my initial response would have been bus or rail routes operated by a transit agency.  But it would have been a simple-minded answer that was quickly overrun by the discussion.

First someone noted that public ownership wasn’t a necessary attribute, with private buses, jitneys in Brooklyn and collectivos in Mexico City, filling an essential role.

Then someone pointed out that taxis were definitely a component of a transit system.  (It was a point that I’d made in this space over three years ago, so I could hardly disagree.)   And then someone else added that the taxis of the sharing age, Uber and Lyft, had to be included with taxis.  And that shared-ownership cars like ZipCars belonged in the same category.

And someone else, who came from a city where bike sharing was managed by the local transit agency, added that mode to the discussion.

By the time we finished, about the only modes of transportation that we wouldn’t have considered transit were privately owned cars, bicycles, and shoes that were used for the movement of one’s self or one’s family and friends without compensation.

And having pondered the question since returning home from CNU 23, I’ve come to realize that even those “non-transit” modes have blurry edges, such as providing parking at transit stations to facilitate a private transportation/public transit interface, improving sidewalks to bus stops, allowing bikes to ride on buses and trains, facilitating kiss-and-ride drop-offs at train stations, etc.

Human beings like to compartmentalize.  It’s our way of making sense of the world.  But the best insights and solutions come when we find a way to ignore our arbitrary dividing lines.  Mass and energy were considered different concepts until Einstein formulated that E=mc^2, changing the world of physics forever.  And his successors have been chasing ever broader “unified theories” since then.

I think a similar argument can be made about transportation.  It’s easy to think about transportation as private cars versus public transit.  I’ve certainly done so in this space.  But, even if it makes our heads hurt, we’re better off thinking about a unified theory of transportation, where the most efficient, convenient, safe, and environmentally friendly option is available for each trip we take, whether to a neighborhood deli, to a job in a nearby town, or to a faraway destination.

I don’t know where a unified theory of human transportation will lead us, but suggest that it’s a better way to tackle the challenges of transportation, and of urbanism, than the public/private or car/bus silos into which we often retreat.

The next post will hopefully touch upon several Petaluma issues, including the Fairgrounds.  But if that topic still isn’t ripe for discussion, I’ll ruminate on municipal fines, a topic that has a connection to urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Stories from CNU 23: Infrastructure Patterns, Misallocated Fishing Piers, and the Creation of Funk

Nuts.   I still can’t share the update on Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds that I’ve been promising, although progress was made over the last few days.  I’ll continue to push for having something in my next post.

(For non-regular readers, I help organize a local urbanist discussion group.  The members have been assembling an independent land plan for a portion of the downtown Fairgrounds here in Petaluma.  The plan is proposed for implementation after the current lease expires in eight years.  I’ve been promising an announcement about the next step in the planning effort, but the pieces aren’t quite yet in place.)

In the absence of a Fairgrounds update, I’ll continue sharing moments that caught my attention at the recently completed 23rd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.   (The photo is from a public park near the host hotel.)  This post will almost, but not quite, empty my notebook of shareable moments, although I’ll return in more depth to the topics addressed at CNU 23 in the coming weeks and months.  (Earlier snippets from CNU 23 are here, here, and here.)

The Persistence of Infrastructure: I’ve previously written that, even more so than buildings that can wear out and be replaced, patterns of infrastructure can persist nearly forever.  Build a bridge connecting two towns and the towns become so intertwined that a bridge must always remain.  Construct a lock to allow river commerce to an upstream town and it may be years before the lock can be abandoned.  Configure a subdivision around an assumption that everyone will drive and the multitude of homes may never allow pedestrian/bicycle/transit-friendly revisions.

Maria Zimmerman of MZ Strategies phrased it succinctly during CNU 23.  ”Infrastructure is a way to make your great-grandchildren live by your values even after you’re gone.”

Even if our periscopes toward the future are often foggy and distorted, we should try to build as timelessly as possible.

The Worldview of Transit Managers: The discussion of transit systems can often seem bloodless.  Fare box recovery, route efficiency, traffic signal priorities, and paratransit optimization are important, but only occasionally do those topics evoke passion.

But transit consultant Jarrett Walker pointed out during CNU 23 that transit managers often get a different perspective.  It’s the transit managers who sit across from tearful mothers who claim that a fare increase won’t allow them to deliver their children to schools, causing Children’s Protective Services to take the children away.

It’s worth remembering that transit systems aren’t strictly balance sheets, but are also lifelines on which real people rely.

Not Everyone Needs a Fishing Pier: Staying with Jarrett Walker, he noted that some cities structure their transit systems around providing an equal share of the transit pie to every district.  As he described it, this approach makes about as much sense as giving a fishing pier to every district regardless of whether the district has a body of water.

Transit should be about serving people, not dividing political spoils.

The World is Different Than When I Finished College: In an updated snapshot of a point about which I’ve often written, Christopher Coes of Smart Growth America reported that 64 percent of all college-educated workers between the ages of 25 and 34 now decide where they want to live and then look for a job in that place.

For those seeking economic growth, the message should be clear.  Build places where the next generation wants to live and employers will follow.  (And yes, the Fairgrounds plan noted above follows that dictum.)

Looking for the Funk:  The Dallas-area firm Ash+Lime Strategies, which was active in the planning of CNU 23, specializes in the field of tactical urbanism.  Tactical urbanism is the use of small urban interventions in the hope of triggering bigger ideas.  Faced with a brick hulk of an abandoned factory, some urbanists begin making plans to raze the building and to build four stories of mixed use.  Others bring in a band and a beer trailer to see what magic happens.  The latter urbanists are tactical urbanists.

Ash+Lime partner,   Amanda Popken, speaking at CNU 23, described their goal as being “Create the funk that makes a place.”

I suspect that most North Bay communities have underused places with funks yet to be exploited.  Here in Petaluma, I’ll point toward the aging industrial area bounded by the Petaluma River, E. Washington Street, and railroad tracks.  So, how do we create the funk that would make those places?

Next time, my goal remains to offer a Fairgrounds update.  Failing that, I’ll riff on a way of thinking about transit that was offered at CNU 23.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, May 15, 2015

Stories from CNU 23: The Insulating Effect of Cars and the Forces Behind Gentrification

The Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds update I had hoped to deliver today hasn’t yet come to pass.  Instead, I’ll continue reporting about ideas that caught my attention at the recently completed 23rd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.   This will be my third summary, with previous posts here and here, of moments from CNU 23 that educated, inspired, or challenged me.  As before, I’ll add my own elucidation and comment.

So that I don’t raise expectations too high, the Fairgrounds update won’t be major news, but will be a step in the right direction.  And it will hopefully open the door for participation by readers.

Cars as Psychological Separators: I’ve often written about the corrosive effects of automobiles on urban settings, how they facilitate a hopscotch pattern of development that undermines walkability.

But Andres Duany opened my eyes to another aspect of the damage that cars can do.  In his words, “Cars permit psychological separation.”

He’s right.  Imagine a troubled neighborhood between your home and the places you work and/or shop.  If you walk, bike, or even ride a bus through the distressed neighborhood, you’re interacting with the businesses and people there and you’re likely to become invested.  You begin caring that it becomes a better place, perhaps becoming willing to participate in efforts to make changes.

But if you travel through the neighborhood in a car, you roll up the windows, lock the doors, shake your head, and wonder why someone else doesn’t do something.

Cars can be wonderful things, granting freedoms that were unknown a century ago.  But when they psychologically separate us from our neighbors and our communities, they begin to destroy us.

The Design of Convenience Stores: In another quote from Duany, “A 7-Eleven has the real estate value of a small nuclear power plant.”

Once again, he’s right.  Most of us would love to live a few doors from a cute neighborhood grocery store with a selection of fresh produce and needed sundries.  But we’d recoil at the thought of living a few doors from a 7-Eleven.  We wouldn’t be alone in those responses, so the real estate values would reflect our responses.

But walkability requires those small stores and other neighborhood assets.  Therefore, design matters.  I’m not suggesting that Southland Corp. can’t own neighborhood stores, but only that it’s essential to have design standards that prevent cookie-cutter 7-Elevens from destroying neighborhood values in the name of walkability.

For walkability to work, we need our walkable places to feel like “our” places, not the places that major corporations choose to impose on us.

Gentrification as Pent-Up Demand for Walkable Places: Chris Leinberger was part of a team that was a last-minute replacement for scheduled plenary speaker Jan Gehl.  I was disappointed not to hear Gehl, a long-time leading edge thinker about returning the human scale to urban settings, but Leinberger of Smart Growth American and other urbanist groups was a more than acceptable replacement.

Indeed, Leinberger may have offered the single comment that most affected my urbanist thinking.

Gentrification is a troublesome subject for urbanists.  On one hand, increased investment in urban places is a good thing.  On the other hand, gentrification often results in current residents being forced to relocate.  “Gentrification without displacement” has become a growing mantra, but it’s a difficult goal in many settings.

Leinberger cut through the haze by noting that gentrification represents nothing more than a desire of more folks for walkable locations, including the reclaiming of walkable locations that were abandoned a generation earlier.  And that the sharp increases in property values that usually accompany gentrification, and that often result in displacement, are an indication of the pent-up demand for walkability.

Thus, gentrification and the resulting displacement are signs of a free market pushing back against ill-conceived policies that have for too long encouraged sprawl and discouraged walkable urbanism.

So if you’re someone who has opposed gentrification because of the impacts on current residents, may I suggest that you instead focus your efforts on advocating for more walkable places?  It’s likely that you’ll do more to help those about whom you’re concerned while also making your community a stronger place.  Plus, it’s better for your mental health to be for something than against something.

A note about the photo.  It’s an architectural detail from the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, a grand, old, and reportedly haunted hotel in the heart of downtown that served as the headquarters for CNU 23.

I hope that the next post can be the Fairgrounds update.  Failing that, I’ll offer another few CNU 23 snippets.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Stories from CNU23: Zoning, Complexity, and Encouragement to Risk Mistakes

In my last post, I began recounting moments of insight from the recent 23rd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  Today, I’ll continue along that path.  Eventually, I’ll begin digging more deeply into the some of the topics covered during CNU 23, but for now, reporting the flashes of illumination, along with elucidation and comment as required, is my only goal.

Zoning Interrupted: In a long ago post, I dubiously reported a theory by urbanist flamethrower James Howard Kunstler that the unfortunate American architecture of the 1950s and 1960s was the result of Germany being a World War II enemy.  In Kunstler’s hypothesis, Hitler loved classical architecture, the U.S. hated Hitler, and the U.S. therefore rejected classical architecture.

I don’t claim to be an architectural historian, but suspect that Le Corbusier had a far greater role in creating the post World War II architectural aesthetic than did a rejection of everything Hitler.  I enjoy the barrages put down by Kunstler, but find that some of his more outlandish conjectures must be taken with a stiff dose of skepticism.

However, Professor Emily Talen, addressing a gathering of first-time CNU attendees (I observed from the back of the room), suggested a German war story that seemed far more credible.  She noted that it was in Germany where the concept of zoning was first invented during the 1870s.  By the 1910s when the U.S. was just beginning to dabble in zoning, the Germans had developed elaborate and effective theories about zoning.

But World War I resulted in a rupture from all ideas German, leading the U.S. to wander in the wilderness, including the failed experiment with sprawl, before gradually returning to some of the German concepts.

Permission Not Required:  Andres Duany takes pride in the great number of books that have been written by members of the CNU.  He also notes that much of the output is because of a lack of shackles, with prospective writers permitted to explore different ways of thinking about and presenting urbanism.  In his words, “Unlike the Catholic Church, being an urbanist and writing about urbanism doesn’t require official approval.”

Complexity: Both Talen and Duany made connections between CNU and CIAM, the Congrès internationaux d'architecture moderne or International Congresses of Modern Architecture.  CIAM was a leading player in the turn toward modern architecture.  Founded in 1928 (further undermining Kunstler’s theory about Hitler and modern architecture), CIAM was ineffective by the 1950s and folded in 1959.

Talen noted that, prior to CNU, CIAM had been the last organization to change the land-use world, so the founders of CNU had looked to CIAM for organizational ideas.

Duany did more to contrast the two organizations, noting that CIAM had focused on simplifying and streamlining the process of architecture, whereas CNU has embraced the ever evolving complexity of urbanism.   (This ties back to Duany’s comment about the CNU membership being fairly stable despite the continuing influx of new blood because current members tire of the complexity and migrate to organizations focusing on only one or two aspects of urbanism.)

Willingness to be Wrong: Consistent with nature of complex systems, Duany further noted that being a good urbanist means being willing to be wrong, including the possibility of making a fool of one’s self.  And he encouraged embracing the freedom to be wrong, as long as it’s done with a sense of humor.  In his words, “Unless the revolution is fun, no one comes to the second meeting.”

If the thought of being wrong is disconcerting, remember that absolute certainty about land-use solutions is what led to sprawl.  Working in incremental steps, including occasional missteps, is the only path to good solutions.  Indeed, it’s correctly called the scientific method.

Before closing, a note about Dallas.  The sculpture in the photo is present in several downtown parks.  The apparent intention is for tourists to stand in the middle, posing for photos as the “I” in “BIG”, representing the Dallas approach to life.  During my five days in town, I saw exactly one photo taken of the sculpture.  The role of the “I” was played by a young lady who was trying and failing to get into a handstand.  As a marketing gimmick, it was clever, but hadn’t taken hold.

My hope for the next post is to announce a step forward in the effort by Petaluma Urban Chat to prepare a redevelopment plan for a portion of the current Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  However, the timing is in the hands of another party.  I’ll make the announcement if I can.  Otherwise, I’ll continue with stories from CNU 23.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Stories from CNU 23: Sixty-Eight Percent versus Four Percent

I’ve previously written that I recently attended the 23rd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  As was also true of the previous CNU conferences I attended, CNU 23 was filled with moments of illuminating insight.

Today, I’ll begin offering a few of those gems of urbanist thinking, along with a bit of elucidation as required.  It’s a path that I’ll follow for several posts.

Sixty-Eight Percent versus Four Percent:  I don’t recall who first noted the 68 percent versus 4 percent dichotomy, but it doesn’t matter.  It seemed that every other speaker had his or her own version of the statistic which pointed to the same issue, which is that 68 percent of the American public report that they would like to live in a walkable setting, yet only 4 percent of the current housing stock has a WalkScore of 80 or above.

Admittedly, there are a number of holes that one can poke in the statistic.  Perhaps some of the respondents expressed a preference for walkability along with a desire for a three-car garage or a home on a cul-de-sac, both of which can inhibit walkability.  Perhaps the WalkScore threshold of 80 was set too high.  (I live in a home with a WalkScore of 63.  My walkable retail options are limited, but schools for all grades from K through 12 are within short walks.  For a family with children, my home would be a great walkable solution.)

On the other hand, one could argue that the desire for affordable housing could actually go higher if the financial savings that should accrue to walkable settings weren’t being redirected by government policies that favor sprawl.

Regardless of the arguments that can be made about the exact numbers, with a spread of 68 percent versus 4 percent, it’s obvious that there’s huge disconnect between the housing that most people want and the housing that they’re being offered.  That disconnect was much of the focus of CNU 23.

Respect for Jane Jacobs:  I’ve previously written about how much respect the urbanist community has for Jane Jacobs.  She’s not the font of all urbanist thinking, but her seminal work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” was a key step in getting urban thinking back on track after a series of unfortunate missteps.

An example of this respect was given by a Dallas civic leader who held introduce the speaker at the first plenary session for CNU 23.

Years earlier, the civic leader had organized an annual series of program on revitalizing downtown Dallas.  Securing high-quality speakers was one of her tasks.  One year, she put a full-court press on Jane Jacobs, flying several times to Toronto to implore Jacobs to attend.

When Jacobs finally agreed, the organizer turned her attention to Christopher Alexander, author of “A Pattern Language” which is considered a key document in the understanding the design details of good urbanism.  At first, Alexander demurred, claiming other commitments and work obligations.

The organizer then told Alexander that Jane Jacobs has agreed to participate.  After a long pause, Alexander replied “I’d walk to Dallas to meet Jane Jacobs.”  It must have been a fine program.

Poorly Assembled Mixed-Use: A key element of urbanism is mixed-use, by which urbanists mean walkable mixed-use, with the disparate elements of life located in adequate proximity that cars aren’t needed for many daily tasks.  One of the acknowledged founders of the New Urbanism, Andres Duany, noted how important the walkable term is by noting that “Sprawl is also mixed-use, poorly assembled mixed-use.”

Before closing, I should make a note about the Dallas transit system.  The system isn’t quite as cohesive as it might be, with some unfortunately long walks to transit stops, but it does provide effective service for many trips.  Using a bus ride and the Orange Line rail system, I was able to travel to and from my arrival airport for only $2.50 each way.  And the downtown walk to my hotel was only three short blocks.  I’ve love similar convenience and pricing in other cities.

However, for those of a certain age, the route back to the airport could be unsettling.  The Orange Line train passes right behind the former Texas School Book Depository, with its sixth floor museum, and then stops at the Parkland Medical Center.  If those locations don’t touch a nerve, ask your parents.  Or your grandparents.

In my next post, I’ll continue with stories from CNU 23.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)