Friday, July 22, 2016

Taking the Next Step - Opportunities to Get Involved during the Week of July 24

Due to travel plans, the research for this post was done earlier in the week than I’d prefer.  Perhaps as a result, I couldn’t find a single good meeting next week to share.  Perhaps readers can instead curl up with a tome from Jane Jacobs or Jeff Speck?

Meetings this Week

None that I know.  But if someone comes across something that I missed, please post a note in the comments.

Meetings in the Weeks and Months to Follow

Petaluma Pedestrian Bicycle Advisory Committee, Wednesday, August 3, 6:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – From what I know of the likely agenda items, the urbanist angles will be limited.  But the conversation about non-auto transportation is often interesting regardless.  (Note: I serve on this committee, but will still be traveling when it convenes.)

Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee, Thursday, August 4, 4:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – The Transit Advisory Committee will consider the final draft of the Short-Range Transit Plan, a document required  from all Bay Area transit agencies by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.  After nine months of work, the plan will be given a final review and likely passed onto the City Council for their approval.  But there will be time between the Committee meeting and the Council meeting for final edits, so the public is encouraged to participate.  (Note: I’ll chair this meeting after returning from travels only hours before.)

Rail~Volution, October 10-12, Hyatt Regency, San Francisco – The leading conference on the use of rail for community building is coming to San Francisco this fall.  The coming role of SMART in the North Bay will surely be discussed, as will the increased density occurring around BART stations.

Other Opportunities to Get Involved

Petaluma Boulevard South – Bikeable/walkable revisions to Petaluma Boulevard South recently flickered onto and off of the Petaluma City Council agenda.  A group of citizens was energized by the flicker, is committed to the goal of calming of Petaluma Boulevard South, and is organizing with the goal of returning the proposal to the City Council with enough votes to approve it.

If you’re interested in advocating for improvements to Petaluma Boulevard South that will make the boulevard friendlier for non-motorists while also creating better connectivity across the boulevard, let me know.  I’ll connect you with the group, in which I’m participating.

Digging Deeper into Urbanism - Many readers attended three evening of talks by Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 last January in Santa Rosa.  The two spoke about the theory of why suburbia often fails and the data that supports the theory.  Initial conversations are underway for a return visit by Minicozzi to the North Bay later this year, a visit that is tentatively scheduled to include an evening in Petaluma, along with time in other Sonoma County communities.

Petaluma was well-represented at the January meetings, but it was largely urbanists who were already familiar with the work of Marohn and Minicozzi.  If we organize properly, having Minicozzi visit Petaluma can educate others, including those who hold positions in which they can make a difference.  Having the visit during the election season can make the event additionally pivotal.

I’ll need folks to assist with organizational and fund-raising efforts.  Please let me know if you’re willing to lend a hand.

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

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, July 20, 2016

Where’s the Urgency?

Mixed-use building in downtown Tacoma
Over the years that I’ve advocated for urbanism, I’ve consistently written that I needn’t argue for eventual return of walkable urbanism as the dominant paradigm because the forces of history will make urbanism inevitable.  Instead, I advocated for a quicker return to urbanism to reduce the pain as the transition progressed.

I may have been entirely too sanguine about anyone listening to the forces of history.

We’ve reached the time when it seems the paradigm shift should be underway.  After three years of deep California drought, strongly tied to climate change, we’re finishing a barely average water year despite indicators pointing toward a wet winter.  With forests stressed by low precipitation, wildfires are rampant.

Cities everywhere, stressed by the costs of suburbia, are teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy.

There is so much dissatisfaction among the electorate that populist uprisings took hold on both ends of the political spectrum during the presidential campaign, one of which has apparently secured a major party nomination.  (Admittedly, many of the surface causes cited as the reasons for the resurgence of populism don’t tie immediately to urbanism, but the roots of lingering segregation, income inequality, the housing crisis, the inability of government to provide services, etc. are entwined with the experiment and subsequent failure of drivable suburbia.)

By any measure, we should be in the drivable suburban end-of-times.  But that seems not to be the case.

A few evenings ago, I bumped into a former Councilmember in my town while we were both browsing in the downtown bookstore.  In the course of our conversation, I expressed my surprise at the lack of concern within the electorate over the climate change and municipal finances, two of many issues that should be pushing us toward urbanism.  He responded that many folks don’t care “as long as they can afford a tank of gas for their new SUV.”  It was a bleak assessment, but seemingly true.

It was same message given by the community organizer to the local group that has been seeking an urbanist candidate for the council.  As she described it, voters are still heading to the polls asking “What’s in it for me tomorrow?”  I understand that many are too focused on putting food on the table and assembling money for rent to think much about the longer term, but it was still a distressing message.

I continue to believe that the return to urbanism is inevitable as the collapse of the suburban model becomes so obvious that even the most otherwise preoccupied can’t miss it.  But it seems that the bankruptcy courts and Mother Nature must swing a larger piece of lumber before we listen.

Which is a shame because it’d be easier for all if we’d listen now.

My next post will be the weekly summary of urbanist public advocacy opportunities.

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, July 18, 2016

Learning the Right Lessons from Nice

Public plaza in Paris
I was particularly distressed by last week’s attack on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais.  The sorrow was sharp because the attack occurred in a walkable urban place, a place described by CityLab as “an elegant Belle Époque version of the Atlantic City Boardwalk”, a place filled with folks in a celebratory mood. 

(Although as I write this it remains undetermined whether the attacker in Nice was affiliated with a terrorist organization, it seems moderately clear that he was a Muslim by birth and was likely using Muslim discontent as a justification for his actions, even if the specific motivation for the attack fell elsewhere.  These likely facts inform my comments below.)

Giving form to my thoughts on the attack provided an unexpected and uncomfortable reminder of recent history.

I recalled having written a post on a similar subject, but couldn’t remember which attack had triggered the post.  So I embarked on a search of my archives, trying to recall the target.  It wasn’t the concert hall or soccer stadium in Paris.  It wasn’t the Orlando night club.  It wasn’t the airports in either Istanbul or Brussels.  It wasn’t the classroom in Newtown or the conference room in San Bernardino.

I finally found it.  It was the Boston Marathon.  Those were far too many incidents of which to be reminded.

At least to my ear, my earlier article has stood up well.  I’d change a word or two, but not the underlying message.  However, there are further lessons that could have been gleaned from the crimes at the Boston Marathon and in Nice, lessons that I didn’t elucidate in the earlier post.  Those were omissions I’ll correct today.

One of the responses to the Nice attack, admittedly a lesser response but still heard, is that public places have become unsafe, that private homes, preferably far from the urban core, are the only truly secure places.

It’s a response that’s tone-deaf on at least two levels.

First, the oil needed to sustain the drivable suburban model, the model that created many of the remote private homes that some would now call our only refuges, has been a primary cause of Muslim unrest.  It’s true that the Israeli problem would have roiled the Middle East regardless and that the transition to modern democracy is never easy, but the perceptions that the West was only interested in the Middle East because of its oil and that many geopolitical decisions made by the West were driven by that interest were major destabilizing factors.

To suggest doubling down on the suburban model in response to tragic events triggered in part by the model is remarkably insensitive and unhelpful.

Second, one of the arguments used by extremists to radicalize moderates is that the Muslims will never be truly accepted into the Western world.

Assimilation is never easy.  We have many examples in the U.S. to prove that point.  But assimilation from behind the locked front doors of suburban fortresses is impossible.

To effectively combat the radical propaganda, we must rub shoulders on sidewalks, at restaurants, and in marketplaces with those who are different than us.

Taking a break from public places in the aftermath of Nice is understandable, but returning to those places after a short respite is essential if we’re to move past our era of fear.

I’ve never thought of visiting Nice, thinking myself more suited to wander the sidewalks of London, Paris, or Venice, but the events of last week may cause me to reconsider.  Hanging out on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, exchanging smiles with strangers, suddenly seems a desirable way to spend an afternoon.

Hopefully, many of you feel the same.

On a personal note, I’ll be traveling for my next seven publishing days.  Given that my plate of urbanist activities has recently become well filled, I considered taking a break from writing.  But I couldn’t bring myself to break a skein of three posts per week that now goes back more than four-and-a-half years.  So, I’ve written, or will soon write, the posts that will cover my absence.  They’ll be published automatically as the regular publishing days arrive.

Most of the posts will be shorter than my regular posts, which is probably a good thing.  I’ve been advised that the desirable length for a blog post is 650 to 1,000 words, long enough to convey a clear message but short enough not to require a major time commitment from the reader.   However, I struggle with the upper end, often writing beyond the 1,000-word limit.  Recently, I’ve been saving up some ideas that can be addressed in fewer words and will use them during my travels, bringing my long-term average slightly closer to the desired range.

Lastly, I may struggle to serve those of you who are accustomed to being alerted to my new posts by Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or email notices.  With a travel computer that is wheezing its way to obsolescence, uncertain hotel wifi, and a full schedule of activities, I may not be able to hit all of my noticing goals.  But I’ll do the best I can, while also encouraging you to visit my primary site each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday even if no notices are received.

(And if you’d like to begin receiving email notices of new blog posts, please send me an email, although you may not get the full value of the request until after I return.)

In my next post, which will publish as I’m winging my way to my comfortably walkable paternal hometown in Ohio, I’ll ponder our failure to turn more quickly toward urbanism despite many signs that we should be doing so.

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, July 15, 2016

Taking the Next Step - Opportunities to Get Involved during the Week of July 17

Another week, another chance to be an advocate for urbanism.  The big event of the week is the Sonoma County Supervisors vote on community separators, although the Rohnert Park Town Hall Meeting could also be interesting.

Besides, it’s always a good week to take public positions in favor of improving the quality of life in North Bay communities.

Meetings this Week

Petaluma City Council, Monday, July 18, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – Tucked in a corner of an agenda otherwise absent urbanist issues is an intriguing consent calendar item.   Governor Brown has proposed that some multi-family projects be allowed to proceed “by right”, limiting the power of cities to shape those projects.  It’s an attempt by the Governor to ease the housing crisis by expediting multi-family housing.  The City’s agenda item is approval of a letter opposing the proposed legislation.

Although I agree with the City that a “by right” standard would allow too much flexibility to developers, I also argue that the Governor’s concern about the housing crisis should be taken as a sign that cities need to find a way to move housing projects along more quickly.  Too many multi-housing projects, especially those in walkable settings that have been particularly valuable in blunting the housing crisis, languished in city planning departments before the recession and then succumbed during the recession.

Cities helped create the housing crisis and the Governor’s proposal, even if too much of a reach, should be understood as a well-earned shot across their bows.

Cotati Planning Commission and Rohnert Park Bike Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Monday, July 18, 7:00pm, Location to be determined – This meeting is a puzzle.  I’ve never heard of a joint meeting of a planning commission from one city and an advisory committee of a neighboring city, but it’s clearly on the Rohnert Park website, at least as of this writing.

There are red flags about whether the meeting will be held.  The Cotati website shows the Planning Commission meeting as cancelled.   Also, listing the location as undetermined only a few days before the meeting is an indication that the meeting in unlikely.

My guess is that the meeting has been cancelled.  But I’d be intrigued to know what the two bodies would have met jointly to discuss.

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, Tuesday, July 19, 8:30am, Board of Supervisors' Chambers, 575 Administration Drive, Santa Rosa – The Supervisors will take up proposed revisions to the Sonoma County Community Separators, lands that are limited to less intensive uses to retain agricultural and open space between communities.  Community Separators and urbanism are two sides of the same coin, with the Separators pushing development toward urban areas and urbanism being the study of how to accommodate that development.

I participated last week in a meeting with one of the supervisors.  The summary is that the supervisors are broadly supportive of the proposed revisions, although details about the duration of the protections and the possibilities of exemptions are still being ironed out.

The Greenbelt Alliance continues to push hard for citizen support.

Please note that, although the meeting convenes at 8:30am, the Community Separators agenda item is expected to be taken up at 2:30pm.

 I’d have normally attended this meeting, but will be only hours from a vacation, so wouldn’t be able to join other Community Separator proponents.

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit Board, Wednesday, July 20, 1:30pm, 5401 Old Redwood Highway, Petaluma – The agenda for the SMART Board meeting still hasn’t been announced, but with the testing of the full schedule looming ever closer, to be closely followed by revenue service, the agenda is likely to include items of urbanist interest.  (Update: I was wrong.  The agenda has now been released and doesn’t have anything of urbanist interest.)

Rohnert Park City Council, Wednesday, July 20, 6:00pm, Rohnert Park Community Center, 5401 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park – The Council will be joined by the City Manager for a Town Hall Meeting, a forum for citizens to ask questions about the state of Rohnert Park.  While the meeting may not be specifically about walkable urbanism, it is likely that many of the answers should, but probably won’t, note a need for more and better walkable urbanism.

Meetings in the Weeks and Months to Follow

Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee, Thursday, August 4, 4:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – The Transit Advisory Committee will consider the final draft of the Short-Range Transit Plan, a document required  from all Bay Area transit agencies by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.  After nine months of work, the plan will be given a final review and likely passed onto the City Council for their approval.  But there will be time between the Committee meeting and the Council meeting for final edits, so the public is encouraged to participate.

Rail~Volution, October 10-12, Hyatt Regency, San Francisco – The leading conference on the use of rail for community building is coming to San Francisco this fall.  The coming role of SMART in the North Bay will surely be discussed, as will the increased density occurring around BART stations.

Other Opportunities to Get Involved

Petaluma Boulevard South – Bikeable/walkable revisions to Petaluma Boulevard South recently flickered onto and off of the Petaluma City Council agenda.  A group of citizens was energized by the flicker, is committed to the goal of calming of Petaluma Boulevard South, and is organizing with the goal of returning the proposal to the City Council with enough votes to approve it.

If you’re interested in advocating for improvements to Petaluma Boulevard South that will make the boulevard friendlier for non-motorists while also creating better connectivity across the boulevard, let me know.  I’ll connect you with the group, in which I’m participating.

Digging Deeper into Urbanism - Many readers attended three evening of talks by Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 last January in Santa Rosa.  The two spoke about the theory of why suburbia often fails and the data that supports the theory.  Initial conversations are underway for a return visit by Minicozzi to the North Bay later this year, a visit that is tentatively scheduled to include an evening in Petaluma, along with time in other Sonoma County communities.

Petaluma was well-represented at the January meetings, but it was largely urbanists who were already familiar with the work of Marohn and Minicozzi.  If we organize properly, having Minicozzi visit Petaluma can educate others, including those who hold positions in which they can make a difference.  Having the visit during the election season can make the event additionally pivotal.

I’ll need folks to assist with organizational and fund-raising efforts.  Please let me know if you’re willing to lend a hand.

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

When I next publish, I’ll comment on the recent events in Nice.

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, July 13, 2016

Revisiting Transit Integration

Petaluma Transit bus
The powers that control the ebb, flow, and cross-currents of urbanism have apparently decreed that this is my week to ponder the integration of transit systems.

Later today, I’ll participate in a subcommittee meeting of the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee.  It‘ll be our final work session before an August public vetting and anticipated approval of the updated Short-Range Transit Plan for Petaluma Transit.

Although the SRTP, mandated by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, would have been required this year regardless of other transit issues, this particular update has been dominated by the desire to integrate Petaluma Transit with the SMART rail system that will begin running in months.

Having spotted opportunities for route adjustments to better connect train riders to Petaluma originations and destinations, Transit staff has spent months honing the routes and schedules, along with managing the concerns of citizens, some angry about the possibility of buses running through their neighborhoods and an equal number distressed about not having service.  The Transit Committee has been providing advice on the process, offering ideas and feedback toward the impossible goal of making everyone happy.

Today’s meeting follows a meeting yesterday with the Transit Manager to review the proposed content for the subcommittee meeting.

And then tomorrow, completing the trifecta, I’ve been asked to participate in a meeting between the Friends of SMART, the citizens committee that worked for  years to bring SMART to reality and continues to provide unofficial oversight of SMART’s efforts, and the Marketing Director for SMART.  It was a request that was likely tied to my role with Petaluma Transit.

My particular issue tomorrow will be travel training.  Both Petaluma Transit and SMART have programs to educate first-time riders about the transit experience.  My concern will be how to combine those two efforts to ensure that prospective riders learn how to ride Petaluma Transit to the SMART station and then ride the train to destinations from San Rafael to Santa Rosa.

Given the flood of transit integration efforts, it seemed time to return to a 2015 discussion of the subject.

The story began with the issuance in April 2015 of "Seamless Transit" by SPUR, a highly regarded Bay Area planning organization, calling for improved integration between the impossibly large number of Bay Area transit organizations.

Although consolidation was one of many tools the SPUR authors noted, it was low on the list, with greater emphasis placed on fares, payment systems, schedules, graphics, and transit center design.  The goal wasn’t reduced administration, but a focus on the ridership experience that encouraged transit riders to move willingly between systems.

Greenwich as viewed from the observatory
(I’m reminded of when I took transit to Greenwich, down the Thames River from London and the source of Greenwich Mean Time.  I took the Tube to a transfer point halfway to Greenwich, crossed the platform to a train with a different name on it, rode to my destination, and exited with the same ticket I’d used to enter the Tube station where I began.  It was soon seamless that I didn’t realize until later that I’d changed systems.)

Although SPUR downplayed consolidation, some reviewers gave it greater play, including the San Francisco Business Journal.

The SPUR report came to my attention about that time.  Concerned about consolidation suggestions being made about Petaluma Transit and feeling intuitively that consolidation would be a mistake, I checked with experts in the field, received confirmation of my intuition, and wrote on the how integration needn’t be consolidation.

The question was also put on an agenda for the Petaluma Transit Committee about the same time, with the committee unanimously concurring that the Petaluma community would be best served by Petaluma Transit remaining independent.

Having struck a blow for liberty, I went back to plowing other urbanist fields, which was a mistake because the best was yet to come.

In August, the New York Times took note of “Seamless Transit”, covering much the same ground as earlier San Francisco Business Journal article, but without once mentioning consolidation.

About the same time, Jarrett Walker, one of the experts with whom I spoken months earlier, weighed in with the best analysis yet and the one link that is a truly essential read.

Walker started by noting how a region named not after its principal city but after the body of water that divides the region is virtually guaranteed to have a fractured transit system.  He then continued onward to note how smaller systems tend to be more highly regarded by citizens and to describe what interfaces best facilitate integration between different systems, Walker’s article is an erudite, enlightening, and educational look at transit.  I’ve now read it three times and each time come away with something different, including a need to read Walker’s book.

Lastly, several of my fellow authors at Vibrant Bay considered the question of how the Bay Area transit system might look if it could be designed from scratch to service the current commuting patterns.  It’s an obviously theoretical exercise, but still provides observations that can be helpful in understanding the future of Bay Area transit.

If there is one overall lesson with which I can take away from this renewed look at regional transit, it’s that when Jarrett Walker talks, I need to be listening.

My next post will be the weekly summing up of upcoming opportunities to be an urbanism advocate.

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, July 11, 2016

CNU 24: Best Moments, Part 3

Downtown Detroit
Having given a pair of updates on efforts to change the political picture in my town and provided urbanist marching orders for the week, it’s time to return to the highlights of CNU 24, the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, held a month ago in Detroit.

I previously provided the best of Andres Duany, who was so prolix, in a good way, that I needed two posts to cover his thoughts.

Today I’ll move on to Kaid Benfield, a man whose quiet but eloquent love for the subtle points of good cities has caused him to appear often in this blog when he still with the Natural Resources Defense Council.  He has since moved to PlaceMakers LLC, taking him further from my radar, but I still looked forward to hearing him speak in person for the first time.

He didn’t disappoint.

 As before, the quotes are reconstructed from my notes and are likely imprecise, but capture Benfield’s intent.

On the job still to be done: “Anyone who thinks that battle for good urbanism is already over, whether won or lost, should remember that by 2050, half of built environment then in place will have been built after today.”

On the current breakdown of CO2 emissions by sector: “Buildings 44.6 percent, transportation 34.3 percent, and industry 21.1 percent.”  With urbanism directly impacting the first two, it has a key role to play in combating climate change.

On knowing when public places are working: “The indicator species for public places are kids and elders.  If both are present, the public place is working.”

And lastly, on the six strategies for good community planning:”1 – Guide development to the right places, in urban cores and along transit routes. 2 – Make America walkable again.  In 1969, 48 percent of children walked to school, today 13 percent do.  3 – Integrate nature into the urban fabric.  4 – Get buildings right, starting with energy.  5 – Employ density with sensitivity.  6 – Create places that people love and will retain, which is a literal version of sustainability.”

(For those who want to dig deeper into the six strategies, here is an earlier version, slightly different in its emphases, but equally valid.)

It’s all good, thoughtful stuff.  As a Parks Commissioner in my town, I tour a set of assigned parks monthly.  Although not as many as I’d like, I often find children playing there, but rarely do I see seniors hanging out, with the possible exception of myself.  It’s a point I need to ponder.

The session was one more reminder of why I love going to CNUs.

When I next write, I’ll provide a collection of links on regional transit planning in the Bay Area.  It’s a subject on which I wrote about almost exactly a year ago, shortly after I returned from CNU 23.  A year later, spurred by coverage on the topic in the New York Times, a number of organizations are taking a hard look at the subject.

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, July 8, 2016

Taking the Next Step - Opportunities to Get Involved during the Week of July 10

We may not yet be in the doldrums of summer, but they seem to be getting closer.  There is only a handful of interesting meetings next week and those are more about information than urbanist advocacy.  But information remains power, so I hope to see familiar faces as I gather information.

Meetings this Week

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit, Monday,  July 11, 9:00am, Santa Rosa City Hall, 100 Santa Rosa Ave, Santa Rosa – SMART staff will introduce the proposals received for transit-oriented development (TOD) on the SMART-owned parcels adjoining the downtown Santa Rosa station.

My concern remains that opening day SMART ridership will be less than it should have been because SMART TOD hasn’t progressed quickly enough to create a ridership base.  But it took BART nearly forty years before TOD took hold, so at least SMART is beating that mark.

Petaluma Planning Commission, Tuesday, July 12, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma - The Planning Commission will consider the site plan and architecture of the proposed Marina Apartments on Lakeville Highway, a short distance east of Highway 101.  While not an urban project, with few services within walkable distance, the apartments are well-located for train riders willing to take a short hop on Petaluma Transit to the downtown Petaluma SMART station.

Through a complicated story that needn’t be repeated here but involved a few thwacks to the head, I became invested in a possible handicap ramp between the apartments and the nearby bus stop.  I’m pleased to see it included as #37 in the proposed conditions of approval.

This is also the project that became controversial when the City Council removed a proposed bike path requirement from an earlier approval.  I don’t believe in imposing all possible exactions on proposed land developments, but did support retaining the bike path condition.  The issue may again be raised during this hearing.

Petaluma Urban Chat, Wednesday, July 13, 7:00pm, Aqus Café, 2nd and H Streets, Petaluma – Urban Chat will discuss the proposed Petaluma Boulevard South road diet and other local walkable urban opportunities.  We’ll also establish a schedule of discussion topics for future meetings.  As always, everyone with an interest in the future of Petaluma is welcome.

Meetings in the Weeks and Months to Follow

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, Tuesday, July 19, 8:30am, Board of Supervisors' Chambers, 575 Administration Drive, Santa Rosa – The Supervisors will take up proposed revisions to the Sonoma County community separators, lands that are limited to less intensive uses to retain agricultural and open space between communities.  Community separators and urbanism are two sides of the same coin, with the separators pushing development toward urban areas and urbanism being the study of how to accommodate that development.

I participated in a meeting earlier this week with one of the supervisors.  The summary is that the supervisors are broadly supportive of the proposed revisions, although details about the duration of the protections and the possibilities of exemptions are still being ironed out.

The Greenbelt Alliance continues to push hard for citizen support.

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit Board, Wednesday, July 20, 1:30pm, 5401 Old Redwood Highway, Petaluma – The agenda for the SMART Board meeting won’t be announced for another week, but with the testing of the full schedule looming closer, to be closely followed by revenue service, the agenda is likely to include items of urbanist interest.

Rail~Volution, October 10-12, Hyatt Regency, San Francisco – The leading conference on the use of rail for community building is coming to San Francisco this fall.  The coming role of SMART in the North Bay will surely be discussed, as will the increased density occurring around BART stations.

Other Opportunities to Get Involved

Petaluma Boulevard South – Bikeable/walkable revisions to Petaluma Boulevard South recently flickered onto and off of the Petaluma City Council agenda.  A group of citizens was energized by the flicker and is organizing to ensure that the subject of calming Petaluma Boulevard South returns to the City Council with enough votes to approve it.

If you’re interested in advocating for improvements to Petaluma Boulevard South that will make the boulevard friendlier for non-motorists while also creating better connectivity across the boulevard, let me know.  I’ll put you in touch with the group, in which I’m participating.

Digging Deeper into Urbanism - Many readers attended three evening of talks by Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 last January in Santa Rosa.  They spoke about the theory of why suburbia often fails and the data that supports the theory.  Initial conversations are underway for a return visit by Marohn and Minicozzi to the North Bay later this year, a visit that is tentatively expected to include time in Petaluma and other Sonoma County communities.

Petaluma was well-represented at the January meetings, but it was largely urbanists who were already familiar with the work of Marohn and Minicozzi.  If we organize properly, having the two of them visit Petaluma can educate others, including those who hold positions from which they can make a difference.  Having the visit during the election season can make the event additionally pivotal.

I’ll need folks to assist with organizational and fund-raising efforts.  Please let me know if you’re willing to lend a hand.

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

When I next publish, it will be to return to CNU 24 for more highlights.

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, July 6, 2016

An Urbanist Learns about Electoral Politics, Part 2

In the last post, I wrote about finding myself leading an effort to recruit an urbanist candidate for the city council in my town.  It wasn’t a task I’d planned, but I noted a vacuum, suggested that someone should fill it, and suddenly found myself leading a growing parade.

It’s not a story that yet has a conclusion.  There will likely be a Part 3 and maybe even a Part 4 or more in the weeks and months to come.   For now, the committee is awaiting a decision from our top possible candidate while also working on a platform.

But even at this stage, there have been lessons learned, some that I already knew, although this experience caused them to crystallize, and others that were new to me.

The top three lessons are described below.

Why the City Council Has a Schism: In the last post, I noted the schism between the council factions that I described as centrist and progressive, a schism that greatly affects the function of the city.  I have a theory about how the rift came to be, a theory that has come into greater focus in the past few weeks.  It’s a story that long-time readers have heard many times, but I’ll recount this time from a different perspective and to make a different point.

Before World War II, land use in the U.S. was predominantly walkable urban.  Even if one lived at a distance from work or shopping, public transit was the most common conveyance.  Private automobiles and trucks existed, but weren’t yet the dominant paradigm.  Indeed, they were still replacing horse-drawn wagons for many tasks.  Few would have considered a twenty-mile daily commute in a single-passenger car.

In the heady years after World War II, convinced that the Allied victory had established that the U.S was all powerful, we changed paradigms.  Although there were also market forces behind the change, the primary driver was planning theory.

We had decided that we could safely consign walkable urbanism to the scrap heap of history.  We began to separate uses, residential in certain districts of our communities, retail, commercial, and industrial in others.  We created a world in which cars were no longer optional, but essential.

And then we doubled down, committing to an interstate freeway system that was initially proposed for the movement of goods and military materiel, but was soon clogged with people driving private cars to and from work.

We wrote rules, such as zoning codes and environmental policies, that either promoted the drivable suburban model or were so attuned to it that they might as well have been promoting it.  And we adopted pricing policies, such as low gas taxes, that further supported the drivable suburban paradigm.

Developers, doing what they always must to stay in business, learned to navigate the new regulatory world and delivered the land uses that we had effectively mandated.

As Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns likes to say, drivable suburbia was an experiment and, contrary to all rules of good experimentation, we rolled it out nationwide, not just in a single place like New Jersey.

And, like many experiments, it failed.

Local governments couldn’t afford to maintain the extensive infrastructure required.  Streets were congested by induced traffic.  People who didn’t own cars were marginalized.  Children too.  And, to add a final indignity, the climate began to suffer from the tailpipe emissions we’d made essential.

But, in the best tradition of human nature, Americans couldn’t admit that they’d followed a false god, instead looking for someone to blame.  Government couldn’t maintain the infrastructure because bureaucrats were inefficient and/or corrupt, leading to tax revolts that brought financial collapse even closer.  Developers had cheated us, taking as profit the funds that could have made suburbia work.

And from the fringes came the thinking that the United Nations was trying to take our cars away through Agenda 21 and that climate scientists were in a vast collusion to change the American way of life.

We engaged in this scapegoating because we couldn’t look in the mirror and acknowledge that our parents and grandparents had accepted the false vision of drivable suburbia and that we should have been more alert to the early signs of unraveling.  Even as newer generations of planners realized the errors of decades ago, but we had no interest in their recanting.  We wouldn’t let go of the suburban ideal.

So, how does this tie back to the factions on the city council in my town?  The two factions have followed different paths of blame assignment.

The centrists still believe that suburbia can be made to work if we just tweak it a bit, maybe through giving developers more free rein.  Although they’re a part of government, they still manage to attract the voters who blame the failure of suburbia on government.

On the other side, progressives believe that the failure of suburbia is the fault of developers, that developers somehow deluded us into drivable suburbia so they could maximize profits.  And they attract the voters happy to buy that story.

Those are two deeply different world views that can’t be reconciled.  And with roots that go back seventy years, it’s a schism that won’t go away easily.

Why Urbanist and Not Progressive: Given the gap between centrists and progressives and the current centrist majority on the council, it would have been easy to look for a strong progressive candidate to balance the council with the goal of getting good urbanist policy from compromises at the interface.

But that wasn’t a route that appealed to me.  I wanted someone with true urbanist credentials on the council, someone who could ally with centrists to encourage walkable urban development and with progressives to slow drivable suburban development.  It was time to turn the council away from an outdated focus on the failed suburban experiment and toward the future.

But it was a complex argument to make.  And I wasn’t sure if I could sell complexity.

Sure enough, progressives were attracted to the committee I’d founded, seeing a window to weaken the centrist majority.  At various times during the young life of the committee, I thought I would lose control as the progressives began to push their agenda.

I was reconciled to the possibility.  I wouldn’t have been the first person to lose control of a committee they’d founded.  And the progressives were passionate folks with whom I had much in common and liked, even as they were threatening to subvert my effort.

But I decided not to surrender easily, so continued to advocate for an urbanist perspective.  With the failure of drivable suburbia obvious to all who would look, I argued that we needed an urbanist to stand up for the right kind of development.

To my surprise, folks rallied to my words.  I hadn’t realized it, but my message had been gaining adherents.  The progressives have stayed involved and remain welcome at the table.  But if the committee is successful, it’s likely that any candidates we put forth will start as urbanists.  They’ll likely also have some progressive credentials and that’s okay.   Whether they call themselves urbanist progressives or progressive urbanists doesn’t matter to me, as long as urbanist is in there somewhere.

Attracting Voters to the Urbanist Banner: A community organizer joined us for a recent meeting.  She offered some powerful words of wisdom about winning elections, words that made me see the difficulty of selling urbanism to voters.

The organizer spoke about how most voters look for immediate changes for the better from the candidates and ballot measures they support.  Long-term improvements may seem nice, but don’t pull in check marks.  People may nod about the nutritional value of vegetables, but order a cheeseburger when no one is watching.

It was solid, credible wisdom that I couldn’t dispute, but it worried me became urbanism doesn’t always have a good story to tell about short-term turnarounds.

Centrists can ask for votes based on the promise to support a broad range of development, bringing good paying jobs to local citizens and more funds into the city coffers for emergency services.

Progressives can ask for votes based on redressing the inequities of the current system.

Urbanists can ask for votes by saying that it we all take our medicine for the next fifteen years as we unwind the worst elements of drivable suburbia and gradually return to a more sustainable walkable urban model, our lives will all be better.

That’s the right message to be pushing, but it’s a tough sell.  The committee is still looking for how to tie a bow on it.

So that’s my story.  It’s been a great six weeks, as an effort to find an urbanist candidate has gained more traction than I thought possible, as I came to have a deeper, more visceral understanding of the governance schism that affects my town and likely many others, as I found myself successfully able to defend the need for an urbanist candidate, and as I came to understand the difficulty of selling urbanism to the electorate.

But time is running short on candidate filing date with the group still needing a candidate and a sellable message.  The next few weeks promise to be eventful.  I’ll keep you updated.

When I next write, I’ll offer my weekly summary of opportunities to get publicly involved in urbanist advocacy.  Hopefully, that summary will soon include debates and campaign functions for an urbanist candidate in my town.

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, July 4, 2016

An Urbanist Learns about Electoral Politics, Part 1

Like many California cities, at least those near the coast, there isn’t much of a political right-wing in the town where I live.  I see few bumper stickers for the presumptive Republican nominee.

Instead, we mostly fall into various shades of Democrats and Independents.  But the clustering doesn’t mean that we all agree.  In particular, there is a long-lasting schism on our city council, a schism that has lately been consuming much of my attention.

It’s not easy to give labels to the two sides of the divide.  Because local issues often don’t map well with national issues, the national labels don’t apply.  But I need names to tell my story, so I’ll give it a try.

On one side are those who seem to believe that things are going moderately well.  They would agree that there are worrisome concerns, such as traffic congestion and the depleted state of the municipal treasury, but their general sense seems to be that if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, just a bit smarter, we’ll be alright.

In many situations, I would call these folks conservatives, but they could justifiably consider that term a pejorative because of the conservative dysfunction at the national level.  Besides, they may all be registered Democrats.  So I’ll call them centrists.

On the other side are those who seem to believe that there are systemic issues that need redress, whether social equity, gay rights, gun control, or something else.  Although a local newspaper columnist can’t refer to these folks except with dismissive quotation marks as “progressives”, they generally accept the word as accurate and reasonable, so I’ll call them progressives, without the quotation marks.

There are no bad folks among the councilmembers.  When I bump into any of them, centrist or progressive, I readily greet them by first name and, if the occasion is right, engage them in casual conversation about the affairs of the day, including the Giants’ bullpen and the prospects for the coming season of college basketball.

But I’m not in full political agreement with either side of the schism.  As an urbanist, I believe that walkable urbanism, although not a panacea, can help with many of the problems that now plague American cities, from climate change to affordable housing to income inequality.  But I find that neither the centrists nor the progressives, for reasons I’ll explore in my next post, adequately embrace the walkable urbanist agenda.

To the credit of the council, the boundary between the two factions can be fluid.  Enough councilmembers are flexible in how they view the issues of the day that voting patterns aren’t always predictable.  Plus, there are many issues that elicit unanimity.  But on the issues that are most divisive, which are usually the ones that matter most to me, the centrist faction generally holds the majority.  And that’s bothersome to me because I find the progressives are usually closer to walkable urbanism.

However, there may soon be a chance to tweak the balance of power.

We’ll have local elections this November.  By good fortune, all three council seats on the ballot are now held by centrists, creating an apparent opportunity to adjust the direction of the council.

The three incumbents have already announced their intention to stand for reelection.  But the progressives in the community have been silent.  So about six weeks ago, I reached out to one of the progressive councilmembers to ask about a progressive slate.  To my dismay, I learned that the handful of potential progressive candidates were all leaning against making runs.

Bothered by the potential void, I chatted with a few acquaintances and eventually invited a handful of folks to join me over a Saturday afternoon beverage to discuss the candidate situation.  The meeting clicked, participation grew geometrically, and there are now fifteen of us meeting weekly.   We’re honing a platform and encouraging potential candidates to consider a run.

We don’t yet have a candidate, but are hopefully getting closer.

Meanwhile, we’re learning lessons about electoral politics.  I already had an inkling on some of them, although this experience has caused my thinking to crystallize.  Other lessons are new.

There are three lessons in particular that I want to share.  But I’ve already taken enough of your time for one day.  When I next write, I’ll invite you to walk along with me in my journey of electoral discovery.

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, July 1, 2016

Taking the Next Step - Opportunities to Get Involved during the Week of July 3

Pedestrian bridge toward
downtown Petaluma
Next week will be a short week, but concludes on a high note with another opportunity to hear Chuck Marohn in the Bay Area.  A pedestrian/bicycle meeting in Petaluma also offers chances for meaningful discussion, with many urbanist-related topics on its agenda.  As always, it’s a great time to add your voice to the urbanist conversation.

Meetings this Week

Petaluma Pedestrian/Bicycle Advisory Committee, Wednesday, July 6, 6:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – The meeting agenda includes review of a residential project adjoining the proposed location for the Corona Road SMART station, the SMART bike parking study, a possible bike-share program, and a Caltrans bike/ped plan.  Additionally, although not noted on the agenda, the City Engineer has reportedly agreed to provide update on the Pacifica transit-oriented development project and the possible Petaluma Boulevard South road diet.

Novato Design Review Commission, Wednesday, July 6, 7:30pm, Novato City Hall, 901 Sherman Avenue, Novato – A public workshop will be conducted on a proposed hotel at the corner of Redwood Boulevard and Wood Hollow Drive.  The site is far from downtown, but is only a thousand marginally walkable feet from the Atherton SMART station, giving it a faint tinge of possible urbanism.

Recession Generation Conference, Saturday July 9, 10:00am, Omni Oakland Commons, 4799 Shattuck Avenue, Oakland – Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns will speak about strategies to navigate a post-recession world.  And he’ll be speaking to a younger group than his typical audience, which might open the door to an effective question and answer session.  For anyone who hasn’t previously heard Marohn speak, this is a good opportunity.

Meetings in the Weeks and Months to Follow

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit, Monday,  July 11, 9:00am, Santa Rosa City Hall, 100 Santa Rosa Ave, Santa Rosa – SMART staff will introduce the proposals received for transit-oriented development on SMART-owned property adjoining the downtown Santa Rosa station.

Petaluma Urban Chat, Wednesday, July 13, 7:00pm, Aqus Café, 2nd and H Streets, Petaluma – Urban Chat will discuss the proposed Petaluma Boulevard South road diet and also establish a plan of discussion topics for future meetings.

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, Tuesday, July 19, 8:30pm, Board of Supervisors' Chambers, 575 Administration Drive, Santa Rosa – The Supervisors will take up proposed revisions to the Sonoma County greenbelts, lands that are limited to less intensive uses to retain agriculture and open spaces and to provide separations between communities.  Greenbelts and urbanism are two sides of the same coin, with greenbelts pushing development toward urban areas and urbanism being the study of how to accommodate that development.

I was briefed earlier this week by the Regional Director for Greenbelt Alliance on the status of the revisions and was pleased by how many areas were under serious consideration for new inclusion.  But it’s the Board of Supervisors, starting on July 19, who will make the final decisions.

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit Board, Wednesday, July 20, 5401 Old Redwood Highway, Petaluma – The agenda for the SMART Board meeting won’t be announced for another couple of weeks, but with the full schedule testing looming closer and revenue service shortly after that, the agenda is likely to include items of urbanist interest.

Rail~Volution, October 10-12, Hyatt Regency, San Francisco – The leading conference on the use of rail for community building is coming to San Francisco this fall.

Other Opportunities to Get Involved

Petaluma Boulevard South – Bikeable/walkable revisions to Petaluma Boulevard South recently flickered onto and off of the Petaluma City Council agenda.  A group of citizens was energized by the flicker and is organizing to ensure that the subject of calming Petaluma Boulevard South returns to the City Council with enough votes to approve it.

If you’re interested in advocating for improvements to Petaluma Boulevard South that will make the street more friendly for non-motorists and will allow better connectivity between the residential areas southwest of the street and the retail/recreational opportunities to the northeast, let me know.  I’ll get you in touch with the group, in which I’m participating.

Digging Deeper into Urbanism - Many readers attended three evening of talks by Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 last January in Santa Rosa.  They spoke about the theory of why suburbia often fails and the analysis that supports the theory.  Initial conversations are underway for a return visit by Marohn and Minicozzi to the North Bay later this year, a visit that is tentatively expected to include time in Petaluma and other Sonoma County communities.

Petaluma was well-represented at the January meetings, but it was largely urbanists who were already familiar with the work of Marohn and Minicozzi.  If we organize properly, having the two of them visit Petaluma can be an opportunity to educate others who hold positions from which they can make a difference.  And having the visit fall during the election season can make the visit additionally pivotal.

I’ll need folks to assist with organizational and fund-raising efforts.  Please let me know if you’re willing to lend a hand.

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

When I next publish, I’ll try to summarize recent insights about urbanism and the electoral process.

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