Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Neighbors are Great, in Measured Doses

I have a regular reader who often responds when I write about socialization in urban settings.  After living for a number of years in a low-density, west Marin rural neighborhood, the reader and his wife moved several years ago into a moderately dense urban setting, on the outer fringe of what can be considered walkable.  (His Walk Score is 63.) 

The reader tells me that he found the socialization better in his rural neighborhood.  He reports that he and his wife have tried, with limited success, to make friends in their new neighborhood.

I’ve responded that social networks take time and that the buffer between public and private spaces is crucial.  My responses were generally adequate, but felt less informed and complete than I might have wished.

Luckily, Charles Montgomery came to my rescue with a story in “Happy City”, a story that also resonated with experiences from my own life.  Montgomery’s theory, for which I can vouch, is that socialization requires settings in which interaction can be initiated and sustained, but from which a graceful retreat is also possible.

Montgomery tells the story of a Vancouver resident.  Thinking that he would be happy in a small apartment with a great view, the man bought a condominium in one of the slender towers that define the Vancouver approach to urbanism.  But the skinny common hallway leading to his condominium front door wasn’t conducive to social contact.  Even when he bumped a neighbor, the greetings were brief and perfunctory.  The man soon found himself lonely, with the view taunting him in his isolation.

Chance led him to move to a different condominium, one in a two-story building near the foot of the tower.  In his new unit, the social interface was different.  He could retreat inside when he wanted privacy, linger on his balcony when he was willing to exchange greetings with neighbors, and even be lured into community volleyball games in the common area.

He blossomed in his new setting, building strong relationships that helped define his life.

I can relate a similar experience from my own life.  My first three post-college homes were in multi-family settings, two apartment complexes and one condominium development.  Each place had a different configuration, with differing socialization effects, although it took me years and “Happy City” to understand why that was.

My first home was an apartment with interior hallways.  There was no place to linger in the halls.  I only saw neighbors if we both happened to be in the hallway at the same moment.  There was a pool in the center of the complex, but with some 300 units in the development, the chance of seeing a familiar face at the pool was slight.

I lived in the apartment for a year and became acquainted with only a single person.  As I recall, the only knock on my door during the entire year was by a policeman with an arrest warrant for the previous tenant.

My second home was even less facilitating of socialization.  The front doors were reached by exterior walks and stairs that were shared by only one other apartment.  Nor was there an area for mingling anywhere within the development.  I lived there eight months and don’t recall a single other person.

I wouldn’t have described myself as lonely in either of the apartments.  But after five years of college with the shared living and laughter of dorm rooms and campus apartments, it was odd to find my social life existing only at work and elsewhere away from home.

And then I got lucky.  Having done my first full-year, post-college tax return and realizing that I desperately needed deductions, I looked for a home to buy.  I found a nearby condominium project that was nearly sold out.  But one of the units had fallen out of escrow.  I quickly snapped it up.

And so I found myself with a condominium overlooking a pool.  The front door access was much like the second apartment, an exterior walkway and stairs shared with only one other unit.

But the key feature was the balcony perhaps thirty feet from the end of the pool.  I would arrive home after work, shed my tie, and step onto the deck to see who was hanging out.  Spying a few friends, I could grab a beverage and join them.  Or if there was no one with whom I wanted to chat, I could retreat inside to begin dinner.

From the balcony launch pad, much like the latter condominium in Charles Montgomery’s Vancouver example, I quickly built a social circle.  At its peak, there were perhaps a dozen of us who gathered around the pool in various combinations, sometimes continuing onto dinner in one of our homes.  And all of us lived around the pool, giving us the opportunity to engage or to withdraw as we saw fit.

It’s been more than 30 years since I moved on after that condominium, but I still remain in regular contact with one of the couples from that social circle and their children who later in life completed their family.

And that’s the message that I’d give to my reader frustrated by the socialization of his semi-walkable neighborhood.  It’s not he and his wife.  It’s not unfriendly neighbors.  It’s the settings that fail to give us the range of social interaction possibilities.

We’re cautious in how we get to know people.  We want to meet new people.  But we also don’t want to find ourselves stuck in conversation with a boor for the evening.  Not do we want to risk being rebuffed if we move too quickly.  And so we need settings that allow us to dip our toes into the social whirl and that allow us to withdraw when we wish

Urbanism can meet that standard, as the photos from Paris and Venice show.  It can also fall badly short.  What are the chances of beginning a lifelong friendship while reclining on a balcony above a parking lot?

Socialization in urban settings is a solvable problem.  But only if we understand it and try to solve it.

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

Monday, April 21, 2014

Good Urban Planning is a Team Effort

Perhaps because I spend much of my time studying and writing about urban planning, I become prickly when folks write something that misrepresents the nature of good land planning.

A recent example illustrates my point.

I had a long professional involvement in the Mission Bay neighborhood of San Francisco.  It was a fascinating urbanist challenge to take land with a history of tidal marsh to landfill to railyard and turn it into a productive part of the city.  (Before anyone objects, I agree that it would have been environmentally preferable had the land had remained a tidal marsh, but that ship sailed over a century ago and there’s little we can do about it today.)

The engineering of building a multi-story city on top of more than a hundred feet of unconsolidated material is challenging, as is the extension of utilities into a neighborhood surrounded by land uses that extend back a century or more.

Given my familiarity with the area, the recent conflagration at a condominium construction site snagged my attention.  I had no involvement in the particular project, but knew the site and the context.

I read many of the articles about the fire, including the recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, reporting the findings that the fire has been accidental.

The sentence that raised my hackles was at the end.  “City officials have pledged that the fire would not deter the revitalization of the neighborhood.”

On the surface, the sentiment seems reasonable and soothing.  No one need be worried that the fire would sidetrack the Mission Bay redevelopment.  And as the sentence isn’t a direct quote, but a summation by the article’s writer, perhaps the sentence doesn’t exactly capture what the “city officials” intended.

But there is nonetheless a proposition within the sentence that shouldn’t be there.  That proposition is that the City has the unilateral ability to keep the revitalization moving ahead, that if they decide that revitalization shouldn’t be deterred, then it won’t be.

That proposition and others of its ilk, have the potential to plant wrong and harmful messages.  Good land use planning requires the city, the developers, and the public to work as a team.

All the parties must be pulling on the same end of the rope.  The city’s role is to establish reasonable and appropriate goals for development.  The developers’ role is to react to those goals, to offer alternatives that may differ from the city’s vision but remain as consistent as possible while also capable of securing construction financing.  The public’s role is to keep everyone on track, to provide clear descriptions of what new development will meet the public need, not the need based on self-myths, but the need based on how we truly live.

When we forget those roles and begin to point fingers, we hear contentions such “The city is ignoring our wishes”, “Developers are all crooks”, or “The public is being unreasonable.”  And when those accusations begin to fly, our ability to build well for the future is diminished.

So, better than “City officials have pledged that the fire would not deter the revitalization of the neighborhood” would have been “City officials have pledged to work with developer of the burnt structure and the neighborhood residents to learn how to do their part to keep the neighborhood revitalization moving ahead.”

Am I overreacting?  Heck, yes.  I can undoubtedly scan the same issue of the Chronicle and find dozens of propositions that are equally or more severely flawed.  But this is one that is close to my heart on several levels, so it’s the one that rankled.  Or maybe it was just my day to be grumpy.

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Using Transit for More than Work and Shopping

Using transit for work and shopping is great.  But the world really opens up when transit can be used for the full range of life.

For my first post-college job, I lived in the East Bay and commuted by BART into San Francisco, walking a few blocks from the Montgomery Street station into the South of Market neighborhood, before SOMA was cool.

I loved beginning my day on a BART train.  (Okay, weekends were even better, but if one must work, a rail commute beats the heck out of a car commute.)  I enjoyed reading Herb Caen and the Sporting Green on my way into the City in the morning.  And on the way home, I’d often ride with a coworker, talking about ongoing projects and new marketing prospects.  I deplored the occasional day when I had to drive my car to work.  It was a lousy way to begin a day.

But even better than the daily BART commute was when I could use BART in the evening hours.  It seemed almost magical how I could find ways to organize my social and recreational life around BART.

Many evenings, my coworkers and I would play city league volleyball or softball.  Perhaps we’d unwind afterwards with beer and pizza and I’d then catch BART home.  Other times, I met friends for the symphony or theatre before ending my day on a BART train.

But perhaps my favorite BART outing was a Chinese New Year when a friend invited several of us to watch the parade from the balcony of his North Beach apartment while sipping wine.  Afterwards, we walked through the deserted financial district to catch one of the last BART trains home.  It was a fine evening that would have been much less fun if we’d had to worry about traffic, parking, and designating a driver.

These days, my use of transit is more limited.  The North Bay doesn’t offer the rich transit opportunities of elsewhere in the Bay Area.  But I still fondly remember the time in my life when transit was an integral part of my world.

These days, I also sit on the Transit Advisory Committee for the City of Petaluma.  In that role, I’ve often pushed to expand service beyond the current 6am to 7pm schedule.  However, I understood that the funding realities of transit limited our opportunities.

But a grant has come to Petaluma Transit that may allow us to dip our toes into evening service.  Perhaps not “ride home after Chinese New Year parade” service, but at least “ride home after an early evening movie” service.

Nor is the grant big enough to ensure that the service extension will be permanent.  Funding may only stretch for a couple of years.  It’ll be up the community to embrace the service, with sufficient ridership that fares plus possible future grants will allow the evening service to continue past 2016.

And that’s the question Petaluma Transit staff and the Transit Advisory Committee is now pondering.  How do we attract enough riders to make evening service successful?

Personally, I’m intrigued by the thought of high school students heading downtown for 6pm movies, exploring the limits of their world without adult oversight.  It’s an opportunity that I wish I’d had when I was their age.

But perhaps there are other demographic segments that can make even better use of evening bus service.

If you have thoughts to share, or are interested in getting more information, Petaluma Transit will host several meetings about evening service.  On Wednesday, April 23, transit staff will host community outreach sessions at two locations.  From 10am to noon, they’ll be at the Senior Center.  Then they’ll move across the lake and host outreach at the Petaluma Community Center from 1pm to 7pm.  If April 23 isn’t convenient for some, both sessions will be repeated, same times and places, on Tuesday, May 6.

Evening services won’t be the only topic to be discussed at the outreach meetings.  A fare increase will also be offered for public input.

Under state law, a test is applied to the ratio of fare box revenue to operating revenue.   If the standard isn’t met, some state funds may be redirected away from the transit agency.

Petaluma Transit is complies with the fare box recovery standard.  The recent boost from 150,000 riders per year to over 350,000 per year has assisted.  But operating costs have risen to support the higher ridership and will continue to rise due to inflation. 

A fare increase would position Petaluma Transit relative to the fare box standard such that another fare increase wouldn’t be needed for years.

Also, other North Bay communities have increased transit fares in recent years, leaving Petaluma among the lowest fares.  Even with the modest fare increase under discussion, Petaluma Transit fares would remain among the lowest fares in the North Bay and the greater Bay Area.

Petaluma Transit has been doing well.  Evening services and a fare increase would set it up to do even better in the future.  Please come on April 23 or May 6 and be part of the conversation.  I’ll attend portions of several of the sessions and would be pleased to chat.

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

Are We Fooling Ourselves about Parks?

I’ve previously written that one of the fuels of drivable suburbia is self-myths, stories about ourselves that we’d like to believe to be true, but aren’t.

Although it’s declining as a demographic segment, let me use the nuclear family as an example.  Mom fantasizes about serving drinks in a formal living room while wearing a black cocktail dress.  Dad thinks he’ll become a barbecue master with the right set-up and a bit of practice.  And both parents picture their children playing in a backyard pool before settling in to do homework in their study cubbyholes.

 But the reality is that Mom doesn’t even own a black cocktail dress, the last time Dad grilled anything other than hot dogs he needed a fire extinguisher to douse the flames, the pool is filled with moldering leaves, and the children haven’t done homework in months and will be lucky to get C’s.

But meanwhile the family found a home to support their myths, a four-bedroom house on a quarter-acre lot, surrounded by other four-bedroom houses on quarter-acre lots, and everyone drives everywhere because the low density can’t support walkability.  Meanwhile, no one is happy because the failure to conform to their myths weighs on them and because their suburban setting doesn’t meet their psychological needs.

(I suspect that the happiest folks are those who’re honest and insightful about how they live their lives and find homes that accommodate those lives.  But that’s a topic for another time.)

Today, I’ll offer another myth to add to the story.  The parents expect that their children will happily spend their Sunday afternoons gamboling in the grassy sward of a neighborhood park, perhaps romping with other children.  But the apparent reality is the children have no interest in neighborhood parks.  Nonetheless, because everyone from parents to zoning code authors to planning staffs to city councils believed that the neighborhood parks are needed, many exist, often empty but sucking up municipal funds.

This tentative conclusion is based on recent observations I’ve been making.  Twice before, I’ve written about the number of park users that I found around Petaluma on sunny Sunday afternoons.  I recently took another trip around town to collect a third set of data points.

There are five neighborhood parks at which I’m asked to make periodic observations in my role on the Petaluma Recreation, Music, and Parks Commission.  During my first springtime visit, I found 32 folks using the five parks.  Disheartened, I hoped for more during my next visit.  Instead the total had declined to 20.

Nor did the trend improve during my third springtime visit.  Again counting heads near midday on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon, I found a total of eight people in my five parks.  Seven of them were clustered in a single park, with three of my parks completely empty.

Even more telling, every group of people that I spied was adult-led.  There wasn’t a single instance of a child or a group of children coming to a park on their own.  The myth of children going to a neighbor park without adult encouragement and supervision was apparently dead, at least on this Sunday afternoon in Petaluma.

That doesn’t mean that all Petaluma parks were underused on that day.  I continued onward to Leghorn Park, where I’d found had found over 100 park users on my previous visit.  This time, perhaps there wasn’t a Little League game being contested, the count was down to about 75, but good use was still being made of the broader range of park amenities.  And there was again a flow of people between the park and the adjoining Parkway Plaza shopping center.

However, I found only two people at Eagle Park, a park close to Leghorn and similar in size, but without the breadth of amenities or the retail proximity.  At least it was an improvement over the empty park that I’d found on my previous visit.

Lastly, I swung by McNear Park.  In response to a previous post, a reader suggested the McNear was the westside equivalent of Leghorn.  It was a good comment.  When I dropped by, there were about 50 people engaged in a variety of activities.  McNear lacks the breadth of facilities, the well-integrated design, and the retail proximity of Leghorn, but it stands far above the neighborhood parks on my checklist.

As I’ve written before, three Sundays of observations doesn’t prove anything.  There are people who spent years studying how parks are used and their insights should be rated far above mine.  However, among those people are writers such as William Whyte and Jan Gehl whose findings seemingly support my observations.

If my Sunday observations and broader studies with which they’re consistent are valid, what direction does that set for parks?

To begin, neighborhood parks, especially if all they include is a swath of grass, a few benches and a play structure, are badly underutilized and probably unneeded in their current form.

That isn’t to say that neighborhood parks can’t have a function.  In “Happy City”, author Charles Montgomery offers a supported argument that people are happier when they have a daily interaction with nature, even if the interaction is at a distance.  So, neighborhood parks, even if underused, may still function as a backdrop for relatively more contented lives.  So the challenge may be to reconfigure neighborhood parks toward the “biophilia” function and away from the mythical childhood play function, perhaps saving a few municipal dollars in the process.

Also, the decline of neighborhood parks doesn’t mean that parks in general are a failing idea.  I can name at least four other types of parks that are doing well.  Those types, with Petaluma examples, are:

·         Multi-faceted parks that attract a variety of users, reaching a critical mass where people show up to watch the people who are already there.  Petaluma examples: Leghorn and McNear Parks.

·         Parks for organized sports.  Petaluma examples: Lucchesi, Princeton, and the upcoming East Washington Park.

·         Native parks for hiking and biking.  Petaluma example: Helen Putnam Park.

·         Downtown plazas.  Petaluma examples: Putnam Plaza and, to a lesser extent, Walnut Park.

It’s an interesting time to be a parks commissioner.  I look forward to my continuing duties, especially if it means breaking down further myths.

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

Monday, April 14, 2014

Meddling with “Free Markets”

An opinion piece about plastic grocery store bags was published last week in the Argus Courier, Petaluma’s weekly paper.  The author, Trevor Smith, argued that charging for plastic bags in grocery stores was an unwarranted interference in the free market.

I don’t agree with him.  But I’m more interested in a couple of the propositions that are implicit in his argument.  He proposes that we have now is a free market system.  And he proposes that local interference with an existing market system is usually unjustified.

I’ll explore both propositions because they bear directly on urbanism.

I believe in of minimizing the fetters on marketplaces.  I believe there’s a huge amount of creativity that can bubble up in a relatively free market, creativity that would improve our world.  But I also believe that a completely free market is a near impossibility and almost always undesirable.

Do you believe that car dealers should be responsible if they sell a car that requires an exorbitant number of repairs?  Do you believe that clothing manufacturers should be barred from selling flammable pajamas?  Do you believe that farmers shouldn’t use pesticides that could harm the health of consumers? 

I expect that most of us say “yes” to all three of those questions.  This means that we endorse regulations on a free market.  Good for us.

The result is libraries full of rule books governing everything from cars, pajamas, and farming to the generation of electrical power and the structural strength of 2-by-4s.  And in case the regulations aren’t enough, we add multiple volumes of a tax code intended to encourage some behaviors and discourage others.

Like most, I wish we can find a more efficient, and less voluminous, way to manage the marketplace.  But I absolutely believe that markets must be regulated.

Based on that understanding of our marketplace, can it be appropriate to impose local adjustments on the marketplace?  To pluck an example from above, imagine that a clothing manufacturer found a way around the flammable pajama regulations and began selling pajamas that could easily catch fire.  Further imagine that Washington, D.C. became tangled in partisan strife and was unable to close the loophole.  (Admittedly, not much imagination is required on that point.)  Would the North Bay cities and counties be justified in banning the sale of the pajamas?

Perhaps Mr. Smith would argue otherwise, but I believe that it is a duty of local government to correct egregious mistakes in marketplace regulation, so a ban on the sale of flammable pajamas is fully justified.  I hope that most agree.

Turning now to the question of plastic bags, many, I among them, argue the costs of plastics haven’t been sufficiently internalized, that the geopolitical costs of oil extraction, the air quality costs of plastics manufacturing, and the environmental costs of waste should be shifted away from citizens and governments and toward manufacturers and users.

Presumably the primary lesson learned from Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is the ease in which a giant machine and 239 people can disappear, even in a world that many feel is over monitored.  But right behind that is the lesson learned from the extended search, the lesson that there is a lot of garbage floating around in the ocean, much of it plastic, even when far from shorelines and shipping lanes.  And that’s only one aspect of the plastics industry.

If a community, such as Petaluma, is convinced that the Washington, D.C. legislative and regulatory processes on plastics have broken down, with one result being that too many plastic bags ending up in our waterways and oceans, does the Petaluma City Council have the right to impose rules to impede that flow of plastic?  I argue that they have that right.  Indeed, they have the moral imperative.

Having covered flammable pajamas and plastic bags, let’s turn the final milepost and hit the homestretch, the question of urbanism.

On a number of points which have often been delineated in this blog, drivable suburban development has been granted a huge market advantage over walkable suburban development.  Some of the advantages are the reduced price of gas which allows travel to suburbs, subsidized roads, subsidized parking, preferential mortgage treatment, and construction litigation law that favors single-family construction.

There are a number of programs that have tried to push back against the marketplace advantages, most notably redevelopment.  But redevelopment was largely co-opted by drivable suburbia before it was terminated.  And the remaining programs are like a row of traffic cones in front of the steamroller that is the marketplace-advantaged drivable suburbia. 

If a city looks at the overall marketplace and decides that the market decreed by Washington, D.C.  isn’t giving it the type of city that it needs to be successful in the future, does it have the right to modify local regulations to give it the shape of city it believes it needs?  In the same way that it can ban flammable pajamas or free plastic bags, it certainly can.  And I believe that it should.

None of us are smart enough to know what our cities and towns would look like today if we hadn’t surrendered to the automobile a century ago.  If we continued to promote walking and transit riding as the equals of car driving.  If we hadn’t put free parking on a pedestal.  If we had internalized more of the environmental costs of gas when they began to be evident.

But it’s clear that our cities and towns wouldn’t look as they do now.  And it’s likely they’d be better configured for future sustainability and success.  Perhaps the distorted marketplace has its roots in Washington. D.C, but we’re justified in pushing for regulatory changes in Sacramento and in our local town halls to begin getting us back on track.

During the time I’ve been writing this blog, numerous folks have challenged me to “Let the free market make land use decisions.”  I have a ready response.  “That sounds great and I’m glad you agree with me.  How should we go about restoring the correct gasoline price, removing parking subsidies, changing mortgage regulations, etc.?”

Yes, I know I’m mocking them, but it’s fun to watch them get flustered.  And maybe it gives them something to think about.

It turns out that plastic bags, flammable pajamas, and urbanism have something in common.

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

Friday, April 11, 2014

Public Plazas in Springtime

It was about a year ago when the finish line of the Boston Marathon was disrupted by domestic terrorism.  In the days that followed, there were many who spoke about a fear of public places and an unwillingness to return to them.

In response, I wrote that interaction in public places was a necessary component of a free society.  While a respite from plazas and parks was understandable, we owed it to our neighbors and to ourselves to return to the public realm as soon as possible.

And we did so, although surely more because of our ability to put bad times into context rather than because of any eloquence I brought to the topic.  Last weekend, my wife met a group of girlfriends for brunch in a restaurant fronting a downtown plaza.  For days afterward, she recalled with delight the scenes of people walking dogs, sipping coffee, and enjoying the sociability of a warm Saturday morning.

Public plazas are an essential place of public interaction and discourse, which must be protected and enhanced for societies to be free.

Luckily for us, our North Bay plazas are generally peaceable places.  But that isn’t true elsewhere in the world.  Public places are where civil dissent against authoritarian rule ferments.  Most recently, this was true of Independence Square in Kiev where Ukrainians gathered to argue for a more European style of government.  The movement eventually pushed President Viktor Yanukovych into exile, a story of which the final chapters are still being written.

Independence Square was only the most recent example of public places as a site of civil dissent, a list that also includes Tahrir Square in Cairo, Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and even the Parisian boulevards of the 19th century.

Writing in Atlantic Cities, Matt Ford offers a brief history of the role of public plazas in dictatorships, both in overturning dictators and in the design of public places to suppress dissent.  (I don’t find that Ford reaches any overarching conclusions, but the historical review is worthwhile.)

On a more domestic front, former New York City Planning Director Amanda Burden recently spoke to a TED gathering about public places in New York City.  Burden has appeared in this blog previously when I described her in my review of the movie “Urbanized” as “an over-dressed, role-playing drone.” 

Unfortunately, she doesn’t come off much better in the TED video.  Her insights about public places could have come directly from college textbooks.  But, however vapid and derivative her insights and ideas, she used the position of New York City Planning Director to accomplish good things for her city, for which she deserves credit.

But even more important than articles and videos about public plazas, it’s springtime and a weekend approaches.  Whatever else may be in your plans, you owe it to yourself and to your community to visit a public plaza this weekend.  Perhaps I’ll see you there.

And if you live in a community that lacks a plaza such as Healdsburg Town Square, Sonoma Plaza, Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa, or even Putnam Plaza in Petaluma, perhaps you can also take a few minutes to email your city council about your disappointment in the deficiency.  I’d be on your side as would most believers in democracy and the freedom of assembly.

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

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Laguna West: Failed Execution

In recent weeks, I’ve written about a daytrip I took to several Northern California cities.  I was looking for urbanism insights to be gleaned during quick visits.  Today I’ll write about my last stop.  After the big box misdirection in Woodland, the ill-conceived environmental priorities in North Highlands, and the misallocation of resources in Carmichael, I thought I’d seen the worst.  I was wrong.  Failed execution on a large scale is even more painful.

Laguna West was among early darlings of the new urbanism movement.  Conceived in 1990, it was intended to show the world that urbanist principles could be met even in a post-World War II world that directed all of its incentives toward drivable sprawl.

With a conceptual plan that was developed by Peter Calthorpe and his fledgling Calthorpe Associates, a firm that was to have a long and illustrious history in urbanist theorizing, Laguna West could have become a model for later urbanists to meet and to exceed.

But the plan went awry.

It’s not completely clear what happened.  Although barely two decades old, the fall of Laguna West came before the full blossoming of the internet which documents so many of our missteps and miscalculations.  So we’re left to interpret from the shadows on the wall.

Perhaps Calthorpe was still refining his thinking.  Perhaps it was the reduced involvement of Calthorpe during execution of the plan.  Perhaps it was the influence of financiers who were uncomfortable with new ideas.  Perhaps it was the decision by regional authorities to not extend light rail into Laguna West.  Perhaps it was a combination of all of those factors.  But the result is a project that looks different than its neighbors, but not nearly as different as it could have and should have. 

The use of alleys and the resulting absence of driveways is probably the most striking difference.  But the weakness of the public realm failed to create an active life on the streets.  Some of the streets have creative street tree placements, softening the hard lines of the streets, but the rights-of-way are lined by concrete block walls, sucking any attraction from the setting.  Many of the homes appear well-built, but some neighborhoods are prematurely showing their age.  Overall, Laguna West failed to have the spark that good urbanism should display.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of the shortfall was the sterile and unattractive retail area at the north end of
Laguna West.  It lacks vitality and is far beyond a comfortable walk for most residents.

My perception of Laguna West was further tainted by the route I took to reach it.  The development lies on the north end of Elk Grove, between Highway 99 and I-5.  Not knowing any better, I took 99 to reach it.  Indeed, the exit from 99 is called Laguna Boulevard after the project.  But Laguna Boulevard has been corrupted by the drivable suburban mode that has swallowed the comfortable small-town Elk Grove that I remember from youth.  The street is six car-dedicated lanes of mind-numbing service to every big box and chain restaurant ever conceived.

The failure of Laguna West has had repercussions.  Opponents of new urbanism have used it as an example of why urbanism doesn’t work.  Their arguments are flawed, failing to recognize that the urbanist ideals of Laguna West were derailed before construction, but they nonetheless use the project as a talking point.

The initial developer of Laguna West, during a later run for California governor, was criticized for the failings of Laguna West, attacks that were probably unfair but still left an impression.

In a 2006 San Francisco article, reprinted on the Calthorpe Associates website, Calthorpe acknowledged the failing of Laguna West, but tried to put a positive spin on it.  “His optimistic take is that progress is a gradual thing. Developers and buyers are more comfortable now with a type of suburbia that is different from the 1950s norm.

"’There's no such thing as instant community, but you can build the right foundation,’ he argued at breakfast. "’What we're seeing is way better than the template it replaced. Given time it will be as rich and diverse and complex as all the places we love.’"

I agree that Laguna West was a step in the right direction, but it was a halting, stumbling step when a bold, confident step would have better served our future.  I’m not assigning blame.  I don’t think there was a villain.  Instead, it was a combination of failed vision and business-as-usual that undermined what could have been a milestone.

My disheartening tour of Laguna West complete, I was ready to head home.  My Northern California tour was done.  Suisun City remained the only highlight.  It was a somber drive home to the North Bay.  This urbanism thing seems so logical and right, but is so easily led astray.

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