Monday, March 30, 2015

Wielding a Cudgel When a Scalpel Would Be the Better Choice

In my last post, I wrote that changing the direction of public policy takes persistent and dedicated effort.  In my words, “stating a perspective and wandering away is a recipe for irrelevance.”

When I wrote those words, I had several examples in mind, but none that were strong enough to insert into the flow of the post.  Little did I expect that when I opened the local newspaper later the same day, a perfect example would be looking back at me from the front page.

Here’s the backstory.  We’re in the midst of a drought that is already of historic levels and shows no signing of abating.  Last fall, a candidate for City Council suggested the possibility of a blanket moratorium on building permits until the drought eased.  Two other candidates concurred that a moratorium might be an appropriate step.

Although I didn’t have a problem with a short moratorium, I disagreed strongly with the possibility of an extended blanket moratorium and wrote about the reasons for my opposition.  Nor was I content to disagree only by written word.  I also appeared before the Council during the public comment portion of their next meeting and repeated my thinking.

Public comment during a public meeting is an odd exercise.  Sometimes there are alternative but cogent perspectives on issues of general interest.  Other times, there are rants of elusive logic on subjects of dubious relevance.  As a result of the latter, the attention of the public body is often elsewhere, perhaps looking about the room or perusing documents that are further down the agenda.

As a result, I wasn’t surprised when four of the Councilmembers didn’t once glance my direction as I spoke.  But the other three, including two who had expressed possible support for a moratorium, paid sharp attention and quickly nodded in apparent agreement with my logic.  By the standards of a public comment presentation, my words were a rousing success.

When the Councilmember who had initially raised the subject of a moratorium approached me at a meeting a week later and disavowed any interest in an extended moratorium, I thought that my perspective had carried the day.

My confidence was a mistake.  Admittedly, I had other worthy uses for my time, such as working on a plan for reuse of the Fairgrounds and writing this blog, but I still should have allocated time to ensure that the concept of an extended blanket moratorium remained truly dead and that my ideas for an alternative approach were gaining ground.

I know I should have made that effort because when I opened the local paper last week, I found an article on how the mayor, one of those who hadn’t made eye contact when I spoke to the Council, was again raising the possibility of a moratorium of up to two years.  I later learned that the Planning Department was already hard at work identifying a list of projects that might be impacted.

Having mistakenly let the initiative slip away, let me belatedly reenter the fray, trying to recapture the hearts and minds that I’d already thought swayed.

I consider a response to the drought absolutely essential.  Extensive reading and a belief in science convinces me that climate change is almost certainly real and that the changes we’re experiencing in North Bay weather are likely to continue far into the future.  It’s past time to change how we use water.  Building design is one of the best places to start.

But an extended blanket moratorium would miss the mark on several levels.

For one, an extended moratorium sends a message, inadvertent but still perceived, that the drought is a cyclical, not systemic, phenomenon, that if we just wait for a few years normal rainfall patterns will reassert themselves.  But the reality is that what we’re now experiencing is likely the new normal.

For another, an extended blanket moratorium sends a message that all development is equally culpable for increased water use, when the reality is that development has a wide range of water usages.  As an analogy, it’s as if we’re responding to a gasoline supply crisis by banning the manufacture of all cars, including Priuses and Teslas along with 15 mile-per-gallon monster pickups.

So, what should we do instead?  To begin, I have little problem with a shorter moratorium of 45 or even 90 days.  We need new water conservation standards and we need them now.  (I remain frustrated with myself and with others that the discussion of a moratorium last fall didn’t trigger a meaningful discussion of new standards.)

But after the initial moratorium, we should be prepared to release projects that meet strict standards of water conservation.  I don’t know exactly what those that standards should be, but I’d be happy to join with folks willing to have that conversation.  Among the topics that I’d expect to be on the table are:

  • ·         Possibilities for reduced water use through better plumbing.
  • ·         Water bill surcharges to give the City funds to find and to repair watermain leaks.
  • ·         Strict caps on water use, with meaningful penalties for excess use, based on self-reported counts of household residents and square feet of yard area.  (The self-reported data would need to be subject to random review.)
  • ·         Requirements on developers to buy up existing water usage by paying homeowners to accept deed restrictions prohibiting grass and capping water use.

A prime reason that the initial moratorium should be of limited duration is that it’s often the smaller developers, with less financial backing, who have been proposing the more creative reduced water use projects.  An extended moratorium would have the perverse effect of driving from the business the developers who’ve been trying most diligently to address the water conservation concern.

After the initial moratorium, if we choose to put an extended moratorium, or even a permanent moratorium, on land use projects that would continue to use water profligately, I’m fine with that.

The Petalumans of a century hence are likely to look back at our time as particularly critical in the history of our town, much as we look back on the significant changes that occurred in Petaluma during the first decades of the 19th century.  And of the challenges in front of us, how we adjust to climate change is among the most important.

So the future will likely judge us by our ability to formulate effective, meaningful, and well-calibrated responses to climate change.

Picking up the big cudgel of an extended blanket moratorium, donning a blindfold, and swinging wildly in hopes of striking something useful isn’t what the future is expecting of us.  We can do better.

 (Acknowledgment: I’ve had a role in several projects that would be affected by the proposed moratorium.  I’m also talking with other developers about similar roles on future projects.  Most of these projects would benefit from the more calibrated approach to water conservation described above over an extended blanket moratorium.  However, I’ve chosen to work only with developers who have a responsible approach to water use, so it’s not surprising that my thoughts on the subject align with the interests of the developers for whom I work and may work.)

My next couple of posts will represent a major change-of-pace.  Given the seriousness of the subject of this post, I’m a little embarrassed by the change, but April Fools’ Day is upon us.

Up until about a year ago, I offered quarterly updates on the quirks and whimsy that can attach itself to urbanism.  But then I found that I always had other, more pressing topics on which I wanted to write, so I began skipping my quarterly updates.  My stockpile of whimsy and quirkiness accumulated.  The next two posts will dig into that stockpile, hopefully giving a few smiles and also triggering a few useful ideas about urbanism.

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

Friday, March 27, 2015

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: Looking Forward Through the Fog

With my last couple of posts, I’ve been sucked back into the subject of possible reuse of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  First, I recounted my inadvertent quashing of youthful creativity.  And then I explained why, as worthwhile and insightful as the Petaluma Urban Chat conceptual design effort has been, there’s a good chance that the eventual redevelopment will differ significantly from the Urban Chat plan.

Today, I’ll finish the hat trick by trying to peer through the fog of land use to anticipate the path that the Fairgrounds will likely take from today until the last resident moves in, perhaps two decades hence.

I should emphasize that I’m not relying on any inside information to write this post.  No one inside of City Hall or anywhere else is feeding me confidential insights.  I’m writing based solely on nearly four decades of observing public process and land use, in Petaluma and elsewhere.

As of today, this is what my crystal ball is telling me to expect.

Legalities and Politics: The next year, or perhaps two years, will be consumed with legal and political questions mostly outside of the land use issues.  There’s little doubt that Petaluma would be better served if a portion of the Fairgrounds were converted to a more vibrant daily use.  But the Fair Board, City Council, and others will need to wrestle with the legalities of ending the current lease, adopting a new lease, and judging the effects of state statutes and precedents on the process.  These are subjects on which I have little or no knowledge and can’t predict how they will play out.

However, let me insert a thought at this point.  When I talk about Petaluma having a better future with a smaller Fairgrounds, I’m not dismissing the value of the Sonoma Marin Fair.  The Fair has been a valuable element of Petaluma’s past and can hopefully serve a similar role in the future.

And I think the Fair can play a key role in the life experiences of young Petalumans.  I can track my own childhood by the fairs in the California towns where I lived.

The Orange Show in San Bernardino was where I first saw the spectacle of a fair.  I found it especially thrilling to youthful eyes.

The old State Fair in Sacramento was where I first saw a fair as a community meeting place, stopping by the booth where my father was representing the California Highway Department in conversations with the general public.

The Walnut Festival in Walnut Creek was one of the first places where I experienced the world outside of parental oversight, haunting the midway with school friends and hoping, or fearing, to bump into girls from our school.

Back in Sacramento, the new Cal Expo in Sacramento was where I quit scheming to bump into girls, but instead brought my own dates.

Each of those experiences was valuable and I wish to preserve similar experiences for future youths, while also making Petaluma an economically vibrant place that meet the needs of youth during the other 51 weeks of the year.   This is the difficult balancing act.

Technical and Public Input: With the politics resolved, hopefully in favor of some extent of redevelopment, the City will likely spend at least a couple of years considering redevelopment options.   This effort will probably involve at least three elements, hiring a consultant team to assess opportunities and constraints, such as hazardous material cleanup, and to prepare redevelopment options, using City staff to assess the technical constraints on the site, such as water and sewer capacity, and assembling a citizens’ advisory committee to channel public input.

 It’s this last element toward which the Urban Chat effort has been targeted, creating a group of citizens who are educated about and motivated by the Fairgrounds opportunity and who are eager to bring the Urban Chat concepts forward while also allowing those concepts to evolve as new information is uncovered and new ideas offered.  I hope and expect that several Urban Chat alumni would be appointed by the City Council to a citizens’ advisory committee.

However, I should note that citizens’ committees can easily become ineffective.  Both consultants and City staff will have their own agendas and a stronger place at the decision table.  For citizens to be effective, consistent and forceful advocacy is essential.  Stating a perspective and wandering away is a recipe for irrelevance.

I’ve served on citizens’ committees that quickly became self-marginalizing.  One recent committee began its work with nineteen members and finished with four.  But I’ve also watched as citizens’ committees fought against dismissive attitudes and accomplished great things.

I suspect that having a citizens’ committee willing to roll up sleeves, to get dirty, and not to depart until success is achieved is one of two key steps in getting to a good plan.

The eventual result of this stage will be the preparation of a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) through which the City will seek a developer to undertake the redevelopment.

(For land use geeks, there is a key decision point here about whether the City would act as the master developer or would give that role to a private developer.  Because of the greater control and financial upside, I’d support the City assuming the master developer role, but understand that the world has mostly moved on from that model because most cities don’t have the capacity to cover the financial obligations and risks, so expect the master developer role to go to a private developer.)

Developer Input: This is the second critical point in the process.  Whether from developers vying to be chosen to redevelop the site or from the selected developer upon further review of the site, the day will come when the City is asked to erode the vision.

The argument might that the developer can’t secure financing or that the marketing folks don’t think they can sell the units.  The argument might be self-serving or it might be legitimate.  But a developer will ask to reduce the public amenities, to revert to more conventional architecture forms, or to reuse building plans they’ve constructed elsewhere.  It’ll be essential that the City Council, Planning Commission, and City staff push back consistently to preserve as much of the vision as possible.

If there is one task in which all citizens can assist in the Fairgrounds process, it is assuring that we have elected leaders in place at this critical stage who will support urbanism and who will appoint and hire folks who will support urbanism.  The ballot box will matter.

Design and Construction: Lastly, there is the execution of the concept.  Ongoing efforts to prevent the erosion of the adopted plan may be required, but hopefully the plan is well accepted by this point.

However, it should be noted that big projects don’t rise out of the ground overnight.  Instead, developers and financiers can only build projects as quickly as the product can be absorbed by the marketplace.  It’s likely that a decade or more will be required to bring the Fairground redevelopment to completion. 

With the current Fairgrounds lease expiring in 2023, a couple of years necessary for hazardous material cleanup, and another decade for construction, the final residents may not move into their new homes until 2035 or later.

During my recent work with a group of teenagers on the Fairgrounds, one student advocated for a teen center and said she knew of a band which could be booked.  I held my tongue, but was tempted to note that the band had better be in good health or might otherwise be using walkers by the time the teen center was complete.  And that it was more likely that the student’s daughter would be the one dancing to the music.

Even if my crystal ball is imperfect, it’ll be a long time from today to completion.  But I hope many of you are motivated to buckle up for the ride and to do your part to ensure that the Fairgrounds redevelopment will serve Petaluma well.

For my next post, I’ll leave the Fairgrounds behind, but not very far behind.  Above, I wrote about how changing the direction of public policy requires continual effort by involved citizens.  As if on cue, a fine example of my point appeared in a local newspaper.  I’ll explain when I next write.

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: A Chess Primer

I’ve written often about Petaluma Urban Chat’s development of a plan for reuse of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  This effort, in which I‘ve played a role, anticipates the possibility that lease negotiations between the City of Petaluma and the Sonoma Marin Fair Board will result in some or all of the Fairgrounds being freed for redevelopment.  In early January, I summarized the path Urban Chat had followed and where we would be heading.

Since that summary, the Urban Chat process has made good progress.  A five-person design committee is now meeting weekly to explore alternatives to the conceptual site plan that was adopted by the larger group, to hammer out compromises, and to judge whether the evolving plan seems to adequately meet the needs of all parties.

I’m pleased with the progress and look forward to sharing the plan with readers and with the Petaluma community over the next few weeks and months.  (Also, I’ll be seeking assistance in presenting the plan in the best possible light, assistance that I’ll discuss in an upcoming post.)

But today I want to write about will happen after the plan has been fully introduced.

I’m often asked about to best ensure that the City adopts the Urban Chat plan.  The query is based on an underlying assumption that I don’t accept.  You see, I don’t think the City should adopt the plan.

Before you splutter too much onto your screen, let me explain.

In order to proceed with their site planning effort, the Urban Chat participants had to make a great many assumptions about the redevelopment parameters.  Among the questions to which we assumed answers were the following:

Will the City Council decide that it’s politically acceptable to reclaim a portion of the Fairgrounds for redevelopment?

How much of the Fairgrounds site should be reclaimed?  Twenty acres, forty acres, or all of it?

Will the state, which has the oversight responsibility of local fair boards, intervene to limit the City options?

If reduced to a lesser area, can the Fair Board muster the funds for new construction to function on the smaller site?

Is there the political will to do away with speedway?

Will more than 75 years of environmental contamination limit the redevelopment options?

Will some of the existing structures be judged worthy of historic preservation, thereby restricting redevelopment options?

This list barely begins to scratch the surface of the uncertainties around the Fairgrounds.  In order to move ahead, Urban Chat assumed answers to these questions, good, reasonable assumptions, but still assumptions.

And like most assumptions, they’re likely to be undermined by future events. The chance of all the Urban Chat assumptions being correct is miniscule. 

But that doesn’t mean the Urban Chat participants have been wasting their time.  On the contrary, we’ve been becoming intimately familiar with the variables that will affect the eventual Fairgrounds decisions, the adjacency issues, the transportation opportunities, the zoning code alternatives, and many more constraints.  And in doing so, we’ve created local citizens well-primed to participate in the coming decisions and to effectively respond with valid alternatives as the assumptions change.

Let me offer an analogy.  Let’s say that you’re a complete chess novice, but will be forced to play a game, with a wager attached, against an experienced chess player.  However, you’ll be allowed to select one person to assist you.  Furthermore, you know that your opponent will be playing the Sicilian Defense opening, one of a number of well-established chess strategies.

You have two choices for your assistant, someone who understands the basic moves of chess but hasn’t studied any particular chess strategy.  Or someone who has deeply studied the Ruy Lopez opening, another of the well-known strategies, and has a solid grasp of how to assess the strategic values of the variations from the Ruy Lopez opening.  Who do you choose?

Obviously, you choose the Ruy Lopez expert.  It’s better to have someone who has studied the game deeply, even if that study is in a different variant of the game, than someone who hasn’t done any deep study at all.

And I’ll argue that what the Urban Chat process has created for Petaluma is a group of people who are intimately familiar with the Ruy Lopez variation of the Fairgrounds question.   Even if the Fairgrounds reuse is eventually played along the lines of the Sicilian Defense or some other chess strategy, having Ruy Lopez experts is still a good thing.

So what Urban Chat has been creating isn’t so much a land-use plan, although that plan is very much worth sharing for the enthusiasm and creative juices that it should trigger, but a group of folks who have a good grasp of the Fairgrounds opportunities and constraints and also an eagerness to be a part of finding the best future.

And, as any civic organizer will confirm, having an enthusiastic and educated group of citizens is better than having a good plan any day.

In my next post, I’ll peer deeply into my hazy crystal ball and take some guesses about how the Fairgrounds process will go forward, not the decisions that will be made, but the organizational processes that will be followed and the key decisions points that will occur.

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

Monday, March 23, 2015

King of the Killjoys

Tomorrow’s Leaders Today (TLT) is a national program that teaches high school students about becoming community leaders.  In the scope of the year-long classes, TLT has much in common with the Leadership classes offered for adults by many Chambers of Commerce.  (I was a member of 2002-03 class of Leadership Petaluma and learned many things that I still apply.)

I was recently invited to participate in the land-use education day for Petaluma’s 2014-15 TLT class.  The focus of the day was to be the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  With my frequent writings on the opportunities at the Fairgrounds, most recently here, and my efforts with Petaluma Urban Chat to develop a plan for possible Fairgrounds reuse, it was a welcome invitation which I promptly accepted.

But I wasn’t going into the day as a TLT novice.  I had an earlier experience that had given me a perspective on the TLT process that I hoped to apply.

Several years ago, I took part in a similar TLT exercise for the land adjoining the future SMART station near downtown Petaluma.  At the time, the City planning effort that was to lead to the Station Area Master Plan was in its initial stages, so it seemed a good time for the members of that TLT class to provide their thoughts on where the land-use planning should go.

But that wasn’t exactly how it played out, at least to my way of thinking.  Little was said during the morning session about the city goals for the site: residential units for train commuters, train parking for those who lived elsewhere in the community, transit stops for train riders who arrive by bus, offices for those who would arrive by train to work in Petaluma, and a strong pedestrian connection to downtown Petaluma.

Absent an understanding of those civic goals and needs, the students put forth plans of flower gardens, scenic ponds, and teen centers, all of which may have a place in Petaluma, but not on a site that offered such great potential for improving the function and financial health of the community.  As a result, the thoughts of the students were forgotten as soon as the day concluded.

This time around, I was determined to ensure that the students would understand that stakes of the game, that the Fairgrounds site is probably the most valuable single asset owned by the City and the best opportunity of our lifetime to redirect the future of the City.

And so, in my comments to the group after lunch and in the facilitation of the conceptual design team assigned to me, I hammered on the need for financial return and municipal function.

But, except for those in my group who couldn’t ignore me, my exhortations fell on mostly deaf ears.  When the other groups presented their thoughts for the site, features such as a water park, miniature golf course, and drive-in theatre were prominent.  It was only my group that had a plan including elements such as a hotel, performing arts center, and low-income housing. 

As I listened to the other groups make their presentations, it occurred to me that perhaps I’d been overzealous in my arguments about the need for financial return, that perhaps youth was the time to dream, even if the dreams ran beyond the current expectations of feasibility, and that perhaps I nipped off some great ideas that might change the world.

As we began to break down the room after the last presentation, I offered a quiet apology to my group for having perhaps tamped down their creativity.  They replied that they were quite happy with my facilitation and were proud to have the only plan that was somewhat based in reality.  I’m still not sure if I believe them.

In the unlikely event that I’m ever again invited to take part in a TLT land-use day, I’ll try to find a middle road, encouraging dreams and trying to point out possible ways to make the dreams financially feasible.

That’s the message that probably would have best resonated with me when I was seventeen.

Having returned to the subject of the Fairgrounds, my next post will give an update on the Urban Chat conceptual design effort.  A site plan is taking shape and fundraising to do an architectural rendering or two will soon kick off.  Consistent with my thoughts above about balancing fun and business, the current plan has a hotel, retail space, and residential, but also a recreational velodrome.  So adults can also be imaginative and think outside of the box.

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

Friday, March 20, 2015

Another Year Slips Past

Two years ago today, my 60th birthday fell on one of my regularly-scheduled publishing days.  Feeling moderately self-indulgent, a reasonable emotion on one’s birthday, I wandered away for the day from the elements and advocacy of urbanism.  Instead, I wrote about my personal reasons for writing this blog and how it fit with my philosophy of life, touching in a soft way on the eternal “Why are we here?” question.

Looking back at that post from the perspective of 24 months, I’d change the syntax of a handful of sentences and tweak some of the logical progressions, comments I could make about pretty much everything I’ve written from the second grade onward, but overall I remain content with the conclusions reached.

So, rather than spending my 62nd birthday in revisiting existential angst, I’ll instead look toward the state and future of this blog.

 I continue to enjoy writing the blog.  I appreciate the doors it has opened for me and the new friends and acquaintances it has made for me.  Also, my thinking on the subject of urbanism has broadened and deepened as a result of having to think my way through questions logically.  (My embrace of much of what StrongTowns endorses is what usually comes to mind on that point, although the StrongTowns philosophy is only one of many areas in which I’ve become better educated.)

Nor am I anywhere close to running out of topics on which to write.  Instead, I probably have a longer list of future topics today than ever before.

Although I will note that I find myself surprisingly incapable of judging which topics will be interesting to my readers.  I’ll labor over a post for which I find the finished product clever, insightful, and well-written.  Readers will respond with a shrug and readership drifts downwards.  I’ll follow with a post on which I do my best but remain unsatisfied with the result and readership booms.  It’s all a puzzle to me.  Although with sustained readership up 50 percent over the past two years, I have no grounds for complaint.  (I would have rather the rise had been 500 percent, but understand the fierce competition for eyes on the internet.)

Perhaps my only true disappointment related to the blog is that I haven’t become a more efficient writer.  More than you can imagine, I envy people who can sit down and pound out a thousand cogent, well-focused words at a single sitting.

In the same time, I can sometimes set out a thousand words that are grammatically correct, but even on the rare occasion when I can produce at that rate, I find myself still needing to do major surgery on my logical thread, often recasting paragraphs a half-dozen or more times as I prepare for publication.  If my blog posts were nature walks, I‘d bump into a half dozen trees and get my feet wet in a creek before discerning how to reach my destination.  I’m generally happy with where I end up, but I’m inefficient on my path to satisfaction.  And inefficiency takes time.

And that time may someday become a cost that I can’t afford.  As life moves onward, family health issues may eventually chip into my blog writing and community involvement time.

However, I shouldn’t try to read too much into the fuzzy outlines in my crystal ball.  This is the 513th straight blog post that I published on the day I targeted, although more than a few have slipped from my morning goal to an afternoon delivery.  If the levees hold and the creek don’t rise, my birthday will next fall on a blog post publishing day on March 20, 2017, which would be my 826th consecutive on-schedule post.  I hope to see you all right here when that day arrives.

For my next post, I’ll provide an update on the Petaluma Urban Chat design effort for the Fairgrounds site.  The work is rounding into shape nicely.  Also, I participated a few days ago in a one-day Fairgrounds educational effort for high school students.  It was insightful to see the opportunities through the eyes of 17-year-olds.  I’ll share an anecdote from that day.

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Driving Downtown in My Toaster Oven

I took ownership of my brand-new Prius during the third week of April 2005, so its ten-year anniversary is nigh.  It’s been a remarkably good car, probably the best car buying decision of my life, although spending several years behind the wheel of a 1965 Mustang gets honorable mention.

The Prius has needed few repairs and none that were catastrophic.  Only once did it fail to start and a single dead battery in a decade is barely worth mentioning.

When I’d had the car about two years, I conveyed a group of friends to a ballgame.  During the drive, I mentioned my intention to drive the Prius for fifteen years, perhaps leaving myself only one car away from the end of my driving days.  The others scoffed, arguing that no one keeps a car for fifteen years.  But, with the ten-year anniversary nearly upon us and the Prius running as dependably as the day I first took possession, I’m guessing the scoffing has ceased.

All of which led me to be offended when Leah Garchik, a Herb Caen-lite columnist in the San Francisco Chronicle, reported a comment overhead by one of her correspondents in an Oakland parking garage, “Owning a Prius isn’t like owning a real car.  It’s more like owning an appliance.”

What?!  How could someone demean my dependable Prius that way?  How dare they compare my car to a mere household appliance?

But then I fell to thinking.  Isn’t it right for an urbanist to think of a car as a convenience?  The goal of a meaningful daily life shouldn’t be to style one’s way between Point A and Point B.  It should be to get to Point B in the most reasonable and appropriate manner, whether on foot, by bicycle, in a car, or on a city bus, so that the friends, good food, or other adventures at Point B can be enjoyed.  A car shouldn’t be life, but an effective tool to take pleasure in life.  Or, in other words, an appliance.

And indeed, my Prius has been a remarkably good appliance, outlasting a couple of toasters and a least a dozen vacuum cleaners.  (Three large dogs who continually shed aren’t good for vacuum cleaners.)

None of this is meant to demean my friends who adore their cars.  I remember one friend in particular who built a separate garage to house his collection of Rolls Royces, Bentleys, and Corvettes.  But I enjoyed their friendship because I liked them as people, not because of their vehicles.  And never once did I think that my life wouldn’t be complete until I owned a Rolls Royce.

Instead, I’ll happily drive on in my Prius, the best darned appliance I’ve ever owned.

With a regular three-times-a-week publishing schedule, it’s inevitable that my blog post days occasionally fall on holidays.  Or on my birthday.  This year, for the first time since 2013, it’ll be the latter, with the day of my next post falling on my 62nd birthday.  Two years ago, as I reached the milestone of 60 years, I offered my thoughts about who I was and how my identity fit into this blog.  In my next post, I’ll look back to that post and offer a couple of updates.

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

Monday, March 16, 2015

Fast Food Burgers Shouldn't Trivialize Downtowns

Take a look at the photos to the right.  Do they all look alike?  If so, congratulations, you can work in corporate marketing.  If not, I’m sorry but you seem destined for a career that involves a higher level of truthfulness.

I can make this judgment because it appears that the corporate marketing department of McDonalds thought all three scenes were of a piece and that there would be nothing deceitful in using the bucolic rural surroundings and walkable downtown of Petaluma to promote a McDonalds in front of a strip
mall a mile and a half from downtown.

If you haven’t yet seen the resulting commercial, it’s embedded in this article in a local newspaper.   The video is worth a view, if only to allow you to form your own opinion about the marketing strategy.

Not surprisingly, there’s controversy.  As covered in the newspaper article, in the coverage by the Bay Area NBC affiliate, and also as expressed by those with whom I’ve chatted, some find that any publicity is good publicity and that showing the best elements
of Petaluma in a national ad campaign overcomes any negatives of being associated with a fast food chain.

Others find the connection to McDonalds odious and believe that Petaluma suffers by association.

I can see the merits in both arguments, but lean to the former argument, perhaps giving television viewers too much credit for their ability to distinguish between a worthwhile place and a consumer product.

However, as is my wont, my primary allegiance goes to a third opinion that I’ll formulate below.  

I think the real problem with the commercial is that it marginalizes walkable urbanism.  Stripped to its basics, McDonalds argues for two propositions.  First, they argue walkable downtowns, and also pastoral country roads, are cool places.  Second, they argue that as long as there are cool places in or near a community, then all of the land uses in the community are also cool places.  I endorse the first argument and emphatically reject the second.

I love a good downtown, a standard that downtown Petaluma easily meets.  But having a couple of blocks of a walkable downtown isn’t nearly enough.  The goal must be to have more and more blocks of walkable urban settings for the environmental and financial health of our communities.

When McDonalds argues that a walkable downtown makes a McDonalds cool even if it’s eight traffic lights away from downtown, it reduces urbanism from a vital element of our future to a checkmark on a list.  It says that having a walkable downtown way on the other side of the freeway is sufficient.  And that argument is both wrong and harmful.

(I know that McDonalds sometimes occupies urban buildings.  I passed a storefront McDonalds on the walk from the Windsor train station to Windsor Castle west of London and I recall seeing windblown McDonalds wrappers in Parisian gutters near the Louvre, but I think we’d all agree that the natural habitat of McDonalds is in the midst of seas of asphalt and served by drive-thrus.)

I understand that corporate marketing isn’t about urbanism or even truthfulness, so I won’t overly condemn the McDonalds’ creative team.  But I certainly hope that most readers see through the wrong-headed propaganda.

I’d probably boycott McDonalds going forward except that I haven’t eaten at one in years so my threat wouldn’t carry much weight.  But I encourage readers to do as I do and to give much of their patronage to restaurants, even if chains, that don’t diminish the importance of urban settings.

In my next post, I’ll write about cars.  I have a Prius that’s approaching its tenth anniversary as my car, including the past several years as the only family car.  Therefore, I was initially offended by a dismissive comment I recently read about Priuses.  But the more that I considered the sentiment, the more underlying truth I found.

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