Wednesday, July 23, 2014

There was a Time When Even the Royal Society May Have Been Considered Zealots

A challenging comment was made in response to the post I wrote about Petaluma Urban Chat looking at the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  Although his tone was somewhat aggressive, the commenter raised a thoughtful question.

The comment was made on one of the several sites on which I co-publish and the comment is now several weeks old.  Rather than responding under a post that is retreating in the rearview mirror of time, I copied the comment below so the concern and my response can reach a wider audience.

(I’ve edited the comment slightly to remove extraneous material, while preserving the commenter`s key issue.)

“I love to bellyache about your blog and the beginning of this one capsulizes it perfectly.  Your urbanist group acts like a book club in which members select different urbanist books to read?!  How limiting.  How zealous.  How closed.  I have an idea.  Let's all study only our own religious texts of choice and then try to have a discussion about the nature of God and the universe with everybody else.  Are you so tied to the concept of urbanism that you have no need to consider anything else? . . . Or worse, that you ignore or discount its ill effects? Religious zealotry!”

Obviously, I disagree with him.  More importantly, I believe that he’s working under several fundamental misunderstandings.  However, I can understand how he and I have failed to communicate.  I also suspect that how I’ve written this blog may have been complicit in his misunderstandings.

I’ll expand below, but the key points of my response will be that urbanism as a topic of study is far broader than the commenter understands, that there is no credible alternative side to the discussion, and that those on cutting edge are often described as zealots.

To begin, this blog has often used two definitions of “urbanism”.  Both definitions below are from my head, not from a dictionary or other reference source, but I believe that most students of land-use would accept both.

The first definition of urbanism is “(1) the study of the land-use patterns of human civilization, considering the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the alternatives”.

The second is “(2) the advocacy of the insights and conclusions that result from (1).”

This blog moves between the two definitions, sometimes studying our current land-use paradigm, along with the implications of possible alternatives, and sometimes arguing for actions that are identified by that study.   I believe my use of both definitions is an effective, perhaps essential, form of communication, but appreciate how some readers might not understand the different but related topics of analysis and advocacy.

The commenter, if I correctly interpret his perspective, fails to understand the all-encompassing nature of (1).  He assumes that any study is restricted to a limited number of sources and that advocacy of (2) thereby becomes faith-based advocacy based on those limited texts.

But he’s wrong.  Under the first definition, urbanism is the study of the totality of human land-use, from the city layout of Babylonia to the configuration of the cities of the Roman Empire to the grid of Mexico City under the Aztecs to the city, suburbs, and rural towns of today.  I can’t claim exhaustive expertise in any of those eras, but have bumped against all of them during my urbanist reading and am proud to be part of a group whose vision is so all-encompassing.

The commenter also seems to believe that there are alternative resources that offer equally persuasive arguments and conclusions that run counter to the solutions usually advocated under the second definition.

I concur with him to the extent that we should be open to multiple perspectives on any issue.  On my reading table right now are books that take very different views on climate change.  I consider it the obligation of a citizen to research alternative perspectives   before engaging in public discussion.

But when I turn to land-use, there is an astounding paucity of credible material that defends suburbia as currently configured in most places.

That isn’t to say that there is no material at all that supports suburbia.  Indeed, there are a great many documents, but none of them reach the analytical standards of good urbanist study.  Instead, I’d put the suburbia documents into three classes.

There are paeans to suburbia extolling the freedom of the motorist and the family fun of the expansive backyard among other supposed suburban virtues.

There are how-to manuals on inducing folks to visit the latest strip mall or to buy a home in a new low-density subdivision.

And there are the financial analyses that argue, against seventy years of counter-examples, that one more big-box retailer or one more sprawling subdivision will assure prosperity.  (StrongTowns is particularly astute at exploding the flawed and often laughable assumptions of these analyses.)

But when it comes to serious analysis of the long-term sustainability and resilience of land-use, the defenders of suburbia all retreat to the sidelines, leaving the field to the proponents of walkable urbanism and similar solutions.

Indeed, the field of urbanism is filled with folks who began their study with considerations of how to make suburbia work better, only to realize that much of suburbia is a dead-end.  Author Leigh Gallagher, who began to write a book about how quickly the suburbs would rebound from the economic slump and ended up writing “The End of the Suburbs”, is only one recent example.

Readers of a logical bent may raise an objection here, suggesting that I’m engaging in circular logic.  If I reject as insufficiently rigorous every argument that defends suburbia and then reject suburbia because there are no good defenses of it, I might seem to be chasing my logical tail.

Unfortunately, in this short space, I can’t make an effective rebuttal to that argument.  I can only suggest that anyone who wishes to effectively engage in land-use discussions devote themselves to a dedicated program of open-minded reading and pondering.  Read Jane Jacobs, suburban general plans, StrongTowns, municipal budgets, James Howard Kunstler, the financial justifications put forth by mail developers, and Jeff Speck.  At the end of six months, you will not only understand that my argument isn’t circular, you’ll also be an urbanist.

(Nor should it be assumed that the analyses done under urbanist study result in groupthink.  Diligent students of land-use may identify different answers and advocate for their own solutions, although most answers would contain some elements of walkable urbanism.  All of these students would be engaged in urbanism and would capable of having meaningful conversations about their alternative conclusions.  Indeed, Petaluma Urban Chat often consists of exactly that type of exchange.)

Which brings us back to the question of zealotry.  Allow me to offer a parallel.  Someone who lived in England in the middle of the 17th century may well have had a lingering belief in alchemy.  Some people today believe that Isaac Newton dabbled with alchemical experiments between his scientific discoveries.  And if Newton retained an interest in alchemy, it’s likely that much of the population felt the same.

Against that background, the Royal Society, in their decision to focus on scientific work to the exclusion of alchemy, might well have been accused of zealotry.  And from the perspective of a contemporary non-scientific layperson, the charge may have seemed reasonable.  The scientific revolution and the lingering faith in turning lead into gold may have seemed alternative hypotheses, equally worthy of consideration.

It was only from the rigorous perspective of the Royal Society that the falsehoods of alchemy were evident.  And posterity has judged their perspective valid.  I suggest that posterity will similarly judge the false contest that some may propose between urbanism and the alchemy of drivable suburbia.

(I’m not suggesting that I belong anywhere near Sir Newton or even the Royal Society.  I may occasionally hang out in the same room with folks who might reasonably be called the Royal Society of land use, but I remain a lowly, back-row acolyte.)

Lest anyone think that I’m calling much of the population alchemists, I should clarify.  Instead, most of the population believes in suburbia mostly because it is the land-use paradigm with which they grew up and remain most comfortable.  That doesn’t make them alchemists.

But there are alchemists among us.  They are the developers, economists, and economic development directors who have spent enough time in their field that the flaws of suburbia should be fully evident and yet they continue to push their failed philosophy in order to keep the paychecks rolling.

I’m confident that the truths now being expounded by urbanists will form the basis of land-use planning a century from now, much as the 17th century efforts of Newton, Halley, Hook, and Leibnitz formed the basis of much of the science that was to come.  Perhaps there will be missteps, but the general direction will be proven valid.

And if I must be occasionally accused of zealotry to order to point the way toward a more informed future, so be it.

(P.S.  As a footnote of irony, it’s yet remains conceivable that contemporary suburbia has a sustainable and resilient future.  That future may well include deliveries by drones as suggested by Amazon, driverless cars as pioneered by Google, and improved tax structures so that suburbia doesn’t rely on subsidies from the general population, downtown residents, or future generations.  And that new configuration of suburbia, if it is to exist, will likely be found by those building on the urbanist studies of today, which is yet more proof that my first definition of “urbanism” is all-encompassing.)

(P.P.S. Also, diligent urbanists may be wondering where Ebenezer Howard, the urbanist who laid a key step in the path to suburbia, fits within the discussion.  Coincidentally, Howard was a frequent topic of conversation at CNU 22.  I’ll be writing about him in the near future.)

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 21, 2014

Clinging to the Past

As I publish this, I’m in the final days of a vacation.  Every year, I meet friends for a week of minor league baseball, regional food, and enjoyable beverages.  (The friends also humor me by agreeing to look at cool downtowns and walkable neighborhoods.)

This year, we traveled to New Mexico where most of the professional baseball teams are in the independent Pecos League.  The week of independent baseball caused me to think back upon my years in independent ball.  In particular, I recalled a story that illustrated an urbanist moral.

We had a season-ticket holder whom I’ll call Bridget.  (The actual woman was in her 70s and in failing health when I knew her nearly twenty years ago, so has likely passed away.  But I’ll let her rest in peace by using a pseudonym.  Otherwise, the story is fully true.)

Bridget was the kind of season-ticket holder who is important to lower level minor league ballclubs.  She could barely scratch together the cost of her season ticket and never patronized the concession stands, so she didn’t make much of an impact on club finances.  But she was eager to help the club in other ways.  In particular, she often undertook sewing tasks such as stitching commemorative patches onto jerseys and mending torn uniforms.

Her mending duties led to a conversation that illustrated a bit of her character.

We had a center-fielder, Marco, who was a player, in every sense of the word, both on the field and off.  One evening, Marco tore his baseball pants, requiring overnight repairs.  About twenty minutes after the game ended, with the primary stadium lights turned off and all but a few fans long gone, I spied Bridgett waiting in the shadows near the clubhouse.

Not knowing about the mending task that we’d asked of her, I asked her if she needed help.  She replied, “I waiting to get Marco out of his pants.”

“Bridget, I’m shocked!”

She shook her white hair, pursed her thin lips, and admonished me, “You know what I mean!”  But she couldn’t hide the small hint of a grin at the naughty suggestion that she might still have something to offer a 24-year-old athlete.

But Bridget really showed her colors on the Star-Spangled Banner.  Like many ballclubs, we had a choice of playing the same scratchy recording of the Star-Spangled Banner for 45 games each season or inviting local musicians to audition for a chance to play at one of the games.

Of course, we choose the latter.  Not only did we hope to sell tickets and concessions to the friends and family of the musicians, but we hoped some of them would enjoy the experience enough to return for another game.  (It may sound mercenary, but balancing the books in independent ball, not to make a profit but just to keep the gates open,  requires being mercenary.)

As might be expected, with 45 local musicians for 45 games, some of the musicians weren’t particularly good, or had renditions that diverged substantially from traditional, or both.

Several times a season, after a particularly inventive version, Bridget would feel obligated to berate the owners for the sacrilege.  As she slowly worked her way down through the stands, the other owners would find refuge in the press box or think of urgent cell phone calls that had to be made at that moment.  But I was often willing to chat with her.

“That was wrong!  The Star-Spangled Banner needs to be played as it was written.”

“What do you mean, Bridget?  The words were written as a poem.  Do you mean that we should recite the poem?”

“No!  You know what I mean.  The music should be played the way it was written.”

“But the melody was written as a drinking song for a London social club.  Do you mean we should import slightly inebriated Brits to sing the song?”

“No!  It should be played the way it was when I was a girl, when my daddy first brought me to this ballpark.”

“And when was that, Bridget?”

“1936.”

“So, in the entire history of the Star-Spangled Banner, the way it was played in this ballpark in 1936 was the only way it should ever be played?”

“Yes!”

“Okay, I’ll advise the general manager.”

“You do that.”  And she would stomp back to her seat while the fans within earshot tried to stifle smiles.

I t appreciated Bridget’s passion and her commitment to the ballclub.  But her insistence that 1936 was the apogee of the Star-Spangled Banner was silly.

However, her contention, as ridiculous as it may have seemed to those in earshot, is unfortunately similar to the attitudes that many take toward land use.  And it’s an attitude that’s ultimately harmful to our future.

Trying to preserve the 1980s form of land use is a bad idea, particularly because of what we now know about the financial and environmental impacts of that land use configuration.  But trying to preserve the 1890s land-use pattern is just as bad.  We’re a different people now, with different lifestyles, and our land use needs to reflect that.

Some try to disparage urbanism by claiming that it’s a foolish attempt to recapture the past.  But that’s a strawman argument, falsely attributing a characteristic just so it can be criticized.

No, urbanism is about taking the best of all past practices (admittedly, there were more good ideas before World War II than after) and applying those ideas to who we are today.  Urbanism isn’t about walking around in top hats; it’s about walking around in cargo pants, using our phones to navigate through a city that is environmentally and financially sustainable.

I still appreciate what Bridget did for the ballclub two decades ago.  And if she wanted to complain about the occasional electric guitar riff in the middle of the Star-Spangled Banner, then I was willing to listen to her in good humor.  But if she, or anyone else, were to take the same rigid attitude toward land use planning, then I’d be unhappy.

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 18, 2014

Quarterly quirks

Urbanism doesn’t necessarily lend itself to practical jokes.  However, as in most realms of human endeavor, it has potential for quirkiness and whimsy.  That’s close enough for me to offer a quarterly urbanist celebration of April Fool’s Day.

I try to schedule these posts for right around the first days of January, April, July, and October, but this one slipped away from me.  I was so distracted by the block party twists and turns that I lost track of time.  Perhaps the April Fool’s joke was on me.

In this post, I’ll look at the world’s largest game of Tetris, art based on the sky as seen between urban buildings, street fun that makes block parties look tame, a light show using shipyard cranes, and an imperfect and illegal use of transit.

Set aside a few minutes for this post.  There are videos you need to see.

Tetris: I know that watching others play video games has become a major source of entertainment for younger generations.  I don’t quite understand it, but I’ll admit that watching geeks play Tetris on a Philadelphia skyscraper was compelling.  I found myself as intrigued by the play as if I was playing the game myself.  And I was disappointed that the video was barely more than a minute long.

Sky Art: Most of us catch a glimpse of a bluebird sky between tall buildings and are pleased that we won’t need umbrellas.  French artist Thomas Lamadieu sees the sky as a blank canvas for elaborate doodlesMy favorite is the three artists inventing the cosmos in the second picture from the bottom.  It’s the new creation myth for our time.

Ultimate Water Slide: I was pleased to see water slides at Petaluma block parties.   Artist Luke Jerram blew right past inflatable water slides with a 300-foot water slide down a steep street in Bristol, England.  The allure of sliding for a city block on a thin film of water and soap was sufficiently alluring that tickets were allocated by lottery.

Lighting up the Shipyard: The Croatian city of Pula was considering removal of obsolete shipyard cranes to create a tourist center.  But lighting designed Dean Skira saw an opportunity to turn idea on its head by converting the cranes into a tourist attraction.  Normally I’m not a big fan of synchronized music and lights, finding the concept forced and unconvincing.  But about two minutes into this video, when the music turned to the theme from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, I was captivated.

A Bad Use of Transit: I’m a member of the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee.  One of our goals is to boost ridership for Petaluma Transit.  However, one group we’ve never marketed is bank robbers looking to make their getaways on city buses.  Based on this historical review by Eric Jaffe of City Labs, our decision was probably wise.  Robbers making getaways don’t seem a particular well-behaved ridership group, nor are they likely to become repeat riders.  I particularly like the robber who had to use the proceeds from his robbery to buy a transit pass because he’d failed to do so before the robbery.

In my next post, I’ll tell a tale from my baseball past that has a moral for our cities’ futures.

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 16, 2014

Community Tables

A few years ago, I had a free afternoon in Boston.  I took the subway to Cambridge to wander the Harvard campus.  Hungry from my walk, I found a burger place across Massachusetts Avenue from the campus.  Although I didn’t recognize the name at the time, I’ve since learned that Mr. Bartley’s has been an institution to generations of Harvard students.  (For the fellow graduates of my alma mater, Mr. Bartley’s is to Harvard what Top Dog is to Cal.)

I ordered one of their signature burgers and looked for a place to sit.  The smaller tables were all occupied.  There were open chairs at the central community table, but I wasn’t sure that I would be comfortable at a community table that was half-filled with Harvard students.  My concern wasn’t about the relative standing of Harvard and Cal, the two schools compare well, but more about being a fifty-something tourist sharing a space with a group of twenty-something college students.  So I found a place at a counter and ate my burger in solitude,

Over my life, I’ve made a lot of decisions, some of which didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped and some of which I truly regret.  But few seem as completely clueless as passing on the chance to sit at a community table across the street from the Harvard campus.

There was a chance that I might have found common ground with someone at the community table.  Admittedly, it’s more likely that I would have eaten my lunch in silence, but by choosing a spot at a counter, I assured a silent lunch.  I traded a small chance of a memorable lunch for zero chance.  And that was a remarkably dumb decision.  Community tables offer a chance of serendipitous connections and should be embraced.

 I don’t recall community tables in the restaurants of my youth.  They seem to be a recent re-entry into the restaurant scene.  But they’re a welcome addition.  From an urbanist perspective, they’re a fine addition to city life.  By allowing more flexibility in the accommodation of different sized dining groups, they allow space to be used more efficiently, always a key element of an urban setting.  Also, they open the door to possible fortuitous meetings among people who otherwise wouldn’t have met, the possibility that I mistakenly eschewed.

I’m beginning to see enough community tables in the North Bay that I won’t attempt to list all of them here.  I’d be slighting a restaurant that I should be praising.  But I’ll offer a few examples.

Ray’s, about which I wrote in my last post, has a couple of elegant natural wood slab community tables (pictured above).

The La Dolce Vita wine bar in Petaluma’s Theatre Square has a community table that I’ve occasionally shared with others.

The Aqus CafĂ© in Petaluma, where Urban Chat meets, doesn’t have a specific community table, but have a multitude of small, easily movable tables that are often configured into a community table.

When you find yourself in a restaurant with a community table, recognize that you’re dining at a place with an urbanist flavor.  And if circumstances permit, don’t be afraid to sit at the community table and to say hello to a stranger.

For those who may be wondering, the burger at Mr. Bartley’s was fine.  I hope to return someday.  And to sit at the community table.

In my next post, I’ll offer another quarterly summary of urban oddities and quirks.  I try to write on this topic at the three-month anniversaries of April Fool’s Day, but I’m about two weeks late this quarter.  I became so wrapped up in block parties that time slipped away.

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 14, 2014

Fitting a Meeting Place into a Neighborhood

Many years ago, my wife and I took an anniversary trip to London.  Planning for a stay of nearly two weeks and unwilling to pay hotel prices for that many nights, I looked for a flat to rent.  I found one a few blocks south of St. James Park.  It was a fine location from which to explore London with the St. James Tube station only a block away.

Between the flat and the Tube station was a small pub.  Most of the week, it was a sleepy place.  As I recall, my wife and I ate pub fare there one evening and I might have tipped a pint there on another occasion.  The place was usually more than half empty.

But on Friday evenings, it boomed.  All the nearby office workers stopped in for a pint or two before jumping onto the Tube to begin their weekends.  There were more patrons than the establishment could contain, so they spilled onto the sidewalk.  And when the sidewalk was full, they moved into the street, still holding their beer mugs.  (Alcohol control is different in England than in California.)

Eventually, the pub patrons filled enough of the street that the two-way traffic had to take alternating turns using the only lane that remained open and pedestrians had to work their way around the edge of the crowd.  But no horns were honked and no one complained.  Everyone seemed to give a free pass to good-natured Friday evening drinking.

Although I had no interest in braving the Friday evening mob for a pint of my own, I enjoyed the scene, all the while doubting that I would see the equivalent in California.

Adjusting for the fact that California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control would never allow drinkers to congregate off the sidewalk blocking a traffic lane, I wrong.  Within the posts and chains that limit the area of alcohol consumption, Ray’s Delicatessen and Tavern on the west side of Petaluma is much like that London pub.

And even outside of the posts and chains, Ray’s non-drinking customers tend to congregate on the sidewalks and in the first few feet of the crosswalks, occasionally causing traffic to slow.  Only a few drivers show annoyance.

It’s a friendly, comfortable, non-pretentious place that seems to expand and contract to conform to the number of patrons.

In fact, one can argue that Ray’s beats the London pub on a couple of points.  In place of English pub fare, Ray’s deli serves sandwiches and salads that beat pub fare any day.

And more importantly to urbanism, Ray’s is tucked within a residential neighborhood.  Having a friendly, comfortable place for good food and beverage somewhere in town is a good thing.  Having it a walkable distance from home is even better.  (I live a long block from Ray’s.)

Ray’s and its small group of westside brethren, a picturing framing shop next door, a convenience market, barbershop, and lighting shop a short distance down Western Avenue, and the DeSchmire restaurant on Bodega Avenue, have the distinction of being the most isolated businesses in Petaluma, furthest from any other commercial  establishment.  (If I’ve missed other candidates, let me know.)

And those westside stores are fine additions to the community.  Every bit of business that can be conducted on foot is one less car on the road.

One of the founding fathers of urbanism, Andres Duany, regularly makes a point about Charleston, South Carolina.  He loves the city and uses it to judge zoning codes.  In his phrase, “If you can’t build Charleston under a proposed zoning code, then the zoning code is no good.”

I’d make the same argument about Ray’s.  If your zoning code wouldn’t allow you to build another Ray’s anywhere in the community, then your zoning code isn’t good enough.  And very few zoning codes meet that test.

Drop by Ray’s one day for lunch and ask yourself if you’d want a Ray’s within a walkable distance of your home.  If so, congratulations, you’re an urbanist.  And I know a London pub you’d really enjoy.

In my next post, I’ll build on a theme related to Ray’s, community tables.

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 11, 2014

Block Parties: Emptying the Notebook

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been arguing for greater freedom to host block parties in Petaluma.  Having learned that block parties are restricted to cul-de-sacs, I advocated for fewer restrictions, and then toured Petaluma block parties (h), both legal and illegal, on the Fourth of July.

To repeat myself, block parties aren’t urbanism, but are one-day samplings of urbanism.  And sampling urbanism is a step in the right direction.

I have a scattering of final insights and data to share today in preparation for moving onto other topics.  But the block party issue won’t be forgotten.  I’ll continue to raise the issue in conversations with city officials and will advise readers whenever there’s a hint of progress.

Police responses: I know of four people who approached the Petaluma Police Department about block parties for the summer of 2014.  The range of responses was wide and instructive.

Party request #1: The police contact denied the request because the Municipal Code prohibits block parties except on cul-de-sacs.  The potential party organizer dropped the idea.

Party request #2: An officer told the potential organizer that, while the Municipal Code prohibits block parties on through streets, the officer thought that the provision could be ignored if the organizer provided an emergency access plan and proof of neighborhood concurrence.  But when the organizer provided both documents, the officer never called back.  The party proceeded without approval.

Party request #3: An officer told the organizer that, while the Municipal Code prohibited her proposed party, he suggested she proceed without a permit, although he cautioned her to leave an emergency access lane.

Party request #4: The organizer left multiple messages at the police station, none of which were returned, so she proceeded without approval.

The tally is four identical requests with four disparate responses.  And the list doesn’t include the numerous block parties that have been conducted, some of them for many years, without contacting the police department at all.

(Addendum: After this post was readied for publishing, I heard from yet another block party organizer.  Her party will be on a through street, but the Police Department issued her a permit regardless.  For those scoring at home, that’s five identical requests with five disparate responses.)

I don’t provide this tabulation to make fun of the police.  Instead, I consider that range of responses as an indication that the officers were trying to reconcile a flawed Municipal Code provision with their own common sense.  The lack of consistency is further proof that the Code should be modified.

Review of other cities: I checked the municipal codes for other North Bay cities regarding block parties.  My check wasn’t in depth.  It consisted solely of checking the on-line Municipal Codes for the phrases “block party” and “street party”.  If someone has further information, please share.  But I think my findings are significant.

The municipal codes of Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, San Rafael, Sonoma, and Napa are apparently silent on block parties.  It’s possible that local precedent has established block party rules, but the standards don’t rise to the level of the Municipal Codes.

It was only in Novato where I found a small hint of a block party standard.  The special event application form includes a block party as one of the possible events, which implies apparent approval of block parties without restriction to cul-de-sacs.

The consensus of North Bay cities seems clear.

The Santa Rosa example is particularly striking because of a story I was recently told.  A former neighbor moved to Santa Rosa within the past year.  With his wife and toddler, he moved into a neighborhood with a long block party tradition.  He tells me that this year’s party attracted hundreds of people, perhaps including the Santa Rosa mayor.  My friend was unable to confirm the mayor’s attendance because he was too busy emceeing for the bands that were playing.

And the entire event was conducted on streets where block parties aren’t legal in Petaluma.

Defending City Hall: I should address a misconception that has been mentioned to me.  The block party issue has apparently led some to believe that the City of Petaluma is actively opposed to block parties.  I don’t believe that to be the case.  I think some City folks are looking at the block party issue through spectacles with flawed prescriptions, but that’s different from actual opposition.

To begin, the offending phrase in the Municipal Code, the one that limits block parties to cul-de-sacs, was probably written decades ago.  The author was likely someone who has long left City employment or a consultant who was never employed by the City.  We can’t blame the current denizens of City Hall for the restriction.

Also, when City Hall looks at changing the provision, they’re doing a benefit-cost assessment, which is reasonable.  However, they project few benefits from allowing more block parties.  Not a complete absence of benefits, but few benefits.  At the same time, they fear significant costs from the use of City staff to make the Municipal Code change and from the commitment of the police to enforce a new standard.  As a result, they calculate a benefit-cost ratio of less than one.

I believe they underestimate the benefits and overestimate the costs, so disagree with their calculation.  But I’ll defend them from the accusation that they see no benefits.

Good enough?:  Another response I hear is that the current situation is good enough and that we needn’t spend time worrying when most block parties are proceeding just fine.

If I squint, I can see that logic.  But when I fully open my eyes, the reasoning disappears like a puff of smoke.

How can the current situation are acceptable if newcomers to Petaluma, eager to bond with their neighbors, are directed by the police department not to hold block parties?  How is it acceptable if other organizers proceed with their plans, but are constantly looking over their shoulders in trepidation, wondering if they’re about to be fined for not getting a permit? 

By any measure that I find reasonable, the current status isn’t “good enough”.

I’ll admit that block parties are a fairly small issue.  If someone gave me a magic lamp with the power to fix ten things in Petaluma, I doubt block parties would make my list.  But if we can’t fix the little solvable problems, how do we think we can fix the big, more intractable problems?

Okay, I’ve spent enough time on block parties.  Probably more than I should have.  Thanks for hanging around while I ranted.

It’s now time to move along.  In my next post, I’ll take a look at neighborhood meeting places.

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 9, 2014

Block Parties: A Busy Fourth of July

In recent weeks, I’ve been agitating for reduced restrictions by the City of Petaluma on block parties.  As I’ve written before, I’ll admit that block parties aren’t truly urbanism.  But block parties are a one-day sampling of urbanism, which can be a fine thing.  A neighborhood enjoying a block party is far more ready to consider an urbanist future than a neighborhood sitting in their individual recliners watching “American Idol”.

To summarize my recent history with block parties, a frequent reader in Petaluma asked me about the process for securing a block party permit.  I checked with the key person in the Petaluma Police Department and found that permits can be issued only for block parties on cul-de-sacs, causing the organizer to abandon his plans.

On several levels, I found that restriction ill-conceived.  So I began advocating for a change.  I also began contacting various people within city government.

My crusade came at a fortuitous time with the Fourth of July, reportedly the most common day for Petaluma block parties, quickly approaching.  So I asked for information about local block parties, both legal and illegal.  A couple of folks responded.  I made a plan to visit those parties and to cruise other neighborhoods, seeing if I could spot more parties.

My wandering went well.  In addition to the two parties to which I was already invited, I came across another three parties, one of which elated me.

The first two parties were in cul-de-sacs.  Although the Municipal Code specifically allows block parties in cul-de-sacs, it still requires a permit for those parties.  It also requires provision for emergency vehicle access as a requirement for the permit.

One of the cul-de-sac parties had made reasonable provision for emergency access; the other not so much.  I don’t know if either party secured a permit.  (As of publication, my inquiry to the Petaluma Police about the number of Fourth of July block party permits issued, if any, hadn’t been answered.)

I then headed to first of the parties to which I’d been invited.  I knew the subdivision moderately well, so didn’t bother to recheck the street location, expecting that I would come across the party with little effort.

And I was apparently right.  Only a couple of blocks into the subdivision, I spotted a party with over 200 people, a dunking tank, an inflatable water slide, and food and beverage everywhere.  It was exactly what a block party should be.

After parking more than a block away because of the throng, I wandered through the party, enjoying the children having fun and the adults engaged in neighborly chats.

Eventually, I asked about the woman who had invited me to stop by.  The first few folks to whom I spoke didn’t know her, which puzzled me.  I then found a woman who had the scoop.  The party I was seeking was about four blocks away.  I was at the wrong party!  I’d come across a vibrant 200-person block party by chance!  Days later, I still marvel at the odds.  Or perhaps it’s a sign that there are so many block parties out there that it’s not unusual to stumble across a great one.

My bearings reestablished, I chatted with the organizer for another couple of minutes.  She happily offered the history of the party, the organizational effort, and her communication with the Petaluma Police.  She even invited me to have some food, although as an interloper, I felt that I really should move on.

The second neighborhood party was nearly as good as the first.  It only had about 50 participants, being in its first year compared to the eighth year for the other party, but there was good enthusiasm and a sense that the block party would gain momentum in future years.

Having been invited to this party, I hung around and talked longer with folks.  The organizer told me that none of the neighbors had objected to the party and only a couple of families had opted out of participating.  And even the opt-out families had been willing to move their cars out of the street to accommodate the party.

Another neighbor, who had gone door-to-door to collect signatures of concurrence, told me that he had lived on the street for nine years, but had neighbors with whom his only interaction until recently had been waves as they drove by.  Now, through the party organizing effort, everyone on the street was on a first name basis.  He expected that other social gatherings would follow.

To end my day, I visited the block park for which my permitting assistance had been sought, alerting me to the unfortunate provision in the Municipal Code.

After the police turndown, the neighbors had fallen back to a lesser plan of barbecues and picnic tables in their driveways.  But absent the bounce houses and water slides in the street, the momentum toward a day-long celebration was lost.

With scenes of vibrant block parties still fresh in my head, I approached the site with unease, fearing the extent to my effort had inadvertently robbed the party of vitality.

My discomfort was quickly justified.  The party organizer was hanging out by himself, barbecuing turkey legs in his driveway.  To be fair, he expected twenty people later in the afternoon.  Also, a few neighbors began wandering by as he and I chatted, but it was still a pale event compared to the others I’d visited.

I felt badly.  I’d heard of people who could kill parties by their presence, but never thought that I’d be one.

To the credit of the organizer, he was still willing to invite me to his event and to offer me a beer.  Even more importantly, he remained hopeful of future block parties.  He had recently moved to Petaluma because he liked the feel of the community and wasn’t about to let one setback change his impression of the town.  He was eager for the block party rules to be tidied up so he could plan a big Fourth of July 2015 in-the-street block party for his neighborhood.  He’s the kind of person that communities need.

As I concluded my tour, one final image lingered.  As I was talking with a party organizer at one of the earlier parties, we both noted a boy, perhaps eight years old, who had climbed into a chair near us.  He was exhausted by the non-stop fun and had fallen fast asleep wearing only his bathing suit.  The organizer put our conversation on hold to look for a towel with which to cover him.

When she’s finished, I’d asked if the young man was her son.  “No,” she replied,” I don’t know to whom he belongs.  But he must live here in the neighborhood and I didn’t want him to awake sunburned.”

And that’s what block parties should be, a day when kids belong not to a family but to a neighborhood.  That type of party is a far better event than someone barbecuing turkey legs alone.

Before closing the block party topic, I have a few final notes to share.  I’ll cover those in my next post, before moving onto other urbanist topics.


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