Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Keeping the Spigot Throttled Back

I’ve recently seen something that’s been missing from the North Bay for the last couple of years, pallets of sod stacked on sidewalks and ready to be laid.  I’m unhappy about what I’m seeing.  I’m far from convinced that the California drought is over.

Sod-happy homeowners aren’t the only ones calling for what I fear would be a premature celebration of the end of the drought.  Some public officials in the North Bay have begun calling for an end to water use restrictions.  And an East Bay homeowners association is threatening to lock out homeowners who don’t green up their lawns.  (For the record, I share the homeowners association distaste with brown lawns but, rather than making renewed watering an option, I would have pushed for sod removal and low water-demand landscaping.) 

Those arguing that the drought is over in the North Bay point to full reservoirs.  It would have been a compelling argument in 1979, but not so much today.

In 1979, we had a fairly good understanding of long-term weather patterns.   We understood that the drought that was then ending had been historically severe, with a long recurrence interval, and that we were returning to more normal precipitation.   So easing drought restrictions was reasonable and appropriate.

But in 1979, the world was about to change, in a very literal sense.  Today, with climate change well underway, we don’t know what a normal precipitation year looks like.  We know that the current water year seems destined to finish about five percent over the historical average, but we don’t know if the historical average will have any relevance in coming years.  Instead, we have good reason to suspect that it won’t.

At least one theory of climate changes argues that the weather will tend toward extremes, with long periods of drought interrupted by shorter periods of heavy rainfall.  It’s a description that seems similar to recent weather patterns.  Three years of deep drought, followed by the recent mildly wet winter.  Perhaps it’s the pattern that will become common.

The situation becomes even more disturbing with a closer look at this past winter.  Because of El Nino, many experts anticipated a high rainfall total.  Instead, we got a winter that was barely above the historical average.  Perhaps this past winter will become the “wet winters” of the future, with far less rain than the wet winters of the past.

I’m not suggesting that my crystal ball is perfect.  I don’t know what the future rainfall pattern in the North Bay will be.  But neither does anyone else.  And I suspect that my scenario of frequent drought years interspersed with years of close to historical average rainfall will be nearer the coming reality than will be a return to the historical rainfall pattern.

Besides, it’s not like we were unduly burdened by the drought regulations.  As far as I know, no one died of thirst.  And I didn’t find myself in more crowds than usual in which I wondered about the personal hygiene of others.

Faced with meteorological uncertainty and the fairly low inconvenience of being conservative, caution seems the only reasonable course.  If we act otherwise, we might well irrigate the new sod of 2016 with the water we’ll desperately want for toilet flushing in 2019.

 Nor is justifiable caution the only grounds for continuing water conservation standards.  As I’ve written previously, there’s a logical argument that California, with a surfeit of arable land and a paucity of precipitation even under historical conditions, has always been in a state of drought.  Conserving domestic water use and instead routing it to agriculture, whether for vineyards that produce wine to be sold elsewhere, bringing cash to the North Bay, or for crops targeted for local tables, is reasonable public policy.

So there you have two good reasons for continuing water conservation.  I don’t think any more are needed.

Before closing, I should respond to an argument that often made at this point of the drought discussion, which is that the North Bay should halt all development until we understand the ramifications of climate change on regional water available.  (A similar argument is often made on traffic.)

At first glance, it’s an intuitively compelling argument, but quickly falls apart in a free society.

We don’t put up barricades barring movement into communities during constrained times.  And as the North Bay is an attractive destination, whether for work, lifestyle, or both, people will still move here despite a drought.  If we’re not building new homes, then they’ll buy existing homes, pushing out those who lack the resources to compete for housing.

(It may seem surprising that building million dollar homes reduces the stress on the lower end of the demographic scale, but it really does work that way.  If someone who can afford a million dollar home wants to move to the North Bay but those homes don’t exist, they may buy a less expensive home and put the extra dollars toward upgrades.  The impact of that decision propagates down the demographic scale until someone is displaced at the bottom.)

The inevitability of new residents and the desire to accommodate them without displacing current residents, along with the goal of building homes near jobs to reduce commutes, is why regional agencies require all Bay Area cities to have housing plans that allow reasonable growth.

So, if water and traffic capacity are constrained, perhaps forever, and yet growth will still occur, what kind of growth should it be?  How about walkable urbanism with its reduced car trips and lesser water demands?

I love it when all the pieces fit together nicely.

Oh, and the dry fountain shown in the photo?  It’s now filled with soil and low water-demand plants.  I doubt it will ever again be a fountain.  I miss the burble, but life goes on.

Although it nearly slipped past me, Jane Jacobs' 100th birthday was this week.  I’ve written about Jacobs many times in the space.  In my next post, I’ll link some of the past posts and also draw a lesson from one of her few failures.

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

Monday, May 2, 2016

Tactical Urbanism: An Alternative for Urbanists with Less Patience?

Note the width from centerline to curb
In my previous post, I wrote about the need to move past vision into the long, often tedious task of execution if major land-use changes are to be made.

I live and believe that statement.  And I respect those who work daily toward the execution of land-use concepts that will make our communities stronger and more sustainable, especially those who have been undertaking the task for longer than me.

Within the past week, I’ve read as the Friends of SMART, the citizens group that pushed for the SMART rail system and continues to watch over its implementation, exchanged emails about their proposed “Founders’ Grove”, a public park in Santa Rosa that would remember the people who devoted much time and effort toward SMART, but passed away before the trains could begin running.  Communities thrive when idealists work hard for goals beyond their own life spans.

However, I understand there are also many who want to make a difference, but lack the willingness to work for goals that may be over the horizon.  As the cartoon of a pair of steely-eyed vultures on a branch notes, “Patience my ass, I’m gonna kill something.”

With those folks in mind, I want to recount a story I heard at CNU 22, the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, held in Buffalo in 2014.

In a medium-sized Canadian city near Toronto, a group of urbanists met regularly to talk about how to make their town more pedestrian friendly.  One particular intersection bothered them.  It was stop sign controlled, but many of the stops were perfunctory.

Even worse, both streets were unusually wide for two-lane streets.  For one right turn in particular, a frequent traffic movement, drivers had room to make a second lane leading into the right turn.  Pedestrians were intimidated by the rolling stops and the extra lane of travel.  Rather than risking their children, parents would drive them to school.  And senior citizens were blocked from shops they might have otherwise visited.

(The photo is from the North Bay, not Canada, but illustrates the concern.  Where the car is stopped, it’s more than 25 feet from centerline to curb, which is plenty of room for drivers making a right turn, including me upon occasion, to make a separate lane.)

The urbanists easily identified the traffic fix that was needed, a bulb-out that would keep the second lane from forming, thereby slowing traffic and making the intersection safer for pedestrians.

They took their suggestion to City Hall where it was shuffled to the bottom of a stack of other possible street improvements, few of which pertained to making the city safer for pedestrians.

Unwilling to let the idea die a quiet bureaucratic death, the urbanists hatched a plan.  One evening, after the sun had set, they arrived at the corner in a van, wearing safety vests.  By chance, a utility crew was working a block away, so the urbanists looked like another team on the same utility project.

As drivers passed by, few even giving a second glance, the urbanists laid down white striping, creating the bulb-out they’d proposed.  To ensure that the drivers saw the paint the following morning, they placed orange traffic cones along the perimeter.  And to show the world that this wasn’t an ordinary street project, they put a single yellow daffodil in each cone.  (I love the daffodil touch.  It makes the story come alive.)

When the sun rose the next morning, drivers quickly adjusted to the new paint and no longer made a second travel lane for right turns.  Pedestrians, puzzled at first by the change, soon learned that they could walk into the painted bulb in safety, making the crossing easier.  And they told their friends about the more pedestrian friendly crossing.

Meanwhile, City Hall fumed, threatening prosecution against whoever had laid down roadway striping without either approval from Public Works or an encroachment permit.  The urbanists, willing to take a chance, but stopping short of stupidity, remained quiet and out of sight.

But when the pedestrians began asking why City Hall was fussing over a change that had improved walkability, the tone shifted.  City Hall was willing to admit that the striping seemed a good idea, even finding money to redo the striping with better paint and to put up signage required for the bulb-out.  But some truculence remained, with a warning given that if anyone else undertook a similar effort, retribution would follow swiftly.

The urbanists began planning their next project.

The team had engaged in tactical urbanism, small, focused efforts to reintroduce walkable urbanism to places that have forgotten about it.

Not every tactical urbanist effort needs to tweak the nose of City Hall as much as the Canadian story, although some do.

Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns tells the story of a Memphis neighborhood that painted crosswalks and bike lanes without official sanction, although the City soon embraced the changes.

Another story from CNU 22 was about an abandoned brewery in downtown Memphis that was filled with trash and misbehavior.  A neighborhood group came together to do a clean-up, followed by stringing lights and rolling out a keg of beer.

At CNU 23 in Dallas, local consulting group Ash + Lime spoke about organizing events in empty downtown buildings in a nearby suburb, reminding the citizens of how much fun a well-filled downtown can be.

(For readers with long memories, tactical urbanism may sound similar to City Repair, about which I wrote a few years back.  The two are much alike and can be described as two sides of the same coin.  As I see the slight difference, City Repair is about building community from which small improvement projects flow while tactical urbanism is about identifying small improvement projects from which community growth flows.  Two good concepts with a small difference in perspective.)

None of the tactical urbanist projects noted above are in the North Bay, but the North Bay offers opportunities for tactical urbanism.  A couple of years back, I learned of two Petaluma businesses, aided and abetted by a Petaluma architect, who were going to install a parklet despite the absence of a City parklet policy.  (This was long before a group, with whom I’m working, began to develop a parklet policy for City consideration.)  I thought the idea was grand, offered to write about it when the time was right, and was disappointed when it faded away. 

I have no problem conceiving of other tactical urbanist projects that could make a difference in the North Bay.

Already having a full plate of longer-term goals, I won’t be taking the lead on any tactical urban projects, but will be happy to advise as needed.

So, if a decade or more of persistent involvement and advocacy to accomplish a single goal, albeit a major goal, isn’t consistent with your personality, perhaps tactical urbanism, with its lesser but still important targets, would in more keeping with your desires.

Either way, you shouldn’t sit back telling others what your city should look like in the future.  You need to be making brush strokes yourself, whether grand and time-consuming or short and incisive.  It’s up to you to make the future what you want it to be.

When I next write, it will be about the drought.  Some are ready to call it over and to lift all water use restrictions.  For at least two reasons, I disagree.

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

Friday, April 29, 2016

Vision versus Execution

The Petaluma River from downtown Petaluma
Among many other things, Thomas Edison is famous for having said that genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

His formulation is fine.  My only comment is that if he had replaced “genius” with “success in most walks of life”, he would have been equally accurate and even more insightful.

And I include land use, walkable urban and otherwise, within those walks of life.

I mention this because vision, the land-use equivalent of inspiration, was mentioned frequently in the comments regarding the recent video on pending development projects in Petaluma.

(For those who missed the flurry of activity around the video, I won’t recap the story here.  However, I’ve written about it four times previously.  I’ve touched on my concerns that similar information dumps have triggered flawed policies, that effective public input is always difficult, that one can fill a week with effective public involvement, and that forums for education and cooperation are essential.)

In the comments on the video, many called for stronger visioning for Petaluma land-use as the path to better future.  It was an ironic suggestion.  Visioning has rarely been a problem in Petaluma.  Instead, Petaluma has a history of being well ahead of the curve in its visions.

In the early 1970s, Petaluma, along with the State of Oregon, pioneered urban growth boundaries.  Think of that.  Of all the cities in the country, Petaluma was the first to argue for confined growth, a city planning tool that is now taken for granted.

In the early 2000s, Petaluma was the first city in the country to adopt the SmartCode, a cutting edge approach at a form-based development code.  Form-based codes direct development by the shapes of new buildings rather that transient uses of the buildings.  Today, cities across the country are adopting form-based codes, but it was Petaluma that got there first.

And we can look deeper into the history of Petaluma to find visions such as the Petaluma River Access and Enhancement Plan and the Petaluma Station Area Master Plan.

Petaluma has been remarkably visionary, including twice when it led the nation.  It’s a strong visioning history.

On the other hand, execution, the land-use equivalent of Edison’s perspiration, hasn’t been nearly as good.

After getting the first urban growth boundary approved, Petaluma didn’t move onto the next obvious step of denser development, instead filling up the new boundary with conventional single-family homes with little walkability.  It was if our forebears stepped boldly into the future and, surprised to find themselves there, stumbled about aimlessly for the next three decades.

The story with the SmartCode was different, but similarly unfortunate.  In its final adoption, a critical section was somehow omitted, to the dismay of many who had committed long hours fighting for its adoption.  Without the section, development under the code was severely constrained, with few projects moving forward.  But it took ten years before the politics lined up to fix the omission.

It'd be imprecise to assign numbers, but I’ll try anyway.  In visioning, Petaluma may well be at the 95th percentile among U.S. cities, with much credit given to the two bold actions they took ahead of the rest of the country.

In execution, Petaluma doesn’t seem to be climb above the 40th percentile, with a consistent failure to follow up on its visions.

So, dissatisfied with the state of the Petaluma land-use planning, what do some commenters call for?  More visioning.  If Thomas Edison was still with us, he’d be shaking his head in disbelief.

I understand the love for visions, I really do.  Visioning is fun.  Offering bold, provocative ideas can be an adrenaline rush.  (I know because this blog often offers visions.)   But execution, the honing off of the rough edges, the conversion of a vision into a realistic plan, and the years of defending the plan from those who would undermine it, is the hard work, the essential work, the 99 percent work.

I think back to the Petaluma Urban Chat work on the potential re-use of the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds.  The initial meetings, the big picture meetings, attracted large, enthusiastic crowds excitedly sorting through possibilities such as parks and performing arts centers.

But the crowds dwindled when the talk turned to topics such as how to accommodate the existing community pool and library, how to align a street grid to allow a strong transit connection to the train station, whether to accommodate the existing speedway, and how to assemble a project that made financial sense for all parties.

It was disappointing to watch as people who had vigorously espoused big picture concepts were reduced to puzzled indecision when a pencil was placed in their hands.  And that was long before the myriad of public meetings and workshops that would someday be required to bring the fairgrounds re-use to fruition.

I’m not making jest of the folks who struggled with the transition from vision to execution.  I know it’s hard to move from grand hand-waving to the minutiae of compatible adjacencies and market absorption rates.  I struggle with the transition myself.  Visions are just so much fun.  But it’s a transition that must be made.  And it’s the transition that moved Edison from being someone of great imagination to someone who changed the world.

I’ve written before about Petaluma Urban Chat and have now created a page especially for Urban Chat.  I know, Thomas Edition notwithstanding, that Urban Chat will never have a ratio of 99 parts execution to 1 part vision.  The vision thing is just too much fun to be reduced to that level.  But my hope is to get more attention to execution in Urban Chat, whether through advocacy or public participation.  If you’re in Petaluma, I hope you join in.  If you’re not in Petaluma, perhaps you can create or support your own version of an Urban Chat.

When I next write, it will be about tactical urbanism, which might be an urbanist home for those unwilling to sit through interminable committee meetings toward the execution of big ideas.  Execution is still essential to tactical urbanism, but the rewards are quicker.  I have a favorite anecdote to share.

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

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Catching a Ballgame with the Car Still in the Driveway

Elizabethton ballpark
Baseball is my game.  Not to play, curve balls were always a mystery to me, but to enjoy, whether in a ballpark or through a boxscore.  I avidly follow the football and basketball fortunes of my alma mater, but I’m more alive in the spring and summer when baseball is being played.

There’s something about the game that grabs hold of one and doesn’t let go.  I agree with Lowell Cohn of the Press Democrat about loving the sights, sounds, and smells of the game.

For years, much of my summer travel has directed toward minor league ball.  I’ve seen four of the top ten ballparks from this list in The Street.  (Although I think the list is too Midwest-centric and misses good ballparks near the three coasts.  The parks in Fresno, California, a jewel in a flawed setting, and Birmingham, Alabama, an urban catalyst in the making, quickly come to mind.)

I expect to visit one of the missing six this summer.  I also have a tentative plan to catch a ballgame of the Toledo Mud Hens, the favorite team of Corporal Maxwell Klinger, and a firmer plan to visit small town ballparks throughout Appalachia. 

Baseball has a complex relationship with urbanism.  On one hand, much of mythology of baseball is rural, with stories of fireballing pitchers like Bob Feller discovered in pastoral settings and farmers mysteriously drawn to lay out diamonds on land that everyone in the town thought needed to be planted in corn.

On the other hand, the game was first codified in New York City and first game of organized ball was played on a bluff above the Hudson River in New Jersey.  And, as the late commissioner of baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti, was found of noting, the word “paradise” is derived from an Iranian word for walled garden, which is a spot-on description of an enclosed patch of an emerald green outfield in the midst of a city.

I embrace both sides of the divide.  One of my favorite ballparks, and one that I’ll revisit this summer, is in the small Tennessee town of Elizabethton.  The ramshackle park is tucked near the banks of the Watauga River, close to where the first government of European immigrants outside of the original thirteen colonies was established.  (With its 1772 founding date, the Watauga Association predated the first town government of my ancestral home, Marietta, Ohio, by six years.)

Sitting in the third base stands, I watched in 2011 as the Pulaski Mariners battled the Elizabethton Twins.  (For those who follow Major League ball, among the Twins that evening were Miguel Sano, Max Kepler, and Eddie Rosario, all of whom have played for the big league Twins this season.)  As the game played out in front of me, I could hear the quiet burble of the river behind me.  Even better, I could hear the sounds of children riding bikes along the river, enjoying a small town summer.

Greenville ballpark
But I also found the ballpark in Greenville, South Carolina to be striking.  A Fenway Park emulation, in keeping with the affiliation between the Greenville Drive and the Boston Red Sox, set within the downtown grid, and adjoined by office buildings, it has elements of the Giamatti ideal of a walled paradise.

So, with the game and my allegiance split between urban and rural settings, where does the future of the game lay?  I’ll suggest that it lays anywhere that can be conveniently accessed without the environmental and walkability impacts of private-owned vehicles and acres of parking, whether that means electric autonomous vehicles dropping fans at the front gate of rural ballparks before driving on or subway lines exiting at the rotundas of downtown parks.

With that vision in mind, let me share an expectation I have for the summer of 2018.  By then, SMART, the commuter rail system coming to the North Bay, should have opened its extension to Larkspur.

AT&T Park
During that summer,  I should be able to exit my front door, pat the fender of my car as I pass it by, walk a short distance to a bus stop for Petaluma Transit, realigned to better connect with SMART, ride a bus to the SMART station, take the train to Larkspur, with special attention to the lower Petaluma River where the train diverges from the freeway to snake through a setting of farms and tidal marshes, catch a ferry, feeling the salty breeze on the deck, arrive near the right center field corner of AT&T Park, enjoy nine innings in a walled garden, and then reverse the trip home.

What a marvelous outing to envision for the year I turn 65.  What a change to experience over the course of my life.  I only regret that it’s still two years away.

Play ball!

I’ve recently been pondering the complementary, but unevenly embraced, roles of visioning and execution.  I’ll offer insights 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 (

Monday, April 25, 2016

Affording a $400 Sidewalk Repair

(Note: If the message below seems familiar, it may be because I wrote on the same subject a couple of months back.  But new and better targeted quotes have come across my desk that allow me to make the point more effectively.  Perhaps it’s intellectually lazy, but some days are like that.)

Today begins with a one-question quiz.  It’s not an easy quiz, perhaps SAT level or above, especially for those who still believe in drivable suburbia. 

Here we go.  Can you spot the logical inconsistency between these two excerpts?

Excerpt One – A question and answer from a City of Petaluma leaflet about a new program to encourage sidewalk repairs, a program that can include financial assistance.

“Question: What can I do if paying for sidewalk repairs is too expensive for me right now? Answer: The City is offering loans, at below-market rates, for qualified property owners.”

Excerpt Two – Taken from “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans”, an article in the current issue of Atlantic.

“The Fed (Federal Reserve Board) asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency.  The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all.  Four hundred dollars!  Who knew?”

Do you see the inconsistency?  It should jump out for those who aware of the financial state of suburbia.

The inconsistency is that the City of Petaluma and the author of the Atlantic article, Neal Gabler, see the financial health of the public quite differently.

Petaluma makes the implicit assumption that any problems in paying for sidewalk repairs are temporary cashflow problems and can be solved with low-cost loans.

Gabler sees a different story.  From the Fed data, he sees that the problem is chronic with nearly half of the population overwhelmed by a $400 expense, much less a sidewalk repair that could run to $5,000.

From personal observations, I find Gabler and the Fed closer to the truth.

I don’t intend a knock on Petaluma by saying that they’re being unrealistic about sidewalk repairs.  They’re trapped, as many are, by the failing finances of suburbia.  By law, homeowners are responsible for sidewalks.  But the City legal staff is concerned about judgments against the City because of a failure to enforce that responsibility.  So the City has adopted a policy that will give it a legal defense, even if staff understands the fallacy of expecting many homeowners to repay even low-interest loans.

I speculate, and the City may also, that the sidewalk fund will soon bottom out as the repayments lag, with the result that few sidewalks are repaired.  But at least the City will be able to point at their attempt to address the problem.  Perhaps it’s a cynical response by the City, but it’s a situation where cynicism may be the only rational response.

Some will suggest that the City should assume responsibility for sidewalk repair and maintenance.  I agree that maintaining walkability would be a government function in a reasonable world.

But a back-of-the-envelope calculation estimated the annual cost of maintaining sidewalks throughout Petaluma at $4 to $6 million, an impossible chunk of the general fund revenues which have painfully climbed back to $40 million after the recession.  And a tax measure to pay the cost would be an attempt to tap many of the same pockets that are already tapped out, so would fail miserably.

Admittedly, many homeowners are within the 53 percent who the Fed found aren’t overwhelmed by a $400 tab, but there are also many homeowners within the lower 47 percent.  From first-hand knowledge as the chair of a non-profit that worked with low-income homeowners, I know the latter to be true.

In Gabler’s analysis, in which he openly acknowledges belonging to the 47 percent despite an outwardly success life, he ascribes the increasing financial struggles of former middle class to three factors, growing income inequality by which the lower quintiles of the public don’t partake of economic gains, the ready availability of credit which encouraged insurmountable debt, and a desire, if not to keep up with the Jones, then at least to have one’s children keep up with the Jones’ children.

Although Gabler writes about the need to leave New York City for a far suburb to find affordable housing, a decision that in turn forced him to focus on keeping an aging car running, he doesn’t point to the current land-use model as a cause of widespread financial stress.  I could argue that his omission is a mistake, but also agree that the three causes he identified might lead the list even if suburbia is included.

Regardless of the role in suburbia in causing the financial malaise in former middle-class pocketbooks, the financial sustainability of suburbia is undermined by that malaise.  Whether it’s fixing potholes or mending cracked sidewalks, we have a problem.  Much of the public can’t pay for the needed repairs.

Suburbia came of age during the 50s and 60s, an era in which the U.S. had income equality that was unprecedented in the history of the world, a fact that allowed suburbia to thrive.  In the absence of income equality, it’s unclear how to support suburbia.

Of course, even if we find the political will to bring income equality back to the levels of the 50s and 60s, we still have the problem with suburbia driving climate change.

Wouldn’t it be easier to move toward a walkable urban world with its lesser extent of infrastructure to maintain?  I think so.

Most years, I write an early April paean to baseball and how it functions as an urban sport.   This year, early April slid past in a welter of other topics.  But we’re still in the latter days of the month, so I’ll my annual ode to the sport 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 (

Friday, April 22, 2016

Coming Together to Learn and to Explore

Downtown Petaluma during American Graffiti weekend
For my few last posts, I’ve been obsessive.  I’ll acknowledge it.  Besides, obsession is sometimes the correct reaction.  But it’s now time to close the door and to move on, although not until after today’s post.

For readers entering the conversation here, I’ll give a quick recap.  About ten days back, a video was published on social media listing all land-use projects proposed for Petaluma.  Although we likely differ on tactics, the poster largely agrees with my walkable urbanist land-use philosophy.  Unfortunately, his video didn’t use that perspective, but was instead a simple recitation of projects as interpreted from City data, with a disappointing number of inadvertent errors. 

From personal experience, I know that information in that form can often result in a public furor.  The uproar may quickly pass away, but often leaves more harm than good in its trail.

So, as the commotion began, I joined the conversation with a series of posts.  First, I recounted a personal experience in which similar public hubbubs resulted in new rules that pushed us incrementally down the road toward climate change.  Next, I wrote about how education, persistence, and opportunity are essential factors in effective public input.  And then, I described a week in my life as an example of public participation, acknowledging that I give more time than most people can, but still hoping to provide inspiration.

Throughout these posts, I often noted the need for a gathering where ideas can be exchanged, building community knowledge about land-use practices, processes, and opportunities.

Luckily, the gathering already exists.  Early in the history of this blog, which now goes back nearly five years, a couple of eager readers suggested  meeting for a discussion on the topics about which I was writing.  We picked Aqus Café as a meeting place, assembled on the designated date, and had a great conversation.  We decided to meet again the following month.  From that beginning, Petaluma Urban Chat was born.

I won’t pretend that the endeavor has always thrived.  Instead, directing Urban Chat has been much like managing a gym.  Lots of folks sign up for annual memberships on January 2 and are gone for good by January 15 when they realize that six-pack abs take more than a few rounds of sit-ups.

Urban Chat has been similarly subject to peaks and valleys, as the enthusiasm of new urbanist converts succumbed to the reality of the effort needed to change the world.

Despite the swings in participation, Urban Chat has accomplished a lot.  The Urban Chat group collectively read books by Jeff Speck, Charles Montgomery, and Chuck Marohn.  Indeed, it was Urban Chat that first forced me to pay serious attention to Marohn’s StrongTowns arguments, which have had a deep impact on this blog.

Urban Chat assembled a conceptual master plan for the reuse of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds, an effort that has been waylaid by the slow pace of others involved with the Fairgrounds, but remains ready to be reactivated at the right time.

Urban Chat mustered a large turnout for the StrongTowns/Urban3 presentations in Santa Rosa earlier this year, resulting in Petaluma having the greatest per capita participation of any North Bay city.

Urban Chat was the springboard for a working group that is now developing a parklet policy for possible adoption by the City of Petaluma.

It has even been the inspiration for a similar group in Iowa.

Through all those accomplishments, Urban Chat has also remained a place to talk about the urbanist changes and challenges coming to Petaluma.

Yet there is still much room for Urban Chat to fill a bigger community role.  Perhaps the furor around the video can attract new participants who will finally create a critical mass.

The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for May 10, 5:30p, at the Aqus Café, 2nd and H Streets in Petaluma.  As always, all are welcome.

However, the standard meeting time on the second Tuesday of each month was set long ago, conforming to personal constraints that may no longer apply.  I’ll soon poll the current Urban Chat mailing list to ask if another date might work better.  If you’d like to be added to the mailing list to participate in that decision and in future meetings, let me know.  An email or a comment would be fine.

One last thought about Urban Chat.  It’s a democracy that goes where the group wishes to go.  But, as the longest standing voice at the table, I will object strongly if we begin pointing fingers.  Comments that all elected officials are corrupt, that all developers are greedy, or that all city employees are biding their time until they become eligible for pensions will all attract my ire.

I believe strongly that we’re almost all good people, responding rationally to the system.  Our job isn’t to assign blame, but to change the system so the future rational actions get us closer to the results we want.  It’s not an easy job, but it’s an essential job.

I’ll hope to see many new faces at the next meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat.

A few weeks back, I noted how the newly adopted City of Petaluma sidewalk policy highlighted the failure of the drivable suburban model.  Since then, a couple of documents have come across my desk that emphatically drive that point home.  So, my next post will the intellectually lazy task of revisiting the earlier post with new data.

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

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Week of Public Involvement and Urbanist Advocacy

Walkable urban setting in Sonoma
This is a post about which I’ve often thought but never executed.  I feared it might seem selfish or self-aggrandizing.  But having recently participated in an extended discussion on the effort needed effect change in land use policies, I decided to share what a week in my life can entail.  It can be an example of what public involvement and advocacy requires.  The topic also builds upon my last two posts (here and here) about public involvement.

I should begin with a disclaimer.  Doing what I describe below doesn’t make me a great guy.  Most days, I enjoy the involvement, so what I do is largely a labor of love.  Also, I happen to be at a time in my life when I can devote the hours.  But I’m not in the league of teachers who spend unpaid weekends grading papers or of parents who juggle work obligations to be home for dinner and homework checks.   They’re the heroes.

With that understood, here is a recent week in my civic life.  Perhaps a little busier than most, but not greatly so.  To avoid complicated and tangential explanations, I’ve simplified a few details.

Monday Morning: The week began early.  A project was the agenda for City Council approval that evening.  At the last minute, the developer was asking for relief from a requirement to build a bike path.  Several people contacted me, asking that I attend the City Council meeting to argue against the request.  I agreed to attend, but without speaking on the bike path issue.  I’ll explain why a little later.

Monday Early Evening: To prepare for the City Council meeting, I had dinner with the Chair of the Pedestrian Bicycle Advisory Committee (PBAC) to talk strategy and philosophy.  As the appointed liaison from the Park and Recreation Commission, I’m also a PBAC member, so we’ve often chatted.  Plus she’s a fun person.

In addition to the pending Council decision, we conversed on many points, including coordination between PBAC and the Transit Advisory Committee (TAC) which I chair.  (For those counting, yes, those are three city commissions and committees on which I sit.)

Monday Evening: The PBAC Chair and I arrived early for the City Council meeting.  Although on a different matter, I needed to talk quietly with the developer who had the bike path issue.  I had to resolve a point of miscommunication that had arisen at an earlier meeting.  And I wanted to talk about a pedestrian connectivity issue that hadn’t been addressed because of the miscommunication.

I pulled the developer aside for a private chat.  He saw the value in the pedestrian feature, but asked for more time to discuss it with partners.  (I’ve continued coordination with him and remain hopeful that the amenity will be implemented.)

In the Council meeting, I still chose not to speak, fearing that participating in the bike path discussion after asking privately for the pedestrian feature would undermine my request.  But I offered suggestions to the people who spoke in favor of retaining the bike path.

The bike path requirement was removed by a vote of 4-3.  The bike proponents left unhappy.  But I’d expected the vote to be 5-2 so saw a small ray of hope in the defeat.

Wednesday Afternoon:  SMART is a North Bay commuter rail line that will soon begin service.  I hadn’t planned on attending the SMART Board meeting, but was advised in the late morning that the Board might be prepared to jettison the second Petaluma station from their near-term planning.

I’ve written often about the alternative locations for the second station, arguing in favor of Corona over its competitor.  I also testified before the City Council the evening when they put their weight behind Corona.  With the decision arrow beginning to point toward Corona, it seemed the wrong time for the SMART Board to opt out.

Luckily, the rumor was wrong.  But I was nonetheless pleased to be at the meeting for a couple of agenda items.

First, the Board voted to officially move ahead with a third station in Novato.  Years earlier, Novato hadn’t seen the value of a downtown station, so had asked SMART to locate the two Novato stations in drivable locations away from downtown.  But the community gradually saw the light and asked about adding a downtown station.  SMART agreed to facilitate as long as Novato covered the cost, which the City Council accepted.  I was happy to be present when this walkable urban amenity was officially blessed.

Also, SMART handed out a draft train schedule.  Although everyone knew that a schedule would soon be forthcoming, it was still a symbolic moment to have an actual schedule in hand.  The trains suddenly felt more real.  And I was pleased to see enough time between the Cotati station and the downtown Petaluma station to accommodate the Corona station.  (A SMART official denied my suggestion that scheduling flexibility had been intentionally left for Corona.  I didn’t believe him.)

Wednesday Evening: The monthly meeting of PBAC was also dedicated to the SMART system.  SMART representatives spoke about the alignment and funding for the bike/ped paths near the rail alignment, on which PBAC had earlier successfully encouraged changes, and about bike parking at the downtown station, with which PBAC was actively involved.

But my most interesting moment came late in the meeting.  The City Engineer reported that construction plans had been submitted for a project that PBAC had previously reviewed.  It was a project on which, aware of the concerns of the neighbors over traffic speeds and safe biking, I’d lobbied the Planning Commission for narrower driving lanes.  In addition to leaving more room for bike lanes, narrower lanes induce lower driving speeds.

I was only partly successful in my lobbying.  The draft approval called for 12-foot travel lanes.  After my efforts, the adopted approval called for the lane widths to be as established by the City Engineer during design.  So I now eagerly asked the City Engineer about the lane widths on the plans, hoping for 11 feet or even 10-1/2 feet.

They were still at 12 feet.

Although there was little opportunity for further discussion, I expressed my exasperation at having so meekly surrendered a hill that had been so hard-won.

To his credit, the City Engineer noted my frustration and emailed me later that evening, suggesting a meeting to discuss further.  (The meeting took place a week later.  We had an open and productive conversation about the benefits of narrower lanes and the geometric challenges of narrowing the travel lanes.  We ended the meeting with the City Engineer recommitted to seeking a narrower lane solution.  Some hills must be won several times.)

Thursday Afternoon: The monthly meeting of the Transit Advisory Committee was devoted to reviewing the Short-Range Transit Plan, a state requirement for all transit agencies.  A key element of the Petaluma Transit SRTP was revisions to bus routes to better connect with SMART.  And a key topic of conversation was a scheduling challenge that had been created by the draft SMART schedule.  Finding the best scheduling fit between SMART and Petaluma Transit will be on-going task, on which the TAC and Transit staff will continue to coordinate.

Thursday Evening: Parklets, the reversible conversion of street parking into public gathering places, were invented in San Francisco about a decade ago and have now spread nationwide, including adopted policies in the North Bay cities of Sebastopol and Ukiah.  But Petaluma has neither a policy nor the staff time to develop one.

I had organized a working group, headed by a young planner with deep Petaluma roots, to remedy the gap.  To finish my Thursday, we had our regular meeting to discuss the outline that would be shared with City staff at an upcoming meeting.

Friday: On Friday, I rested, except for finishing my third urbanist blog post of the week and responding to a jammed inbox of emails.

I’m sure many are shaking their heads, complaining that the process shouldn’t take this much effort and that most people don’t have time for this much community involvement.  On the first point, I’ll disagree.  Given the complications of existing improvements, community preferences, CEQA, financing standards, consumer behavior, and much more, it’s understandable the process doesn’t pivot well.

Indeed, I’m pleased that the process doesn’t pivot too easily.  If it did, our forefathers would have razed most of the best North Bay downtowns in the 1960s and replaced the historic buildings with parking lots.  So we were lucky on that point.

On the reality that many folks don’t have as much time as me to be involved, I agree fully.   I have the inclination and flexibility to do what I now do, but can’t expect others to follow my lead.  But I do believe that folks who want our towns to look and function differently must to find enough time to participate in the process a little bit.  Perhaps a monthly conversation group on land planning plus a public meeting or two.  Too many important decisions are made in public sessions with no members of the public present.

On that segue, my next post will be about Petaluma Urban Chat, a monthly gathering to discuss walkable urbanism.  After recently out-placing its care and feeding to someone else, it seems to have come back to me.  I’m disappointed, but have also gained a new hope about what Urban Chat might be.  I’ll write more next time, while also looking for new adoptive parent.  My schedule can use the relief.

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

Monday, April 18, 2016

Finding the Elusive Public Input Sweet Spot

Walkable urban setting in Napa
In my last post, I wrote that public input can sometimes go awry, with concerns about flawed ideas triggering rules that consume both good and bad ideas.

The examples I cited were from my personal history with small-scale hydroelectric projects.  In that field, logically dubious demands for “cumulative impact” studies, raised by those who had legitimate concerns about projects proposed in inappropriate locations but lacked a bigger perspective, bogged down the review process such that few power projects, even the good ones that could have slowed climate change, moved ahead.

I then expressed a concern that something similar could happen to walkable urbanism if a long list of projects, undifferentiated as to their impacts on traffic, water usage, or other local hot buttons, triggered a public demand to slow all development.

A new reader to this blog might interpret my concern as a preference for little or no public input.

That interpretation would be wrong.

Long-time readers know that I encourage public input.  Indeed, a primary thrust of this blog is trying to motivate people to participate in the land-use process, hopefully in support of walkable urban development. 

But that motivation can be difficult to incite because effective public participation isn’t easy.  Instead, it often stumbles on three hurdles, education, persistence, and opportunity.  I’ll expand on the three.

Education: I’ve long been intrigued how the general public decides the range of topics on which they can make useful comments.  As a civil engineer, I’ve described the phenomenon as “Everyone has an opinion on roundabouts, but no one ever comments on sewer sizing.”

From an engineering perspective, the design difficulties of the two are roughly similar.  A young engineer with moderate competence and a few years of experience can do a reasonable job with either.  But the public feels that they can make helpful input on roundabouts, while staying away from sewer design.

I understand why there’s a difference.  As drivers, the public thinks they understand roadways, but prefers not to think about sewers.  (In a recent public meeting, I made a mild jest about sewer flows.  The City Councilmember sitting next to me commented acidly, “Thanks for putting that image in our heads.”)

But the fact that the general public thinks it understands driving doesn’t make it so.  A good example, although far from the only one, is induced traffic, the theory that there is latent traffic demand awaiting reduced congestion before coming forth.  The theory explains why new roads, even in communities that are demographically and economically stable, quickly fill and become as congested as older roads

This theory has been understood and applied in Europe for decades, but is only now gaining traction in the U.S., in large part because many didn’t find it intuitive.

(Of course, engineering isn’t the only field of endeavor in which the willingness of the public to offer opinions doesn’t map well with their knowledge.  Lots of folks have opinions on vaccines, but no one weighs in on transplant rejection drugs, although both deal with the immune system.  I’ll leave it as a party game for readers to come up with examples in other fields.)

When it comes to public input, an under-informed public can still be effective, but may end up being effective on the wrong points, helping to effect “solutions”, such as cumulative impact studies, that ultimately work contrary to the public good.

To make the world better through public advocacy, one must not only be willing to make one’s voice heard, but to also make sure that one is saying something that advances the common good.

By saying this, I’m not setting myself forth as the fount of urbanist knowledge.  Far from it.  Instead, I find myself learning something new every day, often challenging or modifying earlier beliefs.  This blog isn’t a source of ultimate knowledge.  It’s a cooperative effort between readers and me to continue working toward better and more complete knowledge of land use that can be used for public involvement.

Persistence: No matter how ill-conceived, there’s one advantage to making a ruckus on a single point such as cumulative impact studies.  Because it doesn’t require interaction with the current processes, one can choose any time to make the argument.  If enough supporters can be secured, new rules can be implemented relatively quickly and the proponents can soon move onto other challenges, usually without a look back at the carnage left behind.

But working within the system, choosing to support “good” projects and to oppose “bad” ones, requires a different timescale.  It requires constant attention to the process and careful scheming about the right moment to put a drop of oil in the right place to change the outcome.  It requires persistence.

In my time of actively promoting urbanism, I’ve worked with a lot of people who bought into urbanism and vowed to make a difference.   Then they realized the glacial pace at which true change, not superficial disruption but true change, is effected and soon wandered away.

I don’t necessarily blame them.  It is hard to sit through weeks and months of city council, planning commission, and advisory committee meetings, waiting for the exact moment to make the right pitch.  But it’s how good projects, those tailored to best serve the public good, get moved along.    

Opportunity: Over time, I’ve had the chance to chat with many North Bay municipal officials about the land-use process and public input.  Although far from unanimous, one response that arises occasionally and concerns me greatly is unease with public input and a preference to defer it to the end, after city staff has had months or years to polish the project, leaving only a few intractable issues for public decision.

The problem with that approach is that many good ideas may have been left on the cutting room floor before the public ever has a chance to touch the project.

Perhaps an 80-unit apartment project has been trimmed to 40 units to reduce massing, although pedestrian vitality would have been served by the greater number.

Perhaps the parking count has been bumped to avoid parking management issues, although the public would have preferred to encourage non-auto travel.

Perhaps an opportunity to provide a convenient connection to a bus stop has been lost.

If the public is excluded from the process until the final approvals, we’ll almost certainly get development that looks much like what we’ve always gotten.  And in a world where climate change and municipal fiscal collapse are hanging on the horizon, continuing the status quo shouldn’t be our aim.

So, earlier and more significant public input should be the goal.  But of course, that participation in the early stages of a project should be calm, temperate, and cognizant of the political and financial realities of development.  The goal should be cooperative problem-solving, not the bashing of developers or city staff.

So there’s my philosophy.  I believe greatly in public input.  Indeed, I consider that opportunities for public input are essential to healthy cities.  But that input must come with education and persistence.  And my fear is that video that triggered the rumination in this post and the preceding one, although not the intention of the videographer, didn’t promote opportunity, education, or persistence.

My next two posts have long been planned to touch on a recent week of community involvement and on a restart for Petaluma Urban Chat.  However, I now see that each topic has become a logical continuation of the threads above.  So the topics will remain as planned, but will be woven into a bigger tapestry.

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