Friday, October 31, 2014

Increasing City Fees as a Symptom of a Flawed Land-Use Model

A few weeks back, I wrote about how walkability for all of us, but especially for seniors who may be less secure on their feet, relies on all homeowners maintaining their own lengths of sidewalk.

A regular reader responded to me, agreeing with the post, but noting that she’s delaying needed repairs to her section of sidewalk because of the City of Petaluma fees.  In her words, “I suspect that Petaluma sees the permitting process as a means of replenishing city coffers with minimum effort on their part …”

I’m sympathetic to her concern and wouldn’t be surprised to find that the average City cost to oversee a sidewalk repair project is less than the scheduled fee.  However, I think there is something more fundamental at work than maximizing revenue.  And it’s something that we should understand if we wish our communities to function better.

As I noted in the earlier post, the ability of a resident to accomplish an errand on foot depends not just on a well-repaired sidewalk in front of his home, but also well-repaired sidewalks in front of every home between his home and his destination.  Given that need, the resident has an economic incentive for his neighbors to maintain their sidewalks.

To me, that incentive is intuitive.  As a result, if a neighbor knocked on my front door, asking for a contribution toward his city fees for a sidewalk repair, I’d be tempted to participate.  (Assuming, of course, that I could establish that the request wasn’t an innovative scam.)

But it’s neither reasonable nor effective for every homeowner to wander his neighborhood with donation can in hand every time a sidewalk repair is needed.

So what developed instead was the communal sharing of sidewalk repair fees through the mechanism that best met the need, local taxes.  For many years, some small portion of our local taxes went to toward paying a portion of the city costs for sidewalk repairs.  When we paid our taxes, we were reducing the fees to our neighbors and thereby helping them make the repairs needed to sustain our own walkability.

I doubt the many folks ever specifically argued for reduced sidewalk fees as a way to maintain community walkability.  Instead, it was a right-thinking cultural intuition that became embedded in city fee schedules.  It was a fair and reasonable system.

But, as happens too often to fair and reasonable systems, it didn’t survive.  When Howard Jarvis made his wrong-headed decision in the late 1970s that taxes were high, not because of a flawed land-use paradigm, but because government was inefficient, an unintended, but nonetheless clear, part of the message sent to city halls was the public no longer wished to contribute toward the sidewalk fees for their neighbors.

The city halls heard the message.  In the scramble to find ways to balance the books in the decades since the passage of Proposition 13 and its offspring in other states, fees for approvals such as sidewalk repair have crept upward to include the full charge for all city costs associated with the repairs.  And, in many cases, have likely exceeded the true costs as city officials found squinty-eyed ways to look at the data in their desperate search for loose nickels.

It’s an unfortunate state of affairs.

However, there is a solution.  Moving toward a more urban land-use pattern offers a three-pronged solution.  First, greater density means that the same infrastructure, such as sidewalks, serves more people, allowing the repair costs to be spread more widely.

Second, if households are able to reduce their costs for automobile, which can be a surprisingly large chunk of a household budget, more funds are available to assist with neighborhood needs such as sidewalk repairs.

Third, the increased mingling in the public realm builds good feelings for other community members, increasing the willingness to share expenses.

All that remains to be done is to commit to a transition to a more urbanist world.  And then get started on sidewalk maintenance.

Next time, I’ll offer a few final pre-election thoughts on Petaluma’s Measure Q before the polls open.  I expect that the thoughts will have applicability to tax measures on many local ballots.

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

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Not Every Expenditure Is an Investment, Even If It Involves Beer

Long-time readers, at least those with good long-term memories, will recall when I grumbled about the American Society of Civil Engineers and their incessant carping about the need to “invest” in infrastructure.

The summary is that ASCE issues frequent studies proclaiming the need for government “investment” in new infrastructure or infrastructure maintenance.  Until recently, some of the studies claimed benefits that were less than the cost of the infrastructure work, which immediately disproved the argument that any money spent would be an investment.

More recently, perhaps because of the barbs sent their way by StrongTowns and others, the benefits claimed in the ASCE studies have outweighed the costs, but not by much.  And the benefits still contain fuzzy benefits such as the value of reduced commuting time.  I’m fully in favor of parents spending more time with their children.  But if someone chooses to live thirty miles from their job, I don’t want my tax dollars spent based on a capriciously assumed value of them getting home five minutes quicker.

Rather than calls for reasonable public policy, the ASCE studies seem more of a rationalization for full employment of civil engineers.

(Disclaimer: I’ve belonged to ASCE since I joined as a student over forty years ago.  But at this point, I continue the membership only for the ancillary benefits and to flip through the magazine, preferring the more rigorous infrastructure philosophies of StrongTowns, the Congress for the New Urbanism, and Smart Growth America, among others.)

It’s unfortunate when a national organization uses misleading words such as “investment” when setting forth positions on matters of public policy.  But it’s worse when the terminology begins to permeate local dialogue.

Thus, I was disheartened when the local Petaluma newspaper recently polled its readers “Should the City of Petaluma invest in a crosswalk to allow safe passage between shops and breweries along North McDowell Boulevard?”

(For those not familiar with Petaluma, the phenomenally successful Lagunitas Brewery has put down deep roots along the east side of McDowell Boulevard in an industrialized section of Petaluma.  The roots include an always busy pub offering Lagunitas beer, good food, and fine entertainment.  Following Lagunitas’ lead, several other, smaller breweries and tasting rooms have started on the opposing side of McDowell, which is a busy arterial.)

To put a cost to the suggestion, it’s well established that a painted crosswalk by itself wouldn’t be an adequate solution.  The painted lines give a false sense of security to pedestrians while providing an insufficient alert to drivers, so often result in more car/pedestrian accidents than an unmarked crossing.  And if that’s true for sober pedestrians, it’s even more true pedestrians who’ve had a beer or two.

So instead of a simple crosswalk, an overhead signal would be required.  Given the cross street near the breweries, the best solution would likely be fully signalized intersection.  (From published accounts on the brewery question, City public works staff quickly reached the same conclusion.)  The cost of fully signalizing the intersection hasn’t been estimated, but $250,000 is a reasonable guess.

So, the poll posed by the newspaper becomes whether the City can recoup $250,000 from facilitating commerce in the burgeoning brewery district.  Unfortunately, the answer must be “No”.  The only City revenues would be sales tax and perhaps a few transient occupancy taxes from folks who don’t choose to drive home after an evening of enjoying craft beers.  Those revenues don’t come close to covering a $250,000 capital cost.

(It’s true that the breweries might capture $250,000 in additional net revenue, but spending public funds to generate private profits isn’t reasonable public policy.)

However, every municipal expenditure needn’t be an investment.  Neither paving the streets in front of our homes nor mowing our neighborhood parks has a financial return.  Instead, we choose to tax ourselves so the city can fulfill tasks that we find improve our quality of life. 

And that finally makes the poll question what it should have been all along.  “Would the City of Petaluma spending $250,000 for a signalized crosswalk to allow safe passage between shops and breweries along North McDowell Boulevard be an appropriate quality of life expenditure?”

As pleased as I am to have framed the question correctly, my answer unfortunately remains “No”.   Spending municipal money to remedy the flaws inherent in a brewery district taking root in an industrial area bisected by a busy arterial is throwing good money after bad.  The funds would be only a bandage on the gaping wound that is our long-time affair with drivable suburbia.

However, in the unlikely event that the City had a spare $250,000 sitting around, I might very well support spending the funds to help create a brewery district in a more walkable part of the community.  Beer can be a good community amenity, if it’s located in a place where folks can take transit or walk home after an evening of conviviality.

Perhaps the redeveloped fairgrounds could be an eventual site for a brewery district.  Or perhaps the underutilized industrial buildings near E. Washington and Copeland could provide a suitable home within a short walk of the SMART station.

(Disclaimer: I’m currently chatting with a local developer about a site concept that could include an extensive tasting room for local beers.  The discussions are preliminary.)

Petaluma should be proud of the brewery culture that is taking hold in the community.  It can become an important part of the town if we make good decisions about how to support it.  And that doesn’t include putting an expensive crosswalk on a busy arterial.

Also, we need to quit describing every possible infrastructure expense as an “investment”.  The poor word choice only complicates an area of public policy in which we already struggle to make good decisions.

My next post will take a different angle on the subject I noted in passing above, using taxes to accommodate a shared vision of the public good, even if not an “investment”.

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

(Note: The photo above of a Dublin bar is by Petaluman David Powers.)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Balancing Vision with Incremental Steps

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about two alternative paths to strategize the transition from suburbia to urbanism.  The dichotomy I suggested was a grand vision versus incremental steps, between motivating the public with the big vision of where urbanism will eventually lead and motivating them with the next incremental step on the path toward the long-term goal.

Although I acknowledged the appeal of a big vision, I feared the disillusionment of proponents when the vision seems always to recede toward the horizon.  Therefore, I described myself as an incrementalist.  That doesn’t mean that I abjure the grand vision, indeed this blog regularly touches upon grand visions, but means that I believe progress is made more effectively when we focus on the next step, not the destination.

As often happens, I had barely published the post when a quote arrived in my email that caused me to further ponder the question.

“If you don't like the way the world is, you change it.  You have an obligation to change it.  You just do it one step at a time." - Marian Wright Edelman

Edelman’s words provide a fine counterpoint to a quote of which all urban planners are aware. 

“Make no little plans.  They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” - Daniel Burnham

Who of the two is correct?  Both of them are.  But to my way of thinking Edelman’s truth is the more effective truth.

It’s informative to compare the careers of the two.

Burnham is likely the more familiar name.  He designed one of the first steel frame buildings, The Rookery (pictured above), one of the first skyscrapers, the Monadnock Building, and the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which changed the course of architecture and urban design, and is often considered the standard against which all future world fairs should be measured.  (In an example of how urban planning can change lives, cases can also be made that the Columbian Exposition led to “The Wizard of Oz” and Disneyland.)

After the Columbian Exposition, Burnham turned with enthusiasm toward urban planning, triggering the City Beautiful campaign, an international movement toward improving the aesthetics of cities.  The goal of City Beautiful was to enhance municipal function and to cultivate civic virtue.  It was about the City Beautiful ideal that Burnham offered his thoughts about “no little plans”.

The problem is that, while the City Beautiful movement had successes such as the National Mall in Washington, D.C, the vast extent of most of the City Beautiful visions made their execution impossible.  In a typical story, Burnham had delivered a City Beautiful plan to the City of San Francisco when the 1906 earthquake struck.  Despite having an unexpectedly blank slate on which to work, the City focused on rebuilding rather than vision and Burnham’s plan remained on the shelf.

By the time of Burnham’s death in 1912, the City Beautiful movement was already fading.

In comparison, Edelman, an American activist for disadvantaged and disabled children, particularly those who are minorities, remained focused on incremental improvement.   As the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, she had a vision, but her daily life was about making the incremental steps needed to make children’s lives better.  Nearing her 80th birthday, she continues to be productive.

When running a race, or trying to reach a base safely in baseball, there is a temptation to take an extra long leap for the final stride.  Despite studies conclusively showing that the better strategy is to maintain stride through the tape, the intuition to leap is hard to overcome.   Burnham leaped for the tape, while Edelman has maintained stride.

Both Burnham and Edelman lived exemplary lives.  We could use more of each.  But as urbanists, I think we do better to emulate Edelman, never forgetting the ultimate goal, but focused on maintaining stride.

Although not immediately, I’ll soon look at a couple of Petaluma situations from the incremental step versus grand vision perspective.

Meanwhile, my next post will touch upon my old grievance about “infrastructure investment”.

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

Friday, October 24, 2014

Petaluma Urban Chat: Rebooting the Fairgrounds Vision Effort

After a one-month hiatus to chat with City Council candidate Dave King about Measure Q, Petaluma Urban Chat will return to the subject of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds for the November meeting and hopefully onward into 2015.

For newer readers, the City of Petaluma owns the 63-acre site currently occupied by the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  The Fair Board makes a minimal annual payment to the City under a lease that will expire in 2023.  The City and the Fair Board have been holding closed meetings for over a year to discuss the use of the Fairgrounds after 2023.

The primary alternatives seem to be that the Fairgrounds remains in its current location, presumably with a greater lease amount, that the Fair is displaced to a new site with the City redeveloping the current site, and that some combination of the two is defined by which the Fair would remain in its current location but within a smaller footprint, freeing up some land for redevelopment.

Of course, each of the choices are tangled in various real world complications, including the financial performance of the current Fair operation, the financial capability of the Fair Board to develop a new site, the ongoing non-fair uses of the Fairgrounds, such as the Live Oak charter school, the hazardous materials cleanup that may be required within the Fairgrounds, the presence of historical elements within the Fairgrounds that must be preserved under the law, the range of boundary conditions around the site, and the need of the City to generate income to bolster sagging municipal finances.

It’s a complex problem.  Of course, it’s also an incredible opportunity.  To my knowledge, there won’t be another other opportunity within our lifetimes to reinvent the core of a North Bay city with a blank slate of this size.  Petalumans should be greatly invested in the process, but so should all residents of the North Bay, because what Petaluma does with the Fairgrounds can be a template for land-use decisions throughout the North Bay.

For that reason, Petaluma Urban Chat has been trying for months to come to grips with the site opportunities, constraints, and best alternatives.  I’m sure the Fairgrounds has been the subject of numerous informal but concerned conversations throughout the community but, to my knowledge, no other group except the City and Fair Board negotiating teams has been trying as hard to put pencil to paper to devise a new vision for the site.

However, I describe the Urban Chat efforts as “trying” because the process thus far has been challenging and not particularly successful.  We did well in identifying the range of site options, but then struggled to find consensus.

Part of the problem was that the changing cast of attendees at each meeting.  Not only did every meeting require a recap of earlier discussions, but new folks were constantly putting new ideas on the table.

Part of the problem was the lack of a good facilitator, which was my deficiency.

But the biggest part of the problem was trying to conduct the process with short monthly meetings and zero budget.  By comparison, the planning for the Petaluma Station Area, adjoining the future Petaluma SMART station, began with a three-day public charrette, continued for another year of public meetings, involved an award-winning planning firm from Berkeley, and had a budget of nearly a half-million dollars.  And the planning area was about one-fifth the size of the Fairgrounds site.

However, perhaps we can make a virtue out of our lack of funds, absence of expertise, and occasional meetings.

I’ve conceived an approach by which to reboot the Urban Chat study of the Fairgrounds.  By the very nature of our deficiency of resources, skills, and time, it won’t look like the Station Area process.  But it can hopefully be effective in its own way.

However, I need your assistance.  First, I need to know how many folks expect to attend the next three Urban Chat meetings, which will be on November 11, December 9, and January 13.  No one will come to your home and abuse you if you answer in the affirmative and then miss a meeting, but I do want a good faith commitment for the three meetings.

I doubt we’ll complete the effort in the three meetings, but I hope those meetings will generate enough momentum and enthusiasm that attendance at further meetings won’t require urging.

In terms of how many people might participate, there’s no limit, but I’d like to have thirty folks.  I know that would be more people than all but one previous Urban Chat meeting and bigger than can be readily accommodated at the Aqus Café, but I’ll happily solve the space problem.

Also, attendance needn’t be limited to Petalumans nor to people who have previously attended an Urban Chat meeting.  The future use of the Fairgrounds can be a template for all of the North Bay, so everyone is welcome to participate.

If being a part of this effort is intriguing, let me know, either in the comments below or by email.

Second, I’d like a couple of people to work with me on a steering committee for the reboot.  My preference would be folks with charrette experience, but anyone willing to put in a little extra effort would be welcome.  I’m thinking of a coordination meeting on Monday, November 3.  Once again, let me know via comments or email.

The effective reuse of the Fairgrounds can change the North Bay.  Let’s make sure that our voices are heard.

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

From Incremental Steps to Grand Visions

The Petaluma Urban Chat meeting last week was nicely successful.  Thanks go to City Council candidate Dave King for responding to occasionally hard-edged questions with good humor and cogent responses.  Perhaps not everyone agreed with his perspectives, but he presented his thinking well.

To attend a prior obligation, King departed before the end of the Urban Chat meeting.  In the general conversation after his departure, there was a spirited discussion about the long-term vision for urbanism and the incremental steps that are often taken toward that solution.

Some found that incremental steps, local examples of which were freely tossed about but needn’t be re-enumerated here, were so inadequate as to represent little real progress.

Others felt that incremental steps were a necessary evil while markets and regulatory standards adjust to a more walkable urban future.  Those folks felt that supporting urbanism required accepting incrementalism as a necessary phase, while also trying to make the incremental steps as bold as possible.

I’m securely in the latter camp.  As many advantages as I see in a more walkable urban future and as urgently as I think we need to reach that future, I recognize that we can’t jump from today to that future.  The disruption would be significant and, more importantly, too many of our friends and neighbors don’t yet comprehend the need for the change.

And so, as urbanists, we must try to make the world a little more urban all the time and to encourage developments that can transition as we move toward urbanism.  I remain a big fan of surface parking lots that can be built upon as parking demands ease and of sidewalk cafes that can serve as personal homes until sidewalk traffic increases sufficiently to support the café.

But even a belief in incremental steps leads to the next question.  How do we increase the rate of change so we can reach an urbanist future sooner, limiting the climate change impacts and municipal finance distress of our current drivable suburban paradigm?

I’ll try to answer that question in three parts, market, financial, and regulatory.

 For the market, availing ourselves of new urban living opportunities and asking our friends to considering doing the same is the best step.  Few things incentivize the next urban project as much as the financial success of the last one.

However, it’s likely that little effort is needed as the market is already leading the charge toward urbanism, with polls showing up to half the population is eager for opportunities to live in more walkable settings.  (I recently chatted with a North Bay politician who took pride in the fact that his community was building up to 20 percent of its new housing in walkable places.  I suggested that, in a world where half of all people want to live in a more walkable world, his 20 percent number shouldn’t be a source of pride.  Yeah, being an urbanist can sometimes mean bursting balloons.)

On the financial side, continued hesitancy by lenders toward urbanist projects is a lingering concern, but market successes and time will be the remedy.  Unfortunately, urbanists can’t attend lending committee meeting for banks to push the change along, so our efforts must go elsewhere.

This leaves the regulatory side, where outdated zoning codes and obsolete ideas about where to spend public moneys continue to repress urbanism.  Luckily, the public arena is also a place where urbanists can make their voices heard.  I fantasize about 300 urbanists filling the chamber for a city council hearing on an issue bearing on urbanism.  (I love Urban Chat, but a dozen folks in a café discoursing on urbanism doesn’t move the needle at city hall.)

And that gets us to the crux of the matter.  How to rally more folks to the urbanist banner?  There are plenty of folks who are sympathetic to the goals of urbanism, but the daily demands of life, securing a paycheck, raising children, planning for retirement, etc., interfere with active commitment.  How do we convince folks to dedicate a chunk of their limited free time to support the cause?

Unfortunately, I think the only solution to that question is persistent effort.  It’s finding opportunities to chat with friends and neighbors about the issues and slowly motivating them to put forth time and effort.  It’s not an easy task nor will it be readily accomplished.  But it’s essential.

Before closing, I’ll share a recent story that illustrates the difficulty of collecting supporters for urbanism. 

I’ve worked diligently to build the readership of this blog.  Perhaps my prose isn’t perfect, but I’ve maintained a regular publishing schedule for nearly three years.  And others tell me that I occasionally find words that make a post halfway memorable.

As a result, I’ve built a sustained readership of perhaps 5,000 site visits per month.  Not every site where I publish provides numeric feedback, so the number is a little fuzzy, but I’m comfortable with its accuracy.  And if it’s wrong, the actual number is likely a bit higher.

I’m proud of the readership.  I continue to work for more, but I’m still proud of the number.

But I recently had a glimpse of the other side.  After a football game won by my alma mater, the opposing coach made an odd and peevish comment after the game, blaming bloggers for conspiring to hide an new offensive strategy that my college deployed.

The comment struck a discordant note with me.  But I wasn’t sure if my response was valid, so I began a chat room thread asking for the thoughts of others.  Within 24 hours, over 3,000 people had viewed the thread and more than 30 had commented on it.

There’s difference between reading a thousand-word blog post and checking a three-sentence chat room thread.  But still, that was as many readers in one day on a quirky point about college football as in two weeks on a subject that is pertinent to the financial and environmental viability of our communities.

It was indicative of the mountain that urbanists still must climb, whether our goal is the ultimate vision or bolder incremental steps.

Next time, I’ll write further about Petaluma Urban Chat.  After several months of talking about the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds, we broke away this month to talk about Measure Q with Dave King.  The consensus for next month is to return to the fairgrounds topic.  But I have some thoughts about how to make the conversation most effective and to build our participation toward that 300 people.  I’ll offer those thoughts in my next post.

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

It’s Time to be Smart about Water, Not Politically Expedient

During recent candidate forums, several contenders for the Petaluma City Council suggested that the City consider a moratorium on building permits until the drought eases.  I’ll speculate that other North Bay cities are entertaining similar thoughts.

I support the need to respond to the drought.  The water shortfall is significant, may not slacken during the coming winter, and could be indicative of a systemic change.  But a blanket moratorium is the wrong tool for several reasons.

First, a moratorium without simultaneous regulatory adjustments is tantamount to considering the drought a normal and random element of the climate cycle, thereby supporting a position taken by climate change deniers.

I’m not saying that candidates who suggested a moratorium are climate change deniers.  I’m sure that few if any of them are within that camp.  But they’ve mistakenly offered a position that aligns with a key proposition put forth by deniers.

 (I won’t delve more deeply into a climate change discussion because I don’t want this post to be sidetracked into a discussion on the validity of the theory.  It’s a worthy topic, but not for today.)

Another problem with a blanket moratorium is that it doesn’t reposition our communities for when the drought may ease.  If we get enough rain to believe the drought is over and begin issuing new building permits without a change in the water use standards, we’d have wasted an opportunity to make our communities more resilient.

Lastly, we’re in a time when our communities should be evolving in responses to multiple challenges such as municipal finances and non-drought climate change issues.  A blanket moratorium, stopping all development, would impede our progress toward other goals.

Luckily, a better alternative can be conceived.  In place of the blanket moratorium suggested by the candidates, I propose a two-phase moratorium.  Initially, North Bay cities can impose a short-term moratorium on all building permits, but only for long enough to rework development standards to define water-smart standards for new or remodeled buildings.

Some will object that North Bay cities lack funds within current budgets, particularly if tax measures fail, to undertake code revisions.  The concern is legitimate, but Petaluma, and likely other cities, has a wealth of knowledgeable engineers and developers with water backgrounds, many of whom would probably be willing to offer their expertise toward writing new rules.  In fact, there may be an opportunity for regional code-revision cooperation.

Some effort by city staffs would still be required to incorporate the information into the zoning code, but it would be far less than if the staffs had to also develop the concepts without assistance.

Next, as the first moratorium expires and emergency revisions are made to the zoning code, a second moratorium would be imposed on projects that don’t meet the water-smart standards.  The duration on this latter moratorium would be indefinite, lasting until the city councils judge that the drought has ended.  If the more pessimistic projections on climate change are valid, the second moratorium may never be lifted.  Hopefully, that won’t be the case, but it’s a possibility.

The obvious direction in which these moratoriums would push residential development would be toward multi-family homes.  It’s easier to be water-smart without either a frontyard or a backyard.  And a move toward multi-family would likely include more housing in walkable urban settings, which I would applaud.

But single-family residential would still be possible.  I recently chatted with a North Bay single-family developer who is proposing use of a treatment system that would allow use of treated greywater from showers and washing machines for surface application.  (The greywater systems now used in a few locations around the North Bay only allow subsurface application.)

The developer estimated that he could save almost 20,000 gallons per home per year.  That would be 20,000 gallons of potable water that needn’t be treated and delivered and 20,000 gallons of greywater that needn’t be conveyed away for treatment at a municipal wastewater plant.

The system he proposes is in regular use in Europe and Australia, but unknown in the U.S.  It’s that kind of innovation and adoption that the proposed two-phase moratorium would foster.

Thanks to the Petaluma City Council candidates for raising the subject.  Now, let’s hone their idea and ensure that it best meet the needs of our communities.

Before closing, one other comment should be made.  The savings from requiring new or remodeled buildings to be more water-smart is worthwhile and, with the right technology, significant.  But those savings are dwarfed by the savings that could be achieved at existing homes and businesses.  Between retrofitted fixtures, changed landscaping patterns (my wife and I removed the last of our grass nearly ten years ago), and reduced consumption encouraged by more sharply tiered rates, water use at existing buildings can be sharply curtailed.

To fall into the trap of believing that we’ve imposed a moratorium and therefore solved the problem would be both wrong and harmful.  Instead, we must look into the mirror for the most important elements of water conservation.

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

Friday, October 17, 2014

Urbanism and Senior Living: The Cases For and Against Mobile Home Parks

For several years, I was on the board of a local Rebuilding Together affiliate, a non-profit organization that provides free home repairs for low-income homeowners.  Like most affiliates, our biggest event of the year was an April workday when several hundred local citizens volunteered a day of labor.

One year, a project captain invited a group of volunteers to her home for post-workday beverages.  I found myself in her kitchen, sipping a beer and chatting with a city councilmember who had worked on a project.

I assume the councilmember had worked on a mobile home because the discussion quickly turned to the role of mobile homes in our city.  His view was that mobile homes were a temporary aberration and that the long-term goal of the city should be to replace them with stick-built homes.  His principal argument was the longer life of well-maintained stick-built construction, although he also noted the horizontal spread of single-story mobile homes and the opportunity for more compact living with stick-built residences.

With that memory in mind, it was interesting to read the suggestion by Lisa Margonelli in Pacific Standard that mobile home parks might have an essential role in the housing future of all of us, particularly seniors.  She looks in depth at the Pismo Dunes mobile home park, near Pismo Beach, California.

Margonelli’s argument is that mobile home parks provide a low-cost alternative to other options, while also fostering a relationship between seniors, a supportive network that others have called a “naturally-occurring retirement community”.

I’ll use the dichotomy between the councilmember’s comments and Margonelli’s article as a starting point from which to write about the possible role of mobile home parks as senior communities and to conclude a series of posts I’ve written about urbanism and senior living.  I won’t forget urbanism and seniors and will find opportunities to add more insights on the subject, but will begin focusing elsewhere in my next post.

Margonelli makes a reasonable case for mobile homes, but I’ll add another point.  Mobile home parks encourage alternative transportation modes.  With narrow roads, frequent driveways, and a well-gridded layout, automobile drivers intuitively reduce their speed, often as low as 15 miles per hour, well below the 20 mile per hour threshold where the dominance of cars begins to wane.

Margonelli notes the use of golf carts in the Pismo Dunes, which can be a fine choice for seniors no longer capable of handling an auto.

I can add another transportation option.  A North Bay reader emailed me extolling her adult tricycle, noting the improved mobility which it has given her and including a photo of a Napa senior on a tricycle touring the damage on the morning after the recent earthquake.  An adult tricycle can be another fine alternative transportation choice within a mobile home park.

Also, walking within a mobile home park is often safer than walking on city streets.

Against the positives noted by Margonelli and by me, there is a legitimate list of concerns about mobile home parks as a housing solution, including some that touch upon the councilmember’s concerns.

Heading the list is construction quality.  Margonelli notes that quality of mobile homes has been improving.  She’s likely correct, but mobile homes still remain at the lower-end of the construction spectrum.  And it seems inevitable that they’ll remain at the lower-end.

During my time on the Rebuilding Together board, we often debated how much money to allocate toward mobile home repair.  Although we never went as far as another affiliate which limited mobile home repairs to one-third of their annual budget, we remained aware of the potential black hole of mobile home repairs.  Many years, we could have spent our entire budget on mobile homes and still left needs unmet.  Plus we found that repairs to stick-built construction were less likely to require return visits in future years.

Next, the density of most mobile home parks is insufficient to support urban uses such as stores or pubs.  (Margonelli notes that a grocery store is within walking distance of Pismo Dunes, but the store is beyond the boundary of the mobile home park and even then remains an anomaly.)  It’s the inherent nature of the single-story, non-shared-wall development to spread out, reducing the number of residents within walkable distance of businesses.

Furthermore, the nature of most mobile home parks is to be enclosed, with limited entry points and few opportunities for others to pass through a park enroute to other destinations.  But the nature of an effective urban community to be well-gridded, allowing efficient travel, which is essential for those on foot or bicycles.

Perhaps the only location is which mobile home parks don’t undermine an urban land-use configuration is where they back against any geographical feature that would have already precluded urban connections.  It’s not coincidental that Pismo Dunes backs up to an ocean beach or that many of the Petaluma mobile home parks adjoin a freeway.

But the biggest concern about mobile home parks, at least to me, is the social insulation.  I’ve been reading “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser.  His thesis is that personalization of internet experiences, by which Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and others feed us articles consistent with what they’ve calculated to be our interest and values, undermines the free flow of objective information on which our democracy depends.

The internet personalization models against which he rails is evident in our every internet session.  In the last week, I’ve researched travel options in Ireland and senior living facilities in the North Bay.  Now, I can’t go anywhere on the internet without being bombarded by ads for Irish tour services and North Bay senior living options.  It feels both creepy and intrusive.

Similarly, I had a frequent commenter on Petaluma Patch who was continually offering links to anti-urbanism articles from obscure and credibility-challenged sources.  At first, I marveled at his misplaced diligence in finding these articles.

However, I came to realize that he had created a filter bubble in which the internet was feeding him anti-urban articles.  He had only to go on-line to have an article shoved in front of him which, with dubious fact and flawed logic, seemed to rebut something I had written.  And he then felt a need to accept the article as the truth and to share it.

It was a shame that the opportunity for the two of us to have a rational exchange of perspectives was undermined by the internet.

Urbanism combats the personalization trend on the internet.  I love the idea of a CEO and a mail clerk talking in the elevator of an apartment building where both live, each if one is in a penthouse when the other is in a micro-apartment.  Similarly, I like watching various demographic segments chatting in a downtown pub. 

My personal hell would be to live among folks who are like me and who think as I do.  Even as I age, I want to live among people who offer new and thought-provoking perspectives.  We already offer too few of these opportunities and mobile home parks, by their very nature, are part of the deficiency.

Summing it up, while Margonelli makes a reasonable case for mobile home parks, I favor the position of the councilmember.  As a housing solution, particularly as we move toward a more urban world, we can and should do better than mobile home parks.

By the way, nothing here is intended to disparage the residents of mobile home parks nor to criticize the choice of people who find enjoyment in their mobile homes.  Instead, it is to castigate the rest of us for creating a world in which mobile homes, with all their deficiencies, are the only option for many folks.

In my next post, I’ll write about water conservation.  Candidates for the Petaluma City Council have been talking about a moratorium on building permits while the drought persists.  I applaud the concern, but will argue that another approach would be more appropriate.

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