Durable Growth

Good urban planning is a team effort

Telegraph Hill in San Francisco

Telegraph Hill in San Francisco

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

A recent example illustrates my point.

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

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

Durable Growth

Using transit for more than work and shopping

Petaluma Transit bus

Petaluma Transit bus

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

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

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

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

Durable Growth

Are we fooling ourselves about parks?

Eagle Park

Eagle Park

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

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

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

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

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

Durable Growth

Public plazas in springtime

Softball game near New York skyscrapers

Softball game near New York skyscrapers

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

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

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

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

Durable Growth

Meddling with “free markets”

Building in downtown Woodland

Building in downtown Woodland

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

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

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

Durable Growth

Row-scrapers for family city living

The row-scraper concept. Image from The Tyson's Corner.

The row-scraper concept. Image from The Tyson’s Corner.

While there is undoubtedly a huge demand for new small apartments in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and the East Bay, new family-sized homes are lacking in new apartment units being built across the region. As cities grow up, it’s vital that they figure out how to accommodate families as all these new single twenty-somethings start to settle down and have kids.

It’s a problem faced by rapidly growing cities throughout the country, but The Tyson’s Corner, a blog focused on the rapidly-redeveloping DC suburb Tyson’s Corner, thinks the answer is townhouses in skyscraper formatContinue reading

Durable Growth

Laguna West: Failed execution

Laguna West streetscape

Laguna West streetscape

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

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

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

But the plan went awry. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Are we happy yet?

140407001 Land Use SprawlI’m not good at book reviews.  A good reviewer should finish the book, cogitate upon the full extent of the thesis being argued, and then write about the complete book.

But I can’t finish a book before beginning my cogitation.  I come across a chapter, a paragraph, or even a single idea that captures my attention and I want to write about it and to expand upon it.  And if there are no chapters, paragraphs, or ideas that capture my attention, then I may never finish the book.

Perhaps this book review deficiency is a character flaw.  But I don’t care.  I like being excited by ideas.  And I like sharing that excitement.  And if that means that I share my thoughts about a thought-provoking land use book at a half-dozen different times and places, I’ll live with that.  I’d rather have enthusiasm than good form. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Northern California tour: Carmichael, one step forward, one step back

Downtown Carmichael

Downtown Carmichael

Over recent weeks, I’ve been recounting a Northern California daytrip I took in late February.  My goal was to look, however briefly, at destinations that I hoped would offer urbanist insights.  I began my day with stops in Suisun City, Woodland, and Freedom Park Road in North Highlands.

Today, I reach the far extent of my outing, the unincorporated community of Carmichael, northeast of Sacramento.

Like many children of my era, my parents relocated several times during my youth as my father pursued greater professional success.  I don’t begrudge my parents the moves.  I’m pleased with how life turned out for them and I even believe that the occasional childhood move is good training for making new friends and learning how to live in new places, although I wouldn’t have minded if the number of school year moves had been fewer.

Luckily for me, the moves ended shortly before I entered high school, so I was able to spend those key years in one place.  That place was Carmichael, which I still describe as my “hometown”. Continue reading