Durable Growth

Must we always avoid controversy?

Walkable neighborhood in Buffalo, New York

Walkable neighborhood in Buffalo, New York

I’m on the periphery of an on-going public planning process with an element of controversy.  I won’t identify either the particulars or the principals for fear of getting sidetracked into a discussion of the specific situation, but I’ll present enough of the story to illustrate the larger point I want to make.

Based on a coming change with city-wide implications, a planner I know proposed a number of neighborhood-level changes.  He and his team had worked hard on the changes, looking for ways to maximize the services that could be provided within the city’s scant resources.

Some of the changes elicited controversy.  One in particular ignited a stormy neighborhood debate.  Unlike many controversies, this one drew responses on both sides of this issue, with some residents welcoming the change and others bitterly condemning it, many with personal and vitriolic attacks on the planner.

No polling was conducted on the matter, so I don’t know with certainty how the neighborhood as a whole viewed the change.  But my guess is that it would have followed the pattern of many planning decisions, with 5 percent in opposition, 15 percent in support, with varying levels of commitment to that support, and 80 percent either not caring or even aware of the issue.

The planner eventually backed away from the change, tiring of the rancor and fearing the impression being made on his superiors.  There were also technical reasons why the change might not have been feasible, but the infeasibility hadn’t been proved when the plug was pulled

I respect the many tasks I’ve watched the planner undertake and hope that he remains involved in planning for a long time.  And I understand that opting out of the change might have been the right move for him and for his department, so I intend no criticism of his decision.  But I’m not comfortable with a planning ethos in which ducking controversy can be a reason to avoid change. Continue reading


Stay alert for youthful users of the street all year long

Harmar Elementary School in Harmar, Ohio

Harmar Elementary School in Harmar, Ohio

I promised a guest writer today, an expert on road diets.  Unfortunately, he’s still hard at work on his post, so you’re instead stuck with me.  The road diet post, or hopefully two, will run next week.

But it’s okay that today’s authorship reverted to me because I have a topic about which I want to vent.

Most schools in my town reopened last week.  And, as seems to happen every year, many wrote warnings to drivers about being aware of children on their way to school.

Obviously, I’ll fully in support of not running over students.  But isn’t the warning mistimed?

I can’t speak to everyone’s youth, but let me share a fairly typical day from the summer between my sixth and seventh grade school years.

After a slow start to the day, usually cereal while watching morning reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, I’d join a group of boys near the north end of my block for games played in the street and involving bat and ball.  We never had enough bodies for a full game of baseball, plus we had a grouchy neighbor who complained if we got too noisy, but we have a variety of alternatives with which to entertain ourselves until the early afternoon.

As the day got warmer, I’d often ride my bicycle to the nearby pool club, where I’d spend an hour or two hanging out and getting wet. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Free-range kids: Part 1, Framing the discussion

Children at play at a Spokane park

Children at play in a Spokane park

In my last post, I argued that warnings to be alert to children on back-to-school day were three months too late because more children are on the street during the summer.

But in the course of making that argument, I acknowledged that, regardless of the season, there are fewer children on the street than when I was young.  (Yeah, that probably makes me a curmudgeon, but sometimes even curmudgeons are accurate about the shortfalls of the modern world.)

This reduction in the numbering of roaming children is often described as the loss of “free-range kids”.

Over the years of attending urbanist conferences, I’ve heard several people tell similar stories of the multi-generational loss of childhood autonomy.  If I recall correctly, one of the speakers was Sarah Susanka of “Not So Big House” fame.  However, being unable at the moment to put my fingers on the exact details of Susanka’s or others’ stories, I’ll offer a composite of the stories I’ve heard.

When the speaker’s great-grandfather was a child, he was allowed to bicycle six miles, with sandwiches in a knapsack, to spend a day fishing.

The pond became off-limits to the next generation, but the speaker’s grandfather was still allowed to pedal into the township a couple of miles away to gather with friends.

The speaker’s father could only venture along the length of the road where the family lived.

And the speaker wasn’t allowed to leave the frontyard without parental supervision.

I suspect that many readers can trace similarly reducing circles in their family histories. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Taking the next step – Opportunities to get involved during the week of August 28

130313006 Balshaw BridgeLast week, I wrote that the number of public meetings with urbanist overtones seemed to be increasing as Labor Day approached.  I may have reached that conclusion too soon, with next week coming up nearly dry.  But perhaps fifth weeks of months are always deficient on meetings that are scheduled on a monthly basis.  And there are still a couple of meetings by which to get involved, along with some longer term opportunities on the horizon.

Meetings this Week

Cotati Design Review Committee, Monday, August 29, 4:30pm, Cotati City Hall, 201 West Sierra Avenue – With much of the surrounding land already occupied by medium-density single family homes and industrial land uses, Cotati will have little opportunity for transit-oriented development around the its new station on SMART rail line.  The Cotati Station Lofts and Apartments, about 1,000 feet away, will be the only TOD, at least in the near term.  (My first foray into home ownership, four decades ago, was a condo about 2,000 feet from a BART station.  I rarely used my car from Monday through Friday, so 1,000 feet isn’t far at all.)

Much of the project is already constructed, but some details are still being finalized, including consideration at this week’s Cotati Design Review Committee meeting.  The agenda is sketchy on details, but it might be interesting meeting for some to attend.

Windsor City Council and Planning Commission, Thursday, September 1, 6:00pm, Windsor Civic Center Council Chambers, 9291 Old Redwood Highway, Building 400 – As I first noted last week, the Windsor City Council and Planning Commission are conducting joint sessions to continue their consideration of the draft 2040 General Plan.  This week, they’ll focus on the transportation and mobility elements.  In the one meeting I attended, I found the discussion high-level and engaging, so encourage others to partake. Continue reading

Durable Growth

The shrinking role of retail in planning cities

Office over retail mixed-use in downtown Napa

Office over retail mixed-use in downtown Napa

In 1962, when I was a nine-year-old living in south Sacramento, Macy’s announced plans to build a store in downtown Sacramento.  It was big news for the adults in my world.  It was also big news for Sacramento, a point of new-found pride in a town that often thought of itself as falling short in comparisons with San Francisco and Los Angeles.

I wasn’t quite sure I knew what Macy’s was.  I doubt I’ve yet seen “Miracle on 34th Street”.  But I sensed the buzz of excitement about Macy’s coming to town.  Retail stores mattered.

I thought back on those days of innocence this week as word came out that Macy’s would close another 100 stores to instead focus on its internet businesses.

Macy’s isn’t a factor in most walkable urban districts, but the message still stands.  Retail stores are shrinking in importance and shrinking quickly.  And it’s not just the old-line department stores like Macy’s.

The failure of enclosed malls is well-known, with photos of derelict malls rivaling abandoned industrial plants as ruin porn.

Downtown retail is increasingly antique stores and boutiques rather the diapers and canned soup that make up daily shopping lists.

Many strip malls have storefronts lined with butcher paper and leasing signs out front.

The new generation of open malls, whether the conventional configuration with giant parking lots fronting on supersized strip malls or the downtown-emulating lifestyle centers, struggle to fill their space.

Even residential over retail mixed-used, the backbone of many walkable urbanist plans, often can’t find enough tenants to fill the retail space created. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

The cost of a car-oriented world: Suspended licenses don’t mean what they once did

140313005 Lakeville StreetToday, I’ll write about suspended drivers’ licenses.  It’s a topic that may seem unconnected to urbanism, but the linkages are surprisingly robust.

A few days ago, there was a major traffic accident on the freeway just north of my town.  It was a chain reaction that began when the driver of a car carrier, in a moment of inattention, hit the car in front of him.  Quickly, eight vehicles were involved.

Luckily, no one was killed, with the worst injury being a broken arm.  But the freeway, a major commute route, was closed for hours.  The cost in lost time was substantial.

A day later, it was announced by the Highway Patrol that the driver of the car carrier had a suspended license.  The outcry was predictable, with the public wondering how a driver with a suspended license had been employed and what should be done to keep him off the road.

Thirty years ago, those might have been good questions.  Today, not so much.

In California today, seventeen percent of all drivers are carrying suspended licenses.  Seventeen percent!  In the eight-vehicle pileup noted above, there is nearly a 75 percent that a second driver also had a suspended license.

The proliferation of suspended licenses has roots in the drivable suburban paradigm.  I’ll connect the dots below. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Taking the next step – Opportunities to get involved during the week of August 21

130313006 Balshaw BridgeThe number of North Bay public meetings with urbanist overtones seems to be increasing as we approach Labor Day.  Hopefully this will portend a winter of paradigm shifting.  It’s time to get onboard and to begin making your voice heard.  Also, with issues such as municipal elections and the road diet in Petaluma looming, there are also chances for neighborhood outreach.  If you want to make a difference in the world, there are opportunities to do so.

Meetings this Week

Cotati Planning Commission and Rohnert Park Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Monday August 22, 5:30pm, City Council Chamber, Rohnert Park City Hall,  130 Avram Avenue – A few weeks back, I puzzled in this space about a joint meeting that had been scheduled and then cancelled involving public bodies of the adjoining cities of Cotati and Rohnert Park.  I couldn’t imagine what topic could have been of joint interest.  I now have my answer.  They would have assembled for a study session of the “Bicycle and Pedestrian Network Adjacent/Interconnected Facilities.”

And the previously canceled meeting has now been rescheduled for Monday.

Given the adjoining boundaries of the two cities and the moderately continuous land-use pattern, I think a joint study session is a great idea, applaud the two cities for their foresight, and encourage the interested members of the two communities to participate.

Petaluma Planning Commission, Tuesday, August 23, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street – I’m not sure I can truly characterize this as an urbanism issue, but I’m also not sure that it isn’t.  To buttress attendance, the downtown Petaluma movie theatre is asking permission to begin selling beer and wine to moviegoers.

The land-use entitlement angle is sufficiently complex that the Petaluma planning staff had to discourse at length before recommending approval. Continue reading


“Twenty is Plenty” is more than a clever rhyme

141107001 E Washington Street

The subject promised for today has been shoved aside in favor of a subject that abruptly gained urgency.

I’ve previously written about the “Twenty is Plenty” movement.  Adherents promote the argument that most vehicular speeds within towns should be limited to twenty miles per hour.  It’s a crusade that has gained a foothold in Europe, with some towns fully implementing the standard.

In the U.S., there has been less progress, but still some notable successes.  Although not all the way down to the target speed, New York City has dropped many street speed limits to twenty-five miles per hour in response to Twenty is Plenty supporters.  (Update: Hours after publishing this post, I came across news that Boston asked the state to allow them to adjust to a widespread twenty miles per hours.  The state allowed them to go with twenty-five miles per hour.)

It’s easy to think of the movement in an idealistic, bloodless way as creating better walkable places where cars are made less threatening.  But there is a real, flesh-and-blood public safety side to the concept.  I had a front row seat to observe that reality earlier today.

I was returning home, still feeling good about an extended lunch during which a companion and I hashed out strategies for the upcoming city council race.  I was driving on a major arterial in my town, at the far end of the road segment shown above.  There are two travel lanes in each direction, along with a center turn pocket.

As I approached a crosswalk often used by pedestrians, a long line of cars queued up to turn left partially blocked my view.  I couldn’t see if someone might be waiting to cross the street from the near left corner.

Consistent with the law and with common sense, I slowed to check.  Sure enough, there was a young family waiting to cross from left to right, a mother with an infant strapped to her chest, two toddlers being led by their hands, and a dog on a leash.  One of the toddlers was a blond girl of perhaps three. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

Towns can overbuild more than infrastructure

Kannapolis City Hall

Kannapolis City Hall

In writing about the best moments from CNU 24, the annual gathering of urbanists held in Detroit earlier this year, I quoted Andres Duany on the role of public buildings, “Urbanist codes should cover residential, commercial, and office buildings, but not public buildings.  It’s in public buildings where architects should be free to depict the grandeur of civilization and civic life.”

It’s a lesson that Kannapolis, North Carolina seems to have taken to heart, perhaps too much so and definitively contrary to the urban planning approach espoused by Duany.

Petaluma City Hall

Petaluma City Hall

I’ll start with the backstory.  In the past few days, I’ve returned from an annual vacation I take with two old friends.  Every year, we pick a different region of the country to visit and then lay out a schedule of minor league ballgames to anchor our itinerary.  This year, our destination of choice was Appalachia, with ballgames in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

But evening ballgames aren’t enough to fill our days, so we’ve evolved into a daily routine of country breakfasts, brewpubs, and local sights.

We’re tolerant of each other’s personal interests, so the choice of local sights is usually driven by individual areas of fascination.  This year alone, we toured a pair of Revolutionary War battlegrounds, engaged in an extended conversation with a park ranger on the nuances of firing older artillery, peered through fences at the moldering remains of one of the largest textile mills in the country, and wandered through the Bristol Motor Speedway. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Taking the next step – Opportunities to get involved during the week of August 14

130313006 Balshaw BridgeAs we move into the heart of August, the near-term opportunities for urbanist involvement at public meetings remain scarce, but the September calendar remains promising.  Also, with issues such as municipal elections and the road diet in Petaluma looming, there are chances for neighborhood outreach.  If you want to make a difference in the world, there are always opportunities to do so.

Meetings this Week

Friends of SMART, Wednesday, August 17, 11:30am – Friends of SMART is a citizens group that was instrumental in getting the SMART Train ballot measure passed and continues to fill an oversight role as SMART moves toward revenue service.  I’ve been involved with FoS for more than a year and find them a passionate group, focused on the role SMART can play in the North Bay and on what the next SMART-type rail expansion should be.

If anyone is interested in attending the FoS  Board meeting, let me know and I’ll arrange an invitation.

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit Board, Wednesday, August 17, 1:30pm, 5401 Old Redwood Highway, Petaluma – The agenda for the SMART Board meeting still hasn’t been announced, but with the testing of the full schedule looming ever closer, to be closely followed by revenue service, the agenda will likely include items of urbanist interest.

Petaluma Recreation Music and Park Commission, Wednesday, August 17, 7:00pm, Petaluma Community Center, 320 N. McDowell Boulevard (Note: Not City Hall!) – Sunset Park is an odd little park, hiding in plain sight between the historic Silk Mill and Lakeville Street.  I suspect that many Petalumans don’t even realize that it’s a city park, but they’re wrong. Continue reading