Durable Growth

As a nation, are we wired for suburbia?

141008003 West HavenI recently came across a question and answer on the website Quora that set me thinking.  In response, I constructed a working hypothesis, but was unsure of its validity.  Nor did I know how to test the hypothesis.  So, I’ll offer it for your consideration.

(For those unfamiliar with Quora, it follows a simple but effective question and answer format.  A member of the public asks a question of broad interest, others write answers, and the most pertinent and insightful answer is shared with readers.  Many of answers are sufficiently astute and instructive that they deserve the wider audience they receive.

For those who fear that the Internet 2.0 is comprised solely of self-styled and self-important foodies dismissing fine restaurants for having the wrong style of oyster fork, Quora proves that the Internet 2.0 can work.)

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find a link to the Quora question and answer that piqued my interest, so I’ll reconstruct from memory.  The question was “In what way do Americans think differently than the remainder of the world?”

The selected answer was written by a former exchange student who finished his year in the U.S. by hitchhiking back and forth across the country and chatting with the American he encountered.  He wrote that, unlike the citizens of other countries, Americans believe that every problem has a solution.  They don’t become mired in a muddle of self-doubt over a problem that has lasted for centuries and seems likely to persist forever.  Instead, Americans are convinced that the perfect answer needs only a bit of cogitation.

My first thought was that the answer writer was correct.  The history of Americans, starting with their escape from foreign conditions they found intolerable to the startling ease with which they assembled the first constitutional democracy and then onward to the building of an industrial and creative juggernaut that dominated the world economy, may well have engrained the idea that every problem has a solution.

My second thought was that I was proud to be part of a citizenry that believed in the absolute existence of good and permanent solutions.

My third thought, as the euphoria faded, was that assumed infallibility might have a downside.

In mathematics, it’s often difficult to prove that a problem has a solution.  But even more difficult is to prove that a problem has one and only one solution.  Having found an answer, especially an answer that is complex and of dubious application, a mathematician might continue looking for another answer that is simpler and more useful.

Similarly, an innate and shared national belief that every problem has a solution might soon yield to a belief that every problem has multiple solutions, of which one is the simplest and least painful to implement, leading to a hubris that dismisses complexity.

At this point, I could offer examples of American foreign policy that would seem to support this hypothesis of American over-simplification.  But I’d soon be out of my depth.

So instead, I’ll offer a different question.  Is it possible that suburbia is the result of an American infatuation with simple answers?

Faced with the challenge of explosive post World War II growth, did we decide that any nation that could proceed seamlessly from a successful revolution against the leading military power in the world to an inspired and durable constitution (conveniently overlooking the failed Articles of Confederation) must be able to conceive a new land-use paradigm with little effort?   And was suburban sprawl the result?

Did we reject both our own land-use history and that of all other nations because we were convinced that our intellectual prowess justified discarding the lessons of the past?

I don’t know the answers.  I find the hypothesis beguiling and perhaps useful, but don’t know how to test it.

So I’ll offer it for your consideration.  As you stare at the endless ribbon of freeway on the way to Grandma’s, at the seat back in front of you, awaiting the delayed approval to take flight, or at the flickering flame of a Yule log after a long Christmas Eve of toy assembly, please ponder my hypothesis.  I’ll await your post-holiday feedback.

Next time, I’ll offer another hypothesis for your holiday consideration.

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

Durable Growth

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: Trying to put lines on a map

Fairgrounds aerial photo

Fairgrounds aerial photo

Last week, Petaluma Urban Chat met to continue assessing the future reuse of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  This effort has been described in several earlier posts, most recently in the report on the November meeting.  At that meeting, the group discussed the land-use elements that would best meet their vision for the future of the Fairgrounds.  Those uses included residential, a public market, a park, and an experimental kitchen among other thoughts.

This month, our goal was to take the next incremental step in developing the vision.  It seemed a relatively simple step, although we soon found a complication. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Promoting fine-grained urbanism

080919003 Harvard BuildingA few years back, I became acquainted with a Sacramento architect who was working as a project manager for a land development company.  Over lunch one day, he told me about selecting architects for conceptual designs on an adjoining pair of sites owned by his company.

The development company focused on less prosperous neighborhoods, trying to spur economic rebirth through well-conceived infill projects and then prospering from the revitalization.

The two parcels were in a neighborhood that had once been prosperous, but had fallen on hard times.   He and his firm were hopeful that the two building projects, which would be on lots for which the previous structures had long been demolished, would help spur better times.

When the project manager and I had lunch, his two architects were just beginning work.  But my lunch companion had made an unusual decision.  He had refused to advise either architect of the other’s identity, so neither knew who was working next door. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

Finding urbanism in the local paper

American Alley

American Alley

Once one begins to look at the world through urbanist glasses, there are urban-related stories all over.  There were two examples, one on downtown development and one on street speeds, in the most recent edition of the Argus Courier, the weekly Petaluma newspaper.

A year and a half ago, several members of Urban Chat took a Saturday morning walk through Petaluma.  The goal was to emulate the Jane’s Walks being taken throughout the country on the same day, honoring the contributions of urbanist pioneer Jane Jacobs.

Over the course of walk, a moment of insight came as we walked down the passageway from Kentucky Street toward Putnam Plaza.  We stopped to look both directions down American Alley and realized what a potentially great urban place it could be.  In the heart of downtown, lined with solid old buildings and interesting street art, close to transit and numerous retail stores.  Admittedly, the service uses of the alley, including store deliveries and garbage collection, would be a challenge to overcome, but other cities have found ways for urban life and urban services to coexist.

Eighteen months later, Frances Rivetti’s column in the Argus Courier is about new businesses coming to American Alley, with a new art gallery already open and a specialty food shop and a jazz club coming in the New Year. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

For good government, ideas must roam freely

Oregon vista

Oregon vista

Many readers have likely had experiences similar to mine when it comes to sharing new concepts.  I’ll think through a thorny problem, find an alternative perspective to the conundrum, and use that perspective to find an unexpected solution.  But when I first share the idea, perhaps in a meeting where other’s thoughts are elsewhere, no one responds favorably.

However, a few days later, someone comes by my desk to acknowledge that there may be something in what I had said.  Over time, other folks grasp my way of thinking and the idea, likely edited and improved by the others, comes to be adopted.

Sometimes new concepts or ways of thinking can’t be transferred instantaneously, but need time to find fertile soil.  When I wrote about the Brown Act a few posts back, most recently here, I may have failed to adequately explain the extent to which the law can impede the flow of new and different ideas. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

Organic urbanism is better for you

Business street in the Paris fashion district

Those not familiar with the nature of successful urbanism might think that the project recently announced for the former site of San Francisco’s Candlestick Park  is good news.   The development is a 500,000-square-foot “urban outlet” shopping center that will serve as the retail anchor for the development of 6,000 homes described as “pedestrian friendly”.

It’s true that the news could be worse.  A vast swath of single-family homes at four per acre would be too hideous for words.   But mass-developed urbanism also fails to meet the mark for what our cities need.  “McNormal”, writing in the comments to the article, nails the shortfall: “Sad how these developers have been able to completely misappropriate the word ‘urban’.  Signing off the whole district to a single company is the antithesis of urban.”

Yup, McNormal has it correct.  Urbanism produced on a large scale under a single development team is mock urbanism and fails to satisfy the soul of urbanism.

I’ll point to two problems with mock urbanism.  First, having all the buildings constructed at the same time, using similar construction techniques and following a similar architectural zeitgeist, will result in a development in which all the elements age along the same glide path.  The constant regeneration that is essential to urbanism, the rehabilitation of individual structures to take advantage of neighborhood-wide vitality, is stunted because individual owners will hesitate to make upgrades in a neighborhood that’s in uniform decline.

This isn’t a theoretical objection.  As we look around our communities, we see many examples of shopping districts, office parks, and residential neighborhoods that were built by a single developer in the years after the World War II and are now in uniform disrepair.  Indeed, what to do with these aging sites and neighborhoods is a challenge for many city governments.  It’s hard to conceive why we would wish to impose the same hardship on coming generations, but we continue to do so. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Failing to accommodate a better parking solution

Structured parking in downtown Petaluma

Structured parking in downtown Petaluma

In my New Year’s resolutions for 2014, I committed to delving deeply into a pair of urbanist topics of personal interest, senior living and parking.  It took me much of the year to get around to the senior living issue, but I finally tackled the subject in a number of posts in September and October.  (This one and this one were the most popular of the senior living posts.)  My coverage wasn’t complete, so it’s a subject to which I must return in future posts, but at least I gained a foothold.

I didn’t do as well on parking, which is a shame because it’s a subject that’s at least as important to urbanism as senior living.  (I continue to be stunned when I ponder the sea change that occurred in the 20th century, when the concept that customers would only patronize a shop if a free holding space was provided for their 3,000 pounds of steel and plastic.  As other observers have noted, the 20th century was the first time in history when we gave greater consideration to our machines than to our children.)

Nor will I be able to embark upon my consideration of parking during December as I already have a well-populated writing plan for the holiday season.  But at least I know what resolution will be on the top of my 2015 list.

However, I can offer a parking insight today that will help set the scene for my 2015 efforts.

A significant change that has begun to take hold in the world of parking is a decoupling between homes and parking.  Twenty years ago, virtually any new home that one could buy would be bundled with a parking space or two.  Both zoning codes and the market demanded it. Continue reading

Durable Growth

North Bay great streets: Petaluma and Cotati

Petaluma Boulevard

Petaluma Boulevard

I recently assigned myself a holiday task, searching the North Bay for great streets using the great streets criteria set forth by the Project for Public Places. (If you haven’t read the original PPS article, I recommend it.)

The ten PPS criteria are:

  • Attractions and destinations
  • Identity and image
  • Active edge uses
  • Amenities
  • Management
  • Seasonal strategies
  • Diverse user groups
  • Traffic, transit and the pedestrian
  • Blending of uses and modes
  • Neighborhood preservation

With those criteria in mind, and with my additional standard that any street segment must be at least four blocks in length to be considered a great street, I began to plan outings through the North Bay.

I started simply, looking at my own community of Petaluma with the new perspective provided by PPS and also wandering downtown Cotati. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

Saving the good stuff

Historic building in Saratoga Springs, New York

Historic building in Saratoga Springs, New York

A few months back, the Petaluma Planning Commission was forced to make a regrettable decision about a building for which the community had great fondness.  The French Laundry was a well-known and photogenic landmark on the west side of town, with a history that extended far back into Petaluma’s past.

But, although the building was on a local historic list, it had remained in private ownership with little tangible community support for its restoration.  As a result, it deteriorated over time.  Eventually, there was little of the building that could be retained.  The Planning Commission was compelled into the sad duty of removing the French Laundry from the historic list and approving its demolition.

The deed done, the Commission Chair turned to the audience (all three of us) and anyone watching on television and opined that the community had to work harder and smarter to preserve historic buildings or more would be lost to the wrecking ball and bulldozer.

Since that time, Petaluma has put forth a $300 million tax increase without historic preservation anywhere close to the intended funding priorities.   It would appear that few were listening, or cared, when the Commission Chair made his plea.

This story came to mind because I’ve been part of an effort over the past few weeks to restore a fine old building in a North Bay city, a building that a city planner called the “crown jewel of the community”.

I’m not always enamored of historic preservation, finding sometimes that the needs of the city must outweigh the value of saving history.  But this isn’t one of those times.  The building with which I’ve become involved is a grand building for which new uses, fitting within the needs of the community, can be readily envisioned. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds re-use: Sorting through the options

Current Fairgrounds Building

Current Fairgrounds Building

I’ve written several times about the looming opportunities at Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma.

Regular readers can probably repeat the key facts by heart, so I’ll offer only a brief recap.  The current lease between the City and Fair Board for the Fairgrounds will expire in nine years.  The two parties are engaged in closed door negotiations over the future of the site.  The Fairgrounds are located in the heart of Petaluma so the result of the negotiations could change the course of the town’s future.

To be prepared to comment effectively on the result of the negotiations, Petaluma Urban Chat has been engaging in an independent consideration of site options.  Initially, the approach was fairly unstructured.  As a result, the process didn’t move ahead as well as we might have hoped.

To remedy the slow process, we rebooted the effort into a more rigorous and directed format.  The first meeting under the new format was held on November 11 and seemed successful.  (For those who want further background, earlier posts about the Fairgrounds can be found here, here, here, here, and here.)

I’ve termed the new process a “mini-charette”, with all the goals of a full charrette but with a quarter of the hours that a full charrette might take.

To make the mini-charette as broad-based as possible, we assembled a steering committee for the effort.  Joining me on the committee were Ross Jones, an architect and downtown developer, and David Powers, a long-time Urban Chat participant.

The goal for the first mini-charette meeting structure was to take an initial cut at the preferred land uses that might occupy a portion of the current Fairgrounds. Continue reading