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

Durable Growth

Combining baseball and downtowns in 2014

A senior league playing on Doubleday Field in Cooperstown

A senior league playing on Doubleday Field in Cooperstown

I intend to fully celebrate the connection of baseball and urbanism in 2014.  I hope readers can join me for a game or two.

Every spring I struggle with how I feel about baseball versus urbanism.  On one hand, baseball takes up a lot of space for a small number of participants, unlike let’s say basketball.  And low density isn’t good for urbanism.  On the other hand, baseball can be played most days, so doesn’t leave a neighborhood bereft of pedestrians for weeks on end, unlike let’s say football.

For me, it comes down to roots.  Baseball evolved on the grassy open spaces of New York City, not far from where the famous Flatiron Building now stands.  The first recorded game was played directly across the Hudson River in Hoboken.  And I still thrill to the reports of city dwellers congregating in the streets of the early 20th century, awaiting reports on how their team was faring in the World Series.  And those facts are enough to make baseball an urban game.

Statues of Johnny Podres and Roy Campanella at Baseball Hall of Fame

Statues of Johnny Podres and Roy Campanella at Baseball Hall of Fame

(Cooperstown is a lovely village, but its connection to the origins of baseball is nothing but a fairy tale told by a xenophobic old man who refused to believe that baseball could have evolved from a European game.)

Luckily for us, there are many opportunities to combine the enjoyment of baseball and urban settings here in the North Bay and nearby.

Through the spring, the local high schools provide entertaining options.  (I’m often tempted to stop at the high school ballfield in my neighborhood.  The sound of bat meeting ball is a persuasive seductress.)  Sonoma State and Santa Rosa Junior College also provide opportunities to dawdle away warm spring afternoons, as do youth baseball programs.

But the real stars of the baseball universe are the teams that allow us to lean back and enjoy a ballgame on a summer

Statue of the namesake of Cheney Field in Tacoma

Statue of the namesake of Cheney Field in Tacoma

evening, surrounded by the sound of infield chatter and the aromas of popcorn and grilled hot dogs.

A year ago, I wrote about the San Rafael Pacifics and Vallejo Admirals of the independent Pacific Association.  This year, those two teams have been joined by the Sonoma Stompers and Pittsburg Mettle.  Rather than flying to Hawaii for some games as the Pacifics and Admirals did in 2013, the four teams will play a summer-long round-robin in the North and East Bays, offering a pair of games on most nights.

(Note: For four years, I was the part-owner of a team in an independent league, so have a particular affection for that level of play.  It doesn’t offer the skill one would find on a Major League diamond, but there is something compelling about young men so attached to the game of baseball that they’ll devote another summer or two of their post-college days to chasing the dream, even after they weren’t drafted by a big league club.)

In the same post of a year ago, I mentioned the college summer league clubs in Walnut Creek and Alameda.  Although in a different league, the Healdsburg Prune Packers also play college summer baseball.

For 2014, I’m committed to attending home games for all seven of those baseball teams.  And I’ll schedule my outings to include time to wander around the downtowns of San Rafael, Vallejo, Sonoma, Pittsburg, Walnut Creek, Alameda, and Healdsburg.

I had hoped to provide dates for all seven ballpark visits in this post.  However, some of the ballclub schedules haven’t yet been posted.  Within a couple of weeks, I’ll announce the seven dates.  I hope that many readers will be able to join me for a game or two.

Readers may note that I haven’t yet mentioned either of the Bay Area Major League ballclubs.  I have nothing against Major League Baseball.  Most evenings, I have a Major League ballgame playing in the background as I work on a blog post or other task.  And I’ve been enjoying outings to Major League ballparks for more than a half century.

But I’ve had even more fun at minor league and amateur games.  At this time, including the outings described above, I’m scheduled to attend 29 ballgames this summer.  And not one is a Major League game.  I’ll watch several games in downtown Stockton, within a community struggling through its municipal bankruptcy, and another handful of games in downtown Reno, surrounded by casinos and music venues.

I’ll see games at the new ballpark in downtown El Paso, home of the newly-named Chihuahuas.  I’ll see a couple of games in Taos, New Mexico, home of the Blizzard in the independent Pecos League.  (Is there a more evocative league name than the Pecos League?  It sounds like cowboys will stop by with herds of cattle enroute to market.)

If I end up in O.Co Coliseum or AT&T Park, that’d be fine.  I’m sure I’d have a good time.  But I expect to have better times in Alamagordo, Albuquerque, and Healdsburg.

Downtowns and minor league baseball is a tough combination to beat.  I hope you’ll agree with me before the summer is over.

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, Transportation

April Fool’s Day 2014

140331001 Roadsworth Double Yellow LineUrbanism doesn’t necessarily lend itself to practical jokes but, like most realms of human endeavor, it has the potential for quirkiness and whimsy.  That’s close enough for me to offer a quarterly urbanist celebration of April Fool’s Day.  Of course, this quarter I can celebrate the real April Fool’s Day.

In this post, I’ll look at an unusual approach to street lighting, the aromas of a city, the use of a bicycle motif to illuminate urban space, and a couple of non-traditional approaches to crosswalk painting.  I’ll conclude with another look at the infamous North Carolina bridge that continues to exact a stiff cost on unwary truckers.

Montreal Street Lighting: Trying to lighten the mood during the long winters in the northern latitudes, the Avenue du Mont-Royal in Montreal hosted a design competition for wintertime street lighting.  The winner was “Idee-O-rama”, a series of internally illuminated streetlights that look like speech bubbles.  The content provides humorous comments on winter in Montreal.  Come spring, the lights will be removed, but will return for the next two winters. Continue reading

Safety, Transportation

Red light cameras are good policy gone wrong

by Yousuf Fahimuddin, on Flickr

by Yousuf Fahimuddin, on Flickr

Red light cameras have been deployed around the country to great effect, reducing crashes dramatically in New York City and Washington, DC. Given these successes in the East, it was natural for San Rafael to give them a try. But police said they were ineffective at reducing crashes, and that they cost more than they took in, so the city recently ditched them. Given state law in California, the results in San Rafael start to make some sense.

Best practice: red light cameras

Traditional traffic enforcement is meant to be punitive. Police can’t be everywhere, so, to change behavior, any violation caught needs to be punishing and painful. As a result, California has extremely high fines for red light violations: a minimum of $489.

When a city switches on red light cameras, they generally try to limit them to key intersections. This ensures that most dangerous violations are caught, even if other violations at less important or less dangerous intersections are missed.

Continue reading