Durable Growth, Government

Water conservation standards: Smarter, but not smart enough

160517001 Landscaped FountainA few weeks back, I opined that calls to lift California’s drought-driven water conservation standards were at best premature and at worst wrong-headed.  Since then, the initial updates to the standards have begun to come forth.  They could be worse.  They could also be better.

Thus far, the State Water Control Board has floated a proposal to remove mandatory water conservation, replacing it with a requirement for water agencies to adopt water conservation plans that will allow them to meet public health and safety needs during three-year droughts.  Given recent weather patterns, it’s a reasonable approach.

But I still fear that climate change might make the three-year drought assumption an insufficient hurdle.  Perhaps not as a mandatory requirement but as an instructive stress test, I’d like to see the water conservation plans checked against a three-year drought followed by a year with 80 percent of historical average precipitation followed by another three-year drought.  I suspect the North Bay could survive the test, but I’m not sure about the rest of the state.

Meanwhile, the Governor and others are imposing water conservation measures, such as not allowing landscape irrigation for 48 hours after rainfall and requiring the use of nozzles for car washing, that will make water saving easier.  Earlier this week, Petaluma adopted new measures that included requiring not only the installation but also the use of pool covers.  As one Councilmember accurately noted, it was a “stop doing stupid stuff” measure. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Even if they’re not really leaving, they’re still telling us something

DSC_0061A recent poll of Bay Area residents found that 34 percent were thinking of leaving the region, with many citing traffic congestion and the cost of living as their reasons.

Despite the polling result, I seriously doubt we’re on the verge of an abrupt depopulation.  I suspect that no more than five percent of the Bay Area population is truly thinking of moving away and that many of those are because of job transfers or retirements.  Plus, there are certainly more than enough folks ready to fill any vacancies.

But that still leaves the question of why so many folks are willing to express the thought of leaving.  My guess is that, although family or professional ties will keep them in the Bay Area, most of the 34 percent are truly unhappy with the commute and the cost of living.  Loud but insincere threats to leave are their way of ensuring that others take note of their dissatisfaction, much like an otherwise well-adjusted youngster threatening to run away from home over a bedtime dispute.

Whether or not they’re being petulant, I prefer not to share my region with people who are unhappy, so I’d like to address their concerns. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

The train is coming, are we ready?

SMART train in shop

SMART train in shop

I’ve written before about Friends of SMART.  The citizen advocacy group was active in the initial formulation and voter approval of SMART, the coming commuter rail system for the North Bay.  They’ve continued to provide encouragement and occasional constructive criticism as the SMART moved into construction and now nears operation.

I became involved with Friends of SMART when our positions aligned in the discussion about where the second train station in Petaluma should be located.  I then played a role in their battle to allow an effective bicycle/pedestrian crossing at Jennings Avenue in Santa Rosa.

I enjoy hanging out with the folks at Friends of SMART who give liberally of their time to help improve their communities.

Now, it also turns out that being a member of Friends of SMART has perks.  The SMART General Manager recently contacted the Friends of SMART president and invited him to bring the membership for an early morning tour of the SMART shop, followed by a preview train ride from the shop to the downtown Santa Rosa station and back. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

Sometimes developers aren’t the problem

Burdell Building and nearby SMART tracks

Burdell Building and nearby SMART tracks

Building upon my recent theme that land developers are sometimes pilloried unfairly, with even urbanist icon Jane Jacobs having been splattered by anti-developer sentiment, I’ll write about two proposed projects in my town of Petaluma.  From my urbanist perspective, neither project would meet the long-term needs of my community.  And the developers have little responsibility for either shortfall.

The first project was a proposed multifamily development near the soon-to-be-operating SMART rail station in downtown Petaluma.  It would be sited in a portion of the parking lot behind the Burdell Building, a historical brick structure that was carefully restored 15 years ago and remains a beloved community landmark.

Years ago, the owners began playing with the possibility of adding housing to the site.  The housing would replace a portion of the over-sized parking lot.  It was a great location for transit-oriented development, only 400 feet from the platform for the rail station.

Over time, the owners and their consulting team refined their plan to be consistent with City standards, eventually creating a plan they were ready to submit.

Although I hadn’t made time to look at the architectural renderings, I nonetheless attended the Planning Commission hearing on the project.  I was prepared to enthusiastically endorse the project as the kind of walkable urban development needed in Petaluma.

What I saw at the hearing nearly unsold me. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Education

Digging into the Urban Planner’s Oath

London street scene

London street scene

As a part of their commemoration of Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday, the folks at StrongTowns developed a proposed oath for urban planners.  As they note, the current standards for urban planners are mostly about ethics, which are certainly important, but neither cover the morality of laying out development patterns that may last hundreds of years nor incorporate the planning ethos of Jane Jacobs and those who followed in her footsteps.

For those who don’t click on links, I’ve copied the oath below.  It’s worth your attention.


The Urban Planner’s Oath

I honor the wisdom of those who came before me.  With humility, I stand on that which they have built.

I serve those who live here today.  Their actions shape my actions.  My vision must dance with theirs.

We work for those who come tomorrow.  May we deserve their admiration and inspire the best within them.

In honor of this oath, in my role as an urban planner, Continue reading

Durable Growth

Jane Jacobs as developer

Jacob's Greenwich Village home

Jacob’s Greenwich Village home

In my previous post, when I identified Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday as my topic for today, I wrote that I might have missed the milestone except for a timely reminder from a correspondent.

I was wrong.  It would have been impossible to have missed the Jacobs commemoration.  The many insightful analyses of Jacobs’ impact on land planning would have grabbed the attention of anyone with even the least interest in the future of cities.

Nor was the Jacobs coverage limited to land-use wonks.  On Jacobs’ May 4 birthday, the Google search page graphic was a collage of Jacobs’ accomplishments, with her round face and round glasses under the Washington Square Park Arch, a landmark she preserved from the predations of her long-time antagonist Robert Moses.  I’ve often enjoyed the Google graphics, but never before wanted to frame one.

On the same day, Jacobs competed with Stars Wars Day (“May the Fourth be with you”) as a top trending topic on Twitter.

It was exciting to see how much of a mainstream figure Jacobs has become.

Among the land-use websites, the articles I found most interesting, all in CityLab, included Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow writing about the need to continue the direction set by Jacobs in deemphasizing cars,  the concern of Kristen Capps that many invoke selected excerpts from Jacobs’ writings to oppose land-use changes that Jacobs would have likely supported, a reminder by Roberta Brandes Gratz that Jacobs was at heart an empiricist, not a prescriptivist, and that we need to retain the same perspective, and a concern by Richard Florida that Jacobs’ last published book, “Dark Age Ahead”, rejected by many as the pessimism of a woman in her declining years, was instead an insightful and accurate look ahead to social issues that have arisen since her death. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Keeping the spigot throttled back

1410190001 Dry FountainI’ve recently seen something that’s been missing from the North Bay for the last couple of years, pallets of sod stacked on sidewalks and ready to be laid.  I’m unhappy about what I’m seeing.  I’m far from convinced that the California drought is over.

Sod-happy homeowners aren’t the only ones calling for what I fear would be a premature celebration of the end of the drought.  Some public officials in the North Bay have begun calling for an end to water use restrictions.  And an East Bay homeowners association is threatening to lock out homeowners who don’t green up their lawns.  (For the record, I share the homeowners association distaste with brown lawns but, rather than making renewed watering an option, I would have pushed for sod removal and low water-demand landscaping.)

Those arguing that the drought is over in the North Bay point to full reservoirs.  It would have been a compelling argument in 1979, but not so much today.

In 1979, we had a fairly good understanding of long-term weather patterns.   We understood that the drought that was then ending had been historically severe, with a long recurrence interval, and that we were returning to more normal precipitation.   So easing drought restrictions was reasonable and appropriate.

But in 1979, the world was about to change, in a very literal sense.  Today, with climate change well underway, we don’t know what a normal precipitation year looks like.  We know that the current water year seems destined to finish about five percent over the historical average, but we don’t know if the historical average will have any relevance in coming years.  Instead, we have good reason to suspect that it won’t. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Tactical urbanism: An alternative for urbanists with less patience?

Note the width from centerline to curb

Note the width from centerline to curb

In my previous post, I wrote about the need to move past vision into the long, often tedious task of execution if major land-use changes are to be made.

I live and believe that statement.  And I respect those who work daily toward the execution of land-use concepts that will make our communities stronger and more sustainable, especially those who have been undertaking the task for longer than me.

Within the past week, I’ve read as the Friends of SMART, the citizens group that pushed for the SMART rail system and continues to watch over its implementation, exchanged emails about their proposed “Founders’ Grove”, a public park in Santa Rosa that would remember the people who devoted much time and effort toward SMART, but passed away before the trains could begin running.  Communities thrive when idealists work hard for goals beyond their own life spans.

However, I understand there are also many who want to make a difference, but lack the willingness to work for goals that may be over the horizon.  As the cartoon of a pair of steely-eyed vultures on a branch notes, “Patience my ass, I’m gonna kill something.”

With those folks in mind, I want to recount a story I heard at CNU 22, the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, held in Buffalo in 2014. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Vision versus execution

The Petaluma River from downtown Petaluma

The Petaluma River from downtown Petaluma

Among many other things, Thomas Edison is famous for having said that genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

His formulation is fine.  My only comment is that if he had replaced “genius” with “success in most walks of life”, he would have been equally accurate and even more insightful.

And I include land use, walkable urban and otherwise, within those walks of life.

I mention this because vision, the land-use equivalent of inspiration, was mentioned frequently in the comments regarding the recent video on pending development projects in Petaluma.

(For those who missed the flurry of activity around the video, I won’t recap the story here.  However, I’ve written about it four times previously.  I’ve touched on my concerns that similar information dumps have triggered flawed policies, that effective public input is always difficult, that one can fill a week with effective public involvement, and that forums for education and cooperation are essential.)

In the comments on the video, many called for stronger visioning for Petaluma land-use as the path to better future.  It was an ironic suggestion.  Visioning has rarely been a problem in Petaluma.  Instead, Petaluma has a history of being well ahead of the curve in its visions. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Catching a ballgame with the car still in the driveway

Elizabethton ballpark

Elizabethton ballpark

Baseball is my game.  Not to play, curve balls were always a mystery to me, but to enjoy, whether in a ballpark or through a boxscore.  I avidly follow the football and basketball fortunes of my alma mater, but I’m more alive in the spring and summer when baseball is being played.

There’s something about the game that grabs hold of one and doesn’t let go.  I agree with Lowell Cohn of the Press Democrat about loving the sights, sounds, and smells of the game.

For years, much of my summer travel has directed toward minor league ball.  I’ve seen four of the top ten ballparks from this list in The Street.  (Although I think the list is too Midwest-centric and misses good ballparks near the three coasts.  The parks in Fresno, California, a jewel in a flawed setting, and Birmingham, Alabama, an urban catalyst in the making, quickly come to mind.)

I expect to visit one of the missing six this summer.  I also have a tentative plan to catch a ballgame of the Toledo Mud Hens, the favorite team of Corporal Maxwell Klinger, and a firmer plan to visit small town ballparks throughout Appalachia.

Baseball has a complex relationship with urbanism.  On one hand, much of mythology of baseball is rural, with stories of fireballing pitchers like Bob Feller discovered in pastoral settings and farmers mysteriously drawn to lay out diamonds on land that everyone in the town thought needed to be planted in corn.

On the other hand, the game was first codified in New York City and first game of organized ball was played on a bluff above the Hudson River in New Jersey.  And, as the late commissioner of baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti, was found of noting, the word “paradise” is derived from an Iranian word for walled garden, which is a spot-on description of an enclosed patch of an emerald green outfield in the midst of a city. Continue reading