Durable Growth, Government

Water conservation thinking updated (April 24)

Drought responsive landscaping

Drought responsive landscaping

When the possibility of a drought-driven Petaluma construction moratorium was first broached, I responded strongly, supporting more stringent water conservation standards, but opposing the concept of an extended moratorium.

Listening to and participating in subsequent discussions has led me to believe that the moratorium aspect of the issue has been misunderstood by many.  With the City Council hearing on a possible moratorium now approaching, I want to share a clarification of my thinking.

But first, I want to explain why this subject matters to me as an urbanist.  Well-configured urbanism requires less water than drivable suburbia.  Much of the savings comes from the reduced irrigation of a rowhouse or an apartment compared to a single-family home.  But other factors also come into play.  To offer just one, most forms of energy production require water and drivable suburban uses more energy than walkable urban.  At the bottom line, urbanism is a good water conservation strategy.

But urbanist projects are hard to bring to the finish line.  Market and regulatory forces are often contrived against urbanism.  Despite the most diligent efforts of committed developers and consultants, urbanist projects are often fragile and prone to succumbing to hazards such as delayed adoption of a general plan or an extended economic malaise, obstacles that drivable suburban projects can more often survive.

Too many times over the past fifteen years, I’ve watched as well-conceived urbanist projects, projects that among other benefits would have reduced per capita water use, have stumbled and fallen when another hurdle was inserted between them and the finish line.

The spectre of a water conservation moratorium becoming the latest tripwire for water-conserving urbanism is too painful and too perverse to tolerate.  So I firmly oppose an extended water moratorium. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

Wielding a cudgel when a scalpel would be the better choice

1410190001 Dry Fountain - PatchIn a previous post, I wrote that changing the direction of public policy takes persistent and dedicated effort.  In my words, “stating a perspective and wandering away is a recipe for irrelevance.”

When I wrote those words, I had several examples in mind, but none that were strong enough to insert into the flow of the post.  Little did I expect that when I opened the local newspaper later the same day, a perfect example would be looking back at me from the front page.

Here’s the backstory.  We’re in the midst of a drought that is already of historic levels and shows no signing of abating.  Last fall, a candidate for City Council suggested the possibility of a blanket moratorium on building permits until the drought eased.  Two other candidates concurred that a moratorium might be an appropriate step.

Although I didn’t have a problem with a short moratorium, I disagreed strongly with the possibility of an extended blanket moratorium and wrote about the reasons for my opposition.  Nor was I content to disagree only by written word.  I also appeared before the Council during the public comment portion of their next meeting and repeated my thinking. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Site News

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: Looking forward through the fog

Building at the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds

Building at the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds

With my last couple of posts, I’ve been sucked back into the subject of possible reuse of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  First, I recounted my inadvertent quashing of youthful creativity.  And then I explained why, as worthwhile and insightful as the Petaluma Urban Chat conceptual design effort has been, there’s a good chance that the eventual redevelopment will differ significantly from the Urban Chat plan.

Today, I’ll finish the hat trick by trying to peer through the fog of land use to anticipate the path that the Fairgrounds will likely take from today until the last resident moves in, perhaps two decades hence.

I should emphasize that I’m not relying on any inside information to write this post.  No one inside of City Hall or anywhere else is feeding me confidential insights.  I’m writing based solely on nearly four decades of observing public process and land use, in Petaluma and elsewhere.

As of today, this is what my crystal ball is telling me to expect. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Accepting change, in baseball and in land use

Willie Mays Plaza in front of AT&T Park, San Francisco

Willie Mays Plaza in front of AT&T Park, San Francisco

Craig Calcaterra, a baseball writer with NBC Sports, recently wrote about the acceptance of change.  He was specifically writing about changes within the game of baseball, but his conclusions can be applied to other areas of human endeavor, such as land use.

The article runs moderately long.  For those on a time budget, I’ll summarize.

Baseball writers can fall into the trap of idealizing an earlier era of baseball, often the year when they were twelve years old.  It’s the age when burgeoning adolescence and an increasing awakening to the world makes all seem perfect and eternal in the world of sports.

(I understand the sentiment.  My favorite team won the World Series the year that I was twelve.  They rode dominant pitching, solid defense, and a pesky offense to the title.  To this day, that combination of team skills is my preferred brand of baseball.  I always prefer a well-played 3-1 game over a 13-11 offensive explosion.)

It’s okay to hold fond memories about an idyllic time of youth.  But it becomes a problem when fond memories give way to a pig-headed insistence on the need to return to that past, arguing that the game of baseball has only gotten worse over the intervening years.

In Calcaterra’s view, we learn something new every day, becoming a “new Craig” that replaces the “old Craig”.  That constant process of change and improvement is an essential part of embracing of life. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Arriving at the turnstile by public transit

Albert Park in San Rafael

Albert Park in San Rafael

The official Opening Day game of Major League Baseball has already been played.  Over the next week, the other Major League teams and most minor league teams will also begin their regular seasons.  With college teams having already played twenty or more games, it’s a fine time of year for a baseball fan.

Every year about this time, I explore the connection between urbanism and baseball.  Last year, I mused on the extent to which urbanism and baseball were compatible.  A year before, I updated and republished a list of the Northern California ballparks that were within walking distance of urban settings.

This year, I’ll return to the ballpark list, but with a twist upon which I should have struck years ago.  As I pondered twelve months ago, ballparks can sometimes be too much of an intrusion on downtowns.  But neither should ballparks be located so that fans can only arrive by private cars.

Therefore, for many if not all communities, the ideal ballpark location is one that can conveniently reached by transit.  Indeed, much of the early history of baseball is tied to transit.   As baseball grew to its current form in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, teams could only survive if fans could reach the ballparks by streetcar or other transit options of the time.  It’s ironic considering that the their current ballpark has only become transit friendly in recent years, but the Los Angeles Dodgers  still carry a nickname from the early years when their ballpark adjoined trolley lines.

Today, in a world where the dominance of the automobile is starting to wane, having ballparks with good transit access is a model that shows signs of returning.  Or, as this tabulation from Urban Design Associates shows, has already begun a comeback. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Celebrating April Fool’s Day – Part two

150403 Seattle GraffitiIn my last post, I began a countdown of the top April Fools’ Day stories of the year from the world of urbanism.  Admittedly, most of the stories aren’t the pranks that are the supposed mainstay of April Fools’ Day, but I’m using the day as a convenient excuse to deplete my stockpile of stories that are quirky, whimsical, cringeworthy, or just plain fun.  And I’ll make no apologies for stretching the definition of April Fools’ Day.

Last time, I counted down the stories from #14 to #8.  Today, I’ll continue upward to #1.

#7 Best Transit Ad: Although not from the past year, this ad for the Danish transit carrier Midttrafik is worth watching again because it points the way toward the next story on the list.  The creative firm for Midttrafik was given great artistic latitude in their effort to make transit cool.  And they took full advantage.  Even without subtitles, the message would have been evident.

#6 Even Better Transit Ad: Midttrafik and their creative firm returned this year with an even better ad, involving a Paraguayan beauty queen and a burning Mercedes Benz.  This time, we don’t even get the subtitles, only the Danish audio, but the message comes through fine. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Another year slips past

Downtown Petaluma

Downtown Petaluma

Two years ago, my 60th birthday fell on one of my regularly-scheduled publishing days.  Feeling moderately self-indulgent, a reasonable emotion on one’s birthday, I wandered away for the day from the elements and advocacy of urbanism.  Instead, I wrote about my personal reasons for writing this blog and how it fit with my philosophy of life, touching in a soft way on the eternal “Why are we here?” question.

Looking back at that post from the perspective of 24 months, I’d change the syntax of a handful of sentences and tweak some of the logical progressions, comments I could make about pretty much everything I’ve written from the second grade onward, but overall I remain content with the conclusions reached.

So, rather than spending my 62nd birthday in revisiting existential angst, I’ll instead look toward the state and future of this blog.

I continue to enjoy writing the blog.  I appreciate the doors it has opened for me and the new friends and acquaintances it has made for me.  Also, my thinking on the subject of urbanism has broadened and deepened as a result of having to think my way through questions logically.  (My embrace of much of what StrongTowns endorses is what usually comes to mind on that point, although the StrongTowns philosophy is only one of many areas in which I’ve become better educated.) Continue reading

Durable Growth

Celebrating April Fools’ Day – Part one

150401 London Pedestrian BridgeNot every urbanism story revolves around advocacy or education.  Some are quirky.  Some are whimsical.  Some are cringeworthy.  And some are just plain fun.

Quirky, whimsical, cringeworthy, and fun may not be the adjectives normally associated with April Fools’ Day, but it’s the nearest fit I can find on the calendar.  So today I’ll begin a countdown of the top fourteen off-beat stories with urbanist angles over which I’ve stumbled during the past year.   Expecting that there are too many giggles, guffaws, and jaw-dropping moments for one post, today will be numbers eight through fourteen, with the top seven links to follow in my next post.

#14 Texting Signpost: A disengaged London prankster, trying the find the meaning of life in unexpected places, puts his phone number on an otherwise innocuous street signpost and then engages in churlish dialogue, impersonating the signpost, with folks who call the number.  The five-minute video is about three minutes and thirty seconds too long, but there are smile-inducing moments, like the woman working too hard to make a date with a signpost.

#13 London Bridges: The next item is also from London.  Trying to build a buzz for a massive redevelopment scheme around a former power station, the City of London is seeking creative, even fanciful, design concepts for a new $60 million pedestrian bridge across the Thames River upstream from the Houses of Parliament.

For those who have come to believe that the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge may have been a bridge too far (pun intended), the London designs should give chills. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

Driving downtown in my toaster oven

150318001 Prius on Kentucky StreetI took ownership of my brand-new Prius during the third week of April 2005, so its ten-year anniversary is nigh.  It’s been a remarkably good car, probably the best car buying decision of my life, although spending several years behind the wheel of a 1965 Mustang gets honorable mention.

The Prius has needed few repairs and none that were catastrophic.  Only once did it fail to start and a single dead battery in a decade is barely worth mentioning.

When I’d had the car about two years, I conveyed a group of friends to a ballgame.  During the drive, I mentioned my intention to drive the Prius for fifteen years, perhaps leaving myself only one car away from the end of my driving days.  The others scoffed, arguing that no one keeps a car for fifteen years.  But, with the ten-year anniversary nearly upon us and the Prius running as dependably as the day I first took possession, I’m guessing the scoffing has ceased.

All of which led me to be offended when Leah Garchik, a Herb Caen-lite columnist in the San Francisco Chronicle, reported a comment overhead by one of her correspondents in an Oakland parking garage, “Owning a Prius isn’t like owning a real car.  It’s more like owning an appliance.”

What?!  How could someone demean my dependable Prius that way?  How dare they compare my car to a mere household appliance?

But then I fell to thinking.  Isn’t it right for an urbanist to think of a car as a convenience?  The goal of a meaningful daily life shouldn’t be to style one’s way between Point A and Point B.  It should be to get to Point B in the most reasonable and appropriate manner, whether on foot, by bicycle, in a car, or on a city bus, so that the friends, good food, or other adventures at Point B can be enjoyed.  A car shouldn’t be life, but an effective tool to take pleasure in life.  Or, in other words, an appliance. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Fast food burgers shouldn’t trivialize downtowns

Downtown Petaluma

Downtown Petaluma

Take a look at the photos to the right. Do they all look alike?  If so, congratulations, you can work in corporate marketing.  If not, I’m sorry but you seem destined for a career that involves a higher level of truthfulness.

I can make this judgment because it appears that the corporate marketing department of McDonalds thought all three scenes were of a piece and that there would be nothing deceitful in using the bucolic rural surroundings and walkable downtown of Petaluma to promote a McDonalds in front of a strip mall a mile and a half from downtown.

If you haven’t yet seen the resulting commercial, it’s embedded in this article in a local newspaper.   The video is worth a view, if only to allow you to form your own opinion about the marketing strategy.

Petaluma McDonalds on N. McDowell Boulevard

Petaluma McDonalds on N. McDowell Boulevard

Not surprisingly, there’s controversy.  As covered in the newspaper article, in the coverage by the Bay Area NBC affiliate, and also as expressed by those with whom I’ve chatted, some find that any publicity is good publicity and that showing the best elements of Petaluma in a national ad campaign overcomes any negatives of being associated with a fast food chain.

Others find the connection to McDonalds odious and believe that Petaluma suffers by association.

I can see the merits in both arguments, but lean to the former argument, perhaps giving television viewers too much credit for their ability to distinguish between a worthwhile place and a consumer product.

However, as is my wont, my primary allegiance goes to a third opinion that I’ll formulate below.   Continue reading