Durable Growth, Government, Transportation

Perusing the Grand Jury report

County courthouse in Tennessee

County courthouse in Tennessee

The local newspaper recently included the final 2015-16 report from the Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury.  I’m not an expert on grand jury reports, with my interest normally limited to a hope that my name isn’t somewhere in the report.  However, this report seemed nicely structured and written.  Concise, to the point, and not wandering too far afield in a muckraking scavenger hunt.

The Grand Jury noted seven local concerns.  It’s insightful to consider those concerns from an urbanist perspective.

Maintenance funds for County roads are lacking – The inability of government to cover the costs of infrastructure maintenance and other government functions is at the top of most “Why urbanism?” lists, up there with climate change.

Affordable housing is in a continual crisis – Although not often noted, the cost of transportation can approach the cost of housing for low income families.  And yet affordable housing is frequently built on sites where cars are essential, many times ensuring that the families in affordable housing will continue to lose financial ground.

One solution is to put affordable housing in places where walkability, bikeability, and transit are reasonable options, such as near downtowns.

But the better solution to make more of the community into places where walkability, bikeability, and transit are reasonable options, including current affordable housing developments.   This solution is the central goal of walkable urbanism.

The Law Library is in financial trouble – The proposed solution requires additional funds from the County, the same County that is already struggling to find resources to maintain infrastructure and other services because of the cost of suburbia.

Retirement benefits for the County Public Library are underfunded – Yet another financial concern for a County government that already has too many because of the costs of suburbia.

The County should be doing a better job of overseeing Special Districts – See above. Continue reading

Durable Growth

CNU 24: Best moments, part 4

Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit on a quiet Saturday morning

Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit on a quiet Saturday morning

I’ll return today to CNU 24, the annual gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism recently conducted in Detroit.  I’ve previously offered the highlights of the opening day talks by Andres Duany, in two parts, and Kaid Benfield.

Today I’ll move onto Jeff Speck, who is a personal favorite.  Not only do I have a passion for his topic, walkability, but I love the way he presents his material, with quiet, confident good sense.  And, although our exchanges have been limited to simple stuff such as “Please sign my book” and “I’m sorry about spilling beer on your shoes”, he seems a genuinely nice person.

He did nothing at CNU 24 to change my opinion.

My favorite moments from his talk are below.  As before, the quotes are reconstructed from my notes and are likely imprecise, but capture Speck’s intent.

On the many elements of modern life that can be improved by walkability: “Also supportive are economists, climatologists, and epidemiologists.”

On the underfunding of transit, an essential complement to walkability: “Between 1970 and 2010, the number of road miles in the U.S doubled.  Transit funding increased by 10 to 20 percent.”

On the lack of awareness of the impacts of a drivable world: “We naturalize car deaths, considering them an inescapable fact of modern life.” Continue reading

Durable Growth

Taking the next step – Opportunities to get involved during the week of July 24

130313006 Balshaw BridgeDue to travel plans, the research for this post was done earlier in the week than I’d prefer.  Perhaps, as a result, I couldn’t find a single good meeting next week to share.  Perhaps readers can instead curl up with a tome from Jane Jacobs or Jeff Speck?

Meetings this Week

None that I know.  But if someone comes across something that I missed, please post a note in the comments.

Meetings in the Weeks and Months to Follow

Petaluma Pedestrian Bicycle Advisory Committee, Wednesday, August 3, 6:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – From what I know of the likely agenda items, the urbanist angles will be limited.  But the conversation about non-auto transportation is often interesting regardless.  (Note: I serve on this committee, but will still be traveling when it convenes.)

Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee, Thursday, August 4, 4:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – The Transit Advisory Committee will consider the final draft of the Short-Range Transit Plan, a document required  from all Bay Area transit agencies by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.  After nine months of work, the plan will be given a final review and likely passed onto the City Council for their approval.  But there will be time between the Committee meeting and the Council meeting for final edits, so the public is encouraged to participate.  (Note: I’ll chair this meeting after returning from travels only hours before.)

Rail~Volution, October 10-12, Hyatt Regency, San Francisco – The leading conference on the use of rail for community building is coming to San Francisco this fall.  The coming role of SMART in the North Bay will surely be discussed, as will the increased density occurring around BART stations. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Where’s the urgency?

Mixed-use building in downtown Tacoma

Mixed-use building in downtown Tacoma

Over the years that I’ve advocated for urbanism, I’ve consistently written that I needn’t argue for the eventual return of walkable urbanism as the dominant paradigm because the forces of history will make urbanism inevitable.  Instead, I advocated for a quicker return to urbanism to reduce the pain as the transition progressed.

I may have been entirely too sanguine about anyone listening to the forces of history.

We’ve reached the time when it seems the paradigm shift should be underway.  After three years of deep California drought, strongly tied to climate change, we’re finishing a barely average water year despite indicators pointing toward a wet winter.  With forests stressed by low precipitation, wildfires are rampant.

Cities everywhere, stressed by the costs of suburbia, are teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy.

There is so much dissatisfaction among the electorate that populist uprisings took hold on both ends of the political spectrum during the presidential campaign, one of which has apparently secured a major party nomination.  (Admittedly, many of the surface causes cited as the reasons for the resurgence of populism don’t tie immediately to urbanism, but the roots of lingering segregation, income inequality, the housing crisis, the inability of government to provide services, etc. are entwined with the experiment and subsequent failure of drivable suburbia.)

By any measure, we should be in the drivable suburban end-of-times.  But that seems not to be the case. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Learning the right lessons from Nice

Public plaza in Paris

Public plaza in Paris

I was particularly distressed by last week’s attack on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais.  The sorrow was sharp because the attack occurred in a walkable urban place, a place described by CityLab as “an elegant Belle Époque version of the Atlantic City Boardwalk”, a place filled with folks in a celebratory mood.

(Although as I write this it remains undetermined whether the attacker in Nice was affiliated with a terrorist organization, it seems moderately clear that he was a Muslim by birth and was likely using Muslim discontent as a justification for his actions, even if the specific motivation for the attack fell elsewhere.  These likely facts inform my comments below.)

Giving form to my thoughts on the attack provided an unexpected and uncomfortable reminder of recent history.

I recalled having written a post on a similar subject, but couldn’t remember which attack had triggered the post.  So I embarked on a search of my archives, trying to recall the target.  It wasn’t the concert hall or soccer stadium in Paris.  It wasn’t the Orlando night club.  It wasn’t the airports in either Istanbul or Brussels.  It wasn’t the classroom in Newtown or the conference room in San Bernardino.

I finally found it.  It was the Boston Marathon.  Those were far too many incidents of which to be reminded.

At least to my ear, my earlier article has stood up well.  I’d change a word or two, but not the underlying message.  However, there are further lessons that could have been gleaned from the crimes at the Boston Marathon and in Nice, lessons that I didn’t elucidate in the earlier post.  Those were omissions I’ll correct today.

One of the responses to the Nice attack, admittedly a lesser response but still heard, is that public places have become unsafe, that private homes, preferably far from the urban core, are the only truly secure places.

It’s a response that’s tone-deaf on at least two levels. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Taking the next step – Opportunities to get involved during the week of July 17

Pedestrian bridge toward downtown Petaluma

Pedestrian bridge toward downtown Petaluma

Another week, another chance to be an advocate for urbanism.  The big event of the week is the Sonoma County Supervisors vote on community separators, although the Rohnert Park Town Hall Meeting could also be interesting.

Besides, it’s always a good week to take public positions in favor of improving the quality of life in North Bay communities.

Meetings this Week

Petaluma City Council, Monday, July 18, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – Tucked in a corner of an agenda otherwise absent urbanist issues is an intriguing consent calendar item.   Governor Brown has proposed that some multi-family projects be allowed to proceed “by right”, limiting the power of cities to shape those projects.  It’s an attempt by the Governor to ease the housing crisis by expediting multi-family housing.  The City’s agenda item is approval of a letter opposing the proposed legislation.

Although I agree with the City that a “by right” standard would allow too much flexibility to developers, I also argue that the Governor’s concern about the housing crisis should be taken as a sign that cities need to find a way to move housing projects along more quickly.  Too many multi-housing projects, especially those in walkable settings that have been particularly valuable in blunting the housing crisis, languished in city planning departments before the recession and then succumbed during the recession.

Cities helped create the housing crisis and the Governor’s proposal, even if too much of a reach, should be understood as a well-earned shot across their bows.

Cotati Planning Commission and Rohnert Park Bike Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Monday, July 18, 7:00pm, Location to be determined – This meeting is a puzzle.  I’ve never heard of a joint meeting of a planning commission from one city and an advisory committee of a neighboring city, but it’s clearly on the Rohnert Park website, at least as of this writing.

There are red flags about whether the meeting will be held.  The Cotati website shows the Planning Commission meeting as cancelled.   Also, listing the location as undetermined only a few days before the meeting is an indication that the meeting in unlikely.

My guess is that the meeting has been cancelled.  But I’d be intrigued to know what the two bodies would have met jointly to discuss. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

Revisiting transit integration

Petaluma Transit bus

Petaluma Transit bus

The powers that control the ebb, flow, and cross-currents of urbanism have apparently decreed that this is my week to ponder the integration of transit systems.

Later today, I’ll participate in a subcommittee meeting of the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee.  It‘ll be our final work session before an August public vetting and anticipated approval of the updated Short-Range Transit Plan for Petaluma Transit.

Although the SRTP, mandated by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, would have been required this year regardless of other transit issues, this particular update has been dominated by the desire to integrate Petaluma Transit with the SMART rail system that will begin running in months.

Having spotted opportunities for route adjustments to better connect train riders to Petaluma originations and destinations, Transit staff has spent months honing the routes and schedules, along with managing the concerns of citizens, some angry about the possibility of buses running through their neighborhoods and an equal number distressed about not having service.  The Transit Committee has been providing advice on the process, offering ideas and feedback toward the impossible goal of making everyone happy.

Today’s meeting follows a meeting yesterday with the Transit Manager to review the proposed content for the subcommittee meeting.

And then tomorrow, completing the trifecta, I’ve been asked to participate in a meeting between the Friends of SMART, the citizens committee that worked for  years to bring SMART to reality and continues to provide unofficial oversight of SMART’s efforts, and the Marketing Director for SMART.  It was a request that was likely tied to my role with Petaluma Transit.

My particular issue tomorrow will be travel training.  Both Petaluma Transit and SMART have programs to educate first-time riders about the transit experience.  My concern will be how to combine those two efforts to ensure that prospective riders learn how to ride Petaluma Transit to the SMART station and then ride the train to destinations from San Rafael to Santa Rosa.

Given the flood of transit integration efforts, it seemed time to return to a 2015 discussion of the subject. Continue reading

Durable Growth

CNU 24: Best moments, Part 3

Downtown Detroit

Downtown Detroit

Having given a pair of updates on efforts to change the political picture in my town and provided urbanist marching orders for the week, it’s time to return to the highlights of CNU 24, the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, held a month ago in Detroit.

I previously provided the best of Andres Duany, who was so prolix, in a good way, that I needed two posts to cover his thoughts.

Today I’ll move on to Kaid Benfield, a man whose quiet but eloquent love for the subtle points of good cities has caused him to appear often in this blog when he still with the Natural Resources Defense Council.  He has since moved to PlaceMakers LLC, taking him further from my radar, but I still looked forward to hearing him speak in person for the first time.

He didn’t disappoint.

As before, the quotes are reconstructed from my notes and are likely imprecise, but capture Benfield’s intent.

On the job still to be done: “Anyone who thinks that battle for good urbanism is already over, whether won or lost, should remember that by 2050, half of built environment then in place will have been built after today.”

On the current breakdown of CO2 emissions by sector: “Buildings 44.6 percent, transportation 34.3 percent, and industry 21.1 percent.”  With urbanism directly impacting the first two, it has a key role to play in combating climate change. Continue reading

Durable Growth

An urbanist learns about electoral politics, Part 2

130223005 McNear Building DetailIn the last post, I wrote about finding myself leading an effort to recruit an urbanist candidate for the city council in my town.  It wasn’t a task I’d planned, but I noted a vacuum, suggested that someone should fill it, and suddenly found myself leading a growing parade.

It’s not a story that yet has a conclusion.  There will likely be a Part 3 and maybe even a Part 4 or more in the weeks and months to come.   For now, the committee is awaiting a decision from our top possible candidate while also working on a platform.

But even at this stage, there have been lessons learned, some that I already knew, although this experience caused them to crystallize, and others that were new to me.

The top three lessons are described below.

Why the City Council Has a Schism: In the last post, I noted the schism between the council factions that I described as centrist and progressive, a schism that greatly affects the function of the city.  I have a theory about how the rift came to be, a theory that has come into greater focus in the past few weeks.  It’s a story that long-time readers have heard many times, but I’ll recount this time from a different perspective and to make a different point.

Before World War II, land use in the U.S. was predominantly walkable urban.  Even if one lived at a distance from work or shopping, public transit was the most common conveyance.  Private automobiles and trucks existed, but weren’t yet the dominant paradigm.  Indeed, they were still replacing horse-drawn wagons for many tasks.  Few would have considered a twenty-mile daily commute in a single-passenger car.

In the heady years after World War II, convinced that the Allied victory had established that the U.S was all powerful, we changed paradigms.  Although there were also market forces behind the change, the primary driver was planning theory.

We had decided that we could safely consign walkable urbanism to the scrap heap of history.  We began to separate uses, residential in certain districts of our communities, retail, commercial, and industrial in others.  We created a world in which cars were no longer optional, but essential.

And then we doubled down, committing to an interstate freeway system that was initially proposed for the movement of goods and military materiel, but was soon clogged with people driving private cars to and from work. Continue reading

Durable Growth

An urbanist learns about electoral politics, Part 1

130223007 Coke Sign on Kentucky StreetLike many California cities, at least those near the coast, there isn’t much of a political right-wing in the town where I live.  I see few bumper stickers for the presumptive Republican nominee.

Instead, we mostly fall into various shades of Democrats and Independents.  But the clustering doesn’t mean that we all agree.  In particular, there is a long-lasting schism on our city council, a schism that has lately been consuming much of my attention.

It’s not easy to give labels to the two sides of the divide.  Because local issues often don’t map well with national issues, the national labels don’t apply.  But I need names to tell my story, so I’ll give it a try.

On one side are those who seem to believe that things are going moderately well.  They would agree that there are worrisome concerns, such as traffic congestion and the depleted state of the municipal treasury, but their general sense seems to be that if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, just a bit smarter, we’ll be alright.

In many situations, I would call these folks conservatives, but they could justifiably consider that term a pejorative because of the conservative dysfunction at the national level.  Besides, they may all be registered Democrats.  So I’ll call them centrists.

On the other side are those who seem to believe that there are systemic issues that need redress, whether social equity, gay rights, gun control, or something else.  Although a local newspaper columnist can’t refer to these folks except with dismissive quotation marks as “progressives”, they generally accept the word as accurate and reasonable, so I’ll call them progressives, without the quotation marks. Continue reading