Durable Growth, Transportation

Looking back and looking ahead

Downtown Petaluma

Downtown Petaluma

In my last post, I presented my urbanist resolution for 2015.  I vowed to dig more deeply into the reasons why suburbia is failing and why urbanism is part of the solution.  I understand that most readers of this blog don’t need the further explanation, but I’ll be prepared for the skeptics who may wander through.

Pondering my resolution for 2015 induced me to revisit my urbanist resolutions of years past.  Doing so was insightful.  My first resolution in this blog was for New Years 2013.  I’d recently been called an urban generalist and I resolved to embrace the description.

I think I’ve succeeded as I’ve continued to probe a wide breadth of urbanist topics.  Indeed, I think a strength of urbanism is that it has so many facets and seems a remedy to so many challenges.  In my effort to remain a generalist, it sometimes feels as if I’m walking a fine line between being an urbanist renaissance man and being an urbanist with an attention disorder, but I’m okay with tiptoeing.

For New Years 2014, I laid out a number of goals, from writing better to becoming more active in the community to doing more advance study of urbanist destinations before traveling.  I can’t claim to have fully succeeded at any of the resolutions, but nor do I think I’ve failed at any.  Instead, they remain a comprehensive checklist which I can continue to monitor as long as this blog continues.

Of course, urbanist resolutions are only as important as the changes one hopes to induce.   The New Year’s Day issue of the weekly Petaluma newspaper provided a remainder of the progress that urbanism has made and the challenges that remain ahead.

On the front page of the Argus Courier is an article about the automated vehicle locating (AVL) system that will be implemented on Petaluma Transit buses during 2015.   The article notes with approbation the improvements that the AVL system will bring to the passenger experience, from real time information about bus locations to better management of transit center connections.

But as a member of the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee, I know that the AVL can have deliver even broader benefits, such as improved data about passenger loading and off-loading locations, allowing the transit staff to respond more quickly with schedule adjustments to meet the changing needs of the community.

A transit system that can compete with cars is an essential component of urbanism.  The AVL system will help Petaluma Transit provide that competition.

Elsewhere in the newspaper is a story on the approaching opening of the Big Easy, a jazz club on a downtown alley that is intended to evoke the era of the 20s and 30s.  Urbanism needn’t include gin joints, but a gin joint emulation makes a lot more sense on a downtown alley than in a suburban strip mall.  It’s great to see creative uses coming to downtown Petaluma.

But just when those two stories make it seem that urbanism is making good progress in the North Bay, there’s an Argus Courier article, reprinted from the North Bay Business Journal, about Deer Creek Village, a new shopping center on the east side of Petaluma.  In the first sentence, the project is described as “Petaluma’s premier mixed-use infill center.”

I’m forced to agree with the “infill” description.  Deer Creek does occupy a tract of land that had been left vacant as development occurred around it.  But I’d prefer that “infill” be saved for small parcels in more downtown locations, where the infill can buttress walkability and lead to truly walkable urban places.

However, my real objection is to “mixed-use”.  Perhaps Deer Creek Village meets that zoning code definition of mixed-use, but only because the zoning code is hopelessly deficient on the point.  Jane Jacobs, who did so much to highlight the benefits of mixed-use, described it as combination of uses intended to provide active users and watchful eyes on the sidewalks for many hours of the day.  A shopping center, especially one that doesn’t include any residential uses, can’t possibly meet that standard of mixed-use.

A world in which Deer Creek Village can be described as “mixed-use” is a world in which urbanist resolutions are still desperately needed.

Luckily, there’s always hope.  In the words of Jacob Riis who highlighted the social needs of New York City at the dawn of the 20th century, “When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stone-cutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”  It’s a fine image for 21st century urbanists to keep in mind.

Several weeks ago, I reported a suggestion that I occasionally offer a helping hand to those who are interested in urbanism, but may need a reminder of the basics.  Although unworthy of providing of a comprehensive introduction to urbanism, I can provide a summary of the subject as I view it.  A multi-part introduction to my personal view of urbanism will start in my next post.

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

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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