Saturday, April 15, 2006
The tall prairie grasslands that are now Chicago streets and the mangrove forests that are now Miami suburbs are gone. But Arizona is doing something to preserve its Sonoran desert plants. In one America’s fastest growing states, where golf courses spread across land that was once barrel cactus and ocotillo, the Cactus Rescue Crew delicately removes and preserve native plants just ahead of the bulldozer, so that they can be replanted elsewhere later.
What’s interesting for land use policy is that developers are encouraged to support the rescuers. Law requires developers in some locations to inventory native plants (this is reminiscent of reports that Amazonian biologists merely try to catalog rare insects just before their forest is demolished and the species are made extinct) and to save large saguaros -- the slow-growing, anthropomorphic marvels that are the symbol the Sonoran desert.
Our ecological land preservation laws typically have been all or nothing. If a resident species is listed as endangered, the developer often must take significant steps, including habitat conservation, before harming them. If a plant or animal is not so threatened, however, law typically allows destructive land use to go forward without many constraints. Flora such as the Sonoran plants are not endangered, but their habitat is shrinking. It would be wise policy to exact from developers more “impact” requirements –- such as requiring that they take steps to preserve and replant important native species before digging up the land for split-levels and dog-legs.
Friday, April 14, 2006
Infill! Density! These are the rallying cries of the urbanists and the battlers of sprawl. Encourage Americans to live in smaller housing units close to downtown, they say. But some residents of Houston’s close-in Third Ward have another name for the new attraction of their neighborhood: Gentrification.
A fascinating cover story by John Buntin in Governing magazine tells the story of how artists and childless middle-class couples are attracted to the Third Ward’s small houses just outside of downtown Houston. Most of the long-time residents are black; most of the new migrants are white or Hispanic.
A black legislator who represents the district in the Texas legislature has plans to try to stop the transformation. The desire to preserve a historically African American neighborhood raises a number of complex questions: Should law recognize some sort of “cultural property” that belongs to a particular group of current residents, or even a particular race? (In the Third Ward, this issue is complicated by the fact that it used to be a largely Jewish area until the 1960s.)
One of the legislator’s ideas is to have the government somehow impose restrictive covenants on the houses that would require that they be used only for rental housing – forever. Such a restriction would make the houses less attractive for white middle-class residents, who prefer to buy.
Concerns over maintaining black neighborhoods have a solid basis in history. When governments have looked for ideal locations for freeways and other locally unwanted land uses (LULUs), such neighborhoods have been targeted disproportionately, both because of the low cost of land and because of the lack of political power of their residents. The article in Governing quotes an economist as saying that gentrification actually helps social integration, but this may be missing the point; opponents don’t necessarily want integration, they want to keep the character of their neighborhood, just as suburbanites do. And it isn’t that opponents of gentrification merely want more low-cost housing someplace; they want to keep it where it has been located in the past.
Considering the history of government’s exacerbating many of the problems of urban neighborhoods, I am very skeptical of plans to use government to try to maintain a neighborhood’s racial makeup. Indeed, cities have been pressured to use their powers to foster gentrification (see the 2003 PBS documentary “Flag Wars” about Columbus, Ohio). Moreover, considering the market demand for the little close-in houses of Houston’s Third Ward, it may prove to be very difficult to keep newcomers out. Perhaps concern about those displaced by gentrification would be better channeled to encouraging a variety of laws to build and maintain affordable, convenient housing in various locations, rather than in trying to keep newcomers out of the Third Ward.
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Leading the national news today is that FEMA announced its long-awaited guidelines for rebuilding homes in the New Orleans area. Although complicated by many details, the basic requirement is that new homes or those which were significantly damaged by hurricane Katrina probably will have to be raised three feet above the ground in order to qualify for federal assistance.
Three policy issues stand out. First, the relatively mild requirements show a federal recognition that it is catastrophic levee collapse, not intense rain or wind, that poses the greatest danger. If the levees are to withstand powerful storm surges – and floodgates like those proven to be effective in the Netherlands should do much to ensure this – even houses in low-lying areas would be safe from serious flooding if built three feet above the ground.
Second, the rules would make it feasible to rebuild in nearly all of New Orleans neighborhoods. Had the rules made it impracticable to rebuild in some districts, advocates would have howled that FEMA was discriminating unfairly against low-lying neighborhoods, which tend to be poorer than higher sections. Calming citizens is a goal of all governmental authorities today.
Third, the three-foot rule would apply even in districts above sea level, such as the French Quarter and neighborhoods near the Mississippi River that experienced little flood damage from Katrina. While it may seem unnecessary to impose the rule region-wide, the perception of being even-handed is as important as the requirements of hydrology.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
The town of Nantucket, Mass., voted last week to ban chain stores from its historic downtown. Once an isolated whaling port (see H. Melville, Moby-Dick), Nantucket is now one of the world’s most exclusive and expensive international resort destinations. (The typical home is worth more than $2 million.) Its downtown preserves some of the best examples anywhere of early 19th century architecture and rates an 11 on a 1-10 quaintness scale.
When Ralph Lauren moved onto Main Street last year (paying a reported $6 million for the site), however, residents were mobilized. The specter of the local ice cream shops, coffee houses, and woolen stores being replaced by upscale chains available elsewhere certainly would have impaired Nantucket’s unique ambience. (Chains are still free to locate elsewhere on the island.) Snobs like me admire old downtowns such as those of Annapolis, Md., and Carmel, Cal., which discourage franchises and retain local charm.
But Nantucket’s ban can also be seen as the imposition of one group’s values – 480 year-round residents voted at the town meeting last week – over the market-driven forces of the summer tourists who support the economy and the seasonal workers who paint the clapboards and clear restaurant tables.
Is the ban justified on social economic grounds? No. Am I happy Nantucket passed the ban? Yes, even if I can’t really afford to vacation there.
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
One of the most compelling examples of the power of language to shape political thought is the terms used in the immigration debate. To many liberals, the required term is “undocumented;” after all, “illegal immigrant” seems to imply a tarring of the person’s entire existence. For many conservatives, “undocumented” sounds far too mushy; after all, it isn’t as if the papers are merely misplaced.
I suggest an entirely new term (just as most moderate commentators have jettisoned the tendentious “pro life” and “pro choice” in the abortion debate). What is needed is a term that both sides could accept. In 21st century America, acronyms are all the rage (Did your kids watch a DVD in your SUV on the way to KFC?). Here’s a modest suggestion: We should refer to an immigrant who is in the country without having followed legal procedures to be a “PHU” (pronounced “foo,” for “person here unlawfully”). Perhaps both sides would accept a reasoned debate over national policy concerning PHUs.
Is it possible to be concerned about the communitarian consequences of immigration and not appear to be racist? Many liberals are struggling to do so.
One argument is that immigrants increase the supply of those desiring to work at low-wage jobs, as Nicholas Kristof has written, citing a 2005 study by economists at Harvard and the National Bureau of Economic Research. Thus curbing immigration might help raise the wages of low-income American workers.
Another argument is that our current policy mishmash makes little sense: We make it difficult to enter the United States legally and stay, yet we do not spend the resources necessary to control the border or to crack down on those in the country illegally. It would be more coherent either to take the steps necessary to enforce the current laws or to accept a policy of open borders.
A third argument is environmental. Increased population means increased pollution and increased pressures on habitat and natural resources. Thus one can point to the environment as a justification for controlling both legal and illegal immigration.
The most problematic argument for a liberally minded thinker is the social consequences of immigration. After all, the xenophobic complaints about a flood of immigrants from Latin America appear to echo the complaints made 100 years ago about immigrants from eastern and southern Europe -– an migration that now is viewed as American as apple pie. So, is it foolish to be concerned over the social implications of today’s immigration?
I maintain that one can be concerned and not be racist. One difference is that 100 years ago we had a policy of assimilation; in particular, new immigrants were encouraged to learn English and nearly all did so. This assimilation was helped by the fact that we had immigrants speaking so many different languages. Today, the majority of immigrants speak Spanish and it is much easier to live almost entirely within a Spanish-speaking culture in cities such as Los Angeles. It is not racist to be concerned over the potential creation of two distinct cultures in the United States that do not speak the same language. There are very few examples in world history of nations with two separate linguistic cultures that did not suffer from cultural strife. Consider modern examples of the now-split Yugoslavia, the now-split Czechoslovakia, and even modern Spain, where tension still exists among Castilians, Catalans, and Basques. (Switzerland may be the best counterexample, but nearly everyone there is educated in more than one language.) Unless we adopt a national policy that results in all new immigrants learning English, I believe there is a serious ground for concern over immigration.
Monday, April 10, 2006
In an otherwise fine essay that debunks the supposed crisis of academic achievement of boys, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Chait Barnett wrote in the Washington Post on Sunday that a gap between girls and boys is noticeable only in rural areas and the “inner city.” I suggest that the term “inner city” should be given its walking papers.
Of course, “inner city” connotes a community of mostly poor urban African Americans (or today, perhaps Latinos as well). It is a racial and socioeconomic term and thus is clearly distinguishable from the “central city,” which is a geographic term referring to the entire city at the center of a metropolitan area. Where did “inner city” come from? I speculate that in the civil rights era of the 1950s and1960s, northern liberals conjured up the term as a way of avoiding referring specially to race. It enabled one to be somewhat critical without giving insult – one could refer to the “problems of the inner city.” A drawback of using surrogates and euphemisms, however, is that one loses clarity. Referring to the problems of the “inner city” implies that geography is at least in part to blame, which may or may not be part of the author’s point.
“Inner city” isn’t used as much as it once was. One obvious reason is that it simply doesn’t make much sense anymore. If we mean to refer to the black community, we should be aware that in metro areas such as Washington or Atlanta, more than half of African Americans now live in the suburbs. And as urban redevelopment makes close-in city living more attractive for the affluent, many geographically inner city neighborhoods are more affluent than outer city ones. Certainly this is the case with European cities such as Paris and London, where most poor members of racial minority groups live in inconvenient suburbs, while formerly poor inner districts such as Paris’s Marais are magnets for affluent young professionals.
The most important reason for eschewing “inner city” is, of course, that if one means to refer to race, once should not be skittish about referring to race.
Sunday, April 9, 2006
I flew to Baltimore/Washington airport this weekend and had to make my way to downtown D.C. The BWI airport is now the busiest of the three in the greater Washington area, even thought it's about 25 miles from the White House - further out than Congress-friendly little Reagan National and corporate-office-park-friendly Dulles. For an out-of-towner arriving at BWI, the question is: How to get to D.C? Conveniently, the Washington Metro system has a nonstop express bus that runs 15 miles to the Metrorail station at the Greenbelt suburb, where one can then quickly hop a direct train for downtown. The bus costs $3; the train about another $3. Alternatives include renting a car, having someone pick you up (there was a double-column of illegally parked cars in front of the "No Waiting" signs; I persuaded a middle-aged woman in a Hummer to at least leave the bus stop), or taking a taxi, which costs about $70 to D.C., including tip.
As usual, the express bus was mostly empty. I make this ride often, and this weekend's riders were typical - a handful of college students, a couple arriving from another country on vacation, and a few assorted others, including a disproportionate number of African Americans. As the bus whisked me toward Washington, I wondered: Why is such a comfortable, efficient, and very inexpensive means of transportation so unpopular? I number of factors contribute, including ignorance (America buses are poorly advertised), concerns over schedules (there was no posted schedule at the airport bus stop), and the nearly reflex notion that covering ground must be done by private automobile. In addition, author Jim Motavalli has written cogently about the cultural bias against bus riders - train riding is somewhat better - as "losers" in society. Poor people ride buses; if I ride the bus, I must be like them in some unhappy way.
Americans will learn to ride the bus, I contend, only if our bus systems become more efficient, cleaner, safer, and better-advertised.