Friday, May 19, 2006
The national political debate rarely records talk of "the poor" anymore; all politicians speak only of caring for "working families." Local politics in some cities inovolves the issue of homelessness. Rarely, however, does our hyper-metropolitanized nation think much about the rural poor any more. This would have shocked liberal politicians from the 18th century up to fairly recently, when big programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority sought to help desperately poor rural areas.
It is refreshing, therefore, to read the Economist's interesting article this week on the Delta region of the Mid-South -- the largely African American farming area on either side of the big river in Mississippi and Arkansas. By some measures the poorest region of the nation, the Delta has been hurt in recent years both by the technology boom (most residents are not online) and by hurricane Katrina, which has slowed the tourist trade down to the Gulf Coast.
Sensible plans to help the Delta focus on its strengths -- fertile soil and a citizenry skilled in tilling the soil. Instead of relying largely on cotton, local governments are investing in facilities to foster farming of the sweet potato -- that famous crop that provides more nutrients per work than any other food. Local grasses are useful in making bio-fuels, which some expect in part to replace petroleum products in the near future. And east Arkansas has a plan to moisten its enormous rice fields with irrigated water as underwater aquifers dry up. One problem -- much of the water would come from the White River, whose adjacent wetlands are where birders claim to have seen the once-thought-to-be-extinct-and-still-elusive ivory-billed woodpecker.
Thursday, May 18, 2006
Homeowners associations assure uniformity -- a rigid conformity, some communitarian critics say. But this privately enforced uniformity can also ensure a neighborhood's "character" in some ways that communitarians may approve of. A court in Colorado recently upheld a Denver HOA's disapproval of a plan to replace a small house, like most in the neighborhood, with a 30-feet-high, 5000-square-feet mansion. The Belcaro Park HOA covenant allowed the HOA to veto house plans that are not compatible in height and appearance with surrounding homes. Although such discretion to an HOA may ensure stifling uniformity and holds the potential for the mischief of unequal treatment, it can also stop the trend of "mansionization," whereby property owners build giant edifices in the middle of a block of smaller houses -- a practice is especially appealing in an age of high property values. I wrote about this role for HOAs in one of my first blog entries, on March 16, 2006.
Those who seek to preserve old neighborhoods from behemoths may rightly applaud the covenants and the Colorado court decision. It allows the private market for covenants to serve the cause of community preservation. But are existing neighborhoods that do not already have such covenants likely to adopt them today, when many homeowners may be thinking about mansionizing (or selling to mansionizers) themselves? And are any opponents of sprawl worried that too many such covenants might -- as some who worry about conservation easements "bottling up" useful land forever -- simply push out to the exurbs the desires of Americans for their own mansion?
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
[This is the first in a occasional series called “Law After Oil,” in which I will explore what might happen to law if we were to run out of oil.]
States across the nation this year clamped down –- with varying degrees of likely effectiveness –- on eminent domain by local governments. The steps might be seen as the beginning of an era of a diminished governmental role in shaping urban land use.
What would happen, however, if we ran out of oil? Not simply an oil pinch, as in the 1970s, but a situation in which the world’s supply of oil shrunk so much that the average citizen could not fill up her gas tank and the average power plant could not run on oil or natural gas (and alternatives such as hydrogen and ethanol did not work)? Such an event is not likely to occur any time soon, but the possibility is not so preposterous any more, considering both volatile world politics and uncertainty over reserves.
Anti-suburbanists might have us believe that suburbanites would simply join hands and move “back to the city.” The Chicago of 2010 might look like the Chicago of 1910 –- lots of tenements, streetcars, and pedestrians. But how, precisely, could millions of people simply move “back to the city”? Blocks that were apartment houses in 1910 are now parking lots and warehouses; these land uses cannot be transformed overnight. And what about the land use around a close-in suburban rail stop? A planner in 1910 would have expected that such land would be densely developed. With the 20th century phenomena of the automobile, zoning, and NIMBY, however, land even quite close to suburban rail stops have become single-family houses. Without oil, legions of citizens would be stranded in their exurban homes and pleading for close-in housing. For the close-to-transit land to be transformed to dense transit-oriented development, the single-family houses would have to be converted to denser housing. Many of the existing owners would be resistant and would hold out for a premium price. How could the conversion work? The most obvious solution would be for the government to use eminent domain to seize these houses and then sell them to developers for apartments. The government would be acting as a 21st century Haussmann, who used eminent domain to rebuild Paris for the 19th century. Would opponents of Kelo accept eminent domain in such a situation?
Monday, May 15, 2006
Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. People outside the Northwest tend to think of them as twins –- two pleasant cities nestled among green-glad mountains, under thick clouds, inhabited by a caffeine-buzzed, computer-oriented citizenry. But there is one aspect in which the cities are almost polar opposites: transportation. Portland holds perhaps the nation’s most effective public transportation, with buses, light rail, and streetcar options that make it seem among the most European of American cities. Not by coincidence, Portland is also one of the most densely populated metropolitan areas in country.
Seattle and surrounding Kings County, on the other hand, holds some of the worst traffic in nation. The lack of effective public transit is exacerbated by the lakes and bays, which funnel cars into overloaded freeways and surface streets. In response, the Kings County Executive recently proposed a referendum on a sales tax increase for a greatly improved bus system. Some Seattlites are enthused, while others, such as syndicated sex writer Dan Savage, point out that in-traffic buses simply aren’t an effective way to move people around a sprawling metropolitan area without dedicated bus lanes. I agree with Savage –- dedicated bus lanes provide a unique form of efficiency and speed, without the colossal capital costs of trains. The most famous exemplar is the Brazilian city of Curitiba. A perceived drawback of dedicated bus lanes is that they impose some burdens on automobile drivers –- lanes are removed from traffic and signals give buses priority. Do Seattlites, who are famous for complaining about their traffic, have enough of a commitment to public transportation to accept this priority for buses over cars?