Saturday, June 17, 2006
The very-real problems of American cities pale in comparison to those of poor countries. This week Vancouver will host a World Urban Forum, organized by the United Nations Urban Settlement Programme. UN-Habitat is also releasing the 2006 State of World's Cities Report. More than half of the world's 6.5 billion people now live in urban areas, and this total in expected to rise to two-thirds by 2020. Nearly a billion people live in city slums, where health criteria such as nutrition and life expectancy are not always better than in poor rural areas. It was an assumption of 20th century policy, of course, that urbanization meant more reliable access to food and health care. This may no longer be the case, just as it was not back in the dark days of early 19th century England.
Friday, June 16, 2006
Questions of land use and sprawl don't typically make it into the New Yorker magazine, so I was glad when I was directed to a Malcolm Gladwell review, of a few months back, of Jared Diamond's book Collapse, which argues in part that civilizations often destroy themselves through environmental self-destruction. Gladwell concludes his review with a reference to Oregon's Measure 37, passed last year, that in part reversed the state's tight development laws and is expected to pave the way (no pun intended) for greater sprawl in Portland's suburbs. Gladwell makes two points. His first is that ecological resources such as rivers and forests should be treated as a "birthright;" this is hard to argue with, although I'm not sure he understands how the fertilized farmland encouraged by Oregon's old laws have not always been the friendliest neighbors to rivers and forests. His second point is that Measure 37 is "intellectually incoherent," arguing that the reason property is so valuable on the outskirts of Portland is that is has been protected from development. Once developed, he suggested, property is likely to fall in value. This cockeyed statement reflects a common view of sprawl as some kind of inorganic disease that we should avoid whenever possible. But sprawl is not simply pavement and strip malls; it is also people -- lots of people -- looking for an affordable and pleasant house in the suburbs.
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Does music (unsponsored) belong in public places? While nearly everyone claims to a fan, for most people there is some type of music -- perhaps it's hip-hop, goth, or schmaltzy '40s show tunes -- that one would just rather not hear. This morning, I heard from my suburban house the sound of drumming; when I investigated, I found in a nearby park a man playing African drums -- quite expertly -- but doing so with amplification. Was this necessary?
The Washington, D.C., Metrorail system is considering allowing musicians underground for the first time in its 30-year history. After all, New York auditions authorized subway performers, and trips to Paris and London are spiced up by musicians that move through trains. In Washington, however, the rail system was built in the '60s and 70s, when the avoidance of crime, graffiti, and litter were foremost in the minds of the planners. The Washington Metrorail has been criticized for its zero tolerance of snackers and solicitors, but there is no doubt that it has succeeded in creating a non-stressful environment for riders -- something that New York plainly failed to provide in the '70s.
Today, with crime down and the New York subway cleaned up, Washington's rail operators may think about making the experience not just safe, but happy. But I still have a concern, however, over allowing too much music underground. One problem is avoiding really bad musicians, and the decision of what constitutes a bad musician will involve government in making "artistic" judgments (imagine the potential lawsuits!). My first rule of thumb would relate back to the drummer in the park: No amplification. Almost every kind of music, from chamber quartets to "unplugged" rock to paint-pail hip hop, can be played without amps. Riders interested in listening could move forward for a minute of two; those uninterested could quickly move on. This simple and fair rule would help ensure that the sounds don't become a bother in our busy urban rail systems.
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
What makes a city eligible for federal poverty aid? NPR reported this morning about a potential change in HUD criteria for community development block grants, which have risen in importance with the increased authority given to states in handing out federal money. Developed in the 1970s, the current CDBG criteria place a large emphasis on the age of housing stock; the older the buildings, the more likely a city is to receive aid. Although focusing on poor quality housing certainly makes sense for HUD, this criterion also reflects the outmoded thinking of the '60s and '70s -- that urban poverty was caused in large part by old wood and nails, as opposed to a lack of income and segregation in an underclass culture. Leftists critics have also argued that the focus on demolishing "blighted" housing was pushed by cities' desire to move unwanted African American neighborhoods close to downtown and spurred by chops-licking builders and developers.
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
I visited this weekend the Barnes Foundation, the famous private art gallery in Merion, Pa., that holds one of the world's great collections of French art. The foundation has been embroiled in controversy for years concerning the will of Albert Barnes, who died in 1951 with strict specifications concerning how his collection should be displayed (in groupings of Barnes's selection) and how it should be accessible to the public (sparingly). In the past 20 years, the university that was given effective control of the collection clashed with the wealthy suburban township of Lower Merion over access by buses and whether the foundation would be permitted to build a parking lot. The township wanted to minimize traffic, of course. Eventually, the trustees obtained a court order that allows them to move the collection to a new building in downtown Philadelphia, which is just a few miles away. How has Merion responded? Nearly every mansion surrounding the Barnes Foundation now holds a sign (tasteful, of course) reading, "The Barnes Belongs in Merion." This is a delicious twist to NIMBY -- the wealthy residents don't want to be bothered by lots of tourists, but they do like the cachet of having the collection in their midst.
I believe that art museums (which for much of this century were wrong-headedly placed in city parks, such as in San Francisco and St. Louis), big libraries, and sports stadiums belong in downtown cities, where public transportation, parking lots, and proximity to other attractions make them most conveniently accessible to all.
Monday, June 12, 2006
Remember communism? Just 20 years ago, there was still a significant threat to private property from the political movement whose foundation was, in the words of one K. Marx, the “abolition of private property.” With the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s embrace of capitalism, in the 1990s writers suggested that a consensus in favor of free enterprise meant an “end of history.” In reality, such views were simply a manifestation of American and Eurocentrism. Outside of the West, in countries in which the putative benefits of private property and capitalism have not benefited the poor, the appeal of collectivism remains strong. Latin America has, of course, been the center of such renewed appeal –- which is not going to go away any time soon. See here for a revealing story about the effort of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela to seize a noted private ecotourist preserve for distribution to the “people.”