June 29, 2006
Will desalination pave the desert?
I've heard a lot in the news recently about new ideas for the technology of desalination -- turning salty water into fresh water. (See some links here and here and here.) Long used on ships for boiling, desalination has been expensive and complex when used on a large scale. But when an increasing demand for fresh water combines with better technology, desalination will become practical for more and more places, including for domestic and agricultural water usage in water-hungry parts of the United States.
Imagine the land use consequences! Consider a time -- and it may be soon in the future -- when it is relatively inexpensive to desalinate water from the Pacific or the Gulf of California and pump it across the Southwest. There would then not be much to stop new retirement homes from popping up along the length and breadth of the Arizona desert ... and Utah … and all of sparsely populated eastern California. It would be a developer's dream … a groundwater conservationist's deliverance …and an urbanist's nightmare.
June 28, 2006
Interstate highways -- A happy 50th birthday?
Tomorrow, June 29, is the 50th anniversary of founding of the federal interstate highway system. The freeway web transformed how Americans moved, and thus how we constructed our communities, and thus how we shaped our societies. One telling of the story is that advocates (which included contractors and certain local governments, of course) were having difficulty persuading the fiscally conservative members of Congress in the early '50s, until they came upon the idea of calling it a "defense" plan to facilitate the movement of troops and materiel in case of war with the Communists. Once packaged as a feature of national security, Congress authorized billions. (Plus ça change.)
On the benefit side of the ledger, the interstates have given Americans mobility to travel freely across the nation (imagine the delays of a cross-country road trip back in 1940!) and made trucking an extraordinarily efficient means of transporting goods, thus contributing mightily to American prosperity. (I recently read that nearly all major automotive parts facilities locate within minutes of I-65 and I-75, from Michigan south to Alabama.)
As for drawbacks, critics point out that subsidized highways harmed the railroads (which, to be sure, got their own subsidies back in their heyday). Federally funded interstates have often served suburbanites more than interstate travelers (just try getting around Atlanta on I-285 at rush hour, or try going west from Denver on I-70 on a skiing weekend.) Perhaps most significantly, they have facilitated suburban sprawl (imagine the drive from Winnetka to downtown Chicago or from Garland to Fort Worth without freeways). First houses, and then shopping malls, and then jobs, have followed the routes of interstates out of the city. Should we wonder why sociologists say that today's Americans, isolated in suburban subdivisions, office parks, and interstates, have fewer friends than they used to have?
June 27, 2006
A "no" vote to referenda for land use laws ...
Is democracy always good? I say "no." The California Central Valley city of Davis, famous for its progressive policies, has adopted a municipal code that requires a public referendum for any proposed change in land use currently mapped for agricultural or non-urban use. This will no doubt slow new developments in the city. But democratic votes aren't the best way to make most decisions of government. Doesn't a public vote avoid the problem of special-interest influence on elected representatives? Perhaps, but it holds more drawbacks. First, if the question involves pitting a public benefit versus an arguable individual "right" (no matter how small), the "right" side is bound to get short shrift from the public. NIMBY rises, and the public's respect for a right dissolves, when voters are able to hide behind the secret ballot. Imagine if your right to paint your house pink or to put up a controversial political sign were subject to a vote of your neighbors? Moreover, with democratic decisions, there is no way to police the outcome -- a vote can be motivated by bases such as race, religion (imagine a vote on the siting of an Islamic center), or other unfair grounds. Referenda also are also hampered in many cases by the public's lack of knowledge of the issue, which then results in a disproportionate number of ballots marked by the those with a personal "interest" in the issue.
Yes, representative decisionmaking is imperfect, in that it is subject to undue influence by the powerful and the connected. But it is, for most questions, including land use issues, a better system than direct democracy.
June 25, 2006
Should Montreal be more American?
Why can't U.S. cities be more like European ones? That's what many Americans ask when they visit the dense, efficient, and well-maintained cities of western Europe. Even in Canada, Vancouver vigorously encourages dense development and Montreal seems more like Lyon than Chicago. But here's a dissent from the Montreal Gazatte, arguing that Canadian anti-suburban laws have slowed economic growth and raised housing prices; what is helping Montreal today, the author claims, is suburbanization.