August 11, 2006
Worms .. kids ... zoning officials .... Anything but Al-Qaeda ...
On the last day of a depressing week of world news, here's a lighter story about a boy, his worms, his sign, and a city zoning crackdown.
August 10, 2006
Library discriminates against homeless … readers …
Homeless people and libraries -- this must be about homeless persons who sit and sleep but who aren't really using the library, right? Well, no, for once.
The public library of Worcester, Mass., says that it has had problems with homeless people not returning books and then being hard to track down because of their transience. A new rule is that any person without a permanent address (shelters don't count) may only check out two books at once. A homeless man who is a diligent library patron is suing, with the help of civil liberties groups.
I have enough respect for librarians to accept their perception of a problem and support their decision to discriminate against transients, in at least some manner. Disappearance of books is a real problem, and demanding a permanent address for those who want to check out a lot of books strikes me as reasonable. But how about narrowly tailoring such the rule somewhat -- such as making an exception for any homeless person who has built a record of responsible book-returning?
August 9, 2006
Is infill "vertial sprawl" like suburban "sprawl"?
Opponents of high-density infill in their metro neighborhoods have a catchy new name for their reasons: "vertical sprawl." In an article comparing opposition to infill with traditional greenfields development, the New York Times' Nicholas Confessore asserts that the "general issues are remarkably consistent: traffic, parking and the cost of supporting new projects with schools, water and other municipal services." The new usage reveals that the word "sprawl" is now almost meaningless, as it becomes a catch-all for just about any land use that one doesn't like.
Let's consider the first "issue" that the Times mentions: "traffic." It is a truism that any new development anywhere would create more traffic in its proximity. But the traffic problems of infill are, on closer analysis, quite different from the traffic problems of exurban development. In low-density greenfields development, a leading concern is that residents must travel long distances, use scarce natural resources, and alienate those without vehicles. With infill, the dominant concern is of course "parking" -- something that usually is in abundance in the exurbs, of course.
As for public services, it should be apparent that infill, which takes advantage of at least some economies of scale from existing services -- public transportation routes, city streets, existing schools, and existing fire stations -- is likely to be far more efficient in its demands than are green fields developments. As for the assertion that the social costs of high-cost urban infill housing resembles the social costs of McMansions that overwhelm a once-small town, I concede that there is some similarity.
But the real "cause" (as with most of the issues) of this social chafing is the simple fact that there are nearly 300 million people in the United States -- nearly twice the number in 1950. Rural residents may oppose green fields construction by calling it "suburban sprawl" and urban dwellers might oppose infill by calling it "vertical sprawl," but both are simply saying, "There are too many people (and too many with a lot of money)." But these 300 million people have to live someplace, and one's opposition to their living in your community can't be justified simply by tarring it with epithet of "sprawl."
August 7, 2006
A tale of two campuses ...
The design of our universities can mirror the land use policies of our larger community, giving us hints of how land use affects society. I recently had the chance to visit two of the newest large state universities of the East -- the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Both began classes in their current university form only in 1968. But the contrast in university land use couldn't be any starker. UCF was built as a typical American state university -- on a largely virgin tract of land, removed and isolated from the existing city, with a low-density layout, lots of "green space" between buildings, and surrounded by enormous parking lots that act as oceans between the university and the outside world. Despite a well-thought-out circular plan, UCF remains, in my view, as insolated outpost of academia, from which it is very difficult for a student or professor to travel anyplace else (including the city of Orlando) without a motor vehicle. UCF is near Orlando, but in no way is it part of Orlando.
VCU, on the other hand, has grown inside the city, directly adjacent to downtown Richmond, with many of the university's buildings in the city's remarkable Fan district, one of the nation's most charming pre-auto single-family-home neighborhoods. Naturally constrained by the city and its street grid, VCU has grown in large part by occupying the closely clustered city mansions that were once the homes of Richmond's aristocracy. This practice has had many welcome results. The university's use of old houses, and the fact that many students rent the attractive, columned old two- and three-story small apartment houses in the Fan, have preserved many of Richmond's finest old buildings and cityscapes from demolition and conversion to offices or parking lots (which are largely hidden as garages on the VCU campus). Currently, VCU is expanding to nearby Broad Street, once Richmond's great retail street, that has been sorely in need of revitalization. Just as significantly, the integration of a major university within the established city gives Richmond a vigorous, hip, youth-oriented feel as great as any city in the nation.
August 6, 2006
Moscow becomes a Western city …
We know that Russia has truly joined the capitalist world, as Moscow experiences the same land use policy dilemmas that many western urban centers have -- booming numbers of affluent urbanites are swarming into the old city, pushing the labor class out to distant and dreary suburbs; historic buildings are being torn down; and the citizenry seems to prefer glitzy modern versions of traditional architecture (Las Vegas style). Here's a fascinating segment from Public Radio International's' "The Changing World."