Friday, September 8, 2006
Once again there’s a spate of studies linking the obesity problem and suburban sprawl. Here’s a report of the Trust for America’s Health and a Canadian study. Of course, no one should suggest that sprawl is bigger factor than, say, diet. Not surprisingly (to me, at least), the America’s Health report found that most of the fattest states are in the deep-fried South, while outdoorsy and health-oriented Colorado, Hawaii, and Vermont (despite Ben & Jerry’s!) were the slimmest –- evidence that regional diet and cultural attitudes are more important than sidewalks and housing density.
Certainly, obesity in the suburbs can’t really be “blamed” on land use planning; there are plenty of parks and gyms in the suburbs that simply aren’t being used enough. I’d guess that urbanites tend to be slimmer not necessarily because they walk to work (which certainly helps, of course) but because they simply are out doing more things and burning more calories; they are busy doing things other than simply watching television, playing video games, and eating junk food. If suburban and rural kids would spend more time playing baseball and jumping rope, as their grandparents did, the problem wouldn’t be so bad …
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
It has been a long time since the brief 1980s’ era of national concern over the problem of homelessness. Today, many cities are simply trying to shove homeless persons out of sight, as they once were. Some of these efforts are censurable, of course –- especially those that simply push the homeless to neighboring jurisdictions. But some of the new homeless rules hold some grains of sense. In a new essay, for example, homeless advocate Tulin Ozdeger chastises ordinances recently passed in cities such as Las Vegas and Orlando as being heartless “don’t feed the homeless” laws. But the rules are subtler than that. The Las Vegas ordinance, for example, bans the feeding of 25 or more “indigent” people in public parks. This was passed not simply out of scorn for the homeless, but to avoid the location of private “mobile soup kitchens” in public parks. While government and private groups should do much more to help the poor, I believe it should not be at the expense of taking over the limited and unique spaces of our public parks.
Tuesday, September 5, 2006
Who has standing to bring claims of racially motivated zoning decisions? In a recent opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that black residents of Darby Township, near Philadelphia, “have not asserted an actual injury that would confer constitutional standing upon them” to have the federal courts hear their claims that the local government “made land use decisions in order to limit the effect of the African-American vote in Darby Township.” Taliaferro v. Darby Township Zoning Bd., slip op. at 6, No. 05-02253, 2006 WL 2294839 (3d Cir. Aug. 10, 2006). The plaintiffs alleged that the government approved a zoning change to allow commercial development instead of residential development, in order to discourage new residences that would likely be occupied by African Americans. While the Third Circuit concluded that there was no standing for the claim of harm to political power, the Court did allow standing for claims of neighbors that the zoning change would decrease their property values.
This decision is the latest in the line of restrictive standing decisions that prevent important land use claims from being heard by the federal courts. When a local government uses land use law to keep out unwanted people, it may be very difficult for advocates to find a specific plaintiff with an “injury” that is “concrete” and “particularized” enough grant standing. Thus even warranted claims of racism and unlawful exclusion can remain unchallenged …
Monday, September 4, 2006
On Labor Day, it's worth reflecting on the state of the political debate over what used to be called the "laboring class," or the "working class." This was generally understood to refer to perhaps the poorest one-third of the nation. Today, these people have almost disappeared from the national political debate; it is acceptable in most circles to talk only of helping "middle-class families." Talk of helping "the poor" is considered political suicide in many debates. So how do advocates of low-cost housing gather public support, especially when rising housing prices have not cut the homeownership rate, which stays near the all-time high of around 69 percent?
The answer may be to appeal to the selfishness of the great masses of middle-class families who want government to help them. With housing, this case can done by an appeal to "workforce housing," a fascinating term of rhetoric that is sweeping through the nation's local political debates. If we don't help provide for low-cost housing, who will police our streets, put out our fires, nurse in our hospitals, and teach our children? This problem is especially alarming for middle-class families who live in increasingly large numbers in isolated suburbs and exurbs. Here are discussions of efforts to use the term to get low-cost housing built and paid for, from Fannie Mae, the American Planning Association, and the Urban Land Institute. Here's hoping that the rhetorical device of "workforce housing" will get more low-cost housing built for less affluent people who labor in all occupations.
Sunday, September 3, 2006
The land use decisions that China make today will affect how the world's most populous nation, indeed the world, will look like for years to come. Enormous land and water projects such as the Three Gorges Dam will transform both growth urban and rural growth, as well as the environment, in myriad ways. Meanwhile, the push for urbanization will soon make China's factories the world's biggest source of greenhouse gases.
Meanwhile, China's cities are becoming more and more like the West. The Chinese premier has warned local government leaders, who have been given more power in recent years, to guard against urban sprawl and the excessive use of resources. And the most famous feature of China's cities under the Communist regime -- the bicycle -- may soon be the thing of the past.