Friday, March 2, 2007
Amidst all the breathless reports about the potential for the United States to become one big field for ethanol are a growing number of other stories about alternative energy and land use. Some environmentalists are reconciling themselves to a revival of nuclear energy as a least-bad alternative. And wind power –- which offers energy on land without traditional pollution –- is becoming more and more attractive, despite some environmental concerns.
Virginia is considering a plan for its first significant wind farm, which would be placed on a ridge top in the mountains near the West Virginia border. As with any such project, birds would be killed by the huge spinning blades, noise would be generated by the colossal towers (400-feet high -– taller than the Statue of Liberty!), and nearby residents will complain about the marring of their landscape. These all are serious concerns.
But any source of energy causes harm to the environment. Coal-burning power plants impose huge smokestacks on the landscape, pollute the air, exacerbate the greenhouse effect, and use up nonrenewable resources. It should be the goal of government to rationally, cautiously, and soberly balance the various harms to land and environment with the amount of energy generated (historically, a drawback of wind farms), and to chose the methods provide the highest ratio of benefit to harm.
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Three-quarters of a million Americas are homeless, according to a first-ever Annual Homeless Assessment Report by HUD. (Seeing news that is less than upbeat is in itself a surprise to see at the top of a government website.) This total (which is greater than that of the city of Boston) includes people living on the street, in emergency shelters, and in transitional housing. The number also roughly matches previous estimates.
The report is discouraging, coming as it does about two decades after the problem of “homeless” first became an issue of national attention (as the term and attitude concerning “bums” receded). But it is also a good point for reflection. The polarized rhetoric of the 1980s –- that homelessness was largely the “fault” either of Ronald Reagan’s cold capitalist polices or of the misguided emptying of mental institutions –- has largely passed. Without pointing fingers, what approaches are the best for alleviating homelessness in the new century?
Portland, Ore., reports a significant drop in its homeless population over the past few years, which some attribute to a change in emphasis away from proving emergency shelters (which can often be less palatable than a sleeping bag in a doorway) to helping the transition to low-cost permanent housing. This certainly seems like the best solution, but it requires a committed effort by private organizations or the government or both, which not all cities hold. Such efforts also are less likely to house those homeless people with severe social disorders.
Passing the large “tent city” under Interstate 275 in nearby St. Petersburg, Fla., I remain convinced that there is a role for the direct provision of non-market housing to the most helpless of homeless people. Instead of allowing the unstable and unsatisfactory tent city under the interstate, couldn’t the government fund construction (in some area with few complaining existing residents, such as under the freeway) for very low-cost housing? The facility could hold simple rooms, single beds, and shared sanitary facilities, as a form of housing that would be better than the typical emergency shelter, but less expensive than market-rate housing. Such housing would not be ideal, but it could be humane. Call me naïve, but tent cities should not have to exist in the United States of America in 2007.
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Property owners often complain about the details of requirements that government places upon them in order to get a permit or rezoning. Meanwhile, neighbors and preservationists are annoyed that legal restrictions are often bent or waived to appease property owners.
Here is an interesting story of a 10-year legal battle in Baltimore County, Md., between a commercial garden center owner and his neighbor over the details of an agreement to allow rezoning for the business. Arguments over interpretation of the details, and changes to the land use since then, have kept the controversy bubbling. One of the complaints has been that a fence between the properties did not have a lattice top, as allegedly agreed to. Ah, the police power at work …
Monday, February 26, 2007
Is utilization sometimes the best path to conservation? From adaptive reuse of historic buildings to preservation of the rainforest, students of land use are accepting more often the notion that limited use of a special place may be the most stable method of conserving it for future generations. This variant of sustainable use, sometimes derided as an apology for degradation, runs counter to the traditional model of using strict land use barriers. It is only a second-best solution, more strict preservationists contend.
But usage has often been a large part of the most successful efforts to protect special places. Congress was encouraged to enact the legislation that reserved Yellowstone National Park in 1872 in part by the political support of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which foresaw a tourist magnet for its rail lines. The bison is unlikely ever to go extinct in the United States in part because it is now ranched for meat on private land (there are more bison on ranches than in the wild). And historic buildings such as Daniel Burnham's Rookery in Chicago are less likely to feel the pressure of the wrecking ball if they are adapted to modern desires such as new HVAC, bigger restrooms, and brighter lighting, even if some of these changes diverge from the original architecture.
A similar argument about saving by using is set forth in "The Last Forest," a new book by veteran Amazon journalists Mark London and Brian Kelly. According to early reviews, London and Kelly develop arguments for allowing controlled development in the Amazon, including the certification of eco-friendly forestry and other land uses that do not require extensive deforestation or road-building.