Thursday, May 8, 2008
A handful of states, including Vermont, have long banned the placement of billboards along the state’s roads. But in an effort to protect a cute painted barn mural with a 1940s-looking car on it that says, “See Bellows Falls, Vermont” (check this link for a picture), the state legislature passed last week an exemption to the much cherished billboard ban. (A state agency earlier had ordered the mural taken down (or, more likely, painted over)). The exemption would allow –- uh, essentially the Bellows Falls mural: the signs would have to be hand-painted, on an old building, give only directions to a town, and be not far from the town promoted. But the exemption is generating a lot of hand-wringing in Vermont, where some see it as a crack in a dam that could lead to Vermont’s resembling a tacky suburban retail strip on a Saturday afternoon.
I’ve never quite understood the dislike of billboards. In my memory, billboards bring to mind the quaint “South of the Border” signs (advertising a restaurant just over the state line in South Carolina) that I used to look for as a kid in my parents’ ’71 Falcon station wagon as it rumbled its way south to Florida. Or old “Drive through a tree – only 20 miles ahead!” billboards wilting in the rain of coastal Oregon. One of my favorite writers, the late westerner Edward Abbey, thought that it was silly to protect the “beauty” of roads and their views. It’s when one gets OFF the road and into the forests, mountains, and meadows, on one’s two feet, that one finds the true beauty of a state such as Utah or Vermont.
And it also seems a bit naïve to believe that a motorist who is driving with a GPS screen in their face, ads blaring on the satellite radio, and the kids chortling to a screaming DVD in the back will be disappointed by the low-tech intrusion of billboards on Vermont roads.
It’s usually bad policy to craft a legal rule that is focused on one discrete person or act. But I’m glad that the barn mural gets to stay. Now, I must get back to planning a summer vacation. Hey, I’ve heard that Bellows Falls, Vermont, is quaint …
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.” The famous dare of century-ago century Chicago architect Daniel Burnham proved to be a daunting challenge in the last century for American cities. Big projects such as the government centers in Boston and Albany turned out to be anti-social and ill-fitting products of urban planning as sculptural design. In part as a result of these efforts, few American cities have tried big makeovers in recent years.
But Las Vegas is not any city, of course. One of the fastest growing cities in the nation over the past few decades, Las Vegas has struggled to make itself a great city that happens to have giant casinos –- not just a grouping of giant casinos and parking lots with a city attached. The city is trying to build a new downtown (Las Vegas’s old downtown withered in recent decades, as have many in the nation) called “Union Park” just west of the old downtown. The hope is that new residences, a performing arts center, and big office towers will provide a ready-made city center.
One concern with the plan is that big buildings don’t a downtown make; many American cities (especially in the Sunbelt) are filled with big buildings to which visitors travel and leave almost exclusively by car. Horizontal development (restaurants, small shops, etc.) is more likely to make for a vigorous urban setting. But the Las Vegas plan also doesn’t seem to hold the attributes of the carefully packaged retail walking spaces that have been fairly successful in places such as Reston, Virginia. Moreover, the current plans include a lot of open space, which reminds one of the enormous, human-dwarfing wind-swept plazas that made places such as Boston’s Government Center so unpleasant. (In Las Vegas, of course, it would be a sand-swept plaza). And the idea of adding new condos in a city with soaring foreclosure and vacancy rates seems like an unreasonable gamble.
Perhaps the bottom line is that the United States simply doesn’t do big public spaces well –- we are a culture only of pleasant “private spaces.” But, like Burnham, let’s appreciate Las Vegas for trying …