Thursday, May 15, 2008
The temperature in Sacramento is supposed to reach 103 degrees today, but even the early arrival of summer won’t stop the enormous farm production of California’s central valley, which is one of the greatest efforts of land use in human history. Law and engineering have turned the skillet-flat valley into some of the most valuable rural spaces in the world.
Further east, the U.S. House of Representatives passed yesterday a new comprehensive farm bill, whose cost over five years is estimated at close to $300 billion. Although President Bush has threatened to veto it, the House approved the bill by more than enough to override a veto. Critics say that the bill includes too many subsidies in an era of high farm income, but, if history as any lesson, it is probably too early to tell how the details of the subsidy systems will affect rural land use.
Meanwhile, a state assemblyman in California has introduced a bill that would allow farmers to sell processed foods, such as jams and pies, from roadside stands, without having to meet tough state health and safety requirements. Farmers claim that the requirements force them to dispose of tons of damaged but still useable produce each year. The bill would also allow them to sell bottled water and soda. I wonder whether grocers in Sacramento, who have to meet the stringent health requirements, are hot under the collar over the proposal …
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Alongside the right to free speech and the right to exercise one’s religion, should law establish the “right to dry”? Environmentalists and libertarian activists are taking aim at community rules, covenants, and land use laws that prohibit the drying of laundry on clotheslines. Here’s the website of an advocacy group that supports the “right to dry” movement, including links to state and local laws that enshrine the right to air one’s undies. The movement touts the environmental and energy-saving benefits of line-drying, and has recently generated sarcasm on NPR and media vignettes from Oregon to Ontario.
Opponents of clotheslines argue that it depresses property values –- always the fallback argument to justify rules that restrain one’s neighbor. In certain circumstances, this may indeed be true. But just as strong is a psychological reason that’s the flip-side of the reason that so many citizens avoid riding the bus: Drying clothes outside identifies one as poor or “low class,” which bothers many people, including some neighbors. There is also the almost-fundamental human desire to be nosy into one’s neighbor’s life, and to clamp down on anything that might be perceived as harming one’s enjoyment of property.
Monday, May 12, 2008
Among the many hurdles to revitalizing the central city is the problem of brownfields. Sites that used to hold industry or commerce may be contaminated with hazardous materials, which both makes development unattractive and may impose tremendous environmental cleanup costs to the current owner. All of this encourages new development outside the central city, and exacerbates the problems of unused land in the central city.
The latest National Brownfields Conference was held last week in Detroit, a city that has been infamous, of course, for its abandoned industrial spaces, shrinking population, and social problems. Just a glance at a picture of Detroit’s riverfront shows the errors of the past –- the hulking Renaissance Center of the 1970s (now the home of General Motors), standing like a blank fortress, isolated from the dangerous city below. Modern brownfield plans are more subtle, using various techniques to transform places such as old warehouses and machine shops into lofts, stores, and small businesses. A essential key to the efforts is government, which has both assuaged the financial penalties for being the owner of contaminated property (the federal Superfund act was amended a few years ago to encourage the purchase of land known to hold some contamination) and can provide tax breaks for cleanups and urban redevelopment.
Some of the more interesting sessions at the conference (I couldn’t make it) included how to establish good communication with community stakeholders (something too often ignored by developers in decades past) and using natural biological processes to help clean up contaminants.
Now is the time for urban redevelopment. With crimes rates down, land prices reasonable, and high gas prices making people look longingly to short commutes, it’s now or never for places such as Detroit to make their big comebacks.