Friday, September 21, 2018

Legally parked?

This car is parked in the 1200 block of 2nd Avenue SE, comfortably on the right side of the "no parking here to corner" sign. But... is also parked across the bike lane, which for some reason shifts to the curb just above 13th Street. So are these other cars:

In the drivers' defense, if they're parking at night, the bike lane markings are not easily seen, and these are well inside the "no parking here to corner" sign.

This has never been for me, either on a bike or in a car, because most auto traffic on 2nd Avenue turns either left or right onto 13th Street. But--note the moving vehicle down the street, whose driver didn't turn--it could be an issue.

An easy solution would be to move the "no parking here to corner" sign beyond the driveway you see in the picture above. (After the driveway, the bike lane shifts back out into the street, away from where the cars are parked.) You could preserve the parking spaces if you restriped all the lanes to make them straight through the intersection of 2nd and 13th.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Inequality, neighborhood and our common life

Shounak Bagchi, "The Psychology of Poverty," Medium, 28 August 2018

The terrible effects of poverty on individuals are vividly described by Shounak Bagchi in an online essay published last week. Bagchi follows the daily struggles of two women as they juggle low-wage work, bills and children. The stress level is so high that one of his interviewees reports locking herself in a closet and crying at work. The damage wrought by toxic stress is well-documented, but Bagchi's article brings to life the breadth of his subjects' task loads, their power and determination as they plow through it, but also how they are inexorably worn down by it all. Only a monster could fail to feel compassion for their struggle.

Taking a wider view may induce even more despair. The winner-take-all economy that has characterized the last 40-plus years of U.S. history has been documented both statistically (see Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century [Belknap/Harvard, 2014]) and anecdotally. Greater economic inequality and lower mobility means poverty is typically perpetuated across generations. This also perpetuates historic inequities across racial, gender and geographic divisions.

In a white middle-class enclave it is easy to regard the stress-packed lives of the poor in the abstract. Their struggles do not impact our lives unless we choose to engage in acts of charity or advocate for ameliorative public policies. We also have the luxury of choosing, like the priest and the Levite in St. Luke's story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), not to engage.

In an early essay on this blog, I asked about the consequences to the person who defines neighborhood--the obligation to care--too narrowly. I was particularly interested in observable, tangible consequences. "Are there practical consequences," I asked then (emphasis in the original), "for drawing the circle too small? If some part of a city or metropolitan area isn't flourishing, does that materially impact the rest of it? If Detroit is dying does that affect Grosse Pointe? Does it matter to the rest of Cedar Rapids if people in Wellington Heights or the Taylor Area aren't thriving?"

Reflecting on Bagchi's essay, I find it easier to see that the lives of the most vulnerable do affect the rest of us. Because here's the thing about toxic stress: it isn't contained within the suffering individual, consuming them but then dying along with its host. Like a fire, it spreads unless it's put out.

People suffering toxic levels of stress drive cars, hold jobs (remember the woman crying in the work closet), and live near other people. Any of these can occasionally be frustrating, even to the most placid of us. They can buy guns, which will soon outnumber people in this country, if they don't already--and ammunition is easier to buy than cold medicine. As we in the city find ourselves negotiating our way through our days in any number of ways, pre-existing stress is priming some of the people who cross our paths to over-react to the most mundane of routine annoyances. This can have, it should be obvious, tragic outcomes.
Source: US CDC, via Wikipedia

People suffering toxic levels of stress are often raising children. (That's the case with both of Bagchi's case studies.) That stress gets passed on to the next generation, in all manner of unappetizing ways. As Jonathan F.P. Rose discusses in chapter 10 of his brilliant The Well-Tempered City (HarperWave, 2016), adverse childhood experiences (ACE) can be as toxic as environmental toxins like lead. He cites studies connecting children's toxic stress to weaker immune systems, decreased cognitive capacity, and lower social trust. Over time the body's response to stress gets locked "on," altering a person's very genes. The financial costs alone to society are staggering: $124-$585 billion from one year's confirmed cases of abuse, according to a study by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. [NOTE: The link to the study, both in the book and on the CDC web page, is currently broken.] The human costs exceed the purely financial, of course.

The community can mitigate the effects of toxic stress. Rose (2016:332-335) suggests starting with improving access to housing, building walkable cities with good parks so there opportunities for routine exercise, teaching meditation for mindfulness, and--last but not least--building social networks. (How is it that I, a 30-year resident of my town, can walk about a mile to work and know so few of the (few) people I encounter on the way?) These don't come free, but neither does drawing lines and building walls. Expanding drawing the circle of care makes for a stronger, safer, more prosperous community.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Role of Parks: Cedar Rapids

Riverside Park (Google screen capture)
(A faithful reader recently found himself, lunch in hand, in a local park with no place to sit, and practically demanded I channel Jane Jacobs and condemn this omission.)

The success or failure of a city park success has mostly to do with its surroundings, somewhat to do with its features, and nothing to do with someone deciding a park needed to go there. That's the detailed argument of Jane Jacobs, who surveys urban parks in a long chapter--chapter 5, to be precise--of her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961).

Jacobs essays a few generalizations about successful vs. failed parks, though she cautions that "In certain specifics of its behavior, every city park is a case unto itself and defies generalizations" (p. 117), and even individual large parks may be too complex for a single characterization. The most successful parks are those surrounded by a diverse, mixed-use neighborhood that "directly produces for the park a mixture of users who enter and leave the park at different times" (p. 125). A park in Philadelphia, drawing on its diverse rim, sees during the course of an average day a sequence of walkers-for-exercise, commuters out, commuters in, errand-runners, mothers with small children, shoppers, office workers eating lunch, and so on, concluding with people stopping before or after dining out, and couples on dates. Another park, not too far away, is surrounded by office towers; on nice days there will be workers eating lunch, but most of the day its clientele consists of a few ne'er-do-wells.
Redmond Park
Redmond Park in Cedar Rapids draws children from the surrounding neighborhood to its splash pad and playground, and adults from nearby businesses to lunch at its picnic tables. It is also a prime route for foot traffic to the nearby HyVee Food and Drug Store.

Large parks can contribute to their own problems when they feature problematic "border vacuums" between activities and the surrounding street. (See Jacobs, ch. 14.) These can be dangerous or at least uninviting, as opposed to connections between the park and the city, potentially as explicit as "a park skating rink brought immediately up to a park border, and across the street, on the city side, a cafe where the skaters could get refreshments and where watchers could observe the skating across the way from enclosed or open raised terraces (p. 348).

Monroe Park
Most park facilities in Cedar Rapids are readily accessible from the street, though in the more suburban areas Cherry Hill and Noelridge Parks arguably have some border vacuums. The playground at Monroe Park, on the southeast side next to the former Monroe School, is accessible from that building but far from 28th Street.

Secondly, successful parks draw people because they don't "have much competition from other spaces... Greatly loved neighborhood parks benefit from a certain rarity value" (p. 133). The only park in an area is likely to be a neighborhood center, and to draw a variety of users if there's a variety of people around. The Garden City-type plans, which Jacobs regularly beat up on, provided so much green space that none attracted attachment, and moreover served to crowd out people from the district.
Site of the Percy and Lileah Harris Public Health Building, 2016 (Google screen capture)
This block, left vacant after the 2008 flood, proved attractive to residents of the Oakhill Jackson neighborhood even without amenities, because of "rarity value;" that is, there is not much nearby in the way of alternative play areas. Now, it is the construction site of the Linn County Health Building, scheduled to open in fall 2019. The county has promised the neighborhood access to some part of the property for recreational purposes, though how good it will be, and thus how well-used, remains to be seen.

Design elements help to attract the desirable variety of users (pp. 134ff.). Intricacy means there is a variety of places in the park facilitating a variety of uses. Centering means there is one identifiable place in the park that serves as "climax" to which the other parts of the park relate. There should be the right amount of sun, enough to be bright but also shade in summer. Surrounding buildings should provide a sense of enclosure, much as they do on a successful street.

Bever Park
Bever Park (1904), my favorite park in Cedar Rapids, certainly has intricacy, with several through routes, ridiculous topography, and a variety of facilities and settings, ranging from the main playground (pictured above) to woody trails at the north end. It's surrounded by single-family homes, but gets its enclosure from plenteous old trees in and around the park, which also help provide the right balance of sun and shade. But does it have a center? The open space in the picture above was once a wading pool that attracted young children and was ringed by the playground, the swimming pool, and the biggest picnic shelter. Decades ago, there was a concession stand on the spot where I took the picture, which might have been the park's center back then.

Parks that provide "demand goods" (p. 140) are something of an exception to the above rules: a popular swimming pool, ice rink, concert series or outdoor theater can draw people to a park even if it might be abandoned or derelict most of the time. Most of Noelridge Park is rather featureless, but the swimming pool might be the most popular in town, and August jazz concerts are huge draws.

Demand good: Skating area at Riverside Park

Incidentally, Jacobs excoriates two common rationales for parks. The environmental benefits of green space are marginal, and probably counterbalanced by spacing out housing and thus causing people to drive greater distances. Parks do not stabilize communities or enhance property values, unless they're good parks: Walk with a planner through a dispirited neighborhood and though it be almost scabby with deserted parks and tired landscaping festooned with old Kleenex, he will envision a future of More Open Space. More Open Space for what? For muggings? For bleak vacuums between buildings? Or for ordinary people to use and enjoy? But people do not use city open space just because it is there and because city planners or designers wish they would (p. 117).

Which brings us to Riverside Park, which started this line of questioning (along with Bottleworks Park, which is on private land though the public is not prevented from entering). It's bounded by a factory on the north, the river on the east, and the 16th Avenue bridge to the south, so it's not getting much help from its surroundings. Its only real feature is the skate area, which is a big draw among teenagers; beyond that there's a small playground in a rather remote area, and as my friend noted, no place to sit and/or eat. It definitely needs some working on, which it will doubtless get as the riverside greenway is developed over the next several years. Will the lengthy greenway attract enough visitors from near and far to make it successful? They could start with some picnic benches!

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Bypasses and suburban development

(Video: US 30 construction from Cedar Rapids Gazette)

Two substantial highway projects are underway in Linn County: extension of Iowa 100 around the northwestern side of Cedar Rapids, and diversion of U.S. 30 to the south of Mount Vernon and Lisbon. With total federal and state commitment in the mid-nine figures, it’s worth asking what impact these projects will have on our towns? With widening Interstate 380 between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City also still a live option, what does all this rural concrete say about the vision for our future?

These bypasses will have different effects than the bypasses around small towns I surveyed in my last post. Those moved through traffic out of the center of town, but besides that had no immediate effect, either positive or negative, on the towns themselves. In Linn County we’re dealing with one entirely new road, and one replacement for an existing two-lane bypass. Moreover, we’re dealing with them in Iowa’s second-largest county, one that has seen 17 percent population growth since the 2000 census (average for the U.S., but much faster than the whole State of Iowa). The Cedar Rapids metro area presents a more dynamic context than do the towns in the last post; so, given that change is already happening and ongoing, what will the bypasses contribute to it?

Commercial strip on Bus US approaching 151/13 bypass (Google Earth)
Officials in each town anticipate the bypasses will accommodate, indeed will facilitate, future growth. (The population density of the city of Cedar Rapids is a modest 1,189/sqmi, but we do like our personal space.) Cedar Rapids projects a 2035 population of 161,073, assuming 1 percent annual growth, a gain of 29,000 from the current estimate of 132,228 (EnvisionCR 54). Cedar Rapids's future land-use map anticipates the area around the new highway to be a mix of commercial and "urban medium-intensity" characterized by 4-12 units per acre, a "high-connectivity grid pattern" and "transportation, housing and shopping choices in close proximity to each other" (EnvisionCR 69). 
Future land use map including areas to be annexed (Envision CR 67)
Mount Vernon's map shows a mix of "suburban residential," "general commercial," and "business park."
Future land use map including areas to be annexed (
Lisbon is still working on their map, but they too are bullish on the town’s expansion. City Administrator Connie Meier told the Gazette: We’re hoping to grow the community by having developments up to the bypass, hopefully on the east side of town and south of town, and also incorporate some commercial business along the bypass (Payne 2018: 11A).

The most likely outcome of federal-state highway spending and local growth ambitions is suburban sprawl, by which I mean low-density, car-dependent, loosely-controlled expansion into unsettled areas. Here’s why:
((1)) The new and expanded highways will induce demand, but even so the areas available for expansion would accommodate growth beyond the most optimistic projections. Eyeballing, the area around Highway 100 adds about 20 percent to the Cedar Rapids current area; at current density that would add over 26,000 residents. Mt. Vernon expects to spread not only to the new U.S. 30, but southward along S.R. 1, and as new U.S. 30 swings south it provides Lisbon with plenty of room to grow. So I'll say to fill up all three areas even at low suburban densities would take at least 30,000. That's nearly double the three towns' combined growth between 2000 and 2016, and equals the optimistic growth projection for Cedar Rapids alone. Development is going to be low-density here, and unless economic development and demand for labor ramps up in a hurry, the newly-opened areas will add residents by competing for existing residents with other parts of the county. 

((2)) Because development will occur before annexation, the future land use maps are merely suggestive. This limits their influence on the nature of development, for all that Mt. Vernon city administrator Chris Nosbisch tells the Gazette "it's imperative" for the new commercial area by the bypass to fit with what the town already has (Payne 2018: 11A; see also Kalk 2018). Town leaders ravenous for “game-changers” will accept whatever’s done.

Newer suburban development south of U.S. 30, Lisbon (Google Earth)
((3)) Previous bypasses, like Iowa 13 east of Cedar Rapids or U.S. 30 to the south, have produced exactly this kind of development. Exits off U.S. 30 in Cedar Rapids lead to the miles of big-box stores and commercial strips along Edgewood Road, Williams Boulevard and other "stroads" in that area, with characteristic swaths of pavement and low tax yield per acre. Entering Marion off Highways 13/151? Same. Residential developments around these highways are either large-lot subdivisions or mobile-home complexes, and never both. (The latter are, admittedly, dense, but in a way that's more efficient for the owner than walkable for the residents). Public transit out here is scanty where it exists at all. The current two-lane, non-limited access U.S. 30 south of Mount Vernon and Lisbon mostly features a typical highway commercial strip of gas stations, fast food and car dealers.

((4)) While the last decade has shown some impressive appetite for walkable urbanism living, particularly among younger consumers and empty-nesters, gasoline is too cheap, commutes too short, and the environmental consequences too remote for this preference to expand enough to reshape our development pattern.

((5)) It’s what developers want to build anyway (Samuels 2015).

Edgewood Road SW, looking towards U.S. 30
The negative consequences of the suburban development pattern have been thoroughly catalogued (for example, in these older essays, "Urbanism Review" and “The Urbanism CLEF”). Inducing more driving stresses the environment, the school system and the local economy. The arterial stroads typically used to funnel traffic through populated areas to the highways have seen the greatest increase in pedestrian deaths ("On Foot, At Risk" 2018). An increasing pile of studies have shown negative health impacts of sprawl (Jackson and Kochtitzky 2009). Sure, Cedar Rapids, Lisbon and Mt. Vernon can use the property tax revenue, generated by anticipated new development around the highways, to fund existing services and older parts of their towns. However, like the energy from a sugar buzz, this can’t last forever, and in the meantime will largely be spreading out the metro area population. Given the proclivity of all three towns to expand in low-density, auto-centric ways, this is not good news; in the long run suburban development over-extends the cities' financial capacity (Marohn 2011). Annexations rarely pay for themselves after the initial infusion of property tax revenue (Nielsen 2018).

The solution to ongoing suburban development probably needs to be cultural change, and depending on who you read and how alarmed they are, the impetus for that may be closer than we now think. In the meantime, we could use a regional governmental entity for Linn and Johnson Counties that has the resources to do long-term planning, make the public case for policies designed for resilience, manage and possibly even limit urban growth, and which shares revenues among all the local governments so that they don’t feel the need to pursue separate sugar buzzes to the detriment of the whole (see also Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl [Island, 2001]).

A resilient city is prepared when current conditions--cheap gasoline, new infrastructure that can go maintenance-free for a while, ready access to federal money, a booming economy--change. Suburban commuting is the opposite of resilient, draws resources away from the city particularly poorer residents, and draws open land and resources away from the natural environment. Sprawling our way into the future is not the way to go.

Legally parked?

This car is parked in the 1200 block of 2nd Avenue SE, comfortably on the right side of the "no parking here to corner" sig...