Monday, December 4, 2017

Re-Zoning Cedar Rapids

Community residents at ReZone Open House,
New Bo City Market, October 2017
Cedar Rapids's adoption of form-based zoning will be targeted in scale and proceed incrementally, according to city planners Seth Gunnerson and Anne Russett. The two spoke last week to the Corridor Urbanism group, following an input-seeking open house in mid-October. (I am a member of the ReZone Steering Committee, which has met occasionally since March 2016 to discuss formulation with planners and the consultants from SAFEbuilt Studio.)

ReZone Cedar Rapids grew out of the city's comprehensive plan adopted in 2015. Form-based zoning is being applied first in the downtown area, as well as four nearby areas that had previously been designated as zoning overlay districts allowing for relaxation of existing zoning rules: Czech Village/New Bohemia, Ellis Boulevard on the Northwest Side, MedQuarter and Kingston Village. The intent is to follow through where there has been ongoing focused planning efforts; these areas can then serve as models for other areas where occupants may seek focused planning in the future (such as the College District).
Citizen suggestions at the open house for future form-based zones included
Mound View/College District (center right cluster)
and along the Highway 100 extension (far left)
The area created by the extension of Highway 100 is currently a blank slate, and currently under the jurisdiction of Linn County, but is likely to be annexed by the City of Cedar Rapids before development, so form-based zoning and even walkable urbanism are open possibilities there. This poster...
...presented by H.R. Green Engineering at a city open house in March 2014 suggested walkable urbanism was at least being considered for future development along Highway 100, albeit there were two other posters there too.

Gunnerson and Russett explained that form-based zoning centers on the form and size of buildings rather than separating uses (residential, commercial and industrial being the three main traditional categories). The code also describes street networks and multiple access, neighborhood character and the relationship of buildings to streets.
Dot stickers indicated citizen support
Typically form-based regulations have buildings fronting the streets rather than existing behind parking areas...

...or green space, and describe pedestrian scale infrastructure like lighting...

and signs...

...although any form including large-lot suburban subdivisions can be part of the code.

The reasons to change the zoning code, besides encouraging more traditional walkable development, is to allow more options for neighborhoods beyond single use, update zoning that is often decades old and not descriptive of certain areas, and simplifying the process of approving or disapproving developments.

The first draft of the code is due this winter; the revised draft following public feedback will be presented to the City Council in summer 2018. The new codes may take effect immediately or be phased in over a number of months.

My guess is the average Cedar Rapids citizen will not notice much impact from this zoning change. In the targeted districts certain types of building will be restricted, but other types can be expedited. Over the long term we can hope for better economic development in those economically-important districts, and aroused public interest in attempting form-based zoning in other parts of the city. I'm more hopeful about the first than about the second.

CORRECTION: The discussion of property along the Highway 100 extension has been amended to clarify the probable sequence of annexation and development i.e. previous false information has been replaced by true information.


City's promotional "trailer":
The city's Rezone website contains display boards as well as results of public input.

"What is a 'Form-Based Code' and Other Mysteries of Zoning," 7 March 2016
"Envision CR Open House," 26 March 2014

Friday, November 24, 2017

Black Friday parking 2017: After the ball is over

This year's observance of the Black Friday Parking tradition took me down 16th Avenue SW, a five-lane stroad that runs west from New Bohemia past the former Lincoln School and eventually connects to old U.S. Highway 30. It's not a shopping hotspot on Black Friday or any day; as an example of first wave sprawl, it mainly features empty buildings, used car lots, and the occasional surviving restaurant. There's activity nearby--Jefferson High School, the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena, and two stadiums that between them in use most of the year--but it produces no spillover effects for 16th's economy. The average daily traffic count of 11500-13700 is mostly on their way somewhere else.

Going out of business

Gone out of business

Gone out of business

This used to be a K-Mart...

...and could be yours for the right price

Strip mall, parking lot about 40 percent full

Theisen's, parking lot close to full

Strip mall, lot about 50 percent full

Sidewalks have been added along parts of 16th Avenue;
I would not support more

Walgreen's parking lot about 50 percent full;
ditto the CVS across the street
Next year I promise to visit somewhere more hopping. In the meantime we should not invest a lot in trying to rescue 16th Avenue... just recognize that shopping areas with giant parking lots end up like this--unless, like Cedar Rapids's former Westdale Mall, the city pumps $10+ million into resuscitation--and maybe we should stop building them.

PREVIOUS VENTURES: 2016 (Edgewood Road & Westdale), 2015 (Blairs Ferry Rd)

Cedar Rapids parking ordinance:

On Twitter, check #blackfridayparking

James Brasuell, "Better Land Use Planning: One of the Best Ways to Improve Transportation," Planetizen, 19 November 2017
Rachel Quednau, "This Week, Join in Our Annual Black Friday Parking Event," Strong Towns, 20 November 2017

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Cedar Rapids City Council runoff 2017

This month's elections for Cedar Rapids City Council featured races for five of the nine seats resulting in two new members (Marty Hoeger in District 1 and Tyler Olson at large), one member returning after a 16 year hiatus (Dale Todd in District 3), and two races that will require a runoff on Tuesday, December 5. It is to those races that we now turn.

Brad Hart and Monica Vernon are the survivors of an eight-person mayors' race. Vernon led the first round, with 30.3 percent of the vote to Hart's 20.4 percent out of  17,642 votes cast (Morelli). In our city's council-manager system, the part-time mayor is technically just one at-large vote on the City Council, but the visibility of the position allows considerable leadership potential, as outgoing mayor Ron Corbett demonstrated in his two terms. Both are running on their biographies, which are impressive. Both have been public, if not (in the case of Hart) political presences in the city for a number of years. Both surely exceed the threshold of strategic competence, articulated by my former writing colleague Paul J. Quirk as a generalist's ability to recognize the signs of responsible argument on a broad array of issues. As a manager of problems with high levels of personal activity and familiarity with the city, either would be fine.

Both have fairly elaborate websites (cited below) with separate issue pages. There's a lot of commonality between them. Vernon covers more issues, 12 to 8, while Hart's statements are longer. Both indicate recognition of city needs like jobs, financing and inclusion, but beyond being in support of all three there's not a lot of policy substance.

Employment, for example, is surely one of the core challenges America faces in the 21st century in the face of automation, outsourcing and persistent poverty. Here's Hart:
Brad Hart, AttorneyStrong businesses + workforce = healthy community. People will come to live and work in a community that is welcoming and has a great quality of life to offer--schools, housing, entertainment, recreation, safety. People stay when they become connected to the community and its people. We can all help in that effort by being more friendly, more welcoming, by random acts of kindness. Volunteering will play an important role here, too.

And Vernon:
Opportunity waits for no one. Economic development must be serious business for Cedar Rapids and the Mayor of Cedar Rapids must be a self-starter who will lead the charge with passion. Building and developing and re-developing this city must be done with a "pedal to the metal" mentality. Using common sense and an approach of equal opportunity, we must continue to push forward for progress.

I'm seeing good intentions here in both cases, but nothing one could call a plan, or even a suspicion of a strategy.

The Gazette profiles of Hart and Vernon shook loose some more specific positions. Vernon's more detailed answers include reasonable defenses of city investments in Greene Square and the New Bo City Market. She and Hart agree on the importance of recruiting and retaining major employers, accommodating all means of transportation ("we must also have drivability," says Vernon), getting state/federal support for flood protection, and judicious use of tax increment financing (TIFs), all of which involve a great deal of negotiating with and listening to businesses, state and federal officials, and city residents.

A rare criticism of past policy, besides their agreement that the incremental conversion of one-way streets to two-way has been "confusing," is Vernon arguing that the closing of the 1000 block of 2nd Avenue SE to accommodate Physicians Clinic of Iowa should have included funding for the immediate conversion of the entirety of 3rd Avenue. Funding from... the city (from what pile of cash)? Or from PCI, in which case how does that square with her stated willingness to "fight to keep" major employers, whether the issue is "housing, workforce development, land or infrastructure?"

Hart mentioned as part of an answer on city finances that "We also need to review the street construction requirements for new streets developed by others so when those streets become the responsibility of the city they last for the 40-50 years expected." That's a rare example of the mayor articulating a specific expectation, and it's spot on, although from what I know 40-50 years is optimistic for streets with a modicum of traffic.

District 5

In District 5, Vanorny outpolled three-term incumbent Shields by 60 votes out of 2128 cast, 43.2% to 40.4% (Ramm). District 5 runs along the southern edge of the city, with one northward spur west of 6th Avenue SW that just intersects the Taylor Area neighborhood. (See this map on the county website.) It appears to be the least dense of the five districts, and includes the swath of strip malls on the southwest side.

Councilman Justin Shields
Justin Shields, from
So it is not surprising that one of two issues discussed among Shields's recent Facebook posts, besides his leadership in flood recovery, is the multi-million dollar renovation of the former Westdale Mall. This was an enormous outflow of city money into development that is neither walkable nor sustainable. It is difficult to search for issues on a Facebook page, but there is little evidence that we are going to have to anything differently than we've done in 75 years of the suburban development pattern.

Ashley Vanorny, from her website
Ashley Vanorny is a 32-year-old IT analyst for University of Iowa Hospital. Her website discusses her calling to public service--a courageous statement in these cynical times--and her work with foster children at Four Oaks. Promoting community spirit is an essential quality of a city leader, but while she is critical of past Council actions on "issues regarding panhandling and affordable housing," but that as policy-specific as her content gets.

America, which includes Cedar Rapids, faces some profound challenges. How do we enable a satisfactory quality of life and economic opportunity for our citizens in the face of economic, environmental, racial and financial challenges? Cedar Rapids faces specific issues of a major physical remake of our school system; an overhaul of the zoning code; continued implementation of complete streets policies, particularly funding for sidewalks; development in the MedQuarter, core neighborhoods and new areas created by the Highway 100 extension; and the future of our bus system as well as potential inter-city public transportation. We've managed to have a school board election and two rounds of a city council election this fall without serious debate over any of these. It's no wonder so few people vote.

"Cedar Rapids Mayoral Forum Nov. 13, 2017" (video), KCRG-TV9, 14 November 2017
B.A. Morelli, "Hart and Vernon to Face Off for Cedar Rapids Mayor in Runoff," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 7 November 2017
Michaela Ramm, "Cedar Rapids District 5 City Council Race Headed for Dec. 5 Runoff," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 7 November 2017
Steve Shriver, interviews with Brad Hart and Monica Vernon, 3 October 2017
"Brad Hart for Mayor: Home,"
"Justin Shields for Cedar Rapids" Facebook page,
"Ashley Vanorny--A Voice for Cedar Rapids,"
"Home--Monica Vernon Cedar Rapids Mayor Candidate,"
"Cedar Rapids City Council Runoff," Holy Mountain, 23 November 2013

Monday, November 13, 2017

CRCSD plan

Public input forum at Washington High School, 11/9/2017
The Cedar Rapids Community School District is floating a bold plan to remake our city's elementary schools by 2034. Nearly all (18 of 21) existing schools would be closed under the plan, which is to be officially presented to the school board in December and voted on in January. New, larger schools would be built on ten existing school sites, the three remaining schools (Grant, Hiawatha and Viola Gibson) would be renovated, and the other eight schools would be closed and re-purposed, sold, or something.

The district's rationale mixes necessity and pragmatism. They cite the need for a total of $241 million dollars of building updates in our current elementaries, while the new schools could be built for pretty much the same amount ($260 million) and could save money on staffing and operating costs. The Physical Plant and Equipment Levy Fund (PPEL) is inadequate to fund needed repairs, and by 2024 the cumulative efforts to patch aging facilities will have exhausted the fund's reserves. Because SAVE money will be available from the State of Iowa beginning in 2020 to supplement the PPEL funds, the district can execute this plan without either a tax increase or a bond issue. Given the district's previous experience closing Polk School, there's also probably something to be said for getting all the pain out of the way at once.
District chart showing PPEL fund's inability to keep up with maintenance needs
I confessing to difficulty analyzing the plan, the audacity of which is breathtaking. It is immediately redolent of the "orderly but dumb" top-down comprehensive planning that Strong Towns is always criticizing. In part we are responding to a situation that is created by decades of suburban development with a comprehensive reaction that will probably reinforce that pattern. Five years ago, there were five elementary schools located in the city's core neighborhoods (two in Mound View); after this process is through there will remain two (none in Mound View).

But react we must, probably. I'm going with the district's numbers on this, because I don't have my own. From 35 years in colleges and universities, I can tell you it's impossible to win an argument with an administration who says financial necessity requires us to do something unpleasant. Where opposing perspectives and alternative plans would emerge is during election campaigns, but remarkably, we've just this fall had elections for the school board and city council in which this city-altering proposal was not discussed.

So we're left trusting (or not) that school officials are acting in good faith and with good judgment. Long-term planning is inevitably risky, because they're based on forecasts that by definition amount to guesswork with varying degrees of certainty. Among the arguable assumptions of the plan or its advocates:
  • Building new facilities (the "learning environment") is the most effective use of available money to improve student learning.
  • The improved facilities and professional staffing (like full-time librarians) that come with newer schools cannot be achieved in any other way.
  • Maintenance needs of schools at the back end of the plan (due for reconstruction or destruction in 2030-2034) will not in the meantime affect the overall cost calculus
  • State funding will not appreciably increase anytime soon--OK, that's not really arguable--but we can rely on them maintaining current programs and funding levels.
  • The population of Cedar Rapids will continue to sprawl. While young professionals or empty-nesters might be attracted to residences in the city center, we won't see similar shifts among school-age children.
  • The assessment of infrastructure needs is accurate, and represents needs that must be immediately addressed. These figures are in no way inflated a la the American Society of Civil Engineers' annual report that the U.S. must spend trillions of dollars to bring its roads and bridges into shape (see Marohn 2011).
  • Construction of the new facilities will be of high quality that will last... like some of our oldest schools that have lasted more than 100 years, and not like some of the shoddier stuff that was thrown up in the 1950s and 60s.
  • Transportation costs to the district under the plan can be managed, because not many more students will require busing--many parents are already driving their children to school--and energy costs will remain relatively low.
  • Less than 25 percent of students currently walk to school, so the impact of larger attendance areas will be small. There is no hope of increasing the percentage of students walking anyway.
  • Of the 1200+ students currently choosing to home school or attend out of district, many will be lured back by new facilities with up-to-date features. "People have said to me they chose not to move to Cedar Rapids because they drove up and looked at our schools," Superintendent Brad Buck told the Gazette (Duffy, cited below). [By way of contrast, today's Gazette includes a quote from Coolidge School parent Janelle Lund who argues parents aren't fleeing bad schools, they're fleeing bad test scores: It has nothing to do with how (the schools ) look bad on the outside. It's because the proficiency levels are too low. Of course, test scores are driven not by the quality of the instruction or the building, they're driven by the socio-economic status of the student body. So basically they're fleeing poor people, and they're not the first to do that.]
  • Impacts on neighborhood property values are unavoidable if not negligible. Overall impact on assessed value in the city will be negligible.
  • Something positive will occur on the sites of the closed schools. Certainly, said one person Thursday night, "we don't want [the properties] to become derelict." We should be encouraged that previously-closed Monroe School, on a block with a large number of cheap apartments in poor condition far from existing schools or employment opportunities, is going to become even more affordable housing.
The Facilities Master Plan may need to be comprehensive, but implementation should be considered incremental. In other words, as we learn more about how these closings and consolidations are affecting students as well as the city at large, we should modify or scrap the remaining part. We can only hope that neither the contracts nor the officials themselves are so rigid as to stick to the script when adverse consequences emerge.

A word to the wise: The district's information circulated at the public input discussions noted that future investments in middle and high schools will require going to the voters (p. 27). How the matter of the elementary schools is handled will have a significant impact on the public's receptivity to the future middle-high referendum.

Molly Duffy, "C.R. Makes Bold Pitch for Schools to Parents," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 13 November 2017, 17A, 20A
"Public Deserves More Time to Weigh C.R. Schools' Facilities Plan," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 5 November 2013
"Starting a Conversation about Education," Holy Mountain, 16 August 2015

Monday, October 30, 2017

What future for Cedar Rapids

Downtown Cedar Rapids, spring 2017
As Cedar Rapids prepares to elect a new mayor next month we should be encouraged by the optimism of Aaron Horn, the new chief operating officer of the startup cooperative NewBoCo:
There's this high-level desire to see [startup growth] happen here, and if you don't have people trying to make that happen here, it just won't.... I just had this idea that why would I run off to Chicago or Silicon Valley to be part of startup activity when people were trying to do that here (Patane 2017).
Cedar Rapids seems to be out-performing its peer cities in the 2010s. We're three weeks away from a city council election, including eight candidates vying for an open mayoral slot. It's been a rather bloodless campaign so far, with no burning issue or group conflict to polarize the electorate. There's been a lot of talk about fixing streets and filling potholes, which speaks to a certain confidence in our future. Or maybe it's a lack of concern? We are so sure we're not Steubenville, Ohio, and are never going to be, that our concerns can be potholes vs. bike lanes or which neighborhoods are getting shorted on city spending.

Do we know why we're in the position we're in? To be sure, we were early on the tech train (Rockwell Collins, McLeod USA) at least for this part of the country, our economy has diversified from the agricultural days, and we're reasonably close to the University of Iowa--though that's in Iowa City, a separate metro with a remarkably similar income pattern. We've been blessed with some visionary leaders--a group Horn seems fixing to join--and a moderate, tolerant political culture. We're doing a lot of the right things: re-examining our zoning code, re-developing downtown, flood protection, building sidewalks and trails, re-converting our one-way streets. It would be interesting to re-run the last decade without the flood, and see whether we'd be better or worse off today, but alas, this is not experimental science we're doing.

Nationally, it is widely known that generally favorable economic data since 2010 mask a wide variety of experiences. In an early crack at the data, I showed in June 2016 just with population data that the back-to-the-city movement affected the central cities in the largest metropolitan areas differently, from dramatic growth (Charlotte, Austin, Raleigh) to steep declines (Cleveland, Detroit, New Orleans).

More studies have dug deeper into the data. A Brookings Institution study, based on analysis of Census Bureau data, analyzes changes in inflation-adjusted median household incomes in 300 metropolitan areas (Berube 2017). They divide the metros into five groups:
  1. booming (25), including large tech hubs and small cities around oil and gas finds;
  2. stabilized (37), tech and other large cities that have been able to sustain gains through tough times;
  3. recovering (73) i.e. from de-industrialization or the housing crash;
  4. struggling (86), mostly middle-sized cities which had relied on manufacturing;
  5. hardest-hit (76), mostly older manufacturing cities.
Spread out that way, the urban renaissance appears so far to be concentrated in relatively few places, with more trying to keep up and still more genuinely floundering. (That's sort of my impression of today's economy at the individual level as well.)

A New York Times business column (Porter 2017) highlights a study by Mark Muro, also of the Brookings Institution, noting that cities the size of Cedar Rapids are on the whole doing less well than large cities. The key graphic from the article:

Where Disruption Has Hit U.S. Workers Hardest

Automation and foreign trade have buffeted the nation’s labor force, especially across the Midwest and Southeast. But big metropolitan areas have been more successful than smaller places at recovering from economic shocks.

Rates of recovery from recession
in the 10 states of greatest disruption
How states rank in being disrupted
by foreign trade and automation*
2009 TO 2015, BY
Top 10
Compound annual
growth rate
Compound annual
growth rate
"Small metro areas" are here defined as those with populations between 80,000 and 250,000. Analysts suggest these areas lacked the critical mass to respond nimbly to changes in the economy. The Times writer quotes Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti:
The thickness of a labor market is crucial in the innovation industries that are the drivers of economic success today. This applies to the biotech engineer but not to the welder, who has more replaceable skills.
According to one estimate, 80 percent of new jobs in 2016 were created in metropolitan areas of 1,000,000 or more. Counties with populations below 250,000 actually had a net loss of jobs (Bishop 2017). Small metro residents are feeling it, too: Voters in small metros showed their frustrations by favoring Donald J. Trump in the 2016 presidential election by nearly 20 percentage points, almost the same as rural voters (Florida 2017). Struggling World is close by, too. A New York Times magazine story out of Clinton, 90 miles to our northeast, argues that the sharp statewide swing towards the Republican Party in the 2010s has its roots in the loss of college-educated young people (Tackett). In Iowa, Wisconsin and elsewhere, the educated young move elsewhere to get work, while the economically-insecure folk who remain take out their anxieties at the polls, leading to policy outcomes with mostly symbolic payoffs that if anything just create frustrations for the cities that are the engines of the states' economies.

There aren't enough data in the study from Cedar Rapids, but what there are would put us in the "stabilized" group: 2016 median family income ($63385) is up 6.4 percent since 2009. That makes sense when you consider that our catastrophic flood occurred in 2008, and much federal aid and private investment has followed. Compared to 1999, though, we're down 2.7 percent.

If we don't know how we got stabilized--or worse, are naive about how we got here--how do we avoid regressing to the mean? Does Cedar Rapids, despite its being a small city, have a thick enough labor market to retain college-educated young people through lean times as well as fat? (The current national bull market, seven years on, won't last forever.) One way to enlarge the labor market could be to enlarge the scope of the city by strengthening connections with Iowa City, including better intracity transportation by which I do not mean adding another lane to I-380. Further strengthen those connections with a regional revenue-sharing agreement with a non-compete provision so area municipalities work together to make an appealing, resilient region.

More questions: can we do better at retaining young, educated people, while building an economy (and a community) that includes everyone? Is the city's financial conditions strong enough to sustain us through whatever history and the economy bring next?

Aaron Horn
Aaron Horn, from his Twitter page
Aaron Horn clearly thinks Cedar Rapids has the potential to remain strong, so we'll give him the last word.
I think we [in the State of Iowa] have a lot of work to do. Generally, especially here at NewBoCo, we just feel like it's not enough. We feel like we're doing a lot here at NewBoCo and it's not enough.... We just take that on personally as we're not just going to sit around and say, "The State of Iowa is not doing enough." We're just going to dig in our heels and say, "Where are the gaps, and what do we need to do to fill that?"
Justin Golbabai, "What Happens if the Delivery Trucks Don't Come," Strong Towns, 18 October 2017
"The Right Way to Help Declining Places," Economist, 21 October 2017
Ellen Shepard, "Chicagoans Had Better Take a Hard and Wary Look at Any Deal to Woo Amazon," Chicago Sun-Times, 28 September 2017

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Seattle public library

Seattle Central Library (Source: Wikipedia)
The Seattle Public Library, built about 10 years ago and designed by starchitect Rem Koolhaas, is a wonderful space notwithstanding its bizarre shape. I was very curious to see the building, which is located on a city block defined by 4th and 5th Avenues, and Spring and Madison Streets, having heard both strongly negative and positive comments over the years. Count me among the positive.

I will grant that, seen from above, it looks silly, and that they probably paid way too much for the design. At street level, it's a different story. It plays well with the street. The sidewalk on 4th Avenue goes by the glass front and an inviting doorway.

4th Avenue entrance
I'm less taken with the ground floor, which has a sterile, industrial-basement feel.

The children's room, to the left, is warmer, but with what I take to be a sad sign of these times.

The rest of the library is a mix of warm and whimsical, but very functional. There are elevators for direct travel, escalators for scenic travel, and steps for strenuous travel.

The non-fiction books, on floors 7-9, are arranged in a spiral. Fans of the Dewey Decimal System will recognize this as the art section.

The upper floors provide comfortable and quiet reading areas... well as views of the city--here, the federal appeals courthouse...

...and here, downtown looking towards Elliott Bay.

I come from a small city, where our very excellent library fits on just two floors, so I don't know how I would feel about scooting up to the 9th floor to retrieve history and biography books, but this is a big library in a big city and I think I'd get used to it.

James Howard Kunstler is a severe critic of the library, and of starchitects in general. His problem is less with the outside appearance than with the disorienting nature of the interior, which he says is contrary to the function of the public building i.e. to help ground people and help them make sense of the noisy world around them. I don't know what if any alterations the library has made in the 9 1/2 years since Kunstler's commentary (cited below), but I found it quite the contrary. The lower floors were well-used, but--like Yosemite National Park--the farther we got from the entrance the less crowded and more quiet it became, and the upper floors definitely were the sort of oases urban life requires. Wayfinding was rather easy.
I liked being in every part of the library, and I think if anything I'm unusually sensitive to noise and disorientation--maybe especially so the day I visited, because that day had started at 5:42 a.m. with some guy outside my window yelling about the Book of Revelation. If I lived in Seattle, I'd be here a lot.

The 1906 version looks grander and less absurd, but does it play as well with the street? 

SOURCE: James Howard Kunstler, "The Seattle Public Library and Other Award-Winning Disastrous Architecture," Kunstler Cast #05, 13 March 2008


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The scary side of urbanism

Harvey Weinstein (Source:
Film mogul Harvey Weinstein's resignation-in-disgrace has unleashed a social media campaign, MeToo, in which women have reported experiences of sexual harassment or worse. The basic version says:
Me too.
If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote "Me too" as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.
Please copy/paste.
Several posters, with commendable courage, added personal stories. The clear impression is that verbal or physical harassment is widespread, and affects a huge swath of American women. (Several posters included a rhetorical question asking if any women were exempt.)

Sexual harassment is of particular interest to urbanists in part because it violates the spirit of community. Recall the words of Isaiah that inspired the name of this virtual space: "They shall neither hurt nor destroy on all my holy mountain." One person hurt is one too many, but it's clear that so many incidents occur and so regularly that it represents an epidemic. This must not go on.

Another pressing concern is that, while sexual harassment can occur anywhere, many women's stories show that urban living can increase the danger. Urbanists commend density and street life because they are more economically and financially sustainable, better for business, more intellectually stimulating and more fun. But the more unplanned encounters occur on urban streets, without something changing rather drastically for the better, the more incidents of harassment will occur. And public transportation! It's an essential element of a successful urban place, but I've read any number of accounts of groping on buses and trains (not including the train scene in an episode of the Netflix series Master of None). I'm all in on urbanism, but it's no good if it makes women less safe. (See below for other potential costs to some people of even the good aspects of urbanism.)

Clearly we need to strengthen the norm against sexual harassment. But, for goodness' sake, how is it not already strong? I realize gender roles have changed, but that was mostly in the 1960s and 1970s. People like me, in my sixth decade of life, have never known an America where women were not publicly equal to men. Is the problem isolated individuals-with-problems? Subcultures where the value of women's equality has not taken hold? A general fear/respect/awe of financial power that is stronger than our sense of what is right? Low expectations/standards for male behavior?

This problem is clearly widespread, and attention must be paid, for the sake of women everywhere, and for the sake of the community we must be building.

"Peace and Quiet," Holy Mountain, 22 July 2013
Charles Marohn, "Autism, PTSD and the City," Strong Towns, 28 August 2017
Tamara Coffman Wittes, "#I Will? What I Learned From My Week As An Online Activist," Brookings, 19 October 2017

Monday, October 9, 2017

The struggle for justice

View of the exhibition
Source: Smithsonian website
When Jane and I were in Washington last weekend we visited the National Portrait Gallery on the mall. Among their permanent and traveling exhibitions I was particularly moved by "The Struggle for Justice," an ongoing exhibition that 
...showcases the determined men and women--from key nineteenth-century historical figures to contemporary leaders--who struggled to achieve civil rights for disadvantaged or marginalized groups. (from the webpage).
The presentation implies, with some justification, that America's perennial effort to live up to its own ideals has been largely focused on inclusion of excluded groups of people. The premise is that the Framers of our Constitution got a lot right when they designed a political system "of the people, by the people, for the people" (quoting the Gettysburg Address). Injustice happened because they, and many Americans over the years, have had a crabbed understanding of who counts as people.

The stories of abolition, black civil rights and women's rights have been often told, and justly so. What is so moving is to see representatives of each movement here. mixed in with advocates for gays, the mentally handicapped, farm labor and Native Americans. It's quite a gathering--check the slide show on the museum's web page and imagine the whole bunch at the same bar--and to these could be added advocates for prisoners, survivors of violent crime, Catholics, religious minorities, transgendered, the physically handicapped and the mentally ill. Each of them stood up at one time or another to shout "We count, too!" They are truly American heroes. The tragedy is that the shouts needed to be made at all, not to mention how long it took for them to be heard over the steady drone of ignorance and prejudice.

"By Parties Unknown" by Hale Woodruff (1900-1980), at the Phillips Gallery in Washington DC
Inclusion isn't the promised land where all our social problems are solved. Inclusion is the baseline for national conversations over how our society will manage its common life. Without everyone having the opportunity to participate in that conversation, we create issues of legitimacy as well as effectiveness. Furthermore, I believe we are at a time in history where we don't have the option of living in separate spheres. The economy, the budget and the environment are forcing us together, whether we like it or not. We need to get used to that idea, and when we do, we'll find it is good for our souls, too.

Although the principle of inclusion is straightforward, it doesn't always provide clear decision rules on, for example, what to do about the class of immigrants known as the Dreamers. Moreover, it can be complicated or co-opted in practice. The week I saw the exhibit, the Trump administration issued a rule change allowing businesses not to provide female birth control coverage in employer-provided health insurance. Vice President Pence walked out of an NFL game in a surely-orchestrated protest against protesting players. In both cases, the officials sought to avoid the issue of inclusion either by claiming greater victimhood (do employers have a right-to-decide employees' health coverage that the government is violating?) or by simply changing the subject (respect the flag!). Meanwhile, a Seattle coffee house owner evicted some customers because prior to coming there they had been distributing anti-abortion pamphlets (Bollinger 2017). Not everyone is covered by the provisions of the Civil Rights Act, but the same principle of inclusion means we can have deeply-held disagreements without being enemies. According to the article, which is written from the hard-to-swallow perspective that the eviction was justified, the coffee house owner is gay, and surely has known exclusion I never have experienced. Still, we all have to live together. All of us.

The Smithsonian exhibit is optimistic, depicting an America living ever truer to its ideals--"striving upward towards perfection," to take one of my favorite John Wesley quotations somewhat out of context. May it be so.

SEE ALSO: "Strength Through Diversity," 1 March 2014

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Book review: "The Well-Tempered City"

I grew up in the suburbs, but I was drawn to nearby New York City because it was gritty and alive with what the architect Robert Venturi called "complexity and contradiction... messy vitality," throbbing with street life and jazz, blues, and rock and roll.--Rose (2016), p. x

Planner Jonathan F.P. Rose has produced a prodigious book detailing the interwoven nature of the many facets of cities. The inspiration and model is Johann Sebastian Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722, 1742), described as both a musical composition and a work of persuasive rhetoric. Bach was promoting a new system of tuning notes that--unlike that which had been in place for 2000 years--enabled harmonization across keys. In the work "Bach moves through all twenty-four major and minor keys in a series of preludes and fugues, weaving them together into a sublime ecology of sound" (p. xi). Just as a masterful composition like The Well-Tempered Clavier requires harmonization of notes and themes, individuals "over the long run will benefit more by contributing to the success of the larger system" than by pursuing narrow self-interest (p. 11).

Cities, like composers, can either blend the many dimensions of human well-being or (as in the Pythagorean system of tuning) set them against each other. Rose argues in his first chapter--a conviction familiar to any reader of Holy Mountain--that global megatrends like globalization, connectivity, terrorism and migration have made harmony urgently important. Probably it always has been, but in the period of economic growth following World War II, it was easy to ignore. Now things have gone VUCA, an American military acronym standing for "volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity" (pp. 14-15).

Most of the book builds a model of a well-tempered city describing five qualities that, taken together, should see us through whatever lies ahead:
  1. coherence, "integrating systems" (p. 66) that connect humans with each other, with nature and with ultimate reality into a coherent whole. American zoning and sprawl produce the opposite of this
  2. circularity, thinking in terms of regeneration instead of linearly, particularly when it comes to consumption of scarce resources like food, water and oil
  3. resilience, ability to respond to stress and volatility by changing to a more adaptive mode
  4. community, "a deeply interconnected metabolic web of families, communities and cognition" (p. 277), including adequate housing and economic opportunity. He cites Putnam's ideas of bonding capital and bridging capital as well as Woolcock's addition of linking capital that connects people across different social classes
  5. compassion, a "desire to relieve the suffering of all beings" through which we find an overarching purpose such as improving the lives of children or the health of nature
Rose's book is replete with historical examples and draws on a wide range of knowledge to show that, in a VUCA world, cities need to be ready for anything, which means recognizing how things are connected before it's too late.
  • Chapter 1: New Delhi suffered a massive power outage in 2012 because climate change has led to hotter summers and less rainfall, so less water is available to produce food and hydro-electric power just as a larger and more well off population is demanding more of it, requiring more coal-fired power which exacerbates climate change not to mention air pollution. Add in poor infrastructure and an inefficient government and you have a recipe for disaster, which in fact is what occurred.
  • Chapter 10: Freddie Gray grew up poor in housing whose historically rigid segregation was actually named "the Baltimore idea" after his native city. Even as racism became less overt, the barriers to opportunity it had created replicated themselves as substandard conditions and interracial suspicion. Young Freddie's exposure to lead paint left him contributed to developmental disabilities and behavioral problems that led to his tragic encounter with the police.
The book covers enough topics that it could serve as an introduction to urbanism, but the associations and connections make it rewardingly provocative for the seasoned urbanist as well. For example, in Cedar Rapids our school district is facing a financial imbalance substantial enough that it is considering closing up to a third of our elementary schools. There are arguments for this strategy, such as cost savings can refit the other schools or even build new ones as was recently done in Kansas City. But reading Rose makes me immediately skeptical of such a siloed approach. How will this affect housing patterns (will anticipating sprawl reinforce it?) and the most vulnerable children? How much will transportation to the new schools cancel the cost savings from closing the old ones? How resilient will these decisions prove 20 or 40 years into a VUCA future? Are there better ways for our community to promote the well-being of all children? Can the city and the school district find ways to cooperate to achieve resilience in the face of unreliable state funding? Note that none of this is possible without the connectedness and compassion he commends, without which we're merely scrambling for short-term advantage.

The Well-Tempered City" blog:

Re-Zoning Cedar Rapids

Community residents at ReZone Open House, New Bo City Market, October 2017 Cedar Rapids's adoption of form-based zoning will be tar...