A blog about our common life

They shall neither hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain--ISAIAH 11:9a

I am a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Jew.--MOHANDAS K. GANDHI

And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets--ZECHARIAH 8:5

NOTE: The perspectives herein are solely the author's, and not those of Coe College, or any other organization of which he is a member.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Black Friday Parking 2016

Entrance to Westdale off 33rd Avenue...
Decidedly unwalkable
In 2013 the City of Cedar Rapids awarded $11.7 million in economic development tax breaks for the redevelopment of Westdale Mall, a 1970s creation that had fallen on hard times what with the Internet and an even grander mall down the road in Coralville. Two years later, the city provided guarantee for an $11.5 million bank loan. The original plan had a fair amount of greenwashing in it--walking trails, affordable housing for the elderly--that disappeared over time as costs mounted.

This year's Black Friday Parking walk reveals what taxpayers helped buy. While there is still ongoing construction, what remains on the site are stores but without the public features the mall used to offer: a place to walk (albeit one you had to drive to get to), a common area, public restrooms, and a warm place to wait for the bus. When the Super Wal-Mart is kicking your ass on walkability, you've got problems.

What also remains on site is parking. A lot of parking. J.C. Penney's was doing a brisk business Friday afternoon, but even so there was plenty of parking outside.

The parking lots of Westdale were at best 50 percent full. While it's true that the Black Friday phenomenon may be losing its commercial mojo, and that the highly popular University of Iowa Hawkeyes football team was playing archrival Nebraska this afternoon, it's fair to say that the new Westdale has vastly overbuilt parking. I don't know whether it's due to city requirements or the developer's choice, but either way there are civic costs to overloading the town with parking lots. Someone is on the hook for keeping them in repair, plowing them, &c. The adjoining streets are a dreadful mix of car traffic and unattractive shopping plazas full of chain stores and restaurants:
Edgewood Rd looking north from 29th Street

Edgewood Road view of one of the plazas that comprise the new Westdale
Down the street at the big box stores, the Black Friday parking story was much the same, albeit the parking lots were somewhat less frightening to walk across. Wal-Mart's parking lot was about 55 percent full.
Near the store

Farther out
Plenty of parking at the strip mall next door
Target's lot was I'd guess about 40 percent full.

Westdale Mall-That-Was sits on a triangle formed by three stroads that truly are traffic sewers: Edgewood Road, Wiley Boulevard and Williams Boulevard. That's a lot of accumulated bad planning, and a lot of surface parking, but now that's all water under the bridge. Those costs are sunk, that ship has sailed. It can't have been worth $11.7 million to polish it, but I'm pretty sure it's not worth trying to impose urbanism on it either. It should at least serve as an object lesson for future development: Let whatever you do be human-scaled, let it be walkable, and let development decisions rely on market mechanisms like price signals instead of how much pull a given developer has with the city government.
A cold-looking blogger waits for the bus.
To quote our new state motto, "Suck it up, buttercup!"
"Black Friday Parking," Strong Towns, 25 November 2016
Sarah Kobos, "Black Friday Proves We Have Too Damn Much Parking," Modern Cities, 23 November 2016, 
B.A. Morelli, "'Open for Business,'" Cedar Rapids Gazette, 20 November 2016, 1A, 7A

LAST YEAR'S MODEL: "Black Friday Parking," 27 November 2016

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Election and Our Common Life

I am, I’m afraid, not ready to make nice.

Despite calls from such worthies as Barack Obama and ChuckMarohn, and the rather clear results in the Electoral College count, I find myself unreconciled to the results of the 2016 presidential election. President-elect Donald J. Trump ran a campaign that was relentlessly antithetical to the notion of a common life, and his election stands as a repudiation of the core of that concept. This appalling result is the more hard-to-take because it was unexpected, but even a previously-expected Trump victory would have been a calamity.

I began this blog 3 ½ years ago in an effort to corral all the material I was reading about the concept of place. The more I read and wrote, the more I was led to an understanding of place that is centered on people, and so the challenges places face in the 21st century are precisely those faced by people: economic opportunity on a broad scale hasn’t caught up to globalization and automation; environmental challenges (pollution, climate change, &c.) both threaten and are threatened by life as we know it; and governments everywhere are sinking into ever-deeper financial holes. All of this means, at a fundamental level, we must accommodate ourselves to diversity—we simply cannot afford financially or environmentally to live apart from all the people we don’t like—and then to celebrate the wealth of ideas and practices it brings. The better-off might declare themselves exempt from the realities everyone else faces, but sooner or later prosperity in the 21st century comes down to successful, inclusive, sustainable communities.

So for all the issues and scandals and corrosive rhetoric that made the 2016 election the most unpleasant in anyone’s memory, the core issue for me was inclusion. That meant, of course, looking past the very real weaknesses of Hillary Clinton: the scandals, her frequent personal ham-handedness and naked ambition, her lack of vision, and her inability even to resemble a change agent to an electorate screaming for change. Chicago blogger Pete Saunders notes:
Set aside Hillary Clinton's vast political and public policy experience; I agree, there's probably been no one more qualified to step into office and hold the reins from day one.  But that's precisely what the electorate was saying it did not want.  Hillary Clinton is about as establishment as establishment gets -- a political insider with close ties to Wall Street, and a hint of corruption thrown in.  She was never going to be a change agent, and in retrospect she shouldn't have been asked to try to be one.  That led to lower energy among traditional Democratic supporters, who couldn't match the intensity of Trump's followers.
That having been said, Clinton seems to me no more compromised personally or ethically than the average politician, albeit in somewhat different ways. She’s no saint, but neither is Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, Bernie Sanders or anyone else you can name. A lot of her enhanced bad reputation is thanks to WikiLeaks and the relentless efforts of congressional committees to discredit her. Compare the amount of scrutiny she’s received over her political career with Donald Trump, who didn’t even release his tax returns. Thanks to a multi-million dollar out-of-court settlement of fraud cases involving Trump University announced this week, his business dealings will remain mysterious.

I understand conservative policy preferences—I used to be one, and still have some sympathies in that direction. We don’t have to agree with everything they’re selling, but surely limited government, traditional values and a strong military are occasionally nice to have around. I understand people attached to the Republican Party. But I find it difficult to swallow that any of that can take precedence over Trump’s repeated middle finger to America. What needs to be clear to conservatives is that to the extent their ideas are connected with racism and other equally noxious forms of bigotry—and Trump’s campaign prominently featured them all, and his naming Steve Bannon as his chief strategist is far from being a hopeful sign—it discredits the whole set of ideas. It may not be immediately apparent, what with Republicans dominant in all branches of the national government and in most states, but in the longer term it is not a successful strategy, much less a moral one. (Says who? asks Trumpworld, noting that exit polls gave him 34% of the Latino vote and a majority among white educated women.)

Donald Trump on women: video video more videos 

Donald Trump on immigrants: video 

Donald Trump on judge in his fraud case: video   

Donald Trump on Muslims: video video video

Donald Trump on the Khans, gold star parents  video

Donald Trump on John McCain video

Donald Trump's collection of Twitter hates

Donald Trump on climate change

Donald Trump on torture

Add in the name-calling (Lying Ted, Crooked Hillary, Little Marco) and that's a lot to overlook. If only Overlooking were an Olympic event, right?

Trump supporters in St. Clairville, Ohio. Source: sonofsaf.blogspot.com
Some people found Trump’s spewings refreshingly alternative to “political correctness,” whatever the hell that means. Other people don’t approve, but are able to overlook it so they can get tax cuts, or an end to Obamacare, or the right kind of Supreme Court (pun intended). Those seem like issues that can wait, that we can discuss after we’ve first decided to live together in community. If the price of stricter policies on abortion, or tax cuts on upper incomes, is sidling up to Trump and his friends, that may not be worth it. I sure hope it isn’t anyway.

So I can’t agree with Chuck Marohn, in his recent podcast “Elections 2016”, that both Clinton and Trump were “despicable.” Interestingly, Marohn then discusses a moving interview with the church historian Fr. John Dominic Crossan, motivated by Marohn's understanding (which I share) that America is headed for a rough patch, and that only by looking past our differences to higher ideals will we get through it. On that point, surely, Trump and Clinton are not equivalently despicable. It was Trump who repeatedly provoked division among Americans, who legitimized hateful rhetoric, and who used those to promote his own candidacy. It is not enough to say, hey, the election’s over and Trump won, time to move on. No other major party presidential candidate of my lifetime remotely resembles the campaign he just ran for opportunistic nastiness. Because of Trump, the fabric of America has been torn and will be a long time healing.

Kristen Jeffers, "Election Breakdown (and a Call for Self-Care)," Black Urbanist, 15 November 2016 
Leonard Pitts Jr, "Trump Presidency Means Mourning in America," Miami Herald, 11 November 2016
Pete Saunders, "'Whitelash'," The Corner Side Yard, 9 November 2016
Steven Shultis, "This is Also What Democracy Looks Like," Rational Urbanism, 13 November 2016

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A silent but needful protest

At Coe College, where I teach, nearly 100 members of the community responded yesterday to a call by the student organization Multicultural Fusion to stand in silent protest during the noon hour. Late last week, a poster like this one...

...was defaced with swastikas. The group's call was spread by David McInally, President of the college, and Kristin Hutson, college chaplain, and the protesters included faculty and staff as well as students.

I counted about 30 there shortly after I arrived, but then a whole bunch more came so we might have had 100. We stood in a mass in front of the Union; those in front, the first arrivers, held posters of the type that was defaced. We stayed silent, though I smiled at people I knew, and a reporter for the campus newspaper went about interviewing some of us. People on their way to the cafeteria mostly ignored us, but a few smiled. One young (white) man shouted twice with evident irony, "All white people are racist!" Not all seeds bloom at once.

On one level, this response might seem like overkill, an excessive reaction to what surely was a petty act by a maladjusted young person. But I don't think it is overkill. Our common life, in Cedar Rapids, in America, on planet Earth, depends on our ability to live with each other, arguably moreso than ever before. That's what this is all about... not casting individuals or groups as victims, which can only lead to the pointless competition I call the Victim Olympics. Let's not play that.

An act against any part of the community, whether it be the act of a young vandal, or any of the vile and disgusting things Donald Trump has spewed about assorted groups he wants to stigmatize for fun and profit, is an act against the whole community. And so it's right the whole community should rise up and condemn it, because in doing so the community reaffirms its own existence.

MORE ON DIVERSITY: "Strength through Diversity (II)," 9 March 2014, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2014/03/strength-through-diversity-ii.html

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Community Allies: the virtue of locally-owned businesses

Ellen Shepard of Community Allies
As Cedar Rapids prepares to welcome two more strip malls on the edge of town, and one of our malls announces a new franchise tenant, it's instructive and inspiring to hear evidence that the most potent tax-gathering areas in towns of any size are downtowns and Main Streets, and that locally-owned businesses contribute far above their weight when it comes to developing strong communities. Those messages were crisply presented by Ellen Shepard in a talk Friday at Loyola University's Center for Urban Research and Learning. Ms. Shepard is the founder and CEO of Community Allies, which works with communities to develop organizations and leadership, facilitate community engagement, and "to grow stronger from within." Prior to that she headed the chamber of commerce in Andersonville, a neighborhood on the north side of Chicago.

I said in an early piece for this blog that I believed local businesses like Brewed Awakenings Coffeehouse were more valuable to the city than national chains like the Caribou Coffee a block away. But I didn't have the evidence to tell me whether that was intuition or prejudice. Shepard presented a plethora of evidence from recent studies to back up that intuition:
  • A 2005 study in Andersonville by Civic Economics found of every $100 spent at locally-owned businesses, $68 stays in the area, while $32 buys supplies that must be imported from elsewhere. Of every $100 spent at a non-local business, $43 stays, $57 leaves. She used the example of Starbucks, "a pretty good chain" in terms of how they treat their employees, and one that doesn't demand subsidies or infrastructure, but the corporation uses one firm for accounting and one law firm, and one graphic artist, and those are probably not located in the town where you're patronizing Starbucks.
  • A study of businesses in Lane County, Oregon, found the cost to government of a job produced is many times larger for non-local than for local businesses.
  • Old Pasadena, California (local businesses, traditional development pattern) outperforms New Pasadena (national chains, suburban development pattern) 2-1 in sales tax revenues.
  • A relatively high ratio of firms-to-workers in a town correlates with better economic growth (Harvard Business Review, 2010) and per capita income growth (Economic Development Quarterly, 2011).
  • A study by the University of Leeds found increased imports of consumer goods in Britain had created a 38 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions during the period studied.
Shepard spoke on the eve of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but didn't refer to it at all; in fact, she argues, "the solutions to many of our most entrenched problems are likely to come from the bottom up not the top down." She urged people to "go to our communities, to our local elected officials, and to our landlords to champion locally-owned small businesses." In practical terms this means having:
  • access to capital
  • a level playing field i.e. governments should stop favoring big corporations through subsidies, infrastructure and awarding contracts
  • laws against monopolies enforced
  • laws that allow cooperative ownership of real estate and community investments. While somewhat off topic, she also suggested the effects of gentrification also could be mitigated by community land trusts which, if formed early enough, could buy up properties to control the rise in rents
  • easing business licensing, permitting and zoning, which are nearly impossible in Chicago due to the strong effect of political influence
I would add that citizens need to insist on more long-term thinking from their governments and less emphasis on instant results (see Kobos 2016Our craving for “new” tax dollars combined with cheap land has resulted in a misguided 50-year habit of continuous greenfield development), and in their capacity as consumers to consider the destructive impacts on their communities of choices based on price, habit and convenience.

I'm not opposed to national policies like minimum wage laws, and I am not opposed to seeing Donald J. Trump's bilious campaign get decisively defeated, but I think this community-based approach could go much farther to develop strong, inclusive local economies that would in turn help us face other seemingly intractable 21st century issues like climate, energy, diversity and government finance.

The Coffee Shop near Loyola's campus.
Within a block are a Starbucks and two Dunkin Donuts.

BALLE, https://bealocalist.org/
Civic Economics, http://www.civiceconomics.com/
Community Allies, http://www.communityallies.net
Democracy Collaborative, http://www.democracycollaborative.org
Institute for Local Self-Reliance, http://ilsr.org
Strong Towns, "The Wal-Mart Index: Results of Our Big Box Data Collection Are In," Strong Towns, 3 August 2016, http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/8/1/the-walmart-index-results-of-our-big-box-data-collection-are-in

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Snout houses? In Oakhill-Jackson??

Oak Hill Jackson is a historic neighborhood located south of downtown Cedar Rapids. Through most of the 20th century it was home to many of our town's African-American citizens and several thriving congregations. It's in a low-lying area near the river, and suffered considerable damage in the 2008 flood.

Now Oak Hill Jackson stands to benefit from its proximity to the burgeoning New Bohemia commercial and residential district. How the process of gentrification will play out here remains to be seen, but some infill housing construction has begun. I was rather shocked to see two houses going up on 9th Avenue, next to the historic church that now houses New Jerusalem Church of God, with garages in front. This anti-social design has been widely derided. Andres Duany and his co-authors, in Suburban Nation (North Point Press, 2000) say garage-front houses work against traditional neighborhoods in two ways: removing the "eyes on the street" that make streets feel safe to walk, and removing the signs of human presence and activity that make neighborhoods interesting and thus desirable to walk.

So why is this style of house still being built? And why in this historic neighborhood? Could a form-based code prevent this?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

One successful triangle

A recent PBS News Hour story examined the development in three cities--Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco--of triangular spaces created by streets (like Broadway in New York City) angling across the city's grid pattern. These odd little patches have been transformed into pedestrian-friendly plazas including places to sit as well as walk.

The Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II in Washington, D.C., is another creative use of triangular space. Installed in 2000, it is located in a triangle created by New Jersey and Louisiana Avenues and D Street NW.
This 1960s plan located at the National Building Museum
shows the triangle (at left) and its relationship to the U.S. Capitol
Open on two sides, it presents an oasis to passers-by in the form of a water feature with continuous flow, creating visual interest as well as white noise against the din of the surrounding city.

Once within the memorial a person definitely feels enclosed within sacred space, apart from the street just a few feet away.

There is a soft bell to ring, albeit appeared to be tricky to operate.

Those who wish to stay awhile have the option of benches, though on this rainy day no one was using them.

Unfortunately some of the engraving is wearing away, or at least is hard to read.

Despite that unfortunate glitch, this memorial uses the irregular space in the street layout in a way that soothes passersby, offers a place apart, and is a fitting tribute to a resilient and worthy group.

Cedar Rapids, too, has successfully developed some odd patches created by diagonal streets. Anderson Park, in a triangle created by 5th Avenue, 21st Street and Knollwood Drive, was creatively enhanced about 20 years ago with the addition of playground equipment.

Whatever the histories behind streets that slash across urban grids, a number of cities have shown the potential for creative and productive transformations of the odd spaces they create.

WIKIPEDIA ARTICLE ON THE MEMORIAL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_American_Memorial_to_Patriotism_During_World_War_II

"Urban Images in Art: Gustave Caillebotte," 7 October 2015
"In Search of Old 45s" (Adams Morgan), 7 October 2014
"Shutdowns and Sillypants (and the Statler Brothers)," 8 October 2013

Monday, September 26, 2016

Paying attention to the suburban development behind the curtain

Source: Business Insider
As the presidential candidates confront each other in the first so-called debate of 2016, Cedar Rapids and other towns along the Cedar River worry about flooding, and the country ponders gun violence in Houston and Seattle as well as two more police shootings in Charlotte and Tulsa.

My first-year class on The Future of the City is reading Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zybek and Jeff Speck (North Point, 2010). For many of them it's their first exposure to critical appraisals of the suburban model of development. One of my first-year students, Dominic Parker from St. Louis, asked why, if suburban sprawl "is as big of a problem as it seems, then why am I just (now) hearing an uproar about it?" I first said it was partly because people tend to see the suburban model of development as part of the natural order of things, as opposed to (what it is in reality) a created situation.

More importantly, the suburban model of development is an important component, though certainly not the sole cause, of problems on which we do focus. The two worst floods in Cedar Rapids history have been 2008 and 2016; this "new normal" is exacerbated by climate change and loss of open land, to both of which the suburban development pattern is a major contributor. Analysis of police shootings tend to put primary responsibility either on the police (for being racist or overreacting to tense situations) or on the victims (for being disorderly and dangerous punks). Without denying individual responsibility, why are there high crime areas, isolated from economic opportunity, into which police are repeatedly thrust, thereby exacerbating the probability of violent confrontation?

It's jarring to hear the candidates debate at the same time that the river is bearing down on Cedar Rapids. The grass-roots efforts by hundreds of Cedar Rapidians this past weekend to protect their fellow citizens' homes and businesses speak to the best potential of our common life. The candidates just don't. Clinton is no visionary, and has a fondness for national programs that will at best nibble at the edges of problems; though the few moments in the debate where the public had a chance to be illuminated were hers. I wish she had more answers like hers on urban crime and fewer attempts to match Trump as an insult comic. Trump, whose campaign has been a toxic stew of racial innuendo, vacuous comments and personal insults, has nothing to recommend himself to anyone who cares about our common life.

Can any good come out of this dispiriting election campaign? Will it cause Americans at last to take a long look at our ongoing political divisions? And if they do, will the answer be to retreat to a private life? Or will we look around and see the potential for our neighbors--all of them, white and black and Latino, Christian and Jewish and Muslim and nones--to deal with our problems at the local level?

Cindy Hadish, "'In God's Hands:' Czech Village, New Bohemia Prepare for 2016 Flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa," Homegrown Iowan, 25 September 2016, http://homegrowniowan.com/in-gods-hands-czech-village-new-bohemia-prepare-for-2016-flood/
Ben Kaplan, "Photos from New Bohemia Prep,"Corridor Urbanism, 25 September 2016, https://medium.com/corridor-urbanism/photos-from-new-bohemia-flood-prep-3acc4d660d4e?source=latest
Charles Marohn, "It's Time to End the Routine Traffic Stop," Strong Towns, 25 July 2016, http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/7/24/the-routine-traffic-stop
Bruce Nesmith, "Gleanings from the New Urbanism," Holy Mountain, 19 April 2013, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2013/04/gleanings-from-new-urbanism.html