Showing posts from June, 2013

Biking in the 21st century

Chicago begins a bike share program today, another sign that the appeal of bicycling-for-transportation is becoming evermore widespread. As someone who's been biking to work for most of the last 35 years, I can say this is all to the good, but will take some getting used to.

City designer Jeff Speck has "Welcome Bikes" as step 6 in his program to restore the vitality of cities, right after "Protect the Pedestrian." Besides the benefits to the individual--better exercise, considerable cost-savings from driving--there are social benefits as well. Speck argues:
the presence of bicycles makes cars drive more cautiously, improving safety for pedestrians and other cars as well as the bikesbicycles take up less room than cars do, both when parked and in trafficbicycles decrease gasoline consumption and greenhouse gas emissions; anda city that is designed to welcome bikes is also designed to encourage urban life. There are three prongs to making the world safer for bicy…

Jesus wept

When former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee heard this week that the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, he says his first thought was "Jesus wept."
Dear Friends,
My immediate thoughts on the SCOTUS ruling that determined that same sex marriage is okay: "Jesus wept." Five people in robes said they are bigger than the voters of California and Congress combined. And bigger than God. May He forgive us all.
The quotation referred to John 11:35, which happens to be the shortest verse in the Bible. It is the bases for a lovely round by the American composer William Billings (1746-1800) and here performed by the Hastings College Choir:

In the passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus weeps at the death of his close friend Lazarus. Weeping doesn't necessarily make sense, given that Jesus then proceeds to raise Lazarus from the dead, but  we can infer that Jesus was weeping at the human conditio…

Climate change and the dysfunctional Congress

(Obama at Georgetown University, swiped from Will his handkerchief become as iconic as Jimmy Carter's cardigan?)
President Obama spoke Tuesday on the issue of climate change, announcing a number of administration initiatives to combat it. The keystone is a coming executive order regulating carbon dioxide emissions by electric utilities. He also promised more federal support for alternative energies and financial assistance to cities threatened by rising sea levels. And he stated a vague and possibly insuperable standard for approving the Keystone XL Pipeline. More details and commentary is available all over the web, including the Atlantic Cities blog and Andrew Revikin's Dot Earth blog.

Reaction has been varied, depending on one's views of climate change and towards Obama himself. Congressional Republicans, unsurprisingly, have alleged Obama is waging a "war on coal." On the optimistic side, a New York Times op-ed Wednesday praised Obama's mo…

The future is exciting and scary

"I have seen the future, and it's a place about 70 miles east of here, where it's lighter." --LAURIE ANDERSON, "LET X EQUAL X"

McKinsey and Company, the renowned business consultants, have just published a fascinating, comprehensive look at the likely impact of technology on society between now and 2025. Disruptive Technologies: Advances that will Transform Life, Business and the Global Economy is available as a free .pdf, or you can download it for e-reader.

The report's tone is somewhere between positive and giddy, and well it might be. When you think about all the cool stuff that's been brought to our doorsteps in the last, say, 20 years, it's exciting to think about what the next big thing might be. Some of these, like mobile Internet, are already pretty widespread, but will become even moreso; others, like driverless cars, are now largely in the prototype stage. Given the likelihood of interaction effects between the burgeoning technologie…

Pocket parks

Some time ago, when I mentioned proposals for pocket park(s) in the MedQuarter district, a friend pointed me to information about Paley Park in New York City, an early prototype completed in 1967. Having a particular idea of pocket parks in my head, I was surprised at the variety.

According to the article at the University of Washington's encyclopedic "Open Space Seattle 2100" site the definition of pocket park is pretty broad: urban open space at the very small scale... usually only a few house lots in size or smaller. They can be generalist, "scaled-down city parks," but more often specialize in a few functions. Article author Alison Blake lists "small event space, play areas for children, spaces for relaxing or meeting friends, taking lunch breaks, etc." They work best when they're tied into a neighborhood, and when people aren't fighting over which function takes precedence.

Other information on pocket parks:

another article on the subject,…

A pause in sprawl?

I was walking this morning on Pioneer Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids, where I've followed development for a number of years. I was struck this morning that building on this edge of Cedar Rapids seems to have stopped. There are many vacant lots laid out, but no building is in progress on any of them. The finished houses are in clumps located here and there amid the vacant lots.

(two vacant lots, with a very large house in the distance)

In the development pictured above, of the first five lots off 44th St two are vacant and two have finished houses for sale.

I chose to take this as a hopeful sign. It probably doesn't matter, really, if the lots are developed or not: the road's laid out, the sewer and electric lines laid. But maybe it means that the ever-outward push is slowing down, and is a cautionary note to future developers of sprawl that there's an oversupply of great big houses far from town with no places to walk or bike to?

I don't know if this pause, if real, is …

An urbanity playlist

(singer Steve Goodman, swiped from
Steve Goodman came up on my iPod the other day, and inspired me to compile a playlist of songs that celebrate urbanity, or at least put me in an urbanish mood. I tried to stay away from songs that celebrate specific cities, although I was not always successful. I also haven't tried out this playlist from beginning to end, so there may be some unintentional jacks in there. Additional ideas welcome!

1. Men Who Love Women - Steve Goodman
2. Downtown - Petula Clark
3. Club at the End of the Street - Elton John
4. Summer in the City - Lovin' Spoonful
5. Give Me the Night - George Benson
6. Spanish Harlem - Aretha Franklni
7. City of Immigrants - Steve Earle
8. Games People Play - Spinners
9. Five O'Clock World - Vogues
10. Got to Give It Up - Marvin Gaye
11. Sultans of Swing - Dire Straits
12. Night Train - James Brown
13. Beautiful Noise - Neil Diamond
14. Walk Between the Raindrops - Donald Fag…

America's climate century

In November 1989, then Senate Democratic Leader George Mitchell of Maine proposed an amendment to the Clean Air bill then under consideration by the Environment and Public Works Committee. It was, as far as I know, the first significant legislative proposal to address climate change. The measure would have raised the fuel efficiency requirements to 50 miles per gallon by 2003. It was vigorously opposed by the administration of George H.W. Bush, on the grounds that fuel efficiency requirements made American cars less marketable and less safe. The committee agreed to remove the provision, and a floor amendment to the Clean Air bill brought by Senators Richard Bryan of Nevada and Slade Gorton of Washington was blocked by a filibuster in April 1990.

That may have been the right decision for that time. Even without climate change provisions, the Clean Air Act of 1990 was a major piece of legislation. Including the provision over the President's objection may have led to a veto instead …

Public vs. private sector

(Etzioni, from the GWU website)
Amitai Etzioni has a pertinent article in the latest Political Science Quarterly. Etzioni is a professor of international relations at George Washington University, possibly best known for articulating a communitarian political philosophy. In the 1990s he was an editor of the journal The Responsible Community, to which I subscribed for awhile.

In his latest piece, Etzioni takes aim at a tendency prominent in the American political conversation today to state an opposition between the public (government) and private (business) sectors, and to blame one or the other--usually, government--for the woes of America. Etzioni "argues that the frequently employed distinction between the public and the private realms is becoming increasingly obsolete because the two realms are intertwined, move in tandem, and seem to be codetermined [i.e. interaction between them drives both, rather than either driving the other] (p. 39)." The real world looks quite di…

Local businesses

When I'm at Coe, and feel the need to get out of the office for a cup of coffee, the choice is obvious: Brewed Awakenings Coffeehouse is just across 1st Avenue and offers an impressive selection of coffee as well as a nice atmosphere.

Starbucks doesn't tempt me, as the nearest of their stores is nearly four miles away. (The PUB in Coe's Union sells Starbucks Coffee, but that's a quite different type of place.) But what if the situation was reversed? What if Starbucks was right across the street, and the nearest local option was, say, Blue Strawberry downtown, which is over a mile from Coe?

My heart says go with the local business, defining Brewed Awakenings as "local" because its two stores are both in Cedar Rapids, and Starbucks as "national" because it is headquartered in Seattle and has zillions of stores all over the world. But are there some data to support my preference? I know, for example, that the Starbucks Corporation has been using much o…

Am I blue

The City of Cedar Rapids is participating in the Blue Zones Project, a nationwide initiative run out of Tennessee by Healthways Inc., and sponsored in Iowa by Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield (by far the largest health insurance provider in the state). Blue Zones promotes healthy living through exercise, dietary choices and positive attitudes. (The Blue Zones folk tend to longer lists, like the Power 9 list of healthy lifestyle habits, and the 11 Blueprint sections at last night's open house. Anyone who's taken my classes knows that a list of more than five things makes me woozy, so I have condensed it down to three major areas.)

Monday night there was an open house at Coe College. Volunteers from Blue Zones, the city, and maybe other organizations solicited opinions from visitors. Look at all the blue t-shirts!

Blue Zones operates a wide range of initiatives, seemingly on the theory that if they can start people talking about a variety of dimensions of healthy living, and ach…