Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Acting Locally, Living Small: Density, Driving and Drilldown

There is a lot of talk about how people can decrease auto dependency.  Much of what I hear is linked to a visioning of high-density urban dwelling that purports to increase open-space and eliminate the need for driving.

This all sounds like a lovely idea, but there are a few wrinkles that need to be ironed out.

I live on an island in the San Francisco Bay. The town that is now an island was originally part of a the Peralta Land Grant, and a peninsula. At some point, someone had the bright idea to turn the peninsula into an island by blasting through the rock and creating a channel. There are 4 bridges and one underwater tunnel that lead off the island.

This island that I live on is home to a superfund site, a formal Naval Shipyard. Now that the shipyard has been decommissioned, everyone is looking at that land, which takes up roughly under a third of the island, as a potential gold mine. Ka-ching, ka-ching. This has led to some very acrimonious politicking, particularly of late, but for about 15 years.

Various developers have rolled through the island community and tried to soften up the municipal leaders toward buying into their plans. The most recent developer is theoretically in deep financial trouble, but nonetheless has plenty of money tucked away for filing frivolous lawsuits against the local government, which let the clock run out on its ENA (Exclusive Negotiating Agreement).

The plan was to place over 4,000 units of housing on this property, much in the form of high-density dwellings, such as those we see springing up all over in the largest of our California cities. Additionally, the developer wanted to add lots of mixed-use business, a library, a school, parks, playing fields. The biggest carrot dangled was "jobs," although what those might have amounted to are an unknown, and likely mostly comprised of the short-term jobs of the building contractors. The developer also lobbied various local groups and service organizations, such as parents interested in sports for their children, to get them all onboard to support the plan because it included parks and playing fields. At the meetings, there were big artist renderings of the sports fields.

However, if you looked carefully at the more than 300 page plan, reading all the fine print and following the meandering trail of supporting documents, you saw that fields, school, library and parks would only happen after phase three, and the developer could "cause" the city to fund it, if the developer did not have the money to do so.

Green development, it was called. And then a "citizen's initiative" was placed on the local ballot, and we were being asked to mandate this plan, at a time when our civic finances were like everyone else's--that is, kind of shaky.

But what this really meant is that our town would go into more bonded indebtedness, and then not reap any property tax benefits until the bonds are paid off--up to 30 years or more. Who would benefit in the meantime? Well, of course, the developers would, and they would do it by tearing up historical buildings, adding high density high-rise buildings, all of this on landfill that is currently still toxic and would be subject to liquefaction in the event of an earthquake.

There were too many unanswered questions for the public.

Who would pay to staff the library and the school? Well, the muddied answers that came were not assurances. Having said that our civic finances are shaky, you have to know that the first thing that popped into most local citizen's minds was "parcel tax." After supporting the local schools (whose district receives less funding than other similar districts), the local hospital, and the new state-of-the-art library, the local populace feels a bit over-taxed. Add to this all the maintenance that has been deferred for so long that it can't be deferred any longer...

What about traffic mitigation? How can one reconcile that there will be more carbon emissions when there are more people present?  Oh, there will be jobs right there, you won't need a car.  We'll get the buses to run through the development, we'll build a new ferry terminal, increase service throughout the town, build an additional bridge... Hmmm... Sounds lovely, but when you read about the cuts to local transportation and the elimination of routes and ferry service, it also sounds like pie in the sky.

And it is. All part of the latest "product rollout." (You think I am joking. I'm not. A few years back, the "product" that was "rolled out" was historic theater remodels. Remember? People will come to our theater because it is beautiful and new, and we will get more sales tax money! they said. Then we heard that there were similar projects happening in communities all through the state. And we found out that there is no sales tax on movie tickets. And remembered that there is no sales tax on the food dispensed at the theater concessions. We were sold the bill of goods on the "theater rollout," and it was only after the grand opening that we realized or found out that there really was no extra sales tax generated.)

There is money to massage the ideas on the public, more specifically the local municipal government officials, many of whom are members of the California Redevelopment Association. And who knows about officials in other agencies, such as public utilities and transit; perhaps they are massaged also. But the developer, in the case of my island community, has no money to deliver completion at other developments that are supposedly under way in other communities.

The bid to have the public "mandate" this particular plan, on my island, failed at the ballot box in June.

However, it is election time again, folks, and the developer is now spending a lot of money to smear local incumbent candidates who were either "disloyal" or were never on board with the developer's plan. My small island community is being tortured with repeated robocalls, push polls, fake surveys and wads of expensively printed campaign literature against certain candidates, and even more expensive literature for the candidates who are expected to reopen negotiations, if elected. Big bucks, ready to drilldown with borrowed money or federal funds.

If you have not heard the term drilldown, I can tell you that this is a term that has been co-opted from information technology, and is now being used to refer to any plan that helps a municipal government alter its urban landscape in such a way that previously untapped buying power will surface, resulting in economic growth. This is, of course, tied to redevelopment, rezoning and eminent domain, and leads directly to your local "planning department." You have to look around a bit on the internet, but you can find municipal governments that have drilldown plans. Baltimore, MD has one, here is a link to an article about it; you can only read it with a subscription to the Maryland Daily Record, but the title is really all you need to see. And there is a drilldown plan on the table right across the channel from my island community. Not that any current resident of an older house located in one of the drilldown areas knows about it.

Initially, these plans sound really appealing. Who would not want to improve the economic viability of neighborhoods? But, as you look closer, you see that the money is not being invested in lifting up the current residents. As you look closer, you see that the bulldozers clearing the way for this economic growth will be displacing people of certain ethnicities and socio-economic statuses.

This is gentrification. It is all about money, not about improving the quality of life for all people. And money is as "green" as any of this gets.

Sounds cynical, sounds dystopian, sounds unthinkable. But I want you to think on it, as we approach election day.

One wonders where the drilldown displaced will go.

One also wonders when the rich and semi-rich will realize they are being exploited.


If our true intention is to improve the quality of life for all people, housing density can be a crucial part of the puzzle. The problem is that we are being sold a product that is not entirely produced by real urban planning, or an intent driven by anything other than the pursuit of money.

In the absence of real urban planning, what we have is local redevelopment agencies gone wild with greed, ready to pave everything over to build bigger mansions for rich people to live in, massive condo complexes and multi-level garages and more shopping centers for people with SUVs to drive to, so that they can shop and accumulate more stuff for landfills. I call the people who work for these local agencies the Pod People, but they are redevelopment "specialists," masquerading as your city staff. They are hired by a former city manager, now retired, and approved by people who have since termed out of elected positions on city council, and receive hefty salaries, benefit and retirement packages (have you been following the story out of Bell, California?). Sometimes, redevelopment directors and their staff also receive payment from the developers--did you know that? This can amount to an increase of 1/3 of their city salary! In my little town, it has been explained away in this fashion: well, they are doing so much extra work having to do with the planned development... To which I reply, they are doing the job the city pays them a salary to do; the money they receive over their salaries from the developer indicates a clear conflict of interest.

If, as I said above, our true intent is to improve life and save the planet, we must live smaller, not larger.

We need to drive less. People are driving as much as ever they were, and their cars are bigger and take more fuel. Sometimes the emissions are cleaner than in the bad old days before unleaded gasoline, but not always. Hybrids are good, but they still require energy to run, and the emissions are still happening somewhere, even if they are not directly caused by operating the vehicles.

If we are going to become less dependent on oil and driving, the transportation gap must be filled with something. Will that something be more public transportation? Current economic indicators suggest not; by that, I mean that transportation agencies are cutting back. Yes, we hear glowing commentary on how great life will be, once California has high speed rail. But we are back to the pie in the sky again, since there is no money to build it. Or only Federal money to build it. Or, let's be real, our tax dollars. Think back to the the old railroad robber barons, and wonder who the new ones really are...

If we are going to fill the transportation gap, then we need to think about real urban planning: urban micro-villages. What is an urban micro-village? Honestly, I just made that up off the top of my head, but here I am Googling it, and behold! I find a blog article about sustainable urban micro-villages in Western Europe. Someone else has already thought of this, and so there are working models out there. We need to examine these for best practices, and integrate the notion into real urban planning, not just planning departments, where there is no oversight, raking in permit fees and demanding people make picayune changes to what they are doing, things that have nothing to do with codes or public safety. That is not planning. Neither is rezoning entire areas so that they can be built up into giant condo complexes, with no thought to how quadrupling or quintupling the population in the area will impact quality of life.

The above referenced article doesn't say much about what the micro-village consists of, but I can tell you some of what it needs to have to be successfully sustainable.The urban micro-village needs to be centered around business and social services. Current development models create a sometimes gated, generally isolated tract of housing that may have the amenities of a park and/or school, but does not have accessible shopping or services. If you need something, like milk or eggs, you either have to hassle your way via thin public transit, or drive. If you are economically distressed, you have no access to help, unless you can walk there. The way to change that is to conceive of central service orientation at the outset.

The urban micro-village needs to have a centrally located municipal government outpost--this could be connected to a the local library. The local branch library is, of course, part of a network of local branch libraries, and you can obtain media through interlibrary loan via and internet request system.

There need to be jobs in the micro-village, but yes, people will be traveling to jobs outside the micro-village, to hopefully adjacent villages, so you have to have a good transportation network using smart cards. Hopefully, people will settle in micro-villages so that they can conform to the so-called Marchetti Constant, in which people adapt their way of life so that the total travel time from home to work and back does not exceed one and a half hours in the day. Ideally, it is great to live in the town where you work: I have done so, and it makes sense economically, as well as spiritually. This business of hopping into a car and driving for two hours, twice a day, on increasingly crowded freeways that are in a continual state of being widened, is insane; aside from being horrible for the environment, it is not good for one's quality of life.

Social service access offices need to be... well, accessible, which means centrally located. Could this be attached to the branch library, like the municipal government outpost? YES. The systems in place now are horribly outmoded. All these agencies, and few to none of them talk to each other. (Even the IRS does not have a central computer or a completely networked computer system.) Agencies are too frequently located at the outskirts of town. The crazy thing is, we have the technology, but we must find ways to make sense of our service and government infrastructure. There is so much waste and inefficiency because our technology is not tethered properly to serve us; instead, we are always asked to serve our dysfunctionally arranged technology.

All but forgotten are the writings of a brilliant 20th century economist named E. F. Schumacher. He wrote several excellent books. Central to his thought was a principle later called appropriate technology, but the terms he used were intermediate size and intermediate technology. A simple explanation: if we have smaller industry and technology tied to specific development areas, this reduces the need for gigantic factories and huge, cumbersome technology dependent on long-distance transport for delivery. Production would be local, according to need, not merely to stock shelves and hang out in warehouses and float across the oceans in boats. In a way, it is a return to the medieval guild system. Less production requires less energy and uses less materials (one of the keys to sustainability), but it does not mean reduction to a decent standard of living. It means moving more toward production on-demand, in your local shops. It means a return of repair shops, it means training, it means people will know how make things again... (and that is where all the jobs will be...) It also means that, to a certain extent, there will be times when you cannot have it all right now. This means changing patterns of thinking, as well as changes to infrastructure. And maybe, if you are able to travel to a foreign country in this newly revised  and rethought world structure, you will once again be able to purchase a souvenir crafted locally, rather than manufactured in China or Taiwan.

More can be said of all of this. For now, I commend to you Schumacher's writings: Small is Beautiful, A Guide for the Perplexed and Good Work.

And, whoever you are, wherever you live, I hope you will not allow yourselves and your communities to be sold the redevelopment rollouts, the techno-green buzz words, or the drilldown mandates at the ballot box.

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