Ephemeral great good places

Recently read Ray Oldenburg’s “Celebrating the Third Place“, a book of case studies intending to provide instances of the type of “Great Good Place” that he praised in the 1990s classic about “third places” between home and work.   I’d never read the original, and found that it was unavailable for an impulse read on kindle or a nearby library, but the sequel was on Kindle.

“Third places” in Oldenburg’s “Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day” are personally comforting and valuable for social and civic life, according to Oldenburg’s argument as reflected in the sequel.   They provide places for people to socialize outside of racial and class hierarchies.   But they were in deep decline, in an era of suburbanization, with chain stores focused on customer turnover, public spaces minimized and privatized, and people preferring to stay at home with television and videogames, before the internet provided even more attractions to screens indoors.

Great Good Place

The case studies in “Celebrating” include a garden supply store, a couple of bookstores, a record store, several coffee shops and restaurants, a couple of bars, a passport photo shop with a homegrown book club, an open air market. Plus, an essay arguing that prison served as a third place for the author and his fellow inmates.   The chapters are contributed by people involved in the places, describing the atmosphere, staff, customers and community, origins, triumphs and challenges.  And stories about how the connections made at these places enriched participants’ lives.

Out of the places in the book, only a few are still in business after twenty years.  A declining mall in the Seattle area that was rehabbed around surprising concepts of common space, performance art, ethnic communities and branch offices of public services.   A bookstore in a resort community.   A fish taco local chain under new management.

Some of the businesses are in sectors – books, music – that were hit hard by digitization (after all, I got the book on Kindle, and there are no longer local bookstores that would have this sort of older classic in stock).   Most were small businesses depending on the founders; they closed because of hard times, or the founders moved on.   The repurposed mall is still in business; the founder’s kids are apparently taking over the business and adding housing to the mix of uses, which is a good sign of increasing durability?

What does it mean, that this type of place deemed essential for social and civic life is so ephemeral?   The profiled places are mostly independent food service businesses, which are notoriously risky and short-lived.   Chains from the era of the original “Third Place” book – Starbuck’s, Applebees – are still going strong, with institutional management and funding.   Upon reflection, two independent “community institution” cafes near where I live – Borrone in Menlo Park and Coupa in Palo Alto, are established family businesses with multiple family members, and have been going strong since the days of Oldenburg’s books, although I don’t think they would meet the criterion of a third place where people meet folk they don’t already know and build ties.    It’s possible that the book had a selection bias in favor of less stable businesses.   The chapters were provided by voluntary contributions; and perhaps chapters were contributed by proprietors who were seeking marketing help by being included in the book?

Our society and economy provides more solid support for corporate chains than indies; corporations do a somewhat better job of transmitting organizational life past the tenure of founders; multi-generational family businesses are more rare. This has benefits in addition to drawbacks; blood ties aren’t the only ways to get business stability, and children can pursue their own interests rather than being stuck in the family trade.

Perhaps there is a flaw in the romantic concept of an independent business, which has difficulty building stability?  Perhaps there is unappreciated strength in the old-fashioned forms of civic institutions – the Elks and Lions and so on – and the churches and synagogues that provide community spaces across decades and past the tenure of individual leaders.

There are continual cultural ebbs and flows across history; escalated by capitalism but endemic in the evolution of cultures.  Food drink, and types of restaurants; games and other types of  secular socializing all change over time and their places and organizations change. That was one of the fallacies of Robert Putnam’s 1995 essay “Bowling Alone“, which in the same time frame as Oldenburg lamented the loss of civic and social institutions in a suburban and privatized world, but also fallaciously equated the decline of old-fangled associations like bowling leagues and Elks Clubs with an absolute decline of social association.

This is not even to start to engage the questions about the relative benefits and drawbacks of online social networks and their relationships to social capital.

Another question about the ephemeral nature of the “third places” profiled by Oldenburg. Do actual public spaces do a better job of supporting social connections over time than these small and fragile private spaces.   Suburbanization separated people physically, replaced public squares and markets with tightly controlled private malls, and minimized the role of streets in fostering social activities.

Scholars and intellectuals starting with William Whyte and Jane Jacobs, and practitioners including Jan Gehl and the team at Project for Public Spaces created a discipline to study and recreate public spaces that people enjoy and use.  The Open Streets movement started with Ciclovia in the 1970s in Columbia to recapture streets for people.   Places revived by Jan Gehl and his team have been thriving for decades.   The plazas, avenues, and waterfront promenades reinvigorated by these placemaking activities don’t depend on any single business – they benefit from rules that foster (and don’t prohibit) multiple sociable activities in proximity – food carts and trucks, performing artists,  outdoor games.  As public spaces, they foster activities that don’t require money to participate, and don’t have a rigorous turnover requirement to make a profit (although gathering many people together in shifting assortments provides an economic boost).

On reflection good number of the shuttered businesses were physically isolated, in keeping with the suburban and exurban norm. The garden store in Western Mass sat alone on a highway exit; the gym in Atlanta requires people to drive to a place to get exercise; one of the cafes/performance spaces was in a repurposed church in a changing neighborhood (also raising questions about whose sets of social institutions Oldenburg was primed to see).

The “third place” that seemed to be the most well established after 15 years was the semi-public space in the revived Seattle area mall, which has had a changing assortment of businesses over the years, plus common space supporting music, performing arts, outdoor chess, and just hanging out.

So maybe the stability of “third places” depends in no small part on the existence of actual public space, and the flow of a critical mass of people in the transect between public space and highly social private third space?

All of these are questions.  Some of you reading may have more knowledge and more insights, or more questions. Comments are welcome.

For peterme who wants to know whether I recommend the book.  The book itself isn’t great, but raises a lot of interesting questions.  At some point I’ll go read the Oldenburg original.

 

The New Nature of Maps

By the time I got to read the New Nature of Maps, a book of essays on social theory of cartography written before the author’s death in 1991, any shock value it might have had was long gone, but the book  asks some questions that are still relevant for the understanding of maps.   The decades since the essays were written have brought substantial change  in the nature of maps, and some of the author’s speculations have proven prophetic.

Apparently in the 1980s when cartographic scholar JB Harley was writing the essays in the book, it was the norm among academic students of maps to consider the materials that they studies to be objective scientific documents; or if they fell short of that standard, to be evidence of the incomplete development of scientific methods of mapping, or evidence of the distortion, misuse, or mere incompetent assembly of map-like information by propagandists or poorly educated non-professionals.

In a series of essays, Harley applies ideas from postmodern theory – Foucault, Derrida, and other thinkers – to show how maps can be considered historical texts that encode the power relations of the society in which they were produced.

The essays examine the images, forms and margins of maps to reveal these power relations.  The centrality of Jerusalem and the Holy Land in Judeochristian premodern maps; the prominence of the seats of dukes and princes, bishops, archbishops, and abbots in maps of reformation England, with special symbols for the increments of clerical and aristocratic hierarchies, depictions of the growing colonial empires of Europe, with blank spaces for areas uncontrolled by Europeans or censored for purposes of commercial monopoly; and side illustrations demonstrating the inferiority and subjection of local populations; all of these these structures and forms encode the power structures of the societies, they do not merely depict objective facts about the land and seascapes.

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A chilling chapter on maps of Colonial New England shows how in earlier maps, Native American places and place names were portrayed; as colonial conquest continues, the native places and names gradually disappear.   In other Colonial maps, Harley pays close attention to the “cartouche” symbols that communicate the  sponsors and the values behind the maps, and observes that that the principal English encounter with slaves was in the West Indies. (If encounter is a sufficient euphemism for mass murder).

In an introduction that praises and critiques Harley’s work, the editor of the book of essays points out that maps have also played roles in helping the powerless, in addition to documenting and promoting military and socio-economic power.   Just a few examples from recent reading: maps have also been used since the 19th century by public health professionals and social reformers to reveal information and promote policies intended to help the sick and unfortunate. Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map, published in 2007, tells the story of a pioneering doctor’s use of a map to pinpoint the source of a cholera epidemic;  Susan Schulten’s Mapping the Nation, published in 2012, describes the growing use of maps in 19th Century America to visualize patterns of data about subjects including agriculture, race and slavery, poverty, epidemic disease.

Schulten shows how abolitionists used maps of slave populations to evangelize opposition to slavery – the opposite of Harley’s hypothesis.  Schulten tells the story of a famous map, created by the United States Coast Survey that used data from the 1860 Census that revealed the geographic distribution of the population of enslaved people in the South, providing insight into the the political dynamics of secession, as well as the sheer scope of slavery. Lincoln contemplated the map often during the Civil War, and the map appears in the famous painting by Francis Carpenter depicting the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Map showing distribution of enslaved population

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The relationship between maps and power includes another dimension that Foucault might, but Harley and even editor Andrews don’t consider.  The social science applications of maps, nominally intended to help the poor, the unfortunate, and the sick, can also be used as instruments of increasing bureaucratic control, creating new forms of institutional and psychological oppression that complement or supplant mere physical oppression in industrial society.

In considering maps as a tool for the powerful to represent the dominance of the powerless, Harley doesn’t consider examples of maps created by the power structure but used for subversive purposes to fight power.  A map created in the 1960s as part of a regional planning process predicted the seemingly inevitable filling in of San Francisco Bay, with areas all around the bay targeted for new development and road-building.  This map seems to bolster Harley’s thesis. Created by professionals who presumably saw themselves as objectively representing current and future disposition of land, the map represented a power grab in which real estate developers displaced much of the wetland habitat that remained. But the map was discovered and perceived with dismay by environmentalists. The visual became the centerpiece of a massive and eventually successful organizing campaign to save the bay from landfill and development.

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In considering maps as instruments of political power, Harley underplays the role of maps as instruments of commercial power.  The essay on “Silences and Secrecy: The Hidden Agenda of Cartography in Early Modern Europe” tells the stories about policies censoring map data about economically valuable secrets – the Straits of Magellan, African watersheds, and the entire emerging global marine maps of the empires of Spain and Portugal.  These secrets were simultaneously commercial and military, so they bolster Harley’s hypothesis of maps as enforcing political power.

The chapter on “Deconstructing the Map” cites a scholarly essay on the Official State Highway Map of North Carolina for 1978, that reports on the images used on the reverse of the map next to the index; a Cherokee woman making jewelry, a zoo animal extinct in the wild, the state bird (cardinal) and state insect (honey bee), ferry schedule, a ski lift, a sand dune (but no cities). [Harley doesn’t, but might have interpreted the image of the native woman as the latest in the colonialist series; she is not a representative of a group of people, but a species that may or may not be extinct].  The highways are visually dominant, the towns are graphically subordinate.  Harley interprets these symbols as creating a mythic geography for North Carolina, insisting that “the roads really are what North Carolina is about” and “idolizing our love affair with the automobile.”  The tactic of seeing and foregrounding the marginal images and using them to reveal meanings that the creators may or may not have consciously intended is a classic technique of postmodern literary analysis.

North Carolina Points of Interest

Harley does not go far enough at revealing the role of maps in creating the romance and dependence on the automobile as a commercial product and the center of a ubiquitous system of consumption.  The American Automobile Association was created in order to market new uses for the automobile, and to foster businesses serving people traveling by automobile.  AAA maps did not just document but helped create the commodification of the countryside; the spread of spectacle-filled tourist attractions along highways like a linear series of PT Barnum exhibits; the emergence of fast food restaurants to standardize and over-write local food traditions; and the growth of highway intersections as hubs of commerce, replacing pedestrian main streets, and making it nearly impossible to engage in commercial or social activities without a car.

“The New Nature of Maps” quite reasonably incorporates maps within the realm of social history, and imports techniques used to study other sorts of texts and artifacts-as-texts.  If Harley’s observations seemed shocking at the time to the community of professional cartographers who saw themselves as purveyors of objective truth about the spatial world, it does not seem shocking today to anyone with basic literacy in social science and intellectual history.

While the Harley does utilize the techniques of paying attention to margins and metaphors, he does not travel very far down the path of Derridean deconstruction in which any supposed meaning of an artifact unravels under questioning about the nominal intent and integrity of the authors.  Before Harley, Jose Luis Borges had already portrayed those anti-representational forms, where space and time are self-referential, paradoxical, and perpetually deceptive, in his classic short fictions. This may be just as well, since once the joke is told one knows the punchline.

The essays in the book were written in what turned out to be the waning days of paper maps whose creation was dominated by professional mapmakers.  In a chapter on the ethics of cartography, Harley writes that “the social history of maps – unlike that of literature, art or music – appears to have few genuinely popular, alternative or subversive modes of expression. Maps are preeminently a language of power, not of protest.”  Scholars of labor, civil rights, environmental and other movements may know of more examples of the use of maps for liberation and subversion that Harley also missed, in addition to the ones I was able to come up with off the top of my head.

Since 1991, when the field of geographical information systems was in its infancy, the ubiquitous digitization of maps has created much broader opportunities for citizen-created maps and for political organizing using mapped data, with user-created layers using commercial platforms (Google Maps), and open platforms where even the base data is contributed by civilians (OpenStreetMap).

The democratization of map skills has make the artifice of map creation more transparent.    Twenty years ago it took some effort and insight to decipher the icons used in printed maps, such the ecclesiastical miters and croziers that were used to represent seats of church power in Reformation England; to decode the system so as not to take the symbol set for granted.  Today, when you upload a spreadsheet of data points to populate a Google Map, the tool asks you to pick as set of icons to represent the values, or add your own icon set.  The selection of layers to display on a map can be controlled by the user, so it is more clear that layers reflect communication choices. Many more people are being trained on the rhetoric required for map creation.

Harley wrote “cartography is too important to be left only to cartographers (p. 203); the words have proven to be prophetic.   People are creating maps for popular culture (e.g. bike party rides)

Bike Party Route

and for political resistance (see this project documenting Ellis Act Evictions in San Francisco).

Ellis Act Evictions

 

Harley’s observation about copyright is particularly prescient in the age of digital maps.  The chapter on the Ethics of Cartography starts with a bit of doggerel about the enclosure of the British commons – “The law locks up both man and woman/Who steals thegoose from off the common/But lets the greater felon loose/Who steals the common from the goose.”   Anticipating the arguments of Lessig and others, Harley opposes the  assumption that maintaining proprietary map data should be considered an ethical responsibility of mapmakers, and contends instead that data about the physical world should be considered part of the intellectual “commons.”

The rise of digital geospatial applications creates new opportunities for popular creativity and protest, even as it creating new opportunities for commercialization and surveillance.   In the chapter on ethics, Harley writes, with some exaggeration that “cartographers create a spatial panopticon.”  Today, San Jose City Council Member and Mayoral Candidate Sam Liccardo’s proposal for the City to have access to private surveillance cameras for law enforcement purposes.  That’s not even counting the use of mobile phone data for ubiquitous surveillance by the NSA and others. The panopticon is already here.

Google Maps, Yelp, and other commercially-sponsored geospatial apps brings advertising into every decision about and experience of navigating the world; and Google Glass offers to bring commercial information within one’s field of perception.  In “The New Nature of Maps”, JB Harley was able to utilize the techniques of social theory to decipher ways in which “the map is not the territory.”  When geospatial information appears as an overlay in one’s field of vision, it will become more difficult to critique.

For @peterme, I enjoyed the book in large part because of the many examples decoding maps across European and American history, and also because of the opportunity the book presents to reflect on changes in mapping since the book was written.   I read the segments on theory fairly lightly with the background knowledge that this was an argument that had since been won; readers who are more interested in the nuances of philosophy may get something different out of the book.   Recommended for people interested in the subject matter.

 

 

 

Rambunctious Garden

The “natural” meandering shape of a stream? Not so much. Researchers in Pennsylvania, the Pacific Northwest, and Europe found that the banked meandering shape we take for granted as the “natural” form of a wild creek is actually a secondary form that appears after a mill dam has been breached.    Before tens of thousands of dams were built for water power in the 1700s, the streams flowed in multiple channels and pools, creating muddy riparian wetlands.   When steam power made the mill dams obsolete, the dams were breached, creating the familiar meandering streams. So, when conservationists seek to daylight and restore a creek to its natural pattern, the meandering form is actually not the “original.”

In Wild Ones, Jon Mooallem is rather angst-ridden about the ambiguities and paradoxes of restoring wild nature.  In Rambunctious Garden, Emma Marris, writer for Nature, celebrates the paradoxes.   The story of the search for the original creek form is one of numerous examples debunking the ideal of a single “baseline” ecosystem that can be restored.  In Hawa’ii, should the baseline be  set before Europeans arrive? Before Polynesians arrive?   In North and South America, Marris cites evidence that native populations had surpassed a hundred million, but the vast majority died of European diseases in the first century after first contact.   Landscapes that Europeans interpreted as empty and wild had actually been full of people and shaped by human activity.   With climate change, the familiar baselines are changing; species’ preferred temperature range is moving north and/or uphill.

After demolishing the ideal of a “baseline” state of nature, Marris reports on science calling into question the importance of the integrity of the “native” ecosystem.  Conventional thinking holds that an ecosystem attacked by invasive species will be less varied and less healthy than a system which maintains all of its original components.  But evidence shows that in many cases newcomers can fit right in, helpfully occupying a niche that has for some reason been left vacant, or complementing the existing ecosystem without displacement.   Even where introduced species are initially destructive, the virulence sometimes decreases, as predators, defenses and infections adapt to the newcomer.

If there is no clear original “state of nature” to restore, and additional species often fit in and don’t cause harm, this opens the door to many more flexible choices of how to protect and enhance the environment.  To cope with climate change, why not help plants and animals migrate? (this was the topic that has Mooallem and the polar bear protectors tied into knots; Marris’ perspective would say move the animals).   To restore a  wetland,  rather than trying to repopulate the original set of species and physical forms, one would identify the functions to be served – cleaning water, blunting floods, hosting fish and birds – and make choices to achieve the goals.

Another area for flexibility is in the landscapes to be considered “natural.” Marris recounts how Americans invented of the ideal of wilderness, citing Nash and Cronon analyzing Thoreau, Emerson, Muir (she outs the Walden Pond refuge as suburban, but omits the snarky detail that Thoreau’s mom came over regularly to do his laundry).  She contrasts the canonical form of Yellowstone and Yosemite, which are intended to preserve pristine wilderness, with park conservation traditions in Europe. An ancient Polish forest has plenty of acknowledged management; there is a long British tradition of protecting wild species in agricultural landscapes.  The book cites a long and ugly history of exiling human inhabitants to create “wilderness” , from John Muir’s exiling Miwok natives from Yosemite, to the removal of native peoples to create wildlife refuges in Africa and South America.

Without a bright line between “natural” human-free landscapes and “artificial” human-cultivated ones, it is easier to see opportunities to improve natural habitat and ecosystem functioning in urban, agricultural, and industrial landscapes, not only in places that are set aside to be free of people.  And hopefully it is easier to take responsibility for the environmental health of populated places, rather than ducking the responsibility because “nature” is being taken care of somewhere else.

If you are “deep green” – if the ideal of untouched wilderness is core to your sense of spirituality and self – and you support environmental organizations so they can protect nature far from cities and suburbs – you will probably not like this book.   If you are interested in the changing science of “restoration ecology” and what it may mean for coping with climate change and protecting biodiversity, you will find this book informative and thought-provoking.

Wild Ones: endangered species and gardening wilderness

The ubiquitous teddy bear has its origins in an politically framed anecdote about Teddy Roosevelt, and a broad shift in American attitudes toward wildlife.  As predators headed toward extinction and the country urbanized, bears shifted from malevolent opponents to cuddly plush toys.

Teddy Bear

John Mooalem started wondering why his baby daughter’s clothes and things had so many cute animal images.   The question led the journalist to investigate efforts to protect three endangered species from extinction, and to unearth the history, evolution, and unsettled present of wildlife protection.  The teddy bear story, and many other strange and revealing tales are recounted in Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.

Mooallem’s discoveries raise serious doubts for the prospect that conservation can restore wild nature.   At Churchill, Manitoba, the ecotourist destination hosting the much-photographed colony of polar bears that are the poster creatures of climate change, the warming climate will soon make the place uninhabitable for the bears.  Human stewards will need to decide whether to leave the creatures wild and watch them die, or rescue the animals at the cost of the reputation of untouched wildness.

In Antioch, California, scientists and volunteers make heroic efforts to keep an endangered butterfly species alive, in a landscape almost completely denuded of the sand dune habitat that hosted the butterflies and other rare species.  It turns out, though, that genetically nearly indistinguishable insects are relatively plentiful, and can be bred to generate the endangered subspecies distinctive visual appearance.

Lange’s Metalmark Butterfly

From Wisconson to Florida, a quarrelsome but persistent bunch of ultralight hobby aircraft pilots train tiny colonies of whooping cranes to migrate along new routes. The birds are learning to migrate on their own, although they have not yet successfully established new breeding populations.

Ultralight aircraft leads migrating cranes

In his research, Mooallem finds multiple elders in several generations of various conservation movements who started as young idealists and have at some point given up the fight, only to be replaced by youthful crusaders who start with a lower baseline expectation of habitat and population.

Following the paths where his research leads him, Moallem runs into contested and unresolved philosophical and scientific disputes about how to perceive, and how to deal with environmental degradation.  But he doesn’t ask the questions in a straight-up way, and doesn’t follow some of the questions as far as they lead.

Is the Endangered Species Act an ultimately doomed effort to maintain animals in perpetuity on costly life support, while half of known species slide rapidly toward extinction?  Or is it a dramatically successful program in which 90 percent of listed species are recovering on schedule?   What conclusion should be drawn from a research finding that 80 percent of species on the endangered list are “conservation reliant”, in need of some sort of persistent intervention, such as control of predators or prevention of human disturbance.

In the chapter on polar bears, Mooallem is skeptical of the sentimental pleas to American consumers to sympathize with the imperiled polar bears, even as they keep driving SUVs.  He observes the irony that wild animals became cute and cuddly objects for children after they ceased being day to day threats for urban neighborhoods far from the nearest predators.  But he doesn’t go very far in questioning the perspective foundational to the modern environmental movement that the natural world is and ought to be pristine and free of human intervention.

This is the case, even though Mooallem recounts a story in the Antioch chapter about efforts to preserve an old-growth oak and hickory forest in New Jersey, which ran into challenges fighting  invasive maple trees. Scientists analyzed the growth rings of ancient trees and discovered that the traditional oak and hickory landscape was actually fostered by Native Americans who regularly burned the underbrush.  Mooallem cites the New Jersey history via legal scholar Holly Doremus, who critiques the idea that “what nature needs most is for people to leave it alone”.. that a landscape will “automatically produce the preferred human outcome, a perfect Garden of Eden, if it is simply walled off from human influence.”

The lesson Mooallem draws is that nature’s responses to human choices are unpredictable, and may not have the desired results.   “Nature perpetually absorbs what we do or don’t do it it, and disinterestedly spits out the effect of these causes. Nature is not a photograph that will always look good if we keep our fingerprints off it. It’s a calculator, adding up numbers we don’t always realize we’re pressing and confronting us with the sum. But Mooallem’s pessimistic conclusion may not be what Doremus meant ( her Berkeley intro course on Environmental Law is online and she blogs so this is fairly easily answerable).

Native American practices of “gardening” the seemingly pristine New England wilderness were researched and documented by scholar William Cronon in a landmark book of environmental history, “Changes in the Land,” first published in 1983.   Cronon’s conclusion, and a theme of his work, is that the ideal of “nature” as separate from humans is a modern and invented concept.  Other works of environmental history, including these books on wetland restoration, document more Native American traditions of modifying landscapes that appeared “untouched by human hands” to European newcomers.

In recent years, the Nature Conservancy and other environmental NGOs have shifted away from a vision of restoring nature to a pristine, pre-human state, toward a vision of protecting nature in a way that is sustainable for animals, plants and people.  Following this philosophy, ongoing investments to maintain species aren’t necessarily cause for angst, chagrin, and assessment of failure.  The question becomes what investments to make, what investments to prioritize, and why?

This is now the subject of scientific debate. Should the justification for conservation be biodiversity, preserving the greatest genetic richness? Should the justification be providing ecosystem services, such as cleaning water and reducing the impact of floods.  Should the justification be protecting the ecosystem, and identifying the key species, and the geographic parameters, that will help maintain the ecosystem?

The chapter on the Antioch metalmark butterfly depicts the futility of the attempt to maintain the endangered butterfly and its host buckwheat plant. Now that the sand dunes that fostered the ecosystem are all gone, the new landscape favors a wholly different constellation of plants and animals. Removing migrant species that are better adapted to the new landscape is an unending, sysiphean battle. The chapter also reports evidence that there are other metalmark butterflies that are nearly genetically identical, though they have different wing coloring and patterns. The author finds the shifting definitions of species vertigo-inducing, and simultaneously admires and doubts the value of quixotic efforts to preserve nature in Antioch’s grim-looking industrial landscape.

One could look at the same evidence in the chapter and reach very different conclusions.  Seeking to protect the butterfly species after the habitat is gone beyond repair or restoration is not worth it. But efforts to protect species by restoring viable habitat – as in this project led by Liam O’Brien, one of the the author’s sources and heroes in the same chapter – are promising investments.  Diagnosing species by surface appearance without genetic evidence is scientifically obsolete.  And it would probably be better to focus on protecting the nearby viable habitat for the butterfly populations that are nearly genetically identical.

Mooallem has an existential crises when he learns that even the apparently untouched North American wilderness encountered by Europeans once had huge land animals – giant mammoths, camels, sloths and others – which may have been wiped out by early human hunters.   He doesn’t trace the environmental history further back through waves of population and extinction over millions of years.   On the one hand the deep history isn’t comforting for the human species.  We could become casualties of the current extinction wave. Current civilizations could go under.  On the other hand, deep history shows that there is not and has never been a pristine historical baseline.

The responsibility to monitor, restore, and help maintain the earth’s habitats is extremely daunting – humanity may not succeed at it. But we have already demonstrated the ability to destroy at a huge scale.  We may not have a choice. Global warming and ocean acidification may be nature’s way of telling humanity, you break it, you bought it.

The framing of environmental protection as gardening is often used as a pretext for clear-cutting, bottom trawling, and other practices that over-aggressively harvest resources with the excuse that humans will benefit and the environment will recover.  The stewardship metaphor can easily be used to imply an unwarranted overconfidence that humans are destined to master the rest of the earth’s species, and the belief that a supernatural being has assured humanity that our rule is just and beneficent (just ask the buffalo and the passenger pigeons).  But the romantic idea of pristine nature is a different myth that is getting in the way of making needed choices.

I first came across the Teddy Bear story in an episode of the 99% Invisible podcast, which tells fascinating stories of the hidden and quirky origins of artifacts of modern life, such as revolving doors and the color of currency.  The teddy bear story from Wild Ones uncharacteristically deals with the natural world; otherwise the ironic, geeky, bemused yet sincere attitude fits right in.  This chronically ironic perspective, along with the journalistic method of attempting to weave a larger story from the threads of many anecdotes on a theme, together prevents the book from thoroughly grappling with the scientific and philosophical issues it raises.

But it tells fascinating and compelling stories, raises important issues, and provides more than enough references for readers to follow up and take further, so I strongly recommend the book.

Self-driving cars are the future

Technologists are working on infusing the objects of public space with data and artificial intelligence.  The futures they are proposing to enable sometimes look remarkably like the futures of the past.   People will be whisked around in self-driving cars which park themselves in parking lots, and make themselves available upon request.  People will still live in residential neighborhoods, and will be taken in these self-driving cars to office parks and shopping centers.  Mom will no longer need to chauffeur the kids to school and soccer practice, the self-driving robot car will transport the kids safely and pick them up when their scheduled activities are done.

Futurists promoting self-driving cars see the technology as a way to preserve the car-dominant paradigm, while overcoming limitations of traffic and parking.

I wonder how much Mountain View’s choice to prevent housing from being built in North Bayshore, preserving Google’s headquarters as an old-school standalone office park will continue to shape the vision of the self-driving car as tool of classic low-density suburban sprawl.

Alternatively, plenty of Google’s engineers are taking the bus down from the city these days – and maybe soon they’ll be in tall buildings in Mission Bay.   Will those engineers see self-driving cars not as the evolution of the suburb-mobile, but the evolution of the taxi and the zipcar.  In an urban context, where the necessities of life are within walking distance, an automobile isn’t a necessity of daily life. Instead, it is a an occasional convenience; a ride back from the bar, a trip out to the mountains.

This blog comment makes the case that mathematically self-driving cars still can’t solve traffic congestion when human social patterns create peak travel times.  In that case, and in the world of gradually re-urbanizing suburbia, the self-driving car will be a more efficient first-and-last mile connection to transit services.

It is not at all clear how self-driving cars will interact with pedestrians and cyclists, children and pets.  Will the unpredictable nature of these street intruders lead to calls to for further restrictions on uses of the street? Or by the time self-driving cars make their way to market, will people demand that these wheeled robots be programmed with respect to respect and accommodate the humans using the street as a place?

Or, will the debate between urbanists and suburbanists be inscribed in different use-cases for different types of places, and will the places themselves be designed for these scenarios?  Will Phoenix and Atlanta ban pedestrians from local streets, further limiting the movements of the old, young, and poor, while those who can afford self-driving cars are whisked to their destinations.  Meanwhile, will Portland and parts of Europe move cars outside the city and  require self-driving taxis travel at casual streetcar speeds?

Early visions of the future often forsee automation of the patterns of the present.  They take the social patterns as a given. The uses of emerging transportation technologies are affected by expectations and understandings of land use patterns.

Automated cut-through traffic

An O’Reilly blog post on smart cities praised technology that helps drivers find a ways to route around a traffic jam, reducing pollution. But those algorithmically-discovered back routes, formerly known only only to locals also route impatient drivers through neighborhood streets that were carefully traffic-calmed.   The software, like much of the road system, was designed with the goal of efficiently moving cars, blind to the side effects.

One answer is more data –  program speed limits into the software, and as cars become more automated, eventually slow down the car.

Another answer is more data and different assumptions. The software takes driving in traffic as a given. The software should know that the roads are jammed, and should be able to predict that the roads are going to be jammed at that hour.   And then it could recommend not only an alternate route, but an alternative mode.

Undraining the swamps

Recently I read two good books of environmental history about two different places that are rediscovering the value of wet places. The Big Muddy by Christopher Morris examines the history of the lower Mississippi; Down By the Bay by Matthew Booker explores episodes in the history of the San Francisco Bay.

San Francisco Bay Restoration

In both places, prior to European settlement, Native Americans lived off the rich wetlands ecosystems over long periods of time. The known history on the Mississippi was more complex, with native civilizations shifting among combinations of foraging and agriculture. The cultures in the different places used the shifting cycles of wet and dry, using different food sources at different times, and spending time on high ground in wet seasons.

In both places, when Americans took over from earlier European colonial settlement, they did not value wetlands; they did not even comprehend them as places that are part wet and part dry. Instead, they saw land that was excessively wet, that they invested in drying out and filling in; and they saw water that was chaotic and destructive, that they sought to tame and navigate. The efforts to turn the Mississippi’s floodplain into dry and highly productive agricultural land; the efforts to create farmland from the Bay Delta; to build San Francisco on fill carved out of hills and dredged from the bay; and to tame regular floods, took multiple iterations.

There has been plenty of environmental damage from oil and chemical industries in the Mississippi Delta, but that is not the focus of the Big Muddy. Down By The Bay talks more about the impact of industry on the Bay. Hydraulic mining in the Sierras in the late 1800s had catastrophic impacts, washing down millions of tons of mountainside sediment into the Delta and Bay, causing massive ecological destruction and leaving toxic mercury that remains on Bay floor causing trouble until today. Oil refining and chemical industries have left legacies of toxic pollution in the Bay

Flood protection, the failure of walls as the dominant means of flood protection, and the problems with the concept of flood protection, are key themes of the Big Muddy. Down By the Bay discusses flood protection in the SF Bay Delta as one of several thematic segments on the environmental history of the Bay; but the book doesn’t go into depth on the vulnerability of Delta levees, the ongoing, severe and unresolved conflicts between the Delta’s roles as estuary, fishery, agricultural center and water source for dry parts of California. The California book also doesn’t touch the issues of flooding and flood protection efforts at the Bay’s many tributary creeks, most of which have been channelized.

Both books, in telling the story of the conversion of formerly wet places for massive scale agriculture, also tell the stories of exploitative labor practices; the relatively familiar stories of slavery, share-cropping, and forced levee labor in the south, which are more horrible with more historical detail; and the perhaps less-familiar stories of exploited Chinese immigrant laborers in California. In addition, Down By the Bay focuses on the change from Native American traditions of common land, and Spanish traditions considering tidal areas to be common land, to United States traditions of private property, enclosing the formerly common area for large-scale private advantage.

Only relatively recently have Americans started to understand the unintended consequences of draining wetlands, to understand the value of the partly wet places as rich, self-renewing, resilient ecosystems, and started trying to recapture some of that value in an environment that has been already transformed to a vast extent.

The lower Mississippi has been heavily agricultural; as its capacity for industrial crops declined, some places are starting to turn to a potentially more sustainable mix of rice and fish ponds. There is growing awareness on the Mississippi about how the loss of wetlands has increased coastal erosion and vulnerability to flooding and storms; there are incremental efforts to recreate hardwood forests in some floodplain areas.  . Restoration efforts are proceeding incrementally in the heavily leveed, channelized and polluted Mississippi.  It is not clear how much will there is, and how feasible it would be to create more somewhat more flexible responses to the river’s flood cycles.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the initiatives to reestablish wetlands have been driven by an environmentalist perspective seeing the bay as a natural habitat to be protected from humans and to be enjoyed by watching. Booker incorporates many assumptions of ecological science and environmentalism, including attentiveness to the richness of wetlands ecosystems, value for ways that native cultures adapted and flourished in partly-wet places, and displeasure with ways that industrial society uses up and poisons ecosystems.

But Booker is somewhat skeptical of the idea of “restoration.” One of the key indicator species used to test whether the Bay ecosystem is reviving is a soft-shelled clam originally imported from the Atlantic. The success of industrial salt flats at providing habitat for migrating birds, now adopted as the foundation of the Bay’s wildlife refuge, was a happy accident. Booker writes about concerns that the presence of mercury at the Bay floor may prevent the reopening of former salt ponds to tidal flow because of the risk of disturbing mercury in sediments, increasing conversion of mercury to highly toxic methylated form, and harming wildlife.   Since that chapter of the book was written, the South Bay restoration project has gone ahead and opened a few areas to tidal flows, while carefully monitoring for toxicity.  Booker argues that it is nostalgic, but not really possible to return to a past era.

Booker also is critical of the middle-class environmentalist perspective of nature and open space as views to be consumed. The hiking, kayaking, bird-watching, and other outdoor recreational activities are leisure options enjoyed by the middle class and wealthy; activities where people engage with the natural world for sustenance by fishing, gathering mollusks, hunting, etc are marginalized. Booker believes that people will really have regained a relationship with the Bay when humans can be part of the food chain.

The Mississippi efforts to recognize the value of wetlands and adapt to a wetlands environment may be less ideologically environmentalist and even more fragmentary in scale, but the rice/fish ponds and bottomlands hardwood forests incorporate people as participants in the ecosystem.

Twitter tourism

A throwaway side point in a thought-provoking article in the New Yorker by George Packer says that Twitter’s “San Francisco headquarters employs a thousand people but draws tourists from around the world—the company turns them away—” The article’s main points are about the contrasts between Silicon Valley’s wealthy utopianism and the growing gap between rich and poor, in the Bay Area and around the country.

Worth reflection and soul-searching. In the meanwhile, Twitter’s tourist problem is solvable. Create a piece of public art with Twitter Trending on various different topics with different colors. Needs display technology that can withstand outdoor display. And, given gap between wealthy and destitute at mid-market, regular physical maintenance.

Life Between Buildings and Cities for People

Where the new “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck talked about creating walkable streets, the classic Life Between Buildings, sees streets as one part of the public realm outdoors in between the buildings.

Jahn Gehl’s Life Between Buildngs isn’t new at all. First published by the Danish designer in 1971, when stark modernist architecture and city planning were painfully fresh, but Scandinavia and other European areas were just starting to recover from the mistakes of car-centric design and building-centric architecture. Cities for People, published nearly 30 years later in 2010, largely recaps Life Between Buildings, but adds some interesting material about new developments in the intervening decades.

For Jan Gehl, walkability (and later on, bikeability) are important, but only a small fraction of what is needed to make a place livable, where people enjoy spending time out of doors, between buildings, and socializing with others.

In cities following Jan Gehl’s practices, the success of a public place is assessed, not just by the number of people who travel through on foot or by bicycle, but the people who stand and sit a while to watch and socialize.

Gehl shows how traditional cities, and new developments that are created with sensitivity to traditional principles, create spaces that respect people’s physical, sensory, and social capabilities. Places that are compact enough so that people can see and hear each other – people recognize each other from about 55-75 yards away, can detect emotion at 24-27 yards and can hold a conversation starting at about 7.5 yards. Places where people can casually observe the flow of passers by and social interaction. Where there are “soft edges” between private and public space, where people can interact.

soft edges

Where there are comfortable spots to stand and to sit, especially along the edges of a space. Buildings and public spaces that are designed to respect the local microclimate instead of creating wind tunnels or ovens.

Siena informal seating

Growing up, I experienced some of the most notorious failures of mid-20th century public space. The desolate, wind-swept plaza in front of the well-loathed Brutalist monstrosity of Boston City Hall, and the various empty plazas in front of boxy towers in Center City Philadelphia seemed to indicate that plazas were bad ideas, and efforts to liven them up with goofy art were exercises in pretension; but it’s not so; well designed public places attract street life year-round, and not only in genial climates.

Picture 37

Following the principles for successful outdoor places, including locations that may seem to a Californian to be uninhabitable 9 months out of the year. By designing a place well, and then including heat lamps, awnings, windscreens and blankets, places even in cold climates have people sitting outdoors nearly all year round.

heatlamps for year-round sitting

Gehl’s practice over several decades in Scandinavia and cities around the world has involved measuring social life in city spaces and showing it is possible to improve continuously with ongoing observation and refinement. The image below shows a chart of “staying” activities in downtown Adelaide including standing, sitting, children playing, cultural activities, commercial activities, and more.

Staying activities in Adelaide

California design practice values open green space, and does a good job with private spaces for outdoor eating and drinking, but don’t as often create successful social public spaces. One challenge may be caused by our society’s failure to care for and accommodate the mentally ill and very poor; public spaces and public seating are often heavily used by people who are delusional and aggressive, the spaces then fail to serve other needs.

There are also design flaws. Palo Alto’s Lytton Plaza had a recent redesign to make it more social, but made the classic mistake of sprinkling tables throughout the plaza, rather than focusing seating around the edges; the seating in the middle fills up last.

Lytton

Gehl’s observations and insights explain why the row house front porches were so appealing. His insights explain what is disturbing about new potentially friendly little townhouse complexes in my neighborhood that are built around a stark, empty, superwide driveway for the big firetrucks, rather than porch/garden/courtyard.

big driveway

What is missing in the new townhouses on my block, with narrow steps heading to the front door, but no good place to stand and chat with a neighbor.

IMG_0002

What is rather creepy about the forlorn tables hidden in a corner or of the Safeway parking lot, where an employee might grab a furtive break, or a visitor might rapidly eat a sandwich before escaping back to her car.

safeway seating

Gehl’s Cities for People is a newer take on the same subject. Much of the book rehashes the earlier material close to verbatim. Cycling is a major addition; in the decades since the earlier book, Copenhagen emerged as a world leader in cycling for transportation, with bike commute mode share of 37%. Cities for People also has a handy glossary of techniques to create people-friendly places, and a few tasty charts from Gehl’s studies of street life in Scandinavia, documented in the out-of-print Public Spaces Public Life.

Gehl’s perspective, that outdoor spaces between buildings can be enjoyable for everyday social life in most climates, is richer and more about human senses, psychology and sociology, than Speck’s excellent but more utilitarian book. Speck focuses on how our streets fail to enable necessary activities (things we have to do); Gehl spends even more time on how to make outdoor spaces successful for optional activities (things we want to do) and social activities (interactions with others).

Get one or the other of Gehl’s books (but not both) for a broader perspective about what outdoor urban spaces can be, and for insights on how spaces can be improved.

Walkable Cities for People

I recently read two books: one new, and one (and a half) classic, about the practices of making streets walkable and places friendly for people.

Growing up, I was lucky to take walkable streets and livable neighborhoods for granted. When I was 13, my family moved about a mile from a neighborhood of modest brick rowhouses within city limits to the first suburban neighborhood over the city boundary, with mostly single family homes.

The modest rowhouses had front steps next to a front porch which in the summer could be sheltered by a canvas awning. In the evening and on weekends, neighbors would stand out on front steps and chat. But when new neighbors moved next door with surly dispositions and noisy dogs, my parents moved a mile away to the suburbs.

The suburban neighborhood was an postwar suburb near a streetcar line with relatively narrow somewhat hilly streets. A library and convenience drugstore were a half mile away. My family belonged to a Jewish community where members lived within walking distance of a synagogue, and there were strong customs of walking social visits on the Sabbath and holidays. Walking was built into the culture.

The suburban neighborhood was greener and the houses were a little bigger. But I still missed the experience of people standing out on the front porch chitchatting on summer evening, and kids playing street hockey and stickball in the back alley.

So what is it that makes places walkable and livable?

Walkable City, a new book by designer and planner Jeff Speck describes the practices that can restore walkability in places that were designed or transformed to promote the elusive goal of the free flow of automobiles. Walkable City is an immensely quotable and highly readable summary of the benefits of walkability, and the ways to make places walkable.

The key insight of the book is that you don’t get walkability simply by adding features like wide sidewalks. Walkability isn’t just about the street, it’s about the place. To attract walkers, writes Speck, “A walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient.”

Useful. In order for people to walk, they need to be able to get to places they want to go – places like retail stores, schools, and parks. This means having useful destinations walking distance from each other. This requires fixing conventional mid-20th century zoning codes that create single use districts that make it impossible to walk from your house or work to a store or restaurant, because everyday activities are too far away from each other.

Interesting. In order for people to be willing to walk, the street needs to have interesting detail at eye level. How far people are willing to walk is not a factor of distance, but the appeal of the environment (see Steve Mouzon’s classic article on Walk Appeal. Blank walls and parking lots facing the street make for tedious and unsafe walking environments. The classic suburban-style design approach is to insulate the blank walls and parking lots with setbacks and landscaping, but it doesn’t work; the route is tedious, and people won’t walk far.

Safe and comfortable. Yes, streets also matter for walkability, and the book describes the elements of walkable street designs. Walkability is helped by short blocks and connections that let people get to where they’re going. Underutilized suburban areas can be retrofit to recut a street grid over time. (The book says more about block size than about connections that can open walking and biking shortcuts through cul de sacs and parking lots). Walkability also is helped by limiting excess curb cuts where incoming and outgoing cars conflict with pedestrians.

Safe walking is hindered by streets where cars go too fast because there are too many car lanes and the lanes are too wide. “Lane diets” can increase vehicle capacity by converting a 4-lane road to 2 vehicle lanes plus a center turn lane. Vehicle capacity goes up because the turn lane takes turning vehicles out of the way of through travellers; speeds go down, and crashes go down. Wide lane widths, intended to make driving safer, actually encourage speeding and reduces safety. Cities that converted one way streets back to 2-way have found that it slows cars down increases walking and economic vitality. The conversion to one-way streets in the 60s and 70s was intended to help the city by speeding car travel, but it turned out that surface freeways hurt downtowns and neighborhoods.

These changes can swing the balance back from prioritizing cars passing through, to better support for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers taking local trips. These changes can be contentious, since people have gotten used to treating local routes like freeways. But the impacts are severe, cutting neighborhoods from places to go, and making it unpleasant to shop or do ordinary activities outside of a car.

Streets are places, too.

One issue that Speck does not address robustly is the problem with the standard functional classification, which classifies streets based on their role in moving vehicles and local access, but does not take into account the land use around the street. Following standard street classifications, high-volume streets that run through areas with lots of houses, schools, or stores and serve many people taking short local trips, are designed as if the main goal was moving cars across town, regardless of the people who want to walk or bike for their local trips, or need to cross the street to get to their destination. The evolution of functional classification is a work in progress; there are some case studies and new work in the field, but not definitive new answers.

You can’t build your way out of congestion

Speck directs the harshest criticism in the book on traffic engineering practices that continue to encourage building more and more road capacity in an attempt to alleviate congestion. Research over time shows that building roads creates demand that fills the capacity; a 2004 meta-analysis shows that on average, a 10% increase in lane miles induces an immediate 4% increase in vehicle miles travelled, which climbs to 10% in a few years.

In addition to the “how” of creating walkable streets, the book provides a thorough but lively explanation of the reasons why: the economic benefits for walkable areas, the environmental and health benefits. The book also is a great primer for related practices that help create walkable communities; including effective transit and parking.

Where to start?

I agreed with most of the book, but had a few quibbles here and there. Speck rightly says that jurisdictions need to do “triage” and focus on improving walkability in some places before others. But his emphasis on “downtowns” I think misses some important dynamics.

The concept of a “downtown” implies a metropolitan region with a single center. The San Francisco Bay Area has multiple large and small cities arrayed around a large body of water. Many large metropolitan areas have multiple “centers.” Traditional pre-car big cities are composed of multiple neighborhoods that have local shopping and schools and businesses.

I am still learning and could change my mind about this, but I am not convinced that there is an ideal pattern of a central skyscraper metropolis surrounded by concentric circles decreasingly dense areas (following the new urbanist transect model). There are metropolitan areas in Europe in which multiple cities of various sizes are connected by superb transit service. The Washington DC metro area has created walkable towns along its transit corridors. Sprawling San Jose and the classically sprawled LA area are seeking to retrofit along boulevard corridors and neighborhood centers.

Triage by “focusing on success” leaves out substantial opportunities for retrofits in underutilized or failing areas. These places are promising not because they are successful, but because they are in such poor shape that jurisdictions are willing to change their practices to revitalize the area. Failed malls and other underutilized sprawl areas can add denser mixed use development and a street grid, with less argument from people who want to preserve things as they are.

The “focus on success” principle sounds disturbingly like helping the rich get richer. By contrast, some of the bus rapid transit proposals in the South Bay, similar to BRT programs worldwide, travel through low-income areas with a lot of people who don’t have cars, and who walk today on streets that are appallingly unsafe for pedestrians. Some of the pedestrian-friendly boulevards cited in Allan Jacobs’ classic boulevard book are not in wealthy areas. The advantages of walkability shouldn’t just be for the wealthy.

Finally, using a Complete Streets policy, cities can leverage their routine repaving projects to incorporate low-cost traffic calming improvements involving street restriping at low to no additional additional cost, and street crossing improvements that save lives at minimal additional cost. Many areas are low density now, and are going to remain so for the forseeable future, and serve people who prefer low density. Even there, modest incremental investments in street paint and arterial crossings can save lives over the next few decades.

Another critique is that the book could be somewhat be better on cycling. The section on cycling focuses too much on where to put bike lanes, and what sort of bike lanes, and not enough on how to overcome barriers to practical bike routes. Fundamentally, I think Speck underestimates the value of cycling in helping places recover from car-dependent development patterns. In moderately dense areas that have a lot of useful trip distances in the 1-5 mile range, cycling could easily account for a large share of trips for many people.

Today, Copenhagen with 37% mode share is an outlier; but with good infrastructure that could be much more common. In Palo Alto, 10% of residents use a bike as a primary commute mode *today*. If the ratio of commuters to regular bike users is similar to San Francisco (where 3.5% commute by bike and 17% take a bike trip weekly), this suggests that over 40% of Palo Altans regularly use a bike for transportation. Speck criticizes cycling advocacy as a “special interest” for a small minority, but the numbers are mainstream in some places in the US already.

“Walkable City” is a really solid book about how to create walkable, livable communities. If you want to get up to speed on the topic, read this book. If you know a lot, you’ll skim some, but still get something out of the book. And if you know people who *should* know this material, give this book as a gift.

Next up, a review of “Life Between Buildings” which sees walkability as only a small part of creating a thriving environment in streets and other public spaces.

Adina Levin's weblog. For conversation about books I've been reading, social software, and other stuff too.