The Invention of Nature and Crimes Against Nature: Two books on the Romantic view of Nature

“Nature” is far from natural; two recent books explore the development of romantic ideas about nature, and the consequences of policies based on these ideas. The Invention of Nature is a biography by Andrea Wulf that traces the career of Alexander von Humboldt, the German scholar who shaped ideas about nature, and influenced the people who created conservation policies. Crimes against Nature, by Karl Jacoby is a social history that explores the consequences of romantic ideas of nature, as they were implemented in the conservation policies of state and national parks.

Humboldt had been nearly forgotten in the English speaking world, but has been the world’s premier celebrity scientist in his day.

Humboldt was close friends with Goethe, and the ideas of German romanticism infused his work. As a romantic who saw feeling as a primary means of understanding, Humboldt didn’t see science as an intellectual activity separate from emotion. ‘Nature must be experienced through feeling,’ Humboldt wrote to Goethe, insisting that those who wanted to describe the world by simply classifying plants, animals and rocks ‘will never get close to it’. His writing for scientific and popular audiences was full of lyrical and ecstatic passages inspired by natural beauty.

In Views of Nature, for example, Humboldt invited the reader to “follow me gladly into the thickets of the forest, into the immeasurable steppes, and out upon the spine of the Andes range … In the mountains is freedom!” Humboldt’s romantic portrayals of nature also included visuals in the tradition of romantic landscapes, intended to convey the feelings of awe and wonder.
Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland. Vues des Cordillieres et Monumens des Peuples Indigenes de L’Amerique. Paris, 1810.

Wulf’s biography traces how Humboldt’s poetic style of communication about nature influenced writers including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thoreau and many other writers whose enchanted descriptions fill the Nature writing sections of bookstores and Amazon.

Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland. Vues des Cordillieres et Monumens des Peuples Indigenes de L'Amerique. Paris, 1810.
Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland. Vues des Cordillieres et Monumens des Peuples Indigenes de L’Amerique. Paris, 1810.

Humboldt’s verbal and visual images of nature were shaped by the Romantic ideas that the natural world conveyed spiritual experiences in characteristic places, following the philosophical and esthetic concept of “the sublime.” In the essay, the Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronon writes that, Although God might, of course, choose to show Himself anywhere, He would most often be found in those vast, powerful landscapes where one could not help feeling insignificant and being reminded of one’s own mortality. Where were these sublime places? The eighteenth century catalog of their locations feels very familiar, for we still see and value landscapes as it taught us to do. God was on the mountaintop, in the chasm, in the waterfall, in the thundercloud, in the rainbow, in the sunset….

Humboldt’s ground-breaking scientific work was based on detailed measurements taken while travelling the world. His innovations and discoveries included the the idea of isothermal zones of vegetation and climate zones that span the globe at similar latitudes, and observation of connections between similar species on continents that were separated by (what was later shown to be) plate tectonics. His measurements and analysis also demonstrated the decrease in intensity of Earth’s magnetic field from the poles to the equator.

elevation climate zones

Humboldt’s work pioneered key concepts of environmental science. After he saw the devastating environmental effects of colonial plantations at Lake Valencia in Venezuela in 1800, Humboldt became the first scientist to talk about the environmental harm wreaked by plantation monoculture and deforestation, which washed away soil and left the land barren. “Humboldt was the first to explain the forest’s ability to enrich the atmosphere with moisture and its cooling effect, as well as its importance for water retention and protection against soil erosion. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Humboldt’s environmental science was the concept that things in nature – plants and animals, atmosphere and oceans – are all connected – and methodical measurement and analysis can reveal these connections.

Humboldt’s assessment of the costs of plantation agriculture included the human depredation of slavery, as well as the risks of monoculture to human health and survival in addition to the risks to the natural environment. In Cuba, Humboldt observed the social costs of plantation monoculture. Humboldt observed how cash crops produced by plantations had replaced ‘those vegetables which supply nourishment’. “Cuba produced not much other than sugar, which meant that without imports from other colonies, Humboldt said, ‘the island would starve’. This was a recipe for dependency and injustice. Similarly, the inhabitants of the region around Cumaná cultivated so much sugar and indigo that they were forced to buy food from abroad which they could easily have grown themselves. Monoculture and cash crops did not create a happy society, Humboldt said. What was needed was subsistence farming, based on edible crops and variety such as bananas, quinoa, corn and potatoes.”

Wulf traces the influence of Humboldt’s environmental ideas on George Perkins Marsh, an American diplomat who traveled through Middle East while serving as ambassador to Turkey in the 1850s. Marsh and observed barren conditions in places that had formerly been the breadbasket of civilization, and ascribed the desert conditions to deforestation, which had led to erosion and the collapse of agriculture. When he returned to the states, Marsh wrote Man and Nature, an early work of ecology that talked about how manufacturing and industrial agriculture were ruining the environment, with barren soil and torrential floods caused by deforestation and monoculture, and lifeless lakes and rivers polluted by industrial waste.

Marsh viewed the role of humans as uniformly negative. “Man is everywhere a disturbing agent,” declared Marsh. “Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords.
Man and Nature discussed the damage being caused in the present day by deforestation in the Adirondacks, and the work was influential in the creation of a New York State forest preserve in the 1880s and 90s. Man and Nature also influenced people including John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, who played crucial roles in creating the United States’ National Park system and other policies to protect America’s forests.

John Muir was another disciple of Humboldt who found inspiration in nature, evangelized the spiritual value of connection to wilderness, and gathered a movement of lovers of nature to drive the founding of the national parks to protect pristine wild lands. Muir thought wild places as separate from human settlement, and preached the spiritual benefits of finding reprieve from urban life. As Muir wrote, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

The pristine wilderness that Muir admired had long been inhabited by people; it eventually took the introduction of the US army, with enthusiastic support from Muir to expel the people.
Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation , by Karl Jacoby, covers the impact on local residents, Native and European-American, when national parks were established.

Before the Grand Canyon National Park was established, Havasupai Native Americans grew crops in a nearby canyon during the summer, and hunted on the ledge in the winter. The book describes with how the Havasupai became impoverished by forced exile from their hunting area when the laws of the National Park banned hunting; the traditional subsistence hunting was recast as poaching. As the people suffered from hunger, Havasupai men resorted to manual labor in the park to make a living. Far from being a “trackless wilderness”, the lands in the National Parks were criss-crossed with trails created by Native Americans for hunting and seasonal migrations. Jacoby reports how, as day laborers, Havasupai men earned cash by paving the trails for tourists.

One of the main reasons that Native Americans were excluded from national parks was to prevent forest fires. It turns out that the fires that had regularly been set by people was valuable for the plants and animals in the ecosystem as well. Jacoby writes, “Native Americans used fire for multiple purposes: to keep down underbrush, facilitating travel; to rid camping areas of insect pests; and to aid in hunting. … By burning underbrush and dead wood, low-level fires of this sort also helped to recycle nutrients into the soil and create a mosaic of plant communities at varying levels of succession, raising the level of vegetational diversity and opening up a variety of ecological niches for wildlife. The benefits of fire were therefore not only short-term (facilitating travel and the taking of game) but long-term as well (maintaining a higher population of wildlife than would have occurred otherwise)

The chapter in “Crimes against Nature” focusing on the state park in the Adirondacks describes the impact of the park’s regulations on a small population of about 16,000 European Americans who engaged in subsistence hunting, fishing, and cut small amounts of timber for fuel and small buildings.

While Marsh’s generally had a negative view about the impact of humans on the natural world, he believed that the subsistence farmers in the Adirondacks (and other places) were particularly damaging. Jacoby writes “In keeping with his Whig political beliefs, Marsh viewed these members of the lower classes as lacking the foresight and expertise necessary to be wise stewards of the natural world”. With this perspective, the rules of the park system were designed to prohibit subsistence-level hunting and wood-gathering. While there are examples of large populations engaged in subsistence foraging and agriculture causing deforestation and environmental damage, it’s not clear that the 16,000 small-scale farmers in the Adirondacks were actually causing damage, in contrast to large-scale timber harvesting. (A weakness of the book is that it does not bring evidence.)

In fact, the motivations for creating state and national parks weren’t to protect ecosystems the way that we may think of them today. The congressional report in support of the creation of Yellowstone as a National Park described the benefits of the park to be:

  • First. As a region containing some of the chief natural wonders of the world.
  • Second. As the largest of the forest reserves.
  • Third. As the greatest existing game preserve.

The hunters for whom the “game” was being protected were upper class men who hunted for recreation. Hunting was prohibited within the boundaries of Yellowstone and Yosemite, permitted in game season in the Adirondack state park, and the local subsistence hunters who could not feed their families on the allowance and seasons permitted by the rules became guides for upper-class recreational hunting and fishing. People who hunted for subsistence when they needed food- native or european – were considered poachers.

And the views of the great wonders of the world were being protected for tourists who could afford taking vacations to appreciate the sublime beauty of nature, as understood through the Romantic esthetic. In The Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronon explains that One has only to think of the sites that Americans chose for their first national parks—Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Rainier, Zion—to realize that virtually all of them fit one or more of these categories.

Cronon continues… “Less sublime landscapes simply did not appear worthy of such protection; not until the 1940s, for instance, would the first swamp be honored, in Everglades National Park, and to this day there is no national park in the grasslands.” Natural parks were not primarily created to protect biodiversity (or estuaries would have been early parks), nor was they created to protect distinctive ecosystems (or grasslands would have been protected). They were created to protect the views that triggered emotional experiences that were valued by the Romantic perceptions of nature held by Humboldt and his followers.

Travelling to remote and “exotic” places was seen as an integral aspect to experiencing nature. Humboldt, Marsh, and Muir sought experiences of nature in travels to South America, the Middle East, and the American West. The creation of parks brought these experiences “downmarket”, from upper-class travellers (Humboldt, Marsh) who had the financial resources and social connections to explore distant places, or extraordinary individuals (John Muir) who were willing to make social and financial sacrifices to travel, to prosperous middle class people who had resources to take time off and travel for vacation.

While Humboldt himself saw the suffering caused by with plantation slavery and monoculture, valued mixed agriculture, and (rare for his time), respected native cultures, the romantic ideals as they passed down through generation tended to see nature as separate from humanity, and to dismiss the people actually living in places understood as “natural.” Crimes Against Nature makes the case that when nature is seen as “somewhere else” that is free of people – the vision of a connected system leaves out people – this perception misreads most places that are actually inhabited, creates harm to the rural people living subsistence lifestyles, and doesn’t necessarily help the natural environment.

In “the Trouble With Wilderness” William Cronon also concludes that if we believe that wilderness is a remote place for urban people to visit as tourists, this belief prevents us from finding solutions to environmental problems that are inherent in our urban industrial civilization.

“If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not. If this is so—if by definition wilderness leaves no place for human beings, save perhaps as contemplative sojourners enjoying their leisurely reverie in God’s natural cathedral—then also by definition it can offer no solution to the environmental and other problems that confront us. To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilization, we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.

Humboldt’s romantic vision helped him pioneer an environmental science in which everything in nature is connected. Jacoby and Cronon show that when rural and urban people are omitted from the vision of nature, the ecosystem including humans, are at greater risk.

Streetcar Suburbs by Sam Bass Warner

I recently read the the classic social history, Streetcar Suburbs by Sam Bass Warner, which analyzes the transportation, financial, architectural, and social trends that created streetcar suburbs, with close attention to three neighborhoods outside of downtown Boston – Roxbury, West Roxbury, and Dorchester. The book covers how these places developed with fantastic and fascinating attention to detail, but provides unreliable explanations as to why.

The economic driver of suburban expansion was the rapid growth of a middle class including upwardly mobile Irish, Italian, Jewish and other immigrant groups. The emergence of horse-drawn railcars after 1850 enabled practical commutes to expand from a two-mile walking distance up to four miles from the city center. Electrification starting in the late 1880s enabled streetcars to run twice as fast and carry three times the number of passengers, extending the commute radius out 6 miles from the city center, supporting population growth in metro Boston from two hundred thousand to over a million residents.

horse-drawn streetcar

In a pattern that has been revived in recent decades, much of the streetcar development was fueled by real estate speculation. Henry Whitney extended the West End line to Brookline to promote new residential development on Beacon Street, and similarly, Dorchester’s streetcar lines funded by speculators in Dorchester real estate.

My favorite tidbit about the relationships between transportation infrastructure and social structure is that central middle class workers – store-owners, lawyers, prosperous salesmen and contractors – had jobs in the center of town, so their commuting needs were met by linear streetcar lines with frequent service (10 minutes or less) that radiated out from downtown Boston. But the lower middle class included building trademen who worked at different sites around the city, and skilled craftsmen such as piano makers, printers, and furniture makers who worked at different shops depending on workload. So linear extensions of streetcar lines were not enough not meet their needs; artisans preferred housing in locations served by infill crosstown lines that allowed them to get to work sites without heading all the way downtown and back out again. Meanwhile, upper middle class workers preferred homes on larger parcels, often in further out neighborhoods, up to 10 or 15 miles from the city center, connected by faster heavy rail.

The book’s characterization of workers as male is deliberate. The book defines a middle class lifestyle as the ability to support a family on one income (assumed to be the husband’s). In the families of the lower middle class artisans were there women who worked outside the home? Possibly, but the book assumes all commuters are men. Also, the book describes the neighborhood layout exclusively in terms of the needs of male commuters; if the needs of women managers of households came into play in home design and the layout of retail areas, the book is silent on that topic.

The streetcar suburban neighborhoods were built with highly uniform design, even though they were developed by many individual builders. Unlike earlier major development initiatives in Beacon Hill, the Back Bay and South End, which were built by big syndicates with the ability to raise the capital to raze hills and fill marshes, the development of 22,000 residential buildings in the three streetcar suburbs covered in the book was conducted by 9,000 independent small developers. Because small developers were taking high relative risks for their budgets, they tended to make conservative decisions to create housing that would most easily find buyers.

Although the descriptions of how the streetcar suburbs grew are robust and compelling, the reasons why they grew the way they did are less persuasive. Warner documents that the creation of suburb and the attraction of suburban life was motivated by ideals of country living. Increasingly prosperous middle class residents flocked to new suburban neighborhoods in flight away from the dark, cramped, unhealthy confines of tenement living, believing that that a more rural setting, emulating the country housing of English gentry, with green space, light, and air would be better for happiness, health and wholesome morals.

upper middle class suburban street

Warner does not merely report on the ideal of garden living, which has been documented by other historians and sociologists; he strongly agrees with with the ideal. He praises the homes of better-off residents, with detached designs, bigger lots, and larger lawns and gardens, as closer to the rural ideal, and disapproves of the more compact designs developed for more price-sensitive households. In Warner’s estimation, “cramped suburban streets of three-deckers stand as an ugly joke against their models: picturesque houses set on garden lots.”

lower middle class

A theme of the book is that economic segregation evolved on its own, through the bottom-up preferences of people choosing to live near others in similar economic circumstances, well before explicit zoning baked these divisions into local land use ordinances about lot size, setbacks, and residential density. And yet, what strikes a reader familiar with neighborhoods shaped by decades of zoning is the level of diversity that emerged in the early streetcar suburbs, where single family homes, duplexes, triplexes, and small apartments might be intermixed on a block and in a neighborhood.

The three towns covered by the book added 22,500 residential buildings, including 12,000 single family homes, 6,000 two-family, 4,000 3-family, and 500 larger units, housing 167,000 people. Only half of the housing units were single family, and different housing types were not infrequently adjacent to each other, quite different from pattern set by 20th century zoning, in which single family homes are carefully separated from multi-family dwellings.

However, Warner portrays diversity of housing stock as a negative, and as exceptions to a beneficial uniformity. Warner describes a pattern on arterials in Dorchester where stores were built with apartments above, and narrow-three-deckers were built in spaces between older, larger houses. But this pattern is described as, “cramped quarters clearly out of harmony with the style of living in the rest of the new suburban houses.” The apartments above housing were an unfortunate departure from the “uniform character of central Dorchester [which] was achieved through the action of common understanding within the society as to what constituted appropriate kinds of buildings for different areas and different incomes.”

rental above retail

In Roxbury, infill development providing housing for people at a range of incomes and households is portrayed as a harbinger of decline. “Here during the thirty years from 1870 to 1900 cheap singles, doubles, and three-deckers had been jammed onto tiny lots…. There were cheap and expensive three-deckers, ample two-families that looked somewhat like expensive singles, and tiny single houses that were as cheap per family as most multiple dwellings… Most of the merits of the earlier form of building [larger houses on larger lots] were buried, and a potential area of rapid deterioration was established.”

Warner explains that the streetcar suburban neighborhood layout, with all of the housing facing the street edges, was a result of buyer preferences for the prestige of a streetfront location, and aversion to more alley entrances which allowed for both smaller and larger homes. That explanation comes across as tautological, given the persistence of alley housing in Chicago, Philadelphia, Vancouver, and other cities. Describing the housing types in Boston’s streetcar suburbs as the inevitable result of status preference begs the question of why alley housing was beneath the dignity of Boston area residents and acceptable elsewhere.

Warner equates building uniformity with social stability. Describing Central Dorchester which was first built with larger homes, Warner writes that the district has been able to maintain its homogeneity and to survive later shifts in its population without more than partial encroachment by cheap housing forms. [If there was enough room for infill with smaller units], “many of the middle class families who first built there would probably have abandoned it and the character of the section would have shifted rapidly.”

In the streetcar suburbs portrayed in the book, neighborhoods were developed incrementally, and as neighborhoods filled in, the remaining smaller and odd-sized parcels were often developed with more modest and multi-family homes. The advent of smaller-unit housing types in a neighborhood is portrayed as the first sign of an inevitable decline. Warner asserts, without persuasive evidence, that the smaller housing types accelerated decline since they were immune to being upgraded, unlike larger homes that are easier to rehab and subdivide. This assumption would come as a surprise to waves of gentrifiers who have been rehabilitating streetcar-era older homes, including small houses, duplexes and triples, for decades now.

While the book gives careful attention to the emerging forms of mortgage financing which allowed a growing number of middle class buyers to afford homes, it gives no consideration to the availability (or lack) of financing to upgrade older properties. Mortgages during the streetcar suburb era covered in the book were dominated by small private investors, were issued in relative short terms from one to ten years; were often renewed several times, and didn’t yet allow the borrower to be paying down principal along with interest from the start. This financial structure enabled about a quarter of the population to own homes, but entailed substantial risks for buyer and lender, issues that were later alleviated with government-protected 30 year amortizing mortgages.

Warner takes for granted that housing stock would would “decline” with age as styles fell out of fashion, and describes presence of mixed housing types as a factor that accelerated decline. However, as reported by the later classic on the growth of US suburbs Crabgrass Frontier, US government financial policy deliberately restricted financing to rehabilitate older homes. In the 20th century, neighborhoods occupied by African-American and other perceived undesirable ethnic groups were subject to “redlining.” In redlined areas, mainstream mortgages became unavailable, and so it was nearly impossible to purchase existing homes with a financial model conducive to maintaining the buildings in good condition. In the second edition published in 1978, Warner mentions that some of the neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester had become occupied by African-Americans as part of the ethnic succession, and also that some areas had become delapidated slums. Without mention of redlining, Warner’s explanation that neighborhoods were set on a path of inevitable decline by the advent of excessively urban and diverse housing types is not persuasive.

Supporting the narrative of the inevitable decline of streetcar suburb neighborhoods, Warner takes for granted that people who have choices about where to live would prefer brand new, larger homes, in land opened up for development by transportation improvements, including, after the time period covered in the book – automobiles and highways. “Successive transportation changes have made possible the shifting of fashions in middle class house lots from the first doubling of the walking city’s row-house lots, to the parcels of 3,000-6,000 square feet common in the streetcar suburbs, to the present fashion of quarter- to full-acre, and even larger, lots.” Inevitably, better off residents would leave when area became less fashionable, and move further away. Streetcar Suburbs was first published in 1962, and revised in 1978; in an era where US suburban expansion continued with no slowdown in sight.

Warner does give some attention to the phenomenon that about half the population was left out of the housing improvements available to upwardly mobile middle class residents. The book talks briefly about several initiatives to provide charity housing with private funding.

The author writes about how middle class residents came to fear urban neighborhoods as dens of crime, but does not consider how urban crime zones were actively created; through deliberate concentration of zones of extra-legal commercial activity.

In the conclusion of the book, Warner points out some weaknesses associated with the trend toward suburbanization, but this explanation also comes across as a just-so story. Warner points out that the streetcar suburbs had were designed with commercial areas in strips along transit corridors, and clustered around intersection crossroads. The streetcar suburbs had many churches, synagogues, and ethnic community gathering places, but tended not to have physically coherent town centers. The lack of central public space, argues Warner, contributed to a deficit of social and civic cohesion, and therefore to fragmented governance and lack of ability to solve problems across the metropolitan region.

A more compelling explanation for metropolitan dysfunction is the economic collapse that occurred once industry moved out of the central cities; and the more prosperous residents had already left. When cities had a strong tax base, emerging suburbs sought to be annexed to the larger city which could provide stronger city services. When the city’s tax base imploded, suburban jurisdictions figured they’d be better off independent, and had little motivation to work with other jurisdictions to solve regional problems. The preference for independence was bolstered by the trends toward economic segregation. More prosperous residents chose to live further away from lower-income residents, and to bake the patterns of segregation into laws.

In the time window when Warner lived and wrote, it was common-sense to assume that neighborhoods went out of style and had most of their appeal “used up” after the first-generation that they were occupied, and people with choices would “naturally” move on. By affirming that the large-lot, garden-surrounded suburban estate is the ideal, and describing more compact housing types as a fall from the ideal, Warner misses an alternative interpretation of the form of the streetcar suburb.

From today’s vantage point, streetcar suburbs seem (at least to some including this blogger) like an attractive, alternative urban form. The housing variations that Warner saw as bastardizations and signs of social unravelling can also be seen as welcome tools for healthy age and income diversity. The changing of fashions, which Warner sees as inevitable decline, can be seen alternatively as “filtering” which allows older and currently less fashionable homes to be occupied by lower-income residents. With walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods coming back into favor, some core urban and streetcar suburb neighborhoods are now facing an opposite challenge – an influx of wealthier residents, and escalating prices that create displacement pressures on lower-income residents.

From today’s perspective, we wonder why it’s impossible to build places like the old streetcar suburbs anymore, and see the zoning requirements that make these housing types illegal. In the value judgements underlying its analysis, Streetcar Suburbs sheds light on why those laws were put into place – the density and diversity of housing types that look attractive and socially healthy to today’s urbanists looked ugly and socially harmful to proponents of mid-20th century suburbs.

With the benefit of hindsight, the narrative of the streetcar suburbs no longer appears like one phase of a march of progress toward the next suburban frontier, with better-off residents moving on once resources in a place are used up. That narrative left a lot out to begin with, on topics of class and race, investment and infrastructure. Now, as the attributes of streetcar suburbs are coming back into fashion – our society faces different challenges of how to evolve older neighborhoods in place.

When driverless cars take over

The trouble with Reid Hoffman’s provocative suggestion that human driving ought to be made illegal that once self-driving cars are commercially available is not that it’s a bad idea. The trouble is a technodeterminist vision of the future of electric cars, taking for granted the existing, comprehensive set of policies that currently makes driving essential for most people for most trips in the US.

When automobiles became mainstream in mid-20th century America, they were seen as bringing freedom, speed and mobility. To take best advantage of the new technology, we set up rules for our streets and new places to facilitate free, fast movement of cars. Zoning rules defined peaceful, quiet neighborhoods with curvy, disconnected streets and easy drive and a long walk from the wide roads that allowed speedy car access to shopping, schools and workplaces. The wide roads eliminated obstacles to speedy travel, such as trees and crossing pedestrians; parking requirements ensured enough room for everyone even at crowded periods.

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The hopeful planners did not foresee that funnelling the entire working population into arterials and freeways in the morning and afternoon, would cause intractable traffic jams. Policy makers did not imagine that requiring car trips for all the needs of daily life would contribute to sedentary lifestyles, chronic health problems and environmental pollution. Though policy makers were quite deliberate about the intentions of financing and road-building policies to promote greenfield growth, giving some people unprecedented access to sunny, landscaped estates, and escape from the dark, dangerous, crowded cities. (see: Crabgrass Frontier, Dead End)

Full of optimism, we did not see that this new technology – private cars – had a few disadvantages compared to 2 million year old technology – walking on two feet – that used regularly keeps us physically and mentally healthy (now we have new wearable, networked technology to remind us to use the 2 million year old system). The new automobile technology also had some disadvantages compared to century-old transit technology, which can fit many more people at crowded travel periods.

New technology reminds us to use old technology
New technology reminds us to use old technology

The new technology was valuable, but we overused it, and we shaped our world using a set of policies to require the new technology even where it is not the best tool for the job. Technology creates new options, but societies makes choices about the ways the technology will be used.

A similar technodetermism is influencing conversations about self-driving cars. Eager proponents note that autonomous vehicles will be able to platoon and take up less space on freeways and arterials – but cars still take up more space than buses and trains, as Jarrett Walker reminds us. Instead, autonomous vehicles could provide handy first/last mile access to high-capacity transit.

Vehicle geometry
Vehicle geometry

Proponents note that autonomous vehicles will park themselves, so they won’t require as much real estate devoted to parking. Yes, but if all the autonomous vehicles are used at the same time, they will still be underused at the same time.   And when we cluster places with different functions, it becomes easier for people to use ancient technology for many trips and for socializing, freeing up even more space.

Supporters foresee that driverless cars will popularize living in the furthest exurbs, since commuters will be able to relax, work, and even use an exercycle while the car drives itself. And this may be preferable for some people; it’s not clear why society should prefer and promote commuting 50 miles with a bicycle enclosed in a shell of metal, rather than 5 miles on cycle tracks under a big blue roof.

The last 60 years have contributed plenty of evidence about ways that the overuse of cars has led to unintended consequences. Autonomous vehicles may well become much safer than notoriously lethal human drivers, such that it will be beneficial to ban driving.

It may be a great idea from a public-health perspective. It would surely be huge benefit to providers of self-driving cars, because it would shorten the decade-plus long cycle to turn over the installed base of cars (the average car on the road is 11 years old.)

Hoffman predicts “An asphalt utopia is on the horizon. ”  The proponents of horseless carriages also envisioned an asphalt utopia, and rewrote the rules to promote that utopia.  While we are doing thought experiments about this potentially transformative policy change, it would be helpful to think through the interlocking set of policies that were created when cars were new, and to consider how we want to use the next generation of new technology, rather than assuming that the new technology will be used for everyone and everything, because it is new.

Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism

Benjamin Ross’ new book, Dead End, offers a solid, insightful, and readable analysis of the structural causes of suburban sprawl, and the reasons why it remains difficult to build in urban areas despite renewed preference for urban living. Also, the book elaborates a hypothesis that status-seeking is the primary source of suburban “not in my backyard” opposition to infill development. I wrestle with this hypothesis – there is some truth in it, but it also weaknesses as an explanation and as the basis for a theory of change.

Suburban landscape

Ross traces the history of suburban land use policy – in which landowners have a high level of control over what their neighbors may choose to do – to the private covenants of socialist communes in the 19th century. The controls were institutionalized into zoning, when early suburban developments commercialized the form. The idealization of the countryside, the separation of residences from commerce, and the disdain for the city, also came from the idealistic, progressive reformers, a story that is also told in other histories of suburbia such as Crabgrass Frontier.

Early suburban developments were very clear about their intention to create high class, exclusive places, and these goals were explicitly institutionalized in law. The objective of keeping multi-family housing away from single family housing, in order to avoid degrading the single family housing, was explicitly cited in the Supreme Court decision on a case about Euclid, Ohio, which institutionalized what became known as “Euclidean Zoning. “…

…the development of detached house sections is greatly retarded by the coming of apartment houses… in such sections very often the apartment house is a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district. Moreover, the coming of one apartment house is followed by others, interfering by their height and bulk with the free circulation of air and monopolizing the rays of the sun which otherwise would fall upon smaller homes…

When policies were instituted to encourage home ownership during the Depression and after WW2, the mortgage criteria favored the suburban format, giving higher ratings to places that are new, that do not have a connected street grid, that have front lawns. Mortgage underwriting required cities to have zoning that segregated by density, keeping single family homes away from multi-family buildings, and that segregated by race. Dead End touches relatively briefly on the role played by race; this reading list compiled by Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has extensive coverage of the role that racism played in housing policy.

Ross does a good job of explaining how the familiar forms of residentialist neighborhood organizing got started with revolts against urban freeways and “urban renewal” projects which tore down functional working class neighborhoods, separated neighborhoods with barriers and safety hazards, and replaced lively streets with suburban style towers in parks. (In the San Francisco Bay Area, another crucible that forged the culture of neighborhood organizing was the environment activism which preserved San Francisco Bay and the hills from development.) In New York, the movement for historic preservation sparked by the failed battle to save Penn Station created legal tools that were later repurposed to spare ordinary old buildings and prevent change.

These neighborhood organizing movements rightly viewed unchecked development and top down planning designed to prevent and ignore public input as the enemy. This perspective calcified into perpetual opposition to neighborhood change. Existing residents have great power to reject or minimize new development that would reduce the prestige of the neighborhood, such as adding multi-family residences, improving sidewalks, striping bike lanes, building on parking lots, and other infringements on the ideal single-family vehicle-centric suburban design.

Problem of status

The book provides robust documentation for its argument that early suburbs were designed to promote class exclusivity and social status, and as well as for the trends whereby classic suburban forms were mass-marketed in the form of Levittowns and the proliferation of tract housing, designed to keep out the working class and poor.

Ross elaborates on the hypothesis that the desire to protect social status explains the growth and persistence of neighborhood organizing to keep out new development. The book plainly uses the term “Nimby” to describe the politically organized homeowning neighbors who organize again and again to preserve the neighborhood form and stop proposed change.

According the the book’s hypothesis, nimbies are primarily motivated by desire to maintain and increase social status, however it would be politically unacceptable to be upfront about this motivation, so nimbies use other arguments – environmentalism, historical preservation, traffic – as fig leaves to hide their naked self-interest. Not only do nimbies attempt to conceal their true motives from policymakers and fellow citizens, they can successfully conceal their self-interested motives even from themselves.

The pretexts used to hide nimby self-interest can include seemingly progressive goals; in some cities, nimbies ally with progressives to fight the displacement of low-income neighbors – and in so doing, they successfully protect the form of their existing neighborhood. Ross argues that “the striving to keep out people of lower status could be portrayed as a revolt of the oppressed people against rapacious capitalists, status-seeking disguised a cloak of self-righteous egalitarianism.”

There are several problems with these allegations of hypocrisy, disingenuousness, and false consciousness. While there may be some truth to the allegations, accusing an opponent of disingenuousness leaves no opening for compromise solutions. For example, neighbors have successfully fought potential development on the large parking lots at the Ashby BART station, in order to preserve the parking lot as precious “open space.” This may be driven in part a desire to keep out riffraff who would live in apartment buildings on the parking lot land. But when discussing the topic on Twitter, a friend brought up the weekend flea market held on the parking lot that community members want to preserve. Is there some other way to save the flea market? If you think of people in a public discussions as hypocrites deluded by false consciousness, you can’t make any progress addressing reasonable concerns.

There is another problem with diagnosing one’s political opponents as disingenuous and self-deluded. It opens the door to psychological diagnoses from the other side. For example, millennials prefer urban areas and less driving because they are fundamentally immature. But clearly they will grow out of preferring urban living, so there is no point to addressing their interests. Urbanists may think they value cultural diversity, but are actually just foodie snobs at odds with the values of real Americans..

Another challenge with the use of status as an all-purpose explanation for the passion behind nimbyism is that the definition of status itself changes over time, and is different among different subcultures. Ross does a good job of describing a change in the concept of status after the 60s, when ideas about exclusivity conveying status were replaced in some circles with the concept of authenticity, so that it becomes important to protect the neighborhood coffee shop and keep out Starbucks, for example.

So, what happens when the concept of status changes? While some suburbanites fear and disdain proposed 4-6 story midrise buildings as incipient slum towers, there are also snob urbanites with a corresponding disdain for places outside the big cities, San Franciscans who wouldn’t be caught dead in Mountain View or Redwood City. Isn’t it also true that some people who want to live in the city are also doing so for reasons of perceived status?

According to a progressive/bohemian esthetic, status can mean preserving the downscale. A local flea market is seen as a sign of authentic local culture and community-building, though it is a venue for the sale of unfashionable, dingy and discarded objects. Preserving the status of the downscale, from this perspective, can mean opposing changes that would benefit the health, happiness, and safety of local residents, such as like street trees and bike lanes.

Arguing that people organize to oppose change because they believe that what they have already is of higher value than the proposed new things is ultimately tautological. People value what they value.

Fear of traffic

There are other explanations to nimbyism that suggest alternative theories of change. The fear of traffic is one of the most common reasons given for nimby opposition to development. Until the implementation of a California law passed last year traffic as measured by motorist delay at intersections has been considered a negative environmental impact under the California environmental quality law, so opposing increase in motor vehicle delay can be an effective strategy in fighting new buildings.

Ross considers concerns about traffic to be entirely disingenuous, a transparent pretext for opposing the building of new buildings to protect the status of the neighborhood. The problem is that in car-centric suburban areas that are starting to retrofit to become more walkable and transit-friendly, the legacy policies governing street design and vehicle parking actually encourage people to drive. Unless changes are made to policies and incentives, people who are afraid of excess traffic and parking overflow are likely to be correct. The policies and incentives need to change, so that fewer people are likely to drive in the new buildings. Persuading people that it is possible to reduce driving may help reduce fear of new buildings.

So an alternative to the hypothesis about status and false consciousness is a hypothesis that many people have expectations shaped by a lifetime experience and belief in the value of easy driving everywhere. Billions of dollars in advertising over decades have fostered a perception that cars mean freedom, long after the experience of driving had become a traffic-clogged annoyance.

Vehement efforts to protect low density development can reflect an attempt to return to a bygone era when it was possible to easily drive everywhere with Beach Boys on the radio. But traffic congestion is a mathematical inevitability when many people live in places with low density, separated uses, and traffic is funneled into the same few arterials and freeways. Where streets are designed for the primary purpose of moving cars quickly, it is unsafe to bike and walk, and even more people drive. If you provide plentiful enough parking for everyone to find a convenient space at every destination, then the result is vast amounts of land used for parking, making places ugly and unpleasant for walking.

There is a major shift in the works, partly cultural and partly generational – toward preferring a lifestyle with less driving, which means places that are more walkable, with destinations closer together, which is to say places with more density. But many people, especially baby boomers who grew up in the old paradigm, still expect and value the ability to drive everywhere. Time is on the side of walkability. In the community where I live, many of the fiercest opponents to improvements for walking and bicycling won’t be driving in a decade and will be demanding better facilities for walking and public transit.

Changing perceptions of status

If one considers that the concept of status is somewhat malleable, and that many studies show there is pent-up demand for walkable places, different strategies for change come to mind. In places on the Peninsula that have successfully re-urbanized downtown areas, there was extensive public involvement exploring design options, and a majority of people ultimately preferred the reinvention of downtowns into more pedestrian friendly places with more workers and residents, more amenities within walking distance, and less driving per person.

It may be possible to shift perceptions about the value of less driving. Events such as Bike to Shop day help people do more of the tasks of everyday life without a car, and appreciate changes that help people swap car trips for bike trips. When people depend on cars for fewer trips, and value easy bicycling and walking access, they may appreciate having buildings closer together, with less parking supply. Because the shift in values is in part generational, baby boomers who see their children leading carfree or carlite lifestyles have lightbulb moments when they realize that more people are starting to prefer more compact and walkable places – even if the baby boomers are still preferring to drive.

bike to shop day

It may even be possible for people who say they value diversity to take actions to protect and increase diversity, by making decisions to add housing of various types in a community. The strategy here is to build on values that people say they have, and to build a working majority of people with those values.

Rail as a silver bullet

The book’s focus on status feeds into a theory of change that rail is key to the transformation of suburban places. Ross was a leader of Maryland’s decades-long initiative to build the Purple Line, a proposed 16 mile light rail extension to the Washington metro system.

In much of American culture, trains are perceived as high status, and buses as low status. This hierarchy is seen by some transit advocates as a reason to promote rail, since rail’s higher social status makes it more popular. Meanwhile, others with a more populist perspective see buses as the preferred transportation of lower income users, and therefore want to promote bus transportation instead.

I think that using a status argument for either bus or rail is misguided. Rail and buses are different technologies that are have different strengths and weaknesses. For the Purple Line, which is forecast to carry 74,000 passengers when it starts operation in 2020, buses won’t provide enough capacity, which Ross correctly points out. For other routes where the transit usage is robust but not that high (such as the VTA 22/522 with ~13,000 average weekday riders) a bus rapid transit system might be a better fit. Either rail or bus can be used for backbone rapid transit service depending on capacity needs; while bus service can be used for connecting service to the backbone lines.

Plus, rail systems with poor transit design and land use deliver reduced benefits regardless of the supposed prestige of rail. VTA light rail has been excruciatingly slow for its first decades of existence, was oddly located and took decades to begin to trigger transit oriented development. BART was extended to suburbs, with stations surrounded by vast parking lots. After four decades, the BART station in Union City has recently added is a set of big apartment buildings, a half-mile walk from an inhospitable arterial intersection hosting acres of parking lot-surrounded strip malls. Development near transit, yes, but not nearly a walkable, human-friendly place.

Ross also argues that rail transit will naturally lead to the adoption of complete streets. The natural experiment of BART in the suburban east bay belies the argument that rail transit inevitably creates walkable, bikeable places. BART stations were surrounded by huge parking lots, in the midst of a suburban land use pattern with separated residential and commercial development connected by deadly multi-lane arterial roads. Even now, some East Bay jurisdictions resist street safety improvements that might slow vehicles.

Tactically, the Purple Line advocates were right to advocate rail for the Maryland corridor. Given the local culture and continued effective advocacy, it may well be the case that the Purple Line station areas will be well integrated with nicely walkable transit oriented development with streets that are safe and convenient for walking and bicycling. But that individual case is not necessarily universal. As with East Bay BART and VTA light rail, steel wheels don’t automatically translate into livable communities with safe pleasant streets.

Policy and strategy directions

Ross offers various policy proposals to make it easier to create more urban places, including removing parking requirements, and providing more funding for affordable housing. He proposes strong versions of both of these proposals, wanting to see parking gone altogether, which requires superb transit in order to work. He wants to see greatly increased federal funding for transit, this would require major transformation in national politics, where the R-dominated House votes consistently against transit spending. Given the fact that the greatest demands for affordable housing and transit are in economically booming metros, I suspect that a greater proportion of the investment is going to need to be driven locally.

Ross proposes greater regionalization of land use policy, to counteract the control exerted by homeowners in small suburban jurisdictions. While Maryland does have county-based land use regulation, Ross also reports that this regional structure also promotes slow-moving bureaucracy and sometimes corruption. Even moderately integrated transportation and land use policy in the Bay Area has sparked fierce opposition – time will tell whether the current level of coordination will work over time, and whether the state will provide the missing transit and housing funding to make the goals work, or whether opposition will undermine the plan’s implementation.

Recommendation

I recommend the book for people who are interested in the history and politics of cities and suburbs. Even if you have read other books on the origins of suburbia, you will likely learn from this one. The analysis of the politics of suburban neighborhood opposition to change is provocative, and serves as an interesting starting point to analyze and debate cause for the current state of affairs and theories of change.

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.

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.

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.

A large, gasoline-powered wheelchair

I sprained my ankle last weekend, and this week I viscerally understand a perspective that I’ve heard in discussions about planning for the local downtown.

As soon as I was able walk to the driveway with crutches, I arranged to swap my stick-shift car for an automatic (since the clutch requires a working ankle). The car provides welcome mobility. I can get to Peets or Starbucks for coffee, a quarter-mile trip that I usually bike. I can’t move fast or go far, so I need a parking spot very close to I’m going. If I have two errands a few blocks away, I need to get back in the car and drive. A business is more appealing if it has immediate parking. I’m using a car as a large, gasoline-powered wheelchair, and it’s marvelous.

The thing is, I hear this perspective about the need for adjacent parking from people who do not have obvious mobility impairments. Perhaps some have nonvisible disabilities, and if so I hope they have medical placards or plates that allow them to park a car right in front of the places they are going. The ADA requires access for people with mobility impairments, and that access should be protected with vigilance and used by those who need it.

But there are clearly otherwise healthy individuals who use their automobile as a large, gasoline-powered wheelchair as a matter of course. Trips that are a half-mile, or a mile or two. If there are two or three errands a few blocks away, they prefer to get back in the car and drive. If car parking is a block away, that is intolerable, and it is better to drive 30 minutes to find free parking than to walk for a block or two.

Do people have a level of physical fitness so low that walking a block or two feels like running a marathon? Or is moving for a practical purpose horribly unwelcome, because it takes time away from time spend exercising indoors jogging on a treadmill or taking a spin class?

I have a lot of respect for people who use cars and parking for mobility assistance because of need. I have a lot less respect for people who use their car as a wheelchair by choice, and to protect that personal choice want to control land use in our cities for everyone, taking valuable space away from greenery, walking and bike, to provide enough car parking so healthy people don’t need to walk.