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.

The women of “Srugim”

Recently I watched the first two seasons of “Srugim” the surprise hit Israeli tv drama that follows the lives of five thirty-something single men and women in the modern orthodox community of Katamon in Jerusalem. Sometimes referred to as the Israeli “Friends”, it’s been popular among secular folk in Israel and has a following in the states (it’s available on DVD with subtitles).

Although the creators of the show are men, the most interesting and compelling characters are the 3 female central characters; a woman whose high-powered financial services job scares off some men, the daughter of a rabbi who struggles with her religious identity, and a warm-hearted graphic artist who is stuck on a commitment-phobic surgeon. Though the plot in the first season centers on heterosexual relationships, the show passes the Bechdel test.

In Season 1, the female characters in Srugim face more conflict and character development than the men, who are rather passive and unadventurous; the sexism of religious society pushes the women to evolve. In Season 2, the gay male character also faces social pressure; the show has not yet shown whether and how the character will change.

But I get the impression that the the creators of the show are torn in portraying the tensions generated by female power. On the one hand, they are sympathetic to the struggles of women making their own way. On the other hand, images of bossy or neurotic women are played somewhat unflatteringly; and yet back on the other hand, the show handles narcissism and neurosis as equal-gender-opportunity character flaws.

The finance professional dumps a fiance when he proposes only after getting a raise that makes his salary closer to hers, and with persistence negotiates her way into getting lessons in reading torah for a women’s minyan. Her character has some traits in common with the weaselly Pete Campbell of Mad Men; she can scheme and manipulate to get what she wants; she has a yiddish sharp tongue and can be a bully. Does she choose the sweet yeshiva student over the fellow professional because she experiences the unfamiliar with him; or because she can boss him around, or both; does she eventually dump him because she was never serious or realizes she doesn’t love him or both?

Toward the end of the first season the character makes some choices that seem to show increasing honesty and tact; a bit of growing up? In Season 2, she shows more ethical compass by standing up for her gay sweetie; but is her attraction to a gay man a sign in the show creators’ minds of the inability to relate to more macho “normal” heterosexual men? I dislike the scheming but like her assertiveness, negotiation skills, motorcycle, torah-reading, and the sharp tongue that gets her into trouble, but does the filmmaker?

An even more exaggerated and unattractive picture of the manipulative bossy woman is the wealthy girlfriend of the narcissistic surgery intern. She schemes to have him invited to a party thrown by her father who is a major donor of the hospital, and arranges to have her beau offered a prestigious residency at Mount Sinai hospital in NYC. She can even get her boyfriend’s absentee landlord to fix a broken sink. When her boyfriend gets upset with her assertive ways, she fakes terror of cockroaches to make him feel confident in his manhood, but smashes bugs with her high-heeled shoes when he isn’t looking. Her boyfriend doesn’t appreciate her controlling ways, but he also doesn’t appreciate the loving companionship of his long-suffering female best buddy who’s in love with him; or for that matter neither does he show consideration for anybody else in Season 1.

The bible grad student, the daughter of a rabbi, doubts her religious identity, but keeps her dilemmas a secret in Season 1. She doesn’t tell the witty and solicitous archaeology professor that she is religious though they are falling in love with each other; she doesn’t tell her friends she’s dating a secular guy. At one point she fails to stop her elderly grandmother who has wandered away from the senior center because she will be seen wearing pants; then repents and goes looking for her through the streets of Jerusalem (the grandmother is found safe).

The show makes clear why the character would be so cagey; her friends talk openly about how they dump friends who become secular; one of the male characters discovers that people on the street don’t say hello to him when he accidentally loses his kippah. The community polices boundaries, and making a choice is (or seems) definitive. Once upon a time I was like that character; I was similarly confused and in the closet about religious struggles; and caused some similar havoc. Interestingly, the show parallels the closet experiences of characters struggling with religious identity and characters struggling with sexual identity. In both cases, characters who are outside the community norms feel the need to keep secrets, struggle with disclosing their identity, and face the risk of social ostracism.

Interestingly, with the struggling religious characters in Srugim the issue is explicitly and primarily about g-d and faith. Is this different from American Judaism, where Jews talk about holidays and halachah and concepts of good and evil, and less about g-d? Personally, I’ve been pretty humanist about religion since bat mitzvah age; for me the choices about religious afflliation were more about human authority and sociology that about belief or unbelief; but the social boundaries and identity dilemmas were very similar.

The warm-hearted and emotional graphic designer is the least conflicted of the three major female characters in Season 1. She is competent at her craft without being ambitious, she is a great cook, she is sincerely religious. At the beginning of the season she is something of a doormat, and develops more of a spine as she learns from experience. Her religiosity is portrayed as somewhat of a flaw when she focuses on rules over people, but her good heart overcomes her initial impulse to rigidity.

Hers is a kind of character that I tend to loathe on the printed page, but the script and the actress redeem the character for me in Season 1; she is shown as intelligently and actively empathetic, and grows by making her own decisions. Is her fundamental meekness and domesticity seen by the filmmakers as superior womanhood? Or is she, like the good-hearted, somewhat passive and geeky fellow she eventually connects with, something of a shlemiel. In Season 2, she turns to developing her career when she is disappointed by the inability to quickly get pregnant, her emotionality turns into volatility, and overrides her sense of compassion. Where are the film-makers with this evolution? Is assertiveness and professional development being cast once again as the opposite of femininity? Or do the show’s creators also see the rift between the character and her husband as a lack of courage and honesty on both their parts, where neither can communicate about the pain of infertility and the tensions between personal and day to day tradeoffs between professional and family priorities?

I know what I think – I always liked the adventurous women characters better, in works where a male author favored the good women. I’m not sure where the show’s creators come down. I suspect they are empathetic with the character and struggles of the female characters; and not quite comfortable with female power; and able to depict flaws of selfishness, dishonesty, and cowardice in both genders.

One thing that’s interesting to me is the way the show depicts the characters moral struggles about how to interact with other people, including making mistakes, repenting and forgiving each other. Every once in a while there is a parable; the surgeon reports the hospital’s cafe kiosk for having a forged kashrut certificate and then is chagrined when the kindly kiosk employee loses his job when the contractor is replaced; and it is a bit surprising that the self-involved surgeon shows a glimmer of moral awareness and compassion. Most of the time the choices are more subtle than that parable. Religious observance, belief, and sex are red herrings, the important thing is how to treat others and oneself. The show is sociologically interesting in the way it portrays the various segments of Israeli Jewish society; but this moral psychology may be the most Jewish aspect of the show.

What do you think? I would love to bounce ideas and questions off others who watched the show.

A feminist argument for open access publishing

In the context of the geek feminism community, Liz Henry shared a link to an intriguing journal article that provides a feminist rationale for open access academic publishing: What is Feminist About Open Access?: A Relational Approach to Copyright in the Academy by Carys Craig, Joseph Turcotte, Rosemary Coombe

The strong part of the paper’s argument is the critique of the idea of self that is embedded in modern conceptions of copyright. Enlightenment and romantic thinkers conceived of the self as an autonomous individual and viewed the value of content as its originality. Postmodern theorists questioned the enlightenment and romantic ideas of authorial originality, putting authors in the context of the materials they rework and the discourses a work participates in. The article extends this questioning, using feminist theory to reframe the idea of the self as always in relation, and to reframe cultural production as created in relationship with others.

These ideas draws on the work of scholars including co-author Rosemary Coombe, Shelly Wright, Johanna Gibson, and Jennifer Nedelsky; There is a very interesting-sounding book by Nedelsky in the queue for publication that promises to develop these ideas in depth, entitled Law’s Relations: A Relational Theory of Self, Autonomy, and Law.

This feminist critique of the individualistic assumptions embedded in the concept of authorship is complementary and congenial to other aspects of the cultural critique of intellectual property. Critics including Larry Lessig, Siva Vaidhanathan, and Cory Doctorow write about “remix culture”, the idea that culture is and always has been created by reassembling and modifying existing materials. Proponents of ideas about peer production (Benkler, Bauwens, Shirky) talk about the cultural surplus that is generated from commons production. Free/Open Source software proponents (Linus Torvalds, Dan Wallach) critique the idea that quality is created by proprietary contributions, and argue that software has improved quality and security when the software creation process is transparent – with enough eyes all bugs are shallow. (The core of the Free Software argument is freedom itself, which I will get to in a bit).

However, there are a number of limitations in the feminist argument. The article attributes the idea of individual authority to a masculine conception of identity and cultural creation. But this is not inherently the case. The Rabbinic Jewish tradition conceives of cultural creation through canonical forms of re-interpretation. Rather than hailing individual creativity, this process subordinates new voices to the tradition, while using interpretive power to create new layers of tradition. The creative process was still patriarchal, though; the people with the power to create were almost all male until quite recently.

The article also advocates for the benefit of open access publishing in providing access to excluded and marginalized people. But the article is focusing on open access publishing of academic journal articles. A lay professional may be able to read the articles but almost surely isn’t going to have access to publish; let alone a working class person or nomadic woman who is a leader and arbiter for her group. The social structure and meritocracy of this particular form of publishing is the context of professional academia.

Richard Stallman and other free software proponents advocate free software with a completely open and meritocratic idea of freedom – the freedom to study a program, modify it, distribute it to help your neighbor, and give the community the benefits of your code changes. (This is meritocratic since not all changes will help a neighbor or the community at large; a developer is free to modify free software to make it unusable, buggy and insecure, also, and the community is free to review it and conclude it worse not better).

But even in contemporary peer cultures, there is still governance over who can contribute. Open source software projects have various processes for code review and determining who can commit. Licenses give coders the ability to fork, but forking is often less powerful than the ability to extend, and that is subject to governance. Wikipedia has editing standards and a tradition in a complex culture that is a challenge for outsiders to learn. Fan fiction communities define their own boundaries around canon and practice and style. The boundaries to collaborative cultural communities are created and enforced somehow, and these power and boundary structures need critique.

So, in advocating for open access academic publishing, the paper does not critique the boundary-creation process of collaborative cultural communities, accepts as a given the structure of academic authority and poses no radical alternatives. This is not a bad thing; the focus of the paper is good as it is, and this particular article has no obligation to be any more radical than it is. Advocating for open access academic publishing contributes to improving the world in an important way. But there is also room for other more radical critiques and alternative structures.

Also, by focusing on academic open access, the article refrains from grappling with other economic and legal issues relating to open access. In academia, open access reduces the economic power of traditional publishers that make large profits incommensurate with the value they add, since the peer review is contributed by fellow academics for free. But the scholars themselves are already paid a salary by the university system. In other areas of cultural production, such as nonacademic writing and free software, practitioners do not automatically have a salary paying for their cultural production. These types of collaborative production depend on different economic structures for support, and the article is silent on these challenges and changes.

As for legal analysis, the article suggests that this feminist concept of cultural production might help foster other changes in copyright law. There may well be opportunities to improve copyright law using these concepts, but this article does not explore what they might be.

That said, the article’s core argument – relating weaknesses in copyright law and practice to a critique of the notion of the individual, and reframing cultural creation in terms of relationship – is a strong and important contribution of the critique of copyright. When I saw the title and abstract, I wondered about the tactical politics of it. Having read through it, the article is primarily persuasive for fellow scholars who already understand and support feminist critique, but who may have other reasons to resist alternatives to proprietary academic publishing. And, in combination with other arguments, this argument strengthens the broader philosophical case for open access publishing and collaborative production.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg sits in the modernist tradition of turning villains and minor characters into antiheros; sympathy for the devil goes back to Milton. Our demon is Baba Yaga, the hag witch of Slavic folklore, who eats small children for lunch and gives gifts of wisdom to wandering young heroes after an ordeal or two.

The book’s first two sections are narratives focusing on old women. In the first section, the protagonist is a writer caring for her elderly mother who strives to maintain dignity with dementia. Where Baba Yaga is an infamous slob, the writer’s mother is obsessively neat; cleaning serves as or substitutes for affection. Where Baba Yaga is demonically clever, the writer’s mother is losing words to a slowly growing brain tumor, and even when she had her faculties was partial to aphorisms and cliches. While she shows the horrors of age in inverse fashion to Baba Yaga, she gives her daughter a gift; cranky and cold in her prime, she enables her daughter to show love, in a stilted and inarticulate fashion, in her decline.

In the second half of the first section, the writer travels to her hometown in Bulgaria accompanied by a younger woman, a scholar of folklore who is an obsequious fangirl bordering on stalker. The writer is taking the trip as a surrogate for her mom, hoping to recapture some feeling, but the post-iron curtain seaside town is grim and tawdry.

I’m not sure what to make of the anomie of this section; something about the anti-romance of the past in post-Soviet Central Europe. Maybe something about the disconnect of generations imposed by history and politics; the writer’s mom dealt with cataclysm by being relentlessly ordinary; the writer character is somewhat embittered by her dissidence and exile; the younger academic is left with a pale simulacrum of nationalism and alienation from biological and adopted families.

The anti-romance of the past takes a comic and ribald turn in the second section of the book, which migrates the Weird Sisters to a postwar resort in the Czech Republic. To the hotel clerk, the three elderly unmarried ladies look alike; as the story progresses, the characters reveal individual personality and individual history, each with her own tragedies, losses and secrets. Far from controlling fate, the three women’s lives have been shaped by history’s events and their own mistakes.

In the Baba Yaga legend, an old female character is isolated and alien; these three women take care of each other. Baba Yaga eats small children with her iron teeth; these old women take care of children after lifetimes of parenting failures and misadventures. The stereotype of old age is of stasis and decline, but the tale in this chapter shows older people continuing to change while they can.

Where the Baba Yaga legend mocks female old age, this chapter ridicules older men, portraying a series of pompous, egoistic schemers. Baba Yaga is old and hideous; but modern society is obsessed with trying to preserve female youth and beauty. Dubravka Ugresic sees the spa as an emblem of the vapidity of post-Soviet Central Europe. “In the absence of all ideologies, the only refuge that remains for the human imagination is the body.”

This chapter comes the closest to feminist antihero fan fictions about characters such as Lilith and Vashti, taking bit-character villains and turning them into main characters. But it doesn’t adopt the feminist cliche of turning the villain into a hero. Buba, the character whose consciousness the narrative follows, is ridiculous; she is not very bright or articulate, she has a good heart but is clumsy and insecure. Dubravka Ugresic inverts villains into characters that are ordinary and imperfect.

The third section of the book is in the voice of the fangirl academic who expatiates on Baba Yaga folklore at tedious length. This is postmodern conceptual art; it’s mocking the dry irrelevance of the academic cataloging species of premodern horrors and resisting the temptations of scholarly explication. At the same time, it is Ugresic’s sly chance to caption the photographs in case the reader missed the meanings; the hag as icon for female old age; as projection of mysogynist fears; as the degraded image of the Goddess defeated by Patriarchy (Here’s a writeup of a book group discussion focusing on these themes with Timmi Duchamp, editor of Aqueduct Press, a publishing house for feminist science fiction.

The thing is, while Ugresic pre-emptively incorporates and mocks her interpreter, she also invokes her own interpretation in the narrative sections, repeating and self-consciously questioning figures of eggs, birds, and flowers; beauty and tawdriness; eloquence and dumbness, magic and prose. She’s warning us off of interpretation but herself can’t stay away.

In the age of the internet, the traditional form of the book review is dead; but people still haven’t gotten the memo. In Goodreads, there are 28 “reviews” of the book, taking the form of a brief outline and summary, perhaps a quote, and then the author’s declaration of opinion. The form assumes that the reader hasn’t read the book, needs an introduction, but wants to avoid spoilers. The obsolete form is particularly annoying with this book which invites and resists its own explication.