Wild Ones: endangered species and gardening wilderness

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

Teddy Bear

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

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

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

Lange’s Metalmark Butterfly

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

Ultralight aircraft leads migrating cranes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-driving cars are the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Automated cut-through traffic

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

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

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

Undraining the swamps

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

San Francisco Bay Restoration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter tourism

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

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

Life Between Buildings and Cities for People

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

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

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

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

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

soft edges

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

Siena informal seating

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

Picture 37

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

heatlamps for year-round sitting

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

Staying activities in Adelaide

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

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


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

big driveway

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


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

safeway seating

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

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

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

Walkable Cities for People

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

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

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

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

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

So what is it that makes places walkable and livable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Streets are places, too.

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

You can’t build your way out of congestion

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

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

Where to start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justice in the City: The Babylonian Talmud and Los Angeles Zoning

I recently read “Justice in the City“, a book that mines the Babylonian Talmud, the cornerstone text of Rabbinic Judaism, for ideas related to urban social justice issues. The book addresses issues of homelessness, labor, and criminal justice. In each of these sections, the Talmud has principles and examples that can be applied to the topic. Disclosure: the author is a friend.

Poverty and homelessness

The book cites Talmudic sources on tenants’ rights and the responsibility of a city to care for its residents. There are sections describing a landlord’s timelines to give notice prior to eviction, which are longer in the rainy season and in large cities where the housing market is assumed to be tighter. There is an obligation to provide a traveller with a bed and bedding for the night, and an an obligation for city residents to pay regular assessments to feed and shelter the poor.

The book extends these concepts to current conditions where there are large numbers of homeless all the time; specifically calls out cities including LA that invest more in criminalizing outdoor sleeping than providing shelter; and infers an obligation for city residents to seek solutions. In a political culture where libertarian ideas denying civic obligations have an insidious hold, it is refreshing to read sources that consider in a nuanced fashion the obligations to those who need support.

Economic justice and zoning

The book’s first chapter examines a Talmudic case where the building of a gate house for a housing compound is criticized if it prevents the residents from hearing the voices of the poor. The author generalizes the principle, “we can set up our living spaces – our houses, or neighborhoods, and ultimately our cities – so that we are open to the demand of the Stranger.”

Yet, when the book talks about house cleaning and child care work, it refers to “those who care for your children and clean your house.” The readership of the book, in this sentence, is assumed to be middle class or wealthy people who can afford childcare and house cleaning services. The book advocates for the obligation to hear the voices of those in need, and in favor of justice for people who live across town in differing circumstances.

But why do the poor live far away from the middle class and the wealthy? The examples in the book focus on the author’s community of Los Angeles. Like many areas in the US, Los Angeles has a high degree of income segregation, which has been reinforced at a deep level by land use policies that separate uses and regulate density levels, keeping larger, more expensive single family homes away from less expensive multi-family units. These zoning codes separate the wealthy from the poor as effectively as explicit discrimination.

Legally mandated development patterns where houses, schools, workplaces and stores are far away from each other and reachable only by car, impose disproportionate costs on lower income people. In recent years, Los Angeles has increased investments in transit, started to improve pedestrian infrastructure, and is increasing infill development. Justice in the City puts zoning and land use policy in the context of traditional Jewish ethics.

Restorative Justice

The book has an interesting chapter on Restorative Justice, drawing on material from the Jewish tradition in which crimes that cause damages, including theft and assault, are handled with restitution rather than with punishment. The biblical text “an eye for an eye”, is definitively understood in the rabbinic tradition as referring to monetary compensation. Not only that, traditional sources grapple with the problem that quantifying damages has the potential to be undignified for the victim whose worth is calculated.

The practice of “restorative justice” is a potentially promising alternative to our punishment-focused criminal “justice” system. The author not only discusses the subject in theory, but has been active as a mediator in a restorative justice practice.

The obligation to protest

The least satisfying section of the book is the section in Chapter 2 which discusses the obligation to protest injustice. The book cites powerful classic stories about the obligation to protest the unjust actions of the powerful, even in cases where victory is unlikely.

But the author frames the choice to protest as a binary; should one only protest if one expects success, or should one protest even when one believes that protesting will have no effect? Yes, there are cases where one should certainly protest injustice even when there is no hope of change in the near term. But most political situations are not that stark.

Perhaps in a hierarchical community where there is a single authority figure, advocacy consists of making an appeal to the authority that is approved or denied. But in contemporary democracies, an activist participates in a range of situations; some where victory is nearer to hand, and others where longterm groundwork is needed before change can happen.

The book is not arguing in favor of political martyrdom. Paraphrasing Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the author urges that utility should have a vote, not a veto. Whether to emphasize this point depends on the context of the the issue and the community. Where the issue is very difficult and the community passive, this is an important point to make.

However, there are a wide range of issues where this focus can be misleading. I fear that the book may valorize the pattern where an activist stands up to object to a wrong; the protest is not heard, and the advocate goes home, disappointed but self-satisfied in being in the right. Sometimes this pattern indicates that the activist has not done the necessary groundwork in building support, educating decision-makers, and influencing public opinion in order to have a good chance of winning.

The first choice is whether to protest, but it is usually as important to consider how to protest. I know from experience outside the book that the author has a history of practical advocacy that has made a difference on difficult issues. But in this section the book, protest is not treated with the same level of nuance as other topics in the book, nor the level of nuance that the author presumably utilizes in his own activism.

Labor and the role of tradition

The book cites Talmudic sources about the responsibilities of employers to employees, including obligations to pay a prevailing wage in the community and to follow local work practices. The book also observes the difference between pre-modern employer/employee relations, and modern practices in the age of labor unions. Since the emergence of corporate employers and labor unions, rabbis and scholars have extrapolated to modern conditions and support collective bargaining for wages and benefits.

The application of traditional principles to modern conditions raises important questions about the role of traditional ethical disciplines and practice in democratic societies. One of the Rabbis cited on the validity of labor unions was the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, a country in which an Orthodox Rabbinate is granted a monopoly on certain aspects of family and ritual law, with various problematic ethical consequences.

For those who agree that theocracy is a bad idea, there needs to be an alternative understanding of the role of applying and extending ethical traditions, in the broader context of a democracy. This implies a competitive market for ideas, a political framework of organizing and persuasion, and a role that is advisory rather than authoritative.

How does the book work for a broader audience?

The readers of the book are not assumed to have any faith commitment. The readers are assumed to have some familiarity with the tradition of western philosophical ethics; the book quotes sources including Rawls, MacIntyre, Searle and others.

The book definitely comes from a liberal political perspective, and I have no complaint with that. There are ancient Jewish communal traditions assuming that communities have shared responsibility to pay for education, and to care for the poor. The classic Jewish texts do not assume that people are poor because they are undeserving, nor that hunger is the appropriate and impersonal result of a free market.

Overall, I appreciate the attempt to use Jewish sources for perspective on contemporary ethical issues. However, as someone with a fair amount of Jewish background who shares many of the author’s political beliefs, it is hard for me to predict how this book will come across to people with different backgrounds. I would be interested to learn how the book reads to people who are interested in social justice and ethics but come from other ethical traditions.

The Option of Urbanism – financial causes and market remedies for sprawl

Unlike many critics of suburban sprawl who approach the topic from social, environmental, and public health perspectives, Christopher Leinberger comes to the topic with a business perspective. An academic and think tank scholar at Brookings, Leinberger is also a real estate developer. This perspective enables him to identify some of the financial causes of sprawl, and some financial incentives that might help to reverse it.

In The Option of Urbanism Leinberger explains financial reasons that sprawl escalated in the 90s. After the savings and loan financial implosion in the 80s, real estate finance was taken over by Wall Street investment firms from failed local and regional banks. To create liquidity in the real estate market, investment banks in the early 90s floated public offerings of Real Estate Investment Trusts which hold portfolios of real estate assets which were worth trillions by the mid-2000s. Faced with the need to scale their operations to finance large volumes of development, analysts created a list of standard “products” that could be evaluated, approved and traded. These “products” include Neighborhood Retail Centers (the ubiquitous shopping mall), Power Centers (malls anchored by big box stores), luxury gated developments, and garden rental apartments visible from freeways.

The Ubiquitous Shopping Center

Developments that were “nonconforming” to these cookie-cutter templates were difficult to finance, so developers churned out endless square miles of single use developments that make it impractical to walk, bike, and take transit. Leinberger tells several stories of REIT CEOs who lost their jobs, or passed up more urban development because of concern that nonstandard development would harm their stock price.

Leinberger’s business perspective also helps him see the market gap caused by the dominance of sprawl. Repeated market studies show that there is a big gap between the number of people who want to live in walkable neighborhoods near where they work and shop, and the the number of people who have these choices available. A sign of the market demand is the increasing housing prices in walkable urban areas, resulting in displacement of lower-income residents. Leinberger believes that enterprising developers eventually fill the gap between demand and supply. Leinberger sees the greatest interest in financing walkable urban development in private investment funds free of Wall Street pressure. He believes Wall Street analysis will learn how to evaluate urban options, once they have a track record of financial success. However, it will take decades for the market to catch up and provide enough urban options for people who want them.

This perspective is promising, although there are a few things it doesn’t explain. It would be possible to create financial templates to evaluate urban developments as well. However, the templates also require proven store brands, putting small local businesses at a disadvantage, and reinforcing bland sameness everywhere. Leinberger believes that diversity can be added back, but given the financial mechanisms he describes, it isn’t clear how.

A related concern that Leinberger doesn’t address is building life cycle diversity. The large investment packages favored by developers and investors result in large developments, with all elements the same age. One of Jane Jacobs’ early insights about urban neighborhoods is that they contain buildings of different ages, supporting a mix of incomes and business types. Large developments age and become run down all at the same time, and if they are rehabbed, they are upgraded all at once also. Leinberger does make the case that it will take several decades to meet the pent up demand for urban spaces – perhaps by that time there will be enough variety of ages at the development level to support diversity.

In addition to meeting pent-up customer demand, the book calls out another benefit of walkable urban development. Today’s single-purpose commercial development has a profitable life of only 7-10 years. By contrast, Leinberger argues, walkable urban development has a longer useful life, and is a better match for pension funds, life insurance policies, and retirement funds with long term investment needs.

The book calls out another financial drawback of sprawl, this time for local governments. The costs to build roads, sewer, and water systems to serve sprawling suburbs are higher than the costs of serving more compact areas. According to a regional planning study for Salt Lake City, Utah, the metro area would save about 25% in infrastructure costs ($4.5 billion) over 20 years if somewhat more compact development. Historically, however, property taxes, user fees, and development impact fees have been assessed per unit, regardless of whether the unit is in suburban areas with one dwelling per acre, as in urban areas with multiple units per acre.

Like many other critics of sprawl, Leinberger also calls out zoning codes that mandate vast parking lots and prohibit mixed use neighborhoods where people can walk to work and to stores. Jurisdictions can update zoning to allow mixed use, greater densities, and efficient use of parking, but there is a long time lag, since zoning codes tend to be updated at a frequency of decades.

The picture that emerges from this book is an optimistic one. There is an unmet market demand for urban living, and businesses will evolve to meet the need. There are sources of friction slowing this evolution, including Wall Street investment formulas and zoning codes, but these can evolve over time as well. Over the past 60 years, the pattern of development was very heavily suburban, but the pendulum is starting to swing back.

Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit and Peninsula Transit dilemmas

Recently I read Jarrett Walker’s excellent new book Human Transit, which encapsulates the ideas that Walker shares on his transit planning blog. The book clearly frames the decisions that shape public transit systems, as well as some of the common misconceptions that mis-shape public transit.

The book sheds light on some of the dilemmas that afflict the transit system in our area, which doesn’t work much like a system.

1) Frequency is Freedom. When the media describes Caltrain electrification, they often describe the benefit as “faster service.” They leave out improved frequency to more stations. Jarrett Walker explains that media – and decision-makers – who are more familiar with automobiles often over-estimate the benefit of travel speed for transit systems. When you drive a car and can leave any time, the improvement that means the most to you is greater speed. But if you take transit that comes once an hour, the biggest improvement you need is greater frequency.

Speed isn’t irrelevant. When Caltrain added the “Baby Bullet” that made the train more competitive with driving, ridership went up overall. In San Francisco, Muni’s big problem really is speed – Muni travels an average of 8mph, slower than an ordinary bicyclist.

When people tout the benefits of BART, they describe it as “convenient” or even “fast”. But the BART trains aren’t particularly speedy – they are frequent. They arrive every 5-20 minutes, depending on the station and time of day. A rider can take the train with little or no advanced planning, and use transit most of the time.

Walker has popularized “Frequent Network maps that highlight, for riders and agencies, which parts of the transit network offer frequent service, and therefore useful service.

frequent network map

2) Ridership or coverage? The way that Walker frames this dilemma sheds light on the perennial problems of Caltrain and SamTrans.

Walker explains that a transit service needs to decide how to balance goals for ridership, and for coverage. To optimize for ridership, a service identifies where large numbers of people start and where they go, and designs routes that connects most people with their destinations. To optimize for coverage, a transit service attempts to serve as much of the geographic area, as possible, and to space stops as close together as possible.

Optimizing for a coverage goal can provide service to people who have no other travel choices. But the resulting service will be very slow and roundabout, uncompetitive for people who have other choices, and a burden for people whose time could be used with family or work.

Optimizing for ridership will have the best direct financial return (serving the most passengers per service/hour). Where there is high peak use, a plan to optimize ridership might provide service only at the height of rush hour. This type of service doesn’t address equity goals. It also may not maximize the larger economic benefits of transit, where people choose to live and work, and locate their businesses in areas with convenient transit.

With the Baby Bullet and its peak-centric service, Caltrain is oriented more toward a “ridership” goal.

With its service for schoolkids, elderly riders, and frequent stops in urban locations, and service to suburban locations, SamTrans is oriented toward a “coverage” goal. But since it is hemorrhaging cash, and expected to be bankrupt in 2015, this goal is clearly unsustainable.

What is the most frustrating is that Caltrain and SamTrans are not seen as parts of a single transit system helping riders get from point A to point B. Instead, they are seen as high end and low end products in a product line – a Cadillac and a Geo Metro.

Which raises another issue:

3) Connections or Complexity. Conventional wisdom holds that “riders won’t transfer”, and therefore transit services are designed to have convoluted and inefficient routes, which are not time-efficient for riders or cost-efficient for agencies.

Actually, experience around the world shows that riders will transfer if the schedule and stations are designed properly. IF – you can walk across a platform onto a waiting train or bus, and quickly head toward your destination, if you can transfer without financial penalty, if you can easily find directions from Point A to Point B without hunting among multiple maps and websites – then a transfer is pretty painless and a trip can be useful. A system designed with a grid is more efficient at getting people from origin to destination than a system.

transit grid

Unfortunately, because of the Bay Area’s fragmented transit system, we often do not have good transfers. Connect time isn’t optimized, and riders need to pay a premium because they are using different brands.

The MTC’s Transit Sustainability Project, designed to analyze and improve the efficiency of Bay Area transit, looks only at the point-to-point efficiency of individual major lines. The effectiveness of feeder service to support the first and last miles to and from the trunk service is not considered. It’s like looking at the arteries and veins of a circulation system without the capillaries that feed digits and organs.

In order to improve the connectivity of the system, the Bay Area doesn’t need to consolidate into One Big Transit Agency. There are several metro areas in Europe that have many cities, similar to the Bay Area. They have different local agencies, but a single coordinating agency that consolidates fares, schedules, and marketing across all of the agencies.

Walker doesn’t have pre-packaged answers for every transit problem. Instead, he lays out clear principles of transit system design that can be used to help jurisdictions make better decisions.

I highly recommend the book to anyone who is concerned about the ways that our transit system underperforms, and ways to make improvements.