Tuesday, March 31, 2009

City dwellers harm climate less?

The idea that city dwellers have less impact on water, air, and land has become an accepted norm. Is it really true? Logic would dictate that denser areas, cities and even suburbs, are more efficient because of the way they can cluster people and have more logical land use patterns.

What seems to be left out of the equation is that cities dwellers produce very little. Take NYC as an example. They import pretty much all their food, products for consumption, and still have 1.6 million cars entering Manhattan daily (this does not include buses and trucks). In addition, all the garbage produced in the 5 boroughs is then shipped to PA via truck. Is the carbon footprint really that small, or are we just imposing our lifestyles and creating environmental hazards in other communities that supply the things we need to live our lives?

The New Scientist article starts to scratch the surface of this issue:

Jim Hall at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK says that, although dense cities may reduce transport emissions and act as "hugely beneficial" hubs of innovation, their total effect on the climate also depends on measures that were not captured by the current analysis.

"Cities where the service sector dominates have outsourced carbon intensive industries to developing countries, yet are still voracious consumers of industrial products," Hall says. "There is a large discrepancy between production-based and consumptions-based metrics of emissions." Dodman agrees.

"The emissions for a pair of shoes made in China and sold in the UK are currently allocated to China, not to [the UK], so it is fair to ask whether we should count emissions according to the location of production or the location that is driving the consumption."

Dodman also stresses that despite comparing well to their nations' average carbon footprint, western cities have room for plenty of improvement. In the list of top climate offenders, their emissions still dwarf those from cities in developing nations.

This begs the question, should we be measuring how we act locally, especially consumption habits, and what impacts we are having globally?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Pre-fabulous Housing

Who wants green housing? who wants low cost housing? Who wants prefab? The folks over at Clayton are going to provide you with the answer: the I-House. A green affordable prefab house that should be able to meet just about anyones budget.

The result was the Clayton I-House, an innovative prefab home that can be powered for a dollar a day, thanks to Low-E windows, solar augmentation, high-efficiency appliances and superior insulation. The solar panels on the roof don't supply all the home's needs, but they do cut electricity consumption in half. There's also a tankless water heater and a cistern that collects rainwater from the roof for use in gardening, car washing or other outdoor uses. Floors are made of fast-growing bamboo, and paint and insulation are low- or zero-emission.

The basic I-House is 992 square feet, though the design's blend of indoor and outdoor space makes it seem bigger. Though final prices haven't been set, Clayton hopes to deliver it for about $100,000. But the "core" unit can be expanded by adding additional rooms in different configurations to suit the buyer's needs and the character of the lot — placing rooms above one another to accommodate, for example, a hillside. Clayton Vice President Chris Nicely says the goal is to allow as much customization — both in configuration and interiors — as possible. It can be set on a traditional foundation, for example, or it can sit on piers driven into the ground.
Are we ready to reverse trends from the McMansions to the smaller prefab homes? Is an innovative idea like the I-house what we need to curb current trends and land use patterns? It might just be the spark we have been waiting for.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Regional Approach to Urban Affairs

Neal Peirce at citiwire has this good commentary on how the new office of urban affairs needs to approach work on regions instead of cities or suburbs. Many in the urban and planning fields have been waiting for a regional approach that can successfully work through the red tape that has been created through the myriad number of partnerships and relationships that make up regional government bodies. Here are some excerpts:

Instead of primary focus on tired (and waning) subsidies for troubled inner cities, advocates for the new office are hoping for a radical shift to a federal partnership that focuses on entire metropolitan regions and their potential to produce innovation and restoke the American economy.

The reasoning’s straightforward. Unlike the hub-and-spoke city-suburban model of yesteryear, today’s 363 metro regions encompass broad swaths of multiple center cities, downtowns, suburbs and exurbs. The top 100 are an economic marvel: alone they account for 92 percent of air passenger boardings, two-thirds of major research universities, 75 percent of workers with graduate degrees, 78 percent of all patents.

The president recognized metros during his presidential campaign, saying Washington has been “wedded to an outdated ‘urban’ agenda” mired in antipoverty policy alone–that it’s time “to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution.” So he promised an urban strategy “that’s about South Florida as much as Miami, about Mesa and Scottsdale as much as Phoenix, about Stamford and Northern New Jersey as much as New York City.”

Obama’s selection of Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion to head the new office was a touch unsettling to some supporters of a more metro-oriented urban approach. They worry that Carrion’s experience is entirely New York City-related, without background either in city-suburban ties or federal policy.

I am glad the new office of urban affairs exists but the choice of Carrion was poor judgement. We need someone who has years of experience working on regional ideals, not city specific. It is yet to be determined how much policy will be dictated from the new office.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Who needs a cheap car, not me!

Nothing is better than creating massive amounts of hype over cheap automobiles. The new car in India is just that and the memes are spreading globally. Who doesn't like the idea of a cheap affordable car?

I think we are at the gates of offering a new form of transport to the people of India and later, I hope, other markets elsewhere in the world," he said, describing the launch as a "milestone."

"The present economic situation makes it somewhat... more attractive to the buying public," he told reporters in Mumbai ahead of a glitzy official unveiling ceremony at 7:30 pm (1400 GMT).

Potential owners of the car -- which is just over three metres (10 feet) long and has a top speed of 105 kilometres (65 miles) per hour -- can apply between April 9 and 25, Tata managing director Ravi Kant said.

A ballot will then select 100,000 people to be the first to get the keys to the vehicle and deliveries will start in early July 2009, he added.

The rest of the world doesn't have to worry, they plan on making versions for us too:
Tata is hoping the Nano will also be a hit overseas in the long term.

Earlier this month, the firm unveiled a European Nano sporting airbags and leather trim that will hit the market by 2011 but be costlier than in India due to the extra features.A US version is also on the drawing board but requires redesigning to meet American safety standards.

It is frightening that when we should not only be thinking about more energy efficient vehicles which should be costing more, we are still crazed about cheap cars. Yes, we have had our cake and eaten it, but shouldn't we in a peer to peer way helping developing countries understand that it is so much more than a car. Your land use planning and the way of life will change forever as more and more cars get introduced into countries that have not been dominated by them.

I believe the US has finally realized what a problem private car ownership is, and we are slowly taking small baby steps to fix that. At our current rate it will take another 100 years for us to realize we don't need cheap cars, instead we need affordable public transit that works for everyone.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Inequality is creating unaffordable cities

NYC is looked as the model to emulate in regards to a vibrant and successful city. Yet, recent reports are pointing to an income gap that continues to grow larger and larger in the Big Apple. Once seen as the place to go to make it big on Broadway, Wall Street, or just in general, lately it seems to have become a city of glaring opposites: the rich and the poor.

This Forbes article is a follow up to a study that claimed the middle class is leaving and will no longer cease to exist in the Big Apple. Can NYC survive with less diversity, especially in regards to income? Here is an excerpt from the article:
Worst of all, the rise of inequality in these high-cost blue cities seems to be connected to policy decisions. High taxes and strict regulations have expelled relatively well-paying blue collar jobs in manufacturing and warehousing from expensive urban areas. Without them, an extremely bifurcated economy and society forms because no traditional ladders for upward mobility remain; they are critical to a successful urbanity.

Back in the 1960s, Jane Jacobs predicted that Latino immigrants to New York, mainly from Puerto Rico, would inevitably make "a fine middle class." Yet four decades later, in the Bronx, the city's most heavily Latino county, roughly one in three households lives in poverty--the highest rate of any urban county in the nation.
At the other extreme, in Manhattan, where the rich are concentrated, the disparities between socioeconomic classes have been rising steadily. In 1980, the borough ranked 17th among the nation's counties for social inequality; today it ranks first, with the top fifth of wage earners earning 52 times that of the lowest fifth, a disparity roughly comparable to that of Namibia.

To an old-fashioned Truman Democrat like me, this is bad news. But some modern-day "progressives," like Richard Florida, celebrate the concentration of rich people. They see them as guarantors that places like New York will be the winners of the post-crash economy. The losers? Goods-producing regions of the Great Plains, the industrial Midwest and, of course, those unenlightened, suburban middle-class people.

Is it time we rethink our current models and come up with new approaches to how we create vibrant and livable cities. I believe quality of life seems to be at the core of many issues, yes, Richard Florida is right that economics plays a key role. While I don't buy the creative class argument, the clustering of the rich will slowly work to deteriorate our cities and leave them as playgrounds for the well to do.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

New design for Hennepin Ave. is wrong for cyclists

After years of riding in NYC I find this design proposed for Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis short sighted and ignoring best practices. In NYC it is common for cyclists on the avenues to ride in the bus lane. This is likely the least secure spot you can be in because of blind spots and right hooks. Putting cyclists in a bus lane and car turning lane is the last place you want to be. Even if the lane (18' in spots) has enough room to pass on the left, many cyclists are not use to riding in between two lanes of moving traffic. While splitting lanes in NYC is a common way to get around, it is not the norm in Minneapolis.

This new design will force cyclists to have to negotiate buses, cars, and pedestrians on a very crowded main arterial through downtown Minneapolis. Even though issues have been voiced about the current counter-flow lane on Hennepin, this new concept seems to tac on space for cyclists as if the planners and traffic engineers forget we use the roads as well.

I believe a counter-flow lane either on the side or down the middle of the road with lead intervals and bike boxes would have been the best solution for Hennepin Avenue. This would have given cyclist dedicated space and the necessary time to make right and/or left turns. Assuming the lanes would be 6' for each direction leaves plenty of room to pass cyclists who are stopped waiting for the light to change and make their turn. Also, this design is similar to the current configuration and predictable for drivers who are use to the existing counter-flow lane on Hennepin. What is less predictable are cyclists being stuck in between two lanes of traffic.

If we are going to take the time and come up with new designs why not look at complete street designs and best practices from around the world. We need to create streets that are safer for all users.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Multi-modal lives in the Twin Cities

I always find it rewarding to see what fellow residents are up to when they decide, or choose, to change habits in regards to transit. Trying to live a multi-modal life is not easy for many, but with the right preparation and gumption, it can be done. I find these bloggers in the Twin Cities good examples:

Snak Shak:
It's a lot easier than I anticipated to not use a car at all during the week because of my 9 to 5 (actually more like 7:30 - 5:30) job. I can take either of two routes into downtown and the time difference between them is only about 10 minutes, so I take whichever bus comes first. I read book, don't talk to my Bus Friend, and then walk a few blocks downtown and I am in the office. Piece of cake. 
On the way home, I can get off at either Bloomington Ave. (close to home) or Chicago Ave. (close to some shops) so I can generally fend for myself to and from work. Minor errands are easy on a bike and I have a grocery store, a convenience store and a dry cleaner close by (within walking distance, in fact), so that helps.

Last Thursday we got a good 5-6 inches of fresh snowfall here in the metro area. I rode to work, since it was lovely and dry in the morning and my attitude of the last year or so has been "if it doesn't completely suck in the morning, I'll deal with the afternoon when it gets here." And it didn't suck in the morning. But the snow came down heavy and fast and by the time I left work there was 4-5 inches on the streets. And everywhere I went there was no sign of a plow. 
I took the train from downtown to the 50th Street station and headed into Minnehaha Park. Those trails were not plowed either. And while the fresh powder of the trail was easier to navigate than the mashed potato snow of downtown, both took a tremendous amount of energy. I was surprised at how rideable everything was, it was just hard work. Even my nemesis, the Mendota Bridge, was rideable. But after 6 miles, I was covered in sweat and plenty pooped. But pleasantly so. I found the whole experience to be enjoyable, even when I had to push the bike. It was like a mini Arrowhead 135. Only 129 more miles to cover. I realized that if I ever attempted that race, I would need to actually train instead of just relying on my base commuting miles to carry me through. I'm definitely not in that kind of shape.

Car light family Minneapolis:
Okay. I know I’m in a fairly serious healing crisis. I know it was the practical thing to do, but it is really screwing our life up. Twice this week Dancer husband thought he could use the car, I thought I could and we ended up being frustrated, angry and stranded. There is little thought anymore. Little coming together. Little dialogue around schedules. We flit and float and all those things the damn von Trapp kids did on their way to bed at night. Here’s my new joke, “What’s the fastest way for a car-free family to lose consciousness and become completely ego-centric? Buy a car.” Yes, dear readers, you one-car families get it. It is harder to be car-light than car-free.

Twin Cities Sidewalks:
Here is my checklist of people seen on Saint Paul sidewalks:
Kids on trikes
Kids on bikes
Kids in wagons
Kids playing basketball
Kids playing wiffleball
Kids playing catch
Kids running around
Kids wearing costumes
People holding hands
Parents walking with kids
Parents walking without kids
Kids walking without parents
Joggers in T-shirts
Joggers in track suits
Joggers in sweat suits
Dogs running around with owners
Dogs running around without owners
Owners chasing dogs running around without owners
Cats running around without anyone
People on bicycles
People on scooters
People on motorcycles
Cool dude in a convertible with the top down

This is why I love Minneapolis:
If you live, work or shop downtown, the Skyways are probably the city’s greatest asset. Seven cumulative miles of store front, without ever sticking a toe into inclement weather! People who plan their lives meticulously, arranging to live, work and shop all within these boundaries, can conceivably go weeks without facing the elements. Certainly there’s the potential for this to be a Gerbil Habitrail Hell of sorts, but most winters I rarely want to go outside between January 2nd and March 31st anyway, unless it’s to get into a cab to the airport so I can fly to somewhere warm, so give me that Habitrail and throw in a running wheel and some omelet-flavored food pellets while you’re at it!

I love it that I could potentially just put on my over-sized Dilbert slippers and do two hours of shopping without ever touching pavement. The Skyway opens up all kinds of crazy possibilities for people who, for whatever reason, have outdoor aversions due to cold, snow, rain, heat or post-op infection. (I still tell the story - possible urban legend - of the HCMC patient wearing slippers, an open-backed gown and pulling an IV stand who, after a brief moment on the streets outside the hospital, ducked into the Skyway and made it all the way to Saks before someone suggested that he should consider turning around.)

Give it a try, you might just like it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Transit ridership highest in 50 years

2008 was a watershed moment in America. Since the creation of the interstate highway system it was the year that ridership of public transit had surpassed the numbers before the highway system was created. This is the opportune time to further advocate for more investment in transit, but instead, we see a stimulus package that is more disinvestment in our current systems. While some capital projects are still a go, cities across the nations are slashing services while raising fares. Here is an excerpt from a NY Times article:

Although the federal stimulus law included $8.4 billion to help transit systems pay for construction, repairs and new train cars and buses, the money cannot, for the most part, be used to pay for operating expenses like salaries. So some systems are cutting routes, laying off workers and raising fares.

Now many transit advocates, who have long said that transit gets shortchanged by a federal government that devotes far more money to highways, are turning their attention to Congress, which could pass a new transportation bill as early as this fall.

David Goldberg, a spokesman for Transportation for America, a coalition of groups pushing for an overhaul of transportation policy, said lawmakers should take note of the higher ridership.“This is the leading edge,” Mr. Goldberg said, “of a continuing surge in demand for public transportation and more walkable neighborhoods as the population ages, convenience and access become more critical and gas prices remain volatile.”

The choices we are making today are going to have serious consequences down the road. Let's hope we start making better informed decisions about transportation.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The "New" Brooklyn

It is funny how some cities get picked up in the media and blogosphere hype as the next big thing. Brooklyn seems to have been on this path for sometime now. I don't even want to know how many blogs exist that are talking about Brooklyn in some shape or form, but I assume they are in the thousands.

Brooklyn to me became the backyard for Manhattanites who wanted a bit more space, have somewhere to park their car, and have 1-3 kids. That pretty much sums up a few of the main reasons I left. The last thing I wanted to do was move to the next Brooklyn. Yes, unfortunately this put Philadelphia out of the running, although I think it is a great city and wish things had been different.

Just like Portland today (I do love you PDX), but Brooklyn is completely played and gentrified out. Cost of living does not meet the quality of life, the scale is way out of balance. Brooklyn to me is one of those cities that could be great, but fell victim to its own demise. I like this quote from this NY Times article:
But for Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” it’s all the same thing. “ ‘Brooklyn’ is a euphemism for ‘gentrification,’ ” Florida says. Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, is quick to distinguish between good gentrification and bad. Brooklyn accumulated its hipness, he says, by avoiding the “gauche” sort of hypergentrification that overwhelmed SoHo — perhaps because it had so much further to come. Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, Florida developed a distinctly negative impression of Brooklyn. “Brooklyn was ugh,” he says. “It was urban blight. Now it’s somewhat affordable, it’s somewhat real, it’s somewhat authentic.” And alas, maybe somewhat over.
Just for clarification I am not a troll that despises NYC. I lived there for years before deciding it was no longer the place for me to lead my life. While choosing another city was far from easy, I know now after relocating that it was the right, and long overdue, decision. I no longer have to fight to get into the subway, claim my 700 sqft of apartment space, almost get run over daily bicycle commuting, and work way too hard to make ends meet. The myth and romanticism of NYC is just that. The reality today is quite different, at least for me it was.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

Reposted from Citypages.com.

The two towns are an old couple now, long married and long since settled into the notion that they'll spend the remaining years of their lives together. Nadine and Russell: two cities separated by a river—one that runs between men and women everywhere.

We all move with our DNA's own pulsating energy. Nadine and Russell are no different, and those energies have often pulled them in wildly different directions over the years. There were memorable arguments, days when they didn't speak. In many ways theirs has been a marriage of convenience. They were brought together by mutual interest and a belief that one could further the ambitions of the other. Not the foundation of love, perhaps, but despite living pragmatically rather than romantically, they've tried to work things out, sometimes through tortured marriage counseling.

In one marathon therapy session, years ago, the effort was tense and bitter. Nadine had been searing the candle ends, securing high-stakes business deals for her firm by day, then going out at night to hear music and see shows.

Russell had been fine with it, at first. He spent his time with the kids, taking them to a museum or to the playground. He was in the church's men's club, and he went to occasional talks at the library on local history. Gradually, though, he came to ponder what he truly had in common with the woman he married. He felt they were growing apart. On a cold January day, the therapist had asked them candidly what need they were looking for the other to fill, and how much of their frustrations were from old wounds that were never honestly discussed.

Russell opened up about his jealousy, his sense that he came off as a bit player in their relationship and that Nadine took him for granted. But he also spoke of his belief that Nadine's pursuits came at the expense of perspective. He said that at the speed she moved, she often missed the sweetness of things, a sweetness that included her husband.Nadine argued that Russell needed to open up, to welcome new experiences and join her in her adventuresome spirit. If they were to succeed, Russell would need to rise to meet her energy. She couldn't slow down to meet his.

It would be a lie to say the therapist helped lead them to a new understanding, but they came to figure out one thing: They weren't going anywhere. They had fallen in love with the home they had built together and both had a secret admiration for the other that, until that session, had only been spoken of during stretches of mild inebriation.

They stuck it out. Divorce was never mentioned again. And they remain married today, still walking side by side along the river. Old Nadine and Russell, after all these years still turning to one another with that mysterious look of expectation, revealing all that history. The eyes are now tucked behind wrinkles and sun-damaged skin, but they still glisten with a kindred knowledge of a spoken and unspoken relationship.

Kind of like love, but not exactly.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Paul's love affair with Parking

I am not trying to pick on St. Paul, I truly think it is a great city and has so much to offer its residents, businesses, and those that decide to come over from that other city to visit. But I do have to admit I have had it with the current focus and obsession about Parking.

This has been very evident with all the community meetings about the Central Corridor LRT line that will connect downtown St. Paul with downtown Minneapolis. Business owners have convinced themselves that without on-street parking and off-street parking nobody is ever going to enter their businesses again after light rail comes roaring down University Avenue.

Well, I am here to tell, there is something else: people.

The Twin Cities really needs to stop obsessing about where they are going to keep their cars. I realize that driving is a reality for most, but we are caught right now in this vicious circle of cars = traffic = good business. Wrong, critical masses of people, who can actually stroll on well design streetscapes who can arrive by numerous modes of transit = good business. People = business.

St. Paul is going to be in for a pretty serious shock when they realize tens of thousands of people are going to be traveling down University Avenue by LRT, not car. For those who own a business, that means you should start preparing for these new customers. Yes, construction is a reality and will hurt businesses severely, but the end result has the potential to increase sales beyond current levels, which currently only automobile traffic as your patrons.

Check out this article to see what I am talking about.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The problem with the MTA

If you have not noticed yet, NY State is trying to close a $1.2 billion budget gap for the MTA (the regional transit authority). Even though they have said they need to cut bus and subway service and lines, they plan to move forward on major capital projects. Are you as confused as I am?

We know a lot of the federal stimulus dollars are going to road projects, why would an agency move forward on large projects when they can't even balance their budget and continue the same level of service (which is still far from a "state of good repair"). Here is an excerpt from a USA Today article talking about all the planned projects for the region:

Work is set to begin this spring on a $9 billion train tunnel under the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan, the first new link between the two in more than a half-century. The nearly 3.5-mile tunnel will more than double the number of commuter trains that can cross into New York City. Trains now use a 100-year-old two-track tunnel that is at capacity, meaning that trains sometimes must wait their turn to cross into the city.

According to the article these other projects will cost the following: $16 billion for the 2nd Avenue subway, $2.1 billion for extension of the 7 line (one stop), and $7.2 billion for East side access (yes, so LIRR passengers can get off at Grand Central).

I was never great at math but that adds up to $34.3 billion. Call my analysis simplistic, because it is, but no one really can't find $1.2 billion out of all these projects to keep the current system running? What good is the stimulus if our current transit systems fail us?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Suburbanites are happy

We find that many are critical of the suburbs, and rightfully so. Is it not time to stop arguing about their demise, and rather thinking about planning concepts that better connect suburbs with cities and rural areas. While Sprawl is the main issue, the urban planning field might need to rethink their approach to suburbs. The reality is that some people live in the suburbs and will continue to do so for decades to come. This globe and mail article addresses that issue.

Suburbanites are significantly more satisfied with their communities than people who live in cities, small towns or rural areas, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographics Trends Project.

"Ever since there have been suburbs, there have been harsh critiques of suburbs - a common one being that they are suffocating places where people live lives of quiet desperation. Well, most suburbanites apparently never got that memo," said Richard Morin and Paul Taylor, the authors of the study.

More than 40 per cent of suburban residents rated their communities as satisfying places to live, compared with 34 per cent of urban dwellers, 29 per cent of people living in the countryside and 25 per cent of people living in small towns.

What I see as the bigger issue is how do we create more viable transit options for those who live in the suburbs. We need commuter rails that get people into and out of cities, but we also need a local transit system that can get people from their door to the station. Park and rides are great, but could that not be supplemented with feeder buses, safe bike/walking routes, and even maybe a street car?

How do we introduce more retail and commercial space into the suburbs, so people can walk for some basic things, while still maintaining the residential feel that attract people in the first place. These are serious issues and something we need to start thinking about critically so that we incorporate the suburbs better into regional and city plans.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

LRT in North Carolina

This is a great episode of NOW on PBS. It talks about the economic advantages that have helped Charolette when they built their LRT line.

Pat McCrory is the seven-term mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. He's a Republican... one of the most prominent conservative politicians in a very conservative state. He's pro-life and a proud fiscal hawk. But two years ago, he put his entire political career on the line to build this light rail line in Charlotte. It was the one of the most expensive public works projects in North Carolina's history, costing almost a half-a-billion dollars. And it almost cost McCrory his job.

But much to everyone's surprise, voters backed the transit tax overwhelmingly, the mayor was re-elected and the light rail, now a year old, has turned out to be hugely popular. Thousands more people are riding the line every week than were expected, and big cities like Orlando are sending delegations to see what all the fuss is about. In the heart of the south, where people love their cars, McCrory's light rail line is winning hearts and minds.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Backyard gardens, it might be time to start

Spring is just around the corner and in these tight economic times why not have your own garden. This Pioneer Press article discusses how backyard gardening is currently on the rise, and I presume will continue to grow as well.

A couple of weeks ago, local gardening editor Mary Lahr Schier thought she'd start sprouting vegetable seeds indoors to get a jump-start on the Minnesota growing season. But when she went to Menards to buy the grow light she needed, the store was sold out. An employee told her more folks seem to be starting vegetables from seeds.

A National Gardening Association survey, conducted in January, backs up that prediction: 43 million U.S. households plan to grow their own fruits, vegetables, herbs and berries this year, a 19 percent increase from 2008. Perhaps even more telling, 21 percent of those households are planning to start — not continue — a food garden in 2009.
If you own a house or rent your apartment, it might be a good time to start researching and looking how you can grow your own food locally. If you are really interested, most cities have community gardens were you can grab some soil for low costs. I know what my Spring project will be.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Car sharing 101

This is a great (but long) NY Times article about the history of car sharing. It starts out with a family that decided to not renew their lease on their SUV, and instead embrace the car share. I am not sure why, but considering the affordable programs out there, city dwellers should be using car share all the time.

MY NEIGHBOR JOE EMBRACED THE ZEITGEIST, or was embraced by it, shortly before Thanksgiving a couple of years ago when he decided to bid adieu to his S.U.V., a two-and-a-half ton specimen that was a pain to park, got only slightly better mileage than a cement mixer and bore a brand name that meant to evoke, through misspelling, a famously resilient tribe of Berber-speaking desert nomads. Joe replaced the car, more or less, with nothing, or rather, with an Idea, which he carried around in his wallet on a plastic card, lawn-green, embedded with a computer chip and prominently imprinted with a playfully mellow looking “Z,” for Zipcar — an upstart company bent on altering the primal bond between Americans and their vehicles.

Despite the fact that Joe took the subway to work and lived within walking distance of plenty of grocers, restaurants, drugstores and dry cleaners, going carless wasn’t a simple choice. Having one had become a habit, and Joe had no particular desire to renounce cars altogether. He liked feeling he could hit the road at a moment’s notice if he so desired. There would always be times he needed a car, and there would be times — when, for instance, a child was sick — that knowing one was available provided peace of mind. What to do, then, Joe? Buy? Lease? Rent? This is where the zeitgeist spoke up. Joe decided to share.

As a car free person living in a Midwest city dominated by cars (even though we have a good bike network), I find that car sharing is another necessary tool in the woodshed. Every morning I wake up I realize that I have options in regards to transit. While the car share is best used for short trips, it can be a life saver for those times that a car will be the best option.

For those in the Twin Cities I recommend that you give Hour car a try, and for those of you elsewhere, find out what is in your neck of the woods.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Biking is better in NYC

Robert Sullivan in this NY Times article discusses how things have changed for the better on NYC street for cyclists. Below are some of my favorite snippets:

To be clear, cars are more likely to kill nonbikers; we still live in a world ruled by the ruthless car. But as someone who has been knocked off his bike by an S.U.V. making an illegal right on red (pretty hard, but I just got bruises and a busted front wheel), who has been hit by a cab veering into a bike lane (not that hard) and who has been knocked down as a pedestrian in a crosswalk by a Ford Econovan (really hard, as in broken knee, lots of stitches in the head and weeks of crutches and physical therapy), I admit that my knees feel wobbly when I see a guy ride against the light in a busy intersection with a child in the seat behind him.

Though bikers are hated, pedestrian deaths and injuries on Ninth Avenue in Chelsea immediately declined in the area of the physically separated bike lane, as reported on streetsblog.org, news blog of the Livable Streets Initiative, which advocates creating sustainable cities. In December, Community Board 4 voted in favor of creating a bike lane on Eighth Avenue between 14th and 23rd Streets.

As far as bikers go, I’ve become a kind of laughingstock because I wait at traffic lights. Recently, as I waited in a bike lane at Atlantic Avenue for a light to change, a woman in her 70s, walking hunched with a cane, approached the crosswalk smiling — until she spotted me. Then she began shouting as I waited behind the crosswalk, “Well, are you going to stop?” I assured her I was waiting. She grimaced. “How do I know you’re not going to go?” she asked.

Bikes don’t kill people; cars kill people. I know this, I feel this (big scar on head), and when I think of my bike heroes and bike role models, when I imagine the tone of the new bike culture, I think of civility. I think of Murray Kempton, the great baroque sentence maker who wrote for The New York Post and The New York Review of Books and biked on what I remember as a three-speed, pedaling to his word processor, wearing an early Walkman.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Friday, March 6, 2009

Cities suing the banks over foreclosures

Across the country, cities are in crisis because of the fallout from the mortgage mess —property taxes are way down, and abandoned homes are bringing down property values, inviting crime, and draining government coffers. Neighborhoods are being destroyed. Yet the federal bailout money is not going directly to desperate communities and homeowners, but to local and national banks.

This week, NOW investigates the innovative way some cities are fighting back. The city of Memphis, Tennessee is suing major national lenders and banks for deceptive and discriminatory lending practices in an effort to recoup the cost of the foreclosure mess. Other cities suing lenders for their role in the mortgage mess include Baltimore, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Birmingham.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

$100 Million for bike plan?

Many will question the decision to put this much money towards a bike plan (just read the comments section of the article). Does it not make sense to spend the money on investment that will pay for itself over time by providing more transit options for Edmonton residents. 

The greater benefit could be a reduction in VMT and cars on the road, which would lead to less maintenance of the roads and cost savings. I think Edmonton is taking a bold, and even wise stance, on making plans for a transit mode, the bike, that will be sustainable in the long term. Here is the article:

A new report proposes the City of Edmonton spend $100 million to create a network of multi-use trails and bicycle lanes.

Coun. Don Iveson said the plan would take Edmonton from a somewhat bike-friendly city to a very bike-friendly city. "So that more citizens can enjoy cycling as a legitimate transportation choice," he said.

The plan would be rolled out, in three phases, over the next 10 years.

The first phase involves building wide curb lanes, and painting lines marking a bike lane on arterial roads as they come up on the maintenance schedule for resurfacing. The cost for phase one is $35.4 million.

The second phase places more emphasis on new path construction, and expanding the network of multi-use trails that already exist, at a cost of $39 million.

The third phase focuses on building new trails to create links to neighbouring communities, at a cost of $26.3 million.

The plan also includes adding bicycle racks to all city buses, a safety education program for cyclists and drivers, signage, and facilities for cyclists such as parking areas and lockers.

Zoe Todd is a volunteer with the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters Society. (CBC) Zoe Todd, who rides her bike to work and everywhere else in the city, is excited about the plan.

"It will be the crucial link in encouraging as many people as possible to get on their bikes and view it as a completely feasible and viable transportation option in the city," she said.

A member of the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters Society, Todd said a recent survey of cyclists suggested safety is their top concern.

"This plan would help to ensure that people can get on their bikes and can get around the city safely and efficiently," she said.

Coun. Tony Catarina said he wouldn't support the plan when it comes before the city's transportation and public works committee on March 3. He said Edmonton is already well-served with almost 1,000 kilometres of bicycle trails and believes the proposal is too costly given the few cyclists who use trails in winter.

"I'm really sort of stunned to say the least that we're considering $100 million on a project like this," Catarina said.

"They're asking for something that's a wish list, and if we just open our eyes and see where the economy is today, we're almost in a recession," he said.

Iveson disagreed, saying: "This is about an investment in the long term."

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Slackers: what we can learn in these hard times

This Boston Globe article tackles the issue of a simpler life through the lens of the slacker. It does point out what are the basics in life and how reducing and control can make for a more sustainable life.

WE MOVED to San Francisco and Brooklyn and Mission Hill. We jumped from job to job. Put off marriage. Never bought a place. And we never heard the end of it. We were drifters, they said. Layabouts. No respect for work and real estate or the value of a good pair of cufflinks.

But now, in the cold glare of a recession, everything looks different: We've got no house to lose, no career to dash, no school-aged children in need of pricey Wii gaming systems.

Not recession-proof, exactly, but recession-resistant, at least.

Of course, it's not like we saw the crash coming. We didn't plan for this, didn't time the market. And we made some bad choices along the way: The persistent neglect of our 401(k)s, battered stock market notwithstanding, will catch up to us someday.

But in retrospect, it's clear that we did something right. We lived a smaller life, a life we could afford. And as the country rebuilds the economy, as it tries to replace it with something more sustainable than a leaning tower of subprime mortgages and consumer binging, it is time to reevaluate that much-maligned Gen X archetype: the American Slacker.

"Slacker," like most labels, has always been a crude and misleading shorthand. We were a bit aimless, us urban, liberal-arts types. We were a little too enamored of irony, perhaps. A little too frivolous.

But there was something to be said for a life in the moment; for a dalliance in California, for concerts and failed screenplays, for a little fun before the fall. And the truth is, we were always more purposeful - more responsible - than our fathers and uncles and grandmothers realized.

Those of us who took low-wage jobs were not just marking time. Not all of us, anyway. We were doing work we cared about, as journalists and teachers and social workers.

All that job-hopping and freelancing? We were dilettantes, on some level, it's true. But we also understood, before most, that something had shifted - that we were moving to an economy of telecommuters and independent contractors and less-than-loyal employers.

And while the best minds on Wall Street cooked up the real estate mess that destroyed a global economy, we were sensible enough to steer clear of that overpriced condo and move into a dingy, three-bedroom rental with a few of our meathead friends.

You see, while Alan Greenspan and Countrywide Financial were creating a capitalism of disastrous excess, we were busy working on a more workable model. Not without its indulgences, of course. The exuberance of the dot-com bubble was undoubtedly irrational. But we did pretty well, this little slice of Generation X.

We brought you the Internet, worked on green technology, and filled the ranks of Teach for America. We crossed the color line, ate local produce, and bought secondhand clothing. We lived in smaller spaces, drove smaller cars, and took the subway to work.

It all seemed like a quaint liberal fantasy at the time. And on some level it was. But now, with a creaking economy and an overheated planet, it reads more like a survival manual: a guide to multicultural living in an increasingly diverse society, an incubator for the technology that might save the American auto industry, an antidote to our awful adventures in sprawl.

Of course, we could abandon this life as we get older, I suppose. We could grow impatient with our little apartments and cramped hatchbacks. We could set our sights on the kind of suburban existence we've forsaken. But I'd like to think we're smarter than that.

We created something worthwhile - a sustainable neighborhood, a tech future, a life we can manage. And we won't let it go too easily.

At least I hope not. As the nation rebuilds a crumbling capitalism, it could use a little perspective, a little wisdom. Bet you didn't think you'd get it from us.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Reversing the Growth Trend

In the planning world, and pretty much everything else, growth is considered a good thing. Our economy needs to grow, our land use needs to grow, and even our bank accounts need to grow. Some people are starting to realize that all this growth is really just keeping our urban and rural populations in a state of paralysis. How can we continue to grow at our current rates, and why do we think growth is the answer?

Knute Berger over in Seattle is dealing with this very issue. Can Seattle and the region stay the way it is and continue it's current growth pattern? In hard times like now, growth is hailed as the cure to our illness. 

But is growth unstoppable? And is it good for us, for the planet? Today's apostles of "smart" urban development argue that cities are environmentally the best route to take. They "prevent" sprawl, they use land and resources more efficiently, they reduce carbon footprints by putting more of us on mass transit or in walkable neighborhoods. Greens argue that growth is inevitable, so we'd better make it greener growth than we've had in the past.

But growth here has also been the result of government policies, not simply the "free" market, or destiny or happenstance. From speeding up permitting by the county to increasing the heights of skyscrapers to issuing demolition permits and zoning variances, local officials work to encourage development, the answer to our prayers in hard times, the hay to be made in good ones.

Is it still in the public good? While many greens in Seattle push for more and better urban development and planning, there are many others who are concerned about growth's environmental and social costs to the city and the region. The way it disrupts settled communities, drives up costs, displaces the poor, increases taxes and the cost of infrastructure (consider the multi-billions being demanded for light rail, expanded bus service, a new SR 520, and a Viaduct replacement). Another concern is the way it keeps progress on sustainability out of reach. It's hard to reduce our impact on the planet with more and more people.
I have always questioned the growth is good argument, especially when it is bookmarked with sustainable growth. We are at a point in time were we will need some growth, but we have to ask the hard questions about this. Our density is increasing along with the populations that inhabit the same space. Our urban footprint continues to get bigger and bigger.

I am not sure what the solution is, but we need to start thinking in new terms and not accept sustainable growth as the great good is has been portrayed as.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Will the Times Square Experiment work?

As with all projects in NYC that reclaim space from the automobile the critics will be loud and many. Having lived in the city for 7 years I avoided Times Square like the plague because it is simply too crowded to walk, ride your bike, and drive. I think this is a great step forward in more public space for New Yorkers. This NY Times article asks the experts, so don't take my word for it.

Robert Sullivan
The reason that the word counterintuitive keeps coming up on this excellent experiment planned by the Bloomberg administration is that we have our heads on backward when we think about public space in the city. This is understandable: in the 1950s, we decided to dedicate the streets to cars. Now, cars are no longer a smart or practical way to use public space, and we now feel a need rededicate ourselves to it.

Sam Staley
Making pedestrian malls work is difficult, as the scores of failed experiments across the country demonstrate. New York’s success will depend on applying what works, not what it hopes will work, and adjusting to the realities of street and pedestrian traffic. Otherwise, New Yorkers run the risk of having this experiment, like so many that have come before it, undermine the very qualities that make Times Square and Herald Square modern-day urban success stories.

Alexander Garvin
Some people will point out that most pedestrianized streets in the United States have been remotorized because they diminished local shopping, rather than improving it. Virtually every one of those remotorized streets was an essential component of a city street grid and often its most important street. This cannot happen to Broadway, which predates the Manhattan grid and has no impact on its functioning.

Steve Davies
Indeed, the city should engage the public in coming up with activities and uses for these new spaces that attract all kinds of people, not just tourists. They should reflect the culture of their neighborhoods and the city as a whole. And they should have design flexibility to support a variety of uses — from outdoor cafes to art exhibits to street performers to markets — allowing them to evolve as public destinations. Imagine Times Square with an outdoor version of the “Broadway stage” or fashion shows on Broadway in Herald Square.

Randal O'Toole
New York City says its plan to close five blocks of Broadway to automobiles will both improve traffic flows on cross streets and turn Broadway into a haven for pedestrians. The problem with this plan is that you cannot reliably kill two birds with one stone. Closing Broadway to auto traffic may reduce congestion on cross streets and avenues, but limiting auto access could also turn Broadway itself into a deserted wasteland.

After Memorial day get your walking shoes on and decide for yourself.