Friday, November 7, 2008

APA Utah: Oil

Yesterday I posted about peak water. The keynote speaker at today's session was Daniel Lerch, the author of Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty. As you may have guessed from the title of today's post and the theme of the conference, he spoke about Peak Oil.

That term has been around so I won't bore you with a page and a half synopsis. Basically, the idea is that there is a finite supply of oil on earth, oil discovery and extraction follows a curve, called the Hubbert Curve (because it was first proposed by M. King Hubbert in 1956), with production increasing to a point, after which production will fall and cost will increase (because the oil being produced is harder to get [tar sands and oil shale, for example], so more expensive. That, coupled with decreased supply means higher costs). That point is peak oil. There is some debate as to when peak oil will be reached, some say we already have, others disagree. Again, I won't go too deep, instead, I will send you here, if you want.

Daniel Lerch talked about planning after peak oil (he subscribes to the school that says we have passed peak oil, I do too). He brought up some very interesting points. The one I will write about here is volatility.

There are two assumptions we make about oil as a society, but also as planners; Oil will be available and affordable. After peak oil those assumptions are no longer given. The basic idea of supply and demand is at work. With typical supply/demand problems, Tickle me Elmo, for example, production can increase as demand increases. Oil is not the same. There is a discovery/production lag between demand and increased supply and a limited supply in general. This means that oil is volatile.

In a typical supply and demand model the time between now and when oil is no longer economically viable to produce would play out as you might imagine; costs will rise incrementally until we reach the magic dollar per gallon that we cannot afford. This is something we could deal with, we could plan for it.

Unfortunately, oil supplies will oscillate as new stocks are found then depleted which means uncertainty in both the assumption of availability and affordability. Uncertainty is a word disdained by anybody trying to created a long range plan of any sort. How does a city create a budget when prices vary (and more than likely vary wildly) from month to month.

When Hurricane Katrina hit fuel supplies were interrupted for municipalities and counties. When these smaller governments appealed to their state government for assistance they were sorely disappointed. The state fuel reserves were never meant to aid municipal governments, they were meant to keep state emergency vehicles on the road.

But this fuel volatility reaches far beyond local agencies. National and international trade will be affected, how will the economy cope? The recent rise in fuel prices brought with it a rise in food prices as transportation became more expensive and farmers converted their food crops to bio-fuel fields (another post).

Lerch's suggestions of how to effectively plan for the inevitable uncertainty are familiar refrains. He suggested 5 specific necessities, each with their own broad applications and effects:

1) Deal with land use and transportation.
My personal soapbox most of the time. Current land use practices are no longer effective. The idea of "drive till you can buy" shaping residential development will not work. I am afraid that in our increasingly polarized political climate people hear the phrase "lifestyle change" and think the suggestion is that we all live in 200 square foot apartments in 60 story towers and only eat soilent green.

Salt Lake County daily vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2007 was just over 24million. In one day residents and visitors of Salt Lake County drive 24 million miles, that is roughly 50 round trips to the mood - a day. Imagine if everybody lived a little closer to work and took some form of transit at least a couple of times. Put grocery stores closer and I don't think 75% reduction in VMT is unreachable.

I live in Murray and work in Draper, hardly the kind of walkable situation I would like. My round trip to work and back is 22 miles, depending on the route. I can do all but 5 miles of that on transit, two miles from home to TRAX (or TRAX to home) and 1/2 mile from the last 811 bus stop in Salt Lake County to my office (or the office to the bus stop). Usually I will ride my bike those 5 miles. But even if I drive to the TRAX stop I can cut 18 miles of driving out of my day with little effort.

As of now though, for most of us oil dependency is built into the system. On top of that (and I don't mean this to sound accusitory) the most important factor people consider when choosing a mode of transportation is convience. TRAX is full on Jazz game nights not because Jazz fans are a particularly eco-conscience bunch, but because it is easier than trying to find a parking space downtown on game night.

Increasing convience will take a restructuring of transportation planning. The form of our urban areas will have to change. Planners will need to take a critical look at the fundamentals of planning. As with any big change there will some growing pains (or shrinking pains) and a learning curve. This will require mild to moderate changes in lifestyle. Changes which, I might add, actually enhance our quality of life. The kind of cites people like to visit are more compact, walkable cities, greener with less need for a car.

2) Tackle private energy consumption.
City governments are starting to convert to hybrid vehicle fleets and CF light bulbs. Most stoplights are LEDs. But government consumption is only part of the equation. Emissions from cars are also only a part of the problem. Numbers from the Department of Energy show that 75% of Utah carbon emisisons come from commercial buildings, electric power, residential buildings and industry. Buildings, and the power needed to run them contribute more to carbon emissions than drivind, by a long way. Emisisons like that come from some form of fuel, largely natural gas and coal.

As with reshaping our cities, changing private sector energy use is essentially a question of will. Building codes require vent fans in bathrooms and GFI outlets near water. Why not requre more efficent heating, cooling, and insulation? Why not require a percentage of energy be generated on site? When cities give large tax breaks to corporations so they will locate in their bounaries why not requre their facilities to be net energy producers?

The technology is available. Institiuting it is a matter of will.

3) Attack the problems piece-by-piece and from many angles.
As with most problems, there is no panacea. The phrase Lerch used in his presenation was "there are no silver bullets, but there are many silver BBs." Energy is a complex problem. Land use is a complex problem. The world is complex. It will require us to look at every angle, and will reqire a myriad of partial solutions. Again, a matter of will. For all of our glaring inadequacies and blatand idiocy, the human race is extremely intelegent. I have no doubt we can solve our ills, we just have to want to.

4) Plan for fundamental changes and make fundamental changes happen.
Our society is interesting. For most of history people could not avoid problems that were sure to affect thier daily lives. Part of that is because their daily lives were fairly simple so problems were not easily avoided. We have the interesting opportunity to live in a time when our lives are complicated enough that many problems we face are hidden and a time when we have a nearly endless variety of entertainment options to distract us. I think about energy everyday. However, I do not think less of people who don't. Because the problem is so complex, and we do have the distractions it is easy to not see the immidiacy of the situation.

We can take a cue from any 12 step program here: the first step is admitin (realizing) you have a problem). Educating citizens, stakeholders, leaders etc etc, is the first step. I have some insulated coveralls. On the inside tag there is a warning, "Caution, these coveralls isulate from heat as well as cold. Use caution when working around flame or sparks as the wearer may not know they are on fire." How do you know to stop, drop, and roll if you don't know you are on fire? When we know we are in trouble, we will act.

5) Build as sense of community.
If number one is my soapbox, this is my favorite. Lerch used the example of a woman who was attacked in a neighborhood somewhere in New York who yelled for an hour before she died. When neighbors were interviewed by the police later they all said they thought someone else would take call the police. In this situation civil inattention went a step too far.

It is easy to feel insignificant in our cities, it is easy to feel like someone else will take care of it, whatever "it" is. Life in a community is different. A member of a community feels a sense of responisibilty to the rest of the community. More importantly, a member of a community feels like they can change something that broken, they are empowered.

Technology will only get us so far. It is the socical aspect of our society that will make all the chages possible. It might take a catastrophy to get people moving, but we might be able to get things moving and avoid a catastrophy.

It was a very interesting lecture. It is easy to see gloom and doom, but the good is there too.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

APA Utah Water

Today was day one of the Utah APA Conference. The topic for the conference was "Peak Planning: Planning today for a resource constrained tomorrow."

I volunteered at the conference, partly to network, partly to see some of the sessions without paying the $100 fee, and partly because I like volunteering. I am not sure how it happened, but ended up picking up the keynote speaker, Meena Palaiappan, (who, by the way, is a very nice person) from the airport and dropping her off after the sessions.

She is from the Pacific Institute, a "nonpartisan research institute that works to advance environmental protection, economic development, and social equity." Her presentation focused on peak water.

Peak water? you say. I've heard of peak oil, but peak water? Come on, the earth is a closed system, we have "x" gallons of water and we won't run out because the only thing water does is change form and location, it never disappears.

True. We have 1.4 billion cubic kilometers of water, 35 million cubic kilometers of that is fresh water, 70% of which is locked in ice* (a good reason to keep up with the global warming thing, let's unlock all that ice!). So easily accessible water is a limited commodity.

But we are humans, we have a pretty good track record of finding technological solutions to problems (At the height of WWII the majority of gas used by Germany was synthetic, which is another post for another day), so we ought to be able to use some of the other 97% that is salt water.

Enter economics.

The reason we use oil from all over the world is because we can sell it at a high enough cost to justify the expense of transportation, not just in our cars either. Petroleum is used in manufacturing things like plastics and fertilizers, so it is cost effective.

Water, on the other hand, is not cost effective to transport relative to its price. On average, Utahans use about 200 gallons a day** (daily single family household use, that includes outside use). Imagine paying 2.50 for a gallon of water when we use 200 gallons a day.

So if we won't ever run out of water, and it is theoretically possible to get more water when we run out in one location, what exactly is peak water?

Peak water refers to the point at which a) ground water is being used at a rate above recharge potentials b) water must be transported and ceases to be economically viable and c) peak ecological water. Peak ecological water is a much more immediate concern, basically, "[the] point of water use that causes serious or irreversible ecological damage—and eventually reduces the human and social welfare provided by water."

So while we won't ever really run out of water, we can use it and pollute it to the point that its benefits to humanity are consumed.

If you sit on a burrito the burrito still exists, but not in an edible state.*** Thus it is with water. We can use it to the point of unusability.

This post is exceedingly long already, so I'll tie it up with my favorite slide from the presentation
"The water 'crisis' is not the result of a lack of water, resources, money, or brains. It is the result of failing to use water, resources, money, and brains effectively."*

[I'm not sure how to cite a powerpoint on a blog, or if you even need to. But just in case:
* Meena Palaiappan Presentation to Utah APA, 11/6/2008
**Western Resource Advocates
***That is all me]

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Cart

Now, I don't mean to get all sentimental, but I had kind of a big day last week. The 29th was my very first public meeting as a planner.

I have been to public meetings, planning commission meetings, town hall meetings, city council meetings - but I attended them all as a member of the public. This was my first experience from the inside.

As I have mentioned before, my firm is working on a small area plan for the future BRT station at 3500 South and 5600 West. MAX, the 3500 South line, is already operational as a mixed traffic BRT route, with the dedicated right of way and stations under construction. The 5600 West line will be completed as a center running BRT route from 2700 South to 6400 South by 2015.

That means the intersection of 35th and 56th will be one of the best serviced intersections in the Wasatch Front with two high quality transit lines.

Our job is to help the cities along the 56th West route implement land use strategies now that will boost ridership when the line is in place. This meeting was the beginning of a dialogue between West Valley City and the residents of the area to discuss the what the future might look like.

The meeting took the form of a (mild) charette.* We spent the first hour giving the meeting attendees a crash course in transit oriented development planning and an overview of the area, with an explanation of what BRT is. That was followed by a brainstorming session. Everybody was given slips of paper and was asked to write down what they liked/disliked/wanted to see change/etc about the area. The answers ranged from "higher density" to "open space" to "better lighting." We then gave everybody green and red dot stickers so they could vote on the ideas they like or didn't like.

When we had a sense of what the public wanted, our pencil man extrodinare, Greg Haws, started sketching plan view renderings on fodder while the attendees gave suggestions.

We ended up with a couple of good scenario stars, one more office and retail heavy, one more residential heavy.

It was exciting to see maps I had made on the tables and the walls, to see the land use analysis I had done in the presentation. I have to admit, I got a thrill when someone asked a question and the table looked to me, cus I was an official.

There are some things we would have done differently in hindsight, but overall I think it was an effective meeting.

We have another one on the 19th of the month where we will be unveiling our fleshed out scenarios and looking for feedback. Feel free to come.

*Charette is the French word for cart (I think). Way back when, architecture students in France were much like any student today, procrastinators. At the end of the old tyme equivalent of the semester the professors would pull a cart around the school. When the cart came to you, you had to put your project on, completed or not. Students would then walk beside the cart and finish their projects, on the cart.

A modern charette is an intensive brainstorming and work session, where images are drawn up on the spot and at the end there are a series of somewhat fleshed out possible scenarios. A good example of this is the plan for the Cottonwood Mall redevelopment. The plan was created in a little over a week. Planners and architects stared with a blank slate, worked nine straight 18 hour days, and finished with the current plan.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Good Service

I don't need any more reasons to love transit. I really like it. I even made this and put it in my spokes. I've written about it before, I'm sure I'll write about it again.

But today, transit gave me another reason to love her.

I have mentioned it before, but for some background; Tasha and my mom ride FrontRunner to and from the Layton Station to drop Morgan off and pick him up. Usually my mom rides down in the morning, and Tasha rides up in the evening. On those evening switches the northbound and southbound
trains get to the Layton Station at the same time.

The southbound train had been at the station for about a minute when the northbound train arrived. So Tasha jumped out, grabbed Morgan, and hopped on the train back to Salt Lake. As my mom was walking back to her car she passed the cab and the engineer's window was open. She said "Thanks, we had a baby to hand off." The engineer yelled out the window "I know, that's why I waited."

What a great driver. Thanks transit, I love you.

Monday, October 27, 2008

This is getting silly

Keith Bartholomew calls himself a generalist. I like to think I am one too. I don't think there are many problems that exist in a vacuum. There are numerous external factors influencing every decision, every problem, every situation. I'm actually taking a class in just that subject right now. Here is a picture of a problem:

It is close to a closed system of food and wars and pigs and other stuff, but as you can see, there are a lot of little red arrows [connections and influences].

It is a neat little system and a neat little picture from a neat little program called Stella. But that is not the point of this post.

Around the time I heard Keith refer to himself as a generalist, I heard Steven [Goldsmith, you may have heard of him] talk about the specialization, or siloing, of our society. Basically, the ideas are at the opposite end of the spectrum from eachother. The generalist sees context and relationships, the siloist sees a single track.

It is a dichotomy which can be seen everywhere. Family practitioners make a fraction of what specialists make. People go to school to be traffic engineers and focus on a road as a closed system, the don't learn about urban design, or the way roads function as a part of the greater area. It even feels like artists forsake every other medium besides their own.

In bygone days it was not unusual to see musicians work on side projects and branch out from their main band - we have Crosby, Stills and Nash [and Young], and the Traveling Willburys because of it. You have Eric Clapton wailing on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" [then writing "Layla" to steal George Harrison's wife]. Now musicians [to some degree, and in some genres] focus on their band to the exclusion of making good music.

So that is the introduction. The point of this post is to say that this specialization is getting out of hand.

I went into the restroom on the cafeteria level of the Union the other day. I had not visited that particular restroom this semester, so I was surprised to see it completly remodled. The thing that struck me was the apparent lack of sinks. It took me a few minutes to realize that the holes in the wall with a small half bowl protrusion were sinks. I was not quite sure how to go about washing my hands. Forunately, a small sign told me to put my hands in the hole. So I did. Soap and water came out at the same time, and the second I was done, and automatic dryer turned on. All I had to do was rub my hands, the water soap and air all came from the same hole. I put dirty hands in and pulled clean, dry hands out.

My first thought was "awesome." I even called my little brother [that makes me sound like hill-billy]. But then I thought that the siloing of duties had extended to the sink. I couldn't splash water on my face, I couldn't fill up a water bottle, I couldn't brush my teeth. I couldn't put anything in there unless I was ok with getting soap on it. I couldn't put my comb in there so I could reshape my pompadour [I don't have a pompadour, but woe to the unfourtunate rock-a-billy kids].

This sink was now to be used for the sole purpose of washing hands. Who knew you used a sink for so many other tasks.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Words Make Worlds

A phrase often heard in this class.

The other day my boss yelled from his office "You know what my pet peeve of the week is?" I wasn't sure, so I asked him to enlighten me.

"Alternative transportation" came the answer. He had been reading a best practices, or the goals and objectives section of a general plan, or other such document. At first I wasn't quite sure what he meant by that so I asked him to elaborate. He stood up and walked across the office and said "This is not an alternative! Every other way of getting around is an alternative to this."

Yet "alternative transportation" is a staple of the planning lexicon.

So words make worlds. We have come to a point where designing a city so people can walk comfortable is an alternative way of planning and takes a more progressive government to adopt.

I like to consider myself on the more progressive side of things, but I had never thought of that. Putting the word "alternate" above some of the oldest methods of transportation relegates them to a lower tier of importance.

It will be interesting to see the vocabulary changes over my career.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fall Break Day 3

I went into work today so I could take Friday off, so today's fall break activities were, again, not too break like.

This morning we had a meeting with some clients. We were talking about Transit Oriented Development and making a city livable in general when one person at the table said, "Murray [the city] has decided that it's important to have jobs, not just retail, with the new hospital." Those may not be the exact words, but the idea is the same. Murray has this new idea to have a big job center, not just lots and lots of strip retail or a big retail center.

My first thought was "That's right, Murray is awesome." [I live in Murray.] My next thought was "what a silly thing that Murray is being seen as wise by getting a job center located there."

The idea of a livable city is often mistaken for a city with lots of shopping and good transit/pedestrian infrastructure to get you from retail to retail. From what I have seen [and what I have seen is extremely limited] the focus is on drawing retail to boost the tax base and grow the city budget. This is a wise move, a big budget means more can done to improve the livability of the city. However, we spend a third of our lives at work, that is a bigger portion of time than we dedicate to any other single activity.

Retail is great. Having ones daily needs within walking distance, or at least a short drive, is wonderful. But living close to our jobs is one step above. We spend most of our time there, we spend a good portion of time getting to and from there, we spend money getting to and from. Living close to work frees up more time for other activities, reduces what is often the longest auto trip of the day, and ultimately saves money.

Lots of jobs means lots of people want to live in your municipality, which boosts retail, which boosts the tax base, which grows the budget, which makes your municipality a better place to live.

Of course, it is never that simple. Rarely is there a clear beginning or an end point, but creating a job center is pretty close to a beginning point.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fall Break Day 2

I don't usually have classes on Tuesday, so the fall break aspect of today was minimal.

I've been sitting in front of my computer for about 20 minutes now, trying to decide what to write. On the shelf above my desk is a double opening picture frame I got for Christmas last year. My in-laws, knowing that I like bikes, took some pictures at a couple of train stations in Europe. The two current pictures are from the Netherlands. From far away it is hard to tell that the pictures are of racks and racks of bikes because the frames and wheels and bars and reflectors look like some sort of outdoor installation. But they are indeed bikes, hundreds of them.

I keep the pictures not only because they are aesthetically pleasing, but because they were taken on a regular work day. I have seen pictures akin to these from the states, but only at special occasions. The start/finish area at 24 Hours of Moab had huge racks of bikes the 4 years I did it, and I'm sure the racks have expanded. San Francisco critical mass draws crowds of thousands, but those are special events.

The amazing thing is that few if any of those bike owners are thinking about their carbon footprints. The bicycle is part of everyday life. Here it is a lifestyle, not part of life. A bike can be a defining characteristic here.

I work above a bank. The bank manager brought up a new teller the other day, after introductions he asked, "are you the one who rides the bike?" It will be an interesting day when someones asks, "are you the one who drives the car?"

I don't think I'll see that day, but it will happen as transit options grow and development patterns change. It won't be a moral issue like it can be today [I've said it before, I mostly ride transit and my bike because I like them. I do think we should drive less, but I am not morally opposed to cars], but single occupancy vehicles will become inconvenient and attitudes will change.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Fall Break

Ah, it's Monday evening and I didn't just get out of class. The joys of fall break.

Tasha has, sadly, gone back to work after maternity leave. Fortunately, my mom lives in Kaysville and can watch Morgan. We ride the train to the Layton station to drop him off in the mornings, then Jayne brings him down after work, or some combination of up and down.

Today, with no classes, I decided not to go into work so I could spend the day with the boy and do some homework up in Kaysville. When I got off the train my mom suggested we head up to visit my brother who just moved to Logan with his wife, who got a job with the city.

Anyway, we drove through Sardine Canyon and down into Cache Valley. The leaves were mostly brown, but there was still some color, and the weekend snow lingered near on the evergreens near the ridges. Farther down into the valley the trees lining the Logan River were just donning their autumnal wardrobe. The weather was brisk, but it was a beautiful day.

The best part of the trip was the ride home. Morgan slept till I-15, when the road noise and vibrations woke him up. I took about 40 pictures of the kid as he got he bearings, then tried to fall asleep, then looked around again.

Watching the boy process the world, and figure out his hands, and start to recognize people and places has been an experience.

One of my first semesters at the U I took a class from Fred Montague. Near the end of class he gave us a magnet with a picture of Lowell Bennion and a quote about simplicity. The magnet has been on my fridge since then and is something I have tried to live by.

Today reminded me of the quote. The leaves, family, the river, my little boy. It was a simple day, and it just felt good.

“Learn to like what doesn’t cost too much.
Learn to like reading, conversation, music.
Learn to like plain food, plain service, plain cooking.
Learn to like fields, trees, brooks, hiking, rowing, climbing hills.
Learn to like people, even though some of them may be different…different from you.
Learn to like to work and enjoy the satisfaction of doing your job as well as it can be done.
Learn to like the songs of birds, the companionship of dogs.
Learn to like gardening, puttering around the house, and fixing things.
Learn to like the sunrise and sunset, the beating of rain on the roof and windows, and the gentle fall of snow on a winter day.
Learn to keep your wants simple, and refuse to be controlled by the likes and dislikes of others.”

–Lowell B. Bennion

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Next Step

This semester has rushed by. I just left my last class before fall break, roughly the halfway point of the semester. For the past few years that would have been music to my ears. I have taken classes each of the past 8 semesters, including summers. Finals week has almost been a relief because it meant I was close to a few weeks of rest.

Now, I love school. Finding Planning was the best thing that could have happened. I have legitimately enjoyed most of my classes in those 8 semesters. The majority of the papers I have written have been on topics I like. The above paragraph is meant to say that breaks are nice.

However, this semester is different. This is my last semester. Finals week this time means I am done, it means I need to find a full time job. It is an interesting place. Suddenly, the day I have looked forward to is here.

I am sure I will be able to find a job, I am not nervous about my qualifications, I know I can be a planner. It is the range of possibilities that I find overwhelming. Public or private? Local or regional? Stay here or move?

I would hate to sound like I am complaining about too many options. With the current economic, um, situation, there are plenty of soon to be grads who face a much bleaker picture. So I will reuse another word. Excited.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A man ain't nothin but a man

This weekend we queued up the classic country in our itunes library as we went about chores, and dinner, and time with siblings. I've mentioned it before, but I am a fan of music in general. There is something about classic country, though. Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, EmmyLou Harris, nothing quite like it. But I digress.

So our weekend soundtrack was trains and old dogs and mammas and jail. Old Golden Throat himself, Johnny Cash came across the speakers and told us the story of John Henry. The song was written years ago about a man who lived back before years ago. A key to successful folk songs is their ability to stay relevant, and one line stuck out as particularly relevant.

John Henry's foreman announced the end of Henry in the form of a steam hammer. To which he replied "Did the Lord say that machines oughtta take the place of livin? And what's the substitute for bread and beans? I ain't seen it. Do engines get rewarded for their steam?"

Pretty self explanatory.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Best Use for Our Land?

The past few weeks at work have focused on land use analysis for a planned station area. We looked at pedestrian coverage [I wrote about that a few posts ago], landscaping, building footprints, floor to area ratios, structure age, employee intensity, and other transit oriented numbers.

The most striking number we came up with was 44. That is the percentage of the 1/8 mile radius around the station dedicated to parking. 44%. The rest of the break down is 17% to buildings, 19% to roads, and 20% to landscaping. Parking uses more than twice as much land as actual structures.

It is an interesting paradigm. There are plenty of reasons for this pattern. Planners and developers design parking lots for the day before Christmas, really. The rest of the year most parking lots are woefully under utilized, leaving expansive of unattractive pavement [not just aesthetically, but functionally unattractive].

It could be argued that development patterns necessitate such copious amounts of parking, but that argument is fairly weak. In most urban areas the Christmas factor dictates far more parking than actually needed. If parking is truly needed [and it often is, not every development can be located near high quality transit], the amount can be reduced, and the shape it takes can be altered as well. Structured parking is much more expensive than surface parking, but the floor to area ratios gained by structures will help recoup expenses in a timely manner.

An even more effective solution is on street parking. Outside city centers on street parking is treated with a disdain usually reserved for leprosy. I'm not sure why, as it provides parking at little to no cost. On street parking also acts as a traffic calming device, which only helps the pedestrian experience.

With urban areas edging into agricultural and other sensitive lands it seems to follow logic that cities would look at the redevelopment and infill potential of our parking lots. Especially as transit services more and more of the urban fabric.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


It is no secret that I am a transit fan. I honestly believe that the key to a successful urban area is reliable, functioning transit. Without it, mobility is hampered and congestion is increased. With it, mobility gets a boost and congestion is lessened. [Congestion will never be eliminated in an urban area, at least not in city centers. There are too many people moving from place to place and not enough infrastructure. Which is the way it should be, the land is being used for better things than freeways. But I digress].

It is interesting, then, to see the difficulty transit has as it tries to grow to better service the metropolitan area. The infrastructure must be top notch in order to encourage ridership. At the same time, without ridership it is difficult to justify infrastructure improvements. A catch 22.

I was in high school when TRAX was proposed and under construction. I was not aware that the planning profession even existed, but I still liked transit. I remember the fervent opposition to the line. Of course, TRAX ridership exceeded expectations. FrontRunner has done the same, so much so that UTA recently bought refurbished rail cars from New Jersey to keep up with demand. The Max line is running above expectations as well. FrontRunner is being extended to Provo and TRAX has four new spurs either under construction or soon to be started. UTA has decide to take advantage of the benefits of bus rapid transit and are building BRT lines on 5600 West in Salt Lake County and a Provo/Orem loop, among others

So our UTA is on the up and up, but there is still more room for improvement, improvements which, in my opinion, make or break transit. The vast majority of bus stops are nothing more than a post in the ground, the south end of the valley is poorly serviced at best, neglected at worst, and east/west connections take an obvious back seat to north/south routes. Perhaps the worst offence is the timing. TRAX trains are constantly late, or early [which is worse. Nothing ruins my day faster than pulling up to a station on time only to see my train pulling away from the platform]. It is not too uncommon to wait an extra 10 minutes for a train. On top of late trains, the Gallivan Center transfers make little to no sense.

Oddly enough, buses seem to keep to their schedules better. Granted buses have a little more leeway because they run in traffic. A bus late by 2-4 minutes is acceptable, if frustrating. But a train should never be late. Especially not 10 minutes late. Just hold it back another 5 minutes and get them all back on schedule.

Anyway, I guess that is my transit rant. I love you dearly, Transit, please fix yourself.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tomato Update

As you may remember, my tomatoes met an untimely demise. I knew there would be some survivors, but I wasn't sure how many.

I am happy to say that there are more than I expected. We ate our first Japanese Black the other day, and it was good. I am most pleased with the Black Plum we grew. They have a more acidic flavor than most varieties I have tasted. Very bold and juicy. The Japanese Black was decent, but nothing to write home about. The cherries were what I expected, and I am happy with them. But I will absolutely look for the Black Plum again next year.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Not Planning Related

I just got a new computer. It is a black macbook. I think I am going to call it the Death Star cus it feels like I should be typing coordinates so I can blow up a Alderan.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bikes are people too [well, not technically, but close]

It is no secret that love bikes. I love them. They are great for recreation, commuting, exercise. The way the chain wraps around the cogs, the feel of a smooth, freshly re-packed Campagnolo bottom bracket, the sound of your tires pulling rain off the pavement. Mountain, road, fixed, cruiser, recumbent, it doesn't matter - I love them.

So it was devastating today when a g-chat box from my friend Mike popped up at work. His rear wheel was messed up. Either the rim or the hub, or possibly something seemingly unrelated. I haven't looked at it yet.

If the g-chat box had told me about a broken down car, I wouldn't have felt so bad. I am not anti-car, they are useful inventions. But when a bicycle is ill, it is a different story. I have been trying to figure out why I feel like this all day. Chances are a broken car would be much more expensive to fix than a bike, and a bigger hassle, so I should feel worse about that, right?

It could be that I know Mike, and that he puts that bike to good use, snow or shine, so having it out of commission is a big deal. It might be because I feel that bikes are personal machines, they are individuals. Every bike I have worked on has its own personality, its own feel. They each have idiosyncrasies and nuances all their own. They are like people, in general terms they are all the same, wheels, frame, bar [eyes, arms, lungs], but if you take the time to get to know one, you will know there isn't another one like it.

Anyway, I love bikes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

As the crow flies

I am working a transit project at work. As we have looked at the station areas we have drawn 1/8 mile and 1/4 mile circles to see the walkable areas. This is all well and good, nearly any plan dealing with pedestrians will have a big colored circle to show the places people can walk. But it only tells part of the story, or rather, it omits some important information.

1/4 mile for a crow is different than a 1/4 mile for a person. So we started drawing lines, routes pedestrians would actually use. Once the 1/4 and 1/8 mile lines were drawn an new picture emerged - 30%-40% of the structures within the radii were not actually accessible by foot. A large portion of a residential subdivision fell with in the 1/4 mile circle. When the pedestrian route test was applied none of the subdivision was reachable, some of the houses were nearly a 3/4 mile walk from the proposed station.

I wrote a paper a few semesters ago analyzing the walkability of my neighborhood. I saw the same phenomenon. The nearest elementary school is about 1/2 mile from my house, as the crow flies. But because of development patterns the pedestrian route becomes nearly 2 miles. A simple system of walkways would solve the problem, but I doubt many of the home owners would be too excited to give away some of their property so others could walk [you know, because people walking = crime, or so say the NIMBYs].

Granted, homes in my neighborhood range from early 1900s bungalows to my 1960s condos to recent monster homes on two lots, and that kind of developmental hodgepodge is difficult to coordinate. Difficult, not impossible though.

Most cities have thorough transportation master plans, for cars. Integrating pedestrian circulation would not be much more difficult. I am glad to say that I am seeing this beginning to happen in both new development and retro fitting established areas.

Seeing the built environment through the eyes of the pedestrian is the first step to making our communities more pedestrian friendly.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ecological Debt Day

As an Environmental Studies major (along with Urban Planning) I am fortunate enough to get a host of interesting emails every day from the program adviser, Tasha McVaugh Seegert. These emails range from upcoming Wasatch Community Gardens events, to new course offerings, to the occasional knitting tip. Today's subject line caught my attention - "Ecological Debt Day." Usually any sort of "[Environmental word] Day" consists of tree planting, or gathering recyclables, or some such activity. But the word "debt" popped out today.

According to the Global Footprint Network, today is the day that the we have used up all the natural resources the earth can provide in a year and are living in ecological debt. I will be the first person to question the methods used to reach that estimate, how do you figure out the actual resources used per year? how do you know we have passed that number? There are plenty of questions regarding that sort of figure. The statement that we are living in ecological debt is also as confusing to me as hearing about the multi-trillion dollar national debt. If we are in debt, where are the resources coming from? Who holds the note to all those trillions of dollars? Does a number that big really mean anything?

The Global Footprint Network, or any organization for that matter, would be hard pressed [I assume] to show hard numbers to back up that statement. Statements which encompass the entire world are too nebulous to be clearly defined in a sentence. But I do not think that is the point. The idea behind the statement is not flawed. The amount of resources in our closed system is far out paced by our consumption of those resources. Bottom line. I contribute to that. I eat thousand mile dinners, I drive a car, I live in a house that is cool in the summer and warm in the winter, so I hope this post does not sound accusatory.

So what is to be done? I will defer the answer to someone more educated, and eloquent, than I. Michael Pollin wrote an article a few months ago titled "Why Bother?" Our planet is getting smaller, oddly, that means our problems are getting bigger - much like the problem of homelessness from my last post. NPR reported that foreign banks are looking for a piece of the nearly 700 billion dollar bailout package proposed by the Bush administration, because the US economy is not just the US economy. We have our fingers in pies all over the world, and who knows how many countries have their fingers in our pie. Agri-business and auto companies have high paid lobbyists. So what are we, as individuals to do? Read the article, it's good.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Doing good and having fun

Saturday was the second anual I Think I CANyons ride. It starts at the Barbacoa on Wasatch Blvd, up and down Little Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood, Millcreek, and Emigration Canyons, ending back at Barbacoa. All told it's about 110 miles with 12,000 vertical feet of climbing. As the volunteer t-shirts said, it's Utah's most intense century.

I have been commuting a fair amount this year, but I haven't been on very many good long rides, so I was in no shape to climb four canyons in a day. Instead I volunteered. My wife, my baby, and I headed up to the S curve in Big Cottonwood with a cooler and a box of snacks for the riders.

The weather was cool, the canyon was a particulary vibrant green from the morning rain, and the S curve was bustling with hikers, climbers, and cyclists. We passed out food and filled water bottles, in between I spent time with Tasha, Morgan, and Norman Maclean. After all the riders had gone up and down we headed to the improptu race headquarters in the Olympus Village parking lot for Barbacoa with siblings/co-volunteers. A great way to spend a saturday.

The best part of the day was being a part of the story of the ride. A few years ago some high school friends of mine and my sister organized and rode a 1,000 mile epic ride for the 4th Street Clinic. Last year the epic ride became I Think I Canyons. This year the ride grew to around 40 riders. In the past three years a couple of kids from Salt Lake, who don't have much [any] clout, have managed to raise over $10,000 for a very worthy cause.

This is a perfect example of people wanting to help their community, then actually doing something about it. Doing good can seem daunting. Which is where I get caught up. The thought of my piddly donation seems insignificant in view of everything that needs to be done. I can't possibly be of any real help. But here are some regular kids, students, looking to pay tuition, and rent, and buy food, and have social lives, and be 20-somethings. It's amazing what a good idea and a little effort can do.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

National Park(ing) Day

Tomorrow [September 19] is Park(ing) Day 2008. It started in San Francisco (of course), and this is the second year artists have co-opted parking stalls Salt Lake. When I first heard about it I envisioned seeing permanent park(ing) stall parks a few years down the road. Who knows. It should be an interesting day downtown.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Farmer Clifford

I've always thought I'd be a good farmer. Let me rephrase that - I've always thought I would like being a farmer. Of course, I have a somewhat romanticized view of the profession, but I don't think it is that far off.

I have the personality for it. I enjoy work. I get real pleasure from feeling soil in my hands, I enjoy solitude. And nothing thrills me like seeing things grow, I do mean thrill. I have never liked roller coasters, I prefer to have my feet on the ground. Seeing a tomato turn red [a tomato I tended all summer]? That is excitment.

The thought of waking up every morning, pulling on my overalls and straw hat [so maybe not every farmer wears overalls and a straw hat, but I would] and growing a patch of land. It is a careful, methodical profession.

In our project we are looking at a CSA on a half dozen acres at This is the Place. Makes my dream that much better. Plowing behind a horse, harvesting by hand, complete removal of internal combustion. I can't think of anything better.

My dream of overalls and squash will have to wait. I don't actually know the first thing about being a farmer [except the overalls and that it takes work], and I'm not sure how well it would support a family. It will be able to in the future though. I can wait.

But the CSA will work. There is enough focus on organic, local food that it would be economically viable. That focus is not just a fad either. Huge agri-business and 2,000 mile dinners are not, for lack of a better word, sustainable. This summer has seen huge increases in fuel prices, which has had a direct effect on food prices. Farmers market food is matching supermarket prices, and the next few years will see that trend continue.

If we only see one one part of this project come to life [it won't be the only thing], it will be the farm.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


I really love music. I don't know as much about music, or bands, or artists as I once did, but I try to listen to a good variety. A good family friend once said you can't trust someone who completely disregards an entire genre of music. I think that fits sentiment fits into more aspects of life than just music.

Music is probably my favorite artistic medium [at the moment]. Partly because it is much more portable than others, but more so because music, in all its forms, evokes every emotion in every person.

I have seen clips from this site on a fair amount of blogs [most recently my sister's. It seems I'm stealing lots of posts from her lately]. The clips of interest are the Take Away Shows. It is a series of musicians playing somewhat impromptu [acoustic] songs. My favorite part it the way the public reacts to these on-the-spot troubadours.

Mostly, though, this post is so I could link to this. This is why I love music [especially the second video. That is beauty].

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Links, An Explanation

On every blogger blog there is a section on the right (or left, depending on the template) navigation for links. I decided to add links to a couple of blogs I think are relevant to this blog.

The first two are links I got from my sister's blog. Judy (Make a Better Earth) and Erin (Green on the Poor Scene) are two of her friends. I don't know them as well as my sister does, but I do know them, so I feel the links are ok. Both of these ladies are the kind of people who practice what they preach, a difficult feat.

Green on the Poor Scene focuses on the ability to live green without buying a prius, installing solar panels, or other such spendy measures. Make a Better Earth is good general information on living better.

The third link is to a blog not unlike this. Actually, it it my friend Mike Maahs' blog, the blog he started at the same time I started this, for the same class. Mike and I have been good friends for a handful of years now. We fish together, shoot guns (his post about a cabin is the same cabin from my post earlier this week. As an aside, it is interesting to see two wildly different posts come from the same weekend.), our class schedules have aligned every semester, and he has been the key link to getting two of my jobs. As is evidenced by our cabin posts, we see things from different angles. It has been good for my academic career to have a close friend who sees things differently. Another way to get out of the box.

Those are the three links. All good blogs. All good people. I might add more links as the semester progresses, I might not. For now, happy blogging.

Grace and Art

I came home today and was welcomed by the smiling arrow that adorns the side of every box. Inside I found a stack of books for school. Fortunately, this is my last semester, which means that my course schedule is comprised of classes I genuinely enjoy (aside from statistics, that is), so seeing that stack of school books was a pleasure.

Underneath my urban design manuals and policy guides I found a small, thin paperback I forgot was in my order - Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It and Other Stories."

I have been intrigued by fly-fishing since Jr. High when my scout troop would camp one weekend a month, every month. A few of the older scouts were already avid fly-fishermen. Initially, I wanted to fly-fish because these boys, who I looked up to, did it. Soon though the arc of the line and the rise of the fish superseded any desire to emulate. It took a handful of years before I actually secured a rod and began learning the techniques required to bring a fish to the surface and take your fly.

For the majority of my life my bicycle has been my cathartic release. I still love to ride, and do whenever I can - most weeks around 100 miles of commuting, recreation, and errands. But since that first summer of fly-fishing, when school gets hairy, or work overwhelms, or a general malaise settles, my first impulse is to pack up my gear and head to the water. Even an hour of casting clears the mind and lifts the spirit. (I would like to make clear that I am far from fly-fishing excellence. Some day I will be able to raise fish from the depths and hit the pool behind the rock and under the low hanging branches with a flick of the rod and magical precision. However, that day is not today, probably not this decade)

This book, along with the "Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide," by Tom Rosenbauer, is a staple volume on the shelf of any fly-fisher. The story is genuine and enthralling, true, but the beauty of the book is Norman Maclean's description of the art of fly-fishing.

(As is the case with most of these entries, that is the long version of the background to this post.)

I opened to the first page and began reading. On page 4 I came across some lines pertinent not just to fly-fishing, but life in general. The father in the book is a Presbyterian Minister and fly-fisher. In his description of his father, the narrator says "My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things - trout as well as eternal salvation - come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy."

Those lines are beautiful, and I don't particularly want to muddle them with paragraphs lamenting the state of planning, or the state of the world in general. So I won't.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Project II

I don't really have much to talk about tonight. I just wanted to reiterate how excited I am about our project. I really do think it will be one of those projects that actually gets adopted, at least in part.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

How The West Was Awesome

My family has a cabin in Morgan County, about a mile north of East Canyon Reservoir. My wife's great-grandparents ran sheep on a couple thousand acres, some of which is now at the bottom of East Canyon. They lived in Porterville and built the cabin some for sheep business, but mostly for the deer hunt. Parley (my wife's great-grandpa) and his brothers/cousins/relatives made his house the base of operations during the hunt. Eventually, Edith (great-grandma) got fed up with the mess and stink of a bunch of deer hunters and kicked them out, so they built a cabin. This is a cabin in the original sense of the word. There is no electricity, no toilet, no shower, the water in the sink comes from a spring on the property. It is a cinder block box with a tin roof and an ace and a deuce painted on the gable.

In the next few years, the wives decided they would spend the hunt in Salt Lake, shopping and cavorting. This soon became a tradition, and it has stuck. Every third weekend in October the women head to Salt Lake while we head to the cabin. A grand time is had by all. (I will dedicate a post to hunting. Some people are turned off by it, but I actually found some common ground with a vegan because of it. It is all in the attitude.)

This weekend was our annual cabin preparation. We headed up with weed-whackers, shovels, paint, and cleaner to ready the cabin for the hunt. We got to the cabin around 10:30 on Saturday and worked till a few hours before dusk. When we were finished the cabin looked new, weeds cleared, fire pit rearranged, inside cleaned, outside freshly painted-

A short break before lunch and the last hour and a half before dark were spent shooting. We had two shotguns, .22 rifles, a .22 pistol, a .45, an 9mm, a .25, and an assault rifle. Add to that 180 clay pigeons, dozens of cans, some paper targets, family, and some close friends, and you have yourself a recipe for a great time.

The cabin, and the reason we can shoot like we did, is situated nicely in the bottom of a small valley in the middle of nowhere between East Canyon and Hennifer (don't feel bad if you've never heard of it, I think 18 people live there). Which brings me to the point of this already pretty long post - Utah.

I love Utah. In the hour we spent driving from our house in Murray to the cabin we went from developed urban metropolis to secluded nowhere. A short trip (on foot, shorter on 4wheeler) gets you to the top of a hill where you can see for miles and the only signs of human life are a barn and the faint outline of a minor highway. The trees were already beginning to take on their fall wardrobe and the evening air had that thin, crisp taste of fall. It was perfect.

I'm lucky, I am equally at home in the Salt Lake Valley as I am in rural Morgan County. As a planner I think that will serve me well. Rural and urban planning have different targets and different strategies, and I think that gets lost. In the four years I have been going up Weber Canyon to Morgan I have seen more development, most of which is not ideal, than I would like. If an entire county has managed to avoid installing a single stop light all the way into the 21st century, it deserves to keep that character. But the development I have seen falls into the "too small to plant, too big to mow" category. One acre lots which ruin the rural character, but fail to bring urban benefits.

If you look at almost any Smalltown, USA there is a clear pattern. A dense(er) town center surrounded by large agricultural properties. The small town feel means houses on smaller lots, close together. One acre lots are a false rural feel. Rural planers (in my admittedly less than experienced opinion) need to reevaluate how development happens. Envision Utah is doing some wonderful scenario planning for Morgan County right now. I hope the planner and the county will have the foresight to adopt and implement Envision Utah's ideas so the county will be able to maintain its character and maybe avoid stoplights for another century.

Friday, September 5, 2008

It's really the 4th

Even though the post will be dated the 5th, it is late (or early) enough that this still counts as my post for the 4th.

I really just want to lament my tomatoes. A handful of months ago I planted these little guys

A mixture of hierloom plants from the Wasatch Community Gardens plant sale. Japanese black, cherry, black plum, and two roma-esque varities.

Over the course of the summer those little starts grew into these guys

Sadly, that picture was taken after the storm we had this past weekend. Those plants are almost twice that height, the wind and rain knocked them over, bending most of the stalks (branches? what are they on a tomato plant?) at the wire tomato cages.

About half way through the storm I went to check on them, and much to my dismay, they were tangled up and had fallen down. They are growing in the enclosed patio of our condo, which creates a small vortex when the wind kicks up. The wind, rain, and weight of the plants had bent the cages at the base, adding to the sad situation. I put on my jacket and boots and headed out to do what I could to help. I ended up cutting some of the branches, unbending the cages, and, as you can see from the picture, bracing the cages with some 2x2s. On top of everything by the time I got out there it had already hailed.

The damage was done. When I went back out to check my heart sank a little. The cages, which had been so helpful in supporting growth became barriers against which the stalks had bent and broken, effectively decapitating the top three or four feet of my plants. The stalks and fruits were riddled with welts from the hail - a weather induced, tomato marring small pox.

The black plum had already given us a few dozen little, delicious fruits. It was somewhat protected by the plum tree we have in the court yard, but about half of the remaining crop is probably lost. We had picked about 6 little cherries with plenty more on the vine. I had maybe been a little over zealous with 5 plants, because the roma-esque in the back did not get enough sun to produce much fruit. Because they were in the back, they also grew tallest, looking for sun I guess. This height is also a big factor in the loss of the others, they fell forward onto the poor little plants. But the Japanese black is the biggest tragedy. None of fruit had matured yet, but there are buckets of various sized tomatoes, waiting to ripen. This one was in the front and received the brunt of the punishment. Pockmarked, bent, and broken. We will still be able to salvage some, but won't get the crop we were expecting.

This may seem like an inconvenience at worst, and for most people that is true, it would be. Not for me. This is only my second attempt at tomatoes. Last year I planted late, in uneven, thick-clay dirt. I ended up with three feet of sad plant and a dozen grape-sized green tomatoes, the other plant died a month after planting.

This year I build a wall to even out the bed. I mended the soil with pep and manure, two feet down, with a shovel. I watered and fed the plants. This year I did everything an urban gardner could do, and I love it. Then one storm undoes a good portion of what I had done. The next time something like this happens it will roll off, but this is my first real tomato year.

I'm sure there is a lesson here. Something about eggs and baskets, or the inadequacies of man in the face of nature, or a some philosophical lesson about some principles of the human psyche. But I don't really care about a lesson, I just want to be bummed out because my tomatoes came to a sad ending (the happy ending would be ending up in my belly).

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Project

Today we discussed our project plans for this semester. I have to say I'm happy with my group and our idea.

When we were brainstorming we decided to focus our efforts on the Foothills Cultural District for a variety of reasons. One of which is that we are all close to finishing our academic careers (or at least the current portions). Throughout our sojourn at the Uof U we have been involved in a handful of projects, most of which have been centered around downtown Salt Lake. Downtown is not perfect, and these projects have been worthy efforts. However, their fate is to be lost in the annals of planning students past. Another overly ambitious plan for the empty lot on such and such corner which will never receive an audience of people who matter.

Our project will be ambitious, we would like to see Sunnyside avenue go underground for a stretch so the Zoo and This is the Place can be connected by open space. We will also explore land use in the area to determine mixed use intensities. Where our project will be different is that in conjunction with the idealistic aspects there will be some feasible, solid deliverables. We will design a linear park to connect the Zoo, This is the Place, the future Utah Natural History Museum, and Red Butte Gardens. We will study sources of funding. We will look at possible collaborations between the sites to create a cohesive district, as opposed to a handful of interesting, but disconnected attractions.

I hope to affect some real change for good during my career. I do not want to have a stack of beautiful plans in boxes and little else when I retire. I am going to be able to take my grand children to the Foothills Cultural District (or any number of sites) and point to my contributions.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Faulty Logic and the Act of Cutting Off Your Nose

I just found this article in the Trim.

I looked into this Rob Anderson, apparently, he thinks that San Francisco is not not liberal enough and wants to "flank SF democrats on the left." There is enough in just that sentence from his blog to keep me occupied for days. But I don't want to digress. I would rather use this line from the article as a jumping off point:

"Cars always will vastly outnumber bikes, he reasons, so allotting more street space to cyclists could cause more
traffic jams, more time idling and more pollution."

On its surface, that seems like a legitimate statement, which is the most pernicious thing about it and other statements of its ilk. Such as, if you look at the embodied energy in our food, then riding a bike to the store is worse for the environment than driving a car, because you eat more food when you ride a bike, which outweighs the gains of bike v. car.

The problem with these types of statements is that they are too esoteric for their own good, and quite often either
blatantly wrong, or slightly true, but just on the surface (the worst kind). They are made by people who are either so enlightened as to see that the only good mode of transportation is walking, or, they are so jaded and cynical that they think no effort anybody makes will help our desperate situation.

Either or, they are not helpful. This type of statement is the kind co-opted by those who do not believe there is a problem/do not want to do anything to fix the problem.

Sadly, we are our own worst enemy. One of my first reading assignments for a planning class was "The Death of Environmentalism" by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. The short version is that environmentalists are going at environmentalism the wrong way and end up hurting their causes more than they help. Which is easy too easy to do. When problems are not shown to be human problems, or are portrayed as so helpless that we may as well not even try (I'll write a post sometime about Michael Pollen's article "Why Bother" it's a good one), more people are lost than gained. The adage "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" is as true for environmental issues as it is for salesmen.

Do I believe we are doing the best we can? of course not. Does than mean that I want to sabotage everything but the best plans? that would be silly. Paradigms do not change overnight. Cultures do not reinvent themselves in a weeks time. Change is slow. Sometimes it is brought on quickly and people are forced to adapt (where did I hear that?), but that usually involves tragedy. It is one of the oldest cliches, but there is real validity to the idea of thinking globally, and acting locally. We (environmentalists, humanists, concerned citizens, whatever name you chose) need to get behind plans that are a step in the right direction. Is Daybreak the messiah of planning in Utah? no. There are a host of things that could have been done better or differently. But is it a step in the right direction? Yes. Has it already helped change views? Indeed.

I understand the habit of only doing the minimum is equally pernicious. Settling for the lesser of two evils when you could insist on an option that is actually good, not just less bad. And there is a fine line between the two. Support and striving. But sometimes, the decision is simple; do I cut off my nose to spite my face?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Civility and the HOA

I live in Three Fountains of Cottonwood, the first multi-family condominiums west of the Mississippi. It was built in the late 60s by Proswood Development, who went on to become the largest developer of multi-family housing in the US. In fact, they still are - to this day no single developer has built more multi-family communities.

We moved to Three Fountains for a host of reasons. I grew up in a condo complex down the street and loved that there was ample open space. As a [semi] grown-up and budding urban planner, I liked that the open space was shared. I like that it means everybody has access to a great big yard while using a fraction of the acreage as big individual yards. All 297 of us have a basketball court and swimming pool, but there aren't 297 basketball courts and swimming pools. Because of the shared walls condos are typically more efficient than single family homes. As a new dad I like that the open space is in the center of the homes and away from the streets. Most of all, I like that the shared open space builds a sense of community.

As Americans, and especially westerners, we tend to sequester ourselves in our houses. With out fenced off yards I get to see my neighbors more often than I would in a typical neighborhood. There is a mutual sense of responsibility for the children in the development [we keep a bag of popsicles in the freezer for our neighbors]. In our society it is easy to avoid social interaction, and we were happy to move to an area where at least some of our excuses were removed.

But there are two sides to every coin, right? The great evil [that is an exaggeration, it is not all bad] is the Homeowners Association. Municipalities love them because it means one less area the code enforcement officers need to police. I do believe that in general they do a great service, my neighborhood looks beautiful, my roof is new, and my walks get shoveled. The great evil to which I refereed earlier is the role they play in conflict management.

In a typical single family home neighborhood squabbles are handled by the squabblers. Neighbors either deal with problems themselves, or the problems fester between neighbors of their own will. An HOA provides wronged, or inconvenienced residents a way to circumvent civility and hide from responsibility.

We have an issue in our development. Without boring you with the details it involves older residents who are unhappy with the recent influx of families with children [a good portion of the residents moved here when the development was new and have stayed. Three Fountains is jokingly called the unofficial retirement community of Murray]. Some of the residents filed grievances with the board before the accused parties even knew there were issues. It has evolved into terrible quarrels, a lawsuit, and even fisticuffs. Ridiculous.

The truly unfortunate consequence is that otherwise rational adults have severed friendships and disregarded basic tenets of humanity over what was essentially a misunderstanding. I truly do believe there would not be a lawsuit had there not been an HOA to hide behind.

There are enough actual problems in our communities, squabbles should not escalate into wars because of a lack of neighborliness.

[I would like it to be known that I have talked with neighbors, worked for months on a rules committee, and ran for the board (and lost) in an effort to avoid just this situation. I am not ranting about a problem I've just watched.]

Thursday, August 28, 2008


So I just watched Senator Obama's acceptance speech. Without getting too overly political I'll say that I liked it. Regardless of whether you believe him or not, you have to admit he is a great orator.

Among the points he mentioned were alternative energy sources, a topic often discussed as of late. One that is also a bit misunderstood. I don't claim to be an expert by any means, but I am interested.

The sources of alternative energy most commonly mentioned are solar, wind, and nuclear. All of which are viable alternatives, for electricity generation. They, especially the wind and solar, are wonderful alternatives to coal and building more hydro electric facilities [we have all the dams we need, says I]. However, these clean, great alternatives will not break us of our oil dependency, they are not substitutes for oil. The grim news is that there is no alternative for oil.

The two ways in which wind, solar, etc etc can take the place of oil are electric cars or hydrogen powered cars. Unfortunately, electric cars have very limited range before they need a charge, and it takes huge amounts of electricity to separate hydrogen from water.

The root of the problem in our after peak oil/$4.00 a gallon world is our [American] life style. We talk of alternative energies as if there is a panacea, a magic bullet, for our oil woes. Nothing can replace oil. If our [America's and the world's] consumption continues to grow at its current exponential rate, the too close doomsday predictions of 2050 for the cost of oil extraction to exceed economic viability could be shortened to 2030 or, heaven forbid, 2020.

Alternative energies must be pursued if we are to avoid economic catastrophy [not to mention irreparable harm to the environment and global climate]. But a large part of the solution must be a lifestyle shift. I am not advocating the banishment of single family detached homes, or that everyone must live in a Le Corbusier style city [I think Corbusier was a genius and produced beautiful work. I just wouldn't want to live in the Ville Contemporaine]. The change does not need to be that drastic. If we could live closer to work, closer to our daily needs, and rely on transit for the majority of our trips, maybe get rid of one of the two cars most households have [we're guilty], the 2050 estimate could be postponed for decades.

It's like a bag of [insert favorite food/candy here] - the best way to enjoy them for a longer time isn't to polish off the bag in 15 minutes then go find some more. Eat a couple of _____, then have some fruit snacks. They will last longer, and you won't get so sick.

It is going to take more than a swapping one resource for another.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

It won't be one of those blogs, I promise

I am not exactly sure the path this blog will take, but I am sure I don't want it to be packed with angry/emotional rants about the state of my community or the world in general. However, as I sat down to write today, I got the feeling this might be one of those emotional posts. The reason being is that as I type, my six week old son is sleeping on my chest.

I fell into into Planning. I started my higher education at USU in the Forestry program, I wanted to be a ranger/fuels specialist/wild fire incident commander. A series of events and handful of years later I found myself in Tasha Seegert's office signing up as an Environmental Studies major. Urban Planning dovetailed into my academic plan nicely, and I thought a double major couldn't hurt a resume. I didn't know anything about planning, but it seemed more interesting than my other option, Political Science. It turns out that was a fortuitous meeting because Planning is the career I never new I always wanted.

Which brings me back to sleeping Morgan. It is a tumultuous world. And it is only going to get worse. There are things this little guy will face in his life I couldn't have imagined. We are increasingly disconnected from human interaction, which has a host of detrimental side effects. Sometimes I picture the dystopian "The Machine Stops" in Morgan's future, but I hope not.

I can't stop most of the terrible things that will surely take place in Morgan's life. I can't eradicate disease or hunger. I can't stop wars. But what I can do is make the setting for his life one which embraces community, one that facilitates human interaction. The building heights, and parking requirements, and setbacks that seem so mundane help the built environment either foster community or hamper it.

I will teach this little one to love human contact. I will teach him to embrace humanity and all its imperfections. And I will do my part to make sure he lives in a world where people aren't separated by the built environment.

It won't happen overnight, but I'm a patient person.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Dear Steven Goldsmith

(and anyone else who chances on this blog),

This blog is an assignment for URBPL 4280 - Planning Workshop. I am supposed to keep a daily journal about class, planning, observations of the built environment, responses to planning literature, group projects...anything related to class. I imagine, since it is a daily endeavor, there will be some some asides and tangents as well.

By the end of the semester (my last undergraduate semester) the habit may be unbreakable and this little assignment will continue. Maybe it won't, we'll see. For now, enjoy (and grade favorably).