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).