A Time Capsule View on Urban Sprawl

The Urban Land Institute, an organization that conducts research and promotes best practices on land development, has been celebrating its 75th year this year. As part of its celebration, the organization has unearthed a 1959 film called Community Growth: Crisis and Challenge warning of the impending threat of suburban sprawl. You can view the film at this Atlantic Cities post where I first saw it.

The film is interesting not only because it was produced so early in the history of suburban development, but for the assumptions guiding it.

Most notable … is not the fact that someone was sounding the alarm about sprawl 50 years ago, but that the solution then to the problem was markedly different from what planners (and advocates like the ULI) would propose today. The video makes no mention of walkability, or biking, or transit. The only real references to mixed use mention putting detached homes next to town homes next to high-rise apartments. These people weren’t talking about urbanism of any kind, but about a suburbia that would do a slightly better job of preserving open land. In this world, of course, everyone would still need a car

A good reminder not to be too wedded to the genius and rightness of the solutions we come up with to the big challenges that now face us.


In Remembrance of Wild Horses

Yesterday (December 18) was the fortieth anniversary of the signing into law of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. It’s a piece of law worth remembering, mostly because it drew a line in the sand not to give any people special rights or entitlements but to say, “This is the right way for us to live.” 

The Wild Horse act gave broad protection to wild horses and had the kind of ambitious and right thinking that our laws seldom have any more. Among other things, the law requires that mustangs be protected as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” and that the departments of Agriculture and the Interior, on whose lands the horses roam, “maintain a thriving natural ecological balance among wild horse populations, wildlife, livestock, and vegetation and to protect the range from the deterioration associated with overpopulation.”

Heady sentiments, and unfortunately sentiments that wouldn’t survive either the tinkering of western members of Congress, who multiple times have sprinkled amendments into unrelated omnibus bills and other legislation to weaken its provisions. Sunday in the Atlantic, CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen posted a short tribute to the bill and the negligence and legal wrangling that have taken the teeth out of it. He urges us to rekindle our passion to protect these animals, not only for their good but for our own.

I have come late in life to this cause, and I have written about it over and over and over and over again this year, because I believe that the way our wild horses have been treated lately by government and business often mirrors the way in which millions of ordinary people have been treated lately by government and business.

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Sbohem, Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel died Sunday at home. I’ve admired Havel from afar, ever since those heady days in December 1989 when the nonviolent protests in Prague ended more than four decades of communist rule and Havel was named president. A country that would name a playwright, an artist, to head its government had to be a good place. (And it is a wonderful place, and a wonderful culture, but that’s for another day.)

As I read of his passing, it made me feel negligent. Over the years since the Velvet Revolution in 1989, I’ve read scattered bits of Havel’s writing, an essay or two here, pieces of commentary. They have always bespoken a man living thoughtfully and living well (as in, “trying to live a good life,” as opposed to “living richly,” although those don’t have to be distinct). I’ve admired his spirit, albeit a bit ignorantly. I’ve admired the way he was compelled to be involved in and true to his native place, even when totalitarianism made that inconvenient and difficult. It seemed to be a moral imperative, living truthfully.

His life and his words speak out even in elegy. I was reminded of this one in a post by Jim Fallows of the Atlantic: In 1995, Havel gave the commencement address at Harvard. Without using the term globalization, he talked about the singular culture that was emerging in big cities and centers of culture around the globe. At the same time, he said, this was only a thin veneer over the “sum total of human awareness,” most of which was ancient, very local, often at odds with the global culture that was emerging. This contrary tendency was increasingly demanding to be heard, culturally and politically.

“It is my belief that this state of affairs contains a clear challenge not only to the Euro-American world but to our present-day civilization as a whole. It is a challenge to this civilization to start understanding itself as a multi-cultural and a multi-polar civilization, whose meaning lies not in undermining the individuality of different spheres of culture and civilization but in allowing them to be more completely themselves. This will only be possible, even conceivable, if we all accept a basic code of mutual co-existence, a kind of common minimum we can all share, one that will enable us to go on living side by side. Yet such a code won’t stand a chance if it is merely the product of a few who then proceed to force it on the rest. It must be an expression of the authentic will of everyone, growing out of the genuine spiritual roots hidden beneath the skin of our common, global civilization. If it is merely disseminated through the capillaries of the skin, the way Coca-cola ads are – as a commodity offered by some to others – such a code can hardly be expected to take hold in any profound or universal way.

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Fathering, Continued

The little things matter, more than you’d think. That’s my lesson from last night. I’m putting my 5-year-old son to bed when he suddenly notices that the blanket was missing for the new stuffed puppy he got Saturday at a friend’s puppy birthday party. This is the drill, of course, whenever I’m putting one of the kids to bed before they want to go to bed:  “Oh, wait, I forgot ….” And then when that’s taken care of, “Oh, but …” And so on. So last night it was a puppy blanket I had never heard of. Which is kinda how it works. The more the kid wants to stay up, the more obscure the reason they cannot get in bed right now.

At some point, I have to put my foot down. And there is the trick: putting the foot down in the right place. I’ve never heard of this puppy blanket so I decide to put it down then and there. The puppy is there along the wall side of the bunk bed where all of his other stuffed Curious Georges and Mumble and Chinese New Year rabbit are – surely he’ll be OK without a blanket …

Wrong answer, apparently. My son erupts into loud sobs. When I try to reason with him a little the sobs turn to howls. If my goal was to get him into bed soon, I’ve made the wrong call. He’s not the one who does this night after night, so I decide to give in. We will investigate and problem solve (since I am a guy and that is what I do well).  Turns out the “blanket” was an old dish rag that his sister thought should go out with the dirty laundry earlier in the day when I made them clean up. It’s nothing special that he needs, but in making that very rational statement I am probably illustrating why guys get no credit for sensitivity to others. It turns out to be special, in a way I am not understanding. He returns from the basement with an old but clean wash cloth (“No, it’s a blanket,” he corrects me) and he and the puppy are good to go. He smiles, and is off to sleep in minutes.

All of this will be forgotten today. We’re so used to assessing what we do with our kids, what we may be doing wrong. Are our kids going to turn out as losers or spoiled brats because of whatever I did today? I’m always looking back over the difficult moments, thinking about what I might have done better. I wonder if parents agonized over this stuff a hundred years ago as we do. They probably had different things to make them crazy.

I Knocked at the Forest Service but No One Was Home

With the congress’ and the Obama adminsitration’s misguided focus on deficits and austerity this year, most of the focus has been on big-ticket items like Medicare and Social Security. What often gets lost is that with the past three decades of tax cutting and budget-hacking, without actually paying for all the things we want to spend money on, what we’ve done in many cases is leave a dysfunctional shell in place that doesn’t really get any of the job done, but is at least there so that nobody notices that nobody is home anymore.

High Country News has a couple of great illustrations this week from the US Forest Service, which seems to be able to generally staff its offices but not so’s it can do its job. And I’m not referring to the trend over the past 10 or 15 years to have contractors staff and maintain Forest Service campgrounds, often resulting in badly maintained and messy campsites. That is one thing you might notice.

If you’ve driven through forests in Colorado or Oregon or in western Canada, you’ve seen the ravages of pine beetles. Where you expect to see evergreen slopes, the mountains often seem rusted brown. One of the few approaches to at least limit the damage and spread is to harvest infested trees. But you won’t find the Forest Service proactively managing the problem. Short on staff and expertise, they’ve apparently been able to do little else besides watch the destruction, along with the rest of us. Not much “management” going on here. (There are many would say that all “management” has ever meant at the forest service is handing out permits to loggers to clear-cut at will, and so maybe its illogical to criticize them for doing more in this case.) The end result has been a lot of timber going to waste and an epidemic that has possibly grown worse than it might have had it been better managed.

The second example involves recreational use. At least in the Pacific Northwest, nonprofit groups that bring teens to the outdoors are being denied permits for their trips to National Forests and wilderness areas. The reason is that the Forest Service isn’t sufficiently staffed for the agencies to go through the work to accredit nonprofit agencies. Those of us who can get ourselves and our families to these areas are still free to use them, as are public and private educational institutions. But not the nonprofits – generally the agencies supporting poorer kids. It’s another example of how our moves toward austerity and small government are turning our commonwealth into more wealth for those who already have it.



Grace Blooms from Tragedy

This gets to the mystery of the season …

If Shelley and Paul Freeman had turned cynical and cranky, you could probably forgive them for it. A little over a year ago, they lost their 21-year-old son Cameron, when a car he and three friends were riding in was crushed by a drunk driver going near 80 miles per hour. But the Freemans didn’t do that. They did what many of us can only aspire to.

Cameron Freeman died two days before the Thanksgiving holiday in 2010. It wasn’t the holiday they had planned on having. Friends called to sympathize, and to share grief and anger. But even this wasn’t right. A few nights later, Shelley woke up, her heart open and raw and her mind full. She pulled up a notebook and wrote. The anger people felt at the theft of Cameron’s life was understandable, but it was wrong. Cameron had always been generous; he had wanted to change the world in a positive way. Cameron’s birthday was coming up on December 7, and she decided to celebrate by calling for people to perform acts of kindness toward people they would not normally be kind to. That would be in Cameron’s spirit. In her notebook she wrote:

Cameron’s death is spiritual, much like the moment of birth. Awesome, sacred and profound but not without pain. I wouldn’t want a molecule of that profound love to be contaminated with hatred and anger.

Her son had wanted to change the world, she wrote, but he felt so powerless.

So we have a call to action, in the name of change, that every person who expressed anger, hatred or disdain at hearing of Cameron’s death should replace it with seven acts of kindness.

This year marked the second celebration of the Cameron effect. The day was promoted locally, and the Freemans created a blog for participants to share stories. More participated this year, most notably Union Bank, which gave away $10,000 – 100 employees were given $100 each to give away to 100 people in need; some of their stories are here. There is light shining in Lincoln.

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Ry Cooder Channels Him Some Woody

The lesson from life is that if you take things as serious as I do, you will be grouchy and cranky and have no friends. You have to find the key to your own laughter, even if you’re face to face with the likes of Tim Geithner, Hank Paulson, Larry Summers, Sandy Weill, John Stumpf, Angelo Mozilo, Ken Lewis, Robert Rubin, or any of their ilk.

I know some people were feeling like we were finally gaining some leverage against the giants of finance, especially after the big banks recently dialed back proposed debit card fee hikes. Maybe Occupy Wall Street was doing some good, many of us thought. But today my local cafe had a notice up requesting patrons to pay with cash or credit, because the banks have passed on debit fee increases to them, specifically in the form of a 500-plus percent increase in what they have to pay for the “convenience” of your using your debit card. It took a quarter off what meager amount they were earning on my cup of coffee. Their grubby hands are reaching in everywhere.

So take it away Ry (who’s digging down and finding his inner Woody, an imp djinn for his guitar). He hasn’t sounded this good in years, and boy is it timely.