I love our National Parks

...and the National Park Service. We personally experienced the wonders of the National Park in Washington State and recently even in New York City, on Governors Island. We discovered talking to the Park Rangers that National Park Service jobs are the most coveted - and among the lowest paying - jobs in the field. Yet the workers do a spectacular job of making sure that we have access to a variety of beautiful, natural places to visit all over the country. These places are fundamental to reminding us that we are all part of something bigger, and I would go as far as saying that the National Park system is one of the greatest things about living in the United States.

And now it is under attack. The draft of the Bush Administration's new national park management policy allows for greater commercial and recreational activities that are inherently at odds with the National Park Service's mandate to protect our national parks. Yes, instead of "protect," the mandate has been shifted to "conserve," and it seems that conservation is for the benefit of humans, not of our eco-system.

As this New York Times editorial "Destroying the National Parks" eloquently states,

There is no question that we go to national parks to use and enjoy them. But part of the enjoyment of being in a place like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon is knowing that no matter how much it changes in the natural processes of time, it will continue to exist substantially unchanged.


A vote for Vancouver

My plea for tips about Seattle led to the suggestion that I visit Vancouver instead. This Star-Tribune (Minneapolis) article - sorry, it is several weeks old - makes a very compelling case. It's here in its entirety, so you don't have to pay for it online.

Steve Berg | Star Tribune Editorial Writer
Published July 31, 2005


Any busy downtown sidewalk will reveal the mystery of why Vancouverites
are an uncommonly vigorous and healthy bunch and why their city is so
widely admired.

Stand on Robson Street for five minutes on a weekday afternoon. Count
the people walking past: 346. Note the number who are obviously
overweight: 2. Estimate the number wearing backpacks: 100. Now take
another five minutes to count the cars moving steadily and easily past:
74 (plus two trucks and three buses). Reach for your calculator: 4.5
pedestrians for every car.

There you have it. Not exactly scientific proof, but an insight into
Vancouver's formula for healthy residents and urban vitality: more
walking, less driving.

More than any North American city, Vancouver has intentionally merged
public health with city planning. The goal is not just to promote
recreation (there are plenty of bike trails and tennis courts), but to
design physical activity into the daily routine, to build a city so
compelling that people will leave their cars at home, strap on a
backpack and take up walking as their primary mode of travel.

The result is a cityscape that's breathtaking in its beauty and
impressive in its retail vitality. Thick layers of trees and flowers
have invaded the downtown district. Strips of freshly trimmed green
grass line many downtown sidewalks. Hundreds of small shops and
restaurants have sprouted among the ever-expanding supply of townhouses
and high-rise condos. You can take a beautiful and pleasant walk to
fetch almost anything you need, so why drive?

Indeed, driving has become the backup mode of downtown travel. Growth in
auto traffic has lagged far behind growth in resident population, which
has doubled to 80,000 in the last 15 years. Auto traffic actually
declined by 13 percent between 1994 and 1999, according to a city
government study, while pedestrian traffic rose 55 percent. Last year,
vehicle registrations declined for the first time in memory as new
residents began eschewing second cars. Transit ridership, meanwhile,
rose 20 percent over three years. Air quality improved. And the
Vancouver region led Canada in many health categories, including life

"They built it and they live it," said Lawrence Frank, a planning
professor at the University of British Columbia and a leading expert on
the link between urban design and public health.

Both here, and earlier at Georgia Tech, Frank has been at the forefront
of research that ties obesity, hypertension, coronary disease, diabetes
and other health problems to the sprawling development and auto
dependence that dominates most cities. His and other research continues
to show that substituting even a modest amount of walking for driving as
part of the daily routine reduces the likelihood of obesity and related

The greatest inducement to physical activity is living within walking
distance of shops, transit stops and other destinations, studies show.
In other words, urban form can induce a healthier lifestyle.

"Vancouver is the clearest example of that," Frank said. Critics suggest
that self-selection may have tilted his results -- that people who
choose to live in active cities tend already to be trim, fit and quite
literally "walking the talk." Frank acknowledges the point, but insists
that the policy implications remain valid. People will have a better
chance at a healthy life if cities build physical activity into the
urban form.

Vancouver owes its health-conscious design to a list of advantages that
most cities, including Minneapolis, don't have: a moderate climate, a
geography hemmed in by water and mountains, the relative racial harmony
among Vancouver's white and Asian ethnic groups, tax policies favorable
to renters and small business, a huge flow of Chinese investment since
the mid-1990s, and a contrarian strain of politics that engulfed the
city in the early '70s and continues to pay dividends.

"Those were the hippie-dippy days," recalls Gordon Price, an urban
planning consultant and former city councilor who says Vancouver
succeeds mostly because environmentalists kept freeways out of the
city's center.

As a result, traditional neighborhoods stayed intact; local streets
stayed vibrant and busy; crime was held in check; public schools and
small business remained strong. The city swallowed hard and accepted
high-density redevelopment as a way to preserve the wider region's lush

It was, in short, an early version of "smart growth" that ran contrary
to the trends of the day and to human nature. It would have been easier
just to acquiesce to sprawl, big-box stores and the auto lifestyle,
Price said.

Vancouver isn't without problems. Vagrants and drug addicts occupy
downtown's derelict eastern edge. Housing prices in the tonier West End
are leaving the middle class behind. Meanwhile, the outer ring is
suffering traffic woes common in most suburbs.

But what most impresses a visitor is central Vancouver's extraordinary
care for public spaces. While drivers tend not to notice, walkers are
drawn to beautiful spaces. They see their city close up. They won't
tolerate crumbling, weed-infested sidewalks or shabby neighborhood
businesses. The more walkers a city has, the more pleasant, safe and
vital it becomes. Every great city is a great walking city -- not only
through parks or along waterfronts, but along ordinary streets that link
homes and destinations.

For Vancouverites, the values of healthy physical activity, public
beauty and retail/residential success seem to have converged in a
perfect synapse.

How? A greenways program invests $1 million a year to build attractive
pedestrian and bicycle links between homes and destinations, sometimes
along "ordinary" city streets. In addition, the park system maintains
130,000 street trees as part of its impressive $80 million (U.S.) annual
budget, and the zoning ordinance requires private developers to devote 1
percent of construction budgets to public art, thus embedding scores of
sculptures, fountains and other artistic features into the walking
environment. Moreover, city planners routinely negotiate generous
landscaping commitments from private developers.

"They are expected to match the high standard that the city has set with
its landscape investments," said Sandra James, the city's chief
greenways planner.

The central idea in creating a healthy city, she said, is to make sure
that natural beauty isn't confined to parks and the waterfront but that
it invades every block.

Quoting the preamble to Vancouver's greeways policy book, she said:
"It's time to stop thinking of our cities as one place and nature as
someplace else."

Steve Berg is at sbe-@startribune.com.
(c) Copyright 2005 Star Tribune.


Don't fall for Cal Thomas!

I'm sure the planning community is going apeshit over the August 17 column by Cal Thomas. The inversion of common values/principles versus government created by conservative politics really angers me, especially when it's really about protecting a "free market." It really really bothers me that they draw on the nostalgic image of a community lost to make their point. Don't fall for it! This market being defended is one that is free only to the privileged and powerful.

New York City Council blocks Wal-Mart's entree

There's a nice discussion in the LA Times about the New York City Council's attempts to block Wal-Mart by first refusing a variance earlier this year and most recentlying passing an ordinance requiring grocers to have minimum health benefit coverage that is distinctly non-Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart was not specifically named. Bloomberg came out against the measure due to its anti-free market bent. The New York University Law School helped write the policy, concurrently with a poverty study it is conducting.

This isn't a big stumbling block though. The company is actively looking for a foothold in New York City.

"Manhattan is a particular challenge, but we are looking at all the boroughs," said the company spokeswoman. "There already are big boxes in the city … Target is already in the city … as is Home Depot … They're nonunionized [and] doing well. And we want to be a part of the market as well.

"We're looking in Staten Island, Queens, the Bronx," she said. "We're looking all over the place."


The gauntlet is thrown...

It's been too long since I last posted - there's been a few big changes at work. But I couldn't resist this: how many millions of people will rise to this challenge? John Tierney from the NYTimes says:

...I figure the long-term odds are with me. And while I'm at it, I'll extend Julian's challenge and consider bets from anyone else convinced that our way of life is "unsustainable." If you think the price of oil or some other natural resource is going to soar, show me the money.


The dawn of township cooperation?

Development pressures in NJ are forcing townships to get involved across their borders. It's about time!

This article also gives very specific examples of the types of costs a town may have to undertake in order to support new housing development. One tends to think that it does go beyond new roads and sewage systems, but things like a new ladder to reach larger and higher houses and a new firefighter building to house the new ladder? That's an interesting glimpse into a township manager's life.


Wal-Mart's quarterly earnings down...

...due to increased cost of energy (oil). Not so unusual in the world of business.

But look at this twist discussed in today's NYTimes article: Wal-Mart's big box business model depends on the customer's ability to drive to their stores (and indirectly, the government's ability to provide the transportation infrstructure to do so). Part of the reason it's earnings are down is because people can no longer afford to go to the stores.

"If you have to spend seven or eight dollars to drive to Wal-Mart, it had better be a big purchase," [Joel L. Naroff, the chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisers in Holland, Pa] said, "otherwise the savings won't be that great."

With its customers having grown accustomed to such consistently low prices, Wal-Mart could have a particularly hard time passing on the higher energy costs - both its own and those of its suppliers.

"Wal-Mart made a living jamming costs down on everyone else...Now, how much can they absorb on their own?"


I wanted to (heart) Seattle

Seattle. It was the place everyone talked about as the promised land. The land of neighborhoods, of balanced streets, of waterfronts, of inclusive, participatory local government - it was the Eden of urban living. I really really wanted to love Seattle.

Instead, surprise. Disappointment. Maybe disappointment is inevitable after a set-up like that. OK, OK, the downtown is better than most. The city government is organized around its neighborhoods. If you love recreational water activity, there's plenty to do. There are many many good things about Seattle. And I really didn't get too many days there. (For those who know Seattle, I stayed in Belltown and went to Pike Place, Pike/Pine, Capital Hill (Broadway District), Ballard, Fremont, Seward Park, Lincoln Park, Alki, Gas Works Park, Columbia City, Pioneer Square and the International District).

But I don't want to make those equivocating statements about Seattle. I want to LOVE it. The experience of actually being on the streets and experiencing the city was just not as full as I expected. People don't hang out on the streets because they all drive around. Traffic is really really bad, but you have to get right into it (by car or bus) to get around. I was often the lone pedestrian (among many many homeless), even at the height of pedestrian times, like from 5-6PM or 8:30-9AM. And I guess I just like to learn about a city by watching the people who live there. I didn't get to do much of that.

There are spectacular places, such as Pike Place Market, but walk just a couple blocks away, and it goes back to bland and boring office and condo buildings. Many recommended neighborhoods provided the same diluted effect. They seemed to consist of a main street with some cute or high-end restaurants, maybe a bar or club, and some boutiques. A pedestrian might be drawn down the street, but that experience ends abruptly at the invisible retail district line. The spillover and overlapping effect doesn't happen in Seattle.

And finally, the biggest surprise of all, is a positive one. I liked the Seattle Public Library. Compared to all the other really crappy buildings downtown that are without an iota of public space, not even a nod to their inherent participation in downtown public life, the library provided so much more. There were people waiting for the bus next to the library. The metallic looking webbing stood out among all the other buildings, sort of like a wayfinding device. I could find the entrance. I knew where to go upstairs. Could it meet the sidewalk more elegantly? Sure. The inside wasn't quite as functional as people have claimed either (lots of handmade wayfinding signs, and by the looks of them, crafted by librarians who were attempting to answer some questions before they were asked). But I sure didn't hear any other criticism about the general overall design of downtown buildings. Many of them are worse!

There seems to be so many good, substantive parts to the City. But they just don't link well to each other, and I found it hard to take one positive experience and continue threading it throughout the city. I had to start building the positive one place at a time.

Maybe I'll go back one day and see the light. I really want to. (By the way, our drive across Washington State was spectacular.) Send Seattle tips my way!


PPS's First Fundraiser

I'm back in NYC and in the throes of preparing for PPS's little fundraiser next Wednesday. Plase come out and support PPS if you are in NYC. If not, help us furnish our office! This is PPS's first ever fund-raiser and I know people in the office don't think people will donate. I personally think we have a good cause, even if we don't always get everything right, so come out if you agree.

Of course, I'm way behind with writing, but I have lots on what I saw out in Seattle, across Washington State, and in Coeur d'Alene. I also missed lots of great writing from NYC and elsewhere, but I'll try to catch up over the next few days.


Off line

Preparations for a trip to Washington State and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho for a wedding were accomplished so last minute that I didn't get a chance to say that I'm on vacation until next week. There.


China's built environment: enormous negative impacts

I'm horrified but not surprised by this article about the terrible reslts from China's intense push on industrialization and built environment.