Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Problem With Zombie Lots

Stockton, California suburb
Hello Everyone:

By now, news of the Grand Jury in Ferguson, Missouri declining to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown has been blasted all over the solar system. Blogger is not happy with the decision, nor is blogger happy about the senseless acts of violence committed in the aftermath but unfortunately, this is symptomatic of our world.

Changing the subject, today we are going to talk about another symptom of contemporary life, zombie suburbs.  No, this post is not about zombies living the American dream, this post is based on the CityLab article titled "The Unfinished Suburbs of America," by Alana Semuels.  The article looks at the thousands of partially developed acres across America that were abandoned after the housing boom went bust.  Ms. Semuels looks at the fate of these zombie suburbs and what should happen to them.

Unfinished suburban street
Stockton, California
Photograph by Alana Semuels
Alana Semuels begins with the story of Janeen Milhorn and her husband.  The Milhorns bought their four-bedroom house ranch-style house in Stockton, California in 2004.  The house appealed to them because it sat on the farthest lot in the development, giving them more land and looked onto a hay field. However, the lovely hay field was quickly snapped up by developers during the real estate boom adding to the speculation and building throughout former farmland in California and the West.  In 2006, the developers began construction, platting the land and paving roads.  They installed street lights, electrical cables, and streets signs named for rock stars i.e. (Mick) Jagger Lane and (Jimi) Hendrix Drive.

Then came the recession and the dulcet tones of construction ground to a halt.  The streets and the sidewalks remain, as do the lots with electrical wire sticking out the ground like broken guitar strings. Amid the acres of abandoned lots, only a few houses stood complete.  None of these zombie lots were near the Milhorns.  From one window, the Milhorns saw the neatly tended lawns and pretty gardens of their neighbors in the completed development.  However, the view from another window was quite different-a bleak looking field with street signs, lamp post, and no houses.  The empty field soon took on the appearance of the town dump with overgrown weeds, beer bottles, shopping carts, toys, and plastic bags.  Coyotes and skunks also found the field appealing.

The sidewalk near Janeen Milhorn's house
Photograph by Alana Semuels
"It's kind of horrible," says Ms. Milhorn as she stood in her front garden, looking out onto the neighboring abandoned development.  The Milhorns put up a fence along their property's boundary to keep out the animals but it has not stopped people from cruising the empty streets or partying in the tall grass.  The road block that was put up to keep out trespassers was taken down after a drunk driver rammed into it.  These days, the empty cul-de-sac streets are a race track for dragsters and bikers.  This is development is but one of hundreds of zombie subdivisions across the United States. They are obvious reminders of the housing boom and bust during the days when everyone wanted and could afford a nice house in the suburbs.  When the economy plunged, many of the developers behind these idyllic slices of the American pie went bankrupt and construction ceased.  In some instances, a few of the new home owners moved into the half-finished subdivisions, requiring service delivery.  In other cases, the land remains empty, except for the odd road or sidewalk.  The Sonoran Institute ( estimated that "In some counties in the West, anywhere between 15 to 33 percent of all subdivision lots are vacant."

"The town dump"
Photograph by Alana Semuels
  In a report published by the Lincoln Institute of Land   Policy, Combating Zombie Subdivisions and  Other  Excess Entitlements, author Jim Holway, Ph.D  writes,
Since the post-2007 real estate bust, which hit many parts of the region severely, eroding subdivision roads now slice through farmland and open space and 'spec' houses stand alone amid many rural and suburban landscape...Without correction, they will continue to weaken fiscal health, property values and quality of life in affected communities. (

Finished houses next weedy lots
Empty lots not only bring down property values, they also pose a hazard to human health and safety.  They are sources of wildfires and flooding contamination. Further, empty lots can cost municipal governments money that they may not have because they have to allocate funding for public safety or snow removal to these remote places without the expected benefit of property taxes.  If the threat to human health and safety is not enough motivation to do something, anything, then what is the solution to lots that look like leftover sets from 28 Days Later?

Alana Semuels writes, "It's unclear just how to 'fix' these zombie subdivisions.  While some will be completed as the economy recovers, others may lie dormant for a long time."  This situation is particularly acute as the trend continues for young people and baby boomers wanting to live in more walkable urban settings, instead of suburban subdivisions where they have to drive just to do the grocery shopping.  June Williamson, a professor of architecture at the City College of New York and co-author of the book Retrofitting Suburbia, adds "When things are zoned for future residential development, there's value to that...Landowners can argue that downsizing will lead to a less profitable future use."  Yet, some developers have found resourceful way to do something with zombie lots other than a sea of vacant McMansions.

Developer built docks and ramps in Delta Cove
Bethel Island, near Stockton, California
Photograph by Alana Semuels
Maricopa, Arizona took a novel approach to dealing with zombie lots.  During the real estate boom, the city issued as many as 600 residential building permit a month for new developments, many of which stalled.  Rather than wait and see if the demand would come back, the city put a Catholic church in touch with the owners of the empty development.  As luck would have it, the church had wanted to put up a new building and was looking for a site with existing infrastructure and water service.  It was mana from heaven for the developer who was looking for a client willing to build.  With a wee bit of rezoning help from the city, the church was able to build on the land.

"Out of service"
Photograph by Alana Semuels
Another example is Teton County, Idaho, population about 11,000.  The Sonoran Institute "estimates that 68 percent of the land parceled into subdivisions was undeveloped..."  To remedy this situation, civic officials passed ordinances that allowed the subdivisions to be rezoned.  One of the rezoned developments was Canyon Creek Ranch, original planned as a resort with 350 lots, was rezoned as community project with 21 lots.  The cost of the infrastructure dropped by 97 percent and the environmental impact was reduced.  Ms. Semuels quotes urban developer and consultant Michael Mehaffy, "...clients who bought distressed properties have started to contact him, hoping to start building on them again.  But they want to build something different than was planned before....The market is shifting-people are recognizing that they don't want to live in these monocultural places...They want to be able to walk, enjoy amenities and a nice neighborhood with lots of services nearby."

Subdivision roadblock
Photograph by Alana Semuels
According to Mr. Mehaffy, "But there are zoning codes and headaches that make it difficult to build something different than was originally planned."  Some of the developments lack available public transit.  Others may have residents who bought their houses thinking they were moving to the suburbs, and oppose the construction of apartments or a retail development.  There are some planned communities that already have water and infrastructure that they do not want to lose if the project shrinks in scope.  Mr. Mehaffy adds, "It can be difficult it you're trying, as we are, not just to pick up the pieces and build again, but build in a smarter way, a complete community.

The last developed in a planned community
Photograph by Alana Semuels
Despite the rezoning difficulties, in some places building a smarter, more complete community is working.  Mr. Mehaffy is collaborating with Lawrence Qamar, an architect and urban designer, on a zombie subdivision in Washington state in an area called Ocean Shores.  The development was originally envisioned as a twelve four-story condominium buildings. One building was completed and a few units were sold but the project stalled during the recession and a new developer bought the property at auction in 2012.  "They had a really terrible plan, an awful development that would have been a blight on the landscape if it had been built," said Mr. Qamar.

Messrs. Mehaffy and Qamar have a different vision: a mixed-use, walkable subdivision with small separate single-family cottages, retail and bicycle paths.  The previous plan called for 500 condominium units, the new plan contains about 300 cottage-style "residential units."  "We want to transform this zombie subdivision into something more similar to this village-like vision," said Mr. Qamar.

Meanwhile back at Janeen Milhorn's development, there is no sign of any plans to rezone the community into something more walkable.  There are the random new homes going up but the land next to her property is owned by a different builder who is letting sit.  The Milhorns have tried to contact the city to find out if they could by some of the land in order to enlarge their yard, but the city declined permission.  The city replied that a house will eventually be built on the adjoining property.  Until then, the Milhorns will just have to contend with a zombie lot.

I would just like to wish all my readers in the United States a happy and safe Thanksgiving Day. Enjoy the time you spend with your family and friends.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson November 24, 2014

Ferguson protestors locking arms
Hello Everyone:

I would like to take a moment to talk about the Grand Jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson and the aftermath.  First of all, I would like to commend the Grand Jury in Ferguson for taking on this monumental task.  It was not easy to sift through all the conflicting evidence and testimony but the men and women who sat on the panel should be commended for accepting this responsibility.  Having said that, I do not think that the decision not to indict Officer Wilson was the wisest.  Officer Wilson should face the consequences of his action.  Officer Wilson's disproportionate response to an unarmed young man demonstrated a callous disregard for human life. This is something that Officer Wilson will have to live with for the rest of his life.  He says he's sorry and his conscience is clear.  There was absolutely no reason for him to shoot Michael Brown twelve times.  There was no reason to shoot him at all.  I would also like to address my comments to those individuals who believe that vandalism and violence is a healthy form of expression.  You, too, will have to live with the consequences of your actions.  The damage you cause will adversely affect innocent bystanders for years to come.  If you loot a store, you deprive a business owner of his livelihood.  If you set fire to a car, you deprive someone of the ability to go to and from work or take their child to school.  My point here is that choices were made in the heat of the moment that resulted in lasting repercussions. Officer Wilson chose to discharge his weapon twelve times, taking the life of someone's son. Protestors who choose to commit acts of violence and vandalism will have to live with the fact that they deprived someone of a right to a livelihood and property.  Whether you believe the shooting was justified or not, the consequences of this one decision will last a lifetime.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Architecture And The Human Brain

Saint Basil's Cathedral
Moscow, Russia
Hello Everyone:

It is a lovely Monday here in Los Angeles, California. Sorry to rub into all of you on the East Coast, buried under snow, but your truly is in a particularly sunny mood having received recent reminders from the universe that life is good.

Today we get back to one of blogger's favorite topics, architecture.  Architecture is a multidisciplinary field that encompasses the humanities, fine arts, the sciences, and technical craft.  Unlike the fine arts, i.e. painting and sculpture, architecture depends on human interaction with the built environment.  There are buildings such as museums, places of worship, and libraries, that are intended as places of quiet contemplation.  In her article for CityLab, titled "What Architecture is Doing to Your Brain," Emily Von Hoffman looks at places meant for contemplation and discusses how they may have real positive effects on mental health.

Joseph Mark Lauinger Memorial Library
Georgetown University
Emily Von Hoffman writes, "At a particular moment during every tour of Georgetown University's campus, it becomes necessary for the student guide to acknowledge the singular blight in an otherwise idyllic environment." The blight Ms. Von Hoffman refers to is the Joseph Mark Lauinger Memorial Library, "...designed to be a modern abstraction of Healy Hall...."  The tour guide showing Ms. Von Hoffman the Brutalist style library says this in an almost apologetic manner, allowing the group accompanying our reporter to draw their own conclusions.  The majority of the student population on the Washington D.C. suburban campus agrees that library's imposition on the quad is "...nothing short of soul-crushing."  However, a recent study conducted by architects and neuroscientists suggests that architecture does have affect on the human emotional state.  "...though," adds Ms. Von Hoffman, "they choose to focus on the positive."

Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Louis Kahn
La Jolla, California
Ms. Von Hoffman interviewed Dr. Julio Bermudez, the principle researcher of the study which uses an fMRI to record the effects of architecture on the brain.  The goal of Dr. Bermudez's team was the use of scientific method to transform "phenomenologies of our built environment" into neuroscientific data that architects and planners can design accordingly.  The team's research focused on the question of how buildings and sites are designed to evoke contemplation.  They postulated "that the presence of 'contemplative architecture' in one's environment may over time produce the same health benefits as traditional 'internally induced' medication, except with much less effort by the individual."

What makes a building or space contemplative?  Contemplative architecture is composed of "...a series of design element that have been historically employed in religious settings:"  Dr. Bermudez added, "it is logical to expect societies not only to notice [the link between built beauty and experience] over time, but to exploit it as much as possible in their places for holy purposes."  Said design elements could have been used frequently in their intended places deep thought or discovery of the spiritual, personal, or perhaps of the scientific nature.  Quoting Architectural Digest's article on The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, Ms. Von Hoffman writes,

360° panorama of the Salk Institute Courtyard
The nonprofit research center...interweaves private and public spaces with a strikingly formal, inward-looking plan that echoes the format of a medieval cloister.  Composed of strong-willed yet sensuous materials-travertine and reinforced concrete-ti possesses a hushed dignity that encourages contemplation.

Two six-story laboratory buildings from the north and south boundaries of the complex.  Each shelters an inner row of angular semidetached office structures that face each other across a travertine courtyard.  Bisecting it all is a channel of water that seems to pour into the Pacific below.  The buildings, fashioned of concrete accented with teak, focus one's gaze on the horizon so "you are one with the ocean," observes admirer Jim Olson, a partner in the Seattle firm Olson Kundig Architects.

The Alhambra
Granada, Spain
The researchers gathered a group of twelve architects and showed them photographs of contemplative and non-contemplative buildings; façade and interiors.  The architects's brain activity was observed as they were asked to imagine themselves in the places they were shown.  The subjects were white, male, and right-handed with no prior meditative experience.  Why Ms. Von Hoffman found it necessary to mention this fact is beside the point, suffice it to say it produced rather undistinguishable effects.  Blogger hazards a theory for this across-the-board uniformity as the result of the researchers wanting to filter out unrelated factors such as age, gender, or handedness.  Although it would have made for a more interesting study.  Additionally, the choice to use architects as test subjects was strategic-meant to increase the likelihood of achieving conclusive results.  The team decided that architects would be the natural choice for test subjects because their training and experience would make them more aware of features a layperson would overlook.

Interior detail of The Alhambra
Dr. Bermudez conceded that he and his team "totally loaded the deck" by focusing on a group of architects who looked at pictures of the "most beautiful buildings mankind has ever produced."  Among them were: La Alhambra, the Pantheon, Chartres Cathedral, the Salk Institute, and Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp.  Responding to a critic, following his presentation at the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, Dr. Bermudez "explained that the goal of the pilot study is to reveal something interesting that warrants additional funding for an extension of the experiment using the general population."  Perhaps if Dr. Bermudez and his team had a more diverse test group, the study would have produced better and more attention getting results.

Challenge laid out at the onset was measuring an experience few have considered.  Using online surveys in Spanish and English, the team gathered statements on extraordinary architectural experiences with places that alter one's state of being. Importantly, the majority of the buildings or sites referred in the 2,982 testimonials were specifically designed with deep thought in mind: spiritual, aesthetic, religious, or symbolic.  This lead researchers to conclude that "buildings may induce insightful, profound, and transformative contemplative states, [and] buildings designed to provoke contemplation seem to be succeeding."  Further, religious buildings, some art galleries, monuments, homes, and museums such as: the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Louvre, and Fallingwater, can also serve as places of deep thought.

Guggenheim Bilbao
Frank Gehry
Bilbao, Spain
In advance of the skeptics proclaiming the subjectivity of these experiences, the research team expanded the question to incorporate established neuroscientific subfield of meditation, with some major differences. Germane studies have focused on innate produced states that can be easily replicated in a laboratory and on aesthetic evaluation-which takes place in the orbital frontal cortex.  Emily Von Hoffman writes, "Bermudez and his team expected that architecturally induced contemplative states would be strong, non-evaluative aesthetic experiences-eliciting more activity in areas associated with emotion and pleasure, but less activity in the orbital frontal cortex."

The photographs of the buildings (external stimuli) also eliminated the self-regulation that goes on in the prefrontal cortex during traditional meditation. The test group was interviewed and their responses revealed that "peacefulness and relaxation, lessening of mind wandering, increasing of attention, and deepening of experience, were all common effects of viewing the photos-" another typical result was a minuscule element of aesthetic evaluation-a common occupational hazard.

The Pantheon interior
The initial findings of the study demonstrated that the brain reacts differently when subjected to contemplative and non-contemplative spaces.  The contemplative states are produced via "architectural aesthetics" not unlike that of traditional meditation in one respect, different in others, and "architectural design matters."

Emily Von Hoffman observes, "That las conclusion sounds anticlimactic after all this talk of lobes and cortices but it reinforces a growing trend in architecture and design as researchers are beginning to study how the built environment affects the people who live in it."  The ANFA declared that "some observers have characterized what is happening in neuroscience as the most exciting frontier of human discovery since the Renaissance."  Blogger supposes that Dr. Julio Bermudez's study has potentially good implications for institutional settings such as schools and hospitals.  However, yours truly would have liked to have about the research team using a more diverse test group of non-architects.  Perhaps if the study is expanded to the general population, yours truly might join the ANFA's excitement.  For now, more study is necessary.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

As Family Farms Fade, Urban Power Rises

Iowa cornfield
Hello Everyone:

Recently, yours truly posted an article about about dying village culture in China.  Here, in the United States, a venerated culture is also dying, farms.  Farms, particularly those in the state of Iowa are giving way to the growth of cities in the "Hawkeye" state.  In his recent article for the New York Times, "With Farms Fading and Urban Might Rising, Power Shifts in Iowa," Michael Barbaro looks at this transformation in context to the recently completed midterm elections and its implications for the new political order.

Downtown Laurens, Iowa
Laurens, Iowa is a typical farming community in northern Iowa.  Like many communities in the very American heartland, Laurens is hemorrhaging people. The population has shrunk thirty-two percent over the last ten years.  This alarming drop in demographics has forced schools to merge and sports programs to be cut.  As Joe Kramer, the school superintendent for the Pocahontas school district describes the situation, "It's a struggle for a community to make decisions like this...It's so much a part of our identity"  Meanwhile, two hours south, Dallas county, former farmland encircling Des Moines, faces the opposite problem.  The population is growing, enrollment in its largest districts has swollen over the past decade.  Dave J. Wilkerson, the local school superintendent laments having to tell parents that their neighborhood school has become so overcrowded that the district has to ship students off to a newer school.  "I apologize that we will have to send your children off to a new, state-of-the-art school...I would rather be dealing with this challenge than what Pocahontas has."

Senator-elect Joni Ernst
On November 4, 2014 Iowans elected Joni Ernst, the first new United States senator in three decades.  However, in the heat of a close contest what emerged was the scale " which people and power have shifted from its rural towns to its urban areas is emerging as a potent but undercurrent..."  This shift in people and power can be felt in the once commonplace farms that are supporting fewer workers, the surrounding towns are losing young residents, and a traditional way of life is approaching its nadir.  Farm fields are being ceded to corporate headquarters which are attracting waves of citizens to the cities and suburbs, contributing to the state's 4.5 percent unemployment rate.

Downtown Des Moines, Iowa
In rather odd but telling scenes, new housing subdivisions with rustic sounding names such as Stone Prairie and Walnut Creek Estates, are taking hold in Republican precincts west of Des Moines and former office buildings in the more Democrat state capital are being converted to loft-type apartments.  Researchers at Iowa State University analyzed population trends between 2000 and 2013 and concluded that Iowa's metropolitan's areas had grown by 13.3 percent.  Conversely, the exurban areas fell by 3.6 percent, a difference that far outstripped the rest of the midwestern region. These changes have made the state's older, more Republican precincts a brighter shade of red and its Democratic precincts bluer than blue.  Meanwhile, in the growing suburban areas, political leanings are harder to pinpoint-given a heady population mix of "...millennials, religious conservatives, baby boomer libertarians, and Generation X liberals."

Iowa Interstate 80
Those places "are not red state or blue state.  There are a lot of pastels in there." declared David A. Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University and former political commentator for the Des Moines Register. Senator-elect Republican Joni Ernst bested Democrat Bruce Braley, a four term representative with a more urban agenda, by portraying herself as a descendent of Iowa's agricultural heritage.  Despite Mr. Braley's verbal gaffes and a rather humorous political commercial showing off Ms. Ernst's hog castrating skills, the contest highlighted the white hot urban-rural divide, encapsulated in a Des Moines Register poll which gave the newly elected senator a 4-to-1 advantage over Mr. Braley among rural voters.  This point was further underscored, during a debate, when Ms. Ernst asked Mr. Braley why he had foresworn his root roots.  Mr. Braley replied "I have not forgotten my rural values."

Iowa farmland
Now that the dust has settled in this contentious election, sparked by the retirement of Senator Tom Harkin, what is clear is that Iowa " a swing state grappling with changes that defy long-held assumptions.  Its farmers are emerging as leaders in sustainable energy, its rural towns are becoming magnets for Latinos, and it cities laboratories for high-tech start-ups."  Outgoing Senator Harkin commented that the election hinged on the candidate that acknowledges the changed landscape.  "There is this ideal of Iowa..."  Those who left the farms "aren't too far removed from those small town." Mr. Harkin added this caveat, "they know they are not going back."

Laurens, Iowa store fronts
John Stumpf is one those people that is not going back.  A generation ago, his grandmother operated Treasure Chest, a consignment business presently located on a sad retail strip in Laurens that without question, would have been passed down to Mr. Stumpf.  Business is excruciatingly slow and Mr. Stumpf, a film major at the University of Iowa, found small town life unsuitable.  Mr. Stumpf said, "There is nothing for me here," a statement that his grandmother, Millie Burnham, reluctantly agrees with. Ms. Burnham added, "Everything is closing...School will, eventually," ventures Mr. Stumpf.

In the sixties, Laurens' population hovered around 1,800, by 2000 that number was down to 1,476, finally by 2010 that number dropped to 1,258.  The story is the same across Iowa: once vibrant farm communities have been decimated: first by the farm crisis in the eighties, then by technological advances that encourage bigger farms and fewer workers. "As of 2011, Pocahontas's farming industry employed 764 people, about half as many as in 1980."  Those who remain are mainly registered Republicans.  Susie Mayou is one such conservative who says she is "...heartsick that Democrats had carried Iowa in six of the last seven presidential elections. 'If Iowa gave power based on land ownership, the state would swing 180 degrees...The city people push the agenda.'"  John Stumpf is among those city-destined people.  Despite his grandmother's avowed Republicanism, Mr. Stumpf voted for Mr. Braley.

Des Moines, Iowa Starbucks
Downtown Des Moines-there is a stretch of Sixth Avenue, dubbed "Silicon Sixth," home to about two dozen high tech start-ups.  The Des Moines Building, few blocks over, is currently being repurposed as 136-unit apartment building complete with a dog walk terrace.  A full-service supermarket, up the block and a first for the downtown, is under development. The former dull urban core, known for its commuter friendly bankers's hours and bland skywalk system, is becoming more cosmopolitan.  The population has doubled in the last ten years and 1,500 new housing units are being planned.  The result is Polk County, home to Des Moines,  registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by approximately 20,000 is becoming more influential in state politics.  Musician Mickey Davis was so sure he would leave the state after graduation that he tattooed the corporate logo of downtown Des Moines mainstay, Travelers Insurance, so he would have a piece of the state with him.  Mr. Davis is the program manager for the Des Moines Social Club, a kind of hub for cultural activity in an Art Deco former firehouse.  He declared, "Des actually a happening place."

Latino Gothic
Iowa has a 92 percent white population, hardly a hotbed of racial diversity.  Wade Rathke, the founder of the social activist group Acorn, wrote in 2008 "so white that you almost need special glasses to pick the people out from the snow banks."  All jokes aside, as during his visit to Iowa, Michael Barbaro took a drive down Main Street with city council member Pete Rodriguez.  As Mr. Rodriguez drove, he pointed out the homes of Latino Iowans.  The city of Denison, in far western Iowa, is an example of how Latino immigrants are remaking the midwestern landscape. Denison, home to meat-packing plants that need low-wage workers, Latinos compose about 42 percent of the population-double the number a decade ago.  Migrant towns like: West Liberty, Storm Lake, Muscataine, and Marshalltown dot the state.  Demographic data reveals that 168,000 Latinos presently live in Iowa, making up the largest minority group (6 percent of the population) and that number is expected to increase because the Latino population is significantly younger and has a higher birthrate than Caucasian Iowans.  Thus, Mr. Barbaro concludes "the power of the Latino vote is more potential than reality."

Latino entrepreneur in Iowa
That potential power Latinos in Denison has yet to materialize at the ballot box.  Mr. Barbaro reports, "Not long ago, the mayor, Brad Bonner, cracked open a binder contain the city's voting rolls in search of Hispanic names.  'There were 12 of them,' he said. 'They don't vote.'"  Community activist Patricia Ritchie explained at local coffee shop to explain why this is the case.  Mr. Barbaro describes the scene at the coffee shop, "Inside, Denison's aging power brokers-about 15 bankers, lawyers an farmers-held their weekly breakfast meeting over slices of egg, sausage and Velveeta ccasserole.  They were all white."  "See?" Ms. Ritchie said rather indignantly, "Hispanics in Denison...'are afraid of the white power structure.'"  It is not just about the white power structure, those how have voted in the past were not always heartened by the results.  Vincenta Cardenas, originally crossed the border illegally from Mexico but is now a citizen, twice voted for President Obama.  Ms. Cardenas was disappointed by Mr. Obama's back pedaling on immigration and was not sure if she would vote in the Midterms.

Iowa farmer
There was an Ernst for Senate campaign commercial which open with idyllic farm tableau featuring windmills and soybean fields.  Joni Ernst talked about growing up on the family farm, walking among the neat rows of beans.  The commercial concludes with "Iowa's pride-of-the-land, suggesting the triumph of entrepreneurial farmers over the bureaucracy of Washington.  'I'll take our values there,' she says of the Senate."  Those values are conflicted by the farmers' growing reliance on government subsidies and tainted by a growing investment in the green economy.  In short, those values that Joni Ernst holds in high esteem are no longer reflexively Republican.  This crosscurrent is evident at the Campbell Grain Farm in Clinton County near Iowa's eastern border.  The owner, Dennis Campbell, a sixth generation corn and soybean farmer, acknowledges that he is part of the contradiction between government overreach and beneficiary of government intervention.

Classic Iowa farmhouse
As Mr. Campbell took Mr. Barbaro on a tour of his property, he walked up to a gas tank, emblematic of federal regulations run rampant.  To reduce fuel deliveries, thus reducing costs and carbon emissions, Mr. Campbell purchased a 10,000 gallon whale of a tank.  Byzantine government regulations mandate that this behemoth be double-walled to prevent leaks, which cost Mr. Campbell tens of thousands of dollars extra. an expense avoided by his neighbors who continue to use smaller riskier tanks.  "I'm being penalized by the government," he said resignedly.

Yet, a few feet away, Dennis Campbell showed off a wall of 256 solar panels of the roof of his shed that will generate sufficient electricity to power the farm.  Mr. Campbell conceded that this money-saving technology was worth it because it netted him some $80,000 in tax credits from the same federal government that demanded he buy the more expensive tank.  For the record, Dennis Campbell supported Joni Ernst in the election.

Game day card stunt
November 1, 2014
According to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, "Iowa farmers received more than $1 billion in federal aid and subsides in 2012." Little wonder why the hottest policy debate topic, in the recently concluded Senate race, was a federal measure that guarantees a market for corn ethanol by requiring energy companies to combine billions of gallons of biofuel with gasoline for automobiles.  Tea Party favorite Ms. Ernst stated she was philosophically opposed to the Renewable Fuel Standard rule, which prompted a series of attacks from her opponent, yet she declared that she would protect the fuel measure.  This made the Iowa Corn Growers FAC unhappy, in turn, they endorsed Mr. Braley.  Ms. Ernst sounded a similar dissonance over the role of human activity in global warming and is cautious about government mandates to reduce carbon emissions.  Mr. Braley supports government regulations to mitigate climate change, such as stricter fuel efficiency requirements for automobile manufacturers.  Meanwhile, the farmers reached their own conclusion about sustainable energy: profitable.  Harold and Virginia Olson, farmers in Calhoun County have a windmill on their farm.  Gamesa energy company pays them $6,000 annually to use the family land.  Mr. Olson says, "It's our land...We should capitalize on it."

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

It's About Sustainability

Letter Cloud by Erin Shie Palmer
Wing Luke Museum west lightwell
Olson Kundig Architect
Seattle, Washington
Hello Everyone:

It is a happy Monday for yours truly.  Checking the page view count, blogger saw that we are at 19,190 looks.  Awe-some.  Pretty amazing considering blogger had to deal with technical issues and a cold recently.  Keep calm and blog on.  Today we are going to revisit another one of our favorite people, Tom Mayes of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

 In the latest installment of his wonderful series "Why  Do Old Places Matter?" the subject is sustainability.  Adaptive reuse of a building is one of the most environmentally minded activities a person or community can under take, more so than simply buying or building a "green" building.  As the oft-quoted Carl Elefante, of Quinn-Evan Architects, goes "the greenest building that is already bulit" (Elefante, Forum Journal, 4, 2007)  Fortunately, adaptive reuse is becoming more common and the benefits more recognized.  In his post, Mr. Mayes summarizes the key points from the work by the National Trust's Preservation Green Lab, the Urban Land Institute, the Green building Council, Smart Growth America, et al...(Forum Journal Bridging Land Conservation and Historic Preservation, Fall 2010)  Mr. Mayes hopes that his summary will give people a glimpse at the reasons why saving and reusing old places is the "green" solution.  Further, Mr. Mayes writes, "...I also want to suggest that old places should themselves be viewed as part of the ecology we hope to sustain."

Los Angeles Historic Core
Los Angeles, California
Tom Mayes begins with a quick brief list of reasons why the reusing old buildings and revitalizing communities is the environmentally sound thing to do:

1) Avoided impact.  Reusing old buildings avoids the environmental impacts of the extraction, processing and transportation of new material and the the construction process.  The Preservation Green report, The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse, concludes,

Building Reuse almost always yields fewer environmental impacts than new construction when comparing buildings of similar size and functionality takes 10 to 80 years for a new building that is 30 percent more efficient than the average-performing existing building to overcome, through efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts related to the construction process. (The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse, 2011 vi)

Downtown Lewiston, Idaho
2) Land Conservation.  Continuing to use existing buildings and communities avoids or minimizes the use of forests, farms, wildlife habitat, and open space for new construction.  Smart Growth America, the national coalition for "...people who want to live and work in great neighborhoods..." ( stated,

...reusing already-developed land...preserves open spaces that are home to wildlife.  Habitat loss is the main threat to 80% of the threatened and endangered species in the United States, but building within existing community, rather than outside of town on a wild greenfield, helps preserve wildlife habitat, protect air and water quality and foster the strong economic growth that's only possible in dense development. (Smart growth protects natural habitat, accessed by May Oct. 25, 2014)

Aspinall Federal Building and Courthouse
Grand Junction, Colorado
3) Embodied Energy.  Old buildings and communities embody the energy and carbon that was devoted to produce them-wood and coal are used to fire the bricks, smelt the tin used to forge the nails and the saw, and the timber is transported to the job site.  Some critics would argue that the idea of "embodied energy" does not lead to any positive impact today or in the future, it is true that it would be a extremely wasteful to discard these materials and their historical energy in a landfill, adding to the environmental impact of demolition. (The Greenest Building, 20)

4) Operating Energy.  Many old buildings, because of the way they are designed already use less operating energy than new buildings.  Quoting from the Preservation Green Lab,

Building owners, developers, policy makers, and green building experts often assume that it is preferable to build a new, energy-efficient building to retrofit an older building to the same level of efficiency yet, from the U.S. Department of Energy Information Administration (EIA) demonstrates that commercial buildings constructed before 1920 use less energy per square foot, than buildings from any other decade of construction. (The Greenest Building, 18)

Lightwell staircase
Wing Luke Museum
Olson Kundig Architect
5) Passive Design.  Older buildings were often designed to take advantage of naturally occurring energy.  The lightwell in the Wing Luke Museum for the Asian American Experience in Seattle, Washington or the transom windows at Home Rule in Washington D.C. as great examples of older building designed to take advantage of naturally occurring energy.  A lot of designers are revisiting the inherent passive sustainable designs used in older buildings.  Mr. Mayes recalls, "I'm reminded of a 1970s study of the farmhouses of the New River Valley in North Carolina.  These farmhouses developed organically in response to the climate to take advantage of the landscape for warmth in the winter, coolness in the summer, and the gravity flow of water to the springhouses."

6) Transportation and Density.  Older communities are often on existing transportation corridors, have greater density, and are close to workplaces so that fuel consumption from cars is minimized.  This is one of the great benefits of adaptively reusing existing communities because of the betterments for land conservation and is a principle of smart growth. (Glaeser, Triumph of the City,  et al)

Buffalo skyline
Buffalo, New York
All of the above stated reasons: farmland conservation, habitat preservation, open-space preservation, reduced energy consumption, mitigation of negative environmental impact, and so forth all combine to create a strong rationale for continued use, reuse, strengthening existing buildings and communities.  The perks of adaptive use is now recognized by the Green Building Council when it awards credits towards LEED certification.  However, there are deeper, more philosophical and ecological reasons for maintaining and reusing older buildings.

First, older communities develop organically over time with their own distinctive culture.  They are irreplaceable within our fluctuating environment.  By deciding not to maintain and strengthen these communities, said communities are doomed to extinction.  To underscore this point, Tom Mayes quotes writer and architect Kimberley Mok, "Building 'green' isn't just about using the latest and greatest technologies-it can also be about preserving time-honored, local building traditions that respect regional cultures and have been proven to be climatically appropriate over the centuries." (Huppert, Dec. 2013)

Rural West Virginia
Dovetailing off of Ms. Mok, Mr. Mayes writes, "Second, the building materials and craftsmanship also deserve respect, not only because of the environmental cost of extracting, transporting, making, and installing them, but also because of the fact that some of the materials and craftsmanship will exist again." Rural cabins, such as the one pictured on the left, were made by hand, using material that may never be available again.  Mr. Mayes uses the example of his vacation cabin in West Virginia to illustrate this point.  He writes, "Yet people who offered to buy the cabin before use planned to scrap it, seeing it as a teardown.  It seems to me that throwing old floorboards and siding away is not only disrespectful to the material and to the humans who labored to saw, plane, groove and install them, but inherently inconsistent with the very idea of sustainability."

Traditional log cabin building
Imagining a a more environmentally sustainable world, Mr. Mayes hopes, "...for a world where are more appreciative of the communities, buildings and things that already exist, and that we continue to use them, so that we're not constantly tearing buildings down and throwing things away."  We live in a consumer oriented world, "green" consumerism as well,  adds to the environmental problems, including climate change.  Yours truly must confess to being much of a consumer (it takes blogger weeks to decide what color lipstick to buy), blogger is not materialistic.  As a self-identified "accidental preservationist," blogger values places and objects with a history and is always seeking new ways to repurpose them.  Mr. Mayes cites political theorist Jane Bennet's book Vibrant Matter, observing the way places and objects resonate with individuals and call for a re-consideration of the relationship with things and materials as a strategy for altering our political ecology. The website boils down Ms. Bennett's ideas to, "Bennett thinks that if we paid attention to the aliveness of matter, we wouldn't be so careless with out stuff." (Ibid, accessed Nov. 18, 2014)  Our own carelessness, conscious or unconscious, contributes to our throwaway mentality so environmentally damaging.

Barn raising
Jane Bennett's theory about the aliveness of stuff resonates with Tom Mayes.  He ponders if "...our current view of sustainability may be too narrowly measured by a limited assessment of carbon footprint, and may not adequately take into account other factors, including the factors of time."  Quoting Scott Doyon, Principle of Placemakers, "If you tear down a storied and graceful historic building-hand-built and rooted in tradition, in which generations of people have crisscrossed into and through each others lives-and replace it with a high performance, modular gizmo-green equivalent, how much embedded energy is lost if you also count the loss of soul?" (Doyon, "Let's Get Metaphysical: Considering the value of soul in redevelopment, accessed by Mayes Oct. 23, 2014)  Object and places having a soul.  That is, indeed something to consider.  It has been often noted that places are living organism, thus it is possible to entertain the notion of a place or object having a soul.

Yours truly is quite pleased with the current trend toward adaptive reuse, recycling old materials, and an appreciation for old places.  Mr. Mayes reflects on this turn of building events with a quote in Jean Carroon's book Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings, "The reuse and salvage in the project infuses it with a sense of connection, history and narrative.  Every detail comes alive with a story of origins, disposal, and rebirth." (Leger, Carroon, 252, 2010)  In short, sustainability is not just about the coolest and the latest ecologically minded gadget, it is also about the building as a whole.

Tom Mayes suspects that part of the low recognition of just how green existing buildings and communities is partly due to what Carl Elefante stated that "we are 'drunk on the new and now' and
therefore can't even see the obvious benefits of the old." (Elefante, 37)  It seems that at every turn, we are bombarded with advertisements for the latest "green" thing or scolded into recycling our bottles. While the building industry has a primary interest in developing new communities, the question becomes instead of promoting green products and communities, why not promote using places that already exist?  We will end with this quote from senior director of the Preservation Green Lab Jim Lindberg, "There is intelligence as well as energy embodied in our older buildings and neighborhoods.  These places have so much to teach us about adaptation, sustainability, and resilience." (Email to Mayes Oct. 28, 2014)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Post-Wall Europe and an Uncertain Future

Berlin Wall
Hello Everyone:

Yours truly has been a bit under the weather the last two days, thus the slow output.  However, I'm feeling much better and can get back to spending time with you.

Now that the excitement over the American Midterm Elections has died down, it is time to turn our focus on an event that irrevocably changed history, the fall of The Berlin Wall.  This past Sunday November 9, Germany celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of Western and Eastern Europe.  To mark the occasion, 8,000 stationary lighted balloons lined nearly ten miles of the German capital city.  This public art project, called Lichtgrenze, traced the path of this most detested symbol of the Cold War divide.  The balloons were released on Sunday night amid celebration of The Wall come tumbling down.  In their article for the Los Angeles Times titled "As Germany celebrates Berlin Wall's demise, harsh realities lurk," Steven Zeitchik and Carol J. Williams look at the realities of post-Wall Berlin and its impact on present day struggles in Europe and a resurgent Russia.

The Berlin Wall
date unknown
On June 12, 1987, then-President Ronald Reagan was the former West Germany to commemorate the 750th anniversary of Berlin.  Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, Mr. Reagan issued this challenge to former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev:

...General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate!  Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!  Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! (

Two and a half years later, this belief became action, The Wall came down and with it a joyous rush of people surging westward.  Twenty-five years later the urban landscape of Berlin is dotted with digital start-ups, delights for the culinary adventurers, and Las Vegas-type entertainment that make Berlin 2014 seem an entire planet away from the hardships of the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik-the former East Germany.  For the most part, the Cold War wounds have healed.  Berlin is no longer identified by East and West. Beyond, the healing of Germany, the collapse of The Wall brought about a post-communist transition that has had bumps along the road; nor has it been simple to obliterate the metaphoric Iron Curtain that once bisected Europe from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

The first guard house being set up at Checkpoint Charlie
The region, once a place abundant with post-wall promise, has been plagued by "...deeper divisions and taller obstacles than many could have expected on that night in 1989.  While the demise of the Iron Curtain lifted many from poverty, despair and isolation, the making of a "Europe whole and free," the battle cry of many politicians, remains a work in progress twenty-five years later.  For example, the wealth generated from Russia's natural-resources have emboldened and encouraged the Kremlin to reassert the strategic clout it once wielded during the Soviet days.  Specifically, President Vladimir Putin's incursions into the Ukraine have raised the specter of the return of Stalin-era land grabs, instilling fear in many former Warsaw Pact nations. This fear is further stoked by Moscow's stranglehold on most of the continent's energy supplies.

East German guards spying on the West
Meanwhile, economic progress in the former Soviet satellite states has been uneven, as once bright hopes for the Eurozone have faded over recent months.  Countries such as Ireland, Italy, an the Czech Republic have fallen into a recession.  The euro-once the happy success-has lost 10% of its value against the American dollar over the past six months.  The economic woes have contributed to class disparities between Western and Eastern Europe, with the former continuing to shoulder a disproportionate load that resulted with reuniting with the latter.  Added into this volatile mix, is political centrism, endangering parts of the European Union.  Case in point, the far-right National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen daughter of Honorary Chairperson Jean-Marie Le Pen, has recently made political gains  in France.  So much so, that in a survey taken last week, if elections were held today, Ms. Le Pen would out poll President François Hollande.

Béla Kun speaking before a crowd
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has advocated a version of "illiberal democracy," which rejects the economic inequalities that can come with Western constitutional democracies and supports the economic disparate economic models of Turkey, India, Russia, China, and Singapore.  Steven Zeitchik and Carol J. Williams note the irony that Mr.  Orbán was once an anti-Soviet activist.  Further, Mr.  Orbán's suppression of  press freed and Magyar nationalism has set off alarms throughout the continent.  At the same time, many European countries are seemingly stymied over how to deal with the wave of immigration from predominantly Islamic nations, creating conflict in the streets and erratic national policies.  For example, pro-Palestinian rallies in France and Germany this past summer often took on the stench of anti-Semitism.  Meanwhile, German courts ruled against the practice of religious circumcision and the European Court of Human Rights upheld the French burka ban which has exacerbated tensions with the Muslim minority.

Demonstration on the first anniversary of Prague Spring
Sudha David-Wilp, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund stated, "There is no question that this is a time to celebrate...But the European project faces epic challenges.  Every time we commemorate a 1989, we should remember there may be many more 1989s ahead."  An EU that brings together twenty-eight nations, each with their own agendas, can often appear ill-suited to handle the challenges. While the awarding of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the organization was hailed by most, others said " underestimated the bloc's limitations."  Yet, there is the opinion that Europe is immeasurably better off today than before, "...and that, for all the challenges, Mauerfall, as the wall anniversary is known in Germany, offers a chance to count collective blessings."

Opening the Berlin Wall 1989
University of Southern California history professor Mary Elise Sarotte recently released broad account of the events titled "The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall."  In Prof. Sarotte's account, she observed the social, economic, and political progress made in Europe was torn asunder by two world wars.  The former divided German nation is an economic powerhouse that serves as geopolitical bridge between West and East.  The popular German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is the first post-wall leader raised in East Germany and symbolic of this geopolitical bridge.  The anniversary reflects Germany's determination to keep the memories of this division alive as a warning against any recurrences.

The Brandenburg Gate
The Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse reopened on Sunday after an almost yearlong renovation.  Beyond the joyous celebrations there is the decades-long feeling of Ostalgie-"historical East German's nostalgic and often amnesiac memories of the Cold War as a time of solidarity and greater care for one another..." that has not dissipated.  Many in Western Germany still carry resentments over having to pay Eastern municipalities.  What that payment is for is unclear.  Further, for the first time since the fall of The Wall, Die Linke, a far left party born out of the East German Communist Party, seized control of the East German state of Thuringa.  This momentous event prompted protest from German President Joachim Gauck, a former East German dissident.  Steven Zeitchik and Carol J. Williams  note that these divisions within Germany "remain beside the point."

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall reminded yours truly of the great Jesus Jones song "Right here, right now."  It was about the cataclysmic changes taking place in Europe in the late eighties and early nineties.  The chorus "Right here, right now/watching the world wake up from history," tells of a new history being created following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the newly emerging Central and Eastern European countries.  It tells of the enormous potential to create a better future.  Another song yours truly is thinking about is beautiful ballad by the German heavy metal group "Winds of Change."  It expresses an sense of optimism for a freer future.  The future of post-wall Europe is a work in progress.  What the next twenty-five years holds is up to the people.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What does a Republican Majority in The House and Senate Mean for The Cities?

114th Congress House of Representatives Map
Hello Everyone:

 You honestly did not think I would let the Republic  demolition derby that was last week's Midterm  Elections slide without comment, did you?  If you  voted for the red team, then you were popping  champagne corks all night long.  If you voted blue,  the you were crying in your beer.  I can say, without  contradiction, that in California all is status quo.  Be that as it may, since this is a blog dedicated to all things architecture, historic preservation, urban planning and design, yours truly has to put some kind of urban spin on the whole (Re) Election Day.  With the help of one of our favorite people, Klaus Philipsen and his recent post "How does the Republican Mid-term Victory Square with the Age of Cities," in his blog, we are going to look at what the Republican victories mean for the urban era.

Brooklyn Heights
Brooklyn, New York
Up until Election Day, urbanists and planners perusing all the research published by CityLab, Urban Land and the Brookings Institute might have found themselves reading more or less the same regarding millennials, urbanism, and the sharing economy.  In this brave new world, hipster twenty-somethings sit in their local coffee emporiums, creating a bright new future where Uber and public transit take the place of cars, innovation zones are blooming in decrepit warehouses, issues of gender and race are consigned to the dust bin of history.  Got to love these "shiny happy people."  Thus, you can imagine all the sobbing and hand wringing last Tuesday, into Wednesday when "69 of 99 state legislative bodies [fell*] in Republican hands, [leaving*] 31 Republican governors to Democratic ones."  This was not a shellacking, it was a blue blood bath for progressives.

"The Loop"
Chicago, Illinois
After decades of suburban migration, sprawl, and inappropriate development, things seemed to be turning a corner in the right direction.  "A thoughtful urban president had replaced the one who liked to depict himself as a mesquite hacking rancher, and cities along with urban sophistication appeared to be on the rebound, over the Tea Party's cries of elitism."  It was the dawn of the Age of Cities.  Cities were trending as the " international life-style." American demographics presented two key cohorts: baby boomers (those born 1946-1964) and millennials were heading back to the cities; "...too old or too cool for suburban homes."  Immigrants were considered innately urban, accustomed to cities, density, and walking, thus activating U.S. cities.  These trends led many to consider Republicans as a "too white, too make, too suburban, and too conservative to have a future in the shifting demographic landscape." Of, course that was before the Midterm Elections and those progressive heart attack inducing results did not follow form.  What happened?

Maryland map of 2014 gubernatorial election
Klaus Philipsen asks: "Did the self-sustaining feed-back loop bubble just burst?  Did actual real world voters and their larger counterpart, the non-voters, indicate the priority of more basic needs and views?  did the bifurcation between the more urban and the more rural areas get revived after many already believed it to have died down alongside the Tea Party's radical social agenda?" My own thoughts, yours truly voted along pragmatic lines.

Results suggest that the death of suburbia and rural communities is premature.  While the big urban issues of: smart growth, the environment, main street revitalization, public transit, high-speed rail, storm water management all continue to hold planners and environmentalists in their gripe, these issue have little or no resonance beyond the urban core.  Using his home state of Maryland's small towns as his case studies for happiness, places such as Cumberland, Rock Hall, Salisbury, and La Plata as well places without the urban centers such as: Pikesville, Ellicott City, and Towson all still went with the progressive agenda.  Yet, as a concerned Mr. Philipsen writes, "...the threat to progressive policies failed to mobilize the voters in the urban centers, a voting pattern also seen in other traditional blue states such as Massachusetts and Illinois, not to mention south of the Mason Dixon Line."

U.S. Metropolitan Map
Indulging in some speculation as to the larger meaning of the horrid results for the Democratic Party, Mr. Philipsen writes, "...if we really live under this new urban paradigm, past patterns shouldn't apply exactly the same way as before, should they?"  What were the commonalities that motivated exurban voting patterns. Maryland, one of the wealthiest states in America, voting patterns mimicked voter trends in other urbanized states: poverty in the urban cores, some outrageously rich exurbs and suburbs, otherwise decreasing wealth as the distance from metro areas increase.  Election results are really not an indication of income.  For example, the affluent Montgomery County, a short distance from Washington D.C. went bright blue while the equally prosperous Howard County, near Baltimore, carried the red team.  Moreover, every county further away from the metro areas went "cherry ice cream smile" red.  The image of the "bluest blues" island amidst the Red Sea in Maryland mirrored the national map with blue zones clustered near the more urban coasts.

Rittenhouse Square
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Remember when Democratic Party strategist James Carville coined a variation of the phrase "it's the economy, stupid?"  It would seem that the Grand Old Party adopted that folksy message, implying the old economy of heavy industry, coal, oil, farming, trucking, and so forth.  These are jobs closely connected to the rural areas and legacy industries.  Case in point is Maryland's poultry industry, forestry, farming, and more recently just outside the state, surging oil and gas industries which brought with it jobs through shale fracking. Even allegedly ailing automobile industry has been resuscitated in the southern states where Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes have opened up new factories deep in the heart of Republican red territory.  Klaus Philipsen observes, "These legacy industries are the opposite of the urban innovation districts where knowledge workers program 3-D printers to produce smartly designed products cleanly and sustainably and wind farms and solar panels make carbon free energy.

H Street Festival
Washington D.C.
Klaus Philipsen offers, by his own admission, a rather flippant description of the conflict between the goals of smart growth, preservation, and resilience.  Essentially what he says, "In small town and hamlets one is more likely to smell diesel than the aroma of freshly brewed organic coffee and more likely to welcome a new development than in the crowded centers..."  Mr. Philipsen confesses that the problem is far more complicated then the never ending cultural wars, pitting the "elite" with regular people.  Mr. Philipsen cites the example of the Republican mayor of Greenville, South Carolina and the amazing progress it is having making the city green.

Downtown Baltimore
Robert McClintock
In his home state, the Republican candidate (eventual winner) for governor skillfully steered clear of all social issues and any anti-intellectual statements, so common with the Tea Party.  Mr. Philipsen uses New York Times  conservative columnist David Brooks's word-"Detoxified-" to describe this sanitized Republican campaign strategy.  Governor-elect Larry Hogan successful. reasonably civil campaign message also found an audience with many Democrat.  His focus on the economy, while still echoing the favorite Tea Party depiction of Democrats as "tax and spenders."  The incoming governor outlined forty taxes that the his predecessor, Governor Martin O'Malley, had carelessly added resonated with the people.  The bottom line in Mr. Hogan's case for electing him was "...people had to pay too much for progressives policies..." really hit home for many of the people, despite the fact the State's tax rate in context to its Gross Domestic Product had dropped during the previous Democratic administration.  As a candidate, Mr. Hogan's favorite targets regarding urban issues, especially something he called the "rain tax," a fee on storm water run off dunned on property owner with large sealed surface areas.  Storm water run off is a huge topic for environmentalists because the water usually ends up in Chesapeake Bay instead of re-charging ground water.  The fee sounded like a good idea to environmentalists and could be avoided by the more complicated rain harvesting.

Silver Line street entrance
Like his Republican counterparts across the country, Mr. Hogan was opposed to big transit spending.  During his campaign, he stated that as governor, Mr. Hogan would cancel Maryland's two large "New Starts" transit program which had a combined cost of $5.5 billion and built roads instead.  Mr. Hogan posited, "With the vast majority of people getting around in cars it is irresponsible to spend over 50% of the transportation funds on transit."  This message obviously was aimed at the rural and distant suburban areas that would see little benefit from a new urban rail system and had seen their "highway user fund" cut by the state, leaving crater-sized pothole unfilled throughout many of these communities.  However, Mr. Philipsen points out that "...a Republican governor with so many cross-over votes would ignore the urban centers at his own peril and should be open to the economic development aspects of transit investments."  In essence, it has been demonstrated across the country that urban rail projects are economic mechanism that go beyond the temporary jobs during construction but translate into community and economic development as well as real land investments.

Tyson Corner neighborhood
Staying in Maryland, the mid-term results reflect not so much where the voters are in relation to demographics, rather, the fact that suburban and rural voters were more motivated than their urban counterparts, as witnessed by a higher turn-out and more conviction in their cause.  We can draw the conclusion that urban voters simply took for granted that the more progressive agenda would rule the day.  This sense of voter apathy among urban voters was couched in geography and demographics.  Like the political parties, progressives and their allies must recognize that voters will not fall in lock step with them anymore.  As individual situations change, so do voters's views.  Thus, a social conservative may align his or her self with an environmentalist or a civil rights and social activists may not be too keen on the environment.  The idea that everyone and everything is connected does not hold sway with the modern voter who is about as predictable as the weather.

Boston City Hall Plaza
Boston, Massachusetts
The big question before us is, if we are concerned with the future, can we find common ground with someone who wants dismantle environmental regulation and cut transit funding.  After the election demolition derby, this is the proverbial $64,000 question every Democrat from President Barack Obama down needs to ask.  Can we make a case for not subsidizing pre-Kindergarten education for children from low-income households or not funding wind farms?  Can less government intervention, in the name of the greater good, a morally defensible argument?  Mr. Philipsen argues, "it is too arrogant and presumptuous to assume that the vast majority of folks who either didn't vote or who voted against the democratic or green urban agenda simply don't know better or are cynically choosing their own welfare over the common good.  The real reason for the fact that about 65% didn't even bother to vote must lie beyond which one of the two parties is right."  Well said.  Common sense not party ideology must rule election day.

Blighted Baltimore
There has been a great deal of discussion over the negative aspects of the majority system, used in the United States, which does not allow for smaller, less well financed groups to articulate their well-defined platforms.  Further, much has written about how corrupt the electoral process has become with ballot initiatives and candidates receiving money from those who have.  There is the endless hand wringing about the role of the media during elections, how uninformed the average voter is, and how elections have become more of a beauty contest then about issues.  Yours truly could on with a list of issues that make people want to sit out election day but rather bore you to death about,  I will cite Mr. Philipsen's well formed conclusion,

Most of these reasons lie way outside the issue of urban versus rural lifestyles or values.  More intriguing and possibly contributing to voter frustration and anxiety is the question of the instability of the economic system and its continues worldwide sputtering.  The possibility that the Great Recession was the spectacle of this model having crashed irreparably against the wall is unsettling voters to this, some seven years after it began.

Boats patrolling flooded Annapolis streets
Annapolis, Maryland
The fragile economic model also begets the question: "What next?  Can there be sustainability and growth and expanding prosperity all at once?  Can one have one's cake and eat it, too, or does sustainability necessarily mean restriction, scarcity and cutting out the fun?"  Yours truly is reading these questions and wondering what the answers are, they are out there. Over and over again, the question has been asked, "...the growth and prosperity model got another lease on life and dooms-day prognosticators have been proven wrong.  Is it different this time?  Republicans generally don't seem to think so."

Is climate change finally being recognized as the shape of things to come?  Have not both sides of the issue, represented by the Democrats and Republicans, been proven wrong?  Has not become apparent that government cannot solve the problem of carbon emissions?  What about economically and politically strong countries such as Germany and Japan, with their histories of government intervention, lost their standing on the subject because of lack of progress?  Finally, has the United States, with its more permissive attitude toward fracking, not accidentally achieved greater carbon reduction than those countries who built gigantic wind farms and put solar panels on practically every rooftop?

Cleveland, Ohio
Klaus Philipsen does not even make attempt, nor will yours truly, to answer these open-ended questions. Suffice it to say that these enormous issues are the very things that upset the harmony of the political landscape.  They may be the larger reason why traditional political discourse within the parties, unions, and organizations across the stable democracies is disappearing, taking with it voter participation and sucking the enthusiasm out of feeling good about a host of issues.  We voters as nervous and picky.  We vote for the person we like the best, in that moment, dropping them like ex-lover the minute someone new and more exciting comes along.  It is a vicious cycle, we fall in love with a dynamic young president, the love fades, replaced by cynicism and disappointment.

A view of the Pacific Ocean
Now that all the obligatory post-Mid-Term Election self-flagellation or self-congratulatory parties have died down, what next?  Can we expect more of the same or will the both sides of the Congressional aisle finally learn to get along?  Human knowledge is growing at an exponential rate; as will new opportunities in communications and the ability to solve problems.  Mr. Philipsen writes, "I believe that we find ourselves at transition where top down control and governance becomes more obsolete and ineffective, and bottom up methods of control, governance and effective organization are still only emerging, are largely untested and far from ready to be a reliable substitute."  I would propose an addendum to this statement by pointing to potential effective organization and leadership that state and municipal governments can provide on issues such as the environment and transit.

Urban centers will continue to be places of innovation and experimentation.  Mr, Philipsen observes, "Ironically, Washington DC as a city is thriving and full of innovation while official Washington of the national government appears to be frozen up.  Innovation and experimentation is great but it must serve a practical use outside the urban areas.  The ability to create some shiny gadget on a three-dimensional printer is nice but what about the wheat farmer who needs spare parts in order to get the harvest done?  A high-speed light rail system is a fantastic idea but would not it make more sense to fix the crater-sized pot holes in the exurbs and rural areas first?  The point here, is Congress and the President now have a remarkable opportunity to work together so that the ideas of the urban progressive agenda can bring the urban, suburban, exurban, and rural communities.  Will it be more of the same or can both sides of the aisle learn to work together?


* historicpca