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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Developing Communities (Not Just Corporate Profits)

Programs that subsidize businesses that locate in neighborhoods in need of economic development are fundamentally flawed. They fail to understand how neighborhood economies work on the most fundamental level, and rely on an inherently patronizing view of the people who live there. Sometimes I wonder if they are really only meant as a justification for corporate welfare.

We provide incentives at taxpayer expense for corporations to locate their businesses in targeted neighborhoods. Supposedly this will improve access to jobs for the residents in these areas... as if they are incapable of driving or taking a bus or subway to a job in another neighborhood. Nobody has any illusion that affluent suburbs are populated by residents who are well off because they all got jobs in their neighborhood. While affluent professionals are generally understood as mobile workers, the implicit view of low-income workers treats them as place-bound. Conceptually, there is probably some trace of serfdom, where poor workers were attached to the land. There is certainly a heavy legacy of American segregation in this assumption that jobs for residents in disadvantaged communities will be located in those neighborhoods.

What are the jobs we are actually subsidizing in the disadvantaged neighborhoods we are supposed to be helping? They inevitably seem to be primarily low-wage, low-skill retail jobs. While there may be something to be said for "gaining work experience," these positions are certainly not ideal for developing more marketable skills, and the concentration of low-wage jobs is problematic. The economic polarization that comes with such concentration deprives communities of the social networks necessary to help talented individuals find the opportunities to realize their potential.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Nobody to Play With

Parks in suburbs and small towns, particularly the playgrounds, have often been among the most disappointing places I have visited.  On several occasions, I have had the unsatisfactory experience of taking my nephew or my son to a desolate set of play equipment.  More often than not, these playgrounds have been wonderfully designed and well funded, perfectly graced with attractive, colorful structures that would challenge the skills of any playful child.  The problem is the lack of children at play.  Not even the most amazing play equipment is the match for other running children.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Stupidity of Sidewalks

Sidewalks are vital public spaces, but we hardly treat them that way. Instead, we rely on private investment in an absurdly inefficient waste of resources. It is unsurprising that the result is an ineffective, fragmented network. One way or another, homeowners are going to end up paying for sidewalks. The question should be how we can get better sidewalks without wasting money.

What we currently have are marginally lower taxes, a deficient pedestrian network, and higher out-of-pocket expenses for homeowners.  What we need is a system of public investment in public infrastructure.

The largest problems I see with the current system are the strain on the personal finances for some property owners when sidewalk work becomes necessary, the lack of provisions to address gaps in the pedestrian network, and the inequitable outcomes of the investment pattern. It can be painful for the expenses to hit all at once. After paying so much money, there often isn't much to show for it. And the people who need sidewalks the most are the least likely to get them.

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Should urban planners care about dogs?

Fundamental to urban life is the ability for many people to live together in close proximity. Minimizing the nuisances that residents cause their neighbors is one of the most constant sources of friction and frustration. How dogs fit into this delicate balance is an interesting question. My contention is that despite a few challenges, dogs help draw together communities. We need to start considering the living conditions and infrastructure for dogs more fully and deliberately in urban planning.

First, we might consider how dogs could be nuisances to neighbors. After all, this has largely been the primary focus of governmental actions regarding pets for decades. So, how can the presence of dogs cause problems?
  • Biting
  • Spreading disease
  • Barking or whining
  • Pooping on the sidewalk
  • Killing plants with excessive amounts of urine

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Losing Control in the Suburbs

We seek to make the world around us an interactive place that anticipates our needs and responds to our desires.  For millennia, we have domesticated animals, transforming the wild beasts of our collective nightmares into loving pets that follow our commands.  For more than a century, we have illuminated our streets to alleviate our fears of what lurks in the darkness.  We have created doors that open before us, and we continue to refine computers to ask us what we want.

The terrifying wolf that ate Grandma
(engraving by Gustave Doré)
Dogs domesticated from wolves have become
part of our home
Until we consider this innate drive to create a dynamic environment that responds to our needs and desires, we cannot understand the rise of the suburbs and their current crisis. The suburbs offered this promise, and their failing ability to deliver now dulls their luster.

Consider what the suburban dream offered: a yard, modern appliances, accommodations for cars, and more convenient shopping. For decades, these worked together to provide suburban residents a comfortable control over the environments where they lived.  Yet over the past several decades, transformations in the social and economic landscape, together with new technologies, have made the suburban model too rigid and unresponsive to our desires.

The yard is an extension of the home.  It was envisioned as a small parkland or garden that could be configured based on personal preferences.  It served as a playground where children were more closely supervised and protected from strangers.  The family dog became ubiquitous with the backyard.  Today, the relationships are changing.  Longer commutes and the increase in work hours have made yard work more difficult to fit into the schedule; what was once an enjoyable leisure activity has often become an obligation that interferes with other preferences for limited free time. It has become less of a weekend retreat and more a weekly chore.  In some cases, it becomes an additional expense, as busy families contract out their yard work.  An increase in organized activities seems to have reduced the yard's role as a playground for the family children and their friends.  And while the family dog still enjoys free reign of the backyard, as what continues to provide one of the most compelling reasons for families to move to the suburbs, urban areas have become somewhat more supportive with improved dog parks, reducing somewhat this relative advantage of the suburbs.