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Thursday 29 March 2001

Markets and Planning

The Duany/Plater-Zyberk philosophy is that more regulation is necessary in order to reduce sprawl and to produce a decent habitat for people, instead of the car-tailored suburbs we’ve been building in this country for the last 50 years.

I say that this is hogwash. Less regulation of building — certainly less than we have now — will achieve the intended effect. Stiff zoning laws, even when they’re well-intended, result in unintended consequences.

This, above, is Celebration, FL, darling of the New Urbanism set, as seen from a spy satellite. The town was developed by Disney, with the same care given to all of its features as is given to the elements of a Disney theme park — which is to say a lot. People living in Celebration can walk to shopping, restaurants, movies, and all the essential services of the town.

Below is a picture of a London suburb, not far from Wembley Stadium. Nobody in particular planned it, except to make the houses attractive enough that they could be leased. It’s not as beautiful as Celebration — it’s not in Florida, either — but it’s just as functional, possibly more so. Residents of Celebration still have to own cars, unless they can pay for their $400,000 houses with jobs at the (walkable) cinema. There aren’t even any sidewalks leading out of Celebration. But people living in the neighborhood below can (and do) walk to the train station (top right) and go into London.

Here’s a few blocks of Georgetown, in Washington, DC (left), and Beverly Hills, California (right):

Here’s a section of Islington (London) and one of Kenilworth, IL, a suburb of Chicago:

All of these areas, with various levels of planning, built by different people in completely different ways, over a span of hundreds of years, show a certain similarity. This is because they were all built to serve the same purpose: human habitat.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture of Jerusalem, a city far, far older than any of those above:

Notice that Jerusalem shows the same general pattern, the same density, the same freedom of flow and the same mixture of uses that you see in London, Georgetown, Beverly Hills, and Celebration. (It’s a bit hard in pictures this small to see the mixture of uses, but you can infer that the smaller buildings are houses, and the larger ones commercial establishments.

These cities were shaped by market forces. People wanted and needed certain things from their cities, and builders and developers answered with what was required.

Now, here’s a picture of Franconia, VA, a suburb of Washington, DC:

(I have been asked about the scale of this photo. The Franconia photo is at slightly larger scale than the London and Jerusalem ones in order to show detail, but not much.)

Notice that this is a complete departure from all the other pictures. There is not a commercial establishment in sight, and the vast majority of houses are on cul-de-sacs, with only one entry and exit. Only three houses front on the road running horizontally across the picture, and I would be willing to bet they pre-date all the other houses. This is a neighborhood built all at once by a developer; the sole goal was to comply with the zoning laws and to sell the houses for the maximum profit possible.

The picture below is of part of Reston, VA, another suburb of Washington. Reston was designed as a single entity, to correct the flaws of places like Franconia.

In Reston, the houses — on the right — are on little cul-de-sacs, but they are in close proximity to shopping, offices, banks, etc. However, the commercial "pod" and the residential "pod" here are separated by a six-lane road (Reston Parkway), to which none of the residential streets connect. A person living in a house near the tennis courts and wanting to visit the huge store (a Harris Teeter supermarket) at upper left needs to get into his car and drive two miles to travel a net 500 feet. If he decides to walk, he’ll find that there are fences and trees and steep embankments to discourage him from even trying to cross Reston Parkway, and that he’s risking his life in doing so. Even from outer space you can see that there are no crosswalks.

Once he survived that, he’d have to cross a giant parking lot before he got to the store. The next time, our pedestrian would take the hint, and drive to the store.

We’ve got to have roads, though, you say. I agree, and I admit that it might be possible to construct a defense (though probably not a good defense) for the Reston design pictured above. But consider this one. I have numbered several points for easy reference:

This is a view, again from outer space, of a ten-story office building (#1) and its grounds. This building was designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, one of the world’s foremost architecture firms. (They designed the Sears Tower, among other things.) The building is located in Reston, a town with strict zoning laws, a strong sense of the merits of planned development, and a heritage (if not a current reality) of dense, walkable neighborhoods.

The site has two vehicular entrances, #2 and #3. #3 is equipped with a gate and is only accessible to certain people (how they’re chosen, I don’t know), in order to keep down traffic on the side road.

#5 and #6 are heavily-used, paved jogging/bike paths. It’s hard to see it in this photo, but the path marked #6 (it runs diagonally across the picture, from the bottom right corner, under the bridge, and off the top of the picture) is separated from the building’s grounds by plants by a 45-degree embankment. At no point does the system of paths on the grounds connect with the other paths.

Path #5 is on the same level as the grounds, but it’s been carefully sealed off from the building by means of a 6-foot-high fence that runs from #3 to #4. From #4 out to the main entrance, a berm and trees keep people out.

All of this means that a person who works in the building and who lives in one of the houses at the bottom of the picture is better off driving to work than attempting to walk. Even though no roads are in the way in the rear of the building, it’s just as effectively sealed off from its surroundings as if it were surrounded by a moat.

(It should be noted that none of this is for security purposes; it’s very simple to get onto to grounds — in fact, I believe that they are open to the public, as one of the conditions of the zoning variance that allowed the building — just not from anywhere you’d actually want to get onto the grounds.)

And it was built according to all sorts of regulations designed to eliminate offensive buildings from our midst. The rear entrance is gated as part of a government attempt to shape the flow of traffic. Most of the ground is left in a semi-natural state as part of legal requirements to mitigate rainwater runoff problems, and to provide a habitat for migratory waterfowl. The paths on the grounds are there because this building is the headquarters of a quasi-governmental financial institutioni (Sallie Mae, if you’re wondering), which has to provide amenities for its workers. (I have never seen anyone using those paths.)

And yet the building is a monstrosity, a gaping hole in the middle of town, hostile to the needs of its neighbors and inhabitants alike. An additional ten feet of paving at #4 would have resulted in another point of access for the building and for the neighborhood at the bottom — thus further reducing traffic at #3 — but that wasn’t done. Eliminating the fence at the rear of the property would have actually made all that open space valuable for the people who live next to it, but that wasn’t done either. The building stands completely apart from its environment, and contributes nothing but property taxes to the community.

The law requires that the builders provide a habitat for waterfowl, but not for people.

The supreme irony is that this kind of design costs more than the rational approach. Every piece of idiocy in this building — and in the other Reston photo, and in the Franconia photo — is a result of wrongheaded zoning.

The builders couldn’t connect #4 to the road, because the county fears that that would increase traffic. The gate at #3 does nothing, because everyone who would otherwise go out the gate instead goes out at #2, makes two right turns, and winds up on the side road anyway. In between, they face four (!) traffic signals, and travel further on the side road than they would if they could use the Forbidden Driveway.

I can’t come up with any reason why the zoning people would require that fence at the back of the property, or the hostile landscaping everywhere else, but I am sure that they did. The builder would not have spent money on them otherwise.

Posted by tino at 15:00 29.03.01

“New” Urbanism

I quote here from an article on cnn.com recently:

For decades, suburban lifestyle was synonymous with the American Dream. Ward and June Cleaver and Ozzy and Harriet Nelson were TV icons for the millions of families who moved to the suburbs to own their own houses, with lawns and driveways and supermarkets, but precious few sidewalks.

The point being that they are equating our suburban lifestyle of today with that or Ward, June & Co. — which is total and utter crap.

(For those of you not familiar with 1950s U.S. television, Leave it to Beaver was a terrible TV show about an perfect family living in the suburbs. June, the lady of the house, always wore pearls while doing the dishes. Ward worked hard, you knew, but he always make sure that Family and God came first. And Wally and The Beav (né Theodore, the youngest child) were always getting into minor pickles but quickly getting out of them, and learning Valuable Lessons in the process. The show has come to symbolize the idyll that supposedly was the U.S. at the height of the Cold War. It has also been pointed out that the show set an impossible standard for people to live up to; ultimately it was this that led directly to The Simpsons.)

But anyway, we were examining the Cleavers’ environment. Force yourself to actually watch Leave it to Beaver sometime. There are shops, playgrounds, and schools within The Beav’s walking or bike-riding range. Ward works at his mysterious profession (international spy? insurance salesman?) nearby, on Mayfield’s — their little suburb town’s — Main Street. He can go to any number of different places for lunch, or he can go home.

And there were sidewalks a-plenty in Mayfield.

I, on the other hand, live in Reston, one of America’s most celebrated New Towns, a town that was New Urbanism before New Urbanism was New. I live in one of the original houses in Reston, in close proximity — a five-minute walk — to Washington Plaza, a square inspired by Venice’s Piazza San Marco and surrounded by shops with apartments above.

The problem is, I can’t buy groceries there, or screws, or a lamp, or any of the other million things required to get through life. I can get my nails done (at two places), or my hair cut at one of three places, or my clothes dry-cleaned, or get something to eat. In this, it’s better than most suburban places in the U.S.

However, the space that was originally a small grocery store is now a community art center. The library is now a Reston museum. The new library is a mile or so away, smack in the middle of a "pod" of commercial space that puts it at nearly 1/2 mile from the nearest large residential area (1/2 mile from any residential space, if you don’t count a single apartment building and an old folks’ home).

I reject the term "new urbanism", because it implies that the goal is some Aldous Huxley Brave New World kind of communal life. The reality is that "new urbanism" is an attempt to move backward, to create something that’s not new at all, but old and functional. And that’s a shame, because when you’ve got the word "new" in the name of something and something goes wrong, people tend to assume that it’s because of your "new", untested ideas.

It’s important to think of cities — and by "city" here I mean any human habitation of more than about 5,000 or 10,000 people — as systems, rather than just plots of land. These systems have evolved over thousands of years, until the design has resulted in something that works well for its purpose.

Look at any city in the world, and you’ll see much the same thing. Across all cultures, architectures, and climates, cities are much the same. In all cities, people work, live, shop, and have recreation in much the same space. In all cities, be they cold like Stockholm or warm like Rome, people walk around in relatively chaotic surroundings, sometimes getting rained on, sometimes sweating when it gets hot. The fact that all cities have evolved this way shows that there must be a particularly elegant and functional system; otherwise every city in a place with inclement weather would have long ago developed into a place with nothing but indoor arcades. Instead, they haven’t. Cities everywhere in the world follow the same basic pattern.

Or, I should say, cities almost everywhere in the world. In the United States, our cities (including small towns, suburbs, etc., remember) have, for the past fifty years or so, followed a divergent path. Consider this map of part of Reston, Virginia, a town in the United States that has generated much controversy over the past thirty years because it’s such a radical place. It was one of the first places in the USA where a lot of the tenets of what’s now called new urbanism were applied:

The red area (some looks orange because of underlying color on the map) is commercial space: shops, offices, hotels, etc. The blue area is government space: police station, library, hospital. It is impossible to live in the red area; there are no houses or apartments there. Outside the red area, there is not a single commercial establishment of any kind. No offices, no shops. The two large roads that intersect on this map are each four lanes wide (at least; they get wider at points, up to eight lanes), with median strips. It is very difficult to cross these roads on foot. (In fairness, I should point out that not far off the right edge of this map, there’s another small commercial area: the one where you can get your hair done at three different places.)

It is actually possible to live in the red zone — if you’re elderly and want to live in a nursing home, located near the library. The old folks’ home, recently built, was put smack in the middle of the commercial area expressly so the residents could do things without driving.

It apparently does not cross anyone’s mind, even for a moment, that anyone other than the very old might want to be able to do things without driving. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to do anything between 5 and 6 pm in Reston, and attempting to find a parking space at lunchtime or in the evening is almost a lost cause.

And Reston is one of the better places.

Posted by tino at 14:00 29.03.01
Wednesday 28 March 2001

Modern American Religion

This complaint has two inspirations, neither of them divine. The first is Mr. Frank Sinatra. He sings:

Bet your bottom dollar you’ll lose the blues in Chicago,
The town that Billie Sunday couldn’t shut down.

And I thought, what a different time that song represents! Frank Sinatra, one of the country’s most popular singers, celebrating the failure of the morals police to clean up the country’s second-largest city.

The second inspiration was a terrible made-for-TV movie that I watched a week or two ago. For some reason, the Tivo recorded Lifetime’s mid-afternoon presentation of The Jessica McClure Story: Baby Down The Well (or some such; about Jessica McClure, anyway).

The movie was made in 1988, shortly after the whole Jessica-down-the-well debacle. It is set in Midland, Texas, where the whole thing actually happened. It involves a couple whose infant daughter has fallen down a well.

And the movie features no prayer scenes at all.

If that movie were made today, there’d be praying from before the titles until after the credits. The credits themselves, in fact, would probably contain some line like "The producers would like to thank Jesus, without whose assistance this film could not have been made."

And there’s no way we’d see a mainstream pop star these days — remember that Frank Sinatra was, after all, a pop star — singing anything that denigrates religion, religious life or the dogma of any major officially-blessed religion, however slightly.

The United States has always, in my experience, been the most religious nation on Earth, excepting outright theocracies. Many, many more people go to church here than in any other place I’ve ever been, and a much higher proportion of people profess a belief in God. In public in this country, this almost always means a belief in Jesus (often pronounced "Jeeesuus") Christ. Though this complaint is not specifically aimed at "Christians", people calling themselves "Christians" are usually the worst offenders.

The devout in other countries tend to be quiet about it, seeing religion as a private part of their lives, not as the central piece of their public persona. You can’t imagine David Beckham, for instance, ever shouting, "Thank you Jesuuuuuus!" as Kurt Warner did after winning the Superbowl in 2000. He’d be laughed off the pitch.

(David Beckham plays midfield for Manchester United, an English football team. Kurt Warner is a quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, an American footaball team.)

Recently, though — just in the last five years or so — religious expression has become more and more and more public in the USA, possibly at the expense of the values that religion is supposed to foster.

This afternoon, I saw this car in the parking lot at McDonald’s:

I invite the reader to notice the Jesus fish on the back, the VMI sticker in the window, and the WE <heart> GOD license plate. We may assume from these indicators that this person believes in God and in Christ, and is a general supporter of law and order (VMI is Virginia Military Institute, a legendary military academy in Lexington, VA). Yet:

1. The car is parked on the line. Whatever happened to ‘honour thy neighbour’? People next to you in the parking lot are neighbors, too.

2. This is a $40,000 truck, with a serious trailer hitch on it. Presumably that hitch is used to tow a boat, or a big camping trailer, or something like that. That’s a lot of bread that could have been cast upon the waters.

3. This one is visual:

Not only is it illegal to stick things like that heart on a license plate, but as of the date of the photo, the plate had been expired for almost a month. These people are, in effect, tax dodgers: render unto Casear etc.

Now, I’m sure that the particular people who own this enormous vehicle are perfectly nice people, with no faults. I’m just using them as an example, because they happen to fit my argument perfectly.

The heightened religious fervor in the United States serves no purpose except to provide the religiods — or a vocal minority of them, anyway — a platform from which to attempt to control others.

We’ve got the appearance of religion and constant talk about a morals and ethics, but seemingly no action.

The person with the "WWJD?" bracelet is just as likely, in general, to attempt to swindle you as the next person. Britney Spears talks all the time about being a virgin and about her special relationship with Jesus, but she still appears semi-nude on TV and in magazines, and wears clothes that a hooker wouldn’t have worn in public 30 years ago. And the Republican Party talks about how good it would be to have religious organizations underwritten by the government, only to do an about-face when they realize that "religious organizations" includes the Moonies as well as Jerry Falwell.

And so I am forced to call for a moratorium on all the public religiosity in this country. If you are religious, fine. That’s great, and that’s your right. But scrape the fish off the back of your car, burn your "WWJD?" clothing items, stop talking about Jeeesus all the time, and start expressing your religion through acts and beliefs, rather than chotchkes and marketing messages.

Posted by tino at 15:00 28.03.01

New Condiments

This is a photo of the mysteriously-named "convenience bar" ("serious difficulty bar" would be a more accurate term) at a McDonald’s restaurant in Reston, VA:

Notice that McDonald’s is making available to its Reston customers some condiments never before seen on Earth. Perhaps they are from the moon.

We at Tinotopia have tested these preparations, and have this to say about them:

‘Ketchu’ is a preparation of tomatoes, some kind of spiced tomato sauce. It is good on french fries.

‘Mastard’ is not very good on french fries; it’s bright yellow and a bit spicier than ‘ketchu’. You put it on burgers, or dip Chicken McNuggets into it. It is not entirely unreminiscent of ‘mustard’, commonly available elsewhere.

‘Sweet n Sour’ is totally baffling. It’s not sour at all.

Posted by tino at 14:00 28.03.01
Monday 26 March 2001

Office Supplies

I am an unabashed office supply enthusiast.  This I will readily admit.  And I am hopping mad.

The entire office supply market in the United States has been taken over by companies like Office Depot and Officemax and Office-o-rama, and they are sorely lacking.

I’ll grant that the average cost of office supplies has come down significantly since all of the little independent office supply stores were pushed out of business.  And, in some areas, the selection has even improved.  The Office Depot stockholders should be up in arms, though, because there’s a huge market going untapped: the office supply enthusiast.

Europe understands office supply enthusiasm.  Whenever I’m in Europe, I hit at least one stationery store and buy huge piles of stuff to bring back.  My favorite place for office supplies is any formerly-Communist country in Europe.  The slavs really understand office supplies.

I’ve got this down to a science.  I reckon that there are four criteria that an office supply must fulfill in order for it to be considered good:

  1. Replaceability.  Office supplies, by their nature, get used up.  Ink, pencils, pencil lead, notebooks, paper, etc. all are consumed.  I find that, if I am not certain that I will be able to replace a given item once I’ve used it up, I am reluctant to use it, and the whole scheme falls apart.
  2. Utility. The item must be useful to me.  Therefore, things like Trapper Keepers (and all other giant ring-binders), comb binding systems, ‘gel’ pens, etc. are all Not Good.
  3. Funkiness.  I have particular taste in supplies, tending toward the archaic.  This strikes a lot of people as odd, seeing as my house is full of computers (with three separate networks tying them together), and that I am a gadget freak in general.  I believe, though, that things function best in the proper context, and that the proper context for office supplies is about 1930. I write with a fountain pen, I prefer hard-bound notebooks to spiral-bound ones, and in general I prefer my supplies to be, well, a bit genteel and old-fashioned.
  4. Cheapness.  These things are intended to be consumed, so, with the exception of nice pens (which aren’t consumed, anyway), I require that supplies be fairly inexpensive, and in any case not priced out of line with their utility.  Thus things like Levenger’s little leather-bound notebooks are Not Good. Anyone with the kind of personality which would allow them to buy those things probably has no thoughts worth writing down, anyway.
Some things are just plain unobtainable: it’s impossible, for example, to find blue fountain pen ink in the standard cartridges around here.  I can get black ink, which I hate; and I can get blue ink in Waterman cartridges, which are much larger and which don’t fit in my everyday Pelikano pen.  And I can get ink cartridges a-plenty in several different colors for the horrible, horrible, awful, miserable, scum-sucking Sheaffer fountain pen that’s sold all over the place in the USA and which leaks all over you at the slightest provocation.

And some things are obtainable, but may not be in the future (ironically enough, this is far more common in the USA than in any post-Communist country I’ve ever been to). The other day, I bought seven notebooks of graph paper at Office Depot, because they usually don’t have graph paper at all — except the very expensive (though largely identical) kind they sell next to their "drafting" supplies.  Because I’m not sure when I’ll next be able to buy graph paper, though, I am reluctant to use any of it.

I have the same problem with the blank books that appear to be generally available at Border’s.  Barnes & Noble sell several lines of blank books, but they all have lines on the pages, or idiotic covers, or are just too expensive.  Borders, in their remainder piles, sell a blank book that’s the right size at 6 x 9 inches (though I would like one half this size for carrying around), pretty cheap, and — just possibly — in open stock, to be offered forever.

I cannot get myself to firmly believe the "offered forever" part, though, so I just keep buying the things and finding myself unable to use them.  At last count, I had about 30 of the things.

I know that that’s not rational, but that’s the way it is.   I think that there is a market for office supply stores catering to people who really like office supplies, rather than people who just need them to get something done.  If you don’t believe me, check out this Google search for "office supply fetish".  There are a lot of people out there like myself, and I’d bet that a lot of them are frustrated, too.

Once you admit that it’s a fetish, it all becomes a lot clearer.

I can see the Office Supply Fetish Shoppe of the future: it’s in a side street, and called something like "Out of the (Supply) Closet".  You go in and find some strange-looking but friendly people behind the counter, probably a fat girl and a very skinny guy; they guy’s wearing a pocket protector and the girl has a pencil stuck in her hair.  You think, "My god, these people live their lives surrounded by supplies!"  You think that the fat girl, though basically plain verging on homely, might be fantastic to have as a girlfriend because she’d be sure, in her line of work, to have picked up some tricks about paper clips that you didn’t know.   In the display case would be some funky pens from Europe that you’d look at, pursing your lips and holding your hands behind your back, wanting a good look but not wanting anyone else in the shop to think you were getting ideas or anything.

There’d be a section over in the corner full of imported items, for people into the whole A4 scene.  In the back would be the Post-It notes and gel pens, for people who are easily bored and need the latest innovations.  There’d be a section near the front full of those 3-way pens and fat little spiral notebooks, for the groups of giggly, embarrassed 19-year-old girls who’ve come in on a dare from one of their friends.  They know, in a vague way, what they want, but they’re not yet sure that it’s okay to want it.  And they’ll be treated well in their naiveté by the clerks, because they know that supplies are natural and beautiful, that everyone’s got their own thing, and that everyone has to start somewhere.

It’ll be a beautiful day.  Until then, though, we’ll have to keep our secrets, keep struggling against the Man, and keep seeking out both supplies and others who understand in our own secret ways.

Posted by tino at 15:00 26.03.01
Monday 12 March 2001

The War on Some Drugs

A lot of people in the U.S., myself included, are morally opposed to the U.S. government’s War on Drugs. As a method of keeping people from getting high — assuming for the moment that that’s a legitimate function of the government — it’s clearly a failure. Only the most rabid pro-Drug War cheerleaders would maintain otherwise.

Yet it continues. Any attempt to approach the "problem" from another angle is quickly quashed by the government. The same people, Democrats and Republicans both, who crow about Less Government Spending and Less Interference In Your Life consistently approve of the government spending billions of dollars to lock people in prison. Less interference indeed.

The reason that none of this seems to make sense is that we persist in looking at it as a legitimate activity of the government; it’s not. It’s a business.

Allow me to (apparently) digress for a moment: if you live in the United States and own a television, you’ve undoubtedly seen advertisements on late-night TV for things like the Tap Light. The Tap Light is a cheaply-made battery-operated light; it’s electrically identical to a flashlight, but it takes the shape of a little dome of light-diffusing plastic. You put it on a shelf or table, and by tapping the dome (which is also the switch), you turn the light on and off.

There is no demonstrable need for this awful little thing. It’s very poorly-designed, expensive to operate, not very effective (you can’t easily read by its light, for instance), and ugly.

Despite all this, the Tap Light Corporation continues to sell the thing. Its total effect is very small, but the Tap Light is definitely harmful to society. Because the Tap Light Corporation is making money on the it, though, they’re going to continue to sell it. They should do no less.

So why are we surprised that the Drug War continues? On a regular basis, the California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association — the prison guards’ union — lobbies against any measure in California that would reduce the number of prison admissions. Police departments push for greater powers to seize property of people accused of drug crimes. Other agencies of the government save money by, for instance, denying federal aid to would-be students who have been convicted of any drug-related crimes.

If you don’t believe me, read this article from the Seattle Times about an attempt in Washington to require that people actually be convicted before their property is seized by the government. In part, it says:

And the money has become essential for police departments trying to stay on top of rising drug crimes while dealing with tighter budgets.

"That’d put us out of business," said Tacoma police spokesman Jim Mattheis.

There you have it in a nutshell. I believe that this is an adequate explanation for a lot of the drug hysteria in the U.S. (which the U.S. then imposes on large parts of the rest of the world): that the government needs another source of revenue.

Whether this source of revenue would be necessary were the government not spending so much on the drug war is a question I will leave unexamined for the time being.

In any case, this is the only explanation I’ve been able to think of that fits the circumstances. If you look at the government’s actions not as any attempt to arrive at some kind of justice, but rather as the actions of a business with something to sell — police and incarceration services, in this case — the Drug War makes prefect sense.

The fact that the Drug War does nothing to stop drugs is irrelevant; the means is the end.

We will not see any meaningful reform of the insane drug laws in this country until no agency of government directly benefits from them.

Posted by tino at 14:00 12.03.01