Archive for March, 2009

This wonderful little film was made in 1908 by by Ricardo de Baños (1884-1939). The camera was mounted on top of the driver’s cabin as the tram traveled through 1908 Barcelona. It shows much of what we have lost over the years to the car. It shows that the streets are full of people, walking and living in a community, not driving around in their own personal isolation cells, AKA automobiles. What vehicles there are on the road, are more of an impediment to the pedestrian and the trams that are moving through the city.

As you can see in this film, the streets are narrow, crowded with people, and full of life. Not like most American cities, where the only reason why the sidewalks are crowded is that they are too narrow, so as to make room for more cars on the roads. Life then was slower, a bit more relaxed, so you didn’t need a trolley that could do 40mph, just one that moved at the speed of bicycle or a running man.

Of course I’m not painting it to be a utopia, it was far from that. Infant mortality, sickness, discrimination, the lack of rights for women, it was far, far, from a utopia. But in terms of community life, in terms of being a place to live, instead of a place to sleep between driving to and from work, it was and is far better than what we have today.

[Edit: Another film to contemplate]

I found this version of the above film and it intercuts shots of 2008 Barcelona along the same roads that the original film traveled along. 

The contrast between pedestrian friendly, carfree Barcelona and modern day, car centric Barcelona is amazing. The first thing you’ll notice is that there are no people on the streets! The population of Barcelona has greatly increased in 100 years, from 533,000 in 1900 to 1,673,075 in 2006. Where are those extra 1,000,000 people? Not on the streets it seems. 

If there is any better evidence for what our car culture has done to destroy community and civil living, I’d like to know what it is. In 1908 we had a vibrant, living city, and then 100 years later, a ghost town inhabited only by a handful of people and lot of cars.


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In Washington State, two bills failed to make it out of committee, House Bill 1490 and Senate Bill 5687. Both bills were aimed “to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through land use and transportation requirements”. The gist of the bill was to encourage more transit oriented development (TOD).

Photo by Mike Lydon

Photo by Mike Lydon

The main bugaboo about this kind of development is that it brings density to cities and towns outside of Seattle. My own town of Kenmore is wrestling with this very issue. Density would be limited to the corridor along SR 522 and up 68th Avenue for about half a mile or so. (My apartment is within that area.)

Yet at meetings with my neighbors there is talk about keeping Kenmore from growing and to somehow stop growth. Which you can’t unless you turn your entire community into a closed, gated citadel, keeping the barbarians out. Hopefully not everyone wants to do that.

You can’t stop growth, the only thing you can control it and direct it to areas where you can stand to grow. If you don’t, growth will come and grow where it damn well pleases. And that’s the old model of development. We need a new model that makes it easier for residents to make use of different transit options and also turn your standard “bedroom community” into a real community.

For instance in King County is starting a pilot program of water taxis across Lake Washington, with stops in several cities, Kenmore included. The proposed dock for this water taxi would be near the densest portion of Kenmore, population wise. It would be a boon to each city, bringing more people to their waterfronts. The problem is that most of the waterfronts are… industrial in nature for Kenmore and Renton. Currently, as far as I know, Kenmore does not have a plan to build a waterfront, so I’m not very confident that the water taxi service will really benefit Kenmore as much as our city fathers (and mothers) think it will.

Still, it is a step in the right direction towards making Kenmore a greener and more livable city. However, just building next to the Park and Ride or bus stop does not a transit oriented development make. You need more than that; you need to turn your community into a place for families and other people to congregate at, not just visit. Most development puts expensive boutiques in the retail space on the ground floor, and then wonder why no one shops there.

One of the major roadblocks to the development of the Kenmore Village by the Lake project here in Kenmore is that the contractors cannot find an “anchor store” for the project. The problem with that is any “anchor store” that they bring in to the project will probably be a franchise store and kill off any local businesses that could compete with it.

You want to promote local businesses, who will put their profits into the local economy, not into the franchise’s Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters. That’s the real goal of transit oriented design: Making the local community more livable and inviting, and not turn it into a strip mall with apartments on top.

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In today’s Crosscut article, Buy Local, Think National, it’s author, Floyd McKay, reports on the upswing of buy local organizations, highlighting the Bellingham, WA, group, Sustainable Connections, as one of the shining examples of a successful organization.

In many ways, this highlights the shortcomings of other regions in Washington state when it comes to encouraging local businesses. Many cities and towns, my own included, need to encourage the buy local ethic, and they need to encourage local businesses, either through tax incentives or by creating a business incubator for new local businesses. 

Now,we do have more than our share of farmers markets in the Puget Sound region, but they are very seasonal so that you only get a window on locally grown produce, fish, and meats. But we could do better. 

One common complaint I hear about my town, Kenmore, WA, is that while you have plenty of choices for lunch or dinner, or to have a drink, you can’t buy new shirt or underwear within a 20 minute drive. And drive is the operating word here. There is only one of two places I could go to without changing buses, the rest either take one or two bus changes and/or switch to a different transit company. 

The problem with that sentiment is that a business that sells clothes like that is typically not a local business, but a chain store. The reasons why are well known: chains can buy in bulk, substantially reducing the end cost of a good to the consumer, while local, mom & pop stores only buy lots of ten or twenty, thus paying a higher cost for the same goods, and passing on a higher price to the consumer. And consumers want low prices, despite the fact that it’s bad for their local economy and way of life. 

Can we turn the clock back to where it was more economical to buy everything locally? No, not unless we experience another major crash of the economy, one greater than the one we’re currently experiencing. 

Speaking of the current economy, one of the big problems most people cite about buying locally is that the prices are higher than for items shipped in from other countries. It’s one of those vicious circles: People don’t buy the local product, so that the local producer reduces the amount of that product he produces. Prices go up because now there’s fewer of the that product on the market and the producer has to cover his costs. People don’t buy the product because the price has gone up…

Eventually the local producer goes out of business because the cost of production just a few items is far higher than the return he gets selling the items.

One solution is to buy more of that locally produced product and encourage the local producer to make more.

That has it’s own nasty side effect. Take produce for instance. The sustainable farmer sells out of all his produce, so he opens up those fields that he had lie fallow or, more realistically, buys new fields and increases his yield for the next season. He may be able to lower prices and if he does well, he may expand again, if he can. And the demand for his produce increases.

The sustainable farmer is now faced with a dilemma: Not expand and maintain his current market or become a commercial farmer and drop sustainable farming in favor of production farming, using chemical fertilizers and non-ecological farming techniques. We all can hope he doesn’t choose the latter.

In the end, all we can do is to try to support those local businesses that we can and try to live a sustainable life.

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Just in from the BBC: Traffic prevents children from playing. Amazing, innit?

Kids cant play in the streets anymore.

Kids can't play in the streets anymore.

 When I grew up in Michigan, my first home town, Auburn Heights, the bunch of us kids played on the street and in our yards as there was almost no traffic on the street. These days, thanks to the media for making it seem that children are being randomly kidnapped off the streets every second, most parents won’t even let their kids play in the front yard, let alone any where near a street.


According to the BBC article, between 1973 and 2006, the proportion of children playing on UK streets fell from 75% to 15%. Two charities, Sustrans and Play Wales, are calling on planning authorities to lead the UK to build carfree housing estates, which gives a high quality of life for all its residents, particularly for children in traffic-clogged urban areas allowing them to play safely outside their front doors and travel independently. The proposals would also help cut obesity in children who are unable to play in traffic-clogged areas. The plan envisages that car parking in the new developments would be limited and situated away from people’s homes.

Read the full article at the BBC.

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