Remember Where You Come From

Behold my progeny!

DSC_2366-webLars Arthur Munson joined Holly and I just over a month ago, and as you might expect, it has been an enormous change and a bit of an adjustment. In addition to trying to figure out how you can go through over 200 diapers in just a few weeks and learning how to get by on four hours of sleep a night, Holly and I both wanted to do a special project for our little guy. Holly, being an editor, has discussed framing the section from the Chicago Manual of style on how to make words ending in “S” (such as Lars) possessive. I, being a planner/urban designer/geography nerd, decided to make a map.Lars Birth MapI previously mapped where my ancestors were born and where they eventually died, but for this one I wanted to incorporate Holly’s ancestors so that Lars would know about both of them, and to clean it up a bit I only showed where they were born. I used FamilySearch to do the research, then used Google Earth to create a map file and try and determine how to group the data before designing the map in Illustrator and InDesign. It was fun to take a look at the patterns and find a tool that hopefully will help Lasse Lille (Little Lars) know where he came from. I’m working on another related project, which hopefully I can report on soon.


Southern California creates historic regional transportation plan


Graduation is nearing here at the University of Pennsylvania, and many students (myself included) are looking for work. After learning of some job openings with some really great firms in Los Angeles, I asked a friend if she would be willing to work there. “Oh, no,” she answered, “I could never live in LA, I need to live in a place where I don’t need a car.”

For a lot of Northeasterners, the ability to live a car-free life is what makes a place truly urban. Los Angeles and its suburbs, for most of the modern era, have been the antithesis of that lifestyle, built around freeways and far-flung suburban developments. But things are changing in LA, and a car-free lifestyle is much more in reach than it has been in the past.

As with the rest of the country, people in Southern California are beginning to demand alternatives to the car and the single family home. This became evident last November, when a survey of 758 registered voters, conducted by the American Lung Association, Move LA, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, showed that people support expanded transit alternatives, walkable communities, and even smaller homes. This survey had a large effect on the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) as they prepared their 2012 Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS).

The elected officials of SCAG unanimously adopted this plan on April 4th. As outlined by Amanda Eaken, the highlights of the plan include:

  • Increases funding for biking and walking by over 350% from $1.8 to $6.7 billion;
  • Spends $246 billion—nearly half the plan’s total revenue– on public transportation;
  • Reduces congestion 24% per capita despite adding 4 million residents;
  • Brings 12 key transit expansion projects to Los Angeles in the next 10 years under Mayor Villaraigosa’s 30-10 plan;
  • Creates 60% more housing near transit than is currently available;
  • Creates 4.2 million jobs in the region, 87% of all jobs will be ½ mile from transit;
  • Achieves a 24 % reduction in pollution-caused respiratory problems, resulting in $1.5 billion per year in health care savings’ and;
  • Saves over 400 square miles of open space–more than a third the size of Yosemite–from development by shifting to a more walkable land use pattern for the region.

SCAG employs a bottom-up approach to the plan, even allowing subregions to create their own alternative plans as long as they accomplish the same goals. The plan reflects the goals of those organizations that sponsored the original survey – it improves public health, creates transportation alternatives, and will preserve natural resources by reducing oil dependence and preserving natural areas that might have otherwise been developed.

Despite the democratic nature of and overwhelming support for the plan, some detractors have popped up. One notable objection came from Wendell Cox, whose article, California Declares War on Suburbia, ran in the Wall Street Journal on April 7th. Cox, who has no training in transportation (according to his website, he “attended the University of Southern California and earned a bachelor’s degreee [sic] in Government from California State University Los Angeles and a Master of Business Administration from Pepperdine University”) and has made a career as a hack and a lobbyist for conservative think tanks and the auto industry, declares that “California has declared war on the most popular housing choice, the single family, detached home—all in the name of saving the planet.” He attacks concentrating development near transit and claims that it would have virtually no effect on car congestion, “because additional households in the future will continue to use their cars for most trips,” partially because transit does not currently reach the places people want to go to the way cars do. He blames California’s high housing costs on land use regulation and argues that greenhouse gas goals could be reached by other means without adjusting development patterns. As someone who is planning on starting a family soon, I was particularly disturbed by his comment, “Los Angeles has shown that a disproportionate share of migrating households are young. This is at least in part because it is better to raise children with backyards than on condominium balconies.”

Fortunately, many of his most off the mark comments were rebuked in the recent New Republic article, Low-Density Suburbs Are Not Free-Market Capitalism, by Jonathan Rothwell. While Cox is partially right that government intervention leads to higher housing prices, he has it backwards – rather than forcing high density on people, most municipalities require unnecessarily large lots, in some cases almost half an acre, which essentially prohibits the creation of affordable, smaller houses and apartments. Rothwell doesn’t even mention the higher-level government interventions, such as the interstate highway system and federal mortgage loan programs, which also are responsible for the suburbs. The high cost of housing in California is simple supply and demand; there is an extremely high demand, and municipalities are constraining the supply by not allowing higher density development.

Rothwell clarifies that the efforts of organizations like SCAG are less government heavy-handedness and more a responsible effort to address the negative externalities of development. By concentrating population around transit in high density, mixed use developments, they reduce congestion by allowing for walking and biking, making transit a more viable alternative, and allowing for shorter car trips. Many of these organizations have no land use authority and member governments are free to not comply, as well as the developers who would build the new housing, since it would be entirely market-driven.

Cox’s argument that greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced through other means such as greater fuel efficiency and converting to natural gas power is true, but it is no reason to abandon the option of reducing emissions by discouraging auto traffic and encouraging higher density development. The issue of climate change should be attacked from all angles. Multifamily buildings are actually more energy efficient, because having fewer exposed walls makes heating and cooling a room easier.

Some young families certainly move out of cities because they prefer a yard, but it is flat out wrong and ignorant to assume it is the only reason, or that it is necessarily better to raise a child in the suburbs than the city. Especially in Los Angeles, many leave because high housing prices jacked up by large lot zoning force them to cheap land on the outskirts of the city. In some cases, especially in older cities like Philadelphia, it is because they can’t find the right kind of housing stock in their price range: some friends of ours who will soon be having a child couldn’t find a place with another bedroom that they liked, and will be heading out to the suburbs.

The comment about “condominium balconies” seems to show a real misunderstanding of how urban parenting works. Urban parents don’t deny their children place to play, they just share them with their neighbors: they’re called parks. There are all sorts of tips for urban parenting, such as those shared by Carla Saulter at Grist or Lenore Skenazy at Free Range Kids. Parenting in the city can be a real joy, as I learned from a discussion I recently had with Ken Greenberg, architect, urban designer, professor at Harvard and author of Walking Home: The Life Lessons of a City Builder, among others. He said that there were certain things that needed to exist in a city for it to be truly family-friendly:

  • A range of housing units of different sizes, so that as families grow from a couple to a couple with a child to multiple children and back to a couple again, they can move within the same neighborhood
  • Attractive, well-designed play spaces, particularly those that can be observed from within a residence
  • Convenient daycare
  • Good schools

Disinvestment in urban schools is a big problem for urban families in the United States, and possibly the greatest reason young families leave the city. However, cities across Europe (Greenberg cited examples in Scandinavia and the Netherlands specifically) invest much more in their urban schools, and thus are much more kid- and family-friendly. While there are challenges to having an urban family, the amenities, including museums, public parks and arts facilities, can be a real boon for families in the city.

SCAG’s new plan will be a great thing for Southern California. It will create a place where people can live without a car, be healthier, and spend less on housing, all while saving the planet. Potentially, these could be great environments even for families, and the dense cities of Southern California could retain the residents they currently lose to the suburbs.

Carla Saulter’s Urban Family Values

I came across Carla Saulter’s first article on Grist way back in November.  Since then, I’ve been real busy, but taking all that time has given Carla enough time to write a lot more really great articles, which I have just gotten caught up on this week.  I felt that the best way for me to address Carla’s articles was to do one big long post instead of a number of short ones, so here is my assessment of four articles from Saulter’s Urban Family Values column.  This column is updated bi-weekly, so keep checking it out.

Why public transportation is good for kids

In her first post, Saulter explains that her family, with two small kids, doesn’t own a car, and does so on purpose.  When she and her husband first found themselves expecting, their friends informed them that they would have to get a car.  They did not follow that advice, and while Saulter has found that there are challenges to living without a car with children, it isn’t because transit is necessarily bad for children, but because most American cities have been designed or redesigned for cars.  She argues that there are a number of reasons that living car-free is good for children’s health and well-being.  First of all, car culture discourages exercise.  “[T]he auto-centric built environment in many communities makes walking and cycling unpleasant, impractical, and quite often, dangerous,” she says.  At the same time, cars add to air pollution, not only outdoors but also inside the cooped up interior of the car.  Car crashes also cause more deaths among American children than anything else.  Buses, on the other hand, are the safest form of road travel.

While cars are in many ways dangerous for kids, transit has many positive aspects.  Transit almost always requires some walking, and those who use transit are more likely to meet the CDC’s daily exercise requirements.  Taking transit frees parents from the requirements of driving and allows them to actually concentrate on and interact with their children.  For many kids, the mere experience of riding transit can be like a game.  Transit kids also gain the skills necessary for transit ridership (packing, trip planning, stop recognition, schedule reading) well before their car-dependent peers are able to drive, making them more responsible and more independent.  They also learn how to interact with strangers appropriately, unlike kids who spend their time in cars with only family members.

Moving to the suburbs for your kids?  Think again

Saulter points out the irony that many want a better world for our children, when many of the things we do to keep them “safe” in the here and now are damaging their future.  While many parents think large, green lawns in the suburbs are good for their kids, the car-dependent, resource-intensive lifestyle of the suburbs is bad for kids (as illustrated in the last article) and bad for the planet.  Instead, Saulter’s version of “family friendly” is characterized as “dense, diverse, and transit-rich.”  Denser neighborhoods include smaller homes, which require fewer resources to heat and cool, as well as less land.  They also limit the amount of things we buy, due to limited space, which also limits our waste.  Neighbors share more, whether it be public parks, third places like cafes, public facilities like libraries, or large-scale entertainment such as movie theaters replacing staying at home and watching TV.  Infrastructure can also be delivered more efficiently in denser areas.

Denser areas also allow for more transportation options, making transit, walking and cycling viable alternatives to car transportation.  Dense neighborhoods also provide many of the benefits listed under public transit in the last article, including learning how to work with strangers, sensory stimulation, and independent problem solving.  Cities also have more cultural amenities and encourage fitness and community.

Driving a car doesn’t mean being in control

Car-dependent people often ask car-free people how they can get to places in a hurry, when transit isn’t a timely option.  While transit is almost always timely for me personally, and while the options of cabs, car sharing and ambulances provide many other options, Saulter argues, “what they’re really asking is, how do I deal with the lack of control associated with not having a car?”  The thing is, cars don’t always provide the most freedom and convenience.  For instance, I can get to City Hall faster via transit than I can in a car, without having to worry about traffic.  Also, the weather, particularly in winter, can effectively disable cars, while trains and subways keep running.  In the suburbs, when you’re snowed in, you don’t have any options, while a foot of snow at my house in Philadelphia doesn’t keep me from walking the one block to 7-11 to get milk.

Car drivers also lack financial freedom: if you’re dependent on your car, then you’re stuck with buying gas no matter how expensive it is.  Meanwhile, Holly and I discussed over Christmas break how we never pay attention to gas prices anymore because it doesn’t cost anything to walk.  Holly and I also could walk to three hospitals in less time than my parents in the suburbs could drive to one.  Even if one of us were injured, ambulances or even cabs could get us there in no time.  In Saulter’s words, “My family doesn’t have a car, but what we do have is access, and that makes me feel far more in control than a car ever could.”

Want a safe place to raise kids?  Look to the cities

The reason many parents choose to live in the suburbs is because of crime and other safety concerns.  The truth is, cities are much more safe than they are made to appear.  Saulter looks to Lenore Skenazy, the woman who let her nine-year-old son ride the New York subway alone, wrote about it in The New York Sun, and was later labeled in many news sources as “the worst mom in America.”  In response, she wrote a book called Free Range Kids and started a blog, both of which discuss how parents need to get over their entrenched fears and look at the facts.  Despite news coverage of the worst aspects of cities, as well as TV shows that lead people to believe that people are dying left and right in major cities, the truth of the matter is that the chances of a child being abducted and killed are one in 1.5 million.

In reality, a child has a much higher chance of dying of a car crash in the suburbs than being murdered in the city.  The most dangerous areas overall in the nine metro areas covered in a University of Virginia study were the outer suburbs.  Children are much more likely to be killed in car crashes than to be murdered by a stranger (which is actually less likely than them being murdered by someone they know), and the car-dependent suburbs make them more dangerous than the city with its strangers.  In fact, all crime, including assaults and other violent crime, are at record lows across the country.  And while some crimes, especially gang-related, are higher in cities, there are also many aspects that make cities safer, such as many more people with many more eyes on the street.  One important thing is to teach kids basic street smarts.  One important thing is that they shouldn’t go anywhere with people they don’t know, but they should be taught to talk to strangers so that they can ask them for help.

Carla Saulter’s articles, so far, are full of wonderful advice for urban families and address some of the incorrect ideas held about where it is right for one to raise a family.  I hope that her writing changes some minds, and I look forward to following her work.

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