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Archive for January, 2008

Fellow Fairbanks blogger Discontinuous Permafrost writes about the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship in his latest post, “Organizing unorganized religion,”

While unorganized religion has its benefits, it also has its challenges. I suspect the only thing we might agree upon is that we should have service on Sunday.

It’s veering a bit away from the thrust of the piece (which is about the challenges and opportunities of a non-credal religion), but let me sow the seeds of disagreement over the UU’s one point of consensus (i.e., having service on Sunday).

All congregations from culturally Christian roots — mine included — seem to default to Sundays as their day of meeting. Yet Sunday is the day of the week when people without a car will have the hardest time getting to church (or what you may call it). The Borough buses in Fairbanks run a regular schedule from Monday to Friday, a much-scaled-back schedule on Saturday, and not at all on Sunday.

In addition, many congregations — DP’s and mine included — deliberately locate some distance from any concentration of human population, which means that the chance of many congregants’ walking to church is practically nil.

These two practices, of locating churches outside of any neighborhood and of meeting on transit-free days, has the effect of making church accessible only to those who can afford a car. The care and feeding of private automobiles takes up 15 to 25 percent of our personal income (across all income groups, incidentally), which poses a tremendous burden on the poor.

A requirement of car ownership seems to defy some of the “seven principles” that DP credits to the Unitarian-Universalists, particularly:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; and
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

By no means do I wish to single out the UU’s. My own religious body, like theirs, has a strong emphasis on equality, community, and social justice. Like theirs, mine is not accessible by public transit on Sundays. (Theirs, at least, is marginally accessible on the Yellow Line; mine is far away from any public transit.)

By requiring car ownership as the gateway to church participation (or, indeed, any civic participation), don’t we effectively weed out the involvement of the poor, the very people to whom the religious ought to reach out the most? Don’t we block, rather than encourage, their spiritual growth?

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This post continues Neighborhood design: a Sesame Street-based analysis (Part 1).

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Sesame Street Cast, early season“Each day.” I take this to mean that informal, walking contact with neighbors is frequent.

Of course, it’s possible to take “each day” literally, and demand that every neighbor be seen every day — but then, as soon as one of them goes on vacation or spends a whole day at home (whether sick, remodeling, or catching up on episodes of Lost), you’re out a neighbor. This is a useless definition. It seems equally useless to say that you have to run into at least one neighbor absolutely every day — are you never allowed to take a vacation?

No, “each day” more likely means “frequently enough not to seem unusual” or “in ordinary, everyday circumstances.” My guess is that most of the planned meetings people engage in with a given person (for example, meeting for coffee, going dancing, or watching a movie) are less frequent than once a week, and are very often at indoor locations rather than on the street. If that’s right, then both you and your neighbors must be on the street fairly often, not specifically planning to meet, but there for other reasons.

How often? This is like the question of “how near”: some frequencies are clearly in, and support a neighborhood, while others are clearly out — and there’s a continuum in between. We can say confidently that, if you only ever walk across one other person from nearby, or if you run into each of your neighbors but once every five years, you don’t have neighbors in any meaningful sense.

Also, if you meet your neighbors regularly while walking, you must all live within “walking distance” of the places you frequent. Of course, the distance people are willing to walk regularly will differ from person to person, but I’ve often seen five minutes, or about a quarter-mile, cited as the farthest people will choose to walk before they decide to drive instead or not go at all. If that’s so, then neighbors must live within a five-minute walk of their commonly-visited places: the neighborhood falls within a circle of a quarter-mile radius.

If you don’t like the “five-minute walk” definition, then ask yourself, “How far am I willing to walk on regular errands when it’s twenty below outside?” In cold weather, my wife and I sometimes get a hankering a for a video and some hot buttered rum; however, it’s at least fifteen minutes’ walk to the nearest liquor store and twenty-five minutes’ walk in another direction to the nearest video store. It feels wasteful and bothersome to heat the car up and brush it off for such a short trip — so most of the time we stay home.

***

To sum up:

  • A neighborhood consists of several households. Within limits, more neighbors make it more neighborhood-like.
  • Neighborhoods are small. Neighbors must be located near each other, within such a walking distance that several neighbors might see each other frequently.
  • Neighborhoods are social — that is, they allow, or even encourage, sociability. People establish at least casual relationships with their neighbors.
  • Neighborhoods are for walking.
  • Neighborhoods are safe for pedestrians.
  • Contact between neighbors is an everyday occurrence.

That describes a neighborhood (based on the simple “Sesame Street definition”) — but just to describe it is not enough. We have to explore what conditions would actually induce places to start acting like neighborhoods, or induce people to start acting like neighbors.

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Next time, I’ll examine people’s reasons for walking in a neighborhood and make more concrete suggestions about how the ideal neighborhood might be designed.

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Some loved ones have recently described my “About the author” page as “terse,” “cold,” and “snooty.”

My intention was just to keep a bit of distance between my personal life and the themes of The Fairbanks Pedestrian. I would generally like not to bring personal details out for show, except where they illustrate my points and touch on the topics of community-building and pedestrian living in Fairbanks.

However, in the interest of showing that I am not a stuffed shirt, a robot, or an alien replicant from beyond the moon, I offer this new author blurb. Enjoy.

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Last night, I attended a meeting at the Downtown Association that made me sad for the future of Fairbanks and even made me wonder if this is any place for someone with a love of community.

Executive director Emma Wilson summarized the results of a marketing survey commissioned by the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. If you live in the Fairbanks area, you may remember the FCVB’s survey last August where we were to answer questions about Fairbanks’s strengths, weaknesses, activities, et cetera. The marketing company hired was attempting to discover Fairbanks’s “brand” — what our self-image was and how others viewed us.

A lot of it was nice to hear: we’re tough for surviving the winter weather, we have a vibrant arts community, and we’re very friendly.

What was disheartening — though it was really no surprise — was the “rugged individualism” theme. This is apparently how Fairbanksans see themselves — rugged individualists, living life on their own terms. One respondent to the survey said, “In Fairbanks, we get to live as we please — not as others tell us.”

It’s not that I’m against individuality. But the rugged individualism that my fellow Interior citizens paint themselves with — this “up yours, world” attitude — says nothing about obligations to others. It says nothing about the need for diplomacy, cooperation, and compromise. It says nothing about common goals and common struggles. It says nothing about citizenship or community.

(Why can’t we have “rugged communitarianism” instead?)

What’s more, the respondent who believes we get to live as we please is just plain wrong. I would like to live without a car that sucks up fifteen percent of my income. I would like to live a short walk from a grocery store, a bank branch, a café, a smoke-free bar, a bakery, and my place of work. I would like to like to have sizable untouched green spaces within walking distance of civic amenities. I would like to look upon the largest buildings in our city — which ought to be courthouses, convention centers, and theaters, but instead are grotesque box stores — without feeling like going on antidepressants.

But I can’t.

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Bob McGrath & MuppetsAs a child, I watched a fair amount of Sesame Street. (Why wasn’t I out playing?) Now, as a parent, I’m watching it again: my wife and I bought some Sesame Street DVDs for our children, and they have been thoroughly watched. It took me back to my childhood to hear Bob McGrath and his muppet co-stars singing:

Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood?

They’re the people that you meet
When you’re walking down the street.
They’re the people that you meet each day.

Let’s assume that Bob and the Muppets are correct. (And I cannot remember Sesame Street ever being wrong.) While this song defines “the people in your neighborhood,” I believe that it can be used to define the neighborhood itself. This simple song is absolutely pregnant with implications for neighborhood design; I’d like to explore these.

First, the word ‘neighborhood': It does not merely mean the geographic area in which your house is situated. Its root is the word ‘neighbor’, whose Old English roots mean “near dweller”, and which means somebody whose dwelling is adjacent to or very near that of another. Thus, a house in isolation is not in a neighborhood. Certainly no official definition exists to decide how many houses of people must comprise a neighborhood, though I’m sure it has to be more than two. Nor is there a standard of exactly how close two people must live to be neighbors. So there seems to be a fuzzy line around the idea of “neighborhoodishness” — some things are clearly in and some are clearly out, but between the two is also a continuum where places may be more or less like a neighborhood.

I suppose there may be an upper limit to the number of households, too. There could be so many people that it becomes impossible to know from day to day whether you’ve ever seen any of them before, and instead of having the feeling of meeting them “each day,” you end up adrift in a sea of anonymity.

“They’re the people that you meet.” If it’s a given that we have a “neighborhood,” then who are these neighbors? They cannot live in complete isolation; you must be able to meet them. A neighborhood is social. Of course, ‘meet’ is ambiguous: it can mean either “encounter, run in to,” “socialize with,” or “become acquainted with.” I will let this ambiguity slide, on the assumption that a neighborhood that allows for one kind of “meeting” will also allow the others. (Perhaps incorrect. Worth examining another time.)

“When you’re walking down the street.” Neighborhoods are a place where people walk.

Chances are superb that you have never met a person while moving thirty miles an hour in a steel isolation chamber. Chances are also good that you haven’t met too many people while bicycling. (While it is much easier and faster to stop a bicycle to talk with someone than to stop a car, most of us are unlikely to take the time to do so for a passing stranger.)

One of the best things about walking is its speed: specifically, walking is a slow enough activity to allow us unplanned personal encounters. One day, you exchange a glance with your neighbor; the next day, a nod; the day after that, casual chit-chat about the weather. From there, who knows? Maybe the neighbor remains a casual acquaintance, or maybe you come to know each other and become fast friends or collaborators, united by a common interest. Either way, the neighborhood is a network of countless personal connections, both weak and strong, forming a web of trust and encouraging feelings of place and of belonging. And that web of connection can only be spun at human speeds.

Of course, if others aren’t also walking down the street, you can’t meet them. The sole walker in a “neighborhood” may as well live in the auto-suburbs or on an island.

For people to walk along a street, they must feel reasonably safe and comfortable with the spaces afforded pedestrians. Can you imagine walking in a neighborhood where you faced constant threats to your safety?

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Next time, I’ll look at what it means to meet people “each day” and start to draw some conclusions about the design of neighborhoods according to the “Sesame Street model.”

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An acquaintance of mine works in an office building downtown. She tells me that she’s thinking of quitting her job because:

  1. She lives on the west side of Fairbanks, and driving to and from downtown is an unpleasant commute; and
  2. The air around her building stinks. She described it as smoky and diesel-ish, and that makes her uncomfortable.

And who wouldn’t be uncomfortable, breathing air full of car exhaust?

I like walking, whether on an idle stroll or on a pointed errand, and I suspect that most people do, when it’s pleasant. It saddens me that downtown Fairbanks, a place that ought to be full with the hustle and bustle of human activity, is so inhospitable that people not only don’t want to travel there on pleasure, but are even reluctant to work there in air-filtered offices.

Downtown isn’t just my neighborhood. It should be everyone’s neighborhood — that is, our city commons, the place where all of Fairbanks feels welcome and safe. Everybody with any business in the Fairbanks area has a right to be there. But what a shallow right it is, when the air quality puts people in fear for their health.

I’ll go out on a limb and guess that the poor air quality near my acquaintance’s place of work is due mostly to automobile exhaust. (If anybody has another suggestion, please speak up.) If that’s so, the exhaust is due to high numbers of automobiles — probably single-occupancy — traveling or idling in our streets and parking lots.

Can anybody see a better way? something that might help downtown be a pleasant, safe, welcoming environment?

Here is my very short list of suggestions. (The first will work only if coupled with the second.)

  1. Get private automobiles out of downtown. Limit motorized traffic to emergency vehicles, utility vehicles, possibly some commercial service vehicles, and public transportation.
  2. Provide copious public transportation all around the Borough to bring people into downtown.

Given the fact that most of Fairbanks would be driving downtown from somewhere, the transit stops would have to provide a modicum of parking. Transit would have to be frequent — say, never more than a five-minute wait at stops — so that people would not feel it was too much of a time burden to come downtown to begin with.

The car — a ton or more of smoke-belching steel — is a natural enemy to the pedestrian. It never makes the pedestrian’s life any safer, only scarier, and it causes the pedestrian’s retreat from the public sphere that is our common right. Take the cars from downtown, and watch it become a place worth being.

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As we were leaving our place of work last May, a co-worker saw me fasten my helmet and mount my bicycle. She asked, “Why is your blog called the Fairbanks Pedestrian, if you’re always bicycling?” I was in a hurry to get home to my wife and daughters, so I gave her too short an answer. It’s a good question, and it cuts to the central question I hope to discuss in this blog: What does it mean to be a Fairbanks pedestrian?

In a nutshell, this is it:
As unremarkable as it sounds, I believe that walking is a fundamental human right. And, as bizarre as it sounds, I believe that walking is a right that most of Fairbanks is deprived of.

I do not mean that walking in your own house is a right, though it obviously is. Nor am I suggesting that most of us (the non-incarcerated) are prevented by some external power from stepping outside our homes and moving on two feet in one direction or another. These are trivial interpretations of our pedestrian right.

I hold that it is the right of people living in a community to perform all functions of their day-to-day life — working, eating, shopping, exercising, playing, politicking, gardening, visiting friends, getting medical care, going on dates, attending meetings, throwing parties, enjoying the summer Solstice Festival downtown, and watching the start of the Yukon Quest — without setting foot in a car.

“But there’s no law against that!” some will say.

“There doesn’t have to be an explicit prohibition,” I reply, “for us to be deprived of our pedestrian right.”

I hope to explore in this blog some of the ways our laws effectively prohibit most of us from living without cars. I hope to show how, far from giving us the freedom they promise in commercials, automobiles enslave us, disconnect us from each other, degrade our landscape, erode our sense (and pride) of place, disenfranchise large segments of our population, and make a rich civic life impossible.

I believe that human beings are not made — we’re just not biologically wired — to experience their best life at the speeds available in, and at the distances required by, an automotive culture. How often, while driving, have you stopped to talk to a friend, chatted with a neighbor about the weather, or picked up a piece of trash? The answer, most likely, is “never.” (In fact, the same applies to bicycling, too. While I love it as transportation for long distances, the speeds at which I usually ride preclude adequately taking in — let alone beautifying — my surroundings.) For drivers, places are reduced to routes, and people are reduced to obstacles.

I hope to reclaim the streets of Fairbanks for people, not cars — to see our streets, cold though they be, filled with friends visiting, couples strolling, children playing, and strangers having all the spontaneous exchanges that make people fit for egalitarian, democratic society. Even in Fairbanks, it’s possible.

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