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Archive for February, 2008

This weekend — from Thursday, February 28, to Sunday, March 2 — Fairbanks will be host to the Alaska Library Association annual conference. About 300 librarians (professional and paraprofessional) from around the state will meet, confer, and otherwise hobnob with their fellow information wizards at the Princess Riverside Lodge. In between sessions on library software, web technology, graphic novels, children’s literature, intellectual freedom, and online learning, they’ll get to walk around town and enjoy Fairbanks’s natural beauty and cultural amenities.

From their hotel.

By the airport.

Yeah, right.

The Princess is a fine hotel. (Although, in an environment that is so dark for so much of the year, painting a building gray is an assault against taste.) But it makes me sad that, when my colleagues come from hundreds of miles around, they will have no places to walk to and no chance to leave the confines of their hotel without the aid of a taxi. I want them to leave with the memory of having been someplace interesting and exciting, not of having been trapped in a hotel.

I went last summer to the American Library Association‘s convention in Washinton, D.C. (which, I grant, is situated far differently from Fairbanks). The Washington Convention Center, a very modern set of buildings, is located in central D.C., and is practically surrounded by historical buildings, restaurants, retail, parks, residences, and of course centers of national government. A convention-goer with an hour between sessions might have found several places within easy walking distance to get a bite to eat; with two hours, he or she might have walked to see some of our national treasures. And if that conventioneer needed something farther away, a subway station was located immediately outside the convention center.

Believe me, I have no desire to see Fairbanks become just like Washington. But a convention site, especially one expected to draw people from out of town or out of state, should offer visitors more than just the convention. It should be a gateway to the town, so that visitors have an easy opportunity to see the sights, get some lunch, visit local officials, take a walk, sit in a park, watch people, and — naturally — do some shopping. Convention-hosting hotels should view themselves not as islands of hospitality, but as integral contributors to the local economy. (I note one exception: the bed-and-breakfast in the woods, which is suited to the visitor seeking to be surrounded by boreal forest most of the time.)

The Vision Fairbanks plan for the revitalization of downtown calls for a convention center and hotel on Cushman, at the south end of the 1st-to-Airport stretch that is to be our “signature street”. A hotel and convention center combination in the heart of town would (1) make Fairbanks an attractive option for national organizations looking for a place to hold a convention, (2) offer our visitors something more memorable than their convention by the airport, and (3) give a needed boost to the local economy.

Our local economy needs that boost. And our visitors deserve some rich memories of our town.

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After reading yesterday’s post (“The secret ingredient? People!“), my wife raised concern that I might be perceived as promoting restaurant- and café-eating as a way of life superior to eating at home with your family. Nothing could be farther from my intent.

Time with your partner, children, parents, or other family is invaluable, and the positive effect of eating meals as a family is also invaluable. Not only that, but I think that meals at home are likely to be healthier: Americans tend to eat until their plates are empty, and regularly finishing off typical restaurant portions can only tend to make people obese.

I think that very few people are suited for a life of non-stop variety. We all return to “safe” environments with surroundings we know and people we are comfortable with, to places where we can temporarily escape the new experiences of the outside world and make sense of them.

But, without those new experiences, the peaceful, reflective time we enjoy with friends and family can become sterile.

In order to produce offspring, two organisms must be genetically similar: dogs may breed only with dogs, humans with humans, et cetera. But populations also require diversity — the introduction of new genes in new combinations — to stay viable.

Similarly, people require safe havens where they can create meaning together and collaborate on projects both new and familiar. They also require the stimulus of the outside world, where they are exposed to, and must interact with, the unfamiliar and unexpected. The long-term consequences of isolation from the unfamiliar world are ignorance, intolerance, and extremism — not the stuff of a viable civilization.

That is why your home-made hot cocoa — though it may some days be a better experience, and other days worse — will never take the place of sitting in a café, picnicking in a park, or strolling in some other vibrant public place.

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I hope that my vicious lie doesn’t forever taint my daughter’s valuation of public space.

Tired of being cooped up, my older daughter and I went Sunday for a meandering walk, which ultimately headed downtown. Before reaching the fountain (our destination), she started to complain that she was cold. I suggested we find a place to sit inside and get some hot chocolate.

Our first choice, because it was near, was Lavelle’s. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t open for another half-hour.

We moved on to Two Street Station. Sadly, that was closed, too. My daughter was disappointed: a young child, she has trouble dealing with failed expectations and changes of plan.

I suggested one last place: McCafferty’s, which lay on our way home. I promised that, if it wasn’t open, we’d make hot chocolate once we got back. I asked her to brace herself and not to lose her cool if it was closed.

It had closed fifteen minutes ago. Well, nuts.

As we walked away, I said,

That’s okay. As soon as we get home, we’ll make some hot cocoa, and it’ll be better than anything we’d have gotten at any of these places.

Why was that a lie? It’s not because cafés produce such whiz-bang good cocoa, or because I mistakenly bought non-fat milk at the grocery store, or because we’d run out of cocoa powder and had to use some second-rate instant stuff.

It’s because sitting in a downtown café affords the opportunity of people-watching. For most people, nothing is so interesting as other people — and that is why people pay money to eat in restaurants when they could make the same food at home.

The fun of people-watching is one reason we create inviting public spaces. It is why having neighborhoods safe for pedestrians and rich with destinations where people might see each other is important. It is why no hot chocolate you make, however tasty, and drink at your home, however cozy, among the same old people, however beloved, will ever be the same as a mug of cocoa in a friendly place full of new people.

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A thorny question has arisen at Discontinuous Permafrost: what does it mean for a place to have local character, or for people to have local character?

I want to live in a place with a distinctive character, not someplace that looks like everywhere else. (On this theme, I heartily recommend James Howard Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere.) But one thing I can’t stand, in the public discussions that have gone on of the Vision Fairbanks plan for revitalizing downtown, is the comment (with variations) “We don’t want to be just like Portland!”

Of course, I don’t want to be just like Portland, either. But underlying the comment seems to be a refusal to entertain ideas that have worked well elsewhere. To some, the very idea that we could learn from others’ successes is anathema.

I want local character and preservation of our history — but keep in mind that Fairbanks was founded only 105 years ago, and that there’s not that much history here yet. We are still pioneers, and we have the chance to decide what that history will be.

It gets a little limiting to talk about who looks like a Fairbanksan and who doesn’t. I appreciate people who dress practically. But we are a city of 90,000 people, and any urban area both attracts and breeds variety. To say that impractically dressed women are out of place in Fairbanks is like saying that homosexuals are out of place in Salt Lake City: perhaps they’re in the minority, but the city is large enough to make a place for them.

I really like going to stores, performances, and public meetings, and seeing my fellow Fairbanksans not dressed to the nines (as conceived elsewhere), but dressed in bunny boots, parkas, and Carhartts makes me happy. It could be for show, but it says to me that my fellows are more concerned with practicality than with appearance — and I like that attitude. It says to me that Fairbanksans have the real business of living to get on with. But how can we acknowledge that a place and its people have a distinct character, without letting the character become too exclusive or oppressive?

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A few of my readers do not use a feed aggregator, but prefer to be notified by e-mail of new posts. I’ve also had a few requests for some kind of e-mail notification for new comments. So, voila! If you’ll look at the top box at right (“Subscribe by E-mail”), you’ll notice two links now: “Subscribe to Posts” and “Subscribe to Comments”. To my knowledge, each of these will send you an e-mail no more than once a day, so e-mail subscription won’t keep you apprised in real time. But, if you’d like to stay up on what others are saying on this blog, you now have another option.

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What do you dislike about having neighbors?

Last Friday after work, a friend and I were talking over beer about her plans to return to Fairbanks. (She currently lives in Haines.) When she lived in Fairbanks before, she lived completely off the grid in the remotest of places: she says that she often had to ride an ATV just to get from her cabin to her car on account of the mud, and her nearest neighbor was a mile away. Though her current apartment (house? cabin? some sort of rental) in Haines is surrounded by trees, she doesn’t like the location because she can hear her neighbor’s dogs.

This is something I can understand. Persistently noisy dogs — especially big ones, in large numbers — grate on my nerves, and it would drive me batty to have to listen to them at all hours. However, there must be some — probably plenty in the Borough — for whom the sound of a noisy dog team is music at whatever hour.

And these same people might be bothered by the occasional midnight whistle of the train, which can be heard from my house. Or by a pack of rowdy adolescents. Or by the passage of homeless people on their street. To me, those are all happy signs of human activity, of the energy and color of our community.

To me. But not to everyone.

The mind-set of “wanting to live on twenty acres” is foreign to me, and just understanding it is difficult enough. Yet it seems to be the mind-set of a good number of people in the Borough, and I’d like some help in understanding it.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the conventional wisdom in an episode of Sesame Street and what it had to say about zoning, population density, and the character of neighborhoods. Yet it doesn’t mean much if people just don’t want neighbors. And that is how many people seem.

My question, kind readers, is: what are some things you dislike about having neighbors? What are the drawbacks of living in a neighborhood?

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The cold snap is behind us for now, thank heavens, though surely we’ll get more in winters to come. Now seems like a fair time to look at the relationship between people’s civil right of peaceable assembly (yes, the one guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) and Interior Alaska’s weather — at least, it’s being painted as the weather.

According to a recent article in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (“Fairbanks air quality deemed unhealthy,” published February 8),

Air quality in the Fairbanks area has been classified as unhealthy today due to the recent cold snap, with the amount of small particles more than double what the federal government allows, according to the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

The most vulnerable people in the community—children, the elderly and people with heart or lung problems—should limit their activity and stay home, Miller said.

There was no mention in the article of where this unhealthy air comes from. There was some mention in the next day’s paper (“Cold causes air quality to dive and respiratory viruses to spike”), where the reporter wrote that, because of the thermal inversion, “people are breathing the exhaust from cars, power plants and wood stoves in greater quantity.”

What alarms me about this is not air pollution per se. Like most people, I think that air pollution is bad. How could it not be? The alarming thing to me is whom this affects first: “children, the elderly, and people with heart or lung problems.”

As a parent of small children — children whom I would like to have learn about their neighborhood and the community around them, children who need friends and play and human society — I get concerned when largely preventable circumstances cut my kids off from the rest of the world. And as the son of two people who will someday be old and infirm — people who need culture and society no less than my children — I get concerned when public health officials recommend isolating the elderly and keeping them out of the public sphere, due to environmental conditions that could have been prevented.

The News-Miner articles make scant mention of these conditions. If we’re to trust these articles, the unhealthy air was caused by the cold — and cold can’t be prevented, can it?

Of course, it wasn’t the cold that caused the presence of pollutants; only human activity produces “the exhaust from cars, power plants and wood stoves” mentioned in the February 9 article. The News-Miner kept the emphases of its stories far away from the human causes of air pollution, which is itself a cause for concern.

At this point, people might ask, “What would you have us do? Never go anywhere? Freeze in our homes?”

Well, no.

But notice that greater Fairbanks is laid out in a sprawling, low-density fashion: our residences, usually single-family houses, are put on large lots (often zoned to a minimum size); land is cheaper and less taxed when distant from the city center; and with few exceptions residential areas are kept far from commercial, office, light industrial, and civic areas. The net effect of this is that people can walk hardly anywhere they need to go, that they must drive — far and frequently.

Also, according to 2006 Census Bureau data, only a third of housing structures in the Borough consisted of two or more units. (Compare this with 2000 data from Manhattan county, where 99 percent of housing structures had two or more units, with more than 75 percent in the 20-units-or-more category.) This is relevant because when you share walls with others, you lose less heat to the outside. In clusters of apartments, condominiums, or row houses, heat is exchanged through the floors, ceilings, and walls — and thus is better conserved, so those homes require less heating.

Don’t get me wrong. I love building fires and sitting by wood stoves, and I am charmed by rustic living. Growing up in Anchorage, I loved the occasional drive to a friend’s cabin for a peaceful, low-tech weekend of cooking, hiking, and saunas. But the scale on which we do this in the Interior (a metropolitan area of some 90,000 people) and the frequency with which we drive (i.e., daily) to our private houses, whether in the city or in the woods, turn a quaint, idiosyncratic lifestyle choice into a near-obscenity.

The way we have planned the Borough — low-density housing, one-family homes, single-use zoning, large lots, cheap land, and the need to drive to get anywhere worth going — we have sown the seeds for our own citizens’ disenfranchisement. That makes a sooty, black smudge on Alaska’s Golden Heart.

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Vision Fairbanks core land use“Eighty percent of success is showing up.” –Woody Allen

Before us is a fantastic opportunity for place-making and community-building. We have a chance to make a city center that will be welcoming and convenient to pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders. And I’m excited to be in the thick of it.

Since the first public hearing in January, 2007, I’ve been participating in the Vision Fairbanks project. Co-sponsored by the Downtown Association of Fairbanks and the Fairbanks North Star Borough Community Planning Department, Vision Fairbanks is an effort to revitalize our ailing downtown: to attract major businesses and turn it back into the center of Interior Alaskan commerce it once was. Through zoning changes, tax incentives, building codes, and public investment (I admit, those don’t sound too sexy), downtown will be made again into a place people really want to be: a place where they want to go on dates, walk in the park, play with their kids, make their homes — and, of course, do their shopping.

I have an almost-final draft of the Downtown Plan that will be submitted to the City Council for endorsement and the Borough Assembly for approval, but I’d like to get the Downtown Association’s approval before posting it here. (It is theirs, in a sense: they have paid for and coordinated the work of putting it together.) The final version will be public very soon. For now, most of the details can be found in the PDFs from the final public workshop.

Now, to the point: I went Tuesday (two days ago) to the Downtown Association offices for a Vision Fairbanks meeting on development standards and design guidelines. We were given an overview of the downtown zoning as it stands, the proposed “zones” or project areas, the final draft of the plan that will be submitted to the Assembly, and the project areas that will require further detail work after the plan’s adoption. These project areas include:

  • The retail “hot spot” on Cushman, between 5th and 6th Avenues;
  • The Barnette and Chena office districts;
  • The civic forest / cultural anchor from Airport to 8th Avenue;
  • The “Chena celebration” of riverfront park;
  • The residential anchors; and
  • Circulation (autos, pedestrians, bicycles, and transit).

We were to divide into groups, each for a particular area of the plan. Our homework was then to become expert in that area. We needed to become knowledgeable enough about the plan that we could give direction to the professionals who will ultimately write the legal, binding development standards.

Now, besides Bernardo Hernandez of FNSB Community Planning, who led the meeting, and a member of the Downtown Association staff, there were only five of us. Which meant that everybody had something to do, and there would be no shirking.

I wound up, naturally, in the Circulation group. Although I’m excited about the whole plan and would feel privileged to work on any part of it, I am especially happy to be working on specifications that will make downtown a beautiful, convenient, and safe place for pedestrians. Truly, eighty percent of success is showing up.

Now, in an earlier post, I suggested that the solution to bad air quality downtown was

  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.

This is a more radical measure than is called for in the Vision Fairbanks plan. According to Crandall Arambula (the city planning consultants hired to develop the plan), nearly all U.S. streets that have been made pedestrian-only have been commercial failures, because they do not bring in enough people. Most shoppers must still drive to their destinations, and they prefer destinations where they can park their cars fairly close.

Okay, I’ll accept that for now. I do daydream about a car-free Fairbanks, where houses are clustered into little neighborhoods that are served by rail. But that dream is a long way off. For now, there’s the reality that some automotive traffic is necessary to make a vibrant civic center and an environment where pedestrians would want to live.

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This post continues Neighborhood design: a Sesame Street-based analysis (Part 2) (which continues Part 1).

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Plan of a carfree district, downloaded from http://www.carfree.com/district.html 4 February 2008Why would people be walking among their neighbors in the first place? I want to suggest a few reasons and to look at the conditions that would make those reasons possible. Keep in mind that one reason alone, if it generates enough foot traffic, is sufficient — though obviously there would be a combination of all types of uses, where they were possible.

For exercise. As for all purposes, this requires some safety for pedestrians. Neighborhood safety is a huge topic of its own, so for here I’ll just say: Pedestrians (or bicyclists, or joggers) should feel safe from cars; the built environment should be safe (e.g., few potholes); the streets should be well lit; and there should be enough eyes on the street to provide community “policing” (since fewer violent crimes will be committed under the watchful eyes of neighbors). Also, the neighborhood must be a generally pleasant enough — welcoming spaces, structures or activities worth looking at, no industrial noise or pollution — that people don’t give up on the neighborhood and choose someplace else for their exercise walk.

However, if you’re going out strictly for exercise, it may be difficult to meet people on the street “each day,” since you probably want to stay moving to keep that heart rate up. For this reason, even though I like many of the required neighborhood conditions, I give “for exercise” a low priority.

(That said, if you’re out walking in your neighborhood on a daily basis, you’re likely to be getting more exercise already than if you drive your car to the same destinations.)

For pleasure. Here I include walks taken for people-watching, for bird-watching, for enjoying the scenery, for taking in smells and sounds, and all other aesthetic, non-goal-driven reasons.

This steps up the requirements for neighborhood safety and beauty: while people may tolerate some ugliness or minor dangers while in pursuit of fitness, pleasure-walkers will put up with less, since the whole goal is to have an enjoyable walk. An uninviting neighborhood — whether it is dangerous, ugly, or just plain boring — will encourage people to take their strolls elsewhere. Indeed, the absence of pleasurable walks in a neighborhood will encourage people to reside elsewhere, perhaps somewhere far from neighborhoods. Witness the number of people who live on the periphery of Fairbanks in isolated, woodland settings. When so many of our city neighborhoods are monotonous (and some dangerous), who can blame them?

The question of what is pleasurable to people taking a stroll — what scenery, what activities, what smells and sounds — is partly subjective and would require more time to write about than I have available. But certain things are so universally despised or feared that we can safely say they would take the pleasure out of a walk: waste and refuse sites, prisons, and the smoke and noise of heavy industry, for example.

However, to suppose that most people have time for pleasure walks most days is preposterous. While this activity should be supported in a neighborhood, it can hardly be expected to generate much pedestrian traffic by itself.

For visiting. Perhaps it is the bias of a parent with small children, but I have a hard time imagining myself visiting a friend’s home every day, or even most days. Among my friends, home visiting is not too frequent — maybe as often as once a week — and something like a special occasion.

But suppose that it’s not a special occasion for most people, that “the people in your neighborhood” do make social calls on friends or relatives roughly every day. That means that every person who goes visiting has either (a) one very important person whom he or she sees every day, or (b) a great concentration in the neighborhood of many friends or acquaintances.

I think it’s unlikely that most people have one special person — whether a paramour, an ailing relative, or a best friend — whom they visit on a daily basis. Some, yes, but not most. If visits to your friends’ homes are an everyday occurrence, then you probably have a significant number of friends in your neighborhood. That implies a high population concentration, unless you live in an “intentional community” that consists solely of people you like.

For business. “Business” doesn’t mean just making money; it can be just about anything. It includes all kinds of establishments for the products and services that an average person might need on an average day: grocery stores, barbershops and salons, hardware stores, clothiers, bicycle repair shops, music stores, electronics stores, attorneys, doctors, counselors, pharmacies, cafés, restaurants, churches, office supply stores, sporting goods stores, news stands, branch libraries, bookstores, and schools.

Some of these goods and services are needed more routinely than others: Certainly we can imagine needing groceries frequently, and people hit cafés and restaurants plenty often when they’re close. Most kids go to school five days a week. As for the other destinations, they may not be everyday for everybody, but among a large enough population they have a steady supply of daily visitors — and most people, on a near-daily basis, will use at least one.

What is required for this is that the businesses also be within walking distance of people’s homes — say, five minutes, or ten on the outside. (Again, how far are you willing to walk regularly when it’s twenty below?) Under current ordinance in most places, this is effectively illegal: areas of town are “zoned” into residential, civic, and commercial. With rare exceptions, the uses may not mix, which means that most people cannot walk (except at impractical length) to get a haircut, check out a book, or even buy a roll of toilet paper.

For people to be able to go about their business on foot, neighborhoods need what is called mixed-use zoning: all commercial and civic uses that are compatible with neighborhood living (this rules out heavy industry) are allowed to mix in the same neighborhoods, on the same blocks, and even in the same buildings as people’s homes. Ideally, the uses that generate the greatest pedestrian traffic — retail, mostly, with some high-use commercial and civic, like bank and library branches — are located at street level, making the street an attractive place to be.

What’s more, businesses must be within walking distances not only of some homes, but of enough homes to support those businesses financially without attracting too much automobile traffic — since traffic will intimidate pedestrians and diminish the public sphere. If businesses’ customers come from too far away, then “the people that you meet each day” may never be the same from day to day, and knowing your neighbors becomes more difficult.

This seems like the surest way of ensuring regular foot traffic, where people may meet their neighbors “each day.” Not everyone takes regular walks for exercise, visiting, or pleasure. But everyone runs errands; everyone has business to do. The surest way to bring neighbors together often is to bring that business into the neighborhood.

***

So, to summarize:

  • If you have a neighborhood, you have neighbors. There may be an upper limit to the number, but there is certainly a lower limit. “Critical mass” is important.
  • To run into each other regularly, neighbors must live within walking distance either of each other or of the places they frequent. This means that the neighborhood is small: walking distance from center to edge.
  • All kinds of land uses, especially the high-traffic commercial and civic, should be encouraged to mix with the residential, and not be zoned separately, outside of walking distance.
  • Residences should be planned densely enough to support neighborhood businesses. This means that very few buildings in an ideal neighborhood, if any, should be zoned “single-family residential”. Property lots should be small.

***

Am I really saying that Sesame Street was this deep? that the Children’s Television Workshop had a civic agenda that included neighborhood planning? that Bob and the Muppets were trying to convey something about zoning ordinances and desirable population densities?

Of course not.

Sesame Street has never dealt in Deep Thinking or in Great Truths. Nor has it worked by guile. It has always dealt in plain and obvious truths — things like, “You should help friends in need,” or “Garbage makes the streets ugly,” or “Don’t talk too loud at the movies.”

I think that this is the strength of appealing to Sesame Street for a model of ideal neighborhoods: their definition of “the people in your neighborhood” is so simple and so obvious that nearly every adult hearing it would nod along, saying, “Sure, of course that’s what neighborhoods are like.” It appeals to the mental models so many of us have of authentic neighborhood life.

So, enjoy your neighbors. I wish you luck in meeting them as you walk down the street each day.

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