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Archive for January, 2009

I’ve just finished a book that leaves me troubled over the future of civic engagement in the United States — and puzzled over whether it’s even worth worrying about.

Cover for "The Big Sort" by Bill Bishop Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort: How the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008) has one central thesis: since the mid-1970s, Americans have been voluntarily sorting themselves, physically and socially, into like-minded communities.  Members of these communities have an increasingly difficult time reaching any consensus or common understanding with those of different opinion, and it has rendered our politics ever more rancorous and ineffective.

Exhibit “A” for Bishop is a pair of electoral maps, from 1976 and 2004, that break down the presidential popular votes for those years by county.  But, instead of two categories (Republican and Democrat), he uses three: (1) Republican landslide victory (20 or more percentage points), (2) Democratic landslide victory, and (3) competitive race (within 20 points).

On a national level, the popular vote was very evenly split in both elections.  But the big difference is that, in 1976, the United States was full of competitive counties.  In 2004, competitive counties were few and far between: almost every county was a place where the electorate was overwhelmingly of one opinion or another.

Not only that, but 2004 saw far fewer places with Democratic landslides than with Republican landslides.  Since the races were close on a national level, that means that those few places with Democratic landslides had a tremendous concentration of population.  Democrats, largely, have moved to the cities, while Republicans have moved to the suburbs, exurbs, and farmland.  (The pattern is ubiquitous, but not universal: in some places, Democrats prefer the suburbs.)

Bishop finds that we have segregated ourselves not only by counties, but by cities and even by neighborhoods.  And not only by place, but by churches and other civic organizations.  If we are, say, Methodists, we no longer simply attend our local Methodist church; instead, we drive to the gay-friendly (or gun-friendly) Methodist church across town, where we feel at home because the people are just like us.  Rather than belong to broad-based civic groups like the Loyal Order of Moose, we are far more likely to join issue-specific groups like the NRA or the ACLU — where we can find easy consensus and be uncompromising in our goals.

One positive side of this is that, among our groups of sameness, we’re much better able to agree on goals and work together to meet them.  With such a high degree of comfort, we’re able to make more strong connections with people.  The down side of this, of course, is that so many of the decisions our society has to make — on a city, county, state, or national level — involve working with groups not like us, and, if “they” are just as polarized and uncompromising on their principles as “we” are, then the lot of us will have not only a hard time agreeing on what actions to take, but a hard time just agreeing on what the basic issues are.

As Bishop points out, we usually don’t cluster ourselves this way out of some conscious desire to eliminate difference from our lives.  We do it because the community we’re considering moving to just “feels right” — maybe we like the wide, open spaces between people’s houses, or the bustle of activity in the downtown, or the availability of public transit, or the friendly people we meet.  It just turns out that, when we select a place for a good “feel”, we’re unconsciously selecting it for its politics.

I don’t know what to think about this.  On one hand, it saddens me, because it signals a collapse in the potential of civic discourse.  It heralds the extinction of a sense of the common good.  And that means, ultimately, a loss of cohesion in our states and in our country.

On the other hand, I want to live in a community where buses and light rail are valued, where people appreciate public space and civic art, and the vision of the good life includes meeting your neighbors regularly on the street.  As much as I love Fairbanks, I get tired of feeling like some kind of pervert for thinking private goods should carry a high premium when they infringe on public goods.  I get tired of the emotional struggle: God, do I have to tell these people again why the Steese-Johansen shopping complex is a civic monstrosity? I yearn to go someplace where they’ve already come around, where it’s easy — don’t we all?

Well, since Americans are so mobile, most of us really have that chance.  And what should stop us?  The sense of some abstract “greater good”?  That seems like a 300-million-player game of the prisoner’s dilemma: Maybe society will be better off if we all stay put and work out our differences, but, since everybody else is relocating, wouldn’t I be a sucker not to do the same?

Against the backdrop of mass migration and communities of increasing like-mindedness, what possible argument could you make to keep people where they are?  Why should they?

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This post continues “San Francisco reflections (part one)“.


San Francisco from Telegraph Hill, 26 Dec. 2008

San Francisco from Telegraph Hill, 26 Dec. 2008

I’d like to show a few of my photos of San Francisco, and to discuss some relevant points about city planning and public spaces.

Perhaps the first thing is a peculiar attitude among many Fairbanksans: that living in close proximity to others is somehow undignified.  I say: Oh, nonsense.  It is only undignified if your neighbors are brutish and rude, or if your self-image includes a large portion of misanthropy.

The population density of San Francisco (city only) is about 17,000 per square mile — about 17 times the density in the city of Fairbanks and 1,400 times the density of the Fairbanks North Star Borough.  You can tell me that San Francisco has a tremendous homelessness problem, or that the cost of living is prohibitive for the middle class, or that its public schools stink.  But you can’t tell me that the people who can live there are are suffering some indignity by simple virtue of having a lot of neighbors — not when they enjoy so much culture and civic beauty.

Grocery stores don't have to be in imposing boxes

Grocery stores don't have to be in imposing boxes

Do you see the grocery store in this picture?  No?  There is a Safeway on the far corner (center of the photograph), surrounded by arcades and topped by apartments.  It’s hard to see from a distance or when passing in a car, since it’s built on a human scale, for pedestrians to notice.

A grocery store — even a large, national chain — need not be an ugly, industrial box.  I suspect that San Franciscans wouldn’t stand for such a structure in their city.  It doesn’t even have to provide a parking lot, as long as it’s located within walking distance of enough residences to support it.

I have to admit, the arcades are not as nice as I wanted to imagine them: everything in there looks dark and hidden.  This troubles me, since arcades are part of the Vision Fairbanks plan.

San Francisco alley near the Embarcadero

Alleys can be beautiful...

I saw a number of surprisingly attractive alleys in the city.  They weren’t wide enough to park a car in, nor did they house dumpsters or garbage cans.  But they were made functional and beautiful by a people for whom space was at a premium.

...and functional

...and functional

(This is not to say that every place I saw in San Francisco was either functional or beautiful.  Not surprisingly, the only empty lots I saw — all ugly — were in an economically depressed area of town, as we approached the Tenderloin.  What was the chain of cause and effect?  Is it that the less privileged care less about the blight of ugly empty lots and parking lots?  Surely that’s part of it: if you can barely pay the rent, you may not have the leisure to keep up with the affairs of your local planning board.  Property owners and land speculators know this, which is why they won’t try to fob something ugly off on a well-to-do neighborhood.  At the same time, putting too many empty lots or parking lots on a block is the pedestrian kiss of death: with no attractions at street level, people stop their meanders and turn around.  Businesses have a hard time thriving with reduced pedestrian traffic, so they fail or downgrade.  Any extra safety that was gained by having many eyes on the street is lost.  As the area becomes less attractive, property values go down, and the only people who can afford to live there are the poor.)

Colorful houses on Telegraph Hill

Colorful houses on Telegraph Hill

One aspect of beautiful cities is their frequent use of vibrant color.  While we enjoyed more daylight hours than we’d have seen in Alaska, San Francisco still has a reputation for foggy, gray weather.  In that kind of environment, why in heaven’s name would you want your buildings to blend right in?

Fairbanks spends a great deal of the year in twilight or in darkness.  To make our buildings gray — as dignified or as re-sellably neutral as owners may consider it — only makes our built environment bleaker.  I remember being excited when the old Mary Lee Davis house (at 5th and Cowles) was being restored — then being heartbroken when the owners decided to cover up the former lively green with a burgundy-tinted gray.

San Francisco City Hall

San Francisco City Hall

San Francisco Public Library

San Francisco Public Library

San Francisco did sport too much gray in one important place: the civic center.  As majestic and beautiful as City Hall is, it’s another gray building in a sea of gray buildings — the Supreme Court building, the Civic Auditorium, the Asian Art Museum, and others too dignified to rise above their native fog.

Fire station on Stockton at Greenwich

Fire station on Stockton at Greenwich

A couple of things are noteworthy about the fire truck and fire station shown here (SFPD Engine Co. 28).  The first is the size and placement of the station.  The building is not large, and it fits in pretty nicely with its surroundings.  I take from this that fire stations do not have to be large, free-standing buildings.  They do not need their own parking lots.  They can be integrated parts of their neighborhoods.  Contrast this with the new fire station in downtown Fairbanks (which, admittedly, is the headquarters).

The other thing I notice is the size of the truck.  That thing is small.  One of the arguments you’ll sometimes hear against narrow streets (which are advocated for both safety and aesthetics) is that fire trucks need room to turn around.  Well, if the trucks are made shorter, that argument vaporizes.

One explanation I’ve heard for long fire trucks is that they need to be long to accommodate their crews — and that the crew size is dictated by the fire fighters’ union.  There are probably less-sinister considerations I’m not aware of that inform our local fire truck length.  If you know what they are, please tell.

Union Square

Union Square

Last, here is Union Square, one of San Francisco’s many public gathering spaces.  By Fairbanks standards, this place is crowded — and it’s lively.  I think this is what we want to shoot for in the new park square designated in Vision Fairbanks.

One catch may be the weather.  It was about 50 degrees outside that day.  Fairbanks enjoys an average high temperature of at least 50 from about April 20 to September 20 — five months.  However, our low temperature is at freezing for a little less than that: May 10 to September 20.  Those are absolutely mild temperatures for us — but what to do with the space the other seven months?  I’m confident that it could be seasonally re-purposed — you may notice people ice skating in the background — but we’d have to have something like a hot dog stand or a hot chocolate vendor to keep people happy in the colder months.

San Francisco has plenty of imperfections, a few of which I’ve hinted at here.  But it shows me — I hope it shows you — that cities don’t have to be ugly or undignified.  They can be beautiful, rich, fulfilling places.  Those of us who who earn our living from the city shouldn’t flee it, but embrace it.  San Francisco points the way.

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View down a hill near downtown San Francisco, December 26, 2008

View down a hill near downtown San Francisco, December 26, 2008

I just wrapped up a vacation to San Francisco, where a friend from high school joined me to attend another friend’s wedding. We arranged to have an extra day on either side, so we could do a little vacationing in the city.  Our approach to sightseeing highlights two contrasting approaches to tourism — and to city planning.

One approach might be called “destination based”.  It assumes that, within a city, there are certain, distinct sites you want to see, or particular activities you want to do.  For example, you might want to:

  • See the San Francisco Opera’s production of La Bohème;
  • Visit the Exploratorium (a hands-on science museum);
  • Climb the twisting Lombard Street;
  • Take a boat over for a tour of Alcatraz; or
  • Look at the Asian Art Museum.

In the extreme form of this approach, all that matters is that the particular destinations get visited and the planned activities get done.  The in-between things — the trips from one activity to the next, and the spaces one must pass through to reach them — are incidental and irrelevant.

My friend and I took a contrasting approach, which we might call “place based”.  This approach assumes not only that the spaces between activities are relevant, but that they are actually the whole point of going to a place.  If you take a place-based approach, you are more interested in how the neighborhoods look, how the locals live, and what the “feel” is of a place.

Now, we did have a short list of things to do — eat some Italian food in North Beach, eat some dim sum in Chinatown, and look at the public library — but, with three full days in the Bay area, that left a lot of time in between.  And that was just perfect, because all we really wanted to do was walk around San Francisco: to see how people were dressed, to enjoy the architecture and public art, and to admire the almost obscenely rich variety of goods and services available.  (After Sunday’s dim sum breakfast, we passed a bookstore — sadly, closed — devoted to nothing but architecture.  I peered in the window, and it was huge.)

It wasn’t just our choice in goals that made this possible.  The places we visited — downtown, Chinatown, North Beach, the Tenderloin, and Nob Hill — were all worth visiting, independently of our particular goals.  They had their own distinct character, and they were all destination rich: that is, while they weren’t equally attractive, they offered plenty of reasons for people to be there.

In my mind, this is characteristic of good cities.  People want to be there — not just at their destinations, but in the spaces themselves.  This can only happen if the spaces are both useful and interesting.

Useful spaces are those that meet a variety of human needs: eating, shopping, meeting, socializing, playing, and residing.  They are robust: they don’t lose their utility after one need is met, but continue offering opportunities.

In a way, it’s their utility that lets them be interesting.  For a place to develop its own character, it needs a measure of insularity, just as a person needs a measure of solitude to develop his or her own character.  But this can only happen where a variety of life’s needs are met.  Otherwise, people flee their own communities and don’t pay them enough attention.  (My guess is that this is why Fairbanks is so much more interesting a place to live than Eagle River: when you’re a suburb of Anchorage, you don’t have to develop as many of your own industries, house your own jobs, or sustain your own culture.)

San Francisco got this way partly through historical accident: most of the city was built before private car ownership was the norm (the Presidio was founded about the time of the American Revolution), so people took it for granted that they’d rather live near their jobs, grocers, and other life business.

Fairbanks, founded early in the 20th century, did not have that advantage.  Most of the infrastructure of modern-day Fairbanks (and the Borough) was built after the advent of private automobiles.  We’ve managed to build it as though we were happy to drive everywhere we needed to go and the spaces in between meant nothing.  (Witness the Johansen Expressway.)  We have built a “destination based” town, with only a few pockets of places really worth spending time.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Of our Assembly and our city planners, we can demand a change from places only worth fleeing to places worth being.  But we must first share the value that not only are particular destinations worthwhile, but places themselves have value and should be nurtured.

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