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Archive for the ‘Neighborhoods’ Category

Here’s a nice way to measure your neighborhood: Do you have ten interesting places?

I’ve just begun The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-it-Yourself Guide to Placemaking by Jay Walljasper — a concise and uplifting guide to making a neighborhood not only worth living in, but worth envying.  (I have added it to my “Further reading” page.)  Like me, Walljasper envisions a neighborhood as more than a geographic region: it is a place for society, commerce, and beauty.  It is a place where people have regular business and see each other often.  It is “owned” by the locals.

In the introduction, he suggests an exercise in “zooming in” (my words).  First, consider your region: write down the ten most important places you go, places you recommend to visitors.  Then, zooming in, consider your city, and write down the ten most important places there — like a park or a neighborhood.  Then,

“Zoom in and think about one of these places and try to write down the smaller places that make up the place.  For example, if you named the main street as an important place, whate are the little places on that street where you enjoy spending time?  You can shop there, of course, but if your main street is truly a good place, you can also sit outside on a bench and talk to your neighbors, get a cup of coffee nearby, and enjoy the passing scene.” (p. 4)

Over lunch, I decided to try this with my own neighborhood.  What were the ten most interesting places within walking distance of my house?

First, a note about the above question.  I stand firmly by the assertion that a neighborhood’s boundaries are limited by walking distance: you may be able to walk farther than the edge of your neighborhood, but if a place is too far to walk it’s not in your neighborhood.  Also, “walking distance” is a fuzzy idea.  Researchers on pedestrian behavior have found that most people are happy to walk places within five minutes; farther than that and they start choosing to drive, postpone their trip, or not go at all.  Obviously, it reflects average, aggregate behavior, not the behavior of every individual.  If we adhere strictly to this, a neighborhood (as a place you walk) will be no larger than a circle one half-mile in diameter: five minutes from center to edge.  However, I’m willing to stretch this — if for no reason other than that Fairbanks is mostly not built that way, and I should cut us a little slack.

So, what were the most interesting places within walking distance of my house?  I could think of only five:

neighborhood_shot

Interesting places (green, yellow) near my house (in the yellow oval). Original image courtesy of Google Maps.

  • Noel Wien Library
  • Seoul Gate (Korean restaurant)
  • Arctic Bowl (Bowling alley)
  • Chena River, especially the waterfront by Lathrop Street
  • Denali Elementary School (where my kids enjoy the playground)

Maybe I could go a little farther and include Gambardella’s or McCafferty’s, maybe the fountain downtown.  My wife suggests Chartreuse, a new clothing store at First and Wickersham.  But those all feel a little out of “my turf” — I don’t feel the same sense of ownership of them and of the streets around them.

In the image at right, note that where I live — near this peculiar triangle bounded by 6th, 8th, and Bonnifield — is about as far as it’s possible to get from all those destinations yet still be roughly “between” them.  And the nearest is an eight-minute walk away (unless you count the Chena River, whose nearest point is only five minutes’ walk).

Eight minutes!  I once looked at a Census map and discovered that my neighborhood was one of the most densely populated in the Fairbanks area.  Why should anybody living in a densely populated neighborhood have to walk eight minutes to reach the nearest point of interest — especially when most people won’t leave their houses on foot for anything over five minutes away?  People need reasons to walk: the pleasure of fresh air is not enough.  If we have so few reasons to walk around our neighborhood, how are we going to meet our neighbors? and how are we to become neighborly?

So, Fairbanksans: tell me about your neighborhoods.  Can you walk to ten interesting places?  And what are they?

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I may be heading to some kind of Pedestrian Hell: I have enrolled my daughter, a first-grader-to-be, in a charter school.

Actually, The Watershed School, which opens this fall, has a component that should make pedestrian-types long to send their kids there: it focuses on “place-based” education, in which students focus on their local communities to start with, then move outward.  That is, history, literature, civics, and the sciences will be taught with a Fairbanks focus, and after that grounding they will include studies of other places.  With the school only four or five blocks from the Chena River, the students will get to study a lot of river ecology.  They’ll get to participate in their school’s own landscaping and the upkeep of the land, including the maintenance of a school garden.  While the school will be open on the School District’s calendar, the day-to-day schedule will be structured around local events like the Yukon Quest or the Festival of Native Arts.  Students will spend a great deal of time outdoors, and they’ll meet more than twice the School District’s physical education requirement.

As someone who considers local community participation to be one of the highest goods, I’m really excited about the possibilities of The Watershed School.  (And, as a parent of a girl who often doesn’t like changes in routine, I’m a little surprised that my daughter is excited about it, too.)  However…

Some readers may remember my concern, about a year ago, over another charter school, Chinook: that the location was ugly and distant, and that (in part because of the distance) the student body was selected for privilege and homogeneity.

The Watershed School suffers some of the same problems.  It will be located off Dale Road, near the airport.  While not hideous the way Chinook’s bleak, industrial surroundings are, it seems neither surrounded by the idyllic wilderness nor in the thick of civilization.  Since it’s not a neighborhood school, there is no school bus to take kids there — but, worse than that, there is effectively no public bus, either.  While the Yellow Line goes within a few blocks, the schedules of the bus and the school are incompatible.  Thus it’s a school for children whose parents have the money and the time to drive them to and from school.

They will not provide the School District’s hot lunches, so parents will have to pack lunches for their children.  For our family, providing nutritious lunches is no problem.  However, this puts a serious hardship on the nearly 30 percent of students in the school district who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and breakfasts.  (Estimate based on 2006-07 data from the Common Core of Data at the National Center for Educational Statistics.)  So our daughter will not be rubbing elbows on a daily basis with Fairbanks’s less fortunate, as she does at her neighborhood kindergarten.

My wife asked — maybe as a devil’s advocate — “Why is it important that our daughter go to school with poor people?”  Of course, it isn’t, in itself.  I’m not striving for some environment that represents all facets of our population equally; that’s nothing more than tokenism.  However, I feel a little guilty about taking advantage of a supposedly public service that in fact (though not by intent) discriminates against an already disadvantaged group.

Perhaps I should be happy because it’s more likely my daughter will make good friends from among the students of Watershed.  Since the families whose children go there all share an ideological bent — we think place-based education is a good thing — our children will probably have more in common.  Of course, there’s the sinister twist to that, as well: in time, she may find herself less able to make friends with (or simply interact with) people who are different from her.  I myself went to an alternative high school, founded by hippies and attended by freaks and nerds of various stripes.  While I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world, I may have suffered in my ability to get along and make friends with most people.

Of course, the perfect solution for our family would be a place-based school in our neighborhood (within walking distance) and serving the neighborhood families equally.  But that’s not what we’re offered.  It’s fine to be an idealist, but you’re sometimes given competing ideals to choose from.  This is the best path we can walk — or drive — for now.

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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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Just a week ago, I got my first radio interview: I talked for 20 minutes with Marielle Smith, the producer of Energy-Wise.  The short segment played Monday morning on Newsradio 970 KFBX (and perhaps the other local Clear Channel stations).  We covered:

  • Our denied pedestrian right;
  • The social aspects of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and cities;
  • The need for and convenience of destination-rich, mixed-use neighborhoods;
  • The benefits and challenges of bus ridership in Fairbanks;
  • Problems with, and suggestions for, Fairbanks’s city planning; and
  • Reasons to prefer light rail to buses.

The interview is broken up into Part 1 and Part 2.  If those links don’t work, go to KFBX’s podcasts page and scroll down to Energy-Wise, episode 13.

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Good news, city-dwelling neighborhood-lovers!

Weed & Seed is organizing a fall Clean-Up Day, next Saturday, Sepetmber 13.  This is a great chance to make our neighborhoods look great before the snow falls.

According to their Fall newsletter (pdf, about 1.45 MB):

Weed & Seed partners are hosting a Gathering of Neighbors for the first annual Community-wide Fall Cleanup Day. Join us between 11am and 2pm at First and Barnette Street and we will provide coffee and cleanup supplies.

Weed & Seed neighbors will round-up volunteers, trucks and rakes to help tackle the clean up before the snow falls this winter. If you need help, call us. If you can help others, join us. For
further information call 322-8516.

There is also a planning meeting for the clean-up day on Wednesday, September 10th, 1:30 p.m., at the Salvation Army building at 10th and Lathrop (across 10th from Denali Elementary School).

According to the website of our local United Way,

Weed and Seed, a community-based strategy sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), is an innovative, comprehensive multiagency approach to law enforcement, crime prevention, and community revitalization. The strategy involves a two-pronged approach: law enforcement agencies and prosecutors cooperate in “weeding out” violent criminals and drug abusers, and public agencies and community-based private organizations collaborate to “seed” much-needed human services, including prevention, intervention, treatment, and neighborhood restoration programs. A community-oriented policing component bridges the weeding and seeding elements.

The four Weed & Seed Strategies are implemented via four working subcommittees, plus some special project teams. Approximately 100 people and 30 partners comprise the working groups. These subcommittees and teams meet regularly and are eager to have your involvement.

Involved community residents and businesses are key to this program’s success. To learn more or to volunteer, Cathy Persinger at weedseed@ak.net or 322-8516. For Law Enforcement, Officer Alana Malloy at ajmalloy@ci.fairbanks.ak.us or 450-6469.

The Weed & Seed area is bounded by 17th Avenue on the South, the Chena River on the North, Barnette Street on the East, and Wilbur Street on the West — which, according to the 2000 U.S. Census (the latest for which 100% block-level data is available), makes it one of the most densely populated areas in the Borough.

As I’ve said before, having more people outside and walking around their neighborhoods can only benefit civic life: our working together as neighbors and citizens absolutely depends on our rubbing elbows with each other and with those different from us.  And one of the prerequisites for lively pedestrian activity is that the streets and other public spaces be clean, comfortable, and inviting.

On Cleanup Day, we have a chance (although this is only one of many) to make our neighborhoods good places — not just for driving through and retreating to our houses, but for people.  So, get out next Saturday (Sept. 13) and make your neighborhoods look great!

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I reported a week and a half ago that I’d be giving a workshop at the fourth annual Clucking Blossom festival, on the future of city planning and neighborhoods in Fairbanks after $10-per-gallon gasoline. I’m happy to report that the workshop was well attended, and that my audience gave lots of participation.

Following is a rough outline of the workshop. While I did elicit contributions from those attending, I shouldn’t pretend that this outline represents a major collaborative endeavor. The bulleted lists are where participants’ ideas show most; otherwise, most of the ideas that follow are mine.

—————

INTRODUCTION

In my blog, I’m reluctant to take the “stop driving because it’s economically unsustainable” tack or the “stop driving because it’s hurting the earth” tack, since there are so many other good reasons to pursue walkable cities and public transit. But there’s a sustainability focus at this year’s Clucking Blossom workshops, so I’m using that as my angle here.

Just yesterday, a fellow cyclist and I were waiting at a crosswalk, bemoaning the aches that come from starting riding after a winter (or longer) of inactivity. She said, “At four dollars a gallon, I can live with a sore butt.” She’s just one of many people who are now finding it difficult to live an auto-intensive lifestyle.

Gasoline prices are almost $4 a gallon now, and there’s no reason to expect them to go down. I’ve heard speculation that petroleum will hit $200 a barrel by the end of summer. Soon, driving cars will not be viable for most people. Here we’ll address: How will we have to live, if we want Fairbanks to continue as a city? (Of course, it could devolve into survivalist anarchy, but I’m hoping to keep an outpost of civilization in the Interior.) We want to start a planning document that could ultimately be a tool for the Borough Planning Department or the Assembly.

Bear in mind, I’m not proposing that there will be NO cars in the future, just that our day-to-day use of them will be much diminished. Perhaps most people will not even own cars. There is no reason we need to own cars and other vehicles if we only use them occasionally. There are conventional car rental businesses in most cities. In some larger cities, there are agencies scattered about town that rent cars for very short times — measured in hours. (“Zipcars” is one such business.) Certainly heavy utility vehicles can be rented. Perhaps pickup trucks are rentable in Fairbanks — if not now, they surely could be.

But since car ownership, or car use for day-to-day needs, is becoming unaffordable for many, we need to redesign our cities and neighborhoods to allow for people to meet their daily needs on foot. (I’ve written about the idea of “walking distance” elsewhere. It means, no farther than you’re willing to regularly walk at twenty below.)

HOW WE GOT IN THIS MESS

Here are three cycles of expanding car use. In fact, they work concurrently, but they’re easier to understand if we can tease them apart. These are covered with greater detail in David Engwicht’s book Street Reclaiming (See Further reading).

  1. We start with walkable, pedestrian-friendly streets and neighborhoods.
  2. Cars are introduced. At first, they are a novelty and add interest to the street. Naturally, more people want their “convenience”.
  3. Because the streets are more filled with cars, it feels less safe to walk on the street.
  4. For their own safety, former walkers now drive.
  5. Because the streets are more filled with cars, it feels less safe to walk on the street. Et cetera.

Here’s another:

  1. We start with walkable, pedestrian-friendly streets and neighborhoods.
  2. As more cars are introduced, more space is required to move and house them: wider streets and roads, parking lots, driveways, garages, etc. Engwicht says (and I don’t know where this figure comes from) that cars require 70 times the land that pedestrians do.
  3. Now towns must be planned more spread out: there must be wider streets and roads, garages, parking lots, et cetera. This pushes every destination farther from every other destination.
  4. Because of the increased distance people must traverse, more buy cars.

And the last cycle is my favorite. Engwicht says that culture is made up of “exchanges” — that is, social exchanges, cultural exchanges, economic exchanges, romantic exchanges, and such. The genius of cities is that they concentrate those exchanges so that we may have them easily, often without planning or thinking about them. Cities are best thought of as “exchange spaces”.

  1. In the pedestrian-scaled city, unplanned, convenient exchanges abound. Acquaintances bump into each other on the street; people stop at the corner grocery on their way home from work; friends meet at the local tavern with no advance planning.
  2. As people and destinations grow farther apart from each other, people’s chances for unplanned exchanges diminish.
  3. To make up for the lost unplanned exchanges, people need to increase their number of planned exchanges — and to reach these, they must drive.
  4. The time spent driving and the time spent at places that serve only one purpose reduces the time people have available for unplanned exchanges. (How often do you run into friends while driving?)
  5. To make up for the lost unplanned exchanges, people drive more.

I think many people actually view the reduction in unplanned exchanges as a virtue. It is rational: every trip serves only the purposes designed by the traveler. You must only spend time in those places, and with those people, that you choose. But for all its rationality, such a life is inefficient.

FUNCTIONS OF CARS

Just what do we do with cars, that we may need to make available to pedestrians? (Some on this list were mine; others were from participants.)

  • Commute to work
  • Buy groceries
  • Make supply purchases
  • See friends
  • Go to school
  • Go to meetings or other civic participation
  • Take kids to school, soccer practice, violin lessons, etc.
  • Attend church
  • Cultural events
  • Have dinner with friends
  • Quiet, leisure driving
  • Put the baby to sleep
  • Subsistence: hunting and fishing
  • Road trips / travel
  • Outdoor recreation (camping, skiing, etc.)

Most participants seemed to agree that most of these things were fully compatible with dignified residential living. (I have put the ones that seemed incompatible, or that will certainly require car use, at the bottom, starting with “Quiet, leisure driving”.) Leisure driving itself might have to be curtailed just because of the price of gas, but there’s no reason neighborhoods couldn’t offer places for quiet, leisurely walks. Somebody pointed out that, while subsistence hunting and fishing required cars for the transport of guns and game, it might be possible to integrate horticulture or small-scale agriculture within the city. (Large-scale agriculture requires too much land and needs to be on the periphery.)

CHALLENGES OF INTEGRATING THESE USES INTO THE CITY

I was going to lead people to this, but somebody hit it straight away: the biggest challenge to having all these in our neighborhoods is population density. Without enough children near a school, it’s not viable to maintain the building. The population of your neighborhood may not be enough to allow you to make many friends — and you can’t expect all your friends to simply move into your neighborhood. Without a sufficient customer base, a business will fail.

So what are some changes in ordinance that will allow us to live closer to each other and to the services we need? Alternately: What now encourages sprawling development and auto-intensive living, and how do we change that?

  • Zoning. Currently an area might be zoned for “single-family” use. We’ll need to change this, to allow denser residential living and to allow businesses, schools, banks, hair salons, grocery stores, and light (not heavy) industry to mix with houses and apartments.
  • Zoning vertically, not just horizontally. Horizontal zoning spreads people and their needs farther from each other. The land-use mix should encourage ground floors to be inhabited by businesses (and other agencies) that are useful to people’s day-to-day life. Retail and commercial should ideally be on the ground floor, offices on the second floor, and apartments (or condominiums) on the third and fourth floors.
  • A tax framework that supports local agriculture. (I don’t remember why this came up, though it seems like a good idea.)
  • Protection of local businesses. Outside businesses typically build stores large enough to draw people away from neighborhood businesses, which are exactly what we want. Also, they’re parking-intensive, which means land-intensive, which means they push people farther from each other.
  • Distribution of land uses: agriculture, since it’s land-intensive, should not be mixed within the city. Current zoning puts rural uses at odd places within the city.
  • Infill, rather than greenfield development, should be encouraged. (Perhaps with tax incentives.) This ties in with setbacks and lot lines, below.
  • The cost of services in the city should be brought down. Currently, people perceive that city services are expensive and that it’s cheaper to live outside.
  • Required setbacks and lot lines. That is, “Your house has to be 20 feet from the street and ten feet from the neighboring property line” and such. I call these “mandatory lawn laws”, since they require us to have mostly unused land that most people don’t care to maintain. It forces development outward. Instead, this land could be inhabited.
  • Tax land rather than buildings. Current practice of taxing land at a rate far less than buildings encourages less useful building and more unused land. Better to encourage people to build densely and build profitably. (I’ve written more on that here.) There’s no reason to think that we’d have to tax every use at the same rate: agriculture is a necessarily land-intensive activity that we might want to support with a lower tax rate.

“WHAT IF I LIKE WHERE I LIVE?”

Often, once you start talking about mixing land uses and encouraging denser living, people think either (a) they’re going to have to move downtown, or (b) their town has to become like Manhattan. Neither is the case. There is no reason to think that the center of the city is the only place for development or the best place for neighborhoods.

To me, it’s obvious that most people will have to live closer to each other and to their day-to-day services. But these neighborhoods can occur some distance from each other. Some will have the full range of services you expect in a city of 90,000; others may enjoy a more spartan way of life. It seems fully possible that a group of people who wish to farm (or otherwise live by leaning a little less on civilization) could live fairly near each other, sharing their produce and other products, and making a supply run to the city only once a week with a shared car.

The solution I’m excited about is transit-centered. One of the attractions of my house is that it’s only three minutes’ walk from the nearest bus stop, and only 15 minutes from the transit station. Our future neighborhoods could be centered on transit stops; my special favorite solution is light rail. It offers a permanence that change bus routes do not. Those who live near a train stop know that public transportation will be within walking distance for the forseeable future. And businesses that locate near train stops know they’ll have a guaranteed customer base getting off the trains and seeing their stores several times an hour. Light-rail stops don’t have to be over-near each other, so there could even be parkland somewhere between them, and they would make great nuclei for neighborhoods.

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Fairbanks Street | Google MapsI recently visited a friend on Fairbanks Street, in an area I haven’t regarded too highly in the past. I discovered some of its hidden virtues that make it one of Fairbanks’s pockets of pedestrian-friendliness.

This is something I think about often: What will we do when gasoline becomes so horrendously expensive that it’s no longer practical to own a car? (In truth, I think our society has long passed that point, but we have so much psychologically invested in personal mobility that we’re accustomed not to demanding the lost personal time or community life.)

It causes me to think often, when I’m in different places, about what it would be like to live there without a car. Yes, the houses are lovely, but do the neighbors ever talk? Where can your kids go to play independently or to mingle in adult life? If you have guests coming in fifteen minutes and you’ve just discovered you’re clean out of toilet paper, what can you do?

The neighborhood around Fairbanks Street — that is, the area just across Geist from West Valley and Hutch — is not bad as far as getting by without a car. Not ideal, but it really has some virtues. It is especially good for those who work at UAF, since, from Geist, campus is a bit uphill but essentially just across the street. Whether you consider being car-free a goal or an unfortunate circumstance, living near work eliminates half the struggle already.

It is also has an identifiable neighborhood center, with places that the locals can visit and run into each other: namely, the stretch of businesses along Geist that includes places to meet up like Alaska Coffee Roasting Company, a national pizza chain, and a national hamburger chain. A number of them serve a borough-wide customer base and not the neighborhood especially — but I see no reason why a local-serving grocery store couldn’t be there, too, and perhaps a more out-of-the-way coffee shop for the neighbors.

The southern end of the neighborhood would be right across the street from a Fred Meyer, if only it weren’t stopped short by the Chena River. (This highlights the difference between proximity and access — with the addition of a few pedestrian bridges over Deadman Slough and the Chena, that store could effectively become much nearer to those who live there.) That said, if you walk to Loftus, which leads to a pedestrian/bike path where the Mitchell crosses the Chena, you can quickly enough reach Airport Way near Fred Meyer. I’m told by a friend near the south end of Fairbanks that it’s about a half-hour’s walk one way; I think this means under 10 minutes on bicycle. This is a lot closer than most Fairbanksans live from their grocery stores. And I think the alternative is longer: take Geist to University, and University to Airport. (Though you can cut through some to get to University.)

Also, it’s got the pedestrian’s lifeline to the city: two bus lines that go along Geist, with several stops between Loftus and University. The Blue and Red lines run a circular path in opposite directions and can take people to the university, the fairgrounds, Creamer’s Field, the Steese/Johansen box-store retail monstrosity, both Fairbanks Fred Meyer and Safeway stores, Alaskaland, our local 16-screen überplex, Denny’s, a host of medical offices, and, of course, downtown. Those who care to walk south and cross the Mitchell bridge toward Airport can catch the Yellow line to take them to the Airport or downtown by way of Alaskaland.

For my taste, this neighborhood is missing a lot. There are so many dead ends that getting from one spot to another would frustrate me. Moreover, dead ends just channel traffic into a series of ever-busier collector streets (rather than distribute it equally), which makes those collectors unsafe and unwelcoming places for pedestrians. It would benefit from more local-serving retail — perhaps a bit out of the way and closer to the center of the neighborhood.

Where are the other “pedestrian pockets” in Fairbanks? Have you got one near you? Maybe better to start by asking: What should our criteria be? What makes a neighborhood a good place for walkers to live?

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As you may have learned from the News-Miner or elsewhere, it is currently TV Turnoff Week (April 21-27) — a chance for us to power down the tube and do something a little healthier or more creative. But what to do?

Based on the readers of this blog whom I know, turning off the television for a week should be no great task for most of you — if you even have a television. But perhaps it is difficult to pull yourself away from American Idol, The Simpsons, or The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer for an entire week. Or perhaps you think it’s a great idea, and you’re just looking for ways to convince others that it’s feasible. Some may wonder: “But if I’m not watching TV, what is there to do in the evening? Stare at a wall?”

I have a few suggestions. Some of them are kind of nerdy, to be sure.

  • Go with a friend or loved one on a “garbage walk” through your neighborhood: bring a couple of plastic grocery bags and pick up all the garbage near your house, then work outward. You are permitted to enjoy each other’s company on this walk. Children are great companions, here, because to them it’s like a treasure hunt.
  • Got a spouse or partner? Spend a while taking stock of your relationship and the course of your life together. What’s working well? What not so well? What do you want to be doing with your lives that you’re not doing right now? Make lists.
  • Bake a cake. (Today I’m partial to pineapple upside-down cake, but you can find a bajillion recipes at Epicurious.) Pretend to be missing one crucial ingredient — say, a cup of sugar — and ask a neighbor you haven’t met before if you can borrow it. Later, bring the neighbor a piece of your cake.
  • If you belong to a church, volunteer for one of its committees. Surely your church has committees. Make sure it’s something that really interests you.
  • Apply for (and get) a position on one of the Borough’s many boards and commissions. If you don’t want to join, then just attend a meeting you’re interested in — perhaps the City Council or Borough Assembly, too.
  • Feeling gregarious? Go to a bar after work and chat up somebody you’ve never met. (Not your bartender or waiter.) Have a conversation about politics or religion. See if the two of you can find some point of agreement.
  • If you live on a paved street, get a push broom and sweep up all the gravel that street maintenance crews have laid down over the winter. It’s going to be weeks before the street-sweepers come by, and you might as well make your neighborhood streets nice-looking and safe.
  • Take a walk through your neighborhood. Look at people’s houses (and any stores or offices, if you’re lucky enough to have them) and redecorate them in your mind.
  • Join a book group, a poker club, a baseball team, or a bowling league.

The long and short of it is: do something for other people or with other people — and ideally in your own neighborhood. Build some bridges. Be a do-gooder nerd. Be sure to enjoy yourself.

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One of the drawbacks of newspapers, except in the smallest of towns, is that their coverage of neighborhood events — things of concern primarily or only to those in your neighborhood — is necessarily limited. Newspapers have to cover things that interest a large part of their readership. While some of the events in your neighborhood are big enough to merit newspaper coverage (say, the meth bust across the street), the local paper will completely ignore questions that could matter only to people within a few-block radius.

For example, how do you find out:

  • Who’s the new family that just moved in?
  • What’s with the zoning exemption the guy down the street wants?
  • Why have those grassy lots owned by the State just sat unused for years, when they could be made into a park?
  • What brought the police to that apartment building? Were there arrests?
  • Has anybody in the neighborhood died or been injured recently?
  • When is GHU going to fix that sinkhole?
  • Why is this family selling their house? Are they moving Outside, or is there a problem with the house or neighbors?
  • Have any of the neighbors of that meth lab been hurt by fumes?

(All of these are things I’ve wondered about my own neighborhood.)

Of course, with most of these questions, a person could answer them just by knocking on a door or two, or by making a couple of calls to the right agencies.

However, the same can be said for much of the news that appears in the daily paper: either it’s a matter of public record, or the parties involved will be able to answer your questions. But we expect newspapers to aggregate this public or easily-available information, because (1) those with reliable knowledge will tire of being quizzed by everyone who wants to know, and (2) the job of pulling all this information together regularly is a burden for one person and is better shared among many investigators. Without newspapers (or other “research aggregators”), we would all be far less informed, even about things that (taken individually) are easy for a person to find out.

Is there a place you can go for news about your neighborhood? I’ll wager not.

I’m not suggesting that every neighborhood needs a newspaper: it would probably require more people than are interested in putting it together, and more time from them than they’re willing to regularly commit.

I am suggesting that a much more sustainable, informal, and democratic option exists, at least in sufficiently dense neighborhoods: the neighborhood hangout, what Ray Oldenburg calls the “third place”. As I’ve said before, third places are public places that are welcoming to all and that give people a chance to be somewhere other than home or work. They might be cafés, pubs, hair salons, old-fashioned drug stores, or even post offices.

Third places are places people spend time in — not the in-and-out of a restaurant or a grocery store, but leisurely, relaxed time. In third places, people know (and are known by) the others there, which is most of the appeal. This does not mean that these people are all friends. But they are at least casually acquainted with most of the others, and friends are often to be found there.

The third place is a clearinghouse for neighborhood news. It’s there that you should be able to hear the scuttlebutt on the new neighbors, or get the skinny on the sinkhole. There you should be able to find out who the trustworthy and untrustworthy characters are, who has children the age of yours, who needs help shoveling their driveway, who knows a good contractor, who’s causing the noise problem, and who’s writing down license-plate numbers and calling the police.

Who better than the neighbors themselves to report on the news? People will take an amazing interest in the lives of their neighbors and the life of their neighborhood. But they need a place to play host to their gatherings and to hear the news; otherwise, they’ll most likely not meet at all.

My friend, neighbor, and fellow Fairbanks blogger Theresa says that LuLu’s Bagels is her third place. I’d like to call McCafferty’s mine. Yet Oldenburg says that third places are almost always local — that is, serving a neighborhood clientele. When an establishment has the business of people from all over town, it’s always filled with new faces, and these make those who would frequent it — even the neighbors — feel more guarded and less welcome. Familiarity and comfort are the hallmarks of third places.

If you were to have a third place in your neighborhood — that is, within a five- or ten-minute walk of your house — what would you want it to be like? What kind of business would it do? Would it cater to certain interests or to certain types of people? What disadvantages do you think might come with it?

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Many members of my religious body love to talk about the spiritual uplift they get from nature. (In this context, nature means something like “the outdoors”, places where they do not see the touch of humanity.) Among people for whom care of the earth is a religious calling, such a sentiment is common. But folks of my religious persuasion are also traditionally called to nurture community — and it’s that calling that speaks to me more; it is from community that I get my uplift. And it was community that saved my Saturday.

Saturday was my older daughter’s day for Taekwon-Do. She absolutely loves Taekwon-Do, and she began talking about going almost from the moment she awoke. So I panicked when, forty-five minutes before her lesson was to start, I discovered that my wife had gone to work in the car with both of our children’s car seats: the infant seat for the younger, and the booster for the older. I had another car handy, and might have taken our older daughter for the short ride to the dojang (studio) without a booster — but not our toddler. We were stuck.

When I told my daughter that there was a chance we might not be able to go, she tried to take it bravely, but truly she was devastated, in tears. So I got on the horn to see if any friends could help out.

My first call was to our friends and neighbors Mike and Theresa, who live just over a block away and have a son about the age of our older girl. Did they have a spare infant car seat? Mike checked, and the answer was no.

My next call was to our friends and slightly more distant neighbors Mike and Jill, who were out of our neighborhood but still within walking distance. No answer, just an answering machine. Damn.

I racked my brain for anybody I knew with smallish children who might live close enough to get to our house in time for us to take the car seat and get to Taekwon-Do on time. So I took a long shot and called my friend Rich, who lives on Auburn, just off Farmers Loop Road, figuring he might just be able to make it, if he ditched his wife and baby at home. Well, his wife said he was at work, and I don’t know her well enough to ask her to bail me out.

But she said the most useful thing: “Do you know anybody who could take your daughter to Taekown-Do?” It hadn’t occurred to me at all to send her with some other adult.

So, back to Mike and Theresa. Could one of them take her? Well, Theresa was at work, and Mike had the oven taken apart and all over the kitchen floor — so it wasn’t a good time. Rats.

I should mention here that, with every call, my daughter was growing more distraught. She was trying to be stoic, but her body quivered as she breathed, her eyes red and puffy.

Last shot — I had no more ideas: I called our across-the-street neighbor, Tracie, whose family we don’t have a really social relationship with. Was there any chance she could take our daughter to Taekwon-Do?

Yes! Hallelujah! My daughter was instantly uplifted. She told me she felt very grown-up, going to Taekwon-Do without her parents.

I also was uplifted, but for another reason: it meant that my family had established ties of trust and mutual good will with another family, one that we might not have come to know but for the fact that we were neighbors. We both confirmed and strengthened our supply of social capital — the density of interpersonal connections, within either a community or an individual’s life, that lead to better health, higher education, and greater economic prosperity. I guess “community” might well be defined as a group of people who develop social capital among one another. If so, then we had really made a community tie.

It’s important to notice a couple of preconditions to this neighborly connection, though.

First, Tracie is our neighbor — not just in the sense that she’s the closest person available, but in the sense that she lives in our neighborhood. In fact, as my wife pointed out today, it would take us longer to walk to the car in our driveway than to walk to Tracie’s front door. Social capital increases with proximity. That is, the denser the population you live in, the greater social capital you will enjoy. (I suspect that there is a rough upper limit to this, that above some population density, people will retreat more to their homes and make connections with fewer of their neighbors. But I haven’t read anything to back that up.) It is generally harder to create and maintain relationships with people far away than with those nearby.

Second, until she took a position in the Cosmetology program at TVC, Tracie used to be our family barber. It’s not just that she lived near us: we probably have a few hundred neighbors within five minutes’ walk. But we actually had some practical reason to visit her in the shop she ran in her home. I saw her every month, and my wife and Taekwon-Do-loving daughter saw her every two or three months. Also, since she worked in her home, she was often outside the house, meeting customers or tidying the driveway. So we saw her a lot: sometimes we just exchanged quick pleasantries, sometimes we made a little small talk, and sometimes we talked more deeply about our families or our neighborhood. It was through that regular contact that we developed a friendly, “neighborly” relationship.

Social life and social capital are diminished when people have no practical concerns that bring them into contact. And they are increased when people who might not have chosen to meet have common places and common business that forces them to rub elbows. There is no place like a traditional neighborhood for building community.

My wife and daughter baked Tracie some brownies Sunday afternoon and took them over. It can’t be considered “repayment”, since it’s of an entirely different order. But it was a way of keeping open the flow of good will between our households, and letting Tracie know we’re happy to be her good neighbors any time she needs us.

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