Archive for April, 2008

As you may know, I’ve been reading Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. (In fact, I’ve been reading it for months. Now that I’ve started biking to and from work rather than riding the bus, it’s taking me longer. But I’m near the end.) It’s full of delightful passages. In lieu of a real review, I’ll give you some:

One of the most laughably erroneous characterizations of contemporary American society is that it is a “convenience culture.” Convenience is a persistent theme in our lives and in advertising media only because there is such a crying need for it. But only by confusing trivial conveniences with essential ones could we delude ourselves. In a genuinely convenient culture, the necessities of life are close by one’s dwelling. They are within easy walking distance. In a convenience culture, one’s European guests would not remark, as ours do, “My God, you have to get in the car for everything!”

(p. 287)

The more that class of people who used to provide community leadership turn their back on community, the worse things “public” become, with people finding more and more cause to retreat from them if only they can afford to do so. The rejection of responsibility for facilities all are meant to share and, beyond that, the identification of the “good life” as an escape from common Americans, may well be the system flaw that can cause the collapse of the American experiment. What was it Lincoln said about a house divided against itself?

(p. 222)

Some time ago, at one of those holiday gatherings of the clan, a relative was describing to me the problems with the teenagers in his community. The community in question had grown up around new mining technology and didn’t have any places for kids to hang out that older traditions supply elsewhere. The man complained that the youth of the community were a “bunch of ingrates.” They did not appreciate the special hangout that had recently been constructed for them.

After listing to his lament, I asked him two questions: Was the place right smack in the center of town–right in the middle of things? And, “Do the adults go there, too?” The answer in both instances was no. The place was “especially” for the youngsters and nobody wanted such a place right in the middle of town. As in so many cases nowadays involving both the very old and the young, the desire is to sent them aside. The old accept their lot more gracefully. The young resent their undeserved shunning by the community, and they have ways of showing it.

(p. 114)

An unsuitable habitat fuels the desire to escape it. Private acreage, offering as much “splendid isolation” as one can afford, looks doubly good when viewed against the deteriorated condition of the public domain. But will an unsuitable human habitat also, eventually, fuel the desire to change it?

(p. 285)

By the way, I’ve now added The Great Good Place to my “Further reading” page.


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Governor Sarah Palin issued a proclamation on April 16, declaring the month of May, 2008, as Bike Month, May 10-16 as Bike Week, and May 16 as Bike to Work and School Day:

WHEREAS, more Alaskans per capita bike to work than the nation as a whole, according to U.S. Census figures, and that Alaska ranks 12th in the proportion of adults who bike to work.

WHEREAS, the bicycle is a viable and environmentally-sound form of transportation, as well as an excellent form of recreation and physical activity.

WHEREAS, many Alaskans will experience the joys of bicycling this summer through educational programs, commuting events, trail work days, helmet promotions, recreational bike rides, and other bicycling events.

WHEREAS, the bicycle offers a clean, quiet, affordable, and healthy alternative to automobile commuting.

WHEREAS, the national nonprofit League of American Bicyclists has declared the month of May as National Bike Month for each of the last 52 years, and has done so again in 2008.

WHEREAS, during the month of May, bicycle clubs, schools, parks and recreation departments, police departments, hospitals, businesses, and civic groups throughout Alaska will be promoting bicycling as a wholesome transportation and leisure activity, as well as an environmentally friendly alternative to the automobile.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Sarah Palin, Governor of the state of Alaska, do hereby proclaim May 2008 as:

Bike Month May 10-16, 2008 as:

Bike Week

and May 16, 2008, as:

Bike to Work and School Day

in Alaska, and encourage all Alaskans to use the bicycle for transportation during the month of May, to recognize the importance of bicycle safety, and to be more aware of cyclists on our streets and highways.

(Via Bicycles and Icicles.)

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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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This summer from May to September, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center sponsors “Don’t Be Fuelish”, a competition to encourage alternatives single-occupant car-commuting to work. I think the competition will have a good effect overall — but, in a way, the rules actually reward driving.

According to the Northern Center’s calendar of events,

It’s a friendly competition, open to all local organizations, to encourage employees to reduce their fossil fuel usage. People can bike, walk, bus, or carpool to and from work to save miles traveled in a single occupant vehicle. These miles are tallied each month, with a winner of the most miles saved announced at the end of the competition. There will be individual recognition as well – most miles biked, most miles walked, etc…

Perhaps I misunderstand the competition — and please correct me if so — but it appears that what it rewards is distance from work. That is, those participants who live farthest from work can contribute “saved” mileage more than those who live close enough to walk.

I love bicycling, and, when it’s not too cold, biking is my preferred way of getting to work and any other destinations. But if the goal of Don’t Be Fuelish is to encourage less, and less-wasteful, use of gasoline, wouldn’t the sponsors (not to mention the atmosphere) be happier if people simply lived close enough to work that they could just walk? Yet those people cannot contribute to the competition in their places of work.

Now, I’m not suggesting that anybody is making his or her housing choices based on the chance to rack up “saved” miles for Don’t Be Fuelish. “Wait! I was going to live in Slaterville and walk to my job at Ace Hardware, but now I think I’ll relocate down the George Parks Highway and bike in from Nenana!” No, no, of course not.

It’s just ironic that those in a position to save the most miles of vehicle travel from May to September are also those who will also will drive the most miles and consume the most gasoline in the other months, since most people aren’t bold enough to walk or bike to work all winter long. It would be nice if the competition could also reward those who live on a smaller, more walkable scale.

Of course, the broader goals of Don’t Be Fuelish aren’t just to save vehicle-miles. As I see them, they are (1) to raise consciousness about the amount of gasoline we waste through single-occupancy car use, and (2) to help people create habits (like walking, bicycling, carpooling, and busing) that they can take into the winter months, even if not as vigorously as in the summer. These are laudable goals, and I think that Don’t Be Fuelish is an excellent tool for meeting them.

The bicycling promotion aside — and I’m all for it! — what could we do to make it more possible and more attractive for Fairbanksans to live, work, and shop with no need of automobiles whatsoever?

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In my post yesterday, I quoted somebody who seemed skeptical that the Vision Fairbanks plan for downtown’s revitalization was “uniquely Alaskan”. One of the less-unique things he cited was the plan for a skate park. Okay, a downtown skate park isn’t unique. But I think it’s a great idea.

In all the public meetings when planning consultants Crandall Arambula tried to find out which features of downtown were especially prized by Fairbanksans and which concerned them, and which projects were most important to them (the grocery store won hands down) — the skate park advocates came out in droves. Not only did they swamp the online surveys indicating that they wanted a skate park, but they showed up to the public meetings in large numbers, handed out flyers at the door, and spoke persuasively when giving table discussion reports. While the grammar and spelling on their flyers might have used improvement, they got an A-plus in civics. Other people thought so too: when it came time for participants to indicate their preferences for projects, the skate park was a big winner.

Now, it wouldn’t be my choice for a priority project, and I’ve heard a few other middle-aged adults express reservations. But we have to be faithful to the public process, if we don’t want to disenfranchise some youth and disillusion those who believe in the integrity of that process.

But even setting aside the process, I really think it’s a good idea. Skateboarding is largely an activity of youth — and every downtown needs a dose of youth. Downtown shouldn’t be a place just for the well-to-do, or just for families, or just for the middle-aged: no, the young should also be there to infuse the place with energy and give the rest of us a much-needed kick in the pants. And the reverse is true, too: not only does downtown need them, but they need downtown — the exposure to a world of adults from all walks of life.

I don’t think young people thrive by being given a segregated place of their own. They need a place among us. Let’s invite them!

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When the News-Miner reported on City Council’s endorsement of Vision Fairbanks, a brief discussion ensued in the comments following the online article, in which somebody called “newsreader” wrote:

I’m sorry, I fail to see what is uniquely Alaskan about this plan.

River front walkways? Roundabouts? Parking lots? Convention centers with hotels? A skate park that will only be useful for 3 to 4 months a year? Does any of this sound uniquely Alaskan? Because it seems to me to be much like many downtown’s that I’ve been to across America (and Europe). It seems to me to be about as unique as that cluster of box stores off of the Johansen.

If I’ve missed something that could be construed as uniquely Alaskan, feel free to let me know.

Wow! Exciting stuff! Exciting, because I don’t have a pat answer, because the question makes me squirm a little. It’s true that not everything about Vision Fairbanks is uniquely Alaskan, and that many aspects of the plan look similar to cities elsewhere in the States and in Europe. How much do we want to turn Fairbanks into somewhere else?

Here’s the best I can do for now at an answer:

First, I should say that my interest in Vision Fairbanks may be different from the interest of the Downtown Association. They seem to be interested in downtown’s economic strength, while I’m more concerned with whether it encourages civic life and is socially just. The economic strength is key to the social aspects, though, because very few people will visit it if it lacks really good retail. I point out my perspective just so it’s clear that I don’t have the “official” answer.

So, how is the plan uniquely Alaskan?

Well, it doesn’t have to be.

My chief concern is to have a downtown that works — brings in and mixes people from all over the borough; provides a close mix of retail, commercial, civic, recreational, and residential uses; offers people an urban environment that is a pleasure to spend time in; is served by public transit; and acts as a one-stop retail/civic/recreational destination for those who can’t or don’t want to spend lots of time driving or lots of money on car ownership.

The principles of good city centers listed by planning consultants Crandall Arambula in the first public meeting are not things they just cooked up after looking at their home town of Portland, Oregon. They are principles I’ve seen repeated time and again in books on urban architecture and civic engagement. (You can download their PDFs on The Recipe for Saving Downtowns and Great Public Spaces among others from the first workshop.) They form something like a recipe — maybe “framework” is a better word — for creating city centers and neighborhoods that are profitable, safe, just, and lively.

While I want Fairbanks to look and act like Fairbanks and not some other town, I have no problem with standing on the shoulders of giants — that is, using ideas that have been tested by dozens, even hundreds, of generations. The use of principles that have been shown to work does not make us less unique; it makes us smarter for not trying to re-invent the wheel. To ask how Vision Fairbanks is uniquely Alaskan is a little like asking how light bulbs are uniquely Alaskan: they aren’t, but they still work, and there’s no need for us to go through a phase of burning kerosene and whale-oil lanterns before deciding to use them.

So Vision Fairbanks is a framework for building a downtown that works, not a snapshot of what our downtown ought to look like. We’ll still have immense latitude in how to interpret that framework. How high will buildings be built? Will they be made of planks, logs, concrete, or bricks and mortar? What trees and bushes should decorate downtown? What sculptures and memorials will be located there, and what will they look like? What are good Fairbanks colors to paint with?

But to my mind, the stuff that’s really going to make downtown unique isn’t what gets decided in the design standards. It’s the particular mix of establishments we’ll have there. We’ll probably have one or more heavy-duty outdoor outfitters (Big Ray’s will surely stay), skiing and snowshoeing supplies, liquor stores, hunting and trapping stores, second-hand stores, bars, and hardware stores (perhaps Samson’s could get a place of honor). Our peculiar retail and commercial demands, along with the unique decoration that each of our needed businesses will choose, are what will really make our downtown interesting.

Whether downtown will get its character from design standards or from its retail and commercial environment, it’s really time to ask: What sort of character do we want downtown to have? And what sorts of building or business are going to make it that way?

City planning consultants can take us only so far. The burden of making downtown uniquely ours is now up to us.

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I just read in today’s Judith Kleinfeld column:

In “The Healing Power of Doing Good,” Alan Luks investigated the emotional and health benefits of acts of kindness.

Luks sent a confidential questionnaire to 3,300 volunteers at more than 20 organizations throughout the United States. Just writing a check to a charitable organization, he found, didn’t do anything much.

But face-to-face helping produced great benefits:

–which Kleinfeld then summarizes for us; they include a feeling of euphoria, greater calm, and a sense of greater energy and health. Two of Luks’s points (as summarized by Kleinfeld) are:

• Helping others once a week or more led to the greatest health benefits.

• The greatest effects came from helping people the volunteers didn’t know, not just helping friends and family whom they had to help.

The points that catch my attention are:

  1. While helping others from a distance — mailing a check or signing an online petition — probably does social good, the personal benefit comes from helping flesh-and-blood people right in front of you.
  2. Helping people more often is better (for the helper) than doing it less often (though perhaps within the limits of having your own life and personal integrity).
  3. Helping strangers is more beneficial than helping your family, friends, fellow parishioners, etc.

In short: for maximum benefit, help lots of strangers, in person.

Of course, for this to happen, you need to build a life that brings you into contact with strangers often.

Two of the things that concern me about car-culture are that (1) it puts us at tremendous distances from others, so it’s harder to rub elbows with strangers in the first place, and (2) every place we are likely to see people is a destination of choice, and so the people there are mostly people of choice, not strangers.

Let’s give ourselves the euphoria and other benefits of altruism. Let’s figure out ways to rub elbows with strangers and make altruism happen more often.

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