For several weeks now I’ve intended to write up my thoughts on “People Habitat,” the recently-released book from NRDC smart growth sensei — and friend — Kaid Benfield. Not that it’s anything he needs, mind you. A quick look at his reviews over on Amazon reveals a diverse collection of accolades, consistent only in their five-star assessments, and I suppose my hesitation has stemmed from a desire to not just heap on a little more well-deserved praise but to add something fresh to the discussion.
Crossing Campo Street from downtown Las Cruces into the Mesquite Historic District is like crossing between two urban worlds that are often misunderstood.
To the west is one of the country’s textbook examples of everything that could go wrong with federally subsidized Urban Renewal, including the obligatory seas of parking, corporate CBD architecture, vacant properties, and a one-way loop that locals derisively refer to as “the race track.” The stunning aerial view from 1974 shows the city after its failed open-heart surgery. Even today, after a heroic struggle to dismantle the virtually abandoned pedestrian mall and reinstitute automobile-access on Main Street, the pain of this flattening experience lingers on. The place is deserted on a beautiful September evening.
Almost twenty years ago, just married, my wife and I bought an old house in a friendly but economically depressed old neighborhood. It was, at the time, a predominantly black neighborhood though, like many historic neighborhoods in and around Atlanta that predate our tumultuous, race-driven urban disinvestment of the 60s and 70s, it had also been a predominantly white neighborhood at one point as well.
Its history is significant and, in the almost two decades since, the process of absorbing and understanding it has been a meaningful one. But at the time, all those issues, together with the baggage that accompanies them, simply weren’t on our radar.
When House Speaker John Boehner, indulging his inner Howard Beale, launched a Republican counterattack against the party’s far right wing, it seemed to me the GOP was finally rubbing up against the same rough edges of reality that have become apparent in big-time sports. And the lessons apply as much to civic life in towns and regions as to Washington politics.
Here’s what the life lab of sports tells us: Stressing defensive disruption over offensive accountability is a losing proposition.
Not so long ago, fellow urban scribe and recently elected mayor of Concrete, Washington, Jason Miller, recommended the book, “13 Ways to Kill Your Community.” The timing was fortuitous. For a while, in an ongoing series of internal conversations, I’d been wrestling with a fundamental question of human nature: Are people basically good, with periodic displays of malice and pettiness or, are we born broken and then distinguish ourselves through virtuous acts that transcend our inherent limitations?
“13 Ways” would seem to suggest the latter, though I’ve likely drawn a conclusion unintended by its author, Doug Griffiths, who co-wrote the book with journalist Kelly Clemmer.
A little over eight years ago I hosted a seminar on Homeowner Associations (HOAs) with my friend and collaborator Doris Goldstein. One of our speakers, David Wolfe, offered a unique perspective on HOAs. David, who had successfully managed hundreds of HOAs without litigation, argued that HOAs retain the personality that they are “born” with. Consequently, if their developer “parent” makes them so that they have little real information on what things cost, they will be unrealistic when it comes time for them to take over costs. If all of the developer’s conversations with the HOA are about maintaining the sales value of the community, then that is the only value the community will track. If the HOA has no responsibility for decisions about their community, then it will be irresponsible.
Half-way through our family’s relocation to the woods for the month of August, placeshakers have been asking me for town planning lessons learned. It’s challenging to encapsulate a place as extraordinary as Victoria Beach, with its 101-year history of car-free summers and an elegant street grid of dirt roads that are tremendously kid-friendly. I’ve been blogging about the plan here and here, although am really just beginning to scratch the surface.
The places we inhabit are rarely if ever arbitrary. They’re the products of intention. Personal. Economic. Environmental. Religious. We choose for ourselves, individually and collectively, the kind of places we want and — through leadership, policy, investment, advocacy, action and, at times, inaction — those places begin to take form.
It’s a complicated dance of complementary and competing interests. Making it something that happens for us, rather than something that happens to us, requires, perhaps more than anything, a shared understanding of exactly what it is we’re talking about. A common language.