Resilience: It’s who ya know.

If there’s one thing the 20th century gave us, it’s the luxury of not needing each other. It so defines our culture that it’s physically embodied in our sprawling, disconnected landscapes.

That alone begs a classic, chicken-n-egg question: Did the leisurely lure of the suburbs kill our sense of community? Were our social ties unwittingly severed by the meandering disconnection of subdivisions and strip malls or was sprawl just a symptom of something larger? After all, for all their rewards, meaningful relationships take a lot of work. Perhaps, once the modern world elevated our prospects for personal independence, we cut those ties ourselves, willingly, lest our happy motoring be weighted down with excess baggage.

Sprawl: form following function.

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The Future of Planning: Going meta

“In a world where the peddlers of invention dominate progressive discourse, a willingness to acknowledge–let alone heed–the lessons of history and tradition is a truly radical act.” –Scott Doyon

Check the wiki-hip Urban Dictionary (or watch an episode of Community on NBC) and you’ll find the term meta’s common usage on the street is “to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential.” Consult a more conventional dictionary and you’ll see this derived from its earlier (as well as current) use as a prefix meaning “beyond, about.” That is, taking a subject to a higher level.

As a stand-alone term now, it’s typically applied to works of culture — television, music, film and art. But I suggest we expand that usage because, to me, it’s also the best means of expressing the challenge facing anyone concerned about our urban future.

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St. Patrick, Charles Dickens and the Role of Beer in Community

This morning I took a moment to reflect upon the challenges and tragedy of the past year — BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well, Aussie wildfires, the Christchurch and Haiti earthquakes — until, as a Californian, my mind inevitably drifted back to current events in Japan and their nuclear radiation currently floating its way stateside over the Texas-sized plastic trash flotilla/vortex in the northern Pacific.

And did I mention last week’s news on democratic revolution in the Middle East/North Africa? It’s enough to drive a guy to drink.

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Unplug! Accommodating Our Need to Escape Each Other

Sense of community. It’s been a rallying cry of New Urbanists since the beginning and for good reason. For years leading up to the birth of the neo-traditionalists, it didn’t take much effort to realize that our surroundings had changed—a lot—and not for the better.

Our neighborhoods—subdivisions, really—were isolating us from each other and from the things we needed to get done. Despite the ample comforts we’d developed to help mitigate the separation, that’s simply not a good recipe for human productivity, much less fulfillment.

There was a hole to be filled, and the distinctly market-based New Urbanists stepped in to fill it. Continue Reading

Considering Community in the Face of Tragedy

Provoked by this seasonal opportunity to give thanks, we at PlaceShakers cast an eye towards our communities and offer up this second helping of a piece from earlier this year. Its message for the season? Be glad. Not just for what you have, but for the people you have to share it with. Happy Thanksgiving!

Something terrible happened in my neighborhood. Continue Reading

A Municipal Planner’s Call to Arms (and Legs, Hearts and Lungs)

The obesity epidemic isn’t really “news” anymore (thank you, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution) yet when I question my friends who work outside the fields of design and planning on why Americans are so fat, they tie everything back to poor food choices. But what about exercise? They reply that if you want to exercise, just find yourself a park or a gym. No worries.

So, although we know that there is an obesity “problem,” one with significant national impacts, the average American still is not aware that it is, in many ways, a design problem. A result of a built environment that has been constructed over the past 50 years with one singular purpose – move more cars faster. Continue Reading

My Sleuthing Adventure: Where are Western Canada’s Form-Based Codes?

Western Canada’s form-based codes are missing.

This is no small problem. Those of us working in the region are continuously grilled by municipalities with the same question, often delivered with a suspicious, cocked eyebrow: “Where are they? Where in Canada have they, or any other alternative zoning regulation, been enacted?”

The answer we’re obliged to offer is unfortunately neither reassuring nor helpful:  “We’ve turned up little evidence,” we mutter quietly. Little enough, in fact, that a comparable municipal mentor is typically unable to be found.

A mystery is at hand. Continue Reading

Fat-tastic! Can Small Thinking Solve Our Super-Sized Problems?

According to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — more commonly known for crunching global budget and employment numbers  — the United States is on track to be 75% obese by 2020.

3 out of every 4. And if you check with researchers at Johns Hopkins University, they’ll tell you to expect 86% by 2030. Continue Reading

Sustainability’s Triple Bottom Line: Tool for Commit-a-Phobes?

As a recovering journalist, I’m working hard to suppress old impulses. But habits of a couple decades are hard to shake. Which is why I’m struggling with familiar twitches of cynicism when it comes to “sustainability.”

We’ve reached a point where just about everybody is laying claim to a sustainability strategy, whether we’re talking mining companies blowing up mountaintops or guys selling eight-mile-per-gallon SUVs. Let’s give them this: They have a point, provided sustainability goals are tied to the desire to keep on doing whatever you’re doing in perpetuity. Continue Reading

Innovation on the Road to Oblivion?

Context is everything.

The New York Times reports with unease that the FDA has approved statin drug Crestor’s use in a preventive capacity for those not currently diagnosed with cholesterol problems.

The degree to which this represents innovation in medicine is a topic to be debated elsewhere. What matters to me is that such use of pharmaceuticals is indicative of something larger. Something fundamental to our future: An ever-growing commitment to the path we’re presently on. Continue Reading