Lately I’ve been thinking about “health, safety, and general welfare” — the basis by which zoning is typically legitimized and measured — and wondering just how great a disconnect needs to form between our purported values and our land use regulations before we admit that something’s not working.
“What a bunch of idiots. Don’t they know this will create a traffic nightmare?”
Sound familiar? It’s the most commonly voiced complaint any time the community conversation turns to traffic calming.
Taken at face value, it’s not an outrageous sentiment. After all, when you’re out and about, anything that stands between you and where you want to be looks like a problem. So why on earth would anyone choose to further complicate your commute on purpose?
For reasons both mysterious and irrelevant, Citylab’s Facebook page promoted a two and a half year old post on bike theft this weekend. What proved interesting about it, at least to me, is that in explaining market demand for stolen bicycles, it referenced a study on how people perceive different types of crime — finding that receiving stolen property and failing to return misdelivered property are considered so insignificant that respondents rated them not really worthy of punishment.
Call me naive.
When I was first exposed to the New Urbanism in the 1990s, it was as a 9 to 5 brand marketer with an appreciation for music and art. Killing time one day in my dentist’s waiting room, I stumbled upon “Bye-Bye Suburban Dream,” the cover story of the latest Newsweek magazine.
I still remember the feeling I had as I read it. Unbelievable, I thought. This is a movement pursuing places where people, community, beauty and culture are once again prioritized. Where the interconnected everyday human experiences that color our lives are valued. Where commerce and art can both thrive.
For some reason — perhaps because the weather was poor, I have a 15 year old daughter, and watching movies makes for a good way to cope with both — one of the themes of the Doyon Family holiday break ended up being future dystopias. Not something necessarily aligned with the hopeful messages more commonly associated with the season but instructive nonetheless.
In the realm of supply chains and distribution logistics, Santa’s the guy. Even FedEx and UPS, the recognized leaders in the field, fail to measure up against the benchmarks he maintains, year after year, without fail.
So you’d presumably be safe in assuming that the planning and design of his village at the North Pole would reflect a similar insistence on best practices. That it would be a model worthy of emulation — not just in terms of efficiency and productivity, but in terms of the emotional, economic and spiritual fulfillment necessary to maintain a happy and motivated workforce.
As placemakers, we know that the challenges of the built environment require more than just new ideas — no matter how clever, unique or seemingly innovative. That was the approach of the 20th century and — no spoiler alert required — it didn’t work out all that well. In retrospect, we know now that the ideas of the modernist revolution in planning were too closely tied to a particular wish list for how we’d like the world to work, rather than reflecting the complexity of who we really are — from our natural instincts and behaviors to the inconvenient links between how we connect, live together in community and, ultimately, survive for the long haul.
Okay. So here we are, out west, working on a county-level comprehensive plan. It’s a big county, which means that each day we meet in the lobby of our centrally-located hotel, then journey caravan-style out to one of the various communities we’re serving over the course of a week.
Until we get where we’re going, it’s exclusively auto-intensive. So our options for a morning coffee stop are often limited to the Starbucks, conveniently located next door to the Applebee’s, in a strip mall outparcel at the border of the local arterial.
A few months ago, I wrote about Leawood, Kansas’ efforts to shut down Spencer Collins’ Little Free Library because it constituted an illegal accessory structure. What made the story interesting is that, while certain advocates were using it as an example of government overreach, a closer look at the facts on the ground revealed that the town’s actions were precipitated by not one, but two neighbor complaints.
Now here we go again.
Not so long ago, in a conversation about technology and green building, there was mention of some high-tech green building models coming out of Europe. Models that, according to reports, perform so well that even if you factor the embedded energy of a previous structure torn down to accommodate them, they still come out ahead.
That’s a potential game changer, at least in terms of selling high-tech green, and I’m not sure it’s one that I welcome.