Monday, July 27, 2009

What do fruits and vegetables have to do with urban planning?

Today I tried to imagine the perfect city. There were plenty of bikes and pedestrians everywhere and a marked absence of private vehicles. There were shorter blocks and more mixed uses of land. And there were farms: block-sized farms full of apple trees, kale, beans and carrots.

Then it got me a-thinkin': just how much space does it take to feed a person/family/city?

The answer is that it depends on what those people/families/cities are eating. Turns out that the production of meat is wildly more inefficient than the production of vegetables. Not only that, but animal excrement (i.e.: shit) pollutes that other stuff that is necessary for life: water.

So what does this all mean? Well, I guess it depends on the purpose of the city. If cities are to be places for efficient living, then perhaps what the citizens eat is as important as what transportation decisions they make. And as no city exists in a vacuum, it is also important how the choices of the city affect the surrounding suburbs and farmland.

Cities should promote life. They are centers of life, where people concentrate to work, play, sleep, eat, reproduce and live. Should they not then, also be places where life-affirming activity is concentrated? Where space is maximized for farmland and physical activity? Or are they just amusement parks for those with enough wealth to afford the high rents and tourists looking for the perfect picture (and the perfect steak)?

In order to build and maintain the perfect cities of the future, we need to make the right decisions: for ourselves, for those around us, and for those to come. In this broader sense, cutting back on meat intake is as important as riding a bike or taking public transportation. In another more specific and tangible sense, growing and eating food from the land that we live on gives us a greater connection to the land and reminds us that we inhabit a real space that is capable of generating and sustaining life.

UPDATE: turns out some hotshot from the Washington Post is one of the 5 people that read this page. Check out his article on meat consumption and its effect on global warming. Not the same point I was trying to make above, but its all related.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Public Health

We often think of the public health in mechanical terms. What is the average life span? Which diseases are most prevalent? How can money be made by selling health to people? How much does it cost to provide "health care"?

I suspect this train of thought is simplistic.

It is driven in part by big insurance and its dollars and cents approach to health (and life); driven also by the legal system, using the adversarial system as a means toward rewarding those made ill by other's negligence, but also succumbing to the ideal that money can heal and punish; driven by the business of medicine and the view that health may be bought and sold.

But of course it may, you might think. Those with money can afford to live in safe areas and purchase healthy food, live in well-built homes, buy the latest drugs and health-fads, and pay for insurance and hospital visits. This consumptive view of medicine and health, however, ultimately has a deleterious effect. It reduces public health to a budget line and obscures our understanding of what the public health is.

At its foundation, better public health is both easier and harder to achieve than universal health care and cheaper prescription drugs. It is easier in the sense that it may be reduced to simple concepts: we should create living environments that promote life and wellness, where ample shelter, fresh food, and clean water is available and people have the opportunity to engage in physical activity and nurture positive relationships. It is harder in that it requires a holistic and multi-modal understanding of health that reaches far beyond the hospital and the insurance companies' balance sheets.

Public health has as much to do with things like walkability, bike lanes, farmers markets, crime reduction and open spaces as it does with access to hospitals and advances in pharmaceutical technology or surgical procedures. We limit our understanding of public health if we conceive of it in purely medical terms. Instead, it will benefit urban areas to think about the public health impacts of every decision, particularly decisions regarding transportation and public space.

Several years ago, I spent a few months undertaking research for a paper on the importance of walkability towards creating and fostering urban relationships. My thesis was not revolutionary. I merely argued that walking brings people in closer contact with their cities, that it is more democratic than driving, and that a pedestrian friendly city will ultimately be a better place to live than an auto-centric city.

An idea that I tossed around in my head but never committed to paper was the life:death ratio. When making public decisions, I thought, we should think simply about whether our plans nurture life or risk harm, disease, and death. It seems obvious that walking environments promote life and don't increase death or disease, but that auto-centric environments lead to more carbon dioxide, more obesity, more unnecessary fatalities. Of course it is also true that automobile technology and open roads allow emergency personnel to react quickly to fires and heart attacks, but that is why we have the ratio. The ability to give and sustain life must be balanced with the susceptibility for disease and death.

Walking up Scott street the other day, from Lower Haight towards Alamo Square, I noticed a freshly planted tree and for a second envisioned the potential of the road before me and before us all. I saw trees in strange places, scattered down the middle of the road, and imagined the flow of bikers multiplying as the parked cars vanished to their place in history books. I saw a space that was public and open, one that promoted life and activity, a street where children could pick fruit from trees and people could walk to their neighbor's house without the threat of anything more imposing than a stream of bicycles and pedestrians.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Biking Around

This is Rocinante: an old steel road bike, made in France somewhere in the 70s or early 80s. I picked it up at a bike repair shop down in South Beach for a modest sum and have been trekking around the city these last few weeks. Even rode into work for the first time on Friday, sharing the road with the buses and taxis, delivery trucks and private cars, watching the people walk down the broad sidewalks of Market Street and feeling the cool morning air, a natural air conditioner to balance the effort of the ride. There are not many better ways to spend the morning commute (not to mention the fact that my ride was at least ten minutes faster than the typical bus commute on the 21-Hayes).

Along with walking, bicycling is a great activity for both transportation and community development. I know that may seem like a bold statement for something as simple as pedaling a piece of metal down city streets, but bikers do more than travel from point a to b. They survey their surroundings and bring a human element to the streets. They also empower themselves with the ability to transverse the city with their own two legs and an exhaust-free machine. Maybe most importantly, they bring themselves (or the bicycle brings them) into direct contact with the physical space of the city.

Bikes also allow people to travel with a minimal use of energy (maximum efficiency). The bike is much more efficient than an auto, even more efficient than walking. So why aren't more Americans riding bikes? Why aren't more San Franciscans riding?

The average suburban American lives somewhere that is only accessible by highways and neighborhood roads. Highways have no dedicated bike lanes, neighborhood roads lead nowhere (but to neighborhood houses). Mega cities are built on the scope of the automobile, rely on its oversized frame to bear the citizens from one to the next. People ride bikes in these areas, but often only for joy or exercise, not as a practical method of transport.

But even if the above is a satisfactory explanation for the lack of bike-riding in America as a whole, what explains the relative lack of riding in a place like San Francisco. Although there are many cyclists in the city, the city and citizens would benefit and could handle an exponential increase in ridership. I suspect the biggest obstacle to most would-be riders is the perceived dangerousness of urban riding. Cars are big and careless and bikers are relatively unprotected (although many wear helmets). Ultimately, a city that is sincerely dedicated to accessible transportation, public health, and the improvement of the streetscape must do its best to promote cycling and walking. Cyclists must also do a good job of sharing their excitement with their friends and neighbors. The more bikes on the street, the safer it will become for riders.*

My proposal: San Francisco should pick a weekend day and shut down 10 to 20% of the streets to all through-traffic except buses, a mega-Sunday Streets of sorts. Preferably the carless streets would be commercial corridors: Divisadero, Union, Mission, Fillmore, Polk, Chestnut, Valencia, Columbus, 16th Street, 24th Street. The possibilities are endless. I guess we'd have to allow cars some way to cross the streets at defined intersections, but we could probably employ intersections with traffic lights, or even get a few policeman out there to interact with the folk and direct traffic. Perhaps I'm overlooking the logistical complexities of such an event, but there ain't nothing wrong with dreaming big. Improving the transportation corridors of the cities of the future will take vision and tenacity. The city is an experiment that is never complete.

* The pack offers protection. Or maybe it just seems to. All I know is that it feels safer to be riding with other bikers on the road. I would be interested if anyone has statistics to share.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Age of Participation

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association held a Grand Opening party last night for its new Urban Center at 654 Mission Street. The event was a great success, with the party taking over the new building, a bar next door and the Annie Street alley. The jazz band outside was incredible, dropping some jazz standards mixed in with some interpretations of classic 80s tunes. They even came into the Urban Center at one point during the night, playing the entire time as they were relocating.

Anyhow, at one point during the night, I ended up speaking with a San Francisco urban designer. Although this designer has been in the city for a while, she told me that she began her career in Europe. This led me to ask her how the urban design process is different here than in Europe.

She gave two examples in response. First, she said that there is much less leeway to stray from the "master plan" in European cities (although many American cities have master plans, they are usually policy documents and not legally binding on city councils and planning commissions). Second, she said that the participation process is much more robust here.

I was excited to hear this second point. It reminded me of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and his first impressions of new world democracy, where citizens were constantly participating in the formation of their own societies. Unfortunately, de Tocqueville's America seems largely brushed under the rug these days, or at least seated on a giant nation-sized couch watching the latest episode of Grey's Anatomy. Although many of us keep at least half an eye toward the government, much of that attention is directed towards Washington, D.C. and the latest goings-on with the Obama Administration. In contrast, how often do people devote their attention to the beneficial growth of their own city/town/suburb?

Coincidentally, I spent a couple hours on Wednesday night at a community workshop meant to kick off the Northeast Embarcadero Study (Embarcadero from Washington to North Point streets). What struck me most about the workshop was just how old everyone was at the meeting. The average age had to be well past 50, with only a handful of people below 40 (not counting the representatives from the Planning Department). I understand that these things start fairly early (this one kicked off around 5:45 p.m.), that it is hard for people to get out of work, and that people under 50 may have "better things to do" than go to a community workshop, but it was disheartening to think that my generation (and those slightly older and younger) was so improperly represented at what seemed to me a very important discussion.

We (as Americans, as San Francisco residents) have a great opportunity to be part of the urban development process and to steer the future of this city (and our country), yet it seems like local government (well, all government) is often overrun by special interests and those with too much time on their hands. Are we to blame? Or is the system rigged from the start and we are better off not wasting our time?

The answer is likely to lie somewhere in between. Most San Franciscans probably have no idea that these meetings even exist. Only after the fact, when the development has begun or finished, will they applaud the new space or decry the poor planning. The opportunity to participate in the process will be lost by that point and they will attribute the results to some higher planning/development power that makes all the decisions in this fair city.

But what if the common man and woman did care about local government and planning decisions? What if the front page of the paper discussed city development rather than the latest inane thing that Rush Limbaugh said?

As discussed before, we may have a problem with our focus and our perception of which issues matter and on what level. The development of our cities and towns has a profound effect on our lives and the lives of those to follow us, yet we spend little time giving these issues any attention.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Urban Mathematics = Cities are Alive

A rap scholar once said, "You wanna know how to rhyme you better learn how to add." Steven Strogatz, professor of applied mathematics, makes the persuasive argument that if you want to understand cities, it might help to learn some math too.

Strogatz illustrates, among other things, that larger (more populous) cities need less infrastructure than small ones. He attributes this to economies of scale:

For instance, if one city is 10 times as populous as another one, does it need 10 times as many gas stations? No. Bigger cities have more gas stations than smaller ones (of course), but not nearly in direct proportion to their size. The number of gas stations grows only in proportion to the 0.77 power of population. The crucial thing is that 0.77 is less than 1. This implies that the bigger a city is, the fewer gas stations it has per person. Put simply, bigger cities enjoy economies of scale. In this sense, bigger is greener.

Strogatz ultimately argues that this same ratio is applicable to other living organisms: proof that cities are living, breathing things. Makes sense to me.

For the full NY Times column click here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Street Study: Divisadero

2.5 miles

38 blocks

Runs from Marina Blvd to Castro St

Bus lines:

24 (north/south)

6, 7, 71, 21, 31, 38, 2, 4, 1, 3, 41, 45, 28, 43, 76, 30 (east/west)

Zoning Patterns:

Castro to Haight (2 1/2 blocks): RH-3 [Residential Housing, 3 units per lot]

Haight to Sacramento (19 blocks): Neighborhood Commercial-2 [Small-Scale] with a 4 block patch of NC-3 [Moderate Scale] around Geary St. and a patch of RM-3 [Medium Density Residential, Mixed]

Sacramento to Lombard (11 blocks): Residential [RH-3, RH-2, RH-1, RH-1(D), RM-1, patches of RH-3, RM-2]

Lombard to Chestnut (2 blocks): Neighborhood Commercial [NC-2, NC-3]

Francisco to Marina (6 blocks): Residential [RH-3 with RM-3 at the corners, a block of P(ublic) between North Point and Beach, and a row of RH-1 facing the Bay]

[note: this will be the first of several "street studies." please comment with requests for the study of a particular street or further information that you would like to see included in each study.]

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

MTA drama + German Carless Suburb

The controversy over the SFMTA budget continues.  The Board of Supervisors, led by David Chiu, are threatening to reject the budget against MTA's (and the Mayor's) wishes.  A Board of Supervisors' meeting is set for 2pm today and the budget is the 8th item on the agenda.  SF Streetsblog promises to provide a twitter-feed of the highlights.

UPDATE (Wednesday at 11:47 AM PST): It appears a compromise has been reached -- just barely.  Apparently Chiu's motion to table the budget rejection only passed by a vote of 6-5.  Unfortunately, the "compromise" doesn't seem to have much effect on the average San Franciscan.  Fares are still rising and service is still being cut.  It appears that my old hood got hit especially hard, with the 10 being discontinued above broadway and the 20 being cut altogether.  I rode the 10 for more than a year-and-a-half and it was always full of worker bees in the morning and night rush hours.  Guess those middle-class San Franciscans better save up some money for bicycles!  The anti-climactic ending to this struggle offers a perfect microcosm of San Francisco politics circa 2009:  shelter the rich, save the needy, and screw everyone in between.  So much for a transit-first city.

Also: check out this NYTimes article about a German suburb (formerly a Nazi army base) that has rendered autos verboten.  It is encouraging to know that such a revolutionary idea has taken hold in a place with such sordid historical ties.  Could car-free streets be on the way to a suburb or city near you?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Where is the Pie?

Before asking where it is, we may first need to ask, "what is the pie?" Turns out both questions are a bit slippery. The pie may signify the total resources available in a specified area (the Earth, the United States, California, San Francisco, the Western Addition, Divisadero Street, the 500 block of Divisadero, etc.) or perhaps the pie merely signifies the monetary value attributed to a certain economy (ie. the GDP) or market (ever hear someone lament the Dow's shrinkage?). The pie is not easily definable, but how we think about the pie (see below Economies of Scale: oranges) affects what it is.

There is a feeling among many that we must increase the pie. To some people this means increasing consumer spending. Consumers spend more thereby fueling production, increasing the value of the stock market, etc. All is good.* We must wonder though: as the pie increases, as GDP rises, and the Dow reaches new heights, are people actually becoming more resourceful? Are we finding new ways to maximize the value of our limited natural and human resources or are we merely imagining fictitious values? And just where is the pie anyway?

Does the pie live somewhere on Wall Street or in Washington, D.C.? If all of the major banks are healthy and AIG survives its self-fulfilling scare and the mega-corporations of the world begin to give and receive money again, will the pie suddenly regrow before our eyes? Or is the pie more personal than that: does the pie represent our individual opportunities for success or our access to food and jobs, credit and health care?

It is all sort of dizzying to think about, especially for the good old common man, waking in the morning to head to the factory/store/office and picking up a slice of pie on the 1st and 15th. If the Dow is up, says he, my employer is happy and I keep my job, so I am happy. If the Dow is down, woe is me. And he is right! His prospects for financial survival are so heavily intertwined with world markets and macro-financing trends that some remote pie-measurement system (the Dow) does seem important. The pie is centralized. It matters little what potential the good old common man (or the common family/the common community/the common city) actually has, if he is always waiting on the holders of the pie to make a move.

Although the resources of the world (people, land, oil, minerals) are decentralized, our conception of the pie--and the monetary units that represent its worth--are quite centralized. When we think about the pie, we are more likely to think about the stock market than the physical places that we inhabit and the natural resources surrounding us.

Does this matter? you may ask. I would argue yes: mos' definitely. If we invest the bulk of our resources in centralized "markets" with only indirect connections to the particular places in which we live, then we are in effect choosing not to invest in the real, tangible places in which we live, work and play (remember the pseudo-footnote re: opportunity costs). Although many people invest a great deal of money in their home, how many invest locally aside from that? We may "invest" as consumers, but the mindset of the consumer is a passive one. If urban areas are to thrive, investment must come back home.

*Unless of course, consumers could be more resourceful in another role. Each decision involves a shadow of the decision unmade, often referred to as opportunity cost. Thanks to Kendall Dix ( for this ingenious footnoting method.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Economies of Scale (oranges)

We use the term "economies of scale" to extol the benefits of large corporations. If I want to be an orange salesman, it is theoretically better for me to be able to buy and sell many oranges, especially if selling oranges requires special knowledge or equipment. If it costs $10,000 dollars to buy one orange picking machine, then only people that grow and sell lots of oranges will be able to afford it. If you can buy two machines for $18,000 or three for $25,000, etc., then it makes economic sense that the work of orange selling should remain with those who can afford many groves and many machines. Ditto if you pay labor to pick your oranges. If you only have one picker, you've got to treat him well. After all, this guy knows a little something about the orange business and you develop a close relationship with him since he's you're only picker. Throw a few of his friends in there and the costs per picker drop. After all, these pickers may not know as much about the art of orange picking and as their numbers increase they become more expendable. You can pay them less and devote less attention to each. If one drops by the wayside, it is no matter. 1 of 100 is only 1%, 1 of a 1000 only 0.1%.

If the economic logic is followed, then oranges should be picked by those with the money for large monotonous groves and expensive machines and access to cheap, fungible labor. This helps us all. The pie is bigger. We have specialized orange production, so now oranges are cheaper for everyone and everyone who is not growing oranges can spend their time specializing in some other task. In short, the term "economies of scale" indicates that economies improve when the scale is greater.

We must ask ourselves, however, which economies are we measuring? What scale matters?

If the foremost goal of humanity is indeed to increase the mythical pie of economy, then by all means, we should scale until we can scale no more. Bigger government, bigger business, bigger banks. The more we take advantage of economies of scale, the better off all will be.

But is that true? If the mythical pie is increased does this necessarily mean all are better off? And how do we measure this anyway? By mean income? Median income? Access to health care? Average life span? Happiness surveys?

Realities are dependent on the scale in which we conceive them. If we are constantly focused on the so-called greater good of growth growth growth and economies of scale, we lose sight of the economies on the ground level--the economic relationships between and among people. That is what we are after all: people.

Try looking at the world from a bird's-eye view. Or a nation or a state, even a city. Can you see much about the way people really live? The waking and the sleeping, the eating and the relieving, the enthusiastic desire to improve life or the apathy of hopelessness. The human being must be our greatest untapped resource. We have spent so long with our heads in the sky or comparing numbers on a spreadsheet that we have lost sight of this. Perhaps it is time to readjust our scale and decide just what it is we mean to measure. Time to break the soil and plant our own orange trees.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Transit Woes by the Bay

Although the San Francisco City Charter boasts a voter-approved "Transit-First Policy" (see Section 8A.115), the future of Muni service is uncertain thanks to a reported $128.9 million deficit. The SFMTA budget for FY09-10 is set to be submitted to the Mayor's Office and the Board of Supervisors on May 1, yet the first public hearing to air the proposed deficit-solutions occurred yesterday at City Hall. The proposed solutions include lay-offs of Muni workers, increased fares, parking meter increases, and (you guessed it) service reductions. For more detailed descriptions of the proposals, go here.

Finding a solution to Muni's problems is no easy task. Some believe the Mayor is to blame. Others point to an increase in work orders from other city agencies. Commenters at yesterday's hearing railed against Muni's "bloated management" and "overpaid staff" (to much applause from the crowd), called for stricter fare enforcement, and generally protested the proposed service cuts. Although the MTA appears to be viewing this problem as a pure numbers game, the effect of reduced public transportation services will have an impact on the lives of San Franciscans that is hard to quantify.

As one who is relatively new to the SFMTA's budget problems, I cannot speak to the allegations of mismanagement or overpayment of Muni workers. I do believe, however, that SFMTA's budget problems cannot be fixed with the current myopic proposals to reduce service while simultaneously increasing fares. If the City of San Francisco is serious about its dedication to public transit, then it's time the City took action. The biggest threat to Muni is not the money that is lost by not charging 50c for transfers, but the hordes of drivers in private automobiles that crowd the city streets (especially during rush hour) and don't use Muni. At this point though, it's hard to place all the blame on the drivers. The streets are congested, the buses move slowly, and many crosstown trips require at least one transfer in addition to a good hour of travel time. Rather than just looking for ways to make the budget in 2010, Muni needs someone with the guts to look to 2020 or 2030, to seriously consider the mechanisms for increasing Muni ridership and discouraging automobile usage. Parking meter increases may be a step in the right direction, but a more focused tax on vehicle miles traveled in the City would be better. Ultimately, the SFMTA should focus on making Muni more attractive to potential riders. They could start with proposals to speed up service and make Muni a more realistic option for trips that do not neatly fit along a north/south or east/west route. More than money, the SFMTA needs strong leaders and a steady vision for the future that is not disrupted each time there is a momentary budget crisis.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Better Streets Plan

the draft plan for San Francisco's pedestrian environment.

Skyscraper + affordable housing at First and Folsom: the problem with opacity?

The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency requested proposals for the rights to "design and develop a high-density residental project with ground-floor retail" at First and Folsom, but the three bids on the table are being considered confidentially. (SFGate). Should a decision with this much impact on the South of Market landscape be made behind closed doors?

(( a copy of the Redevelopment Agency's 10.22.2008 Request for Proposals to develop the site may be found here ))