Sunday, July 10, 2005

Public Transportation and Terrorism Safety

Predictably, the recent London subway bombing has brought scrutiny to the safety of subway and other transit systems worldwide. Many have asked the question: "How do we keep our public transportation systems safe from terrorism?" Some, including the UCLA International Institute, recommended some solutions. While I certainly applaud efforts to make public transit safe, I think any attempts to secure transit systems from terrorist attacks are unnecessary.

Terrorism is a very unpredictable thing. There is no way to conceive of the variety of ways an attack can occur. This being the case, it is likely that any security measure put into place could be breached by a person with enough conviction and perseverance. The only sure ways to keep transit systems safe from terrorism are to either subject every passenger to intense scrutiny by security personnel, or have nobody ride the transit system. Neither of these solutions are palatable.

Given the unpredictable nature and rarity of terrorist attacks, I don't believe terrorism safety should be a priority for transit systems. Transit systems remain one of the safest modes of travel, as documented by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. As tragic as terrorist attacks can be, they should not be a daily cause of fear for transit riders, nor should they be used as a vehicle to promote design solutions intended to prevent crime. Let's spend our time and energy on improving the quality and reliability of service instead of wasting time trying to prevent terrorism.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Kelo Case and Eminent Domain

Most planners, unless they live under a rock, noticed the recent Supreme Court decision in the Kelo vs. New London case. For those not familiar with the case, here is a summary. In a nutshell, the 5-4 decision will allow the City of New London to proceed with plans to use eminent domain powers to take and demolish homes to allow the construction of a new office park.

I was not entirely surprised by the decision to back the City, though I do find the decision disappointing. Not only did the decision deal a blow to property rights, but it also failed to clarify the definition of "public use," which in my mind was the one thing that needed to come from this decision, regardless of which way the court decided. I found this part to be the most interesting portion of the decision:

"Though the city could not take petitioners’ land simply to confer a private benefit on a particular private party, see, e.g., Midkiff, 467 U.S., at 245, the takings at issue here would be executed pursuant to a carefully considered development plan, which was not adopted “to benefit a particular class of identifiable individuals..."

Essentially, what I gather from this is that as long as a City executes a "carefully considered development plan," most anything can be considered a public use. Those of us in the planning profession realize that most large projects pass through some sort of entitlement process that could be classified as a carefully considered development plan. Particularly in California, any redevelopment project would fit this definition.

Many of the reactions I have read from others on this decision paint a doomsday view of property rights. My sense is that we are nowhere near the end of this debate. The court left the door open for the states to weigh in on property rights and restrictions to eminent domain, and I expect to see court cases, new legislation, and perhaps some voter initiatives appear in the not too distant future. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Two tone pink Posted by Hello

Yellow on pink. Posted by Hello

Pursuing the American Dream

Just to lighten the mood of this place, I thought I would chronicle my mother's new house. Home ownership is a wonderful thing that we all strive for, and I'm happy that my mother was finally able to join the ranks of the homeowners. One of the wonderful things you can do in a new house is paint. My younger sister decided to paint her room pink, which makes for some nice photos. After a tiring weekend of painting, the place ended up looking pretty nice. With the pink in the house, the place will never be dull. Enjoy!

Floating in Pink Posted by Hello

Pink Glow Posted by Hello

Pink Roller Posted by Hello

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Downtown Revitalization Efforts in Long Beach

I noticed this Los Angeles Times article on the ongoing downtown revitalization efforts in Long Beach. The article is generally bullish on Long Beach, but does note some criticism of the revitalization efforts.

As a planner who is somewhat familiar with the City of Long Beach, I wanted to offer my take on these efforts and how success is defined for these projects. As the article notes, two major publicly assisted development projects, The Pike and Cityplace, have been completed recently in the City. Among the planning brethren with whom I generally interact, few view these developments positively. Chief among the concerns is the design of the projects, with the tenant mix and expenditure of public funds to complete them also raised as common concerns. Most would agree, at least with respect to the Cityplace development, that the new project is an improvement over the development it replaced.

While I share many of the concerns of my brethren with respect to the design and tenant mix of these projects, I view their development as a positive for the City, and something that represents a turning point. I believe that these developments have piqued the interest of other developers in the region, and have led to a development boom in the City. In this respect, the projects have been a success for the City. Rather than focus on the shortcomings of the developments, the planners should understand that they did the best they could, specifically with respect to design, and focus on the future projects. It's easy to critique the projects, but much harder to actually have a part in having them completed. Oftentimes, political push and the perceived need to complete a project can limit the degree to which design, tenant mix, and expenditure of funds can be negotiated by City staff.

However, after these large projects are completed, the tide turns somewhat. With many developers willing to complete projects in the City, City staff have more leverage to require higher quality design, and can be more selective with respect to the projects that receive public funds. In my opinion, reaching a point where the private sector will undertake development absent public assistance is the point of the revitalization efforts, and by this measure these projects have succeeded. The future of Long Beach looks very bright, and those helping to shape it should feel lucky to take part.

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED)

Those of you who have read my previous work know that I am leery of design solutions to social problems. I'm unsure as to why land use is seen as a solution to social ills, but attempts at making the connection continue. Recently, planners, aided by law enforcement professionals, have begun to tout new design strategies called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). These design strategies are supposed to reduce crime through four overarching strategies: (1) natural surveillance, (2) territorial reinforcement, (3) natural access control, and (4) target hardening. The claim by the National Crime Prevention Institute is that: "The proper design and effective use of the built environment can lead to a reduction in the fear and incidence of crime, and an improvement of the quality of life." I'll spare you my attack on the subjective terminology here, as I have covered that previously.

While I'm certainly not against some of these design strategies, I have serious problems with advancing these strategies under the guise of crime prevention. First and foremost, approaching design in this manner puts us in the mode of designing communities based on a problem. We should not be designing communities this way. Rather, we should focus on designing communities by watching how people interact with their environment. Granted, this may include some of the strategies in CPTED. However, I think the starting point for the design discussion is important, and it should be people over problems.

In addition to the faulty starting point for design discussion, CPTED locks us into a set definition of crime, that of the criminal hiding in a dark corner waiting to mug an old lady or rob a store. While this stereotype certainly instills fear, it does not reflect reality. As a society, we need to move away from viewing criminals as a defined set of people that we must defend ourselves against. Crime is much more dynamic than that and involves a larger swath of the population than many people would like to admit. Recognizing this is to admit that design can have little to no effect on crime.

On a final note, I question the sudden need to design away crime. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, property crimes have been on the decline for nearly 30 years, while violent crimes reached their lowest level recorded in 2003. With this in mind, are our design efforts not better focused in some other area?

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Urban Sprawl and Health Redux

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the connection (or lack thereof) between urban sprawl and public health. One of my colleagues, he of the Binary Los Angeles weblog fame, was left somewhat unsatisfied with my discussion. After seeing this article from Emory University and this post from the Cascadia Scorecard Weblog, I felt obligated to opine further on this issue.

As a planner, I am offended that some in my profession choose to argue that urban sprawl is creating public health problems, since doing so reflects a lack of understanding of the research completed and ignores the lack of objectivity underlying the research. The research completed has done nothing more than show a correlation between the so called "sprawling" areas and obesity. We don't know why people in these "sprawling" areas are more likely to be obese than their counterparts in the "less sprawling" areas. The interpreters of the research have been quick to label sprawl as the cause, when many other plausible explanations exist, including an obvious one that the desire for a sedentary lifestyle, which is most likely a contributing factor to obesity, is leading to more sprawl, rather than sprawl being the driving force behind obesity. As my former Sociology professor used to say, correlation never equals causation. Based on the research conducted to date, we don't know why there is a correlation between the "sprawling" areas and obesity, and any assumptions are simply that, regardless of how often they are repeated.

Regarding the inherent bias in the research itself, the studies seem to have the goal of defining a problem in terms of a solution that has already been assumed. Smart Growth, or some other alternative to sprawl, is viewed as the solution, and some proponents of these viewpoints continue seeking problems for their solution to solve. I would hope that these viewpoints have enough merit that garnering acceptance of them does not require intellectual dishonesty on the part of the proponents.

Once again, I urge planners to avoid the connection between sprawl and public health, and to allow their viewpoints on alternatives to sprawl to succeed on their merits instead of on the spurious claim of solving public health problems.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Defining the Subjective

Though we may not always realize it, the planner's vocabulary is filled with subjective terminology. We often use terms such as livable, sustainable, smart growth, and quality of life, knowing full well what these terms mean to us as planners. However, we often fail to realize that these terms do not mean the same thing to everyone. Failure to clarify the meaning of these terms to the public can cause confusion and backlash when we are trying to envision the future of our cities.

For illustration purposes, let's discuss the word livable. Planners are always advocating more livable communities, but do we really know what this means? Certainly no resident would ever want their community to be less livable, but the ideas regarding which amenities make a place more livable will vary from person to person. One person may desire dense urban development, while another may prefer less dense suburban development. While both individuals agree that a livable community is an important goal, their vision of what makes it livable differs.

Planners often attempt to find a singular definition for these subjective terms, which is both arrogant and deceitful. Defining these terms should be left to the community, and since the terms are subjective, the definitions may vary from community to community. As planners, we have the role of presenting different options for the future development of a city, but these options should not be presented in a manner that makes disagreement with them seem illogical or wrong (i.e. unlivable communities and dumb growth). These subjective terms have value as ideas for the community to rally around, but they must be properly defined by the community before being memorialized in our documents and incorporated into the vocabularies of the residents.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Positivity in Planning

Planning practice and discussion revolves around identifying problems and finding solutions to those problems. New ideas and new rules evolve out of the belief that there is a problem with the current method of doing things. Granted, oftentimes nobody will listen to a new idea unless one can identify a shortcoming to the current idea, but I believe that the problem-solution mentality of planning has the unintended consequence of creating a negativity among planners--a belief that we cannot plan unless we have a problem to solve. This forces us to look at our cities in a negtive manner, trying to identify problems to solve. As a firm believer in planning as an optimistic profession, I'll set forth the premise that we planners do not need problems in order to plan. This is not to say that problems will cease to arise; utopia certainly doesn't exist, so planners and the public will always be able to identify problems with the current state of affairs. Rather, I'm suggesting a slight change in our approach to the planning profession. Let's shift our thinking from problems and solutions to assets and opportunities. Let's first identify the things that people like about our cities, and then focus on opportunities to improve upon the existing conditions. Instead of searching for problems, we should build upon our assets. While this approach may appear as nothing more than a renaming of things, I belive the lens through which we view things has a profound effect on our attitude. If we view our cities through a negative lens, our attitude will tend to be more negative. A slight shift in the way we view our cities and ourselves as planners can go a long way toward creating a more positive approach to the planning field.

Whenever I think of negativity and criticizm, I'm reminded of this famous quote, which seems very apt for planners:

"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."-
Theodore Roosevelt

Keep fighting the good fight!