Tag Archives: urban planning

“New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson

You have to admire an author who stands an academic/cultural trope on its head. We’ve all heard of The Tragedy of the Commons, right? Heavy. Very heavy. Robinson brings us…the COMEDY of the Commons! I love it. Among other fancies, he produces a new Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn duo, Stefan and Roberto, a pair of “water rats” who live by luck and their wits in a stolen Zodiac in the drowned city of Lower Manhattan.

This book reminds me of The Martian by Andy Weir. In The Martian, one man fights a planet for survival. In New York 2140 Robinson creates a crowd of lovable eccentrics and follows their struggles on the hard-to-recognize landscape of New York after sea level rise.

Robinson treats himself to a “chorus”, the presence of a non-participant (identified as “citizen” or “the city smartass”) who comments on the setting (the New York bight) and sometimes addresses the reader, as in the following rant:

“Because life is robust,

Because life is bigger than equations, stronger than money, stronger than guns and poison and bad zoning policy, stronger than capitalism,

Because Mother Nature bats last, and Mother Ocean is strong, and we live inside our mothers forever, and Life is tenacious and you can never kill it, you can never buy it,

So Life is going to dive down into your dark pools, Life is going to explode the enclosures and bring back the commons,

O you dark pools of money and law and quanitudinal(sic) stupidity, you over simple algorithms of greed, you desperate simpletons hoping for a story you can understand,

Hoping for safety, hoping for cessation of uncertainty, hoping for ownership of volatility, O you poor fearful jerks,

Life! Life! Life! Life is going to kick your ass!”

Robinson is channeling Walt Whitman here. (Whether I believe this or not is a question for another day.)

The basic scenario of New York 2140 is that sea level rise, happening in two “pulses” rather than slowly, has transpired and a great deal of land has been abandoned. But New York City is just too valuable, so it evolves into three zones – dry land in northern Manhattan, an “intertidal” zone and a marginally occupied, heavily damaged Lower Manhattan. The book takes place in the intertidal zone, which is starting to “gentrify”.

Robinson quotes a number of sources throughout the book, mostly at chapter headings. Robert Moses, for example, who ruthlessly imposed his vision on the New York infrastructure. Additionally, H L Mencken, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, and assorted scientists and commentators. Some are worth checking out.

Robinson makes a “character” out of an existing building, the Met Life Tower on Madison Avenue. It is portrayed as having “personality”. In 2140, it is occupied by a housing cooperative. New York is very crowded, so successful professionals pay dearly for even a tiny bit of space, like a bunk in a dormitory.

Characters in New York 2140 make occasional reference to Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the 21st Century has been attracting attention recently. Piketty is a French academic who has studied the history of the distribution of wealth. Both Piketty and K S Robinson are asking how capitalism can be structured to benefit the citizens of a democratic nation. Believe it or not, there’s a copy of Piketty’s book in my livingroom. I plan to read at least some of it. Stay tuned!

I dashed excitedly through New York 2140 in a few days, and I’ve written this without consulting reviews. After I do that, I may learn that, one way or another, I’ve entirely missed the point.

 

“The Cure for Catastrophe – How We Can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters” by Robert Muir-Wood

Published by Basic Books, 2016, 278 pages plus extensive documentation.

This book carried me across the shock of the election. I snagged it from the New Arrivals Shelf at Stockton. It is a fine example of one of my favorite genres, science for non-scientists.

One important thing I learned is that denial (as in Climate Change denial) is nothing new. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was “re-branded” into a fire. True, highly destructive fires broke out, but the source of trouble was an earthquake. The City of San Francisco did not want to study the fault on which it stands.

What catastrophes does Muir-Wood discuss? Fires, earthquakes (and associated tsunamis), hurricanes (and their storm surges), other types of floods, and drought. Makes you wonder how humankind has persisted. He leaves out tornados and the mysterious derecho.

The point of this book is that most casualties during floods, earthquakes, etc. result from poor decisions. Housing in flood plains. Skyscraper apartment houses build without reference to building codes or advanced engineering principles.

Muir-Wood throws EVERYTHING at the problem, especially (to my delight) literature and history. Writing about a series of storms, he wisecracks “Gabriel Garcia Marquez could not make this up!”

The day after I started reading “The Cure for Catastrophe”, I found two related articles in the New York Times (November 4, 2016). On page A4 “Italian Town Still ‘Broken’ by Quake Years Ago” and on page A15 “San Francisco Sues Over Sinking Skyscraper, Symbol of a Rush to Build”.

Each of these stories can be understood better if analyzed from Muir-Wood’s point of view.

Why did this book help me shake off my post-election gloom? Because Muir-Wood is a super intelligent technological optimist. He can see a path forward to improved safety and health for all. He provides examples of people, cities and countries that are improving their catastrophe management. He invented the term “risk culture”, I think. And he was kind enough to forego use of the phrase “internet of things” until very late in his discussion. I haven’t quite integrated the IoT into my mental toolbox.

Read this book! And use it to demand good, science based public policy from our elected officials.

Giving the city of Trenton another chance

I’ve never been charitable about Trenton. I’ve lived in New Jersey forty years (!!), but in that time I think I went to Trenton voluntarily only twice, to cheer for the Thunder, Trenton’s minor league baseball team. Otherwise, I went to Trenton for work, under duress, and I blessed the occasional opportunity to attend a meeting by teleconference and save myself the three hour round trip drive. (Wait, I’m forgetting… I also once participated in a political demonstration at the state capital.)

Imagine my surprise, then, upon receiving an INVITATION to a social event in Trenton! My husband’s alumni association offered a docent-led tour of the Trenton City Museum, to be followed by a potluck/barbeque at a home nearby.

In Trenton?? Yes! Said museum is located in an old mansion in Cadwalader Park on the north side of Trenton. We decided to accept this unusual proposition, and headed up Route 206 last weekend, trusting to GPS to get us to our destination.

Cadwalader Park was occupied by family groups using the barbeque grills. Our group assembled at Ellarslie Mansion. It’s present incarnation as the Trenton City Museum began in 1971. Our docent/tour guide/hostess has been a Trustee of the Museum for many years.

I knew that Trenton had an industrial past, but the details (about ceramics manufacturing) were much more interesting than I expected. Additionally, the annual juried art show was in progress. All the entries were for sale. Some were decidedly tempting!

After our tour we drove to a home half a block away, a big, old stone mansion with a charming back yard, where we relaxed and socialized.

So… I take back most of what I’ve said about Trenton! There is hope for it, and citizens are working for its improvement. The day may come when I’ll say to a friend “Let’s go up to Trenton, see the Museum, go to a restaurant…” Won’t that be a surprise?!

Take back the streets! (Pitney Road)

Municipal planners will tell you that a “road” and a “street” are two different entities, despite the interchangeable use of the terms, along with a multitude of other synonyms like “lane”, “drive” and “way”. The difference is summed up as follows: a road is for cars, a street is for people.

I accept this distinction. I live on a road. People (except in their cars) venture onto it at their peril. Where can I go to experience a “street”? In Egg Harbor City, I can at least wander from restaurant to Library to hardware store. Some effort has been made to soften the hardscape with trees and a bench or two. There’s a pub. Let’s call Philadelphia Avenue 15% “street”. Much better than 100% road!

The two big cities I know best (Boston and Philadelphia) have sections where the streets are alive. Alive! Often these are the areas popular with young adults. Lively streets provide shopping and entertainment. There are opportunities to “see and be seen”. You might run into a friend. A street is public, social space.

My Quaker meeting is located on a road – no doubt about it. Pitney Road is, at times, annoyingly busy with cars and a tad dangerous. But we put the “street” back into Pitney Road on Saturday morning with our annual fundraiser. Who would have thought heirloom tomato plants would be so popular?

For a few hours, our part of Pitney Road became “people territory”. Cars slowed down! “Meet and greet” became the order of the day. Joggers and dog walkers materialized. The merits of “Rutgers” tomatoes were debated, the Spring weather analyzed, summer plans discussed.

The tomato plant sale was a successful fundraiser, but better than that, we hosted a neighborhood social event! We turned Pitney Road into a STREET for a few hours. Thanks to ALL for a great Saturday morning!

“Good Morning, Beautiful Business” by Judy Wicks

Good Morning, Beautiful Business by Judy Wicks. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013, 274 pages. Subtitle The unexpected journey of an activist entrepreneur and local economy pioneer.

Another long-ish pause in my blogging, as I read another long and thoughtful book…

This blog post counts as two items – a report on a lecture and also a book review! I bought the book when Judy Wicks spoke at my workplace on March 19, 2015. (It didn’t really take me three weeks to read her book. I had others in progress.)

Judy Wicks was brought to campus by the School of Business, with enthusiastic faculty support. Apparently three or four classes were required to attend, so the room was jammed with students signing in and extra chairs had to be set up.

Good Morning, Beautiful Business is a memoir. Wicks is just two years older than me, so we experienced many of the same events but followed very different pathways through life.

Odd features of this book:

  • Judy Wicks is not to be found in Wikipedia, except as the first wife of Richard Hayne, one of the founders of the extremely successful Urban Outfitters, a business than has generated a fortune. I thought everyone who EVER wrote a book would show up in Wikipedia. (Wicks is easily found on Amazon.com. If she wasn’t, that would be spooky.) I thought the White Dog Café might show up in Wikipedia, but it is also missing. It shows up on at least a dozen “restaurant finder” web sites.
  • This memoir contains NO information about Judy Wicks’ college experience, not even the name of the school she attended. Why?! Was she disowned? Most colleges love to claim their famous alumnae. Her website says only that she earned a BA in English. Wicks’ descriptions of childhood and high school are vivid, as is her chapter on her post college experience with Americorps, which sent her to a very remote village in Alaska. A friend of mine collects written accounts of college experiences. I thought surely there would be something in this book for him!

Judy Wicks was a child in the 1950s, college student and young adult in the 1960s. One of “us”, a baby boomer. The 50s were distinguished by sexism and conformity, the 60s by the Vietnam War and its associated backlash. Wicks came out of these trials a feminist and a skeptic, but still an idealist. She stumbled into the restaurant business (starting out as a waitress) and later founded the highly successful White Dog Café, known nationally and even internationally for its commitment to using food that is

  • organic
  • local and
  • humanely produced.

It is also a hub for progressive social action and community building. Much of what she does and cares about can be subsumed in the category of “sustainability”, a term that has been so used, abused and co-opted as to be almost useless without detailed qualification.

Judy Wicks has enough energy for four or five average people! The account of her activities left me breathless.

So all of this was going on while I lived 60 miles down the road, in Southern New Jersey. How did I miss it? I don’t know. My only time of residence in Philadelphia was a three month sojourn in the Ronald MacDonald House, when my son had a serious medical crisis. I did, in fact, dine at the White Dog once or twice during that time, but I wasn’t processing much detail.

Of the three commitments listed above, the one that speaks to me most strongly is “local”. Wicks has the courage to envision an economy radically different from that in which we now live. She highlights ideas like self-reliance and cooperation that have been greatly diminished in our current competitive and globalized world order. (She scarcely needs to mention that it has brought us into terrible risk.)

Just today, I drove around looking for local eggs. I can, if I make the effort, buy eggs directly from farmers. The farm market “scene” around here fills my summers with delight.

I have almost no experience with the entrepreneurial spirit Wicks so embodies and values, and I can’t imagine owning a business. Maybe at some point I will invest in a local business! I like that idea.

As I read the last few chapters of Wicks book, I wondered how she maintains her optimism. I found the following formulation – Wicks believe that social action requires two generations. Efforts of the baby boom generation to resolve the ills that led to the Vietnam War failed because the “generation gap” between the WWII generation and the subsequent anti-war baby boomers was so traumatically, excruciatingly wide. She thinks that our generation and our children (down to the millenials) are working together much more constructively. Well, it’s a theory. I hope Wicks is right!

ALL business students should read Good Morning, Beautiful Business. So should most of the rest of us, since consumers determine which businesses flourish.

“The Good Food Revolution – Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities” by Will Allen with Charles Wilson

Will Allen is 65 years old, just like me. He was born into very different circumstances. When I read this book, I had to keep reminding myself that his childhood and youth did not take place “far away and long ago”. We were separated by maybe 500 miles in distance, and no time at all. But I didn’t “meet” him until I read this book.

Will Allen was born in Maryland, into a poor African American family from South Carolina. His parents were hard working and incredibly self-reliant. Allen credits his highly athletic physique to a childhood of hard work and healthy food. He discovered basketball early in his teens and used it as his path away from poverty. I’m familiar with the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the South to northern cities, and even with some of the reverse migration that followed. (There’s a demographer in the family. Hi, JBC!) But it never occurred to me to analyze it from the viewpoint of food and nutrition! Will Allen writes about this with great clarity.

Allen’s depiction of pre-Migration families eating healthy homegrown food is somewhat at odds with tales told by my father-in-law, a North Carolina university physician whose father practiced rural medicine before him. His descriptions of country life among the poor included appallingly bad health and severe malnutrition. Maybe life in the coastal plain of North Carolina was harder than in South Carolina or Virginia.

But there’s no arguing with Allen’s assertion that, once at their urban destinations, African Americans and other poor people faced (and continue to face) many barriers to healthy eating. For three decades, I’ve watched Atlantic City struggle to retain a single supermarket. If you don’t have a car, buying a week’s worth of food at a time isn’t going to happen, and if you are working two jobs, how much can you cook? Cheap, starchy food isn’t very satisfying, so obesity sometimes catches up with you.

Will Allen is one very creative farmer! I’ve farmed a little, with an oddball list of shaky successes – blackberries to die for, okra, basil, yard-long Chinese beans. But I’ve also been frequently defeated (by deer, weather, etc.), and have decided to leave agriculture to my more talented and hardworking neighbors. Allen preaches patience and plainly has learned, over time, how to make barren, desolate areas productive. Allen branched out beyond vegetables to raising chickens and even fish.

Along the way, he has involved schools and neighborhood centers and cooperatives. He has figured out how to go vertical, crowding multiple crops into small areas. Presently, he works both on crops/projects that are economically viable and ones that require subsidies. He identifies ENERGY as a major barrier to urban agriculture in his city of Milwaukee.

I love Allen’s vision of bringing food closer to people and people closer to food. I know people who are working along the same lines in Atlantic City and even Camden, the saddest city I know. I wish them all the greatest possible success.

“Cities are Good for You – the Genius of the Metropolis” by Leo Hollis, part 2.

Yes, I finished this book! See my first review, dated August 9, 2013.

Hollis believes cities are more likely to save us from environmental destruction/climate change than rural approaches. I agree with him on this. Living out in the country and “off the grid” either involves a standard of living most of us wouldn’t accept, or use of all kinds of high tech gadgetry (solar panels, batteries, wind turbines, etc.) that are produced elsewhere, always at some environmental cost. And you have to own a car. Cities allow for many efficiencies, most notably that one may have a well developed social life close at hand, just because there are so many people around.

(Memory… When I went to college, I was surprised how much I enjoyed living in a dorm, and having friends – both close and casual – nearby. As a child in suburbia, I found it hard to get together with friends. A college campus is often more like a city than a suburb, despite all that grass.)

That said, I should make it clear that Hollis is ambivalent about cities, frequently citing situations gone wrong (riots, slums…) as well as examples of smart growth and strong communities. But he considers it inevitable that the human future will be largely urban. He can’t decide if cities are “organic” and sometimes self correcting, or if they must (at least some of the time) be organized from the top down.

Hollis cites so many other authors that you could spend months checking them all out. Two who intrigued me were Colin Beavan (No Impact Man) and Donald Shoup (The High Cost of Free Parking).

Beavan (and family) tried to live city life with “no impact”. He even turned off the electricity in his apartment. Ridiculous… Candles are too dangerous. He charged his computer elsewhere. How did he do laundry? And this was a one year experiment! Interesting, but not significant (to me). Doesn’t mean I won’t read it…

Shoup’s book about parking interests me much more! Hollis says he argues that parking should never be free. This issue is close to my heart. I work on a college campus. I know what parking costs – it is not free, ANYWHERE. Free parking on a college campus sends the wrong message – use your car, don’t worry about the impact. I feel like I’m seeing (once again) something I remember from the early days of recycling. Why was the “container industry” allowed to introduce the aluminum can without taking responsibility for its disposal?? Individuals and municipalities and campuses struggled so hard to deal with single use cans, while the “container industry” got rich. Whether we talk about solid waste or parking, each technology needs to be viewed as a whole process, not a one-way dash towards profit and convenience. 

However did Hollis miss John Francis (Planetwalker)??

Hollis suggests that cities (especially megacities like London or NYC or Hong Kong) will soon be more important than countries. Might this decrease the likelihood of war? In this case, what will global citizenship mean? Do I want to live in a megacity? NO! But what about my sons?

I recommend this book to people interested in the near future, climate change and planning/development. With all the talk currently heard about resilience and adaptation, that’s a lot of people.