Tuesday, August 24, 2010

NY Times: Urban Farming for Cash Gains a Toehold in San Francisco

"Even as the hype around urban agriculture and the local-food movement has exploded, laws governing land use are still stuck in another era, one that frowned on farming in the city, especially in residential areas, experts in urban planning say." (Link here to article).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Community Innovation Incubators?

I'm a proud generalist, but in my years as a student of urban planning, I've focused on a few topics that really excite me. One is Regional Innovation Systems (RIS) Theory, a branch of regional economic development that tries to build associations amongst different bodies of knowledge within a region to stimulate- you guessed it- private sector innovation! The logic behind this is that regions that actively nurture innovation through investments in education, research, collaboration, and/or facilities like business "incubators" will also attract employers, jobs, and all the goodies that come with it. Another topic- sustainability, or more directly addressing how human behavior results in global environmental collapse- has fascinated me long before I even considered urban planning as a discipline. In the past few years, but in the past year especially, I've taught, studied, lived, eaten, and breathed sustainability, especially as it relates to community development.

I am very convinced that urban planning can play an important role in solving our existing global environmental-social-economic crises. I've devoted most of this blog to this very topic. So many of our problems are the result of poor or zero planning* and I think that if the American public invested as much in innovating the way we plan and build communities as we do in innovating for the market place, we could build communities that are comfortable, meaningful, healthy, just, and ecologically regenerative.

Over the summer, I lived in Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Rutledge, Missouri. Dancing Rabbit (DR) is an intentional ecologically-oriented community. Members of the community have actively chosen to reject many of the conventions that we expect to find in most American communities. Sewerage, grid energy, supermarkets, gas-powered vehicles, and "new" construction materials are amongst the many conventions DR has opted to live without. Susan Love Brown (2000) describes intentional communities as places that are “purposely and voluntarily founded to achieve a specific goal for a specific group of people bent on solving a specific set of cultural and social problems (5).” While I love the concept of intentional community and think that DR and similar communities make important contributions to society, I think there is much untapped potential in recognizing places like DR as sites of important innovation. This fact is very apparent to me: ecovillage residents are discovering new, comfortable, rewarding, and ecologically friendly ways to live. They can do so because they are sheltered from the conventions that are seeking to transcend. In a way, DR and other ecovillages are "incubators" for community innovation. The RIS literature focuses heavily on the ability for innovation to occur in sheltered "incubators". I don't see why community innovation can't be incubated as well.

What if we, as a nation, state, or region, decided that community innovation was important. Important enough to invest time and talent into discovering and enacting new, sustainable, and valuable ways to live? Now, I'm not going so far as to suggest that the government pay for the establishment of ecovillages (although it'd be nice), but I DO think our regions and cities can help spur community innovation by supplying the legal mechanisms to build innovative communities. Overcoming land-use and subdivision regulations are amongst the biggest obstacles to ecovillage formation- usually because such communities require unconventional buildings and settlement patterns and must therefore endure expensive and time-consuming appeals processes (this is one reason why DR is Scotland County, Missouri).

What if Champaign County, Illinois decided that community innovation was as important as economic innovation? Instead of having to jump through hoops to build a carbon-neutral settlement, eco-communities would be invited and encouraged to experiment in sheltered sites within the county. Of course, not all sites would "succeed" but the successful experiments could be applied throughout the region.

These are my thoughts...it's getting late. Goodnight!

*There are very important differences between planning as I hope to use it and "regulation" or the command-and-control of the human environment. Briefly, planning has been described as "providing information about related decisions (Hopkins, 2001)" and applying "knowledge to action (Friedman, 1989)". While regulation can result from planning, it is only one of many outcomes.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Ground Zero Islamic Community Center: It's just a land-use issue...

I'd rather not write too much on this issue. Much like the Blagojevich trial, it's a media event I'd much rather just disappear. Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and all the House candidates making this an important election issue just seem desperate to me. I see no reason why an Islamic community center cannot site itself several blocks from ground zero, or anywhere it doesn't interfere with the health, safety, and welfare of the area. Blocking its establishment (which can probably only be done by NYC officials anyway) solely because it's a Muslim establishment has no legal grounds...at all. The moral argument that it will "offend" the mourners of 9/11 and our post-9/11 nation is, well, absolutely racist. I can fathom no other justification. I think I can demonstrate this with a pretty simple analogy.

The United States suffered terrorist attacks on its soil before 9/11. Tragic as it was, 9/11 was novel only in its enormity. On April 9, 1995 the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed to the ground by Timothy McVeigh, a militia movement sympathizer, who requested a Catholic chaplain when he was executed years later. The attack killed 168 people and injured close to 700. So, should Oklahoma City ban the construction of a Catholic community center blocks away from the federal building site in Oklahoma? The mere idea would be ridiculed. It would be ripped apart by political conservatives and property rights advocates everywhere. Why?Because it's a ridiculous idea.

Of course, there are those that might argue that Muslim fundamentalists are very different from Timothy McVeigh because they were motived by their religion, Islam. True. I think Palin et al. would have an easy case if the proprietors of the "Mosque" in question were supplying weapons or aid to terrorists. But no one, including Palin et al. are claiming this. Islam is an enormous religion with 1.5 billion adherents, the vast majority of whom are as innocent as the rest of us. What about its practice would cause pain to the mourners of 9/11? I'm confused. The only conclusion I can reach is that certain Americans are conflating terrorism (i.e. the attacks 9/11) with all adherents of Islam- a concept which is factually and ethically incorrect.

I think Michael Bloomberg, NYC Mayor, makes the case most eloquently:

“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.”

Friday, August 13, 2010

Really Northbrook...? or On The Merits of Urban Gardening

OK, Northbrook. Take a seat and let's talk for a second. In the past few years you've made a few decisions that have surprised me-in a good way! Like that time you purchased wind power to offset the energy for your water treatment plant. That was pretty good! Or the prairie you've restored and I jog through when I visit my parents. That's great! The bike lanes on Techny- what a great start! But now, I'm kinda confused about this decision. A family puts a garden on their front lawn so they can enjoy fresh veggies in the summer. Sounds fine to me.

Oh wait, what? It's a zoning violation? Really? Are the veggies bothering the neighbors? No? Oh wait, it's an "accessory use?" Like a farm? A FARM? And they need to restore it to lawn by November first? To LAWN? For the water, pesticides, and mowing it takes to maintain lawn you could just as easily have a garden that produces something delicious, nutritious and free. You can't find that at grocery stores anymore, Northbrook. But instead, this family will return this gasp of productivity to the sterile impotency of suburban turf grass. It will become the habitat of next to nothing, serve little functional purpose, but at least it won't be an "accessory use."

Okay. Arguments over accessory uses have caused ripples throughout the historical landscape of land use for over a century. One of my favorite insights into the practice of urban zoning comes from a case that dealt with accessory uses. The judge from Goldman v. Crowther, a 1925 case in the Maryland Court of Appeals suggested that zoning laws, "at a stroke arrests that process of natural evolution and growth, and substitutes for it an artificial and arbitrary plan of segregation..." Indeed, the defendant in this case- I believe a recent immigrant to the US-had been running a sewing shop out of his basement and was forced to leave.

I can see the merit of these types of regulations if, for example, your "accessory use" results in a line of cars around the block, noxious fumes, loud noises, or toxic runoff. I couldn't protest if a regulation prevented my next door neighbor from smoldering steel in her backyard. I can also see why such a regulation might apply if the accessory use results in some kind of supplementary income, although I'm not sure I always agree with its application. But I simply cannot reconcile why a garden, which earns the homeowner zero extra income, nor results in any nuisance, would be regulated away. It's retrograde and draconian. It's time for Suburbia to advance.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Map of Ecovillages in the USA: This is what I do with my freetime...

Q: What does an urban planner do when s/he develops a passion for ecovillages over the summer and returns to campus where s/he has access to data and mapping software?

A: S/he makes a map (click to enlarge).

It was only a matter of time. With an easily accessible data source thanks to the Fellowship for Intentional Community (www.fic.ic.org), some tinkering with MS excel, MS access, and ArcMap, I managed to map existing and forming ecovillages in the USA. The colored forms are individual counties, which makes states with geographically large counties (e.g. Arizona) seem rife with ecovillages. Arizona has no shortage, to be sure, but that entire big green blob is home to one "existing ecovillage" and one "forming ecovillage."

Of course, much more aggressive analysis awaits, and I imagine there exist ecovillages outside the FIC directory that have to appear on the map. Nevertheless, we see some patterns emerge. I've enlarged three interesting areas of the national map: the Pacific Northwest, where it seems ecovillages are forming like wildfire around the Portland area; Missouri, the home of Dancing Rabbit (note to DR fans: Skyhouse appears as its own "community" in the FIC directory. Hence the existence of four (4) communities in Scotland Counties.); and the Northeast, where there are lots of existing and forming ecovillages.

The map raises some interesting questions worth further investigation: 1) To what extent to do ecovillages form near existing ecovillages? I know this is absolutely the case of Dancing Rabbit which settled intentionally near Sand Hill Farms and later sparked the foundation of Red Earth Farms. It also seems like many of the counties that host "forming" ecovillages are also counties with existing ecovillages. In other words, formation doesn't appear random with respect to existing communities. 2) How does proximity to urban areas influence community formation? 3) How does proximity to universities influence community formation? It seems like there are many forming in central Massachusetts- there are colleges there, right?

I, of course, am interested in how local and regional land use regulations influence the formation. This will take some extra data and probably some on-the-ground investigation. Which means I'll have to travel to these places. Excellent! Enjoy the map. Remembers, it's only a start.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sunday meetings, public participation, and municipal democracy.

Following an ecstatic farewell party (a three-hour acoustic jam/ sing along) and an emotional departure from Dancing Rabbit, I’ve begun to settle back into the read—write –meet—re-write rhythm of academic life in Champaign, Illinois. I’ve had more trouble than I anticipated leaving DR; even the uncomfortable summer heat feels hotter “off the farm.” Thankfully, my academic advisor is pretty enthusiastic about integrating intentional community and ecovillage life into my research, and I intend to run (briskly) with the opportunity!

This afternoon, while seated alone in a vacuous, air-conditioned computer lab, surrounded by droves of humming Dell desktops, I skimmed through academic articles describing the unfortunate state of public participation in American and British planning processes. One after another decries the inefficient, unjust, often self-legitimating public hearings that strip citizens of any efficacy in their local government. One author, Kathleen Halverson of Michigan Technical University, explains that public participation ought to be comfortable, convenient, satisfying, and deliberative. That is, citizens ought not have to strain themselves to arrive and sit through a meeting, their opinions ought to be heard and acknowledged, they ought to engaged in (at least) two-way dialogue, and they ought to feel as if their contributions have made a difference in the outcome of the proceedings. Attend most municipal public hearings, and the critiques of Halverson and many other authors become instantly evident.

Contrast this with the Dancing Rabbit Sunday meeting. I hadn’t until a few days ago considered the Sunday meeting a form of public participation. Perhaps its lack of Robert’s Rules of Order and its unquestionable relevance to daily life in the community clouded the comparison. I think it’s worth a blog entry to discuss why the Sunday meeting seems to work so well.

Each Sunday at 12:30, Dancing Rabbit members, residents, and visitors of all sorts gather in the common house to discuss the week in preview, or “the WIP.” Sitting in a circle, dressed in their daily casual attire (shirtless perhaps), the Rabbits begin with an open call for announcements. People announce anything from lost items, to found items, to surplus garlic they’ve harvested and are willing to sell, to a workshop they’re offering the following weekend. Ah yes, and just in case someone realizes they’ve forgotten to announce something important, they have another chance at the end of the meeting to let everyone know that there’ll be a work party to fix the mailboxes after the meeting. After announcements, the meeting shifts to “Guests and Tours” during which hosts announce the guests that will be arriving in the coming week. This, I imagine serves a dual purpose: 1) to avoid confusion about strangers walking around and 2) to make sure that guests aren’t greeted with confusion. This also explains why one woman, who had no official association with my arrival at DR, knew my name, “You must be Robby,” the instant I left my car back in June. This is followed up with a list of people “Off the farm” or who’s leaving the village during the week, also an important undertaking as to avoid any unwarranted worry or search party.

Next, important events and committee meetings are announced for each day of the week. Finally, a similar discussion revolving around car usage lists the day, departure/arrival time, and destination of the three cooperative vehicles. This allows members to schedule their use of the cars AND to notify drivers of potential errands that they can help with. If, for example, Joe was scheduled to drive into town on Tuesday afternoon, I could ask him to pick up a box of nails for me. I would, of course, share the cost of fuel with Joe.

After the WIP is finished, members sometimes engage in potentially more important business meetings, during which members discuss and decide on issues such as community energy production and grid connections—a topic that was decided during my stay.

Although I did not take attendance or count the number of members present, the “participation rate” at the DR Sunday meeting was probably about 80 percent of active members. Far exceeding the paltry, undocumented participation rate in Champaign, Illinois, a city of over 75,000 residents. Even if every seat of the City Council Chambers were filled, participation would still lag behind that of DR. I feel safe in extending this reality to most other American municipalities. It’s certainly not because Champaign residents have no stake in the proceedings. I’ve witnessed multi-million dollar investments and major ordinances pass the city council without a single public comment.

Let’s take Halverson’s requirements—that public participation ought to be comfortable, convenient, satisfying, and deliberative. Without venturing too far into criticizing the City of Champaign, for which I serve as a public appointee, let’s take a look at why Sunday meetings attract such a robust crowd. First of all, it seems as though the Sunday meeting is a great place to catch up with neighbors and friends. Indeed, it’s not hard to run into other people at DR—most everyone spends the day outdoors and there are wonderful common spaces. But some people remain pretty isolated to their work, so it’s nice to know that you can see your neighbors face to face at least once a week. Residents have to make the tumultuous journey of 1,500 feet (maximum) to arrive at the meeting at which they can wear whatever clothes they want. They sit in a circle, know they’ll have an opportunity to speak, and they’ll receive a response if they need it. They information they gain at the meeting is usually relevant to their daily lives and if it’s not, it could become relevant later.

Contrast this with a traditional municipal meeting that is usually scheduled on a weekday evening- sometimes during work hours. You stand before officials you probably don’t know. They look down on you from an elevated and decorated podium. They have no obligation to respond to you and while you’re guaranteed an opportunity to speak, you’re limited to a relatively short amount of time (yes, I’ve been effectively “shut up” at a plan commission meeting before). The matters of discussion are often esoteric, presented in legal jargon, and publicly televised, so don’t trip or stutter or ask a question that might spur the perception that you’re ignorant or uninformed! And this is only if you choose to attend in the first place. More than likely, the decision has been made a meetings prior to the public hearing by very qualified professionals (in the case of Champaign) or by corrupt politicians (in the case of Chicago). The silence at the municipal meetings I’ve attended are, on one hand, a sign that the professionals at the City are doing their job well. I really think they are. Having worked with them, I am convinced they are some of the brightest professionals around. But they are entrenched in a system that discourages dynamic public discourse. Public participation is, by design(?), an intimidating and uncomfortable process. I don’t think it should be this way.

The contrast between DR Sunday meetings and the municipal public meetings I’ve witnessed provokes all sorts of questions: at what scale and about which topics should weekly public meetings engage? Could a city of 75,000 conduct a “Sunday meeting” with facilitators that change from week to week? At what cost should public officials try to “engage” residents that don’t have an immediate moneyed interested in a topic? Where should public meetings be held? What should the layout of the room be? What are the merits of having an elevated podium in the first place. I certainly don’t think that a city of 75,000 or even 1,000 could conduct their public meetings like a 50 person ecovillage. But I do think there are lessons to be learned regarding conditions that make for a healthy democracy.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

My little projects!

Hey all,

My postings have slowed down recently and while an eager reader could attribute this to sloth or lack of devotion to my blog (the shame!) I've actually been stalling so I could post some pictures of my projects at the work site. The majority of my work this summer has involved the addition to Ted and Sara's house, but I've also been lucky to design and lead the construction effort on some smaller projects around the kitchen.

The Arbor!

This is a project that Ironweed Kitchen has meant to complete for some time now. The arbor in this picture is the slatted extension of the roof. The rafters and slats are supported by two osage branches connected by a 2x8 beam. Over time the earthen wall in this picture has been battered by high wind and rain from the northwest, increasing the risk that the strawbale insulation will be exposed to moisture- a circumstance that MUST be avoided. The arbor shields the wall from heavy horizontal rain while the newly applied layer of cob plaster can withstand light rain for years.

Sandy and I constructed the arbor over the course of a week and she finished the project with some ornamental carvings on the edges of the cross-beam (see below.) In the past few days someone has hung a solar shower (basically, a bag with a hose) and a towel from the rafters, thus endowing Ironweed kitchen with a full bathroom!

The Hexagonal Table

It'd certainly be a shame to avoid eating outside during the summer. All Ironweed Kitchen needed was a place to do it! My final construction assignment at Dancing Rabbit was a picnic table for outdoor eating. Of course, no ordinary rectangular table would suffice, so I took the time to research and re-design a hexagonal table with built-in benches. Despite a couple small mistakes and "re-starts" (a gentle phrase Sandy uses to convey that I've completely messed up), I was able to complete the project using almost all scrap lumber from the house construction.

I finished the project at the end of the workday on Thursday, just in time to enjoy an outdoor Thai-style dinner courtesy of my buddy John. Although I didn't anticipate eating at the table until I water-proofed it, there was an overwhelming desire to escape the heat of the kitchen and enjoy dinner as the outdoor air cooled.