Monday, December 31, 2007

And one more from Kuntsler...

...for 2007.

This year's annual prediction essay
by him has some potentially offensive language so readers be advised.

That said, he's likely to be much more right than wrong.

And, that's concerning.

Let's pray that 2008 at least brings about these Major Changes in the most peaceful ways possible.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Future of Development?

More thoughts on it from James Kuntsler.

Walking to School...

...Daily Sprawl regularly posts about the important issue of making new schools as "walkable" as possible. Meaning that, new schools should be placed in locations where many of the students can safely and legally walk to the school.

The benefits of small "walkable" schools are numerous: higher test scores, better health, lower dropout rates and many more.

Unfortunately, many school districts and states have ignored these results and continue to build schools in unwalkable locations. The argument for this is that the land is often cheaper there. Which, if you are considering just the land cost is probably true.

But, what about getting the students to that school located on cheaper land? Or, worse still, what if you build schools that--as the crow flies--are within walking distance but there is not a safe way to actually get there?

This story explains how the increase in energy costs is poking major holes in the logic of building schools that are essentially unwalkable to most, if not all, students:
chool-district officials say they simply are trying to enforce state
standards on who is entitled to ride school buses and who is not. The
state reimburses school districts about $400 for every student who lives
two miles or more from school.

"The only decision we can make is whether the kids are eligible or not
for bus transportation," said Ken Lewis, director of bus services for
Seminole schools.

But if a district argues that walking or biking to school is dangerous
because of traffic or some other hazard, the state might reimburse for
those kids, too.

Seminole has been more aggressive than other counties in pursuing such
exceptions -- including traffic-clogged Orange County. The state is
subsidizing bus rides for about 1,400 students who would not otherwise
be eligible because they live too close to school, compared with fewer
than 1,000 in Orange, according to state data for the 2005-06 school
year, the latest available.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Monday, December 24, 2007

An AlreadyTenuous Situation...

...continues to get more tenuous:
"The central banks are rapidly losing control. By not cutting interest rates nearly far enough or fast enough, they are allowing the money markets to dictate policy. We are long past worrying about moral hazard," he says.

"They still have another couple of months before this starts imploding. Things are very unstable and can move incredibly fast. I don't think the central banks are going to make a major policy error, but if they do, this could make 1929 look like a walk in the park," he adds.
The biggest loser in all this will be the sprawl growth of the last couple decades. Unfortunately, real people live in those suburban sprawl houses. Meaning that, the true cost of our short-sighted sprawl will soon become more and more painful to the average suburban American.

But, wait, if all those financial numbers made little sense, then there's this problem too:
Americans are falling behind on their credit card payments at an alarming rate, sending delinquencies and defaults surging by double-digit percentages in the last year and prompting warnings of worse to come.

An Associated Press analysis of financial data from the country's largest card issuers also found that the greatest rise was among accounts more than 90 days in arrears.

Experts say these signs of the deterioration of finances of many households are partly a byproduct of the subprime mortgage crisis and could spell more trouble ahead for an already sputtering economy.
The financial crash of sprawl growth has shocked even people like me who follow all of this closely.

I used to think that strong regulatory changes were needed to stop sprawl. Now, it's pretty clear that the financial markets are correcting sprawl themselves.

Don't believe me?

Just try and find a new suburban, single-use subdivision on a planning commission agenda. You generally can't because they've been stopped cold in their tracks.

No buyers. Few lenders. Hesitant developers. The perfect storm to stop sprawl.

Unfortunately though, real people will end up realizing real big problems because of this. This is very unfortunate, but ultimately a necessary part of the process toward correcting our unsustainable mistakes.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

We linked to this article earlier this week but now you can listen to Andres Duany very interesting podcast interview on the left hand side of the article.

An excellent summary of the state of things.

Good Coverage...

...from Time Magazine on the efforts to counter sprawl:
Technology has gotten us into the climate change mess, and we assume that technology will get us out of it. Hybrid cars, wind turbines, algae biofuel — businesses and policymakers alike are searching for the technological fixes that will decarbonize our lives. But the deeper problem may be how — and where — we live our lives. The dominant pattern of development in America — large houses and sprawling, auto-dependent suburbs — requires a heavy input of fossil fuels and an output of carbon emissions. The adoption of cleaner technologies will take us part of the way, but what we really need to do is change our habitat, not just for the environmental benefits, but for our health, lifestyle and happiness.

Friday, December 21, 2007

More on Rebuilding New Orleans...

This article provides another interesting perspective:
New Orleans is sinking further below sea level every year, and the shoreline is rapidly approaching the city. The river is rising, and more hurricanes and floods are certain to strike the region in the next 100 years. The decision whether to rebuild or relocate an historic city is a difficult one. Moving the bulk of the city would be more costly, at least at this stage before sinking increases and another disaster strikes. The costs of either decision will be enormous, but relocating makes more sense and will eventually be inevitable. Whether we cut our losses now and move or wait until a super-hurricane makes a direct hit and kills hundreds of thousands of people must be carefully considered.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

If They Can Do the Fife Diet...

...could you shun all air freighted food and do the [Fill In Name of Your City] Diet?

Recklessly Rebuilding New Orleans...

...I've recently been involved in an email exchange regarding whether government funds should be used to rebuild the New Orleans area (and, for that matter, other areas affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) back to the way these places existed before the storms.

My answer is an unequivocal, "No, government funds should not be used for such a purpose."

However, a complex issue like this lends itself to more than a short answer. So, allow me to explain why rebuilding New Orleans to its previous state would amount to a reckless endangerment of human life.

1. First, I believe almost everyone agrees that the pre-Katrina New Orleans--dysfunctional in many ways like public education and law enforcement--still represented some of this country's most interesting urban design and cultural activities. Indeed, the "Big Easy" was deservedly loved by many (including myself) for these reasons.

2. However, today's New Orleans is much different than how the city was first settled. For starters, it's a common misconception that all of the city is below sea level. Actually, there are parts--including much of the orignal settlement--that are located on higher ground. Unfortunately, as the city has grown, more and more of its development has expanded into flood zone areas below sea level.

3. Worse still, much of this area is populated by the poorer people of New Orleans. Indeed, a quick zip code or census search reveals that most of the higher ground in the area is inhabited by the city's wealthier citizens. Of course, this is hardly a surprise as the limited amount of high ground is more much valuable land and thus more prone to being owned by those who can afford more expensive land. Ultimately, the sad reality is that the most flood prone areas of New Orleans are also generally the poorest areas of the city (with a few exceptions).

Meaning that the least wealthy resident are located in the most dangerous harm's way.

4. That said, even the high ground of New Orleans is situated in a difficult place. Hurricanes from the Gulf of Mexico have historically struck this general area. Flooding, even after just an inland band of thunderstorms, is common-place. All in all, the forces of mother nature have posed, currently pose, and will always pose great challenges to a city located as low as New Orleans.

5. To guard against these challenges, various levels of government (and occasionally private interests) have designed an extensive series of levees, dams, water pumps, and other anti-flood measures. All of these, to one degree or another, are based on human mechanical efforts--whether it is the large tractors used to move massive amounts of dirt and rock for the levees, the steel and concrete used for various pumps and flood gates, or the complex systems used to manage them all.

6. Unfortunately, in all aspects--their design, construction, or operation-- essentially each of these attempted safeguards consume large amounts of nonrenewable energy. Indeed, moving the huge piles of dirt for the massive levees or operating the floodgates and pumps would not be possible on the current scale without using large amounts of nonrenewable fuel sources like oil and electricity. This poses a major problem though since most persons who research the issue agree that the scarcity of these nonrenewable resources is rapidly peaking and will only get worse.

Meaning that the cost to build and operate the flood defense systems of New Orleans will get exponentially higher--eventually reaching a point of succumbing to the realities of Peak Nonrenewable Energy.

7. So, here is the situation: we as humans have attempted to out-engineer the forces of mother nature to keep the expanses of New Orleans dry from floods. This act itself represents an arrogant folly as, no matter how hard we try, the forces of nature will ultimately prevail.

However, even if we can delay or mitigate these forces, our current plan for doing so is heavily dependent on a design, construction, maintenance, and operational network powered by nonrenewable fuel sources that are becoming more and more scarce--and soon cost-prohibitive.

8. Now, before going any further, allow me two quick side notes: a) this problem is not unique to New Orleans. Indeed, other U.S. cities like California's state capital in Sacramento--while not necessarily facing the same natural force challenges from a hurricane--are still located in areas that are regularly prone to anticipated natural disasters. To fight against this historical, they have developed a similar nonrenewable centered defense systems. As with N.O., government funds should also not be used to induce development/redevelopment in the unsustainable portions of these areas. In other words, this critique is not limited to New Orleans only but to all areas built within the path of known and predictable natural disasters.

And the second side note--b) forget about solar or wind power operating these anti-flood systems. Even cursory research reveals that neither of these renewable sources can even begin to generate the needed power to (re)construct, operate, and maintain these devices. Those who suggest that these anti-flood defense systems can still be built, maintained, and operated in the post-cheap oil/natural gas era are simply not dealing with the reality of the Long Emergency situation.

9. Okay, back to New Orleans specifically. The big question is obvioulsy: Why do efforts to rebuild in the flooded areas of New Orleans represent a reckless risk to human life?

The answer is quite simple.

We cannot out-engineer mother nature.

And, even if we can put up a decent fight, our efforts to mitigate these effects in N.O. are driven by a depleting power source. Meaning that, even if we really, really, really, really want to--its very unlikely we will be able to allocate the growing scarcity of nonrenewable resources needed to accomplish this effort. The pending scarcity of nonrenewable energy sources simply warrants against that possibility.

10. Unfortunately, by attempting to rebuild the flood prone areas of New Orleans--again, those areas most populated by the disenfranchised--we are essentially using government funds to induce people of lesser means to move back into harm's way. When you stop and think about this--it borders on the unconscionable. After all, there is no amount of great urban design or cultural activity worth trying to preserve or rebuild at the cost of giving people false hope and incentivizing their return to an inherently dangerous place to live in terms of the forces of mother nature.

This is why the government has a moral obligation not to fund such a reckless effort. Of course, if people want to expose themselves to known risks to their property and life, then that is their prerogative.

But, it is reckless and immoral for government funds to be used to induce this...and facilitate the false hope that we can ultimately out-engineer the forces of mother nature.

Again, this holds true to any part of this country where regularly and historically anticipated natural disasters are prone to causing massive and long-term destruction of life and property (yes, this means that if an earthquake destroys San Francisco, then the same analysis applies--we know it will happen and we know that no matter what we engineer, we cannot defeat a seismic fault line in the earth).

So, in closing, yes, New Orleans should certainly exist. But, not in such a deadly way. Rather, the just policy in this instance is to constrict the development of New Orleans to the high ground in order to enhance the life safety of its citizens.

Doing so would mean that we have the capacity learn our lessons from the wisdom of the city's original settlers.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A New Urban Christmas...

Last night, our neighborhood held its Christmas Party in the bungalow court. One of the attendees forwarded these pictures.

A great example of how good urbanism enhances opportunities for good community.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Good Summary...

...of the state of the housing market and the economic--real or otherwise--forces generating the problems.

Buyer Beware...

...I just noticed in this morning's Real Estate newspaper section that Watts Homes has reverted back to incorrectly calling its SomerHill project a "Smart Growth" development. I say "reverted" because--after complaints about its inaccuracy--the company previously changed their ads. Unfortunately (and hopefully just as a one time editorial accident), they are back to their inaccurate square one.

Again, their "Smart Growth" claim is completely incorrect and unwarranted under any definition of smart growth and, frankly, borders on being deceptive.

For anyone considering moving to SomerHill, be aware--you should not do so because its advertised as presenting a smart growth option because it absolutely does not.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Good Synopsis...

...of how the home market--with sprawl growth patterns as its driver--has placed the U.S. economy is quite a pickle: keep interest rates low so that these houses that couldn't be afforded in the first place aren't foreclosed vs. raise the rates to bring back much needed foreign investment.

Despite its somewhat dramatic title, this article from the Motley Fool does a good job explaining the predicament.

The basic fact is this: many houses will be foreclosed leading many people back to the rental market. Which, ironically, means that some folks may end up renting the very house they once "owned" (though, when you "buy" a house with no down payment and each monthly payment accounts for nearly 100%, well, that's hard to accurately classify as "ownership").

Follow-Up on the Charlotte Story....

"Charlotte City Council members say they're surprised to learn how far the city's starter-home suburbs have declined in just a few years.

They're calling for new efforts to revive dozens of subdivisions -- and at least one builder is pledging money and manpower to help.

"This hit everyone very quickly ...," Mayor Pat McCrory said Tuesday. "It's a serious problem with no magic pill, and it's going to take both the public and private sector to come up with solutions."
Read the whole story here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What's an NEV?

If you haven't heard of one before, definitely read this article.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Now This is a Concerning Article...

If you've never read a Daily Sprawl recommended article, read this one from Sunday's Charlotte paper.

By and large, Charlotte is considered one of the more desirable Southern cities. Progressive leadership. Plenty of industry (especially banking). A good location adjacent to major rail lines.

All in all, a city with better prospects than many others in the imminent energy crisis.

However, the article demonstrates that the effects of these converging forces are a) happening more swiftly and b) more severely than many anticipated:
While the crime rate citywide held steady, the rate in the heart of Charlotte's 10 highest-foreclosure areas rose 33 percent between 2003 and 2006, an Observer analysis found. All of them are suburban areas filled with starter-home subdivisions. They were built since 1997 with homes valued at $150,000 or less.

Windy Ridge is 5 years old, but already 81 of its 132 homes have lapsed into foreclosure. Dozens stand boarded up or vacant, with windows smashed and doors kicked in. Vandals have ripped copper wire from walls. Vagrants and drug users frequent the empty houses -- next door to families who thought they'd invested wisely in their northwest Charlotte suburb.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Geothermal Solution?

This article is certainly an interesting read:
At $100 a barrel there should be plenty of oil available. Such a high price is supposed to encourage production to fill the need and lower the price.

It hasn’t. It won’t. Oh the price will fluctuate, but it is going up. Someone reading trade journals such as World Oil might have noticed that world production of oil has been flat for some time. When price increases do not result in production increases of a commodity is the definition of a peak in production: Peak Oil. Usually when something starts to run out the price tends to run up. The price of oil has certainly done that, doubling in the last year or so. But what happens next?

In the case of luxury goods, high prices reduce demand or increase supply. That is the law of supply and demand. But is oil a luxury? Well now, try walking to work. Or the third world is perhaps a more meaningful example, try hauling water from a well without a pump. What is the line between oil as a “demand” and oil as a “need”? Maybe you can work closer to home, but do you have a well for water? If not then you are like the third world, access to oil is a matter of life and death. Does Peak Oil mean a peak in life or a peak in death?
Another interesting quote:
The interior geothermal energy of the earth is virtually inexhaustible since it is due to the radio active decay of elements within the crust. The interior of the earth only a few miles down is as hot as the surface of the sun 93 million miles away. Every place on earth, not a mountain, has access to geothermal energy by poking a hole in the earth.

Higher temperatures come with higher depths. Homes can be heated or cooled with a heat pump using pipes buried in the lawn. The depth of common oil wells is sufficient to drive binary cycle power plants of modest size. To replace a coal fired power plant or a nuclear reactor requires greater depth perhaps related to superior locations. The technology for deep wells already exists.

Downtown Montgomery...

Before and after images of Dexter Avenue

A new building has been proposed for downtown Montgomery that would overwhelm the State Capitol both literally and figuratively. To follow the discussion on this important issue, check out this discussion board.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Fixing the Car-Dominant Suburbs...

...there's alot of debate whether suburbia can be fixed or if the time and energy required is better spent redeveloping those 193s0 and prior areas that were often planned before the Euclidean zoning virus struck in full force.

Well, suburban Atlanta is often a poster child for sprawl.

This story discusses how even some of those places are finding new life:
For more than two decades, Gwinnett County has been the quintessential bedroom community, home to far-flung cul-de-sac subdivisions full of starter home commuters who made their way downtown to Atlanta every day.

But the times, they are changing. Nowadays, going downtown may mean walking to the square in Lawrenceville or Norcross from a nearby townhome. Rather than boarded-up storefronts, those squares are now home to gourmet restaurants and a range of services homeowners once had to drive to a shopping mall for. As home buyers reconnect with the county's historic town centers, they join a trend happening all over metro Atlanta.

The "new urbanism" wave is remaking town centers all across the region. Norcross and Lawrenceville are good examples of how town squares now attract home buyers who want to be within walking distance of the restaurants they frequent, the dry cleaners they use, the grocery stores where they shop, even the places where they work. And they want to run into their neighbors in the process, get to know them, and join the fun of reclaiming small-town life.
Encouraging news, though to be fair, Norcross and Lawrenceville--while having their growth driven by sprawl--did have town centers prior to their car-enabled development explosion. The real tricky ones will be those 1960s and later places that were created without any discernible main street or town center.

I suspect that they are probably not worth using our limited quantities of oil and gas to fix.

The Importance of ERoEI...

Have you heard of the concept of Energy Returned on Energy Invested? If not, you should familiarize itself as it will play a key role in future development patterns.


The answer is really simple. With suggestions that tar sands or oil shale or biofuel or other sources may replace conventional petroleum to fuel our society, the problem is that none of them make any sense unless the energy invested in converting them to fuel is less than the energy achieved.

Here's a good primer.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Technology Solution...

Several commentators have suggested that "intelligent" technology may play a key role in the future as a way to efficiently develop solutions at a research scale humans cannot compete with.

Well, who knows. This might well end up being true.

However, there appears to be a few bugs to work out still in the prototype versions of such a system...

[Note: readers be advised that the newslink does continue some PG-13 language]

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Good Intentions, Bad Results...

When the Retirement Systems of Alabama announced that it intended to preserve the Old Judicial Building on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery as part of a redevelopment effort, many people were pleased.

Unfortunately, the resulting proposal pretty much eliminates any of that pleasure as the building is terribly out of place on Dexter Avenue.

Read this op-ed piece to learn more.

And, click here to see if you can find any proposed people that would be walking by this major pedestrian way...

UPDATE: click here to see more renderings of how this building doesn't fit into the surrounding capitol grounds...

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Remember "Must See TV"?

The Huxtables, Family Ties, Cheers, and the like made Thursday evenings near mandatory viewing for many Americans.

Well, this well-produced documentary by the Australian equivalent of 20/20 or Dateline that covers the mortgage crisis deserves its own Must See TV status.

Take the time to watch this. It's free and will inform you well.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Here's an interesting article on "big box" zoning from one of South Alabama's finest cities:
City planning officials denied a developer's request Monday that would have opened the way for a 46,000-square-foot, "big box" grocery store at the so-called Triangle property where Section Street meets U.S. 98.

The decision by the city's Planning and Zoning Commission followed nearly two hours of comments from city residents, a clear majority of whom opposed granting the developer's request for an exception to the city's present cap of 30,000 square feet for any grocery store or retailer.