Monday, March 28, 2011

Helvetia and Agricultural Land Preservation

What follows is testimony to be delivered tomorrow evening before the Washington County Boards of Commissioners:

As a transplant to Oregon some 14 years ago, what I have found so compelling living here is the natural beauty of the place and the willingness of legislators to protect that natural beauty. In the Portland area, this has traditionally gone beyond simply protecting natural amenities, but also in controlling urban sprawl that seeks to engorge itself upon the surrounding agricultural land. As many urban theorists - including Lewis Mumford and Murray Bookshin - have noted, cities work best when they are ringed by agricultural land that supplies them with food and green space. By historically protecting this land from development through comprehensive land-use management, the wider Portland area has been able to mitigate urban sprawl and provide Portlanders access to locally produced foods and wines.

Dense urban development, including access to local foods and wines are important today – they enable mass transit linkages and make cities more generally sustainable. As fuel prices continue to rise, and as formally sprawling, car dependent areas across the country, such as Detroit, find themselves forced to contract in size – the wisdom of the Portland model for controlling urban growth proves to be all the more apparent.  Our land-use policies should reflect the urbanization choices and opportunities of both the traditional city and of the future – dense urban development with preserved agricultural land - rather than those simply of the last 50 years.  It is for this reason that the urban and rural reserves process currently being undertaken by Metro is crucially important.  It is also why I feel that Metro is making an enormous error of judgment in designating some 352 acres of the Helvetia area as an urban reserve area.

The Helvetia area to the immediate North of Hillsboro represents an important example of an active agricultural area that supports the Portland area and helps to make Portland the City that it is.  According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Helvetia boasts the best soil in the state currently given over to cultivation (other areas with equivalent soils have been paved over, and thus ‘lost’ for cultivation).  It also boasts a vibrant local wine industry – a point that is especially important due to the primacy the state places upon protecting Oregon Pinot Grape cultivation.  Helvetia represents an important breadbasket for the Portland metro area – and one which will continue to prove more important as time goes on.  Additionally, the Helvetia area, due to its stunning natural beauty, is also well-loved by those in the Portland area seeking respite from the city and is a popular destination for cyclists. 

The idea that much of this area could easily be transformed into suburban strip development and suburban homes through the extension of Hillsboro is jarring and should be rejected as poor policy by both Washington County and by Metro as a whole. I take no quarrel with the need to allow for some urban growth beyond the current urban growth boundary, and feel that the urban and rural reserves designation process outlined by Oregon Senate Bill 1011 represents a sound mechanism for which to go about determining future urban growth areas.  Further, I understand full well that, as identified by Harvey Moloch, Cities are ‘growth machines’ and that Hillsboro feels compelled to grow in some way – however agricultural land preservation is a stalwart of the Oregon idea, and this encroachment into rural areas currently proposed represents a rejection not only of the legacy of former governor Tom McCall, but also of Metro’s very raison d’etre.

Indeed, the inclusion of Helvetia within the proposed urban reserves designation was previously rejected prior to Ordinance 740 and the reopening of the reserves designation process.  Residents of Helvetia, preservation organizations - including 1000 Friends of Oregon and others had protested the inclusion of Helvetia within the reserves area last year.  Indeed, all of the 624 acres the county and Metro identified in 2009 as suitable for growth north of Cornelius were rejected last fall by the state Land Conservation and Development Commission.  A workable compromise had been largely agreed upon by all involved parties that would protect Helvetia from development pressures. 

All that remained was a final vote on the process, which was scheduled to occur this past November.  The elevation of former Hillsboro mayor, Tom Hughes, to Metro President has changed this.  Hughes, in his role of mayor of Hillsboro had long called for the inclusion of Helvetia as an urban reserve and he opted to enact a Byzantine law in order to reopen a process that had, after much conflict been largely agreed upon.  Indeed, this move appears in many ways hubristic – the closeness of the election for Metro President hardly gives Hughes a mandate to enact whatever policies he would like, and I find it to be a violation of the Democratic process and the consensus derived agreement that had previously been achieved. 

Ordinance 740 was derived through a single nine and a half hour meeting from which many of the affected stakeholders were absent from the table.  This new ordinance changes some 352 acres east of Groveland Road from undesignated to urban reserves (Area D) leaving only around 233 acres west of Groveland Road as undesignated.  This proposed process of urbanization would destroy the community presently within the Helvetia area.  It would strip Helvetia of its agricultural riches and transform the area into featureless suburbia – what James Howard Kunstler calls “the geography of nowhere”.  Indeed, the unease of numerous Metro counselors in adopting this process speaks to the likely negative impacts of the process.  Councilor Carlotta Collette noted that: "It's only with deep reluctance that I do this."  This hardly represents the ringing endorsement of process that Hughes portrays it as.

Further, the rationale for preserving the remaining 88 acres on the northwest corner of Helvetia Road (near the interchange as urban reserves (Area 8B)) in last year's Ordinance 733 was said to be put aside to accommodate interchange improvements.  This designation also appears to be unnecessary as road improvement can occur regardless of designation and the designation to designate this 88 acre corridor enables urbanization on the north side of the Sunset, opening up the rest of the area to urbanization.  As a result, this too seems to be a bridge too far.

It is for these reasons that I strongly urge Washington County to uphold the democratically agreed upon consensus that was arrived upon in Ordinance 733 and to reject Ordinance 740.  To do anything else would be to both disrupt the Democratic processes within the state and hinder the long-term resilience of the greater Portland area while simultaneously depriving it of one of its greatest natural assets. 

Photo thanks to

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Stéphane Hessel's Imperative

Christopher Hitchens once posited something to the effect that one could tell that life was no longer worth living when one no longer woke up angry. Nonagenarian French resistance hero, Stéphane Hessel, seems to have taken this adage to heart with with the recent publication of his 13-page pamphlet entitled Indiginez-Vous! Hessel's argument is a clarion call for the left. It elevates several issues dear to the left: destruction of the environment, Israeli colonization of Palestine and the gradual erosion of the public sector, and demands response to these issues in the form of non-violent resistance.

As the New York Times notes, Hessel's biography as a resistance hero and as a co-author and signatory of the International Declaration of Human Rights is part of what gives Indiginez-Vous! its importance. Hessel's long-standing modesty and belief in privacy further strengthens his case.  Hessel himself notes that much of what he is saying in the pamphlet are simply the things that many left-wing people believe and likens the moral imperative he felt to resist the Nazis as similar to the impulse one should feel in engaging with many of the pressing issues of the day.  He is right in this, but the surprise success of Indiginez-Vous! speaks to a certain deficiency within the left that has traditionally been filled by important moral thinkers especially in highly literary societies like Hessel's native France where writers are frequently elevated as public figures.  Additionally, many writers are creatures of the left. Thus, the loss of literary moral guidance has undermined the ability of the left to act. This is a point that has been well-addressed by the late historian Tony Judt in his essay on Albert Camus, The Best Man in France and in his last book published while still alive, Ill Fares The Land.

Judt, who died of Lou Gehrig's disease last year, argues that Camus presented an important moral touchstone for French, and wider western society.  While many of Camus' philosophical works were not particularly well regarded, his novels and World War II era journalism, appearing largely in the underground newspapers Résistance and Combat, while Camus was active in the French underground, have helped to inform the moral sense of much of post-war Europe.  Camus' moral clarity in the face of fascism, colonialism and other pressing issues catapulted him to a position of preeminence in French society.  Judt argues that, despite the erosion of Camus' stature within French literary circles over the second half of the 20th century, the surprise success in the publication of his incomplete, autobiographical novel The First Man in the early 1990s (at the hight of the decadent and corrupt Mitterrand years) spoke to a long-standing need for moral guidance. Thus Camus, in some way returned from the grave to reignite the fires of moral leftism, much as Hessel, now in his late 90s has again done so.

France, however, is a country, that while at times growing complacent has never fully lost its revolutionary zeal.  The public sector unions remain strong in France and frequent strikes prevent the impingement of basic rights, liberties and Social Democratic tendencies in such a way that France, despite well-over a decade of Conservative control, and the rise of the far-right in the form of the odious Jean-Marie Le Pen has never lost its residual leftist resonance.  Indeed, the French Revolutionary ideals of liberté, egalité, fraternité  have never become watered-down platitudes in the same way the Democratic constructions of the American republic have been.

The Fifth Republic has not always embodied those ideals: the deportation of the Roma - a source of supreme injustice and anguish noted by Hessel - a clear example of failing to live in accordance with them.  Despite this, the basic provision of health, education and public services for a population must be tantamount within a just society.  These are all ideals traditionally of the left, with Social Democracy being the great social compromise created by the World War II generation as a means of preventing the collapse of civil society that led to that war and its inhuman cruelties.  These institutions are currently what are under attack by the right and remain, to my mind, things worth fighting for.

The erosion of Social Democracy and the grand institutions of the state, which had previously served as a bulkhead against iniquity and despair for many, are at the center of Judt's book, Ill Fares The Land. Similarly to Hessel, Judt argued in favor of traditional leftist beliefs and for re-engagement with the roots of those beliefs.  The deregulations of Reagan, Clinton, Thatcher and the two Bush's and others paved the way for the naked greed worship of the financial sector and the loss of civic sense.  The free-market ideology of Clinton in particular, taken with the administration's decision to cave to Republican demands and gut the welfare and social security systems has permanently shifted the debate. With the Democratic Party in the United States traditionally serving as the party of social security institutions, Clinton managed to permanently shift the party away from its traditional base and into the same free-market, exploitative abyss as advocated by Reagan.

Especially shocking in the number of former hippies - a traditionally leftist faction - that would go on to vote for Reagan.  However, the emphasis on the self, and the rejection of traditional institutions that characterized the hippie movement, should have even proven telling.  While certain institutions overthrown were traditional vehicles of racism or repression for minority groups, the underlying emphasis on the self, on Dionysian pleasure-seeking above all else eventually led to a reaffirming notion of self-efficacy at the expense of all else. This is a point argued by Judt, and taken a step further by the French novelist Michel Houllebecq. Houllebebcq argues, in his novel The Elementary Particles, that the eventual logical outcome of the orgiastic self-worship that characterized much of the 1960s and 70s, was violence in the form of self-indulgent, De Sade-esque serial killers.  The paradigm has eventually merged with that of nakedly individualistic paradigms, and, as Adam Curtis argues convincingly in his documentary series The Trap, warped our sense of freedom.

The destruction of the welfare programs that provided basic services to the indigent has proven especially telling in affirming, to many, the narrative of the Right within the United States which largely ascribes virtue to avarice and equates vast material wealth as an entitlement to those most fit.  This paradigm is vulgar and destructive to the very fabric of good civics, it leaves most of society out, yet it continues to prevail.  This ideology has spread such that, even with the ever present elephant in the room that is Anthropogenic Climate Change - which threatens the ability of all of us to meet basic needs - we as a society remain unwilling to engage as a society and give up certain material wants in order to insure a viable future.

Further, media continually feeds us a master narrative that encourages further consumption, degrades the poor as being in some-way unworthy and encourages further propagation and worship of the idea of the individual at the expense of society. It achieves this by perverting facts, in its focus on the fringes and by continually pulling the twin levers of fear and greed in the levels it pulls.  The shift away from standard reporting and towards talk radio and blogging degrades straight reporting and hinders science-driven public policy by enabling various agendas - frequently those advanced by moneyed interest - often cloaked as news to predominate.

We also have an element of gawking, in which celebrity has been further elevated and has driven dissociation from events and from each other. We have come to identify with the singular rather than with the collective.  Thus even acts of charity become referendums on the greatness of the individual - and thus we have been given the celebrity missionary that I have previously addressed here and here.

Belief in the public sector has been largely swept aside by the twin brutalities of individualistic neo-liberal economic policies and the selfishness of public sector bureaucracies - many of which have begun to act merely for self-preservation than for their intended purpose of providing basic services.  However, the attacks on these bureaucracies by the far right, which in America has become the mainstream right, elucidates their need for self-preservation.

This has lead to the rise of the Tea Party within the United States.  The Tea Party is the ultimate vehicles for self-edification.  It creates a bizarre duality by which upper middle class white people adopt an attitude of victimization.  They genuinely begin to feel that they are some kind of aggrieved minority despite their holding absolutely every advantage within American society.  They then utilize this notion as a rationale for tearing apart what remains of the public sector.  They seem to genuinely seek the dismantling of even the last vestiges of social equity and basic social services.

Thus we see the attack on public sector Labor Union in Wisconsin - unions that largely exist to provide the basics for retirement to people that have given their careers to serving the public. The movement seeks to demonize the public service and characterize them as greedy leeches upon the tax-payer. In reality, the public sector is largely comprise of talented people who selflessly forgo greater financial rewards to thanklessly help educate, provide basic services for, or improve society as a whole.  These are people who seek only security and a decent retirement in return for their sacrifice. In the United States, this is one of the last remaining enclaves of the compromise that created the New Deal and the policies that have helped so many to realize their potential.  The Tea Party threatens to wipe this out and to thrust us back into the ages of deregulation and destitution for the disadvantaged.  Effectively, they seek to eliminate the notion of society altogether.

Hessel's few words then are important because they glide, knife-like into the festering belly of injustice. They are an elucidating blade crafted to help return steel to the left.  Hessel's pamphlet, though not particularly well-written, resonates because it articulates a vision of what the left used to stand for and what it appears to have lost.

My grandfather, though of a slightly younger generation than Hessel, was similarly moved. His belief in opposition to the evils of fascism, and belief for equal justice were unshakable.  When World War II broke out and claimed his native Belgium, he was only 17.  He had tried to run away from home several years earlier to fight against Franco in Spain.  The war stripped him of his childhood but never his sense of humor.  Like Hessel, my grandfather was imprisoned in a Nazi POW camp, escaped to serve in the French Resistance, and unlike Hessel, eventually joined the American Army and saw action in the Battle of the Bulge and elsewhere.

The genuine compassion, even for the Germans he fought against, and the dedication to social justice that my grandfather quietly carried is true of many Europeans of a certain generation. The promise of social democracy was that it, as Judt noted in Ill Fares the Land, created a system driven by compromise - rather than by deterministic ideology - that genuinely created a better world. The institutions of the state were built in accordance with empathy and understanding with the generation returning home from war developing these institutions in order to create security and opportunity for all thus mitigating future reasons to go to war.  Despite decades of degradation of the social state, it remains a set of ideals worth fighting for.

As Albert Camus said:
If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.
This should be the stated view of the left. Rather than a dull focus on avarice or material acquisition, it is our interactions with each other and our common humanity - that will enable us to tackle the social issues of the day - that allow us to realize that grandeur.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

EcoDistricts and Garden Cities

The ability of urban planning to continually renew itself and to rejuvenate old ideas can be breathtaking. This is certainly the case with the pilot EcoDistricts Initiative currently being implemented in Portland. The EcoDistricts are existing city districts for which new environmental and sustainability technology s being implemented. The technologies include the latest in green building technologies- and in one case, the 'living' building (that I previously posted about here), district energy (which is when heating a cooling systems stretch across the whole of a district through shared pipes, thus allowing for centralized efficiencies) and new solar and wind platforms.

Each of the five pilot EcoDistricts represents a different type of area and community. Portland State University (PSU) is an inner-city University, while the Gateway neighborhood is a predominantly residential development. The five pilot programs can be seen below:

What each of these districts have in common is that they are all urban redevelopment districts (URDs) and thus each is open to Tax-Increment Financing (TIF) which allows for far greater flexibility in the types and scope of projects that can be built.  Further, each is developed around existing transit corridors - with connectivity between EcoDistricts and the wider Portland area preeminent as a planning consideration.  Future potential projects include the 'Foothills' development in Lake Oswego (assuming the Portland to Lake Oswego transportation project, aka the Lake Oswego Streetcar is built), the Portland Zoo and parts of Beaverton.

Development in each of the districts, while being held to certain environmental standards (the idea behind the EcoDistricts is that they be ecologically sound) is to largely be determined by the existing communities and through various community directed initiatives.  The idea behind this approach is to merge new technologies (characterized as 'hardware') with a strong ecological civil society component (characterized as 'software').  What this means is that, communities will be empowered to make changes, within certain ecological and environmental frame-works.

Additionally, instead of treating each of these districts a though they are discrete, the EcoDistricts projects seeks to derive development ideas not simply from the community within the EcoDistrict, but also in how the districts interact (through transit corridors) with the wider urban core.  The rationale for selecting districts around predominantly light rail and streetcar linkages was to further reaffirm regional linkages while advancing ecological, technological, developmental, equity and civil society goals.  How well these goals are achieved, and how well the disparate communities seize the opportunities that this project affords them remains to be seen.

One of the things that is most interesting to me about the EcoDistricts is that the program appears to be a modernization and rehabilitation of an old planning idea: Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities.  Howard laid out his ideas in the slim volume To-morrow: A Peaceful Path To Real Reform (later reprinted under it's more commonly known title, Garden Cities of Tomorrow).  Howard articulated a view of 'garden cities' small communities built around the concept of a fixed community size, stratification of sectors but including a wider mix of uses and guaranteeing access to nature.  The idea was was to prevent urban sprawl and to allow for livable, walkable communities distinct from the slums of Victorian London.  Each of the Garden Cities (of which two were built in Britain: Letchworth and Welwyn) was to include employment, residential space and commercial space.  Unlike the EcoDistricts (which encourage mixed-use development) these were to be separated but near by each other.

Most commonly missed in discussions of Howard's idea however, was the notion of regional rail linkages that would tie the garden cities to greater London.  This omission was in part due, as the planning historian Peter Hall notes in his Cities of Tomorrow, to a failure to reprint all of the graphics included in the first edition of the book in the Garden Cities of Tomorrow version.  The omitted map made clear the wider regional connections. These regional rail linkages were what was to make the idea work.

Connection of the garden cities with a larger Central City allowed from greater flexibility of uses within a given garden city, specialization of industry (allowing for wider regional economic linkages) and wider environmental vitality. While the notion of environmentalism, as we hold it today did not exist in Howard's time, the notion of preserving green and agricultural space, and of protecting people from pollution (particularily the smog and acidic fogs of Victorian London - a product of a coal based industrialization process) certainly did.  The idea of the garden cities was to provide respite from the worst excesses of inner city industrialization while preserving green space through comprehensive land management and planning directed development while still retaining strong regional transportation and socio-economic linkages with the central city.

In a way then, this process is very similar to the EcoDistricts.  Certainly, the EcoDistricts encourage some cutting edge technologies, however, many of the planning tools used in the development of the garden cities were cutting edge for their time. Further, they took advantage of the rail lines, which were the ultimate symbols of modernity in transportation systems at the time. This notion, in some way, persists with the re-emergence of streetcars and light rail within urban areas - and which are the vehicles from linkages between EcoDistricts and between EcoDistricts and inner-city within Portland.

Similarly, the notions of regional planning and comprehensive land-use that characterize the Portland regional planning model (and make Portland a case-study for planning practice across the United States) were brought to Portland by architect and historian Lewis Mumford, who was inspired by the garden cities of Howard along with the regional planning models of the Scottish land-scape architect Patrick Geddes.  Mumford had urged Portland to adopt regional planning models stretching across the river and into Vancouver as far back as the 1950s, long before Oregon's comprehensive land-use laws came into effect with the creation of the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) under the governorship of Tom McCall in 1973 and the eventual creation of Metro, the metropolitan governance model that has managed development in the Portland area since 1979.

With the EcoDistricts, we can see certain logical extensions of many of the older planning ideas that have long characterized Portland.  Indeed, the EcoDistricts are large driven by new green building technologies and planning ideas, however the notions that underpin them remain old.  With the absence of much heavy industry in the Portland area (and with industry being, as a whole, far cleaner than it was during the Victorian period), mixed-use development, rather than stratification of uses has become the preferred method of development.

However, the underlying idea behind both the garden cities and the EcoDistricts in livability. This is a notion that will continue to characterize planning and inform urban development patterns well into the future.  The trend towards re-urbanization is one that may encourage other old planning ideas to return.  Dubai, through it's seemingly endless appetite for large-scale monumental (some, including me, would say "stupid") buildings seems to have embraced the City monumental movement, despite the obvious environmental and ecological violence that seems to characterize many of the buildings.

As some of the development that we see, particularily in Asia, continues to be out of scale in ways that would irritate the urban theorist Jane Jacobs, certain notions of livability through human-scaled development and strong regional transportation linkages are being reaffirmed elsewhere.*  The EcoDistricts represent the rehabilitation of one such idea.  Perhaps others are also due for reconsideration.


* This is not to say that all-large scale building development is bad.  The urban economist Edward Glaeser makes a compelling case for large buildings, particularily in Asia in his recent book Triumph of the City.  Glaeser gives Jane Jacobs some credit but notes that she was not right in all of what she said in her seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Completely Reasonable

My good friend, Nick "Arkan" Meyers, has started a blog, "Completely Reasonable". His first post on Thomas Friedman is worth reading. It is as good an explanation of Friedman's tendency towards specious reasoning as you will see outside of a Matt Taibbi column.

For the record, I think the Friedman column raises a number of questions, notably: what is going on here? Google Earth? The Beijing Olympics? The Various [Proper Noun] "Factors"? Is he trying to title the next Robert Ludlum novel? Do any of these 'concepts' that he appears intent on linking have anything to do with one another?  Do they have anything to do with the Arab uprisings at all? Does the mustache now do the bulk of the thinking?

The Nicholas Kristof Controversy

Nicholas Kristof's most recent New York Times column, "Is Islam the Problem?", has stirred much controversy.  In the column, Kristof addresses the issue of, preeminently, capitalist development in the Middle East.  He begins with the position that the Arab world historically served as the seat of scientific and intellectual preeminence and has, since 1200, declined to a secondary position to the West.  Kristof's column is largely a summary of the research of Timur Kuran, who examines various Islamic rationale for the lack of capitalist economic development in the Middle East, much of which Kristof, using Kuran, debunks.

Kristof's critique then, for what it is, is a fairly mild one.  He concludes, quoting Kuran, that:
"Islam isn’t the problem and it isn’t the solution, it’s simply a religion."
Despite this, Kristof was taken to task on Twitter by Devika Bakshi.  Bakshi argues that much of Kristof's piece relies on "obscured assumptions and specious claims".  She notes that Kristof's piece advances Western-style economic development as a logical and desirable end-outcome without considering cultural differences.  She also accuses Kristof of unfairly asserting the Arab-world to be backwards, stating:

Easy to call another system backward when one assumes one's own as civilizational apex and measures all others else against it.

This may be a bridge too far, as the sole point at which Kristof uses the term 'backwardness' in his column is as follows:

Many Arabs blame outsiders for their backwardness, and cope by rejecting modernity and the outside world. It’s a disgrace that an area that once produced outstanding science and culture (giving us words like algebra) now is an educational underachiever, especially for girls.

Despite this, much of Bakshi's critique seems to ring true.  Kristof seems to be guilty of using Orientalist precedents about progress in history betraying a notably Western-centric orthodoxy.  Further, Kristof seems to have developed a complex whereby he expends many words in defense of Islam (as he did in this column and in his critical review of Ayan Hisri Ali's most recent book) while taking a jaundiced view of Arabs and Arab leadership as a whole (as he did, most famously in his attack on Yasser Arafat, linked here and previously critiqued by me here).

Kristof seems to lack genuine cultural understanding of Arab political or cultural positions in general. He does raise some important considerations: I agree with him that inequitable treatment of women - especially in an educational system- needs to be addressed, as despite various cultural justifications for it, it undermines self-determination and self-efficacy for women in many Arab countries.  

This does not necessarily mean that simply defending Islam from its critics represents anything of a more nuanced position. Kristof seems to have conflated not critiquing Islam with genuinely understanding Arab peoples, culture and motivations. It also ties his hands in adequately rending critique in cases where particular reads of Islam may be suspect.   His emphasis on using 'white savior' figures in his narratives further undermines his credibility (as per the rationale suggested in my "Troubles with Foreign Aid" series of posts).

In the end, it is almost as if Kristof has adopted the trappings of developing wider cultural understandings without actually doing so.