How we live [U]

A most insightful piece by architect Mark Hinshaw in Crosscut on urban construction, patterns, and personal preferences. Both Millennials and Boomers are flocking to the cities, Seattle being one of them. Unlike our parents, we shun the suburbs and sprawl. Well, not all of us, certainly, as the clogged freeways attest. Hinshaw:

…In a sense, Seattle is a victim of its own success. With all the articles and rankings touting its culture, its music, its natural setting and its high-paying jobs are we really surprised that so many people want to move here? Even corporations that previously located in outlying areas — Weyerhaeuser, Facebook and Expedia, for example — are piling on.

The pace of development here has also been fueled by dramatic changes in the national demographic makeup. Households are smaller but more numerous. Boomers, who make up a quarter of the population, are downsizing and opting for more compact dwellings in urban places that offer transit, cultural amenities and high-quality health care. Millennials, another 25 percent of the population, are eschewing the suburbs in favor of density, diversity and public transit that only urban places offer.

As for new families departing cities for the house-cum-garage-cum-fenced-yard, Hinshaw suggests otherwise:

…In sharp contrast to past generations, Millennials are putting off marriage and kids. Moreover, their values are rooted in lifestyles that only denser urban places can provide.

We are seeing a sea change in the preferences of younger Americans. For one thing, Millennials are acutely aware of the environmental damage done to this country by five decades of outward expansion into an auto-dependent landscape. Climate change is only one negative outcome of those growth patterns.

But these preferences for denser patterns of development are being met with questionable design and inferior construction, as property owners scramble to keep up. New apartment complexes, often built with five stories of lumber, suffer under the wet and windy Northwest climate. Hinshaw:

Because wood expands and contracts in response to changes in weather and moisture content, certain types of rigid materials used on building surfaces pull apart at their seams, leaving cracks that wind-driven rain can penetrate. And penetrate it did.

Along with the accompanying mold and mildew, water damage led to massive insurance claims, litigation and costly repairs. For more than a decade, numerous buildings around Seattle were cocooned in plastic wrap while their exteriors were being reconstructed. As it turns out, only a few materials perform well when stretched across many floors of wood framing. Many of these materials, such as “Hardy” planks and metal sheeting, are, well, as boring as sheet rock, aesthetically speaking.

Hinshaw tells us that new materials are now available to withstand the soggy weather. We urbanites hope that developers and architects will offer better design.

I look forward to the second part of Hinshaw’s essay.


Here is part 2 of Hinshaw’s piece. He makes the case for shared walls.

Good for one, bad for all

Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) wrote:

[The individual] generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. …[He] intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

Thus became the organizing principle of modern capitalism: The individual pursues his or her own self interest and that in doing so the greater good is achieved for all.

Smith implies as well, and contra Rousseau, that one should not and cannot act with the purpose of benefitting society as a whole (the general will, say). To do so will frustrate the “industry” of the individual; writ large, the product of all individuals will be compromised, and the overall economy will perform below its maximum.

There is, we must admit, a certain elegance to the prescription. We are freed, indeed encouraged, to behave without regard to the general welfare. We do what we want and let the chips fall where they may, knowing that the “invisible hand” will sort out everything for the greater good. No need to plan, certainly. No need for a czar of bread or any other commodity or service.

Yet, we must acknowledge that the invisible-hand-led market has yielded some rather perverse outcomes, not the least of which is gross inequality. We must also consider market failures, environmental degradation being chief among them. One could make the case that rational behavior at the individual level actually yields collective irrationality, in which the very survival of species are at stake.

Against Smith, we might ponder the following:

From humanitarian and ecological viewpoints, many aspects of the capitalist economic system are irrational; although they are certainly rational from the more limited standpoint of the individual business or capitalist seeking to make profits. For example, because most people lack their own means to produce income, they must sell their labor power to companies, which in turn must normally pay a high enough wage for the reproduction of workers and their families. However, although requiring people to work in order to live, the economic system does not guarantee a job for everyone who wants and needs to work. Nor do the available jobs necessarily pay sufficient wages for a decent existence…Practices that make eminent sense for the individual capitalist or company, such as paying only the minimum wage necessary in order to obtain sufficient workers with the needed skills, end up being a problem not only for workers, but the capitalist system itself. Low worker income contributes to problems of effective demand.*

In seeking to maximize profits (the difference between revenues and costs), the employer pays the lowest possible wage to his or her workers. Makes sense, you might say. But when all employers, or at least a significant portion of them, do the same, workers lack sufficient income to buy products and services produced by those employers. Of course, workers could purchase on credit, foregoing future income to satisfy immediate needs or wants. That would seem to be the preferred solution of the employers. However, and as it happens on occasion, workers react to accumulating debt by curtailing purchases in favor of deleveraging. If enough workers do the same, the problem of effective demand returns.

Yet, this system of production and consumption bodes ill for the planet as a whole, since waste is ignored. In effect, we billions of humans soil our own nest. The unanswered question: Will we deplete the natural resource stock before we render the earth uninhabitable?


* Fred Magdoff, “A Rational Agriculture Is Incompatible with Capitalism,” Monthly Review, March 2015

Cities are for people, not cars

Whenever I see then-and-now photographs of urban streets I’m invariably struck by the difference in the number of pedestrians. There were far more in the days preceding the onslaught of the automobile.

Today, city transportation engineers endeavor to maximize vehicular traffic. So they design for and build wide streets with multiple lanes and signals that facilitate the flow of automobiles and trucks. Pity the poor pedestrian, who struggles to avoid merciless motorists who, understandably, treat pavement as their exclusive domain.

Vox gives us photographs of street locales both before and after the automobile took over. An excerpt from the linked article:

In the early 1900s, “pedestrians were walking in the streets anywhere they wanted, whenever they wanted, usually without looking,” Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia, told me for a recent article about the creation of the crime of jaywalking.

Obviously, that didn’t last long. As cars began to spread, accidents increased, and automakers embarked on an aggressive campaign to redefine who belonged on the roads, eventually restricting pedestrians to crosswalks.

It worked so successfully that, today, few people are aware that city streets were once a bustling mix of pedestrians, streetcars, pushcart vendors, and children at play — an environment that Norton likens to a city park.

Cars are now a necessity, since sprawl separated the land into places to live (the suburbs) and places to work (usually cities). City officials mandated more parking spaces, an added expense to private and public businesses caught up in a vicious cycle: either accommodate the car or shutter your doors. The auto-dependent suburbanite rarely enters the city, preferring to shop at malls surrounded by enormous asphalt lagoons.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that rooftops generate retail. Build and they will come?

Hottest year on record

But, by all means, let’s make sure the Keystone pipeline is built, fracking continues apace, and restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions never see the light of day. In case you guessed it, the modern Republican is both willfully ignorant and hypocritical in the extreme. So members of the GOP, in whatever branch of government and at whatever level, happily deliver an increasingly uninhabitable planet while making darn certain that rich people’s offspring receive all of their financial inheritance, suitably in a much warmer future.

For a quick overview of heat, its sources, and its consequences, read the contents of this link from Vox. Here’s a quote:

Climate scientists say they are 95 percent certain that human influence has been the dominant cause of global warming since 1950. They’re about as sure of this as they are that cigarette smoke causes cancer.

I wonder if Senator James Inhofe smokes.


Bertha burps WPPSS

In a can-you-believe-your-eyes? article on a German project to build a roof over an expanded highway running through Hamburg, writer Joseph Stromberg digs Seattle, in several ways:

Of course, there’s also another solution to eliminating traffic noise: tearing out urban highways entirely. In the US, Seattle is burying a downtown waterfront highway at a cost of $4.2 billion (and counting), and there’s a pretty good case to be made that the city would have been better off removing the highway and replacing it with parks or pedestrian-friendly development.

From Vox

From Vox

Governor Brown

Idealistic in his first gubernatorial tenure, California Governor Jerry Brown has just begun his fourth term at the age of 76, presiding over a rapidly recovering economy while planning for a greener future.

Time flies.

Rewind the calendar to 1992. My then-15-year-old daughter delivers a seconding speech to Brown’s nomination for president. But the Democrats at Madison Square Garden had in mind the coronation of Bill Clinton, though the crowd was abuzz in anticipation of Mario Cuomo’s address. Brown slipped out the backdoor, became mayor of Oakland for a couple of terms, before returning his sights to Sacramento.

Timothy Egan sings his praises, contrasting the “knuckle-dragging” Congress with the Golden State’s march toward a robust economy, high-speed rail, and a cleaner tomorrow. He writes:

Governor Brown, having balanced a runaway California budget and delivered near-record job growth in a state Republicans had written off as ungovernable, laid out an agenda to free the world’s eighth-largest economy — his state — from being tied to old energy, old transportation and old infrastructure. He doubled down on plans to build a bullet-train network and replumb the state’s water system, while setting new goals to reduce dependence on energy that raises the global temperature.

“The challenge is to build for the future, not steal from it,” said Governor Brown, who is the embodiment of the line about how living well is the best revenge — political division.

Way to go, Jerry. Truth to power.

Mrs. A, daughter, John Kelly, son, and writer—at Jerry Brown's NYC headquarters (1992)

Mrs. A, daughter, John Kelly, son, and writer—at Jerry Brown’s NYC headquarters (1992)

I am not a scientist [u]

“I am not a scientist,” is the consistent refrain from Republican officials, a not-so-clever rejoinder to mountains of amassed data and analysis demonstrating that greenhouse gases are on the rise along with global temperatures, inching the planet closer to one catastrophe after another. Indeed, it has become the litmus test for GOP hopefuls and standard bearers: deny climate change, or else.

So, what are American voters poised to accomplish today? Increase the Republican hold on the House and return the Senate to the Grand Old Party. The rather simple calculus: too many voters are either ignorant or don’t give a damn about their offspring’s future.

Closer to home, the Snohomish County PUD faces numerous obstacles to being green, from narrow minded “environmentalists” to officious bean counters in Washington, D.C. By all means address climate change, come the faux environmentalists, but please, please don’t do this or that project, however benign and renewable. The federal bean counters don their green shades equipped with solid blinders to withhold funds from initiatives previously encouraged with enthusiasm and dollars.

Delivering episodic reports of doom and gloom, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) charts the befouling of air and water:

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Fibure 1.6 from fifth IPCC synthesis report

Yet, the panelists opine (pdf), there is still hope of averting the worst, though time is rapidly running out and mitigation costs jump higher with further delays.

Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks.

The favored response to this warning: “I am not a scientist.” The far more accurate and fitting utterance: “I am an idiot.”

UPDATE (Nov. 5, 2014):

This chart from the New York Times speaks volume:

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