Friday, January 19, 2007

A voice crying in the wilderness

I gave a speech yesterday, and I wanted to post a copy of it here.

The Planning Commission
On the occasion of a public hearing commenting on the 2006-7 Comprehensive Plan Update

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Like one of the speakers before me, I believe we need to be pro-active and on the offensive when dealing with important issues, not in defensive mode. The good people in our local planning office have seen all the articles and research that has appeared in planning journals, economic journals, public policy journals, and the websites of numerous such organizations over the last 5 years. So I was absolutely astonished to see that this plan takes little to none of that information into effect. I feel this draft might have been appropriate in 1987, but it is not viable for 2007. These plans supposedly have a 20 year projection criteria, and it's clear this one does not reflect a realistic analysis of the conditions that will be present by 2027.

I was in intern years ago in 1992, with an AAS degree in Architecture, in the Division of Long Range Planning. Since that time, I have obtained a BA in Philosophy and a couple of minors, graduating with honors. Grad school followed. However, I have maintained my interest in planning and development, and followed news and trends. I have also enjoyed following trends in macroeconomics, my armchair hobby. After reading the Draft of the Land Use portion of the Comp Plan Update, I am concerned that this plan fails to be a viable plan for the next 20 years, which is its purpose. After deep consideration, it is painfully clear to me that the issues that will be the greatest problems facing this city and county in the next twenty years are, in fact, not being addressed at all.

There are two extremely important national issues that this government has a civil and moral obligation to address, and these things are absent in your plan Draft. The first of these is the near 100% probability that within 20 years, personal automobiles using gasoline will no longer be available or affordable to a growing majority of the population as we pass peak oil production, (which most geologists and economists agree has already happened). The federal government will mandate vast restrictions on the use of gasoline powered transportation and other wasteful expenditures of energy in response not just due to the coming oil crisis but also the coming climate shift, which while not, in my opinion, entirely man-made, is without doubt going to be a detrimental economic force which can at least be alleviated somewhat by man’s prudent phasing out of fossil fuel products and land-use development that relies on personal automobiles for transportation. We must look at our land use, transportation, and policies now and see what we can do to do an end-run around the problems that will result before they start. The second issue is an obvious lack of allocation of land and plans for utilizing that land that will be not just “necessary” but indispensable in a natural or man-made emergency situation. It is extremely irresponsible for us to close our eyes and hope someone will wave a magic wand and make all our future problems go away. It is our hard work, planning, land-use and traffic decisions we make now that will anticipate and alleviate future problems.

There are reams of information available on the subjects of peak oil, future transportation options, climate shift, disaster planning, and the impact of all these on our current subdivisions, development policies and the economy. Indeed, most planning professionals already have a passing familiarity with the facts of these issues, so I will not belabor them. Instead, I wish to propose a series of concrete, objective steps that this government can take to serve the best interests of the people of this county over the next twenty years and beyond. These fall into 2 basic categories: development and transportation, followed by building and tax policy.

Now, I don't have any illusions about the chances of these proposals, but they are the end result of research by knowledgeable professionals in the field, and need to be seriously considered by our County government. In short, the following actions need to be considered by the Planning Commission:

• It is terribly important for both the government and the population of our County to understand that development cannot continue as it has in the past, when cheap gasoline and the automobile culture reigned supreme. Those days are dying, soon to be gone. We need a full return to sustainable development, and this means that every household in the Urban Service Area needs to be within ¼ mile or so (about 15 minutes walking distance for the average person) of groceries or a pharmacy, and preferably both. All new developments should be required to allocate adequate acreage to achieve this goal.

• Existing sub-division developments will need to be retro-fitted to meet this qualification, and that means carefully selected blocks meeting this criteria will need to be identified now and eventually mandated for re-development as per above.

• Effective dis-incentives will need to be put in place, tax-wise and in regards to planning and zoning, to strongly discourage the development of more single-family detached housing. Higher density must be pursued vigorously. It is a simple matter of logistical fact that if we want to preserve the animal husbandry and agriculture in our County, there will come a time when outward sprawl must entirely stop, or it will eventually engulf all we wish to save. Re-development and higher density inside the urban service area must be our focus.

• In conjunction with the above, strong incentives need to be implemented to encourage the development of European style 3-4 bedroom flats (condominiums) that are affordable for middle class households, nicely appointed, well situated in regards to shopping and services, and geared toward families with children. None of the developments currently in progress meet these criteria - not a single one.

A year ago this fall my husband and I searched in vain for a flat downtown that would meet our needs - for him to walk to work and for me to be within walking distance of the university. We found nothing. We ended up miles away in a townhouse condominium where he cannot walk to work - it doesn't meet our needs at all.

Also, our County needs to see the return of buildings where the family office/business/service/café/etc. exists on the first floor, with a multi-floor flat (condo) built for the family to live above their business. This model has been affordable and sustainable in Europe and around the world for literally thousands of years, and was readily available in the early years of our development as well. Zoning killed self-sufficiency. We need to revive it.

• The American idea of “parking requirements” needs to be entirely re-thought. No such requirement exists in vibrant European cities. Our city has effectively made it impossible for sustainable multi-story flats and business offices to be built because “parking space requirements” inevitably artificially limit the number of stories in height these developments can be, due to the entirely excessive amount of surface parking per sq. meter of useable space being forced on designers by the local government. This must stop.

• The city needs to create/develop an inter-connected system of neighborhood electric trolleys or streetcars. Gasoline powered busses or vans are simply not a viable option, and every dime spent on busses is a dime wasted, because lack of gasoline will render busses entirely useless and unaffordable, and none of their expense will be reimbursed by the government when gasoline use is curtailed in the future – whereas economists predict electric systems will most likely be subsidized heavily. Longer range existing gasoline powered bus routes and lines need to be replaced with electric inter-urban short line systems, monorails, express streetcars, maglev rails, or other non-gasoline powered options. Many options are available, and some combination of them will suit our terrain and people’s need for viable, efficient mass transit.

• A moratorium needs to be placed on big-box non-neighborhood shopping development. Most economists agree these will not survive the mandatory shift to mass-transit that will need to happen when individual automobiles become prohibitively expensive to operate by the average family. The city’s current and future shopping needs can be more than met by the retail space now developed, and these can in the future be retro-fitted for higher density, multi-level shopping and integration to the planned inter-urban mass transit (as per the above point), or if necessary, dismantled for other uses.

• On the subject of the shipping of goods to and from this county, it is regrettable that the freight train yards of yesteryear were dismantled, because now they need to be rebuilt. Economists agree that rail freight will have to step up to the plate and take over the semi-truck shipping cross-country that now takes place. Planning will need to identify a suitable area for railyards to be rebuilt, for us to receive goods and ship them across country.

• To conserve energy and reduce unnecessary and wasteful automobile usage, the legal driving age needs to be raised to 18 years of age, effective immediately if not sooner. It is both dangerous and economically irresponsible for minors to drive automobiles.

• In conjunction, there needs to be a strict focus and return to neighborhood schooling. School busses are not viable long-term, and both the city and the school board are going to have to face reality and design a system whereby kids all go to school near to their homes, not in giant edu-business sites. Considering US students rank 19th out of the top 20 industrialized nations in every measure of academic achievement, this change is long overdue. Schooling kids on the one-size-fits-all factory model of bigger-is-better is not working anyway. Our county can be on the forefront of new models of education.

• For all future development, it must be acknowledged that “sustainable energy” is not just for the school system to teach but for all of us to embrace seriously. All new buildings should be required to install solar power cells or shingles to supplement (not try and replace) our existing electric generating capacity.

• All parking lots and parking structures should likewise be covered with solar-capturing coverings, which enables electric cars to plug in and recharge, and allows hybrid cars and currently used gasoline-powered automobiles to be shaded from the sun, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Cooling a burning hot car wastes a lot of energy, and introduces unnecessary delays for travel which covered parking can easily eliminate.

• A plan needs to be put into place to subsidize and acquire economic assistance for those existing homes and buildings that need to have electric solar panels or shingles installed to supplement, not replace, their current electric usage. This plan should be phased in such a way that in 20 years, all buildings will be required to have been retro-fitted in this manner. Twenty years is an entirely reasonable length of time for this to be done.

• A local tax needs to be implemented immediately on all households or businesses that own more than 2 gasoline-only powered automobiles, trucks, or vans. In ten years, this should be expanded to cover all but one non-hybrid or non-electric vehicle per household or business. In 20 years, all such vehicles should be subject to the extra tax, which should be adequately high to greatly discourage non-hybrid or non-electric gasoline only transportation.

• A plan needs to be put into place to deal with the situation that will be caused by the high cost of gasoline in relation to police enforcement, ambulances, and fire departments. It might be advisable to build smaller ER clinics throughout the county for efficient ambulance services, providing triage and immediate care for many if not most ambulance calls. (Of course, truly serious cases could go on to a hospital.) Land needs to be strategically chosen for such facilities. Similarly, for police and fire personnel, stations will need to be more numerous and less centralized, and land needs to be allocated with this in mind. And, of course, dis-incentives need to be in place to dissuade non-emergency use of these services, or false calls/false alarms.

• On one other somewhat related note, I was thinking of our proximity to the New Madrid fault zone and lack of earthquake building code requirements, and the numerous articles that came out in the wake of Hurricane Katrina concerning the lack of local preparedness for natural and man-made disasters. Land needs to be appointed in each neighborhood and emergency plans need to be made (with a possible lack of gasoline availability in mind) designating these points where those needing emergency help should gather, and from whence supplies, food, and medicine can be distributed to those in need. Again, a reasonable walking distance must be considered when choosing these locations, and the possibility of having to airlift supplies to them due to unavailable local gasoline or damaged/dangerous roads or travel conditions must also be kept in mind. Therefore, it is wise to move now and designate such acreage in each existing and future neighborhood. These sites must be identified now and mandated in the near future to be retro-fitted and utilized as neighborhood parks with open space, which will be useful emergency staging points (as well as provide walkable distance recreation for every household in the urban service area).

It is a regrettable fact that quite a bit of the “green space” now available is comprised of the marshes, rocky areas, streams, steep inclines, or sinkhole areas the developers didn’t want to deal with, instead of useful open space which must serve as tent-city medical and emergency stations in a future natural or man-made emergency situation. Existing green space will have to be carefully screened for suitability with the above requirements, and rejected if found to be unfit. Suitable acres will have to be designated in their place and retro-fitted accordingly, and planning needs to make sure these and all future locations are strategic and useful, not just the scraps left over from development.

I realize these suggestions are not going to be popular, but government needs to take responsibility for the future development of this county, and that includes being realistic about the economic and political events that are going to take placed in the next 20 years. I have attached for your reference the single pages of emergency planning that were once included in each of our comprehensive plans from WWII until 1980, when such pages suddenly disappeared from the radar. It is time to review, renew, and actually implement the best parts of these old plans concerning natural and man-made disasters, as well as to take an honest look at the future economic and political weeding-out of unsustainable development and living patterns that will take place in the wake of peak oil, and re-engineer our land use plans and expectations accordingly.

This city has in the past been visionary with their early adoption of a planning process – now is the time to reap the benefits bequeathed to us by our early fathers and mothers who saw a need for looking ahead to the future. We, too, must look ahead to our future and do the same. The decisions you make – or choose not to make – will affect not just unknown strangers but your own family, your own children. The purpose of government is to do what is in the best interest of the people – the common man – and not those profiteering from our land and resources. Sometimes as adults we have to make the hard decisions. The time to do so is before the crisis occurs, not in the middle of it, not when it’s too late. The time is now.

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The attachments were only two pathetic pages, one from the 1973 comprehensive plan proposing a system of community shelters for "natural and wartime" disaster. The second was a similar proposal from 1965 for fallout shelters. What these plans lack, as far as I can see, is any provision for storing MRE's and water for the people needing to stay in them, but that is a post for another day.

The point is that we are ostriches with our heads in the sand - and worse, putting our hands over our ears and humming so we won't hear things we don't want to about how inadequate and unprepared we are for the reality of the next quarter century. If your city has an urban planning office, class, then please print this blog entry and give it to them. These suggestions are only a few and don't address every area of need that the communities will face, but they are a start in the right direction.

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