20 September 2008

A Rush to Judgement?

The White House, reinforced by the cacophony of 24/7 news is shouting that the sky is falling and we must do something fast. Most important, we must do what they say. There is no time to think. There is no time to question. The smart guys have it all figured out. So gives us the rubber stamp so we can get down to serious business.

So excuse me, but the Brain is going to hit pause for a minute. Haven't we seen this movie before? Ah, yes that's right. The Iraq War. There was absolutely no doubt. Iraq was amassing WMD's. Iraq was in collusion with the masterminds of 9/11 and was determined to attack us and our allies. There was no time to wait. So how did that work out for us?

Now realistically I can't say this is exactly the same situation. We realistically do have a crisis. A good number of folks have pointed out that our economy was a house of cards and to some extent our way of life (personally and as a government). Some of those folks such as James Howard Kunstler, a noted commentator on the urban condition, might come off as a bit alarmist, but I'm guessing that they are sitting pretty now.

So we have a problem, a lot of problems actually. Wall Street is collapsing, capital is drying up, CEO's might not get their bonuses. Oh, and Americans are loosing their jobs and homes, tens of millions have no health care, families can't afford tuition for college, oh and the dollar is going south and oil is skyrocketing despite the economic downturns in the US.

Whatever Congress does this week, or next, they should not rush to judgment about the plan put forward by the Administration. Why should we trust the people that two weeks ago didn't believe there was a problem to fix it? Even Newt Gingrich doesn't think this is a good idea.

Further, we should seriously question buying out companies using public funds. Why should we pay for over-priced assets that no one else would buy? Shouldn't the American public get equity and and reward for taking such huge risks? Should CEO's be able to draw huge salaries at public expense when they can't keep their companies afloat?

Let's insist that Congress not write a blank check on this. We do need to act, but we should do so with the integrity of purpose worthy of the sacrifices of the American Public. We should act in a way that requires sacrifices not only of taxpayers but also the culprits of our crisis. Finally, we should not stop in addressing the immediate, but reforming the underpinnings of this crisis including our dependence on oil.

17 September 2008

Food in the City: finding soul (food) in Cambridge

Have an urge for fried chicken? Go to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ok, my Southern friends may think I'm crazy, but if you are in Greater Boston, there just may be no better place than Coast Cafe on River Street in Cambridge. This three seat (I'm not kidding there are just three seats) restaurant is perfect for lunchtime take out or an out of the way weekend culinary hunt or takeout picnic.

Since ambiance is not much of a question, focus on what you plan to order. All of the chicken is made to order; not pre-cooked and re-heated. Also to be had are side dishes such as homemade macaroni and cheese (no velveeta here!!!) and greens. Oh, and the corn bread is a buttery yummy treat that's not too sweet. I didn't have any room for desserts but I have heard rave reviews of the banana pudding, among others, and will certainly save room (or take some home next time).

08 September 2008

Ranking Schools in Greater Boston

While enjoying the ride back from a recent trip to Acadia National Park in Maine, the Brain had an opportunity to review Boston magazine's "The Best Schools 2008" issue featuring a ranking of the so-called top 50 schools of greater Boston. The cover-photo (seen right) is not the only questionable matter in this issue. Given some scrutiny, the top 50 list has some questionable results.

The simple methodology for the rankings states "Showy scores are no longer the enough. True standout schools also excel at stretching tax dollars." The ranking includes scores for "cost efficiency" and "academic performance." Listed in a table for the rankings is information such as per-pupil spending, MCAS scores, SAT scores, student to teacher ratios, AP courses offered, and athletic offerings.

So where do the schools rank? At the top of the list is Concord-Carlisle High School with an academic ranking of 12 and cost-efficiency of 1. A veritable who's who rounds out the top ten including Andover, Sharon, Brookline, and Wellesley (among others). Then, at number 11 comes Boston Latin with a supposed academic ranking of 4 and cost effificiency ranking of 11.

Let's look at the numbers on the academic performance side. Boston Latin has the best MCAS scores, SAT scores, and offers generous AP and athletic offerings. The student-teacher ratio is higher than any of the other schools, but the academic results seem pretty undeniable. So the Brain is a bit confused as to the 4th place rank for academic performance. According to Boston magazine's numbers Boston Latin has the best performance.

Setting that not-so minor discrepancy aside, the Brain would also like to point out that this ranking of schools based on so-called cost efficiency seems more than questionable. Most statisticians and researchers would point out that one can be incredibly efficient and yet produce terrible results. While I wouldn't say the high-ranked schools on this list are producing terrible results, but to a trained eye, the numbers just don't seem to add up as to why the cheapest schools should earn the highest rankings, despite academic performance to the contrary (class size at the high school level should not be consider "academic performance," results are. Further, why does the district average of per pupil spending factor so heavily? Were such factors balanced to include cost of living and salary difference between districts?

My guess is that in this particular instance the rankings are more concerned with selling magazines than understanding the state of education in Greater Boston. Sadly, truly great schools are seemingly being sold short for a poorly developed concept to sell magazines.

07 September 2008

The Joys of Acadia; an urbane retreat

This weekend provided an opportunity for the Brain to ditch the hustle and bustle post-Labor Day Boston for a retreat with friends (from near and far) on Mount Desert Island, home to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. MDI (as it is commonly referred) is a wonderful place to get out and hike, bike, swim, boat, and enjoy nature and history. The island has amazing natural features such as mountains, lakes, wetlands, forests, beaches, and fjords. You can also find truly charming villages and towns such as Bar Harbor and Seal Harbor that provide a range of accomodations (i.e. camping, motels, inns, and (if you know the right people) multi-million dollar estates), shopping, entertainment, and every-day to fine dining (if 5 star restaurant's aren't good enough visit Martha Stewart's estate in Seal harbor).

Even with the remnants of Hurricane Hannah, a weekend on MDI is a truly joyful retreat providing for the wild to the urbane. The day after the storm the island was flush with impromptu waterfalls carving their way into the varied landscape. A ride along the island's carriage trail system (via the kind folks at Wildwood Stables) also reminds you of the sophistication and respect for nature of this unique environment. This 57 mile network of paths is not simply carved into the island's landscape, but is truly an integral design that is uncommon for any age. If, your in New England and looking for an urbane retreat, visit Acadia.

Thanks to Patrick Sullivan (author of the Local Spice Blog) for the fantastic vintage carriage photo from Wildwood Stables.

01 September 2008

The Candidates on Cities

Now that the Presidential Election is underway what what do we know about the candidates and their views on urban issues? Will the next President eliminate CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) and HUD as has been long promised by the GOP, or will there be a new platform for urban issues in our domestic policies?

Stepping aside from the 24/7 media loop of personality politics I've tried to dig into the presidential candidate's views on "urban issues" or anything reasonably close in context.

So let's start with Barack Obama. The candidate addressed the US Conference of Mayors (speech excerpts here) back in June. The Obama campaign site also has a section on "Urban Policy." Items to note include support of CDBG, a constant target of the current administration, and perhaps catalytic, the idea of creating a White House Office on Urban Policy. The site does speak to the issue of Sustainable Development, though in terms so vague a real estate agent could have produced it. Other areas spoken to include the typical hodgepodge of "urban issues" ranging from education, to job creation, and sadly of course, crime.

Based on the available evidence (i.e. interviews, speeches, everything) John McCain's perspective on cities is liken to that of Ellworth Toohey; "but I don't think of you." The McCain website speaks about the economy, energy, national security, health care, Iraq, climate change, veterans, immigration, education, 2nd amendment, judicial philosophy, technology, fighting crime, natural heritage, agricultural policy, sanctity of life, space program, and ethics reform without using the words "cities" or "urban" once. From this we can only suppose that John McCain could careless (at best) about cities.

So the evidence of true interest in urban issues among the candidates for President is limited. One candidate has some recognition that there is a need for an urban agenda, while the other doesn't even seem to have the word in his vocabulary. No forum or debate has focused on issues of urban importance, but we might also consider empathy and a sort of urban osmosis. That is, Obama actually lives in a city (Chicago), and his running mate, Joe Biden, commutes using rail (Amtrak). On the GOP side we have McCain who owns more real estate than a fast food chain. It would seem that his running mate, a one-time mayor, is a bit confused about her view points on urban infrastructure though. Apparently she was for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it. She claims to be solidly against pork barrel now. Sadly, none of this informs us much, except to guess that the GOP ticket has no urban agenda?

For the moment, it seems urban issues are left wanting.

29 August 2008

LEED us not into temptation

Watching a show on HGTV called "Hidden Potential" reminded me of the things that I hate most about the craze of "green building" and the likes of LEED certification. Most people might take this as a crass swipe at tree-huggers. It's not. I more than adore my flora loving friends. But, what I don't love is this mentality that we can build our way out of our environmental situation. This show, for instance, features a couple who lives in Portland, Oregon (of course), and has spent the past six years converting their home into a green paradise. So now they wanna upgrade Beyonce style, and they want it to be "green."

So the designers take the couple around to three different houses and show them how they can convert these places to be "green." Two of the houses are mid-century (20th) or later models on generous lots, apparently somewhere far away from the infamous Portland light rail. The third house is a hundred year-old Victorian that is clearly in a relatively urban neighborhood (though not by dense, big city standards). This house is dismissed by the "green" couple as basically being too urban. For those who don't know, being urban is far-more environmentally sensible than energy efficiency from solar-bio-recycled everything else. But I digress.

So after considering fantasy upgrades to make the 20th century crap homes with spacious yards green, the couple settles on a 1976 "cabin" that requires extensive renovation and major additions. The couple loves that it has a yard the size of a "major park" (with lots grass to mow, maybe using a solar lawn mower?). So let's do an audit for this couple. We need to take into account the change from a more urban location to the middle of nowhere, the costs of new construction and renovation, and of living on acreage that would normally sustain an entire third world village. When you add it up, the "green" sensibilities of the couple is little more than self-serving fiction to ease their own conscience.

Sadly, this is just a neatly packaged example of the mindset that drives the fetish known as the green-building" movement. Consider for instance, that a building can be declared LEED certified and yet be surrounded by a sea of impermeable asphalt in the outer-belt of metroples sprawl (after a farm or habitat was demolished). Consider that a building can obtain LEED certification with hundreds of water-table invasive underground parking while being located literally on top of a major transit line. Consider that a well-built/well-maintained historic home, despite being somewhat less efficient in some standards, still outperforms the embedded energy and resources required for new-fangled renovations or so-called "green building." As Don Rypkema of Place Economics appropriately observes, LEED stands for "Lunatic Environmentalist enthusiastically Demolishing."

This is not to say that I am against building new structures in a "greener" fashion. That much makes sense. What doesn't make sense is to go through so much effort and ignore the idea that a green building that requires individual, auto-centric transport is not green. What doesn't make sense is that our cities (despite some recent resurgence) overwhelmingly have more capacity in existing (vacant or underutilized) structures and land. What doesn't make sense is that people think that they can live a consumption-focused life-style on a cul-de-sac, while working in an office park, and shopping at a strip mall and somehow think that they can be "green."

28 August 2008

Urban Planning: Beyond Saving the MBTA

Bostonians who suffer, but love the MBTA, must often wonder, how this really is one of the best transit systems in the country. For the average passenger the system is erratic and dated; often failing at the moments most personally important. Talk about amazing technology, a system that will fail when you personally need it most. Activist (T Rider's Union, Bad Transit) and transit enthusiasts must be further concerned. It has had a series of general managers that are openly anti-transit. The current GM, Dan Grabauskas, a relative-believer in transit at least, has managed to make station and operational improvements but is bogged down in debt and an inexplicable malaise in the State to treat transit seriously. While the turnpike and roadways get bailouts, transit is left drowning in unfair obligations. These obligations, many steaming from "Big Dig Mitigation" projects, were financed by the T, unlike the roadways, which are treated as capital improvements.

So it's not difficult to see why passengers and transit advocates can barely focus beyond keeping the T alive; at a time when transit elsewhere is resurgent. While this slow-action drama continues, the city and region risk being passed-up by progressives such as Denver, Portland, and even LA who are making bold moves to invest in transit for the future. In a time of energy crisis and climate change where transit has never looked better, and when dozens of cities across the nation are making strides towards building or expanding systems, Boston is stuck. Worse still, the current ideas for expanding and improving the T are tepid and inadequate to the needs of a world class city. The silver-line, an unquestionable failure is now promised to be followed by the "Urban Ring," another BRT idea that is even more poorly conceived with more never-to-happen tunnels. I know that is hard to believe if you have ever had to suffer the Silver Line, but imagine a rapid transit bus somehow ploughing through the LMAA on surface roads. Further, worthwhile projects such as extending the Green and Blue Lines are going nowhere. Worse still, there is no room for new ideas such as expanding capacity in the central core of Green line subway, now congested beyond belief, with quadruple tracking or new tunnels...or regaining ground by extending the E line back to Centre Street, if not to Arborway.

I would argue that the time is now to resolve the T's constant fiscal crisis (operating and capital) with a sustainable solution (beyond the sales tax). Now is the time for the T to evaluate the whole system (Commuter Rail, Rapid Transit, and Bus) to imagine and plan for a system worthy of a world class city of the 21st Century. Now is the time to move beyond dated ideas (i.e. the pseudo-BRT Urban Ring Scheme) and make room to consider a new future.

Urban Planning is a series of posts meant to prompt dialogue on major urban issues, with a focus on ideas and solutions.