Fun Urbanist info tools

Just found the San Francisco League of Conservation Voters' Density Calculator (link fixed) - though the important part is less a calculator and more a picturebook of neighborhoods. As you mouse-over each thumbnail, you get a glamour shot of the neighborhood in question, and a rundown of that neighborhood's density in households/acre with figures like cars/househould, vehicle-miles traveled annually, land used per thousand households, buses per hour serving neighborhood, etc.

This is something that every urbanist needs in their discussion kit - the ability to quickly whip out familiar examples of what a particular density feels like, along with the wonkish list of numbers. The American psyche has been programmed to be hostile towards density, without having any idea what it is that they're being hostile towards, and deprogramming that requires more than just proof (as strange as that sounds) that denser neighborhoods are more liveable than sprawl, but actually invoking particular examples.

post-Katrina environmentalism

I'm glad to have not yet heard as many right-wing screeds as I expected about, "How can those terrible liberals blame this on environmental policies?!" or "How can those terrible liberals be concerned about the environment at a time like this?!" Places like, meanwhile, are doing a halfway decent job of explaining the environmental aftermath as a third human disaster (first two = hurricane, flood).

"The New Orleans area that was flooded was an industrial area where you have all the lubricants and batteries and heavy-metal plating -- it's just hideously dangerous," says geographer Wells. "We can't wait around to test the floodwater before we pump it back into the lake -- people are already dying of disease from it -- but it's a terrible thing to do. We're going to avoid a great human disaster by doing this, but we could be creating a damn big environmental one." Forget for a moment the scenario of a toxic lake in the middle of a major American city; should a future hurricane breach the levees again, New Orleans could literally be submerged in poison.

I'd like it a little more explicit even than that - we're not "avoiding a human disaster" by shuttling around such a volume of water laden with so much nastiness; we're just struggling to put off that human disaster until we handle the current ones. In the best case scenario, Lake Pontchartrain is going to be literally untouchable for decades - swimming, fishing, perhaps even being close enough to look at the lake will be toxic. That's of course, ignoring the contaminants leached to the surface from underground, or washed out of industrial areas (or submerged cars) and spread around the city - everything's going to be coated in a nice layer of sewage and carcinogens when the water recedes. Yummy.

This is another reason why New Orleans should not be built back "the way it was", but also yet another reason to reexamine how all of our cities are built. Even small, environmentally concerned cities like Ann Arbor dump untreated sewage into the river during heavy storms, causing "Do not touch the water" signs to appear in downstream parks. Chemicals don't get disposed of, they just get stored somewhere until something pulls them to the surface and into contact with people again.

Will we learn anything out of this? Maybe.

Staggering conclusions on transportation

My favorite fabulist, Randal O'Toole, is at it again. This time, with Lack of Automobility Key to New Orleans Tragedy:

hose who fervently wish for car-free cities should take a closer look at New Orleans. The tragedy of New Orleans isn't primarily due to racism or government incompetence, though both played a role. The real cause is automobility -- or more precisely to the lack of it.

"The white people got out," declared the New York Times today. But, as a chart in the Times article makes clear, the people who got out were those with automobiles. Those who stayed, regardless of color, were those who lacked autos.
. . .
"The evacuation plan was really based on people driving out," an LSU professor told the Times. On Saturday and Sunday, August 27 and 28, when it appeared likely that Hurricane Katrina would strike New Orleans, those people who could simply got in their cars and drove away. The people who didn't have cars were left behind.

Critics of autos love the term "auto dependent." But Katrina proved that the automobile is a liberator. It is those who don't own autos who are dependent -- dependent on the competence of government officials, dependent on charity, dependent on complex and sometimes uncaring institutions.
. . .
Numerous commentators have legitimately criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government agencies for failing to foresee the need for evacuation, failing to secure enough buses or other means of evacuation, and failing to get those buses to people who needed evacuation. But people who owned autos didn't need to rely on the competence of government planners to be safe from Katrina and flooding. They were able to save themselves by driving away. Most apparently found refuge with friends or in hotels many miles from the devastation. Meanwhile, those who didn't have autos were forced into high-density, crime-ridden refugee camps such as the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center.

The logic is beautiful: "People are starving because they're not eating this here hamburger that I'm eating. Are there other things they could eat? No. They must be eating this particular hamburger in order to acquire the calories they need to survive." It's not "automobility" that people lacked. It was "mobility" period. Or, as my advisor would urge, "access, not mobility" - it wasn't mobility that was the issue, but access to places that were safe from the storm, and mobility isn't necessary for access to safety if the place you are is safe - which is why rebuilding NO the way it was is a bad idea; it should be built safer.

The "Dirty Harry College of Urban Planning"

From the LA Times, Building Cities Like There's No Tomorrow:

Bulldozed? As they did to that famous ghost town, Chicago, after the great fire? To San Francisco after the 1906 quake? Still, I only said it was Hastert's timing that stunk; the question he suggested in such stumblebum fashion will one day, and soon, have to be framed properly and posed about the Gulf Coast.

It's a question that California is forced to ask itself every year, after our seasons of fire, flood, drought and quake, after Laguna Beach slides, after Malibu burns, after Paso Robles rattles and tumbles: Do we walk away from it for good? Build it again, fast and cheap? Build it again, slowly, expensively, safely?

Should we really be raising up cities in a bathtub, a fire zone, on a fault line?
. . .
Whether we should build and rebuild or not, we probably always will. The serious question then becomes how, and on whose terms. Our cities would look — and live — like entirely different places if they were designed exclusively by engineers, or by preservationists, or by insurance adjusters.

Most likely, they'll be built, and rebuilt, as always, by graduates of the Dirty Harry College of Urban Planning, whose school motto is: "You've got to ask yourself a question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?"

And it looks like PLANetizen got themselves a new Drupal install since last I looked...

Evacuation difficulties

A friend who did her undergrad at Tulane was telling me last night that she had (at some point - wasn't clear when) talked to New Orleans' planners about evacuation plans. I only sort of remember what she said, so don't quote this as fact, but her impression was that there were some big infrastructure problems preventing effective evacuation of the city.

First is that the number of exit routes are limited. Looking at a map of the area, there are three routes out of the city proper - two of which go over Lake Pontchartrain and aren't the kind of route by which you really want to be fleeing a hurricane. (Though, given sufficient notice...) Looking further outside the city, you have I-10 going east through Gulfport and Mobile (not a great escape route), I-59 going northeast and I-55 going north, both, importantly, into Mississippi, and I-10 going west through Baton Rouge.

The problem with the routes giong through Mississippi, she said, is that Mississippi has historically been completely unwilling to cooperate turn the in-bound freeway lanes into outbound lanes - which is pretty essential to getting the throughput the New Orleans planners see as necessary for an effective evacuation. They can't achieve maximum outbound travel because it would just snarl when it has to merge back together before entering Mississippi. I-10 west, of course, has to deal with Baton Rouge in the way, slowing things up, especially if Baton Rouge is also evacuating.

So, someone asks, if insufficient transportation infrastructure is the problem, and you say they've known this for forty years, doesn't it seem like they've had time to do something about this? Well, the next problem getting in the way is that Louisiana refused to raise their drinking age to 21 until only recently, and the carrot/stick that the Federal government uses to achieve a national minimum drinking age is transportation dollars. Louisiana was therefore starved of money to address its problems for several decades.

Now, I'm a little skeptical at the statement, "New Orleans just can't be totally evacuated." It seems as though 80% of the population got out in time, with a 24 hour mandatory evacuation notice. Given a little more time - and proper advance planning and training - I still believe that National Guardsmen driving schoolbuses could've done a lot to get more people out.

The suburbia of rebuilding

When I suggested to somebody that, of course there would remain a population near the Port of New Orleans - somebody needs to work there - but that this didn't necessitate rebuilding the City of New Orleans exactly where it stood, I was blasted for it. I don't know the area - it would be perfectly possible to run a medium-speed passenger rail line from Baton Rouge to the Port for 30-40 minute commuter traffic, but I have no idea whether Baton Rouge would be able to support a large segment of the New Orleans population (of course, right now, New Orleans, can't support _any_ of the New Orleans population), so I can't make that suggestion too explicitly.

But the piece I found silliest was that my suggestions to not build back New Orleans the way it was would result in an"uber-suburbia" that would kill New Orleans dead - and that the most important thing, for culture's sake, was to build back the city. (Note that I'm linking to Christine's lj, but Christine's not the person I'm in disagreement with - it's another commenter. The head post is linked for purposes of showing the whole discussion.)

If you're going to PLAN places for people to live, you have to take into account more than the numbers. How can you recover a city's soul? Souls aren't built; they grow. But there are things you can do to foster neighborhood cohesion, etc. And...cultural elements are not, not, NOT interchangeable. You can't *plan* jazz.

I think it's more worthwhile to preserve the cohesion of the history and spirit of the place, *whatever* it takes, than to built some kind of uber-suburbia which will really kill New Orleans dead.

I understand the desire to save the city's soul (used here in a sociological-spiritual sense, rather than an Operation Blessing sense), but I neither think that building it back where it lay is necessarily going to achieve that, nor do I think that the marginal amount of the city's soul that could be regained by building it back like it was - rather than not doing so - is worth putting people back in the danger that so many are still in. I think the second half of that is self-evident: nothing is going to change about our society that will make the impoverished more able to evacuate themselves next time, and there will be a next time eventually. As for the first half - rebuilding the city isn't really going to bring it back. Todd notes on AU that just plain wealth is going to rule the rebuilding - the private market is going to drive any rebuilding just as thoroughly as it drove the "evacuation", and a lot of people are going to be left without homes simply because other, more wealthy people have swooped in and claimed the rebuilding. I'm betting that any rebuilding of New Orleans is going to feature a lot more second or third homes for wealthy folks who want a place to party, to pick up some jazz and feel cultured, etc, and who can afford the cost of site work and construction, the new insurance premiums, and can afford to lose a house in the next storm.

And that's even if people want to return - this goes back to a variation on my original question. How much of your city can be destroyed before it's not your city anymore? If 80% of Ann Arbor were demolished, and its population spread across several states and not allowed to return for a few months, would the place still be recognizeable to me as a place, or would it simply be a space that used to contain the place I know? An AP article on gets at this in a piece about Waveland, MS:

"This was downtown Waveland right here, condos, restaurants, homes right on the beach" Casey said, sweeping his hand out toward the barren coast. "Yesterday, everyone showed up at the Good Life with a beer and we all sat down on the ground and had a cold one together at the bar. It's all gone."
. . .
"It might all just have to be leveled," Stella said. "And if they rebuild, instead of it being a quaint little place, it'll be a brass and fern town, like a Ruby Tuesdays, shiny and new."

"And there's just no work here now, just no work at all," Casey added.

Can a replica of a place be that place? Even if it is a physically faithful replica? 300-year-old edifices that are destroyed in a hurricane can only ever be remade as replicas - even if physically identical, they won't have the accumulated spirit of the original, especially with so many of the people displaced. I do strongly believe that New Orleans can be preserved in enclaves in other cities - that Houston, at the very least, will wind up with some neighborhood that identifies as "New Orleans" years from now. If Detroit can have (or have had) Corktown, Poletown, Mexicantown, Greektown as neighborhoods of definite enough cultural character to hold the names, and countless other distinct neighborhoods and populations that I don't know the names of, there's a place for New Orleans there too.


In the wake of cities being wiped half from the face of the earth (and thousands of people being left behind to die, with many of them succeeding at that), one wonders what can be done to prepare for disasters. I don't mean to go looking for trouble before this one's over, but it's what I'm thinking about, and preparing can't be done too soon.

Really, though, Michigan is blessedly free of natural disasters (though at least one housemate would claim we experience one annually from November to April). Aside from the long disasters of sprawl, urban decay, deindustrialization, and concentrated poverty, if one can, this state doesn't have hurricanes, tsunami, earthquakes, forest fires, mudslides, Godzilla, or any of the other threats that other areas have to worry about. What I can think of to worry about seems much less worrisome: tornado, minor floods, blizzard/ice storm, electrical storm . . . most of which are pretty limited in either scale or area of impact. The worst case scenario here would seem to be blackout plus water main break in subzero weather, but that's still only a bit past "inconvenient" for those of us lucky enough to have solid houses and warm clothes.

What can be done to prepare for emergency, I suppose, and therefore should be done, includes, as a very quick first cut...

  • First aid training: the Red Cross' full Adult/Child/Infant CPR/First Aid course is $60, 9 hours, and taught weekly or thereabouts - a task for some Saturday after the wedding.

  • Drinkable water: a filter is on my list of backpacking hardware to acquire, but boiling is perfectly acceptable too, which brings up,
  • Cooking ability: my WhisperLite will run on white gas, kerosene, gasoline, or diesel (I need to get more Coleman Fuel before my next trip anyways) and is close at hand. (Ah, yuppie survivalism!)

  • Food, comma, non-spoiled: the house could probably go a week without much suffering on what we have on hand. We'd get sick of oatmeal after a while, but, wait, I eat it every day anyways. I don't know what the heat load of a 25# bag of flour in the chest freezer is; might want to put some frozen gallons of water in the bottom in case of power failure.
  • Candles, batteries/flashlights, blankets, all that standard stuff.
  • Transportation: spare tires and tubes for bikes might be a good idea.

Honestly, life is pretty easy when you're a 20-something without dependants. More ability to help others in time of need, I suppose.

Let's try not to spit in the face of sympathy this time, shall we?

From the AP:

September 02,2005 | WASHINGTON -- In an accelerating drive, more than three dozen countries have pledged assistance in connection with the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

The offers blur political lines. Cuba and Venezuela, for instance, have offered to help despite political differences with Washington. Oil giant Saudi Arabia and tiny countries like Dominica, are among the nations making pledges.
. . .
By Friday, offers had been received from Russia, Japan, Canada, France, Honduras, Germany, Venezuela, Jamaica, Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Greece, Hungary, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, China, South Korea, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, New Zealand, Guatemala, Paraguay, Belgium, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Italy, Guyana, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Austria, Lithuania, Spain, Dominica, Norway, Cuba and Bahamas.

Now, can we just put our arrogance away for a minute and accept it? Well, maybe:

"I'm not expecting much from foreign nations because we haven't asked for it," Bush told ABC's "Good Morning America." "I do suspect a lot of sympathy, and perhaps some will send cash dollars. But this country is going to rise up and take care of it. You know, we love help, but we're going to take care of our own business, as well."

Hours later, however, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had spoken with the White House and decided that "we will accept all offers of foreign assistance. Anything that can be of help to alleviate the difficult situation, the tragic situation of the people of the area affected by Hurricane Katrina will be accepted."

"The unveiling of poverty amidst disaster"

In light of conversations on unaided "evacuations" and post-disaster looting by those left behind, the following tidbit of a an e-mail from UM President Mary Sue Coleman is particularly interesting:

The Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History has arranged to host Professor Steven Pierce, of Tulane University's History Department, after he took refuge in a hotel in Dallas. He will be at U-M for an undetermined amount of time, from about September 21, and the Doctoral Program hopes to arrange a small forum on the unveiling of poverty amidst disaster. Professor Pierce is an historical anthropologist whose work focuses on West Africa.

Abandoning NOLA, revised

My suggestion that New Orleans ought to be relocated wholesale to Detroit isn't particularly serious. But my suggestion that it ought not be rebuilt is. Or, at least, that we should provide relocation aid as at least as available an option as rebuilding aid.

Fine, so many people want to "go home". That's understandable. Going home, though, involves waiting months for the levees to be repaired, the city to be pumped out, the cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis threats to subside, etc, and that's for the people whose homes won't have to be rebuilt entirely. (80% of the city is flooded, and pumping out the city will take up to nine weeks. How many homes do you think would be structurally sound - let alone broader definitions of "habitable" after having standing water in them for nine weeks? I have a hunch there might be some mold problems...) Rebuilding will take months or years longer, and that's if you want to build it back the way it was, and not rethink entirely the way you're building your city, a la Detroit's post-Fire Woodward Plan of 1807 or the raising of Chicago's street level by 14 feet in 1856 (and the following 20 years).

How long, exactly, are we going to shelter people in Houston's Astrodome while they're waiting to go home? Does anybody understand what President Bush's, "This recovery will take years," really means? Are we going to keep hundreds of thousands of people in limbo for months, only to go "home" to ruined homes and devastated neighborhoods? Do we expect these people to fill out temporary job applications with, "Astrodome, Section 227, Row E" as their address? (And how many of them have jobs to go home to? Aside from rebuilding, I mean?) Envisioning New Orleans rising like a shining Phoenix from the ashes is lovely and sentimental and all, but it's also a vision that sentences New Orleans' people to uncertainty followed by hard labor.

Rather than that, why not let people start recovering and start rebuilding their lives (not their city) now? Rather than pouring aid money into building back New Orleans, use it to help a diaspora - start helping people, now, not in a few months, to find places that they can go, permanently, not for a few months, and get their lives back together. Help people find homes and jobs, and help them get to those places. Where do they have family? Where do they have friends? Are there groups that want to relocate together? (This generation's version of "Ypsitucky"*, in cities across the country.)

This isn't necessarily crazy - there was a time when federal housing policy for the urban poor involved razing "slums" and building massive housing projects to provide people with higher quality housing. This didn't work too well. The Gautreax decision against the Chicago Housing Authority in the late '60s led to a program of scattered-site housing - providing residents of poor neighborhoods with housing vouchers so that they could move to mixed-income, desegregated neighborhoods. The decision required the CHA (and HUD) to provide at least as many scattered-site housing units as concentrated housing units, providing a natural experiment with enough evidence suggesting that scattered-site relocation offers increased economic opportunity, higher youth educational achievement, lower youth violent crime rates, and so on that this is now considered to be a much better way of helping high-poverty populations that simply building new housing that continues the concentration of poverty.

Given that a population of thousands of refugees living in stadiums and shelters hundreds of miles from what used to be home is a pretty darned good example of a high-poverty population, it seems pretty reasonable to use the experience of public housing programs to show that offering them opportunities and assistance in going wherever they want will probably be at least as helpful as putting them up for months and then sending them back to their ruined city.

* "Ypsitucky" is a nickname for Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor's neighbor to the east, which has a significant (though not for much longer) population of Kentucky-born residents. In the early 1940s, there was a large migration/relocation of people from Kentucky to Ypsi to work at the bomber plants at Willow Run. Why Kentucky? I don't know that part. I assume they were employed there and relocated.