Monthly Archives: April 2010

Music and the City?

Some cities, some towns, and some neighborhoods even, have a sound, a certain kind of music, that’s special to them. That sound gets wound up with the identity of that place. But what happens if the city, or part of the city, is at odds with this sound? What happens if the the music that moves some in the city is frowned upon by others, especially the powers that be? What happens when class, race, and street violence get thrown into the mix? Natalie Hopkinson’s piece on go-go in DC, “Go-go music is the soul of Washington, but it’s slipping away,” raises a lot of these issues:

Cities change all the time, but this is about more than mourning what’s gone. As go-go shifts to the margins in the District, we are losing something bigger. Go-go may be invisible to much of white Washington, but it’s as much a part of the city as the pillars and monuments of its federal face. […]

Now the place that created go-go is shoving it aside.

Hopkinson’s article tells of how the go-go music scene is not only facing generational and class pressures, but is also increasingly facing law enforcement pressure.  She notes that the DC police have touted their “go-go report,” which monitors where and when go-go concerts are taking place, as one factor in reducing violent crime in the city.

Go-go may once have played a starring role in the revitalization of some of DC’s neighborhoods, but now it’s being pushed aside. That could be part of the natural change in musical tastes from generation to generation. But Hopkinson notes it could also be the result of who is getting to make the key decisions about the kind of development and the kind of music scene the city might have. What kind of nightlife, what kind of music scene does a city want? Whose music scene? Whose nightlife? For Hopkinson, rather than pushing go-go aside,

The city needs to be throwing out an oxygen mask. Without go-go, Washington loses part of its soul and continues its steady march toward becoming richer, whiter — less funktified.

–Jeff Prudhomme


Government Planned Sprawl?

There’s a common tendency to think of suburban sprawl as something akin to a state of nature. It’s just the way things are. It’s the way our towns and cities would develop on their own, if it weren’t for those meddling kids the meddling of government. So it may seem a bit strange to think about it the other way round:  sprawl as the direct outgrowth of deliberate governmental policy choices. But that’s the thread running through some recent blog entries I’ve been catching up on recently.

Writing at the American Conservative, Austin Bramwell comments on the misconception that suburban sprawl represents some sort of libertarian ideal:

For the 101st time: sprawl — an umbrella term for the pattern of development seen virtually everywhere in the United States — is not caused by the free market. It is, rather, mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations, from zoning laws and building codes to street design regulations.

Writing at the progressive Think Progress, Matt Yglesias picks up the thread in a bit more detail, noting that municipalities with the greatest sprawl are certainly not taking a hands-off libertarian approach:

Take the thrilling Maricopa County Zoning Ordinance in Phoenix and it’s suburbs. Chapter 6 covers single family residential zones. You’ve got your R1-35 areas in which you need 35,000 square feet of land per dwelling unit, your R1-10 areas where you need 10,000 feet, and then separate zones for 8,000 square feet per unit; 7,000 square feet per dwelling; and 6,000 square feet per dwelling.

If you want to build a mult-family structure in those places, you can’t. If you find yourself an R2 zone you can, but it can only be a two family structure. Also your building can’t be taller than 40 feet, “There shall be a front yard having a depth of not less than 20 feet,” the year yard needs to be 25 feet, and the side yard needs to be at least 5 feet. On average, buildings can only occupy at most 50 percent of the lot. And there have to be two parking spaces per dwelling unit. And you can go so on and so forth throughout the whole thing. The point, however, is that walkable urbanism is illegal in most of the county. Not just giant skyscrapers, but anything even remotely non-sprawling.

These are deliberate policy choices that essentially mandate sprawling development. As Duncan Black points out at Eschaton, it doesn’t matter whether these policy choices are expressed as zoning regulations, land-use regulations, or building codes. The effect is the same: it ends up being essentially illegal to create (or recreate) a form of walkable urbanism. Houston is often mentioned as an example of the kind of sprawl that happens if there is a libertarian state of nature–due to the absence of zoning:

Houston doesn’t have zoning, though deed restrictions set up a kind of de facto zoning to some extent, but it still has land use regulations and building codes. Zoning and land use generally get jumbled up, but zoning is more about what kind of function you can have on a property, while land use restrictions are about what kind of building you can build, whether there are setback and parking requirements, etc. So building walkable urbanism in Houston is as difficult (illegal) as anywhere.

My point is not to argue for a certain kind of development or for a particular policy approach. My point is to illustrate that the shape of our towns and cities–even in the case of sprawl–reflect deliberate policy choices. Sprawl isn’t a state of nature or a pure expression of a free market.  It’s one possible policy choice among others–and it depends on quite a bit of governmental intrusion on the kind of buildings, spaces, or neighborhoods people might have. And as one deliberate policy choice, it deserves to be deliberated upon. The point of the project on Shaping our Towns and Cities will be to reflect upon these choices and to explore the range of possibilities we might have.

–Jeff Prudhomme

A Streetcar Named Wireless?

What are the prospects for the return of streetcars to our nation’s capital? Lisa Rein has a piece up at today’s Post, D.C. streetcar project may get hung up on overhead wires, explaining one complication: the objection by some to the visual clutter occasioned by the overhead wires used to power most streetcars. Opponents raise concerns about maintaining the open view lanes through the city and they point to laws restricting wired streetcars:

On their side is an 1889 federal law banning overhead electrification in Georgetown and the original center city design by Pierre L’Enfant in 1791, bounded by the Potomac and Anacostia waterfronts north to Florida Avenue. Streetcars would run through much of the core, including H Street NE, where the city is now laying tracks.

“We have, in this city, an unusual number of clear views and vistas and broad boulevards,” said Meg Maguire, a leader of Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which opposes overhead wires anywhere in the city. “They’re not to be tampered with.”

Proponents of streetcars point out that getting more cars off the streets would do more to  reduce visual clutter  and open up the vistas of the city. The fixed travel path of streetcars are also likely to encourage a different kind of neighborhood development than, say, buses, which would bring other aesthetic and quality of life enhancements. While  there are such things as wireless streetcars, DC’s transportation chief, Gabe Klein, notes some of the problems:

Klein said today’s wireless technology is costly and untested in cities with rain and snowy winters, like the District. Just a few companies make wireless streetcars, and they’ve had growing pains where they’ve been introduced, mostly in Europe. It could be fiscally irresponsible for the city to limit its options, he said.

He is floating a compromise to preservationists: a hybrid system that would run on wires outside the federal city and switch to battery power inside. United Streetcar, a Portland-based company looking at wireless cars to expand that city’s streetcar line, is designing a prototype that would recharge batteries every mile, possibly with a braking mechanism at stations.

But the battery could take several minutes to charge, and city planners want more flexibility.

Whose vision of the capital city might prevail? Can there be a workable technical compromise of a hybrid wireless streetcar? And what visual qualities of the city’s streetscapes are the most important? For whom?

–Jeff Prudhomme

Could Taking Part in a Discussion Project Make You Happier?

When I talk to people about participating in one of the Interactivity Foundation’s Discussion Projects (such as my upcoming project on Shaping our Towns & Cities), they often ask me what they might get out of the process. A lot of past panelists have told me that the opportunity to engage in collaborative and generative discussions with their peers has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the whole experience. So I wasn’t surprised to see Roni Caryn Rabin’s blog post at the NY Times under the title of “Talk Deeply, Be Happy?”:

Would you be happier if you spent more time discussing the state of the world and the meaning of life — and less time talking about the weather?

It may sound counterintuitive, but people who spend more of their day having deep discussions and less time engaging in small talk seem to be happier, said Matthias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona who published a study on the subject.

“We found this so interesting, because it could have gone the other way — it could have been, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ — as long as you surf on the shallow level of life you’re happy, and if you go into the existential depths you’ll be unhappy,” Dr. Mehl said.

But, he proposed, substantive conversation seemed to hold the key to happiness for two main reasons: both because human beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives, and because we are social animals who want and need to connect with other people.

Now, I’m not going to take an empirical research approach to all this (if you’re interested, you can find Mehl’s article here). But Mehl’s study does resonate with what I’ve witnessed in my projects. People enjoy the opportunity the chance to engage in a non-contentious conversation that enables them to think big about the big issues confronting us as individuals and as members of society. So, will taking part in my discussion project make you happier? I’ve got reason to think so, but there’s only one way to find out. Just let me know if you’re interested.

–Jeff Prudhomme

Where Will a Project Go? A Novel Approach to Following the Questions

If you’re thinking about taking part in one of our Sanctuary Discussion Projects, you might wonder about the directions the discussions might take. You might wonder whether the discussion Facilitator, or the Interactivity Foundation, has in mind some particular direction in which to lead the discussions. You might wonder whether the discussions will start with some particular answers in mind. Actually, our Discussion Projects start not with answers but with questions. And, frankly, we don’t know the answers to these questions. Our Discussion Projects move by exploring different questions about some area of public or social concern. And, once a project gets moving, we don’t quite know what different directions it might take.

Of course, you might then wonder how it’s possible to facilitate a project if you don’t know where it is going. How can you facilitate discussions on a complex topic if you  don’t know the answers to the big questions the group will be exploring? Is this like the blind leading the blind? Along these lines it might help to think about some recent comments made by the novelist Barbara Kingsolver about her approach to writing a novel (per my rough transcription):

I begin with a question or often kind of a complex of questions that seem enormously important to me and whose answers I really don’t know. And that way I can enjoy the process of writing my way to, not exactly to one answer, because, of course, a novel doesn’t deliver a single answer, but it should deliver you, the reader, some satisfaction on the terms that it has established. It should really lead you to answer these questions for yourself. (Barbara Kingsolver on the Diane Rehm Show)

Following Kingsolver’s lead, we might describe the Interactivity Foundation’s Discussion Projects as taking a “novel” approach. A Discussion Project begins much as Kingsolver says: we start with a complex of questions whose answers we don’t know. The project discussions move ahead by the panelists exploring these different questions and developing different possible ways to respond to them. Like the process of writing a novel, our Discussion Projects are intended to enable creative insights and open up new possibilities we may not have thought up before. And just like a novel, our projects don’t deliver a single answer.

There are some key differences, of course, between an Interactivity Foundation Discussion Project and writing a novel. Rather than describing one narrative or storyline, our project discussions essentially develop different possible “storylines,” or different possible ways to respond to an evolving complex of questions. (Maybe it’s more like writing a collection of short stories). And it’s important to keep in mind that our project panelists aren’t in the role of “readers,” or recipients of what’s produced in the project discussions. They are the authors of it. As the authors, the panelists are not seeking to reach satisfaction for themselves on the “answers” that are produced. They’re trying to spell out a range of possibilities, to tell a number of contrasting stories, so that others, in future citizen discussions, can find their way to their own answers. The ultimate product of a project, a Citizen Discussion Report, should help citizens develop their own thinking about the area of concern.

The analogy between an Interactivity Foundation Discussion Project and Barbara Kingsolver’s approach to writing a novel may not be a perfect one. But if you’re wondering how a Discussion Project could work if it doesn’t know in advance where it is going, you might do well to think of it more like writing a novel and less like engaging in research or taking a trip to a predetermined destination. You might do well to think about Barbara Kingsolver’s approach to starting with a complex of questions whose answers she doesn’t know.

–Jeff Prudhomme

Cross posted at the Interactivity Foundation’s Perspectives Blog.