Cities

City limits

A poet takes the measure of Portland — on foot

Starting early this century, poet and professor David Oates set out to walk the boundary line that Oregon drew around the city of Portland decades ago to concentrate its development and discourage sprawl. What is today called "the New Urbanism" is not new in Portland: it's been part of the political process since l973. As Oates writes in a forward to a book he recently published about his adopted state's experiment in urban utopianism: We hope to grow in, and in some places, up. To get richer in connections and cleverness -- to get deeper -- instead of wider, flatter, and shallower. That simplicity of language and depth of thought is part of the charm of City Limits: Walking Portland's Boundary. Like Thoreau, to whom Oates alludes in his first chapter -- titled "Where I Walked, What I Walked For" -- Oates has a knack for linking a bold action, such as walking over 250 miles around the city, to a self-deprecating description. Oates lightly mocks himself for getting lost, for his fear of dog attacks in redneck neighborhoods, and even for his own occasional tendency to stereotype people. This willingness to reveal his flaws helps the reader trust Oates' discussion of the issues raised by Portland's boundary (known as the UGB, or Urban Growth Boundary). Oates also dares include in his book brief essays from others, including philosopher/writer Kathleen Deen Moore and winemaker Eric Lemelson, as well as a planner, a landscape architect, and even a developer -- the sort of voices not usually heard in "environmental" books. Most surprising of all, on his walks Oates occasionally encounters legendary figures -- such as John Muir, Paul Shepherd, Italo Calvino -- who just happen to have inspired Oates. These ghostly figures turn out to be quite chatty, and yet utterly themselves, giving the book a jolt of originality to match its open-mindedness. Each encounter with these ghosts has a wistful quality; one can tell that Oates hates to see them go. Calvino especially inspires, with his discussion of the city of the labyrinthian spiral, the city of multiple desires, the city "that fades before your eyes," he tells Oates. "Like all of Portland's inhabitants, you follow zigzag lines from one street to another ... all the rest of the city is invisible. Your footsteps follow not what is outside the eyes, but what is within, buried, erased." It's a wonderful, original, eye-opening book. Although sometimes the multiple introductions and voices give it a patchwork quilt quality, in the end the book resembles the city Oates obviously adores: vibrantly alive, defiantly progressive, fearlessly contentious. For Grist, Oates kindly agreed to answer a few questions about Portland and its attempts to control its development:

A climate for old men

Spearheading transit for livable cities at 93

I recently ended 100 days without Grist. And wouldn't you know, the title of the first post I saw, "No climate for old men," spoke directly to the reason I was away. No, I wasn't with the McCain campaign. Rather, I was immersed in a project, spearheaded by a really old man, that could become a terrific tool for beating back the climate crisis. That man is 93-year-old Ted Kheel, legendary New York labor-lawyer-turned-environmentalist. His project is a study of the feasibility of financing free mass transit in New York City through congestion pricing and other charges on driving. I directed the study (PDF), which has just been released, and I think its implications could be huge, not just for New York but for every city in the U.S. and around the world.

Monday link dump

A little of this, a little of that

This week I am, officially anyway, on vacation, spending a week in a condo at the bottom of Mt. Hood, snowboarding by day, soaking in the hot tub by night. Yes: sweet. I will nonetheless be posting occasionally, because, well, I just don’t know how to quit you. Before I go I want to clear out all the stuff that’s been building up in my browser for, oh, months now. So a link dump it is, and away we go! This post on Dot Earth about sustainable cities reminded me that I forgot to link to Alex Steffen’s long and …

Maxed out

We’ve borrowed more than we can afford to borrow, sprawled more than we can afford to sprawl

There are a lot of moving parts involved in the current, sputtering condition of the economy, which can’t yet be declared a recession but may well become one. I’ll summarize as best I can. Very cheap credit led to a housing upturn, which became a boom, which became, in many parts of the country, a speculative bubble. The cheap credit was the result of a number of factors, including lax monetary police at the Federal Reserve, but of high importance were the huge foreign exchange reserves accumulated by a number of commodity-exporting nations, which led to a global savings glut. …

The terrorists have won

Reflections on death by SUV

It was just a matter of time before a World Trade Center survivor became a victim of a different sort of terrorism: death by automobile. It finally happened last month, in lower Manhattan, when a speeding sport utility vehicle struck and killed a woman who had fled the Twin Towers on 9/11. Florence Cioffi was leaving a dinner celebrating her upcoming 60th birthday when a Mercedes-Benz SUV slammed into her on Water Street at 60 miles an hour, according to a Manhattan assistant district attorney. Six years, four months, and thirteen days earlier, Ms. Cioffi narrowly averted death when she ducked out of her office on the 36th floor of the North Tower to get a coffee minutes before the plane struck.

Cities run into roadblocks in attempts to reduce CO2

Announcing an ambitious plan to reduce a city’s greenhouse gases is the easy part; when it comes to putting goals into action, local officials tend to run up against significant roadblocks. To take just a few examples: The subprime mortgage crisis has left taxpayers across the country unable to fund efficiency-minded proposals. Across the country, homeowners’ associations have vetoed plans for home solar panels on aesthetic grounds. In one city, police pushed back against plans for less-polluting cop cars, saying it would restrict needed speed. And everywhere, individuals are resistant to changing their habits. “They’ve seen the Al Gore movie, …

Enterprise and other rental companies move into car-share market

Enterprise Rent-a-Car is zooming ahead with a car-sharing program à la the successful Zipcar. The Enterprise venture, called WeCar, started on the campus of St. Louis’s Washington University last month, but will kick off in urban style in the city downtown next week. WeCar will begin with nine Toyota Prius hybrids and will target employees who commute without a car to work and then need a vehicle during the day. (Zipcar, which targets residential areas, is not available in St. Louis.) WeCar joins a U-Haul program with the self-explanatory name U Car Share, available in college cities like Ann Arbor, …

Fast-growing Atlanta loses rights to major source of drinking water

An 18-year water war between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida has come to an end of sorts: A federal appellate court has voided an Army Corps of Engineers agreement that would have given Georgia the rights to nearly 25 percent of federal reservoir Lake Lanier as a source of drinking water for metro Atlanta. Alabama and Florida had sued over the plan, saying it would siphon off water that would otherwise flow to their states. Atlanta, which has been accused of not being mindful of water resources while encouraging rampant growth, is “the big loser here,” says water-law expert George William …

Leggo my Yazoo

EPA set to kibosh Mississippi Delta boondoggle

Successive presidential administrations -- including the current one -- have tried to rein in the Army Corps of Engineers and its projects, which are mostly known for their tangy combination of high cost, arguable utility, and disregard for the environment. Tried -- and largely failed, thanks to the level-10 force fields erected by congresscritters who covet the flood of Corps project dollars into their districts. So it's startling and welcome news that apparently, the EPA is initiating the process to veto a massive Corps project known as the Yazoo Pumps.

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