Telling the story of places and people

PhilaPlace – Sharing Stories from the City of Neighborhoods is a joint project with one of the key faculty members, Amy Hillier, being at the City and Regional Planning department at the University of Pennsylvania’s excellent School of Design.

I particularly like the sites documenting W.E.B DuBois and the fact that the site is interactive–you can add a story. You can also create a family socio-spatial family history to save under your login to share with your friends and family.

Jason Haremza and Rolf Pendall on sidewalks, snow, and social justice

Clearing the Way on Sidewalks: Why keeping walks snow-free is a matter of public health and social justice | Opinion Blog –

I’ve always followed Rolf Pendall’s research on housing, which has implications for social justice, of course. Here his co-author and he are right: cleared sidewalks are a crucial link in the mobility network.

I got to wondering, however, about how carefully they’ve thought through their proposed solution:

So, instead of raising taxes, how about starting with this proposal: Shift a penny per gallon of the 31.9-cent-per-gallon state gas tax to support municipal (city and village) clearance of snow from public sidewalks. Then campaign in every county that has at least one city or village with sidewalks to devote at least 10 percent of the county’s sales tax on gasoline to the plowing of sidewalks in those locations.

People often suggest a penny out of the gas tax because a penny sounds very small. But a penny out of the state’s gas tax is a sizable pot of money, and then to add 10 percent of local option sales taxes on top–just for snow removal on sidewalks?

Let’s put some parameters on this: in 2007, there were 5,641,925,000 gallons of gas sold in New York [1] (not including diesel, which gets us another million gallons), which is at least that many pennies. This is $56 million dollars per year at base. The sales taxes on gasoline in New York range from 3.1 percent to 4.75 percent [2]; assuming a sale price of $2.50 per gallon, 30 percent of the take on a 3.5 percent tax would be another $148 million.

Maybe I’m figuring this wrong, as I haven’t had enough coffee yet.

However, the state operating budget, out of which snow removal comes, is $2.6 billion [3] which means that the proposal would be about 8 percent of the state’s total operating budget (where money for snow removal on state-operated transit and highways come).

They aren’t clear about what they are really proposing until later:

The funds could also be used to capitalize a low-interest revolving loan fund for sidewalk renewal and replacement. It’s inefficient and costly for property owners to do this parcel-by-parcel.

This is what they really want, given the size of the pot of money they are asking for.

The problem with sidewalk maintenance is that it’s labor intensive; snow plows for roads work because they take advantage of economies of scale in machinery. It may be inefficient for individual property owners to provide maintenance, but it’s also not terribly efficient for the city to do so because the combination of sidewalks and single-family homes is spatially disaggregated and inefficient to begin with–too much infrastructure (both roads and sidewalks) serving too few people.

To wit: there is a lot of underused capacity in the snowblower world as well (just like there is underused capacity in the riding lawnmower world). When I lived in Chicago, the one guy on the block with a snowblower cleared everybody’s sidewalk and would take, after much urging, money for fuel or baked goods. He even used to clear a little potty area for my short-legged dog to do his business. But, of course, not every community has snowblowers or angels to run them.

It would be interesting to know how other states deal with their sidewalks.

Edited to add: Professor Pendall noted that their proposal was for 10 percent of sales tax receipts, not 30 percent, which would bring the total budget allocation to $100 million–about 50 state, 50 local.


[2] Gas price information

[3] New York state enacted budget.

An often overlooked urban comfort

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library” – Jorge Luis Borges

Urbanists are apt to decry the loss of “public space” and by “public space they tend to mean sidewalks, plazas, pocket parks, etc. and they are right to oppose these things. Yet I seldom see urban planners or urbanists get up in arms over the dwindling numbers of public libraries. Those are inside, I suppose, and not Of The Streetscape, which I think renders library beneath the attention of most urban advocates. Yet many libraries are public spaces, spaces where anybody can go and read a book. Benjamin Franklin’s vision of the library was a worthy one.

I suppose for my younger readers, the Web has supplanted the library. A pity. Because while the web can be a commons, it is not a place where anybody can sit and take comfort. Those are, indeed, becoming rare–unless you buy a $4 latte.

Odee’s list of 20 “Most Beautiful Libraries” inspired me to thinking about this. To the above right here is the George Peabody library in Baltimore (I believe of the same Peabody’s that yielded Mrs. Barbara Bush; it must be rough).

My first library was in Lamont, IA. It was decidedly more modest. But I was hooked for life; it was a democratic place, even if dirty books were discretely kept from little hands, and I will be forever grateful. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is as restful to me as browsing in a library, or settling into one of the chairs to read. It is one of the fundamental pleasures of urban life—a shared common place, where ideas are about you.

Holla Back! at street harassers

Holla Back gives people the opportunity to “out” public harassment. Go check it out. It’s all over.

This reminds me of one of my favorite transit stories of all time. I was on the Paris metro when I was pretty young (early 20s) and a man was pestering me, and he began doing something that really is best left for private, and this tiny little French woman–somewhere between 80 and 200 years old–leapt spryly out of her seat and began to wallop the guy with her umbrella as she shouted at him in French. I’m not talking minor, little old lady whacks, I’m talking full swings that would make Manny Ramirez take note. My harasser leapt off the train at the next platform and I was free to take the rest of my ride in peace.

Congestion and the walking city

Paul Krugman notes on his blog that while he is favor of NYC’s move to turn Times Square into a walking only area, he’s not sure who the move is for, as “nobody goes there-it’s too crowded.”

Krugman references my favorite quote about congestion from Yogi Berra. As Brian Taylor pointed out in a very good paper in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Berra captured an essential conundrum from urban economics for urban planning newfound efforts to “contain sprawl.” That contradiction comes down to a) congestion is a sign of a successful place within cities (the “it’s too crowded” part), at the same time b) that same congestion and place intensity provides the demand for decentralization–the “nobody goes there” part.

This contradiction makes it difficult to deliver on the “congestion relief” promises that many people make on behalf of compact urbanization— one of the key elements of sustainable city ideas. Los Angeles may be everybody’s favorite whipping boy for auto congestion, but DC, New York, Boston and Chicago all have congestion both on the road and elsewhere: there’s never a seat any Starbuck’s off DuPont Circle, for example, and the sidewalks are uncomfortably crowded in New York at certain times of day. The Mexico City subway or the trains in Japan–or in most global cities other than LA—are simply jammed.

I’m not saying that auto congestion is the same for the environment as these other forms of congestion–it’s not–but as Taylor points out, places that we sustainable urbanists love–like New York–have pretty bad traffic congestion, and that traffic congestion is part of the place’s vibrancy and a measure of its success–not its failure.

Thus our sustainable cities of the future are likely to be crowded–very crowded if population growth continues. Most Americans, even those who live in New York, have no idea what real megacity crowding is like. The the demand for decentralization will grow stronger as we densify, even as we try to pack a whole bunch of amenities into our compact, walkable new developments, so long as there is income and wealth to support purchasing more space in a crowded world.

Taylor, Brian D. 2006. “Putting a Price on Mobility: Cars and Contradictions in Planning,” Longer View, Journal of the American Planning Association, 72(3): 279-284.