Traffic and Wild Fruits – Connected?

Sometimes working things out requires physical models. In this case the results were equivocal. The problem was: If you wanted to design a road system that would not require traffic lights to handle intersecting flows, what would it look like? Well, you’d probably have to separate the traffic into two levels (not totally necessary, but more compact) At the intersections you’d have to route the crossing flows around each other.

In another system, all the streets would be one-way, and the direction would alternate every block. To get through a city (or neighborhood) you’d have to “wiggle” back and forth through the grid.

I got these ideas from two videos reporting on new designs for intersections that use fewer road signs and no traffic lights. The videos said these designs were working better (allowing a smoother flow of cars with fewer accidents) than traditional intersections. This seems to result from a combination of spatial and psychological factors.

Urban Design

This is just one small example of what some people are thinking about concerning the broader subject of urban design. Did I mention going to a meeting about a new light rail station in an earlier post? Same basic topic.

Urban Design is linked to Urban Planning, or Land Use Planning. Urban Design is considered the more embracive subject. Planning is more directly involved with political control.

San Francisco plaza

A view of San Francisco’s Vaillancourt Fountain, in a plaza near the old ferry terminal. This is from 1977. The fountain was installed in 1971.

In trying to find out more about what people involved with this subject are thinking and doing, I searched online using several search strings that I thought would be important to the subject. However, it seems most others did not consider most of those topics that important. Which is to say, I didn’t find a lot of helpful material.

Henry George and Garden Cities

I did run across the subject of Garden Cities. These were first proposed in England by one Ebenezer Howard, who, according to Wikipedia, was inspired by American writers Edward Bellamy (Looking Backward) and Henry George (Progress and Poverty). I have read both of those books!

Really only one (you can count more) garden city was ever constructed in England, named Letchworth. The historically recent push for sustainability in urban design has created renewed interest in the Garden City concept. This resulted in “The Letchworth Declaration” of 2014, put forward by a new Community Interest Company named New Garden Cities Alliance. The declaration upholds the values of Sir Howard, including in particular the idea that the land of the city should be held by the community in trust. This is very similar to Henry George’s vision. It totally changes the traditional rules regarding land ownership, but has a more favorable history in the UK than it does in the US.

Land Ownership

If a community is unable or unwilling to take ownership of its land and charge rent to those wishing to use that land, then a Garden City degrades into a nice-looking suburb, as has happened with most attempts to create such cities in other places, especially the US. This seems to be a fundamental problem in changing the way cities form, particularly in the US, but more conspicuously in most large cities in the developing world. In those cities, the landowners have refused to build any kind of housing for poorer people, and the poor who moved to the cities were forced to build their own “cities” according to their own rules. Thus the favelas of Rio de Janeiro are much more than just “slums” as we would think of them. In the US, the original slums were created when tenements built for immigrants or poorer workers were abandoned by their original communities and rented out to new waves of immigrants, and left to run down until land owners were forced to demolish them or cities were forced to replace them. In Rio the favelas were built by their occupants, and this remains the case to this day. In 2010, over 11 million people lived in favelas in Brazil. This is more than the entire population of New York City.

I thought that land ownership, land owners, and the decisions they make about how to use their urban land would be a major topic related to the subject of urban development, design, and planning. But most writers (after George) avoid the topic. Apparently the debate is considered closed. In the US at least, land owners have the right to decide how to use their land (as long as it is not overtly destructive) and can sell the deed to their land to anyone they want for any price they want.

portion of the Railyards property, Sacramento

The above-pictured land has stood vacant very near the downtown of Sacramento for about 20 years. It is currently owned by a local developer who promises to start building on it. However, the year 2017 came and went with no significant work done. Below is the same view from a slightly different perspective.

homeless tent overlooks the railyards

This tent has one of the nicest views in the entire city (campers are periodically removed from this site, but tend to get bothered less during the colder months). Why does this overpass exist? Because the city built it and another one in 2015 to connect the new development to downtown. And when the development finally gets built, the various community agencies that provide police, fire protection, sewage, water, garbage collection, electricity and gas will obligingly re-tool and expand into the area. But how will they recoup the costs associated with doing this? George said: Charge the owners rent. If the owners of this land had to pay Sacramento-sized rent on all this property, would they continue to leave it vacant? George hoped the answer would be, “No.” But apparently Georgism in the US has been canned for the duration…And the Railyards remain vacant.

Who decides how to use the land?

When you are a homesteader sitting on your 160 acres (the Railyards cover 240 acres) you get to decide where to put the well, the house, the chicken coup, the cow pasture, the corn field or whatever. Seems fair. But what if that land is in a city?

200 acres is enough land to host one or more companies employing thousands of people, the housing, schools, clinics, restaurants and parks for those people, and probably much more. You don’t have one user, you have thousands. And you don’t have one landowner, you have (maybe) hundreds. They all have to develop their land in a way that eventually fits together with everyone else. And they might be able to do it. But it’s a sure thing that various agents for the community (or its government) are going to be looking over their shoulders and trying to influence certain outcomes.

“Modern” urban developments commonly go through years of design, planning, and approvals before the developers get the go-ahead. This isn’t the way it always was. I don’t think it is even known how the ancient cities of Europe, Asia and Africa were built. There was probably a central planner/designer, but this data seems to be lost. We know that many of these cities were rebuilt following wars, fires, floods and similar catastrophes. And not always with as pleasing results as in older times. Certainly, the majority of US cities could easily be described as “ugly.” Or as having a “disorganized” look about them. They certainly have not responded well to various economic/cultural/political changes in the past. When agriculture got mechanized, and more factories got built near urban transport hubs, were the cities ready for the inrush of new workers from the countryside? The stories I read point to the contrary. When old electric trains and trolleys were torn out and replaced with wide streets for cars, then freeways for cars, were the cities ready for that change? It seems not. And when the welfare system started dumping its failed cases into the streets of urban America, I don’t see that going very well, either.

Perhaps it is time to take a different approach to the problems that cities were built to solve.

Did cities “evolve” from rural settlements?

Students of ancient history seem to agree that something happened on Earth that led to the need for cities. Cities began developing in a big way around 3,500 BC. The city of Mohenjo-Daro in India, estimated to have been built about 4,000 years ago, is noted for its “urban planning” including some form of plumbing. It shared its layout pattern with several other sites occupied by that same civilization.

With historical scholarship as it stood in the early 1900s, historians and archeologists of those times had to assume that the humans who built and occupied those ancient cities somehow worked it all out, all by themselves. But with what we know now, there is no excuse for that theory to stand as the only one, or still very dominant one. It is much more likely that something more interesting than that was going on back then.

And in that possibility – probability – lies the key to a new approach. We have already developed part of that new approach: Computer design and simulation techniques. We still need the other part: An understanding and certainty on what we are doing on Earth, firmly supported by our own ability to recall similar situations in the past.

At this point in my own development, I’m not sure where such a certainty will lead us. The intention is that we “get it right” this time, or at least more right. We have an opportunity today that is close to unique in the history of the universe. We are now able to combine human compassion with the willingness to use advanced technologies. In our own written history, we have no obvious prior experience with a situation like this. But in our longer history, we have many such experiences. If we can humanize our technocracy so that self-destructive impulses don’t ruin our future on Earth, then we have a chance to bring something new to the table.

Of Fig trees and Freeways

Unripe fig cut open.

My fig sample.

This fig came from a tree growing underneath a freeway in Sacramento’s American River Parkway. I’ve never had a change to look inside an unripe fig before. Perhaps the figs there will be ripe in another month or so. But, what will happen to them?

flowering plum trees Seattle

Here is a lovely row of flowering plum trees near the Queen Anne area of Seattle. How do I know they are plum trees? Because every summer their fruit ripens and falls on the sidewalks, making a big mess. How many people could those plums feed if they were harvested? Same question could be asked about the figs under the freeway in Sacramento. I know the animals there don’t eat them all. Besides, the animals also have wild grapes, blackberries and goodness knows what other treats growing in their park. With a little effort, all these plants could also provide human food. Elderberry flowers are edible, and the fruit also has many uses. The park is full of elderberries.

elderberry bushes in sacramento park

Elderberry bushes heavy with berries.

People could also be growing plants like this in their suburban gardens. Some do, but they don’t harvest the fruit. At a house just down the street stands a fine lemon tree, still holding its (I am sure now less than edible) fruit from last year!

OK, so maybe it would be more efficient to have urban orchards (like they do in Village Homes in Davis) and hire someone to harvest the fruit and get it into the hands of people who want to eat it. So, let’s do it! All I know is, that if I get a chance, I’ll be enjoying some great figs, wild grapes, blackberries, almonds and goodness knows what else courtesy of my local park.

The point is, a lot of functions that get overlooked or forgotten could be integrated into urban life (at least in a town like Sacramento) if someone just became a little more aware of what is possible. We need people thinking about things like this, and those people should be people like us. We have a chance this time to get it right. Will we blow it?

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