Sunday, August 31, 2014

There Goes the Neighborhood, Part One: Highways

The Claiborne is a target for freeway removal activists, but is it really a cause for the neighborhood's decline? (Credit to Jessica Yoon)

What causes neighborhoods to decline? That's what this two part series will focus on. The first will focus on what are common argument that is flawed, the second will go to what I think is the true reason.

There are so many arguments on Internet forums and New Urbanist blogs that urban highways destroy neighborhoods. The evidence seems pretty clear: the Interstates cut across the urban areas putting homes that were in fairly secure neighborhoods to be right next to a freeway, causing them to become ramshackle and run-down.

But despite the seemingly-damning evidence that freeways destroy neighborhoods, that's just not true. All inner city neighborhoods were in decline after World War II (such as the New Orleans example listed below), with many of the old-line Eastern cities losing thousands of people. Soon we'll talk about "white flight" and suburbanization, but that's different from today's subject. The arrival of the freeway was never a cause for its decline.

One example of this was the freeway revolt that took place in Houston where Texas State Highway 225 never went further in than Houston's loop 610, and community opposition was eventually able to take it off the planning maps permanently.

Despite that, however, the neighborhood kept on a downward swing from the 1970s to the present day, which goes to show you: the freeway was never the problem.

Devil's advocate says, however, that Harrisburg was never allowed to prosper because of the fear of a freeway kept land values down. While I can't say that's actually the case there, I do remember "For Sale" signs cropping up on one nearby road (including a relatively nice house that had recently been built or renovated) because of a proposal that would make a through road instead of the essentially cul-de-sac'd road it was.

However, I could counter with the fact that there are plenty of neighborhoods, especially newer ones, that front highways directly and do fine. One difference is that the neighborhood was conducive to that sort of growth, and the frontage roads are clearly and awkwardly replacing normal streets and city blocks.

Built after highway

Built before highway

A good many (if not all) of these older 'hoods were likely on the downswing anyway (remember, everyone, suburbs existed prior to freeways) because since the railroad was introduced, the poor tend to live toward the center of the city. The rich living in the center of the city hasn't really happened since the pre-Industrialization area and it's a bit of a stretch to declare that this was a perfectly fine neighborhood before the freeway happened.

Speaking of which, one of the big "examples" of this is the Claiborne Freeway.

I'm not disputing that an elevated freeway a block away (with no sound barrier walls) would indeed suck, but let's get a few facts straight:
That's one that I dispute for two reasons:

1) New Orleans, as a city, started its decline years ago (arguably at the start of the Civil War, but either way accelerated past World War II). All the neighborhoods were in decline, not just the one that Claiborne Expressway cut through. The fact that the Claiborne is an old, ugly freeway makes it a convenient scapegoat for the neighborhood's decline.

2) The exact same thing happened in Austin to an extent. East Avenue, built as a flagship boulevard for the city, had the dubious honor of the placement of Interstate 35. Anti-freeway proponents would like to point to the poorer east side in their screeds, but there's a big difference. Long before the Interstate, deed restrictions were in place to keep African-Americans and Mexican-Americans east to the freeway. It's definitely sad that such wholesale discrimination would happen, but it exonerates Interstate 35, and an aside, that thing wasn't exclusive to Austin, it happened in the rest of Texas (and especially the Deep South). It turns out that the subdivision I live in now, which was built in the 1940s and 1950s specifically prevented African-Americans from living there. Of course, that sort of thing was overturned many years ago, but people kept living there, until gentrification forced them out.

Why is it so different? Because Austin became a better city, growing and developing with new industries, in other words, a healthy city. New Orleans, on the other hand, is a moribund Detroit of the South that has been in decline for decades.

I could go on about this but there are really two things about freeways.

Would it be hard to live next to one? Sure.

Does it destroy neighborhoods? No, at least not the leading factor.

Stay tuned for what I think really zaps neighborhoods...

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Manufactured Crisis Regarding Manufactured Foods

Contrary to what NBC thinks about food deserts, convenience stores really do stock more than candy, cigarettes, beer, and soft drinks

One of the latest "topics du jour" that this blog aims to cover is "food deserts", which involves a high obesity rate in poor areas with no grocery stores and only convenience stores. The theory is that without access to real supermarkets, the poor rely on convenience stores with their less-than-healthy fare to supply people calories.

Now, before you demand that supermarkets start building in poor neighborhoods (and try that without some controversial gentrification), I want to inform you of something.

It's not a problem.

Or rather, it's not a "access to better food" problem. It can be broken down into three distinct categories:

1. It's partially bad statistics
While obesity and poverty and lack of real grocery stores are definitely linked, you can't assume that all of these are actual correlations of each other. You should know about lurking and confounding variables, even if you haven't taken a statistics class.

Even in disadvantaged areas, there's a Walmart Supercenter, which despite not being a great grocery store, does sell real food. Before someone cries "food desert" and demands something be done, a few things must be considered:

- What's the obesity/poverty rate in places that do have real grocery stores?
- Where do people in the neighborhood actually go for food?
- Why do people in rural areas (with no convenience stores either) who or may not be poor not as focused on? Are they more or less obese?

2. The single parent problem
Since most of the poor "food desert" neighborhoods in question are predominantly African-American, it should be noted what other problems there are. It isn't a racial issue, but on average, single mothers make a little more than a quarter to what married couples do, and the "father disappearance" especially hits blacks disproportionately. Therefore, even assuming the best of circumstances, if a mother wants to feed her kids, she often works two jobs (or one job and community college classes), leaving her little time or energy to cook.

A traditional two-parent household, as has worked in decades before, allows one person to be the breadwinner while the other (typically the mother) can cook and feed the family. Unfortunately, with traditional families and marriage rates dropping, we have this problem nowadays.

This issue of time and money cannot be easily fixed with food stamps nor an alimony paycheck, or even giving incentives for convenience stores to stock healthier items (like produce). Given a full-line grocery store that has lower prices (think H-E-B for those south of Dallas, and certainly Walmart for everywhere else), anyone with wanting to feed mouths with a serious shortage of time will run straight for those frozen meals like Stouffer's and the others. It happens in wealthier families, too (same concept), so in this case it could just be, instead of pre-packaged food, even cheaper pre-packaged foods, like burritos that I can buy three for a dollar.

Even if you disagree with the single parent problem and that it could be overcome, there's one more concept of why food deserts are a problem but not for lack of grocery stores:
3. Bad education will kill (via obesity)
OK, here's one for you. Three McDonald's cheeseburgers, priced at roughly a dollar apiece, vs. a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of white bread.

Which one is cheaper overall? The peanut butter sandwiches. Which is healthier overall? The peanut butter sandwiches. Which one is better for your money? The peanut butter sandwiches.

But unfortunately, because home economics is only sometimes not offered and often not required, these types of things will win out. While grocery stores do offer this sort of things at a cheaper price, the bread and peanut butter could still be found at a comparable price (in terms of home economics) at any given convenience store. In most convenience stores I've visited, you could find basic staples: bread, condiments, cereal,'s there, if you can resist the siren sound of the candy, soda, or beer.

And that's what I think: the food desert problem materialized out of nowhere built largely on some bad statistics and seemingly a war on convenience stores. Leave a comment if you agree, disagree, or just want to talk.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Don't Fear the Elevated

One recurring theme among urban blogs is a dislike of elevated structures and walking under bridges. This manifests itself usually in the form of being anti-urban elevated highway, but it takes other forms. I wrote a comment on one particular stupid post (though I didn't actually comment it being stupid): here this author complains in Minneapolis how an overpass creates some sort of urban planning nightmare and doesn't seem aware at his hypocrisy. Much thought is given to a dark underpass that goes under several railroad tracks, which, despite pointing out that the intersection used to look much more different than today without the freeways, and with the same the five-pointed intersection that seems to cause much grief.

And I want to ask: why? When you walk under a bridge, you're avoiding what is on there, whether it be vehicular traffic or rails. How is this bad?

This isn't the prettiest, but some would call this a "first world problem".

The question even extends to highways: in Houston, there's the Pierce Elevated, a highway that critics say "cuts" through the area between Midtown and Downtown, but that's a bit of a misnomer since the Midtown area didn't really exist until after the Pierce Elevated and the 59. You can even see when the Pierce Elevated was built (page 15 of the PDF) the area didn't look at all as it does now. The Pierce Elevated isn't in bad shape (it had an extensive re-do in the late 1990s) but it is congested. A lot of people think that it would be better without an elevated highway and replaced with a street-level boulevard. The prototype for this is a few examples in San Francisco, which replaced a few highways with boulevards as with another example in Milwaukee. However, Keep Houston Houston candidly reminds us that freeway removals are only done when it was a spur that was rendered more or less useless after the rest of the plans were cancelled, or that it was rendered obsolete with a wider freeway anyway. The Pierce is neither of these and is mostly congested because of outdated exits and entrances, including a particularly short left-hand entrance into the freeway from eastbound Allen Parkway.

There's no real rhyme or reason why the Pierce should be dismantled, but boulevards, favored by the anti-freeway crowd, make even less sense. Here you have a three to four lane road to cross, then going under the freeway, whereas a boulevard option would have you crossing on foot 9-10 lanes of traffic. Crossing streets tends to suck, and in most options if available, I'll take an underpass and go under a bridge.

We're not here to talk about the Pierce Elevated, but what is it about elevated structures that people hate?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Gardens Ephemeral

Urban gardens are nice, but don't be too carried away in their location or purpose.

I first learned about urban gardens through a book I read, entitled Reimagining Detroit. A few years back, I wrote a short review on it at Carbon-izer, decrying most of the ideas as unrealistic and/or expensive (ironically, some of said ideas author wanted to avoid), with one notable exception: urban gardening, which was the most well-researched bit as it did the most research behind it and reported the drawbacks of it, as well.

Urban gardening of course needs land, the larger being better, and in nearly every urban environment, there's a vacant lot or otherwise unused patch that's able to be used for food production (barring certain things like industrial uses, and even then, flowers could work).

The most important thing about urban gardening is that people recognize unless you truly live in an area with zero real grocery stores for miles around (we'll discuss food deserts later), it's really not about "eating healthier" (the right choices at your local store do that) or "eating cheaper" (not when you factor in opportunity costs), it's a labor of love and a way to make vacant lots less sad looking.

That's not to say that you can't sell some of your wares at farmer's markets, but (hopefully) you aren't selling them so that you or your family can have shoes and food to eat. It's just a nice bonus, not something to live off of.

Let's take a look at one urban garden, in Houston. Unlike Detroit, where vacant lots are everywhere (and almost certainly has gardens that are technically squatting), Houston has a number of high-value lots that change hands. One in particular was the Midtown Community Garden, which was a 13,000 square feet garden that was essentially leased for free to a non-profit if they cleaned up the site, which was overgrown and vacant and had been for years (a Google Earth view shows that houses were once there back in the late 1970s, but was totally vacant for a few decades).

It worked well, and the Midtown Community Garden thrived, with one big thing they overlooked: due to general reinvestment in the Inner Loop area and especially in that neighborhood, that little plot of land was worth a whole lot of money, selling to a developer for just shy of a million dollars, giving the gardeners just 24 hours to vacate.

Let's take a look at the facts here:

- The gardeners knew it was never "their" land and could be sold out at any time. Even in 2010, the Midtown renaissance was well underway, so a contingency plan should've been thought up or discussed.

- It's plausible that since the plots were sub-parceled out, the gardeners (who paid for plots) didn't know it was borrowed land that could change (and thus plots paid for would be worthless). In that case, it's the "caretaker"'s fault.

- 24 hours is a short time to vacate, and all existing plants would likely be tossed. So yes, the only thing really wrong was the short time to evacuate, but...

- It was at the beginning of a growing season, so it was probably best that it was March and the plants hadn't matured yet.

Urban gardens should be a part of the community, as a lot full of plants is a cheery site to see (certainly better than an overgrown lot), but unless you buy up land for yourself and work that out with taxes and zoning, urban gardens, especially in changing neighborhoods, cannot be expected to remain forever. There are many restaurants that lived and died in that time, and lots open up continuously in Houston, and so, gardens must move.

Could there be a place where a garden could be safe? You could probably buy a lot with a Kickstarter fund, buy up a plot, and use local zoning laws to plant a garden, but that's less attractive as you'd have to pay market's easy to agree on a garden in a low-rent lot (and cities like Minneapolis do allow tax-forfeited properties to be free garden sites) but the problem is people want a neighborhood garden in their neighborhood, which may not be disadvantaged and have lots of vacant lots. The solution is simple. Part of the underlying causes of urban gardening today is sort of a rebellion, not so much as a way to fight back not governments or even big business (let's face it, you aren't going to win a war against the grocery stores, even the smaller ones), but rather the oft-oppressive urban fabric. As with most underdog movements, you can't simply stay in one place. You have to keep moving.

As much as we'd like it, gardens should move around as land uses change and the city moves on, as seasons change. Besides, who wouldn't want to see something "sprout" up somewhere unexpected?

Picture Credit: Life in the 'Ville, "Somerville Loves Urban Gardening!"

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

So, what is ABCB anyway?

A Better "City Blog" is the antidote to all of those websites that are devoted to the same thing. You know, the ones that have "mobility" in the name and have this optimistic-at-best, delusional-at-worst in the "rails vs. freeways" debate (if there ever was a debate at all)? Well, this blog is here to break that nonsense. We're not going to look at abused statistics, we're not going to bash freeways, and we're not going to bash suburbs. Because that's what those "other guys" do, and that's not right. We're not just going to look at effective city planning (what works and what doesn't), we're going to look at highways, sprawl, aesthetics, and all those other things that seem like minutiae every day, certainly observations of such.

Equally important is having fun! I'm not some sort of mass transit fundamentalist who wants you to believe that their way is the only way. These "essays" that will be posted will have some other stuff in there so it's not a dry read. Audience participation is encouraged! Leave comments and banter. All you need to do is not be a jerk, because comments will be deleted.

Some of this stuff is copied from (or at least based off of) what I wrote on a Houston forum before, so don't be surprised if there are some similar wordings.