Urban Edginess

Where the City Meets its Future.

Category: Uncategorized

The Problem with Electric and Self-driving Automobiles:


I support the movement toward electric vehicles and self-driving automobiles. They are a necessary component of any comprehensive assault on the looming crisis of human-induced climate change. There is, however, an emerging problem that should be examined and solutions proposed and implemented— the sooner the better.

The automotive system in the United States, as it is in most countries, can be described as predominately individually owned vehicles operated on collectively owned and maintained public rights of way. In the US, this system of right of ways is funded, not from the government’s General Fund, but chiefly by a type of user tax based upon levies on gasoline and other petroleum products used to power the vehicles.

Since about the turn of the Century, miles driven per person have fallen consistently year after year. Increased mileage rates per gallon of gasoline have risen putting additional stress on the various Highway Trust Funds. Major replacement of aging bridges and tunnels must now use the government’s general funds if they are to be repaired at all.

What will happen to the nation’s roads and highways during the 2020s when electric cars and trucks are expected to make up significant portions of the vehicles using the nation’s roadways? They are now given a free ride. That cannot continue. Solutions should not wait for the crisis to occur that may leave the highway fund in a hole that it may never be able to fill.

Although there appear to be several credible ways to resolve this emerging problem, we are talking about changing a nation’s entire system for funding its most significant transportation network upon which its economy is based. It will take time to work out the politics, procedures, and technologies of any system we settle on.

We should be doing this now before not after the crisis hits us.

Musings on the Recent Coup at the California Coastal Commission.


Those who know me know that many years ago I played a role in the fight to protect coastal resources. As chief counsel to the initiative created California Coastal Commission, I managed the development permit process and wrote most of the Governmental Powers and Funding element of California Plan from which the California Coastal Program emerged from the legislature in 1976.

That program consisted of three parts. The first part was to reconstitute the California Coastal Commission with significantly expanded jurisdiction and very specific rules and standards with which to regulate new development.

The second part created a new entity, the California Coastal Conservancy because some resources were too valuable to be left to the vagaries of a regulatory process and their preservation often inconsistent with the mandates and programmatic requirements of the state’s park and wildlife acquisition agencies and finally to restore those resources where pre-existing development damaged or degraded them.

The third element was a bond act to fund the Conservancy and the other land acquisition agencies.

Following completion of the Plan, I joined the legislature as a staff consultant to a Special Senate Committee on Land Use. When the original bill we had drafted reflecting the plan faltered I served as staff for then-Senator Jerry Smith and worked to successfully shepherd all three elements of the plan the program through the legislative process.

Later, I became the first Executive Officer of the Coastal Conservancy and when I left and went into private practice, I sometimes represented, as an attorney, those to whom the markedly increased value we had created for those who obtain a coastal development permit was irresistible.

I write the foregoing as background and evidence that I have some experience in coastal matters that enables me to comment and analyze the importance of the political coup that has recently occurred reflected by the removal of the Commission’s Executive director Dr. Charles Lester who I do not know and about whose competency I have no opinion.

Some have said the coup benefits the development community at the expense of coastal resources. That is undeniably true, but its import more sinister.

The Coastal Commission has been remarkably effective in carrying out its mandate to assure that new development does not irreparably damage irreplaceable environmental and recreational resources along the coast. It is, however, also notable and often missed that, among governmental agencies, its process up until now has been remarkably open to all and free of secret influence and collusion.

Since its creation, the Commission has adopted ever increasingly strict regulations on disclosure and the behavior of all the participants in the process including the staff and the commission itself. Decision making has been brought out into the public arena.

True, I and others have at times criticized the Commission for notable failures to protect a specific resource or the staff for callous behavior and its tendency to avoid preserving or restoring a resource where it could in favor of simply denying development, but on the whole, the process seems to work and has grown over the years to be relatively free of corruption and political influence despite the public fishbowl in which it is forced to operate and the financial strength and political power of many of the interests involved .

Those seeking permits had to rely on those knowledgeable about the Commission’s procedures and provide generally technically competent information to the Commission. The Commission Staff, in turn, had to develop the ability to analyze the information and present their conclusions in public. Communications from those trying to influence Commissioners were disclosed. The public had access to the information and reasonable confidence in the independence and competency of the process.

Now, at least for the largest of development interests, I fear this action to remove the Executive Director has pulled the real decision making back to Sacramento where accountability is often hidden; where money talks and not technical analysis; where laws can be ignored in return for favors.

The Governor, Jerry Brown, cannot continue to deny complicity in this. He has simply chosen bad old government corruption and secrecy over open government.

Is this the end of the Coastal Commission as an effective guardian of the Coast? Certainly it opens the way for the largest and most destructive of developers to have their way with those coastal resources remaining in private hands.

As for the Coastal Program as a whole, it is in generally good shape. For the past 40 years, vast amounts of critical resource lands have been removed from the vagaries of the regulatory process where David Brower once told me, “All our victories are temporary and all out defeats permanent.” Local communities, land trusts, and state agencies have begun the process of restoring those resources on public lands damaged by pre-existing development.

Once during the battle for passage of the various pieces of Coastal Legislation a legislator asked me, “I fly all over California and when I look down I see lots and lots of wild natural lands why do you want to stop development on this little bit?”

“That’s just the point,” I responded. “With all that land, much of it not particularly sensitive, why do you want to build on this irreplaceable resource?”

The real reason why local governments often have to raise taxes or revenue or go bankrupt:

I usually hate it when a post begins with something like, “I was going to write about___ but___.” So I won’t. What I was going to write and did is included at the end of this Diary. It is basically a discussion of some studies regarding growth, development, and physical planning that appear in a blog called, “Strong Towns,” that I found interesting.

What I did decide to do, however, is meander a bit and speculate about some things that the blog suggested to me.

Having a career arc extending from running one of the more active at the time civil rights groups existing during the dark ages of the movement, writing much of the plan and legislation for what still remains one of the nation’s most significant land use control programs, California’s Coastal Program, and administering major portions of it, chairing California’s High Speed Rail Authority, interspersed with attempts to save the world within the counter culture, reforming a state’s mental health laws, a religion’s liturgy, a city’s approach to homelessness and so on as well as succeeding and failing at various professional, personal and financial endeavors more times than I care to admit, I have developed the arrogance to believe wholeheartedly that experience breeds wisdom and I know what I am talking about. I also have never found a run-on sentence I have written that I have not fallen in love with. (Note, for the literalists reading this, actually I do not believe that experience equals knowledge and success implies competence. There is too much anecdotal and scientific evidence floating around that supports that they do not to think otherwise.)

Because of my interest in physical planning and development and its interplay with economic, social and political thought and action, I found the studies described in “Strong Towns” worth noting for the simplicity with which they identify the problems they examine. The authors of the blog write from the perspective of consultants arguing for adaptive reuse of existing urban areas. Despite the potential self-promotion, their analysis appears spot on. They do however, it seems to me, fail to recognize that the syndrome they criticize in the suburbs eventually may repeat themselves even in the “walkable cities” they envision.

About 80% of the posts I have written, here and in other venues like Daily Kos, attempt to address, sometimes well and other times not so well, a simple contention that there may be a ghost in the machine we call humanity. That unless we consider the possibility that humanity rather than the apex of evolution may be little more than a doomed branch of the evolutionary tree and compare the implications of each assumption, we may be limiting our ability to understand what is happening and what needs to be done to assure our own happiness and survival.

For example, Malthus’ analysis of the relationship between population and resources may be only the tip of the iceberg. Consider the following from the ever perceptive Brad DeLong:

“To put it another way: In 1870 the daily wages of an unskilled worker in London would have bought him (not her: women were paid less) about 5,000 calories worth of bread–5,000 wheat calories, about 2½ times what you need to live (if you are willing to have your teeth fall out and your nutritionist glower at you). In 1800 the daily wages would have bought him about 3,500 calories, and in 1600 2,500 calories. Karl Marx in 1850 was dumbfounded at the pace of the economic transition he saw around him. That was the transition that carried wages from 3500 calories per day-equivalent in 1800 to 5000 in 1870. Continue that for another two seventy-year periods, and we would today be at 10,000 calories per unskilled worker in the North Atlantic today per day.
Today the daily wages of an unskilled worker in London would buy him or her 2,400,000 wheat calories.
Not 10,000. 2,400,000.”

Even were we to convert from fossil fuels to renewable energy will we as a species also be able to restrain our seeming insatiable desire to consume ever more resources in order to secure better lives? I am not so sure, but at least, if we do eliminate fossil fuels, we will have a little more time to see if we can figure things out.

So let’s look at what “Strong Towns” had to say:

The Real Cost of Infrastructure Development

A report, a few years ago, from “Strong Towns” a development think tank argues that the first generation of suburbia was built on and maintained by savings and investment, but the second was built and maintained by borrowing tons of money. We are now entering the third generation. We are out of savings and investment and easy money, now what do we do?

They also point out that in every case they studied, the useful life of an infrastructure investment paid for by borrowing from the private market was less than the time it took to pay back the loans. What this means is that almost every community that invested in infrastructure by borrowing will likely face the need to substantially raise taxes or file for bankruptcy should growth slow or stop.

Finally, the report found that, in almost every case where a developer paid for or otherwise donated infrastructure improvements as part of its development in return for the community assuming responsibility for operation and maintenance of the improvements, eventually the community required a tax increase to pay for their continued maintenance and replacement.

It used to be that in embarking on an infrastructure project, the costs for future operation and maintenance were budgeted for and automatically carried over to subsequent budgets or, as another way to handle it, operation and maintenance funds were established and funded as part of the original budget. One of the centerpieces of the Reagan Revolution was abolishing this practice so that his administration could appear to have cut spending in the budget while also permitting them to raid the sequestered maintenance funds to use on other programs. I know this because I was high-level bureaucrat during his administration as Governor of California and saw it first hand. Not only did this practice push-off the burden onto to future generations (like ours today) but by masking the true long-term costs, it encouraged the orgy of borrowing that marks current governmental policy worldwide. This was neither traditional liberal nor conservative orthodoxy, but a cynical ploy to obtain and hold power by pandering to the economic elite.

If it comes either to pandering to the rich or pandering to the average person, I know which side of the street I would prefer my elected politicians to set up their cribs.

At this same time, Wall Street and the banking industry were just getting geared up to promote new products to fund government by financing a host of long-term investments that would in fact rarely be paid off. Their representatives prowled the offices of both Governor Jerry Brown and Ronald Reagan as well as the State Legislature arguing that the State’s capital investments were under leveraged. They argued that trough the magic of leveraging existing capital projects money could be freed up to allow the leveraging of future good and needed projects without ever needing to raise taxes. It seemed like magic, money for nothing.

Jerry Brown, as was his predilection, was more than dubious but many of those surrounding him bought into it urging him to consider the parks and natural areas that could be preserved and the jobs created from the projects funded. Brown ultimately gave in, but to his credit, the projects he did agree to were smaller and fewer than those urged on him by his advisors.

The Reagan administration on the other hand, bought into it because many of its senior officials came out of the financial industry (The Democrats had not yet peopled their administrations with ex-financial industry personnel) and it appeared to be a good way to transfer tax revenue and spread profits around to the administration’s supporters while appearing to benefit the economy without raising taxes.

As a result, there followed an orgy of borrowing by all levels of government to fund and pay for capital expenditures. It was seen as a good way to obtain infrastructure without raising taxes. The products themselves were structured by the lenders. The resulting financial structures were often more complex than they had been previously. The legions of bankers, economists and financial advisors that descended on government pushing the loans clearly outmatched the ability of public bureaucrats, whose job it was to protect the public purse, to adequately analyze the fiscal implications of the deals. They were also cowed by the politicians who had bought into the program hook line and sinker and clamored for the projects. They also were pressured to approve the deals by their bosses, many of whom came from the industry and hoped to return there when their stint in government was over.

As a result, questionable loans were made. Things that had not been regularly financed before began to be so. At times, in the case of financing infrastructure projects, exaggerated estimates of the life of what was being financed and things like increased maintenance costs as the infrastructure aged were forgotten.

This system did not collapse like a punctured bubble as it often does in the private market because as my grandfather an owner of a construction company advised (and Paul Krugman confirms), one should contract with the government whenever they can because the government always pays their bills, no matter the state of the economy. The profits may be smaller and the money worth less because of inflation, but you had your money. (Alas, as the financial industry crept further and further into the operation of government, they demanded their profits match those they could receive in private deals. They then began to insist that government guarantee that their profits not be discounted through inflation even though the inflation may have been caused to a great extent by their own activities. As far as I know, not a single investigator has studied how and why this happened.)

Eventually, both Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor climbed aboard the bandwagon. They were followed by a host of political appointees from the industry who given their experience with these things joined government as advisors and executives. Whether they were liberal or conservative they could see nothing amiss. Republicans were happy taxes were not being raised during their watch while the private market got the contracts for the work. Democrats were thrilled for the jobs.

The real reason why local governments often have to raise taxes or revenue or go bankrupt (Hint, it is not from spending on social programs, education or public security):

According to “Strong Towns” as described above, we are now in the third cycle of suburban development in the United States.

Although “Strong Towns” analysis reflects US suburb growth patterns, it most likely also applies to larger areas and their infrastructure development including countries. What we build and pay for with debt [whether public or private] generally has not included accounting for replacement costs or operation and maintenance beyond the infrastructure’s estimated life cycle, which as a rule is less than the payback period on the bonds used to build it in the first place. This would be like borrowing for your weeks food agreeing to pay it back in installments over two weeks, then borrowing the following weeks food on the same terms hoping that somehow the nourishment can be converted into increased earnings. The syndrome compulsive gamblers suffer resemble this.

Case study: “Free roads’ are a myth”:

A group of high-value lake properties petitions the city to take over their road. They agree to pay the entire cost to build the road — a little more than $25,000 per lot — in exchange for the city agreeing to assume the maintenance. As one city official said, “A free road!”

Question: How much is the repair cost estimated to be after one life cycle and how does that compare to the amount of revenue from these properties over that same period?

Answer: It will cost an estimated $154,000 to fix the road in 25 years, but the city will only collect $79,000 over that period for road repair. To make the numbers balance, an immediate 25% tax increase is necessary along with annual increases of 3% with all of the added revenue going for road maintenance.
(See Strong Towns for more examples)

The author introduces their studies with the following:

Since the end of World War II, our cities and towns have experienced growth using three primary mechanisms:

Transfer payments between governments: where the federal or state government makes a direct investment in growth at the local level, such as funding a water or sewer system expansion.

Transportation spending: where transportation infrastructure is used to improve access to a site that can then be developed.

Public and private-sector debt: where cities, developers, companies, and individuals take on debt as part of the development process, whether during construction or through the assumption of a mortgage.

In each of these mechanisms, the local unit of government benefits from the enhanced revenues associated with new growth. But it also typically assumes the long-term liability for maintaining the new infrastructure. This exchange — a near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation — is one element of a Ponzi scheme.

The other is the realization that the revenue collected does not come near to covering the costs of maintaining the infrastructure. In America, we have a ticking time bomb of unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates the cost at $5 trillion — but that’s just for major infrastructure, not the minor streets, curbs, walks, and pipes that serve our homes.

The reason we have this gap is because the public yield from the suburban development pattern — the amount of tax revenue obtained per increment of liability assumed — is ridiculously low. Over a life cycle, a city frequently receives just a dime or two of revenue for each dollar of liability. The engineering profession will argue, as ASCE does, that we’re simply not making the investments necessary to maintain this infrastructure. This is nonsense. We’ve simply built in a way that is not financially productive.

We’ve done this because, as with any Ponzi scheme, new growth provides the illusion of prosperity. In the near term, revenue grows, while the corresponding maintenance obligations — which are not counted on the public balance sheet — are a generation away.



Today’s Quote:

“Sicarius… celebrated the feast of the Nativity… with Austrighiselus and the other neighbors…. The priest… sent a boy to invite some of the men to come to his house for a drink. When the boy got there, one of the men he invited drew his sword and did not refrain from striking him. He fell down and was dead…. Sicarius… took his arms and went to the church to wait for Austrighiselus. The latter heard about this and armed himself…. [B]oth parties suffered harm…. Sicarius got away unnoticed… made for his homestead… leaving behind… his silver, his clothes, and four of his servants who had been wounded. After he had fled, Austrighiselus broke into the building, killed the servants, and took away with him the gold, the silver, and the other things. When they appeared later before the people’s court, the sentence was that Austrighiselus was to pay the legal penalty for manslaughter…. Sicarius, forgetting about these arrangements… broke the peace… invaded the home, killed father, brother, and son, and having done away with the servants took all their belongings and their cattle. When we heard this, we grew greatly perturbed…”
Gregory, Bishop of Tours.

“Perturbed?” Freaked out is more likely I would think.

Public Space in Informal Settlements in Bangkok: Bottom up Planning.

English: Wat Arun Bangkok View Photo D Ramey L...

English: Wat Arun Bangkok View Photo D Ramey Logan ” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bangkok a city of contrasts.

Bangkok Thailand is a city of gleaming skyscrapers, elegant shopping centers, spectacular temples and picturesque neighborhoods surrounded by vast areas teeming with those who have left somewhere else in hope of somehow securing a better life. Many of these migrants huddle in informal settlements of often self-built shelters, mired in poverty at times as great as that they have left behind. But, they have two things going for them. One as old as ever in the hearts of most immigrants, hope. The other just as old but requiring renewal wherever the poor and destitute gather, the urge to build a new sense of community where they now choose to live. Few things focus a community’s sense of itself better than its public spaces. In Bangkok today several communities of poverty-stricken migrants, aided by governmental and private organizations, have begun to coalesce around improvements to their public spaces.

Bangkok is a riverine city located on at the center of a vast floodplain. It became Thailand’s capital 300 years ago because its rivers and streams, marshes and wetlands appeared to afford superior defensive capability and better trade and commerce opportunities than the nations prior capital located a few hundred kilometers to the north destroyed by the Burmese, traditional enemies of the Thais.

The internal combustion economy prompted the filling in of many of the canals, wetlands and minor streams to accommodate the motor cars and the industries dependent upon them. Except for the extensive industrial port complexes and a few luxury hotels the city turned its back on its rivers and few remaining canals leaving them as little more than refuse strewn sewers.

Migrants and Informal Communities proliferate.

As Bangkok grew into one of the worlds great megalopolis of over 13 million people crowding into the flood plain along the banks of the Chao Phraya river, a new type of invasion inundated the city. At first people from the rural areas of the country, then the poor of Burma, Laos and Cambodia flooded into the city looking to better their lives and to bask in the excitement and bright lights of the metropolis.

Many of these migrants pressed themselves into large informal settlements along the now mostly forgotten riversides and canals, living in often makeshift housing in extensive slums with poetic sounding names like Klong Toei, Bang Bua Klong, Managkasila and Soi Sengki. In 1997, when the Bangkok Metropolitan Area was smaller than it is today, an estimated over 300 informal settlements existed, housing more than one and a quarter million people (Pacific Consultants International Suuri-Keikaku Co.Ltd., 1997).

With the emergence of the middle class and the exponential growth of international tourism during the past few decades, attention focussed again on these forgotten waterways as underperforming resources. Slum clearance along their banks commenced as both public and private interests sought to realize their long forgotten benefits. Some of these informal communities resisted and with the assistance of both public and non-profit organizations such as Community Organization Development Institute (CODI), Baan Mankong, The Durang Prateep Foundation, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and many others began to fight back.

Closed environments of the dispossessed.

In Bangkok, like in many other cities, there were primary issues of fundamental importance to the poor communities, such as land tenure, adequate housing, health care and public space. (not jobs so much, the migrants were there because the job opportunities were better here than where they came from. The job issue in Bangkok is one of quality not quantity).

Why is public space, about which this post focusses so important? Because public space is not just parks and open space but includes streets, sidewalks and many other means by which residents interact with each other and the outside world. It affects community and individual health as well as their prosperity. One of the hallmarks of the traditional slums is that they are so often the closed environments of the dispossessed.

Bang Bua Throng: grasping for identity and pride.

The citizens of Bang Bua Throng, a mostly migrant community, located on the northern fringes of the Bangkok metropolitan area recognized that restoring access to and along the waterfront for the entire community could increase distribution of economic benefits to community members. It also would help to focus community identity and pride.

The Bang Bua Throng neighborhood contains about 3.400 families crowded up against the Bang Bua canal. The community, mostly on its own, formed an informal network called ‘Klong Bang-bua Environmental Improvement Network’ in 1999 that organized activities supporting the improvement of the canal and environment. They began earning money by selling recycled wastes collected from within the community. They then pooled the money to embark of community enhancement programs like, fire training for the locals. The Network also negotiated with the land owner (Treasury Department) and related agencies in support of their efforts to securing land tenure for the residents. This activism had its effect. Others took notice.

After addressing the endemic land tenure and housing issues, the community through bottom up planning and with the CODI and the Baan Mankong program’s assistance contributed to the design of a walk-way along the length of the canal. Unlike many waterfront designs, this was not simply an aesthetic venture providing a venue from which to contemplate the beauties of the adjacent canal, but a working access-way. Designed with the needs of the community in mind, it was wide enough for the movement of necessity vehicles but narrow enough to discourage it from being used as a substitute for the adjacent street. It was open for those in the community to use and enjoy as well as the residents of the city at large. It became a focal point of community pride.

Following the implementation or these programs in the community, Kuhn Prapaat a community leader remarked:

“We were a real slum before! There were drugs for sale, and lots of outside organizations did their drugs trading here. There were kids sniffing glue and paint thinner.” “ Back then, a lot of the houses were built on stilts right over the canal, and when one of these houses would collapse – which happened a lot – we would say, that is your problem, not mine!” (Slum Regeneration Bang Bua Bangkok. Veruan Blake)

Some criticism has been leveled that these initiatives like the new walk-way could encourage gentrification, as though preservation of what previously existed had some overarching merit. Gentrification is negative generally only when the existing residents fail to participate in its benefits or if it occurs with such rapidity residents cannot prepare and adapt to it.

Thonglor: ingenuity rewarded.

Other informal communities in the city also recognize the importance of public space to their revitalization. Adjacent to the Thonglor Police Station there are 43 households squatting on a piece of unclaimed land between two property walls only a few meters wide. Cleverly designed homes lean on existing infrastructure and achieve extremely high densities while also providing adequate ventilation for the residents. Narrow walkways outside of the homes have become extensions of interior space and facilitate commercial activity throughout the community. The residents exhibited additional signs of ingenuity by collectively making improvements to the public spaces with salvaged construction material. Again, their efforts have been noticed.

Plans are being made in conjunction with the International Program in Architecture and Design (INDA) of Chulalongkorn University to expand the community’s public space to create a flexible gathering space for the community to use throughout the day and provide a clear entry point to this otherwise obscured community. This space could also accommodate after-school activities for children as well seating for community meetings to further enhance their lives.

A community’s pride in its public spaces equates to its pride in itself.

Providing public spaces are not often seen by the members or a community or even outside observers as important to the improvement in the lives of low-income residents. They are sometimes looked upon as extravagances. What these two examples demonstrate is that a communities pride in its public spaces often equates to its pride in itself. Without that pride the alienation generated by poverty is not relieved. Those most successful lacking any attachment will then often leave the community and further impoverish it.

To enhance that sense of pride and identity design of public spaces should begin by building into the design the needs and wishes of the nearby community. Investment in public space should benefit the existing community directly. Public spaces should be designed to be open to all, the surrounding neighborhood as well as the larger urban area.

Community planning: Personal retrospective

Simulation - 7

Simulation – 7 (Photo credit: onestudentry)


Over two decades ago I had the opportunity to manage a governmental entity that among other things, was charged with resolving conflicts between development, community and environmental concerns. We developed a process, relatively novel at the time, encouraging those involved or concerned (later to be called “stakeholders”) to solve their disagreements among themselves.


The process required a team of technicians that could immediately turn a suggestion into a visual representation. This included someone capable of converting the discussions as they occurred into visual and organized notes for all to see. It also included a compendium of the financial and fiscal resources currently available thus forcing the participants to consider the same type of tradeoffs government and private interests must make in deciding what can be done and how long will it take. Finally it required an entity, in this case our agency, who could more or less on the spot make commitments to carry out or support with financial resources the carrying out of at least initial elements of the agreed upon program.


What surprised me the most was not that we were successful in almost all cases, as we were, but that despite the heated rhetoric expressed before regulatory or legislative bodies, or in the media the disagreements were so often so slight.


Although conflict resolution techniques and design charrettes continue to be used almost everywhere, our particular intensive program eventually fell into disuse. That was because the urban areas included in our jurisdiction were limited in number and once the specific issues in conflict were resolved in these communities they remained so for a decade or longer. Also the process was management and personnel intensive and inevitably such activities in any organization eventually are replaced by a more procedural and careerist focus.


Fast forward to today, modern communications technology and social networking appears to be transforming almost everything we do, from how and where we work to how we entertain ourselves and socialize.


In community and urban development we now have all the information we could want at our fingertips although not necessarily organized and usable. A simple internet research shows that we have a plethora online communities dedicated to community action of one kind or another. Yet what happens when these online communities conflict with one another? As anyone who has actually been involved in assisting in the resolution of significant conflicts, good intentions and talking things out are not enough. Not only must thoughts and ideas be converted into a communications medium so that each participant has the same understanding as everyone else, but immediate unbiased response on the technical facts must be available if the enthusiasm and commitment to the process is not to wither and die waiting for it. Finally the facts of the limits must be available in a usable form to the participants.


Social media, in regard to community planning provides an advanced medium for sharing of information and ideas and encouraging coöperation and should the participants agree collective action. However, before collective action can occur, especially for something a complex and contentious as community planning the most difficult form of group or collective action is the resolution of those conflicts that more often than not are the reason for undertaking the collaborative planning process in the first place.


Modern communications technology and social networks offer the promise of real resolution of community conflicts. Nevertheless, it remains a promise that needs to be addressed.





From The Bard to the Sun King: It’s Always Something

In previous posts I focused on the effects of modern mobile communication technology on how and where we live and work and how it alters our lives. I tried to show how those changes impact not just the individuals themselves but society at large. In one of those posts I described how a retired judge used the technology to make it easier to change careers and become a fairly well-regarded sculptor in bronze.

Much more recently, I travelled to New York City where I met up with another artist, the well-known sculptor of many notable public art installations in California and Washington, Brian Goggin. He was on the East Coast working on what he describes as an immersive sculptural installation. A work of art that also will function as a restaurant to be called Preserve24 located at the corner of Houston and Allen Streets in the rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side of Manhattan. His intention is to turn the entire space into a single integrated work of art using primarily re-used materials in an artistically novel design. A design he believes will be “reminiscent of an expedition society.”

I caught up with Brian at a metal shop in Brooklyn where he was busily working on assembling the dramatic sculptural staircase that will lead patrons into the restaurant. The staircase is designed to look like an entrance to the elevated subway line.

I asked him if modern communications technology, mobile phones or applications has made a difference in how he goes about his business as well as where chooses to live and work.

He pointed out that he uses his smart phone and other technology in their most basic form as a tool, to gather information and to communicate visual images, text and vocal information. Nevertheless, he believes that it has made a substantial difference in how he goes about his art.

He describes what he does as similar to a film director creating a team to manifest a project; engineers, welders, carpenters and the like; the artist as director and inventor/visionary. In a way, he mused, his art can be thought of as almost the same type of business as producing flash mobs.

Photos of projects in progress and materials can be sent to his assistant as well as to clients increasing his ability to include visuals with conversation. Changes can be proposed and implemented immediately. There is no longer a need to take slides, duplicate them and send them through the mail. Costs are lowered and time waste reduced. He and his collaborators can work directly from drawings shared through text and email to enable him to work over great distances with his team members .

He can now manage much of his projects, like the one he is working on in New York, from his home in California half of the time. He can work in teams with other artists living and working in places all over the globe to produce a single collaborative work.

He said that although he now can live and work anywhere, he prefers to be where he can still interact directly with other people; conceptualization can occur at home and fabrication at suitable remote sites.

Cities have always been where artists gathered to meet clients, share ideas and fabricate their art works. Now, through modern communication technology, in our cities a new Renaissance may be in store for us as artists regather, not in low-cost deteriorating warehouse districts on the peripheries of urban areas but at their centers.

Peter Grenell director of the San Mateo Harbor District and a keen observer of history as well as an accomplished raconteur once observed:

“Never forget It was just 35 years more or less from Shakespeare to Louis XIV ; From the French and Indian War to the Louisiana Purchase ; From ‘Et Tu., Brute’ to the kid in the manger; From Fred Allen to Laugh-In.”

We tend to look back into history and see social change as a slow process when we view it through the prism of technological transformation or the speed in which the changes are disseminated. But those born into the frugal world of the Bard died in the extravagant age of the Sun King. Many of those that heard the cheers or jeers that accompanied the imperial pretensions of Julius Caesar ended their day’s hearing the whispers of a new king born in the East. Social change is generational. Its scope and reach often technological. But social change is also reflexive. The reaction to the changes also changes things, often in ways that cannot be predicted.

Tomorrows urban areas, impacted by modern communications technology will not be the same as the urban areas of today. The Cities of our fathers or grandparents that were the smoky chaotic centers of industry and trade were not the same as the urban areas of our time; uncertain places, slowly decaying as motorized transportation took people, industry and commerce away to less stressful environments. The Cities of the future, fashioned in part by the effects of the communications technologies of today will be different still, probably in ways we cannot imagine. They will be neither as bleak as feared or as paradisiacal as hoped, but in my opinion the experience of those changes and how we accommodate to them are much of what life is all about. It will be both frightening and exhilarating.

(The above post is taken from my blog that appeared is Smart+Connected Communities Institute.)

How Modern Communications Technology Makes You and Your Community Safer


English: Coachella Valley © 2004 Matthew Trump

English: Coachella Valley © 2004 Matthew Trump (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Earthquake Preparedness, First Responders and Limited-Access Hybrid Communications Systems

“Articles about advances in personal electronic devices often seem focused on frivolity–playing games, seeing where your friends are eating dinner, and watching DVDs–but the real news is that these technological advances also provide valuable tools for personal and public safety.” — From a personal communication with Ruth Galanter, former Los Angeles City Council member.

A few days ago the Smart + Connected Communities Institute referenced a Berkman Center paper regarding Lessons Learned from the Great Earthquake. Included in the lessons learned was the significant effect on recovery created by destruction of or damage to electronic and other data caches. The paper urged, among other things, creation of a collaborative network to protect valuable information infrastructure in a crisis.

On September 12, 2012, California’s Seismic Safety Commission along with its technology partner Seismic Warning Systems Inc., took the initial steps to install such a system to deal with the needs of first responders to earthquake disasters in the highly seismically active Coachella Valley in California.

The system requires placing sensors every 6-12 kilometers or less along selected faults. These sensors will analyze p-waves (nondestructive waves that precede the more destructive waves in earthquakes) and, following detection of large earthquakes, send alerts to devices in major-emergency response facilities such as fire stations, public health facilities, communication facilities and the like. The devices, in turn, will pre-operate those essential functions often damaged when an earthquake hits, such as opening fire station apparatus room doors, turning on lights and displaying warnings of public safety and utility dispatch monitors, closing off gas mains, turning on emergency electric generators and so forth. Furthermore, it allows emergency services personnel to receive the early warnings by PA systems in their buildings to allow them to begin their preparation to respond to the event. Early warnings can also be sent to emergency personnel through their personal communications devices. (Variations of this system protecting individual buildings and related sites have been installed in several places around the country, including, for instance, on the Cisco corporate campus in San Jose, California and its day care center as well.)

In addition, as the Japanese study recommends, mechanisms for protecting the data in major data centers can be installed that automatically trigger data-saving measures and customer-transparent operations, such as switching over to redundant systems. Key personnel can then be notified that such operations have begun so they can take whatever additional actions may be required.

These types of pre-disaster management triggering systems, when combined with personal communication technology, could be called “limited-access hybrid communications systems.” Access could / would be “limited” to a particular set of users (e.g., executives, emergency personnel, facilities managers). “Hybrid” in the sense that the mechanical / electrical systems and the communications systems are intended to operate in tandem. (Of course, one could argue that a mapping application used to find driving directions becomes a hybrid system or perhaps a “mash-up” when the user jumps into his car and drives to his destination–or uses GPS while driving–but it is difficult to classify the user as a member of significantly limited user group…. Anyway, if anyone has the need for a better definition and has some ideas about it, I am all ears.)

Another example of a somewhat similar of system but focused more an individual property and personal security would be those home and facility security systems that notifies security personnel and the property owner via their mobile devices if something on the property has gone amiss — such as a break-in, a fire or even an appliance left running while an owner is on vacation — and allows for the remote operation of various systems on the property from the mobile devices.

Many medical and emergency public service personnel today carry smart phones, pads and notebook computers containing applications that assist them in carrying out their duties. Although they are clearly trained in the skills required for dealing with emergencies in the field, the amount of information required to manage complex modern emergency field equipment and execute the various protocols for dealing with the variety of medical issues they may confront while dealing with the other effects of the crises, (e.g. fires, structural stability and the like) makes reliance on human memory for procedures and protocols unsatisfactory, if not downright dangerous. The time pressures these individuals work under makes referring to handbooks and texts unwieldy and time-consuming even if they were able to carry around all the volumes required to cover every eventuality they may meet.

To deal with this problem, applications have been developed covering a host of those emergency protocols and procedures. These are not simply informational applications, like for example a handbook digitalized on to a smart phone, but often are applications capable of guiding and responding to the emergency personnel’s real time needs during operation of the equipment and execution of the protocols that may be necessary to save a life.

For example, the American Heart Association has produced a number of applications carried by many emergency services and medical personnel that contain protocols, procedures and check lists for operation of appropriate equipment and treatment of cardiac problems in the field. Many more applications like this exist and their number is increasing, especially in emergency medical and disaster prevention and recovery activities.

This appears to be a growing and welcome phenomenon. In fact, I recently heard that there may be applications under development by several international organizations that could assist medical personnel in treating biohazards in the field to stem their spread across national boundaries.

As Ruth Galanter mentions, discussion about modern mobile communication devices and their associated applications often focus on social media, games, and other ways to simplify some daily activities even if they do not necessarily simplify daily life itself. But the ability of these devices — often used in concert with various Internet applications–to extend the range and efficiency of various critical, disparate systems — some hard-wired and some virtual should not be overlooked in community planning to address community development and maintenance needs. No longer just an issue of budgets, personnel and existing infrastructure, community and emergency response planners need to ask also if application of modern communication technology can make whatever it is they are trying to prepare for simpler, quicker, cheaper and more effective.

When the forest fire advances on your house and you are packing the car to flee, you really won’t care about playing games! You will want the Fire Department rushing to your aid and the comfort of knowing they know what to do when they get there. Technology can take care of this.


The real reason why local governments often have to raise taxes or revenue or go bankrupt (Hint, it is not from spending on social programs, education or public security):

Aggordong to “Strong Towns” a development think tank that concentrates on the costs of suburban growth and development, we are in the third cycle of suburban development in the United States. The first generation of suburbia was built on savings and investment. The second was built and maintained using tons of borrowed money.

Although prepare by “Strong Towns” to reflect US suburb growth patterns, the above chart applies to to larger areas and their infrastructure development including countries. What we build and pay for with debt [whether public or private] generally has not included accounting for replacement costs or operation and maintenance beyond the infrastructure’s estimated life cycle, which as a rule is less than the payback period on the bonds used to build it in the first place. This would be like borrowing for your weeks food agreeing to pay it back in installments over two weeks, then borrowing the following weeks food on the same terms hoping that somehow the nourishment can be converted into increased earnings. The syndrome compulsive gamblers suffer resembles this.

The real reason why local governments (and larger entities as well) often have to raise taxes or revenue or go bankrupt:

Case study: “Free roads’ are a myth”:

A group of high-value lake properties petition the city to take over their road. They agree to pay the entire cost to build the road — a little more than $25,000 per lot — in exchange for the city agreeing to assume the maintenance. As one city official said, “A free road!”

Question: How much is the repair cost estimated to be after one life cycle and how does that compare to the amount of revenue from these properties over that same period?

Answer: It will cost an estimated $154,000 to fix the road in 25 years, but the city will only collect $79,000 over that period for road repair. To make the numbers balance, an immediate 25% tax increase is necessary along with annual increases of 3% with all of the added revenue going for road maintenance.
(See Strong Towns for more)

High Speed Rail Authority Chairman Joseph E. Petrillo Presentation to the Commonwealth Club, San Francisco, December 2003.

Map of planned high speed rail lines in Califo...

Map of planned high speed rail lines in California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thank you very much, Ms. Duffy.

I want to thank The Commonwealth Club for inviting us and holding this panel discussion, because this is a most appropriate and auspicious time for such a discussion. We will soon begin the Environmental Impact Report review process. Therefore, we expect that the profile of California’s program for high-speed rail will be much higher among the public throughout the state as a result of those hearings and the studies. It’s also auspicious because, as Ms. Duffy mentioned, the vote on the bond act to fund the system is scheduled for November 2004.

Before introducing Mehdi Morshed, I’d like to make a few comments about my thoughts about high-speed rail. I’m a new chairman. I was just elected and started my term on the first of July. The invitation was issued to my predecessor, Mr. Rod Diridon, and I want to thank him for the work that he did during those two years in bringing this program to the state that it is today, on the verge of actual implementation.

Now, some of my thoughts on high-speed rail: First, what we’re trying to do. This is a statewide program. It’s designed as an intercity program to transport people at high speeds between large population areas in Northern and Southern California. It is not a solution to short-haul commuter transportation problems. Sometimes we get confused and think that they’re one and the same; they are not. To have high-speed rail, it could take as much as 40 miles to bring [a train] up to speed and slow it down. So, by the nature of it, the stations have to be long distances from one another in order to make the system work at the maximum efficiency.

On the other hand, one of the most important things in any system like this, especially the high-speed system, is the location and the ability of the stations on the high-speed rail to connect with all of, or as many of, the regional and local transportation systems that exist so that ridership is increased, but basically so that people can go from car or commuter train or bus to the long-distance transportation provided by high-speed rail.

The high-speed rail system, in my opinion, when implemented will become the backbone of the future transportation system here in California, taking people long distances at very high speed to locations where they can transfer and travel around to regional and local destinations.

I firmly believe high-speed rail transportation will change the face of California the way the California Water Project, the freeway projects, and even the initial railroads of the last century did.

But in addition to those vast economic changes and growth that will be generated by high-speed rail, the high-speed rail system that we’re looking at here in California is one of the few public works projects, certainly that I know of, that has been designed from the beginning with environmental benefits as one of its core values. We believe – and I think our studies are beginning to show that and will be exposed more in the final Environmental Impact Report – further residential and commercial development necessitated by the natural growth of population in California, which is slated to be much more than 50 percent over the next 35 years, that the high-speed rail system will use up less land to accommodate that growth than any of the transportation systems that we have studied. Air quality obviously is one of the things that will be enhanced over what the air quality would be were we to continue the growth in traveling through these air and automobile transportation corridors at the same growth rate that we have seen in the past. These and other environmental benefits, as well as social benefits, will be detailed in the Environmental Impact Report.

These types of benefits are equally important, but often unappreciated benefits to a program such as this, and are often not calculated in the traditional cost/benefit analysis. For all of you that I assume will look at the high-speed rail Environmental Impact Report and the plans, please try to keep in mind that there are more than local cost benefits to a high-speed rail system; there are huge, subtle benefits to the state as a whole.

Again, I thank you for having me here, and now I’d like to introduce the Executive Director of the High-Speed Rail Authority, Mr. Mehdi Morshed. Now Mehdi told me that he didn’t want me to mention much about him, because it embarrasses him, but I’m an attorney. Although I promised my fellow Authority Board members that I would not talk too much at our meetings, I didn’t say that I wouldn’t talk a lot at speeches and meetings, and so I will embarrass Mehdi to some extent.

I think of Mehdi as a Mr. California Transportation, because for the last 20 years in the Senate, everything, literally every policy change and direction in financing for transportation in California, passed through his experienced hands. Many of the initiatives that he worked on during that period really affect us today, from driving rules to vehicle safety and emission standards. He also has assisted in creating what we consider this state’s major transportation agencies: the California Transportation Commission, which coordinates most of the transportation in the state, and the High-Speed Rail Authority, whose program you are going to be discussing today. Mehdi will give us a presentation on where we are today in the development of California’s high-speed rail system.

Are Economists Missing Fundamental Social and Economic Change Again?


Economics (Photo credit: markwainwright)

I previously have written here on my observation that we may be witnessing a basic change in economic activity. A shifting of fundamentals if you will.

In the 1700s economics, as we tend to think of it,  primarily concentrated on the fundamentals of trade and the incipient industrial and technological advances contributing to its growth. This was the time Adam Smith and his followers attempted to describe what they saw happening around them.

By the Nineteenth Century, industrialization spawned socialism and its neo-classical reaction in an attempt by the emerging self identified élite, now calling themselves economists, to illustrate the situation as they experienced it. Being addled by their own theories, they still relied on the analysis of Smith et. al. but added “updates” to attempt to preserve the theory and hopefully more accurately describe the situation as they found it at that time. Few if any (Marx excepted) recognized the circumstances were totally new and may require a completely new theory, analysis and description. After all, trade was no longer the driving force in society and in the economy, production and consumption was.

In the Twentieth Century things changed again. The central focus of the “economy” morphed from production and consumption to getting people from here to there in order to produce or consume. It could be argued that the major portion of economic activity was dependent upon transportation, not as merely the means of moving goods to market but the major driver of economic activity; in effect its purpose. The economists adjusted their old theories steadfastly refusing to recognize the fundamental change of everything.*

We are now facing perhaps another basic change in economic activity, social media and mobile communications have made transportation less central to ones life. as the following chart demonstrates, vehicle miles per person is steadily decreasing.
As a result, economic activity based upon getting people from here to there is also contracting. To a great extent, I suspect that is what is exacerbating the current economic turmoil (if not its cause). We may be entering a new economic age. Once again most economists fail to recognize it.

Should this most recent pattern change fail to mitigate the effects of climate change, expect the next so-called paradigm shift to focus on remedial actions to limit the effects on the environment from the carbon byproducts and waste produced by the industrial and transportation economies bringing with it a new economic template.

Economists at that time will still try to preserve their theories and will tell you that essentially nothing has changed in their analysis. Not only will they be wrong, but they still will not be able to predict anything of any importance to anyone with any greater accuracy than the flipping of a coin.

The reason for the economists almost always “getting it wrong.” appear to me to be twofold. The fist is that economists attempted to model itself on Newtonian physics in an attempt to make itself appear more “scientific” and separate itself from the other social sciences. However lacking some independent criterion, such as in science’s case natural phenomena, its theories cannot be effectively judged. A social science like economics deals with people who not only act on their own and influence the system in which they operate, but have their own views of the realities of the system in which they act.

The second, as described by George Soros recently, is somewhat more  complex and subtle.

What a person thinks is the reality he or she perceives is never the actual reality itself. The person’s perception is always incomplete. The person, in other words is fallible to use Soros word. He could be wrong to a greater or lesser degree.

When the person intends to impact the reality then his incomplete or fallible view that represents his understanding is supposed to determine the outcome. All well and good if for example you want to throw a stone. But as things get more complex more problems arise. As the reality becomes more complex what the person thinks is the reality becomes more problematical. Where a person intends to act on or impact something within that more problematical understanding of reality the nature of the effect becomes more problematical as well. In other words as a persons view of reality diverges from the reality itself, the outcome of his actions increasingly diverge from his expectations.

This syndrome affects all social spheres such as finance and politics inevitably producing actions or insights that have no greater accuracy or effectiveness than what would result from pure chance.

* Note: Between the 1960s and about 2010 some commentators have suggested that there may have been another fundamental shift; from a transportation economy to one based upon the exchange of financial instruments. It arose because there appeared not to be enough industrial and transportation projects to sop up all the money created. So, gambling on itself seemed to be a reasonable way to continue choosing winners and losers. This era appears to have been born and now be dying right before our eyes. It may have been either an exceptionally short-lived shift in the world’s economic foundation or merely a transition between two generations. In my opinion it is probably the latter.


On the Role of Civil Society:

“Why would anyone be morally bound or wish to be morally bound to a civil society that does not share the goal that it’s citizens deserve a fair distribution of wealth, income and power? If the civil society is not dedicated to that end what else could it possibly be dedicated to? What is freedom, to those without wealth, income or power?”

Trenz Pruca

On Economics as a Science:

“In Science. a physical theory that is logically consistent may be considered truth only until falsified. In Economics, a sociological theory that is logically inconsistent is often considered true even when falsified.”

Trenz Pruca

On Governmental Priorities:

“As with most fundamental freedoms, preventing those who wish to abridge the fundamental rights of others is a more important role of government than encouraging the exercise of those rights. Exercising our rights are our individual jobs, protecting us from those who would abridge are rights is the duty we collectively give to government. If government is not the guarantor of Freedom then it is a tyranny.”

Trenz Pruca


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