Irvine

March 29, 2016

I spent a couple days in Irvine, California last week. It was the longest 4 hours of my life!

irvineca1That’s sort of how the joke goes, right?

But seriously, folks…

I went to Irvine last week to visit what is considered to be one of the best examples of a “planned-community” there is in post-war North America. It is full of green space and bike trails, nationally ranked schools, good paying jobs, a robust economy and all the other good and positive things you read in local brochures. Which made the gentleman’s suggestion at the Chamber Tourist office that I go to Newport Beach if I only had a few hours in Irvine somewhat strange.

I’ll confess. I am suspicious of these master-planned communities. They elicit thoughts of Disneyland, and its real world manifestation, Celebration, Florida. Not so much communities as enclaves, escapes from the world around them instead of additions. This is my bias that is more visceral than well-thought through.

The city of Irvine itself was something of a reaction against the ill-planned and wild west suburban development that haunt urbanists’ dreams, the types of formless suburban tracts then encroaching upon Irvine, spreading in all directions out from the city of Los Angeles. This particular area of land was owned by one family, the Irvines, natch, irvineca5who successfully ranched and farmed it for about a century before turning their eye toward urban development. The idea, initially, was to carefully construct a city of 50,000 people, radiating out from a University of California campus, Irvine, natch, sitting at its centre.

Irvine is now a city 5 times that size, the university campus an integral part of but not at the centre of the city. Irvine is, according to the Chamber’s 2015 Community Report, “an economic powerhouse…the address of choice for Fortune 500 companies and start-ups in cutting-edge industry sectors like life sciences, advanced manufacturing, information technology and digital arts and media.” The city regularly tops lists of the country’s most liveable and safest cities. It’s young, with a median age of 34, and fairly well-to-do, a median household income of over $90K.

Irvine sees itself as the ‘centre of Orange County’.irvineca

Depending on your perspective this can be seen as either a) simple civic boosterism; b) more or less geographically correct; c) damning with faint praise.

It dawned on me during my brief Irvine outing that cities are built (in a planned manner or ad hoc) not primarily to be visited but to be lived in. To really get a sense of the place, I should’ve brought my bike down south with me, tried out the off-road trails that, apparently, would connect me to everything the city had to offer. Evidently, I was missing something.

Here were all the progressive fundamentals taught at architecture and planning schools since the 1920s (earlier if you count Ebenezer Howard): superblocks, pedestrian paths, mixed uses, integrated landscaping, public amenities. Here were concepts championed by Catherine Bauer, Lewis Mumford, Clarence Stein and other reformers, in the decades when suburbs were not yet reviled as soulless bedroom communities. And here was this vision built, lived in, mature, and thriving. Even as I remembered the intellectual planning history, my reaction was primarily emotional. Before me was not a theoretical treatise, but a real neighborhood with real architecture rooted in good principles: logically planned town organization, the useful integration of nature, multifaceted community, variety of choice. Its pleasures were obvious.

This was the assessment of Irvine by architect, historian and resident, Alan Hess, back a couple years ago. The article, at least in part, evoked a city I didn’t really catch a glimpse of. Its pleasures may have been obvious but were fleeting.

Certainly, the views out over the Little League baseball diamonds in the parklands abutting the Irvine Civic Center were fantastic, looking as they were toward the Santa Ana Mountains. northwoodA path between a couple of the fields led to a bike trail running along some sort of culvert, the San Diego Creek, perhaps? There was a bridge across it to a hockey rink, playing Kanye West over the loudspeakers, All of the Lights/All of the Lights.

Without a bike, however, I got back into my car to head off to my next destination, one of the early areas of development in Irvine, although developed independently of the “plan”, Northwood. It was about 6.5 miles away and if I wanted to get there really, really fast, I could, barring any adverse road conditions. In Irvine, there are arterial roads where you can drive between the various “villages” as they’re called, at 55 miles per hour! That’s right. 55 miles per hour. In a city.

That’s not to mention Irvine is cross-sectioned by a couple of major interstate freeways, the 5 and 405, along with a couple lesser ones, the 133 and 261.irvineca4

Bringing me to the crux of my discomfort with a planned city based on the primacy of moving people in cars, easily and speedily. I know that concept doesn’t appear stated anywhere. Mr. Hess writes of the “logically planned town organization” with its “superblocks, pedestrian paths, mixed uses, integrated landscaping, public amenities.” From his townhouse, he can walk to a library and grocery store.

So where are all these pedestrians, I wondered, gunning down the street like Sammy Hagar. Could they be tucked away, out of sight, off-road, going about their daily lives? Granted, it was a Monday afternoon, so maybe Irvinites had other things to do aside from just walking around, enjoying the good life. In my travels, I did stop at a park near a schoolyard that was full of kids, and their parents, waiting by their cars to drive them home.

Another detour took me through a couple of these dizzyingly laid-out neighbourhoods where, if you didn’t know your precise destination or lacked a keen sense of direction, could turn you around and have you discombobulated in no time. Interestingly, in one of these neighbourhoods, the streets had no stop signs, irvineca2no traditional visual guideposts. It was almost as if I’d stumbled into some secret, magical place of complete streets. With no obvious right of way, no authoritative directions on how to negotiate the streets from behind the wheel, I naturally drove far more cautiously, slowly.

Which left me crawling along empty daytime streets, not quite sure where I was going, rounding every corner in the hopes of catching a glimpse of some speeding traffic on a nearby arterial road where I could reorient myself and collect my bearings.

Having arrived in Irvine, unprepared to take advantage of the natural attractions of the place, the biking, the hiking, I was ultimately left with one thing to do if I was unwilling to go to Newport Beach. Head to the mall. The Spectrum, to be a exact, in the eastern part of town, not far from what will be the Orange County Great Park on the site of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.spectrum

As far as malls go, the Spectrum is a nice mall. All open air with most of the familiar franchise shops you’d recognize. There’s a ferris wheel, merry-go-round and train ride around the place. Still. It’s a mall.

It seems to me that as well-intentioned and as well-executed as your planned community or city or neighbourhood is, if it’s planned around the automobile, ultimately, you end up driving to a mall. For all the talk of ‘logically planned town organization’, ‘superblocks’ and mixed uses, Irvine struck me as single-use as any suburban development I’ve been to. Maybe, back in the early days, when Irvine was a town of 50,000 residents, most people could walk to their local library and supermarket. If you live in one of those houses today, maybe you still can.

That’s not what most of the city felt like currently, at least to this outsider. All your recreational needs are within an easy car ride, a longer bike ride, a walk maybe, irvineca6if you don’t have anything else planned for the day. The automobile is the key integrative element to any sort of successful flow in Irvine.

The best laid plans will not mask that. No amount of green space will change it. Or will having the best school system in the world.

At some point of time, there will have to be a reckoning. That’s just basic math.

touristly submitted by Cityslikr


Skid Row

March 4, 2016

You’d think that a city, competing as it might on a 21st-century global scale to attract the best and the brightest, business and industry, skidrowits slice of the tourist trade pie, would do what it could to erase from the guide book maps the Skid Row name of a neighbourhood. It’s so, I don’t know, Dirty 30s. Old school dismissive and denigrating. Get a job, ya lousy hobo!

Or, you know, because morality.

Not Los Angeles. Right there below Little Tokyo, the Downtown Arts District, the Toy District, the Old Bank District. South and east of the Jewelry District.

Skid Row.

I didn’t make my way there to see if it was actually true, if such a place could really officially still exist. I arrived by accident. Not an uncommon occurrence for someone without much spatial-directional-geographic skill who likes to wander cities. Sometimes you wind up in unexpected places.hobo

For anyone who’s been to Los Angeles, homeless encampments are not an unusual sight. Freeway overpasses provide shelter from some of the elements nature inflicts. Under-used strips of sidewalk space outside of fenced off commercial buildings like self-storage businesses keep pedestrian levels low and possible conflict to a minimum. There’s a woman outside the parking lot of my favourite Ralphs living under what seems to be a semi-permanent tarp enclosures.

But the magnitude of the homeless population in Skid Row is nothing short of shocking. Blocks and blocks of largely men, as best as I could tell, simply existing in the streets, some in full makeshift camping like conditions, sleeping bags, tarpoline shelters, suitcases or duffel bags or plastic bags, stuffed with their belongings. Others, just out there, with nothing more than a concrete bed.

I didn’t stop to linger, to take a closer look, to more fully assess the situation. breadlinesI kept my head low, responded politely to anyone who engaged with me, but continued moving. The immediate response to finding myself where I did and recognizing the scale of it, of course, was to turn around, go back to the safety I’d come from.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Maybe if it had been dark or late. It wasn’t.

Besides, the immediate fearfulness I felt was completely baseless. No matter how justified every one of these people I passed would be in stomping me to death for my complicity in their current condition, there’d be more chance of me being struck by lightning in this place lightning seldom strikes than being assaulted by anyone here. Even if I were flashing hundred dollar bills and a Rodeo Drive purchased watch on each wrist, the upside for anybody here accosting me would only be short term, breadlines3met most certainly with a heavy-handed crackdown that wouldn’t even have to explain itself.

As I was expressing my discomfort and disbelief on the Twitter (after safely reaching my destination, natch), Tobias Vaughan suggested I look up Jones v. City of Los Angeles. I did. Turns out this city has something of a sad, nasty history of trying to criminalize its homeless. “Is LA the meanest city in America to its skid row homeless?” The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless cite a 2007 UCLA study pointing out that, at the time, “… Los Angeles was spending $6 million a year to pay for fifty extra police officers to crack down on crime in the Skid Row area at a time when the city budgeted only $5.7 million for homeless services.” The kind of crime? mymangodfreyStuff like jaywalking and loitering.

I haven’t seen more recent data to know if things have changed. If conditions were less dire for those living on Skid Row now than before, that’s difficult to imagine. How could it be worse? Less police harassment?

This, at a time when other jurisdictions have accepted the fact that using the criminal system to penalize and deal with the homeless is much more expensive and ineffective than actually trying to deal with it in a more constructive manner. “If you want to end homelessness, you put people in housing,” the director of Utah’s Housing and Community Development Division, Gordon Walker said. “This is relatively simple.”

It’s not as if there isn’t space to construct housing in the area of Skid Row, filled as it is, unsurprisingly with derelict buildings and empty lots. sullivanstravelsThe problem with that, I imagine, would be you’d establish a sense of permanence. The homeless housed. Skid Row as an actual place, with actual foundations, as opposed to just a name on a map, a name that can be changed when the conditions warrant.

A more traditional approach would be to slowly squeeze Skid Row out of existence. As downtown Los Angeles DTLA continues to revitalize outward, and make no mistake, it is revitalizing – the margaritas I found out on the fringes were fantastic! — there will eventually be no place for a Skid Row here. It’ll linger only as a hip bar name. Homelessness won’t cease to exist, of course. It will simply be re-located where people like me wouldn’t possibly want to go to or find ourselves by accident.

This is not a problem unique to Los Angeles. Remember, even Toronto the Good criminalizes ‘aggressive panhandling’ with its very own Orwellian named bylaw, the Safe Street Act. skidrow2Safe from what and for whom exactly? For the likes of me, naturally, from the nuisance and annoyance of having to deal with the result of the unfairness and inequality we like to, instead, ignore and wish away.

Until we actually get serious about dealing with homelessness, and all the facets that create it, there’s never just one reason someone finds themselves living on the streets, maybe it’s good a Skid Row remains on the map. It’s there for people to see if they choose to look close enough. Huh. Skid Row. That’s still a thing? How?

incredulously submitted by Cityslikr


Book Club VIII

March 15, 2015

What does it say about us that we’re operating under a political-economic framework that doesn’t work, at least, not for the overwhelming majority of us? isthisthingworkingMoreover, what does it say that we know categorically that that political-economic framework isn’t at all sound, that it’s based on ideology rather than evidence, and what evidence is provided can be (and has been) thoroughly debunked? We know there is a better route to take, one that does have a proven track record of success but one that runs counter to the prevailing narrative of the past 30 years, an approach challenging an established orthodoxy that’s pretty much faith-based, a faith based on little more than class and status.

These are thoughts I thought while reading Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea. It’s a short book, considering the subject matter it covers, from the intellectual roots of economic austerity theory through to its current application post-2008 financial crisis. Spoiler alert! Blyth quite emphatically declares austerity does not work.

Austerity is more of a philosophical outlook than it is a working economic model. At its heart lies a distrust and dislike of the state. austerityGovernment, from an austerity point of view, serves only as an impediment, all red tape and interventionist bullying. Every dollar in public spending or investment translates into one less dollar in private sector spending or investment. Stated as if that is inherently a bad thing, based purely on an anti-statist philosophy, and one made, as with much of austerity economic thinking, without much evidence to back its case up.

Blyth traces modern austerity’s dim view of government back to the origins of liberal thought, the late 17th/early 18th-century and John Locke. That state, such as it was then, was represented by an authoritarian monarchy, subject to no rules but its own. Representative government was in its infancy. Locke foresaw a liberal, market-oriented society, free from the regular financial assaults on the state’s treasury by an anointed single family of misrule. Locke, and later others like David Hume and Adam Smith (the father of the free market’s Invisible Hand) wrote as champions of what grew to be the middle-class of merchants, bankers and small enterprise.

As unnecessary as it might seem to write that much has changed in the 300+ years since, to austerity proponents, evidently, it hasn’t.

Not This John Locke

Not This John Locke

In order for their economic case to be taken seriously, austerians must work to convince us that our representative form of government is as self-serving, antagonistic to free enterprise and willfully whimsical to the needs of its subjects citizens as any form of dynastic royalty. Unfortunately, they’ve succeeded in doing just that.

Forget for a moment such success at the wider, international level and simply look at our local politics currently. Toronto elects a new mayor in John Tory who almost immediately goes to work vilifying city staff, proclaiming that he’s confident, despite evidence to the contrary, there remains plenty of fat to trim. The solution to the city’s revenue problems lies in cutting its public sector spending.

Austerity in a nutshell.

Perhaps the more disturbing aspect of the success of austerity is that the economic underpinnings are highly suspect and when it has been trotted out by accommodating governments, as we’re watching right now in Europe, it hasn’t worked. In fact, it’s made the problems it sets out to solve even worse. fellforit1Government debt levels increase rather than drop. Ditto unemployment. Austerity exacerbates the economic upheaval and insists the only way to fix that is to implement more austerity.

Even here in North America, where pro-austerity governments reacted to the 2008 economic meltdown in a very non-austerity, very pro-Keynesian way via stimulus spending, at the first sign of, if not recovery, an easing of further cratering, the reins were quickly tightened and austerity pursued. All eyes turned to the public sector debt and we were told to quiver. This will dampen investor and consumer ‘expectations’ for an economic turnaround.

In an influential 2010 paper, Growth in a Time of Debt, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff suggested that once a government’s debt exceeds a point of 90% of a country’s GDP, it kills economic growth. This was all many governments and economic bodies needed to hear as they set out to slash debt. tightenyourbeltAusterity, in other words.

Turns out Reinhart and Rogoff’s numbers might’ve been a little off, an Excel spreadsheet error. Disturbing in and of itself but hardly the first time austerity advocates have pursued their agenda using faulty assumptions. Blyth goes into detail of the ‘expansionary austerity’ movement stemming from Milan’s Bocconi University and especially the work of two economists, Francesco Giavazzi and Marco Pagano. In essence, their theory goes, by cutting spending (and theoretically, its debt), governments signal two things: tough times ahead and decreased competition for the private sector for investment dollars from the public sector.

Both rely on the very imprecise notion of expectations and a predictable, rational response to them. Turns out, according to Blyth, reactions vary and, almost entirely in a way the theory doesn’t predict. richierichCertainly here in Canada, consumers haven’t responded to the federal government’s austerity measures by spending less while the private sector remains on the sidelines, sitting on ‘dead money’. Canadians pile up personal debt, propping up a shaky economy that shows little more than anemic growth, and the bigger players look on idly, waiting for an economic idea with no history of working anywhere to work this time.

So how to explain such obstinacy? I’ll let Mark Blyth answer that:

When government services are cut because of “profligate spending,” it will absolutely not be people at the top end of the income distribution who will be expected to tighten their belts. Rather, it will be those who lie in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution who haven’t had a real wage increase since 1979. These are the folks who actually rely upon government services and who have taken on a huge amount of debt (relative to their incomes) that will be “fiscally consolidated.” This is why austerity is first and foremost a political problem of distribution, and not an economic problem of accountancy.

Wrap it up in as glitzy a package as you want, sell it as the only viable alternative to improving our economy, backed up with proof of concept from various “schools” — Austria to Chicago to Bocconi – but at its very tiny, cold, cold heart, austerity is nothing more than the weapon of choice in the class war that’s been waged for over 30 years now. A lopsided affair that the rich, by getting richer and richer, are winning handily. It’s a situation, if history can provide any sort of guidance on the matter, that never turns out well for anyone.

austerely submitted by Cityslikr