Monday, November 24, 2008

Quote from Richard Florida

From a WSJ article:

In Mr. Florida's universe, the number of local bands on the pop charts becomes more important to the economy than tax codes. "It is hard to think of a major high-tech region that doesn't have a distinct audio identity," Mr. Florida writes, sounding more like a rock critic than an economics prof. Creative workers want to live and work in "authentic" neighborhoods of historic buildings, not areas that are "full of chain stores, chain restaurants and nightclubs," he asserts. Accordingly, cities should stop approving expansive new condo developments on their outer boundaries and instead focus on retooling former warehouse and factory districts.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Your Friday Free Beer Guess the City

I'm not sure if this one will be very easy or very difficult. There is no in between.

High stoops like these are a signature of this city. I'm not totally sure why. Perhaps you could tell me. Maybe these were additions to turn townhomes into flats to provide more and more affordable housing types?

Or maybe it was to get out of the snow?

Is it somewhere in Spain?

No, Greece maybe?

or.....China?? Just know it is also known for its multi-culturalism.

It's old...

...sorta old..

...and new.

New Guy(?) on the Block

Another blogger on Dallas issues has sprung up about "Oak Cliff Urbanism", with a post on 4- and 5-story urbanism with some good photos, if I'm playing "Guess the City," I'd say the majority are Amsterdam. They managed to keep the camera in focus.

I made a comment, we'll see if it gets thru "moderation."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Quote for the Day

From The Oil Drum:
This may seem like just a feel good story about something that just increases quality of life for some people in NYC that doesn't have much implication for the rest of the country, but consider this: As the Commissioner states, NYC is planning on a million new residents over the next 20 years. Think about how many square miles of suburban/exurban development that will save for farming. Think about how many fewer cars will be produced if those million people come to NYC. What if every city across the country were a more desirable place to live, work, play, shop than its surrounding suburbs?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Texas, Next on the Teet

...or maybe not. Interesting article on Politico about Texas losing its influence:
And while The Hammer’s redistricting crusade in 2003 certainly helped Texas Republicans at the time, it has come back to haunt the state under Democratic rule. If not for DeLay’s machinations, three Texas Democrats would likely be sitting pretty these days as chairmen of powerful House committees: former Reps. Jim Turner (Homeland Security), Martin Frost (Rules) and Charlie Stenholm (Agriculture). Instead, they’re all now exes, living in Texas, having lost their elections in 2004. “I guess it’s unrealistic for any state to continue to enjoy national influence dating back to the ’20s and ’30s,” says Frost. “Texas has had this unbroken run. And sooner or later, it had to come to an end.”
Obviously, given the fondness for corruption by many of those elected officials, and their nature as corporatists, since I can't use Mussolini's definition without sounding shrill, this is probably a good thing for the nation. But, what about Texas?

Rahm Emanuel laid down the law at the Wall Street Journal's CEO council offering a sneak peak at what we can expect in or soon after January's inauguration day (and gawd, that day can't get here soon enough - or as Letterman says, "can't the new guy just start early?").

Mr. Emanuel promised that a major economic stimulus would be "the first order of business" for Mr. Obama when he takes office Jan. 20. The focus of spending will be on infrastructure, specifically "green infrastructure," which he said would include mass transit, upgraded electricity transmission lines, "smart" electrical meters that allow consumers to save money by using electricity at off-peak hours, and universal broadband Internet access, which he said would encourage telecommuting.

He stressed that the new administration would "throw long and deep," taking advantage of the economic crisis to push wholesale changes in health care, taxes, financial re-regulation and energy. "The American people in two successive elections have voted for change, and change cannot be allowed to die on the doorsteps of Washington," Mr. Emanuel said.

So, the administration, as we might expect, is planning a broad "green," market-based stimulus package, which is the right thing to do at this stage of the game, a New Green Deal. I would expect greener, more efficient infrastructure would be a part of that, most likely including rail.

So, without Texas officials in important chairmanships, how will Texan representatives position themselves to help their constituents? Arguably, this is the state MOST in need of an overhaul of its infrastructure and transportation, at least towards diverting all of the corrupt highway spending towards rail, especially considering the low rankings we achieved in Cities Prepared for a Post-Oil Future list.

I could certainly go for some of that good, old-fashioned 1880's rail corruption right about now couldn't you? At least, it would give us something useful in the 21st century.

The thing is about rail, is that it scales better and more appropriately than do highways to their context. A highway in Plano, is the same as Woodall Rogers, is the same as I-35 E and W. And, as we've learned, they're like farts in an elevator, they're loud, noisy, smelly, and in some cases, they kill. We went crazy building these things within the city and outside, without knowing the consequences.

Surely, roads, could scale better than they do now, i.e. highways connect cities to outer loops, then boulevards connect the main population centers within cities and a grid is overlapped for local movement. But, we screwed that up and went all highway crazy, because it meant spending, and jobs, and progress (link to 1939 GM (go figure) exhibit at the NY World's Fair)!

[That's a lot of cars to sell]

Or, so we thought.

All of those are gone now, and we're left with only the Boa Constrictor around our nexts, tightening, slowly killing before devouring and digesting into a pit of paving, pollution, and pei-weis. Rail, on the other hand, DOES scale appropriately to the distance of travel and scale of development around the station areas, as I have mentioned before.

High-speed heavy rail links the major cities of a region, at least in the initial phases, with one station per metroplex:

I'm guessing given its location and existing rail network (even if the tracks must be overhauled the rights-of-way are there) that Dallas will have to be a hub for an interstate system. If an initial high-speed rail network in Texas is ONLY in Texas, without cooperation from adjoining states, that would really position Austin to evolve into the capital of Texas in more ways that merely the state capital .

The next level of scale would be the heavy-rail commuter lines linking smaller cities within a region, say North Texas. These would have stations approximately every 3-5 miles, preferrably located near major thoroughfares to allow convenient access for the private automobile and feeder bus systems from harder to reach towns and neighborhoods.

Shown is the TRE and DART trains downtown.

This could also include Amtrak, and from what I understand there is already some push for the cities of Northeast Texas to link to Dallas and Fort Worth via TRE and/or Amtrak.

Next would be light rail, linking centers within a metropolis. These would be the most common of the transit stations with approximately 1-mile service areas for drive-up, bike-up, and walk-up access.

Shown: Mockingbird Station. RTKL project.

Rough approximation of both current lines and those under-construction or planned.

And lastly, the streetcar or modern streetcar as shown. These can have frequent stops, run on the street, often but not always in shared traffic lanes. They support the adjacent neighborhoods and often serve walk-up populations within a 1/4 to 1/2 mile of stops.

Shown: modern streetcar

These, with their frequent stops, join neighborhood centers together. I've often said that Dallas feels like a collection of small towns. There are several dying to be linked by modern streetcar (or expansion of the existing M-line historic streetcar) such as Lakewood, Lower Greenville, and Bishop Arts in particular with downtown and the rest of uptown.

Not coincidentally, these were originally built as streetcar suburbs in the early 20th century and as luck would have it, remnants still exist.

Ghost of Cities Past, Present, and Future

More on Obama's office of Urban Policy, Advocating for Urbanism:
There is a certain vogue gathering around urban issues. No -- not inner-city poverty, crime, or joblessness -- but, rather, those issues that might broadly be described as ones of "human geography." Where do people live, where do they work, and how should they travel between the two? How can resources, ranging from good schools to public transit to clean air, be more fairly allocated within regions?
Next Link: PedShed links to two studies on connectivity. Key points:

Twenty-four California cities were analyzed at the block level; half were classified as “safe cites” (severe/fatal crash rates one-third of the state average), and half as “less safe cities” (severe/fatal crash rates close to the state average). The safe cities had

  • an average intersection density of 106/sq mi
  • a walking/biking/transit mode share of 16 percent
  • a fatality rate per 100,000 people of 3.2 per year.

The less safe cities had

  • an average intersection density of 63/sq mi
  • a walking/biking/transit mode share of 4 percent
  • a fatality rate per 100,000 people of 10.5 per year.
Interestingly, the safe cities were well established prior to 1950.
The critical statistic cited above is intersection density. A tight-knit grid (pre-fifties) will have a higher intersection density, or number of intersections per square-mile than the dendritic highway, arterial, and cul-de-sac pattern of post-WWII car-first culture and design.

Shown in graphic form. Sprawl on the North side of the arterial. Interconnected grid network on the South side.

Above, notice the difference between the mall and "the mall." In this crude (when I'm at my best, btw) graph from way back in the beginning of this blog, I discuss how we got to these disparate points and where we are now on our way back to effective and WORTHwhile city building.

One is single use, singularly zoned, singularly accessed by car on freeways and choked arterials (because they're the only way). The mall on the south half forms the same function as a mall (shopping, gathering, strolling, meeting, working) but is appropriately and strongly integrated with its surroundings, accessed by an appropriate variety of transportation modes, and includes various uses such as office, residential, parks, civic, and cultural functions that ensure constant population (or customers for the cynic) and cross-shopping (oh, there I go getting all cynical and "retail-y").

It's called synergy: the art of placemaking; making places worth more than the sum of the parts.

The end product of an auto-centric world, people as consumers:

I'm not saying I'm in favor of banning development like the above. Hey, if there is a market for it, why not. My point is that, the value of these will fall to near zero when we end the subsidies for this type of development, i.e. highway construction and public financing of the infrastructure for less dense development.

These are private driveways essentially, that I/we are being taxed to build. While I'm not in favor of things like congestion taxing (which I plan on discussing in more detail), I am in favor of public service boundaries (which I also need to discuss soon) to make these types of developments pay their full share to live in a manner that takes more out of the public coffers than say I would, living in town with shared infrastructure.

As in the article Conservative Case for Urbanism states:

...common sense came from Congressman John Mica of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "I can't just continue to pave over every metro area," he said. "Our goal is to reduce the negative impact on the environment and also reduce our dependence on energy."

But the federal government is a hindrance as often as a help, Mica admitted, throwing years worth of bureaucratic red tape in front of states that want to construct light rail lines. "As the federal government, we're a very unreliable partner, and we haven't decided what our policy is," Mica said, adding that he has been working since 1989 on building one light rail line in his central Florida home district, and expects to see grandchildren before the project is completed.

It certainly appears that Obama's office of urban policy plans on, if not getting out of the way, streamlining the federal funding and regulatory red tape, as I have suspected, in favor of a more positive direction. Furthering my point:
Density is cost effective, it fosters small business development at the local level, and it strengthens ties within communities. None of that should be anathema to either national party -- unless they continue to put the interests of construction behemoths and automakers above the interests of ordinary Americans.
Now, here is People and Community first development, people as humans:

Which looks more pleasant? It's the same that generates a premium in the market place.

Ding Dong, Car Culture is Dead

I'll just go ahead and be the first to say it, "car culture is dead." NYT on import sales down. Think of how much time, material, and energy went into making all of those pictured below at the Port of Long Beach. Sitting. And, we're supposed to give the American automakers public money for getting their ass kicked by these?

I Guess That Answers That

President-Elect Obama responds to the campaign petition from Transportation for America:

Key lines: to convert this moment of crisis into a moment of opportunity. And I think you’ve identified an important part of the answer as well. Our economy is slowing down, we need to stimulate it. Jobs are disappearing; we need to create new ones. At the same time, our infrastructure is crumbling and we need to rebuild it.

Now is the time to invest in our future and strengthen our core infrastructure. You said we must build to compete in the global economy and fix what’s broken, and I agree. I’ll put two million more Americans to work rebuilding our crumbling roads, bridges and transit systems – because it is time to build an American infrastructure for the 21st century. Early in this campaign, I had already proposed creating a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, funded with $60 billion over 10 years, to expand and enhance, not replace, existing federal transportation investments. Now, with unemployment rising, these investments are even more important.

You said we need to invest in green technology, and I agree. I will invest $150 billion over the next decade in renewable sources of energy to create five million new, green jobs – jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced; jobs building solar panels and wind turbines and fuel- efficient cars; jobs that will help us end our dependence on oil from Middle East dictators.

I support Amtrak funding and the development of high-speed freight and passenger rail networks across the country. As you may know, I cosponsored the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act in the U.S. Senate, and supported the successful effort to get this important legislation to the President’s desk this year. And I’m pleased that the President signed this bill into law just last week. I will also re-commit federal resources to public mass transportation projects across the country. I’ve worked to improve transportation access to jobs for people with lower incomes since my time in the Illinois State Senate, and I will continue this work as President. And I will further promote transit by creating incentives for transit usage that are equal to the current incentives for driving.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

More Rankings!!!

This time, one that actually makes some sense, as opposed to those Money Magazine best places to live or various other well-published rankings that suggest you should live in Bismarck, North Dakota or BFE, Alabama because the houses are cheap (no shit Sherlock - because nobody wants to live there. How's that fit in your calculations?!) or the public schools won't get your kids shot.

CommonCurrent recently published a report ranking the fifty largest American Cities for their Post-Oil Preparedness. From the ExecSumm:
High gas prices have resulted in sweeping economic impacts. Real estate values in lowdensity, completely car-dependent exurban development—also known as sprawl—have plummeted in comparison to real estate values in central urban or higher-density suburban real estate served by public transit and walkable amenities, which have been holding their relative value.
And I'm going to have to borrow this line, if only because it speaks directly to bizness head's language:
“Sprawl has become the biggest risk factor in real estate,” according to Jeffrey Norquist, President of the Congress for New Urbanism, in reference to the US housing foreclosure crisis of 2008."
Unfortunately, for this report, is that it is John Norquist, not Jeffrey.

Some rankings of note:

The top ten:
1. San Francisco
2. New York
3. Washington, DC
4. Seattle
5. Oakland
6. Chicago
7. Portland, OR
8. Philadelphia
9. Baltimore
10. Boston
It is pretty hard to argue with any of those, although one could probably quibble intuitively with this city over that city or vice versa. Rather, we should probably look at them in quadrants, such as the top 10 (and learn from these cities), the bottom 10, etc.

How's Dallas measure up:

Overall: 32. Behind other notables: Atlanta (14 - wow), Austin (23 - not exactly the nirvana it is made out to be), and (ghasp) Houston (26). That last one hurts. However, Dallas did manage to edge out San Antonio (33), Arlington (34), and Fort Worth (45). Actually, Dallas doesn't beat out a single major city in the country.

With that said, I'm going to have to drill into the content and methodology more closely to see where Dallas fails. While it certainly isn't the model of urban form, it is positioned fairly well (or at least better than Atlanta, Austin, and Houston) with regards to mass transit (DART) and the future of interconnected multi-modal, multi-centric cities/dense cores under a metropolitan planning agency.

So what that tells me is Dallas is doing terribly when it comes to personal lifestyle and mobility choice. Let's see how it does according to these rankings:

Carpooling: 6th with 14.1% - I find this number hard to believe, but whatevs.
Telemarketing: 26th at 3.5% - not exactly taking up the market share people predicted in the 90s eh?
Public Transit Ridership: 26th at 4.2%. Sad, that Dallas probably has better transit than half the cities ahead of it including (F)Arlington which actually is the largest city in the country WITHOUT mass transit, but still...those rankings aren't so bad. Which leads us to:

Walking/Biking to Work: 46th (out of 50). 1.4% walk to work, 0.2% bike. Wow, so I'm actually in less of a minority than a coworker who bikes.

And lastly, most sprawling (which I'm assuming would deal with density per acre or something similar): 43rd. Well, at least not in the part of the city that I choose to inhabit.

ReTooling Auto

Gaining Steam. Harvey Wasserman says, GM must rebuild the mass transit system it murdered, which I suggested here.

In a 1922 memo that will live in infamy, GM President Alfred P. Sloan established a unit aimed at dumping electrified mass transit in favor of gas-burning cars, trucks and buses.

Just one American family in 10 then owned an automobile. Instead, we loved our 44,000 miles of passenger rail routes managed by 1,200 companies employing 300,000 Americans who ran 15 billion annual trips generating an income of $1 billion. According to Snell, "virtually every city and town in America of more than 2,500 people had its own electric rail system."

But GM lost $65 million in 1921. So Sloan enlisted Standard Oil (now Exxon), Philips Petroleum, glass and rubber companies and an army of financiers and politicians to kill mass transit.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Guess The City : Free Beer and a Bonus Beer

For all you fascists and hags. I wish I could come up with a clever line. Have a go mates:

[edit: oh, the bonus is for the movie that was primarily shot in this 'picturesque' town - but someone else must get the movie than the first correctly guessed city]

Links o' the Day

John Massengale Supports and Expands on the idea I suggested here to overhaul Detroit to factories that build something of value and utility for the 21st century, in Roger Rabbit Does Detroit. The money quote that I've been harping on with all of these misguided Keynesianisms:
Isn't it better to leverage other funds and include Detroit in the plans to reduce auto dependency than to simply bail them out?
Neil Pierce on Obama (representative of Millenial values) vs. Hyper-Individualism (Boomers). Out with the old, in with the new, I say. He says:
What’s hyper-individualism? Like pornography, you can recognize it when you see it. Lifestyle choices such as picking a gas-guzzling SUV to reach a suburban McMansion so big you rarely visit all the rooms. Headphones and solo video games in place of group activities. Disdaining civic life or responsibilities. Chronically shopping ’til you drop. Needlessly running up credit card balances. And economically, consistently wanting more, more, more.
In the category of 'never woulda guessed' category with the competence (or perhaps they are just exceedingly competent at incompetence?), the Denver Post: Oversight of Bailout "a mess."

The think tank, Center for American Progress, has published a book, Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President with all ten chapters available online here and the chapter on Urban Policy here...well, apparently that chapter is no longer up, but fortunately I have a print version. So there. This is an important document because many of these policy wonks are the wonks that Obama listens to.

Bruce Katz, who co-wrote the Urban Policy document mentioned above with Henry Cisneros, also penned this brief for Brookings, Memo to the President: Invest in Long-Term Prosperity.

Anthony Flint in Citiwire essentially asks "What's a Prez to do with no loot?" referencing a recent conference at UPenn regarding the future of Urban Design in the Post-Oil age. I must be ahead of my time, because I proposed this travel fellowship about five years ago:
“…planners think in two dimensions, architects think in three, but urban designers must think in four.”

It is only natural for designers (of any medium) to contemplate the future, and in particular, the future of that thing we call design. However, most, if not all, efforts are pure speculation based on little more than conjecture. There is inherently a certain amount of unpredictability in world events that drive culture, and in turn, design. This proposal for Kagan Fellowship will take an increasingly accepted geological truism, the Hubbert Peak Oil Theory, and apply it to urban design and city building.

M. King Hubbert was a geophysicist through the middle of the 20th century and the first to propose that oil production and supply existed on a bell curve. Once production “peaked,” essentially at the midpoint of supply, the remaining half of the oil reserves would become increasingly difficult and costly to extract. At first dismissed as nonsense, Hubbert accurately predicted the peak of production within all U.S. oil fields collectively in the early seventies.

Today, modern geophysicists are predicting worldwide oil peak somewhere between 2004 and 2020. Mounting evidence reveals that two of the world’s largest oil fields may have already peaked, suggesting the possibility that we are witnessing critical events that will affect every aspect of society, including the way we live in and build our cities.

It is important to remember that this does not mean oil will just dry up and vanish. Quite likely rather, the planet may never truly run out of oil. However, it does mean that sometime potentially in the near future, that it will make little economic sense to use the energy equivalent of 3 barrels of oil to extract 2 barrels from the ground.

The Hubbert Peak theory offers us a certain amount of predictability for an industrial society based on resource extraction and consumption. It is logical to conclude that these events will alter the world so drastically that society will transition from today’s modern industrial economy into something entirely different.

For the last 70 years, most development in American cities has been centered upon accessibility from an automobile, leaving other options for circulation difficult at best. This relatively new pattern of development is most strikingly evident in the Sun Belt. While there may be a number of reasons that auto-dependence begins to wane, from purely an economic standpoint to health and well-being, we are proposing that a decline in oil production based on Hubbert’s Peak will gradually wean Americans off their car dependence. This will have drastic effects on American Cities. Importantly, this will not be an overnight phenomenon; rather it will be a continual transition period as availability of cheap oil declines.

Driven by a similar pathology as the modern industrial economy, Sun Belt cities have been built disposably. The majority of structures have a life span of twenty or so years. Interestingly (and ironically), those uses that may have the most limited usefulness on into the future have been built with the greatest amount of permanence. To narrow the focus of this incredibly broad topic, we are proposing to limit study to the adaptation of typical conditions relating downtown highways, large arterials, parking structures, and potentially others as they become evident. Our purpose is to ensure that these structures and their associated land can be utilized in a strategy for the gradual densification of the city center as their original purpose of accommodating the automobile gradually becomes irrelevant.

Certain assumptions will be made in order to maintain the focus of this study, such as that there will be no “magic bullet” that adequately replaces oil as a cheap energy source able to operate the country’s fleet of cars as they are today. Also, the decline will be gradual, allowing for phasing strategies of the semi-permanent structures. However, we will assume some measure of electricity is still available through the scaling up in production of wind and solar energy sources. Further still, we chose these particular structures because of their vast nature and expense (of original construction and potential demolition), which we will assume is of too great in magnitude to be merely, and once again, “disposed.”

We are proposing travel to Denmark to study Stroget, the large car-free area in center city Copenhagen for purposes of examining the functioning of spaces and how uses interact with spaces sans automobile with particular attention to scale, proportion, use patterns, and circulation to better understand how that could translate to the evolution of downtown Sun Belt cities. In addition, we have selected Los Angeles (iconographic of American auto-dependent culture) to serve as lab rat, where we will identify selected highways, arterials, and parking garages as typ0ical case studies for car-free design evolution. In addition, we intend to focus on how these elements could be phased, or their negative effects minimized – if not adapted into a positive, over time as the automobile becomes an unrealistic and unviable transportation alternative.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Quote for the Day

“When traffic takes precedence over all other urban functions, [the city] can no longer perform its own role, that of facilitating meeting and intercourse. The assumed right of the private motor car to go any place in the city and park anywhere is nothing less than a license to destroy the city.”
Lewis Mumford, The City in History (1961)

If You Read One Thing All Day

Make sure it is this article, The End of Wall Street's Boom by Michael Lewis, author of Liar's Poker. If anything, it only serves to justify the intuition I live by...if everybody is saying the same thing, i.e. "how come you're not buying a house? it's a buyers market, why aren't you in the stock market?, etc., it's usually full of shit.

Speaking of full of shit, despite Rush Limbaugh's claims (which I WILL NOT link to) that this is Obama's recession despite taking office in THE FUTURE, all of this mess started with Reaganomics in the 80s. But, we couldn't tarnish the name of their wonder puppet could we?

A couple of passages:
I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even had savings of my own to manage. I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds if not thousands of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled from finance.
...Ivy Zelman, at the time the housing-market analyst at Credit Suisse, had seen the bubble forming very early on. There’s a simple measure of sanity in housing prices: the ratio of median home price to income. Historically, it runs around 3 to 1; by late 2004, it had risen nationally to 4 to 1. “All these people were saying it was nearly as high in some other countries,” Zelman says. “But the problem wasn’t just that it was 4 to 1. In Los Angeles, it was 10 to 1, and in Miami, 8.5 to 1. And then you coupled that with the buyers. They weren’t real buyers. They were speculators.” Zelman alienated clients with her pessimism, but she couldn’t pretend everything was good. “It wasn’t that hard in hindsight to see it,” she says. “It was very hard to know when it would stop.” Zelman spoke occasionally with Eisman and always left these conversations feeling better about her views and worse about the world. “You needed the occasional assurance that you weren’t nuts,” she says. She wasn’t nuts. The world was.
...The funny thing, looking back on it, is how long it took for even someone who predicted the disaster to grasp its root causes. They were learning about this on the fly, shorting the bonds and then trying to figure out what they had done. Eisman knew subprime lenders could be scumbags. What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism. For instance, he knew that the big Wall Street investment banks took huge piles of loans that in and of themselves might be rated BBB, threw them into a trust, carved the trust into tranches, and wound up with 60 percent of the new total being rated AAA.
...But he couldn’t figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds. “I didn’t understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold,” he says. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. “We always asked the same question,” says Eisman. “Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I’d always get the same reaction. It was a smirk.”
He called Standard & Poor’s and asked what would happen to default rates if real estate prices fell. The man at S&P couldn’t say; its model for home prices had no ability to accept a negative number. “They were just assuming home prices would keep going up,” Eisman says.
But Wall Street had used these BBB tranches—the worst of the worst—to build yet another tower of bonds: a “particularly egregious” C.D.O. The reason they did this was that the rating agencies, presented with the pile of bonds backed by dubious loans, would pronounce most of them AAA. These bonds could then be sold to investors—pension funds, insurance companies—who were allowed to invest only in highly rated securities. “I cannot fucking believe this is allowed—I must have said that a thousand times in the past two years,” Eisman says.
...He agreed that the main effect of turning a partnership into a corporation was to transfer the financial risk to the shareholders. “When things go wrong, it’s their problem,” he said—and obviously not theirs alone. When a Wall Street investment bank screwed up badly enough, its risks became the problem of the U.S. government. “It’s laissez-faire until you get in deep shit,” he said, with a half chuckle. He was out of the game.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

More on Obama's Office of Urban Policy

Cross-posted from Pro-Urb listserv:
Our friends at WalkScore, where several of us smart growth/ transportation reform types are on the advisory board, have created a web site where people can go and suggest, and vote on, their suggestions for Obama's proposed Office of Urban Policy. Obama has said he believes that the nation should have policies designed to promote the health of its metropolitan areas. The office is conceived as something of a supercabinet position that potentially could coordinate policy among the Department of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, environment, public health and other arenas.

Suggest, vote, and circulate.

Quote for the Day

Sometimes I just need to use this space as my personal filing cabinet for ideas, thoughts, and turns of phraseology that a writer might store on cocktail napkins. At lunch today, discussing the sustainability of high-rise towers (I know, fascinating, I guess I'm not a terribly interesting person) with an architect and a landscape architect.

I began going off on a tangent that the high-rise booms are always fueled by financial deregulation and, in turn, shenanigans which make certain people absurdly wealthy and then to appeal to their ego, must build buildings "so tall they may sword fight with God."

I'm proud of that one. I must say.

Recycling is Bullshit

So says TreeHugger...and I agree, as I stated in this post because there is little to no regulation of the materials being used in the manufacturing and, in turn, the recycling process. The ideal solution would be for the companies to find a solution that is financially beneficial, i.e. market-based, but in the absence of that, we, the people, will be forced to impose penalties on the costs they impose on us in order to steer them in a mutually beneficial direction for the future.
Recycling is simply the transfer of producer responsibility for what they produce to the taxpayer who has to pick it up and take it away.
aka, "Externalizing Costs," and they are experts at it. Why improve products when you can simply cut costs. It's easier and looks like continued growth, the jet fuel for the stock market.

Problem is, how far can we cut costs? Until employees work for a penny a day. Oh, they've already done that by sending jobs to China under supposed Free Trade agreements when we can't possibly have a level playing field with variable working standards and environmental regulations.

So, labor costs are minimal, what do we cut now? Well, how about shifting all waste onto taxpayers, the planet, and the healthcare industry in the form of pollution. Somebody is gonna have to pay that piper.

Relatedly, a few years ago, a friend of mine was helping his friend's father start up a vodka and whiskey company and were looking for bottle design ideas. I was glad to help, but wanted to address the issue at a deeper level. How can we save costs AND cut waste and the solution was cradle-to-cradle. I guess the business startup never happened, or else the complexity I was proposing was ignored in favor of willful blindness and simplicity.

My questions were, can we make bottles refillable in some sort of return program, i.e. can the bottles be bottles for OUR service forever? That certainly limits the cost of production or purchasing of incessantly new alcoholic vessels.

To that thought, I find this graphic in the treehugger article linked above:

My next question was, if that re-use/re-supply chain was too difficult, can the bottle be adapted into another function, providing another service for the consumer. Thus, buying our product gives them essentially two products. Since that thought, I always notice companies that begin to address similar issues. Two of which, are Bong Vodka (you can guess the adaptability of the bottle, I suppose) and Pom, where the bottles can be reused as vases, which is unfortunately somewhat minimal.

I first found bong vodka at a martini bar out in the 'burbs once and I probably couldn't even tell you what the name of it was and assumed it was such a specialty item that it would be impossible to find again, until locating another supplier, Cafe Rembrandt, a Dutch bar (naturally) in the West End where I'm going to be Saturday night as a matter of fact to see my friend's band play, Shock of Pleasure - official site, myspace link.

By the way, Bongspirits has an artist program which you can see here.

Big 3 (Auto) Mobility?

Andrew Sullivan has a question raised on his site at the Atlantic; should we just let the big 3 American automanufacturers die on the vine?

My brief letter to him that I composed while getting ready for work:
While I agreed with your inital assessment regarding the big 3 automakers, here is why we can't simply let them die, NOR just give them a check. First, the obvious one, is the jobs issue and some of your readers are right, we can't let them just die off and be reborn another way? Why because it will be too painful and too long of a transition.

BUT, we can't let them stay their course as they seem to be implying. Give them $25 billion, buy up all the cars in a market where there is no demand. The issue is that they are not being adaptive enough to the market. Governments role when markets fail is to guide them toward the future.

If we're going to give them taxpayer dollars, our ultimate representative (President Obama) will have to make some demands for that money. Our country has managed to essentially ruin all of our cities with the transportation decisions over the last 60 years. We need a complete overhaul and we can begin by renaming the "auto industry" into the "mobility industry."

If I'm President Obama, I say to them "if I'm going to give you that much money, I want to purchase something I can use with it, a product that makes the employees proud and helps our nation rebuild its substandard infrastructure." These factories (as WW2 showed) are the only that can scale up to the level of service we need to provide high speed trains that connect our cities, commuter rail that connects our megalopoli, light rail for our cities, and modern streetcars for our inner cities.

We will be heading in this direction anyway (as rail is the most efficient form of transit - and the most spatially responsible with the most positive effects on real estate and land use) so why not buy these products from US manufacturers rather than France, Japan, Germany, or Sweden?


Monday, November 10, 2008

Planned Obsolescence

The lighter fluid for the fires of capitalism.

60 minutes on E-waste, all the thrown out monitors, hard drives, etc. This is really a problem of input and output and the toxic materials as part of the supply chain. To me this calls for a tax on pollution/waste, a heavy one at that (to replace payroll and income taxes), that directs companies towards materials that can be reused. Either recover or reclaim through donations or purchase the discarded materials and they can recycle them back into newer and better technology. The other elephant in the room regarding today's environmentalism is that recycling is an incredibly dirty process as this video hints at:

(I can't get this video to embed properly, so here is the link):

Other links...

Kunstler at his best:
The current occupant of the White House, however, has sedulously prepared for his successor the biggest shit sandwich the world has ever seen, and there is naturally some concern that Mr. Obama might choke on it. The dilemma is essentially this: the consumer economy we all knew and loved has died. There will be pressure from nearly every quarter to keep it hooked up to the costly life support machines even though it is dead. A different economy is waiting to be born, but it is nothing like the one that has died. The economy-to-come is one of rigor and austerity. It is not the kind of thing that a nation of overfed clowns is used to.
A book review of Rod Dreher's new book The Crunchy Cons. I've linked to Mr. Dreher several times in the past and believe this is the direction conservatives need to go and one that I could get behind. Their problem? They are far from it, and many items look like they are straight from Audacity of Hope. It's the type of conservatism I could support (my red):
  • Modern conservatism is too focused on material conditions. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper.

    When Bush told Americans to "go shopping" at the onset of the economic crisis, he revealed a dirty little secret about the global market system: The beast must be fed, or it will turn on you. Whether consciously expressed or unexpressed, consumerism is a materialistic philosophy predicated on unlimited growth, and that translates to happiness being found in more — more things, more gadgets and more markets. There is nothing sacred or spiritual about this.

  • Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

    While Crunchy Cons affirm free enterprise, they are unwilling to do so at the expense of regional economies, small businesses and family farms — all of which have been devastated by the "free global market." Dreher says small, local, old and particular are to be preferred over big, global, new, and abstract. One way to counter the trends of globalism is to see more cottage industries flourish.

  • Obama to create Office of Urban Policy (link).

    and here is a link to Obama's official urban policy:


    • Build More Livable and Sustainable Communities: Our communities will better serve all of their residents if we are able to leave our cars, to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives. As president, Barack Obama will re-evaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account.
    • Control Superfund Sites and Data: As president, Obama will restore the strength of the Superfund program by requiring polluters to pay for the cleanup of contaminated sites they created.
    • Use Innovative Measures to Dramatically Improve Efficiency of Buildings: Buildings account for nearly 40 percent of carbon emissions in the United States today and carbon emissions from buildings are expected to grow faster than emissions from other major parts of our economy. It is expected that 15 million new buildings will be constructed between today and 2015. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will work with cities so that we make our new and existing buildings more efficient consumers of electricity.
    • Foster Healthy Communities: How a community is designed – including the layout of its roads, buildings and parks – has a huge impact on the health of its residents. For instance, nearly one-third of Americans live in neighborhoods without sidewalks and less than half of our country's children have a playground within walking distance of their homes. Barack Obama introduced the Healthy Places Act to help local governments assess the health impact of new policies and projects, like highways or shopping centers.
    Just, please (to whomever is appointed) read my lips, "no new highways." In fact, let's spend the transportation improvement dollars on converting inner city highways to urban boulevards, or else we're undermining everything in the Livability section.

    Friday, November 7, 2008

    Towards (or away from) a Natural Order?

    What's that look like? Perhaps I spend too much time staring at cities in google earth delving into a trance-like state and a world of mental abstractia...

    Medieval core of Bologna

    Medieval Core of Valencia

    What do these have in common with the leaf? They were developed by forced intelligence. A leaf has no room to spare for luxury. These cities were designed and built during times of scarcity. All decisions were dictated by necessity and efficiency: climate, terrain, practicality of non-intensive energy use, locational and spatial efficiency, trade feasibility (along veins, betwixt and between the cellulosic structured urban foliage) and commercial rationality.

    Xylem up, and Phloem down. Amazing the pnemonic devices one remembers from 9th grade biology.

    This will be the century where Biology will inform all disciplines for the better.

    Pretty Please with Oil and Anti-freeze on top...

    So the big 3 car companies posted 3Q losses in the billions today.

    ...and what is the next logical step?

    Of course, ASK FOR A BAILOUT!!! Auto-makers Top Brass Plead to Congress.

    What will that do? Okay, so let's say they get the money. They'll keep workers in Detroit or wherever in jobs for another year, keep making things that people won't buy, until they post more losses and then ask for another bailout.

    Somebody explain to me how this is free-market economics? Actually, I know the answer, this is the end result of crony capitalism and backroom deals bred by Reaganomics. The problem is corporations and their lobbyists have become so influential, the collusion has replaced competition and, in turn, innovation is lost.

    If I'm Pres-Elect Obama, I would say, "okay, want me to buy those useless cars from you? Nah, I got no more room in the garage. The kids' bikes are in the spot next to the Ford Escape Hybrid. I'll buy some trains from you. I've got a need (aka demand) for some high speed trains. I'm sure the Governator will need some as well since Prop 1a passed. Are you gonna overhaul your plants, keep people in jobs, STAY RELEVANT in the 21st century economy by building commuter trains, high speed trains, modern street cars, so we don't have to buy them from Japanese, French, German, and Swedish companies? I can give you a low-interest loan for that."


    In news related to emerging markets in a world of scarcity and enlightened lifestyle choices, St. Billie Motorcycle Company is opening in the ground floor of my building and having a grand opening on Monday from 6 pm to 10 pm with complementary drinks and a $5 raffle for a $1500 scooter. I haven't yet found any info on the web for this company, but thought it worthwhile to mention here.

    Free Beer Friday : Guess the City

    Welcome to the land of the best beer in the world. Just looking at these pictures makes me want to kick back at an outdoor cafe, clear out the flem, I mean phlegm, and sip on a Trappiste.

    Image for the Day

    Everybody knows Ronald Reagan's first act of office was removing the solar panels from the roof of the White House, right? RIGHT?

    Thursday, November 6, 2008

    My Broker Said Housing Only Goes UP!!

    Hitler on the Housing Market:

    Odd Calm, Until...

    Election Day and Night, I was oddly calm before and after the results came in. Perhaps, because I was expecting it all along. It does feel good when your country proves capable of doing the right thing.

    But this moved me more than anything:

    As for cabinet positions, I would be ecstatic for Blumenauer as Secretary of Transportation, RFK Jr. to head the EPA, and Colin Powell as Secretary of Education. I also wouldn't mind one bit if Hagel finds a spot or Gates is retained.

    I can't tell you how warm the heart gets to know we'll be getting people in positions that want to improve the welfare of their responsibilities rather than sellout to corporate interests or hardline ideological fanatics.

    As for the election results? This map from the NYT via Kos pretty much sums it up showing states that went either more blue or more red than 2004. How are race relations in KY, TN, AR, OK, and LA anyway??? On a positive note, check out IN...

    The black circle indicates Dallas County going from 50-50 in '04 to 57-41 in '08.

    Morning Articles

    Leinberger on Atlanta's devolution and (r)evolution:
    The city of Atlanta had been losing population since 1960 in spite of rapid metropolitan growth. That changed in the 1990s and has phenomenally accelerated this decade. The city is now among the top 10 fastest-growing cities in the country.
    Quantitative growth vs. Qualitative.
    There will be losers. Certain fringe, drivable-only suburbs will find themselves too far out and unaffordable to drive there and back for every trip from the house. The emerging demographic trends show that the vast majority of households created over the next 20 years will be singles and couples. Most of these households will eschew the Ozzie and Harriett houses on the fringe, preferring the many options offered that are walkable or a close transit ride away from home. The end of the “drive until you qualify” housing will mean Atlanta needs a conscious strategy to provide work force and affordable housing.
    NYT: David Brooks on the next generation of leaders:

    In the next few years, the nation’s wealth will either stagnate or shrink. The fiscal squeeze will grow severe. There will be fiercer struggles over scarce resources, starker divisions along factional lines. The challenge for the next president will be to cushion the pain of the current recession while at the same time trying to build a solid fiscal foundation so the country can thrive at some point in the future.

    We’re probably entering a period, in other words, in which smart young liberals meet a stone-cold scarcity that they do not seem to recognize or have a plan for.

    In an age of transition, the children are left to grapple with the burdens of their elders.
    I have a problem with Baby Boomers projecting their own ideals onto other generations. He's basically calling Millenials ill-prepared spoiled brats. While, yes, that can be said about them in childhood, Millenials are showing quite the propensity for adaptation into more flexible living habits: eschewing the boring suburbia for the energetic city, buying vespas rather than hummers because they are both more fun and affordable, giving up monocultures to live with a roommate out of necessity that may be different from them (a forced acceptance - we're too poor to be intolerant if you will).

    This is a generation emerging into adulthood/the workforce buried in student loans and preditory credit lending. We seem to forget that tuition and student loans spiked similarly to the housing bubble but noone seems to pay any mind. Oh well, force the burden on the younger generations and we'll just muddle through it and come out the other side.

    Think about how many students we could have sent through college for $750 billion, better preparing the new work force for future green-tech jobs. Or, paying off their (my!) student loans, so the younger generation can actually keep their heads above water, build a future. But, I'm not asking for a bailout.

    I'll just go ahead and speak for the generation and say, "we don't need your stinking bailouts," because we are going to reshape the world for the better and it started on Nov. 4th with all those twenty- and thirty-somethings in Obama's war room and out knocking on doors in neighborhoods boomers wouldn't be caught dead.

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008

    "Nation Finally Shitty Enough..."

    to Make Social Progress"...according to the onion.
    Citizens with eyes, ears, and the ability to wake up and realize what truly matters in the end are also believed to have played a crucial role in Tuesday's election.

    Tuesday, November 4, 2008

    Not Feeling Especially Verbose Today

    ...but have you ever read something and felt like you were reading yourself?

    Excellent article with a number of turns of phrases that I might have come up with, or in some cases have stated before (i.e. "nation of paper pushers), perhaps because the author arrived at all of the same conclusions.

    I'm telling you, a great convergence is occurring post-boomer-mortem:

    Baby Boomers, the Shallowest Generation.
    Past U.S. generations invented the airplane; invented the automobile; discovered penicillin; and built the Interstate highway system. The Baby Boom generation has invented credit default swaps; mortgage backed securities; the fast food drive thru window; discovered the cure for erectile dysfunction; and built bridges to nowhere. No wonder we’re in so much trouble.

    What Goes Around...

    From the New Yorker, FDR to his son James on election night 1932:
    “I’m just afraid that I may not have the strength to do this job.” He paused reflectively. “After you leave me tonight, Jimmy, I am going to pray. I am going to pray that God will help me, that he will give me the strength and the guidance to do this job and to do it right. I hope that you will pray for me, too, Jimmy.”

    Ahhhhh...What a Morning...

    It's beautiful out. Due to the time change, I was wide awake at 6:30 am; early enough to take the pooch for a nice long walk over rivers of homeless urine and through rapidly filling seas of macadam. I decided to take her all the way down to the West End to take a gander at the voting lines forming before the polls even open. It's a day of optimism and hope...

    ...on the flip side:

    Kunstler's monday warning:
    Apart from that, McCain has run the flat-out most scurrilous campaign I've ever seen, despite his reputation as a war hero and a sterling fellow among the senators. He's run a campaign of malicious innuendo and slander, seemingly aimed at voters who would have trouble qualifying for the Special Olympics.
    ...the Republican Party needs to crawl off to a dark hole somewhere and either pupate into something better or die -- as the Whigs did in 1856. The Republican Party is not through wrecking America. They have three more months to destroy the US dollar and the economy that runs on it. And with Mr. Paulson shoving out pallet-loads of bundled dollars to the likes of JP Morgan, so they can continue doing the very thing that provoked this financial fiasco -- lending money recklessly to anyone with a pulse -- they might just "get her done!"
    OpEd in the Guardian on the Remembrance of W.
    And I would be remiss to forgo some of the comments below the article:
    • He'll be remembered, it's true. We need these yard-sticks to remind us... never again. The US is not a regressive right-wing, fearful and divided nation as Bush and his apologists would like it to be. It is nice to watch what appears to be a hopeful reboot.

      I have to laugh when people suggest he'll be vindicated by history. He'll be remembered as a blot. An embarrassing stain.

    • Always good when the forces of democracy, rid the world of vile dictator

    • In 2000 Bush had to abandon the customary Inaguration walk to the Whitehouse because his limousine was being pelted with eggs by outraged citizens.

    • I think seeing him off in that same style would be a highly appropriate send-off

    [addendum - I had to get this article in there]

    Comparing and Contrasting the Internet Bubble with the Housing Bubble: 'Greed is Good' Mantra Needs an Amendment from MarketWatch.
    The Internet bubble was a case study in how capitalism should work. Investors frenzied around an unprecedented technology. Some won big, some lost big, but by and large, they knew the risks.

    And when the dust cleared, society as a whole received a huge benefit. The rapid build out of a world-changing technology.

    By comparison, the housing bubble has been the exact opposite. A home isn't innovative to begin with, and a select few profited wildly by shifting the risk.

    Even more importantly, when the dust cleared, society as a whole had been torched. More homes have been built than needed, many in the desert.
    Truer words have never been written on this subject.

    And lastly, I leave you with this gem from the Simpsons:

    Monday, November 3, 2008

    Monday Morning Reading

    Obama cites Michael Pollan's prescient article on food energy in the NYT, which I linked here.

    Real Estate Agents: Still Filthy...and indicted, vegas-style.

    and let me throw another one in here, Friedman in the NYT this weekend: Vote for the Future:

    We are all going to have to pay, because this meltdown comes in the context of what has been “perhaps the greatest wealth transfer since the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917,” says Michael Mandelbaum, author of “Democracy’s Good Name.” “It is not a wealth transfer from rich to poor that the Bush administration will be remembered for. It is a wealth transfer from the future to the present.”

    Never has one generation spent so much of its children’s wealth in such a short period of time with so little to show for it as in the Bush years. Under George W. Bush, America has foisted onto future generations a huge financial burden to finance our current tax cuts, wars and now bailouts. Just paying off those debts will require significant sacrifices. But when you add the destruction of wealth that has taken place in the last two months in the markets, and the need for more bailouts, you understand why this is not going to be a painless recovery.

    The Bush team leaves us with another debt — one to Mother Nature. We have added tons more CO2 into the atmosphere these last eight years, without any mitigation effort. As a result, slowing down climate change in the next eight years is going to require even bigger changes and investments in how we use energy.