Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Greening the Urban Jungle

The future was 42 years ago

Michelle Obama is getting a vegetable garden going in what was once part of the White House lawn. Good for her. I hope her example has a profound effect on the 49 other states and the District of Columbia.

In Oregon, of course, we don’t need that encouragement. To be a true Oregonian, you have to get your fingernails dirty. You have to dig in the dirt , starting right about now (See Ketzel Levine over in the left column). Sure you can wear work gloves, but it’s just not the same. Wearing work gloves for gardening is like using an umbrella when it rains. It’s for wusses—aka, transplants.

I usually wait until the middle of May to plant my veggie garden, because we all know the sun won’t shine and make crops grow until probably July. I do get the flowers going and plant some seeds in pots and mess around with the compost. Last year, I dug up all the lawn in the front yard and converted it to vegetable garden, though I left the strip between the sidewalk and the street. This year, that's going, too. My back yard is really small and too shaded by neighboring trees, but it provides plenty of ranging room for my hens.

At least I have a yard. A lot of people don't. I suppose the folks who purchased condos in the Pearl made a conscious choice to live without a yard (and thus, without yard work). Thousands of others, however, live in apartment complexes where the only things growing are the ficus trees in the lobby and the intermittent shrubs amidst yards of barkdust on the berm between the parking lot and the street.

Portland's propensity for density has left some parts of the city barren of arable land. This became a sore subject over at BlueOregon a while back, with the usual anti-planning stalwarts citing the lack of garden space as another reason why there should be no urban growth boundary, so that vast suburban tracts of single family homes can spring up across the countryside and let a million gardens bloom. Some people just hate the idea of real cities and they will use any straw man argument that comes along to dispute the notion of growing a city up rather than out, never mind that growing out means replacing honest agriculture on our best soils with faux agriculture, aka well-manicured lawns.

Hate to say it, but they do have a point. With today's urban design, it's awfully hard to grow your own tomatoes in a high rise apartment complex. Some apartment dwellers are lucky enough to have space in a community garden, and they are going to cling to those little plots like a New Yorker with a rent-controlled tenement.

So let's redesign the way apartments are built. A number of small measure can be implemented and some already have. For example, the city has financial incentives for developers to install “eco-roofs” on their buildings. The primary reason for this is to reduce rain runoff and thus not overload the sewer system, but these green roofs could also support high rise tenant or community gardens. Unfortunately, most of them look as if someone threw a few bags of wildflower seeds around and walked away.

I'm not sure the city should mandate greener green roofs, but the incentives ought to go further and encourage the growing of food. The city also should mandate proper balconies on all new apartment buildings, and not those fenced in ledges like you see on the Belmont Dairy.

Useless landscaping and excessive parking can also be transformed into garden space. Recently, a very ordinary suburban-style apartment complex was turned into an “ecovillage” by Ole and Maitri Ersson The Kailash Ecovillage boasts a huge garden space in what formerly was part of the parking lot, Formerly the low-rent, often troubled Cabana apartments, the Kailash is now appreciated by its tenants and neighbors.

But even the Kailash is small potatoes compared to what could be designed from the ground up. For one thing, people with families usually prefer to live in their own houses and have their own yards. And yet, single family homes are at a premium in most parts of Portland, even in this down economy. It's a little easier to find an affordable house now than a year ago, but not necessarily in the vicinity of a good elementary school or easy access to mass transportation.

Creating houses with yards, however, will take up too much of our precious space, won't it? Maybe not. The answer may come from a 42-year-old development in Montreal, known as Habitat 67.

Picture McCormick Pier on steroids. It's a condo development with the difference that one person's roof is another person's back yard, and so on. Designed for the Montreal Expo in 1967 by the architect Moshe Safdie, Habitat aspires to be a hill town built on a flat surface.

"Safdie's dwelling complex 'Habitat' was designed to give 'privacy, fresh air, sunlight and suburban amenities in an urban location.' It was designed as a permanent settlement and consists of 158 dwellings, although originally it was intended to provide 1,000 units. The resulting ziggurat was made up of independent prefabricated boxes with fifteen different plan types."

  • Dennis Sharp. Twentieth Century Architecture: a Visual History.

Not all of the units in Habitat have gardens, though many do and some actually have trees growing on those roof/balconies. I don't know if anyone planted a lawn but there definitely are vegetable gardens there.

Safdie envisioned Habitat as a way of building low cost housing for families. Ironically, the uniqueness of this concept has made the units highly desirable and they now are among the highest priced real estate in Montreal. Neither he nor anyone else has built anything like it since. A big reason why Habitat never reached the 900 units that were originally planned is that it cost far more to build this structure than he thought.

Yet now, with land prices being a major cost of development, one would think someone would try to improve on Safdie's design. Certainly, there must have been improvements in building materials that would lower costs, and the way the thing is so strangely configured could be loosened up a bit by departing from the cube-only scheme. For my money, the places could be built so that there's more yard in one place, perhaps by stacking just enough of each unit on the top of the other and supporting the rest of it in another manner.

So anyway, what's the deal? Does anyone have an answer as to why this concept has never been tried again?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Won't you help?

Don't let the AIG bigshots fail

I know the recession is pinching every pocketbook, but please take time to consider the plight of the poor, besieged AIG executive. Not only are these lost souls being maligned in ever corner of America, from the halls of Congress to the local barbershop, but it appears they are going to lose their hard-earned bonuses. Either they will have to give them back, or else their bonus booty will be taxed right out of their Cayman Island bank accounts. Even Oregon is getting in on the action.

How would you feel if you were the target of an entire nation's wrath over our economic meltdown? Pretty depressed, I'd bet. These execs were, after all, just doing their job. In fact, they did their job too well. If they hadn't put in all those 80-hour weeks swapping credit defaults and diddling with derivatives, if they had slacked for the past several years, they might not have found themselves in the middle of this mess.

And so what is their reward for all this hard work and making money out of thin air? They stand to lose their bonuses—er, retention pay. What is going to motivate them? What will make them want to stay on the job? That is other than the fact that probably no one else will ever want to hire them?

They stand to lose their second or third house, or at least that nice condo in St. Lucia. They may have to sell off their Bugatti Veyron and downsize to a totally inadequate BMW Z8. And after cultivating a taste for well-aged scotch, can you expect them to live on Dewar's?

Won't you help? Won't you please help?

For a donation of just $100,000—that's a mere 20 cents per minute—you can keep one broker in Talisker 30-year single malt scotch for one year. (Assuming a fifth a day is enough.)

Please act today to end their pain and humiliation. Send your blank check or credit card (yes, the card itself) to:

Too Big To Fail Foundation

P.O. Box 31337

Georgetown, Grand Cayman Island

KY1 -1209

Your donation is not tax deductible. But then, unlike the poor AIG wretch, you probably won't make enough money this year to need to pay taxes.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Feeling S.A.D.?

The Oregon Blue Sky Law

I did a fat lot of nothing today. The sun was shining bright, so I took the day off, as is my right under the Oregon blue sky law.

Most states have blue sky laws that regulate the sale of securities to protect the public from fraud. The term comes from the earliest efforts to pass such a law, in Kansas of all places:

The name that is given to the law indicates the evil at which it is aimed, that is, to use the language of a cited case, "speculative schemes which have no more basis than so many feet of 'blue sky'"; or, as stated by counsel in another case, "to stop the sale of stock in fly-by-night concerns, visionary oil wells, distant gold mines and other like fraudulent exploitations."

As you can see from the likes of Bernie Madoff and others, these laws have loopholes big enough to let a python slither through unscathed.

The Oregon blue sky law addresses a more serious subject, however—Seasonal Affective Disorder. It states: “On any day between the first day of November and the last day of April in the following year, when the sky is entirely blue over a community in Oregon, employees in that community may cease their work with impunity.” Meaning, the sun is out, go out and play.

Exceptions are made for those who work in public safety and emergency services, those who work outdoors anyway, and political pundits and bloggers, who could become severely disoriented if they ever saw the light of day.

Tomorrow is supposed to be another sunny, beautiful day (followed by more rain the next few days), so make sure you take off work for at least awhile and get outside. Don’t worry, the law is on your side. You could look it up.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Buses AND Beer

One more for the road

The other night an empty bar stool was a precious commodity at a favorite neighborhood tavern. This is a friendly little joint owned by some people who escaped to Portland several years ago from Cleveland. It's said that taverns are one business that does well in a recession. If that's true, we're in one hell of a recession, because this tavern was hopping, and it wasn't a weekend.

Shortly after I finally claimed a stool at the bar, I saw a TriMet bus rumble down the street in front of the tavern. The man to my right saluted it with his beer mug and said, “Say farewell to the old Number 41.”

Actually, I didn't say anything, but he went on to explain that this particular bus line is headed for extinction due to TriMet's budget shortfall. The transit agency has to cut expenses by 5% and is doing that by totally axing some lines and reducing service on others, even as ridership has increased on many lines. Overall, riders only pay for 20% of TriMet's operating costs. Most of the remainder comes from payroll taxes and when unemployment increases, payrolls plummet. Of course, the general consensus of the sages gathered around their beers was that TriMet is totally incompetent.

That may be true, but it's possibly no more incompetent than any other large bureaucracy. And like most bureaucracies, TriMet's larger problem is that it's unimaginative.

Or maybe its managers don't get out to bars very often, because sitting there in that pub, I came up with a solution to TriMet's budget crisis in less time than it takes to quaff three beers. And this is it:

Buses with beer.

People don’t like riding the bus and only do it as a last resort. Oh, there’s usually one person on every bus who is having a thoroughly good time. That person sits right across from the bus driver and talks incessantly. Many of the rest of the passengers either do not own a functioning automobile or are not allowed to drive one. And at certain hours, commuters crowd the buses--unperky commuters who do not have the perk of their own parking space at work.

Buses are not only slow and inconvenient, but boring. There needs to be something to do other than twitch to the sounds of your I-Pod or stare blankly at the pages of a Steven King novel. Though often crowded, buses are not social places--except for the gaggle of women who sit in the back discussing the relative merits of their lovers’ prison sentences. Because buses are seen only as conveyances, they are nothing more than horizontal elevators.

Now envision what they could be. First, take out all the bench seats and put in those swivel chairs like you find in RVs. And between them put in little cocktail tables. Put a mini bar at one end, like the ones on Amtrak club cars. Serve coffee and scones in the morning, beer and wine for the commute home. The after work drink is a common ritual among may high-stress occupations--think about how much safer it will be if these commuters did their drinking on the bus home rather than before they get into their cars.

There could be market segmentation as well. Instead of mass transit, it will be class transit. On buses going to Lake Oswego, Dunthorpe or East Moreland, one might be able to order an aged malt scotch. Those running up Mississippi or down Belmont might serve absinthe and PBR. The rigs headed to the working class areas of the east side could have sawdust on the floor and a pool table in the back. You could have sports bar buses, piano bar buses, maybe even leather bar buses.

Obviously, a lot of people wouldn’t want to board a perambulatory pub, or wouldn’t be old enough. But the possibilities are endless. There could be rolling boutiques, motorized music stores, double decker discos bringing back the bump and hustle. A lot of people like to work out either before or after work, so line up sets of rowing machines and stair steppers on a bus and tie them into the drive drain, reducing fuel costs

All these buses, of course, would have Wifi.

The best thing about this idea is that rather than increasing fares every year, TriMet could actually reduce fares. Maybe even make the whole system fareless so long as one purchased a beverage upon boarding.

Jeez, Tri-Met could actually make money. Wouldn't that be a novel idea?