Sunday, October 9, 2011

I thought this was a pretty cool ad. I realize that this is trying to sell a product, so it has to be taken in that light, but I still appreciated the positive representation of people helping themselves and bettering their lives. So often, it seems like any time you hear about Africa, it is only about the needs and problems and how you as a rich outsider should fix it. This ad seemed to has a much more respectful attitude to the poor. Also, the positive representation of bikes as serious transport doesn't hurt anything either.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Suburbs Pt. 2

This is a follow up to my previous post. This talk by James Kunstler says much of what I was trying to say, only much better and with more character. It has a slightly different focus as well. He talks primarily about public space and community.

The Suburbs? No!

This post is a response to a post by Joel Crevier over at Reflect andWonder. In it, he laments the suburbs.
I struggle to understand why people would want to move into a neighborhood where almost all of the houses are cut from the same sort of architectural plan, and every house looks eerily similar (though I am assured by the residents in these houses that their house is somehow unique and different from the others). Regardless, the lack of variation and creativity that is found in your typical cookie cutter suburb makes me gag.

I empathize with his feelings, especially after living in a sub-division just like that during middle and high school. There are many reasons why sub-divisions are less than ideal, to put it mildly, two of the most important of which Joel hits. After mentioning buildings being relatively far apart, and a confusing, winding street network, he points out,

Instead of an atmosphere that cultivates normal communal relationships, the suburbs encourages people to live in isolation from each other without giving them the jarring feeling that they are completely alone and secluded. This is the reason that these neighborhoods are alluring to people.

This is the problem with sub-divisions, they are a hybrid between country and city that tries to give people the best of both, but they fail and are able to neither deliver the privacy and quiet that makes the country appealing, or the dynamism and community that are the strength of cities. They fail because they try to combine two mutually exclusive things, the country and the city.

Since living in the country is not feasible unless we want to go back to an agrarian society of predominantly farmers, the question seems to how can we improve the suburbs to make them more like the best of the city while trying to improve on the weaknesses.

One key to the city is the network of roads. Most modern cities are laid out on a grid, which makes it easy to orient yourself and navigate. It also creates lots of intersections where you can choose where to go and gives you a more direct route from any point to any point than cul-de-sacs and winding streets can. A fine-grained street network does not necessarily have to be a grid. Medieval towns that grew up naturally provide great examples of this. In a sub-division that is full of cul-de-sacs, you don't have many options if you want to go anywhere. Generally there will only be one or two ways out.

Another major difference between a sub-division and a city neighborhood is that there will be a mixture of uses in a city, while a sub-division will only have one. In the suburbs, there will be residential areas with only houses, malls, where all the commercial buildings are, and maybe office or industrial parks. There are schools and churches too. These different areas will be separated. There won't be a store in the middle a bunch of houses and there won't be houses in malls. This is completely different from in a city, where there will be retail stores on the ground floor of most buildings, with offices or residential units, or hotels or whatever really on the floors above. This makes a difference in what brings people onto a street, and how far they have to go for things. In the suburbs, only shoppers and people who work at the stores go to the malls. Only people who live on a street would need to go to that street, especially when it is a cul-de-sac that doesn't go anywhere. Only people who work at an office park would go there. In contrast, on a city street, business men will be walking to lunch or a meeting, people will be out shopping or running errands, the people who live on the street will be going back and forth. This makes the street much more vibrant and interesting. One of the keys to why this is is that things are much closer, so people don't have to get in their cars and drive to wherever they are going. Because people aren't ensconced in a thousand pounds of steel, it is easier to meet and interact with your neighbors in the course of daily life. Most cities don't meet up to the ideal, but it does give some indications on how to improve the suburbs.

Most people don't want to live on really busy streets, but there is no reason that a street with mixed uses can't be quiet, treelined, with buildings that are one or two storeys. Cross streets could have single family homes or townhouses, and there could be small parks where children could play. Mixed-use does not have to be busy or very dense to improve on the current paradigm that governs suburban building. Aesthetic homogeneity would be combated by building that have different uses and needs, so must look different. Also, the constant changes needed to keep all the different uses in balance would continuously diversify the look of the neighborhood. As stores grew or went out of business, more people moved in and larger buildings were built, the neighborhood would evolve naturally.

A neighborhood like I have described is not a cure-all but it can and does exist. Northwest Portland, Queen Ann in Seattle, and the area around Denver University are examples. Personally, I would not want to live in a neighborhood just like this. I prefer more dense, busy, urban areas.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Victoria, Old Women, and Traffic Calming

I visited Victoria, B.C. today. I have visited a few times before, but it's an interesting city that keeps getting more interesting each time I visit. There were two things that I noticed that really surprised me about the city that I hadn't noticed before. One was the large percentage (maybe even half) of the cyclists were in Lycra. There was even a guy in Lycra shorts and a dress shirt. There were definitely some citizen cyclists out there,but vehicular cycling seemed to be much more predominant than in Grand Rapids. Victoria has the highest mode share for bikes in Canada, 4.8% in 2003, while Grand Rapids has a mode share of only 2.1%. In Grand Rapids, most cyclists that I see seem to be more along the lines of citizen cyclists than vehicular. Maybe this is because Victoria is more affluent, so there are more cyclists who do so out of choice rather than necessity? I don't know.

The other thing that I noticed that really struck me was that while riding the bus, it seemed that there was a disproportionate number of middle aged or older women. If mother and Grandmothers are any indication, that population group has a very low tolerance for uncertainty and the impression of danger. BC Transit must be doing something right if they convey safety and reliability that well. I was also impressed by how high ridership levels were.

To close, I also saw my favorite example of traffic calming I have ever come across. It was a residential road with cement planters stuck in the middle of the travel lane; staggered so that cars had to move through single file.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


 A theme, if you will, that I have been thinking and reading about recently has been an emphasis on specificity and narrative, rather than abstraction and data, or rules. This train of thought actually started in the Christian theology class I took this spring, which really emphasized the interpreting the bible in light of the whole narrative arc, rather than by using “proof texts” to make specific points. A key component of this is understanding context.

I am always excited when I find that the intellectual journey that I seem to be on is mirrored by others, so I was happy to find that Patrol has a wonderful, insightful piece by Jonathan Fitzgerald on The Beautifully Ambiguous Bible. In it, he talks about how he wanted to get past all the stories in the Bible so he could find the rules. He talks of how he has grown past that and appreciates the stories and the ambiguity that comes with narrative. When we realize that the vast majority of the Bible is composed of stories, and not lists, or rules, or formulas, it may not change how we believe we ought to act, but the focus of our lives shifts. Tony Woodlief, in a piece from Image Magazine, tries to explain why Christian writing is so bad, says,
“I think we might craft better characters if we accept that every one of us is journeying the path between heaven and hell, and losing his way, and rushing headlong one direction before abruptly changing course to dash in the other, and hearing rumors about what lies ahead, and hoping and dreading in his heart what lies each way, and grabbing hold of someone by the arm or by the hair and dragging, sometimes from love and sometimes from hate and sometimes from both.”
Rather than a strict dichotomy that comes from rules, we can accept the varied richness of experience. The neat tidiness of most modern Christian fiction that is judged “by criteria like message and wholesomeness and theological purity” does not reflect either the working of God in creation or ambiguous nature of the stories in the Bible. Woodlief again astutely points out that “wholesome” art is not not what it claims to be, “because insofar as art is stripped of the world’s sin and suffering it is not really whole at all.”

The books and movies, or paintings for that matter, that have had the most impact on me have always been messy. Even something like The Lord of the Rings, which has very clear distinctions between good and evil, is not cut and dried. Characters struggle with themselves, and even when good has one out, there are still consequences of evil that are not completely rapped up.

I don't really have a point I am trying to make, I suppose this is just something I have been thinking about and felt the need to express it. If you have any thought on the subject, feel free to comment.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Negative Health Effects of Mandatory Helmet Laws

I did a research paper for a class on helmet laws. It is aimed at non-cyclists, and only looks at the public health issues surrounding the laws.

It seems to be common knowledge that wearing a helmet while biking is the smart, safe, necessary thing to do. Helmets are credited with reducing head injuries from cycling by 85 percent in the most optimistic study (Thompson, et al. 1471). With expected benefits of widespread helmet adoption so high, it is understandable that governments would be interested in legislation that makes helmets mandatory for bicyclists. But, despite the common assumption, mandatory helmet laws are not as effective or beneficial as they seem at first glance. Mandatory helmet laws should not be enacted because they are not the most effective way to reduce cycling deaths; additionally, they fail to differentiate between transport and sport cycling and therefore result in an undue burden on cyclists.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Public Spaces and the Good Life

Last Sunday I took a break from procrastinating on homework to go for a ride with some friends. Our plan was to go downtown, then ride along the river on the walk/bike path, but the river was swollen so the path was underwater. We decided to head to Rosa Park's Circle, which is the closest thing Grand Rapids has to a central square. The weather was perfect, so there were lots of people out biking and walking; actually, we almost couldn't find enough bike parking, which was a quite a change from normal. While I kept reminding myself of A View From the Cyclepath's warning to “Beware the cyclists of Spring,” and not take the increase in riding that comes with good weather as a sign of a permanent increase in mode share, the vibrancy of all these people being out and about in the city was amazing.

At Rosa Park's Circle, there were people just siting and enjoying the sun. one guy looked like he had fallen asleep while tanning: no shirt, no shoes, his head resting on his backpack. A few Rasta' looking people were playing reggae music out of a Marshal guitar amp. We locked up our bikes and pulled out a frisbee. The circle is right in front of the art museum, so there were nicely dressed people walking through who looked like they were going to an event in the museum. Families out for the day came through by foot and bike.

While we were playing frisbee, I couldn't help but think that this was the promise of public spaces. We had all come for different reasons, to do different things, but we were able to share this space and enrich it for each other by being there and being different. I don't usually listen to reggae, but it was the perfect mood setter for the day, and it without them it wouldn't have have as pleasant.

The broad theme of this blog is the good life, and my growth in what I understand that to consist of and how I can live it out. In light of that theme, my experience that day led me to think of the integral importance of public spaces to being able to live out a communal good life.

When I think of the places in which I feel most alive, it is almost invariably some form of public space. National parks, city parks, piazzas and pedestrian streets. The most overarching characteristic I can find is that there is usually a broad range of people doing a broad range of things. The exceptions to this are usually places that emphasize solitude and natural beauty.

The implications for me, as someone who is studying architecture and city planning, is that public spaces are the largest factor in the livability of a city. Obviously one can live a good life in a place with no public spaces, but from a communal standpoint, they are essential.

What are your thoughts? Have you had the same experiences with public spaces?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Thoughts On Bin Laden's Death

After seeing the varied reactions and ensuing discussions following Osama Bin Laden's death, I have some thoughts. When I heard the news, I was excited, if not ecstatic. Those who were mature enough to respond with sadness at the death of another human were right do so and I hope that I can mature enough to not rejoice over the death of my enemies. I believe that part of my reaction that was a manifestation of my sin nature, but I do think there is justifiable reason to be happy that he is dead.

Bin Laden has caused much misery in the world, and if he had been captured alive, should have been tried and put to death. I think that would have been much better than him dying in a firefight, both from a strategic perspective and in light of due process of law. Despite the less than ideal methods, I believe that he was justly deserving of death, and that the U.S. had the right as a legitimate government to punish him. I can't condemn the satisfaction or even happiness of those who set out to pursue justice, and after ten years have finally accomplished their goal.

I think, though, that any celebration must be tempered with the knowledge that he is a human being made in the image of God, who is now suffering the results of his damnation. We are no better than he is and fully deserve the same fate. He was a person like the rest of us, though what he did was undeniably evil. We should pray for his family who have lost a father, and for the families of those who were killed or injured in the firefight.

Though this was a victory for the U.S. and the west, we should not forget that there will probably be reprisals for Bin Laden's killing, and they will most likely be against those who had nothing to do with it, whether it is Christians or Americans in Pakistan, or anyone associated with the west anywhere in the world where there are those who are loyal to Bin Laden's cause and are willing to use violence.

Derek Webb said it best on Twitter; "don't celebrate death, celebrate justice."

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Design & Walkability

Design is a large part of what makes life enjoyable for me. In this talk by Rob Forbes, he lays out examples of design that he sees in everyday public spaces. He notes that the cities that he goes to to find good high design are usually cities with strong pedestrian or biking cultures. He doesn't make any causal claims, and notes that those cities usually also have universities, which could explain the correlation. It is still interesting to note that the cities known for fashion, design, and architecture are are walkable and urban.

My thoughts on why this is are twofold. First, when you are not in a car, you are visible to others, but you are hidden if you are in a car. It does not matter what you look like, only what your car looks like. This can explain why pedestrians are often more fashionably dressed than drivers, despite the fact that there are less functional requirements than when you are sitting. Additionally, since everyone is driving along at high speeds, what buildings and streets look like is not really important because you will be by it in a few seconds. In contrast, when you are walking, biking, skateboarding, or scootering, you are acutely aware of the built environment because you are not ensconced in your own bubble.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

More Proof That Sitting is Bad for You - As if You Needed It

The New York Times has an article on new results of studies on weight gain, and unsurprisingly it says that the more sedentary you are, the more weight you will gain. The new development is that the study showed that exercising did not offset the effects of sitting for the greater part of the day. It says, "Being sedentary for nine hours a day at the office is bad for your health whether you go home and watch television afterward or hit the gym."

I think this brings up some interesting questions about the health benefits of utility cycling. If the only change in lifestyle is that you pedal to get to work and back, there might not be large health effects, though if you are riding long distances I am sure it would add up. I think this shows why biking can't be presented as a cure all. I think that most people who start to bike become much more physically active in other areas of their life, so there is a shift to a healthier lifestyle, but there is a danger of over emphasizing the benefits which will lead to unrealistic expectations and disillusionment.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Portlandize recently wrote about his experiences crashing, and how he was surprised by how minor of an event it was. My experiences have been similar. All but one of the times that I have fallen while riding have been mountain biking, and it never really disrupted my ride. The one time I fell on the road I sprained my wrist, but that has been the extent of my biking injuries. I think that Dave has a good point that often we think of crashing as being a traumatic experience, with broken collarbones and hospital stays, but that is not usually the case.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reclaimed Architecture

A provocative talk on the presupositions of the modern building industry, architects included. I had never heard anyone quote Nietchze, Sartre, or Plato while talking about architecture before.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Link Round-Up

I am on spring break in Seattle, and thoughts will be forthcoming, so in lieu of a real post, here are some interesting links to things I have been meaning to write on:

LA Weekly article on Stephen Box, a bike advocate who is running for the LA city council.

A proposal for a simplified urbanist zoning code.

A New York Times piece on NIMBYism in supposedly progressive places to development like bike lanes and BRT.

Finally, a look at the true financial costs of sprawl by new urbanist architect Steve Mouzon.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Madmen Supports Highspeed Rail

Meanwhile, Ohio's Governor is trying to redirect funding from a Cincinnati street car that is projected to spur $1.5 billion in new investment in the downtown. You can read about it on Streetsblog here.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

An Open Letter to Metro Detroit

Being new to Michigan, I am not in any way an expert on the state. I have only been to Detroit once. When I did go, I was impressed by how nice so many of the buildings would have been if they were not neglected or abandoned. I was expecting falling down, rotting buildings and trailer parks, but I could have seen myself happily living most of the townhouses or apartment buildings that we passed if they had not looked like they were in a ghost town.

That is all to give context to a letter written by Andrew Basil, a lawyer with a firm that has offices in Troy and Ann Arbor. Several things he said really struck a chord with my experiences since moving to Michigan. In particular, he says,
There’s a simple reason why many people don’t want to live here: it’s an unpleasant place because most of it is visually unattractive and because it is lacking in quality living options other than tract suburbia. Some might call this poor 'quality of life'. A better term might be poor 'quality of place.'”
I have to commend Grand Rapids for having some areas where this is definitely not true, but there is a complacency with what Jane Jacobs calls the “Great Blight of Dullness.” Basil has excellent photos showing this type of space in Michigan, though the pictures could have been taken anywhere there is car-centric development.

The letter is well worth reading in its entirety, because he both shows businesses' interest in building people-centered spaces and counters the argument that you need a robust economy to build good urban spaces. Rather, you need good urban spaces to build lasting prosperity.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Handmade Computerization

I read an article in the New York Times earlier today on bespoke clothing shops in Vienna. One thing that one of the interviewees said made me look at computerization in a different way. George Gaugusch said "I think customization is an idea that’s becoming modern again — not to have 10 suits done cheaply, but to have two or three that are made for you." I had not looked at it this way before, but we are used to being able to set up anything on a computer exactly how we want it. We change backgrounds, ringtones, and browser themes. The whole idea of multiple user accounts on a computer points to this, though that did not last because everyone wanted their own machine.

Before the industrial revolution, everything was handmade, so by definition it was custom but expensive. The industrial age emphasized making things that worked for everyone and were cheap. Perhaps the internet revolution will combine the best of each to achieve cheap customized quality things.

Perhaps the bespoke shops of the near future will combine the meticulous attention to fit that characterizes them now while using computers and machines to achieve even higher quality. Or we may continue to drown in mass-produced junk - who knows.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bike Humor

There is a new miniseries that just started on IFC, Portlandia. It is a spoof of Portland, so it obviously mocks cyclists. You can watch a great clip here.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Thoughts on Flying

As I write this I am sitting in the Minneapolis airport. I had not flown through here before, and I am impressed. During my flight here, on a small regional jet that was almost completely empty, I kept feeling like I could be living out the decline from Atlas Shrugged. The airport had been almost deserted, and all the flights on the board were regional. It was well maintained, but seemed to be on the fringes. A lost corner of our infrastructure.

I admit that these impressions are probably from reading Atlas Shrugged. The section of the book I was reading was describing the winding down of the American economy, specifically the drop off in traffic on the railroads. This made me look at an empty plane and broken coffee maker differently than I normally would have.

When I got off the plane and started walking through Minneapolis, which is bright, crowded – at least for nine at night – and filled with great shops, I felt like I had just woken up from a bad dream into an invigorating morning. That was completely melodramatic, but I hope you get my point.

I have always found airports exciting. The bustle of people who need to be places, the efficiency, real or attempted, of the employees trying to get people to these places, and above all the sense of freedom that seeing all the different places one could go gives me a thrill. I admit that there can be frustrations, but that is part of the adventure for me. To have everything you need with you – I only fly carry-on – is for me the greatest sense of freedom. Being able to wake up in one city, or continent, go to a place of bustle and speed, and then join the flow of a new city like nothing ever happened, is one of my joys in life.

I realize that the picture of air travel I just painted is very different from the one commonly expressed. Frustrated passengers, long lines, and cancelled flights seems to be the narrative that is more frequently told. I agree that this happens, and I have been in those situations, but I think that is less common than it is made out to be.

I feel that since I have been talking of freedom to travel, I would be remiss if I did not say why I do not have the same feelings for the car, which is often described in the same way that I have been describing air travel. Cars, for me, a more like a prison. When you do a road trip, you have to confine yourself into a small, uncomfortable cage for hours on end. Further more, you have to leave civilization, in order to get anywhere. This fact can be an argument for the car, but I'll address that later. I feel like time stands still on a road trip, in a bad way. The hours spent sitting feel like hours irretrievably wasted. On a plane, I get a certain vitality from the interaction with human beings, but in a car you are cutting yourself off from contact.

The ability of cars to take you out from civilization is their one redeeming value. On this current trip, I am flying to Denver, but I will then continue by car up into the mountains. If my destination was Denver, I would really rather not deal with cars at all, but since they are a means of getting to nature, I don't mind as much.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Third & The Seventh

The Third & Seventh is an amazing video by Alex Roman, I had not watched it for a few years, but the imagery and feeling stayed with me. It  beautifully explores the wonder and longing that architecture and design can inspire in us. In a way it plays like a modernist's dream, but I think that it transcends that one aesthetic sensibility and strikes something much deeper. It is twelve and a half minutes long, but is is well worth your time, as is waiting for the high definition to load. You can find it here.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


I just discovered this great bicycle company in Denmark. Their bikes are gorgeous and really present a cycling aesthetic you do not see in the USA very often. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The New Year

As we start the new year, there are a few noteworthy articles that are worth taking a look at. Transport Michigan has a great article outlining a transportation manifesto for Michigan. Christianity Today takes an interesting look at the theological implications of string theory, and Thomas Friedman wrote a farewell essay that perfectly captures the challenges and opportunities we can expect in the coming years.