Sidewalk of the Week: Water Power Park

Is it a sidewalk? I cannot be sure.

The question haunts me for days. I toss. I turn. I wake up in a cold sweat, the image of pavement seared into my brain like an ad for BK Broilers.

But as they say... if it walks like a sidewalk, and cracks like a sidewalk, then it's a sidewalk. And when I wandered into Minneapolis' Water Power Park on a sunny Main Street day, I found so many people enjoying a stroll that I simply must award this fine park the official status of Sidewalk of the Week.

Even though it's been open most days for over a year, I'd never discovered Water Power Park until last week. I was taking a stroll down Main Street, one of the oldest and finest sidewalk spots in Minneapolis. I was enjoying that special feeling of sidewalk cafes, ambient Segway tourists, and my proximity to the legacy of liquid-fueled industry ... when all-at-once, I turned a corner and found a city park. I wandered in...

[Sidewalk park strollers lean on a rail by a riverside pool to gaze at a Great Blue Heron gaze at a reflected skyline in a rippl'd riverside pool.]

Jane Jacobs attempts to describe some of the dynamics of city parks in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She comes up with a bunch of interesting rules, but all-in-all, you get the sense that the success of a park depends greatly on its social and geographic context. You need to have a critical mass of people watching and enjoying a park for it to quality as a real park. (The same can be said of sidewalks.)

[Standing as close as you can stand to the waterfall that made Minneapolis.]

What I liked very much about Water Power Park was the way it drew you in. Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous park designer, included within many of his large park designs a section of park called "The Bramble", designed to be a place where people could wander, get lost, and lose themselves in nature.

The way it worked for me, the Water Power Park was a similar experience, only instead of nature you find yourself lost in Minneapolis's industrial history. When you enter, it really isn't clear where you're going or what you're going to find. You see a small sign that says Water Power Park and boasts the Xcel Energy Logo, and end up wandering and following people as they lead you through our city's electric infrastructure.

You follow a winding path through steel and gaggles of geese, until you find yourself standing right on top of the waterfall. And there you discover the kind of peace you can only get when surrounded by white noise, mist, and the mesmerizing sight of endless water ever falling. The waterfall surprises you and find yourself alone in the big city. You disappear inside the magic of water.

In the end, I don't know if it's a sidewalk or not. The question has stopped haunting me. All that matters is the path before my feet.

[Industry and culture, power plants and condos bump elbows along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.]


Signs of the Times #8

[A lamppost somewhere in South Minneapolis]

[Family Inn -- Frogtown, Saint Paul]

[No change given for the bus. Do not ask us for change or fee. -- Window in flowershop, Stadium Village, Minneapolis]

[Walk in and get your $Refund$ back fast -- University Avenue, Saint Paul]

[Amsterdam bicycle crossing button sign]


<<< Sidewalk Friday >>> #19

Humidity and sidewalks don't get along. Just walk for a few blocks in this weather and you'll be dripping with excitement. It makes you really appreciate shade trees. Places like University Avenue or Lake Street are almost unbearable.

The problem was even worse in the South. So much hot sunshine, so few shade trees along the sidewalks. Frankly, I don't get it.


Here's a youtube of Jelly Roll Morton and his boys playing "The Sidewalk Blues".

It's a Victor recording from 1926.


A friend of mine is involved with the Walldogs project going on now in South Minneapolis along Lyndale Avenue.

Sounds like fun!


The Post-Carbon Institute's 10-point plan to acheive Al Gore's goal of 100% renewable electricity in 10 years includes this:

10. Remobilize: our transportation system needs to run on renewable electricity and human power. This means developing and deploying electric automobiles with related renewable generation and charging infrastructures, reviving and re-investing in electric trolley buses, streetcars, and electric rail - both light and heavy. We also need to revive and re-invest in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and bring in light neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) for both personal and shared use. These measures all have the aim of replacing the petroleum-powered car as quickly as possible in order to produce a transport system designed for the 21st century.

This will require nothing short of a fossil-free transportation revolution, including an electric rail revolution. Cities redesigned for human muscles and electric motors will thrive long after we have run out of fossil fuels.

I think the point about light vehicles is interesting. I'm seeing way more scooters on the streets these days. Are golf cart-esque cars far behind?


Five links to elsewhere:


A friend of mine is a cartoonist:

[Click image to em-biggen]


Here's a graph of overall Vehicle Miles Travelled in the USA:

It's amazing how the ups and downs look like the overall seasonal carbon graph (the Al Gore one).

Also worth checking out: a report that connects climate change with reducing overall VMT. The 5 second version: We really can dramatically reduce overall VMT through redesigning how our cities are built. Perhaps an overall reduction of 15% through this one move?

Depending on several factors, from mix of land uses to pedestrian-friendly design, compact development reduces driving from 20 to 40 percent, and more in some instances, according to the forthcoming book Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change. Typically, Americans living in compact urban neighborhoods where cars are not the only transportation option drive a third fewer miles than those in automobile-oriented suburbs, the researchers found.


The Urbanophile: an interesting website out of Indiana that looks at sidewalks, esp. in the Midwest.


[Img of Afton Parade fm. TC Daily Photo]

I marched in the Rice Street Parade this week in support of Instant Runoff Voting in Saint Paul. It was fun, and I've never experienced a parade from the "inside" before.

Things I learned:

  • Parades are the only time that the whole neighborhood really gets together
  • Kids love candy, but they also live it when you give them stickers (no matter what they say)
  • It's difficult to explain Ranked Choice Voting in 5 seconds
  • When you're walking in a parade, and you walk a over a mile, it really doesn't seem very far at all
  • Saint Paul has a ton of clowns, princesses, marching bands, judo clubs, people who dress up for the Winter Carnival, and people who drink beer

I wish I could have been there for the Edina Parade to see how it compared to hardscrabble Rice Street. More differences, or more similarities? (I'm guessing more similarities.)


1) A "patio" at the U of MN's brutalist Moos Tower [h/t Bldg Minnesota]

2) What the air can look like in Beijing, China. Mmm.... Olympic-licious! [h/t BLDGBLOG]

3) The Thauwald Building on St. Paul's W 7th St. [h/t St. Paul Phototour]

Classic Sidewalks of the Silver Screen #11

The all time greatest opening credits sidewalk ...

... made better because it's dubbed in Italian. It's Travolta owning the sidewalks of Brooklyn with a bucket of paint, the bee gees, and some sweet threads in Saturday Night Fever (1977).


Homeownership, Schmomeownership

[You could live next to me in this fine home. Note the newly planted 'for sale' sign.]

The house next door to me has been empty for almost two years. The last family to live there was a large Hmong family that kept chickens and grew corn in the backyard. There's a hole in the roof, and the large house has sat there while its fences fall down. Workers from the bank come every few months to do yardwork (shoveling snow, mowing lawns, etc.). I usually mow their front lawn and collect the random phonebooks sitting on the stoop, just to keep up appearances.

But I noticed the other day that there's now a real estate sign in the yard, and people have been stopping by with increasing frequency to look at the interior. I think there's real hope I could have a neighbor in the near future.

If the house did get sold, though, it would seem to be bucking a housing trend. All across America the housing market is tanking, and neighborhoods in every type of city are hurting from vacancies. Somehow, the myriad movements of the American real estate market have left vast numbers of houses empty and falling apart. Entire cities seem abandoned. New developments are instantly obsolete? How did we get here?

Well, one answer is that we subsidized the hell out of homeownership. A while back I really enjoyed reading a Paul Krugman column on this very topic, the economic problems with real estate subsidies. He writes:

But here’s a question rarely asked, at least in Washington: Why should ever-increasing homeownership be a policy goal? How many people should own homes, anyway?

Listening to politicians, you’d think that every family should own its home — in fact, that you’re not a real American unless you’re a homeowner. “If you own something,” Mr. Bush once declared, “you have a vital stake in the future of our country.” Presumably, then, citizens who live in rented housing, and therefore lack that “vital stake,” can’t be properly patriotic. Bring back property qualifications for voting!

Krugman goes on to argue that homeownership presents a large financial risk (esp. for borrowers with shaky credit), limits the mobility of the workforce, and encourages large-scale commuting.* To pursue this "American dream" of everyone with a house on a green postage stampe, our government has subsidized homebuyers in huge ways... most importantly through the hugely expensive income deduction on mortgage interest**, and by building a hugely expensive system of roads (and sewers). But there are also the more hidden subsidies, like providing FHA loans, and implicitly (and now explicitly) propping up "corporations" like Freddie Mae and Fannie Mac. As far as I can tell, these companies were created in the depression to fuel the home construction and real estate markets, pursuing the goal of universal homeownership.

Kunslter lays all this out in his book, The Long Emergency. Writing in 2005, he pretty much pegged the current mortgage lending crisis:

The part that gets me, though, is that I'm not sure how many people really realize the extent to which our government backs and pushes this one particular kind of social order.

And the latest news on the housing bill, it seems Washington is putting our government on the line (yet again) to prop up a bunch of private companies who've made money screwing the system. And all in pursuit of a Jeffersonian dream of homeownership, which probably isn't that great an idea anyway. At the very least, it has a lot of unforeseen negative consequences.

* Though on this last point, I wonder if that's necessarily true. Surely we could design a "condo" society, where homeownership didn't entail such environmental damage. Still, the American vision of the "home" almost always includes a backyard, and that would seem to preclude a certain level of density.

** For a great deal more on the Mortgage Income Deduction, see David Cay Johnston's book
Perfectly Legal. To make matters worse (for my point), Johnston also describes how the deduction is set up in such a way that gives people larger credits on larger mortgages, giving an extra benefit to those who buy the most expensive, largest, and most energy-intensive homes.


Sidewalk of the Week: Hennepin Avenue S

[A stretch of Hennepin Avenue, with sidewalk sign cautiously perched.]

This week's sidewalk of the week is Hennepin Avenue South. Perhaps you've heard of it? It's like Minneapolis's Broadway, a long, crooked, really old street that used to be a Native path and now serves as the heart and focal point of a booming US city.

But this is no paean! The problem with streets like Hennepin (or B'way, for that matter*) is that they are stuck serving a dual function.

On the one hand, they're the absolute centers of commercial activity. Everywhere that Hennepin Avenue goes, it provides excitement, a dash of zest, two scoops of pizazz. Hennepin Avenue is like having an Bush twin show up at your house party ... even if you didn't t like it, at least you'd have something to talk about. The street is home to a disproportionate share of awesome restaurants and cafes, bars, shops, and boutiques of all shapes and sizes. It's where people stroll to stroll, and where people stroll to watch other people strolling. It's one of the most exciting places to hang out in the Twin Cities, and in South Minneapolis it boasts some of the finest sidewalks around.

But on the other hand, Hennepin is still a major throroughfare. Streams of traffic go along the street at most times of the day and night. It's the quickest way of getting from downtown or the Interstate to Lake Calhoun and the beginning of the SW suburban strip. As a result, it's kind of difficult to really enjoy the sidewalks along the street. The endless four lanes river of cars makes a sidewalk cafe life a mite unpleasant.

[Cars galore.]

Like many such streets, Hennepin displays a delicate balance between cars and people, street as conduit and street as public space. It can be a challenge, and any given time, you can bet that somewhere a pedestrian is getting pissed off at a driver, or vice versa. It's like the immovable unstoppable force-object paradox conundrum, only with feet, tires, A/C, strollers, turn signals, and patio furniture.

So, when a friend of mine got me interested in "juicing" and I wound up at the Tao Natural Foods on Hennepin enjoying a miracle concoction, I realized how nicely the sidewalk accommodates all sides of this heinous debate. I was sitting there waiting for the juicy mix, and ended up watching the behind-the-counter dudes as they brought food out to a couple sitting on a sidewalk table. He had a tray of food, and just bumped the door upon without looking and gracefully deposited it outside, in the shade of a green tree in the summer sunshine. Even though hundreds of autos were streaming past just a few feet away, we were in a world without cars.

[The view from the juicebar: large windows looking out onto an old, wide, tree-strewn avenue.]

The Tao Foods sidewalk dining experience is made possible by an awesome piece of materiality. Like a great many of the intersections along Hennepin, there's a giant flower-filled concert berm separating the triangular space between the street and the shops. And this piece of poured cement, filled with dirt and plants, does wonders for the streetlife.

Most importantly, it separates the speeding cars from the possibly seated customers, who may worry about the near-certainty of death by grille.

Secondly, it's pretty emphasizes Hennepin Avenue's odd angle, and creates nice pockets of space. But at the same time, it doesn't completely shut out your line of vision. People sitting near these concrete flowerbeds can still look around, people watch, and enjoy the fact that they're sitting in a semi-plausible approximation of a city square.

[Worlds collide where Hennepin meets the neighborhood.]

There's such a contrast between busy car-bustle of Hennepin Avenue and quiet side streets, these spaces seem to draw that line nicely. Like the streets, the sidewalk separates into two spaces... one for people parking or getting on and off of buses. The other is quiet, and meant primarily for wandering windowshoppers and cafe diners.

[The tranquil streets of Kenwood.]

Later on down the street, Hennepin Avenue narrows down quite significantly, so that by the time you're at the Calhoun / Lake area of the road, the effect of the cars is rather minimized. It might seem like a small thing, but the rather complex sidewalks of Hennepin Avenue are pulling a lot of weight every day to make the street a better place.

So, here's to you forgotten concrete berms! Thanks for making Hennepin Avenue South this week's Sidewalk of the Week.

[Another concrete berm silently performing its duty.]

* It should be mentioned that NYC's Broadway is undergoing some major (yet limited) streetscape modification designed to make it even more walkable.

Classic Sidewalks of the Silver Screen #10

It doesn't get more classic than this ...

... workers leaving a factory and pouring onto a Paris sidewalk, in one of the first films by the Brothers Lumiere (1895).


<<< Friday Friday >>> #18

In a very exciting move, I'm changing the title of the "news flash" to the"Friday Friday", mostly because I've become involved with a new project in the Twin Cities Sidewalk world. (Do you have a better name idea?)

I'm going to start blogging regularly over at a new website, Twin Cities Streets for People, where a team of Minnesota urbanists are going to try to keep tabs on what's going on in the local urbanism scene.

The site is meant to be a community clearinghouse for news and information about street-friendly activities and activism throughout the metro area. We're hoping to cover not just stories that his the press, but events and politics at the ground level. Some ideas I have for the site include:

  • Having people take photos of street festivals, street problems, or noteworthy initiatives happening around town and post them online.
  • Keeping tabs on key votes or planning decisions in the city and regional governments
  • Linking the local street movement to broader efforts throughout the country

Let me know if you want to help out with the TC Streets for People effort. It's a tall order, and we could use all the help we can get! Drop me an email if you're interested in contributing.


This clip of an "urban terrorist" TV show freaked me out when I saw it a few years ago...

... it really connects the dots between big cities and terrorism. The only solution? A backyard bunker!


I don't know why, but I've been paying a lot of attention lately to the Peak Oil crowd. I think it's because of the high prices for energy these days, and all of the intense discussions about the economic unrest that this pressure has generated with my friends across the country during my recent train trip.

Everywhere you turn, people are really squirming about how the oil price has kept going up. And if you listen to any of the pretty convincing analysis from the peak oil community, the last few years is just the tip of the iceberg.

Then I started reading James Howard Kunster's really pessimistic book, The Long Emergency, and now I can hardly stand driving a car.

The thing that Kunstler does nicely is to connect the dots between energy use and the U.S. economy... According to his book, only one third of the incredibly high US energy usage (25% of the world's oil) comes from electricity. The rest flows from hydrocarbons -- oil and natural gas. Almost all of our transportation, construction, and home heating is powered by oil, and that amounts to a huge percentage of our economic activity. The housing or argricultural industries, for example, are extremely oil dependent. He argues that replacing that amount of oil will be very, very difficult even with the best of alternative energies.

But that said, I've long been aware that the peak oil idea had a kind of cult following. I think in some ways, it has become something of an 'end times' religion for hippies, akin to the most evangelical of Christianities. And for that reason as much as the fact that it's hard to envision technological meltdown, it's been very hard to buy wholesale into the idea that the global economy is going to hell in a handbasket. (Even if it is.)


So, I was willing to dismiss some of the hyperbole... but then I watched Al Gore's great speech today, and it seems that he agrees with me.

My favorite bit from the talk is (about 6:45 seconds in) when he says that "our dangerous reliance on carbon based fuels lies at the core of all three of our nation's challenges... the economic, environmental, and national security crises".

He then does this little "pulling on a string" hand gesture where he says that if we pull on that "oil dependence" thread, all of our interlinked problems will start to unravel.

[Tug... tug at my heartstrings, Al Gore!]

Gore really shied away from discussing the real meat of the matter, though. In order to make our nation work on electricity, conservation has to be a big part of the equation. We need to dramatically cut the amount of energy we use in our daily lives, particularly in transportation sector which (I have heard) accounts for almost 70% of our oil use.

And that's going to mean a lot more walking on sidewalks.


Some national headlines:


This is a terrific local blog that really makes it clear how difficult it can be to get by without a car in the Twin Cities: Car Free Family Minneapolis

Here's a good snippet:

Head Cold. Rushing on the bus to get the Big One to an audition. He didn’t get the job. He is a talented actor, yet he has no skills in auditioning. But still, I picked my snot-filled head off the pillow, got dressed and hopped the #4 to downtown. As I’m getting off the bus I see the face of Denny Hecker, greasy car-salesman extraordinaire. The bus sign actually said, “Nobody Walks.” Where the heck does he live? What planet?


A nice correction to some of the misinformation about urban densities in the US.

You often find people saying that cities like L.A. are just as dense as cities like New York (paging Bob Brueggmann). This guy offers one alternative methodology that gives the common sense answer.

It always amazes me how far statistics can be bent...


Three photos for you...

[An amazing freeway photo -- fm. Fffound]

[A walking path in Hastings -- fm. TC Daily Photo]

[An awesome lamppost photo -- fm. Uptown Mpls Blog]


Sidewalk Closed Signs #1

[A sidewalks closed sign near the Hennepin County Building Plaza, Minneapolis.]

[A sidewalks closed sign on Grand Avenue near Macalester College, Saint Paul.]

[A sidewalk closed sign on Lake Street next to the Bryant Lake Bowl, Minneapolis.]

[A 'do not enter' sign near the Cedar Riverside People's Center, Minneapolis.]

[A sidewalks closed sign near Hamline University, Saint Paul.]

[I forget which street this sidewalk closed sign was on.]

[A sidewalks closed sign in Roxboro, North Carolina.]


Ridin' the Rails

I just finished my 2nd Annual month-long Amtrak trip using the new "now available to US Citizens" USA RailPass. And the train has been just as terrible and wonderful as I'd expected. Here's a rundown on where I've gone on the train, and roughly how long and late each ride has been:
  • MSP to Chicago -- 12 hours (5 hours late ... due to extreme flooding)
  • Chicago to New York -- 23 hours (3 hours late)
  • New York to Durham, NC -- 10 hours (2 hours late)
  • Winter Haven to Tampa, FL -- 2.5 hours (30 min. late)
  • Dallas to Austin -- 7 hours (4 hours late)
  • Austin to Chicago -- 34 hours (7 hours late)
  • Chicago to MSP -- 6 hours (on time!)

As much as I love the train, unless you're a student on summer break or a retiree it's hard to justify taking the Amtrak. There are just soooooo many really frustrated passengers, and every time the train would come to a halt in the middle of a cornfield, you could just feel the energy of grinding teeth flow through the cars. Riding on the Amtrak, you learn quickly that the it's all about the journey, not about the destination.

On almost every ride, the on-time problems were caused by the mingling of freight and passenger traffic on the same tracks, combined with seemingly endless repair work on our nation's aging infrastructure. It's an intractable problem, and it's what keeps our US intercity rail system right on par with the nations of Kazakhstan and Belarus. The only solution is to invest in added rights of way for passenger rail and/or freight. If done correctly, rail trains could easily double their average speed, up to something on par with auto transport. (70 - 80 mph?... typical averages were more like 40 mph., stops included.)

(New train cars wouldn't hurt either. Many of the train cars are really showing their age, and the NYT just reported that they only have 632 useable cars for the whole country!)

Here are some of the more oddball reasons why I like riding the train:

Oddball Reason #1 -- It's the most comfortable way to travel.

No question about this one.* Even in coach, you get a nice big seat that's really wide, leans way back, and has two different types of footrests. Plus, you can get up and walk around, hang out in the lounge (which is kind of a coffee shop / bar with a really great view), or go to the dining car where you get pretty tasty (though overpriced) food that you eat with a real knife and fork made from metal. Compared to planes or cars, there's just no contest. Plus the pullman cars are even cushy, and apparently contain showers and small pull-down beds (though they're also quite expensive).

And I can actually sleep on the train. I find that there's something about the rhythm of the wheels and the way the carriage rocks back and forth that is condusive to REM. I sleep OK in cars, but it's not as comfortable. And I've never, ever been able to sleep on an airplane worth a damn.

Oddball Reason #2 -- America is beautiful.

Looking out the window, you get to see river valleys, old industrial neighborhoods, and backyards. As nice as it is to look out the windows of airplanes to see the abstract patterns of farm fields and top-down mountains, it's far better to see the bright lights of high school kids playing baseball in the small town twilight, or the sun rising over farm fields in the Ozarks. It's like freakin' Norman Rockwell out there.

Plus, from the train window you will almost never see a billboard, gas station, or a McDonald's. Try saying that about our interstates.

Oddball Reason #3 -- You can meet people.

Whether it's the person seated next to you, the family in the lounge car, or the retired couple across from your table in the dining car, you meet tons of people while you ride the train. And, unlike meeting strangers in just about every other context in the USA, it's not awkward.

I had interesting conversations with so many people. To wit:

  • I talked with a mother and her two young sons from Forth Worth, TX who was on her way to visit her sister in Chicago. I played computer games with the younger son, probably about 10 yrs old, who showed me his new XO laptop.
  • I made friends with a guy about my age who was traveling from Chicago to upstate New York, who was on his way to raise the final capital funds to start a new business that would be like "AAA for homeowners".
  • I chatted with a father and his young daughter over dinner, who were on their way from Yuma to Boston in a sleeper car. He worked for the US border agency, and told stories about the crazy things he's seen in the no-man's land.
  • I made friends with a guy about my age who was just about to begin a job teaching computers to disadvantaged high school students in Chicago. We talked for a long time about US foreign policy, politics, and the internet. Plus, he plays in a band and gave me a copy of his latest, not yet released, album. It's pretty good!
  • I talked with a young high school kid on in the lounge car on a train from Orlando to Tampa who was going to visit his mother. He told me that after he graduates he was going to school be a radiologist.

And there were more conversations that I probably can't remember. The train is a real slice of life.

And this isn't even to mention the other reasons why train travel is a good idea, the stuff about land use (airports are big and out of the way), energy efficiency (trains are more efficient), and environmental impact (ditto).

There's no doubt in my mind that, if they ran on time, passenger trains in the USA would be wildly popular.

* Though I've never been on one, I suppose an ocean liner is more comfortable, all things considered. However, it's awfully hard to take an ocean liner from here to Chicago.


This is an interesting tidbit I discovered about the history of the MSP -- Chicago rail corridor.

The testing ground for the economics of high-speed service was the corridor between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Between these cities "there was probably more transportation competition than anywhere in the world," noted Fortune magazine. In 1935, Ralph Budd first took on the competition--Greyhound, Northwest Airlines, and the family car--by announcing a six-and-one-half-hour run between Chicago and the Twin Cities. Diesels would make the trip in three and one-half hours less than steam-driven trains (and 115 minutes faster than Amtrak does today). Thus were born the Twin City Zephyrs, with Budd-built cars and GM-powered engines. Believing their corporate honor was at stake, both the Chicago & North Western and the Milwaukee Road responded by introducing their own streamliners, matching the Burlington's scorching pace and its comfortable seats, air-conditioning, elegant dining cars, and reduced round-trip fares. "If transportation competition ever justified itself, it did here," Fortune said. The new service resulted not in the waste of facilities but in their highly profitable use. The Milwaukee's Hiawatha immediately started to gross well over $3.50 a mile, or three times its operating expenses. The Twin Zephyrs carried an average of 316 people a day (up from 26 through passengers on average under the old steam regime), and the C & NW's 400's performed equally well. Greyhound offered discount fares and even attached trim to the sides of its buses in an effort to imitate the streamliners, but to no avail. Additional fast trains were scheduled. Overall, the railroads carried more than four million passengers between Chicago and the Twin Cities between 1935 and 1939.

[Fm. Wilson Quarterly, "The Lost Promise of the American Railroad"]

Also Also:

For those of you who really want to know more, the politics of (re)creating a high quality intercity rail connections between our US cities looks promising. If we elect Barack Obama in November, I think you'll see a lot of investment in rail corridors, particularly in the Midwest. Here's a quote from a recent article on the sea change in the federal government

One cannot overstate the importance of the federal government actually setting up a fund to match state passenger train investments on an 80-20 basis, a vast improvement over the current federal share of zero percent. Sen. Thomas Carper (D-DE), a former governor (and Amtrak board member) who should know, put it this way in yesterday’s Senate hearing on transportation and climate change: “When I was Governor of Delaware, if we wanted to build a road or a highway or a bridge, the federal government paid for 80% of it. If we wanted to do transit investment, the federal government provided 50% of it. If we wanted to invest, if it made more sense to put in inter-city passenger rail, the federal government provided nothing. And I’m sure we made investment decisions which were probably wrong decisions because of the difference in those measures of federal support.”

Also Also Also:

Plus this editorial from the NYT editorial board:

Apart from that misguided addition, the bills are good over all. The two bills — whose primary sponsors were Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Representative James Oberstar of Minnesota, both Democrats — require more accountability from Amtrak, and the states. To get states to determine and address local needs, the bills wisely include incentives, like 80 cents in federal money to match every 20 a state spends on rail.

Also Furthermore:

And here's a bit from a recent article on the Midwest High Speed Rail Association newsletter, discussing how MN Congressman Jim Obserstar is working to rethink how the Federal Gov't allocates funding for rail projects. Oberstar taking over the Transportation Committee chairmanship is definitely the best thing every to happen in Minnesota land use politics.

It starts with a description of what Bush's transportation agency has been up to:

Instead, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has made a concerted effort to change project-scoring criteria to deny funding to rail projects and make it appear there is actually less demand for new rail projects. The end result is what they desired – divert federal dollars to new high-occupancy vehicle lanes on freeways and bus alter-natives that have little hope of encouraging denser, mixed-use developments around transit stops.


“It’s all an effort to move away from rail and it extends to high-speed rail, too,” said Boothe, a Washington D.C. political insider for 25 years. “It’s history repeating itself. They’re trying to kill off rail transit again.”


Boothe said there is hope in Congressman James Oberstar of Minnesota, a strong supporter of rail transit who took over this year as chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation. Oberstar said he will hold oversight hearings in the coming months on the FTA’s scoring criteria for New Starts. “I’m optimistic we’ll get an airing of these (New Starts) issues,” Boothe said. “I hope that FTA realizes there’s a new sheriff in town.”


Jane Jacobs: Development v. Destruction

[img of Pakistani schoolchildren -- fm. NYT]

One of the NYT opinion columns today, from Nicholas Kristof, is a lovely look at the comparative costs and benefits of schools v. missiles in US - Pakistani foreign policy. It asks whether or not it's more effective to fight against or empower the villages and tribal areas of Central Asia. Tough question!

This is the money quote:

Each Tomahawk missile that the United States fires in Afghanistan costs at least $500,000. That’s enough for local aid groups to build more than 20 schools, and in the long run those schools probably do more to destroy the Taliban.

(Of course, is it worth wondering how important it may be that the half a million dollars goes into the "US economy": the coffers of Raytheon, KBR, and Lockheed. The school, on the other hand, just saves us the bother of producing such fine weapon systems.)

The story reminded me of some of the lessons from the book I'm reading right now, Jane Jacobs' The Nature of Economies.

In her weird way, Jacobs is trying to describe alternative methods of economic development, based, strangely enough, on her arguments about city sidewalks. She argues that economic activity follows the same rules as ecological growth, developing increasingly complex chains of energy usage and interdependencies. Whether or not you're talking about co-dependent relationships in a ecosystem, or the kinds of mutually beneficial relationships that exist between firms in cities, each reflects basic rules of creativity that stem from diverse uses of natural and human resources.

So in this model, the missile represents capital entering the local economy, making an "impact", and leaving no economic trace beyond increased demand for anti-missile systems, military training, AK-47s, etc.

The school represents investments in human capital like literacy, allowing for a far broader types of resource uses in the future. Jacobs' ideas seem to be increasingly accurate, particularly meshing with ideas like microlending. And she's particularly interested in how these sorts of metrics can be applied to cities, which she believed were localized stockpiles of human capital and interconnected, webs of relationships that were "alive" with the ability to adapt, change, and develop new kinds of economic activity.


The Rise and Fall of the Saint Paul Smokestack

[Cameron Diaz frolicking 'neath the High Bridge smokestack in a publicity still for Feeling Minnesota.]

Probably the only movie to feature the word “Minnesota” prominently in its title was 1996’s Cameron Diaz/Keanu Reeves vehicle Feeling Minnesota. (Even the Coen Brother’s own ode to the North Star, set entirely in Minnesota, chose a North Dakotan town to serve as a namesake.) It was an escape tale set in rust belt Twin Cities, as Keanu's character rescues Cameron, Bonnie & Clyde style from her working class home underneath the giant looming smokestack of the Saint Paul high bridge plant. In the film the stack serves as a symbolic backdrop, standing in for the forces of urban poverty and geographical isolation that are just as much a part of our fine state as Oldenberg's Spoonbridge or Keillor’s magical lake.

I mention it only because that smokestack is no longer with us, having fallen to the forces of gravity and progress last week. I grew up in Mendota Heights, not too far from the High Bridge that joins Saint Paul's West Side with Downtown and Summit Avenue. I used to ride my bike down in Lilydale Park, have birthday picnics on the Cherokee bluffs, and spent a lot of time looking down Smith Avenue towards the capitol dome. The giant ugly concrete stack stands tall in my memories like a pretzel stick in a bowl full of Combos.

[The stack falls like a deck of cards.]

As a young and impressionable child, I attended the demolition of the High Bridge. I can barely remember the long-winded event, but I recall the excitement of going down to the bluffs to stand with the crowd as the huge, spartan bridge fell into the river. Likewise, I was hanging around the Mississippi last August when the Interstate 35-W bridge performed a similar (though unplanned) plummet. Apart from the obvious tragedy, their losses don't bother me.

But, silly as it sounds, I am worried about losing the Saint Paul Smokestack. Ugly as it was, I loved the way it served as a thermometer on the coldest Winter days, where the colder it got, the longer the trail of steam would extend from its tip, tracing a smoky finger across January's pale skies.

But more importantly, the stack served to remind the city where our energy came from. When Xcel made the decision to replace the two most visible (and smallest) of its coal plants with cleaner, natural gas plants, it was good news. It alleviated some real pollution injustices, like emissions of particulate matter that causes asthma.

But on the other hand, the Twin Cities are still just as dependent on coal-fired power as ever before. Much of tour energy comes from the huge coal plant in Becker, which is many times larger than the two that were recently shut down. The only difference now is that those coal emissions are conveniently located fifty miles North, far from the glistening crowd.

When I was in High School I went on a school trip to Japan, where I stayed with host families in the Osaka and Kyoto areas for a month. The thing that surprised me most when I arrived on Kyushu's densely packed shores was that everywhere you looked you saw the signs of factories, shipyards, and industry. Red and white smokestacks towered over the clean and modern homes, while the green mountains rose into the background. The Japanese seemed to live hand in hand with their industrial base.

For me, the Saint Paul smokestack was a reminder that every time we flip a lightswitch, a little puff of smoke comes out of a chimney. Let's just hope that new, smoke-free Saint Paul skyline doesn't mean we're putting our environmental responsibilities out of sight and out of mind.

[You think Saint Paul had it bad? The nickel-smelting Inco smokestack in Sudbury, Ontario is the largest smokestack in the Western Hemisphere. -- img. fm. Ann Brown]