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Posts about Books

Nine provocative reads on race, equity, and urbanism

Race and equity have a fundamental impact on life in urban places. Even when they're big, hairy, and uncomfortable, these issues are worth discussing and writing about.

With that in mind, here are nine provocative articles for urbanists (or anyone!) on the intersections of race, equity, policy, and life in urban places.

Photo by Julian Ortiz on Flickr.

Everything on this list is an article (not a book), so the time commitment is relatively short.

In putting together this list, several people told me they disagreed with one of the articles, or that an article made them feel uncomfortable or challenged their long-held assumptions. Including each was intentional on my part, though the viewpoints in the articles don't always represent my own, or those of Greater Greater Washington.

1. The Case for Reparations
Ta-Nehisi Coates - The Atlantic
One of the longer reads on this list, The Case for Reparations is a look at the history of discriminatory housing policies and exploitative markets in America. Despite the title, reparations aren't totally the point. Instead, Coates uses reparations to show that if we truly confronted the history and realities of racism in the US, it would mean a really big shift in how we live and act today.

If you read only one article on this list, make it The Case for Reparations.

2. Death in Black and White
Michael Eric Dyson - The New York Times
An essay on the dynamics of white privilege and the white viewpoint in the context of modern America published following the shooting deaths of Alton B. Sterling and Philando Castile.

3. Historian Says Don't 'Sanitize' How Our Government Created Ghettos
NPR Fresh Air (audio option)
An interview with Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute on the history of residential segregation as explicit and racially-purposeful policy legislated into existence at all levels of government in the US.

4. How your parents affect your chances of buying a home
Emily Badger - Washington Post Wonkblog
A super-easy read by the prolific Emily Badger, formerly of CityLab and now at the Washington Post. Until I was compiling this list, I didn't realize how extensively Badger has written on these issues - chances are, you've probably missed this or another good read from her.

5. I, Racist
John Metta - Those People
A discussion and context on the pervasiveness structural racism in modern America, from urban policies to social systems to culture and beyond that challenges some of our ingrained unconscious beliefs head-on.

6. Why you should stop saying "all lives matter," explained in 9 different ways
German Lopez - Vox
Tools for understanding (or explaining) the conflict between #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter.

7. America's Insidious Eviction Problem
Gillian B. White - The Atlantic
An on-the-ground look at how the practice of removing tenants from their homes is exacerbating cycles of poverty, especially among minorities and women.

8. Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter are not mutually exclusive
Major Neill Franklin (Ret.) - The Hill
A brief explanation of the decades of urban policies and funding that have bolstered militarized civilian policing, and how we got to where we are today.

9. The Role of Highways in American Poverty
Alana Semuels - The Atlantic
A history of the use of federal funds to build highways through most American cities, exploring specifically the economic effects that highways had and continue to have on our cities, especially in relation to people of color.

If you have a topic or article suggestion for a future GGWash reading list, email the author. If you have a suggestion on GGWash's growing conversation on equity, race, and class, email GGWash.


Ask GGWash: What one book should I read about transit?

If you want to understand the battles over transit in the United States, is there one book you can read? We asked our contributors.

Books our contributors suggested. Images from

An organizer who works for a social justice-oriented group and is planning to start working on transit issues recently asked what book she should read to get up to speed.

If she were going to deal with how we design our roads and public spaces, I'd recommend Jeff Speck's Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At a Time or Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and What It Says About Us. Is there a comparable book about transit?

Both John Ricco and Matt Johnson suggested Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives by Jarrett Walker. Johnson said, "The book is fairly concise, but explains the basic information behind transit operations in depth in language that the layperson can easily understand and digest. Personally, I think everyone who rides transit should read this book. But anyone interested in transit at a higher level than just catching the bus should absolutely, definitely, positively read this book. As soon as possible."

Ben Ross endorsed Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves From the Automobile by Taras Grescoe. The book's summary says, "On a journey that takes him around the world―from New York to Moscow, Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Bogotá, Phoenix, Portland, Vancouver, and Philadelphia, Grescoe profiles public transportation here and abroad, highlighting the people and ideas that may help undo the damage that car-centric planning has done to our cities and create convenient, affordable, and sustainable urban transportation―and better city living―for all."

Gray Kimbrough wrote, "This book isn't the only one you need to read to learn about transit (though I'm not sure such a book exists), but I recommend Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century [by Stephen Goddard] for its in-depth background of the policy processes that gave us the system we have now."

While this isn't the transit policy overview our question-asker was looking for, anyone interested in transit in the Washington region should certainly read The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro by Zachary Schrag. This is the definitive way to learn why our Metro system is the way it is. It's also just full of fascinating facts, like how WMATA's first head, Jackson Graham, tried to resist putting elevators in the stations because he could personally ride the escalators in a wheelchair.

Have you read these? Which do you think our organizer friend should read? Or what other suggestions do you have?


How public and private came together to make Capital Bikeshare a success

Gabe Klein, former transportation chief in DC and later Chicago, has just published a book, Start-Up City. We're pleased to present a few excerpts. In this one, Gabe talks about how DC's first experiment with bike sharing, Smartbike, turned into the wildly successful Capital Bikeshare.

Photo by Stephen Rees on Flickr.

Like the much larger Vélib bike-share system in Paris, which was run by advertising giant JCDecaux, our SmartBike program had been launched and operated by Clear Channel, who also contracted with the city to advertise on bus shelters. SmartBike was only one component of a much larger contract.

Unfortunately for the city, one line at the end of our agreement outlined the private partner's lackluster commitment to the program. It stated that Clear Channel agreed to set up and operate a bike-share program in Washington, DC That's it! Oh no, I thought, this was not terribly sound footing on which to expand our partnership, but let's meet them and see.

In my first meeting with Clear Channel, a few things became clear. They felt that the District had gotten a very rich, fifteen-year deal and associated revenue stream for the bus-shelter contract. They even mentioned that DC had "signed the contract at the height of the market." My reaction? "Not really the District's problem."

Furthermore, they had recently been purchased by Bain Capital, of Mitt Romney fame, and had little interest in "municipal street furniture," as they saw the program. Lastly, they had no contractual obligation to expand the program, which was true. We were victims of minimal planning for success by government, and an amorphous contract that gave the private sector an easy out.

At the end of the day, our incentives were not aligned, and the SmartBike program died as a result. However, this ended up being a blessing in disguise in the long run.

Capital Bikeshare is born of partnerships

Luckily, Arlington County, Virginia, was planning to launch a bike sharing program around the same time as it became clear that SmartBike's demise was imminent. Because I had a history of partnering with the county, Capital Bikeshare became the first of many projects that we would work on across borders during my tenure. Arlington had already put a procurement process in motion for a bike sharing system and was in the process of receiving bids from vendors.

As many jurisdictions do, typically through their regional planning authority, we combined our efforts with Arlington's procurement process to save time and build a regional program. In terms of financing the system, we wanted to use federal money for 80 percent of the cost and applied for Congestion Mitigation Air and Quality funds through the regional metropolitan planning organization. All we needed now was the mayor's agreement to put $1 million into a revamped bike-share program.

My entire conversation with Mayor Fenty about Capital Bikeshare was less than ten minutes. I told him what I wanted to do, and he asked me three simple questions:

  • Could our system be the biggest in the United States? Yes.
  • Will it be the best? Yes, absolutely.
  • Can we minimize the capital DC puts in and could it break even or be profitable operationally? I said, "I think so," and aimed to make that happen. ...
The DDOT bike team was doing a lot of the planning and outreach for the system's initial ninety planned stations in DC proper. We set up a website and crowdsourced public input about where people wanted bike stations in their DC and Arlington neighborhoods. We had just finished rebooting our transportation demand management (TDM) program, known as goDCgo, and had again partnered with Arlington County to bring their nationally recognized TDM program to DC. The new program was essentially top-flight marketing, promotion, and outreach for alternative transportation options. This team was put in charge of coordinating the marketing for the new bicycle transit system.

In keeping with our strong outward communications plan, we partnered with local blogs like the influential and widely read Greater Greater Washington and crowdsourced the name for the system, which became Capital Bikeshare. That name organically became "CaBi" for short. The system's website went through multiple iterations until it felt more like a polished private-sector offering such as Zipcar, rather than a stale and opaque city website. …

By the time we opened the system in September 2010, there was a palpable level of excitement from the public. At our launch event at the U.S. Department of Transportation in Southeast DC, we brought all the bikes out and had the public sign up to ride them back to stations throughout the city. Throughout the bike share process we had involved the public at every stage, and we wanted them to feel ownership. This was the people's bicycle transit system, CaBi.

Capital Bikeshare launches to rave reviews

We were careful to gradually launch stations for Capital Bikeshare, and later followed the same pattern with Divvy in Chicago. It's crucial for a system to be operationally sound, if not close to flawless, the first time a user tries it.

Like any service, you are only as good as the first experience a customer has, and we aimed to learn the rebalancing patterns from day one to avoid empty or full stations as much as possible, which are the bane of the bike-share user experience. Starting with 50 stations in DC, we ramped up to 110 stations regionally before the end of 2011 when Adrian Fenty left office. The reviews were in and the public loved Capital Bikeshare.

Today there are more than 350 stations spanning DC, Maryland, and Virginia, making it the second largest bike share in the United States by number of stations as of this writing, with more than 10 million trips taken!

In DC, the system broke even on an operations basis (give or take a few thousand dollars) from day one. Keep in mind that this is with zero advertising until 2014 and no sponsorship agreement, two conditions that would be highly unusual today. On top of that it is one of the more expensive systems to run based on it being the first large contract in the United States with no benchmarks on which to base it.

How did we pull it off? The user experience was solid. The locals were loyal and signed up in droves. More than 30 percent of initial usage was by tourists and visitors. We had projected single-digit percentage visitor use because SmartBike had no daily use option. The $7 daily user fee subsidized the yearly $75 membership for locals (28 cents per day).

Without any advertising at all, the system could foreseeably generate enough profit to fund the 20-percent match needed for capitalization of new equipment for expansion, or replacement of old bikes and stations down the road. With advertising and sponsorship this was virtually assured.

Fundamentally though, I credit the relationships among all of the parties involved and the collaboration as being the most important factors in the system's financial stability and success.

This excerpt has been edited for length. You can purchase Start-Up City from Amazon, or until October 26, half off directly from Island Press. See Gabe Klein speak and sign books on November 4 at the National Building Museum at 12:30, that night at BicycleSpace in Adams Morgan at 7:30, or at Upshur Street Books on November 24th at 7 pm.


Ask GGW: What are the best urban planning and policy books?

A while back, we rounded up a list of urbanist books for kids. But what about grownups who want a bit more detail and background? We asked our contributors for their recommendations.

Photo by Chris Devers on Flickr.

Abigail Zenner's favorite is Happy City, by Charles Montgomery:

Montgomery talks about how the built environment and transportation choices affect on people's happiness. It's written in a way that's accessible, and it really provides good arguments for why these things matter to people.
One book in particular gave Canaan Merchant a better foundation for processing our subject matter.
Suburban Nation, by Jeff Speck, Andres Duany, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk was my introduction to a lot of what we cover at Greater Greater Washington. Before I read it, I knew there were things that made neighborhoods work, but I couldn't articulate them. Suburgan Nation talks about why some designs that encourage walkability are either discouraged or outright banned today, which explains why some in some places make walking easy and pleasant while some only encourage driving.
Brian McEntee's recommendation is Downtown: Its Rise and Fall,1880-1950:
It's a fairly comprehensive history of the various factors (real estate, transportation, prevailing social attitudes) that shaped development and downfall during the a seminal period in American urbanism. It's a history book, not a policy book, but it does help provide a really useful "how we got here' perspective.
Kate Ascher's The Works is Kelli Raboy's manual for understanding the basics:
It's a fun look into the what/why/how of infrastructure operations in an urban environment, specifically using the backdrop of New York City.
Matt Johnson listed four:
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. This is a staple of planning. Written in 1961, it was one of the first attempts to criticize the planning decisions of the time, but Jacobs also predicted a great many things that wouldn't become "obvious" to mainstream planners and engineers until the 1990s.
  • Fighting Traffic, by Peter Norton. This book talks about how the automobile came to dominate our cities. While cars and traffic seems like a foregone conclusion today, it certainly wasn't in the 1910s and 1920s. When the car first came on the scene, there was a battle to save urban streets.
  • The High Cost of Free Parking, by Donald Shoup. A book about parking policy and how there really is no such thing as free parking. Another must-read.
  • Great Society Subway, by Zachary Schrag. A history of the Washington Metro. It's a real page-turner. Schrag talks about the history of building a Metro, DC's fight for enfranchisement, and many other related topics. It's a fascinating biography of the region, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
  • Ben Ross, himself the author of Dead End, said two in particular fly under the radar:
    Jason Henderson's Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco and Japonica Brown-Saracino's A Neighborhood that Never Changes: Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity are two books that aren't as well known as they should be, and both are particularly relevant to current issues in DC. (With A Neighborhood that Never Changes, you may want to skip the rather academic introduction and first chapter.)
    David Alpert's go-to is The Option of Urbanism, by Christopher Leinberger:
    It lays out very clearly the difference between walkable urbanism and what he calls "driveable sub-urbanism," why it's hard to switch a place from one to the other, why it's easier for people building cookie-cutter sprawl to get financing than people building urban mixed-use, and much more.
    Aimee Custis said,
    Human Transit, by Jarrett Walker "is a really terrific primer for non-planners on transit: why it's important, how it works, how it interacts with land use, why some systems succeed while others fail, and how to build a good transit system. And Walkable City, by Jeff Speck is a great 21st century complement to Jane Jacobs, which Matt recommended. Still read Jane, but if you get a little bogged down or want to understand exactly what's happening today, Jeff is a fantastic and engaging writer."
    Chris Slatt offered a book that's heavy on visuals:
    I'm partial to Victor Dover's Street Design. The text is a bit dense and heavy, but there is a ton of great knowledge in there about designing streets and the delicious creamy center is hundreds and hundreds of pictures showing actual examples of great streets all across the globe. His book is excellent for countering the inevitable "well that could never work" response that comes when redesigning for Complete Streets and shows just how far we have to go to catch up with the rest of the world.
    Tracey Johnstone's pick is useful for understanding how urbanism fits into today's politics:
    Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation, by William S. Lind and the late Paul Weyrich makes a politically conservative case for investing in mass transit. The reasons the authors have for supporting transit are a lot like those of any transit advocate: that people who don't ride transit still benefit from it, and that that mass transit contributes to energy conservation and independence, which in turn help with national security.
    Melissa Lindsjo added Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation, by Sonja Hirt, and Jeff Lemieux recommended Retrofitting Suburbia, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson.

    Finally, Brent Bolin asked a follow-up question:

    I am always looking for the go-to primer for elected officials (or community members) that don't understand urbanist issues. I've taken the time to read a lot of these, but when I am interacting with my fellow elected officials, I always wonder what I should be putting in their hands. Let's say that I'm not looking for Urbanism 101, but rather Urbanism 100 (for non-majors).
    Aimee Custis said Walkable City fits the bill, and Abigail Zenner followed up that Happy City "would be great for people who haven't thought about this stuff before."

    Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!


    Events roundup: happy hours, hearings, and more

    If you're a bike enthusiast, history buff, or social media nerd, heads-up! There are terrific events coming up that you should check out. Do some family biking, speak up at a hearing, or have a drink and nerd out about social media.

    Photo by Oregon DOT on Flickr.

    All that and more is coming up our events calendar in the coming days, so read on and mark your calendar.

    Kidical Mass: Enjoy the fall air and some family-friendly exercise this Sunday with Kidical Mass Alexandria, which hosts family-friendly cycling outings. Sunday starting at 11 am, join fellow families at Jones Point Park in Alexandria to ride the Woodrow Wilson bridge over to Maryland, and grab some frozen custard on the way back.

    Contributory negligence: Did our explanation of contributory negligence for cyclists and pedestrians rile you up? If it did, Monday at lunchtime attend the DC Council committee hearing for the bill. If you plan to speak, be sure to connect with WABA and let them know!

    Chat about engagement with APA: As the American Planning Association wraps up their policy conference on Monday night, join GGW's own Aimee Custis, Andy Le from DC Water, and other great digital strategists for an informal happy hour at Busboys and Poets (5th & K) starting at 6 pm. Talk about digital community engagement, pick up a few pointers, and make some new connections. No RSVP required.

    Alexandria bicycle/pedestrian planning: Tuesday night, Alexandria is starting the public process for an update to its bicycle and pedestrian master plan. In light of the controversy over installing bike lanes and pedestrian improvements on western King Street earlier this year, it's likely the update process will be contentious. Make sure voices for walking and biking are represented by attending the meeting at TC Williams High School starting at 7 pm.

    S Street book talk: On October 1, head over to MLK Library at 6:30 pm for "S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in DC". Take a look at a dark chapter of DC's past, listening to former Washington Post reporter and drug addict Ruben Castaneda talk about his experiences covering crime, drugs, and the city itself.


    Ask GGW: What are good pro-urbanist kids' books?

    On Twitter, Topher Mathews recently joked, "Daughter being indoctrinated with pro-Height Act propaganda in daycare."

    This book appears to be about how two animals get into a competition and build their houses higher and higher, until they fall over from the wind. It might subtly encourage a view that tall buildings are bad, but probably it's just a fun parable about cooperation.

    Geoff Hatchard then mused about whether there are more urbanist-oriented kid books.

    Sophie loves Subway, by Anastasia Suen and Karen Katz, which shows a mother and daughter riding on the New York subway. (Though rail geeks might notice that the specific combinations of lines in the images of stations don't actually exist.)

    Image from Subway.

    What good urbanist children's books, about buildings and/or transportation in cities, do you know?


    Dead ends: How zoning embalmed cities

    Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book. In this one, he explains the history of zoning.

    Since the last years of the nineteenth century, covenants had been widely used to exclude undesirable people, buildings, and activities from new subdivisions. But these private contracts worked only imperfectly and incompletely.

    Sign for an early Kansas City suburb. Image from the State Historical Society of Missouri.

    Older neighborhoods still lacked their protection. In principle, landowners could establish restrictions at any time, but in practice covenants had to be imposed in advance by the subdivider because a large group of homeowners could never agree on the details of the rules. And even when in place, covenants were hard to enforce. ...

    Homeowners and real estate developers desired more comprehensive and more effective controls. This was something only the power of government could achieve.

    The call for action was not unanimous. What covenants and zoning offered homebuyers was permanence—assurance that in future years they would be surrounded by people and buildings of the same quality as when they moved in. Stopping change was not in everyone's interest.

    The subdividers of large tracts, who maximized the value of the initial sale with promises of permanence, benefited most. They spearheaded the push for government regulation as they had for deed covenants. Small-scale speculators, who dealt in property already subdivided and hoped to profit from new and denser uses, led the opposition.

    Los Angeles took a first step toward the systematic separation of land uses in 1908. The Los Angeles Realty Board, dominated by developers of upscale restricted neighborhoods, urged zoning on the city with the support of affluent homeowners. A pair of ordinances created seven industrial districts and defined nearly all of the city's remaining territory as residential districts. There businesses were allowed only when the City Council granted an exception.

    Other cities soon followed this example. In 1913 Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New York authorized cities, when property owners so requested, to establish districts where nonresidential uses were banned. The Illinois legislature passed a similar law that died when the governor, on being advised that it was unconstitutional, used his veto.

    Early zoning laws often proscribed unwanted races along with unwanted land uses. In 1910 a Baltimore ordinance kept blacks from any block where more than half the residents were white. Birmingham, Atlanta, Richmond, St. Louis, and other municipalities soon enacted racial zoning as well.

    Blacks could of course sleep in white neighborhoods when they were household help living on their employers' property—and the Atlanta ordinance also permitted black homeowners to house white servants. This bow to constitutional doctrine showed how hollow was the promise of "separate but equal." A black man who presumed, in that time and place, to hire whites as domestic help would be lucky to see another sunrise.

    Such maneuvers were too transparent even for the conservative judges of the day. In a 1917 case that gave the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People its first legal victory, a unanimous Supreme Court struck down racial zoning. Louisville's zoning ordinance, the court held, violated the white landowner's constitutional right to sell property to blacks. Racial segregation would have to rely on private contracts.

    Zoning codes could no longer divide races, but they could still separate uses, and soon the nation's largest city had one. The skyscrapers that would dominate New York's skyline had just appeared, and many feared these giant buildings would shut off light and air and congest traffic.

    Meanwhile, the spread of garment manufacturers into the upscale shopping district on Fifth Avenue was annoying retailers. Their customers were now forced to mix on sidewalks with immigrant workers. "Gentlemen, you are like cattle in a pasture, and the needle trades workers are the flies that follow you from one pasture to another," storeowners were told at a private luncheon.

    Such rhetoric lacked mass appeal, so the merchants promoted zoning with other arguments. Their well-funded publicity campaign warned of a grab bag of evils from truck traffic to overcrowding to high rents.

    The city's major real estate and commercial interests joined retailers and municipal reformers to seek the separation of land uses, and action came quickly. In 1914 the city gained authority to impose zoning, and two years later a detailed ordinance was in place.

    Its underlying principle, as the framers conceded, was to freeze in place the existing land use. This entailed not a full spatial separation along the lines of upscale suburbs but a pattern similar to streetcar suburbs—midblock parcels were restricted to residential use, with commerce allowed on the avenues that carried through traffic.

    The code also placed limits on tall buildings, imposing gradual setbacks of higher stories to allow light and air to enter. From this rule came the terraced skyscrapers that have long defined New York's skyline.

    New York's adoption of a zoning code triggered a frenzy of activity in cities large and small. The landowning public clamored for separation of land uses, and developers of restricted communities joined in the call for government control.

    Machine politicians joined municipal reformers in the embrace of zoning—it was easy to see that variances, exceptions, and rezonings would open up a cornucopia of patronage and graft. By 1920 zoning ordinances were in place in 904 cities, including 82 of the 93 municipalities with populations over 100,000. Given further encouragement by a model ordinance issued by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in 1924, a wave of regulation rolled on through the decade.

    The zoning movement quickly advanced beyond the isolation of residential uses to the exclusion of apartment houses from residential areas. The middle and upper classes did not like apartments. The most varied objections were raised. They were ugly; they gave off noise and smoke. They were simply not the way Americans should live.

    But most of all, zoners objected to the people who lived in apartments. The flavor of the tenement seemed to attach to even the most luxurious buildings. Residents were prone to disease and immorality. Tenants were "a class of nomads," said Harvard University president Charles Eliot, "that have no stable footing in the town."

    Many cities were already manipulating their fire and building codes to keep apartments out; with zoning they could reach the same end more directly. Berkeley, California, was first to take this path. Its zoning ordinance, adopted in 1917, enforced a rigid separation of uses that went far beyond contemporaries.

    At a time when other cities were merely separating residential uses from commercial and industrial, Berkeley established a multitude of zones—twenty-seven in all. One-family, two-family, and apartment houses each had their own assigned districts, and homes were kept out of industrial areas as industry was from residential areas. Almost immediately, the exclusion of multifamily residences from single-family districts became a standard zoning rule. ...

    The people who staffed the new planning bureaucracies had much useful work to do. Although they might, in practice, have little influence on the zoning of the areas already built up, subdivision control empowered them to shape the rapidly growing new suburbs.

    Without question, unplanned suburbs had evils in need of correction: uncontrolled rainwater runoff, badly built streets, groundwater polluted for lack of sewers. Still, as a historian of planning has recognized, the overall effect was to "encourage cities to portray in long-range plans the conditions of the present rather than the changes required."

    New subdivisions would avoid past mistakes, but the rigid zoning structure prevented future adjustment if their design was later found lacking. Planners might dream of molding the city of the future. They found themselves embalming the city of the present.


    Dead ends: Tenant activists against housing

    Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book.

    Ward 3 Vision is organizing a talk with Ross on Thursday, June 12, 7 pm at the Tenley-Friendship Library, 4450 Wisconsin Avenue NW. Then, have a drink with Ross, Ward 3 Vision members, and others at Public Tenley, where you can buy a signed copy.

    In rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, ... tenant advocates often fall back on a purely defensive approach and oppose new construction in the neighborhood. This strategy rests on a seemingly straightforward logic.

    Photo by eightprime on Flickr.

    Real estate prices are always a matter of location—buildings are expensive because they're near expensive buildings—so keeping out new buildings, which will always charge a higher rent than the older ones around them, helps keep housing affordable.

    The means of stopping development is a political coalition of tenants and nimby homeowners. This alliance is surely an odd basis for left-wing politics, but a school of academic theory justifies it as such. The idea is that neighborhoods are defending themselves against an exploitative and nearly all-powerful "growth machine."

    The fuel that drives the machine is profit, derived from the excess of the "exchange value" realized when land is redeveloped over the "use value" enjoyed by its current residents. This logic dovetails nicely with the greedy developer mantra of more conservative suburban homeowners.

    Growth machine theory has the merit of focusing on the exercise of political power, something that is glossed over in much establishment writing about land use. It explains, moreover, why urban renewal and downtown expressways were so hard to stop in the 1950s and 1960s.

    But the theory is less useful in current circumstances. For one thing, it exaggerates the power of the growth machine. Developers would surely, if allowed, build their high-rises in prestigious close-in neighborhoods like Beverly Hills, Grosse Pointe, and Georgetown. Condos would be easier to sell there than in the run-down areas where local governments now let them build.

    For another, the concept of use value misconstrues the motivation for resistance to growth. Nimbys acquire higher status by means of conspicuous waste; what zoning protects is not the use of land, but its disuse.

    A variant of this theory that emphasizes the role of lower-income neighborhoods as centers of resistance to capitalism is popular among neo-Marxist writers. Aiming to understand the global forces behind recent economic trends, they focus on the role of banks and real estate developers in urban change and downplay the role of individual gentrifiers. The single-family zoning of suburban homeowners has little relevance to their concerns and is often taken for granted.

    The focus on gentrification shifts the political base for affordable housing. Tenants themselves do not mobilize on the abstract issue of future land use as they do for the immediate protection of rent control. Meanwhile, support grows more intense among the gentrifiers themselves—for some grass-roots advocates of affordable housing, opposition to gentrification begins with a desire to keep the neighborhood just the way it was when they moved in. Sympathy for low-income residents comes only afterwards.

    At their worst, local struggles against gentrification have less to do with the poor than with protecting the brand image of poverty in a newly hip neighborhood. Local activists seize on neo-Marxist theory to denounce all change as the evil machinations of the multinational elite. Here there is an echo of pro-sprawl libertarians like Randal O'Toole and Joel Kotkin. One group hails nimbys as enemies of the urban cultural elite; the other welcomes them as partners in the struggle against global capital.

    Either way, the rhetoric serves a similar purpose. It provides a rationale for alliances that would otherwise be hard to square with the locally fashionable political ideology.

    Identifying gentrification as the underlying issue brings the issues of transportation and development to the fore. Other things in poor neighborhoods keep wealthy newcomers out too—crime and bad schools, for example—but it is hard to argue for their preservation.

    An activist may think, as one Chicagoan told an interviewer, that crime helps keep his neighborhood from becoming "too nice," but few long-time residents agree. Targeted instead are light rail lines and new buildings on vacant land. In themselves they displace no one, but as triggers of change they seem as threatening as condo conversions and they are much easier to stop.

    For tenants, who certainly have a direct concern for affordability, coalitions with nimbys lead to a dead end. Changing city neighborhoods cannot be preserved as low-rent refuges unless the demand for urban living is soaked up somewhere else. New urban downtowns would have to be built in the wealthy areas where CEOs live and jobs cluster.

    But the alliance with nimbys makes it impossible to challenge snob zoning within the same political jurisdiction. And by legitimating resistance to change, it reinforces the status quo elsewhere.

    The wealthy inevitably play the exclusion game more effectively than the poor. Pent-up demand is funneled into the surviving remnants of an older urbanism. The price of the existing housing stock soars.

    This dynamic of gentrification has gone furthest in San Francisco, where soaring housing costs accompany tight building limits. The best-paid jobs are in Silicon Valley office parks, so reverse commuters' cars crowd the streets of once-poor neighborhoods.


    Dead ends: Euphemisms hide our true feelings about growth

    Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book. Vicky Hallett also discusses the book in today's Express.

    Ross is giving a book talk on Tuesday, April 22nd, 5:30 pm at APTA headquarters, 1666 K Street NW. Afterward, GGW is cosponsoring a happy hour at the Meeting Place, 1707 L Street NW, at 6:30pm. Stop by for just the talk, just the happy hour, or both!

    In Briarcliff, New York, a spurned builder once wrote, the aim of zoning is to guarantee "that each newcomer must be wealthier than those who came before, but must be of a character to preserve the illusion that their poorer neighbors are as wealthy as they."

    Photo by Michael Patrick on Flickr.

    Such frank talk about land use is rare indeed. If you don't want something built, an honest statement of objections invites defeat in court. If you do, plain speaking is unlikely to convince the zoning board, and it risks offending any neighbors who might be open to a compromise.

    Each party has an illusion to maintain, so words become tools of purposeful confusion. One side directs its linguistic creativity into salesmanship. Rowhouses turn into townhomes; garden apartments grow parked cars in the gardens; dead ends are translated into French as cul-de-sacs. The other, hiding its aims from the world at large and often from itself, has a weakness for phrases whose meaning slips away when carefully examined.

    Land use disputes thus come before the public veiled in a thick fog of evasion, euphemism, and flat-out falsehood. From this miasma rises a plague of obscurity that infects the language itself. Terms devised to conceal reality become so familiar that they are uttered without thinking. Critics find themselves unable to question received dogmas for want of words to express their thoughts.

    A tour of this vocabulary must begin with compatibility. The concept is at the heart of land use regulation. In the narrow sense, incompatible uses are those that cannot coexist, like a smokehouse and a rest home for asthmatics. But the word has taken on a far broader meaning.

    Compatibility, in the enlarged sense, is often thought of as a sort of similarity. But if two things are similar, they are both similar to each other, while with compatibility it is otherwise. A house on a half-acre lot is compatible with surrounding apartment buildings, but the inverse does not follow. An apartment building is incompatible with houses that sit on half-acre lots.

    Compatibility, in this sense, is euphemism. A compatible land use upholds the status of the neighborhood. An incompatible one lowers it. Rental apartments can be incompatible with a neighborhood that would accept the same building sold as condos.

    The euphemism is so well established that the narrow meaning has begun to fall into disuse. Neighbors who object to loud noises or unpleasant odors just lay out the specifics; incompatible has come to mean, "I don't like it and I'm not explaining why." The word is notably unpopular with New Urbanists. Faced with such an obvious case of incompatibility, in the literal sense, as a parking lot in a walkable downtown, they call it a "disruption of the urban fabric" or a "wasteful use of land."

    Compatibility may be the most pervasive linguistic deformation, but it is hardly the only one. Homeowners will complain about the impact on their neighborhood when basement apartments are rented out or high-rises are built nearby. This word conflates purely psychological desires, among them the wish to keep away from people with lower incomes, with physical detriments like smell and shade. Its value lies in its vagueness—objectors can make a case without saying concretely what their objection is. ...

    Another slippery phrase is public use. Here the word use conveys almost the exact opposite of its common meaning. Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, has a definition: public use space is "space devoted to uses for public enjoyment, such as gardens, plazas, or walks." A common example is the empty plaza that sits between an office building and the street, elevating the status of its surroundings through the display of conspicuous waste.

    The operative word in the definition is not "use" but "enjoyment." In other words, no productive work can be done in the space. By this definitional sleight of hand, disuse becomes a kind of use, and indeed the only kind allowed. In one case in 2011, the planning board forbade the placement of a barbecue in a public use space when a neighbor complained that it would encourage the public to use the space. ...

    Our linguistic tour would hardly be complete without a visit to the greedy developer. The key to decoding this phrase is that the word "greedy" lacks semantic content. Antipathy to developers has no relation to their degree of avarice—if anything, non-profit builders of low-income housing encounter more hostility than the truly greedy. The ostensible target is the wealthy entrepreneur who builds new houses. The real one is the people who will live in them.

    The builder stands accused, often enough, of the sin of manhattanization. When first used in San Francisco in the late 1960s by opponents of downtown skyscrapers, this was a vivid and descriptive coinage. But just as the developer's first name lost its connection to avarice, manhattanization became unmoored from New York City. The term, in current usage, can refer to almost any structure that rises above its surroundings.

    A campaign against manhattanizing Menlo Park, California, objects to two-, three-, and four-story buildings around the train station. The movement's leader explains her goals by asking "Are we going to remain a small town, with low-density development, or are we going to be more like Redwood City and Palo Alto?"

    Manhattanize might seem an odd choice of word to convey the meaning of "make it look like Palo Alto," but stale metaphor, as George Orwell pointed out years ago, does a service. It releases the speaker from the need to explain, or even figure out herself, exactly what she means to say. The premise of the argument against density is left unstated and thus immune from challenge.

    "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought," Orwell warned in his famous essay Politics and the English Language. For a half-century and more, deformed language has made it hard to think clearly about the communities we live in. Our system of land use will be the easier to understand, the more we use words that say plainly what we mean.


    How do you get parents to read to their kids? Get them to love reading

    Students need to experience reading as a pleasure and not just as a chore. One DC program aims to nurture a love of reading in a critical population: DC students who are also parents.

    Lulu Delacre at the book club. Photo by Ariel Martino.

    Twice a month, a group of high school students at Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC), a DCPS school serving 6th through 12th grades, gathers over lunch to read and discuss books. The students, young women between the ages of 15 and 18, are also mothers, with children ranging from infants to two-year-olds.

    Some of the young women can read aloud comfortably for several pages, while others stumble over unfamiliar words. English is a second language for most, but their differences in fluency are more apparent when they read than when they speak. However, in the supportive environment of the Student Parent Book Club, there are no groans or titters when someone reads slowly or imperfectly.

    The book club is a collaboration between PEN/Faulkner, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting literature; DCPS; and New Heights, a program that provides services to expectant and parenting students at 13 DCPS and 2 District charter schools.

    New Heights offers many workshops for its students, whose children benefit from on-site child care during the school day. And it sponsors book clubs at CHEC and 3 other schools: Anacostia, Ballou, and Cardozo.

    As a volunteer for PEN/Faulkner, I have been helping to lead the book club at CHEC since October, along with PEN/Faulkner's energetic Programs Coordinator Ariel Martino, who brings Subway sandwiches and books to each meeting. CHEC's New Heights Program Coordinator, Lucy Trejo, works with the students on a daily basis and joins us for the sessions.

    Students need to develop own potential

    What makes the book club successful is that it focuses primarily on the parents as readers and secondarily on how they can impact their children as future readers. In order to nurture their children's potential, they first need to develop their own. So the reading includes children's literature, but we devote more time to books that will engage the students themselves.

    Reading levels and proficiency on standardized tests don't matter in our book club. Ariel and I sometimes pause to ask questions to make sure everyone understands the story or to explain something confusing, but everyone knows there will be no quizzes or essay assignments on the material. The lunch time context also helps to set an informal tone.

    The book clubs are part of PEN/Faulkner's Writers in Schools program, which connects DC-area authors with public school students. Our book club has had visits from authors of two books so far this year and we expect to have two additional author visits in the spring.

    One of the books was Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, a short story collection by Danielle Evans. We devoted 4 sessions to the book prior to the author's visit. The first story we read was "Virgins," about a 15-year-old African-American girl losing her virginity. It was obvious that these young moms could relate to the story of a girl's rationalizing that sex, "if it didn't happen now, would happen later but not better."

    After reading 3 stories from the collection, we were all excited about meeting the author. Evans read aloud a portion of one of her other stories and answered questions about how she became a writer and how she goes about creating her stories.

    Our next visit was from bilingual children's author Lulu Delacre, who read aloud from and passed out copies of her latest picture book, How Far Do You Love Me? Delacre suggested ways that the young moms could interact with their children by asking questions about the pictures and introducing new vocabulary in both English and Spanish.

    Extend the idea to other parents?

    My experience with the Student Parent Book Club has made me think about how little support and encouragement most new parents get in our society. I worry in particular about those who do not graduate from high school and go on to become parents, or who drop out after having children.

    Many DC schools have social workers who help parents access social services and adult education programs, but it would be valuable to expand the concept of parent book clubs to benefit parents no longer enrolled in school. As DC schools struggle to improve literacy rates among low-income students, they should do anything they can to promote a love of reading among parents.

    The promise of free books, free food, and free child care might not be enough to appeal to all parents. But for those curious enough to show up, it could make a genuine difference for them and for their children.

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