Why You Should Vote In Local Elections

A pair of feet make making a V next to the letters O, T, E written in chalk, spelling the word vote
Image by Theresa Thompson https://www.flickr.com/photos/theresasthompson/

Midterm elections are coming up on Tuesday November 6! If you are eligible to vote in the US I hope you are planning to do so. On the federal level every member of the House of Representatives is up for reelection and one third of Senate. However I’m not here to talk about national politics. This is planning blog so I want to talk about the elections that most directly impact the built environment — local elections! Remember your local planning decisions can affect all kinds of things; for example how well your community will be able to adapt to climate change, how hard will it be for kids to get to school and how will that burden be distributed, will there be good places for communities to hang out in public, and will there be more small local businesses or more large national corporations. What we build and where we build it is a reflection of our values, so if you are interested in making your city fairer for everyone, protecting your local environment or making housing more affordable you should vote in local elections.

City councils have the power to make zoning codes and adopt general plans. These are the base rules for your town. Want more housing? — then you have to plan for it, and zone for it. The city council also controls the city budget including how much gets spent on roads, sidewalks, parks and other infrastructure. City councillors can also appoint members to bodies like the zoning board of adjustment or the landmarks commission which make decisions about individual projects and buildings. The sum of those decisions will affect how easy or hard it is to build in your community.

You may also have the opportunity to vote for local boards and district offices such as the school board, irrigation districts, or a transit board. These are all also jobs that will affect your communities opportunities to learn and thrive as well as the local environment. Schools, buses and how we treat water are all important.

In many places you will be able to directly vote on laws. For example it’s fairly common that bond measures be put to a vote. Typical bond measures fund specific projects, such as new schools, road repair or parks through municipal bonds which the city pays back out of future taxes. Other local spending measures such as increases to specific taxes for specific projects are relatively common local ballot measures.

State level elections are also important in terms of the built environment. You will probably be able to vote for state legislators this election. Who makes state law matters for planning because state budgets can be used for local projects. Plus State governments have the power preempt local laws. For example in Colorado state law prohibits local governments form banning or restricting fracking. You may have the ability to vote for ballot measures at a state as well as local level. For example here in California I’ll be voting on 11 statewide measures including bond measures to support affordable housing, whether to allow more rent control, and changes to the property tax code. All of these things will impact the built environment around the state for years to come.

One of the reasons people don’t vote in local elections is that it can be hard to find out about the candidates and measures. Small campaigns don’t always have lot of visibility and may not put much info online. However there are some resources available. Some states put out voter guides. But if you don’t live in one of those places there are still ways to become informed. Local newspapers can be good place to start, these frequently run editorials about elections and sometimes print guides or endorsement slates. Local organizations that are focused on specific issues can also be helpful. For example when deciding how to vote I generally look at how local housing, transit and environmental organizations suggest I vote. Some places host public events with the candidates so look out for those. I’ve also seen candidates campaigning in public places like farmers markets. Libraries are another good resource for information on voting. You could also ask an informed friend for advice both on now to vote and on how to be more informed.

Another strategy people use is to work with a group of friends to research the issues and candidates. Each person does in depth research about a few races then the group meets up to share what they learned. This allows everyone to be informed without each person having to do all the leg work themselves. If this isn’t possible for you and you don’t have time to research everything it’s better to pick at least one or two down ballot races to commit to voting in than just to not vote in any of them.

Try to do all you research ahead of time and go to the polls with your choices written down. I know this is lot of work and decision fatigue is real, but democracy works when everyone is informed and everyone takes part.

Voting in local elections is very important. Please do if you are eligible! Local officials they have major impact on your daily life, they make choices about what gets built where, buses, schools, sidewalks, street trees, parking and other aspects of the built environment. Local politics can feel like small potatoes but they do have big impact on your community.

San Jose, CA

I recently spent a few days in San Jose which is a part of the Bay Area that I don’t visit that often. Downtown San Jose seems like a place where people go to work but don’t really live and hang out. Since I was mostly there during non-business hours it was hard to get sense of what the place would be like when its really busy. This type of downtown that empties out when no one is at work is a known phenomena in urban planning, and something that most planners think is problem. I hope that that city will work to bring more housing downtown because it has a lot of cool spaces that would be improved by people hanging out in them. (And because the Bay Area, especially Silicon Valley really needs more housing.)

One space that caught my eye was Plaza de César Chávez which is located in between two busy streets but near several museums and pedestrian walkway lined with shops. Every time I walked by this Plaza there where people there, sitting on benches or kids playing on bikes. The Plaza also had interesting things going on, such as food trucks and live music.

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Plaza de César Chávez

Another public open space that caught my eye was the Guadalupe River Way. This park was mostly below street level along the river. It looked like it had been landscaped with river restoration and flood control in mind. However it was very overgrown and didn’t have many people at the times I visited. This was really too bad because it felt like it could be an awesome space if it was better cared for and had more visitors.

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View of Guadalupe River Way from under a freeway
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View of Guadalupe River Way; close up showing how over grown the park has become

Downtown itself had some nice pedestrian features like this arch. There’s also the nice pedestrian mall I mentioned in an earlier post. First St was clearly designed for pedestrians. This street featured a light rail, colorful crosswalks, wide sidewalks and many trees. Because of the trees this street was noticeably cooler than the nearby streets.

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When I walked out side of the downtown area I notices a sudden change in the buildings. Instead of office towers, the buildings around me were now two story Victorian houses. Since this area is so close to downtown it seems like shame that its not denser with more housing for people who want to live close to downtown.

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Houses near downtown San Jose

However I did see signs that San Jose is improving. Within a short walk of where I was staying I saw an apartment complex under construction and two signs for developments in the permitting process, one of them affordable housing.

Overall, based on my visit I thought downtown San Jose was nice urban space that needed more housing and more people to make it really reach its full potential.

 

 

Community Snapshot: Fault Lines

Welcome to the very first Community Snapshot post! Community Snapshot is a blog feature that showcases reader photos from around the world. Do you always wonder about that funny shaped block? or rant about that one intersection that doesn’t make any sense? Take a picture and send it my way!

Housing On Hill
Photo Credit Joshua Blazej

I’m Joshua Blazej and have lived in Simi Valley California for a large portion of my life and I’ve seen it become more developed over the years.

The picture below has images of housing on both ends, those on the right are around 30 years old with those on the left being built more recently.  It might be hard to see from the picture, but the housing on the left has a large amount of open space before reaching their fencing.

My understand is that is because place the picture is being taken is on or near a fault line.  The newer housing was prohibited from building too close to it, while the existing housing on the right is closer just because the regulations (or fault line maps) were changed between the construction of these two residential areas.

Hi Joshua,

Thanks for sharing this picture with us!

I was curious as to whether this fault line would show up on your local zoning map. So I went and downloaded it. You can find the Simi Valley Zoning map here. I have to say though that it is one of the harder to read zoning maps I have come across. While many cities have color coded maps of the city with each zone a different color (generally with related zones different shades of the same color) Simi Valley’s map is black and white and broken into pages with each page showing only a small section of the city. While this is easier to print out than one large pdf it’s a lot harder to look at on screen.

Anyways, the fault line doesn’t seem to appear on your zoning map. There might be some type of fault ordinance in the city’s laws which requires a set back from the fault. Something like that would be harder to find with a quick search.

While I’ve never seen a fault line called out like this I have seen similar treatment of other hazard areas such as flood zones. It’s not uncommon for cities to have these types of zones set aside for less intense building.

Murals

Hi there!

I’ve lived in a couple of cities that have had a lot of murals — the standout here from my personal history was Pittsburgh (http://www.pghmurals.com/). Could you talk a little about how projects like this work? Like how do you get permission to paint on buildings and other structures? What goes into maintaining murals? I love this sort of public art but have no idea how it works.

Thanks!

Ira

 

Hi Ira,

Murals are a lot of fun. They add visual interests to a place and often tell you something about the local community. I’m particularly partial to murals depicting something about the history of the place myself. Murals have frequently been used as tools of social activism. Another reason that murals are awesome is that they add to the walkablity of place by making it more fun to be out on the street. Murals are also used to discourage graffiti.

The exact process of getting a mural approved is going to vary a lot city to city as each city will have it own process. There is not really a standardized way that murals are permitted. Small towns are less likely than big cities to have a formal process in place. The formal process can take a long time.

Cities with mural permitting systems regulate a variety of things. For example LA requires that murals remain for at least two years. Most cities also do not allow murals to be used for advertising.

Most mural artists will try to get permission from the owner of the wall before proceeding regardless of city permitting needed. This can be a bit tricky because the owner can be hard to track down. However having permission means that the muralist can can proceed without worrying about getting caught, and that the mural is much more likely to be maintained after it is done. It’s also good to get community buy in for any type of public art.

While murals are cheaper than many other forms of public art they still require labor and materials which cost money. Some big cities have money set aside to specifically to help fund murals, but most murals are privately funded. There are also a variety of non-profits which will provide grants for murals. Some artists will also volunteer their time, or work with community volunteers.

The process of painting a mural is complex. Murals are generally planed before they are painted. The wall must be prepared and the artist must cordon off the area and in many cases set up scaffolding. The artist also has to communicate with various stakeholders such as the building owner, the neighbors and city officials. For a detailed timeline of an artist’s process of mural making see here (starting on page 12).

Murals artists have limited rights should the owners of the wall wish to paint over the wall or knock it down. While the owners are required under the federal Visual Artist Rights Act (VARA) to notify the artist and give them 90 days to remove the art if possible many property owners fail to comply. Even if they do comply it is difficult and expensive to move a mural. Therefore most murals are basically at the property owner’s mercy.

However even when everyone does want to preserve the mural there are challenges to overcome. The best way for murals to last a long time is to plan ahead. A well planned and maintained mural can have life span of 20-30 years. When planning a mural the artist must take into consideration all kinds of factors regarding the wall such as how old it is, what direction it faces, and what’s on the inside of the building.

It’s important to assign responsibility for maintenance before hand. It also important that community members like and support the mural — they are much more likely to take actions that would protect the mural in that case.

For a really thorough look at what it takes to plan and maintain a mural Heritage Preservation has very detailed PDF that you can find here

This just a short overview of all the issues involved with murals. I hope it helps you understand the process and appreciate the murals around you more. To learn more about specific murals or where to see local murals try searching “[your city] murals.”

Madison, WI

 

I was recently in Madison, WI and I thought I’d share my impressions with you. I love wandering around new to me cities and thinking about how they are put together. This is great way for me to think about planning theory. I only visited downtown Madison so this post will focus on that area.

One of the things I enjoyed in Madison was the many great signs. These signs allowed me as visor to learn more about the city and added a sense of history that locals probably appreciate too.

Here you can see a 3d map of the state with a capitol building model, a sign explaining a historic landmark, a sign explaining the geology of Madison sign, and a sign telling about the mushroom farm outside children’s museum.

As the sign explains, Madison is glacial landscape. The capitol building for the state of WI sits on a drumlin, a type of glacial hill, between two lakes. It’s a neo-classical building with a domed roof like many civic buildings in the US. It is very well situated, with the building sitting on top of the hill and eight streets running up to it and terminating at the capitol. Four of these are part of the grid in that area and four run at diagonals to the grid. Each street gives a lovely view of the building at top of the hill. The building itself is surrounded by a square where a farmers Farmers Market is held on Saturdays.

 

I’m an early riser so I got to the market in time for breakfast. It was lovely to walk around and see all the produce. Above are two pictures of the market and picture of some of my spoils: cheese curds and honey cake, they made a tasty breakfast.

I forgot to take a picture of state street! This might be the most famous (among planners anyways) feature of Madison. State St runs from the capitol building to the campus. It is one of the streets that cuts across the grid at a diagonal that I mentioned. Its a charming main street with many local businesses and good walkablity. I ate at several resturants on State St during my time in Madison, all of which served me tasty food.

While overall I thought downtown Madison was lovely and enjoyed getting to explore the city, there are always things to improve. In Madison one of these is access to the lakes.

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Here is a picture I took  at the end of the sidewalk near the lake. As you can see the sidewalk ends, then there is  are two lines of railroad track, then a four lane highway then a pedestrian path then a park and finally the lake. From where I was standing there was no easy way to get to the lakeside park.  I believe that there is a pedestrian crossing to the park in downtown but I didn’t find it in my wanderings.

Still downtown Madison is lovely to visit and walk around it and I hope to go back again.

Just for  fun I’m going finish off with a picture of cow sculpture:

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life sized cow with a picture of Wisconsin on her side.

 

Book Review: The Color of Law

Color of Law cover

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein is book that takes a long hard look at how the US government at all levels has created segregated communities for African Americans. This book starts with the passing of the thirteenth amendment ending Slavery and continues to the present day and makes clear that current residential segregation did not “just happen” but was caused by active government policies

Rothstein is lawyer working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who became interested in this topic as a result of Chief Justice Roberts’ ruling in  Parents Involved in Community Schools v Seattle School District where Roberts stated that the neighborhood segregation which led to school segregation was “not traceable” to government action and therefore the government was not required to remedy it by taking race into account when assigning students to to schools. Rothstein suspected that Roberts was mistaken and researched the history of government involvement in racial segregation in the US and wrote this book

What’s great about this book but also makes it tough to read is how thoroughly it explores the topic of residential segregation. The book discusses how segregation happened all over the US. It covers zoning laws, red lining, white flight and even ways the government has suppressed the income of African Americans making it tough for them to buy into middle class neighborhoods. In some cases the sheer pettiness of the government made me extremely angry.

Rothstein’s legal background shows throughout the book. He continually focuses on the constitutional necessity to provide remedies to African Americans affected by unjust government policies. However for planners working at the local level the book does not offer many ideas about what can be done improve the situation, though it does provide a strong reminder to consider possible “disparate impacts” of local planning policy.

This is an important an infuriating book and you should read it you are at all interested in racial justice in the US. It’s imperative that we don’t assume that the current state of residential segregation was created without government intervention, and this book shows why that assumption would be false.

Why Don’t Sidewalks Get Built?

Lack of Sidewalk
Photo credit Renay

 

Dear Building Community

In my city, we have a massive highway that cuts its way from the south into the northeast. A decade ago this road wasn’t heavily trafficked, and there were hardly any businesses. In 2018, it’s the retail center of a huge swath of Northeast Arkansas from its southern tip to the northeastern city limits. Development on the road started with the additional of our new mall in the mid-2010s, and most recently a massive hospital was finished at the north side of the city that brought even more businesses. But as the rest of the long stretch of highway has been developed, one thing has seemingly gone ignored: sidewalks. This has created a situation where a massive highway with lots of businesses is incredibly inaccessible to people without cars or using mobility devices. It’s dangerous for pedestrians and most parts aren’t walkable at all when it’s raining. It’s additionally puzzling because this same road runs right by a state college; sidewalks leading downtown could promote student interaction with the city, and seems odd that the city would have let this road develop this way. How does something like this happen, besides the obvious thoughtless, ableist nature of city government? What makes sidewalks so hard for cities to grapple with that highways like this develop that are unsafe, inaccessible, and hostile to anyone not inside a car?

-Renay

 

Sidewalks are really great so it’s always a shame when they don’t get built. As well as being an important part of accessibility as you mentioned, sidewalks also help reduce car trips, by making it easier and safer for people to walk instead of drive, and help to create a sense of community. Sidewalks are place where people meet by chance, say hello and pet each other’s dogs. Sidewalks are also important to communities with less access to cars like students.

The main reason sidewalks don’t get built is that sidewalks are what economists call a public good — everyone can benefit from them, and one person using them doesn’t take away from other’s ability to use them. Some other examples of public goods in this sense are clean air, knowledge and national defense. Since everyone benefits from public goods and once they exist people can’t be excluded, its is in everyone’s selfish interest not to pay for them but instead to hope that others create them.

In most US cities sidewalks are on private land. The city might own the street but they don’t own the sidewalk, the people who own the lot next to the sidewalk own the land under it. Building and maintaining sidewalks is generally a requirement in the city building code but that doesn’t mean sidewalks always get built. Even though everyone benefits from a good network of sidewalks, the people who own the property don’t benefit very much from that one section in front of their house or business so they are not incentivized to pay for it.

For many public goods, we as a society address the problem by having people pay taxes and then using the tax money to pay for what the public needs. However most cities do not use this model for sidewalks. One of the reasons for this is the US historical prioritization of cars over other means of transportation. Also since sidewalks are technically on private land some people have objected to using public funds to pay for improvements to private lands. Because the Fifth Amendment states that private property cannot be taken by the government without “just compensation” if cities want to own that land they would have to buy it at fair market rate. Very few cities have that kind of money. So sidewalks get stuck in this weird limbo where the people responsible of building them don’t have much incentive to do so.

Having sidewalks paid for by the homeowner is not a red state/blue state divide. My parents who live in the San Francisco Bay Area recently had to pay to repair they sidewalk in front of their house. While they could afford it I’m sure they would rather have paid the same amount in small yearly taxes rather than a lump sum all at once. And for people who are less financially stable than my parents having to pay a big sum like that unexpectedly can be a major problem. So the current system can be really hard on struggling homeowners. However most people don’t think about how sidewalk installation and repair are funded and assume that the city pays for it.

I also want to mention that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require that sidewalks be built, only that sidewalks which are built or upgraded meet certain standards of accessibility. So that makes sidewalks more expensive to build but doesn’t deal with what is a key issue in many communities, the lack of any sidewalk at all. Another common problem with sidewalks is lack of connectivity — where you have sidewalks in some places but not everywhere, for example I’ve seen sidewalks that end in the middle of blocks, and places where the sidewalk is just missing for a block. Things like that make it hard for people to get around on foot and are very challenging to people with mobility issues.

I hope this helps you understand why your city doesn’t have sidewalks in that commercial district. I think the solution is to change the way that sidewalk installation and maintenance are paid for but that it will be tough to overcome years of inertia, fears around raising taxes, and concerns about private property rights. Best of luck!