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Hi Internet,

I’ve finally gotten around to reserving my own domain. This blog will now be updated at:

www.ruthmiller.net

Stay tuned for pictures from Los Angeles, Baltimore, New York, Boston, and whatever I end up writing for my thesis!

After three long months of planning, a red-eye, video editing, and a little tweeting, my four-part post on the Center for Community Preservation and Planning is finally finished, online, and already starting to bounce around the Internet.

If you haven’t already heard, I happened to grow up in a small town in Georgia with uncharacteristically excellent long range land use planning. They weren’t always like that, and it didn’t happen over night. Lucky for me, it evolved over the exact same time that I went from working after school in a real estate office, through studying urban planning at MIT, to now.

So when the MIT Community Innovator’s Lab sent this tweet:

What else could I do?

The weekend after midterms, I hoped on a red-eye to ATL and interviewed about 13 people on a Friday and Monday. I spent Saturday and Sunday in the Center for Community Preservation with the director, Kay Lee, and driving around my hometown videotaping the things I loved and hated about it. I highly recommend it.

Now, all four blogs posts, all with video, are up on the MIT site.

Strategic Planning in Rural Georgia: An intro to the community, with both an incredibly proximity to Atlanta and a lot of rural charm.

Comprehensive Planning Classroom: How the community leverages students for cheap labor and fresh ideas.

What can public agencies gain from collaboration?: or “How the electeds came around.”

Planning for Growth in a Recession: The tastiest food for thought – now that the relentless development pressure has relented, how do you keep the planning pressure on? Will growth ever come back, and if it does, will it be the same? How do you plan for the unknown, while struggling to keep people at the table?

This is all fine and good, but then, via by Twitter:

WHAT? Kaid is the director of the Sustainable Communities at the Natural Resources Defense Council. His post is titled “A Rapidly Sprawling Community Tries to Save Itself”. The next day, his article was blogged on the Atlantic’s Cities. An excerpt:

Well that’s pretty exciting. I’ll spend another two weeks in Covington over the winter break, so and flying back in late January to support their annual Leadership Collaborative. This time, I know to bring a tripod.

 

Opportunities to visit St. Louis, MO don’t pop up very frequently, which is where I happened to find myself last weekend. How was it? The full effect of the Recession didn’t really materialize until I tried to find a barbecue restaurant that wasn’t out of business. That’s how bad the economy is.

Fortunately, we found an excelling one (Bogart’s) one block from an excellent pub. The St. Louis style is apparently pretty sweet, which is good, if you like pork candy.

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City planning-wise, there’s clearly an old, entrenched debate about property rights and redevelopment in this sleepy rustbelt city. Underneath the St. Louis Arch, a sprawling museum tells the tale of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion. The documentation isn’t as progressive as that of say, Idaho Falls, but it does acknowledge that the Americans may have swindled a bunch of “Indians” out of their land.

Which is why I found it interesting that the the museum praises the scale of the Arch project by the 40 blocks the city had to raze to make way for the park.

Later, from the highway, I noticed a building (carved at an odd angle, likely for the highway), with a two-story painted sign: “End Eminent Domain Abuse”.

It’s sad to see how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go.

In my land use law class today, our professor brought up a letter from the Oakland Chamber of Commerce to the City of Oakland.

As you can imagine, the Oakland Chamber is none too pleased with the camping and weekly police raids in Downtown Oakland. There are a handful of shops and restaurants on Frank Ogawa Plaza, and several more galleries and restaurants all over downtown. When you can’t sit in the park, you’re less likely to get lunch in the park. And when the park reeks of tear gas in the morning, you’re less likely to go out for coffee.

Downtown Oakland is rightfully nervous about keeping businesses around. After the Mehserle verdict last year, Clorox vacated its downtown office building and moved its 700 employees out of Oakland entirely. Having worked in downtown for years, and seeing the response of the suburban senior executives to all this commotion, I see their logic. Why work in a war zone?

The Chamber brought up two interesting charges. First, they argued that camping, specifically, was not free speech, and should not be allowed in the plaza. This is a slippery slope – when you prohibit camping, you can prohibit all sorts of things. Free speech shouldn’t have a curfew.

But in California’s courts, which have a very loose interpretation of free speech, this is likely to go the other way. When you allow camping for protest of class inequality, then you have to consider allowing camping in protest of a lack of affordable housing – something the homeless do every day. I doubt that’s what the Chamber has in mind.

Second, the Chamber suggests that if the City of Oakland endorses the Occupy Oakland camp, they’re actually rezoning the park to allow residential occupation. Rezoning requires a lengthy legislative process with lots of public notice.

This is a clever maneuver to keep the City from encouraging the protestors, but is unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny. California is a direct democracy. Any time the people express their will (initiative, referendum, recall), that will is exempt from the constraints given to councilmembers and supervisors, including environmental impact analysis and public notice. The logic goes – if the authority of elected officials is granted by the public, that public has a greater authority. The fact that Oakland is a charter city gives its public even greater presumptive validity in the courts.

Our class verdict – the Chamber of Commerce isn’t nearly as threatening to Occupy Oakland as the rain.

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I live four blocks from 14th and Broadway, which was renamed “Oscar Grant Plaza” by Google Maps earlier this week. Occupy Oakland called for a general city-wide strike yesterday, so at 4:30 I showed up to march on the Port of Oakland with 7,000 other protestors.

The first part of the march was by far the best and most surreal. The bus I usually take home wouldn’t stop anywhere near downtown, so I walked to 14th and Broadway from Telegraph and Grand. Then we walked to the Port in a mile-long continuous sea of people. The drivers we blocked honked and cheered in support. The attitude was hugely positive. There was a marching band. Someone noticed my Atlanta Bicycle Coalition shirt and dropped the most impressive rap about Covington and In the Heat of the Night. I saw people I knew from around Oakland, and had a great time talking Oakland politics (as always). This is what it feels like to be part of a community.

The highlight was definitely a group of 3-5 year olds cheering for us from their treehouse in West Oakland. They climbed to the highest part of the structure to see over their fence. West Oakland has some of the worst environmental and social justice issues in the country, and has suffered from the recession more than most. I’m sure they were cheering because they liked the spectacle and their parents told them what to say, but damn if I didn’t get a little misty.

Blocking trucks from leaving the Port was pretty easy – I saw one guy hop out of his truck and join the protest. A few people in cars disagreed, and drove pretty recklessly on their way out. I read on Twitter that a handful of people had actually been hit or dragged some distance by some aggressive drivers.

Twitter was a welcomed instantaneous, if unreliable, new source. Soon after we took the 7th Street bridge (referred to on the ground as “the bridge”), we heard rumors of people marching on the Bay Bridge. Josh pointed out that in the echo chamber of the Internet, people elsewhere heard “bridge” and assumed the big one, and tweeted that misinformation back to the ground. At 7th and Maritime, we were confused, but collectively decided going all the way to the Bay Bridge was a bad idea.

If you haven’t tried it, collective decision making is a mess. We had a few disagreements as a crowd of 500+. Some people wanted to block the port employees from leaving. This was quickly shot down. Others wanted to keep the local CBS news van from leaving, arguing that they were part of the 1% and getting paid overtime. This is not my understanding of the current state of journalism compensation, so I joined the speakers lobbying for their release. We voted overwhelmingly against keeping them, but one person who disagreed took it upon himself to block them from leaving. Honestly, if you’re point is that the media make you look foolish, don’t act foolish in front of them. The local NBC news van snuck out barely noticed during the vote.

After an hour or so of helicopter searchlights and other Orwellian signatures, Maude and I made our way back to Downtown Oakland to meet Josh. At this point, I hadn’t seen a single police officer. Biking down 7th Street to West Oakland BART, we saw about 30 officers in riot gear standing near the freeway entrance. One was snacking. One driver asked if there was any chance of getting into the Port. I shouted back, and don’t know what the officer said, but the driver got back on the freeway to leave.

The rest of our night was uneventful. We broke the strike to find dinner, which was delicious, organic, and locally owned. We wound back to 14th and Broadway around 11. There were probably several hundred people left, with music, and the atmosphere was still positive. Someone from 7th and Maritime recognized me and we chatted about the frustrating decision-making process, but the positive and peaceful events thus far. After walking over 6 miles, I fell asleep in bed to helicopters, again.

It’s been a long few weeks. As mentioned in my last post, I was honored by the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals to be a finalist in their poster competition. Between the generosity of APBP, WOBO, and my own department at Berkeley, I was able to attend the APBP Professional Development Seminar in Charlotte, North Carolina.

How did it go?

For one, I may have been the only person using the recommended Twitter hashtag – #APS11. Not like that stopped me. Did you know the National Board of Realtors announced walking trails to be a bigger draw than golf courses? Can you imagine – maybe there are potential homebuyers that *don’t* like golf? (sarcasm intended)

This was by far my longest trip to North Carolina, and my only time in a North Carolinian city. You don’t get to host the APBP conference without some excellent ped/bike infrastructure, and the city definitely looked like it was trying. In particular, I loved the checkered crosswalks near the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

I also snapped a photo of this sign by a crosswalk. Call in to get a pre-recorded bit of history? Pretty clever!

I heard there were far more interesting tidbits on the various APBP-hosted walking and biking tours. Key lesson learned – when a pedestrian advocacy organization invites you for a walk, go with them!

The conference had some highlights, too. The attendees seemed to be almost entirely city staff in beleaguered and broke cities, excited to take back ideas to their communities. My poster on parklets was a big hit at the poster session.

The sessions were well organized and brought some big names, but maybe my land use class at Berkeley has already started drawing me away from bike/ped transportation projects. It was good to learn more about the LEED Neighborhood Development certification, but I felt like a buzzkill for asking if they collected data on the affordability of LEED-ND homes (short answer: “ummm… no”).

I was a bit taken aback in a session on complete streets how few people were from communities with complete streets (including me!). Without best practices of our own to share, we started talking about places we’d visited on vacation. Then someone said the magic words: my community is near a major city, and we’re struggling to keep up with the growth. Bam! I realized that Oakland wasn’t the story I needed to tell this group, so I explained Newton County, Georgia’s Comprehensive Development Plan (putting 88% of growth and all new infrastructure in compact communities on just 30% of the land). Between that and the open source permit, application and guidelines for San Francisco’s parklets, I made a few friends.

Here’s a small version of my enormous 3’x8′ poster.

It’s been a busy first half of my first semester of graduate school.

I’m taking Environmental Planning Law, Introduction to Geographic Information Systems, Introduction to Transportation and Land Use Planning, and a little something I like to call Statistics for Social Scientists.  I’m also on the editorial board of the student-run Berkeley Planning Journal, as well as the graduate student researcher tasked with transitioning the journal to an open content format online.

On a whim, I submitted applications to three projects outside the Berkeley Department of City and Regional Planning:

  • The poster competition at the Energy and Resources Collaborative (BERC) Symposium and Innovation Expo at Berkeley. The topic – parklets as a cheap infrastructure improvement to improve walkability, and thus reduce driven trips and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The poster competition at the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals at their annual conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. Again, parklets, but this time as an innovative public-private financed tool.
  • The fall video series on the MIT Community Innovators Lab Radio. Granted, I’ve never produced a video involving more than two people or longer than 8 minutes, but the Center for Community Preservation and Planning in my Georgia hometown has a story that deserves telling, and iMovie is supposed to be pretty straightforward.

Of course I didn’t realize I’d get accepted to all three, and everything would happen in the last half of October. So it goes.

Staring down two mid-terms, a red-eye, five interviews, and a high school football game in the next 48 hours, this seems like a good time to take a blogging break to celebrate one tiny victory. Behold, my first academic poster.

Click to download a 20 MB readable copy.

Here goes!

As my loving boyfriend pointed out: “You have a lot of city planning reading to do, so you wake up early to read more city planning books that aren’t required? You’re sick.”

Last week, I discovered the Environmental Design Library at Berkeley. I felt like I was shopping for an apartment. Oh, that’s a great place to spread out, I could see myself being comfortable here. Now where are the outlets? But when I started roaming the racks, I found several books on a topic that’s interested me for a while – Islamic urbanism.

I spent a few weeks in Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and Syria in summer 2008, and had a great time. In order of excellence: food, people, architecture. It was my first trip out of the US/Euro zone, and it was exciting to explore cities that were fundamentally different, and yet similar. The old city streets in Damascus were windy and narrow, but I easily turned up on a major street after a few minutes. The density of people, uses, and buildings created a very natural logic. I left convinced that the Islamic urban form and transportation systems were something deserving further study.

Anyone that’s been will tell you that Damascus is beautiful. The old town is walkable and dense in a way that doesn’t feel quite familiar at first, but quickly becomes natural. Amman is large, but full of mixed uses and activity. Even Ramallah, for all of its difficulties, is incredibly vibrant. These are all exciting places to be, and they work, even though they don’t work quite like Western cities.

The best part to me is how well transit works in these cities and how it works so cheaply. You can take a van across town or across the region. Some have schedules. Others wait until they’re full to depart, and if you’re in a rush, you can buy the remaining empty seats. It’s strange because it’s different, but again, it clearly works.

My undergraduate thesis was all about the difficulties integrating public transportation into US rural areas. If someone is able to make it work, I’m listening.

My first stop in the Berkeley library was the Arabic and Muslim cities section. I’ve read a handful of books from different authors, mostly on urban form. Here’s what I found.

  • Note that everything we study in transportation and land use classes is from the US, Canada, or Western Europe. China and Latin America are the “developing world”, and generally the only projects in those regions we discuss are new, because someone from our department was working there. This was true at MIT, too.
  • Why don’t we study Islamic cities today? Well into the 1990s, people argued whether or not Middle Eastern cities really counted as “cities”. The logic went that because Muslims were nomads, they couldn’t form “real” (read: Western) urban areas. Orientalism, much?
  • Obviously, Islamic cities do exist. Have you heard of Cairo?
  • Visiting Islamic cities now, it’s easy to be struck by the number of tiny, narrow streets. These evolved naturally. To avoid conflict between factions, city administrators carved out large neighborhood sections for each group. This is how we have quarters in cities like Damascus and Jerusalem today. Each neighborhood controlled its own land use, transportation, sewage, etc. Though most cities were laid out on a grid at one point, neighborhoods were willing to make exceptions to accomodate extended families. New buildings and structures went up haphazardly.
  • In most US cities, property lines stop at the interior edge of the sidewalk, preserving public access to the sidewalk and street. In Islamic cities, a property owner has control over the airspace over the street. As structures cantilevered overhead, and people set up semi- and eventually permanent-markets in the street, the streets became more narrow. Narrow streets are shady, which made it possible for people to linger in markets.
  • Islamic cities today don’t have as much emphasis on public space as Western Cities. Mosques have large plazas, and because most people living in the cities used the mosque multiple times a day, that met the demand for open space. Plus, when it’s really hot, a big open park isn’t as much fun anyway.
  • Because Islam discourages idolatry, and historically Muslims have produced a lot of math (like al-jabr) public art is largely geometric. There are few statues.
  • Early civic administrators and caliphs discouraged gaudy buildings altogether, until they realized that their trading partners were impressed by it.

Clearly there’s a rhyme and reason to Islamic urban form. What’s fascinating to me is that Islamic urban form evolved parallel to the West. So as a planner, wanting for ideas that aren’t connected to sprawling Garden Cities, this seems like a good place to look.

And now, the obligatory pictures from my trip:

I pretty much love being the outspoken Oaklander in my new grad department. Or at least the one that people sometimes, occasionally come to when they’re new in town and need to show some guests around. Tomato, tomahto.

One question I’ve been asked a lot is for blog recommendations. I thought I’d throw a few up here, and see if anyone has any more to add. I’m sorry in advance if I miss yours.

Oakland Local – I write for it, so I’m biased

Streetsblog SF - I also write for it, but it’s really transportation wonky and great

Oakland North – Run by the Berkeley Journalism Department, very feature-y, but well written.

Living in the O – A great local blogger, with great attention to detail

A Better Oakland – Another great local blogger with great attention to detail

The DTO – Excellent coverage of Oakland happenings

The Transbay Blog – Very detailed analysis of regional transportation issues.

The Bay Citizen - I take issue with some of their biases and poorly founded analysis. It lives up to its reputation as the New York Times West. Good for regional and social issues.

Oaktown Art – Beautiful pictures!

Our Oakland – A great street (and often plate) level view of the city.

Because we already live in the future, I also find Twitter to be a really satisfying news source. Most things are broken on Twitter first these days anyway, but I especially find it useful to have a well curated feed during bouts of civil unrest. The biases of the major news networks are especially obvious when you have first person reports to read in real time. I also follow the #oakmtg hashtag during city meetings, because I’m a huge nerd, and it’s a great way to hear about what’s happening without actually having to drag yourself to City Hall.

For local politics, I follow:
@OaklandBecks, @dto510@Vsmoothe@enf, @oaklandscene, @gerryshih, @matthai, @OscarGrantTrial, @DIYGene, @kenyaw, @ZushaElinson, @susanmernit, @oaklandlocal, @eastbayexpress, @transbay, @EBBC, @walkoakbikeoak, @SFCityscape, @northoaklandnow

For food, I follow:
@fivetenburger, @ElTacoBike, @bitesoffbroadway, @TinaTamale, @penelopeoakland

I’m a serious grad student now (or a few days from it), but getting headlines on planning sites always make me happy.

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