Published: Sun, 26 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0400
Last Build Date: Sun, 26 Mar 2017 07:30:23 -0400
Thu, 15 Dec 2016 12:15:00 -0500The last time I was in India, it was a familiar scene. The rickshaws rumbling through busy bazaars. Shoppers haggling over everything from gemstones to silk sarees. Pilgrims prostrating their way to salvation. Authentic street food, enhanced by locally-sourced infectious pathogens. This time around, I knew the country had changed. I wanted to see the effects of thirteen years of market reform and hypergrowth since my last visit. So I summoned an Uber (already something new) and headed 15 miles south of my Delhi hotel. As the crumbling roads of the capital city opened up into a 32-lane expressway, the old India I thought I knew, gave way to the future. I'd arrived in the city of Gurgaon. It's hard to imagine, but twenty-five years ago, there was nothing here. No high-rises. No kitschy shopping malls with Vegas-like trompe l'oeil ceilings. No 27-hole Jack Nicklaus signature golf courses. Stretching back to medieval times, Gurgaon was nothing more than a plot of rocky soil with a small marketplace. Until six years ago, it didn't even have a municipal government. So what happened? When Delhi banned private real estate development in the 1950s, Kushal Pal Singh began buying land south of the city limits. His company, Delhi Land and Finance, offered cash and equity stakes to farmers in Gurgaon. Many of these cowherds became instant crorepatis—millionaires, in the local lingo—while KP Singh would become the fifth richest man in India by the turn of the century. The state of Haryana eased land use restrictions, making it easy for developers to use their land as they saw fit. But once land was converted from farmland to commercial use, it was still classified as rural. That's how Gurgaon ended up as a city without a city government. Haryana also allowed women to work past 6pm—a bold policy decision in a socially conservative country. Without flexible labor laws, India would never have been able to develop its famous call center industry, where phone operators must work through the night in order to match times around the world. Maruti was the first to arrive with an auto manufacturing plant in the 1980s. As India stepped back from socialism in the 90s, foreign investment bypassed Delhi, and poured into Gurgaon. When General Electric set up shop, hundreds of multinationals followed. Soon Gurgaon was generating middle class jobs by the hundreds of thousands. Today, it boasts an absurd 30 percent annual GDP growth and the third highest per-capital income in India. Over time, other developers have entered the market, competing with DLF, and diluting its share of Gurgaon. But DLF remains the dominant provider of roads, sewage systems, security, and India's only private fire department. While Gurgaon isn't exactly crime free—the crime rate is on par with Phoenix, Arizona—it doesn't lack for protection. 35,000 private security guards keep a watchful eye on the city, compared with 3,000 public officers. Gurgaon's services and cleanliness are like nothing else I've seen in the country. India's only privately run metro system is fast, modern, and efficient. Employees compulsively sweep floors that already look spotless. It's unclear if Gurgaon's metro turns a profit. But as it increases the value of land owned by DLF and others, it may have already accomplished its mission. I'd like to tell you that Gurgaon has solved all of India's problems. But even here, in the beating heart of hypergrowth, the worst of Old India stubbornly refuses to die. Sixteen percent of Gurgaon's population lives in slums. If that seems like a lot to you, the shocker is that it's less than the average Indian city. There are 150 million fewer poor people in India since my last visit. That's half of the population of the United States, lifted out of the slums. India's achievements over the past decade are awe-inspiring. But as my own country turns its back on the same global markets that transformed a rocky patch of farmland into a metropolis of two million souls, I can only hope that Gurgaon has many years of hypergrowth yet to come. Produced, shot, edit[...]
Sat, 29 Oct 2016 17:45:00 -0400Why did the jury in the trial of seven occupiers on trial for actions connected to the occupation earlier this year of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge acquit them? Because of the specifics of what they were charged with. And what they were charged with is likely because of a federal desire to maximize the potential time they'd spend in prison. Pace the hundreds of angry progressive in my social networking world in a bloody sad rage over the fact these folk didn't spend more time in jail than they already have in the process of trial, the mere act of being on federal property after closing hours, that is, the mere fact of the occupation itself, is not what they were charged with. The specific charges, as noted here Thursday, were "conspiring to impede federal employees through intimidation, threat or force. Four had additional charges of having guns in a federal facility, and two were charged with theft of government property." A juror spoke via email to Oregon Live about how that decision on the Feds' part, one almost certainly motivated by a desire to get potentially more prison time, messed them up: "It should be known that all 12 jurors felt that this verdict was a statement regarding the various failures of the prosecution to prove 'conspiracy' in the count itself – and not any form of affirmation of the defense's various beliefs, actions or aspirations,'' Juror 4 wrote Friday in a lengthy email to The Oregonian/OregonLive.... Juror 4 noted the panel couldn't simply rely on the defendants' "defining actions'' [that is, the occupation per se] to convict.... "But we were not asked to judge on bullets and hurt feelings, rather to decide if any agreement was made with an illegal object in mind,'' the [juror] wrote. "It seemed this basic, high standard of proof was lost upon the prosecution throughout.''.... Defense lawyers urged jurors in closing arguments not to mix-up the "effect'' of the occupation – which undoubtedly kept federal employees from doing their jobs - from the "intent'' of the occupiers... "Inference, while possibly compelling, proved to be insulting or inadequate to 12 diversely situated people as a means to convict,'' the juror wrote. "The air of triumphalism that the prosecution brought was not lost on any of us, nor was it warranted given their burden of proof.''... It seems this juror has some of the same type of friends on social networking as I do: [the juror] said he is "baffled'' by what he described as observers' "flippant sentiments'' in the wake of the jury's acquittals. "Don't they know that 'not guilty' does not mean innocent?'' he wrote. "It was not lost on us that our verdict(s) might inspire future actions that are regrettable, but that sort of thinking was not permitted when considering the charges before us.''.... The smoking gun point proving the prosecutors tripped themselves up with their desire for vengeance on the occupiers: ... many of the jurors questioned the judge about why the federal government chose the "conspiracy charge.'' He said he learned that a potential alternate charge, such as criminal trespass, wouldn't have brought as significant a penalty. The charge of conspiring to impede federal employees from carrying out their official work through intimidation, threat or force brings a maximum sentence of six years in prison. Federal criminal trespass is at worst a misdemeanor, which generally has a maximum possible prison penalty of a year. The structure of the charges meant that if the conspiracy part wasn't proven, the specific gun charge also fell. The juror's final word: "We all queried about alternative charges that could stick and were amazed that this 'conspiracy' charge seemed the best possible option."[...]
Thu, 27 Oct 2016 20:35:00 -0400An Oregon jury today acquitted seven people being tried for their roles in the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year. All seven were facing charges for conspiring to impede federal employees through intimidation, threat or force. Four had additional charges of having guns in a federal facility, and two were charged with theft of government property. Among the acquitted were two sons of Cliven Bundy, famous for his role in an armed standoff with federal agents in Nevada over disputes on grazing fees the Bureau of Land Management insisted he owed. (Bundy himself was arrested in February over that 2014 incident, and a trial is ahead.) The defendants were: Ammon and Ryan Bundy, Jeff Banta, Shawna Cox, David Fry, Kenneth Medenbach, and Neil Wampler. Seattle Times summed up the background of the case: In closing arguments that stretched out over two days, prosecutors stressed that the defendants were not being put on trial for their beliefs, and had an absolute right to protest federal government actions. But they argued that the defendants' actions stepped over the line into a criminal conspiracy to occupy the refuge and — through the use of armed guards and other acts of intimidation — keep federal employees away from their offices south of Burns. Bundy, in testimony on his own behalf, called the takeover a "hard stand" against the return to prison of two Oregon ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven Hammond, after a federal judge ruled that they had not served long enough sentences on arson charges. The takeover ended peacefully as the last four occupiers surrendered on Feb. 11, but before that, on Jan. 26, LaVoy Finicum, a folksy, articulate rancher who had emerged as a spokesman for the movement, was shot to death by law-enforcement officials. Among others arrested in connection with the case, 11 pled guilty earlier and others face their own trials ahead in February. More details on the earlier guilty pleas from Oregon Live. Oregon Live's report from today, mostly written before re-deliberation in the case began this morning. Oregon Public Broadcasting, which has been covering the case extensively, summed up the arguments: The government relied heavily on testimony from law enforcement, including Harney County Sheriff David Ward, as well as dozens of FBI agents who responded to the occupation or processed evidence at the Malheur refuge after the occupation ended. "At the end of the day, there is an element of common sense that demonstrates the guilt of these defendants," Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight said during his closing arguments during the trial. "These defendants took over a wildlife refuge and it wasn't theirs." ....the defense sought to make its case about a political protest – one about protesting the federal government's ownership and management of public lands. "The people have to insist that the government is not our master; they are our servants," Ryan Bundy said during his closing statement to the jury. Some interesting elements of the trial as it unfolded: • A juror was replaced by an alternate and deliberations began from scratch this week, after a juror sent a note to the judge asking: "Can a juror, a former employee of the Bureau of Land Management, who opens their remarks in deliberations by stating 'I am very biased' be considered an impartial judge in this case?" • One of the defense lawyers was tased and arrested in court today, according to the Seattle Times: Ammon Bundy's attorney Marcus Mumford argued his client should be released from confinement while U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown said he must be returned to the custody of federal marshals since he still faced charges in Nevada. Mumford's protests in the Portland courtroom grew louder and louder until he was finally tackled and tased by marshals, according to Cox and another member of the defense's legal team. The judge ordered the courtroom cleared. • The feds had 15 informants among or in communication with the occupi[...]
Tue, 10 May 2016 16:31:00 -0400The highly respected Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has just issued The State of the World's Plants 2016 in which its researchers estimate that perhaps one-fifth of the world's 391,000 vascular plant species may be at risk of extinction. The chief reason plant species are threatened is human activity, specifically land use changes such as farming, raising livestock, logging, and land development. The Kew findings rely heavily on research published last year, "Green Plants in the Red," in PLoS One by a team of mostly British researchers associated with the Natural History Museum and Kew Gardens. According to the journal metrics that article received no media coverage, which may be why the results are being updated and republished in the splashy report. To try to estimate how many plants are threatened with extinction, the researchers took a random sample consisting of some 7,000 plant species and then checked to see how they are faring using data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN constructs and maintains various databases called Red Lists aiming to monitor the conservation status of species populations. The PLoS One study reported, "More than 20% of plant species assessed are threatened with extinction, and the habitat with the most threatened species is overwhelmingly tropical rain forest, where the greatest threat to plants is anthropogenic habitat conversion, for arable and livestock agriculture, and harvesting of natural resources." The study also calculated that "arable farming affects 60% of threatened species, while livestock farming affects 47%, logging affects 38%, targeted harvesting affects 25% and fires (natural or man-made) also affect 25% of threatened species." In addition, the PLoS One study estimated that with 79% of threatened plant species are found in forests, followed by 19% of threatened species in shrubland, 13% in rocky outcrops, 10% in savanna and also 10% in grassland percentages do not sum to 100% as some species occur in more than one habitat). The fewest threatened species were found in deserts and wetlands, largely because those areas are least suited for agriculture. So that's the bad news. But the good news is peak farmland and plantation forestry. As I report in my chapter on extinction in my book The End of Doom: Considering that agriculture is the most expansive and intensive way in which people transform natural landscapes, the really good news is that the amount of land globally devoted to food production may be falling as population growth slows and agricultural productivity increases. “We believe that projecting conservative values for population, affluence, consumers, and technology shows humanity peaking in the use of farmland,” conclude Jesse Ausubel, the director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, and his colleagues in their 2013 article “Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing.” They add, “Global arable land and permanent crops spanned 1,371 million hectares in 1961 and 1,533 million hectares in 2009, and we project a return to 1,385 million hectares in 2060.” As a result of these trends, humanity will likely restore at least 146 million hectares, an area two and a half times that of France or the size of ten Iowas, and possibly much more land. “Another 50 years from now, the Green Revolution may be recalled not only for the global diffusion of high-yield cultivation practices for many crops, but as the herald of peak farmland and the restoration of vast acreages of Nature,” write the researchers. “Now we are confident that we stand on the peak of cropland use, gazing at a wide expanse of land that will be spared for Nature.” Also in The End of Doom I note: Resources for the Future analyst Roger Sedjo estimates that most of the world’s wood products could be derived from tree plantations occupying about 7 percent of the world’s currently forested area. Improving the productivity of tree[...]
Sat, 30 Apr 2016 15:00:00 -0400
New York City's Landmarks Preservation Act was intended to protect about three or four "historic districts"—Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, etc.—preservationist James Van Derpool told the New York City Council in 1964. That's all "anyone had seriously considered."
The Landmarks Act was passed the following year thanks in part to Van Derpool's testimony. A half-century later the city has protected 138 historic districts. Nearly a third of the structures in Manhattan have been landmarked. As I argued in a Reason TV video published last year, entire swaths of New York City may as well be encased in a life-sized historical diorama. Out-of-control landmarking is undermining the process of creative (image) destruction that made New York, well, New York.
This month, the Landmarks Commission designated a giant Pepsi-Cola sign on the Queens waterfront (which was in no danger of being torn down for what it's worth), and it voted to extend the Park Slope Historic District to include an additional 292 buildings.
What justifies these two designations? Landmarks Commission Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan was left straining. She lauded the Pepsi sign for "its prominent siting" and "frequent appearances in pop culture." The Park Slope blocks are part of an area, Srinivasan explained, that "owes its cohesiveness to its tree-lined streets, predominant residential character, and its high level of architectural integrity."
If "prominent siting," "tree-lined streets," "residential character," and "architectural integrity" are grounds for landmarking, what's to stop the Commission from declaring every square inch of the Big Apple too precious to ever change?
Click below to watch "How New York City's Landmarks Preservation Act Bulldozed the Future:"
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Sat, 30 Apr 2016 10:30:00 -0400In The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (2000), Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto argued that the underlying cause of Third-World poverty is weak property rights. Citizens of poor countries can't securely develop plots of land or put them up as collateral because they don't have clear legal titles. In a world "where ownership of most assets is difficult to trace and validate and is governed by no legally recognizable set of rules," de Soto wrote, "most assets, in short, are dead capital." De Soto is now part of a new initiative to use the "blockchain," the technology that undergirds the digital currency Bitcoin, to solve the dead capital problem. The San Francisco-based Bitcoin company BitFury announced last week that it was working with de Soto and the Republic of Georgia on a project to use blockchain technology to build a new land registry, as Forbes first reported. "By building a blockchain-based property registry," one Georgian government official said in a statement, the country "can lead the world in changing the way land titling is done and pave the way to additional prosperity for all." A "blockchain" is essentially an online database with attributes that make it well-suited to protecting the integrity of land registries. The first thing that sets blockchains apart from other databases is that anyone with a computer and an internet connection can download a complete copy. And the information contained in the file is constantly updated through the internet (roughly every 10 minutes in the case of the Bitcoin blockchain). This means the most up-to-date information is always publicly accessible. And the government has no power to tamper with or delete the information stored on a blockchain because the data can only be altered by using secret passwords dispersed among users. Yet uploading actual land titles to a blockchain is impractical because these distributed databases aren't designed to hold very much information. So companies in this space are devising elegant ways to anchor large data sets to the blockchain in ways that piggyback on its security and immutability, even when the specific information itself is stored elsewhere. BitFury isn't the first company to work in this space. The Austin, Texas-based company technology company Factom has been in talks since 2015 with the government of Honduras to use blockchain technology to build a secure land registry in that country. Currently, Honduras stores its title records in a room at the bottom of "dusty stairs" in a "nasty old government building," Factom CEO Peter Kirby said in an interview last year with Reason. Until recently, the room had no door. "Anybody could go in, pull down a book, open up the spine, and replace a title record with a new title record," Kirby said. Some government bureaucrats have altered the records to assign themselves beachfront property. The Honduran government did at one point attempt to digitize its land records, but the database it built was unuseable. A tamper-proof land-titling system, says Kirby, will lead poor countries to build "all of the infrastructure we take for granted in the developed world." For more on blockchain technology, click below to watch a recent Reason TV video on Ethereum, a new blockchain platform that's well-suited for land registries and many many other types of applications: src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H6bGuKN3m6E" frameborder="0" height="340" width="560">[...]
Thu, 07 Jan 2016 00:15:00 -0500A key to understanding the political world lies in realizing that the words terrorism and terrorist are inherently political terms. This has been clear in international affairs, but we now see this in domestic matters, specifically the case involving ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond and the takeover of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service building in Harney County, Oregon. The Hammonds have been imprisoned under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, an ostentatiously get-tough bill —passed after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building—favored by congressional Republicans and signed by triangulating Democratic President Bill Clinton, who was seeking reelection that year and whose wife, the hawkish Hillary Clinton, is seeking the presidency today. Among other things, the Act limits habeas corpus relief in federal courts for those claiming to have been unlawfully imprisoned. The words terrorism and terrorist are also used to describe the people now occupying the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in sympathy with the Hammonds. CNN reports that "progressive" opponents of the occupiers refer to them as "YallQaeda" and "vanilla ISIS." Some urge government violence against them. Is this description fair? One can answer this question regardless of what one thinks of the Hammonds and the occupiers. If terrorism has any reasonable referent, it is the use of violence against noncombatants for a political purpose. The point is to terrorize by killing or injuring noncombatants, or destroying their property, in an effort to effect change. Nowhere do we see such violence in either the Hammonds' case or the occupation of the government building. The actions that brought criminal charges against the Hammonds consisted in setting two fires on their own land in 2001 and 2006, the first to destroy invasive vegetation, the second ostensibly to protect against a wildfire on adjacent land controlled by the central government. On both occasions the fires unintentionally spread to the government-controlled land. The Hammonds put out the first fire; the second fire reportedly endangered government firefighters, whom the Hammonds knew were in the vicinity. Even if we grant the worst allegations—that the Hammonds wrongfully declined to inform the government that it would be setting the fires and that one fire was allegedly set to cover up poaching—the actions look nothing like terrorism. No one was intentionally threatened, and no one was injured or killed. So why were the cases prosecuted under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years? Even if we make the dubious concession that the Act was a good-faith attempt to fight bona fide terrorism, what does it have to do with the Hammonds? As for the occupiers of the government building, who now call themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, again, where's the terrorism? Yes, some occupiers are armed. But the building was unoccupied when they entered it, and no one was threatened, much less harmed or killed. It's reported that roads around the building are open. The news media come and go at will. In neither case was anyone terrorized. To be sure, the occupiers have a political objective, to pressure the central government into giving up control of its massive land holdings. Terrorism, however, requires a particular kind of violence along with a political motive. Critics describe the occupiers as white supremacists. I don't know if they are, although John Ritzheimer, a spokesman for the occupiers, is an anti-Muslim activist. But regardless, their conduct in Burns, Oregon, does not constitute terrorism, and no constructive purpose is served by promis[...]
Mon, 04 Jan 2016 18:09:00 -0500
The standoff in Oregon has already prompted a lot of silly culture-war commentary, and disappointingly scant analysis of the precipitating legal conflicts (though this historical overview of standoffs is useful). I shall attempt to address both issues tonight on MSNBC's All in with Chris Hayes at 8:40ish p.m. Tune in, and heckle me on Twitter!
Mon, 04 Jan 2016 16:50:00 -0500Various Republican candidates are calling for a peaceful resolution to the armed occupation of a remote federal outpost in Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Sen. Rand Paul had this to say, according to The Washington Post: "I’m sympathetic to the idea that the large collection of federal lands ought to be turned back to the states and the people, but I think the best way to bring about change is through politics," Paul told the Washington Post in an interview. "That's why I entered the electoral arena. I don’t support any violence or suggestion of violence toward changing policy." Sen. Ted Cruz called on the protesters to “stand down peaceably.” Sen. Marco Rubio urged them to “follow the law.” The White House maintains the standoff is a matter for local authorities, and has urged caution. Given that no one’s life is currently threatened by the antics of the Bundy family, this restrained approach seems especially wise. It’s a shame, then, that so many left-leaning commentators—having branded the ranchers as a bunch of terrorists intent on committing imminent violence—seem dismissive, or at least dissatisfied, with this wait-and-see approach. The Daily Beast’s Sally Kohn has accused the federal government of encouraging right-wing militias by failing to crackdown on them with extreme prejudice. Kohn claims that authorities should have thrown the book at Cliven Bundy and his supporters after the previous standoff. “Talk about being ‘soft on terrorism’,” she writes: What’s even more disturbing, perhaps, is that nothing has changed in terms of the federal government’s hyper-passive response to such flagrant acts of menacing and threats of domestic terrorism. The Department of Justice did, wisely, revive the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee—recognizing the need to defend against and prevent the very real and comparable threat posed, for instance, by mostly white anti-government zealots and not just Muslim radicals. Yet the FBI said it was seeking a “peaceful” end to the standoff, and there are reportedly no signs of law enforcement being anywhere near the building. So maybe it’s not even a “standoff” if the federal government is standing down. Of course there’s a strategic case to be made for a cautious approach on the part of the federal government that doesn’t escalate violence nor feed a cult of martyrdom within the anti-government extremist movement as happened after Ruby Ridge and Waco. That would seem jarring enough juxtaposed with the violent over-policing of black Americans and conservative calls for blanket scrutiny against all Muslims. But in the face of the very direct connection between the Bundy conflict and the Oregon standoff, and the SPLC’s evidence that the government’s non-response simply gave anti-government extremists more power, the government now seems naïve about right-wing extremism at best and encouraging at worst. Since Kohn references the “violent over-policing of black Americans and conservative calls for blanket scrutiny against all Muslims,” one might expect her to better understand why relentlessly demonizing misunderstood groups and exaggerating the threat they pose is a bad thing. I suspect she can’t see beyond her own partisan lens: the left-leaning protesters she respects and agrees with are innocent victims, the right-leaning protesters she despises are a threat to the republic. It’s important to note that this is the same kind of paranoia about “the other” that animates Donald Trump and his supporters. The calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and the calls to crack down on right-wing militias aren’t so different from one another, even though they come from distinct ideological groups with almost no overlap. I would say to both groups that there is just as much danger—i[...]
Sun, 19 Apr 2015 09:33:00 -0400In all the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of New York's Landmarks Preservation Act—Mayor Robert F. Wagner signed the legislation exactly a half century ago today—you'll see plenty of photos of the old Penn Station taken around the time of its 1910 opening. These images depict the grand, light-filled main hall modeled after the Baths of Caracalla and the spectacular iron-and-glass train shed in its pristine state. Another series of photos shows the station being taken apart in the 1960s. In this set of images, the station looks like an ancient Roman palace; it's as if the cranes pulling it apart are destroying the very bedrock of Western civilization. "Seven-year-olds gasp...[when] we show them the old Penn Station," Tara Kelly, the executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, told the New York Times at an event last week celebrating the law's half-centennial. Penn Station's destruction in the mid-1960s was a call to arms for the landmarks movement, leading directly to the passage of the 1965 law. Preservationists trot out these photos capable of leaving second graders breathless to remind us of why we need a government-appointed commission to save our historic buildings from cold market logic. But this narrative is as one-sided as those photos. Profit-driven developers left to their own devices value wonderful old buildings as much as the general public they serve, but the old Penn Station was a deeply flawed structure. It emphasized form over function, so it was never a particularly good train station. And New Yorkers didn't care for it very much—when it was still around, at least. It's easy to revere the dead. What you won't see are pictures of Penn Station as it looked in its final years, when the entire building was smothered in inches of grime and its cracked windows were patched over with sheets of metal. There were “color ads…like blasphemous utterances in the marbled halls…automobiles revolved on turntables; [and] shops and stands…added in jazzy cacophony,” The New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable recalled in a 1966 article. So what? Grand Central Terminal was once falling apart and then it was lovingly restored in 2007. Couldn't Penn Station also have been returned to its original grandeur? Perhaps, but there would have been no way to defray the cost of its upkeep because unlike its east side counterpart, Penn Station wasn't built to neatly integrate retail space into its corridors. And its high glass windows made it unusually expensive to clean and maintain. The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) company, which built and operated the station, declared bankruptcy in 1968, so if the building had survived, maintaining it would have likely fallen either to the city or the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). In the early 1970s, the MTA struggled to finance basic maintenance costs and upgrades. (Remember what the MTA-run subways looked like in the 70s and 80s?) By the time of PRR's bankruptcy, New York City's government was on the precipice of its own fiscal crisis. Penn Station could have continued deteriorating for another forty years, right up through the city's economic resurgence in the late-1990s. Charles McKim's grand design was impractical for other reasons as well. The Times' Huxtable, who wrote that the station's passing "confirms the demise of an age of opulent elegance," also acknowledged that "[f]unctionally, [it] was considerably less noble." She wrote: "The complexity and ambiguity of its train levels and entrances and exits were a constant frustration...a better expression of ancient Rome than of 20th-century America." It's a "hard truth" that “New Yorkers had never come to really love Penn Station," wrote Jill Jonnes in her 2007 history Conquering Gotham, A Gilded Age Epic: The Constru[...]
Thu, 16 Apr 2015 13:28:00 -0400Once upon a time New York City's builders blithely turned spectacular monuments into dust. Henry James complained about Manhattan’s "restless renewals," but in the old days nostalgia was for writers and poets. Developers were preoccupied with building the future. This ethos of creative destruction allowed New York to become the world’s preeminent city. And then on April 19, 1965, which is fifty years ago this Sunday, Mayor Robert F. Wagner signed the Landmarks Preservation Act. The law made it illegal to destroy any structure that the city’s planning elite deem too important not to save. Today almost a third of the buildings in Manhattan, and more than 33,000 structures citywide, may as well be encased in a life-sized historical diorama. To illustrate the damage done by this law, let’s imagine that the Landmarks Act had been passed not in 1965, but in 1865, when the spire of Trinity Church still towered over Lower Manhattan. Modern New York wouldn’t exist. Consider Henry Hardenbergh’s original Waldorf-Astoria, which was an architectural masterpiece and Manhattan’s leading luxury hotel. If the Landmarks Commission had been around in the Jazz Age, surely it would have protected this great structure — and then it never could have been torn down to build the Empire State Building, which occupies the exact same spot. If the landmarks commission had been around to save architect Stanford White’s majestic Madison Square Garden, the second of four structures with that name, Cass Gilbert’s New York Life Insurance Building couldn't have replaced it. Forget about the hustle of Midtown Manhattan—this entire block would still be home to Columbia University’s pre-1897 campus. The old London Terrace wouldn’t have cleared a path for the new London Terrace, instead of the Woolworth Building, Philip Hone's luxurious townhouse would still stand in the building's footprint, right next to the old American Hotel, and we might still have this old Madison Square Presbyterian Church instead of the celebrated Met Life Tower. The landmarks commission not only protects individual buildings, but also 114 districts, meaning entire neighborhoods are essentially frozen in time. Manhattan’s Upper West Side became a landmark district in 1990, but what if it had earned that distinction in 1890, to preserve its Gilded Age character? These hulking apartment buildings never would have replaced the distinguished brownstones and mansions that once occupied these blocks. The district certainly would have been expanded one block west to include the Apthorp House, which quartered General Washington among other colonial bigwigs and would still stand right here near 90th Street and Columbus Avenue. Before landmarking, sure there were plenty of great buildings replaced by plain Jane skyscrapers, but that’s also part of how cities grow and evolve. For example, would New York really be better off if Temple Emanu-el still stood right off Times Square? In 1847, native New Yorker Washington Irving reflected with nostalgia on growing up in a city that was “a mere corner” of what it had become, and that corner “all changed, pulled to pieces.” This 50th anniversary of the landmarks preservation act is an opportunity to mourn the opposite: all the invisible buildings that will never exist because of a misguided law. What if an earlier generation had outlawed the rise of skyscrapers and spread of asphalt pavement? Washington Irving would still feel right at home. --- Video written and produced by Jim Epstein. 3 minutes and 30 seconds. Scroll down for downloadable versions and subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube Channel to receive automatic notifications w[...]
Thu, 19 Feb 2015 14:49:00 -0500
(image) Which of America's metropolitan regions has the least sprawl? Thomas Laidley, a sociologist at New York University, has just published a paper in the Urban Affairs Review that draws on satellite and Census data to create a sprawl index. By his calculations, our most sprawling city is Columbia, South Carolina. The least? Los Angeles.
This flies in the face of every cliché about L.A. But it makes sense, and it is consistent with past research. "Although Los Angeles is often popularly associated with sprawl because of its pollution and traffic," Laidley writes, "its sheer lack of very low-density development places it atop all U.S. metro areas."
This fits my anecdotal experience as a former Angeleno. Indeed, if you live near your workplace in Los Angeles, as I did from early 1999 through early 2002, even the city's fabled traffic isn't the problem you might expect. My apartment was within walking distance of a supermarket, and I often didn't bother to use my car when I bought groceries. I was also just a few blocks from several restaurants, movie theaters, and other places to socialize. And my brief drive to the office didn't require me to get on the highway. Of course I sometimes had to cross the city to cover a story, attend an event, or visit a friend, and that could mean congestion. But I lived in a compact and walkable neighborhood with all the basic urban amenities, precisely the sort of place that the anti-sprawl warriors ought to like.
It's an interesting study, at any rate, and you can read it yourself here. And if you want to know what other cities are especially sprawly or not, here are the top and bottom 10 metropolitan statistical areas:
Addendum: Some readers are taking issue with Laidley's sprawl metrics, which is fair enough; he himself discusses several alternative methodologies, under the very appropriate header "Measuring a Nebulous Concept." If you look at different metro regions' population-weighted density—the measurement that @hamilt0n has been pushing to me over on Twitter—then the New York area becomes the #1 densest urban zone while the L.A. region falls to #3. And there are other approaches.
My take: There is no single, universally agreed-upon definition of "sprawl," let alone a single, universally agreed-upon way to measure it. Laidley is contributing to a conversation, not ending it. But by any reasonable approach, the metropolitan area centered around Los Angeles is not the sprawlopolis of popular legend. Quite the opposite.
Thu, 15 Jan 2015 15:08:00 -0500
Over at Yale Environment 360, Rona Kobell (*) writes about efforts to build—and rebuild—on ecologically precarious barrier islands. You should read the whole article, but the passage that's most likely to interest Reason readers is this one:
(image) Historically, residents of barrier islands have not always looked to the government for millions of dollars in salvation efforts when the sea encroached. Often, they simply left. When Hog Island, on the Virginia Coast, eroded to the point where it was uninhabitable in the 1930s, residents barged their houses to the nearby towns of Willis Wharf and Oyster. Similar tales have repeated themselves in Texas and Louisiana, where barrier islands were popular refuges for pirates but often not considered fit for long-term structures.
But in the mid-20th century, planners and developers began to view the nation's barrier islands as resort towns in the making—a steady source of tourism dollars, property tax revenue, and construction jobs. Federal and state governments spent big on bridges, dunes, beach replenishment, and public piers to encourage settlement. Government-backed flood insurance encouraged that process, as did the federal government assuming the role of rebuilder-in-chief, said Rob Young, a geologist who directs the program for the study of developed shorelines at Western Carolina University.
"Why do we rebuild on barrier islands?" asked Young. "Because the people who are doing the rebuilding are making a sound economic decision." The owners may rebuild the home, he said, but "the rest of us are putting back all the infrastructure. We're raising the road. We're putting back the beach. The rest of us are assuming all of the risks."
Development in these areas wouldn't necessarily cease altogether without those subsidies, but it would certainly take a different, lighter path. But when the government's greener elements try to rein in those unsustainable projects, they generally do this not by spending less but by spending more, blocking builders both through regulation and through land acquisition. The result is basically a contest between two interest groups to see which can play the political game more capably. (That said, conservationists have also acquired a lot of this land privately. Kobell notes, for example, that the Houston Audubon Society now owns more than 2,000 acres of the 11,689-acre Bolivar Peninsula.)
The full piece covers the science as well as the economics of barrier-island development. To read the whole thing, go here.
(* Full disclosure: She is my spouse.)
Sat, 11 Oct 2014 19:00:00 -0400width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/n-zESacteu4" frameborder="0"> In a recent Washington Post article, Ilya Somin responded to a provocative question raised by liberal land use scholar Kenneth Stahl. Given the failure of so many left-leaning land use policies, Stahl wondered in Concurring Opinions, "should more land use professors be libertarians?” Somin, a libertarian land use scholar himself, answered the question in the affirmative, pointing out that he and other libertarian land use scholars have advocated government protection of property rights over government planning for years. Reason TV’s Todd Krainin recently took a critical look at zoning laws in Houston and Washington, DC, in a program called “Jay Austin’s Beautiful, Illegal Tiny House.” The original release date was August 7, 2014. The original writeup is below. Demand for housing in Washington, DC is going through the roof. Over a thousand people move to the nation's capital every month, driving up the cost of housing, and turning the city into a construction zone. Tower cranes rising high above the city streets have become so common, they're just part of the background. But as fast as the cranes can rise, demand for housing has shot up even faster, making DC among the most expensive cities in the United States. With average home prices at $453 per square foot, it's every bit as expensive as New York City. And the struggles of one homebuilder shows just why the city's shortage looks to continue for a long time. "I got driven down the tiny house road because of affordability, simplicity, sustainability, and then mobility," says Jay Austin, who designed a custom 140-square-foot house in Washington, DC. Despite the miniscule size, his "Matchbox" house is stylish, well-built, and it includes all the necessities (if not the luxuries) of life: a bathroom, a shower, a modest kitchen, office space, and a bedroom loft. There's even a hot tub outside. Clever design elements make the most of minimalism. The Matchbox's high ceilings, skylight, and wide windows make the small space feel modern, uncluttered, and open. At a cost that ranges from $10,000 to $50,000, tiny homes like the Matchbox could help to ease the shortage of affordable housing in the capital city. Heating and cooling costs are negligible. Rainwater catchment systems help to make the homes self-sustaining. They're an attractive option to the very sort of residents who the city attracts in abundance: single, young professionals without a lot of stuff, who aren't ready to take on a large mortgage. But tiny houses come with one enormous catch: they're illegal, in violation of several codes in Washington DC's Zoning Ordinance. Among the many requirements in the 34 chapters and 600 pages of code are mandates defining minimum lot size, room sizes, alleyway widths, and "accessory dwelling units" that prevent tiny houses from being anything more than a part-time residence. That's why Austin and his tiny house-dwelling neighbors at Boneyard Studios don't actually live in their own homes much of the time. To skirt some of the zoning regulations, they've added wheels to their homes, which reclassifies them as trailers – and subjects them to regulation by the Department of Motor Vehicles. But current law still requires them to either move their homes from time to time, or keep permanent residences elsewhere. The DC Office of Zoning, the Zoning Commission, the Zoning Administrator, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and the Office of Planning all declined to comment on the laws that prevent citizens from living in tiny houses. But their website offers a clue: Outdated terms like telegraph office and tenement house still reside in [...]
Thu, 07 Aug 2014 06:40:00 -0400Demand for housing in Washington, D.C., is going through the roof. Over a thousand people move to the nation's capital every month, driving up the cost of housing, and turning the city into a construction zone. Tower cranes rising high above the city streets have become so common, they're just part of the background. But as fast as the cranes can rise, demand for housing has shot up even faster, making DC among the most expensive cities in the United States. With average home prices at $453 per square foot, it's every bit as expensive as New York City. And the struggles of one homebuilder shows just why the city's shortage looks to continue for a long time. "I got driven down the tiny house road because of affordability, simplicity, sustainability, and then mobility," says Jay Austin, who designed a custom 140-square-foot house in Washington, D.C. Despite the miniscule size, his "Matchbox" house is stylish, well-built, and it includes all the necessities (if not the luxuries) of life: a bathroom, a shower, a modest kitchen, office space, and a bedroom loft. There's even a hot tub outside. Clever design elements make the most of minimalism. The Matchbox's high ceilings, skylight, and wide windows make the small space feel modern, uncluttered, and open. At a cost that ranges from $10,000 to $50,000, tiny homes like the Matchbox could help to ease the shortage of affordable housing in the capital city. Heating and cooling costs are negligible. Rainwater catchment systems help to make the homes self-sustaining. They're an attractive option to the very sort of residents who the city attracts in abundance: single, young professionals without a lot of stuff, who aren't ready to take on a large mortgage. But tiny houses come with one enormous catch: they're illegal, in violation of several codes in Washington D.C.'s Zoning Ordinance. Among the many requirements in the 34 chapters and 600 pages of code are mandates defining minimum lot size, room sizes, alleyway widths, and "accessory dwelling units" that prevent tiny houses from being anything more than a part-time residence. That's why Austin and his tiny house-dwelling neighbors at Boneyard Studios don't actually live in their own homes much of the time. To skirt some of the zoning regulations, they've added wheels to their homes, which reclassifies them as trailers – and subjects them to regulation by the Department of Motor Vehicles. But current law still requires them to either move their homes from time to time, or keep permanent residences elsewhere. The DC Office of Zoning, the Zoning Commission, the Zoning Administrator, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and the Office of Planning all declined to comment on the laws that prevent citizens from living in tiny houses. But their website offers a clue: Outdated terms like telegraph office and tenement house still reside in our regulations. Concepts like parking standards and antenna regulations are based on 1950s technology, and new concepts like sustainable development had not even been envisioned. Complex as it is, the Zoning Ordinance of the District of Columbia was approved in 1958. That's over five decades of cultural change and building innovations, like tiny houses, that the code wasn't designed to address. Exemptions and alterations to the code are possible—many are granted every year—but they don't come cheaply. Lisa Sturtevant of the National Housing Conference estimates that typical approvals add up to $50,000 to the cost of a new single-family unit. That's why large, wealthy developers enjoy greater flexibility to build in the city, but tiny house dwellers… not so much. Fortunately, a co[...]