Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why this Blog…and What is It?

I am sure you know the first half of the title quote, and a multitude of urban-oriented websites emphasize the “change” component.  This blog takes a longer view, inspired by another old (if less well known) saying: “history never repeats itself; people, however, usually do.”
I am the author of What Killed Downtown? which chronicles the fate of a classic American downtown along Main Street in the mid-sized Borough of Norristown, Pennsylvania.  In 1950, crowds thronged its streets and shopped in its stores.  It did however, have two issues: (1) traffic congestion, and (2) a parking problem.  I now reside in the great city of San Francisco, a substantial journey along the space/time continuum from the subject of my book.  Yet, while crowds throng its (hugely larger) downtown and shop in its stores, it does have two issues…well, you know the rest.

The Norristown experience is at the core of my blog “The More Things Change…” which has a geographic focus on the Delaware Valley.  This blog, “The More They Stay the Same,” takes a broader look—both geographically and thematically—at the same continuing issues.  The posts will also be longer.

My research experience has been greatly influenced by the close proximity in the Delaware Valley of both older small to mid-sized urban areas and superhighway-spawned conglomerations, particularly King of Prussia, that prototypical “Edge City.”  The historical trajectories of both types of “cities” are based on the nature of their relationship to successive modes of transportation, so the means of getting about—then and now—are my primary interest.  This is ultimately a blog about transportation.

My blogs cross-fertilize, and my current residence in San Francisco regularly provides a variety of fascinating twists on historical themes as the city plays out its cutting-edge attempts to improve the quality of urban life, in transportation as in so many other areas.

My approach may be one of skepticism, but by no means pessimism.  Skepticism may be produced by the accumulation of knowledge; but pessimism is produced by the accumulation of myths.  Besides, skepticism cushions the inevitable angst when the eventual results do not measure up to the initial predictions, as is so often the case in this land of Hype and Glory.
Here is a specific—and relevant—example of what I mean: 
I view urban planners as akin to those trying to design a safer football helmet.  They are to be encouraged, but their accomplishments measured against the fact that they are attempting to bridge the fundamental contradiction between the structure of the human body and the laws of physics.  Urban planners should likewise be encouraged, although they are attempting to bridge the fundamental contradiction between the structure of the urban grid and the physics of the automobile.  Both efforts are necessary, but we should never lose sight of the limits their respective contradictions place upon them.

The above reveals the fundamental belief that underlies this blog: there is a fundamental contradiction between the urban grid and the automobile.  The physical basis for this is known to all, and is indisputable: there is close to universal agreement that the least efficient method of bringing people into downtown is by automobile.  Of course, that does not universally translate into accepting what I identify as a fundamental contradiction, and therein lies much of the discussion and all of the plans for our current visions of the “livable city.”
While I believe my position to be an acceptable starting point, that does not translate into doctrinaire opposition to the automobile as ever more new proposals pop up to deal with traffic and parking.  As with those toiling to produce a safer football helmet, the proposals and the plans must keep coming, and I might even support them.  In this, and in much of life, we should all be in emulation of Emerson; willing to encompass contradictions.

In the final analysis then, my observations as regard the automobile and attempts to deal with it are driven by what I will somewhat pompously term “the lessons of history,” not the latest calculations of this engineer or the proposal of that planner.  This is what you readers of this blog are in for: frequent references to history, but a minimum of technical jargon.