Downtown Eugene

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Organic increase in density

Many City planners possess a strong desire for increased density. I resist it, not because density is bad, but because the push for it, from the top, is enormously destructive. In Eugene's situation, it's wasteful to tear down empty buildings, when people are homeless, and activities cannot find space; and it's especially wasteful to tear down occupied buildings just because they don't meet some ideal. When there are hundreds of thousands of empty square feet, and massive craters in the ground, it's immoral to consider polishing the morphology of space that currently provides real benefit to real people.

That said -- because it is the most important thing -- this is how a humane, organic approach leads to an increase in density:

1. Let's start with the people and organizations already downtown.
2. Let's give them the security to continue their operations downtown.
3. Let's encourage them to expand their offerings and improve their operations downtown.
4. Let's encourage them to build upon their existing alliances, draw more activity downtown, and initiate more cooperative relationships, with the largest possible number of citizens, so that the largest number of people have an interest in making downtown more alive.
5. Let's offer them founding membership in a Downtown Collective of Tenants, charged with filling the remaining space downtown.
6. As the empty space is 'programmed' with people, events, businesses and organizations, the new tenants are also offered membership in the collective.
7. The collective's success is monitored by the City Council. Measurement and evaluation of participation, visits, and self-sufficiency are important.
8. The collective manages properties downtown bought by the City, placed into a trust for this self-management process.
9. The collective is given financial assistance to increase life downtown.
10. The collective is charged with concentrating on the biggest problems first: they must determine these priorities, and address them. For example, the empty storefronts and the holes in the ground are among the top spatial priorities. But solutions to these problems should also address the most pressing needs of people, including the social and environmental issues of our time.
11. When the spaces are filled, and the energy is high, such that growth is accelerating, the collective will have the power to incrementally make density increases in the buildings downtown. But, it's very important, for organic growth, that the life, the energy, drives the increase in density through new construction. Creating the density first, as a top-down plan, will result in dead, purposeless space.

Urban Renewal vs. the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Urban Renewal, the scourge of living neighborhoods in Post-WW II US, is alive and well. While planners are becoming more sensitive to the scale of the abuses of 30 years ago, planning & development methodology has not changed significantly.

City governments across the country compete for large business to invade from outside, instead of supporting and incubating local business and citizenry. They spend public money on private profit for the wealthy, rather than on public service for everyone. The same approach is used to attract outside developers, and finance development. The level of suffering a City government is willing to inflict upon its constituency, knows few bounds.

In fact, City governments regularly violate their constituents' human rights, as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an extraordinary but much-ignored document, adopted by the UN in 1948.

Article 1.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

When actors within a government interfere with the working operations of some members of the community, for the benefit of other members of the community, the government is violating basic principles of cooperation and human dignity. The government is not treating people equally. The government is not engaging people that will be effected by its processes. And, when they engage them one-on-one, they are not allowing them to assemble:

Article 20.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Political manipulation through closed, un-announced, one-on-one meetings, and through announced but heavily framed discussions of political possibility, violates the freedom implied Article 20. This article isn't just about allowing people to talk with each other -- that's only the worst case. It is a reference to a democratic approach to governing, and a true, open, free flow of ideas, as described hopefully in article 19:

Article 19.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 17.
(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

The insecurity of an Urban Renewal process that plans for tenant removal, is clearly an act aimed at depriving tenants of their property and livelihood. Tenants have property ... they have invested in the spaces they are in. And, lest the government complain that Urban Renewal is not "arbitrary", imagine any government's seizure of property, and the laws that have propped up that seizure. The arbitrariness is in the disdain for human dignity. Not the letter of the law. That's the main point of this document.

Article 21.
(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

Of course, when "professionals" are given rights unavailable to victims of Urban Renewal, they are clearly getting preferential, unequal access to public service.

Article 22.
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Social security, at the very least, means not worrying that your society is going to remove your small business, your neighborhood, your non-profit public service, in a mostly closed process, available only to elites.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Meeting with the planners

In discussions today, some Eugene planners wrestled with these assertions:

1. Planning for Urban Renewal, for destroying places where people live and work, usually violates human rights.

2. This is an indigenous rights issue -- the same procedures which allow planners to destroy neighborhoods, and call it "renewal", are used to destroy larger cultures, and call it "progress".

3. You can't use the phrase "the community wants something different than the tenants" unless the community has actually been asked. Asking the tenants, one by one, is divide-and-conquer ... people do not feel free or empowered, in one-on-one discussions with powerful institutions like the City.

4. "Community vision" discussions are framed to exclude reality, through media presentations of architectural fantasies, discussions of space without discussions of real people and their organizations, etc.

5. Whenever someone says "wouldn't it makes more sense for X to be relocated from A to B instead?", one needs to bring to the foreground the reasons someone is already in A. This rarely happens.

6. While tenants and organizations may decide to move, they should not be pressured to do so. They should not be moved.

7. Yes, there is a growth model here: (1) support the existing tenants (2) support their organizations (3) help them maintain their space (4) give them collective decision-making power over their space (abuses are corrected by City Council oversight) (5) empower them to program the space, incubate new tenants, and determine whether their actions are positive and contribute to the whole. When they find the need to grow, they will improve and expand a space, incrementally. So, their organizational success naturally leads to building expansion. This is the way life works, and the way naturally vibrant cities emerge. Planning from the top down, by contrast, kills life, and the potential for it.

8. Participatory planning is not grassroots empowerment. Participatory development is. A downtown collective of tenants must be able to make small experiments to see what works, in reality. By contrast, a plan implemented by professionals, designed in a focus group, has no chance to succeed, and will only cause destruction.

9. This is not to say that there is no role for professionals. But they should be employed by empowered tenants. The tenants should not need to fight for their right to exist, in competition with professionals who "know what's best".