New York over 29 years

A few years ago, I saw someone share photos of a few Chinese cities that have been developed out of (more or less) empty landscapes over the space of a decade or so. Here’s an older version of that before/after perspective on New York from The Sun, showing the city’s skyline from 1880-1909:

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Now look at this as a metaphor for your life. What can you build over the next 29 years, and how can you change over the next 29 years?

Knight ‘Public Spaces Fellows’

Knight Foundation has established “Public Spaces Fellows:”

Launched in February, the program recognizes leaders, experts, and practitioners who are dedicated to developing public spaces that create or strengthen civic engagement. Selected from more than two thousand candidates, the seven fellows will receive $150,000 each in flexible funding as well as opportunities to learn from one another, share lessons, and raise their work up to a broader audience.

The 2019 class of fellows includes Anuj Gupta (Philadelphia), who as general manager of Reading Terminal Market has spearheaded engagement initiatives designed to bring people of different backgrounds together around food; Eric Klinenberg (New York), who recently served as research director of Rebuild by Design, a federal competition aimed at generating innovative designs in a region affected by Hurricane Sandy; Erin Salazar (San Jose), founder and executive director of Exhibition District, a women-led arts nonprofit that works to create economic opportunities for artists at the intersection of public art and community; Chelina Odbert (Los Angeles), co-founder and executive director of Kounkuey Design Initiative, a nonprofit design firm that advocates for community participation in public space development; Kathryn Ott Lovell (Philadelphia), commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and an advocate for “citizen-centric” service; Walter Hood (Oakland, California), creative director and founder of Hood Design, which practices at the intersection of art, design, landscape, research, and urbanism; and High Line co-founder Robert Hammond (New York), who had the foresight twenty years ago to reimagine what an abandoned elevated railbed on the west side of Manhattan could become.

New York’s High Line is the obvious standout in terms of the project with the clearest public impact, but each of these fellows provides a model for how people might respond ambitiously and with a conserving spirit to build upon the best part of the existing built environment of their community and potentially transform it in the process.

Leonine concludes

Since October, I’ve been attending monthly sessions of the Leonine Forum at the Catholic Information Center on K Street, along with about 45 other Washington fellows:

During a year-long program of intellectual and spiritual seriousness, the Leonine Forum educates these men and women in the core tenets of the Social Teaching of the Church and its practical application, and invites them into a larger community of Leonine Alumni and leaders committed To integrating those teachings within their professional and civic lives.

Intellectual Formation

In monthly sessions led by Catholic thought leaders from around the country, Leonine Fellows grapple with some of the most important questions at the intersection of faith and public life.

Spiritual Development

Living a fully-integrated Catholic life is an activity not only of the mind, but also of the body and spirit. Accordingly, Leonine Fellows will have the chance to supplement these intellectual endeavors with opportunities for Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, confession, and spiritual direction.

Cultural Engagement

Leonine Fellows have opportunities to engage with the broader culture as informed and articulate advocates through civic engagement, service work, and employment and networking opportunities.

Community Service

Understanding that we are called to love our brothers and sisters, Leonine Fellows and Alumni have the opportunity to participate in service work as a group on a regular basis.

Last night I attended the tenth and final session for our cohort at The Yard in Eastern Market. Leonine has been a great experience, with speakers ranging from Arthur Brooks and George Weigel to Mary Hasson, Fr. Dominic Legge, Carter Snead, Ryan Anderson, Stephen P. White, Chad Pecknold, Fr. Paul Scalia, and others.

I think applications are open for most, if not all, of next year’s cohorts.

Artena, a human-centered place

Marlo Safi writes on Artena, a small town in Italy about 25 miles from Rome:

The beauty of Artena is in its organic simplicity, and its rebellion against the capricious whims of technology that have influenced city planning and development everywhere else. Its streets are narrow, walkable, and not perfectly paved with cement or painted with traffic signs. And, similarly to Rome, it’s inspiring.

Artena is “human-centered,” Stefano Serafini says. Serafini is a director of the International Society of Biourbanism, a group headquartered in Artena that focuses on our urban environments as an organism, and, through research, aims to realize optimal environmental enhancements for cities based on human needs. What that looks like in practice is at the heart of the Biourbanism Summer School, a week-long event I will attend and report on next month. I won’t be the only foreigner in attendance — the school is attracting a diverse group of writers, architects, artists, politicians, economists, and citizens from across the world. Serafini describes the variety of attendees each year as a “unique and different symphony.” …

While communication at the school will primarily be in Italian and English, perhaps the most important language is the unspoken one of the built environment — the one Artena will use to speak with attendees. This theme of language is central to the school, and more generally, architecture, Serafini insists. Post-modernity, with its severe geometry, unnatural dimensions, and alienating scale has stripped us of local vernacular and rootedness…

I expect this summer school to be one that reminds me, as someone who has grown resigned to American cities designed with seemingly little thought to the human desire for identity and attachment, that solutions exist. They exist in places such as Artena, rebuilt in the 15th century, which rebels against the hegemony of the car and its demands on our cities, encouraging those who walk through the streets to unburden themselves of the modern world’s baggage.

“The school wants to open our eyes on what really matters,” Serafini says. “Which in architecture means knowing what is right and what is wrong when designing a place for ourselves, our human fellows, and other creatures, and the common environment.”

The International Society of Biourbanism, and its Biourbanism Summer School, seem like cousins of what Strong Towns is doing domestically.

A place needs to be lovable

Charles Marohn asks, “If we’re not going to maintain what we have, then why bother building anything new?”:

It was Steve Mouzon who first told me that a place needed to be lovable, that we only maintain that which we love. I never learned anything about “lovability” in my undergraduate course on concrete structures, and I know of no engineering manual that references it, yet I’ve found Steve’s insight to be an undeniable truth.

I love my house—and have deep respect for the resources that went into building it, as well as the amount of effort it will take to retire my mortgage—and so I maintain it. I don’t wait for concrete to fall apart before patching it. I don’t wait for the siding to rot before repainting it. I don’t wait for the roof to leak before maintaining it. …

Local governments suffer from a dual set of challenges when it comes to maintenance. The first is that most of what we’ve built is not lovable, at least not broadly lovable. The asphalt cul-de-sac has some functional appeal to the people who live on it, but the broader community is not going to demand it be maintained. The same with those DOT-specified streetlights the city purchased in bulk. The plastic park equipment may be sanitized and safe, but even it is unlikely to endear.

For the most part, the Growth Ponzi Scheme has put our cities on a path of quantity over quality. We build a lot of stuff, all of it to a finished state. That stuff then sits and rots—perhaps with some nominal maintenance from time to time—until it falls apart, at which point we put together a huge project to replace it with something new built to a finished state. …

What this means is that nearly all public investments—infrastructure, buildings, parks and other facilities—have a predictable life cycle. Initially they are shiny and new. Then they start to wear, fray, and show signs of decline. Then they start to fail to various degrees, finally followed by either a complete failure or a major reconstruction project (generally using debt financing).

Throughout this process, the public grows used to decline and decay—almost comes to accept it as normal—while the world around us becomes less and less lovable each day. This is, for example, how the richest cities in North America—New York City, San Francisco, Washington D.C.—suffer with escalators on their transit systems out of service for years. These things are not difficult to fix when maintenance is prioritized, but when it’s not, just wait for the next large maintenance bond and fix it all at once. …

This enables the second challenge local governments face, that of low expectations. …

This is part of what I was trying to speak to when I asked, “Who’s responsible for a place like this?

New Columbia

Since moving to Washington, I’ve been loosely following the push to transform the District of Columbia into America’s 51st state.

I think it that making the District a state would be bad for both the District and the country, and that if the status quo is unacceptable, it would be simpler and better for the District to be absorbed back into Maryland, just as the District’s western fringe was absorbed back into Virginia.

David Schleicher wrote “Welcome to New Columbia: The Fiscal, Economic and Political Consequences of Statehood for D.C.” in 2014, and I saw it after Tyler Cowen recently shared it. It’s worth checking out if you’re following this topic:

This Essay sketches some of the long-term economic and political consequences of making Washington D.C. the 51st State. The statehood debate has overwhelmingly focused on the same set of issues: the impact of statehood on the federal government’s structure. But if D.C. becomes a state, the most impactful change in its citizens’ lives would not be their new ability to elect members of Congress; it would be the dramatic shift in economics and politics that would come with the transition to having a state rather than city government. On the day “New Columbia” enters the Union, it would bear a constellation of features unprecedented in the nation: the only state wholly part of one metropolitan region, the only state without local governments, and the only wholly urban state. These features have deep implications for the advisability of statehood when compared to the alternatives of retrocession or the stateless status quo and also furnish a blueprint for steps to mitigate the risks and exploit the benefits that statehood would offer. Part I of the Essay will discuss the special fiscal and economic conditions that New Columbia would face. On one hand, statehood would better allow D.C. to take advantage of periods of economic success. In particular, a state of New Columbia would likely be free of the restrictive confines of the Height of Buildings Act, allowing for greater growth when demand for living in D.C. is high. Moreover, the District would likely also gain greater taxing power (although it would lose some forms of generous federal funding). Yet such benefits come at a price: as a single-city state, New Columbia would face drastic risks in times of downturn. The fact that New Columbia would be entirely in one economic region, and the fact that it would exclusively be the center city of that region, would mean almost necessarily that the state would face substantial financial risks in the case of regional and urban-form related shocks. This pro-cyclical effect makes the case for retrocession stronger, and also suggests reforms like a mandatory rainy day fund if statehood is achieved. Part II discusses the implications of New Columbia’s unique internal politics. As noted, New Columbia would be the only state without local governments. The absence of separate spheres for local and state elections would have at least two major implications for New Columbia’s politics and policy. First, as a state composed of an overwhelmingly single-party city, New Columbia’s elections would likely be decidedly uncompetitive. Even in the status quo, this absence of party-level electoral competition is a likely cause of many of the pathologies in D.C. politics, from excessive restrictions on growth to its persistent problems with corruption. To ensure the state of New Columbia does not share these defects, any move towards statehood should include reforms aimed at introducing more political competition. Second, and more optimistically, the unprecedented marriage of a city and a state government offers a powerful change for innovation. Historically, the relatively circumscribed legal power of cities has prevented them from pursuing a number of effective policies because such powers are the exclusive province of states. Further, big cities are often losers in state political fights. In this context, New Columbia’s fusion of city and state would provide many opportunities for policy flexibility and discovery unavailable to most big cities.

Overcast on Dumbarton

I visited Epiphany for mass this morning on Dumbarton Street, and on the way home walked past this:

A green car on Dumbarton Street in Georgetown

Take a moment and put yourself in my shoes taking the photo—there’s without looking left or right, there’s no way to tell you’re not looking right into the past. This same scene could have existed nearly fifty years ago: same house, same fence, same car, same street, etc. And eventually, even when cars like this are converted to electric and homes are running off of clean geothermal or solar, the scene could still otherwise be the same, a little window for looking out into another time.

State College for six waking hours

I woke up around 7am in State College, Pennsylvania this morning at the Super 8 on South Atherton Street, went for a short run, showered, and headed to the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s second board meeting of the year. It’s hot out, and I left the window of my hotel room open and woke up to the Nittany Valley’s near-muggy air. I love weather like this partly because, whether walking or driving through town or the outlying countryside, you encounter the near-summertime in a sensual way—the scents, breezes, and verdant sights are right there for you, if you’re open to receive these gifts.

After the meeting, I drove to Meyer Dairy to pick up some cheese and lemonade, and then to downtown State College for a short walk. Penn State and State College have emptied out with the end of spring classes, and so campus and town are especially peaceful this Sunday morning:

I like solitary trips like this as both a way to think and as a way to go deep with audiobooks. I’m listening to Wilson D. Miscable’s “American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh” and Camille Paglia’s “Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson.”

I drove up from Washington last night for this morning’s meeting, and am heading right back to Washington for a dinner meeting tonight.

‘Bearing Witness’

I spent last night at the Catholic Information Center for “Bearing Witness: Nurturing a Culture of Life through Love and Encounter,” which featured Catherine Hadro and Mary and Bobby Schindler:

Join Catherine Hadro, host of EWTN Pro-Life Weekly, and Mary Schindler, co-founder of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, for an evening of prayer, remembrance, and hope.

Catherine Hadro and Mary Schindler will sit down for an intimate conversation on the topic of nurturing a Culture of Life through love and encounter. Mary Schindler will share positive and life-affirming stories from the fight for the life of her daughter, Terri Schiavo, a prominent victim of the culture of death. Catherine Hadro will speak on her experience as host of EWTN Pro-Life Weekly, sharing some of the most touching personal stories she’s experienced after hosting 100+ episodes of Pro-Life Weekly, and closing with reasons for hope amidst a culture indifferent to the intrinsic dignity of human life.

Bobby Schindler, President of Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network and brother of Terri Schiavo, will also be in attendance. All attendees will receive a complimentary copy of the book, “A Life That Matters: The Legacy of Terri Schiavo, A Lesson For Us All.”

The Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network co-hosted “Responsibility to Care: What Euthanasia Victims Can Teach Us” at the Catholic Information Center last year, and last night’s “Bearing Witness” conversation followed in that tradition of life-affirming conversations.

Visiting Guiding Star

I visited Guiding Star yesterday as part of a day of service; my first service visit in a few years. Guiding Star is a refuge for mothers and children in North Philadelphia who want a choice other than abortion in response to pregnancy, and it’s a particularly vital place for mothers whose partners or family make choosing life an impossibility. Guiding Star and places like it around the country exist to serve women in a way that Planned Parenthood should be emulating, because Guiding Star and places like it represent real and life-affirming choice.

It was good to be at Guiding Star, and to spend time with some of those living there and some of those volunteering from across Greater Philadelphia. As a board member of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, which manages Guiding Star, I see financial statements and operational reports every quarter, but I rarely get the sort of personal experience of the place as I did yesterday.