Let’s just say this up front: I’ve received no kicks from Route 66. Whatever kicks may have been in 66’s arsenal must have been depleted long before I ever rolled my late, great VW beetle westward from Washington. Nonetheless, The Washington Post’s editorial page came out revved up, shall we say, for the widening of 66 in “Spot On: Planners should vote to widen Interstate 66.” Interested parties, and they are legion, can read more about this than is considered healthy on various websites, so I need not review the history.

Lets just start with the present. I realize the wicked nature of the problem, but it's disingenuous to say, as the piece in the Post does, that "no one could have imagined" the rapid increase in traffic from development. What the heck did they think would happen? People looked at that open road and pictured, like the old Nissan Z ad of years past, that there was an empty lane with their name on it. How long would the bucolic landscape be left to the livestock gazing in bovine complacency at speeding convertibles full of happy auto-matons? Maybe someone would wirte a song about it? Well, this 66 is not that 66...from which kicks can apparently still be gotten.

We humans have a remarkable capacity for cognitive dissonance, that is, the dubious talent of holding two incompatible beliefs in one mind. So we persist in believing that widening highways will "solve" traffic problems and "ease" the "congestion"...love the medical tropes. Who doesn't want to alleviate congestion? Oh, let’s not leave the handy “clogged artery” figure behind either. But the cure doesn’t suit the disease. Even as we latch onto the specious belief that we can pave our way to clear-flowing roads, smart people, like those at the Surface Transportation Policy Project, continually remind us that new lanes actually induce automobile traffic. A ribbon o' highway attracts humans in cars as if the road itself were paved in magnets, causing the very problem it is supposed to solve.

This is called iatrogenia. There are other good examples. I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that a lot of personal care products perpetuate the symptoms they claim to mitigate, but only to such a degree as to keep the consumer buying the product. A dandruff shampoo that induces a few flakes. A moisturizer that slightly dries the skin. In truth, alcohol does dehydrate you, despite what that cold beer on a hot day suggests. Thus, we just grab another. The construction of Interstate 66 itself generated its own traffic, as it represented a quick and convenient straight line into Washington. Is it no wonder that it worked so well? But, knowing that, why would we do it again?

Only truly unbearable—shall we just call them unsustainable?—situations effect change. Leave 66 as it is. At some point, some sentient being somewhere in Fairfax County just might throw open her window and shout to the stoic sound walls: “I’m tired as hell, and I’m not going to do this anymore. I’m moving to a neighborhood where I have some choices.” Now that will “ease congestion”.

Read more about it
The Arlington Coalition for Sensible Transportation


We Know More Than We Can Tell

It’s Environmental Film Festival time again in Washington! Last night we hosted a film at the National Building Museum called “Designing a Great Neighborhood” which took us through an 8 year process of from site selection to inhabitation in extraordinary detail. The neighborhood, in Boulder CO, had all the stuff; it was so green it glowed. And all the people seemed so happy. Yet, I’m sure their happiness didn’t derive directly from the carefully calibrated roof overhangs and the bioswales. There was so much more to it than that and it’s that excess, that generosity that shifts a place from green to truly sustainable. But it is really hard to say exactly what that is. I was reminded of Justice Stewart Potter’s famous assertion about pornography, that he might not be able to define it but he sure knew it when he saw it.

That’s what we face, really, in trying to plan, design, and of course build, better greener communities. Somehow, the best of them, usually from history, remain both more and other than simply the checklist of green attributes. Potter’s claim is just a more earthy way of describing what philosopher Michael Polanyi, in his deceptively thin volume The Tacit Dimension, calls “tacit knowledge”. Polanyi’s theory is that we know more than we can tell.

What makes a great neighborhood? I know more than I can tell. Although though I give it a try in the Museum’s web video series “Great Green Places.” In it I itemize the parts of the landscape that make Dupont Circle such a great green place. But we would have been out there filming into eternity to really capture the full picture. How is it that we can know more than we can tell? We know the faces of hundreds of people, but can’t tell how. Polanyi, and other phenomenologists argue that we our knowing depends profoundly on memory, and memory on all of our senses. We might think that our knowing is rational, but it is haptic, aural, olfactory, and visual.

“The knowledge I have of my own body differs altogether from the knowledge of its physiology; and the rules of rhyming and prosody do not tell me what a poem told me, without any knowledge of its rules.” Polanyi

Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, suggests that we don’t merely inhabit the world, but the world in habits us. We carry our houses, our sense of home, imprinted on us like a mother duck on her ducklings, with us our entire lives seeking correspondence everywhere. Bachelard calls this the oneiric house, the dream/memory of house that each of us carries with us in our minds and against which we referee all representations of house. I think we also carry with us an oneiric city, as a gatekeeper, a referee of our perception of city. What is a “hometown” anyway? The average American always has to pause a minute before answering, “what’s your hometown?” Is it my birth-town? My present-town? My parent-town? Or, my oneiric town, the place in memory and geography where I feel “at home.”

Writing about this sends me into a Bachelardian reverie about Glen Ridge, NJ. Although I lived there only for less than 15 years of my life, it’s my oneiric town, my home-town. It is the wellspring of my intuitions and convictions for how things ought to be. Walkable, tree-lined, compact, transit oriented---all of today’s terminology applies, yet barely hints at those qualities that made it most memorable. From our house on Inness Place, I could walk 3-4 blocks to the train station where my father arrived from Manhattan every evening at 6:15. In the winter, I might have gone to the ice-skating rink next to the station, and on the way home cross the street to the row of shops on Grove Street. They housed the necessities of the vita beata: a deli, pharmacy, bakery, liquor store, beauty salon, dry cleaners, newsstand, and pizza joint. Walk down Oxford Street and the 3 storey duplexes would give way to single family bungalows. That, and the change from tall industrial streetlights to the low gas lights, was the sign that we had crossed from Montclair into Glen Ridge. Right turn at the next block, quick left and down the hill to the last house on the right, up the steps that join the sidewalk, up the walk, and another flight of steps to the porch. Home. From that omphalos I could walk or ride my black 3-speed to friends, piano lessons, middle school and high school,…my school years were bus-free, an unusual condition in the US.

The gas lights, the canopy of trees, the blue slate sidewalks, the gathering of civic life under red tile roofs at the Middle School and the Library, right where the large world passed through on rail, through the Glen, and on down Bloomfield Avenue. This memory contains all of the architectural, urban and livability values that I continue to hold. In all of my moves and wanderings since, I have carried this memory as an ideal with me as I try to make myself “at home”…looking for the pattern of living, the shape, the casts of characters, the habits that formed my impression of dwelling.


Hung out to dry

It’s too easy to itemize the obstacles to living more sustainably as problems of technology, or of the economy, when often they are problems of culture. There exists a deep seated reservoir of suspicion, fear, distaste, and often outright hostility to habits and ways of life other than “ours”—however we define “ours”—that constitutes a much more formidable barrier to change than we would like to admit.

In what was otherwise a lighthearted look at the close of the Virginia General Assembly’s recent session and its quirky bits of failed legislation, a short piece in the Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/28/AR2009022801802.html included the following exchange:

“This year, there were echoes -- distant perhaps -- of Webster vs. Clay as delegates debated clotheslines. The energy-saving bill, sponsored by Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax), would have prevented rule-happy homeowner associations from banning clotheslines. Taking aim at the bill as if wielding a rug-beater, Del. Robert D. "Bobby" Orrock Sr. (R-Caroline) said Northern Virginians might regret seeing clotheslines strung from ‘tree to tree to tree.’

“‘Go ahead and pass this, and then when your folks come screaming that this looks like a West Virginia subdivision,’ Orrock began, but boos cut him off. Then Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax) rose in the bill's defense. ‘This is a bill about freedom!’ Sickles said. ‘The freedom to dry your clothes outside.’”

Alright, giggle if you must but we label an issue silly at our peril. Volcano monitoring, anyone? What strikes me, an admitted and unrepentant line-drying scoff-law, is the raw classist swipe: “a West Virginia subdivision.” I’m as guilty of going for the cheap quip as much as the next guy…alright, more…but this one really strikes at the profound cultural biases that prevent not just living more sustainably, but heck , more frugally and pragmatically.

Think about other examples: “other” people ride the bus, sit outside on their front stoops in the heat, mend their clothes… hang their laundry out to dry. They live across the tracks, across the river, in the next county…in West Virginia.

Since I live in the District my congratulations to State Senator Linda Puller has little meaning to her. I’m not among her constituents, but if I were I would send her a basket of fine wooden clothespins and offer my support. I regularly flout my condo association’s boiler plate prohibition---yes, I do, I admit it! –against line-drying, or as SB 1065 so obliquely puts it employing a “wind energy drying device.” I do think that’s a misnomer. My “device,” and all such lines, is a passive solar/wind hybrid tension-assisted fabric support system. There, now doesn’t that sound sophisticated? So much more palatable than a low-prole “clothesline.”

Yes, it’s my little act of civil disobedience, and it makes doing laundry so much more exciting. So, fight for your own right to dry. Check out the legislation itself on the Virginia Assembly website


Covenants regarding wind energy drying devices. Provides that effective July 1, 2009, no community association shall prohibit an owner from installing or using a wind energy drying device on that owner's property. The bill provides that a community association may establish reasonable restrictions concerning the size, place, time and manner of placement of such wind energy drying device."

If that’s not enough for you: http://www.laundrylist.org/index.php/advocacy/76-the-right-to-dry-campaign