5 May 2012


Pasadena government

With a few exceptions, city builders of the 'civilized' world are confronted with considerable rules to follow, and clearances to be reviewed, in order to be allowed to build a project. These are processes devised for the public good, established to enforce the public will, to make manifest the political power of government, and to greatly influence and control what may be constructed within a community. They are also processes that happen to squander our resources, and hamper us (all of us) in building the best possible cities.

Where I live in Southern California, considerable resources are expended on this process of making it OK to build a building. Builders with the wherewithal to do so are compelled to gather reports, hire consultants, pass muster with numerous governing bodies, mitigate all environmental impacts, all over a prolonged period of time, and with no certainty of what the final outcome will end up being. This is a process for the resolute, a process that is often unflinchingly crude and crass along the way. In the spirit of fairness, every applicant is intrinsically assumed to have ulterior motives, and to act only on behalf of their own interests (alas, often true), and without regard to the greater goals of the city. Entitlement documents are looked at with suspicion, and checked for quality and completeness by local administrators not wishing for anything to 'slide by'. Here in California we operate under state environmental law (with equivalent processes around the world), which rightfully recognizes and the construction and operation of building can potentially have a large effect on the local environment. That law requires substantial projects to make an accounting of all the conceivable ways the project could impact the environment, during, and after construction.

It makes for colossal assemblage of red tape. Probably worth it, if you couldn't poke all the holes in it, and if you couldn't demonstrate it sometimes made for worse environmental decisions. My favorite example of this is how traffic that is anticipated to be generated by a new project must be 'mitigated' within the street-grid so that it may be passably absorbed in that grid. The humorous thing about this example is the unintended consequences of the mitigation. A number of years ago when I made my personal commitment to be on foot more (and automobile bound less), I had a chance to observe first hand how this mitigation was working. On my walking route from home to work, I began to notice how new mitigation measures were actually making it more difficult for me to walk to work. Signal buttons were being added to intersections, requiring me to wait to cross until the pedestrian sequence would come up briefly as the light cycled. I could no longer match my stride to coincide with the next green light. I had to push the button and wait for my eight-second opportunity to cross. If I missed the pushing the button a millisecond before the light turned green for vehicular traffic, I would be compelled to wait an entire light cycle for the next opportunity to cross. In each case when these corrective measures had taken place, the traffic engineers had carefully calculated how to move more traffic through the intersection and in the surrounding grid; and in each case, these same engineers made it more difficult to cross the street. Over the course of several years and with the construction of three large projects, my morning walk was changed from 12 minutes to over 15. As result, I used my car to get to work about 2 to 4 more times a month, because the time difference really did matter.

The Intersection

In each case, a considerable expenditure time and resources were spent to make these adjustments to the infrastructure. All with the unintended consequence of making an area of Pasadena harder to walk in, with streets that were less desirable as urban places with all the traffic passing by- not desirable environmental consequences. Worse yet, paying all of those attorneys to write environmental impact reports, paying the engineers to do traffic analysis, and paying the banks all that interest to carry the project while all this stuff was chewed on- that money came from someplace. Out of the construction quality of each of the project, that is, and out of the creative time afforded the architects and designers that envisioned each project. Less desirable projects, taking longer not to design, but to process, all with unintended and undesirable environmental consequences.

I'm leaving out the arduous design review and planning commission process that are more studies in the manifestation of political power and less about the creation of a great city. I don't need it to make my point about how it becomes a waste of precious resources that is desperately needed to make great building projects and infrastructure.

We absolutely need to build with justice and with concern with the environment. We need to build with an assurance to the public of quality and with the sense of making a contribution to the greater urban whole. So an application and review process is absolutely necessary. But the whole process should be based on incentivizing good project attributes and goals, common sense, and trust in good design. All within a reasonable amount of time. As has taken place in good city design for thousands of years.

Tip of the day: Let's stop wasting resources. We don't have them to spare.

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