Tuesday, November 29, 2011

front porch republic proceedings

For those unable to make it to the inaugural Front Porch Republic, videos are available here: Bill Kauffman's keynote address is especially fun.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Reclaiming Small Town Conservatism

I was blessed to be able to attend the first ever Front Porch Republic Conference in Emmitsburg Maryland two weeks ago. I have wanted to write about it but not had the chance to process it all.Among the highlights for me was meeting agrarian scholar Allan Carlson, and writer Bill Kauffman, who is as much fun in person as his books are.

A young conference attendee named Matt Dill captures the spirit of the event here: better than I could.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Lost Agrarian City of Pennsylvania

Agrarian urbanism challenges the way we think about cities, and particularly their relationship to the countryside. While is is a new idea, there are historic precedents. My favorite example is Pennsylvania's lost agrarian city, which most people know by its other name-Philadelphia.

21st Century Philadelphia may be the Commonwealth's most dysfunctional place. Its slums are large and legendary. Philadelphia boasts the most dangerous neighborhood in Pennsylvania and the 16 most dangerous in the nation.

Ironically, William Penn purposefully planned the city to be something very different. Penn had seen major changes to agrarian England in his lifetime. The Enclosure movements had dispossessed poor country people from once common grazing lands. displaced and landless laborers ended up in places like London, living at high density and squalor. When not robbing, or being beheaded for stealing, they grew sick and died. This squalor was a direct factor in the great plague 1665-1666, which left one in five Londoners dead. as the City recovered from plague, a bake oven started the great fire.

I saw a fire as one entire arch of fire above a mile long: it made me weep to see it. The churches, houses are all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made and the cracking of the houses." Samuel Pepys

When Penn was granted Pennsylvania, the Quaker reformer saw his chance to not only give the persecuted of Europe a safe haven, he saw a chance to remake the ideal of a City.

Penn's vision was the antitheses of London, with its extreme density of buildings, and narrow crooked streets. He wanted to avoid the overcrowding that created disease and fire. The streets were wide and the Town lots for each family were either just under a half acre or a full acre. He planned prominent squares in each district, which modern planners assume to be parks. I suspect he was planning for common grazing of house cows. He envisioned it all as a "green Countrie towne".

The size of lots are particularly important from an agrarian perspective. The Quakers were keen vegetable gardeners and their concepts of family were child centered (They were years ahead of their time in this respect) Penn was seeking an urban form that would allow even a poor family the ability to grow cabbages, have a fruit tree, or keep a house cow on their lot. The greater light and air created a more healthful environment for children.

What Happened?

Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the plan Thomas Holme drew for Penn, Europeans began subdividing the spacious lots, and erecting buildings that covered the entirety of the smaller lots.

By the time our Constitution, Philadelphia only had about 28,000 people, but looked like a smaller London. By 1793, Yellow Fever was raging through the City and Philip Freneau was lamenting that:
Nature's poisons here collected,
Water, earth, and air infected--
O, what a pity,
Such a City,
Was in such a place erected!

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Monday, September 26, 2011

School Choice: Another One Bites the Dust

One of my favorite ewes prolapsed recently and my only recourse was to haul her to the stockyards at New Wilmington as a cull. To get her to the auction this morning, I drove past the recently closed East Lawrence Elementary School. This well built and recently renovated brick building was closed for declining enrollment. The First, Second, and Third Graders from the surrounding townships will now endure a 45+ minute bus ride to a bigger elementary school. Ironically, I also passed a one room private school that is bursting at the seams with happy kids.

I recently worked with a Borough that is trying to keep its small elementary schools open in spite of a district that also thinks bigger is better. In this case, the new policy would be to drive buses along the sidewalks to pick up small children and haul them out to the suburbs. Seems better to me to let the kids walk two blocks to a small school. If safety is an issue, a chaperon could be hired at less the cost of a CDL bus driver, and the chaperon could run on caffeine, rather than expensive diesel. A few communites are trying this "walking School Bus" approach.

In the course of my professional career, I worked with two school districts. Both wanted to manipulate demographic projections to help maximize construction projects that architecture firms were selling. The architects who consult for school districts make no money telling a school district their facilities are sufficient, so they have to sell consolidation; in spite of:

Evidence by the center for Rural Pennsylvania that consolidation yields no advantage of economy of scale.

Growing evidence that small schools are better learning environments

From my perspective as a community planner, I see closing a neighborhood or small rural school as an insult to the community and its taxpayers (both living and dead). Citizens were asked to pay for the construction and maintenance of a building which is now cast off like a dirty handkerchief. There is also often an undercurrent in these decisions that the town or rural area is not important enough to rate its own school, and the children have to be shipped out to somewhere worth spending their time. If not an insult, I must conclude that school board members lack the backbone to resist the sales talk of consolidators. Or do school boards lack the intelligence to figure out it might be more effective to shift grades and teachers instead of walking away from a significant physical investment?

I have watched a number of small town and rural schools close for the past 23 years. In most cases, the closing deals some hard blows to local economy and community identity. If any readers still have a small local school, treasure it. If you want to defend it run for the local school board. In Washington and Harrisburg, politicians harp a lot about school choice. How about the simple school choice to have a public school within reasonable proximity to the childrens' homes?

Friday, September 23, 2011

When Worlds Collide (or maybe not): Urbanism and Agrarianism

I have spent the past 23 years serving as a planning consultant to Pennsylvania's Counties, smaller cities, Townships and Boroughs. As a professional planner, I have tried to help communities manage changes such as economic dislocation, urban blight, conserving small town character, revitalizing downtowns, or dealing with the impacts of new highways and development.

When not planning, I have put my time and treasure into the farm where I was raised. In 2009, thanks to the Internet, I was able to move my professional office to the farm, so my days are divided between farming and homesteading activities and writing and research.

Over the past few years, I have seen my private agrarian interests and community planning interests merging. Small towns I work for have been looking at changing ordinances to allow chicken keeping. One of the brightest young urban planners I know is reading John Seymour, raising chickens, and heating with wood--in a city neighborhood. Another colleague is helping his daughter establish a CSA farm in a suburb. One of the bleakest cities in Western Pennsylvania is trying to establish an urban farm on old industrial land. Perhaps the greatest indication of a growing interest in the relationship between food and communities have come from the leading new urbanist Andres Duany. Duany has come out hard for agrarian urbanism, and recently published a book on the topic.

Against this backdrop of agrarian interest is the specter of economic collapse. Urbanists like Jim Kunstler see Peak Oil as ending the American way of life that most people think of as normal. The Neosurvivalism of folks like Jim Rawles has become mainstream. With due respect to the two Jims (whose books share space on my shelves) I see another way; rebuilding local communities. Resilient, self supporting communities represent the best way to avoid any crisis short of the Apocalypse.

84 percent of American live in Urban Areas. I am something of an oxymoron; an urban planner who studies that 84 percent but who likes and actually knows how to milk a goat, skin a muskrat, castrate a bull calf, and run a tractor. With regards to agrarianism and urbanism, I believe I might have something to add to the conversation.