The Cause of Water Pollution: Wildlife?

The Washington Post reports on some new research coming out of the DC metro area that suggests that geese, bears, deer, livestock, and other wildlife are major contributors to rising levels of bacteria in the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

Bacteria Levels

The article contends that the high percentages of bacteria are the result of “unnaturally high populations of deer, geese and raccoons living in modern suburbs and depositing their waste there.”

Of course one of the reasons that there are “unnaturally high populations” is because low-intensity suburban sprawl destroys prevailing ecological systems and certain species are better able to adapt than others. Curiously, these species are the ones tagged by the article as the “wildlife” responsible for the high levels of pollution.

Thus, it doesn’t seem entirely accurate to talk of “wildlife” waste as something emanating separately from human activities. In fact, high populations of one of the more polluting species–non-migratory Canadian geese–are apparently decendents of geese brought to the mid-Atlantic region as hunting decoys.

The distinctions between “wildlife” and human behavior are not quite so clear.

Poverty in the Suburbs

The Chicago Tribune today reports on the growing numbers of people in poverty in Chicago’s suburbs. According to the article:

The recent census figures show the poverty rate in suburban Cook County rose to 8.2 percent in 2005, up from 6.4 percent in 1999. The figure was 5.3 percent in 1989.

The article attributes the rise to the search for affordable housing by low-wage earning, immigrant families. Chicago still has a higher proportion of its population in poverty than the suburbs, with more than 18% of its families living below poverty. However, the rising number in the suburbs indicates that the issue is becoming more regional.

Wal-Mart Woes in California

Wal-Mart scored a victory here in Illinois this week as the Chicago City Council failed to uphold Mayor Daley’s veto of the big-box minimum wage law that was aimed at the country’s largest retailer.

The company’s problems continue elsewhere, however.  In Hercules, California–a bedroom community in the suburban Bay-area county of Contra Costa–the city is continuing its pursuit of undeveloped property owned by Wal-Mart as part of its redevelopment efforts.

In Hercules, the effort to stop Wal-Mart is motivated less by the company’s notorious labor practices than by the potential impact a large store will have on issues of community identity, environmental impact, and civic design.  Hercules has been at the forefront of California communities in embracing the New Urbanist town planning framework.    New Urbanism argues for mixed-use and pedestrian friendly development–pretty much the antithesis to what Wal-Mart’s generally bring to a community.

Wal-Mart has owned a desirable piece of property on the town’s waterfront for a number of years, but has been unable to get approval to build its store due to its failure to meet development restrictions that were in place prior to the company’s acquisition of the property.

Given Wal-Mart’s recalcitrance, the city is now trying to pursue a forced acquisition of the property by using its strengthened eminent domain powers.   This should be an important case to follow, as Hercules’ approach could be followed by other communities seeking to challenge big box development.

Suburbia- No place for RVs?

Today, the Tribune covers a debate going on in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake where the city is proposing a ban on parking recreational vehicles and boats outside in residential districts.

The debate typifies two often incompatible trends seen in American suburbia:  the desire for a safe, conforming landscape on the one hand, and the desire for individual freedom, on the other.

Proponents of the ban argue that RV’s and boats detract from the aesthetics of suburban residential neighborhoods (and property values) while opponents feel that they should have the right to store their vehicles on their own property.

Generally in these disputes the “property values” contingent trumps other interests.

Housing, Pollution, and Sprawl

There are two interesting stories in today’s national press relating to some of the under-reported aspects of contemporary suburbanization.

In the Washington Post, Michael Grunwald has an article on how issues of affordable housing are being increasingly felt in the suburbs. One of the advantages of post-World War Two suburbanization has been a marked increase in relatively affordable housing–albeit highly subsidized by the federal government. As scholars such as Kenneth Jackson have argued, federal government policies related to mortgage insurance, highway construction, and various tax deductions have been historicaly skewed towards suburban development at the expense of inner-city investment.

Over the past decade or so there has been a historic housing boom nationwide. The combination of low interest rates, inexpensive land acquisition at the exurban fringes of major metropolitan areas, and a continuation of the aforementioned subsidies have all contributed to this boom. Simultaneously there has been a demonstrated renaissance in various urban neighborhoods that has resulted in gentrification schemes that have pushed many low-income earners out of what were largely working-class neighborhoods. In Chicago, neighborhoods like Pilsen, Wicker Park, and Ukrainian Village are examples of this trend.

These pressures are coupled with a general stagnation of wages for many in the middle- and lower-middle classes. Add to this mix high fuel prices and the fact that many of the mortgages that fueled the housing boom have adjustible-rate products that are now starting to rise significantly, and we see that suburbia is now having to grapple with issues of affordability. As Grunwald’s article illustrates, increasing numbers of people are paying more than 30% of their income–the traditional measure of affordability. In practical terms, many people are now having to travel many miles to find pockets of affordability.
These increasing commutes are taking place in a context that is deficient in mass transit. With more and more people commuting long distances in suburbia, air quality inevitably suffers in many locales. In the Central Valley of California, officials have sought to take a novel approach to dealing with this effect. As today’s New York Times reports, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is requiring developers to pay a pollution mitigation fee for developments that exacerbate low-density sprawl.

It’s not surprising that developers are taking the district to court to overturn the tax, but it does represent an interesting attempt at getting pollution-generating projects to pay their social impact.

Neighborhood Change and Urban Identity

This week’s announcement by Bon-Ton Stores that they will be closing the State Street location of Carson Pirie Scott is the latest in a series of well-publicized changes downtown Chicago’s retail landscape. Late last year their State Street neighbor, Marshall Field’s, was swallowed up by Federated Department Stores in a large merger of the country’s two top department store conglomerates. In an effort to streamline advertising and branding costs, Federated announced that the all of the regional chains acquired in the merger–including Field’s–would adopt the Macy’s brand.

From the perspective of urban development, the reaction to these changes is interesting. There was vocal opposition to the Field’s name change, including a petition drive and an impending protest on 9 September when the name change becomes permanent. The reaction to Carsons has been less dramatic–perhaps due to the fact that opposition to the Field’s transition was largely ineffectal.

One of the themes that continues to emerge in local news stories about these changes on State Street was how many people expressed nostalgia and regret that the neighborhood is changing. The Tribune today has an interesting article that briefly reviews the history of State Street as the regional shopping mecca going back more than a century.

State Street has figured prominently in the city’s identity over the years, being memorialized in the 1922 Fred Fisher song made famous by Frank Sinatra, “Chicago,” wherein State Street is referred to as that “Great Street” where “they do things they don’t do on Broadway.” Fisher never clearly discloses what these “things” are–although later in the song he recounts how he “saw a man and he danced with his wife”–but clearly the attempt here is to seek pride in the Chicago’s status as the “Second City.”

As post-War suburbanization commenced in the Chicago region during 1950s, State Street suffered. The big downtown stores–including Carson’s and Fields–set up operations in the big regional shopping malls that were being constructed in suburbia. These new malls, often located in proximity to the new interstate highways, offered the old downtown shopping opportunities in suburban settings closer to the burgeoning middle classes who were fleeing the city in droves.

State Street suffered accordingly and in the late 1970s, the city tried to replicate the mall atmposphere by shutting the street down to private automobile traffic. This idea failed since the street couldn’t really turn into a pedestrian mall becase there was still CTA bus and taxi traffic. The result was a dead zone of very little street life. The city re-opened State Street to all vehicular traffic in 1996 which coincided with the development of more residential properties in the neighborhood. Much of the downtown shopping migrated a mile or so north to the North Michigan Avenue district.

State Street has blossomed into a very different type of neighborhood than it was–which offers a great example of the dynamism of urban spaces. With DePaul’s renovation of the old Goldblatt’s department store building into classroom space, the opening of the University Center dormotory, and the Harold Washington Library serving as anchors, the neighborhood is taking on an eclectic character, merging residential, commercial, and civic functions into a different type of urban space.

Neighborhood change, however, often conflicts with peoples’ preconceptions about the place. This is especially the case when old and prominent institutions leave or change their fundamental character. Interestingly, an article in today’s New York Times profiles Terry Lundgren, the CEO of Federated and the force behind changing Fields into the Macy’s brand. The article largely gives Lundgren positive marks for smoothing over the reaction against consolidating regional stores under the Macy’s name. One anecdote recounted in the story is telling:

To prove the point, Mr. Lundgren tells a story. Soon after Federated disclosed that Marshall Field’s, an upscale Midwest department store, would lose its name, scores of shoppers wrote blistering letters to the company, with several threatening to cut up their Field’s charge cards.

Worried that the reaction might be widespread and hurt the chain’s sales, Mr. Lundgren asked the accounting department to pull the purchase records of the first 100 letter writers. “There was no activity,” he said. “Or incredibly little activity.”

“This is where the tension was coming from,” he continued. “There was a group of people who did not want a change. But do they like the merchandise in the store? Not according to their spending. In their letters, they talked about when they were a child. But nobody was talking in the present tense.”

This reveals the reality of the tensions between people’s identity with a prominent landmark occupying urban space and the reality of corporate interests in a period of increasing consolidation in many industries–inculding retail. Both Field’s and Carson’s have long-ago been acquired by businesses with no measurable ties to the city and are facing increasing pressure by stockholders to maintain competitiveness. These recent decisions show that the ultimate decisions made by these companies are designed with these isolated corporate interests in mind. In fact on the same day that Bon-Ton announced the closure of the State Street Carson’s, their second quarter earnings report was released which failed to meet Wall Street expectations.
Of course, no one expects coporations to engage in activity that is at odds with their bottom line; however, private interests invariably have effects on public spaces. The inevitible tension that results provides the substance of much social and political interest.

Animals in the Suburbs

When city zoning became formalized in North America during the first decades of the twentieth century, one of the first things many cities and suburbs began to regulate was the presence of livestock and farm animals.

While animals have been part of the urban landscape for centuries, aesthetic and health concerns accompanying industrialization caused cities to question the advantages of hosting certain types of animals. Livestock had provided urban dwellers with important nutritional supplements but with industrialization, the argument went, people no longer had to rely on their own husbandry for protien. They could simply buy their food in markets.

Recently, however, people are beginning to question the wisdom of these zoning codes–although, not without intense political argument.

The Chicago Tribune reports today about a battle brewing in the exclusive suburb of Lake Forest pitting the ex-wife of the heir to the Walgreens drugstore chain against her neighbors. Estelle Walgreen apparently is fond of pot-bellied pigs and keeps several as pets over the objection of her neighbors. The article implies that Lake Forest has an ordinance prohibiting farm animals, but Walgreen did not feel that it applied to her pot-bellied since they are pets–not meat. The city council did not buy her argument and has voted to have them removed.

Evanston is also in the midst of a controversy on the appropriateness of beekeeping in the suburb. In this case a teenager developed an interest in apiculture and installed a honeybee hive over neighbors’ objections. The city has an ordinance relating to animals–but not insects. After several weeks of debate, the city is still weighing its options.

Evanston may be more sympathetic to urban beekeeping as there has been a significant trend in recent years to encourage ecologically-friendly activities in urban and suburban settings and Evanston has recently adopted a strategic plan that encompasses sustainability.

The outcome of the bee controversy may be an indicator of the city’s committment to sustainable policies.