Blabbings about family, community, sustainability and life from Frederick, MD.

Bad News Tuesday June 19, 2007

Filed under: Children,co-housing,Community,devolution,Environment,Sprawl,transit — tobymurdock @ 4:54 pm

Some bummers today in the Washington Post.

First, all of the moron energy convened in Fairfax County yesterday as they decided definitively to have the Metro line in Tyson’s Corner to run above ground.  To the defense of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, I think they would have all preferred a tunnel, but complexities regarding federal-state-local government dynamics (oh, how we need devolution!) prevented it. The end result is that hideous, pedestrian-repellent, ugly, post-modern, unlivable abomination that is Tyson’s today will remain . . . a hideous, pedestrian-repellent, ugly, post-modern, unlivable abomination. It is obvious: the contrasting results of the Orange line in Arlington County (below ground) and Fairfax County (above) is a famous case study.

Anyhow, there is another article in the Post about how the current generation of kids spends so much time indoors that they have no connection with Nature.  Oh Jesus. What could be worse. There’s much one could say here about the need for conservation, open space. That’s the obvious part.

But the more subtle and interesting part is on the parenting side. First is the need to have kids’ lives not so scheduled so that they have the time to experience Nature in an unstructured, spontaneous way (how pathetic to even have to describe it that way). More challenging is the need to have the courage to allow kids to roam about–the neighborhood and in Nature–in an unsupervised way. This takes faith in your kids, instruction, and the development of neighborhoods where everyone is keeping an eye on everyone’s kids: something that is becoming a relic (oh, how we need co-housing!). But it is the only way that kids can get out of their programmed, indoor existence and have a relationship with Nature: remembering that “Nature” is not some other category of life, but rather that it IS life, it is everything we come from, live on, and return to.


Photo on Flickr from zuki12


The Book of Our Future April 20, 2007

Deep Economy, Bill McKibben’s new book, does the best job of laying out the social and environmental ills of our day and the path to fixing them. Put another way, it is hard to think of a more important book.

“Social and environmental ills” is a poor phrase. The word “Environment” is often thrown around in the context of political issues, like “Transportation” or “Education.” We’ve become so abstracted from our natural existence that “the Environment” seems to sit appropriately lined up side by side those other “issues.”

However we distance ourselves from it, the reality remains that we are creatures living on a planet, depending upon that planet and one another for our existence. And in that context, the environment and our society is EVERYTHING: it is our lives themselves and the existence of our species and fellow living creatures. And it is at that profound level that McKibben looks at our ills.

McKibben begins by explaining how for all of human existence, MORE has always meant BETTER. More warmth, more shelter, more nourishment, more resources always rightly meant a better life. Humans used their minds to generate MORE, and certain principles of economy, efficiency and capitalism became the best ways to organize and operate to produce MORE.

The invention of the steam engine in 1712, the first industrial use of fossil fuels, marked a profound change in humanity’s ability to produce MORE. The solar energy of eons, stored in fossil fuels, was unlocked for human use.

After three centuries of fossil fuel use, however, things have changed–at least for the industrialized world. For the first time MORE does not necessarily mean BETTER. In fact, no only do we have more than ENOUGH, but MORE is more and more yielding WORSE. Specifically MORE is:

  1. generating more social inequity
  2. destroying our planet and our existence upon it. Global warming is the attention-grabber here, but it goes beyond that. Modernity’s use of fossil fuels and other natural resources is simply unsustainable.
  3. breaking the bonds between one another, hollowing our communities and our humanity. Interdependence is a good thing, and we’ve lost it.

The problem is that the correlation of MORE to BETTER is so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche is it unfathomable to break the connection. So we go on, building houses that are TOO big and TOO far apart, driving our cars TOO much, working TOO much, eating TOO much food that is TOO processed, living in TOO mobile, TOO global of a economy and society. I’ve read many books on the destruction of the environment or on the dearth of community in our day, but I’ve never before read a book that ties the two together so eloquently, tracing it all to the excesses of fossil fuels and the pursuit of MORE.

McKibben of course recognizes that capitalism and democracy are the best ways to organize society. In fact, many detractors, hoping to see McKibben as some freakish communist, would be surprised to know McKibben to be a Sunday school teacher (liberalism and Christianity can co-exist; they can even thrive–consider the radical Christ was in his day). The solution that he proposes is “localism” — living in smaller communities, within regional economies, in a life that is somehow a little less competitive and a lot less fossil fuel dependent.

While some Vermont antecdotes paint a nice picture of what localism might look like, how this occurs exactly is a question he does not fully answer–he never gets much beyond the construct of a farmer’s market. It makes me think of latter 20th century Latin American economies that tried to become “localized,” to stay capitalist but be entirely self-sufficient with huge tariffs. That was a huge flop. To turn your back to global competition seems like a bad idea.

So figuring out this balancing act–reducing the scope of our economy, the scope of our lives to something more human in scale, while recognizing that competition and openness are the best drivers of beneficial cooperation in our society–is a question left unanswered. It will continue to be pondered here.

An easy answer is peak oil. The global economy can only function because of cheap, abundant energy. If the supply of fossil fuels tightens and the the prices rises dramatically, getting our TV’s from China (that contains parts shipped in from Holland, Brazil and Indonesia; built by workers fed on food from the U.S., Canada and Russia) no longer works that well. Localism would be forced upon us.

But such a calamity is not to be wished upon the world. Instead of a shock, let’s hope such a transition happens gradually over a long period of time. But while the delay would prevent economic disaster, our souls and environment will continue to rot. Somehow we all need to see the benefits of a more localized society and voluntarily move toward it.

Reading Deep Economy would be a good start. I hope you do it.


Driving Ourselves Crazy March 5, 2007

Filed under: Children,Community,modernity,Sprawl — tobymurdock @ 2:00 am

There was a good editorial in the Washington Post today about American life by Susan Coll. She talks about the stresses she and her family endures in the college admissions process specifically and in the competitiveness of upper middle class life in general. She says:

we glide right over the structural changes in society that have created a new culture of child-rearing, and some of the ways we respond are not entirely within our control. In other words, there may be something in the water supply that is turning us into nuts.

How much hovering does it take to qualify as a helicopter parent, and how many extracurriculars does it take to land you in the realm of the clinically extreme? It seems that at least part of the answer has to do with sprawl. Our suburban existence and our car-centric culture means that a disproportionate amount of time and energy is devoted to each activity: The joy of watching your kid kick a soccer ball is eclipsed by the dread of an I-270 commute to the Germantown SoccerPlex; the drum lesson becomes a logistical nightmare of rush-hour traffic and no place to park. And then, when lacrosse practice runs late, the already fragile scaffolding collapses as someone is stranded at a flute lesson, and dinner becomes an afterthought around the time that stomachs begin to growl.

Modern life whizzes by so fast. And our blind faith in technological and economic progress makes it hard for us to question or even perceive the changes that roll by.

But what do we really want out of life? And how do the patterns of modern life, the “structural changes” deny us from what we really want? So much is available to us in our incredibly prosperous society. The challenge is to decide to do less when prevailing culture always insists on doing more.

There is “something in the water” in my mind. The upper-middle class status quo  in modern America is nuts. The lives that that status quo expects one are exhausting and lame. The strain comes from the high financial achievement that is expected. And, worst of all, most participants in it all don’t even realize how nuts it all is.

Somehow we need to realize how well we can all live with less, and with focusing our resources on collective goods instead of private ones.  We’d be left with a lot more time and energy left for what really matters.


Red Line to Frederick February 2, 2007

Filed under: Environment,frederick,Sprawl,transit — tobymurdock @ 2:51 am


There was an article in the News-Post today about getting the Red Line extended to Frederick. That would be awesome. We need to get our Frederick leadership more focused on this.


Federal Government Making Local Decisions January 31, 2007

Filed under: devolution,politics,Sprawl — tobymurdock @ 2:05 pm

More bad news in the Washington Post today about efforts to put the new Metro line in Tyson’s Corner through a tunnel instead of above ground.

It is so proven, time and time again, what the results are of keeping transit above ground: it does nothing to change the urban fabric. Northern Virginia, in fact, is a widely-cited case study in the difference the Orange Line has had in its below-ground (Arlington) and above ground (Fairfax) portions.

Local leaders know this and are trying desperately to make the change. But because the bulk of the funding is coming from the federal government, and because certain federal govenernment regulations make this change somehow impossible, it is not going to happen.

Which raises the question: why is this a federal decision? Transit in Virginia has nothing to do with the rest of the country, but the intrusion of national authority into the process is going to result in a tragic outcome.

Devolution used to be a concept with more public support than it has now. Excessive central authority makes for inefficiency and poor decision-making, as shown in this example. It also detaches citizens from government, making for much of the apathy and disillusionment we have towards civic life in our country. Some day we must change this.

Update: there is new hope for the tunnel. We’ll see if anything happens. This still doesn’t change how the federal involement makes the whole process ineffective.


A Great Day for Frederick November 8, 2006

Filed under: Community,Environment,frederick,Sprawl — tobymurdock @ 2:20 pm

Today 4 smart growth candidates won seats in the 5-member Frederick County Commission. This pushed out a developer-funded majority, and will reverse a trend in the county of out-of-control development. A wonderful day!

One of the victors, Kai Hagen, a friend of mine, took the picture above of Chimney Rock on Catoctin Mountain in Frederick County. Our county is a wonderful place and was in danger of losing its beauty and special way of life. This victory reverses that.

I’ve been very involved in the campaign for over a year. It has been a great experience fo me to be so closely involved: the volunteering is enjoyable and the connection makes the victory all the sweeter. I spent yesterday morning and evening electioneering at the polls. A wonderful thing about local politics are their accessibility. You can so readily get involved and be a part of it. In addition to Kai I’ve gotten to know Jan Gardner and David Gray, two other winners, as well. It will be great to have that personal relationship with them as they now go forward on a majority-controlled board.

My wife thoughts this morning that the day was very affirming for one’s faith in our democracy. Indeed it was.

And it will make for many more great days over the next four years, as this wonerful place, Frederick County, remains beautiful and special, and becomes only more so!


Fighting for Density . . . and Losing (for now) September 27, 2006

Filed under: Community,frederick,housing,Sprawl — tobymurdock @ 9:18 pm

last night i went to Frederick’s City Hall to support a neighbor’s application to build a garage with an upstairs apartment.

observing and participating in democracy in action even particularly at the micro level is fun. incredbile the emotion stuff like this generates. over a dozen opponents to the garage. and we lost. 😦 which is tragic, if sprawl, affordable housing, community or civility are any of your concerns.)

the opponents hated me. i’m on the watch for my house getting egged.

but i’ll keep on supporting what i believe in. i love this stuff. and we’re going to win eventually.

here’s what i had to say:

Good evening. My name is Toby Murdock. I live at XXXXX. I did not know Mr. Tran until a neighbor visited our home with a petition opposing his application to build a garage. When my wife showed me the petition I went to Mr. Tran’s home to offer my support. Understand I am here not out of a long-standing friendship by but simply for principle and concern for my city.

The first point I’d like to make in support of Mr. Tran’s garage and garage apartment is that we need to understand that we do not make decisions regarding zoning in isolation. We live in a growing city and county, and how it grows depends on the decisions we make. Additional housing can come in the Frederick city core by gradually and naturally adding density to the core and the adjacent areas. Or it can come in our open spaces on entirely undeveloped land.

Those are the options. So while this body is in charge of Frederick city’s zoning, please realize that your impact goes much further. Every rejection of additional density within our city is a de facto approval of more sprawl on the exterior of the city and across the county. And with that approval comes the traffic, expense, environmental degridation of open space that accompany sprawl.

I love Frederick city’s walkable village atmosphere. And I love the preserved open spaces of the surrounding county. Let’s add to the former while we protect the latter and not condone sprawl by rejecting density.

Affordable housing is another very important topic for our community. There is a lack of it in our region and it makes the cost of living unbearable for much of our citizenry.

Housing units that are secondary to their structure–apartments above retail, in basements, on top of garages–are an excellent source of affordable housing. Because they are the secondary purpose of the sturcutre, they do not have the same pressures for high rents. But in a sprawl development pattern–strip malls with one-story structures, zoning regulations that prohibit in-law apartments–the supply of such afforable units is taken away.

The affordability of such units is magnified by a more holistic expense perspective. Mr. Tran’s home–adjacent to the core of the city, where additional density should develop–lies within walking distance of three of the city’s largest employment centers (Hood, FMH & downtown). A home that does not require the expense of a car–that’s true affordablility. Please provide that affordability through approval of this request.

The last and most troubling reason why I support Mr. Tran’s request comes from the text of the petition circulated in opposition of the garage. That petition objected to the addition of renters into our largely owner-occupied neighborhood, as renters would “undermine the integrity of this historic neighborhood.”

I think we would all agree that we don’t have as much civility as we used to have–certainly in the nation, and here in Frederick too. Much of civility comes from the ability to relate to one another despite differences. Exposure to citizens of different stripes helps us understand one another and be more civil to one another. Segregation across different socio-economic dimensions limits that exposure and diminishes our civility.

My home at XXXXX is next store to a 4-unit rental apartment building at XXXXX. The tenants are different from most of us on the block–younger, without children, not as affluent. But I welcome them into the neighborhood. And thought they are renters, I do not consider their “integrity” to be any less than mine or any other of my neighbors’.

Let us resist the temptation to exclude those who are different from our neighborhoods. Let us encourage exposure to those of diverse backgrounds and the civility that such interaction generates.

I look forward to your approval of Mr. Tran’s zoning request, your affirmation of growth through density and not through sprawl, your affirmation of affordable housing, and your affirmation of civility. I look forward to the improvement to my neighborhood through Mr. Tran’s garage. And thank you for your time and consideration.