Riding Dirty: The Demise of Urban Highways?

Traffic Jam by www.phlmetropolis.com
by lana lynne on March 31, 2012
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sprawls from the Delaware River on the east to the Schuylkill (skoo'-kull) River to the west and beyond. The city has done fairly well by the Schuylkill -- mainly because Fairmount Park, the nation's largest urban park, follows its banks, which are always bustling with joggers, rowers, and sightseers. The coast of the Delaware, on the other hand, has the unfortunate luck of being cut off from downtown Philadelphia by the north-south arterial behemoth Interstate 95. Connecting the river to the city has long been a dream of city planners, and, recently, a plan was put into place that involves extending the city grid east to the waterfront.

The highway system in the city is sometimes referred to as Philly's folly, for the other main highway through the city, Interstate 76, may not bisect a waterfront downtown but instead divides neighborhoods, and makes a snarling traffic nightmare on almost a daily basis ("The Schuylkill* is jammed river to river" is a familiar refrain on traffic reports. It's reported to be the state's busiest highway). Rumor has it that the highway's construction in the 1950s, prior to the Interstate Highway System, led to building standards below code. Add fifty years of wear, tear, and weather, coupled with the inability to widen it and the left-side exits and on-ramps, and it appears that change in some form looms largely.

After reading Greg Hanscom's article on Grist, "Goodbye-ways: The downfall of urban freeways," it's impossible not to try to envision a Philly without inappropriately-placed highways. Philly evidently fell into step with many cities in the 1950s, and constructed bypasses to connect its newly-suburban residents to the city's downtown. In a mini-urban-highway history lesson, Hanscom tells us:
When all was said and done, these freeways did salvage some downtown commerce, but they only accelerated the flight from the inner city. At the same time, they carved up historic urban neighborhoods, turned whole sections of cities into slums, and cut off many downtowns from their waterfronts. Legendary urban activist Jane Jacobs was among the first to fight the scourge of the urban highway, and by the late 1970s and early 1980s, it had become all but impossible to gain approval for new highways through urban areas. It’s one thing to stop building urban freeways, however, and another thing entirely to tear down existing ones.
But that's exactly what is happening in cities around the world: New York City, San Francisco, Portland (Oregon), Milwaukee, Seoul, and Bogotá have all either torn down existing highways that have failed to serve their purpose (making congestion worse, increasing urban flight and blight) or are turning down proposals for new highways and instead investing in the communities. Perhaps it's time for the rest of us to ask what our cities would look like with a different transportation infrastructure.

*For out-of-town drivers through Philadelphia, the tradition of calling highways by their familiar names (The Schuylkill Expressway, The Blue Route, and the Vine Street Expressway take the place of 76, 476, and 676, respectively, for example) must be maddening.

The Raising of the Greased Pole: Maya Day 2012

by douglas reeser on 3.27.12

I was lucky enough to make my way out to the rural village of Blue Creek in southern Belize for the annual Maya Day event at Tumul K'in School. Maya Day is a celebration of traditional Maya culture, and along with traditional foods, crafts, products, and plants, they hold traditional events and competitions throughout the day. This year they had stilt walking, a corn husk competition, deer dance performances, marimba music and traditional dancing. They also had a greased pole climb! Check out the video to see how they raised the pole and to learn a bit more about the traditional event.

The Collapse of the Maya, the Collapse of Today?

Collapsing Architecture at the Mayan site of Lubaantun - "the Place of Fallen Stones" - in southern Belize. What can
we glean from the ancient Maya experience?
Photo courtesy of douglas reeser.
by douglas reeser on March 22, 2012
The more we learn about the ancient Maya, the more it seems that we should be heeding these lessons learned. Environmental changes and (maybe) catastrophes have long been blamed for the contraction of the Maya civilization. More recently, a series of rather modest droughts have been identified as occurring at the same time as people left the great Maya cities. National Geographic has a new (from early March 2012) article by Charles Fishman summarizing the latest data and draws some interesting connections to our own time. After explaining that the advanced water systems of the Maya were ill-prepared for a sustained reduction in rainfall, Fishman concludes about our present day water-knowldege: 
"Our water assumptions are just that: assumptions. We should be building municipal water cultures that have flexibility, multiple sources, the ability to re-use water, the ability to conserve. Real strategic thinking about water isn’t about a new water treatment plant, or a plan to replace aging water mains. It’s about knowing what you’ll do if you’re suddenly faced with a 10 or 20 percent loss of available water, permanently."
Changes in environmental activity are not the only factor being equated with the contraction of the Maya empire. A report in LiveScience by Charles Choi discusses new thoughts that equate the structure of the Maya culture itself with it's own downfall. 
"Archaeologists have pointed out that ancient Mayan societies may have been vulnerable to collapse by their very nature. They apparently funneled wealth to a small ruling elite topped by hereditary divine kings, who had virtually unlimited power but whose subjects expected generosity — a string of military defeats or seasonal droughts could greatly damage their credibility."
Things in the US and elsewhere are pointing in a surprisingly similar direction. A look at the highly religious and very rich Republican Party candidates for president has that country in the precarious position of becoming a Christian State - if it's not already. Further, as has been shown in previous columns here, the wealth of the planet is currently being funneled into fewer and fewer hands. This has not led to a wealthy ruling religious elite in the West, but such a system exists throughout the Middle East, and the wealthy certainly hold power the world over. And don't forget about the ground-up protests in Europe, the Middle East, and the US, a result of growing discontent with the powers that be.

So does this sound familiar? A great society has arisen with advanced science and engineering that has allowed for large, wealthy and concentrated populations. The wealth created by this successful system, however, continues to be concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. That wealthy minority holds power. The majority of the population becomes discontented with the power elite. Drastic culture change results.... Is this our future? Is this our now?

Politics, Forests and Indigenous Peoples in Belize

Campaign signs in the southern Belizean town of Punta Gorda - UDP held power in the elections on
March 7th, 2012. Photo courtesy of doug reeser. 
by douglas reeser on March 17, 2012
As some of our regular readers know, I have been in southern Belize working on my dissertation research for most of the last year, and I was quite interested to be here for the national elections that just took place last week. The lead-up to elections brought out people's colors: red for the UDP (the United Democratic Party who were in power), blue for PUP (the People's United Party, who ruled for decades before the last round of elections), and green for the PNP (the upstart greens, the People's National Party). Every day in the weeks prior to elections, groups of people dressed in their colors would canvas the town, vehicles would drive around, party flags waving and horns blaring. I thought election day would be mayhem.

The morning of elections, I woke up, and things were especially quiet. No music. No loudspeakers. No car horns. No chanting. I decided to ride my bike into town to look for the action only to find empty streets and stray dogs. I remembered that elections were held at the local school, so rode in that direction across town. Sure enough, that's where all the people were, but instead of the expected energy and excitement, I found people quietly waiting in a long line wrapping around the school. They were waiting to cast their vote. At the close of polls in the evening, most people went home to listen to the radio or watch TV, waiting for the votes to be counted. Election day turned out to be rather quiet.

In the end, PUP made a valiant run in an effort to return to power, but the UDP retained their majority, and effectively remain in power. So despite a few changes around the country, it appears that things will go on much the same way as they have been: slow and deliberate. The most surprising development occurred a few days later when the Prime Minister announced his new cabinet. In what he said was an effort to bring the best minds into the government fold, a number of surprising choices brought new faces into decision making positions.

Most surprising, however, was the Prime Minister's creation of a new Ministry: the Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries, Sustainable Development and Indigenous People. This has caused a bit of consternation among indigenous groups, especially here in the south, but I found it especially odd that indigenous people would be included in a Ministry that has historically dealt with environmental issues. This feels to me like the Prime Minister and his advisors see indigenous people as a part of nature or a part of the forest, equating them with something less than the rest of the country's population.

Indigenous groups found other reasons to be upset. A statement from the Maya Leaders Alliance included the following:
To the best of our knowledge, this new Ministry was created without any consultation with any Indigenous Peoples. Neither the National Garifuna Council nor the Maya people of southern Belize through the Toledo Alcaldes Association or the Maya Leaders Alliance, was advised nor consulted. This is particularly disrespectful and disappointing since the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – which Belize voted to adopt at the United Nations - requires governments to “consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous Peoples concerned through their own representative institutions before adopting and implementing administrative measures that may affect them.
The MLA continued by noting the fact that the new minister is not an indigenous person, and therefor may not fully understand the issues from perspective of the indigenous groups in the country. Further, by lumping responsibility for forestry, development and indigenous people into the same Ministry, there is a definite likelihood that none of them will be adequately served, especially in resource-poor Belize. It seems that a move intended to be a positive, may have peeved a number of people and organizations, and in the end, it has come off as rather insulting.

Views from the ANThill: Roadblocks: On Working Through Research Slumps

Roadblock! Highway construction can be a hold up, but when I hit a
research slump, I had nowhere to turn. Photo courtesy of douglas reeser.
by douglas reeser on March 13, 2012
My research had hit a slump. I had been in the field for about seven months, and had reached a point at which I felt ready to begin doing more in depth and directed interviews. However, the Christmas holiday was fast approaching, a time when people are especially busy and moving about. During the winter holidays, people are either preparing to host a large contingent of family members visiting from out of town, or are themselves preparing to journey to other parts of the country for what is for many a once-per-year family gathering. As elsewhere in the world, the holiday season in Belize serves as a time for family reunion, which often means the annual return of much of the sizeable Belizean population living abroad. I was invited to a few family gatherings, which were perfect to further deepen my connections here; however, I decided to hold off on bothering people with interviews during such intimate and family-oriented times.

Consumption Junction: "A Word to the Wives"

by lana lynne on March 10, 2012
Check out this promotional video from a 1955 home construction company, a perfect portrait of advertisers' sale of the American Dream in which two friends cook up a scheme to convince the one woman's husband to buy her a new house with a modern kitchen. The plot involves the husband spending an enlightening two and half days trying to keep house with outdated appliances and a long trip to the trash can, and, in this case, the best laid plans of Mrs. Consumer fall right into place. One of the most interesting parts arises in the assertion of a fifth freedom, following from Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship God, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The savvy friend with the enviable kitchen calls for "freedom from unnecessary drudgery, freedom to go shopping when the urge hits you...or when there's a sale going on."

To Spell or Not to Spell: The Standardized Spelling Debate

1609 edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets
by lana lynne on March 4, 2012
You've probably seen the word game that tests your ability to read words with transposed letters: the senetnce wolud raed somehting lkie tihs. And you probably have no problem deciphering abbreviated text-speak, which often makes it into students' papers, adults' emails, and social networking updates of any age: imo ur gr8! lol! rofl! thnx! etc, etc.

Some people would say that the digital age hath condemned correct spelling (not to mention punctuation) to the tumbrils, that in the age of auto-correct mobile phones and auto-finish internet searches, such antiquated rules must be let go. Take, for instance, the spelling showdown in Wired Magazine a few weeks ago. Anne Trubek, a professor at Oberlin College, wrote a piece calling for the abolition of standardized spelling, to which Lee Simmons of Wired's copydesk responded with an equally thought-provoking piece picking apart Trubek's argument.

As a self-professed word junky, I most often come down squarely against arguments like Trubek's. Her premise is this: "English spelling is a terrible mess anyway, full of arbitrary contrivances and exceptions that outnumber rules. Why receipt but deceit? Water but daughter? Daughter but laughter? What is the logic behind the ough in through, dough, and cough? Instead of trying to get the letters right with imperfect tools, it would be far better to loosen our idea of correct spelling." She points out that others throughout history have advocated for more sensible spelling rules than the ones that govern English, and that the evolution of language should be embraced, such as losing the apostrophe and the "e" in you're because the recipient will understand you anyway. Any last-gasp effort to keep language static is just snobbery.

Trubek's carefree approach is somewhat exhilarating -- I can see the appeal of throwing caution to the wind for free-form spelling. And that's coming from a native-English speaker. I can't imagine how students of English as a second language would be overjoyed -- until they tried to read a text written by a Texan versus something written by a Pennsylvanian. Did they use a "pen" or a "pin" to write?

In Simmons' rebuttal to Trubek, he allows for some wiggle-room among friends: "if you want to chat in leetspeak or use cutesy abbreviations in your texts, go crazy. You’re talking to your own tribe; they know the code, and they’re willing to indulge your affectations. And let’s be honest: A lot of that intentional misspelling, like the argot of any subculture, is meant to exclude outsiders—such as nosy parents. It’s a badge of membership in your little clique." But Simmons convincingly argues that professional news sites, governmental policies and the like, as well as all communications outside your clique need to be written with standardized spelling to avoid the potential pitfalls of playing with language. "How would contracts be enforced," asks Simmons, "if anyone could say that what appeared to be a promise of 'delivery' was actually a variant spelling of 'devilry'"?

Yes, the English major in me holds me back from willy-nilly spelling -- it was the discipline that taught me the wonder of word origins, the nuances of word meanings, the linguistics of dialects, and forced me to spend hours reading old books written when English spelling wasn't standardized. Is that an effort we really want to resurrect on a daily basis?

First Friday Picture Show: Lake Atitlán by Jedi Wright.

Happy March everybody! This month's First Friday Picture Show comes to us from Jedi Wright. Jed is an Internet entrepreneur and Information Architect and has been studying and working professionally in the information technology, multimedia, event production, and environmental fields since 1993. He currently lives in Los Angeles, CA where he works as an information architect and is fully immersed in the Information Architecture (IA), User Interface (U/I), User Experience (U/X) disciplines and how they intersect with social values and sustainable practices. In his spare time, if not working on one of his other entrepreneurial pursuits, he is very actively involved with raising his son. Visit jediwright.com for more about his work and interests.

About the photos, Jed explains: "In June of 2007, I was fortunate enough to tag along with a group of friends (quite accomplished backpackers, travelers, etc.) to Guatemala for my first, truly international travel experience. Latin America was certainly at the top of my list and I was excited to get out of the States for a few weeks and soak up some local culture.

"My travels were mostly dictated by the group I was with, which was fine by me, as I speak barely a lick of any language but my native American-English. Without having to concern myself with most travel arrangements and negotiations, I was able to sit back and study the local culture's cuisine, architecture, landscapes, and whatever else caught my eye. Here then is my first of many sets, sampling my time at Lake Atitlán, where I primarily hung out around San Marcos and San Juan."