Facebook Changes

Facebook has changed again, and I can understand the frustration that comes along with all their updates. Yes, it means it is a very well-run site, but it also takes sense of control away from the person. The profile cannot be personalized visually. It makes us all very uniform except for what we write about on our profile and our wall posts.

Back in 2005, when I joined, there were no “statuses.” It was only for college kids, but messaging and writing on others’ walls was possible. I found Facebook more addicting back then because you had to work harder to get your stalking done.  Now, everything’s on one page and I can be friends with my local radio station or news station, my library, and the tire shop down the road. Wow. Even my internship, a planning organization, has one. It’s obviously great for marketing, and I like getting heads-up from TCBY and Dairy Queen about deals and coupons, but we all have to face the fact that Facebook has been Dorkified. Hooray. I just became a fan of Meijer grocery stores.

I love my family to death, but the fact that every one of them can see not only what I write for my statuses, but what everyone writes on my wall, does not help my paranoia. Are people judging me?  What would they say if I said this stuff to their face?  I feel the cliche postmodern isolation by the fact that everyone knows I’m now engaged and Catholic but I never got to read their faces or see their excitement in person.

It’s innocuous, really, just like garbage is innocuous except when you hoard it and let it take over your life. I’m talking about the status updates. I wish we didn’t have them. I wish Facebook would’ve let Twitter be unique in that way, not grabbing the best parts of every social networking site. I don’t mind that people are looking forward to the weekend, or that they’re “having a relaxing weekend with my boys!” (son and husband), but when that is filling up the Facebook page, and when I voluntarily subject myself to reading blurbs about other peoples’ lives, it makes everything seem meaningless and me feel lonely. I also don’t think Americans needed another way to feel self-important.  Do we really need to write this stuff in order to feel validated?  Does writing about a bad day make it better? Does writing about a good day make it more of a good day?

This has become a list of my pet peeves, so one more: why do people ask other people questions they could find out through Google? I understand asking questions about someone’s life or project or whatever, but asking someone what the movie they “just watched and loved” was about is really redundant. GOOGLE IT!  Better yet, look it up on Rotten Tomatoes!

We all have a relationship with conformity, and Facebook illustrates it so well. (So do weddings, I’m realizing, but save that for another post).  Most people like to conform, some like to go against the grain, but all of us should realize the extent to which we conform on Facebook and what we all subject ourselves to. Most of it is unnecessary. Sign out, once in a while, and live your life.

How Local News Could Be Better

I have always been encouraged to watch the news at 5. Sometimes I do, but most days I can’t spare the emotional expense. Every day, there is a story about a crime, a murder, or a deadly accident in Grand Rapids. Yes, it’s good to know about these things. I guess. It’s good to be daily reminded that there’s bad things in the world, and then offered no way of helping the situation or preventing future ones, the way we could if our local news served us better.

Billboards advertising different news channels keep calling their news “stories.” Bringing you the story. I don’t want a story. I want the news. I don’t want a narrative. Because the narrative of West Michigan right now is that our economy is failing, crime is rising, and living is getting more and more expensive. There are about three million ways to write Michigan’s story, and I’m not a fan of this one. It’s too pessimistic.

As news anchors put your focus on an unfortunate incident that happened on Fuller, they put less and less accent on future local polls and elections, and they don’t give us the information or resources to be well-educated on the issues featured. What if they posted “stories” of peoples’ efforts to fix things? Why do these Grassroots Grand Rapidian Superheroes have to use Twitter and Facebook to get their projects going?

I feel that it’s perpetuating a prejudiced and racist theme. Neighborhoods shouldn’t be called “bad” based on these stories. Places can’t be bad. There is no wicked city. Sodom and Gomorrah symbolize wicked culture and evil ideas, which form a structure that can be seen and felt when we enter a certain place. What’s really more dangerous than your neighborhood is your media. What is it really telling us?

Showing the snapshots they do of the neighborhoods of Grand Rapids and the stuff that happens in them really gives details and evidents of overarching trends locally and nationally. That is what I’m starting to notice about the news. But does everyone notice this?

And, as I mentioned in my Bus Rapid Transit post, why did no one fully understand what the Silver Line was?  Why did a bill get shot down two years ago that would have supported GRCC financially? The only ones voting in local elections are people who hate taxes. Taxes are vital to our way of life. They must be carefully allocated, and not be the reason to vote down a new project.

Hmm Planners. You might want to PLAN something.

What was most interesting about the meetings we held for area planners a couple weeks ago was that none of them wanted to plan where the population might go. They only wanted to predict. I kept hearing “This is probably how it’s going to happen, not what I want to happen.” As if some indestructable force was making everyone comply to a few people’s desire to live on a 2 acre lot.

Weird. I thought planners were supposed to have visions? This is how our car culture came to be. Don’t think it’s what everyone wanted. They had to seriously destroy the railroad system and SERIOUSLY fund the highway building to get cars to be the number one priority of each American (whether they know it or not).  If Robert Moses had listened to everyone saying “Oh things will probably go on the same way, we can’t change that…” then we wouldn’t have highways cutting through neighborhoods and awful subdivisions. Oh dear!

Visions are dangerous, motives can be evil, and agendas sneaky, but without any of them, we will die as a nation. I truly believe that.  Michigan will sink into a black hole and all the other states will follow quickly. We need to create places again. How many times do I have to say it!

Honk if you agree!

Why Grand Rapids needs Bus Rapid Transit

It’s been embarrassingly long since I’ve posted. I’ve been doing some cool stuff with GVMC. For the past two weeks we have been going around to different townships and planning out how we’d want future populations to be allocated (10 acre lots? Suburbs? Towns?).

We’ve also been doing stuff with Brownfield money, and today after an interesting conversation, I’ve realized how important the Silver Line was.

The Silver Line was a proposed bus route that would run up and down Division, a main corridor of Grand Rapids. It’s also a crumbling corridor. Division has a rep of vacant buildings, XXX stores, and homelessness. It got voted down, and everyone I know was saying “they already have a bus, and no one new would use it.”

What didn’t get communicated, back in May, was that this bus-line was more than a bus-line. It was going to be fast–it’d have its own lane, control over traffic lights, go as fast as a subway. It’d essentially be a subway but in bus form. Commuters could take this bus rapid transit to work downtown, instead of driving themselves up and down US-131 every day (which, by experience, I KNOW gets really bad during rush hour).

Along with bringing hundreds of people downtown, where they don’t have to worry about parking, this line would make the surrounding properties tons more valuable. With office-job people commuting and looking out the window at stores, this ignored street would not be ignored anymore, by default.

The government has already given us money to rebuild and clean up contaminated and blighted sites along Division. The structure is already there–it is a walkable street with churches, clubs, restaurants, and infrastructure. All it needs is a new face.

Imagine Division Ave becoming like State Street (that great street) in Chicago. It would add a whole new dimension to Grand Rapids. It would connect towns south of Grand Rapids, too.

The main point is, you older people with families may want a big yard and no people around, but that kind of landscape alone sucks the economy dry. You’ve forgotten the young people, who want a place that’s a place (so many have left Michigan for Chicago, what does that tell you?), these young people who become young professionals who almost drive our economy. No wonder Michigan is doing so poorly, all the legislation supports penny-pinching families! Where’s any thought to any other age group? We need our places back.

But all of that rested on a BRT line, which all of you voted down. Tsk tsk tsk.

The Best-Laid Plans: O'Toole's Scheme at Generalizing Planning

The Best-Laid Plans by Randal O’Toole argues that the planning field in America is inefficient and ineffective: O’Toole tells us it’s simply not necessary.

His first focus is on something he knows well: Forest Planning. He spends the first 50 pages detailing how forestry planning does not work, and makes some great points: how can one predict tree growth, lumber prices, and demand in the years to come? How can one predict forest fires?  Being unfamiliar with the lumber industry, I took this chapter with more than a grain of salt.

Now I’m reading the second chapter, which is focused on urban planning. He rails against urban planners for over-simplifying and generalizing neighborhoods and uses and for having personal agendas without concern to the complex needs of the community; and he also accuses planners of fabricating and misusing statistics to get what they want.

One of his biggest examples was his claim that planners have stated that obesity is caused by sprawl. He writes that obesity has a correlation, not a causation, with sprawl, and that low income is a much larger and proven factor in obesity rates. I would never argue this. You have seen my many posts on walkability and fitness and how my own city living has caused my weightloss. But I would never claim that urban sprawl CAUSED obesity. I don’t think any planner with half a brain would claim this.

In effect, O’Toole is generalizing urban planners and making rash claims about them, while he argues that they generalize and make rash claims.

Another argument of his that bothered me was about community. He mocks Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, for taking the fall of bowling leagues and steady rate of actual bowling to mean a decrease in community among Americans.  “It never occured to him  that people might be bowling with families and friends,” O’Toole writes. Wam, bam. Sticking the knife in Putnam’s argument. He ignores the fact that Putnam has followed up Bowling Alone with Better Together, a book full of stories of how communities have pulled together and started successful programs to solve their community’s specific problems.

He also fails to realize that of course families and friends hang out and go bowling, all the time, especially in suburbs, because suburbs were meant to isolate and idolize the nuclear family.

I whole-heartedly agree with O’Toole that community can happen in a strong way in suburbs, and he’s right that large cities have no neighborly relations (living in the Gold Coast for three months is my proof, you may be able to poke a hole in this).  He says public transit isn’t right for every area, that the strict New Urbanist guidelines put on development will be destructive in the long run. Again, truth to that. But shouldn’t Americans have a choice? I think we’d both ask this question. Shouldn’t a person be able to choose the bus over the car? Shouldn’t someone be able to walk to a store, or a church, or anything? If a planner sees people walking on the side of busy streets that have no sidewalks, why wouldn’t the planner just put sidewalks there?

I am not being clear if I totally agree or disagree with O’Toole. It’s because he has some good arguments, and a good new perspective on planning. I think he’s right: too much money and time go into failed governmental plans. It’s wasting our tax dollars. I’ve always been okay with raising taxes if it meant bettering the life of those who have no means to, but I never considered in detail how the government may be ill-spending tax money. It’s an important issue. It’s still not about getting the lowest taxes possible–it’s more about how little we know about how little planners know what they’re doing with the widespread, federal plans for a diverse, complex nation.

I just got a little bit more supportive of small government. Shouldn’t be a surprise with my LiveLittle motto, I guess!

You're Speeding in a Residential Area, but It's Not Entirely Your Fault

I drove to the library in downtown Grand Rapids today. I was going 29 miles per hour and the speed limit was 30 miles per hour. But I kept slamming on the brakes. I felt like I was going so fast!

Then I realized why–thanks to 9th grade Science Class. Downtowns’ buildings are always closer to the street. You can walk right into these buildings from the sidewalks usually. I’m used to buildings being set back 10-50 feet from the road. Frame of reference! Ever notice, on the highway, how things far away pass by you slower than things very close?

I’d always wondered why planners started putting buildings so far back and increasing front yard length. It does make it more comfortable for the cars to go faster. It makes the driver’s perceived risk much lower, so they feel more comfortable driving faster. And the faster a car goes, the more deadly and frequent accidents involving that car will be.

Wide roads, far-away points of reference, many lanes: obeying speed limits has never been so hard for us, when our townships create mini-highways instead of streets.

Comeback and a Book You Must Read

I thought maybe the next time I’d muster up the motivation to post would be after graduation. But I started reading The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kuntsler today and after two chapters I already know that it is going to be a great read. Yes, this is a book about American landscape–it deals with everything I talk about on this blog concerning towns, suburbs, cities, and walkability. But it’s incredibly interesting and well-written!  And it gets to the heart of why I want to do this with my life. Please, please, please read this book. He’s a funny writer!  He has a blog, too.

In No Country for Old Men, the movie and the book, Chigurh flips a coin deciding whether or not a gas station manager will live. When the manager wins the coin-toss, Chigurh questions why he wouldn’t keep the coin forever in a special place.  The coin meant something after that toss. He, against his will mind you, put up everything he was on that bet. It changed the nature of the coin forever. “Anything can be an instrument,” Chigurh says. I think about this in terms of America. We seem to pretend here that our landscape has no meaning. Sure, humans can succeed and find happiness against incredible odds, but to deny that your streets, building codes, power structures, trees, parking lots, have as much affect on you as the design of your house is compartmentalizing your life. Your environment is your environment. No matter what it is. We give it power over us every day.

Last semester in Chicago, I remember getting so mad at my internship–that it seemed to want to beautify a street more than…I don’t even know, some more altruistic motive. But I was distinguishing too much again. The Magnificent Mile needs to be beautiful. The surrounding neighborhoods need those changes we were fighting for–they need human scale rather than to be easier for cars to plow through. A flourishing community is going to be beautiful. These things affect each other.