Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Choices, Lets Talk About Them

Everybody is talking about it. IT is everywhere that you turn. IT is the talk about the rising price of gas, of food, of just about anything that we buy-from household goods to daily utilities. Everything is going up. And there is nothing that we can do about it. We are stuck.

We are just going to have to get used to it. There doesn't seem to be anyone who can do anything about it. So we get mad about having to pay more at the pump and complain that the oil companies did this to us. By golly, we are Americans and gas should only cost around $1.50 a gallon. I hear that Europeans pay roughly twice as much as that, but I don't care about the Europeans and what they do with their time and money.

Somebody should make the oil companies do more for us – not to us. Somebody should make it easier for us to do what we want in order to get through life. We should be able to live anywhere that we want and be able to go anywhere that we want and anytime that we want. Oh, and it should be cheaper.

Folks that somebody is us. We, the people of the United States. And nobody did this to us, we did it to ourselves.

Our choices of where to live are predicated on the availability of cheap gas. Our abundance of electronic gadgets is built on the availability of cheap power. Our shopping centers full of mostly over packaged, soon to be obsolete goods are there due to cheap imports – which is also due to cheap oil. These are our choices. They weren't forced on us by government planners, they were chosen by us by our own free will.

I can remember $0.35 - $0.45 a gallon gas when a neighborhood kid could make a few bucks mowing grass for under a buck's worth of fuel. When you could walk to the gas station and back home in just a few minutes. I can remember when downtown was just a quick bike ride or bus trip away. Those days are about as far off as a quick bike trip in to town from Hamburg or South Point. Nobody make people live out there and nobody make them drive their autos in to town. Those are choices of free will.

I can remember when subdivision development patterns began to use the cul-de-sac as an enticement to quiet suburban living. Cul-de-sac lots were desirable and they carried a 10 – 20% premium on land cost, but the choice was worth it apparently. We do have so many of them. We now know that these cul-de-sac areas, and similarly less connected street patterns, can increase the per capita cost of fire protection services by over 400%. Other government services may be increased likewise. Again, choices of free will.

I can remember when an auto vacation involved many days, not hours and special trips used trains while very special ones took airplanes. When they built the Interstates, folks did not want to be tied to scheduled departures of the trains but still tolerated it for the airlines. Now that the trains are gone and the airlines require such a hassle of screening, we are left with the long road trip and the high cost of gas. This is a result of the choices that we made.

What other poor choices have we, the people of the Unites States, made that we will look back on with regret? What choices will we make in the future? Will we be willing to re-think our cul-de-sac subdivisions in a reasonable manner? Will we be forced to re-think the distances that we will have to move ourselves to work, play and shop? Will our food come from longer or shorter distances? Will our energy sources become more local, sustainable and renewable?

Are we up to the challenge of these types of choices, or are those days gone too.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Food And Some Of Our "Bad" Habits

The other day I may have riled some of my readers with some comments about a local “good foods education” program. I meant no disrespect but there is much more in the way of food access and awareness which needs to be taught. There are not enough of these grass roots organizations to adequately rid our urban areas of the food deserts that we know are there.

Food deserts are basically defined as areas of few(if any) grocery stores and other dining places. Fast food drive-ins would not qualify as a dining place in my book and many others. I am also beginning to realize that the chain grocery and supermarket stores are not much better for the “not-so-savvy” consumer and those highly susceptible to marketing techniques.

Today's supermarket is not designed to sell good healthy food for a fair price. Actually it is just the opposite, sell a high margin item for whatever price the market will bear and really maximize the profit. Those items are generally highly mass produced, full of chemical preservatives and full of sugar(though lately it is all high-fructose corn syrup). High margin items are most likely to be placed on sale in order to entice you to come in for all the other high margin items. The money is in the volume of product not the individual item itself.

Supermarkets will average about 500 square feet for every 10,000 of the whole store in fresh fruits and vegetables. In the “big box” style stores (Meijer, Kroger Marketplace, and others) the ratio is probably much less. The rest is all processed, and many are highly processed, foods of varying nutritional value. And it is all designed to sell the cheap stuff.

Consider the typical grocery store design. Nice wide aisles and plenty of space for comparison shopping? Hardly. There are displays to maneuver around and dangling racks everywhere you look. Think of it as traffic calming and impulse suggestions. The more that you see something the more you want it.

Even product location is important to impulse buying. Why is the dairy case in the very back of the store where you have to pass just about everything else just get a carton of milk or a dozen eggs. Then the bakery off to the side which pulls you past some other things that you may not know that you need.

The store atmosphere is very important. Why do they keep the darn place so cold, like the AC in on frostbite? The simple answer is – human instinct. We humans tend to prepare for winter when we chill and that means stockpiling for the winter ahead. People, they are playing with our heads.

Now consider the products that are placed there. Products produced in such volume that no one farm could generate it all. Dairies with bucolic names that have to have thousands of cows being milked 24/7 in order to supply it all. Products that have almost no local representation and are shipped in from thousands of miles away. Food, food everywhere and not much of it worth eating.

In this day of energy conservation and the entire country wishing to cut back on energy usage, the modern supermarket is an energy HOG. Keeping the store to sell stuff takes massive amounts of air conditioning effort. Largely windowless walls lead to increased lighting needs and refrigeration cases and storage add to the energy footprint. Massive parking lots as heat islands in summer and frozen tundra in winter, it is no wonder that supermarkets make difficult LEED projects for creating “green” buildings. There is much that can be done, both in changing our shopping habits and changing our supermarket design. The latter will follow the former.

Lexington's two newest urban grocery stores are a start in the right direction, though they probably follow the normal convention on product placement and energy usage, but the industry will not turn on a dime as the saying goes. It has taken us nearly 80 years to learn our bad habits, how long or what dire situation will help us or cause us “unlearn” those habits?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Food and Farm Freedom

Several things have popped up on the radar today and most have something to do with relocalization of food. I am surprised that our local champions of farming and good local foods have not been shouting this from the rooftops. On Monday, the 16th of May there will be a rally in Washington, DC for Food and Farm Freedom.

You say to me, Sweeper, we have our farms and our Farmers Markets and they all are growing. But there is also a growing movement within the FDA to gain control of all that. Take this from Natural News.

The freedom to grow, sell, and buy clean food is under serious attack. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made it clear that the agency is not a friend of food freedom and that it is willing to do whatever it takes to go after those involved in the "Slow Food" movement in order to protect corporate interests.

Corporations have noticed that the organic foods movement is making big strides and gaining “market share”. Why else would the mega-foods companies use their considerable clout to lobby the FDA to change the rules for organic products. I will assure you that these changes will not strengthen the rules for anybody. The new rules are noticeably weaker than the European standards and make it so that the factory farms of America can sell you the same old schlock, but labeled as “organic”. An organic label for which they can charge more in the market place.

At the same time, they(the FDA) are starting to ramp up their attacks on small farmers who are finding “niche” markets providing what the big companies don't want to be bothered with. Last summer, they raided the farm of Dan Allgyer, an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania, whom the agency accused of illegally selling raw milk. Raw milk is legal in Pennsylvania. That did not matter to the FDA agents and other law enforcement officers, they raided anyway. They confiscated (that is stole)pictures and other material while threatening “regulatory action” if the situation was not “resolved”

This is a similar tactic used on the farmer that has put together the cowshare program to which I belong. It is documented that they lay in wait for a weekly delivery of milk to the share participants and accosted both the farmer and the owners. The stress was so great that it brought on reactions similar to PTSD and recovery time took months. Lately a simple “farm inspection” has initiated another round from which we are just now getting back to normal. The bottom line is that the FDA is not out to help the general public consumer or the small farmer (the ones who built this country), they are out to protect those who fund their work with lobbyist dollars – big business, the mega farm agri-business corporations.

The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF) has actually filed suit against the FDA on behalf of raw milk. The FDA has responded to the suit with statements like “There is no absolute right to consume or feed children any particular food” and, amazingly, “There is no generalized right to bodily and physical health”. Do the rights to eat food come from the FDA or are they in place to protect our rights to eat healthy food?

It is for these reasons that food advocates are banding together to put on the Rally for Food and Farm Freedom at Upper Senate Park on May 16 to push for justice. It would be nice if some of the locals would have a rally here in Lexington, but I have not heard of one. I am beginning to think that the high-tech creative class jobs and the folks that do them, do not care that the FDA is not on their side. Is the Fayette Alliance aware of this rally? Can they pull something together on short notice? How about the various farmers markets? Or the Good Foods Co-op? Is somebody doing something?

Knox Van Nagell responded to a comment of mine (on ProgressLex) the other day with: “Through matching Federal, State, and local funds, the PDR program “purchases” the development “right” from local farmers, and holds this right in perpetuity…resulting in conserved farms that will continue their agricultural operations for the future. “ It is my hope that these “agricultural operations” will be of the small local farmer rather than the agri-business type.

There is nothing about any of this in the local press.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Comments On The Rise Of Food Prices

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has raised the alarm on rising food prices.

"We must act now, effectively and cooperatively, to blunt the negative impact of rising food prices and protect people and communities," she said at the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization headquarters in Rome.

The U.N. estimates that 44 million people world wide have been pushed into poverty since last June because of rising food prices, which could lead to desperate shortages and unrest. Clinton said the world could no longer "keep falling back on providing emergency aid to keep the Band-Aid on."

She called for countries to adopt better policies and "to encourage everyone to respond to rising food prices not with failed policies of the past but with a sounder approach."

Some of those “failed” policies may include the following: During the 2008 crisis, the world's biggest rice producers — Thailand, Vietnam and India — curbed rice exports to protect domestic supply, leading to record high prices. The price of wheat, meanwhile, shot up last year when Russia imposed an export ban after severe drought damaged harvests. Ukraine, another major grain exporter, also imposed export quotas because of the drought.

Time magazine has reported the a major cause of rising food prices may well be the much discussed “climate change” that the world is undergoing.

The hidden story of 2011 has been the record-breaking rise in global food prices. Global corn prices April 2010 and April 2011, while wheat prices are up some 60 to 80%. Exactly why food has gotten so expensive in recent months is the subject of an ongoing debate

Some of the causes may be simple inflation or that the competition for food grains by the biofuel production process which has not lowered local gas prices in any appreciable measure. Natural disasters, like the recent rains and subsequent flooding, which are plaguing the Mississippi Valley currently along with the growing world wide consumption certainly do play a big part. But maybe the largest part is just the greater and greater distances that food has to travel to get to our family tables. The distances and methods of travel which require fossil fuels, the same fossil fuels which are accused of aiding the global “climate change”.

Most all of us realize that locally produced food is better for us and is better for the local economy, but usually carries a premium on price due to the volumes that individual producers can generate. Factory style farms will win out on economies of scale yet temper that victory with reductions in health benefits from crop monoculture, increased processing to combat bacterial or germicidal contamination or just the forced completion of the natural growth cycle to comply with the shipping schedule. Unlike the winemakers who used to advertise that “ they would sell no wine before its time” many fruits and vegetables are today picked in an unripe state and chemically treated so as to arrive on the store shelves looking like “just picked”.

Research and better farming practices have increased crop yield lately throughout a majority of the world but we are now seeing “climate change” or rising temperatures during the growing season begin to reduce some of that. Combined with the greater use of petroleum based fertilizers or genetically modified seeds or insecticides / pesticides allowing for the overuse of many historically rich farmlands and the documented rise of herbicide resistant “superweeds”

Might these also fit into the category of “failed” policies and the more sound approach to food production be a more localized and sustainable methods which got us to this point? I would much rather have lamb from Kentucky than the ones that come from New Zealand. It has to cost less to grow and slaughter here. Milk production should cost less if you removed all the processing involved with replacing the desired qualities that were eliminated through pasteurization. Farmers should be able to sell for less if the costs of hybrid or GMO seeds and chemical fertilizers could be decreased through natural methods. These possibly failing policies which were once alternatives and are now requirements.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Where Of Transportation Funding

The U. S. Conference of Mayors has spoken up about local infrastructure investments, in particular, transportation funding for urban areas. The fact is they want more of it.

The mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, has said that there should be more focus on “pressing metropolitan transportation infrastructure needs” and not “low -priority highway expansion projects”. That is right invest the money in the cities where the economic growth will occur. Places like Atlanta.

The U. S. Conference of Mayors has released the results of a survey of their members concerning such transportation investments and of the 176 cities which responded, 93 % feel that cities and metro areas should receive a greater share of the federal funds. Not only that, but it should come directly to the cities and bypass the state bureaucracy altogether. That sounds good doesn't it? Bypass the state and the MPO and use the money to do transportation that we like. I wonder what Lexington's position was on that.

If the money does NOT come directly to the cities and in greater levels, then only 7% of mayors voted to increase the federal gas tax. That would be the usual source of the federal transportation funds which has not kept up with the needs both in the cities and the rest of the country. You know that we are running approximately $20 billion a year behind in just maintenance work and not counting new road projects. How do you think our mayor voted on that one?

96% of mayors voted for increased transportation funding with 89% supporting a gas tax increase (if that money will be spent locally) and 65% if the money will be spent on public transit. With the price of gas rising, the use of hybrid and electric autos increasing and the per capita miles driven falling there is a question of where the funds will come from. What did Lexington say about that?

In the United States, metropolitan areas account for 86 percent of employment, 90 percent of wage income, and over the next 20 years, 94 percent of the nation’s economic growth, but they are burdened with the nation’s worst traffic jams, its oldest roads and bridges, and transit systems at capacity. Simply put, these areas are receiving significantly less in federal transportation investments than would reflect their role and importance to the nation’s economy.

U. S. Conference of Mayors

The Lexington area reflects the above statement well except for the part about the bridges and the transit system. According to the Transportation for America site the majority of bridges in the Lexington area are not that deficient and most around here will say that the Lextran buses are mostly empty. I am not sure about the bridge info but the Lextran rumor is totally false.

Now here is a real good question, if as the USCM website says:

The U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) is the official nonpartisan organization of cities with populations of 30,000 or more. There are 1,210 such cities in the country today. Each city is represented in the Conference by its chief elected official, the mayor.

Why did so few cities participate in this survey? The had a return rate of just under 15% and as this PDF shows the list is dominated by the smaller communities.

The answers to my questions as to Lexington's responses are-- apparently we did not give any. We are not included on the list of 176. So, what do yo think the answers SHOULD be?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Time To Set Some Goals

The Planning staff has proposed and the Planning Commission, along with the Mayor and a large part of the Urban County Council, has agreed that maybe we have many more items to think about than just continuing to expand the urban growth boundary. So, that largest part of the process is out of the way...right? I don't think so and neither should you.

To a majority of the general public, the Comprehensive Plan is merely some pretty colors on a map and some generalized statements about the intentions to get, what might be called, progress down the road. The Plan is more than this but so often it involves decisions on what can be done in the newer “greenfield” areas and “stabilizing” the existing (possibly declining) neighborhoods while leaving all else in a holding pattern of “status quo”. This time around I hope that the concentrations will be on things other than spreading growth and keeping what we have. Lets try to actually determine what is the best use of our urban landscape.

The phrase “highest and best use” is often thrown about as what is desired for any particular piece of property, yet that usually means something different to different people, commonly influenced by the level of involvement or ownership in said property. Sometimes the highest use and the best use are diametrically opposed to each other and can be viewed in reverse depending on your desires for the overall community.

CentrePointe and the old Lexington Mall property, two of my favorite subjects, are prime examples of how we can see thing differently.

The CentrePointe block, as has often been said, occupies the very center of Lexington and many would have you believe that a smattering of buildings, none more than four stories, and housing uses which waxed and waned on an a variably, oscillating schedule so as to usually be out of sync with each other. Rarely would one use feed off another to the benefit of all for both the daytime and nighttime or after hours schedules. What some called the best uses were far from the highest uses and even the proposal, as a highest use, was criticized for not being the best use.

The former Lexington Mall, built on a filled in portion of the original water company reservoir, started off as a somewhat regional shopping destination and then fell upon harder times as the retail world (and the fickle consumers) marched off to bigger and better things. Thirty years and minimal updating will do a number on buildings, just ask the Lexington Center folks. What may have been the highest use for the property soon became not and maybe an auto-centric religious use will end up not being the best use in a post carbon transit world.

These are but two examples of what situations currently exist throughout Fayette County, from the underutilized parcels of abandoned apartment complexes and former roadside motels to the maze like subdivisions full of cul-de-sacs which limit walkability and provision of efficient public service. How would one propose to bring the highest and best uses to these areas? Should we alter the uses or the way that these uses are exhibited? These are the questions that I think should be answered and planned for. Leaving the status quo should not be an option.

Proposing wholesale changes for large underutilized properties or existing residential neighborhoods is NOT the way the Planning Commission has worked from its inception. For nearly 85 years the commission and staff have fielded proposals from property owners and developers to approve or deny as they see fit. Still, the general impression of the public is that the staff has directed (and placed) the wrong uses in some very wrong locations, while others are angry and confused when they are denied uses that they feel are very legitimate. As I said before it is perspective.

Will this be another NEW way of doing planning? Will we see walkability brought to our outer suburbs or will we see the suburban style redevelopment of our currently walkable neighborhoods? Will we see more single child (or less) households or will we see more multi-generational housing units? We are now seeing home ownership rates declining and that will probably not go back up any time soon, if ever. Newer home buyers are looking for smaller units in walkable areas, so what will become of the larger houses on ½ acre or ¼ acre lots? Where will these folks walk to in the sprawling cul-de-sac neighborhoods that we have now? This is the year that we need to ask these and other harder questions. This is also the year that we should get some answers to these questions.

Today the Council's Planning and Zoning Committee heard a presentation about the upcoming goals and objectives which should be coming from the Planning Commission by the end of the summer. Both the Council and the Commission need to hear from the public and not just the typical “movers and shakers” of the past. The LFUCG Planning page has recently added an email link just for this purpose. Do not hesitate to let them know how you feel on any of these topics and let me know how you feel too.