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Jerry Brown: "Elegant Density"

by: Robert Cruickshank

Sat Mar 29, 2008 at 11:00:28 AM PDT

Former (and future?) governor and current Attorney General Jerry Brown was waxing nostalgic about his days in the governor's mansion, driving the famous blue Plymouth ("it lasted 240,000 miles without an engine overhaul - now that was sustainability"), and suing Ronald Reagan over the governor's mansion.

But the core of his speech dealt with our climate crisis. Brown emphasized his administration's earlier efforts to encourage smart growth, urban density, walking, even trains. And he called for renewed action on this today. He conceptualized it as "elegant density" - get people out of their cars, build more walkable communities served by trains and other forms of mass transit, powered by solar energy, to not just deal with global warming, but to encourage a more sustainable California.

During the 1970s, Brown had tried to promote a similar agenda. He appointed a trains advocate as the head of Caltrans, promoted a solar energy program, and cut off funds for freeway construction projects, and establishing the Office of Planning and Research. He even promoted an ambitious Urban Strategy for California emphasizing density and limiting sprawl.

Prop 13's passage ended much of this as state government was starved of funds. But Prop 13 was about more than low taxes. It was the reaction of the lovers of suburban sprawl, of the 1950s model of California, against Brown's more forward-thinking model. As recently as 2001 arch-conservative Tom McClintock danced on the grave of Brown's sustainability strategy calling it:

a radical and retrograde ideology into California public policy that quite abruptly and permanently changed the state.

That radical ideology has been the central tenet of governance in California through four successive gubernatorial administrations, Democratic and Republican, to the present day. It was described by Jerry Brown as "the era of limits," punctuated by such new-age nonsense as the mantra, "small is beautiful." Suburban "sprawl" would be replaced with a new "urban strategy."

Republicans continue to make these arguments. They are bent on preserving the failed 1950s model of urban life at all costs. By doing so they have become a party of aristocracy. "Elegant density" isn't just an environmental and climate strategy - it's also necessary for the survival of California's working and middle classes in the 21st century. Republicans will fight against this, and so it is very good to hear Jerry Brown mounting a full-throated defense of sustainable living.

The rest of his speech is pure red meat - bashing the Bush Administration and its EPA ("those idiots"), denouncing them for the mortgage crisis, and calling for the repeal of NCLB. If he does have the governor's office in mind in 2010, this kind of playing to the base would make him an even more formidable opponent in the Democratic primary.

Robert Cruickshank :: Jerry Brown: "Elegant Density"
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he's not stupid nor crazy the way the media made him out to be (0.00 / 0)
brown has had a unique ability to pick up on changing times and adapt to those changes, maintaining a basic set of beliefs, but applying them in different situations.

years ago I worked for RealNetworks when the first Real Audio product was released and our CEO was due to speak on Brown's old radio show. Anyway, I got a call from what I assumed was a producer who wanted to ask some questions about the product, how it worked, etc.

Instead it was Brown himself, who spent over an hour on the phone, asking very detailed questions about the technology, how it could be used for radio broadcasting, etc, and some other questions about the Internet, circa 1995.

Even more amazing - when I told him about a rally I'd organized at UCSC in 1992 for him, he not only remembered the event in detail - he remembered who I was. Amazing.

Very smart man. No one is perfect of course, but he really is a smart guy. I don't know if he'd want to be Governor again, esp. in the era of term limits and silliness from the dying mainstream media (does anyone even HAVE a Sacto bureau anymore?), and the like, but who knows? Given that the some of other potentials all have problems balancing a budget or fighting crime or whatever, maybe he wouldnt be so bad?


Clearly (0.00 / 0)
Jerry Brown was not using the teleprompters.


Vancouver, BC (8.00 / 2)
I just spent a few days in Vancouver BC and I was totally blown away by the beauty of the dense high-rise residential development there.  Sadly, we have a lot of people in San Francisco who are stuck in the 60s and can't get beyond the idea of everyone living in a quaint Victorian.  Every time I read some aging hippie talk about "Manhattanization" as if it's a bad thing, I want to tear my hair out.

Vancouver is indeed the model (0.00 / 0)
There were some stories last year of SF planning officials visiting Vancouver to take notes from their successful urban density projects. Vancouver has done especially well with what Brown calls "elegant density" - infill development that is high-rise but involves effective deployment of mixed use and open space.

I do understand the anti-Manhattanization argument - back in the '60s and '70s most urban density redevelopment projects were of the modernist, ugly concrete block sort. And they were planned from the top down, with no involvement from locals, which was bound to create antagonism.

But even though I understand that argument, we must also recognize that its time has passed. California's cities must not be stuck in the 1970s. It's time we got smart about building density. Jerry Brown brought a lot of it to downtown Oakland, and it might be worth looking more closely at how that's worked out.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
Whose density? Whose Manhattanization? (0.00 / 0)
I agree and disagree with you.

Look, having everyone in SF living in a quaint Victorian is, I'm sorry to say, really cool.  Very few cities have housing stock anything like what this city has, and very few have distinctive, walking/transit residential neighborhoods like we do, and there is a lot worth saving about that model even if there are some costs associated with it.

That said, it can only be part of this city's future, not the entirety.

Manhattanization is good or bad depending on who's in charge of it, and who the intended beneficiaries are.

A Manhattanization in which the oldline real estate families turn whole neighborhoods into uglyass depressing highrises, for the sole purpose of enhancing their own private wealth, is bullshit.  The Western Addition and Fillmore are evidence enough that urban redevelopment can be selfish, destructive, and evil.

On the other hand, if you embark on a densification program for progressive reasons (sustainability and livability), with a progressive political coalition backing it, and with progressives either running the damn thing or with half the seats at the table (with the other half going to the oldline realestate interests), then that can work.  On a 50 or 100 year timeline, it becomes obvious that big chunks of the eastside are going to have to become very high density, hopefully in the kind of way that inhabits our dreams, and not the kind of way that populates our nightmares.

And of course, if half the eastside becomes high density, then most of the rest of the city (the part that remains quaint Victorians) will become completely unaffordable for the middle class.  If only a small number of people get to be that close to an enormous and (hopefully) flourishing city center, then that small number of people will all be rich.  So maybe there's an argument for densifying the middle neighborhoods after all: if you leave the housing stock of Haight, Castro, Noe, Mission, Bernal, Potrero in place, then absent an incredibly aggressive rent control or similar regime, those neighborhoods become open only to the rich in 50 years anyway.  You can expand their capacity or watch them gentrify beyond recognition, but you have to choose one.

Obviously I have not much idea what I'm talking about and am mostly thinking out loud here.

I had figured that Soma SouthBeach MissionBay TLoin and Mid Market were likely to become highrise landscapes a la the new Transbay Terminal, but I hadn't realized what that would do to the next ring out from downtown... which just shows that I hadn't thought about it very much.  Doh.

The only alternative to that densification of the eastside (other than urban blight in the City, or unending sprawl outside it) would be decentralization in the form of more advanced telecommunications.  That megabroadband new internet they're talking about might open that door...

[ Parent ]
This isn't the 1970s (0.00 / 0)
"Manhattanization" isn't the goal here - that's why I liked Jerry Brown's "elegant density" concept. I agree that the redevelopment of the Western Addition was not a success, but here again that's not what we're talking about. The point isn't to bulldoze neighborhoods and replace them with '60s modernist construction, but to find places in the city that are on major transit lines and encourage smart and elegant growth, with rules providing both public housing and below-market rate workforce housing.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
Brown's still got it (0.00 / 0)
Over the weekend I heard someone ask a party sage why another long-time candidate seemed no longer to be running for the Democratic nomination for governor. The sage's sage response: "He doesn't want to be Jerry Brown's next roadkill."

A lot can happen between now and two years from now, but at this point it's certainly Brown's race to lose.  

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