Sunlit Water

January 22, 2011

Peace Is Just A Word

Filed under: Culture,Land,Politics — by teofilo @ 10:49 am

One of the more depressing things about going to Israel was seeing the typical attitudes Israelis have toward the peace process.  There are a wide range of political opinions within Israeli society, of course, but it’s quite apparent both from reading the news and from talking to Israelis that the center of the political spectrum on security issues (the issues that matter most) has moved far to the right in recent years, as shown by the current far-right government with its general lack of interest in pursuing negotiations with the Palestinians.  This seems to clearly be the reason that negotiations have currently stalled; I’m not going to go as far as to say that every time the peace process has broken down it’s been Israel’s fault, but this particular instance of the process stalling absolutely is.  It’s not just that the government has no interest in pursuing an agreement, or that the rising power of the ultra-Orthodox and the Russian immigrant community gives the right a major political boost, although both of those things are true and problematic.  The bigger problem is that the majority of Israelis just don’t seem to care enough to push back against the far right.  Basically, the status quo seems to be working fine for most people.  The economy is booming, the borders are relatively quiet aside from the small-scale rocket attacks that have become somewhat routine by now, and there have been no major terrorist attacks within the heavily populated parts of Israel recently.  There is no sense of urgency, no idea that the current situation is untenable.  People are doing fine and don’t see any particular reason to push for change, so the right is free to throw whatever wrenches it wants into the peace process without losing political power.  This is in striking contrast to the feeling among the Palestinians, whose lives are of course much worse and who are quite eager to make a deal.  The Palestinian leadership has in fact made many concessions already in trying to get Israel to agree to a two-state solution, including agreeing that a Palestinian state would be demilitarized, and Israel is in a strong negotiating position from which to demand even more concessions, but the Israelis don’t seem interested in striking a deal.  They would of course benefit from no longer living in a pariah state with a vast and burdensome security apparatus impinging on their daily lives in all sorts of ways, but they’ve grown used to living like that.  When we were there we spoke to some people at the Geneva Initiative, and this is basically what they said: that one of the biggest challenges they face in getting the peace process going again is apathy on the Israeli side.  They’re basically living in this weird, paranoid, heavily armed bubble, but they don’t seem to care and they don’t seem interested in doing anything to change that.  Strange and depressing, but that’s the way it is.

January 17, 2011

From Tel Aviv To Jerusalem

Filed under: Culture,Land,Personal,Planning,Politics — by teofilo @ 7:37 pm

One of the most often repeated tropes about Israel is the contrast between its two major cities.  Tel Aviv is portrayed as the embodying the more cosmopolitan, secular, modern side of Israeli society, while Jerusalem embodies the parochial, religious, traditional side.  There is a great deal of truth to this characterization, and the two cities definitely feel very different, but the contrast is really more complicated than people often imply.  For one thing, as one of the Israelis who accompanied our group was very vocal in insisting, both cities are more diverse and complicated internally than the caricature has it.  There are plenty of synagogues and religious people in Tel Aviv, and there are plenty of secular people in Jerusalem.

There is nevertheless a real difference in feel between the two, and one thing that I found somewhat surprising in visiting them was how much I preferred Jerusalem.  I’m a pretty secular, modern guy, so I had kind of thought Tel Aviv would be more my kind of place than Jerusalem, but that was definitely not the case.  It’s not that I disliked Tel Aviv; it’s a very pleasant city, but it’s also a very mundane city.  Tel Aviv feels like a very typical European city, and this is no accident.  It was deliberately founded 101 years ago by a group of Zionists who reasoned that Jews had basically always lived in cities founded by other people and who wanted to see what a city founded by Jews would look like.  So they founded one, and it turns out a Jewish city looks and feels like a medium-sized European city along the Mediterranean coast.  Pleasant, but not particularly distinctive.  Indeed, Tel Aviv feels like it could be anywhere, and that’s sort of the point.  The Zionists who started Tel Aviv were those who saw Zionism as a secular nationalist ideology, and while Palestine was the obvious place for their desired Jewish state full of Jewish cities, it was by no means necessary to them that it be there.  The important thing was just that a Jewish state exist somewhere.  When the British offered Herzl Uganda instead of Palestine these are the people who wanted to take it.  Herzl himself was one of them, of course.  Because of my lack of adherence to Zionism, I don’t have any particular love for Tel Aviv just because it’s a Jewish city, and there’s nothing else about it that would make it particularly appeal to me more than any other city.

Jerusalem, on the other hand, is amazing.  Whereas Tel Aviv could be anywhere, Jerusalem couldn’t be anywhere else and it could never be mistaken for any other city.  It’s unique in a way that Tel Aviv very much isn’t.  Today it’s identified more with the religious portion of Israeli society, the ideological descendants of the religious Zionists who refused to accept Uganda and would settle for nothing but Palestine.  Within the context of Israel, then, Jerusalem tends to stand for a religious rather than a secular outlook, and its position right on the border of the West Bank makes it an ideological flash point for more general issues of security, identity, and the peace process as well.

In a very fundamental way, however, Jerusalem is not a Jewish city the way Tel Aviv is.  It’s governed and inhabited primarily by Jews today, of course, and at various times in the past it has also been primarily Jewish, but for most of its long history it has been governed and inhabited by non-Jews, and that history is very visible in the physical structure of the city as well as in the symbolism and importance it has for all sorts of people, Jewish and otherwise.  Whereas Tel Aviv was founded 101 years ago as an experiment in creating a Jewish city as part of a Jewish nation-state, Jerusalem is thousands of years old, and no one knows who originally founded it, when, or why.  It has passed through many hands over the millennia of its existence, some of them Jewish but most of them not.  The way I see it, Jerusalem may currently be part of the State of Israel, but fundamentally it transcends that status and belongs to no one group.  It is a Jewish city in some ways, but in other ways it is a Christian city and in still other ways it is a Muslim city.  Overall I think it simultaneously belongs to no one and everyone.  It is an international city, perhaps the only one in the world.  It’s also just an amazing place to be and to explore, in a way that I can’t really articulate properly.  I’m not generally inclined to agree with the idea that it’s impossible to understand a place without seeing it personally, but in the case of Jerusalem I think that may be true.

In this context, while I think the most practical path to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would involve dividing Jerusalem and letting each side use its portion as its capital, I think the idea that sometimes gets floated of having Jerusalem be part of neither state but instead be an international city controlled by the UN or some other international organization is not nearly as unrealistic as it sounds.  Indeed, in many ways I think that would be the most appropriate status for Jerusalem given its history and importance.  Not that it’s likely to happen, of course, but at this point a divided Jerusalem as part of a two-state solution doesn’t look all that likely in the foreseeable future either.

March 22, 2010

Houses To Farms

Filed under: Culture,Land,Planning — by teofilo @ 3:24 pm

This is something that has come up briefly here before in a more hypothetical context, but now it looks likely to become very real.  Detroit, America’s favorite example of urban failure, is making serious plans to tear down many of its nearly abandoned neighborhoods and reconcentrate its population in a smaller area.  The resulting open space can be used for parklands or agriculture.  Industrial use is also a theoretical possibility, but as the article notes, there is unlikely to be much demand from industry.  This “shrinking cities” idea comes originally from the former East Germany, and it has been gaining popularity in the past few years in some parts of the Midwest.  Youngstown, which the article mentions, has been the most prominent example so far.  Detroit, though, is much bigger and better-known, so it’ll be very interesting to see how this experiment goes.

January 14, 2010


Filed under: Culture,Land,Language,Nature,Politics — by teofilo @ 5:31 pm

The news out of Haiti regarding the effects of the earthquake there is pretty dire and depressing.  I don’t know a whole lot about the political and cultural context, aside from the oft-repeated fact that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but this page (via apostropher at Unfogged) is very useful in providing background information.  The devastation reminds me of the Port Royal earthquake of 1692, which effectively destroyed what had been the capital of Jamaica and killed two-thirds of its population.  The epicenter of the Haitian earthquake seems to have been similarly close to Port-au-Prince, and as a result it sounds like the country’s governmental institutions have been crippled to a degree that makes them essentially useless.  Port Royal never recovered, although Jamaica eventually sort of did, and Haiti today is a much poorer country in relative terms than Jamaica was in 1692.  It’s all very sad.

August 23, 2009


Filed under: Land,Transportation — by teofilo @ 10:55 am

This sort of thing shows that planning as a profession still has a long way to go to turn away from the mistakes of the past.  There are a lot of good ideas out there about how to do planning right, but they clearly aren’t getting through when you have projects like this being proposed.  If they’re expecting that many more people to move into the area over the next few decades, they should be figuring out ways to fit them into the already-existing development in that area, which is already quite extensively developed.  Building new highways to facilitate new greenfield development is so twentieth-century.  We should be past that mindset now, but it seems we’re not.  Note, by the way, that the cowboy and the Sierra Club representative quoted in the article are on the same side of the issue here.

July 17, 2009

Different Longitudes, Though

Filed under: Land — by teofilo @ 6:48 pm

Phoenix and Atlanta are at almost exactly the same latitude and elevation.  This isn’t really that surprising if you think about it, but for some reason I find it really striking.

June 6, 2009


Filed under: Land,States — by teofilo @ 5:53 pm

Hey, so remember all that fuss about the Four Corners Monument being in the wrong placeWell

February 17, 2009


Filed under: Culture,Land,Nature,Politics — by teofilo @ 1:54 pm

I’m planning to visit Homolovi in the very near future, so the continuing saga of the recommended immediate closure of it and several other Arizona state parks has been of considerable interest to me.  It looks like the parks board did not immediately accept the recommendation and will review the available options to deal with the budgetary situation at the next regular board meeting on Friday.  The department has already been canceling special events and trying to find other ways to save money.

In addition to showing just how important aid to state governments is as a fiscal stimulative measure on the part of the federal government, this situation illustrates an interesting fact about state parks, namely, that there are really two rather different types of facilities that are typically designated as state parks.

In order to make the recommendation for which parks to close, the parks department took the annual operating costs and visitation figures and calculated the amount of money spent on each park per visitor.  The parks with the highest per-visitor expenditures were recommended for closure.  What’s interesting is that almost all of these parks, including Homolovi, are historical sites rather than natural recreation areas.

This is not a coincidence.  While most state parks in all states are locations with particular natural attractions that are useful for various recreational activities (such as camping, boating, picnicking, etc.), in many states, including Arizona, there are also state parks that are established with the end of preserving significant historical locations.  While natural parks are often established for preservation as well, of course, they generally attract a more diverse group of visitors pursuing a variety of activities, and thus have higher numbers of overall visitors and greater revenues from fees.  Historical parks not only get fewer visitors, since there’s less to do at them, they also tend to be more expensive to maintain, since they contain old, fragile structures that need frequent maintenance and repair.  Thus, they cost more, often much more, per visitor, and are the first on the chopping block when the budget crunches come.

Not all states do things this way.  New Mexico, for example, separates the two types of attractions into state parks, which are natural recreation areas under the control of the Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department, and state monuments, which are important historical sites under the control of the Department of Cultural Affairs.  This serves to separate the different types of sites both administratively and financially, since the two departments have very different structures and funding streams, and it keeps New Mexico from facing the sort of difficult decision confronting Arizona right now.

February 11, 2009


Filed under: Land — by teofilo @ 1:04 pm

Ryan has a post up about Obama’s recent statement that the “age of sprawl” is over in which he addresses the difficulty of definining “sprawl” and notes something that I think goes largely unaddressed in most land-use policy discussions: the fact that there are really two things that are called “sprawl” which are rather different.  Ryan classifies these as “neighborhood density” and “regional density,” but I kind of prefer his initial formulation as “compactness” and “dispersion.”

Basically these are two different scales within which development can have varying levels of density.  When it comes to metropolitan areas and other large-scale situations, the type of “sprawl” that people talk about is really dispersion: neighborhoods and other key nodes in the area are far apart from each other.  As Ryan points out, this is not really a problem that public policy can or should address; it has a lot more to do with geography and other fixed factors than with policy decisions.

Within those neighborhoods etc., however, the issue becomes compactness: how close together the individual buildings are and whether it is possible to walk from one to another.  Here the pattern is determined almost entirely by policy choices.  Older urban and suburban neighborhoods in the northeast and midwest may be dispersed or not, but they are generally quite compact, and if they are dispersed they are linked together by effective public transportation systems.  The result is that cars are less necessary for people to have, and few people have them.  This doesn’t have anything in particular to do with the geography of these areas, however, as can be seen by the variety of levels of dispersion.  Rather, it’s because these areas were developed in the nineteenth century when no one had cars and governmental policy heavily favored the creation of rail networks.  This meant that if an area was to be developed, it needed a train station to connect it to other areas, and the development was centered on that train station and within walking distance of it.  That is, compact.

In other parts of the country, however, most neighborhoods were developed in the late twentieth century, when government policy largely favored private automobile use and the creation of highway networks.  Since most of the resulting roads were free to drive on, travel was cheap, and development became very spread-out and not at all compact.  This is where we are now, with the possibility of the political pendulum swinging back toward rail and compactness.  The fact that most development over the past fifty years has been low-compactness sprawl doesn’t mean that a shift in policy can’t steer things in a different direction.  (Though, as Ryan notes, doing this productively will require actual policy changes rather than merely rhetorical gestures.)  We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.

December 23, 2008

Contrarianism We Can Believe In

Filed under: Culture,Food,Land — by teofilo @ 4:08 pm

Out of the blue, Yglesias notes that, contrary to popular belief, hunter-gatherer societies are much better off than settled agricultural societies in just about every way.  This seems very odd from the perspective of a modern industrial society like ours, which grew out of a preindustrial agrarian society, but the evidence for it is actually overwhelming in both the archaeological and ethnographic records.  The implications of this are as disturbing as they are unavoidable, which may be why it doesn’t get much attention in public discourse.

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