Why Details Matter

“The stuff that matters, especially when it comes to the environment, is not the big flashy stuff,” explained Keith Bartholomew, a lawyer who teaches planning at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “It’s the small actions. Environmental damage is an accumulation of 1,000 cuts. So repairing it means applying 1,000 Band-Aids. Each one is important. It’s the many small Band-Aids that matter. Real relevance is the cumulative effect.”

I interviewed Keith last week for an article on how metropolitan regions have become the new incubators of effective environmental policy and programs. We hadn’t seen each other in 10 years, ever since he accepted our invitation to come to northwest Michigan to help the tiny, two-year-old Michigan Land Use Institute think through a particularly troublesome problem. The Grand Traverse County Road Commission, the business community, and several townships were desperate to build a new highway and bridge across the Boardman River south of Traverse City. We were convinced that was a terrible idea. The road and bridge was a waste of money, would make traffic worse, encourage more sprawl, and wreck a spectacular river valley so wild bald eagles nested there.keith-bartholomew.jpg

Keith knew a couple of things that made sense. As a young lawyer at 1000 Friends of Oregon in Portland, the granddaddy of non-profit American land policy organizations, Keith developed the legal and advocacy strategy that killed a $1 billion freeway proposed for Portland’s west side. In doing so, Keith helped to open a political, cultural, and economic space large enough for Portland to consider alternatives, including the regional light rail system that eventually was built. His story is an exceptional example of how clear thinking and a lot of moxie can produce a truly great outcome. Portland’s reputation as one of the outstanding cities in America has a lot to do with how its regional rapid transit system encourages more energy-efficient, environmentally-sensitive, neighborhood enhancing patterns of development.

The lesson we learned from Keith in 1997 was simple. In order to beat the Boardman bridge we needed to develop a credible alternative. A decade later, the bridge is dead and the alternative is gradually taking shape in the form of a $1.36 million regional land use and transportation project paid for with federal funds. Keith hadn’t heard the whole story so I spent a few minutes relating all that’s gone on in my home region since his visit, which occurred during an October 1997 week so warm and sunny that we convinced Keith to join us for a quick and chilly dip in Crystal Lake here in Benzie County. Now Keith can claim two places in America where his good ideas made things better.    

Keith isn’t as involved in municipal affairs in Salt Lake City as he was in Portland, though he recently joined the governing board of the Utah Transit Authority, the agency that is building the second largest regional rapid transit system in the West. By the time it’s completed in 2015, Salt Lake City and its suburbs will add 24 miles to the 19 miles of light rail line that are already operating, and roughly 100 miles of commuter rail. Only Denver, which is building a 172-mile system, will have more. And just as in Portland, the economy supported by the UTA trains is booming.

Keith is 46 now, the married father of a handsome young boy, and a scholar in law and planning anxious to prove himself worthy of achieving a tenured faculty position. He’s tall, slim, funny, and still loves trains. “In order to create a quality place it has to have iconic features that attract people,” he told me. “It’s hard to beat a train. Trains promote centrality, vitality, and sustainability. That’s what they represent. They make cities work better. If they’re built in the right place trains will do what they’re good at — providing efficient access to localized geography.”
    

Flip: Interactively Valuing Place Online

This is the second weekly installment of Flip, Modeshift’s exploration of the best examples of online tools to build connections between people and places. I’ve got several for you to see. Spend some time with these. They’re all terrific.

The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington in Seattle produced this interactive production to explore several ancient settlements in Puget Sound. The production mixes text, audio, video, and motion graphics.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York did this wonderful interactive production for Tall Buildings that is really easy to explore and does a nice job of non-fiction storytelling. 

Fuji Film produced Forests Forever, an exploration of the biology and life cycle of forests that is set up to mimic a video game, although it includes such high quality pictures, audio, text, and motion graphics it could and should be used as a high school or university teaching tool.

The idea here is that online communications produces an entirely new means for joining people to their places. That is the connection, tying our spirit to our places, which produces, like the fresh spring buds of a Benzie County cherry tree, the fruit of new ideas that make our lives and communities better.

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Flip: GE’s Interactive Project to Explore Quality of Place

Flip is Mode Shift’s new feature exploring the breakthrough examples of how interactive and social media connect with commerce, land use, resource conservation, and place. Take a look at General Electric’s Geoterra Ecoimagination site, which deploys interactive motion graphics and audio to explore virtual geography. True, this is an exceptional device for marketing the company’s products. But it’s also a very strong move to prove G.E.’s  sustainable bona fides, a trend noted in last spring’s Vanity Fair green issue.

Developing high-end graphics, and inviting participation and feedback, is a keen way to explore the space  where green business and smart growth values merge. Improving the economy and quality of life. Interactive media and smart growth. Cool stuff.