Malaysia. Where’s Malaysia?

A mammoth figure guards the entrance to one of the Batu Caves, a Hindu shrine in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo/Keith Schneider

KUALA LUMPUR — I had no idea what to expect from Malaysia when I accepted an assignment from Mongabay to report on the consequences of a prodigious wave of infrastructure development that is remaking this country’s economy and geography. What I’ve found is a nation contending, like so many others, with political disruption, but fully competent to develop the new muscles and bones to support the contemporary needs of this century.

People here are suspicious of their leaders. But the questions about corruption and competence of Malaysia’s political leadership are infinitely easier to answer than those being asked in the United States about America’s ruling class. The notion that the U.S. is exceptional isn’t a ruse. It’s just changed radically in the last several decades. We’re such a rich nation. But we don’t deploy our wealth to enhance civic well-being. The U.S. is exceptional now for the miserable way our political system has crumbled, our public schools and infrastructure have deteriorated, our sense of confidence and purpose have weakened.

The American century likely ended on 9/11. The Asian century began soon after. It’s more than apparent in Malaysia.

For a journalist who’s spent a decade reporting on ecological and economic transformation around the world, I have one overriding observation about Malaysia. Malaysia is different than China, India, Mongolia, the Philippines and several more countries that are determined to achieve western-level measures of growth. Malaysia did not wreck its land, water, air, and marine environments getting there.

A rendering of the 70-acre Exchange development, with its 106-story centerpiece, which is under construction in Kuala Lumpur. The development is meant to be the country’s new finance center. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Clean rivers still flow here. Half of the country’s tropical forest cover is intact and will remain so under commitments Malaysian leaders made in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Near shore marine environments have not been ruined by mining disasters, as they were in the Phillippines, or soiled in tides of fetid urban wastewater, as they have been in India and China.
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Where Cars Don’t Dominate, Rapid Transit and Strong Economies Do

With 350,000 passengers daily, Berlin's Hauptbahnhof central rail station is among Europe's busiest. Photo/Keith Schnj
With 350,000 passengers daily, Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof central rail station is among Europe’s busiest. Photo/Keith Schneider

BERLIN — There are few more impressive places to arrive by intercity train anywhere in the world than this city’s central rail station, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof.

A colossal steel and glass building opened in 2006, the Hauptbahnhof (pronounced hote-bonn-off) soars up four levels, from east-west high-speed platforms to high-speed trains running north-south. Stainless steel and glass elevators, and stainless steel escalators tie together the platforms and the various levels of the station, which is stocked with the inviting 21st-century necessities of travel — brightly lit stores selling smart phones and designer clothing, bakery items and office supplies, coffee and cold drinks, and lots of ATMs flanking the nation’s banking outlets.

Some 350,000 passengers use the Hauptbahnhof terminal daily to board and depart 1,800 intercity and metropolitan commuter trains, according to city statistics. Yet just as spellbinding to an American journalist raised in train-friendly New York, but living in transit-averse Michigan, is how easy and inexpensive it is to reach virtually every sector of this city of 3.5 million, and its neighboring suburbs, on a train. The city’s commuter trains, subway system, and streetcar network collectively operate on 50 separate lines, 648 kilometers (403 miles) of track, reach 734 station stops, and transport 1 billion passengers annually.

Prague's excellent streetcar system transports 325 million passengers annually. Photo/Keith Schneider
Prague’s excellent streetcar system transports 325 million passengers annually. Photo/Keith Schneider

If that’s not sufficient, Berliners can ride the bus, which has 147 lines, follows 1,627 kilometers of routes, reaches 2,627 stops, and carries 407 million passengers a year.

Yo buddy. That’s a powerful and effective transit system, actively used by city residents and duplicated in every other big city in this country of 80 million people. The benefits to family budgets and the country’s economy are evident. Traffic, for one, is surprisingly light in a metropolitan region that is comparable in size to Detroit and its suburbs, which have no rapid transit network, a poor bus system, high joblessness, a declining population, and where suburban highway traffic is a chronic mess.

Berlin’s families, meanwhile, save considerable sums by being able to operate one vehicle, instead of fleets. Land use patterns are influenced by rapid transit station stops, keeping fuel- and time-consuming sprawl in check and enhancing property values. And excellent transit service, energy-efficient and non-polluting, keeps Germany’s young and talented people involved in their home urban economies.

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Casual Carpool Plus Transit, A S.F. Commute

Light rail line along Embarcadero

SAN FRANCISCO — Since late March I’ve been living in a one-room cottage behind an old Craftsman-style home in Berkeley, and commuting to downtown San Francisco. It’s not your typical daily trip. But as gas prices rise, congestion mounts, and family incomes fall, it may well become a new kind of commuting norm in the United States. Of course it may not, too. This being San Francisco. And the weather is just unbelievably good most of the year.

But this is how it goes. I am a casual carpooler. Every morning I stand on line in front of the Safeway on Claremont Street, about six minutes walk from my house. Usually there are other people there, too, along with a line of cars and drivers waiting to pick up other casual commuters, two or three at a time. The goal in all of this is to save time and money for driver and passengers. Crossing the tragically congested San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on a weekday morning can take over an hour because of the longest toll lines I’ve ever seen. The cost also is $4.00.

But cars with three or more passengers zip through in the free carpool lanes. I save the $3.30 it would cost to ride the BART from the Rockridge Station to Embarcadero.

I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now and it’s just a marvel of ingenuity, convenience, and overcoming the fear of the stranger, which has gripped our country for 40 years or so. I’ve ridden with two student artists at San Francisco State, a manager of high rise buildings in San Francisco, a graphic designer, and a developer of affordable housing. I’ve had the chance to check out a two-seat Mercedes, a brand new Volvo, a Land Rover and any number of Toyota Prius’s. Nobody, and I mean nobody, drives an American car here. One of the guys I rode with is an engineer who gave me a lead on an apartment in Oakland, which turned out to be too expensive. Another told me about a hot graphic designer, who is as good as advertised and may fit into our publication schedule at the Apollo Alliance, where I work.

Drivers dispatch their passengers in San Francisco at the corner of Fremont and Howard, which is a couple of blocks from the Embarcadero along magnificent San Francisco Bay. In 1991, two years after the Loma Prieta earthquake, San Francisco demolished the elevated Embarcadero Freeway, replacing it with a palm-lined boulevard. An active lightrail line now runs in the median, passing gardens and parks and thousands of new units of housing, and swanky bars, the Giants baseball stadium, and all the other centers of human commerce that blossomed in what had been the shadows of a loud, dangerous, transportation eyesore.

If I walk, with the sun rising over the bay, it takes about 25 minutes. When I ride the Muni train to 4th Street, a block from my Townsend Street office, it takes about 10 minutes and costs $1.50. Total commute time: 45 minutes to an hour. Going home, I take the Muni to the Embarcadero BART station. BART takes me to the Rockridge Station, and I walk the 12 minutes up College Avenue and Claremont, stopping by the Safeway to get something for dinner. Travel cost: $4.80. Travel time: 45 minutes. Total expense saved from not having to own or drive a car: At least $1,000 a month, after taxes.

About Those Suburbs and Cities


As the dimensions of the mortgage crisis both expand and get clearer, a new picture is emerging of a nation in pain that simultaneously is coming to new conclusions about what it means to be safe and secure in America. For the first time since post-war federal policy ganged up on cities to promote suburban expansion, cities are rebounding in remarkable ways and suburbs appear to have reached some kind of new limits to growth. The evidence of this profound shift is easy to find if you look.

First, here in Michigan and across much of the country, the towering growth in homeforeclosures is hitting the newest suburbs at least as hard, and in most cases harder than it is striking the state’s cities. Foreclosures in West Bloomfield and Birmingham are occurring at the same or higher rates than the rate of foreclosures in Detroit and its older suburbs.

The same is true, according to this article in the Atlantic Monthly, in Florida, California, Colorado, Georgia and other states.

Cities meanwhile are attracting new residents and new wealth, so much so that vast tracts of the urban landscape in cities as different as New York and Salt Lake City, Boston and Denver, Seattle and Knoxville, Chicago and Atlanta, and dozens of others, are being completely rebuilt.

This is a remarkable transformation. For most of my life cities were places to dismantle, not build. I was a kid in the 1960s when city officials and U.S. housing administrators teamed up to tear down much of White Plains, N.Y., my home town, as part of the federal urban renewal program. An elegant network of narrow streets and historic offices and walk-ups was replaced by Houston-like boulevards. A windowless mall was built near the center of town that became one of the most dangerous places to shop in the whole state. White Plains gradually came to its senses and slowly began to replace the urbanism that was removed, and the city is experiencing its own economic and cultural renaissance.

Chicago, too, is undergoing more than $1 billion in new housing, retail, and commercial investment along south Michigan Avenue, an area that encompasses hundreds of acres of old warehouses, storage buildings, and light industrial facilities. Boston is building a new city above the Big Dig. Los Angeles is rebuilding Grand Avenue. New York is planning 45 million square feet of homes and offices above a rail yard along the Hudson River.

A third bit of evidence is the popular clamor for modern transit. Grand Rapids recently won federal approval for a new rapid bus system, and as much as $29 million in US support to build the 10-mile line, which could be the first rapid transit line built in Michigan since early in the 20th century.

Northern Virginia is planning to build a new streetcar line, which would join a growing number of other streetcar systems, including operating lines in Portland and Kenosha, Wisc. And Atlanta is considering a new streetcar line along its famous Peachtree Street.

What appears to be occurring in the United States? Time-wasting, costly, energy-inefficient, land-consuming, and obsolete exurban patterns of development are taking new forms. The institutions that supported the old patterns are grievously injured. Citibank today announced a $23 billion write off connected to sour loans in its mortgage business. The American auto industry continues to shrink. Developers are going bankrupt, among them Levitt and Sons, which built the first auto-dependent cookie cutter suburb after World War Two, New York’s Levittown.

Coming up in their place are builders of new transit systems, designers of new green housing and LEED certified office buildings, and the entrepreneurial high tech businesses popping up downtown in small places like Traverse City, and big places like Charlotte.

Geoff Anderson Takes Helm at Smart Growth America

Don Chen, the very sharp founding executive director of Smart Growth America, announced late last year that he was taking a position with the Ford Foundation. Interesting move for a canny advocate and non-profit executive with the sort of keen entrepreneurial instincts to take an eight-year-old organization from a Washington-based start-up to a national leader in new designs for development. Smart Growth America has a $2 million annual budget and a 10-member staff that includes a former Democratic governor of Maryland, and a former editorial writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.sgawards2006_037.jpg

This week Smart Growth America announced that Geoffrey Anderson (see pix), who directed the smart growth program at the Environmental Protection Agency, succeeds Don as executive director.

The choices made by both men seem plainly apparent. How the organization and the movement it fosters will fare is less so.

The role of non-profit founder and executive director unfolds in evolutionary stages that generally occur in two-year time frames. The first two years is all youthful energy, rapid response, program building, strategic choice, and instinctive fundraising. The next two are generally consumed with hiring, training, coalition building, program expansion, and a more formalized program of donor and foundation development. The next two are consumed with the limits of growth, more intensive fundraising, the start of moderate staff turnover and replacement, and the installation of administrative procedures designed to make operations more efficient, but sometimes don’t. And then comes the really hard work of sustaining programs, budgets, board relations, coalition partner relations, formal development programs. By year eight, non-profit directors tend to get so immersed in the administrative and fund-raising programs, and so distanced from the principles and values that prompted them to start their organizations, that they begin to wonder what happened. Year eight, in short, is a long time in the life of a non-profit director and often the time of greatest peril in a non-profit’s development.

When an institution as stable, prestigious, and well-funded as the Ford Foundation comes knocking it’s easy to understand why a talented guy like Don Chen would respond.

Overseeing a government program is the other end of the spectrum. The working environment is stable to the point of being calcified. The sense of adventure and accomplishment comes from distributing grants to capable organizations that produce solid work that attracts some (but not too much) attention. Program directors like to hire good people. They are challenged by treading paths through the administrative and Congressional briars that don’t leave too many nicks. They build relationships in and out of government, in and out of Washington. They speak at the right conferences. They become expert in policy and national practice. If they stay long enough, as Geoff Anderson has, they get recognized as significant leaders in the field.

I’ve worked with Don and Geoff for years and know them well. Both are experienced, knowledgeable men who are capable managers, fair with their staff, and generous with their time. But here is the big challenge: Can the organization and the new director sell the goods?

There is no doubt that Smart Growth America and the other gold standard public interest organizations that focus their work on the consequences of growth have made an effective case for seeking changes in public and private investment that make places better. They’ve developed the ideas that have resulted in building communities and neighborhoods fit for the 21st century that are more economically competitive, use less energy, reduce congestion, invest in transit, curb pollution, establish open spaces, and provide housing opportunities for people of every income level. Smart growth is a set of policy and investment tools proven to work in more than 40 states.

The question is whether the Smart Growth movement can command these ideas and build the strong coalitions that translate them into policy and investment practice at the federal level, where the real money lies. With the exception of the transportation funding bills of the 1990s, which produced more rapid transit, the Smart Growth movement has been less successful in changing the old spending priorities for highways, housing, natural resource protection, and urban investment at the federal level. It will take a powerful alliance of untraditional allies at the grassroots — advocates for halting global climate change, improving housing, strengthening labor, transit advocates, and metropolitan business and neighborhood groups respected by both parties — to convince Congress and the White House to break with convention and alter how and where federal money is spent.

Geoff Anderson has the inside government experience to know where the pressure points lie, as well as the earnest temperament to build the coalitions to press for new policy. But it’s not clear whether he has the political instincts to step outside the safety zone he understood so well as a government manager, or the entrepreneurial energy to simultaneously lead a staff, develop new programs, and serve as the chief fundraiser. If he does, Smart Growth America will take its place among the nation’s truly influential public policy organizations. If he doesn’t, the young group will gradually decline. A lot of us out here in the provinces wish him the best in his important new venture.