Urban planning lessons from southern Maine

I’m just back from four nights in Naples, Maine.  This town is in the Sebago Lakes region northwest of Portland and it provides a vivid demonstration of the power of urban planning.  Nearly every small town in Latin America is built around a central plaza where the citizens gather at various hours to meet friends, play chess, etc.  Small streets radiate from the plaza and hold additional shops and restaurants.  Any highway with heavy traffic is typically at least 5 or 10 blocks from the plaza.  In Naples and all of the surrounding towns, by contrast, there really aren’t any streets except to provide access to private houses.  A “town” is defined by the intersection of two busy state highways.  All of the public facilities of the town such as shops, schools, hotels, and restaurants are built along the highways near the intersection.  Thus if you’re not in a private home you’re within 25 feet of a 18-wheeler truck going 50 mph.

The handful of locals whom I met reported that despite living in the area for 20 years or more they’d not made too many friends and had a hard time meeting people.  You very seldom ran into a friend serendipitously.  If you belonged to the Lions Club or had a kid in the school you might meet at a planned activity but that was about it for social life.

(In case you’re curious as to why I wanted to spend four nights at the intersection of two busy state highways it was to add a Single-Engine Seaplane rating to my Commercial pilot’s certificate.  The process consisted of about 100 practice takeoffs and landings on various lakes in a 1946 Piper Cub on floats, followed by a checkride with an FAA examiner.  Sadly I won’t be able to do much with this rating.  Due to the fact that seaplanes combine all of the hazards of boats and airplanes in one machine the insurance is almost 10X the cost of what you pay for the same plane on wheels.  A rental seaplane is an uninsurable risk and therefore there are almost no places in the U.S. where you can rent a seaplane and head off without an instructor.)

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“Don’t do crack; it’s a ghetto drug”

Fifteen of us gathered last night for a screening of the 1992 Tim Robbins political satire Bob Roberts.  This mockumentary of a folksinging conservative Wall Street trader turned politician has held up surprisingly well.  In the background of the movie, President Bush is in the White House and American troops are about to invade Iraq.  Gore Vidal does a great job playing a Ted Kennedy-style career senator.  The songs are fun but sadly the soundtrack has never been made available.

My favorite part of the movie is when Bob Roberts closes a letter to a 7-year-old girl in Vermont with the admonition “Don’t do crack; it’s a ghetto drug.”

This is the perfect movie for an election-year party.

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