Local lessons learned from afar


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Everytime a travelogue finds its way into WEDNESDAY JOURNAL, this e-mail from our editor usually shortly follows: "Is this the last one of these we're going to run? We're a local newspaper, you know. More Oak Park and River Forest. Less Singapore."

So, after spending three weeks in New Zealand and Australia, I wasn't expecting to have much to write about here. After all, there wasn't even a tangential Hemingway or Frank Lloyd Wright connection, and I only managed to run into one Oak Parker I went to high school with.

But, throughout the trip, there were a few interesting parallels that I and my traveling companion identified. Some of the highlights include:

Smoking bans: Smoking is banned indoors everywhere in New Zealand and just about everywhere in Australia. According to national newspapers, the ever increasing amount of restrictions on smokingâ€"in Australia, especiallyâ€"has contributed to an overall reduction in tobacco use.

The entire issue is, of course, markedly different there than in Oak Park, as the laws affect two entire countries, both of which are not a hop, skip, or a jump from anywhere more smoker friendly.

I have no opinion on whether Oak Park should ban smoking. But, I would recommend that the village board, if it revisits the smoking ban debate, chew over at least one issue. If grandfathering existing businesses is on the table, I recommend an accompanying sign ordinance (we already have so many, one more couldn't hurt) to prevent what you see in this picture (see right). This is a hotel, bar and restaurant in Rockhampton, a town of 65,000, in Queensland, Australia, that has some how managed to continue to legally allow smoking. These signs are bright yellow, and there were at least two more on the other side of the building.

Pedestrian malls: While major pedestrian malls, at least in Illinois, have proved ultimate failures, in both Australia and New Zealand they've been incredibly successful. There's one, and often several accompanying "arcades," in just about every major city.

This one, called the Cuba Street Mall in the New Zealand capital of Wellington (see top right), features several restored historic buildings, and was "malled" after the city started to remove a trolley line, and found business improved.

Taxes: If you think Oak Parkers complain about property taxes, you've never met anyone from New Zealand. A tour guide who lived in Russell, a beautiful town so small it only has one gas pump and you have to take a ferry to go to the emergency room, told us she built her own house for $150,000 in the early 1990s and it was recently assessed for $500,000. We were told multiple times that nobody our age (mid 20s) can afford to buy a house anymore.

Skate parks: Where there's not easy access to surfing, skateboarding and skate parks are also fairly popularâ€"though one we saw, was not nearly as nice as Oak Park's. It prominently featured a large, rotting wood plank that passed for a ramp. Fortunately, skaters all wore helmetsâ€"even though it was unsupervised.

Urban Forestry: This really only falls into the "what if Oak Park could" category. In Australia, it's popular to demarcate parking spaces with trees (see picture above). I'm sure theese trees couldn't survive Chicago-area snow, or salt. But it'd be nice nonetheless…

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