Thursday, February 28

New construction by the farmer's market?

I noticed this section of the parking lot on the corner of Alder and Pattee is fenced in. Could there be a new building coming in right next to the farmer's market site? A few weeks ago Missoulians overwhelmingly voted for a more dense and vibrant downtown. Even though the data was apparently lost, perhaps the market isn't waiting for all of the results to come in before responding to this desire.

Or maybe this is something entirely different. Anyone know what it is?

Tuesday, February 26

Suburban slums?

Christopher Leinberger brings an interesting question some national attention in this month's Atlantic Monthly (I almost wish I hadn't let my subscription lapse this year). What will happen to the swathes of suburban housing in this country if the United States does, in fact, transition toward a more sustainable urban living arrangement?

He sees some indication of an answer already unfolding in the current subprime mortgage crises.

"Strange days are upon the residents of many a suburban cul-de-sac. Once-tidy yards have become overgrown, as the houses they front have gone vacant. Signs of physical and social disorder are spreading."

Really, this is the "tip of the iceberg" of a larger demographic and geographical shift.

"For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay."

If this forecast has any merit, and Leinberger provides some hard statistics to suggest it does, then it seems to me that there are a number of major planning challenges ahead.

1) A reversed "white flight" could have more serious consequences than the original one. As Leinberger mentions, the older tenement housing of inner-cities was studier and more suitable for apartment conversion, while the newer suburban developments carry high maintenance costs. Also, the poorer people moving into the suburbs would be saddled with an additional energy and transportation burden, not to mention the further corrosion of social cohesion which could accompany a lower-density lifestyle. Could there be a way to get out in front of the transition this time, and ensure a more economically diverse situation?

2) Current patterns of development on the suburban fringe have been fairly non-contentious for developers. However, if infill becomes the new frontier of growth there will have to be a careful public process in place to ensure that the various interests of people living in closer proximity are met.

3) How will the suburbs be transformed? Leinberger suggests that some will remain as wealthy enclaves, but he doubts that any large-scale redevelopment will happen with ones that fall into decay. The patchwork of private ownership will make this difficult. Or will it? In some of the areas hardest hit by economic downturns, we already see cities buying up abandoned houses and sometimes even demolishing them, in hopes of returning the land back to the private market. Flint, Michigan has been leading the way on this. Who knows what the land will become in the future?

Sunday, February 24

Can't forget the parking ...

Not only does the general public subsidize automobile use through our taxes but we also do through our consumption.

Consider the typical trip to the supermarket. You pull in to the parking lot, drive around for a few seconds, and find a nice spot near the entrance. After collecting all of the groceries you need for the week, you bring the cart back to your car and take off. One thing that we never consider during this routine is that the 162 square feet of real estate we used for parking was entirely free.

But nothing is free. Somebody had to pay for it.

Like most cities, Missoula has pretty specific regulations about how much off-street parking is required of businesses and residential units. Restaurants and theaters require a spot for every four seats. Retail needs a spot for every 300 square feet of floor space, meaning that over 1/3 of all land is used for parking. These regulations make sense, because they ensure that the burden for finding a place for our vehicles is shared evenly. Yet they do reveal how much of a burden it is. The price these establishments are required to pay for parking is inevitably passed on to the consumer. So if you walk to the supermarket for a gallon of milk, part of the price of that gallon went toward someone else's parking space.

UCLA economist Donald Shoup published the High Cost of Free Parking in 2005. The effects of parking regulations he analyzes jibe well with common sense:

"Off-street parking requirements collectivize the cost of parking because they allow everyone to park free at everyone else’s expense. When the cost of parking is hidden in the prices of other goods and services, no one can pay less for parking by using less of it. Bundling the cost of parking into higher prices for everything else skews travel choices toward cars and away from public transit, cycling, and walking. Off-street parking requirements thus change the way we build our cities, the way we travel, and how much energy we consume ... Free parking helps to explain this extreme automobile dependence, rapid urban sprawl, and extravagant energy use."

Thursday, February 21

Are Cyclists Freeloaders?

I came across a little comment on a Missoula blog from a fellow by the name of Hummer Jake:

"Bottom line: bicyclists don't pay, bicyclists don't count."

I've heard this line several times before. The idea seems to be that since cyclists (and pedestrians, I suppose) do not pay the gasoline surcharge tax and vehicle registration fees then they are not contributing their fair share to public roads. Therefor, they are really only freeloaders on roads that were built by and for motorists.

Where do I start with this?

Let's see how much bicyclists are really cheating the system. The Montana gas surcharge is $0.27 per gallon, and the federal rate is an additional $0.18 per gallon. My Toyota Corolla gives me about 30 miles per gallon, which means that I pay 1.5 cents for every mile of roadway I use. A Prius owner may only pay half as much as I do for the same roads, but I'll stick with my Corolla as benchmark.

Now, a bicycle doesn't require the same road costs that my Corolla does. Automobiles require wider lanes, at least a narrow shoulder, curbs, and some (publicly financed) parking, while bicycles really only need a 6' lane and minimal space for parking. That should cut the 1.5 cents that cyclists owe in half at least. And then there is the wear and tear factor. A good chunk of road costs are due to routine maintenance, such as fixing potholes and repaving. I'm sure we can all agree that bicycles have much less of an impact than my Corolla does. I'll be conservative and shave off another .25 cents per mile for bicycles, leaving us at .5 cents that cyclists should be paying.

But that's only the case if all funding for roads comes from user fees. This is nowhere near the truth of the matter. It's my understanding, based on conversations with a friend who works in the Helena tax office, that most of the gas tax funds are used for state and federal highways. Lower-volume local roads are paid for primarily out of property taxes. So, for example, my regular bike commute to work is almost entirely on residential roads, which I pay just as much as anyone else for. Why should cyclists have to pay for interstates and major highways? I believe it's illegal to ride on them, and nobody in their right mind would do so anyway.

But that's not all. As long as we are nitpicking about costs, we need to consider generalized social costs, what libertarians refer to as public goods. Because automobiles are more dangerous and expensive, they require more attention from local law enforcement. Police departments spend plenty of time enforcing traffic laws and responding to accidents. Perhaps cyclists should receive a tax rebate for alleviating some of this need. This is not to mention the fire department, which must also respond to vehicle accidents. Anyone who eats and sleeps in Missoula contributes to air pollution, but surely regular cyclists contribute marginally less than regular motorists. They should get a tax rebate for this too. And bicycles provide exercise, which helps alleviate the public health tax burden that we all pay. Certainly the millions of auto-related injuries each year are not great news for taxpayers. It's hard to know when to stop.

In the final analysis, as much as Hummer Jake may not want to admit it, bicyclists are the taxpayers who are actually subsidizing motorists. Fortunately, most folks are not too worried about accidentally paying a little to help somebody else out.

Monday, February 18

"It doesn't make you happy because it's not made for humans."

So ... a hedge-fund manager writes to for some advice,

"The problem is that, ever since we moved in [to a big suburban house], I've been having a visceral feeling that this move was a terrible, terrible mistake -- I hate the feeling of slowly falling asleep in suburbia and never waking up. And I hate the commute. And I hate not being able to walk anywhere. And the lack of character."

The advice is worth reading ...

Thursday, February 14

Envisioning Missoula, round two

A few months after mapping out some possible futures for Missoula's transportation infrastructure, some of us regular citizens returned to evaluate and prioritize the ideas that were presented. This afternoon was the second of two identical sessions, and the results seemed pretty similar to the Missoulian's report of the first session yesterday.

"They want more attached homes and multi-unit homes built over more single-family homes. They want to discourage sprawl and encourage growth in town. And they believe getting around on foot, by bike or on public transit are good options."

Perhaps because of the front page story the attendance was even better, with about 130 people participating in voting. The age range was skewed to the higher end. Even though the meeting was held in the university, there seemed to be few students.

The main line of decision-making centered around three options:

1. Business as Usual. This is a continued investment and expansion in roadways. Housing is single-family on an individual lot, and the retail is big box with extensive parking. The road system is not especially interconnected. The expectation is that we will accommodate a doubling of the Missoula population by expanding outward.

2. Satellite Town Centers. This involves intentionally identifying hubs around the Missoula valley and concentrating development there (Lolo, Frenchtown, etc.). These hubs would be connected by mass transit. Each hub should contain mixed uses, be accessible by foot, and should be relatively self contained.

3. Develop Inward. This strategy focuses on enhancing and expanding the downtown. Almost all new growth will be contained within existing developed land. The primary focus will be on making the streets multi-modal, allowing high levels of pedestrian and bicycle access. Infill will be incentivized.

The overall results of voting were something like this: Business as Usual, 5%, Satellite Town Centers, 30%, Develop Inward, 65%.

I chose "develop inward." There are many elements of the second option that I appreciate, but I wonder whether even 200,000 people in Missoula valley would be enough to sustain multiple thriving urban hubs, especially with expensive transit infrastructure needed to link them together. If Missoula were able to expand with a concentrated core for a while, it may be worth looking more carefully at satellite communities for the next round of growth. But I'm not convinced that any of these courses are 100% exclusive of the others. There may be ways to incorporate town centers in other areas, while building up downtown at the same time. This isn't always a matter of either/or economic decision-making.

From my point of view, the afternoon session was very encouraging and informative.

Wednesday, February 13

Book: Till We Have Built Jerusalem

Phillip Bess stands in a rather unique position. He is at once a member of the Congress of New Urbanism and a Catholic scholar at Notre Dame University, firmly committed to the Aristotle-Thomas-MacIntyre intellectual tradition. The collection of essays Till We Have Built Jerusalem could be considered a project in cross-pollination between these two camps, simultaneously an appeal to fellow Catholics to consider how their belief system plays out in the built environment and an encouragement to pragmatically-minded New Urbanists to consider the foundational philosophical beliefs they hold about humanity, the world, and divinity. Playing the matchmaker, Bess suggests a few practical ways this connection could be fruitful.

Taking a deep breath, here's my plunge into some essential parts of the historical narrative Phillip Bess is working with. He carefully articulates and repeats this underlying point throughout the book:

"The good life for individual human beings is the life of individual moral and intellectual virtue (or excellence) lived with others in communities."

Then, still following Aristotle, he asserts that the community of communities, absolutely necessary for human flourishing, is the city itself. Next, Saint Augustine is brought into the picture to remind Christians that they maintain a sort of "dual citizenship" between the City of God and the City of Man. While the church is rightly an essential focus for Christians, there is still an obligation to care for the order of the earthly city, of which the Christian community is one participant among many. The "principle of subsidiarity" comes to us via Thomas Aquinas. This states basically that issues ought to be resolved at the smallest level of authority possible. A few centuries later, Tocqueville warns against the individualistic excesses of democracy, which can lead to an unhealthy understanding of an autonomous self. Finally, Alistair McIntyre arrives to revive the Thomistic tradition, while softening some of it's scarier hierarchical elements. He asserts that communities are self-defining entities and they do so mainly by telling stories. Humans are not autonomous beings but thrive within a particular community and tradition.

ok. Now what does this have to do with architecture and urbanism?

According to Bess, a faulty moral vision is the primary impetus behind the modern problem of suburban sprawl. We care more about the number and size of bathrooms in our houses than we do about a robust public realm. To make matters worse, most of the architectural establishment has been thoroughly immersed in this skewed emotivist vision, celebrating novelty and personal artistic expression over genuine beauty and the common good.

The way to remedy this is to go back to the basics of traditional urban design, focusing on the neighborhood as the essential building block of a city. Civic buildings should be given a prominent place, in order to encourage a virtuous citizenship. If cities are built to a human scale, in conformity with a natural order, all different aspects of life will be within walking distance of each other. He outlines the typical methodology of New Urbanism, from the form-based codes to the "Charette" style of public engagement, while also acknowledging some of the difficulties of working from within the marketplace. Bess stresses that churches can play an active role in advocating for a traditional urbanity over contemporary sprawl, even going so far as to suggest that churches work with developers to create urban neighborhoods around their facilities.

At one point, Bess claims that the principle"humans should make walkable, mixed-use settlements" should be considered a universal natural law, alongside such principles as "do not take innocent human life." At least one of his fellow Catholic legal scholars doesn't want to go that far, and, in response, Bess does seem to soften his stance a little. He still remains an unwavering proponent of the New Urbanist vision for human settlement.

The essays contained in Till We Have Built Jerusalem are intentionally provocative, but they also eschew any easy labeling on the standard political spectrum. Hopefully, his New Urbanist readers, if not entirely persuaded by every argument, will at least be driven to consider the deeper drive for why they care about what they care about. And Christian readers could come away with an ability to view the places they live through the lens of their faith.

Note: First Things published a review of this book in last months issue, but I'll have to wait until it makes it to the free archives to read it.

Monday, February 11

Sidewalks for Franklin-to-the-Fort

It's nice to see little achievements like this. The Missoulian reported today, on the front page no less, that the area around Franklin school in Missoula will finally receive sidewalks. And the city even allowed a grant to help lower-income residents with the price of the assessment. It looks like some hard work knocking on doors has paid off.

Jane Jacobs devoted the first three chapters of Death and Life of Great American Cities to sidewalks.

"Streets in cities serve many purposes other than carrying vehicles, and city sidewalks - the pedestrian parts of the streets - serve many purposes besides carrying pedestrians. These uses are bound up with circulation but are not identical with it and in their own right they are at least as basic as circulation to the proper workings of cities.

A city sidewalk by itself is nothing. It is an abstraction. It means something only in conjunction with the buildings and other uses that border it, or border other sidewalks very near it. The same might be said of streets, in the sense that they serve other purposes besides carrying wheeled traffic in their middles. Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of the city, are its most vital organs."

Sunday, February 10

Supermarket vs. Neighborhood Store

This is the cereal aisle at a supermarket near my house, and it is probably just like the cereal aisle in your supermarket too. On display is the vast range of product options available to the consumer, a full spectrum of colorful boxes and crazy mascots. The ability to provide this level of choice is a major reason that regional supermarkets were able to dominate the food retail business in the 20th century, edging out the older, smaller, and more localized stores. Larger and larger outlets needed to serve a consumer base drawn from a wider geographic area, which meant that virtually everyone had to drive to the grocery store. This fit pretty well with the drivable suburban land use arrangement in North America.

But let's take a second look at the product choices here. After all, each of these cereals are basically various combinations of corn syrup, wheat flour, preservatives, and maybe some other grain. The rest of the differentiation can be chalked up to value-added brand identification. Are hundreds of feet of shelf space really necessary to provide this level of substantive choice and spur on enough healthy competition between brands? I tend to think a store could do the trick with 10% or less of the shelf space.

Researchers in the last decade have been questioning (pdf) the retail orthodoxy that more choices are always desirable. There seem to be various problems associated with what is known as "hyperchoice": confusing information overload, time-stress, increased likelihood of consumer regret and error. Anecdotally, when working as a manager of a board game store, I found that customers were more likely to purchase something when I made two specific recommendations rather than presenting a whole range of options. Walmart has figured this out too, and they have been cutting the number of product options and focusing only the the products they know will sell. This article from the University of Texas business school gives some fascinating insight into this trend,

"Additional studies since then have confirmed that consumers often appreciate less choice, not more, even though both retailers and consumers tend to assume the opposite. “It’s a two-edged sword,” McAlister says. “People want the broader selection, but once they get it, they’re overwhelmed.

Could it be that the warehouse-sized grocery stores that we currently build and shop in are relics of an outdated business model? Or at least they may no longer be the only kid on the block. Maybe its time for a resurgence of the local, neighborhood store.

Consider Missoula's Rattlesnake Gardens neighborhood store. Sitting in the middle of your neighborhood, it's close enough to walk to. You greet your neighbors while shopping. There is an attached coffeehouse that serves as a gathering area. A community bulletin board announces events. Not even any tabloids in the check-out line. Is this what buying groceries will look like in the future?

Wednesday, February 6

World's first zero-carbon carless city

While I'm on the topic of carless cities, it's worth mentioning that the Gulf city of Abu Dhabi will break ground this Saturday on an ambitious new master-planned city, Masdar City. The goals are pretty impressive: zero carbon output, entirely run off of renewable resources, all waste recycled, and no cars. And its slated to eventually have 50,000 people live and work there - not just some desert eco-commune. The plans by Foster + Partners combine some medieval elements, such as a wall and narrow pedestrian alleys, with cutting edge solar and wind -powered technology. Promotional video here, and another on the Masdar Initiative here.

President Bush's response to seeing the project was, "Amazing, isn't it? This country has gotten its wealth from the ground and is now reinvesting in alternative forms of energy." This prompts the secondary observation: hmm ... a country that has about as much at stake in the continuation of the oil economy as anyone is hedging their bets and investing elsewhere. I wonder if they know something we don't.

Although I don't want to be a naysayer, part of me wants to hold the applause until the first residents move in about a year from now and the city begins to live up to its ideals. In some ways, the Green race is reminiscent of the Space race or the Arms race, the world's powers scrambling for pride of place in being the first to do something. But building a city is not like going to the moon. It takes time to grow one organically as the community begins to settle into its built environment, and this dynamic process does not always yield the preconceived results. Well, at least it's a more worthy target than adding a few hundred feet to the tallest skyscraper record.

Tuesday, February 5

Would a pedestrian zone work in Missoula?

(Herein I indulge in some wandering speculations)

During the heady urban renewal days of the 60's and 70's, scores of towns and cities jumped on the pedestrian mall bandwagon and closed several blocks of their downtowns to automobiles. Downtown areas around the country were facing intense market pressure from new retail locations propping up on the outskirts, and they were facing the prospect of losing the battle entirely. Idealist urban planners, who were envisioning a long-term strategy of carless cities, and hard-minded business owners, who desperately needed to compete with the suburban malls, were able to agree on a strategy. Pedestrian malls were prescribed as the miracle drug for urban decay.

Most of them were failures, financially at least. Of the 200 pedestrian mall experiments around the country, only 30 continue to exist. The original trailblazer, Kalamazoo, Michigan, finally converted back into a conventional street after four decades of trying to make it work. Original proponents overlooked how important automobile traffic continued to be to the American public. Even while these districts were thriving in Europe and South America, the United States did not seem like fertile ground for the same economic strategy. Textbooks have acknowledge this phase in history and have largely written it off as a mistake.

Yet, it's too simplistic to dismiss the idea entirely into the dustbin of history. There were many complex factors contributing to the sickness of downtowns, and it could be difficult to tease apart the impact of pedestrian malls from other problems. And where pedestrian zones have worked they have worked quite well. Two places that I have some familiarity with Burlington, Vermont and Charlottesville, Virginia have created thriving cultural centers around their pedestrian malls. Not only are they economically successful, but they have become emblematic of the city itself and offer a communal focal point to its citizens. They are an important tourist draw, and they highlight some of the history particular to their own context.

Other pedestrian areas are also models of success. Pearl Street in Boulder has an impressive mix of uses, and has apparently been attracting tech start-up companies. State Street in Madison, Wisconsin spans several blocks between the college campus and the state capitol. They have opted for a hybrid plan allowing buses, taxis, and police cars. Several others offer a variety of different nuances.

It would seem to be possible, with a thirty year track record on display, to identify the traits that have set the positive cases apart from the negatives. First, many of the surviving malls are located in mid-sized college towns. Universities not only provide a sizable population of people who have minimal access to automobiles, but they also tend to generate a cultural atmosphere and creative energy necessary to maintain a centralized social area. Secondly, many of the pedestrian malls are located in towns with a strong commitment to public transportation. There has to be some way to compensate for the inevitable loss of parking in pedestrian zones. Thirdly, the downtown had to exhibit a certain level of vitality before the project began. The malls that have failed were in downtowns often too far gone already to be propped up by a mere design transformation. I've also heard someone speculate that an "outdoorsy" attitude of the people is an important element.

It's also worth noting that things change. Cultures shift, and the economic forces working now are different than they were 30 year ago. Are we more equipped for a designated carless zone now than we were in the latter days of the 20th century?

Back to the question, does Missoula fit the conditions of a town that could sustain a pedestrian district? And if so ... where would be the best location?

Friday, February 1

Some Car-free Zones

I've been browsing through the wikipedia list of car-free zones around the world and reading about some of them at Carfree cities. Here are some overhead shots courtesy of Google Earth.

Plenty of pedestrian areas in Europe are preserved sections of the originally walled medieval town. Gronginen is a university town in the Netherlands. About 30,000 people live in the car-free area.

Fes-al-Bali is a medina in the city of Fes, Morocco, also of medieval origin. It's probably the most populous area without automobile use in the world.

There are also some new communities that prohibit private cars. This is Discovery Bay on Lantau island across from Hong Kong. About 14,000 people live here and it is still in the process of development.

Curitiba, Brazil is considered to be a model for transportation planning. About 20 blocks in the center of the city are for pedestrians.

A few cities in the United States have created small pedestrian malls in their centers. One of the best known is the River Walk in San Antonio, Texas.

This is Last Chance Gulch in Helena, Montana.