Tuesday, April 29

Mark Rey, Plum Creek, and Trophy Homes

I didn't get a chance to make it the forum with Mark Rey, U.S department of Agriculture undersecretary, but New West has done some really thorough coverage of the event. Reading the article is frustrating enough, so maybe it's just as well that I missed it.

It appears as if local communities in Montana have little say in how land will be developed in the future, because Plum Creek Timber Co. holds over a million acres of land in the state, including an overwhelming proportion of Missoula county. The trouble is that "timber company" is really an anachronism; more apt would be Plum Creek "trophy home development agency." It's just the result of a simple shift in market priorities. Timber prospects don't look good, while there's plenty of demand for those secluded wilderness retreats.

These residential properties flung all over the landscape are very taxing on community services, especially fire protection, as well as natural resources such as water. This is not to mention the damage done to the environmental landscape and character of the region. How ironic is it that the "last best place" sloganeering of real estate salesmen ends up with anything but.

Based on the coverage I've heard, the only recourse is either legal or legislative. A legal case could be made that the Forest Roads and Trails Act of 1964 never intended to allow the timber industry to give easements for real estate purposes. The only other option, at least according to Rey, would be state-wide legislation similar to what Oregon passed in the 1980's.

Monday, April 28

The Botany of Roads

Lewis Mumford wrote admiringly of the medieval city, formed through thousands of small decisions over long periods of time. He marveled at how this organic kind of growth would actually yield very sensible results. The gently curving cow path, adapted into a road, often fit the human practice of walking better and provided more visual stimulus than the strict grids later imposed though a centralized plan.

Now some French and American physicists are attempting to draw mathematical parallels between the cellular structures of certain organisms and the roads from various cities around the world. When the system grows gradually rather than being planned according to the larger scale, they have found that the efficiency is localized. As new nodes are developed, which need a means of transporting nutrients or waste, they connect into the system at the closest point and form gentle curves. Their thesis is that this pattern is, in fact, universal across cultures and economies.

From New Scientist,

"Previous models of urban development assumed that efficient transport across the entire network motivated the system's growth – as if planned from the top down. Focusing instead on the structure of local connections seems truer to real life."

Wednesday, April 23

"When it comes to parking, staunch conservatives become communists"

While mixing up some stir fry in my wok this evening, I heard Donald Shoup say this quote on NPR. The story was about a new hi-tech system for locating and pricing parking in San Fransisco. Prof. Shoup commented on how Americans have somehow come to see parking as a basic human right, and how they will give an emotionally-charged defense when it looks like it may be restricted at all. What's weird is that this belief seems to become more prevalent the more conservative a person is.

Christian Wolmar, a U.K. blogger, brought up this puzzling inconsistency of libertarians who can't get enough government highway spending. What possible explanation could there be for this? Are cars themselves icons of freedom and individual choice? Is it a carry over from fighting the unions who worked on transit? Is it simply special interest funds from the oil and automobile lobbies? Does it stem from a contrarian attitude towards environmentalists and city-dwellers who are considered to be the on opposing side?

I'm honestly interested in hearing from a free-market advocate on why this is so often the case.

Tuesday, April 22

Who pays for excessive driving?

It's Bike Walk Bus Week here in Missoula once again, and it looks like we may finally be getting enough of a break from the snow to encourage folks to get outside. As usual, I plan my week around a strategy to acquire as much free goodies from local businesses as possible. Stop by Great Harvest Bakery tomorrow morning, sans the car, and I'll give you a cinnamon roll on the house.

Sunday's Green issue of the NY Times Magazine included an eye-opening article by the writers of Freakonomics on why driving is such a socially damaging thing to do, and how the economic incentives of driving are so screwy. Here are the costs they find for three major externalities of driving (externalities are costs of a certain action that are not payed by the individuals performing the action, and thus tend to not figure into the rational market decision):

1. Congestion: $78 billion a year
2. Carbon Emissions: $20 billion a year
3. Accidents: $220 billion a year

And I would add the major externality of land use adjustments, which are quite a bit harder to quantify. Think not only of all the space needed for roads and parking, but for the setbacks we require to remove ourselves from automobiles. And there are other forms of pollution such as noise and air that do not figure in.

Anyway, their final tally,

"So, with roughly three trillion miles driven each year producing more than $300 billion in externality costs, drivers should probably be taxed at least an extra 10 cents per mile if we want them to pay the full societal cost of their driving."

Yikes! We thought gas prices we getting bad as it is. We really should be paying $2 more per gallon at the pump!

The writers highlight one economic reform that wouldn't be a political mess. Auto insurance policies currently charge, more or less, the same price regardless of how many miles you drive. That's entirely unfair. Why should someone who uses the car once a week for groceries have to pay the same amount as a person who commutes two hours a day, when she is much less of a risk to the insurance company? Not pricing for amount of vehicle miles traveled amounts to a subsidy for heavy drivers and ultimately encourages bad behavior.

It turns out that Progressive is unleashing a new policy this month that tracks your car usage and charges you accordingly. Those who feel that their time in the car should be an entirely private matter may balk at this intrusion, but those of us who would rather spend our money elsewhere could greatly benefit from being offered a fair price for driving less. I hope this works.

Monday, April 21

An optimistic future for Missoula

Yesterday's Earth Day fair in Caras park, sponsored by Missoula Urban Development Project, showcased some of the efforts that various local groups are making to encourage sustainable urban development. Missoula is certainly blessed with a groundswell of active citizens who are working hard on this, and several of the groups are just getting off the ground.

The Community Food and Agriculture Coalition has started getting involved in the complicated arena of land use planning. They have been sending a representative to the city planning commission to plead for the protection of valuable farmland in the valley against the perpetual tidal waves of sprawl. They've realized that it's tough to have a local food system if there isn't any land to grow it on.

Missoula's healthy contingent of cycling advocates were all there. Bob Giordano's Missoula Institute of Sustainable Transportation, the city's Missoula in Motion, and the new Bike Walk Alliance of Missoula had booths.

There were also some interesting development projects on display. I discovered plans for a Burns Street Square in a part of the Westside neighborhood with many lower-income households. The square will feature a large food coop and restaurant with ample public space for the neighborhood, surrounded by 17 affordable housing units. The whole site plan looks great, and its development would undoubtedly benefit this part of Missoula. The same architecture firm MMW also held an open house for their new cluster of energy efficient homes on Phillips street. We went over to take a look and were very impressed. These hybrids of condos and single-family houses represent an emerging real estate market here for people who want to live closer to town and consume less of our earth's resources.

This collection of non-profit, government, and for-profit enterprises shows that Missoulians do take seriously the prospect of living within our means environmentally.

Thursday, April 17

A better affordability index

Typically, housing is considered "affordable" if it composes no more than 30% of a household income. Cities and regions will often determine their affordability gap by comparing the median income with the median home price in a particular area. This yields a simple and workable number to deal with. The Missoula county website does such a calculation to determine the health of the market here.

While this data gives some useful information, it misses the full picture because it excludes the second highest, and inextricably linked, cost burden to households: transportation. Omitting this factor can lead to the old real estate slogan "drive till you qualify." Life gets cheaper the further you move from the center ... or does it?

The Brookings Institute has been thoroughly researching the differences between the housing index and the housing + transportation index, and the results put the conventional wisdom into question. They have mapped the affordability of 52 metropolitan areas around the country. Here is Portland, as an example. Basically, the teal color is not affordable to the median income. Go to the site for more specifics on what that means.

For Housing only (up to 30% of median household income):

For Housing + Transportation (up to 48% of median household income):

Tuesday, April 15

A Eulogy for Congestion Pricing

At least in New York ... and at least for now.

Democratic lawmakers in New York's state legislature put the kibosh last week on mayor Bloomberg's proposal to charge an $8 fee for entering midtown Manhattan, even though New Yorkers seemed to be willing to give it a shot. The defeat may have been due to simple political wrangling withing the state, but the Washington Post yesterday also suggested an ideological rift between liberals could be at play.

"Liberals focusing on climate change and smart growth tend to love road pricing. But liberals focusing on social inequities tend to believe that high-income taxpayers should pay for public amenities that are available to everyone."

Congestion pricing is hailed for its environmental benefits but dismissed for its regressive implications. Is this a true impasse or is there a way forward that could achieve both goals?

It seems to me that any privatization of the road system should be accompanied with an equal incentive program for public transit to balance out the adverse effects to lower-income households. It looks like that is what Bloomberg and others are trying to do, but I suppose the political case is yet to be made.

On to Virginia

I've accepted enrollment in the University of Virginia school of architecture for an MA in urban and environmental planning. I chose this school not only because of its good reputation, but also because the department espouses a vision for cities and land use that fits well with my own emerging vision.

"The trademark of our program is an abiding concern for sustainable communities signified by our inclusive urban AND environmental planning title. Our faculty values environments where countrysides are productive and appropriately protected, where cities have vital centers and efficient means of movement, and where neighborhoods offer opportunities for all to live affordably and safely. We are as much concerned with the economy and issues of equity as we are with the environment."

Yes, and yes. I believe that the next two years will help me fine-tune some of the thoughts that have been bouncing around this blog and learn how to put them to work in practical ways.

Friday, April 11

Kudos to the Missoula Federal Credit Union

I must admit I was a little skeptical when my local bank changed the name of my checking account to "green draft" last year simply because they were going to stop sending my bank statements by mail. Sure, I appreciated the gesture, but I already opted out of paper statements when I opened the account. We've reached a time when companies and organizations are falling all over themselves to prove their environmental credentials (Just look at the marketing for all major oil companies). Was there any substance behind the "going green" marketing campaign?

It turns out that there is. This year's annual meeting was transformed into a "sustainability fair" and was used to showcase many local groups who are involved in conservation of some kind. I noticed that the meeting was moved from the Hilton conference center, which dwelleth outside of Missoula in the land of motorcars, to the Holiday Inn, which dwelleth inside Missoula in the land of people. Choosing a walkable location for such events does communicate a certain level of commitment.

But, most importantly, the new branch on Russell street is hoping to be a LEED platinum certified building, which is a big deal. I'm told it will be the first of its kind in the region. Being a trailblazer through all of the regulations involved can help other businesses in Missoula feel confident in their own LEED projects. The concrete used in the building will contain fly ash, a coal byproduct, as well as recycled glass. Missoulians will be given another rare chance to recycle glass next week in order to provide more material for the building: Caras Park, between 10 am and 3 pm on April 19 & 20.

These are the kinds of real steps in the right direction that the people of Missoula can be proud of.

Wednesday, April 9

Another reason to scrap the HMID

I've spent a couple of posts reflecting on the damage done by the IRS home mortgage interest deduction. This extremely regressive tax deduction is essentially a form of corporate welfare for the real estate and construction industry. It also wrecks the environment by encouraging mansions and huge yards. But these not the only problems. I picked up on another negative consequence of this policy while listening to a tribute to Jane Jacobs on the Open Source radio show.

This generous tax deduction encourages households to put an inordinately high proportion of their assets into their home (or a second home). While normally the rational financial behavior is to diversify investments as much as possible to protect them from any single market problem, thanks to this deduction most middle-income Americans end up essentially putting all of their eggs into the one basket of their home.

The trouble is that a single house is actually a pretty risky investment. This makes people very protective of their nest egg. A few too many of the "wrong people" in the neighborhood or a well-placed convenience store could send their investment into a downward spiral, so they react by imposing rigorous exclusionary zoning laws or fighting tooth and nail with city council over anything that could disrupt the value of their home. The end result is a series of residential districts highly segregated according to real estate value. This is the antithesis of healthy urbanity.

Nobody is suggesting that an elimination of the HMID will end the practice of Nimbyism (Not In My Back Yard) altogether, but it at least could lower the stakes a little. If investments are more carefully diversified, as they naturally would be, then homeowners will not have to see any little infraction in their neighborhood as a threat to their entire financial well-being. It could infuse a little sanity back into process of land use planning.

Tuesday, April 8

The Public Square on Air

NPR just finished running a beautiful two-part series on the unique history of Washington's U-street neighborhood. The once vibrant black neighborhood was devastated by riots following the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King in 1968. It took more than 30 years for the seeds of revitalization to finally start to grow, and now the neighborhood faces the challenge of ensuring that this growth comes with a true racial integration. The interviews reveal how particular neighborhoods can carry with them a living history, sketched into the collective memory of the community.

Stories like this are one more reason to support your local NPR station during pledge week.

Sunday, April 6

The Candidates on Urban Issues

Yesterday, I had a chance to hear both Hillary and Barack share their visions for America down in Butte. Up to this point, I've been quiet about the question of who will be the next to lead the executive branch of the federal government, not so much out of general apathy, but because the candidates have been mostly quiet about issues relevant to this blog. Inga Saffron made this point in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week,

"There are three times as many urbanites in America as country folk, yet you wouldn't know it listening to the three main presidential candidates, or perusing their Web sites. Instead, you might come away thinking the United States is a collection of Norman Rockwell small towns surrounded by picture-book farms ...

Supposedly, the reason that candidates are loath to mention the C-word is that the Suburban Nation of grill-obsessed dads and van-driving moms dominates the electorate. Since it's assumed that cities will vote Democratic no matter how badly they're treated, there's no percentage for either party to talk up things like pocket parks, waterfront development, or - can you imagine? - wasteful sprawl. Besides, the discussion will only alienate voters who still associate an urban platform with cities in flames."

I don't doubt there is some pandering going on, but it's also true that most land use and transportation issues are simply local problems with local solutions. However, the federal government does have an indirect role to play in urban planning that could use some more exposure. Here's a few points I can think of ...

1. Energy. Everyone agrees that our current energy consumption is totally unsustainable. All three candidates are promising more investment in alternative energy sources, although the Democrats have been more detailed in their proposals. In the speeches last night, both Clinton and Obama mentioned clean coal (an oxymoron), biofuels (stupid), solar (good), and wind (good). From time to time, we also hear plans for subsidizing hybrid vehicles and boosting energy efficient homes. Since compact living is inherently energy efficient, what cities really need from the federal government is a carbon tax. All three candidates prefer the clunkier cap-and-trade system, probably because it doesn't contain the word "tax", and that might just have to do. Obama and Clinton's plans are identical in this respect.

2. Transportation. Local public transportation needs a strong national transportation system to thrive. Clinton's national transportation plan explicitly calls for $1.5 billion annually for public transportation, and an additional billion for an inter-city rail line. She also discusses innovative methods for automobile congestion pricing. Obama's plan is less specific, but he does endorse "policies that incentivize greater bicycle and pedestrian usage of sidewalks and roads." Importantly, Obama lent unconditional support to Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan for New York City. McCain is very weak on transportation and has spoken of eliminating Amtrak altogether, much to the consternation of some of his fellow conservatives.

3. Housing. It's well known how 20th century federal housing policies deliberately subsidized low-density development and ended up desiccating inner-cities in the process. Will federal tax policy continue to support the trend of building bigger and more spread out houses? This is where both Democratic candidates are on shaky ground, especially with their continued support for expanding mortgage interest tax deductions. This policy has the good intention of bolstering homeownership, but what it really does is compels homeowners to want more home than they already have. As politically insensitive it may have been, McCain showed some courage by holding reckless home-buyers partially to account for their own situation. Also, as a Brookings Institute report shows, there are still some problems with federal low-income housing programs that continue to concentrate poverty in single areas. I'm not sure where the candidates stand on this issue.

Good planning may not be making it into the stump speeches, but a little digging does expose some real positions that the candidates are taking.

Saturday, April 5

Public energy, professional wisdom

Two recent opinion pieces for Planetizen reveal an interesting tension over the extent of public involvement in the planning process. This issue is especially relevant after the rise of Web 2.0, when you have random citizens with no formal experience pontificating excitedly about complicated land use issues. Is this a good or bad thing for communities?

In Two Things People Hate: Density and Sprawl, Barbara Faga wrote,

"We’ve been conducting public meetings for years. And it used to be easier. Present the plan. Discuss the plan. Talk about how your plan is better for the neighborhood/community/city/region and provide the conclusion. But things have changed. When did the public become planning experts? People appear at public meetings and talk about density and land use. They know how many units per acre are good…and bad. Of course, they tend to be wrong, as they do not discuss design. Still, public meetings have become the forum for the public to debate density with experienced planners and designers."

Her view of planning emphasizes the technical expertise and centralized order of the profession. It would be absurd for an engineer to solicit public comment on how to build a bridge, so why would planners democratize the decision of what density is appropriate for good design. There has to be some way out of the gridlock that comes with hundreds of different voices all yelling out their own agenda.

Another planner, Scott Page, swings the emphasis in the other direction with DIY Urbanism.

"I think many planners, in principle, agree that public involvement and grass-roots approaches to planning are necessary. The emphasis on the sheer numbers of people a plan "includes" is only one recent example of our profession’s emphasis on public involvement. But I think deep down, many colleagues see a distinctive split between involving the public and empowering them to implement. Involving is necessary and important to get any plan endorsed. But once that plan is complete, the public (residents, business owners, local stakeholders) is many times not regarded as an implementation partner except perhaps in roles of advocacy...

In essence, a little anarchy (as in less centralized governing) ... would be good for society and cities in particular. It’s the DIY ethic on the community scale – self reliance and empowerment would do an immense amount of good for all communities because people would be forced to organize themselves into action."

Scott Page favors a more genuinely grassroots approach, where planners play the role of harnessing the repository of ideas and enthusiasm of the public into workable solutions. After all, the people are the ones who actually live in the community, so they should be able to impose their own values from the bottom up rather than be told by experts how to arrange themselves.

This really is an ancient and universal tension. It showed up between the writers of the Federalist papers, with Madison pushing for a robust Republicanism of participatory politics and Hamilton wanting more authority given to educated and specialized elites. A sort of balance shimmied its way into the American system of representational democracy. On the corporate level, innovative companies like Google have also struck upon a similar balance. On the one hand, they have intentionally fostered a spirit of chaos. Employees are given a remarkable amount of latitude to explore their own ideas and passions, and open source techniques open up the tableau of self-expression to the public at large. Yet, you know it's still a hierarchical corporation, not just a massive free-for-all.

How will local planners draw some order out of the chaos in their communities without squelching its simmering energy?

Tuesday, April 1

No growth isn't very smart either

In a place like Missoula, its tempting to just freeze time and keep our town the way it is. We're small enough in population so that you run into friends at the grocery store, yet we are large enough to provide many of the cultural activities of a city. The pristine mountains and valleys are still here, yet we are seeing them slowly covered over in a carpet of sprawl. Crime levels are relatively low. It seems like a great time to circle the wagons and protect what is here before it's gone.

Yet, this is impossible. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once remarked, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." Movement and change are realities that cannot simply be shrugged away. Cities are not abstract entities that can be artificially tweaked and assigned certain properties, but they grow organically like a plant in response to sunlight and water. Regulating new housing out of existence will merely channel the growth in different ways, as the river flows down the path of least resistance.

A no growth policy in a desirable town will result in another Aspen, Colorado. On the surface, it looks like there will be winners and losers. The winners: independently wealthy, retirees, non-resident property owners. Losers: poor, young people starting careers, and renters. Yet, at a deeper level, everyone will be losers. Jane Jacobs has drawn attention to the natural synergy developed in cites that have a true diversity of people, younger and older, service industry and creatives, commerce in all of its variety. With the loss of diversity, so goes the energy, innovation, and essential lifeblood of the community. A real city would be transformed into a mere plastic representation of a city for tourists.

But the biggest selling point of no growth is its benefit to the environment. Wouldn't cutting off growth at least protect the land? Superficially yes, but ultimately no. Local growth policy has no effect whatsoever on birth rates, death rates, or even international migration patterns. It would merely shuffle the same total number of people to a different place in the United States. The reason this would have a net negative effect on global energy usage and carbon emissions is pretty simple. First, economically polarized communities are not at all self-sustaining. Workers will have to be transported in from somewhere else to serve the wealthy, and this is hard on the planet. Secondly, if communities with the political wherewithal to manage growth in sustainable ways opt to cut it off entirely than all growth will be diverted to sprawling metropolises like Houston, who could frankly care less.

The genius of smart growth is its navigation between these poles. Sure, the fact that "smart growth" is endorsed by both the Sierra Club and the National Association of Home Builders is more a testament to the slipperiness of language than it is an instance of the lion laying down with the lamb (who wants "dumb growth"?), yet this only underscores the need for objective and observable criteria. The key really is concentration of development. Missoula could easily welcome each and every person who wishes to live here a place into the heart of town, within city limits, and simultaneously stop sprawl entirely. But the sticks of peripheral regulation should never outpace the carrots of density incentives.