Thursday, February 26

Big changes for Broadway

Big news from Streetsblog New York. Mayor Bloomberg has unveiled plans to turn large swathes of Broadway into car-free pedestrian space. Broadway will be entirely closed to vehicles from 42nd to 47th street, and generous public space will be intertwined throughout the span of the road. According to Aaron Naparstek,

"Mayor Bloomberg's plan for Broadway is, arguably, the boldest and most transformative street reclamation project since Portland, Oregon decided to tear down the Mt. Hood Freeway in 1974."
The New York Times took a bit a of different angle in their coverage, headlining the article "Mayor Plans to Close Parts of Broadway to Traffic," which is a funny choice of a catchphrase because engineers estimate that these changes will actually enhance traffic flow. Anyway ...

When plans were being drawn up for pedestrianizing Broadway last year, I wrote about how much of a model the original urban layout of New York was for town after town across the American frontier. Almost every town has their own Broadway, and the trademark grid-iron street matrix was the plat for almost all downtowns. New York was the model American city.

Of course, that ended decades ago, and urban growth patterns began modeling themselves after Los Angeles or any number of metroplex regions dotting the landscape. I wonder if the new Broadway indicates a renaissance for the New York model, updated to meet the wishes and constraints of the contemporary American reality. Is this new Broadway a harbinger for a coming transformation of its progeny, all of the other Broadways running through downtowns across the country?

Wednesday, February 25

Federal government: build bigger houses

Edward Glaeser brings up the home mortgage interest deduction in his last NyTimes editorial. Economists typically don't care for this morsel of federal policy much because it is an especially regressive tax break and probably does not actually encourage homeownership. But Glaeser also mentions another effect with more relevance to the purposes of this blog:

"The deduction encourages people to buy larger, single-family detached homes, and that increases carbon emissions and pushes people out of cities. The deduction encourages people to buy more expensive homes, which are generally bigger homes."
I might also add from a planning perspective that this distortion of investment in housing may have an effect on local land use decisions as well. It may add more heat to debates and skew the incentives in a community's comprehensive planning efforts. Not only are homeowners working to create the kinds of places they would like to live in, but they are often also protecting a huge proportion of their net wealth. These two goals sometimes overlap, but they sometimes work in cross-purposes to each other.

Monday, February 23

Life in smaller spaces

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, any unused space in a home will be filled with stuff. This is a cardinal rule of modern life that has been confirmed to me many times, and it holds true whether you want the stuff or have any desire to clean it and maintain it. Many of us still feel the perverse need for this large amount of living space. One of the common complaints about living in a compact community is the lack of space to stretch out your arms. But is more always better?

The Mrs. and I downsized in the last year from a 2-story house to a 450 sq. ft. apartment, and, in my opinion, this did not require any sacrifice in quality of life. We just have to be more efficient with our space and more selective with things we purchase. Here are some strategies we've come up with:

  • Elevating the bed up 6 in. on risers gives an extra 16 cubic feet of storage. We drape of bed skirt to the ground to avoid the appearance of clutter.
  • Televisions can take up a large amount of space, because they require all furniture to be oriented toward them. We keep a monitor and speakers in a nearby cabinet and temporarily connect it to a laptop on a table to watch videos. The set-up time is only about 1 minute.
  • Under the couch is a line of 8 shoebox-size plastic containers that store items, such as office supplies or cords, that are used on a regular basis. It essentially functions as a separate chest of drawers.
  • The printer is embedded inconspicuously in a bookshelf.
  • A stackable washer/dryer unit fits nicely in the bathroom.
  • The interior space of a room is often underutilized. We've placed two back to back metal carts in the middle of our kitchen for extra counter space and storage.
And we've got nothing on Gary Chang, a Hong Kong Architect recently featured in the New York Times, who has managed to configure his 344 sq. ft. apartment into one open space that can be converted for 24 different uses.
"What appears to be an open-plan studio actually contains many rooms, because of sliding wall units, fold-down tables and chairs, and the habitual kinesis of a resident in a small space. As Mr. Chang put it, “I glide around.”"

Saturday, February 21

Housing as a place to live

Yesterday, I attended a panel discussion with a couple of real estate developers explaining how their careers are impacted by the current economic climate. The easy answer is "big," but they were gracious enough to fill in the details a bit. One little insight they shared jumped out at me right away. I'll paraphrase:

In a weak housing market, buyers are looking less for a commodity to invest in and more for a home they want to live in.

I think this little morsel is pretty profound, and it may point to a silver lining to all of this that bodes well for compact development.

One of the things a large market has to do to properly function is package information into units that can be effectively compared across the whole line of products. When housing is treated as a market commodity, first and foremost, it's value is determined by how it looks on a spreadsheet. What is the gross square footage? Acreage of the estate? How many bedrooms are there? The quantity is accentuated and the particular quality and intangible livability falls to the wayside. This is a common complaint we've all heard. You know, "they don't build them like they used to."

Sometimes we jump to the conclusion that the proliferation of Mcmansions dotting the landscape meant that this is how people wanted to live in the 90's, but it's just as likely that this is simply how buyers, developers and financial institutions felt they could reasonably expect a good rate of return on their investment. There is a difference between these two propositions.

Chris Leinberger has been insisting for a while that the supply of walkable urban housing is out of whack with the demand. Maybe a chastened and sane housing market, one that places value according to homeowners actual preferences, will start to right the situation.

Friday, February 20

Adolfo Carrión in charge of urban affairs

Obama has selected Adolfo Carrión Jr. as the director of his new Office of Urban Affairs. Carrión is currently serving as president of the Bronx Borough in New York City, and he has a host of interesting experiences in his biography. He is trained as an Urban Planner, having received his Masters from Hunter College. Prior his planning career he served as an associaate pastor and a public school teacher in his home of the Bronx.

The major focus of his role as borough president has been providing housing for an urban area in the process of revitalization (He's Pictured here vounteering for Habitat). He his also known for his support for a recently-bulit Yankees stadium, which did involve some battles with local community groups that opposed the loss of parkland required to build the stadium. Sports fans may thank him for this, but some of his fellow planners and neighborhood activists have questioned the wisdom of this position. But Overall, he has been praised for the work he has done for the Bronx.

Obama has said that Carrión, "will bring long overdue attention to the urban areas where 80 percent of the American people live and work." This is certainly true and its a good thing, but I think it remains to be seen whether this is a substantive office or a figurehead position. The budget and staffing are yet to be determined. It seems that the most likely scenario is that this office will serve as a coordinating center between HUD, the Department of Transportation, EPA, and maybe other agencies involved this things like historic preservation. I imagine something like the Office of Homeland Security with a little less authority. Alternatively, it could simply become subsumed in the alphabet soup of government agencies with no real power to effect change and a bully pulpit that fades away as the media loses interest. I sincerely hope its the former.

Tuesday, February 17

A response to David Brooks

I have to respond because Brook's column this morning is speaking directly to me.

"You may not know it to look at them, but urban planners are human and have dreams. One dream many share is that Americans will give up their love affair with suburban sprawl and will rediscover denser, more environmentally friendly, less auto-dependent ways of living."
check, check, check ...

He goes on to say that while planners would like to impose "Amsterdam" on the American people, a new study by Pew indicates that Americans may not actually want that. I happen to think that David Brooks is one of the most vital public intellectuals on the scene right now, but I think he is misreading this data.

The trouble with building a case out of survey results of what people want is that, in real life, we cannot always get what we want. There are trade-offs, and the true test of a value system lies in what you are willing to give up to achieve your ideal. Do I want the 6000 sq. ft. palace or a 400 sq. ft. apartment? Uh ... I'll take the palace. I'd like there to be a wilderness preserve surrounding me, and I want to be within a 10 minute trip to healthy grocery stores. It would be nice if I could walk there. And I'm all for social equality and environmental sustainability too.

When the American dream is disaggregated and privatized ("what is your ideal community?") it makes it difficult to get a good grasp on what people are willing to give up to meet the social, environmental, and economic constraints of life here on earth.

This is not to knock the Pew study. These are important measurements, particularly the question of which cities are seen as ideal communities. It's also interesting that Americans see the ideal communities they have formed in their minds as superior to the one's they live in. It is, however, almost always the case that these surveys of ideal communities end up pointing toward a mish-mash of privatized quasi-utopias, that is American suburbia.

That's why this kind of "American Dream" is curious thing for a Conservative like Brooks to champion. Aren't Conservatives supposed to be the hard realists pulling the starry-eyed utopians away from their fantasy worlds of endless possibility? They are supposed to be concerned about the limits or human potential and the hard choices that come with economic constraints. As Brooks writes,
"They offer the dream, so characteristic on this continent, of having it all: the machine and the garden. The wide-open space and the casual wardrobes."
Cast in this light, maybe the planners aren't so much the crazy idealists after all?

Tuesday, February 10

All the cars in China

We knew this was coming, but it's now official. The United States is no longer the world's largest car consumer. China is.

From a BBC report:

"So why is he interested in buying an American car? "I long for America," he smiles. "Its democracy. Its cars."

He's laughing, but he's not joking. He's impressed by the car.

Above him is a flag with an American eagle."

An NPR reporter found the same response. One father was so proud of his son for purchasing his car, he jokingly asked the reporter if she knew of an American wife to go along with the American car.

We are speaking loud and clear, and the world is listening.

Today's benchmark brings to mind some words from a column published this week by one of my professors Timothy Beatley:
"The prospect of major increases in the auto-traveling population in the heavily populated developing world coming just as our planet faces the double challenges of peak oil and climate change seems insane. Yet, to say this as an American smacks of an "I have mine you shouldn't have yours" point of view.

What we should be saying to the world is that the private automobile, electric or combustion, is a technology of the past. Responsible, resilient cities must adopt profoundly different models of urban development that are better suited for the global challenges we face.

Wednesday, February 4

What does density look like?

In my experience, many planning disputes tend to revolve around a notion of density. One side envisions compact, walkable mixed-used developments and lobbies for relaxing zoning laws and allowing more density. The other side wants a quiet and peaceful environment and believes that additional density will have an adverse effect on a neighborhood's quality of life and/or property values. The Charlottesville Planning Commission will be hashing this one out over the course of 2009, but I'm pretty sure this is a standard division among communities across North America.

Maybe one cause of division is that we are using a set concept - Density - and quantifying it, whether in Dwelling Units per Acre (DUA) or Floor to Area Ratio (FAR), in absolute terms. This standard gives us some workable parameters and allows governments to codify their wishes, but clearly not all density is created equal. Design does matter. When one side hears 30 DUA, they see soviet-bloc apartments surrounded by parking lots. When the other side hears 30 DUA, they see traditional neighborhoods of townhouses and brownstones with abundant greenery.

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has done us all a service with their walk-through website, Visualizing Density. I would recommend that not only professionals, but anyone with a stake in the density of their neighborhood, take a look at this website (there's a book based on this as well, but I have not read it). In my opinion, concepts such as density are better described visually than with words. If a community can, at least, agree on the terms being used, a consensus in goals may follow more readily.