Wednesday, December 15

New Census numbers confirm the resurgence of cities

With the release of the new American Community Survey data on Tuesday, we are now able to see how the fine-grained nature of metropolitan areas has changed over the last few years. This is the first release since the 2000 Census that really provides enough detail to map these changes, and the New York Times has stepped up to the plate with a handy mapping tool. The Census American Factfinder website will get an upgrade in about a month, and mapping will be much easier once that happens.

Poking through some of the data, I haven't been able to discern any interesting new trends that have not previously been identified. But we do see some pretty clear confirmation of earlier predictions, such as those made by Bill Lucy and David Phillips in Tommorrow's Cities, Tomorrow's Suburbs. Taking a look at a number of indicators, they outlined the beginnings of a reversal of the 20th century story of urban decline. Instead they found evidence of city centers prospering and the aging suburbs around them falling into economic decline.

Take a look at these maps of changes in median income by census tracts between 2000 and 2005-2009, courtesy of the NY Times site. Orange is positive, blue is negative.

Charlotte, North Carolina

 Chicago, Illinois

 Cleveland, Ohio

 Columbus, Ohio

 Houston, Texas

 Indianapolis, Indiana

 Louisville, Kentucky

 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

 Washington DC

 Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta offers a particularly striking pattern. During this interval, the median household income in the whole Atlanta metro area grew a reasonably healthy 12.4%. But looking just at urban Atlanta, we see a growth in median income of 44.5%. It turns out that Atlanta's wage growth is being driven almost entirely by wage growth in its core. The suburbs are still a tad bit wealthier in general, but that will probably not last more than a year or two longer.

Then see how this stacks up against the age of the housing stock in the core and the surrounding "suburbs."

Homes in urban Atlanta are, on average, much older than they are in the rest of the metro area. Despite the remarkable wage growth in the center of the metro, there still has been relatively little actual home construction for some reason. Less than 10% of all homes built since 2000 have been built in urban Atlanta (although it's worth noting that this share is up from the low of 5% in the sprawling 90s). Conventional wisdom says that wealthy people gravitate to newer homes, and the houses then trickle down to lower-income households as they are bought and sold over time. But wealthier people are moving to the core of Atlanta despite, or maybe because of, its older homes and neighborhoods.

One last important note: this census dataset doesn't do a very good job showing changes due to the housing market collapse, because the data is sampled from both before and after it happened. We'll have to wait a couple more years for Census data showing the new spatial patterns that emerge from the rubble.

Thursday, December 9

Transit Oriented (affordable) Development

In case you missed it, the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University dropped a bombshell of a report about Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) back in October. Key finding:

"Rising incomes in some gentrifying [Transit-Rich Neighborhoods] may be accompanied by an increase in wealthier households who are more likely to own and use private vehicles, and less likely to use transit for commuting, than lower-income households."
Ironically, they found that enhancing transit infrastructure can actually make ridership go down (and car ownership up) in the neighborhood it serves. That's a puzzling dilemma that deserves some attention.

TOD advocates have understood for a while that infrastructure and design need to be carefully coordinated to produce successful results. Just plop down a new station without changing any of the zoning codes in advance, and you're guaranteed to end up with a park and ride lot surrounded by much of the same 20th century stuff. There's transit, and there's development, but the orientation part is missing entirely.

Back in 2003, Patrick Seigman published a handy and oft-cited TOD checklist,"Is it Really TOD?"
"A true TOD will include most of the following:
  • The transit-oriented development lies within a five-minute walk of the transit stop, or about a quarter-mile from stop to edge. For major stations offering access to frequent high-speed service this catchment area may be extended to the measure of a 10-minute walk.
  • A balanced mix of uses generates 24-hour ridership. There are places to work, to live, to learn, to relax and to shop for daily needs.
  • A place-based zoning code generates buildings that shape and define memorable streets, squares, and plazas, while allowing uses to change easily over time.
  • The average block perimeter is limited to no more than 1,350 feet. This generates a fine-grained network of streets, dispersing traffic and allowing for the creation of quiet and intimate thoroughfares.
  • Minimum parking requirements are abolished.
  • Maximum parking requirements are instituted: For every 1,000 workers, no more than 500 spaces and as few as 10 spaces are provided.
  • Parking costs are "unbundled," and full market rates are charged for all parking spaces. The exception may be validated parking for shoppers.
  • Major stops provide BikeStations, offering free attended bicycle parking, repairs, and rentals. At minor stops, secure and fully enclosed bicycle parking is provided.
  • Transit service is fast, frequent, reliable, and comfortable, with a headway of 15 minutes or less.
  • Roadway space is allocated and traffic signals timed primarily for the convenience of walkers and cyclists.
  • Automobile level-of-service standards are met through congestion pricing measures, or disregarded entirely.
  • Traffic is calmed, with roads designed to limit speed to 30 mph on major streets and 20 mph on lesser streets."
But is there anything missing?

We're seeing that having a mix of incomes is not just a bonus policy goal, but something woven into the success of a TOD on it's own terms. On the one hand, attracting the professional class is realistically the only way to generate the capital needed to spur substantial redevelopment. But the service-sector workers are the ones who are more likely to forgo car ownership, use transit more frequently, and actually walk to work in that cool, mixed-use cafe. Both the urban design features the architects want and the return on investment the transit planners want depend on a healthy mix of incomes.

Many cities now seek to capture some of the value generated by their public infrastructure investment into land-banked supported affordable housing. Groups like Denver's Urban Land Conservancy carefully anticipate any market changes along transit corridors and grab some of the land before it becomes prohibitively expensive. Then innovative housing models, such as community land trusts, can be used to hold down the value of the land to a level affordable to low- to moderate-income households indefinitely. When these units are built they'll be doubly affordable, in both housing and transportation costs for the residents.

"Density, Diversity, and Design" is still the operative catchphrase, as long as by diversity we mean the people as well as the structures and uses.

Friday, December 3

Smart growth and fiscal responsibility

I noticed that Geoff Anderson, President and CEO of Smart Growth America, has come out in favor of the recommendations submitted this week by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility, at least the ones pertaining to tax reform.

"Unbeknownst to most, the federal government plays a massive role in the real estate market by subsidizing and enabling all kinds of development in our communities. With ballooning deficits, now seems like a good time to revisit these subsidies and make sure they are achieving a legitimate public purpose -and not, in the commission’s words, 'creating perverse incentives.'"
The smart growth movement has a long history of focusing on fiscal responsibility, dating back the the Costs of Sprawl published in 1974. This makes sense. Those of us who are too frugal to throw away the ketchup bottle before it's completely drained, cringe at the sight of underused parking lots being given over to weeds while far-off greener pastures are built on. It was all the more frustrating to watch this being done around the country with money that didn't actually exist. "Can we really afford this?" has been asked all along by John Norquist and James Howard Kunstler (albeit in very different ways!), and now finally this question is gaining some traction at the federal level.

The Home Mortgage Interest Deduction stands front and center in all of this. The deficit commission wants to limit the deduction to mortgages of $500,000 or less on primary residences. A healthy debate has been occurring among urbanist blogs about whether the HMID, in general, leads to a dispersal of housing. I'll dive in: I think no and maybe, depending on the region, but that there may be an important inter-regional impact to consider. My take on this is heavily influenced by Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko's book Rethinking Federal Housing Policy (free pdf here).

In supply-constrained regions (like San Francisco), the extra money infused into the housing market by the HMID is swallowed up almost entirely into the prices of existing homes. There are few options for more development, so existing homeowners can simply raise their sale price to account for the buyer's willingness to spend more. This doesn't effect the built environment but it does mean housing affordability is compromised. In fact, the lower middle class takes a double-whammy with this. They pay taxes but don't make enough to use the deduction at all. Then they have to compete in a housing market inflated by the wealthier people who do benefit from the deduction. In these situations, the HMID may actually push people away from homeownership - the exact opposite of its stated purpose.

In elastic housing markets (like Houston or Detroit), the HMID probably does effect the built environment and drive down home prices to some degree. However, Glaeser and Gyourko's research indicates that the deduction is still not inducing much homeownership, because the subsidy is only available to wealthier households who are not usually the ones on the margin between renting and owning. They would buy anyway. Instead,
"A more important effect probably is on the quality of the home consumed, with people living in bigger and better homes than they would otherwise."
They question the wisdom of this tax incentive,
"In the old world of dumbbell apartments in dilapidated tenements, there may have been a case for government policies to improve quality and size. That case seems to much harder to make in today's world of suburban McMansions."
This is why I guess "maybe" for these regions. The quality improvement could mean either nicely-built craftsman bungalows or subdivisions of cavernous and disposable homes, but the HMID itself would not have much impact on the land costs - and that's what determines the spatial distribution of housing throughout the region.

What about the national scale? If the HMID pushes home prices higher in San Francisco and, at the same time, makes houses bigger for the same price in Phoenix, it's not hard to imagine some people who are considering a relocation to choose Phoenix partially on account of this effect. So the HMID may not make a region more sprawling than it would be without it, but it may help redistribute the national population away from places that are condensed to places that historically have been sprawling.

Bottom line: the HMID is essentially a one hundred billion dollar program for giving bigger homes to wealthier households in places that don't have much of an affordability problem anyway, all the while exacerbating the affordability in places where it already is a problem. It's not surprising that a group like Smart Growth America may question whether this is the best use of taxpayers' money in an era of overwhelming deficits.

UPDATE:  Here's a recently published study on the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction that puts some empirical meat on the bones I've described here. The Modeled Behavior blog summarizes the results:
"Using national data from 1984 to 2007 they found that the MID did not increase overall homeownership. In areas with light land use regulation they found that homeownership among higher income families was increased, and in tightly regulated housing markets homeownership was decreased for all income groups except the lowest. The effects, both positive and negative, generally range from 3% to 5%. Regardless of the regulatory environment, homeownership among the lowest income group was not affected at all by the MID.

The authors estimate that it each additional homeowner created by the mortgage interest deduction costs the government $53,590, a number they rightly call “staggering”.

An important implication of the findings is that in urban areas, where land use regulations are typically more restrictive, homeownership is likely to be negatively impacted."

Friday, November 5

Is the Broadacre City Worth Reviving?

Charles Waldheim of Harvard Graduate School of Design showcases a few historic architectural visions for those who wish to explore integrating agriculture into cities. However interesting this question is, a bright red flag shows up right away in his approach to the issue.

"The categories of agrarian and urban are usually understood as distinct. Across many disciplines, and for centuries, the country and the city have been defined in opposition to one another. But today, in striking contrast, design culture and discourse abound with claims for the potential for urban agriculture. As environmental literacy among designers and scholars has grown, so too has enthusiasm for agricultural production in and around cities. Fueling this trend is rising public interest in food and its production and distribution in a globalized world."
Maybe if it's reiterated "across many disciplines, and for centuries" there's something to it. As I’ve argued on Grist, the urban and the rural should become oppositional again (not to be confused with being opponents - they need each other). Synthesizing both together may have the sort of Hegelian appeal that’s drawn in some academics over the last century, for whom transcending accepted dichotomies is a way of life, but it’s less clear whether having one’s cake and eating it too works as well in the real world. Sprawl, which is the result of the union, happens to be much less romantic when you're parking your car at Target. So, first of all, I don’t know why a simple proposal like growing and distributing food within metropolitan areas has to carry with it such an iconoclastic dismantling of traditionally recognizable forms, but he seems to assume this from the outset.

Frank Lloyd Wright Displaying Broadacre City
Waldheim goes on to review some of the prominent modernist attempts at decentralizing the city from the American Frank Lloyd Wright, the German Ludwig Hilberseimer, and the Italian Andrea Branzi. Wrights’ utopian scheme of the Broadacre City is probably the most familiar. American settlements would be organized around a network of highways and (underground) power lines, with each citizen-farmer tending to his own acre. A benevolent architect would oversee the arrangement of the whole county. Wright considered cities, as they currently existed, debased beyond all possible reform. They could only dissipate into the countryside. Since Waldheim never comes out and declares a value judgment for any of these 20th century proposals, I couldn’t quite tell if he was raising them as fruitful considerations to be built upon or as warning signs, a set of reductio ad absurdum arguments against pureeing our low-density rural and our high-density cities into a mush of placeless mediocrity across the landscape.

A quick background check on Landscape Urbanism suggests that he may seriously be hoping to revive the Broadacre City. When we thought Jane Jacobs had thoroughly shellacked the whole decentralist train of thought back in the 1960s, a few academics have apparently determined that the dictates of avant garde subversiveness actually swing them back into the direction of auto-dependency and vigorous fragmentation of land.

Michael Mehaffy describes, on Planetizen, this curious position,
The Landscape Urbanists, like many free-market defenders of sprawl, seem to think that sprawl is the result of inexorable forces, and did not arise as a result of comprehensible historical choices – choices that can be understood and thereby, to some extent, changed. Indeed, both groups share a remarkable consistency in their laissez-faire attitudes to what is, and what cannot be changed through concerted public action. 

Yet the historical record is clear, in the writings of Le Corbusier and others: sprawl was the result of designers' visions of their future, working with industrialists (or, less charitably, as apologists and marketers for industrialists).

Indeed, the Landscape Urbanists' shallow "understanding" of the forces that generated sprawl seem more aimed at constructing a "grand narrative" that declares that nothing is to be done, except to create art. History, precedent, typology – all of these are irrelevant now, and the only relevant force is their own imagination: "avant-gardist architectural practice, an interest in autonomy authorship."
Add to this the fact that the kind of art under consideration here is one that cannot, as a rule, use the term beauty. The ultimate purpose is to challenge preconceived notions, which works for you if you are trying to establish a niche in the global architectural pecking order. But if you happen to be someone living within the scheme, you may just prefer something beautiful and functional as a backdrop to your life - whether or not it has been done before.

Let's go with pictures. Here’s two places in my region from the last month:

There's an aesthetic presence to each of places that would be lost if they were mashed-up together. Downtown Charlottesville benefits from the vibrancy of human interventions, and the vineyard in Albemarle county from the relative lack thereof.

Frank Lloyd Wright conjured up Broadacre City during the Great Depression, when widespread automobile ownership was just starting to take hold. Perhaps he can be excused for forgetting to draw the acres of parking lots his ubiquitous highways would necessitate, or for undercounting the hard limits, in terms of land and energy resources, his spread-out settlements would run up against. But those of us with the benefit of hindsight should think twice before dusting off the old Broadacre City.

Wednesday, October 27

Developing a YIMBY mindset

Suppose you’re a homeowner in a nice, classic inner suburban neighborhood. There’s a little bit of vacant land down the street from you, and rumors are going around that some developers have their eyes on it for new homes. Your neighbors are looking into their legal options for stopping any construction from happening before it’s too late. They ask you to sign a petition they are bringing to city hall. You hadn’t thought much about this issue before, but now the question is sitting right in front of you with a pen and ink. Do you sign it?

You already like where you live – that’s why you chose it – but you wonder why it couldn’t become an even better neighborhood. You want to show solidarity with your neighbors, but there’s a selfish voice in the back of your head saying: maybe I want a few more homes or even a store on my street. It’s true that the residents of these new homes may be criminals, but that’s not very likely. Most people are decent. Maybe you’ll borrow a hedge-trimmer from them, or they might even host a block party in a few years. You could gain some new friends. You realize that it’s far more likely these new neighbors will call the police on someone breaking into your house than actually try to break into your house themselves.

You know the neighborhood coffee shop where you stop in the morning runs on a thin profit margin, and you would hate to see it close down during an economic down cycle. It occurs to you that a few more homes nearby means a few more daily customers. Maybe with more revenue coming in, your shop could justify serving bagels and cream cheese, giving you more breakfast options. Same goes for your friend’s dental practice on the other side of the street. Economically vibrant surroundings benefit you in a number of ways.

Then there's traffic. That’s the big one. The thought of more cars speeding by your home does give you pause, but this is where you have to consider the long-term effects. The residents of these new infill homes will probably drive less than they would if they were forced out the exurbs, meaning less overall congestion. And the more people who move in the more likely this is to be true. Maybe some will even eschew their car altogether. More people also means more political clout to get neighborhood amenities like better transit, traffic calming, a nice playground, whatever it is your neighborhood wants. And there may be a way to influence the design of this new development to reduce the chance that the new people will bring motor vehicles with them.

But what if you are just odd? Everyone else seems to resist more density, not embrace it. Remember, your property values are determined by what some anonymous future buyer wants in a neighborhood, not what you want in a neighborhood. Maybe you should just join the angry crowd at the public hearing, if only to protect your largest financial investment and keep your options open when it's time to move. But here’s the bewildering paradox: for all the resistance, there’s actually a huge latent demand for walkable urban neighborhoods not unlike what yours could become. New neighbors and services are more likely to help then hurt your nest egg.

Everything points to a yes-in-my-backyard response, and you haven't even gotten into the moral heroics of saving the region from sprawl or allowing more people an affordable and accessible place to live (or recognizing property rights, for that matter). These are just your own wishes for seeing your own neighborhood change for the better.

Monday, October 11

The Reluctant Suburbanites

Rod Dreher, a social commentator who writes under the self-titled banner “crunchy conservativism,” shared on his blog an interesting confession about the suburbs. Not interesting because it’s strange, but interesting because it’s so altogether normal. Despite his long-standing preference for, or at times even a philosophical commitment to walkable urban neighborhoods, he thinks he just might choose the opposite kind of house next time he moves. A conventional suburban home. Why?

Whenever we get ready to buy our next house, it's not going to be in the city -- here in Philly, there's a four percent tax added to your wages -- but in one of the suburbs. I'd be lying if I said schools weren't a big part of it. We can't afford private schools where we live now, and the urban public school in our neighborhood leaves much to be desired, for the usual reasons. … Besides, life with kids is just easier in the suburbs. I hate to admit it, but it's true. The older I get, and the older my kids get, the less tolerance I have for the kinds of things that I didn't much mind when I was younger and in love with city life.”
Looking through the lens of personal morality or rationality or whatever, who can begrudge Dreher this decision? Let me immediately distance myself from those who reflexively cast judgment on suburbia and all who inhabit it like hurling a ball of fire down onto Sodom and Gomorrah. Let the record show, suburbanites are not evil. Yet whatever honesty Dreher reveals in this personal question, there’s still a structural tension in his mind. He can go on to say in an update,
I think any place that makes you car-dependent is bad for your soul and the community's soul. The way we built suburbia in the 20th century was foolish and destructive in a number of ways. But we are where we are, and the flaws of suburbia don't obviate the flaws of urban life for middle-class families in the year 2010.”
Very obviously, his ideals are clashing with the reality of how things happen to have been built in America.

This is exactly why you should immediately distrust anyone (ahem … Joel Kotkin)  who insists that because people are “choosing” to live in the suburbs, in fact, the suburbs are their market choice - that the silent majority has spoken with their actions. As the logic goes: if everyone seems to be buying cookie dough ice cream then it means they must really like it, so somebody should go ahead and make more cookie dough ice cream. It's only the pistachio-craving elites who urge otherwise. Ok, but buying a home is different:

First, every home is a bundled good. You’re not just buying the roof that keeps rain from hitting your head and a patch of grass. You’re buying the educational options for your children, the transportation access to your job, the character of the neighborhood and the status it confers, membership into a jurisdiction (or HOA, for that matter) and the services it provides, a perception of safety, and on and on. You can’t always just disaggregate these parts, like ordering a Soy Mocha Half-Caf latte at Starbucks, at least not if you need to fit it into a middle-class budget. This is why people like Dreher may have to compromise on neighborhood form for, say, good schools.

Which gets to the second point. Real estate supply is always constrained in some way, whether by geography or land use controls (yes, Houston too).  Even in metro areas with plenty of vacant land, there’s only one piece of land with that house on it. That’s just the nature of space. No two places are alike. Because the market price responds to these inevitable supply constraints, consumer demand does not always win the day. Middle-class families like the Drehers can be priced out of even preference bundles that seem logically reasonable - like a modest home on a small lot with ok schools near some neighborhood amenities.

Thirdly, transitions in the housing stock move painfully slowly - as they should, because these are really durable goods. But there are other reasons the supply does not hasten to meet new demand. Infrastructure built to support an old model is hard to readapt, vested financial interests try to maintain property values through land use controls, and well-worn development business models seem less risky. As a result of these forces of inertia, a lot of us are living in houses built for the preferences exerted a generation or two ago, maybe even if it was just built five years ago.

Fourthly, homes have traditionally been investments as well as consumer goods. You’re not supposed to just buy what you want, but you also have to buy what you perceive others to want. This can lead to a self-perpetuating bias for the status quo and an over-emphasis on quantitative measures like square footage. But maybe as the investment side fades these days, we can feel more free to exercise our own desires.

Finally, there’s a long-standing mismatch in most metro areas between the resources for social services and those who need them most. Over many years, the demographic categories have sorted themselves out geographically and circumscribed themselves with political boundaries. This is part of the reason for the extra tax burden Dreher is referring to. Many suburban areas have absolved themselves of having to pay this by ensuring that the region’s share of the poor are not within their borders. Making a personal decision to buck the trend usually does carry a cost.

The point, maybe hidden in here somewhere, is that there has to be many Rod Drehers out there, albeit most of them without the time or ability to wrack their brains over the urban planning implications of their choices. For every household choosing the suburbs as suburbs, in all their backyard-grilling, kid-shuttling, lawn-mowing glory, there’s another household who grit their teeth and accept this spatial arrangement because it happens to be the only option available at their price point. This is hardly an argument for building more of them.

Thanks to Architecture and Morality for launching a discussion on Dreher’s housing thought process.

Wednesday, October 6

A housing director who understands the full cost of housing

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan was interviewed on the financial costs imposed on individual families by lower density housing patterns. Ever since the Costs of Sprawl report was published in 1974, the talking points have mostly hovered around the increased fiscal costs to taxpayers of sprawl - you know, the pipes and roads, public services, environmental clean up, and so forth. Lately this story has been filled out with a more precise understanding of what individual Americans pay for this arrangement not just in taxes but in the everyday effort to balance the household budget.

Friday, September 17

Consumers need full disclosure of transportation costs

If Walkscore put walkability on the real estate map (it's getting better all the time, by the way), the new online tool Abogo might do the same for transportation affordability. Just type in an address and the home gets placed on a map showing average transportation costs for the surrounding neighborhood and the region. This is what you can expect to pay on a monthly basis if you choose to live here. Seeing this number in black and white may help diffuse the old drive-til-you-qualify myth - that you can find more house for the money the further from the city you move. Living in lower densities may pose less up-front costs per square foot, but the ongoing cost of getting to where you need to go on a regular basis is real and likely much higher. Abogo puts a number on that reality.

 The site is developed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, who have been amassing an armful of data on transportation and housing for years now. Their Housing and Transportation Affordability Index presented this data last spring to tell the story of affordable living choices from a metropolitan area perspective, and the H+T Index site has already been incorporated into plenty of policy discussions, including the federal Sustainable Communities Initiative. Abogo is the next logical step, because it narrows the story to the consumer level where any real change in the marketplace will have to occur. Markets work best when information is available. As a homebuyer, the basic housing cost information is in your face. You literally have to write the check for your mortgage. Transportation costs are more nebulous, hidden in gas prices, insurance costs, saving for the next vehicle, parking, etc. Because of this, they have not typically figured into the home purchasing decision to the same degree.

I wanted to see how I stacked up out of curiosity. As a new homeowner, this tool is less useful to me now than it would have been a few months ago when we were looking, but it does put my home location in context. Abogo lists my block group as $830 a month in transportation costs for the average resident. We happen to keep meticulous budget records, and, from what I can tell, we’re  spending around $200 per month for transportation. This includes amortization on the vehicle, which is oldish and no-frills. We’re a family of three – pretty average on that account.  The difference probably arises out of the fact that I bike to work, and neither of us use the car every day. When we do drive – to the grocery for instance – it’s usually just a mile or so. Then there’s the occasional out of town trip.

I guess this means we have an extra $630 in our pockets each month just for some of these simple lifestyle tweaks. (Or it could mean the models are out of whack, but I've read through the methodology and it seems sound to me.)

Saturday, August 7

Rational choices adding up to insane results

I really like Andy Clarkes' pithy description of one of our contemporary rituals:

"Just look at the madness we create for ourselves with the school trip: 20%-30% of morning rush-hour traffic in many metro areas consists of perfectly able-bodied kids being ferried to school by parents with better things to do with their time who won’t let their kids walk or ride their bikes to school because there are so many harried parents rushing their kids to school and the roads and sidewalks around the school aren’t safe. And frankly, many of the kids could use the exercise."
This evokes the old prisoners dilemma situation. Everyone would presumably be better off if children had a safe environment to get themselves to school, but each person is individually worse off if everyone else chooses to drive and their child is the only one stuck breathing the exhaust. Clarke is right in calling this "madness," but it's a particularly insidious form that feeds off of mostly rational individual choices. As frustrated as parents may be with this vicious cycle, especially those who hold to personal principles of environmental stewardship and healthy lifestyles, few will want their own children to be the ones breaking it. So they drive.

I try to remind myself how structural, not necessarily personal, the ethics of transportation and land use are.

Thursday, July 22

The kinds of places we used to build

I snapped this photo of the Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond the other day and immediately wanted to live there.

Tuesday, July 20

From whether you live to how you live

Science writer Fred Pearce has been taking up a worthy cause over the last year: persuading the environmental community away from a focus on population growth and toward a focus on managing consumption. There is his book on a stabilizing global population (which I haven't read) and then a column in Grist, for yesterday's World Population Day, another in the Guardian, Prospect Magazine, and so forth. Then there's the Daily Show appearance. In other words, the message is being heard.

The basic point he's making is a rebuttal to the Malthusian line of reasoning that has popped up here and there throughout modernity. These are the guys with charts purporting to show all hell breaking exponentially loose as a result of people giving too much birth and not dying enough. Pearce thinks this threat is not only overstated - in fact, global population is likely to stabilize at around 9.2 billion due mostly to economic conditions - but, more importantly, it can divert needed attention from how we in the West are living to the mere fact that people in growing developing nations are living at all. And there are the unethical situations, the draconian sterilization regimes and such, that 'population control' advocates consistently find themselves tangled up in, whether justified or by perception alone, that do the environmental movement no good.

Pearce's detractors think he is creating an either/or dichotomy out of strategies that should be held together. It's the old I=PAT equation from the 70's. To get environmental impact (I), you multiply population (P) by affluence (A) by technology (T). Averting the environmental crisis involves a combination of all three strategies to mitigate the effects (presumably all negative) of humans living on earth. This equation may work in the abstract, but messing with the P variable becomes less than useful in practice for a variety of reasons.

Most importantly, it doesn't scale well. Population control really only makes sense at a global scale, but most sustainability solutions must be forged at much smaller scales. As a case in point, the Smart Growth Manual by Andres Duany et. al. states the very first principle as: "Inevitable Growth." This is because,

"No-growth campaigns, even when successful, tend to last one or two political terms at most, and often serve as an excuse to avoid planning altogether. When such policies are eventually reversed due to housing shortages, growth quickly resumes in its worst form."
Localized or nationalized no-growth groups may frame their message in terms of population stabilization when functionally their platform is anti-immigration. As it plays out, it becomes more about the distribution of the population - just not here - more so than the overall number of people on the planet. Far too often, the no-growth "environmentalists" lock horns with the pro-growth "capitalists" and what you get is a compromised mash-up that pays little attention to the most efficient distribution of land use and resources. Per capita consumption gets lost in the brawl.

Secondly, managing consumption is more within our realm of control as individuals and as communities than population growth is. To be effective, environmental rhetoric has to find that balance between actionable concern and despair. Like a blackjack player who's played the hand too far, once you've reached assured doom the rational response is to "eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die." Why should I remember to turn the lights out when I leave the room if the world will be crushed under the weight of billions of people I will never meet? At least in the West, this approach merely externalizes the problem removing it from the realm of potential actions I may take.

And although population is expected to stabilize, there's no end in sight for consumption. As another Brit George Monbliot writes,
"People breed less as they become richer, but they don’t consume less; they consume more. As the habits of the super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance. Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers."
This trend helps explain why studies have shown a correlation between the countries with the fastest growing populations and the slowest rates of carbon emission growth. Shifting blame to population growth in the global south is not only counterproductive, it's not true at all.

As I see it, urbanists are environmentalists who are unashamedly pro-human.  Cities are machines for energy, land, and water efficiency and people are their lifeblood. The fact that the global population is rapidly urbanizing, having just passed the 50% threshold, is cause for optimism about our potential to live within the earth's means at some point. An urbanist's ideal vision is not wilderness everywhere, but cities throbbing with human vitality here, productive rural areas over there, and pristine wilderness yet again over there. Humans are neither the parasites of the earth nor the paragons of the ecosystem.  Every human life is good (population) but humans do not always perform good actions (behavior) - that is where the focus needs to be.

Friday, July 16

Great streetviews

Allan Jacobs Great Streets is the definitive guide to good street design. As I'm working my way through it, I'm compelled to find the examples in the book on google streetview to get a closer look and explore the surroundings. The hand drawings and plan-view diagrams in the book are classic, but you can't beat the online tour for detail. Of course, I'm still logging these places away until I actually get a chance to visit some of them in reality.

Residential Street: Roslyn Place, Pittsburgh

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Still Great Medieval Street: Via dei Giubbonari, Rome, Italy

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Grand Manner Boulevard
: Paseo de Gracia, Barcelona, Spain

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Las Ramblas, Barcelona, Spain

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Great Residential Boulevard
: Monument Avenue, Richmond, VA

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Central Commercial Street: Motomachi, Yokohama

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I'd love to add more, but this may already be too intense with the bandwidth.

Tuesday, July 13

Following the gas tax storyline

New buzz about the federal gas tax is in the air.

A USA Today report found that American motorists are now spending the lowest amount of money per mile to maintain infrastructure since the advent of the automobile.

"Americans spent just 46 cents on gas taxes for every $100 of income in the first quarter of 2010. That's the lowest rate since the government began keeping track in 1929. By comparison, Americans spent $1.18 in 1970 on gas taxes out of every $100 earned."
This interesting finding leads the Washington Post editorial board to connect the dots and call for an increase in the federal gas tax rate, which has not been touched since 1993. While almost every group interested in transportation policy supports some sort of levy on driving like this, it still is a tough sell with the general public. A choice comment on the editorial illustrates this well:
"Since when must citizens pay for the "privilege" of driving on OUR roads? Should I thank Obama for allowing me to drive to work today?"
Reading between the lines, I can only assume the gods of asphalt and rebar have gifted this regular American citizen with motoring freedom, and the government should just get out of the way. What he might not realize is that the Highway Trust Fund is almost bankrupt, and the tab is being picked up by general revenues (read deficit) this year - $19.5 billion, as it was last year - $7 billion, and the year before that - $8 billion. So, this gentleman need not thank Obama, but he might want to thank his grandchildren for the privilege of his drive to work.

Where the Highway Trust Fund is headed (in billions) from Congressional Budget Office.

One interesting twist on the public perception front is that new polls have shown that Americans are more receptive to a gas tax if they can be assured the revenues would go toward reducing climate change. It seems that there is a sizable segment of the population that agrees, in theory, that externalities from driving should be paid for, but worries that more funds would just set us back on the course of business-as-usual highway building. Check out the full 19% spread in approval of a simple .10 gas tax and the same gas tax with dedicated environmental goals.

Survey Results from a gas tax poll, June 2010 from Mineta Transportation Institute

To wrap this up, Brookings' Robert Puentes offers an astute reaction to the Washington Post call for higher gas taxes. He's principally concerned with this trend:

Graph compiled from FHWA Traffic Volume Trends 2000 - 2010

Vehicle miles traveled plateaued between 2006 and 2008 and we seem to be dropping off the other end of the curve. With Americans driving less and less every year (and driving more fuel-efficient vehicles when they do), pinning the bulk of infrastructure revenues onto gas taxes alone is boarding a sinking ship - while jabbing more holes in the hull all the way down.

"So while near-term gas tax increases are necessary on the federal and state levels just to stay afloat, we need to be thinking about a range of other options to raise transportation revenue such as pay-as-you-drive charges, tolls, congestion fees and -- most significant -- a carbon tax."

Tuesday, July 6

Two helpful lectures

Neither of these are brand new, but they're new to me.

Ezra Klein calls attention to a TED talk given by Ellen Dunham-Jones on retrofitting the suburbs with urbanism:

And Doug Farr speaks to Case Western University more generally about sustainable urbanism. This is a full-length lecture, not as polished in production as the TED ones, but still a very good introduction to Farr's work as a green architect and writer.

Monday, July 5

Learning from Fulton Mall

The Fulton Street Mall is a pedestrian street that runs through the heart of downtown Brooklyn. A new book Street Value by Rosten Woo, Meredith Tenhoor, and Damon Rich follows the retail strip from its budding growth along transportation corridors, to the mid-century urban renewal schemes, and finally to the current era of gentrification/revitalization. The authors recount the many efforts to "fix" the mall launched over the last fifty years, but this book asks two simple questions:

1. Is it broken?
2. Fix it for whom?

The department store was king in the early years, anchoring the retail street with the kind of opulence that sold social identity along with cuff links and trousers. Fulton Street, conveniently situated at a major transit hub, became the destination for white middle-class Brooklynites. However, this all changed with the demographic shifts and rise of the suburban retail malls. Black and Puerto Rican shoppers began to outnumber white shoppers, and before long the whites who did show up would come in through the back and avoid Fulton altogether.

The department store owners were nervous and began to search for ways to reinvent the shopping street to meet their picture of success. This included closing it down to private vehicles and implementing some basic streetscaping. The interesting twist, however, is that Fulton was throughout this period, and remains to today, an incredibly popular and highly profitable retail corridor. In fact, it's still by some measures the third most financially successful commercial street in the country, with ground floor rents commanding over $200 a square foot. The national chains have stayed away because the rents are too expensive. The authors suggest that the perpetual calls to "revitalize" Fulton may be more situated in particular cultural values than anchored to actual numbers,
"Fulton Mall continued to be judged not by the literal value of the goods sold but by the cultural value that the mainstream applied to them, thus trapping its public image as a failure. Given these terms, what could success look like?"
Rosten Woo surmises that the real motivation behind the various revitalization schemes has not been to create a more successful retail environment, but rather to create a public amenity attractive to the new affluent white residents moving in to the brownstones and condos around it. This situates the Fulton Mall right in the middle of the heated Brooklyn gentrification debates, only it's shoppers not tenants who are being threatened with displacement.

To be perfectly honest, the street, as it stands, really does break a lot of the design principles planners usually work with. There are buildings with historic character that are covered with false facades. Many of the signs seem to be trying to scream louder than the one next door. The stadium-style lighting does little to define the character of the place. There's few places to sit and congregate.  Upper floors are boarded up, and many of the property owners are reportedly absentee. Not much for mixture of uses. The Business Improvement District is in the process of overhauling the streetscape and addressing many of these concerns.

In other ways, Fulton performs very well by most planners' criteria, with an incredible diversity of small-scale shops that have grown up organically around each other, some of the best transit access there is, and plenty of interesting transparent ground floors to keep the attention of pedestrians. There are a fair number of street trees. These are all assets the BID does not have any intention of doing away with.

But the question this book raises is a very searching one: are these values that we typically espouse as good placemaking culturally contingent or are they widely shared across cultures? Just as Robert Venturi attacked the standard negative aesthetic reaction to suburban strip development in the 1970's, Street Value asks how we can be learning from Fulton rather than trying to change it. From this perspective, attempts to improve a place may really have a subtext of shifting power and ownership from one group to another - in this case from blacks traveling in from Bedford-Stuyvesant to the whites moving into adjacent Brooklyn Heights.

I'm personally less willing to travel all the way down Venturi's path toward cultural relativism. One hint of a more unified aesthetic is a survey of shoppers administered by the Pratt Center for Community Development researchers a few years ago. One of their findings:
71% of our respondents considered Fulton
Street Mall, “an important place that could be improved”; a further 17% considered it, “an important place that should continue just as it is.”
Many of the problems mentioned above were also cited by the mostly black shoppers given the survey. The authors of Street Value may go too far in their assumptions that the black community wants Fulton to stay as it is. Even the construction cones are praised as interventions positively contributing to Fulton's grittiness by keeping it in constant flux. Language like this is out of sync with the instinctive tastes of any culture. It's probably better to fix things quickly and move the cones away as soon as possible, I would think. It might not be too naive to envision a place like Fulton Mall serving both of the communities around it in with a consensus of some values and a kind of ad hoc compromise for those values that do diverge. It need not be a zero sum game.

Quibbles aside, the book does drive home a few good, general lessons.
  • Historic preservation is more than just restoring pretty buildings; places get embedded with social meaning and the collective memories of those who use them. Nostalgia is a strong emotion that should be accounted for in any planning decision.
  • The scope of gentrification reaches beyond housing and into the changes that take place in public and commercial spaces.
  • Design is probably less important than designers make it out to be. Any physical space can be successful with enough access and prior social momentum from a community.

Monday, June 28

A garden block proposal

It looks like one of the main take-aways from the CNU 18 conference is something being labeled agrarian urbanism. Fast Company is calling it the "new new urbanism" and Treehugger has described the notion as the next phase in the evolution of this 30-year old movement. Andres Duany, in particular, has been pushing pretty hard in this direction for the last couple of years. Briefly, the idea is that walkable neighborhoods could be intentionally structured so that food production is integrated into the physical form and the lifestyle of the inhabitants. In other words, it is a synthesis between urban and rural.

Of course, this new new urbanism is really no newer than the old new urbanism was (but that's fine). One of the primary motivations behind Ebenezer Howard's Garden City was to connect working class households with a viable food supply to relieve some of their financial stress. He landed on the number twelve dwelling units per acre as the magic density for self-sufficiency with affordability, and he worked out a form of common land ownership to help it along. Christopher Alexander thought that something more like a tenth of an acre was necessary to supply vegetables to a family of four. He had plenty of practical, timeless advice for arranging an urban living space accordingly. More recently, some architects have been using the word rurbalization to describe this sort of synthesis. Having recently passed through the grad school circuit myself, I can attest to a strong interest in food systems among new graduates.

I think these are good trends. Local food systems should inform urban design and vice versa, but I'm not sure the new developments being modeled have been able to find this synthesis without swallowing one side with the other - specifically, subsuming the urbanism into the bucolic landscape. This seems to be the case with Southlands in British Columbia and Serenbe in the exurbs of Atlanta. Kaid Benfield has this to say about these "farming is the new golf" developments,

"In theory, these "new towns" are great - self-contained entities providing walkability, efficiency, and all the services of a community within the development.  So, their proponents (nearly all of whom profit from them, one way or another) claim, it is a good thing to build them almost anywhere.  In practice, though, the nearby once-remote locations soon become filled with sprawl, in no small part because of the initial development, and the theoretical self-contained transportation efficiency never comes.  They become commuter suburbs, just with a more appealing internal design than that of their neighbors."
So can this vision work? Or is building agrarian urbanism like serving a glass of hot cold water? I'd like to play with this a little and consider what it would look like if we followed Duany's vision but flipped it on its head. Instead of embedding hamlets within a rural landscape, the garden block embeds pockets of agriculture within the urban landscape. It is not a stand-alone community but just another gene sequence to be spliced into the DNA of existing inner suburbs and cities.

Start with the standard grid. It can be found all over North America, but the following sketch is based on the 340' by 340' block in the Fan neighborhood of Richmond. Cobble together property ownership for the whole block into something like a community land trust. Households would own their home individually but share ownership of the land with the other 38, in this case, units on the block. Certain commitments to planting and maintaining the garden, either personally or through payment, would be built into an HOA contract.

The exterior of the block functions as in any other urban area. The public streets are activated by the fronts of the buildings and streetscape features, and the full range of transportation access to the rest of the city is available. The interior, on the other hand, is devoted to the more constrained social scale of the block community, and the structures serve as a wall protecting this garden area. Enclosure is necessary to provide a degree of privacy, to protect produce from theft and vandalism, and to keep animals from wandering.

By the numbers, this block allows a density of 15 DUA while keeping 28% of all land for growing produce. This is not food self-sufficiency, but I'm personally not too worried about these kinds of absolutes.

Here are some of the pieces:

Mix of Housing Types. One might expect retirees and young families alike to be attracted to growing their own food, but there is a broad range in housing needs between these two groups. Allowing a range of housing types could facilitate lifecycle diversity, as well as allowing those from different income levels to share the same space. The larger homes include their own growing plot delineated by a short fence.

Shared Resources. The shady northern side of the condo buildings is a place for the utilitarian functions. Gardening requires many resources that can be shared by the whole block. A tool shed is accessed from the side by the glass elevator. A water cistern collects and stores runoff from the buildings above. Chicken coops are lined up against the building. Although chickens need sunlight, some shade could benefit them as well. Maybe they could be on wheels. The composting bins are directly in front of the block's dumpster, so households can deposit their organic waste while taking out the trash.

Childrens' Area -  The playground and "kindergarten" is in full view of the whole grounds. Children have their own 24' by 31' plot to grow whatever they choose. A row of fruit trees creates a sound barrier for the adjacent rowhouses. Being within the enclosed communal area allows parents a certain assurance of safety.

Green Roof. I know these things are expensive for now, but in this case it's integral to the whole concept. Connected directly to the rest of the grounds by an outdoor elevator, it expands the growing area measurably.  Less tangibly, the views to north into the block help create a sense of internal  cohesion, and the southern views to the rest of the city a sense of external connection. 

Greenhouse and Car Sharing. A greenhouse is one of the most efficient uses of solar energy, and it's  necessary in most climates for extending the growing season. A single 4100 sq. ft. greenhouse should be sufficient to meet the needs for the whole block. There is off-street parking available at a rate of roughly one space per three units. The relative paucity of spaces may be compensated for by car-sharing. For areas with greater transit accessibility, this lot could be substituted with two homes.

Corner Store. The corner store is the public interface of the block and a neighborhood shopping hub. Possibly, excess produce and supplies from the garden could be sold here. The upper floors could be leased out to offices or any other reasonably compatible use.