The Imperial Building is part of a community-wide commitment to the revitalization of the downtown urban core and provides the neighborhood with affordable housing, retail and restaurants, underground parking, a rooftop garden, and a new grocery store. For more information about this project, visit www.dpsdesign.org/what-we-create/imperial-building.
In less than 4 minutes Joe Minicozzi shows the very high value of mixed-use downtown development,
“Joe Minicozzi, Principal of Urban3 highlights the value of downtown development and the implications of different growth patterns on city coffers.”
More Joe Minicozzi: The Cash Flow of Urbanism:
OCPG member, and videographer Aurelio Ocampo (Red Sky Productions – www.RedSkyPro.com), recently released this brilliant short video on the Downtown Oxnard Vision Plan Charrette process. Aurelio clearly and beautifully documents the Charrette event that took place over a 5 day period in January of 2016. Enjoy!
Administration calls for local laws to allow accessory dwelling units and denser development and eliminate off-street parking requirements, among other changes.
The Obama Administration is calling on cities and towns to reform land-use regulations to allow denser development by right while recommending actions that new urbanists have long supported.
The administration released a “toolkit” on housing development that recommends eliminating off-street parking requirements and allowing accessory dwelling units.
The toolkit also calls for more “high-density and multifamily zoning,” “streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines,” and allowing “by-right development,” which are consistent with many form-based codes and new urban reforms.
Antiquated land-use regulations, often dating from the 1970s or earlier, are holding back economic growth and increasing housing costs across America, says the administration.
“Significant barriers to new housing development can cause working families to be pushed out of the job markets with the best opportunities for them, or prevent them from moving to regions with higher—paying jobs and stronger career tracks. Excessive barriers to housing development result in increasing drag on national economic growth and exacerbate income inequality,” the report says.
On the other hand, “Cities like Chicago, Seattle, Sacramento, and Tacoma and states like California and Massachusetts have already begun to foster more affordable housing opportunities by removing restrictions, implementing transit-oriented-oriented zoning ordinances, and speeding up permitting and construction processes,” according to the Housing Development Toolkit.
The report marks a first—at least going back several decades—that the White House has made local zoning and land-use regulations a national issue.
“City zoning battles usually are fought block by block, and the president’s involvement will create friction, particularly among environmental groups and the not-in-my-backyard crowd,” notes a Politico report. “But the White House jawboning is welcome news to many others, including mayors and builders increasingly foiled by community opposition to development.”
The report is backed up by a fiscal year 2017 budget proposal to spend $300 million on Local Housing Policy Grants to help cities modernize housing regulatory approaches. However, the Administration’s lame duck status means budget priorities could radically change with whoever is elected in November.
Nevertheless, land-use reform could win support across the political spectrum—from mayors and smart growth advocates to developers and pro-business groups.
“It’s important that the president is talking about it,” Mark Calabria, director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute, told Politico. “Local restrictions on housing supply are a crucial economic issue. I would say it’s one of the top 10.”
In addition to previously mentioned priorities, the Toolkit recommends:
· Taxing vacant land or donate it to non-profit developers
· Establishing density bonuses
· Employing inclusionary zoning
· Establishing development tax or value capture incentives
· Using property tax abatements
Mismatch between current US housing stock and shifting demographics, combined with the growing demand for walkable urban living, has been poignantly defined by recent research and publications by the likes of Christopher Nelson and Chris Leinberger and the Urban Land Institute’s publication, What’s Next: Real Estate in the New Economy. Let’s stop talking about the problem and start generating solutions!
Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as adding more multi-family housing stock using the dated models/types of housing that we have been building. Rather, we need a complete paradigm shift in the way that we design, locate, regulate, and develop homes. As What’s Next states, “it’s a time to rethink and evolve, reinvent and renew.” Missing Middle housing types, such as duplexes, fourplexes, bungalow courts, mansion apartments, and live-work units, are a critical part of the solution and should be a part of every architect’s, planner’s, real estate agent’s, and developer’s arsenal.
Well-designed, simple Missing Middle housing types achieve medium-density yields and provide high-quality, marketable options between the scales of single-family homes and mid-rise flats for walkable urban living. They are designed to meet the specific needs of shifting demographics and the new market demand and are a key component to a diverse neighborhood. They are classified as “missing” because very few of these housing types have been built since the early 1940’s due to regulatory constraints, the shift to auto-dependent patterns of development, and the incentivization of single-family home ownership.
The following are defining characteristics of Missing Middle housing:
A walkable context. Probably the most important characteristic of these types of housing is that they need to be built within an existing or newly created walkable urban context. Buyers or renters of these housing types are choosing to trade larger suburban housing for less space, no yard to maintain, and proximity to services and amenities such as restaurants, bars, markets, and often work. Linda Pruitt of the Cottage Company, who is building creative bungalow courts in the Seattle area, says the first thing her potential customers ask is, “What can I walk to?” So this criteria becomes very important in her selection of lots and project areas, as is it for all Missing Middle housing.
Medium density but lower perceived densities. As a starting point, these building types typically range in density from 16 dwelling units/acre (du/acre) to up to 35 du/acre, depending on the building type and lot size. It is important not to get too caught up in the density numbers when thinking about these types. Due to the small footprint of the building types and the fact that they are usually mixed with a variety of building types, even on an individual block, the perceived density is usually quite lower–they do not look like dense buildings.
A combination of these types gets a neighborhood to a minimum average of 16 du/acre. This is important because this is generally used as a threshold at which an environment becomes transit-supportive and main streets with neighborhood-serving, walkable retail and services become viable.
Small footprint and blended densities. As mentioned above, a common characteristic of these housing types are small- to medium-sized building footprints. The largest of these types, the mansion apartment or side-by-side duplex, may have a typical main body width of about 40-50ft, which is very comparable to a large estate home. This makes them ideal for urban infill, even in older neighborhoods that were originally developed as single-family but have been designated to evolve with slightly higher intensities. As a good example, a courtyard housing project in the Westside Guadalupe Historic District of Santa Fe, New Mexico sensitively incorporates 6 units and a shared community-room building onto a ¼ acre lot. In this project, the buildings are designed to be one room deep to maximize cross ventilation/passive cooling and to enable the multiple smaller structures to relate well to the existing single-family context.
Smaller, well-designed units. One of the most common mistakes by architects or builders new to the urban housing market is trying to force suburban unit types and sizes into urban contexts and housing types. The starting point for Missing Middle housing needs to be smaller-unit sizes; the challenge is to create small spaces that are well designed, comfortable, and usable. As an added benefit, smaller-unit sizes can help developers keep their costs down, improving the pro-forma performance of a project, while keeping the housing available to a larger group of buyers or renters at a lower price point.
Off-street parking does not drive the site plan. The other non-starter for Missing Middle housing is trying to provide too much parking on site. This ties back directly to the fact that these units are being built in a walkalble urban context. The buildings become very inefficient from a development potential or yield standpoint and shifts neighborhoods below the 16 du/acre density threshold, as discussed above, if large parking areas are provided or required. As a starting point, these units should provide no more than 1 off-street parking space per unit. A good example of this is newly constructed mansion apartments in the new East Beach neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia. To enable these lower off-street parking requirements to work, on-street parking must be available adjacent to the units. Housing design that forces too much parking on a site also compromises the occupant’s experience of entering the building or “coming home” and the relationship with its context, especially in an infill condition, which can greatly impact marketability.
Simple construction. The days of easily financing and building complicated, expensive Type-I or II buildings with podium parking are behind us, and an alternative for providing walkable urban housing with more of a simple, cost-effective construction type is necessary in many locations. What’s Next states, “affordability—always a key element in housing markets—is taking on a whole new meaning as developers reach for ways to make attractive homes within the means of financially constrained buyers.” Because of their simple forms, smaller size, and Type V construction, Missing Middle building types can help developers maximize affordability and returns without compromising quality by providing housing types that are simple and affordable to build.
Creating Community. Missing Middle housing creates community through the integration of shared community spaces within the types, as is the case for courtyard housing or bungalow courts, or simply from the proximity they provide to the community within a building and/or the neighborhood. This is an important aspect, in particular within the growing market of single-person households (which is at nearly 30% of all households) that want to be part of a community. This has been especially true for single women who have proven to be a strong market for these Missing Middle housing types, in particular bungalow courts and courtyard housing.
Marketability. The final and maybe the most important characteristic in terms of market viability is that these housing types are very close in scale and provide a similar user experience (such as entering from a front porch facing the street versus walking down a long, dark corridor to get to your unit) to single-family homes, thus making the mental shift for potential buyers and renters much less drastic than them making a shift to live in a large mid-rise or high-rise project. This combined with the fact that many baby boomers likely grew up in similar housing types in urban areas or had relatives that did, enables them to easily relate to these housing types.
This is a call for architects, planners, and developers to think outside the box and create immediate, viable solutions to address the mismatch between the housing stock and what the market is demanding–vibrant, diverse, sustainable, walkable urban places. The Missing Middle housing types are an important part of this solution and should be integrated into comprehensive and regional planning, zoning code updates, TOD strategies, and the business models for developers and builders who want to be at the forefront of this paradigm shift.
Think about it. In the years prior, the term “placemaking” wasn’t even in common use by developers, designers and planners. Nor were terms such as form-based code, new urbanism, smart growth, transect,charrette, visual preference survey, traditional neighborhood development, transit-oriented development,sprawl repair/suburban retrofit, return on infrastructure investment analysis, tactical urbanism,WalkScore, complete streets, context sensitive thoroughfare design, LEED-ND, light imprint infrastructure,WalkUP, the original green, lean urbanism, the high cost of free parking, etc.
What has not changed over the last 25 years is that decisions regarding the growth and development of our communities are still being made by community leaders who might be experts in politics, but do not have an adequate understanding of placemaking principles.
Uninformed decisions can lead to bad results. You are familiar with the types of poor policy decisions that spring from this uninformed position— all road widenings are “improvements,” all density is bad, the public works department should treat an urban area exactly the same as a suburban area, etc. For those of us who are focused on improving our communities through competent urban design, this is a source of great frustration.
So here are my Top 10 Techniques for Educating Community Leaders about Placemaking. If you find yourself similarly frustrated, consider the following tools for those you believe are open to enhancing their knowledge (not everyone is).
1. Lunch. Lunch is rarely adequately leveraged because it is viewed as nothing more than… lunch. But your placemaking initiatives are essentially political issues, and if you want political support you need to build trust with leaders. Whether it is lunch, breakfast, dinner or drinks, start building the relationship and along the way view it as an opportunity to provide valuable information that will help the leader make more informed decisions. And budget for it.
2. Speaker Series. Establish a formal speaker series that brings compelling practitioners to town to speak about your community’s hot topic issues. If you need to gain a lot of ground in a short amount of time, try to put together a monthly series that lasts one year like Chad Emerson did in Montgomery, Alabama. The value in that program was not simply found in the speakers, but in the periodic gathering of community leaders where placemaking issues were the focus. Also consider finding partner organizations who can sponsor or co-sponsor stand-alone events at least once a year like the annual “Smart Growth Luncheon” series that the Independent publishing group has facilitated for the past eleven years in Lafayette, Louisiana.
3. Private Meetings with Speakers/Consultants. When a speaker or consultant comes to town, do not rely upon public events to connect with community leaders. Rather, schedule private meetings where frank discussions can occur without the fear of media coverage. Try to schedule these meetings over a meal if possible. When I conduct Smart Growth Workshops for a local association of the National Association of Realtors, the private meetings are oftentimes more important than the public workshops themselves.
4. Local or Regional Conferences. The Center for Planning Excellence has hosted the multi-day Louisiana Smart Growth Summit in Baton Rouge for the past ten years. It brings national speakers to town, and this recurring dialogue has dramatically improved the quality of projects in the region and state. The Institute for Quality Communities in Oklahoma is another regional organization that is making a differencewith this tool.
5. National Conferences. While joining a community leader at the annual Congress for New Urbanism, or the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference or the International Downtown Association Conferenceis an outstanding way to enhance the knowledge of that community leader, the truth is that it is very hard to do this because most community leaders are unwilling to take the three or four days away from their busy schedules to attend unless they are already fully on board with your placemaking initiatives.
6. CityBuilding Exchange. The CityBuilding Exchange is designed to overcome the objections to other national conferences by compacting the content into two days, limiting participation to 100 registrants, holding the event in a place filled with placemaking lessons (this March it will be in New Orleans), and focusing the content on the tools and ideas that community leaders need to understand from the nation’s leading practitioners.
7. Field Trips/Walking Tour. A field trip with community leaders to a place that can serve as a model for where you want to go (or where you do not want to go) as a community is a highly effective educational tool because it permits the conversation to get real. After attending a SmartCode Workshop in 2003, Texas Representative Mike Krusee facilitated a field trip of all of the mayors in the Austin region to visit Washington, D.C. so that those leaders could better understand how transit oriented development could improve the quality of life in the Austin region. In 2004 Austin approved its first commuter rail referendum. Note that the field trip also permitted the building of relationships between community leaders that can form the basis of working together in the future. Finally note that a walking tour can be incorporated into a field trip (or be a stand alone event in your community) where an expert in urban design can take community leaders on a walk down a street and talk about the urban design elements that are working as well as those that are not working. Once again, these trips bring to life the concepts in a way that gets beyond the platitudes on placemaking.
8. Personal Emails. National news articles, local news stories or the release of a new study on an important placemaking topic can serve as an opportunity for you to email a community leader with your perspective on an issue. Instead of simply forwarding the information to the community leader, make sure that you clearly and succinctly state how the information relates to making your community better.
9. Webinar/OnLine Video Presentations. Watching webinars (whether new or old) or online video presentations together with community leaders can be a difficult sale, but it is worthy of your consideration — especially if you set it up as a “lunch ’n learn” event or even have end of the day cocktails. This tends to work better with community leaders who are on city staff as opposed to elected politicians.
10. Books, Web Sites, Blogs and eNewsletters. Provide resources to community leaders so that they can learn more on their own. Your efforts should focus on two basic approaches. First, buy a book or series of books that are particularly relevant to your community, then loan or give those books to community leaders. In my community, I use Jeff Speck’s book, Walkable City as the introductory primer on placemaking. Second, have a very, very, very short list of resources such as websites, blogs, a LinkedIn Group or e-newsletters that you can recommend as an ongoing source for information.
Quality Information, Patience and Persistence = Success. Regardless of the tools you choose to use, remember that the mission will not be accomplished in a day. But, if you exercise patience and persistence, you will improve your community by arming your community leaders with the information they need to make better decisions.
California’s Bay Area housing disaster tells Southern Californians that our housing crisis will only get worse and doing nothing is both an irrational and irresponsible response. We are faced with deciding to have more neighbors or pay more taxes as we desperately need money to fix our city’s crumbling infrastructure. The conundrum is that we despise taxes and the mere mention of ‘density’ polarizes any discussion into either demands for no new growth or building tall towers.
I believe answers to meet San Diego’s housing demand are found in the following two-tier approach:
The first tier is a baseline ‘Beach Density.’ An existing housing model found in our older, traditional beach neighborhoods that fills our need for the ‘missing middle’ types of housing. This model is essentially a residence or shop with three (3) to five (5) units on each lot that are no more than two (2) to three (3) stories tall. All of these homes and businesses are mixed together every few blocks or so. By allowing every lot in San Diego’s urbanized areas to have up to five (5) units’ by-right, we have the opportunity to solve for our critical housing and infrastructure financing deficiencies without dramatically altering our city’s character. Ultimately, the entire city can enjoy and benefit from our healthy, outdoor lifestyle that this Beach Model provides us.
The second tier is more precisely located ‘Climate Action Zones.’ Per its recently adopted Climate Action Plan, the city of San Diego is required to take actions to “Implement transit-oriented development within Transit Priority Areas,” and to “[a]chieve better walkability and transit-supportive densities by locating a majority of all new residential development within Transit Priority Areas.” In combination with the Beach Density’s baseline housing bump, these Climate Action Zones are intended to achieve our city’s legally binding Climate Action Plan within a reasonable timeline.1 We cannot expect the city to complete it all at once, but it can accommodate for an urban acupunctural approach… pin pricks at key points to make great change.
These ‘zones’ will require updated and new city policies, including community plan updates, to facilitate increases of land use intensity near our region’s transit investments. Fortunately, we have one of our nation’s first and best Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) guidelines written by planning guru Peter Calthrope in 1992 that have sat neatly on a shelf in the city’s Planning Department over these many years, having been emasculated by our currently suburban and convoluted parking regulations. We should dust these off, as they’ve been proven throughout the world – as well as Portland – to increase transit ridership. In addition, we should manage our off-street parking and simplify one space per unit to permit transit, walking, and biking to be as advantageous as driving.
A ‘tower’ in San Diego is a building over 7 stories, and are only appropriate in one or two areas beyond downtown. However, 4 – 6 stories have been built in our old streetcar neighborhoods since their founding 100 years ago, as this height is a ‘walk up’ and appropriate in ‘walkable’ neighborhoods. Climate Action Zones should be located on the 4 to 8 blocks (600 feet radius) around primary intersections with cross-street transit service, currently built as 60’s era gas stations, drive-thrus, and strip centers.
Data shows that the majority of trips within 600 feet of a transit station are made by transit, bike or foot. These zones would permit mixed-use, up to 7 stories/90 feet tall max, using our TOD guidelines that allow for shared parking ratios with limited Community Plan conformance reviews in order to ensure transition steps to protect neighbors. Rather than waiting to build another Rancho del Rancho on our suburban periphery, these retrofitted intersections will be the focus of new development for the next 15-years. Successful case studies include Salt Lake’s Commuter, Light Rail (LRT), and Streetcar corridor economic engine, Dallas’s new LRT stations and Klyde Warren Park and Historic Streetcar value explosion, and Denver’s new infill coding success.
It is untenable to keep century old urban communities from change. But we know change brings fear to local citizens, which is why this two-tier approach makes very clear that new housing can fit comfortably within our current lifestyle if we explicitly plan for what we need using San Diego proven models. Finally, we have to plan for the change we want in order to fix our infrastructure, add public spaces, and to continue to be relevant to working economies by providing attainable housing, accessible transportation, and our unique outdoor lifestyle.
Note: This article was written as part of the Project for Lean Urbanism and edited for Public Square.
Over the past decade, even as there has been a growing fascination with the benefits of charrettes as a tool for planning and public engagement, there has been a constant complaint that charrettes are too expensive. This complaint has become more common and more urgent in recent years, with shrinking budgets and tightening competition among firms for a smaller pool of available work.
The first step in Leaning the charrette process is a matter of shifting the scope and focus of the projects themselves to which the charrette is being applied, and re-configuring the roles played by consultants, planning staff, appointed and elected officials, and citizens. In the context of the Lean Urbanism, the appropriate version of the charrette would indeed be less expensive, but also more readily deployed as a tactical response in a pragmatic setting. We are looking for processes that leverage community capabilities, that can be mobilized with minimal expense, that can be mobilized quickly in timely response to circumstances, and that are oriented to mobilizing social capital in order to get the most impact on the quality of the urbanism with the least investment of either financial or political capital.
A Leaner charrette would be more focused on a specific piece of an incremental process, would be facilitated by a smaller team less focused on the final documentation and more on building community relationships, and would leverage the available social capital more consistently with respect to shared learning, consensus building, and ultimately practical action.
There are five key dimensions of the charrette process that we would want to maintain in the context of a Lean charrette.
1. Multi-disciplinary and integrative approach. Specialized expertise is often useful or even necessary, but can also be an obstacle to arriving at an optimal response to more complex planning and design projects.
2. The benefits of efficiency and continuity associated with the compressed time frame. The scheduling of charrette-related activities should sustain a sense of engagement in a process that moves from big ideas to practical action, that addresses problems systematically but pragmatically, and that respects the time and contributions of all participants. When the process is spread out over a longer period, there is a real danger of losing that sense of continuity and purpose as stakeholders are engaged.
3. Transparency in decision making. Participants in a charrette process have the opportunity to see (and understand) the reasons behind choices that comprise any particular scheme, any particular solution.
4. Constructing a common narrative. The story of a process that is purposeful and continuous allows clear understanding of the transition from values to practical action/the motivations of actors, through a pattern of listening and responding.
5. The hybrid nature of the forum. The charrette process is not dismissive of stakeholders’ concerns or their local knowledge, but gives local knowledge standing in relation to the general knowledge of experts. Considerations that might not otherwise be heard are given the opportunity to make a difference. Professional expertise has tendency to screen information through specialized knowledge— it is, as Kenneth Burke once observed, a way seeing that is also a way of not seeing. Both the multidisciplinary and the hybrid nature of the forum offered by the charrette opens up the process in ways that both allows for more complex and robust solutions, and provides a basis for building consensus.
One way to begin breaking out the functions typically involved in a charrette is to distinguish between the design process and the public engagement process. First, it is a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach that produces complex responses to complex planning challenges. Second, it is about the shared learning necessary to build consensus around those complex responses. Finally, there is the focus on the ability to generate a basis for post-charrette action.
Components of a Lean charrette process
The following is an example of a way the process might be organized in order to be both relatively inexpensive and more capable of being precisely tailored for a Lean Urbanism project.
Step 1: Collaborative project start-up. It is all too often the case that the client and consultant team involved in a charrette tend to feel their way into a charrette through a process of negotiation that does not always involve clear communication. Part of the National Charrette Institute (NCI) approach involves an initial process of team building and project definition that outlines the scope and parameters of the project, enabling project partners to get very clear about the purpose and limits of their collaboration. This approach to project start-up would involve a small team facilitating a process that enables project partners and key stakeholders to establish clear framework for the project. Much of the focus would be on clarifying the precise scope of the project, identifying the resources necessary for the design and planning process (base data, expertise), and establishing the relationship between the design process and stakeholder engagement.
In the case of preparing for a Lean charrette, the most important aspect of this would be setting in motion a process that builds social connections, establishes shared knowledge, and leverages existing community assets to build the foundations for clear decisions and precisely targeted, strategically meaningful action. An example of this kind of process is the Lean Scan, developed by Hank Dittmar and the Prince’s Foundation for Community Building. The Lean Scan “is a new tool for finding latent opportunities in a town, a district or a corridor and leveraging under-used assets in a way that unlocks synergies between built, financial, social and natural resources.” The collaborative project start-up would set in motion this kind of exploration of “latent opportunities” and unrealized capabilities in the community, preparing the ground not just for planning but for a robust implementation strategy.
Step 2: Practical vision workshop. Many times, what people call “charrettes” are essentially just “visioning” exercises. What distinguishes a charrette process, however, is that it moves from the big ideas that might be articulated during such a workshop to the specifics of design and planning proposals. The purpose of this workshop is to establish those common understandings that might enable a community to act outside usual regulatory channels. Often resistance to change is manifested in defense of procedural and technical restrictions — not because they matter in themselves to the defenders, but because they are points of leverage that allow activists to obstruct a project. In a community of sophisticated activists, it can be very hard to move efficiently past bureaucratic regulation for this reason. A vision workshop could be focused, in particular, on establishing the principles and goals of immediate practical action. In a community that is interested in Lean Urbanism, such a workshop might provide a locally grounded manifesto that establishes the framework for a series of Lean projects. This visioning might well be coupled with something like a Tactical Urbanism workshop.
Step 2a: Discovery process. Charrette team leaders facilitate a process that enables stakeholders to participate in gathering relevant information, organizing a process of shared learning, preparing for the design process to come. This process needs to be geared to the specific conditions and assets of a community, but the key is that it is primarily an exercise in community organizing, as well as information gathering. Whereas it might simply be a matter of carrying out some pre-charrette interviews with stakeholders, it would have the greatest impact to the extent that it involves mobilizing social capital, engaging both allies and potential opponents in building the foundation of local knowledge to feed into the design process. This could either be part of the vision workshop or an immediate follow-up to it, as the circumstances might require.
Step 3: Design charrette. Once the foundational conditions have been established by the prior efforts, it is then possible to stage a 3 to 4 day process, involving a small multidisciplinary team working in collaboration with stakeholder representatives who have been prepared for this collaboration by the previous process. The charrette could focus on design and spend less time on the vision and learning process that takes place in conventional charrettes. The precise scope of design, principles, constraints, aspirations would be part of the previously established consensus, making it possible for a smaller multidisciplinary team to work through the iterative process of design in collaboration with organized representation of stakeholder interests. Because much of the shared learning, relationship building, and consensus building would be systematically organized ahead of time, the design charrette can be more focused on the design work, building on the foundations of pre-established understanding.
With an understanding of what it is about the charrette process that gives it the ability both to produce robust, adaptive and integrated solutions to complex problems, and to build support for those solutions, it becomes possible to distribute the functions of the charrette throughout a process that requires less concentrated application of financial resources (although more extensive application of community capacities that can be identified and mobilized through this process). The result is that one can do more with less in the way of financial resources. If one calculates a budget with respect to the number of days and team members required to accomplish the work, it is arguably possible to accomplish the planning and design pieces of the project for a half to a third of the budget that might be required for a fully staffed seven-day charrette. Perhaps most importantly, however, the outcomes of the charrette process would be more consistently oriented to active intervention rather than simply producing a plan or a report.
With particular regard to Lean Urbanism, there are two most significant considerations. First, it is a matter of getting the right people in the room as a way to cut through the structural obstacles set up by bureaucracy and the division of labor. The “right people” (in this case) includes the key decision makers but also key stakeholders who can share ownership of the initiative. To move efficiently, however, requires a certain amount of pre-established agreement with respect to values, goals, and some important limits to be respected. For example, a previous set of discussions and workshops might have established and branded a Lean project, linking it to a diverse set of interest and allies. Whatever the specific project might be at hand, it can be conceived as a manifestation of that initiative and thereby benefit from what is hopefully a diverse collection of allies.
Second, it is a matter of focusing the discussion with respect to scale, time frame, and, in some cases, reversibility. The charrette works because it allows for participation in a detailed “enquiry by design” (to borrow the phrase from the Prince’s Foundation). Tactical Urbanism works because it functions effectively as a kind of inquiry by practice. A Lean charrette would be a way to mobilize strategically meaningful interventions that might have some of that tactical spirit, but be aimed at a cumulative and sustainable outcome, of a sort that might require somewhat more systematic application of expertise.
Since 1981, approximately 600 form-based codes (FBCs) have been prepared for communities across the US, and 362 of them have been adopted. Most of the adoptions have taken place in the past 10 years. But as exciting as that may be, what’s more exciting is that these numbers are miniscule when you think about how many communities exist in the US. If this reform of conventional zoning is increasingly gaining acceptance and being applied to larger areas, why are there still so many misconceptions?
Despite a wide variety of improvements in how form-based codes are strategized, prepared, and used, many of the planners, planning commissioners, elected officials, members of the public, and code practitioners I meet continue to harbor misconceptions or misunderstandings about these codes. Here are the ones I encounter most:
FBC dictates architecture. Some of these codes do prescribe details about architecture, but most do not. Perhaps because many of the early codes were for greenfield projects where strong architectural direction was needed or desired, the perception is that a FBC always regulates architecture. Yet the majority of codes I’ve prepared and reviewed (30 authored or co-authored, 10 peer-reviewed, 9 U.S. states, 2 foreign countries) do not regulate architecture. I’ve prepared codes where regulation of architecture (style) was important for a historic area, but those requirements did not apply anywhere else. The “form” in form-based codes may mean architecture, but not necessarily. Form can refer to physical character at many different scales—the scale of a region, community, neighborhood, corridor, block, or building.
FBC must be applied citywide. To my knowledge, Miami, and Denver are the only US cities that have applied form-based coding to all parcels within their boundaries. In general, FBCs are applied in two ways: to a site to implement a development project or to several areas as part of a zoning code amendment or update. This second category sometimes involves reconfiguration of the zoning code to retain a set of conventional zones for “automobile-oriented suburban” patterns while adding form-based zones for “walkable-urban” patterns. This is called a hybrid code because it merges the conventional zoning and form-based zoning provisions under one cover, in one set of procedures.
FBC is a template that you have to make your community conform to. Untrue. Conventional zoning, with its focus on separation of uses and its prohibition of ostensibly undesirable activities, often conflicted with the very places it was intended to protect. Perhaps what some refer to negatively as a form-based code’s “template” is the kit of parts that repeats from one community to another—the streets, civic spaces, buildings, frontages, signage, and so forth. But a form-based code is guided by how each of those components looks and feels in a particular community. The FBC responds to your community’s character.
FBC is too expensive. FBCs require more effort than conventional zoning—but then, conventional zoning doesn’t ask as many questions. FBCs reveal and thoroughly address topics that conventional zoning doesn’t even attempt. Some communities augment conventional zoning with design guidelines; those guidelines aren’t always included in the cost comparison, and in my experience they don’t fully resolve the issues. A FBC has the virtue of ensuring that your policy work will directly inform the zoning standards. Further, the the upfront cost of properly writing a FBC pales in comparison to the cumulative cost of policy plans that don’t really say anything, zoning changes that require the applicant to point out reality, hearings, and litigation over projects.
FBC is only for historic districts. FBCs can be applied to all kinds of places. Granted, they are uniquely capable of fully addressing the needs of a historic district because of their ability to “see and calibrate” all of the components. Such a FBC works with not instead of local historic procedures and state requirements. This is in contrast to conventional zoning’s focus on process and lack of correspondence with the physical environment it is regulating. While a FBC can be precise enough to regulate a very detailed and complex historic context, that same system can be fitted with fewer dials for other areas.
FBC isn’t zoning and doesn’t address land use. If your FBC doesn’t directly address allowed land uses or clearly rely on other land use regulations, it is an incomplete FBC. Some early FBCs were prepared as CC&Rs (covenants, conditions, and restrictions) because of particular development objectives, and some well-intended early FBCs oversimplified use restrictions. Since then, FBCs have augmented or fully replaced existing zoning, including land use requirements.
FBC results in “by-right” approval and eliminates “helpful thinking by staff.” With so much emphasis on how FBCs simplify the process, it’s understandable that this perception has caused concern. Throughout the FBC process, focus is placed on delegating the various approvals to the approval authority at the lowest level practical. I’ve seen few codes that make everything “by right” over the counter. The choice of how much process each permit requires is up to each community. Through a careful FBC process, staff knowledge and experience does go into the code content through shaping or informing actual standards and procedures.
FBC results in “high-density residential.” FBC does not mandate high-density residential.” Instead, it identifies housing of all types—from single-family houses to quadplexes, courtyards, rowhouses, and lofts over retail—and explains their performance characteristics. Density is one of many such characteristics. Through the FBC process, communities receive more information and decide which kinds of buildings they want and where. FBCs enable higher density housing—where it is desired by the community—to fit into the larger context of the community’s vision.
FBC requires mixed-use in every building regardless of context or viability. Conventional zoning has applied mile upon redundant mile of commercial zoning, resulting in an oversupply of such land and many marginal or vacant sites. By contrast, FBCs identify a palette of mixed-use centers to punctuate corridors and concentrate services within walking distance of residents and for those arriving by other transportation modes. FBCs identify the components; it’s up to the community to choose which components fit best and are most viable in each context.
FBC can’t work with design guidelines, and complicates staff review of projects. Because conventional zoning doesn’t ask a lot of questions, most planners have had to learn what they know about design on the job, and need design guidelines to fill in the gaps left open by the zoning. That’s how I learned. A well-prepared FBC doesn’t need design guidelines because it explicitly addresses the variety of issues through clear illustrations, language, and numerous examples. However, we are not allergic to design guidelines; the key is to make sure that the guidelines clarify what is too complex, variable, or discretionary to state in legally binding standards.
I’m enthusiastic about FBC and regard it as a far better tool than conventional zoning for walkable urban places. However, it’s still zoning, and it needs people to set its priorities and parameters. It needs people to review plans and compare them with its regulations. Having a FBC will require internal adjustments by the planning department and other key departments, such as Public Works.
Form-based coding began in response to the aspirations of a few visionary architects and developers who wanted to build genuine, lasting places, based on the patterns of great local communities. Unresponsive zoning regulations often erected insurmountable barriers to these proposals and made proposals for sprawl the path of least resistance.
From its outset 35 years ago, form-based coding exposed the inabilities of conventional zoning to efficiently address the needs of today’s communities. Today, form-based coding is a necessary zoning reform—one of several important tools that communities need to position themselves as serious candidates for reinvestment.
Relaxing rules on “Accessory Dwelling Units” drastically increased affordable housing stock in the small city of Durango.
Planners call them Accessory Dwelling Units—plus the inevitable acronym, ADUs. What they mean are the granny flats and in-law apartments sprinkled throughout cities and towns across the land, the finished basements, above-garage studios, rehabbed carriage houses, and other outbuildings on parcels generally zoned for single-family homes.
But here’s what they really are: an instant source of affordable housing, if only they could be freed from extensive restrictions that cities and towns have in place that tightly limit who can live there.
When I was at the Office for Commonwealth Development under Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, we tried to increase the supply of new multi-family housing at smart growth locations, in town centers or by transit stations. Yet it quickly became apparent that there were thousands of existing homes already, in the form of Accessory Dwelling Units. The trick was just to open them up.
This was no small task, as it turned out. Fueled by NIMBYism and concerns about density and school enrollment and parking and congestion, cities and towns wrote reams of codes requiring that property owners prove any occupants of ADUs were actually related. If not, owners could expect to be visited by inspectors checking out separate entrances and working kitchens and evidence of occupation, and brace for a fine. Eagle-eyed neighbors spotting a second mailbox or satellite dish were more than happy to alert the authorities.
In the face of this kind of code paralysis and regulatory over-reach, it’s understandable that reformers would just give up, and try to change policy in other ways. But in recent years, a sensible program of disentanglement has emerged from an unlikely place—the small city of Durango, Colorado, just north of the New Mexico border.
Conjured in the era of railways and mining, Durango has become a visitor destination, close to national parks, monuments, and forests, the Mesa Verde cliff-dwellers World Heritage Site, skiing, mountain biking, and whitewater rafting. It doesn’t quite have the affordability problem of Aspen or Telluride, but housing is a major issue for the array of incomes in the population of nearly 17,000.
From 2009 to 2013, confronting development pressures and concerned about housing, Durango overhauled its Land Use and Development Code, which called out Accessory Dwelling Units as an acceptable component of housing stock. A predictable process with reasonable standards was put in place for building new ADUs: a limit on the number of occupants (no more than five unrelated people), rules about how small the living space could be (550 square feet), an owner-occupied home requirement (no absentee landlords renting out both the home and the ADU), a ban on short-term vacation rentals such as through Airbnb, and design guidelines for balconies, window placements, and exterior staircases.
The big problem, however, was what to do with existing ADUs.
Since many of these homes were technically illegal, a form of “ADU Amnesty” was launched. Starting with two neighborhoods as a pilot program, the city asked owners to come forward about ADUs on their property. Residents could fess up in three categories—pre-1941, when there were essentially no rules about ADUs; 1941 to 1989, when ADUs could be considered legal but non-conforming use; and 1989 to the present, when tighter zoning was in place.
If somebody established an ADU completely under the radar, they were asked to pay the fee they were supposed to pay, ranging from $2,000 to $9,000, and the property got logged into the city’s inventory database. Owners signed affidavits on basic structural safety, and filled out forms on the number of occupants, age of the structure, and the utilities in place, and furnished a photo.
Getting the transactional details on the record was basically a process of regularizing what was a robust informal economy. And with the existing ADUs thus inventoried, and the rules in place for new ADUs, the city was all set, right? Not exactly. Opposition was fierce, and clever.
Rebellion in the pilot neighborhoods organized as CHEN: Citizens for Healthy Established Neighborhoods, which churned out letters to editors, op-ed essays, and leaflets with a red slash across “ADU.” The question was posed: affordable housing, or slums? One resident mapped her neighborhood and came up with hundreds of units already there, and hundreds more that would be enabled. That didn’t take long to make the front page.
City Hall and the planning office got mercilessly picketed, and somebody placed an ad in the local newspaper touting free building lots—listing the telephone number of the planning office as the place to call for more information.
The planners held firm, making a few minor adjustments, but not compromising on the basic principles of the program. They also launched a public education campaign, producing a video, Know Your ADUs. Amid the dark talk about slums, they kept it light and accessible—even fun, to the extent that was possible, what with lexicon like “legal non-conforming use” being part of the conversation.
The leaders of the effort, the planners Vicki Vandegrift and Scott Shine, shared a game at their presentation at the American Planning Association National Planning Conference last month in Phoenix. Yes, it was time to play “Unit or Not a Unit?”—a series of photographs that demonstrated how some single-family homes look like ADUs, while many ADUs are attractively woven into the urban fabric. (As the quiz went along, we all got better at spotting the dead giveaways—double meters and two street numbers, for instance).
One thing is certain, and that’s the number of communities across the nation confronting this very same issue. The APA session, theatrically titled Accessory Dwelling Units: The Durango Experience, was packed. A long line formed at the microphone for questions. Granny flats and in-law apartments are rising to the top of the affordability conversation from Boston to Seattle.
There may be no secret sauce for getting this done, but demonstrating the benefits—to owners, and to the community at large—is surely a centerpiece. Planners need to be flexible, but not compromise. And above all, stay positive. Even if they’re forced to change their telephone numbers.
When you think of “affordable housing,” what’s the image that comes to mind? For lots of people, including many of those most in need of it, the picture is not a pretty one: it’s a scene of dreary, deteriorating high-rises or shabby, poorly constructed “garden” apartments with no garden in sight. Moreover, the projects come with lots of safety concerns, placed in “the wrong part of town.” Environmentally, they may be plagued with poor air quality, peeling paint, energy inefficiency, unkempt grounds, and litter.
There’s an unfortunate stigma associated with affordable housing in the US, particularly with publicly subsidized housing; and, if the reality frequently isn’t as awful as the reputation, I’m afraid the reputation is also grounded in more than a little truth in more than a few places. The stigma has been well-earned over time. What you are likely not thinking about, when you think of affordable housing, is state-of-the-art green design that would appeal not just to people of limited means but to others as well, and that’s unfortunate.
That’s the bad news.
But the good news is that I am beginning to see some new-generation developments that, if they foretell a trend, could put the stigma to rest. These new projects are not just better than expectations; they are enviable. They include subsidized units priced to be affordable to low-income renters, to be sure, but they also have high-quality design and features and amenities that could appeal to just about anyone in the market for apartment living. Even better, they are as green as they come, healthy for both people and the planet.
Affordable housing and design
Before I tell you about three of these great new developments, let’s begin with some background: affordable housing is a subject dear to my heart. In fact, I was born into post-World War II public housing in Hickory, North Carolina, where I lived with my parents until they could afford a private (but still affordably priced) apartment, along with employment, in the nearby city of Asheville. I was well into my twenties before I experienced any way of living, really, other than “affordable housing.” That said, I should stress that in our case affordable meant small but it did not mean unpleasant; I have a lot of happy memories from those days.
Indeed, even with respect to public housing I tend to think that the authors of government programs have tried to do their best for their clientele. But budgets have been tight, and some well-meaning concepts have not stood the test of time. Subsidized housing hasn’t been a failure, in my opinion – millions of Americans have enjoyed decent lives because of it – but it hasn’t been a universally rousing success, either.
In particular, great design – to say nothing of great green design – has not frequently been a feature of affordably priced developments. Writing a few years ago in what is now known as CityLab, Allison Arieff unsparingly criticized the dreary approach frequently associated with public housing:
“This soul-sapping approach to aesthetics is par for the course for affordable housing, which is meant not only to look low-budget but also low-effort. Conventional thinking on affordability proceeds from the misguided premise that anything well-designed will be, and look, expensive so it follows that design should not be a priority. Further, the argument goes, anything well-designed will be too appealing to eligible tenants, thus discouraging them from ever leaving. So affordable housing should not only be cheap, it should look cheap. As a result, much affordable housing is more punitive than homey, by design.”
That’s a brutal assessment. While I tend to think substandard design in affordable housing has come about more by inattention and a mass-production approach than by intent, there is little doubt that the results have often been lacking. Even worse, the effects of substandard design are frequently compounded by substandard maintenance over time, creating a “wrong part of town” even if things didn’t start out that way.
We need new models, and we need them fast. We especially need them in distressed neighborhoods to catalyze green, inclusive revitalization. Fortunately, I’m here to report that they are indeed on their way. I have seen quite a few over the last decade, but none more aesthetically and environmentally impressive than these three.
The Rose, Minneapolis
Let’s start with a super-green apartment complex in Minneapolis. I first came across The Rose in an Urban Land Institute email several weeks ago and took notice right way because of a stunning rendering and the project’s ambitious aspiration of achieving recognition under the Living Building Challenge, the most demanding of the green building performance rating programs.
According to ULI’s case study, the project comprises 90 apartments in two buildings. Significantly, it does not consist solely of affordable units but, rather, is mixed-income: 47 of the apartments are offered at subsidized rates to qualified residents, and 43 are market-rate; the two categories are indistinguishable with regard to finishes and appearance. Of the subsidized units, seven are set aside for residents who have experienced long-term homelessness; 15 are “section 8” apartments where tenants pay 30 percent of monthly income for rent. (Section 8 of the federal Housing Act of 1937 authorizes a federal rental assistance program administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.)
The Rose’s affordable and market-rate homes are interspersed throughout the project, which also includes among its outdoor features a 5,000-square-foot community garden. Additional outdoor amenities for all residents include a courtyard with “a lawn, a play area, a play surface that meets Americans with Disabilities Act standards, a rain garden, a patio with grills, a fire pit, and seating.” Indoor features include a fitness center, a yoga studio, and resident lounges, with floor-to-ceiling glass to maximize light and views. The units all have porches and, in the case of ground-floor apartments, access from the sidewalk as well as from the courtyard.
Green performance of any development is highly related to its location, generally the more central with respect to the metropolitan region the better. The Rose does impressively well on this score, its 2.3-acre site situated in an older, transit-accessible neighborhood just south of downtown Minneapolis. Simply put, people who live there don’t have to drive very much. The wonderful Abogo calculator from the Center for Neighborhood Technology estimates that households in the development’s neighborhood, on average, would generate only about 45 percent of the carbon emissions from transportation typically generated by households in the Twin Cities region as a whole.
The project enjoys a Walk Score of 86 (“most errands can be accomplished on foot”), a Transit Score of 76 (“transit is convenient for most trips”) and a Bike Score of 96 (“flat as a pancake, excellent bike lanes”). I wish there weren’t freeways nearby, but one can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the very, very good.
The Rose is designed to be 75 percent more energy-efficient than required by regional industry standards. Solar thermal panels are arrayed on the south side of each building and provide 35 percent of hot water needs. All stormwater will be captured and treated on-site, and all landscaping irrigation will be provided by graywater collected in cisterns with a combined 500-cubic-feet capacity. There is much more detail about the project’s green features (as well as its financing) in ULI’s case study.
The Rose was developed jointly by Aeon, a “nonprofit developer, owner and manager of high-quality affordable apartments and townhomes which serve more than 4,500 people annually in the Twin Cities area,” and Hope Community, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit headquartered in The Rose’s neighborhood and whose mission is inclusive revitalization of distressed neighborhoods. The developers consciously undertook the project as a model that, while aspirational, would be built on a foundation of replicable components and processes that could be applied elsewhere. Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle of Minneapolis provided the project’s architecture.
Paseo Verde, Philadelphia
I have a small connection to my second example: Several years ago, my employer (at the time) Natural Resources Defense Council partnered with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and a number of local community development corporations to work on green neighborhood revitalization. We wanted to build on the investment we had made over more than a decade as a founding partner of both the LEED green building rating system and one of its most exciting offshoots, LEED for Neighborhood Development (which we had developed alongside the US Green Building Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism). Our thinking was that the standards of LEED-ND in particular could serve as guidelines for helping low-income communities and CDCs improve their own neighborhoods.
One of that revitalization program’s first undertakings was to advise the planning for a new affordable housing development in Philadelphia. The site was a bleak surface parking lot at the intersection of 9th and Berks Streets in a part of town that had suffered severe disinvestment over the years. But the location had some major assets, including an adjacent regional rail transit station and Temple University, just a couple of blocks to the west. It was the kind of urban neighborhood that, while perhaps not impressive at the time, was well situated to improve with the right kind of investment.
Little did we know then that Paseo Verde, as the new mixed-income development would be named, would become one of the greenest neighborhood-scaled developments in the US, earning platinum ratings from both LEED-ND and LEED for Homes.
An article posted on ULI’s Philadelphia blog site describes the transformation:
“Paseo Verde is a keystone development that connects an ethnically diverse, low-income neighborhood to the adjacent train station and to Temple University. Before the development, commuter trains hurried past a drab station and a dingy, fenced-in parking lot, shadowed by public housing on one side and blighted rowhouses on the other.
“Today, the same trains pull up alongside a mosaic of bright green panels, with tree-shaded roof gardens peeking through. A health clinic that had been hidden inside a public housing complex now announces its presence with a campanile, its wide windows facing a broad sidewalk bustling with pedestrians. Above are 120 environmentally sustainable homes—affordable for downtown commuters, university students, and families leaving public housing, all of whom enjoy green views and healthful amenities.”
As with The Rose, Paseo Verde is mixed-income: sixty-seven of those 120 units – all rental apartments – serve as market-rate housing while 53 are subsidized to be affordable to residents earning between 20 and 60 percent of the area median income. There is also a little more than 30,000 square feet of commercial space and a 994-square-feet community room.
Again, an appraisal of the development’s green features must start with its centrally located, highly transit-accessible and walkable site. Abogo estimates that households in the neighborhood generate, on average, only about 40 percent of the carbon emissions from transportation generated by households in the Philadelphia region as a whole. Paseo Verde’s Walk Score is 82; its Transit Score is 88; and its Bike Score is 72.
ULI’s case study on the development provides details on Paseo Verde’s many green features, and stresses that many of them double as amenities that help to market the project. Green infrastructure to control stormwater runoff, for example, includes “rain gardens, wide sidewalks with permeable paving, and green-roof courtyards that permit private decks for some apartments.” Indeed, the roofs are not only green in the sense that they are vegetated but also “blue,” collecting rainwater in specially designed fixtures that then release it gradually.
Energy efficiency measures include high-performance appliances within the individual homes (which are also individually metered) and rooftop solar panels that supply electricity to some of the development’s common areas. As in the case of The Rose in Minneapolis, great attention was paid to large windows to daylight both residences and common areas, providing tenants with views of green space and trees from every apartment and from the complex’s fitness room and inviting stairways.
Paseo Verde was developed by an equal partnership between the Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (Association of Puerto Ricans on the March), a Latino-based community development corporation with extensive experience in and a deep commitment to the project’s neighborhood, and Jonathan Rose Companies, a nationally known “mission-based, green real estate policy, development, project management and investment firm” headquartered in New York City. Architecture was provided by Wallace Roberts & Todd. In 2015 Paseo Verde was named project of the year by the US Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes program.
Via Verde, New York City
Finally, twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, one would have been hard pressed to name a more unlikely place for state-of-the-art green design than the south Bronx in New York City. Indeed, throughout the latter decades of the 20thcentury, the area stood as a national symbol of severe urban decay, best known for high rates of crime, gang-related drug violence, abandoned and decaying properties, and even an arson epidemic. It represented everything that had gone wrong in American cities.
But today the South Bronx is turning around, in some neighborhoods dramatically, and there is no better representative to illustrate that rebirth than what is probably so far the most celebrated of all US green affordable housing developments: Via Verde.
The blockquoted passages below have been excerpted and updated from my 2011 review of Via Verde, while the project was nearing completion:
Via Verde has some elements in common with The Rose and Paseo Verde but is much denser, befitting its New York location. It provides 151 rental apartments affordable to qualifying low-income households and 71 co-op ownership units affordable to middle-income households, all on a 1.5-acre site. The ownership homes comprise a diversity of types including single-family townhomes, duplex units, and live-work units with a first floor work/office space. There is also some 9,500 square feet of retail and community space.
As with the Minneapolis and Philadelphia developments, Via Verde’s location alone supplies a great head start on green performance, but in the case of Via Verde the numbers are even more dramatic. In particular, the New York City region as a whole has relatively low carbon emissions per household for transportation, but households in Via Verde can expect to generate only 12.5 percent of that already-low regional average, according to the Abogo calculator. The project’s Walk Score is a striking 98 (“walker’s paradise”); its Transit Score is 97 (“world-class”); and its Bike Score is 72.
What makes Via Verde especially noteworthy, though, is that the architectural and development team has created a distinctively innovative approach to green and healthy urban living: this begins with a spectacular stepped architectural form that creates 40,000 square feet (roughly an acre) of resident-accessible green rooftop terraces at varying heights. Intended to integrate nature with the city, the rooftops provide functioning green infrastructure that can harvest rainwater, grow fruits and vegetables, and provide open space for residents. The garden level in particular is intended to provide both an organizing architectural element and “a spiritual identity for the community,” according to the Rose Companies’ web site. (Like Philadelphia’s Paseo Verde, Via Verde was developed by a partnership including Jonathan Rose Companies.)
Other amenities that contribute to the project’s theme of healthy living include open air courtyards; a health education and wellness facility operated byMontefiore Medical Center; a fitness center; and bicycle storage areas.
Beyond health benefits, Via Verde also exceeds LEED Gold standards for building energy and performance. Along with the green roofs, which provide natural cooling in warm weather, the project utilizes low-tech strategies like cross ventilation, solar shading, and smart material choices, along with more tech-based strategies such as photovoltaic panels, high-efficiency mechanical systems, and energy-conserving appliances.
In one particularly innovative measure, the building’s design places some of the solar panels on the side of the building, not the roof as is customary; others are placed on canopies that provide shade for the garden areas. As a result, the roofs remain free for green space.
The project, which opened in 2012, was built by co-developers Phipps Housesand Jonathan Rose Companies, in partnership with Dattner Architects andGrimshaw Architects, pursuant to a commission won via the New Housing New York Legacy Competition. That competition was specifically intended to “re-engage design with the issue of affordable housing,” as former New York Housing Commissioner (and current federal budget director) Shaun Donovantold New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman.
The importance of leadership projects
Returning to Allison Arieff’s point that affordable housing has been “meant not only to look low-budget but also low-effort,” these three projects suggest that there is indeed a better way, with housing designed from the start to be and look impressive, and to be and look impressively green. And, while all three might be described as leadership projects and thus somewhat atypical, the fact is that low-income housing is becoming better and greener right before our eyes, in part because of their examples (and the many additional examples being set by nationally-active investors such as Enterprise Green Communities and LISC’sBuilding Sustainable Communities program).
Indeed, I’ve been in this line of work long enough to spot an emerging trend when I see it. Is it too much to believe that the results so far portend well for what could become a new ethic in the way that we as a nation approach affordable housing? In his review of Via Verde, Kimmelman wrote eloquently about the importance of leadership projects:
“Higher costs for green construction have, over recent years, come to be accepted as investments in long-term savings. But spending extra for anything as intangible as elegance or architectural distinction? In Via Verde’s case maybe 5 percent more, by [Jonathan] Rose’s estimate, went into the project’s roof and its fine, multipanel, multicolor facade, with big windows, sunshades and balconies. What is the value of architectural distinction? How, morally speaking, can it be weighed against the need for homes?
“In terms of equitability and self-worth Via Verde does more than just aim to provide decent housing that fits noiselessly into its neighborhood. It aims to stand out, aesthetically, formally, as a foreground building, not another background one: to anchor the urban hodgepodge around it and make the area look more coherent, which in this case entails not echoing its context but redefining it. What is that worth? . . .
“[A]rchitecture doesn’t solve unemployment or poverty, and neighborhoods rise or fall as decent places to live on the quality of their background buildings, which do and should predominate. But they’re distinguished by their landmarks, by the buildings and places that people come to love.
“The greenest and most economical architecture is ultimately the architecture that is preserved because it’s cherished. Bad designs, demolished after 20 years, as so many ill-conceived housing projects have been, are the costliest propositions in the end.”
I couldn’t agree more. All three of these projects give me hope, and not just for affordable housing.
A recently published report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials includes insights from dozens of officials and practitioners across North America.
The Loop Link design project in Chicago. (Nate Roseberry, courtesy of NACTO)
Not all urban planners or city governments agree on what kind of street designs are best. But one thing remains clear: Cities who want to plan for the future must prioritize transit accessibility.
To aid this process, the National Association of City Transportation Officials has devised a Transit Street Design Guide, which contains insights from 18 different transit agencies, as well as officials and practitioners in 45 North American cities.
The guide functions as a one-stop shop for designers, city planners, and all those interested in improving the safety and efficiency of their streets. While it serves as more of a toolbox than a prescriptive rule book, here are some of the main takeaways:
Separate transit from standard traffic. Both downtown streets and major corridors have the challenge of accommodating many different modes of transportation. One way to improve safety and efficiency in these high-density areas is to ensure that public transit remains separate from standard traffic. “Transit is often faced with automobile congestion at exactly the time when it needs to be running at the highest frequency and in the most reliable way,” says Matthew Roe, the director of NACTO’s Designing Cities Initiative. “By giving buses and trains their own space on the street, we can make transit work extremely well at exactly the times when people need it the most.”
To help accomplish this, the guide recommends designating certain lanes as “transit only.” According to Roe, the Bronx’s Webster Avenue, along with many streets in San Francisco, are fitting examples of transit-only lanes that have improved both safety and travel times.
In those areas where buses and trams already share the street with cars, Roe says there are “a number of other treatments” that can reduce interactions between cars and transit, including boarding islands and in-lane stops. In Seattle, one-lane streets in each direction even allow bicycles to travel behind bus stops, thereby improving bus travel times.
Don’t forget about pedestrians. “All across the United States and the world, there are bus systems that run on streets that were not designed to be walkable,” Roe tells CityLab. “It’s critical that, as we strive to increase transit ridership, we examine how these major streets work for pedestrians.” One way to accomplish this, according to the guide, is to increase the number of pedestrian crossings at intersections and shorten the distance between crossings. Along edgefront streets (those that run along waterfronts, parks, or campuses), for instance, there is little to no space for vehicles to cross on one side. This presents an opportunity to install extended transit lanes that separate pedestrians from car traffic, as shown in the image below.
Maximize speed and efficiency. By allowing transit vehicles to pull up within two inches of the platform or side of the street, transit curbs have a huge impact on speed and efficiency. These curbs should be clearly marked, over six inches high, and can be either concave or rectangular (the design standard), according to the guide. If possible, they should also be tapered at the point of entry and exit to minimize boarding time. As an alternative, the guide suggests installing a rubber rail or plastic bumper to allow buses to hug the curb.
Another important measure for improving efficiency is to include contraflow transit lanes in a city’s design plans. These lanes are designed for streets with one-way traffic, and are typically reserved for bicycles or buses. According to the guide, they allow for shorter travel times by reducing encounters with nearby traffic. A 1999 study from San Francisco’s Department of Parking and Traffic confirms these findings by looking at the success of the first contraflow bus lane in downtown San Francisco. After examining four intersections at various times of day for an entire month, the authors found that buses along this lane saved up to 8 minutes in travel time after the lane was installed.
Prioritize design over the mode of transit. Despite controversies surrounding recently built streetcar systems, the guide focuses on creating the right designs rather than installing the right form of transit. “Whether it’s a bus or a streetcar or full-scale light rail, what really matters is that transit gets the time and space it needs,” says Roe, noting that the St. Charles Streetcar—the world’s oldest continuously operating streetcar—is an essential part of the New Orleans transit network, and still boasts a hefty ridership.
Don’t just design for downtown. “For a long time, a lot of cities have had transit networks that were designed primarily to give downtown office workers an alternative way to get to work besides taking a car,” Roe says. “[But] when you look at cities like Houston that have redone their bus network to serve all the neighborhoods in the city, sometimes that means doing a grid rather than a hub-and-spoke model focused on downtown. When you do that kind of work and really examine where people are going, you find really large increases in ridership.”
In addition to downtown areas, neighborhood streets face their own set of obstacles. While these streets only suffer from moderate pedestrian or bicycle traffic, their limited width and capacity make it difficult to accommodate a community’s public transit needs. To address this, the guide recommends improving transit stops to include designated spaces for pick-up and drop-off, and installing “boarding bulbs”—or sidewalk extensions—so that buses can stay in their traffic lane without having to pull up to the curb. The guide also highlights the need for reasonably-priced curbside parking.
Make streets accessible for all. Already, the U.S. Access Board outlines various requirements for making streets accessible for wheelchair users. And yet Roe still finds that “there has been a significant gap in detailed guidance on how to make bus boarding wheelchair accessible in new configurations of streets.” In addition to the basic standards developed by the Access Board, the guide outlines its own recommendations for designers and city planners.
“One of the critical things about accessibility is that there a lots of ways to make a bus stop or a rail stop accessible,” Roe says. “When you strive for universal design and make a stop inherently accessible through its design, you can speed up the boarding process for everybody.” A number of cities currently rely on ramps or low-floor or kneeling buses instead of outmoded lifts to provide wheelchair access. These small changes can make all the difference when it comes to speeding up the boarding process.
Emphasize sustainability. Green transitways, or large green areas along or between bus or rail tracks, are a cost-effective way to make an environmental impact, according to the guide. In addition to improving the aesthetics of a neighborhood, these planted areas also help to manage stormwater. One promising example is the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Transit Project, which created an “eco-track” to collect stormwater runoff and prevent it from entering the sewer system. Small initiatives like this can make a huge difference for cities today and well into the future.
Legacy Oxnard Planning Documents
The 8 Principles for Better Streets and Better Cities
- WALK | Develop neighborhoods that promote walking
- CYCLE | Prioritize non-motorized transport networks
- CONNECT | Create dense networks of streets and paths
- TRANSIT | Locate development near high-quality public transport
- MIX | Plan for mixed use
- DENSIFY | Optimize density and transit capacity
- COMPACT | Create regions with short commutes
- SHIFT | Increase mobility by regulating parking and road use
ITDP aims to deliver a higher standard of living and quality of life for citizens of cities around the world. Through our transportation projects, we work to reduce human impact on natural resources and ecosystems, and to ensure that we develop in a way that benefits us all, both today and in the future.
Our vision of sustainable cities is one in which there is a high concentration of people living in an environment that is pleasant and provides good social infrastructure through good physical infrastructure. Cities where people are put before cars, and residents, workers and visitors young and old, can safely walk or cycle to their daily activities. Cities where jobs and services are a bus ride away, and the time and money spent driving can be used productively elsewhere. These are the kinds of cities that are attractive to us today – cities with less congestion, less pollution, fewer accidents, and healthier, safer, more productive communities. To achieve this, there are 8 principles which guide our approach to sustainable transport and development. These principles inform the TOD Standard, a guide and tool to help shape and assess urban developments.
Many streets in the oldest part of Quebec City are car-free much of the time. It is one of the most extensive car-free areas in North America. (CarfreeCities)
We must first remember that all cities were car-free little more than a century ago. Not all cities responded to the advent of automobiles with the same enthusiasm as the cities of the United States. In fact, some cities never did adopt the car. Venice was unwilling to destroy itself in order to build streets wide enough for cars, and therefore has never had them except in a sliver near the mainland. The same situation exists in the Medina of Fez, Morocco, and several other North African cities. These districts are usually the most vibrant parts of their cities.
Transport modes have always exerted a strong influence on the basic arrangement of cities. The current form began to emerge in the 15th century, when the advent of horse-drawn carriages led to a demand for wide, straight streets. This requirement was adopted by Renaissance planners in most of Europe, and most urban plans of the past 500 years have straight streets that are relatively wide and corners that accommodate turning carriages. In many ways, this change was a harbinger of the automobile.
Transport, however, is not the only important use of streets. Streets are also our most important public social spaces. Most cities in Europe now acknowledge the terrible damage cars have done to this use, which is why cities all across Europe are discouraging automobile use in favor of walking, cycling and public transport. This is most clearly illustrated in Oslo, the first European capital to announce that its downtown core will soon be made car-free in order to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality, as well as to improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.
[Other perspectives: Transit is dead. Let’s prepare for the next mobility revolution.]
Battery-powered and driverless cars do not affect this situation to any great degree. They still demand too much street space for their movement and use too much energy. The movement of significant numbers of cars through the streets will always damage streets’ social use, regardless of how quiet and safe the cars may be. Only when people can stop in the middle of the street to talk without fearing what may be bearing down on them will we have fully restored the social function of streets.
Good public transport coupled with fast, safe, pleasant walking and bicycling can easily meet the need for movement within our cities. It is true that buses and streetcars do intrude on the main streets to an appreciable degree, but many streets will be entirely free of this annoyance. In the ideal case, public transport systems are constructed underground. (Ideally, transport systems should never be elevated, because of the ugliness, intrusion and noise that that causes.) This will not be practical in many existing cities because of the cost, and some burden of street traffic will have to be endured.
A more serious objection to the car-free city is the movement of freight. When building a city, it is a simple matter to arrange delivery of shipping containers to the places they are needed without impinging on streets. In existing cities, freight delivery systems will have to be arranged on a case-by-case basis. Amsterdam could, with little difficulty, deliver freight using its canal network. Cities that adopt streetcars for passenger service can use the same infrastructure to deliver freight at night.
Removing vehicles from our streets would make urban life cheaper, safer, quieter and more pleasant. Repurposed parking spaces and, in some cases, travel lanes would provide ample land for walking and cycling, plus any essential street-running public services, such as light rail, trash collection and emergency services. The surplus land can be devoted to public purposes — imagine Manhattan with sidewalks 15 feet wider and room for sidewalk cafes.
Governments should welcome the change. The cost of supporting car traffic far exceeds the revenues generated by user fees. In Europe, it is the densest places that are first made car-free, and the pedestrian traffic generated by these places is the heaviest in the city. Stores and restaurants thrive in these areas.
I believe that the social benefits alone entirely justify the change. Imagine a busy city that is calm, quiet and beautiful. Venice, which comes closest to meeting this test, is visited by 20 million people a year, the most of any Italian city. Other car-free areas are immensely popular with residents and tourists alike. Shopkeepers have often opposed these changes, only to discover that their business improved once cars were gone.
It is true that a certain degree of convenience must be sacrificed for this change. However, the benefits are large, and we can expect significant improvements in public health as people return to more active modes of transport. The noise reduction alone is a significant public health benefit.
The car century was a seductive mistake. It’s time to move on.
New data from Zillow shows that average urban home prices in the U.S. now surpass those of the suburbs.
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, urban and suburban homes in the U.S. used to be worth about the same on a per-square foot basis. But since the mid-2000s, urban homes have been worth more per square foot. Today, as a fascinating new report from Zillow on the shifting geography of American home values explores, urban homes nationwide are now valued at roughly 25 percent more than suburban ones on a per-square foot basis ($198 versus $156 per square foot).
What’s more, by the end of 2015, the average value of an urban home exceeded that of its suburban counterparts by 2 percent ($269,036 compared to $263,987). As the chart below shows, this overturns a long-held pattern of suburban homes having higher values than homes in urban areas—and this despite the fact that suburban homes tend to be considerably larger than urban ones.
This trend is clearly being driven by the extremely high price of urban homes in talent and knowledge hubs such as San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C. In Boston, for example, urban and suburban homes were each valued at around $100 per square foot in 1997. By 2015, Boston’s urban homes were worth nearly $400 per square foot compared to nearly $250 per square foot for suburban ones.
In Washington, D.C., urban and suburban home values also started off at around $100 per square foot in 1997. By 2015, urban values exceeded $300 per square foot compared to around $225 per square foot for suburban homes. And in San Francisco, urban and suburban homes were each worth about $150 per square foot in 1997. But by 2015, urban homes commanded nearly $700 per square foot compared to nearly $500 per square foot in the suburbs.
In some metros, urban and suburban values have in fact grown more or less in tandem. In L.A., for example, urban and suburban home values started off at roughly the same level (around $120 per square foot in 1997) and by 2015, both were worth roughly $400 per square foot.
Detroit, unsurprisingly, bucks all these trends. Back in 1997, both suburban and exurban homes there were valued at around $85 per square foot, compared to nearly $70 per square foot for homes in urban neighborhoods. Today, exurban homes command the highest prices per square foot—roughly $115—compared to $105 per square foot for suburban homes and just $55 per square foot for homes in urban neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, home values per square foot for metros like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Cleveland are in fact highest in suburban areas today, followed closely by rural ones.
Still, while the pattern of rising home values in the U.S. certainly differs by location, the overall trend does appear to signal a growing preference for urban living over the past decade. Zillow’s report built upon the economist Jed Kolko’s methodology for identifying urban, suburban, rural areas based on ZIP code density, and one of its most striking findings is that between 2010 and 2015, growth in the value of urban homes nationwide far outpaced that of the suburbs. Over this period, average urban home values increased by more than 28 percent, compared to just 21 percent for suburban homes. Last year alone, urban home values nationwide grew by 7.5 percent, compared to 5.9 percent for those in suburban areas.
As the Zillow report puts it, “The suburban home—long a symbol of success, stability and the American Dream—appears to be losing some of its luster as the appeal of city living gains steam and urban homes grow in value more quickly.”
The Oxnard Community Planning Group has assembled some of the best video on walkable community and sustainable downtowns. If you have a suggestion for a video that might be included here – click the contact link above – and let us know.
Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time
A Best Book of the Year according to Planetizen and the American Society of Landscape Architects
Jeff Speck has dedicated his career to determining what makes cities thrive. And he has boiled it down to one key factor: walkability.
Making downtown into a walkable, viable community is the essential fix for the typical American city; it is eminently achievable and its benefits are manifold. Walk-able City―bursting with sharp observations and key insights into how urban change happens―lays out a practical, necessary, and inspiring vision for how to make American cities great again.
The Smart Growth Manual
Everyone is calling for smart growth…but what exactly is it? In The Smart Growth Manual, two leading city planners provide a thorough answer. From the expanse of the metropolis to the detail of the window box, they address the pressing challenges of urban development with easy-to-follow advice and broad array of best practices.
With their landmark book Suburban Nation, Andres Duany and Jeff Speck “set forth more clearly than anyone has done in our time the elements of good town planning” (The New Yorker). With this long-awaited companion volume, the authors have organized the latest contributions of new urbanism, green design, and healthy communities into a comprehensive handbook, fully illustrated with the built work of the nation’s leading practitioners.
“The Smart Growth Manual is an indispensable guide to city planning. This kind of progressive development is the only way to fully restore our economic strength and create new jobs, new industries, and a renewed ability to compete in the first rank of world economies.” — Gavin Newsom, Mayor of San Francisco
“Authors Andres Duany, Jeff Speck, and Mike Lydon have created The Smart Growth Manual, a resource which not only explains the overarching ideals of smart growth, but a manual that takes the time to show smart growth principles at each geographic scale (region, neighborhood, street, building). I highly recommend [it] as a part of any community participant’s or urban planner’s desktop references.” — LocalPlan.org
Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change
In the twenty-first century, cities worldwide must respond to a growing and diverse population, ever-shifting economic conditions, new technologies, and a changing climate. Short-term, community-based projectsandmdash;from pop-up parks to open streets initiativesandmdash;have become a powerful and adaptable new tool of urban activists, planners, and policy-makers seeking to drive lasting improvements in their cities and beyond. These quick, often low-cost, and creative projects are the essence of the Tactical Urbanism movement. Whether creating vibrant plazas seemingly overnight or re-imagining parking spaces as neighborhood gathering places, they offer a way to gain public and government support for investing in permanent projects, inspiring residents and civic leaders to experience and shape urban spaces in a new way.
Tactical Urbanism, written by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, two founders of the movement, promises to be the foundational guide for urban transformation. The authors begin with an in-depth history of the Tactical Urbanism movement and its place among other social, political, and urban planning trends. A detailed set of case studies, from guerilla wayfinding signs in Raleigh, to pavement transformed into parks in San Francisco, to a street art campaign leading to a new streetcar line in El Paso, demonstrate the breadth and scalability of tactical urbanism interventions. Finally, the book provides a detailed toolkit for conceiving, planning, and carrying out projects, including how to adapt them based on local needs and challenges.
Tactical Urbanism will inspire and empower a new generation of engaged citizens, urban designers, land use planners, architects, and policymakers to become key actors in the transformation of their communities.
A conversation with Gabriel Metcalf on his new book, Democratic by Design.
“Things aren’t right in America today”: In his important new book on social innovation, Gabriel Metcalf—executive director of the urban policy think tank SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association) and a CityLab contributor—opens with this all-too-familiar sentiment. Rising inequality, deepening segregation, and increasingly unaffordable housing are just a few of the many problems currently plaguing the U.S. These issues are no more evident than in America’s dense, large urban communities, which boast some of the greatest technology and innovation in the world, but also some of the harshest economic and class divides.
To make things right, Metcalf argues in Democratic by Design, we need to make more and better use of alternative institutions like cooperatives and community land trusts to help build more sustainable, socially responsible, and prosperous communities. Drawing from his experience as an urbanist and one of the founders of the car-sharing movement in North America, Metcalf documents how a range of alternative institutions—which operate outside of traditional government agencies and differ from traditional companies—can help U.S. cities tackle some of the major issues they face today.
To delve deeper into this, I put a series of questions to Metcalf about exactly how he sees these alternative institutions helping to build better and more sustainable cities in the future.
When do alternative institutions actually succeed at becoming the new normal? What is the secret sauce to making that happen?
The idea is to create living examples of a better society, which can be studied, improved on, and hopefully scaled up. The book profiles some very successful examples, but it also tries to look honestly at failures. Based on the case studies, I identify a few key ingredients that are essential for success:
First, organizers have to pick the right institution—something that can work within the world as it is today, while also opening up possibilities for a different world.
Second, I think it’s really important to be oriented toward engagement with the broadest possible set of people—to recruit, in other words—rather than treating alternative institutions as a means of escape from the dominant society. The hope is that the alternative institutions can actually grow and outcompete the mainstream institutions, and this can only happen if the organizers have a real commitment to connecting with new people.
Third, the most successful examples of an alternative institution strategy involved the creation of networks. Alternative institutions work best when they are embedded in a broader progressive movement, and when they are linked up with other alternative institutions.
Your experience with co-founding San Francisco’s City CarShare informs many of your insights on sustainable living. What was the impetus for starting the program, and what do you think it achieved in the city of San Francisco?
We got the idea for City CarShare from the Berlin car-sharing co-ops in the early 1990s. As a group of young sustainable city activists, it had a lot of intuitive appeal. If nothing else, reducing the number of cars that have to be stored inside urban areas would free up real estate for better uses—parks, housing, whatever. We also understood the so-called “love affair with the automobile” as a cultural pattern that was deeply ingrained with oil wars and suburban sprawl and a very destructive form of settlement pattern, so we thought anything we could do to re-position the meaning of the car in American society would be helpful.
We had a lot of big dreams for this project. And some of them came true. I think it’s amazing to see how much young people today are doing everything they can to avoid the hassles of car ownership. But we have a long way to go.
How has the concept of alternative institutions evolved since credit unions and co-ops first came on the scene?
There have been several big waves of alternative institution-building in the United States. Some of the most long-lived institutions date from the New Deal era—credit unions, rural electricity co-ops, and the like. The New Left of the 1960s launched a wave of free clinics, organic food co-ops, and alternative newspapers. I’ve personally gotten very interested in attempts to develop new ways to manage and allocate the “big resources”—land and capital—so I spend a lot of time on those.
You describe city-building as a “layering of history” in which “each generation builds to solve the problems it faces.” What does the role of alternative institutions look like in our future cities?
Cities are almost never built from scratch. Part of what I’m trying to do is unpack the political intention behind city building—to make the goals and ideals visible. And I think that one of the ways we achieve abstract goals like promoting sustainability or resilience or equity or community is through devising different physical arrangements and different institutional forms for our cities.
There is a major role for alternative institutions in our future cities. This includes a lot more experimentation with physical form and infrastructure—more ecologically benign buildings, a reinvention of public space, a rethinking of mobility systems, and an embrace of new models for providing renewable energy. It also includes a new wave of experiments with place-based economic development. And most fundamentally, it involves the creation of new institutions of land ownership and stewardship.
Your book cites some examples of current efforts that have a lot of potential. Which of them stands out to you as particularly exemplary?
Some of the alternative institutions I am most excited about today include community land trusts (I profile the Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington), attempts to link anchor institutions to local economic development strategies (the Evergreen workers cooperatives in Cleveland), and efforts to redeploy capital to socially responsible firms—both non-profit and for profit—to enlarge the space for high-road enterprises.
One of the interesting parts of the book is the “Appendix,” where you develop a sort of intellectual history of the idea of alternative institutions. What were the most important influences on your thinking as you put that together?
The Appendix is actually one of my favorite parts of the whole book, because that’s where I get to give credit to some of the thinkers who mattered most to me. I draw on everything from deToqueville and Putnam on voluntary associations, to the social anarchists of the 19th century, who wanted to “prefigure” the way a society would work in their ideal world. Gar Alperovitz of the Democracy Collaborative has done a lot of the most practical work developing and supporting alternative institutions and thinking through a theory of how they can lead to widespread social change. One of my own teachers, the late Murray Bookchin, was a major influence on me in his writings about democracy, cities, and alternative institutions. I hope that my book helps give this strategy a higher profile, and that other people—both theorists and activists—will pick up the ideas and develop them in new ways.
“We don’t know what the hell to do about it,” says one planner. “It’s like pondering the imponderable.”
Self-driving cars have the potential to be the most transformative force in American cities since the development of the interstate system. And yet when it comes to preparing for the future of autonomous travel, urban planners have been largely idle. Just how idle? As of mid-2013, just one of the 25 largest metropolitan planning organizations in the U.S. had so much as mentioneddriverless cars in its long-term regional plan.
This bleak preparatory record comes courtesy of University of Pennsylvania planning scholar Erick Guerra, who reports the findings in the Journal of Planning Education and Research. Federal law requires MPOs to produce regional plans every four years that look at least 20 years out—a horizon that could easily coincide with the mainstream arrival of self-driving cars. But when Guerra combed these plans for signs of autonomous vehicles, he came up virtually empty.
That lone mention, for the record, came from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which guides Philly’s greater metro area. It was tucked away in what Guerra describes as a “brief sidebar.”
In other words, none of the planning organizations looking after America’s 25 biggest metros had incorporated self-driving cars into their urban development outlook in a substantial way, even looking ahead two decades. The timeline is unsettling, as is the scope: together, these 25 areas make up 40 percent of the national population. And if these MPOs weren’t on top of things, writes Guerra, it stands to reason that smaller cities haven’t prepared much for driverless cars, either.
So what’s the holdup here? To get a better sense, Guerra interviewed some of the planners in the MPOs whose reports he’d explored.
“Pondering the imponderable”
It’s not for lack of awareness. Local planners obviously know about driverless cars, and many who discussed them with Guerra used technical jargon like “Level 4,” which describes a fully autonomous vehicle. Nor is there any lack of technological faith. Guerra found the planners to be “cautiously optimistic, rather than skeptical” that self-driving cars would not only emerge in the coming years but have a big impact on travel behavior, safety, and urban land use—the very mandates of MPO existence.
The biggest factor, then, is not uncertainty about whether or not self-driving cars will change urban transportation. Rather, it’s uncertainty over just what those changes will look like, and how these shifts will impact major planning investments already underway. One planner put it bluntly: “We don’t know what the hell to do about it. It’s like pondering the imponderable.”
Fair enough. No one knows for sure what types of social changes will come with driverless cars, and the possible outcomes can vary dramatically. On one hand, if people buy their own autonomous vehicles, they might also choose to live farther away from work, knowing their commute will be less stressful and likely more productive. On the other hand, if people partake in shared networks of robotaxis—buying mobility by the drink instead of the bottle, as Princeton’s Alain Kornhauser puts it—they might double down on the convenience of central city life.
But even the MPOs interviewed by Guerra recognize that too much hesitation over imponderables becomes its own sort of planning decision. Take a basic highway expansion plan that’s in the works. Local officials might go through with the project, only to discover that the extra lanes are unnecessary in an age of driverless cars, which can safely operate closer together and thus serve as a de facto road expansion by themselves. There’s only so much road money to go around: using it for expansion instead of maintenance can be a big mistake.
Several interviewees worried that a number of currently planned investments might be unnecessary if driverless cars increase effective roadway capacity.
Worse yet, if the planners who best understand local transportation networks don’t set their sights on a driverless world, politicians with particular agendas will do it for them. Just look at the case of Pinellas County, Florida. Last fall, one local official used the promise of self-driving cars to oppose increased bus service and a new light rail system for the area, based on the (highly debatable) presumption that autonomous technology would make public transportation obsolete.
It’s not too soon, but getting late
There are understandable reasons why some MPOs are reluctant to engage with planning changes of this magnitude. MPOs are conservative and largely reactive by nature. Insofar as their jobs guide the wise use of limited taxpayer funding, they’re wary of pushing piles of public money toward speculative ends. Self-driving cars are but one of many potential transportation game-changers (Philly’s long-range plan lists 31 others). It’s impossible to prepare for every one with equal intensity.
And it’s not as if MPOs are doing nothing. Planners told Guerra they hold plenty of meetings about self-driving cars. Some try to model it. San Francisco, Seattle, and Atlanta, for instance, have tested out different scenarios of driverless life. Nearly all those analyses expect driving (as measured by vehicle miles traveled) to go up, a finding that’s in keeping with academic research. At the same time, MPOs don’t feel confident enough in the existing models to rely on them for planning purposes—a fear that, per Guerra, is both sensible and risky:
Unfortunately, the extent and direction self-driving cars’ impacts, particularly if transformative, are unlikely to be fully understood until they have already started to happen.
For his part, Guerra offers several suggestions to MPOs. He urges them not to envision a perfect future where the technology totally or immediately eliminates huge problems like congestion, crashes, or pollution. He also pushes for adaptable plans that evaluate “a range of potential outcomes,” as opposed to one-size-fits-all plans that have become the norm. And he encourages MPOs to pursue investments that make sense with or without driverless cars: bridge repairs or pedestrian projects, for instance, will remain relevant in any foreseeable future.
Along those lines, it also makes sense for planners at all levels to look for areas where existing patterns and driverless possibilities converge. Parking policy is a clear example. As more and more cities realize the problems with excess parking—namely, higher rents and worse traffic—they’re eliminating or reducing their developer parking requirements. In a driverless age, when people can either send their cars home or hop in a robocab, dedicating lots of public space to parking makes less sense still.
Some federal guidance would help. There’s been little of it to date. The U.S. Department of Transportation has explored connected technology that can coordinate travel patterns among cars, roads, and traffic infrastructure, but autonomous vehicles can operate without these intelligent networks in place. The DOT just announced a $40 million contest for the midsized city that crafts the most tech-savvy transportation plan, but major metros aren’t eligible. The new transportation bill did set aside a little funding for autonomous vehicle research, but it’s probably less than what tech start-ups spend each year on pita chips.
Whatever it takes to get MPOs and local governments thinking about the impact of driverless cars on urban development, the better. At this point, given the pace of planning operations, there’s probably no such thing as too soon. But there’s definitely a too late.