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!
Innovators at summit brainstorm ways the city can further transform itselfBY BETTINA BOXALL
When Michael Maltzan visited Los Angeles in the 1980s with a group of architectural students, he was comfortable in a way that many of his fellow travelers were not.
L.A. conveyed the same low-density, car-friendly vibe that he grew up with in the Long Island suburbs — the sense that “you could just go,” he recalled Friday.
Los Angeles, in some ways, still clings wistfully to that identity even as it grows up instead of out, builds light rail instead of freeways and transforms its long-neglected downtown into a cultural center and home to tens of thousands.
The challenges and promise of that transition were the focus of discussion at the Los Angeles Times Summit on the future of cities, held at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
“I think there’s a psychological change,” said Maltzan, the founder of Michael Maltzan Architecture. There “is more anxiety, fear around development,” than decades past, when L.A. just kept pushing out and out.
Now the city is folding back on itself, ind the boundary pushing has to come by way of architecture and innovative infrastructure projects that wire density into commercial thoroughfares without overwhelming neighborhoods, he said.
Instead of a bridge having one use, it can be equipped with solar panels to generate electricity and collect stormwater — as Maltzan has proposed for a reimagined Arroyo Seco Bridge in Pasadena.
“For me that’s the future of infrastructure,” said Maltzan, whose firm designed the One Santa Fe apartment complex in the downtown Arts District and the Sixth Street Viaduct that will span the Los Angeles River.
Paul Schimmel, partner at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, said the international arts gallery found its inspiration in the past, in the form of a more than century-old flour mill in the Arts District.
“It was really the space,” that allowed his firm to transform the building into an enormous gallery space that is fast becoming a community hub with its courtyard and restaurant.
For much of its modern history, Los Angeles was obsessed with private space — the joys of a backyard, a single family home and a solo drive down an open freeway.
But now there is a hunger for walkable public areas, a need that is reflected in plans for the Los Angeles River corridor, downtown’s Grand Park and the popularity of neighborhoods like the Arts District.
“We’re returning to a sense of community,” Schimmel said, adding that the city needs to improve access to pedestrian areas.
“Maybe do a little work on the streets,” he said wryly.
As to whether $6 coffees and upscale apartment construction were driving artists out of the Arts District, Schimmel said he suspected the neighborhood was too expensive for artists before the arrival of bars and restaurants.
But the transformation was much slower than he expected. “In the early ’80s I thought it would be the next Soho,” he said.
“People love the idea of what it was” — a gritty creative community, Schimmel said. Though some of the grit has been scrubbed off the downtown arts scene, “it seems to have roots,” he added.
Moreover, the messy sprawl of the L.A. Basin still offers plenty of relatively cheap industrial space that artists can turn into studios, Schimmel said, citing moves to warehouses in the Interstate 10 corridor.
He also suggested it was time for Santa Monica, an arts incubator in the 1970s and 1980s, “to make its next big move … This is a community that needs to step up again and take the leadership it has in the past.”
Other panelists discussed a more disturbing change in the Los Angeles landscape: the explosive growth in homelessness.
In 1980, people were not living on the streets, said Tanya Tull, founder and CEO of Partnering for Change and an expert in family homelessness.
“Just about everything we’ve done” to address the homeless problem nationally, Tull said, “we’ve done wrong.”
Funneling most funding into supportive housing for the mentally ill will not end homelessness, she argued. “We cannot build ourselves out of this.”
Rather, Tull said, rent subsidies are critical to countering the spiraling cost of housing in Los Angeles that has driven families and individuals to the streets and kept them there, sometimes for years.
She also said local government should be more open to nonconventional housing, such as the “teensy” apartment units San Francisco is experimenting with.
“Don’t you think it’s better to have a tiny apartment than a tent?” Tull asked.
Brian Lane, a principal of Koning Eizenberg Architecture, which designs affordable housing projects, argued that L.A. needs to shed the notion that a neighborhood always equals single-family homes.
The city has “miles and miles” of single-story commercial strips that can be rebuilt with greater density and create neighborhoods around transit hubs, he said.
Sam Polk is a former hedge-fund trader on Wall Street who is working on another shortage — healthy fresh food in poor city neighborhoods that he calls “food deserts.”
Polk founded the nonprofit Groceryships, which does educational outreach to improve eating habits in parts of the city dominated by fast-food restaurants.
He also co-founded Everytable, which prepares meals in a central kitchen and then sells them to go in storefronts.
The prices vary according to what a neighborhood can afford.
Someone living in South L.A., for instance, pays $4 for the same meal that costs a buyer $8 on the Westside.
“Healthy food is a human right,” Polk said, pointing out that it simply took some innovative thinking to develop the Everytable business model.
In perhaps the most optimistic prediction uttered at the Summit, he declared: “We are on the verge of becoming one of the great cities of the world.”
The authors of Global Cities, Local Streets make a case for preserving small-scale retail.
In the few short months that I’ve lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, two new bars have opened within a block of my apartment. The neighborhood, once notorious for violent crime, is in the midst of what The New York Timesdescribes as a “renaissance.” New restaurants, cafés, and boutiques draw people from all over the borough, mostly to one street: Franklin Avenue.
“The shopping and commercial activity on a street, whether it’s done by locals or not, really defines how we understand the changes taking place in a neighborhood,” says Phil Kasinitz, a sociology professor at the CUNY Graduate Center. Kasinitz, along with Sharon Zukin of the CUNY Graduate Center and Xiangming Chen of Trinity College, is the author of the new book Global Cities, Local Streets: Everyday Diversity from New York to Shanghai (Routledge, $32).
In the book, the authors examine 12 shopping streets in six cities—New York, Shanghai, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Toronto—to demonstrate how global and cultural shifts play out in local enclaves.The authors discovered patterns across the sites: chain stores invading shopping streets at the expense of mom-and-pops; bars, coffee shops, and art galleries cropping up as harbingers of what the authors call “gentrification by hipsters”; immigrants from around the world establishing small businesses in neighborhoods where they may not live, creating a “super-diversity” that reflects and informs shifts taking hold in cities.
Change at the neighborhood level, Kasinitz says, is often quantified through residential data. But it’s local shopping streets, Zukin adds, that function “as the public face of communities.” In Global Cities, Local Streets, the authors argue that these streets are essential for cities’ character.
CityLab caught up with Kasinitz and Zukin to discuss shopping streets and how communities should preserve them.
What did you look for in selecting the streets to research for the book? What purpose do they serve?
ZUKIN: We were searching for streets that were important in terms of neighborhood identity, but weren’t central business corridors or necessarily well-known on a broader scale. These are normal, local marketplaces, surrounded by residential areas, where people supply themselves with the everyday necessities of life. In New York, we chose Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, which has a tradition of small-scale bargain shopping, over, say, Fifth Avenue. In the book, we quote a passage from E.B. White’s Here is New York, where he describes the city as a patchwork of neighborhoods, marked by the repetition of these local shopping streets. It’s a beautiful way of representing what feels like the soul of any big city: this village-like nature. Local shopping streets enable interactions between strangers; it’s a respite from some of the alienation and anonymity of the city.
One of the main points you make throughout the book is how, despite their local specificity, these streets reflect globalization. How so?
KASINITZ: In big, modern cities, local shopping streets, when they work well, strike a balance between neighbors and strangers. They’re cosmopolitan spaces. In working with colleagues all over the world on this book, it was surprising to learn that the owners of small shops on local streets are usually outsiders in some sense: they’re often ethnic minorities, immigrants, or out-of-towners. They may not live in the area themselves, but they become the pillars of the neighborhood because they spend more of their waking hours there than many of the residents do.
Small businesses are often under threat in cities. What’s at stake for neighborhoods if these local streets are not sustained?
KASINITZ: It’s a story you hear over and over again: In major cities that are growing increasingly expensive, landlords will raise the rents dramatically at the end of long leases, forcing out mom-and-pop tenants because they know they can make more money by brining in a chain store, like a Starbucks or a Duane Reade. But if everyone’s thinking along those lines, then the street becomes homogenous—there’s no reason to come back to it anymore. It’s the greater-fool theory at work. Right now, huge rent increases encourage instability, which means that landlords will continue to charge more to factor in a period of vacancy every few years. When people hear commercial rent regulation, they compare it to the residential system and freak out, but there has to be a way for cities to discourage massive rent increases and diminish the turnover of small businesses.
What other steps can cities take to preserve local shopping streets?
KASINITZ: You don’t want to preserve the streets like a fly in amber. We’re not advocating that every mom-and-pop be granted some landmark status that can’t be changed; cities are functional, living things, and local streets respond to that.
ZUKIN: You can’t just host a “shop local” campaign to raise awareness about the need for these businesses. There has to be conversation between stakeholders and city council members, in all places across the globe, to discuss legal solutions that are both constitutional and effective. In many places, you can’t prohibit certain kinds of businesses, like chain stores, from opening, but the size of a store can be legislated. Keeping the scale of shops on these streets physically small and economically small is something that can be done—the Manhattan borough president, Gail Brewer, limited the size of storefronts along Amsterdam Avenue to effectively stop big banks from taking over.
And there also needs to be consideration for the factors that sustain the diversity of these streets—class, race, and immigration. If cities continue to permit these expensive changes on local streets, they’ll shut out immigrant entrepreneurship and abet the upscaling of neighborhoods to benefit only more affluent people. In many cities, demographic shifts along the shopping street don’t align with the residential population. City governments could offer apprenticeship systems or financial support to potential owners, who could oversee the next generation of small businesses serving local communities.
Do you think that local shopping streets will continue to survive in major cities?
ZUKIN: At least in the United States, we have an advantage: we’ve gone over the hump of modernization. We’ve had supermarkets, we’ve had transnational chains, and we’ve started to move away from completely embracing those models. Now, I think there’s a growing culture of appreciation for specificity; people are again seeing the value of small shops.
Global Cities, Local Streets, $32 at Amazon.
THE NATIONAL POLITICAL dialogue is suffused with substantive issues like Benghazi, beauty pageants, and the best debate memes. But the biggest bugbear in neighborhood politics just got some serious side eye from the Obama administration: Parking.
It sounds bitty and trivial, but parking is a very big deal in city halls and neighborhood associations. Even dense cities like New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, have long required developers to cough up enough parking to serve the residential projects they hope to build.
If you live in the neighborhood, this makes sense—you don’t want n00bs taking your spot. But as cities impotently scrabble to keep housing affordable, requiring developers to provide off-street parking feels like dead weight. The cost—up to $60,000 per underground spot—can kill projects before they even start. And you could argue that it’s better to use that land for bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms, not hunks of metal that spend most of the day sitting still. Don’t forget that in 2013, more than a quarter of US renters spend over 50 percent of their monthly incomeon housing. Affordability is a huge problem.
Indeed, says the White House. In a Housing Development Toolkit released Monday, the Obama administration calls off-street parking minimums an affordable housing no-no. “When transit-oriented developments are intended to help reduce automobile dependence,” it says, “parking requirements can undermine that goal by inducing new residents to drive, thereby counteracting city goals for increased use of public transit, walking and biking.”
Granted, the toolkit is merely a list of recommendations, with no teeth. And cities control zoning laws that dictate things like off-street parking. But the Obama administration is reiterating what urban planners have long said: Parking ain’t great for your city. And cities are finally listening.
Death to the Parking Lot
People have written tomes detailing the downsides of the urban parking lot, but let’s lay out the case against it real quick. By investing in cycling infrastructure, sidewalks, and bikeshare programs, dense cities have made it clear they don’t want people driving. But requiring developers to provide parking incentivizes car purchases—along with congestion and pollution. UCLA urban planner Donald Shoup found that people searching for parking in one 15-block stretch of Los Angeles burn 47,000 gallons of gas and produce 730 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Parking requirements are especially nonsensical in a real estate landscape where buyers pay a premium to live near transit and not have a car. In fact, the requirements effectively tax those who don’t want or can’t afford a car, by passing that cost on to them. And don’t forget that the cost of parking often prevents affordable housing development.
Building parking lots to reduce the demand for on-street parking doesn’t actually work, says Michael Manville, an urban planner who studies land use and traffic congestion at UCLA. “The street is an unpriced commons, which is why you have a shortage of parking,” he says. Cities once thought they could protect free parking and make existing residents happy by passing the hidden costs of those spots on to new residents. But the free spots will always be full—thanks, Econ 101. Manville says any city worried about parking should do the smart but unpopular thing: require permits or install meters.
The Very Slow Death of the Parking Lot
Into this lake of evidence wades the White House. It isn’t the first to do so. People like Manville have been warning anyone who will listen about the downsides of off-street parking minimums for at least 15 years. And cities have been getting in on the anti-parking lot regs for almost a decade. Seattle relaxed requirements for developments within a quarter-mile of mass transit in 2012. New York City and Denver did much the same for low-income housing. Other cities aregranting developers waivers to parking requirements, but they aren’t making it easy.
You can attribute the change in part to a growing shortage of affordable housing, says Stockton Williams, the executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing. And you can expect such policies to become more popular as the affordable housing crisis reaches ever further into the middle class. “Affordability is increasingly understood to be a problem that affects people beyond those in the lowest income bracket,” says Williams. Even tech workers feel the squeeze.
Of course, hitting parking where it hurts is no panacea. The White House toolkit points out other important policy adjustments—like taxing vacant land, zoning for density, and letting homeowners build additional dwellings in their backyards—that will promote affordable housing. All of them must be enacted together to keep everyone housed.
But the White House has said its piece. “Obama’s a lame duck, but as [his administration is] heading out the door, they can choose to make bold statements on any number of fronts. The fact that one of the fronts they chose to make a statement on is zoning, I think, is symbolically important,” says Manville, the urban planner.
Symbols serve their purpose, so go sleep in your nearest parking lot tonight.
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
CBE 2015 Geoff Dyer
This is a brilliant article on Placemaking by CNU-CA’s Howard Blackson. It’s a short easy read if you skim it – it’s a deep tretis on Placemaking if you think about each of the C’s and how it applies to your daily civic meanderings and our city. How does Oxnard compare to the 5 C’s – does it work? And where does it not work and what would it take to make it work? – OCPG
I live in a city that is currently updating its Community Plans. This is an historically difficult planning job because Community Plans transcend both broad policy statements (such as the amorphous “New development should be in harmony with surrounding development…”) and specific development regulations (“Front yard setbacks shall be 25 feet deep from property line…”). An issue with updating Community-scaled plans is the personal sentiment people feel for their homes and the difficulty we have in expressing such emotion within conventional 2D planning documents. The source of most conflicts and confusion I see occurring during these updates is due to the confusion over the scale and size difference of a ‘Community’ versus a ‘Neighborhood’ unit.
A community is defined as, “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.” Many places have different communities inhabiting them, such as an elderly, or arts, or ethnic community living and/or working in close proximity to one another. Even the internet can be considered a place inhabited by many diverse communities. So the scale, parameters, and character of a community-scaled planning effort is difficult to define.
Usually, community planning areas are defined by political boundaries, or historic development plats and, in some deplorable cases, old insurance red-lining practices that gave a city its initial zoning districts. This being the case, I contend that the neighborhood unit is a better tool to define, plan, and express policies and regulations necessary to preserve, enhance and, yes, build great places.
The neighborhood is a physical place — varied in intensity from more rural to more urban — that many different communities inhabit. At its essence, whether downtown, midtown or out-of-town, its health and viability (in terms of both resilience and quality of life) is defined by certain basic characteristics. Easily observable in neighborhoods that work, these characteristics have been articulated a variety of ways over the years — most notably for me by Andrés Duany and Mike Stepnor. Combined, they form what I like to call the 5 Cs:
Great neighborhoods host a mix of uses in order to provide for our daily need to live, work, play, worship, dine, shop, and talk to each other. Each neighborhood has a center, a general middle area, and an edge. The reason suburban sprawl sprawls is because it has no defined centers and therefore no defined edge. Civic spaces generally (though not always) define a neighborhood’s center while commerce tends to happen on the edges, on more highly traffic-ed streets and intersections easily accessible by two or more neighborhoods. The more connected a neighborhood is, the more variety of commercial goods and services can be offered, as not every neighborhood needs a tuxedo shop or a class ‘A’ office building.
The 5-minute walk from center to edge, a basic rule-of-thumb for walkability, equates to approximately 80 to 160 acres, or 9 to 18 city blocks. This general area includes public streets, parks, and natural lands, as well as private blocks, spaces and private buildings. This scale may constrict in the dead of winter and/or heat of summer, and expand during more temperate months. Compactness comes in a range of intensities that are dependent upon local context. Therefore, more urban neighborhoods, such as those found in Brooklyn, are significantly more compact than a new neighborhood located, for example, outside Taos, New Mexico. Remember, the ped-shed is a general guide for identifying the center and edge of a neighborhood. Each neighborhood must be defined by its local context, meaning shapes can, and absolutely do, vary. Edges may be delineated by high speed thoroughfares (such as within Chicago’s vast grid), steep slopes and natural corridors (as found in Los Angeles), or other physical barriers.
Great neighborhoods are walkable, drivable, and bike-able with or without transit access. But, these are just modes of transportation. To be socially connected, neighborhoods should also be linger-able, sit-able, and hang out-able.
Great neighborhoods have a variety of civic spaces, such as plazas, greens, recreational parks, and natural parks. They have civic buildings, such a libraries, post offices, churches, community centers and assembly halls. They should also have a variety of thoroughfare types, such as cross-town boulevards, Main Streets, residential avenues, streets, alleys, bike lanes and paths. Due to their inherent need for a variety of land uses, they provide many different types of private buildings such as residences, offices, commercial buildings and mixed-use buildings. This complexity of having both public and private buildings and places provides the elements that define a neighborhood’s character.
The livability and social aspect of a neighborhood is driven by the many and varied communities that not only inhabit, but meet, get together, and socialize within a neighborhood. Meaning “friendly, lively and enjoyable,” convivial neighborhoods provide the gathering places — the coffee shops, pubs, ice creme shops, churches, clubhouses, parks, front yards, street fairs, block parties, living rooms, back yards, stoops, dog parks, restaurants and plazas — that connect people. How we’re able to socially connect physically is what defines our ability to endure and thrive culturally. It’s these connections that ultimately build a sense of place, a sense of safety, and opportunities for enjoyment… which is hard to maintain when trying to update a community plan without utilizing the Neighborhood Unit as the key planning tool.
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.
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.
Many residents express concern over the kind of growth they are experiencing, but few realize that this growth has not occurred in a vacuum. Transportation policies, lending practices, funding priorities, and consumer preferences have all had a profound impact on the shape of our communities. Even more significant, however, are local government zoning and development regulations, which often mandate the very development patterns that many lament, while making anything else illegal.
In order to change the physical design of neighborhoods, towns, and cities, and realize the visions of diverse community-based plans, zoning and development regulations (collectively known as “codes”) must change. However, the ability to implement a new design plan is not the only reason to change existing codes. For one thing, current regulations are often the result of many years of individual text amendments and ordinances, and internal inconsistencies are common in amended regulations. In some communities, codes are even unwritten, but have been applied for so long that nobody questions whether or not they are still valid.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to updating codes. Different communities have different visions, staffing resources, and regulatory priorities. Additionally, different parts of the existing code may work perfectly fine, while others are grossly inadequate. After careful review, one community may benefit from creating minor amendments to existing codes, while others may wish to throw the whole thing out and start from scratch. Not surprisingly, most coding projects fall somewhere in between these two options.
The work begins by reviewing the existing codes and pinpointing how well they do or do not align with the master plan and other public policies. The ability of the governmental staff to administer the codes is always key to this phase. The process leads to a determination of where changes are needed and what they should entail. Typically, these include expanding permitted housing types and uses, addressing the relationship between building facades and the public realm, revising density standards, incorporating streetscape requirements, modernizing parking requirements and much more. The next step is to work closely with local stakeholders to actually write and adopt the necessary code changes.
Once a new code is adopted, some communities transform gradually, while others have dramatic opportunities to redefine themselves. This is the case with the City of Doraville, Georgia—a suburb of Atlanta—where, for decades, much of the commercial and residential development supported the city’s General Motors assembly plant. When the plant was slated to close, city leaders saw the opportunity to create a master plan for a model mixed-use area centered on the city’s public transit station. The plan is designed to improve connections and encourage pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development (see regulating plan and rendering, below).
Doraville’s traditional code primarily supported single-use development and had to be rewritten to allow increased density to support a vibrant community center and ensure multiple transportation options. The new code has been dubbed, “The Livable Community Code,” and it is already attracting developers eager to participate in Doraville’s renaissance.
It doesn’t always take a major event like Doraville experienced to galvanize a community to envision and bring about positive change. Woodstock, Georgia—a more distant Atlanta suburb—is a great example. The railroad town was chartered in 1897, but in recent decades, the surrounding strip shopping centers and malls drew business away from Main Street. By the 1990s, it looked like a town that time had passed by.
After studying what had been accomplished in other communities, city leadership brought in a team to recommend how to best revive the town center without losing its history and character. Numerous community meetings were held to solicit input, and from there, a vision was created using the Atlanta Regional Commission’s LCI (Livable Centers Initiative) program.
Because of the LCI, developers were attracted to the city, and ultimately a team of commercial, retail and residential specialists worked together to shape the town. It quickly became apparent that the new vision could not become a reality under the city’s existing codes, so our firm, TSW, wrote new zoning codes to allow and encourage the higher-density, mixed-use development envisioned by the town’s leadership and citizens. Woodstock’s elected officials also worked with downtown churches to loosen the existing alcohol restrictions to make the town more appealing to restaurants.
The 32-acre area was officially named Woodstock Downtown. Historic buildings were renovated into shops and restaurants and a new five-story residential building with retail on the ground floor was designed to blend into its historic surroundings (see photo at top of article). New homes of various sizes now surround the downtown area. And, throughout the process, the vision and redevelopment stayed true to Woodstock’s roots as a historic railroad town.
These are but two communities where newly-adopted codes have already started to lay the foundation for a better tomorrow. And, best of all, the new codes not only allow the cities and towns to move forward with today’s vision, but they have paved the way for the communities to grow organically over time to meet the future needs of the new generations who will one day live, work and play there.
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.
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.
Models matter. Let’s design more streets like the streets we already love.
When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when you’re a traffic engineer, it seems, everything looks like a highway.
If traffic engineers did not control the design of so many of our public spaces, this might not be a problem. But they do—and that’s especially true here in the U.S. Even when traffic engineers have the best intentions, too many simply lack the tools to make successful places. In the typical American city, asking a traffic engineer to design a walkable street is like asking a hammer to insert a screw.
In my last article for CityLab, 18 months ago, I wrote about over-wide driving lanes, and how they encourage speeding and make our streets more deadly. That piece, others like it, and the labors of many have helped to bring about a change in the way that U.S. engineers think about lane widths. While the war is by no means won, many transportation departments are beginning to accept narrower standards. The profession had shown itself capable of reform.
This gives me hope, and prompts me to take the conversation to a higher level. What is the next urgent battle to be fought in the name of more walkable, livable streets and communities? So many things come to mind: the value of trees, the need for parallel parking to protect the sidewalk, the epidemic of unnecessary traffic signals, the mandate for truly buffered bike lanes. . . the list goes on. But what if there were one category that managed to include all the others?
I believe there is, and it goes like this: models matter.
In other words, pay attention to precedent. So, you’re designing a street? Great! What street do you want it to be like? Does it look like that street? Not really? Why not? Where is there a street like the one you just drew? Is it any good?
Sounds obvious enough, right? Then why does it seem to happen so rarely? Are plans that hard to read? Why is it that engineers, planners, citizens, and the media all regularly don’t ask these questions?
Case in point: consider this recent example from Lowell, Massachusetts, a city with a great history of urban wisdom. Thanks to several decades of pro-planning public servants and a great non-profit called The Lowell Plan, the city has reinvented itself as a smaller, less expensive Boston, a place that now attracts residents and businesses to its great urbanism, focus on higher education, and commitment to historic preservation and the arts. Its once-abandoned downtown mills are now full of middle-class lofts, and a third wave of redevelopment is well underway.
Lowell is a city I know intimately, having lived there for some time in 2010 as I completed an “evolution plan” for the downtown. That plan is now being implemented and has, among other things, reverted a confusing and speedy network of one-way streets back to calmer two-way traffic. Lowell is a city that gets things done.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across an article earlier this month about the city’s plans for its southern gateway, the Lord Overpass. This site is particularly important to Lowell, being an area of major redevelopment as well as the key link from the train station (at right in the image below) to downtown (beyond the canal to the left). This collection of streets—a squared traffic circle floating above a highway—is due for reconstruction, and the city came up with the smart idea of putting the depressed highway back up at grade to create more of an urban boulevard condition.
At the level of intention, this seemed a wise plan. It is hard to find a pleasant urban place with two levels of streets, unless the lower level is completely hidden, and it was beyond the budget here to fully cap the highway. There are many good examples of surface boulevards that handle as much traffic as this section of road does, and replacing highways with boulevards is something that U.S. cities know how to do at this point. It turned out that, for the $15 million price tag of rebuilding the bridges, the city could just as easily truck in enough dirt to fill the hole. So far, so good.
But then came the plan, and my reason for writing this article. Picture in your mind a classic large urban street, one that will attract pedestrians while also moving a lot of traffic. Perhaps you are imagining Paris’s Avenue Marceau, Barcelona’s Passeig de Gràcia, or Washington’s K Street? Now look at the image below.
Not quite what you had in mind? Yeah, me neither. I have to reach the conclusion that the distinctions between the two models of boulevard and highway are actually more subtle than I am suggesting, because this drawing was created by a skilled engineering team, embraced by the City Council, local non-profits, and newspaper, and presented this month to resounding applause from neighborhood residents.
So, let’s zoom in and describe what we see:
- Four lanes dedicated to motion straight through, just like the now-submerged highway;
- Three lanes dedicated to turning motions, two of which swoop around the edges in great curves;
- Two dedicated bus lanes, each about 17 feet wide, curb-to-curb. (A bus is 8 1/2 feet wide, so perhaps the goal is to squeeze two past each other?);
- Bike lanes that are partly protected, partly unprotected, and partly merged into the bus lanes;
- A collection of treeless concrete wedges, medians, and “pork chops” directing the flow of vehicles;
- No parallel parking on either the main road or any of the roads intersecting it; and
- Green swales lining the streets, resulting in set-back properties to the one side and open space to the other. (Note that the open space at the bottom of the drawing is too shallow to put a building on.)
Not listed above, but perhaps of the greatest concern, is the issue of precedent. While there exist a growing number of locations in America with street configurations like this one, it is impossible to name one with street life. Swoopy configurations like this design are found mostly in suburban drive-only locations out by the mall, not in cities. If no attractive place can be found with a similar configuration, then a design should not pass the street-planning smell test.
The comparison of drive-only suburbia with walkable cities then allows us to make this critique of the approved plan:
- Walkable streets do not have swoops, slip lanes, pork chops, and other features that encourage drivers to make fast turns;
- Walkable streets have narrow lanes, typically 10 feet wide—even for buses;
- Walkable streets place continuous shade trees in any medians;
- Walkable streets have parallel parking along every curb, to protect pedestrians (and potentially bikes) from moving traffic; and
- Walkable streets are lined by buildings that give them life, and in urban locations these buildings are tall and sit directly against the sidewalk.
All of the above criteria, in addition to making pedestrians feel welcome, contribute to an environment in which cars drive more safely. Students of urban form will recognize that they all come from studying the proper model, the classic boulevard.
If the goal is to move lots of traffic in a walkable urban environment, there is only one time-tested model. As so well described in The Boulevard Book by Alan Jacobs, all successful boulevards follow certain rules, including those above. Since we know that proper boulevards make successful places, a respect for precedent gives us clear direction here.
So, what would this stretch of road look like as a boulevard? I took a stab at it above. To satisfy the car counters—because they always win—I even added a lane, to match the current condition. This proposal, one of many possible solutions, includes a 4-lane, high-volume center flanked by two 2-lane side roads. One of the lanes on each side can be dedicated to buses, if so desired. Each side road is flanked by parallel parking, and protected bike lanes are placed in the outer edge of the sidewalk, European style. All intersecting streets maintain parallel parking on both sides, and corners are tight, with no swoops. Street trees fill both medians, aligned with the trees in the sidewalks.
Nothing is wider than it needs to be, and the whole facility hugs the properties to one side, with no swales or setbacks. This leads to something surprising: free land. Three large and valuable building sites are now available in what is planned to remain wasted space alongside the railroad. This is great news, for two reasons. First, because the sale of this land—more than an acre of prime real estate—can be used to defray the costs of the project. Second, because a street is only as good as its edges. Without the spatial definition, activity, and supervision provided by buildings against the sidewalk, a boulevard is not complete.
This design was done quickly and could no doubt be improved. It is presented with the confidence that it follows a well-established model, and its outcomes can be predicted. Sadly, the current proposal that it hopes to replace also follows a well-established model, with predictable outcomes. These outcomes are a far cry from those currently anticipated by the good people of Lowell.
City planning is not just an art, but also a profession, and like in the professions of law or medicine, its practitioners have a responsibility to learn from past successes and failures. Study of precedent makes it clear that boulevards create street life and enhance real estate value, while highways obliterate street life and sunder real estate value. It is not too late for Lowell to embrace a model that will transform this site from a place that is easy to get through to a place worth arriving at. Similarly, all of our cities, as they contemplate expensive reconstruction of obsolete roadways, have two models to choose from, one led by engineering, and another led by precedent: the study of places we love.
Legacy Oxnard Planning Documents
A new report from Obama’s science and tech advisors outlines the case for an urban-focused technology policy.
I’ve long complained that U.S. cities are not getting the attention they deserve from the federal government, even though they are the nation’s fundamental engines of innovation and economic progress. But that may be starting to change, thanks to a new report from President Obama’s high-level Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).
In the report, titled Cities and the Future of Technology, PCAST makes the case for putting cities at the very center of America’s innovation strategy and technology policy. The report is the product of a blue-ribbon panel of the nation’s leading scientists, technologists, and urbanists such as John P. Holdren (the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology), Alphabet’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Doctoroff, the CEO of Sidewalk Labs.
Ultimately, PCAST argues in favor of a “place-based” policy that uses investments to embed the most advanced technology in urban infrastructure. It maintains that the U.S. needs a bold new approach that goes beyond the current emphasis on smart cities. In other words, the nation and its cities should use technology not only to upgrade and transform aging infrastructure, but to reshape the way cities operate from top to bottom. Doing so will save energy, reduce traffic and congestion, create more sustainable and competitive cities, and bolster the innovation and competitiveness of the U.S. more broadly, according to the report.
In advancing its findings, the report focuses on several dimensions of cities and technology.
Transportation: The report highlights efforts to develop driverless vehicles, or CAVs. These kinds of developments, the report argues, not only pose significant money-saving opportunities, but are also responsible for placing the nation “on the verge of large-scale transformation.” Considering the cost of traffic collisions ($300 billion per year), vehicular congestion ($124 billion per year), and related health-care incidents ($50-80 billion per year) in the U.S., the report finds that the nation could save around $1.2 trillion per year if people refrained from driving.
Energy: From electric energy systems to electric vehicles, the increasing “electrification” of our cities is helping to protect our environment and benefit our economy in the long run, the report argues. The report also focuses on the concept of “District Energy,” which uses technology to coordinate the local production of energy with its local uses. In 2015, three cities—Burlington, Vermont; Greensburg, Kansas; and Aspen, Colorado—already declared themselves 100 percent renewable, the report finds.
Buildings and Housing: While nearly 67 percent of cities worldwide have committed to green-building codes, only 12 U.S. cities rank among the leading cities for environmental design. To fix this, the report recommends a number of changes, including the integration of sensory technology that understands and responds to changes in the environment.
Water: With regard to our world’s most precious resource, the report focuses on storm water systems as a means of improving water infrastructure at the local level. Over in Los Angeles, for instance, the report finds that the city could triple or even quadruple its storm-water capture by 2099 by adding these systems in households and neighborhood districts.
Factories and Farms: Technology is not only transforming high-end knowledge fields, but labor-intensive fields like manufacturing and farming as well. When it comes to manufacturing, the report focuses on the need to take advantage of the growth of high-tech industries by creating jobs for low-income residents. When it comes to urban farming, the report emphasizes the need for soil-less agriculture systems and praises the work of rooftop greenhouses in places like Brooklyn, Queens, and Chicago.
Most of all, the report makes the case for stronger involvement of the federal government in the crucial nexus of cities and technology. Many have argued that cities can solve their own problems, or even that mayors should rule the world, but the report smartly recognizes that such massive investments in infrastructure need the support of the federal government.
To that end, the report makes four specific recommendations.
Invest in and experiment with technology: First, the report recommends the creation of a new Cities Innovation Technology Investment Initiative, or CITII, to coordinate city-by-city efforts and enhance urban innovation across the nation. At the outset, this initiative would select five districts—at least two of which are low-income communities—to receive $30-40 million for technology advancements. The initiative would also designate certain federal agencies as “districts of experimentation” to test out new technologies. Finally, the report recommends that the CITII develop training and certification programs to turn new innovation into a means of job production.
Set up innovation laboratories: Next, the report recommends creating new “innovation laboratories” within the Department of Housing and Urban Development to assemble the same technological resources that many governmental agencies have already.
Focus on infrastructure and low-income communities: The report recommends that cities develop “Urban Development Districts,” which would receive funding from the Treasury to generate innovation in low-income districts. Along these same lines, the authors support the approval of public infrastructure bonds that would incentivize private investment in tech-based urban innovation.
Coordinate research: Finally, a new Urban Science Technology Initiative should be created within the National Science and Technology Council to coordinate federally funded research (both short- and long-term) across these agencies.
The report recognizes that cities are the key to both developing and deploying new technology. Just as technology led to massive advances in manufacturing—from automation and robotics to more efficient supply chains and deliveries—so too does it promise to improve the productivity of cities and urban infrastructure.
The big problem, of course, lies in our increasingly polarized and dysfunctional political system that will make it hard, if not impossible, to do the kinds of things the report outlines. Still, the report does much to show why we need to put cities at the center of our strategy for innovation and economic competitiveness.
For three generations, the American Dream was largely defined by continual suburban expansion. The dream was based on exclusivity and “keeping up with the Joneses.” Driving was so essential that all other means of getting around became practically impossible. Privacy was everything.
A new America Dream has emerged in recent years. It is based on social and cultural diversity and the idea of community. This dream is more about great streets than highways. You can drive if you want, but you can also walk, ride a bike, take transit, or join carshare. In this dream, the things you are connected to are more important than who you are separated from.
The old American Dream has not gone away, but it has been eclipsed. Here are 10 reasons why the new dream is here to stay, in a countdown list:
10) Driving has been declining for 10 years. “Our national flower is the concrete cloverleaf,” wrote Lewis Mumford in 1961. Driving per person continued to rise steadily for 43 years after that, and then it stopped. Automobile miles per capita have declined every year since 2004. Also, those concrete cloverleafs have become expensive maintenance problems. One could say the national flower has begun to wilt.
9) Millennials want urban place. Today’s young adults – the Millennials — were the first generation to be born and raised mostly in communities where the indoor mall was the main street and the parking lot was the town square. As adults, this generation rejected the isolation and generic character of drive-only suburbs. Millennials aren’t the only people today embracing compact, mixed-use neighborhoods — but a dramatic shift in youth preference points to a long-term trend.
8) Walkable places help you climb the ladder of success. The story of ambitious young people going to the city to make something of their lives appears again and again in our literature, movies, and theater. This story is not just a literary device, according to a 2013 study. Social mobility is higher in compact urban places, Arizona State University researchers found. The more walkable the census block — as measured by Walk Score — the more likely someone from the bottom fifth of income will reach the top fifth in their lives. It is no wonder then that New York City — America’s most walkable city — is a magnet for immigrants and other folks pursuing the American Dream.
7) Productivity and innovation thrive as density rises. Studies in recent years have shown that in compact places with good transit, economic activity rises due to more face-to-face contact with knowledgeable people (link, link).
6) You are more likely to be famous if you are born in an urban place.Tiger moms take note! If you want your children to be successful enough to be profiled in Wikipedia, the odds rise substantially if you raise them in a big city — or small city anchored by a university. The New York Times came to that conclusion in a geographical analysis of Wikipedia biographies. Ironically, for several generations, parents have moved to distant suburbs to give children a better chance of success. Notes the Times, “growing up near ideas is better than growing up near backyards.”
5) You are less likely to die in a pool of blood if you are raised in an urban place. Parents have long moved to quiet suburbs for safety. Some are questioning whether this quest for safety has gone too far. The entire culture of childhood has changed, according to a recent article in The Atlantic. Children no longer have their own places to roam and explore. Moreover, a 2013 University of Pennsylvania/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) study challenges the entire notion that suburbs are safer. The study examines, for the first time comprehensively, all kinds of accidental and violent deaths in America. Contrary to conventional wisdom, urban streets are significantly safer than leafy suburbs and rural areas. While counterintuitive at first glance, the finding is not hard to fathom if you think about it. The number one US cause of death from ages 5 to 34 is automobile crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Deadly automobile crashes are far less likely on lower-speed urban streets.
4) Bicycles: The new status symbol. A generation ago, bicycles were considered to be a child’s toy. Now they are a status symbol for communities. As Jeff Speck writes in Walkable City, “A bold green stripe down the side of a street — or many streets — tells residents and potential residents that a city supports alternative transportation, healthy lifestyles and cycling culture, and that it welcomes the sort of people who get around on bikes. For the most part, those people are the millennials and creatives who will help a city thrive.”
3) McMansions are losing their luster. In the 1990s, a McMansion was the ultimate symbol that the homeowner had “made it.” Inside, the house was luxurious. But the chief selling point was the message it sent from the curb: The owners, and all of their neighbors, have enough money that they can afford to be wasteful on lawn and landscaping, excessive architectural details, pointless variety in rooflines and materials, and general bloat. Today, we have endured a Great Recession and climate change is an ongoing concern. The McMansion’s underlying message of wasteful spending, poor taste, and big carbon footprint projects a less flattering image on homeowners. As Billy Joel once said, “Is that all you get for your money?”
Photo by Lee Sobel
2) Downtown and in-town neighborhoods are home to the “creative class.” Coming up with this term has made the career of author, academic, and researcher Richard Florida. Whether urban or suburban, big city or small, communities want the educated people that provide the economic spark — known as the “creative class.” Seeking the creative class, businesses have begun moving back into town from suburban campuses.
And the number one reason why we have a new American Dream:
Would you rather have this?
Van Buren Street, Phoenix, today. Image courtesy of Duany Plater-Zyberk.
The first image, a commercial strip arterial, has one big advantage: It is legal.
The second image is not technically difficult to achieve. Most zoning codes and the automobile-oriented practices of departments of transportation stand in the way. This new American Dream has the market on its side, but will require coalitions in local communities to muster the political will for reform.
I could come up with 10 or 20 more reasons for the new American Dream. Could you?
Robert Steuteville is executive director and editor of Better! Cities & Towns, dedicated to communications, competence, and coalitions for better cities and towns.
“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.
The One Chart That Explains All Your Traffic Woes
If you’ve ever found yourself stuck in traffic in your metro area, you might want to print out the chart below, tape it to your wall, and use it for dart practice. It comes via a guest post at the Transportationist by Wes Marshall, and it explains so very much of your earthly woe.
The red line represents vehicle flow along a given road. Traffic steadily rises until someone decides the road needs to be widened. Then the original trend line (dotted red) gets replaced with an even greater travel forecast (dotted orange), as we’d expect by creating more road capacity. But the actual new level of travel developed by this widening (solid red) is even greater than the forecast predicted.
In other words, widening a road invites more cars onto it. That principle, known as “induced demand,” is captured by the grey arrows showing the gap between a travel forecast and an actual travel outcome. Here’s Marshall on the “triple convergence” of induced demand:
First, existing road users might change the time of day when they travel; instead of leaving at 5 AM to beat traffic, the newly widened road entices them to leave for work with everyone else. Second, those traveling a different route might switch and drive along the newly widened option. Third, those previously using other modes such as transit, walking, bicycling, or even carpooling may now decide to drive or drive alone instead.
The roots of this principle trace back to the fine work of Anthony Downs, who decades ago discovered a fundamental law of rush-hour expressway congestion. (Recent scholarship has expanded that law to include a “broad class of major urban roads” rather than just highways or expressways.) In 2004, Downs wrote there are four ways to address the problem, but that three of them—peak-hour tolls, greatly expand road capacity, and greatly expand transit capacity—are “politically infeasible or physically or financially impossible in the US.”
That leaves the fourth: live with it. He writes:
Congestion is an essential mechanism for coping with excess demand for road space. We need it! Peak-hour congestion is the balancing mechanism that makes it possible for Americans to pursue goals they value, such as working while others do, living in low-density settlements, and having many choices of places to live and work.
That’s not to say cities should just throw up their hands. By creating strong transit corridors, building dense housing near these areas, and charging a cost of driving that takes congestion into account, the situation can and will improve. New roads can help, too, but only for a while. Before you know it, traffic will be bad again, and local government will need new tax revenues to maintain the extra highway capacity that’s started to crumble. Hey—watch where you’re aiming that dart.
The severely scaled-down units are neither a utopia nor a dystopia. In fact, they expand housing options across many demographics.
It’s like Yoda once said: “Size matters not.”
Put aside for the moment the size of the units in Carmel Place, a new multifamily housing development that just went up in New York City. Here are a few numbers that matter more than the square footage: Carmel Place is a nine-story development that includes 55 units. Of those, 33 units are designated market-rate; eight of the 22 units slotted for affordable housing are reserved for very-low-income renters.
Sounds good, right? Moreover, as Co.Design notes, the building’s designer, nArchitects, didn’t skimp on the details. These prefabricated units come with hardwood floors, storage lofts, Juliet balconies, the works—everything you’d expect from an upscale housing development in Manhattan.
So what’s all the fuss? That last detail—the average unit size—was hard fought. Under former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city waived a zoning rule that required apartments to be no less than 400 square feet in size. The building is the winning design for adAPT NYC, a program to build a pilot for prefabricated micro-housing in New York. Units in Carmel Place range from roughly 250 to 350 square feet, and the market-rate ones will rent for up to $3,000 per month.
Micro-apartments are finally starting to arrive. There are (at least) 11 different micro-apartment developments in the works, according to a report from Curbed, from the Ivy Lofts in Houston to the Patterson Mansion in Washington, D.C. Or put another way, there are a dozen new apartment buildings headed for markets where some buyers or renters appear to want to live in them.
The problem is that some other buyers or renters in those markets do not want people buying or renting units in these buildings. That’s why a story that otherwise overwhelmingly showers the Carmel Place project with praise takes such a grim headline (“Micro Apartments: Utopia or Dystopia?”). Taken broadly, residents who dread micro-housing fear that micro-units will displace family housing, that young renters will overwhelm available infrastructure, or even—as The Atlantic suggested in 2013—that micro-housing poses a health risk to inhabitants.
But the NIMBYs are wrong about micro-apartments. The people who fear micro-housing mistake the symptoms of the disease for the cure.
When renters can’t find individual units, they take up family units
Families often complain that there isn’t enough housing to suit their needs, especially for large families. They’re right. In Seattle, for example, just two percent of market-rate apartment units have three or more bedrooms, according to a 2014 report by the Seattle Planning Commission. The last thing that these families need—especially low-income families and larger families of color—is to compete with single, young professionals for that limited housing stock.
Yet zoning for approximately 65 percent of Seattle’s land area is designated single-family, meaning that the options across much of the city are restricted to what’s already been built. That’s good news for incumbent homeowners, but bad news for people who want to move to Seattle. The city’s not an outlier in this regard, of course: Low-density zoning spurs young renters to rent group houses (or “stealth dorms” as the case may be) all over the nation. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but when single renters can’t find good options in a growing job market, chances are that renting families won’t find them, either.
“As supply-and-demand skeptics are fond of pointing out, real estate is not an undifferentiated commodity, but in fact is a variety of products tailored to a wide range of tastes and requirements,” writes Martin H. Duke of the Seattle Transit Blog. “The housing shortage cuts across all parts of the market, but it’s hardest to see a simple solution for large households,” he adds.
And that’s right—except that single renters do not differentiate between housing that is “for” them and other housing that is “for” families. One way to ensure that the housing market meets the demands of both is to permit zoning that allows cities to meet more kinds of demands—and in the context of the ongoing affordable housing crisis, that means upzoning.
Banning micro-units doesn’t make them go away
Take a tour of San Francisco’s bunk-bed listings for a vivid illustration of the point. In a very extreme shortage of affordable housing, renters may (apparently) make the transition from group houses to group bedrooms.
Incidentally, making sure that housing is legal, affordable, regulated, and, well, available is one way to guarantee against any truly adverse health effects from shared living. The alleged increased health costs specifically associated with micro-housing … well, I don’t want to say that they’re not bad. But they can’t be any worse than the health costs of unaffordable housing. It’s arguable that the stress of unsafe, uncertain, or unsustainable living situations—housing insecurity, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it—outweighs the potential crowding-related stress of micro-apartment living.
And if it’s true that 30- and 40-year-olds respond poorly, psychologically, to sharing common spaces (I do), then one way to guarantee against such dire ends is to permit the kind of zoning that meets demand so that they aren’t competing with 20-year-olds for housing in the first place.
Micro-housing isn’t a trend in search of a problem
Mark Hogan, a San Francisco–based architect, made an invaluable contribution to the culture earlier this year when he posted the dispositive case against shipping-container housing. A brief gloss: Acquiring or proofing existing shipping containers isn’t as cheap as folks might guess, and it’s not cheaper than manufacturing prefabricated housing units. The work it takes to turn shipping containers into housing fit for humans makes this option cost prohibitive. And while they may look cool in renderings, they’re not sized for living spaces for people.
Hogan’s critical point is this one: “Housing is usually not a technology problem.” It’s not as if shipping-container homes improve upon normal homes or that normal homes have some fault that shipping containers don’t. The issue is that shipping containers are a trend that appears (quite mistakenly) to be a type of free housing that we are ignoring or a type of improved housing that we never had before. Neither of those things is true.
It’s certainly the case that micro-housing looks trendy, in part because it is presented in savvy renderings by smart architectural firms such as nArchitects. But micro-apartments are also not a type of new housing we’ve never seen before. They’re apartments. Advances in technology and interior design make micro-housing possible without requiring that micro-apartments be tenements, boarding houses, or single-room-occupancy hotels. But the concept of multifamily living is preserved (even if the division of amenities changes).
Further, shifts in demographics—and in justice, labor, technology—make multifamily housing more desirable than the detached homes once sought by nuclear families. Or, if not more desirable, then fairer and more sustainable. Micro-housing is neither a utopia nor a dystopia. It’s just creating smaller-scaled places for living that suit the times.