CNU conversations: Can we build authentic, small-scale communities that subtly adapt to change?

A few thoughts on a CNU 23 presentation by Russell Preston and Matt Lambert about their ongoing work on defining and fostering authenticity within New Urbanist places. Other thoughts will be forthcoming, as I write them up.

Once and forevermore

Do design and development really disrupt enduring neighborhoods? This block in Guangzhou, China, changed tremendously, but in some ways didn’t change at all.

1. Role of design
Flexible, adaptable buildings allow uses to change in their natural cycles. Crucially, notoriously fickle uses like production and retail must be given room to adapt. Not only do shop concepts and merchandise change, but the volume of these uses needed rises and falls with economic cycles. Tactical urbanism has shown us that design details may not be quite as important as broader questions of scale and program. Such a “stage set” approach may be especially appropriate in an era where programs frequently change.

2. Small scale
To the extent that smaller, more “honest” enterprises can be designed around, perhaps the best physical model relies on creating adaptable space along many smaller frontages — a fractal approach, as it were. More marginal businesses have long turned to side streets and passages to be near, but not in the middle of, the retail action.

Since these frontages are inherently not as valuable, they can remain affordable even amidst higher rents for premier locations nearby. Just as coach houses are “naturally affordable housing,” consider the value of alleys, passages, and even enclosed arcades as “naturally affordable retail.”

Another CNU 23 session, ostensibly about pedestrian malls, featured examples of pedestrian-only ancillary passages where smaller retailers thrive just off Main Street. Beth Anne Macdonald spoke about Division Street in Somerville, N.J., where commerce has thrived after the street was turned into a pedestrian mall in 2012. Division (like Bethesda Lane, which Tim Zork presented at the same session) was intended as shared space but ended up being car-free 24/7 — a testament to that type’s tremendous flexibility. Despite its Spartan design of concrete and streetlamps, Division is thoroughly programmed year-round.

Downtown in the distance

Kensington Market in Toronto has a built environment that’s a terrible jumble of everything, but it gets the scale — and thus the feel — just right. It’s car-free on summer Sundays, thanks to gates that cost just $180,000.

Similarly, I’m setting up a walking tour in October of how retail is thriving away from the main streets in Georgetown, along its alleys, side streets, and the pedestrian-only C&O trail. The neighborhood’s historic scale — its small blocks and small spaces — and relatively flexible zoning permits this natural shift between uses. That these processes can work illustrates two chapters in “Death and Life”: small blocks and aged buildings.

Of course, financing these spaces can be a challenge. Yet this country is plagued with throwaway retail space, much of it ancillary to upstairs office and residential. Whether the ground floor of an apartment complex is given over to “amenity space,” or to small retailers who may or may not reliably pay rent, shouldn’t be of much interest to the bankers — and, arguably, many of the apartment tenants might well prefer the latter! Designing the public and private spaces with the flexibility to accommodate whatever uses might be demanded could prove a greater challenge.

At the Louisville NextGen meeting, the one example of a new-construction informal street market that I could think of was a set of buildings in Downtown LA’s Fashion District. They appeared to have been built largely as paid parking garages, for which there are many local comparables, but had clear-span ground floors to accommodate small wholesale clothing retailers. It was awesome.

3. Policy and non-market structures
Market prices for prime space in gateway cities have — due to high outside-investor interest — reached heights that stifle innovation and organizations that evaluate their impact in primarily non-market means. Furthermore, not all institutions are lucky enough to have purchased their property “back when it was cheap.”

The 5M model (final program & renderings) has promise — identifying “community anchors” more broadly than just non-profits, offering free or discounted space to these community serving entities, and profiting by selling ancillary services. The other innovation is that this project’s pro forma has been turned on its head: the community space is accepted as a given at the starting point, and the market-rate buildings sized accordingly. (Since every development in San Francisco is discretionary, you might as well ask for the moon.)

But what about the next community that comes along? Will tomorrow’s fresh ideas and institutions have similarly protected spaces? Is this model flexible enough to accommodate new institutions, or shifting missions among the existing institutions? Rather like rent control, this approach privileges those who showed up at the right time, excludes newcomers — and leaves the question of capital renewal unanswered. Could a similar space, like [innovation] District Hall, be continually refreshed with new concepts and competitions on a regular basis?

(We had a detailed conversation about a potential corporate structure to ensure long-term community affordability on the following day. Notes about that conversation are forthcoming.)

4. Chinatowns, new
At least some suburban communities have successfully retrofitted smaller scale uses into strip-mall suburbia: the “ethnoburbs” that Asian immigrants have settled across North America. Even shiny, new buildings still foster small businesses, due in part to high density, tiny footprints (see above), management that understands the business models, and perhaps other factors that could be identified.

Meanwhile in ethnoburbia

San Gabriel, Calif.

These retail centers can be built in a more transit-oriented manner; the vertical malls cropping up around Flushing have a mind-boggling spatial complexity. The vertiginous skyscrapers of Hong Kong, clustered around mass transit, have organically evolved 3-D pedestrian networks so intricate that they defy description, but which host all sorts of authentic communities.

5. Chinatowns, old
These neighborhoods appear to maintain a remarkably stable level of economic diversity — of activities, of economic groups — and appear, from the outside, to have stable populations. Yes, some of this stability is real, and partially results from capital that gets locally recycled, through local institutions.

But what looks like stability from the outside also hides considerable turbulence under the surface. There’s constant upheaval among the community’s participants, as high in-migration balances out community members “lost” to assimilation. By and large, assimilation (as institutional racism declines/morphs) has undermined most of American cities’ other mixed-income ethnic enclaves, but since Han Chinese easily outnumber every other ethnic group in the world, there will always be a inflow of migrants — or will there?

Another less-than-replicable factor behind Chinatown’s staying power is a lack of effective enforcement (“It’s Chinatown, Jake”). Thus, things don’t quite happen to code; it’s cheaper, but somebody might get hurt. Whether that trade-off is worthwhile is your judgment call, but it does illustrate that over-regulation might be a factor in driving high costs.

6. Community change and the word “authentic”
It’s worth thinking through a bit more about how “authenticity” (see this discussion by Sharon Zukin) like any other aspect of community character, will move in cycles. Every community changes its participants, and is changed by its participants. The people who come after us have different experiences, and what we do shapes how they understand the world around them. This feedback loop can either result in a virtuous, or a vicious, cycle.

The pace of change also matters. Change is literally a fact of life, but violent upheaval is rarely welcomed. Many communities today are upset by the roller-coaster ride that property markets have put them on, with prices rising much faster than social infrastructure can adapt.

What appears “authentic” and novel to us will seem workaday or fake to someone else. It’s exactly that interplay, exchange, and evolution that makes cities — and especially American cities — such interesting and exciting places. It’s a tough edge to surf on, to simultaneously embrace and resist change, to honor established practices while inventing new ways, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

Central DC: home to both bikes & young adults

Two recent geographic visualizations that describe my little corner of the District (and world):

First, MIT’s Media Lab, via their YouAreHere site, generated this map of the fastest mode of transport from my neighborhood to the rest of the city:

youarehere: SW Waterfront

Indeed, this more or less describes my travel decisions: I’ll bike anywhere in the L’Enfant City (where most attractions are) or along the rivers, take transit if going along the Green Line or to Silver Spring, and don’t really bother with the edges of town (including Upper NW).

The highest “percent of the city that can be reached fastest” by bike that I found was 62.7% of the city, from Stanton Park — but for most of the L’Enfant City and Mid-City, bicycling is the fastest way to get to about half the city. For transit, it’s 27.6% from Metro Center. Yet from most of the edges of the city (whether Ward 2, 3, or 8), cars are sadly still too convenient; 80%+ of the city is most quickly reached by driving.

A sad testament to the relative lack of speed of transit in Chicago: even from downtown, only 2% of the city is most quickly reached by transit.

Second, there’s this interesting “cross-section” visualization from Luke Juday at UVa’s Demographics Research Group, which underlines the increasing self-segregation of young people within the urban core:

No, the percentage of 20-somethings in the urban core didn’t appreciably increase. However, since the region’s population is now older, the core’s percentage went from 50% higher than the metro average to 100% higher, as 20-somethings have deserted the suburbs and piled into the urban core. The only area that gained 20-somethings is the near east side of town, which is a theme that the post’s other graphs explore.

And yes, the latter phenomenon just might have something to do with the transportation characteristics outlined in the former.

It’s not just a phase: urban population dynamics have changed

National Park Seminary new EYA townhouses

EYA townhouses in Forest Glen, Md.

Ben Adler from Grist wrote about a recent NYT trend piece about how suburbia is hollowing out, with few young families to replace the empty nesters. He puts too much emphasis on gross migration and population change, without drilling into how those components have been changing:

A handful of coastal and upper Midwestern cities are attracting more young professionals than before and are retaining them for longer… Even where gentrifiers are moving in at a pace sufficient to reverse outmigration, they’re barely making in a dent in reversing the tide.

Migration population losses from cities paint an unnecessarily dire view of urban prospects. There is a good reason why large metros would tend to lose people to domestic migration — and, for the 20th century, pretty much always did. A statistically significant group of young people move to large cities, get married there, have kids, and then move away in search of more appropriate housing. Two people move in, three move out: presto, population “loss,” even though the same number of people moved in and out. Similarly, for decades a steady flow of retirees southward, away from large cities, was a good thing for society — an indicator that healthier seniors were physically able to move, rather than remaining house-bound.

Yet long-established movements like these (plus shrinking household sizes, plunging overcrowding, the twin crises of deindustrialization and crime, and employment displacing relatively dense central-city residential), may have largely run their course.

Yes, this does indicate that “the school problem” remains,* but indications are that cities are attracting more young people, and retaining them for more years. This is occurring both before and after the critical life milestone of marriage: new households are overwhelmingly singles, couples, and unrelated persons. Whereas many of the 1950s pioneers who settled what are now inner-ring suburbs were young families headed by 20-somethings, or maybe 30-somethings, today many married couples (without kids, or with young children) stay in the city for longer.

Here in DC (where the city’s small size and overwhelmingly post-industrial nature makes the demographic transition especially sharp), Carol Morello from the Post observes:

the number of children younger than 5 has grown by almost 20 percent, from 33,000 to 39,000, according to census figures. In the same time span, the number of children ages 5 to 13 rose 7 percent. But there were fewer children 14 and older, suggesting that many parents still choose to leave the city when their children reach high school.

This also shows up anecdotally, as in the NYT’s quote of a Westchester County official (“Parents used to be 35ish, now they’re 45ish. What we’re seeing is not so much an exodus as a later arrival”) and this observation (at a recent ULI conference) by the biggest developer of townhouses inside the Beltway:

Within the DC region, the geographically compact core (about 3% of the region’s area) accounts for a huge share of net growth of 25-34s. (Drawn from 2010-2012 ACS.)

A larger share of households spending more years living in the city is a marginal boon to cities’ residential market share. Few Americans live in one place for life, anyways, but imagine the implication for apartment owners as their tenant pool both grows in size and stays longer.

Meanwhile, population decline hasn’t hurt some urban areas (like my old neighborhood of Bucktown, where densities on some blocks have fallen 90% since their WW1 peaks, and continued falling in recent years). These can feel more lively and active than ever, even with much-reduced populations, because incomes are way up. More disposable income can substitute for a smaller population; retailers look for underserved pockets of spending power, not necessarily people.

Yes, at the end of the day, cities need to provide homes for a growing global population and so should welcome growing populations. However, gross population shifts need to be disaggregated and viewed cautiously.

On another note entirely, I’d like to honor the recent passing of Donald Bogue, 1918-2014, who taught me much of what I know about demographic processes. (My “Relocated Yankees” paper was done as a final project for his class.) Even though he was well into his eighties when I took his class, his approach was the best of UChicago: thoughtful, broadly read, engaging, and kindly critical, and he helped to tie together a lot of loose ends that I’d thought about for many years. He leaves behind a tremendous published legacy — scores of publications in the Library of Congress, for instance — and his work on topics like Skid Row still has strong resonance in planning today, for example in understanding the historical intersections between homelessness and place.

* Don’t look at me for any answers; this isn’t a school policy blog.

Attitudes towards race and space: another red-blue divide

Just attended a CAP/PolicyLink event about a new poll examining American’s attitude towards rising diversity. The report raises some interesting implications about the intersection of race and place — particularly since attitudes about diversity play out very differently between diverse, growing coastal gateway cities vs. the slower-growing interior.

– The coast/interior divide is quite sharp. The poll analysis used responses about various positive or negative aspects of diversity to generate an “openness index.” The Mid-Atlantic (NY/NJ/PA) and West Coast were the only two regions to have an index score above the national average, and by large margins (7-8%). On the other end, the South Central regions had index scores 6-10% below the national average, and the mountain west was 4% below the national average.

– Questions related to place generated very sharp differences between age groups. Respondents were asked whether they agreed with a series of arguments, both good and bad, about diversity. Of these questions, answers related to places had a sharper age divide than any other question asked, perhaps pointing to very different experiences between young and old when dealing with diverse public spaces. Millennials are the most diverse, best-educated generation in American history, and their welcoming attitude towards a diverse population is one of the less-explored aspects of their shift towards city living.

Asked whether increased diversity was good because “Diverse workplaces and schools will help make American businesses more innovative and competitive,” 75% of 18-34s agreed, whereas only 60% of 65+s agreed; 69% agreed overall.

Asked whether increased diversity was bad because “Crime and problems in our neighborhoods will go up,” almost half of all respondents (47%) agreed. Responses varied relatively little by race, with 47-49% of Whites, African Americans, and Latinos agreeing. However, three groups (all of above-average urbanization, and therefore seemingly with more to lose) stand out as much more optimistic about diverse neighborhoods:
– 37% of 18-35s agreed (vs. 58% of 65+s)
– 32% of White college grads agreed (vs. 55% of non-graduates)
– 38% of Asian Americans agreed

– Some hint of how this may play out in the metropolitan political sphere can be seen in the New York City & Los Angeles mayoral elections:

Candidates who can embrace both their personal racial transcendence and an equitable-growth platform are well-poised to triumph in regional politics.

Three more election thoughts: coalition, gerrymandered House, cities’ voting power

1. The “Coalition of the Ascendant” narrative continues to be validated by the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Richard Cohen; Sully has a roundup. (James Joyner: ‘The only question is how many more elections they’ll lose clinging to a “traditional America” that’s a distant memory.’)

2. The tidal wave of Big Money and a House map spectacularly gerrymandered in their favor only downgraded the Republicans from a stern rebuke to a slap on the wrist. As a geography nerd, I’m particularly concerned about the electoral map: “the ridigity of the gerrymander is more impressive when you see it hold off a minor wave,” says Dave Weigel in Slate. He points to several states, particularly Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the House delegation and the Presidential vote diverge sharply. One could also look at the average winning margin across Democratic and Republican districts, or, as Princeton Election Consortium’s Sam Wang points out, that the total national vote may go to Democrats even as the actual House went to Republicans. (Put another way, if there were national, or even state-level proportional representation, the House would be balanced or slightly Dem.) Update: Ian Millhiser at ThinkProgress points to a preliminary House tally of 53,952,240 (50.3%) Democratic votes vs. 53,402,643 (49.7%) Republican, with the caveat that West Coast vote-by-mail states have incomplete results and that uncontested races were excluded.

Another indication: the opposite may well be true at the Presidential level, which is tied to House representation but at a slightly more macro level. Republicans rack up huge margins in their core red states, but Democrats seem to have a persistent edge in several of the battlegrounds.

3. Sommer Mathis ties the ascendant demographics to the “urban archipelago,” a theme from the 2000 campaign that I heard echoed recently in discussions at NACTO (an event I’ll be posting notes from soon). Interesting to note that Romney’s largest county margins so far appear to have been in Maricopa at 131,770, Utah County (Provo) at 126,546, and Tarrant County, Texas (Fort Worth) at 95,897. Obama pulled six-figure margins even in suburban and second-tier counties like Contra Costa, Hartford, and Mecklenburg (Charlotte, a traditionally Republican city whose former mayor won N.C.’s governorship in a rare GOP pickup) — never mind the nearly million-vote margins in population centers like Los Angeles and Cook.

Ethnoburbs: why not?

James Frank Dy Zarsadiaz in The Atlantic Cities writes about his ethnographic research into Asian immigrants in Diamond Bar, Calif. (where my cousin lives and works):

While scholars and researchers rightfully problematize political economies, migration patterns, and social dynamics between different racial and class groups in the contemporary ethnoburb, oftentimes post-1965 Asian immigrants moved to these neighborhoods for tangible and banal reasons. Interviewees provided various mundane and frank motives as to why the east Valley sold them twenty or thirty years ago: inexpensive new housing, reputable school districts, easy access to work, distance from urban crime and racial “others,” and by the late 1980s and 1990s, conveniences to ethnic commodities.

As banal as the reasons for moving to suburbia are, though, Asian Americans have reshaped suburbia in some interesting ways. The San Gabriel Valley’s population shift has been accompanied by an influx of a few things that conventional sprawl didn’t accommodate well — like extended families and myriad small businesses — and the towns there have started to extensively retrofit their built environment to accommodate them. By organically adding mixed uses and a wider range of housing types, they’re perhaps well out in front of suburbs elsewhere in America that are seeking to improve their resilience. Last year, I presented as part of a “Cultural Urbanism” panel at the Next Generation of the New Urbanism which explored additional implications for urbanism that might arise as American metropolitan areas become more multi-ethnic — and assimilate different metropolitan values from the world’s cities.