Friday photo: Build in town, not edge towns, to cut carbon

edge town

The results are definitively in: when it comes to cutting carbon pollution from new development, location is far and away the most important factor. Even bad infill development will easily beat even the best greenfield design in terms of avoiding car trips — the single most climate-damaging activity in most Americans’ daily lives.

Kaid Benfield illustrates the point by contrasting the VMT per capita within some of the best suburban and urban neighborhood designs of recent years. Grounding his analysis in research, he writes:

[L]ocation is by far the most significant indicator of how much driving typically takes place to and from a given neighborhood. This is because of something called “destination accessibility”: outlying locations have fewer jobs, shopping opportunities, schools and other typical trip destinations within easy reach than do more central locations, causing average driving distances to be longer. (It is also generally easier in more central locations to substitute transit and walking for what would otherwise be driving trips, but such “mode shifts” are statistically less significant to vehicle miles traveled than are driving trip distances.) As a result, carbon emissions from outlying locations, per person and per household, tend to be higher – typically a lot higher – than those from closer-in locations.

It takes a lot of effort to create new “connected, complete communities” from scratch, since a “complete community” depends upon a myriad of services. When the first household arrives in an incomplete “edge town” (like Kitts Creek, shown above), they may be able to walk to other houses and some services. New services won’t arrive until there’s sufficient population to support them — and in many cases, rely upon people living even further out. Contrast that with a new house within an existing “complete community,” which already has all of that community’s services at their doorstep, from day one.

I’ll note that mode shift is less statistically significant because, outside of a few urban cores where destinations are so close by that walking is enjoyable and driving a pain, driving accounts for a substantial majority of Americans’ trips. That makes development within those few urban cores that much more important, in the scheme of shifting Americans away from automobility.

Thus, the most effective land use tool that urban planners have to address the global warming crisis — and at minimal public cost, to boot — is to make infill development easier.

Applied on a global scale (or even at a citywide scale), the potential is vast: 2014’s New Climate Economy report estimated that “compact, transit-oriented cities” could keep 1.8 billion tons (CO2 equivalent) of global warming pollution out of the air annually by 2050. That’s equivalent to decarbonizing the entire US transportation sector, or the economies of Russia or India.

DC built 13% less housing over the past decade than its own citywide plan calls for

A version of this post was posted at Greater Greater Washington.

Nine years ago, the District of Columbia adopted a Comprehensive Plan to guide planning efforts throughout the city. At the time, the District’s population had just started to perk up after six decades of decline, and the plan reasonably foresaw that growth could continue into the future. Yet even though the District’s population has grown substantially, its housing stock isn’t keeping pace.

Three years before the comp plan was adopted, Mayor Anthony Williams pointed to recent population gains when he announced a bold goal to bring 100,000 new residents to the District within a decade [PDF]. The 2006 Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force recommended adding 55,000 new housing units over 20 years (a recommendation reaffirmed by a 2012 housing strategy update). Not only would that figure meet long-term population growth goals (accommodating 114,400 residents at the then-current household size of 2.08), but it seemed attainable: The District issued building permits to 2,860 housing units in 2005.

The comp plan incorporated much of the Housing Strategy, noting in its Housing Element that “The increase in [housing] demand has propelled a steep upward spiral in housing costs, impacting renters and homeowners alike… The housing shortfall will continue to create a market dynamic where housing costs increase faster than incomes.” To address the shortfall, the plan’s very first policy opens with the statement: “The District must increase its rate of housing production if it is to meet current and projected needs through 2025 and remain an economically vibrant city,” and raised the forecast slightly, to 57,100 additional housing units over the plan’s 20-year horizon.

The city as a whole isn’t meeting its goals

Yet despite all the new construction over the past decade, including two building booms, DC’s currently on track to miss its 2025 goal by 13%. Instead of building 2,855 units per year, DC’s averaged fewer than 2,500 each year over the past decade.

dc permits

The big reason why is that homebuilding nationally came to a near-standstill during the 2008 crisis, and the District was no exception: building permits crashed by 81% from 2005 to 2008, and remained at low levels through 2010. Many proposed projects, like CityCenterDC and Half Street, came to a halt when banks collapsed. Yet all that time, the city’s population, and thus the demand for new housing, continued to grow.

Construction has since rebounded to new highs, with 39% more building permits issued each year between 2011 and 2014 than in 2005. Still, the new boom hasn’t yet erased the 3,000-unit backlog from the slow years.

To get back on track, building permits would have to keep up at recent years’ record-setting pace for at least another three years — and perhaps longer, since the next ten years will also inevitably include another economic slowdown that will subdue construction.

Housing growth has lagged population growth

Even though housing construction has lagged projections, the city’s population has continued to grow. Instead of moving into new housing, all of these new residents have in recent years just filled holes in the existing housing stock.

Vacant units — the slack in the District’s housing market — have steadily disappeared in recent years. Between 2010 and 2013, the Census reports that the number of vacant housing units in the District plummeted by 13,319 (or 31%), far outpacing the 6,850 units that were added to the District’s housing stock.

It’s convenient that so many vacant housing units just happened to be available just when the District’s population began booming, but that feat can’t continue forever. A growing population will, at some point, require new housing.

Indeed, current market indicators show that there’s still tremendous demand for newly built housing: Even though a record number of new apartments have been built, they’re being snapped up as soon as they’re available.

The recent slowdown in the District’s population growth isn’t reason to rest: It could be that slower population growth is a result of inadequate housing growth. Slower population growth largely results from reduced domestic migration, and the #1 reason behind domestic out-migration from DC is because of its inadequate housing. (No surveys track why people choose not to move to DC in the first place, but the reasons are likely similar.)

Yet meeting local environmental goals requires even more population, and housing

David Alpert’s article on Sunday referred to the District and the greater Washington region’s aspirations to a greener future, which require that the District add many more residents. DC’s Sustainable DC Plan, which was adopted in 2012, acknowledges that the District needs to “increase urban density to accommodate future population growth within the District’s existing urban area,” and sets a target of welcoming 250,000 new residents by 2032. That target implies at least 100,000 new housing units, a figure confirmed by recent studies from George Mason University and echoed in the region’s long-range plans.

Adding more residents to the region’s core will result in a substantially smaller environmental impact than adding those residents at the region’s edges. Accommodating more population growth within existing built areas, like the District, reduces the overall environmental impact of new development, and not only by diverting pressure to pave over outlying wildlife habitat and green space.

People who live in dense settings close to the regional core live more lightly on the earth as a matter of course: Residents of the urban core drive less than half as much as residents of sprawling suburbs — a fact that regional transportation plans rely upon to keep traffic congestion, and road expansion, down.

DC can take a fresh look at housing

As Alpert wrote on Sunday, “a great opportunity” to review DC’s housing needs “will come when the District begins the process of revising its Comprehensive Plan.” As part of that review, the Office of Planning should examine the comp plan’s policies in light of the District’s new, more ambitious goals — and the District’s failure so far to deliver sufficient new housing to meet demand.

Yet it’s getting harder, not easier, to build new housing in the District. New zoning restrictions, like the “pop-up ban,” have made it even more difficult and costly to build new housing units in large swaths of the District. Even when proposed developments meet existing zoning, they often face costly and time-consuming litigation.

Since the comp plan guides the zoning regulations, a revised comp plan should guide future zoning changes to make it easier for the District to meet its housing and environmental goals. A revised comp plan should also determine where new housing can and should go; a future post will show how the existing comp plan has fallen short in that regard.

Friday photo: The pre-NIMBY era

Once upon a time, before there were NIMBYs

Once upon a time, citizens’ leagues sought greater population as an end unto itself, knowing that more people would bring more services and more opportunities. Dallas is still famous for its boosterism, but nowadays talk of more growth will probably bring out at least a few complaints about traffic congestion.

(Button seen at Old Red, the Dallas County history museum.)

CNU conversations: Retrofitting suburbia, organically?

Asheville

The South Slope area just south of downtown Asheville, now known for its many breweries, had an earlier incarnation as a Motor Mile of auto-related businesses. Before the 1930s, it was mostly small houses.

Now that many cities’ favored quarters have started to run out of pre-war neighborhoods (e.g., streetcar suburbs) to gentrify, the next frontier involves mid-century neighborhoods. Yet the typical cycle of gentrification requires fully depreciated, “aged buildings”,” as Jane Jacobs wrote (and Margie Zeidler marvelously retells).

In these instances, the “aged buildings” — Levittown-era subdivisions, proto-strip malls, little office buildings — suffer from two flaws:

  • An old Modern building can be more liability than asset. The mass-produced materials of that era are often toxic and less-than-durable, and construction quality was sometimes questionable.
  • The density and connectivity are often sub-critical to create a walkable urban place. Infilling is an option, but it is by definition expensive.

Under Neil Smith’s “rent gap” theory of gentrification, these places are doomed to decay and decline until their higher use justifies full demolition and replacement — rehabilitation is hardly even justified. And given the tremendous need to backfill infrastructure, full replacement is particularly costly.

Tactical and modular approaches to infill show some promise at reducing construction costs. To reduce the costs of rehabilitation, certain smaller jurisdictions have thrived through selective non-enforcement of building codes (going beyond a “lean” approach). Even though the very notion of artist-led gentrification began with plenty of code violations, it all seems so much less romantic today.

One possible exception: industrial buildings tend to have flexible interiors, relatively central locations, and (most notably) high lot coverages. In places where their relatively poor street connectivity and access can be surmounted, relatively high job densities could be accommodated within the existing low-rise building stock.

CNU conversations: Striking before the neighborhood’s hot

DeKalb Market, Long Island University

Yet more thoughts from our (apparently quite long) lunchtime conversation about community-building.

We talked extensively about how, but where would these strategies have the greatest impact? It’s important to jump off the price escalator — to opt out of the gentrification process — early on, before outside capital floods into the neighborhood.

The “tipping point” in neighborhoods is always tied to outside money. First, an urban neighborhood is “discovered” by suburbanites looking to spend their extra $20s in cute restaurants, then by institutional investors looking for $2 million investments, and pretty soon the whole place jumps the shark. But if the small dollars are ever going to have a chance to win the game, they’re going to have to start early on — or else console themselves to small, subsidized slices of the neighborhood, post shark-jump.

“Favored quarter” locations in gateway cities are probably too far gone (more on this in a future post). Even the immediately adjacent areas have probably been bid up too far to be affordable without turning to outside capital. A Place Corp takes a substantial investment of time, rather than money, so the key is not to overpay.

One approach that can work where explosive change appears inevitable is what I’d call a “waterfall TIF.” This uses redevelopment revenue from a “sacrificial” area — for instance, an underutilized industrial corridor separating a gentrifying area from a stable area — to shore up the affordable housing stock in adjacent areas. Two examples:

  • The Hill District in Pittsburgh is a historically poor, African-American neighborhood overlooking downtown. The Lower Hill was demolished for urban renewal, displacing 8,000, but it was never fully developed, except for one arena. A recently adopted TIF to develop the site will direct property tax revenue “into two separate accounts: one for infrastructure needs in the Lower Hill and one for reinvestment in the Middle and Upper hill.”
  • In Houston, the Midtown TIRZ spent $15 million to purchase 34 acres of the adjacent Third Ward, including hundreds of vacant lots, which was then handed to nonprofits and thus taken off the market.

By the time the usual affordable-housing resources, like TIF funds and inclusionary units start to flow, it’s already too late — prices will already be on an upswing. For maximum effect, resources need to start flowing before new construction and new investment create new amenities, which raise property values. Of course, this requires neighborhood organization (and probably capacity-building) beforehand, to identify areas about to undergo change, and to plan for the process.

Think of it as an approach comparable to Transferable Development Rights, which have preserved many rural communities, just applied to urban communities instead. To use the photo as an example, imagine if some of the value created by the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning (affecting the sites in front of Flatbush) could also have steered capital funds towards rehabilitating and expanding NYCHA’s Ingersoll Houses (at back right).

Friday photo: Vanquished twin cities

Pittsburgh various

Vanishing twin syndrome” is an eerie phenomenon wherein one fetal twin seems to absorb another. Its counterpart, in the annals of American cities, might be called “vanquished twin syndrome”: where one city annexes another, then proceeds to obliterate any trace of its core through concerted redevelopment.

Three of the more notable examples are cities settled at confluences, which naturally offer a choice of multiple townsites on various riverbanks.

Denver faced Auraria across Cherry Creek, the Allegheny River separated its eponymous town (pictured above) from Pittsburgh, and the fork of the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers fostered three towns — Juneau (east), Kilbourn (west), and Walker’s Point (south).

Yet as these towns were absorbed into larger cities across the way, the old downtowns of Auraria, Allegheny, and Kilbourn all declined into Skid Rows, offering a uniquely cheap combination of deteriorated, frontier-era buildings within a short walk of the principal downtown. Shunned and looked down upon by the ascendant city’s downtown elite and starved for resources (namely the intra-city transportation links that funneled commuters to the principal downtown), they became prime targets for urban renewal.

Kilbourn was wiped out early on, by a City Beautiful government complex. Allegheny’s center was leveled by Alcoa in the 1960s. Auraria was demolished for a university campus in the 1970s.

In a weird twist on the theme, Minneapolis absorbed its rival St. Anthony — but proceeded to tear down its own birthplace, while neglecting its rival for so long that it remained standing until the adaptive-reuse age could rescue it.

Friday photo: Bonsai, artificial limits to growth, and humility

Phipps: bonsai since 1960

Cities are living things that require supporting infrastructure: physical infrastructure, social infrastructure, green infrastructure. They also need room to grow and change.

The exception that proves the rule are bonsai, “the most unnatural nature that exists,” and “like a verb…. not a noun — it’s doing.” Trees can survive when confined to tiny boxes that constrain their growth. This 55-year-old Scotch Pine at the Phipps Conservatory would, on a managed plantation, have a trunk one foot wide — wider than the magazine at right, about half the diameter of the planter this tree lives in — and be 60-80′ tall.

However, bonsai require a lot of care and feeding just to survive, including extensive pruning to thwart natural growth instincts. Without that pruning, the tree gradually consumes all of the soil’s nutrients and starves. All this intervention turns what should be a robust, independent tree into a fragile hothouse flower, subsisting on life support. At this juncture, even if it was freed from its constraints, this tree could never match the size of its wild counterpart. It’s a neat inversion of the usual relationship between man and nature, but like seeing a bored tiger at a zoo, it’s also a bit sad to see.

Natural systems also impose limits on their own sustainable growth, of course. Cycles see growth culminating in decline and death, then renewal and evolution. But nothing that’s alive stands perfectly still.

Those who propose to stop growth should have the humility to acknowledge that doing so will change the very nature of growing things. By giving themselves free rein to change the city, they are placing a tremendous burden on the resources of future generations.