Two perspectives on the future of urbanism(s)

Kentlands just hosted its 25th anniversary celebration, a milestone that now firmly places it among the various New American Towns that dot the lower Potomac valley. In this time, what has New Urbanism accomplished, and where does the future lie? Two perspectives, both from the vanishing world of print-only publications, are excerpted below.


New mid-rises in Toronto.

1. Spacing Magazine‘s 10th anniversary issue (which we [few] American subscribers get pretty late in the game) has a great article by Dylan Reid about “the future of urbanism,” or rather the challenges ahead:

This rise of urbanism is good. It is creating cities that are healthier, more efficient, and more sustainable fiscally and environmentally — and they are more enjoyable to live in. The fact that an ever-increasing number of people actually want to live in dense downtown neighborhoods is an astonishing transformation from two decades ago, and essential to urbanism’s success…

Urbanism’s problems don’t discredit it (although some would like them to); rather they mean that the movement needs to test, challenge, and extend itself rather than rest on its laurels…

Urbanists also need humility. The familiar urbanist solutions work in the older parts of the city and, perhaps, in concentrated blank slates like brownfields, but they won’t work out-of-the-box in the suburbs.

Reid then posits and elaborates upon ten challenges, first as statements and then as questions that elude easy answers, which I’ll quote here [with my clarifications]:

  1. How do we adapt and extend the benefits of urbanism to the suburbs in a way that will be welcomed?
  2. Can we figure out how to build avenues and greenfield neighborhoods that are vibrant?
  3. How do we ensure that everyone is able to enjoy the advantages of urbanism?
  4. How can we ensure that extending rail transit and walkability doesn’t simply push low-income households further away?
  5. How do we maintain viable spaces for creativity, or create new ones, in the face of gentrification?
  6. How do we keep small waterways without undermining the density and connections that make a city efficient and sustainable?
  7. How do we make sustainable local food available and affordable to everyone in the city?
  8. How do we maintain the role of manufacturing and food processing in our urban economy and start to integrate them into sustainable urbanism?
  9. How will we find the money and political will needed to fund the next waves of transit investment?
  10. How can we increase the number of year-round cyclists?

The list is heavy on questions of affordability, inclusion, displacement, and gentrification. While at first these might seem to be concerns primarily for fast-growing cities, they do speak to the need for urbanism to address a broader range of people, which would improve its prospects in slower growing cities as well.

Toronto is also exemplary in its embrace of mid-rise development along mostly auto-oriented strips — reinventing the highway strip into streetcar/BRT strips — but the implementation so far has been subpar.

Lively, affordable strip malls full of independent shops are being replaced by dull condo buildings with chain stores, because the new condo retail is too expensive and often too spacious for independents, and condo boards resist all but the safest tenants… Transit is tangled in politics and not getting built. The new buildings still feel isolated rather than part of a continuing streetscape.

2. Over in the more highfalutin’ Harvard Design Review, Alex Krieger asks a similar question:

One set of ideas about good urbanism may not be sufficient. We know from experience, and from the many prefixes that we attach to the word, that across an urban region there are multiple urbanisms, hardly all conjuring up the same well-scaled, well-defined finite “urb” guarding its enduring spatial character…

What is more interesting, and found in many mature areas of urbanization, is the juxtaposition of different patterns of settlement in close proximity. Competing urbanisms may actually be a good thing for an urban region…

My intent in applauding a range of urban environments found in a metro region is to question the ferocity behind the ideological battles under way among today’s various guardians of a particular urbanism. Isn’t a proliferation of ideas about urbanization a good thing? [….]

Conversely, and equally disrespectfully, many dismiss New Urbanism as if its proponents offer no insights about cities. This too is foolish. The New Urbanism movement has raised public awareness about the social and environmental limitations of extensive suburbanization; convinced many subdivision developers to think differently about their generic layouts; pointed to outdated zoning codes that privilege single-use districts; altered the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s view on what public housing should look like and how it should be best arranged; and highlighted the “un-usefulness” of the engineering profession’s concern for optimizing the movement of cars above all. These are not inconsequential achievements for a movement that progressive architects dismiss for the sin of promoting traditional architectural imagery. Newly minted Landscape Urbanists can also be dismissive when implying that those who wish to learn from traditional urban patterns are simply Luddites…

Jacobs explains, cities are environments of not one but multiple complex problems. While not always apparent, each aspect of urban complexity is somehow interconnected to others. Planning for human settlement, therefore, requires the seeking out of both direct and subtle interdependencies prior to posing conclusions or plans… Perhaps too few of us get to page 448 in Death and Life. If we side with Jacobs (and who claims not to), then we need today’s urban polemicists to continue to offer their insight, if fewer of their universal truths — to keep jousting intellectually and, more important, to endeavor to seek out the interdependencies among their positions.

Going forward, let’s all strive to understand the multiple complexities that comprise our cities.

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.

Lumpiness: in cities’ property values, and in metro structure

Two only tangentially related thoughts on lumpy growth:

1. Richard Florida in The Atlantic Cities was one of the few major outlets to cover a report from the Demand Institute (a collaboration between Nielsen and The Conference Board) called “A Tale of 2000 Cities.”

The top 10% of American cities account for more housing wealth than the next 90%. The gains in the 2000s were tilted towards the already wealthiest communities.

The report includes an extensive look at a typology identifying nine types of American communities primarily by the strength of their local housing markets, post-recession. In keeping with the name, the results show a striking divergence, with a select handful of healthy markets sweeping up much of the gains — and leaving half of American cities and towns “currently facing fundamental economic pressure.” The report’s summary says: “In today’s global economy, nothing is more important than the strength and sustainability of the local labor market, regardless of whether employers are serving customers in Chicago, Chile, or China.”

If anything, today’s telecom-centric, information economy has resulted in the geography of opportunity getting lumpier, not more diffuse as earlier expectations had predicted — “reports of the ‘death of distance’ have been much exaggerated.” We telecommuters haven’t all decamped to mountaintops. The most valuable places are becoming even more so: they account for not only an outsized share of wealth but also the gains of recent years.

The underlying economic reality, that human capital is what drives most prosperity today, is why I differ from my colleagues who believe that “investment ready places” can thrive based on previous investments in capital goods like housing.

(I’ll have more thoughts in a later post about how macroeconomic changes, and in particular greater economic inequality, have left their mark on “gateway cities.” In the meantime, I highly recommend Ryan Avent’s ‘The Spectre Haunting San Francisco,’ which ties in man-of-the-moment Thomas Piketty as well.)

On another note, the report also has a good omen for suburban retrofits in “favored quarter” suburbs, in the form of an interesting but familiar disconnect between housing supply and demand in “Affluent Metroburbs.” 58% of housing stock in these communities is detached, “but fewer than half [of those seeking to move] say they are seeking a detached single-family home, compared with a national average of 60 percent.”

Among residents of “historic skyline cities,” a broad category that includes both healthy and less-healthy cities, there isn’t exactly a stampede to the exits. 54% of those who intend to move still “intend to stay in an urban area,” and “nearly one in five” wants to move for better schools (hardly the unanimity some cry about).

2. Alon Levy has a great post about how, on a macro scale, the gridded West has a suburban layout that fosters high-coverage bus networks, whereas more organically settled Eastern suburbs have a dendritic, hub-and-spoke layout that lends itself to commuter rail. (Yes, he points out that Johnny-come-lately Washington has, through Metro, grown into the latter pattern.)

This might go some way towards explaining “the Western Paradox” in Brookings’ findings regarding transit access to jobs. In short, Western cities (particularly in the desert southwest) had a strange spread: many jobs were technically accessible by transit, but low transit-to-work mode shares. The highest mode shares were found in older eastern cities, where a large fraction of suburban service jobs are inaccessible by transit.

If “everyone” were moving back to the city, would you?

“That would depend on what you mean by ‘everyone’ and ‘the city,’ of course.”

Liberties Walk, Philadelphia

Recently, Kaid Benfield linked over to my recent post about “peak sprawl”, tying that phenomenon to broader changes in the housing market. I always have more to say on this particular topic, but this particularly stood out for me: those Boomers who look down their noses and sniff “you’ll undoubtedly grow up and move away (because that’s what I did)” refuse to understand that it really is quantitatively different this time. In an RCLCO market survey, “31 percent of Millennials prefer a ‘core city’… it is twice the portion of the preceding generation when polled at the same age.” As quality of life — crime, traffic, pollution, etc. — has undoubtedly improved markedly in cities and declined in suburbs, the city grows comparatively more attractive.

What’s more, young people aren’t just saying this — they’re acting upon these tastes. Over at Planetizen, Michael Lewyn points to statistics showing that cities are doing a much better job today of attracting young people. Yes, young people have traditionally moved to cities — back in the 1970s, 20-somethings were the only age group with positive net migration into many central cities — but not at anywhere near the rates that we’re seeing today. As a proportion of population, youth in-migration into SF has doubled since the 1970s, into NYC has tripled, and into DC has increased twenty-fold.

A lot of national wags love to dismiss DC as a “ boomtown” overfed by a compliant (if not “tyrannical,” etc. etc. etc.) federal government, but that takes far too reductionist a view of the region’s economy. Population growth in this region was not appreciably different between the shrinking/reinventing-government ’90s and the metastasizing-security-state ’00s: 16.3% in the ’90s and 16.4% in the ’00s. More recently, another shift in government spending has similarly had no effect: in 2013, the city lost 6,000 federal jobs (the region has lost federal jobs every month since October 2011) but continued to see Texas-sized population growth.

The difference is not how much growth, but where that growth happens: DC’s suburbs saw their population growth rate drop by 10.6% from the ’90s to the ’00s, whereas DC’s population growth rate skyrocketed by 6700%. It’s the same number of people, but going to different destinations. The same pattern is true nationally, and in both fast- and slow-growing metros.

Cities are capturing not just a large proportion, but an increasing proportion, of the largest generation in American history (and, Lewyn also points out, limiting their out-migration losses among older generations as well). The result isn’t just a momentary fad, it’s a large-scale migration with far-reaching consequences. The 1970s “back to the city movement” of young urbanites, so familiar from Woody Allen and David Mamet narratives, were so few in number that they could all crowd into the Upper West Side, Lincoln Park, and North Beach — whereas today’s young urbanites now threaten to disrupt entire cities.

What’s more, two other interacting shifts in lifestyles have vastly expanded the market for urban housing catering to younger Americans. Even if one makes the (increasingly tenuous) assumption that urban rental housing is only for those brief years between college and childbirth, and that “everyone” needs to move to distant suburbs for child-rearing purposes:

1. Ever-later marriages: the average age at first marriage has risen 5.5 years since 1960. Whereas 80% of young adults aged 25-34 were married in 1960, today only 46% are. The inherent flexibility of urban areas’ smaller housing units means that they can do a better job of accommodating the growing number of non-family households.

2. The ever-expanding universe of single householders: from 15.1% of households in 1960 to 26.7% today (easily outnumbering married couples with children by about 4:3). Thanks to Eric Klinenberg, this phenomenon has been better documented lately — but discussions around housing still center around the needs of families rather than of all households. (More on that in upcoming posts.)

Those who discount the second point ignore, at their peril, the rise of pluralism within the worldview of the first generation raised after “the death of the meta-narrative.” The mass market, epitomized by giant corporations like Sears or the Big Three TV networks, has splintered into myriad fragments. Increased acceptance of diversity and globalization mean that there’s no longer one right way of doing something, or living one’s life; instead, multiple viewpoints are equally valid. Even in religious matters, young Americans are much more likely than older Americans to say that there are multiple valid perspectives. “It’s all good” carries a more profound meaning than “I’m alright;” it also means “I’m good, you’re good.”

Some of society’s fragments may find the good life in cities, others may prefer suburbs, but to posit that “everyone” eventually will choose the same suburban nuclear-family lifestyle is a dangerously simplistic (and, in my eyes, almost offensively heteronormative) characterization. And in the meantime, the physical form that can best adapt to fragmentation and change is walkable urbanism.

As often happens in these discussions, the definitional problem of where to draw “the city line” also rears its head. Yesterday’s delineation between “suburb and city” makes little difference in today’s metro-centric discussions, where the real distinction is between sprawl and urbane, or “drivable suburbia” and “walkable urban places.”

Pictured: Philadelphia is one of many central cities where young people are not just a large proportion, but also a growing proportion, of central city residents. Its increase in attractiveness to young people is incalculable, since it went from net outmigration in the 1970s to substantial net inmigration in the 2000s.

Could the great inversion also invert the Great School Question?

In “The End of the Suburbs,”* Leigh Gallagher notes that a negative feedback loop is starting to occur in many suburbs:

“The aging of the suburbs is changing the political conversation in many municipalities as well; as older voters become the most powerful base, tax revenue will increasingly get allocated away from schools and toward resources for seniors… The more taxpayer revenue gets allocated away from schools, the more the schools will suffer, and once schools and services for young families start to suffer, those young families will choose to live elsewhere.” (pg. 150)

In other contexts, I’ve called this the Schools Death Spiral or the Florida Conundrum (after a state where it’s a longtime fixture of local politics), but it turns out that it has a proper scholarly citation: James Poterba first described this intergenerational conflict over education spending like so:

“an increase in the fraction of elderly residents in a jurisdiction is associated with a significant reduction in per child educational spending. This reduction is particularly large when the elderly residents and the school-age population are from different racial groups.”

When combined with the thin, residence-heavy tax bases of many outer suburbs, rising demands for senior services, and for services for poor families, could quickly strain many towns — at the same time that urban school reform has started to pay off.

Very far from Florida, David Peterson in the STrib (via Jim Kumon at Strong Towns) notes that towns outside the Twin Cities have already seen a huge population shift: “In the suburbs, meanwhile, [research analyst Jane Tigan of St. Paul’s Wilder Research] reported, the number with seniors rose by nearly 15,000, as those with children flatlined — part of a massive demographic role reversal.”

* Gallagher made this point during this cogent discussion on KCRW’s “To the Point”. There was also a fascinating qualitative perspective about 21st century suburbia, from having Kathy Knapp (“ American Unexceptionalism“) on the panel: “recent suburban fiction overturns the values of individualism, private property ownership, and competition… [their suburban] setting no longer characterized by stasis, but by flux.”

This old New Urbanist hand was somewhat heartwarmed that Gallagher does understandably exempt streetcar suburbs from her book title’s prediction of doom, quoting Jonathan Rose on page 203: “The good news is, we have the model. We don’t need to reinvent it. We know it. The model is Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Garden City New York, and Stamford, Connecticut. The model is the streetcar.” Besides, Gallagher’s formative experience of urbanism was in the thriving streetcar suburb of Media, Pennsylvania.

Said prediction of doom, anyhow, is tempered pretty immediately (page 7): “when I talk about the ‘end of the suburbs,’ I do not mean to suggest that all suburban communities are going to vaporize… ‘The heyday of exurbs may well be behind us,’ [Robert Shiller] has said. ‘Suburban prices may not recover in our lifetime.’ “

How Vienna voted itself better, cheaper housing

Christopher Bonanos, in New York magazine’s recent “welcome, Mayor DeBlasio” package, highlights several housing production strategies that could both increase the desperately short supply of housing. Doing so isn’t just the only reliable way to break the price spiral, but several of the tactics provide the city with enough leverage to ensure that the units that it does build (not nearly as many as suspected) better address the city’s workforce housing needs. Building on city-owned parcels like the Javits Center or infilling NYCHA’s parking lots, and sharpening inclusionary incentives to push more workforce and fewer luxury units, might involve political hardball but offer rich rewards.

Anyhow, the idea that the city should take a more aggressive stance on housing production reminded me of the lasting legacy of Red Vienna:

Promised, delivered
[Wall poster by Victor Theodor Slama, 1927. In 1923, the SPD government promised Vienna 25,000 houses; it built 32,000 and many public facilities like kindergartens. Many of the future promises are results of additional housing construction.]

Last year, I wrote a report with classmate Priya Desai [full document] about the aggressive housing construction program implemented by the Social Democratic government of Vienna between the world wars. The Gemeinde Wien program was probably the most aggressive urban renewal program implemented by a democratically elected government during the 20th century — and a lasting success that still provides decent, walkable housing for hundreds of thousands.

[Reumann-Hof along Margaretenguertel, the first large Gemeinde Wien building. See more photos...]

Vienna’s government had neither the developable land nor the patience to continue to address its housing crisis in such a piecemeal fashion (Blau 1999, 154). Further suburban expansion was impossible within a city-state covering just 150 square miles — about the size and population of the present-day City of Philadelphia, but also squeezing a greenbelt within its bounds — and hemmed in on all sides by a hostile province. Meanwhile, city leaders were under great pressure to rapidly expand the scope and speed of their housing development strategy. Doing so would simultaneously address the city’s housing crisis, improve living conditions and social services for vulnerable populations, and boost employment and industrial production from their depressed postwar levels. The city also sought to center its vast new housing estates around communal recreation, health, and education facilities, hoping to raise a new generation of socialist Viennese and freeing urban women from toiling on the land. These new facilities could uplift and unify what were poor and haphazardly built quarters at the edges of the city, reversing the imperial government’s long-time development focus on the splendid central city (167)…

Red Vienna’s success was a triumph of democracy. A city stripped of its empire, with a population on the brink of starvation, mustered its own strengths to accomplish a public works project of historic scope. The Gemeindebauten they built not only met Vienna’s pressing housing challenges; they have left a durable legacy in the city’s physical and social landscape. Today, the Gemeindebauten anchor stable, sanitary, service-rich urban neighborhoods that complement Vienna’s historic core, all of which are wrapped by an intact metropolitan greenbelt. In the course of rapidly building hundreds of Gemeindebauten, the city unerringly kept its focus on efficiently empowering the masses through sanitary housing rather than remaking the city in some idealized socialist image. The pragmatic adaptations to its housing construction program incorporated lessons learned along the way, from the early shift to high-density Gemeindebauten to the later expansion of apartment sizes.

Today, Vienna’s social housing programs house about 500,000 Viennese, about 30% of the entire city population in more than 2,000 housing developments around the city (Wohnservice Wien, 2012). The original vision of Red Vienna extended beyond simply re-housing and reshaping a city but into its everyday social life: “to enrich life through design, and achieve a sense of community through shared kitchens and nurseries, integrating the domestic and the social” (Fiel 2012). As the Social Democrats subtly intended, the Gemeindebauten have indeed socialized generations of Viennese with its ideology: the party has swept every single municipal election ever since.

It was Dan Solomon’s book, wherein he credits the Gemeindebauten with inspiring his intricate affordable housing blocks in California, which first piqued my curiosity about the history of humane housing projects in cities like Vienna and Hong Kong. If there’s one city in the United States which can leverage resources towards building mass housing, and where the term “public housing” isn’t irreparably tainted, it’s New York City. NYC wouldn’t be able to implement Vienna’s demand-side solution of a steeply tiered housing tax that breaks private landlords overnight, but it does have the power to implement various supply side solutions. Getting into the construction game might give the city an incentive to finally tackle unnecessarily high construction costs. Keeping control of land in the hands of public entities, land trusts or limited-equity coops, CDCs, or new L3Cs (low-profit corporations) can ensure that housing serves locals and remains permanently affordable — of all cities, surely NYC can structure financial innovations that can match yield-hungry, tax-shy investors to the steady rent checks (if limited capital appreciation) afforded by non-volatile, low-vacancy workforce housing.

There are plenty of tools, and plenty of examples throughout history, where cities acting alone have built their way out of a housing crisis. The question’s now how, it’s if our mayors have the same will.

* That depends on how democratic one views elections in cities like Singapore [photo], or some in the eastern bloc, which also underwent extensive urban renewal in the postwar years, but it’s a sharp contrast to the renewal of Paris, for instance.

Sprawl’s inflection point was 20 years ago

Sprawl is slowing

According to the USDA’s 2010 National Resources Inventory, which tracks land use with satellite imaging surveys, the inflection point for suburban sprawl peaked in the mid-1990s, just as “smart growth” emerged onto the national scene — and before the giant housing bubble showered suburbs with seemingly limitless sums of capital. It’s been slowing ever since then, even though metro population growth moderated only slightly (see graphs on page 3). (Interestingly, non-metro population growth [including distant exurbs] in the 2000s fell much faster than metro population growth.)

It’s interesting that the slowdown in sprawl, like the slowdown in mall construction, presaged “peak car.” The directionality might be backwards: the 1980s cessation of massive freeway construction may have pushed many metro areas into some version of Marchetti’s Wall, whose daily-travel-time maximum creates a geometric limit for autocentric growth at the edge. Edge Cities, by relocating commercial uses into the inner suburbs, could only extend the outward trend so far; with a few notable examples, attempts at building Edge Cities in outer-ring suburbs has largely failed, since there’s no meaningful centrality amidst the undifferentiated masses of one-acre lots. Second-generation Edge Cities rarely thrived, because without new beltways there just wasn’t the population base to feed them.

To this day,* 80% of the office market in metro DC is within three miles of the Beltway. Joel Garreau wrote that in the late 1980s, Til Hazel “had major projects at half the exits on Interstate 66 from the Beltway to… Manassas,” but ultimately, that future didn’t pan out (with Reston-Herndon as the notable exception that proves the rule). Even in metro Boston, which uniquely among its East Coast brethren actually built an outer beltway, 73% of the office market is within the urban core or inner ring, and the urban core commands per-foot prices more than twice as high.

If you consider that the area of a circle grows with the square of its radius, a slowdown in the areas developed for sprawl would imply a much steeper decrease in the radius of metro expansion. This could imply another overlooked factor in the slowdown in VMT growth: since metro areas are no longer getting geometrically wider, thus distances between metro-area destinations are no longer growing as fast. As growth recentralizes, VMT can be expected to decline further. (A majority of the VMT benefits from central locations come from the fact that car trips are shorter; a minority of the befits come from a switch to other modes.)

* Using Cassidy Turley‘s submarket definitions.

Can we definitively identify a trend yet?

even in Phoenix!

Even in many of the capitals of sprawl, the free market is clearly demonstrating that sprawl has fallen from favor. These regions may not be seeing a turning point, where suburban growth plateaus (not shrinks, since their overall regions continue to grow) and where urbanism begins to account for most growth, but they have reached their inflection point: when sprawl’s gallop slows down, and when cities stopped shrinking as quickly. This seems like a small point, but humans feel such changes. A roller coaster is always moving forward, but at vastly different speeds; the thrill comes from the G-forces applied when the acceleration increases or decreases.

What’s most interesting about these examples is that they’re not locations where transit accounts for a substantial share of local trips. Even in an era of flat energy prices and even in the absence of good alternatives, the market is choosing car-light locations (where people at least have the choice to drive less) over car-dependent locations.

  • Phoenix: “In this down cycle, we were really trying to find some unique opportunities,” [David Kitnick, Rosewood Homes president] said. “After the collapse, you had to have a compelling reason to buy a new home. It didn’t make sense for us to just build more homes in suburbia. Those weren’t selling.” – Catherine Reagor and Kara G. Morrison writing in the Arizona Republic
  • New Jersey: Suburban office space has been ailing for some time as companies downsize, more employees work from home and much of the Millennial generation opts to live and work in urban cores with access to public transportation. New Jersey, where Mack-Cali has a strong focus, has been especially hurt by corporate downsizing, particularly in pharmaceuticals and telecommunications. “Companies are doing more with less, putting more people in lesser amounts of space,” Mr. Hersh said. “There’s still a need for office space. It’s just not what it was.” Analysts are more blunt. “Suburban office is probably one of the worst real-estate businesses there is,” said Michael Knott, a managing director with Green Street Advisors, a real-estate research firm. “We think apartments are a better market.” – Dawn Wotapka writing in the Wall Street Journal. On the other end of New Jersey, suburban Philadelphia’s largest publicly traded landlord is now also Center City’s largest: Brandywine Realty Trust’s 2013 growth strategy (from the 2012 annual report) is to “Increase urban, multimodal town center exposure; reduce commodity, suburban product.” Not only does that mean building office towers downtown (and largely exiting New Jersey), it also means retrofitting retail to make its existing suburban office compound in Radnor slightly more walkable.
  • Houston: The [Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research]’s annual survey of Houston-area residents last year found that half the residents of Harris County, of which Houston is part, would prefer to live “in an area with a mix of development, including homes, shops and restaurants” as opposed to a “single-family residential area.” Even if you look at the farthest parts of the metro region—the nine counties surrounding Harris County—more than 40 percent of residents prefer the mixed-use option… “the challenge today is not in finding residents who want to live in more compact, urbanized communities, but in building places across the region that can accommodate them.” – Ryan Holeywell writing in Governing
  • Atlanta: Metropolitan Atlanta, long a symbol of car-dependent American sprawl, has recently passed a threshold where a majority of its new construction spending is now focused in high-density, “walkable” parts of town… “[I]t’s a pretty significant sea change in how we build the country. The country’s going to look fundamentally different over the next generation than it has over the past two generations,” [says Chris Leinberger] – Emily Badger in The Atlantic Cities; in contrast, under-investing in walkable places suppresses future economic growth by making the metro area less efficient and less productive. In Streetsblog, Angie Schmitt notes that the same study found that the workers with the most choices seek out walkability: 27% of knowledge workers live on 0.88% of the region’s land area.

One vision for a Southwest DC that could have been

Arthur Goodwillie’s proposal for retaining the rowhouse fabric and infilling block interiors with courtyard apartments was rejected, not really due to cost but primarily due to complexity. Instead, the federal government built garden apartments in places like Arlington (WAMU story; NR nomination [PDF])

Goodwillie Plan for SW: contrast existing and proposed

[More images: closer look at redevelopment scheme | closer look at existing conditions survey | existing structures for entire Southwest neighborhood | historical material about the Capitol Park redevelopment project subsequently built on the site in question, courtesy CP II Condominium Association]

The following excerpts are from “The rehabilitation of Southwest Washington as a war housing measure : a memorandum to the Federal Home Loan Bank Board,” by Arthur Goodwillie, January 2, 1942 [LOC catalog record], a never-implemented plan for selective demolition and infill in the area subsequently cleared and redeveloped as Capitol Park. For further background, I recommend Christian James’ website about the redevelopment and Studio 27’s presentation (& book).

(Pg. 7.) The war effort should be so organized as to avoid unnecessary damage to the important peace-time values which in part — it must be remembered — we are seeking to defend. If it can be carried forward so that subordinate but highly important economic and social values will also flow from it — as by-products — then failure so to develop it is both shortsighted and indefensible.

The production of standard war housing in areas where only obsolete structures and vacant city lots now exist, as recommended in this memorandum, will also (a) eliminate — without direct cost — large slum and blighted areas; (b) restore value to much substandard Class “B” residential real estate; (c) lessen the post-war impact of new war housing on Class “B” property value and mortgage security; (d) reduce the volume of uneconomic suburban development and the costly duplication of schools, streets, utilities, etc.; (e) help stabilize the declining municipal tax base and put to productive use much unproductive, municipally owned real estate, acquired through the enforcement of tax liens; (f) provide local housing authorities with many units to offer as “equivalent elimination”; and (g) set up a large reserve of standard but low cost housing, for post-war rental to low income families, at rent levels that will reflect little or no subsidy.

(Pg. 16-19.) The population is relatively stable. A study made some years ago among white residents of Southwest Washington developed the fact that of the 10,658 persons interviewed, 9981 wanted to continue living there. The recently completed nine block Bank Board survey, on which the following report is based, showed that about 80% of the negro population has lived in the district for 5 or more years.

Present construction within the Area consists largely of two story, brick, row houses, two and three rooms deep, among which is interspersed a smaller number of frame structures of the same general type.

Although it extends to within three blocks of the Capitol of the United States, structural, economic and social conditions in the Area are shameful. Though basically sound, the brick structures of the post Civil War period are almost uniformly substandard… Interspersed among these brick dwellings is a considerable number of older frame houses. The latter are in a lamentable state of repair, dangerous, unhealthful, vermin and rat infested. They constitute a serious fire, safety and health hazard and should be demolished, as a slum clearance measure, at an early date.

Block interiors contain over 300 substandard alley dwellings, or are used as storage spaces for the miscellaneous accumulations of an indigent population. Moral and health conditions in many of these insanitary, unheated houses are deplorable. Fortunately, their use for residential purposes after 1944 is prohibited by law.

The Area, however, has many valuable assets. Were modern housing available, it would be an ideal residential location for the tens of thousands of persons who are employed in adjacent governmental Establishments, Departments and Agencies.

Streets are wide and well shaded. Water, light and sewer mains, sidewalks and pavements are in place, paid for and well maintained. Side by side with decrepit frame structures are some 2900 substandard but basically sound brick buildings, usually in rows, virtually all of which can be saved and are well worth saving. Vacant perimeter lots, vacant block interiors and land on which now stand decrepit frame structures, which should be demolished as a slum clearance measure, provide sites for an additional 5000 dwelling units. This is a total of about 8000 units for the Area, without over-crowding.*

Block interiors are unusually large and offer a unique opportunity for development as open green commons and play spaces, abutting on the new construction referred to above. Along the entire western margin of Southwest Washington is the recently developed Washington Channel waterfront. [Adequate schools, settlement houses, and churches.]

An exceedingly difficult questions which now confronts most established residential communities — whether they are depressed or not — is how to supply necessary large additions to available neighborhood recreation spaces. Adequate park provisions is not a problem in Southwest Washington, since the “Canal Reservation,” a public park which will provide ample playground facilities for the adjacent residential section, lies along the entire eastern border of the Area. Because it occupies a wedge-shaped tract between the Pennsylvania Railroad and Washington Channel, through traffic problems are also virtually non-existent.

The statement that there is a dangerously increasing housing shortage in Washington will be accepted without debate…

Pg. 53. The considerable saving in site cost [due to the low cost of land in Project block interiors] has all been allocated to new construction. If, as seems equitable, it were prorated between (a) the cost of projected new dwelling units and (b) the cost of rehabilitated units — the the over-all cost for reconditioned structures would be reduced to $725 per room** or to about 54% of that for new construction in similar areas elsewhere.

* In 2000, the Census counted 7,487 dwelling units in a comparable area, post-redevelopment, although with more office employment areas.
** emphasis in original

N & Union Streets

Mud becomes concrete: Washington Channel’s history, told through maps

This semester, I’m taking a Natural Resources class through Virginia Tech about understanding local watersheds, wherein I’ll be researching and posting knowledge about the Washington Channel. You can explore the other watersheds that my classmates are investigating over at the class blog’s page.

In this installment, I’ll take a closer look at how the channel came to be a (sort of) discrete watercourse, to provide some context for later posts about today’s land and water quality. Other posts can be found using the tag watershed.

From Montreal to Providence to Trenton to Richmond, many of the East Coast’s great cities arose astride the “fall line,” an imaginary line along which its many rivers tumble from shallow rapids in the hills to slow, wide, sometimes brackish coastal estuaries. In an ocean-going era, such a location ensured easy access for oceangoing commercial boats, fresh river water, produce from farms upriver and fisheries downriver, and later to water power from the rapids or waterfalls alongside — all without the considerable downside of a coastal location’s vulnerability to frequent Atlantic storms.

[Minneapolis, built astride the falls of the Mississippi, could be considered the most interior of the East Coast's fall line cities.]

Washington, D.C. is among these fall line cities, and its constant attempts to reshape the Potomac River’s banks also show the vulnerabilities that fall line geology also brings. Above Washington, the Potomac speeds through a narrow gorge, tumbling over its majestic Great Falls and past the high bluffs of wealthy towns like McLean, Potomac, and Georgetown. At Washington, three flows of water conjoin: the slower and broader Potomac, Atlantic seawater that tides pull all the way up the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac estuary (with tides rising to 3.5′), and several surface flows. The comparatively flat topography of the L’Enfant City results from it resting upon a “shelf” of sediment brought there by the Potomac over time. This 1861 bird’s-eye view map by John Bachmann (from the Boston Public Library collection) plays up the topography, dramatically showing how the character of the Potomac valley changes at Washington:

Bird's eye view of part of Maryland, Distr of Columbia and part of Virginia

Several surface flows join the Potomac at Washington, notably the Anacostia River, Rock Creek, and Four Mile Run, but also several streams that have since been buried like Tiber Creek and James Creek. (David Ramos has compiled an impressive map of these buried streams.) From the very beginning of the city in 1790, plans were made to tame these streams for human uses like shipping. A map from the 1790s, drawn by John Russell, shows how city fathers, Pierre L’Enfant among them, conceived a system of drainage improvements. These canals were straightened channels based upon the east-west Tiber Creek and the north-south James Creek, both arising roughly where Garfield Park is today at the foot of the Capitol. The map also shows the outlines of the deeper, more easily navigable channels within the mostly shallow Potomac:

Plan of the city of Washington[...]

This idealized 1852 view, published by E. Sachse, illustrates the canals in an improbable shade of blue:

Shortly after Washington was founded, the Potomac’s plentiful sediment became a problem for the growing city. Land clearance for forestry and farming upriver combined with increasing levels of urban pollution dumped into local surface waters, making the water noxiously polluted — particularly during low tide, when pollution festered in exposed tidal marshes. The insalubrious tidal marshes at the mouth of Tiber Creek, beginning at the foot of the White House, appear to have given rise to the widespread myth that “Washington was built on a swamp.” The marshes are visible in these digital reconstructions of the 1791 shoreline:

Then and now: Washington Channel

Original and present shorelines of Potomac Park

The sediment buildup also threatened the city’s access to maritime trade. Given the marshes along the Tiber, the new city’s only shoreline adjacent to a deepwater channel within the Potomac was along its southwest waterfront. Wharves sprang up along Maine Ave. SW, landing fish and ferries that went to Alexandria and points beyond. In this process, this shore gradually urbanized and gained a “coat of armor” as buildings crept up to the water’s edge, as shown in this 1883 drawing by A. Sachse:

Private property owners’ interventions to shape the shoreline would soon be dwarfed by Congressional plans, particularly as the sediment threatened the relatively deep channel fronting Southwest’s wharves. Engineers (notably Peter Conover Hains) from what would become the Army Corps saw an opportunity to tame the city’s shoreline, preventing severe floods like that of 1881 from reaching the city’s core. Meanwhile, planners saw the potential for new parks — simultaneously adding land to the capital of a fast-industrializing country, meeting a post-Civil War national zeal for commemorative monuments, and providing Washington with a vast expanse of parks at its doorstep (as the fin-de-siecle era’s vogue the City Beautiful demanded).

This 1888 map by E. Kurtz Johnson depicts an early “cloverleaf” plan by Hains for filling in much of the Tidal Basin area, leaving a series of small pools that would be used to flush a new Washington Channel downstream:

In 1901, the City Beautiful reached its apogee here in Washington with the McMillan Plan. Shortly thereafter, the canonical birds-eye view of Washington had shifted 270 degrees; instead of placing the Capitol dome front and center with the filthy Potomac River in the distance, now bird’s-eye views proudly showed off the carefully sculpted shoreline, with its large and scenic Tidal Basin, an urban shoreline for the Washington Channel, and probably many more trees in Potomac Park than existed at the time (1916, drawn by H. H. Green):

Many of these maps courtesy of the Historic Print & Map Company, via DC Vote’s archive of Washington, DC, Historical Maps; high-res PDF versions can be downloaded there. Others were drawn from a Washington Post Magazine feature by Scott W. Berg, featuring mapping work done by architect Don Hawkins and Dan Bailey/UMBC Imaging Research Center.

Shorts: getting to the office, and its implications for developers

1. Jonathan O’Connell asks, “With no office tenants and no financing, is the Southwest Waterfront redevelopment in trouble?”

The trouble they’ve had in raising capital underscores the importance of a good phasing strategy. The Wharf needs to start with a big bang for both top line and bottom line reasons:
– the retail won’t pay out without a critical mass of activity on the site; indeed, the 140K sq. ft. proposed for Phase 1 is at the low end for a viable lifestyle center
– the large amount of underground infrastructure (two levels of parking, new seawall, parks) that must be built before the first building pays out would be cost-prohibitive for a smaller project.

2. Earlier from O’Connell, a sign of how much the local market has embraced urbanism (with almost none of this space receiving local subsidies):

Of the 5.5 million square feet of office space under construction in the region, about 4.6 million of it, or 84 percent isn’t just near a Metro station but within a quarter mile of one, according to data from Jones Lang LaSalle, CoStar Group and Delta Associates.

The trouble is that each one of these buildings feeds off of Metro’s positive externality of greater access, but any one building can only make a relatively small contribution towards that transit infrastructure. Even the BIDs and special taxing authorities set up around most of these WUPs focus primarily on low-cost, high-return placemaking projects rather than the much more expensive, long-term work of buliding value with transit. Meanwhile, buildings that attempt a greater level of infrastructure investment, like those at the Wharf, can’t get the running start that they need. Areas with that transit infrastructure in place thus have an edge over those where it remains (and, given scarce funds, will likely still remain) to be built.

Some have taken this to mean that retrofitting suburbia will be necessarily be too expensive a proposition to be economically feasible. On that point, I only half-agree: there are a few cities, primarily in the Rust Belt, where intact and high-quality urbanism is cheap enough to feasibly redevelop. Yet with a growing population — America’s population will grow by about 140 million between 2000-2050, nearly matching the entire 1950 population of 150 million — that’s now concentrated in an entirely different set of cities, retrofitting may well prove to be the cheaper alternative.

3. Michael Andersen in the Green Lane Project notes that it isn’t just Metro access that moves office space:

Kathy Card, the general manager of two office buildings in DC’s fast-changing Chinatown, said last week that she doesn’t ride a bike herself. But watching traffic at the bikeshare station at 8th and H, she said, has convinced her that some of H Street’s four auto travel lanes and two parking lanes should be repurposed for protected bike lanes. Dedicated bike infrastructure is what’s needed, Card said, to help her buildings appeal to the private-sector firms she’s marketing to. “There’s plenty of ability to put bike lanes in,” Card said last week. “Obviously the demand is there.”

4. So perhaps it’s only appropriate that the latest MoveDC plans, leaked via DCBAC, floats the idea of cycletracks on just about every arterial in the city: Independence, Constitution, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Florida, Bladensburg, Minnesota, Alabama, N Capitol, S Capitol, U, 9th, 14th, etc. — oh, and a bike bridge to Alexandria, too.

5. A generation ago, Joel Garreau wrote in “Edge City” about how one axiom shaped everything about suburban office parks: four car parking spaces per thousand feet of office. Yet today, both numerator and denominator have changed beyond all recognition: the cars are gone and the offices are smaller. As reported by Laura Kusisto, the conversion of Brooklyn’s vast Watchtower printing plant into loft offices proposes a bike parking ratio of 8.3 bikes per 1000′ of office. The resulting indoor garage will house 5,000 bikes — 15-16X larger than dedicated bike stations in Chicago or Santa Monica, and undoubtedly as a result requiring special accommodations like ramps. It would be interesting to know whether bike parking is a way to soak up the dark space in the middle of the floors (that would be convenient) or if they’re warehoused in a basement.

6. Besides, who ever uses that much car parking at their suburban offices? Even the car lobby (!) would rather have cute farmers markets than parking lots:

Think where, not what, for best results with TOD (BRT or otherwise)

Transit oriented, but...
North America’s largest BRT system somehow isn’t a poster child for TOD.

1. Transit belongs on streets, with the people.

A recent ITDP report made a big splash about transit oriented development, some of which has happened along busways. Some media outlets, e.g., Eric Jaffe in The Atlantic Cities correctly reported the report’s amply demonstrated finding, explained over 56 pages, that good TOD outcomes depend on a lot of “necessary but, in and of themselves, insufficient” pro-development policy factors: comprehensive plans, small area plans, capital investment plans, housing investment, institutional support, a favorable regional economy, and a favorable sub-regional economy.

That last factor is presented curiously absent any discussion of the micro-level geography of the land immediately adjacent to the transit line. Together, though, these factors essentially boils down to the old real-estate adage of “location, location, location” — and seem to explain much of the difference between the different case studies’ different TOD outcomes. In fact, just the urban pattern along the route appears to perfectly* correlate** with the observed TOD outcome via their odd metric of “dollars of development per dollar of transit investment” (see this spreadsheet for details).

The best mass transit alignments go where the mass of people are: connecting a downtown to a strong and promising midtown, along an established mixed-use urban street level corridor. Transit ROWs in highways, freight RR corridors, etc., almost universally perform poorly at generating TOD.

* The one exception is Phoenix, which has weathered an economic depression since its light-rail opened.

** This thesis could be empirically tested through GIS analysis, as well (looking at block sizes, parcel sizes, or land use mix adjacent to the transit lines), but I’ll leave that to someone else. Aggregating data from that many cities takes more time and computing power than I can spare now.

2. The report’s fundamental flaw, and what it didn’t say (regardless of what you’ve heard).

Okay, now a pointed criticism of the report and subsequent reporting. Sadly, many other media outlets fell for a much more simplistic reading of the report, zeroing in solely on the report’s unsubstantiated, and actually never clearly stated, claim that buses are a superior value to trains in spurring TOD. The “dollars of development per dollar of transit investment” metric relies entirely on hearsay for both its numerator and denominator, rendering it useless. The footnotes mention an attempt to standardize the cost figure (denominator), but not the numerator, and ultimately local transit agencies got to define both figures as they pleased.

Euclid at PlayHouse Square
Besides hospitals, much of the purported TOD along the HealthLine consists of major investments in downtown, where rail transit is also available, and substantial capital improvements at Cleveland State University just outside downtown.

This results in a table that compares the incomparable. Many headlines have focused on how the Cleveland HealthLine handily bests all contenders on that particular chart. I haven’t found an updated breakdown of the “$5.8 billion in TOD” since the initial 2009 Plain Dealer tabulation (yet the figure keeps growing), but half of what the PD counted consisted of hospital, university, and museum buildings that were completed or planned before the HealthLine opened. In the PD’s reckoning, over $1B of the purported TOD benefit of the HealthLine stems from major expansion projects just at the Cleveland Clinic, which certainly would have happened regardless of transit. Correlation is not causation, and transit advocates of any stripe don’t do themselves any favors by ignoring this most basic rule of social science.

parking deck
Pretty uninspiring to call this BRT-OD. The BRT runs in a trench just to the left.

East Liberty is an equally puzzling case study to profile: much of the development “credited” to the BRT happened decades after the BRT opened, some is auto-oriented to traffic sewers running through the neighborhood, and much of it exists just because the old streetcar hub of East Liberty was the only reasonably flat site for big-box retail in the middle of Pittsburgh’s hilly East End. And Pittsburgh was careful to build equally isolated rapid transit lines to the west (BRT) and south (LRT) sides, neither of which spurred any TOD because they didn’t reach promising “midtown” nodes. (Neither did the East Busway, really, until the Oakland-Shadyside midtown spread north to touch said busway.)

The same chart also most definitely does not deem BRT a better investment than rail, as the Portland & Seattle streetcars do very well on the same chart. The report also clearly states that transit service quality, as judged by their “BRT Standard,” seems to have little to do with the quantity of TOD spurred. And yes, I consider myself relatively mode-agnostic, and curious enough about BRT to specifically travel to Ottawa, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh to take the BRT photos above.

3. Counting hospital spending is particularly disingenuous

Cleveland doesn’t even lay claim to the largest transit-adjacent medical investment in the country. New Orleans has $2B in new replacement hospitals under construction vaguely near a streetcar line, and Dallas also has $2B in new hospitals under construction next to a circa-2000 commuter rail station. I certainly applaud efforts to ensure that hospitals — which are major job centers in almost all metros — are not just accessible by, but oriented to, transit. However, hospitals have spent a lot on development just about everywhere: hospital spending almost doubled over the 2000s.

(Speaking of midtowns, IDA’s new Defining Downtowns report does a nice job of showing how midtown areas, often surrounding medical facilities, are often almost adjacent to their respective downtowns.)

4. But if you’re really gung-ho on BRT, I’ve got a Magic Road to sell you…

It turns out that there’s an even bigger champion in the BRT TOD sweepstakes that didn’t get mentioned in the ITDP report. A major U.S. city built a magical BRT Bronze busway that subsequently spurred the adjacent development of:

  • 5,000 new market-rate apartments
  • 4.5 million square feet of new office
  • 1.2 million square feet of new retail
  • 2,000 new hotel rooms
  • $575 million in new cultural facilities for museums and performing arts
  • $1.3 billion in new public parks & recreational facilities
  • …plus a giant $4 billion new mixed-use development right outside one terminus
  • …and other new infrastructure improvements that I’m not including here, including a monstrous convention center annex (with another one just proposed! Obviously another fruit of BRT TOD) and new lakefront enhancements
  • All of which total $226.74 in corridor “TOD investment per dollar of transit investment,” or twice the amount that the “champion” Cleveland HealthLine supposedly generated

This magical $43 million busway is so magical, in fact, that the city’s leaders slyly smile and guffaw whenever they call it The Magic Road. There’s one minor detail: the McCormick Place Busway is not even open to the public. Only buses for visiting conventioneers, not buses for transit, can travel upon it. Never fear, for evidently the BRT-TOD magic is so powerful that even a closed busway can still manage to single-handedly spawn a resurgence in Chicago’s Loop.* After all, that’s exactly what the HealthLine did, right?

McCormick Place Busway Northern Entrance at Lower Randolph Street Under Millenium Park

* The Loop’s recent growth was quantified by the local BID, with areas multiplied by average sales prices found in the report to quantify total investment. I took care to not double-count Lakeshore East, and to not count investment in the West Loop or River North. And yes, I did do a cursory evaluation of the ITDP BRT Standard with regard to the MPEA busway, which does have one very nice station and lots of scheduled service during conventions.