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 and fake to someone else: If I cooked one of my grandfather’s recipes for you, you’d see it as “authentic” and he’d see the exact same dish as “fake.” 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.

NIMBYs: loss aversion and, geography of, and rhetorical fallacies of

Not all change is bad.

It won’t rank high in the annals of “speaking truth to power,” but it’s interesting to read Washingtonian writer Marisa M. Kashino’s take on DC’s systemic housing underproduction: “But the District hasn’t shown much nerve when it comes to making big changes… Which brings us to the unusual power wielded by the city’s NIMBYs.” (City magazines usually aren’t known for taking their wealthy readers to task.)

But Megan McArdle, writing for Bloomberg View, says this is an unlikely scenario. Writing about the current back-and-forth regarding DC’s zoning, she says it’s been “Two steps forward, sure, but such little steps, and now we’re looking at going backward again.” But why are zoning fights so inherently difficult? McArdle points to cognitive biases: “At the heart of the matter is loss aversion: people will fight harder to preserve something they have than they will for a potential gain.”

Three related thoughts on NIMBYs:

1. History doesn’t offer much encouragement. In theory, a clear majority of citizens would benefit from abundant housing, but they rarely voice broad support on behalf of their minimal gains — and certainly rarely can drown out the fewer but louder voices who could lose benefits under the current system. For example, Red Vienna democratically chose to tax the rich to build mass public housing, but it took an abominable housing crisis (and the World War-spurred collapse of an empire) to force the electorate into action.

2. It’ll be interesting to see how similar politics plays out in other policy arenas — a thought that came to mind when listening to a recent talk about the feasibility of “deep decarbonization,” i.e. reaching the -80% CO2/2050 goal necessary to stabilize a changing climate. Although the study found that total energy services costs will increase only slightly — by about 1% of GDP by 2050 — it found that, within that energy services budget, the balance will shift from fuel providers to capital.

A clean energy economy will build renewable power plants (i.e., cap ex) which cost more upfront, but thereafter will throw off energy with very little ongoing costs. In the case of “negawatts” from efficiency, highly efficient or even net-zero buildings cost more up front, but cost much less to operate and maintain. This is a huge contrast from the existing system, whereby fuel providers extract huge rents from the rest of the economy.

Geographically, this shift should benefit most places, since green power is widespread — somewhat like Portland’s Green Dividend. However, the relatively few places that currently live off of fossil-fuel “resource rents” will lose out, and will fight back. Even though just three small states produce almost 60% of US coal, their representatives’ passion for coal far outweighs the millions who would benefit if coal pollution were reduced.

3. One of the NIMBYs’ favorite rhetorical fallacies is “the shill gambit,” an ad hominem attack that proclaims any non-NIMBY to be a secret, Astroturf-esque “paid shill” for development interests. (Some people can’t conceive that there are non-monetary, non-selfish reasons to hold a given position.) This contemptible lie — which slanders the opponent’s ethics to “poison the well” and thus avoid an argument on the merits — is readily leveled against pro-density forces even when it’s demonstrably false, including SFBARF in San Francisco or, of course, against yours truly.

This particular lie isn’t unique to arguments about development, of course. Naturally, conspiracy theorists of all stripes like to paint their opponents as all part of the same conspiracy that’s out to get them. It’s especially common among “alternative medicine” quacks, who love to call anyone who questions their arguments pharma shills — a label some have embraced with the hashtag #shillarmy. In an indication of how tired and un-useful the argument is, it’s been banned on parts of Reddit. If only such moderators were active elsewhere.

Hong Kong’s revolution is in the streets, not the skyways

Even in “the city without ground,” #UmbrellaRevolution has taken not to the ersatz quasi-public spaces floating above Central, but instead to the ground — or at least to the traffic-sewer highways that fill what little is left of the ground:

(c)2014 NextMedia

It’s an interesting contrast with Occupy Wall Street, which happened to fill privately owned public space even though New York has comparatively more truly public spaces.

Trevor Boddy’s essay about North American “skyway” systems in Variations on a Theme Park seems prescient:

Heretofore streets functioned as periodic reminders and enforcers of the civic domain; the new patterns of city building remove even this remaining vestige of public life, replacing them with an analogue, a surrogate.

Precisely because downtown streets are the last preserve of something approaching a mixing of all sectors of society, their replacement by the sealed realm overhead and underground has enormous implications for all aspects of political life. Constitutional guarantees of free speech and of freedom of association and assembly mean much less if there is literally no peopled public space to serve as a forum in which to act out these rights…

[Protest] activities have been displaced over the past decade from the square and main street to the windswept emptiness of City Hall Mall or Federal Building Plaza. To encounter a ragtag mob of protestors in such places today renders them even more pathetic, their marginality enforced by a physical displacement into so unimportant, uninhabited, and unloved a civic location.

Only a full-scale revolt, involving hundreds of thousands, can be taken seriously under these conditions.

Not that a U.S. Supreme Court case matters much in this context, but Thurgood Marshall’s concurring opinion in the Pruneyard Shopping Center case is also worth remembering (emphasis added):

[S]hopping center owners had opened their centers to the public at large, effectively replacing the State with respect to such traditional First Amendment forums as streets, sidewalks, and parks…. Rights of free expression become illusory when a State has operated in such a way as to shut off effective channels of communication.

(Image of Occupy Central on Monday, 29 September 2014 from Apple Daily/NextMedia.)

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. It’s not just that more young Americans are moving to cities, but they’re spending more years once there, thus substantially increasing the number of year-long leases signed (and, again, from a small base). Even if one makes the (increasingly tenuous) dual assumptions that urban rental housing is only for those brief years between college and childbirth after which “everyone” needs to move to distant suburbs for child-rearing purposes, two big factors have changed in cities’ favor:

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.

One data point: the median age of the first residents in the early 1960s new town of Park Forest, Illinois was 28. The median age of first-time home buyers nationally is 31, and rising quickly.

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.” Since very little of America lives in truly walkable urban places (although a large proportion of real estate value is sited in them), a shift of just a few percentage points can make a huge difference in the marketplace.

Update 6/2018: A 2015 ULI survey found 13% of Millennials saying they live near downtown, but 37% saying that they are “city people.” Yes, that means that 63% of Millennials are not “city people,” but it also means that nearly 3X as many Millennials would rather live in a city than actually do — hence tremendous price escalation. The 37% also far outnumbers the 19% of Americans circa 1989 who told Gallup that they’d like to live in a big city — even though big cities’ share of the US population has declined substantially since then.

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.

Shorts: movements


1. Susan Silberberg et al (via Angie at Streetsblog write that placemaking’s true value stems less from physical transformation than social transformation: “The act of advocating for change, questioning regulations, finding funding, and mobilizing others to contribute their voices engages communities.”

In short, it’s not about the bike, or the parklet: it’s about creating social space for a social movement to free now-privatized but publicly-controlled spaces, returning them to public use.

Years ago, this was a key (and under-appreciated) accomplishment of early Critical Mass rides. The event is just a means to an end, a safe space through which a social movement organized; to this day*, many confuse those ends and means.

* it’s arguably lost its urgency now that there are many other organizing venues.

not a maglev

2. There have been a few proposals to build maglev trains in the USA before, including this cross-Maryland proposal ten years ago. So what’s different about the latest version?

In a meeting with President Obama last winter, Mr. Abe offered to provide the maglev guideway and propulsion system free for the first portion of the line, linking Washington and Baltimore via Baltimore-Washington International Airport, a distance of about 40 miles. – Eric Pfanner, NYT

Those previous plans, however, did not feature Abenomics and its tidal wave of printed yen. As much as I’m skeptical of proprietary technologies, a fast and efficient connection between the two cities would certainly be momentous.

3. Thad Hall from the University of Utah (via Washington Monthly & Mischiefs of Faction) graphically shows how the House GOP has marched rightward, using DW-NOMINATE data:

The 50th-percentile average Republican in 1995 (104th Congress) — the red bar — was as conservative as today’s “RINO” moderate. Meanwhile, 1995’s firebrand 90th-percentile revolutionaries (the blue bar) then are *below* average now. The entire bell curve has shifted.

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.

Signals across the urban archipelago

City DOT commissioners panel

A recurring theme that I keep hearing about in 2013 is that cities — linked together through national and global networks — must assert a leadership role in conceiving and implementing the policy changes necessary to adapt to the 21st century. Not only have these changes become too great to ignore, but the federal government that led America through the last great era of socioeconomic upheaval (the consolidation of the United States into the world’s industrial superpower) is mired in deep paralysis. Although states are meant to be the “laboratories of democracy,” they suffer from the same hyper-partisan paralysis and an institutional bias against metropolitan regions.

As a recent Economist editorial put it: “the rest of the country is starting to tackle some of its deeper competitive problems. Businesses and politicians are not waiting for the federal government to ride to their rescue… Pressed for cash, states are adopting sweeping reforms as they vie to attract investments and migrants… creative policymaking is being applied to the very problems Congress runs away from, like infrastructure spending.”

Taking a cue from a sharply partisan 2004-election postmortem by Dan Savage and the editors of The Stranger, we live in an era of The Urban Archipelago:

If Democrats and urban residents want to combat the rising tide of red that threatens to swamp and ruin this country, we need a new identity politics, an urban identity politics, one that argues for the cities, uses a rhetoric of urban values, and creates a tribal identity for liberals that’s as powerful and attractive as the tribal identity Republicans have created for their constituents… We’re going to demand that the Democrats focus on building their party in the cities while at the same time advancing a smart urban-growth agenda that builds the cities themselves.

This approach was plainly evident in the closing panel at NACTO’s Designing Cities conference, where as Angie Schmitt reports, “transportation chiefs from Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago and New York all talked about the progress their cities have made and shared their frustration at the lack of attention to cities and transportation in the state and national political arenas.”

“Why aren’t state governments and Congress keeping up with cities? Chicago DOT Commissioner Gabe Klein proposed that it’s because city residents — especially younger residents and entrepreneurs — expect their mayors and city governments to move at a much, much faster pace. City governments have to be much more creative and nimble to respond to these demands or else risk losing the residents and businesses that power their economies.” Yet, that agility doesn’t extend to the federal level: as Randy Neufeld said, “the disconnect seems to be Congress being out of touch with the good stuff happening on the ground.”

At the conference’s opening keynote, USDOT secretary Ray LaHood bemoaned that he would have preferred to do even more to support local government innovation, but that Congress had always “taken care of our infrastructure needs — right up to this moment in history.” Indeed, he singled out “this particular Congress” as having a peculiarly awful track record at passing transportation legislation.

The bond analysts at S&P concur that devolution of authority from the federal government will continue, reports Ashley Halsey in the Post: “The burden to finance infrastructure projects will fall more heavily on local government entities or users in the form of higher rates or tolls.”

A natural follow-up to the NACTO meeting came at TRB a few months later, where Bruce Katz addressed a substantially similar crowd at the Transportation Issues in Major Cities committee meeting. In summing up his forthcoming book, he strenuously argued that federal government are paralyzed by dysfunction, states refuse to adapt to the new metropolitan reality (and indeed, many state legislatures are backsliding), and need to be bypassed if cities are to successfully adapt to new global realities. The good news is that cities are in fact stepping up — even though they usually haven’t been empowered to do so.

(This comes with a huge caveat: ultimately, even a paralyzed state is a sovereign unit — quite unlike a city, whose municipal charter [particularly in a Dillon’s Rule state] may be tremendously limiting. And it is much more difficult to do a 50-state campaign, or even a 20-state campaign, than a single national campaign.)

How can citizens and local government officials respond? We can set up peer-to-peer innovation networks so that innovations can spread more quickly and easily between cities. States and national governments can no longer be counted on to scale up innovations, but we also no longer need them to do so.

We won’t be able to innovate our way out of every intractable problem — but with a fresh understanding of the problems, we may be able to find new resources to bring to bear. For example, Janette Sadik-Khan summed up her department’s super-effective work in three broad steps:
1. Leveraging existing assets: a holistic approach to street space manages to do more with less; “back to basics” means that feet come first; local & state governments already spend $2 in general funds on transportation for every $1 in road user fees and should expect greater accountability
2. Working nimbly: in times of austerity, we can’t afford not to work smarter, not harder (echoed by Rina Cutler from Philadelphia as “we cannot not fix” urban infrastructure, and by Gabe Klein, who contrasted the old capital-intensive approach with new ways that resemble “marketing, change management, public relations, and sales”)
3. Transforming the city: Mayor Bloomberg noted that the city has surpassed records for population & GRP, but has experienced the safest five-year period in its history and has successfully directed all new travel demand onto transit.

(About the title: a friend of mine grew up in Windward, the collection of damp suburbs east of Honolulu. There, TV and radio signals from Honolulu, just five miles away, are blocked by a mountain range, so instead residents watched TV from Maui, a hundred miles away across the flat ocean. Such is life in an archipelago: sometimes we have more in common with people far away than those just on the other side of the ridge. Our cities have more to learn from one another than from their hinterlands.)

The affluent society starving investment

As the Economist points out this week, capital spending on transportation & water infrastructure in the USA has declined by two-thirds since its Kennedy (and Pat Brown) era heyday. As that era crested, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote “The Affluent Society,” a vision of an America characterized by private affluence amidst public poverty. That vision has come to pass: the World Economic Forum ranks 23rd for overall infrastructure quality, between Spain and Chile. At a metropolitan level, I would hazard that Spanish and Chilean metropolitan commuters appear to enjoy more extensive and efficient mass transit and toll highways than their American counterparts.

As if this precipitous decline in investment just were not enough, Jonathan Cohn points out that the Ryan/House GOP budget would reduce federal spending on infrastructure by roughly half.* That the Republicans are leading this charge would surely disappoint that party’s founding fathers, who (as highlighted at “Established the Transcontinental Railroad” with lavish sums of federal “funny money” (land grants).

The GOP is broadly fighting a war against the future — attacking any investment in the future, choosing instead to distribute those false savings as tax cuts to foster present-day private consumption. The Ryan budget also cuts federal investment in human infrastructure — education — by over half. At the state level in North Carolina, N&O political columnist Rob Christensen frames the “two competing narratives” of low taxes and private consumption today vs. broader public gains tomorrow within the context of Richard Burr, a Republican of the old (pre-paleo-nihilist), truly pro-business variety:

[Gov. Perdue and the Democrats] have argued that North Carolina has been a leader in the South for the past several generations precisely because it has invested more than its sister states in creating a nationally respected university system, a noted community college system, and has historically been a leader in roads and the arts. That North Carolina — unlike other parts of the South — has not engaged in a race to have the lowest taxes in the South, the Democrats argue, has allowed the state to develop a more sophisticated industrial policy that has resulted in such success stories as the Research Triangle Park…

[Republican U.S. Senator Richard Burr:] “We are the highest-tax state in the Southeast. And we still win. We win more than our neighboring states.” The main reason, Burr said, is because of North Carolina’s education system, particularly its university and community college system. “When an employer looks at an investment in North Carolina, they are not looking at the return next year,” Burr said. “They are looking at the return 30 years from now. They need a future workforce that has the skills and knowledge.”

* Note differing metrics (% of GDP spent by all levels of government vs. just federal spending per capita). I’d estimate the Ryan trendline on that graph slightly downward, based on stable or declining state/local spending, which seems likely given budget pressures, and GDP growth modestly outpacing population growth.

Speaking of smoothly functioning societies, Fukuyama confirms Kierkegaard’s theory that history ends in modern Copenhagen. We’re all “getting to Denmark,” it would seem.

What I’m reading today

[This started short and got quite lengthy. Maybe I’ll break off parts later.]

1. Citywide bike sharing arrives in the Midwest this week when Nice Ride launches in Minneapolis, using Bixi technology. (I had hoped to be there for the launch, but it looks like I’ll be there in July instead.) Interesting: (1) BCBS is the lead sponsor and (2) the city is not resting on its laurels (the article finds that the communitarian Minnesota culture is the key factor); the bikeway network is due to grow by 30% this year.

2. Jeff Speck in Architect uses the same taxonomy of New Urbanist critics — which he calls Lib[ertarian], Mod[ernist], and Saint — that I incompletely delineated in an earlier study of “Additional Myths About New Urbanism.” I used right, avant-garde, and left, but the themes are the same. Nice point in his final paragraph, addressing the Saints: new urbanism is a reform movement, not a revolutionary movement. We can’t fix everything all at once since we don’t aim to; it’s incremental change, not an entirely new world order.

Which reminds me: an offhand remark by Andres Duany about how crowds of suburban teenagers can “love the city to death” — suffocating the diversity of uses and people in the Sunbelt’s few-and-far-between urban oases — has drawn a storm of the same old Saint/Mod criticisms (only this time some bloggers are taking it personally!) about NU being exclusionary, authoritarian, static, hopelessly middle-class and middle-aged and middle-brow.

The answer to such critics is the same. Reform takes time, places evolve, and diversity must be managed as it’s actually not the natural order of human ecology. The same critics enthralled with “emergent, incremental, accretive” urbanism haven’t the patience to let Kentlands’ trees grow in, don’t understand that New Urbanists seek not to take away great places but to create new places that will, in time, evolve into great ones. Or, as I’ve said before, “today’s Old Urbanism was yesteryear’s New Urbanism, and therefore that today’s New Urbanism, in due time, will be tomorrow’s Old Urbanism… time is the most necessary ingredient to create the ‘authentic urbanism’ that many critics of New Urbanism cite in false opposition to NU.” In other words, give us a hundred years.

Of course, Duany doesn’t speak for the entire movement, and his admiration for civil libertarian’s bugaboo of Singapore — which actually does a better job than the USA of guaranteeing its citizens human rights like health, housing, education, and safety, not to mention protection from rights violations — is not exactly a plea for tyranny. I disagree with Duany about democracy’s utility: not a surfeit of democracy per se, but rather a fake populism that empowers a vocal [small-c] conservative minority, has impeded urban evolution.

3. Speaking of history and democracy, Charles Siegel writes about “Unplanning” over at Planetizen, arguing to some extent that planners caused the auto domination of American cities — whereas politicians should have kept them in check. While that may be true around the margins — different cities on the same continent have chosen rather different paths towards relative auto domination, as Patrick Condon (links to PDF) points out — my own reading of history (relying on Peter Norton here) says otherwise. Auto domination was a conscious political choice made in the 1920s, before the era of professional planning (or rather, traffic engineering), by political elites who sided with affluent auto drivers in their fight to claim road space from working-class pedestrians and middle-class transit riders. Indeed, overt attempts to politically legislate exactly the slow-traffic conditions that he outlines failed miserably: a 1923 initiative in Cincinnati (placed on the ballot with 42,000 petition signatures) that would have mechanically prohibited autos from going faster than 25MPH went down to defeat after a furious campaign by the Auto Club and newspapers.

4. More history: an oral history documentation project of LA Chinatown during my grandfather’s era.

5. From The Atlantic‘s special city issue, a reminder by Benjamin Schwarz that “Manhattan never was what we think it was” — or what Village writers like Sorkin and Zukin think it was. The bohemian, deindustrializing Lower Manhattan (itself hardly static) that so many exhibit a false nostalgia for was “pretty much limited to the years of the LaGuardia administration,” and itself was quite an exception within a vast urban “agglomeration of mostly self-sufficient, inward-looking, lower-middle-class communities.” Yes, Jane Jacobs wrote convincingly about how that city worked, because she lived in it. Yet many take the wrong message away from Jacobs: the look and feel of the industrial city were just the backdrop; her principles say nothing about post-industrial gentrification. Jacobs loved watching systems emerge and evolve from market interactions; heavy-handed intervention was most certainly not her style.

Yet the paralyzed political climate that has resulted from empowered neighborhood “activists” (see #2 above) has stunted urban evolution — always driven by markets’ creative destruction — in the name of this faux “authenticity.” These “activists” don’t realize that the problem they seek to solve isn’t with architects or planners or even with developers, it’s with “all that is solid melts into air” capitalism itself. There are ways around this, and I’m excited to see that authors like Matt Hern get this and are doing something about this: shutting down streets and setting up collectives to reclaim space, not just a setting, for society. The planners, cops, and Tories he antagonizes turn out to be mostly reasonable people, doing pretty good work within a flawed system larger than all of them. Sure, he has his share of “can’t we all just get along” platitudes, but even those are grounded in a sense of possibility and progress. Perhaps it’s due to his base outside the Greenwich Village snowglobe, in a peripheral city simultaneously tossed about by globalization, blessed with a surprising degree of autonomy, and relatively unweighted by hidebound tradition. It’s a much fresher take on “finding real place” than I found in either Zukin or Sorkin’s books.

6. More authenticity: Hong Kong, which made an interesting decision to conserve and rehabilitate one of its original public housing blocks, will now preserve Wing Lee street. It gained notoriety principally for being an actual movie set, the only place where directors could recreate a feel of 1950s tenement life.

7. Just nudging urbanism along in California could cut CO2 emissions in half — and by 75% over a business as usual scenario, according to new research by Peter Calthorpe. The household savings angle is an interesting one to push: the less people spend on cars and oil, the more they’ll have to spend on houses — preserving the property values which are so incredibly paramount to California politics. Jarvis League, are you listening?

8. “You want to know who Sarah Palin is? She’s the False Maria in Metropolis! That’s who she is.” — Peter Trachtenberg

9. The world’s thirst for oil has outpaced humans’ capacity to “safely” (if we ever could) drill for (and burn) it. Sickening pollution is intrinsic to oil; the act of driving is drilling. And as we’re finding out, drilling technology has advanced faster than spill-cleanup technology. Boycotting one company won’t help; they all have tar and blood on their hands. Alexandra Paul at HuffPo:

There is a story about a scorpion asking a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion reassures him that if he stung the frog, the scorpion would drown as well. So the frog agrees to be carried on the scorpion’s back across the river. Mid-river, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming the two of them. As they are sinking, the scorpion explains, “I’m a scorpion; stinging is my nature.”

Ocean drilling is the nature of oil companies. It is what they do, even if it dooms us all. We can be angry about how they are ineffectively dealing with their mess, but in the end, BP is drilling for oil in environmentally sensitive areas for one reason only: we need the oil they provide.

Auto age deathwatch

“For the moment, watching gas prices roll relentlessly higher, we’re transfixed by the slightly terrifying novelty of it all.” — Bill McKibben

reign of error

In even more earth-shattering news than the forthcoming fixed-gear apocalypse (now with its very own Facebook group!), the signs of the automobile’s waning hegemony continue to mount. “We’re on the edge of people changing their travel patterns,” says John Roberts Smith, mayor of Meridian, Miss., quoted by Damien Cave in the NYT, after years and years where “local officials never talked much about driving. It was just how everyone got around.”

Writes Nelson Schwartz: “The speed at which gas prices are climbing is forcing a seismic change in long-held American habits, from car-buying to commuting… A Ford spokeswoman says the market shift is ‘totally unprecedented and faster than anything we’ve ever seen.’ ” Echoes LA city planning commissioner (and former councilman and mayoral candidate) Michael Woo, in an LAT article by Martin Zimmerman, “throughout our history, we have grown on the assumption that energy costs would be low. Now that those assumptions are shifting, it changes assumptions about housing, cars and how cities grow… [it could be] the urban-planning equivalent of an earthquake.”

A nation which has long taken cheap gas (and unlimited automobility) for granted, where 5% of the world’s population gulps 44% of its gasoline, is now in the midst of whiplash.

The quick turnabout is particularly notable since the elasticity of oil prices typically requires a lengthy time delay:

In the short run, neither demand for nor supply of oil is very elastic. It takes time for people to replace their old guzzlers with more fuel-efficient cars, or to switch to jobs with shorter commutes, or to move closer to public transport… [according to U of C economist] Gary Becker… over periods of less than five years, oil consumption in the OECD dropped by only 2-9% when the price doubled… But over longer periods, consumption dropped by 60%. [The Economist]

Yet Americans have slammed on the antilock brakes, hard. Andrew Leopard, quoting a NYT article by Clifford Krauss, predicts that “2007 may end up being the peak year for gasoline consumption, ever, in the (past or future) history of the United States.” After decades of inexorable growth, VMT fell by 4.3% from March 2006-2007. The biggest monthly decline in driving ever (since record-keeping began in 1942) occurred in March 2008 — until May’s tumble beat it, and typically driving increases in May as “the summer driving season” begins.

The deepening plight of big SUVs, in particular, has me positively grinning with schadenfreude. Needless to say, I’m not disappointed in the least that the Hummer brand could die. In that WaPo article, Frank Ahrens notes, “it’s hard to imagine a product other than a handgun that so clearly splits the division between what some people perceive as a right and others perceive as social destruction… So, the Hummer may go the way of the brontosaurus and other lumbering herbivores, actual and metaphorical, all grazing peacefully in the growing shadow of the incoming meteor.”

Today, NPR listeners were treated to Yuki Noguchi’s report from a used-car dealership in suburban Virginia, where the owners of a year-old Escalade were shocked to learn that their vehicle had lost 60% of its value over a year. As an aside, this underscores just how fundamentally stupid SUV owners are — and exemplifies just how amazingly out of whack this misallocation of resources got. Even ignoring the marginal costs (much less the externalized social costs) of running the truck — the $100 tanks of gas, the $2,000+ annual insurance bill, the repairs and maintenance, the $40,000 or $30/day parking space — and even assuming that these guys paid cash and didn’t (shudder) borrow to buy it (much less lease it), the $40,000 in value they’ve lost in one year is nearly $110 a day that just went poof! Add in the $9.59 in daily interest (at 5%) forgone by spending the cash rather than keeping it in the bank (and, naturally, subtract any higher investment returns that one could reasonably expect), and that’s a loss of nearly $120 a day just to park that thing in the driveway, plus whatever it costs to run ($25/day, per Edmunds). Maybe $145 a day is worth it for some people, but I just don’t get it: own an Escalade or dine on a ten-course degustation every night? (Or even two hours in a limo [with full bar!] every day.) No contest. Nobody needs to spend that kind of money on a mere convenience, which is all that a big SUV amounts to in a city. (Another sign of how bad the market’s gotten: the latest wave of spam comments to this blog advertises used trucks.)

High gas prices have also particularly hit recreational driving (the sort that auto apologists always neglect to mention), and Americans are surprisingly willing to turn to alternatives. “In Nebraska, Ric Hines of the Omaha Hummer Owner Group — known as Omahog — stopped doing off-road trips this summer and started riding his recumbent bicycle instead,” reports Christopher Maag in the NYT. In another NYT article, Karen Ann Cullotta quotes Ewelina Smosna of Chicago: “We’re not cruising around anymore… We just park the car and walk around.”

The story’s similar in Chapel Hill, as reported by Bruce Siceloff in the 8 June N&O: “[Manny Opoku, 19, a UNC-CH junior, is] getting to know his neighborhood and getting to know his fellow students. In the era of $4 gas, lunch lasts longer and conversation runs deeper. ‘Before, you would just eat lunch and talk about sports, talk about girls — and then go, “Hey, I’m leaving.” And get in your car and leave. But now, because gas is so high, there’s nowhere to go… You run out of superficial things to say. If you want to keep the conversation going, you’ve got to talk about something deep. And you like it. Now we’re moving at a different pace.”

So at least in Chapel Hill, Garrison Keillor’s vision of the future has already come to pass:

So we will need to amuse ourselves in new ways. I predict that banjo sales will pick up. The screened porch will come back in style. And the art of storytelling will burgeon along with it. Stories are common currency in life but only to people on foot. Nobody ever told a story to a clerk at a drive-up window, but you can walk up to the lady at the check-out counter and make small talk and she might tell you, as a woman told me the other day as she rang up my groceries, that she had gotten a puppy that day to replace the old dog who had to be put down a month ago, and right there was a little exchange of humanity. Her willingness to tell me that made her real to me. People who aren’t real to each other are dangerous to each other. Stories give us the simple empathy that is the basis of the Golden Rule, which is the basis of civilized society.

Bill McKibben, the mightily eloquent proponent of localism, similarly writes about the hope ahead in a Post op-ed:

This spring, something… profound and defining has happened: Pulled back by the inescapable gravity of higher prices and the growing scarcity of fossil fuels, we’re starting a slow recoil into more dense and compact regions and localities. The frontier of endless mobility that we’ve known our entire lives is closing… We could debate whether those changes will be good or bad. I think, on balance, that they’re positive — that in the United States sprawl has eroded our sense of community, with grievous results.”

Even Jeroen van der Veer, chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell, appears to agree: “a society can work, can function and can grow even at higher fuel prices. It’s a way of life — you get used to it.”

How else might those changes prove positive? Time counts a few ways; among them:

We know that higher gas prices cause many of us to slow down and drive less — which means fewer people die. Early research into 2006 accident data suggests that many lives have already been spared. If gas remains at $4 per gal. for a year or more, expect as many as 1,000 fewer fatalities a month, according to professor Michael Morrisey at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and associate professor David Grabowski at Harvard Medical School, who calculated that estimate for TIME… A permanent $1 hike in prices may cut obesity 10%, saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars a year, estimates Charles Courtemanche, an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

With obesity’s death toll in the U.S. estimated at 300,000, and an additional 2,000 lives saved from better air quality, that’s at least 44,000 American lives saved every year just by raising gas prices by $1 or so.

Our regret, of course, lies in the fact that this shift is sudden — “We have waited until we are at a crisis point to address transportation,” says Mr. Smith, the Meridian mayor — and that the direct gains are not accruing to Americans, to address our tremendous unmet social needs. As I’ve noted before, we’d be much better off if a “gas price escalator” had been installed in 2001; a $1 increase in gas prices yields $142 billion (“according to Stephen P. Brown, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas”), but right now $1 of that extra $1.50 per gallon flows directly to our overseas enemies.

In 2004, George W. Bush’s presidential campaign ran TV ads ridiculing John Kerry for supporting a $0.50/gallon increase in the gas tax. Gas prices have increased by nearly $2.50/gallon since then — but none of that increased cost can pay for needed infrastructure, help lower income families pay the bills, or address countless other national needs, since ALL of it is going to already scandalously wealthy oil producers and oil companies.

That gas prices will rise now seems a given; the question is whom those higher prices will benefit.

Assorted collected

Recent quotables. No common theme.

Bill McKibbenin Yes! Magazine:

The kind of extreme independence that derived from cheap fossil fuel—the fact that we need our neighbors for nothing at all—can’t last. Either we build real community, of the kind that lets us embrace mass transit and local food and co-housing and you name it, or we will go down clinging to the wreckage of our privatized society.

From the Baffler, “The flight of the creative class: a bohemian rhapsody” (satire), Paul Maliszewski and Thomas Frank:

“Creative people do have certain needs, however, They require hip entertainment, organic street-level culture, and artistic environments—from restaurants serving mind-boggling fusions of world cuisines, like Thai and Tex-Mex or Indian and Australian, to experimental theaters, avant-garde galleries, and authentic coffee shops with mismatched cups and saucers and deteriorating couches. Creative people crave lively street scenes and late-night music venues serving up pricey energy drinks in test tubes. In short, creative people insist they lead the sort of lives that feed their creativity, inspiring them.”

Thomas Geoghegan, “The Law in Shambles” (Prickly Paradigm, 2005), excerpted in same Baffler:

“In a plutocracy, we don’t trust the government. Why should we? It does nothing for us, it is underfunded, and it’s unreliable. This attitude, in turn, makes the problem worse. The more arbitrary and unfair we think things are, the more we drop out. We don’t simply stop voting. We stop reading the paper. Stop following it at all…

“Remember the teaching of the great law professor Clyde Summers: ‘It costs a lot of money for people to have “rights.”‘ […]

“Where I live, in Chicago, I’m in a ring of nuclear power plants. I’d be in terrible danger if we ever successfully muzzled the trial lawyers. It’s only the tort system that saves us from another Three Mile Island. Yes, I agree, it might be nice if we had more nuclear plants. We could cut down on Mideast oil. We could slow down global warming. And if I lived in France, with all its nuclear energy, I might think it was a good thing. So why do I oppose it here?

“Because France has a real administrative state, a real civil service, and the best and brightest do the regulating. In America, we can’t even keep the trains on the tracks. And so, sure, as a citizen, Id like to curb the trial lawyers.

“But I also want to live.”

Some bits from the January 2007 SMARTRAQ report, about the market demand for sprawl vs. walkable neighborhoods, for my future reference:

page 9. Residents of the least walkable neighborhoods generated 20% more CO2 from travel then residents of the most walkable neighborhoods, about 2 kg more CO2 per person per weekday.

Residents of the most walkable areas are 2.4X more likely to get the level of daily activity necessary to maintain health (30 minutes): 37% vs. 18% in the least walkable neighborhoods.

page 10. About a third of metro Atlantans living in conventional suburban development would have preferred a more walkable environment, but apparently traded it off for other reasons such as affordability, school quality, or perception of crime in addition to lack of supply. It is likely that this mismatch between community preference and choice is due to an undersupply of walkable environments.

page 32. 55% of survey respondents preferred a shorter commute, even if residential densities were higher and lot sizes smaller. 33% of respondents preferred such an option, but did not currently live in this type of neighborhood.

56% of respondents would prefer a neighborhood where they had easy travel choices, even if it meant a smaller house, over a house in a neighborhood where they had to drive for everything. 37% would prefer such an area, but did not currently.

Post-collegiate in extremis

young and restless Originally uploaded by Payton Chung

The first set of charts, graphs, and illustrations has come back from the planners examining Wicker Park & Bucktown on behalf of we, the people of WP-B (or at least our special service area). The most astonishing finding, in my view, is here: our neighborhood’s people are defined by a stunning — indeed, almost statistically improbable — self-segregation of young people.

Nearly 52% of the population is between 20-39, compared to just 29% nationally. 45.4% even fall within that most marketer-coveted of all age groups, the 18-35s. Maybe we could make a lot of money selling sidewalk billboards.

Perhaps even more quizzically, young men significantly outnumber young women in most age brackets: 9.4% (nearly one in ten!) neighborhood residents are (like me) men in their late 20s, nearly three times the share in the American populace. It’s not even an appreciably gay neighborhood, either.

Almost all other age groups are underrepresented (relative to their national shares) in the neighborhood by about 30-50% — except for preschool aged children. Sure enough, the kids leave at school age — although not nearly to the “total” extent that is sometimes claimed by alarmists. Why, there are about as many grade-schoolers living here as 60-somethings.

(Produced by Interface Studio for Wicker Park Bucktown Special Service Area #33)