Thursday, February 26, 2009

The future of cities is ... well … ahead of us …

Cleveland   It’s an old joke that making predictions is difficult, especially about the future.  In response to posts earlier this week, Catherine LaCroix at Case Western Reserve directs us to a website (with references to a report and book) about the shrinking of industrial cities such as Cleveland.  The depopulation of cities may not be thoroughly depressing –- it opens up fascinating opportunities for environmental projects, which are especially promising in an age of low property values, creative eminent domain, and a thawing public opposition to innovative urban land uses, such as the growing of food on an one-acre city lot or raising a flock of chickens for backyard urban eggs.  (See this Cleveland chicken story.)         
  The future of “dying” cities may surprise us, as does today the reports of the surprisingly successful economic condition of New Orleans three years after Katina –- in large part (skeptics note) because of the economic stimulus of shovel projects.  Urban farms might end up as a signature of Cleveland as much as did closing steel mills or the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame did in previous decades.  And it may assuage somewhat the concern that suburban sprawl is gobbling up valuable farmland –- a concern that has always struck me as overstated.  I’m of the age that reminds me of the passage from the old Talking Heads song:  “There was a shopping mall. Now it's all covered with flowers ... Once there were parking lots. Now it's a peaceful oasis” … 

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February 26, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Whither environmental land use laws in a depressed land? …

   How will the economic depression (I’m not the first to say it) affect environmental land use polices?  For some large-scale issues, such as suburban sprawl and natural resource degradation, the slump will diminish the harms and make conservationist land use policies more effective. 
Electricalgrid     But for other issues that require special efforts by government, environmental land use protections may not fare so well.  In the past 24 hours, public radio broadcast a number of interesting stories about clashes between land use laws and economic pressures.  First, Marketplace reported on pressures against preservation of historic buildings in Temecula, Cal., where some landowners are more than ever desirous of transforming buildings to the most profitable uses.  Even more significant are stories about calls for government stimulus spending to build a new electricity grid that fosters long-distance transmissions of “green” electricity (from wind and solar, for example) and to build new super-high-speed rail lines between big cities (see story and map).  In both instances, these efforts may clash sharply with the interests of local governments, which don’t want their land torn up for new power or rail lines.
    We have heard a lot of talk about how the private market must yield to the federal government in these economic times, but it may be just as interesting to see whether the federal government attempts to use its muscle to override local land use control to foster plans that may be both environmentally friendly for the nation and stimulative to the economy, but which are likely to be bitterly opposed by affected localities and their landowning citizens …

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February 24, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, February 20, 2009

The future of our cities .. and two perspectives …

  How will land use and law change in our collapsed economy?  In March's Atlantic Monthly, commentators Richard Florida and Sandra Tsing Loh offer opinions - and, provocatively, offer far different conclusions.

Detroit_3   Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class," argues that the economic crash signals the end of the half-century suburban era and a revival of dense, urban living.  He predicts the final collapse of industrial cites such as Detroit; meanwhile, boomtowns in the desert such as Phoenix, he argues, will likewise suffer as their real-estate-fueled growth ends.  (But I ask: Aren't sunny retirement destinations such as Phoenix (which was a boom city long before the real-estate bubble) posed to remain popular regardless of the economic climate?)      

    Which places will prosper?  Florida suggests further concentration in a handful of hip and diversified "dense ecosystems" such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago, as well as a few smaller "innovation centers" such as Austin and Boulder.  He calls for changes in land use law to foster more density, more public transportation, and more investment in vibrant and appealing central cities.  The places that will succeed, he concludes, are "those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism."  Success, he write, belongs to "a landscape that can accommodate and accelerate invention, innovation, and creation …."

   What does this mean?  What is the "velocity" of a place or the "landscape of … invention"?  And why do these factors favor New York and Los Angeles?  To the extent that our economy moves fully away from manufacture (and real estate) and towards the creativity of the Internet world, why can't creativity thrive on laptops in Spokane, Omaha, or Birmingham?  Doesn't the Internet hold the same "velocity" in these smaller cities as it does in the big ones?  At the same time that Florida predicts the near-complete abandonment of cities such as Detroit, he also notes, in somewhat of a contradiction, that the economic downtown has made labor markets and housing movement far more rigid. 

   Perhaps Florida means to suggest that "creative" people still need a real-life human community and that creative people need and wish to flock together in the flesh.  (Although whenever I see people "creating" intently at Starbucks, they don't seem to be interacting in any way other then online.)  Perhaps only a handful of hip urban centers offer this opportunity.   

   Tsing Loh suggests some manifestations of this community in Los Angeles.  Grimy Boston Red Sox baseball caps are popular among hip young entertainment people, she jokes (?), because it signifies that they have the unparalleled pedigree of having worked at the Harvard Lampoon.

   She also gets the final word.  Tsing Loh faults Florida for ignoring the concerns that families with children have over the central cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, which are both expensive and have poor public schools.  (Interestingly, Florida hardly mentions issues of race and immigration.  See my post of earlier this week about popular cities.)   And finally, Tsing Loh suggests that our economic catastrophe might not favor Florida's hip creative class but instead may favor "staid and stolid values of the bourgeoisie: industry, sobriety, moderation, self-discipline and avoidance of debt."  In this sort of world, places such as Spokane, Omaha, and Birmingham may have as hopeful a future as do New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco ….

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February 20, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

If you could live where you wanted …

    This week I’ll write about the growing number of assertions that the collapse of the housing boom and the American economy spells the end of sprawl and the revival of the dense city –- an assertion that runs counter to many of the ideas that I typically post in this blog.  First, the Pew Research Center published a report recently of a survey about where Americans want to live.  Metro areas that topped the list were Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Orlando, and Tampa (Who says that hosting both the World Series and Super Bowl does nothing for civic fame?). 
Nycsidewalk      But in what sort of environment do people wish to live?  Interestingly, just about as many people said they would prefer to live in a suburb as do currently live there.  But fewer wish to live in a city, and more want to live in a small town or rural area.  From these and other stats, New York Times columnist David Brooks concluded that Americans don’t want to live in Amsterdam-like density.  This might be a bit of an overstatement.  Not surprisingly, young people tended to prefer a city, whereas older people tended to prefer a suburb or small town.  But more than 71 percent said that they preferred a place with a slower pace of life.  And (“just for fun,” the Pew report stated), somewhat more Americans wanted a McDonald’s in their community than a Starbucks ….

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February 17, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Seaside, age, and Kunstler …

Seaside    Whenever I show my students pictures of Seaside –- the famous New Urbanist community in the Florida panhandle –- I invariably get titters and comments from students that it looks “creepy.”  Why is this?  Is it because they remember it from the movie “The Truman Show,” in which it was the too-perfect community that was actually a giant TV set for a reality show about the hoodwinked Truman?  Or it is because we are not used to seeing architecture and design of the old school – that it, design that holds detail, that is built on the human scale, and that gives limited compromises to the 20th century –- without the patina of age or decrepitude?
   Yesterday, scourge-of-sprawl James Howard Kunstler discussed his idea that age will only make better places such as Seaside, which rejects automobile domination, embraces density, and attempts the close-knit feel of a 19th century small town, only in the form of a popular place on the Florida Gulf.  In the near future, we might not even be able to criticize Seaside as being too expensive (I’ve never quite understood the criticism that it’s a bad thing that good design makes small cottages in Seaside so expensive that middle-class people can’t afford them).  I think ... and I don’t often say this about Kunstler without hesitation … that he’s right …

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February 13, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Happy and sad endings for historic theatres …

Movetheatrehistoric    One of the biggest drawbacks to historic preservation is when the building or area doesn’t fit modern economic needs.  It’s all well and good to say “adaptive reuse,” but sometimes it’s difficult to find a successful adaptation.  Some of the saddest stories concern old movie theaters –- nay, palaces -– from the 1920s and 30s that can’t readily serve their intended purposes anymore, either because they’re too big, too isolated from other screens (today, a diverse public demands the choice of the “cineplex”), or in the wrong location (such as in a downtown, as opposed to suburban mall). 
  One happy story is the old Silver Theater in my old hometown of Silver Spring., Md., which was partially demolished in anticipation of a possible historic designation, but was (many years later) eventually revived as the eastern branch of the American Film Institute, thanks in part to local county dollars – thus allowing me to see art films when I’m back in the area.  (Thanks, taxpayers!)   
   Elsewhere, there may be no white knight to come to the rescue.  I was surprised to read in the blog of one of my favorite alt-county signers, Kathleen Edwards, a lament over the fate in her home of Hamilton, Ontario, of the historic Tivoli Theater, which appears to have rotted and collapsed a few years ago.  Efforts to rebuild and rescue came a cropper.  Perhaps we should consider more drastic reuses (that is, removing the seats and screens) from obsolete theaters …

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February 11, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Redesigning the suburbs?

   In an entry in the New York Times this week, design writer Allison Arieff wrote for the second time on the topic of “saving the suburbs.”  The first entry raised questions of what to do with new McMansion developments that have no buyers in a world less exuberant over exurbs.  My guess is that not too many of these developments will be empty five years from now; who knows, maybe some California developments will house refugees from earthquakes, as some overbuilt Houston housing did after Hurricane Katrina.
New_urbanism    In this week’s entry, Arieff discusses desires to retrofit suburbia for greater density, using of course new-urbanist ideals.  I would have liked more emphasis on the essential role for rezoning, without which much retrofitting can’t occur.  (But then, I’m a lawyer, not a designer.)  She included a rendering of the community of Mashpee Commons on Cape Cod.  The drawing makes the place look much like an old town in France or Denmark –- tall, steep-roofed townhouses clustered around greens and narrow streets.  My big question about the rendering is –- and one can compare it to some photos of the actual place –- Where are the cars? 

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February 5, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Enlightenment isn’t so easy, when though land use choices must be made …

   It’s one thing simply to advocate for greater density and more public transportation; it’s another thing to make the tough policy choices that these land uses entail.  I noticed that commentators Peter Katz and Walljasper annointed my old home county –- Montgomery County, Md. –- as the “most enlightened” suburb in the nation in a recent Utne Reader
Silverspringellsworth    But here’s a story about a perhaps-not-so-enlightened side of Montgomery County.  The state of Maryland is considering the creation of a new public transportation line to connect the busy downtown center of Bethesda, in affluent western Montgomery, with the less affluent communities, to the east, of Silver Spring (my old hometown) and Prince George’s County, which holds both the University of Maryland and a majority black and growing Latino population.  Among the controversies that have plagued the “purple line” project (so dubbed because it would add to the variously colored lines of Washington’s metro system, which was not designed for suburb-to-suburb travel) are: (1) whether to use a light-rail or an express bus system (I have advocated the latter as far more cost-effective, while most public advocates have supported the more glamorous rail option, of course); (2) whether to run the line through a stretch of the popular rail-to-trail Capital Crescent Trail (other options appear too expensive for rail); and, finally, (3) whispers (okay, more than merely whispers) that affluent Bethesdans don’t like the idea of easterners having a quick access to their community. 
   Who knew that being “enlightened” was so complicated? …

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February 2, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)