Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Many thanks to Matt for inviting me back as a guest blogger! If nothing else, a bit of blogging will provide me a productive distraction this month from grading spring semester exams. Matt and the entire team of editors continue to do an outstanding job with the blog, and it’s absolutely one of my favorite morning reads.
I’ll use my first post to respond to Matt’s half-joking question: why should a land use prof spend time thinking about the space above land? After all, airspace rights receive scant attention in most land use casebooks. Discussions of airspace rights might seem better suited for a course on aviation law. Land use profs should stay down in the dirt, right?
Not necessarily. Over the past few years, I've managed to convince myself that some of the most perplexing and unsettled land use conflicts of the day involve the oft-forgotten space just above the surface of land.
For me, it all began while I was still practicing at a large law firm in Seattle. Our wind energy developer client approached us with a puzzling question: can a landowner be liable for stealing a neighbor’s wind? The client and a competing developer had leased adjacent parcels for wind farms. Our client wanted to install a wind turbine immediately upwind of one of the competitor’s turbine sites that was situated just on the other side of their common property boundary line. If both turbines were installed, the turbulent “wake” from the upwind turbine would render the downwind turbine largely ineffective. Only one of these two prime turbine sites could be profitably developed. Under the law, who should prevail in this dispute over wind – the upwind party or the downwind party?
While I was wrestling with that question, I stumbled upon the topic of solar access--a similar sort of airspace use conflict that involves solar energy devices instead of wind turbines. Should landowners be liable when trees or buildings on their parcels shade a neighbor’s solar panels? Laws Wyoming and New Mexico effectively give solar energy users strong legal protections against shading—“solar rights”—drawing analogies to water law’s prior appropriation doctrine. But these analogies to water law are misguided, ignoring neighbors’ longstanding rights in the airspace above their land. Better governance rules are needed for these conflicts that are capable of balancing policymakers’ general interest in promoting solar energy with the existing airspace rights of neighbors.
These wind and solar energy disputes over airspace are just two examples of how airspace is playing an increasingly crucial role in the sustainability movement. Vertical construction and infill development that occupy additional airspace continue to be significant strategies for curbing suburban sprawl, and city-based tree planting programs are occupying more urban airspace as well. At the same time, planners and sustainability advocates are pushing other strategies that require that more airspace be kept open. For example, city-sponsored urban gardens need significant amounts of un-shaded sunlight to thrive, and even LEED certification standards award points for natural lighting designs that often rely on skylights, windows, and minimal shade. When combined with the solar and wind energy uses of airspace mentioned above, these developments are collectively generating an unprecedented level of competition for scarce airspace.
In summary, I think that airspace is very much a topic worth covering in a land use course. There is reason to believe that the challenge of crafting policies that can fairly and efficiently govern airspace conflicts is only beginning and will continue to vex policymakers and legal scholars well into the future.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
My last post discussed some of the backlash against Southern California's new regional plan, which emphasizes high-density transit-oriented development. California Planning & Development Report now provides some of the details of the plan, including:
- a total cost of $524 billion over 20 years
- $6.7 billion in funding for biking and walking
- $246 billion on public transportation
- 80 plus percent of all jobs and housing within a half mile of rail stations or bus stops by 2035
- 68% of all new development would be apartment or condos.
Monday, April 9, 2012
In this Wall Street Journal opinion piece, transportation planner Wendell Cox claims that state and regional planners are driving people out of the state of California with their plans for high-density, transit-oriented development, which he calls a "war" on the single-family home. According to Cox, requiring a change from a primarily single-family suburban to a multi-family urban settlement pattern will make "the state's famously unaffordable housing .. even more unaffordable."
I am at a loss to understand how multi-family housing is going to be more expensive than single-family housing. Cox's claim rests on economic data drawn from William Fischel and others showing that land use regulations in California, such as urban growth boundaries, development moratoria, and so on, generally drive up the cost of housing. This is true, but only because most of these regulations either restrict the overall supply of housing (development moratoria) or force developers to internalize the costs of new growth (exactions). Urban growth boundaries, by contrast, will not necessarily increase housing prices as long as growth is permitted at sufficient densities within the UGB to offset the loss of housing outside the UGB. Yet, Cox places the blame squarely on increasing density!
Furthermore, it is ironic that Cox sees salvation in reverting to the single-family lifestyle, when of course all of the cost-increasing restrictions he now decries, such as moratoria and exactions, have been called into service in order to subsidize single-family homeowners and exclude affordable, multi-family housing.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
On today's Morning Edition, NPR broadcast this story by WCPN on Cleveland's ramping up of demolition of vacant and abandoned properties. The piece features a sound bite from Jim Rokakis, the dynamic founder of Cleveland's new county-wide land bank, which is using part of the $75 million that Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has appropriated for vacant house demolition from the State's share of the $25 billion AG settlement with five major mortgage lenders. Rokakis wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this year urging national action on demolition funding.
As co-chair, with South Bend's new mayor, Pete Buttigieg, of the City's Vacant and Abandoned Property Task Force, I would have loved to see Indiana follow Ohio's lead, but last month the Legislature here decided to use its AG settlement money to resolve funding issues it was facing with the home energy assistance fund.
For those interested in the land use implications of responses to vacant and abandoned property issues, you may also want to check out the stories NPR has done on land banking and "blotting" (the creation of multi-parcel open spaces in dense urban neighborhoods). As always, the Center for Community Progress is a great general resource on all things vacant and abandoned.
Monday, March 26, 2012
Property Prof Blogger extraordinaire and official Land Use Prof Blog Buddy Steve Clowney draws attention to an interesting recent column from NY Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman about NYU's plans to expand within Greenwhich Village. I agree with Steve's assessment that the column focuses too much attention on the effect the expansion would have on a little used plot of park space. It is curious that Kimmelman opens the column describing NYU's expansion plans as "acrimonious" but then immediately pivots away from describing any of the actual acrimony to an issue that only he seems to care about, to wit, this "underrated" park that nobody know exists.
Kimmelman's main argument appears to be that NYU itself is responsible for the park space in question falling into disuse, and so the city should leverage its zoning power to force NYU to make the park more accessible. At this point, I was running for my land use casebook to consult the Supreme Court's exactions jurisprudence (For land use newbies: governments are generally not allowed to leverage their zoning power for concessions absent an "essential nexus" between the concession sought and the land use approval requested).
In any event, I can't say Kimmelman is wrong as a policy matter. He may be right that the village needs more open space and that NYU's plan is antithetical to that need. To me, the most interesting part of Kimmelman's piece was his contention that the original Modernist "tower-in-the-park" design that spawned the endangered park space had actually done a good job of bringing much-needed open space to the village before NYU messed it all up. This is at odds with the conventional wisdom that the tower-in-the-park idea was a monstrosity that necessarily brought about extremely alienating public spaces (wisdom made conventional, of course, by a previous crusader against Greenwhich Village construction plans, Jane Jacobs). For an example of such an alienating space, check this out:
For those wondering, this is Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York, a gift of Modernist-loving governor Nelson Rockefeller.
I see an interesting parallel between Kimmelman's affection for Modernist park design in this column and his paean to the virtues of Modernist housing complexes in another column about which I blogged previously. Kimmelman seems committed to resuscitating a form of urban design that has been largely relegated to the dustbin of bad planning ideas. For that, I commend him!
Monday, January 23, 2012
On Morning Edition today, NPR ran a story about farmers who sold land for development repurchasing it for agriculural use. Here's the summary:
Over the past half-century more than 20 million acres of U.S. farmland were transformed into housing developments. With new home construction all but stopped, farmers in many areas are buying or leasing land once slated for development and planting crops on it.
Saturday, December 31, 2011
As we head into the New Year, The Urban Land Institute has also been looking ahead at the future of land use. ULI recently issued its report What's Next? Real Estate in the New Economy. From the press release:
A new economy is unfolding over the course of this decade, driven by an extraordinary convergence of demographic, financial, technological and environmental trends. Taken together, these trends will dramatically change urban planning, design and development through 2020, according to a new report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI).
What’s Next? Real Estate in the New Economy outlines how every aspect of living, working and connecting will change in major ways, driven in large part by the values, preferences and work ethic of Generation Y, the largest generation in American history. . . .
Among the report’s findings:
- Technology will reshape work places. Office tenants will decrease space per employee, and new office environments will need to promote interaction and dialogue. Offices will be transforming into meeting places more than work places, with an emphasis on conference rooms, break areas and open configurations. Developers will craft attractive environments to attract young, talented workers.
- Major companies will value space that enables innovation. They will continue to pay more for space in a global gateway served by a major international airport, or in 24-hour urban centers. Hard-to-reach suburban work places will be less in demand.
- The influx of Generation Y, now in their teens through early thirties, will change housing demand. They are comfortable with smaller homes and will happily trade living space for an easier commute and better lifestyle. They will drive up the number of single households and prompt a surge in demand for rentals, causing rents to escalate.
- For most people, finances will still be constrained, leading to more shared housing and multi-generational households. Immigration will support that trend, as many immigrants come from places where it is common for extended families to share housing. This may be the one group that continues to drive demand for large, suburban homes.
- The senior population will grow fastest, but financial constraints could limit demand for adult housing developments. Many will age in place or move in with relatives to conserve money. Developers may want to recast retirement communities into amenity-laden “age friendly” residences. Homes near hospitals and medical offices will be popular, especially if integrated into mixed-use neighborhoods with shops, restaurants and services.
- Energy and infrastructure take on greater importance. Businesses cannot afford to have their network connections down, and more will consider self-generated power or onsite generator capacity. Developers, owners and investors are realizing that the slightly higher costs of energy- and water-saving technologies can pay for themselves quickly, creating more marketable and valuable assets. Ignoring sustainability issues speeds property obsolescence.
You can download the full report here.
December 31, 2011 in Architecture, Clean Energy, Density, Development, Downtown, Environmentalism, Finance, Green Building, Housing, Planning, Property, Real Estate Transactions, Redevelopment, Scholarship, Smart Growth, Suburbs, Sustainability, Transportation, Urbanism, Water | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Friday, December 30, 2011
Rabah Arezki (IMF), Klaus Deininger (World Bank), and Harris Selod (World Bank) have posted What Drives the Global Land Rush? The abstract:
This paper studies the determinants of foreign land acquisition for large-scale agriculture. To do so, gravity models are estimated using data on bilateral investment relationships, together with newly constructed indicators of agro-ecological suitability in areas with low population density as well as land rights security. Results confirm the central role of agro-ecological potential as a pull factor. In contrast to the literature on foreign investment in general, the quality of the business climate is insignificant whereas weak land governance and tenure security for current users make countries more attractive for investors. Implications for policy are discussed.
December 30, 2011 in Agriculture, Comparative Land Use, Contracts, Density, Economic Development, Finance, Globalism, Property Rights, Real Estate Transactions, Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Thursday, December 15, 2011
John Norquist, CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, has a thoughtful essay on the always-excellent Cities blog from The Atlantic called The Case for Congestion:
Yogi Berra once said, "nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded."
It’s certainly true that people complain about congestion. Yet it’s just as true that popular destinations tend to be crowded. Fifth Avenue in New York, Market Street in San Francisco, Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills are all congested, but people keep coming back to shop or hang out.
Congestion, in the urban context, is often a symptom of success.
If people enjoy crowded places, it seems a bit strange that federal and state governments continue to wage a war against traffic congestion. Despite many hundreds of billions dollars spent increasing road capacity, they've not yet won; thank God. . . .
After all, congestion is a bit like cholesterol - if you don’t have any, you die. And like cholesterol, there’s a good kind and a bad kind. Congestion measurements should be divided between through-traffic and traffic that includes local origins or destinations, the latter being the "good kind." Travelers who bring commerce to a city add more value than someone just driving through, and any thorough assessment of congestion needs to be balanced with other factors such as retail sales, real estate value and pedestrian volume.
This is an important point, that not all "congestion" is the same. And even with "bad" congestion, adding road capacity doesn't always help.
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
David Reiss (Brooklyn) has posted a review of Harvard economist and urban theorist Edward Glaeser's new book. Book Review: Edward L. Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (The Penguin Press 2011), forthcoming in Environment and Planning (2012). The abstract:
It is always a bit unnerving to read someone else’s love letters, but even more so, when you have the same object of desire. Edward Glaeser’s TRIUMPH OF THE CITY is a love letter to cities and to New York City in particular. Glaeser provides a theoertical framework of the city, arguing that “Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness.”
Glaeser prescribes three simple rules to protect the vitality of the urban environment: First, cities should replace the current lengthy and uncertain permitting process with a simple system of fees. Second, historic preservation should be limited and well defined. Finally, individual neighborhoods should have some clearly delineated power to protect their special character.
While Glaeser does not fully justify his set of rules, he does provide a thought-provoking discussion of the consequences of not following them. If you were to take nothing else from TRIUMPH OF THE CITY, you should attend to its cri de coeur: “the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.” But, notwithstanding its limitations, the book offers much, much more than that. It challenges broadly held beliefs and presents a theory of the city that helps to evaluate urban policy proposals with a clear eye.
Monday, December 5, 2011
Perhaps no theology more grips the nation’s mainstream media — and the planning community — more than the notion of inevitable suburban decline. The Obama administration’s housing secretary, Shaun Donavan, recently claimed, “We’ve reached the limits of suburban development: People are beginning to vote with their feet and come back to the central cities.”
Yet repeating a mantra incessantly does not make it true. Indeed, any analysis of the 2010 U.S. Census would make perfectly clear that rather than heading for density, Americans are voting with their feet in the opposite direction: toward the outer sections of the metropolis and to smaller, less dense cities. During the 2000s, the Census shows, just 8.6% of the population growth in metropolitan areas with more than 1 million people took place in the core cities; the rest took place in the suburbs. That 8.6% represents a decline from the 1990s, when the figure was 15.4%.
Nor are Americans abandoning their basic attraction for single-family dwellings or automobile commuting. Over the past decade, single-family houses grew far more than either multifamily or attached homes, accounting for nearly 80% of all the new households in the 51 largest cities. And — contrary to the image of suburban desolation — detached housing retains a significantly lower vacancy rate than the multi-unit sector, which has also suffered a higher growth in vacancies even the crash. . . .
It turns out that while urban land owners, planners and pundits love density, people for the most part continue to prefer space, if they can afford it. No amount of spinmeistering can change that basic fact, at least according to trends of past decade.
But what about the future? Some more reasoned new urbanists, like Leinberger, hope that the market will change the dynamic and spur the long-awaited shift into dense, more urban cores.
Kotkin provides further statistics derived from his Census analysis. This debate is central to the future of housing policy and urban planning in America.
Monday, November 28, 2011
DRIVE through any number of outer-ring suburbs in America, and you’ll see boarded-up and vacant strip malls, surrounded by vast seas of empty parking spaces. These forlorn monuments to the real estate crash are not going to come back to life, even when the economy recovers. And that’s because the demand for the housing that once supported commercial activity in many exurbs isn’t coming back, either.
The better news:
Simply put, there has been a profound structural shift — a reversal of what took place in the 1950s, when drivable suburbs boomed and flourished as center cities emptied and withered.
The shift is durable and lasting because of a major demographic event: the convergence of the two largest generations in American history, the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the millennials (born between 1979 and 1996), which today represent half of the total population.
Many boomers are now empty nesters and approaching retirement. Generally this means that they will downsize their housing in the near future. Boomers want to live in a walkable urban downtown, a suburban town center or a small town, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors.
The millennials are just now beginning to emerge from the nest — at least those who can afford to live on their own. This coming-of-age cohort also favors urban downtowns and suburban town centers — for lifestyle reasons and the convenience of not having to own cars.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
OK, I'll bite. Matt has laid down the gauntlet with his criticism of the initiative process. This subject is of great importance to land use profs because, at least in many sunbelt states, a good deal of land use policy is made through direct democracy -- so-called "ballot box zoning." In this post, I want to respond to some of Matt's criticisms and offer a very tentative defense of ballot box zoning. For those who are interested, I have defended ballot box zoning at greater length (although I ultimately call for its abolition anyway) in this paper.
I must first concede to Matt that the initiative process has serious deficiencies. He mentions transparency and voter ignorance. The social science literature confirms that these are major problems. I would also add a few more: the initiative process is often captured by special interest groups, as money and organizational resources are often decisive in initiative contests; the initiative tends to favor the affluent and well educated, which is not surprising since the affluent and well educated are more likely to vote on initiatives; voters are easily confused by deceptive wording on initiatives, and initiative advocates often deliberately use deceptive terms to confuse voters; the initiative process reduces complex issues to a simplistic yes/no dichotomy in which hyperbolic sound bytes replace rational discourse. I suppose I could go on, but you get the point.
So what virtues could the initiative process possibly have? I want to focus specifically on the land use initiative, although some of my comments may be generalizable. Although it is often asserted that local politics are controlled by homeowners who seek to limit or manage growth, that is generally true only in smaller municipalities. Sunbelt states like Texas and California, however, have a disproportionate number of medium to large-size municipalities, dubbed "boomburbs" by sociologists Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy. The larger size of these municipalities gives homeowners less political power. At the same time, sunbelt boomburbs have often pursued headlong development as a means of economic growth and to overcome fiscal constraints imposed by constitutional or political limitations on raising tax revenue. Lang and LeFurgy accordingly assert that these municipalities tend to be in thrall to the "growth machine," a matrix of developers and related cohorts who facilitate urban growth. As I further argue in my paper, the fact that many of these boomburbs use at-large voting structures rather than ward voting systems further enhances the power of developers and dilutes the ability of neighborhood groups to fight development.
Obviously, this system is less than ideal for homeowners. And let's face it: while we might hate those NIMBYs, they have some pretty good reasons for opposing new growth. For years it has been national policy to induce Americans to purchase property through a combination of incentives, including low-interest mortgages and municipal zoning ordinances that provide some assurances to homeowners that their property values, and hence their ability to pay off their mortgages, will be protected against unpredictable declines. New growth and the externalities that accompany it are very likely to diminish property values, and hence prejudice the ability of homeowners to finance what is likely to be by far their most significant asset. Existing homeowners are in effect subsidizing new growth through diminished property values, and although city officials claim that everyone benefits from new growth, it is often a concentrated group of homeowners alone who must bear a disproportionate degree of the cost. As I questioned in a previous post, it can even be argued that homeowners have a regulatory takings claim -- but courts have never recognized such a cause of action.
As envisioned by its Progressive-era architects, the initiative is supposed to correct the defects in the ordinary legislative process, particularly the dominance of special interests. And that is exactly what ballot-box zoning appears to do in the sunbelt states -- the very states where boomburbs, at-large voting and the growth machine dominate the political landscape are also the states where ballot-box zoning is most robust. Ballot box zoning has proven to be a powerful weapon with which homeowners can fight back against the growth machine, because prevailing on a local initiative requires only a one-time infusion of cash and a constituency that is easily organized and highly motivated -- ie, a group of neighboring homeowners who are all extremely ticked off about land use changes around their neighborhood. This can counteract the repeat player and other advantages that the developer has in the legislative process. Granted, the initiative process itself invites special interest abuses and all sorts of other problems, but it seems no less messy or dysfunctional than the system of government it is designed to counterbalance.
Monday, October 31, 2011
Just got back from trick-or-treating with Peter Pan and a human pineapple. As they sort through the loot, I'm reminded of the increasing trend towards regulating Halloween activity. Where I grew up there weren't any rules, just social norms that controlled things like how late kids could reasonably stay out ringing on doorbells (with law enforcement as a backstop for teenagers out too late or too unruly). But then a few years ago I moved to a town in Ohio, and was surprised to learn that the town promulgated "official trick-or-treat hours" . . . and I'm not 100% sure on this, but I think the official hours to trick-or-treat were the day before Halloween, because it fell on a Sunday, or something. To get even more land use-y, it was restricted to residential neighborhoods only (not sure why you'd want to do otherwise).
Just trolling around the web tonight, I came across this Yahoo article compiling Bay Area Halloween Laws and Regulations. A few examples:
- Sex offenders: stay home; no candy; no decorations, and expect a police visit.
- Curfew laws enforced-- 10 p.m. seems like the most common time for Halloween curfew.
- Parades: several communities have kids' parades, requiring street closures, permits, police.
- Street festivals: for the second year in a row, the Castro District celebration has been cancelled; therefore traffic, parking, etc. will not be disrupted.
- Public safety: last year there was gunfire at an Oakland festival; expect tighter restrictions on large gatherings.
One other thing I have observed the past couple of years: people driving their kids to the more pedestrian-friendly, slightly denser, but still single-family residential neighborhoods to trick-or-treat-- the "sweet spot" (if you will) of efficient foot travel and probability of treats at each house. It turns out that kids are intuitively rational candy-maximizers. Happy Halloween!
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
One common argument for anti-density regulation is that dense population leads to traffic congestion caused by packing lots of cars into a small area. A common counter-argument is that if population is compact enough, people will walk and take transit more and drive less. Does the TTI congestion data support either side?
To test the proposition in a fairly primitive way, I examine the central city* density of the 15 largest urbanized areas, and compare the congestion levels of these cities. In particular, I divide urbanized areas into three categories:
1.High-density regions where central cities have over 10,000 people per square mile- Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Miami. In all but one of these cities (Miami), over 20% of commuters use public transit to get to work.
2. Medium-density regions where central cities have 5000-10,000 persons per square mile- Washington, Seattle, Los Angeles, Detroit. These regions have varying levels of transit ridership. Washington has almost 10,000 persons per square mile and its ridership is comparable to that of the cities in category 1. In the other cities, between 7 and 20% of commuters use transit.
3. Lower-density regions where even central cities have less than 5000 people per square mile- Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, San Diego, Phoenix. In all but one (Atlanta) of these regions, even in the central city less than 5% of commuters used transit.
What do we find? In the high-density regions, hours lost to congestion as of 2010 were as follows: New York (54), Chicago (71), Philadelphia (42), Boston (47), San Francisco (50), Miami (38).
In the medium-density regions, hours lost to traffic were as follows: Washington (74), Los Angeles (64), Seattle (44), Detroit (33).
In the low-density regions, hours lost to traffic were as follows: Atlanta (43), San Diego (38), Phoenix (35), Dallas (45), Houston (57).
The average low-density region lost fewer hours to traffic (43.6) than the medium (53.8) or high (52) density regions.
It nevertheless seems to me that there is no clear pattern here. Although the low-density regions, on the average, suffered from traffic congestion less than regions with compact cities, residents of Houston lost more hours to traffic than residents of New York, Philadelphia or Boston. Moreover, there was no real gap between medium- and high-density cities.
*I use central city density because I think central city density is a better predictor of transit use and automobile dependency than overall regional density. For example, Los Angeles has a fairly high level of regional density but a medium level of central city density, because its population is spread more evenly throughout the metropolitan area than that of other cities. Its transit ridership tends to be on the low side, as compared with New York City which has a very compact central city and very low-density suburbs.
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Harvard economist Edward Glaeser--author of much fascinating work on land use and urban development, including his latest book, Triumph of the City-- has posted his latest article, Rethinking the Federal Bias Toward Homeownership, forthcoming in HUD's Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2011). The abstract:
The most fundamental fact about rental housing in the United States is that rental units are overwhelmingly in multifamily structures. This fact surely reflects the agency problems associated with renting single-family dwellings, and it should influence all discussions of rental housing policy. Policies that encourage homeowning are implicitly encouraging people to move away from higher density living; policies that discourage renting are implicitly discouraging multifamily buildings. Two major distortions shape the rental housing market, both of which are created by the public sector. Federal pro-homeownership policies, such as the home mortgage interest deduction, weaken the rental market and the cities where rental markets thrive. Local policies that discourage tall buildings likewise ensure that Americans have fewer rental options. The economic vitality of cities and the environmental consequences of large suburban homes with long commutes both support arguments for reducing these distortions.
A very important argument; I'm looking forward to reading the whole thing.
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
In public debate over suburban sprawl, one common argument is the “Inevitability Theory.” The Inevitability Theory is based on the following chain of logic:
1. Sprawl happens even in places where government policy doesn’t favor sprawl (such as Canada, Europe, etc.)
2. Therefore, sprawl is an inevitable result of the free market, rather than government policy.
The Inevitability Theory is designed to rebut the environmentalist argument that sprawl is the result of American public policies such as highway construction, minimum parking requirements, anti-density zoning, and anti-pedestrian street design.
My next article criticizes the Inevitability Theory by focusing on Canada. Part 1 of the Inevitability Theory discussed above can be broken down into two assumptions: (a) that Canada sprawls as much as the U.S.; and (b) Canadian public policy is antisprawl. But in my article, I challenge both assumptions, arguing that:
a. Canada is less suburbanized than the United States; even controlling for changes in city boundaries, Canadian central cities have been more likely to grow than their American counterparts. Even Canadian cities that have lost population are better off than many older American cities. For example, the fastest-declining major Canadian city, Montreal, lost 18 percent of its population between 1971 and 2001 (excluding areas annexed to the city in the intervening decades). By contrast, St. Louis lost 44 percent of its population, and other cities such as Cleveland and Detroit lost over 30 percent of their population.
b. If you treat sprawl as a matter of “how we develop” rather than “where we develop”,Canada again differs. 14 percent of Canadian commuters (as opposed to 6 percent of Americans) use public transit to get to work, and 5 percent walk (as opposed to 2 percent in the U.S.)
To be sure, Canada has some automobile-dependent cities and suburbs. But is this necessarily the result of the market at work? In my article, I show that Canadian cities and suburbs have the same kind of anti-density, pro-sprawl regulations as their American counterpart. For example, in both nations, municipal zoning regulations limit density, thus limiting the number of people who can live within walking distance of public transit and other destinations. And in both nations, zoning regulations require businesses to install large amounts of parking, thus reducing density, making driving more convenient, and also making businesses more inhospitable to pedestrians (who often have to walk through large parking lots). And in both nations, streets are often designed to be too wide to be comfortably crossed. However, Canadian regulations do tend to be more lenient (and thus less anti-pedestrian) than their U.S. counterparts.
The full article is at http://works.bepress.com/lewyn/65/ .
Thursday, September 1, 2011
Before I got co-op approval on my rental in Forest Hills, Queens (where I now live), I spent a week or so sharing apartments and houses in Boro Park and Canarsie. These are two very different neighborhoods, but from a planning perspective both are of some interest.
I spent the weekend of August 4 sharing an apartment in Boro Park. Boro Park is a heavily Hasidic neighborhood teeming with large families in a zip code with over 75,000 people per square mile, almost three times the NYC average. Some commentators argue that density and large families are inconsistent- but Boro Park shows otherwise. In Boro Park, the average age is 29, well below the statewide average (35).
Then I spent a few days at a bed and breakfast in Canarsie, at the eastern edge of Brooklyn (that is, the part furthest from Manhattan). Canarsie has been hit with many of the major bad urban planning ideas of the 50s and 60s: it includes a couple of housing projects, is not too far from another, and is mostly cut off from the water by an expressway. And because it is so far from Manhattan, it is not appealing to people looking for short commutes.
Not surprisingly, Canarsie has never been a wealthy neighborhood; at some point in the late 20th century it transitioned from a Jewish/Italian working class area to a Caribbean-American working class area. But it is by no means one one of Brooklyn’s worst neighborhoods. Canarsie's poverty rate is lower than the Brooklyn average, and I was willing to walk through the public housing on the way to the subway; even though I wouldn’t do it at night it doesn’t seem threatening during the day.
To me the interesting questions in Canarsie aren't what went wrong: they are: what went right? And given the decline of many inner suburbs, does Canarsie have a future?
Sunday, August 7, 2011
Or so says WalkScore, according to this article America's Ten Most Walkable Cities of 2011, by Jason Notte in The Street. A lot of the usual suspects are on the list, which you can see by clicking over to the story. Also interesting is the description of Walk Score:
The people behind Walk Score, a Seattle-based service that rates the convenience and transit access of 10,000 neighborhoods in 2,500 cities, have spent the past four years judging the distance between residents and amenities and ranking places based on the results. That "walkability" led to the first set of rankings in 2008 and the use of those rankings by more than 10,000 cities, civic organizations and real estate groups in the years that followed.
Once something becomes measurable, then you have numers that start to play a role in policy debates, budgets, and markets. I suspect we'll see even more use of metrics and quantitative analysis in areas like livability, sustainability, and so on in the years to come.
I'm not familiar with their methodology, but if you go to the Walk Score website you can check out the walkability score for your own address. Mine: 68 ("somewhat walkable").
Thanks to Mubaraka Saifee for the pointer.
Monday, June 27, 2011
I haven't been able to blog as much as usual lately, and one of the reasons is that we just moved. It was a local move, but I'm sure you all know what a hassle moving is. But today, the move actually helped my blogging. It seems that the previous tenant failed to cancel his multiple newspaper subscriptions. I rarely read news on dead tree anymore, so I might not otherwise have seen this morning's front page New York Times Story by Elisabeth Rosenthal called: Across Europe, Irking Drivers is Urban Policy.
ZURICH — While American cities are synchronizing green lights to improve traffic flow and offering apps to help drivers find parking, many European cities are doing the opposite: creating environments openly hostile to cars. The methods vary, but the mission is clear — to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation.
Some cities have closed entire streets; some introduced stiff fees for driving into the city; many have reduced on-street parking drastically; bike lanes have replaced car lanes without offset for traffic; others have purposely added red lights to mess with drivers; Zurich's tram operators seem to have the ability to change the lights to their favor as they approach. (I'm trying to imagine how much a magic traffic-light-changing remote control clicker would fetch on e-bay.)
According to the story, and probably not inconsistent with what some of you may have observed, many of these European cities have dramatically improved in walkability, transit options, and quality of public space. How much the policies are related causally to the result isn't clear, but we can assume they've had an impact.
I'm not entirely sure what I think of all this. I'm a strong proponent of improving urban life by incentivizing higher density, mixed-use development and increasing pedestrian-oriented neighborhood viability and transit-oriented development. Love it. Still, I am hesitant to pursue these goals through policies that actually make things worse for some people on purpose. What do these policies do to affordable housing? How about people from lower socioeconomic strata that need to make their living from driving goods and services around the city? How do public shared bikes help women who don't cycle (and families with kids)? By all means, make mass transit better, faster, more economical. But purposely creating red-light patterns just to deliberately piss people off just concerns me a bit. It also would seem to thwart a number of smart-growth-friendly options that nonetheless rely on roads, such as bus rapid transit.
Admittedly I'm looking at this from the urban planning side more than the environmental side, but it seems the environmental benefits of these policies will be much more difficult to observe than the effect on quality of life; it's easy to see the quality of life in the very nice and improved transit-accessible mixed-use public spaces, but these types of policies would seem to generate a lot of external costs--on purpose. Maybe that's a tradeoff people are willing to make. But to acheive the same progressive land use goals, I still have a preference for a positive approach (e.g., incentivizing (or even just allowing) smart growth and new urbanism) rather than purposely making some aspects of urban life worse by degrading capabilites to make some people's lives "miserable."
June 27, 2011 in Affordable Housing, Comparative Land Use, Density, Downtown, Environmentalism, New Urbanism, Parking, Pedestrian, Planning, Politics, Smart Growth, Sprawl, Transportation, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)