Saturday, October 31, 2009

Duany on Agricultural Urbanism

Andres Duany, of DPZ and CNU fame and generally esteemed as the godfather of new urbansim (and who recently called Brad Pitt's New Orleans architecture "bullshit"), gave a speech to a packed hotel ballroom in Houston last night (sponsored by Houston Tomorrow) on "Agricultural Urbanism." 

For about the first half of the lecture Duany spoke "horizontally" about new urbanism, the transect, and smart growth generally, then he focused "vertically" on incorporating agriculture into urban planning.  The two most interesting points I took away from Duany's speech were (1) agricultural planning is an integral part of the transect; and (2) developers today are interested in hearing about agricultural urbanism in plans.

Duany argues that while much of the attention given to new urbanist developments focuses on the housing, to be faithful to the transect concept requires a spectrum of land uses, and agriculture is one of the uses that is appropriate in various forms and degrees over different places on that spectrum.  Chad has posted about the regulatory obstacles to urban farming.  To be honest, though, I had previously presumed that attempting to incorporate agriculture into urban design was for the most part a lifestyle thing, a consumer choice for people interested in doing a little eco-friendly organic gardening around the neighborhood.  But Duany makes a persuasive case that planning for agricultural uses "is not an add-on," as he says, but rather is a necessary part of transect-based planning.  While agriculture may not be necessary or practical in the urban core, it does not need to be relegated completely to the rural zone either; it can and should be incorporated in varying degrees across the suburban and urban zones of the transect.  He notes that the entire concept of the "village"--as distinguished from the town or the city--is historically based on a community's arrangements to grow its own food. 

[Relatedly, I found Duany's characterization of the differences between American and European environmentalism to be interesting.  American environmentalism, he says, grew out of the fight for national parks and holds the untrammeled wilderness to be the ideal, while European environmentalism has more typically incorporated environmental uses into the human domain.]

To take Jamie's "urban chickens" example, Duany laments that under most zoning laws in the US, you can either have zero chickens or 500,000 chickens (In his recent high profile appearance at the UN, Colonel Sanders presumably lobbied for the latter policy), but almost nowhere can you have two chickens in the yard (except maybe Cleveland).  That makes a lot of sense, although my argument would be that the larger problem is not zoning ordinances' failure to include chickens (or agriculture) per se, but rather the restrictive definitions and separations of "residential" use themselves. 

At any rate, the natural place of agriculture in different degrees across various points on the transect leads to the second point I described above: the emerging marketability of agricultural urbanism.  Duany is cautious about both overregulation generally and overprescription of specific ideas.  He believes that new urbanism can work in the marketplace.  "The new urbanist argument," he says, is that "we don't ask you to do what's right because it's ethical; we ask you because it works better," which he says can be rephrased as "it sells more real estate."  And as far as any uniform requirement for agricultural uses, "anyone who sets up one standard undermines urbanism" because it violates the differentiation of the transect. 

Americans will be willing to trade open space for the village ideal, Duany says.  He discussed and showed diagrams of several DPZ or affiliated projects that include agricultural urbanism, including Southlands, BC, and Sky, Florida.  It seems that one of the most effective tools in these developments is cluster building, which allows for smaller walkable village-like living areas.  But the open space preserved by these clusters is not just random farmland, but rather is agricultural space designed to mesh with the living arrangements--there are smaller plots for individual/family gardening, medium-sized tracts for greater local food production, and larger tracts for more typical farming, all designed and placed along the transect for the particular community.  Various incentives for growing food and options for trading or reallocating the agricultural space are incorporated.

If Duany is right that agricultural urbanism can work, this implicitly leads to the important question for land use planners and lawyers: if agricultural urbanism is good, what should we do to encourage it?  Amend the zoning ordinance to allow it?  Or to require it?  Or--if it is marketable--leave it to the private sector to design and implement?  Duany seemed to imply that plans could incorporate regulatory or development incentives for agrigultural uses.  Duany states that the agricultural urbanism as incorporated into the DPZ projects he describes as basically a "module" of the SmartCode that can be modified and applied to fit particular local circumstances. 

Peter Brown made an appearance as well.  Brown is a Houston city council member, an architect, planning advocate, and one of the leading candidates in this Tuesday's Houston mayoral election.  Land use is an important issue in the election, and it will be interesting to see what happens next in the Unzoned City.

It was a fascinating presentation and it was great to have Duany in Houston.  For now though, no chickens are allowed in my townhouse (but I guess I could try this). 

UPDATE: Duany's presentation is available for download at Houston Tomorrow's summary of the event.

Matt Festa

October 31, 2009 in Architecture, Development, Environmental Law, Houston, New Urbanism, Planning, Smart Growth, Smartcode | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Truth About Smart Growth?

On Wednesday in Houston there was an interesting conference called "The Truth About Smart Growth: Setting the Stage for the Housing Collapse--National Conference on What Works and What Hurts."  It was organized by Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a local developers' PAC that advocates generally on the pro-property rights side of various issues.  The conference was co-sponsored by Heritage, Reason, Cato, and several other groups.  It had a lineup of speakers that included some of the nation's leading land use scholars from the libertarian perspective. 

Tory Gattis was recruited to give the introduction and to moderate.  Gattis is a social systems architect in Houston whose insightful commentary on his Houston Strategies and Opportunity Urbanist blogs has made him one of the leading voices on land use issues in Houston.  Among the highlights from the speakers:

Sam Staley of the Reason Foundation spoke about Houston's land use system compared to the dominant mode of planning and zoning in other American cities.  Staley says that Houston's system is superior because it is dynamic, flexible, and responsive to the market.  These factors actually enable Houston to offer some of the types of development that proponents of smart growth want--such as higher density and mixed use--without the increased costs caused by overregulation.  He correctly observed that Houston is not "unplanned," but rather that it has mostly private planning, through covenants and site development platting.  Staley warned Houston against adopting zoning or more stringent land use regulations.

Wendell Cox of Demographia then presented "How Texas Averted the Great Recession."  There are many Texans who have been hurt by the recession, but Cox is generally correct that it hasn't been as bad in Texas as in many other parts of the country.  One of the reasons is the nature of Texas's economy, and another is that there wasn't really a housing bubble to begin with here.  Cox argued that the more permissive land use regulatory environment allowed development to more accurately track the market demand in Texas, and that adopting smart growth policies would drive up the median multiple (ratio of average home price to income) to an unacceptable level.

Luis Vera of LULAC spoke in support of Proposition 11, which will essentially constitutionalize Texas's anti-Kelo prohibition of economic development takings.  I'll post more on Prop 11 soon.  Vera gave an interesting speech talking about land use and housing policy as possibly the next great civil rights issue, in part because of the disproportionate impact that eminent domain sometimes has on minority neighborhoods; he said (I paraphrase) something like: we (i.e. LULAC and property rights groups) may not agree on things like immigration, but we agree on keeping the American Dream alive.

Randal O'Toole, from the Cato Institute and the Antiplanner (and who has suggested that urban planning caused the housing bubble), spoke about the possibility of an "alternative vision" to achieve the goals of smart growth through less restrictive means.  Turns out that this alternative vision is pretty much Houston.  O'Toole has extensive command of housing statistics and regulatory policies from across the nation, and makes a good case that the non-zoning approach is at least partly responsible for the areas in which Houston has outperformed other cities.  There were a few other interesting speakers as well, about which I might post later. 

So is Smart Growth (or perhaps more accurately, government regulatory policies intended to achieve Smart Growth) really that bad?  The speakers at this conference are among the land use experts who make the best case against it.  At the end of the conference I spoke with Joshua Sanders, the Executive Director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, and he indicated that the audio/video links might be put online; if they do, I will post them. 

UPDATE: Tory Gattis has a post up on Houston Strategies with some thoughts on the speakers' presentations and the text of his introductory remarks. 

Matt Festa

October 22, 2009 in Conferences, Development, Housing, Houston, Planning, Property Rights, Smart Growth, Texas | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Small Improvements, not Grand Designs

Andrew M. Manshel (executive vice president, Greater Jamaica Development Corp.) has written A Place is Better than a Plan: Revitalizing Urban Areas is Best Done Through Small Improvements, not Grand Designs for the Autumn 2009 issue of City Journal.  The summary:

The importance of small ideas to urban revitalization isn’t widely appreciated. Particularly in the most recent real-estate cycle, many planners, design professionals, and developers produced grand schemes instead. But profound change is more likely to result from a deeply considered idea that alters an essential component of an urban environment than from an elaborate master plan that requires abundant resources and considerable political capital. While some large-scale plans, like Rockefeller Center, are successful, most become impersonal, overbearing failures—or, even more often, are stillborn, the victims of the long process of assemblage, environmental remediation, community participation, zoning adoption, and the securing of financing.

Manshel uses the example of putting movable chairs in several small New York parks beginning in the 1980s to convey a message of personal control over social arrangements, trust, and safety.  He seems to be telling a story that is sort of Jane Jacobs-meets-broken windows theory.  Plus there is a shout-out to Houston's new downtown urban park, Discovery Green

Matt Festa

October 19, 2009 in Downtown, Houston, Planning, Redevelopment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)