Thursday, October 9, 2014

Should More Land Use Professors be Libertarians? Part III (Final Post)

This is (hopefully) the last in a series of three posts, again cross-posted from Concurring Opinions. In the first, I asked why more land use professors are not libertarians, considering the strong leftist critique of local government. In the second, I suggested that one reason for the leftist commitment to local government (and specifically to local government land use control, albeit often in the guise of “regionalism”) is that the relevant libertarian alternatives – namely, the marketplace and the common law of nuisance – are far worse. Nevertheless, I conceded that this answer was unsatisfactory, considering that many leftists – myself included – betray a Tocquevillian optimism about local government that is difficult to square with the position that local governments are merely the least bad of all the alternatives. So I am left here, in this third post, with the hardest question: How can left-leaning local government scholars have any optimism about local government in light of the abusive local government practices we have witnessed (and documented)?

State Structuring of Local Governments

Alright, here goes… While there is no denying the manifold abuses of which local governments are guilty (see my initial post), the blame for these abuses really falls upon state governments, not local governments. The reason local governments act in the parochial fashion they do is because states have empowered and constrained local governments in such a way that effectively forces local governments to be parochial. In a variety of ways, states have facilitated and encouraged the proliferation of small local governments within metropolitan regions, each of which is thus coerced into a zero-sum competition with the others for scarce revenues. States have, at the same time, dumped all kinds of unfunded and underfunded mandates on local governments, which they must meet with whatever revenue they raise locally. Yet, there is one saving grace for local governments: states have given them an awesome power — the land use power. Is it any surprise that local governments use the biggest power states have given them to solve the biggest problem states have saddled them with –an ongoing obligation to provide costly services with limited funds? The local government abuses I mentioned in my initial post, including the “fiscalization” of land use, exclusion of undesirable land uses (and users), strategic annexation and incorporation efforts, and sprawl are thus not things local governments do because they are inherently corrupt; they do so because the state has structured local government law so as to make these abuses inevitable.  

That’s not even the interesting part. This is: Why have the states created a system in which local governments have such perverse incentives? According to Jerry Frug, states created the modern system of local government law because they were threatened by cities. Cities’ openness and spirit of participation stood in contrast to the bureaucratizing tendencies of the state. States created a system of local government law designed specifically to emasculate and frustrate cities’ ambitions. In other words, local government represents a vital aspect of human experience that has been actively suppressed by the state.  Frug and many others have argued ever since that in order to recover the essence of the local, we need to recalibrate local power and change cities’ incentive structures.

Local Governments and Participatory Democracy

Frug wrote in the tradition of the New Left, with its emphasis on participatory democracy, and in the aftermath of a period in which cities had been devastated by riots, white flight, urban renewal, disinvestment, and outright hostility from state and national political figures.  During the late 1960s, there had been a moment when cities appeared to be on the brink of realizing their potential as fora for public participation – a heady time of citizens’ councils and “maximum feasible participation” – but this potential was quickly squashed by nervous elites.

Frug’s argument echoes theorists of participatory democracy such as Hannah Arendt. Arendt writes that, despite the bureaucratization of modern life, there periodically erupt spontaneous displays of citizen activism that demonstrate a latent human desire for political participation. These moments, of which she includes the Paris Commune of 1871, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and others, are quickly snuffed out when powerful interests feel threatened.  Nevertheless, Arendt sees participatory democracy as lying at the core of the human condition, and the quest to recover the lost tradition of spontaneous citizen activism as a noble calling, which she refers to as “pearl diving.”  This “pearl diving,” this quest to recover the vital potentiality of the local, is I think what motivates many leftist local government scholars, and fuels our optimism.

A False Utopia?

Before we all choke on the sentimentality of the last paragraph, I should note that the nostalgia for the pre-Progressive era city is somewhat discomfiting. The Gilded Age city was no enlightened democracy; even before the political machines turned cities into cesspools of corruption, as legal historian Robin Einhorn writes, cities were highly privatized, “segmented” entities that almost exclusively served the will of propertied interests. Going back further in history, certainly very few of us would like to live in the “free” cities of the middle ages, which were basically totalitarian communes, or the Athenian polis, which was rooted in the exploitation of slave and female labor.

Moreover, it is hard for cities to fulfill their potential as fora for participation when they are so embroiled in the quotidian business of governing at the local level.   While states have the freedom to delegate hard decisions and devote their energies to ideological struggles, cities have to deal with the pragmatic daily chore of picking up the garbage, literally and figuratively. On a nearly daily basis, cities must address intractable issues such as homelessness, affordable housing, climate change, education, health care, security, immigration, and more, issues that, in an era of globalization, are only likely to intensify the pressure on cities as states and national governments recede in influence.  Managing all these issues will require shortcuts, and city governments will be forced to make unpopular decisions that are sure to anger significant segments of the community; these issues cannot possibly be addressed if we see urban politics as merely, or even principally, a forum for democratic deliberation.

But everything I have just said also explains why we leftists insist on putting all our eggs in the local government basket. Like it or not, cities are, and for the foreseeable future will be, the primary means of dealing with the messy everyday problems we confront. In some cases, as with the provision of clean water (see my earlier post on cities in the developing world) they have succeeded spectacularly. In others, such as the provision of affordable housing, they have failed miserably. But even where they have failed, as in the case of affordable housing, we can often point the finger at the way states have empowered local governments, rather than some inherent flaw in local government. In any event, as I mentioned in my previous post, we have few viable alternatives to local government. For reasons both practical and utopian, it figures to think that cities represent our best hope for the future, and to rest our efforts on improving urban governance rather than displacing it.

Ken Stahl

October 9, 2014 in Density, Development, Local Government, NIMBY, Nuisance, Planning, Politics, Sprawl, State Government, Urbanism, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Should More Land Use Professors be Libertarians?

In case you missed it, I am cross-posting something I initially posted to Concurring Opinions, that may be of interest to our readers here.  Parts II and III to follow:

Many professors who study land use and local government law, myself included, consider ourselves leftists rather than libertarians. That is, we have some confidence in the ability of government to solve social problems. Nevertheless, were you to pick up a randomly selected piece of left-leaning land use or local government scholarship (including my own) you would likely witness a searing indictment of the way local governments operate. You would read that the land use decisionmaking process is usually a conflict between deep-pocketed developers who use campaign contributions to elect pro-growth politicians and affluent homeowners who use their ample resources to resist change that might negatively affect their property values. Land use “planning” – never a great success to begin with – has largely been displaced by the “fiscalization” of land use, in which land use decisions are based primarily on a proposed land use’s anticipated contribution to (or drain upon) a municipality’s revenues. Public schools in suburban areas have essentially been privatized due to exclusionary zoning practices, and thus placed off limits to the urban poor, whereas public schools in cities have been plundered by ravenous teachers’ unions.

Continue reading

October 6, 2014 in Affordable Housing, Inclusionary Zoning, Local Government, NIMBY, Planning, Scholarship, Sprawl, State Government, Suburbs, Urbanism, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Congress of New Urbanism (courtesy of Yelp!)

Last week, Buffalo hosted the 22nd Congress for New Urbanism. With a constrained conference budget, I was planning on just scoping out the (numerous) public events. Then conference funding came through from a surprising source. I actually won free conference registration via Yelp! (yes it pays to  be elite). I am not sure what it says about academia when we have to look to social media to help with our research funding but I was happy to get in the door!

CNU 22 was a mixture of the inspirational and the mundane. It was amazing to see people from all over the country (and particularly so many from Buffalo) coming together to think about how to improve your communities. I bathed in the local pride (feeling the Buffalove as we say around here) and heard inspiring tales about efforts in Toronto, Minneapolis, DC, and Milwaukee. But nothing was actually radical. In some ways this is an encouraging story. It no longer seems crazy to argue that suburban sprawl is destroying community. I really didn't need convincing that we should have more walkable or bikable cities. There seems to be general agreement on what elements make for a thriving urban environment and largely agreement from the attendees on how to get there (community involvement, form based codes, economic development). Thus, while I enjoyed myself and met some fascinating folks I left the conference with an empty notebook. Maybe I just attended the wrong sessions, but I wonder what types of legal changes we might need, what type of property tools we can use, and of course who is gonna fund it all. Any suggestions?

June 11, 2014 in Community Design, Community Economic Development, Conferences, Downtown, Economic Development, Form-Based Codes, New Urbanism, Pedestrian, Planning, Smart Growth, Sprawl, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, February 24, 2014

What if They Don't Build It and/or No One Comes?: Combating Zombie Subdivisions

Jim Holway (Sonoran Institute), along with Don Elliot and Anna Trentadue, has written Combating Zombie Subdivisions: How Three Communities Redressed Excess Development Entitlements, Land Lines Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 4-13.  Not only is the article available through the Land Lines website, but so is the larger report on which it is based.   That is called Arrested Developments:  Combating Zombie Subdivisions and Other Excess Entitlements.  Here's a summary of the magazine piece:

The Teton County Valley Advocates for Responsible Development (VARD) stepped in and petitioned the county to create a process to encourage the redesign of distressed subdivisions and facilitate replatting. VARD realized that a plat redesign could reduce intrusion into sensitive natural areas of the county, reduce governmental costs associated with scattered development, and potentially reduce the number of vacant lots by working with landowners and developers to expedite changes to recorded plats.

On November 22, 2010, the Board of County Commissioners unanimously adopted a replatting ordinance that would allow the inexpensive and quick replatting of subdivisions, PUDs, and recorded development agreements. The ordinance created a solution-oriented process that allows Teton County to work with developers, landowners, lenders, and other stakeholders to untangle complicated projects with multiple ownership interests and oftentimes millions of dollars in infrastructure.

The ordinance first classifies the extent of any changes proposed by a replat into four categories: 1) major increase in scale and impact, 2) minor increase in scale and impact, 3) major decrease in scale and impact, 4) minor decrease in scale and impact. Any increases in impact may require additional public hearings and studies, whereas these requirements and agency review are waived (where possible) for decreases in impact. In addition, the ordinance waives the unnecessary duplication of studies and analyses that may have been required as part of the initial plat application and approval. Teton County also waived its fees for processing replat applications.

The first success story was the replatting of Canyon Creek Ranch Planned Unit Development, finalized in June 2013. More than 23 miles from city services, Canyon Creek Ranch was originally approved in 2009 as a 350-lot ranch-style resort on roughly 2,700 acres including approximately 25 commercial lots, a horse arena, and a lodge. After extensive negotiations between the Canyon Creek development team and the Teton County Planning Commission staff, the developer proposed a replat that dramatically scaled back the footprint and impact of this project to include only 21 lots over the 2,700 acre property. For the developer, this new design reduces the price tag for infrastructure by 97 percent, from $24 million to roughly $800,000, enabling the property to remain in the conservation reserve program and creating a source of revenue on it while reducing the property tax liability. The reduced scale and impact of this new design will help preserve this critical habitat and maintain the rural landscape, which is a public benefit to the general community.

Conclusion

While recovery from the most recent boom and bust cycle is nearly complete in some areas of the country, other communities will be impacted by vacant lots and distressed subdivisions well into the future. Future real estate booms will also inevitably result in new busts, and vulnerable communities can build a solid foundation of policies, laws, and programs now to minimize new problems stemming from the excess entitlement of land. Communities and others involved in real estate development would be well-served by ensuring they have mechanisms in place to adapt and adjust to evolving market conditions. For jurisdictions already struggling with distressed subdivisions, a willingness to reconsider past approvals and projects and to acknowledge problems is an essential ingredient to success. Communities that are able to serve as effective facilitators as well as regulators, as demonstrated in the case studies presented here, will be best prepared to prevent and then respond and treat distressed subdivisions and any problems that may arise from excess development entitlements.

Jim K.

 

February 24, 2014 in Community Design, Density, Mortgage Crisis, Sprawl, Subdivision Regulations, Suburbs, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Overdrive--Getty Exhibition on LA Development


OverdriveThis past weekend I was in Southern California for a family wedding, and we had the chance to go over to the Getty Museum.  It is a spectacular place for many reasons including land use and architecture.  Right now, and through July 21, the Getty is featuring an incredibly interesting exhibit called Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940-1990.  It tells the story of how LA was the archetype for American land use and development in the postwar era through the end of the 20th Century.  

My family and I really enjoyed the exhibition (as well as the Getty experience overall), so I encourage you to check it out, if possible, before it closes on July 21.  Even if you can't get there, I'd recommend the book about the Overdrive exhibition, which has most of the images.  
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Matt Festa

July 17, 2013 in California, Development, History, Local Government, Planning, Scholarship, Sprawl, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Trick-or-Treat Test

IMG_2790Happy Halloween!  If you're out trick-or-treating tonight, think about what planners call the "trick-or-treat test" for your neighborhood.  The idea is that based on design and form, a great neighborhood for trick-or-treating--kids and families walking around the streets, visiting door to door--is also likely to be a great neighborhood year-round. City Planner Brent Toderian writes about this at the Huffington Post in Does Your Neighbourhood Pass the 'Trick or Treat Test'?:

Great neighbourhoods for trick-or-treating also tend to be great neighborhoods for families everyday:

  • Tree-lined streets designed for walkers more than speeding cars.
  • Enough density and community completeness, to activate what I call "the power of nearness" - everything you need, nearby.
  • Good visual surveillance through doors and stoops, windows (and I don't mean windows in garages), porches and "eyes on the street."
  • Connected, legible streets that let you "read" the neighbourhood easily -grids tend to be good for this, but other patterns work too.

All of these are great for trick-or-treating, and equally great for walkable, healthy, economically resilient communities year-round.

It makes a great deal of sense, though I hadn't previously known that the "trick-or-treat test" was a term of art in the planning community.  Thanks to Jenna Munoz for the pointer.  A related item is Richard Florida's 2012 Halloween Index at The Atlantic Cities:

For this year's "Halloween Index," Kevin Stolarick and my Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) colleagues focused on five factors that make for a great Halloween metro area — population density (which makes for efficient trick-or-treating), kids ages five to 14 (as a share of metro population), and median income (a measure of regional affluence), as well as candy stores and costume rental stores per one hundred thousand people.

In the story at the link, you can check out the map which shows the best scoring cities in the categories; Chicago is #1.  Zillow, however, has San Fransisco at #1 with its similar but slightly different methodology for determining the 20 Best Cities to Trick or Treat in 2012:

There is a common belief that wealthy neighborhoods are the Holy Grail for harvesting the most Halloween candy. However, to provide a more holistic approach to trick-or-treating, the Zillow Trick-or-Treat Index was calculated using four equally weighted data variables: Zillow Home Value Index, population density, Walk Score and local crime data from Relocation Essentials. Based on those variables, the Index represents cities that will provide the most candy, with the least walking and safety risks.

Finally, Paul Knight at Treehugger provides a mathematical forumula in More on the Trick or Treat Test: Calcluating the "Candy Density":

Potential Candy Score (Candy Pieces) = Target Neighborhood (Acres) x Houses-Per-Acre x Families-Per-House (accounting for duplexes, etc) x % Candy-Giving-Families x Candy-Pieces-Per-Family

I always say that land use is ultimately about the built environment of the communities in which we live.  If you are out in your community on Halloween night, be safe, and take the opportunity to observe and think about land use!

Matt Festa

October 31, 2012 in Chicago, Community Design, Crime, Density, Housing, Humorous, Planning, Sprawl, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Heintzelman, Walsh, & Grzsekowiak on Open Space Referenda

Martin D. Heintzelman (Clarkson--Business), Patrick J. Walsh, and Dustin J. Grzeskowiak (Clarkson--Business) have posted Explaining the Appearance and Success of Open Space Referenda.  The abstract:

To guard against urban sprawl, many communities in the United States have begun enacting policies to preserve open space, often through local voter referenda. New Jersey sponsors such municipal action through the Green Acres Program by providing funding and low interest loans to towns that choose, through a referendum, to increase property taxes and spend the money raised on open space preservation for the purposes of conservation and/or recreation. Understanding which factors contribute to the appearance and success of these measures is important for policy makers and conservation advocates, not only in New Jersey, but across the United States. Although previous literature has examined this issue, this is the first study to account for spatial dependence/spatial autocorrelation and to explore dynamic issues through survival analysis. The traditional two stage model from the literature is extended by incorporating a Bayesian spatial probit for the first stage and a maximum-likelihood spatial error model in the second stage. A Cox – proportional hazard model is used to examine the timing of referenda appearance. Spatial dependence is found in the second stage of the analysis, indicating future studies should account for its influence. There is not strong evidence for spatial dependence or correlation in the first stage. The survival model is found to be a useful complement to the traditional probit analysis of the first stage.

Matt Festa

August 17, 2012 in Conservation Easements, Development, Environmentalism, Local Government, Politics, Property, Scholarship, Sprawl | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Lewyn on Sprawl in Canada and the United States

Michael Lewyn (Touro) has taken his analysis of sprawl north of the border in Sprawl in Canada and the United States, 44 Urban Lawyer 85 (2012).  The abstract:

The purpose of this article is to show that, in Canada as in the United States, government regulation promotes sprawl through anti-density zoning, minimum parking requirements, and overly wide streets. However, Canadian cities are less "sprawling" than American cities- perhaps because at least some of these regulations are less onerous than in the United States.

It's an interesting article that makes an original point.  We tend to assume that places like Canada must be more regulated than the US, but it isn't necessarily true when it comes to land use.  Lewyn suggests a potential link to comparative levels of sprawl. 

Matt Festa

July 16, 2012 in Comparative Land Use, Density, Parking, Planning, Scholarship, Sprawl, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Southern California's New Regional Plan

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.

Ken Stahl

April 11, 2012 in California, Comprehensive Plans, Density, Sprawl, Suburbs, Sun Belt, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, April 6, 2012

A car, or a smart phone (for my 16th birthday)?

Two interesting news items crossed the desk this week.

In the first, the U.S. Census reported that population growth in the country’s outer suburbs declined dramatically in 2010 and 2011 compared to the previous decade. And in the second, we learn that people in their late teens and twenties apparently would prefer a smart phone to a car, and that the percentage of young people obtaining a driver’s license has decreased consistently since 1983.

Taken together, these stories hint that our cultural taste for the automobile – and automobile commuting and its associated sprawl – might be waning a bit. But I can’t get over thinking that the news – at least the second piece of news – means something quite different.

Communities of place – cities, towns, etc. – exist because civil society and its economic, social, and cultural relationships have generally required physical proximity. That need for physical proximity has declined, of course, as the telegraph, telephone, internet, and whatever’s next allow us to live farther and farther apart. And it was that capacity to create virtual communities that facilitated much of the growth in outer suburbs and exurbia over the last few decades. If we don’t need to be together physically, we don’t need cities.

From this perspective, the fact that young people prefer a smart phone to a car suggests something different than that we might be entering a car-free future. It might suggest that the physical component of our culture is increasingly less important, reducing further the need for us to gather in specific communities of place. This might be problematic. Is there an emerging generation that will drive less, rely on the car less, and thus reduce our tendency to sprawl and consume more and more land per person? Or will that emerging generation not need cities? Will virtual communities, and the “cities” of Facebook, allow us to sprawl even more? So while we might drive less, at some level, we might also live farther and farther apart, consuming more land and more resources in the process.

Jerry Long

April 6, 2012 in Planning, Sprawl, Suburbs | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

After the Zombie Apocalypse

I was mildly surprised, upon checking my mailbox a few Mondays ago, to find a zombie crawling out of it. My excitement at finally getting to use my zombie apocalypse skills quickly faded when I realized that it was just an article by Allen Best in High Country News about Teton County, Idaho and its “zombie subdivisions.”


We’ve written a lot about Teton County and similar rural or exurban areas (my own take is here), so the basic story is familiar. Beginning in about 1990, amenity-driven population growth substantially increased the value of land in many rural areas, leading to a boom in residential development that “bust” in 2007 and 2008. That bust left behind thousands of acres of partially developed subdivisions, empty houses, and roads to nowhere across rural and exurban America – Maricopa, AZ; Rio Vista, CA; Myrtle Beach, NC, and of course, Teton County, ID (and here, and here, and... well, just wander around on Google Maps yourself). To the extent the zombie subdivisions have a positive aspect, however, it is in how they make obvious the detrimental effects of particular land-use choices, and perhaps motivate new choices. Maybe we’ll emerge wiser, more careful, and better able to imagine the consequences of our choices.


So we know that part of the story. Short of an ugly photo of a zombie, what does High Country News have to add? Its contribution to the conversation is small but very significant, and it is perfectly distilled in a single quote by long-time Idaho farmer: “I see bicycle riders here, young people riding in the middle of the day!”


Rural geographers (and others) speak of a concept they characterize as “re-territorialization”—the reassignment of resource access rights, and local or regional cultural hegemony, to a new population or interest group. In the public lands West, we see it in changing notions of the purpose of federally-managed lands, e.g., from resource extraction to amenity consumption. But it is no less important in the changing power structures and community visions that allocate rights in private lands.

The Idaho farmer’s bewilderment that people might be able to ride bicycles during the middle of the day, rather than be driving a tractor, represents a persistent understanding about place and what that place should look like. It is also an understanding increasingly overwhelmed, and perhaps disrespected, by emerging majorities. Our choices to formalize cultural transitions into law necessarily oppress reasonable perspectives about land, the appropriate allocation of particular interests in land, and the “sense” of a community. But in many cases these perspectives are fundamental aspects of a place’s cultural history. They are also fundamental aspects of what the rest of us understand as, and love about, rurality.


So while this insight isn’t particularly earth-shattering, it does seem that the zombie apocalypse forces us to focus more carefully on a specific question: To what extent should our new choices respect the cultural understandings that gave rise to the old choices we want to undo? Put another way, can we both love and protect the old rural while simultaneously eradicating the perspectives that created it?

Jerry Long

April 4, 2012 in Community Design, Exurbs, Planning, Sprawl, Subdivision Regulations | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Land Use Planning in a Recession - Newton County, Georgia

During his excellent stint as a guest blogger, Stephen Miller posed the question, "Does the best planning happen in a recession?"  Like him, I tend to think that currently most jurisdictions are focused on crisis management rather than forward thinking.

However, one exception is Newton County, Georgia - a community that just happens to be a UGA Land Use Clinic client since we began assisting them in 2003 with sprawl reduction tools like infrastructure planning, agricultural land conservation, and transferable development rights. Newton's forward thinking planning processes are highlighted in a four part series on CoLab Radio.  The first of the series is entitled "Planning for Growth in a Recession."

Jamie Baker Roskie

 

 

February 6, 2012 in Community Design, Development, Georgia, Local Government, New Urbanism, Planning, Smart Growth, Sprawl, Suburbs, Transferable Development Rights | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Outka on the Energy-Land Use Nexus

Uma Outka (Kansas) has posted an essay called The Energy-Land Use Nexus, forthcoming in the Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law, 2012.  The abstract:

This Symposium Essay explores the contours of the “energy-land use nexus” – the rich set of interrelationships between land use and energy production and consumption. This underexplored nexus encapsulates barriers and opportunities as the trajectory of U.S. energy policy tilts away from fossil fuels. The Essay argues that the energy-land use nexus provides a useful frame for approaching policy to minimize points of conflict between energy goals on the one hand and land conservation on the other.

Matt Festa

January 9, 2012 in Clean Energy, Environmentalism, Federal Government, Oil & Gas, Scholarship, Sprawl, Sustainability, Transportation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Leinberger on the Death of the Fringe Suburb

Christopher Leinberger (Brookings/Michigan), author of The Option of Urbanism and many other great pieces, has written The Death of the Fringe Suburb in the New York Times.  The bad news:

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.

Interesting times.

Matt Festa

November 28, 2011 in Architecture, Density, Downtown, Housing, New Urbanism, Scholarship, Smart Growth, Sprawl, Suburbs, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving & Black Friday

I hope all of our U.S. readers had a Happy Thanksgiving yesterday.  As we've suggested before, Thanksgiving is in many senses the original American land use holiday, and itself derives from even more longstanding traditions of honoring the relationship between people, communities, and the land.  Over the years since it became an official U.S. holiday, we still have the element of celebrating the harvest, but I would say it's evolved more into an event that revolves around that other significant land use element: the home.

If you're heading out shopping for the big sales today on "Black Friday" (the day many retailers go "in the black" financially), many of you might be confronted with some other aspects of modern American land use: sprawl, traffic, and the architecture of modern suburban development.  Growing up, we spent Thanksgiving visiting relatives in the older, traditional New Jersey town in which my parents grew up, but which was adjacent to newer suburban development.  Perhaps this weekend, you're experiencing what I often did: on Thursday, dinner at a relative's home in the older traditional neighborhood; then Friday, out to the suburban shopping malls and big-box parking lots.  Looking back, I think I was subconsciously aware that there was a big difference.  It just occurred to me that because of these two major activities--traditional family dinner, then shop-til-you-drop--the Thanksgiving holiday weekend might be about the sharpest contrast that many people experience with such different land use models. 

I wonder how this sort of experience affects people--how it might impact the emotions that many people feel during the holidays when visiting relatives, and perhaps old homes since moved away from, or a walk around the old downtown; thinking about the old days, and talking about how their communities have changed.  I wonder if a holiday spent experiencing the stark visual and spatial contrasts between the traditional neighborhood and suburban sprawl heightens these emotions.  While much of the holiday experience centers around spending time with people, surely the visual and geographical elements of time and place certainly play a big role for many, even if not explicitly acknowledged.  Ideas, memories, and feelings about the places in which we live and have lived must have an effect on the way people think about, and during, the holidays.

I hope that yours were and are mostly pleasant ones.  We're thankful for the opportunity to blog here, and for everyone who reads and contributes in this land use blog community.

Matt Festa

November 25, 2011 in Downtown, History, Housing, Sprawl, Suburbs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"The 19 Building Types That Caused the Recession"

Over at The Atlantic Cities website, I stumbled across this fun little piece,

Among his favorite examples of all the standard real-estate products built ad nauseum across the country over the last half-century, Christopher Leinberger likes to point to the Grocery Anchored Neighborhood Center. This creation is generally about 12 to 15 acres in size on a plot of land that’s 80 percent covered in asphalt. It’s located on the going-home side of a major four-to-eight lane arterial road, where it catches people when they’re most likely to be thinking about what to buy for dinner. . .

Leinberger, an urban land-use strategist and professor at the University of Michigan, includes the Grocery Anchored Neighborhood Center on his list of the 19 standard real estate product types dominant in post-war America. Also on the list: suburban detached starter homes, big-box anchored power centers, multi-tenant bulk warehousing and self-storage facilities. All of these products are designed for drivable suburban communities. They reflect almost exclusively what investors have been willing to finance for the last 50 years. And as construction picks back up following the recession, Leinberger says we'll need to get away from every single one of them.

It's a slightly fancier way to say we must get away from sprawl, but it's certainly food for thought.

And when you're done with that, check out Richard Florida's article "2011's Best Cities for Trick-or-Treating."

Jamie Baker Roskie

October 26, 2011 in Architecture, Community Design, Development, Finance, New Urbanism, Parking, Pedestrian, Planning, Sprawl, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ostrow on Land Law Federalism

Ashira Ostrow (Hofstra) has posted Land Law Federalism, 61 Emory L.J. ___ (forthcoming 2012). A must-read, this foundational work explores the theoretical framework for appropriate federal intervention in the state/local-dominated area of land use regulation. Here's the abstract:

In modern society, capital, information and resources pass seamlessly across increasingly porous jurisdictional boundaries; land does not. Perhaps because of its immobility, the dominant descriptive and normative account of land use law is premised upon local control. Yet, land exhibits a unique duality. Each parcel is at once absolutely fixed in location but inextricably linked to a complex array of interconnected systems, natural and man-made. Ecosystems spanning vast geographic areas sustain human life; interstate highways, railways and airports physically connect remote areas; networks of buildings, homes, offices and factories, create communities and provide the physical context in which most human interaction takes place.

Given the traditional commitment to localism, scholars and policymakers often reflexively dismiss the potential for an increased federal role in land use law. Yet, modern land use law already involves a significant federal dimension resulting, in part, from the enactment of federal statutes that have varying degrees of preemptive effect on local authority. Moreover, this Article maintains that federal intervention in land use law is warranted where the cumulative impact of local land use decisions interferes with national regulatory objectives (such as developing nationwide energy or telecommunications infrastructure).

Finally, this Article advances an interjurisdictional framework for federal land law that harnesses (a) the capacity of the federal government, with its distance from local politics and economic pressures, to coordinate land use on a national scale and (b) the capacity of local officials, who have detailed knowledge of the land and are politically accountable to the local community, to implement land use policies.

Jim K.

 

October 11, 2011 in Climate, Development, Environmental Law, Environmentalism, Federal Government, Globalism, Green Building, Inclusionary Zoning, Local Government, NIMBY, Planning, Scholarship, Smart Growth, Sprawl, Subdivision Regulations, Sustainability, Transportation, Wetlands, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why planning is overrated

It is conventional wisdom in some circles that “comprehensive planning” and sprawl are polar opposites- that planning is the enemy of sprawl.

But in fact, a comprehensive plan is almost as likely as a zoning code to be pro-sprawl. Many of the land use policies that make suburbs automobile-dependent: wide roads, long blocks, low density, single-use zoning, etc. can just as easily be found in a comprehensive plan.

For example, Alpharetta, Georgia is an outer suburb of Atlanta. Its plan’s future land use map , like the city's zoning code, lists a variety of single use zones. Most of these zones are quite low in density; the highest density, for apartments, is only 10 units per acre, barely enough to support minimal bus service. At these densities, not too many people live within walking distance of public transit, so there is not enough demand to support buses running more often than every half an hour or so, let alone rail service.

The plan also provides for numerous zones that are clearly incapable of supporting public transit, such as a “residential estate” area of 3-acre lots and a “very low density” area of half-acre lots. The plan provides that only 4% of the city’s land is to be used for apartments, as opposed to 54% for low-density residential.

Moreover, the land use map reveals that what passes for compact development in Alpharetta is not intermingled with the city’s offices; instead, high-density residential is a buffer zone between the city’s large stock of offices (near the Georgia 400 highway) and the city’s even larger stock of single-family homes. As a result, most of Alpharetta’s renters will not be able to walk to work even if they work in Alpharetta.

The transportation elements of suburban land use plans may also support car-oriented sprawl. For example, Jacksonville, Fla.'s comprehensive plan calls for 150-foot rights of way on major streets, thus effectively mandating streets with eight or ten lanes. Such streets are a bit too wide for most sane pedestrians.

In sum, comprehensive plans will typically reincorporate the status quo. So if a municipality's zoning code favors sprawling, low-density development, so will the comprehensive plan.

P.S. A more comprehensive discussion of these plans and their deficiencies is in a more extensive blog post at www.planetizen.com.

Michael Lewyn

September 15, 2011 in Comprehensive Plans, Local Government, Smart Growth, Sprawl, Transportation | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, September 9, 2011

worst practices

If you do a Google Images search for "sprawl", what you will see is lots of aerial views of large subdivisions filled with small and medium-sized houses. But these places are "sprawl with a human face"; often there are sidewalks, or at least lawns for humans to walk on.

Right now, I'm visiting my parents' house in Atlanta and seeing sprawl at its worst. For example, look at this photo (a couple of miles from where I am sitting), showing a residential street where the trees go right up to the street, so there is no lawn to walk on; if you walk you just have to share the street with 40 mph car traffic. This sort of thing even happens in apartment complexes.

Michael Lewyn

September 9, 2011 in Pedestrian, Sprawl, Suburbs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My next article: sprawl in Canada and the U.S.

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/ .

September 6, 2011 in Comparative Land Use, Density, Local Government, Parking, Pedestrian, Scholarship, Sprawl, Suburbs, Transportation, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)