Durable Growth

Changing the ground rules to cease subsidizing sprawl

141606003 Buffalo Skyline from Hotel RoomIn my last post, I took the post-recession temperature of sprawl.  I was checking the hypothesis that sprawl had succumbed to changing housing desires about the time the recession took hold.

Although I found evidence that that sprawl isn’t the dominant paradigm that it had once been, I also found evidence that it still lingered, ready to reassert itself given the opportunity.  (Voldemort comes to mind.)  The one battleground I described was a large development outside of Las Vegas where the developers were arguing that the public prefers the types of housing that sprawl provides, while urbanists were arguing that there was still insufficient choice in the marketplace to truly judge what the public prefers.  (And I argued that both sides were ignoring the roles of economic incentives.)

My conclusion was that we can’t consider sprawl to be securely in the rearview mirror, but must continue to have a strategy for dealing with possibility of sprawl reasserting itself.

The unabashed perspective of this blog is that sprawl needs to be curtailed for the long-term environmental and financial health of our communities and our world.  But that doesn’t mean that I want the curtailment to occur by government fiat.  Instead I believe that the primary reason sprawl has lived past its expiration date is because we propped it up with economic advantages when it began to falter and have continued to do so for far too long.

Ultimately, I believe that people who choose to live in sprawl settings should bear the true costs of those choices, just as one bears the mostly true costs of other aspects of life, whether travel, cuisine, or attire. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Checking up on sprawl

141008005 West HavenSprawl largely stopped dead during the recession, leaving analysts pondering whether the development paradigm had truly changed or if the slowdown was solely the result of a lack of demand in a stalled economy.

Today, I remain skeptical about the long-term strength of the economy, fearing that more bumps will come our way from the accumulated debt of our failed dalliance with suburbia.  However, with the economy showing at least temporary signs of life, it’s worth checking to see if sprawl is making a comeback.

There’s much evidence that the past momentum of sprawl has been reversed.  Driven by the lifestyle choices of younger demographic segments, the outflow of jobs from urban centers has reversed and jobs are returning downtown in most markets.

Also, the sprawling and half-completed subdivisions that were stranded throughout the west by the recession remain enough of a phenomenon that the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has prepared a position paper on “zombie subdivisions”, suggesting strategies for resolving the current half-defunct subdivisions and proposing policies to preventing another generation of failed subdivisions during future economic hard times.

But these indications that sprawl is truly dying are somewhat balanced by a story out of Las Vegas in which a stalled subdivision outside of the city is being rebooted after a change in architecture from a more dense, alley-based urbanist style to more stand-alone suburban-style homes. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Make better-informed decisions

Transit-oriented plaza at Fruitvale BART station

Transit-oriented plaza at Fruitvale BART station

In my last post, I wrote about the recently published book What Counts: Harnessing Data for America’s Communities, co-edited by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Urban Institute. The book speaks to the improved application of data to community planning, including urbanism.

Today, I’ll let my fingers do some walking, sampling among the range of topics covered in the book. To be fair, the reading isn’t light-duty. Big Data isn’t called that because it readily spits out answers. Instead, the mass of data must be tickled and prodded to yield valuable insights, which sometimes results in prose that reads as if it has spent years in the dust-choked halls of academia.

But the insights are there. And those who wish to read along can download their free copy of the 441-page book here.

These are three insights that intrigued me:

Financial Reporting: I learned during a recent urbanism conference that the federal government has 23 categories of land-use assets for financial management reporting, 21 of which don’t fit well with an urbanist world. This lack of categories complicates financial reporting which can in turn inhibit investment. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Where the data leads us

Transit-oriented development near Richmond BART/Amtrak station

Transit-oriented development near Richmond BART/Amtrak station

For a long time, I had a reader on Petaluma Patch who would regularly challenge various points I’d written, although the word “challenge” may give him too much credit. Using the strawman approach, he would misunderstand an aspect of my argument, perhaps intentionally, and then try to demolish the misrepresented point with emotional arguments and appeals to dubious authority (Agenda 21 was frequently cited), thereby supposedly refuting my entire argument.

During one of the periodic Patch reboots, I lost the reader. I don’t miss him. Despite his flimsy and insubstantial arguments, I always feared that readers who might be inclined toward unjustified opposition to urbanism would latch onto his comments and accord them more credibility than they deserved.

But I also miss the reader just a little bit. His comments were like 70 mile per hour batting practice fastballs. Bashing them into the bleachers could be a good warmup for the game conditions to follow.

As one example, he would often note the high sales prices at a land-use project that had elements of urbanism and cite them as proof that urbanism is elitist. Over multiple opportunities, I honed a three-part response: Continue reading

Durable Growth, Site News

Fairgrounds and block parties (It must be the summer-like weather)

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds

Fairgrounds: Regular readers don’t need to be reminded about the on-going Petaluma Urban Chat study on possible re-use of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  (Occasional readers can catch up here.)

The conceptual design efforts are nearing conclusion.  The three teams are putting finishing touches on their designs and will present the plans at the Urban Chat meeting on Tuesday, February 24.  Everyone is welcome, indeed encouraged, to join us at 5:30pm at Taps, 54 E. Washington Street.  And also encouraged to bring a friend or two.  Even if you’ve never attended an Urban Chat meeting, if you have an interest in the future of Petaluma you’re likely to find something of interest in the meeting.

For those who haven’t been part of the process thus far, I should explain something about the intended level of the conceptual plans.  The plans wouldn’t include detailed building footprints or architectural sketches.  To proceed to that level, especially given our non-existent budget, would have been a waste of resources and a short-circuiting of the process.

Instead, the teams will present maps showing allocations of land use and proposed routes of connectivity.  In land-use planning parlance, these are called bubble diagrams and are a key step in the planning process. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Is there such a thing as bad urbanism?

Downtown parking garage

Downtown parking garage

Early in my “Intro to Urbanism” series, I offered a definition of urbanism that focused on the positive aspects of good urbanism, specifically energy conservation and municipal finances.  But even as I did so, I had misgivings about how to describe undesirable urban results like degrading housing, sterile condominiums in the sky, garages without street appeal, and dank pedestrian underpasses.  If urbanism is only good, how do we describe bad solutions in urban settings?

A Vibrant Bay Area reader had the same response, “Urbanism is one of those fuzzy terms that means several things.  Usually when urbanists talk about urbanism, they mean urban environments and the planning and development of urban environments.  There can be good urbanism and bad urbanism.”

Downtown pedestrian underpass

Downtown pedestrian underpass

I don’t fully agree with everything he writes.  I’d argue that it’s urban planners who focus on “the planning and development of urban environment”.  I’d argue instead that urbanists talk about how to plan and to develop the urban environment better than we might have done previously, often through an emphasis on development aspects that proven successful.  Urbanism isn’t solely about development in urban places, but about good development in urban places.

But even with that caveat, the reader makes a good point, and one that forces me to update my definition of urbanism.  And it must become a dual definition. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Change happens, but takes continual effort

130728B014 Tetherow Crossing Home and VistaI’ve occasionally written of a large land-use project in Oregon with which I was involved many years ago. (The photo was taken on the site, many years later.) The original concept had a strong urbanist component. Indeed, it was where I was introduced to the idea that urbanism was possible in the modern world.

But the initial plan was waylaid by a reluctant planning commission, or perhaps by my inability to educate a reluctant planning commission, and then truly ended by a forest fire that roared through much of the site. (The land adjoined the city limits but was beyond the limits of the municipal fire fighting system.)

From the ashes, a smaller, more focused project arose. There were still urbanist elements to the new plan, but they were less dramatic than in the earlier plan and needed more nurturing to reach full flower.

It was during the entitlement process on this second, smaller project that I truly became engrossed in the details of land-use permitting. As the only member of the team who worked locally, with all of the partners and other consultants about three hours away in Portland, I had the day-to-day task of assembling the applications, of writing the utility master plans, and of coordinating with the local agencies. I was smitten. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Don’t be a vacuum cleaner guy

090823B001All Pro Freight Stadium - PatchI’m going to wax philosophical today. I’ve been writing this blog long enough to know that doing so isn’t going to change the world. And that’s okay. If I change the way just one person thinks about the land-use process, or about life, then I’ll have had a good day.

Many years ago, I was president and part-owner of a minor league baseball team. It was a great experience. Expensive, but a source of memories and stories that will make me smile forever. Those in the North Bay may remember the Sonoma County Crushers who played in Rohnert Park until 2002. My club was in the same league.

I rarely note my baseball experience in this blog because it has little pertinence to land use or to urbanism, but once in awhile I can find a way to connect some dots. Today is one of those times.

During the life of the ballclub, we had one particular fan. I’ve forgotten his name, so I’ll call him the Vacuum Cleaner Guy. If I recall correctly, he had at least some college, perhaps even a degree, but he’d never found an office situation where he could be successful. He’d tried a small business, but again failed. By the time I got to know him, he was earning a living as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman.

But it wasn’t much of a living. And his ballpark spending reflected his life situation. He was always looking for free or discounted tickets. And he never patronized the ballpark concessions, always sneaking his dinner into the park. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

Canadian television looks at urbanism, public health, and mobility

DSC_0226With the “Intro to Urbanism” in the rear view mirror, I’ll let Canadian television carry the ball today with a 19-minute program that touches upon two different aspects of urbanism, both introduced by folks I’ve often mentioned in this blog.

First, Charles Montgomery, author of “Happy City”, talks about the public health implications of living in suburbia where there are no useful destinations within walking distance and where sidewalks are often missing.

Next, Brent Toderian, former Planning Director for Vancouver, B.C. takes a television crew on a tour of Medellin, Columbia, long known for the brutality of its drug cartels but now rebounding with urbanist innovation.

(By the way, the broadcast pronunciation of Toderian as “TAH-de-run” is correct.  I’d made the seemingly reasonable assumption that the name was pronounced “tah-DEH-ree-an”, but was educated otherwise during the most recent annual meeting of the Congress of the New Urbanism.)

Toderian visits the newest mobility elements of Medellin.  First, he shows how the residents of low income housing on a steep hillside were better integrated into the city with escalators.  It’s inspiring to watch the pride of the residents in their new transit system, constructed for a surprisingly low $6 million.  (I’ll suggest that $6 million worth of escalators created much more benefit than many $50 million freeway interchanges.) Continue reading

Durable Growth

Intro to urbanism, part ten: Summing up, further reading, and an example life

Waiting for a table at a Brooklyn pizzeria

Waiting for a table at a Brooklyn pizzeria

One of my favorite college memories, at least among those I can share publicly, is from my senior year.  I was in the living room of my student apartment, reclining in a beanbag chair, enjoying an Oly, and listening as I copied a vinyl album onto reel-to-reel tape.  (Did I mention it was the 70s?)

It was late in the school year.  Only a couple of weeks later, my roommate and I would be disturbed from studying for finals by the sound of students marching on our street, celebrating the fall of Saigon.  (Did I mention it was Berkeley?)

The record I was copying was “Flavours” by the Guess Who.  The album came late in the history of the Guess Who and foreshadowed their later rebirth as Bachman Turner Overdrive.  The earlier pop sound of the band was being replaced by a deeper, darker bass-oriented sound.  The song that was playing was “Long Gone”.  The few lyrics, that were more in the nature of tortured aphorisms in a low register, felt like they had to fight their way to the surface through the bass line, only to be immediately reabsorbed by the music. Continue reading