Public Planning Councils: My half-baked idea

Downtown Marietta, Ohio

Downtown Marietta, Ohio

Over the course of many public land-use hearings, I’ve often heard participants ask why decisions aren’t made on the New England town meeting model, which they understand to be a town-wide gathering to debate a proposal and to render a consensus decision.

I have a number of problems with the suggestion.  I’ll start with the fact that speaker is often unfamiliar with the land-use process, including the knowledge that the town hall model is rarely if ever applied to land-use decisions.  Instead, town meetings usually focus on public policy and finance issues.

Also, the town meeting proponent is usually someone who has never before attended a land-use hearing, likely will never again, and is only attending this hearing because it affects his neighborhood.  As it’s often the case that most of the other attendees on the particular night are also from his neighborhood and are also opposed to the project, the town meeting proponent is effectively suggesting that any neighborhood should have the unilateral right to quash any project.  And that result would be a model for aggressive sprawl because only projects without neighbors could be assured of approval.

Lastly, giving neighborhoods effective veto power over new projects, a power that would sometimes be used because of fear of the type of people who would reside in the new projects, could quickly degrade into discrimination.

Nonetheless, I remain intrigued by the concept of broader public input into land use decisions.  In recent weeks, I’ve noted that there’s much potential value in the ideas generated at the interface between the forces of order, represented by city staff and zoning codes, and the forces of anarchy, represented by public input.  But I also argued that Kristina Ford, in her book “The Trouble with City Planning”, gave too much value to under-informed public opinion. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Autumnal reading

150923001 BooksWith fall upon us (and with the hopes for California rainfall increasing), we’ve reached a time of year when I rethink my reading list, setting new priorities for the knowledge I still hope to absorb before the end of the year and remotivating myself to find more time for reading.

Sitting in an office surrounded by bookcases, or perhaps I should describe it as sitting at a desk in the middle of a library, I’m not looking for more books to acquire.  But I’m always seeking help in sorting through the books I already own and in making good decisions about scarce reading time.

Thus, I was interested when someone in an internet chat asked StrongTowns founder Chuck Marohn for the five books that he’d recommend for urbanist reading.  As he was considering his response, I began my own list.  “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs, “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck, and “Suburban Nation” by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Speck occupied the top three spots, with a bevy of other contenders jockeying for the last two openings.

But Marohn surprised me.  He responded that he generally avoided books on land planning, preferring instead to do his reading in the broader field of human history and civilization. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Teach, then ask

Charlestown neighborhood of Boston

Charlestown neighborhood of Boston

In my last post, I wrote about “The Trouble with City Planning” by Kristina Ford.  Although I suspected that the message of the book had been muddied through the editorial and publishing steps, I appreciated much of what Ford wrote, finding it a good common-sense explanation of why city planning often stumbles.

However, I took issue with one position she espoused.  The difference is probably more a matter of degree than absolutes, but meaningful regardless.  A story from my long-ago youth will illustrate.

I don’t recall having a long-standing dream to make music before the fourth grade, but when my classmates and I were offered an opportunity to take up a musical instrument early during that school year, I and many others quickly signed up.  Perhaps I thought that blowing sweet music on a trumpet would prove irresistible to the fourth grade babes.  (Kathy Fitzpatrick, where have you gone?)

But the school district in which I attended fourth grade didn’t hand out instruments or instruction to anyone.  They insisted on spending resources only on those who showed a degree of musical aptitude. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

“The Trouble with City Planning”: Half-buried insights

Bourbon Street in New Orleans

Bourbon Street in New Orleans

My knowledge of the book publishing business is theoretical only.  A few friends, mostly of the delusional sort, have suggested that a book can be found somewhere within my four years of blog posts.  Thus far, I’ve ignored their siren call, flattered by their words, but unconvinced that 1,000-word blog posts, often with only tangential relationships, can translate into a 100,000 word manuscript.

Despite my lack of real world experience, I finished “The Trouble with City Planning” by Kristina Ford feeling as if I’d been present during the birthing of a book that had been led astray by editorial and publishing revisions.  The suspected revisions didn’t destroy the book, but they left valuable insights semi-buried in superfluity.

So, with full acknowledgment that I have no source of information other than my own dubiously-educated observations and guesses, this is how I suspect the book was written.

Fresh from a long stint as the Planning Director for the City of New Orleans, Ford embarked on a book project, setting forth her thoughts, as refined during her time in the Big Easy, on the interaction between planning, the citizenry, and development. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

As long as we can do reasonable and open balancing, it’s okay to want both cake and pie

Project site for apartments

Project site for apartments

Perhaps it’s the scientific bent in my soul, but he weighing of land-use proposals versus land-use goals has always felt forced and contrived to me.  Hand-waving intended to make a land-use project seem to conform to a goal, even when most observers would agree that it doesn’t, makes me uncomfortable, even if I’m the one doing the hand-waving.

However, some recent reading has given me new insights into the balancing of land-use projects versus land-use goals.  A Petaluma Planning Commission hearing can serve as an example.

The subject of the hearing was a proposed apartment complex, three stories in height.  The surrounding neighborhood was largely single-family homes, with an existing two-story apartment complex and a couple of single-story commercial uses.

Given the height of the proposed apartment buildings, many neighbors argued that the proposal failed to meet the Petaluma General Plan goal calling for new projects to be compatible with existing neighborhoods.  The neighbors further argued that the failure to meet this goal required the Planning Commission to reject the project or at least to substantially modify it. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

Slow cars with a bucket of paint

141209A001 B StreetI’m often disappointed with the slowness at which I think.  Given enough time, I can assemble logical thoughts just fine, but it takes longer than it seems that it should.

All of us come home from occasional parties frustrated by bon mots that popped in our heads ten seconds too late.  But there times when the key facts to a problem are in front of me for a half hour or more, a problem to which I know the perfect urbanist solution, and yet the pieces don’t fall into place until the opportunity to interject the solution has passed.

As a case in point, I recently sat through a public hearing on a proposed apartment project in Petaluma.  An element of the project was a road diet along the frontage, converting a current four-lane road into a two-lane street, with a center turn lane and two 12-foot travel lanes.  The width left over after the diet would be used for a new parking lane and for wider bike lanes.  In general, I supported the concept.

There was extended public comment on the apartment project, probably over an hour, during which the neighbors mostly expressed their opposition to the project.  Although not expressed as frequently as concerns about parking sufficiency and building massing, a recurrent theme was the speed of traffic.  Neighbors recounted their fear of crossing the street and their unwillingness to allow their children to play near the street.

In keeping with typical public hearing behavior, it’s likely that the situation was exaggerated.  Personally, I’ve driven the street a number of times without noting any abhorrent traffic patterns, but it’s also likely that concern had at least some basis in fact.

And yet it was only at the end of public, as the Planning Commission Chair raised the gavel and looked about the room asking if anyone else wished to speak, that the penny finally dropped for me.  Continue reading

Government, Transportation

The awesome potential and the scary downside of VMTs

Typical Suburban Arterial

Typical Suburban Arterial

Two posts ago, I wrote about how, even though I live in a home that is slightly beyond the fringe of walkable urbanism, I still consider myself a good urbanist.  I feel comfortable making the assertion because I continue to work toward the day when I can move into a truly walkable urban setting and because I’m willing to pay a vehicle mileage tax (VMT) and higher gas and property taxes appropriate to my urbanist perspective.

In my most recent post, I wrote that we don’t charge correctly for the increasingly common alternative schooling decisions.  I made the argument because we don’t require parents driving children to more distant schools to pay a VMT or a gas tax that would cover the true costs of driving.  (It’s a concern that applies to all driving trips.  I just happened to have a good school choice anecdote with which to frame the story.)

Having touched upon VMTs twice, it seemed reasonable to complete the triptych by looking more deeply into the current state and future path of VMTs and to speculate about the good and the evil that might lie along that path.

In its simplest form, a VMT is a tax assessed per mile of vehicular travel.  In most current thinking, it’s considered an alternative to a gas tax, although I disagree with that direction for reasons I’ll offer below.

Writing in CityLab, Eric Jaffe gives eighteen reasons why the time is right for VMTs.  It’s not the most profound list you’ll read this week, but the arguments are largely sound and the list provides a good primer into VMTs.

Then, both the Atlantic and San Francisco Chronicle write about a VMT pilot project currently underway in Oregon.  Both articles describe the general outline of the pilot project and the alternative means by which miles can be recorded.  Both articles also note the opposition of some hybrid and electrical vehicle owners to the VMT because it reduces the cost incentives for those alternative vehicles.  Writing as a Prius owner, I can only say that the objections prove that wrong-headed thinkers can be found in pretty much any subset of the population. Continue reading

Education, Transportation

What are the traffic costs for alternative schooling choices?

Harmar Elementary School in Harmar, Ohio

Harmar Elementary School in Harmar, Ohio

I know a young couple with two young sons who moved to the North Bay a few years back.  Coming from a snowy clime, they were excited by the walkability opportunities in the more clement North Bay, particularly the possibility of the older son walking to school.  So when they looked for a home, being within walkable distance of a good school was near the top of their list.

They soon found a home they liked, a little less than a half-mile from a well-regarded school.  The walk would be through a safe neighborhood and would pass by a park offering the possibility of post-school play.  The fit seemed fine.  They moved in, eager to begin their new lives.

As the new school year approached, they tried to register the son at the school.  For the first time, they learned that the school was designated a magnet school and that not all students, even those within walkable distance, were accepted for enrollment.  They were told that children from within the neighborhood were given preference, but that individual decisions were made about every student.

Even more confounding, the administrators who would make the decision about this young man were on vacation and wouldn’t return until shortly before the start of school.

With 24 hours to go before the school year started, the first day clothes were laid out and ready to be donned, the young man was eager to begin his new educational adventure, and the parents still didn’t know whether they could walk him to school the following morning or if the next day would be the first day of a year-long routine of driving him to and from a more distant school.

I’m not an educational expert.  Personally, I did fine with attending the schools nearest to the homes in which I grew up.  But I remember sharing classrooms with students who, in retrospect, might have fared better under alternative schooling approaches.  So I won’t suggest that the proliferation of magnet and charter schools is a bad idea.

But I will suggest that encouraging that proliferation without accounting for the resulting traffic is an unacceptable oversight.  Admittedly, it’s an oversight that is typical of much American thought about traffic, but it’s an oversight regardless. Continue reading

Durable Growth

An urbanist and his lifestyle

Water Street in downtown Petaluma

Water Street in downtown Petaluma

My wife and I live in a neighborhood that is on the fringe of walkability.

The Walk Score folks assign a score of 63 to our home, which is better than average, but not exceptional.  (For comparison, the apartments above Theatre Square in downtown Petaluma have a Walk Score of 94.)  And as much as we enjoy having a deli, tavern, and small grocery store within a couple of blocks, I understand that much of our Walk Score is the result of living within walkable range of elementary, junior high, and high schools.  My wife and I live in great location to raise a family, but that isn’t our time of life so much of walkability value is wasted on us.

Using my own measure of walkability, we’re 0.8 miles from the nearest bookstore, which isn’t bad but somewhat beyond the comfort zone for an after-dark or wintertime book walk.

To make the home location work, I own a car, a Prius that is quickly approaching 11.5 years old, an age that almost exactly matches the 11.4 years of age for the average American car.

The Prius is our only family car and we put a moderate number of miles on it.  A few moments ago, I tallied my miles for the past twelve months.  The result was almost exactly 10,000 miles, a modest amount compared to many, but still more than I would like it to be.  But a major task of the past year was moving a parent from a long-time family home to a senior living facility and then selling the home, with both tasks requiring multiple driving trips around Northern California, so it’s likely that my annual driving mileage will soon decline.

(Plus, the reality is that we live in a world in which a car is virtually required for many daily tasks.  As much as I’d prefer to use my car even less, it isn’t a reasonable option much of the time.  I admire the folks who manage to make do without a car, but that life requires compromises that I’m can’t justify right now.) Continue reading

Durable Growth

Urbanism needn’t be techno-centric

Urban street in London

Urban street in London

A regular reader and frequent correspondent recently sent me a link to an on-line video about urbanism.  In the video, MIT Professor Kent Larson displays some of the cool gadgetry being developed under his oversight in the campus Media Lab, most of it focused on improving urban life.  In the words of Professor Larson, “We look at how to make creative, vibrant places for people and then the technology follows.”

Among the innovations being promoted by the Larson and his lab are room configurations that would adjust easily between different uses, small footprint cars that would reduce parking needs, and autonomous electrical bikes that would perform tasks as disparate as queuing up where users are likely to need them and delivering packages automatically, which is a far better solution than the overhyped Amazon drones.

After an introductory sponsorship commercial for JP Morgan Chase, the video runs about ten minutes.  The ten minutes are worth your time.

But while I recommend the video, I’m concerned that some may understand its message to be that cool technology is a necessary pre-condition to urbanism.  That’s not the case.  The technological innovation being done by Professor Larson will hopefully make urbanism more comfortable and attractive, but urbanism has justifications that would be valid regardless of technology. Continue reading