Durable Growth

Stories from CNU 23: Sixty-eight percent versus four percent

Apartment building in downtown Dallas

Apartment building in downtown Dallas

I’ve previously written that I recently attended the 23rd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  As was also true of the previous CNU conferences I attended, CNU 23 was filled with moments of illuminating insight.

Today, I’ll begin offering a few of those gems of urbanist thinking, along with a bit of elucidation as required.  It’s a path that I’ll follow for several posts.

Sixty-Eight Percent versus Four Percent:  I don’t recall who first noted the 68 percent versus 4 percent dichotomy, but it doesn’t matter.  It seemed that every other speaker had his or her own version of the statistic which pointed to the same issue, which is that 68 percent of the American public report that they would like to live in a walkable setting, yet only 4 percent of the current housing stock has a WalkScore of 80 or above.

Admittedly, there are a number of holes that one can poke in the statistic.  Perhaps some of the respondents expressed a preference for walkability along with a desire for a three-car garage or a home on a cul-de-sac, both of which can inhibit walkability.  Perhaps the WalkScore threshold of 80 was set too high.  (I live in a home with a WalkScore of 63.  My walkable retail options are limited, but schools for all grades from K through 12 are within short walks.  For a family with children, my home would be a great walkable solution.)

On the other hand, one could argue that the desire for affordable housing could actually go higher if the financial savings that should accrue to walkable settings weren’t being redirected by government policies that favor sprawl.

Regardless of the arguments that can be made about the exact numbers, with a spread of 68 percent versus 4 percent, it’s obvious that there’s huge disconnect between the housing that most people want and the housing that they’re being offered.  That disconnect was much of the focus of CNU 23.

Respect for Jane Jacobs:  I’ve previously written about how much respect the urbanist community has for Jane Jacobs.  She’s not the font of all urbanist thinking, but her seminal work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” was a key step in getting urban thinking back on track after a series of unfortunate missteps.

An example of this respect was given by a Dallas civic leader who held introduce the speaker at the first plenary session for CNU 23.

Years earlier, the civic leader had organized an annual series of program on revitalizing downtown Dallas.  Securing high-quality speakers was one of her tasks.  One year, she put a full-court press on Jane Jacobs, flying several times to Toronto to implore Jacobs to attend.

When Jacobs finally agreed, the organizer turned her attention to Christopher Alexander, author of “A Pattern Language” which is considered a key document in the understanding the design details of good urbanism.  At first, Alexander demurred, claiming other commitments and work obligations.

The organizer then told Alexander that Jane Jacobs has agreed to participate.  After a long pause, Alexander replied “I’d walk to Dallas to meet Jane Jacobs.”  It must have been a fine program.

Poorly Assembled Mixed-Use: A key element of urbanism is mixed-use, by which urbanists mean walkable mixed-use, with the disparate elements of life located in adequate proximity that cars aren’t needed for many daily tasks.  One of the acknowledged founders of the New Urbanism, Andres Duany, noted how important the walkable term is by noting that “Sprawl is also mixed-use, poorly assembled mixed-use.”

Before closing, I should make a note about the Dallas transit system.  The system isn’t quite as cohesive as it might be, with some unfortunately long walks to transit stops, but it does provide effective service for many trips.  Using a bus ride and the Orange Line rail system, I was able to travel to and from my arrival airport for only $2.50 each way.  And the downtown walk to my hotel was only three short blocks.  I’ve love similar convenience and pricing in other cities.

However, for those of a certain age, the route back to the airport could be unsettling.  The Orange Line train passes right behind the former Texas School Book Depository, with its sixth floor museum, and then stops at the Parkland Medical Center.  If those locations don’t touch a nerve, ask your parents.  Or your grandparents.

In my next post, I’ll continue with stories from CNU 23.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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