Saturday, August 17, 2019

Worthwhile Investments: Place Shaping Systems

Jan Gehl | Photo
by Luiz Munhoz

I credit Jan Gehl for the greatest impression on my appreciation for urban systems and spatial influences. I remember reading about architectural design critiques in college, and there was this incredibly insightful, paradigm-shifting wisdom imparted on me: The speed at which people experience place imposes a logic for the design of place or placelessness. Gehl coined the expression “60 Mile-Per-Hour Architecture” that conveys a powerful logical conclusion. Generic, bland, placeless design is the only worthwhile cost-cutting investment along a corridor built for speed. He realized there is no payoff for designing and building for intimate, social, and publicly inviting experiences when said experiences take time to enjoy. Passing through or by a place at high speeds negates the ability to really experience it. Fragility of these places are why they erode, unworthy of long-term investment, and incompatible with a social public realm.

Maybe the next freeway exit, only another minute away, is the optimal investment. Then the next.

The frail existence of “prized locations” along freeway exits makes this truth evident. Little effort is required to find tired shopping mall after tired shopping mall where a string of these buildings have reached 30 years old (or older and more tired)... these examples demonstrate the inevitability of building for placelessness. They decay, fail, and become a liability to the stability and perception of any city. These modern ruins can be reinvented, and some miracle-makers are innovating strategies to reinvest and rebuild the ruins, but they know the struggle extends beyond the immediate site design. Complications include high costs of retrofits or the poor quality of the original construction materials. No matter the miraculously reimagined site, there often remains the underlying contextual problem: speed.

If speed around or through the place remains pervasive, the potential for placemaking suffers. A worthwhile investment in place requires healthy land markets and return on long-term investments. The place has to be lovable, connected, safe, affordable (to all strata of income), and accessible by those who take enough interest to happily move slowly and linger in the space. Walkability offers more promise than the average motorist can fathom, but they can try thanks to the writing of Jeff Speck.

I don’t like to reduce people to purely consumers with discretionary incomes, but for the sake of simplicity, imagine everyone is simply that. Consumers who travel at high speeds will spread that income around thinner, farther from home and work, making every merchant or place more vulnerable to being traded in for that new place down a few more exits.

Why am I layering on this speed problem so thick? Because the truth is nuanced.

Conventional wisdom blames the Euclidean Zoning scheme for separating land uses (Euclid v. Ambler, 1926). I half-way agree, the use-based zoning scheme produced, and still produces, a logic for the mobility interventions that followed. With the distances between separated uses came the desire to span distances quicker, and speedy mobility became a logical necessity. At first, the streetcar suburbs were optimized for proximity and efficient modes of travel, but this didn’t scale in a desirable way for land speculators (not then, not now). Landholding investors need a system that continually opens up more space for investment so short-term development can begin its 30-year decay someplace away from the matured decay. By the 1960s, transportation engineering doctrine was at its peak with policy and funding to ensure highways were as American as apple pie (Federal Aid Highway Act, 1956). Of course, nearly every “advanced” Western Democracy had their own version and were throwing big money at a lot of “advanced” high-capacity, high-speed transportation infrastructure with convenient, free use for anyone… except for those whose neighborhood was demolished in its path or denied a mortgage because of the color of their skin.

The in-a-nutshell argument that could make me sound grumpy and unpleasant:
Awful land use policy provided the logic for awful transportation policy and with it came a reinforcing systemic cycle of awful inequitable impacts to human health, dignity, ecology, and economy. Meanwhile, taxpayer investments fund projects that promote unproductive development patterns while simultaneously cost-burdening the unborn and unrepresented. The system is stupidly unsustainable and tragically institutionalized making it painfully complex to course-correct while (distorted) market demand for highways and land speculation is still strong and rarely fully understood.

With this mess being observed for over 60 years, there are well-documented lessons from these development schemes with detrimental consequences. And there are great ideas to course-correct, but they won’t be mainstreamed without seriously provoking insights and breaking away from the entrenched status quo bias and myths within the American Dream.

Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns is a pioneer regarding the true costs behind his coined phrase “illusion of wealth.” The “illusion” is the misguided perception that new infrastructure is an asset. Sometimes it is. But, mostly, it is not.  These expensive-to-upkeep physical assets become liabilities when placed within unproductive development patterns with low tax revenues, leading to long-term physical decay due to disinvestment from costs outpacing revenues. Low taxes are for the simple life. If low taxes are meant to upkeep loads of landscaping, wide streets, traffic lights, street lights, parks, curbs, sidewalks and emergency response it creates a broken social contract.

As far as I can tell, our “advanced” society is just barely climbing out of the dark ages of infrastructure policy (some regions/states are further along than others).

Transportation is the big fail. The USDOT a few years ago had Secretary Foxx celebrating the plan for #BeyondTraffic and now we regress with Secretary Chao constraining approved funding to qualifying transit projects. Those polarizing political fights are making their way down to local ballot initiatives as well (see Phoenix Proposition 105). Since speed ensures fragile development patterns, programs and funding for transportation infrastructure design is one of the major contributors to the systemic failures of contemporary city building.


ADOT Revenue Gap
Too many transportation projects prioritize, above all else, roadway capacity and free-flowing general car travel as quantified and projected by classic traffic engineering metrics that continue to haunt our cities from the dawn of the Highway heyday. The problems reliably to follow are inefficiency, car dependency, death tolls, obesity, and tax-burdens that destroy place with “60 Mile-Per-Hour” development patterns and land speculation. You don’t have to take my word for it, the data is widely available. See most state DOTs Long-Range Transportation Plans for the anticipated funding gap that begs for political support and a new tax. Take Arizona with a projected $30.5B projected gap. Will the profession ever find the courage to challenge the cycle of induced demand?


We have to ask ourselves, while being true to our values:
What system is worth the investment?
What yields a positive return on that investment?
What will not bankrupt the future?
What supports place-based economic development?

We cling to and preserve any places worth loving - most that predate the disastrous land use and transportation policies we’ve imposed on places for over 60 years. Our systems have long undermined the love for place, infill development, and healthy market informative feedbacks. Instead car-dependent policies offer the public obesity, injury, death, homelessness, depression, and cost-burdens (recommended: CNT’s Housing + Transportation Affordability Index).

The enemy of an aspirational place is the drag of despair. Burdens that drag our collective existence into time-burdened, cost-burdened, health-burdened, environmentally-strained condition have become evermore emotionally burdensome to me. I don’t want to promote this despair. I didn’t get into planning to promote “60 Mile-Per-Hour” placelessness that makes us sick, broke, and sad. I want to engage more and test the greatest ideas I have long admired.

A convergence of great ideas can promote a superior alternative to the current system. It’s a nexus that more professionals in the practice of city-building need to deeply understand to move the needle. There’s a nexus between efficient land use, efficient transportation, and cost-efficient infrastructure that promotes environments that are positive-sum for us and the planet and far less burdensome to multiple generation’s bank accounts and tax obligations. All these aspects of our system are oversized, meaning by finding efficiencies is correcting for the waste by right-sizing. It also means that with slower spread of people, we can enjoy our place more, making it a worthwhile investment with a complementary system.

Great ideas can reshape our cities and places and systems. We need to demand better than sick, broke, and sad results stemming from poorly aligned policies that misshape our cities and places. The desire for speed is systematically working against places we all can love. I recommend the 25 Great Ideas of New Urbanism, and I suggest embracing the confluence of their complementary convergence as land use, transportation, fiscal responsibility, lovable design ideas, and resilient places make places worth spending time in, slow down, sit, walk, and enjoy the sense of community in a celebrated, investment-worthy public realm.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

#NUFuture = #FiscalResilience


Both manmade and natural disasters leave our cities vulnerable to catastrophes ruining people’s health and wealth. CNU members passionately work toward building places people love, but the effort is undermined if such places are fragile and sickening landscapes placing the heaviest burdens to upon marginalized (trapped) populations. To restore our communities to vibrant urban places, we need an organizing principle that not only can measure the fragility of our physical city elements, but also provide a way to quantify the cost of the restoration we stand behind in the Charter of the New Urbanism. Most cities are held back by dysfunction and sprawl, and we deserve a method for demonstrating the costs of such dysfunction.

Graciously, the CNU initiatives to date have boldly organized physical solutions that have inspired many in their work. If there was ever a sense that the initiative omitted the whole truth of the cause it sought to rectify, members of the CNU were able to articulate such omissions and the initiative suffers. Therefore, any worthy #NUFuture initiative should not be compromised for political palatability.

Without soft, compromising language, let it be stated: The looming fiscal disasters of our cities should mobilize immediate and bold action. The vast majority of development across the country is further neglecting our shared future. The neglect spawns from an incomplete (or mismanaged) playbook by which development operates. I offer the following organization of worthy ideas boldly put forward by the CNU (to date) and offer ideas for the next effort:
  • Land Use Development/Developers
    • The Charter for the New Urbanism is organized at different scales of development. This structure is a strength of the organization’s principles, providing valuable nuance to the appropriate focus at each scale.
    • Form-Based Codes continue to evolve and to replace use-based zoning codes with effective development standards that focus a city’s effort where it belongs: the Public Realm (at least in the most urban of the Transects). Also assisting in advancing people-scaled block patterns and complementing a complete portfolio of transportation options.
    • Sprawl Repair seeks out opportunities for infill and untapped capacity in the landscape for prosperous opportunities for redevelopment, and incrementally evolving a dysfunctional place.
    • Build a Better Burb is a close ally to Sprawl Repair (with infill), but challenges sprawl before its first poorly developed iteration. Financial liabilities of infrastructure considerations briefed.
    • Incremental Developers Alliance mentors and grows the supply of urbanist developers with resources and training applicable to small scale, independent developers and builders.
  • Transportation
    • Street (re)design is a continuous work of refinement by CNU members, promoting access, ped sheds, protected bike lanes, invaluable urban design, detailed guidelines for walkable thoroughfares, and recently 101 steps for promising alternatives to insane levels of car dependence (#WalkableCityRules).
    • No more #stroads. Prominent members are successfully repealing the methods and conventional wisdom that sought free-flowing car mobility and an oversupply of parking (😍 #ModernizingMitigation). Safe street advocates appear to be growing more organized and better informed.
    • Public transit, with its slow adoption process across America, is proving to be incredibly valuable and better understood. Seattle is proving to be an invaluable case study. New Urbanists have long aspired to improve on the transit-oriented model for its ability to restore human scale to the streets.
  • Fiscal Resilience (Can this be next?)
    • A professional practice that is still taking shape, even as Strong Towns celebrates its 10th year. Strong Towns has elevated the concept that much of our (over)built infrastructure serves as a fiscal liability to our municipalities and public agencies.
    • Promising firms offer illustrative and exploratory methods to inform the course correction, experimenting on implementation ideas in the spirit of the fiscal solvency crisis long embedded in the curbside chat.
    • Is there specific actionable information here? Can the fundamentals be better documented and shared?


When it comes to building places that we love, fiscal resilience is still trying to inFORM (take in new data to form physically/operationally) our development metrics, transportation policies, capital investments, and comprehensive set of goals. It seems as though almost nobody denies the importance of the fiscal question, but few understand how to grasp and make actionable the fundamentals of its full potential. More can (and should be) done to advance the professional practice and marry the fiscal framework with other CNU initiatives.

The beauty of the fiscal framework is that it complements and grounds all other CNU initiatives. Land development, transportation, and infrastructure do not fund themselves (and theoretically set out to be resource sensitive). Every urbanist restoration project comes with significant costs. But (ah ha!), due to the robust functionalism of urban centers, these costs typically offer a return on investment (to both public and private sector alike; if not, make cost adjustments ASAP). It is this investment strategy and restored resilience that ought to advance and quantify the level of response necessary to deliver on CNU initiatives.

City leaders deserve to understand the fiscally quantified difference they can make over time. Their choice ought to be clearer: catastrophe or resilience. A city’s investments and returns on investments can be supported by a fiscally sound decision-making framework. The specifics of looming fiscal catastrophe should inform how aggressive a city operationalizes the restorative playbook.

***This information is compiled from my individual understanding of CNU initiatives and charter, which may be incomplete.***

Monday, January 7, 2019

Unsustainable Development Required

When it comes to failures, the planning field has broadly accepted that single-use zones applied monotonously across large parcels accounts for a great deal of consequential separation between where modern people “live, work, and play.” Planners understand these zoning practices, once intended to relieve the suffering conditions of the early industrial era, now serve as a barrier for people to experience the useful walk to a nearby destination. Remedies to zoning codes are broadly being applied to better zone for a mix of uses. However, there’s more to solving this riddle that is too often overlooked. Rather than letting these remedies actually foster better community development, there's still more fixes required. The following critique highlights another major example of how regulation applied uncritically has profound unintended consequences.

There's a formalized, efficient, and decisive test administered broadly across this country for almost every new development proposal and City-wide transportation plan to ensure that car-use is the most convenient, time-efficient, free-flowing form of transportation available in nearly every city and town across the county. This test is undervalued (or unknown) by many planners who have not challenged the merits of a fundamental traffic engineering metric. As planners standby, these tests oppress the potentiality of a sustainable relationship between people and their city. The test, applied with ultimate veto power, is defined by Traffic Engineering manuals as “Level of Service” (LOS) that is conventionally the bedrock of a “Transportation (or Traffic) Impact Analysis.” By requiring a passing grade on the LOS scale, a high degree of car dependence is required by design (often applied uncritically). To pass the test, developments often lose housing density or units or an optimal mix of uses for community vitality or relocate the project out on the fringe of town. These "mitigated impacts" (solving for flowing traffic, not livability) not only reduce potential profits for the developer, but lifestyles often associated with very popular destinations (developed prior to unhealthy amounts of car reliance).

Alternatives exist to the application of this LOS standard that is unwittingly hurled onto the people of a place, almost certainly without their consent or examining the costs. Largely, this decisive test is administered among “experts” who assume, without critical public discourse, the average car trips will be generated by a use, with some simplistic opportunities for “trip capture” (reduced traffic impacts to adjacent roads and intersections). The assumed value of free-flowing car use across a city is disassociated with commonly adopted goals of transit, active transportation, livability, equity, economic development, land use efficiency, cost of development, cost of maintenance, fiscal solvency, climate science, pollutant runoff, floodplains, household H+T index, community health, safe routes to school, aging in place, urban design, or many other worthy objectives that are drastically compromised (if not obliterated) with the ubiquitous requirement of a network of LOS A to C operating roadways devoid of a comforting, safe, and interesting public realm.

Until the errors of LOS are broadly understood by our profession, and the car culture assumptions challenged, the sad spread of sprawl will compromise the lives and the prosperous futures of more and more people trapped in a systemic failure of our making, all because we didn’t align our fundamental decisive tests of development with our comprehensive set of community goals.

For more on this critically important (and undervalued) topic, I direct you to writings by Dom Nozzi or Jeffrey Tumlin or the podcast "Level of Disservice" by Talking Headways.
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