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.