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.***

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