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.

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