Adam Greenfield has 100 short thoughts from his upcoming book, The City Is Here For You To Use. He’s somewhere between an urbanist and a science fiction writer… exploring the near future, or unseen present, of cities. How do networks change cities? Their structure, purpose. Is that good, bad, unavoidable?
A good list summarizing the ways in which density is good for affordability, ending with this zinger:
Income inequality is the core reason why housing affordability is such an intractable problem in the United States. In pretty much every other industrialized nation on earth, greater redistribution of wealth helps ease the problem of affordable housing. This includes social investments that significantly reduce other major household expenses, such as healthcare, education, childcare, and transportation, thereby freeing up more income to pay for housing. Here in the U.S, we will be beating our heads against the wall forever trying to provide enough affordable housing to make up for this underlying inequity.
Painful because it’s true.
Charles Marohn of Strong Towns on Grist, explaining the way in which American suburbs are a giant Ponzi scheme. Essentially, since WWII there have been several rounds of up-front financing for suburban expansion, including federal dollars, and debt leveraging supposed future increases in tax revenues resulting from the growth. Along with these capital investments come long-term O&M obligations. Unfortunately, the obligations are too large, and we’ve only been able to meet them with new influxes of capital, but that’s flamed out. Sprawl is inherently expensive to build and maintain, and doesn’t create enough real value to support itself in the long run. How long will it take to internalize this reality culturally?
A couple of months ago I finished reading Jan Gehl’s book Cities for People, and I’ve seen Boulder differently ever since. I’m both more frustrated with it as it is today and more excited about what it could be in 20 years. Where before I might have been diffusely irritated by or in love with a place, I’m now explicitly aware of details that enhance or degrade its functionality for humans. I can’t recommend the book highly enough. It’s short, it’s filled with pictures, and unless you’re a die-hard motorist or collapsitarian neo-primitivist, I think you’ll find its case persuasive. You can watch him give a talk about the book in NYC on YouTube too, if you want another preview.
Gehl is a Danish architect who’s lived and worked in Copenhagen for the last 40 years, designing urban spaces for human beings. His first memory of the bicycle is riding away from the city as a small boy with his father, all day and all night, to escape the Nazi occupation. In his childhood, Copenhagen was dominated by pedestrians and bicycles. By the time he’d become a young man, the city was being occupied not by an invading army, but by automobiles. He was trained as a modernist architect, in the tradition of Le Corbusier’s isolated towers surrounded by parklands and freeways — a tradition Gehl almost immediately rebelled against — but in the 1960s, few wanted to hear about cities for people. Somehow, human and humane cities were not part of society’s vision of The Future. A devastated continent was being re-built in the modernist mold, and re-designed to accommodate cars, but by the early 1970s citizens across northern Europe had begun to question that vision. A lot of the resistance to transforming Europe’s cities into automobile friendly spaces didn’t come from environmental concerns as we see them today. Rather, re-making cities to work well for cars ended up degrading the quality of urban life dramatically. Jane Jacobs said we’d either erode our cities with cars, or the cars would suffer attrition at the hand of good cities. Then the first OPEC embargo highlighted the economic risks associated with oil dependence. We chose erosion in the US, but many European cities chose attrition. Energy economics, the quality of urban life, and environmental concerns together were enough to convince these nations to re-consider their Modernist visions of the future, and they revolted against the automobile invasion.
Strong Towns looks at the absurdity of having separate city departments of transportation and land-use planning, which often end up directly at odds with each other, even when they’re both doing their jobs. In Boulder this dynamic has been bad enough that the city recently made the two departments go to conflict resolution training together. Like, inter-departmental couples counseling or something. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have done a whole lot of good.
ITDP wrote up case studies of 8 relatively new car-free (or very car-light) neighborhoods in Europe, with scales ranging from a few hundred to tens of thousands of people, and how they compare to adjacent, similar communities, in terms of transportation mode share, etc. It’s great to see developments like this happening outside of the 500 year old city centers where cars really can’t be squeezed in without destroying the district. The urban density required to do this and make it work really isn’t all that high. Two developments each in Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands, one outside London, and another in Switzerland.
The city of Melbourne, Australia did a study of various types of urban density (it’s a PDF) to inform their own planning for the development of the Southbank area. The study as presented here is a little bit cartoonish, but they do pull together various quantitative measures of different neighborhoods around the world, which are interesting to compare — from Hong Kong to Barcelona to Battery Park in NYC. Their conclusion: uniformly developed low-rise, 3-8 story buildings can produce as much density as anybody might want (tens of thousands of people per square mile, just look at Paris), and are more conducive to a livable urban environment than towers, and in fact many tower heavy districts aren’t all that dense in aggregate. Parking regulations are key to making good urban space for people, as is the provisioning of social infrastructure (common green space, libraries, good schools) within walking distance. They suggest that densities of 100 residents and 50 jobs per hectare (30,000 and 15,000 per square mile, respectively… wow) represent a threshold at which fully featured urban infrastructure (including public transit) can pay for themselves.
Don’t Expect Driving Rates to Rise Again, says that eco-leftist rag… The Economist. People don’t want to spend more than 30 minutes each way commuting, and you just can’t give very many people access to that much opportunity within 30 minutes of travel in a sprawling urban geography. Certainly not cost-effectively. Demographically, cars are becoming something that old people like. Now, if only we could convince China to leapfrog the whole car culture and go straight to Cities for People… lots and lots of people.
The NY Times has an OpEd on how we need to enlist the suburbs in the fight against climate change: How Green Was My Lawn (not very). The author notes that the environmentalist movement of the 1970s arose largely from within the ranks of the suburbanites, and that the modern climate movement does itself no favors, politically, by consistently pointing its many fingers at the sprawling, car and oil dependent developments in which many to most Americans live today. No doubt. Unfortunately, the persistence and proliferation of suburbia precludes so many cheap and effective means of reducing emissions that it’s insane to take it as a given. It’s not just oil for the cars. It’s the need to go far, and go fast, in a large private vehicle, regardless of what it runs on. It’s the expense of making suburban homes a factor of 10 more energy efficient compared to doing the same with row-houses that share walls. It’s the inability to share almost anything in a suburban context — the per-capita need for stuff is enormous when you have to own it all instead of accessing it as a service. It’s the unnecessarily vast amounts of concrete, steel, asphalt and copper in all the infrastructure required to support those dispersed dwellings.
And all for what? To support a transient cultural expectation. A particular ephemeral vision of affluence, which is itself largely born of government subsidies of and mandates for the creation of sprawl over the last 60 years. A century from now, if we successfully meet the climate challenge, we’ll look back at how we made a fetish of the single family home with the three car garage, and lump it in with the widespread use of DDT that inspired Rachel Carson, or the cancer-causing X-ray machines we used to have in shoe stores, or the way Victorian women would wear corsets so tight they couldn’t breathe, even sometimes having a couple of ribs removed to enhance their narrow waists. Suburbia is a fad, a phase, a peculiar addiction with very serious side effects that we can no longer ignore. It may be politically inconvenient, but the imperatives of the suburbs are almost entirely at odds with the imperatives of addressing climate change, and you cannot argue with the sky.
An informal study looking at the urban farming yields, by Mara Gittleman. 67 gardens, with a total area of 1.7 acres in NYC generated 87,000 lbs of food, with a market value of roughly $200k in 2010. This is equivalent to about $3/square foot. Just looking at the financial aspect, if we’re talking about land which could be developed, the net present value, discounting at 5%, of $3/sq ft, is (even if we go out 100 years) only about $60/sq ft. If you build a 5 story building, then property values need only be greater than $12/sq ft for the urban farming not to make (economic) sense, and I’m going to go out on a limb, and guess that property values in most of NYC are, um, substantially higher than $12/sq ft.