Cars and Robust Cities Are Fundamentally Incompatible

A writeup by The Atlantic Cities of a paper in the Transportation Research Board journal of the National Academies looking at the effects of parking on the vitality of urban centers.  It’s found that the detrimental effects of dedicating urban real-estate outweigh the potential benefits of making it easier for drivers to access your central business district.  Those cities that stopped adding parking to their urban cores after 1980 were found to have more jobs and higher incomes on average than those that continued adding parking.

Shifting Suburbs

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) has put together a study of suburban densification strategies called Shifting Suburbs: Reinventing Infrastructure for Compact Development.  I haven’t read it yet, but based on my experience of Belmar in Lakewood (which is one of their case studies) I’m not particularly optimistic.  Maybe Belmar is better now than it was a few years ago — further built out, etc… but back then it seemed like a weird Disneylandish island lost in a sea of cars.  Like a mall on steroids, ringed with parking structures.  Dunno.  Should be interesting reading.

The Zen of Affordable Housing

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.

Suburbs == Ponzi scheme

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?

Making Boulder into one of Jan Gehl’s Cities for People

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.

Copenhagen Cafe Culture

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.

Continue reading Making Boulder into one of Jan Gehl’s Cities for People

Europe’s Vibrant New Low Car(bon) Communities

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.

Melbourne Urban Density Study

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.