Portlanders turn conservative when cheaper housing is proposed near them

The Oregonian addresses housing issues in the Portland area:

As progressive as Portlanders like to believe themselves to be, there’s no issue like population growth and housing to bring out their inner conservative. As the city’s population has surged, established neighborhoods have sought historic designation to guard against change. Homeowners in wealthy enclaves are posting yard signs decrying demolitions. And longtime residents are bemoaning the loss of “neighborhood character” amid the growth.

So it’s not surprising that the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is pulled in different directions, trying to calm irked neighbors while laying the groundwork for how the city will absorb new residents. Unfortunately, some of the proposals in the bureau’s draft “Residential Infill Project” – a plan for updating development rules in single-family neighborhoods – lean too heavily on ensuring the comfort of existing homeowners rather than helping create new ones…

But Tracy said the bureau felt it important to continue discussion about the challenges and opportunities that these narrow lots provide. The bureau’s right and deserves both credit and support for being willing to push forward the issue. Because for as much as people want to blame Portland’s housing crisis on greedy landlords or “McMansion” developers or rich California transplants, the problem boils down to the dispassionate laws of supply and demand. There are far too few homes and apartments in the city at far too few affordable price points for far too many people who need them.

I do not think it is easy anywhere in the United States to convince wealthier homeowners that cheaper housing should be built near them. It is one thing to suggest that wealthier residents should pay more taxes or promote affordable housing in the abstract. It is whole other deal to suggest that such homeowners should have to live near those people who need the affordable housing.

Another way to put it: if Portland with its well-known liberal politics and metropolitan planning boundary cannot promote affordable housing, who can?

(A side thought: it would be interesting to hear more from local experts how race plays into this. Portland may be a progressive city but it is also quite white – “the whitest big city in America.”)

Linking great trick-or-treat neighborhoods to traditional neighborhood design

Maybe a good trick-or-treat location should be defined less by the available candy and more regarding its design:

Great neighbourhoods for trick-or-treating also tend to be great neighborhoods for families everyday:

  • Tree-lined streets designed for walkers more than speeding cars.
  • Enough density and community completeness, to activate what I call “the power of nearness” – everything you need, nearby.
  • Good visual surveillance through doors and stoops, windows (and I don’t mean windows in garages), porches and “eyes on the street.”
  • Connected, legible streets that let you “read” the neighbourhood easily -grids tend to be good for this, but other patterns work too…

If kids ARE being driven in, that can mean it’s a great neighbourhood from a design perspective (or perhaps just that it’s a more affluent community, with “better candy”) — but having too few local kids can show that there isn’t enough housing diversity, new infill, and family-friendly “infrastructure” to keep kids in the neighbourhood. In fact, in many beautiful, tree-lined neighbourhoods popular on Halloween, the number of local kids may be actually dropping, with resulting pressures on local schools to close. This as household sizes decrease, and new density and “gentle infill” that could stabilize the population and keep kids in the neighbourhood, is often locally resisted.

From this point of view, good neighborhoods promote walkability and ultimately sociability. There are few times of years where this matters as much as Halloween as many Americans do not regularly walk down their streets to visit a number of neighbors at once.

More broadly, the practice of trick-or-treating is closely tied to social trust. Even with no documented cases of poisoned candy, parents want to know that their kids are safe. And with declining social trust in the United States, again, there are limited numbers of opportunities where Americans ritually interact with physical neighbors as opposed to seeking out people they whom they share an identity or interests.

It sounds like there is an empirical question to be answered here: do neighborhoods with (1) more traditional design and (2) higher levels of social trust (which may or more not be related to the neighborhood design experience more satisfying trick-or-treat experiences (measured by numbers of children trick-or-treating, percent of households providing candy, and perceptions of whether the neighborhood is a good place for this)?

Finding more room for people in streets with autonomous vehicles

A new urban planning guide considers how driverless vehicles could transform streets:

To that end, on Monday, the National Association of City Transportation Officials, an international, 60-city organization of very serious transportation planners and engineers, published its own vision of the Promised Land, a 50-page blueprint outlining how to account for our autonomous future and build in flexible options that could result in less traffic for everyone, not just those riding on four wheels. “We don’t just need new software running on our streets—we need to update the hardware of the streets themselves,” says Janette Sadik-Khan, a former transportation head in New York City during the Bloomberg administration who now serves on the board for NACTO. “That’s why we need a new roadmap that puts humans first.”…

So what does transit heaven look like? In the future, the transportation planners suggest, vehicle lanes can be a lot thinner. Machines, after all, should be better at driving straight—and less distracted by Snapchat—than their human counterparts. That means more room in major boulevards for walking, biking, even loitering. Tiny parks might exist where parking meters once lived—no need to park self-driving taxis owned by companies, not individual drivers. In fact, vehicles might not even have their own dedicated spaces at all. “Flex zones” could be turned over to different services and vehicles for different times of day. During rush hour, there could be more lanes open to vehicles. During heavy delivery hours, there could be curb space dedicated to Amazon delivery vans (or landing delivery drones). At night, street space next to bars could be dedicated to picking up and dropping off carousers from driverless taxicabs…

“The blueprint is for building the safer future streets that cities need, where speeding is no longer an option, where cars are designed to yield and stop for pedestrians and bicyclists by default, and where people are free to cross the streets where it makes sense, rather than trek a mile to the nearest stoplight,” says Mollie Pelon, who oversees NACTO’s technology and city transportation program. Ignore the naysayers, these optimistic planners say. Autonomous vehicles don’t have to destroy the American city—they’re a shiny opportunity to rebuild it for the better.

I could imagine a number of interesting tweaks to free up more space for pedestrians, particularly since traffic can be more predictable (or at least known). At the same time, I wonder if autonomous vehicles could lead to dramatic changes in roads and cities. Imagine a community where main streets were dedicated to pedestrians and bicycles while vehicles were relegated to side streets or alleys.

Fighting for dog space in cities

With ownership of dogs on the rise, it is trickier to find public space in cities for the canines and their owners:

It’s not surprising that relations between dog walkers and dog owners are fraught: They’re competing for finite real estate. Market research shows dog ownership has skyrocketed some 29 percent nationwide in the past decade, an increase propelled largely by higher-income millennials. As young adult professionals increasingly put off having families, dogs have become “starter children,” as Joshua Stephens wrote in The Atlantic in 2015. With demand growing, cities and developers are building more dog-friendly zones both in response to and in anticipation of more four-legged residents. Off-leash dog parks are growing faster than any other type of park in America’s largest cities, with 2,200 counted as of 2010.

And when square footage is at a premium, dog parks are the setting of some of the most contentious fights for public space….

Resistance to dog parks takes on a different tenor when animals seem to displace humans in housing-crunched cities. New dog owners are disproportionately younger and whiter than the residents of the cities they move into, and that has real estate implications: For one third of Americans aged 18 to 36 who’d purchased a first home, finding better space for a dog was the primary motivator, according to a SunTrust Mortgage poll. When young, white, affluent dog owners snap up properties in historically lower-income neighborhoods of color—and start advocating for amenities like dog parks, which can bump up property values further—the optics are complicated…

Consider that, on Chicago’s predominantly black South Side, there’s not a single designated dog park, despite the efforts of local dog-owners and city aldermen. To address the needs of lower-income communities like this—as well as gentrifying ones—planners should approach dog parks as they do any other, says Wolch: listen to, and account for, their needs in an ingenuous way. To mitigate the displacement effects of a property value pick-up, affordable housing solutions should come to the dog-park planning table, too.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. It would be nice to know more about the “average” dog park. What does it cost to build and maintain compared to the typical park? How many people does it serve and what population does it cater to? Is it a good public use of space compared to other options? (One thing that article above does not address is whether there is an overall shortage of public space.)
  2. I’m surprised there isn’t more creativity in developing solutions. If land is at a premium, could there be some dog parks inside structures? Imagine a high-rise where one of the amenities is half a floor of dog park space. (I assume this is feasible.) Where there is more available land, such as on Chicago’s South Side, why couldn’t community groups or private interests put together a dog park? Imagine a non-profit that buys vacant lots and improves them for this purpose or an organization that charges a membership fee to their dog parks.
  3. At this point, it sounds like dog parks are more of a luxury good usually located in wealthier or whiter neighborhoods. What would it take to incorporate dog parks into public planning processes and/or see dog parks as necessary parts of thriving neighborhoods? Dog owners could band together and demand dog parks.

Could the success of Columbia, Maryland be replicated elsewhere?

Columbia, Maryland is often held up as an unusually successful suburb:

But as Columbia marks the 50th anniversary since the first residents moved in, it has become clear that Rouse got some important things right. As progressive urban planners have turned their attention to the suburbs, they’ve striven to achieve a lot of the same things Columbia already has. The unincorporated town of 100,000 is prosperous and more varied racially and economically than many revitalized urban neighborhoods in cities like New York, Washington and San Francisco, which have become islands of extreme wealth. It turns out that stable, diverse, flourishing communities can exist without short city blocks, warehouses-turned-lofts and beer gardens — and Columbia is the proof…

The “Columbia concept” was innovative in a number of other ways. Instead of having churches or temples, religious denominations shared interfaith centers. (Rouse thought each denomination getting its own plot was a waste of land.) There was even a community health plan that was an early version of an HMO. To maintain open spaces and public facilities, Rouse established the Columbia Association, a nonprofit whose board is elected by residents. The association acts as a quasi-government for the unincorporated town, with hundreds of employees paid through resident dues.

The town was organized but diffuse. Six loosely formed villages, each with a small shopping center and high school, were arranged around the Town Center, whose nucleus was the mall. The village centers catered to residents’ everyday needs, with grocery stores, barber shops, dry cleaners and recreation facilities. Tall signs were forbidden, and power lines were buried to preserve the land’s bucolic appearance. Apartments and townhouses, which were uncommon in suburbs at the time, drew singles, young couples and people with lower incomes than their neighbors in the split-levels and ramblers, a conscious attempt to foster what Rouse and his team called “social mix.” And Columbia was not simply a bedroom community: Rouse Co. executives wooed employers such as General Electric to open offices there.

Not everything worked out perfectly: At one point, Rouse thought he could get corporate executives to move to Columbia alongside their workers, but they largely didn’t. And some of the experiments, such as a minibus system, pilot day-care centers and a women’s center, didn’t pan out. Rouse also fell short of his goal of 10 percent subsidized housing. Still, by 2011, Columbia, flaws and all, had managed to surge past another target of his: a population of 100,000.

Aside from the things cited above, two things stand out to me from this article:

  1. Few developers or builders get an opportunity to plan an entire community. This requires a lot of effort: acquiring land, obtaining permission from local governments, and then seeing a long process through. Instead, much of suburbia is constructed in patches with a developer building a subdivision here while another builds an office park there.
  2. Much of the story of Columbia rests on the shoulders of the developer: James Rouse. Here, he is credited with forward-thinking ideas. He anticipated what might help suburban communities thrive rather than just focusing on profits. (However, I’m guessing he still made a good deal of money.) As noted above, not all of his ideas worked out but many of the key features were his.

On the whole, would it be worthwhile to take these two lessons and apply them to future suburbs? What might happen if developers were given (1) thousands of acres to work with in order to create a full community and (2) the developer had the ability to craft and put into practice a particular vision?

I would venture that some of these master-planned communities would be successful while others might not. Indeed, some of the success might be out of control of the developer and local residents. For example, if the template for Columbia was transported to the Houston region in the 1960s, would it be so successful? Or, if it was plopped into the Bay Area today? Not necessarily given changing regional forces, different demographics, and varied reactions from local officials.

It is interesting to think about how the public narratives regarding urban planning in the last century or so often involve powerful people: Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs, the Levitt family, James Rouse. These narratives are either triumphs or disasters depending on how much influence the person wielded (and how they used it) and how their projects operate decades later. Would a structural view of these individuals as well as urban planning as a whole help us better understand how to contribute to thriving communities?

Doing urban planning with driverless cars in mind

If and when driverless cars become the norm, how might places change?

The possibilities are dazzling. If self-driving cars lead to a significant drop in the number of vehicles on the road, parking garages could be turned into apartments or stores. Curbside parking could be converted into rainwater-collecting bio swales that help prevent sewers from backing up. Roads would narrow. Sidewalks would widen…

At IIT, such efforts crystallized in the “The Driverless City,” a 168-page book by Brown and fellow faculty members Lili Du, Laura Forlano, Ron Henderson and Jack Guthman, an adjunct professor and well-known Chicago zoning lawyer. The book serves up visions of the future that read like an update of Verne’s Victorian-era novels, which foresaw the advent of inventions such as submarines. Take this description of future commuting patterns, which is rendered in the past tense:

“On heavily trafficked arterial roads in Chicago and cities throughout the country, human driving faded away as driverless cars become more affordable and widely available. … Collisions and fender benders became rare events. … The clutter of omnipresent traffic lights gave way to smaller furnishings with embedded infrastructure that helped control the flow of vehicles.”

The book also offers a vision of how driverless cars might break down traditional barriers between street and sidewalk, nature and technology. Focusing on a proposed transformation of the South Side’s King Drive, the authors see parking spaces disappearing and vegetation sprouting in their place:

This sounds what like a number of urban planners (such as Jeff Speck in Walkable City) have been suggesting for years: the streetscape could be organized around pedestrians and social life on the street rather than on moving as many cars as efficiently as possible. Americans like their cars and many don’t seem to mind the required changes that must go with it – but this could force their hand regarding urban planning. While American communities are clearly designed with the car in mind, it is interesting that it would take a major technological advance – vehicles that can safely operate themselves – to finally tip the scales toward other street users.

More broadly, driverless cars will likely be sold to the public because of their safety but they could transform all sorts of areas.

Teaching “design thinking” through urban planning

It is popular to teach problem solving skills in schools and at least one group thinks this can be done through urban planning examples:

At a recent teaching conference in Richmond, Virginia, a session on “design thinking” in education drew a capacity crowd. Two middle-school teachers demonstrated how they had used the concept to plan and execute an urban-design project in which students were asked to develop a hypothetical city or town given factors such as population, geography, the environment, and financial resources…

First, he emphasized, design thinking starts with empathy. When designing anything meant to be used by another person—whether that’s a lesson, curriculum, classroom layout, or an imaginary city—the designer must understand what that person (an “end-user,” in design lingo) needs. In the case of the urban-design project, for example, the students can’t just design a pretty building; they must think about the needs of the people who will live there, as well as the available resources, the budget, and the impact that building will have on the surrounding landscape. “The design-thinking philosophy requires the designer to put his or her ego to the side and seek to meet the unmet needs, both rational and emotional, of the user,” Stevenson explained.

Once the student designers have gathered all their research together, they must organize and make sense of it all. Again, in the case of the urban-planning project, after the students have gathered interviews and research about the needs of their city’s future residents, students must figure out what to do with all that information. If, for example, the future residents’ top priorities include affordability and opulence, the student designer is going to have to find a way to integrate the residents’ conflicting needs.

Finally, design thinking requires designers to generate ideas—lots of ideas—and prototype them. In order for this part of the process to work, students and teachers must be comfortable with failure. For many students, particularly those who want to look smart, this phase can be frustrating. “People tend to come up with an idea early on, and know that this idea is it, the perfect idea, and get emotionally invested in that one thing. Then, when their perfect idea fails, they fall apart,” Stevenson said. Design thinking forces students to keep their minds open, to try out lots of ideas early in the process before they let their egos or emotions get too invested in just one.

If one of the purposes of an education is to create better citizens, using urban planning as an example would be a great exercise. My experience with college students suggests that when they arrive at that level of education, they have limited knowledge of how communities came to be or work. Urban planning cannot address all of these issues – I don’t believe, for example, that simply designing a place with New Urbanist techniques guarantees particular outcomes – but it can get students thinking about how environments are shaped by communities as well as shape communities. In other words, communities and physical environments don’t just happen: the interactions between humans and their environment (whether in older or more recent contexts) is a complex and iterative process.