Friday, May 19, 2006

Joel Kotkin's Ersatz Analysis

If straw men had scalps, Joel Kotkin could stitch himself an entire suit. No one is more adept at getting himself op-ed space by flaying a self-created shibboleth.

This week, in a column in the San Franciso Chronicle, he tells us that far-flung suburbs are not going to disappear simply because of high gas prices, and he warns against "dragooning" people back to central cities. Of course, he's right on both counts, but who is arguing otherwise?

For the record, I agree wholeheartedly that suburbs are not going anywhere. They dominate the landscape of the country, and to such a degree that the very term has become almost meaningless. But Kotkin is doing a great disservice to future home-seekers by urging us all to be sanguine at the disappearance of cheap gasoline. After all, cheap gas has subsidized housing for the last couple of decades.

Today, many working Americans are paying an extraordinary time penalty in order to purchase a house on the metropolitan fringe, where the more affordable homes are. As gas prices rise, they are also beginning to pay an economic penalty. If prices stay high, which seems likely, more people are going to be looking to avoid this squeeze. Creating more-affordable housing closer in is going to be a big challenge, and will require creativity and less overbearing regulation on the part of local government, and a shifting of transportation and other investment at the state and regional levels.

Yes, people who are already in the far-flung suburbs will look to telecommute, work from satellite offices, or find a job closer to home. But many newly suburbanizing jobs will need to cluster in places that can be made easy to reach by car and transit, in well-designed configurations that allow people to run errands without a lot of driving. People may not be going back to the city, but elements of the city will be -- and already are -- coming to the suburbs. Kotkin himself acknowledges it and cheers it, as do I, assuming the planning and design are done well, and in advance.

In recent years, in most metro areas, the recipe for housing affordability depended on artificially low interest rates and anomalously low gas prices. With both of those factors gone, and a speculative bubble beginning to deflate, our communities and nation are going to need some fresh thinking on housing and urban development approaches.

Dare I suggest that these might look a lot like the fresh thinking that has been evolving over the last several years under the heading of smart growth?

(By the way, Anthony Flint, late of the Boston Globe and with a new book out, has a savvy take on these issues over at PLANetizen.)

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Pimping Jane Jacobs and whipping straw men

The passing of Jane Jacobs, the reluctant patron saint of urban livability, has occasioned some unseemly tussling over her legacy. Perhaps most egregious was NY Times arhitecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff's rambling piece in Week in Review, which dismissed Jacobs' observations and concerns as passe, on the way to taking yet another swipe at the new urbanists who were inspired by her 1961 book, "The Death and Life of American Cities."

While ignoring the significant contribution her thought made to the smart-growth principles that aspire to be an antidote to badly planned sprawl, Ouroussoff all but blames her for same:

But the problems of the 20th-century city were vast and complicated. Ms. Jacobs had few answers for suburban sprawl or the nation's dependence on cars, which remains critical to the development of American cities. She could not see that the same freeway that isolated her beloved, working-class North End from downtown Boston also protected it from gentrification. And she never understood cities like Los Angeles, whose beauty stems from the heroic scale of its freeways and its strange interweaving of man-made and natural environments.

Ouroussoff apparently has not noticed that Los Angeles as we speak is studying the smart growth and new urbanism playbooks (and no doubt, Jacobs's work) to figure out ways to retrofit with high-quality, dense neighborhoods, because they've run out of room to sprawl.

He goes on to slander the work of key new urbanist figures such as Andres Duany, who had just finished an eight-day, volunteer planning charrette on behalf of the Gentilly district in New Orleans. (I was privileged to be present. It was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life to see such great work done for such wonderful people. More on that another time, with luck.)

Ouroussoff writes: "For those who could not see it, the hollowness of this planning strategy was finally exposed in New Orleans. where planners are tarting up historic districts for tourists, even as deeper social problems were being ignored and it's infrasturcture was crumbling."

In an email, Duany responded:

As a matter of fact, those places where we have worked in Louisiana receive no tourism at all. Downtown Lake Charles, Abbeville, Erath, Delcambre, Vermillion Parish, St Bernard Parish and the Gentilly sector of New Orleans are workaday places. All of them in physical and socioeconomic decline before the hurricane. The New Urbanist work has been to transform the dislocation caused by the hurricanes to an opportunity to stem the decline. It has been difficult, unglamorous work. To give one example: In last week's Gentilly charrette week we found that retention of large HUD housing project had no support whatsoever among those participating (over 1000 people). But we nevertheless found as many of the project's displaced ex-residents as we could, to verify that they indeed wanted to reinhabit it. Standing in the sun, I coached them for hours on how to more effectively present their case. We then retrofitted the design of the project and its extended surroundings so that it would work better socially. The New Urbanist team thus became the only advocates for salvaging it.

Ouroussoff's misfire was followed a couple of days ago with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by the Reason Foundation's Leonard Gilroy, headlined "Urban planners are blind to what Jane Jacobs really saw."

Gilroy uses the opportunity to offer up the standard libertarian apology for the overly regulated, highly planned, yet severely dysfunctional status quo of sprawl development, in the form of a slam against those who would try to reform it:

Modern planners have contorted Jacobs's beliefs in hopes of imposing
their static, end-state vision of a city. They use a set of highly
prescriptive policy tools--like urban growth boundaries, smart growth,
and high-density development built around light-rail transit
systems--to design the city they envision. They try to "create" livable
cities from the ground up and micromanage urban form through

This is the standard-issue straw-man bashing we regularly see from pro-sprawlers like Gilroy, Randal O'Toole and Wendell Cox. Lumping anyone who ever thought about how cities come together under the heading of "modern planners" -- and without ever naming a single name -- he purports to say what "they" want. He conveniently ignores the fact that the status quo is rife with regulation and micromanagement of everything from street widths to house color. In most suburbs, any housing form other than the large standalone house on the large lot is regulated out of existence. Easing some of this hyper-regulation is one of the things that has to happen for us to get neighborhoods and cities that actually meet the demand that is out there for more choice in the type and location of homes, and for more neighborhoods like the classic intown neighborhoods that are priced beyond reach for most people.

The other important change is to involve citizens actively in planning for their communities' future. When that happens, as our member organizations have found time and time again all over the country, you discover that people ask for something other than off-the-shelf strip malls and subdivisions -- and they are willing to use some of the "tools" Gilroy mentions to get something better. But far from a "prescription", each community selects the tools that work for them, and very often develop their own, which other communities may borrow. The pace and quality of innovation and information exchange is what makes this field so exciting.

That generalists like me get to play a meaningful role in this arena can be traced directly back to Jane Jacobs, a "housewife" who inspired thousands to stand up to those highway builders and growth-at-any-cost types who did not care to listen to citizens or to observe how neighborhoods really work. For that, we'll all remember her fondly.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Why New Orleans matters

This week I'm in New Orleans working with the planning and design team that Andres Duany has brought here on a volunteer basis to help the district of Gentilly make a rebuilding plan we hope can help get things restarted here in a hurry. (I don't have time to find the best link for Duany, but Google him if you want to know more about him.) This morning I'm thinking, again, about why I (and all of us here) are so drawn to this place and want so desparately to see it survive and thrive, and here's reason number god-knows-how-many:

On Wed. April 19, my old friend and Times Picayune columnist Lolis Elie took me along to the home of Robert Stickney, who is a longtime friend both of his and of Wynton Marsalis. Stickney was throwing a gumbo-fest for Marsalis, who is in town rehearsing with a troupe of Ghanain drummers and singers for the debut of "Congo Square", a collaboration commemorating the real place of the same name. In slavery days, Congo Square was the one place where Africans could gather and play their traditional drum music, unmolested. The piece is to be performed at the site of the real Congo Square, now in Louis Armstrong Park, on Sunday of the French Quarter Festival, April 23. That night at Stickney's, after feasting on some "killin' " gumbo and more than a few Abita beers, the Ghanains launch into call-and-response praise singing, tapping on bottles, the table top, and a small collection of percussion instruments that Stickney produces. Yacub Addy, the leader of the African troupe begins, in heavily accented English, to speak of his devotion to Marsalis, to thank the host for the great spirit in his home and "free food", punctuated by eruptions of call-and-response singing. At one point he refers to his home continent as the birthplace of jazz and blues, prompting Wynton to grimace. "Wait a minute now," he says, shaking his head. Yacub (whom Marsalis calls "Coop") continues in this vein, with Marsalis’s grumbling becoming louder and more audible. Finally, Yacub capitulates. "New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz."
"Okay, now you're talking," says Marsalis. His point is well taken. The gumbo analogy is overworked, but that’s mostly because it is so apt: Just like that sumptuous specialty of the Louisiana coast, jazz is an assemblage of ingredients that could have come together only in this place. Jazz absorbed and transmogrified a host of influences: African rhythms, call and response and improvisational impulses, yes. But also European harmonies and instrumentation, Creole culture, barrelhouse boogie, Tin Pan Alley tunefulness, Caribbean carnival and Mardi Gras mambo, Delta blues. For me the layers of cultural significance and singularity are almost overwhelming: An internationally famous son of this city, Marsalis, in the newly restored (post-flood) home of a lifelong friend who happens to be white, partaking in a top-shelf sampling of the traditional celebratory gumbo and jambalaya, in advance of a performance that is layered with history, like some kind of cosmic time capsule: African and African-American musicians playing "Congo Square" in Congo Square, in the park named for one of the great pioneers of the music, set amid some of the most appealing urbanism and architecture on the planet, at a point in history in which some people have actually suggested it might not be worth it to rebuild New Orleans. To which I can only say, inarticulately and profanely, FUCK YOU.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Otis White is W'ong

Otis White, who writes the Urban Notebook column for Governing Magazine, is a buddy of mine, a fine writer and a savvy guy. So it pains me some to have to blast him for an item in his April 3 posting, but blast I must.
The piece begins thusly:
Bring Down the Cost of Housing
The Task Ahead for Smart Growth

It's hard to be against smart growth. It's like being against marriage or an orderly society. Its purpose is laudable: to bring more rational, sustainable and benign development to our metropolitan areas. And some of the best minds in urban America are laboring in smart growth efforts. There's just one problem: It isn't working.

"Some of the best minds in urban America are laboring in smart growth efforts ... "

These best minds, whether they are in urban America or somewhere else, are not laboring in "smart growth efforts". They are applying their thinking in a comprehensive, systematic way to addressing the challenges our country faces in this continued tidal wave of urbanization. (Otis's use of the phrase "urban America" is itself instructive. It is fascinating to me that most pundits, to say nothing of ordinary citizens, still fail to recognize that this is an urban country, and growing more so at an astonishing pace.)

"There's just one problem: It isn't working."

To begin to understand what an absurd pronouncement this is, you first need to know what people usually mean by smart growth. The label is admittedly presumptuous (I cannot take personal credit it for it), but few people would disagree with the ideas to which it refers. To boil it down, it means involving citizens in planning ahead for growth, and adhering to a few key principles: To steer development toward land designated by local communities as appropriate for new growth; to steer development away from designated natural and cultural areas, agricultural lands and environmentally sensitive zones; and to ensure that development makes efficient use of land and the roads, sewers, schools and other infrastructure we all pay for. Along the way, try to design your neighborhoods so that they are walkable, distinguishable one from another, and where people can function without burning a gallon of gas every time they move.

If I thought for a second that this vision had become the dominant mode of growth in our country I would be compelled to agree with Otis. There is no denying that most metro areas in this country are doing the opposite: They're chewing up natural areas and viable farmland at a fearsome rate and abandoning our country's built heritage, all to create interchangeable, throwaway landscapes dominated by terrifying highways and vast scabs of parking. Yes, there are some bright spots, including a growing number of communities that are going to great lengths to bring investment back to cities and older suburbs, and to make them walkable, livable and lovable again. But before a whole heckuva lot more metro areas are applying smart-growth ideas on something like a systematic basis, we can hardly pronounce the whole idea of planning and designing great places a failure.

"The most recent census numbers bear out the failure: Even as our inner cities revive, people continue streaming out of cities and close-in suburbs and settling in communities so far away it almost defies the notion of regions."

There are so many shibboleths and blind alleys in this little graph it's hard to know where to parry first. Let's first note that mid-decade census estimates are notoriously off the mark, so it's best not to make hard-and-fast conclusions based on these. In any event, what is Otis saying here -- are inner cities reviving or collapsing? If they are reviving, maybe it's because smart growth is a success, rather than a failure (although I would say instead that many communities are successfully applying smart growth ideas, not that smart growth per se is doing anything; it's just a way of thinking, after all.) And are people streaming out, or streaming in? In truth, people are streaming in all directions. The country's population is growing as fast as it ever has, and the relocation from countryside to city is continuing unabated.

But here's what Otis is trying to get at, though his ultimate analysis is misguided: Well-designed and cared-for urban places – downtowns, classic neighborhoods, streetcar suburbs – are becoming more popular, so they’re becoming more expensive. They are gaining households, but many of those are small households (childless couples, singles, empty nesters) so they may be losing population over all. Meanwhile, some of the early post-war suburbs are outliving their design life and are on a downward trajectory; they will be redeveloped eventually, but at the moment they're losing population. The mostly working-class people moving from those areas usually would move to the next suburban jurisdiction, but they're shut out because those places have imposed strictures designed to keep them out: large lot sizes, big houses, design controls and other regulations that drive up the price of housing (these are emphatically in opposition to smart-growth principles.) So they're moving way out to the fringe where land is cheap and regulation less, where they can find something like what they had before that is affordable to them.

Interestingly, as columnists David Brooks and Joel Kotkin have noted, increasingly what they’re asking for, and finding, in these new fringe neighborhoods is something like the better-designed, walkable neighborhoods that smart-growth thinking envisions. But Otis is correct that the vast swaths of existing suburbs continue to resist changes that would offer a wider range of housing choices, and instead impose those barriers that drive up the cost. But what would he have "smart growth advocates" do, march in there and impose flexibility and reasonableness on those people? And does he imagine that they really have that kind of power? Can he really believe that this longstanding situation represents the failure of the notion of smart growth?

"What it means is that smart growth advocates have a much greater task ahead than cheering for transit and mixed-use development: If they're serious about reversing development patterns, they must bring down the cost of housing in cities and close-in suburbs. Difficult? Absolutely. Impossible? Not at all."

Otis is right again that American metros need to see a whole lot more jurisdictions working to create moderately priced and low-income housing. But can he seriously believe that “smart growth advocates” have the power to bring down the cost of housing? They have a lot of (I think) very good ideas in this regard, and the advocates I know across the country are working extremely hard to persuade more jurisdictions to try them, in fair and equitable ways. Why doesn’t Otis aim his ire, and his judgment, at those who are resisting change, rather than at those who are trying to improve the situation, albeit within the constraints of a messy, democratic, market-based society (and who wouldn’t have it any other way)?

I would suggest that it is not up to a disembodied "smart growth" to solve these pervasive, American problems. It is up to us all, as a society. I personally think that many of the ideas in the smart growth playbook are good ones to try, but more importantly, I haven't seen any other body of thought that's even attempting to tackle these issues comprehensively. If there is a failure, it belongs to our culture, writ large.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

For Working Families, Housing Boom Is a Bust

The other aspect to the story below is that many of the working families who DO own homes will see the value of their most important asset plummet when the housing bubble bursts. The financial devastation will be even worse for the McMansions in the exurbs when gas prices edge beyond $3.00 a gallon, as they're predicted to do this summer. Another reason to pray there's no repeat of the Katrina/Rita assault on the Gulf coast ...

For Working Families, Housing Boom Is a Bust: "More Americans own homes than ever before. While top wage earners and childless families fuel the housing boom, working families find it a bust. The Center for Housing Policy, in a study using Census data to track U.S. homeownership, found the double-edge sword of soaring house values and stagnant wages cut blue collar families out of the market. Working families are less likely to own homes than in ..."