Tag Archives: smart growth

Smart Growth = Smart Parenting, Part Two

I’m a parent so, not surprisingly, I’m always on the lookout for intersections between that and my work in community design. The last time I considered the issue, I was thinking at the level of the neighborhood and exploring how walkable, mixed-use, mixed-product environments help parents combat a host of contemporary child-rearing ills. That post hit home for a lot of people and, since that time, my fellow ‘Shaker, Hazel Borys, has dug in further with her recent TED Talk, “Confessions of a Former Sprawl Addict.”

Today I move from the neighborhood to the house and wonder: In what ways are evolving trends in home buying impacting our kids — and our responsibility for raising them?

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Smart Growth = Smart Parenting

Put the village on hold. For the time being, it’s gonna take a parent, a councilman and a developer to raise a child.

Flashback 2003: Attending the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in New Orleans, I caught the keynote from a planning official for Vancouver, British Columbia. Now, under normal circumstances, I don’t suppose I’d remember much of what he said but, at the time, my daughter was just over three years old and something he used as the overall framing for his making Smart Growth work presentation really resonated with me.

“If it works for kids,” he said, “it works for everyone.”

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“You’re terminated, hippie.” — Where does that leave local sustainability?

Federal government to sustainability efforts: You’re terminated.

In a blockbuster-style showdown, the House Appropriations Committee started a furor this month as they proposed the elimination of HUD, USDOT and EPA sustainability programs in 2011-12, as well as suggesting the rescinding of dollars already awarded by the Sustainability and TIGER grant programs. As municipalities, counties and regional COGs scramble to find ways to focus the weak development market forces into more sustainable patterns of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, the possible removal of the federal support is discouraging.

Looks like we’re gonna have to go indie.

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Good News: The End Is Near. Really.

More than three decades ago, sociologist Ernest Becker published The Denial of Death which made the argument that the fear of death, in all its irrevocability and finality, provides a unifying, baseline reality for humans.

We may be overwhelmed and confused by an increasing number of competing “truths,” wrote Becker, but one truth cuts through all others: We’re all gonna die.

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Redevelop this, California!

How California will redevelop its existing communities in the future is up for debate. And, it’s about time.

The role of redevelopment in shaping our built environment came to its crescendo in the halcyon days of 2005 over Kelo vs. New London. Today, Susette Kelo’s home sits as a vacant scar on business-as-usual redevelopment practices.

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The Revolution Will Not be Organized (But the food and drink will be pretty good)

It’s officially over.

The flush era for planners and designers, when utopian villages and new towns could grow from dreams and piles of private sector cash? Long gone. Now comes the revolution.

What the revolt will look like is under debate. And not surprisingly, the most intense discussions are joined by those who have always been arguing about one thing or another, even as they designed and built places that, at least in part, defined neighborhood and community character during the flush times.

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Unplug! Accommodating Our Need to Escape Each Other

Sense of community. It’s been a rallying cry of New Urbanists since the beginning and for good reason. For years leading up to the birth of the neo-traditionalists, it didn’t take much effort to realize that our surroundings had changed—a lot—and not for the better.

Our neighborhoods—subdivisions, really—were isolating us from each other and from the things we needed to get done. Despite the ample comforts we’d developed to help mitigate the separation, that’s simply not a good recipe for human productivity, much less fulfillment.

There was a hole to be filled, and the distinctly market-based New Urbanists stepped in to fill it. Continue reading

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My Sleuthing Adventure: Where are Western Canada’s Form-Based Codes?

Western Canada’s form-based codes are missing.

This is no small problem. Those of us working in the region are continuously grilled by municipalities with the same question, often delivered with a suspicious, cocked eyebrow: “Where are they? Where in Canada have they, or any other alternative zoning regulation, been enacted?”

The answer we’re obliged to offer is unfortunately neither reassuring nor helpful:  “We’ve turned up little evidence,” we mutter quietly. Little enough, in fact, that a comparable municipal mentor is typically unable to be found.

A mystery is at hand. Continue reading

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Retail Redemption: Skivvies Uncovered, then Promptly Covered

A couple months ago I rambled on here about my inability to purchase a particularly critical item of men’s apparel during an extended tour of new urban projects throughout the southeast. Modesty was not my problem. Rather, despite healthy commercial activity most everywhere I went, I could find no walkable stores catering to such day-to-day basics.

Food and drink? Sure. Tchotchkes and novelties? You betcha. Skivvies? Not a chance. Continue reading

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Zoning as Spiritual Practice: From me to we to Thee

Get right with God. Fix your zoning.

That’s not something you hear regularly from the pulpit, maybe. But it’s gospel nonetheless. Here’s why:

If there’s one common thread woven through the world’s most enduring religions, it’s the call to connectivity: Self to others to everything. Continue reading

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Fat-tastic! Can Small Thinking Solve Our Super-Sized Problems?

According to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — more commonly known for crunching global budget and employment numbers  — the United States is on track to be 75% obese by 2020.

3 out of every 4. And if you check with researchers at Johns Hopkins University, they’ll tell you to expect 86% by 2030. Continue reading

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Confessions of a Former Sprawl Addict: Speed Humps on the Road to Recovery

Hi. I’m Hazel and I was a Sprawlaholic.

If you’ve been reading awhile you may recall that, with the loving help of my friends and family, I went cold turkey, dumping life in a Florida subdivision for the intense urban charms of downtown Winnipeg. It was a life-changing move with no regrets. Yet, as good as it’s been, I’m finding that puritanical denial of guilty pleasures is sometimes out of sync with life’s reality.

And by reality, I mean kids.

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The Suburbs: Arcade Fire, Childhood Memory, and the Future of Growth

I’m in my 40s. I grew up in the suburbs. It was awesome. And then it wasn’t.

Never before and, perhaps, never again will there be as efficient and reliable a machine for manufacturing idealized childhood memories. The suburbs of the 60s and 70s, maybe even the 80s, were like some sort of paradise. Continue reading

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Brave New Codes Reach Tipping Point: When, Where, Why?

A year ago, Apple’s sales of its iPhone and iPod Touch eclipsed 40 million units, confirming their potential to fundamentally retool our future opportunities and patterns of daily life.

Today, a year later, form-based codes hit a similar milestone, with similar implications, as over 330 cities and towns around the worldrepresenting over 40 million people — have embraced the idea of form-based coding as an alternative to the sprawl-inducing zoning models of the past century.

We’ve hit the tipping point. Welcome to the other side. Continue reading

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18th New Urbanist Congress: Best Ever?

What’s constitutes “best ever” depends on the takeaways, right? And when it comes to conferences, we could be talking takeaways that aren’t products of the event itself. Like maybe you got a job or connected with a soul mate. Let’s call that the upside of unintended consequences. Continue reading

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Zoning: No Longer Just for Nerds

Remember when you could empty a room by trying to work zoning philosophy into a conversation? Okay, you can still do that in most places. But the coolness quotient is on the rise, we swear.

Consider the adoption late last year of a form-based code in Miami, surely one of the most exotic political environments in North America. Very high hipness factor. Continue reading

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Innovation on the Road to Oblivion?

Context is everything.

The New York Times reports with unease that the FDA has approved statin drug Crestor’s use in a preventive capacity for those not currently diagnosed with cholesterol problems.

The degree to which this represents innovation in medicine is a topic to be debated elsewhere. What matters to me is that such use of pharmaceuticals is indicative of something larger. Something fundamental to our future: An ever-growing commitment to the path we’re presently on. Continue reading

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Love Ain’t Enough: Put Up or Shut Up

Like any next, big something, placemaking is growing up. And in its role as gawky adolescent, it’s beginning to realize something most of us have long since come to accept: You can’t skirt by on youthful good looks forever.

Today, efforts to create more endearing and enduring surroundings are being subjected to decidedly grown up demands. And with them, smart growthers—from enviros to designers to code reform advocates—are learning one of life’s hardest lessons: Love will only take you so far.

Son, you’ve got to demonstrate sufficient returns. Continue reading

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Community and Charity: Bold Action Inspires a Closer Look

You will always have the poor among you, and you can help them whenever you want to. – Mark 14:07

I’m not sure Jesus could see all the way to the 21st century.

If he could, he may have been more inclined to offer, “You’ll always have the poor, but there are plenty of ways to avoid their unpleasantries. And you can still figure out how to help them if you put your mind to it.”

Think about it. We’ve invested immeasurable resources over three quarters of a century in land use policy specifically designed to ensure that the poor are not among us. As a result, we’ve detached ourselves from certain truths – biblical and otherwise.

It’s more comfortable, to be sure, but is it really better for us?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues lately, largely due to the release of a new book, “The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back.” The premise is moving: Kevin Salwen and his family decide to sell their posh Atlanta residence in favor of one half its size, then donate half the proceeds to a charity they researched and chose together.

What’s equally intriguing is the spark that ignited their endeavor. Sitting at a traffic light with his daughter, Hannah, the two witnessed an otherwise unremarkable juxtaposition of two men – one homeless, one idling in a luxury car.

The jarring contrast woke up 14-year-old Hannah to the reality of extreme inequity and, in subsequent actions as a family, extreme charity.

It’s a commendable, even beautiful, story, but it makes me wonder: Should we be relying on uncommon people doing remarkable things to bridge the gaps between all walks of life?

After all, in many ways, our current development patterns foster the “A-ha” moment experienced by Hannah by isolating us from the circumstances of the less fortunate. When we finally experience them, they’re shocking. In the case of some special people, they inspire dramatic actions. But for many of us, we close our eyes and hope for the light to change.

But what about the way we’ve lived historically—in traditional, human-scaled, diverse and interconnected communities—where people of all classes often crossed paths as a routine part of daily life and, as a result, were more inclined to develop meaningful interdependencies?

If our built world today continued to be governed by such patterns, would drastic reactions like the Salwen’s be necessary? Or, instead, would our eyes be open to the poor among us as a matter of course and charity take the form of a million little things over a lifetime instead of a big thing designed to make up for previous slights?

It’s not a new idea—Eric Jacobsen explored it nicely in “Sidewalks in the Kingdom”—but the Salwen’s book provides good opportunity to reconsider our relationship with the best and worst of others, and what it would take for our charitable actions to come more naturally.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Kevin socially a time or two and my fellow PlaceMaker, Ben Brown, has worked with him in the past, and that allows us the luxury—for a time—of transcending cynicism and simply enjoying the pleasure of experiencing real-McCoy decency. I think I’ll savor it for a bit.

But then I’m going to get back to the work of building stronger communities. Places where the bold actions of people like Kevin can be complemented regularly by a shared smile between two people of different means.

—Scott Doyon

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Development Option Theory

The real option theory of land development was a hot topic in the mid 2000’s, as the volatility of the real estate market peaked. Now that we have a break from the U.S. housing bubble and financial crisis, it’s worth talking about how we might decrease the volatility of the development market over time.

Urbanism by right is achieved with tools such as form-based codes, which allow walkable, compact, mixed-use, sustainable development, at the scale of the lot, block, neighbourhood, and region. Changing the law to allow urbanism by right makes walkable communities go “in the money” for several reasons, including decreased uncertainty, shortened planning and approval processes, increased flexibility, and increased long term asset value.

Snow falls on The Waters, a traditional neighborhood development in
Montgomery, Alabama, governed by the form-based SmartCode.

One of the best ways to decrease volatility is to decrease uncertainty. You change what developments pencil when you decrease the uncertainty of what is developable. Uncertainty is “beta” from the option theory perspective. As beta decreases, the required rate of return also decreases, because people don’t need to be paid so handsomely if they aren’t taking as much risk when they “buy” their option to develop.

The time value of money is less of a factor when the playing field is levelled to allow urbanism by right, because the development process is drastically shortened. If the developer isn’t owning a call option on a property as long, her interest fees decrease. The reason that form-based codes shorten the timeline is because a prerequisite is consensus on the community vision. By agreeing in advance about the sort of development that locals want, developers have both shorter plan approval times, and increased certainty about what their options are. Less emphasis is put on individual mojo and political connections that allow discretionary power over development decisions. Community NIMBYs have already spoken to what is and isn’t allowed in their back yards.

As flexibility increases, the option value increases. Form-based codes are inherently flexible, and nimble in their responsiveness to adapt to changing conditions. The mixture of compatible uses allows one building or block to respond to market demands, changing from a townhouse, to a live-work, to a storefront, and back again, all as a matter of right. Higher densities encourage more compact development patterns, allowing narrow lots that can provide a range of price points. Blocks within form-based codes are easily re-platted to move up or down the Transect, because the basics of the urban form and street grid are honoured. Conversely, in suburban bedroom communities, along strip retail, or within other auto-centric patterns, sprawl repair is expensive and time consuming. Once a developer commits to one of these uses, they’re locked in.

Increased long term asset value is enjoyed by walkable neighbourhoods, which are healthier for the economy, society, and environment. This is from myriad reasons, including increased walkscore, decreased vehicle miles traveled, increased housing value, decreased carbon emissions, decreased auto costs, increased personal fitness, decreased infrastructure cost, increased hours available, real community, and the list goes on.

All of this is captured in the intrinsic and extrinsic value of the development option. Intrinsic just marks the asset to market once the land is developed, while extrinsic is the value of the volatility around which a developer can bet or trade. Too much of the latter builds your house of cards, and bubble bursts. The extrinsic value decreases and intrinsic value increases when physical and policy planning reforms are undertaken.

A recent NY Times article discusses several market factors of the development landscape over the next two years, as we recover from recession. These include the current scarcity of construction financing, the lowering price points of residential demand along with increasing housing types to include condos, town homes, and flats, and that in many places, conversion is less expensive than new construction. All these items, with the exception of financing, find solutions within the flexibility, certainty, and timeliness of form-based codes. In fact, in places that have adopted optional form-based codes, locals indicate that most of the recessionary development is occurring under these optional form-based codes instead of under the auto-centric laws.

“One of the economic conundrums of the past year has been the great divergence in the Canadian and U.S. housing markets. While American home prices swooned in 2009, the Canadian market only stumbled before resuming its inexorable climb upward,” according to the Globe & Mail last week. Some economists say this is the result of Canada’s fiscally sound banking practices, while others argue that the Canadian housing market is 15 to 35% overvalued. If the latter is true, a careful look at the predominance of Euclidean bylaws in Canada that increase market volatility via destabilizing uncertainty is worth consideration. Indeed, western provinces are leading with bylaw reform, with 12 out of the current 14 Canadian form-based bylaw initiatives being based in the west.

–Hazel Borys

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Easy Rider: David Byrne Unfolds Bike, Reviews Cities of the World

Over the holiday I experienced a very 21st century weekend. Upon downloading my new Kindle App on my iPhone, I read David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries, 2009 Viking Penguin. The $14.99 book caught my attention at the local bookstore and became my first Amazon Kindle App purchase for $9.99. I know, I know… but I promise to never buy eBooks that have exclusive Wal-Mart deals.

David Byrne, artist, musician and now author, is this year’s CNU 18-Atlanta Keynote speaker. His Talking Heads music taught me to dance in early 1980’s High School proms and one of my partners was in a punk rock band on the same New York City club circuit. While traveling through Texas recently, I re-watched Mr. Bryne’s 1986 movie, ‘True Stories,’ which I found to be an enjoyably restrained criticism of suburban sprawl. So, I was connecting with the author on many levels and eagerly swiped through the e-book on my iPhone.

Still talking: David Byrne

The hook is that Mr. Byrne sees our townscape as New Urbanist do while writing down his observations from the perspective of his well-travelled folding bicycle. While traveling the world to perform, Mr. Bryne brings his bicycle with him to refresh his senses and understand the places he is visiting. Through his years of bicycling around the world, coupled with his musician point-of-view, the book’s hook on me was his chapters on experiencing cities in an intelligent and artistic manner. He poignantly captures the landscapes of Manila, Berlin, Istanbul, Detroit and Baltimore in political, social and cultural ways. His account of finding the visionary urban planner Jan Gehl, great New York urban theorist Jane Jacobs, and Transportation Innovator Enrique Penalosa, seemed illuminating for Mr. Byrne, and I look forward to hearing his reaction to meeting our Congress this spring.

My personal reaction to the book was that Bicycle Diaries is a more artistic version of James Howard Kunstler’s more caustic City in Mind. After an easy-to-agree-with suburban sprawl critique introduction, I began to feel like a NASCAR spectator awaiting the carnage! Blow up Las Vegas; put Detroit out of its misery; and, yes, San Diegans are rude! The fun part was Mr. Byrne’s unexpectedly sharp critique of European and foreign cities both culturally and while biking. Except for Melbourne, of course. It seems Melbourne has become the new Barcelona – the greatest city in the world – probably because it is located in the far corner of world and most of us can only imagine how great it is.

The ending of the book sort of drifted off for me as I was less interested in Greenwich Village bicycle rack design as I had been about a city of hookers in the Philippines (an unfortunate personal bias). The revelation that resonates with me is because of David Byrne’s desire to simply get out of the car to see and experience the world he has become a well-respected transportation advocate in his hometown of New York.

— Howard Blackson

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Everything’s Connected: Health, Healthy Aging, Community Design

Among the most encouraging trends in Smart Growth is an emerging consensus that good community design can address a bunch of issues at once. Which makes for much more comprehensive, cost-effective strategies to match the complexity of challenges before policy-makers.

Take, for instance, the agendas of separate entities concentrating exclusively on topics such as public health, environmental protection, energy conservation, and aging issues. Just in the last few months:

Those of us who fall under the category of “aging Boomers” are going to be particularly interested in how this confluence affects both our personal and professional lives. Thankfully, healthy aging is becoming an increasingly hot topic and seems likely to offer some of the most immediate opportunities for unifying strategies.

In blog posts below, we’ve reported on how senior co-housing might fit into planning for New Urbanist TNDs and infill. And we talked about DPZ’s landmark Lifelong Communities Charrette for the Atlanta Regional Commission here and here.

The complete report from the DPZ/ARC effort in Atlanta is now up on the ARC’s website, and it’s a must-see for planners and municipalities concerned about how to work aging-in-place planning into other goals – such as retrofitting dead malls and creating infill TODs. Check it out here.

With this convergence of Big Ideas gaining momentum, what’s the next step? Scaling up. The bad news in this good news/bad news scenario is that the challenges of demographics, energy depletion, and climate change are bigger than any effort to confront them so far. Listen particularly to the ARC’s Kathryn Lawler in the video below, as she joins other presenters from a recent Healthy Aging conference in Chapel Hill, NC.

— Ben Brown

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