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Archive for the ‘Planning Theory’ Category

The Power of Street Signs

Greene St and Prince St One Way signs, Soho. New York City 2005

Frank Thurston Green has a piece on the political role of street signs at — where else? — a page called New York City Street Signs.

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LED lighting at fountains in Trafalgar Square, London. Photo: David Iliff, License: CC-BY-SA 3.0.

LED lighting in Trafalgar Square, London. Image: David Iliff (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Fast Company has an article about the future of LED lighting, and its potential to alter the settings in which it’s used. The piece seems like a bit of a plug for Philips, and its Hue platform, but the substance is really on the cutting edge. One could easily imagine complex and creative lighting schemes becoming a major component of of the design and aesthetics end of urban planning. International Dark Sky Association already has a model lighting ordinance; the potential for outdoor mood lighting, productivity lighting, and safety lighting just adds to the scope of the artificial lighting questions that will inevitably be considered and mediated by land use laws. And it will dovetail quite nicely with other aesthetic components — what I would call mood-zoning (color palettes, scent design) — that can permit very creative distinctions between planned places. This piece is sure to get anyone’s imagination going.

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Seth Pinsky, who headed the NYCEDC under Mayor Bloomberg, says no, according to an article in this week’s Real Estate Weekly; and he hopes that Mayor de Blasio’s delayed affordable housing plan will focus mainly on creating units for low-income residents, who really have no market options remaining.

Pinsky’s is an interesting analysis. Basically, he seems to be saying that if the city builds a lot of middle-income housing, it may deflate the housing market pressures that are causing middle-class relocation — a phenomenon that should be sustained, because it improves the city’s marginal neighborhoods. In so doing, the city may also take some pressure off the poor, but only by leaving them in their current, decrepit units. If, on the other hand, the city builds a lot of low-income housing, then the very poor will get fresh new apartments, which will represent an improvement in their living standards; and the city’s middle-class will continue to respond to the increasing expense of prime locations by relocating in patterns that improve the city’s marginal neighborhoods. At first glance, the first approach sounds self-defeating, while the second approach sounds like a win-win.

The problem is that, historically, we’ve tried the second approach. We’ve had the experience of building large numbers of fresh, clean units for low-income residents, and this did not work out very well. The housing projects of the 1950s-70s enjoyed very short honeymoons before they turned into urban dystopias. Sociologists had a number of theories about what went wrong (e.g., the scale of the developments, their concentrations of poverty, elevation from the street, lack of ownership). We don’t really know what combination of factors went wrong in public housing, which is all the more reason to be cautious about making the same mistakes, again. As a counterpoint, middle-income housing in New York City (and elsewhere) has worked — whether in the form of Mitchell-Lama rental apartments, limited-equity cooperatives, or simply market-built modest housing units in suburban-zoned neighborhoods. In addition, middle-income New Yorkers are not without options. Accordingly, they have some leverage, and the city’s housing policies ought to acknowledge it.

I’m sympathetic to Pinsky’s analysis, and I do think middle-class housing pressures have had a beneficial effect on many of the city’s formerly marginal neighborhoods. And obviously — as challenging as it can be to live on a moderate income in greater New York — the situation is much more desperate for those who are genuinely poor. But Pinsky’s approach strikes me as too simple, for a couple of reasons. First, there’s no way that even the most ambitious middle-class housing proposal from City Hall would result in enough new units, in a short enough time, to deflate the market pressures that are reviving the neighborhoods on the frontiers of gentrification — or to move those frontiers deeper into the city’s fabric. Second, there’s scant evidence, in the history of urban planning, that public efforts to develop large numbers of new housing units, exclusively for the poor, can result in the kinds of neat-and-tidy improvements to urban poverty that proponents of such efforts would like to see. In fact, these efforts almost always backfire.

Ideally, the regulation of land use would be liberal enough for development to keep up with demand, across the various tranches of the city’s real estate market. But it’s not, and this means that additional efforts have to be made to advocate for the development types that are most needed. Today’s city needs more housing for everyone.

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A Phoenix NPR station, KJZZ, has an interesting conversation with Armando Carbonell of the Lincoln Institute’s Department of Planning and Urban Form. The questions revolve around how American cities are attracting – or repelling – the next generation. It includes some interesting discussion about how housing costs and cultural perceptions may be affecting migration trends; why Austin and Portland are unique among non-major cities; and how the expense and commercialization of New York City and San Francisco are apparently driving young people to more affordable regions.

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Restless America, by Chris Walker at Vizynary.

A snapshot of Restless America, by Chris Walker at Vizynary.

Chris Walker at Vizynary has a very interesting project, Restless America, that shows the migration pattens between American states. It looks like Florida and Texas are still the main destinations for domestic migration. It’s interesting that both states have a lot of buildable land around their economic centers; and the largest city in Texas — Houston — even lacks formal zoning laws. I’m fairly sure that the lower cost of living in those states has been a major factor in people’s relocation decisions. And, of course, better climates.

I’d like to see a version that also includes net immigration, by state. Immigration accounts for the lion’s share of population growth in the states that are losing US-born residents, but still growing, overall. My guess is that as people from certain countries settle in particular regions, those regions become magnets for new migrants from the same places, bringing new waves of residents who seek out familiar people, customs, and languages, in their new country. But this new concentration of people who live in, say, New Jersey by choice drives up the generic cost of living here beyond what the native-born locals think is fair. So, a lot of US-born residents respond to migration-driven growth by relocating to states that have a lower cost of living, as well as what they perceive (or hope) to be more familiar cultural surroundings.

I think the interplay between land use policy and migration is the major factor that determines a region’s housing costs: Land use policies largely determine a region’s real estate supply, and migration patterns (including the purchasing power of those who come or go) largely determine regional demand. I think it’s strange that planning discussions tend to spend very little time on the nexus (and contrast) between semi-permanent land use patterns and the very fluid migration patterns of places like North America and Western Europe. I can’t think of any part of the real estate equation that’s more central to questions about sustainability, affordable housing, and infrastructure than this dynamic. The more we can learn about who is going where, and why, the more intelligently we can address the whole host of land use planning topics. Restless America is a good start.

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Repurposing America’s Rust Belt

The Lincoln Institute has a pretty interesting slideshow and report about what it calls America’s legacy cities — generally, old industrial cities that haven’t found their footing in a less industrial economy. Cincinnati is on the list — a mostly ungentrified old American city whose building stock looks oddly like New York’s:

One intriguing aspect of the report is how it quantifies the different assets in these older cities. Features like universities, hospitals, waterfronts, and parks are broken out and listed for the surveyed places. One takeaway seems to be that Pennsylvania’s legacy cities are coming back to life faster than some others. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are doing better than most. But I wonder if Philadelphia should even be on the list. It’s virtually a coastal city; its region has a concentration of colleges and hospitals that’s comparable to Boston’s; and Center City is fewer than 90 miles from Midtown Manhattan. That’s a pretty different game from Cincinnati’s.

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Sustainability principles have become such a fallback in discussions about developing new neighborhoods, and redeveloping old ones, that they’ve almost become cliches. Still, I think it’s important to ask the questions that get raised by basic sustainability analysis — and I think there remains a lot of room for planners and developers to go beyond stale platitudes and explore new ways to build fairer and stronger communities. Hurricane Sandy tested each of the three big elements of the sustainability triad: environment, economy, and social equity. Now that it’s been almost a year since the storm hit, it’s an interesting time to take stock and ask: How has Greater New York responded to the post-Sandy crisis?

Post-Sandy Manhattan. Source: Hybirdd, via Wikimedia Commons.

Post-Sandy Manhattan. Source: Hybirdd, via Wikimedia Commons.

The current issue of BOMA magazine has a brief article on this question, as it relates to commercial landlords. (Flip through to page 26, where it begins.) Many of the points discussed have to do with creating workable action plans for before environmental disasters — a simple but apparently crucial adaptation measure. A lack of communications was apparently a major stumbling block in the post-Sandy period, even at the top of the city’s economic pyramid.

In a twist of irony, poorer communities sometimes benefit from the inherent sustainability of their older urban infrastructures in ways that suburban communities do not. The different proportions of residents who lost power in East Orange (a streetcar suburb whose neighborhoods mostly date from around 1900) and West Orange (more of a Gatsby-era suburb, with a lot of post-war development), in the weeks after Sandy, was a great example. There still hasn’t been much talk about finding the money to bury utility lines, though.

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