You Got to Be Kidding Me!

The Public Health Roots of Zoning

Posted in Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on February 25, 2005

A lot of people bag on zoning as a major culprit in sprawl. What many of them either don’t realize or take for granted is that in its early days (c.WWI) it was a major land use reform. Zoning prevented nuisance or polluting activites from taking place near residential housing (and vice versa), stabilizing the market value of land earmarked for each, and went a long way to protecting people from being poisoned or nuisanced out of their homes.

But like most regulations, it’s had its unintended consequences. Metropolitan Institute fellow Joe Schilling and Leslie Linton of SDSU explore explore some of these side effects, and the prospects for legislative remedies, in a new article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (link via Planetizen)



Posted in Economics, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on February 23, 2005

Raise The Hammer attempts to get Crazy Jim Kunstler’s opinion on Hamilton, Ontario’s new “green belt” urban growth boundary. You’ll have to look elsewhere for actual discussion of the boundary; what we get here is Kunstler’s vision of the future, and you’ll want to make sure your overalls and garden implements are in good condition.

The salient fact about the decades ahead is that we are entering a permanent global energy crisis and it will change everything about how we live. The suburban cycle which began a hundred years ago is nearly over. We are in for a period of contraction and economic hardship.

There is not going to be a “hydrogen economy,” and no combination of alternative energy systems or fuels will allow us to continue the suburban pattern. It’s finished. We will, however, desperately need to grow more of our food closer to home, and so the preservation of agricultural hinterlands is of great importance.

Maybe he’s been reading Dies the Fire? He’s surely looking forward to a time when our technological society returns to the soil:

The skyscraper – any building over seven stories really – will come to be seen as an experimental building type that doesn’t work well in an energy-starved economy. Once these energy problems gain traction, there will be a large new class of economic losers, and consequently a lot of social turbulence.

I think we’ll see a leveling off and then a contraction of population, not a continued upward trend.
Under the current high energy / high entropy regime, sustainable development is a joke. In the decades to come, the successful places will tend to be the smaller traditional towns and cities with viable farming hinterlands. The economy of the 21st century will come to center on agriculture. Life will be intensely and profoundly local in ways that we can’t conceive of today. Economic growth, as we have known it in a cheap energy industrial paradigm, will cease.

OK, seriously now. Clearly the oil will run out someday, but we do have essentially limitless supplies of nuclear, wind, hydro, geothermal and various other sources of energy that will become economical as oil becomes scarcer.

And it will be a trend, not an overnight change. As oil supplies get low, they’ll become harder to extract and refine. These higher costs, plus increased competition for the remaining supply will gradually bid oil up to the point where investment in alternative energy becomes not just feasible but smart business. Among other things, the grossly inefficient and energy-losing proposition of extracting hydrogen to burn in engines or fuel cells will likely become a best-available solution, and there will be a ‘hydrogen economy’. It will undoubtedly change the economics of daily life and thus the decisions we make about where and how to live and work, but this will be a gradual transition with plenty of time and information available to everyone for planning ahead.

But hey, why bother with such boring details when you can get copy like this:

[Le Corbusier] was a shit-head. Just about everything he thought about cities was wrong. And the ideas of his that actually found their way into practice were deeply destructive – for instance, the tower-in-a-park, which mutated into the vertical slums of the late 20th century.

Forget Corbu. Forget Modernism. Forget yesterdays’ tomorrow. The cities of the future will be much smaller than they are today.


The medieval town may be a more appropriate model for where we’re going.

Bring me a shrubbery!!!

Property Rights

Posted in Politics, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on February 22, 2005

Reading about the Fort Trumbull eminent domain lawsuit here and here. There are a lot of issues tied up in something like this. For most homeowners, their house and lot are their primary–often their only–financial investment. As far back as the depression era, presidents from Hoover on the right to FDR on the left extolled the virtues of “a nation of homeowners” and passed sweeping measures putting billions of public dollars at stake to protect it. On the other side, there are times when the public, represented by an elected government, legitimately needs to transfer ownership of land in order to facilitate its use in a way that benefits society. Well-known and uncontroversial (in principle) examples include road easements and condemnation of structurally unsound buildings. Less reputably, the power of eminent domain has been used over and over again to clear slums for redevelopment. To condense a lot of modern anthropological research into one runon sentence, many or most such “slums” had been created over time by the systematic denial of mortgages or home equity loans to poor and minority residents by lending institutions who made [improper] use of FHA risk ratings–themselves bastardized from earlier Home Owners Loan Corp. (HOLC) classifications intended to direct federal loan guarantees toward poor homeowners. In other words, redlining turned often-decent neighborhoods into slums by denying residents access to capital, and then subsequently declared them “blighted” in order to evict the residents and build something new. 70s-era Urban Renewal made heavy use of that brand of eminent domain, and the planning profession unfortunately has something of a black mark to this day for its role in that mostly-failed effort.

I suspect cases like the New London one, or this neighborhood clearance in Cincinnati are related far more to zoning and economic development trends (in particular, the fad of deliberately encouraging an imbalance of jobs and housing) than to any nostalgia for public housing, but there’s still danger here for planners if we become too strongly identified with those who justify any taking of property under the development mantra of the day. We have enough trouble getting buy-in from the public on a lot of things as it is.

From the "What Else Are You Going to Do?" File

Posted in Mass Transit, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on February 13, 2005

The Post reports that DC area commuters spend an average of 30 minutes commuting each way (about 10% above the national average -that’s a noticeable difference added up over the entire year) but still see Metro as inconvenient. “Metro is widely admired but largely bypassed” essentially because of a vague feeling that it’s even worse than sitting in traffic. They’re not totally wrong. I did an experimental comparison of the cost and time involved in commuting by bus and subway versus by car in the inner and outer suburbs a couple years ago, and found that the public transit was substantially slower for almost any trip (traffic and parking congestion made it more competitive in the inner suburbs)

I think the nonobvious implication here is the importance of public education in planning. Those who use transit know that while it often does take longer than driving, there are tradeoffs. Most importantly, you’re not behind the wheel and therefore you can read, work (including making any necessary phone calls, as irritating as it might be to your seatmate) or just bask in the downtime. I know many Metro riders who simply enjoy the people-watching opportunities. They’d hate to be sitting in traffic with nothing to do but listen to the same five CDs they’ve been meaning to change out for the past week. But you’d never think of those aspects until you try transit, and if you don’t live near a Metro station, you probably don’t know anyone who could tell you how to make the most of it. This is where education -facilitation, if you prefer- could make a big difference in how we commute, and thus ultimately in how we build in the next 20 years.

You Have to Start Somewhere

Posted in History, Mass Transit, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on February 10, 2005

John Kelly’s column in today’s Post includes a blurb about the Metro’s humble beginnings. I’m 29, and for me the system has always been part of the urban landscape. As a kid, one of my favorite parts of the summer was always the day my mom would take some friends and I downtown on the subway. We’d be fascinated by the lights in the tunnel passing by–at maybe 50mph, but it felt like 100. Hard to believe it started out like this:

“A colleague of mine, Mike Greenberg, gave me a little something his father-in-law, Bruno Zanin, had squirreled away. It’s a 20-page booklet that appeared as an advertising supplement in the Washington Star on March 21, 1976. On the cover are the words, “This is Your Metro Owner’s Manual.”

It was an endearing bit of PR designed to familiarize Washingtonians with the subway system whose Phase I — five stations between Rhode Island Avenue and Farragut North — was just about to open. “

Five stations, all downtown. And look at it today. Clarendon, Ballston, King Street, Chinatown, U Street, Metro Center, and a dozen more places both downtown and suburban that were dying and have managed to pull new life at least partly out of that regional connection on their doorstep. Funny, then, that Kelly’s headline is “Metro’s Promise — We’re All Still Waiting”. Maybe the funky orange jackets and caps (if not the funky orange upholstry) is long gone, but that just means Metro’s made the transition from that glamorous new toy that you vaguely fear was a mistake, to the trusty old tool that reminds you of a hundred past adventures. Sure it’s a little shabby these days, but can you even imagine what life would have been like without it?

Back to the Future?

Posted in Economics, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on February 9, 2005

In Michael Crichton’s Timeline (the excellent novel, not the painful movie) a group of anthropology grad students sit in a cafe in rural France, explaining their architectural dig to a friend who works in a different profession. They note that the picturesque 12th-century village, which consisted of little more than a market square, tradesmen’s shops (blacksmith, farrier, and soforth) and a tavern was built as a real estate venture by a consortium of aristocrats who hoped to capitalize on the local trade in goods and produce. In other words, it was a shopping mall.

Chuck Eckenstahler, AICP and Carl Baxmeyer, AICP make a similar analogy in their article, Planning Ten Ingredients Found in Successful Downtowns. The ingredients are:

1. Customer Focus
2. Tell A Story Everyone Knows
3. Clearly Communicated Shopping Experience
4. Value Driven Service
5. Brick And Mortar To Support the Mission
6. Reliance on Customer Attraction
7. A Long Term Customer Loyalty Program
8. Feedback on Performance
9. Dedicated Sales Staff Training
10. Good Business Rationssic – Cross Selling

While they don’t go so far as to use ugly words like “mall” or “shopping center”, items 2 and 7 really make the connection clear–the entire downtown is to be thought of as a single retail operation (“much like a living organism”) with the mission of attracting and keeping customers who come there to shop and find substantially everything they need in one area. In other words, an open-air shopping center with a unified marketing message for the buying public.

This is the antithesis of Duany-style New Urbanist fervor, and it’s also exactly what that movement needs to succeed; a hard-nosed business approach to making the traditional downtown not only look good but function economically.