Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Harvard Business Review Eschews Sprawl

"To put it simply, the suburbs have lost their sheen," writes Ania Wieckowski in the May edition of Harvard Business Review." Her article, Back to the City, suggests that "(some) companies are getting a jump on a major cultural and demographic shift away from suburban sprawl. The change is imminent, and businesses that don’t understand and plan for it may suffer in the long run."
"The change is about more than evolving tastes; it’s at least partly a reaction to real problems created by suburbs. Their damage to quality of life is well chronicled. For instance, studies in 2003 by the American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Health Promotion linked sprawl to rising obesity rates. (By contrast, new research in Preventive Medicine demonstrates, people living in more urban communities reap health benefits because they tend to walk more.) Car culture hurts mental health as well. Research by behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman and his team shows that out of a number of daily activities, commuting has the most negative effect on people’s moods. And economists Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer have found that commuters who live an hour away from work would need to earn 40% more money than they currently do to be as satisfied with their lives as noncommuters.
A recent report sponsored by Bank of America, the Greenbelt Alliance, and the Low Income Housing Fund examines the inefficiencies of the current “geographical mismatch between workers and jobs.” Focusing on California, it says that sprawl “reduc[es] the quality of life,” “increase[s] the attractiveness of neighboring states,” and yields “higher direct business costs and taxes to offset the side-effects of sprawl”—which include transportation, health care, and environmental costs."
The article also quotes Carol Colleta, the Executive Director with CEOs for Cities that “increasingly CEOs understand that without a vibrant central city, their region becomes less competitive. Good CEOs care about the fate of their cities, because they have to question whether that is the place where they can attract the talent they need.”

Slowly but surely the pieces are all being tied together by many formerly disparate interests that suburbia isn't as healthy or sustainable as it was once promoted. Suburbs have their place, for sure, but not to the exclusion of the rest of our developed and undeveloped areas. Natures dislikes a monoculture and the single-minded focus on suburbia as the exclusive panacea to our society's ills is thankfully being unraveled.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Urbanism and the Food Revolution

Jamie Oliver, the star chef from Great Britain, declared war on processed foods in schools in his home country and achieved fantastic results. He then decided to fire a shot over the pond and see if his success was transferable to the most obese country in the world, the United States. His show, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution chronicles his 3 months in Huntington, West Virginia and the 3 months that followed.

Why Huntington? Very simply, the Huntington/Cabell County area was determined by the US CDC as having the highest combined rates of obesity and diabetes in the county. More than 1 in 8 residents have diagnosed diabetes and nearly 1 in every 3 are considered obese. But Huntington is not alone in this unfortunate status. Across Appalachia and through the deep south, diabetes and obesity are epidemics with the rest of the country not too far behind. According to the same CDC study, obesity across the US hovers around 1 in every 5 people.

Great Britain's struggles with obesity was what led to Jamie Oliver to begin his food revolution there. Like in Huntington, he began in the schools, where the diet of school children can most easily be monitored and controlled. By rejecting processed foods in favor fresh and healthy alternatives, he and others there are making dramatic in-roads into childhood obesity. So it only made sense to see if he could translate his experiment to the United States. Was he successful? Well yes and no.

The six part series on ABC chronicled his six month experience with Huntington/Cabell County's school district. The thesis was simple. If he could show success in a middle America place like Huntington, WV then surely it would translate across the rest of the country. What he ran in to was no less than a full court press of good old American bureaucracy, beginning with the school district and leading right up to the steps of the US Capitol.

From the mountain of irrational dietary requirements put forth by the federal government to the heavily subsidized processed foods that are dumped into school districts across the country, Jamie discovered that this was a long term proposition. My wife and I were dumbfounded at how schools regularly provide, for example, flavored milk products (strawberry and chocolate) that are loaded with as much sugar as sodas all as a means to get children their required daily calcium and vitamin D. Hmmm, take something that children don't like and saturate it with sugar. What's next, candy coated broccoli or chocolate asparagus?

Very simply, what Jamie ran into was the wall of entrenched specialization. Someone, somewhere convinced the powers that be that it was necessary to ensure that children drank milk. And someone responded by delivering a variety of milk products to ensure that directive was fulfilled. It is a bureaucracy established to control and deliver one narrow policy in absence of a broader picture.

In building our cities, many of us have long realized that the same micro-management of minutiae exists in every level of the built environment. The moment you try to approach a problem comprehensively, the specialists all awaken and tell you why their narrow focus must be heeded in spite of their obvious shortcomings when taken as a whole. The stormwater guys have said that all urbanism is bad because it pollutes our water supply uniformly. The traffic guys will make you oversize your streets because that is what the state or national standard requires. And the environmentalists will protect a wetland regardless of how beneficial it really is to the greater ecosystem. The list goes on and on and on.

We need more Jamies out there fighting for common sense, a trait that our first world "affluenza" has taken from us. It's more about consumption that fulfills our short term wants and than prudence for the long-term needs. And people like Jamie who are willing to roll up their sleeves and fight the system - people who are willing to ask "Why do we do it this way?" and who are not willing to accept "because" as an answer.

As they say, the revolution starts in the hills. In this case we hope that it's in the hills of Huntington, West Virginia.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Environmental Paradox of Smart Growth

Kaid Benfield, a fellow new urbanist and the Smart Growth Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council appropriately summarized in a recent blog post entitled "The Environmental Paradox of Smart Growth" what I have written about in this blog and have spoken about for years.

There is no question that sustainable land use requires, among other things, neighborhood density.  Indeed, I have basically staked my career on the proposition that we must increase the average density of our new (and, in some cases, existing) built environment in the US if we are to achieve anything near sustainability as we absorb more growth.  Nothing has been worse for our environment than sprawl.  Smart growth based on walkable neighborhoods, transportation choices, nearby amenities and the accommodation of an increasingly diverse society – more urbanism, if you will – is the only way we can limit per-capita impacts, and thus total impacts, to a manageable level.

But we also must be honest with ourselves about something, if we are to get this right:  Environmental impacts will occur with development; to limit them, we must concentrate them, and this can mean increasing them in some places.  This is what I call the environmental paradox of smart growth.  Only if we understand the paradox can we address it.  Only if we address it can we really create better places in which to live, work, and play – and surely that, not just lowering pollution numbers, must be our real goal.

Amen, Kaid.Well said.

Read the rest of the blog post here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Zoning in the New Normal

As real estate begins to emerge from its great sleep of the past two years, one can only hope that trends will changes and be more responsive to the actual changing demographics of this country. For too long we built for a mythical population of people who didn't exist or never came. Now is the time to be much more mindful of who we are actually building for. And guess what, it's not the white suburban family of 4 with a dog. That group is shrinking faster than my 401k did in 2008.

According to a report in the Charlotte Observer on March 10, 2010, "minorities make up nearly half the children born in the U.S., part of a historic trend in which minorities are expected to become the U.S. majority over the next 40 years. Demographers say this year could be the "tipping point" when the number of babies born to minorities outnumbers that of babies born to whites.The numbers are growing because immigration to the U.S. has boosted the number of Hispanic women in their prime childbearing years. Minorities made up 48 percent of U.S. children born in 2008, compared to 37 percent in 1990."

Now combine this with some of the other key demographic trends affecting real estate in the next decade in the January/February issue of Urban Land magazine. In his article, developer and real estate investor Anthony Trella noted the following:
The population of the United States is projected to grow by about 3 million people per year for at least the next 30 years—representing about 18 million more people in the United States by the end of 2015. This added population will not be evenly distributed across all markets, and where these people settle will vary across city and county submarkets.

About one-third of the annual population growth—1 million people—will be traceable to immigration from outside the United States. This group will arrive with different cultural and social attitudes that will affect the planning, design, and buildout of real estate structures. Many of these differences will run counter to historical trends and the growing expectations of generation Y.

The number of households without children will continue to rise and will affect rental housing as homeownership rates continue to decline.

All real estate, whether already built or future development, will be affected by job growth and the need for new job skills. Where these new jobs are located and the type of jobs they are, as well as the continuing  contraction of other job types, will have the single, most dynamic, ongoing effect on real estate. In addition, the length of the commute to reach these jobs and the relative wages they pay will shape development and guide investment.

Of course, I think that the last note is perhaps the most important. Job growth drives the demand for real estate. Without jobs, businesses don't need office or warehouse space, employees don't move to new cities and buy houses, and retail doesn't open shop. I think that the last decade lulled too many into a false sense of the market. Not every market could have been white hot because not every market was actually increasing the number of jobs. And while many will say that the real estate industry is a major of jobs in this country, I would contend that they are a dependent industry, not a catalyst. People that make things and sell ideas are the catalysts of our economy.

Ignorance of the building blocks of a vibrant economy is just plain ignorant. So too is ignorance of the changing "face" of our population. How many communities have more than 80% of their land zoned for large-lot, single family homes to the exclusion of any other choices. And how many permit small scale, low cost incubator businesses. Can the next HP or Microsoft really be started out of a suburban garage or has it been zoned out?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sustaining Sustainability

Oh so true.

Sustaining Sustainability: It Ain’t Always Easy


A little more than a dozen years ago, a collection of three adjacent suburban towns in the sprawling Sun Belt region of Charlotte did something extraordinary. After months of public workshops, lectures and community discussions, months of looking at slide shows to choose what kinds of streets, stores, houses and apartments they wanted for their towns, they revamped their town codes. They aimed to discourage conventional suburbia and encourage traditional neighborhood development, transit-oriented projects and farmland preservation.

It warmed the hearts of planners. It drew national attention and awards and, after a couple of New Urbanist neighborhoods were built, busloads of visiting Smart Growth disciples. Writers, including yours truly, ladled on praise. In 1996 I wrote an editorial calling the new ordinances in Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson, N.C., “a remarkable exercise in local and regional planning” and “a remarkable vision.”

But as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys sang decades before, “Time changes everything.”

In addition to the turnover and the influx of newcomers unaware of the past work, I suspect a piece of what has happened relates to starker political partisanship and more liberal-versus-conservative tensions in the past decade. Much about traditional neighborhood design might be considered conservative–such as its aim to hold down municipal services costs and its association with small-town values. But once “smart growth” came to be associated with environmentalism, it became a target for many conservatives suspicious of anything favored by liberals.

Read the rest of the post here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Importance of Place to the Proclamation of Beauty

Can a church be moved and still retain its full sense of sacredness and civic prominence? This is the idea that is being explored by Mary Our Queen Catholic Church in Norcross, GA, a suburban Atlanta community. Rather than build a new facility in the pattern of the old ways, this parish is seeking to physically move a recently closed church in Buffalo, NY – St. Gerard’s Catholic Church - piece by piece, fixtures and all, nearly 900 miles to the south. Once relocated, they believe that they can reassemble the 800 seat basilica-style structure designed as a scaled replica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, and restore it to its former glory except that it will have a growing parish to care for it. 

As its advocates note, “visitors stand in awe of the magnificent structure – startlingly like the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, though one-third its size. The exterior of Indiana limestone, an interior of travertine marble and plaster and twelve solid granite columns lining the nave make the church one of the most solidly built (and easy to disassemble) structures of its time.”To duplicate such a structure would cost in excess of $40 million, while it has been estimated that to relocate it would cost roughly $15 million. Calling it “preservation through relocation”, supporters hope that the continued stewardship of this structure in another location is its last, best chance to save such a marvel.

The challenge that this proposal sets forth is perhaps a more elemental one. Today, St. Gerard’s sits on the prominent corner of Bailey Avenue and East Delavan Avenue in the middle of the walkable, urban Fillmore District neighborhood. Unfortunately, the changing demographics of the community led to its ultimate demise. But will its relocation bring a greater honor to this building? Norcross, GA by contrast is a sprawling suburban area with little character and the current site of the receiving parish is in the middle of an office park. For those that accuse New Urbanists of attempting to create “stage-set” versions of true neighborhoods, one can’t help but see that accusation being played out in a far less-dignified location.

What brings dignity to the building is its context. And in St. Gerard’s case the context is one which has a prominent street corner amongst a walkable, urban neighborhood. What little parking they have is behind the buildings, removed from the public realm. Far too often, without the surrounding urbanism like the Fillmore District, most churches built today become much more introverted in their design – patterning themselves after the shopping center and the office building  with inexpensive, often austere exteriors surrounded by large parking fields.

This is not to suggest that the parishioners of Mary Our Queen are not well intentioned. Nor is it to suggest that we must fight to prevent future “preservation through relocation” episodes. Not true. In many cases, unless the job market radically transforms in these older cities and people begin to re-inhabit them as they did a century ago, many St. Gerard’s will have their only future in another location or they will fall to a wrecking ball.

To the casual observer viewing the site from the portal of a Google Earth map, the current location appears to be uninspiring. As a result, I believe that the parish must ask itself whether the final location is dignified enough to receive such a glorious building. Will its new home be prominent enough to proclaim the glory of God to the entire community or only to its own membership? If after spending $15+ million to move and renovate the building would it be better served to spend a little extra to also identify a more appropriate site to proclaim our faith?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Score One for Walkable Urbanism

The New York Times recently reported on a study recently commissioned by the group, CEOs for Cities. Entitled "Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Home Values in US Cities" author Joe Cortright concludes that:
"More than just a pleasant amenity, the walkability of cities translates directly into increases in home values. Homes located in more walkable neighborhoods—those with a mix of common daily shopping and social destinations within a short distance—command a price premium over otherwise similar homes in less walkable areas. Houses with the above-average levels of walkability command a premium of about $4,000 to $34,000 over houses with just average levels of walkability in the typical metropolitan areas studied."
The study correlated housing values using's results as a basis for walkability. While still not a perfect calculation as it doesn't yet have enough data to determine the presence of a sidewalk, Walkscore measures the proximity to amenities such as schools, public buildings, and shops that are essential for daily living. The next study I'd love to see is how this data correlates to home foreclosures. I suspect that these walkable neighborhoods would fare equally as well. Just a hunch.