Monday, January 26, 2015

Intro to Urbanism, Part Seven: Places for Community Life

Moving onward with my New Year’s “Intro to Urbanism”, today will be a discussion of public spaces.  (From those coming to the series late, the earlier parts are at one, two, three, four, five, and six.)

In effective urban settings, public places have subtly but crucially different roles than they do in drivable suburban places.  Parks and plazas aren’t only for visiting on Sunday morning with a newspaper and a fresh coffee; they’re also the places one traverses on the way to a transit stop or to daily shopping.  Sidewalks aren’t only for getting from one place to another; they’re also places for chatting with friends or for grabbing lunch at sidewalk cafés.

But the transformation of public spaces into urban roles isn’t always easy, and the design failures have been frequent.  The failures occur because we put public places in the wrong part of the design process.  In the words of Jan Gehl, Danish architect and urban designer, “First life, then spaces, then buildings.  The other way around never works.”

Of course, the other way around is often how development occurs.  The function of the building dictates the building footprint, with the leftover land becoming a plaza.  The subdivision is configured to maximize the lot count, with the awkward leftover chunk becoming a park, even if it falls in a location inconvenient to the new residents.  Gehl, and urbanists everywhere, correctly argue for a different approach.

William H. Whyte, Jr., renowned for his detailed observations of public plazas in Manhattan, noted the frequent failures of public space planning, consistent with Gehl’s expectation, when he wrote, “It’s hard to design a space that will not attract people.   What is remarkable is how often it has been accomplished”.

Within an introduction to public spaces of only a few hundred words, it’s not possible to share the breadth of insightful thinking about public spaces and examples of successful spaces, although resources to help fill that gap will be provided in the post-“Intro” syllabus.

However, as a way of illustrating the careful considerations that go into public space design, I can offer the lessons that I’ve found most pertinent in my work with public spaces.

First, it’s not possible to design effective spaces by listening exclusively to either the general public or consultants.  The public will offer thoughts based on their idealized vision of how they use public spaces, not how they actually use them.  And consultants will have their own idealized visions, or perhaps the need to create pretty pictures for a website, that may not adequately consider the community.

The only effective design approach is to synthesize the thoughts of both, combined if possible with the actual and surreptitious observation of the community using current places.  Watching actual people using actual parks can be remarkably insightful, as Whyte proved with his work in Manhattan.

Second, to the extent possible, people should be allowed to make the space their own.  This is an observation made originally by Whyte, but I’ve regularly noted proof of his conclusion.  Whyte tells the story of a plaza user taking an untethered chair and moving it back and forth several times to find the perfect spot from which to listen to a free concert.  After the last move, the chair was in almost the exact spot where it began but, in her perception, she has shaped the plaza to meet her needs in a way that a fixed bench couldn’t have accomplished.

Obviously, loose chairs aren’t possible in most parks unless the park owner has an unlimited budget to replace missing furniture and a desire to furnish the backyards of homes around the park.  But a collection of different seating options will allow the public to find ways to use the seating in ways that will surprise and hopefully delight the designers.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that different demographic segments will use parks in different ways.  The more affluent, with extra rooms and spacious backyards at home, may use parks only for active recreation that requires more space, such as tossing a football.  But the less affluent, with less inside and backyard space, may look to parks for group gatherings, for quiet time away from the bustle of an overly-full home, or for time with friends away from parental oversight.  All the uses are valid.  Careful design is required to accommodate each of them.

This is a thin and unsatisfying introduction to a rich and important subject, but it’s a start.  The syllabus will provide further resources.

(Note: The photo is of Manhattan’s Times Square in July 2010.  Less than nine months later, the City of New York, having found success with an experimental diversion of traffic, made the change permanent, turning over the square completely to pedestrians.

Predictions of traffic nightmares were unfounded.  Consistent with the theory of induced traffic, commuters quickly found other routes or left their cars home, taking bicycles or transit instead.

It’d be nice to say that the success of Times Square led to similar exclusions of vehicle from public places elsewhere in the country, but it hasn’t happened that way.  Although more conversions will certainly come, it’s likely that each will be battled by drivers just as at Times Square.)

Next time, I’ll write about the roles of streets in urban places.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Friday, January 23, 2015

North Bay Great Streets: Yountville and Napa

Early in the holiday season, I made a plan to visit much of the North Bay seeking out great streets.  My criteria were to be the great street standards as set forth by the Project for Public Spaces.

Within the constraints of short visits, not all of standards could be assessed, but some certainly could.  In brief downtown observations, I couldn’t judge the year-round management of a street, but could observe the mixture of uses and the vitality of a sidewalk.

With the rainy December, holiday obligations, and other writing goals, such as the on-going “Intro to Urbanism”, my great streets project has gone slower than hoped, but hasn’t been forgotten.  It will proceed and it will proceed to conclusion.

In previous posts, I’ve noted several points that seemed particularly pertinent to great street performance in the North Bay.  These are the questions of whether the primary street in downtown still functions as the regional highway, how the downtown has responded where a bypass has been constructed, whether traffic is sufficiently calm that pedestrians can jaywalk with care, and whether the local residents live and gather along the street.

 In the post on Petaluma and Cotati, I found that the Boulevard in Petaluma had recovered well from a bypass and was an interesting street, but still carried more traffic than desirable, while Old Redwood Highway in Cotati hadn’t bounced back from the bypass, feeling rather moribund.

In the post on Calistoga and St. Helena, I loved the setting of both primary downtown streets, but found that the dual functions as regional highways resulted in too much traffic and a mixture of business that catered more to tourists than to local residents.

Today, I’ll continuing moving southward in the Napa Valley.

Yountville: Yountville offers a mixture of good and bad, but with the bad quickly outweighing the good.

Highway 29 has long bypassed Yountville, departing Washington Street for a new alignment west of town.  It was an opportunity for the broad community to reclaim the street.  But what happened was the market, likely aided and abetted by City Hall, claimed the street for tourism.

Washington Street through the heart of Yountville is a marvelous pedestrian place, if you’re a wine tourist.  With smooth walking surfaces winding near a calm street and providing easy access to wine shops and upscale restaurants, it’s darned near Disneyland for wine tourists.  And there have been times when I’ve enjoyed it in that role.

But if you’re a local resident of more modest means, looking for a light meal after a youth baseball game or for sidewalk conversation with your neighbors, Washington Street offers little to meet your needs.  It’s the same shortfall I noted in St. Helena and Calistoga, with less history but more gloss.

And that’s a shame.

Napa: I once lived in Napa.  It was only for a little more than a year, but my wife and I enjoyed our time and hold fond memories of downtown.

From that history, I had expectations of my great street search.  I anticipated that my decision would be between First Street and Second Street.  Both have a bit more traffic than I’d prefer, but not overwhelming so.

First Street is the center of Napa’s effort to grab a share of the wine tourism market.  It has a reasonably active sidewalk with a good mixture of storefronts, but is targeted more toward tourists than locals.  Plus much of the architecture comes from an unfortunate era of American building design and undermines the street vitality.

Second Street has the greater level of architecture distinction, especially when the repairs to the recent earthquake damage are complete, and meets more needs of local residents, but many of the functions are governmental or service related, so the street life except during the heart of the day is lacking.

Picking between First and Second Streets wasn’t going to easy.

An unexpected treat, a seasonal ice rink on Second Street, moved the needle toward Second Street, but then I found a surprise.  While cruising downtown, I wandered Main Street heading north, from the recently-built upscale Riverfront project, past a few comfortable eateries and older buildings cleaned up to meet consumer needs, and to the periphery of a comfortable middle-class neighborhood within walking distance of downtown.  I fell in love.

Main Street, between Fifth Street and Napa Street, isn’t a perfect great street.  There are dead areas and the residential areas that it serves could use selective infusion of capital.  But it has eye-popping potential.

Of the North Bay towns about which I’ve thus far written, Petaluma Boulevard in Petaluma has the best current value as a great street.  But, with a little careful nurturing, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Main Street as one of the best North Bay streets by 2025.  Not wine-tourist special, but local residents
enjoying their town special.  I wish every North Bay town had a Main Street to cultivate.

Petaluma Urban Chat

Before closing, I’ll update those who have been following the Petaluma Urban Chat consideration of possible re-use of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.

We had a good turnout for the January 13 meeting where we kicked off a conceptual design effort.  Three teams are currently working on designs.

On January 27, there will be a 5:30pm work session at Taps on East Washington Street for the teams to hone their initial thoughts and to begin working toward the group presentation.  Everyone is welcome, although those not on a team will find themselves mostly looking over shoulders as sketch pens fly.

On February 10, the three teams will present their visions.  The entire Urban Chat group will select a plan, or perhaps a combination of plans, to finalize for community presentation.  Everyone with an interest in the future of the Fairgrounds site is welcome.  Once again, the meeting will be at Taps, starting at 5:30pm.

In my next post, I’ll return to the “Intro to Urbanism” effort, considering what make good public spaces.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Intro to Urbanism, Part Six: Energy Matters

After two posts (here and here) of attempting, with only moderate success, to tackle the murky task of explaining the fiscal justifications for urbanism, I’m moving onto the next, and hopefully easier, task of presenting the environmental justifications.  All the posts are part of my New Year’s “Intro to Urbanism”, an effort to provide an expedited education in the underpinnings of urbanism for those interested in following this blog.  (In addition to the two links above, earlier posts in the series were here, here, and here.)

Energy Matters: One could take one of multiple angles on the environmental question.  Greenfield preservation is one such perspective, with the creation of desirable high density residential settings allowing the preservation of adjoining farmland or recreational green space.

But, perhaps because I spent the first decade of my career in the field of energy generation, I’m going to focus on energy conservation.

We understand the concerns with carbon-based fuels.  Perhaps not everyone is fully accepting of the climate change theory, but most of the remaining discussions are about the scale of the change rather than the reality of it.

(Personally, I’m enough of a scientist to believe in the scientific process and the resulting theories on climate change.  It’s a complex subject, among the most complex ever tackled by humans, so the theories will undoubted be tweaked as we learn more, but the general outlines seem clear.  Plus, whenever I read something by a denier, claiming to have found a hidden flaw in the theory, I’m already familiar with the work of others that calmly and clearly rebuts the contentions.  Lastly, it’s hard to watch king tides, for the first time ever, splash over the walls along the Embarcadero in San Francisco and not believe that something has changed.)

But even non-carbon-based fuels have their environmental impacts, whether the mining of rare minerals for solar panels, the visual and avian issues around windmills, or the still uncertain technology needed to shape the output of new generation sources to conform to consumption patterns.

Using less energy is a good thing.  And urbanism uses less energy.

I often use two particular facts to highlight the energy conservation of urbanism.  My recollection is that both come from “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck, although I could be in error on that point.  The first notes that the average resident in an urbanist setting uses 70 percent less energy, including transportation and home use, than the average drivable suburban resident.  The second notes that the average residents of Manhattan in the 21st century uses about the same amount of gasoline per year as the average American did in the 1920s.

In the way of many statistics, both facts can be a little deceiving, leaving the reader with the task of making mental adjustments.  The average use of urban versus suburban consumers should be subject to a demographic adjustment.  It’s not fair to compare a pensioner living in a downtown SRO to a CEO living in a suburban estate.  And the New York statistic should be adjusted for the fact that many New Yorkers rely on transit, which typically doesn’t use gasoline.

But even with those adjustments, the statistics are sufficiently strong that they still establish the energy conservation potential of urbanism.

Energy-Based Definition of Urbanism: The knowledge about energy and urbanism leads to a possible alternative definition of urbanism.

I recently exchanged emails with an East Bay reader who lives in a city that I recall was conceived as a transit-oriented suburb, but gradually became more car-oriented.  It’s a common land-use form for which some have coined the term “first-ring suburb”.

 As the reader describes her lifestyle, she, to her credit, is living a moderately urban lifestyle, accomplishing many daily tasks on foot or by transit, even while her neighbors are living a more suburban, car-dependent life.

In her email, she expressed discomfort that her friends, who live in places like San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, poke fun at her city.  In the hope that she’s reading today, I’ll suggest that she take pride in her urban lifestyle, even if lived in a less urban place.  (She might even ask to compare incremental odometer readings with her “urban” friends.)

In her email, she posed the question of what makes a place a city.  I halfway ducked the question, noting that city is a legal entity, a subdivision of the state.  Besides, many cities, even metropolises, don't function as good urban places, with Atlanta as a prime example.

However, I suggested that her underlying concern was more about what makes an "effective urban place".  Trying to respond to the question caused me to formulate a different definition of urbanism, this one cast in terms of energy.  I suggest that an effective urban place was a place where the average resident uses less than half the energy, including home and transportation uses and adjusted for demographics, compared to an average resident in a drivable suburban setting.

By that definition, large areas of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, but not all, can be described as urban.  But it’s also possible, and highly desirable, for smaller cities, such as the correspondent’s first-ring suburb or my town of Petaluma, to create neighborhoods that are effective urban places.  Looking at Petaluma in particular, the Station Area and the Fairgrounds are places that could, with the right nurturing, become fine urban places.

I like the energy-based definition, perhaps better than the one I offered a few posts back.  But I’ll continue to ponder it.

When I next return to this Intro to Urbanism, I’ll turn my attention to the physical elements of an effective urban setting.  But that post will be the post after next, as I take my weekly break from the Intro.  Instead, the next post will return to my holiday great streets theme, looking at Yountville and Napa.  I’ll also give an update on the Petaluma Urban Chat conceptual design effort for the possible re-use of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Monday, January 19, 2015

Intro to Urbanism, Part Five: Tapping the Piggybank

Today, I’ll resume my New Year’s “Intro to Urbanism”, an effort to provide a remedial urbanist background for readers who’ve come only recently to this blog.

In my last post on the “Intro”, I attempted to explain the fiscal reasons for urbanism.  (Earlier, I had touched upon my reasons for the posts, my attempt at definitions, and a presentation of the breadth of justifications for urbanism.)

Spotting the Deer in the Brush: I was unsatisfied with my efforts in the last post on the fiscal question.  From years of personal observation, and of reading the cogent thoughts of others, I’m absolutely confident that the urbanism is the more fiscally responsible approach to land use.  However, it can be a difficult understanding to impart.

Many years ago, I was touring a proposed golf course with long-time golf pro and newly-minted golf course architect Tom Weiskopf.  As I bounced an SUV down a rugged dirt track near the future 18th tee, Weiskopf abruptly asked me to stop the car so he could observe a deer that was watching us from cover.

Even with the car stopped, neither the developer nor I could see the deer, but Weiskopf carefully directed our sight, using trees and other backdrop elements as reference points until both of us could discern the deer, half-hidden in sagebrush and peering warily at us over a volcanic boulder.  The deer was indisputably real, but was hidden from sight to all but those who had long history of spotting possible prey in natural settings.

The grasp of fiscal urbanism is similar.  Years of practice at spotting the flaws in suburban land-use justifications makes them easy to spot, even from a bouncing SUV.  But training others to see them as easily isn’t a trivial task.  Perhaps the best I can do is to provide hints, through an example and a pattern, about where to look.

A Hypothetical Example: This example isn’t based on any particular project, but has much in common with a great many infrastructure improvements over the last half century or more.

Faced with traffic congestion in a growing area of town, the town officials identify a possible fix, a new arterial.  The state and federal governments support the solution and are willing to provide 90 percent of the funding through various programs.  If there are any skeptics is in the town hall who question how the town will maintain the new road, they’re quickly swept away by the civic boosters who point out the construction jobs that road building will generate and the new growth, surely enough to pay for maintenance, that will flow from the new road.

Moving ahead twenty-five years, the skeptics were largely right.  The road construction jobs are far beyond the range of the rearview mirror.  Although some growth occurred in the area accessed by the road, the boom is now sagging and the incremental property tax revenues aren’t enough to maintain the road.  Even worse, the road is in worse condition than it might have been because the tax revenues that could have maintained it were diverted to other under-maintained roads.

A complete rebuild of the road is perhaps justified by engineering parameters, but there are no funds for the work, especially because state and federal funds are available only for new road construction.  So instead the voters point fingers at the town council for poor management and the town council points fingers at the citizens for not approving new taxes.

In a draconian world, removal of the road might be an option, but towns don’t tear up roads that serve taxpayers, no matter how sparse or unproductive the uses might be.

At the very least, the exercise should have been a lesson, right?  Not even close.  The flawed decision was made twenty-five years earlier, which feels like a different lifetime to most town people.  Meanwhile, the town hall has identified a possible arterial in another part of town that could spur new growth, the state and federal government are willing to participate, and the civic boosters are lining up in support.

And the beat goes on.

A Pattern of Borrowing from the Future: The financial legerdemain used to balance municipal ledgers against the costs of suburbia often includes borrowing from the future.  The example above, where immediate construction jobs and short-term property tax gains were secured in exchange for long-term maintenance obligations on future taxpayers, is just one example.

As another example, faced with infrastructure maintenance costs, a city might be unable to meet the immediate salary demands of a public employees’ union.  Instead, it offers improved pension benefits, largely to be funded by future taxpayers.

As yet one more example, a city might trade a long-term income stream for the cash to meet an immediate cash crunch, thereby denying future generations of the income to meet their needs.  The City of Chicago did this a few years back with parking meter revenues.

An image I’ve occasionally evoked in this blog is that of an adult sneaking into the room of a sleeping child or grandchild and slipping coins from a piggybank to make a payment on the SUV.  Yes, it’s an objectionable image, but it’s often the way that municipal finance works in the 21st century.

(By the way, I don’t have kids.  But I have a lifetime of collecting nieces, nephews, and the offspring of long-time friends, about all of whom I care.  And I don’t wish to leave them with the debts of my generation.)

Summing Up: Have I convinced anyone of the fiscal justification for urbanism?  Perhaps not.  But, in alerting readers to watch for overly rosy economic projects, unfunded maintenance needs, and schemes to push costs onto future taxpayers, I’ve laid the groundwork for readers to spot when they’re being sold a bad idea, much like Tom Weiskopf tried to teach me how to spot a deer in a thicket.  And once readers have begun honing and utilizing that skill, the realization that urbanism is a better approach to land use will soon follow.

 (To be clear, it’s not that urbanism avoids the fallacies behind bad infrastructure decisions.  We sometimes allow ourselves to be seduced by bad ideas regardless of the land-use paradigm.  One could argue that our problem is more human nature than land-use form.  But with urbanism, the costs of the infrastructure improvements are likely to be more modest and the assumptions about the resulting economic activity are more likely to be met.  So, when we make our inevitable bad decisions, urbanism limits the depth of the hole we dig.  And we’re likely to dig fewer holes.)

I’ll stop here, with a strong recommendation that readers check out the StrongTowns oeuvre.  The StrongTowns staff and the advocates that have attached themselves to StrongTowns lead the way in pointing out the fiscal logic for urbanism.  Or readers could keep reading this blog after the Intro is complete.  I rarely go more than a couple of weeks without mentioning StrongTowns.

Next time, I’ll touch on the environmental grounds for urbanism.  I may state a few facts that some will find controversial, but overall the environmental arguments for urbanism are less murky than the fiscal.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Planners: NIMBYism across the Pond

To give myself a respite from my flailing attempt to write a personal “Intro to Urbanism”, I’ll jump across the Atlantic Ocean and check out another episode of the BBC show “The Planners”, along with another couple of videos more or less pertinent to urbanism.

One aspect I love about British television is that the producers and directors don’t feel compelled to drive a point home.  They’re content to offer a vignette or two, leaving it to the discerning viewer to connect the dots.  It’s a lesson from which I could learn something for my own writing.

Thus, in episode six of season one, “The Planners” covers several land-use planning controversies in which NIMBYism plays a key role, without once pointing out the mirror images between two of the storylines.  (I’m probably being overly pedantic here, but I guess I should explain that NIMBY is an acronym for Not In My Backyard and refers to people who only participate in the land-use process when they fear that their own ox is about to be gored.)

In one storyline, neighbors, who themselves live in single-family homes recently built on former greenfields, argue against further single-family homes in the adjoining greenfields.  To offer an alternative, they identify an abandoned site in the village center, arguing that the community would be best served by putting new homes closer to existing density.

In another storyline, located elsewhere, neighbors, who live in urban flats, complain that student apartments proposed for the underused commercial site next door should go elsewhere because their neighborhood is already dense enough.  (Plus they suspect that students wouldn’t be good neighbors.)

So the folks who live in suburbs argue that growth should happen downtown and the folks who live downtown argue that growth should occur in the suburbs.  It’s typical of the illogic that results when NIMBYs get involved.

From years of working in the land-use field, I have a split perspective toward NIMBYs.  On one hand, I support the principle of everyone having a say in land-use decisions.  I don’t think that single-issue democracy is a good strategy for land use, but the adoption of community land-use standards followed by a broad and inclusive discussion of whether a particular project conforms to those standards is a fine approach.

But NIMBYs often make arguments that are irritating and unhelpful to either their own case or the overall process.  Rather than admitting the truth that is obvious to all, that they’re involved only because they have a personal interest in the particular decision, they try to invoke broad standards, usually in a way that is laughably wrong.

An example from the greenfield storyline is the neighbor who argues that approval would set a precedent that would inevitably result in numerous other parcels also being developed.  He’s forgetting that he lives in a relatively new home in a former greenfield.  If precedent were an inviolable principle, then his own home would have set the precedent and he wouldn’t have any opportunity to comment on the current proposal.  So invoking a concern about precedent only shows his naiveté.

But the BBC, in their understated British style, doesn’t make this point, instead leaving it to the viewer to connect the dots.

The episode contains two other storylines.  The first also pivots on NIMBYism as neighbors argue that a final proposal for a zoo expansion is sufficiently different from the earlier plan that the earlier preliminary approval should be overturned and the process started anew from the beginning.

Unfortunately, the point is one of English planning law that those of us on this side of the Atlantic can’t judge.  However, it was ironic to watch a zoo struggle with the English equivalent of an endangered species act.

The final storyline was about a grand old 18,000 square foot estate house with a historical designation that had been largely surrounded by the town.  The result of the encircling growth was that there were no buyers at a price that would allow the owner to avoid foreclosure.  At least that was the position that the owner was taking.

The owner’s proposed solution was to divide the existing home into flats and to add several new homes on the remainder of the estate grounds.  Although compliance with the historical preservation standards for the existing home would be expensive, the profit on the new homes would allow the overall project to proceed.  Overall, it seemed a fine solution, following a nearby precedent where an old army barracks had undergone a similar transformation.

However, the plan required the approval of the local historic preservation officer, who has appeared several times previously in “The Planners”, always with a strict, non-problem-solving approach.  Once again, he took the hard line, denying the conversion to flats and perhaps leaving the property closer to foreclosure.  Not having more than a few minutes of familiarity with the situation, it’s hard to know if the historic preservation officer was wrong in this case, but he strikes me as someone who is overly enamored with his authority.

As always, “The Planners” offers intriguing and nuanced looks at the world of land-use planning.  At least to us land-use geeks, it’s always a joy to watch an episode.

As long as we’re viewing videos, allow me to offer another couple of links.

If one considers parallel parking to be an essential skill in an urban setting, then the setting of a new world record for parking with the smallest bumper-to-bumper gaps would seem to be an urban sport.  Check out this video of the new record-holder doing the Tokyo drift with barely more than three inches to spare.

The video raises four questions.  Is parallel parking truly a spectator sport in Japan?  How come we don’t get to see the failed attempts at the world record?  Are the failed attempts the reason that parallel parking is a Japanese spectator sport?  And lastly, who has the contract for the auto body work that must go along with the failed attempts?

Finally, check out this video of a walk/don’t walk sign with dancing figures.  Using a temporary motion-sensing video studio, the dance moves of volunteer pedestrians are shown real-time in place of the standard walk/don’t walk figures.

It’s a fun and compelling video.  If the technology were to come to an intersection near me, I could settle on a bench and watch for hours.  It’s absolutely unscalable to the real world as ennui would soon result, but that’s okay.  Sometimes the most fun comes from one-off ideas.

Next up, I’ll return to my Intro to Urbanism, buttoning up my arguments on fiscal urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Intro to Urbanism, Part Four: Fiscal Urbanism

This is post number four in my New Year’s “Intro to Urbanism”.  It’s my attempt to increase the knowledge of readers who have an interest in urbanism, but may be insecure in their current familiarity with the subject.

In the first post, I described my reasons for writing this series of posts and acknowledged my modest qualifications for the assignment.

In the second post, I wrestled with a definition and synonyms for urbanism.

In the third and most recent post, I noted the number of contemporary land-use challenges, from greenfield preservation to climate change to municipal finances, that can be addressed, at least partially, by urbanism.  And from the answers to those challenges, I noted that urbanism is generally comprised of two elements, sufficient density to meet community goals and strong non-automotive transportation options.

Today, I’ll begin exploring the concept that I called “fiscal urbanism” in the last post, the possibility that urbanism can help alleviate the financial distress being felt in many city halls in the 21st century.  Admittedly, “fiscal urbanism” is a term I coined for the last post, but it’s shorthand that the proponents of the concept would likely accept without hesitation.

However, I must admit some trepidation about wading into this subject.  StrongTowns has been a leader in highlighting the financial flaws in the suburban land-use paradigm and the opportunities of urbanism to address the problem.  I belong to StrongTowns and follow their work regularly.  If I were to give a complete review of the justifications for fiscal urbanism, I’d be largely repeating, probably ineptly, the positions laid out by them.

Instead, I’ll give an overview of the topic, note a few of my own thoughts, and then highlight StrongTowns in the post-Intro syllabus that I’ll offer a few posts hence.

Also, I find that even an overview requires more words than I had anticipated, so the last part of the fiscal urbanism discussion will be deferred to the next post in this Intro.

Fiscal Urbanism: Reduced to its essence, suburbia is expensive.  Between construction of the additional infrastructure required to serve an increasing far-flung world, the long-term maintenance of that infrastructure, the cars and gasoline needed to navigate the suburban world, the home and yard maintenance implicit in moving from an urban apartment to a suburban home, and many other factors, our pocketbooks have been squeezed by the rise of suburbia.

That is not to say that suburbia is the only element of life that is more expensive now than it was 70 years ago.  As one example, we now demand greater environmental safeguards, a demand that has costs.  (That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have upgraded our environmental protection, only to note that the change didn’t come free.)

As another example, technology consumes a portion of our paychecks that no one expected 70 years ago.  High-definition televisions and frequent smart phone replacements cost far more than occasional wireless purchases.

Faced by increasing financial pressures, perhaps including growing income inequality, although that topic lays outside the scope of this blog, people looked for relief.  Not paying for the costs of suburbia was an easy solution.  Among the strategies available were rejections of tax hikes, ballot initiatives to cap property taxes, and fees imposed on new construction that are nominally for new infrastructure, but often get spent to fix existing problems.

A more honest intellectual response would have been to acknowledge that, among the other options on which we could spend our paychecks, we’d prefer not to spend money on sprawl.  But instead we choose to continue to building suburbia, while looking for justifications and stratagems not to pay for it.

Proof of the inefficiency of sprawl can be tricky.  It’s well hidden within a multitude of funding programs, such as intergovernmental payments, and deferred costs, such as underfunded public sector pensions.  But StrongTowns has done well at identifying indications of the problem.

First, StrongTowns notes that the per acre tax roll assessments are far greater in every downtown studied than in the urban fringes.  So downtowns are effectively forced to subsidize sprawl.

Also, as of a couple of years ago, Chuck Marohn, the StrongTowns founder, noted that the accumulated highway maintenance reserves for the entire U.S. were roughly equal to the accumulated maintenance needs for California highways only.  So we’ve been building a transportation system without a plan to maintain it.  (Given the concerns over the gas tax funds, I imagine this situation has worsened recently.)

Third, StrongTowns notes that the amount of public and private debt has soared since World War II, indicating a problem of keeping up with the costs of modern life.

I have several more key points to make on fiscal urbanism, but I’ve claimed enough of your attention for today.  I’ll conclude the discussion when I next return to the Intro.

Next up, I’ll give myself a little breather from the task of writing the Intro.  Instead, I’ll offer thoughts on the next episode of “The Planners”, a BBC show on land-use planning.

(Note on the photo: The building is 555 Hudson Street in Greenwich Village.  It was from a window on the second story that Jane Jacobs watched streetlife and reached the urbanist conclusions that became “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”)

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Monday, January 12, 2015

Intro to Urbanism, Part Three: Why Urbanism Matters

This is the third post in my New Year’s “Intro to Urbanism”.  It’s my attempt to connect with new readers who may have an interest in the subject, but feel they don’t yet have the background to partake in the conversation.

In the first post, I gave my reasons for writing this series of posts and noted my modest credentials for the task.  My limited qualifications mean that this Intro may lack the comprehensiveness that other, more experienced urbanists could bring to the job.  But I’ll offer suggestions for reading material in a later post for those who wish to continue their education beyond my stumbling efforts.

In the second post, I tried to come up with a definition of urbanism with which I felt comfortable.  I eventually settled on “The study of and advocacy for built environments and operating systems that allow communities to be fiscally viable and environmentally sustainable.”  I’m not fully comfortable with the words and will likely tweak the definition when I update the Intro for New Years 2016, but I can work with it for this year.

Also in the second post, I covered some of the synonyms for urbanism, giving a stamp of approval to “compact development”, but expressing discomfort with “smart growth”.  (I agree that urbanism is smart, but don’t believe that we urbanists need to define ourselves as smart.  It’s better to let skeptics come to that conclusion on their own, rather than beating them over the head with a word.)

Today, I’ll introduce the reasons why urbanism matters.  It’s a subject on which I’ll touch many times during the remainder of the Intro, but today will lay the groundwork.  I’ll start with the many questions of contemporary land use to which urbanism provides a reasonable response.  From there, I’ll note the common elements in the various forms of urbanism.

Justification: I have a philosophy that, when multiple questions have similar answers, the answer begins to have universal value.  So let’s look at the questions for which urbanism is a possible answer.  (Note: I may have coined some of the urbanism terms below, but they’d all be readily recognized and accepted by proponents.)

How do we create settings in which more people walk, resulting in improved public health, less traffic, and fewer auto emissions?  An answer is walkable urbanism, a form of urbanism that encourages homes and frequent destinations, such as schools, grocery stores, and coffee shops, to be in close proximity and connected with safe routes.

How do we preserve the undeveloped recreational lands surrounding towns?  An answer is greenbelt urbanism, a form of urbanism that focuses on density, allowing towns to grow more upwards and less outwards, protecting the nearby undeveloped land.

How do we preserve nearby farmlands, encouraging the farm-to-table movement and reducing the transportation costs of produce?  An answer is agrarian urbanism, a form of urbanism that, much like greenbelt urbanism, focuses on density, leaving nearby farms safe from encroachment.

With green backdrops known to have beneficial effects on daily life, how do we bring more elements of landscaping into city settings?  An answer is landscape urbanism, an approach that seeks to redefine the relationship between buildings and landscaping, giving a more integral role to landscaped spaces and increasing the areas of landscaping without resulting in sprawl by pushing the buildings upward

How do we address the increasing crisis in municipal budgets?  An answer is fiscal urbanism, reconfiguring towns to support the same tax base with less infrastructure to maintain.

What can we do about the risk of climate change, which may well be driven by carbon emissions?  An answer is environmental urbanism, living in close enough proximity that non-automobile transportation options are viable, reducing carbon emissions.

What if your environmental concerns go deeper than carbon, perhaps including water supply or other essential elements of life?  An answer can be sustainable urbanism, based on the knowledge that people living in closer proximity use fewer resources.

What if your focus is more effective use of transit, with the resulting reduction in energy use and carbon emissions?  An answer can be transit-oriented urbanism, with a focus on effective livable communities near transit stops.

This list may seem exhaustive, but can actually go on longer.  A speaker at CNU 22, the most recent meeting of the Congress of the New Urbanism, was concerned about the proliferation of different “urbanisms”, warning us that we were at risk, like many revolutions, of succumbing to internal dissension.  She asked us to remember that all of us were urbanists first, with the various adjectives second.

Until that speech, I’d called myself a “new urbanist”.  I immediately dropped the “new”.

In future Intro posts, I’ll explore the supporting arguments behind some of these urbanist answers.

Key Elements of Urbanism: So urbanism, in its multitude of forms, can address many concerns.  But I’ll note that all of the solutions revolve around two elements.

First, urbanism requires sufficient density to meet community goals, whether financial sustainability, preservation of surrounding countryside, or some combination of multiple goals.  This doesn’t mean that everyone must live in concrete, multi-story bunkers.  Indeed, there’s a place in urbanism for a wide variety of housing options, including single-family homes, as long as the densities are sufficient to meet the community goals.

Second, urbanism requires transportation options, such as walking, biking, or transit, that provide viable alternatives to the automobile.  Cars are still allowed, very much so, but many daily chores should be able to be completed without a car and people who choose to live without a car should be accommodated without unreasonable inconvenience.

In future Intro posts, I’ll explore the forms that density and transportation options can take.

So that leaves me with two paths to follow in future posts, the justifications behind urbanism and the forms that urbanism can take.  For my next post, I’ll tackle the basis behind fiscal urbanism, but I’ll return to both paths several times in future posts.

(Note on the photo: In developing her essential observations on urbanism in the early 1960s, Jane Jacobs noted the value of a neighborhood meeting place, not only for the neighborhood connections but also for its role in maintaining street activity into the evening hours.  The meeting place she could observe from the window of her writing space was the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village.  The photo is of the White Horse Tavern in 2010.)

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (