Policy & Planning
October 30, 2006

Dialogue

It’s so gratifying to see the responses coming in from readers, particularly the recent posts under “More or Less’ below. My thanks.
And further to the discussion, here’s an arrival from Joe Urban in Minneapolis, aka Sam Newberg (www.joe-urban.com):

Even urbanists agree that certain improvements need to be made in suburban development, especially since suburbs will absorb most of the 100 million new Americans in the next four or so decades. We have to start getting it right more often. For those of you involved at some level with suburban development, this will be of interest to you. Last week The Planning Center, based in Orange County, California, released a report entitled ”Five Steps Toward a New Suburbia.” Download it here – Five Steps Towards a New Suburbia. The report is a follow-up to last year’s “The New Suburbanism: A Realist’s Guide to the American Future.”

This is exciting for me because I contributed a couple of the case studies that appear in the report, the bulk of which was written by Colin Drukker of The Planning Center and Joel Kotkin, an Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. The “Five Steps” takes a measured approach to the planning challenges of suburbia and looks at how to improve it from an economic, environmental, physical, social and governmental perspective.
The case studies provide concrete examples of successful suburban development and strategies from around the country. More importantly, by offering some solutions, the “Five Steps” report gets a number of ideas out on the table for discussion. At least I hope so, but you’ll have to read for yourself. For more information, contact either me or The Planning Center at www.planningcenter.com.

While I’m somewhat sceptical of Joel Kotkin’s apologias, this looks good.

 

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October 29, 2006

 Chris Leinberger, an urban land-use strategist, developer and fellow at the Brookings Institute, makes an almost paradoxical point in an interview in Model D, a development newsletter out of Detroit:

CL: We now know that drivable suburbanism, as you build more, you get less quality of life. The very things that you build suburbia for get consumed by surburbia….
MD: Is the converse true in the city?
CL: Yes, more is better. As you add more density, as you get more people on the street, as you add more restaurants, it just gets richer. It just gets more exciting.

Why the seeming paradox?  Most people believe that increasing density causes the kind of problems they go to suburbia to get away from: particularly congestion.  They assume, reasonably, that with development comes more cars, and since there’s only a limited amount of road space in the city, traffic gets worse.  In suburbia, on the other hand, when they build more houses and office parks, they build more roads. 
In many instances, when it comes to quality of life, the reverse is true.  Car-dependent suburban development is what is generating the congestion in growing urban regions.  In downtown Vancouver, by contrast, the number of moving vehicles is dropping.  It’s crowded, of course, but that’s the idea.  The mix of uses, close in proximity, with lots of transportation choice, allows people to solve the congestion problem for themselves.  More and more people choose to walk, bike, take transit or grab a taxi. In single-use, low-density suburban environments, there’s no choice: you have to drive everywhere for everything all the time.
In Leinberger’s opinion, the pendulum is swinging:

CL: The market wants walkable urbanity. And walkable urbanity — which is simply that within 1,500 feet there’s a lot of stuff to do….
Consumer research divides the world into three categories: Folks that want walkable urbanity; folks that want what I refer to as drivable suburbanism; and folks that don’t know what they want. The research shows that 30-40 percent of us, depending on the metropolitan area, want drivable suburbanism; 30-40 percent want walkable urbanity; and 30 percent can’t figure out what they want….
So I think metro Detroiters will realize it by hook or by crook, because the market wants it, it’s coming back, and there’s not that much else happening. But the other reason I hope they would realize it is that if 30-40 percent of us want something, and you don’t offer it, from an economic development point of view, you’re out of luck.

According to the interview – the full text of which is here – “the only interesting, vibrant market right now is downtown Detroit.”

Detroit!

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October 28, 2006

Everyone likes a good demolition.  There’s just something perversely gratifying about an implosion.  And ever since they blew up Pruitt Igoe  back in 1972 live on television, failed public-housing projects have made remark- ably satisfying targets. 
Glasgow, Scotland, built more of these tower blocks than anywhere in Europe, and some years ago started a program of demolition and replacement with more humanely designed, mixed-income housing. I’ve often thought it a waste – not just of good intentions, materials and embedded energy – to blow these up without at least doing something more, um, artistic with the opportunity. 
And so someone has. Here’s a Toryglen tower block awaiting demolition (or possibly repair): 
 
And here’s the commercial that Sony made to promote its LCD TV. 

Or click here for the better-quality version. 
For those who have seen the “Balls” commerical – here – set in San Francisco, you’ll recognize the work.  But you may not have seen the soft-drink parody:

Some would say: a waste of good fruit.

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October 24, 2006

Now Seattle, like Portland, is wondering whether it’s possible to raise children downtown.  The Post-Intelligencer explored the issue in this article: “Parents want more family-friendly downtown living.”

The 2000 Census found that just 4 percent of households in Seattle’s urban core, which includes downtown and South Lake Union, included a child, compared with 20 percent in the city as a whole and 37 percent for King County, outside of Seattle.
State statistics show that Seattle’s urban core has grown much faster than the rest of the city and county since 2000, thanks to a boom in apartment and condo construction. But, while newer numbers for families with children are not available yet, those selling downtown condos say their customers tend to be young professionals and empty nesters, rather than families with kids.

And some comments from me in an accompanying article: “Downtown living works in Vancouver, B.C. — but will it translate?”

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October 23, 2006

I just came across this:

There’s a rule of thumb that a building is considered attractively slender if it has an aspect ratio (which is to say, height to width) of 8:1.

Who came up with that? Is there an iconic building of precisely that ratio?
And what is the most attractive ratio of street width to building height? I seem to recall, from the Haussmann era in Paris, that the height of the streetwall was two-thirds the width of the street. Or was it the reverse?

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October 23, 2006

When I moved to Vancouver in 1978, the English Bay Seawall ended at the Aquatic Centre. The path itself was only about eight feet wide; pedestrians and cyclists shared the route – and the roller blade hadn’t even been invented. Most people circumnavigated Stanley Park and called it a day. This would not have been the typical view of the seawall along the beach:

I wonder what percentage of Vancouver is out stolling the seawall – any part of its 26 connected miles – at any one time? How do people get to the seawall, how far do they walk or cycle, how often do they use it? While no doubt it has made a great contribution to our health, both physical and emotional – even spiritual – I believe the seawall provides one other great service for Vancouver: it allows us to see ourselves. This common sharing of space, on which we pass each other with a casual intimacy, gives us a regular opportunity, citizen and visitor alike, to at least know who we are, to look each other in the eye if we wish, and to build that critical commodity called civility.

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October 22, 2006

From the opening episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip:
MATT
We make some budget cuts, we shoot in Vancouver.
DANNY
We’re not shooting in Vancouver. Vancouver doesn’t look like anything, it doesn’t even look like Vancouver. It looks like Boston, California.

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