Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Monday, August 29, 2011
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Constructing a city for the car alone shackles all to the burdens of car ownership and maintenance costs. In a city with a poverty rate of 23 percent and household transportation costs approaching 25 percent of income, fewer and fewer can afford to participate in the local economy, getting from point A to point B, without a miserable two-hour DART bus commute. Without choice in the transportation network, Sun Belt cities will go the way of the Rust Belt. A monoculture of transportation follows a monoculture of the very industry that produced it into collapse. Nobody thought Detroit would collapse when it was dubbed the Paris of the West. Paris, however, is alive and well. And so is bicycling in that world-class city.
Do you feel there's an adequate understanding among the general public about the intersection between 'Green' issues and more sustainable urban living?
What does 'green' even mean? Like anything turned into marketing-speak, it largely has lost all meaning. Any efforts towards being 'green' turn into half-hearted pat yourself on the back actions whether it is an individual homeowner that screws in a couple of LED bulbs but whose house is so full of leaks that all the AC is pouring out or an office or institutional campus that builds a LEED certified building but surrounds it with parking - which is mostly a locational necessity. So the location of the site is really the issue, which is predicated upon the public sectors planning and building of an infrastructural system that mandates car use. The infrastructure, the bones of the city, are the platform for a city to be sustainability or not. There has to be choice in order to live a "green" life and the cleaner, greener choice, in my estimation would be more desirable to many if it was available, but it is often competing on an unfair playing field. We look at those choices as cost-prohibitive, but the unfair playing field diminishes demand, which coincidentally doesn't drop prices in emerging fields, but keeps them inflated and noncompetitive due to lack of business innovation, willingness by entrepreneurs, industry, and financiers to venture into those markets, and increase supply of alternative, greener choices of whatever the market choice might be, whether it is housing market, transportation mode, or light bulbs.
Should there be an emphasis on collaboration between green organizations and organizations advocating for more sustainable urban planning (for example the CONGRESS of New Urbanism in North Texas?)
We at the CNU are working slowly to try and build more bridges to various related professional entities and advocacy groups, which is somewhat difficult for a variety of reasons, lack of time and resources, corrupted ideas of what the CNU stands for, and competitiveness amongst professional orgs to be THE thought leader, being the primary ones. But even if there was increased cooperation, what would that achieve? That is the question that must be asked and subsequently the goal worked towards. There has to be a broad rethinking of how all components of city building are practiced, what is valued, and where opportunity both the public and private sides to profit. Meaning the public would get a more sustainable (economically, environmentally, and socially) city, while the private side can make money building it that way. However, we think of those new ways as expensive. But the only thing that is cost prohibitive, or at least, a mental stumbling block is change. Once we start doing it right, we'll see that the the bang for the buck equation in terms of value created per cost of infrastructure is exponential. And the city has to start thinking this way in order to compete for talent and tax base.
A hot topic these days of high unemployment is clearly green jobs. While I recognize that you're an urban planner and not an economist per-se, what sort of jobs does better urban planning stand to create? Might one think of these as green jobs?
Call me an amateur economist then or don't since economists tend to only be able to explain the past, occasionally the present, but never the future. I tend to get more into the economic side of urban planning, both by interest and necessity, because if these ideas don't work economically, they're not worth pursuing. And by economically, as I suggested above, value can and should mean more than merely what we can accurately quantify. Some things are subjective and don't work into an equation. Unfortunately, those are the very things that get externalized from the discussion.
How does one value clean air, clean water, or education? The current economic mindset places these things as just costs. And you begin to see how the downward spiral begins. Those are costs, cut them. Or livability. What the hell does that even mean? Well, it necessarily means different things to different people. The more people that find a place livable to their own needs and means, the more livable a place is.
And some of these needs that I find to be absolutely necessary, beyond just the absolute basics of life (food, water, shelter) include how interconnected a place is, which promotes social and economic transactions. Furthermore, it promotes opportunity and entrepreneurism as highly interconnected places drive the demand for density.
In places like these, the competitive balance between national and international chains with their specific building prototypes, formats, parking requirements, etc., and local businesses is at the very least re-balanced. While those larger businesses can likely pay more for real estate costs, they have trouble fitting into smaller, more unique spaces.
There is a certain amount of flexibility in business models required in high activity, high demand places. I suspect there is an increased level of stewardship from local businesses in neighborhoods, as the business owners and employees are often a part of that neighborhood as stakeholders in the character and success of the neighborhood moreso than the shareholders of an international chain that who knows where they might be located. They don't care about any neighborhood, just gimme that dividend check!
Chains also employ less people at lower wages than do local businesses. Furthermore, local businesses keep more revenue within the community, possibly as much as 6x. We think we need chains to drive traffic. But we really need highly complex, ordered, spatial integration, which is the real demand driver that chains intuitively understand, putting themselves in high traffic areas. As we often do, we mistakenly identify various stratigraphy of urban emergence as the demand driver, when more deeply it is the hierarchy of crossroads of all types.
And lastly, since in healthy cities there is a direct relationship between interconnectivity, traffic (of forms other than all car), value, and density (all interrelated), there is increased tax base which can be put to other necessities such as a good school system, thus increasing opportunity for citizens to better themselves. Investing in human potential is really the best investment that can be made. To me that is really what the American Dream is, opportunity for upward mobility, not the PR picket fence nonsense.
So in terms of what specific jobs would be created, I wouldn't want to say, because my guesses would be necessarily contextual of which the context I don't know in a hypothetical situation. I would be as wrong as every single architectural competition vision of the future. Those jobs will be the outgrowth of the demand/opportunity driven by the citizens who freely chose to live in said hypothetical neighborhood for the specific characteristics of that neighborhood, thus giving the neighborhood its personality.
In your opinion what are the most successful sustainable (or can we call them green?) urban planning initiatives currently underway or in the works in North Texas?
Oh boy. Not many. Most are window washing. There are a lot of little things around the metroplex that have shown steady albeit localized improvements in certain, highly specialized areas, but very little has coalesced. Which, in many ways, is a bit allegorical for the development form and patterns of the metroplex. The one that has shown the most positive, self-sustaining reinforcement has been Fort Worth's Better Block which has quickly been capitalized upon by first the city of Fort Worth which moved to make the changes permanent and subsequently by the private sector, by way of investment in new businesses and new housing developments in the Magnolia Ave/Near Southside area. It's exactly how cooperative city building should work (even if the cooperation isn't specified or understood). I'm amazed every time I've been there. Entire families riding bikes to Magnolia to get a bite to eat or friends meeting there over a cup of coffee from a local, organic, fair trade coffee shop. They might pay more for the coffee (or not, I don't know), but I suspect they're willing to pay more because of savings from not driving so much combined with the enjoyable social aspects of the place. This is what I mean when I talk about sustainability from a three-point (at least) perspective, that is has to be environmentally, economically, and socially rewarding.
As someone concerned at heart with more sustainable living do you consider yourself a green advocate?
I guess so. But I never tell people how to live. I do try and reframe the entire picture of what city building and sustainability are and how we can and must re-wire the entire DNA of it so that each individual can make their own choices and the more desirable, rational choice would be technically "greener" I suppose. Which is exactly the point. I don't impose my viewpoint upon others, so don't impose your lifestyle upon me or anybody else. For example, if somebody's lifestyle entails polluting the air, clogging roads, utilizing artificially deflated gasoline prices on taxpayer dime, all the while potentially endangering the lives of others while putting on makeup or chatting on the phone on the highway, then there is a problem. There is a bigger problem when the public entities are responsible for this outcome and are ineffectual to alter the system either.
Can you point our readers to some resources to keep track of urban planning issues in the North Texas area?
I suppose my monthly column in D Magazine might be a good place to start. Fortworthology.com is another as well as getting involved with the Congress of New Urbanism either by signing up as a member or attending some of our events. Or if you happen to be a member of The Real Estate Council or Urban Land Institute or AIA, reaching out to us. Amazon.com never hurts. You have to be an educated citizen on the topics at hand before you can be an engaged citizen. Then, I would suggest anyone that is interested in being an active, engaged stakeholder, willing and wanting to improve their quality of life and better their neighborhood to seek out other stakeholders with shared interests. Typically, those would be your other neighbors. Meet them, talk to them, understand their issues and how they'd like to improve the neighborhood. Begin forming blocs of concerned citizens and take issues to their council people.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Regulation isn't a panacea. The SEC could have placed federal agents on every corner of lower Manhattan throughout the past decade, and it might not have put a dent in the massive wave of corruption and fraud that left the economy in flames three years ago. And even if SEC staffers from top to bottom had been fully committed to rooting out financial corruption, the agency would still have been seriously hampered by a lack of resources that often forces it to abandon promising cases due to a shortage of manpower. "It's always a triage," is how one SEC veteran puts it. "And it's worse now."
But we're equally in the dark about another hypothetical. Forget about what might have been if the SEC had followed up in earnest on all of those lost MUIs. What if even a handful of them had turned into real cases? How many investors might have been saved from crushing losses if Lehman Brothers had been forced to reveal its shady accounting way back in 2002? Might the need for taxpayer bailouts have been lessened had fraud cases against Citigroup and Bank of America been pursued in 2005 and 2007? And would the U.S. government have doubled down on its bailout of AIG if it had known that some of the firm's executives were suspected of insider trading in September 2008?
It goes without saying that no ordinary law-enforcement agency would willingly destroy its own evidence. In fact, when it comes to garden-variety crooks, more and more police agencies are catching criminals with the aid of large and well-maintained databases. "Street-level law enforcement is increasingly data-driven," says Bill Laufer, a criminology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "For a host of reasons, though, we are starved for good data on both white-collar and corporate crime. So the idea that we would take the little data we do have and shred it, without a legal requirement to do so, calls for a very creative explanation."
At what point do we start looking at the deeper issue, the DNA behind an economy literally eating itself as it starves for food? Why that would be the very corporate charters that require forever growth, inevitably putting all laws and in many cases morality and humanity in the way of that growth. Often good people just doing their job. This is why until the late 1800's corporate charters were revoked after their one particular purpose was complete, such as building a railroad. "But that would put people on the street!" And by retaining those companies seeking forever growth, an impossibility, we're doomed to perpetual overshoot and thus collapse. The only thing preventing said overshoot and collapse? Corruption! Hooray!
I rather suspect the SEC has safeguarded with perfect care the files on Martha Stewart, two-bit Joe, and blogger Bob.
He conceded that it will take at least a year for housing prices and sales to start rising, a key marker of an improved economy.
THE United States spends more than $100 billion annually to subsidize homeowners. Renters get no breaks; homeowners get tons of them. Their mortgage rates are subsidized through the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; they get a big deduction on federal income taxes for mortgage interest payments and for state and local property taxes; and they even get favored treatment on capital gains from the sales of primary residences.
Americans love the idea of a house and a white picket fence. The government encourages ownership through housing subsidies, believing that it stabilizes communities. Owners see their homes as their share of the American dream, and their best way to save money.
But according to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, these tax breaks add up to $700 billion in lost government revenue over the five-year period through 2014. As the government struggles to come up with spending cuts and revenue sources, housing subsidies are an obvious place to look.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Planes, Trains, & Automobiles (and the Paths Less Travelled): A look at the past, present, and future of Transportation in Texas and what it means for Architecture.
These days it seems you can’t throw a rock without hitting an architect who hasn’t succumbed to some measure of idolatry for Le Corbusier. Famous for his idea that a “building should function as a machine,” which in itself was little more than snappy marketeering, Corbu accidentally set off a string of dominoes in the architectural design and city building industries, ultimately resulting in something rather un-city-like and without a future.
Corbu, like many of his generation, was influenced by (and inspired to find a solution to) the problem of the city as they saw it. The industrial era city was a dirty, disease-infested, poverty-stricken, polluted place. Rather than correctly diagnosing and remedying the economic and political machinations responsible, the patient was blamed for being sick, the city itself. Around the same time, Henry Ford helped usher in a new era of industrialization, one that offered so much promise. Ford’s assembly line embodied the paragon of modern efficiency, churning out freedom-mobiles to the less wealthy and a much-needed breather from the early 20th century American city.
While other sects of the design world pursued the concept more literally, Corbu sought a similar efficiency in both building and city. If the city (in theory) needed to be a simple equation, the actual city was a mess chalkboard that needed erasing. Thus begot Robert Moses and a world where Could? was asked and answered far more than Should?. Whether it was his intention or not, Corbu’s influence and limited abstract metaphorically ideal city prioritized the individual building at the expense of the overall system. The resulting real estate industry became rather machine-like as well. The checklist approach allowed expansive physical growth unprecedented throughout the history of human civilization.
The Sun Belt jumped into the idea of car as freedom with both feet. The remnant city was something to be erased in the name of progress, a dirty reminder of that backwards time. However, the city is a far more complex organism than a factory floor. The Sun Belt as if ordered by catalogue very much resembles an assembly line, automatons communicating through beeps, blinks, and the occasional finger. Drivers are told when to stop, when to go. There really isn’t much intelligence built into the system, where a healthy, thriving city needs us all acting intelligently. In fact, individual intelligence is specifically intended to be turned off, externalized from the equation.
Only recently has Corbu’s equation been flipped on its head by a relatively obscure professor of urban morphology at the University College in London named Bill Hillier. In his career magnum opus, Space is the Machine, Hillier argued that the building is not the machine, but the spaces between the building. The city is the system. How we move about between our destinations contributes to the relative desirability and productivity of the place (or lack thereof). The connections between things is the essence of a city, facilitating our ability to live and improve our lives, thereby making our transportation networks the most critical part of cities.
Hillier suggested that the assembly line nature of cities and narrow-minded pursuit of “efficiency” corrupted the purposeful function of cities. Using statistical metrics measuring the relative spatial integration within cities, his work is the necessary objective counterpart to historian and critic Lewis Mumford who, in his book The City in History, theorized that “an effective network requires the largest number of alternative modes of transportation, at varying speeds and volumes, for different functions and purposes.”
And further that, “what our experts in transportation are kept by their own stultifying axioms from realizing is that an adequate transportation system cannot be created in terms of any single limited means of locomotion however fast its theoretic speed.” However, since we all tend to act rationally, the transportation equation has been tipped almost entirely in one direction through various policies and subsidies.
Our task today is in many ways to re-complicate the city into balanced and competing needs and speeds. What began in the Rust Belt and produced for the Sun Belt, actually produced today’s Detroit and Dallas. The lag time from the start of production to the delivery of the finished product will mirror the lag time in current and future economic busts. Detroit and the Rust Belt failed because of a homogeny of industry. While there have been several contributing factors to the Sun Belt’s homogeny of place, without significant and extraordinary measures taken to diversify the transportation “bones,” Sun Belt cities will face a bleak future.
Fortunately, many Texas cities have the necessary foresight (if not the necessary paralleled political backing). They understand the competition among cities and see the future increasingly defined by quality of life factors. Our cities are learning that job creators are the creative individuals who choose a city to live, work, and prosper in because of a diversity of place and experiences. They are who must be wooed rather than the captains of industry with the promise of healthy tax breaks and various other “smokestack chases.” A new economy brings entirely new thought processes and solutions as its carry-on luggage.
Economic development is a product of demand. And, demand is a product of demographics. Baby boomers are the largest population bubble in the history of this country and are beginning to hit retirement age. Many are looking to downsize houses and maybe even give up a car as their abilities and desires to operate it wane.
Millennials, those aged approximately 30 and down, have been called the “echo-boom,” but they resemble Baby Boomers only in sheer numbers. In many ways, the off-spring of Baby Boomers, Millennials grew up in car-dependent suburbia. Where cars meant freedom to one generation (as symbolized by James Dean – ironically, considering his demise), they meant something entirely different to another. Millennials spent their formative years dependent upon mom, dad, or the school bus driver to get anywhere. Their bicycle was their salvation; their independence entirely dependent upon how far their little legs could pedal. As the fat part in the bell curve of the Millennial population bubble begins to graduate college, cities must diversify to accommodate differing preferences, and that includes transportation mode.
Around the state new projects and policies are materializing to transform our cities long into the future. Within the last two decades, Dallas, Houston, and Austin citizens voted to construct rail lines, all now materialized to varying degrees. With the recent opening of the Green Line, Dallas now has 72 miles of light rail, making it the largest system in the country. However, as always, biggest does not necessarily translate immediately into bestest (sic). The DFW area is notoriously decentralized, lacking the density in order to properly support a mass transit system. The urban form lags in adapting to its new bones, which is not unexpected.
Where the Dallas system has managed to expand despite funding hiccups, the Houston Metro rail system’s expansion plans have been derailed. Having hit ridership goals several years ahead of schedule, the construction of additional lines has fallen behind specified target dates. In 2010, the City of Austin opened their one and only commuter rail line. However, its ridership has been well below expected levels. Where the Houston system was phased to first serve high employment areas, the Capital MetroRail in Austin was built to utilize existing freight rails and while helping to leverage development by specifically locating transit stations where there was little to no existing development that wasn’t already suited to the necessary denser transit-oriented style of development.
All of the aforementioned transit agencies also operate a vast network of bus routes. However, the intention to serve a decentralized private automobile-oriented city becomes a barrier to ridership and its ability as a mode of transportation to leverage organized city form around it much like the tension between the Houston and Austin rail lines, bus network planning is caught in a catch-22. While it makes for lousy 2nd rate car, buses in the form of Bus Rapid Transit can be pretty cost-effective 2nd rate rail lines (without the rails of course). In order to best serve both citizens (short-term) and city (long-term), the systems need the predictability of (relatively) fixed alignments linking a prioritized hierarchy of destinations.
With the rise in bicycling around the state and country, several cities have completed or begun work on city-wide bike plans placating the influx of millennials-turned-taxpayers and constituents. This, despite critics’ suggestions that there is not enough ridership and would never be to support the amount of investment in the plan nor the infrastructure, understands the nature of elasticities in transportation. There is no predicting what the usership would be without having the infrastructure to support it. Some critics see cyclists as nuisances while even some supporters of cycling initiatives believed the problem was simply a matter of education. However, having to dress like Lance Armstrong and be an expert to safely navigate the dangerously fast-moving and sometimes hostile traffic is an enormous barrier to bicycling for commuting purposes or recreation.
Fort Worth recently completed a comprehensive bike plan called Bike Fort Worth. The plan included provisions for individual bike trails, shared lanes between cars and bikes, as well as segregated bike-specific lanes within the street right-of-way. A critical component is the simple, straight-forward, and measurable goals established in order to construct the plan around and then used as afterwards as key measurable indicators of success, something too many plans, planning in general, and initiatives lack, a success/failure metric. Perhaps, we are afraid of that kind of transparency. These include decreasing the number of bicycle-related crashes by 10% and tripling the amount of bicycle commuters (from 0.2% to 0.6% which is 1/10th of Portland’s current bicycle commuting ratio and 1/50th of Copenhagen’s, incidentally).
Bike culture has also spawned a new phenomenon, one that could be known as Do-It-Yourself, guerilla, or vigilante urbanism where citizens reclaimed their streets, closing traffic lanes, adding parking lanes and/or outdoor seating, and painting in bike lanes in the street. When each executed well, in the right location, and with the right measure of brazenness, the entire neighborhood showed up, enjoyed their day, played in the street, met new friends, and local businesses had banner days as car traffic slowed.
Some similarly related efforts haven’t produced similar results. Usually, when vehicular travel lanes were not sufficiently reduced and/or narrowed to calm traffic allowing pedestrian activity to flourish. Or they were set up in a dead zone where not enough people lived to build a critical mass. It is not complicated stuff, yet we complicate it with rigid adherence to abstract, arcane, and often useless policies and standards.
Furthermore, none of the labels for the movement could be deemed inappropriate either as the actions of citizens arose out of the dereliction of the city’s duty to provide safe, context appropriate transportation as an integral component to high quality “complete” neighborhoods where residents can access all of their needs within a reasonable time, distance, and effort.
With the rise in interest and availability of various modes transportation, a Complete streets bill has made its way into the Texas state legislature (SB 513 & HB 1105). The bill, if passed into law, stipulates that all road construction projects using public monies must consider providing adequate infrastructure for all appropriate forms of transportation. However, to date widespread political support and understanding of the relationship between movement, balance and prioritization of mode, and resultant urban form is extremely limited.
The equation is quite simple. In a free market economy, there is a direct relationship between desirability and density. And density equals tax base, yet moving cars remains the number one priority dictating all transportation decisions. As an example to illustrate the backwards relationship, in the past 20 years, Main Street in Dallas has seen its average daily vehicle counts drop by 50%. The residential population has more than doubled, numerous businesses have opened and thrived, and it has once again become a popular regional destination.
They key matter in the transportation equation is choice. Allowing all to get to where they need or want to go how they want to, safely, enjoyably if desired, and at what speed they deem appropriate without imposing a danger or restriction upon others. Cars impose their will upon cities with free reign to squelch out other forms of transportation. This limits overall mobility at the detriment of cities, quality and character of urban development, and economic stability and prosperity.
Back to the Future?
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of today’s transportation dilemma is that for the first time in history, a new form of technology may not become the primary mode of movement, thus dictating the emergent urban form. High-speed rail would likely be the only mode or technology that might apply, but those efforts have gained little traction state-wide. What is clear is that the predominant technology, its speed, and the interface between use and movement always formed the limit to growth, an informal growth boundary, if you will.
Since transportation and development are inextricably linked, in terms of economic development sometimes transportation technology was used as the cart. Sometimes it was the horse. New forms of transportation allowed the value of land to be “unlocked” from zero to viable, intensified from agricultural or natural land to neighborhoods. First, it was the trolleys and streetcars, and then it was highways. The demand was created by a desire to get away from filthy cities.
Some of this was true growth. Some measure of it however was cannibalization. Highways were built into cities to deliver newly minted suburban residents into jobs downtown further increasing the motivation to get as far away as possible. Except, as is always the case, the jobs followed rooftops leaving behind empty shells of the original city, further exaggerating the problem. Some portion of this was a true desire to help, pursuant of some intangible idea of progress. Some was a bastardized version of Eisenhower’s Interstate system; Keynesian economic policies run amok despite Ike’s explicit intent to not disrupt existing urban fabric, neighborhoods.
Advancing technology historically allowed growth outwards, but if we’re heading back to feet, bikes, and trains, perhaps the next wave of growth and development will be back inward, towards central cores revitalizing depressed, underdeveloped, and left behind areas because of their locational efficiency. The modern city (not modernist) is or can be a pleasant, safe, and desirable place. Dirty industries have long since left and if not they will be quarantined as “Locally Undesirable Land Uses” (LULUs) so as to not negatively affect quality of life. Value is re-orienting to where “location, location, location” once again trumps “if you build it (anywhere) they will come.”
One of those LULUs often brushed aside as a necessary evil are those intra-city highways Ike lamented. As heavily subsidized, decentralizing forces, highways through our core cities, have flipped the equation so that it only made sense to live further and further out. However, the economic equation has shifted. When the highways were new, they leveraged new investment further and further out as cars allowed more and more land to become viable. However, we’ve overextended ourselves and we’ve hit and quite probably exceeded our limits of growth via the automobile. Exurban neighborhoods sit half-finished or barely begun. Our highways are literally crumbling, graded D- by the American Society of Civil Engineers in terms of their structural integrity due to deferred maintenance.
Perhaps it is time to unwind some of that progress from the 20th century that has left our cities bankrupt and bereft. We simply can’t pay to maintain them because there is no return on that investment. Furthermore, any investment in increased supply of roads only leads to a temporary reprieve of traffic. Remember that concept of transportation elasticity? If you build more roads, you get more cars, and in turn a less desirable place, therefore less density and tax base. When you remove lanes, not only does some of the traffic find alternate routes, some of it disappears entirely.
Then again, maybe there is a new technology that will transform cities. One that is partially responsible for that disappearing car traffic. The internet has the potential to be a parallel and interconnected infrastructure to our city. They are remarkably similar in that they have developers, designers, sites, network hubs, traffic, and interfaces. The web is the conduit and our smart phones and portable devices are our vehicles. The web allows us to increase our global interconnectivity because of the speed and cost at which data and information can travel. Social networking has proven to be an effective platform for clustering, improving local connectivity, as well as digital interfaces with transit schedules. We can be where we want, with who we want, when we want to be there. And by getting there by any form of transportation we deem appropriate and cost effective, it is a smarter system.
In Dallas, we like to refer to things as “world class.” Truly world class cities are already ahead of the curve, removing costly and destructive freeways, improving the overall quality of place as well as the economics of their cities. Citizens are no longer beholden to the expense of car payments, maintenance, and fluctuating gas prices. Transit agencies aren’t having to beg and borrow money just to survive because we’re afraid to make cars, roads, and driving pay the full cost of doing so. Cities aren’t behind on maintenance or without tax base. Police departments aren’t overextended and underactive, stuck in cars monitoring speed limits. Schools aren’t laying off teachers in order to pay for busing.
In the case of transportation and cities, bigger is not better. Better is better. And more profitable economically, environmentally, and socially.
Monday, August 15, 2011
Friday, August 12, 2011
You do not have to get past the cover of the book The Next 100 Million to know that author Joel Kotkin is talking about more people. The premise of the book is an optimistic one, an energy I share, despite disagreeing with the conclusions, which generally seem to fizzle out into a haze. He argues that more people are coming due to birth rates not falling as rapidly as other first world countries and immigration. More people equates to more and larger markets, which in turn must be met. With falling wages and education levels worldwide, one is left to worry. Will the roles reverse? Do we become the supply of labor to China's newfound prosperity?
Ignoring that the world is necessarily urbanizing with mixed results usually based on wealth/education, let's follow Kotkin's suggestion down the rabbit hole that the next 100 million people will largely fill out the vast quantities of land yet tapped by the real estate engine. After all he says, we have only built on 5% of it. His theory is that people will continue to disperse across the countryside because of cheap land and the connective powers of the internet despite cities being the greatest economic engine in human history typically around a cross roads of material flow or resource extraction. The internet becomes the crossroads and technology and green energy become the resources to extract and refine.
Germany is showing that their commitment to green energy can successfully disperse energy production amongst the people enacting federal programs where excess private energy production is sold back to the grid at a premium rate. No longer can singular monolithic energy production facilities be the target of attacks. Furthermore, the program has seen the rise of new clean industry. There are now more jobs in clean energy in Germany than in the automobile industry.
On the other hand, the World Wide Web, the tool bringing my words to your eyes via the medium of the Dallas Morning News and their editorial staff and none of us have ever met. However, the internet has not proven to be a replacement for actual face-to-face interaction, but rather a facilitator, an enabler that accelerates existing interaction and propels future ones. I recall in the 90's the worry was that we would become a nation of shut-ins, fingers glued to keyboards, and our interpersonal dialogue would have all the complexity of a game of Atari pong.
We failed to see its natural evolution, at our hands, as a human construct, towards something more useful, as a parallel, interconnected world to augment reality rather than detract from it. Web 2.0 has emerged with facebook, twitter, blogs, and various other sites to facilitate self-organized clusters upon a real landscape. Because of these things, I have now met hundreds of creative people throughout the City that I would not have otherwise.
Extending the trend line of decentralization over a variety of fields towards infinity eventually fails to understand the very nature of what it means to be human, the need for contact. All of these tools, from automobiles to the internet are extraordinarily young compared to the timeline of cities. We have not fully grasped or harnessed their power to maximize efficacy. Kotkin's fundamental mistake is to assume an either/or stance rather than one that is both/and. I fail to grasp where there is significant opportunity for new pop-up cities or idealistic suburbs, as he might say, where there currently is no infrastructure. We are already infrastructure poor and we must make use of what we have and improve it.
If this next 100 million people does create new markets, what will those markets be and where will they really occur? If we buy the logic that the emotions of needs and wants from a very basic level and applied to the technology of the day, we can follow Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a guide and project the future.
As for our basic needs, food and shelter will be the big ones. Certainly, food production needs to be done more locally to replace the 3,000-mile Caesar Salad. Housing, both adaptive and new, will require location-efficiency so that it is interconnected and residents can participate in the local economy safely and efficiently. If we are talking about affordability, Kotkin's reason for the growth towards the heartland, transportation costs are critical so walkability and transit access is vital. Neither of which can occur in a decentralized geography.
Moving up the hierarchy there are the jobs in the "connective arts" of both physical connection and social media. In the physical realm, there will need to be infrastructural improvements to accommodate the movement of all those new people. These will also have to be "clean" connections of multi-modal mobility: bicycle, streetcar, and potentially high-speed rail.
The most valuable places, those in greatest demand, have always and will always be those with the highest degree of interconnectivity. As Lewis Mumford states, transportation must be made for all distances and speeds, whether leisurely or hurried that we desire. In his stead, we could probably add real or digital, as there will also be a vast market for improving linkages not just between people but also between the parallel geography of places virtual and real.
Lastly as previously mentioned, is energy. While Kotkin suggests a correlation between decentralized energy and decentralized people, the decentralization here actually just means produced by the many rather than the few. This also benefits from clustering of people, locally- or neighborhood-based power producers benefit via lack of transmission loss as energy has much less distance to travel than from centralized power plants.
All of which points back to our cities and improving those which we already have. There will be no new pop-up cities like Ordos or giant mega-buildings like Burj Khalifa, both of which were entirely supply-side and remain empty. Rather we will focus on qualitative growth and incremental improvement.
The question then becomes, how do we get there? It is actually a cross-pollenization of what Kotkin suggests and what he seems to misinterpret from Richard Florida. It is not about smokestack chasing, or attracting creatives, but empowering creativity in all of us, which is what Florida is really saying beyond all of those statistics. These are merely indicators for tolerance and the most important form of tolerance of all is toward new ideas. We need to keep our creatives, all of us, and empower the collective energies towards a common purpose. Focus the creative, entrepreneurial energy locally, shaping our City into a great one to meet the needs of today and tomorrow.
This is at best only tangentially related to Joel Kotkin's book, but it is about the future...and about hope. As a demographer, Kotkin's hands inevitably are tied to the inherent fallibility of extrapolating present day statistics into an unknown future. Demographics do dictate markets, but only those at the present. It becomes foolish at some point to predict the future based on current values. It is a bit like those architectural "wouldn't it be neat if" competitions that invariably look like a Jetsons episode.
I would argue that we have a better capability of extrapolating the future from developing trends in industry and their emerging philosophical underpinnings. Something driving new thought in virtually all forward looking industries is that of biomimicry, which is the examination of natural systems put towards inspiring technological innovation. In a way, virtually all innovations are a product of mimicked nature. However, have you ever noticed how clumsy much of the industrial age is in comparison to the elegant simplicity of similar natural functions? Herman Daly might argue that the structural reason for this is the inability to properly value elements in the equation thereby producing very simple, if not proportionately crude products.
However, as we begin to grow out of our specialized professional silos, the 21st century will come to represent the biological age, cross-pollenating all industries with the wisdom of nature. 2050 is smack dab in the middle of it. For example, it can teach us how to produce fibers 5-times stronger than steel with minimal energy input or even fly with the grace and efficiency of a swallow. More tangibly, lessons in passive cooling of structure can be garnered by studying termite towers in the African desert or how to harness artificial photosynthesis to generate energy by taking full advantage of the cleanest power plant imaginable, the nuclear reactor located 93 million miles away.
I predict that the infusion of natural sciences will begin to pervade our daily lives as we remember the importance of a connection to nature and rediscover our humanity. The biological sciences can also teach us about our shifting values and the reasoning behind why they happen, about the oscillations of capitalistic economies as various fields are propelled by overlapping, parallel, and interconnected search and structure-building phases. A recessionary period is merely the repositioning or repurposing of our structures and institutions for a new age.
In Texas, many regard this recession as a relatively minor one. However, in the real estate and city building fields it has been brutal with several related fields over 50% unemployment locally. This is tangentially related to the housing crisis elsewhere because of frozen liquidity in lending to local developers, particularly those attempting to do anything different, i.e. innovate. What does biology have to do with real estate you might ask?
Like humans, there are many species that "own" and develop real estate, territory. Each is constantly shifting from search/expansion phase to a retrenching and structure building phase. The purpose of the expansion phase is to test the value of the "real estate" to the needs of the colony. Some areas prove more resilient than others do and the size of the territory reorganizes around those areas with continued purpose. Those areas are then qualitatively upgraded from "colony" to fully functioning complex, or city.
Like animals, we go through a collective psychological phase shift when we know our current model is no longer servicing us well. Rebuilding the old model proves futile, but the pain we collectively experience as recessions is the letting go of one model and its related institutions and the constructing of new ones. We are in the midst of a shift from the expansive role to one of structure building of new and improved institutions.
In City (re)building, as soon as the lenders figure out how to evaluate land potential properly, which is directly related to the key element of urbanity: connectivity and all of its various permutations, we can once again be off and running economically. My hope is that we can get to a world where growth means something more than just getting fatter. It means getting smarter, getting better, as a people and a City. Where it improves everything around it, does not diminish quality of life for others, the character of a neighborhood or the City, the environment, but rather is additive. Only then can we fully unleash the true power of capitalism, where growth is profitable economically, environmentally, aesthetically, and socially.
Imagine a form of wealth generation with auxiliary profits where buildings function as trees and produce their own energy, if not more. Or, where a factory acts like the soil where its processes result not just in intended product but also in clean, potable water as an output. By 2050, that is the kind of world I want to live in and we will all be the richer for it, in more ways than one.