Thursday, August 22, 2013

THINK and Thinking Some More

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of being on THINK with Krys Boyd talking about Deep Ellum's past, present, and future as well as ANewDallas, which would have a direct impact on Deep Ellum (it was also concocted partially in response to the need for affordable, walkable urban housing in support of both downtown and Deep Ellum businesses.

It was a great treat as I've listened to Think for a long time, a show that could and should be considered a Dallas treasure.

However, I can't possibly listen to it (you can get the podcast here).  I detest listening to myself.  It's agony and I'm not so in to S&M.  If I were to listen to it, I would constantly be thinking of how and what else I could've said.  For example, as I was having lunch after the show I thought of a joke I could have included with the discussion about third places being places of both social AND economic exchange rather than pure economic exchange.  You don't go to Walmart to become buddies with the greeter (even if the Costco greeter loves you).

The history of Deep Ellum has always fascinated me, specifically its etymology.  'Ellum' referring to Elm Street and 'Deep' being the far side of it as Dallas's natural growth pattern was away from the railroad hub (which creates an edge and thus a natural sociofugal force which pushes people towards centers or the creation of centers away from edges).

It was also interesting that Elm would be the primary driver rather then Main.  Perhaps because the Ross angle was the other primary direction of early Dallas expansion thus putting Elm as the spine of the Elm-Main-Commerce trivium that served both.  It became the seam of Dallas north and south and thus was home to many important buildings historic architecturally and culturally.

This concept of a street as a seam is important, particularly in relation to segregation, both in Dallas and in general.  There are three ways segregation occurs.  The first is through policy, such as Jim Crow laws, repealed in the 60s.  Another way is through physical barriers, borders, or boundaries.  And the last is by natural self-selection and self-organization, which is the one I primarily want to focus on with regards to urban form and how people interact or are allowed to do so (see: point 2).

Self-organized segregation is not the worst thing in the world when it is indeed by choice, however it can be indicative if inherent biases and prejudices.  In other cases, it can simply be a case of people wanting to be near those more like themselves (did I move to downtown 6 years ago (and stay ever since) because I was looking for diversity or looking to be around others like me who also value diversity?), particularly when it comes to language in multi-lingual places.  Not being able to speak the language can be tremendously isolating and disempowering, so in highly multi-cultural places, there tend to be self-organizing clusters of ethnic and racial similarities.

A demographic map of New York City is highly illuminating on several levels:

There are actually very few places that are highly inter-mixed.  Perhaps the most heterogenic mix is along Jamaica Ave area of Queens.  Reading between the lines however is even more telling.  There are two primary types of boundaries between the surprisingly homogeneous pockets of NYC: physical water bodies and city streets that actually function as seams, blending the cultures, and cauldrons of cultural and intellectual fusion, which is exactly what the city does, brings us together to expand our horizons through interconnection with each other, particularly those different from us with different backgrounds, histories, and approaches to the world around us.

The homogeneous pockets become more like a necessary evil.  A transitory phase of acclimation for newcomers, the fearful, etc.  The heterogeneous seams are then the baby steps for individuals to step out of the Applebee's and into a Pan-African fusion restaurant, so to speak, and experience new things.

In terms of Dallas, this is what Deep Ellum was (even though there was legislated segregation) and could be again, the seam between North and South Dallas.  The form of the city allowed for more intermixing then than it does now.  The self-selection and self-organizing process is limited by our transportation network. Choice is limited, therefore making an extremely fragile monoculture of neighborhood type and transportation mode.

Our physical barriers are constructed.  The highways are the walls between us, but also the reason to leave.  Not only has Dallas experienced white flight, but also black flight.  The highway network has carved the city into isolated pockets and undermined the grid as a system of seams, of intellectual and cultural foment.  It has undermined interconnectivity and walkability.

Without those things, living in or around the urban core loses its primary advantage, which is proximity and walkability.  So if you have to have a car, rich or poor, black or white, why would anyone stay in the city if you have the opportunity to not do so?

The only choice is and has been to leave central portions of the city and that's a sign of a dysfunctional system.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Austin I-35: Appendix

Playing around with the data tables a bit, I wanted to look for more identifiable connections between connectivity (or lack thereof) and the highway.  Something I hadn't yet graphed was the cross-section of connectivity.  It ends up looking like this:

Again, that is just connectivity as measured by the spatial integration map for global interconnectivity of Austin before the cut n cap.  There aren't dollar values set to this, looks an awful lot like land value per square foot of what is existing, no?

Again, the immediately above graph shows only existing land value per square foot to the same cross-section based on distance from West Ave (point zero).  The same patterns exist: a steep drop-off from Congress to I-35 and a relatively flat value disconnected as if it was totally apart, disembodied from its relationship to downtown and any possible increment that could be interpreted based on proximity to downtown, downtown amenities, and jobs.

When looking at the 1st graph in a different way, rather than distance from West Ave but distance from I-35 itself, it paints a stark contrast in the drop in value between one side of the highway and the other.

New potential "value-capture" (and yes I hate that term but people understand it) exists by removing or cutting and capping 35 on both sides of the highway, smoothing out the steep decline as properties approach 35 as well as much of East Austin.

Austin 35 Cut n Cap - Profit Increment in Qualitative & Quantitative Improvement


As you may know, a group called Reconnect Austin is proposing to "cut and cap" I-35 through downtown Austin. Cut means to essentially drop the road below grade and cap means to cover it with a boulevard (essentially what were the frontage roads), public space (similar to Woodall Rodgers and Klyde Warren deck park in Dallas except over several more blocks than the three that comprise KWP), and reconnecting the grid of streets between East Austin and downtown Austin.  This study will use new quantifiable means of evaluation to measure the increased value of existing property due to the reconnecting of the grid and the open space replacing what is currently a highway.

The Reconnect Austin plan differs from A New Dallas in that they aren't proposing to remove highway capacity. Their primary challenge is initial capital outlay for infrastructure for what I expect is a lower return than A New Dallas is projecting. On the flip side, their idea may be more politically palatable in that they aren't removing highway capacity even though every city in Texas has an overabundance of what we can no longer afford while it subsidizes the long-trip and living outside the city.

They may be recapturing some right-of-way through tightening up the frontage road/highway section to highway below grade/boulevard on top. On the surface, it's more about qualitative improvement of the area and its surroundings (by burying a freeway that is, by nature sociofugal - it disperses people and no one wants to be around it).  Also, from what I understand the amount of recaptured right-of-way is a moving target at this point, therefore I've left that out of this study to focus solely on quantitative and qualitative improvement of what currently exists.  At which point, we can then reasonably expect that increased value to the be catalyst for additional new development, but that is also left out of this study as it's expected to be covered by every other projection being done by those working hard on this proposal in Austin.

Inner-city highways are more disconnective than they are agents of local connectivity. In other words, the grid is clipped except at certain cross streets. The effect is that highway frontage is really only valuable at those particular cross streets that link divided districts. Meanwhile, land that is along the highway but not at a cross street, actually has very bad accessibility. It may have visibility, but as little more than a billboard. This is why we're seeing so much disinvestment and down-cycling of development along highway frontage. We assumed the same logic applied as always has with cities, that traffic equals value. But not if that traffic has difficulty getting to you, are passed you by the time they see your signage AND if that traffic is of an unsafe, high speed nature.  Your property frontage is then worth little more than billboard ad space.

I don't know the specifics of the ever-changing plan in terms of what NEW land can be recaptured from the right nor what NEW development will be induced through improved qualitative and quantitative (connectivity) improvements. Instead, in this post I'm going to 1) explore the negative effect that the highway has on property. For the remainder of this post, I'll refer to this phase of study as ANALSYS 2) how the cut n cap plan improves connectivity and how that translates into a measurable increment of value for existing real estate. I'll refer to this as the QUANTITATIVE phase of research and value projection. And, 3) how the decking with open space and a pedestrian scaled boulevard qualitatively improves real estate value. I'll explain each of these in PROCESS below. This will hereafter be referred to as QUALITATIVE.

*Side Note: I believe they should also look at re-routing 35 along available right of way further east, either "improving" the 183/Bluestein Boulevard in transportation terminology from an arterial to a highway OR somehow coupling it with 45/130 toll road well to the east of Austin.


As mentioned above, there are three phases to this study: ANALYSIS, QUANTITATIVE improvement, and QUALITATIVE improvement. ANALYSIS only looks at the before, what is the effect on real estate based on existing infrastructure. QUANT and QUAL look at before and after conditions to find the increment of value created by the cut n cap and use existing studies as reference for the projections of value.

This will be explained in more detail below, however the ANALYSIS section looks into the existing development, land value, and improvement values in relation to distance from Congress Avenue (as proxy for the central spine of the city, or apex of the sandcastle if you will) as well as distance from 35.

QUANT uses spatial integration software and created a model of the street network before and after plan implementation. This mathematical model then provides a value for a blocks integration with its surroundings from which we can relate to land/development value and then associate an increment of value created with becoming more integrated and interconnected.

QUAL uses the Harvard study on the proximity increment to urban parks that I elaborated into the Klyde Warren Park study. More background on this can be found here and here. It should be noted that Austin CnC is much larger in its scope and impact than KWP and in the interest of time, rather than look at every single parcel, I must extrapolate data patterns over the larger area.

ANALYSIS on the Effect of Infrastructure Spines on Real Estate Value and Development

I began this portion of the study by identifying three (3) block wide segments of land between 4th to the south and 7th to the north in 7 block increments (the amount of blocks between 35 and Congress and Congress and where Shoal Creek begins to disrupt the fabric providing a natural transition between downtown and adjacent neighborhood. I used three rather than analyzing the full study area and would average the three together to somewhat ameliorate any outliers or noise based on one block having lots of development or none at all.

I then labeled these blocks ABC for between Congress and 35, DEF for 35 to Comal (where I used 8 blocks since the blocks closest to 35 are really only half blocks), and GHI from Congress to West Ave to the, duh, west. Then I numbered each 1 through 7 so that every block as an identifying label of A1 through I7.

Setting the framework up in this way, I realized that F1 through F8 couldn't be used because the land is occupied almost entirely by railroad and thus there is little to no development possible. To ensure I had contiguous, regular grid of 3 x 7(ish), I moved the F block south one block to between 3rd and 4th. I used 4th through 7th because this is the center of town, the center of the cut n cap, likely to be the most built-out and "mature," as well as being the least disrupted by variegated grid (convention centers, big parks, twists in the grid, etc).

I set up three sets ABC, DEF, and GHI in order to compare what effect being closer to Congress or 35 might have on development and value, while being able to add or remove variables. Such as B1 and H7 are the same distance to Congress, both between 5th and 6th, but have far different distance to 35. What's the value change? However, rather than look at isolated blocks where outliers are likely, I averaged the three blocks so that I could compare ABC1 to GHI7 or ABC4 to DEF5 which have the same distance to 35 but different distance to Congress. I wanted to know which has greater impact on value, the center of town (Congress) or the primary movement corridor (35). Which has more positive impact? What effect does distance have from either negative or positive inputs? Etc.

Next, I went through the Travis County Property Assessment website,, and looked up every single property within the 66 blocks of the study area.  As you can imagine, this created for a rather large database as many of the individual blocks could have up to about 15 different parcels within them. This spreadsheet has over 600 rows of data for each parcel within each block.  And it has about a dozen columns of data including land value, improvement value, property taxes, tax exemptions, land area, total built square feet, built square feet by use (so I can break down where land uses are going based on location), amount of surface parking, and total residential units.

Now there are some necessary caveats I must make, some to do with the methodology, some to do with the availability of data, and TCAD's limitations.  First, and perhaps most frustratingly, TCAD doesn't handle condominiums in a user-friendly manner.  At least I haven't found it if there is.  Because there are many owners within a condo, TCAD doesn't summarize all of the property assessment data.  Nor is it particularly easy to find the individual owners.  The best I could do was find 5-10 properties within the condo on trulia and try to extrapolate those to the entire development.

There is also some noise built-in to the study, because it's built-in to the city of Austin.  1) Where there is historic preservation, there is a possibility that total built square footage is artificially depressed by policy.  This may be offset by higher $ values per square foot.  We'll have to see as it plays out.  2)  Austin, and particularly downtown, is a pretty incredibly hot market and has been for some time.  3) On top of and in conjunction with that, downtown was fairly depressed with the exception of the 6th street bars, gov't buildings, and university presence.  Meaning, where there may have been several acres of underdevelopment, within a year or two those blocks could be dotted with a few high-rises, but not yet fully built out.  4) In other words, it's an area in transition.

Because of this potential noise is why I used a three block wide swath to average them together and hopefully mitigate some of that up and down variability in order to isolate the variable of distance from 35 and/or distance from Congress.  So I created another database which was the summary of all of that parcel data, aggregated into totals for the block, which I then pulled for all 66 blocks into this new database.

This spreadsheet includes all of the data from the previous spreadsheet, but then also includes formulae for acreage, FAR (floor area ratio of built space over land area), land value over land area, total value over land area, built value per built square footage, and percentage of surface parking over the total site area.  These were all then averaged out for ABC together, DEF together, and GHI together.  Each block also had measures for distance to Congress, distance to 35, as well as distance from "Point Zero" (0), which I set as West Avenue at near Shoal Creek so that I can create a graph of value that is literally a cross-section of the city as if we're viewing it from Town Lake, only the various data points would replace the building heights of the skyline.

There are also several columns of data for spatial integration but I'll cover that in the next section.  First, let's examine what's existing and what we can learn from what effect Congress and 35 have on land and built values.

Above and below are the first two charts I put together in draft form for the presentation I gave in Austin.  I didn't have all the data in yet, but they are still pretty telling.  Above excludes GHI blocks west of Congress, but you can clearly see the half-section "sand castle effect" as property value per square foot crescendos at the center of town, again Congress by proxy.

You can also see that spike just on the west side of 35, or the downtown side.  This is one of the noisy points I was talking about, except it isn't really noise due to transitional development as much as it is a direct by-product of its location, context, and the nature of highways.  Highways disconnect the grid.  By doing so, they tend to devalue most of the land along the highway which has lost some degree of accessibility and interconnectivity.  But it also puts new value on the few crossing points, where exits from the highway meet linkages across the highway acting as barrier.  In this case, it is 6th Street.  And in that particular dot's case floating up there all alone, it is a hotel that positioned itself right between the flow of visitor traffic into downtown and the Austin convention center.

The x-axis above is now turned around.  Imagine if in section, we'd be looking at downtown from DKRoyal Stadium with 35 on the left and Congress/downtown on the right.  The two lines shown are land value (the more gradual arc and built value the parabolic U-shape, which you can see spikes by 35 due to that same hotel and then spikes in the center of town, providing that familiar conical (in 3D) or pyramidal (2D) shape of skylines.

What I'm showing in red is the value increment created by highway-oriented development.  In green though, is all the value lost because development potential of this land is deflated due in some part to the parking/logistical/infrastructural needs of the "spiky" areas which might be considered over developed if they're usurping the value/development potential of their surroundings.

Those were the preliminary results.  Now let's start looking at the more complete results.

Shown above is the cross-section of land value per square foot based on distance from point zero, West Avenue.  You can see how it crescendos at the center of town, there is a stark drop-off east of 35, and we'll look into this in more detail, but it appears that value drops a bit more rapidly towards 35 (an edge) than towards Shoal Creek (which is less of an edge, but still has some disconnectivity to it).

*There won't be any trendlines to the full cross-section.  These are only relevant in the 7 block segments as properties approach Congress or 35, which seem to be the primary value drivers whether positively or negatively.

The next three cross-sections:

Above is total value (built + land) per acre.  If anything, this points out the (perhaps vestigial) stability at the edges and the noise of transition as the core experiences new development here and there.

Shown above is FAR by block average based on distance from point zero.  Floor area ratio could be considered built density as opposed to population density.  In other words, 1 condo taking up 2400 square feet would look like more density than 3 studio apartments at 1800 sf.  

Last of the broad sections is built value per built square foot of improvement.

Above is total built + land value per acre in cross section from Congress eastward.  In order to give some relationship that 35 instills.  Except it is difficult to tell exactly.  The noise tends to come with the amount of development on a site, given the transitional nature of downtown and how hyperactive the market is on some blocks vs others, which remain parking lots or something similar.

Below I'm showing in blue the ABC blocks as they move eastward away from Congress.  In red are GHI blocks from Congress moving westward towards West Ave.  There are no clear patterns emerging whether one has more value or development.  Though more new development seems to be in the works to the west while hotels inflate the east.

What makes it difficult to tell the exact value that 35, as it is currently designed, is that we don't have any other scenarios to compare it to.  Let's hold that thought.

When we look just at land value per acre from Congress eastward you can see some very clear patterns.  It's almost as if there are two separate equations at work here.  One for inside of the highway, one for "other side of the tracks" so to speak, just of the other side of the highway.  However, it must be said that the upward trend towards the core starts one block east of 35, where the half block is.  Whether that is due to the highway giving it some increased value due to the traffic and highway-oriented development despite its disconnective properties or whether that's an overflow of downtown induced demand, it's difficult to say.  I have to expect that a smoother gradation from peak to the edge would have more inherent development value, eventual density, and tax base than the highway created dichotomy.

Unless we can run a simulation before and after and are able to associate a dollar value to the increment of difference in connectivity from the BEFORE plan to the AFTER plan.  Which is exactly what I did.

QUANTITATIVE Analysis and the Increment of Increased Value through Increased Interconnectivity

Now for the part where it starts to get interesting.  We can't really tell what kind of value the highway might be creating or removing because the effect it has might very well be impacting the entire study area.  In other words, there is no discernible evidence that getting further away from the highway creates more value.  However, there definitely seems to be a clear drop on the other side of the highway from downtown.  Whether that is primarily due to distance from Congress or the relationship to 35 is difficult to say.

Fortunately, we now have spatial integration programs that mathematically measure degree of connectivity.  We can input two systems and tell mathematically to what degree one is more connected than another.  In this case, the two systems are the existing one with the highway and another where the highway is buried and the grid is stitched together above.

Having an integration value and real world dollar values, we can see what relationship there is between the two (if any) and see if it translates into a predictable formula allowing us to say x integration = y $ value.

Before - Local Integration (those areas most interconnected using less than 2 turns)

After - Local integration

Before - Global Integration (areas most interconnected regardless of turns)

After - Global Integration

Can't tell the difference?  Good, I barely can either at that scale.  Fortunately, we have two things working for us.  One of them is me.  So I created a color coded map to simplify areas where colors 'jumped' from one code to another.

Primary local integration gains after cutting and capping I-35:

Primary global integration gains:

As you can see there is a spillover effect where increased interconnective value ripples throughout the city due to cutting and capping 35 and thus, restitching the grid.

Global integration can be seen as the "macro-market," the relationship to the entire system.  By way of its color coding (red = most), it highlights the single most interconnected area in the entire system.  A downtown, in effect.  

Local integration points out neighborhood centers.  Those areas that should be the many walkable cores of neighborhoods throughout the city, or the "micro-market."  

However, like any statistic, these color codes are a mere abstraction.  Fortunately, each of these color coded segments are real street axials each with their own numerical value of interconnectedness.  Furthermore, each segment connects with another segment to create an intersection value.  And four segments circumnavigating a block give that block a particular value.  

While differing block faces might have different values (ie one better for retail), for the purposes of this study, I put together the four segments to give each block its value so I could compare it to total land and development value.  With having the $ value data we can create formulas that relate degree of connectivity to dollar value, with the understanding that developed value is a supply responsive to the demand created by connectivity.

After creating the axial maps for both the before and after scenarios, I now had mathematical results for each street in the system.  By looking at each street facing each block I could calculate a single block's integration factor.  At which point, I then input every single one for every block that I already had property data for.  

Let's look at some of these relationships shall we?
The first chart, immediately below, is total integration value (local + global) to the same cross-section shown above, from West Ave to Comal St to the east (right on the chart).  As you can see, it's pretty similar to the cross-sections above based on land and development value.  It's a little inflated to the east because of the way local interconnectivity is calculated in relation to global connectivity.  So by simply adding them together it creates a bit too much noise in the system, or said in another way, it overvalues local interconnectivity.

We'll get back to that in a bit.  First, let's stick to the degrees of interconnectivity in relation to the local geography and street network.

Below is showing the degree of increment AFTER is higher than BEFORE for local, global, and both.  What it clearly shows is the restitching of the grid has a significant increase in degree of integration for both local and global connectivity and the degree is much greater closer to 35, as predicted, but there is still some increase further away, but the degree to which it increases dissipates, which is also predictable because of the relationship of proximity.

Seen as a cross-section throughout the system, below is not the increase but the total interconnectivity before and after.  Before is red and after is blue.  As you can see the greatest increment of difference is closest but there is an incremental gain throughout the study area.  As always, unless labeled otherwise 35 is the thicker stripe through the chart.

That's all well and good, but is there a relationship between degree of connectivity and value of land, development, etc.?

Immediately below is integration value (global and local - multiplied rather than added to reduce weighting towards local connectivity) to total value per acre.  Again, there is a bit of noise, but I think we can say there is a pretty strong relationship that greater connectivity = greater value.

Below is FAR to global connectivity.  Or, the supply response of the market to the demand created by interconnectivity.  Naturally, there will be a bit more noise here as there is another level of time and middlemen, the developers, at work and thus more time delay before equilibrium is reached.  Beyond those caveats, there is still a discernible increase in development in relation to interconnectivity.

And lastly, is total development value per acre to degree of local interconnectivity.  It doesn't matter where we use local or global connectivity, value increases where both or either increases.

The question is, is there a dollar value that we can correlate to integration value.  Because we have so much data we can create a number of formulas that connect integration value to land value, but we'll go with one of those with the least amount of noise in the system.  Doing so, we see an exponential relationship between interconnectivity and $ value by block.

For example, doubling integrative value results in more than double the value in land and development. Interconnectivity is thus superlinear.  The value of urbanism is exponential.

Within the study area, before and after, we see integrative values between 4 and 6.  Looking at each of those increments, we can interpolate with the formula:

Integrative Value    Land Value per Acre
          4                     $760,655.73
         4.5                 $1,927,028.53
         5.0                 $4,881,891.78
         5.5                $12,367,677.48
         6.0                $31,332,002.65

In other words, if we can increase degree of integration, we end up with greater potential latent within the land.  By cutting and capping 35, we create greater spatial integration, which creates greater value, which helps to pay for the infrastructure.

Again, this doesn't calculate any new development, but rather the increased potential within land that helps make the new development happen.  Rather than subsidizing development that often is necessary evil in infill locations, the "subsidy" is increased interconnectivity, which is the more logical, historic, and market-oriented way cities were and continue to get built.

Taking this formula, I used the degree increment throughout the study area and found an immediate increase in existing properties of $231,958,402.38 in property value.


QUALITATIVE Value Increase by Removing Negative Impact of Highway 

I've often written that there is both a qualitative measure to land value as well as quantitative.  A simple analogy to this is the walkscore formula which measures only proximity of a variety of possible destinations within a presumed walking distance.  It doesn't however take into account the quality of the streets, sidewalks, or the experience of actually walking there.  That's the fine tuning knob.

In terms of overall value or walkability, regardless of which we're talking about, the spatial relationship within the network is the primary driving force.  Qualitative improvement adds to it.  But you can't have only the qualitative aspect without the quantitative.  Quantitative is the foundation. Otherwise you're merely decorating.

However, that also shouldn't assume that qualitative improvement shouldn't be taken into account.  In the case of I-35 in Austin, it means removing the negative effect highways have on their surroundings from a more visceral perspective.  They feel unsafe. They are unsafe and they're undesirable to be around.  This, in turn, has a negative effect on surrounding property.  That of course is the qualitative aspect on top of the reduced accessibility, even though more cars are moving past, the quantatitive aspect.

Like with the Klyde Warren Park study I completed a few months ago, I'm using a blend of a variety of studies on value increment of proximity to parks on real estate.  However, rather than going by segments like below, I used the formula (which resembles the arc shown below moreso than the brackets) and plugged that into the spreadsheet because there were so many more parcels.  I just capped the formula at 25%.

Roughly working out the distances from boulevard/deck park/open space cap that would go over top of the sunken 35 highway and the impact that the new open space would again ripple across the downtown and East Austin area as a gradient where the greatest impact on value is closest to the qualitative public improvement.  This value diminishes to 0% as we get close to 1/3rd of a mile away from it.  Perhaps not coincidentally, about the distance that walkability is lost.

The calculations were pretty simple for this phase of the study, because all of the other data is already in the spreadsheet.  Moving it forward was just a matter of plugging the formula into the spreadsheet for the 66 blocks already quantified based on their distance to 35.  The distance to 35, used to chart any impact 35 itself, was used as the input for the formula for the distance to the proposed open space replacement.  This value was then extrapolated to the entire study area that would be impacted by new open space based on distance.

The result is a new value increment of existing property from improved public realm of $149,795,748.43.

Adding the two together (presuming that the qualitative open space increment based on studies is all qualitative and not in any way quantitative through improved connectivity -- which is plausible considering the connectivity increment we're using is entirely about streets)

Quantitative Improvement:  $231,958,402.38
+ Qualitative Improvement: $149,795,748.43.

Overall Improvement of Existing Property:  $381,754,150.81

Again, I feel it necessary to reiterate that this is only for property as it currently exists.  This does not propose any new development, which would predictably result from the new demand instilled by the improved connectivity and public realm environment.  New development would also likely occur due to any recapturing of right-of-way, so this figure should be considered on top of typical return on investment scenarios that don't often take these factors into account.


Without looking at projections based on before and after street networks, using interconnectivity as a variable in the two scenarios, it is difficult to determine if and to what extent I-35 is depressing land value and development, if indeed it is.  However, it is also hard to imagine that it doesn't instill pressure for more parking while acting as one part dam against demand for infill development and one part diffuser, dispersing that demand to outer reaches of the city.  In effect, pushing "affordability" outwards rather than inwards as a market response to a variety of segments wanting to be closer to the city center.

In such a scenario, it is also difficult to see existing parking, surface or garage as potential floor area that could be too valuable as something else without the highway corridor.  I think all of the data and studies shown above show a pretty strong and direct relationship between improved interconnectivity and quality of public realm with increased value.  The two work hand in hand.  Of course, you also have to buy that there is indeed a proven connection between value with interconnectivity and/or quality public space.  However, I'm riffing off of studies from University College of London and Harvard, so take it up with them if you don't buy it.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Houston's Metro Expansion and a Lesson in Traffic Planning

For whatever reason, I came about a map for the planned expansion of the Houston Metro light rail system (seen immediately below).  What struck me was the geometric and emergent nature of the system in the sense of what the individual lines come together to create something altogether different.  A line is but a single line, but multiple, interconnected lines become a network.  And therein lies the value.

Viewed perhaps in abstract, when you take four lines linking housing to job centers you can form a pinwheel effect with a "loop" at the center.  However, the loop isn't an actual loop, but a figurative loop created by four segments.  In actuality, it becomes a micro-grid.  If these were four streets, you would in effect create one loop.  Or as we know it in common parlance, a block.

In practice this is a much more efficient system than if an actual loop was created with lines radiating from the inner-loop, as was initially proposed (and turned down by the feds) for the downtown Dallas streetcar system.  When it was proposed, I argued against the inner loop as a tourist only system that didn't serve regular riders and because it didn't serve as housing to jobs link, it wouldn't be looked upon favorably by the TIGER grant (which ended up giving the grant to the Oak Cliff streetcar).

What is important in practice is that in a grid system (or micro-grid where only one "loop" or block is created), it allows people to get anywhere in the city (that is linked to the network) with no more than 1 transfer.  However, if the streetcar loop had been funded and built in Dallas, you could be looking at many more transfers due to the inefficiency in the system (an inefficiency instilled by attempting to appease tourists and tourists alone).

For example, in a loop, hub and spoke, if you were on Lower Greenville and you wanted to get to Bishop Arts, you would take one streetcar to downtown, then transfer to the loop, then ride the loop around, then transfer to the Oak Cliff line (with delays at each transfer).  In other words a terrible system.  Instead, in a grid system created by segments to get anywhere beyond a singular line, you can transfer from an east-west line to a north-south line and generally have far greater "reach" within one transfer.  In our example above, that would mean riding a line from Lowest Greenville to the West End (call it a hypothetical Ross line), catch a transfer to a "Market Street" Line which would run from Victory through West End across the Trinity to Oak Cliff.

There is a critical lesson that can be learned from Houston's metro plan with regards to capacity.  And that is using a grid system to create the extra capacity for you where extra capacity is necessary, at hubs, or the core of a system, or in the cases referenced above, downtowns.

The opposite of creating capacity through a grid network is creating increased corridor capacity.  We see this issue with DART's system.  Because D2 has not yet been funded nor built, we have a backlog in downtown on the only DART corridor as new lines came online.  The ripple effect was increased headways (time/distance between trains on single lines) further up each of the individual lines so that they could be spaced out enough when they all hit the single available corridor.

Absent D2, which in effect would create some measure of the grid system where it is necessary and effective, what are the other options?  More corridor capacity.  However, that isn't feasible nor desirable.  To create more corridor capacity would mean to either build above, below, or create more parallel tracks where multiple trains come together (like at a typical european train station).  It makes sense at station areas in European cities because the capacity has to be centralized as these are the ends of routes that stop unload, reload, and turn around.  Above or below doesn't work because we're talking the same costs that sunk D2 in the first place.  Wider doesn't work because then we're eating into private land and knocking down buildings.

However, the real lesson is to translate this concept from transit to cars, roads, and cities.  If creating new corridor capacity doesn't work for transit, why do we insist on doing it for roads and cars?  Mostly because we're stupid.  Not stupid, as in the people are stupid, but rather smart people operating within pre-ordained standards and formulas and rules that don't recognize the impact transportation planning and design has on form and function of cities, much like an insidious corporation can be full of very nice, pleasant, and well meaning, individuals.  It is the institution that is corrupt and continues to corrupt.

For example on how the capacity debate works in the real world, I like to point to Vancouver.  Above, I'm showing a 1985 plan to add highways to the city of Vancouver which famously has been allergic to allowing freeways into their city since that became en vogue.  And rightly so as history has proven them to be right in their steadfastness.  This plan was rejected as "congestion relief" measure as was the initial 1960s era plan which would've criss-crossed the downtown peninsula with several freeways.

The reality is that these highways would've usurped all the traffic onto the grid because of the disconnective, dendritic, "funneling" effect that highways inherently have on the system.  To create their singularity of corridor efficiency, they have to limit connections to them.  By limiting connections to them (to increase speed) they also limit interconnectivity of the overall system.  They end up rendering the rest of the grid impotent.

However, as we know, Vancouver never built any of these proposals that would've "cured" it.  I guess they remain an institution uncorrupted by stupidity.  The result, more importantly, is that their grids remain in tact.  And in the case of downtown Vancouver grid, the total capacity of it is actually double what the proposed freeway capacity would've been.

In the quick sketch I drew above, I simulate a corridor entering two types of systems, city and anti-city.  The corridor enters from the left into a core network, aka city.  As it enters the city, built to create collisions of social and economic exchange, the anti-city system focuses on singular corridor capacity increases, widening and widening, thus disrupting the network and diffusing any value therein.

The true city corridor would actually scale down itself to fit within the city, but diffuse its own need for capacity onto the broader system.  It is what we call a "reticulated" system or multiply interconnected.  The multiple interconnections allow for route choice, and once again, a minimum amount of transfers from one corridor to another.

You can get anywhere in the system with just one turn.  However, through the multiplicity of the grid, if there is a disturbance in one location, you can vary your route day to day based on conditions, needs, and desires.  This makes for a smart system.  User adaptability and choice.  It is far smarter than the smartest of arterial and highway networks which rely on data and sequencing and everything else.  Because there is a funneling effect to it that disrupts a smarter system (and city) from emerging.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Internal Combustion Engine vs. The Microprocessor

Yesterday, on twitter, on this very blog, and in my presentation to the local Sierra Club, I mentioned the difference between the 20th century city and the 21st century city (and by city, I refer to the physical embodiment of local economies). In the 20th century city and economy, the consumption of natural resources was considered both to be economic development in action as well as a symbol of wealth. As we know, this was misguided in ways that I'll explain and the 21st century city/economy learned from and adapted into a new direction, realizing that there were inherent inefficiencies in what was essentially cradle to grave processes.

I've also often written about the idea that the modern city and its form, modern being of its particular time, was formed by and a physical response to the primary interconnective technology of the day. I say interconnective rather than transportation because how we understand the "chemical" bonds of the city as a molecule is changing. In writing about this, I was merely aping Prof Peter Newman who theorized that all cities throughout time are about an hour wide. Thirty minutes to the center of action from all directions, by whatever the prevailing transportation technology of its time.

This has some legs when you start seeing average commute times in every city across the country (they're remarkably consistent despite widely varying forms, generally between 25-35 minutes) as well as public surveys citing the preferred commute time of about 20 minutes (22 to be precise based on averaging out the feedback). Why isn't the preferred commute time 2 minutes instead of 22? Apparently because people like to prepare before work and decompress after work. There is a necessary psychological preparation period between lives so to speak.

As I argued in the piece linked above, the car is no longer "high tech." It is well beyond its peak, technologically and functionally in its service to the city and its people. VMT (vehicle miles traveled) trend lines and the auto-industry rest my case for me. Instead, I argued that the next primary transportation technology is the internet. However, it is so new, in its infancy, that it hasn't yet had the full impact on cities. The car was invented at the turn of the 20th century, but its full impact wasn't felt until 50-100 years later. The micro-processor was invented right around the time that cars began to reach maturity in how we planned and designed cities around them. Now, they've pretty much matured to the point that we can't shrink them or squeeze much more efficiency out of them, fifty years hence. There is no magic to the number 50. However, we can assume that the internet will eventually be the guiding force behind planning and development of cities. Perhaps fifty years after its adoption into everyday life. Who knows.

However, in this piece I want to write more metaphorically about the tale of these two cities, the 20th and 21st century cities and their ideal. While the car dominated the 20th century city, there are also some parallels between its internal combustion engine and how we viewed both cities and economies during that period (and unfortunately, there is still far too much remnant flotsam and jetsam floating around today). Likewise, I suspect that the microprocessor, the engine behind our modern handheld and laptop transportation devices serves as a lesson for the direction the new city is heading. And those cities lagging behind would be wise to follow.

With regards to the internal combustion engine and the 20th century city/economy, bigger was often seen as better. A great big hemi F150 (I have no idea if that is a real thing, but it sounds real to me) was a form of braggadocio, an opulent symbol of wealth whether true or not. Not only is it big and takes a lot of space and get outta my way, but it burns quite a bit of fuel and that means horsepower and that I'm rich enough to afford it. This is the 20th american city (and increasingly, it's becoming the Warholian tomato soup can model for cities in China, India, and the Middle East). Everything had to be bigger and consume more. Because more consumption meant an increase in GDP. Have I ever mentioned how bad of a statistic GDP is (or most statistics)?

An interesting side note is that I also don't blame large vehicle owners in the states. I see them as a by-product of the competition for space, just like having a small vehicle in European cities is a by-product of the competition for much less, and much more crowded space. It's also more valuable space, because it is part of an intricately interconnected inner-workings of neighborhoods. Land there is too valuable to be composed of parking, paving, and freeways. Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, the road is the competition. Everybody else is in the way, competing in the futile race to the next red light, as if it might get you ahead. Metaphorical indeed.

But it also points to the new direction. Wherein pedestrian cities, other people aren't competition but cooperation. Other people keep you safe via eyes on the street. Car-dependently designed transportation networks (and in turn cities) work at optimal condition when nobody else is on the road. This is a problem. As the city is a machine of collisions, bringing skills, labor, ideas, and every other necessary in the stew of human progress, this creates anti-city. In the city of the future, with our handheld inter-connective devices, we are walking and biking more often, because there is both an economic component, being more energy efficient, and a pleasurable component. We're still making the same socio-economic bonds, but in a way that makes us healthier and happier. Our cities too.

The internet is our new super highway system. Allowing us to maintain socio-economic bonds. It is our new infrastructure. We'll still need certain heavy, physical infrastructure for global commerce, however I expect that to diminish as well as the world relocalizes and becomes smarter and more efficient. The cheapest thing to send around the globe is ideas. What comes with ideas is skills and the ability to produce that which we need. Meanwhile, the microprocessor is democratizes means of production in the form of 3D printing and who knows what next.

However, in this new, smarter, cleaner, greener city that heavy infrastructure goes behind the scenes. Cities once built mega highways as symbols and (more importantly) the belief in progress. Except it wasn't. It was merely waste. As we're slowing finding out. The new infrastructure is still there, but its in data centers, we're hiding it from view, but it's still necessary from a functional standpoint. There isn't a point in flaunting it. That would be an inefficient and inelegant use of land.

The sign of wealth creation now is reduction of waste. Being smarter. Where the internal combustion engine and the cities of the 20th century got bigger due to "efficiencies of scale," we've learned bigger isn't better, but better is better. Nobody has a mainframe computer anymore. We want elegant, slickly designed gadgets. The processors and the memory got smaller and more efficient. Our cities too will get smaller and more efficient.

The difference is the Model T to the smart phone. The difference is Houston to Copenhagen.

The difference knows the difference between wealth and the simulacra of riches. It pursues efficiency. And in efficiency + desirability it finds walkable, human scaled, safe, clean, and green cities.

Design is no longer about opulent displays of wealth, but more efficient, elegant systems. More efficient, elegant cities. And no Pritzker Prize winners.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Sierra Club 345 Presentation

Tuesday night I spoke to the Dallas area Sierra Club about highway tear-outs, particularly 345 in downtown Dallas. As per usual, I customized the presentation to the audience, the majority of which was preamble background detailing reasons why and what led us to even thinking about highway tear-outs. You can see that embedded below.

Perhaps most interestingly though was the connection between my broader message and something the 2nd speaker, a local ornothologist said. Speaking about the mosquito problem in Dallas, she stated that "all animals seek to maximize nutrition while minimizing energy to do so."

In my presentation, I spoke about how the 20th century economy falsely equated resource consumption as a form of economic development and a symbol of wealth. Meanwhile, the 21st century economy and the cleaner, greener cities that will lead the way see resource consumption as a waste and a barrier to further wealth creation. Real money is smart money. No need for the flash. That's for the posers. Leave that to the Chinese who wrongly see car ownership and road building as a form of wealth creation rather than a wasteful response to the aggregation of wealth. Maximize value while minimizing cost/energy. Same thing. To know cities, study ecology.

Catering to Entropy and Inertia, , Expecting Something Different, Continues Entropy and Inertia

The DMN has been running a series this week on the history and shortcomings of DART. I suppose the most worthwhile nugget is that the town of Addison has provided $200 million to DART in sales taxes, but has received no LRT.

I'm on the record of saying that DART has been one of the best things to happen to Dallas since striking oil in Texas, but I'm also not against ever pointing out the shortcomings. However, when doing so we (and by we I mean the DMN, no check that, I suppose I mean me) we have to provide more context for why the shortcomings and what we can do to solve it.

The real story here is that The Longest Light Rail System in the Country boast holds a clue within its very words for the shortcomings. Long doesn't necessary mean efficient. In fact, in the case of DART it means stretched too thin, brittle, in the effort to serve a region not built of, by, or for rail, in the ambitious and noble hopes that development patterns will adapt to it. And to a very minor extent they have. The TODs that are mentioned are, by a ridiculous sum, just a miniscule fraction of the regional housing starts. The reason is the region is still built for the car, and thus, the regional housing market is responsive to the car.

First, we have to understand timelines here. DART was always going to be a struggle. Building heavy infrastructure is generational (in a number of manners). A highway alters a city, its behaviors, movement patterns, and real estate markets for the forty years it exists and then well beyond. A rail network is a hundred year endeavor. The region and the city has to be given time to adapt and we have to continue to strengthen this system and with that mobility choices. Like in most regards with cities, bigger isn't better. Better is better.

Furthermore, there are only a few TODs (transit-oriented development) worth talking about. Even some of those mentioned in the articles aren't particularly walkable themselves. One problem is that we got the order backwards. Walkability delivers tax base which delivers rail better than rail delivers tax base which brings walkability. The reality is that rail has brought very little walkability.

In fact, rail often disconnects more than it connects. This is the whole point of subways, but those only make sense in high density areas where the costs work out. In other words, you have to build an infrastructure for density to support an infrastructure of density. Car-dependent networks separate, divide, and disperse rather than bringing people together, which is at the heart of an stable, resilient, desirable city.

On top of that, transit station areas have been like steroids injected into real estate speculation, inflating prices around station areas to the point that affordable development (both for the developer and the end user, the resident) makes deals largely untenable. So they often sit as parking and park n rides, exacerbated by that LONGEST SYSTEM issue because that kind of density doesn't want to be so far away from the city unless you can achieve a critical mass of density.

In other words, the city (defined not by political body but as a physical body of the economy, the region)has been slower to adapt than expected. Because we got everything else wrong and without dramatic structural change (starting with leadership less tied to antiquated ways of city and transportation building) we will continue to do so.

The deeper issue is the city, regional, state, and federal transportation agencies try to have their cake and eat it too, like having a choo choo train is some kind of novelty act, a trinket to be displayed for all to see as if it's but a symbol of a "world class city" yet nothing more. Which is pretty emblematic of where most of the money towards a variety forms of development has gone towards. All hat, no cattle.

The answer of course is to increase grid connectivity and decrease highway capacity, the subsidy towards driving inherent, and the embedded car dependence and captive market that is instilled, costing tax payers twice. First, at the car dealership, then the pump, and then doubled down for the maintenance of roads that users only pay for half of, creating hyper-inefficiency in the city as a system of social and economic exchange. Too far apart to meet and greet, too far apart to do business, without paying the transportation fees of car dependence.

By reducing highway capacity, we remove the dams placed in the way of the demographic tidal wave towards walkable, infill housing. Recall, if you will, that from 2000-2009 only 17% of housing starts in the metropolitan area were in infill locations during the time span that the metro area added 1.3 million people. Nearly all at the bleeding edge, in a place where no train or bus could possibly reach without exacting a huge loss in time and money.

Cities are adaptive systems. The people within them adapt, thus altering their surroundings. However, by catering to the outward sprawling system and trying to shoehorn alternative systems into one built by and for the car are unlikely to instill significant change without fundamentally addressing the root problem. The answer is A New Dallas.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Stubbed Toe

I know that I knew this, but to actually see the federal interstates mapped really makes it seem like de-listing 345 as an interstate almost, dare I say, as a logical inevitability.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Questions of Climate and How Transpo Networks Impact Building/City Form

I very much enjoy giving presentations, particularly about A New Dallas, highway tear-outs, and the true essence and impact of congestion and mobility. Anybody that's ever had drinks with me can probably attest that if I wasn't in front of an audience, I'd create an audience where I'm at and go off on (more colorful) diatribes anyway.

I love talking cities. What I love even more is getting new questions that I haven't already prepared myself to answer. They always help me reevaluate my message and strengthen the overall argument. Two recent discussions/forums I have received a similar question. And that is, "what financial incentive do you have for all this work?" The answer is zero. If anything, it's the hope that there will be plenty of design work for all of the local firms to contribute to an improved Dallas over time.

Another question that came up at the Greater Dallas Planning Council Board of Directors meeting was the issue of climate. This is one that I've thought of and combated quite a bit within a different context, that being whether Dallas was too hot for walking and biking, but never in direct regards to the 345 tear-out plan. So I wanted to take a few minutes to flesh out that answer.

1 - DALLAS HAS BETTER WEATHER THAN WALKABLE CITIES It's why I live here. I suspect there is a bit of a bias at work because the few summer months can be so extreme that it's all we think about, particularly whilst in the midst, and it's all we're known for nationally. Which is pretty sad when you think about it. 

The first part of the answer echoes the broader question of a hot climate on walkability/bikeability. This is dumb. In fact, I thought we had gotten over the belly-aching that it's too hot to walk or bike in Dallas. I'll explain more in a bit, but here is where I remind that Dallas has three hot months, 6 Chamber of Commerce months where the sky is blue, the sun is out, the air is clear, the grass and trees are green, and the thermometer is pinned to 70. Sounds like lousy biking/walking weather to me. Better barricade ourselves in the car.

And then there are three winter months where the weather is so so, otherwise known as an average Summer day in Copenhagen. The best cities for walking and biking have pretty lousy weather. They almost have to be in order to differentiate themselves within the competition of cities. Dallas has 9 good to great months for walking/biking (whether recreational or as [/serious voice] SERIOUS TRANSPORTATION), Copenhagen and Vancouver have like one, August.

Imagine if nice weather cities ever get their act together. Perhaps it would be a better idea to build a better city and then go on holiday in August to Copenhagen or Vancouver for the entire month like the Romans do (to the beach) to get out of sweltering Rome in August (which is kind of ironic when you consider the etymology).

2 - DALLAS IS NOT BUILT FOR ITS CLIMATE This is really the point that will underscore most of the rest of this post, outlining how Dallas could/should be designed for its climate, particularly, the heat. Implicit within the question of whether 345 tear-out and its tenets of improved walkability and compact city form is the assumption that Dallas, as it currently exists today, was in fact built for its climate. We can go from our air conditioned home, to our air conditioned garage, to our air conditioned car, which gets increasingly comfortable the more time we're forced to spend in it, to our air conditioned job (if we're so lucky), to air conditioned tunnels (!) downtown to get lunch and back. We never have to breathe unconditioned air! Ain't it swell?!

This assumption is incorrect. I suspect one fueled out of reflexive intellectual laziness that believes the world we occupy is and was inevitable. That there wasn't a long string of processes and dynamics at work and the interplay between them evolved our current environ. In reality, Dallas was rolled off an assembly line of copy and paste land use codes, transportation standards, and economic modeling. That is, the Dallas that exists today, just like every other Sun Belt city in Generica. Not, the Dallas that existed pre-air condition

Air conditioning is just a technology. And one that is ubiquitous. It works in any environment. They even have it in Copenhagen! Amazing, right? That a third world nation (they are right, because they're not us) with better standard of living, better education, better healthcare, better democracy, and better capitalism, yes capitalism would have the hottest technology in the Southwest.

 Like heat, all it does is regulate extremes. Which can be done in better, more efficient and cost effective "pre-design," low-tech ways through urban form and passive heating/cooling strategies. By relying on the "gadget green," which AC was the first form of, it's very high energy and allowed us to be dumb with how we design our city, particularly as temperatures rise, energy prices rise, and we're faced with prospect of more rolling brown-outs.

In recent presentations I've been showing the comparison of Madrid metro area to DFW metro area in terms of city size. I like the comparison to Madrid because they are roughly the same size (about 6.5 million) and have pretty close to similar climates, just bump average temps up 5 degrees each month from Madrid and you have Dallas, mostly because Texas isn't surrounded by water like Spain is. It shows Madrid, again same population, almost entirely fitting within 635. It takes about 1/20th of the land area that comprises all of DFW.

Furthermore, I compare this to Madrid city form based on Dallas densities of 1950, which is still only 1/14th of the land area that it currently occupies. More compact city form means more areas of preserved natural areas which are like heat sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide, off-gassing clean oxygen, and absorbing the sun's energy to catalyze the process.

3 - A MORE COMPACT CITY REFLECTS MORE HEAT BACK UPWARDS Aside from transportation technology, this is why Seville (climate even closer to Dallas than Madrid) or the historic parts of Dubai are incredibly compact with very tight streets. When there is a greater portion of roof surface area than ground surface area for the sun to shine on, less heat actually gets down to where people are. This is why Steven Chu suggested painting roof tops white to reflect heat upwards and away from cities to reduce urban heat island effect.

To help explain this, I'll use a figure ground of Detroit pre-car and post-car:

Shown in black are outlines of buildings, roof lines if you will. White is anything not buildings, basically the public realm. As urban form began to erode over time in order to make way for bigger roads and more surface parking lots, that opened up the public realm for more heat gain. Dallas has a similarly dispersed footprint, where there is far too much pavement absorbing and amplifying heat.

While Chu recommended reflecting heat, we're probably not too far away from Photovoltaic technology advancing to the point of price competitiveness where rather than paint roofs white, we're affixing PV to the roofs and powering our buildings (to some degree) beneath. Rather than reflect it, we're using it very close to the source, reducing transmission loss. Germany buys energy from local providers via wind and solar at an inflated price to encourage cleaner, more ubiquitous energy and it has sparked an entire new industry of bottom up investment and energy production.

4 - A MORE COMPACT CITY BETTER REGULATES TEMPERATURES Based on the previous point, you could say dispersed buildings is good for Dallas and bad for Detroit. But it works both ways. In cold climates, you want buildings closer together to preserve heat, reduce heat loss, and minimize cold winter winds cutting through the city. Think of penguins huddling close together during a blizzard.

On the other hand, I like to point out an anecdote about my office space, which is on an incredibly pleasant woonerf-style, curbless street in uptown. It is tree-lined and it unites two mid-rise mixed-use residential buildings. I can see the sun out on the street, but for the most part the entire street and our office is shaded at all times. Our daily peak energy usage is 3x higher in winter than in summer and we only have to run the AC occasionally and only during the hottest days.

 All of this is why transportation is so important. It dictates the real estate market. It is the invisible arm to real estate and land use's invisible hand. However, arms are responsive to brains and that is our public policy comes in. This is why it is critical to have the debate about transportation "improvements" and improvements in public and at a political level. Not merely accepting what TxDOT says. Because they clearly don't understand how cities work nor have their best interest in mind.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

GDPC Presentation

Here is this morning's presentation to the Greater Dallas Planning Council Board of Directors:

Thursday, August 1, 2013

"Proximity Equals Amenity"

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The Trouble with Assisted Living

This morning, Diane Rehm held a discussion about assisted living centers on her morning NPR show. The reason they were discussing the seemingly innocuous topic is Frontline's recent expose into the wild west of assisted living centers.

I haven't read through nor yet watched Frontline's report but there are a few quick things I'd like to say about assisted living in general. During the radio show, a critical point was raised detailing why there is a lack of regulation.

Due to the newness of the entity/business model, it isn't really categorized properly. Zoning and regulatory bodies don't see them as healthcare facilities but rather housing/apartments that happen to have some caretakers employed.

One of the first questions is why the explosive rise in number of assisted living centers across the country. The overly simplistic answer is due to an aging population, more specifically, an aging population bubble. However, that doesn't explain the specific new concoction that is the assisted living center nor the long chain of events that allows for the creation and proliferation of such an entity. Cities and nations have had population bubbles before and will after the baby boomers. Yes, the world does not indeed revolve around you.

The deeper and more complex answer is the disaggregation of complete communities and the empowering and nurturing care of physical, economic, and social bonds of walkable neighborhoods into single-use, single purpose, isolated land uses, reducing the complex world into a reductive color code on a map.

I specifically say walkable neighborhoods because 'complete' neighborhoods that empower all ages to participate socially and economically do not exist without walkability. Nor do the complex social bonds that are formed in tight-knit communities. Tightly knit both physically and socially.

I explored the relationship between physical and social connections when discussing Eric Klinenberg's concept of resilient neighborhoods in the face of disaster. In his talk, he made the excellent point that the real first responders are your social bonds, your family and closest friends. Assisted living centers never existed before because assisting the still living was what friends and family do...did.

There is a reason that college towns and places like the Upper East side, Charleston, Key West, et al are prominent places of retirement. They are NORCs or Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. They empower. They keep the aging still active and engaged within their community.

However, with the loss of complete neighborhoods and walkable communities, not only have we lost places for the retired and elderly population to stay active, but we've also fractured their social bonds. And without those physical and social connections, we're effectively just warehousing our family members, like some sort of nuisance, while their life earnings are sucked dry by the substituting business model in the place of community. Not exactly the respect our elders deserve. Not so coincidentally, we do the same with our kids and wonder why our education system is failing. Maybe it's the bottom-line driven economic model that treats our students and elderly as consumers rather than future and past leaders that is failing us.