Make Your Hometown Lovable

Note: This post is cross posted from Strong Towns. I wrote it for them, but wanted to archive it here too.

Life often comes to a crossroads when people are first starting out on their own. They are faced with a choice, find a place that they love and where they can find work, and move there, or settle where they grew up. When I graduated college, I too was faced with this choice. I wanted to move to Washington DC, continue my education, and work in the national security establishment. My girlfriend (now wife) wanted to stay close to her family.

Both options had their advantages for me, as they do for most people. Moving allows people to pick their surroundings and their jobs, but often means removing themselves from their support network of friends and family. Staying provides just the opposite qualities, it allows people to remain close to family and friends (at least the friends that don’t move away), but doesn’t provide much in the way of choices on where to live.

Obviously I chose the girl over the career I wanted, but at the time I was disappointed with the quality of the city I grew up in and still call home. However, I’ve found a third way that, over time, will allow me to have the best of both worlds: I’m working towards making my hometown a city I’d love, even if I didn’t grow up here. This third way of making hometowns loveable will be necessary if we want to ensure our communities thrive in the future.

As a society, we’ve forced this choice on people by building many soulless places over the past fifty years, cities with no sense of community or identity, nothing that makes them unique. In many cities that have been around since the early 1900’s, the globalized economy has taken its toll and destroyed once thriving communities. It is understandable to want to flee these places that are either soulless or dying, or both. But what if each of us decided to stay in our hometown to transform them into places worth living in and loving again?

Unfortunately transforming a city into a lovable place takes a herculean effort over a long period of time, and it cannot be done alone. It takes a community of leaders and activists to push changes to city plans and policies, create a vibrant local economy, and create a built environment that suits the needs of the community. There are many roles in such a community, a place for everyone no matter what their interests and skillsets. While the work is hard, and it takes time, the necessary tasks to start transforming a city into a lovable place are simple:

  1. Get involved in the existing community. If there isn’t an existing community, start building one. Talk to others in your hometown, find the people that are committed to the place, and start building a network of like-minded people. While a single person can do a lot to change a place, a community of people working together can be transformative.
  2. Determine what you want for your city and set goals to help ensure the community is pushing towards the same objectives. Make sure your network of like-minded people are truly like-minded. The list of goals doesn’t need to be anything specific or necessarily ambitious, a broad outline of simple goals will do. And accept that not everyone will support every goal, but that generally everyone will be moving in the same direction.
  3. Create a plan once there is general consensus on a list of goals. This plan doesn’t even need to be written down, just some key stepping stones to achieving the broader goals. Specifically, find those intermediate steps that help move you closer to multiple goals at the same time. If two of your goals are to increase the walkability of the streets and to minimize infrastructure costs, a good intermediate step would be to narrow the roadway widths, which helps achieve both goals at the same time.

Being involved in a community of like-minded people that are all tied to a specific place will make you fall in love with your hometime even if nothing gets done. However, with steady pressure over long periods of time, transformation is inevitable. That transformation can help solve society’s most pressing issues and ensure that our hometowns are places where our children and future generations want and are able to stay and raise their own families.

As for me, I’m well on my way towards helping make my hometown more lovable. It’ll be a long road, but my children will be happy to call Anaheim home when they are faced with the choice whether to stay or go.

This is what a transformed suburb looks like.

Earlier this week I made a list of changes to city policies and the public realm that would help transform suburban communities into passibly walkable urban environments. The changes I listed were:

  • Narrow existing roads to slow cars, make the pedestrian experience tolerable, and reduce the cost of road maintenance;
  • Reduce parking requirements and price on-street parking according to demand;
  • Expand the transportation network to include pedestrians and cyclists;
  • Reduce minimum lot size, especially for commercial and retail uses;
  • Allow mixed-use developments by-right along arterial corridors;
  • Found local financial institutions for both debt and equity financing for local business and small-scale developers;
  • Reduce or eliminate building setbacks along arterial streets; and
  • Require buildings facing arterial streets to have active commercial uses on the ground floor.

These changes, in the right places, will preserve the single-family experience for the majority of a community, while providing the benefits of transit and shopping within walkable distances. But what exactly would a suburban city look like once these changes were in place?

Brookhurst Aerial

South Brookhurst Street in Anaheim, CA is a typical suburban arterial roadway. It is classified by the City of Anaheim General Plan as a Major Arterial, and it consists of three vehicular travel lanes in each direction with a painted median. Total right-of-way width is 120 feet, with 100 feet of paving, curb to curb, dedicated to cars, and 10-foot, curb-adjacent sidewalks on each side of the street. The predominant land uses along Brookhurst are auto-oriented strip commercial, with ample parking facing the street. These commercial parcels range in depth from about 150 feet to about 500 feet, with typical suburban residential neighborhoods bordering the rear of the commercial uses.

The first step is to modify the Brookhurst right-of-way. It’s possible to maintain the same throughput of the street, with the same number of lanes and turning movements, while adding additional parking, and additional pedestrian and bicycle amenities. To achieve this, travel lanes are reduced from the existing 12-foot to 9-foot wide lanes. This can be achieved today within the existing right-of-way, with nothing more than a few cans of paint.

Existing Brookhurst
Existing Brookhurst
Proposed Brookhurst
Proposed Brookhurst

The second step is a combination of zoning policy changes, including reducing parking requirements, eliminating setbacks to arterial streets, permit mixed-use developments, and require active commercial uses on the ground floor. These changes enable a vibrant pedestrian street life, instead of simple auto-dependant commerce. The picture below shows Brookhurst as it is today, and a rendering of what it could look like with these zoning code changes in place.

Exiting Brookhurst Streetscape
Exiting Brookhurst Streetscape
Retrofitted Brookhurst Streetscape
Retrofitted Brookhurst Streetscape

Amazingly, this is the same street, using the same roadway right-of-way, with mixed-use buildings simply replacing the strip commercial adjacent to the roadway and not displacing any of the existing suburban single-family homes. This increased density along the arterial roadways, along with the existing homes, provides sufficient density and productive value to support robust transit options, such as Bus Rapid Transit or Light Rail.

The walkable commercial corridors, combined with the availability of transit transforms the existing suburban neighborhoods into ones that are more walkable. These changes provide commercial amenities and transit within the walkshed of the existing homes. It preserves the character of the neighborhood and all of the things that people love about the suburbs, while also providing many of the benefits of urban living.

With simple land use policy changes and very little public investment, suburban municipalities can unleash huge amounts of private investment and ongoing economic activity in their communities. These simple changes result in more prosperous cities, with larger and more sustainable revenue streams with lower per capita costs, while at the same time reducing environmental impacts caused by the city as a system.

These changes won’t achieve quality results in every suburb. Some suburbs, especially those built within the past thirty years, do not have arterial roadways in close enough proximity to single-family subdivisions or have been built in places that are not topographically conducive to walkability. Also, the demand for these types of places is not infinite, so the communities that adopt these changes early will have an advantage over the communities that wait.

If you want your suburban community to thrive over the long term, and to preserve the things that make suburban communities desirable, then you need to provide the leadership necessary to ensure your community is in the first wave of communities that adopt these policies.

Leadership in the Suburbs

Over at Granola Shotgun, Johnny Sanphillippo has been talking to various folks about the future of the suburbs. Johnny and I both believe that suburban communities are going to run into increasing financial trouble and depopulate in favor of places that are more walkable. The difference is that he believes the suburbs will fail completely and be abandoned, while I think they can be transformed from suburia to something more urban.

The real difference between our approaches is that Johnny talks about the likely outcomes, while I’m focused on what could be, given strong leadership. While it might seem like we disagree, our differences are probably smaller than they’d appear. Without leadership, suburban communities will not make the necessary reforms to provide for their continued solvency. Without leadership, many suburbs will be unable to provide for the necessary municipal services and will depopulate. But with leadership, suburban communities can avoid this outcome, and Johnny even points a way to make that possible.

[I]t’s just not possible to deliver good urbanism in this kind of suburban environment. The divided highway right outside manages to be both devoid of human activity and filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic. No matter how good the design of the apartments, the context is crappy.

Here, Johnny is completely right, even the best buildings in the wrong context, without the roadways and neighboring properties focused on creating walkable urbanism, won’t make a community less suburban. But with improvements to the public realm — roads and sidewalks, parks and transit — the context changes and well designed buildings can contribute to transforming the suburbs into walkable communities.

The changes to the public realm, and to city policies that encourage urbanism, are fairly straightforward:

  • Narrow existing roads to slow cars, make the pedestrian experience tolerable, and reduce the cost of road maintenance;
  • Reduce parking requirements and price on-street parking according to demand;
  • Expand the transportation network to include pedestrians and cyclists;
  • Reduce minimum lot size, especially for commercial and retail uses;
  • Allow mixed-use developments by-right along arterial corridors;
  • Found local financial institutions for both debt and equity financing for local business and small-scale developers;
  • Reduce or eliminate building setbacks along arterial streets; and
  • Require buildings facing arterial streets to have active commercial uses on the ground floor.

Leadership on these issues, from within the community, municipal government staff, and most importantly elected and appointed decision makers is what will differentiate the prosperous suburban communities from those that fail. Organizations like Strong Towns and people like Alex Steffen are providing compelling reasons for the transformation of suburban communities, whether that be for fiscal solvency or the environment. Their message is being heard and evangelicalized by some community leaders, but it’s an uphill battle. To save our suburbs, we must transform them or they’ll be lost altogether, just like Johnny predicts.

Financing with Locally Sourced Equity

Changing the way real estate is financed is a key to reducing the auto-dependence of our cities. As I’ve discussed before, organizing local wealth for local benefit is critically important. Up until now, we’ve only really been able to marshal local wealth to fund development project’s debt. However, thanks to some long-awaited new rules regarding direct investment by non-accredited investors, we have a new opportunity to invest equity into development projects that improve our community.

In 2012, the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act) was signed into law, which provided for “crowd-sourced” financing of equity. The way it worked before, for an individual to buy a part of a company, that company would need to be publicly traded on a stock exchange (unless the person is fabulously wealthy, in which case they could invest their wealth in companies that are not publicly traded.) The JOBS Act was suppose to level that playing field a bit, and allows regular people to invest in non-publicly traded companies within some limits. Unfortunately, it has taken the Security and Exchange Commission more than three years to draft rules implementing this portion of the JOBS Act, but on October 30th they finally approved those rules.

This sets the stage for crowd funding for small businesses. There are already companies primed to take advantage of these new rules for funding real estate development projects, some even with a social mission. What we don’t see yet are community based companies focused on matching small business owners, including small developers, with investors right in their own community. If communities can establish their own crowd funding financial institutions, they will be able to retain and grow the community’s wealth, not just by loaning their savings to local businesses, but by buying a piece of those businesses and watching their investments grow.

For individual developers or small business owners, this also opens an opportunity to find groups of people within their community who can now invest in their projects or business. So now it will be possible to collect a few thousand dollars or less from a larger group of people to make a project happen. This has the added benefit of reducing the risk for any individual investor, because it’s much easier for ten investors to lose $10,000 each, than for one investor to lose $100,000.

Small businesses and developers should be reaching out to their patrons and friends now so they can take advantage of these new rules once they go into effect at the beginning of 2016.

This is a great opportunity for communities, or individual business owners, that take advantage of it. Combined with a community credit union, investing locally can transform the prosperity of communities. It simply takes a renewed focus on growing local wealth.

Small Developers/Builders Slack Community

A while back, I joined R John Anderson’s Facebook group for Small Developers/Builders. It’s a great group of people looking to make small, incremental changes to the built environment of their communities. Earlier this week, I created a Slack community to enable this wonderful group of developers and builders to expand beyond Facebook’s limits.

Slack is a real-time team messaging application that is great for teams and communities of interest like the Small Developers/Builders group. Over the past two years, Slack has come to dominate internal team communications for many technology companies, completely replacing both internal email and other chat applications like Skype, Google Hangouts, and IRC. It has also found resonance with communities of interest, whether that interest is around a geographic location, an industry, or a product.

Slack enables communities to develop with the feel of a small group of friends. Conversations feel natural, and connections between members are often deep and lasting, in a way that is not true for Facebook groups. Not only does it allow community members to share their big ideas and big questions, but provides a venue to share the little victories and struggles that humanize our work towards improving our cities and towns. Quite simply, Slack lets us make that human connection that’s needed for strong social groups to form, not just the intellectual connection between people doing similar work that Facebook groups engender.

The advantage of Slack over platforms like Facebook is that it works for both real-time and asynchronous communications. Unlike posts on a Facebook page with comments, Slack allows for a natural flowing conversation without the extended wait for a reply. At the same time, members of the community not present during a conversion can read the conversation later, and still add their voices, which often has the effect of reigniting the conversation and extending it.

In addition to its chat features, Slack makes sharing files with the community easy. Instead of sending emails, or figuring out a place to upload a file online, it’s simple to just share it through Slack. For Small Developers/Builders, this provides an easy way to share and comment on project designs, proformas, or anything else.

For this Slack community to be successful, we need small developers and builders to become active participants in the community. The best way to stay active is to download the Slack apps for your computer (Windows, Mac) and phone (iOS, Android, Windows). If you want to join, you can request an invitation which should be automatically sent to you. Come, join us, help build this community and together we can make our cities and towns great again.

Sprawl repair goes beyond individual developments

Note to readers: Kevin Klinkenberg wrote a letter to Rob Steuteville of Better! Cities and Towns (which was also republished on the StrongTowns blog.) I am responding to Kevin’s letter in kind.

Dear Kevin,

There is great value in making suburban communities more walkable, but to do so the tactics are much different than those needed to enhance a community that already has good bones on which to build.

From the viewpoint of an individual developer, only able to affect a handful of lots, I agree with you. It is a fools errand to try to build a walkable development in an unwalkable community. As you say, such a effort would at best lead to a C- version of walkability, and would disappoint people when it fails to meet the promises of the proponents of walkability. On this point we agree.

However, as Rob points out, 95% of our metropolitan areas are not walkable, and it is folly to ignore them. Theses areas must become more walkable. Many of societies current ills are tied to auto-dependence, whether it’s obesity, climate change, social isolation, economic mobility, childhood mortality rates, or any number of other issues.

In order to enable walkable communities in suburban settings requires changes to city-wide policies. The work to do that is not that of a small developer, but of community activists, city planners, and elected and appointed decision makers.

We need people doing work in our suburbs and our walkable communities, but the work is different. The type of work that enhances walkable communities is insufficient when pursued in the suburbs, and the policy and advocacy work that’s needed in the suburbs is simple unnecessary in places that are already walkable.

Making our suburbs more walkable is critically important, but we must be pursuing the right kind of work to achieve that goal.

With kindest regards,
Grant Henninger

The Destination Crawl

All shopping centers need those stores that customers consider a destination. Those stores that people will go out of their way to shop at. Destination stores must be located within the walkshed of each other in order to create a series of destinations that customers can visit without getting back in their cars.

One way to think of a series of destinations is like a bar crawl. You start at one bar, then walk down the street to another one, then further down the street to a third. You might not walk directly from the first bar to the third bar because they are too far away from one another, but because the second bar is in the middle all three become walkable. Similarly, a shopper might walk from Target to Kohls and then on to the grocery store, even if Target and the grocery store are too far from one another to walk between directly. This is the Destination Crawl.

Unfortunately, most suburban regional shopping centers, the type that are encouraged by cities due to municipal financial incentives, are not designed to place their destination stores within each other’s walkshed. It becomes impossible to do the Destination Crawl.

The Car Oriented Shopping Center

The DistrictA wonderfully terrible example of the unwalkability of suburban regional shopping centers is The District in Tustin, California. The District is located on the former Marine Corps Air Station, Tustin, best known as the home of the world’s largest wooden blimp hangars. The District was a brown-field development that started as a completely blank canvas that was pan flat. With this blank canvas, the developer was able to create a hellish landscape for pedestrians and a nightmare for motorists, a rare combination.

Shoppers at The District who want to go grocery shopping at Whole Foods and then go to Target either have the option of walking 1,000 feet through a parking lot and jaywalking across a four-lane road, or getting in their car and driving between the two stores. Shopping centers, even ones where customers primarily arrive by car, don’t have to be designed this way.

The unwalkability of The District is entirely due to the fact that its buildings are arranged in a ring around the parking, instead of clustering the buildings in the center and placing the parking to one side. The District gets it even worse, because it’s designed so the buildings front on the parking lot and turn their back on the surrounding streets, so people from neighboring communities can’t even conveniently walk into the center.

A Destination Crawl Redesign

Instead of placing buildings within a sea of parking, and creating further barriers to walkability in the form of wide roads without safe places to cross on foot, the developer could have created an overlapping series of destinations that would have enabled a Destination Crawl. This would require moving the buildings closer together and making the walk between destinations more pedestrian friendly.

The most helpful change to the design of The District would be to make the path between destinations more walkable. Right now, to get around on foot requires cutting across parking lots at a diagonal. Doing so is very inefficient and quite unsafe. Direct pedestrian paths need to be provided between destinations. In order to create these direct pedestrian paths, buildings must be square with one another. The street network within The District is unnecessarily curved, causing the building and their associated parking to be at odd angles to one another. These odd angles ensure the most direct path from one destination to another is a diagonal path through the parking lots.

IMG_6184In addition, these paths need to be comfortable in scale and feeling for people on foot, not just crowded along the front of buildings or exposed traversing a wide-open parking lot. When visiting The District, it’s clear that the developer knew how to build for pedestrians, the mall at the center of the development is wonderfully walkable. Unfortunately they didn’t extend this understanding to linking the destinations on the outskirts of the center together.

Another helpful change to the design of The District would be to move the buildings closer together so that the distance between destinations, door to door, is no more than 500 feet. This ensures that it’s only a couple of minutes walk at a nice slow pace between destinations. While making the pedestrian paths more walkable can increase a destination’s walkshed, destinations must still be located close to one another in order to achieve overlapping walksheds and enable a Destination Crawl.

These same principals for a Destination Crawl can be applied to a city’s downtown or any other neighborhood center. By placing destinations in close proximity and providing pedestrian friendly connectivity, any city can support a Destination Crawl. Without these two key components, it’s impossible to achieve walkable communities because it will remain more convenient for customers to drive between destinations instead of walk.

Friday Link Roundup – February 6, 2015

New Climate Economy. Here is a data-drive dive into the economic waste caused by suburban sprawl. The monetary shortfall to maintain our infrastructure could be made up entirely by eliminating the waste caused by car-dependant cities. This analysis is conducted on a macro-scale, but it’s probably true for individual cities as well. We could see great cost savings by making our cities more dense and walkable. via Alex Steffen

Small Is Bountiful. This New Yorker article beutiflly discusses the way small business is making a comeback and contributing to the identity and economic stability of cities. via

6 charts that show renewable energy is getting cheaper. Absolutely critical to making our suburbs environmentally sustainable is to ensure electricity consumption comes from renewable sources. Thankfully, it’s becoming more cost-competitive to do so. With such spread out housing, suburbs actually have an easier time of deploying small-scale distributed solar systems than more urbanized areas. via @drgrist

Local Wealth

One point that has been mentioned several times, but not examined, is the need for local businesses to have access to local sources of wealth, for both debt and equity1. In many cases, multi-national banks won’t lend to small businesses, so local financial institutions are the only way for local businesses to access the capital they need to grow. A community that shows broad-based support for its local financial institutions is one that will bootstrap the growth of the community’s wealth by ensuring existing wealth is reinvested locally, instead of globally.

For most communities, the financial system works something like this: people save and invest some part of their income. The savings are deposited in their account with Bank of America, Chase, or Wells Fargo; the investments are made through a mutual fund. The bank takes their deposits and lends that money to large borrowers around the world. The mutual fund manager purchases stocks from companies generally based in Delaware, with their headquarters in a major metropolitan area and operations globally. None of this money that the community saves is loaned or invested to the businesses in their neighborhoods. Continue reading Local Wealth

Homeownership is not an investment

Investments, by their very nature, can generate income without being sold. They are productive assets. Stocks generate dividends, bonds are redeemed over time, commercial real estate generates rent. Owner-occupied homes are not productive assets because they do not generate income unless they are sold. Homes are not investments, they are a cost.

Most home-buyers think of owning a home as an investment. In many cases, this leads them allocate their resources differently than if they thought of their home as a cost. There are many good reasons to own a home, but owning a home as an investment vehicle is not one of them. While it’s true that real estate generally appreciates in value, it does so roughly at the pace of inflation. Some cities and neighborhoods will appreciate faster because those areas become more desirable, but as a whole the real estate market appreciates with inflation over the long term.

If homeowners think of their homes as an investment, the only way they can get a return on that investment is by selling it to someone else for more than they paid for it. If the new buyer is also thinking of the home as an investment, the only way they can see a return on the investment is if they, in turn, sell it to a third person willing to pay even more for the home. Each subsequent buyer is betting that they’ll be able to find somebody to pay a higher price for the home in the future.

This behavior of people buying an unproductive asset for ever higher sums of money has a name, it’s called a bubble. We’ve seen, very vividly in 2008, what happens when homebuyers start thinking of their homes as investment assets and an bubble is created and bursts.

Not only do we end up with real estate bubbles when we think of our homes as investments, we distort our asset allocation. This negatively impacts the economic and environmental sustainability of our cities because it causes us to have a greater desire to be homeowners than we might otherwise. The desire to own a home for investment purposes often forces people to live further out in the suburbs, where homes are more affordable, and commute longer distances. This has a direct impact on the number of miles they drive which increases the wear and tear of our streets and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. In addition, it encourages people to spend more, because they are “investing”, causing them to be “house poor” and reducing their disposable income and slowing the economy as a whole.

There are many good reasons to own a home, even good financial reasons for owning a home, but home-ownership is not an investment vehicle. As a society, we need to stop thinking of buying a house as an investment. Without this change in attitude towards home ownership, we cannot encourage enough suburban communities to rebuild as sustainable and walkable.