Friday Link Roundup – January 30, 2015

My favorite planetary thinker, Alex Steffen, is hosting an online workshop starting on February 3rd, focusing on tackling the planetary crisis we currently face. He posted an explanation of the challenges, and opportunities, he sees for the future, and how we can better position ourselves to improve the world through these challenges. If you can do participate in his workshop it sounds like a great opportunity.

19 tweets that explain how we’re stifling electricity innovation. David Roberts summons a wonderful tweet storm highlighting the ways our electricity grid is deeply dysfunctional and how it’s stifling progress. Resilient and sustainable towns need to do more of their own power generations, but that really requires distributed power, local storage, and flexible microgrids. via @drgrist and @grist

Maison garage: old parking as tiny home in Bordeaux, France. Here’s a video of a small garage being turned into a home. Just imagine this happening throughout our suburban residential neighborhoods. Replacing car storage with livable space would dramatically increase the density of our suburbs. via Strong Towns

6 Major Design Trends Shaping City Life In 2015. While these trends won’t all be realized in 2015, this is a great vision of how urban living will evolve over the next generation. These are all trends that can be embraced by today’s suburbs to create a more sustainable future for our communities. via @jen_keesmaat

How Driverless Cars will Revolutionize the Suburbs

While some believe that driverless cars will create more traffic, they present a great opportunity to increase the density of our suburbs, as long as we’re prepared to take advantage of that opportunity.

The doom-and-gloom view of driverless cars imagines that every car that’s currently driven gets replaced by a driverless model. In this view, each family still owns two or three cars. Worse, because driving time can be used productively, long commutes become less burdensome and living in a suburban community far away from work becomes more acceptable. In this view of driverless cars, the amount of vehicle miles traveled increases exponentially, greatly increasing carbon emissions due to driving. This view has some truth to it. Driverless cars will increase driving, but it’s one way we can invest our current carbon budget to create a more sustainable future.

Driverless cars are not the only near-future development in transportation at work, a harmonious development is the increasing popularity of on-call taxi services like Lyft and Uber. Once driverless cars are permitted by the states and come to market, Lyft and Uber will end up replacing their current drivers with fleets of driverless cars. Since the driver is the most expensive part of their systems, they will have great incentive to employ fleets of driverless cars so they can bring down their operating costs.

Self-driving taxi will enable suburban residents to give up their cars without giving up the mobility and autonomy they currently enjoy. Once car ownership starts to decline in favor of self-driving taxis, all of the areas that are currently used for car storage can be repurposed to more productive uses. This will enable our suburban neighborhoods to become more dense and walkable, and eventually will lead to a declining need for car trips in the first place.

The biggest benefit for suburban neighborhoods is that garages will be able to be converted into livable space. A standard three car garage can be converted into a very livable granny flat. These types of accessory dwelling units could conceivably double the number of people living in a suburban neighborhood. Increasing the density of these neighborhoods in such a way will provide an adequate number of people to support local, walkable retail. Unfortunately, many cities have ordinances prohibiting the conversion of garages into livable space, because they don’t want the cars they expect to be in those garages on the street creating a parking problem. As driverless taxis become viable, cities will need to rapidly amend these ordinances if we are to take advantage of the opportunity to densify our suburban neighborhoods. The sooner these ordinances are amended, the more quickly we can transition our neighborhoods to be walkable and sustainable.

There are some other small ways removing car storage from our residential neighborhoods will improve walkability. Currently, many residential streets are designed to accommodate on-street parking which wouldn’t be needed with driverless taxis. Reclaiming this space that’s currently dedicated to parking will enable for wider sidewalks, separated bike lanes, or landscaped parkways that can make a neighborhood more walkable. Additionally, the driveway curb cuts for each house would be able to go away. If you’ve ever pushed a stroller down a residential street, you know how annoying curb cuts can be, and leveling out the walking surface by removing them will enhance a neighborhood’s walkability.

In addition to adding density to our residential neighborhoods, cities will be able to take advantage of the land currently wasted on parking in retail centers. This can take the form of additional retail space, if there is a demand for it; additional homes, creating tent-pole density adjacent to retail; or a combination of both. In a world full of driverless cars, all retail centers will require is a small area for pickup and drop off, similar to a valet or taxi stand.

As the densities of both our suburban residential and retail neighborhoods increases,not only will they be walkable, but they will begin to be able to support transit in a reasonably efficient manner. Once suburban neighborhoods are walkable and have transit, the need for cars, even driverless taxis, will be reduced. Driverless taxis aren’t a cure for all the ills of the suburbs, many other changes to our land use policies and patterns of development still need to occur and can occur without the further development of near-future technology. We should spend the majority of our efforts changing what we can today, but we also need to be thinking of the technology of tomorrow and working to set up an understanding of how it can create a more sustainable future so when that technology materializes we can make that sustainable future a reality.

How Municipal Finance Creates Regional Shopping Centers

Despite the benefits of locally owned businesses over chain retail and big-box stores, many cities still strive build regional shopping centers which require major chain anchor tenants. By in large, cities rely upon sales tax to fund municipal services, especially in states like California which suppress property tax revenue. Of course cities have other sources of revenue, such as Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) and developer fees, but sales tax is a major source of municipal revenue for most cities.

Adding small, neighborhood retail centers generally don’t increase sales tax revenue for a city. For the most part, the shops in a neighborhood retail center are interchangeable. Each one has a grocery store, a pharmacy, a dry cleaners, a couple of restaurants, and a liquor or convenience store. As their name implies, neighborhood retail centers serve the neighborhood they are located in. Rarely will people go out of their way to shop at a neighborhood retail center since all of the same stores can be found closer to their own neighborhood.

Regional shopping centers are different because they do attract residents from other neighborhoods and cities, bringing with them sales tax revenue that otherwise would have gone somewhere else. This is why regional shopping centers are so often located at the city border or adjacent to major thoroughfares, so that they are convenient for residents of other cities to access and shop. This is the major reason why cities try to attract regional shopping centers, and to consolidate local community and neighborhood retail into these larger centers that will create a regional draw.
Continue reading How Municipal Finance Creates Regional Shopping Centers

Friday Link Roundup – January 23, 2015

I’m still trying to figure out how to write these link roundups. This week, instead of just copying a key paragraph from the body of the linked article, I’m writing about why these articles are relevant. This is a bit more work, but also provides more context.

Unlikely Radical – Your right to park on your street. As suburban neighborhoods become more dense and walkable, the concern over parking will be paramount. Suburban residents cannot live without a car, literally. Nor can they imagine life without a car, even if there are other, more convenient options to get from one place to another. They will fight increased density with limited parking simply because they cannot imagine how it could possibly work out. Of course, for it to work, cities must ensure the neighborhoods are walkable and served by transit, otherwise everyone will continue to want a car despite the density. via @StrongTowns

Popular Science – Welcome to the Maker-Industrial Revolution. Local production of globally designed products is the future of manufacturing. This distributed manufacturing holds incredible potential for rebuilding industry within our suburban communities. via @urbanophile

CityLab – How Local Sales Taxes Target the Poor and Widen the Income Gap. Not only does an over-reliance on sales tax drive cities to make poor land use decisions that favor chain and big-box retail located in regional shopping centers, it also makes it more difficult for large portions of the community to grow their own, and their community’s, wealth. via @CityLab

NPR – Building Sponge City: Redesigning LA For Long-Term Drought. Redesigning for long-term drought will be a critical component of securing the sustainability of our cities in the Southwest. One concept introduced here unsuitability of steep-pitched roofs to arid climates. There’s a reason most native architecture from dry and warm climates around the world use flat or shallow pitched roofs. via @AlexSteffen

CityLab – How the Trucking Industry Could Be Vastly More Efficient. During the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles the city banned trucks from the freeways during the day. This greatly decreased the amount of traffic on the roads. Smarter truck routing that minimizes the number of vehicle miles for trucks would have a great direct benefit to the economy and economic sustainability of our road systems. Unfortunately it would also enable additional sprawl since people would be more comfortable driving further distances due to less traffic and shorter drive times. via @CityLab

The Importance of Local Business

Local businesses are vital to creating and sustaining a strong sense of community, and to the economic well-being of that community. While big-box stores provide the appearance of value to the consumer, they degrade the character and economic potential of the community as a whole.

The value proposition of chain retail and big-box stores to both the consumer and to cities is apparent. The consumer can buy more at lower prices, increasing their standard of living at the moment. Cities can get an infusion of jobs and the promise of increased property and sales tax revenue. It is this immediate and, more importantly, easy to articulate gratification that makes big-box stores, chain retail, and the regional shopping centers they often inhabit so popular.

The argument for small, local business is much more difficult to articulate, and even when it is well articulated people often don’t want to wait for the rewards a vibrant local business community has to offer. But those rewards can be prodigious for a community. Continue reading The Importance of Local Business

Link Roundup – Friday, January 16, 2015

This week’s Link Roundup brings us a couple stories about the death of auto-dependant retail and the renewed life of walkable retail, a prediction on instability in the Middle East and its impacts on oil, transportation, and the continued decline of our suburban communities, one city’s attempts to save a half-developed neighborhood, and the places kids play.

  • Saudi Arabia Plunges into an Abyss.  John Robb, who has a sterling track record of predicting events in the Middle East, sees Saudi Arabia as ISIS’s next target. The impacts on the price of oil and the global economy would be dramatic if the current Saudi state is destabilized. This would rapidly drive up the cost of transportation, and likely speed the demand for urban, walkable communities and hasten the decline of our suburban neighborhoods.
  • The Child Inside. “A community not built around children is no community at all. A place that functions socially is one in which they are drawn to play outdoors. As Jay Griffiths argues in her magnificent, heartrending book Kith, children fill the ‘unoccupied territories’, the spaces not controlled by tidy-minded adults, ‘the commons of mud, moss, roots and grass’. But such places are being purged from the land and their lives. ‘Today’s children are enclosed in school and home, enclosed in cars to shuttle between them, enclosed by fear, by surveillance and poverty and enclosed in rigid schedules of time.’ Since the 1970s, the area in which children roam without adults has decreased by almost 90%. ‘Childhood is losing its commons’.”
  • Dallas shoppers turning to small retailers for unique holiday gifts. “Alternative shopping is more popular than ever, with Dallas shoppers looking for unique items, from the bohemian to the upscale. The Bishop Arts District has blossomed, and the Design District, Henderson Avenue, Deep Ellum and the Plaza at Preston Center are all largely populated with shops run by their owners.”
  • What to Do With a Dying Neighborhood. “There are very few stories where a half-finished development has been saved from ruin. The rescue of one such development, by the city in which it is located, is being heralded as a potential solution to some of the worst mistakes of the housing crisis.”
  • The Shopping Mall Death Spiral. “The shopping mall is the epitome of America’s Suburban Experiment. From a local government standpoint, it was the golden chalice of development, a winner-take-all prize in our race to the bottom. Whoever got the mall was able to steal from their neighbors that fraction of a sliver of retail taxes that local governments receive. When consolidated in one place, that could add up to a significant amount of money, at least for a while.”

The Problem with a clean-slate approach to redevelopment

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Anaheim’s historic downtown was a seedy red-light district. Despite the fact that downtown dated back to the founding of the city in 1853, with a traditional street grid, mid-rise masonry buildings, and a Carnegie library, it had become overrun with adult bookstores and a movie theater that played adult films. It was, quite simply, the embodiment of the negative stereotypes of urban living that were so popular at the time. The Anaheim Redevelopment Agency’s solution to this situation was to bulldoze the vast majority of the historic buildings, re-route and expand the major thoroughfares, and replace everything with car-focused development. Over the past thirty years, Anaheim’s redeveloped downtown has stagnated and fallen once again into disrepair, while neighboring cities such as Orange and Fullerton preserved their historic downtowns to create vibrant urban districts.

This clean-slate approach to redevelopment is not a successful strategy for rebuilding our suburbs, and especially not our downtowns. The rapid destruction and redevelopment of entire neighborhoods displaces existing users, destroys any existing economics and community activity, and creates far too much supply of new development to be absorbed by the market. The result is a neighborhood with continued anemic economic and community activity, similar to the condition before redevelopment. In short, the redevelopment effort ends up being a failed investment into the community. Continue reading The Problem with a clean-slate approach to redevelopment

The Suburban Spiral of Decline

One of the outcomes of bankrupt suburbs and climate change is that many residents will be left with stranded assets. Quite simply, they will own property that they can’t sell, and will either be stuck or forced to simply walk away from their homes. It might be hard to see that decline while driving through today’s apparently affluent suburbs, but the same could have been said about Detroit and other Rust Belt cities in 1965. This is a powerful argument in favor of rebuilding our suburbs when confronted by residents who don’t want to see their neighborhood change. It is in their own self-interest to allow for some change which would make their neighborhood economically sustainable, instead of allowing their neighborhood to enter the Spiral of Decline.

The Spiral of Decline

Suburbs that are unable to sustain funding for basic city services, such as police and fire services, and street repair, end up in a Spiral of Decline. First, the least valued city services are cut, such as libraries and community programs, which reduce civic engagement and sense of community. This, in turn, drives down property values because people don’t feel as connected to their community. Continue reading The Suburban Spiral of Decline

Link Roundup – Friday, January 9th, 2015

Each week I will try to provide a set of links that relate to the topics I’m discussing here. Many of these will be coming from Twitter, so if you follow me there you’ll likely have already seen most of these.

Injustice at the Intersection illustrates a few of the ways the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) is hostile to pedestrians. The MUTCD is the primary guiding document on when and where to place stop signs and lights, turn lanes, and crosswalks.  The California MUTCD is available online.

The Real Reason U.S. Gas Is So Cheap Is Americans Don’t Pay the True Cost of Driving has an interesting statistic, an additional 20 to 70 cents in taxes per gallon of gas would be required for the gas tax to sustain road and bridge maintenance. Right now, the general taxpayer is making up that difference whether they drive or not, or more likely, roads and bridges are just going unrepaired.

America’s Suburban Experiment. “And now, as budgets everywhere are frayed, our leadership obsessively seeks – in true Ponzi scheme fashion – more and more growth using this same, experimental model. America’s cities don’t need more growth. What they desperately need is a different development pattern, one that restores the resiliency and financial productivity of the pre-automobile approach to a modern America.”

How the suburbs could go from rot to rad. “Because these suburbs are also the first generation of the kind of large-scale cookie-cutter development that has come to define American suburbia, they’re also a harbinger of the trouble that lies in wait for all of our suburbs. Economies of scale made the mega-burbs affordable to build and buy, but what happens when, an entire suburb of ’80s McMansions hits its expiration date at the same time? We’re going to find out.”

Wal-Mart: An economic cancer on our cities. “Even low-rise, mixed-use buildings of two or three stories—the kind you see on an old-style, small-town main street—bring in ten times the revenue per acre as that of an average big-box development. What’s stunning is that, thanks to the relationship between energy and distance, large-footprint sprawl development patterns can actually cost cities more to service than they give back in taxes. The result? Growth that produces deficits that simply cannot be overcome with new growth revenue.”

Seeking more than a few good transportation engineers. “Knowing the futility of finding better solutions [using traffic studies], Sadik-Khan was clever. When a big change was warranted, she proposed the idea as a temporary test. Traffic studies are notoriously unreliable—they often overestimate traffic substantially, contributing to the design of larger, faster streets and roads that discourage walking and induce more traffic. The system is guaranteed to confirm conventional practice. Traffic studies often delay projects for years and raise costs.

“A temporary test project, instead, generates real-world data in real time. When these tests worked, the city made the changes permanent. Then new changes were proposed.”

Becoming Carbon Neutral

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world has a total carbon budget of 1,000 GtCO2 if the Earth is to not warm any more than two degrees celsius and avoid the most severe effects of climate change. As of 2011, humanity had already used 531 GtCO2 of that budget, leaving only 469 GtCO2 remaining. Currently, we produce 36 GtCO2 of carbon globally per year, growing 2.3 year over year. At the current rate, humanity will exceed the global carbon budget by 2030, only 15 years from now. In this way, our current systems are unsustainable and need to be rebuilt with urgency. Our suburbs are a large part of that. The only feasible use of our remaining carbon budget is to create carbon neutral communities if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Suburbs are incredibly carbon intensive, and not just due to their auto dependent nature. While the use of cars as the sole mode of transportation within the suburbs is the largest source of carbon emissions from the suburbs, the building forms and large yards that are typical of suburban development contribute significant amounts of carbon as well. Despite the fact that the suburbs can feel more a part of nature than urban cities, they are much more environmentally destructive.
Continue reading Becoming Carbon Neutral