Category Archives: Walkability

Camas Council: Consider Trends Before You Decide!

Below is the Draft Testimony of Mary Vogel,CNU-A, principal of PlanGreen, regarding the Lacamas Northshore proposal that Carolyn Foster covered in her blog earlier in August.

I know that you are concerned with the city’s economy—in the long term, not just today.  I suspect that you believe that the proposed master LN Concept Plan Mapplan will help the city’s economy.  But I want you to consider some future trends before you make up your minds.

Maureen McAvey, Senior Resident Fellow for the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in Washington, DC  was in Portland last year to discuss the ULI publication “What’s Next? Real Estate in the New Economy“.  The event notice read: A paradigm shift is unfolding over the course of this decade, driven by an extraordinary convergence of demographic, financial, technological and environmental trends. Taken together, these trends will dramatically change development through 2020. My notes indicate that McAvey said:

  • More single-family homes are being occupied by renters, changing the feel and politics of suburban communities
  • Seventy-five percent of households in the Portland area do not have children under 18
  • 47 percent are non-families
  • Twenty-somethings on tight budgets prefer places to congregate with friends — in parks, bars, restaurant clusters and building common areas — and can tolerate smaller living spaces.

Arthur C. Nelson, one of the nation’s most prescient housing market researchers, says declining homeownership, tighter lending standards, a sell-off of single-family houses by the nation’s fastest growing demographic — senior citizens—and even rising household sizes due to more multigenerational living will have an impact on the market you may be trying to attract with the single family home portion of the plan.

Nelson, professor of city and regional planning at the University of Utah, reports that the US faces a massive oversupply of large-lot single family houses and an undersupply of multifamily units. By 2020, Nelson sees 1.5 to 2 million homes from seniors coming on the market, and between 2020 and 2030, there will be a national net surplus of 4 million homes that they cannot sell. And Nelson believes those are conservative figures for what has been dubbed “The Great Senior Sell-Off.”

The 2009 American Housing Survey (AHS) found that 28 percent of houses are attached, 29 percent are detached on small lots, and 43 percent are detached on large lots. Three studies — by National Association of Realtors, the Robert Charles Lesser & Co. (RCLCo),USPreferencevSupplyHouseType and Nelson — all found a nearly identical, imbalance in US housing supply and demand.  Only 24 to 25 percent of Americans would prefer to live in large-lot single-family houses (see graph “Housing preference versus supply”).

Consequently, there’s an oversupply of approximately 28 million units in what developer, professor and author Christopher Lineberger calls “the drivable suburbs.”  Attached housing and small-lot housing, on the other hand, are undersupplied — by about 12 million and 13.5 million units, respectively.

Millennial Renters Survey

Source: RCLCo Consumer Survey

This imbalance is likely to grow in the years to come, reports Nelson. The generation that is currently moving into the housing market — Millennials — is the most urban-oriented cohort since World War II.  Melina Druggall with RCLCo reported at a National Association of Home Builders conference in January 2011 that 81 percent of Gen Y renters want to live in an urban setting.  (Wall Street Journal reported that number as 88% at that time and they were quoted in numerous sources such as Better Cities & Towns and Grist).

Ninety percent of the increase in the demand for new housing will be households without children, and 47 percent will be senior citizens (the latter resulting from the rising tide of Baby Boomers who started turning 65 last year). Both of these demographic groups—the Millennials and the Boomers—lean toward multifamily and away from large-lot SFH.

Referring to a recent National Association of Realtors (NAR) finding on percentage of households that prefer to live downtown or in mixed-use city or suburban neighborhoods, Nelson says “Back in ‘70s or ‘80s, people wanted drivable suburbs. Now 70 percent want to walk to discernable destinations, from transit to grocery stores. This wasn’t the case until recently.”  Nelson believes the most popular locations will be mixed-use, walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods.

This Lacamas Northshore master plan is being portrayed as both walkable and mixed-use, but the concept plan I’ve seen so far indicates to me that it is not.  The zoning proposal shows a segregation of uses. Business parks, by their very nature, are drive-to!  The single-family and the multi-family seem quite segregated from each other and all are segregated from the shopping area.

Amazon Headquarters image

Rendering courtesy of NBBJ. Amazon Headquarters adjacent downtown Seattle, WA

As far as economic development is concerned, there is increasing evidence that the kind of high tech, light industrial firms that you hope to attract are choosing to locate near where their employees want to live.  Consider the choice of Amazon to locate adjacent to downtown Seattle and Adobe Systems to locate in downtown San Jose.

I hope you will take into account the “extraordinary convergence of demographic, financial, technological and environmental trends” that ULI talks about before making your decision on this zoning change and the future development that it presages.  I agree that a master plan with changed zoning is what is now most desirable for this area–but NOT the kind of segregation of uses we see in this plan. I urge you to delay approval of a zoning change–until you can get it right!

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City Creek Center as Biodiversity Engine?

DSCN0940June 2013 – City Creek Center was started in 2003 by the real estate investment arm of the Latter Day Saints. The intent was to bring back Salt Lake City’s Main Street in a downtown that was losing out to the suburbs. It’s a mixed-use project that includes retail shops, office space and 435 condominiums and 110 apartments. No public subsidy was received so the project does not include “affordable housing.”

It’s also a green roof project in that its 90,000 square feet of plantings, courtyards, roof gardens and water features cover a 6000 space parking structure. What a waterproofing challenge!

City-Creek-CenterTRAX

Both sides of the first Main Street TRAX stop are bordered by the Center. Photo courtesy of UTA.

“The things the LDS Church is doing with City Creek Center are going to be a positive boost to walkability and transit in Utah” according to “Faith in Action: Communities of Faith Bring Hope for the Planet,” a national report of the Sierra Club.  The Center brought more residents, employees, shoppers and diners to use the light rail system called TRAX.

Opening in 2012, with final touches added in 2013, this downtown revitalization project took 10 years to complete.  With development continuing throughout the crash in real estate, it was one of the only privately-funded projects of its size in the US that continued to build over the last few years. I happened to meet the Portland-based ZGF architect who was their project manager for the residential portion this week (at an event in Portland, first week of June 2013) and she confirmed how important this project was to her firm.  It also kept 2000 others employed throughout the development cycle and now employs over 7000 people.  It had about 16 million visitors in its first year of operation.

You can read more about the economic development aspects of City Creek Center elsewhere e.g., Salt Lake Tribune.  What I’m going to look at here is what role City Creek Center plays in putting Salt Lake City on the path to becoming the engine of biodiversity that Richard Louv exhorted CNU 21 attendees to work towards in our work.

DSCN0967

Although I’m not a fan of shopping centers, the creek kept me coming back day-after-day

City Creek Center was actually in the middle of my route to and from the Grand America Hotel where CNU21 was held from May 29 to June 1, 2013. Even though I’m NOT a fan of shopping centers, once I saw the creek there, I happily sauntered through it every day of my five-day stay.  It gave me a taste of what I was missing in the nearby canyons as I made my way to The Grand America each day.  The creek stimulated for me feelings of peacefulness—and a desire to get out into the real thing.

I recognized immediately the trees native to this area: Populus tremuloides – aspen; Betulae occidentalis – water birch; and Prunus virginiana – chokecherry. They were planted along a lovely creek that bubbled through boulders of native sandstone.  Below the canopy level, there were native sedges and rushes and shrubs– and a few plants I didn’t recognize as native. Tough non-native shrubs were brought in to overcome the trampling the natives were experiencing.

DSCN0966

Developers made an extraordinary effort to re-create the iconic creek that was so critical in Salt Lake City’s founding

I appreciated the fact that the developers named this center after a natural feature that used to be there—AND that they made an extraordinary attempt to re-create that natural feature in their development. The creek flows across three city blocks, and drops 37 feet in elevation from beginning to end. Some 600 boulders were brought in from an area near Park City and 627 native trees from nurseries in Oregon and Idaho.

As it meanders along pedestrian walkways and cafes, the recreated creek features three waterfalls and a fountain with 50-foot-high jets. The creek varies in width from one foot to 28 feet and from four inches to 18 inches in depth.  Some parts of the creek were stocked with Bonneville cutthroat trout and rainbow trout and those fish are now reproducing.

A 17-foot waterfall at Regent Court cascades at 2,500 gallons per minute over 14 ton Utah sandstone boulders.  The landscape is actually comprised of 13 different water features that recirculate their potable water. According to Ross Nadeau, Landscape Architect project manager, “We looked at utilizing City Creek itself and then at the de-watering water from the site, but we couldn’t make either work because of the filtration costs.”

DSCN0970

The creek serves as a draw for shoppers, employees and residents

City Creek Center received a LEED ND rating of Silver for its multiple efforts to be sustainable.  “The heart and namesake of our development is the re-creation of City Creek, which many years ago used to run through the downtown area of Salt Lake City,” said Val Fagre, former City Creek Reserve project manager—now retired. The craftsmanship put into building the creek is extraordinary.  And I can vouch that the creek serves as a draw for shoppers, employees and residents of City Creek Center. In the two times I ate at the Food Court there, I went to extra effort to sit near the creek. The Center also seems to attract plenty of young people to hang out on Friday and Saturday nights.

Nearby, City Creek Canyon has been protected from the beginning of the city’s history (over 150 years) to protect drinking water and wildlife habitat.  According to students in a class project in General Ecology at Westminster College:

GlacierLily

Glacier lilies are found along the City Creek Canyon Nature Trail

By learning the names of the native trees and shrubs that support the wildlife in City Creek Canyon along the nature trail loop, one can see which plants may be useful in backyard landscaping. Native plants introduced into the urban landscape around houses and yards help wildlife to survive in the city and help conserve water.

Based upon the students’ observations (I didn’t get there), City Creek Canyon could qualify as an engine of biodiversity.  But could City Creek Center qualify?

citycreekpark-(2)

City Creek Preserve could help City Creek Park become a true gateway to City Creek Canyon wildlife corridor–as well as give it a role in flood protection. Right now, it’s a concrete ditch (lower right). Photo courtesy of SLC Parks.

I missed the small signs that interpret the plants and fish of City Creek Center so it was not apparent to me how it was being used to influence further biodiversity–but the signage is there.  Does the experience of being in a pleasant environment lead people to go home and attempt to mimic what they saw while shopping or dining? Perhaps the center could be more proactive and run some “naturescaping” classes and host some native plant sales by local groups.  The project I would most like to see is for City Creek Preserve to work with the City’s Department of Parks and Public Lands to restore City Creek Park, to a more natural condition making it a better gateway to City Creek Canyon.  A stream buffer and wetlands could be quite important there to prevent or alleviate flooding in the future, e.g., heavy snow melt flooded State Street in 1983. The City is already undertaking some watershed restoration projects funded by Chevron as mitigation for an oil spill.  Hopefully, it won’t take such a negative event for City Creek Preserve to offer such assistance in order to increase its role as a biodiversity engine.

The boulders came from Brown’s Canyon quarry, a 100 year-old business near Park City.    Does that quarry have a biodiversity management plan (a BMP for quarries developed by World Wildlife Fund)? If not, what role should City Creek Preserve play in suggesting they start one?  Of course, such a suggestion would carry more weight before the stone was purchased.

The developers took their project through the pilot phase of LEED ND.  But did they consider Sustainable Sites, a system focused on measuring and rewarding a project that protects, restores and regenerates ecosystem services – benefits provided by natural ecosystems such as cleaning air and water, climate regulation and human health benefits.

I believe City Creek Center would score well in the “Human Health & Well-being” category.  But I’m still concerned about all of the water and power used in this engineered ecosystem. Tell us what you think below: Does City Creek Center pass muster as a biodiversity engine for Salt Lake City?  Why or why not?

 

Ban Studded Tires in Portland’s Legislative Agenda 2013

I’m Mary Vogel and I’m speaking on behalf of myself and my Woman Business Enterprise, PlanGreen. Thank you for this opportunity to testify on Portland’s Legislative Agenda for 2013!

As most of you know studded tires cut road life in HALF in Oregon!!!  I live in downtown Portland where my major forms of transportation are walking and biking, so I am able to see and hear the villains doing it—one click, click, click, clack, clack, clack at a time.

What I am suggesting is an additional point under the Transportation agenda on p. 36. That point is:

First, deal with a major and unnecessary cause of road wear & tear in Oregon by banning studded tires.

  • ODOT estimates that studded tires cause $40 million in damage to our roads each year.
  • During its lifespan, the average studded tire chews up ½ to ¾ ton of asphalt
  • That results in a fine dust that gets in the air, on the land and, eventually, is washed into our rivers.
  • Some of that dust also lodges in our lungs where it has an inflammatory and toxic effect
  • A Swedish study found that the toxic dust created by studded tires is 60 to 100% greater than the amount from regular tires
  • The extra damage from studded tires greatly increases our consumption of petroleum products and hence our carbon footprint
  • Modern studless snow tires are safer than studded tires in almost all driving conditions found in Oregon
  • Far snowier places like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario have banned studded tires; Washington and Alaska may do so this year
  • Studded tires create unsafe conditions for all drivers by creating ruts in roads

While data show that only 10% of Oregonians west of the Cascades use studded tires, I think they all commute into downtown Portland every weekday.  It seems like every third car that passes me on my bike has them—raising the hair on the back of my neck with their aggressive sound. In the women over 50 age category, I may be one of the few who meet the level of “strong and fearless,” but I will admit that studded tires rattle my nerves and make me feel less safe. What they do to the pavement certainly makes the roads less safe for all cyclists.

So, not only do studded tires cost us a lot more in road maintenance, they cost us more in public health; they cost us more in carbon footprint; they cost us more in the livability of our cities. During a time of fiscal and climate crisis, to continue to allow studded tires is irresponsible!

Please ask the legislature to ban studded tires in Oregon!  Add First, deal with a major and unnecessary cause of road wear & tear in Oregon by banning studded tires to your points under Modernize & Enhance Transportation Funding. Or make it a separate point under the city’s Transportation agenda. But please do this today as we are long overdue!

Thank you for your time!

Mary Vogel

PS If you have time to read more, I recommend:

Bringing The Wild Back To The City

Oregon Community Trees recent keynote speaker Dr. Doug Tallamy says that while Portland is lush and beautiful, it is DEAD!  Portland has so few insects because most of the vegetation in the city is non-native and the native insects, that are the base of the food chain, need native plants to reproduce!

Enthusiastic participants – Trapper Creek Wilderness

I lead field trips to the wild on weekends that focus on native plant and wildlife communities—helping people appreciate them for their intrinsic beauty and wonder and also for the ecosystems services they provide.  I ask folks who sign up to help me make the trips as participatory as possible by doing a bit of research on the natural or cultural history of the region to share with the group. Some do!  The trips provide a good way to renew the body, rejuvenate the spirit and make new friends.

I’m trying to recruit more people on my trips who will come back to the city and incorporate what they discover into our overall green infrastructure: green streets, green roofs, green walls, green landscapes and green buildings as well as designs for walkable neighborhoods and great urbanism region-wide. So I’d especially like help in getting word out to landscape architects, landscape suppliers and builders.  To really be effective its crucial to reach all parts of the built environment community: planners, designers, developers, financiers, suppliers and builders.

I schedule my trips through Portland-Vancouver Sierra Club Outings Meetup (free to join) because Sierra Club offers leader training, first aid and insurance.  And Sierra Club has advocated for the things I care about since 1892.  The trips are also free, though Sierra Club asks that you consider a voluntary $2-3 donation towards its leader training. I help people explore and appreciate ancient (aka old growth) forests; showy wildflower meadows and their more modest cousins under the forest canopy; wild rivers and streams; and mountain lakes with wetlands. In winter, I look for places with good snow for XC skiing. If I have to pick a favorite, it’s the west side Cascades. But I plan to include some trips to the east side of the Cascades and the Oregon Coast as well.

Not all of my trips are to wilderness areas (limited to 12), but the ones that are sometimes fill up fast.   Identify yourself as a Built Environment Professional in your profile when you sign up. If I can, I’ll give you priority for a spot on the trips. (People who have signed up, drop off at the last minute–or they don’t show up at all! So I’ll promise that you won’t be turned away if you have put yourself on the waiting list.)

I myself am an urban planner who wants to preserve the wild by bringing more of what people appreciate there back to the city to help make our cities and towns more livable, healthy, climate-friendly and resilient.  I strive to create places that people don’t feel the need to escape.  I hope you will join me in enjoying and protecting the wild—and bringing more of it back to the city.  Urbanism and nature can co-exist.  In fact, if our species is to survive they must!

Mary Vogel
PlanGreen

New Urbanists Support The Portland Plan

Planning and Sustainability Commission

1900 SW 4th Ave.

Portland, OR 97201-5380

Attn: Portland Plan testimony                                                                       Nov. 29, 2011

I’m Mary Vogel, Advocacy & Alliances Chair of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Cascadia Chapter. We are a potential partner on the Portland Plan as we are the planners and urban designers who have long designed and created walkable neighborhoods even while our colleagues were creating suburbia. In the Portland area, we can take credit for Fairview Village, New Columbia, Orenco Station and more recently, urban infill in the Pearl, the Interstate Corridor, Gresham, Milwaukie and elsewhere in the region. Many of us tend to be small business owners, even sole proprietors, who team up amongst ourselves and with other professionals.

First we want to commend Portland Planning Director, Susan Anderson, for bringing the ethic of the Portland Plan to her role on MTAC and insisting that urban design should play a more prominent role in Metro planners scenario planning for reducing greenhouse gases. She stimulated a very positive discussion amongst planning directors throughout the region on the importance of urban design in addressing climate change—a discussion that CNU considers central to the effort. We encourage her to keep MTAC’s/Metro’s toes to the fire on this!

We support the emphasis of the Portland Plan on equity but with the recognition that that equitable investment must take a whole new direction—not just catch up with the mistakes we made in the past such as putting in curb and gutter to drain our stormwater away as quickly as possible or widening roads with the presumption that everyone drives. We especially like the focus on complete neighborhoods where residents can meet their basic needs on foot. We have been not only advocating, but designing and building that for over 20 years.

We have some of the best expertise in the nation on what it takes to make retail successful and look forward to working with neighborhoods and the city on that. We also have some of the longest history in creating truly transit-oriented development and making transit hubs great places.

We love the “Healthy and Affordable Food” actions, especially the 1000 new commBalcony Gardening at Affordable Housingunity garden plots. This may become essential far sooner than we might think. At least one member of our group has joined Depave to help neighborhoods get this going faster than the wheels of the bureaucracy might turn. I myself have run an EarthBox gardening program on the balconies of a downtown affordable housing complex for the past couple years. I have attached photos to my emailed testimony.

We look forward to working with the city to create the interconnected network of city greenways that will encourage walking and biking and weave nature into neighborhoods. I myself have long worked in creating Habitat Connections through stream restoration, invasive species removal and native plant plantings and through helping to create the Intertwine by working on two Metro Parks & Greenspaces ballot initiatives.

Through the charrette concept that CNU pioneered (and our Portland-based National Charrette Institute keeps evolving), we have excellent tools to engage neighborhoods in creating 75 miles of new Neighborhood Greenways—as well as new Civic Corridors.

New Urbanists have long been known for placemaking—especially with an emphasis on streetscapes and other public places. New Urbanists have written many of the tools that citizen advocates who care about such things use today: The Smart Growth Manual, the Smart Code template, Suburban Nation, the Sprawl Repair Manual, Light Imprint Handbook and others. So we are well-equipped to help with Civic Corridors.

As you know, the Urban Land Institute is the “think tank for the real estate industry”. Many of its experts, both national and local, have pointed out over the last year, that the wave of the future is urban, mixed-use, transit-oriented and green building. While none of the ULI experts had any answers about how, in the current economy, to actually finance and build development where it is most needed, Metro’s own Expert Advisory Group was more explicit. Their report “Achieving Sustainable, Compact Development in the Portland Metropolitan Area: New Tools and Approaches for Developing Centers and Corridors” identifies one of the greatest obstacles in centers and corridors development as the current credit market.

The EAG report has a number of recommendations pp 20 – 23 re: financing—recommendations that would require local communities to be more proactive in the financial realm and work with citizens and the private sector to create altogether new tools. Since Metro seems to have dropped the ball with the EAG, we’d like to suggest that the city pick it up to get this group’s input on this clearly missing element in the implementation section of The Portland Plan.

Transitions PDX was right in their testimony! We aren’t going back to the way things were before. We need new tools to finance the new ways of developing that the plan calls for. Before Wall Street banks got involved in development financing, money for development had long come from the local level. We need to find ways to get back to that.

Such action should be taken sooner rather than later if we are to preserve the intellectual infrastructure w/the skills to implement the Portland Plan. A number of my colleagues are abandoning the profession for other careers where they can still make a living.

Mary Vogel, CNU-A

Chair, Advocacy & Alliances CNU Cascadia

Occupy Sprawl

Occupy Sprawl – by Galina Tachieva as posted to a Pro-Urb Listserv

Inspired by the recent popular discontent expressed so colorfully on Wall Street, I offer this proposal: Occupy Sprawl!

People are not happy with the economy, with politics, with the government. Consider the physical surrounding of the protesters: the streets and squares in lower Manhattan where there are plenty of places to gather. Good urbanism provides good spaces for assembling and protesting. Our sprawling suburbs are devoid of such places. Where can people get together to show frustration (or to celebrate)? Are people happy with their physical environment in sprawl? Why not revolt against the system of sprawl, which is responsible for some of the most serious environmental, economic, social and health problems in recent history? Sprawl has been central to our economic troubles: the mortgage meltdown, dependence on cars and oil, pollution and waste of resources to mention just a few. Sprawl has even been blamed for the death of the American dream itself.

How about taking on sprawl in the passionate way the protesters are taking on Wall Street? The metaphor of occupation can serve us well in the quest to reform sprawl because we will need a dramatic overhaul   of the physical pattern, of the law, of the financing mechanism that created, supported and encouraged sprawl for decades. The whole system must be shaken from its foundations, in the same way the occupiers demand systemic changes on Wall Street.

There is so much to occupy in sprawl! People should reclaim the empty, unproductive, wasteful spaces: over-scaled parking lots, empty big boxes, dead malls, vast front lawns, foreclosed McMansions, massive cul-de-sacs, underperforming golf courses, etc. Suburban strip corridors can become main streets and boulevards, malls can incubate much-needed town centers, deserted McMansions can house students and seniors, and parking lots can be transformed into productive community gardens.

There is a direct connection between Wall Street and the future redevelopment of sprawl. A few years ago Christopher Leinberger identified 19 real estate categories or standard product types preferred by Wall Street and showed the need to provide new alternatives that are walkable, diverse, more resilient. The redeveloped sprawl types will be the new products in the Wall Street toolbox.

Leinberger put it succinctly and unambiguously:  We can stay outside the world of Wall Street-dominated real estate finance, discuss, and (occasionally) design and build precious, expensive alternatives. Or we can work hard to develop new product types that the mainstream can understand, accept, and prosper by developing and owning.

The good news is that things are already moving. The New Urbanists have been building numerous projects redeveloping sprawl, piling up experience and success. Sprawl is under attack from many sides ≠ from the grassroots as well as from the private and the public sectors. The market is shifting towards more intelligent, human-scale urban patterns and Wall Street is paying attention. Adam Ducker of RCLCO pointed out in his CNU presentation on the economic context of sprawl repair, that walkscore is becoming a Wall Street underwriting tool.

But more voices and hands are needed for this Herculean effort. The resources are here and plentiful; just help yourself. Use the strategies from Retrofitting Suburbia, the toolkit of the Sprawl Repair Manual, the maneuvers of the Tactical Urbanists, the interventions of Incremental Sprawl Repair and Planned Densification, the common sense of the Original Green, the sustainability of Rainwater-In-Context and Light Imprint, the techniques for re-zoning sprawl of CATS and get support from the many minds of the CNU Sprawl Retrofit Initiative.

Get out and Occupy Sprawl!

The Unbearable Costs Of Sprawl

On top of the soaring costs of crumbling infrastructure, health impacts and ecological damage, we must now add the global economic crisis itself – triggered by the unsustainable economic patterns of sprawling American suburbs. But new solutions are emerging to re-structure a generation of vibrant, successful neighborhoods.

A Policy White Paper by:

Michael Mehaffy , Sustasis Foundation, Portland, OR[1]

Galina Tachieva, Congress for the New Urbanism “Sprawl Retrofit Initiative”[2]

Laurence Qamar, DPZ Cascadia Group[3]

Mary Vogel, PlanGreen, Portland, OR[4]

With contributions from

John Holtzclaw, The Sierra Club[5]

Christopher Leinberger, The Brookings Institution[6]

Introduction:  Converging forces and the end of “Business as Usual”

History records that the sprawling American suburbs were Ground Zero of the global financial crisis of 2008-2010.  It was here that millions of American homebuyers used unsustainable financial means to buy far-out homes in artificially cheap, “drive ‘til you qualify” suburbs.  Buyers drove increasingly farther away from jobs and services, to increasingly remote, car-dependent enclaves that offered apparently cheaper homes – at least, until the true costs of transportation, furnishing and home heating and cooling were factored in.  This set the stage for financial disaster.

Many of these homes were bought with adjustable-rate mortgages, artificially lowered for an initial period after sales (and with hefty commissions for agents and brokers).  Homebuyers had to wager that their incomes would rise, or they would be able to sell their homes for more money later, to cover any shortfall.  Worse, many of these same homeowners took out second mortgages, sometimes on top of car loans for low fuel efficiency cars, high-interest credit card balances, and other mounting debts.

Adding to this precarious situation, in 2007, a convergence of rising energy prices, mortgage interest re-adjustments, and a normal cyclical recession, triggered a wave of mortgage defaults. Because these instruments were no less highly leveraged, the defaults quickly cascaded into a wider series of defaults by mortgage companies, banks — and ultimately, governments around the world.

It’s clear in retrospect that we had built a global financial house of cards. And this “house” was much like the American suburban domicile: over-reliant on high consumption, artificially low initial costs, heavily leveraged with staggering debt — and therefore, unable to withstand relatively ordinary economic shocks.  In the parlance of systems theory, this was not, to say the least, a resilient system.

As Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution reports, “what we face today is not just a cyclical housing problem, but a structural one as well.” Over the past decade, he writes in The Atlantic (June 2010), most house building occurred in the heavily auto-dependent suburban fringe, “in large part because that’s where houses could be built most easily and quickly. But now that the bubble has popped, we can clearly see that underlying demand in these areas is extremely weak, and oversupply is massive.”

This was the acute crisis of 2008-2010.  But it was, in a sense, the “warning shot” of a much broader convergence of forces that is likely to cause even deeper damage to the world’s economy in the future, if the underlying problems are not addressed.  We can describe these converging forces as follows:

  1. Continued precipitous rises in energy costs. The fuel of suburban expansion, and of other forms of rapid and non-resilient growth, has been historically cheap energy fueled by abundant petroleum – an era that is coming to an end.  As demand continually exceeds remaining supplies, the price of oil – and of other fuels traded within global energy markets – is likely to continue to increase, sometimes dramatically.  This is likely to place even more financial stress on outer, car-dependent suburbs with large, energy-demanding homes – and on the economies that continue to rely upon this suburban pattern of consumption to fuel economic growth.
  2. Declining revenues available for continued infrastructure operation and maintenance. Local governments have been able to sustain the increasing cost of operating and maintaining sprawling infrastructure with higher system development charges on new development – but that “pyramid” scheme has shown its vulnerability in the current recession, as the funding from new development has dried up.  The result, combined with other financial stresses from lost revenues and investments, has been financially catastrophic for many local governments.
  3. Restricted credit markets. The easy credit that made this scheme possible has given way to a new era of tight credit, making it all the more difficult to sustain existing sprawl developments and mitigate their negative impacts — and that puts new developments in an even more precarious situation.

THE CHALLENGE:  Rising costs of obsolete sprawl

Added to these external converging forces, we can expect the internal costs of sprawl to continue to grow, placing even further stresses on the finances of governments and homeowners alike.  They can be summarized:

  1. Infrastructure and maintenance. Many older sprawling subdivisions are now entering critical periods of infrastructure maintenance, at a time when governments are even less able to cope with these soaring costs.  As energy prices rise, so to do operating and maintenance costs – placing even more stresses on financially strapped governments.
  2. Physical health and its associated costs. Soaring rates of obesity and diabetes have been linked by the US Centers for Disease Control and other researchers to a car-dependent, “drive-through” suburban lifestyle – one that affords little opportunity for walking or other forms of healthy living.  Suburban environments have also been linked to rising rates of asthma and other respiratory disease.  All of these increased rates of disease translate into higher health costs, at a time when the cost of health care is already a serious strain on recovering economies.
  3. Environmental damage, including climate change. The long-term economic impacts of environmental damage caused by sprawling, high-emissions development, including climate change, have been assessed by many entities including insurance company research departments and others.  The loss of so-called “ecosystem services” – such as purification of water and air – could total many billions of dollars.  The impact of climate change on agriculture alone, in the form of droughts, heat waves and the like, could be globally catastrophic, both economically and socially.  Other well-understood impacts include loss of arable land, destruction of important species habitats, and loss of regional quality of life amenities.

THE OPPORTUNITY: Recycling a readily available resource

These impacts illustrate that sprawling suburban developments at present carry unacceptable costs – yet it would be equally unacceptable, from a resource efficiency point of view, to abandon these regions altogether.  A more desirable outcome would be to find ways to re-structure these regions into denser, more walkable, more vibrant neighborhoods, using a series of infill and re-structuring techniques.  This is of course only consistent with the principle of recycling resources that are readily available for re-use, instead of perpetuating a “throwaway” approach.

It should be stressed that these strategies must not come at the expense of revitalizing inner-city areas, which often hold out the best opportunity for more sustainable urban development.  Rather, this is a “both-and” approach that sees opportunities to do both as part of a combined strategy for more sustainable regional development.

Fortunately, just such strategies and tools are indeed emerging – and they hold great promise for a “new beginning” for sprawling suburban neighborhoods.

We can summarize the key principles of such approaches as follows:

Principle 1:  Many of the ingredients are there, but in the wrong place. Sprawling suburbs often have jobs, housing, recreation, and talented and able populations – all the ingredients of a sustainable urban environment – but they are poorly organized, and often in the wrong numbers.

Principle 2: The wasted space is a resource. Under-used right of way is available for transit.  Over-large lots can allow accessory dwellings or live-work facilities.  Excessive parking lots often make excellent infill sites.  Reconfigurations of poorly organized, car-dependent commercial developments can often produce surprisingly elegant plans (see illustration).

Principle 3: Make it pay (by adding customers). Many suburban sites suffer from the diseconomies of low-density development.  Put simply, they lack the customer base to support quality development.  By adding customers for vibrant, well-designed new centers, suburbs can support more attractive commercial and civic amenities.  If managed correctly, the process can become a “virtuous circle” – the additional customers support higher-quality development, which attracts additional customers, and so on.

Before-and-after of a typical retrofit for a sprawling “strip mall” district into a vibrant mixed-use town center.  (Galina Tachieva, from The Sprawl Repair Manual)

THE ROADBLOCKS:  Some misconceptions about urban and suburban development.

Effective policy reform on suburban redevelopment is often obstructed by well-meaning residents who fear the negative consequences of new development.  This is not irrational:  so much new development has in fact been chaotic, poorly organized, and downright ugly, that residents have good reason to be concerned.  But these same residents are vulnerable to several key myths about suburban development

Myth 1:  More density is always unpleasant. On the contrary, less density can be quite unpleasant, because it can mean less economic support for desirable services and businesses, less ability to walk, and a more open, fragmented environment.  Often a low-density development can mean less privacy than a well-designed development at a higher density.

Myth 2: The suburbs are about getting out of congestion, and into the open, quieter countryside. In fact, history has demonstrated that the suburbs are about bringing congestion and noise with you – and indeed, increasing congestion, as a consequence of increased dependence on cars for increasingly long trips, and channeling them onto a few highways.  A rural lifestyle is the right one for some Americans – but too many Americans thought they were getting a rural lifestyle in the suburbs, when what they got was the worst of both worlds:  isolation, and traffic jams.

Myth 3:  New infill development is always ugly, and degrades the quality of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, this can be true – but it need not be.  If citizens become pro-active stewards of development, and hold policy leaders, architects and developers accountable for the livable quality of development, then history shows that such infill development can add enormously neighborhood quality.  Indeed, the greatest cities in the world were built from just such well-planned, beautifully designed infill development.

THE MEANS: Tools and policy recommendations

As noted above, an exciting array of policy tools and strategies is coming to the fore today.  An exhaustive account of these is beyond the scope of this paper, but more information can be found in the references below.  But we can summarize the strategies as follows:

  1. Add new design tools and strategies. A growing toolkit of design types and strategies is becoming available in both “proprietary” and “shareware” formats.  New “sprawl retrofit” strategies are emerging, and offering elegant new ideas for turning ugly, poorly used suburban sites into vibrant, successful centers.  Public, private and NGO entities are working together to pioneer new mechanisms and tools, like tax-increment financing, community land trusts, and many others.
  2. Remove the old codes and barriers; add new code tools. Many of the most beautiful, sustainable neighborhoods in human history would be illegal under today’s common zoning codes.  They need to be scrapped, and replaced with a new generation of codes that allow much more flexible development, in a way that supports walking, transit, and a good distribution of amenities.
  3. Add new incentives and funding mechanisms. The mantra of sustainable development advocates today is, “make it pencil.”  Good development will not happen if it cannot be supported economically.  Sometimes, that means adding customers.  Sometimes that means “priming the pump” by creating incentives and financial tools that can support good development through the early periods, when the economic return is most challenging.  And sometimes, that means making unsustainable development pay its true cost, so that it does not have an artificial competitive advantage over good-quality sustainable development.

Today, the voices of “business as usual” continue to sing an old song.  The sprawling suburbs are the American dream; the American way of life is “non-negotiable;” we can go back to the vision of the 1950s and 1960s, and all glide around effortlessly in gleaming automobiles, in a drive-through utopia.  Our economy, too, can go back to what it was.  We now see that illusion for what it was, and we are now facing the unbearable costs.

But the future need not be a grim time of sacrifice.  Most of us are aware that we were not getting very much for our prodigious (and wasteful) expenditures of money and resources, and we are eager to return to the pleasures of life that are still everywhere around us – and do not cost the Earth in the bargain.  We can see ready examples from urban environments where a lower-carbon way of life, for example, certainly does not translate into a lower quality of life.  On the contrary, the evidence shows that a higher quality of life can be had in the bargain – one with more diversity of options, more urbanity, richer experiences.

Our economy, too, might benefit by focusing more upon those things that renew and sustain rather than those that destroy and extinguish.  It does seem that we have little choice: for the present crisis reminds us that we simply can no longer afford to go on in the old sprawling ways.

*                              *                               *

APPENDIX I

From Sprawl to Complete Communities

From Galina Tachieva, the Sprawl Repair Manual

Sprawl is a pattern of growth characterized by an abundance of congested highways, strip shopping centers, big boxes, office parks, and gated cul-de-sac subdivisions – all separated from each other in isolated, single-use pods (figure 1-1). This land-use pattern is typically found in suburban areas, but also affects our cities, and is central to our wasteful use of water, energy, land, and time spent in traffic. Sprawl has been linked to increased air and water pollution,

greenhouse gas emissions, loss of open space and natural habitat, and the exponential increase in new infrastructure costs. Social problems related to the lack of diversity have been attributed to sprawl, and health problems such as obesity to its auto-dependence.

In contrast, complete communities have a mix of uses and are walkable, with many of a person’s daily needs – shops, offices, transit, civic and recreational places – within a short distance of home. They are compact, so they consume less open space and enable multiple modes of transportation, including bicycles, cars, and mass transit. A wide variety of building types provides options to residents and businesses, encouraging diversity in population. This mix of uses, public spaces, transportation, and population makes complete communities economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable.

SprawlRetrofitImages

Left, a heavily car-dependent area of sprawl, with many fragmented street segments.  Right, a neighborhood with a street grid pattern, which is much more walkable.  Uses are distributed throughout the neighborhood.

Left, images from a mixed-use, walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood of San Francisco.  Right, images from a neighborhood across the bay, with the same climate, economy, government and other factors.  Studies show that the energy use and carbon emissions per capita in such neighborhoods is dramatically higher.  (From Mehaffy et al., “The Factors of Urban Morphology in Greenhouse Gas Emissions.”)

The promise of suburbia has been eroding for decades, but reached a critical point with the mortgage meltdown of 2008. A record number of homes went into foreclosure and entire subdivisions and commercial developments began to fail. Yet the expanse of sprawl represents a vast investment, and cannot be simply abandoned or demolished. Pragmatism demands the reclamation of sprawl through redevelopment that introduces mixed uses and transportation options. It must be acknowledged, however, that portions of sprawl may remain in their current state, while others may devolve, reverting to agriculture or nature. The design and regulatory strategies and incentives shown here are intended for the places that are best suited to be urbanized because of location or existing investment.

The history and consequences of suburban development, specifically sprawl, are well documented. Numerous books articulate the trajectory of sprawl within its historical context – from the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgages for new construction, the subsidies of the interstate highway system, and the tax laws allowing accelerated depreciation of commercial development, to the evolution of Euclidean zoning’s separation of uses and the cultural mandate for separation by race. Recent publications put forward the need to redevelop sprawl and what specifically should be repaired; among these are Greyfields into Gold‑ elds and Malls into Main Streets, reports by the Congress for the New Urbanism. Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, explains why we need to retrofit sprawl and documents successful examples of retrofits through illuminating and comprehensive analysis.

The Sprawl Repair Manual seeks to expand the literature as a guide that illustrates how to repair the full range of suburban conditions, demonstrating a step-by-step design process for the creation of more sustainable communities. This is a framework for designing the interventions, incorporating them into the regulatory system, and implementing them with permitting strategies and financial incentives.

The proposed approach addresses a range of scales from the region down to the community, street, block, and building. The method identifies deficiencies in typical elements of sprawl, and determines the best remedial techniques for those deficiencies. Also included are recommendations for regulatory and economic incentives.

Lessons learned from history guide this methodology.  Rather than the instant and total overhaul of communities, as promoted so destructively in American cities half a century ago, this is a guide for incremental and opportunistic improvement.

APPENDIX II

“Here comes the neighborhood”

Excerpt from Atlantic Monthly, June 2010

By Christopher Leinberger

As Zillow’s satellite maps begin to indicate, what we face today is not just a cyclical

housing problem, but a structural one as well navigate here. Over the past decade, most house building occurred on the suburban fringe, in large part because that’s where houses could be built most

easily and quickly. But now that the bubble has popped, we can clearly see that underlying demand in these areas is extremely weak, and oversupply is massive.

Nationwide, houses on the exurban fringes are now generally priced below the cost of the materials that went into building them. That’s usually the first step in the creation of a slum. Owners have no financial incentive to invest in their houses if they will not get that investment back upon resale. Developers have no financial incentive to build in those areas either….

Yet the creation of new, attractive urban spaces is slow and difficult, and becomes all but impossible without substantial new infrastructure. Most of all, it relies on good transit options— especially rail links—around which walkable neighborhoods can develop. Rail, biking, and walking infrastructure is the backbone of urban development, and as a country we’ve for the most part neglected to build it in recent decades, in favor of new roads for new suburbs farther and farther away from metropolitan hubs. To support growth in the next decade, we need to change that dynamic—and nourish our walkable urban spaces and neighborhoods. Complicating matters, in these cash-strapped times we need to find a way to do so on the cheap.

Read the full article at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/06/here-comes-the-neighborhood/8093

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REFERENCES

Dunham-Jones, E. (2008)Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning

Suburbs.  John Wiley & Sons

Ewing, R. (1994). “Characteristics, Causes, and Effects of Sprawl: A Literature

Review.” Environmental and Urban Issues 21(2): 1-15.

Frumkin, Howard (2002). “Urban sprawl and public health.”  Public Health Reports, Centers for Disease Control, Vol. 117, 201-217

Leinberger, Christopher (2010). “Here comes the neighborhood.”  The Atlantic, June 2010.

Leinberger, Christopher (2010).  “Sprawl is the root cause of the financial crisis.” Island Press

blog.  Accessed May 11, 2010 at http://blog.islandpress.org/171/christopher-b-leinberger-sprawl-is-the-root-cause-of-the-financial-crisis

Holtzclaw, J., R. Clear, et al. (2002). “Location Efficiency: Neighborhood and Socioeconomic

Characteristics Determine Auto Ownership and Use – Studies in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.” Transportation Planning and Technology 25: 1-27.

Mehaffy, Michael et al. (2009) “The factors of urban morphology in greenhouse gas emissions.”

IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science 6:11, 9

Steil, L. et al., “Growing Sustainable Suburbs: An Incremental Strategy for Reconstructing

Sprawl” (chapter), in Haas, T. (2008) New Urbanism and Beyond. Rizolli.

Tachieva, Galina.  The Sprawl Repair Manual. Island Press (Washington D.C.), July, 2010


[1] 333 S. State Street, Lake Oswego, Oregon 97034.  michael.mehaffy@gmail.com

[2] Galina@dpz.com

[3] l.qamar@comcast.net

[4] mary@plangreen.net

[5] john.holtzclaw@sierraclub.org

[6] cleinberger@brookings.edu

Mary Vogel, CNU-A
PlanGreen
Putting Ecosystem Services into Excellent Urban Design
A Woman Business Enterprise in Oregon

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