June 7, 2020
Portland City Council held hearings on three policies involving housing density in May and June. One of them–the Residential Infill Project–has been FIVE YEARS in the making. A number of neighbors point to the current pandemic as a reason NOT to amend zoning regulations that would add more density to their single-family neighborhood (or historic district in the case of Central City 2035). I think that would be a big mistake as there is abundant evidence that density is NOT dangerous! In fact, denser communities give their residents better infrastructure to shelter in place.
Facts Don’t Support Argument
Congress for New Urbanism journal editor Rob Steuteville’s Facts Don’t Support the Density is Dangerous Narrative was the first data I saw on the topic. Two comparisons that were particularly telling were:
• Suburban Montgomery County, PA v. Philadelphia, PA. As of Friday April 3, the county had one case per 2,924 people where Philadelphia had one case per 3,940 people. So Montgomery County had a greater infection rate, yet it has one-seventh the density.
• In New York City infection rates in Stanten Island were approximately the same as Manhattan—with 8.5 times the density.
I’ve taken quotes from a few more studies that may be helpful in assuaging our neighbors’ fears that further density in their neighborhood may fuel pandemics.
Density Is Not Destiny
In Density is Not Destiny: Covid in Cascadia in City Observatory Joe Cortwright states “Vancouver [BC] is in the same region, and roughly the same size as Portland and Seattle. It is far denser, and yet it has performed the best of the three in fighting the spread of the Corona virus. It should be pretty compelling evidence that density is not a determining factor of whether one is vulnerable to the pandemic or not..”
The New Face of Urban Density
Liam Dillon, LA Times staff writer in Coronavirus: The New Face of Urban Density writes “At the same time, there’s lots of evidence that shows density isn’t destiny. . . “An analysis by New York University’s Furman Center found no relationship between the coronavirus and overall population density within New York City, with neighborhoods in Manhattan, the city’s densest borough, having some of the lowest infection rates.” “. . . The same is true for America’s next densest big city, San Francisco, which. . . [in late April] had reported only about 1,300 confirmed cases — compared with more than 8,450 in the city of Los Angeles.” The LA Times continues to track figures throughout the state and the ratio holds today.
Evidence from China
On a World Bank Blog, Wanli Fang and Sameh Wahba’s write in Urban Density Is Not the Enemy in the Coronavirus Fight: Evidence from China:
“. . .To find out whether or not population density is a key factor in the spread of the coronavirus, we collected data for 284 Chinese cities.” They found that China’s densest cities tended to have the lowest infection rates. They surmised that “Higher densities, in some cases, can even be a blessing rather than a curse in fighting epidemics. . .For instance, in dense urban areas where the coverage of high-speed internet and door-to-door delivery services are conveniently available at competitive prices, it is easier for residents to stay at home and avoid unnecessary contact with others.”
Crowding Is Dangerous and New Zoning Policies Will Help
The NYU Furman Center study and the China study too, did find that the virus is more prevalent in areas where more people are crowding into homes—say six people into a two-bedroom apartment. So it’s CROWDING that is dangerous, not density.
Crowding exists in Portland too, BUT rarely in the neighborhoods where neighbors are expressing the greatest concern. Adopting the housing policies under discussion: Expanding Opportunities for Affordable Housing and Residential Infill Project and Re-adoption of Central City 2035 will likely help to lessen, not exacerbate, such over-crowding in the Portland lower-income neighborhoods that currently experience it.
There is abundant evidence that density is NOT dangerous! In fact, denser communities give their residents better infrastructure to shelter in place. Regardless of whether you support proposed infill housing policies or not. I hope you will continue to educate yourselves! Please study the facts!
Mary Vogel, CNU-A/PlanGreen consults on climate resiliency and climate justice. She is also co-founder of Portland, OR Small Developer Alliance, a group related to CNU and the Incremental Development Alliance. She welcomes your response to this blog.
End Treeless Asphalt Deserts Downtown
Central City 2035 Key Element
Last year, as part of its Comprehensive Plan update process, Portland City Council passed CC 2035, an updated plan for the central city. The Key Elements of this plan give interested residents strong footing to address the surface parking lots in downtown’s West End as the fourth key element is: 4. Redevelopment. Encourage new development on surface parking lots and vacant lots..
Surface parking lot owners have negatively impacted the health and well-being of downtown residents for far too long. Besides the noise and air pollution that they bring to their neighbors these treeless asphalt deserts are more than 10 degrees hotter than surrounding areas. When it’s 105 degrees and smoky, walking by them for block after block is nearly unbearable–especially for the many downtown residents who use canes and walkers. Take a look at what I’m talking about–bearing in mind that this is DOWNTOWN Portland. . .
You might believe that with current real estate values, they will all be developed soon. But throughout the central city building boom in Portland, this hasn’t happened. In fact, Portland Art Museum’s lot depicted in Images 6 and 7 has been a surface parking lot for 88 years!
In August of 2017, commercial real estate consultant, Brian Owendoff explained to a Portland State University Real Estate class his opinion on why there will be little movement:
1. Land Price too high: very tough to make an apartment or office tower economically viable @ $600 SF for land cost.
2. The Inclusionary Zoning requirement reduces net operating income by 10%, more or less, making apartment development not economically viable.
3. Construction costs are very high due in large part to labor shortages.
All three result in project returns below what is acceptable for institutional investment or third party construction debt.
Except for the fact that some of the owners of the lots (the Goodmans, the Schnitzers and Portland Art Museum) also have the capacity to develop them, Owendoff’s market-based explanation may help explain why we’ve seen no redevelopment of the treeless asphalt deserts during the building boom.. But we can change “the market”!!! I have long suggested as a solution to this problem: the City of Portland should TAX LAND AT A HIGHER RATE THAN BUILDINGS. By taxing land at or near its development potential, owners of land that is used at less than maximum productivity–e.g.,surface parking lots–would be paying a disproportionate amount in taxes in order to keep it that way. See Land Value Tax for Downtown Portland.
Meanwhile, we could require that surface parking lots, while they remain, take a page from Ecotrust parking lot. Owners must install trees and bioswales that manage ALL stormwater onsite. They could even become fun places to hold events.
Let’s demand more from downtown Portland’s surface parking lot owners. Tell City Council that it’s not fair to downtown residents and visitors that owners of surface parking lots help destroy our air and water quality–not to mention temperature and aesthetic quality–with such impunity. You can help end treeless asphalt deserts by developing a vision for what you’d like to see on one of them. Then get your vision out via mainstream and social media. Call the owner and present it to them too. Grab a space on City Council’s agenda and present your vision. And watch for my vision for the Portland Art Museum lot soon!
Published July 9, 2019. Adapted from CC2035 Testimony of Mary Vogel/PlanGreen Sept. 7, 2017
April 4, 2016
“How do you think Metro should respond to the key issues and trends affecting the region’s ability to realize the vision of the 2040 Growth Concept?”
I was asked this question recently and here’s what I said. . .
Since its inception in 1995, the 2040 Growth Concept has promoted compact, mixed-use, transit-oriented development in centers and corridors. This has been central to shaping regional growth patterns, limiting sprawl and creating livable communities. In fact, directing growth into centers & corridors has been the region’s primary strategy for preserving farms, forests and natural areas outside the Urban Growth Boundary. Metro policymakers (and I myself) believe that compact development is the premier tool to address climate change, ensure equity, create jobs and protect the region’s quality of life.
I see three key trends that have only gotten stronger since 1995:
Trend 1: Walkable Urbanism Preference
Boomers and Millenials both show a strong preference for “Walkable Urbanism.” Some suburban policymakers responses to Metro’s Climate Smart Communities (CSC) project shows that many of them are not aware that this first trend means that they should be focusing more of their infrastructure dollars towards “retrofitting suburbia” rather than building and widening roads. I worked hard to see that urban form/urban design was in the strategies tested in the CSC project (and indeed it tested at the top!), but many suburban policymakers would rather focus on electric vehicles and other technology for lowering tail pipe emissions. More needs to be done to alert them that their present course will potentially lead to stranded assets where there is little market left for suburban single-family homes that don’t provide the opportunity to walk to needed services and amenities.
Trend 2: Recognition That Inequality Hurts Us
There is a growing recognition of the unacceptable impacts of inequality (racial, social, financial). Inequality impacts such issues as housing affordability, homelessness, displacement and even sprawl as people seek more affordable housing in towns outside the Metro Urban Growth Boundary. Thanks to Bernie Sanders, financial inequality (the widening income gap) has become a chief topic of presidential debates and led to more discussion of the role that the Federal government should play. Meanwhile, Metro has attempted to address several aspects of inequality.
Regarding Metro’s Strategic Plan to Advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Metro’s COO Martha Bennett said “the priorities are to learn more about best practices, apply equity plans to its service-delivery areas, improve community engagement and use equity as a measure of decision-making in spending money.” Any build out of the 2040 Growth Plan will need to address gentrification, displacement and contracting opportunities in an equity strategy that focuses on communities of color.
Metro has pursued affordable housing strategies for many years—the latest effort being the Equitable Housing Initiative headed up by Councilor Sam Chase. From Metro’s web site: The Initiative’s Report discusses a variety of tools that could help, including financial assistance for residents, renter protections against evictions and nonprofit community land trusts. . .
I agree that Metro should utilize the Community Land Trust model, but not just for the involuntarily low-income. I would like to see governments in the region, including Metro, promoting the CLT for ALL OF US. The original impetus behind the CLT movement was to create a new institution to keep housing permanently affordable. The first people I ever met living in a CLT were NOT low-income, rather middle-income people who saw it as a better way. Probably the local government that best understood its potential was Burlington, VT under then-mayor Bernie Sanders. The City of Burlington under Sanders helped to support the formation of the Burlington Community Land Trust. It’s now the Champlain Housing Trust, the largest CLT in the US and a model for local governments looking for systemic solutions.
I believe the CLT is the best tool for transforming our housing system. By taking the land under housing off the private, commodity, speculative market, it helps to change the concept of housing from a commodity to be bought and sold for a profit. Instead it encourages us to see it as a social good that everyone needs and deserves.
“By looking at housing as a fundamental human right rather than a market good that goes to the highest bidder, and with shrewd political organizing in a hostile environment, housing advocates in Burlington have created a sustainable model for affordable housing that deserves to be emulated across the country” says Daniel Fireside in Burlington Busts the Affordable Housing Debate.
The Portland region has a Community Land Trust, Proud Ground (formerly Portland Community Land Trust and Clackamas Community Land Trust). Personally, I feel that it is far too focused on home ownership rather than a mix of ownership and rental. Nonetheless, Metro should explore developing a relationship with it similar to that of Burlington and CHT.
For the shorter term, it should work with innovative housing developer Orange Splott, LLC and its network of other small incremental developers in promoting more alternatives to conventional home ownership. Let me repeat, these alternatives should be marketed not just to “the poor” but to ALL OF US! For Metro, this work could come under the banner of the Equitable Housing Initiative, but it needs to be larger than “affordable housing.” Rather it needs to focus on housing affordability involving ALL income levels. In the long run, hopefully before 2040, such efforts by Metro will help to change the concept of housing from a commodity to a social good.
Trend 3: Need for Excellent Urban Design
Residents of existing neighborhoods will be far more supportive of new development when it includes excellent urban design encompassing:
- appropriately scaled buildings
- streets designed for walking, biking, pushing baby strollers. . .and even cars
- neighborhoods with diverse uses
- people of diverse incomes, class and ethnicity
- sufficient parks and natural areas, protected streams, wetlands, and steep slopes
- infrastructure for arts and culture
Metro might look into working with the Regional Arts and Culture Council to produce a toolkit to encourage every community in the region to integrate arts and culture. Transportation for America has produced a Creative Placemaking Handbook that could provide a good start.
Members of the Congress for the New Urbanism have a great deal of expertise in excellent urban design. Metro should continue to develop a partnership with the Portland-based non-profit National Charrette Institute, a leading affiliate and powerful voice within CNU. As presented at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference by Council Member Craig Dirksen, the Investment Areas Approach with its Shared Investments Strategy highlighted both the City of Tigard and the Tigard Triangle in the SW Corridor Investment Area. New Urbanists are having strong influence over Tigard’s redevelopment and this trend should be encouraged.
Metro should continue its long-standing relationship with The Intertwine regarding the integration of parks and natural areas into developing centers and corridors. This coalitions of organizations have long been involved with implementation of Titles 3 and 13 of the 2040 Concept. It should consider expanding relationships with environmentally oriented organizations that represent communities of color (some of whom are in The Intertwine). As mentioned above in the inequality trend, any urban design efforts must take into account gentrification and displacement. They must also take into account inequitable air quality impacts.
What do you think about my three key trends re: implementing the 2040 Growth Concept–and my ideas on what Metro should do about them? What are your ideas?
Oct. 17, 2015
Our discussion of “The Next Urban Crisis” at University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management was another highlight of my Greater Portland Inc. trip to Toronto Sept. 27-30, 2015. There we spoke with professor, author and CityLab co-founder Richard Florida as well as Real Estate Developer, & Architect in City blogger Brandon Donnelly. During this discussion Spacing Magazine editor Matthew Blackett also shared some of the interesting insights I reported on in my Part 1 blog.
Richard Florida expressed his frustration with the Mayor Rob Ford era which declared that the war on the car was over and that the problem was those young, pointy-headed university folks. “In Toronto, everyone still thinks they have the right to drive,” he lamented. “If there’s an urban crisis, it’s the suburbs,” he said.
Florida reminded us that: “Building urbanism is a lot more expensive than building sprawl” and “The new frontier is the old frontier in the center of the city.” He left us with three points to deal with the next urban crisis: 1) Build more housing,and make it more affordable; .2) Build more transit; 3) Provide a livable minimum wage–reduce the huge bifurcation we see now.
Brandon Donnelly discussed with us some of the crisis in keeping housing affordable during Toronto’s fast-paced growth. There’s a pressure on prices re: low rise, but high-rise has stayed stable, he said. He described an Avenues and Mid-rise Building study. “ We see it as a market to build more units for families who are priced out of single family homes,” he said.
He distinguished Towers 1.0 and Towers 2.0. Towers 1.0, many built in the suburbs, did not take as middle class housing and became largely the affordable housing of today. Towers 2.0 is basically all ownership vs. all tenants in 1.0, he said. He finds it an encouraging sign that anchor office tenants and retailers are moving into the city as well.
On our way out, we had an unexpected opportunity to hear Robert Reich, who was doing a guest lecture at the Rotman School around his book, Saving Capitalism : For the Many, Not the Few.
I was especially impressed by how many of our group stopped to listen to his talk. “My aim is to shatter the myths that keep us from taking the action we must take, and to provide a roadmap of what we must do – to rebuild our economic system and restore our democracy.” Reich was saying.
There is a “huge misunderstanding” that underlies a false political dichotomy between the so-called “free market” and government intervention. “There is no choice to be made between the free market and government. Government determines the rules of the market. The real question is what those rules are going to be and who is influencing those rules and whether the market is going to be working for the vast majority as a result, or whether it’s going to be rigged in favour of a small minority.” Reich’s book was for sale at a table outside the open-sided auditorium where he was speaking.
At Rotman we had the opportunity to hear some of the most forward-thinking leaders of the day who are dealing with questions around the environment, housing, urbanism, equity, millenials, the creative class, public involvement and the economy.
It was a great segue to our reception and “Sharing Best Practices between Portland and Toronto” session at Ryerson University Architecture School. All of the students I met at the reception were from the Ryerson School of Urban and Regional Planning rather than Architecture. Those students were looking for answers to rising housing costs, displacement, equity, brownfields, resiliency planning in an era of climate change, etc. I stayed after the session to talk with them. Several promised to look at my blogs on mycoremediation and suggested that one of their professors might be especially interested. So far, no one has followed up but I’m still hoping to hear from them.
Chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, is a longtime Toronto resident, a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism (like myself), and a pedestrian advocate. She had been a principal in the Toronto planning consultancy Dialog prior to taking the job as Toronto’s top planner. She is also an inveterate user of Twitter @–discreetly putting out these tweets while she was on a panel with Portland Chief Planner, Joe Zehnder:
Portland is seeking to create *greenways* throughout neighbourhoods to address stormwater issues. Think “greened” street medians. Portland has met Kyoto carbon emission reductions, even while growing. “Your midrise is hi-rise for us.” Portland Chief Planner explains that 4 story bldings are causing consternation in his city. Wow. If only.
“I talk about Portland all of the time,” she told us. We’re growing but our air quality is getting better – as a result of our green roof policy mitigating the heat island effect. I cringed a bit to think that while Toronto passed the world’s first mandatory green roof program in 2010, Portland discontinued its Ecoroof Incentive in 2012.
In response to moderator Ann Marie’s question about green infrastructure and resiliency in the face of climate change, Keesmaat lamented that she has only three people working on green streets, a superstar team, but only three.
She did add that Toronto is a city of ravines and that there is an ongoing Ravine Strategy currently being developed. She will be holding her final Chief Planner Roundtable of 2015 (Dec. 15) on the topic of Toronto’s ravine network. I did not get the chance to ask her about the re-naturalization of the Don River, but I plan to do that at the next opportunity–maybe via Twitter!