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Posts from the ‘Planning’ Category

Towards a Better Urbanism

New Geography May 17 2020

The pandemic has brought panic to the once-confident ranks of urbanists promoting city density. At a time when even the New York Times is noticing that density and transit pose serious health risks for any potential re-opening, such people attack their critics as “anti-urbanist” or “sprawl lovers” or “urban gadflies.” Preferring theology over data, some advocate ever-greater density and crowding in cities and mass transit.

But wishful thinking cannot alter the fact that the pandemic has hit core cities with particular force. The concentration of the worst outbreaks in major urban areas—the New York region alone accounts for more than 40 percent of all US fatalities—is a global phenomenon also seen in Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain. This has cast a pall on traditional downtown-centric employment, dependent on massive subway systems, crowded apartments, and packed workspaces.

Such places promote what demographer Wendell Cox calls “exposure density.” This is particularly lethal for low-wage workers forced to take packed transit lines from crowded apartments to packed workplaces. It is not surprising that, in the shadow of the pandemic, a recent Harris poll found that almost two-in-five urban residents are considering a move to a less crowded area. The latest consumer survey from the National Association of Realtors also found that households are “looking for larger homes, bigger yards, access to the outdoors and more separation from neighbors.” Even many diehard city residents, suggests the New York Times, are now putting bids on suburban houses further from the city.

The demise of the high-rise office tower

Economic necessity has long defined how cities are organized. In the pre-industrial past, they grew up near coastal ports, rivers, or along trade routes such as the Silk Road. They housed those needed to run the state and maintain trade as well as servicing the luxury needs of the rich. Later, the industrial revolution forced cities to grow radically, as manufacturers depended on easy access to vast numbers of workers, who often suffered from severe social and health effects as documented by Friedrich Engels in his influential book, The Condition of the Working Class in England.

The past 50 years has seen the demise of the industrial city as production has shifted to developing countries or more remote locations, and the rise of an urban economy based on elite “producer services.” These industries, including finance, media, software, accounting, and law, depend on the migration of talent from elsewhere, both domestically and abroad. In modern times, the most prominent physical expression of urban greatness—once cathedrals or great public works—has been the office building. This same pattern has extended outside the West, notably in the Middle East and East Asia, which now boast most of the world’s tallest buildings.

But this configuration is now faced with the challenge of “social distancing.” Before the pandemic, companies coped with high urban rents by using far less space per new job—down from 175 square feet of space per new employee in the 1990s to 125 in the late 2000s and barely 50 square feet today. Social distancing requirements will force employers to offer more space per employee, which will in turn see their costs rise. Elevator traffic will slow, and private offices, once considered passé, may soon be in demand, as executives seek greater isolation from their employees.

Read the rest of this piece at Quillette.

Joel Kotkin is the author of the just-released book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute — formerly the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. Learn more at and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Marshall Toplansky is a clinical assistant professor of management science at Chapman University’s Argyros School of Business and Economics. He is a research fellow in the school’s Hoag Center for Real Estate and Finance and is formerly managing director of KPMG’s Lighthouse Center for Advanced Data and Analytics.

Why coronavirus must not stop Australia creating denser cities

The Conversation 14 May 2020

Stay-at-home orders have meant many people are happy to live in dispersed suburbs with free-standing, single-family homes. Quarantine feels less daunting with a backyard, plenty of storage space to stockpile supplies, and a big living room for morning stretches. Before the crisis, though, Australia was slowly moving toward urban density.

More apartments with communal amenities, rather than privatised space, were being built, creating less dependence on driving. It is easy to think these urbanites are now glumly looking out their windows towards the more spacious suburbs, wishing they had made different choices. Yet, despite the impacts of restrictions, Australia’s future is in urban density and not the suburban sprawl of the past.

The benefits of density done well

Before the world changed and Australians were ushered inside en masse, the country was making great strides toward creating more compact, walkable cities. Denser neighbourhoods provided multiple benefits:

better access to transport alternatives to cars
the creation of vibrant commercial districts
increased ability to house more people during affordability and homelessness crises.

Nationally, we were building almost as many apartment units as single family homes. In cities like Melbourne and Sydney, apartment construction even surpassed stand-alone houses despite lax quality regulations and design and construction flaws.

Density was achieved not just through towers for Asian investors in CBDs, but more subtle alterations such as townhouses and small blocks of flats. Residents moving into these neighbourhoods affirmed a sense of environmental consciousness, based on driving less, but also the belief in tight-knit communities with small businesses, parks and thriving street life.

Beware the siren call of suburbia

With the onset of COVID-19, it seems Australia’s new-found love of city living might be over, reverting to the suburban norm. The suburbs always offered a sense of safety, now more than ever.
Yet much of this is illusory. People still have to go shopping and, in many cases, to work, where they could be exposed to the virus. People have just as much control over their physical space in an apartment as in a house. (The exception is the lifts, but distancing measures and gloves can easily reduce risk.)

Australians may be tempted to re-embrace suburbia out of nostalgia for pre-virus safety, but they should remember what brought them to cities in the first place. As the architect Robin Boyd bemoaned way back in his 1960 critique of suburbanisation, The Australian Ugliness:
… the suburbs’ stealthy crawl like dry rot eating into the forest edge.
With 60 years of government policy propping up sprawl through freeway construction and tax breaks like negative gearing, it continues to be its own kind of infection scarring the landscape.

Don’t blame public health failures on density

Despite re-animated fears of living closer together, many countries that have successfully contained the coronavirus have some of the most densely populated cities in the world. These cities include Seoul, Hong Kong and Taipei. They have done this not by separating people but by increasing testing and contact tracing.

What is needed during a pandemic is not panic but effective public health. Prosperous, well-managed city governments are often best placed to offer these services to the community.

Negative examples like the United States, where the Trump administration has devolved responsibilities to states and cities, provide even more proof of why cities have to be at the forefront of public health campaigns, whether or not they choose that role voluntarily. The same could be said of Australia, where state governments in Victoria and New South Wales took the lead on restricting gatherings as the national government dithered.
Now, more than ever, we are appreciating urban life from afar: making lists of our favourite restaurants, changing our Zoom background during “virtual happy hour” to the interior of our local pub, and yearning for social connections that have migrated online.
We should listen to our desires and use this moment to double down on urban density when the crisis subsides, by funding mass transit and providing incentives to construct apartments rather than free-standing suburban homes.

Low-density living is less sustainable, less affordable and less fun. We should all remember that, despite currently having to keep our distance from one another.

Our cities owe much of their surviving heritage to Jack Mundey

The Conversation 11 May 2020

Jack Mundey, who has died at the age of 90, was a pioneer of the Australian heritage movement. As well as contributing to labor and environmental politics, Mundey reconceived of the ways that Australians related to their cities and heritage places.

As the NSW Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF) secretary, Mundey created the “green ban” (a term first used in 1973). No union member would work on a site subject to a green ban.

These bans were placed to give communities a say in development and to protect heritage and the environment. At a time of historically high union membership in the construction industry, a green ban effectively prevented development from proceeding.

By painting the traditional union “black ban” in a new colour, Mundey and the BLF created a new conception of urban and labor politics which highlighted community heritage concerns. As Mundey explained:

The adjective “green” was more apt than “black”. It also explained our wish to extend our help to other citizens, not to unionists alone.

Applying the first ban

The first green ban was applied in Sydney at Hunter’s Hill in 1971. A group of women founded “Battlers for Kelly’s Bush” to campaign against a proposed housing development by Melbourne firm A.V. Jennings. The housing estate was to be built on the Parramatta River at Kelly’s Bush, the last undeveloped open space in the area.

It was a typical housing project in this era of suburban expansion. But the rise of resident and civic groups fighting for heritage across Australia shifted the development terrain.
The Hunter’s Hill residents heard Mundey’s claim that workers “had a right to express an opinion on social questions relating to the building industry”. After a meeting between Mundey and the Battlers, a green ban was applied, eventually foiling the development. Kelly’s Bush was saved.

It did not matter that Hunter’s Hill was a solidly middle-class suburb. The green bans would be instituted on behalf of a range of communities.

A time of public revolt

Australian cities underwent dramatic change in the postwar period. Funded by a long economic boom, it was the era of modernist architecture and planning. Many parts of cities would be redeveloped following wholesale demolition.

Although goals of postwar urban planning for the welfare state included housing for all, full employment and exciting new environments, sizeable cracks in the vision were appearing in the 1960s. Planners and architects were increasingly criticised for being technocratic and adopting overly scientific and rationalised modes for urban design and development.

Their efforts were too often disconnected from communities and needlessly destroyed historic and natural environments. Widespread demolitions of commercial and public buildings in Australian CBDs and of terrace and free-standing homes in the inner suburbs were increasingly seen as unacceptable by the community.

More broadly, the late 1960s and early 1970s was a dramatic time for Australian social movements. Second-wave feminists, anti-Vietnam war protesters and historic and environmental conservationists rubbed shoulders during street marches. The federal Liberal Party had been in power for two decades and there was a great deal of energy among progressives for change.

An expanding movement

The Australian heritage movement was gaining momentum. National Trusts had been active in designating heritage places from the late 1940s. By the late 1960s, thousands of historic places were identified by National Trust classifications, metropolitan planning schemes and sympathetic governments and property owners.

However, a new generation of heritage activists had come to see the Australian National Trusts as narrow in their architectural interests, tame in their advocacy methods, and led by a coterie of elites. Green bans were seen as a more effective means of safeguarding heritage and were swiftly expanded from Hunter’s Hill.

Mundey and his fellow unionists Joe Owens and Bob Pringle, as part of the broader green ban movement, engaged with the ten inner-suburban Melbourne resident groups that comprised the Committee for Urban Action, established in 1970, and the 40 such groups that in 1971 had formed the Coalition of Resident Action Groups in Sydney. From Woolloomooloo and Pott’s Point to Fitzroy and Collingwood, residents took to the streets to protest comprehensive urban renewal and freeway construction plans.

Unions backed these citizen movements by placing green bans on these neighbourhoods. The green bans extended across Australia’s historic suburbs into the CBDs.

Perth’s Palace Hotel and The Mansions in Brisbane were subject to these efforts. In Sydney, Mundey was arrested during protests at The Rocks. In Melbourne, the City Baths, Mac’s Hotel, Victoria Market, Gothic Bank, Regent Theatre, Windsor Hotel, Princess Theatre, Collins Street and the Rialto precinct, and Tasma Terrace all received the attention of the union movement. (The Victorian National Trust would find a new home at Tasma Terrace despite the Australian National Trust movement’s reticence about supporting the radical green bans.)
The Victorian Housing Commission’s high-rise housing program was brought to a sudden halt. Corrupt Melbourne unionist Norman Gallagher, who notoriously clashed with Mundey, took part in applying green bans in his city.

Unions backed these citizen movements by placing green bans on these neighbourhoods. The green bans extended across Australia’s historic suburbs into the CBDs.

Perth’s Palace Hotel and The Mansions in Brisbane were subject to these efforts. In Sydney, Mundey was arrested during protests at The Rocks. In Melbourne, the City Baths, Mac’s Hotel, Victoria Market, Gothic Bank, Regent Theatre, Windsor Hotel, Princess Theatre, Collins Street and the Rialto precinct, and Tasma Terrace all received the attention of the union movement. (The Victorian National Trust would find a new home at Tasma Terrace despite the Australian National Trust movement’s reticence about supporting the radical green bans.)
The Victorian Housing Commission’s high-rise housing program was brought to a sudden halt. Corrupt Melbourne unionist Norman Gallagher, who notoriously clashed with Mundey, took part in applying green bans in his city.


New Geography 14 January 2020

The suburbs and exurbs continue to dominate population growth in the nation’s 53 major metropolitan areas, according to a City Sector Model (Note 1 and Figure 9) analysis. We traced growth between the 2010 Census and the American Community Survey 5-year data, from samples taken over the period of 2014 to 2018. The middle-year was 2016 (Note 2).

Read more

The inclusive apartments of the future need visionary backers

The Fifth Estate, 10 December 2019

Property consultant Abdul Khan told Tomorrowland19 about plans for a new style of sustainable housing, with apartments to suit everyone from youth with disabilities to retirees looking to downsize. But will politicians and developers back this vision?

About 70 per cent of future residences in Australia’s cities are designed to be high-rise but we are not planning for them to be sustainable nor particularly inclusive, says Khan, owner and director of ASK Property Consultants.

Khan was a lead sales consultant for Diversified Property Group’s Bel Air development, a sustainable residential housing project in Kellyville in Sydney’s north west that was completed several years ago.

Read more

How to Cut 10,000 Parking Spaces Without Anyone Complaining June 5 2019

A new short film celebrates bike-friendly Amsterdam’s no-drama strategy for eliminating car parking: “It’s not a big deal here.”

Visitors to Amsterdam may notice something new in coming years: more Amsterdam, and fewer cars.

Earlier this year, local leaders announced plans to scale back parking in Amsterdam’s core by about 1,500 spaces per year. As a new video by Streetfilms documents, visitors and locals alike can take in more of the city’s iconic canals, bridges, and gabled architecture with fewer vehicles blocking the view. The streets “are yours again,” Katelijne Boerma, the Dutch city’s official bike mayor, says in the film.

Some communities have already begun to re-envision their newly liberated outdoor space. As an indication of what’s possible, in the Frans Halsbuurt neighborhood, a whole grid of streets is almost totally free of parking, replaced by a bevy of rosebushes, benches, and slides. There is also more room for bikes, on which 65 percent of the city’s daily trips are made. Parked cars “are like fences,” Boerma says. “It really divides the neighborhood.” With their removal, she says, people have more of a chance to move.

As CityLab reported earlier this year, Amsterdam is using a few different strategies to systemically whittle down its parking stock. Residents with downtown parking permits will no longer be able to station their vehicles where they please; instead, they will have to pay a higher fee for a specific location. Permits that once belonged to people who move away, give up their cars, or die will not be reissued. Historic street renovations will present another opportunity to pare back parked vehicles. All told, the city believes it can eliminate as many as 11,200 parking spaces by the end of 2025. Yet even as it does so, it is not denying anyone the right to park.

The disappearance of so many spots might feel like an assault on drivers. (That’s likely how this narrative would unfold in the average North American city.) But according to Zeeger Ernsting, a city councilman who has helped lead the initiative, the parking purge hasn’t been all that controversial. There are still more than enough parking permits to go around, he says in the film. And the issue has barely come up in local newspapers—perhaps because so few Amsterdammers drive in the first place.

“The funny thing is, I read about this,” A. Henry Cutler, the founder and director of Workcycles, a local bike manufacturer, says in the film. “But I didn’t read about it in the Dutch press. I read about it on Twitter from you guys. It’s not a big deal here.” :function(

Of all the problems our cities need to fix, lack of car parking isn’t one of them

The Conversation May 17 2019

Parking is a fiery issue in Australian cities. That’s because cars dominate our cities, supported by decades of unbalanced planning decisions favouring space for cars over other land uses or forms of transport. Parking is even an issue in the federal election, with both the Coalition and Labor promising to fund more spaces for commuters.

The issue of parking flared up again recently in Melbourne’s inner north. Moreland City Council wants to scrap minimum parking requirements for new apartments around its increasingly dense activity centres.

Victoria’s planning minister, Richard Wynne, gets the final say on this plan – and it might be a “no”. He said last month the practicalities need more thought and that Moreland must “strike a balance”.

Wynne is right, but not in the way he implies.

Australian cities are generous to cars

Minimum parking requirements were introduced across Australia alongside the rise of cars in the 1950s. These set rigid ratios for parking spaces in different types of new developments.

For example, the Western Australia State Planning Policy requires at least at least 0.75–1 parking bay for every one-bedroom dwelling in an apartment building, plus at least one visitor parking space per four dwellings. A review of parking policy in Western Australia found these requirements are largely based on small, outdated surveys in the United States and do not reflect actual demand for parking in Australia.

A result of these policies is a glut of parking in Australian cities. The local council area of the City of Melbourne has over 215,000 parking spaces. However, 40-60% of households in the area do not own a car and around a third of apartment parking spaces are not used.

Removing minimum requirements is an effort by local governments to allow the varying needs of local communities to determine parking outcomes.

But what about tradies, emergency workers, the disabled?

Often proposed changes to parking are criticised for being unfair to people who may rely on cars. It is great that these questions of equity are raised (including by the planning minister), but some of the common concerns are misplaced.

Firstly, developers are sensitive to market demands and will continue to provide apartments with parking for those who need it. When London removed minimum parking requirements in 2004, new developments still provided car parks – just at half the previous required rate.

Closer to home, the inner-city councils of Sydney and Melbourne have already removed some minimum parking requirements – and many new apartments still provide parking spaces.

Secondly, while apartment dwellers with insufficient off-street parking are often blamed for clogging up on-street parking in residential areas, they are rarely to blame. A recent study in Melbourne found residents of detached houses use 77-84% of on-street parking. Many of them have garages, but choose to use them for storage or living space.

Apartment dwellers were less likely to use on-street parking and more likely to have unused spaces. And more parking in apartment blocks isn’t helping people access our cities, even by car.

Finally, providing more housing options without rigidly attached parking spaces will encourage people who don’t actually need to drive to choose to drive less or switch to other forms of transport.

Removing minimum parking requirements will not mean that people who need to drive for work, medical or other reasons can’t find homes with parking spaces. Indeed, if we make it easier for those who don’t need to drive to get around in other ways, congestion could be eased for those workers who do need a car.

Pro-car planning policies are unfair to those who can’t drive

Policies that encourage dependence on cars marginalise people who can’t or don’t drive. These groups are often disadvantaged in other ways. For example, people with disabilities tend to rely on public transport, not cars, to participate in society.

In Australia, households in the most disadvantaged areas are the most likely not to have a car. Older Australians are also less likely to drive. Rates of driver licence ownership decrease from around the age of 60.

Providing quality public transport and walkable streets – not an oversupply of car parking – is critical to ensure children, young and older people and those with disabilities can get around independently.

Minimum parking requirements prioritise cars as the default transport option. The results include increased congestion, urban sprawl and air pollution.

Parking requirements also make apartments less affordable. Land construction costs per parking space average between A$50,000 and $80,000, as well as using valuable space at an average of 21 square metres. A parking space is bigger than a bedroom – and nearly half the size of a typical new Melbourne apartment!.

Design cities around people, not cars

Australian planning policy has favoured cars over other forms of transport for too long. This needs to change if we want our cities to be healthy, liveable and easy to get around for everyone.

Moreland’s plan to scrap minimum parking requirements may sound extreme, but it isn’t going to take existing parking spaces away, or mean all new developments will have zero parking.

The practicalities of on-street parking policy are important, but mandating the supply of more off-street parking isn’t even the best way to meet parking demand.

If we continue to plan our urban areas as if everyone needs a car (or multiple cars) to get around, we will rapidly run out of space. And the space we have left will be unpleasant to spend time in. This means more time spent in traffic for drivers and ugly, hazardous and polluted streets for locals.

Sidestepping this difficult issue in the name of “balance” isn’t fair or practical. Improving public transport in these corridors is in the state’s power and would be a much more constructive response.

From bleak to bustling: how one French town solved its high street crisis

The Guardian 20 May 2019

Mulhouse has turned around its image and now boasts more shops opening than closing, thanks to smart planning, investment and community efforts

On a lane in what was once considered eastern France’s grimmest town, a street artist is up a ladder finishing a mural, the independent bookshop has a queue at the till, the organic cooperative is full of customers and Séverine Liebold’s arty independent tea shop is doing a brisk trade.

When Liebold opened Tilvist in Mulhouse three years ago, in a space that had been vacant for years, friends tried to persuade her against it. “They said: ‘Not Mulhouse, look elsewhere,’” she recalls. “But I stuck with my instinct, and I was right.”

Just over a decade ago, Mulhouse, a town of 110,000 people near the German and Swiss borders, was a symbol of the death of the European high street. One of the poorest towns of its size in France, this former hub of the textile industry had long ago been clobbered by factory closures and industrial decline. It had high rates of poverty and youth unemployment, a shrinking population, and more than 100 shops empty or boarded up. The centre had become associated with gangs.

“We had every possible cliche thrown at us: grey, grim, austere and unsafe,” one local official says.

Today, Mulhouse is known for the staggering transformation of its thriving centre, bucking the national trend for high street closures.

In the past eight years, more than 470 shops and businesses have opened here. Mulhouse is unique in that 75% of new openings are independents, from comic book stores to microbreweries and organic grocers. It is one of the only places in France with as many independents as franchises. And it is one of very few places in France where more shops are opening than closing.

The town’s blue-collar history, its old factory buildings, the 136 nationalities living here and its very young population are now seen as desirable. Once overshadowed by its more famous Alsace neighbours, the city of Strasbourg or chocolate-box pretty Colmar, Mulhouse is now sought after by brands seeking retail premises.

“People say, ‘Wow, this place has changed,’” says Sabine Muck, a high school teacher. “The independents make the place a joy, culture is booming.”

French political powers woke up late to the problem of dying town centres. Outside the Paris region, an average of 11% of high street premises lie empty, similar to the UK. But France, which has a powerful hypermarket industry and lobby, has for decades hastened town centre decline by allowing out-of-town superstores to mushroom over kilometres of dull grey hangars on the outskirts of towns.

Leaders only recently turned to the issue, fearing boarded up shopfronts and vanishing services could help usher in Donald Trump-style populists. Polls showed that in small French towns, the fewer the services on offer – notably post offices – the higher the vote for the far right.

Mulhouse has shown it takes at least a decade to turn things around. The town, under its former rightwing mayor Jean Rottner, decided boarded up shops were just the most visible symptom of deeper rooted problems. The city’s €36m (£31.5m) investment plan over six years tackled several issues at once, including housing. Town centre residents were among the poorest as higher earners moved to houses on the outskirts, leaving properties vacant and run down.

Mulhouse set out to rebalance the housing mix. Generous subsidies for the renovation of building fronts expedited a facelift of more than 170 buildings. Security and community policing were stepped up. Transport was key – with a new tram system, bike schemes, shuttle buses and cheap parking.

But making the town’s public spaces attractive was just as important, with wider pavements, dozens of benches, and what officials deemed a “colossal budget” for tree planting and maintenance, gardening and green space. Local associations, community groups and residents’ committees were crucial to the efforts. A town centre manager was appointed to support independents and high-street franchises setting up.

Geography played a key role. While the town itself was poor, the surrounding area, close to Switzerland and Germany, had cross-border workers on an income far higher than the French average. Offering original shops that didn’t exist elsewhere was seen as a way of drawing them in.

This was when local independents such as Liebold and her tea shop came along. Having worked in the supermarket business, Liebold understood people wanted a smaller scale experience rather than “walking for kilometres with a trolley in a hangar where you didn’t see a single leaf on a tree”. She says: “The idea was to create somewhere where people feel good, to re-appropriate our town centre as a kind of agora, the place where everyone can meet.”

Marie Zeugmann, a former teacher, opened her independent clothes shop, Confidence(s), in Mulhouse last month, stocking designers prominent on Instagram and not normally found outside Paris or the Côte d’Azur. Like all Mulhouse independents, her shop is as much about providing a social space as it is about retail. Zeugmann is renovating the second floor into a champagne bar for independent producers.

“It’s about offering something different that you can’t find anywhere else,” she says. “In a few years, Mulhouse became really attractive with an array of little shops. People are very proud – we’ve made a huge effort to change the town’s image.”

Last month, Charlotte Nass and Sophie Erhart opened Le Nid, an urban cafe with a village feel on a cobbled street. They met at school in Mulhouse and had already opened a fashion franchise. “In Mulhouse, everyone just rolls up their sleeves to work for it, we’ve got no complexes,” Nass says. “It’s a very young town. That’s good for dynamism and for the new arts scene.”

In her town hall office, the mayor, Michèle Lutz, who once ran a hair salon in Mulhouse, says the town must now move into a second phase where the vibrancy of the centre extends to the surrounding neighbourhoods.

“The town centre is buzzing now, but we can’t just concentrate on the small central perimeter, nor simply on shops – there has to be a vision of the town as a whole,” she says.

She feels greenery and nature are key “to making people feel good and at ease in the town”. Mulhouse was once known as a “little Manchester” for its canals used by the textile industry, but many were later concreted over. Lutz is leading a drive to renovate neglected canalsides that run through various neighbourhoods. The focus is on the fine detail, including improved lighting – important in a town where winter nights come early.

Frédéric Marquet, the town centre manager, is examining his database of empty premises to match them to new businesses. “Mulhouse currently has two shop openings for every closure,” he says. “No other town in France can say all these brands have opened premises in the last five years.”

Olivier Razemon, the author of a recent study called How France Killed Its Towns, says town centres should be seen as a theatrical backdrop to life’s encounters, with the understanding that: “People don’t go to the town centre just for shops, but because it’s pleasant, because they want to meet up.”

Geneviève Pilnard, an 89-year-old widow, takes a taxi every Friday from her village outside Mulhouse into the town centre, where she goes to the hairdresser, the market, the cheesemonger and the independent bookshop.

“I like to keep the habit of coming in, because I don’t want to live like a recluse,” Pilnard says. “After all, a bustling town centre represents life.”

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Rethinking traffic congestion to make our cities more like the places we want them to be

The Conversation, February 25, 2019

Soon after becoming prime minister last year, Scott Morrison appointed a minister for “congestion busting”, signalling the importance he attaches to this issue. The large number of Google search results on “traffic congestion in Australian cities 2019” (9.5 million) and “traffic congestion in Australian cities costing the economy 2019” (8.3 million) seems to support his opinion.

But what if this concern for traffic congestion is based more on “groupthink” than a careful look at the relevant data? What if congestion is not such a big social or economic problem? What if congestion costs are overemphasised?

In thinking about these questions, it should be recognised that there is always an underlying demand for driving, which exceeds the road space available, so building more roads induces more traffic. Congestion soon returns but with more vehicles affected than before. In addition, congestion is likely to increase with rising population and living standards.

Is traffic congestion a problem for the economy?
The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) estimated the “avoidable social costs” of traffic congestion for Australia’s eight capital cities at A$16.5 billion in 2015. While the estimate is carefully calculated, there is scope to consider other relevant factors such as:

traffic congestion is usually a problem only for commuters in or near metropolitan CBD areas – for other road users, their average time delay is a relatively minor problem

the BITRE estimate is a small proportion (about 1%) of Australia’s 2015 GDP

more than one-third of the A$16.5 billion estimate is for private time costs that aren’t factored into GDP calculations

except perhaps for congestion charging, avoiding the BITRE cost estimate would require capital expenditure, reducing the net benefit that action to reduce congestion costs could capture

the BITRE estimate gives insufficient attention to changes in travel behaviour and location decisions in response to congestion.

There is evidence that road users, both private and business, adapt to congestion by changing travel route and time of travel, as well as changing location. In addition, the effects of the so-called Marchetti travel time budget (time saved on one route tends to be used for more travel elsewhere rather than for non-travel purposes) does not seem to have been considered in the BITRE calculations.

Using congestion to guide development

While the avoidable social costs of road congestion are arguably not a big deal, it’s pretty clear congestion plays a significant role in structuring urban areas.

Urban planners in Vancouver recognised this some 40 years ago. Rather than trying to reduce traffic congestion, they consciously used that congestion to limit commuter car access to the city centre. They went so far as to say “congestion is our friend”.

A “carrot and stick” approach was adopted in Vancouver. Traffic congestion was used to discourage commuting by car from the suburbs to the CBD. At the same time, complementary urban planning and design policies were enacted to make the inner city a more attractive place to live for all family types including those with young children. High-quality public transport (particularly the SkyTrain metro system) to the CBD was expanded to cover more of the metropolitan area, providing an attractive alternative to commuting by car.

Of course, congestion management can be used to support other land use planning strategies, such as metropolitan decentralisation. Again this would require a “carrot and stick” approach.

Congestion narrative fuels ‘the infrastructure turn’
Urban researchers have identified what has been called “the infrastructure turn”. This is an excessive focus on building infrastructure, particularly large transport infrastructure, rather than on integrated strategic land use and transport planning.

The infrastructure focus is a simplistic response to growing city populations. Importantly, it fails to manage travel demand towards a more sustainable long-term result, such as metropolitan decentralisation like Sydney’s “three cities” approach.

Emphasising congestion and its estimated costs reinforces a sense that urgent action is needed, and supports the “infrastructure turn”.

Planning for the city we desire

A best practice approach to metropolitan planning requires that transport planning and land use planning work together to achieve a desired future for the city. And community deliberation determines this desired future. The performance of the transport system should be measured mainly by how well this desired future is being achieved, rather than by the level of traffic congestion.

While traffic congestion is real and annoying to many (and also a worry for politicians like the prime minister), it’s not a big social or economic problem. Instead, the congestion could be managed – rather than just catering to projected demand – so our cities become more like the places we want them to be.

The Political Battle Over California’s Suburban Dream

Citylab 5 April 2019

State Senator Scott Wiener’s SB 50 would rewrite the state’s single-family zoning codes. What’s wrong with that? A lot, say opponents.

In a hearing room in California’s capitol on Tuesday, State Senator Scott Wiener described a widespread housing crisis in stark terms. California is short about 3.5 million homes, he said, citing a McKinsey report that projected housing demand by 2025. Buying a home at the Golden State’s median price—over half a million dollars—is a fantasy for most households. Rents are soaring, homelessness is up, and displacement is refacing storied neighborhoods.

“Red or blue, all of our communities are struggling,” Wiener told an audience of lobbyists, citizens, and members of the state senate housing committee, who would later have their say about how to address the housing crisis.

As they spoke, the painted figures in a Depression-era mural depicting the state’s romanticized origins looked on. Flanked by a missionary, a prospector, a frontiersman, and a native Californian, Calafia, the Amazon goddess from whom the state supposedly gets its name, graced its spectacular and varied terrain. In the foreground, a white working-class couple, child in arms, surveyed their land of promise.

As Tuesday’s hearing made clear, rarely has California’s mythic story of opportunity seemed further from reality. From Sonoma to San Diego, the state faces a massive affordability crisis; across the political gradient, few residents disagree on that, even if they don’t see eye to eye on how to solve it. Investment in below-market-rate housing?

Stronger tenant protections? Better city planning? They’re all part of the solution, said Wiener. But what California fundamentally lacks is adequate housing supply, he said, and it needs to tear down needless barriers to market rate construction.

That’s the intention behind Wiener’s Senate Bill 50, which proposes to rewrite the laws that have blocked high-volume housing construction. Like its predecessor SB 827, the transit-oriented housing bill that captured national attention last year, SB 50 faces vigorous opposition from many angles. But it cleared its first legislative hurdle this week when it passed that housing committee (which Wiener leads) with a bipartisan 9-1 vote.

The bill would set an unprecedented state standard for residential zoning codes in certain corners of California. Currently, it is illegal to build anything but single dwellings designed for single families, sometimes with an in-law unit, in roughly 80 percent of California’s residential neighborhoods. SB 50 would change those laws in areas that are near high-frequency transit lines, job clusters, and good schools, prying open opportunities for developers to build to taller heights, with more units per square foot.

It’s a solution to what is, in one respect, a geometry problem. Cities that cling to their coveted coastlines can expand outwardly only so far, and even in big metros like L.A. and the Bay area, the share of land that’s zoned for single-family housing is still about 70 percent. Governor Gavin Newsom has pledged to meet that 3.5 million-unit gap by 2025. But UCLA urban policy experts recently showed that zoning constraints prevent cities and counties from building more than 2.8 million new homes. “If you’re prohibited to build enough housing, then you’re sort of stuck,” Wiener said on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, however, the housing crisis isn’t just about the math. These politics probe deep into fundamental emotional concepts about ownership, sovereignty, and identity. A diverse mix of Californians—from the richest suburbs in the country, to rent-strained neighborhoods fighting gentrification and displacement, to struggling towns from the vast farming region—have arranged themselves on either side of the bill, which has tapped a powerful strain of anxiety about who should live in this state, and how.

For its opponents, SB 50 functions as a Rorschach test that reveals the “real” housing crisis. At Tuesday’s hearing, a parade of naysayers had their moment at the mic.

“This is about destroying suburban, one-home-per-lot neighborhoods … this is discrimination,” said Karen Klinger, a Sacramento real estate broker.

Jason Rhine, a legislative director with the League of California Cities, had another concern: He complained that the legislation would undermine local plans to increase housing supplies. “You tell us to plan, you approve our plan, and now the rules are going to be changed without additional input,” he said.

Rene Christian Moya, the director of Housing is a Human Right, led a group of low-income tenant-activists from Los Angeles and Oakland to testify at the hearing about their key objection: the fear that SB 50 would bring rent hikes and displacement. “We contest vigorously that trickle-down housing is the way to build,” he said. (His organization is a subsidiary of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the global healthcare and advocacy nonprofit that’s become a figure for fighting density measures in Southern California.)

SB 50 is already further along than its predecessor, SB 827, ever got. That bill’s premature demise (it didn’t clear its first hearing) was largely due to the concerns of low-income community advocates, who justly saw transit-adjacent upzoning as a gentrification accelerator. It’s hard to parse the exact reasons why people leave their neighborhoods, but rising rents are indisputably driving some poorer Californians out of their longtime neighborhoods. Highly visible examples can be found in the Mission in San Francisco, and Boyle Heights in Los Angeles.

SB 50 contains a number of new provisions that address those criticisms. That includes a five-year carve-out for “sensitive communities” that could be at risk of displacement, which the bill is leaving up to local planners and advocates to define. It boasts stronger provisions for inclusionary requirements, and it excludes properties that have long had tenants living in them or have been recently subject to evictions. It also targets neighborhoods that are rich in jobs and great schools, in addition to transit-adjacent ones, for higher-density allowances. That way, desirable communities that have long been immune to new development pressure—high-income, high-opportunity, and zoned to be exclusionary—would have to step up, too.

Wiener has drawn a broader coalition behind SB 50 than he was able to do for its predecessor. Supporters include AARP, the California Labor Federation, the California Association of Realtors, CalPIRG, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Habitat for Humanity, Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, the BART Board of Directors, and the mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Stockton, and Sacramento. Three-quarters of residents in San Francisco—where housing affordability is the top civic concern, polls show—support SB 50, according to a survey by the SF Chamber of Commerce.

But some tenant advocacy groups and community justice organizations still fear that SB 50 could toss fuel on the fire of urban displacement. And although this draft goes further to establish affordability standards to make sure that new projects are mixed income, its focus is still principally on building market-rate apartments. That doesn’t cut it for very low-income Californians, Moya said, who are struggling the most to hang on to homes. He’s a native of the gentrifying, historically Latino neighborhood of Highland Park in Los Angeles, where median home prices have more than doubled since 2012. Moya has experienced housing insecurity himself, he said: “This is personal for me.”

Other advocates fear that the state government pre-empting community control over zoning and planning—long authorities vested at the local level—would set a dangerous precedent, particularly for vulnerable populations who’ve been left out of planning processes in the past. “Sensitive communities” might also be too narrowly defined by the bill’s language so far, say dozens of prominent low-income housing developers, social justice advocates, and anti-poverty legal groups from around the state who sent a long letter of concerns to Wiener’s office last month. “SB 50 must accurately identify all sensitive communities and preserve meaningful self-determination in those communities so that they can plan for an inclusive future,” that letter states.

But California housing politics creates strange bedfellows. Probably the loudest voices of dissent against SB 50 right now are affluent homeowners who worry that it will bulldoze local control over housing allowances and imperil “historic character”—traditional concerns of Not In My Backyard adherents. Groups like Livable California, founded last year by Marin anti-growth activist Susan Kirsch (who recently told Palo Alto Weekly that she prefers to the milder word “problem” to “crisis” when it comes to housing), have found footing up and down the state. In late March, a few dozen homeowners—mostly white, mostly older—gathered outside a church in downtown San Luis Obispo, where scarcely any building stands higher than two stories, to protest Wiener’s appearance at a housing summit organized by the local chamber of commerce. (I was also on the panel.) They raised signs, passed out Livable California literature, and chanted anti-SB 50 slogans. Sample couplet: “Density is not the way!/Where is the parking, who will pay?”

“We just want to preserve our quality of life,” said Allen Cooper, the secretary of Save Our Downtown, an anti-density preservation group in San Luis Obispo. “And part of that is we don’t want seven-story buildings looming over our houses.”

That’s not what SB 50 would do; it would raise height limits gradually, dependent on the codes already on the books. Nevertheless, S.O.D.’s members join with opponents in affluent communities and their elected leaders from Marin County to Redondo Beach to Sherman Oaks (my own childhood neighborhood in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley).

Up in the Bay Area, Cupertino Mayor Steve Scharf recently joked that the city planned to build a wall around itself to tame congestion problems and would force San Jose to pay for it. In his city, the median price for a single-family home is more than $2 million, unaffordable even to well-paid Apple software engineers. Yet it failed to require that Apple build any new housing when it approved the tech giant’s $1 billion, 10,000-worker new headquarters. In nearby Palo Alto, Mayor Eric Filseth railed against the bill in his recent state-of-the-city speech, complaining that targeting zoning codes would fail to hold big employers accountable for their role in the housing crunch. That’s true, but SB 50 wouldn’t override local housing elements that go above and beyond it.

John Mirisch, the vice-mayor of Beverly Hills, also used a recent address as an anti-SB 50 tirade, likening pro-housing legislators to Haman, a villain from the Jewish holiday of Purim, who attempted to kill off the Jews. He also referred to apartment buildings as “slums,” and encouraged everyone to live in single-family homes. (Median home price in Beverly Hills, the vast majority of which is zoned for single-family homes: $3.5 million.)

These pricey enclaves aren’t wrong to see themselves in the bullseye of SB 50. “We are targeting places like Beverly Hills that have shirked their responsibly to contribute to fixing this crisis,” said Laura Foote, the executive director of YIMBY Action, ahe pro-housing advocacy group.* “We are targeting places like Cupertino, which have added a lot of jobs and not a lot of housing.”

Considering the root of their respective concerns, it makes sense that low-income tenants rights groups concerned with displacement, and the representatives of the wealthiest neighborhoods in California, would be in the anti-SB 50 boat together. Fights against displacement in gentrifying areas generally happen in neighborhoods where it is already possible to build new, multi-family housing units with higher rents than existing tenants can afford—which is to say, in the few neighborhoods in California where that’s allowed.

Part of the reason anti-gentrification battles erupt in neighborhoods like Highland Park or the Mission is that single-family zoning codes have fiercely guarded against higher-density construction in most other surrounding neighborhoods. Homeowners in affluent neighborhoods, meanwhile, can exert disproportionate influence on the local zoning and development approval processes that effectively decide which communities are subjected to neighborhood change. “All of this is a legacy of the fact that you can build multi-family housing on only a few sites,” said Sonja Trauss, the co-executive director of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund.

SB 50 seeks to upend that legacy by alleviating pressure on the most sensitive areas, opening up development in the areas where exclusionary zoning have put up the highest barriers to opportunity. It would rewrite the codes that have protected more suburban-style communities from physical changes to their composition, physical or demographic. “Homeowners generally benefit from scarcity,” said Michael Lens, a professor of urban policy at UCLA. “So pulling some of the zoning powers away from cities seems like something to consider to reduce those negative incentives.”

The drive down from San Francisco to Silicon Valley offers a visual lesson in why development pressures are so intensely concentrated in the few parts of the Bay Area where multi-unit housing is allowed. On the highway, the city quickly gives way to vast tracts of carefully preserved green fields and tiled-roof suburban sprawl that is nearly indistinguishable from the generally more politically conservative Orange and San Diego counties, hundreds of miles to the south.

The long, leafy, suburban peninsula holds many of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States, and yet is the country’s poster child for the extreme cost burdens created by extreme housing scarcity. It’s where county bus drivers are forced to sleep in their cars at night, and where proposals to house public school teachers spark online fundraisers to stop them by homeowners who are “distraught and concerned.”

Around here, residents look at SB 50 much like an incoming meteor. Silicon Valley’s Atherton, for example, is the very richest zip code in America, and is 100-percent zoned for single-family residential. It’s home to moguls like Sheryl Sandberg, Eric Schmidt, and Meg Whitman. It lost its weekday Caltrain commuter rail service in 2005, much to the chagrin of some residents with jobs in San Francisco or San Jose. But earlier this year, the local rail committee debated whether to petition to cancel its Caltrain service entirely, in case SB 50 might have upzoned the area around its historic train stop. In Atherton, some commuters apparently prefer to keep slogging through congestion than risk an incursion of apartment renters.

Concerns among social justice advocates about SB 50 are genuine and legitimate. Hardly all Californians who are vulnerable to rising rents and development pressures live in hotly contested urban neighborhoods. Take Vallejo, California, a still relatively affordable north Bay Area city and one of the most ethnically mixed places in the state. It has corridors rich in transit and jobs that could be upzoned under SB 50, potentially paving the way for more development, higher rents, and a more affluent demographic mix. “Some of the most diverse communities in Californian are made up of suburban-style, single-family homes,” said Michael Storper, a scholar of regional economics at UCLA who’s been a critic of the bill. It will take careful decision-making to determine what counts as a sensitive community, and eligible to protections from the new development that SB 50 is designed to accelerate.

But emerging analyses are suggesting that developers would be more likely to capitalize on new opportunities in wealthier neighborhoods anyway. A look at the potential effects of SB 50 in the Bay Area by UC Berkeley researchers show developers are more likely to profit from building in well-heeled Menlo Park than poorer Fruitvale, for example. And many constraints would still stand in the way of new construction, including slow permitting processes, local rezoning, and the sheer expense of building something new in California.

Still, it is worth considering what would happen to the people in areas more likely to be affected. High-income neighborhoods near good transit, jobs, and schools could see higher densities permitted in their neighborhoods. But that doesn’t mean leafy blocks of low-slung Craftsmans would be bulldozed overnight and transformed into looming mini-Manhattans. Available properties could be built, or rebuilt, to moderately taller heights. “SB 50 could thus result in a more gradual densification of housing in transit-rich neighborhoods, as underutilized sites become buildings with 10-20 units,” the Berkeley analysis found. The outcome that many anti-SB 50 activists dread is that their neighbors would choose to cash in, selling their houses to a developer who wanted to do that. “That sounds like an opportunity, not a threat,” said Foote.

It’s not hard to understand why homeowners are so sensitive to SB 50 messing with the formula of California living. This is the place that took the postwar suburban promise to its apotheosis. As population boomed in the 30 years after World War II, the state built approximately 6 million housing units. More than 3.5 million of them were single-family homes. These were the houses and backyards and station-wagon-filled driveways that Americans saw on TV every night in the 1960s and ‘70s; they represented the sun-kissed Golden Dream that lured so many millions of newcomers. To revive that promise, California now has to change its physical shape, and change is never easy for incumbents who’ve benefited. People are entitled to want to see their blue skies.

But the Golden Dream was never for everyone. Families with lower incomes and families of color, were locked out of California’s suburban prosperity by illegal and legal forms of discrimination— including the zoning codes that were pioneered here. A 1885 ban on washhouses (and the Chinese immigrants who mostly used them) from parts of Modesto is considered the first true zoning ordinance in the United States. In 1925, the California Supreme Court upheld one of the country’s earliest cases fighting for the “police power” of cities to allow single-family homes in certain areas and tenements in others. These practices were derived from explicitly racist attempts to segregate whites and non-whites. And as residential zoning evolved, stated rationales were rarely rational. Here’s how the judges in the 1925 case glorified the single-family home, and all that it represented:

The establishment of [single family] districts is for the general welfare because it tends to promote and perpetuate the American home… The character and quality of manhood and womanhood are in a large measure the result of home environment. The home and its intrinsic influences are the very foundation of good citizenship, and any factor contributing to the establishment of homes and the fostering of home life doubtless tends to the enhancement not only of community life but of the life of the nation as a whole…

It is needless to further analyze and enumerate all of the factors which make a single family home more desirable for the promotion and perpetuation of family life than an apartment, hotel, or flat. It will suffice to say that there is a sentiment practically universal, that this is so.

But often, that idealized model of California homeownership was a privilege reserved primarily for white people, like that pioneer couple in the mural presiding over the Sacramento hearing room. The millions of Californians who arrived after the postwar building boom ended found rising costs and narrowing opportunities. SB 50 would attempt to start pulling up these legacies, at least at one insidious root. (It does not address, for example, the effects of wage inequality.)

The bill faces long odds. Its next senate committee hearing will be led by a legislator who opposes it, rather than Wiener himself. “We’re not guaranteed to pass it,” Wiener told Palo Alto Weekly. “We’re working hard to build support and build momentum for it. But we have a shot.”

But supporters might take heart that not every resident in places like Beverly Hills or Cupertino agrees with their elected officials. Evan Goldin, a Palo Alto native in his early 30s, told the Weekly that he’s been frustrated by the rhetoric of his mayor and neighbors who don’t seem to want to make way for new faces.

“That makes me quite sad, as someone who grew up here and still lives here and wants to have strong bonds to the community,” Goldin said. “I want my friends to be able to afford to live here. I want my teachers and janitors and baristas to afford a chance to live where they work. The world will be OK if a few more families live on your block.”

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that YIMBY Action is a co-sponsor of SB 50. In fact, California YIMBY, another pro-housing group, is the co-sponsor.