Archive for revitalization

Deep Walkability Needed

How many urban residents can safely walk to work, and to school, and to entertainment?  It’s one thing for a neighbourhood to be walkable.  But being able to walk between neighbourhoods is “Deep Walkability” and not that many cities offer it.

Alex Steffan published a great piece on the value of Deep Walkability last week, that Twitter follower @nlamontagne  alerted me to and that I’ve been pondering for the last while.

For older cities that have compact neighbourhoods, good walkability is common.  This is where the walkscores in the 90-100 range are.  But even in these places walking between neighbourhoods isn’t always that pleasant (although it may be doable).  This is because even 100 or more years ago, and especially in the mid 20th century, cities tended to separate messy, polluting industrial areas from residential ones.

Today, industrial uses between residential areas tend to be more benign–self storage facilities, catering operations, etc.  But they often don’t contribute to deep walkability because these places feel isolated and empty, even in the middle of the day (or they’re used by prostitutes and drug dealers).

By contrast, walking down a dense residential street or along one with mixed retail and residential is filled with people and interesting things to look at.  It also feels safer than the industrial area described above.  As Jane Jacobs correctly observed about great urban neighbourhoods, there are lots of “eyes on the street.”

Until walkable corridors are created between some neighbourhoods, many cities will struggle to offer deep walkability (and even cycle-ability).  I see this change happening over the next few decades.  Gradually, some industrial areas are becoming artist live-work spaces, or being filled with start-up companies whose employees will support any retail that can be carved out in the area.

Does your city offer deep walkability? if not, what are the obstacles? if so, have their been some changes recently as suggested here, changing over industrial space?

Time perfect to set up US suburbs for future

US Metros are in a unique position to take advantage of the housing market collapse in order to position suburbs for the future.  By contrast, Canada’s suburbs are less well positioned.

Why? because in Canada the vast majority of suburban homes are occupied by content owners who are making their mortgage payments. And in order to prepare for a more transit-oriented lifestyle in a high-fuel cost environment, some suburban houses will need to be destroyed to make room for a more walkable, grid-like street network (rather than meandering crescents ending in cul-de-sac’s) as well as neighbourhood shopping districts that can be reached by foot and serve as transit hubs.

Empty suburban homes provide an opportunity to do just that and more.  Planners could also re-zone the areas, allowing for smaller lots, or two homes on a single lot, which would eventually bring more people in as both renters and owners.  More people support more amenities, which in turn attract people.  Plus a variety of home sizes will in the future offer different price points for families of different means, thereby creating some economic diversity in a neighborhood, which is important for a community to function.  You need homes for the coffee shop worker as well as the restaurant owner and not just identi-kit houses designed for people of similar incomes.

So, is anyone noticing American suburbs being up to the challenge?  And what’s the solution for auto-centric suburbs that don’t have a housing crisis?

Solving the rental housing shortage and price challenge

Many dynamic cities throughout North America have a housing challenge.  Prices are high, whether people wish to rent or own.  In some neighbourhoods escalating prices may be pushing out people who have lived in the community for years, even helped to build it into a great place that is now desirable. Many communities may also be becoming less economically diverse as the minimum income needed to move in may be well above the regional average.

While some suggest trying to forbid any redevelopment or even substantial renovations to homes and buildings (that is, stopping gentrification), I don’t think this is a solution.  Communities are like organic entities. They grow, evolve and change constantly.  Trying to hold them back would be like magically making your cute 3 year old stay in her cute state forever–very quickly she would stop growing and developing, which is actually the very thing that makes her interesting and cute at any one stage.

What can help keep neighbourhoods more economically diverse, with housing for everyone, is greater density and greater flexibility of housing types in those communities where prices are escalating fast (that is, where demand to live there exceeds supply).

In the Vancouver metro area, and in many cities across Canada (and the world) people are starting to increase the value they place on: short commutes, walkable communities, transit-oriented communities, and living a more sustainable lifestyle (less auto use, for example).  If you want a healthier planet and environment, this is a good thing.  But it has the consequence of higher housing prices.

 In my view, the challenge in all of these cities is and will be two fold:

First, get people in existing walkable,’hoods with great transit to accept greater density: more neighbours. This can be what I’ve called “stealth” density (homes you don’t really see from the street) like laneway houses, basement suites, front-back duplexes, etc. It can, of course, also be apartment towers which are appropriate in certain places, or condos/apts over storefronts on busy streets.  If the supply of housing can increase, it will help prevent prices from rising further and maybe help them come down in a few places. And the city will also have to welcome proposals to provide more housing through a variety of creative approaches including reducing parking requirements for new homes in walkable, transit-oriented places.

 Second, steps need to happen to convert suburban areas that are currently more auto-centered into more walkable areas with amenities nearby.  This will also mean existing residents in these places accepting more density and even some new commercial uses in their areas.  You don’t get the customers for successful organic grocers, coffee bars, clothing stores, etc. without a lot of people living nearby, but increasingly you don’t get people wanting to live nearby without the grocers and cafes.  

 And housing of any type is helpful in making rental accommodations more affordable to those of modest means.  We need more purpose-built rental, more owner-occupied homes, more co-ops, more co-housing projects, more subsidized housing plans, and anything creative in between.  This will help push down prices, or at least stop their escalation in places with growing populations or growing demands.

Sometimes I hear renters’ rights groups protesting a city planning department giving a concession to a luxury rental project, claiming it doesn’t help the poor and middle income.  It does.  Any new housing that can pull people with high incomes out of existing lower-cost rental will help make room in a lower priced building for someone else who can’t afford the luxury options.

If we want lower cost housing, or at least housing prices to stop escalating, we need more of it–where people want to live.

Stealth density vs high rise density

Living in walkable, urban neighbourhoods is becoming trendy.  And communities are defined as “walkable” when virtually everything you could need from groceries to clothes to plumbing supplies can be acquired on foot.

But to support those businesses, you need a dependable large supply of consumers.  Walkable places therefore tend to have higher housing density than less-walkable nodes.

Most cities and many urban residents believe that the only way to increase density in an area is to add high rise buildings.  Although perhaps a quick and efficient way to add people, high rises and even mid-rise structures often stand in stark contrast in an existing community of ground-oriented dwellings.

City planning departments and civic governments could do more to promote what I call stealth density.  That is, density that you can’t really see from the street–it flies under the radar, so to speak.   In Vancouver some older neighbourhoods evolved their stealth density quite by accident.  Big 1910 era houses in the 1970s and 1980s were converted into multi-suite houses with the garage often becoming a “coach house.”  Having a number of small units allowed more households to move in as well as created a variety of housing price-points to suit an economically diverse community.   Even as some gentrification has come, many of these homes retain multiple suites as the owners need “mortgage helpers” to cover Vancouver’s $million+ home prices.  San Francisco appears to have similar neighbourhoods of multi-household homes.

The result are communities with a high density of people supporting local businesses.  Ground-oriented neighbourhoods can have walkscores near 100 (my home is a 98).

To their credit, the city of Vancouver planning department is now encouraging multi-suite properties, particularly the installation of “Laneway housing” in some districts.  And in Seattle “Backyard Cottages” are being tried in some districts.

But, there is a lack of awareness about how much density this can actually bring.  If each city lot housed 2-3 households instead of one, you wouldn’t need to build as many high rises to achieve similar goals.  And there is something very community-oriented about having everyone having a front door near the ground (even if the suite stretches up 2-3 storeys).

Maybe a solution for the future in many communities lies in looking at spontaneous stealth density in the recent past.

A whale in the city:unexpected eco-consequence

A few weeks ago a grey whale swam into Vancouver’s narrow, False Creek inlet.  It swam, fed off bottom dwelling critters, and generally delighted hundreds of spectators who came to watch it swim past the new Olympic Village and over to the condo community of Yaletown.

In my childhood, this was a dirty, aging heavy industrial zone dumping who-knows-what into the water.

No one alive here today seems to recall seeing a healthy whale swimming in urban waterways, although presumably whales visited occasionally before industrial development polluted the water.  The whale in 2010 was a miraculous site.

Environmentalists at the David Suzuki foundation believe the whale visit resulted from efforts to cleanup the False Creek waterway that were undertaken as part of the LEED-Platinum Olympic Village sustainable housing development.  In addition to building a zero-emission community, the inlet was cleaned up and a “Habitat Island” added to provide a home for marine-oriented critters from ducks to fish as well as small mammals.  A whole eco-system including food for whales seems to have evolved in just a few years.

This provides another example of how reducing emissions and pollution in our cities (including their waterways) is the right thing to do, regardless of whether it helps the planet in the long term.  It improves our quality of life–now, today.  Everyone who saw the whale felt enriched.

It’s unfortunate that questionable science about global-warming is what is motivating many policy and behavior changes, but I’m glad something is, and that we can see almost immediate results.  The whale doesn’t lie.  Nor do statistics about reduced hospital admittances for asthma when driving is drastically reduced.  The quality of life is better in cities when the air and environment is cleaner.

Value of (old fashioned) home ownership

In his Great Reset press tour, Richard Florida has been challenging people to think hard about the role of home ownership, especially in the US but also in some struggling Canadian cities.  He is correct to point out the tragedy of the problem–people who have no equity in their homes and cannot sell them also find it hard to pack up and move to cities with more opportunity. They get stuck.

However, I’m not sure the solution is less home ownership on average than the historic norm in both countries of roughly 66% of households owning homes.  (addition: Florida himself suggests a 50% ownership rate, some of the media discussing his work have implied he suggests almost getting rid of it altogether, which is incorrect.)

The solution may be a return to the old fashioned approach to home ownership, which had the following characteristics:

  • You had to have a down payment, whether 25%, 20% or 5% (in the pricier places).  Saving up thousands of dollars required a level of personal fiscal discipline (almost like a test to pass to become a home owner)
  • You had to have an income that would support a 25 year amortization, paying down the interest and the principle every month.
  • Most home owners had a goal of paying off the mortgage as fast as possible–this represented freedom, and even upward mobility.
  • As a result, equity in houses was not a cash machine it was something to treasure and hold on to.
  • As a result, retirees had a nest-egg.  Even if property values only kept up with inflation, it was a forced savings plan.

Under this paradigm of home ownership, moving to another city was not that hard.  If you had significant positive equity in a home it meant that you could sell, move, and buy in the new place.

The recent housing over-building and subsequent price collapse destroyed this American dream.  It has destroyed the fiscal responsibility that millions of Americans displayed who did not treat their house as an ATM and responsibly paid down their mortgage every month.

Looking ahead, restoring this fiscally prudent mindset based on saving might be a path out of the current malaise.  America needs a higher savings rate.    And all it might take is tougher mortgage lending rules.

Special civic advocates for walking? cycling?

Cities need to offer residents and businesses a variety of transportation options to maximize livability.  Only facilitating automobile travel makes for a polluted, congested, and concrete-freeway-based environment.  Only facilitating bikes or walking in 21st century life and you hamper citizens’ ability to go any distance or carry very much while doing it.   As recently discussed, some argue that a plurality of viable transport options are what make a neighbourhood and city more livable.

So, would city benefit from a special advocate for each type of transportation option?

A professor of Urban Studies at Simon Fraser University believes Vancouver needs a pedestrian advocate.  Along with some other dedicated walkers, he’s frustrated by the new bicycle-friendly policy to take over a one vehicle lane and one sidewalk on the Burrard Bridge between downtown and Kitsilano.

Portland Oregon apparently has one (according to the professor) — although in googling to learn more, I could only find out about a paid coordinator for the Willamette Pedestrian Advocacy Committee, which is a volunteer-based community organization to promote pedestrian-friendly policies in greater Portland.

In looking at the dramatic swing to bicycle friendly policy with the new Vancouver city administration (the new mayor is an avid cyclist, commuting by bike to many city events), I’m inclined to think that cities don’t need single-transportation-mode advocates.  Focusing on improving the situation for just one transportation option, can result in ignoring the implications for other users, as the SFU prof notes.

I’d like to see cities embracing a position for balancing citizens’ transportation options.  The holder would be someone knowledgeable and sympathetic to all forms of getting around a city — motor vehicle, bus, metro, street car, bicycle, walking, stroller, wheelchair, etc.  And their role would be to consider the implications of any proposed policies on all of these transportation options.

Cities themselves generate volunteer-based citizen lobby groups for cycling, walking, driving, transit use, etc.  This “transportation advocate” I’m envisioning would also be their liaison to city hall, helping to turn their ideas into workable civic policy proposals that will improve the livability of the region.

Maybe a multi-modal transportation advocate position would be something CEOs for Cities could consider in their efforts to re-envision America’s cities and come up with strategies to help them emerge from this recession or “reset” ready to support 21st century economic, social and ecological needs.

Will economic patriotism improve cities

In the United States there is notable talk about how people should be buying American, with some trying to have this enshrined in official policy. Economix this week pondered whether this economic patriotism was uniquely American (I doubt it).

Meanwhile, Richard Florida comments on a “home base” effect that certain brands have. Starbucks peforms best in Seattle, for example.

If the economic downturn has people thinking more about where they spend their money, this might be great for cities. Or, more specifically, great for neighbourhoods and community building in cities.

What makes a place special, is that it can offer something unique.  The world has become rather homogenized — McDonalds, Coke, Starbucks can be found everywhere.  But a local coffee rostery, micro brewery, independent grocer, funky clothing store or a tasty bakery are examples of businesses that help to create an authentic place, rather than a generic retail space.

If the economic downturn pushes more people to spend their money in ways that benefit their local communities, this could help the livability of cities — and help them attract visitors and permanent residents alike.

Unfortunately, I think that application of the “support local” principle will be unevenly practiced.  The lure of Wal-Mart and the big boxes will tempt many, especially in more frugal times.   This will leave some neighbourhoods full of interesting, independent businesses and others reliant on global boxes.

Are you or people in your community shopping local? or has the lure of the mega-discounter prooved too tempting?

Is infrastructure spending the answer?

Many North American cities face crumbling infrastructure along with a need to offer residents new mass transit options.  During the current economic slow down, the conventional wisdom seems to be that investing in infrastructure is a win – win, offering short term employment and long term needs.

But, what if many of the people needed to design, manage or build the infrastructure are not available?   Or, only available at premium salaries and contracts.   What if the heavy machinery and resource inputs needed are not locally produced?  Will the stimulous still work?  Will this put to work the people who are unemployed?

These are questions raised by a recent Globe and Mail article by Tavia Grant. 

The knocks against infrastructure are that it is not as labour-intensive as it used to be, tends to employ many more men than women and, these days, requires skills in engineering, technology and architecture that are already in short supply, critics say.

“A lot of this ethos of infrastructure-equals-jobs comes from the 1930s when you put a lot of guys to work digging ditches and shovelling gravel. And we don’t do that any more,” said Dr. Jim McNiven, professor emeritus and former dean of management at Dalhousie University….

“If you want to create jobs, as opposed to buy equipment, you do daycare expansions, more help in senior citizens’ homes and more community services. And you need to be more imaginative.”

He’s not alone in his skepticism. As Canadian employment losses mount, questions are emerging over what will best bolster job growth as the employment outlook deteriorates.

While America may have a few more unemployed engineers than Canada right now, I think these challenging questions are still relevant.

Maybe Obama’s interest in community service offers an equally valid approach — consider it investing in America’s “social infrastructure.”

From factories to bedrooms and boardrooms

Some North American cities are experiencing strong demand for office, residential and retail space, particularly in the core areas of the metropolis.  Meanwhile manufacturing has declined, leaving some former factory buildings under utilized.

A result is that city governments are allowing these spaces to be converted or redeveloped into other uses.

New YorkCity is one such place.  According to the NY Daily News ..

“The Bloomberg administration had a strategic plan from the beginning – to rezone or redevelop manufacturing areas to promote, originally, office space,” said Pratt Center Executive Director Brad Lander.

“But it’s worked out to be almost entirely residential development,” he said. “There’s a real concern it’s gone too far.”

More than 20 Bloomberg rezonings have converted manufacturing land into residential or commercial uses, transforming neighborhoods like Red Hook, Long Island City and the South Bronx into trendy residential addresses.

Seth Pinsky, head of the city Economic Development Corp., said many of the rezonings, in Brooklyn‘s Greenpoint and Williamsburg for example, sought better uses for run-down, largely vacant manufacturing sites.

Should residents and the broader business community be worried?

I’m not an expert on New York.  But as a general statement, I’d say people should be cautious about such conversions, but also view them with a broader long-term perspective.  They may simply reflect an evolution in the purpose of cities rather than short sighted decisions.

Converting industrial space may represent a shift in the economy of cities away from manufacturing and toward more service oriented industries and knowledge-economy work that are people oriented. A  city wanting to support these clusters will need to find more space for residences and more room for office space.

Still, city governments and tax payers need to be cautious about converting industrial space to residences.  Business users, whether industrial or office, typically pay much higher property taxes compared to home owners.  More people, however, typically means a higher demand for city services from garbage collection to policing.  A rapid shift away from industrial uses will likely result in either higher taxes or reduced services, or both.

Another reason to be cautious about converting too much manufacturing space to office or residential use is that new and future styles of manufacturing may need space tomorrow. Not everything is made overseas and higher fuel prices may support new innovative products being manufactured in North American cities.  For example, the Blackberry mobile device is made in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

Of course, manufacturing of some products is likely not coming back to North America — the entire supply chain associated with them is in another part of the world.  And places like New York that once were centres of manufacturing may not be the locations of new, future manufacturing.  The Blackberry example is worth noting — it’s not being made in Toronto.

New York City is now about global knowledge-based service industries, finance, fashion management, etc. Perhaps supporting those clusters is what the city government and residences need to focus on.

A shift in the global and North American economies is underway and this will necessarily being a shift in real estate use.

jordan 12 cherry jordan 12 cherry jordan 12 cherry jordan 12 flu game jordan 12 flu game jordan 12 flu game jordan 12 french jordan 12 french jordan 12 french jordan 12 gym jordan 12 gym jordan 12 gym jordan 12 ovo jordan 12 ovo jordan 12 ovo jordan 12 unc jordan 12 unc jordan 12 unc jordan 12 wings jordan 12 wings jordan 12 wings