Archive for Uncategorized

Where to move

Occasionally readers send e-mails asking for my thoughts on which city they should move to during the recession and recovery era.  This is a difficult question to answer — it depends on your age, stage in life, job skills, etc.

But, as a general rule, the economy will do better in faster growing cities.  More people moving in means a greater demand for housing, household items, groceries and clothes as well as for schools, hospitals and other services.

The CSM has published a list of the fastest growing US cities in percentage terms:

  1. New Orleans
  2. Round Rock, TX (part of Austin Metro Area)
  3. Cary, NC (just west of Raleigh)
  4. Gilbert, AZ (Phoenix Suburb)
  5. McKinney, TX (north edge Dallas-FW Metro Area)
  6. Roseville, CA
  7. Irvine, CA
  8. Raleigh, NC
  9. Killeen, TX (near Austin)
  10. Fort Worth, TX

These cities grew the most during year one of the recession (2007 to 2008), in percentage terms.  Many are smaller cities attached to larger metro areas — perhaps one of their strengths. They can offer some advantages of smaller city living, without the disadvantages of fewer employment opportunities.  As the CSM article stressed:

But nearly all the chart-toppers share specific traits. Good public schools, partnerships between businesses and universities, entrepreneurship, low crime rates, and cultural outlets such as museums and minor-league ballparks…

In addition to these, a smaller urban area beside a large one offers infrastructure, educational institutions, and often a wide variety of employers from government to military to education to major corporations — and everything in between.

So, if you’re on the move, give some thought to the metro areas of Dallas-FW, Austin and Raleigh and see whether these cities or their suburbs and satellite cities might provide opportunity now and in the future.

Enough doomsday talk, focus on livability

Almost everyday in the newspaper or the blogosphere some group attempts to make headlines forecasting what we could call “eco-doom” for cities.  Whether the prediction is rising sea levels,  fires, plagues of locusts (or killer bees) the result is misplaced attention.

Here’s an example via Planetizen: Sea Levels are Rising: It’s Time to Decide Which Cities are Worth Saving.  The article goes on to insist that we should be addressing the possibility that rising sea levels will swamp the hospital, schools and other infrastructure of various cities.

Behind this alarmist headline, the article does not discuss a time frame.  Some scientific models suggest such a scenario is at least 100 years away, if it happens.  And given similar forecasting models based on oceans and atmospheric events cannot accurately predict the weather next week or often even the next day in most coastal cities, I’m inherently skeptical of anyone saying they can predict events 50 – 100 years in the future.

Instead of forecasting certain doom, or fretting about the green house gasses that others produce in far off places, what if we focused on making our own cities more livable now?  Designing public policy to plan for a possible — but not at all a certain — event 50-100 years in the future seems a wasted energy when there is so much more we could be doing now.

Air pollution causes asthma and other respiratory disease, thereby reducing the quality of life in cities.  When Atlanta had to restrict automotive use during the 1996 Olympics, hospitalizations for asthma and related ailments declined 41%.

So what if urban public policy was centered around improving air quality:  Make possible more transit and bicycle use as well as walking instead of single-occupant automotive travel.  Preserve and create more green space, that cleans the air and improves livability in cities.

Human beings were built for walking.  When we don’t walk, or get regular moderate exercise, our bodies don’t work right (heart disease, obesity, diabetes, are all signs of this).   Public policy to make walking a more natural part of the day could reduce pollution and health care costs and improve quality of life.

If policy went further and demanded office buildings and other workplaces like hospitals and schools had better air quality and more natural light, it would reduce energy consumption and make people happier, more productive at their jobs — which would boost the economy and reduce pollution in the cities, improving livability.
Instead of discussing hypothetical doom, why don’t we talk about how cities affect the health and well-being of residents now– and do something about it.

Cities and states of nature

Drug cartel wars in Mexico’s borderlands as well as Taliban and tribal Afghanistan heroin production can generate violence and lawlessness in individual cities thousands of kilometres away.  And city governments often lack the policing and even legal means to stop the chaos and control their streets.

There are as many examples as there are cities (Toronto had a spree of suspected gang violence last summer, in Los Angeles it can be endemic).  But the recent gang war in Vancouver, which has resulted in 32 shootings in 64 days got me thinking about the needs of metro areas in todays complex world.

From a recent Canadian Press article:

OTTAWA — The increase in gang violence on the streets of Vancouver and other Canadian cities has direct ties to the grisly drug-cartel wars that have terrorized Mexico and some American border towns, say Canadian and U.S. police.

Violence has reached a fever pitch in parts of Mexico where the government of President Felipe Calderon has sent in 45,000 soldiers and 5,000 federal police to try to curb cartel activity. More than 7,000 have died in the last two years, with 1,000 deaths this January alone.

The Washington Times quoted senior U.S . military officials Tuesday who warned that if Mexico’s two main cartels joined forces, they would have the equivalent power of an army of 100,000.

When the drug cartels can mobilize the equivalent of 100,000 troops, the national government is not in control.

17th Century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that without government or — the State — humans would live in a state of nature, where life was “nasty, brutish and short.” Therefore, people willingly relinquished some of their freedoms and wealth in exchange for government-imposed order.

There are other theories about the state, including that to be effective, a state must have a monopoly on violence.  The Mexican borderlands appear to be failing on both counts — as are many other parts of the world.

The streets of many cities too are starting to become extensions of these states of nature — places where the government does not have the monopoly on violence.  The police in Metro Vancouver’s various municipalities have not solved any of the shootings (to the best of my knowledge). The courts have not successfully kept anyone charged with any related crime (such as selling armor-piercing bullets — not allowed in Canada) locked up.

The metro area is hampered by (at least) two things:

1. The metro region does not have one central government, nor one central policing force.  This makes it harder to maintain order when gangs move seamlessly from one municipality to the next.

2. Laws and jurisdictional procedures created for a more rural nation and/or for a different era don’t work.

There are serious concerns about more innocent people getting hurt.  Many shootings have been in crowded mall parking lots or on busy streets.  The police appear to have reasonably good knowledge about who is involved, but not enough evidence to charge them with sufficiently significant crimes that judges won’t grant them bail while they wait for trial in the backlogged court system, which could take months or years.  In the meantime, the shooting continues.

Maybe cities need a new deal.  Maybe cities’ needs will further push the idea of City States  — afterall, you can’t have a stable, prosperous economy or offer a good quality of life when gang wars make people fear going out.

Mailbag (Projects, books, and tag)

For those of you who have written me over the past couple months, thank you.

I apologize that I have not responded to each e-mail; these past months have been exceptionally busy as well as tiring for me, and finding time for blog-related activities has been tough.

Over the past few weeks I’ve received several great e-mails from subscribers, often introducing their own fascinating projects or new urbanology books.

From the mailbag, here are some cool places to visit on the web or books to consider if you love cities:

1.  CCA Actions Exhibition.   From Philippe in Montreal:

This exhibit features 99 actions that instigate positive change in
contemporary cities around the world.

Our aim is to reach people across the globe and get them excited about
the ideas behind the show, such as urban intervention, non-conformity
and “do-it-yourself”.

In doing so, we’re challenging architects, artists, urban
interventionists and others to take actions big or small and post them
onto the Actions online gallery. The hit list will be featured in the
live exhibition, while the rest will remain showcased online.

2.  Alex Lotz has been sending me updates on urban postings at One of the most intriguing recent entries is about Farmers’ Markets reviving public spaces.

3. Island Press has released a new book, Green Urbanism Down Under:
Learning from Sustainable Communities in Australia
, by Timothy Beatley.  From the press release:

Beatly looks at how greener ways of living have been adopted in Australia.

Examples include city gardens in cosmopolitan Melbourne, a koala-friendly housing development along the Tweed Coast, solar street lights that send electricity back to the city’s power grid in Adelaide, and the 180-kilometer long electric rail system in Perth.

“If the adage ‘think globally, act locally’ still has currency today, as I believe it does, Australia represents a good model of how this might work,” writes Beatley. “Partly a response to the lack of leadership at the national level (as in the United States), there is much energy and much activity at the local level in Australia.”

4.  From the destruction of Katrina a new cohort of engage New Orleans citizens is working to revitalize the city.   Their website is the New Orleans Institute for Resilience and Innovation(what a great word combo for cities — resilience, innovate).

5.  Dave Atkins (a guest blogger and book reviewer here at tagged me.  He challenged me to post 7 unknown facts about myself and tag seven others.   I’m going to be a rebel and only do 5 and 5:

  1. I was a varsity Cross-County Ski Racer for UBC.
  2. I’m allergic to dairy products (not lactose intolerant, fill blow asthma, hives allergy).
  3. Hablo Espanol / Castellano.
  4. My husband and I got married in a hot air balloon in Phoenix.
  5. I watched the total eclipse of 1991 in a Guatemalan village.

And five people to tag:

Chris Bradford (the Austin Contrarian)

Tory Gattis (Houston Strategies)

Christopher Alton (A Dry Ice Factory)

Richard Layman (Rebuilding Place)

Minchin Web

Edge city growing pains

In the past couple weeks there have been (at least) two excellent blog posts about “edge cities.”  Edge cities are small cities or large towns interconnected with and attached to a larger metro area like a suburb.  Unlike bedroom communities, edge cities contain business parks as well as homes and significant retail space.

I expect we’ll be hearing much more about edge cities in the coming years.  They have the potential to offer people more affordable homes — and perhaps more space — than living in prime urban areas, but unlike many suburbs sometimes have the density to offer walkable neighborhoods (now or in the future), a variety or retail and restaurant locales, and rapid transit to the larger metro area’s business districts, as well as significant employment and business opportunities themselves.

Right now, we’re starting to see edge city growing pains.  In particular, the challenge of making these places slightly more urban, with higher density housing, retail and restaurants, which in turn will support more transit.

Dave Atkins of the Dave Writes Blog (and a book reviewer for All About Cities) offers an interesting summary of what’s coming to his edge city of Westwood, outside Boston.

Westwood is a town of almost 15,000 located on route 128 about 13 miles southwest of downtown Boston. Developers have just broken ground on Westwood Station, a 135-acre mixed-use, transit-oriented Smart Growth community—and an attempt to, in one massively-planned effort create a new mini-city. Its advocates describe a new urbanist utopia. But the fault lines of change are many:

  • The project is seen as a long term solution to local financing needs—a cure for the cycle of suburban property tax overrides necessary to keep schools funded. But the current economic downtown may jeopardize everything.
  • A significant number of residents oppose the scale of the project and feel betrayed by the town. Lawsuits to force traffic mitigation are followed by large public meetings of angry citizens. The project is supported by most, but some fear it will destroy the community as it pits one side of town against the other.
  • Another development, Legacy Place, only a mile away in Dedham, will complement or compete with this project.
  • Within the span of only a few years almost 2 million square feet of new mixed-use development will be completed—on top of two existing towns: Dedham and Westwood—towns that historically were one town. Within a decade, this region is likely to be transformed.

We may be witnessing the birth of a second generation “Edge City.” Can the mistakes of the past be avoided? Will this be a massive suburban sprawl nightmare or a model for the future of urban planning? Will the project integrate with the town or be a separate, tolerated entity?

Atkins asks important questions about what is happening in Westwood, which could also be asked of projects around North America.

Ryan Avent of the Bellows Blog, meanwhile, quotes from a recent article in Mother Jones about how edge cities typically grow until they have enough homes and businesses to create major motor vehicle traffic jams, but then do not evolve further to communities that would support a good transit system.

The density-gap corollary to the laws of density: Edge cities always develop to the point where they become dense enough to make people crazy with the traffic, but rarely, if ever, do they get dense enough to support the rail alternative to automobile traffic.

Of course, in any attempt to increase density, anywhere, numerous local residents often fight against it.  Sometimes for good reasons, but often for the wrong reasons — wanting to stop any change at all.  This creates growing pains.

Is Costco really a threat to Manhattan?

Or is Manhattan more of a threat to Costco?

For years the discount warehouse retailer Costco has been looking for a site in Manhattan. According to the New York Sun, they may have found one. But there is vocal opposition from residents, politicians and even some unions.

Much of the rationale behind opposing it seems to be that a Costco-type store won’t work: That Manhattan doesn’t offer the types of shoppers or the automotive access that Costco requires. This may be true, but shouldn’t that be Costco’s problem? Presumably, they’ve done their research and think there is a way to survive.

Let’s look at a few of the other reasons why some New Yorkers are opposed to Costco:

1. That it may challenge local family-owned businesses supported by the walkable nature of most neighbourhoods. I have a hard time believing that the opening of one Costco will transform the way New Yorkers live and shop.  This argument doesn’t work for me:

  • People choose Manhattan because of the densely packed variety of amenities that you can walk to.
  •  If you live in such a neighbourhood, getting in a car to go to Costco is inconvenient. You’ll only go (if you are a Costco shopper) every month or two to stock up on a few bulky things like toilet paper, paper towels or diapers.
  • Most people in Manhattan live in small apartments.  A lack of much home storage space means that buying in bulk is not practical. It’s easier to shop daily or every few days and leave the storage of most food and other products to your local small supermarket rather than finding space in your own 900 s.f. apartment that you share with 3 other people.
  • Perhaps Costco’s target market is businesses stocking free snacks for kitchens in the office towers rather than people buying personal items?

2. Costco will generate more traffic and make the area even more congested and slow. Again, this may be true but Costco must believe that its shoppers will come at off-peak times or would be driving by anyway.  If it’s that hard to shop there, no one will do it.

As some North American cities welcome more people and higher densities into certain areas, more “big box” retailers like Costco will attempt to enter these captive markets.  Some will face considerable opposition; others will be welcomed or enter more quietly.  I predict, all will need to adapt their styles and even philosophies in order to thrive.

From Suburb to Satellite City

Writing in the Globe and Mail, John Bently Mays insists that some suburbs are thriving:

If pundits are going to discuss the future of North American suburbs — and this is surely an excellent time to do so — then they should have in mind a clear picture of the very dynamic phenomenon they are talking about. If the upmarket suburbs of Sacramento are lapsing into desolation, the exurban communities around Toronto appear to be doing everything but.

Although Mays was challenging something Richard Florida wrote about the increased demand for urban core living, Florida responded by clarifying his message:

I do not think we are seeing a decline of the suburbs. What is happening is a move back toward the core by certain affluent groups for whom time, costs, and location matter. This is what Alan Enerhalt calls the “demographic inversion.” … This demographic inversion is but a part – an important part, but just a part – of a much bigger spatial shift, I call the great intensification.

What we’re also seeing is certain suburbs and even some exurbs reviving or creating a more urban core. Municipalities with their own historical districts are seeing demand from residents to live and/or work in these authentic, inspiring places.

While most suburbs by definition export people to jobs in the urban core, some are doing well at generating employment opportunities.  Corporations and governments have generated jobs in the suburbs, and not just back office, service industry positions (although these have been common).  In addition, residents of many suburbs — including immigrants in places like Toronto and Vancouver — have over time been creating their own businesses and have supported others as consumers or workers.

Assuming fuel prices remain high, and individuals continue to value time more than in the past, then some suburbs whether close to urban cores or more distant may evolve into self-contained satellite cities with weaker links to the region’s major metro area.

Some who currently commute will find a similar job closer to home.  Others will move to the evolving satellite city to be closer to their work.  And some will keep their urban core jobs, but be able to tele-commute one or two days per week, or perhaps work in a local branch office occasionally.  All of this will contribute to creating a more self-contained place — not just a space in which to live — where people will be able to reach jobs, schools and amenities on food, bicycle, bus or in less than a 10 minute drive. This will keep them supporting local businesses as well interacting more in their community, building social cohesion, which many suburban spaces lack.

Rise of cities, decline of national park visitation

Fewer people are visiting America’s national parks, reports the Economist. Instead, the Economist believes more tourists are visiting cities, which have become cool.

This leads to the question of the relationship (if any) between urban revitalization and lower national park patronage.

Indeed, there seems to be a correlation between the cleaning up of cities like New York and the decline in national parks visitation.  The same Economist article states:

Attendance at national parks was not the only thing that peaked between the late 1980s and the early 1990s. In 1991 America’s homicide rate reached 9.8 per 100,000 people. Many cities were known for lawlessness and grot; not surprisingly, holiday-makers were passing them up for greener spots. Then, miraculously, the murder rate began to slide, falling to just 5.5 per 100,000 in 2000. Led by New York, cities spruced themselves up and began to attract more tourists.

Or, did the average age of the population change lowering the interest in camping? Does the typical aging baby boomer want a thermarest-and-sleeping-bag-on-a-tent-floor or a 4 star hotel room? The Economist didn’t suggest this, but I can’t help but think it’s a driving factor behind lower national park visitation and increased vacations in cities.

But maybe camping and national park visits will gradually rise again.  Here’s why:

  • People feeling less affluent will look for less expensive vacations.  Camping is cheaper than a hotel room in places like New York or Boston or San Francisco.
  • Although gasoline prices are rising, driving to a national park or state park will typically be cheaper than flying to a city.
  • As more people live in dense urban areas rather than the suburbs, then getting away to wilder areas may become more popular (especially given families feeling financially strained).  Not for everyone, but for just enough to reverse the tide.
  • Blackberries and mobile devices will soon work almost everywhere, if they don’t already.  And solar-powered battery rechargers now work quite well for small devices.
    •  Some of the appeal of urban vacations has no doubt been the ability to remain in touch with work while on vacation.
      While I can see a fad of “unplugging” on the horizon in which people will vacation without remaining connected, it’s not here yet and many will never feel comfortable and able to relax unless they know that all is well at home.

Vacations of the future may well be about “live” events and experiences — some of these will be found in cities, others in national parks, state parks and wilderness areas.  Some will be less expensive for those needing to live within their means.

Watching the stars from a mountain meadow is priceless yet affordable.

Highest housing prices 1980 – 2006

The Calculated Risk blog offered a couple interesting posts last week on changes to the ratio of median house price to median income since 1980. The source data, from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, covers 106 metro areas.

Available for download is the data from 1980 to 2006, so before the collapse of the current housing market. I did some sorting and tinkering with it to see what I could find out. Here are some results:

The cities where housing costs grew the most compared to median incomes were:

#1. Los Angeles / Long Beach / Santa Ana (from a ratio of 4.4 to 10.0)
#2 San Francisco / Oakland / Fremont (from 4.9 to 9.8)
#3 San Jose / Sunnyvale / Santa Clara (from 4.2 to 8.9)
#4 San Diego / Carlsbad / San Marcos (from 5.2 to 9.5)
#5 New York / Northern NJ / Long Island (from 3.1 to 7.1)

Also worth noting, the highest ratio cities (most expensive) in 1980 were:

#1 Honolulu (ratio 5.7)
#2 San Diego / San Marcos (5.2)
#3 San Francisco / Oakland (4.9)
#4 Los Angeles / Long Beach (4.4)
#5 Reno (4.2) !!

With the exception of Reno, these were also the most expensive in 2006:

#1 Los Angeles / Long Beach (10.0)
#2 San Francisco / Oakland (9.8)
#3 San Diego / San Marcos (9.5)
# 4 San Jose / Sunnyvale / Santa Clara (8.9)
#5 Honolulu (ratio 8.6)

But, of course, the 1980 and 2006 figures are snap shots.  This chart shows the less-than-constant rate of appreciation.

What’s also interesting is that about half of the cities tracked saw minimal or no change in their price ratio to median household income during this period.

Unintended consequences of a new bylaw

In Vancouver a new bylaw came into effect last week banning cigarette smoking on restaurant patios and within 6 meters (about 20 feet) of doorways. Smoking has been banned at indoor public places for a long time.

I had a positive and a negative experience with this new bylaw this week. The positive experience was visiting a favorite local coffee house with my kids. My son likes to ride his trike in the door and down the ramp to order banana loaf for himself; I typically add an expensive but tasty coffee drink to the order. In the past, we’ve had to enter through a cloud of smoke and then go elsewhere to consume our snack outside. But now, we can sit on the patio, watching the world go by. This is nice.

The negative experience was the next day at the small local park with a large, new playground. Every table and bench in other parts of the park was filled with people smoking, and enjoying a take-out coffee from one of the local haunts. This meant that overflow smokers ended up sitting around the playground smoking, both cigarettes and another substance that this region is well known for. I’m quite allergic to both, so it’s now hard to enjoy the playground with the kids. More importantly, neither the example nor the smoke is good for children.

Having smokers take over parks and playgrounds seems to be an unintended consequence of the new patio and doorway smoking restrictions.  I’m pondering writing a letter to the politicians who sponsored the bills that created the restrictions to suggest they also ban smoking within 15 meters of a playground (dogs are banned from being within 15 meters, so why not cigarettes?).

But, I’m also worried about what the unintended consequences of that bylaw might be.

(Oh, and I know many smokers — likely the majority — wouldn’t dream of lighting up around children.  But unfortunately, not everyone is so considerate, hence our problem).

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