Finding the right labels

  Cities and their hinterlands are changing, and have been for some time.  The black-white dichotomy of suburban-core is becoming ever more unhelpful in describing the different types of places in or related to cities where people can live and work. Some new definitions or labels may be in order.

Here are my thoughts on some definitions of metropolitan and related spaces.  I’d welcome your ideas, or links to existing work in this area by others.

Lets start with what we had maybe 20 years ago.

Twin Cities – Cities that were founded separately, for different reasons.  They have their own historic “downtown” centre of gravity.  During the 20th century, because of the automotive age, they became linked by a ribbon of freeways; they also likely came to share a major airport as well as some “suburbs” that grew to sprawl in between the historic poles.  Twin cities have distinct identities and even economies in the sense that not many people live in one twin and work in the other.  Dallas-Fort Worth, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and possibly Seattle-Tacoma  could be called Twin Cities.

Satellite Cities – Cities or smaller metro areas that are close enough to a major metropolitan area that citizens or business people might make easy day trips there and take advantage of specialized amenities, but are far enough to be distinct entities.  They don’t share suburbs or airports.  The Kitchener CMA (+ Guelph) would be a good example of a satellite (to Toronto). Tucson in some ways qualifies as a Satellite to Phoenix and San Diego and Los Angeles might also be considered a Satellite pair.

Bedroom Suburban District – Bedroom suburbs do not have the same economic centres of gravity as major metropolitan areas, satellites or twins.  Typically, many more people would leave them daily to go to work than there are jobs in that suburb. Plus many of the jobs there would be retail, restaurant or personal services, mostly serving the bedroom community population.

Industrial Suburban District – A suburb that contains a lot of low density industrial lands and business parks.  Manufacturing might have been there in the mid 20th century, while today it could be home to more warehouse-logistics space as well as suburban office parks and flex spaces.  Sometimes within the same municipality there might be an industrial suburban half and a bedroom suburban half, with little relation or interaction between the two other than they pay taxes to, and are served by, the same municipal government.

Urban Suburban Districts -  Places that are within a major metropolitan area, but seem more urban.  They have mid and even higher density, walkable residential areas often next to taller office towers and higher density employment lands.  They also have rapid transit links into the major metropolitan area’s downtown.  What they may lack is that “historic downtown” and they likely have regional branch offices of businesses rather than the metro area’s head office.

Today many suburban municipalities are shifting from all or mostly low density, separated bedroom and industrial districts into something more complex.  Mississauga (Toronto CMA) and Surrey (Vancouver CMA) are attempting to create new high density town centres from the shells of shopping centres. Office and residential spaces combined with new transit options are being created to reshape these places into urban suburban districts.  What shall we call these places — Urbanizing suburbs?

Fuel prices and urban shifts

How much to gasoline prices need to rise–and for how long–for people to change their behavior?

The Economist blog has an intriguing piece this week on gasoline prices and demand in the US, looking at the long versus short term price elasticity of oil (gasoline).  The author argued that in the short term, people cannot really change their demand for gasoline when the price rises. For many people in many North American cities, their SUV is the only way to get to work. They might cut back on other expenses, but driving isn’t one of them.

In the long term, however, if prices remain high, then people do change their lifestyles.  The Economist blog entry suggests that in urban areas we can expect people to move closer to work or transit or select a more fuel efficient vehicle.

If we extrapolate to what this could mean for cities and urban areas then, the longer fuel prices stay high, the more people might be willing to support a shift away from public spending to support the automobile.  More people might push politicians to spend public funds expanding transit or bike routes rather than adding freeway lanes, for example.  The US interest in high speed rail is an example of this.

I don’t expect the private automobile to disappear in North America–too much infrastructure is built for it.  But I do think we’ll see more balanced options for getting around metro areas as a result of sustained high gasoline prices. Bring it on.

Mental Maps, Subways and Walkability

Mental maps refers to how people perceive urban spaces.  For example, is a place far away or close by?  How easy is it to get from point A to point B to point C?  The concept of mental maps can also include places people frequent.  A person with young children might have a lot of playgrounds in his or her mental map of their city, whereas the child-free music lover might know how to get to every small music venue.

Your mental map of your city or community will differ from other people’s.  Whether you tend to walk, drive, take transit or bike will also affect your sense of distance.

Travelling underground–on submays or metros in particular–can distort people’s sense of  distance and the relationships between places.

In London, it’s apparently quite common for people to take the tube only a few short stops because they don’t realize that their destination is close enough to walk.  Metro maps tend to portray routes as straight lines, and often with all stops equidistant.  Yet, in reality, the tracks often bend and some stops are closer together.  Two places that look far apart on the metro map may only have a few blocks separating them.

In London new maps are being placed around the city helping Londoners (and presumably tourists) understand the spatial relationships differently.  One goal is to get people walking both for their health and to relieve transit congestion.  Apparently there has been a 5% increase in people walking in parts of London with the signs, and the number of people getting lost has dropped by  65%.

Does your city offer maps?   Do they encourage you to walk?

Has seeing one affected your mental map of a city?

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?

What’s driving bike lanes and the anger?

Over the past 12-24 months bike lanes have been popping up in cities across North America, in some cases displacing a lane for cars.  In other cases, it’s just lines on the road, but ones that suggest motor vehicle drivers now must share the space with the bikes.  And both before and after the added bike lanes, increasing numbers of people are taking to cycling on roads built for cars and buses.

Some prominent drivers have decided to push back, and the rhetoric has reached hyperbolic levels.   New Toronto Mayor Rob Ford ran in part on a platform to “end the war on the car.“   War?

A driving lover in New York even referred to bike lanes as causing more destruction than the terrorist attacks of 9-11. Facilitating cycling is the same as mass murder? Get a grip.

Here are some thoughts on what’s driving this conflict and extreme reaction from some drivers.

First, there has been an urban shift over the past few years.  (See my previous post on this topic.) Enough people have shifted their lifestyles and embraced living closer to work that it is increasing non-automotive commute methods, including cycling.

These newer urban dwelling cyclists, I suspect, are more often home owners than people who lived in these neighbourhoods in the past (at least in Toronto and Vancouver I’m fairly certain this is the case).  Paying that ever-increasing property tax bill, they expect the city to provide some infrastructure to suit them and their needs and not just those of auto-commuters, often from the suburbs who don’t pay taxes in their jurisdiction. There is also some evidence that bike-friendliness helps cities attract and retain talent (and therefore employers of that talent).

Second, most metro areas are getting bigger, with more new housing in suburban locations than close-in communities.  This is resulting in more drivers and therefore more congestion.  To a long-time automotive commuter, this ever-slowing commute would get frustrating.

Third, to further grate at the long-time automotive commuter, gas prices are rising.  They feel like they’re paying more for the commute, and may be blaming taxes, but the reality is that tens of thousands of new drivers start up their cars around the world every day.  Supply of petroleum cannot keep up with demand.

Items two and three are not a conspiracy or “war on drivers” they are the reality of too many drivers and not enough supply of roads and fuel. If there hadn’t been the urban shift–allowing thousands to commute by pedal, foot and transit–the situation would be far worse.  And I suspect the new bike lanes will help it get better.

Four, there hasn’t been enough time for all urban dwellers to adjust to the bike lanes.   Some automotive commuters who live close in, will switch to cycling once they see dedicated bike lanes and they have a secure place to park their bike and then shower and change when they get to work.  The combination of more bike lanes and a push to facilitate lower-carbon living is pushing office building owners to add these facilities.

Others, facing congestion, will switch when the can to walking and/or transit or a combination.  All of these behavioral changes will get some drivers off the roads, making room for those who want or must drive.

In conclusion, bike lanes are part of a needed structural shift in how we live.  Everyone cannot live in low-density suburbs. If tens of thousands are choosing urban neighbourhoods, the infrastructure originally built for suburban commuters has to work for them too.  The good news for suburban commuter-drivers is that over time more urban dwellers will get out of the car lanes for their commute, leaving more room for them.

(full disclosure: I’m not a bike commuter, but might give it a try now there there is a dedicated lane and route connecting my house to the office building–and where new showers and change facilities are opening next month). 

Four Lessons on Emergency Preparedness in Cities

The twin tremor-induced disasters in Christchurch and Sendai, taken in contrast to hurricane Katrina and other disasters, provide at least four lessons for cities and urban residents.

First, in a real city-wide disaster, however much preparation is done, it won’t be enough.  People will still die, others will struggle to find food, water and shelter, and many will get sick or injured either from the quake or the effects of it.  There was no way for Sendai to be ready for a 9.0 quake and a 30′ (10 metre) tsunami minutes later.  But…

Second, it will be far worse if a city and its residents are unprepared.  Look at New Orleans during and after Katrina–and that disaster could be seen coming for days and yet neither the city nor the country were ready to rescue, feed, clothe and house people in the days and weeks that followed.  Or look at Port-au-Prince and other cities in Haiti where sheer poverty of the nation, the city and most people prevented much in the way of adequate preparedness.

Contrast this to Christchurch where local and national emergency crews were on the scene right away.  Still…

Three, everyone in any city–earthquake zone or not–needs to be ready to look after themselves and their family for at least 72 hours (3 days) if not a full week.  As well documented in Christchurch, the city’s water system, sewage system and electrical network were severely damaged.  Neither clean water nor electricity was available for many people for days.  And just being ready yourself isn’t really good enough…

Four, as the Japanese have been brilliant at, you need to be ready to help others too, and the city has to have supplies stockpiled in places people can reach it.  In Sendai incredible stories have emerged of how people pooled and shared the clean water and food that they had.  Because the Japanese are prepared for earthquakes, many places likely had decent amounts of supplies stockpiled.

After a disaster it is probably easy to share something you have enough of.  I worry what might happen in North American cities if many residents are not ready and have nothing to eat, drink or use as shelter in the hours and days following.  Will the disaster bring out the best in people as happened in Japan, or show an ugly side as happened in New Orleans with looting and violence.

Seems that being prepared–as cities and as people–might make all the difference.

What else can we learn from these disasters? Do you feel your city is ready? are you?

The delicate art of parking provisioning

(with apologies to Trent Carlson)

How people live in cities is changing, faster in some places than others.  In general, people are driving less.  But car ownership is still quite prevalent and it remains a key means for people to get themselves, their families, and their stuff from A to B and C and D around the city.  Even though urban travel by bike, transit and foot is on the rise, cars are not likely to disappear.  They are too handy in certain circumstances.

So what to do with cars when we’re not using them?  That is a key challenge for cities these days.  Here’s what I mean.

First, lets talk about surface parking lots and above-grade parking structures.  These are ugly and suck the life out of the streetscape.  Nothing interesting (or at least good and interesting) is ever going on there (drug deals and break ins are interesting, but not in a good way).  So, the answers are either street parking or underground parking, or typically both.  But….

Starting with underground parkades, these are expensive to build.  They therefore can make it uneconomical to build many apartment, office and retail structures unless the highest rents (or condo sale prices) can be achieved.  Some cities are experimenting with reducing parking requirements for apartments in core areas where most residents will walk or take transit, in part to keep the costs down so new rental can be built.  But this isn’t practical in most neighbourhoods, even walkable ones, as a typical couple or family will have a car.  This is an unresolved dilemma in cities–adding residents to average communities still requires room to park a car.

Next, street parking. This works well if there is enough room on the streets for residents and visitors to a neighbourhood.  In detached, single-family neighbourhoods this is the case.  But in slightly more dense areas, there isn’t always enough.  Especially if a prominent shopping street is nearby.

In a trendy walkable neighbourhood, many people will drive to the area, park, and shop. The retailers rely on these non-neighbour customers, so need there to be parking.  But if the number of people living in the area increases, without more parking places, suddenly none are available for retailers unless we either add underground parking (too expensive), surface parking (too ugly), go to parking meters to keep people moving.

Parking meters.  It seems that some city halls have figured out a science of parking meters.  Charge enough so that there is usually an empty spot every couple of blocks, and then people don’t circle around looking for parking.  I was shocked to read New York City still has lots of free parking.  We’re also starting to see variable rate meters that adjust the costs with the time of day and congestion.  I like this approach.  I’d rather pay more and have a spot available when I need one, than have to drive all over looking for free parking (I put a value on my time, and it’s more than $2 for 15 minutes!)

But parking meters work at destinations, not at home.  So we’re back to the challenge of urban development right now: the delicate art of balancing enough room for cars while also improving the livability and walkability of communities, and keeping costs of new housing down so that homes can be built for the non-super-rich.

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How is the parking dilemma affecting your community?

What examples are you seeing of the delicate art of balancing parking needs with other urban requirements and challenges?

Cities, mobilized human energy, and housing

 In thinking about the recent revolutions and unrest in North Africa, Richard Florida tweeted March 4 2011 that:

Great cities mobilize human energy. That energy = innovation & creativity in free & open city.

In the middle east right now, human energy is motivated toward bringing political change.  But what’s been happening back in North America?  How has this mobilized human energy been shaping metro area housing?

As others have previously observed, revolutions tend to emerge from cities. Following success in urban and higher-density Cuba, Che Guevara had no luck convincing Bolivian peasants to rise up. It’s easier to mobilize urban people.

This got me thinking about life, mobilization and protests in dense, transit-oriented and walkable city areas versus auto-centred suburbs.  More spaced out, and car-centred suburban living seems to prevent people from getting together to protest something.  I rarely hear of protest marches in the suburbs, for example.  Meanwhile downtown and in the denser urban neighbourhoods I can observe one almost every day (just go to the ritual protest spots).

I’ve also observed how much harder it is to build new housing, office space, or even community spaces in dense urban areas compared to the suburbs.  It’s hard to change people’s communities. People living there all see something happening, they walk and take transit so have time to chat about it with the neighbours and friends, and then they often fight the proposed change.  This is often good as it provides a democratic check on various initiatives that might not be a good idea in the long run (but might be politically expedient today). Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods would have been torn down to put in a freeway in the 1970s if people hadn’t fought it, for example.

But this tendency for people to fight change is also at least partially responsible for the rising costs of housing in urban cores.  Just try to double the density on one site in an established neighbourhood (as opposed to a new, greenfield one), it’s a tough battle. Adding a new subdivision in a suburb is often quite easy by comparison.

When I see protests about high housing costs in Vancouver, I sometimes wonder if these are the same people that protested against the building of new market rental housing in their neighbourhood (housing which the planning department recommended).

Ed Glaeser in his new book (which I have yet to secure a copy of) has apparently critiqued city planners for not allowing for more height in core areas, which has had the result of limiting housing supply and pushing prices up, thereby forcing millions across North America into the suburbs.  Maybe it’s not the planners’ fault? maybe the citizens and politicians have been the ones resisting the change.  And today Angie Schmidt of Streetsblog wondered if it is the boomers and war-time generations specifically (although I’m unsure about this).

Cities are full of contradictions and ironies.  Cities are also full of ideas, different tribes of people, and different ways of looking at problems.  People in cities talk, and seeing that they are not one lone person, they feel empowered, whether in Tunisia or Toronto or San Francisco or Vancouver.  This makes cities vibrant places.

But if we want to critique the reasons for sprawl and high cost urban housing, perhaps we need to look in the collective mirror and not blame only the planners.

What drove the shift toward urban living?

In Canada’s cities, prices in the older urban areas as well as the suburbs generally stagnated for over a decade between the early 1990s and early 2000s.  Not coincidentally, during this time an abundance of new housing opened in suburbs like Milton and Markham (Toronto area) as well as Coquitlam and Surrey (Vancouver area).  Calgary annexed more land, and suburban style homes proliferated. Metro area residents did not seem to show much of a preference for urban vs suburban living.

Starting in around 2002 prices everywhere began to rise, but over time the urbanized areas experienced more rapid increases.  I know of homes in walkable East Vancouver communities that tripled in value over just 6-7 years.

From talking to friends and realtors, it seems that today, the housing market is hot in walkable urban areas, and a softer in the suburbs.  Evidence of continued strong demand for urban living.

As pointed out by the Economist this week in a cleaver parable about Gotham vs Pleasantville, rising house prices rising faster in in urban areas vs the suburbs are a clear indicator of accelerating demand for these urban homes.   Many urban areas have limited or no room to increase supply, so if demand rises so do prices as those with the most money are able to secure the most walkable, transit oriented homes.

So what changed in or around 2002?

What has led an increasing number of home buyers to have a preference for urban living?

Here’s my partial list.  Please add to it!

  • Maturation of the knowledge economy, reliant on the internet, that has benefited from a very urban workforce constantly looking for inspiration
  • De-industrialization in many metro areas as manufacturing declined either outright or as a percentage of employment (while service and knowledge jobs grew)
  • Generations X and Y started to make their ideas and culture felt in cities, as they embraced an experience economy over a consumer goods and large-home-and-car based one.
  • Women’s higher rate of degree attainment resulted in career women selecting short commutes and urban living (with the trade offs) over suburban homes
  • The fertility rate edged up slightly, likely as younger boomer and older gen x women who had postponed children had 1 or 2, but didn’t give up urban living or urban careers and wanted short commutes.
  • Millennials defining freedom as their “first iPhone” rather than first car, and driving less.
  • More recently in 2008 and now in 2011, high gas prices are encouraging more people rethink auto-motive lifestyles

Agree? Disagree? What else has changed?

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?

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