Monthly Archives: February 2019

Opposition to More Housing or Better Urbanism

 

By Dom Nozzi

February 19, 2019

Often, but not always, opposition to compact development (or more housing) comes from folks who either don’t like cities or don’t have a good understanding of what makes for healthy, safe, sustainable, diverse, convenient, choice-rich cities.

Other opposition, understandably, is based on the many of us who are appalled by the many newer buildings which are too often unlovable, boxy, jarring, look-at-me modernist architecture.

Still others oppose more housing because they believe that such development will make their car-based lifestyle more costly and difficult (a concern that is more suburban than walkable urban). But in a healthy town center, it SHOULD be costly and inconvenient for space-hogging, high speed motorists.

I’ve never been enthusiastic about “educating” people about the benefits of compact urbanism (such as adding more housing). I think there are different strokes for different folks, and that we should equitably accommodate all lifestyle choices (even suburban choices), as long as people choosing such lifestyles are paying their fair share. Of course, this is rarely the case with suburban lifestyles, which tend to be far more heavily subsidized by the community than any other lifestyle.

There is a place for every form of lifestyle, but I insist that we need to let the urban town centers be urban, rather than be degraded by suburban (car-happy) values (ie, the values that deliver design elements that are toxic to walkable urbanism, such as excessive open space or building setbacks, low densities, wider and higher-speed roads, large surface parking lots, required parking, “horizontal skyscrapers,” and single-family zoning).

Too often, this toxic degradation harms town centers, as America is a very suburban society with suburban values. Even many who live in town centers have suburban values they wish to impose on the town center, which is unsurprising, given the many decades America has subsidized and enabled suburbanism.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

The Hidden Costs of Suburban Housing

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 25, 2018

People understandably assign value to being proximate to things they desire or need. Walkscore.com shows this quite well, as does the real estate values seen in central cities such as Manhattan. Not only do the per square foot costs of real estate tend to be higher due to proximity, but centrally-located real estate also tends to be more resilient in economic downturns. We saw that clearly in the 2007-8 housing crash, where land in the burbs crashed significantly and many in-town properties were hardly affected at all.

Therefore, the burbs offer a “false economy” in many cases. Lower per square foot costs means you can typically buy a lot more house in the burbs than in a town center. But there are many (mostly hidden) trade-off costs. You tend to pay less in the burbs for your home, but in exchange you must pay the costs of less convenience, less free time (due to longer times needed to get to places), less “social capital” (in other words, less interaction with others), poorer health (due to your not biking or walking as much in the burbs), much higher travel costs due to the need for a household to own more cars and use cars more often, and much more aggravation due to the inability to escape traffic congestion. In my mind, all of these mostly hidden costs in the burbs far outweigh per square foot savings for suburban homes.

In a well-functioning economy, buyers of suburban homes would clearly see the above-listed costs, which would reduce the (artificially high) demand for suburban housing. Likewise, there would be higher demand for town center homes if the mostly hidden benefits of such housing were easier to see.

Fortunately for our society, the younger generations are placing more value on town center living and less value on suburban living. Unfortunately, America has spent several decades mostly building suburban housing (partly due to artificially high demand), which means that pretty much all US cities now have far too much drivable suburban housing and far too little town center housing. This inflates the per square foot cost for town center housing. Therefore, American cities need to devote a lot of effort toward better balancing the supply and demand of walkable town center housing by building a lot more of it — partly by incrementally making a lot of suburban housing more compact and walkable. Increasing the supply of town center housing will eventually reduce the per square foot cost of it. This will be a major task in the coming decades. Plenty of demolition and renovation jobs are on the horizon.

I am not saying suburban housing will disappear or that no one will want it or that it should be prohibited. There are likely to always be people in our society who greatly value a lifestyle featuring a lot of driving, a lot of social isolation, large private greenspaces, large homes, etc. (they place so much value on such things that they compensate for the downside costs). For the sake of equity, however, such a lifestyle must be better coupled with suburban homeowners paying higher fees to compensate for the higher detrimental societal impacts their lifestyle imposes on the community.

It needs to be noted, too, that suburban development tends to be a Ponzi Scheme for cities. That is, their initial costs look attractive to elected officials, but cities tend to experience unaffordable, rising costs that suburban housing delivers over the long term — costs that are much higher than the relatively meager tax revenues that such lower-density housing produces. This helps explain why so many cities are severely suffering financially with things like road and bridge maintenance.

https://www.strongtowns.org/the-growth-ponzi-scheme/

Communities need to grow the number of “YIMBYs” they have (YES in my backyard). That generally means the community needs a higher percentage of people who love cities (rather than drivable suburbs). This will be a slow process and take a lot of time, as cities have spent several decades cultivating and encouraging the values of suburbia. Therefore, even many who live in town centers are, oddly, holding suburban values.

Over time these suburban values will decline as such values have very little sustainable staying power (such a lifestyle is growing increasingly expensive, for example, for households and cities), and younger people with walkable values will constitute a growing percentage of the population.

Officials and staff can nudge communities to more quickly move toward having a higher percentage of citizens with walkable values by electing leaders who are willing and able to see to it that “on the ground” models of high quality walkable developments are created in the community. That allows people to “see with their own eyes and ears” how pleasant walkable design can be.

That can persuade a larger number of community residents to be amendable to walkable design, which then encourages developers to take advantage of that growing market by building more walkable developments. And gives elected officials more political courage to adopt walkable development regulations.

Elected folks can also show leadership by tweaking “price signals.” For example, leaders can adopt or increase parking fees, increase the gas tax, add a toll to roads, increase suburban impact fees, or adopt a land value tax. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_value_tax

Currently, almost all of our price signals are nudging people toward suburban lifestyles and value systems — mostly by pampering motorists and not having motorists pay their own way.

 

 

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

Self-Perpetuating Doom

By Dom Nozzi

A superb, must-read article describing the grim, isolating future that a great many older Americans face appeared in the fall of 2018. The article noted that the suburban lifestyle will greatly diminish the ability for most seniors in the US to be able to make trips from their homes. They will, in effect, be trapped in their homes as they will be unable to visit friends, shop for food or other household needs, visit a doctor, or visit parks and cultural events.

Self-driving cars won’t be a remedy for a long time, if ever.

I have made many of the points in this article repeatedly over the years.

It is important to catch the point in the article that town planners do NOT have the ability to rectify this important crisis, as US planners have almost no power to implement effective tools. This is largely because most Americans are NIMBYs who fight aggressively to allow no change to their suburban lifestyle. In other words, planners are met with violent, raging opposition from citizens when tactics to escape this grim future are proposed. There is, for example, extreme opposition to more compact, dense development. More narrow, slower-speed street design. Retrofitting bicycling and walking paths. And mixing homes with offices and retail.

This is ultimately quite tragic, as many will regret their diminished lack of future travel independence.

As I have noted a number of times, I’m convinced that only a severe economic, environmental, climate or resource downturn will give us the kick in the ass we need to change. Unfortunately, it has also been said by someone else that throughout history, whenever a society had to choose between extinction (maintaining its lifestyle) or sustainability (thru making substantial changes in lifestyle), the society in question has ALWAYS chosen extinction.

What makes the extinction of the American way of life so likely is that unlike past societies, ours is uniquely locked into a self-perpetuating car-centric suburban land use pattern at the local level and the military-industrial complex at the federal level.

A recipe for essential reforms at the local level, once a severe kick in the pants emerges, includes…

Removal of required car parking requirements.

Elimination of conventional zoning-based codes with transect-based and form-based codes.

The use of more human-scaled dimensions for streets, intersections and building setbacks.

Putting many roads and intersections on diets (ie, removing excessive road lanes).

Replacing surface parking with buildings.

Replacing free parking and free roads with priced parking and priced roads

Unbundling the price of parking from the price of housing.

Requiring that employers offer employees parking cash-out.

Shifting to a land value tax (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_value_tax).

Adopting low design speed street geometries and ending the forgiving street design paradigm.

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Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Energy, Peak Oil, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking