Urban planning and social capital

One of the things that first struck me when I came to Berkeley was how porous the campus culture was compared to Harvard. At the Kennedy School, I had spent a decade and never left the building.  This was partly because a large fraction of the decade was in the winter in Boston, partly because the Kennedy School has an inside restaurant, partly because it’s as big as a small college, and partly because the building had a big open central circulation space that discouraged elevator use and even corridors wide enough to stop and schmoose in.  In contrast,this or that project of collaboration among schools and units just kept failing for reasons no-one could put a finger on.

At Cal, on the other hand — granted that the Goldman School is too small to have a whole life in –  I have graduate student advisees and colleagues all over campus, and a hand or a toe in all sorts of cross-unit projects and enterprises. And not because I am especially gregarious or spend all my time out looking for them. This fall, I am teaching a course halfway down the hill in a program with which, though it sort of competes with ours, we just put on a “cowboy and the farmer should be friends” mixer for faculty and students.  The next-to-last meeting I attended had people from at least six administrative units.  It’s just conventional and easy to invite people into groups that cross administrative and disciplinary lines, so we all accumulate large, diffuse, networks.

I haven’t worked at Stanford, but every time I go down there, I have the feeling that it’s at least as stovepiped as Harvard was, without the excuse of climate. (Keith?) This morning’s otherwise forgettable example of economist self-parody includes this tidbit:

Q: You ended up meeting another Stanford professor who works 100 yards away – and you’ve now been together a year and a half. You couldn’t have just walked over there?

A: She may work 100 yards away, but we didn’t know each other!

My conjecture about Stanford is that it’s too big, not dense enough, and too flat.  Between buildings, each of which is a disciplinary or program ghetto of the usual sort, people circulate through a picturesque but sterile outdoors on bicycles, and very few of us have the courage, approaching  on bicycles, to stop and dismount in case the other person wants to chat: we get enough rejection without looking for it.  It’s the same reason a common room has to have newspapers and coffee, so we don’t risk going in hoping someone will talk with us only to find that no-one does.  Berkeley is small and climbs up a serious hill, so while lots of people commute in on bikes, we walk, and on a campus where going to see someone in another building doesn’t feel “far”. When we meet on a path, slowing down and making eye contact is much less of a commitment than getting off a bike, so a Schellingesque self-reinforcing equilibrium maintains itself.

Similarly, people don’t meet each other in the same high-rise building: strong social conventions forbid chatting when you are trapped in an elevator, with or without strangers.  And resistance is growing to the hi-tech bubbles whose businesses provide so much of life internally, with exercise rooms, food, cots, and whatnot, that the employees (who may be bused in from far away with the best will in the world, reducing automobile congestion and all that good stuff), never set foot on the ground in the streets outside.  When it comes down to it, there is no substitute for walking, outdoors in non-private space, with different stuff going on to look at and remark on. City streets and space uses that force people to be out and about in them on foot, that’s the recipe.

Single-Family Homes: A Smart Growth Strategy

Peter Calthorpe's Highlands Garden Village: Smart Growth Based on Single Family Homes
Peter Calthorpe’s Highlands Garden Village: Smart Growth Based on Single Family Homes

Sunday’s New York Times features a story by Shaila Dewan asking, “Is Suburban Sprawl on the Way Back?”  Answer: not really, although highly compact urban development is hardly going to dominate, either.  The best quote from the whole piece comes from Smart Growth America President Geoff Anderson, who correctly observed,

The market isn’t all for smart growth, nor is it all for sprawl, The thing for the last 50, 60 years has been that we’ve done nothing but sprawl.

Very true.  And keep it in mind: despite the hysterics emanating from the fever swamps of the right, smart growth is a deregulatory, pro-market strategy.  Smart growth advocates believe that if consumers actually get what they want, we will have a much smarter growth pattern than we have seen since the Second World War.

But Dewan does play into the Dumb Growth advocates’ ideology by noting that although smart growth and compact development seems to be on the rise,

Single-family homes still define the American dream and prospective home buyers overwhelmingly prefer them.

Assuming that this is true, this hardly undermines a smart growth strategy and might in fact enhance it.  Going on 20 years now, urban planners and smart growth advocates have been busily building single-family homes.  They are simply a different single-family home footprint than we are used to.

Consider the massive front lawn characteristic of traditional suburban sprawl.  The front lawn is typically the most wasted space in a house — few families really use it — and in any event, reflects a demographic pattern more characteristic of the Eisenhower years than the present.  That pattern was the one-earner family: husband works, wife stays home with the kids, presumably supervising them on the front lawn.  Now, families look very different, and even if they are traditional two-parent families, both parents are working, with the kids in child care.

You can actually get pretty high density in a single-family neighborhood if you get rid of the front lawns.  And if you combine that with shared backyards, such as featured in the Backyardigans cartoon series for children, you can get even more density while losing very little usable space.  An example of this is Highlands Garden Village, as designed by new urbanist Peter Calthorpe: lots of single family houses, with lots of open space, but in a more compact pattern.  It’s smart growth and single family houses and there is no contradiction there.

Planners have known this for years.  In a celebrated 1996-7 debate between Reid Ewing and Peter Gordon in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Ewing pointed out that Gordon’s entire critique of smart growth, viz. that people like single-family homes, rests upon an assumption that is demonstrably false, viz. that smart growth rejects the single family home.  It doesn’t, Ewing pointed out: it simply advocates 1) for the market to guide choices (with appropriate pricing for environmental degradation and other damage caused by sprawl); and 2) for single-family homes to reflect the far more compact character that would come from accurate pricing.

This may be what eventually develops, as Dewan points out: a town centers concept where people can live close to their individual town center but in a single-family house.  This is a smart growth strategy, and also will reduce VMT: the majority of VMT are for in-town trips, not commutes, so bringing houses closer to town centers would have a positive climate impact.

Single family homes are a smart growth strategy as long they are planned and developed, well, smartly.  One can’t help but wonder if smart growth critics ignore this because they don’t understand it, or because they do.


The blogosphere lost a favorite netizen this week.  We’ll miss you, Inkblot, master loll cat and patio prince.

It seems Inkblot was sent to cat heaven by a coyote, in the middle of a neighborhood where everything in your field of view in every direction except the sky is there because of a conscious human decision: Et in suburbia ego.  We have strict zoning, building codes, design review, neighborhood associations, real cops and private security, neighborhood watch associations, home alarm systems – all the awesome powers of organized humanity – but nature has her ways, and creatures specialized for the edge of the forest (deer) and unspecialized creatures open to anything (coyotes, opossums, skunks, raccoons; cockroaches, Argentine ants, crabgrass, mosquitos) know a niche when they see one.

When we moved to Berkeley, we lived a half-mile downhill from the East Bay’s wonderful hilltop park reserve, and our standard poodle saw a splendid, sleek, six-point buck enjoying the rose bushes and some vegetables.  The dog had met the occasional deer in Vermont, wild deer with traditional views of ungulate/carnivore relationships, and charged out to teach this one some manners. But this deer had learned what wusses Berkeley dogs are, and didn’t give an inch; confronted with a set of lowered antlers and a  look that meant business, Winnie gave a whimper and hotfooted it back in the house.

Now we live in a more urbanized neighborhood, and we still have the odd deer bounding through backyards, a whiff of skunk on the night air now and then and, wonderfully, a half dozen wild turkeys who amble down the sidewalk every few months.  Where the deer come out of the park, and I have seen them several times on the Cal campus, mountain lions follow, and coyotes are no longer unusual deep into settled areas. `It’s one thing to have your garden browsed by Bambi’s extended family, and another to be afraid to let your cat or cocker out. Vegan, peacable Berkeley, like a lot of suburban communities full of city slickers with romantic ideas about nature, is having some difficult moments recognizing what it means to live neither in the city nor the country.

High Speed Rail

The California Senate voted another tranche of financing yesterday , keeping the state’s high speed rail project alive. There’s a cartoon to be drawn in which the program is a maiden tied up in the middle of a freeway with the highway/automobile industry approaching, or maybe it’s a train being switched off a track leading to a washed-out trestle…
I don’t entirely trust my judgment on this issue, because I love trains, an affection acquired in youth going to high school (and everywhere) in New York on one of the only two (IIRC) 24-hr public transit systems in the world, and deepened riding all sorts of trains, especially in Europe. You can read, eat, write, get up and walk around or to the dining car for a snack, or sleep, and you don’t have to park it when you arrive.  What’s not to like? Keeping a car between two white lines is a very low-grade use of a human, even with a radio or a passenger for conversation. My instinct is to be a fan of California HSR. Unfortunately, it’s not a slam dunk for us.

Continue reading “High Speed Rail”

Traffic circles, roundabouts, rotaries

Last fall the Economist had a short feature on traffic circles that I only noticed today. I was about to riff on how wonderful they are, and how underused in most of the US, but I’m already walking back the post I had in mind.  For drivers, and people who breathe air, they are pretty much all win:

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent research group, estimates that converting intersections with traffic lights to roundabouts reduces all crashes by 37% and crashes that involve an injury by 75%. At traffic lights the most common accidents are faster, right-angled collisions. These crashes are eliminated with roundabouts because vehicles travel more slowly and in the same direction. The most common accident is a sideswipe, generally no more than a cosmetic annoyance.

What locals like, though, is that it is on average far quicker to traverse a series of roundabouts than a similar number of stop lights. Indeed, one national study of ten intersections that could have been turned into roundabouts found that vehicle delays would have been reduced by 62-74% (nationally saving 325,000 hours of motorists’ time annually). Moreover, because fewer vehicles had to wait for traffic lights, 235,000 gallons of fuel could have been saved [MO: with attendant criteria pollution and noise reduction].

They have three defects, though, one tractable and two not so much.  The easy one is that they reverse the convention of priorité à droite, the obligation of the car at the left of a merge to yield the right of way to the car on the right (this post assumes right-hand driving). This convention is not a problem when a minor street enters an arterial or avenue at right angles from the right (especially if it has a stop sign or a light), but the whole idea of a circle is that the circle itself and its tributaries have equivalent status and acute-angle convergence.  In the new traffic circle, very rare in California, just set up in Berkeley,  a few months of use and some yield signs seem to have done the job and we are zipping around and through it, correctly yielding to the traffic already in the circle.

Good as they are for vehicle traffic, however, they are really bad for pedestrians.  Notice the Economist’s careless implicit definition of “locals” as “people who drive in the neighborhood”.  Walking around a traffic circle of any size is either a long detour, crossing tributaries whose whole spirit is that their flow never stops,  or navigating a one-way whirl, twice, that never has a red light and may be two or more lanes wide.  When tributaries are light-controlled, things are almost worse: how do you get across DuPont Circle on your feet?…and that one even has a tunnel under it to divert some of the vehicle traffic.  The aerial view in the Economist article rewards close attention: the sidewalks in this suburban wonder peter out in confusion and gravel and actually disappear as they get near it. Obvously the traffic engineer had no idea what to do next, and with good reason.

Circles larger than the little three-meter traffic calmers that substitute for (or, wrongly, complicate) four-way stops at minor intersections take up a lot of space, aggravating the effect of roads in driving origins and destinations further and further apart and causing sprawl.  This space can be landscaped, but not used: the larger the circle the more unrelenting and unforgiving the traffic going around it that separates it from pedestrian life.

Too bad: another really seductive idea with fatal loose ends and crippling baggage.

The rent is too damn high—unlike the price of Matt Yglesias’s new book

A nice little book leads us to ponder some large questions about improving American cities.

Like much of life, the academic job market is a Keynesian beauty contest—one in which the judges try to guess the contestant that other judges will find most attractive. When we academics receive a promotion, we often receive headhunter calls from rival universities. I received several such calls when I received my current professorship. One was from a school in DC. Another was a school in New York. The third was located in San Francisco. In all three cases, I took a quick glance at the various local real estate sections, pondered my current $1,000 monthly mortgage payment, and gasped at the high financial hurdles I would need to surmount in making such a move. Continue reading “The rent is too damn high—unlike the price of Matt Yglesias’s new book”

Why the public should fund the arts, after all

(cross-post with nonprofiteer.net)

Had a fascinating conversation recently with Margy Waller, a special advisor to Cincinnati’s ArtsWave, which leads the nation in evidence-based approaches to advocating for arts funding.  Ms. Waller had reached out to correct my misunderstanding (and therefore misreporting) of ArtsWave’s efforts, noting that the argument is not that the public should fund the arts to promote economic recovery but that it should fund the arts to promote neighborhood vibrancy.  This nuance turns out to make all the difference.

Here’s the ArtsWave insight: people are ready enough to agree with the notion that the arts are good for the economy.  But if you probe deeper, and ask what top three things we should do to improve the economy, no one answers “subsidize the arts.”  So apparently the argument that the arts are an economic engine (true or false) is unpersuasive, which is what really matters.

But the ArtsWave research also uncovered the fact that if you ask people what would improve their neighborhood the most, the arts come up time and time again.  Why?  Because artists’ residences are known to herald an improvement in real-estate values; because arts audiences mean feet on the street and therefore greater public safety; because arts venues are known to spawn coffee shops and restaurants and other places of urban liveliness.

Therefore, the argument for public funding needs to be focused not on the art but on the public benefits of art-making.  This simultaneously ends the unwinnable argument about whether x or y is valid art or a useful expenditure of public funds and reminds people of what they believe anyway, that investment in arts-related infrastructure benefits everyone—not in some airy-fairy, soul-stirring, life-improving sense but in the grossest day-to-day experience of quality of life.

Thus an appeal to provide tax breaks to bring artists to a particular area would be framed not as a subsidy to these all-important art-making beings (read: overprivileged white people who ought to get jobs) but as a way to offset (maybe even reverse) the damage to property values wrought by foreclosures.  The subsidy is to the value of private property (something that can be monetized) rather than to the value of art (something that cannot).

As instrumental and cold-blooded as this approach may seem, Ms. Waller makes the powerful point that vibrancy is what people love about the arts—and that weaving the arts into the fabric of other social needs and activities enables people to appreciate the arts “not as consumers but as citizens.”

That last point is particularly powerful.  Asked what citizens should do to respond to 9/11, then-President Bush had nothing more to offer than, “Go shopping.”  Anything that enables us to respond to public concerns in a public spirit; anything that combats the notion that government is the problem and privatization the solution; anything that reminds us that we’re a republic if we can keep it; anything that illustrates we don’t have to buy something to value it—any of these is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

As a wise person once noted, the important thing is not to have BEEN right, but to BE right.  I’ve been wrong in my blanket condemnation of public funding for the arts, because I thought of it exclusively in the frame established by its opponents: as subsidies to artists to create what might or might not actually be valuable.  Once the framing shifts to “vibrancy,”* and to concrete benefits to the broader society, public arts support suddenly makes sense.  No one else may care, but what a relief to me!  I get to stop being the only left-wing theater critic in the country opposed to public funding for the arts.

I continue to think that the NEA itself is a lost cause and that energy spent defending it would be better spent squeezing support for the arts out of HUD, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and local housing authorities.  But that’s a matter of strategy.  As a matter of principle, I’m grateful to have discovered a valid way to defend taxpayer support to something that matters so much to me.


*Yes, “vibrancy” can be a euphemism for “gentrification,” or at least its prodroma.  But if we plan for vibrancy (instead of simply hoping that lightening strikes in this ‘hood or that), we can also plan to prevent displacement.  And without displacement, “gentrification” is just another word for “safe streets, amenities and public services”—for everyone, rich or poor.

Jane Jacobs, Edmund Burke, and the New Urbanism

Jason Epstein’s Introduction to the recently-published 50th Anniversary edition of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities makes this powerful intellectual connection:

Death and Life … [is] about the dynamics of civilization, how vital economies and their societies are formed, elaborated, and sustained, and the forces that thwart and ruin them…Her sympathies are with the slow accretion of custom and skills, of social norms and ingenious solutions to practical problems…

To use a much abused term, Jane was a conservative, indeed a radical conservative, mistrustful of abstraction, suspicious of large ideas and concentrations of political and economic power: a genius of common sense, as far from an ideologue as it is possible to be. Toward the end of her life Jane was fascinated by urban traffic tangles as evidence of bureaucratic idiocy resulting in perverse, even deadly, outcomes: the man-made difficulty of getting safely where one wanted to go when one wanted to go there. Jane herself used a bicycle. She thought of these tangles as fractal versions of Soviet five-year plans. But she preferred to expose such faults in her own country than indulge in anti-Soviet bombast. I never asked Jane if she admired Edmund Burke but I believe that Burke, were he alive, would admire her. Predictably Jane’s book was praised by the libertarian right and denounced by the social engineers of the left. Jane took little note of either group.

I’ve never heard Jacobs compared to Burke, but Epstein’s argument makes sense.  And it points to an opportunity for constructive conservative environmental thought — an opportunity that the American Right has decided to abandon in deference to plutocratic thinking.

Edmund Burke: An Old New Urbanist

Jacobs’ work can be seen as the urtext of New Urbanist land use planning.  Her emphasis on the functions of streets, on mixed uses, on building communities for people, on walkability, etc. essentially was taken up by organizations such as the Congress for the New Urbanism.

These themes dovetail with much conservative thinking about land use.  CNU filed an amicus brief on behalf of Susette Kelo.  If you are looking for the most overregulated sector of the American economy, local land use is pretty much the winner hands down.

So you would think that conservatives would embrace new urbanism.  Not so; at least not on the state and federal levels.  Although some libertarians such as Jeff Riggenbach, and people at the Mises Institute and the Reason Foundation honor Jacobs herself, when conservatives and Republicans see attempts at actually implementing the new urbanism, they reject it.  At the federal level, EPA has been a leader in showing how new urbanist planning can reduce environmental impacts, but that has not stopped conservatives from relentlessly attempting to zero out the agency.  And when California enacted SB 375, perhaps the best example of attempting to enable new urbanism, conservatives hysterically attacked it as Soviet-style planning.

It’s not quite clear why the American Right would hate something in keeping with what its theoretical ideals are.  As Jonathan Levine has powerfully demonstrated, new urbanism (and its close colleague, smart growth) are deregulatory strategies.  The cynic in me suspects that while conservatives and Republicans say that they believe in the free market, their prime social policy goal is economic inequality, which they believe to be the natural state of things.  Anything that could lead to more affordable housing or mixed-income neighborhoods is therefore suspect.  Perhaps a weaker form of the theory is just about signalling: if you are convinced that your political adversaries are secular socialists equivalent to Nazis or Stalinists (while somehow simultaneously being Muslim radicals), then anything they want is necessarily bad no matter what they are saying.

In any event, if we are serious about real conservatism, then it is those who support new urbanism and smart growth who qualify.  Shortly before Death and Life was published, Russell Kirk, who had an environmentalist streak, insisted that “Edmund Burke was a liberal because he was a conservative.”  Kirk was more correct than he knew.

Owner-occupied rental housing

In the northeastern cities best known to me (Boston and New York), small multi-family buildings whose owners live in one of the units are a common housing form. The classic types are, respectively the triple-decker and the brownstone row house.  Interestingly, these physical forms became owner-occupied rental housing (OORH)  from opposite directions: the three-deckers were built as rentals for a large influx of immigrants, the brownstones as single-family homes for a growing upper middle class, with servant accommodations.   The three-decker was actually the result of a policy error: after the Boston Fire, the building code was reformed to forbid wooden tenements of four or more units, but it turned out to be cheaper to build three-unit frame buildings than larger brick ones, even with the required driveway separation between them.

Elsewhere in the US, this occupancy is zoned against with the fervor only an ignorant and frightened middle class can gin up against anything of which they have no experience, and that might affect property values — like public transit disgorging hordes of brown criminals into the peacable white heart of Georgetown or Marin County.  This is a pity, because there is a lot to be said for accessory dwelling units in private homes. It certainly worked for me (YMMV); the only good business decision my parents ever made was to buy a brownstone in 1946 and rent the bottom two floors as apartments; we lived in a three-bedroom two-story apartment absurdly above our real financial means, my mother had a sculpture studio in the front of an unusual fifth floor penthouse (probably not strictly legal) and my dad’s workshop was in the back half.  In Brookline, Mass, my wife and I bought a Victorian with a carriage house whose second floor was an apartment. While our kids were growing up, we had an au pair couple in it and my mother lived in the attic apartment of the house after she moved to Boston.  Again, we were living better than our real incomes could normally justify.

A typical pattern is an older family owning the building and living in the largest unit, or two floors of a triple-decker put together,  renting one or two units to students, to an au pair couple, to a young couple just starting out, or to empty-nest grandparents.  The rent helps pay the mortgage  and taxes.  Back in the day of outrageous depreciation rules for real estate, it was possible to live almost free as the landlord in a three-family building, but those days are probably gone; still, insurance, depreciation, roof repairs, water and sewer, and the like can partially offset taxable rental income, so for a modest investment in management and faucet repairs, being the proprietor of one of these is a very good deal in most markets.

More important, the form keeps neighborhood populations mixed in age and status; you don’t get a whole street of suburban single-family houses with an identical family in each one, houses that will all turn over at once when the kids leave and can’t afford to buy a house on the block for a couple of decades.  Grandma doesn’t have to choose between living with the kids and living forty minutes away, and can almost certainly stay independent longer.  There are always kids of different ages out and about.  And these neighborhoods are denser and usually walkable, always a good thing.

OORH landlords do not ignore a leak or a broken window or failing heat in their buildings.  OORH tenants do not trash the place or turn it into a crash pad for dopers.  The owners do not try to gouge every last dollar of rent, because tenants provide useful services (and are anyway very close neighbors), like taking care of the dog during ski weekends and turning off the oven you left on when you went out of town.  What this housing form makes (not without exception, but usually, and much more successfully than automobile suburbs) is stability and a dense network of neighborhood social capital.  Neighborhood social capital is a Good Thing.

Furthermore, it allows efficient, green, use of housing stock (in the case of the converted brownstones and San Francisco Victorians) whose units are too big for modern families with fewer kids and no live-in servants.  Rationalized zoning to encourage this pattern could bring a lot of people back to sustainable living in cities; building more of it from scratch wouldn’t hurt either.

Small town virtues

A listserv that several RBCers belong to has had a discussion  about why the ancient meme that cities are evil, unAmerican congregations of overeducated snobs, while folks in small towns are decent, commonsense types who look out for each other and embody real virtue, persists. To the point that no candidate for office boasts about a city childhood, but people like Rick Perry seem to think they gain stature by going on about their small-town origins.  A parallel discussion has been reflecting on why small business seems to get the same privileged pass, and whether it should. No-one has invoked the name of George Babbitt yet, but he’s in the wings.

Sara Robinson gave me permission to post the following from that list about her home town of Bishop, CA:

In my mind’s eye, I can walk up and down Main Street of my hometown as it was 30 years ago and easily name 50 thriving small businesses, each of which was supporting at least one middle-class family, often two or three  (and I can usually name the families, too, because one of them was mine). On the profits they made from these businesses, these families were able to own nice middle-class houses, send their kids to college, take vacations, buy new cars, and generally live the American Dream as we understood it then.

Several things happened to put an end to that. First, K-mart moved into town, and in short order shut down several of the sporting goods stores, at least one book store, one family-owned pharmacy, two hardware stores (one of which had been in business since 1888), the local dairy, and a couple of dozen other core businesses. The result was a significant loss of middle-class, independent jobs, which were only partly replaced by the deeply inferior $6.50/hour jobs offered at the new store. Continue reading “Small town virtues”