Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Singapore: The Lion City

Here’s a gorgeous time lapse of Singapore by Keith Loutit. It’s called “The Lion City.” You’ll definitely want this one in full screen high definition. I love the way the tilt shift effects and photography mimic the 8-bit feel of the music in parts of this. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

h/t Paul Roales

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Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Reason #763 Why Houston Is Prosperous by Keep Houston Houston

Matty G has a short post up on the economy of Breezy Point, Queens and my first reaction is “right, this is reason #763 why Houston is so prosperous.”

Mostly it has to do with annexation. At one extreme end you have a city like Philadelphia. Philly isn’t all that bad of a place, but when you look at the massive growth of NYC and DC, you have to consider the city’s development trajectory to be a failure. Philly lost population during the nineties and was flat during the aughts, and the city largely coasts on the infrastructure of previous generations. Roadway expansion (e.g. double-decking the Schuylkill) and transit expansion (e.g. Roosevelt Subway, Swampoodle Connection) have both gone nowhere. Taxes are high, services are low, and what little growth has occurred mostly takes the form of cancerous exurban development which has consumed productive farmland without much housing to show in return. Detroit follows the same pattern.

But if you look at the city boundaries this all makes sense. The place is hemmed in on all sides by small boroughs and townships. In some directions you can go from Center City to out-of-the-city in less than four miles.

The fun continues outside the city boundaries. There are no big suburbs outside Philly; instead, counties are a bouillabaisse of boroughs and townships of a couple thousand acres each. This is about the size of your basic Sunbelt master-planned community, so it isn’t particularly surprising that the local governments function more like homeowners associations. Exclusionary zoning is the norm, and most residential subdivisions are required to include large swaths of “open space” which is mostly about maintaining the visual deceit that you live in the “country” and not a suburb.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the annexation distribution you have a city like Dallas. Dallas goes out about eight to ten miles, plus Far North D, which is like an extended middle finger of garden apartments sticking into the adjacent cities. An east-west trip across Dallas is about 20 miles. But while Dallas is in the middle of the “city annexation” distribution, DFW as a whole is hardly in the 50th percentile in terms of prosperity and quality of life.

There is a reason for this: Where Dallas ends, the mega suburbs begin. Arlington and Plano are respectable cities in their own right, holding about 360,000 and 270,000 people, respectively. Carrollton, Frisco, Irving, and Grand Prairie each clock in well above 100,000. Large suburbs are not always favorable to “urban” things like mid-rise and high-rise structures, or LRT and other rail transit. Frisco in particular opted out of the DART taxing area, using sales tax money to subsidize commercial development instead. But large suburban jurisdictions generally tend to have coherent transportation planning, well-developed park systems, and a variety of housing types, including multifamily and small-lot single-family.

Big suburbs also make more effective use of land. The easiest way to measure this is population density. Bellevue, Washington clocks in at 4000 people per square mile. Plano “sprawls” at 3800, Arlington at 3900. Irvine, California holds 3200 a mile, and has what is perhaps the most coherent bike network in SoCal, combining near-100% arterial bike lanes with continuous off-street paths.

Meanwhile, back outside Philly, Exton – a major Amtrak and SEPTA stop – contains fewer than 1400 people per square mile, while neighboring East Whiteland township contains fewer than 1000. Density scarcely improves as you get closer in. The major corporate centers and edge cities of King of Prussia and Plymouth Meeting straddle multiple townships which each contain fewer than 2000 people per square mile. By contrast, even Frisco – which is exploding in population and has annexed a lot of vacant land in anticipation of future development – is already at 1900 people per square mile.

Which brings us to Houston, the opposite extreme. Houston’s expansion knows no geographic or political boundaries. When other cities incorporate, it just goes around. Suburbs like West U, Bellaire, and the Villages become enclaves. Strategic annexations of roadways and other tracts of land extend Houston’s reach even further. A cross-section of strategic Houston annexations from Prairie View to Lynchburg measures 65 miles across. A trip from Willowbrook to El Dorado is forty.

When your city is this large, it leads to some interesting paradoxes. Houston’s nominal population density of 3600 people per sq. mile is surpassed by many of the enclaves. West U, in particular, is north of 7000. But Houston is scattered with pockets of density above 10,000/sq. mi, and portions of Gulfton and Gulfgate check in north of 20k. Houston’s 3600 is also almost exactly 30% higher than Phoenix, which pursues the exact same transportation and annexation policies but with Euclidean zoning.

Really rough back-of-the-metaphorical-envelope calculations tell me that if you drew a line at Beltway 8, you’d come out with a population density in the 6000s. (Note: see followup post.) Which is really incredible. That’s higher than Portland or San Jose, and almost to Minneapolis and Seattle, both of which have more constrained geographic boundaries. And this density is achieved in a relatively young, Sunbelt city, that grew up almost entirely around cars.

Not bad.

The reader may note that the title of this blog post said “prosperous,” while an earlier paragraph on Dallas mentioned “quality of life.” This because the two are indirectly related. Prosperity is inextricably linked to population; you need people to have an economy, you need people with skills to have clusters, the more people you have the more skills there’ll be and the more clusters you’ll get. Likewise, life is typically more enjoyable if there’s more stuff. What the stuff is doesn’t matter – it might be restaurants, museums, churches, or death metal. People do stuff and the more people you put in reach of yourself the more stuff there is and the more likely it is you’ll find stuff you like.

Now there’s two ways to gain access to people and stuff. The first is you can put people closer together. The second is you can build faster transportation so it’s easier to get to them. The Chicago “L” is a slow loris, but at 11000 people per square mile citywide, it’ll still take you to a lot of places. The intersection of North and Halsted affords a view of a set of three successive 10mph corners on the Ravenswood and Evanston Ls. But as you can see there’s also a whole of stuff built there. On the other side, Phoenix is not particularly dense, but you can always hop on this thing and go wherever. Of course the best option is to combine density with high-speed transportation infrastructure which gets you the spur through Midtown or perhaps Roppongi.

Both of these things, land use and transportation, are more easily accomplished in a larger governmental jurisdiction. The primary opposition to land use is NIMBY – “I don’t want to look up at the Ashby high-rise while I’m mowing my lawn.” The primary opposition to transportation infrastructure is, again, NIMBY – “I don’t want to live next to this freeway.” The latter is somewhat more understandable, since freeways generate noise and pollution externalities that residential towers don’t. But in both cases you’re pitting NIMBY concerns against regional concerns. The larger a city you have, the more diluted the NIMBY voices are within the overall governmental framework.

About the only way to screw this up is to devolve decision-making authority to sub-units. DC and NYC do this with zoning decisions, which is sort of exactly why DC and NYC have ludicrous zoning policy. By contrast, Houston’s super neighborhoods are strictly advisory bodies. If you had any doubts you can check out the official site which uses the words “stakeholder,” “plan,” and “priority” twice each in the span of three paragraphs. Anytime you see those words, you know that no actual, real decisions are being made. And that’s the right way to do it.

This post originally appeared in Keep Houston Houston on November 1, 2012.

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

Replay: The Privatization-Industrial Complex

“I think this is just the latest way for people to make money off state and local governments. This is the new way the investment banks, their lawyers, and consultants squeeze the taxpayers….They’re going around making these deals, and it’s very lucrative. It’s like a circus coming to town.” – Clint Krislov

Privatization has long been advocated by many conservatives as a good government measure. Traditionally, privatization was used a tool that subjects government monopolies to competition from the marketplace, driving down costs and improving quality of service. Privatization pioneer Steve Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis and now deputy mayor of New York City, used to apply what he called the “Yellow Pages test.” If he could open the Yellow Pages and find several companies providing a service, he wondered why government should be in that business.

As Mayor, Goldsmith privatized dozens of city services in Indianapolis, saving the city an estimated $120 million the process. This ranged from contracting out services, to forming a public/private partnership to implement a $500 million infrastructure improvement plan to hiring private managers to run – but not own or lease – the airport and water utility.

Today, sadly, privatization is less about Goldsmith style operational effectiveness and more about providing jackpots for financiers who stand at the core of a growing privatization-industrial complex. Cities and states salivate over ways to sell or lease off underperforming public asset for large payouts. With local governments cash-strapped and the public unwilling to pay more in taxes, it is politically difficult to even bring user fees to a market rate. Combined with the potential billions in payoffs – Indiana received $3.9 billion for its toll road and Chicago $1.1 billion for its parking meter system – the appeal is obvious.

But these transactions differ markedly from the Goldsmith-style privatization. They are driven not by efficiencies but by an investment banker mindset focus on money and narrow parameters of the asset operations. They also provide enormous temptation to elected officials to grab the money now even at the expense of future generations. They are also rife with potential conflicts of interest and incentive problems.

One major source of conflict comes with the professional advisors that drive the deals. Since long term leases involve so much money and are so complex, they require millions of dollars of services from investment banks, lawyers, financial advisors, etc. Unlike for typical government transactions such as issuing bonds or contracting out services like printing, building maintenance, or call centers, for which cities have some experience, the vast majority of cities have little in house expertise for complex financial transactions.

Thus local officials are at the mercy of these out of town experts to give them the best advice they need to defend the public’s interest. But what advice can we expect from these firms, who have a stake on highly leveraged deals? The people in the firm may be technically competent and possess the highest levels of personal integrity, but still are prisoners of a structural conflict of interest in promoting privatization transactions.

Consider Morgan Stanley. An arm of Morgan Stanley was the winning bidder on the Chicago parking meter lease. That deal is widely seen as a disaster, giving the idea privatizing meters a black eye, and engendering such headlines as “Morgan Stanley’s $11 billion makes Chicago taxpayers cry (Bloomberg) and “Company [Morgan Stanley] Piles Up Profits from City’s Parking Meter Deal” (NY Times).

Now Morgan Stanley is back, this time advising Pittsburgh and Indianapolis on potential parking meter privatizations. Morgan Stanley has a huge structural incentive to want those deals to go through. It would restart the market for parking meter privatization, and position the firm as the preferred advisor to cities. Even where they were not the city’s advisor, a restarted parking meter market means they could potentially bid on many more assets.

If you make money on privatization transactions, then no deals means no money. So obviously these firms have every reason in the world to promote privatization and see deals go through regardless of whether any particular deal is good or not. This doesn’t mean they are crooks, it’s just the reality. These firms now form of the core of the “privatization-industrial complex” with an incentive to cheerlead for leading public assets because that’s how they make their money. They need deal flow, the more transactions the better.

This was picked up on by Harrisburg, PA. Facing bankruptcy, the state offered an $850K grant to hire Scott Balice Strategies of Chicago, one of the nation’s top privatization financial advisors. The city council turned it down. As one city councilor noted, “Their recommendation is always the same: ‘sell assets’”.

Many of these investment banks, operators, financial advisers, and law firms also have tight links with each other, and participate on deals together, often as partners, other times as opponents. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted how many of these firms have ties to Chicago’s earlier round of privatization. “When Pittsburgh proposed leasing its public parking facilities, the city became a magnet for a passel of firms – many of them connected to Chicago by blood, politics or business – that pursues similar deals around the country. The firms may be partners in one city, rivals or referees in the next.” The winning bidder on the Pittsburgh parking transaction is actually Morgan Stanley’s partner in the Chicago deal, for example.

These potential conflicts make it very difficult for cities to know they are making a good deal, especially since they lack the experience necessary to independently judge it. Right now, they often are at the mercy of their advisors. And ask yourself this: when was the last time a city or state looked seriously at one of these deals and their advisors told them not to do it?

This is frequently combined with traditional clout driven contracting. Many of the Chicago parking meter firms had tight links to the Daley administration. Daley himself became a partner in the law firm that was the city’s legal advisor on the meter deal after leaving office. Similarly, in Indianapolis a city-paid chief advisor to the office of the mayor is conveniently also a registered lobbyist for the winning bidder. This combination is a recipe for disaster, resulting in very long term deals that could be very bad for the public.

Long term lease deals can still make sense – if they are done right. The Chicago Skyway and Indiana Toll Road deals were both home runs, for example. But given the enormous risks if something goes wrong, governments must put into a place a robust process for protecting the public, with a full airing and mitigation plan for the bad incentives that populate so many areas of this field.

This post originally appeared in New Geography on October 29, 2010.

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Why All Your Impressions of Detroit Are Wrong

Pretty much everyone is being forced to come to grips with the reality of the 21st century urban world. I’ve noted before that religious movements are no exception. As part of this trend, Christianity Today magazine has been doing a project called “This Is Our City” focused on urban issues. They’ve been profiling several cities during the course of the project, and this month’s city is Detroit.

I’m delighted to have an article about Detroit included as part of this. It’s called “Why All Your Impressions of Detroit Are Wrong.” In it I note how Detroit as a city is often little more than a movie screen onto which others project their ideas. Thus many of the reports you see about Detroit bear little resemblance to reality. Here’s an excerpt:

We are all prone to snap judgments and stereotyping at some level. That’s not always a bad thing. If we examined in depth everything we came across, we’d never accomplish anything at all. For example, to label Detroit as “Rust Belt”—a label for cities with older industrial buildings, many of them closed, and a troubled legacy resulting from that deindustrialization—does capture a portion of the truth.

But there’s a bigger danger when storytellers—journalists, artists, filmmakers, and pundits—go beyond just shorthand labels and instead use a city merely as a canvas on which to paint their own ideas. Alas, this has all too often been Detroit’s fate. In some ways the city has become America’s movie screen, onto which outsiders project their own pre-conceived identities and fears. The real city, beyond a few iconic images and so-called “ruin porn” shots, need feature little if at all in these. And it is amazing how many of these are nearly devoid of actual people.
Many of these are clear variations on the “canary in a coal mine” theme: If we as a broader society don’t change our ways, we will end up like Detroit. This is in marked contrast to say a “Rust Belt” label or the various movie stereotypes of New York, which are at least rooted in some local reality. What makes Detroit’s projected identities different is that they largely are rooted in a reality external to Detroit itself. Whatever your pet idea or phobia, Detroit seems to be the perfect lens through which to explore it, and the screen upon which you can project it.

You might also be interested in perusing the other Detroit articles on the site, especially “Faith in a Fallen Empire,” and also “Why Church Partnerships Really Matter,” which discusses the Everyone A Chance to Hear (EACH) initiative that brought together a large number of regional churches in one of the few movements that is really working to bridge the city-suburb and racial divides that plague the city.

Here also is an interesting video about Riet Schumack and the youth gardening program she’s part of there. It’s an interesting window into an aspect of the urban agriculture movement that might be bigger in Detroit than anywhere else. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).


Religion and the City
Desolation Angel
Will Sagrada Família Be Mankind’s Last Ever Great Artistic Statement for God?
Faith and City Planning

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Time Lapse Philadelphia

Here’s a pretty new time lapse of Philadelphia from Angelo Leotta. Great to see this city get a quality time lapse. I particularly like the way workaday scenes like dirt being loaded into a dump truck or a juggler were included to complement the typical architecture/streetscene/waterway shots. The music is nice too. As always, viewed best in full screen high definition. If the video doesn’t display, click here.

h/t @justupthepike

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Infographic: Chicago’s Racial Demographics

The Huffington Post pointed me at this graphic below, which shows how the racial makeup of Chicago’s community areas changed between 1910 and 2000. It was apparently created by something called the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Chicago Area Geographic Information Study. The graphic speaks for itself.

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Could Buenos Aires Be a Model for Thinking About US Cities? by Lee Epstein

[ I used to have a team in Buenos Aires when I was doing consulting work and got to visit the city. It is absolutely fantastic, if sadly too much of it is run down. Its energy is palpable. The people and culture are fantastic. It was one of the rare non-US cities I’ve visited that made me say to myself, “Oh, yeah. I could live here.” Unfortunately, Argentina has been run into the ground for decades by a series of dysfunctional governments. The current one certainly fits the mold and I expect its denouement will be disappointingly standard. Regardless, it’s an amazing city and country. I’m pleased to be able to present this Buenos Aires essay by Lee Epstein. – Aaron. ]

Buenos Aires residents enjoy the tango (:Jonathan Lewis, creative commons)

Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, has a metro area population of 12 million people, making it the second largest metropolis in South America.  The city is situated at the lazy, braided mouth of an estuary (the Rio de la Plata) formed by the confluence of the mighty Paraná and Uruguay Rivers.  (At more than 3,000 miles/4,880 km long, the Paraná is the second longest river on the continent after the Amazon, with a watershed of more than a million square miles.)  With a temperate but humid climate, the Argentine capital (“BA”) never gets too cold in the winter but can be really hot and sticky in the summer.  From December through February, it can be uncomfortably hot, but my family and I were there in mid-spring (early November), enjoying near-perfect weather.

Buenos Aires (public domain, posted on Wikimedia Commons by Facumissing)

Considering cities through the lenses of urban function and sustainability is in my blood, so while in BA – and especially since returning – I’ve been thinking about what makes the city work.  Are there things about Buenos Aires that can inform us, one way or another, as we consider urban environments in the US?

Buenos Aires’s Urban Assets

There is certainly a lot to like.  The city has dozens of unique neighborhoods (barrios), from the upscale Recoleta and Palermo Soho, to the funky, edgy San Telmo and La Boca.  (There are, of course, some pretty rough and unremarkable neighborhoods as well.)  There is not much colonial era architecture left, but BA’s 19th century, European-styled, three- to ten-story buildings are beautiful, featuring large windows and balconies with iron grill-work, sometimes overlooking tree-lined streets; many of these (thankfully) seem to be undergoing renovation.  Major cultural institutions, such as the Teatro Colon, one of the world’s premier opera houses, are sumptuous.

classic BA buildings with iron grill work (c2013 by Lee Epstein)

The city has an incredibly wide central boulevard (Avenida 9 de Julio), intersecting with another monumental street (Avenida de Mayo) that connects the president’s home and offices (Casa Rosada) with the home of the National Congress (Palacio Congreso).  These central features, with their parks and squares and fountains – and an obelisk – memorialize a rich if somewhat unsettling past. 

Casa Rosada (c2013 Lee Epstein)

Casa Rosada (via Google Earth)

Some Porteños (as BA residents call themselves, since they reside in a major port city) gather at these places regularly to protest and argue about politics — which is one of several major passions; we happened to witness the remnants of a demonstration of veterans who served during the Malvinas/Falklands war, seeking benefits.  Another major passion is very good coffee, celebrated in a relaxed way in (literally) thousands of neighborhood coffee houses; some are dark, wood-paneled beauties, like the Café Tortoni, classic and culturally venerable.  A third passion is tango, as practiced and performed in a range of venues from neighborhood tango clubs (milangos) to national competitions.   And the fourth great passion is, of course, futbol – soccer to us.  (Lionel Messi, the current and four-time winner of the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player, is from Argentina and plays on the national team when he isn’t with his pro team, European champion FC Barcelona.)  I’d definitely be hesitant to put these passions in any order.

  Cafe Tortoni (c2013 by Lee Epstein)     Teatro Colon (c2013 Lee Epstein)

  street life (by: Christian Hoaglund, creative commons)

Porteños walk a lot, very fast and often on crowded sidewalks, and the transit system (colectivos or buses, and the Subte or subway) can get you anywhere, cheaply (though you’ll wait in long lines and often stand in those crowded buses during morning and evening rush hours).  There also seem to be about 6 million taxis in the city – and they don’t so much drive as perform a sometimes dizzying arabesque, based on a liberal use of the horn and 1 ½ – 2 ½  cars per “lane.”

Finally, and literally, the city never sleeps.  A few shops and restaurants close for a long lunch when some residents rest at home, but most in this busy capital city don’t.  Dinner is a leisurely affair, usually beginning between nine and ten in the evening.  Many restaurants, bars and clubs are open until six in the morning, and it’s not unusual to find throngs of young people returning home from a long evening out as the sun rises on a fresh Saturday morning above the Rio de la Plata.

the club scene (by: YoTuT, creative commons)

Buenos Aires subway (by: Erik Anderson, creative commons)

The Presence of a Great City

There is something intangible about the “presence” of a great city.  It throbs with life, its people are busy and moving, but the culture also supports moments — sometimes long moments — at a much-reduced pace, as well as places in which to savor that experience:  for example, the corner coffee houses, or the hundred parks and plazas, riverfront greens, open markets, and pedestrian-oriented, tree-lined  places to stroll that are found in BA.  Great cities may undoubtedly be big, sometimes noisy, busy, and very urban places; but thoroughly integrated within them are various-sized green spaces for rest and shade and play; in the case of BA, many of them enjoy access to he river. 

What about the neighborhood scale?  Again, BA’s many walkable districts have the right characteristics.  Indeed, they are often complete in and of themselves, with medical clinics and lawyers, restaurants and small food markets, pharmacies and the kinds of small businesses helpful to daily living.  This is enabled in Buenos Aires because land uses are often mixed, or at least nearby as largely commercial streets are just a block or two from largely residential ones.  Schools and day care centers are found in the neighborhoods, too, and usually a nice park or square.  The commercial and residential diversity yields some resilience to changing economic conditions. 

market in San Telmo, Buenos Aires (c2013 by ee Epstein)I have no illusions, though.  There is some stark economic segregation by neighborhood, such as exists in every major city in the world.  Some neighborhoods mix incomes better than others, but the physical fabric of poorer areas (infrastructure, housing quality, commerce and services) still suffers greatly from decades of neglect.  While BA has many of the features of a modern European city, Argentina is still in the midst of overcoming a colonial, kleptocratic past and these areas require urgent attention.  

(Even with the income disparity, there is a degree of mixing:  because the city’s public life is rich, old and young, rich and poor cross paths daily.  Portenos of all social classes share traditions such as family walks in the park, watching soccer leagues on weekends, enjoying coffee at a corner café, or watching or participating in tango.) 

Importantly, BA’s architectural scale is conducive to walkability.  While there are tall buildings along main commercial streets, as well as scattered high-rises (many of the most modern are in a reinvigorated commercial neighborhood along the docks, called Puerto Modero), for the most part this city is highly dense but moderately scaled, the residential and commercial buildings retaining an intimate, proportional relationship with their streets.  A critic might call these rows of 6-10 story buildings squat and blocky (a complaint raised by some about Washington, DC, which I don’t share), but they are often quite elegant, and there is an undeniable pedestrian comfort in their dimensions.  In many of the neighborhoods, walkable density is achieved with buildings of only three and four stories, fronting on narrow streets — reminiscent of the best tight neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New York.

Avenida de 9 Julio (by: Cezary Piwowarski, creative commons)

As noted above, public transport is easy, plentiful, relatively cheap, and ubiquitous.  Walking and biking are also common modes of choice (BA has a growing bike lane system).   Of course, there are still tens of thousands of cars and there is crazy traffic – this is a major city still transitioning.  Like others of its ilk it sometimes eschews the careful orderliness of traffic on most US streets.  But there are good alternatives to driving everywhere, and they are heavily used by everyone, in part because fuel is so expensive but also because these alternative modes are safe, readily available, and get you where you need to go.

Residents of BA also harbor an awareness of the cultural importance of the vast Argentine countryside (although see below).  In at least one way, private enterprise is helping to conserve the extensive pampas (extremely productive farm, ranch and rangeland) with an extensive system of agro-tourism called estancias (basically “dude ranches” that range widely as to size, type, cost and services) that are hosts to both Argentines and foreigners seeking a country respite.  These add substantial income and incentives for continued agricultural and ranch use.

botanical garden in BA (by: Laura Enking, creative commons)

Causes for Concern

The province (versus the city) of BA is absolutely huge, covering almost 119,000 sq mi (more than 307,000 sq km) – bigger than Italy (though not as big as California).  Much of this land area comprises the pampas and the country’s popular Atlantic beaches; both are crucial components of the Argentine economy and, to Argentines, major parts of their self-identity.  But, while there is thus some incentive to protect and preserve these areas, there are also forces at work that are sadly consuming them with suburban and exurban sprawl at the metropolitan area’s (and numerous municipalities’) extensive edges.   

Until recently, the periphery of the city of Buenos Aires was lined with low-income settlements (and highly polluted rivers) that were only slowly growing in land area.  These included small and informal loteos populares without services. 

In more recent years, however, American-style suburbanization has proliferated.  Gated communities and privately planned “cities” now appear on the mostly flat, extraordinarily fertile landscape outside of the city.  This haphazard suburbanization continues to eat away at BA’s vast pastoral surroundings of working farm and ranchland – pushing it farther and farther away, threatening eventually to sap energy and investment from the province’s towns and BA’s city center. 

downtown Buenos Aires (via Google Earth)

These newer, sprawling suburbs are highly (indeed, solely) managed by the private sector, for the exclusive benefit of high and middle-income populations.  This is enabled by highly fragmented and uncoordinated legal authority (as between municipalities and the province), and an immature to non-existent process for land use planning and management.  While there are signs of awareness of these problems (at mid-decade the national government proposed the creation and implementation of land use plans in all Argentine provinces), progress is very slow, at best.  Changes in land management law and practice are very much needed.

Beyond land use, national politics are not helping to solidify a sustainable future for metro BA and its residents.  In particular, I believe the aspirations of lower-income Argentines may be threatened by the form of populism espoused by the current president, which is so insular and protective as to restrict or repel foreign investment.  As a result, many consumer goods from other countries may become so expensive as to keep them out of the hands of everyone but the very wealthy.  I suppose the “good” news on this front is that elections are but a few short years away.    

Lessons North and South

From my perspective as a committed urbanist, Buenos Aires was fascinating.  I believe that many of its good features are, in fact, transferable to North American cities as many in the US and Canada seek to re-urbanize:  the parks and plazas, the lively public life, the many “third places,” the rich menu of transportation choices, the relatively complete neighborhoods, the pleasant scale and walkable streets.  The resulting urban form or practice that we create in our own country of course won’t be precisely the same as in BA, but there is still much to learn from another culture as our own cities grow and change.

Buenos Aires in November (by: Beatice Murch, creative commons)

At the same time, BA clearly needs stronger land use authority.  This is an area in which US municipalities and states are superior, if only in theory:  our problem, of course, is that few US jurisdictions actually use the authority that they have, or use it in perverse ways that thwart sustainability.  As a result, our reality on the ground is that we have become all too good at making the worst of problems that are now beginning to show ill effects in BA, including lack of coordination among adjoining jurisdictions, the politics of development money, poor or absent planning and land use management, and resulting sprawl.  Just as we in the US might do well to look south for some things to emulate, residents and leaders of Buenos Aires might do well to look north to see what they should try harder to avoid.

Lee Epstein is an attorney and land use planner working for sustainability in the mid-Atlantic region of the US.

This post originally appeared in Kaid Benfield’s Blog at the Natural Resources Defense Council on January 10, 2013.

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Replay: What Makes a City Desirable?

One of my favorite weekly sites to visit is Peter De Lorenzo’s Autoextremist, self-described as the “bare-knuckled, unvarnished, high octane truth”. Interestingly, I had that motto in mind when starting this blog, though I hope I’m a bit less bare knuckled than Mr. Autoextremist.

A recent rant of the week was about what it takes to make people love cars. I thought virtually all of this was true of cities as well. He notes first that what people tell you in focus groups or surveys isn’t at all what they really base buying decisions on.

Get a group of people in a room and ask what’s important to them when they consider the purchase of a new car or truck, and the answers are as predictable as the sun coming up in the East. The words that will be regurgitated back to the moderator are inevitably ‘safety,’ ‘fuel economy,’ ‘reliability’ and of course, ‘quality.’

And manufacturers that actually take those responses as gospel do so at their peril, because everyone will recite those words when asked, but no one will actually go to a showroom or an auto show and abide by their own list of ‘must haves’ when picking out a new car or truck.

Why? It’s simple, really. Words alone don’t motivate people to buy cars or trucks. There has to be an emotional connection on some level, no matter if you’re spending used car money or picking up a new Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe.

Exactly. If you want to inspire people to want to live in your town, whether that be to stay there or to move there, you need to be selling a product that creates that emotional connection. There’s no magic formula for this. You see both big cities and small towns that do it, and those that don’t.

How do you create that emotional connection? Branding and marketing is part of it, but that’s only the icing on the cake. Continues De Lorenzo:

Great advertising can create an aura for a car or truck, there’s no doubt (e.g., Hal Riney’s original Saturn campaign), but that won’t matter if the vehicle in question has the emotional appeal of a rake.

Like they say, “lipstick on a pig” isn’t going to cut it. So what does? For automobiles, it is great design.

This is where great design comes in. Some people in this business still need to be reminded of the real impact of great design, which is shocking to me. You only have to look as far as the new Malibu to be reminded of the power of great design. Do you remember the previous model? Didn’t think so. It was swiftly relegated to Rental Car Land because it had all the presence of a fax machine.

GM did a superb job on the 2008 Malibu in every respect, and they even spent proper, big-time money on a comprehensive launch – for the first time in its history – in order to get the car into the public’s consciousness. But if the new Malibu didn’t have great design language inside and out, it wouldn’t be having near the impact on the market – or on the company’s bottom line – that it is today (transaction prices are up anywhere from $4,000 – $5,000 over the previous Malibu).

I’ve been an advocate for great urban design for quite sometime. I think it can be a key ingredient in the overall package. But for a city, that’s not enough. I’ve said before, you’ve got to identify a target market, and a vision that appeals to that target market. This comes from a rich understanding of what you authentically are as a city and what you want to be. Vegas figured it out. Austin figured it out. Portland figured it out. As I recently noted, even Houston figured it out. There’s nothing stopping other cities from doing the same. It takes finding that vision, then a relentless focus on execution over the long term.

This post originally ran on April 2, 2008.

Friday, February 15th, 2013

Interesting Reading

I’m not sure how many of you read Richard Longworth’s Global Midwest blog, but if you don’t, you should. There’s great stuff in it regardless of what part of the country you are in.

There have been some particularly interesting posts the last couple weeks. I would love to repost these, but I only have so much time and space here. So in the meantime, here are some quick links to some very good reads.

1. Notes on the Middle Class. A thoroughly depressing roundup of theories on middle class decline in America – without much in the way of tangible solutions.

2. A Sea Change in Midwestern Immigration. This one talks about anecdotal observations of demographic changes resulting from enhanced ICE enforcement in meatpacking towns and such. Apparently employers are now switching from Hispanics (many of whom are here illegally) to various ethnic refugee groups from places like Congo and Togo. These refugees have legal status and are able to work in the US. This is flowing through to the entire makeup of towns and their institutions such as schools.

3. Failing Economies Shorten Lives. Are some failing industrial areas starting to take on Eastern European lifespans as their economies collapse permanently?

4. Detroit Future City. Longworth’s take on the Detroit Future City report.

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Paris and the Shifting Geography of Creativity

You may recall me previously posting a couple documentaries from Resident Advisor about the electronic music scenes in Detroit and Berlin. I thought these, especially the Berlin one, brought interesting insights about the way the creative scene (and economy) got developed in those places.

There are a couple more of these out now, and one of them, the video on Paris, is another gem. I’m embedding below. As you watch, notice a couple things related to the new geography of creativity. First, the scene in Paris has basically been dead. One would think that Paris would be a music hotbed perhaps, but it would appear to be a fairly boring city. In this way perhaps we see that the large traditionally elite culture centers have become victims of their own success. Secondly, the real action in Paris is now in the suburbs (other than a few Sunday afternoon outdoor events). The city of Paris is now simply too expensive for creativity to flourish. Thus the creative class of the city has been forced into the unfashionable suburbs to do their thing. Again, this is somewhat against the grain of the notion that you need to be in the center of the action or you can’t possibly succeed because of agglomeration effects, etc. The dynamics here are worth pondering, especially in conjunction with what we learn from Berlin.

Here’s the video. If it doesn’t display for you, click here.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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