Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Don’t Design Streets For Death by Chuck Banas

[ Chuck Banas doesn’t write that many blog posts, but when he does, they are money. Here’s one he filed from Madison, Wisconsin during a CNU conference in 2011 – Aaron. ]

Let’s start with a specific issue: street design. The Congress doesn’t officially start until tomorrow, so I’ve used today to get to know a bit of downtown Madison and critique the design of the streets and public spaces. This didn’t stop me from trolling the online pages of The Buffalo News; during a break this afternoon I spied an article today about sidewalks and pedestrian safety. Author Bruce Andriatch merely scratches the surface of this important issue, falling short of addressing it properly.

But who’s to blame him? A design subtlety that is lost on most non-planners, including Buffalo News columnists, is that sidewalks are a necessary element for safe street design, but insufficient in themselves. If pedestrians are being endangered, the design speed of the road is usually the culprit. Many if not most roads in this country are intentionally designed for much higher speeds than the posted limit. A 30 mph speed-limit sign on a road designed for 50 or 60 mph is a futile—and sometimes fatal—exercise in wishful thinking.

Pedestrian Injury Frequency and Severity Based on Vehicle Speed (Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, image from the Bicycle Alliance of Washington)

Here are the sobering facts: at 30 mph, vehicle-pedestrian accidents are fatal in about 5% of cases; at 40 mph, fatalities are 90%. This is not to mention injuries, which can be devastating in their own right: incapacitating injuries are significantly less likely and less severe at slower speeds.

Therefore, the actual, effective solution involves “traffic-calming” the roadway so that drivers naturally move at slower, safer speeds. There are many methods to accomplish this, used in various combinations according to the specific situation. These include: fewer and/or narrower lanes, planting orderly rows of roadside trees, allowing curbside parking, using brick or other types of pavers for the road surface, curb bulb-outs, employing roundabouts instead of signalized intersections, smaller corner radii, etc.

State Street in Madison, WI employs virtually all of the basic traffic-calming devices, including a narrow roadway, wide sidewalks, and orderly rows of curbside trees. This results in a street that easily accommodates all modes of transportation while being a pedestrian destination—it’s simply a pleasant place to be.

Done properly, traffic throughput is still maintained, with less stop-and-go frustration for drivers, and much greater safety and civility for all users of the roadway, including pedestrians and bicyclists. For the vast majority of surface roads, there is simply no reason to design for a speed limit over 30 mph. Doing so seems careless and downright irresponsible, but this is the unfortunate norm for most highway departments.

This isn’t to say that traffic engineers are malicious—they’re just following a prescribed set of rules. The engineering standards that govern most roadway design were written in the mid-20th century, in the midst of a obsession with the automobile and the high-speed expressway. Higher design speeds were considered safer for cars and drivers. This myopic goal ignored any other users, as well as the physical context of the road itself. That the road might be part of a town or city neighborhood hardly entered into the equation. Under these standards, still in effect today, roads are too-often treated identically to expressways, designed only for the high-speed convenience and safety of cars. What happens beyond the curb or shoulder doesn’t matter.

Buffalo’s Elmwood Avenue, the urbanistic equivalent of Madison’s State Street, employs many of the same traffic-calming methods, but sidewalks are often too narrow, driving lanes too wide, and street trees are often missing or poorly maintained.

The good news is that the rules are changing. The old standards, embodied mainly by the AASHTO highway design manuals, have been superseded by new tools and standards, most recently (and importantly) the ITE design manual Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach, adopted in 2010. Traffic engineers and citizens alike now have a sophisticated set of official standards with which to design roads that serve all users and all contexts.

Incidentally, on May 24, Transportation for America released a comprehensive report on pedestrian deaths. Dangerous by Design studies 47,000 pedestrian fatalities in the US from 2000-2009, mapping them on an interactive web page. Enter any location, and find out details on fatalities, thoroughfare type, etc. Check out pedestrian fatalities in your neighborhood; you may learn something about street design and safety in the place you live.

This post originally appeared in Joe the Planner on May 31, 2011.

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

Madison’s Reality Distortion Field, Or A Look at the Farmers Market by Chuck Banas

[ Chuck Banas is a Buffalo based urbanist and fantastic writer who runs a blog called Joe the Planner that sadly only gets a few articles a year. But they are all money. Thankfully he’s allowed me to repost them here, but be sure to check out his site for all of them. The latest repost is his take on Madison, Wisconsin and farmer’s markets – Aaron. ]

Madison, Wisconsin is an incredible place. I mean that in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. The city has tangibly more vitality than say, Denver, at about one-sixth the size.

That’s the thing that immediately struck me—how few people it takes to create a vibrant, energetic city. At least in this country, that is. Madison is in complete defiance of the way that the vast majority of U.S. cities and towns have developed, with their ubiquitously dead downtowns and placeless, mind-numbing, soul-sucking, vitality-sapping, automobile-based sprawl. In this sense, the city has much more in common with Europe than North America.

You’ve Got to Be Good to Be Lucky

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The central market square of Poznań, Poland, typical of European plazas. There is virtually no greenspace, yet this is among the most beautiful—and popular—types of public space. Framed and defined by the surrounding buildings, the space is furnished with high-quality pavements, a fountain, and several monuments. (Image from wikitravel.org)

Madison got lucky, however. It’s both a college town and a state capital. The 40,000 or so students at the University of Wisconsin virtually guarantee a lively pulse of street life and nightlife. There are thousands of well-paid middle-class jobs, from university faculty and staff to the jobs in state politics, government agencies, and museums. Many world-class cultural institutions are the inevitable product of both the university and the omnipresent state government. All of these things add value to the city, attracting talent and investment in a virtuous cycle.

On top of that, Madison was never an industrial city, so it never really suffered deindustrialization, and never contained the over-concentration of noxious industrial activities that, over time, helped to devalue cities like Buffalo. Madison also never truly experienced the race and poverty problems attendant on larger industrial cities, which helped to drive out the middle class in the decades following World War II.

It’s tough to screw up that equation. Not that some cities haven’t. Around here, building the North Campus of UB in Amherst immediately comes to mind. But Madison made some very wise choices over the last few decades that have helped turn it into one of the hippest and most valuable mid-sized cities in the country.

The Cold-Weather Straw Man

Before discussing this further, a perniciously popular myth about weather must be debunked. Madison’s success has absolutely nothing to do with its climate. The brutal Wisconsin winters are longer and more extreme than in Western New York, with nearly as much snow. Summers are hotter and more humid.

Obviously, Madison’s luck doesn’t include its weather, but the city’s success certainly doesn’t seem in any way impeded by it. Yet in Buffalo we spend a lot of time carping about our weather when it’s hardly different from Madison, Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, or Toronto, or everywhere else in the Northeast and Midwest, and in many cases much better.

This pathetic bellyaching is not just demonstrably wrong, it’s disempowering. It perpetuates an ignorant stereotype among ourselves and outsiders. It’s lazy. It’s fatalistic. It absolves anyone of any responsibility or ability to do anything. It robs us and future generations of hope. It’s a non-issue and we simply need to get over it.

There it is. Weather myth debunked. Now can we move on?

The Public Realm: Design and Behavior Are the Same Thing

So, finally, here is the disclaimer: Madison is a reality distortion field. Yes, the conditions that undergird much of that city’s success can’t be duplicated in most other places. However, that success wasn’t divinely ordained, either. Their reality is simply the cumulative product of the choices and sustained efforts of Madison’s leaders and citizens. They’ve intentionally created a city for people, not cars. This is clearly reflected in the design of their streets and public spaces, which is the focus of this piece—and why Madison was an obvious choice of venue for the CNU.

In the United States, public space mostly comes in the form of the street, and sometimes the square or park. These spaces are often referred to by planners as the “public realm,” which can be thought of as all of the spaces owned collectively by the public, freely accessible to everyone.

Once upon a time, American cities did a fine job designing public space. Market plazas such as those pictured here were often not as ornate or refined as European plazas, but they were designed using the same principles. The top image is Market Square in Portsmouth, NH, 1853 (wikipedia.org). The bottom image is the Chippewa Market, Buffalo, 1896 (buffaloha.com).

Public space can be designed for different purposes. If one wants social, public activities like an outdoor market, a memorial service, or some other such event, one needs a specific type of space for that to take place. But in recent decades, almost all older cities and towns either mangled or entirely removed most of their good public spaces, usually in the effort to accommodate the automobile. As a result, we’ve lost much of the knowledge, and even the language, of good urban planning: witness the misnomic appropriation of words like “plaza” or “square” in the branding of suburban strip shopping centers.

Speaking of which, one of the primary goals of the CNU is to reclaim the language and revive the knowledge of civic art and placemaking. In terms of the design of public or civic space, the concepts of square, plaza, and park are a very good place to start.

Before World War II, American towns and cities did a pretty darn good job of creating all types of civic space, including market plazas. Here in Buffalo, over the last 60 years or so, the city removed four or five outdoor marketplaces that were distributed throughout various neighborhoods. Like almost every other American city, many were converted into parking lots. Others were demolished, often along with their surrounding neighborhoods, in the name of “urban renewal.” Yet others were simply put out of business by the new economics of sprawl and the supermarket.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of the suburbs were designed around the car from the very start, and have never had any of these types of civic space. Even the most basic and normal civic activities, such as parades or fairs, don’t work very well in a strip mall parking lot or on a traffic-clogged suburban arterial. You can’t have a civic life if you don’t have good civic spaces. This is a big part of the reason why suburbs are often described as isolating and socially disconnected, even by some of their staunchest advocates. And, because of their car-centric design, low population density, and segregated-use zoning, most post-WWII ’burbs will probably never be able to build and sustain successful public spaces other than large, drive-in parks and sports complexes.

In any case, the design of parks and other types of civic space is much more sophisticated than just plopping down some trees or baseball fields. Urbanistically, there are three basic types of civic space: the square, the plaza, and the park. These fundamental types are designed to meet the three basic needs of a community: the civic, the economic, and the recreational. Properly designed, all types of public space also serve the fundamental social needs of people. Meeting these needs is essential for healthy, thriving civic life. For the purposes of this discussion, here are short definitions of the three types:

  • The square (known otherwise as a town square, neighborhood square, or village green, depending on context), usually fronted by civic buildings like the town hall, is designed for civic functions like parades, speeches, and demonstrations. The center of a square is the natural (and intentional) place for civic monuments, or in the case of Madison, the entire Capitol building, whose dome creates a beautiful vista for the eight streets radiating outward from the square.

  • The plaza (sometimes called a market plaza or market square) is intended for economic activities such as public markets, fairs, and festivals. The design of a plaza has some interesting caveats: most activities associated with a plaza have high foot-traffic, and vendor vehicles must also have access to the site. These activities are tough on grass surfaces, so plazas typically contain little or no greenspace. This runs counter to most Americans’ intuition; market plazas have been absent from our culture for several generations. However, all that hardscape doesn’t make plazas any less attractive than squares or parks; some of the most beautiful public spaces ever created are found in the lovely market squares of Europe.

  • The park (and the smaller playground) is designed for differing types of passive and active recreation and other social activities. A note on parks: in Buffalo and throughout the U.S., we’re quite familiar with large, sprawling parks of the type that Frederick Law Olmsted designed. Indeed, Olmsted designed Buffalo’s park and parkway system, the first such system in the nation, and the first of many more commissions throughout the U.S. Olmsted had more influence than any other figure in American landscape design, and his principles shape how we as a culture think about the role of parks and public space. The Olmstedian park is typically a large, spawling simulation of the natural landscape, intended to be an escape from hectic urban life. This is all well and good, but because Olmsted’s ideas have become so pervasive, American cities and towns tend to lack the smaller, more formal, more accessible types of local parks that are integral to functional, beautiful neighborhoods.

Another subtlety that may surprise many Americans is that there aren’t always strong distinctions between these types. Indeed, most civic space is hybrid to some extent, and there are many fine examples of civic spaces intentionally designed to serve double- or triple-duty. These hybrid spaces are often more successful than single-use spaces because they support a variety of simultaneous activities, or have varying activities at different times of day, or on different days of the week—as Madison’s Capitol Square attests.

How to Do a Farmers’ Market

Madison’s Capitol Square is a well-designed public space, with buildings that front the sidewalk and define the space of the square, with formal parkland inside the square. There is just enough hardscape so that the space can do double-duty as a marketplace or festival; the square doesn’t turn into a mud pit during an outdoor market. In comparison, Buffalo’s excellent Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers’ Market unfortunately takes place in a public space never designed for such a high-traffic function, resulting in problems like mud and dead grass on Bidwell Parkway.

Let’s take the specific example of the Dane County Farmers’ Market. On Saturdays during the spring, summer, and fall, the market is arrayed around Madison’s Capitol Square.

This is not a coincidence. Capitol Square is the natural location for this kind of event; it’s the physical and psychological center of the city and region. It is a beautiful public space, with the Wisconsin Capitol building at the center of a large, tree-lined square, and dignified downtown buildings containing shops, restaurants, and offices framing the edges.

Of course, this design is also no accident. Most great places are the product of intention. Like public squares in most older American cities, the space of Capitol Square was planned and designed precisely for both daily life and for special civic events like a public market. Many types of activities, from the mundane to the ceremonial, reinforce each other and activate the sidewalk. In addition to people on foot and bicycle, cars circulate around the square. But the outer roadway is relatively narrow, so cars move efficiently but slowly. They don’t threaten the safety or peace of people using the public space.

The whole effect is one of civility, vitality, and fun. From the very center of town, Madison is a city that cares about people. And people respond by using the streets and squares. There are shoppers, loungers, street performers, and people just passing through. Even on a day-to-day basis, there is more vitality here than in American cities many times the size. It’s a refreshing, ennobling experience.

The Whole Kit of Parts

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Vitality increases exponentially when several activities are combined in one space. Madison’s farmers’ market also includes many other synergistic activities, including live music, a car show, and daily activities such as shopping and dining, connecting seamlessly to the always vibrant strip of State Street.

From a design perspective, the basic tools of planning employed to make a healthy public realm come from a sort-of “kit of parts.” While there is a lot of flexibility regarding design, certain basics are mandatory. In order to be successful, you need the whole basic kit of parts, which includes the following:

  • Sense of enclosure. A successful space that is defined emphatically by buildings and/or trees. A public space must have a sense of enclosure; it must feel like an “outdoor room.” Orderly rows of trees and buildings that line up along the sidewalk do the trick.

  • More space for people, less for cars. There must be a significant amount of space devoted to the pedestrian: wide sidewalks and, in case of a square, generous areas of orderly hardscape and greenscape. Roads and travel lanes should be narrowed to provide safe, efficient traffic flow.

  • Permeable ground floor. In the case of squares or retail streets, buildings must contain a mix of uses, not just office space or some other single use, with a “permeable” ground floor fronting the sidewalk, containing shops, restaurants, and cafés.

  • Connected and walkable. The space must be physically connected and in close proximity to the rest of the city or town, easily accessible by various modes of transport, but most importantly within walking distance of neighborhoods.

Here in Buffalo, the weekly Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers’ Market is a very successful event, and has been a wonderful, natural addition to its neighborhood. Like so many other such markets across the nation, the Elmwood-Bidwell Market has become not just a forum for local agriculture, but for local culture as well. The market not only fulfills its basic economic function, but is also a place to socialize, to engage in those daily communal acts that create an authentic community.

Unfortunately, Buffalo’s Elmwood Village never really had a market square, so the only logical place to put it was at the only true civic space in the neighborhood: the intersection of Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway. In the future, the community might do well to consider creating a proper plaza. If this happens, it probably won’t be at its current location, where there are strict protections for the historic Olmsted-designed parkway. Luckily though, there are a few parking lots and other empty parcels along Elmwood that could be converted into a beautiful, functional market plaza. It would be wise to identify and reserve one or two of these sites before they are privately developed. As local agriculture makes its way back into all of our lives, this would provide a much-needed type of public space, adding even more value to an already vibrant neighborhood.

Buffalo’s Niagara Square was once a lively public space, accommodating a healthy balance of pedestrians, trolleys, and cars. Removal of streetcar tracks, widening of the roadway, and elimination of interior on-street parking have created a comparatively desolate environment dominated by high-speed automobile traffic. The top image is Niagara Square in 1913 (buffalonian.com); bottom is Niagara Square in 2011 (gsa.gov).

A final note on one of Buffalo’s most important, visible, and abused public spaces: Niagara Square. The square is the center of Joseph Ellicott’s radial street plan for Buffalo, and the proverbial heart of the region—much like Madison’s Capitol Square.

Over the years, however, Niagara Square has become less and less people-friendly, as intrusive alterations were made in the attempt to accommodate the automobile. The roadway is far too wide, and fast-moving cars are a dominating, threatening presence. The square feels inaccessible and disconnected from the surrounding city.

Serving as Buffalo’s civic “front yard,” Niagara Square should be one of the city’s most beautiful and welcoming public spaces. The list of design problems might be long, but it’s a pretty easy prescription to start civilizing the square: narrow the roadway, widen the sidewalks, add pedestrian islands and well-marked crosswalks, add curbside parking (or even angled parking), change the asphalt to brick, add rows of trees (and use proper species of tree), and replace the highway-style “cobra” lights with lanterns.

That’s a tall order, but the good news is that the work can be done incrementally, and any one of those changes will make the place noticeably better, adding real value.

The Value of Public Space

Speaking of value, perhaps the best test of the design of public space is how many people naturally go there even when a festival or other special event isn’t going on. Great public spaces are great not just due to practical utility, but because people enjoy just being there. They’re beautiful. They’re spiritually rewarding. And because they are a physical part of the daily lives of citizens, great public spaces help to give a neighborhood that intangible but palpable “sense of place.” Going to the grocery, post office, or pharmacy may be a mundane chore, but a properly assembled public realm can dignify the trip, and help connect you physically and psychologically to your community.

Well-designed public spaces raise the value of the whole neighborhood, and in aggregate, the whole city—including everyone’s property values. These days, that’s a message most Americans would love to hear.

This post originally appeared in Joe the Planner on June 6, 2011.

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

The Sprawl Bubble by Chuck Banas

[ Buffalo’s Chuck Banas is a great thinker, doer, and writer on urban matters. He graciously allowed me to repost some of his articles, and this is sadly the last one I have on file. It was written in 2009 and so some of it addresses what was going on at that time, but the perspective remains relevant, even if sprawl is not your issue. – Aaron. ]

I’m certainly not the first pundit to comment on the recent economic meltdown, and I sure won’t be the last. But there is a side to this crisis that almost no one is talking about, perhaps because it hits a little too close to home—literally.

The two primary assumptions embedded in our national dialog seem to be that (1) like the dot-com bust of 2000, the problem is a fairly recent phenomenon caused by the latest round of irrational exuberance on Wall Street, and that (2) worst-case, we’ll all be able to go back to the old borrow-and-spend way of life in a couple years. Both are symptoms of denial that make it impossible to address the larger problem.

This crisis is not simply about bad suburban housing debt. By some estimates, more than one-eighth of the retail space in the U.S. will be sitting vacant within a few months. The graph at right illustrates that situation very clearly. I’m thinking you’ll be shocked by it. Whether or not that’s the case, kindly indulge me and read on.

The proverbial elephant in the room is the amount of sprawling, redundant public and private infrastructure we’ve built since the end of World War II. This exodus to the suburbs quickly resulted in the hollowing-out of major parts of older cities and towns. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of this development is automobile-based. Places to live, work, shop, and play are intentionally separated by vast distances. Low-density, separated-use zoning has ensured that there is far more infrastructure to maintain per-person than in older village, town, or city neighborhoods.

For this suburban system to function, residents are required to own, operate, and maintain a car. Or two. Or three. Nobody knows this better than the typical suburban family. While car ownership is expensive enough, it is not simply a matter of gasoline and monthly payments. The automobile incurs another immense cost: cars can’t operate without lots of flat, smooth, publicly-funded road infrastructure (read: roads, highways, and the accompanying electric, gas, water, and sewer utilities).

All of this is stupefyingly expensive. These indirect costs constitute the majority of the expense, yet remain invisible to most people—spread-out in the form of local, state, and federal taxes, or camouflaged as municipal bond debt or various other forms of government debt. So in addition to being redundant, this means that suburbia is a doubly expensive living arrangement.

The other point that I’m trying to make is that the migration of wealth to the suburbs has not been a free-market phenomenon. Customer choice is only a small part of the equation, or this wouldn’t have happened in virtually every American city at the exact same time in the exact same way. Which, of course, is exactly how it did happen.

I assert that much of the economic crisis we’re seeing today is simply the end result of decades of bad decisions driven by bad economic, transportation, housing, and land-use policy.

A mercifully short history of sprawl

To understand the sudden suburban migration of the post-WWII period, and what it means for us today, some historical perspective is required. Happily, I’ve done my best to keep it short.

Powerful enablers are required for such a sweeping thing to happen. Post-WWII suburbanization was caused not simply by the availability of the automobile, or postwar housing demand, but by a converging set of public policies that resulted in blighted cities, towns, and villages, as well as an uglified, overdeveloped countryside. Without getting into gory detail, the major enablers included the national highway system, subsidized government loans for new suburban housing, the often intentional withholding of needed capital to renew older neighborhoods, and notoriously destructive urban renewal projects. These policies, and others too, amounted to the most massive outlay of taxpayer subsidies and incentives the world has ever seen. The ’burbs were not built by chance. Or merely by customer choice.

This is not to say that these policies weren’t well intentioned. For the most part they were. But they were also largely naive and shortsighted. However, at the time, they were seen as necessary to address some of the largest concerns of the day. Foremost, this involved the very real possibility of lapsing back into a depression as American industry demobilized. These fears were inflated by the vast problem of re-employing the nine-million-or-so men and women formerly in uniform who suddenly found themselves out of a job.

Keep in mind also that after an almost 15-year period of depression and/or war, American cities were not in great shape. During that time, there had been little public or private investment, and cities still contained all of the noxious, unpleasant activities of the industrial age, accompanied by virtually none of the environmental protections we take for granted today. Also, during the war, hundreds of thousands of southern blacks had migrated to northern cities hungry for defense labor, adding a racial component to the issue. Finally, the steadily increasing population of cities had created a housing demand, especially among the middle class and the millions of young war veterans newly empowered by the GI Bill.

To avoid the obvious potential mess, the federal government decided to create a large set of subsidies and incentives for new construction and new land development. All at once, this would help alleviate housing demand and instantly create thousands of jobs in the construction trades.

At the same time, cities, perceived as overcrowded, dirty, and dangerous, became the victims of the so-called ‘urban renewal’ programs of the 1950s and 60s, a process by which many otherwise viable neighborhoods (most often minority) were demolished entirely and replaced with a smattering of low-quality publicly-subsidized housing projects. Families, businesses, and other community institutions were uprooted, neighborhood relationships were destroyed, and most residents were forced to relocate to other neighborhoods—many of which were, shall we say, less than welcoming. It is dfficult to overstate the amount of social stress and psychological trauma caused by this. Ever wonder about some of the reasons behind the urban race riots of the 1960s?

Also under these programs, downtowns, waterfronts, and other older neighborhoods were mangled or obliterated by expressways and automobile-related transportation projects. It’s no surprise that urban renewal soon became sarcastically (and perhaps more accurately) known as ‘urban removal.’ All of this lowered the value of older cities, towns, and villages, and intensified the suburbanization subsidies already in place.

Primed and sustained by these subsidies, the suburban build-out has continued generally unimpeded in the decades since. It actually accelerated through the 1990s, driven by both cheap oil and a frenzied, anything-goes lending market. The map above remarkably demonstrates this. The red/yellow areas, amounting to at least half of the total colored area, represent the land developed from 1993–2001. The purple/blue is the land developed prior to 1993.

Think about that. At least as much land has been developed in this country in the last 15 years as in the previous 400 years of our history.

Not surprisingly, as people continue to move even further out, older suburbs have been experiencing the same problems of poverty, crime, and blight that city neighborhoods have seen. And so it goes.

The sprawl bubble

Today, the resulting problems are vast, intimidating, and painfully obvious. Yet it’s hard for most Americans to discern the problem, let alone see a way out of the woods. This is not only because we’ve got so much of our collective wealth tied-up in this system, but because suburban sprawl has become so culturally identified with the postwar “American Dream.” Indicting the system that produces sprawl is often seen an indictment of our very way of life.

And dissing the American Way is blasphemy, brother.

It’s therefore no wonder, though no less maddening, that we can’t seem to have an intelligent public discussion about this. It’s hard to broach the topic in public without really pissing someone off—often to the point of violent irrationality. Believe me, this is not a subject you want to bring up with strangers. Or in-laws. I know.

In any case, we’ve now got this glut of public infrastructure, most of which is obscenely expensive and redundant. Much of the older stuff has been in deferred maintenance for decades because we’ve been too busy trying to pay for all the new stuff. Accordingly, public debt is astronomical. In addition, the amount of private debt has never been higher, with average personal savings essentially zero. This is due in part because so many people have taken advantage of exisiting housing subsidies to buy homes they can’t afford and live lifestyles beyond their means. (Of course, there are other things that have contributed to this situation, but I won’t delve into all of them here.) The bottom line is that there’s no financial slack left in the system. State and federal governments, municipalities, banks, businesses, and individuals are all strung out on various forms of credit, because we’ve been collectively attempting to finance a way of life that is unaffordable and ultimately unsustainable.

This brings us back to the chart at the beginning of the article. If you didn’t see the significance the first time, you may want to look at it again. A simple measure of the current financial crisis is evident here: In 1960 the United States had about four square feet of retail per person. As of 2005, that number had risen to 38 square feet.

Yep, that’s right. This number includes not only the underutilized retail square-footage in older neighborhoods, but also the speculative, overvalued glut of strip malls and big-box stores of suburbia. The ‘dead mall’ has been a familiar sight across the country for a while now. Dead subdivisions are now common in suburban areas hardest hit by the housing crisis.

For a current comparison to other industrialized nations, see the second chart at right. While the U.S. number reported by this research is lower than the first chart (20.2 square feet vs. 38), it’s the relative difference between the U.S. and other nations that’s pertinent here. Note that other countries are still down where we were 50 years ago. You must then ask yourself these rhetorical questions: Do the Germans, French, or English live in some third-world consumer backwater? Are there overseas shortages of bread or iPods?

In any case, back to U.S. retail: As retail development follows residential, and both follow public infrastructure investment, one can infer that we’ve been sitting on a massive real-estate bubble for decades, propped-up by massive public subsidies. This is what I call the ‘sprawl bubble.’ In large part, this is the bubble that is currently bursting. This has implications for all Americans, not simply those of us living in far-flung suburbia.

Overdeveloped suburbs aren’t the only areas in bad shape. As we’ve seen, American cities, depopulated, disinvested, and impoverished, are not the mighty manufacturing centers they used to be. We’ve exported most of that activity to places like China, Mexico, Korea, and India. We’ve essentially become a country that doesn’t make things, simply existing as a market for other countries’ products. That’s why China holds a staggering—and ever increasing—amount of our debt. The Chinese must guarantee a market for all of their manufactured goods by propping up the value of our currency. Setting aside for a moment the irony that we’re now economically beholden to the world’s largest communist country, at least for now the relationship is a sort-of mutually-assured economic destruction.

Internally, much of our domestic economy is now tied to the construction and real estate finance industry which, using the capital provided by a runaway lending market, has been going gangbusters producing new suburban McMansions and strip malls—until quite recently, that is. It’s all come to a screeching halt, with the financial hucksters no longer able to hide the fact that much of this stuff has little or no value.

I’ve often wondered how long we’d be able to keep up this shell game. More and more, it’s obvious that this is a pattern of living guaranteed to bankrupt our country.

I may be wrong, but I’m thinking the piper finally needs to be paid. The scary thing is, for the most part, Americans won’t even admit the problem. I’m not an alarmist, but my fear is that we’re so pathologically attached to our system and its hallowed cultural myths that we’ll fight to the bitter end to sustain the unsustainable.

This post originally appeared in Joe the Planner on February 10, 2009.

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Chuck Banas: Putting Parking In Its Proper Place

A recent article in The Buffalo News, citing a study of downtown parking, offers some interesting blog fodder. The Desman Associates study asserts that the parking situation in Buffalo is a mess, and requires better management.

The report recommends hiring a “parking czar” at $140,000 salary to consolidate parking management. As I recall, Desman previously produced studies in 2001 and 2006 which basically said the same thing, minus the “parking czar” baloney. The Buffalo News’ take on the Desman study does get it generally right, however: “The dominant theme in the report is that too many entities are involved in city parking, creating ‘shortsighted’ and disjointed management.”

This much is true. But one quote in particular stands out: “‘Downtown can’t begin to compete with suburban office parks without convenient and affordable parking,’ said Schmand, whose nonprofit agency represents the interests of downtown stakeholders and residents.”

To the uninitiated, this may sound reasonable, except for one thing. Downtown can never compete with suburban office parks on the basis of convenient and affordable parking. To compete successfully on that basis would mean the destruction of all of downtown’s remaining (and emerging) value. 

By definition, downtown can never out-compete the suburbs on suburban, automobile-based terms. By necessity, parking takes up a tremendous amount of land, creating lots of dead, open space, which the suburbs have plenty of. In fact, that’s the suburbs’ main asset: lots of open space. A city’s main amenity is not open land, but density, walkability, a diverse mix of uses, and the quality of the streets and other public spaces. These are the areas in which the suburbs cannot out-compete downtown. These are things cities like Buffalo need to focus on to be successful.

So, if it is evident that an urban environment can never offer as good a “suburban product” as the suburbs can, then why do we continue to play that game? Clearly, the prevailing value system is upside-down. The city’s current strategy is irreconcilable with what downtown currently is, and what the community wants it to become. We’ve got to find a way to break out of this vicious cycle and change this self-defeating paradigm. This requires leadership.

If anything, this simply demonstrates how shortsighted and incoherent our public discussion has become on such issues. If city leaders think that parking is the main asset—and don’t recognize the many natural urban advantages downtown has over the suburbs—then the whole exercise is guaranteed to fail. This strategy will simply end-up undermining the value of the city, leading to a dead downtown like the one we’ve got. Like many other mangled cities, we’ve been trying this strategy for decades and failing, as the condition of our downtown attests. We can’t keep playing this self-defeating game. Who has the guts to finally stand up and stop this nonsense?

Also, there’s my old saying, which I’ve oft repeated: Like all cities, we really have one essential choice; we can have a vibrant downtown where everyone complains about parking, or we can have a dead downtown where everyone complains about parking. If you think about it, that’s the only choice. Really.

For years, I’ve been involved with The New Millennium Group, a local community activist organization dedicated to progressive planning, economic development, and revitalization. In 2003, NMG did a downtown parking survey that showed over 50% of the land area of downtown Buffalo dedicated to surface parking.

In the six years since, the city situation regarding parking, planning, and transportation hasn’t really changed. So to repeat NMG’s original take on the issue: Buffalo doesn’t have a parking problem, it has a parking management problem. (In truth, it’s a transportation management problem, but that’s a topic for another post.)

The fresh angle is this: the city doesn’t need to add another high-priced manager and yet another layer of bureaucracy. We can get much better management of downtown transportation/parking assets if we better utilize the resources we’ve already got. Private companies routinely reorganize management structures to adapt to changing conditions, so why can’t the city? We’ve already got a planning department that studies and understands these issues (and the many related issues, too) and has the expertise to effectively manage parking by putting it in its proper context—which is the problem to begin with.

Chuck Banas is an urban planning consultant and community activist in Buffalo, New York, and chairs the SmartCode Committee at the New Millennium Group of Western New York.

This post originally appeared at Joe the Planner. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Chuck Banas: This Is Sprawl

[ I stumbled across this incredible post via a link from Buffalo Rising. The author, Chuck Banas, posted it on his blog, Joe the Planner, which has only a few posts, but boy do they pack a wallop. Chuck, who is an urban planning consultant and community activist in Buffalo, New York, and chairs the SmartCode Committee at the New Millennium Group (of Western New York)., kindly gave me permission to repost. – Aaron ]

Sprawl is a word familiar to most people, but few can tell you exactly what it means. Even experts don’t always agree on a precise definition.

The term itself is somewhat ambiguous, and often divisive. This is especially true when the word is preceded by the modifiers suburban or urban, which is commonly the case. Then the term is really loaded. Political discussion of the topic regularly provokes the already contentious relationships between cities and suburbs. This needlessly causes communities that should be cooperating to take sides against each other.

Here in the Buffalo-Niagara region, only one other word is as divisive: regionalism. Yeah, I said it. First the s-word, and now the r-word. Good thing I’m not a politician, because my career would probably have just ended. The r-word, as I shall call it from now on, became a four-letter word in this area just shy of a decade ago, after a certain County Executive decided to make city-county consolidation his focus. He got pretty far, too, before allegations of political corruption, a county bankruptcy, and public dissension finally killed the idea. Too bad.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The intent of this post is to provide some conceptual clarity regarding the concept of sprawl, both nationally and locally. I’ll also be explaining what sprawl and the r-word have to do with one another, and why this is fundamentally important to the future of everyone in the Buffalo-Niagara region. As usual, I’ll do this by providing a big-picture narrative combined with some statistics and visuals.

A Case Study for Sprawl

No matter what the wording, sprawl refers to the spreading-out of a population of people and its effects—effects that are often harmful to our individual lives and counterproductive to our shared goals. Of course, sprawl is not unique to us in Western New York, or even to the United States. It occurs everywhere throughout the world in varying forms, but we Americans arguably lay claim to inventing a most peculiar and pernicious strain of it. This has resulted in the virtual trashing of our traditional cites and towns, along with the paving-over of agricultural lands and other countryside that surrounds them.

But the argument against sprawl is not simply an aesthetic one; some of the most debilitating effects are social, cultural, and economic. You might wish to check out my previous post for a provoking take on sprawl as a national phenomenon.

As it turns out, the Buffalo Metro area is a nearly ideal case for the study of sprawl and its effects. This is for two main reasons: (1) the region has well-established pre-World War II, pre-automobile cities and towns, and (2) the metro population has essentially remained unchanged since the end of WWII.

Yep, you read that right. Buffalo’s metro population has essentially remained unchanged for the last 60 years. With all the talk about population loss, it seems that many people don’t realize this. Buffalo hasn’t shrunk; it’s just spread-out. This makes the effects of sprawl quite obvious because there’s been no significant statistical muddying caused by changes in population.

Same Number of People, Three Times the Stuff

What does this mean? Put simply, the same number of people spread over an area over three times larger means there is three times the amount of stuff that the same number of people have to pay for.

Most visibly, that’s over three times the infrastructure costs: three times the roads, power lines, water lines, sewer systems, gas service, schools, fire stations, police, etc. This stuff doesn’t get magically built and maintained on its own; the money has to come from somewhere. And it does: it comes out of all of our pockets directly or indirectly through higher local, county, and state taxes and fees; through the personal requirement to own and maintain one or more automobiles; through the wasted time and money of longer commutes to/from work, shopping, and entertainment; and from chauffeuring the kids back and forth to hockey practice or piano lessons.

All of this extra space we occupy has precisely the effects you’d predict. We in Erie and Niagara Counties now drive 53% more miles per year than we did in 1980. Nationally, the effects are even more stark: from 1977 to 2001, the number of miles driven every year by Americans rose by 151%—about five times faster than the growth in population. Americans spend four times as much on transportation as Europeans. It costs over $7,000 per year to maintain a single car. And, if you can believe it, the average American household today makes 14 individual car trips per day. (An interesting study found that if only one car trip per day were eliminated, this would result in an annual savings of about $1,100 per household.)

Statistics aside, all of these additional obligations in time and money make us poorer—both individually and collectively. Over the last 60 years, we’ve been too busy trying to keep up with basic infrastructure maintenance to invest much in our future. Individually, people have less to spend on housing, food, transportation, health care, entertainment, etc. There are fewer public resources available for schools, parks, cultural institutions, and other public services. There is less disposable income at all levels, and little capital left in society to invest in new business and new forms of wealth creation.

The cycle goes like this: We spread out and build more stuff. Costs go up. Taxes go up. Services get cut. Institutions languish. The quality of everyone’s life diminishes. Citizens complain about the corruption and inefficiency of government. And it repeats in a vicious cycle.

That’s not the only cost. In this zero-sum game, every winner in the region creates one or more losers. As we’ve subsidized new development in the region, older neighborhoods have suffered. Every new house built on a greenfield means a house somewhere else blighted, abandoned, or demolished. Every new square-foot of retail space devalues or destroys a square-foot elsewhere. Poverty and crime grow like a cancer, which are huge economic drags on the region. Without the resources for proper maintenance, older roads, bridges, sewers, and other infrastructure deteriorate. And that cycle repeats itself, too.

The result is we’re less able to compete against other, growing, lower-taxed areas. We have a hard time attracting new people or new investment because we’re continually burdening ourselves with new costs that add no real value to our region.

In fact, it’s not too much to say that virtually all the so-called ‘growth’ that we’ve seen here in the last half-century has been an illusion. Sure, it kinda looked like real growth—new roads, new homes, new strip malls, new schools—but because there has been no increase in population, it’s really a rigged shell game. For the last three generations, we’ve spent the greater part of our collective regional wealth moving about a third of our population further and further out into the countryside.

“So what?” you say? “People voted with their feet.” But if you think this has been solely a matter of consumer choice, a free-market phenomenon, think again. It is well documented that sprawl is driven mainly by destructive public policy, bad planning, and a lack of municipal coordination (again, read my previous post).

There is another significant cost to the low-density, auto-oriented living arrangement we’ve constructed. Vitality, be it economic, cultural, or otherwise, requires a critical mass. If too many elements of the economy and society are spread too thin across the landscape, then even a million people can’t create a healthy, dynamic economy, let alone pay for the required infrastructure. Economic and social capital don’t work if spread too thin. Markets don’t work if too many ingredients are isolated from each other.

The result? We end up exactly in the type of situation we find ourselves today. Surprised, anyone?

The Big Picture

At this point, all of this blather about strip malls, taxes, and blight might have you a bit glassy-eyed. It’s often easy to get lost among the details, so sometimes it helps to step back and look at the big picture.

Specifically, I’m referring to the picture below, which may help bring the issue of sprawl into even sharper focus. This map tells the story of our region’s problems perhaps more clearly than any of the reams of reports issuing from governments or foundations. The diagram also suggests a obvious solution to our regional problems.

Shown on the map at left is the extent of urbanized area in Metro Buffalo in 1950 and 2000 (yellow and red, respectively). The wording of the official U.S. Census Bureau definition is a little tricky, but for these purposes urbanized area refers to just about any census block within Erie and Niagara Counties that has a population density greater than 1,000 people per square mile.

What does this simple measure mean? Well, a high-ish population density of 1,000 or more implies an urban or suburban settlement—and all of the infrastructure required to support it; namely, roads, sewers, electric, schools, police, etc. All that stuff we covered above. So as the map shows, we’ve now got over three times the amount of stuff to maintain for the same amount of people we had in 1950.

If this isn’t a shocking call to action, I don’t know what is. This shows the vital critical mass of people and money and ideas diffused and squandered. This shows our region bleeding to death.

In simplest terms, this is sprawl. This is arguably our area’s essential problem, summarized neatly in a single picture. And bear in mind that this is only a snapshot of a ongoing trend. When the 2010 figures are released, there is sure to be a bunch more red on this map.

The R-Word

What’s the solution? Well, in a word: the r-word. Some people call it regional government (which for me is way too close to the r-word). Others call it metropolitan government or inter-municipal coordination. Whatever the term, it refers to a layer of governance and planning at the regional scale, so that all of the region’s resources can be coordinated effectively.

Currently, there are 64 separate municipalities in Buffalo-Niagara, with virtually no coordination or cooperation between them. Towns poach development from each other. Villages plan independently of their surrounding towns. Developers know the game, and play government entities against one another for public subsidy. There is duplication of services and unnecessary waste. And no one is steering the big ship.

In short, we spend most of our time fighting one another instead of working to compete effectively against other regions—many of which already have their metro-government acts together. If we want things to change, we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done. More of the same old self-inflicted harm won’t turn things around.

There is hope, however. The city-county merger almost came to a vote before county bankruptcy, a control board, and the events of 9/11 put a stop to it. Metro Buffalo already includes respected regional government entities that address certain cross-jurisdictional functions, including an excellent metro transportation system (NFTA) and the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system.

Also, it must be noted, most other regions have leadership that’s just as slow and incompetent as ours seems to be. Nationally, the bar isn’t set that high.

Suffice it to say that, as a region, it is our choice to work together. Or not. We have it within our power to shape our own future, but only if we see that all of us—all the cities, towns, and villages in this thing we call Buffalo-Niagara—are in this together.

The metropolitan area is the only meaningful social and economic unit that exists in this region. We share the same history, culture, climate, sports teams, and cultural assets—and we all ultimately share the same fate. Perhaps, after decades of declining fortunes, we’ve forgotten this fact. Fear has made our politics dysfunctional and turned our leaders into insular cowards. Decades of tough times will do that.

The good news is this: some of the groundwork is already laid. The good ideas are out there. Most people in this area would agree that we need to change how we do things, and a significant number would advocate a regional approach to governance.

But we must choose to govern not based on fear, but on the faith in our ability to shape our future. And each new day hands us the same choice.

This post originally ran at Joe the Planner under the title “Sprawl and the r-word, a Buffalo-Niagra Case Study.” Reprinted with permission of the author.

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