Last night CGI's newest planner, Justin, and I made the midnight showing of Avatar. We both thought it was spectacular. We did not have access to a 3D IMAX theatre, but it was eye-popping on a normal big screen. I'm guessing with the narrower market appeal, it is not going to top Titanic as James Cameron's most commercial-successful film, but I'd recommend it to anyone.

The excitement of anticipation is in the air at our household, especially when the five and two year olds are in the room (but even when they are not). We hope your weekend is filled with comfort and joy.

Enjoy this week's news.

  • We'll start off with some odd, but positive, news. It seems the Federal Department of Transportation has devoted some significant money ($1.5 billion) to building what they call "livable communities". Overlooking the fact that this is akin to asking Marines to be "peacekeepers", it all sounds good.

What does DOT mean by livability? [Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Beth] Osborne’s description focused on mixed use, walkable neighborhoods, and pedestrian access to transit, jobs, stores, schools, and other public buildings.

  • So the DOT is going to invest in livability. This article talks about the correlation between the beauty of a community and people's satisfaction. It seems people enjoy living in beautiful places (imagine that). Could there be an ROI for designing communities that are more attractive?

[Richard] Florida’s team concluded that a beautiful setting is one of the most important predictors of people’s satisfaction with their community. The only stronger link identified in the study was current economic conditions. Good schools and the ability to meet people and make friends were also important indicators of community satisfaction, but not as positively correlated as residents’ perception that they lived in a beautiful place.

  • Could a new, more livable reality include big-boxes such as Wal-Mart? Unfortunately not if they have anything to do with it. 
  • It is not clear to me why Wal-Mart and big boxers would reject community design approaches that place hundreds of homes (aka: customers) within close walking distance of their stores. Especially since doing so would improve the long-term viability and value of their property. You can click here for a photo gallery of what happens when big box stores are no longer viable.
  • The NY Times had a feature called "The Ninth Annual Year in Ideas", which featured innovations such as a surfboard shaped like an hourglass (adds maneuverability) and women's shows that look like deformed giraffe feet (not sure what evolutionary advantage that provides). One "idea" to make the list was the State of Virginia's ban on cul-de-sacs. If developers want the government to maintain the streets within the developments, then they need to provide connectivity in the transportation network (cheaper to maintain and does not induce a seemingly perpetual need for massive improvements on main corridors).

Virginia expects the new rules to relieve its strained infrastructure budget: through streets are more efficient and cheaper to maintain, and they take pressure off arterial roads that otherwise need to be widened. 

  • While mortgage rates remain low, the number of homes being refinanced is also low. This is especially noteworthy since refinancing would help so many people who today are in bad mortgages. Why is this happening? I can attest from my own experience in 2009 (we refinanced in March) that banks actually check now to see that you have income, worthy credit and enough cash for making payments (imagine that). It is a cruel reality that when banks should have been asking for these things years ago, they were not. Now that they should be streamlining the process to help people avoid default (which would help the borrower and the lender), they are not. What a mess we have created.

The most recent Federal Reserve survey of lenders found that they were continuing to tighten terms for business and household loans. Banks say they are under pressure from regulators to raise their cash reserves, which means fewer loans. They also argue that a troubled economy breeds extreme caution.

  • Part of that mess is that the system we have developed to protect banks from losses is itself in massive financial distress. Our familiar favorites - AIG, Fannie May, Freddic Mac and GMAC - not only can't pay their own debts, they are in continual need of government money to forestall collapse. This well-intentioned, but systematically flawed, Ponzi scheme of home subsidy, mortgage subsidy, bank subsidy and infrastructure subsidy has given us a land use pattern that is financially impossible to sustain. 
  • If you are a new reader and may perhaps question that conclusion, we give you yet another example: Cleveland.

The city of Cleveland has aggravated its vexing foreclosure problems and has lost millions in tax dollars by helping people buy homes they could not afford, a Plain Dealer investigation has found.

The city provided mostly low-income buyers with down payment loans of up to $20,000 through the federally funded Afford-A-Home program, but did little to determine whether the people could actually afford to keep their homes.

  • Here is yet another story on how the stimulus package completely missed the mark in terms of job-creation. What the story does not mention is that, on top of the imbalance between areas of unemployment and areas receiving stimulus incentives, there are some massive negative land-use implications. By sending money to low-unemployment, rural counties in Minnesota, we locate new infrastructure in places where it is going to have the lowest ROI while we continue to induce inefficient development patterns in remote areas. A Strong Towns approach would weight ROI - not political connections - for allocation of public resources. 
  • Finally, a little bit of fun, seasonal music to kick off the weekend straight out of my living room stereo.