Hello all, welcome to the second edition of the Monday Member Blog Roll (Monday Afternoon Member Forum?--we can keep iterating names, right? keep it Tactical!) Thanks to Skyler who got us started off in great form last week. I hope this lives up to all the other great examples on this blog.
I’d like to start off first be recognizing Uxcester, the garden city of the future, and a winner of a major economics prize concerning housing strategies in the UK, which recently came up in our blog feed.
David Rudland, who led the submission from the urban town planning company URBED, set out his vision for a garden city which would provide new houses for 150,000 people and could be replicated at up to 30 sites across the country.
He explained: “We need to expand an existing place rather than building a new place.
“Rather than expand all the villages and annoy everybody, which is what tend to do when we expand towns, we should build in the gaps between them.
I particularly appreciated the focus on building on the resources that we already have, building incrementally with distributed decision making, and emphasis on the political process to change how we think about housing and development. You can find their submission here. I'm still thinking about how we can use the lessons from this report in the US, where we have relatively fewer "greenbelt" style areas around more contained towns and cities.
Over at Granola Shotgun, Johnny reminds us of the importance of low-rent places (see How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand for more on this subject) and shows how the “creative class” is being rapidly priced out of the hip urban neighborhoods they helped repopulate. In the Boston area, Somerville is no longer Slumerville; and my generation of artists and creative types are quickly being priced out by young professionals (like me). He identifies three likely places for the artist communities of the future:
First, for the “traditional” rebel artist who can no longer afford New York, Boston, D.C. or Chicago there’s Buffalo, Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. These Rust Belt cities have a fine stock of premium buildings and neighborhoods chock full of 19th century architectural gems and grand public parks and plazas at deeply discounted prices. If you want the authentic look and feel of a previous generation’s artist enclave they exist in second, third, and fourth tier cities in America’s forgotten interior. That multi-million dollar industrial live/work loft space in Manhattan is available elsewhere for a tiny fraction of a percent of the cost...
As for me, I’m looking at Providence, RI as an alternative where I can own and help create new city, while still being accessible to the Boston and Cambridge economy. Come on down Boston artists, the rent is fine!
Second, there are thousands of depopulated rural villages that exist everywhere in America once you escape the economic forcefields of pricey metroplexes. Key West, Sedona, Provincetown, Carmel, New Hope, and Rehobeth have all been bought up and Disneyfied by now. But there are an unlimited number of small towns and villages that have similar qualities at an infinitely lower price point...
Third, and in my opinion the most viable and likely scenario, involves the reinvigoration of failed suburban districts. When I look around at the desolate commercial strip corridors (pick a crappy suburb… any crappy suburb anywhere from the outskirts of Charlotte to the damp underbelly of Seattle) I can imagine the new “arts districts” of the future. Dead suburban retail buildings and their associated parking lots are the current equivalent of abandoned industrial warehouses or cheap seventh floor walk up apartments. These properties and locations are most ripe for transformation over time. My guess is that most of the action early on will not be out front facing the highway, but in back behind the semi-abandoned muffler shops, defunct carpet emporiums, and burned out supermarkets. The rear loading docks and back alleys typically face quiet subdivisions of modest homes along more humanely scaled streets. It’s possible for individuals to create pleasant convivial places that engage with a selective element of the community while not attracting the attention of code enforcement agencies.
Word. This is the kind of work I aspire to in my real estate career.
Meanwhile, Rational Urbanism has a nice follow up to Chuck’s pieces at the American Conservative. Anyone have a good target for a liberal forum where we can run a similar series?
Speaking of Rational Urbanism and Springfield, MA, it’s not often that the words “good idea” and “casino” end up in the same sentence, but the recent plans for a new casino in Springfield that would be integrated into a large redevelopment of a series of city blocks in the existing fabric that were heavily damaged in a tornado a few years back, have impressed a lot of Strong Towns readers. Just in the last month, a second casino license was granted for Wynn Resorts in Everett, MA, close to Boston. The initial plan, is let’s say, suburban crap; not to mention that three of the land owners involved in the deal were recently indicted on fraud charges… The project has drawn a lot of criticism from local planners and architects:
“Wynn’s spokesman, meanwhile, told me that the company stands by the track record of its in-house design team, citing the success of famous casinos like the Mirage, Bellagio, and Wynn Macau. In this situation, the Wynn spokesman told me, past performance is the best predictor of future performance.”
Yeah, casino urbanism.
Building off the recent discussion of whether a street is a liability or an asset, I’ve been germinating an idea for a few weeks after a local-elected friend of mine asked me what metric I’d use to assess how his city was doing, given all this strong towns stuff I’d been spouting. What popped into my mind at the time was “how many people live there; are you’re adding or losing people?” It's like the master question: do people want to be in your place? It integrates affordability, charm, and economic vitality.
Going back to Chuck’s point that a street isn’t really an asset, it’s a liability you have to ask:then what are your assets? Your assets are your private property and businesses that generate property taxes and other local revenue. Okay, fine, but where does private real estate get its value? It comes from people wanting to live in that building or visit that shop. Without people, your property values decline, and thus your asset base. As your place becomes more desirable, competition for the limited supply of land and buildings drives up prices. Sometimes this gets out of control, as in Cambridge right now. But in general a place that is growing is a place people want to be. (A big barrier to this sort of thinking in my lefty-environmental circles is the idea that all growth is bad. But if it's growing good places and shrinking our bad ideas, that can still be a net positive for us and our planet).
So, to bring it back to the balance between assets and liabilities: a healthy place as a good ratio of people to infrastructure. This doesn’t mean your can’t have a low population rural area… you just have to live very light on the infrastructure. Similarly, high density places can afford high impact infrastructure. Where we get into trouble is with low density places with too much infrastructure.
So far this idea’s just half formed, but a simple measure of: what’s your property tax base, what’s your population, and what’s your total infrastructure liability to support those two things—should be a good foundation for assessing the sustainability of a place. Hope you have a great week!