MEMBER NEWS DIGEST - THE LATEST AND GREATEST FROM OUR MEMBERS' BLOGS
Strong Towns members were active in the blogosphere again this week. Some of our favorite writers offered us thoughtful takes on the limitations of a top-down approach to planning and development, and the importance of regulating in a way that isn't reductive and stifling, but rather allows for flexibility and variation in the urban landscape.
Building a nation of Strong Towns is going to mean creating diverse, productive, and resilient places that can serve the needs of residents in all stages of their lives. It means resisting the allure of the mega-project, the one-size-fits-all solution, or reductive quotas and lists of checkboxes for developers. Even well-intentioned efforts to guide development from on high often go awry.
Over at Family Friendly Cities this week is a look at what it would really take to attract more parents with children to booming urban cores. The blog turns a critical eye on Toronto's policies to ensure a supply of family-friendly housing, in light of a report in the Globe and Mail:
Toronto established a three-bedroom requirement for developments that exceeded 100 units in order to retain and attract families, understanding their importance to creating a diverse and sustainable community. But based on the recent article, Toronto is finding that parents are not acquiring the three bedroom condominiums. Rather, they are being filled by college roommates or those just seeking a bit of elbow room. So what is the problem? Why haven’t these units been finding their way into the hands of families? While Toronto’s three-bedroom requirement is well intentioned it misses the mark in design requirements.
The post discusses a number of ways in which these supposedly family-friendly units lack features that families find essential. It suggests Toronto embrace an approach taken by Vancouver that centers less on counting bedrooms than on specific design guidelines based on families' reported needs, while at the same time offering developers more flexibility in how to meet those guidelines:
By creating multiple avenues for developers to satisfy the bedroom requirement, design guidelines become easier to navigate and likely met with less resistance. The result will be a diverse housing stock that creates a community that could, in theory, host the life cycle of an entire generation as they age and change.
This is a crucial piece of the puzzle in building Strong Towns. Diversity—of residents, building types, and building uses—makes a neighborhood resilient to economic disruption. Yet our existing development approach too often produces monocultures.
This post from Patrick Prescott at Places Worth Caring About offers us another take on how to build neighborhoods that accommodate a diverse range of ages and walks of life among their residents. It might be easier than we think to incorporate multi-family housing into a neighborhood of single-family homes in a way that's respectful of context:
Cities planning new subdivisions should consider this sort of mixed density as a way of integrating different economic and social groups into neighborhoods. Definitely a better idea than large apartment complexes cordoned off from single-family by arterial streets and better than plopping a large apartment building right next to a single family home.
Over at NextSTL, they're applying some classic Strong Towns math to a proposed federal project. The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency is looking to relocate its St. Louis-area facilities, and has its eye on a massive site on the city's economically depressed north side, which would require the use of eminent domain and the closing of some city streets. Richard Bose explains:
The current conditions are dire. The area is mostly vacant. Dollar-wise, compared to the present, the NGA moving there would be a home run.
But we know what used to be there- “city.” Let’s take a look at a block off Grand to see what could be. I’ll use the block bounded by Grand, Connecticut, Spring, and Wyoming. It generates $98,500 in property taxes on 6 acres or $16,436/acre. If I take out the church on Wyoming, it’s $17,810. The block also produces undisclosed sales and earnings taxes. A less prosperous block is bounded by Cherokee, Ohio, Utah, Texas at $7,500/acre. And an all-star is Metro Lofts on Forest Park Avenue at Euclid at $169,500/acre. As far as neighborhood vibrancy goes, these are infinitely higher than the proposed NGA facility offers.
The crux of the issue here, says Bose, is that
... with the NGA we’re supposed to sacrifice 100 acres of potential city and thank them for it.
It boils down to what kind of city we want. Do we want the big, sooner-rather-than-later solution? In a city that can’t add land area, is this worth the sacrifice? Instead of low density development patterns, shouldn’t we be trying to build “city” there? That’s the only way we can afford all the infrastructure and services we expect.
On Where Do We Go From Here?, Dave Alden continues his Intro to Urbanism series with an explanation of the merits of regulating building form rather than use.
Dave Alden was also one of many Strong Towns members to comment on the licensing board complaint filed (unsuccessfully) against Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn, a blatant attempt at intimidation by a fellow engineer upset with Strong Towns's criticism of both the engineering establishment and the policy stances of its major professional organizations. Dave's post Are Engineers Allowed to Be Urbanists? cites several examples from his own career of pressure to conform to a particular political stance. He concludes:
Despite having written this blog for more than three years, folks regularly assume that, as an engineer, I must support the new freeway interchange, the new big box store, or a proposed subdivision sprawling up a nearby hill. All three assumptions are usually wrong and shouldn’t have been made in the first place.
Marohn, I, and thousands more have survived rigorous academic training and government licensing to become professional engineers. Those licenses give us the authority to decide how to bridge canyons or how to deliver potable water to millions of people. Those are worthy goals and I’m proud to have professional brethren solving those problems.
But some of us have taken the skill set gained through academia, licensing, and practice to tackle a different problem, how to create a world in which our fellow citizens can live safely, affordably, and with joy and how to bequeath that world to the next generation. It’s also a worthwhile goal and one that should be supported. But challenges to licenses and pigeonholing assumptions aren’t supportive. They’re the reverse.
Finally, on kind of a fun note, Bill Emory finds a detailed street map in a sycamore leaf.
At first glance, I thought this evoked the hierarchical road networks of late 20th century suburbia. But zoom in on a section away from the main stem, and you can also envision the irregular maze of winding alleys seen in centuries-old European cities. We talk a lot here at Strong Towns about how cities are complex adaptive systems, so it's always fun to discover the ways in which we inadvertently imitate the ultimate complex adaptive system: nature.