“The purpose of cities is to bring people together. In the 20th century, we blew them apart.” Why are we still stuck in the bad old Modernist mindset? “The struggle is long and ongoing.”
The latest issue of National Geographic magazine is titled “the cities issue,” and features several articles on hopeful trends in urban development. Thankfully, it’s not all about smart grids and big data, but also about how human beings connect — or don’t — in cities. And how some of the proposed solutions to current challenges are moving in exactly the wrong direction. A few gems:
People living in high-rise towers in a park can be just as disconnected—from their neighbors and from the unwalkable street below—as people living on suburban cul-de-sacs.
Calthorpe said [Portland’s best idea was] “to reinvent the old streetcar suburb, where you had fabulous downtowns and you had walkable suburbs, and they were linked by transit.”
To do all this, in Calthorpe’s view, you don’t really need architectural eye candy or Jetsons technology… You need above all to fix the mistakes and misconceptions of the recent past.
[Gehl said] “There is great confusion about how to show the city of the future. Every time the architects and visionaries try to paint a picture, they end up with something you definitely would not like to go anywhere near.”
[Gehl] opened his laptop and showed me a Ford Motor Company website called the City of Tomorrow. The image showed a landscape of towers and verdant boulevards with scattered humans and no sign of them interacting.
“Look at how fun it is to walk there,” Gehl said dryly. “There are only a few hostages down there among the autonomous cars.”
“Towers in the park,” as New Urbanists call this kind of design, is a legacy of modernist architecture, whose godfather was Le Corbusier. In 1925 he proposed that much of central Paris north of the Seine be razed and replaced with a grid of 18 identical glass office towers…Cars, Le Corbusier thought, had made the streets of Paris, “this sea of lusts and faces,” obsolete.
Like most of Le Corbusier’s ideas, the Plan Voisin was never built. But his influence was nonetheless global…
[Joe DiStefano said] it took us only 50 years to blow up a walkable urban form that had endured millennia; we could undo that in another 50.
“Waking up every morning and knowing that the city is a little bit better than it was yesterday—that’s very nice when you have children,” Gehl said. “Think about that … Your children have a better place to live, and your grandchildren have a better place to grow up than you could when you were young. I think that’s what it should be like.”
Read the full article here — and gaze on the “eye-candy” images with more than a little skepticism…!
Another blow to simplistic “build baby build” (and undemocratic “jam it down their throats”) approaches
Writing in the national real estate trade journal Housing Wire, the Chief Economist for the National Association of Homebuilders, Robert Dietz, says that the causes of housing affordability problems include high building materials costs, new tariffs, a persistent labor shortage, building codes, and lack of financing for both buyers and, especially, developers. Zoning codes were mentioned as only one of a number of regulatory issues, and “NIMBYism” was not mentioned at all.
From the article:
The housing market has a growing affordability problem, and here’s why.
Since 2012, housing affordability conditions for prospective homeowners have declined…. The causes of this situation are complex.
On the new construction side, a persistent labor shortage, building material price volatility and tariffs, and growing regulatory burdens on issues like zoning and building codes have held back housing production in areas with growing population and employment.
Financing issues also are holding back the housing market.
While we typically think of mortgage access issues for buyers as the financing issue of focus within the housing sector, a lack of available financing for acquisition, development and construction (AD&C) debt also is an important factor restraining construction and increasing costs….
Housing stakeholders and policymakers should take notice. Tighter availability of AD&C financing will mean future declines for housing affordability…
Other factors not mentioned in the article are the growing influence of global capital in speculative real estate ownership, and the dynamic complexity of real estate markets. Nonetheless, Dietz does acknowledge — unlike some who promote simplistic and destructive solutions — that “the causes of this situation are complex.”
Perhaps the solutions need to reflect that complexity — not a “silver bullet” but something more like “silver buckshot?” That is, a combination of tools and strategies, based on evidence?
One can only hope that, coming out of the strange current mania for deregulatory upzoning, cooler heads will soon prevail…
Reporters Brad Schmidt and Elliot Njus say “Portland planners publicly overstated by five times the number of new homes they expect a controversial infill plan could create over the next two decades.”
From the article:
City officials boasted that their plan projects “the addition of 24,000 units in triplexes or fourplexes” by the year 2035.
But the city’s own forecasts paint a much different picture.
Planners expect a net of fewer than 4,000 new units to be built in residential neighborhoods citywide under their infill plan, according to numbers obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive and not previously disclosed by the city.
What’s more, the plan isn’t expected to deliver those new homes to the inner eastside neighborhoods as planners have stated, an analysis of those numbers shows. Instead, it would disproportionately steer a majority of new units to poorer neighborhoods east of 82nd Avenue, where the risk of displacing residents is high.
Advocates of progressive planning should take a hard look at the interests behind current pro-growth movements in many cities, their mixed motives and doubtful outcomes. In many cases the motives may have more to do with direct financial benefit than an evidence-based approach to affordability, equity or sustainability.
It is a truism that cities change and grow, and that it is better to take a pro-active stance than a reactive one. We surely need to provide new housing for growing cities, even as we promote equity, justice, and sustainable urban development.
On the other hand, cities are immensely complex systems, and we should be wary of “silver bullet” solutions. As Jane Jacobs and others warned, few such approaches are suited to “the kind of problem a city is” – one that is dynamic, interactive among many variables, and prone to unintended consequences.
One of these silver-bullet approaches is what I will call “build baby build” – that is, maximizing the number of housing units that can be built, especially in the cores, with little regard for what may be in the way. The resulting increase in housing will, it is claimed, ease shortages, lower prices, promote equity, and reduce pressure for unsustainable suburban expansion. If a casualty is a significant loss of heritage structures, that is a necessary price of progress. If a casualty is the democratic participation of citizens who are acting too much like NIMBYs, that is their fault and their problem. If a casualty is the rash dismissal of decades of careful planning – for example, of Oregon’s vaunted land use planning system – well, a new day beckons, with new challenges.
Of course, all of this assumes that such a simplistic silver-bullet approach will be effective – a question we should examine very carefully on the evidence. This is particularly true given the dangers of failure and unintended consequences – as I will discuss below.
In order to put this approach into practice, it is typically necessary to radically deregulate existing planning and zoning regulations – by legislative force if necessary. Such deregulatory upzoning might include (and has included in a number of current Portland, OR. proposals) raising height restrictions, expanding allowable volumes, easing parking requirements, and stripping local boards and neighborhoods of power to assess compatibility with existing neighborhood livability and historic character.
This, then, is a radical agenda of “deregulatory upzoning,” risking an unprecedented transformation of the character of our cities, and discarding years or decades of hard-won gains in urban quality and livability, often derived from careful evaluation and refinement over time. We should at the least carefully assess the evidence before moving forward on such a momentous change. In particular we should ask, as they say in law, cui bono?
The term “cui bono” (to whom is the benefit) is used in law to distinguish the parties that benefit from an action or condition, often to establish the responsibility of hidden actors. Of course the answer by most proponents of the “build baby build” approach is that everyone benefits who seeks more affordable housing, especially those who have been dispossessed, displaced, or otherwise subject to environmental injustice. Everyone benefits from the resulting conservation of farmland, and more sustainable forms of urban development.
As I will discuss in more detail below, this idea is lacking in evidence, contradicted by counter-evidence, and theoretically flawed. In fact the most evident benefit is to some promoters with financial interests, who may or may not be genuinely concerned with housing costs or urban equity. It follows that advocates of progressive planning who may be tempted to align with this agenda should go into any such association with open eyes – perhaps more open than at present.
An example of such well-meaning intentions (at least by some) can be seen in the growing movement, or network of movements, variously known as “Yes In My Back Yard” or “YIMBY,”“Up For Growth,” and other similar groups. These activists have pushed to build many more units, especially in the cores of cities like Portland. These and related efforts have resulted in a growing number of adversarial battles, often pitting long-time allies against one another: affordable housing activists against historic preservationists, environmentalists and farmland preservation advocates against long-time neighborhood livability advocates, and others. In some cases the attacks have become quite personal, heated and disparaging. It is fair to say that, at the least, the climate of constructive civic discourse has not been enhanced in these cities.
Let’s consider the evidence on the claims, and the possible motivations for making them. First, is this deregulatory upzoning actually an effective strategy in creating greater affordability, equity or sustainability? And second, if not, are there other explanations for its aggressive promotion today, aside from the naive ideas of well-meaning activists? Specifically, are there financial beneficiaries from the process, whose interests may be less obvious? Again, cui bono?
First, on the evidence, the most charitable thing that can be said of the current deregulatory upzoning campaign is that it exhibits simplistic (if plausible-sounding) thinking.
Let us start with the fundamental problem for any upzoning strategy for affordability, and that is the dynamic and non-linear nature of real estate markets. Adding desirable units in desirable locations (like the core) can actually make a neighborhood or city more desirable on the whole, and therefore more expensive, not less. Second, the fluidity of demand means that lowering prices can result in “induced demand” from adjacent markets, pushing prices back to their former levels, or (if the result is a surging popularity trend) even higher.
Put differently, it is not a simple linear formula of number of units to cost of units. It matters a great deal what we build, and where we build.
An instructive example can be seen in Vancouver, B.C., where both dynamics have been at work in recent years. That city has tried to build its way out of high prices, while also remaining attractive to outside buyers. The result has been an explosion of new real estate developments, including many new tall building projects. But far from lowering costs, the surge of new units has come even as the city has become, by several measures, the most expensive housing market in North America.
Even so, planners in other cities often seek to emulate the “Vancouver model,” especially the attractive urban scene that has been created along the city’s expansive waterfronts. They seem to overlook the fact that Vancouver is blessed with an extraordinary (and unique) location offering miles of waterfront, scenic mountain geography, and historic assets including the markets at Granville Island (itself the narrow heritage survivor of a plan to demolish it to make way for unremarkable condos in the 1970s). The “attractive urban scene” is also populated almost entirely by relatively wealthy urban elites, much like the planners themselves, and not by a diverse, rank-and-file citizenry.
The “tower envy” shared by so many fans of the Vancouver model also fails to account for inherent problems with tall buildings, as much research has shown. When it comes to affordability, tall buildings are unfortunately an inherently more expensive form of construction, due in part to requirements for costly structural stiffening, and in part to the additional space necessary for egress and service cores. Then too there is the rising cost of land, which tends to be priced for highest and best use. Those factors, combined with the views on offer, mean that most tall residential buildings are sold as expensive condominiums for the wealthy. (Occasionally they include a component of affordable housing, but where it occurs at all this is generally a small percentage, on the order of 10%, with a concomitant rise in the cost of the remaining housing to meet pro forma parameters.)
The other impacts from tall buildings are, of course, on their surroundings, including shading, obstruction of views, and wind effects. Taller buildings also magnify the negative impacts of what citizens may regard as unattractive or even ugly, visually degrading designs. In a five-story building, such a design is a problem for the neighbors, but in a fifty-story building, it is a problem for the entire city.
Tall buildings are often justified as a necessary means to achieve higher urban densities, which in turn are considered essential to containing urban sprawl, conserving farmland and natural areas, and providing a more compact and efficient urban form. There are two flaws with this argument. The first is that it is possible to achieve much higher densities than those of most US cities without any tall buildings (a phenomenon that can be readily observed in many other cities, e.g. Paris, Copenhagen et al). This was in fact the finding of a UK House of Commons report on tall buildings: “The proposition that tall buildings are necessary to prevent suburban sprawl is impossible to sustain. They do not necessarily achieve higher densities than mid or low-rise development and in some cases are a less-efficient use of space than alternatives.”
There are several reasons why tall buildings often don’t achieve the densities expected. One, they are typically set back from one another to allow for views, light and privacy. Two, their floor areas are typically constrained by egress (exiting) requirements, including maximum horizontal distance to stairwells. Three, their chief asset is the views they afford, which are more limited in the “deep plan” layouts that would achieve higher density. And four, tall buildings are often set within landscaped areas – Le Corbusier’s “towers in the park” – which further reduces their effective density. In fact, a careful number-crunching exercise reveals the flaws in human psychology, and the tendency to simplistically associate height with density.
The second flaw with the density argument has to do with the supposed value of density itself, which is not scale-free. While moderately high densities are beneficial for resource efficiency and lower emissions, extremely high densities are not proportionately beneficial: many urban benefits, like transportation efficiency, begin to taper off above about 30 units per acre. This is because a person in a four-story building doesn’t travel that much more than a person in a forty-story building – whereas, say, a person in a one-story building on a large lot likely travels a great deal more. Indeed higher densities can carry their own negative impacts, e.g. “canyon effects” concentrating pollutants, “heat island effect” magnifying urban heating, more limited access to sun, light, and so on.
Not all of the proposals are for tall buildings, of course, and many proposals are for mid-rise and low-rise infill projects. Here the objections often center around compatibility with neighborhood character, particularly in historic inner-city neighborhoods. In some cases the new developments are actually replacing demolished historic structures, which often have weak protections. (This is especially true in Oregon, for example.) This is not only bad for heritage, it is bad for the embodied energy and materials that are first destroyed and then duplicated – and often in trendy new structures that may go out of fashion and be demolished sooner. This is not a sustainable approach!
We must also ask whether the idea that central city infill should be prioritized as a key strategy to control loss of farmland and wilderness, as some have argued. Purely from a numbers analysis, the proposition is dubious. For example, the Portland metropolitan area’s “Urban Growth Boundary” (a good proxy for its buildable area) is about 250,000 acres, while the city itself is 85,000 acres, or only 35% of the total. Similarly, the City of Portland’s population is 648,000 while the Portland metropolitan region (including Vancouver) is 2.39 million – almost four times bigger. The area of the Portland core is even smaller – again, on the order of perhaps ten percent.
With those numbers, it must be concluded that there are many more opportunities for many more units outside the core – typically at a lower cost, often without demolishing existing heritage, and often on existing unbuilt or under-utilized land.
What about the idea that the central core offers better infrastructure, better life opportunities, and a better model of sustainability? That amounts to a “monocentric” model of cities, which fails to address the reality – that most city regions are polycentric, with many more residents in suburban cities and urban sub-centers. In the Portland region, those sub-centers include major cities like Gresham and Hillsboro – in their own right the third- and fourth-largest cities in Oregon – as well as urban centers like Portland’s Gateway and Lents. Many people already live and work in these places; so should they not also have good-quality amenities, transportation and mixed use?
There is a one-size-fits-all fallacy in some sustainability circles, that only the centers are truly sustainable, and sub-centers can never be so. This is largely based on the idea that necessary travel to the center requires more energy and emissions. But it neglects the fact that most travel trips are not to the center, and many trips can be captured locally in “complete communities”. In addition, there are many other factors in urban sustainability besides transportation resources. While there are undoubtedly some increased benefits from living in dense cores, again, those benefits taper off as density goes up – and other factors can be equally important. It is naive to assume that everyone will want to live in dense cores – and certainly a disturbing idea that we should force them.
Of course it is more difficult to improve the more distant sub-centers, and make them more desirable. Their markets are not as hot, and investors are not as keen to finance projects. Then too, there are many barriers to good-quality development there. Regulatory burdens are part of the challenge – but not so much because larger and taller buildings are not allowed, for the market will not support such structures anyway. Rather, the barriers are of a more ordinary kind: bureaucracies adding red tape, not coordinating with one another, requiring expensive methods and components, and causing added delay and risk, on top of other factors. These are the bigger barriers to affordable development in any locale.
But the cores offer a seductive target – and an unhelpful one, in relation to goals of affordability, equity and sustainability. The market is eager to build there, but not eager to build affordable or diverse housing. It is all too easy to see projects built that end up more expensive than existing stock, and to pat ourselves on the back for adding supply – when in fact we have not addressed the real needs. We have, however, financially rewarded the developers to whom we have given such a remarkable opportunity.
In this sense, a reckless supply-side strategy in the cores makes little sense. Indeed, it seems to be a formula for over-heating the cores, and making affordability worse, not better. The gains over more moderate “gentle densification” strategies, as our friend Patrick Condon of the University of British Columbia calls them – working with stakeholders, responding to context, protecting heritage – are unimpressive, and the negative impacts (loss of heritage, loss of livability, political divisiveness) are prohibitively high. And again, most important, there is little evidence, apart from simplistic economic ideology, that “build, baby build” will actually succeed in lowering (or even moderating) prices.
So what strategy would be effective, then?
No one can deny that the problems with affordability and displacement in these cities are real. The question centers on whether there are other more effective strategies — and the answer seems to be yes, in abundance. For example, I have already alluded to the larger pool of opportunities in the 90 percent of regions outside the cores; these include declining malls, under-utilized parking lots, excess rights of way, abandoned or disused buildings, and many other candidate sites. These greyfield locations also offer the opportunity to provide attractive new amenities for outer suburban residents, who are no less deserving of walkable destinations, better support of transportation choices, new public spaces, and additional shops and services – all the ingredients of livable neighborhoods. These sites often also have the important advantage of lower final cost, not only because the land is less expensive, but the staging and construction process is generally simpler. The bureaucratic barriers are often lower as well.
This approach to urbanization is not focused at the center, the “top of the pyramid” regionally speaking – trying in vain to make it cheaper, but in the process likely making the entire region more expensive. Instead, it is focused on the broader urban region, and on a “polycentric” approach, creating many livable centers where residents can live, work and play.
To unlock this much larger pool of potential infill sites, jurisdictions are going to have to be more strategic about the barriers and incentives to development. Yes, regulatory simplification is almost always needed – less a question of raising height or volume restrictions, more a question of streamlining the development process, and incentivizing good development where it is needed, while making bad development pay for the costs it generates (like unneeded demolitions, for example, and excess infrastructure in the case of sprawl).
In addition, different kinds of tax policy tools and other strategic approaches can help to keep existing residents in place while minimizing increases to their rents. Other tax policies can help to moderate speculative investment pressure on prices. For example, Vancouver, B.C.’s provincial government recently raised taxes on foreign investments in real estate, seeking to dampen the speculative surge in foreign-owned real estate.
Finally, my own public involvement work over the years for private developers, governments and NGOs has convinced me that local stakeholders are not the enemy — they are our fellow citizens, after all, with democratic rights — and in fact they can become valuable contributors to a more successful development. What matters is a trust-building commitment to a “win-win” outcome, respecting stakeholder concerns and finding optimal outcomes that address them. One must avoid the easy temptation of stiff-arming, tokenism and other forms of marginalization and disrespect. The anger and opposition that ensues is entirely predictable. Blaming these victims for caring about their homes and neighborhoods seems not only churlish, but disturbingly undemocratic. For in a democracy, these citizens are supposed to have a say about their own public realm, their city, and their heritage – even a duty, to help to protect and improve it.
More recently, having been drafted into my own neighborhood association – an educational experience for a development consultant like me – I have seen that my neighbors do support some kinds of new developments, and might well become (and sometimes do become) advocates for them, even as they oppose others. Why not work with them to identify “pre-entitled” forms of development, with expedited review and permitting? (And therefore lower risk, lower time, and lower cost?) We might not think of this kind of approach as YIMBY – the unquestioning acceptance of any development, and build baby build – but we might call it, say, QUIMBY – “Quality In My Back Yard,” the eagerness to work to get better quality development, more amenities, more protection and enhancement of the existing best qualities of a neighborhood. I have seen this approach work, and I know it is possible. And I submit that it is a better, wiser long-term approach to urban improvement.
I began this essay with the question cui bono – to whose benefit is the current wave of reckless regulatory upzoning? One group should be obvious: developers, architects and planners, who stand to earn substantial development income, consulting fees, or secure employment with city departments. (Again I confess here that I am a long-standing member of this community, if a dissident one on this issue.) The motivations of other advocates are not as obvious, but on closer inspection, a connection can often be detected. Although proponents may convince themselves that their own motivations are uncontaminated by self-interest, the facts are often more complicated.
Of course, there is nothing wrong per se with a private entity seeking to make a profit from a real estate development. (Or indeed, supporting whom they please for president.) Of course, private development has produced most of the housing in most parts of the world for a very long time. There is something very wrong, however, with a city or state bending to the siren songs of private interests, adopting a defective growth strategy, sidelining its own well-considered planning systems, and thereby damaging its heritage, its livability, and its democratic processes. Such a reckless, unbalanced approach does not bode well for a better urban future.
The author is a senior researcher in sustainable urban development at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and also manages the small Portland-based urban think tank Sustasis Foundation. He has worked in sustainable building, development and consulting for governments, businesses, homeowners and nonprofits since 1983, and received his PhD. in architecture at Delft University of Technology after studying at UC Berkeley and The Evergreen State College.
Cities like Portland generate benefits from concentrations of talent, but also from “spreading it around.” Getting the balance “just right” (neither too hot nor too cold) is not just about fairness; it turns out to be better for everyone’s bottom line too. Portland could do a lot better.
In recent years, we at Livable Portland have celebrated the power of urbanism: the capacity of cities and towns (like Portland) to create economic dynamism, expanded life choices, opportunities for active living, and healthier, more resource-efficient lifestyles. This power is perhaps most obvious in the dense cores of cities, where people interact with each over across a wide spectrum of private and public spaces that are all connected to that ultimate public space system, the street.
In that celebration we have joined people like Edward Glaeser (author of Triumph of the City) and Richard Florida (author of The Creative Class). In their own works they have described cities as powerful engines of creative social and economic development. They and others acknowledge a debt to the urbanist Jane Jacobs, who championed the humble sidewalk as an arena of human interaction, occasionally producing exchanges of information and “knowledge spillovers” that are surprisingly important for economic as well as social development. “Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear,” said Jacobs, “sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.” We are learning that other kinds of wealth also grow from the network of seemingly-modest interactions in the city’s public spaces.
But along the way to this very necessary “re-urbanism,” it seems that things have gotten terribly out of balance. The story is distressingly similar in many cities around the world. Newly popular city cores are drawing more people, pushing up prices, and driving out small businesses and lower-income residents. City leaders, alarmed at the trends, try to build their way out of the problems, on the theory that more supply will better match demand, and result in lower rents and home prices. But the efforts don’t seem to work— and even seem to exacerbate the problems.
That’s because cities aren’t simple machines, in which we can plug in one thing (say, a higher quantity of housing units) and automatically get out something else (say, lower housing costs). We can’t just “build, baby build” and solve our problems of affordability. Instead, cities are “dynamical systems,” prone to unintended consequences and unexpected feedback effects. By building more units, we might create “induced demand,” meaning that more people are attracted to move to our city from other places – and housing prices don’t go down, they go up.
Unfortunately, we have been treating cities too much like machines, but for an understandable reason. In an industrial age, that has been a profitable approach for many at the top, and over the last half century, it seemed to fuel the middle class too. More recently, we have begun to see very destructive results—creating lopsided cities of winners and losers, and large areas of urban (and rural) decline. Even government programs meant to address the problems have seemed at times like a game of “whack-a-mole”—say, building some social housing in one place, and seeing more affordability problems pop up in another.
In the years after World War II, and especially in the United States, the largest areas of decline were often in the inner cities, leaving the “losers” of the economy behind, while the “winners” (often wealthier whites) fled to the suburbs. But more recently it has been the cores of large cities that have become newly prosperous, attracting the winners of the “knowledge economy”— and displacing the former long-time residents.
Meanwhile, the inner-tier suburban belts and the smaller cities and towns have suffered marked decline, resulting in predictable political backlashes, including the “populist revolt” of the so-called “white working class.” In the larger cities, lower-income and minority populations have been relegated to more peripheral suburban locations, with limited opportunities for economic (and human) development. This gap in opportunity means a gap in the lower-end “rungs of the ladder” that are so essential for immigrants and others to advance.
Like its Postwar counterpart of suburban growth, this more recent pattern of core gentrification and geographic inequality has also been an unintended result of conscious policies. This time we aimed to achieve not suburban expansion, but the urban benefits of knowledge-economy cities, and their capacities as creative engines of economic development. That is indeed a powerful force to harness. Clearly, however, we failed to recognize the need to temper this growth, and maintain a just balance of opportunity.
Florida and Glaeser, to their credit, have both acknowledged some deep problems with their models. In a 2016 interview, Florida confessed, “I got wrong that the creative class could magically restore our cities … I could not have anticipated among all this urban growth and revival there was a dark side to the urban creative revolution, a very deep dark side.” Glaeser also admitted, in a panel discussion with Florida in 2017, that recent years had seen a blowback from this re-urbanization, in the increasing segregation of winners and losers, and the political fallout that has resulted: “Let me agree that we are facing something of a crisis.”
Too much of a good thing?
The problem with the simple formula of densifying urban cores by concentrating the “creative class” can best be understood from the point of view of network theory, and especially, the theory of how people form economic networks in an urban setting. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing—to over-concentrate, and to rely too much on what are known in the theory as “rich club networks.” These are nodes of concentrated connection that are particularly well-connected, and that therefore offer access to concentrated resources—in this case, concentrations of talent and wealth. Just as in everyday life there is a great benefit to “who you know” and being on the inside of exclusive insider networks of knowledge, wealth and opportunity, “rich club networks” capitalize on similar concentrations of access within them. The trouble is, the benefits may not spill over to other areas outside of those networks.
As Luis Bettencourt of the University of Chicago points out, this network inequality can put a drag on the overall urban system, economically and socially. This is not only because of the costs in areas that are excluded, from problems like crime, policing, incarceration, social services and so on. It’s also a more basic effect of the dynamics of social networks, in what is known as “Metcalfe’s Law.” Networks—in cities or in other structures—benefit from the number of overall interconnected nodes, not just the advantages conferred by elite sub-clusters.
As Bettencourt put it, “the view of cities in terms of social networks emphasizes the primary role of expanding connectivity per person and of social inclusion in order for cities to realize their full socioeconomic potential. In fact, cities that for a variety of reasons (violence, segregation, lack of adequate transportation) remain only incipiently connected will typically underperform economically compared to better mixing cities,” he said. “What these results emphasize is the need for social integration in huge metropolitan areas over their largest scales, not only at the local level, such as neighborhoods.”
Put differently, urban equity and environmental justice are not just about fairness—they’re good for everyone’s bottom line.
But the idea that we should concentrate at the top of the pyramid has its counterpart in supply-side economic theory, which holds that if you promote the interests of those at the top who are creating supply (by giving them tax incentives and other forms of stimulus) they will generate wealth that will “trickle down” to everyone else. George Bush Sr. famously criticized this idea as “voodoo economics”—and yet it became a dominant force in the world’s economic development after 1980, including urban development. We can see now from network theory what the problem is. It is not that the network phenomenon isn’t real, but that it can get out of control. Cities do generate powerful benefits from concentrations of talent—but also from “spreading it around,” and we need to strike a balance between the two approaches.
Perhaps the trouble with Glaeser’s triumphant city cores, and Florida’s creative class, was that they were too exclusive, too dependent on an isolated population of elite knowledge workers, and a limited secondary population that would mainly service their needs. We needed more than densification of cores with walkable, well-connected street grids and mixed use—as beneficial as those are; we needed a more “polycentric,” well-connected and diverse kind of city, geographically speaking too.
In many cities today, it seems, we are seeing the consequences of this “voodoo urbanism” play out. It was thought that if we just take care of the creative class, the universities, the technology industries and their knowledge workforces, then the output of all that urban critical mass, like some kind of economic nuclear reactor, will generate immense wealth that will trickle down to all. This idea is so pervasively seductive that it has been embraced by those who might otherwise resist supply-side economic theory (like the officials in my own home town of Portland, Oregon).
But once again we can turn to Jacobs for an early and prescient warning about the dangers of this approach. She warned against “money floods” which were no less destructive of good-quality and equitable urban development than “money droughts.” More fundamentally, she warned against “the self-destruction of diversity,” in any neighborhood that allows itself to tip over into monocultures of any kind—including monocultures of creatives, or Ph.D.s, or any other sort. Diversity of all kinds is an asset to be maintained, with careful tools and strategies—not only as a matter of social justice, but one of economic vitality too. Again, this is good for everyone’s bottom line.
This was Jacobs’ central argument: that the core task of city planning was to ensure the “generators of diversity:” of people and their numbers, of uses and activities, of pathways, of building ages and conditions—and of geographic locations. Instead of over-concentrating in the core, she suggested, we need a “polycentric” city, with lots of affordable pockets full of old as well as new buildings, and multiple opportunities waiting to be targeted. In such a region, economic growth—and likewise the demand for housing—can be tempered and modulated to remain more even and equitable. We do have tools available to do that: funding incentives, catalytic tools, taxes to dampen speculation, and many others.
At the same time, it seems more important than ever to provide good urban fabric in the suburbs too, where increasing percentages of the population live (including increasing numbers of the displaced poor). “Good urban fabric” means walkable, mixed, transit-served, with expanding opportunities in older as well as newer buildings. It means the same kind of geographic as well as other kinds of diversity, achieved through conscious strategic actions to dampen, incentivize, catalyze, and use other kinds of tools.
In place of voodoo urbanism, we might call this “Goldilocks urbanism”—curating an urban growth that is not too hot and not too cold, nor not too concentrated in any one place. The former approach has done an effective job of destroying historic fabric, raising prices, fueling gentrification, and leaving our cities less sustainable and less equitable. It has also done an effective job making some people very wealthy in a short period. But we continue to follow their simplistic formulas at our cities’ peril.
Of course there are other streets around the city that are even more dangerous, unpleasant, or just plain ugly. They should certainly be improved too. But West Burnside runs through the City’s core, and, especially west of I405, it turns into a painfully visible case of a street over-planned for cars, and under-planned for pedestrians or bicyclists. Of its 60 foot right-of-way, 44 feet is devoted to vehicles, 16 feet to pedestrians, and none to bicycles. That’s 74% for cars, and 13% per side for pedestrians.
In some places, West Burnside’s sidewalks are only 6 feet wide; after factoring in light poles and other obstructions, some areas provide only a little over four feet of passage for pedestrians. Right next to them, cars blaze through in a 25 MPH zone — often driving at 35 miles per hour.
Not surprisingly, retail has struggled to succeed on Burnside. Currently both corners at West Burnside and Northwest 23rd — which, further away from West Burnside, is one of the city’s most prosperous shopping streets — feature empty commercial spaces. One of them is a chronic site of vandalism, creating a remarkable spectacle of dilapidation and urban decline.
Isn’t there a remedy? Yes, there is. Currently West Burnside is a remarkably inefficient thoroughfare, even though it has a full four lanes at 11 feet wide each. The trouble is, cars in the center two lanes frequently stop to turn across traffic at the unsignalized intersections and driveways. In the outer two lanes, conversely, buses frequently stop traffic behind them. That means the “level of service” for vehicles — the number that can get through within a given span of time — is remarkably low for the number of lanes. It also means that drivers are constantly making unsafe lane changes, going around vehicles that may also obscure pedestrians.
With a three-lane configuration, a center lane can be used for turning, allowing smooth travel in the outer two lanes. Meanwhile, buses can use turnouts so that they don’t block traffic. When they’re ready to re-enter the street, they can be given the right of way with clever designs of lanes. Speeding traffic can also be calmed with these and other bends in the roadway path.
According to former Portland planner Jerry Powell, a three-lane configuration was modeled some years ago, and it performed at least as well as the current four-lane configuration. So why hasn’t the City made the change? One reason may be the political clout of residents of the West Hills, who may perceive that a wider street means they’ll get to their downtown or Eastside offices more quickly. But is that true? Apparently not.
Isn’t it time to do something about this civic embarrassment?
A defeat of a new Apple store that would have occupied part of a park in Stockholm — by vigilant neighborhood activists — shows that some are still willing to fight for public space.
Apple is not coming to Stockholm. At least, it’s not coming to a new location at the Swedish capital’s heart.
Last month, Stockholm announced that it would block plans for a new Apple Store in the city’s center, overturning the agreement of a previous administration following widespread public outcry. As this article in The Guardian notes, the objection wasn’t against Apple as such (the company already has three Swedish stores) but against the site they chose. Had the company’s plan gone through, the electronics giant would have been camped at the end of Stockholm’s oldest, most central park: a lovely oblong oasis of greenery and paving called the Kungsträdgården, or King’s Garden. In doing so, Apple would have also taken over (but not necessarily built on) 375 square meters (4,037 square feet) of the park surrounding its store—a small chunk of the park’s overall footprint, but a sizeable privatization of public space in such a key, pivotal site.
…The sheer force of resistance—a public consultation received not a single petition in Apple’s favor—shows that there’s something more at work here than a simple debate over shopping space. Stockholm’s resistance is powered, it seems, by widespread concern about corporations taking over public spaces.
Indeed, Apple’s Stockholm plans form part of an international pattern. The tech giant has sought to set itself up in key public areas across the world’s cities, often taking over previously non-commercial spaces such as, in certain cases, former library and museum sites (more of which in a moment). They then present their store facilities as natural extensions of this public space, even as cultural institutions…
It’s not really fair to only blame Apple for this: It’s just a company that, following the imperative encoded in all companies, seeks profit and market position. It has found, one assumes, that promoting itself (erroneously or not) as a sort of neutral custodian of the public sphere ultimately helps its bottom line, which is, and must be, its purpose.
The problem is the ground ceded to Apple and corporations like it by the state, which (partly under corporate pressure) is relinquishing its role as place-maker and ensurer of democratic access to public space. Apple’s ability to plausibly present their stores as new town squares rests on a tacit, erroneous assumption that the old, existing town squares are gone or broken. There’s no consideration, for example, that a new, truly public function for an underused library could be found.
“Rents have fallen for the rich and risen for the poor.” – Quote in Portland Tribune report
After adding 15,000 apartment units since 2015, Portland’s rental market has proven that adding supply does address demand and lower prices — but the question is, for whom.
According to new data from Zillow, Portland prices have dropped 2.7 percent — but that drop is mostly in high-cost housing, which is where most of the units have been added. From an article in the Portland Tribune:
Portland and many other major cities have been inundated with a glut of luxury housing in the last few years, and local developers are reportedly sweetening their deals with Amazon giftcard giveaways and related gimmicks in order to lure wealthy customers.
This seems to be a nationwide trend, but Portland is leading the way:
Zillow’s experts found declines in annual rental prices in more than half of nation’s 35 largest markets, but the Rose City led the way — with the biggest decrease between September 2017 and September 2018.
The article concludes:
As two freelance journalists recently put it: “Rents in Portland have fallen for the rich and risen for the poor.”
Who knew? This blog, for one: we have been warning for some time that a “build, baby build” approach is dangerous, and likely counter-productive. We have to be much more strategic in how and where we build, and for whom. Other more thoughtful voices have also been speaking out.
Film about the iconic activist is followed by a community discussion on Portland’s current challenges.
On Friday, October 19th, about 150 people participated in a screening followed by an animated discussion of Portland’s current challenges as they were illuminated by the writings and activism of urban pioneer Jane Jacobs. The film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, screened at the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center, gave an account of Jacobs’ iconic 1960s battles with development czar Robert Moses, builder of freeways and housing projects, and demolisher of what he termed “slums” — but what Jacobs and others saw as vital places of social capital and city diversity. The film also delved more deeply into Jacobs’ ideas about cities, presenting an overview of her rich theoretical and philosophical perspective on cities.
At the end of the screening, a panel and community discussion moderated by Allan Classen of the Northwest Examiner asked what we can learn today from Jacobs’ ideas and legacy. He was joined by SE Examiner editor Midge Pierce, former Portland Planning Commission Chair Ric Michaelson, Division Design Initiative coordinator Heather Flint Chatto, and yours truly, co-host Michael Mehaffy of Sustasis Foundation (and this blog).
In my remarks as co-host, I sought to set the stage for exploring the parallels between Jacobs’ ideas and the current issues we face in Portland:
Thank you all for coming to this remarkable film about a remarkable person, who played such a key role in Portland’s history and so many others’ too – and a person who still has a lot to say to us today about our current challenges. And we’ll explore that in the discussion afterwards, so please do stick around for that.
By the way, I’m Michael Mehaffy, I’m executive director of Sustasis Foundation, one of the sponsors of tonight’s event, along with the Northwest Examiner and International Making Cities Livable.
So I’m going to take just a couple of minutes to provide some background setup, including some of the Portland context, so please bear with me and we’ll get to the film monetarily.
So the promotion for this movie describes it as a, quote, “chronicle of activist Jane Jacobs’ battle with developers who threatened to demolish NYC’s most historic neighborhoods, and a lesson in the power of the average person to push back,” unquote.
And yes, that’s part of the story – but only part of it. Because really what Jacobs was talking about was how a city WORKS, and how to make it work better – how to make it more diverse, more equitable, more productive, a place of human development and flourishing. And why certain strategies are doomed to fail — and not only to fail, but to cause enormous long-term harm to the city and its residents, especially to those who are not wealthy or powerful.
When Jacobs was writing and working as an activist, we were in the surging era of city modernism and modernization, the 1950s and 60s. It was really gripping the country and the world at that time, as the film shows. We’ll see what Jacobs fought against – the top-down thinking, the expansion of freeways and superblocks and giant buildings, and everywhere the bulldozing of history and human-scale fabric. That included appalling cases in minority neighborhoods, and as James Baldwin says in the film, cases of quote, “Negro removal.” As we all know, that happened to a shocking degree here in Portland.
Of course cities do change and grow, and we do need new housing supply to meet demand – Jacobs never questioned that. But of course the issue always is, where, and how, is growth occurring – and who is really going to benefit in the end. And what do citizens have to say about that in a democracy. Are we using an even-tempered approach across the region, preserving and building on our assets? Are we working with the dynamics of the city, maintaining and increasing its diversity? Or are we doing something more reckless, perhaps, for other poorly considered and self-interested reasons? It may seem like progress, we may convince ourselves it’s something wonderful and progressive – but is it really motivated more by the thrill of novelty and financial self-interest? Jacobs wants us to ask these hard questions of ourselves, and her own judgment was often harsh. As she says in the film, “Any city that’s tearing down its buildings just to make money for a development, or just to have novelty, is doing something criminal.”
Well, we learned a lot of painful lessons coming out of that era, as the film relates. Places like Portland were part of the battle to recover the human scale of cities, the small-grained activities of the streets, the livable beauty of our heritage, the mix of uses and ways of getting around – and especially, the diversity of the city. To get that, we had to fight the corrosive influence of money and power and unresponsive government. And of course we still do.
Robert Moses, Jacobs’ major nemesis in the film, was active here in Portland too, laying out huge freeway projects that were never built. They were never built because neighborhood activists here rose up and fought for what they believed, a vision of a better city. And we are in their debt today, more than we realize.
We made a lot of progress from that era, although Portland has always been a work in progress, with a mix of successes and many challenges remaining. We still need to fight bad projects that damage our heritage and our city life, and fight for good projects, that build on the best dynamics of cities. As the title of tonight’s event suggests, the battle for the city continues.
And now we find ourselves with a new challenge, I would say a new reactionary if profitable phase of modernization – and the same troubling bulldozing of history, the same troubling command-and-control approach to urban problems, the same troubling wave of sterile large-scale, top-down structures created by developers and designers – with ever weirder and, for some, uglier buildings — leaving human beings with little to really engage with. And we see similar claims that this is for the best for people, for affordability, for the environment. And similar attacks on those citizens who dare to question that conventional wisdom. Some of my colleagues in the architecture, planning and development professions seem to think that if they just sprinkle some mixed use and some street cars at the base, the failed old model will work after all. Well, watch the film, and I think you can see a pretty powerful critique of that kind of thinking.
One of the aspects of Jacobs’ work that is not so much covered in the film is the emphasis on grass-roots governance at many levels, and most importantly down to specific places, specific neighborhoods. And I quote from her great book The Death and Life of Great American Cities:
“The principal coordination needed comes down to coordination among different services within localized places… The invention required is not a device for coordination at the generalized top, but in specific and unique localities.”
In Portland we have a fundamental problem with this kind of localized governance. We have an at-large system of council elections, which leaves many parts of the city unrepresented. We have a commissioner system of bureau management, which tends to encourage top-down bureaucracy without bottom-up responsiveness and accountability. And we have a neighborhood association system that is therefore all the more important, but – and here I will speak frankly – that is moribund, and in dire need of reform and revitalization. And yet at this moment, the bureau in charge of it seems to be moving in a very different direction.
The film concludes by observing that the kind of city-making that Jacobs fought against is now growing faster than ever before all around the world – freeways, superblocks, horizontal sprawl, vertical sprawl if you will. One of the speakers calls it “Robert Moses on steroids.” I think we have to face the global consequences of this destructive kind of city-making for the great challenges of the future – for resource depletion, ecological destruction, toxic emissions and climate change. And I think it’s a systems challenge too, a social challenge, and a governance challenge. Portland is seen as a leader on these issues for many other cities, for better or worse, and so I think it’s all the more important that we get it right here. So in that sense, I do think Jacobs and her ideas couldn’t be more relevant for us here today.
So! We have lots to discuss, and lots to think about! Thank you, and we hope you enjoy the film.
A free showing of a new film on Jacobs’ life and ideas will explore the question and its answers (Friday October 19th, 7-10 PM)
The urban champion Jane Jacobs had a special relationship with the City of Portland over its evolution as a more diverse, mixed, walkable place. A frequent advisor to grass-roots activists in the city, Jacobs championed lively, diverse neighborhoods, and she also led citizen activism against powerful special interests.
Jacobs was the author of the 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a landmark work that remains an inspiration for many planners today. Yet in it, she excoriated planners for failing to listen to people, failing to genuinely involve and empower them, and failing to develop effective strategies to promote healthy, equitable urban development. Not content to criticize, she also explained, in lucid detail and with keen powers of observation, just what was required to remedy those shortcomings.
What does Jacobs say to Portland today? Quite a lot, it turns out — as documented in the new film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. The acclaimed film — earning a 94% critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes — focuses on Jacobs’ heroic activism in New York City, her victories over bullying planner Robert Moses, and other related struggles, at a time when New York neighborhoods were threatened with destructive new freeways and other out-scale developments.
In Portland a few years later, citizen activists would be inspired by her example to fight bad freeway projects, destructive hospital and shopping mall expansions, and demolition of historic treasures. Those activist successes laid the foundation for the city’s subsequent urban renaissance, cementing Portland’s legacy as an icon of urban regeneration and enlightened planning.
But that was then and this is now, we have won those battles, and we have nothing to learn from that past — right? Sadly, nothing could be farther from the truth. Today we also face a wave of destructive projects, stiff-arming government officials, the corrosive influence of development money, and counter-productive policies that only exacerbate our problems. Jacobs’ activism — and moreover, her profound ideas on the nature of cities — still have very much to say to us today.
As we have written elsewhere, Jacobs was not only an activist, but also a deeply insightful scholar and urban scientist, teasing out the workings of cities and the dynamics of urban economies, and offering insights that we could put to work for human benefit. Her observations on “organized complexity” and a “web way of thinking” marked her as an urban visionary of the first rank. (And an economist, political theorist and more.) Above all she was a champion of diversity, of the mixing of people, activities, building types and ages, and (most overlooked) geographic locations.
As we have written elsewhere, Jacobs cautioned against “silver bullet” solutions, “rushing monocultures of the new,” and over-building in the cores of cities (including building too high). She eschewed simplistic “whack-a-mole” approaches to our urban problems, instead focusing on a more multi-faceted approach, strategically and geographically. As we wrote previously:
Jacobs argued for a more diverse kind of city – diverse in population, diverse in kinds of activities, and diverse in geographic distribution too. Hers was a “polycentric” city, with lots of affordable pockets full of old as well as new buildings, and multiple opportunities waiting to be targeted. In such a region, economic growth — and likewise the demand for housing — could be tempered and modulated to remain more even and equitable.
On Friday, October 19th, from 7 to 10PM, the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center (1819 NW Everett Street) will feature a showing of Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, the acclaimed documentary on Jacobs’ life and ideas.
Come see this remarkable film on her life’s work, followed by a panel discussion on Portland’s current situation, and the still-urgent need for citizen activism. What does Jacobs say to Portlanders, at a time when our fabled neighborhood association system is being deconstructed?