Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What People Like And Don't Like About Cities,html#,VO0a8vVwxDE.mailto

Cafe Berlin
Washington D.C,
Hello Everyone:

At, we love cities around the world.  We love all the positive things cities have to offer: work, school, residential, retail, commercial, and of course the variety of food cities have to offer. Blogger also has been known to complain about city life: the traffic, the high cost of living, the lack of public transportation options and so forth.  Once again, we turn to Kaid Benfield, from the Natural Resources Defense Council, and his blog post for Switchboard way back on July 29, 2014 "What we like-and don't like-about our cities" for a list of cities's good and bad points.  Not surprising, food offerings ranked high with urban dwellers.  The study, The State of the City Experience ( surveyed a 1,000 people who live and work in Boston, Austin, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington D.C; asking them what they liked and did not like about their environment, focusing on four areas: architecture, activities, parks and open spaces, and transportation.  The findings are important as they are keys to a sustainable future.  As Mr. Benfield writes, "To get the environment right, we need to create and maintain urban environments that people like."

Contigo Ranch
Austin, Texas


Activities, specifically restaurants and food.  If you are planning to visit a city you have never been to, what is the first thing you ask?  "Know any good places to eat?" Therefore is no surprise that restaurants and other food sources are among the most popular features of urban life. The Sasaki survey reported:

When we asked city residents what aspects of urban life enchanted the, food kept popping in their responses. Eighty-two percent of urbanites appreciate their city's culinary offerings.

Restaurants also ranked number among the reasons people would go visit a different part of their city-"46 percent of respondents, and number one among a different list of choices when asked to name 'the most outstanding aspect of cities people love to visit.'"  Local attractions came in second.

Kings Theater
Brooklyn, New York

Architecture and public spaces

One of the features that make cities great is historic architecture. So it does not come as a shock to read that urban residents (54 percent of respondents) place a high premium on historic buildings.  The 54 percent who responded in this manner agreed "that to improve their city's architectural character," they "would like to see their city invest in renovating existing historical building to retain character while making them more useable." Yes.  Only a paltry 17 percent thought their city "was too quaint' and "would like to see more skyscrapers and iconic buildings." Message to those 17 percent, there are skyscrapers and iconic buildings that are also  historic buildings.  In the same vein, 57 percent of the respondents will "stop to admire buildings that are historic," and 19 percent prefer "buildings that are modern" (see message to the 17 percent).

Historic buildings aside, urbanites adore parks and public spaces. Why not, after  being trapped inside who would not want to go outside, stretch their legs and breath fresh air?  The Sasaki survey revealed "...that most people remember their favorite city experience taking place outdoors, either in a park or on a street."  To wit, 65 percent of respondents named a park or sidewalk as the site of their favorite experience, private buildings were a distant 22 percent.  No surprise that government and civic building ranked toward the bottom (6 percent) of favorite experience.

Boston Waterfront
Boston, Massachusetts
Waterfronts were ranked as the most popular public space, large parks came in second.  A majority of those surveyed "...wished their cities would make streets more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians, would support adding outdoor music and entertainment  venues," and would like to see more pocket parks, especially near their work place " for visiting on lunch breaks,"

San Francisco city traffic
San Francisco, California
Transportation and parking

The title of the Kaid Benfield article is "What we like-and don't like-about our cities," so you can only guess what the respondents to the survey did not like about their cities.  If you guessed transportation and parking you were among the substantial number of those surveyed (41 percent) that listed traffic as their top complaint about their city.  Interestingly enough, most of those surveyed are contributors to this ongoing problem-58 percent said "...the use cars most frequently among modes of transportation.  (Half that many listed public transit.)"  Not that blogger is one to point a finger of blame at those who prefer the car. For many people, especially in cities, safe, reliable, efficient public transit simply does not exist.  The
Madison Street
Chicago, Illinois
Sasaki survey author's wrote:

When we asked urban residents what they like least about living and working in a city, traffic was the unsurprising winner.

Breaking Americans of their car habit has been an ongoing battle Transit-oriented develop is the most-cite solution to encourage a less auto-centric society.  (An anomaly, New York has the city-wide density to support a robust transit network)

However the numbers (here and elsewhere) speak loud and clear" we are still auto-dependent.  We need to plan and design differently-in a way that will enhance mobility options while still acknowledging our love for the automobile.

Naturally, the number two complaint about cities is parking.

Cheese shop on Bedford Avenue
Staying put

Despite all the complaining about traffic and parking, the Sasaki survey revealed that, in the cities studied, "60 percent of respondents said they plan on living either where they do now or in a different part of the city."  Of that 60 percent, 34 percent said planned to move outside the city at some point.  Mr. Benfield cheerfully notes, "But what a welcome contrast to the situation to the situation a few decades ago when central cities were emptying out, suburbs seen as the oveerwhelmingly preferred domicile for those with a choice."

Kaid Benfield listed some questions, intended to discover whether a city is environmentally and socially sustainable.  The questions still remain important, regardless of the Sasaki survey findings.  However, if we have the right ingredients, in the form of the responses outlined in the survey, we could have a better chance of reaching sustainability. As Kaid Benfield put it, "...if our solutions don't work for people, they will never work for the planet."

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Urban Density At A Human Scale

Queen Street
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
photograph by Julia Campbell
Hello Everyone:

Love is in the air for blogger but yours truly is not one to kiss and tell.  Instead, blogger prefers to share the love of architecture, historic preservation, urban planning and design with you.  Sorry to be such a tease.

Rather than blather on, blogger would like to spend some time and space on urban density. Kaid Benfield's article "Letting Love Rule: All urban density is not created equal," for Placemakers, will serve as our guide for looking at the challenges and opportunities that creating places for humans, in cities, present.  The article was originally featured on the NRDC Switchboard (  In keeping with our series of letting love rule, when it comes to place making, can we let love, not dogmatic adherence to ideology, rule?

Random city
To the left is a picture of a picturesque random city, somewhere in the universe.  The point of this image is to illustrate the idea that when people talk about "...walkable, 'smart growth' city neighborhoods often choose historic districts to illustrate" what they mean. This city, somewhere out there, was chosen by Smart Growth America (@SmartGrowthUSA) as an example of a recent tweet "Healthy, diverse smart growth neighborhoods attract talent, commerce, and investment."  When a neighborhood is attractive as the one on the left, it is only natural that businesses are drawn to them.  In May 2014, the National Trust for Historic Preservation  Preservation Green Lab ( released an excellent report titled, Older, Smaller, Better Measure how the character of buildings and blocks influence urban vitality. The report concluded that, "compared to districts dominated by larger, newer buildings, those with smaller and older buildings were found to score better on multiple measures of urban vitality."

Rochester, Michigan Main Street
posted by Hazel Borys
 Here is another lovely example of an older   neighborhood in Rochester, Michigan.  It is a classic example of a "Main Street" straight out Norman Rockwell.  It also appears on the organization's profile page.  Examples like this one and others are routinely used by preservation advocates because they represent all the qualities that "...newer suburban sprawl lacks but we would like to see in more urban and suburban neighborhoods:  walkability, density, and a diverse mix of uses..."

Rochester, Michigan
However, Mr. Benfield speculates, "...there's more going on than that.  We show these neighborhoods because we people will like them, and we believe, associate them favorably our cause, in effect thinking, 'this smart growth stuff is pretty attractive.'"  If you look carefully at the photograph on the left, you will notice that there is diverse grouping of building sizes, ranging from two to six stories high. What you should pay attention to is the fact that they are human scaled buildings, not imposing glass and steel boxes.

Once again, Kaid Benfield offers up his own speculation, "The great Danish architect and walkability guru Jan Gehl would likely conclude that the building heights shown in the two photos are about right to optimize the pedestrian experience."  After undertaking an thorough analysis of human behavior in different environments, Mr. Gehl concluded, "...the most comfortable building height for an urban setting is between 12.5 and 25 meters, or about three to six stories."  Mr. Benfield refers to Li Teng's Master's thesis, Human Scale Development.  (  Is the humanness of building size the reason why people love historic districts?  There is nothing wrong with tall buildings, they serve a purpose in the urban landscape.  However, as a cure for low-density sprawl, civic officials and urban planners tend to overlook the benefits of human-scaled buildings in relatively high-density cities.

Fruitvale Village
Oakland, California
Density is a good thing, from an environmental perspective.  Density has been proven to mitigate "...runoff-causing impervious surfaces in well as reduce driving rates per capita, compared to sprawl."  Without getting too technical, research has shown that the above benefits are mostly found in low-density examples.  However, these benefits begin to diminish when density rises to "...about 20 homes (single family and multi-unit) per acre, and there is little addition benefit to these indicators as density increases beyond about 60 per acre."

You may ask, if our cities are growing, would it not be more logical to build vertically instead of horizontally? The answer is yes in respect to the fact that the 60 homes per acre number by building more high rises but we can also achieve this number by building according to the historic district proportions.  Boston urban planner Susan Henderson was able to successfully achieve a density level of 52.9 units per acre in Louisburg Square, Boston, Massachusetts. (  Fruitvale Village in Oakland, California is an excellent example of recently built, smart growth developments at a human scale, similar to the lovely historic neighborhoods.  Fruitvale Village is a mixed-use transit-oriented development, near a BART station.  The buildings average about three to four stories in height, which give the pedestrians a nice variety of façades along a single sightline.  Another great example, is Bethesda Row in Bethesda, Maryland.  Like Fruitvale Village, Bethesda Row is a mixed-use, walkable, transit accessible development.  One bonus benefit; it is located on the Capital Crescent Trail, a popular walking and bicycling route.  The building heights are about two to six stories in height and filled with well visited shops and cafés.

Bethesda Row
Bethesda, Maryland
Bethesda Row is not universally loved by smart growth advocates, including one who told Mr. Benfield she found it "'an inefficient use of land', particularly objecting to its two-story proportions..."  Kaid Benfield describes Bethesda Row as "...average density that counts and, so long as lower-density portions are complemented by higher-density portions elsewhere in the development, they add interest, daylight, and a scale that humans find appealing."  Contemporary Bethesda has its share of high-rise buildings.  What would really enhance the city are "more mixed-use, highly walkable projects that serve as great ambassadors for human-scale urban density..." Bethesda Row has been cited by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as an "outstanding example of smart growth."  It also received awards from the Smart Growth Alliance, the Urban Land Institute, and the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Luxury high-rise apartments
Bethesda, Maryland
Unfortunately, what is being built, in the name of smart growth, is not human-scaled.  To wit, the picture on the left. This luxury high-rise residential development is less likely to be featured smart growth on leading advocacy websites.  Said organizations's communications directors understand that buildings like this one are precisely what the average person fears being built in their community.  While building tall does have a certain appeal and brings benefits to urban neighborhoods as well as tenants and developers.  However, blogger thinks that smaller and older can be far more efficient. Further, the human scale of older smaller buildings provides a sense of comfort and connection for people.  They provide a uniqueness of experience and place that a tall glass and steel box cannot provide.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Best-Performing Cities of 2014

The Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco, California
Hello Everyone:

We are already into 2015 but it is still not too late to look back at America's best performing cities in 2014.  To help us with deciphering which cities performed best and why is Richard Florida and hist article "America's Best Performing Cities in 2014."  Mr. Florida tell us, "The Economist reported this month that 2014's third quarter saw a 5 percent GDP growth, the fastest pace since 2003." However, at the risk of stating the obvious, recovery has been disproportionately uneven, benefitting the affluent while the working and middle class fall further behind.  Recovery has been disproportionately felt throughout cities and metropolitan areas, the real engines of economic growth.  Proof of this phenomenon is found in the Milken Institute's Best-Performing Cities 2014 (, released on January 8, 2015.  This is an "...outcome-based rankings, the study rates some 200 large and 179 small metro on several key measures: job-growth, wage and salary growth and the size and concentration of high tech industry." The study also revealed that the recovery has been centered on "...the twin pillars of America's knowledge/energy economy with the best performers being energy centers and tech hubs."

Top 25 best-performing cities

At the top of the list of best-performing cities is San Francisco, which improved on its number three standing in 2013.  What this tells us is that the "City by the Bay's" rise to the top is another indication of its ongoing move toward urban tech.  Mr. Florida observes, "...this is the first time that San Francisco has topped the list in its 15-year history, outdistancing Austin, last year's top performer (now number two), and San Jose, in the heart of Silicon Valley (fourth place)." In an email to Mr. Florida, study author Ross DeVol wrote,

From 2008 to 2013, professional, scientific, and technical services created 25,500 jobs in San Francisco-45 percent of total job creation over that period!  The median wage for these professions was $91,400." (Ibid)

To give you an indication how Technology-based professions played such a key role in city performance, the top six finishers were all tech hubs: the afore mentioned, Provo, Utah; Raleigh-Cary in North Carolina's Research  Triangle; and Salt Lake City.  The remaining top ten were four Texas cities: Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas, and San Antonio.  Seattle came in at number eleven and Boulder, Colorado was number thirteen.

Energy centers also ranked high on the list.  The evidence is strongest in the metropolitan ares in Texas, home to seven of the top twenty-five best performing metropolitans.  The energy economies of Lafayette and Baton Rouge, Louisiana also found their way into the top twenty-five-Baton Rouge had the biggest jump, fifty-five places to number 21.

"Rust Belt Rising"
 However, all the news is rosy.  The majority of the "Rustbelt" metropolitans continued to underperform.  The city of Detroit, Michigan dropped twenty-six points to 193rd; Akron, Ohio landed at 152; Toledo, Ohio is ranked 151, Cleveland, Ohio is 133.  There are some rays of sunshine amid this gloom in form of the post-industrial economies like Indianapolis (26) and Columbus, Ohio (41).  Midwestern college towns: Madison, Wisconsin (30); Ann Arbor (59) and Grand Rapids, Michigan (25) also did well.

The Sunbelt metropolitans, once infamous capitals of sprawl and housing "growth without growth." continued lag behind: Phoenix, Arizona (65) and Las Vegas, Nevada (144).  The three largest metropolitans did not fare too well: New York (62), Los Angeles (42), and Chicago (97).  The greater Washington D.C. area, which did well during the recession, fell from 45th in 2013 to 84th in 2014.

Top ten best-performing small cities
The Milken Institute study also ranked the best-performing smaller metropolitans.  Not at all surprising, they reflect "...the contours of America's knowledge-energy economy." Fargo, North Dakota-Minnesota, which benefitted from fracking activity, landed in first place.  Energy is also the primary economic engine in Victoria, Texas (3); Bismarck, North Dakota (4), and Midland, Texas (6).  The report also made note of the fact that "...many of the top-performing small metros have economies that revolve around the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing sectors. Therefore, growth in the energy sector also facilitated "...demand for infrastructure investment, construction and transportation..." engendering further economic development.  College towns and knowledge hubs like Iowa City, Iowa (5); Morgantown, West Virginia (7); College Station, Texas (8); and Auburn, Alabama (10) rounded out the top ten.

Biggest gainers among large MSAs
There were also metropolitan areas that the greatest gains in the best-performing cities rankings.  Richard Florida writes, "The good  is that a number of once-struggling Sunbelt and Rustbelt metros have seen some improvement."  The biggest gainers and rebounders were the vacation and second home destination cities: West Palm-Beach-Boca Raton-Boyton Beach which jumped up ninety-three places since 2013.  The biggest gainers in the large metropolitan were: Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Cincinnati, and Orlando all ranked among the top twenty-five gainers.

Biggest decliners among large MSAs
Just as there are cities that made big improvements in their standing among the best-performing cities, there are metropolitan areas that made the biggest declines.  Mr. Florida observes, "More troublingly, the metros that registered the biggest declines...underscore the continued hollowing of the heartland alongside parts of the Sunbelt."  Peoria, Illinois had the dubious distinction of scoring the biggest annual decline, a change of -102.  Peoria was followed by Erie (2) and York Pennsylvania (3); Roanoke, Virginia (4); Hartford, Connecticut (5), and big surprise Bethesda, Maryland (6).  The Pennsylvania metropolitan areas fared particularly poorly, with five logging in major declines, including Pittsburgh (79, -48 from 2013).  Citing the report,

To some extent , longer-term subpar growth trends are reemerging, after having been masked during the Great Recession.  Most of these metros have more service-based economies that didn't experience as severe a decline as many with with a greater reliance on manufacturing. (Ibid)

Cover of 2014 Best-Performing Cities
The Milken rankings can be used to measure the key components that are at the base of American metropolitan growth.  To understand how this works, Charlotta Mellander of the Martin Prosperity Institute conducted a basic correlation analysis on the 2014 Milken  rankings for the 200 large metropolitans they analyzed.  Ms. Mellander paired the data supplied by Milken Institute to key factor such as: "...population, density, human capital (percentage of college graduates), the share of knowledge, professional, and creative workers."  As always correlation does not imply causation, they present a relationship between variables.

Richard Florida writes, "Economist have increasingly argued that talent and human capital are key drivers of regional economic performance.  And Milken's rankings show a reasonably close association with the share of adults that are college grads (.32) and the share of the labor force made up of knowledge, professional, and creative workers (.23)."  More interesting, the Milken Index is closely aligned with arts and cultural talents (.35) than science and technology workers (.30) and business professional (.24).  Mr. Florida continues, "And for all the talk of how 'eds and meds' can help spur development, the Milken Index is negatively associated with 'eds and meds' occupations (-.17).  This reflects what the venture capitalist Fred Wilson told me in an interview a while back: He sees tech startups shifting from their previous engineering and hardware orientation to a broader, more urban focus, where entrepreneurs have characteristics that more similar to artists."

Map of America's Best Performing Cities 2014
Another characteristic of the best performing cities is openness and diversity.  Mr. Florida writes, "The Milken Index is positively associated with both the share of population that is foreign born (.26) and even more closely with the share that is gay and lesbian (.42)."  Another feature of best performing cities is they are larger (.22) and denser (.26).  The commute to and from work also matters.  Mr. Florida adds, "The Milken Index is negatively associated with the share of commuters who drive to work alone (-.31) and positively with the share of take public transit to work (.26)."

The results tell us about "the connection between clustered and concentrated tech-driven economies and inequality..."  This may sound odd to some of you but the Milken Index revealed that metropolitans that fare better have higher levels of inequality (a .28 correlation; down from .34 in 2013).  One point to pay attention to is the Milken Index inequality measure is not statistically associated with income inequality measured by the Gini coefficient.  What is particularly worrisome to Mr. Florida and others is the increasing cost of housing threatening the flourishing creative centers.  Charlotta Mellander's study concluded that there was no "statistical association between the Milken Index and the share of income devoted to housing."  Richard Florida does concede that housing affordability is very much a serious problem in cities such as San Francisco and New York, the upside is that this not the universal situation for high-performing cities and metropolitans.

The takeaway from the Milken Index is that it presents a better picture of "...America's geographically uneven recovery, where tech hub and energy centers prosper while older manufacturing and construction driven metros continue to falter."  However, before you start looking at housing and employment opportunities in San Francisco be forewarned that there are dark clouds looming in the horizon.  "Falling energy prices will likely put a damper on growth in many energy-driven metros.  And leading urban tech centers like San Francisco are faced with rising housing prices and mounting inequality which threaten to price out some of the very people who have driven innovation there in the first place."  To find out how these factors will affect cities and metropolitans, we will have to wait for the 2015 rankings.  

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Let Love Rule

H Street in Washington D.C.

Hello Everyone:

Where is the love?  Ah, the eternal question. The quest for love often brings people, from   entirely different backgrounds together.  Love is such a beautiful thing, but enough of the cheesy sentiment.  Today we're going to look at Scott Doyon's fling with New Urbanism in his article for Placemakers titled, "Can Preservationists Let Love Rule?"  His love affair began in the nineties in, of all places, his dentist's office where he was introduced to New Urbanism in a Newsweek article titled, "Bye-bye Suburban Dream."  The attraction was instantaneous, "...a movement pursuing place where people, community, beauty and culture are once again prioritized."  Soon, it Mr.  Doyon was in the throes of infatuation, "Call it the restoration of soul.  A resurrection of the wisdom embedded in our most-loved places...these emerging New Urbanists wouldn't just be allies with historic preservationists.  They'd be thick as thieves..."  Sadly, like all torrid love affairs, Mr. Doyon's affair with New Urbanism flamed out.

Said Newsweek article
What went sour?  Mr. Doyon writes, "Over time, I began noticing a strange tension I couldn't explain.  When prominent New Urban projects embraced historic styles, it was often preservationists lobbing the charges of 'fakery.'" Historic preservationists are picky people, we like places to stay as close to accurate during their period of significance as much as possible.  Any attempt at replicating, say, "...a streetcar suburb of the 1920s," reeks of Disneyfication; not properly expressive the zeitgeist.  However, let us be fair and acknowledge that there are those civilians that like "...essentially the same thing." While there is no shortage of organizations and individuals trying to preserve the grand estates of the nineteenth century, we have to remember that those estates were are actually pastisches of period style revivals.  Kind of sounds like the proverbial pot calling the kettle black.

Scott Doyon reflects, "I grew up outside Washington D.C, where important civic buildings express our founding democratic ideals with a style born several thousand years ago, a full ocean away."  What Mr. Doyon is referring to is the Neo-Classical style that was popular during the late eighteenth century because it supposedly expressed all those ideal virtues of the Graeco-Roman civilization.  The reality is the Neo-Classical style, so loved by our founding fathers, was not indigenous to the place (a swamp between Virginia and Maryland), yet became so key to establishing a visual identity for the country.

Tudor Revival house
Buffalo, New York
This brings us to the Tudor Revival, that emerged in the early twentieth century with its timber frames which were added on solely for aesthetic, not structural, reasons.  This final fruition of medieval architecture did help sell a lot of houses yet, Mr. Doyon asks "Is this fundamentally different from a newly constructed Greek Revival foursquare in a contemporary New Urban project with comparably stylistic columns?  Or an infill Craftsman employing Hardiplank instead of clapboard?"  Truth be told, the answer is no they are not dissimilar.  Yet the modern versions of the period styles are considered fakes, while the historic examples inspire monumental (slight pun intended) efforts to safeguard their longevity.

"Preserve Georgia" license plate sample
Scott Doyon readily admits his befuddlement over why some places inspire mountains of scholarship attesting to their preservation worthiness and others do not.  Frankly, between us and the digital universe, I think some long-time preservation professionals still get baffled over what is considered preservation worthy.  Mr. Doyon writes, "As some driven by the simple notion that preserving our past allows us to harvest lessons for creating better places in the future, preservationist rules and practices can seem contrary to every notion of common sense-which confounds things further because I consider myself a preservationist."  Mr. Doyon holds beauty and artistry in high regard, while rejecting the twentieth century notion of "...disposal and abstract reinvention."  By the way, Mr. Doyon, having a license plate that reads "Preserve Georgia," does not make you a committed preservationist but blogger does applaud your appreciation beauty and artistry.

American Foursquare house
Therefore, we must ask the question, what deems a place preservation-worthy?  The answer is not as mind-bending as you think it is.  Mr. Doyon writes, "During the 20th century, as it became increasingly apparent that we were throwing away our built heritage, people began banding together in opposition. Not surprisingly, they started with the truly remarkable buildings..."  Indeed, not surprising at all.  What was the driving force behind early preservation efforts?  L-O-V-E.  Such a powerful emotion.  "There were the buildings that inspired great affection and people wanted to save them..."  They used the legal system to save these affection inspiring building and in the process, gave birth to modern preservation ideology.  Yet, when they argued in defense of intangibles such as aesthetic quality or emotional attachment, they lost.  However, the preservationists scored victories when they argued a building's role in the countries ongoing historical narrative.  The message was obvious: argue emotion and you lose; argue a building's cultural value and you get better results.  Thus, as Mr. Doyon writes, " the preservation playbook, a house built today that looks like it could just as easily have been built a hundred years ago presents a problem."

We preservationists are pragmatists.  We studied what tactics work and developed concepts based on the success to develop a best-practice guide for going forward.  However, life is full ironies.  New Urbanists build houses that easily look like they could have been built a hundred  years and get criticized for-in context to urban design.

73 Hebron Road
Richmond, Virginia
Is there a way we can all just get along? Saving buildings and places is a legal (sometimes lengthy) process that requires strategy.  Mr. Doyon concedes, "I don't preservationists for that, and know that much of our remaining historic building stock exists entirely through their efforts."  Whether you agree or not, origin and age are the standards that buildings and places, considered preservation-worthy, are held to.  Mr. Doyon's point of contention is age-i.e. the 50-year rule-a building or place must be in existence for fifty years before its historic and cultural significance can be studied.  Mr. Doyon writes, "...I can't help thinking that, for most people, saving buildings has little to do with a number, be it 50 years or otherwise.  It has to do with the admittedly subjective perception of worth."

The Gamble House (1908)
Charles and Henry Greene
Pasadena, California

"Excellence endures," or maybe not. Excellence endures as a "repeatable stylistic pattern or technique.  Excellence also flourishes as a blueprint for community and town planning for the future.  Like all good thing, "Excellence inspires imitation."  The hardcore preservationists, "...the history of human settlement can be viewed as a sort of interactive museum featuring a series of definitive, time-stamped displays..."  In blogger's opinion, the history of human settlement is a living and constantly changing thing.  The way we interact with the built environment changes it for better or worse.

Finished Housing
Therefore the merits, or demerits, based on age-value were not part of the thinking when a building or place are being considered for landmark status was and not readily acknowledged as special. However, as Mr. Doyon points out, "...we've recently passed the 50 year threshold for ranch house subdivisions.  As we move into an era of diminishing resources and increasing diminishing resources and increasing demand for walkable, transit-friendly urban living, should we really be enshrining these experiments in cheap gas, leisure-class consumption, which often occupy first-ring suburban settings now best suit to redevelopment, retrofitting or increased urbanization?"

Maybe, maybe not.  These fifties-era subdivisions are just the tip of the iceberg because nibbling at these first-ring subdivisions are the ubiquitous fast food places and the gaudy eighties-era McMansions.  Could they inspire impassioned ardor when they turn fifty.  There is a campaign to save the first Taco Bell, opened in Downey, California in 1962.  (  Will the McMansions and Taco Bells be seen as cultural markers of their time or just impediments to future development?  Therefore, if we equate age with value, " do we make the collective, subjective decision that maybe some things should just fade away?"

Vignette of Avondale Estates, Georgia

In the twenties, businessman George Willis began an effort to build Avondale Estates, a picturesque version of "traditional neighborhood development," complete with a master planned town with a variety of housing types, all within walking distance to the city center.  Mr. Willis envisioned a Tudor-esque village modeled on Stratford-Upon-Avon birthplace of William Shakespeare.  However, as Scott Doyon points out, "But it would be a mistake to assume any connection between the medieval stylings he chose and the ramshackle Georgia farmland he'd purchased. Instead, he simply wanted to honor fond memories of an English vacation he'd once shared with his wife."  Could this be considered architectural and historic honesty?  No, not really, Mr. Willis probably chose the Tudor-period architecture because he simply loved it and wanted to honor the memory of it.  Like all preservation minded people, that is what we do, we protect and promote what we love.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

How Will Cities And Nations Combat Income Inequality

Passengers waiting for the train in Stamford, Connecticut
photography via Flickr/MTA of New York

Hello Everyone:

Today we are back to the growing challenge of inequality facing the United States.  Inequality is most pronounced in the largest American cities and metropolitan areas.  In an article for CityLab titled "Inequality and the Growth of Cities," Richard Florida writes, "Several recent studies (two of which I've already written about here at CityLab) have found inequality to connected to economic clustering-the very force that propels innovation and economic growth." This article looks at: the connection between inequality and economic growth whether or not economic success is tied to inequality.  To understand the connection between inequality economic growth; answer the question whether inequality is the price of economic success, Charlotta Mellander, of the Martin Prosperity Institute, "...ran a basic correlation analysis between the standard measure of income inequality based on the Gini coefficient and economic output for U.S. metro areas for two years 2006...and 2012..., as well as the change between the two to provide a measure of economic growth."  Remember, "Correlation does not equal causation, but simply points to associations between variables."

Small Cities USA Growth, Diversity, and Inequality
Charlotta Mellander generated a scatterplot chart (please click on the article link above) that graphs the link income inequality and economic output per capita for metropolitan regions in 2012.  The dots on the chart are greatly diffused and the "...correlation is weak (.13, about the same as it was in 2006, .15)."  The Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut is located far above the fit line with its combination of high income inequality and high per capita economic output.  The majority of large metropolitan areas: New York, Chicago, Houston, and Dallas and the tech hubs: San Francisco, San Jose, and Boston are place far above the line-i.e. they more unequal than what their economic growth belies.  At the opposite end of the scale, a grouping of Florida metropolitans: Sebastian-Vero Beach, Naples-Marco Island, and Gainesville-present a combination of high income levels and low economic per capita growth. However, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, Seattle, Washington D.C. (surprising Mr. Florida) show a combination of "comparatively low levels of inequality with high levels of economic output per capita."Mr. Florida concludes that Ms. Mellander's findings are in line with an October 2008 National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 14419 by Edward L. Glaser, Matt Resseger, and Kristina Toblo (, which found a smaller negative connection between inequality and metropolitan income.

Inequality Map Distribution
A second scatterplot (please click on the article link above) illustrates the relationship between income inequality in 2006 and economic growth predicated on the change in economic output per capita 2006-12.  The fit line is basically flat representing no significant statistical association between income inequality in 2006 and economic growth 2006-12.  Mr. Florida observes,

Troublingly, the fast-growing energy belt metro of Midland, Texas, combines extraordinary high inequality with a high rate of economic growth.  While not so extreme, the leading tech hub of San Jose also has relatively high inequality alongside relatively fast growth.  Even more worrying, Bridgeport, Connecticut, combines a very high level of income inequality with below average economic growth.  But Washington D.C., and Minneapolis both have comparatively low levels of inequality accompanied by moderate economic growth between 2006 and 2012.

Homeless man
Further analysis is provided by a detailed 2014 cross-national study by researchers at the International Monetary Fund (  The research is based on the most current and comprehensive information set, encompassing the most advanced and developing countries, which allowed the researchers to more accurately study the relationship between inequality and economic growth in a global context.

The study authors highlight three important findings.  First, Richard Florida notes with no surprise, "...societies that redistribute more have lower rates of inequality."  Second, lower levels of net inequality, i.e. inequality remaining once redistribution policies are factored in, "...are strongly and positively associated with 'fast, durable growth.'"  Last and most important, the study reveals the effects redistribution are benign, "...meaning both the direct and indirect effects of redistribution are generally pro-growth.  Redistribution only appears to have direct negative effects in extreme situations."

Income inequality protest
Therefore, based on this information, the researchers concluded:

It would still be a mistake to focus on growth and let inequality take care of itself, not only because inequality may be ethically undesirable but also because the resulting growth may be low and unsustainable....And second, there is surprisingly little evidence for the growth-destroying effects of fiscal redistribution at a macroeconomic level....The average redistribution, and the associated reduction in inequality, is thus associated with higher and more durable growth.

The GCI and Income Inequality
Martin Prosperity Institute 
Richard Florida shares his own findings for the MPI ( on the link between "...inequality and combined economic and creative performance (a "Global Creativity Index") on a global scale in order to provide greater insight.

The MPI analysis identified no one " between inequality and economic performance, but rather distinct paths."  On one side is the low road path, evident in the United States and United Kingdom, "...where economic growth comes with relatively high levels of inequality. But on the other, is a high road path, taken by countries like Sweden, Finland and Denmark, where economic growth goes together with substantially lower inequality."

The takeaway here is: Cities and nations have a choice to make about inequality.  They can maintain the status quo, allowing the chasm between rich and poor to grow wider thus "...allowing those at the bottom to fall through the porous safety net."  Or, combat inequality by implementing redistribution policies that do not inhibit growth.  The choice is yours.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Long Walk To Work


James Robertson walking to work
Detroit, Michigan
Hello Everyone:

Here is a really fascinating human interest story that caught blogger's attention.  It is the story of James Robertson, the 56-year-old Detroit autoworker who commutes 21-miles to work everyday, "...part of his 23-mile commute from his home in the city to his factory job in Rochester Hills..."  Mr. Robertson has been doing this five days a week, ever since his Honda stopped working.  His walk takes him through rough neighborhoods and he has to reconcile with snow and sub-freezing temperature during the winter.  Here is the irony of the story, one would think that as an autoworker, Mr. Robertson would be able to get some kind of discount on a new car or he can afford a new car thanks to union wages.  Not so, as David A. Graham recently reported in The Atlantic, "Detroit Auto-Worker James Robertson Walks 21 Miles To Work."  Despite the outpouring of positive response and generous donations totaling $70,000 and climbing toward a new car.  However, Mr. Graham points out, "Robertson is no doubt deserving, but it'll take larger changes to help others who face similar struggles."  David Graham proceeds to outline the key issues highlighted by James Robertson's story.

SMART bus at Rosa Parks Transit Center
Detroit, Michigan

Transportation, it should sound like a no-brainer in Detroit but Mr. Graham tells us "...the obvious problem here: lack of mass-transit options."  Mr. Robertson drove to work until his 1988 Honda Accord died ten years ago.  You read correctly.  In an auto-centric city like Detroit, this is not good.  Mr. Robertson's hourly wage $10.55 is about a dollar fifty more than the living wage in Wayne County (home to Detroit) yet it is still not enough for him to afford a new car, insurance, or maintenance.  Citing The Freep's Bill Laitner, Mr. Graham writes,

Robertson's 23-mile commute from home takes four hours.  It's so time-consuming because he must traverse the no-bus land of rolling Rochester Hills.  It's on of scores of tri-county communites (nearly 40 in Oakland County alone) where voters opted not to the SMART transit millage.  So it has no fixed-route bus service.

Detroit has never been too keen on mass transit-thanks to the car companies who helped quicken the end of streetcars-and it has only gotten worse over the last five years.  As the city contracts and people struggle, there less transportation options.  However, with the unemployment rate within the city at almost 25 percent, job seekers must leave the city limits for employment.  Overall, Detroit's unemployment rate is a brighter seven percent.

Abandoned Detroit-area house

With limited mass transit options, comes limited mobility.  Mobility is one of the big issues in economic recovery:  While there are jobs available, the jobs are not where the people workers need them.  It is one thing to say the people should move where the jobs are, it is quite different in practice.  The people are tied down by underwater mortgages and the high cost of relocation.  The metropolitan region is a sampling of this geographic inequality.  As the city suffers from a diminishing population, limited service, water shut downs, and high crime, neighboring Oakland County, where Mr. Robertson works is doing well.

Oakland County has been run, for over twenty years, by L. Brooks Patterson an effective manager. The New Yorker documented Mr. Patterson's efforts to secede his county from Detroit and putting an end to regional infrastructure projects.  Oakland is an affluent county and it is also where the jobs are, therefore, workers such as Mr. Robertson must undertake whatever measures they can to get to work.

Detroit Police Department crime scene


As previously mentioned, James Robertson's daily trek takes him through some rough neighborhoods.  As he puts it, "I have to go through Highland Park, and you never know what you're going to run into...It's pretty dangerous.  Really it is (dangerous) from 8 Mile on down.  They're not the type of people you want to run into.  But I've never had any trouble."  Mr. Graham tells us the opposite is true.  While Mr. Robertson did not want to discuss it, his supervisor told our reporter that Mr. Robertson has been mugged.  To emphasize this point, David Graham reports, "Detroit has the highest murder and violent-crime rates of any major city."

Detroit Medical Center


James Robertson's long walks to and from work would make him the envy of all exercise fanatics.  Really, the wear and tear on his legs and knees is not good for him.  According to a co-worker, "He comes in here looking real tired-his legs, his knees."  Mr. Robertson is also sleep deprived, compensating for it by drinking 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew or Coca-Cola, filled with all sorts of unhealthy god-knows-what.  However, given the long walk, all that sugar and periodic table's worth of chemicals may not have such a deleterious affect.  However, Mr. Graham ponders, "What happens if Robertson's knees or some other part of his body gives out prematurely?  Presumably he'd end up relying on disability benefits."

Workforce Participation, Ages 16 and Older
Bureau of Labor Statistics

Detroit residents have succumb to an conglomeration of forces, with no panacea. However, James Robertson's labors offer insight into the types of placed on a person if they want to work.  The chart on the left presents a steep decline in workforce participation over the last few years.  The chart is deceptive because one major factor is people are aging out of the of the workforce.  As Mr. Graham observes, "Still, one of the things that makes Robertson's story so stunning is the context of fewer Americans going to work."

This story is not just about a threat to poor Americans or Detroiters, it is a threat to the American economy.  The more people available for work, the better the nation is.  However, not everyone can or is willing to commute 21-miles to and from work, five days a week.  Mr. Graham writes, "The problem isn't just people who don't work aren''t contributing to that; it's that there's also the cost of more and more people drawing federal disability benefits."  Some question if said recipients are genuinely disabled.  Having said that, it is a drag on the national economy to have a large number of people available for work but are unable to find nearby employment and have to draw assistance.  This is why the story of James Robertson has gone viral-it is the story of what one person will do to punch a time clock.

The Crisis In Rural America crisis/384885

Rural house
Melissa Johnson via Flickr
Hello Everyone:

Much of the conversations centered around affordable housing tends to focus on the question of "how to get lower-income residents in expensive cities-like New York, Los Angeles, or San (and their surrounding areas)-safe, affordable places to live."  While this has some logic, after all the are where the jobs and economic vitality, however they are prohibitively expensive for most people, thus creating a housing problem.  In a recent article for The Atlantic, titled "Rural America's Silent Housing Crisis," Gillian B. White points out that "...cities aren't the only places that are lacking when it comes to adequate housing at affordable prices.  In rural America, it's both prices and the terrible conditions of existing homes that are problematic."

Rural rowhouses
photography by Matthew_-jargon777
Few people think about rural communities when it comes to housing issues, if at all. Housing, vis-a-vis rural communities, is "...a numbers game."  Citing information form the Housing Assistance Council, "in 2012 only about 21 percent of Americans lived in rural areas, which means that not many people outside those areas-or about 80 percent of Americans-probably feel much association with rural issues."  This makes it more challenging to illuminate on the problems that happen in these communities.  Translated into dollars it means that persuading the powers that be to fund programs that benefit about 20 percent of the total population can be a difficult road to navigate, particularly in difficult economic times.

Thus finding affordable housing in rural communities, where housing can be far less expensive than the nearest city, can present difficulties. Yet, despite the lower cost of living, rural incomes are significantly lower due to limited economic opportunities and struggling industries.  David Dangler, the director of the Rural Initiative at NeighborWorks America, an advocacy organization for affordable housing say, "When we are looking at areas that most challenged economically we're also finding some of the most challenging housing conditions."  Poverty rates in rural communities is higher-"17.2 percent of the rural population living below the poverty line in 2012 versus 14.9 percent overall"-according to HAC 2012 data.  Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition adds, "Much of the affordable housing stock in rural housing areas is old and in need of repair.  Many of the people who live there don't have the resources that they need in order to keep the houses in good repair."

Mississippi County home
photograph by Jimmy Smith via Creative Common
Gillian White uses the example of Lynne Bouknight, who returned to her childhood home in Elk Creek, Virginia after her mother moved for work.  Ms. Bouknight told Ms. White, "...her father was able to take care of the upkeep of the place...tinkering with things and fixing them as they broke.  But by the time she was living in it, the house...began to show its age."  The water pump broke, which Ms. Bouknight was able to deal with by hauling water from outside and pick up kindling wood to making a fire in the wood-burning stove.  However, things began to take a turn for the worse.

The winds tore away at the tin roof and some of the windows began to fall away.  A friend, who had been helping out with maintenance, killed in a hate crime. Then Ms. Bouknight suffered a stroke.  "As the house came apart, my health deteriorated with the house," she said.  Exposed to the elements, the damage to the property began to mount.  Soon, Ms. Bouknight found herself relegated to a small part of the property, where it was warm and dry.

Tin roofed house with trailer

Lynne Bouknight tried to get help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency mainly responsible for administering rural housing aid, but in typical government fashion the USDA said they could not do anything.  Fortunately, help can from a woman who worked for HOPE Inc, who agreed to look into her situation and see if they could help her out.  Ms. Bouknight said, "One day she came out to the house, I wasn't home.  She looked around and I suppose her heart was touched. She couldn't believe someone could live in those conditions."

HOPE Inc. provides housing assistance and support for individuals living in rural communities. HOPE Inc. was able to salvage Ms. Bouknight's home and she received access to many of the basic necessities, such as: running water, we take for granted.  Help came just in the nick of time, Ms. Bouknight's health had deteriorated to the point where she could not continue to live in the house in the state it was in without some intervention.  While this case may sound extreme, the reality is that dangerous and unhealthy living conditions are not an anomaly in rural communities.  "Residents who cannot afford to buy a new home or save their existing homes are forced to double up with family or they wind up homeless,"  according to Ms. Crowley.  She adds, "It's not visible because people aren't on the streets: They're living in cars and they're living in campgrounds."  According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, "...there are 14 homeless individuals per every 10,000 in urban areas."

Robsart Hospital
Robsart, Saskatchewan
Be that as it may, when it comes to creating new housing developments, interest in rural communities is thin and those that show an interest, frequently have to overcome hurdles. According to Mr. Dangler,  "Developers can't count on any kind of municipal infrastructure to help them."  Developers often take for granted the availability of municipal infrastructure such as: water, sewers, and access to roads, things not guaranteed in rural communities.  This can make quality new housing development even more of a challenge.

Even finding financial aid for new construction and property rehabilitation is sparse.  "There's a handful of programs that serve people in rural communities.  They tend to be much smaller in scale in terms of the amount of money than the HUD programs.  They also tend be lost in the bureaucracy," says Sheila Crowley.  This is acutely problematic because "rural areas have been traditionally more dependent on upon public subsidies and publicly-funded programs than their urban counterparts," adds David Dangler.  Further, "There can be a disproportionate pain in rural areas as we attempt to right our financial books by cutting back on federal-housing programs."

House in Elk Creek, Virginia
Funds for rural housing is provided by the USDA through a 502 Direct Loan program, a federal government sponsored financial aid program for purchasing or rehabilitating homes in rural communities.  However, the monies available for it have decreased over the part few years, falling from about $2.1 billion in 2010 to around $828 million in 2013.  While some, like Jim King president of the nonprofit housing organization Fahe serving the Appalachia, blame the current administration says,

...the problem is more indicative of the lower prioritization of rural issues overall than it is about one administration in particular.  In light of all other issues, this is just one that lays further down for almost everybody.  And finding funds from other agencies for rural projects can be difficult and highly competitive...leaving rural residents in a tough spot.

Farm with windmill
The lack of new housing development, funding, and other unique challenges have rural communities taking matters into their own hands.  With the help of rural-centric nonprofits, rural communities are taking a do-it-yourself approach to community revitalization.  More work begin undertaken by these groups is springing up around the nation. In Appalachia, Knox Housing Partners is working to build affordable senior housing complexes and NeighborWorks of West Vermont has successfully help rehabilitate hundreds of homes, making them more energy efficient something of particular importance for low-income, rural communities.  Some nonprofits are enlisting communities members to actively participate in building and/or repairing not only their own homes but also the homes of their neighbors, thus reducing the economic burden and forging stronger community ties.

Mobile homes near Xenia, Ohio
photograph by Grace the Paragon of Bubblewick 
Further, rural housing advocates are also suggesting that community members consider a middle ground, somewhere between homeownership and renting-pre-fabricated housing.  "Pre-fab" home, typically referred to as trailer homes, "...are smaller than traditional homes, but offer most of the amenities of a house at lower price."  Homeownership is typically higher in rural communities than the national average: "72 percent versus 66 percent in 2012," according to HAC.  The desire to own, rather than rent, is quite strong especially when rental properties are few and far between. Lance George, the director of research at HAC says, "Because there's such a lack of rental housing, manufactured housing in some aspects fills that void.  That is a foot in both worlds."

Despite the good possibilities outlined by Gillian White, making the case for investing in new or rehabilitated rural housing on a large scale can be quite daunting.  She writes, "In a way it seems counterintuitive: funneling money into communities where population numbers are stagnant, if not declining, as more young residents head to cities and suburbs in search of jobs."  This begs the question "Why others have not left?"  The short answer is some residents do not have the means or feel closely connected to their homes and communities.  Many are seniors and the part of the rapidly aging rural population.  This translates into communities that less likely or able to just leave, therefore, requiring that homes be updated and new infrastructure be put in place to allow safer living conditions and access to services such as medical facilities.

The bottom line is revitalizing rural communities is not a small and simple task.  However, according to Jim King, "...that doesn't mean that organizations should shy away, give up, or turn a blind eye...The stakes are very high in rural places if we don't figure some stuff out.  People and places shouldn't be disposable."