All the ways we subsidize growth

Over at streets.mn, I reflect on a recent event I attended, ““Kicking the Habit: Unsustainable Economic Growth” that featured streets.mn contributor Chuck Marohn delivering his Strong Towns message.  I focus on one issue that is featured prominently in the Strong Towns narrative: intergovernmental transfer payments which subsidize growth and potentially hide the true cost of development.

In Minnesota, we build roads really well. If you look at the metro area, we’ve created a system where despite wide differences in job and housing density, commute times are virtually the same whether you live in Dahlgren Township or Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis. We also have a semi-famous regional government that makes connection to the same wastewater system easy, no matter where you are in a 7-county region that includes both farms and skyscrapers. All these things (and more) are made possible by shared resources, often collected from one area or community type, and sent to another with a different character. Somehow we’ve determined that this is a good thing (for ease of access, equity, environmental protection, political will, etc) As I listened to Chuck I thought, “you’d really have to remake how local governments interact if you wanted to promote (or even test) the idea that our “most productive places” should be differentiated from our least productive.

I won’t attempt to figure out how this can be done. But I think it’s valuable to think about all these “transfer payments”. There are more than most people ever think about. So, here goes:

Read the rest.

Yglesias discovers the comprehensive plan

Matt Yglesias, Slate writer and MOU (market-oriented urbanist), laments Minneapolis’ NIMBYs (emphasis mine):

…if each NIMBY group gets its way, then the “push the costs onto other people” plan becomes self-defeating. Others bear the costs of your NIMBY actions, but you bear the costs of their NIMBY actions. What’s needed is a citywide institutional framework that leads to a less-dysfunctional outcome where valuable projects are allowed to go forward.

Perhaps some sort of community visioning session that combines a look at projected growth, market forces, neighborhood desires, externalities of development, transportation impacts, and comes up with a mutually-agreed-upon document that can guide regulatory land use controls?

Or perhaps he means, as a friend emails, a comprehensive plan and zoning code that aren’t influenced by residents/stakeholders? 1) Good luck and 2) that kind of defeats the purpose.

See my early screed about MOU “solutions”.  MOUs claim market forces can unlock better outcomes for our urban areas, but the big barrier is really one of better process and collaborative decision making, which gets short shrift or no shrift at all in these posts.

Thrive MSP 2040 is live

The Metropolitan Council has officially kicked off their public engagement campaign for the 2040 regional plan – called Thrive MSP 2040.  I know you don’t like the name, but pay attention because this plan will eventually shape all the regional policy plans (growth, transportation, housing, natural resources) and set the requirements for individual community comprehensive plans.

No modern planning process is complete without some an interactive “ideas” website, and Met Council has theirs. I submitted some ideas, which I think you should vote for.

Central Corridor HIA shows risks, opportunities

Policy Link, Take Action MN and Isaiah have released a health impact assessment for the coming Central Corridor light rail line.  In my opinion, this seems more like an economic impact assessment, but the argument can be made that economics drives health.

My summary of the findings:

  • Jobs in the corridor will increase, particularly retail and office.
  • Population and housing will increase.
  • Jobs with skills matching those of current residents will be low-paying.  Higher wage jobs will increase too, but won’t be available to many current residents.
  • Low-skill, higher paying jobs (in manufacturing, for example) will be forced out.
  • Commercial rents may rise, forcing out small/independently-owned businesses.
  • Additional density could be in the form of housing affordable to current residents, but not without careful planning.
  • More people walking and biking is good, but existing pedestrian conditions are “hazardous”.  The city (St Paul) has some plans to address this.

I question comments like this: “The reduction in allowable densities east of Lexington Parkway along University Avenue, however, will help to reduce the pressure on existing small and minority-owned businesses in the east submarket.”  I understand the issue of redevelopment pushing out existing businesses (they might not be able to afford rent in new mixed-use buildings), but isn’t density good for any business (save auto dealers)?

The report also has five policy recommendations for creating a healthier environment moving forward.  Here’s my (very abbreviated) summary:

  • A modified inclusionary zoning ordinance.
  • Codify affordable housing goals in the Traditional Neighborhood zoning category.
  • Give a density/height bonus or reduced parking requirements to developments with affordable housing component.
  • Allow temporary parking lots on vacant lots during construction.  In theory, this would help businesses during LRT construction.
  • A local hiring action program giving preference for construction jobs.

What this seems to leave out is any recommendation on how to incorporate small businesses into new development.  Is it impossible/very difficult to program space in new mixed use developments for small/independent businesses?  Do developers only want chains?  Are rents simply too high?  Has any city every adopted an affordable commercial space policy to set aside a certain portion of commercial space for smaller businesses?  Smarter folks than I surely must have thought about this.

LEED ND regional suitability analysis going national

Regular readers know I’m interested in how to use LEED ND as a tool for assessing regional development suitability.  I’ve been tardy in relaying news about good work being done in other regions.  Back in January, Jason Woycke contacted me about replicating the analysis for King County, in the Seattle region.  Jason is the President of Cascadia Planning and at the time was a Masters student in the planning program at the University of Washington.

The Cascade Land Conservancy was Jason’s client for the project, and according to Jason’s website, the maps will “help the Cascade Land Conservancy visually communicate the need for careful planning of where growth should be accommodated in the region and where growth should be avoided”.

Jason finished the analysis (I think near the end of spring semester 2011), and it looks great.  He generously agreed to provide me with a copy of the full report, which you can see here (large pdf).  Jason was awarded the UW Department of Urban Design and Planning 2011 Professionals Council Outstanding Professional Project Award for his work.

The analysis Jason used for King County appears to be very similar to my approach for the Twin Cities – focusing on the Smart Location and Linkage prerequisites.  I don’t believe any of the Neighborhood Pattern and Design prerequisites were included, which is a minor difference between the two approaches.

Is Chicagoland next?

More recently, I’ve heard from another aspiring urban planning masters student who is exploring the possibility of replicating this analysis for the Chicago region.  If this analysis happens, it will be complete in spring of 2012.

MNAPA conference presentations

The slides from two sessions I presented at the 2011 Minnesota APA conference are now online:

Developing and Implementing An Energy and Greenhouse Gas Plan

Planning for Sustainable Regional Growth – LEED ND and Location Efficiency

All the maps and analysis that was used to develop the LEED ND presentation can be found here.

Population density and the spread of humans

Tim De Chant at Per Square Mile comments on a study on the relationship of humans ability to tolerate, and benefit from, living in dense groups and the advantages that conferred for our species “colonization” of the globe.

Density itself wasn’t directly responsible for the first forays out of Africa. Those groups were were too small and dispersed to receive a substantial boost from density. They faced the worst the natural world had to offer, and many probably couldn’t hack it.

Where population density conferred its advantages was when subsequent waves of colonizers followed. Density allowed those people to thrive. They joined the initial groups, growing more populous and drawing more resources from the land. This made groups more stable both physically and socially—full bellies lead to happier and healthier people. As each group’s numbers grew larger, their social bonds grew stronger and their chances of regional extinction plummeted. In other words, once people worked together to establish themselves, they were likely there to stay.

The degree of our sociality has allowed us to bend the curve of population density in our favor. If early humans had been an entirely selfish species—each individual requiring as much or more land than the previous—β would be equal to one or greater. We wouldn’t have lived at higher densities as our populations grew, and early forays beyond the savanna might have petered out. Instead of conquering the globe, we’d have been a footnote of evolution.¹

And here is where we can consider how this affects our modern lives. Population density may have aided our sojourn out of Africa, but it’s clear there are limits. Hunter-gatherer populations appear to be limited to around 1,000 people, depending on the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. Technology has raised carrying capacities beyond that number—as evinced by the last few millennia of human history—but we don’t know it’s limits. A scaling exponent equal to ¾ may have helped our rise to dominance, but it also could hasten our downfall. Technology may be able to smooth the path to beyond 7 billion, but what if it can’t? What if ¾ is an unbreakable rule? What happens if we reach a point where density can no longer save us from ourselves?