Tuesday, April 22, 2014

NYC Suburban Demographics: Choice or Fate?

The New York Times recently profiled a study from Community Housing Innovations which noted a demographic collapse among the young adult population in the wealthy suburbs of Long Island and Westchester County since the 2000 Census. The decline is attributed largely to high housing costs rather than an immutable preference for urban surroundings:
"The villages and towns suffering the largest losses of their young workforce have historically restricted multifamily development in favor of single-family homes. The practice, known as exclusionary or snob zoning, makes living in these communities unaffordable for much of the Long Island and Westchester County workforce."
The study paints an interesting picture of the unintended consequences of restrictive zoning, which in this case may be hindering adults at a prime age for starting a family (25-34) from living in what, in many cases, are probably the very same towns they grew up in. Although the Times quotes a Westchester County source disputing the figures and noting that the "county’s own enrollment data shows that more children are attending its schools, a telling sign of young families," a glance at the Census figures reveals that the under-5 population in many of these towns is plummeting as well.

For instance, while Westchester County saw a decline of 11% in this group from 2000 to 2010 despite experiencing overall population growth, Scarsdale's under-5 population fell by 28%. Jericho, New York, mentioned in the article, also saw a decline of 27%. For further comparison, here are the figures for part of nearby Fairfield County mapped over median housing prices:

These can be compared to the same figures for the 25-34 population:

Although the numbers don't match up precisely, the correlation is strong. There is an overall decline of around 10% in both population groups, compared to an increase nationally of 3% for both, but there has been a rapid assortative process as young families have apparently been priced out of many locations and restricted to the few remaining jurisdictions without stratospheric housing costs.

Whether this is also due to a preference for urban living conditions is unclear, since the urban markets also happen to be the low cost markets, and are the only places in Fairfield County permitting the construction of significant quantities of new housing. The fact that population loss of these demographics was somewhat less in relatively more affordable suburban towns (such as Fairfield or Trumbull) suggests that cost is at least as important a factor, a pattern which is also noted on Long Island in the New York Times article.

The overall losses among the 25-34 age group indicate an accelerated outmigration in addition to the internal assortative process. The study cited by the Times suggests, in the vein of the Great Inversion, that this migration is a product of relocation to New York City proper, and to particular areas within the city, although many must be leaving the region entirely. In this broader context, though, I'm not satisfied with a sample period of only ten years and certain areas, and so I compiled median age data for the greater New York area from 1970-2010, dividing it into three regions*:

Although there is certainly a great inversion here, it appears to be a multi-decade process, rather than an sudden shift which occurred over the last ten or fifteen years. These trends can also be expressed as a function of the US median age in each Census period so as to show which regions were growing "younger" or "older" relative to the population as a whole:

Rather than the city abruptly changing course in recent years, a long term downward age trend actually decelerated after 2000. Trends have not always been consistent, with the inner suburbs actually growing relatively younger from 1970 to 2000. The continued aging of the outer suburbs is also notable. Several counties in this region now exceed a median age of 40, with individual towns highly coveted for their excellent public schools exceeding a median age of 45. These median age figures in some cases approach or exceed those of Florida counties known as retirement havens (cf. Westport, CT, at 44.6, with Palm Beach County at 43.5). With little new construction and limited housing turnover, combined with greatly elevated prices, these towns await a generational shift.

Just how big will that shift be? The Westport town newspaper, at it happens, suggests dramatic changes after 2015. According to one quoted source, "there's going to be major turnover in property. People who currently own homes and have for a long time, are going to decide to downsize. When turnover does occur, you'll get a flood of students entering elementary school." 

The problem for towns such as Westport, however, is that due to their resolute opposition to any new construction – even including senior housing, as described in detail in Snob Zones – there are not many options to downsize to. It seems more likely to me that the inhabitants of these homes will, by and large, remain in them to the end, as they will generally be unwilling to abandon their towns and long-established connections simply to find smaller accommodations elsewhere. The turnover point is therefore more likely to be in the 2030s than by 2020, but this will obviously come too late for the Boomer generation's own children seeking to start families. It's also not clear, given the widespread declines in the under-5 demographic, where a "flood" of new students could come from several years down the road.

An apparent denialism about the effect of high prices on young families seems to be rampant among many of the wealthy towns profiled in the CHI study and in Fairfield County. Wishful thinking about floods of new students that are just around the corner, or analysis of falling school enrollments that fail to diagnose high housing costs as a contributing factor, rules out consideration of the supply-based solutions that have apparently worked to some degree to retain young people in certain Long Island suburban towns discussed in the CHI study. These towns need not be victims of fate, but unless changes are made, their futures are already inscribed on their current demographics.


Related links: Remember this New York Times article from 2013 covering young families moving out of Brooklyn to suburban towns in Westchester County? As it turns out, Brooklyn experienced a decline in its under-5 population from 2000 to 2010, but only by 3%. Hastings-on-Hudson, by contrast, saw that group decline by 19%.

*By county, "Urban" = Manhattan (New York), Bronx, Brooklyn (Kings), Queens, Hudson; "Inner Suburban" = Westchester, Nassau, Bergen, Union, Passaic, Staten Island (Richmond); "Outer Suburban" = Suffolk, Fairfield, Rockland, Morris, Somerset, Middlesex, Monmouth. Exurban counties are omitted.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Housing Dreams, American and Mexican

In the previous post, I observed how newly-built single-family housing in the Mexican border city of Matamoros (and in fact in most Mexican cities) is both much smaller in size and far cheaper, even adjusting for lower incomes, than almost any housing in the United States outside of Detroit.

New Matamoros rowhouses. (Google Maps).
This is partially due to the underdevelopment of the mortgage banking industry in Mexico, with the result that six percent of all homes in the country are financed with mortgages. The vast majority of homes are either inherited, bought with cash, or else are self-built on cheap vacant land, although informal lending systems among friends and family members no doubt lie behind many of these cash purchases. In the absence of debt-financed home consumption, most new homes must be very modest to match the limited purchasing power of potential buyers. 

Although one might expect this lack of financing to impair individual property ownership, a surprising 80 percent of Mexicans own their own homes. This compares to a rate of only 65 percent in the United States, where 70 percent of homes are encumbered with mortgages and only 1 in 10 buyers pays in cash (at least, until the recent surge in buying by institutional investors). As I pointed out in a previous post, the homeownership rate in the US has actually been more or less stagnant since the mid-1960s in spite of extraordinary efforts to expand the availability of credit.

I think there is something else at work here, though, beyond the influence of two very different lending environments, and it relates back to the modest size of houses observed in Mexican cities. It's been a point often noted that the average size of new American homes has been steadily increasing since 1950 even as household sizes have fallen. Home sizes and household sizes have diverged so sharply, in fact, that a major structural mismatch has emerged throughout the US housing market, as shown below (charting percentages of all US housing units and all US households):

Data from 2012 ACS three-year estimates.
Although over 60% of US households consist of just one or two people, only 13% of housing units are studios or have one bedroom. Moreover, we know that very few single-family homes of the type produced over the past few decades years have been studios or one bedrooms (or even two bedrooms), making it likely that most of these units are apartment rentals. This can be confirmed through housing data on tenure status, which show that studio and one bedroom units are overwhelmingly renter-occupied:

Data from 2012 ACS five-year estimates.
Homeownership in the United States, evidently, is very much a large or larger-home phenomenon (assuming that number of bedrooms is a reasonable proxy for housing unit size). When owned units are looked at in isolation, this fact becomes even more startling:

Data from 2012 ACS five-year estimates.
In essence, new single-family detached or attached homes intended for just one or two people, of the size built in mass quantities in Mexico, virtually do not exist in the United States. A Zillow or Trulia search in most any major American city will quickly show that this type of home largely ceased being built after the late 1950s, which, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, is about the same time that the homeownership rate began to level off. Today, only about one in ten new single-family homes have two or less bedrooms. Although this might be understandable if the decline had been offset by significant increases in the proportion of small units in multifamily buildings, it turns out that this has not been the case.

To what extent these patterns are an expression of consumer preferences, market forces, financial and tax incentives and/or land use restrictions (such as minimum lot or square footage restrictions) is unclear, although there is evidence that square footage restrictions generally seem to have appeared at around the same time as smaller homes ceased being built in large numbers and to have increased in restrictiveness thereafter.* Very small houses, and very small lots, have in typical American zoning fashion been segregated and stigmatized in so-called trailer parks (note that Matamoros, despite being poorer than any American city, apparently has no trailer parks).
Tiny House movement circa 1921:
"Just the thing for two people!"

Whatever the explanation, the effect must be to impede further increases in homeownership. As the country has undergone a long-term reduction in household size, the market has produced fewer and fewer for-sale options sized for small households. The options that remain are not ideal. One can either buy a home that is far larger and more expensive than one needs or enter a competitive rental market for legally restricted multifamily supply (large swaths of American cities, due to restrictive zoning, have few or no apartments for sale at all). An additional option  subverting late 20th century cultural norms* by renting out rooms within a single-family dwelling larger than needed for just one or two occupants  invariably raises the hackles of incumbent homeowners (as seen in the occupancy limit controversy in Austin and many other cities).

These trends have been noted countless times before, in particular by Christopher Leinberger, while Nathan Lewis has been adamant about the need for an increase in production of much smaller homes (including multifamily construction) and, just as importantly, the availability of much smaller building lots. Americans seem to have some difficulty conceptualizing separately-owned very small homes on small lots, though, and even when structures of this size are recognized as meeting an important market need, they are typically imagined as mere accessories to "proper" single family homes, not least by the New Urbanists themselves. Still, that is an approach that tries make something better out of the traditional American pattern of building a series of small houses (on their own separate street network!) just for cars to live in:

Indianapolis residential alley with garages, origin ca. 1920s. (Google Maps).
The Tiny House movement, which partly emerged in reaction to the financial burden imposed by large homes, has no such hang-ups, though the emphasis seems to be almost exclusively on shrinking the size of the home, rather than the size of the lot, and is often associated with rural environments (though certainly not always, and also see here). But large houses seem to be a natural fit for oversized lots and overbuilt infrastructure, as Nathan Lewis has noted.

What would be a reasonable price goal, within the context of the dominant single-family detached form, for housing cost using both small homes and small lots? Nathan, in his writings on this subject, aims for $50,000, which, when adjusted for higher American incomes, would be roughly comparable to the greenfield homes of Matamoros. Nick Derome estimated $170,000 for very small-lot homes in surburban Toronto in comments on the previous post. For even the highest cost towns in Fairfield County, Connecticut, based on land prices, 1,000 sq. ft. homes of less than $200,000 appear financially (if not politically) feasible. Going almost anywhere else from such a high cost location, prices should drop significantly.

Even within certain parts of ultra-expensive Fairfield County itself, the few manufactured and/or mobile homes available for sale (the only type of contemporary single-family detached housing that, with its special zoning designation, has anywhere close to the lot sizes found in Matamoros) tend to run around $60,000 for a 1,000 sq. ft., two-bedroom home. Higher quality architecture and construction  such as that found on the Katrina cottages or better — could surely be provided at only somewhat greater expense. A major challenge, it would seem, is not simply surmounting legal barriers, but reaching an understanding that small homes are not just for poor families, but for small families and others too.


Related posts: It turns out I'm not the first to connect Tiny Houses and Mexican urbanism -- an American homebuyer in the Mexican city of Merida linked the two on his blog here. Also, Life Edited opines on Why Household Size Matter and Why Are American Homes So Big?

*In striking down a Connecticut town's law fixing the minimum home size at 1,300 square feet (under challenge by a builder attempting to construct a 1,000 sq. ft. modular home), the Connecticut Supreme Court noted "the significant increase of the minimum floor area requirements over the years since 1955 when [the town] had its first regulation controlling minimum floor area requirements. At that time, the minimum floor area requirements were only 750 square feet for a one-story house... ." Builders Service Corporation v. Planning & Zoning Commission (1988). Similar New Jersey ordinances dated as early as 1949.

*Consider the connotations of the very term "single-family dwelling" and what it implies about the identity of the inhabitants of such a dwelling. However, such creative use of single-family dwellings used to be very common, legal and accepted as more or less ordinary (for an example, browse the appendix of the 1950 Housing Census, which describes a bewildering array of housing arrangements within a single home that enumerators might encounter).

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Cross Border Urbanism: From Texas to Tamaulipas

Although the American and Mexican urban traditions have at various times shared some fundamental similarities, including a heavy use of orthogonal grids and an apparent tendency toward single-family homes sitting on their own lots, the different manner in which these have been carried out in each country have produced strikingly dissimilar urban landscapes.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the sister cities of Brownsville and Matamoros, facing each other across the Rio Grande river. Demographically and economically they have much in common: the 2010 Census indicates that over 85% of Brownsville's population is of Mexican ancestry and Spanish-speaking, and although Brownsville is wealthier than Matamoros, it is very poor by American standards, having recently replaced McAllen as the poorest city in the nation. The Mexican state of Tamaulipas, by contrast, is wealthier than the Mexican average. Indications are that Brownsville's per capita GDP may only be around $14,000 to Matamoros' $10,000.

Matamoros at left, Brownsville at right. From Google Maps.
The economic and demographic convergence at the border might suggest a gradual transition in urban form, but instead there is abrupt break at the Rio Grande river, as can easily be seen above (the map has been rotated clockwise). Matamoros is a city that makes almost exclusive use of attached or nearly attached dwellings on small lots, while Brownsville has a quintessentially American pattern of detached houses sitting on much larger lots.

A typical house lot in a newer neighborhood of Matamoros has only around 1200 square feet, while in Brownsville, new subdivisions have lots around 5400 square feet. Interestingly, the lot size trends appear to be diverging: Matamoros' new lots are smaller than those in older parts of the city even as car ownership has soared, while Brownsville's are much larger. Older areas of both cities, dating back to the late 1800s or early 1900s, both tend to have house lots of around 3,000 square feet, although in different configurations (Matamoros, for instance, never used rear alleys).

Contemporary subdivision street in Brownsville. Google Maps.
New homes in Matamoros are often a tiny, in some cases little more than 500 square feet, but appear to be mere placeholders for expansion. Usually set back about 15-20 feet from the lot line, these homes are swiftly expanded forward into the setback and up a story or two using simple construction techniques, with the result that after no more than a decade or so, the street's appearance is completely transformed, and no longer appears mass-produced. (Single-use zoning seems to be unknown or unenforced, as numerous small commercial establishments can be seen cropping up, mid block, along these streets.)

Mexican "snout house" in Matamoros, expanded from the developer's
original house of the type still visible to the right. Google Maps.
Expanded in this way, a very small home can grow to perhaps as much as 1000-1500 square feet. Persons desiring even larger homes could, presumably, simply buy adjoining lots and combine them.

This fundamental difference in lot size has major implications for the size of the urban area. Matamoros, with a 2010 population of 489,000, actually occupies slightly less area (28 sq. mi.) than Brownsville's 175,000 (29.9 sq. mi.), based on a mapping out of residential urban boundaries in each case. It also must have some implications for home prices: while Brownsville homes are much cheaper than the American average with a median home price of $130,000 for what is typically a three bedroom home, a relatively large Matamoros starter home (915 square feet over two stories on an 1130 square foot lot) can be had for only $34,000. The tiniest of the starter homes, no bigger than a studio or micro-apartment, are as little as $10-15,000. This suggests that a new two-bedroom home in Matamoros can be purchased for approximately what the down payment would be for a typical three bedroom home in Brownsville, and helps explain Mexico's very high homeownership rate. Finally, it has implications for mixing of uses, since the dense packing of houses allows for businesses to thrive on foot traffic, reducing the political pressure for parking minimums that would, even in the absence of zoning, effectively ban businesses on tiny lots.

The economic, financial, geographic, historical, cultural and legal factors that have led to such divergent patterns of urban growth aren't easily or quickly summarized, but the different outcomes are clear enough.

Related posts: Check out Apex Urbanism, which has a series of posts featuring various Mexican cities.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Zoning Straitjacket, Part II

Shane Phillips (at Better Institutions), Dan Keshet (Austin on Your Feet) [update: and Daniel Kay Hertz, at City Notes] both recently authored posts showing how the majority of the area in three large American cities (Seattle, Austin and Chicago) is set aside for single-family detached zoning. Shane estimates the area in Seattle to be around 80%, while Austin, to my eye, looks to be about the same. In general, the zoning maps continue to reflect the land use patterns and planning dogma of the 1920s, with a small, constrained downtown business district hemmed in by single-use residential districts through which snake narrow commercial corridors. This is the same pattern I previously noted in the case of Vancouver, where the zoning map is surprisingly unchanged from the original version drafted in the 1920s (however, Vancouver has only 60% of its zoned area set aside for single-family, and has allowed more density in these areas as well).

Although I've made several arguments against Euclidean zoning before, if a city is to be zoned, I don't think there's anything wrong in and of itself with having detached single-family zones — America's unique contribution to zoning, according to Professor Sonia Hirt — as one of a city's planning tools. The issue seems to be that these zones, and particularly low-density zones, are virtually impervious to change over the decades. Where a city has abundant greenfield land for expansion, this is somewhat less of a pressing concern, but consider a city like Stamford, Connecticut, which exhausted most of its undeveloped territory back in in the 1970s, and is bordered by insular Greenwich and Darien (the latter of which inspired Lisa Prevost's Snob Zones). At left is an image of the zoning map from 1965 (14 years after its initial adoption), and at right is today's map:

Sources: City of Stamford and Ferguson Library Digital Collection.
Although the total number of zones has more than doubled, going from 17 to 39, the major zoning boundaries in the north of town are entirely unchanged. In 1965, as today, approximately 80% of the city was zoned for detached single-family residential. Nonetheless, according to ACS data, only around 40% of the city's housing units consist of single-family detached (SFD) units, which highlights the prevalence of large-lot zoning in the single-family areas (the yellow areas represent 1, 2 and 3-acre minimum lot sizes), and the near-impossibility of adding any further SFD under the current zoning regime.

Population by city proper, from Census data.
For Stamford, this zoning policy, which was less a planning vision than a "paint by numbers" exercise in locking into the place the loose residential patterns built along the non-gridded street networks that were being laid out by land companies as early as the 1930s*, worked to accommodate population growth for a time. While there was still vacant land in the north, the city's population surged from 1950 to 1970, just as other established cities like Bridgeport and New Haven stagnated or lost residents. The exhaustion of this supply of land, paired with an immensely destructive urban renewal project in the early 1970s that virtually obliterated the city's entire downtown (and along with it, much of the city's low-cost attached and multifamily housing stock), resulted in a sudden reversal of fortunes in the 1970s. Most of the gains since 1980 have occurred through infill and densification in the existing downtown and multifamily areas, although this has been a slow process. In the 2000-2010 period, in fact, New Haven grew faster than Stamford for the first time in at least 130 years.

The SFD zones have therefore played a role strongly reminiscent of Smart Growth urban growth boundaries, requiring additional housing units to be built in already-dense, transit-accessible areas, although the establishment of the zones predated Smart Growth ideology by several decades. However, Smart Growth critics like Randal O'Toole and Wendell Cox have never, so far as I know, gone after large-lot SFD zoning for restricting housing supply in geographically-constrained situations like this one [Note: in the comments, NickD points out that Cox has criticized large lot zoning, although often without much specificity]. O'Toole has even gone so far as to condemn upzoning of SFD areas on several occasions on the basis that these zoning changes are out of "character" for the area, and frustrate residents' expectations, observations which inadvertently highlight the growth-restricting role of these areas.

The ideological battle between Smart Growth advocates and the self-appointed defenders of the American dream obscures the real functional purpose of maintaining a reasonably clear break between city and country, which, in the United States at least, could be said to be permitting unencumbered and politically-frictionless urban expansion. The city which, like Stamford, forces new development to spread across large areas at very low density is, in effect, politically closing that area off to urbanization and possibly even modest densification in a way that urban growth boundaries, which can and are periodically adjusted by city and state governments, cannot achieve. Moreover, it makes it uneconomical to produce much additional SFD housing, a result that should be highly distressing to someone like O'Toole. It is an approach which seemingly leaves both sides dissatisfied.

This, if nothing else, seems like a fundamental, if not the only, purpose and challenge of city planning: accommodating population growth in a way that takes into account long-term development prospects and the political difficulty of upzoning low-density SFD areas. In light of this, can a zoning code like Stamford's, with a stated purpose of preserving existing neighborhoods in their 1960s form, and resistant to all but changes in the downtown area, really be called a "planning" document at all? The challenges that Stamford faces are not unique, but typical, and progress on them, as zoning approaches its 100th birthday, remains the exception rather than the rule.

Related link: Vancouver and the Zoning Straitjacket

*Historic aerial maps show that Stamford's urban grid was disintegrating as early as the 1930s, just before its major population boom, and that subsequent rights of way were generally winding and given non-urban descriptors ("Road" rather than "Street"). In other words, it appears that the city ceased taking a prominent role in guiding the framework for urban growth around that time. The zoning code did not cause this change, but it certainly has prevented any future adaptations or retrofits. Chris Bradford noted a similar change in Austin that took place at around the same time.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

New Zoning Efforts Against Student Renters

I've written about new developments in anti-student zoning regulations before, but the ingenuity of towns and cities seeking to use their regulatory powers to restrict students from living in university-adjacent residential neighborhoods seems to know no bounds. Layered on top of existing exclusionary zoning regulations that limit entire areas to single-family detached dwellings, these rules generally go beyond addressing form and use to limiting tenancy and occupancy in such a way that students are greatly limited, if not altogether excluded, from inhabiting the primary residential option that is available to them.

Students have always been easy targets for such regulation. As temporary residents, they are politically weak and fragmented, and unlike racial minorities and certain other groups, they do not enjoy heightened legal protections against housing discrimination. However, the same regulations that impact students frequently have adverse impacts on poor and minority populations as well: animus against students may therefore serve as cover for less legally and socially acceptable forms of discrimination (as the ACLU's amicus brief in the rental caps case below discusses at length).

These regulations have been around for decades, but recent years have seen unprecedented attempts to limit the expansion of student populations into residential neighborhoods (generally a result of the failure of single-family zoning, by itself, to staunch the inflow). Among the approaches used, past and present, include:
  • Occupancy Limits. The most common restriction involves amending statutory definitions of "family" in housing or zoning codes to ensure that single family homes are unavailable for use by roommate groups. Alan Durning, in a recent Sightline article, eviscerated the basis for such regulations, but nonetheless they have the approval of the Supreme Court (1974's Belle Terre v. Boraas, in which an anti-student occupancy limit was upheld 7-2). 
  • Direct Prohibitions. The only place I'm aware of that has adopted this type of overt discrimination is Philadelphia's Yorktown neighborhood, immediately adjacent to Temple University, which sponsored the creation of a special Yorktown Overlay in which students would be entirely prohibited from renting in single-family zones (with an exception for owner-occupant landlords). This prohibition against a named class of persons, reminiscent of the racial covenants and zoning laws of the first half of the 20th century, was handily upheld by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
  • Rental Caps. Until recent years, it had apparently never occurred to Americans that they might invoke municipal law to simply outlaw tenancy on a widespread basis, but that is precisely what several Minnesota towns have recently done to varying degrees, building off of earlier laws restricting short-term vacation rentals. The town of Winona, in particular, home to Winona State University, adopted a law limiting rental licenses to 30% of the houses on each block. Several homeowners, finding that the law greatly devalued their properties to the extent of rendering them effectively unsaleable, filed suit against the town in a case that is on appeal to the Minnesota Court of Appeals (after a district court returned an unfavorable ruling to the homeowners).
Resident complaints about the behavior of groups of student renters undoubtedly have a real basis, though it is easy to stereotype and over-generalize, and there must be better means of regulating behavior than setting blanket restrictions and prohibitions on an entire class of persons. Moreover, the very demographic pressure of students on neighborhoods of single-family homes may be exacerbated by an absence of multifamily housing (Winona, despite being a small city, does have a narrow band zoned for multifamily housing, but it is not adjacent to the hemmed-in university, which appears to have little room for building new dormitories).

The resort to rental caps, however, is a rather striking step  perhaps the terminal step  in the century-long evolution of American zoning practice, making explicit what was always implicit in the idealized conception of the single-family suburb. Beyond the context of town-gown relations, the notion of using legal means to limit rentals seems to be proliferating in response to the purchase of foreclosed single-family homes by large real estate investors who intend to rent them, as a recent New York Times article documents. However, the Winona law's practical effect of trapping owners in their homes, and the arbitrary manner in which residential land values were transferred to owners with rental licenses, seems to have been a step too far even for the pursuit of the bourgeois utopia. That the state court upheld the law should not come as a surprise, but it will be interesting to keep an eye on the proceedings in the appeals court, which is scheduled to hear oral argument on the case tomorrow, December 12.

Related reading: Home Sweet Home? The Efficacy of Rental Restrictions to Promote Neighborhood Stability.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Thursday Old Urbanism

A family member back from a Japan adventure was kind enough to oblige my request for photos of street scenes during her travels. Although you can easily get your Japanese narrow streets fix at Nathan Lewis' site, or even on Google Streetview, which now covers most of Japan, I thought I might share of few of them:

Asakusa District, Tokyo
Although many streets are effectively pedestrianized like this one, with little auto traffic, few if any are actually physically closed off to cars. On-street parking is almost nonexistent. Almost all bikes seem to be of the cruiser type at left, with high handlebars, comfy seats and a basket almost invariably attached in the front (and often the back as well). Helmets? Very few if any are worn, apparently.

Arcade-style public shopping streets, running for block after block, are abundant. In Kyoto, it appears a person could walk across much of the downtown area without leaving the shelter of one of these covered streets. Despite the near-total lack of nearby parking, the visual evidence shows that these streets aren't suffering from a dire lack of customers. I expected to find a website devoted to them, but that seems to be a project still in search of a creator.

Shinsaibashi, Osaka
Another very pleasant shopping street, in Osaka.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

New Plans for Old Avenues in New York City

In its recent endorsement in the New York City mayoral race for sudden frontrunner Bill de Blasio, StreetsPAC cited de Blasio's street safety platform calling for "a city with zero fatalities or serious injuries caused by car crashes on the streets of New York." In addition to various law enforcement measures, including speed limit reductions, de Blasio's platform also calls for design-based changes, including "narrowing excessively wide streets that encourage reckless passing and speeding, widening sidewalks and medians to make streets easier and safer to cross, and adding dedicated bicycle infrastructure to create a safe space for New Yorkers on bikes."

Under Mayor Bloomberg, numerous design interventions of this sort have been carried out, and although some redesigns have brought significant transformations -- Times Square, for example, or the reworking of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn -- others have been little more than glorified patch jobs, taking common-sense but modest steps to address notoriously dangerous crossings and intersections without unduly interfering with the primacy of high-speed automobile circulation. While there has been abundant use of colorful paint to widen sidewalks and expand pedestrian plazas, and the wonderful addition of bike-sharing and new bike lanes, few streets have seen thorough overhauls that are consciously geared toward improving quality of life for those on foot rather than simply enhancing safety and mobility.

Incremental changes make sense as a general rule, but in a city like New York, surely there is room, and appetite, for at least one transformational street project?  However, certain major changes, such as wide-scale permanent pedestrianizations, have generally fallen out of favor since the 1970s, while the imaginations of some planners and architects can get carried away in impractical, overly-complex or even fantastical directions when presented with a large blank canvas to work on, as in the case of this fanciful example from last year's Greatest Grid exhibit, showing a Manhattan street repurposed for agriculture:

A more realistic plan is the "Yorkville Rambla," developed by John Massengale and Dover, Kohl & Partners, which would essentially pedestrianize the center lanes of Second Avenue. The plan is simple, elegant, and most importantly, draws on established design predecent shown to be successful in similar urban contexts. The design does not contemplate a complete pedestrianization, but on New York's avenues, due to the need for dedicated bus and bike lanes, this is not likely to be feasible:

Source: Massengale & Co. LLC, Dover, Kohl & Partners et al., via Urban Design Week 2011

The plan pays homage to Barcelona's renowned thoroughfare, but there are in fact successful examples from New York itself very similar to the proposed design. Here, for example, is Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, a city park nearby the United Nations complex which was completely reconstructed in the late 1990s. Although it is classified as a park, and is administered by the city's parks department, rather than the transportation department, when viewed in context of the adjacent 47th Street, it is clear that the so-called plaza is actually a classic urban promenade:

The plaza looking west, with 47th Street at right. Source: Old Urbanist
Its design is brilliantly simple in my opinion, incorporating a few basic principles:
  • Pave, pave, pave. The surface of the promenade is largely covered with functional brick and stone pavers, minimizing maintenance while maximizing the area for human use (which includes weekly farmers' markets). There are few if any concessions to "green" or "landscape" urbanism: no berms, no bioswales, no stormwater filtration areas, and half the right of way is not given over to indigenous grasses or drought-resistant shrubs (there is, however, an adjacent garden, to the far left in the photo, although this is not integral to the design).
  • People-oriented seating. Bench seating is simple and faces toward the promenade, not away from it or in random orientations. If "what attracts people most ... is other people," in William Whyte's words, this straightforward design is a great success.
  • Green to the eye, not green on the ground. During summer, the promenade is luxuriantly green to due an abundance of trees (planted regularly and formally, not pseudo-naturalistically). However, these trees take up very little space at ground level, minimally interfering with use of the space. For me, this is the true mark of a successful green area ratio: maximizing visible greenery while minimizing the street-level square footage actually occupied by that greenery. Planted areas can enliven a very large space, but this should be done with care, and with thought given to what sort of use the space is likely to receive.
Another promising and perhaps even more feasible plan would restore Park Avenue approximately to its early 20th century configuration by widening its median, although the plan by SHoP shown here does put a lot of unusable green space on the ground:

Source: New York Observer.

This seemingly High Line-inspired use of plants to restrict the area available for human use (without adding much visual green -- note the ratio of visual tree area to plant area of about 5:1, though the plant area probably occupies 100x the ground area) seems to be characteristic of many contemporary plans, including one by SOM for the elevated roadways around Grand Central. If that is the cost of deriving political will and public support from the High Line's success, though, then it may be an acceptable trade-off after all.

Whatever the plans of the next mayoral administration, whether led by de Blasio or another candidate, one hopes that at least one street redesign such as these makes it onto the agenda. For a relatively modest cost, the benefits not only in safety but in quality of life would be substantial.

Related posts:
  • Recivilization also features the Yorkville Rambla at a post here, and outlines a set of very similar principles (which I didn't see until after writing this -- showing that there may possibly be something to them!).
  • At Strong Towns, Steve Stofka provides a thorough post on street design and the perception of street width, using the addictive new program Streetmix.