Saturday, January 29, 2011

Snow and Urban Streets

The series of heavy snowfalls here in the Northeast has significantly narrowed many neighborhood streets.  The one-way street at right, normally 30 feet curb-to-curb, with parking on the left side only, has been hemmed in by five feet on both sides after repeated plowings.  Faced with exceptional quantities of snow and limited resources, the city workers removed only as much as was necessary to permit cars to park on the left, while allowing free passage to the right.  For once, the width of the street has been determined by an economically-efficient allocation of space, rather than the dictates of the town zoning code.

The results of this involuntary street narrowing have been immediately noticeable.  Traffic, which previously raced down the 20-foot right of way at speeds in excess of 40 mph, now proceeds at 20 mph or less.  (Incidentally, a pedestrian's chance of surviving a collision with a car moving at 20 mph is 95 percent, as compared to 10 percent for the same car going 40 mph.)  Yet the parking capacity of the street is virtually the same as before, and it remains fully accessible to emergency vehicles.

Very few municipalities would permit the construction of a new street this narrow (and in fact the street in the picture, laid out in the late 1800s, has been widened considerably).  The snow this winter, however, has given Northeast residents a revealing look at how a substantial street narrowing would play out in practice.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thursday Old Urbanism

Fenghuang, China.  The city of Fenghuang ("Phoenix"), in Xiangxi Province, has an architectural heritage that dates back to the Ming Dynasty.  The ancient city also features an ornate covered bridge reminiscent of the Ponte Vecchio.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Urbanism in Las Vegas: Hiding In Plain View?

An article out today in the Las Vegas Sun ponders the finding that suburban homes built in the city during the recent real estate boom seem to have little appeal for "Generation Y," which has gravitated toward urban living.  This apparently bodes poorly for the revival of the Las Vegas real estate market.  In the middle of the article, however, the author drops a surprising observation which is quickly passed by:
(Unfortunately, however, even many of our suburbs are not well-positioned compared with other cities. The mania for land during the boom led to extraordinarily dense developments — in essence urban neighborhoods plopped down in the suburbs — with houses on top of one another, paired with a dearth of decent amenities such as parks.)
So perhaps Las Vegas is not suffering from a lack of urban neighborhoods after all.  There seems to be a mix-up here in terminology, with confusion as to whether "suburban" describes a) a type of house, b) the form of a neighborhood, c) the (lack of) amenities in a neighborhood or d) the location of a neighborhood within the metro area.  But if the form of a neighborhood is "extraordinarily dense," and dense by way of many small lots on reasonably well-connected streets, the essential physical prerequisites for an urban neighborhood arguably are met. 

The author does note at toward the end the possibility of enlivening these neighborhoods by introducing non-residential uses the concept known as "retrofitting" that has been written about extensively.  But with the imprecise usage of "urban" and "suburban," it's easier to overlook those good urban qualities that may be right under our noses.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Thursday Old Urbanism

Mathura, India, 1903.  Mathura, one of the seven holy cities of Hinduism, and one of the most ancient in India, as photographed during British rule.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Affordable Housing," part II

[Thanks to all who read and commented on the previous post on this topic.]

In continuing this little series, I'd like to step back for a moment and look at the long term picture:  specifically, the affordability of American homes over a long time span.  Fortunately, Yale economist Robert Shiller has already compiled the data for a chart tracking inflation-adjusted home prices over the past 120 years:

There's a lot to be gleaned from this chart, but setting aside the recent bubble what strikes me most is the overall rise of home prices after 1920, defying the 20th century trend for nearly all other built or manufactured goods -- which, almost invariably, decreased in inflation-adjusted cost over time with rapid advances in production technology.  Although modern mortgage lending was in its infancy in 1920, over 45 percent of Americans owned homes at the time.  Sixty percent of owner-occupied homes were owned free and clear, while the mortgages on the remainder typically covered no more than 50 percent of the home's value, and generally matured within three to five years.

By contrast, only 33 percent of owner-occupied homes were owned free and clear as of the 2000 Census, indicating that mortgage-free ownership among owner-occupied homes has actually declined in absolute percentage terms since 1920, in spite of a large increase in overall homeownership. 

All this raises several questions.  Did the emergence of widespread mortgage lending and indebted ownership contribute to price inflation of homes after 1920 that was not warranted by their construction cost or the change in the price of land?   And if the net growth in ownership during the 1920s accrued to those closest in income to existing homeowners, rather than poorer Americans, what was the effect of this growth on housing affordability for renters and ownership-aspiring, but low-income, persons?  During the period 1950-2000, at least, expansion in overall rates of homeownership was paralleled by an increase in rental costs that far outpaced the rate of inflation.   And finally, why did labor-saving innovations in home construction, and an increase in the supply of buildable land enabled by the interstate highway network, not decrease the cost for housing in the 1920-1970 period, as distinct from nearly all other available goods?

I don't really have clear answers to these questions, but it could be a starting point for a discussion.  The role of zoning and municipal building codes here, which some commenters addressed earlier, I'll save for a following post.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Thursday Old Urbanism

Main Street, Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1912.
At least four forms of transportation are visible in this century-old postcard view.  Every building in the photo, except for the four story "Hotel Arcade" and the two taller buildings in the far left background, have since been demolished, although most were still standing and in use as late as 1965.  The streetcars of course are long gone, as is the clock.  A tornado which blew through the downtown on June 24 of last year caused damage which resulted in the demolition of several of the remaining historic buildings.  Still, a number of businesses carry on in the area, feeding off foot traffic from the nearby state and federal courthouses.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Aldea de Rey and a Critique of the Grid

The arrival of Google's comprehensive satellite view some years ago, and more recently Street View, has been a huge benefit for anyone with even a passing interest in urbanism.  To take advantage of these amazing mapping tools, from time to time I'll use them to explore a city or town typically one with emergent characteristics in overall plan  partly for fun, and partly to see what can be learned.

This week's location is the southern Spanish town of Aldea de Rey (literally "King's Town"), a village chosen not for its distinctiveness but for being representative of small towns of the region (and for being small enough to be shown in detail on this blog). 

The town has a characteristically medieval spindle-shaped plan (p. 139) in a north-south orientation, indicating that at the time it was founded, as today, the primary flow of traffic was between the city of Ciudad Real to the north and smaller destinations to the south:

The central square is easy to pick out.  The road network surrounding it appears to have grown gradually over time: an initial "spindle," clearly discernible in the top half of the photo, encompasses most of the town square; to that initial shape is appended an addition angling to the southwest, which doubles or triples the size of the town while retaining the overall spindle shape.  Finally, a series of straighter roads, mostly to the east, further expand the settled area.

Although the road network may appear chaotic and inefficient on first glance, using Google's directions tool on the "walking" function reveals something interesting.  Using the New Urbanist metric of the five-minute walk, here is pictured the distance one can cover along various routes in five minutes, starting from the square (marked with a star):
Apparently the central point of the town is accessible to nearly every resident by only a quick stroll.  Even the newer streets bend around the gravitational pull of the center, keeping most residences within the five-minute walking radius. 

Although New Urbanist thought tends to emphasize the grid as a walkable alternative to the modern suburban pattern of arterial roads and cul de sacs, walkability is of course not an end in itself but rather a means to an end (arriving at one's destination, among other benefits).   A formal grid of relatively low-density residential structures, however, as is pictured in the previous link, offers few non-residential destinations and no obvious focal point.  Where centers of commerce, entertainment, etc. do exist, the grid may inhibit walking by failing to offer diagonal "shortcuts" and forcing the walker to follow a lengthier zig-zag path. 

The cul-de-sac approach, for all its failings, does at least acknowledge a hierarchy of streets and therefore features locations which are more central than others.  The town of Aldea de Rey offers one example of a layout that combines the connectedness of the grid with a centered focus that will attract the pedestrian volume sufficient to support retail and other businesses.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Idea of "Affordable Housing," part I

At right is a photo I snapped of a shotgun-style house while visiting and exploring Memphis a few years ago.  Such exceedingly modest homes on small lots are abundant throughout the American south, with entire neighborhoods in some cities lined with little other than shotgun houses.  This particular structure was built around 1920 and is just less than 800 square feet.  Originally it must have been even smaller, as changing foundation material, window sizes and siding toward the rear betray an addition now comprising about one quarter of the house.

This is not intended as a foray into Southern architecture, however, but as an observation that, in that not-so-distant past, the private real estate market did in fact produce large quantities of low-cost housing for poor and working-class Americans.  The house pictured was not constructed for wealthy or middle-income persons of the 1920s, as their choice (at least in the south) was largely the bungalow or the foursquare.   Thus, shotgun houses were "affordable," so to speak, from the moment they were built.

While I do not know who built it and by what financial arrangement, whether it was intended for sale or as a rental, nor do I know the circumstances of the first occupant, the presence of the house in an age before inclusionary zoning, rent control, and, indeed, widely accessible residential mortgage lending, testifies to the fact that the market at the time was capable of supplying reasonably decent accomodation to persons of limited means.

Sometime between 1920 and 1950, construction of housing of this type and cost virtually ceased.  Today, memory of the earlier past has been so thoroughly forgotten that it is not uncommon to hear stated as fact that the United States always had an affordable housing problem, or that the free market is inherently incapable of providing housing affordable to the poor.  For those who acknowledge the change, the culprits named responsible have been almost too numerous to mention: the emergence of zoning and other constraints on use of land; urban renewal; mass development of public housing; increased costs for labor and materials; new building codes and regulations; the decline of manufacturing, and many more.  In a a subsequent post, I'll take a closer look at some of these explanations.

Friday, January 7, 2011


I've added a few links to the blog, representing a sampling of the urban blogs and websites I read frequently.  I'll add more over time but this is plenty to chew on for the moment.  All are generalist except for the excellent Built St. Louis, which is simply too fascinating, and too much of a heartfelt paean to "old urbanism," to be left off the link list.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Thursday Old Urbanism

Old Town, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Another city of Iberian origin which lent its original name specifying its use as a port to the country in which it lies, much like the featured city from two weeks ago, Porto (earlier Portugale, from the Latin Portus Cale)When founded, the name by which the city of San Juan was known was indeed Puerto Rico, Spanish for Rich Port, an appropriate name for a wealthy coastal town but one which made little sense for an entire county.  By contrast, San Juan had been the name given the island by its first European explorer -- Christopher Columbus. 

Several years after the founding of the city of Puerto Rico, the city was renamed San Juan, which resulted in confusion in distinguishing between the city and the island.  Ultimately, the naming crisis was resolved by switching the names so that henceforth the island would be called Puerto Rico and the city San Juan.   The old town of the city, pictured above, preserves a gridded street pattern that is the legacy of 16th century Renaissance-era city planning principles, as reflected in the "Laws of the Indies" which guided urban development in Spanish colonial cities throughout the New World.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Concept of Filtering

Following an earlier post on the apparent comeback of center city American neighborhoods, it seems a good time to formally introduce a basic yardstick for measuring and understanding neighborhood change over time: the concept of "filtering."  An author writing in 1960 set forth the concept as clearly and concisely as anyone has since:
"I propose to define 'filtering' simply as a change in the real value (price in constant dollars) of an existing dwelling unit. ... To analyze filtering as a market process, its causes and consequences, four basic constructs should be kept in mind: (1) An array of all dwelling units according to their real values ... (2) An array of all dwelling units according to their quality (by some quantifiable measure other than price). (3) An array of all households according to their real incomes ... (4) An array of supply prices of new dwelling units in each quality class ...."   "Filtering and Housing Standards: A Conceptual Analysis." Ira S. Lowry, 1960.
The word "filtering" traditionally connoted a decline in relative value of a dwelling unit over time such that the unit could be said to have "filtered" downwards in status.  This idea intuitively made sense given the assumption that housing units would tend to decline in quality over time, both absolutely and in comparison to newly-constructed units.  More recently, the notion that an existing neighborhood could also filter upwards, a phenomenon virtually unheard of during the years from 1930 to 1970, has been so widely documented that it has long since earned a name of its own ("gentrification").  Nonetheless the measuring tools for detecting such filtering remain in large part those set out by Lowry: change in housing values over time relative to the city mean; change in resident incomes over time relative to the city mean, and a sense of the overall quality of the housing stock.

The mapping tool linked earlier helpfully provides the two crucial measures of change in housing value and income over time.  Absent is a measure for the quality of the housing, a question plagued by subjective judgment and complicated by limited census information on the physical qualities of housing.  Since this element is key to the why of filtering, rather than the where and how much, it will be addressed in forthcoming posts.