Thursday, April 29, 2010

Charlotte's huge tree loss

A report to be given to the City Council on Monday shows that the city has lost half its tree cover since 1985. Read the report here - it starts on page 70 of the pdf.

The county as a whole has lost 33 percent of the tree cover it had in 1985, the report found.
The study is an Urban Ecosystem Analysis, performed with satellite imagery, GIS technology and American Forests' software. A major grant from The Women’s Impact Fund made it possible, with help from digital imagery provided by Mecklenburg County, and additional funding from the City of Charlotte and the Blumenthal Foundation.

The report notes: "Charlotte Mecklenburg’s tree cover has declined for the last 23 years and new policies and practices will need to emerge to reverse this trend. Based upon this latest data,
tree canopy in Mecklenburg County has reached the point where further decline will cause the County to fall below levels recommended by American Forests. Charlotte Mecklenburg is now at a crossroads that will set the course for environmental quality for decades to come."

The city and the county must begin counting trees as part of the essential urban infrastructure. Today they don't.

Yes, any time a city grows into greenfield areas it will lose large tracts of previously undeveloped woods. The problem isn't that the city has grown, but that it hasn't grown smartly – meaning that while plenty of land was targeted for development, no land was set aside for non-development. Other cities have done this routinely, through strategic use of water/sewer service and roads/no-roads policies. Many require parkland to be set aside (or a fee in lieu) with each development. This helps make up for the inevitable tree loss when greenfields get developed.

Not here.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

BofA-sponsored report raps sprawl

A new article in Harvard Business Review "Back to the City" predicts a major cultural and demographic shift away from suburbia and back toward central cities.
It cites United Air Lines' plan to move its operational center to downtown Chicago from the suburb of Elk Grove, and Walgreens buying New York drugstore chain Duane Reade, "signaling a deliberate decision to improve its capabilities in urban settings."

Interestingly, it says:

"A recent report sponsored by Bank of America, the Greenbelt Alliance and the Low Income Housing Fund examines the inefficiencies of the current “geographical mismatch between workers and jobs.” Focusing on California, it says that sprawl “reduc[es] the quality of life,” “increase[s] the attractiveness of neighboring states,” and yields “higher direct business costs and taxes to offset the side-effects of sprawl”— which include transportation, health care, and environmental costs."

"To put it simply," the HBR article says, "the suburbs have lost their sheen: Both young workers and retiring Boomers are actively seeking to live in densely packed, mixed-use communities that don’t require cars—that is, cities or revitalized outskirts in which residences, shops, schools, parks, and other amenities exist close together. "

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A cities-vs.-states smackdown

Blogging from "The Reinvented City," in Cambridge, Mass., a conference sponsored by the Nieman Foundation, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Ex-Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and Ex-Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, (both recent president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors) and both spending the semester at Harvard's Institute of Politics, had finished their talks about how each had made changes and improvements to their respective cities. (Note, I've corrected an earlier version of this which didn't show Nickels also headed the mayors' group. Mary, 3:30 p.m. 4-25-10)

For instance, Miami 21 is a new form-based code for the city of Miami that throws out the old Euclidean zoning traditions (planners will know what that's about) in favor of an approach focused not on separating all uses but on the relationship between streets and buildings, pedestrians and streets, all the buildings in a neighborhood, etc.

And Nickels – who spearheaded the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement campaign – talked about his efforts to push U.S.. cities to tackle climate change, since the federal government stalled on Kyoto, etc. As he talked about his lengthy, and probably successful effort to get rid of a highway along the Seattle waterfront and replace it with a tunnel. As he recounted a lengthy process fraught with legislative and gubernatorial political maneuvering, he said, "If you want to get us [him and Diaz] going, get us to talk about our relationship with states."

So I did.

What, I asked, might be some mechanisms that could improve those relationships?

"Abolish the states!" Nickels barked.

He and Diaz pretty much went off on a tear about their anger and frustration with state legislatures. Legislators, Diaz said, don't know or care about cities. "If he's a state elected official he should stay the hell away from what's going to affect mayors," he said. The federal government hardly gives cities any money - they funnel it to states. And states don't give it equitably to cities. "We get peanuts," Diaz said.

States should realize the importance of investing in their cities, Nickels said, since cities are where the vast majority of any state's jobs are. (Bev Perdue, are you listening?)

I buttonholed them after their talk, and they were even more outspoken. Rural legislators get elected by basically dumping on metro areas, Nickels said. He told of one well-respected legislator in Washington who was defeated when his opponent linked him to the Seattle skyline.
I asked if they knew of any state-city relationships that were working. They couldn't list one.

"You create the new American economy in cities," Diaz said. He and Nickels – and, I imagine, multiple other mayors – are enormously frustrated that state elected officials don't recognize that the nation's economy, and by extension the states' economies, are created in the nation's cities. The Miami economy, Diaz noted, is the 11th largest economy in the nation and bigger than most state economies.

They both believe changes are needed at the federal level, so more federal money – for transportation, economic development, energy block grants, etc. – goes directly to cities and urban areas and doesn't need to be divvied up by state governments.

Friday, April 23, 2010

How Detroit is reinventing itself

Rick Tetzeli of Time Inc. runs the company's multi-platform, multi-publication effort to cover the transformation of Detroit. They have bought a house in Detroit and reporters are covering the city's transformation for Time mag, Fortune, even Sports Illustrated, as well as blogging, et al. He just talked to "The Reinvented City" conference I'm attending in Cambridge, Mass.

Here's his quick rundown of how Detroit is having to and is reinventing itself:
-The city is shrinking. The population is down from 2 million to 800,000. Within the confines of the city of Detroit you could put the footprint of Manhattan, Boston AND San Francisco.
-The school system is such a disaster that they're considering "all different kinds of things." Example: public boarding schools.
-They're considering light rail between the city and the suburbs, to help connect both geographically and socially.
-Urban farming is, er, taking root.
- "A huge psychic change – nobody expects the car industry to save them anymore."

Housing: Will we escape a second dip?

Blogging from "The Reinvented City," in Cambridge, Mass., a conference sponsored by the Nieman Foundation, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Wellesley economist Chip Case, who studies housing bubbles (and who founded the Case-Shiller real estate report) says this downtown is odd because typically a housing oversupply means production slows, and the supply gets soaked up as new households form. But new household formation is lagging – it's going away almost as fast as production is going away. Rental vacancies are up to 11%. This is odd. If people are getting kicked out of their houses (foreclosures, etc.) you'd think they'd be turning to rental housing. But they aren't. (I'll get to the why in a minute but it partly involves immigration.)

So the lack of household formation is disrupting the traditional pattern of how a downturn turns around. His verdict: "Jobs have to start coming back."

There are positive omens: New housing starts are up. The existing inventory is down – a year ago the estimate was the housing inventory was an 11.5-month supply and now it's 6.7 months. Sales of existing housing (which he thinks is a better gauge) are up to 5.35 million, up from 4 million of recent years/months. But 27 percent of those sales are auction sales (i.e. foreclosed houses).

His conclusion: There's a greater than 50 percent chance we'll get out of this recession without a second dip (the so-called W-shaped recession, as in the 1980s). But not as high as an 80 percent chance.

And immigration? I asked what was the cause for the lack of household formation. His reply: He thought it was people doubling up, as in college graduates without jobs moving back in with parents, families moving in together, etc. That's some of it, he says, but a demographer he talked with recently told him that immigration is turning around.

And that doesn't mean that there's just less of an increase. People are going home, he said. "And that's bad for us – despite what the talk show guys say." The reason is that the shrinking number of households is keeping the recovery from, well, recovering.

The anti-government Smart Growther

Blogging from "The Reinvented City," in Cambridge, Mass., a conference sponsored by the Nieman Foundation, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

9:45 a.m. - Andres Duany, founder of Duany Plate-Zyberk and one of the founders of the New Urbanism movement, is proving that Smart Growth and "New Urbanist" are not synonymous with "bog-government liberal." He's talking about rebuilding New Orleans:
"The government has made affordable housing impossible, so that only government can deliver it."
In America, he says, "We did three centuries of housing immigrants without a nickel. Then government busted in." His point is that building standards, adopted with the best of motives, make it impossible to build the rudimentary housing that can serve as places for people without much money to live in.

And more on the problems in the U.S. planning process:
"We dumbed it down too much." And we make decisions at the wrong level. Decisions that should have been made at the block level are made citywide - example: Chickens. "Chickens are so in." Cities outlaw chickens citywide. That's a decision that should depend on the different situations in different parts of town. But bike paths will be defeated if you make the decisions at the neighborhood level - people will always protest bike paths and greenways, Duany notes. That's a decision that should be made at the regional level, because those amenities are important to the overall community.

Reinventing the City - Numbing the NIMBYs?

Here at "The Reinvented City" conference in Cambridge, Mass. First up, the always provocative Andres Duany, "a rock star of New Urbanism," in the words of Anthony Flint of the sponsoring think tank, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. (Other sponsors: Nieman Foundation, and Harvard's Graduate School of Design).

9:15 a.m. - Duany - "For me the century started in 2007-2008. The pivotal events all occurred about 2008." They were the bursting of real estate bubble, the public recognition of global warming, and the erasure of public confidence in government.

And he's got a great riff going about the problem of the public process in planning. "There's something radically wrong with the public process" in planning. "We dumbed it down too much." And he says, the immediate neighbors are a special interest. Currently the immediate neighbors carry extra weight. But, he notes, "they are not the community as a whole." They will block things that are in the larger interest - bike paths, schools, power lines for new alternative energy projects, etc.

"Large shopping malls are perfectly located to be future town centers. "

And for those who think New Urbanists and Smart Growth advocates are always pro-government. New Urbanist guru Duany is ow trashing government standards. His firm was trying to design a flood-proof house, which could be flooded and not be damaged. "And then we ran into government."

Re New Orleans: It's a Caribbean culture. "The Caribbean culture is not about the accumulation of wealth. It's about the accumulation of leisure." You can't have leisure if you're in debt. People lived in houses granddaddy owned, so there wasn't much debt. "All the do-goody people are actually destroying the culture of New Orleans by eliminating leisure. And by raising the housing standards."

Monday, April 19, 2010

Deluged with democracy

Sorry I've been absent these recent weeks. Took a week of vacation, earlier, and a day last week, and the rest of the time I've been bailing like crazy to keep the boat afloat. Here's the situation: Too many candidates, too little time! We on the editorial board try to offer endorsements, and that involves researching the people running and trying to interview as many as we can.

This year, what with Tea Party candidates and anti-health care reform candidates and Democrats running against other Democrats, including some pro-health care reform candidates, we've got something like 68 candidates to deal with. Democracy is a grand thing, but you can have too much of a good thing.

So while I've been squirreling away interesting blog items I haven't had the time to post them. Next week should be better, and I might even have time to dish a little about candidates. So don't give up on The Naked City.

Friday and Saturday of this week I'll be at a conference on "The Reinvented City," in Cambridge, Mass., sponsored by the Nieman Foundation, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. My plan is to blog from there, although last year my Mac seized up with something called a kernel panic (don't ask) and I was thwarted. Let us hope for better computer vibes this time.