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Can Boomers Save the Suburbs?

A Salon article titled ‘How to Solve the Boomer Retirement Crisis’ is making the rounds today. The article puts forward a number of policy measures to encourage baby boomers, as they retire, age, and downsize homes, to move to the city, rather than staying in the suburbs (or moving further out or further south). At the end of the piece, the author concedes that none of the measures to encourage greater urban migration for seniors have worked to date. Citing a study of government incentives to do so:

These financial incentives have “no credible effect.” After 40 years, seniors’ migration patterns still lead straight to the same things: sunshine and fairways. “New York to Florida is huge,” says Conway. “It dominates everything else.”

I think the idea of encouraging seniors to move (back) to the city is a good one, but not if it’s solely considered in isolation. In other words, we need to support policies and initiatives that encourage people of all ages and at all stages of their life to move to the city. In particular, this means housing types amenable to families, so you don’t end up with a city of “newlyweds and nearly deads”, as people are often fond of saying about Victoria, British Columbia.

The suburban environment I grew up in (within Edmonton, and darn near south-central given how far out we’ve expanded).

I believe there’s also a key psychological and behaviour influence that’s being overlooked. Many seniors are going to want to stay in communities they know and are comfortable with, which is a large part of what’s behind the concept of aging in place. While that deals specifically with a senior living in his/her own home as long as possible, that familiarity extends to the neighborhood level. Intuitively, it makes sense. If one’s friends, doctors, and familiar shops and places are in an area, what would make them want to relocate within a given region?

An additional consideration is this – often overlooked when talking about suburban migration is the fact that jobs – not just people – have moved out there. Many baby boomers have rarely, if ever, held a job in a downtown office, or lived in the city center since their 20s. Downtown and the city center for them is a destination – somewhere you go to occasionally shop or enjoy amenities, not a community.

I see opportunities with boomers who have a connection to the city (and its urban core) with regards to downsizing (for example, those who have worked and spent a lot of time there), but for the vast majority, I see this: an opportunity to densify the suburbs, and have boomers help lead the charge in making them more amenable to an aging population. The fact that the services they will need, such as increased transit and walkable amenities, will benefit everyone, is a bonus.

Many of the same policies that will encourage people my age to live and stay in the city will encourage a densification and urbanization of suburban environments for people like my parents, who may be more comfortable out there. Century Park in my hometown of Edmonton – a residential/business community being built on the site of a demolished shopping mall – is an example of what can be done.

South LRT Grand Opening
The LRT station and transit terminal at Century Park. Photo by Mastermaq, using a CC BY-SA 2.0 License.

With the wave of baby boomers starting to hit retirement age, and downsizing in greater numbers, we have an opportunity to increase the sustainability of the city, but more so the suburbs. I think we’d be better off focusing on that, rather than trying to shift their patterns and desires as to which part of region they might want to live in.

In the meantime, while we also help mine and my friends’ parents age in their communities, let’s enact policies to make sure me and my friends can spend our entire lives in the city – by ensuring housing of all types is available and attainable.


Baseball’s Great Crescendo and New Beginning

I have become a baseball modernist.

This is no small evolution. Though I’ve been a fan longer than I can remember, I really started to embrace the history of the game, and the off the field aspect around the age of 12. In those years (1994-95, for those keeping score at home), I learned about the history of the game through books such as the Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Team Histories, David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 and October 1964, and Roger Kahn’s classic The Boys of Summer. I learned more about the business side of the game – and how we got to a place where the 1994 season was just cancelled – reading Lords of the Realm.

This growing interest occurred at a time when the game was going through significant structural changes. In 1994, the 25 year old two division format was replaced by a three division structure, with an additional wild card team (non-division winner with best record) qualifying for the playoffs. Revenue disparities between big and small market clubs were starting to become more apparent, especially when the uncrowned champions of 1994 – the Montreal Expos – traded most of their best players upon the end of the strike in what can only be described as a fire sale.

These factors grew as the ’90s went on. Baseball traditionalists like Bob Costas decried the changes to the playoff format, and the introduction of interleague play a few years later. Criticism of those changes, and previous innovations such as the Designated Hitter, resonated with me.

Fenway Park on a Sunday afternoon.

Many would argue that much of baseball’s appeal is tied to its history and tradition – and romantic notions thereof. This is probably best exemplified through the great ‘People Will Come’ speech from Field of Dreams:

As I get older, I realize that, like with most forms of nostalgia, baseball romanticism harkens back to a past that probably never truly existed. The game has a great past in many ways, and the tradition and history adds value and a dimension that’s lacking in sports that don’t celebrate it to the same extent, but baseball must be enjoyed for its present and future as well. I’m still a traditionalist in some respects – for example, I believe that the Dodgers’ rightful home is Brooklyn. But I have come to appreciate that, like anything else, baseball must continue to try to evolve, and the game (both on and off the field) will change.

The 2012 seasons marks the start of a transition period in baseball, as it comes out of one era and will soon begin another, spurred by changes in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. In 2013, an extra wild card team will be added, and the Houston Astros will move to the American League; which means that interleague play will now become a normal, regular feature of everyday baseball. The introduction of a bonus pool for the amateur draft and international signings will impact a competitive advantage many teams have built up by spending in these areas. It’s worth noting that it’s not just the big clubs who spend big these days on amateur signings – perennial low-payroll bottom-feeders like Pittsburgh and Kansas City have built strong farm systems (that are just starting to pay off for the big club) by investing heavy in draft signings. These changes, and the end of the high-slugging steroid era make me believe that the game will shift again, and we’re entering a new era.

Zimmerman at Bat
Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals, who have built a team poised to content contend in the next few years.

Given that, it gives the great finish to the 2011 season additional meaning to me. It was, without a doubt, one of the most exciting finishes to a season, a wonderful crescendo of an era soon to pass. The last night of the regular season produced unparalleled drama. 4 of 7 playoff series went to the deciding game (in total, 38 of 41 possible playoff games were played). The St. Louis Cardinals’ run to the title produced a handful of legitimately great moments, from Chris Carpenter’s complete game shutout in Philly to win the NLDS, to the amazing finish in Game 6 of the World Series, where the Cardinals were down 2, and on their last strike – twice – tying the game both times before winning on a walk off home run in the 11th. David Freese’s triple to tie that game in the 9th is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen, given that the game looked over at the start of the inning.

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It would have been different if the new playoff rules were in place. The four teams vying for two wild card spots – the Rays, Red Sox, Cardinals, and Braves – all would have clinched their spots by the last night in a two Wild Card per league system, taking away all the drama of that evening. Those teams would have faced off in one-game play-ins, which – while exciting in their own right – would have had a cascading effect for the winners going forward. Had the Cardinals moved on, the added workload on their pitching staff might have shown up in the Phillies’ series, and tipped the scales away from them. In this way, there’s a neat parallel to the 1993 season, last before the wild card era, where the Braves beat the Giants in an epic NL West pennant race that would never have happened under the new system.

I have reservations about some of the changes coming. I think the more teams you add to the playoffs, the more it dilutes the value of the regular season. I’ve grown to be agnostic on interleague play itself, but I do like the way it happens at specific times – treating it as a special event, rather than being an everyday occurrence. I’ve enjoyed following how teams use the draft and signings to build, and as a competitive advantage, and I’d hate to see that diminished.

Yet, I’m optimistic. There will still be exciting races for the wild card (even if it’s for the second spot). Given the randomness of a one-game playoff, I hope it will add emphasis on the value of a team winning its division. I know that interleague becoming a normalized part of the schedule won’t take away from the more intraleague matchups, and rivalries that have come out of that. It will also add a quirk to the schedule every day, highlighting an uncommon matchup. I also know that well-managed teams will find other ways of gaining an edge through the draft and international signings. Speaking of, I’m excited to see if the promising new hires in the Houston Astros front office can in time make them the Rays of the West, competing with and beating the big payroll Angels and Rangers.

This season will almost certainly not live up to last in terms of excitement down the stretch. Yet, I will enjoy the games, and root for the Red Sox, and without a doubt there will be memorable moments and performances along the way. I’m also trying to prepare for the new era of the game, and approach it with optimism – the belief that not only will it be different from the past, it will also be better.

But, if nothing else, there is this to provide comfort and excitement:

Today, Sunday, February 19, pitchers and catchers report.

Jasper Ave Blues: Small Investments, Big Returns

If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ve probably gathered that – while not inherently opposed to mega-projects – I am often skeptical of their value and actual vs. promised benefits. I tend to think that smaller, more creative investments can often yield greater returns. Having seen successful catalyst/anchor tenant projects in other cities, I think the key is for them to be built in scale with the surrounding environment, rather than overwhelming it. But I also believe, as I said, there are creative, cost-effective ways to improve the livability of an area as well. If you think of Whyte Avenue, High Street, and 4th Street Promenade – to my mind Edmonton’s three most successful examples of (re)development in the city core, you’d be hard pressed to name an anchor tenant or single driving project for any of the three. Rather, the sum product of various small(er) businesses and amenities is what makes each area so great.

Andy’s suggestion of chess parks in Edmonton got me thinking about such small investments. There are examples, both permanent and temporary, in downtown Edmonton of such small investments, and creative use of space. The Alley of Light, and the upcoming Blink pedway pop-up restaurant event come to mind.

Pocket Parks, and Target Activities in Parks
Having evolved, and been built (and rebuilt) over decades, not everything downtown fits into neat lines or parcels. That means that there are going to be underused spaces, or properties that don’t fit an obvious, conventional use. The aforementioned Alley of Light is one example of turning a dead space into something functional, and this can be built on.

Pocket parks are one way to fill this void. The 7th and Penn Parklet in downtown Pittsburgh is one of my favourite examples (it was created after demolishing an adult bookstore).

7th & Penn Parklet

As the Parklet, with its focus on public art, shows, there also need to be things that will get people outside and using them. My observation is that unless there is a specific event happening, most of downtown Edmonton’s parks go unused even on nice days. Why not try putting chess boards, or a bocce ball court, or something that will make them stand out and draw people in? The basketball hoops that go up in Churchill Square every summer are a good example of where this is already being done. Twitter exchanges with Andy and others quickly identified the following possibilities for a chess park downtown: the area behind Milner Library, the space just north of Scotia Tower, Beaver Hills Park on 105th and Jasper, along Rice Howard Way adjacent to patios. And that’s just off the top of our heads. There are numerous creative things we can do with public space that will encourage more use, and pedestrian traffic, in good and bad weather.

Art in Unexpected Places
Murals and statues are popular forms of art, but I enjoy seeing art in other places and forms, in particular when it transforms something that’s otherwise mundane.

Power and Colour

Throughout downtown Victoria, many of the power boxes are painted, bringing colour and life to otherwise unremarkable (aesthetically-speaking) objects.

Flora in Creative Places
Like with art, this is a way to bring character, and colour, to a street or building. A couple of my favourite examples:


The plants growing on this building in Boston (somewhere between Newbury Street and Storrow Drive) make it stand out amongst a row of identical brick buildings.


The potted plants along the edge of the parkade (background) add life to an otherwise sterile building in Chicago’s Loop.

Heat and Fire to Extend the Patio Season
It amazes me how little Edmonton businesses do to extend patio season. While only the heartiest Edmontonians (probably not enough to create a value proposition for business owners) would use a patio in -20 weather, I think a combination of heating, warm clothes, and alcohol to warm the blood would make patios a viable proposition when it’s around freezing, if not even a bit colder.

Cadillac Ranch
This patio at the Cadillac Ranch restaurant in downtown Cleveland has a fire pit to keep guests warm. This was taken on a November day, when weather (with the wind chill) was probably around freezing.

A couple of examples from San Diego. Yes, San Diego, with average low temperatures of 10 degrees celsius.


The heat lamps above each table at Fred’s Mexican Cafe on 5th make the patios hospitable late into the night, and allow guests the option of whether or not they want to use them.


Davanti in Little Italy not only has outdoor heaters for its back patio, but the patio itself is a creative use of space. They expanded and took over the back alley in order to add this section.

It just stuns me that they do this effectively in San Diego, yet neither business owners nor consumers are promoting this in Edmonton.

Improving the livability of downtown, and making it more interesting and amenable to spend time in (especially along the street) is a key, cost-effective way to make downtown a more interesting place to be. I noted some initiatives already underway, and I hope we continue to build on them, and pursue other initiatives of this type to improve our downtown.

Robert Moses 2.0, or the Unintended Inferences of Microsoft’s Walking App

Microsoft is getting criticized for its recently patented app, titled Pedestrian Route Production. The idea is to produce walking routes that steer pedestrians away from inclement weather (apparently conditions swing wildly from block-to-block in some cities?), roadblocks, and high-crime areas. Much of the criticsm is well-founded and deserved, as many have argued that it will steer pedestrians away from areas with higher concentrations of poverty, and/or minority populations.

A public housing project on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, often called Murder Avenue, exactly the kind of area Microsoft’s walking app is designed to avoid. I took this photo after I wandered off the beaten path after walking across the Brooklyn Bridge one morning. I should note that I never really felt unsafe, despite being an obvious target as a tourist carrying a backpack and fancy camera.

Of course, this also points to the misconceptions of why, when, and between whom incidences of (violent) crime happen. John Roman on the Microtrends blog deconstructs the perceptions of this in Washington, DC:

Checking out a map of 2009 data, the part of DC with the most assaults is in the 3rd police district, an area known as Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights. (Maps of previous years’ data show the same hot spot.) These places are not the poorest in the city, nor are they the areas with the most minorities. What makes Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights so dangerous? That’s where the bars are heavily clustered.

Where are robberies most concentrated? Same place! And, within that place, the “hottest” hot spots are near Metro stations and along the busiest commercial corridors (where the most bars are).

The same thing would likely occur in my home town of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Edmonton Police Services provides a crimemapping tool on the web, where you can search for crimes that have been committed in each neighborhood. Similar to DC, you see a high number of violent crimes downtown and in Strathcona, both popular nightlife areas with a high concentration of restaurants and bars.

It’s hard to have an objective dialogue around crime, in particular violent crimes. We can talk about statistics and probabilities and random chance all we want, but the moment something happens to you or someone close to you, those cease to matter. Yet, regardless of its intentions, things like the Microsoft app perpetuate false stereotypes, and make matters worse for everyone trying to change the condition and the impression of certain neighborhoods.

In a sense, it serves to have the same effect as the practice of redlining. I’m also reminded of Anthony Flint’s excellent book Wrestling with Moses. In it, he covers how Moses would declare a New York neighborhood as blighted, preventing further investment or redevelopment. This ultimately became a self-fulfilling prophecy for a given area, regardless of its actual condition upon Moses’ designation.

At the New Partners for Smart Growth conference last week, one of the themes I focused on the most is the need to be inclusive in revitalization, and ensure that all residents – particularly disadvantaged communities – participate in, and benefit from, revitalization. The idea behind the Microsoft app, and other initiatives that discourage interaction with certain neighborhoods, perpetuates stereotypes and myths, ultimately making it less likely the condition of these neighborhoods and their residents will ever change. Our cities, and their residents, will be better off if we get over these stereotypes, and instead of avoiding problems (and perceived problem areas), figure out how we can use investment, data, and technology to further equity and prosperity, in particular for the most disdvantaged.

Romney and the Patriots: Does the Super Bowl Explain the GoP Primary?

A (sort of) deviation into politics:

It’s been a bad few days for Massachusetts products going for national success. On Sunday, the Patriots lost a heartbreaker in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants for the second time in 5 years. Last night, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney – presumptive nominee for the Republican Party’s Presidential nomination, got creamed when three states held primaries or caucuses.

After his convincing win in Florida, rebounding from a resounding South Carolina loss, I had more or less stopped paying attention, assuming that Romney was on his way to what has long felt like an inevitable victory. I was stunned to see him not only lose last night, but lose badly in 2 of 3 contests.

The parallels go beyond the Massachusetts link. Romney in 2012 is a deceptively strong candidate; by all accounts, he should be doing well, with a huge edge in fund raising and organizing. But he’s held back by a seemingly crippling unlikability. Similarly, the Patriots in 2012 were a deceptively good team. They won 12 regular season games, and made it within a play of winning the Super Bowl, but in the end, their only win against a better than .500 team came in the AFC title game, when Baltimore’s kicker missed a chip shot.

Those parallels are neat, but what’s happening in the GoP race really mirrors the 2008 Super Bowl. Romney, for his flaws, has a formidable campaign, and is way above the field in every respect (it’s not like people are flocking to embrace his opponents). Similarly, the 2007 Patriots were a legitimately great team, boasting the best offense, and a top-tier defense as well. In the Super Bowl, they ran into a hot, yet seemingly over matched team (the Pats were a 12 point favorite that year, compared to 2 1/2 this time).

So what happened? The teams played a sluggish first three quarters, with New England clinging to a 7-3 lead for much of it. Though the Giants were long one play away from the lead, it felt like it should just be a matter of time before the Patriots pulled away. But that’s the thing with sports (and other contests). Sometimes, the unexpected happens, and the underdog wins. And the longer you let an underdog hang around, the better a chance they have of surprising the seemingly pre-ordained favorite.

Romney has been expected to win for a while. He staved off a Newt Gingrich surge in December, recovered after Rick Santorum’s surprise showing in Iowa, then buried Gingrich after another surge led to his convincing South Carolina win. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he crashed against Santorum last night.

He’s still the heavy betting favorite, and it feels improbable to imagine anything but a Romney win in the Republican Party. In fact, he’ll probably end up winning. But, every time so far that he’s looks poised to pull away, he’s come crashing back to earth. His opponents just keep hanging around, and the longer they hang around, the more I start to think something improbable like this will happen to swing the race away from him.

Also, both David Tyree and Rick Santorum have egregious views about homosexuality and/or same sex marriage.

New Partners for Smart Growth: Day Three

The third and final day of the conference featured two plenary sessions (the first and last ones during the day) and two breakouts. The themes of the sessions I attended focused on diversity, social, and economic inclusion.

The Great Reset: Reshaping Our Economic and Physical Landscape to Meet New Needs
This session, featuring senior civic leaders, discussed the changing landscape, and the urgency to develop communities that meet the demands of consumers.

Kim Walesh, Director of Economic Development for San Jose, spoke to the demographic changes, and how this affects the market. She noted that development has targeted the 35-54 age group, but demographics are shifting to seniors, as Baby Boomers enter that demographic in large numbers, and young professionals, as Millennials come of age. They both want a more urban environment. Baby boomers want to be able to walk to restaurants/shops and medical appointments. Millennials have what she described as a “live first/work second” outlook, meaning they’ll choose a community/city where they’ll want to live first, then look for work second. She also noted that this group is 33% more likely than other demographics to want to live within 3 miles of a Central Business District.

Speaking anecdotally as a Millennial (and child of baby boomers), Walesh’s argument resonates with everything I see and hear amongst both my and my parents’ respective cohorts.

On the inclusion theme, Walesh made a powerful argument for the value of immigration, pointing out that 50% of CEOs of Silicon Valley tech companies are foreign-born, and 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or second-generation Americans.

Additionally, Mayor Mark Mallory of Cincinnati, who I’ve been a fan of since first hearing him speak at the Urban 2.0 conference, spoke about building on his city’s concentration of Fortune 500 companies and head offices, and the appeal of the old streetcar they’ve reintroduced. Officials from Portland and Seattle spoke as well about their respective initiatives. I was impressed with Seattle’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2050, and how they view green initiatives and goals as a key part of their economic strategy. They’re also building a more inclusive city by including the city’s thriving music scene in its economic development initiatives, and by increasing the diversity of housing types available for young people (such as 300 square foot “pods” that have shared amenities). As the speaker noted, for many young people, “home is not necessarily the place they want to stay”.

Seattle sees its music scene as part of its city’s economic development and appeal. Pictured here: Slimpickins, busking at Pike Place Market.

Advancing Equity in Minneapolis/St. Paul: Action, Research, Advocacy, and Place-Making
This session put forward four perspectives on greater inclusion and equity in the Twin Cities.

ISAIAH, a community organization, organized the Healthy Corridor for All initiative, around the Central Corridor Light Rail Development. This development affected many low-income and minority communities, and the community wanted to ensure that the health of residents and communities was not adversely affected. The speaker also stressed the point that silos between public health officials, advocates, and planners need to be broken down. The link and impact planning has (for better or worse) on public health has been a recurring theme throughout the conference.

Louis King, founder of HIRE Minnesota, spoke powerfully to the need for economic equality. He began by stating that “the best social service program in the world is a job”, and noting that African-Americans were more than 3 times more likely to be unemployed than Caucasians in Minnesota. HIRE is an accredited educational institution, both advocating for equality, and providing training and skills development for individuals. He spoke to several principles that would foster greater economic inclusion.

Laura Zabel of Springboard for the Arts presented their Irrigate project, partnering local artists with businesses and community organization to create place-making. I was impressed with a number of things with this initiative, in particular the way it engages artists who are already in the community, pushes an understanding that the arts are a key part of – not extraneous – to the economy, and the way it expands the conventional notion of who, or what, is an artist.

I am incredibly impressed with the work Justin Kii Huenemann and the Native American Community Development Institute are doing. They are focusing on building equity and community along Franklin Avenue, where the greatest concentration of Native Americans in the Twin Cities is found. They’ve helped foster local ownership, from institutions such as a bank to arts initiatives such as a gallery and a festival. NACDI has put forward a powerful vision of Franklin Avenue as an American Indian Cultural Corridor, and are putting resources behind it to make it a reality, transforming from an economy of social service to one of entrepreneurship and growth. Living in Edmonton, which by the end of the decade will have the largest urban Aboriginal population in Canada, I see great value and opportunity to foster inclusion through initiatives like this in both my community.

Huenemann also spoke to the need for responsibility from the communities affected and involved. He passed on an old saying from an Elder, that when you’re pointing one finger at someone else, you’re pointing three back at yourself – meaning, you need to think about what you’re doing, rather than blaming others.

Restoring the American City: Augusta, GA and Laney Walker/Bethlehem

Laney Walker and Bethlehem are traditionally African-American communities adjacent to downtown Augusta. Vibrant communities from the 1920s to 1970s, they’ve experienced significant decline over the past 40 years. In Laney Walker, 33% of housing was in poor condition or dilapidated; the number in Bethlehem was 70%. The areas had hollowed out; while 1000 acres in size, and home to 3500 parcels of land, it was home ot only 4700 people.

Beginning in 2007, revitalization efforts sought to build on its character and proud history as an African-American community. As Chester Wheeler, one of the leaders of this initiative noted, “Government could not come in and plan for the people. It would never work”. Government did, however, need to mitigate the risk of private developers to encourage investment. The project has been sensitive to existing residents, including them in the consultation and planning from the site, and ensuring any tenants that are displaced are successfully relocated to a home in their existing community. Impressively, they have yet to acquire a single property through eminent domain, respecting local ownership of each property. The project has focused on preservation and reuse (where the former is no longer possible). As one resident said, “it’s important to keep these buildings so they can continue to tell their story”

This effort receives a public investment through a hotel/motel surcharge, and is using it to leverage private investment at a 5:1 ratio. It builds on the area’s history by creating a Heritage Trail, which identifies 150 sites of significant recognition of African-American people and places throughout the city. This speaks to one of the best strategies I see for urban development, building on your own city’s character and making them strengths, rather than copying the trend of the day.

Community Design and Urban Innovation for a Knowledge Economy
Michael Freedman, Principal at Freedman Tung Sasaki in San Francisco, closed out the conference.

He covered the evolution of the smart growth movement over the years, noting that we now know what the problems and solutions to them are. The key challenge he identified is to create “a broader consensus for the coming prosperity”. It’s a well-found point, that the coalition of smart growth/new urbanist advocates needs to grow. I’m reminded of a speaker yesterday who asked, “how can you create an environment where people see a reflection of themselves in your work?” I see this as important to any successful movement, that people can relate, and see a place for themselves as part of it.

He also noted that, “when the nature of work changes, the city is entirely transformed”. He followed by pointing out that transportation changes follow changes to work, rather than influencing the change itself as many assume.

Freedman covered the evolution of cities since the industrial revolution, noting where we have arrived at today, a place where creativity and innovation are the primary wealth-generators of the new economy. He tied this back to cities, focusing on the need to develop cities (physically and otherwise) that foster innovation and creativity, and talked about what the city of the future might look like (hint: the business park is dead).

This is the challenge for smart growth and new urbanist advocates like myself. To articulate a vision and a road map to create cities that respond to the economic, social, and environmental needs of the 21st century. With the work being done by people like Freedman, and many of the speakers and attendees I’ve met in the past three days, I feel like this future is closer than many of us might think.

New Partners for Smart Growth: Day Two

Following on my post from the first day of New Partners for Smart Growth, here is a quick recap of Friday’s sessions:

Building a Powerful Regional Equity Coalition to Deliver on Sustainable Communities
Building on what I noted in the East Baltimore project, three organizations spoke about how they’re ensuring smart growth and redevelopment is inclusive of all residents, particularly marginalized communities. Urban Habitat, out of San Francisco, has developed a Board and Commission Leadership Institute, where they prepare and encourage members of marginalized communities to participate in civic boards and commissions. They’ve gone, in the words of CEO Allen Fernandez-Smith, from “the goal of influencing decision-makers to the goal of being the decision-makers”. San Francisco is also leading the way with a Local Hire Policy for public works, including a provision for employing residents from disadvantaged communities.

Farmers’ Market

For lunch we went to the Farmers’ Market at Cancer Survivors’ Park, adjacent to the conference hotel. California is leading the way with more than 700 farmers’ markets across the state, and this ties in well with San Diego’s thriving local food culture I noted in the Thursday recap.

Little Trips, Big Difference: Predicting Traffic for Mixed-Use Sites

As someone who values metrics and analytics, I was interested to see what’s being done to measure the efficacy, and continue to build the case for mixed-use developments (MXDs) and transit-oriented developments (TOD).

The speakers focused on 7 ‘Ds’ that reduce demand for trips and vehicular traffic:
– Density
– Diversity
– Design
– Destinations
– Distance to travel
– Development scale
– Demgraphics
– Demand management

Tools now can predict number and types of trips from factors such as how many jobs are available within 3 miles of a location. I see a real value in being able to demonstrate the value of MXDs over traditional suburban development in terms of environmental impact and infrastructure cost. I’m thinking some universal metric like baseball’s Wins Above Replacement.

Jobs, the Workforce, and the Economy: Rethinking the Role of Smart Growth and the Economy

Speaker Larry Fitch began by noting that economic growth is often seen as separate from the smart growth agenda, when in reality they’re heavily intertwined. This point is well-found. Smart growth and new urbanism need to be about more than a built form. The inherent economic benefits, and the potential economic opportunities for citizens, need to be a conscious part of this effort, and well-articulated as part of the vision as well. He also focused on the issue of transit and accessibility, and how without it residents can become marginalized. He used the example of his guitar instructor in San Diego, who has to take the bus an hour and a half to teach his 30 minute lesson.

Hop Hopkins, a community organizer in Los Angeles, spoke about what the Conservation Corps is doing to train workers from disadvantaged communities in emerging green industries. Programs like this point to the possibility of greater economic benefits, while also ensuring that residents of marginalized communities benefit, rather than are displaced from these efforts.

The State Center project in Baltimore is another example of this. An infill project just north of the Inner Harbor, development is filling in a suburban-style government office, providing affordable housing and community resources, and delivering economic inclusion by ensuring local hiring in the development process.

These are just two examples of how smart growth and new urbanism can be part of a new, more sustainable, economic agenda.

New Partners for Smart Growth: Day One

I’m at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in San Diego, which started Thursday and ends today. When I have more time following the conference, I plan to write more in-depth on what I learned, but my writing on the conference will begin with a quick recap of each day. Here is a brief overview of what I attended on Thursday. You can read full descriptions of the sessions here:

Restoring Prosperity in America’s Legacy Cities
Feeding my current Rust Belt obsession, I attended this session to learn what former industrial centers are doing to ‘right-size’ and adapt.

In East Baltimore, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has been involved in facilitating redevelopment that is sensitive to the existing residents. With Johns Hopkins University expanding, the Foundation played a key role in ensuring residents were included, and benefited (such as having priority to send their kids to the new school, and economic inclusion agreements for redevelopment work). Where relocation happened, due to eliminating unsuitable housing, support was providing for tenants to relocate. One of the dangers of revitalization/gentrification, a theme that has come up a lot this conference, is that it will exclude and displace residents in an area. Revitalization that is inclusive of all community members will deliver more value to both residents and the city/region as a whole.

Dan Kildee of the Center for Community Progress spoke of the need to ‘right-size’ communities that were built for a much larger population than they support now. He made a profound point around one of the challenges we face in accepting this. It’s a distinctly (North) American view that growth is inherently good, and ipso facto, that any city/region that is not growing is inherently a failure. A large part of New Urbanism and Smart Growth, for me, is rethinking what we view as a success, and Kildee’s points speak to this.

Seeds of Change: Creative Urban Gardens and Edible Parks
This session focused on urban gardens, local food, and green initiatives in San Diego County and Los Angeles. San Diego has turned its plentiful farmland into a local economic asset. San Diego County has more farms than any other county in the US, more than 7000 in total (343 of which are organic). The farms supply everything from popular local restaurants, to public schools. There are also creative ways to reach populations not usually connected to the local/organic food movement. At a youth center, consumers wanted to get outdoors, so they worked to convert two batting cages into gardens. In the County, there is also a boarding school for foster teens built on an organic farm, where the students participate in tending to the farm, and learning key skills.

Charrettes and the Next Generation of Public Involvement
This session focused on creative new ways to engage the public. As someone who feels like the public consultation process is deficient, if not broken, it was great to hear of new ways to engage greater numbers of people. CrowdBrite developed an online tool to compliment the in-person consultation. In one case, 600 people used the online portion, contributing over 100 ideas. The amazing thing is that none of the online participants had, according to the records of the city in question, attended a public meeting in person over the previous 10 years. Initiatives like this point to ways to greater engage a larger number of people in consultation.

Essential Components of the 21st Century Community: Housing for the “Missing Middle”
This focused on (primarily infill) medium-density housing types, such as row housing, bungalow courts, and duplexes. While the speakers didn’t indulge my obsession with brownstone row housing, they did promote a form-based code, of which I am a big proponent. Richmond, CA, has used a form-based code to facilitate the development of affordable housing and other land uses that often encounter opposition from communities.

Brick Houses
Medium-density row housing in the Capitol Hill area of Washington, DC.

One of the speakers also made a great point about how multi-unit buildings often give up the amenities people like in single-detached units, such as having both a front and back door. I see a lot of potential in medium-density housing (I would love to be able to get a brick or brownstone row house in Edmonton), but I recognize that to appeal to a larger demographic, it needs to incorporate in some form things that people like about their single-detached family homes – front doors, back doors, garages, and yards. It’s great to see cities making advances in these areas.

Why FDR Still Matters

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States, was born 130 years ago on Monday. He was inaugurated in early 1933, while the Great Depression was still near his depth. He died in office 12 years later, with the Second World War still underway, early in his unprecedented (and now impossible) 4th consecutive term.

(Though there was no rule against it, it was a convention that no one would seek a third term as president, stemming from George Washington’s farewell address where he cautioned that no president should serve more than two terms. The unrest in Europe, then the United States’ effort in World War II served as FDR’s justification for his third and fourth terms. Congress later passed the 22nd amendment, formally limiting a president to two terms).


It goes without saying that, due to the events that transpired throughout his presidency, FDR is one of the most important presidents. It’s also my estimation that he is the greatest president of the post-reconstruction era (1865-present). While he was by no means perfect, and his administration had several notable failings, he is a historical figure I look up to, and find inspiration from several of his words and deeds.

While the great recession hasn’t reached the depths of the great depression, the economic struggles and instability make the lessons even more relevant today. Here are some of the things I think we can all learn from the 32nd President of the United States:

One of a Leader’s First Tasks is to Install Confidence
Taking office at the nadir of the Great Depression, one of FDR’s great tasks was to restore hope, and belief that things would get better. His fireside chats, and his famous words that there is “nothing to fear but fear itself” were critical steps, if not tangible, steps forward.

Don’t Be Afraid to Innovate, and Push for Change
The early years of FDR’s tenure were notable for several innovate social support and economic programs as part of the New Deal. This ranged from supporting large infrastructure works such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, to more targeted projects through the Works Progress Administration, to policy such as the Glass-Steagall Act. His administration demonstrated that government isn’t inherently a problem, and can be a force for good.

If You’re in a Privileged Position, Do Good
FDR was part of America’s upper class, and while that background and standing no doubt helped him achieve the positions of authority he did, he used his office to help the less fortunate, in many ways creating the modern welfare state in America.

It’s a lesson I think about every day in some small way. Whatever privilege I have, be it economic, social, intellectual, or otherwise, I should be doing something in some way to use the advantages I have to help others.

Great Depression
One of my favourite parts of the FDR memorial in Washington: a powerful statue of men waiting in line outside (what I remember to be) a soup kitchen.

130 years after his birth, and nearly 67 years after his death, America’s longest serving president is still an inspiration.