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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”.

Slimpickins
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.

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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.

Back to the Future: A Vision for the Edmonton City Centre Airport Lands

Born in the right time and place, I might have been one of the most successful urban planners of the 20th century. That’s not to say I would have produced good work. Rather, I have a personality trait that seems to have also manifested itself in the most successful trends in urban planning: I overthink things.

I’ve realized this over the past few days, as the tendency to overthink has caused me all sorts of problems of late. Some things in life are simple, and best dealt with as such. Urban planning is one such thing.

It is instructive that Jane Jacobs, who we now recognize as having one of, if not the best mind for urban planning in the 20th century, had no formal training. She relied on observation and intuition about what made cities work. Some things are best dealt with that way.

This is not to disparage planning as a profession (though I considered calling this post “I Blame Le Corbusier”), which I have great respect for, and has produced many great ideas and works. A theoretical framework is needed, as communities will not always develop organically (and even if they do, they won’t always work out). The real problem has not been the theories themselves, rather the headlong rush to embrace them. The urban form is always malleable to a point, but often hard to reverse. Urban planning demands a conservative temperament, to be willing to experiment, but to do so cautiously. Today’s trend could easily be tomorrow’s punchline.

Brownstones at Port Imperial

Good redevelopment: infill row housing in Hoboken, New Jersey.

I’ve been thinking about this since the City of Edmonton officially kicked off the design competition to redevelop its City Centre Airport Lands.

At this time last year, I was deeply immersed in the airport debate. Towards the end, I wrote a paper (nicknamed “The Abboud Report” by Councillor Dave Thiele) summarizing my thoughts on the issue (close it), and my thoughts on a future use for the land (family-oriented, low-rise high-density housing). I’ve uploaded the paper here (the urban planning/future use stuff starts on page 13).

The redevelopment of this site is a huge opportunity for Edmonton. We could build a model community, one that adds great value to our city. Or we could blow it. If we do, it will probably be because we ignore the time-tested things that make communities successful, and rush headlong into something trendy, or futuristic. Good urban design should marry the proven best practices, with the best design that technology will allow.

There are five principles that I see as key:

1. A successful city/region offers a diversity of communities and housing options. Whatever we do with the ECCA lands should compliment what our existing and planned developments offer, not duplicate it.
2. There should be activity in an area throughout most of the day – this is a concept I’ll call 16 hour spaces, and will be elaborating on at a later date. In a nutshell, it means there is activity through all waking hours (6 or 7 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night).
3. Most people still want a family-friendly home (read: something with a bit of space, and a yard if possible).
4. Often, it’s best not to reinvent the wheel, but to look for exactly what makes communities (in Edmonton and elsewhere) popular.
5. Fundamentally, communities have to be interesting. You get this by having different uses, and a mix of people and amenities, and by offering things not found in most other areas.

How does this fit in with the ECCA lands? Here’s what I wrote in the report last year:

Density and Development: High­ Rise and Low­ Rise Density

Roberta Brandes Gratz, an award‐winning urban critic and journalist, has this to say on the subject:

High­rise or even low­rise density is not by definition, bad and, in fact, it is the only thing that makes feasible a cost­effective and efficient urban infrastructure. Cities must have sufficient density to function well. In fact, downtowns are at their most productive when density is high. The form of the density can vary. The high density of low­rise neighbourhoods, former streetcar suburbs, contributes significantly to their appeal.

– From Cities Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown

There are two facets to this that must be addressed. The first is downtown living. Our downtown population has doubled in the past decade, and is now approaching 15,000 residents. Still, it has been demonstrated that we need another 40,000‐ 50,000 residents in the downtown to reach the critical mass that most truly successful downtowns have. We are committed to seeing our downtown succeed; removing the airport overlay and height restrictions by closing the ECCA benefits Edmonton on two counts: first, by removing the restrictions themselves, but second, by creating predictability for developers. No longer will they worry about accommodating height restrictions, or whether the rules might change a few years down the road. Edmonton will finally be able to maximize its high‐rise density growth.

Which brings us to low‐rise density. There is only so much demand for high‐rise density, and much of that can be met by undeveloped or underdeveloped land in Downtown, The Quarters, and Oliver, along with nodes such as Station Pointe, Stadium Lands, and Century Park, to name a few. Introducing minor high‐rise density into communities, such as the Vision for the Corner in Glenora and the Strathearn Heights redevelopment, is also likely to become more common, as is redevelopment that leads to high‐density (and likely mid to high‐rise nodes) around future LRT stations.

To complement the high‐rise density growth, the focus should be on creating low‐ rise density, especially the kind that can appeal to families. In‐fill communities such as Griesbach andTerwillegar Towne in Edmonton, along with Garrison Woods in Calgary give us a model that can work. This means smaller lots and narrower streets, along with a greater focus on row housing and other types of attached housing.

Many cities across North America boast mature, desirable neighbourhoods of this type. To name a few, Mont Royal in Montreal, Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights in Brooklyn, and Back Bay in Boston are all characterized by their brick or brownstone row housing, some fitted for singles and seniors, but much of it fitted for families.

This type of neighbourhood has demonstrated appeal It is also an efficient use of land density‐wise. Within Edmonton’s context, it compliments and offers an alternative to our biggest supply of housing stock – the suburban‐style single‐family detached home. A diversity of housing and neighbourhood types will enhance Edmonton’s desirability, as people look for different things in neighbourhoods and housing; it will thus help the city attract and retain a greater scope of residents.

I stand by this. There are two good examples of airport redevelopment Edmonton can follow: Stapleton in Denver, Colorado and Mueller in Austin, Texas. Both are family-oriented, and lean towards traditional design principles.

Brownstone / Greenstone

Park Slope in Brooklyn: we could build this on the ECCA lands.

If you were to ask me what the ECCA redevelopment should look like (in addition to the land offered for NAIT expansion), I would offer six points:

1. Low-rise density.
2. Preserves and incorporates the existing building stock.
3. Traditional look – brick and brownstone (row) housing.
4. Family-oriented housing.
5. Uses cutting-edge environmental technology (and often building smaller is the best thing for the environment).
6. Serious consideration should be given to form-based zoning in some, if not all areas.

Stapleton, CO

Mixed-use development in Stapleton Denver.

This would complement what Edmonton has to offer, and embrace the principles of communities popular throughout North America. To any design firms entering this competition: I’m willing to give up my evenings and weekends to help make this vision a reality.

The ECCA redevelopment is a tremendous opportunity for Edmonton; let’s avoid the temptation to embrace the next big thing, stick to what we know works, and make sure we do this right.