Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Social equity is more than housing and mobility

One of my big reservations in response to the "Walkable Urban Places" conference mounted by   the GWU Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis and the Urban Land Institute was the trumpeting by Chris Leinberger of "a new measure of social equity."

His measurement of social equity is the percentage of income spent on both housing and transportation.  The problem is that anyone outside of the real estate development community would recognize that this definition of "social equity" is a constrained or truncated definition that is inadquate to the task.

Showing this relationship graphically is not new and has been spearheaded by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (The H+T Affordability Index) and is the basis of the concept of the "Location Efficient Mortgage," which has been around for about 12 years, but hasn't been made widely available.

The point is that traditional measurements of housing affordability and underwriting guidelines for mortgage financing (that housing costs should be no more than 30% of household income) fail to take into account transportation costs.  Generally, there is an inverse relationship between housing cost and transportation, places where people may pay "significantly more" for housing tend to be locations where residents pay "significantly less" for transportation, and vice versa.

Using LEM concepts, housing costs could be up to 39% of a household's income, depending on the proximity to and utilization of sustainable mobility infrastructure.

Social access vs. social equity.  I would call the combination of (1) "how much money" people spend on housing and transportation as well as (2) the locational connectedness of where people live as two of the three elements of "social access."  The third element of social access is locational connectedness in terms of access to civic assets like schools, libraries, cultural centers, and parks as well as commercial amenties like retail and restaurants and services.

Social access is a fundamental element of social equity, but it doesn't come close to providing a complete definition or measurement of it.

The European concept of social exclusion.  Poking around in various University of Michigan libraries back in my college days, I came across work out of the UK about "social exclusion"/social inclusion.  (Also about the concept of "social audits" being applied to for profit corporations.)

Achieving social equity has the same meaning as social inclusion.

The Bristol Social Exclusion Matrix (pictured below) developed as part of the The Multi-dimensional Analysis of Social Exclusion, contains three primary elements for measuring social exclusion with ten sub-elements. Interestingly, they don't seem to separate out transportation access although "Access to public and private services" is one of the sub-elements. I'd separate out transportation/mobility as a separate sub-element.
Bristol Social Exclusion Matrix

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Talk by Congressman Earl Blumenaur on "The Portland, Oregion urban revitalization story"

One of the presenters at the "Walkable Urban Places" conference mounted by  GWU Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis and the Urban Land Institute with the sponsorship of the Venable Law Firm and LOCUS, a program of Smart Growth America was Congressman Earl Blumenaur of Portland, Oregon.

Congressman Blumenaur is known as the strongest proponent of smart growth and sustainability practices in Congress.  Interestingly, he was introduced by Matthew Klein, president of the Akridge Company, one of the metropolitan area's leading developers.  Apparently Mr. Klein spent a goodly amount of his early career in Portland, working on a number of transformational projects there.

Congressman Blumenaur gives a lot of presentations but mostly they are more what I call "cheerleading," designed to get people pumped up.  This was the first time I've heard him present significant substance, when he talked about Portland's experience in moving revitalization forward within the city.

My notes on Rep. Blumenaur's talk

Any discussion of Portland begins with the city's "planning framework" which is shaped by Oregon's growth laws, which include an "urban growth boundary" for the Portland metropolitan area.

There is no substitute for planning.  Portland was hollowing out.  The city went through a number of recessions and a successful state referendum setting limits on property taxes limited the city's financial capabilities and resources.  Therefore"tax increment financing" programs have been critical to the city in being able to fund and foster redevelopment and the creation of transit systems like the Portland Streetcar.

These  revitalization initiatives were constructed with a high level of citizen involvement.  We had citizen oversight committees on the major initiatives, they shaped the plan in places like the River District, the Pearl District and the Portland Streetcar.

We created an economic improvement district for the Pearl District and the streetcar was the single most important catalyst to moving the program forward there.  The streetcar is the "Downtown Circulator" for the Pearl District and the nearby neighborhoods it serves.

But streetcars are nothing new.  Streetcar transit service was the framework for integrating land use and transportation planning for decades [e.g.,, discussion of "The Transit City" era by Muller and the discussion of "The Streetcar City" by UBC professor Patrick Condon in "Why a Streetcar Is Something to Be Desired" from the Tyee).  We just went back to it.

Streetcar service augments, complements our light rail and bus services.  It has extended "the pedestrian experience" and maximizes the use of land, allowing for denser development.

[The Pearl District is the redevelopment of an old railyard that was north of Downtown and next to Portland's passenger train depot.  Development started there with adaptive reuse of railroad buildings into housing.]

The city's agreement with the main developer required that the city make certain infrastructure investments, which was tied to phased density within the developer's projects.  We started with lower numbers and were supposed to top out at 125 units/acre [Portland also has a height limit maximum, of 160 feet].  But with the streetcar and demand, projects are being developed at 200 units per acre, and the residential density supports retail and other amenties.

For example, the Pearl District started out with 8 members of the local business association and now there are more than 450.

And we've continued to extend transit, including an aerial tram connecting the River District to OHSU, extending the streetcar, and next year we'll be opening a bridge, Tilikum Crossing (rendering at left) dedicated to sustainable transportation, with light rail, streetcar and bus service, bicycle lanes and sidewalks for pedestrians, but without lanes for motor vehicles, other than emergency vehicles.
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Building on a strong planning framework

Note that Blumenaur's work as a City Commissioner (before that he was in the State House, and he moved from the City Government to the US Congress) built on the work of others, and the planning framework that had been established in the city from 1968-1972, when the city decided to tear down the Waterfront Freeway and build a river district in its place.  They followed this with a comprehensive downtown plan that prioritized transit service to the district and de-emphasized support for automobile parking.  A few years later they developed and began to implement a light rail plan and service, etc.

See "A summary of my impressions of Portland, Oregon and planning" from 2005.

Portland Oregon's Downtown Plan (from material distributed for a walking tour at the National Trust for Historic Preservation national conference, 2005)

The Downtown plan, adopted in 1972, was intended to maintain and strengthen downtown's central role in the city by reinforcing its mix of uses--including office, retail, cultural, governmental and residential. The major concepts included:

1. Creating a North-South spine of high density offices served by public transit. The (bus) Transit Malls on SW 5th and 6th Avenues, completed in 1978, provides this spine and supported private office developments.

2. Creation of an East-West retail spine along Morrison Street that would lead the city back to the river. The MAX light rail line and rebuilt streets on Morrison and Yamhill implement that concept. Waterfront Park, which replaced an expressway, provides a riverfront destination.
Pioneer Courthouse Square North, MAX Blue Line, Portland, Oregon
Pioneer Courthouse Square North, MAX Blue Line, Portland, Oregon. (Note the Nordstrom's.) Photo by Adam J. Benjamin.
3. Recognition and support for the subdistricts in downtown. The Skidmore and Yamhill Historic Districts are two premier examples of those subdistricts and zoning regulations were modified to protect them and funds were invested by the public and private sectors for rehabilitation.

4. Emphasis on transit and alternative modes for downtown access and limitations on parking. The plan prohibited new parking unless associated with new development and it prohibited the demolition of historic buildings for parking lots.

5. Design regulations to promote active street level storefronts--with retail space, public lobbies, and other pedestrian features typical of historic commercial buildings.

6. Policies to maintain the historic, fine-grained street grid and blocs. Vacating streets to form larger blocks and skybridges are rare in downtown. This helps to maintain an active street life.

7. Policies and programs to protect and promote fragile uses like housing, retail and hotels through public and private investments and regulation.

____________

The plan was able to leverage the city's compact street grid of 200' by 200' blocks. In DC the typical block is about 270' by 270'. In 800 square feet, Portland yields four blocks, with 16 corners--four extra prime corner locations to sell or rent, compared to three blocks and 12 corners in the same area in Washington, DC.

Because I don't have the right kind of camera features, I didn't take many photos of large buildings in Portland, but the website Portland Ground is an excellent source for amazing photos of Portland's architecture and urban design.

Portland's Lessons:

1. Urban growth boundaries and state planning requirements are essential to keeping growth compact and centered, utilizing preexisting infrastructure, and maintaining the worth of extant land and buildings, rather than the typical metropolitan area which experiences development further and further out, and where the politics and the economics of the region tend to be disconnected from the issues and needs of the center city.

UGBs are likely the reason for the maintenance and predominance of independently-owned retail in Portland, Oregon. I intend to write about this more in-depth in another blog entry, but the short answer is that it is likely that the Portland region hasn't experienced the quadrupling of retail space over the past 40 years experienced by other regions in the United States. Thank UGBs.

2. People with vision and commitment to more than just making money are essential to keep assets grounded in historic preservation and the other qualities that promote livability. In Portland, two brothers, the McMenamins, have bought many old theaters and school buildings and rehabilitated them into unique entertainment properties, especially with theaters. So in Portland many neighborhoods still have local theaters, although there are some chain theaters downtown. In DC, most every neighborhood theater has long ago been converted into a drugstore or similar non-"public" community-gathering-oriented use.

Baghdad Theater, SE Hawthorne Ave., Portland, OregonThe McMenamin-owned Baghdad Theater is one of the centerpieces of the Hawthorne retail district, which also includes a Powell's branch open late, a Powell's specialty store, "Books for Cooks and Gardeners," the specialty food store Pastaworks, and many independent stores and restaurants.

Bill Naito was one of the leading developers in Portland. He renovated key properties, and focused a lot of his own time and attention on issues that were essential to the strengthening and extension of the city's livability and the public spaces. Portland renamed the riverfront parkway in his honor.

In contrast, most DC developers have been ruthless about demolishing historic buildings in Downtown in favor of superbuildings, wrecking pedestrian vitality at the street level. DC's commercial office building market thrives while the retail environment suffers. Seventh Street NW is an exception. People attribute this to the MCI Center, but I disagree, believing it is because this street is the longest stretch remaining of historic buildings, with a size and scale that is oriented to people and walking, rather than the car. This stretch, from about Pennsylvania Avenue to New York Avenue. Fortunately at the street level the new building at Gallery Place follows this pacing, and so do the stores, such as Urban Outfitters, that have located there.
For lease in Yamhill District

Building in the Yamhill subdistrict of Downtown.

3. Continued focus on development of the core. I don't know if this is a separate entry or merely a subentry under (1) above. But the combination of urban growth boundaries, transit investments, and a focus on extending livability such as the creation and continued development of waterfront parks on both sides of the river not only keeps Portland relevant but dominant in the Portland metropolitan region as the number one place to work, live, and relax. Many Portland neighborhoods, especially those with Streetcar or Light Rail service, are experiencing a resurgence and increased demand for housing.

Park in the Pearl DistrictNew park in the Pearl District, constructed as part of community amenities requirements associated with new developments.

This isn't to say all is well. Not every street and block in downtown Portland thrives, but there is a lot more going on that is positive rather than negative.

4. Jane Jacobs says that one of the four key factors to successful center cities is a large stock of old buildings. She said this not because she is a preservationist, but because buildings that have been paid off cost less to rent, and therefore are natural incubators of innovation. Be it retail, industrial, or service, all can be accommodated in such buildings.

Abandoned Meier & Frank Warehouse in the Background
160,000 s.f. abandoned Meier & Frank Warehouse in the background. (Meier & Frank was owned by May Department Stores, owners of The Hecht Company.)

But what makes this work more practically in Portland again comes down to urban growth boundaries that prevent sprawl and also prevent the construction of speculative new buildings that make obsolete otherwise perfectly usable buildings.

Because this kind of new construction doesn't happen so much in Portland's suburbs, builidngs in the center city are still valued. Because Portland was an active port and industrial center, there are many buildings, particularly in the industrial-manufacturing quarter on the east side of the river that is experiencing a great deal of renewed interest. Because of the decline in manufacturing, there is still a surfeit of buildings available.

The rents in Portland, for industrially-appropriate space (which includes software development, graphic design, and architecture) run under $20/s.f., and as I mentioned before, in many attractive retail districts, rents range from $12-$20/s.f.

East Bank Commerce Center, Loading DocksBy retaining loading docks, and making them part of leasable spaces, the East Bank Commerce Center (pictured at right) can attract tenants who need the convenience of in-space loading and unloading facilities.

5. Active streets and mixed uses are maintained through most city policies. The Pearl District is a perfect example. Retaining historic buildings, their storefronts, a mix of activities and uses throughout the day and into the evening, and the pedestrian-scaled rhythm of the street makes for a lively city.

6. Transit investment is substantive and continues. Portland understands the importance of keeping the city relevant in the region by making it easier to get around. Transit services are on and part of the streets, but transit doesn't overwhelm the street, and they are designed from the outset to maintain and enhance the economic value of residential and commercial property in the areas that are serviced.

With the streetcar, north and eastbound services run on one street, while service in the other direction runs on another street. The same goes for MAX service in the Center City, trains in one direction run on Morrison Avenue, and on the other direction on Yamhill. Outside of the center city, the system runs on parallel double tracks.

Generally streetcars are intended to provide more stops and service for trips of shorter duration. Light rail is "heavier" and more expensive to build and provides fewer stops and speedier travel, and runs on the ground. Heavier rail is what in DC is the mostly underground subway. An advantage of underground service is that it's fast because it is not impeded by crossings. It's also very expensive to construct. Just to install an inline station on the extant system (New York Avenue station) cost close to $120 million.

Portland Streetcar near Portland State UniversityPortland Streetcar near Portland State University. Photo: Portland Ground.

Streetcar Planning Goals for Portland:

-- Link neighborhoods with a convenient and attractive transportation alternative.
-- Fit the scale and traffic patterns of existing neighborhoods.
-- Provide quality service to attract new transit ridership.
-- Reduce short inner-city auto trips, parking demand, traffic congestion and air pollution.
-- Encourage development of more housing & businesses in the Central City.


These are sound planning principles for every community!

The Portland Streetcar, which is run by the city, has about 8,000 riders/daily [as of 2005, the numbers are much higher now, but the route miles served by the streetcar have been extended] , while the MAX system averages close to 100,000 daily riders, over a 44 mile system.

The thing we have to remember is that DC transit usage is far higher than most cities, including Portland, Oregon. Most of the high use bus lines in DC proper have greater ridership than the Portland Streetcar, although DC bus ridership is not higher than Portland's light rail, which is more comparable to DC's subway system.

But the WMATA subway crushes Portland's system in terms of daily ridership (our system covers more ground and more people work in Downtown DC). DC's system has over 100 miles of track and serves between 500,000 and 800,000 daily riders.

For a lot more discussion and photos of transit in Portland, check out the NYC Subway World page on Portland, as well as this section from Light Rail Now.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Will the Washington Nationals agree to pay to keep Metrorail open late durng the playoffs?

Right: Nationals fans arrive via Metro at the Navy Yard station in Southeast Washington. Washington Times image.

Were I a city government, I would include a provision in my contracts with professional sports teams to require them to plan for the extension of transit operating hours on an as needed basis.  DC did not do that with the Washington Nationals baseball team.

It didn't do that with the teams in the Verizon Center either.  But the Verizon Center does have a contract with WMATA to run late if games run late.

Two years ago, when the Washington Nationals were in the playoffs, the team declined to contract with WMATA.  Instead, to garner publicity, Living Social paid for the service ("Metro will extend service during Nationals playoff stint," Post).

This is relevant again because yesterday the Washington Nationals clinched the division title and will be in the playoffs.

See:

-- "Incentives vs. requirements: stadiums/arenas and transportation demand management" (2012)
-- "Upping our "short game" on transportation demand management planning for sporting events" (2011)
-- "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Transportation Demand Management" (2006)
-- "An arena subsidy project I'd probably favor: Sacramento," (2014)

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Partisan politics destroys plenty of quality government intiatives

I had to laugh yesterday at the aforementioned conference when Chris Leinberger was talking about how great the State of Michigan is for having the MI Place initiative to promote place-based community improvement initiatives.

I don't think he was familiar with the similar initiative by the previous governor, called "Cool Cities," which was junked by the current administration when they came into office.

-- Michigan Cool Cities Initiative Case Study, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices
-- "Where are they now? Catch up on what happened to those Cool Cities grantees," Grand Rapids Press
-- "Cool cities still a valid idea," Mlive

Muskegon Chronicle image.

Similarly, in Massachusetts, Democratic Governor Deval Patrick junked the smart growth initiatives of the previous Governor (Republican Mitt Romney), and Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich did the same thing in Maryland, when he succeeded a Democratic Governor.

Inner ring suburban community improvement

While I focus on urban or center city revitalization, the reality is that the characteristics of successful community improvement are universal, even if community characteristics and opportunities for improvement vary from place to place.

People often make the mistake of thinking "universally" or "globally" when the reality is that community improvement works at the scale of a district.  And that means that neighborhood "submarkets" in the city vary from each other and from the Downtown, and that at that scale, can be compared to suburban towns and agglomeration in terms of improvement opportunity.

A couple years ago I did break out and add a section of links in the right sidebar on "suburban revitalization," and I discuss various suburban revitalization efforts from time to time, such as recently, when I mentioned the Classic Towns commercial district revitalization initiative of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission in Greater Philadelphia.

Another good example is the Main Street Oakland County program in Michigan, although some of the county's biggest town commercial districct successes, like Royal Oak, don't actually participate in the program.

Both of these programs use Main Street-based commercial district revitalization practices that aren't particularly unique.  What is unique is that other suburban counties haven't figured out the necessity of taking on such a systematic approach.

Gentrification isn't the issue: investment is.  This comes up because of the recent Urbanophile entry, "A new donut," which discusses inner ring decline and posits the question on whether these communities can be improved, and can it be done without gentrification.

I do think the question is an interesting one.  But it isn't new.  Inner ring suburbs have been declining in many metropolitan areas for decades.  Note that the Washington DC region provides at least three examples of attempts at revitalization of inner ring suburbs over the past 40+ years.  The first two examples, Arlington County (dating to the late 1960s) and Silver Spring, Maryland (various efforts starting in the 1990s), are for the most part, incredible success stories.

Arlington was losing population and businesses when it decided to route the coming Metrorail system through the county's main arterial corridor, Wilson Boulevard, instead of the otherwise preferred routing within the I-66 freeway.  Coincident with zoning changes focused on intensifying development in the new transit corridor, the county has added population, office and commercial space, new businesses and jobs, new retail, and a great deal of multunit housing.

Similarly, Silver Spring,  in Montgomery County, abutting DC and anchored by a Metrorail station, after various unsuccessful efforts, has turned the corner and is adding population.  Although unlike Arlington, Silver Spring has been less successful at attracting and retaining commercial office activity, although it has a successful retail core that is a regional destination for both retail and community activity (such as festivals, farmers markets, etc.).

But neither area was distressed, just languishing, by comparison to developments further out from the core.  Today in Arlington, in the Wilson Boulevard corridor, housing prices are highest in the county and rental rates are high.  Silver Spring's residential real estate market is pretty strong as well, although by no means the best in the county.

It's fair to say that it's difficult for poorer people to compete for housing in these areas, which is part of the animus driving anti-transit sentiment in Arlington County's Columbia Pike Corridor.

On the other hand, in Prince George's County, the Baker Administration's Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative is aiming for something much more difficult, the revitalization of distressed communities.

Because the county has so many different competing economic development objectives, which include both reinvestment within the "urban core" of the county as well as investing in areas of the county that aren't connected by fixed rail transit, and because there is so much underutilized land and lack of enough growth opportunities to absorb it all, it will be interesting to see how their program turns out.

Both Arlington and Silver Spring had the advantage of being focused on smaller areas, which is not an advantage possessed by Prince George's County.

What people often call gentrification to me means inward investment.  Communities in need of investment are declining because of disinvestment.  The solution in a market economy to disinvestment is investment.

The real question: whether or not the communities can be improved while minimizing the displacement of lower income houseolds.

Displacement effects are dependent on the strength of the real estate market at the metropolitan and local scales: in strong markets, people get displaced.  The answer is dependent on whether or not the metropolitan area is experiencing growth and is a "strong" or "weak" real estate market.

It's easy to ward off displacement in weak real estate submarkets.

But given the limited set of tools haphazardly used, it's almost impossible to ward off displacement in strong real estate submarkets--the only way to do it is by doing portfolio investment designed to maintain a large base of rental property with a commitment to not raise prices, and to have moratoria on property tax increases..

So in St. Paul Minnesota, people can be proud of their successful efforts to improve communities without displacement, but it's almost impossible to pull off in the core of Washington, DC, where the general real estate market at the metropolitan scale is strong and it is especially strong in most core submarkets in the city, where it is virtually impossible to add to the inventory of single family housing, which is the segment of the market experiencing the greatest demand.

On the other hand, as the Urbanophile entry points out, in many metropolitan areas, there isn't enough demand present to generate the necessary level of reinvestment required to fix things.  For example, in a place like Greater Cleveland, which at the metropolitan scale isn't experiencing growth--the population today is less than it was in 1960-- it's hard for suburbs to improve except on a relative basis, just as it is hard for the center city to improve, because there is far more ability to accommodate growth than there is demand to absorb .

In  response, almost 20 years ago, a number of Cleveland's suburbs came together to organize the First Suburbs Consortium to coordinate revitalization efforts.

Gentrification is relative.  Even in weak markets, strong submarkets will experience price appreciation and people can get displaced.  But usually there is enough slack capacity that when people get displaced, they have many other alternatives.

Resources.  I wouldn't consider this list to be in any way definitive, but it is useful.

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Presentation by Henry Cisneros

Island Press - Option of Urbanism Investing in a New American Dream - Christopher LeinbergerYesterday was the third conference on "Walkable Urban Communities" with the topic of "Social Equity and Walkable Urban Places," held by the GWU Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis, featuring the ongoing research project spearheaded by Christopher Leinberger, a developer and advocate focused on re-centering more real estate development activity towards "walkable urban places" in the suburbs or the center city, rather than on "drivable suburban" (or "conventional subdivision development").

The conference was co-produced by the Urban Land Institute with the sponsorship of the Venable Law Firm and LOCUS, a program of Smart Growth America.

The opening presentation was by Henry Cisneros, who was the Secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton, and before that was Mayor (and Councilmember) of San Antonio, Texas.

Since then he has led CityView, a company that builds urban housing as a revitalization strategy, working with funders committed to community investment.  I didn't know that he has a PhD from GWU...

My notes from his talk.  I won't claim this is verbatim.

There are many factors converging that favor cities as places that attract residents and businesses.  At HUD, I worked to refocus the department on urban places.  To do so we needed place-based metrics to be able to answer the question "are we making a difference in physical places."  (He made the point that the way the federal government is set up, how program authorization and appropriations work, that programs function in ways where it can be difficult to see substantive impact.)

Cities are the platforms for social progress.  Cities have the ability to be masters of their own destiny and are the places where government has the real opportunity to make a positive difference in people's lives.  Plans and visions make this happen.  Many cities have willed their way to a different destiny.

The motive force of a city's agenda is the public good.  While cities work with the private sector in public-private partnerships, the agenda of the city is different.  It is not motivated by generating profit primarily, even if profit is generated.  The primary outcomes are social improvement and equity--the larger public good.

13 trends impacting cities

  1. Sustainability, both in terms of the impact of climate change (e.g., Superstorm Sandy and the way it impacted New York City and the New Jersey Coast) and the opportunities presented by new building materials
  2. Embedding technology in urban real estate
  3. Harnessing new advanced technology businesses (media, information technology, etc.) and anchor instutions like universities and medical centers as engines of urban growth and opportunity
  4. modernization of urban infrastructure (not just replacing infrastructure, but extending and improving it.
  5. Mixed income mixing, affordable housing and cross-subsidization
  6. Preparing for demographic change--the population is aging, and the composition of youth demographics is changing, e.g., starting this year, the majority of the K-12 student population is majority minority
  7. taking on density--many constituencies oppose this, but in the urban context density is key
  8. making walkability real
  9. adding transit related value to communitys
  10. incorporating public space and amenities into public and private projects as a way to improve them and make them successful
  11. creative design and modern materials offer new opportunities in construction 
  12. financing of urban real estate development in more creative ways
  13. cementing public-private partnerships and how they work
The new urban moment.  Despite all the talk about stasis in politics and the dysfunction of national government, this is a new moment and there is a new urban reality that is one of great opportunity. This potential is provided by our cities and the opportunities present within them.

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What does gentrification mean?: distinguishing between economic improvement and displacement

Ecological succession model, Chicago sociology
I don't like the word "gentrification" because I think it gets in the way of careful analysis.  It's more pejorative than analytical.

This  is proved all the time in various sorts of writings, such as this blog entry, which discusses grocery store improvement as a displacement mechanism, "Irrigating the (Food) Desert: A Tale of Gentrification in D.C.,"

GGW mentions the recent Urbanophile post ("The new donut") which opines about inner ring decline and whether or not such areas can improve without "gentrification."

Note that the new donut isn't new.

This has been a problem for a couple decades and it's an illustration of the constant outward migration from the core (image at left) posited by Robert Park and Edward Burgess at the University of Chicago Department of Sociology back in the 1920s.

But the reality is that such trends were, until recently, more low key.  It took many decades for the impact of various back to the city movements to achieve critical mass.

What was more common was the constant outward thrust of population, in a kind of abandonment of the inner parts of a region for the outer parts, in part in my opinion out of a desire to not have to deal with contributing time and effort to community improvement.  See  this piece about lifestyle centers versus traditional commercial districts and the Tom Toles editorial cartoon from 1998 when he was at the Buffalo News and a few years before "DC began to revitalize" after decades of decline.

In any case, it's important to distinguish between community economic improvement and displacement.

The reason that neighborhoods decline is a broken economy.  The solution to disinvestment is investment.  To be successful, neighborhoods need income earning residents.

The difference today is that Park and Burgess never anticipated that the core could rebound.  You began to see discussion in the sociological and urban studies journals starting in the late 1990s about back to the city housing trends.

The issue is how to help people of lesser means maintain their residence in a situation when property prices and rents are escalating because of increased demand.  Those responses need to be substantively different from just saying, "don't change anything."

Change happens regardless, especially in a market economy and in situations of increased demand.

One of the comments on the GGW piece mentioned the piece below, which I wrote in 2005.

Tom Toles on Gentrification, 1998

More about contested spaces: gentrification

I don't like to use the word "gentrification," because it's usually used in a pejorative way, and because it gets in the way of specificity, in figuring out what someone is talking about, and makes it difficult to accurately respond from a policy perspective.

Anyway, I wiped the cobwebs off something I wrote last year, and added a couple things...

For what it's worth, this is something I wrote about displacement effects in a new urbanism forum. Gentrification effect (2) is what I think people really mean when they are talking about "gentrification," new and different people coming into a neighborhood. Of course, in neighborhoods like CH, displacement is really happening.

As far as displacement goes, it's part of what people call "gentrification". But gentrification is phenomenon with multiple effects, which I describe as:

(1) new investment in a previously underinvested area;

Imagine Your Business Name Here, Martin Luther King Ave. SE, Washington, DC
Is keeping things unchanged in poor neighborhoods better?  Image of a vacant building on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in SE DC from 2007.  (The building is vacant today but there was a tenant for awhile in the intervening period.)

(2) change and different people coming into a neighborhood -- most importantly, different people from those currently in residence (the differences--race, class, ethnicity, levels of educational attainment, attitudes toward the urban experience, etc.--are usually not "celebrated" (I make this point because I still remember first being taught about diversity and multiculturalism in 7th grade, and I specifically remember the "melting pot" and "celebration of differences" phrase -- I have a hard time seeing the celebration, at least in DC);

(3) increase in conversion of previously rented dwellings to owner-occupied, leading to a displacement of renters and an overall reduction of the number of rental units available in the neighborhood;

(4) related to the new demand for living in the neighborhood is an increase in rental rates, which contributes to the displacement of low- and moderate-income residents;

(5) neighborhood improvement as investment (primarily through the renovation and sale of houses to new residents) continues to increase and begins approaching critical mass (cf. Goetze Building Neighborhood Confidence;

(6) faux-displacement as long-time residents decide to "cash out" and take profits on the sale of the finally appreciated property (this is accelerated by, in my opinion, the still prevalent pro-suburban, anti-city attitudes embraced by particular demographics that tend to represent the long time population groups in traditional center cities); and

(7) ongoing increases in property tax assessments which contributes to the displacement of longtime residents on fixed or lower incomes (note that this effect is hard to separate out from [6]).

Note that Lance Freeman's work which finds that displacement doesn't increase with "neighborhood improvement" is explained by the fact that lower-income households want to stay in nicer neighborhoods, just like anybody else, and respond by doubling up (increasing the number of rent-payers in a household) and/or by paying more of their total household income stream in rent.

IMO the biggest effects that people seem to be referring to when they talk about "gentrification" are (2) new and different people, and (3)/(4) the displacement of renters-long-term residents. They often confuse "cashing out" (6) with displacement, which it is not.

But a lot of the change in neighborhoods that have been underinvested in over the last 40-50 years occurs with properties that have been vacant and abandoned for many years. (This is less true in Columbia Heights DC. Displacement and conversion of lower-income housing has been a deliberate strategy in that neighborhood.)

As demand increases more of these properties come back on line. This is why I don't see much displacement in my neighborhood (although it is happening) and why I am surprised to see Census figures that assert that DC's population continues to shrink even as vacant properties are occupied again and thousands of units of new construction come on line particularly in the NW quadrant.

Part of this is due to the displacement of larger and poorer families as a result of HOPEVI programs which do not provide for one-for-one replacement of housing in total, or in terms of housing provided for lower income households. By definition this is going to reduce housing availability significantly, due to the addition of middle- and upper-income households to the mix.

Another thing to look at would be the types of people that purchase and when.

For example someone like me bought in 1989 because I wanted to live in the city, and I preferred a close-in location and at the time, the neighborhood was cheap.

I think you can track urban homesteading by using the "diffusion of innovations" typology of Everett Rogers, which states:"Innovativeness is the degree to which an individual or other unit of adoption is relatively earlier in adopting new ideas than other members of a social system. We specify five adopter categories, classifications of the members of a social system on the basis of their innovativeness: (1) innovators, (2) early adopters, (3) early majority, (4) late majority, and (5) laggards... Rate of adoption is the relative speed with which an innovation is adopted by members of a social system."
Rogers' Adoption-Innovation Curve
This process varies by neighborhood and the factors that influence its appeal -- location, access to public transportation, historic building stock, employment availability, perceptions and realities concerning public safety, etc.

[For an update of this general discussion, see "Revitalization in Stages: Anacostia" from 2011.]

When I talk about property tax assessment freezes, it really has to do with gentrification effect (7). Some sort of property tax reform is in order, since an annual tax based on unrealized value that has no link to income seems unfair and undemocratic.

There isn't much of a solution for (3), other than the expansion of housing opportunities through alley dwellings (not currently favored in DC Zoning Regulations), apartments, vertical mixed use redevelopment projects, etc.

It happens that DC tends not to have rowhouses as large as in Philadelphia or Manhattan, so our housing-rental capacity in the center city isn't nearly as great compared to those cities. DC's situation is further complicated because it is driven in part by an atypical market force, a marginal increase in the desire to live in the center city, which is driven by "trend," an appreciation for historic building stock, access to public transportation and employment centers, etc. Because of the limited availability of historic building stock, we have a hyper situation.

I don't agree with people who state that urban renewal was designed to stabilize neighborhoods as opposed to spurring overall neighborhood and city "improvement". Clearance was all about starting fresh, particularly in SW DC which was one of the earliest "test cases" (as was New Haven but I am not familiar with happened there).

The book Community Economic Development Handbook by Temali makes the point that neighborhood revitalization shouldn't mean improving a neighborhood by removing one class of (poorer) people and replacing them with another class of higher income people. That in a nutshell is the difference between revitalization and redevelopment. One is asset-based and oriented to "lifting all boats" the other is all about removal, clearance, reconstruction, and violent change. Urban renewal was not asset-based and therefore couldn't be about neighborhood stabilization.

The redevelopment in SW DC was a two-pronged approach: (1) Negro Removal; and (2) Le Corbusier tower in the park modernism for whitey.

It was justified because of the "dilapitated" state of much of the housing in that quadrant. That is arguable as from photographs, SW didn't look much different from housing that would sell for $300,000 to $1 million per building today. However, one thing that many people don't know isthat the Federal Government held purchase options on much of SW since the 1930s, and as a result property owners stopped investing in maintenance and upgrading because after all, who ever successfully messed with Uncle Sam (at least then, before successful anti-freeway uprisings).

The neighborhood, like most cities in the depression, needed a buff and shine, but not destruction.

As community organizers, especially the historic preservation contingent, we deal with the repercussions of this today, because many people somehow associate historic preservation with "Negro Removal" -- when instead that came about via urban renewal and/or the construction of Interstate highways through cities.

My neighborhood specifically was a destination point for many people displaced from SW. (cf. Georgetown and the move out of the African-American population from that neighborhood, but I haven't researched that phenomenon enough to feel comfortable about commenting on it.

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The DC Mayoral Election gets interesting: I guess I have to support David Catania

I have been pretty disaffected about the current election cycle.  DC is a Democratic city, so historically, if you are a Democrat and you get the nomination, you're going to win.

Candidates usually have limited platforms.  I have lamented that the city's overwhelming "Democratic-ness" means that the candidates typically have the luxury of not needing to stand for very much, because they will get elected whether or not they have a platform.  See "Repositioning cities (at least on the coasts) for greater political prominence, and a city-first agenda."

The primary election is too early.  This is exacerbated by DC's primary election cycle, which is now in April (it used to be September), which is at least 3 months too early, and this has the effect of giving nominated candidates a pass from hard questions.  See "Continued musing on restructuring DC's City Council (mostly)."

Muriel Bowser, the 2014 Democratic nominee for DC Mayor.  This year, Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Councilmember, beat incumbent Vincent Gray, who is still under the cloud of 2010 election campaign illegalities--he has not been indicted although many of his close political confidantes have pleaded guilty to various campaign-related crimes.

Bowser is attractive and articulate but doesn't stand for much, and tends to be wary of expressing much in the way of vision or "a vision" and doesn't seem to venture out much on issues in terms of staking forward or progressive positions.

Commentators like WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood have criticized her policy of not debating other candidates or discussing positions on issues until September, if and when other candidates were certified for the November general election ballot.

The city's demographics are unfavorable for a white candidate to be elected mayor--at least right now.  While the city's demographics are rapidly changing--the black population makes up about 50%, when less than two decades ago it was greater than 70%--I have been convinced that the city isn't ready to elect a white person as Mayor, even if the city has (Phil Mendelson) and has had (David Clarke) a white City Council Chairman, who like the mayor, is also elected at-large.

... Unless the candidate was super special, someone like Robert Kennedy.

(Note that in a shock, a white candidate became mayor of Detroit in last year's Mayoral election.  Detroit is more than 90% African-American.)

A trend of declining turnout suggests that the new D.C. mayor will be picked by a tiny fraction of registered voters.  Washington Post image showing a demographic breakdown of electoral precincts.

Local political disaffection provides an opening for change.  But because of the early primary and a Democratic nominee, Muriel Bowser, who appears to not stand for very much, there is a great deal of political disaffection according to polls ("DC candidates must overcome voter apathy," Associated Pres); "Bowser? Catania? Schwartz? D.C. mayoral race rests on an uninspired electorate," Post) and so maybe being the Democratic nominee "is not tantamount to being elected" in the face of a strong opponent.

Note the Post headline refers to "voter apathy.'  Apathy is "produced."  I prefer the term "political disaffection," which acknowledges that voter disinterest is generated in large part by failures in local political practices to engage the electorate.

David Catania, Independent candidate for Mayor.  After the results of the Democratic primary, independent City Councilman David Catania announced his candidacy for Mayor as an independent.

Normally I would think that David Catania, as smart as he is, isn't that  special white candidate who could win over the African-American electorate, because he is known for being combative, bright as he is, and he probably lacks the temperament better suited for "governance" and managing and running the Executive Branch of government, as opposed to being able to be somewhat of an outsider as a City Councilmember not being in the majority party.  Plus he is gay and a significant segment of the black population are religious conservatives.

However, there is no question that Catania works hard and he has been in front on issues of concern to the city's poor including maintaining the continued existence of a hospital east of the river and in supporting expanded transportation and economic development initiatives there as well.

On the other hand, like the rest of DC's passel of elected officials, he has issues too, and I think that often he doesn't understand that just passing a law doesn't necessary lead to substantive social or structural change.

David Catania gets eleccted in 1997 special election.  David has been on Council since 1997. and has an interesting political history.  He is a Republican, now an independent, who ran for City Council in a special election (this resulted from the death of David Clarke and Linda Cropp's election to City Council Chair in his place, freeing up an at-large seat) against a traditional old guard Democratic candidate, Arrington Dixon.

I voted for him, not knowing he was a Republican, but because he wasn't part of the old guard.

That special election presaged a later spasm of voting out old guard Democrats (although not always for something better) in the 1998 election cycle.  Jim Graham beat Frank Smith in Ward 1 and Vincent Orange beat Harry Thomas Senior in Ward 5.

Eventually, in response to the national Republican Party's general antipathy to gay rights issues, Catania renounced his party affiliation and switched to independent status.

Catania releases platform for 2014 Mayoral candidacy.  On Monday, the Catania campaign released a platform to undergird his case and candidacy.

While some of it is platitudinous, the reality is that his campaign released a platform, while the Bowser campaign has not ("With lengthy platform David Catania says he is the mayoral candidate of substance," Post).

On Tuesday, the campaign poked the Bowser campaign by buying the cover of the Express free daily to trumpet the platform and the failure of the Democratic candidate

Endorsement?  For the creation of a platform alone, I have to throw my support to David Catania.
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On the other hand, I don't think that means much.  I tend to vote based on "my heart" and not cold objective calculation.  Most of the candidates I have voted for in the past few elections have not won.

So I fear this endorsement may not mean much.

And I am still disaffected.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Another example of DC Government's failure to engage in sustainability practice

A couple years ago, I contacted DC government through my Councilmember's Office and suggested that it be "repaved" to reduce runoff and stormwater runoff, and suggested that the treatment could be "green," in line with the city's Green Alleys Program, using pervious materials on the surface, so that more stormwater could be captured in site.

The response I got was that there wasn't money to do it.

Evidentally, the alley was put in the queue for reconstruction, because it is being reconstructed now, using standard concrete materials. So while it is an improvement simultaneiously it's an example of a failed opportunity to construct a "green alley" in terms of the alleged "green alley" program the city has.
Dirt alley on the 6200 block of 3rd Street NW with serious run off problems
Dirt/broken asphalt alley on the 6200 block of 3rd Street NW/200 block of Rittenhouse Street NW with serious run off problems.

The new alley is constructed of impervious concrete, and while dirt and gravel runoff will be eliminated, stormwater runoff will not be reduced, it will be increased, because at least the previous surface did capture some of the water before it ended up in the storm sewer system.
New concrete alley, 6200 block of 3rd St. NW/200 block of Rittenhouse St. NW
New alley being reconstructed presently.

Sadly, it's a demonstration that the Sustainable DC "plan" is mostly b.s., because city agencies don't seem to be changing their practices to be sustainable at all. (See the past blog entry "Realizing all aspects of Sustainable DC: it all comes down to chickens....")

What's the point of having a "Green Alley" program if you aren't going to (re)build green alleys?

What's the point of having a "Sustainable DC" plan if government agencies aren't going to adopt and execute sustainable practice?

-- "State, city experimenting with methods for curbing storm-water runoff," Baltimore Sun
-- "Once dreaded, D.C. alleys become fun, even chic," Washington Post, 2014
-- "Alley Homes Fight for Respect -- and Trash Pickup," Washington Post, 2006

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London Design Festival, Spetember 13th - 21st

This year's London Design Festival starts today.

Wikipedia image.  Copenhagen Harbour Bath, Island Brygge.

One of the presentations is displayed into January--called Urban Plunge: New Designs For Natural Swimming In Our Cities, looks at how cities are aiming to re-engage with rivers through swimming.

From the Roca Gallery website:
The exhibition, curated by Jane Withers for Wonderwater, showcases five architectural interventions for swimming in clean natural waters in the heart of our cities: + Pool, New York (Playlab & Family NYC); Thames Baths Project, London (Studio Octopi); Copenhagen Harbour Baths, (JDS Architects); King's Cross Pond Club, London (Ooze & Marjetica Potrč) and House of Water, Copenhagen (Tredje Natur).

London Design Festival media coverage
-- "London Design Special," Financial Times Magazine
-- "A Complete Guide to This Year's London Design Festival," New York Times
-- "London Design Festival highlights," Telegraph
-- "London Design Festival 2014: six things you won't want to miss," Time Out London
-- "Highlights," Financial Times

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Bristol in the UK seems pretty amazing


Park and Slide Bristol [OFFICIAL VIDEO] from Cinematica Media on Vimeo.

Luke Jerram's "Park and Slide" was a project at Bristol's Make Sunday Special Day in May. According to the website: 96,573 people signed up for their chance to get a 'ticket to slide,' while 360 people were selected to participate. More than 65,000 people came to watch. While the City Council was first leery about the idea, they came back to Jerram and asked him to proceed.

-- Bristol Festival of Ideas

-- Bristol Legible City;-- it turns out to be the template for wayfinding systems in London and New York City, but the program is much more than a wayfinding system, especially as it develops over the course of the program, which started in 1994.

-- The lead firms involved in the project is called City_ID.  Check out the firm's page of selected publications.  Holy s***!  Mike Rawlinson, a principal with the firm, was a presenter at the

-- Making the City Playable conference

-- Make Sunday Special (an open streets project)

-- Bristol Art Weekender

-- the Watershed Media Center is a creative economy and culture ideas generation and incubation organization, which sponsors and helps to create various events

-- a Mayor and City Council committed to innovation -- I missed most of the presentation by George Ferguson, the Mayor of Bristol, but one of the things he said was very telling, about changing the mode of government and the citizens being focused on fearing change as opposed to the opportunities and hope that change can also present.

-- Bristol is one of the cities that went all in on the creation of local currency, in response to the European Depression, which I wrote about in 2012

-- the city was a site, announced in 2008, for the UK Cycling Cities demonstration program under the previous Labour Government (article)

-- and next year Bristol will be the designated European Green Capital, as part of that EU program

my favourite paving stonePaving stone in Bristol, UK.

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Advice from Tom Campbell, author of The Planner to advocates

The Planner is a book authored by Tom Campbell, based in part on his experience working on arts and culture planning related issues in London, but in government more generally, not specifically as a planner.  Book review, Independent.

From one of the presentations at Making the City Playable conference in Bristol, UK. This is from my notes, so the words aren't exact.

Presentation by Tom Campbell:

As much as everyone has been talking about ground up, guerrilla type actions, there is a lot to be said for taking that energy and working with government.  Here is advice/thinking about five things that advocates should do in order to help cities become more playable.

1. Advocates need to get better at talking to planners and officials on their terms, in terms of questions like market failure, policy, and the economic benefits from various actions.  [Note that I make this point a lot. While we can't expect citizens to think like planners, they do need to be better able to communicate and think about both neighborhood and citywide goals and objectives simultaneously.]

Planners have limited resources, strong fiscal pressures,and they have to make tough choices. E.g., artist works spaces. I used to advocate for creating such spaces.  Planners would counter with data about affordable housing targets, the need for housing for key workers (like doctors, emergency workers, etc.)  We need to have better appreciation for what's at stake in government.

2.  Advocates need to be better at producing evidence in support of our positions, atlhough it can be hard to produce data and sound evaluations, The Playing Outside project here in Bristol was fortunate to get Bristol University to do an evaluation.  And it's true that many straight up quantitative evaluations miss the subtlety of what we doing.

But for example, when I was working in London, once we did an economic impact study of the Notting Hill Carnival, the thinking started to change from it being thought of as a massive policing and environmentally impactful event, but it also brings employment and visitors to the community and it changed the ability of the Carnival to raise funding.  The same goes for Film London.  Once we had good data on the economic impact of filing television programs and movies in the city, it was easier to get support.

3.  Advocates should participate in planning consultation meetings.  Lots of times, people don't go. The standard person who comes out is older and has strong views.  It's likely that the people coming out to meetings have limited perspectives and aren't representing a broader range of community interest and opinion on the issue.  Planners are often accused of not getting community input.  That's not the reality.  People aren't coming to the meetings.  [This is probably somewhat less of an issue in the US in terms of getting people out, but true in terms of a circumscribed range of opinion being presented by residents.]

4.  When it comes to making projects and cities more playable, I think there is too much focus on producing one-off events (anarchic fun, guerrilla acts).  Don't go for one offs.  Create programs and precedents [aimed at achieving structural change].  

I can think of many initiatives that started out as one off events, but were leveraged into broader projects.  Like the city's Open House initiatives, where cultural spaces are open on a particular weekend for free, or how making spaces available to special events, etc. have been regularized.

It didn't happen this way10 years ago.  For example, again with film, London used to have a notorious reputation with film makers.  Now it's easier.  All 33 boroughs agreed to a common system of permitting and rules.  But that didn't happen because of a few filmakers going out and shooting on their own, shooting a film without permission.  Instead, hard work was done to create a set of principles that people could work with, that had lasting impact and change.

5. People in the arts should get involved in local government.  In the last couple decades, there has been the increased professionalization and specialization of planning (geography and planning, but 40-50 years ago, there was a range of different backgrounds on the part of people involved.  We need to broaden the range of people doing planning.

Before funding cutbacks, the Arts Council used to fund artists and put them on regeneration planning projects. By getting more people involved in government, we can better  break down the boundaries between citizens and government and move away from adversarial relationships.

Instead of seeing city hall as "the place that says no," let's work to change the perception and action so that city hall is a place where people can work together, and where artists can work.

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11th Street Bridge Park design finalists

Final submissions by the four teams:
  • Balmori Associates/Cooper, Robertson & Partners
  • Olin/Office of Metropolitan Architecture
  • Stoss Landscape Urbanism/Höweler + Yoon Architecture
  • Wallace Roberts & Todd/ NEXT Architects/ Magnusson Klemencic Associates
are online here:  11th Street Bridge Park Competition

The site presents "some issues" given that the Navy Yard is still in use and presents serious security restrictions, which at time, close certain areas of the Riverwalk on the north (west) bank.

I have a preference, but I am on the design advisory committee (we react, we don't select, that's up to the jury) so I can't express a public opinion.  In any case, I'm glad I'm not on the jury because selecting a winner will be difficult.

The design review iterations and the ideas that were engendered led me to write four entries touched off by the interaction:

-- "The Anacostia River and considering the bridges as a unit and as a premier element of public art and civic architecture
-- "DC has a big "Garden Festival" opportunity in the Anacostia River""
-- "A world class water/environmental education center at Poplar Point as another opportunity for Anacostia River programming (+ move the Anacostia Community Museum next door)"
-- "Saving the South Capitol Bridge as an exclusive pedestrian and and bicycle bridge"

and rather than considering the teams not selected as "losers," I'd prefer that we consider utilizing elements of their work  on other sites in the city, and continuing to work with all the teams.

This image from the WRT team shows the overall site, linking the north and south banks of the Anacostia River, adjacent to the 11th Street freeway bridges on the right.  On the south is the Anacostia commerical and Historic District.  On the north is Ward 6.

Interestingly, the two firms that impressed me the most at the initial presentations by the finalists in June were the ones that impressed me at the end of last month's "review" meetings. It was interesting how the teams each looked at the project, and which elementss.

Some of the responses that really surprised me and opened up my thinking included a recognition of the importance of wildlife sustenance as an element of "nutrition" and how to program the space on a day-to-day basis (one of the firms ideas lays out a framework that I think is a true advance in parks planning).

All stepped delicately around the fact that there was more to the preferred program than can actually be accommodated on the bridge, and they made various proposals to extend programming on and along the banks of the Anacostia River.

Seeing the submissions (click for calendar)

1.  Online
2.  At exhibits at TheARC in Ward 7, the District Architecture Center, and the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum
3.  In public presentations by the teams on September 29th and 30th at TheARC.

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Loving the city and the playable city


Luke Jerram's crowdfunded Park and Slide project temporarily transformed Park Street in Bristol into a giant water slide
Luke Jerram’s crowdfunded Park and Slide project temporarily transformed Park Street in Bristol into a 95-metre water slide open to the public.  Guardian photo.

A few weeks back I was talking with a DC planning official, who was comparing NYC and DC, having just returned from a trip to Manhattan, and s/he commented on how "you don't feel love" within DC, like you feel like you belong in the same way that you do in New York City.

I think a goodly part of that comes from the necessity in NYC of living in part "outside" and having to deal with people on the streets, sidewalks, subways, buses, etc. every day.  Conneccting and community can't be avoided.

And also because of the interest in maintaining and expanding access to quality and interesting public spaces, such as the recapture of street space for public space use, not just on prominent streets like Broadway, but elsewhere in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx (I don't know about Staten Island), the expansion of bicycle infrastructure--often in the face of opposition, the various park enhancement programs, which include public sculpture programs, concerts, and food sales, although this is not without controversy because some areas are capable of raising a lot of private money for park improvement activities and others aren't ("De Blasio Parks Stance Unsettles Some," Wall Street Journal).

I think another element has to do with the various cmmunity-focused organizations, some run by business interests sure, like business improvement districts, but the various community, neighborhood, and citywide advocacy groups too, and in planning, like the Municipal Arts Society, Center for an Urban Future, Transportation Alternatives, the Regional Planning Association.

Along with the various universities and colleges and centers and museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions that bring academic and and other perspectives to community involvement, activity, and improvement.

In short so much of New York City is engaged, and engaged in city life, in a way that many other communities are not.

Making cities playable.  But I wonder if some of it is just promoting "play" enabling people to act on their own and together, and just being outside?

Yesterday and today, in Bristol, UK, there is the Making the City Playable conference ("Playable Cities: the city that plays together, stays together: Forget about smart cities, Playable City ideas – like Bristol’s water slide or its temporary play streets – are a human response to the coldness and anonymity of the urban environment," Guardian), focused on this broad topic, including the unveiling of the project chosen as the winner of the Playable City Award 2014.

Parts of the conference are being live-streamed, so you can catch some of it today.

-- Power of Cute program, Greenwich, which painted the metal gates of retail shops in positive images, which led to an 18% reduction in crime in the adjoining area

Re:Bar San Francisco and Parking Day as a precursor to the "Playable City" movement.  In 2006, Re:bar, a design collective in San Franciscco, created "Parking Day," where they made over street parking spaces as places usable by people ("Drop a coin in the meter and enjoy the park," San Francisco Chronicle).
Port-a-park: A temporary park was set up in a parking space on Mission Street by Rebar, an art collective.Image from the first Park(ing) Day.   The group Rebar declared Sept. 21 "Park(ing) Day" and installed this temporary park in a parking space on Mission St. in downtown San Francisco, CA.  The group moved the park to several different parking spaces throughout the day.   Port-a-park: A temporary park was set up in a parking space on Mission Street by Rebar, an art collective. The park was moved several times that day. San Francisco Chronicle photo by Laura Morton.

That outsider movement has since transmogrified into the "parklet" movement, which has been adopted as policy and practice by many cities, including San Francisco.

Park(ing) Day is still going on.  This year it is Friday, September 19th.

This piece from the SF Chronicle, "S.F.'s uncommon areas: Plazas created from scraps of urban land," is about the most current iteration of the creation of small, usable and/or remade park spaces, including Mechanics Plaza, which now has a large scale checkerboard.

Caption:  Visitors listen to music, eat lunch and pass through Mechanics Plaza on Market Street in the Financial District. The band Dos Gardenias played at noontime as part of the People in Plazas Summer Music Festival. Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle.

Interestingly, most of the comments on the article are about people opining about the likelihood of homeless people taking over such parks, and making it uncomfortable for other people to use.

This is an issue, and in my experience, SF does have a particularly aggressive group of "street people" who are quick to take offense, spit on people, challenge you, etc. making use of the public space somewhat problematic in some instances.

So it is a challenge to figure out how to have spaces being open to all, and comfortable for all, while respeccting freedom of expression and safety simultaneously.

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