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.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

More on "helping government learn"

The previous entry listed a bunch of previous blog entries on the topic.  I mentioned in a blog entry on Helsinki about the municipal research unit of the City of Helsinki, Helsinki Urban Facts and a separate initiative, Forum Virium Helsinki, which does action research and implementation projects focused around digital technologies and civic engagement.
Helsinki Urban Facts
The Urban Research Unit conducts applied urban research for the administration of the City of Helsinki, for the citizens and for enterprises located in Helsinki. The aim of the research activity is to analyse contemporary urban phenomena from various perspectives. Research areas include studies on
  • population and housing
  • living conditions
  • regional and municipal economy
  • city administration and civic participation
  • urban culture
  • urban environment
There is an increasing demand for comparative and evaluative analyses, including also international comparisons. Such studies are often conducted in co-operation with other research organisations.

The general outline and key research projects are listed in City of Helsinki’s Research Programme. This programme is revised every three years and approved by the City Board.  Applied research orientation and high academic quality characterise research activity.

Besides failures to do robust master planning for most of the agencies that are key touchpoints for providing services to citizens, my other biggest frustration with "DC Government" is the paucity of research on big, important topics, and the failure to capture and gather data to support and make arguments that support substantive change and improvements in city policy and practice.

For example, yesterday USC released a report, The Exposition Light Rail Line Study ("Expo Line leads to drop in driving," press release; "Residents living near Expo Line stations reduce car use, study shows," Los Angeles Times), about the impact of access to fixed rail transit on mobility choices and behavior, finding that people living within the Expo Line are riding transit more and driving less.  From the press release:
Los Angeles residents who live near a Metro Expo Line station on Exposition Boulevard reduced the number of miles they drove and tripled their rail ridership since the rail line opened last year, according to a new USC study.

Residents living within a half-mile of the new station traveled 10 to 12 fewer miles daily by car — a 40 percent decrease — after the new rail line opened, the study showed.

That same group also tripled its rate of rail travel, from an average of one daily rail trip per household before the Expo Line opened to almost three daily household rail trips after it opened, the report stated.
Now, that is seemingly obvious, but somehow in most of DC's debates right now about changing certain elements of the zoning code to de-emphasize the prominence of the automobile and to preference transit (and walking) people are fine arguing that people don't use transit or that "everybody drives" even though DC's transit system is in the top five of North America's most successful transit systems in terms of ridership

(While DC often is listed as second in the US, after New York City, there are a couple different ways to calculate and measure this, in any case, NYC, Toronto, Chicago, DC, and San Francisco are the most successful transit cities in the US.)

Other building blocks for urban policy capacity building 

It is true that most cities don't have the kind of research heft possessed by Helsinki's Urban Facts division, or the Housing Research unit of the City of Vienna, Austria.  Sometimes this kind of research is done at the state level, by organizations that provide support to local government.  One of the best examples is in the State of Washington, the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington

Foundations and civic groups. It is a serious shame that DC lacks a good set of foundations and civic groups (e.g., New York City's Center for an Urban Future, Municipal Arts Society, or Regional Plan Association, or SF's San Francisco Urban Planning and Research, etc.) focused on local issues and producing high quality research and analysis on local issues.

Check out the Neptis Foundation in Toronto, which just released a serious report, Review of Metrolinx's Big Move ("Metrolinx's Big Move is the wrong move, think tank says," "Scarborough subway has 'no real benefits,' report author says," Toronto Star) that significantly criticizes the current transit approach in Greater Toronto.  

University urban and transportation studies programs.   It hurts too that none of DC's universities have strong urban studies programs.  There are a couple of planning programs (CUA, GWU) but I don't hear much about them, and you'd think that I would, considering.  No robust urban transportation academic program in the city either (GMU has a transportation and logistics program in Arlington.)

The Greater Washington Research Center at George Mason (20 miles from DC) can produce reports like the Neptis effort, but they have issues too ("The Economics of Stephen Fuller: How a wonky academic became a major player in the local real-estate business," Washington City Paper).

Local journals focused on policy.  And we don't have a publication the equivalent of local policy journals like the Boston Review or NYC's City Journal (which granted, pushes a more conservative line, but I argue it is an important and needed voice) or Toronto's Spacing--where criticism of the status quo can get an audience, and occasionally this may lead to change.

Lacking these kinds of institutions weakens the polity and our ability to achieve better outcomes.

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At 12:52 PM, Anonymous rg said...

It's not apropos of what you wrote, but it is interesting that USC did that study since USC, particularly its President at the time, was vociferously opposed to the Expo Line, arguing that it would divide the school from the city and endanger students. (Apparently cars do not endanger students, only transit does. As for providing an easier commute for the army of employees that clean the President's office, serve drinks at the President's cocktail parties and otherwise allow USC to function: meh; I need to focus on rich donors and the the football team.) He -- like so many rail transit opponents -- was clearly wrong. The Expo Line is a huge success and has markedly improved USC's connection to its neighbors and the city at large. It would be interesting to find him and see if he will admit that he was wrong. I doubt it -- he has probably never been a regular transit rider and thus, like so many of his class, is disconnected from what daily life is like for the transit dependent. (He wanted to put the Expo Line underground even though that would have killed the project and even though the Expo Line was built on an old rail right of way.)

At 2:12 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Wow. I didn't know that. I'll at least send a query to the PR dept...


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