Archive for the 'urban planning' Category


My first time in San Francisco

I’m in San Fran for a conference this week. Technically, I’ve been in SF once before, but I was at the age when it’s doubtful that I “took it all in” so to speak. I don’t think I remember one thing from that trip.

Here’s what strikes me. (I’m near Nob Hill and Market St.)

1. SF is a lot like downtown portland. Not too surprising since they both qualify as Pacific Northwest.

2. Living in LA, I will probably never have much reason to use the Golden Gate bridget. I used the Bay bridge to get into town.

3. SF is also A TON like New York. It’s a small little real estate market, bounded by water, on a coast, that has become extremely wealthy and liberal. I wonder if any of those things are related. The only real difference is the hills. Getting back to my place at the top of NH was like climbing Kilimanjaro. Some of the hills I thought had a laughably high incline. I wonder if it’s hard to build houses. My place is at a small slant so that doors close on their own if you don’t shut them.

4. I ate at an indian place called “chutney” it got good reviews but was quite bad. Shame. I guess I should have done something more local cuisine-y. What would that be? Chinese?



Drive by the Cars, one of my all time favorite bands. Poignant is the word I would use to describe it.


Many cities are trying to make themselves more bicycle friendly (e.g., see this for Denver’s new effort to institute bike sharing), and I think some of the arguments put forth for this policy choice are good. Bikes are better for the environment, require less infrastructure, and can’t be used to do much damage when driven drunkenly.

There are those who go beyond policy though in pointing out that biking is a type of political statement that strikes against Americans’ excessive individualism and oil-use. Biking is put forward as a civic social alternative to cars which are destructive smog-machines that have driven suburbanization and highway building. Even further, some people make the point that biking is a type of MORALLY EXPANSIVE activity that puts is in a closer relationship to the earth and our cities. For lack of a better word, some people say that biking is better for your SOUL.

I’m very sympathetic to these points and I think that for me, biking is like vegetarianism. I’ve tried to be vegetarian for a while and I’ve just recently tried to make it official. I’ve long thought that trying not to kill animals to eat is a good idea, but I didn’t give it much urgency. I thought I would put in a good faith effort to get around to it, and if I didn’t, o well.

Biking is the same way. If I were a stronger person, I would probably try to bike more often and maybe even get rid of my car.

Today though I realized that this stronger claim — that biking is a necessary component to a more responsible expansive life-style, is wrong, and I feel like I’m positioned to defend the automobile, because being from Dallas, I’m familiar with a driving culture.

There the practical points to note, which is that cars are pretty key in a place like Dallas where things are spaced far apart. Also, things being spaced far apart make land cheap, which is good, if you can capitalize on the sprawl with the proper infrastructure and perhaps not excessive environmental damage (urban footprint is, as I understand it, one of the biggest ways humans impact the environment and a smaller footprint is really good for lots of reason).

But besides this, I think driving a car is itself a type of morally expansive transportation. What I mean is that cars — and this fact is often overlooked, so don’t laugh at its obviousness — allow the owner to transport OTHERS. Even for a single person like me, this has enormous benefits. I can meet friends easily across all parts of the city (well not really easily since Boston has terrible roads, but yea, you get the point), which lets me sustain a more diffuse social network. It also lets me help people out in various ways. I drove my friends home from the liquor store after we had dinner, and let me pick up another friend from the airport as well as dropping him off after he had to leave back to Dallas.

I also use my car to give rides to strangers, though this is taboo and is often greeted with shock, though I don’t know why. Why don’t more people ask for rides? I guess there’s the danger factor, but that doesn’t seem like a very good reason, since I think its usually pretty transparent who could use a ride and who should be ignored. For example, coming back from the shopping center I see people carrying a lot of stuff to the train station, which is a good 15 minute walk a way. Not crushing, but I notice, and I’ve thought about asking people to just get in my car (since I go right by). One day, an elderly Asian man just came up to me and asked for a ride. There was no risk of danger, and since I had been thinking about that same thing, I told him sure.

It was completely unremarkable. I dropped him off at the train station and he left.

What this shows me is that cars are pretty key. They are not, as some have suggested, bubbles of solipsism where anonymous commuters go to amplify American’s misguided obsession with individualism (though for the record, I think individualism, understood properly, is very defensible). Rather they are mobile social platforms where you can talk with your friends, help them get places, or meet them at distant places.

The fact that cars are seen as a symbol of solitude is due more to our conventions about what is acceptable to do with a car (offering rides) than anything about a psychoanalysis of our country’s love of individualism.


Driving in Dallas versus Boston

The other day, I drove from Southwestern Boulevard to McKamy in Dallas. I drove this route right at 5 o’clock and it was rush hour. Nonetheless, I didn’t have to stop for a single red light until the last light before my destination. The timing of the lights was fantastic. I drove 10 miles in about 18 minutes at the worst traffic time of the day.

Why did I notice such a ridiculous fact about my trip? Well, I’ve been driving in Boston so long that I was flabbergasted about how well the trip was going right from the start so I felt compelled to keep even closer tabs on what I was doing.

By contrast, in Boston, it takes me more than 20 minutes to travel 5 miles when I try to go to Harvard square from my house in Medford.

So, Dallas’ road system is roughly twice as good as Boston’s. This leads to people being able to do more in a day and also reduces isolation since geographically, all neighborhoods are relatively easy to reach. This expands competition (more shops are within easy reach, thus they must compete more exclusively on price) resulting again in more consumer surplus (see this paper).

Basically, no wonder I like driving so much. In Dallas, it’s pretty awesome.


Downtown, Inc.

I’m pretty much done with Downtown, Inc., and all in all, I have to say that it’s pretty great (though of my summer books, ecology of fear is still #1).

In this book, there are really a lot of great insights, and definitely too many to get into in just one post.

But anyway, the book starts out with a brief history of urban development, starting after WWII. The story is unsurprising in some ways: a bunch of people wanted houses and so they moved to the suburbs to get them. This left the cities to rot, especially since manufacturing was already starting to show signs of strain as compact city locations could not efficiently hold assembly line factories that were cropping up all over the place. Also, racism was rampant and for many people, the city was just too black of a place to live.

Enter the urban renewal projects of the 50s and 60s. Basically, the (federal) government was giving out a bunch of money for cities to build stuff: anything they wanted. So, they bulldozed the houses of a lot of black people and built really elitist city furnishings such as opera houses and theaters and also a lot of architecturally highbrow buildings that were intimidating to the average person. Cities were transformed into the playgrounds of the elite on the back of various minorities and politically powerless groups.

The side-story about highways is especially good, since apparently, Eisenhower never really intended for a lot of highway mileage to go through the big cities, but when everything was said and done, highway mileage in the cities, though it was something like 20% of total mileage, was something like 50% of the total cost. Anyway, city planners used highways to bulldoze through various parts of the cities, again mostly black neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, even after all this, cities still sucked. The federal government took away its money and so cities were now on their own. What could they do?

The answer, as Frieden and Sagalyn, exposit, is that they learned to be a little more capitalistic, and that this was for the better. First, cities let private developers call some of the shots about what downtown improvements would look like and where things would be built. Then, they subsidized the hell out of things so that people would actually consider building in cities. (I don’t know how you could pay someone enough to build in say, Boston). Then there are a bunch of case studies about various cities, and the focus is on malls. As the authors point out, malls in the middle of the city did some really good things. They helped whole areas develop, reduced crime, and created, in quite a few cases, a more architecturally inviting, liveable and beautiful city. As a side note, Boston’s Faneuil market is one of the most successful city development projects ever. This place was expected to make no money, but in the end, I think the city actually made money it, which is almost unheard of. Score one Boston and mayor Kevin White.

How did they do it? Basically, city councils found a bunch of interesting ways of paying for things that were off budge. They pledged future taxes and rents and all sorts of stuff to get loans, but the public never had to feel their pockets being pinched.

There’s also the human side of things. Basically, James Rouse was a complete badass. This guy was building stuff left and right and all of it was great. Even when incompetent legislators and obstreperous private negotiators tried to stall projects, he just barreled right through. His problem solving was instrumental in making things happen.

Then the book talks about the negatives. Malls represent the privatization of public spaces, they don’t bring anything but consumption to the city, and one problem which I though was particularly interesting, was that they don’t perform the same civic role as other public buildings, though they claim to operate in their stead. One example was that malls don’t operate under the strict protections of free speech that public buildings do so that campaign trips, petitions, rallies, and awareness raising can be (and invariably are) curtailed inside the mall. These downtown malls are usually part owned by the city, but they do not permit the wide range of democratic activities that other public spaces afford due to constitutional restrictions on government action that do not fall so heavily on private citizens.

EVEN FURTHER, there are all these little tidbits. For example, I learned about Albert Hirschman’sĀ  principle of the hiding hand (or at least I got a taste of it), in which people underestimate their ability to deal with problems in complex projects, so that making a project seem easy at the start is really important. If all the problems were seen in advance, valuable projects would not be undertaken. Also, it’s apparently true that building new stadiums for sports team is a losing proposition, but Mayors build them anyway out of what seems to be pure ego considerations: that any worthwhile city has to have a sports teams. How much better would cities be if we let the NFL build all the enormous and ridiculous stadiums (Dallas, I blame you), and let cities build better subways, streets, sewage, and electricity? The answer is: a lot better.


Sailing and Urban Development

I don’t really have anything particular to write about today, but I do have a smattering of things that stuck out to me today.

First, I went to my sailing class. Today was like an hour and a half talk about sailing basics including how to get somewhere even when the wind is emanating from that point, making it seemingly impossible to get there (tacking is how you do it, something I had heard about before, but never really understanding how it worked. )

The terminology of sailing is great, and it really gives a window into another age. Originally, there was no rudder on boats and so helmsmen used a steering board, and this being in the middle ages, everything had to be done right-handed. So, the steering board was on the right side of the boat, and in time, the right side of the boat came known as the starboard side (as a corruption of “steer board” side). Port was named because you put the boat into port on that side so you didn’t hurt the steering board.

Also, if you try to go straight into the wind, you don’t go anywhere, and the boat is not free to move. The terminology is that the boat is “in irons” just as if it were a prisoner.

I learned a lot of other stuff that I forget and I’m sure I shouldn’t be allowed out on the water yet, even though I passed one of the tests because the dock staff is a bunch of 22 year old kids who are so relaxed that they honestly don’t care what you know (I’m not complaining, I like the relaxed attitude).

Also, I read this today in my book about urban renewal:

A developer named Ernest Hahn is trying to sell various chain stores on an area he is developing in downtown San Diego, and usually, he takes them up to a building so they can look at things from a birds eye view. That way, they don’t see how shitty the area is. One guy wants to go down to look at the area more closely. As they’re walking, they come across a bum peeing into his own shoe. The man says “Ernie, did you see what that man is doing?” to which, Hahn, ever the entrepreneur, said, “he is going to need new shoes, and if you had a store here you could sell them to him.” Wow, I would have hoped that this guy said in reply “Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.”


Boston and home rule

I was looking at some TIF stuff after writing this post, and I came across an interesting article about Boston.

The point is that Boston is, in many ways, VERY constrained in what it can do as a city. For one thing, TIF financing was only first LEGALIZED in 2003, and most of the decisions affecting Boston can’t be made by Boston but only by the state legislature. But since Massachusetts basically is Boston, this might not be that big of a deal.

Another thing though is that compared to other cities, Boston gets all of its money from property taxes. This article only mentions that this is why Boston can’t plan for it’s own future, and it primarily contrasts Boston to Chicago. Since Chicago is awesome and Boston is pretty crappy (and using Chicago as a comparison city controls for the difficulty of snow and cold, which I admit, makes running a city hard), I think there is really something to this. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to read more about this.

Also, for some reason I’m reading a lot of good stuff about Seattle. I think that city has got its shit together.


TIF financing

I’m reading a book right now called Downtown, Inc. and given my knowledge about urbanĀ  planning, it’s been absolutely perfect so far in giving me a 2000 foot elevation look at urban renewal.

Here’s the story. The federal government used to give out a lot of money for urban renewal to cities via specific pieces of legislation and through highway money. In the 50s this money was used really irresponsibly by government planners to declare war on downtown black communities. Whole neighborhoods were uprooted and cleared away. Not that it’s necessarily bad to clear away dilapidated neighborhoods in the inner cities, it could be a very worthy goal. The problem was that cities pretended there was adequate housing for the dispossessed, and according to this book, that was a lie that has rarely been matched in government ever since.

Anyway, the cities took these destroyed neighborhoods and tried to build things, but their vision was pretty limited and so downtown continued to be an unattractive place to live and play. One solution, pioneered by Pasadena of all places, was TIF financing or tax increment financing. In this type of financing, as I understand it so far, the city puts a box around an area where it wants to develop, looks at the property tax revenue from that area, and records that level. Then, it takes out a loan to build that place up, and for this loan, it pledges as collateral, the difference between the frozen level of tax revenue and the new level (which is expected to be higher after redevelopment). In this way, voters don’t have to be disturbed and politicians get money to build things.

Now, this is the sort of public policy tool that keeps economists employed, and the literature on this seems to vast and interesting, though I have not found a good introductory paper into it.

Two things strike me that I’ve seen casually mentioned in the literature. There are two possible incentives for the use of this type of financing. On the one hand, there are incentives to pick areas that are going to be growing anyway. That way, even failed projects will still be in areas in which property values are going up. This probably makes securing low interested loans for these places easy. However, pouring city money into areas that are already growing is probably not a smart public policy move and is probably evidence of favoritism to business or development forces. On the other hand, TIF financing might encourage going after the worst areas, because the marginal effect of one dollar of public money might be large. If you add a dollar to beverly hills, the property values wouldn’t really go up, but if you add a dollar to some place in downtown Detroit, you might see a big difference. So, it’s hard to say how TIF financing will be used. There’s also a bunch of studies trying to argue whether TIF financing spurs growth or not, but I haven’t read them yet. All in all, a very interesting topic.