I hope you enjoyed my Ignite Annapolis talk “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. The talk was a really brief – but cheeky – overview of how choices we make in our zoning code and regulations often have unintended results that we really don’t appreciate until much later when we experience the consequences in a very real way. Also, it was a nod to the three people that have had the most influence on my thinking about urbanism: Charles Marohn, James Howard Kunstler and Andres Duany. If you know any of their work, you will hear them loudly in this talk. The short version in the video:
Read on to get a deep dive into the topics!
It was a lot of fun and I hope it was thought provoking, but very challenging to fit more than a few concepts in the ignite format. In reality these issues are multi faceted and never as simple as snarky platitudes. I’ve created this post as an entrance point to help anyone interested in a deeper understanding of these concepts.
To be explicit, the two main takeaways from the talk are:
- Zoning and associated regulations can have unexpected results: this is especially true over the long term and often don’t produce what we want/like such as people oriented places we hold in such high regard in Annapolis.
- Change is OK and should even be embraced as long as it’s incremental: we shouldn’t use regulations as a way to fight development because it often results in exactly the opposite effect, more radical change
Perhaps we can add change to the Ben Franklin quote “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” The question is how do we accommodate change in a way that is not radical? Fortunately we have hindsight from the last 50+ years to learn from. After building cities in a tried and true organic way for hundreds – really thousands – of years, in the space of a several decades, we changed how cities developed without really understanding the long term consequences. I won’t engage in revisionist history and say that we should have know better than to go “all in” on autocentric development because at the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. The lesson is not what we did but how we did it. Ultimately, we did not do it incrementally in a way that could see whether this was a good idea or not, rather it was radical and untried and that is the take home going forward: we need incremental and sustainable change.
Let’s consider this as the promise of autonomous vehicles revolutionizing transportation is touted. Let’s not make the same mistake again.
You can watch the live stream here (a better quality version on You Tube is forthcoming): I’m the last speaker at 2:16:10, but I highly recommend watching the prior 14!
There are number of concepts related to this and are discussed below with links to further reading for a much deeper dive on the subjects.
In the talk, I give examples of “walkable urbanism” and “people oriented places” as opposed to “auto oriented places” (Here is an article that describes each). From a qualitative standpoint, they are pleasant areas and that’s why we like them as I discussed, but there is a more fundamental concept behind them: they are fiscally productive. Fiscal productivity is essentially whether the development style pays for itself. ie does the area produce enough tax revenue to pay for the services consumed over the long term? The latter part – over the long term or the full lifecycle as it’s called – is the key. We have to consider what the costs are not just to build the initial infrastructure, but to maintain it in the long run and it’s not always a simple question. Typically developers put in infrastructure, a one time cost, and turn it over to the government to maintain, a recurring cost – forever. Might not be tomorrow, but in 20 years when the streets need to be repaved or in 30 years when the sewer and water pipes need service.
There are data unequivocally showing that people-oriented streets are more economically productive than auto-oriented streets — from big cities to small towns, from the heartland to the South. The company Urban3 spends much of their time visiting cities and towns across the nation to analyze their tax productivity, comparing how much tax revenue is produced per acre in different areas. What they’ve consistently found is that compact, walkable places produce far more tax value per acre than auto-oriented places—and that holds true in communities across America.
Often people read “compact” to mean just add more density. The question often gets ask “what’s the right answer” on density? There is no right answer because it depends. Ultimately not all growth/development is the same and it requires one “Do The Math” for for your particular place or city to determine what is sustainable. It’s a function of how much the associated infrastructure around a place costs as compared to the tax revenue it produces (public v. private investment).
Read more about fiscal productivity in the #DoTheMath series.
A STROAD is a street/road hybrid and besides being a very dangerous environment (yes, it is ridiculously dangerous to mix high speed highway geometric design with pedestrians, bikers and turning traffic), they are enormously expensive to build and ultimately, financially unproductive. I single it out in the talk and here because it is so fundamental to fiscal productivity concept.
The following is a short video that will help identify STROADs and then convert them to either a productive street or a road:
and a longer version of this given as a TEDx talk:
If we want to build places that are financially productive and pleasant for people, we need to identify and eliminate STROADs. In the talk I pointed out Upper West Street where it transitions to 4 lanes near the Goodwill in a number of slides and Forest Drive which are Annapolis’ primary STROADs. Once you have the vocabulary to describe these places, you will explicitly see them everywhere. We need to stop devaluing streets that are fiscally productive by making them into STROADs by attempting to chase away traffic congestion with widening projects. This almost never solves the problem because of the concept of induced demand. You build for cars and you will get more cars. You build for people and you get more people.
So often in the context of planning exercises in the city, I hear the term “we have to get it right”. Given the complexity of cities and our lessons from hindsight, it is very risky to believe anyone knows all the right answers and that if they are followed we can predetermine everything perfectly. It’s fine to set a long term vision as we do in our comprehensive plans, but we should take incremental steps to get there. As I mentioned in the talk, smaller steps are not only more palatable for people who are resistant to change, which is coming whether we like it or not, but it’s also a more resilient strategy. If we make missteps, which we inevitably will, we can correct them to minimize their effect. If we make big expensive and expansive changes, the risk is much larger and the mistakes much harder to correct. For example policies like urban renewal had wide ranging effects on cities because they were done at such large increments.
Read more on Incremental Growth in the Power of Growing Incrementally series.
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