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.
Related Articles I’ve Written
- Alex Pline on Pricey Luxury Condos, Parking Lots, and Cycling in Annapolis - In June, I had a free ranging discussion with Scott MacMullan about development, Strong Towns, and biking and the incentives that drive them on his 'Annapolis Podcast'. I really enjoy these kinds of conversations.… Read More Alex Pline on Pricey Luxury Condos, Parking Lots, and Cycling in Annapolis
- Oh, The Irony… - This Objet d'art is depicting exactly what is wrong with this development pattern and the sprawl purveyor doesn't even know it.… Read More Oh, The Irony…
- Accessory Dwelling Units In Annapolis - My personal options about ADUs in Annapolis as submitted in public testimony to the City Council.… Read More Accessory Dwelling Units In Annapolis
- The Journey to Strong Towns Annapolis - The Strong Towns Annapolis group was pleased to host a stop on the Strong America Tour on October 10, 2019. We are a small but passionate group of Strong Towns acolytes that are sharing the message in Annapolis, Maryland. While every place is different, I hope sharing the journey we have been on will help inspire others to embark on their own journey to making their place a strong town. … Read More The Journey to Strong Towns Annapolis
- Neighborhood Connections - As the person who is responsible for initiating the requirement 22 in the Central Park findings, it is important for me to explain the rationale for my (I do not speak for the rest of the Planning Commission) behind it. Read on to see why I think connections between neighborhoods are important!… Read More Neighborhood Connections
- Ignite Annapolis! - 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". This post has supplemental information and background for the talk.… Read More Ignite Annapolis!
- Forest Drive/Eastport study offers hope for better walkability - The Forest Drive/Eastport Sector Study takes a small step in the right direction towards a more satisfying future. It is not a plan but it is a hope, a strategic hope. And one must hope and envision in order to get anywhere.… Read More Forest Drive/Eastport study offers hope for better walkability
- Forest Drive/Eastport Sector Study - The Forest Drive Sector Study schizophrenic. Should the area be a way to move people in and out or should it be a people oriented place? Sadly, it tries to be both and does neither.… Read More Forest Drive/Eastport Sector Study
- A new way to look at development and planning with Alex Pline (E-66) - After all the ranker about local development projects during the election, I asked John and Tim of The Maryland Crabs Podcast if they’d be interested in having me on to talk about development. Much of the discussion focuses on who can say NO the loudest. Ultimately it’s disingenuous to just talk about yes or no on… Read More A new way to look at development and planning with Alex Pline (E-66)
- Can Art and Historic Preservation Coexist? - A version of this article When Public Art and Historic Preservation Clash appeared at Strong Towns on May 24, 2017. Annapolis is the historic capital city of Maryland and harks back to the Colonial days of the United States. The city’s core contains a lot of the historic fabric from the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s including… Read More Can Art and Historic Preservation Coexist?
- Anne Arundel can escape its growth Ponzi scheme - Appearing in The Capital, September 18, 2016 Anne Arundel County has been fortunate over the years to have steady economic opportunities, due in part to our location near large metropolitan areas as well as a strong federal and state job base. These economic opportunities, along with a rich history, quaint historic areas and miles of… Read More Anne Arundel can escape its growth Ponzi scheme
- The Kobayashi Maru Test - The Planning Commission struggles with a no win situation, but comes up with a solution that is none of the above.… Read More The Kobayashi Maru Test
- Raising the Interest and Reducing the Concern - Contemporary cycling in the United States is largely viewed by the public as a recreational endeavor. However, it was not always this way. For distances greater than that easily covered on foot, bicycles were the preferred mode of local transportation prior to the early 1900s when the automobile came into wider use. During the next… Read More Raising the Interest and Reducing the Concern
- On Paint and Historic Preservation - The heat is increasing in the dispute between the City of Annapolis Historic Preservation Commission and property owners/artists in the”Arts District” (inner West Street). Good background can be found in articles in The Capital here, here and here. I am certainly not against historic preservation and it has been good for the city, but when… Read More On Paint and Historic Preservation
- Why I Ride A Bike - A shorter version also appeared as an Op Ed column in The Capital on May 11, 2016. Let me get this out of the way: I am a bike guy. I love bikes, all kinds – transportation bikes, off road bikes, racing bikes and classic bikes. But that’s not why I ride a bike for… Read More Why I Ride A Bike
- Does West Street Need a Taco Bell? - In July of 2014 The Capital published an article about a possible land swap between the City and a property owner in exchange for some land to reconfigure the Chinquapin/West/Admiral intersections. One aspect of that was the possible addition of a Taco Bell drive-thru restaurant at the site of the old Whiskey. I wrote about that… Read More Does West Street Need a Taco Bell?
- Traditional Street Grids are the Answer For Future Growth In Annapolis - One of the most acknowledged problems in the Annapolis area is our congested “corridors” because they provide the only way in and out of various areas in the City and surrounding parts of the County. If there is a closure, mayhem ensues. In addition, these roads – really STROADS now – are terrible for everyone: drivers,… Read More Traditional Street Grids are the Answer For Future Growth In Annapolis
- Strong Towns Challenge: Walk to the Grocery Store - I live in the Annapolis Maryland the historic capital of the state, one of two incorporated areas in Anne Arundel County. The historic city proper is about 40,000 people, a very small town compared to the neighboring Baltimore and Washington DC, which is essentially infilling into a single mega metropolis. Through a series of good… Read More Strong Towns Challenge: Walk to the Grocery Store
- Guest Column: Thoughts on outer West Street development - Appearing in The Capital, July 28, 2014 While the Chinquapin Round Road, West Street, Admiral Drive intersection needs to be reconfigured for sure, what I am worried about is the drive-through restaurant development discussed in a recent article. This kind of auto-centric development will continue to reinforce the “highway” nature of outer West Street. This… Read More Guest Column: Thoughts on outer West Street development