Zoning Reform Continued, Now Add Housing

Last’s week post talked about needed zoning reform , exposed by the current pandemic. Zoning reform started at various places around the country with some success but still has a long way to go.

There continues to be ongoing controversy about this, linked to the long standing issues of affordable housing and economic segregation – specifically, the dominance of only single family housing in communities. If you analyze your zoning map and ordinance, you will be surprised by this dominance. See my July 12 post and the referenced analysis of urban areas by the New York Times ( June 2019, Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House With a Yard on Every Lot ).

Reform Efforts

This has included “upzoning” – the removal of single family zoning, allowing increased density (units/acre) with other housing types – townhouse, duplexes, cottages and the like. See the images below:

Source: AARP; IMAGES FROM OPTICOS DESIGN, INC

The intent is to add to the housing supply (and variety), reducing their cost. Minneapolis and Oregon were successful in changing their respective zoning laws and requirements. Other places failed in their reform attempts, but likely will try again – Maryland, Virginia and California, the most prominent. This more radical reform has been equated to YIMBY – Yes in My Backyard.

Pushback

As expected, there has been and will be continued opposition (loosely linked to NIMBY (Not in My Backyard), that increased density and other housing types change the character of the neighborhood, lower property values and violate the long held belief and tradition that a single family- home is the American Dream.

But there are numerous studies and facts that single- family zoning and our archaic zoning laws have contributed to racial and economic discrimination, fully exposed by the pandemic.

Google

Win-Win Reform?

More moderate reforms are now developing, attempting to avoid the I win, you lose game. Places are communities where people live, work and play. This doesn’t have to be a zero sum contest, particularly when it’s about basic human needs – shelter and opportunity for self-support.

Want More Housing? Ending Single-Family Zoning Won’t Do It, a July 2020 Bloomberg CityLab post, argues that just prohibiting single family zoning won’t necessarily mean more affordable housing will be built. What is needed is:

more “missing middle” housing. The term refers to any low-rise construction that is denser than detached houses: backyard cottages, townhouses, small walk-up apartment buildings. In 19th and early 20th century American cities, it was the bread-and-butter of moderate-income housing. Think of Boston’s “triple deckers,” Atlanta’s midtown fourplexes and sixplexes, and Baltimore’s rowhouses.

Bloomberg CityLab

But the other needed element are the other zoning requirements that hinder housing – parking requirements, minimum lot sizes, height limits and more. One size doesn’t fit all, so these regulations should be flexible, tailored the a community’s character, culture and history.

Tweaking zoning codes doesn’t necessarily make housing construction feasible at lower price points. Leaders can’t always know what type of housing homebuilders in their locality will be able to profitably build. This depends on local demand, the existing housing stock and the milieu of regulations. That’s why reforms that appear to allow more housing to be built on paper may not result in the flexibility homebuilders actually need.

Bloomberg CityLab

“Gentle” density can save our neighborhoods A Brookings Report, offers another option, avoiding the false choice of large single family houses on large lots versus high rise towers to achieve needed densities – more housing. They argue for “gentle increases in density – such as townhouses, two-to four family homes, and small scale apartment or condominium buildings.” The post then illustrates , using Washington, DC, that this can increase housing while lowering their cost. See the chart below:

Figure 1

Three important lessons learned for other communities:

First, it is possible to add more homes in single-family neighborhoods while keeping buildings at similar scale. When viewed from the street, three adjacent townhomes or six small condos can be constructed at approximately the same height and mass as existing single-family homes.

Second, allowing smaller homes that use less land is an important way to improve affordability. .

Third, diversifying the housing stock in exclusive neighborhoods creates better access to economic opportunity.


Another moderate reform is allowing Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s) by right or by meeting certain conditions – lot size, building height, parking, design. Montgomery County, Maryland, a wealthy community north and adjacent to Washington, DC,amended its zoning ordinance to allow accessory apartments, after a year along analysis and six month public engagement process. The amendment was approved in July 2019, after an acrimonious campaign by supporters and opposition groups.

What’s Next

I hope housing reform will continue and accelerate, fueled by the pandemic and the need and desire to do and be better.

This will be tested shortly in my community, a bastion of single family housing, with limited other choices, based on the familiar developer’s cry – “but there is no market for that here!”

Two large residential communities are now poised to more than double our population, (estimated at 10,000).

One was annexed into the town 30 years ago, but the owner could never obtain the financing to build. Now there is a potential contractor purchaser, the largest home builder in the country and is raring to push dirt.

The second project is a proposed annexation, that also has been around for a long time, but again, new owners, with money, now want to actually submit the annexation application.

My concern (and there are many, but here – housing) is that the town elected leadership don’t settle for the same drab, cookie cutter subdivision we always see. Rather, they should press the developers to engage the community to find out what housing we really want, need and is affordable.

I have and will continue to reach out the the mayor and town council providing relevant information, as they begin their review. I will let you know how things are going!

Alexandra Kukulka / Post-Tribune, December 2019

Reform – Start with Zoning

In most US communities, land and uses on it are regulated through a zoning ordinance. It is a tool to implement a comprehensive plan, a vision and set of policies of how the community wants to grow over a period of 10 to 20 year period. A notable exception is Houston, Texas., even though they have land use regulations.

How it Started

Initially, zoning’s intent was to separate uses into districts – residential ,commercial and industrial, to protect residential communities for the obnoxious impacts from these non-residential uses. New York City adopted the first comprehensive zoning code in 1916, specifically to prevent tall buildings from blocking light and air to the streets. Setbacks from the street were then increased with building height. See CityLab University: Zoning Codes, a good primer about zoning and its affect on our communities.

The legal basis for zoning was established by the famous 1926 US Supreme Court case – Village of Euclid v. Amber Realty Co. . This confirmed that cities had the constitutional authority to regulate uses that could be allowed on private properties,. This is now known as “Euclidian”zoning – separate, individual uses on land.

Source: Community Development, Cornelius Oregon

The zoning ordinance then provides the specific requirements regulating that use on the land. For residential uses, typical regulations include what type of house (more about this later), how large, how far back from the street, how tall.

What Happened

While the original of zoning intent may have been good, economics, our car dominant transportation and other events and trends, have changed,resulting that zoning was used for economic and racial separation, discrimination and inequality. Much has been written and researched, documented about this .

This is known as exclusionary zoning, – its use and its requirements (large lots, parking minimums) to prevent other than single family housing in communities. This still happens, even after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

The finance industry practiced “redlining” – “unethical practice that puts services (financial and otherwise) out of reach for residents of certain areas based on race or ethnicity. It can be seen in the systematic denial of mortgages, insurance, loans, and other financial services based on location (and that area’s default history) rather than an individual’s qualifications and creditworthiness. Notably, the policy of redlining is felt the most by residents of minority neighborhoods. a spatially discriminatory practice among credit card issuers, of providing different amounts of credit to different areas, based on their ethnic-minority composition, rather than on economic criteria, such as the potential profitability of operating in those areas.” This too was banned by the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA).

The Geography of Transport Systems, FIFTH EDITION Jean-Paul Rodrigue (2020), New York

Reform is on the Way!

But now, the pandemic has again exposed the inequality of zoning while worsening a housing affordability crisis we continue to ignore. Many places are now re-thinking how they want to grow and re-invest in their communities, including eliminating single-family only zoning altogether. A number of states attempted this (Washington, Maryland, Virginia), with Oregon succeeding in earlier this year. Minneapolis was the first city to do this, passing a new ordinance in 2019.

Source: WSB 2020

But for many communities, changing their zoning is a significant undertaking – financially and politically. A recent post New Guide Offers Communities a path to zoning reform by Public Square, provides a practicable process for this needed change.

In most communities, obsolete land use regulations impede the development of vibrant, walkable neighborhoods that combine housing and compatible commercial uses in neighborhoods that offer a variety of homes for every stage of life. Unfortunately, the difficult and costly process of updating municipal regulations is too often out of reach for many communities. The result is zoning that perpetuates the status quo and limits housing access, convenience, and affordability.

Enabling Better Places: A Zoning Guide for Vermont Neighborhoods

While the guide (Enabling Better Places: A Zoning Guide for Vermont Neighborhoods) was developed for Vermont communities, there are takeaways applicable for other places:

  1. The process can be scaled to cities, towns of all sizes and to specific neighborhoods.
  2. The importance of collaboration, having the right players in the mix is needed. The guide was a partnership of the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, AARP – Vermont, the Vermont Association of REALTORS and Public Square, Congress for the New Urbanism.
  3. Changing codes should be an incremental process – small, doable steps, leading to next steps, success, building momentum and community acceptance.
  4. The focus is on engaging local stakeholders and leaders for buy in and sustaining the process.
  5. This develops civic leadership needed to sustain needed changes.

What’s Next

My hope is that communities will take the time, effort and money to start zoning reform, using the best practices identified here and in other places.

This will be tested in my community, as the Town Council reviews and adopts a new comprehensive plan and hopefully make the needed changes to the zoning ordinance to implement new plans’ policies. At the same time, two large projects are moving forward, with huge impacts on the town. One is a 800 acre annexation request, proposing mixed use (residential, commercial) community with a 20-30 year build-out. The other is re-start of a primarily residential community (3,000 residential units) ,annexed over thirty years ago., but never started because of lack of funds by the owner. There is now a potential new owner and committed to starting construction.

My hope, as well as, concern is that the town will not fall back on the status-quo zoning, but using this guide and other practices to develop real mixed-use, walkable communities, with a variety of housing types, appropriate for our town, not the cookie-cutter mass we see so often across our landscapes.

Source: Bioregional https://www.bioregional.com/

COVID Opportunity

There have been many articles and examples documenting how cities across the world have expanded bike/pedestrian facilities and open space as a remedy to COVID quarantine and isolation. See my May 10, 2020 post Walking Out of Isolation.

My ( and others) concern is will this trend continue, given the recent increasing infection rate in the US and the devastating impact on government budgets.

A June 15th CityLab post How the ‘15-Minute City’ Could Help Post-Pandemic Recovery begins to answer this question in the context of economic, environmental sustainability and now to the forefront , systemic racism and equity.

Backgroud

Cities and communities will suffer immense fiscal losses from the pandemic. But an international coalition of cities believes that “funding green stimulus plans focused on job creation” is the key and that “cities are the “engines of the recovery,” and investing in their resilience is the best way to avoid economic disaster.”

C40 Cities , Gobal Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force proposed a series of plans and policies, specifically:

“a green prescription for financial stabilization that emphasizes several familiar pillars of progressive urbanism — renewable energy investment, energy-efficient buildings, improved mass transit, and spending on new parks and green space.”

The 15 Minute City

One specific recommendation is “all residents will live in 15 minute cities”. Paris is then cited as an example for implementation of this goal. The Mayor stated “Parisians should be able to meet their shopping, work, recreational and cultural needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.”

Image courtesy Paris en Commun

While a laudable goal, my skepticism crept in . This is all about large urban centers, with perhaps a longer history and culture for biking, walking and better mass transit options than the US. This is somewhat mitigated because this is not a new concept, previously advocated by planning pioneer Jane Jacobs, and now by the New Urbanism movement and Strong Towns, among others.

Another hope for success for smaller communities – “……this 15-minute change is very doable in cities of any size. All cities have been disrupted, and there are shifts that everyone can make towards a better quality of life in their community.”

Can it Work Here?!

Another burning issue – can this work in car dependent America? The article cites recent analysis that walkable communities “demanded 75% higher rent over the metro average in the nation’s 30 largest cities, all while increasing equity and investment opportunities.” (Soure: Foot Traffic Ahead, a collaboration between The Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis (CREUA) at the George Washington University School of Business, Smart Growth America, Cushman & Wakefield, and Yardi Matrix)

Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, initially a large suburban mall and office center, is now undergoing a transformation to a more mix-use residential community, adjacent to METRO, the regional rail mass transit system. It a long term project, but a real world re-development laboratory for more walkabilty, while reducing car dependency. Initial designs have been criticized for the lack of pedestrian accessibility and connectivity.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is the_boro_during_construction_800_521_90.jpg
Greater Greater Washington, Emily Hamilton (Correspondent)m June 5, 2020

“It’s not just a matter of adding bike lanes and wider sidewalks,” she says. “There are lots of arterial roads there and, without real political trade-offs from local officials, and efforts to narrow streets and slow down traffic, it won’t ever be truly walkable.”

Emily Hamilton, director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University

So What’s Next?!

The article concludes that the disruptions from COVID will spark long -term actions, even in the face of falling revenues:

“The speed at which pedestrian, biking, and scooter infrastructure has been ramped up during the pandemic shows how quickly things can change. Small tweaks to zoning or permitting for sidewalk cafes and cycling infrastructure can build momentum for larger shifts when budgets return.”

Photo by Jonathan Phillips via Curbed Atlanta

For me this is crucial:

“A crisis does have a way of revealing what’s already broken,”. If cities aren’t using the revealing nature of this pandemic, how it’s highlighting disparities and racial inequities, shame on them. As difficult as it’s going to be, it’s a real opportunity.”

Steven Bosacker, GMF Cities program for the German Marshall Fund of the United States

Can we do it? What do you think?

What’s a NIMBY? A YIMBY?

Like many professions, planners have their own acronyms. This is about one of the more s controversial ones, further highlighted by COVID- 19.

NIMBY

NOT IN MY BACKYARD – this is the rallying cry for opposition to development, from zoning changes to proposed housing, roads and other similar projects. Required public hearings are necessary (and usually required) and good for citizens to know what is planned for their communities and to then have the opportunity express their concerns. But the nature of these hearings typically result in opponents showing up, and as as result some projects , having met the standards for approval or perhaps fulfilling a community need, are delayed or denied under the mantra – NOT IN MY BACKYARD.

An example helps, from my time as the Town Planning Director. An application was submitted to annex a 40 acre parcel into the town limits, proposing a small commercial center, affordable townhouses for the elderly and single -family houses. The site was adjacent to an existing single family neighborhood within the town.

The review process is long, ultimately requiring two public hearings, one before the Planning Commission and then before the Town Council, the approval authority. Within weeks of the formal submission of the application, fierce opposition surfaced, based on rumors that the proposed “affordable” townhouses for the elderly were really Section 8 Housing, a Federal sponsored low income housing program. I received numerous calls, not only for the adjacent residential home owners, but also other town residents, all outraged and opposed to the annexation. They didn’t want townhouses and “those kind of people”.

This illustrates the negative connotation of NIMBY, now exacerbated by COVID- 19 and the impact on housing affordability and inequality. This doesn’t mean that pubic vetting of projects is not needed, but for better pubic engagement and information.

The following two commentaries provide a good overview and the impact on housing and other community needs:

COVID-19, YIMBY, and PHIMBY

“This “win-win” approach to entitlement could overcome many of the formidable barriers to lowering cost and avoiding the divisive “NIMBY” battles, replacing them with something more like “QUIMBY” – Quality In My Back Yard. (A panel convened by Portland’s Metro planning authority made a similar recommendation in 2009.)”

Photo courtesy of Leslie Dreyer/Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco

How NIMBYs Made ‘Back Yard’ Mean ‘Entire Neighborhood’

“NIMBYs think and act in geographic units more suitable for the 18th century than the 21st.”

A footnote – the proposed annexation application was withdrawn and never filed a gain,

YIMBY

Counter reaction to NIMBY has been YIMBY, YES IN MY BACKYARD. This supports development and due process in the permitting/review process. At the extreme this movement never sees a development they don’t like.

Their primary causes are housing affordability and higher residential density – “upzoning” . A recent analysis of urban areas by the New York Times ( June 2019, Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House With a Yard on Every Lot ) finds that”Townhomes, duplexes and apartments are effectively banned in many neighborhoods.” The example shows that Minneapolis zoning allows for 70% detached single family zoning.

Residential land zoned for:
detached single-family homes Red
other housingBlue
Arch Daily

There has been a national wide effort to change single-family zoning and allow denser housing, like duplexes, triplexes, accessory dwelling units (ADUs), and apartment buildings. Upzoning legislation has been introduced or passed in California, Oregon, Washington, Seattle, Minneapolis, Nebraska, Virginia, and Maryland. The federal government has also expressed interest in pressing local governments to relax zoning laws that prohibit multi-family housing.

Will upzoning neighborhoods make homes more affordable? provides additional perspective and history of discriminatory zoning and housing in the US. COVID -19 has heightened the long history of zoning discrimination.

Rethinking Zoning

Why’s everyone talking about upzoning? It’s the foundation of green, equitable cities was originally written in June 2019, but re-posted July 7, 2020 because of the continuing discussion nation wide about affordable housing and recent up-zoning in a number of states (listed earlier) and cities, including Minneapolis.

Middle Housing

The article has the following critical points why we should change how we zone our communities:

…zoning literally is everyday life, because it governs what goes where. And it’s circumstantial to affordability, equality, equity, and the distribution of goods, services, and wealth

…the enshrining of single-family homes is increasingly at odds with the realities of 2019 and beyond.

In the United States, we used the precedent set by Euclid v. Ambler—that separating buildings based on what they’re used for is both legal and preferred—to justify the use of zoning and other legal mechanisms, like covenants, to spatially separate people from each other on the basis of race.

That zoning’s application has legally enshrined deep and persistent racial exclusion in America is not up for dispute. Fortunately, we are working toward an increased national understanding that excluding anything but single-family homes is a proxy for excluding other people.

What I follow To Keep Learning!

I “retired” in August, 2019, but prior to that and continuing now, is a lifelong interest (passion?) in urban/city, regional planning, This expanded to economic/community development – how communities can grow, and expand and sustain their economies., The foundation of this interest was geography, combined with history. In fact, history was my undergraduate major, followed by graduate school and a Master’s in City & Regional Planning. degree.

My next “learning” process was leadership, ingrained from a 38 year career in the US Army and Army National Guard. I somehow advanced to a senior (E-9, Command Sergeant Major) position, hopefully learning along the journey, observing what works and doesn’t in sometimes stressful conditions.

Leadership is need now more than ever in our communities, not only elected officials, but citizens and activists to make a difference.

COVID-19, as stated in prior posts, has questioned all my prior “learning” and experiences, but provides another opportunity to learn again and perhaps make a difference in my community.

Following below are a number of blogs, websites and e-newsletters I follow that provide inspiration for this blog, while helping to advance my learning.

Traditional sites, but changing

American Planning Association

Source: American Planning Association

This is my professional association for planning, a member since 1980 and obtained their professional certification in 1986 (American Institute of Certified Planners). This is the equivalent of a CPA for accountants. You qualify to take the test, after documented the appropriate education and years of experience requirements. Upon passing the test, you must then take courses each year to keep your certification current.

Planetizen

Home
Source: Planetizen

This site compiles news and related data, and commentary about planning from around the US and abroad. The site has a blog, a Job Board and offer relevant on-courses. They provide up to date blog posts devoted to COVID-19, planning and community development responses and best practices. I have been a follower for over ten years.

Main Street America

Main Street America
Source: Main Street America

The National Main Street Center is a national organization that works to strengthen communities through preservation-based economic development in older and historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts.

It was established as a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1980 as a way to address the myriad issues facing older and historic downtowns during that time. Today, there are over 2,000 communities across the country participating.

While this is a membership only program, access to some materials, studies, and best practices is available to the public. i have used this site to assist my local town as they pursue redevelopment of the downtown,

Focused sites, with new thoughts and ideas!

The next two sites were highlighted in previous posts. Both are and remain key sources of current trends and inspiration for this blog.

Strong Towns

See my May 31 post. I have followed this site for two years.

Strong Towns
Source; Strong Towns

Verdunity

See the June 14 post. I am active member in their Community Cultivators online community. I recently reached out to them for blog and podcast ideas.

 Verdunity
Source: Verdunity, Dallas, TX,

Public Square, A CNU Journal

Home
Source: Congress for the New Urbanism

This is a publication dedicated to illuminating and cultivating best practices in urbanism in the US and beyond, part of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). I like their commentary and articles because it provides a variety of topics to improve “resilient places—places that people love” .

New Journalism

CityLab (Bloomberg)

Bloomberg purchased this site several months ago, but continue the original intent to post timely news and commentary across a cross section of issues, all part of a place – Design Culture Transportation Environment Economy Housing Justice Government. This feeds my interest in economic/community development.

A sister site is CityLab University, providing a series of focused articles to inform and educate about a variety of topics for better understanding of issues and processes affecting communities. A good example – Zoning Codes – “an overview of zoning and defines the key terms related to it in America, so you can better understand the rules that are shaping your city and neighborhood.”

City Observatory

Source: CityObservatory

This is a website and think tank, devoted to data-driven analysis of cities and the policies that shape them. The site writes about transportation, housing, gentrification, place making, economic opportunity, and industry clusters. It also posts about misconceptions about cities, break down the latest urban research, and highlight the innovative ideas that strengthen our communities.

Why These

These sites provide a variety of information, from different sources, consistent with my interests. More importantly, they capture the interconnections of issues, needs and policies that reflect the complexity of our places,

In this 24 hour media cycle, I read these, rather than the TV news. These are now more relevant as communities struggle for needed solutions for their local needs.

Finally, this feeds my need to keep learning, so perhaps I can contribute to solutions, rather then fixing blame.

COVID and Planning Data

This is a follow up to my June 7 post Urban Planning After Pandemic (AP) , about predictions for urban planning, specifically 4 Predictions for Urban Planning Post-Coronavirus – Urban Planners Will Become Even More Reliant on City-Level, Granular Data. Kayla Matthews, the author has posted a follow up blog Pandemic Data for Planners . This is a review of this post and cited and other data sources and technologies that assist communities to response to the current virus and future events.

The right data will be critical in crafting effective responses to the threats posed by the coronavirus.

Tracking

The pandemic has enhanced the need for timely and accurate data for tracking it’s spread, allowing for targeted deployment of vital medical support support for public health and safety.

An example is Boston’s COVID-19 Case Tracker, displaying city and national data. Further detail is shown by county. Key issues with this kind of dashboard:

1. The need to maintain and expand the data base

2. Ease of access to and understanding of the data

3. Data is not useful when not used, It must be actionable – the basis for intelligent and timely decisions.

An Example

The article goes further expands use of tracking or dashboard data, to include mapping those most vulnerable due to underlying health conditions. A good example is the Urban Health Vulnerable Index. This not only tracks COVID data in urban areas across the country, but also has additional health related layers, such as heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease . The purpose of the Index for use a a tool:

1. Uncovers which parts of our communities could be most affected by a COVID-19 outbreak.
2. Allows local governments to anticipate where resources may be needed the most.
3. Provides important information about a community’s access to healthcare.

This clearly demonstrates the power of good and reliable data mapped for use by planners, health providers and policy makers to help and support communities.

Other Examples

During the pandemic, I followed the following sites:

At the national level – COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. This is similar to the Boston example, and in fact may be based on the Hopkins Dashboard.

For the my state (Maryland), I follow this site, again based on the Hopkins data and platform. Layers are available by county and zip code – Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Outbreak.

Dashboards and transparency

City of San Diego

Prior to COVID-19, many communities invested time and money in dashboards to track the progress of adopted policies including the economy, education, demographics, education,, the environment, housing, public safety and health.The pandemic has only heightened the need for this need for this holistic view, impacting all facets of community life.

The dashboards also fill a needed void of open government and transparency, particularly during the current crisis. This will need to be strengthened as communities recover and for the efficient use of limited tax dollars.

An example, Alexandria, Virginia – Performance Dashboard – “Annually, City departments report on how well their department is performing using key indicators. This information, which is used to track and evaluate performance, is jointly developed by individual departments and the Office of Performance and Accountability (OPA).”

The city of Alexandria, Virginia

So what

The lesson here for me is now more than ever, data- based decision-making is needed, as COVID-19 has demonstrated. This is again, an opportunity to leverage and merge technology and data to benefit our communities. This promotes transparency, the best use of limited resources and funds, while specifically pinpointed where the assistance is needed the most. Finally, a dashboard integrates all aspects of a community, not in isolation, as one elements affects others.

Density Revisited

As we continue to learn more about COVID-19 and it’s implications, the issue of urban density has also evolved. Initially this was seen as the real cause for the explosive spread of the virus, first in Hunan China and then around the world to other urban centers. This was fertile ground for the virus to spread, given a large number of people in small spaces.

This post is a follow up to my April 13 post (COVID -19 Weekly Summary), tracing revised perspectives about density.

AZURE March 29, 2020

Will COVID-19 Spell the End of Urban Density? Don’t Bet On It.

Written in during the early stages of the pandemic (March 2020), this article documents the initial blame game that density was the primary cause for the rapid the spread of the virus. Two key questions are then posed as arguments that the demise of dense places is premature and in fact are needed for a variety of reasons.

Does high population density inherently increase vulnerability to epidemic outbreaks?

Given the collapse of urban retail and the rapid proliferation of remote work, can cities remain culturally and socio-economically vital?

The next two articles are recent (May, June 2020), providing persuasive arguments, given the passage of time and the pandemic experience.

Density Isn’t Easy. But It’s Necessary.

This is part of Bloomberg CityLab’s ongoing density series. This piece documents our love/hate views of dense urban areas and why now more than ever are needed.

The question is not whether we need cities and density. The question is whether we have the vision, commitment and fortitude to make our cities equitable, affordable and sustainable as well as dense, creative and diverse.

This “commitment” is now more relevant than ever in the wake of the racial inequality exposed by COVID-19, only reinforced by the aftermath of the George Floyd murder.

The other articles in this series provide a variety of well documented and needed arguments in response to continuing attacks on urban places.

Youth Movement: Accelerating America’s Urban Renaissance

Urban Land Institute, Ngoc Doan, Pulaski Park, Northampton, Massachusetts,

This article is a summary of a larger study by City Observatory, documenting the continuing migration and economic expansion of urban areas. T

“Close-in urban neighborhoods are increasingly attractive to the “young and restless” 25- to 34 year-olds who’ve completed at least a four-year college degree. These well-educated young adults have accounted for more than half of the increase in population in close-in urban neighborhoods in the nation’s large metro areas since 2010.

There’s no evidence that this powerful momentum has been blunted by Coronavirus concerns.”

The Nature Conservancy

It was easy initially for me to say, yes – density spread the COVID. Look at what happened in New York City! But given time, reading, research and reflection, I now understand better the nuances and other forces at play. It is about better design or retrofitting for more urban spaces. It is about discipline of physical distancing (social distancing – really!), masks, contact tracing and hand washing. Just look at how South Korea, Hong Kong and other dense urban areas handled the epidemic.

Rather than a hotbed of germs and viruses, dense places provide the environment and fertile conditions to unleash the human spirit to start new businesses, develop new technologies and take risks to advance mankind. At a more human level, dense places fulfill our need to be social, to gather and share our experiences.

COVID-19 has pointedly demonstrated the systemic economic and racial disparities in our places. I am then hopeful that this will be a transcendental opportunity fix our places, not a passing phase.

Blog Review

Over the years, I continue to follow websites, blogs and podcasts about urban planning and related topics – economic/community development, housing, transportation, public engagement and civic leadership.

These have maintained my passion in planning, and dramatically changed my mindset and motivation to start this blog.

This is another blog review, following a previous review of Strong Towns (https://placesense.net/2020/05/31/blog-review-strong-towns/).

Verdunity is a Dallas Texas consulting firm, started in 2011, motivated by Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn writings.

The Name

The name comes from their vision, approach and company culture philosophy:-

“The ‘VERD’ portion of our name represents what inspires us:

Fiscally Productive Places

Natural Systems and Green Infrastructure

Economic Gardening and Incremental Development

The ‘UNITY’ represents where and how we work:

Communities and Neighborhoods

Locally-Led Initiatives

Partnerships

Verde + Community became Verdunity – a better future, by design.”

What They Do

They are not your typical planning and engineering firm. I know, having worked for two engineering firms as a planner. Talk about a duck out of water! What sets them apart is this (emphasis added):

“Verdunity provides progressive city leaders with fiscally-based planning, engineering and community engagement services that prioritize civic vitality and long-term sustainability over short-term results. Our core purpose is to ensure prosperity for everyone by helping communities build neighborhoods where people at all stages of life and means can survive and thrive.

We believe that the way we have been building our places is not sustainable, and that America’s approach to how we build our communities and neighborhoods must change – immediately. We are committed to leading this change through the work we do and the lives we lead.”

Credit: National Charrette Institute at MSU

Their core services:

COMMUNITY CONSULTING & EDUCATION SERVICES through
Workshops, Strategic Planning and Staff Augmentation

PLANNING SERVICES
Fiscal Models & Analysis, Comprehensive Plans, Downtown, Corridor and Area Plans, Neighborhood Revitalization Strategies and Citizen Led Implementation – Cultivate Community Program (CCP)

ENGINEERING SERVICES
Neighborhood Street Design, Site Development and Design, Active Transportation, Low Impact Development + Green Infrastructure

How they work

They spread the word (their passion and expertise) through the following venues:

Go Cultivate! Blog and Podcast, Workshops and Walkshops, Go Cultivate! Online Network, andUniversity Guest Lectures Keynotes & Presentations.

The Inspiration

The Blog/Podcast and the Online Network were my initial introduction, but the following captures why I joined and actively contribute to the Go Cultivate! Online Network (it’s free!):

Is your community struggling to find the resources to keep up with growing infrastructure, service and amenity needs and expectations? Do you feel like you’re spinning your wheels implementing policies and procedures you know won’t lead to the type of community your residents desire? Is there tension within your local government because you’re all coming from different starting points? Then you understand that business as usual is broken, and status quo has to go.

UMass Lowell Blog

I see this in my community as we continue to develop with no understanding of the implications, to the detriment of our environment and financial security. I now spread the word to my community’s elected leaders and planning staff that this cannot be sustained. COVID-19 is a harsh wake -up call for change, requiring bottoms up, collaborative process.

This likely reads like previous posts. But this other related blogs and research convinces me more than ever the need to do things differently and experiment, We can and must do better for our places.

Urban Planning After Pandemic (AP)

My Planning Perspective

Urban planning has been my life’s work, with a Master’s Degree, followed by a career, split between local, regional and state government planning agencies and the remaining in the private sector, with several planning/engineering firms.

This experience has provided a broad perspective, but the pandemic has impacted me, questioning my education and experience. Could I have done things differently? What can I do now?

What’s Next

Two recent posts on Planetizen ( “The independent resource for people passionate about planning and related fields.” ) provide different perspectives for needed chances to the planning profession post COVID-19, while giving me opportunities to support and spread the news about these changes This is my motivation for the PLACESENSE blog.

Violence Against Black Americans a Moment of Reckoning for the Planning Profession, James Brasuell, June 1, 2020

Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This commentary provides a variety of sources how the planning profession must change to address racial injustice in the wake of the George Floyd murder. This includes the hard reality that planning has contributed to systemic racial and economic segregation and now is the moment for active and sustained engagement for change.

This needed change cuts across the full spectrum of planning – housing diversity, open streets/open space to name a few and now is …….“an opportunity to enter a new era: one that centers racial, social, and environmental justice in every act.

“Ensuring a new normal of social and racial equity will require a deep reckoning with the ways that planning innovations perpetuate systematic inequality, even among the most innovative and ostensibly progressive planning practices. It might be hard to hear, but advocates are underlining and insisting on this point, and no matter how difficult it is to confront, the field of planning is faced with an opportunity to enter a new era: one that centers racial, social, and environmental justice in every act.”

4 Predictions for Urban Planning Post-Coronavirus, Kayla Matthews, May 27, 2020

American Planning Association, 2018

The predictions are a mixed bag for me. Here is my take.

City Planning Will More Frequently Address the Need for Transportation Independence

While true, additional thought and details are needed. Integration with land use policies and zoning codes needs to be part of any transportation discussion to make any meaningful changes. But the current impetus of open streets is a refreshing start for all communities. The hope is this will be sustained.

Design Decisions for Public Urban Spaces Will Become More Proactive Rather Than Reactive

Generally true, but again needs additional details and must relate to local conditions and needs. One size does not fit all. There is no question that more public spaces are needed, but must be located across a community, available to all, not only just higher income areas. It must be equitable and should also be integrated with public health needs.

Urban Planners Will Become Even More Reliant on City-Level, Granular Data

Total agreement with this. While the technology is there, it needs to be more accessible and affordable, including training to those communities who cannot afford it or perhaps not a technologically savvy as others. The pandemic map example cited here is an excellent and practical application needed by communities to make fact based decisions.

City Planners Will Become Champions of Their Work and Speak More Assertively to Local Authorities

Total agreement that COVID-19 is an opportunity and “a call to arms” for planners. This is not easy, as we will be at odds with our elected leaders (public sector) or our clients (private sector). I know this, having experienced this myself.

Planners will likely deal with challenges including changing transportation patterns, development approvals moving to the digital realm, and fiscal austerity at the local government level leading to layoffs and reduced capacity to maintain services and implement new projects.

The quick shift has made people eagerly discuss the future of urban planning after COVID-19. Failing to shift to the new normal created by the coronavirus would mean a missed opportunity for city planners.

Reflection

European Union External Action March 23, 2020

Planning is still my passion, but it’s not my intent to pat myself on the back or suggest I have all the answers. COVID-19 will have a long term impact on our places. Listening to podcasts, following planning and related blogs and news has only reinforced this and the for the need for real and sustained change. This inspires me to speak out, and perhaps to atone for my complicity in bad planning policies and inequities now so evident.

We will all experience what happens next and hopefully there is a new sense of urgency.

Blog Review – Strong Towns

Introduction

One of many blogs I  follow is Strong Towns. Established in 2008, this is a national non profit organization, promoting a new way of thinking about how towns grow, to be sustainable and resilient communities.  Their posts and articles related to my experiences as a professional planner for a small town, struggling to maintain our quality of life, but seeking re-development opportunities to pay for needed services.

The founder and President is Charles Marohns, a Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in the State of Minnesota and a land use planner with two decades of experience. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering and a Master of Urban and Regional Planning, both from the University of Minnesota.

After a decade working with towns, he couldn’t understand that will these communities grew, they also were going bankrupt. He realized “Our national system of growth and development is fundamentally broken, and it’s put too many American cities (and the people who live in them) on the path to certain decline. ” From this Strong Towns was started.

Their core values are (emphasis added):

“….that the American pattern of development extracts wealth from communities, leaves them with unsustainable long-term liabilities, and results in places that are designed to decline.

We are building the capacity of city leaders, institutions and built environment professionals to challenge the status quo.

And we are inspiring a broad movement of people, from all walks of life, who are actively engaged in making their neighborhoods more resilient and livable.”

They deliver their services by:

Strong Towns Media – articles, podcasts, and videos

Strong Towns Academy – a recent addition, comprehensive resource of nine in-depth courses. I just enrolled in the free introduction course, Strong Towns 101.

Strong Towns Community –  readers and members participate in honest, meaningful discussions regarding the state of their communities

Strong Towns Events – produce gatherings that connect local advocates, send staff members  to speak to communities about our ideas with the sponsorship of local organizations.

Timely Material

Two recent publications are relevant in the COVID-19 era:

First,  Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity written by Charles Marohns, the founder.  Note: I don’t receive any payments or other benefits from the book reference.

The book reinforces their advocacy for a new way of thinking about how our towns and communities are developed:

“Why our cities are on the cusp of a long, slow decline, and how to approach the challenge in a rational way.

Why inducing growth and development has been the conventional response to urban financial struggles – and why it just doesn’t work.

Why old and blighted areas are often more financially productive than shiny new ones.

The power of little bets to strengthen communities and improve the lives of citizens.

How humble public engagement can create amazing insights.

The surprising ways that strong neighborhoods make us better people.

Their second is a timey –   THE LOCAL LEADER’S TOOLKIT: A STRONG TOWNS RESPONSE TO THE PANDEMIC, a COVID-19 recovery guidance for local governments over three phases –  Immediate (first 60 days), We’re Not Going Back to Normal (3-12 months) and Building a Strong Town (one year and beyond). 

“It seems unlikely that we are going to return to pre-coronavirus America anytime soon. This global pandemic feels like a switch that has released
long-standing tensions within our society, revealing deep dysfunction and fragility in the critical systems we depend on.

Whether it’s food supply, housing, health care, transportation, or just basic
community commerce, local communities are waking up to just how fragile we are.

Community leaders are going to have to address these problems in real time, under stress, with limited outside assistance. And with financial resources stretched, they won’t have the option to simply throw money at these problems.

To prepare the ground for recovery, we are now forced to innovate. We must find ways to do much more with what is likely to be much less. That’s
what local leadership now requires.”

Community Needs

The need for leadership at all levels, but especially in neighborhoods and towns, by those closest to their issues and problems.

Develop a resilient community, as Federal  and state government assistance is not guaranteed. We could be on our own.

This is a bottom up process, where local communities need to take control of how they want to develop, taking incremental action steps for sustainability and resiliency.guaranteed. We could be on our own.

As exposed by COVID-19, the status quo didn’t work.  We will never go back the way is was before the pandemic. Innovation is needed now more than ever.