Monday, June 15, 2015

Once Around the Block: Monday, June 15, 2015

As a planner I like to see what is happening in other parts of the country, and in other cities, so I thought it may be useful to compile the past week's interesting articles into a weekly blog post. I've labelled it "Once Around the Block", just as a quick look at what I thought were some of the most interesting urban planning and urbanism-related articles from the past week.

Governing featured the work of Charles Marohn and Strong Towns, the non-profit that seeks an America where cities, towns and neighborhoods are financially strong and resilient.

Marohn contests that "we have built too many highways. We have built them in places that didn’t need them. We have built them in places that can’t afford to maintain them." Marohn tells his audiences around the country that highway building and suburban sprawl are essentially a Ponzi scheme, something that should be familiar to us here in Houston. Below is an excerpt from Alan Ehrenhalt's article at Governing:
A new interchange or bypass connected to an interstate highway brings a community a much-appreciated windfall as residential and commercial development takes place near the highway, and the homeowners and commercial tenants begin contributing property taxes to the local treasury. For a few years, everyone is happy. But in the long run, property taxes aren’t sufficient to meet the costs that the development creates: additional sewers, road repair, and the creation of new parks and public schools to cater to the families that move in.
The local government can cover these bills by attracting more growth, and this is what many of them do. The new round of growth pays for the previous one -- this is why Marohn calls it a Ponzi scheme. But the opportunities for growth are ultimately finite, and eventually most communities are forced into debt to pay for all the growth they have cheerfully approved. “Few cities,” Marohn says, “have any clue of the scale of their commitment for infrastructure maintenance.”

This collection of articles from Portland's Willamette Week takes a look at the growing frustration of some residents with new apartment complexes. Willamette Week writer Aaron Mesh says in his "Grow Up Portland" article that the apartments "pop up seemingly overnight, multiplying faster than food carts on every street corner in the city." (Much of the same can be said here in Houston, although our multifamily growth has slowed some in recent months). A resident of one of Portland's new apartment buildings offers us reasons as to "Why My Apartment is Good for Portland."

Ben Adler at Grist writes that if cities want more affordable housing, they need to build more mass transit. And, not only provide a sparse option of transit, but have it run frequently enough to make a difference in the lives of residents:
The lower cost of commuting by transit than by private car helps to offset high housing prices. In other words, once you factor in the cost of transportation, building more transit means you’re essentially making the housing along the transit lines more affordable.

City Observatory and Joe Cortright published "Less in Common" last week, a report examining civic commons and city success. For all the ills that suburbia is claimed to fix, could it be causing even more harm than we think?
In North America, development patterns, particularly the growth of suburbs after World War II, diminished access to an easily shared urban life.  Space and experiences became more private, fueled by suburban expansion, large lots, and the predominance of single-family homes. These development patterns have resulted in Americans having “less in common.”
Cortright gives data surrounding our country's growing social isolation and economic segregation continues, concluding that "If we’re going to make progress in tackling a range of our nation’s challenges, and live up to our full potential, we need to reinvigorate the civic commons."

Here in Houston, Kyle Shelton, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University examines the city's transit deserts. Just to prove the point, Raj Mankad, editor of Rice Design Alliance's Cite Magazine, set out to ride from Houston to Galveston using only public transit. He proved successful, although with razor-thin margins of error.

From StreetsBlog, an interesting thought about the blame surrounding pedestrian deaths and injuries, especially in New York City.

Finally, a few articles regarding the pool party and its fallout in McKinney, Texas. The Atlantic's Olga Khazan writes "The Dark Side of McKinney, 'The Best Place to Live in America'".  A helpful reminder can come from all of this, from Desiring God's Jasmine Holmes. Holmes reminds us that when we begin to discuss events like these, "...we forget not only the humanity of those we are speaking to, but also the humanity of those we are speaking about."