What is wrong with “How to Make an Attractive City”

critica

How to Make an Attractive City”, a video by The School of Life, recently gained attention in social media. Well presented and pretty much aligned with today’s mainstream urbanism, the video earned plenty of shares and few critiques. This is probably the first critique you may read.

The video is divided into six parts, each with ideas the author suggests are important to make an attractive city. I will cover each one of them separately and analyze the author’s conclusion in a final section.

1 – Not too chaotic, not too ordered

The author argues that a city must establish simple rules to to give aesthetic order to a city without producing excessive uniformity. From Alain Bertaud’s and Paul Romer’s ideas, it can make sense to maintain a certain order of basic infrastructure planning in to enable more freedom to build in private lots. However, this is not the order to which the video refers, suggesting rules on the architectural form of buildings.

The main premise behind this is that it “is what humans love”. But though the producers of the video certainly do love this kind of result, it is impossible to affirm that all humans love a certain type of urban aesthetics generated by an urbanist. It is even less convincing when this rule will impact density by restricting built area of a certain lot of land or even raising building costs, two probable consequences of this kind of policy: a specific kind of beauty does not come for free.

Jane Jacobs, one of the most celebrated and influential urbanists of the modern era, clearly argued that

“To approach a city, or even a city neighborhood, as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life. The results of such profound confusion between art and life are neither art nor life. They are taxidermy.”

The video also makes a factual mistake when it states that London skyscrapers are carefully planned. Their location, in fact, is based on preserving specific viewing corridors established almost 200 years ago. As The Economist reported last year, views of these landmarks have completely lost its relevance in contemporary London.

2 – Visible Life

The video argues that cities full of street life are more desirable. That is observably apparent, as people’s preference is observable in their chose to be drawn to these spaces. Nevertheless, the video makes a contradiction: first saying that Hong Kong is an example of a city with street life, then claiming cities full of skyscrapers aren’t conducive to street life.  Cities with “anonymous commercial towers” do not necessarily lacks street life: New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo and City of London are examples of cities full of skyscrapers that have active street life.

3 – Compact cities

Suburbanization and sprawl has been vigorously incentivized by public policy, most massively in the United States. United States policy featured an Interstate Highway System with massive investment in large road projects; education funding that favored good public schools in the suburbs; subsidies that favored owning larger-and-larger homes such as Mortgage Interest Deduction; zoning restrictions such as minimum lot areas and setbacks, as well as state support for the auto and oil industry. These programs fueled a form of urbanization we’ve come to know as suburban sprawl. Compact cities, which the videos celebrate have typically grown spontaneously without significant interventions.

The historic European and Brazilian downtowns typically have shorter commute distances, an intensive street life and a smaller dependency on the automobile.

4 – Orientation and mystery

It is true that people have diverse preferences for urban form, and that an attractive city can supply a greater variety of forms. However, it is dangerous for a city to dictate a certain kind of urban form for the city as a whole, even if it is a mix between different models. Although we can control form within a neighborhood or a large-scale development, municipal norms with these goals in mind can generate distortions exactly because of the infinitely varying  preferences of the citizens. Incapable of catering to all the subjective preferences of everyone that participates in the city environment, planners inherently lack the capability to determine ideal quantities of orientation and mystery the video suggests. In a truly organic and complex city, orientation emerges in a truly spontaneous and decentralized way that brings more “mystery” than any planner can fathom.

5 – Scale

Here the author quotes Joseph Campbell: “If you want to see what a society really believes in, look at what the biggest buildings on the horizon are dedicated to”, and deduces that we don’t actually collectively value sports shoe corporations, tax specialists, the oil industry and pharmaceuticals, as a few examples. But is that in fact true? A certain citizen may even say that he does not value these corporations and services, but he is a daily consumer of shoes, he pays his taxes, burns fuel and uses plastic products. And when he gets sick, he relies on pharmaceutical drugs. In the behaviors of each person, a preference for these goods and services is in fact revealed.  The video misunderstands how the complexity of the economy actually works and how preferences in society are be manifested.

What happens within tall commercial buildings is never as simple as their appearance. They often house the companies that produce or support the computers we use, the planes we fly in or the milk we have with our everyday breakfast. Such a city reflects the social valuation of a complex network of voluntary action that generates the products and services that make our lives better.

Soon the author argues for preserving views and limiting building heights to five stories. The rule itself is a paradox, as a four story building will have its view blocked by a five story building. Going even further with this reasoning, we can infer that a single-story house can block the view of another single-story house. Arguing for the preservation of views is, in fact, a direct contradiction with what it means to live in a city.

In any case, it is not reasonable to limit buildings within a city to five stories. The height of the old cities the video refers to was not defined by planning norms, but by practical necessity of walking up and down stairs in an era before the elevators we now take for granted. In contrast to today, top floors in pre-elevator buildings were always the cheapest as they were the hardest floors to reach. Limiting building heights to five stories suggests an artificial and arbitrary limit to real estate supply, a tangible side effect of the “sense of insignificance” the producers of the video talk about.

6 – A local city

The video says that buildings must not look alike everywhere in the world, as his trips get boring and because each city has a specific climate, needs and different positive and negative attributes. It argues for a strong local character and for the use of local forms and materials.

This is very true with commercial real estate in Latin America, where developers have built several glass towers which are totally inadequate for a tropical climate. These designs are intended to copy temperate climate buildings in developed countries, where the “greenhouse effect” within glass-enclosed buildings is conducive to indoor working environments. Smart builders will certainly learn from these mistakes and develop more adequate local solutions instead of imitating inefficient and inadequate forms.

The use of local forms and materials, however, is a major problem. Aesthetic and architectural form – trying to separate it from building technology – were always globalized, being influenced by different cultures and ideas. The same argument goes for materials: locally available materials will hardly be the best for every specific building.  This principle can be applied to any object. It is impossible to imagine a pencil, a single and relatively simple object, to be produced only with local materials, much less an entire city. The historical examples given in the video were built that way mainly by lack of options, not by an aesthetic or functional preference. The only contemporary example given, architect Glenn Murcutt, does not use local materials and whether he designs are distinctly “Australian architecture” is a very subjective interpretation.

Conclusion

In the last section, the author asserts that the greatest challenges to implementation of these ideas are a lack of political will and intellectual confusion about aesthetics. This was one of the most dangerous ideas the video communicates. In saying that it is possible to affirm what is inherently beautiful or ugly, is realistically impossible as these are not universal truths. I personally know people who find the glass towers the author hates beautiful. Others think the Brazilian favelas or the shantytowns in Bangkok are the most amazing and spontaneous expression of humanity. Some even think Paris is not the romantic city travel guides tell us, but instead a repetitive and boring vision of the past. The stand the video takes is worrying, as it argues for a correct and universal aesthetic enforced by increasing political power.

The tourism statistics used in this argument is simply false. Dubai, Singapore, New York and Hong Kong are part of the top ten most visited cities in the world and represent urban aesthetics and form opposite to the one argued in the video. For example, my personal experience of Frankfurt does not align with what the video says: I had the opportunity to spend a few days there on vacation and thought the city was amazing.

The final conclusion is an attack on real estate developers, who apparently greedily fight to make the city an ugly unattractive place. Unfortunately not everything is easy in this world. Some developers invest in renowned architects to serve niche clients and citizens that are willing to pay a premium for aesthetic extravagance. However, those who build for the masses cannot budget for extravagance, as real estate is usually the largest expenditure in someone’s life – and the burden of housing costs ever growing in most part because of very regulations the video is promoting. The given example of New Town, Edinburgh is actually perfect, as it is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in town.  Ironically it’s probably the neighborhood with the least amount of street life because of it’s strict residential zoning.

Another contradiction is when the video argues a city cannot be shaped by a free real estate market.  However, most of the cities the video uses as good examples were, in fact, built by within extremely deregulated real estate market compared to today’s standards. This is true for almost all medieval cities, old London neighborhoods, the Marais in Paris (what was untouched by Haussmann’s renovation) with the additional examples of Hong Kong, New York and even the historical centers of Brazilian cities.

By understanding the city as a complex, emergent environment, we should let go of the urge to impose our personal interests in urban form. The video’s final conclusions, calling for an increase in government control and a rigid regulation of the urban environment is as dangerous and has the same mindset as the failed plans of Brasilia.  And as dangerous as modern urbanism theory in general, which sees the city as built physical space that can be modeled by what planners want to achieve. Cities must be the result of spontaneous and voluntary action by all its citizens, not of a committee that decides what is right, wrong, beautiful or ugly.  Restraint from imposition by those who arrogantly proclaim they know what’s best for the extremely complex organisms we call cities will eventually lead to what I like to call planned chaos.

Travel Update: A Tale Of Two Latino Areas In Miami And San Francisco

Miami, FL

1. The two Forbes articles I wrote this week are about New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to modernize the city’s courts; and a tech program under New York governor Andrew Cuomo that failed colossally in year one.

2. The highlight of my week, though, came at the tail end on Saturday night, when I explored Miami’s Little Havana, a Cuban neighborhood outside of downtown. What surprised me was how Cuban it actually was, despite abutting one of the nation’s booming financial districts. Almost everyone there is Cuban—save the few gringo tourists like me—and the neighborhood is rooted in their culture. Spanish is the first language, salsa music echoes through the streets, and retail areas are lined with Caribbean cuisine. It’s not unusual to find live chickens running though people’s backyards. The architecture reflects what I’ve seen in photos of Havana, and hasn’t been interspersed with condos and yoga studios.

This surprised me because, usually when I walk into such neighborhoods that abut rich areas, I find that they have been gentrified past the state of being “ethnic.” For example in San Francisco, The Mission District, historically the city’s Mexican neighborhood, is a shell of its former self. While it may have some streets dedicated to Mexican culture, there is literally a one-block demarcation from hipster Valencia Street, and the only thing keeping the old-timers around is rent control. San Francisco also has an increasingly diluted Chinatown and Japantown, and the decline of its black culture is well-documented. Meanwhile Miami’s “Little Havana” is still Cuban and historically-black Overtown remains black. Both neighborhoods are a stone’s-throw from downtown.

The fact that Miami is better than San Francisco at preserving close-in ethnic neighborhoods is surprising, because the cities are similar. Both have experienced a flood of new people and capital due, respectively, to their booming financial and tech industries. Both are warm-weather cities that attract tourists, artists, and the creative class. So how has Miami resisted gentrification? The answer lies in its downtown housing policies.

Rather than acting like they had no clue what to do with all these incoming rich people, Miami officials allowed them a place to go: Brickell. This is a neo-liberal mecca that several decades ago was a low-slung neighborhood. But in the 1970s, it began attracting small banks, and in the decades since has boomed into the “Wall Street of Miami.” It is now home to dozens of banks, and more than just a daytime work center, has evolved into a 24/7 skyscraper neighborhood, with a residential population that doubled from 2000-2010, to 27,000. A 2013 report found that 19 new condos were under construction, and another two dozen were in the planning stages. Along with this has come the fancy restaurants, bars, light rail, and walkable streets.

“If you’re a yuppie in Miami,” said a finance-industry woman who I went on a date with in the area, during a characteristically hopping Thursday night. “You’re going to live in Brickell.”

brickell

San Francisco, meanwhile, doesn’t have a Brickell-like area, and thus not a decisive place for its techies to live. The reason is politics. For one, Brickell’s ostentatious wealth displays conform with Miami’s culture, but would send San Francisco’s class warriors into spasms of outrage. Brickell also wouldn’t get built because San Francisco’s NIMBYs wouldn’t just allow a high-rise neighborhood to go up overnight—or at all. Even when something as harmless as a 12-story condo—8 Washington—is proposed in downtown San Francisco, it faces years of litigation. The stretch of land most eligible to become San Francisco’s Brickell would be the Mission Bay area around the Giants’ baseball stadium. But much of this land is government-operated, and all of it is regulated, leading to parking lots and low-scale buildings.

If this area were allowed to explode with high-end condos, it would be a natural destination for SF’s techies—just as Brickell is for Miami’s bankers. Many of America’s rich young professionals, after all, have shown a taste for the type of high-rise, upscale, security-laden condos found in Brickell. But because San Francisco lacks such development, yuppies there instead settle for older housing in low-slung neighborhoods like The Mission, Potrero Hill, and the Tenderloin. And this has brought chaos to those neighborhoods, as prices rise and established tenants are evicted.

All this, of course, suggests an ironic aspect of urban housing markets that is misunderstood by most government officials and NIMBYs: “if a city wants to preserve, it must build.” In other words, if a city is being flooded with rich people, then allow the market to build to their specifications, namely in under-utilized areas, and watch them concentrate there. That way, they won’t overwhelm the old-school ethnic areas, keeping prices down, and enabling those areas to function as they long have.

 

Travel Update: Miami Is Denser Than When I Left It

Miami, FL

I’ve been busy this week writing, but still carved out time to walk Miami. The first thing that hit me was how much denser it got since I last visited in 2011. The downtown, once caked in human waste, is only halfway like this now; a few square blocks of cafes and bars have emerged just off the waterfront. New condos in nearby Brickell have turned it into a legitimate 24/7 neighborhood, with unique cultural status as a playground for young bankers. And just north, Wynwood–Miami’s arts neighborhood–is making strides.

My observations are confirmed by the data. From 2010-2013, the city grew by 20,000 (or 5%) and there has been similar growth in key adjacent suburbs like South Beach, Hialeah, and Coral Gables (where I’m staying). Since that visit, Miami’s Walk Score went from the nation’s 8th- to 5th- best, behind only New York, SF, Boston, and Philly–and ahead of Chicago!

But as MU reader Chris Harlan noted, the city hasn’t built the pedestrian infrastructure to keep pace. Added density always brings more of two traditionally conflicting uses: cars and pedestrians. If traffic engineering is not changed to encourage their graceful interaction, then cities will have public safety disasters. And this has happened in Miami, which is the nation’s 4th most dangerous city for pedestrians (trailing only the other 3 major ones in Florida). Walking around, it wasn’t hard to see why: people here drive aggressively, encouraged by wide roads, long blocks, and a lack of side-street parking to encourage slower speeds. Long blocks mean fewer cross-walks, and because waits at intersections take forever, many people choose to cut across mid-block, with cars speeding by in both directions. I found myself behaving the same way; after waiting long enough for things to clear, I would literally just sprint across busy roadways. But those more accustomed would mozy out halfway and wait at the yellow stripe–with dozens of cars going past in each direction–until the other half cleared. It seemed like practical suicide, but is a common form of jaywalking here. Solving this would be as simple as building medians, but there are precious little of these in Miami.

Now for the links:

1. I wrote 4 articles this week for Forbes: on the private gift that will fund another iconic park in Lower Manhattan; on how beach towns cope in the slow months; on Newark’s idiotic idea to fund vertical farming; and on Los Angeles’ government-manufactured housing crisis.

2. For brevity’s sake, I’ll save this subject for next week, but would like to know: is there a Market Urbanist position for how governments should invest the money in their employee pension systems? Although I haven’t studied the issue, it seems that having government-run management boards invites disaster, since they have less incentive to seek high returns (and often don’t, falling well under their predicted 7-8% returns, thus leading to under-funded systems). I’ve already heard of the phenomenon of “social divestment,” in which boards steer money away from companies that the left finds offensive, like gun and oil manufacturers. As Governing Magazine finance writer Liz Farmer has noted, this can lead to under-performance or even huge losses. Is the answer to privatize city governments’ asset management? Anyone with expertise on this issue, feel free to weigh in…

Travel Update: Miami-bound

Hialeah, Florida

I’m writing this from Hialeah, a suburb just north of Miami that is the nation’s most Cuban city. I can’t wait until Sunday, my first big day in Miami, and the de facto start to this 3-year trip!

I’ve spent the last week slogging down the east coast, stopping in Wilmington, Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Hilton Head, and Savannah, before continuing on down Florida’s Route 1 (which is literally—and I mean literally—one big strip mall the entire way through the state). Particularly from West Palm Beach down, Florida’s east coast feels a lot like Los Angeles: it’s dense enough to technically be urban, but not dense or pedestrian-oriented enough to be walkable. In many cases, what you get instead are these dated, low-budget towns that don’t have definitive centers and are just a mass of concrete and bumper-to-bumper traffic, but that are softened by water and palm trees.

Anyhow, here’s a list of articles that I’ve found this week, which will be a feature of these updates. Except this week, I didn’t find them. One thing that I’ve lacked while driving and exploring is the time to just kick back and read. Instead, this week’s updates come from a mystery figure named ‘Bob Johnson.’ Bob friended me on Facebook immediately after I first posted on Market Urbanism, and has since filled my message box with article links. Luckily they are good, so I’m reposting them in his honor.

1. Here’s an absolutely magisterial speech on cities by the recently-deceased M. Stanton Evans, who was a Market Urbanist before his time.

2. What is it with D.C. and height caps? They even impose it now on their pop-up housing.

3. There have now been two high-rise projects in Hollywood that were invalidated either during or after construction, because judges decided that they didn’t undergo proper environmental review.

4. And last but not least, the articles I wrote this week for Forbes—about pedestrian safety and Houston’s new General Plan.

I’m Traveling Cross-Country to Write a Book on Market Urbanism

batman-hitchhiker-gotham-city
Ever since Adam founded this blog, it has become a great forum for describing how free-market economics intersect with urban issues. But the term Market Urbanism itself has remained under the radar, especially compared to ones that encourage more government intervention for cities, like “Smart Growth.” I’ve always thought that Adam’s term deserved more mainstream cache. So I’m traveling cross-country to write a book about it.

My name is Scott Beyer, and I’m a 29-year-old urban affairs journalist from Charlottesville, VA. This week, I began a 3-year trip that will include month-long stays in 26 major cities, and visits to hundreds of smaller ones. Part of this is to continue work as a columnist for Forbes and Governing Magazine. But mainly it is to write a book that I’ve tentatively titled The Sparks From Within—How Market Urbanism Can Revive U.S. Cities.

My inspiration for this trip dates to my late teens, when I moved to New York City. I quickly become so enthralled with the fast-paced culture and diversity of urban life that I saved up some money to backpack the nation’s other cities. This continued on and off through my twenties, as I visited the nation’s 100 largest, burning through several Greyhound “Discovery Passes,” hitchhiking dozens of rides, and even once hopping a freight train from Jacksonville to New Orleans.

I had first expected that these cities would be as dynamic as New York, but was surprised to find otherwise. On one hand, numerous ones had declined despite decades of U.S. population growth, and now had neighborhoods that would embarrass a Third World country. And even many successful ones lacked a certain gravitas, with downtowns that hollowed out after 5pm.

Why were so many cities like this? That question inspired a research period after I returned home that extended for several years. My main conclusion was that U.S. urban failure did not result only from global forces like deindustrialization, but because of counterproductive government policies. This began with post-WWII federal policies that encouraged suburban flight, such as slum clearance, highway subsidies, and loan programs favoring single-family homes. When this caused industry to leave, many cities, feeling desperate, adopted their own aggressive policies, and have maintained this heavily-centralized model ever since. In most large cities today, powerful bureaucracies—bolstered by regulatory authority and gobs of federal money—dictate where and how growth happens. Rather than enlightened decision-making, this administrative model has produced a comedy of errors, as America’s cities are dominated by high taxes and regulations, political machines, rent-seeking, cronyism, property confiscation, and sometimes plain corruption.

What I also learned through research, though, was that this model had inspired numerous pro-market, small-government reforms for cities. These have included charter schools, defined contribution pensions, one-stop shops for business permits, zoning deregulation, and whatever else liberalizes economies and reduces the dead weight of government. These reforms have been explained in depth by various commentators—mostly on the right—but have always floated around separately. I would like to combine them into a single policy blueprint that would make U.S. cities more competitive in the 21st century. I thought the term “Market Urbanism” was catchy, and because Adam’s blog advocates for these policies, I asked him about expanding the concept into a book.  He told me to go for it.

During the trip, I plan to write about 26 different reforms, using each as a chapter for a given city. These chapters will be divided into 5 sections, dealing with housing, transportation, business climate, public services, and finance. This localized, case-study format will help me explore the details of how each reform would help a specific city—and who now opposes it.

What do I hope to accomplish from this project? I would like to bring the term Market Urbanism into public consciousness, and into direct competition with the moldy prevailing wisdom of America’s cities. For decades, this wisdom—moving from academia on through city hall—is that urban problems must be solved through more government. The point of my book is to explain why market alternatives would solve them better—while making cities denser, faster-growing, more affordable, and more livable.

I would encourage the readers of this blog to follow my project, either through my website, BigCitySparkplug.com, or my Forbes profile. I should also note that every Friday, I’ll be providing updates on MarketUrbanism.com from the road, including links to articles I’ve written that week, research I’ve encountered, or whatever else may be on my mind. I hope over these three years that I can connect with my fellow Market Urbanists, and if I happen to be in your city, please don’t be shy about reaching out, as I prefer learning about places through the locals. But at very least, I hope to bring America’s cities alive for you via the web, as I report on them directly from the streets.

Reach out to Scott about his travels:

Los Angeles’ Pedestrian Environment

Last week, Tyler Cowen wrote that Los Angeles is the best city in the world based on several factors, including that it’s one of the best cities for walking. While he makes the valid point that LA’s beautiful weather gives it an advantage over many other American cities with good walking opportunities, I have to disagree that it ranks among the best cities for walking as a tourist or for enjoyment. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this topic because my boyfriend is from LA and has often tried to convince me that it has great walking neighborhoods.

Tyler is clearly correct that weather is an important aspect of walkability, so whether or not LA can compete with older, colder American cities on walkability depends on the walker’s preferences for weather relative to other factors like aesthetics and safety. Personally, I weight urban design much more heavily for walkability than weather, and from this standpoint I don’t think LA can compete with the few cities built before wide boulevards became standard street construction. As Nathan Lewis points out, American city planners began building wide streets well before personal cars became common for transportation. Only the U.S.’s oldest neighborhoods that predate the Revolutionary War feature the narrow streets that facilitate a pedestrian scale environment.

Stephen Stofka at Strong Towns supports 1:1 as the best ratio of building height to street width, but personally, I prefer a “really narrow street” design with mid-rise buildings, with a ratio often approaching 2:1. With buildings taller than the streets, pedestrians feel a sense of enclosure and close-in building facades pull the walker along as compared to the expansiveness of wide streets that make comparable walking distances feel farther. Although some call Boston’s financial district an urban canyon, to me it’s one of the most interesting places to walk that I’ve seen in the U.S. It’s building height to street width ratio is much higher than 1:1.

Photo by Doug Kerr

Photo by Doug Kerr

Even in Los Angeles’ relatively walkable neighborhoods, street widths typically dwarf building height. Take Wilshire Blvd, for example, which Tyler cites as one of the best walking streets. Using Streetmix to estimate, it’s about 90-100 feet wide. Wilshire does some have 10+ story buildings, but it doesn’t have the continuous facade of 9 or 10 story buildings that would give it a pleasant proportion.

Wilshire

Some might consider Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade one of the most walkable places in the LA area. To me, the pedestrian experience for shoppers there doesn’t compare to the similar touristy shopping streets in older New England cities with streets half as wide.

Third Street Promenade

Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade above vs. Edgartown’s Main Street below.

edgartown

Photo by Josefina Casals

 

In my opinion, downtown LA is the exception to the city’s generally poor pedestrian environments. The historic core’s streets, developed as residential streets in the late 1800s, are, surprisingly, narrower than some of New York or Chicago’s downtown streets of earlier eras. And of course it’s home to some amazing Art Deco architecture.

Broadway LA

If Angelenos wanted to prioritize pedestrian environment over driving convenience in the future, narrowing streets is even more difficult than the monumental policy challenge of lowering parking requirements. While parking lots can be developed as land becomes more valuable to create a continuous building facade, selling development rights to narrow a street would be a slow and painful process, and it would take decades of development for building facades to slowly be built out toward streets.

Making Los Angeles streets narrower is probably impossible, but the city could make changes to the land use regulations governing Wilshire and its other streets with potential for walkability by continuing to pursue land use deregulation in the vein of the failed Hollywood Plan. Allowing for taller buildings and continuous facades would improve the building height to street width ratio on some of the city’s most expensive land where high rises are financially feasible. However, political opposition to the Hollywood Plan’s deregulation demonstrates the difficulty of marginal policy changes that would allow LA to become more enjoyable for walkers.

LA has many great features, but in my opinion it doesn’t compete overall with older cities as a walking city. Pedestrians in the Northeast must endure sub-freezing temperatures and regular precipitation, but personally I would still choose to go for a walk in the few neighborhoods with narrow streets in Philly, Boston, or lower Manhattan over LA’s sunny, expansive boulevards.

The Value of Walkability

Last week DC Streetsblog reported on a new survey from Kaiser Permanente. The survey covers Americans’ attitudes toward walking and their self-reported walking habits. While a substantial majority of people believe that walking has health benefits ranging from weight management to alleviating depression, the survey found that most people walk less than the 150 minutes per week that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. The Streetsblog coverage attributes a lack of walkable infrastructure to low walking rates, although it’s not clear to me that the survey explicitly supports this conclusion. However, past research demonstrates that people who live in neighborhoods where they are able to complete errands on foot do, unsurprisingly, do walk more than those who don’t.

pedestrians

While people may not cite walkabilty as an important consideration in choosing a house, choosing a home involves weighing many factors, from size, price, distance to work and other amenities, aesthetic, and countless others factors. Consumers rely on tacit knowledge to weigh many of these factors because they can’t consciously enumerate all of them in making a decision of where to live.

For this reason, revealed preference theory is a more reliable tool than survey data for observing how consumers value one attribute of a complex good like housing. Building on a past project, my colleague Eli Dourado and I are studying whether or not consumers do pay a premium for greater neighborhood walkability. Using a fixed-effects model, across all metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas in the United States, our preliminary results indicate that, on average, Americans are willing to pay a premium of about $850 for a house with one additional point in Walk Score. Because of the many restrictions that limit walkable development, consumers have to pay this premium for the scarce supply of houses in walkable neighborhoods.

This finding also indicates that, in a world with fewer regulations limiting the supply of walkable development, the free market would provide a greater supply of walkable neighborhoods because developers have opportunities to profit from doing so that are currently prevented by regulations. In a freer market, more people would have the opportunity to live in neighborhoods where completing daily errands on foot is feasible. These findings don’t tell us what, if any, public health improvements would be seen from more people living in walkable neighborhoods, but they give us a clearer picture of the value people place on walkability than survey data does.

Market suburbanistsoften cite survey data finding that most people prefer detached, single family homes to living in multifamily housing. They also often say that revealed preferences back up these surveys because most Americans live in single family homes. Indeed, this is true, even in the largest cities. However, looking at the housing choices that Americans make while ignoring both regulations that limit the potential choice set and without considering the prices consumers pay is misleading, like saying Americans prefer Fords to BMWs because there are more of them on the road.

An understanding of consumers’ complex decision process in selecting a home cannot be accurately gleaned from either survey or Census data; rather, this information should be observed based on the price that emerges between buyers and sellers in the market. While, all else equal, most people might prefer a large detached house with a big yard, in weighing the many factors like proximity to amenities, price, and house size, we find that people are willing to pay a premium for walkability.

While I’m not prepared to make any claims about health benefits from permitting more walkability, it is clear that people are willing to pay a premium to live in more walkable neighborhoods and that in a freer market, more walkable development would be provided.

Fields of Dreams in Tysons Corner

Earlier this week Cap’n Transit wrote about Tysons Corner in the context of the Silver Line TIFIA loan application and Tysons’ Smart Growth redevelopment. This development plan is something I am quite familiar with as it was the subject of my MA thesis, and his post brought to mind some of the weird issues in the plan.

I am skeptical of Smart Growth generally, and the Tysons plan exemplifies some of the problems that are common to grand Smart Growth redevelopment plans. In an effort to win the support of all progressive causes, Smart Growth plans sometimes encompass many competing objectives. For example, a Smart Growth agenda may advocate increased density while simultaneously championing historic preservation and open space without acknowledging that these goals are opposed. Because of the emphasis on top-down planning inherent in Smart Growth, prices do no reconcile these competing goods.

In the Tysons plan, this planning and consensus building somehow came to include strong support for emphasizing athletic fields. Developers who build in Tysons are required to either provide fields or pay into a fund to support fields on public land. I think that the support for athletic fields comes from the popularity of intramural sports on the National Mall where 20-somethings play sports in think tank or Hill staff leagues after work. Maybe Fairfax planners think that providing athletic space will lure young adults to the suburbs. This issue has gotten so much attention that residents outside of the Tysons area have even started lobbying for fields in Tysons to avoid the traffic of young Tysons residents driving to other parts of the county to find sports fields. The plan calls for 20 new fields of two-to-three acres each for a projected population increase from 17,000 to 100,000.

From a pedestrian perspective, dedicated sports fields in Tysons will create long expansions of dead space, contrary to county planners’ stated objectiveness of liveliness and walkability. Maybe I’ll be surprised and the Tysons fields will all be well-used. Even if they are though, this valuable space will not be put to much use outside of the evening and weekend hours when the weather is decent. This space will be used by a narrower group of people than those who would use more general park space that could include fields.

Given that the objectives of the Tysons redevelopment include creating a more walkable urban form, it would make sense for the plan to take cues from existing places that succeed in these areas. I’m trying to think of an example of a successful and walkable downtown scattered with dedicated full-size athletic fields, but I’m coming up blank. Sure, they may have some open space, but nothing like the Tysons field quota. Northern Virginia developer Keith Turner explains the difficulty of striving for open space and density at the same time:

“We can turf and light dozens and dozens of fields for the cost of building one or two fields in Tysons,” Turner said. “I am not saying that’s the solution, or we won’t try to build as many fields required in Tysons, but it should be looked at,” he said. “Just from an economic standpoint, it just makes sense.”

Developers’ resistance to providing these fields indicate that these acres of green space could be put to more valuable and more walkable use. If other cities take this approach of attempting to lure residents with athletic fields, maybe someday we’ll all be reading The High Cost of Free Soccer.