Category Archives: City planning

Saving Rustbelt Cities

What should be done about the nation’s rustbelt cities–or, as they are being repackaged by marketers, “Legacy Cities“? The populations of at least a dozen major cities declined by more than 10 percent between 2000 and 2010, including Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and of course Detroit and New Orleans (whose population decline has little to do with the rest of them). In many cases, such as Pittsburgh and St. Louis (which declined between 8 and 9 percent in the 2000s), recent declines are merely a continuation of trends since 1950.


Click image to download the report (7.6 MB).

A new report from the Lincoln Land Institute offers a set of prescriptions for these cities. While they may sound good at first glance, close scrutiny reveals that they are the same tired policies that have been trotted out by urban planners for decades.

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Gentrification: Good or Bad?

Gentrification is in the news. Protesters against Google buses in San Francisco who object to the fact that mobility allows high-paid Silicon Valley workers to gentrify San Francisco neighborhoods have been joined by Seattle anti-gentrification protesters who object to Microsoft buses for the same reason. In Portland, Trader Joe’s has backed out of plans to build a store on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard because protesters believed the store would contribute to the area’s gentrification.


Photo by Owen G. Richard.

Meanwhile, New York magazine argues that gentrification can actually be good if it is the “more natural, humane kind” rather than the “fast-moving, invasive variety.” Similarly, NPR points to studies claiming that gentrification can actually be good for long-term residents.

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Protesting Private Buses

One of the more ridiculous debates going on this month is the protests over Google and other companies providing commuter bus services for their employees in the San Francisco Bay Area. No one ever comments on how much better it is for the environment that people are taking buses to work instead of driving. No one ever comments on how the fact that at least 18,000 people take private buses to work is a devastating indicator of the failure of the region’s expensive transit system.


Protesters object to “illegal use of public infrastructure,” referring to private buses stopping at public bus stops. But the real issue is revealed by the “Stop Displacement Now” sign. Click for a larger view. Flickr photo by C.J. Martin.

Instead, the debate is about gentrification. The protesters fear that high-paid Silicon Valley employees are driving up the cost of housing in San Francisco by buying homes currently being rented, evicting the renters, and moving in.

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The Importance of Homeownership

People sometimes ask the Antiplanner if smart growth is just a plot by liberal Democrats to force more people to live in cities, where they will become liberal Democrats. Normally my answer is that people don’t become liberal because they live in cities; instead, they live in cities because they are liberal. After all, I didn’t see any reason why living in a dense urban environment would tend lead to people to vote Democrat.

A recent Boston Globe blog post causes me to rethink this, however. Patrick Smith normally writes about air travel, but on Monday he was upset enough by something happening in his neighborhood that he deviated from this mission. Apparently, a homeowner near the rental home Smith lives in wants to cut down “an old, beautiful, and perfectly healthy tree” on the homeowner’s property.

Smith thinks this will “adversely affect the quality of life for me and several of my neighbors.” He suggests that “at a certain point, a tree is no longer one person’s private property per se, and belongs to the community.” Smith thinks that property owners should be restricted as to what they do with their trees.

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Horse Pucky

If you thought Mayor Michael Bloomberg was bad, with his proposed ban on large sodas and other attempts at social engineering, just wait for some of Mayor de Blasio‘s ideas to become law. De Blasio has gained attention for wanting to ban horse-drawn carriages in Central Park because they are “cruel” to the horses. It’s apparently much less cruel to simply send the horses to glue factories, but that’s a leftist for you: it is more important to put people (and creatures) out of work because you don’t think their jobs are dignified than it is to let them work for themselves.

De Blasio says he wants to replace the horses with electric cars. That’s so environmentally thoughtful of him, especially since half of New York’s electricity comes from burning fossil fuels. It might promote global warming, but at least it’s not cruel to horses. Whatever you think of the treatment of horses who live in roomy barns, get a minimum of five weeks of vacation per year, and see their doctors far more frequently than most humans, the point is that de Blasio is going to try to micromanage everything.

Case in point: de Blasio has appointed Polly Trottenberg as his new transportation commissioner. As undersecretary of transportation for policy, Trottenberg is probably the source of most of Ray LaHood’s crazy ideas about streetcars, livability (=living without cars), high-speed rail, and other transportation issues. New York’s loss is America’s gain.

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California Judge Shoots Down Smart-Growth Plan

A Los Angeles judge has ruled that a densification plan for Hollywood is “fatally flawed because the city failed to adequately assess the environmental impacts and alternatives. The plan called for lifting height restrictions so developers could construct higher-density housing.

In an all-too familiar refrain, planners argued that the plan would transform the community into a “vibrant center of jobs, residential towers and public transportation.” But neighborhood groups opposed the plan, saying it would “push out longtime stakeholders, harm neighborhoods, overtax our infrastructure, and overburden our already gridlocked streets and freeways.” The judge’s 41-page decision concluded that the environmental impact report contained “errors of fact and of law.”

California environmentalists persuaded the legislature to pass so many environmental laws that it is practically impossible to comply with them all, and then used those laws to beat down proposals for new roads and suburban development. Now those laws are coming back to bite them as they try to impose their high-density visions on various communities.

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Why Slate Is Bad for Your Intellect

Slate posted an article yesterday by someone named Charles Montgomery who has fallen, hook, line, and sinker to the design fallacy–the idea that urban planners can shape human behavior by shaping urban design. The title of the article says it all: “Why cul-de-sacs are bad for your health.”

Montgomery’s thesis–expressed at length in his book, Happy City–is that people who live on cul-de-sacs drive more and walk less, so therefore cul-de-sacs must be at fault. Gee, could it be the other way around? Perhaps people who don’t want to walk to go shopping choose to live on cul-de-sacs because they offer the best combination of privacy and security they can find. After all, numerous studies have shown that neighborhoods with cul-de-sacs have significantly less crime than neighborhoods with the gridded streets favored by planning advocates like Montgomery.

Studies have also shown that plenty of people who live in the suburbs get exercise doing things other than walking to shops or cycling to work. Who are urban planners like Montgomery to tell them they are doing it wrong? Meanwhile, while urban planners continue to have faith in the design fallacy, most economists believe that the trends planners think they see (such as people walking more in dense, mixed-use communities) are the result of self-selection, not urban design.

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$20 Per Person to Subsidize Golf

Why does a city not far from the middle of nowhere need to subsidize a golf course? Ontario, Oregon has about 11,000 people (and, according to Census Bureau estimates, the number is declining) on Interstate 84 near the Idaho border. Scott McKinney, the golf course manager, recently told the city council that he needs $221,500 in public funds to open the course in 2014.

That just about $20 per resident and nearly double what the city spent subsidizing the course in 2013. The course is generally open (weather permitting) from March 1 to November 15, so it just closed.

Ontario is the largest city in Malheur County, whose land area is greater than New Jersey‘s but which has only about 31,000 people. Ontario is on Interstate 84, so any golfers who drive through might want to play at the course. It’s an hour away from Boise and six hours from Portland.

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Why Detroit Is Blighted

Forbes has an article about a home builder who is reducing blight in Detroit by raising money to demolish homes and other abandoned structures. However, the article gives some clues about why those neighborhoods are blighted in the first place.


Abandoned home in Detroit.

As everyone knows, large swaths of Detroit are in a blighted condition, with close to 80,000 abandoned homes and other structures as the city has lost a quarter of its population in the last decade alone. In 2010, the city set a goal of trying to remove 10,000 homes in three years, but met only half this goal at a cost of $72 million, or close to $15,000 per home.

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Piling Subsidies on Subsidies

Portland has a history of piling on subsidies to support subsidies. Depending on who you talk to, it either subsidizes rail transit to support subsidized high-density developments or it subsidizes high-density developments to support subsidized rail transit.


Like so much of Portland’s government-funded infrastructure, the twin towers of Portland’s convention center have no structural function but exist–at who knows what cost–solely because they are pretty. Wikimedia commons photo by Cacophony.

Now it is about to decide to build a subsidized hotel in order to support a subsidized convention center. Advocates imply that the hotel will pay for itself, but the truth is that an $80 million subsidy to Hyatt will come mostly out of taxes paid by other hotels in the city. Hyatt will pay another $120 million, getting a $200 million hotel for 60 percent of the cost.

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