Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Walkable Suburb: A Primer

I just wrapped up a four-day trip to Miami. To be perfectly accurate, the little and lovely suburb of Miami Lakes, which is a few miles northwest of the city proper.

Miami Lakes started as a master-planned community and has since spread west of the Palmetto Expressway to include lots of neighborhoods with conventional tract housing, and the corresponding parks, schools, and roads. My hosts’ home is in the original portion of the town, near the traditionally planned center.

The “town center”* of Miami Lakes has been completely built out over some years (I don’t know how many), so in theory it is an excellent place to complete your daily routine by walking. Which we as planners tend to smugly tell people should be desirable, and in theory it is.  And we have strong evidence that walkable neighborhoods also correlate with higher property values.  In the case of Miami Lakes, there are two banks, a grocery store, police station, two churches, several restaurants, medical offices and a pharmacy, a multiplex, and a few more tiny businesses I’m forgetting in a fairly compact center, all within less than a quarter-mile square. Hundreds of detached houses and apartments are arranged in concentric circles around that, and there is unusually good sidewalk coverage for a community in Florida. And the weather was pretty darn nice throughout my visit.

Yet almost no one was walking, and most people here never walk from home to nearby destinations on foot. Why?

Miami Lakes has the same issue that most master-planned developments like this suffer from: they are of course much too small to contain the job sites and schools that their residents need, and it’s not as though all of my hosts’ family and social circles lives in the same bubble. Being connected to the rest of the area is a necessity. Thus it isn’t practical to live there without a car, and when the rest of the city around you is car-dependent, so are you. The older folks that can’t drive are largely dependent on others to drive them, save the occasional walk out to the Publix.

My impression from several visits there? The folks that live in Miami Lakes and similar master-planned centers like the proximity of all the stuff, but because it comes with parking and most folks own cars anyway, walking just doesn’t occur as an option. All in all they still drive very short distances compared to neighbors in the newer neighborhoods to the west, so the master planning wasn’t for naught. But the differences from places that are organically walkable are clear: the presence of transit, fewer parking spaces and fewer car owners, a greater density of all needs (especially schools and job sites) to make “alternative” transportation the best choice.

* I have to admit I hate that term. And my company was founded by a guy that built “town centers” for a living.


Happy New Year from Plannerthon

Happy New Year from Plannerthon

Improving the communities where we live is what planning is all about. I spend a lot of my time, both in the day job and outside of it, honing best practices in planning and trying to improve them. I look forward to another year of sharing thoughts about how we can best do that, and hope you will continue to engage with me here.

Pictured: the entrance to the Dwan Light Sanctuary at the United World College-USA, Montezuma, New Mexico

After 15 weeks, a check-in on my Twitter experiment

As I mentioned in my last post, I set out at the end of the summer to attempt a new focus for my Twitter account. I liked the idea overall, but I altered it in two ways. First, I didn’t exclusively post about the three focal cities. There is far too much news of all types and content from across the country and beyond that I wanted to and did tweet about. So some of the tweeting that only scratched the surface of a place or an issue remains on my account, as it probably always will.  But I feel I supplemented that effectively with content on the three places I wanted to learn more about.

plannerthon on ABQSecond, and most importantly, I chose to keep the experiment running much longer than originally anticipated. There was one important reason for the latter decision: there’s a lot to learn and a lot to read and broadcast about even one major city, let alone three. So I spent the end of the summer and into the fall finding and sharing content about Albuquerque, Detroit, and Seattle.

plannerthon on DTWAnd I’ve learned a great deal, fulfilling one of my original objectives. I read about primary candidates for Albuquerque City Council. I followed the ups and downs of the General Motors boardroom as the company divested itself of the federal government’s “bailout” rescue funds, then named its first female CEO, then announced significant investments in existing plants all within two weeks. More closely related to Detroiters’ everyday life, I discovered how some of the most challenged neighborhoods, including Brightmoor, are leveraging philanthropic money to help attract new residents. I learned how many mega-developments can be supported by a strong (possibly overheated) real estate market like Seattle.

plannerthon on SEAThere’s a great deal more to be learned, too. While I haven’t yet found a large number of tweeters in those respective cities, I’ll continue looking.

For now, I’m choosing to move on. Starting in January, I will choose my next three geographic foci and continue the experiment. And while much of my approach will be the same as the first round, I also plan to approach this somewhat differently. I intend to find more locals in those places to interact with and ask questions of, and I hope to delve more deeply into the demographics, the infrastructure needs, and the governance of these places.

I hope you will continue to follow along.

Trying something new with Twitter

I’ve been on Twitter for over three years, and I love it. As you can probably tell, it gets more of my attention than my blog. That said, the advantage of having a blog at hand is that I can use it for the occasional longer thought. Welcome to a longer thought.

Twitter is easy to keep up with, true. It requires very little in the way of content production, and since every other user is limited by the same 140-character ceiling per tweet, it’s more or less a level playing field. And I’ve e-met lots of new and interesting people in the course of tweeting, some of whom became IRL acquaintances. The intensity of the social aspect of Twitter has always been great, and I hope for that to continue.

The issue with my tweeting is that I’ve developed a scattershot approach to Twitter. Everything I post can progress from material skimmed to content drafted to tweet scheduled in a few seconds. I at least proofread, but that is usually about it. I can’t be an expert in everything, and at this point I’m not really delving deeply into any of the content I post, regardless of how interesting or uplifting or concerning I find it.

In response, I’m going to spend the next few weeks narrowing my focus to a few topics. I want to try only tweeting about a few of the many cities that I usually cover, and get a bit of a deeper understanding and context of what’s happening in those places. The content on each place will be denoted by a short hashtag, usually the three-letter airport code serving that metro.

For the first two weeks, I’m choosing:

  • Albuquerque (#ABQ)
  • Seattle (#SEA)
  • Detroit (#DTW)

Follow along, and offer your feedback on how you feel it’s going. Better than the prior approach? Want more detail? Want detail on something else? I hope you’ll comment here or reply to me over there.

Experiment begins today!

2012 in review for Plannerthon

I have to admit the infographic-style “review” of the year in this blog, prepared by WordPress and excerpted below, is interesting. I don’t use this blog on an everyday basis, but I enjoy having it when I have thoughts, photos, or events to write about and share on the web.

If you’re still reading, stay tuned; I’ll be back at various points in 2013 to share more.
The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,300 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Going Big to Become Resilient: Austin, TX

One of my favorite sessions of the Greenbuild conference thus far was the last of yesterday afternoon. Entitled “Connecting the Dots in a Big Way @City of Austin” and helmed by Lucia Athens, the Chief Sustainability Officer of the Texas capital city, the presentation summed up exactly why working toward sustainability matters so much. That is because we want and need our communities to still exist and still have fulfilling jobs with livable wages, clean air and water, and places that we want to go for recreation and entertainment when we are gone and our kids and grandkids run things. To ensure we get there, we must THINK BIG!, as I wrote in an enormous font on my notes. Basically, almost everything that a local government does can contribute to building a resilient community, hence the “connect the dots” theme.

The City’s Office of Sustainability has structured the Rethink/Austin plan with ten action areas to ensure Austin will indeed be prosperous and healthy for the long term, the true meaning of the nebulous “sustainable” mantra. Athens emphasized focus on three types of sustainability that each action area requires: economic, environmental, and equitable. As an aside, I also suggest a fourth one, most relevant to our built environment: aesthetic sustainability (or esthetic, if you want to keep the “E” theme going). This is an idea I gleaned from Doug Kelbaugh at the University of Michigan, where he convincingly argued that people will be more likely to want to save things that are visually appealing, that have a sense of beauty. What counts as beautiful is admittedly subjective, but it is tough to argue with some of the basics: open space near where we live, streets that can accommodate people and not just cars, and architecture that is built to last and with local influences are generally what most people want in their communities and will fight to save once it already exists. Happily, Austinites seem to get this, according to Athens.

ImageAnyhow, the plan is carefully tailored to the cultural, environmental, and economic uniqueness that is Austin. For example, the healthy and safety action area includes a component on wildfire safety, a common concern in south Texas. Also, the arts & culture action area is closely tailored to large events that Austin hosts annually: South by Southwest, the Austin City Limits festival, and even Formula 1 racing. These events are reducing their impact on the air, food systems, and traffic impact in collaboration with the City, and out-of-town attendees will soon be able to purchase carbon offsets along with their tickets (Greenbuild itself offered this in 2012, too).

To ensure the sometimes nebulous plan is visually appealing, the City used icons from the (highly recommended) Noun Project. Simple and evocative graphics can go a long way toward grabbing and keeping the attention of residents and other potential stakeholders you want to be involved. And I mention this because I know from experience that not everyone has the time or interest to read through many pages of planning documents to the extent that I do.

Stay tuned to this blog; I’ll be back tomorrow to post some other Greenbuild and San Francisco highlights.


Rethink/Austin logo courtesy of City of Austin, Texas. Greenbuild/Moscone Center logo photo mine, and snapped harriedly on an iPhone.

At Greenbuild and ready to go

I’ve arrived in San Francisco mostly free of work tasks and am ready for Greenbuild. Ever since June, when I served as a reviewer for potential sessions, I have been anticipating the opportunity to be in the same space as the many other folks presenting, attending, and exhibiting. A major personal milestone since that time is that I now work in the field of housing and community development, at an employer committed to better affordable housing for all. I’m enthusiastic about this work and I’m glad to be around others that share the passion.

With that change in mind, I’m looking for the intersections of greening the built environment with the twin objectives of housing equity and creating high-quality residences. If you are here at Greenbuild, I look forward to chatting with you about how these goals do and do not parallel one another, and how we might improve that. Leave a comment if that’s you. If you aren’t in San Francisco but are interested in these topics, be sure to follow this blog and my Twitter account for updates in words and photos.

The Southwest Ecodistrict: Washington, DC Reimagines Another Neighborhood

Continuing my blog catch-up theme of finally writing about events I attended last fall, the DC Office of Planning came to visit the American Planning Association’s monthly “Tuesdays at APA” gathering in November. Their presentation detailed major projects proposed for southwest DC to improve the area’s connectivity to the National Mall and the nearby waterfront and make federal spaces more sustainable, per Executive Order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve building performance.

The DC Office of Planning, along with the National Capital Planning Commission and the National Park Service is currently engaged in a long-term reimagining of part of the city’s Southwest quadrant. One project just approved is the Maryland Avenue SW small area plan, and another, longer-term initiative is the Southwest EcoDistrict. I will be talking mostly about the latter in this post but they are complementary and inter-related.

Map of the Southwest Ecodistrict area. Note that the railroad tracks and Maryland Ave. together form one of the sight lines toward the US Capitol, which is just off the map to the upper right. Courtesy of Google Maps.

This fifteen-block area is the home of multiple federal agencies, including the FAA, NASA, and the Department of Energy, and is bounded by Independence Avenue and the National Mall to the north; see the map above for context. If you have visited DC and been to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the Sackler Gallery, or the National Botanic Gardens, you have been in the general vicinity of the proposed ecodistrict. However, there are relatively few attractions actually within this area–whether for workers or visitors–and that is something this plan seeks to change.

Part of L’Enfant Promenade in Southwest DC. The concrete office building surrounded by a large concrete plaza is a typical sight in this area, and something the Ecodistrict wishes to improve with mixed-use, energy-efficient buildings and livelier streets with many types of activity. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Elvert Barnes.

The proposals for the eco-district include: analysis of existing infrastructure and modernization at a district rather than building or block level, the return of the Maryland Avenue corridor to a usable street for pedestrians and autos, and improved pedestrian connections to nearby neighborhoods. These will all pave the way for the addition of residential units, hotel rooms, and retail/restaurants. The proposed rezoning of the area to the DD-4 designation would allow offices to be retained, while adding these multiple new uses. At the same time, the area must still accommodate existing CSX freight trains and the Virginia Railway Express commuter trains, which has a busy station near L’Enfant Plaza.

Many of the buildings here were built in the mid-20th century modern style, and are showing their age. They will be due for either major upgrades or demolition soon, so this is a good time to think about money-saving possibilities for the long term. For example, a district energy system (which provides power and heat to many buildings from a central point) or mixed-use buildings, possibly with retail on the ground floor and residences above. I know that lots of folks lament the flood of newly constructed condo and apartment buildings in the last few years and protest that we don’t need more, but this is slightly different. There are very few residences in this part of town, at the same time that the Census Bureau tells us droves of new folks are moving into the District. Building residential components into SW is an excellent opportunity to entice some of those new residents to a neighborhood that is centrally located, walkable and well-served by transit, and will hopefully have more services like grocery stores available in the medium- to long-term.

Trains pass underneath L’Enfant Promenade. A critical transportation link that must be maintained in SW DC. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Matt Johnson.

The Maryland Avenue small area plan, which was just approved and adopted by Council this week, is actually a separate but complementary project. I attended another public meeting last summer specifically about that, but I mention it only in passing here because I’m focusing on the Ecodistrict project. It is an interesting placemaking attempt on its own in addition to improving an important transportation corridor.

Finally, if you live in DC and wish to comment on the Southwest Ecodistrict plan, the DC Office of Planning will hold a public meeting on Thursday, July 19th at 6:30 p.m. at their building, 1100 4th St. SW. If you’ve never been, I encourage you to go; their offices are quite nice and almost directly on top of the Waterfront Metro station.

Flickr photos reposted under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

Mayors Speak on Their Victories and Challenges at the ULI Rose Center Forum

I hadn’t previously had the opportunity to blog about it, but in late October I was able to attend the Urban Land Institute’s Fall Meeting in Los Angeles. Now that I’ve had some time to process the fire hose of sessions that I attended and people I met there, one event is still in my mind. The Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership hosted a forum at the Los Angeles Central Library of mayors that have participated in its fellowship program for public officials in the last two years. The Rose Center is the primary unit of ULI that promotes sustainable land use practices among the public sector, especially for local governments.

The Los Angeles forum was the second time that I’ve been able to hear from big-city mayors at a ULI event. The first was a lecture in July in Washington, DC with Ed Lee, the mayor of San Francisco. At the time he spoke of the major planning initiatives he was shepherding along as a long-time municipal employee and recent ascendant to the mayor’s office, and more recently was elected to a full term.

This time around we heard from five mayors on the victories and challenges that are occurring in their respective cities in the Midwest, Northeast, and South (although we were in California, the West was not represented at this event because Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was scheduled but unable to attend the event). The panelists were Dave Bing of Detroit; Bob Buckhorn of Tampa; Karl Dean of Nashville; Sly James of Kansas City, Missouri; and Angel Taveras of Providence, Rhode Island.

In Nashville, Karl Dean focused his comments on two recent and relatively unique land use issues. A previously announced open space initiative for the city was kicked into high gear by severe flooding in 2010; part of the recovery effort focused on converting home sites destroyed by flood waters into permanent open space. In addition to improving community safety during future disasters, the open space initiative created a new amenity in the form of permanently preserved open space. Another focus was the Bell’s Bend property, a piece of open land west of downtown Nashville formed by a sharp bend in the Tennessee River. A developer proposed the conversion of the land into a new mixed-use community in the style of a “new downtown,” but Dean mentioned that it did not go forward in the interest of preventing sprawl and utilizing the extensive infrastructure that Nashville already has. As he put it, “we already have a downtown.”

Dave Bing

Sylvester James of Kansas City (Missouri) focused his comments on regional cooperation. This has been particularly important–and challenging–for his region because it spans two states. The recent selection by Google of Kansas City, Kansas (across the river from Mayor James’ KC) as its pilot city for the Google Fiber network made cooperation more attractive. The existing industry cluster in animal science and nutrition as well as newer industries are both helped by this, because a region that works together can enhance its competitive advantage in a way that others won’t; working across municipal boundaries pools all of the region’s strengths from freight facilities to transportation infrastructure into one attractive package.

In spite of the seemingly non-stop rhetoric that municipal governments are hamstrung by a lack of funds, the five Rose Center fellows showed that plenty is still being accomplished in their cities. Perhaps the lesson is that if you want to know what a city is doing and doing well, you should ask its government leaders directly.

Angel Taveras

Photo of Mayor Dave Bing courtesy of Flickr user Dave Hogg. Photo of Mayor Angel Taveras courtesy of Flickr user Jeff NickersonBoth are reposted here under Creative Commons licenses. 

Harrisburg: On the Edge of Bankruptcy, But Should We Expect Other Cities to Follow?

In the last few months, anyone talking about municipal bankruptcy in the U.S. has probably mentioned Harrisburg. In a lot of cases, I’ve heard it mentioned as an apparent harbinger of what many more places in the U.S. could soon face. In mid-October, the City Council of Pennsylvania’s capital city voted to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in the face of billions of dollars in debt and few revenue streams that would come close to covering the bills.  As the drama played out, Linda Thompson, Harrisburg’s relatively new mayor objected, claiming state law actually prohibits cities from filing for bankruptcy. More recently, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge agreed with Mayor Thompson. However, their serious financial woes remain, and a state takeover of the city is looking increasingly like the only alternative.

I wrote previously about whether local governments being unable to pay for what we think of as basic municipal services may become the new normal. Today I want to delve a bit more deeply into Harrisburg’s situation, because I don’t think that this is a case that is going to be repeated in many, if any, other local governments in the near term. Yes, many other municipalities, mostly small ones, are near bankruptcy. Some in Michigan have already been taken over by state-appointed emergency financial managers. No, easy ways to raise new revenue are not revealing themselves. However, Harrisburg has done a few things that have led it into a unique situation. Let’s review them.

First, there was the incinerator. At one point, Harrisburg believed that what we generally consider a basic public service–garbage disposal–could be turned into a profit center by creating energy and contributing it to the grid as it disposes of waste. In addition, other municipalities that didn’t have ready landfills to bury their own garbage could sell them to Harrisburg, leading to even more revenue for the city, or so the optimistic scenario went. This wasn’t necessarily an off-the-wall idea; Harrisburg has been losing residents and the tax revenue that goes with them for decades, so innovative ways to create new revenue are absolutely vital. And creating electricity from waste sounds about as innovative as it gets, assuming the scheme works. The incinerator has been in operation for over 40 years, but unfortunately it has become a huge problem, as the aging infrastructure required more and more borrowing to continue to function. Today, Harrisburg has over $300 million in debt and about 20,000 fewer residents than it did when the incinerator opened.

Second, there was the museum. Prior to Mayor Thompson’s election, Harrisburg had the same mayor for almost twenty years, Stephen Reed. Being led by the same person for such a long time can be positive or negative for a city, but in retrospect it looks to be quite bad. Mayor Reed was also looking for a new revenue source when he came up with the idea to open the Museum of the Old West, seeking to take advantage of Harrisburg’s long-ago role as the gateway to westward expansion. The problem with this (and I’m depending on other sources here, as 19th century American history is not my area of study) is that almost no one associates Harrisburg with anything related to the”Old West.” Instead, for many the term conjures up images of places thousands of miles west of Harrisburg. Anecdotally, I grew up in New Mexico, and in my mind Harrisburg is a bona fide part of the East Coast and the original extent of the U.S. Would I visit a museum of the Old West in south-central Pennsylvania? Probably not. Nevertheless, for all his other contributions to Harrisburg, Mayor Reed used millions in public funds to indiscriminately purchase items for the museum. Despite his ambitions, this museum–like the supposed profits from the incinerator business–never materialized (perhaps it is now clearer why he lost a primary election to Thompson in 2009). Harrisburg has since attempted to sell anything valuable from the thousands of artifacts Reed purchased as a last-ditch effort to raise money for debt payments, for the first time four years ago and perhaps again in the near future.

What does this mean? The ill-fated museum collection is not likely a major contributor to Harrisburg’s desperate fiscal state, though it certainly didn’t help. But I think it was indicative of a long-tenured mayor not living in reality and thus not helping Harrisburg face its situation head-on. I’ll be looking to see how the city proposes to get back on track, which unfortunately will include major cuts in municipal services as payments to bondholders eat up more and more of its budget. And the biggest problem, in my mind, is that a state takeover will mean that someone other than the city’s elected leaders will be making those decisions.

That said, I don’t think Harrisburg is a harbinger of what’s to come for other American cities, simply because these are relatively unique problems that made a bad fiscal situation worse. Other places that have declared bankruptcy in the recent past have reportedly had their own major problems that dragged down finances while trying to contend with a shrinking tax base: a pricey sewage treatment plant in Jefferson County, Alabama and reportedly super-sized salary and benefit packages for employees in Vallejo, California. If a local government doesn’t have a major drag on its finances, chances are good that it won’t become the next Harrisburg. Stay tuned to this blog for further developments on public sector bankruptcy in America.