Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Battle for Harlem

An interesting take on gentrification in Harlem. A lot has been written about this in the New York media. I don't agree with all the comments made from both sides of the argument but I will say that change is inevitable. How much change should happen at once is debateble and a debate that is happening in many inner cities of America from D.C. to Chicago to Los Angeles.

Privatised cities

This is a very interesting documentary about Private contract cities in suburbab Atlanta and their secession from Fulton County.

The Clip's Bio:
When the government of the city of Sandy Springs in Georgia decided to bring in a multinational corporation to run all of the city's services - with the exception of police and firefighting - it effectively became the first fully privatized city in the world.

It's a trend that is already spreading fast, with four new cities launched in the last three years, all of them run by the same company, defence contractors CH2M Hill.

The New Urbanist Church

I don't know about this one.

This article covers how some urban churches are embracing new urbanism in order to bring more worshippers from the changing community. The article quotes:

"In meeting the challenges of revitalized urban neighborhoods across the country, urban churches are rethinking the ways they connect with their adjacent communities, combining an eclectic mix of edgy art and ancient Christian traditions."

The article goes on to state:

"To connect with the new urbanites, churches in their midst reflect a potent blend of artistic integrity, authentic community and groundedness—a sense of place that might surprise suburban dwellers—while also navigating the tricky terrain of increased diversity and toleration. "
The creative class moves around a lot, and so they’re attracted by the idea of being rooted...

Click here for the entire article. Overall this was a very interesting article about how some urban churches are now reaching out to the creative class and crossing all types of geographic, cultural and class lines. Historically the urban church has had a sometimes peculiar relationship with their communities. They have either been or continue to be the pillars of their community or the pillar of a community that no longer lives there. The latter can be witnessed by many catholic and predominantly black churches whose congregations have left the physical church's community decades ago. It is not uncommon for these particular churches to have conflict with the existing neighborhood who feels the church may not be advocating their interests, or may feel the large numbers of visiting parishioners are a nuisance.

With that being said, can the new urbanist church now reach out to members of their community who are now returning back to the city? Maybe, maybe not. I have always been somewhat critical of the new urbanist movement for the lacking diversity and often triggering gentrification. Can the new urbanist church really pull across socio-economic lines or will it just the upper echelons of the creative class and gentrifiers?

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Debunking the American Dream of Suburbia

Recently, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece called I Dream of Denver, about Americans preference for living in the suburbs and in low density communities. The article retreaded old arguments that Americans still want their yards, garages and Mini-vans and SUV's to take their kids to soccer practice and have room for their ski's for their weekend get away. While this is no doubt true for a good portion of Americans, it is a slanted view that Americans choice to live in suburbs today is based on preference. For many Americans the choice to live in suburbs is purely based on housing value returns and education for their children.

While there are negative social ills in cities that might hinder some from living cities, there are unique features and aspects of cities which the suburbs could never replicate. Also today's city is not the city of the 1950's and today's suburbs are not the suburbs of the 1950's either. The past styles of development for cities and suburbs are no longer applicable today. Cities are no longer a collection over housed slums crowded next to factories and suburbs as we had built them in the 1950's are no longer sustainable. And because of that the image of Americans wanting to move away from the big bad city into the leafy suburb needs to change. The reality today is that many Americans actually prefer to live in urban places and many suburbs now face the same social ills as cities.

Back to the article. The author quotes,

"The time has finally come, some writers are predicting, when Americans will finally repent. They’ll move back to the urban core. They will ride more bicycles, have smaller homes and tinier fridges and rediscover the joys of dense community — and maybe even superior beer.
America will, in short, finally begin to look a little more like Amsterdam.
Well, Amsterdam is a wonderful city, but Americans never seem to want to live there. And even now, in this moment of chastening pain, they don’t seem to want the Dutch option

I always find it funny that when critics think of urban living and urbanism they point back to Europe instead of looking at successful urban neighborhoods right here in the states. There are also many forms of urban neighborhoods ranging from small rowhouses in Georgetown in Washington D.C. to large rowhouses in Hyde Park in Chicago to the single family homes in Inman Park in Atlanta.

"Second, Americans still want to move outward. City dwellers are least happy with where they live, and cities are one of the least popular places to live. Only 52 percent of urbanites rate their communities “excellent” or “very good,” compared with 68 percent of suburbanites and 71 percent of the people who live in rural America.

Cities remain attractive to the young. Forty-five percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 would like to live in New York City. But cities are profoundly unattractive to people with families and to the elderly. Only 14 percent of Americans 35 and older are interested in living in New York City."

Again I believe the rating of cities most likely comes from safety and education, the two things that the suburbs have over cities but even that is declining. When pointing to cities, which by the way there are over 100 in the U.S. pointing that many over 35 do not want to move to the most populous uber city in the country may not be the best example. On top of that city neighborhoods actually provide seniors a chance to walk to stores and services as opposed to suburbs that are totally auto dependent.

"Third, Americans still want to go west. The researchers at Pew asked Americans what metro areas they would like to live in. Seven of the top 10 were in the West: Denver, San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, Phoenix, Portland and Sacramento. The other three were in the South: Orlando, Tampa and San Antonio. Eastern cities were down the list and Midwestern cities were at the bottom.

...These places are car-dependent and spread out, but they also have strong cultural identities and pedestrian meeting places."

The cities that the article pointed out with the exception of San Francisco, San Diego and maybe Portland do not have strong cultural identities. These cities which once were towns that did have an identity are now just a collection amorphous collection of suburbs.

The point of this post is that the idea that Americans still want to move to the suburbs is still a 1950's construct. Do a lot of Americans still hold that image dear to their hearts? Yes. Do most Americans realize that dream is unsustainable and is ultimately hurting us? Yes. Lastly suburbs have always failed to give a true representation of the diversity in architecture, culture, art and ideas of modern America. The suburbs do not represent America, cities do.

"Finally, Americans want to go someplace new. The powerhouse cities of the 20th century — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago — are much less desirable today than the ones that have more recently sprouted up."

Let me ask you, the reader this, if you were to show someone what America is, through it's successes and it's failures, it's grandeur and of it's commonality, would you take them to Tampa or San Antonio or would you take them to Chicago or Philadelphia?

America's Emptiest Cities

Forbes Magazine recently just listed Las Vegas as America's emptiest cities based on housing and rental vacancies. To see the entire list click here. Las Vegas, which was one of America's fastest growing cities, now has more vacancies then to Detroit, whose struggles have been well chronicled. Even though this is a dubious distinction for Sin City, one can't find it surprising given the current economic and housing crisis happening across the country. Still it is pretty shocking to see a place with unprecedented growth begin to fall on hard times even if it's economy was based on luxury and excess.

Also not surprising was the fact that Atlanta came in third place. There is only so much money you can charge for rent and housing for a low density sprawled out city. Although overall, housing prices are cheaper in Atlanta compared to other major cities however the Atlanta area still saw a spike in Housing prices within the last 5 years.

A quote from the article:

"As real estate prices skyrocketed during the boom, consumers took out massive loans to buy homes, assuming values would continue to rise. Instead they took a nosedive, especially in places like Las Vegas, Florida and Phoenix, where the housing boom had created excess inventory and so-called "bad loans" were rampant. Many homeowners suddenly found themselves with properties worth far less than the mortgages they'd taken out. In the worst cases, banks foreclosed, leaving people without homes--and with more debt than they'd had to begin with."

How ironic that Las Vegas and Detroit, two cities that could not be any more different, may share the same fate in the end by being single industry cities.

"The Garden" Trailer

The Garden is the unflinching look at the struggle between urban farmers and the City of Los Angeles and a powerful developer who wants to evict them and build warehouses. Mostly immigrants from Latin American countries where they feared for their lives if they were to speak out, we watch them organize, fight back, and demand, "Where is our 'Justice for all'?"

Travellin' man

Those familiar with this blog know that I am a big proponent of travelling and experiencing different cultures. So I am pleased to post this gem from one of favorite rappers, Mos Def called "Travellin' Man"

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Rider Paradox: Surge in Mass, Drop in Transit

The New York Times recently ran an article called, Rider Paradox: Surge in Mass, Drop in Transit, detailing how many transit agencies have to drastically cut their budgets and workers despite an overall increase in ridership.

The article lays out the crux of the problem here:

"Their problem is that fare-box revenue accounts for only a fifth to a half of the operating revenue of most transit systems — and the sputtering economy has eroded the state and local tax collections that the systems depend on to keep running. “We’ve termed it the ‘transit paradox,’ ” said Clarence W. Marsella, general manager of Denver’s system, which is raising fares and cutting service to make up for the steep drop in local sales tax.

The billions of dollars that Congress plans to spend on mass transit as part of the stimulus bill will also do little to help these systems with their current problems. That is because the new federal money — $12 billion was included in the version passed last week by the House, while the Senate originally proposed less — is devoted to big capital projects, like buying train cars and buses and building or repairing tracks and stations."

Sadly now for decades many transit agencies are now solely dependent on government funding and not transit fares which have shrinking nationally for decades since the 1960's. Nationally only one transit system is actually producing a profit for transit fares, which is BART, the Bay Area Regional Transit which serves the San Francisco area. Even the New York City Metro which is the most used transit system and the lifeline to the city does not produce a profit.

Public transportation ridership is surging across the country,” he wrote, “increasing 6.5 percent in the third quarter of 2008 — the largest quarterly increase in the past 25 years, but transit systems are cutting service, increasing fares and laying off employees as a result of increased transit fuel costs in the past year and declining state and local revenue sources that support transit.”

The cutting of public transit has a double whammy effect on the already struggling economy. Not only do transit jobs get lost but those that depend on public transit now after to find an alternate means to work. Assuming individuals who depend on travel could purchase a car, banks are now only lending to people with outstanding credit which eliminates a large segment of people, especially those who live in low income neighborhoods who would be affected the most.

Overall this is very grim news for those who live in cities and depend on transit. Major restructuring of transit agencies need to be done as well as upgrading the existing infrastructure. Since most transit agencies depend on federal funding and new infrastructure will be most likely paid by the Federal government, should the county consider nationalizing public transit?

What do you think?

Study shows Wal-Mart does not affect Quality of life

From the article:

"One of the challenges of estimating the consequences of Wal-Mart entry is that the store does not choose its locations randomly but decides based on certain characteristics of different communities. If these characteristics are associated with particular deficiencies in social capital, this could give the appearance that Wal-Mart is degrading communities when, in actuality, its arrival is merely an indicator of a community having diminished levels of social capital."

So basically if you're neighborhood were to get a Wal-Mart does that mean it is kind of crappy and is going down? Should the arrival of a Wal-Mart be treated with the same bittersweet glee of seeing a super dollar store come into your neighborhood?

Seriously though, I was always concerned when I saw a Wal-Mart go up over a Target.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Elephant and the City

Recently I ran into an article about Chris Christie the top republican candidate for the Governor's Office in New Jersey. In the article, Christie points out that the republican party has to be more inclusive and reach out to urban areas. The article quotes:

"’s time for the party to build that relationship with urban populations. There are folks there already – Republicans, let’s be clear. They are there. But they need help for them to do their jobs. We need campaigns that not only talk about going into the urban areas, but that go into the urban areas."

For decades now, the Republican party has choose to target only suburban and rural voters and all but concede and at worst ignore voters from urban areas. The Republicans who have used Nixon's southern strategy to win elections has gradually become more fiscally and socially conservative as the nation becomes more urban. In 2000, the U.S. had officially more urban residents then rural residents and in 2008, close to 80% of all Americans live in a metropolitan region. The 2006 and 2008 election cycles have proved that the southern strategy is no longer working nationally and now evidence is showing that the same strategy may not be working on a local level.

While the GOP is now preaching inclusion, one has to wonder how inclusive in philosophy can they be? A party that has defined itself by tax cuts and small government can't possibly embrace programs such as education and housing reform that would expand the role of government can they? Up until this date many republican leaders still advocate for school vouchers and allowing the market to determine housing needs and reducing the government's role in healthcare. Many of these ideas are unpopular in urban areas which fundamental shifts in how government is ran and funded in their communities.

The article mentioned above also quotes,

In this party we need campaigns that are serious about establishing those [urban areas] beachheads,” he adds. “I’m not disparaging the hard work small numbers of Republicans do in the cities. I’m just talking about the need now to take it to another level.

What the Republican party needs is an Urban Agenda to really matter in today's America. Social and fiscal conservatism will not work in rebuilding America's cities. Tax cuts will not help those who do not money and depending on the private sector will not turn around our schools and communities. The GOP must have an agenda that addresses issues which for a long time they have tried to ignore like, inequality, inequity and discrimination.

The Agenda must also respect a community's sense of place and not have the expectation that people can pick up and leave if something in the community is broken. If something in the community is broken, such as education, poor housing, inadequate policing then it is up to the government to fix or alleviated that problem to the best of it's abilities. A broken community should not have to wait for the private sector to improve it's conditions after the community has fallen or wait for the ingenuity of others to fix the most basic needs and guaranteed rights of out citizens.

Having a second party for the needs and interests of Urban America can only make cities stronger. The current system of having one party take cities for granted while the other party ignores them has not been healthy or beneficial to cities and now the same can be said of the Republican party. If the Republicans do not seriously adopt an urban agenda they will risk becoming even more exclusionary and even worse...irrelevant.

President Barack Obama Avenue

The city of Opa-locak, Floida will become the first city to honor President Barack Obamam b honoring him with his name. I really, really hope that this street does not turn into the new M.L.K. Boulevard.

From the South Florida Times:

"The street, which runs for about three fourths of a mile north to south from Oriental Boulevard to Ali Baba Avenue, includes a mix of residential and commercial properties. Opa-locka’s city hall, public library and administrative municipal complex are all near the avenue."

The street has had a new beginning and our president represents a new beginning for our nation. This will give young people the chance to walk down the street named after the first African-American president. This has a special impact for the city of Opa-locka as we undergo a renaissance along with our nation ushering in Barack Obama.”

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A City of Books

This Is Where We Live produced for 4th Estate Publishers' 25th Anniversary by Apt Studio and Asylum Films. Entitled 'Welcome to our city - to our world - of books, this is where we live.

Urbanizing Dallas

The City of Dallas and it's city planners are looking to introduce a formal zoning code to try to curb unregulated sprawl and to increase development in downtown neighborhoods. For those of you that are unfamiliar with Texas and their land use laws, you should that Texans are fiercely pro-property rights and are against any government regulation. So much so, that it is against the law for a planning official to label a zoning map an official government document. Texas zoning or land use maps or more recommendations.

What does this mean when it comes to city development? It means that anyone can subdivide their land almost as many times as they want and construct a development as large as they desire...anywhere. No matter the scale or appropriateness of that development. This means that a 70 story skyscraper can be placed outside of a downtown next to a freeway exit with no other large office development nearby (Houston, Tx).

So what is the big deal of allowing the market to determine development, the last thing we need in this economy is for government to stifle growth of businesses and construction, right? Well the problem is that these cities are inefficient and non-sustainable and actually cost tax payers more money to provide services to sprawling developments then it would it city developments were dense and compact. Wherever development goes, infrastructure has to follow. That means, highways, roads, bridges, power, water, schools, police, fire, ambulance all have to provided for large developments no matter how far or inconvenient. All of these services are expensive and they tax the residents of existing development even more to pay up front for services to another development that they will most likely never use.

Besides the monetary expenses of development there are other consequences in allowing sprawl. One of the most harmful consequences is pollution. Houston is now one of the country's most polluted cities because of smog. Texas cities are dependent on freeways for travel. In Dallas,the mere mention of a subway system brings out strong protest. Other factors, are quality of life factors and having those that normally dependent on public transit forced to seek automobile transit some how, some way.

Despite all of the negative consequences, there are Texas planners that vehemently oppose zoning and hold up their cities as a model of success purely on the fact that their cities continue to grow while East coast cities (the cities with zoning codes) continue to shrink. While it is true that East coast zoning codes have become burdensome encyclopedia of regulations, allowing the market to dictate development is even more troubling. Remember parts of the code exist because the market had no problem cramming workers into dumbell tenement housing that lacked air, light, sewer and trash disposal.

In Dallas, the continued pattern of suburban growth and increased population has planners looking for better solutions. While Dallas planners are still not in favor of traditional zoning, which is based on prohibiting land uses, they are looking toward the new urbanist approach of "Form Based Zoning" which promotes land uses on coded streets that a community would to see. From a
recent article:

"The solution most proposed was 'form-based zoning,' which encourages developers to purchase large tracts of land on which to develop dense urban areas near transit stations and along the Trinity River.

It’s kind of like college vs. the real world. In college, parties just sort of happen. As adults, parties come with the cumbersome trappings of invitations and phone calls, dates, times and places to meet up.

In districts with the proposed zoning ordinances, Dallas-ites can live and have fun in the same vicinity: they spend an evening wandering around, stumble upon a new coffee shop, see a movie, find a nice place to sit and talk, have a beer, run into friends, and walk home in a single night."

Hopefully Dallas Planners can convince it's council to implement a new urban zoning code. And hopefully other cities not just in Texas but in suburban locales all across this county can do the same. In an country that is 80% urbanized we can no longer continue are pattern of sub-urban growth. As a country we can not afford the infrastructure and as of last summer, we could not afford the gas for our commute. Our post World War II development patterns can no longer continue, we must create a new pattern of development for a new generation of people that is sustainable and not over extend our local governments like a proverbial credit card as they bank on future growth which may not happen.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Robert Clifton Weaver - First HUD Secretary and First Black Cabinet Member

Listed below is a short biography of Robert Clifton Weaver who was the nation's first Secretary of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) under Lyndon Johnson and also the first black cabinet member. For a more in depth of analysis of Weaver's life, accomplishments and disappointments, I encourage everyone to read this article from The Nation.

From the article:
"The New Deal and Great Society policies that Weaver defended only sometimes fulfilled the promise he thought they held for African-Americans, and even then they did so mostly under the pressure of mobilization rather than from the patient and steady work of insiders like him. For all he accomplished during his remarkable life, Weaver emerges as an ambivalent success in Pritchett's book, a man whose greatest dream, that government action could ameliorate the poverty of African-Americans in the country's cities, remained in many ways unrealized."
Housing administrator, cabinet member. Born Robert Clifton Weaver on December 29, 1907 in Washington, D.C. Weaver received a doctorate from Harvard University in 1934 and served as a member of President Franklin Roosevelt's informal ‘Black Cabinet’ from 1933 to 1942.
Weaver was a New York housing commissioner from 1954 to 1959 and a Federal Housing Agency administrator from 1961 to 1966, co-writing The Dilemma of Urban America in 1965. Under President Lyndon Johnson, Weaver served as the first United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (also known as HUD) from 1966 to 1968. He was the first African American cabinet member in US history.

After leaving his cabinet post, Weaver became president of New York City’s Baruch College in 1969. He then served as a professor of Urban Affairs at Hunter College in New York until 1978.