Can Preservationists Let Love Rule?

Call me naive.

When I was first exposed to the New Urbanism in the 1990s, it was as a 9 to 5 ad-man with an appreciation for music and art. Killing time one day in my dentist’s waiting room, I stumbled upon “Bye-Bye Suburban Dream,” the cover story of the latest Newsweek magazine.

I still remember the feeling I had as I read it. Unbelievable, I thought. This is a movement creating places where people, community, beauty and culture are once again prioritized. Where the interconnected everyday human experiences that color our lives are valued. Where commerce and art can both thrive.

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Entice, Don’t Coerce: The pleasures of green by design

Living in a century home with passive air and choosing cycling as my primary mode of transportation during this unusually warm summer may sound like hardcore Greenie behavior, but it’s been particularly satisfying.

This enjoyment of a modernized take on methods that have worked for generations has made me pick up Steve Mouzon’s Original Green book again, where he notes:

Delight is often a side effect of buildings that operate naturally for most of the year.

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Form-Based Codes? A picture’s worth a thousand words.

If the attendees list of Placemaking@Work, my monthly webinar series, is any indicator, we’re increasingly united in our desire to improve the places we call home, wherever those places might be. Last month, I had participants from Hawaii to Russia, from British Columbia to Saudi Arabia, and many points in between.

The common thread among these seekers is their search for tools and tactics that have proven effective. And increasingly dominating these conversations are form-based codes.

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Redevelop this, California!

How California will redevelop its existing communities in the future is up for debate. And, it’s about time.

The role of redevelopment in shaping our built environment came to its crescendo in the halcyon days of 2005 over Kelo vs. New London. Today, Susette Kelo’s home sits as a vacant scar on business-as-usual redevelopment practices.

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Brave New Codes Reach Tipping Point: When, Where, Why?

A year ago, Apple’s sales of its iPhone and iPod Touch eclipsed 40 million units, confirming their potential to fundamentally retool our future opportunities and patterns of daily life.

Today, a year later, form-based codes hit a similar milestone, with similar implications, as over 330 cities and towns around the worldrepresenting over 40 million people — have embraced the idea of form-based coding as an alternative to the sprawl-inducing zoning models of the past century.

We’ve hit the tipping point. Welcome to the other side. Continue Reading

Zoning: No Longer Just for Nerds

Remember when you could empty a room by trying to work zoning philosophy into a conversation? Okay, you can still do that in most places. But the coolness quotient is on the rise, we swear.

Consider the adoption late last year of a form-based code in Miami, surely one of the most exotic political environments in North America. Very high hipness factor. Continue Reading

Development Option Theory

The real option theory of land development was a hot topic in the mid 2000′s, as the volatility of the real estate market peaked. Now that we have a break from the U.S. housing bubble and financial crisis, it’s worth talking about how we might decrease the volatility of the development market over time.

Urbanism by right is achieved with tools such as form-based codes, which allow walkable, compact, mixed-use, sustainable development, at the scale of the lot, block, neighbourhood, and region. Changing the law to allow urbanism by right makes walkable communities go “in the money” for several reasons, including decreased uncertainty, shortened planning and approval processes, increased flexibility, and increased long term asset value.

Snow falls on The Waters, a traditional neighborhood development in
Montgomery, Alabama, governed by the form-based SmartCode.

One of the best ways to decrease volatility is to decrease uncertainty. You change what developments pencil when you decrease the uncertainty of what is developable. Uncertainty is “beta” from the option theory perspective. As beta decreases, the required rate of return also decreases, because people don’t need to be paid so handsomely if they aren’t taking as much risk when they “buy” their option to develop.

The time value of money is less of a factor when the playing field is levelled to allow urbanism by right, because the development process is drastically shortened. If the developer isn’t owning a call option on a property as long, her interest fees decrease. The reason that form-based codes shorten the timeline is because a prerequisite is consensus on the community vision. By agreeing in advance about the sort of development that locals want, developers have both shorter plan approval times, and increased certainty about what their options are. Less emphasis is put on individual mojo and political connections that allow discretionary power over development decisions. Community NIMBYs have already spoken to what is and isn’t allowed in their back yards.

As flexibility increases, the option value increases. Form-based codes are inherently flexible, and nimble in their responsiveness to adapt to changing conditions. The mixture of compatible uses allows one building or block to respond to market demands, changing from a townhouse, to a live-work, to a storefront, and back again, all as a matter of right. Higher densities encourage more compact development patterns, allowing narrow lots that can provide a range of price points. Blocks within form-based codes are easily re-platted to move up or down the Transect, because the basics of the urban form and street grid are honoured. Conversely, in suburban bedroom communities, along strip retail, or within other auto-centric patterns, sprawl repair is expensive and time consuming. Once a developer commits to one of these uses, they’re locked in.

Increased long term asset value is enjoyed by walkable neighbourhoods, which are healthier for the economy, society, and environment. This is from myriad reasons, including increased walkscore, decreased vehicle miles traveled, increased housing value, decreased carbon emissions, decreased auto costs, increased personal fitness, decreased infrastructure cost, increased hours available, real community, and the list goes on.

All of this is captured in the intrinsic and extrinsic value of the development option. Intrinsic just marks the asset to market once the land is developed, while extrinsic is the value of the volatility around which a developer can bet or trade. Too much of the latter builds your house of cards, and bubble bursts. The extrinsic value decreases and intrinsic value increases when physical and policy planning reforms are undertaken.

A recent NY Times article discusses several market factors of the development landscape over the next two years, as we recover from recession. These include the current scarcity of construction financing, the lowering price points of residential demand along with increasing housing types to include condos, town homes, and flats, and that in many places, conversion is less expensive than new construction. All these items, with the exception of financing, find solutions within the flexibility, certainty, and timeliness of form-based codes. In fact, in places that have adopted optional form-based codes, locals indicate that most of the recessionary development is occurring under these optional form-based codes instead of under the auto-centric laws.

“One of the economic conundrums of the past year has been the great divergence in the Canadian and U.S. housing markets. While American home prices swooned in 2009, the Canadian market only stumbled before resuming its inexorable climb upward,” according to the Globe & Mail last week. Some economists say this is the result of Canada’s fiscally sound banking practices, while others argue that the Canadian housing market is 15 to 35% overvalued. If the latter is true, a careful look at the predominance of Euclidean bylaws in Canada that increase market volatility via destabilizing uncertainty is worth consideration. Indeed, western provinces are leading with bylaw reform, with 12 out of the current 14 Canadian form-based bylaw initiatives being based in the west.

–Hazel Borys

Now What? CNU 17 Addresses the New Era Economy

The irony is unavoidable. Interest in Smart Growth and New Urbanist topics has never been higher. Check out this May 2 column in the Washington Post; or David Brooks’ opinion piece in the New York Times from May 4. Yet the economic downturn has sucked the energy out of innovative projects in both private and public sectors. Lots of will, less way. At least for the moment.

image002And this is the moment in which the 17th national gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism takes place. CNU 17 begins June 10 in Denver. Early registration ends today.

Before the bottom dropped out of the economy, CNU attendees were expected to be talking a lot about greening the movement. Now, the hot topics will be about adapting to new realities.

While the downturn may seem like a reason to skip this year’s gathering, it may be the best reason for scraping together the resources to get to Denver. If ever there was a time to share great ideas, this is that time.

Already the energy is producing cool stuff, particularly the award-winning video that makes the convincing argument that cul de sacs spell the end of civilization as we know it. Here it is:

We’ll see you there. If you have time, check out the discussion I’m moderating at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 13. It’s an invitation to  “Embrace the Convergence” between the goals of creating compact, walkable comunnities and strategies for addressing public health, environmental, and demographic challenges. On the panel: EPA’s Tim Torma, the CDC’s Dee Merriam, and former AARP staffer Michael O’Neal.

- Ben Brown