Sustainability’s Triple Bottom Line: Tool for Commit-a-Phobes?

As a recovering journalist, I’m working hard to suppress old impulses. But habits of a couple decades are hard to shake. Which is why I’m struggling with familiar twitches of cynicism when it comes to “sustainability.”

We’ve reached a point where just about everybody is laying claim to a sustainability strategy, whether we’re talking mining companies blowing up mountaintops or guys selling eight-mile-per-gallon SUVs. Let’s give them this: They have a point, provided sustainability goals are tied to the desire to keep on doing whatever you’re doing in perpetuity. Continue Reading

The Suburbs: Arcade Fire, Childhood Memory, and the Future of Growth

I’m in my 40s. I grew up in the suburbs. It was awesome. And then it wasn’t.

Never before and, perhaps, never again will there be as efficient and reliable a machine for manufacturing idealized childhood memories. The suburbs of the 60s and 70s, maybe even the 80s, were like some sort of paradise. Continue Reading

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

Back to the Farm (And to the Bunker)

Just when reporters were beginning to buy into the hopefulness of “sprawl repair” and “ag is the new golf,” Andres Duany trips them up with visions of the dark side. Or at least the really hard side, as in the hard work ahead if we’re to reverse the direction of 20th century excesses.

“Our wealth as a nation allowed us to become stupid in planning and we separated everything – residential areas, commercial, industrial,” Duany told an Oregon audience May 12. “Our wealth allowed us to do that for 50 years – but those days are over.” Continue Reading

18th New Urbanist Congress: Best Ever?

What’s constitutes “best ever” depends on the takeaways, right? And when it comes to conferences, we could be talking takeaways that aren’t products of the event itself. Like maybe you got a job or connected with a soul mate. Let’s call that the upside of unintended consequences. 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

Love Ain’t Enough: Put Up or Shut Up

Like any next, big something, placemaking is growing up. And in its role as gawky adolescent, it’s beginning to realize something most of us have long since come to accept: You can’t skirt by on youthful good looks forever.

Today, efforts to create more endearing and enduring surroundings are being subjected to decidedly grown up demands. And with them, smart growthers—from enviros to designers to code reform advocates—are learning one of life’s hardest lessons: Love will only take you so far.

Son, you’ve got to demonstrate sufficient returns. Continue Reading

Heaven Help Us: Ambitious Project Both Reaffirms, Tests Faith in Sustainable Future

I was a post-Vatican II, suburban Catholic.

For anyone of shared experience, that typically meant attending a church that was designed and built to serve the rapidly growing, happy motoring suburban leisure class. Equal parts woody earth tones and ample parking, it was a transient testament to our nation’s awkward adolescence: a monolithic UFO of contemporary styling.

But it was also testament to the church’s theological tension at the time, which manifested itself in doctrinal inclinations towards avoiding that which had been done before. To this day, according to architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, this unresolved traditional/modern conflict “requires a sorting out of intellectual goals and the emotional or visceral effect that a space can have on a people’s spiritual stance.”

I was just a kid at the time but, even then, the less-than-subtle disconnect between these newfangled buildings and the deep rituals taking place inside of them did not go unnoticed.

Theological considerations aside, that’s just poor branding.

But now that the sheen of the suburban promise has faded and our recent history’s tendency towards folly is increasingly revealed, the timing is perfect for some signs of hope.

One such sign arrived today, with this morning’s Atlanta Journal Constitution. But it’s a mixed blessing.

Mary Our Queen Catholic Church, a growing, 15 year old suburban congregation in Norcross, Georgia, is looking for a permanent home. But rather than build something new, they’re looking to purchase a spectacular, historic Buffalo, New York, basilica and move it nearly a thousand miles south, piece by piece, to be reassembled.

The church calls it “preservation through relocation” and claims new construction of equal quality would cost more than twice as much. The whole project seems like a solid exercise in pragmatic preservation, nicely aligned with what Original Green architect Steve Mouzon describes as the key attributes of truly sustainable buildings: lovability, durability, flexibility and frugality.

Such permanence, history and reinforced cultural identity are touchstones of common sense sustainability. But don’t rejoice just yet. There’s at least one devil in the details.

Take a look at the church in its present location:

           

Now consider this rendering of its future home:

Conspicuous in the new plans is the apparent absence of a surrounding neighborhood. Thus, a structure that once stood as the spiritual heart of a physical community will now be repackaged as the idealized temple on a hill.

Not that I have anything against grandeur or symbolism. Each has their place. But the church suggests this rebirth will add centuries to the building’s life. Assuming that’s true, what are the ramifications when the building is embedded in a physical context that many believe has increasingly diminished prospects?

Or, as Mouzon puts it, “Only after a place has been made sustainable does it make sense to discuss sustainable buildings.”

That’s not outside the parish’s reach. It simply depends on their vision. If their goal is to remain a relevant spiritual hub over decades (if not centuries), they may want to broaden their approach to reflect the fact that their days as an auto-dependent destination may be numbered.

Could the church transcend its sprawl-intensive landscape to once again, as circumstances change, serve as the heart of a vibrant physical community? Maybe yes. Gwinnett County, where the church is located, has been the site of some intriguing suburban mall retrofit proposals and, on an even more related note, Grenfell Architecture has spelled out a great proposal for transitioning a sprawling, suburban lot to a denser, transit-friendly urban neighborhood, developed over time by a church that would sit at its center.

It all goes to show just how fractured the whole conversation is. In no way discounting the church’s efforts, they’re just one more example of how far we’ve yet to go. If only there were some resource that put all the issues – transportation, land use, environmental and historic preservation, energy depletion, community sustainability, cultural identity, agriculture, and more – on the same page so individual efforts could better plug into a more cohesive big picture.

We could call it the Good Book.

–Scott Doyon

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

Will Economic Woes Stall the Green Movement?

When we got a note from colleagues in Chattanooga, Tennessee, letting us know that that their city had not only crafted a Climate Action Plan but was also set to create a new office of sustainability, it got us to thinking: Is the competition for funding in the deepening recession going to kill momentum for this sort of focused effort for green planning and building?

Not in Chattanooga, obviously. City forester Gene Hyde, who chaired the 14-person committee that crafted the Climate Action Plan, says momentum was easy to sustain, thanks to the participation of folks “representing a cross-section of viewpoints from the business, industrial, environmental, and academic communities. In addition, the opinions of more than 500 citizens and 100 subject-matter experts were factored into the final plan.”

When the Chattanooga mayor signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement in 2006, committing to planning for lower carbon emissions, there were 235 signatories to the Agreement. Now there are more than 800. That’s good news for keeping the green going, right?

So this would be a good place for a “Not so fast” interjection and a bulleted list of all the reasons we’re doomed anyway. And there will be room for a little of that in future posts. The sustainability of sustainability is going to be a recurring theme for us all. In the meantime, let’s give Chattanooga and other cities moving forward on green initiatives the bows they deserve. And let’s indulge ourselves with news with a positive green spin. To wit:

  • Designer/Planner Doug Farr’s Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature has gone into multiple printings and is already used as a guiding text for design seminars. Doug has also developed a sustainability module for the form-based SmartCode.
  • Global Green Building Trends: Market Growth and Perspectives from Around the World,” a 2008 survey by McGraw-Hill Construction Analytics, reported high expectations for green from worldwide construction pros. A majority predicted that at least 60 percent of their projects over the next five years would focus on green building. Eighty-five percent of the firms said they expected rapid or steady growth in sales and profit levels associated with green building. Solar power, already in use by 52 percent of the firms, is expected to be used by more than 75 percent in five years, Wind power is expected to be in use by 57 percent of the firms by 2013, compared to 20 percent in 2008. And geothermal power is expected to double in use from 2008 levels to 45 percent in 2013.
  • Across the Atlantic, the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment hosted a November, 2008, summit that “brought together a cross section of industries that see ‘smart growth’ as the way to a sustainable future. A line up of leading figures from property investment, insurance and sustainable development industries guided the debate.” Their presentations have just been posted here.

- Ben Brown