(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 363: Not Just Wires, Pipes, and Roads
This week we’re joined by Michael Spotts, a senior visiting research fellow at ULI’s Terwiliger Center for Housing and head of Neighborhood Fundamentals. Michael chats with us about takeaways from the Shaw Symposium on Urban Community Issues, the definition of infrastructure, and the importance of taking a systems approach to important interconnected topics like transportation, education, and health care.
Jeff Wood (43s):
Michael Spotts, welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.
Michael Spotts (1m 18s):
Thanks for having me. I’ve been listening for a long time and it’s exciting to join the podcast.
Jeff Wood (1m 22s):
Well, yeah, thanks for coming on. I mean, I see your name and we’ve talked before obviously, and like I said, I see your name in a lot of reports and really good stuff from your former employer, et cetera. I’m curious if you could tell us a little bit about yourself and then how did you get into thinking about cities? Sure.
Michael Spotts (1m 38s):
So I’ve been working in issues related to predominantly housing, but broader community development for about 15 years now, maybe 15 or 16. And it’s interesting because my career started out really a rural focus, not focused on cities grew up in rural central Pennsylvania in the middle of a farming area in coal country and saw a lot of economic disadvantage, a lot of things that have been fueling a lot of New York times thing pieces where people go to diners these days. And that was sort of frustrating because I grew up in that area, saw a lot of vibrancy saw sort of the pictures of what some of these smaller towns used to look like.
Michael Spotts (2m 21s):
And in some ways the smaller towns had some of the same sort of amenities and vibrancy that some of our bigger cities have today. So I originally wanted to get into rural development and rural community development, which I worked for the housing assistance council for a few years at that brought me ironically working for a rural focus, nonprofit that brought me to Washington DC, where they’re headquartered. And I got my first taste of actual city living and saw some of the same. It was amazing that for all the differences, all of the similarities there were between what was great about some of these communities, but also what was challenging. So I ended up having sort of a shift of focus to more sort of neutral perspective on whether I want to do urban or rural work, but ended up going to grad school in Pittsburgh and, and, and really falling in love with that city and moving back here after graduation.
Michael Spotts (3m 11s):
And so what I’ve been actually doing is focused on applied policy research, and that is the making the connection between sort of the academic literature about what works and what doesn’t for urban planning and development and actual practice. So I try to sort through some of the research and information that’s out there, some of the examples of best practices and policy interventions, and try and translate that and make it digestible for practitioners on the ground that are looking to either change local policies or state policies or developers or other sorts of on the ground practitioners that are doing the work, helping them identify potential solutions to some of the critical challenges facing cities and communities
Jeff Wood (3m 57s):
Curious about that rural, urban difference. And, you know, the difference informs your feeling about the difference between them. Can you go into more detail about what the similarities are? I like the similarities, but also some of the differences,
Michael Spotts (4m 8s):
The, some of the similarities, I think a lot of it depends on the type of community you grew up in or were familiar with. I grew up in the part part of central Pennsylvania, where I grew up was a mix again, a mixture of rural areas, interspersed with manufacturing and mining towns. So these manufacturing mining towns actually have sort of a pretty high degree of density or had, I should say some of them have lost 90% of their population due to economic shifts, but you see, you know, the urban form is, can be quite different. You don’t see a lot of mid-rise or high rise apartments, although you do see some of them, but you actually do see almost some of the, I won’t go as far as to say older European style density, but you do see some, a lot of houses that are very clustered together.
Michael Spotts (4m 58s):
Mixes of uses, you know, ground floor shops, where the proprietors live upstairs and you can see the bones of those types of communities and the cities and the town I grew up in, believe it or not actually had transit. At one point, there was a town connecting a small city with a small village, and there was a trolley line running between them predominantly I think, I don’t know the history behind all, but ferrying mine workers from the larger towns to the mines out in the smaller village. So the similarity was there, but you could also see, see where the differences lies that they were much more reliant on one industry. I would think more so than some of the larger cities.
Michael Spotts (5m 39s):
I mean, we read about the economic decline in a lot of former manufacturing centers, that it was sort of broad scale economic shifts that happened that impact multiple industries all around the same period of time that led to a lot of their deterioration. But you know, when you have an area that’s so dependent on one factory or one industry, you can see, you know, for all we hear about the population loss in Baltimore or Detroit, a lot of that population loss is partially for the region as a whole, but it’s more so the center city, because if you look at a lot of it has been, you know, you see suburban growth during some of these periods.
Michael Spotts (6m 21s):
Whereas in some of the rural areas, you do see some of the same type of sprawling development. You know, people getting five acre, lots, 10 acre, lots that, but not actually using it for agricultural productivity. So you do see some of the similar trends, but you see much more of just the broader emptying out of the overall population. It’s a difference between, you know, for those familiar with the DC Metro area, it’s not the equivalent of moving from the district of Columbia out to out in county or outer Montgomery county in Maryland. It’s the equivalent of leaving from DC to Atlanta. You know, these areas, again, places that might’ve had a population of 25 to 50,000 that now have the population of three to five, and it’s hard to maintain.
Michael Spotts (7m 7s):
I mean, that economic vibrancy, when you have that degree of population loss,
Jeff Wood (7m 12s):
It’s so interesting. I’m curious also, if some of those towns have recovered in some other fashion, you know, because the industry left because people left, there’s obviously a good bones there. And so some of them, even if, you know, a small number of them might’ve come back because of tourism or there’s something about the town that kind of calls to people I know in Texas and even in California and other states, there’s these small towns that still exist because they’ve made another name for themselves, whether that’s tourism or, you know, in Sonoma there’s little towns, all over the place that they’re connected now to the wine country, even though everything else disappeared. So that’s probably a thing to some of the smaller ones have kind of regenerated themselves and reinvented themselves.
Michael Spotts (7m 49s):
Absolutely. Yeah. It’s not every small town. You still, I still, when I go, my parents still live in that area and a lot of my family does. And when we go back and visit, we still see some, you know, drive through some towns that, you know, are functionally ghost towns. There’s actually a famous ghost town in Centralia. You may or may have heard of it. There’s actually a, a Mindfire fire underneath it. And they had to basically, they bought everyone out except for a couple of lone holdouts in the town. And so it’s actually literally like a ghost town with only population of zero, or I think maybe one at this point, but figuratively speaking, you see a lot of ghost towns, but there are actually because of those good bones, you’re starting to see some downtown revitalization.
Michael Spotts (8m 31s):
Some of the problems that they face are self-inflicted in the sense that some of the same mistakes around hollowing out your downtown core, because you paid to have the freeway interchange and the property tax breaks for the big box retailers in between the two towns. And, you know, to a certain extent, any single small town is not gonna be able to stop that trend that happened nationwide, but they don’t need to subsidize it. And, and a lot of them did in the com competition for tax base. So they still have some of those forces fighting against them. But one of the, I don’t want to paint it as a good thing because you never want to see that level of economic decline, but when things get bad enough, it becomes really inexpensive and really lowers the barriers of entry for people that have a small amount of resources to invest in revitalization of that community.
Michael Spotts (9m 21s):
So we actually do see some areas where we, there are still some natural amenities, believe it or not. In some cases, the mines themselves can become tourist attractions. There’s a couple of towns that have mine tours and like actual rides that go through an old mine, outdoor recreation around, you know, alternative vehicles and dirt bikes and stuff like that can actually, you know, you’re starting to see some of these small towns have Airbnb listings pop up. And when it takes you maybe a 10th of the amount of money and a capital cost to start up a coffee shop and downtown Shamokin, which is the town next to where I grew up, then it would even in a place like Harrisburg or an hour and a half away, then you can see how, you know, the people that are doing well can re-invest in their community.
Michael Spotts (10m 4s):
And we’re starting to see some earliest perhaps of that revitalization in some cases.
Jeff Wood (10m 10s):
Yeah, that’s awesome. We can talk about this probably for the whole hour, but I do want to get to the topic at hand. So how did you get involved with the ULI and also what is ULI should have?
Michael Spotts (10m 19s):
Sure. So the urban land Institute is a non-profit network of real estate and urban development professionals that are dedicated to advancing the Institute’s mission of shaping the future of the built environment and having transformative impact in communities worldwide. So it is focused on cities and urban areas and on responsible and sustainable growth. So I became involved. I’ve been doing applied policy research consulting for a couple of years after spending some time at, in the policy development and research team at an affordable housing, nonprofit called enterprise community partners and their Terwiliger center for housing at ULI has a standing senior visiting research fellow position.
Michael Spotts (11m 0s):
So I’d done some research with them when I was at enterprise looking at some specific affordable housing related challenges, particularly around the cost and cost-effectiveness of development. And so I’d worked with them in the past and thought very highly of their mission and their network of practitioners that want to help put forward a vision of urban growth and have the opportunity to work with them on a couple of different research projects. And, and it was exciting for me because, you know, my prior role, I had been predominantly focused on housing solely and within that subset, most of my work was on affordable housing programs, sort of subsidized income, restricted programs.
Michael Spotts (11m 43s):
And one of the opportunities to work with the toilet or center was to expand that view to more issues related to broader growth of our communities, our and our regions, as well as being able to look at the full spectrum of housing opportunities and looking at housing affordability or attainability, how well is the broader market meeting the needs of the full population and not just looking at the income restricted affordable housing piece, because it’s a broader ecosystem. And that if that housing market reaches further down the spectrum, that means that we can do more with the limited affordable housing resources that we have.
Michael Spotts (12m 23s):
So with the Twizzler center, I still get to focus on both, but I get to take a broader view of the housing market.
Jeff Wood (12m 30s):
So this specific piece was written from basically a symposium that was put together by the Terwiliger center and the infrastructure armed Curtis infrastructure. I’m curious, you know, how did this all come together? And when did it happen? Why did it happen? And you know, what happened?
Michael Spotts (12m 46s):
The shell of symposium is an annual event that is endowed by Charles Shaw, former ULI chairman, and the topics can vary from year to year. So I, this is not always put on by the Terwiliger center of the Curtis infrastructure initiative, but this year it was put on in June, this year as a virtual symposium, usually it’s in person, but the goal of this effort is to identify a critical urban development challenge or emerging opportunity, and bring practitioners together from various regions, parts of the real estate development industry, and to help address the challenges and opportunities that we’re facing.
Michael Spotts (13m 26s):
And so this year’s focus was on equitable investment in infrastructure and housing and for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s always infrastructure week. It seems like,
Jeff Wood (13m 38s):
But now it really was
Michael Spotts (13m 41s):
Infrastructure week finally came and it was in the news a lot, but it was also, we’re taking a look at everything that was going on. So you have the deferred investment in infrastructure. We have lots of ongoing challenges and needs in the housing market. We have an affordable housing crisis, and there’s a broader realization that these, the infrastructure and housing needs are connected because you can’t have housing that is well located and provides access to jobs services, and other life necessities without the infrastructure that supports people getting from here to there that supports living in a given location.
Michael Spotts (14m 21s):
Likewise, you can’t have an efficient infrastructure system if you’re not planning for your housing growth in urban development. So we’re seeing a lot of the trends in the real estate industry and in urban growth and development. So you see revitalization of urban cores that’s been going on for some time now, but there’s conversations about can the infrastructure handle some of this growth, especially in legacy cities, cities that have they’re dealing with both deferred maintenance of their infrastructure systems, as well as the needs for new infrastructure. And then there was the issue that has been there for a long time, but is being brought to the fore with some of the unrest and the protests in the last year of segregation of the role that both infrastructure and housing systems played and racial discrimination, disparities, the legacy of redlining, that legacy of urban highways and urban renewals cutting through destroying many African-American communities and other communities as well.
Michael Spotts (15m 27s):
And so that at the same time that there’s all these opportunities to look at the future of how we can better plan our housing and our infrastructure. There’s also this strong push to look backwards as well, and identify what we did in the past that contributed to some of the challenges that we have today. So, you know, the goals of the session were to take a look at how we can bring practitioner expertise together to develop a framework that will help enable equitable access to transportation, improve housing attainability across the spectrum, reconnect and reinvigorate neighborhoods, and look at the community development aspect, particularly in those neighborhoods bet had been harmed by some of the legacies of the way we built our infrastructure and planned our communities in the past and proactively center and address some of these historic racial disparities and community investments.
Michael Spotts (16m 28s):
So that was our main objective of the session.
Jeff Wood (16m 31s):
It’s so interesting because there’s so many things we’re starting to kind of see as something that can be pulled together into one, instead of in their individual silos, you have historic inequities in housing and transportation. You have this not so new actual threat of climate change added onto that. You have, you know, sea level rise, Brazilians, you know, thinking as well. What was kind of the overall feeling of combining these topics together and trying to get them under one spotlight as it were
Michael Spotts (17m 1s):
Well, because we are working with practitioners that are actually doing in many cases, real estate development out in the field, or in some cases we have urban planners in the room. We had representatives of transit networks. These are real-world issues that they’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis. And I’m glad you brought up the environmental resilience piece, because that was one of the goals that I left out, that we’re looking at health and environmental sustainability and climate risks. But when you’re working for, let’s say an infill multi-family developer, you already know that you have to deal in many ways. If you’re developing responsible, you know, that you’ll have to deal with stormwater runoff and infrastructure needs because jurisdictions are more and more requiring more of you in that front.
Michael Spotts (17m 48s):
If you are working in a coastal area, for example, you’re seeing how your portfolio is at risk related to climate change. Rising sea levels increase intensity of hurricanes. These are practitioners that are engaging with this in the real world. And because they’re engaging with this in the real world, they also know where the pain points are. So they know when the system isn’t working in an integrated manner and they have ideas for how it should work in a more integrated manner. So when you have one government agency saying, you need to be doing one thing and another agency saying something completely different when you’ve been dealing with that, in some ways, your whole career, then you have ideas of how this system could work better.
Michael Spotts (18m 32s):
If it was more integrated.
Jeff Wood (18m 35s):
That’s another thing that came out too. You mentioned health, you know, the healthcare is really interesting, you know, takeaway five there’s, 10 takeaways. And then there’s a framework for investing. There’s seven points there of the 10 takeaways. I was specifically interested in takeaway five because it discussed the importance of, of looking at all these systems together. Like we were just discussing, but specifically, you know, thinking about housing and healthcare and how they’re connected. And I feel like healthcare is a perfect example of that silo that we don’t think of in a systems way. You know, people need to get to appointments. People need to be housed. And so they’re not, you know, taking up emergency bed space in these hospitals, there’s all these kind of synergies that happen there. And I find that really fascinating that we often haven’t thought about that, you know, individual, individual sectors out there that obviously need these things, housing, transportation, et cetera.
Jeff Wood (19m 20s):
But we often don’t talk about them that way. They’re just kind of at that’s healthcare, that’s off in the boonies, but actually it’s all connected to each other.
Michael Spotts (19m 27s):
Exactly. And it’s a challenge because how many hospitals systems are surrounded by seas of parking and you’re creating barriers to entry, and you’re raising the floor of mobility that people have to be able to get to in order to easily access healthcare services. And there spillover implications on that. And another example, just like health is in the educational system, how many universities or colleges or community colleges are in some ways, their own gated communities within the cities, in which they live in populate. They have really huge impacts on the surrounding communities, both positive and negative. So they bring money into the community, through the people that come to the college and spend money there.
Michael Spotts (20m 12s):
But they also, if they’re not integrating from a systems approach with the urban planning approach and, and, and housing policy university towns can really drive housing prices up if development as a whole is not keeping up, or if universities are not building dorms, depending on the nature of the university. And if it’s a grad school, it can have different implications for different types of housing markets. But if you’re not looking at how the university fits within the broader system, that can create some challenges. But again, it’s another example where you can look at it as an opportunity as well. If you can get that systems approach, maybe because you have many cases, large parcels of institutional land that you can use for redevelopment projects, you have, in some cases, endowments, large sums of capital through these health networks or educational endowments that can be invested in the community.
Michael Spotts (21m 6s):
You have opportunities for integration and pilots. If you’re talking about universities, how can can they create a stem program targeted in underserved communities that creates a pipeline from the local community neighborhoods into the higher educational system for the health sector? Can you use some of your resources to drive better outcomes through community-based care and other types of innovation pilots? So I think we can look at these institutions now that are operating often though, not exclusively in silos. And we definitely should think of the challenges that that creates, but I think we can also be optimistic and look at what can be achieved if you start seeing better integration, because these are often very rich from various manners of speaking rich institutions that have opportunities to play better with the local community.
Jeff Wood (21m 58s):
Yeah, the anchor institution, I guess, is the formal name that has been kind of thrown around for a while about that, you know, these main players in cities and towns, the educational, whether it’s a town gown kind of relationship between a school and a town, or even just the healthcare, there’s a huge healthcare complex, for example, in Portland, I mean, OHS, was it Oregon health science or something like that? It’s one of the largest employers in Portland and it’s also, you know, very big driver of transportation because of the streetcar and the aerial tramway and all that stuff. So there’s a huge connection there that can be made if the right connections personally, I guess, are made in those areas. It’s really fascinating to think about. And so in terms of those, you know, the 10 key takeaways, in addition to the one we just chatted about, was there one that kind of struck your fancy or kind of stood out from the others?
Jeff Wood (22m 46s):
Was there a topic at the symposium that was discussed that kind of made you think, oh, this is new. This is something that I hadn’t really thought of before, because obviously you’ve been thinking about this stuff for awhile. Maybe there was something that popped up that was new to you.
Michael Spotts (22m 58s):
So this is something I’ve been focused on for a while. So there was a lot of, I would say illumination of the things that I’ve been thinking about a little bit, but really comes to the floor when you care practitioners that are doing it out in the field. So, you know, a lot of conversation and a lot of ink has been spilled writing about how we can make suburban areas more sustainable. But we had a practitioner from the Tampa bay Metro region that is actually working with underserved communities from a transportation perspective to help improve micro mobility, to help lower income households, to go to work, to access jobs, stores, and services. And what does that actually look like in the field?
Michael Spotts (23m 39s):
That’s something that was really illuminating about some of these opportunities that are out there, because those of us that are our national policy researchers, we read a little about a lot of different things and we have a lot of different ideas, but it’s not as deep as someone that’s actually out in the field doing this work. And one of the thing that stuck to me and it across a lot of the different takeaways was that we have to be adaptive and resilient. And not just from a climate perspective, although definitely from a climate perspective, you know, every single practitioner that spoke, talked about restoration and fixing things that were broken or mistakes from the past, and a lot of them tied to some explicitly discriminatory practices of again, redlining urban infrastructure investment in the urban highway system.
Michael Spotts (24m 28s):
And one of the things that struck me from this is that we need to be cautious right now and have a degree of humility that we may not all the answers that we’re thinking about right now, people 20 years from now, 30 years from now, 50 years from now, now, hopefully they can say that they won’t be able to point to something like red lining and that is as explicitly discriminatory. And it’s obviously we have a long way to go in, rooting out some of the issues of structural racism, but even if we’re successful over time at reducing its implications and rectifying and trying to repair and restore and make up for some of those past wrongs, even if we’re successful, if we’re that, like how sure are we that the technical solutions, the urban form solutions that we’re pushing for today, people won’t look back at us 50 years from now and say like, what were they thinking?
Michael Spotts (25m 19s):
Yeah. And so, you know, that can paralyze you and it could actually lead to inaction when we have an actual crisis right now that we have to respond to. So my takeaway is that we have to have measurement and opportunities for evolution, trial, and error. If we can make our mistakes, can we make them quick and small instead of over a long 30 year period, and then things really break and the whole system breaks down, you know, can we build up a system that again, has the humility to assume that we can’t micromanage every detail and that we will get things wrong and that we need to build in opportunities for trial and error, and then the measurement and evaluation that enables us to learn from that and change our systems so that we can accelerate uptake of the things that are demonstrated to work.
Michael Spotts (26m 10s):
Instead of, you know, I get frustrated, I do some just local advocacy work around housing community growth issues. And we develop these really, really interesting plans that are highly technical in nature. And by the time we finish them, the market has shifted a little bit and we had to go back and revisit it. So if we can build more evolution into the system, I think that that was one of the takeaways that really, really struck me over the course of the conversation based on what was being said in the room.
Jeff Wood (26m 38s):
So interesting, you know, over the last couple of episodes that we’ve had folks on, we’ve been talking about kind of this 20 year cycle of renewal and what happens after 20 years, people kind of reset and something starts over again. So with Peter Norton, who we had on just released today, he talks about, obviously his book is about future almost, and the idea that selling the future every 20 years or so, and a new one comes out to kind of sell this future. Gabrielle has pretty came on to talk about the oil crisis in seventies. And, you know, we were talking about these 20 year timeframes of people’s imaginations changing. I think it’s something similar in what you’re talking about in terms of, we don’t necessarily know if what we’re prescribing now is going to be the answer in 20 years.
Jeff Wood (27m 18s):
And I feel like I’ve been doing this now for just under 20 years. And I have my own example. I mean, the, the mixed traffic street car was something that we promoted in the two thousands at reconnecting America. And we’ve now kind of learned from some of those mistakes that you can’t mix them in traffic. It’s not really the best way to go. And so, you know, at the time we thought this is the solution, this is what we can do in a lot of cities, bring back the street car, it worked, then it can work now, but there’s a lesson in that. There’s a lesson in that making that mistake 20 years ago and being able to make mistakes. I mean, obviously me and my colleagues all had the best intentions, but it was something that, you know, later on there was like, well, what were you thinking? You know, we have an example of that.
Jeff Wood (27m 58s):
And I think that that’s very powerful, especially when you look back at urban renewal, when you look back at some of these things that people thought at the time were good ideas, but later on you look back and you’re like, man, that was horrible and horrendous,
Michael Spotts (28m 9s):
Right? Yeah. And that’s why I think it can be paralyzed. You can look at that situation, but you know, big traffic street cars, that’s a, that’s a good example. But you know, if you build into the system that ability to adapt and evolve a mixed traffic streetcar could theoretically become a streetcar that has its own dedicated lane. The problem with a lot of our planning and zoning policies is that we’re passing this policy and this is how be forevermore and variances are the exception to the rules. Changes are the exceptions to the rules. And instead, I think if we can shift our mindset towards an assumption that communities will evolve rather than this is the plan, and this is what we will achieve, and this is how it’s going to be forever.
Michael Spotts (28m 56s):
I think that we can shift that mindset. Then I think we will have, you know, you look at say a mixed Trafford street car in my county, but it’s really a city that I live in now, Arlington Virginia was supposed to get a mixed traffic street car. And because it was very much this like rigid our systems, aren’t integrated, it’s all or nothing approach because of political opposition. The street card was canceled and they’d have some enhanced bus service then, but there was not as much evolutionary adaptability to get to that efficient, next phase of growth. So if we view our plans or our investments, that’s the first step in a process, more so than the end state, then maybe, you know, again, we could take the, one of the mixed traffic street cars that may be struggling with ridership now, and maybe there’ll be more political will moving forward to give it a dedicated lane.
Michael Spotts (29m 46s):
And then all of a sudden you in making that initial investment where you might’ve learned from some of the mistakes, it’s not a mistake. It’s just the first building block for the growth of the community.
Jeff Wood (29m 57s):
That’s a really good point. I’m also interested in that, just the general idea of looking back at things. And so in Peter Norton book specifically, you know, some folks, I just won’t name them, but there’s folks that basically said, what do we need to learn from history? It’s, it’s not important. The future is where we’re at or where we’ll be. And I find that fairly disturbing because I think that obviously there’s a lot to learn from history. And so I’m always curious about, you know, is there a tension between the folks that want to just move forward and the folks that want to look back at history and see what we did wrong to make sure that we don’t do that wrong again?
Michael Spotts (30m 29s):
Yeah. I think there’s sort of a, a different, like psychological mindset of whether you are looking sort of nostalgic at the past or eagerly towards the future and whether you view change as a good thing or a bad thing. And I think there’s like, if you’re so stuck in the past, I mean, we’ve seen in recent years how much they get an overly nostalgic view of what the forties through the sixties were, can get society into trouble. Because if you’re looking too much towards the past, it can do one of two things. You could be trying to freeze something in time, often in a way that never actually existed that utopian pass was never so utopian, especially if you were nonwhite or you could look at, I mentioned paralysis before you can look at all the mistakes that we’ve made in the past and be like, it can just freeze you sometimes.
Michael Spotts (31m 18s):
And you can say that, well, we can’t do, we can’t do anything unless we can guarantee that we can solve for these 900 different mistakes that were made in the past. And until we get to that perfect state, we can’t do anything. And then there’s people that, again, as you mentioned on the dynamic of looking forward, there’s the element of like, we haven’t learned anything, you know, we need to learn things or people that are overlooking what we can learn from the past, but also, you know, not there’s people that look forward constantly that don’t understand that the justice, there was a lot of negative in the way we did things in the past that, you know, change can be really difficult.
Michael Spotts (31m 58s):
It just being realistic change is difficult to manage and a lot of people struggle with it and for a variety of reasons. So if you’re not looking at this sort of looking backward and looking forward together in concert, then you could get yourself into trouble.
Jeff Wood (32m 14s):
I’m interested too, in the little time capsule that the symposium existed in because as we know, we’re in the future now, and we, we know the results of the infrastructure bill vote, I’m curious what the feelings were at the time and you know, what people were looking towards or what they felt was going to happen, because we know what we know now, but obviously at the time that the symposium took place, people weren’t necessarily sure what was going to happen.
Michael Spotts (32m 38s):
Sure. So I think there again, because we’re working with practitioners, there’s a mixture of, you know, some people are more optimistic, some are more pessimistic and there’s the straight up realists in the room. So you had the full spectrum of perspectives and because you had that spectrum, I think there was a lot of, a lot of hedging. I don’t want to say hedging in sort of a bad way, but it was just, or in sort of the gambling sense. But just knowing that, you know, at that point in time, there was still a lot of talk that the infrastructure bill will be much larger and potentially more transformative than it is. And there was, that was obviously baked into some of the conversation when people were talking about the opportunities that could exist, if the infrastructure went big.
Michael Spotts (33m 25s):
But in reality, a lot of given the buildup for infrastructure projects and, you know, from your work on transit programs, how long it takes to conceive of plan for get funding for, and then actually build a transit transit line that, you know, a lot of the things that they’re talking about were developed under the previous paradigm and people that are working on these projects have seen the ebbs and flows. So a great example of this is sort of the project in Austin, where, you know, urban highway Tufts separate and segregated community, there’s a conversation about what to do about it now, and there’s different visions.
Michael Spotts (34m 8s):
And the people that had worked on that project have allowed themselves to think big, which is great because we need to envision a bigger future and they have some great plans for how they can stitch the community back together. There’s a couple of different proposals that are out there, including capping in some cases, turning the highway into an urban Boulevard, but there’s also a realism that they are operating in a system as it stands right now, where it’s not just sort of the vision of, of what can be done in the local community. They’re also dealing with funding constraints. They’re dealing with different approaches to transportation infrastructure, investment that may be present at the state level.
Michael Spotts (34m 48s):
So one of the pieces that really struck me when we were doing this research was that the transportation Institute at Texas a and M that does a lot of the modeling, the transportation modeling for these big infrastructure investments was evaluating the I 35 scenarios, the different way are they going to expand it? You know, doubling down on the, the 20th century model, are they going to cap it? Are we going to do some restorative development work? And one of the quotes in there said something to the effect of, they were projecting that there would be longer commute times if you transformed it into an urban Boulevard or made it more sort of pedestrian oriented multi-modal community investment.
Michael Spotts (35m 29s):
And they were projecting it to be longer commuting times. And they said it, I am actually quoting, it does not seem realistic that people will be willing to do this a much more likely scenario is that jobs in population will grow differently across the region in response to long travel times between the Austin suburbs and downtown Austin, some people will move closer to their existing job. Others will move their job closer to their home because of COVID-19 pandemic experience. We also know that some workers with flexibility will choose to not commute every day. And that was put forward in the report as a flaw in the plans. Whereas other people are looking at it as exactly. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Michael Spotts (36m 9s):
This is the future that we want to see. So, you know, the folks that were working in Austin and to circle back in a very, very roundabout way to your original question, the folks that were involved in the work in Austin knew how heavy of a lift that would be because they do need to get the state department of transportation to sign off on this. So I would say that if we reconvened everyone today, the optimism might be a little bit more guarded just because the numbers are smaller than what people were were envisioning could be possible. But I think the recognition of the challenges that were ahead would be the same.
Jeff Wood (36m 42s):
Yeah. I mean, F tech stock, that’s me saying that not you, so it’s okay. But I read that in the piece, the quote, and obviously like, you know, I’m an Austin person. I went to school there for seven years. I wrote my master’s thesis on the politics of urban rail. There I’m very ensconced in the ideas and I have my own theories about myself, but I did see that at the time when TTI, which is not my favorite organization, either who I’ve also quarreled with in the past, you know, they make these statements that just basically are continuations of our auto dominated future. And it’s frustrating to have them, you know, kind of have some sort of authority. And then tech stop be able to use that as a cudgel against new thinking, like the folks at reconnect Austin and others who are trying to do something different, do something that’s going to be better for the city in my humble opinion.
Jeff Wood (37m 36s):
So it is frustrating to see that that state deity getting some, some help from a group that’s supposed to be advocating for transportation. And when they’re just advocating for cars. Right.
Michael Spotts (37m 48s):
And I would say that there’s a lot of focus on the infrastructure bill and on federal policy and rightfully so, I’m not saying that we should not pay attention to federal policy, or even that we should pay less attention to federal policy. But in reality, the locus of decision-making that really matters is that on the ground level, the closer you get to where the actual infrastructure is being built, the more it matters that the people there are on board with maybe I guess maybe the state departments, because of how states controls so much of the transportation funding system, they might have a slightly disproportionate role there, but you know, there’s a lot of work if federal transportation policy and dollars did not change at all, not a word of legislative texts, other than just to extend the status quo with past.
Michael Spotts (38m 37s):
If you had strong commitment from your local department of transportation in coordination with local stakeholders, your metropolitan planning organization has a strong board and was committed to the issues of multi-modal mobility, the committed to walkability community to sustainability and equity. And if you, your state department of transportation was supportive, or at least wasn’t standing in the way you could do a lot of what we need to do. You know, it’s been a little while since I dove into the weeds of federal transportation law, but a lot of our highway programs, you can, you know, if you took your highway funding and used, it took up the sort of a fix it first mantra, and mostly focused on the potholes and also use your flexible funding to expand other modes of transportation that could do a lot of good land use.
Michael Spotts (39m 28s):
I mean, it’s related to transportation planning, but if you’re making the right land use decisions, then your transportation funding can be more equitable. You know, you can build, you know, I tend to think that people don’t focus enough on just simple bus service, not just bus drop and chance it just, just getting the buses to run on time and run frequently. I mean, there’s a big difference between a seven minute wait between every bus arrival at your stop and a 25 minute wait or a secure even a 15 minute wait. So like, there are things you can do with existing policy and resources that you can have a lot of impacts. And likewise, if you have lots of more money coming in, including for multi-modal transportation, it doesn’t guarantee that if you don’t have that consensus at the local level, that is going to be spent wisely.
Michael Spotts (40m 14s):
I mean, I’ve seen enough complete streets, project proposals, and don’t get me wrong. I think complete streets are a good concept, but I’ve seen complete streets projects that are functionally just, we’re going to make space for bikes. As long as it doesn’t inconvenience a single driver. It’s not actually a neutral playing field. It still is auto oriented development, but it has some window dressing on it or it’s his own version of greenwashing. So, you know, I think that, again, it gets to that issue of paralysis that I mentioned earlier, everyone’s waiting for the federal government to do something and for some of this transformative federal legislation, and we should hope for that and we should work towards that, but it shouldn’t stop us from doing the work on the ground.
Jeff Wood (40m 58s):
Yeah. I’ve heard so many times. There’s a lot of flexibility in the federal funding for states. And then the states are the ones that obviously have a lot of power over where that money goes. And then if the state is a certain way, then it happens. I know in California here, we have a lot of money that just automatically passes through to MPOs, which is a big deal. There’s a lot of forward-thinking going on in San Diego, for example, right now. But if the state deities and a lot of other states, even in California, for that matter, there’s still folks that are road first. It’s hard to be flexible when they’re not flexible. Another question I have for you is thinking about what is and isn’t infrastructure. I imagine that was a discussion as you know, housing comes to mind as, as an important infrastructure, but it gets me going back to that kind of that systems thinking.
Jeff Wood (41m 39s):
And I’m wondering if we should just reframe the discussion as something like life systems rather than quote-unquote infrastructure. I think it was Linda Samuels who was on the show a little while ago. It was talking about, you know, when we changed the name from public works to infrastructure and why we did it, and maybe it’s due for another change because it can’t just be about, you know, wires, pipes, and roads,
Michael Spotts (42m 3s):
Right. And that’s a tricky concept because if infrastructure means everything, it means nothing. I think there’s a political dynamic to this where, because there’s general agreement, that infrastructure is important. There’s this push to make sure infrastructure means everything so we can fund everything that we need. So I kind of pushed back that a little bit, but at the same time, as you said, it’s more than roads and pipes and wires, it clearly is. And so I think if you ask the 20 or so people that were in the room for the Shaw symposium, you would have a general consensus. That infrastructure is more than just that narrow definition of how we’ve traditionally conceived it. I think there’ll be probably strong consensus that some modern connectivity technology like broadband should be included.
Michael Spotts (42m 48s):
Climate resilience should also be included in that sense and how those are sort of elements that are very tied to the built environment that should be included in that definition. If you ask 20 people, you might get 20 different answers about the balance of things that are under debate as whether it’s infrastructure or not. And it would be helpful. I do think to find a way to frame it, that conveys the importance and the necessity for our communities to thrive in the built environment to thrive. You know, whether that word is infrastructure, whether it’s public works, whether it’s, you know, life systems, like you said, that something that conveys the systemic nature and purposely broadens it out. I think that could be a good thing as well, because you’ve been involved in this field for long enough at first sustainability was the catch word, and then it was livability once that became stigmatized and it became resilience.
Michael Spotts (43m 40s):
And there’s been, I’m sure I’m missing a couple of different euphemisms that were thrown in there to make sure that we were not automatically triggering the people that yell agenda 21 every time that you talk about mixed use development or density near transit. But I do think, you know, just like I was talking about evolution of communities, you have the evolution of our language matters. And that, that has been a theme of your recent podcasts that I’ve been listening to. And that, you know, I don’t know if we’ve necessarily figured out the way that we’re going to communicate this moving forward, but I do think something that’s come out is that all of these issues are important and that we need to be thinking of them in a systems way. So I like any phrasing that emphasizes that systems approach.
Jeff Wood (44m 20s):
And that’ll get co-opted at some point too, in the future. Exactly. If that ever took off well, there’s 10 key takeaways in here. There’s seven pieces to the framework for investing. How should agencies and government entities use this framework that you all?
Michael Spotts (44m 35s):
So the framework is, again, every community is different. The challenges that are facing the parameters they’re facing their constraints, their opportunities, they’re all going to be different. So we called it a framework. We decided not to call it a roadmap or anything. I mean, also roadmap conveys the wrong message. If we’re talking about multimodal infrastructure, anyway, the subway map
Jeff Wood (44m 56s):
Michael Spotts (44m 58s):
The system map. But what we wanted to do was highlight sort of the key considerations, talk about the framework for the way practitioners should be thinking about this planner should be thinking about this. And so we wanted to highlight two broad conceptual points that we wanted people to keep in mind. So they’re high level things like first do no harm, you know, we’re looking at, and that ties into the equity piece that we’ve kind of alluded to and said a couple of times explicitly, but it hasn’t been sort of the core focus of this conversation, but you look at sort of the tragic consequences of bulldozing in some cases struggling, but in some cases, thriving, in many cases, a combination of both predominantly African-American communities at the turn of the century.
Michael Spotts (45m 40s):
And then the fact that we went decades before, you know, obviously researchers and advocates and people within the community knew about that theft of wealth and how that ties into current wealth gaps. You know, it’s just being mainstreamed now where people are talking about it and often it’s not being talked about in an intelligent way. So, you know, one of the things that we, you know, one of the key points of the framework that I like to emphasize is the first do no harm in order to create a better future. Are you destroying wealth? Are you destroying assets in order to create it? And that doesn’t always mean B answer is that you shouldn’t proceed, you know, redevelopment needs to happen sometimes, but some of the other elements of the framework tie into that.
Michael Spotts (46m 25s):
So, you know, there’s a big difference between if you need to add growth of housing stock in the urban core, there’s a difference in impacts if you’re building on an empty parking lot or a vacant warehouse, versus if you’re redeveloping an existing apartment building that is currently serving lower-income tenants. So that doesn’t mean that you can never redevelop a property, but are you looking at the other elements of the framework? Are you avoiding burden shifting? Are you sort of creating wealth for others or passing the costs to people that don’t get to benefit? Are you advancing equity goals? Do disadvantaged communities have a direct stake in the process of the redevelopment process and the say about what happens in their communities, right.
Michael Spotts (47m 6s):
Various community and institutional stakeholders involved in is the financing align. So if you look at any one of these pieces individually, you may not get the answer, but if you look at them as a collective, we’re hoping that we’re raising a number of issues for consideration that when you have a proposal for a transit line or for an urban park, or for a housing redevelopment that involves some degree of displacement or eminent domain or early use to some other tool, and, you know, have you thought about it from the other perspectives and have you answered some of these other questions to do so in a way that you are maximizing sort of our future potential without putting it on the backs of disadvantaged populations?
Michael Spotts (47m 50s):
So that’s kind of what we’re trying to achieve with this framework. And it’s again, to emphasize the systems thinking that everything is interconnected and we can’t look at things in silos anymore.
Jeff Wood (47m 60s):
So I’m going to go through the seven pieces first, do no harm, avoid burden, shifting advanced equity goals, involve community and institutional stakeholders, aligned finance mechanisms, invest in resilience and then measure and evaluate, you know, the measure and evaluate one was interesting to me because you know, in transportation and I’ve talked about this a number of times on the show, I always feel like there’s not really a central set of goals that we have that we can measure against. I mean, we can measure all the things we want, but if it’s not against a, you know, an overall top line goal, is it actually worthwhile? And I’m wondering if there’s the same kind of thing for housing as well. Is there a national top-line goal at the federal level, HUD, et cetera, for housing in the United States? And so if there isn’t, maybe there is, but I’m not as ensconced in that world.
Jeff Wood (48m 43s):
If there isn’t though, you know, what are we measuring? Are we measuring just the amount of money we’re spending? Are we measuring the amount of housing units that we’re building it’s lost on me sometimes? And I want to measure everything to GIS is my, is my, is my jam, right? But I’m always curious, you know, do we have the goals in place that we can measure against?
Michael Spotts (49m 1s):
So we have lots of metrics. We have lots of goals and we have lots of targets, but there isn’t, I would say that in the housing field, there is not an equivalent of vision, zero in the transportation vision, zero, even though it’s often thrown out there by people that are not actually doing the work to try and get us division zero, hence like complete streets comments earlier in this conversation, the closest thing we have to that is ending homelessness, functionally ending homelessness. And there is sort of a metric. There’s a recognition that we’ll never get to a point in society, or it’s unlikely. We’ll get to a point in society that you will never have a single person that is without a home.
Michael Spotts (49m 41s):
Especially if we look at the holistic view of what defines homelessness, which includes people that are couch surfing or not necessarily unsheltered the definition of functionally ending homelessness means that you have the system and resources in place that you can within a given period of time, rehouse, everyone that becomes homeless. So you can intake and assist more people than are becoming homeless. So that that’s sort of the closest thing we have to a vision zero, but this is again an example of the silos. You know, you could talk to housing practitioners that never think about homelessness and homelessness practitioners that are generally not as focused on the broader housing market and looking at it as a whole and how they interrelate.
Michael Spotts (50m 25s):
And that’s not because people don’t recognize the connection, the two, but there are silos in our funding programs. There are silos in the housing unit, their housing that is specifically targeted for certain populations. So like even within the housing space, there’s these silos. One of the reports that recently came out that illustrates this it’s a fluxion in that it’s called the inflection points paper and using that as a shorthand. But it was an analysis that showed that when median housing costs reach a given threshold of median income, which is around the 32% range, that it’s an inflection point. You see a steep increase in homelessness. So it really illustrates how the broader market, the broader cost of housing is being faced by someone with median household income or 80% of area median income.
Michael Spotts (51m 10s):
You know how that actually has spillover effects down the spectrum into the realm of homelessness. I would say cost burden is our other metric. If you’re defined as being cost burdened, if you’re spending more than 30% of your income on housing. So aside from ending homelessness, there’s no sort of agreed upon a metric that we’re all striving towards. So you have to look at sort of the whole picture and you have to look at it, the range of geography. So that’s something that we’ve worked on with the Terwiliger center. For the past couple of years, we put out a published R a home attainability index, which is a collection of metrics at the regional level that look at both just general cost burdens. It looks at disparities by race and ethnicity.
Michael Spotts (51m 51s):
It looks at segregation. It looks at affordability by tenure, by rental versus ownership. And we look at some of the broader systems of how good is the transit system, how long our commutes, and trying to create a whole. So that’s a long winded way of saying that we don’t have a single vision that we can point to, but we’re trying to do work to make it easier for people to look at the range of interrelated metrics that can help us define what success looks like at the local and regional level.
Jeff Wood (52m 22s):
Awesome. Where can folks find the report and more about your work if they want to check it out?
Michael Spotts (52m 27s):
Sure. So all of ULI reports are available for [email protected]. You’ll be able to download those resources. You can also get more resources on my website. So I, in addition to being the visiting research fellow at the Terwiliger center, I am the president of a small applied housing policy research consulting firm called neighborhood fundamentals. All of those same reports are available at neighborhood fundamental stock com. So those are the two sites that you’ll be able to get all the research and analysis that’s being
Jeff Wood (53m 0s):
Done. Can folks follow you on Twitter
Michael Spotts (53m 2s):
To, oh yes. I forgot about that. A Twitter at Michael, a spot SPO TTS, my tweeting tends to be episodic. I’m very active. And then I’m bill dormant for a little while, but generally speaking, I try and comment on a range of housing, community development and equity issues. And if you catch me on a Saturday, there’s also going to be some college football.
Jeff Wood (53m 22s):
I appreciate that. Mines, star wars, soccer and transportation are blending. So it runs the gamut. Well, Michael, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate your time. Thanks for having
Michael Spotts (53m 32s):
It’s been fun