Category Archives: Blog

How Should We Urbanize?

December 16, 2014

Yesterday we talked about the numerous benefits of developing dense, walkable urbanism. In addition to the walkability of urban design, another topic that is widely debated is the very character of urban design.

Some feel that successful urbanism is actually created with experimentation and adjustment, and that having a single developer designing a neighborhood is “mock urbanism” that is both unattractive and inappropriate. Instead, allowing urban areas to develop organically would result in the rehabilitation and regeneration that is necessary for successful urbanism. Even if a developer attempts to design a space that is pedestrian friendly, it’s not actually possible to do so without allowing a neighborhood to develop organically according to its real-life needs.

Not only do advocates debate about the organic vs. inorganic nature of urban design and which is better, they also debate about whether or not the “cutesification” of urban design is suitable. While “fun” architects like Bjarke Ingels have become widely lauded, it seems like the issue of fun design is actually highly divisive. Some feel that playful and whimsical solutions to urban issues, such as garbage cans with sound effects and dancing traffic lights, fail to address urban problems in a way that is meaningful and effective. Not only that, it infantilizes the people who actually experience the design–it’s residents.

On the other hand, some urbanists actually appreciate cuteness and whimsy in urban design. After all, the cost of painting a crosswalk in a funky color is both cheap and makes walking a far more enjoyable experience. In addition, creating a fun urban experience may encourage tourism that brings in money and stimulates economic growth. And some architects seem to agree–affordable housing design doesn’t have to be drab and practical, it can be exciting and innovative.

The Benefits of Dense, Walkable Urbanism

December 15, 2014

Today we’re going to talk about the benefits of walkable urbanism. Dense, walkable urbanism is one of the mantras of modern urban planning, but is there actually evidence that it’s any better than other forms of urbanism? After all, the suburbs that most planners now decry were once considered the pinnacle of American neighborhood development. As it turns out, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that walkable urbanism does come with many perks.

Unlike the traditional car-oriented suburb, new research shows that walkable, mixed use neighborhoods are safer, healthier, and more creative. A number of studies also seem to suggest that housing values in walkable neighborhoods are more resilient during economic crises and homes are far less likely to be foreclosed. Walkability is also linked to lower rates of property crime and violence, possibly because there are often more “eyes on the street”. Another surprising benefit is that walkability seems to promote social interactions which encourage creativity as well as greater civic involvement. Finally, a recent study from the University of Kansas shows that walkability is good not only for physical health, but mental health as well. Residents living in walkable neighborhoods not only tend to have lower BMIs, but also a slower decline in cognitive ability as they age.

With all the benefits that seem to come with walkable urbanism, it’s no wonder that it is often seen as the ideal form for modern urbanism. Another factor pushing us toward walkability is the growing awareness of the environmental costs of car dependency. Air pollution is a major current issue, and many municipalities are trying to reduce emissions by reducing car usage and encouraging walking, biking, and mass transit. Paris’ mayor, for instance, recently outlined a radical plan to drastically reduce air pollution by banning diesel cars, growing their network of bike lanes, and encouraging shared mobility. Municipalities all over the world are taking similar initiatives to reduce auto emissions, and it’s happening none too soon.

Fears of Gentrification Shouldn’t Limit Affordable Housing Development

December 12, 2014

Over the past couple of days we’ve talked a lot about how persistent poverty might be just as big a problem as gentrification. Today I’d like to touch upon the topic of affordable housing, which is one of the biggest concerns that people have when they discuss gentrification.

One of the major issues that people have with gentrification is that the influx of wealthier residents can drive up the cost of living–in particular, the cost of housing. Urban revitalization and population growth often come with the price of higher rents and increased property values. To counteract these effects, cities have employed different strategies, from awarding tax credits to developers who invest in affordable housing, to subsidizing housing for low income families, and rent control. These strategies vary in success. Rent control in Washington D.C., for example, includes exceptions which may benefit existing tenants, but will ultimately result in less affordable housing.

What these strategies like rent control and subsidized housing don’t address is the issue that in many cities, the housing supply just hasn’t grown enough to keep up with the growth in population. Recently, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee launched an affordable housing program with the goal of building 4,000 new units by 2020, half of which will be allotted for poor to upper middle class residents. New York’s Department of City Planning is considering developing several parking lots in the Bronx into high-rises. These new developments would increase the housing stock in their cities, but many oppose the development, citing their fears of gentrification. However, developing over a parking lot or a Burger King won’t nearly displace as many people as it will benefit.

We can fear the changing character of our neighborhoods, and the possibility of gentrification. But we shouldn’t do so at the cost of developing some badly needed housing that will benefit everyone, including the poor.

More On Concentrated Poverty: How To Address It

December 11, 2014

Building on yesterday’s discussion of how persistent poverty may be an even bigger problem than the gentrification that dominates the discourse on modern urban issues, let’s get into the details of why poverty needs to be addressed more while discussing urban issues in the US.

This is not a dispute over whether or not gentrification occurs, or whether gentrification has consequences. Gentrification has definitely happened to cities all over the world. Even more frightening than the idea of cities gentrifying and growing economically, however, is the fact that far more cities have fallen deeper into poverty than cities that have gentrified. Over the last 40 years, only 105 out of 1,100 high-poverty areas have gentrified. During that time, the number of high-poverty tracts from 1970 to 2010 increased from 1,100 to over 3,100. That’s right, the number of high-poverty areas has tripled since the 1970s. Exacerbating the issue is that areas that gentrify often develop alongside areas that fall deeper into poverty, because the low-income housing used to address the problem of displacement is often placed in poorer areas, further concentrating the amount of poverty in those neighborhoods.

How do we begin to address the problem of poverty? First, it’s important to acknowledge that place matters. Neighborhoods have long-term effects on their residents, and inter-generational poverty exists and is in part perpetuated by the relative lack of opportunities for residents of low-income neighborhoods. Strategies tackling the issue of poverty should recognize that for low-income residents to gain opportunities, the limitations of their neighborhoods need to be addressed.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that race plays a large role in perpetuating poverty. While diversity has grown, many areas throughout the US, particularly in the South, continue to be largely black and white in racial composition. Discriminatory practices continue to segregate poor blacks and Latinos far more than poor whites and Asians.  If we start by recognizing these issues, we’re more likely to create more opportunities for more communities to thrive.

Is Gentrification or Concentrated Poverty the Bigger Issue?

December 10, 2014

Many of the articles we’ve posted lately have dealt with the super heated topic of Gentrification.

With gentrification being one of the most pervasive topics in urban planning discussions, getting a comprehensive understanding of the many different sides to the arguments can be quite a task.  City Commentary has done a great job rounding up a list of many different analyses of the issues surrounding gentrification, its history, effects, and possibilities for remedying the problems surrounding gentrification.  One of the biggest issues that people have with gentrification is how the influx of a more affluent population raises housing prices in the area and displaces the existing population. This has happened all over the US, in big cities like DC, San Francisco, and even Raleigh, North Carolina.

However, while gentrification seems to dominate the current discourse in urban issues, persistent concentrated poverty may be an even bigger problem than gentrification.  The majority of high-poverty neighborhoods in 1970 remain in high poverty today, the number of high poverty neighborhoods has increased since 1970, and the number of people living in high poverty neighborhoods has grown.  Suburbs across the US have been undergoing rapid transformation, but suburban poverty has been growing alongside the changes.  Underlying the issue of concentrated poverty is the issue of how cities and suburbs continue to be segregated based on class and race.  New studies show that despite the growing diversity in American suburbs, segregation and inequality have remained a persistent trend.  With all the racial tension in current events, it’s clear that something has to be done, and soon.

For more recent pieces collected by The Overhead Wire on the issue of gentrification, click here.

Thinking Federally: What’s Been Going on in DC?

December 9, 2014

The Overhead Wire Blog:  In an attempt to take some of the articles we post and create a narrative, we want to share some of the connections that we come across as we read.  I’m hoping we can pull out some of the important parts of the articles we cover and connect them in a way that’s interesting and informative.  Enjoy!


Over the last few days there have been lots of articles on trying to put together funding to cover the Highway Trust Fund shortfall and push on with a new transportation bill. Some such as the Eno foundation have suggested that we try to replenish the fund, but without a gas tax. It seems unlikely at the moment but perhaps they have a point.

After the GOP gained control over the Senate and retained control over the House after the November elections, many wondered about what the implications were for transportation in the US, particularly concerning the transportation bill, MAP-21, which will need to be renegotiated next spring. A GOP Representative has stated that the transportation bill is a “priority” for GOP leaders.

However, the GOP has also made it abundantly clear that they will not be supporting high speed rail in California, and in fact, will be doing everything they can to block any kind of federal funding for it, calling it both a “pipe dream” and a “boondoggle.” The reasoning is that without any realistic plan for funding the $55 billion gap that the California High Speed Rail Authority faces, backing the project would have no result. On Friday, thirteen California Republicans sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee specifically requesting that the new spending bill include provisions to prohibit funds for high speed rail in the state.

Other long term effects of having the GOP in charge of both branches of Congress have yet to be seen. Polls show that support for funding of active transportation is high across all party lines, and with the deadline for the Transportation Funding Act approaching, many are curious to see how much funding will actually be going toward initiatives for biking and walking.

Regardless of which way the GOP will lean, several metro areas around the US have made it clear: bike infrastructure and pedestrian safety are a top priority.

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