# Balancing the Math!

In general terms, the equation* to figuring out what the market rate housing rents are is to find the average local wage, times it employment opportunities, divided by the number of housing units available (*this is not a real math equation, it is assembling the elements that determine how the market place sets rents). While this equation is too simple, the basic point is that the rents rise in economically hot housing market cities because our growing upper-class wages are booming while the number of units available are limited. Higher wages times higher employment in cities that constrain new housing development equates to hot economic markets and higher rents.

Wages have somewhat stagnating for the shrinking middle class since the Great Recession. And those who are able to are willing pay more and compete for access to the ‘good life’ in a city that has great amenities, such as arts, parks, rivers (Austin and Denver), nice weather, beaches, bays (Miami and San Diego), and those cities with a lot of jobs and amenities (Bay Area, Seattle, and Los Angeles). This amenity factor still fits with the simple equation above as those cities offering jobs and amenities are too few and far between. And those few safe, amenity and job rich places are unwilling to build enough housing to meet market demand. As people continue to look for places to spend their valuable time to inhabit, wealthy cities will have those neighborhoods that remain expensive for a variety of reasons, while a similar neighborhood in the same city, only a few miles away, will remain stagnant or declining economically and socially.

Cities have a spectrum of economic value, from high to low, in context. Every city has a limited number of housing units available in high economically valued and amenity-filled neighborhoods to be rented by those few high wage workers who are in high demand and making significantly higher wages (+\$200k/year). While the majority of a city’s middle class workers (+\$60k/year) live in middle to lower economically stable and amenity-less neighborhoods. These new higher wages jobs drive up the rent in those few end-of-the-economic-spectrum high-demand neighborhoods and spill over into the edges of the middle class neighborhoods driving up rents and creating scarcity of middle-income housing (if more is not being built).

The most socially just urban design solution is to enable and build more housing and jobs with amenities in more neighborhoods rather than allowing for higher wage earns compete for those few amenity-filled neighborhoods scattered throughout most cities currently experiencing job growth. Importantly, these wages, number of units, employment opportunities and the need for more housing production issues are only relevant for stagnant cities and towns across the United States Rust Belt and Midwest states. Which moves us into social equity and justice issues with displacement in these high growth cities and neighborhoods. Local people who are displaced from their long-standing homes is the unjust effect of gentrification as values increases. While increased investment in an area has positive outcomes, gentrification associated with displacement of long-term residents deny citizens the ability to benefit from new investments in housing, healthy food access, or transit infrastructure.

To physically improve economically stagnant neighborhoods, with value generated from economic development and raise incomes, some manageable level of gentrification, minus displacement, is needed to improve and rebuild schools, parks, and market-rate development opportunities. Adding to this conversation is how work and shopping is physically changing in our neighborhoods, making 1960’s economic development models obsolete and new ways of building our neighborhoods and economies are making a huge difference in adding housing in older, pre-auto dominated neighborhoods. The auto-dominated suburban sprawl areas are in need of different tools to retrofit them. Conversely, in growing economic value markets, some manageable level of economic stagnation is necessary to enable more people to participate in the local jobs and amenities, such as subsidized housing, rent controls, and taxes.

San Francisco is an expensive because it is affluent with a growing population and no land made easily available for development. Enabling and building more housing would stabilize or reduce rents as it adds supply to the inherent demand. New amenities, new design housing design models, and new neighborhood patterns are emerging. And with enough new housing to reduce prices and mollify its globally hot market rates for housing, the quality of the city’s urban design will make a difference in how San Francisco attracts new wage earners and retains its aging and long-standing citizens.

Understanding this need to update its codes and design expectations, Seattle, Portland, and Denver have stabilized rents by building more housing. Using new zoning tools to allow for more housing in existing neighborhoods, these cities successfully changed their conventional zoning to a more form-based code type in anticipation of their 21st century development needs for mixed-use, walkable new urbanism. Form-Based Codes, or Objective Design Standards, prioritize where a building fits in its neighborhood context over the singular building’s primary land use. These cities reversed their once decimated social and physical fabric of their downtowns and historic neighborhoods by connecting and enabling isolated and segregated pods of development into well-connected and economically stable neighborhoods. And striking that balance between stagnant and hot economic markets.

# Your City Psychologist is ‘In.’

My favorite pop philosopher and psychologist is Alain de Botton, and his School of Life. They share a wide variety of articles and videos on relationships, architectural design, and beyond. I found his work through his 2006 book, The Architecture of Happiness. And what I appreciate about his approach to cities is that it has decidedly shifted from an original modernist perspective (2008), to the above book’s meandering thesis, and then to a clearly more traditional city making approach (2015). As I age in today’s era of great anxiety, I too find my perspectives changing. Some of these changes are attributed to conversations with an insightful therapist.

One of the silly things I use to tell my municipal clients is that I was hired to be their city’s therapist. That I was there to listen, share case studies, analyze patterns, observe behaviors, and interpreting data to make recommendations on how best to build their city. This analogy would usually get chuckle and then I would go about my work that was policies, plans, and programs.

But, like Mr. Botton, my thoughts have shifted with time. As a long-time conventional zoning code reformer, I see today’s municipal zoning trend finally moving towards meaningful reform. My own city of San Diego appears to be in its first steps of recovery from conventional, segregated land uses (commercial uses shall not have residential uses that shall not have industrial uses, and so on). Our Complete Communities and Inclusionary Housing programs waive most of our old zoning rules in exchange for affordable housing with very few zoning rules. This is done with the intent to lower or stablize the cost of housing (the rent).

This waiver approach is a good first step in making amends for the errors of planning’s past. A dramatic shift, from too many rules to not many rules, allows us to move towards learning a new way to build more housing. But an unfortunate by-product of too few rules is rising land values and land speculation. This creates uncertainty as what is going to be built and how new housing will behave in an existing neighborhood context. Under these programs, a new building could propose 6, 14, 24, or 48 units depending on the owner’s intentions and distance from a transit or bus line. That’s a great first step in reforming rules, but without the next step of new parameters uncertainty, anxiety, and the typical fear of the unknown rises. The next steps would be to design new places that behave as intended in context.

For example, a neighborhood center having more things going on on than the neighborhood edge along a canyon or freeway. An extreme example is building a downtown residential tower in an existing streetscape of single-family homes. This dramatic juxtaposition creates disharmony among neighbors (the fronts of people’s buildings adjacent to the backs of others), the marketplace (the first new tower drives up neighboring land values), and breaks expected neighbor boundaries while supplying new housing as intended for our region. This brings up ethical issues of common good versus being a respectful neighbor. The ethics of good community planning is to serve the public’s interest today by balancing social equity with economics and environmental elements to maintain livable and sustainable neighborhoods. I’ve written about such here, and the economics of it here.

In personal and social relationships, the School of Life psychologist’s recommends we, “set boundaries that involves informing those around us of a set of objectively reasonable ‘rules’ that we need them to follow in order to feel respected and happy — while doing so in a way that conveys both warmth and strength.”

Zoning regulations (codes) provides the rules that build the new places we live, work, play, shop, worship, and learn in. Zoning codes set the boundaries for the ways we live our lives.

Citizens live in neighborhoods with the expectation to live a dignified, respectful, and happy life. Citizens tend to convey these experiences with both warmth and strength in regard/defense to the quality of their existing lifestyles, as well as expressing fear and anxiety in regard to unknown outcomes and experiences a new project/building/place proposal will produce. That’s the next step to zoning reform… a new type of land use regulation, Objective Design Standards, that presents explicit development standards for infill development in clear diagrams that show applicants, neighbors, and city staff what is allowed without relying on a decision of a hearing body.

Zoning codes and city planning mediates this balance between today’s experiences and what changes tomorrow will bring to a neighborhood/place. And zoning is therapy because relationships need to be respected in order to maintain civility and happiness. While some want a pound of flesh for past sins, most of us simply want stability, structure, and connections with each other and their homes. As previously written here:

We need to be grounded in that feeling of being around friends and family… Home. Being home is the idea that goes to the heart of what makes food (neighborhoods) great. It is an approach to cooking (zoning codes) that is rooted in respect. Respect for the ingredients (people/places), respect for tradition. It gives the fancy innovations and clever deconstructions a heart and a soul.“ – Anthony Bourdain, 2008 (Spain – No Reservations)

Life is hard. Zoning sets the boundaries we need to live a respectful and stable life. Let’s continue to reform our city’s zoning through the lens of setting boundaries that involves informing those around us of a set of objectively reasonable ‘rules’ that we need them to follow in order to feel respected and happy.

# Objective Design Standards are Form-Based Codes

Urban Design

The state of California is responding to the nation’s second highest housing costs (behind only Hawaii) with regulatory reforms that promote form-based codes along transit lines and commercial corridors.

California’s long standing “Not-In-My-Backyard” (NIMBY) culture has exacerbated the problems of high housing costs and homelessness. Over the past 50 years, conventional zoning ordinances and entitlement processes have conspired to support NIMBY intentions to stop new housing from being built near existing homes. But six years ago, state legislators began passing laws to address California’s acute housing crisis.

These bills are removing local policy and regulatory impediments to more housing via Objective Design Standards (ODS) with Streamlined Permit Processing. The intent of ODS is to build more affordable and attainable housing along transit and strip commercial corridors that are ripe for redevelopment. The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) has been championing these two important issues for over 30 years.

The influential Charter for the New Urbanism had its roots in California, where many of CNU founders helped write the Ahwahnee Principles in 1991 (the principles were, essentially, a first draft of the Charter). Unfortunately, the state, like much of the nation as a whole, continued to promote sprawling development patterns for three more decades. And yet, with 39 million residents, California is often at the forefront of regulatory and cultural trends. The Golden State’s land use reforms could have an important impact beyond its borders.

Since 2017, CNU and California legislators agree that many of the barriers to building new urban housing are found in outdated zoning codes. Form-based codes (FBCs), developed by new urbanist practitioners in cooperation with cities and developers, are land use regulations that facilitate more predictable built outcomes, with explicit design standards that shape a community’s physical form. Both FBCs and the California’s mandated ODS are presented in clearly drawn diagrams and other visuals to show what is allowed without relying on the discretion of a city staff member and hearing bodies.

In 2003, Andres Duany and CNU-California Chapter members provided research that influenced Government Code section 65302.4, promoting the language and diagrams of form-based codes: “This tool achieves certainty over the physical outcome of land use and development decisions while enhancing flexibility to create more infill or infrastructure as needed. Cities in California that have used form-based codes, such as Ventura, Benicia, and Petaluma, provide examples of this practice.”

The state’s ODS language first appeared in SB 35 in 2017, in the Housing Accountability Act. California cities are now required to streamline new development reviews using ODS. These regulatory standards are the now the only basis for cities to deny eligible by-right housing and mixed-use projects.

The following series of state laws require ODS:

SB 2 Building Homes and Jobs Act (2017) provides technical assistance to help cities and counties prepare, adopt, and implement streamlined permit processes housing projects using Objective Design Standards (ODS). The California Department of Housing and Community Development, in coordination with the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, developed this ODS toolkit to explain how these are more predictable and easier to interpret for all stakeholders, including decision makers, staff, applicants, and members of the public.

SB 35 Affordable Housing Streamlined Approval Process (2017) creates an opt-in program for developers that allows a streamlined ministerial approval process for developments in localities that have not yet made sufficient progress toward meeting their regional housing need allocation (RHNA). Eligible developments must include a specified level of affordability; be on an infill site; comply with existing residential and mixed-use general plan or zoning provisions; and comply with other requirements such as, locational and demolition restrictions. The streamlined, ministerial entitlement process relies on objective design standards.

SB 330 Housing Crisis Act (2019) require a housing development project to comply with objective, quantifiable, written development standards, conditions, and policies appropriate to, and consistent with, meeting the jurisdiction’s RHNA share.

SB 9 Housing Development (2021) requires ministerial approval of a housing development of no more than two units in a single-family zone (duplex), the subdivision of a parcel zoned for residential use into two parcels (lot split), or both. Authorizes a city or county to impose objective zoning, subdivision, and design review standards.

AB 2668 Planning and Zoning (2022) further amend SB 35 by removing perceived ambiguities in the law regarding the application process and the local review process. And when a local government determines that a development submitted pursuant to this section is consistent with its objective planning standards, it must approve the development.

SB 6 and AB 2011 (2022) rezones commercial areas on major boulevards for three-to-six story residential development that includes labor standards and health care requirements in a bid to improve conditions for construction workers and will go into effect July 1, 2023, until January 1, 2033. These require cities to enable a by-right, streamlined, ministerial approval process for multifamily housing with Affordable Housing developments located on commercial corridors using specified site criteria, objective design standards, and prevailing wage labor standards.

In December, 2022, the Form-Based Codes Institute at Smart Growth America announced that Bay Area design firm, Opticos, won the 16th annual FBCI Form-Based Code Award for the firm’s Objective Design and Development Standards in Marin County, California. The award jury selected these ODS regulations as a model form-based code. Marin County’s ODS/FBC implements Marin County’s Countywide Plan through context-specific standards based on local development patterns.

Cities are responding to ODS requirements in several ways. Many are simply ignoring the requirement and awaiting future state enforcement. Others are taking their current subjective standards, striking out subjective language, and hoping for the best. Still others are using dedicated state funds to hire experienced California new urbanists to reform local zoning via FBC models, such as Marin County, Santa BarbaraLos Altos, and Carlsbad.

This ODS/FBC approach contrasts with conventional zoning’s focus on segregation of land uses, and the control of development intensity through abstract and suburban measurements (e.g., Floor Area Ratios, dwellings per acre, setbacks, and parking ratios), followed by a series of discretionary review permit processes, which historically has not provided enough housing and led to the state legislator’s intervention. In short, FBCs and ODS-explicit standards allow for faster permitting processes that are better regulatory tools to provide more housing on infill development-ready corridors. Let’s continue to reform California’s regulations to build more places that are transit-supported, walkable, sustainable, and enjoyable for everyone.

Find additional Objective Design Standards and Form-Based Code information herehere, and here.

# IN SEARCH OF EQUILIBRIUM…

Contemporary North American urban design tools provide a pathway for a more sustainable future by their ability to balance the competing economic, environmental, and social equity interests at the region, city, neighborhood, block, and lot scales. These Covid years appear to have accelerated development patterns that have been gradually shifting over the past three decades towards more sustainable outcomes. The United States cultural shift towards more urban living is well documented (Ed Glaeser, Triumph of the City, 2012). And contemporary urban development expectations are being built today as originally formulated by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) practitioners in the early 1990s (Peter Katz, The New Urbanism, 1993).

These three pillars of sustainability, environmental, economic, and equity, provide a structure for measuring or testing North America’s design trajectory today. The United States’ historical values, attitudes, and prejudices that built our 20th-century traditions, culture, cities, and buildings are being re-examined and deconstructed in today’s social equity and justice moment. We acknowledged the environmental pillar in the 60s and 70s. We learned to understand the economics of sustainability in the 90s and 00s. And this past decade we are immersed in a meaningful and healthy understanding of social equity.

In the past, our culture (music, socializing, celebrations, food, worshipping) had secure foundations in public buildings, streets, squares, and plazas (churches, concert halls, theaters, pubs, and markets), and less so within the private home. Then the generation of the mid-20th century added the new by-products of the industrial revolution with television, cars, the highway, and suburbia to these public and private places (drive-in theaters, drive-thru diners, freeway overpass protests, tv movies, tv evangelists, tv news, home theaters, home cafes, home entertainment, backyard pools), which shifted our culture towards a more private life.

Today, we are adding smart phone technology to these public and private spaces while shifting again, but this time away from insular private suburban culture and transitioning towards a more balanced public and private life. These smart phones are our 21st-century version of urban renewal, allowing us to re-inhabit and re-animate public buildings, streets, squares, and plazas cheaper, faster, and with more friends and family. Within a century, everything in our culture changed with how we share music, socialize, celebrate, eat, worship, and take selfies with smartphone technology in our daily lives and cultural norms. Importantly, due to the global pandemic, the design responses to shaping our cities, towns, and building are dramatically changing again.

# … in preparation of our ecological Pearl Harbor moment.

In designing our cities towards economic, environmental, and social equilibrium, we are able to achieve an ethical and sustainable approach to city building. The next few posts will be an exploration of the history, present, and future role of urban design in building regions, cities, towns, and neighborhoods towards a more sustainable city. As North America transitions towards more human-scale urban development patterns in its post-industrial society, and more rapidly in response to the urgency of the global pandemic, urban design is able to incrementally guide cities and neighborhoods towards more sustainable global outcomes. Our built environment’s acute response to the pandemic has prepared our society to respond immediately to forthcoming climatic calamities. The late 19th to mid-20th century of industrialized modernist era designed development, suburban sprawl most notably, are complicit in the scandalous emission of greenhouse gases that have rapidly changed our climate and resulting environmental and social malaise our world is experiencing today. The three pillars of sustainability, environmental, economic, and equity, provide a structure for measuring or testing North America’s design trajectory today.

The United States historical values, attitudes, and prejudices that built our 20th century traditions, culture, cities, and buildings are being re-examined and deconstructed in today’s social equity and justice moment. We acknowledged the environmental pillar in the 60s and 70s. We learned to understand the economics of sustainability in the 90s and 00s. And this past decade we are immersed in a meaningful and healthy understanding of Social Equity. Depending on local context, the next urbanism will move our urban design processes towards achieving an equitable balance between these three pillars as the the most appropriate urban design response to social justice and economic issues is to build towards environmental, social, and economic stability or equilibrium.

# The Next New Urbanism

This Covid year has accelerated development patterns that have been shifting over the past decade, and as originally formulated by New Urbanists 20 years before. Do you support transit-oriented development? Participating in charrettes? Reforming your zoning with form-based codes? Then thank a New Urbanist. There are many prominent patterns emerging right now, including less commuting; more home/work balance; less industry expansion; and more technology-based business growth in a post-industrial economy.

These shifts are changing the way we work, just like the industrial revolution changed our world 130 years ago by creating new building types and city-making technology with the invention of steel. In response to that revolution, our cities were reconfigured with skyscrapers, blocks of offices/factories, highways, and cars.

Many cities were reconfigured during that time, but Detroit is our nation’s most dramatic shift to and from industrialization patterns in the 20th century.

Now, as we shift into our post-industrial age—and deeper into the age of climate calamity—we are able to measure both its successes and failures. For example, classicism works best at the human scale, but it failed us at the industrial scale when it became an ornament/style and a fascist/authoritarian tool. The international style failed us at the human scale but is ubiquitous because it’s faster, easier, and cheaper to build. And modernism was a disaster at every scale (Google Léon Krier; he was right).

We are once again entering a brave new era with the opportunity to create a balanced approach to architecture, building types, and city-making techniques that are intended to civilize and modify the best and worst of our industrial advances with the best of our human-scaled buildings and places. By using a full spectrum of 21st century placemaking tools, the Next New Urbanism is able to advance the human condition toward a more sustainable future.

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# Industrialization (or The Education of Howard Blackson)

Industrialization via the internal combustion machine changed the world (or the Dynamo as described in the great autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams) when it created steel that created new industrial scaled building types. The factories, offices, and skyscrapers were invented in the late 19th century. And because this invention happened during our western civilization’s Neoclassical era, this familiar classical architecture was applied and used to ‘humanize’ these new buildings. However, because the building forms were new, the classicism was applied as a façade, and thereby is ornament… or this mismatched scale made classicism more of a style than a building technology.

The technology of building at the human scale was obliterated by the modern industrial materials, energy, and resulting scale. Along with these new engines and buildings, new forms of mobility rose as well, trains, streetcars, and then automobiles transformed with the age. The industrial scale of car production created another mismatch in our traditional city environment. Industrialized suburban sprawl was fueled by this auto production.

Modern architecture formed in a parallel track. Le Corbusier’s 1923 book, ‘Towards a New Architecture‘ responded to this new scale w/an industrial design aesthetic post WW1. And until post WW2, cities used both classical and international styles on modern scaled buildings and places. And I am writing this next sentence as carefully as possible because it is an extremely volatile subject… it was the WW2 fascist Axis power’s adoption of classicism as an authoritarian tool at an industrial scale that shamed the use of classicism almost out of existence for generations in both academia and society’s elite. For such, classicism was rightfully deemed a failure. Leaving us limited to only one architectural tool, the untested International Style/modernism, to integrate industrialization into our cities over time. And it eventually failed too.

Classical style failed us architecturally at the industrial scale. It had worked fine for thousands of years pre-industrial age and scale. And the International Style failed us urbanistically when applied to the pre-Industrial city. And I dare say the Industrial scaled city (suburban sprawl) has failed use urbanistically as well. This was a lesson Frank Gehry’s ‘Bilbao Effect’ taught us. That the traditional city works great and modernist architecture fits in it well in juxtaposition to it and its classical architecture… adding complexity and excitement to the same old classical buildings set in the same old traditional streetscapes.

The following are general lessons learned. Modern architecture works fine above the traditional city as long as it doesn’t meet the street/ground. And, classical/traditional architecture works well at the human scale when it touches the ground, but it has to be at the small block and up to mid-rise scale (not at an industrialized size). The traditional city pattern works best to make urbanism. Modern architecture works well when set in natural spaces.

Using all of these tools today allows us to build better cities, places, and experiences. A century and change later, we no longer need to censor one while villainizing the other. They both work fine in certain situations and not so well in others. These are just tools that can work together if we understand how to use them.

We are unfortunately in a new climatic calamity era and are thereby fortunately free of the surly bonds of mid-20th century style wars. I find it maddening that designers and urbanist still argue over style when industrialization is the root cause of our current climate/social calamity! We industrialized work and segregated our society. We industrialized our food and have put our health at risk. We used industrialized machines to emit coal and oil carbon particles into our atmosphere and are heating up our finite planet. We industrialized our health care and extended our lives and increased our population, so it has its merits too. What we need to address is that most people still see industrialization as the only tool to fix what originally caused these calamities… truly, a modern day Aesop’s fable.

In our new 21st century post-industrial/climate calamity era, we are now able to use every tool available to us to build more sustainable cities and places that range from More Industrial to Less Industrial / More Traditional to Less Traditional depending on its context.

# The City Making Process Takes Visioning, Coding, and Implementation.

Urban Planning

I was intrigued by an intelligent comment on Twitter, by @EricsElectrons, who put this nugget of truth out there and I got all excited about its process of intellectual elimination:

Everyone discusses problems.

Very few can come up with practical solutions.

Even fewer can objectively weigh all costs and benefits of all proposed solutions and then put into practice the best tradeoffs to correct for current problems.

Then I realized that he’s doing a great job describing the decision-making process cities go through when making city making decisions. This process of elimination is a form of subsidiarity enabling those few elected decision-makers to determine how we fix problems. the steps are:

First, a problem is identified, because everyone discusses problems. Let’s say for this post the problem is not enough middle-income housing in San Diego. How to solve for building more middle income housing in an economically hot coastal city is difficult and there are few practical solutions as most are complicated and convoluted that take time to realize. We understand the problem and we state a vision, “We need more middle-income and affordable housing in San Diego!” We’ve done this for many years with our city council declaring a ‘housing crisis’ annually.

And, because these complicated policy and long-range time fixes in need of multiple groups to enable, very few can come up with practical solutions. So, we need a plan that starts with the vision stated above, as well as practical solutions listed by planning scenarios that illustrate the costs and benefits (CEQA is a state law that is supposed to simply disclose the costs of new development) with objective-based data, such as this much VMT, GhG, number of housing units, retail, and so on. These plans codify the road map to get from problem to solution. The value of plans is to avoid duplication and waste of public investments, unite citizens to work towards a common vision/future, and show us practical, sensible ways of providing a place for everything we need to live in a more sustainable city.

Third, our elected and appointed leaders, we only have a few (zoning administrator, planning commission, city council, mayor, city attorney – why – and, county supervisors and commissioners opine on city making decisions) who are allowed/enabled to objectively weigh all costs and benefits of the planned solutions and then approve/put into practice the best tradeoffs to fix our stated problems. For middle income housing, the city of San Diego is choosing to use tools in our our Affordable Housing program and Complete Communities program in an attempt to solve our oft-stated problem. So, Eric is right… and rational.

The steps to solve for identified problems that affects everyone stats with understanding the problem, making a vision statement for our intended outcome, and then making codes and plans for ways to fix the problem. This direction is then decided by a select few who weight the costs/benefits using objective data.

# The Vertical Transect, again…(Mixed Use, Walkable Urbanism within Buildings and Blocks)

I’ve been thinking and working on this original idea lately and will use a series of slides to illustrate the points:

What do you think?