Economic Stability is an Urban Design Response to Social Justice

San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

Times they are a’changing.

We all hear that the New Urbanism has a gentrification/displacement perception problem in big city discussions. One of New Urbanism’s revolution was in shifting the 60s/70s planning by numbers approaches to city issues towards a design-oriented solutions. And, our anti-modernist stance in the ‘90s led us to advocating for aspirational design approaches to city making problems. We figured out how to fit the new into the older ‘community character’ at all scales and everyone wants mixed-use, walkable, pedestrian-oriented solutions today. However, this approach brings up two contemporary problems.

First, community character is code for a long-standing NIMBY argument against anything new. Second, ‘good design’ is perceived as expensive by reactionary YIMBY movements who advocate for density/housing-at-all-costs and towers in a park are cool again (in fairness, SF’s YIMBYs advocate for FBCs and better). The Tactical Urbanism’s hay bale, traffic cone, and wood palette aesthetic is now ubiquitous in design mags/schools, as Less is again… more.

The value of Lean Urbanism’s “Making Small Possible” is its city-building ramifications as we wrestle with Social Equity today (We went through the enviro in the 60s-80s and economics in the 90s/00s). Making Small Possible serves to balance the two sides of economic equilibrium (the good times side and the bad times side).

The Big Idea
The appropriate urban design response to Social Justice and Economic issues is to build towards Social and Economic Stability.

The Context
The economic market vacillates in value at the neighborhood and lot scale. It ranges from disinvested (value at the neighborhood and lot scale are leaving), to static (balanced/stable values at both scales), to invested (values at the neighborhood and lot scale are rising). While neighborhood and lot values are linked, depending on a variety of factors, in San Diego lots have inherently high land values that combine to raise neighborhood values. The dynamic between neighborhood values and lot value differ throughout the nation by city/region.

As equitable city builders, we strive to mollify hot markets by adding affordable/attainable housing at the lot scale to take advantage of their high valued neighborhood, and invigorate fallen markets with new housing value at the lot scale to bump up their overall neighborhood’s value (raising comps lot by lot until the neighborhood is perceived as valuable). Equilibrium is the goal as static/balanced neighborhoods can carefully add neighborhood value (such as ped/bike/transit improvements) as well as lot values (granny flats, additions). An issue I’ve let slip by is that I haven’t thoroughly planned for neighborhoods cycling through these levels as investing in poorer neighborhoods too robustly displaces residents as gentrification makes monied buyers move quickly to shift a disinvested or static neighborhood into a hot market. I forget that it is not in the developers best interest to lower the rent or build cheaper housing… that’s the city’s job (see apartment rents dropping right now as developers did their feeding frenzy thing again).

The Problem
Individual, piecemeal projects that add subsidized housing to disinvested neighborhoods provides too little value added at the lot and neighborhood scale. Every new project at the lot scale must purposely add value in disinvested areas at both the lot and neighborhood scale, as well as allowing for neighborhood-scale projects that add value. On the other hand, projects that add ‘luxury’ housing to a hot market only serves to make it hotter. Hot markets need more smaller, less valuable housing at the lot scale to add enough supply to stabilize demand in a valuable neighborhood. And, the city should not allow for neighborhood-scale projects in a hot market.

City zoning can only serve to supply housing to the market, but only if that market shows profit margins. Meaning, its limited in its ability to provide attainable housing to middle class citizens. The market serves the high income families and the Fed/State/local subsidies provide for defined Affordable Housing renters. City/State/Fed plans, discretionary entitlement processes, housing/transit programs, tax credits/abatements, land trusts, and other subsidy mechanisms to influence markets are in our tool box to address middle class shifts.

The Opportunity
Rather than waiting for the city/developer to build a neighborhood-scale silver bullet to raise lot values, disinvested neighborhoods are in need of new development at the lot level that provides ‘comps’ and tenant leases that banks can use to lend money to many local projects as opposed to spending money on a singular project every few years. Making Small Possible does this explicitly.

San Diego is unique in its land values being very high throughout the region. This inherent value should be leveraged neighborhood-by-neighborhood through educate/train, borrow, and build value at the lot scale that raises the neighborhood’s value with each new intervention. And, development, construction, and building trades is a tremendous economic vehicle in San Diego. Having locals enter this market creates jobs and local investment while educating our youth to compete for San Diego’s tremendous wealth of high-tech jobs luring people from all over the world.

A contemporary social equity issue, disinvested neighborhoods in San Diego are where our local, regional, and international immigrants begin to (re)build their lives. We know this is an American topic in our toxic national political dialog. NU-ists understand that the place where we live in, grow up in, remember, and the culture that is cultivated matters. As we choose to spend time, which is all we really have in this world, comes a tremendous cost and forms the heritage we leave behind.

New and Lean Urbanism is extremely well-positioned to turn our chaotic, drive-by, unfulfilling SoCal auto-oriented lifestyle around to offer a more connected, comfortable, and convivial neighborhoods with the tools to raise/lower values at the lot scale. The value of mixed-use and walkable urbanism at the neighborhood-scale is built on the idea that the quality of our lives hinges upon our free choice and not upon the fate of those who came before us. Truly, a new urbanism.

The Approach
First, introduce and train locals to understand the local community building elements and processes at the lot level. Assist locals in navigating building process through a variety of public/private partnerships (such as banks and unions) who gain from more people entering the development and construction trades industry. The more lot level housing add supply to high-demand cities (I call this Beach Density in San Diego).

Second, precisely build mixed-use, walkable urbanism catalytic projects in disinvested neighborhoods that bring more resources to raise the neighborhood’s value. This second step is already in place except for the idea to make this easier in disinvested neighborhoods and harder in invested neighborhoods. Making Small Possible is the big idea as lot level housing builds social equity throughout the city (I call these Climate Action Zones in San Diego).

This begins with defining the neighborhood with its identifiable place-based elements (core, centers, edges). Collaborate with locals to determine a vision, then codify that vision, and then take strategic actions to implement the vision (New Urbanism). Revisit outcomes every 1, 5, and 10 years to adjust the vision, coding and implementation as needed. During the vision/coding process set up measurable outcomes to be monitored and used to cultivate more partnerships and local activity.

The Tools
Introduce and educate through Incremental Developer Boot Camps locally in partnership with the Congress for the New Urbanism, local Urban Land Institute, Building Industry Association, Carpenters Union, Bankers Expos, and beyond. These Make Small Possible (Lean Urbanism). Use these events to recruit risk-oblivious builders and help them build towards the communities expectations and memories of its neighborhood (this is how to build towards a specific community character, but don’t tell the millennials). Visioning efforts to build towards that neighborhood’s shared intent are make through intensive consecutive-day workshops with as many stakeholders involved in short time frame to make and act upon commitments, champions, and compromises (charrette). Move towards working with political/municipalities to legally enable these strategies over the long-term (form-based codes) while allowing more tactical/temporary interventions to test/measure ideas before fully committing all resources to a bigger investment idea (Tactical Urbanism). Entities such as LISC, NeighborWorks, Community Housing Works, and other CDFI entities are great partners for this approach (CNU is capable of such).

The Results
Measurable outcomes that indicate success and lessons learned (See Denver’s rental market success here). And, ultimately, a neighborhood that has moved from disinvestment towards a more static/stable market place to compete for development at the local and regional scale while guarding against national and international scale developments that behaves in a manner that doesn’t obliterate a neighborhood’s memories and expectations. By Making Small Possible, middle class housing is finally built in our nation’s Top 50 cities.

Any thoughts? Silly thinking? Which points have any merit?

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