Balancing the Math!

Economics, Social Justice, Urban Design

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.


Social Justice, Urban Design, Urban Planning

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.

Climate Action Plan, Social Justice, Urban Design, Urban Planning

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.

COVID-19 Cities…

Social Justice, Urban Planning

As we find safety and comfort in telecommuting during this pandemic, we are rightfully questioning the need to live within proximity to workplaces, office parks, and large city employment centers. We aren’t sheltering-in-place as much as we have been sheltering-in-our-neighborhoods, and we’re recognizing that walkability, bikability and an active, healthy lifestyle is easier to achieve without wasting time in a car commuting for our every daily need. With small towns and gateway communities being seen by upper middle class families as ‘livable’ places again, folks are relocating to small towns in close proximity to national parks and wilderness recreational areas to live a more outdoor recreational and lifestyle. This Fast Company ‘Zoom Town’ story alludes to one of the many lessons being taught by Covid-19… the value and pleasure of an active lifestyle (replacing the time spent commuting).

Another lesson is that individual ‘jobs’ are now mobile and families are more free to relocate, which is similar to retirees with a only few differences. My experience in planning for new residents in the small gateway towns of Taos, Joshua Tree, and Borrego Springs (adjacent to Anza Borrego Desert State Park) is to carefully balance the need for long-term local resident economic stability (that funds small town local amenities) with the value and disruptions that high visitor demand brings to national park seasonally. This tradeoff is precarious to manage and zoom/boom towns need useful planning tools to avoid being a bust.

This balancing act is artfully told by Stephen Spielberg in the horror movie, Jaws. Except that COVID-19 is the shark, and the little town of Amity is a gateway town to the beach, with the overwhelmed sheriff trying to balance the safety and needs of the locals with the mass of summertime visitors that help the town survive the rest of the year. The Sherriff’s solution was to blend local knowledge (Quint) together with outside expertise (Hooper). There are several new toolkits online to provide that outside expertise to help towns adjust to new realities. In addition to the Gateway and Natural Amenity Regional Initiative toolkit referenced in the Fast Company article, friends and colleagues, PlaceMakers, have released their small town and cities Pandemic Toolkit, here, in response to these new challenges imposed by COVID-19.