09 June 2011

“Walkable Urbanism” Event Leaves me Hungry for More

On June 1, 2011, CA and HHC co-sponsored “21st Century Development Plans – How Will Columbia Measure Up?” at the Spear Center in downtown Columbia.   HHC Vice-President John DeWolf, CA President Phil Nelson, and Brookings Institute Fellow Chris Leinberger walked an audience of almost 300 through the past 50 years of American real estate development and firmly laid the foundation for what is in store for the next 30 years.  (To be fair, Mr. DeWolf and Mr. Nelson provided mostly introductory remarks and Mr. Leinberger did the heavy lifting, but the tone and content of John and Phil’s words set the stage for a great evening.)

Although at the time of this writing, there has been no coverage by traditional media sources (newspaper, TV, radio), the HoCo blogging community has really stepped up to report and comment on the event.  Trevor Greene @ HoCoPolitico was first out of the box, with his personal observations posted just three hours after the event.  On Thursday morning, HoCoRising provided his insight regarding one particular exchange during the event.  And particular takes on the event were covered by Sarah Says, The Rocket Powered Butterfly, and HoCoConnect.  However, the blog post by Frank Hecker is without a doubt the best first person account of the proceedings on Wednesday night.  I urge anyone who was not in the room to visit his account of the meeting. 

My personal observations of the event have evolved over the past few days.  Let me be clear, Mr. Leinberger is a gifted presenter and easily held my attention of two hours.  He presented powerful and complex concepts that explained how development occurred in the past and how it is changing going forward.  I learned a lot on Wednesday night.

That being said, I have come to think that the event could have been, somehow, better.  By better, I really mean deeper and localized to Columbia.  For instance, Mr. Leinberger made use of clips from the 1985 movie “Back to the Future.”  He asked the audience to focus on the built environment in the movie, from both the 1950’s and 1980’s.  Putting aside the notion that downtown Hill Valley, both the 1955 and 1985, are caricatures of their time, his point was made.  However, given the 30-year timespan in the movie, some historical photography showing downtown Columbia 30 years ago, juxtaposed with how downtown Columbia looks today, may have driven home the point that as Mr. Leinberger stated, “Columbia has flat-lined over the last thirty years.”

Staying with the built-environment-as-reflected-in-pop-culture theme, Mr. Leinberger also discussed how the built environment was portrayed through the years on television.  Specifically, he showed clips of “I Love Lucy” and discussed how in the 1950’s the suburbs were depicted as the preferential place to live, whereas TV shows in the 1990’s depicted characters, such as those on “Seinfeld” living a walkable urban environment.

As a side note, Frank Hecker posits in his blog post (linked above) that the often-cited situation comedies Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex and the City are manufactured images targeted at predominantly white middle-class consumers interested in the comedic and dramatic adventures of other white middle and upper-middle class consumers. Part of the Hollywood strategy here was to recast minorities from urban threats to background contributors to urban atmosphere.”  To an extent, I agree with Frank’s comment; although I tend to include The Cosby Show and Living Single as part of the “walkable urban television shows.”  Both were popular and supposedly located in Brooklyn, NY.  In addition, there is popular support for the theory that Friends “borrowed” from the Living Single show. 

One final point to make about pop culture and the built environment; I believe the pendulum has swung back toward drivable suburban in the small-screen landscape.  Since the demise of “must see TV,” today’s sit-coms (Two-and-a-Half Men, Modern Family) are firmly planted in suburbia, replete with lots of driving to and from events (I swear, if Claire and Phil Dunphy’s Toyota Sienna minivan had a name, it would require a screen credit at the end of the show).  Sex and the City was succeeded on HBO by The Sopranos, a show about a mob boss, in suburban New Jersey.  Even Weeds was based on the premise of a widowed suburban housewife making ends meet through the drug trade, to the point that “Little Boxes” served as the show’s theme song.  Once again, in most of these shows, minorities are sorely underrepresented.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, most TV crime dramas (principally the various CSI and recently defunct Law and Order franchises) are still played out in the urban environs, reinforcing the image of the city as a dangerous place; and yes the crime dramas are the 1970’s ideal of a societal melting pot when compared to the sit-coms mentioned above.

Hey, My Inner Geek is Screaming – What About the Data?!

Yes, this discussion surrounding the built-environment-as-reflected-in-pop-culture is great bar room chatter, but we should get back to the data.  For instance, Mr. Leinberger displayed for the audience a “heat map” indicating the (per household) CO2 emissions in the Chicago area

The story that the map tells is that walkable urbanized areas contribute far less to climate change (on a per-household basis) than the drivable suburban regions.  It stands as an alternate portrait to the “green” pictures typically associated with the drivable suburban setting and the “brick and mortar” images associated with the walkable urbanized setting.  I have no quibble with the imagery.  It is clear that when viewed on a per area basis, central cities produce a lot of pollution.  When viewed on the per capita (be it per person, per household, etc) basis, walkable urban demonstrates itself to be the better bargain.

Showing a map of Chicago provides a great example in the abstract.  Supporting the theory with local data would have driven the point home for those in the audience.  As a matter of fact, the folks that created the Chicago maps (and friends of Mr. Leinberger), the Center for Neighborhood Technology, have also put together a web site that allows the user to do display similar data for much of the United States.

The picture below was taken from this website and can be obtained by centering the map on Columbia and zooming in to the bounds of the city.  The areas on the map depict the amount of CO2 emissions on a per household basis.  Much of Columbia is a deep shade of red, indicating that on a per household basis, these parts of Columbia put out more than 8.6 metric tons of CO2 each year.  If you live inside LPP (Clary’s Forest), Faulkner Ridge, Bryant Woods, Fairway Hills, Talbott Springs, the Treeover section of Jeffers Hill, Locust Park, Huntington, or inside Cradlerock Way (Owen Brown), the per household emissions in your neighborhood are between 6.5-8.6 metric tons per year.  Lastly, if you live in Vantage Point or Governor’s Grant (both in Town Center), the per household emissions are between 5.1-6.5 metric tons per year.

What is also interesting about this map is the large swaths of white.  These areas of Columbia are more recognizable by their names; Columbia Mall, Oakland Ridge Industrial Business Park, Gateway.  What they all have in common is that there are no (or very few) households in these areas, once again reinforcing the single use zoning prevalent in Howard County and Columbia.

In addition to the fine work done by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a consortium of universities and government agencies have come together to create a CO2 database for the entire nation.  Whereas the Center for Neighborhood Technology maps displayed CO2 emissions from automobiles, the Vulcan maps consider all man-made sources of CO2 emissions (note, Google Earth plugin required to view map).  The database is searchable down to the county level. I will leave it up to the reader to compare Howard County’s numbers to surrounding districts.  Suffice it to say, more than half our CO2 emissions come from Onroad Transportation.

Is There More Data to Consider?

Yes!  Later in Mr. Leinberger’s lecture, he was describing the different types of walkable environments and stated that the Washington DC area had the largest concentration of walkable environments in the nation.  He specifically highlighted development in Arlington County, VA along the Wilson Boulevard corridor.

One of the interesting numbers Mr. Leinberger provided was that the Wilson Boulevard corridor is about 2.5% of the land mass in Arlington County and 55% of the property taxes collected.  It would have been helpful at this point in his lecture to discuss the work done by Peter Katz, the Sarasota County (FL) Director of Smart Growth ().  Mr. Katz’s work falls right in line with the Mr. Leinberger statement, but also goes much further. Mr. Katz’s analysis was reported by Mary Newsom @ Citiwire as follows:

Indeed, that three-quarters of an acre of in-town urban-style (14- to 16-story) development is worth more property tax revenue than a combination of the 21-acre WalMart Supercenter and the 32-acre Southgate Mall.  Even a mid rise (up to about seven stories) mixed use building brings in $560,000, and the low rise (up to three stories with residential over retail) brings in over $70,000 per acre — more than three times the return of Southgate Mall.


Still, evidence is piling up of the benefits of compact, in-town development compared with auto-centric greenfield development. With a smaller carbon footprint, it’s kinder on the environment. It’s kinder on residents’ waistlines, too, as they’re likely to walk more and drive less. And now there’s evidence it’s kinder to government coffers, as well. And that’s an attribute worth some serious attention.

If this data was presented in conjunction with the Arlington County data provided by Mr. Leinberger, the point becomes clear:  Throughout the country walkable urbanism is providing significant additional revenue to the local governments in the form of increased property taxes.

One last thing about Arlington, VA.  Without a doubt, urban planners, government officials and environmentalists have often times praised the development around Metro stops in Arlington as good urban design.  As Mr. Leinberger said, “To do walkable urbanism right, Columbia needs to understand what is going on in Arlington.”  And I get that.  I have read and understand the concepts.  What I would like to see are the hard numbers.  I would like to see a progression of traffic studies, from about 1995 to present day, depicting traffic conditions on Wilson Boulevard, Clarendon Boulevard, Fairfax Drive, Glebe Road, and Washington Boulevard.  I would like to see the US Census Journey to Work data, from 1990, 2000 and present day (in its American Community Survey form) showing any difference in “County-to-County workflows,” average commuting time, the percentage of people using mass transit, the number of people that drive alone, and the number of vehicle miles traveled.  This would go a long way to “understanding Arlington.”

Quarters, Dollars, and Dreams that Evolve

One of headline-grabbing quotes from Mr. Leinberger prior to his lecture was his assertion that “If Washington had been located 20 miles farther south of Columbia, the master-planned community would have failed.”  I found this to be an interesting flip on history.  It is my recollection that the Rouse Company bought up land in Howard County because it was between Baltimore and Washington.  Sure, stating that building a planned community is fraught with risk and that failure was a real possibility is certainly within the bounds of discussion, but to extend those statements to ignore the initial conditions is just plain irresponsible.

During his lecture, Mr. Leinberger spoke to this aspect under the a larger discussion of the “favored quarter.”  The favored quarter, as it applies to Baltimore is well described by Myron Orfield in his 1997 paper, Baltimore Metropolitics: a Regional Agenda for Community and Stability (pdf):

The “favored quarter” (a term coined by real estate consultants) dominates regional economic growth and garners a disproportionate share of the region’s new roads and other developmental infrastructure. Its housing markets are highly restrictive, its social needs small and often declining. However, it has too few local workers for local jobs and traffic congestion that cannot be solved by new highways. In the low social need sector growing communities corner the market in low-density executive housing and/or business tax base with low service requirements. Fiscal zoning is the process by which communities zone or plan to develop expensive housing and/or commercial-industrial property with low service demands so as to increase their tax base per household and keep their costly social need (and taxes) down.
Christopher Leinberger and his colleagues at Robert Charles Lesser and Co. (RCL & Co.), one of the most successful real estate consulting firms in the country, have made a great deal of money locating for businesses the “favored quarter” in a given metropolitan area.42 These quarters are developing suburban areas that have mastered the art of skimming off the cream of metropolitan growth, while accepting as few metropolitan responsibilities as possible. RCL & Co. look for areas with concentrations of housing valued above $200,000, high-end regional malls, and the best freeway capacity. As these communities grow affluent and their tax base expands, their exclusive housing market actually causes their relatively small local social needs to decline.
In the Baltimore region, Leinberger’s favored quarter is the tract of land that surrounds Interstate 83, in the Towson area and north into central Baltimore County. This favored quarter includes places just to the north of Baltimore that we have identified as areas with high tax base and low social need; such as Towson, Luthersville-Timonium, and Mays Chapel. Leinberger also identifies two secondary favored quarters as being the Owings Mills and the White Marsh areas. The area of White Marsh has also been identified in our study as a low social need place. These secondary areas may become more important in future years as the I-83 favored quarter north of Baltimore is held back by strict zoning ordinances and limited available infrastructure.43 In addition to these favored quarters identified by Leinberger, using similar techniques, our study has identified other places of low social need, predominantly located in Howard and Anne Arundel Counties.

I believe that the favored quarters in the Washington DC and Baltimore regions (and the success of Columbia) are tied to, and in service of, the American Dream.  Mr. Leinberger touched on this early in his lecture.  He spoke of the American Dream, and how it has changed over time. In early American (United States) history, the American Dream was tied to an agrarian ideal.  As Mr. Leinbeger stated, “40-acres and a mule” were enough for a family to provide for itself. 

As the manufacturing, industrial and transportation industries matured during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the American Dream evolved into the suburban ideal.  It was during this maturation period in which the foundation of the favored quarter was laid in Baltimore and Washington DC.  In Baltimore, the Jones Falls that runs through the city proved to be a beneficial site for early mills.  With any industrialized waterway, the affluent area was predominantly upstream, given, among other things, cleaner water.  In addition, upland regions were desirable to the affluent because they could escape the heat of the city during the summer months.  In Washington DC, the creation of the C&O canal and later the railroad created the transportation infrastructure for the well-to-do seeking relief from the city.  From these initial beginnings, the favored quarters evolved into the areas we know today. 

It is also worth mentioning the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act of 1924 (and revised in 1926).  This landmark legislation was produced by the Department of Commerce under the guidance of then Secretary Herbert Hoover.  This act provided for the separation of land uses and accelerated the transformation of the American Dream in which the place of residence is separate and distinct from the place of work.

With respect to Columbia, let me refer back to Mr. Leinberger’s opening remarks.  At the beginning of the evening, Mr. Leinberger praised the work of Columbia’s founder Jim Rouse and stated that he was ahead of his time.  Although Mr. Rouse failed to persuade the United States Patent and Trademark Office to locate within Columbia, the city’s regional proximity to the National Security Agency, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Social Security Administration provided ample employment opportunities.  Each of these facilities either opened or dramatically expanded during the 1960’s.  In particular, the types of jobs at these facilities; analysts, engineers, scientists, technicians, physicists and other degreed professionals were what I believe are the seeds of what Richard Florida has called the "Creative Class.”  In this way, intended or not, a generation of Columbia residents prospered in a way that wasn’t even defined until thirty years later.  Mr. Leinberger’s favored quarter discussion is valid within the context of regional manufacturing and industrial legacies; however, in the current information age and the emerging experiential age, the thinking will have to change.  To be fair, Mr. Leinberger did hint at this rethinking during his discussion.

All things considered, it has been more than a week since the meeting, and I’m still buzzing.  As I said on Twitter the next day, “I laughed, I learned, and I start this day with renewed hope.”  Part of this renewed hope is that we will have more of these type events in the near future.  On that note, I have one last request.  I hope that in future meetings, CA and HHC can provide some sort of babysitting on site so that young families can attend.  Doing so will open up the number of people that can attend, and that can’t be a bad thing.