Can Retirement Plans Help Shape New Blocks?

Skinny Buildings

An issue we’re beginning to delve into with the Better Block is how can we begin creating places that support and incubate small local businesses, while increasing density so that a large enough population can help keep these places afloat, all while promoting a greater sense of place.

When you look at the above picture of a row of skinny buildings, you might not realize that much of what is shown that we built regularly in the past, is now illegal. One of the major initiatives of the Better Block project is to expose the policies and rules that restrict this type of development and to begin a plan to revise these in order to allow more optimal land use patterns that generate greater economics, and help provide a stronger revenue source for its surrounding infrastructure.

Multiple skinny buildings which were constructed by multiple individuals as opposed to the now typical “Master Developer” process

Two major hurdles we face are that block development of this type is now largely placed in the domain of single “master developers” who create large buildings that will fill the entire block. These developments are typically uniform, and reliant on massive outside capital investments to construct. Also, international fire codes restrict much of this development, preferring to create greater separation of the buildings which diminishes land use potential, increases construction price, and reduces walkability.

Thinner streets, which are more affordable to maintain and construct, alongside skinny buildings with high retail activation and affordable residential on top, creating a more sustainable and walkable neighborhood.

So how can we begin building anew in a form that we regularly created in the past? One area to look at is having large financial groups like pension funds diversify their investments and look at identifying multiple blocks in a community and constructing a single skinny building in these places. Also, work with existing businesses in community to change retirement plans from volatile market based investments, and look at investing in their own communities with additional skinny buildings. These investments, if done properly, could allow the same returns for employees, and also create a vested interest from the shareholders since the health of the buildings future is directly tied to the future retirement of the individual. Also, we’ve heard time and again that real estate is a good bet for long term investment strategies.

Residential tower development constructed with Firemen’s Pension fund. How many skinny buildings, sprinkled throughout neighborhoods could have been built for this same price?

We hope to look at more of these models in future Better Block initiatives and to even help craft our own retirement plan for future employees that does exactly this. Stay tuned!

Subsidizing Sprawl

In cities across the nation, we’re currently faced with a heated debate on growth and the need for improved infrastructure to facilitate “future development”. Arguments on promoting regionalism vs. localism are a mainstay and bonds are passed to widen streets in communities to mitigate traffic flow with the hope of speculative tax revenue to one day pay for the long term costs of roads. I was struck by a recent mantra by groups opposed to making existing infrastructure more productive, dismissing urbanism and multi-modal transit options as a novelty or worse, a UN conspiracy labeled “Agenda 21″. One critic argued, “Just Fix the Streets” without understanding that there is no money available to do this…we’re still paying for roads we built 20 years ago that promised future development that never came. What really amazed me was the lack of understanding many voiced in favor of our modern car-centric, sprawling development…a network that was completely brought about by massive government intervention and subsidization. The free market would never have created something so wasteful and inefficient on its own. An example I gave recently was the following:

If you wanted to develop a small bakery in your neighborhood, you would not be able to due to zoning restrictions brought about by local government separating basic uses (homes here, business there). This is the first step in deconstructing pedestrian oriented environments. It’s no longer the industrial revolution, yet we still base much of our land use on the ideas of separating factories from homes.

Next, let’s say you finally discover a plot of land where you can build your own bakery. Before you even begin construction, the local government will require you to use at least 40% of your private land for free parking. No if’s, and’s, or but’s…you’ve just been told by the government what to do with your property and your valuable retail shelf space has been truncated with the slash of a pen. Now, let’s extrapolate this out to hundreds of other businesses who own private land and are forced to provide everyone free parking. At some point, the system has been sufficiently gamed to where it no longer makes sense to walk.

You just drive, my business will make sure you have a free parking spot.

Next, let’s say you want to save money by living above your business and operating on the ground floor. Again, this option has been regulated out of existence, further promoting auto-centric development because now you have to live in the residence zone, and work in the business zone.

So far, we’ve separated land uses by great distances, required private property owners to ensure their land was split in half for free parking, and cut off the potential for live/work environments. It’s fairly difficult to justify pedestrian-oriented development at this point. For what it’s worth, we’d been allowed to do all of these things for hundreds of years prior to government intervention and our communities did fine. In fact, many of the problems we face today are related to our need to try and manage the unsustainable nature of suburban sprawl. From the subprime mortgage crises to constant highway/tollroad development (which we can’t afford to maintain), we’re continually having to accommodate an unnatural development pattern.

Okay, we’re not done yet. Now that we’ve separated uses and incentivized cars over other modes of transit, your bakery is going to have a harder time competing because now the all-in-one store can do away with your business model. Since everyone is now driving, it’s inconvenient to hop from one store to the next…you might as well mix the bakery, with the farmers market, and the butcher, and the pharmacy. Voila, small business can barely compete while the multi-national box store can now offer loaves of bread for pennies and chalk it up as a loss leader. Hey, that’s the free market working…except, the market was completely dominated by government intervention throughout the chain and we’re not even close to being finished. Also, though we’re saving a dollar on bread, the social fabric of our community is beginning to erode because the Super Target doesn’t seem to want to pay for the local school’s baseball uniforms, but Joe’s Deli, which is no longer around, was always supporting the team. If you don’t believe that’s the case, you don’t own a small business. As a local restaurant owner, I can tell you firsthand that we’re asked for and give out donations to neighborhood fundraisers (PTA’s, girl/boy scouts, soccer teams, chess clubs, etc.) on a weekly basis. Head to any community silent auction and you’ll see nothing but local products being offered as prizes…Home Depot and Tom Thumb are surprisingly absent.

Notice, 2/3rd’s of this lot is for free parking.

Now let’s look at the land itself that we’re developing on today. A 250 foot block on a classic Main Street in any downtown would have contained ten commercial buildings built next to each other (saving on distances for utilities, and creating greater energy efficiency) with retail establishments on the first floor, service related businesses on the second floor, and space for business owners to live on third and fourth floors. Now, thanks to zoning and more, we can fit roughly 2 to 3 businesses on that same plot of land, and they’re separated by more free parking that isn’t really free. This is why your average suburban block will only contain a fast food chain, a gas station, and an auto parts store. Small businesses can be developed in shopping strips that are tied to large chain retailers, but once that chain decides to move on (from Wal-Mart to Super Wal-Mart), then your business will die a slow death as your customers move on to the next, larger strip two miles down the road. Oh, and the city is going to be on the hook to pay for the tear down of the old, now closed, big box store because no other shop can take residence in the space.

You wouldn’t be allowed to build this today if you wanted to.

We haven’t even begun to touch suburban housing. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration was created which subsidized middle class families moves to the newly developed suburbs. The Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) mortgage loan program provided over eleven million low-cost mortgages after WWII. These mortgages, which typically cost less per month than paying rent, only insured homes of a typical type and size – generally new single-family suburban construction. Furthermore, a home insured by the FHA was required to be of a certain size and quality desired by those of above-average means, to guarantee quick resale of the home. FHA did not support renovations of already-existing homes, construction of row houses, mixed-use buildings, and other urban housing types. These policies led to deterioration of the urban housing stock and disinvestment in existing urban housing.

Alright, we still have the Federal Highway program and a host of other government interventions that sufficiently tore apart pedestrian oriented environments that existed naturally for hundreds of years in favor of heavily subsidized (from the oil pumped out of the ground to the GM badge on the grill) auto dependency. Sadly, it was only in your grandparents generation when you could have opened that bakery at the end of the block, lived on the top floor, while the community walked by and picked up a loaf of bread.

A counter to this unproductive land use development is the Better Block project, which looks at existing, non-performing land, and temporarily transforms places into desirable, active, neighborhood destinations that take into account an entire community regardless of age, or ethnicity, and creates as many invitations as possible for people to interact, play, work, and grow together. When these places are successful, they naturally produce greater economics, promote health, and allow for manageable sustained growth. The fundamentals for a good Better Block use what has known to work in great places for generations and applies those ideas rapidly.

Our built environment should reflect our New Year’s Resolutions

Did you notice that people’s New Year’s Resolutions rarely say things like: Drive faster, Eat more fast food, Spend more time on Facebook? In fact, what we often resolve for ourselves is to take care of our personal well-being and what makes us feel whole: Create more (write, build, etc), Exercise more, Eat healthy, Spend more time with others, Spend more time doing what we truly love (reading, music, dancing, cooking, etc.), Live our values. If these things truly make us happy, why does our built environment often de-emphasize these things? Why is convenience and speed placed above quality and slowing down?

With our work, we’ve found that a healthy community naturally manifests itself onto the physical environment. But what we fail to often measure and support is how people really feel in a place. Architect, Christopher Alexander, notes that a healthy building, bench, or anything made in the past took into consideration not only “its capacity to support life, but went into considerable depth about the way people really feel: what they experience as human beings, what they experience spiritually, what is worthwhile for them, not in monetary terms (their salaries), but in felt, human terms involving creativity, fellowship, the experience of being of service to the world, and the experience of love and affection.”

He goes on to state that “The connection between human feeling and the wholeness of the world is profound. The presence of profound feeling in the hearts of human observers is the most sensitive, most reliable measuring stick.”

Spend one hour in the Bishop Arts District in Dallas (a small, walkable environment filled with local businesses, murals, and old buildings) and notice how many people take their wedding photos there, are holding hands, or simply sitting on a park bench. People feel better in these environments, yet we have so few of them.

This is why the process for change, and the act of working together as a community to re-shape the built environment from a fear-based, convenience (read: auto-centric) focused form, to one that embraces human life and the shared human experience is so powerful when encountered. Whether it be watching a boarded up, abandoned home find a new owner and slowly come back to life, or seeing Times Square convert from a cold and pedestrian hostile environment, to a place that people can meet, linger, and gather, this process of embracing life is moving for anyone witnessing the transformation. It charges something inside of us, and the moving of the needle from fear to love ultimately improves the greater social health of a community (something which we noted in past articles is just as important as diet and exercise for our well-being).

The problems we face now are not understanding what makes us truly happy, but overcoming the obstacles to change, which are largely based on fears and concerns over hurdles to convenience. With this in mind, let’s resolve to educate others on the need to create places that support and uphold life, and commit to action immediately!


The Year of Meeting our Heroes

Andrew Howard and I (Jason Roberts), never set out to start an international movement in urban planning when we began our first Better Block project in April of 2010. Our goal was simply to show our neighborhood in Dallas how we could create a place, together, that would be more vibrant, sustainable, life-affirming, and accommodating to all walks of life, young and old. The fact that the effort resonated with so many others around the world was something that has inspired us each and every day since.


From the outset, Andrew’s background in urban planning combined with my work in open sourced IT gave us an opportunity to take ideas we were both reading and learning about from great minds like William Whyte, Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl, Jamie Lerner, Enrique and Gil Penalosa, and Christopher Alexander, and throw them into a blender to see if we could begin incrementally, with very little money (but a lot of hands) start making places that matter.

We’ve learned far more than we ever could have dreamed through this project, and the fact that we dedicated our efforts to making sure it was an open-sourced and accessible initiative has given us the opportunity to learn from each and every Better Block that gets put on the ground. One thing that we’ve found as a common thread for these projects is the raising of social capital that occurs in a community and the strong bonds that live on far beyond the timeframe of the installation itself. We’ve made dear friends around the world, worked in every imaginable environment, and had our share of successes and overcome enough obstacles to have a better understanding on what is needed to turn a place around. To begin, you have to engage a community and set it to action quickly. The planning process itself needs to take into account that a neighborhood is motivated and wants to begin seeing immediate incremental action on the ground that shows that a commitment to change is in motion.

street mn

This year, I had my own personal challenge of overcoming cancer which instilled a greater immediacy into our work. When I was at my worst, my community came together and helped hold me up. This would not have happened had we not worked to build stronger neighborhood ties through our projects, and showed us the need to make sure places around the world also began re-stitching themselves. So often, when looking at community health, people look at diet and exercise only. What has been shown through studies like the Roseto Effect are that social cohesion is a critical third element which must be added to the mix.


From Tehran, Iran to Melbourne, Australia, one of the most common statements made from participants and coordinators of Better Block projects has been, “We’re finally talking and meeting our neighbors and helping each other!” When we began our work, we felt that form was the main issue facing places, but we found that even areas that had the right ingredients in form didn’t always feel quite right. What was holding these places back was fear, and once we were able to highlight the need for blocks to embrace the people and the natural assets they posses, things began changing on their own. The Better Block creates a stage for a community to show off it’s hidden potential.


Some of the highlights for our work this past year have been getting the chance to step outside our bounds and work internationally. Specifically, getting to know and present with groups like Rebar in San Francisco, Raumlabor in Berlin, Transition Network in Totnes, and Gap Filler in New Zealand who are all actively working to improve the built environment and create stronger communities.

Also, being acknowledged by MIT, the Knight Foundation, and National Assoication of REALTORS (R) has allowed us to expand our network and look at creating better tools for evaluating and surveying neighborhoods to gather data on what is currently working and how to begin making incremental and rapid improvements. We were fortunate to have great clients that allowed us to stretch the bounds of city building in Norfolk, VA, Saint Paul, MN and Saskatoon Canada. Our continued partnership with Toole Design Group allows us access to cutting edge bicycle and pedestrian design opportunities.

Andrew Howard of Team Better Block radar guns West Commerce prior to the project installation.
Andrew Howard of Team Better Block radar guns West Commerce prior to the project installation.

Our goals for this next year are to begin working with cities to roll out these tools so that they can not only begin their own Better Block projects, but continue assessing and building upon their successes. As for Team Better Block, we look forward to working with Parsons Brinkerhoff in Somerville, MA, The Planning Center in Fresno, CA, Atlanta Regional Council and Richmond Virginia as we further institutionalize the Better Block approach into city building. We will also be traveling back to Germany, Denmark, Sweden and England to share what we have learned.


 The Better Block itself is like a tree…you can plant it, but it requires watering and maintenance, especially early on, to mature and grow. We’ve found that creating that early vision, working together to build a better place, then adapting and incrementing continued change is vital for the first two years after a block has been addressed. It’s a fragile time, but it’s also an exciting opportunity for any community willing to take on the challenge.


Other plans for the new year are books on the history of the project, case studies from past projects, and more that we hope to announce soon. I will be on tour with the Lavin Agency speaking at various conferences and Andrew has launched a new workshop program  that is teaching Better Block best practices. 

Download (PDF, 592KB)

 Thank you to all the Better Block Champions out there! Your countless volunteer hours and work are paying off. See you in 2014!


Daylight your Streetcar Stops! The Future of Revitalizing American Cities

When visiting cities around the US, we are regularly asked, “Where do you like to develop Better Block projects?” Our answer is always the same…pull out your old streetcar maps, hop on a bicycle and begin re-tracing the routes. Along the former rail lines in those inner city suburbs, you should see clusters of historic buildings nestled nicely into neighborhoods. These were built to house supportive local businesses that provided daily necessities, and acted as community gathering spaces for residents in places as far away as New Orleans to New York City. The beauty of these small clusters were that they were typically only a block or two in size, and fairly small in square footage, which allowed them to be affordable enough for someone to create a manageable and solvent bakery, deli, market, tavern, flower shop, beautician 0r any multitude of neighborhood supportive retail. They were small, but they had powers of numbers to create a “sense of place” or destination, and could use collective buying power for bringing in goods, managing public spaces, and programming street activities. These places housed the local butcher that knew your favorite cut of meat, the pharmacist who knew your kids by name, and provided community gathering places where you and your neighbors could meet after a hard day at work and talk about life, love, hardships, while sharing a beer.

Bishop Arts District, Dallas (Oak Cliff), Texas. A former streetcar stop, daylighted, and filled with 30+ local businesses, and no national chains. Small spaces filled with chocolatiers, pie shops, cafes, clothiers, art galleries, designers, and some of the best/cheapest breakfast tacos in the city (El Jordan!)

Size was key…keeping it small made it manageable and instead of having to load up with 8 rolls of toilet paper, 10 cans of tomato sauce, and 3 loaves of bread (that strangely never seem to mold) at a single big box store, you simply bought fresher things on bi-weekly basis, stored less, had fresher goods, received regular exercise by simply walking 3 or 4 blocks to acquire your goods, and saw and interacted with your neighbors regularly. Also, the merchants knew and loved their products and focused on become artisans in their crafts (from breads, to meats, to flowers, to cheeses…not one “super center”, but multiple “specialized” individuals shops in close proximity). For some reason, we’ve made our “normal” routine of getting simple things like eggs or mayonnaise, something which requires the use of a two ton vehicle, a quarter tank of gas, very little muscle use, and the potential to put ourselves in harms way with hundreds of other people doing the exact same thing.

And with the recent revitalization of inner city neighborhoods occurring around the nation, we’re seeing saturation of these small blocks because they aren’t coming on line fast enough. We have a supply and demand issue which is suffocating and potentially destabilizing the potential for small blocks to return to their mainstay.

Daylight your one-block sized streetcar stops, and link them with irresistible pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. Flickr photo by BeyondDC

Our hope is to see a return to daylighting as many of these streetcar stops as possible, and linking them with IRRESISTIBLE pedestrian, bicycle, and public transit options. Allow cars in the mix too, of course, but create parity and give people a reason to want to select other (read: healthier) options. If one mode of transit is given priority beyond any other, then people will naturally revert to what’s given to them which will stress the land use surrounding the businesses (read: lack of parking).

This is a very fragile development to create, because it requires property owners who are mindful of a blocks long term legacy. The tendency to want to “cash out” with the big chain while enticing, can quickly undo all of the work developed to make the place unique and special. Compare a block in the Bishop Arts District to the West End Marketplace in Dallas. The former is filled with dozens of small, unique, locally owned businesses, the other is filled with national chains like TGI Friday’s, Corner Bakery, and Chipotle. And while the chains might serve quality food, there’s nothing unique, All of it could be easily found in dozens of shopping strips throughout the city, the country, or conveniently, even at the airport on your way in and out of the city.

Black Star Pastry, in Sydney, Australia. Less than 1200 square feet, locally owned, and crammed full with people who can’t wait to grab a pastry on their way to the office.

So how do you keep the big chains from over running an area? Keep the buildings small. So small, that the locals can afford to run and manage their operations in the spaces. Small enough that the local neighborhood can support them. But, in large enough numbers that the businesses have collective power to create a destination and become a natural, supportive extension of the neighborhood.

Our tendency in large/mid-sized US cities is to try and replicate ideas found in New York or San Francisco, but the reality is that places like St. Louis, Dallas, and Duluth are too spread out, and lack the density to look like Manhattan. BUT, their strength exists when you get outside of the center city and go to that first inner city neighborhood “streetcar suburb” ring. Where homes and commercial edge together and create community gathering places that house local businesses, offer jobs, and promote the identity of the places and people that surround them.

The key is to “Think Small,” daylight as many of the streetcar stops as possible, and connect them with amazing multi-modal transportation. Beyond this, we must work quickly, and increment up these places. Otherwise, we could destabilizing the few that exist since their are so few available and the demand is so high for them.






Memphis making Better Block Permanent!


Memphis reported an estimated 13,000 people at their Better Block in November 19th and 201th 2010. Since then the area has seen drastic changes to the street including filled storefronts and the first two-way cycle track in the southeast with raised planter protection. They have also seen a slew of new businesses including a bike shop, bakery, micro-brewery, and ballet school. In addition to this investment, they received two separate grants to make culture-related street improvements. The leaders of the project also report that progressive changes have been made to Memphis’ complete streets and traffic engineering code. Additional reports note $8 million in new investment.

Now the community is making parts of the better block permanent and you can help them reach there fund raising goal and help build a cycle track that reconnects this community.  To learn more and donate visit:

The Hampline


Overton Park – Greenline Connector. Raising $75,000 from the public is all that remains before the most innovative bicycle infrastructure project within the US will be built in Memphis.


Memphis_photo sim_colorful pavers Broad Ave updated (1)




What do neighborhoods and Better Blocks need? Illegal Granny Flats.

Photo from

We discussed in a recent article the need to incrementally reduce parking in neighborhoods while incrementally increasing density in order to reduce driving and allow for more rooftops that support local businesses in communities, but we didn’t outline one of the most important tools available to help move the dial.

The answer lies in small structures that we created for decades in backyards across America: the Granny Flat. Quite simply, these tiny homes do far more than increase density for neighborhoods, they also provide much needed affordable housing options for young people fresh out of school, older people looking to scale down their living expenses, or temporary residences for visitors to an area who want to get more of a “local feel” for places they travel to.

Friends who recently updated their backyard granny flat regularly post the space on which gives them an added boost to their income of approximately $700 a month. Not too bad for a young couple with a new baby who are looking for every opportunity to save or earn money that they can, given that daycare alone can be close to a mortgage in cost. They entertain guests from as far away as New Zealand who visit our small neighborhood retailers, sit in our outdoor cafes, and turn around and tell their friends to visit and follow their footsteps. This little space single-handedly provides a boost to a single household income, enhances neighborhood business economics, and acts as a one room convention and visitors bureau.

Other advantages are the added “eyes on the street” created by the additional people in the area which heightens a neighborhoods real and perceived sense of safety. Alleyways, which are common places for theft (through unseen rear access points), now have additional eyes protecting the area. Also, since these flats are nestled into historic neighborhoods with supportive commercial retail in close proximity, we see an uptick in bicycle ridership and pedestrian traffic as well. All major assets to increasing the sociability of places, whose byproduct is improved economics.

Lastly,  people who hit hard times through loss of jobs, illness, or other unforeseen circumstances, have an option to move out of their larger front house, rent the space out, and still live on their small plot of land while they recoup and hopefully recover. Or if they grow old and can no longer manage a large household, they don’t have to be shipped out of their neighborhoods and sent to cold, and distant nursing homes at the fringes of society while they still have the ability to walk.

And sadly, this staple of American households has been mostly relegated to illegal status largely due to unfounded fears. The friends I noted above are technically not allowed to rent this space, even though it’s doing so much good for them and our neighborhood. Acknowledging that communities need smart density options like the granny flat to support local businesses and residents is a first step to building Better Blocks that can act as supportive neighborhood destinations for people to live, work, and play in.

When a car culture is detrimental to community

Image from the Dallas Morning News

This morning, a 16 year old was run over and killed by a driver making a U-turn in front of a school minutes after dropping the student off. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time an incident like this has occurred, and worst, it won’t be the last. The reality we’re faced with in the US is that we’ve prioritized the convenience of moving cars quickly over the creation of meaningful places for people. There’s far too many examples of this in our city code books and transit planning initiatives, but the most damaging is the persistent idea that “Level of Service” for moving vehicles must be ranked at the highest possible level. This runs completely counter to creating destinations within neighborhoods and the loss of life due to this ill-conceived prioritization results in cold, hostile places that sadly reflect our values in regards to community.

So what can be done to begin the process of change? First of all, we have to acknowledge the problem we’ve created by changing the form of our cities over the last 50 years. This is a very new type of development that embraces a single mode of transit which requires a massive amount of infrastructure to maintain. Not just the roads, the paint, and the maintenance, but also the requirement for all retail and residential establishments to be retrofitted to accommodate large swaths of land for temporary storage. The idea of taking a valuable piece of land for a commercial venture, and carving up half of it simply to store peoples cars, giving up valuable retail shelf space, only makes sense when you’ve created an environment that pushes our basic needs far from our homes. This is not a diatribe against vehicle ownership because I completely understand the necessity for basic human needs predicated on cars.

A major question we have to ask ourselves is what do we want from our communities? It’s almost as simple as, “Why are we here?” My good friend, Mike Lydon, who has been instrumental in organizing and documenting the Tactical Urbanism movement, has been focused on understanding this “root cause” issue that we’re faced with and regularly employs the “5 Why’s” method to have people realize the true problems that we should be addressing as opposed to the initial, gut response.

In the case of today’s sad “accident”, our initial focus might be to figure out how to stop this type of issue. In this instance, there are several options:

  • Create infrastructure that restricts cars to predictive movements (channelize cars, and build physical barriers like medians to stop U-Turns)
  • Slow traffic in and out of the area with bulb-outs, pedestrian islands/shelves
  • Create multi-modal options that thin the street like Cycle Tracks

To take things to another level, we could even look at making it inconvenient to use a car to get kids to school. Right now, we’ve actually developed wide roadway drop-off systems in front of schools that encourage potential conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles. In this instance, we could:

  • Remove front driveways
  • Build schools to the sidewalk edge
  • Thin the streets in front of the schools
  • Create wide pedestrian paths, and bicycle infrastructure to promote multi-modal transit options

This would be a good step as well, but it still doesn’t address the root problem. If we ask ourselves things like:

1. Why did the vehicle make a U-Turn?

The initial answer is because the street is wide enough to allow this.

2. Why is the street so wide?

To accommodate a high Level of Service for cars.

3. Why are we accommodating a high Level of Service for cars?

Because people have to drive to get to work

4. Why do people have to drive to get to work?

Because we’ve created zoning that separates work from homes

5. Why have we created separation through zoning?

Because we followed a Euclidian zoning model that was developed 50+ years ago that saw industry hurting residences, and looked at creating distance in order to maintain order as the priority for the time.

6. If “factory development” is no longer occurring, why are we continuing to separate ourselves through this style of zoning?

Great question.

Beyond this, why are we building communities in the first place? I would assume it’s because we need each other for work, play, growth, development, and connections. And why have we accepted the idea that it’s “okay” to have to get into our cars to get something as basic as a gallon of milk?  Shouldn’t we build neighborhoods that allow us to live and work within walking distance in the same place? And wouldn’t this reduce our demand for driving everywhere? And with that, wouldn’t we save more money? and lives?

To make matters worse, what happens when we build a community based on cars instead of people, and we can no longer drive (too old, too young, or infirmed)? Well, we’ve seen that your value drops and with age, you’re removed from community (at a time you need it most).

To me, the definition of a souless community is one where there is no pride in place, no young people, no old people, and no opportunities for growth and connections. We’ve done an amazing job of creating places that destroy communities, and for some reason, we consider the loss of life to automobiles as a “cost of doing business”. For things to change, a simple re-prioritization needs to occur  along with a realization that the answer to our problems exists already within our neighborhoods: Start with the people.




The Fragile Block: How to Kill a Good Thing

Warren Buffet has some great insight regarding the natural progression of good ideas that he refers to as “the Three I’s,” which I feel applies directly to the classic gentrification curve. Here it is from the Harvard Business Review:

First come the innovators, who see opportunities that others don’t. Then come the imitators, who copy what the innovators have done. And then come the idiots, whose avarice undoes the very innovations they are trying to use to get rich.

So if we look at gentrification as a process where on one end of the spectrum you have high segregation by low economics (poverty) and race (specifically minority) and the other end of the spectrum also being segregation but by high economics (wealth) and race (specifically majority, read: “wealthy white”), the middle ground becomes an area where we find greater integration both economically and racially, but tends to be a fragile space in time to maintain due to a tendency of what Buffet calls “idiots” to over-capitalize on what is working, without realizing the balance of identity, economics, and integration is what makes the place sustainable (for jobs, affordability, improved health, character, et cetera). I’m also a partner at a small restaurant in our neighborhood, and our group gets asked on a weekly basis to take our concept and bring it to another city in hopes that the same energy can be rubber stamped elsewhere. While the idea of “cashing in” might seem appealing, what makes our place truly special is the local ownership and the connection with the people and identity of the neighborhood. As opposed to simply using the traditional developer backed economic gardening ideas, economic harvesting within existing neighborhoods is a much more powerful and lasting solution to help make a place vibrant and sustainable. Find the locals on the ground that always dreamed of owning their own businesses and partner them with others who can help them achieve their dreams. It’s harder work, but the results are much more powerful and honest.  I’m sure this process has been talked about at length by others, but we find this regularly when discussing revitalization of areas that suffer from mass disinvestment.

In our community, we have a small block of historic, walkable buildings filled with  30+ local businesses called the Bishop Arts District that have an interesting mix of quality and services (from $1.5o tacos to a 5 star restaurant) that exist at a very small moment in time. Fortunately, this area has a handful of property owners who understand the value of maintaining a places legacy, and that this fragile balance is important. These businesses provide affordable options for locals, generate much needed economics that bring a regional draw, offer jobs, promote an identity, but is also dangerously close to being damaged by its own success. For example, once investors from outside of the area see that they can quickly create a bar that’s going to generate a healthy profit, they will rapidly jump in to build on the area’s increased economics. Others will see and do the same and potentially over-saturate the neighborhood with something it doesn’t want and can’t control.  My business partner says “it’s like eating ice cream all the time”. It sounds like fun, but the reality is it’s extremely unhealthy and hard to control.

So should we stop creating these great places for communities that provide jobs, promote identity, lowers crime, and improve an area’s health? Absolutely not, but what we face is a supply and demand issue. Since most cities, like ours, have so few of these places (less than 1% of Dallas is made up of places with well connected, walkable neighborhood destinations), but the desire is so high to have them, they quickly can become overrun by excessive capital. The answer to the problem is for us to try and replicate the form and function of these small places and  have them throughout the city because everyone deserves great places to live and walk in their neighborhoods, regardless of race or economics. A large city should be made up of one hundred Better Blocks that are all well connected (pedestrian, bike, car, and public transit), but have small spaces that locals can create their own dream business which helps support the community. In fact, our “Think Small” mantra is key because an individual who has a dream of opening something like a bakery, has to have a small but affordable space to work from. And placing several of these small spaces together creates power in numbers that allows these small business to leverage their combined resources for marketing and placemaking. Once the scale of the building becomes too large, the local business person cannot afford the rent or overhead, which leaves a series of chains who will fill the void, but with empty calories that contribute little to the character and cohesiveness of the neighborhood. Obviously, more car-centric cities face an issue of low density (higher density is needed to maintain strong walkable commercial blocks), so this problem has to be addressed in the same way that we have to address changing the auto-dominated landscape…incrementally. The gut reaction to seeing a great place like the Bishop Arts District is to say, “It needs more parking!”…the reality is that this would make the place less walkable (the reason you love it in the first place), because historic structures surrounding the area would need to be leveled to accommodate cars which would ultimately hurt the area. So what’s the solution?

Incrementally reduce parking at a rate that is almost imperceptible per year (they reduce parking by 3% in Copenhagen), while incrementally increasing the density (use the same 3%). How do you handle the latter? Simple, return to the way we did it during our “streetcar suburb” period in the 1920′s. In our part of Dallas (Oak Cliff), homes were regularly outfitted with “granny flats” in the back, and we had a healthy mix of duplexes, triplexes, and quads sprinkled around single family homes. Sadly, we’ve outlawed many of these places, due to unfounded fears. Fortunately, with the advent of applications like AirBnB, several enterprising locals have figured out that they can generate a small revenue for themselves (which helps keep them in their homes…especially in case hard times hit…read: job loss), provides more eyes on the street (heightening safety), and greater economics (tourists spend money locally).

In the end, it’s a very fragile system, but as long as we understand the process that tends to take over, we’ll have a much better chance of mitigating the downside to helping revitalize a community.