Walking the Walk

Urban design from the front lines

Kevin Klinkenberg

Using urban design to make our lives more enjoyable and create wealth

This site is for all those interested in the making of cities and towns, and especially the lives of the humans that inhabit them. Kevin Klinkenberg is an architect and urban designer who's practiced from coast-to-coast. 

Hurricane Dreams

Last week, we had a bit of a scare with Hurricane Irma skirting by Savannah.

I don’t want to minimize the trauma that many, many people felt in the Caribbean and in Florida. People will be living with the rebuilding process for many years. But this is simply to describe the experience in Savannah.

So that qualifier out of the way, what we had here was (for a time) a mandatory evacuation. Emergency officials were concerned with the early paths that showed Irma taking direct aim at our city. Obviously, if that had happened, I wouldn’t be writing this nor would there be much positive news to tell. As it turns out, the storm kept moving further and further west, and we got a brush instead of a hit.

Biking the "wrong" way with no cars around

Biking the "wrong" way with no cars around

Still, many people (most?) did leave. For those of us that stayed it was one part surreal, one part very concerning, and one part – beautiful and serene. The city, and the downtown neighborhoods in particular, were noticeably free of vehicular traffic. On the streets around us, we saw multiple families out riding bikes together – on streets that sometimes have no bike traffic. Many businesses had to close because their staff left town, but quite a few fought to stay open with skeleton crews. Nearly all of those were locally-owned, and featured the owners chipping in by cooking, sweeping, serving or whatever was needed.

I don’t want to be overly Pollyannaish, since we were all at least a little worried, but there was a tremendous sense of people just slowing down and enjoying the city and their neighbors. People always do tend to bond in an emergency, but there was something more than “coming together” as they say.

Two things came to mind – the first being something I wrote about snow storms several years ago:

it doesn't take much of a weather event to reveal just how fragile our existence is. And how dependent we are on our machines. For so many, life just shuts down completely. That's not always bad, except that it's a forced choice, not a conscious one.

And it also reveals just how much of the "panic" that comes with a big storm is because of our auto-dependency. For example, if you live in a place where walking is the norm, a storm is just an inconvenience - you can still get to the store, the local bar, to work, and the kids can even get to school. But in a culture where all those things require a vehicular trip, we either shut life down completely or over-purchase on our vehicles for winter driving ability.

Hurricanes are obviously not snow storms, but I felt that many of the same observations held. Life was able to go on (and actually be quite enjoyable) for anyone that could walk or ride a bike. It was remarkably quiet. All of which brought me to the second thing that came to mind: this Streetfilms video of Nijmegen - a mid-sized city in the Netherlands.

When your neighborhood streets are dominated primarily by people on bikes and walking, it’s very hard not to wonder what it would take to make that the norm instead of the exception. What would that world look like? How would we live our daily lives, and do all of the things that we need to do? What changes would need to happen?

I know that we all have to live our lives. We have to make money, pay the bills, run errands and take care of the kids. All of this often necessitates driving around, and feeling in a hurry. Many, many people struggle to just handle the basics of life, and don’t have the ability to ponder this like I am. I’m not trying to be insensitive to those concerns. That is the real world of America in 2017, and nothing happens in a vacuum.

Alice in Street.jpg

But a great many people of all income levels really do want something other than the typical choices offered to them. My wish is that more people can experience this alternate reality that I’ve described, and more people actively use their voices to make changes where they live, neighborhood by neighborhood. For a brief time, experiencing what it could be like, it was glorious. Like many pre-WWII cities, Savannah is heavenly when people slow down. When we walk, bike and drink in the simple pleasures of life, it just feels much more – human.

The Next 25 Years of New Urbanism

Kevin's Note: Continuing a series, these are expanded remarks from CNU 25 in Seattle, where I was asked to speak on the "Next 25 Years of New Urbanism," along with a panel of other invited guests.


I was told earlier by Nathan Norris that I need to speak for "Gen X" on this panel. I find that a difficult task, but since demographers only think there's about six of us in the whole country, it might be easier than I would guess. In any case, I'll keep my Gen X skepticism to a minimum.

At an rate, I think it's hard not to reflect on the previous of 25 years of New Urbanism and realize how amazing work has been completed. Ideas that were laughed out of meetings two decades ago have now become widely accepted in the planning profession and certainly in the real estate market.

Here's the thing, though: even after all of our successes, we just aren't achieving scale, especially for high-quality urbanism. That's especially so for the typical American cities, which are where I have spent most of my life and career. The market demand is there but not the implementation. As I see it, the problem is that most of our big systems, whether they be public, academic, private or NGO, are just too broken to fix. The right person in the right job can definitely make a big difference, and i would never dissuade someone from trying. If one of you can become the Mayor of your city or a key decision-maker, by all means do everything you can.

But the problem clearly is that once that person is gone, the system failures start working their way back to the forefront. Large organizations especially regress once a dynamic, thoughtful individual moves on. I'm amazed that after so much evidence, so many colleagues that I respect and admire still believe we can make some of our big Systems actually work for fine-grained and quality urbanism. I just don't see it anymore, and I don't honestly believe it's possible.

We've spent a lot of time trying to fix big systems over the years, and my first and most important proposal is that we should just stop doing that. Our energies and talents are best spent working on solutions that can happen outside of large, broken bureaucracies. CNU has never been a particularly large or well-heeled group of people. What we have been is smart, feisty, entrepreneurial and principle-driven. Those things all still matter, and in fact may matter even more in the years to come. Let's enhance that, not run away from it.

So in terms of specific suggestions, I want to leave you all with two. Since I'm a firm believer in working the bottom-up and top-down levers both (with an admitted preference for bottom-up), I'll do one of each.

For the "Bottom Up," we need to relentlessly pursue helping to create 10,000 new developers in this country. And by that I mean 10,000 developers with an understanding and appreciation for small-scale, traditional urbanism. This is America, and we have to realize that that's how politics and government processes here ultimately change. Related to this, we need to embrace and be less afraid of market economics. I'm still often surprised at the ignorance of basic economics with much of our work and advocacy, and I'd personally like to see more of the Market Urbanism group folded into our work. A final point on this is that this approach is how we'll get better architecture. Creating more and better clients who appreciate what we do is a far better use of our time than trying to convince people that don't really get it or care.

For the "Top Down,", we need to regroup and spend all of our energy to break the transportation paradigm. Despite 25 years of work, it endures as the single most damaging aspect of city and region building. This system continues to crush our spirits with regularity, despite so much writing, case studies and advocacy. In order to break this paradigm, we may have to embrace and make peace with some atypical New Urbanist solutions. For example, there are ideas from the 1950's and 1960's that may have more relevance now that the market has turned and people are returning to cities. The key tactic is that we need to build larger constituencies of people that will ultimately live car-free or car-light lifestyles, and do it much more quickly. If we don't, I fear that we'll lose out on an historic opportunity.

So that is all to say that the next 25 years (or even just the next 5) should focus specifically on how and where we can create excellence, in fairly small areas. Chris Leinberger said that even in Boston the region only needs 10% of the land area to accommodate the demand for walkable urbanism. Let's continue to shape new systems that make that 10% really great, and not waste precious time and energy on big, inflexible systems. Let's get back to our roots of building the alternate system since the current one can't be tweaked to achieve quality change quickly.

There is no utopian condition for cities

Kevin's Note: As with the previous post, these were remarks I made publicly earlier in the year. In this case, this was a longer version of what I spoke about with the Savannah Downtown Neighborhood Association.


It's a great time to be in Savannah. I know for some it may not seem like that, but it truly is. Our problems are good problems. I would much rather be in a place that is attracting people and investment, than a place that people are fleeing, even though both have their own issues.

A lot of what is shifting these days is indicative of broader changes happening everywhere. The issues that cities are dealing with now are very different than 20, 40 or 50 years ago

So much of what we are seeing and reacting to today is coming back to the normal state of affairs for city change and growth. It's just that we have all lived our whole lives through an abnormal condition, where central cities were depressed and people moved to the edges, in developments built all at once. And in order for our cities to survive, we felt the need to spend untold millions on fast roads, highways and ample parking. That's increasingly not the case anymore.

Now, people are flocking back to cities, especially the really good ones. Those cities that can deliver the total experience that the market wants will thrive. Those that do it in a half-hearted way, or think they've done "good enough" will struggle as others learn and adapt.

The same is true of the world of tourism, which I know is always a flashpoint in Savannah. The stark reality is that cities like Savannah have become tourist magnets because they provide something that people really want, but can't get at home. And that is - someplace to enjoy walking slowly, socializing, being entertained and doing it all in a beautiful environment. As long as we continue to build the same-old, same-old subdivisions on the edges of our cities, people will continue to seek out our great historic cities for tourism. Many of us that aren't from here, came here for those reasons. Savannah for 200 years was built around the needs of people on foot primarily, while since then all of our cities have been built for the needs of people driving long distances very quickly.

With that all said, I think it's important to talk more directly about visitors and residents. It's been my observation (in many more places than just Savannah) that on so many of our planning issues there's complete alliance with the needs of visitors and residents. Everyone wants safe streets, cleanliness, beauty, entertainment, unique and local shops & services and reliable transportation options. I think it’s healthy to focus on these areas of agreement. These are fellow human beings in our city, opening their wallets and dumping cash on the sidewalks (to put it bluntly). Instead of painting all of that with a broad, existential brush, let's focus on specific issues that don't align with residents and work on those. We should always be careful of the consequences of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Two broad points that I think need to be reiterated are that we need to "legalize" Savannah and need to not create unintended incentives for some uses over others. It surprises many people when I say this, but it's a fact that our current ordinances, codes and more make it impossible to build the Savannah that we all love. I find that to be crazy, personally, since this is not just a beloved set of neighborhoods but ones that create enormous economic value. Secondly, our ordinances should not overweight one use over another. Make the rules clear, easy to understand and see, and then let the market sort it out. In our case, we have some rules that make it far easier to develop hotels than apartments, and our report earlier this year simply meant to highlight and offer corrections for that flaw.

I tend to not fall into the camp that there is a perfect mix for downtown or for cities in general, and that if only we had the right rules and enforcement it will all be nirvana. Cities are living things, and are always changing. There is no utopian condition. As soon as we solve one problem, another presents itself. The idea I’d like to suggest is to be comfortable with change. Change is part of the virtue of living in a city. Cities are dynamic and interesting; it’s what makes them enjoyable. If you aren’t comfortable with Savannah changing and growing, then I believe that you are going to be less and less happy with time. 

Great cities have a virtuous circle. More people brings more customers for businesses, which means there’s more options for you as a resident. More options makes living here more desirable, and also when they are close by it makes walking or biking more viable. As those become more viable, and more people are out on the street, more businesses will want to open. That diversity and that street life are the core amenities of living in an urban neighborhood, as opposed to a suburban one. In the suburbs, parking will always be easier. It will always be quieter, and the yards will always be larger. I often have yard envy when I visit friends in more suburban situations.

But we also have things that they don't have, and that's what brings value. We have much more freedom of movement in urban areas, since you can safely walk, bicycle, take public transportation or even drive. We have more options and choice for how and where to entertain ourselves. We have more options for our homes. The same block might contain large homes, small homes, or apartments of all sizes. Those things never happen in the suburban condition, and it's what we have to value, enhance and promote. Forget about the darn parking already.

I wrote an article a while back that got picked up by Slate magazine, which said that society at large doesn’t care about car crashes. I absolutely believe it to be true, as the evidence is all around us. It's not meant to be a sinister attack, but I did hope to shake up some perceptions. The problem is that ignoring the carnage on our streets and roads is a rational response given the way most people live today in the US. We’ve built that world, and it’s perfectly understandable that the average person is going to think making it harder to drive fast is a little nuts. Of the 100+ square miles in the City of Savannah, only about 6-8 square miles is arguably the walkable part.

To change attitudes, we have to make the case and persuade people. We have to talk about and highlight the human toll, which far exceeds anything that we worry about with violent crime. When it comes to downtown Savannah, my thoughts are that we need to start to push the heavier traffic flow to the perimeter (as much of it already is) and make good plans to capture people on the edges with garages and shuttles. The streets between East Broad and MLK, Victory Drive north to the river, should all be very slow-speed streets that value walking first and foremost. In a certain sense, we should treat downtown like an airport. You can park on the edges inexpensively and shuttle in, you can drive in closely and pay progressively more BUT driving in entails driving *slowly.* No one has the right to speed through urban neighborhoods anymore than they do a suburban subdivision.

Finally, we rightfully talk a lot about zoning in Savannah. Despite a decade of efforts, we are still saddled with a dysfunctional and very outdated zoning code and set of ordinances. But, I'll just say this: ultimately we do need a real, coordinated vision and master plan for all of greater downtown. Fixing zoning is good, but you really can't do zoning well without a plan

On growth and change in a high-demand historic city

A Note from Kevin: I've been remiss in adding new content to the blog, which I intend to change in the coming months. While we wait out the effects of Hurricane Irma, I'm going to start by sharing some remarks I made earlier this year at the Massie School, courtesy of the Massie Heritage Society. The topic of the event was, "Development in Savannah: Where do we go from here?"


If I can leave you all with one thought today, it would be that the world as you’ve known it is changing, especially if you are my age or older.

Why is that? What is going on? Here’s my best shot at explaining it.

The trick to planning is that you have to have one foot in the future, in addition to one set firmly in the reality of the present. It’s important to focus on the needs of the next generation or two. Most of our efforts take many years to see real results. Cities can indeed change quickly, but in most cases it really takes a decade or two to see it and feel it.

Like all good historic cites, Savannah has been in a defensive mode since the 1950’s, as we had to be. There are those that would have torn down everything good and valuable about our cities if we hadn’t. But now the tide has turned, and we need to be in proactive mode. This is a GOOD thing. The market now very much wants what Savannah has to offer. But now as citizens, we have to decide what we are for - what we want - which is much harder. It’s easy to have an enemy and be against something; it’s much harder to plan for where you want to be, and make that happen. And, with all manner of life, there are tradeoffs. If you push on one topic, another topic may push back. As HL Mencken famously said,  "for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."

Savannah is not a historic artifact to be looked at like the remnants of some ancient race of humans. It's actually a more beautiful, better planned version of the way we built cities and towns literally for thousands of years, until we embarked on the great suburban experiment. It's a place where modern people live modern lives. It embodies the true amenities of a City - the street life and the choice in virtually everything. Successful and livable cities embrace change, choice, complexity. Unsuccessful urban communities embrace a suburban mindset that the most important things are large, single-family homes, big yards and ample parking. If downtown tries to compete with the suburban areas (and believe me, it is in fact a competition), downtown must emphasize its own amenities and virtues - not try to mimic suburban ones. 

You are all citizen planners. Don't be intimidated by people with initials after their names. Two very influential people that I can think of that didn't have initials are Jane Jacobs and Jason Roberts. Jacobs was a journalist who observed her world, asked a lot of questions, and thought critically. Roberts, through his Better Block initiative, has done something similar with our contemporary context. Jacobs questioned the wisdom of the appointed experts, and Roberts challenges societal and bureaucratic inertia. Planning is art as well as science. Despite the desire to professionalize and rationalize everything in our world, it is not as simple as charts from a code book.

For Savannah and its future, there are four areas that I suggest are worth of focusing on in: 1) a coordinated expansion plan for downtown and its street grid/public spaces; 2) traffic-calming all of our streets, especially all of the north-south streets between East Broad and MLK; 3) developing a transit system that works for the residents in the core of the city, 4) embracing growth and change, especially for residential growth, with a critical eye towards design. We need to enhance what is beloved about Savannah, our DNA, and not make us an outpost of the architecture of Atlanta or Charlotte.

Some of these notions are going to challenge our own long-held mindsets toward development. For example, there’s never a shortage of talk about tourists and tourism, but I also hear a high percentage of those complaints that really are no different than if it was all apartments or offices. Much of that is just the city changing and growing. To be effective, you need to get specific, understand what in particular is an issue, and work on that or else you quickly become a complainer. I’ve been a complainer occasionally - I get it. I may have once referred to suburbs as “soul-sucking.” But people will only listen to complainers for so long before they tire of the negativity. You (and we) have to offer ideas or specific solutions. I actually think in Savannah’s case that the needs of residents and the needs of visitors overlap on almost every important issue - safe, traffic-calmed streets, beauty, lively sidewalk life, cleanliness, affordable places to live or stay, and services in walking distance. The big breakdown in our community is between those who are reveling in the beauty and slower pace of life in Savannah vs. those that wish to speed in and out of the historic part of the city. I’m not suggesting keeping people out - to the contrary, we want people to come. But the idea that we should encourage or allow for that to happen by allowing streets to be speedways is a whole other thing. That is the suburban mindset, imposed on the urban - always a recipe for failure.

I sincerely believe that if we embrace the approaches I mentioned, we’ll prepare our city for a wave of prosperity that can benefit everyone, head off an affordability crisis and dramatically enhance public safety. Heck - we might even cure tooth decay.

One final thought; cities are constantly changing. There is no utopian condition, no perfect state of affairs. They are complex and messy. Just like human life - some change is good, some not so good. So much happening in Savannah right now is good - let’s embrace that. And let’s figure out the key items that need work, in order that it continues to be good for the generations that come after us. 

The best generation ever!

You’ve heard the story, right? There’s this amazing generation of young people coming on the scene now – Millennials! As we call them. They’re enormous, they’re the biggest generation ever, they’re something to behold! In fact, they might even be more amazing as Baby Boomers! BTW, weren’t there a few people born between the two? Generation what? Oh, who cares – they are so small as to be irrelevant. After all- Millennials!

Since I sat through yet another presentation telling me this last week, and a whole series of conference sessions focused on Millennials!  I thought I’d go back and check the numbers, as I have done before. Oh, those pesky numbers – always getting in the way of a good story.

Here is the actual state of age cohorts (by decade) in America, using 2016 Census estimates:

10's41.7 Million

20's44.9 Million

30's43.3 Million

40's40.5 Million    (I'm here!)

50's43.3 Million

60's38.2 Million

70's20.1 Million

OR, by another measure.

15-24        43.9 Million

25-34        42.8 Million

35-44        40.6 Million

45-54        43.8 Million (I'm here!)

55-64        39.4 Million

65-74        25.1 Million

75-84        13.5 Million

Hmm – something appears to be amiss. There doesn’t appear to be the big drop in population between these two famous, media-hungry generations: Baby Boomers and Millennials! In fact, since I was born in 1969, my 45-54 cohort is essentially the same size as the 15-24 group. My fellow 40-somethings are only 9% smaller than 20-somethings, which is quite something since a few in my age group are no longer with us.

How could this be? After all- Millennials! They are huge – enormous, and a force to be reckoned with. They simply dwarf everyone else. I swear that I’ve read that, somewhere, maybe once or twice. Could I be mistaken?

Money Boss on "The Joys of a Walkable Neighborhood"

I mentioned in a previous post the interesting overlap of the worlds of urban planning and financial independence. In fact, I devoted a fair amount of space to the topic in my book, as one of the four primary benefits of "Why I Walk." 

A couple of weeks ago, JD Roth of "Money Boss" fame penned an excellent personal story describing his own journey in discovering this overlap. I thought it would be great for my readers as well, and so JD has allowed me to repost it here. I hope you enjoy it, and please also consider subscribing to his excellent site. For my Savannah readers, you'll be interested to read about the 6 months that JD and Kim spent living in Savannah on their RV tour around the country. 

Over the weekend, Kim and I began our hunt for a new home. We spent several hours combing local listings on Zillow and Redfin. We flagged the homes that looked interesting to us. Because I’m a total nerd, I compiled a spreadsheet of our absolute faves, listing important stats like price, home size, lot size, and — perhaps most important of all — walk score.

In the olden days, I picked my homes based on emotion. When my ex-wife and I bought our old farmhouse in 2004, that decision was rushed and irrational. I liked the idea of the place. I liked the large yard (two-thirds of an acre close in to Portland), the hundred-year-old house, and the cute hobbit-hole window in the living room. I didn’t consider the massive amount of lawnmowing and yardwork. And I didn’t pay attention to the fact that I’d have to drive almost anywhere I wanted to go.

A Driver’s Life

When Kris and I moved into that drafty old house, we did a lot of driving. At the time, I was still working for the family box factory. Every morning, I spent half an hour driving twenty miles to work. Every evening, I did the reverse commute. We drove to buy groceries. We drove to visit friends. We drove to go out to dinner. I did go for walks through the neighborhood, but those were leisurely strolls without any particular purpose.

After I chose to become a money boss, I paid closer attention to my transportation costs. I looked for ways to drive less and walk more. At the time, I found that 90% of my driving was to the following locations:

  • The gym, which was 8.5 miles (20 minutes) from home. It took 40 minutes to get there via a 2.5-mile pedestrian trail (which required illegally crossing a railroad bridge). I could bike the 8.5-mile route in 40 minutes.
  • The nearest town, which was three miles (ten minutes of driving) from the house. It took 48 minutes to make the walk and 18 minutes to bike.
  • The grocery store, which was one mile (five minutes driving) from home. Walking took me 15 minutes; biking took me six.
  • Downtown Portland, which was ten miles (20 minutes) from home. Walking took three hours (I timed it once!), but biking took just 45 minutes.

Based on these times and distances, I changed my habits. I still drove to Portland most of the time, and I often drove to the nearby town. But since it took no longer than driving, I started biking to the grocery store. And when I had time — which was almost always — I walked to the gym instead of biking or driving. (Every time I crossed that railroad bridge, I thought of Stand By Me!)

A Walker’s Life

After my divorce, I lived for a year in an apartment close to downtown Portland. The experience was a revelation. I’d always appreciated walking, but now it became clear that it was vital that I lived in a walkable neighborhood. I loved everything about being able to do my errands by foot (or by bike).

When I bought the condo where Kim and I currently live, I chose it because it was close to a vibrant neighborhood filled with restaurants and shops. There were parks nearby. Best of all, it sits directly on the multi-use path that allows Portlanders to bike and walk wherever they want to go.

Compared to the house where Kris and I lived, walking and biking are easy here.

  • My gym is a 3.9-mile drive from home, which takes 12 minutes to drive without traffic. But when I go to the gym, I do so during rush hour, so it takes 17 minutes to drive. Via the multi-use path, it’s only 3.4 miles to the gym, which takes an hour to walk or 17 minutes to bike. (That’s right. During rush hour, it’s just as quick to bike to the gym as it is to drive!)
  • The nearest neighborhood is a 0.6-mile drive (four minutes) from home. It takes ten minutes to walk that distance and five to bike it.
  • My current grocery store is a half-mile drive (four minutes) from home. It takes ten minutes to walk that distance and five to bike it.
  • Downtown Portland is now five miles (12 minutes during non-peak traffic) from our house. It’s 4.5 miles away via the multi-use path, which takes 25 minutes to bike and nearly 90 minutes to walk.
  • Last month, I rented office space about 1.5 miles from our condo. Naturally, I’ve spent the past few weeks clocking how long it takes me to cover that distance via different modes of transportation.

    Most of the time, I walk to the office. That takes me exactly 30 minutes if I’m alone; it takes me 40-45 minutes when I’m accompanied by a certain hound dog. If I jog to work, I can cut that time in half; it takes only 15 minutes. It takes about 12 minutes to bike to the office now. Driving requires anywhere from eight to ten minutes, depending on traffic. (Last Thursday, though, it took 18 minutes to drive to work. Traffic was terrible.) Based on this data, it seems like biking and jogging are my best options.

When Walking Doesn’t Work


Over the past decade, I’ve become a huge fan of walking, and I’m not afraid to trumpet its many benefits. It’ll help you cut your transportation costs, sure, but it’s also an investment in your health — both mental and physical. Walking is a great way to meet your neighbors and to get a better feel for the world around you.

But walking and biking aren’t for everyone. I get that. Many cities aren’t as bike- and pedestrian-friendly as Portland. If you live on a farm in the country, walking to the grocery store isn’t an option. Plus, there are some places where it’s too hot (or too cold) to make walking or biking practical.

In the middle of our cross-country RV trip, Kim and I paused for six months in Savannah, Georgia. I learned quickly that the South is actively hostile toward pedestrians and cyclists. There are few sidewalks and zero bike lanes. It’s not just that there’s no infrastructure for these activities, but nobody respects walkers and bikers. Kim and I probably had a dozen close calls each while walking around Savannah. (She once stopped a police officer to talk about the problem. He shrugged off her concerns. “Don’t walk then. Cars will crush you.”)

Still, we made it work. Although there were no sidewalks, we found ways to skirt fences and cut through neighborhoods so that we could walk to get groceries. (What ought to have been a half-mile walk turned into almost two, but whatever.)

Looking Ahead

Now, as Kim and I seek to find a place that she and I can build a future together, I keep coming back to walkability. If we’re going to live in town, I want a place where I can walk for most of my errands: groceries, mail, pubs, books, and so on. (There’s a chance we’ll choose to buy a place in the country; if that happens, I realize I’d sacrifice walkability. But I’d gain other advantages that would balance the loss.)

Yesterday, we looked at a nice place in a nearby suburb. It had everything we’re looking for in a home — except that it was car-dependent. (Its walk score was 14, which is basically like living in the middle of nowhere.) We looked at another place that backed up on a large park — perfect for the hound dog! — but only had a walk score of 31. There’s almost no way I can see myself putting up with the hassles of city living if I don’t get one of the best benefits: the ability to walk and bike for errands (and for fun).

Some Elaboration on "Let Urban be Urban"

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the Strong Towns Summit, in Tulsa, OK. Many thanks to the Strong Towns crew for the opportunity. As always, I learned a great deal from Chuck Marohn and the whole slate of presenters.

I did get to spend an hour elaborating on my topic of "Let Urban be Urban and Let Sprawl be Sprawl." It's a concept that won't make some folks happy, but it's increasingly what I feel as the right way to navigate current times in planning and development. You can see the full presentation here, by starting at the 2:40:00 mark. As always, please leave your comments below.

The Best Way to Own a Home

The personal finance / early retirement / financial independence space on the internet admittedly draws quite a bit of my attention. I’ve become an avid reader of sites like Mr. Money Mustache, Mad Fientist, Travel Miles 101, Money Boss and a few more. My wife calls it my new obsession.

There’s so much on these sites that I really enjoy, agree with and have applied in my own personal life. We’ve quite dramatically cut back our own expenses, upped our savings and changed our investment style. I wish I had had the sense in my 20’s and 30’s to follow the advice of some of these writers, but in truth it’s never too late to start. I’m sure today’s 20-somethings don’t generally want to bother with this type of information, but I sure would like to convince all of them to subscribe to sites like MMM and learn. It’s immensely more empowering to live within your means than to go into debt and cross your fingers that your income will go up.

So that all said, it’s been fascinating to me to see a couple of areas where even in the financial independence world blind spots still exist. Of course I know why they exist, since they are deeply embedded in American society, but nonetheless it surprises me from time to time that folks who so deeply question everything tend to overlook what our grandparents and great-grandparents used to do.

For this piece, I’ll simply focus on housing, and the topic of owning a home. Housing is the #1 expense for nearly every household. Some really smart pieces by JD Roth, Bigger Pockets and Paula Pant have laid a great foundation for questioning the assumption that owning a house is always a wise financial idea. I concur, and wrote something similar a few years back. Although in retrospect I could have been more eloquent, I’d simply reinforce the thoughts of others and say that, in my opinion, buying a typical single-family house with a 30 year mortgage and 5% down, is almost never a good idea. It takes incredible discipline to turn that into a wise financial choice, and hardly any of us have it. At best, it’s a forced savings plan, but at worst it’s a lifelong money pit or a terrible money loser. 

A lot of advice starts with putting more money down and shortening the loan, which is definitely smarter. A 15 year mortgage is many shades better than 30 for you, and the more cash you can put into it the less you are giving to a lender. Renting in many markets is a smarter move financially if you can force yourself to save money – there's no doubt I agree about that. As many also have stated, it also leaves you flexible to chase opportunity wherever and whenever it pops up. I think all of these choices should be carefully examined. Use a spreadsheet if you must, and look at different scenarios. It's only your money and your future - consider spending more time evaluating that choice than you would the latest smart phone.

Image 9.jpg

But even then, there’s another way. It’s a way that was extraordinarily common before our country became silly with money. Chances are your grandparents or great-grandparents did it. If you’re a recent immigrant to this country, your own parents or family may have done a version of this.

Very simply – it’s using your home as a way to leverage more income. More income, you ask – do you mean renting rooms out? Turning my home into an Airbnb?

Well, maybe. That might work for some people. But there are more obvious ways (and be sure to check your city’s zoning to see if they are allowed). Here’s a few, with pictures:

1.     Buy a house that has a carriage house (sometimes called a granny flat, a mother-in-law quarters or the wonky Accessory Dwelling Unit. Rent it out for income to offset the mortgage.

These face an alley behind the main house, which faces the street

These face an alley behind the main house, which faces the street

Main house to the right, carriage house to the left.

Main house to the right, carriage house to the left.

2.     Buy or build a duplex. Live in one unit, rent out the other and watch it eventually pay for your mortgage.

Over-under duplexes

Over-under duplexes

Better-looking, but the same over-under idea

Better-looking, but the same over-under idea

3.     Do the same with a triplex or 4-plex.

Beautiful little 4-pex

Beautiful little 4-pex

These types of 4-plexes are everywhere, hiding in plain sight

These types of 4-plexes are everywhere, hiding in plain sight

As John Anderson notes on his excellent blog, anything 4 units or under can be financed as a home with conventional FHA financing.  That’s right – you can buy or build up to a 4-unit building and pay a standard residential mortgage. John helps teach others through the Incremental Development Alliance on how to do just this – what the steps are, and what you need to know. The courses are cheap – check one out in your region, or ask them to come teach one.

Why on earth would you want to do something so unusual?

Because it makes money, and truly builds wealth. It takes something we think of as an expense, and at a minimum reduces that expense significantly. If it’s played intelligently, it can be a lifetime source of income. It’s not unfair to note – this is how people did it for generations in this country. Rooms or units were added or rented as a means to generate income and pay the mortgage. We have such abundance nowadays that we have forgotten about this time-proven path.

A tri-plex that had one apartment on each floor

A tri-plex that had one apartment on each floor

Just as a personal example, I’m on my third property where I’ve done this.  The first was a triplex. I lived in one unit, rented out two, and the rent paid my mortgage. That income stream allowed me to start my own architecture firm at the tender age of 30, when I otherwise would have had no money to do it. It allowed me keep going in that firm during the first year when I basically made no money. I certainly had income concerns, but I didn’t have to worry about making my mortgage or making rent.

You can get a hint of the carriage house behind the main house here

You can get a hint of the carriage house behind the main house here

I later had a home with a carriage house in back that paid a very nice sum. In that case, it paid off about 40% of my mortgage. 40% wasn't nearly as lucrative as 100%, but that income allowed me to own a nicer, larger home than before. Since the carriage house was detached in back, the renter never disturbed me or my guests, and it frankly becomes a situation at times where you forget that someone lives there.

Oh and here’s one other thing – you get to choose your renters. That means you can apply your own values to the situation (within the law) and often get the chance to live next to some really great people. When you’re out of town, someone is there to look after the place. The lights are still on. People still come and go. I’m sure you can understand the benefits. Some of my renters later became friends long past the time they rented from me.

You can see the carriage house here behind our current house. It's a second floor apartment, over our garage. This is pre-yard renewal; trust me, it looks much better now.

You can see the carriage house here behind our current house. It's a second floor apartment, over our garage. This is pre-yard renewal; trust me, it looks much better now.

Our current arrangement also is a carriage house behind our townhouse. It’s a 1 bedroom place that will pay anywhere from 50-80% of the mortgage, depending on how we rent it. With today’s options, you can also try short-term rentals such as Airbnb or VRBO (check your city’s zoning rules) as another way to bring in some revenue.

I’m a very big fan of going this route, and using the favorable debt terms of today to generate income. Using 30 year mortgages to just create large debt? Count me out. But using it to leverage a second income stream is an incredible financial boost, very easy to manage and knocks a huge hole in your monthly expenses. You know what – it can also be really fun. If you own it, you control the unit, you control its design features, how it's used, and you can make some lifelong friends and have great experiences with guests.

If anyone reads this and you’re in your 20’s, my advice is simple. Buy or build a duplex. It’s the easiest step towards trying something different, and you might even find yourself owning a real estate asset that produces cash for you for the rest of your life. Forget the typical definition of a house. Get radical, and go truly old school.

One key strategy to make New York City more affordable

…and San Francisco, and Chicago, and Portland 

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about how New York City (which almost always really means Manhattan) has hit the tipping point. It’s just too expensive now, goes the current wisdom. Housing is officially out of control. George Hahn wrote a well-shared piece, where he said things like this:

Sure, Manhattan has always been about status and money, but the importance of money here has exploded exponentially. Unless you were born into money, make a ton of it or were lucky enough to grab a rent-controlled apartment when it was possible, you don't belong here.

A little over a year ago, I unleashed a long tweet on this exact topic, especially focusing on the pressures the big coastal cities are facing. While I’m sure my dozens of Twitter followers were captivated, it didn't quite have the depth of content I usually desire. It's high time to correct that flaw, and look more closely at one overlooked facet of this conversation.

And that facet lies in Bangor, Maine. 

I spent a bit of time in Maine this month escaping the scorching heat of Savannah in July and visiting family. Walking around downtown Bangor, I couldn’t help but think about that earlier notion that all markets are not local. More on that in a minute, but first a little bit about Bangor for those of you that are unfamiliar.

Downtown Bangor has all of the bones necessary to be very walkable and lively – the kinds of places people are flocking too these days. It has attractive old buildings, a pair of rivers that run through it, craft breweries, hip restaurants and some lovely walking paths. It’s 45 miles from the beautiful Maine coast, and also has the virtue of being inexpensive.

Bangor has what basically every city in America has that is older than 1930, and wasn't completely destroyed by highway money and urban renewal. Bangor is Topeka is Cheyenne is Dubuque is Macon.

These places all have many of the physical elements needed for success, quite frankly because they were built for it originally. What they mostly need is people; people that care about the place, have the energy to make it better, and a deep understanding of what makes walkable places tick.

The standard practice for cities in this predicament is to make their downtowns more accessible to people driving, and to try and lure in a big employer. How has that worked out so far? What has the cost-benefit been for all of the incentives, parking garages and free-flowing traffic? Is there a single city that's used that formula for real, lasting success?

Walking around cities like Bangor or the dozens of others I've visited that are like it, I can't help but wonder instead about a simple, two-pronged approach: recruit young and young-ish people in more expensive places and then get out of their way. Yes, literally get out of their way and let them create life. Clear the obstacles, make your zoning and processes streamlined and easy, and get rid of outdated ordinances. et the people themselves program spaces, improve them and experiment. Don't let private or public sector naysayers stifle their innovation and creativity.

Of course, in the real world I know that that is not enough for folks working in local government and the civic-minded folks who feel the need to do more to be proactive. For them, the formula is also pretty basic: focus on easy, cheap and fast. Plant street trees; make biking easy and walking attractive; clean the sidewalks; narrow up the streets to force cars to slow down; get your police out walking the beat. The more human and welcoming everything feels, the better. By all means, don’t build a lot of new parking; in fact, spend your time trying to heal the scars of previous parking installations.

IMPORTANT POINT: (You know it's important since it's in all caps.) The success of these downtowns do not hinge on people driving in swiftly from the outskirts and parking for free. They hinge on building a great neighborhood for the people that live there, which more than anything means valuing walking and biking. I know that that is heresy in many quarters, but chances are your downtown will be made economically weaker and less desirable if you spend all of your time figuring out parking and access solutions for those that don't live there.

So, hearing that, if you still really feel the need to “go big”, do it by building some quality public spaces. Add paths along rivers and natural features that are beautiful and actually go somewhere long-distance. Go crazy and connect those paths to the next town! The recipe really can be that simple. Sell the stressed-out entrepreneurs of large cities on the virtues of cheap real estate, charm and low barriers to entry. Certainly someone making and shipping gourmet pickles or hand-crafted consumer goods can do that as easily in Bangor as in Brooklyn.

Bangor is Duluth is Montgomery is Rochester.

Now of course, the obvious criticism at this point is to say that these cities are what they are because people simply don't want to be there. Even with the expense, people prefer THE big city, the larger market potential and the bigger dating pool. And then, yes, some are in cold climates. To which I say: whatever - these don't matter as much as you think. Or at least, they don't matter to everyone in the bigger cities.

I moved after all, so I understand the impulse. In fact I struggled with it for years in my hometown. Others do the same. All of these places produced people that all things being equal might want to stay. But if that lifestyle option isn't available, they'll go. 

The situation we're in today is that literally millions of people are clamoring to live in the tiny handful of cities that actually have walkable, urban character. A large segment of people desperately want what's left of what we didn't destroy in the 20th century. That small group of cities can all do more to make themselves more affordable (like for one, letting people build for the demand), but a better strategy for all is to accommodate some of the demand in the hundreds of cities in this country that used to also have the same qualities.

A town the size of Bangor could quite easily accommodate 20,000 people in its downtown. That size sounds small to a New Yorker, but big to someone from central Maine. Truth is, 20,000 is a pretty good size for an urban neighborhood. A freestanding city of 20,000 can support multiple grocers, dozens of places to eat and drink, schools, churches and more. If it's part of a larger city or region, the larger market area will only enhance the diversity that makes the urban area interesting. Think that sounds crazy? Here are some neighborhoods and their populations:

Population of Various Neighborhoods

Now I admit that 20,000 may seem crazy to people from Bangor. But it's pretty obvious as an outsider that it has that capacity, and had it historically. In fact, I'd argue 20,000 is conservative in today’s market.

What then does this all have to do with NYC?

Let's do just a bit more math to see. Bangor is the 268th biggest MSA in the US.

If each of the 267 bigger could accommodate 20,000 more in their downtowns, that's a sum of 5.3 million people. Again, conservative numbers by any real measure, since many of those are much larger markets. Truth is, nearly all of those should be able to double it. But to just do 20,000 takes a substantial amount of market demand pressure away from the big markets that simply can't handle the demand currently. And, it gives life, variety and local character to hundreds more cities that truly need it.

This is when I add the qualifier that I don't know that 20,000 is a perfect measure. In fact, I’m sure it’s not at all perfect. Someone with more time on their hands and a research grant could probably come up with a more accurate number. But I’m confident that it's within range of what will work for urban neighborhoods. Every neighborhood in the chart is a dynamic urban community, and none of them are filled with high-rise construction.

The key strategies of the late 20th century for people that truly understood urbanism were to preserve what we were destroying and stop the bleeding. Check and check. Those are still important in many cities, but in the big picture the new reality is figuring out how to accommodate today's market demand. We are paying the wages of sin now for halting the construction of walkable, urban neighborhoods 70+ years ago. The places that we saved are all now just too good compared to everyplace else, and they are all increasingly becoming unaffordable to most.

A huge part of the problem is zoning and processes stuck in the 1950’s. Our cities are in desperate need of code reform, so that they can begin to naturalize urbanize again as they did 100 years ago. But we also need to recognize that not all markets are local, and that what happens in Bangor or Peoria impacts New York or San Francisco. People, especially young people, want to go where other people are, and want to find dynamic, sociable cities. If they can’t find it locally, they’ll find it somewhere else. And today, that somewhere else is likely one of the handful of cities that didn’t completely ruin itself. We can do better. By all means let’s work to make New York and San Francisco and Portland more affordable. But let’s also help Topeka and Macon and Duluth and Cheyenne and Dubuque and Bangor.

Going Old School: Walk Your Way to Better Health

Hey there readers-

I know, I know, it's been quite some time since I've posted anything. I do appreciate the notes I receive from people wanting more content, but obviously it's been darn near impossible for me to produce much of anything in the last year.

I have, however, been fortunate to have several speaking gigs. I'm attaching one from a few weeks ago here in Savannah, where I was a guest speaker for Enmarket's "Encourage Health" series. I spent about a half hour talking about the benefits of walking, the book "Why I Walk" and what each of us can do. Enjoy:

Realpolitik, for American Cities

Over the past few months, I've written a few pieces specifically about sprawl repair, and my thinking that it's best to Let Urban be Urban and Let Sprawl be Sprawl. The general notion is that that these are two totally different ecosystems of human settlement, and our designs, policies and management techniques should be tailored appropriately. Trying to remake car-culture suburbia into true, walkable urbanism is as bad an idea as destroying urban places by making them adapt to cars. I hope to expand on this over the coming months, since I feel it's the best, most practical and achievable mindset for the majority of American cities in 2015.

Now, practical and achievable may not sound like a big call to arms. I admit it - hey, it's not a revolutionary slogan. In fact, it's a pretty moderate approach to reality. In some sense, you might say it evokes the old term that some of us may remember from the cold war: realpolitik. 

I fully expect conditions to be different in say, 2030, and it's critical to understand that not all metro areas are alike, but this encapsulates my advice to city leaders and planners for today.

Here's my TEDx talk, "America 6.0" which outlines where I think we are, and where we are headed.

My first piece was here, which was essentially a follow-up to a fun and spirited debate at CNU 23 in Dallas. Some friends asked, "do you really believe that?" And so, I answered. 

I then proceeded to try and look more closely at what we actually mean by "sprawl" and the four different types of sprawl as I have observed them.

Next, I penned a letter to Rob Steuteville questioning his defense of sprawl repair. 

Finally, I wrote a much longer piece that gives some detailed thoughts on what to do about the four types of sprawl, and where generally to invest our limited time.

Last week, I pivoted off the sprawl focus with some thoughts on the correct mindsets for moving forward in the Urban areas here. That's a preview of other writings to come.

I'd welcome anyone's honest feedback on this, as it feels like to me like the beginnings of a book. Do you agree or disagree strongly? What questions would you ask? What else might you like to know? 

Happy Holidays to all-


5 ways for today's civic leaders to get your minds right


I’ve had the good fortune to work with some terrific people while working in the planning and development world. In every community where I’ve worked, I’ve run across very dedicated, earnest people that are truly working to make their communities better. Whether they are elected officials, appointed commissioners, professional staff, business leaders or community advocates, it’s clear to me that most people that end up as leaders really are trying to do what’s best.

Of course, the world also has no shortage of nihilists, greedy opportunists and some downright nasty people. Fortunately most of them are confined to the ranks of Internet comment sections and Twitter. The people who bother to show up or get involved and work to improve a place generally are good stock.

But over the years I’ve also noticed that even the most well-intentioned people find themselves tripped up on old ideas or their own personal experience. I get it – the same thing happens to me as well. It’s hard to escape the inertia of life or our own biases. It takes tremendous discipline and energy to step back and be able to question your own views. Even when the evidence is clear, sometimes we just don’t want to believe it, because “that’s not how it is in my world.”

The thing is: leadership requires just that kind of longer view and the ability to understand changes that are taking place. When times and circumstances produce sweeping change, we’re given a choice. We can try and do the impossible, which is to resist the change. Or, we can look at new circumstances as an opportunity to reboot our thinking. You can probably guess which choice I prefer.

If you’ve read this blog at all, you probably know by now that I like the description that Chris Leinberger often uses of the two basic types of ways to build cities: walkable urban or drivable suburban. For about seventy years now nearly everything we’ve built has been the latter. In spite of the fact that we built only walkable places for thousands of years, the reality today is that the collective memory of that experience is basically gone. Very few people are alive that can remember a time when the norm was to build urban communities in the United States.

This was the norm for every city in America at one time, and we've forgotten what was involved with creating it.

But we've gotten really good at building this instead. This is the same street. 

Since the early 1990’s, we’ve seen a remarkable revival of interest in walkable urban. Often we’ve called it New Urbanism, because today’s version has inherent differences from what we routinely built 100 years ago. And since real estate is full of big, expensive, long-term products (you might call them buildings), the market swings tend to happen much more slowly than say, in smart phones. But if you pay attention, you can indeed see them happening. The market share for urbanism might still be small in your city or town, but the growing enthusiasm everywhere is real.

So here then is the crux of the issue, to restate: virtually no one is left alive from a time period when urbanism was the norm. From top to bottom of all of our various systems, whether that's economic development, policing, land use regulations, infrastructure, education, food and goods distribution and so much more, we’ve lost the knowledge of how to truly build walkable cities and towns. Yes, we have excellent designers who can draw what it should look like, but we have very few roadmaps for how to implement it quickly, affordably and in a way that pleases the market. Essentially all of our systems today are geared to build sprawl, for which they’re very efficient, but unfortunately those systems and mindsets don’t adapt well for urbanism. Now that the first wave of revival of interest in urbanism is over (it effectively ran from the early 1990's - 2008), we can look back and see the follies of trying to adapt suburban methods to urban communities. To be blunt: it just doesn’t work. We need new thinking and new models.

So as a leader in your community, either in the business or civic realm, now is the time to pay attention and reconsider some deeply held opinions. Human society has rediscovered urbanism and walking again, and I’m here to say that there’s no turning back. It's important to note that not everything can or will be urban, and your first task is to make sure you make sense of the possibilities in your own community. As we head into the next phase of change, I’d like to offer some observations on how to get your mind right and push that reset key for successful urbanism. Below are five over-arching thoughts to keep in mind, regardless of what plans you are undertaking, what rules you’re considering and what people you are talking with. These are the areas where I've seen good people get the most off-track.

  1. It's not all about cars. Yes, first and foremost this basic reality needs to sink in. If you’re planning and developing your urban neighborhoods and downtowns, stop obsessing about cars, traffic and parking. Even if, like me, you grew up with cars and parking and traffic, it’s time to shove that aside. These issues are much farther down the food chain than you realize. Don’t worry so much about what to do with people driving in from the outside. Your energy needs to be spent on creating the best possible walking environment for that segment of the population that really, really wants it. If you focus on that reality with your streets, public spaces and regulations, the market will respond. I’m not suggesting it will respond overnight or without bumps, but it will respond. Every parking lot you build and every lane that gives priority to fast-moving cars takes away from what fundamentally appeals to the residents of urban communities. Give this market your best chance, and you’ll see. But mostly, absolve yourself of worrying about parking!
  2. Let life happen. In many respects, urban living is the antithesis of the suburban lifestyle that many of us have known throughout our lives. In very successful suburbs, everything is highly controlled. The zoning and regulations are clear, precise and limiting. Life is segregated into discreet units – houses here, apartments there, shopping over yonder and workplaces even further away. It’s all very ordered and logical. Urban life is different, and we need to approach it with a different mindset. We need to learn to allow for human beings to make life happen. Our regulatory approach needs to be far, far different, and to learn not to be as stifling as it can be in suburbia. In fact, we should take the opposite approach: instead of wondering if we should allow something, we should say, why shouldn’t we? Planning was not meant to evolve into meddling into the daily affairs of every property owner, or the minutia of each person’s desires. It’s terribly damaging of urban communities when every every single project requires a board or commission approval (maybe even two or three), in addition to staff-level critique. Far too many cities of all sizes have fallen into this trap. We don’t have a commission review every approval for a building permit, nor should we. It’s time to put our trust back in simple, fair rules and let the professional staff interpret them. Perhaps then our planning and development commissions can think big-picture again, which is what they were intended for. Cities thrive on constant change and evolution, and we need to loosen up our minds to embrace that change. It’s what works for people that want urban living; not an urban-looking but fundamentally suburban-attitude approach.
  3. Don't wait for the big thing; act today. Look, I’m a planner by nature. Even if I hadn’t gone into urban planning, I’m sure I would have been a believer in the process. Long-term thinking is very important; in fact it is central to good governing. I firmly believe in the Iroquois principle of looking ahead and asking if what we’re doing will work for people and communities several generations from now. But I also believe in asking, “what can I do today?” And when the day is over, “what can I do tomorrow?” We will need to continue to do big and difficult things, but mostly we need to shift our minds to figure out how we can move ideas ahead now, instead of waiting for the big plan that may or may not be coming down the road. Life passes all-too-quickly; why should we suffer crappy streets and public spaces day after day after day because some magical change might be coming in a few years? Get tactical, use the scrum method; do it now.
  4. Size matters, but not in the way you think.  Sure, it’s a cliché that small is the new big. People love tiny homes, tiny art studios and micro apartments. But mostly, we need to value small increments of development. Some call it fine-grained. Others say small-scale. But the key is really about all of us remembering where we came from, and how we created great cities and prosperity to begin with. Smaller units of development are fundamental to making a great city, not the big, flashy, headline-grabbing projects. Small units enhance affordability, create wealth, and create life. Build enough of it, and you’ll be a prosperous place; much more so than the current big project that you’re considering. There’s no under-stating just how much work we all have to do in order to make incremental development easy, but it’s the most important work on your community’s “to-do” list.
  5. Human pleasure is not a frill. Here’s the thing – really great suburbs are all about enhancing the privacy that we crave at some point in the day or our lives. Done well, they are green, quiet, safe and a retreat from the busy world. But cities have a different focus. The good ones touch our senses, and encourage us to get out more in public. The great ones touch our basic humanity – our emotions, our love of beauty, how we revel in simple whimsy and yes, perhaps, even a little debauchery. It’s the whole point of making great, walkable places – not to save the planet or reduce energy costs. Those may be by-products, and good ones. But the point is human pleasure in our daily routines. The 20th century was obsessed with rational planning methods and efficiency. Let that all go, and imagine what it means to find beauty and wonder in the everyday.

Of course, every successful city absolutely has to do the basics well, such as law and order, cleanliness and transparency. These are essential, and in a certain sense go without saying. But if you really want your place to move beyond the basics and achieve long-lasting success, you’ll need to seriously consider where your own head needs to be. So take a step back, think about your own biases, and then start planning for tomorrow’s world today.

Going down the rabbit hole of sprawl repair

[Note: Grant Henninger kindly responded to my letter to Rob Steuteville on sprawl repair here. Below is my response.]

Dear Grant,

I appreciate your comments, and I also very much appreciate your dedication to your hometown. Would that everyone would have the same sort of long-term view!  I have a tendency to be a bit verbose, not to mention think through so many levels of details, so I apologize for the length of this response. As I got into it more, it sort of got away from me as a response directly to you, and more of an elaboration on my previous correspondence. So here goes-

Allow me to try and shift this conversation a bit more out of the abstract. These types of discussions can tend to quickly sound like political debate – all noise and vagaries, with very little of anything substantive that can affect people’s lives. I suppose that's one reason I find myself enjoying the Granola Shotgun blog so much - Johnny does an excellent job of relating specific situations.

Look, any individual can do what they want. God knows I’ve ignored plenty of advice, and you may completely ignore my thoughts here. That’s fine, and certainly your choice or anyone else’s. But I have learned a few useful things in doing this for two decades, and my desire is to share the lessons I’ve learned in this space. I want people to succeed, not fail, and desperately want us to produce more great walkable places in this country. The current supply is so pitifully small.

To some extent my evolving views are a product of age and experience, and to some extent they’re a product of living for a few years now in Savannah. When you actually get to experience a first-rate walkable city (at least a US version) day-in and day-out, it can't help but impact how you see the challenges and the opportunities.

As I reflect back on my own work over the years, a very high percentage has been on what some might call sprawl retrofit projects. Some of those have been with my favorite clients and people. The folks I’ve worked with in suburban municipalities are people in the profession that I have tremendous admiration for. The ones who bothered to hire someone like me are the ones trying really hard to make the world a better place. It's simply not part of my DNA to denigrate or mock them, or their work. Rather, I want them to find reward instead of frustration.

So, you'll not hear me say that anybody is wrong for pursuing their own idealistic goals of retrofitting sprawl. I am however saying that if you were a municipal client, I would point you towards where, in my opinion, you have the best chances for success. Or, if you were working for me, I would not let you do certain things. I would focus you in areas that I believe to be productive. All of that obviously leads to the next questions: what areas, and to what ends? That’s what I’d like to focus on today.

One of my key points from before is a simple declaration: let urbanism be urbanism, and let sprawl be sprawl.

First, can we please engage in some language clarification? Most people think of suburban and sprawl as synonyms. Clearly, they are not. Many suburbs were their own towns before the car era, and were simply absorbed by post-war growth. That’s entirely different from places built from the mid-60’s on, which were purpose-built for cars, and thus are correctly labeled as sprawl. That sprawl takes several different forms, which I previously outlined here.

Location is irrelevant; it’s pattern of development that matters. This may sound very basic to you, but many, many people get this wrong. As a simple example: Marietta is a suburb of Atlanta, but is also a county seat that’s existed for 200 years. It has a downtown that looks like this:

It also has a sea of development built later that looks like this.

The former is urban, the latter is sprawl – it matters not that it’s all today a “suburb” of Atlanta.

Once you understand this basic fact, you can dive deeper into the different types of sprawl. That’s why I wrote the piece on the four types – to get into more nuance about what people often perceive of as just one big “thing” out there. And it’s in that nuance where we can discover what deserves the attention of well-intentioned people and what does not.

Now, intentions are one thing, but return on investment is also critical. For an individual, there's a "return on investment" that is very personal in nature. If you're someone advocating big changes in anything, you likely have a set of measures that is above and beyond the financial. Where you invest your own time is related to a sense of personal satisfaction, or perhaps a sense of moral duty. I won't minimize that at all, especially since I've been know to suffer from that affliction throughout much of my own life.

But for communities there’s a real, tangible financial side. The Strong Towns blog often gets into this issue, and does it well. Given our understanding of the different types of development patterns, then, here’s what I’d like to do: draw a graph. Sometimes for me it helps to draw these things out, since I’m a visual person. I begin this process by listing all of the different types of patterns, both urban and sprawl. Then, based on my experience and understanding, I rated each of them relative to the level of investment risk and the probable financial return for a municipality. Investment risk in this case really means how much public investment is needed in order to make a type of pattern into a high-quality, successful walkable neighborhood. So, for example, big-city urban requires a fair amount more investment than small-town urban, but the returns are also much higher. Standard suburbia requires a correspondingly very large investment, but the return is more on the level of small-town urban in most cases. So then, if we’re looking to discuss what is a good investment for a community relative to the likelihood of making a real difference in our communities and in people’s lives, it shakes out this way in my opinion:

The area I circled correlates to lowest risk and highest return. It's my humble opinion that every community (and frankly every individual) should logically look for that combination. And this is not to say: don’t ever work in the various other types of settlements. It’s simply a reflection that it’s increasingly risky, depending on the pattern, and the return doesn’t necessarily correspond to the risk. Again, that doesn’t mean – don’t ever do this. It means we need to go into the discussion and problem with eyes wide open.

So then, what “to do?” That’s the logical question, for much of sprawl. And while I generally loathe generic rules (since so much of planning and development is specific to a place and a market), I’ll lay a few suggestions out here as starting points. Keep in mind that this advice is directed mostly at people who either are, or desire to be, leaders in their community. This is not really me telling an individual, “go do this and don’t do that,” although I’m happy to have that conversation on a personal basis.

For cities and towns, then, I’d suggest these priorities for your “suburban” areas, which all come a priority level down from the "urban" areas circled in yellow in the chart:

1st Order:

  • If you have a downtown, work to make it successful as its own walkable neighborhood. Whatever pre-1940’s bones you have are the most logical place to begin. Master plan it in detail, code it correctly, and start implementing immediately. In many suburban communities, this essentially takes the form of "small-town urban."
  • Reform your own greenfield development processes and rules, if you have such land available. The future can always be changed much more easily than the recent past, and let’s face it – in most US markets we’re going to continue to expand outward regardless of what many planners might desire. Let’s at least get the new stuff right. The logical place to start is by planning and platting as "small-town urban" and allowing for growth and change.
  • Build a network of bike paths, either on or off-street. In suburban areas, I’m far less dogmatic about the importance of on-street bike routes. But, in any situation, this is an inexpensive, simple way to provide transportation options for your residents. Biking pairs very well with urbanism, but it also enhances the lifestyle of suburban residents. And, over time, a really good network can transform how a place is experienced.

2nd Order:

  • Carefully consider areas of Pre-Interstate suburbia that are capable of urbanizing. Work closely with the public to show how such neighborhoods can evolve successfully into something more diverse and walkable. As you study these early post-war suburbs, you'll quickly notice differences between some that can successfully make the transition and others that may never be able to. Keep in mind that for the general public, this is going to be a tough sell, and you'd better approach this with honesty, transparency and good data.
  • If you have large office parks or regional malls, work with the owners (usually a single entity) to help transform them into town centers. These sites generally are large enough to give some sense of critical mass for walkability. Just don’t expect them to be more than isolated islands of walkability, and also don’t expect this to be easy. Some owners may want to pursue this route, but many simply don’t believe it’s viable. Even the successful examples will still require copious amounts of structured parking, due to their location in car-centric sprawl.
  • Work with the owners of small retail centers, especially at major intersections, to inject some housing and public space. Be prepared for opposition from the public and owners to take these steps, but if you find a couple, it’s a worthy endeavor. Again – just don’t expect nirvana from these, since it’s entirely likely that at least one side will be a terrible stroad.

3rd Order: (in other words, WAY down the list)

  • Reform your stroads into something else, such as a transit-oriented corridor.

In my own personal opinion, I hold out very little hope for some of the fantasies that I see drawn for standard suburbia. This is not meant to be a Debbie Downer; it's just been the reality after going through the wars for a fair amount of time. Concepts such as turning cul-de-sac, disconnected subdivisions into mixed-use or even mixed-residence neighborhoods; making long stretches of pad-site retail stroads into transit-oriented urbanism; or connecting together broken street networks - I just see very, very little of that actually happening in the future. The examples that do happen will struggle to be anything better than C+ urbanism, as I noted before, and will be far more car-dependent than even the lowest density small-town urbanism. I take it as more likely that some of those types of places will simply collapse of their own accord over time, rather than be repairable.

When it comes to thinking positively about the future (as I’m generally inclined to do, despite the paragraph above), it’s very easy to get caught up in beautiful renderings and compelling personalities. We look at drawings of sprawl repair and think -  wow, something really can be done for this crap! But even when drawn by the best, it’s a very different task than balancing the time and money investment relative to the reward.

In general, that really is the theme that I take away from much of the Strong Towns movement, and how I see today and the future. We need to focus talk of planning and development on more realistic cost/benefit scenarios. I’m not optimistic that most places are going to have a deluge of public money available to create place, and I’m also concerned about what sort of private financing will be available as interest rates begin to rise again. The short version: we’re all going to have do more with much less, and so our investments need to be strategic. We won’t have as much luxury to make expensive mistakes.

This is all also not to mention the sheer hubris that we SHOULD try to change it all, for whatever reason. The environmental arguments have never really convinced me, to be perfectly honest, and it’s increasingly obvious that technology will in fact change our perceptions of this realm. More on that another time. But the idea that every place should be walkable, well, I’m sorry, but no. It’s a big world full of choices, and who are we to say every choice should be urban just because (insert your reason)? Many people really do like their sprawl. As Chris Leinberger astutely notes, we only need 5% of the land area to accommodate the demand for walkable urbanism, anyway. We should focus on those areas where we can do it really, really well. We can’t possibly fix it all; the math (and the politics) just doesn’t work.

So to summarize a long-winded note: changing a 4 acre parcel off the stroad into an attractive, walking-ish development is not a bad thing. If that's important to you and your world, go for it. Make it beautiful and pleasurable. Just don’t expect it to be much more than that, ever. Don’t expect it to fundamentally change the DNA of the sprawl that encircles it. The only route to that kind of change is to fundamentally alter the pattern, and in most places that’s just not going to be worth the expense or the time. Since that is the sad reality of so much of what is built on the ground, my advice is to come to a Buddhist acceptance of what is, and focus your energy in the upper left-hand quadrant of my highly-scientific graph.

Look, I know reasonable people will disagree with me. These are my opinions and thoughts after working in the field for many years, and spending plenty of my own time tilting at windmills. I hope everyone keeps trying to make their own towns, no matter where they fall on the urban to suburban scale, into better, more livable places. In my own view, I still think the winning formula for urbanists is to let urbanism be urbanism and let sprawl be sprawl. It's the shortest route to success, politically an easy sell and oh by the way, it will work. If you are committed to living or working in a place that is sprawl, then my suggestions are to start with what I outlined above. Just, please, be strategic. Think very hard about the return on investment, and the real-world impact on people's lives. 

All the best,


Your defense of sprawl repair

Note to readers: In the spirit of the pre-computer world, I’m going to pen this as a letter to Rob Steuteville of Better! Cities and Towns. If he or anyone else is so inclined, I invite you to continue a discussion using this lost art of civilized communication.

Dear Rob,

I wish I had more time to write a lengthy response to your piece that you reposted to Build a Better Burb. But, alas, life has been getting in the way of my writing, so I’m going to just offer some fairly-quick thoughts.

The two points that I’d emphasize right up front are this: 1) I’m not saying “not ever” but I’m definitely saying “not now” when it comes to working on sprawl retrofit; and 2), it’s important when sifting through “what to do” that we realize what is rational versus what is emotional. When it comes to spending our own precious time and resources, we have to try (fruitless as it may be at times), but desperately try to be rational.

When you say that “It has too much impact on people’s health, social lives, and the economies of communities” – I basically agree. Obviously, I agree with the diagnosis. It’s why I do this. But, where I diverge is what the prescription should be. It’s just far too difficult and expensive of a chore to make nearly any suburbia post-1970 into something that corrects those ills. At some point in life we all have to make choices, and though those choices may be difficult, they are critically important nonetheless. So I'll repeat from before: there’s simply no upside to making un-walkable places into C- versions of walkable cities. Making marginal improvements to driveable suburbia really isn’t worth the effort. It actually builds mistrust since people’s lives haven’t been transformed like we’ve promised they will be. It gives the entire movement a black eye, and doesn't help us in our most important effort: continuing to build the constituency of people that support walkable, urbane places.

Hey, it’s fun to say, “we take on hard challenges. We are smart and tough!” I'm all for a good fight or challenge as much as anyone. In fact, as you know, most of my career hasn't been working in red-hot markets or with nationally-famous developers. It seems that back in the day we damn-near specialized in working through exceptionally difficult projects, and just figuring out a way. Most of the time, my own ego drove me to say, "Hell yes I'm smart enough to make that project work." But here's the thing: being smart and tough also means knowing which battles are not worth fighting, and which are worthy of digging deep. As a somewhat-older guy now, it's easier for me to see that achieving success is more important than just spoiling for a fight. More on that another time.

I have to say that I'm glad that you mentioned Belmar in Lakewood, CO as a sprawl repair example. I’ve been to Belmar many times, and even toured people around it. I think it’s great. In fact, I’d say it’s arguably the best dead-mall retrofit in the country, with an incredible development team.

Belmar - Lakewood, CO

Belmar - Lakewood, CO

But Belmar is also a great case study in the challenges. Even with its success, it remains today an island in a sea of sprawl – a sea that will take many, many decades to change. That is, if it even can change. The bordering arterials are still terrible stroads. Nothing around it in the last decade has even marginally urbanized to become walkable.

Belmar in context, via Google Maps

Belmar in context, via Google Maps

In the timespan it will take for this whole area to become even a C+ version of walkable urbanism, good and talented people could successfully redevelop a dozen older neighborhoods or build several new towns on greenfield sites. We could positively impact the lives of tens of thousands of people. OR, we could focus on painfully changing this corridor to improve the lives of hundreds of people, at great expense of time and money.. To continue down the road of sprawl repair at that point is beyond rational – it’s ego and emotion.

But again, I should make sure to clarify. I’m not saying, “not ever.” A time will hopefully come when it makes eminent sense to work especially on the pre-interstate suburbs, and maybe even some suburban corridors. Just - not now. It’s not worth the time, the financial or political risk and we have too many high-quality opportunities that would be stupid to pass up. Let’s not be the people that screw up by spreading ourselves so thin in so many different areas. Most cities in this country are not at all like DC, New York or San Francisco. They desperately need attention to their old, urban neighborhoods that really were built well originally. And, they still need great greenfield examples to show people another way to meet the market demand. Please, let’s keep doing more of that, and not tilt at windmills.

If I were to offer a retort to myself, I would say, “but people of good intention are already working in suburbs and trying to make the world better. It sounds like you're telling them to just give up or move somewhere else. That's not just ridiculous, it's also impractical.” I find that to be a very fair line of inquiry. I loathe talking in the abstract for long, and my personality is certainly one that focuses on "yeah, but, what do I actually do?"  So, I intend to reflect deeply on that in my next correspondence.

With best regards,


P.S. I sure hope you weren't a Mets fan.

Way to go Royals!

Way to go Royals!


We don't really care about car accidents

Last week, I had one of those experiences where a number stunned me. Maybe you’ve run across that – a statistic at the right time and the right place that really stopped and made you think.

Here’s the interesting part, at least for me: I know this number. Or at least, I know the much larger version of it. As a planning & transportation geek, I understand that each year, in the US, about 35,000 people are killed in car crashes, and about 2,000,000 are injured. I’ve known those numbers for years, and relayed that information in numerous presentations.

But for some reason, last week, while driving on I-95, a particular version of that statistic caught my attention. The number was on one of those electronic signs, above the roadway. You know them, they look something like this:

The sign said:

”716 dead on Georgia roadways this year. Arrive Alive.”

716. By mid-July. Perhaps it’s because it was in blazing numbers above the roadway, or perhaps I was just in a mood to pay attention. But it got me. 716 divides out to more than 100 people per month. Just in Georgia.

I can’t help but think about the comparisons to other modes of travel. For example, I’m fairly certain that if a plane fell out of the sky and killed 100 people, once a month, no one would be buying plane tickets. Airline travel would be decimated and we’d have daily news stories about WHAT TO DO.

Earlier this year, 8 people died in a tragic Amtrak wreck in Philadelphia. 8 people. Congressional hearings were held. Katie Couric tweeted it was “scary.”

I don’t mean to minimize the deaths of 8 people, but 8 people die every three days on our roadways in just this one state. More than 1,200 will die this year. There are 253 cities in Georgia that have fewer than 1,200 total residents. If the national ratios remain consistent, that also means about 6,000 people will be injured in Georgia every month or 72,000 in a year. Eleven cities in the entire state have more than 72,000 people. Wonder why there are so many ads for lawyers specializing in injury accidents?

But in the end, after all the numbers, after all the gruesome crashes, with countless little crosses lining the roadways, here’s what I’ve learned: We don’t really care. We don’t really care how many people die or are injured. We have come to accept that it’s just part of life in modern America. It’s no different than the sun coming up in the morning, or the tides rolling in and out every day. It just is what it is.

Even if we did care, we wouldn’t agree on what to do about it or wouldn’t want to do the things that would make the numbers drop.

We think, for example, that the answers are safer cars, wider roads and laws against texting. What we don’t talk about is that the “safer” we make cars and the wider we make the roads, the more we enable bad behavior and faster driving. And to put it bluntly, speed kills. Don’t even make me bring up the other obvious point, which is that we’ve designed our communities to compel driving for each and every activity of life. Oops – you just made me bring it up.

The truth is, driving is dangerous. It’s the leading cause of death for nearly everyone under 35. It’s probably the most dangerous single thing you do every day. The only truly effective ways to save lives are to make driving optional instead of a mandatory fact of life, to narrow roads so as to slow speeds, provide great public transportation options and enforce strict penalties for bad driving behavior.

But the truth is, we won’t do those things, except in a few “special” places where we’ve deemed it’s acceptable. Even then, it’s very difficult. The gnashing and wailing of teeth when it’s proposed to slow down cars or prioritize walking and biking is something to behold. Those objections are somewhat fewer today than say, ten years ago, but still they dominate.

It’s also not that we don’t have the money or that making the right changes wouldn’t actually work. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Making our world less about driving everywhere quickly is far cheaper than the alternative. It saves us money in the short-term and the long-term, which is kind of a win-win, isn’t it?

So, we can do these things, we can make our cities, towns and countryside safer. We can provide real, meaningful options of how to get around. We have the money; we have the know-how. Now, we just need to care.


4 Types of Sprawl

A couple of weeks ago I shared my thoughts on the idea of "sprawl retrofit" which also sometimes goes by the name "sprawl repair" or "suburban retrofit." Today it's time to take a step backwards and define what I actually mean by the very broad term "sprawl" since there's often so much confusion on the topic. 

In simple terms, I agree with how Chris Leinberger breaks out "walkable urbanism" and "drivable suburbia." I think this is a very good starting point, since it accurately describes the two very basic systems of how our cities our built. One system is essentially built around people on foot (or bike, since the two are mutually supportive) and the other is built around people moving in cars. 

Each broad system then has its sub-categories, which much more accurately describe the nuance of our actual built environment. Walkable places, for example, range from "small-town urban" up to "big-city urban." The scale and context differ, as do the design, policy and management solutions. The result is a range of living environments that we're capable of producing, all of which are fundamentally built around walking and biking. I've written about how to describe this taxonomy previously here. Note that today I'm going to give a touch more differentiation to that earlier breakdown.

Drivable suburbia, or sprawl, also is not just one, big, lumpy "thing." It's fine to use the basic term as a starting point, but it's important to also see the nuance that is found in the typical suburban environment. Here's how I would categorize four types of sprawl, then, each with aerial images to help illustrate the idea:

1. Pre-Interstate suburbia. (PIS)

2. Standard subdivision suburbia (SS) I called this Late Suburbia previously.

3. Master-plannned communities (MPC's)

4. Rural / Exurban sprawl (RX)

Last week, I mentioned that I think only one of the four types is worthy of any time or effort by urbanists. In my opinion, that's #1 - pre-interstate suburbia. And, I'd caution - not everywhere, in every community.

My rationale is pretty simple - most PIS was still built with reasonably-connected street networks, and not based on the mile-square grid that came into being with the interstate system. The streets are thus narrower, the lot pattern is smaller, and it's not at all impossible to imagine quite a bit of it evolving into a nice, B- version of small-town urbanism. The commercial parcels are generally small enough to convert to neighborhood centers, and some of these places even have a semblance of public parks and public spaces that can support walking and biking. The earlier it was developed, the better, since the homes are also small and thus can reach the affordable needs of those who want to take on smaller mortgages and rebuild or build up slowly. In essence, this era of suburbia was built before the era of "bigness" came into full flowering.

The major obstacle for these places evolving tend to be in the realm of zoning and legal code mechanisms. With quality plans and form-based codes, these could have substantially more housing diversity, and thus more affordability and wealth-building capabilities. Doing so would further enable the commercial sites to redevelop into fully-functional walkable neighborhood centers, and give these places a solid future. In some cases, the street networks and public spaces could also use rethinking, and fortunately those would likely be inexpensive repairs in the whole scheme of things. Also, since they tend to be adjacent to the pre-war urbanism a city had, they benefit from location and can support the urban revitalization of our cities and towns.

But the reality is, the political obstacles to making these kinds of changes are just too high today nearly everywhere. For most people living in PIS, the changes would be too radical and too urban. I do think in time that will change, especially with the success of the older urban areas, but for now in most places it's a very difficult proposition. Which is to say, that's all the more reason to focus on what we can make great today, and move to PIS later.

In terms of the other three sprawl categories, my feeling is that they don't merit the time and talent of new urbanists or urban advocates. As I argued previously, the rewards are just too little while the risks and effort are too much. SS - the standard, large-scale separation of uses that has come to define much of what we know as suburbia, is where so much energy and hand-wringing has been spent in recent years. It's organized around large arterial roadways spaced at one mile minimum separations, with large separate pods of garden apartments, differing kids of residential subdivisions, retail centers, office parks and shopping malls. Bigness, to the core.

Sure, it's a good thing if a regional mall or office park in SS redevelops into a walkable center. I've always thought that those types of evolutions were logical, and am not saying those are somehow "bad." We already have some solid examples to learn from and see how it can work. But ultimately these types of re-dos have two major problems: one is that they exist as urban islands in vast seas of drivable suburbia, and secondly that they simply aren't diverse. By that I mean, they are places that are generally in the hands of a single owner, or very few owners, and lend themselves to big-scale projects and interventions. There's no place or opportunity to create the kinds of gradual change that actually makes for great human settlements. To put it bluntly, these are consumable products, and their owners will turn on a dime to whatever they think is the prevailing market trend. Don't be surprised for a minute if some of our current "lifestyle centers" are torn down completely in 15 or 20 years to be replaced by the latest, greatest idea for big developments. In essence - they don't need you and your exceptional urbanist skills.

Type 3 is similar. These are big, sometimes enormous developments, often controlled by one entity. The opportunity for small-scale intervention is essentially nil. They rarely connect to anything beyond their own boundaries. But I would say this about MPC's: most are already more walking and biking-friendly than most urbanists will give them credit. Hilton Head Island has 65 miles of off-street bike paths that are pleasant and well-used - how many miles does your city have? Now, these places may have housing "product" all separated into their own pods, but these are still better than SS Suburbia. In fact, they're better because they were created in reaction to SS Suburbia - they are the next evolution of it. It's also conceivable that the commercial portions of these could evolve into something more walkable, much like Haile Village Center did on Haile Plantation. Today, Haile Village is still arguably one of the best TND's built, but it's nestled into a 1,700 acre MPC. For many people, that is just enough walkability to suit them, and the path for urbanists to create even more is fraught with serious difficulty. Again, in terms of where to spend precious time, I would advise against it unless you're on the payroll of the controlling entity. 

Type 4 - rural sprawl, is just plain silly for urbanists to wade into. Again, we need to realize that a portion of the market really likes this. Some folks VERY much desire the seclusion of this type of living, and are willing to do what it takes to enjoy it. My experience tells me that many people in rural sprawl don't want little hamlets or villages, no matter how great they might look on a rendering or a plan. They in fact want isolation in the woods, and don't mind the driving it takes to get to and from it. Some folks choose this in order to enjoy quiet solitude, while others enjoy the opportunity to grow something on a few acres or have animals. And, shocking as it may sound, quite a few people just don't like cities or being around other people. That is ok; why must we insist that it be otherwise? Now don't get me wrong - I enjoy quaint little hamlets and rural villages that I've visited in so many places, and it would be MY preference if I lived in the country. But then, I don't. I live in the city, and prefer being around people and urban life.

And let's get real. RX affects such a small percentage of people - why bother? Let's spend our time and energies in places that can impact the lives of thousnds or hundreds of thousands in a positive way, instead of making enemies of relatively small numbers of people that want a large-lot retreat from humanity. What does it really gain us? If there's a chance to control enough acreage and do a true town, go for it! But the fantasies of turning every large-lot sprawl area into rural urbanism needs to be put to bed.

So there you have it - four types of sprawl, each with its own context, and with some thoughts on their futures. Now, go forth, good people, and make the world a better place. But before doing so, ask yourself, "what do you really want to spend your life working on?" 

Car City, USA Redux

From Twitter, earlier today:

When I wrote KC: Car City, USA last year, some people took issue with my characterization. This week's news of the American Royal bbq moving to Arrowhead Stadium only confirms the byline. Taking a great event and moving it to a suburban site essentially because of parking is planting a big flag in the ground that says "we care more about cars than city life." I find it especially sad because some creative thinking to make it a urban event, in the city, of the city, about people mingling, walking, smelling, eating, drinking in the greatest bbq city in the world, would be an event of international importance. Can you even imagine how incredible it would be every fall to essentially shut the city down for a weekend for such a festival? But alas, no, the gods of parking and easy freeway access win again. If I still lived there, I'd be among the first in line to boycott the new location, and start a counter-festival the same weekend, in the actual city. Year one might have 6 teams and a keg of beer, but like First Fridays, I predict it would grow quickly and be it's own showcase event. 

Markets aren't always local

There've been so many articles lately on gentrification that it's been dizzying. Most have covered ground that people have written about for years, and repeat tired cliches on all sides of the issue. I confess to be tired of the old arguments, precisely because I think we're in a different era now with different concerns than 20 or 30 years ago. I even strongly dislike the term "gentrification" since it's a British term describing a particularly British phenomenon - then applied to American cities.  Personally, I think Megan McArdle's recent writings have been the best - especially this, this and this. The last one is outstanding, and it's interesting of course that someone who's not a planner has a better grasp of this than many planners. At any rate, below is a tweetstorm from today regarding another aspect of the conversation.