Low Income Solutions

Over the last couple of months I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about current initiatives designed to help low income neighborhoods in U.S. cities. It’s been a bit of a crash course but one I’m excited about. Sustainable cities require equitable housing opportunities and healthy communities. Right now, achieving those goals in the U.S. seems to require a good amount of federal support.

In April I attended the Urban Affairs Association meeting in San Francisco. There was a fantastic panel called “Urban Policy in the Age of Obama: An Assessment of the First Term.” Scholars from around the country weighed in on the successes and failures of the Obama administration, and specifically the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency, over the last several years. I think sometimes it can be easy to overlook the role of federal programs (and dollars) in shaping urban initiatives. One of HUD’s new programs is called “Choice Neighborhoods”  and it awards grant money for neighborhood revitalization projects. It builds on previous initiatives (most notably Hope VI) by expanding the program’s targets to go beyond housing projects and include investment in employment opportunities and education, and prioritizes mixed-income development over highly concentrated public housing. Rolf Pendall from the Urban Institute also pointed out that the Choice Neighborhoods does more to increase urban density, an important driver of resource use in cities.

Todd Swanstrom was also on the panel and made a lot of good points (as usual) but one really stuck out for me: he noted that in St. Louis people spend more on transportation than on housing (mostly because housing prices are so low) and so reducing people’s need for a car is actually an anti-poverty measure. He was using this fact to promote light rail construction in the city, making it possible for families to have only one car (or none!) and save a lot of money.

Finally, my friend Tish Kelly of the Meta Housing Corporation in Los Angeles has very generously introduced me to the ins and outs of low income housing development. Here again the federal government gets involved — states are allocated tax credits for low income housing on a per capita basis. These tax credits are competitively allocated to local development projects. The great thing about Tish’s work is that these projects (at least in Los Angeles) probably aren’t what you would think of when you hear “low income housing.” They really provide an excellent opportunity for people who would otherwise struggle to find safe, secure, affordable housing. I’ll close with a couple of pictures from their projects — I showed a larger set to my class last night and they were a hit.

Burbank Senior Arts Community

Burbank Senior Arts Community

Courtyard 1

Vermont Family Apartments in South Central Los Angeles

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Water Graffiti

I want to call attention to the great work of the Estria Foundation in promoting water awareness, urban sustainability, and justice in cities around the world through their Water Writes initiative.

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In the class I’m teaching this semester, Cities and the Environment, we’ve been debating the merits of urbanization from a sustainability perspective. One thing that is becoming clear is that density matters — it helps to determine the efficiency of resource use, the proximity of jobs and amenities, and the utility of public transportation. In general we’ve been zeroing in on the idea that more dense urban areas are likely to be more sustainable, or that density in general is a “good thing.”

With this in mind I read  a list of the 5 densest cities in the U.S., and according to Census data from 2010, they are:

1. New York
2. Los Angeles
3. San Francisco
4. Trenton-Ewing, N.J.
5. Honolulu

This list is unlikely to coincide with general notions of the 5 most sustainable cities in the U.S.; it doesn’t coincide with mine.

So obviously it’s not as easy as “greater density leads to greater sustainability”…but maybe density generates more opportunities for sustainability; maybe it’s a better starting point. Maybe it depends on what your notion of sustainability is.

More on this as class progresses!

Density in Delhi

Density in Delhi

Posted in Buildings, Energy, Planning, Water | 2 Comments


Detroit. The city everyone loves to hate. Or at least to talk of disparagingly.

When I first heard about the movie Detropia I thought, “here we go. Another person set on exploiting the troubles Detroit has had; telling a one-sided story that grabs people’s attention.” The movie’s synopsis describes Detropia as a documentary that tells the story of a “grand city teetering on the brink of dissolution.” You can see where my skepticism/pessimism came from.

I went to see the movie with the intention of writing a scathing review afterward (bonus of having a blog). But it was not to be. The movie actually does an incredible job of contextualizing and humanizing the challenges that Detroit faces. Because the city truly does have huge obstacles to overcome: incredibly rapid population growth and then decline, loss of its major employers, and mismanagement. But these aren’t happening in a vacuum or without anyone’s notice, and the filmmakers captured this dynamic.

For example, the filmmakers attend a couple of United Autoworkers Union meetings. You can see and hear the frustration of the union members trying to negotiate with their employer who has told the union leader “we don’t care if they get a living wage.” The filmmakers also follow a local bar owner, who is eternally optimistic that the boom times will return and people will once again order a plate of 50 wings after work. The film casts a somewhat critical eye on the hipster artists that have moved downtown, where they can afford an apartment, a studio, and create “edgy” (if not completely tone deaf) urban art.

They also take on some of the policy challenges, and I think this was the biggest take-home message from the film. As captured in Detropia, Detroit Mayor David Bing is fully aware of the challenges facing his city: the population is tiny compared to the land area owned and operated by the city, and the people that do still live in Detroit are waiting for the next reason to move out.  A solution is hatched: residential areas should be more concentrated — no more neighborhoods with only one occupied house, and the city can’t afford to provide bus routes and other services to sparsely populated areas. But it becomes clear at a town hall-style meeting that this isn’t going to go over well with residents. People feel they’re being delivered a solution they had no part in creating and aren’t convinced that the land will be used for better purposes (“they’re going to turn Detroit into a farm?! I don’t think so.”).

The movie and its “stars” repeatedly claim that Detroit’s experiences offer lessons for other cities. I think they’re right, and I think the lessons lie in the creation of solutions. From what I can tell Detroit’s mayor’s desire to concentrate the population and re-purpose the land makes a lot of sense. The problem is that the city is lacking two things: leadership and participation or buy-in. While Mayor Bing is an intelligent and well-intentioned mayor, he lacks the leadership and charisma that would be necessary to move a city onto a new course from the top. He comes across as a manager more than a mayor. At the same time, decisions are being made at high-level meetings among city staff and planners, without the inclusion of residents. Detroiters are well aware that redistributing the population probably makes sense for the city — but they lack trust in the people and the process. To me, these are the biggest factors holding Detroit back, and the areas where other cities should take notice.

road trip and india 5.6 170

Posted in Planning, Politics | 1 Comment

Hurricane Sandy NYC

Pretty neat footage from NYC

Posted in Biking, Climate Change, Disasters, Flooding, Water | Leave a comment

Carbon Footprinting for U.S. Cities

This week ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) released the U.S. Community Protocol for Accounting and Reporting of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. The Community Protocol is the first of its kind, and, according to ICLEI, “allows local governments to gain a clearer understanding of which sources and activities within their communities—from power generation and passenger vehicles to livestock and solid waste treatment—are most responsible for the greenhouse gases driving climate change.” The idea that if it is easier for cities and communities to complete an greenhouse gas inventory, it will also be easier for them to take steps to reduce emissions. In addition to the protocol, ICLEI includes an Excel-based “Scoping and Reporting Tool.”

The Community Protocol basically has three steps: Scoping for relevant emissions sources and activities; Calculating emissions based on these sources and activities; and Reporting the results. There are five “Basic Emissions Generating Activities” every community should account for: (1) Use of Electricity, (2) Use of Fuel in Stationary Equipment (e.g., furnaces), (3) Motor Vehicle Travel, (4) Energy Used for Water Treatment and Distribution, and (5) Generation of Solid Waste. This seems like a useful list for anyone interested in local emissions sources (including individuals…). And I am very glad to see water treatment and distribution as a major source of emissions! I have several friends and colleagues working hard on the water/energy nexus and it seems to be getting some traction in the policy world.

An interesting thread throughout the Community Protocol is a focus on helping communities “tell a story” with their greenhouse gas reporting. For example, after listing various ways of reporting emissions (e.g., a consumption-based inventory, sector-by-sector, or for community businesses) a final option is to “Create Your Own Story: In addition to any of these reporting frameworks, local governments may identify other, additional stories they would like to tell.” It seems like ICLEI is also trying to help communities find the best ways to communicate the results of the inventories to the public, and to think critically about the “story” they want the community to hear. It seems like a useful strategy…

It will be interesting to see how much traction this Community Protocol gets with local governments. Standards are always useful for busy bureaucrats, and one produced by ICLEI is likely to have some legitimacy.

Beach in Adelaide



Posted in Climate Change, Planning | 2 Comments

The Future of Planning

The Sustainable Cities Collective posted a great interview with Mitchell Silver, the President of the American Planning Association (APA). The APA is a pretty powerful group when it comes to directing the course of city planning in the U.S. They are a professional organization that represents and trains city planners: the people who help  cities design transportation networks, zone neighborhoods, plan for growth, and protect the environment. Silver was asked some interesting questions about the future of planning and of cities in the U.S.

Silver says that one of his major goals is to help make planners more proactive and collaborative. In many cases planners have started to play a facilitative role — meaning a city council or developer or community decides they want more commercial areas or 15% growth and the planners take care of the technical details and administration. Silver wants planners to help cities and communities think more strategically about their goals and to be leaders in this process. One of the new APA goals is to “work toward a more just and sustainable future (stop equity washing).” A good goal I’d say.

But Silver goes on to say that he thinks planners should not use the word “sustainability.” He thinks the word comes with too much emotional baggage, and is jargon rather than simple, common language. He says, “I don’t have to say we want ‘sustainable water’ or ‘sustainable air’ – we can just say what we mean ‘clean water’ and ‘clean air’ and avoid the jargon.” In many ways I agree with him — there’s still no easy way to measure sustainability (even to know it when you see it) and each group seems to have its own definition of what sustainability means. Still, I always wonder if we lose something when we stop using that word. It became popular for a reason — it adds something to the conversation. Is it better to drop it or to define it? I’m not completely sure.

One additional point Silver makes is that in a recent survey of Americans, the vast majority are supportive of urban planning. The support cuts across geographic, political, and socio-economic divisions. The question that remains is how to translate that support into productive participation and dialogue. TBD!

Roman ruins — bad planning?

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