home

Justin Auciello: The New Wave Planner

text

Radical change on tap for Jersey City’s Journal Square neighborhood (maybe)

Radical change may be on the horizon for Jersey City’s Journal Square neighborhood.

“Journal Square [has a] vast potential to become a thriving neighborhood,” said John Becker, an architecture graduate student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, who, along with his Housing Studio colleagues, prepared over 30 designs for public housing within Journal Square, with the charge to rethink public housing and its role in the greater community.

Since the mid-1990s, momentum has been building for a seismic change within the Journal Square neighborhood: the area was designated as a Special Improvement District (“SID”); a non-profit business association was formed; massive and publicly vetted vision and redevelopment plans have been prepared; and architecture students have studied the neighborhood and proposed innovative public housing solutions.

But why, with entire swaths of the city in need of revitalization, is Journal Square such a paramount focus, and why now?

URBAN POLICY SHIFTS

Over the recent years, as traffic conditions have worsened, gas prices have jumped, sustainability became mainstream, and the concept of “walkable communities” has become chic, city planners globally have been touting the importance of transit oriented developments (TODs), wherein the focus is on the pedestrian and multi-modal public transportation choices, not the passenger automobile.

Predicated on sustainability, the intention is to create a dynamic environment, with high-density housing and mixed land uses surrounding multi-modal transit, all being interconnected with the pedestrian in mind. If executed properly, those living within a TOD reap the benefits of being able to live, work, and play all within an active, pedestrian friendly environment.

According to the Regional Plan Association, communities within the New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut region are seeking to maximize transit availability, and this is not just a regional trend. Communities around the country are planning for increased transit opportunities, as well.

Naturally, TOD planning works in concert with smart growth policy.

The New Jersey State Development and Redevelopment Plan (“SDRP”), defined by the New Jersey Office of Smart Growth as a vision document, seeks to create compact, diverse communities that are walkable, have public transportation options, and carry sufficient goods and services, while simultaneously preserving open space and rural areas—the anti-thesis of post WW-II suburban sprawl.

Growth, in essence, is not just focused in urban areas, but also in areas throughout the state where there is sufficient existing infrastructure to carry new construction, effectively lowering the costs of development.

The mission is to push the people into urban areas, where a cornucopia of services are available, and pull them out of their pollution and traffic generating automobiles.

Clearly, the SDRP intends to focus most of New Jersey’s growth in urban areas, where infrastructure and mass transit are readily available, and as such, a cache of funding and support programs exist for this purpose, ranging from site remediation and brownfields programs to transit village incentives.

Since Journal Square serves as a major mass transportation hub and possesses explosive potential, the neighborhood has been designated by NJ Transit as a transit village, deeming it not only suitable for ongoing mixed-use development and redevelopment to serve commuters and residents, but also open to receiving state financial assistance.

Couple statewide policy initiatives with the Jersey City government’s ongoing mission to improve Journal Square and create a powerhouse living, working, and destination environment, and you have the necessary ingredients to develop a vision for a true TOD and smart growth oriented environment built for 21st century demands.

However, with grand plans come grand monetary outlays.

If this vision is to be accomplished, it will require, according to Jersey Citiy Major Jeremiah Healey, billions of dollars.

RECENT PLANNING EFFORTS WITHIN JSQ

Announced by Major Healey in October 2008, a multi-billion dollar redevelopment of the Journal Square area, if fully built, will radically alter how the neighborhood looks and functions.

A historic neighborhood, Journal Square is densely populated, with a mélange of residential, commercial, entertainment, office, educational, government, and transportation uses, most famously known by PATH riders as the neighborhood in which the Journal Square Transportation Center is situated. Based on the land uses alone, it is truly a prime example of an urban center, although, since the 1960s, its functionality has struggled, and accordingly, as evidenced by significant attention bestowed upon Journal Square, revitalization is long overdue.

Over time, the city has taken various steps to improve the district, with the formation of a the SID in the mid-1990s to promote and protect business interests in Journal Square.

“The New Journal Square,” a campaign aimed at raising awareness of the ongoing redevelopment efforts, services, activities, and events in the neighborhood, is the marketing arm of The Journal Square Restoration Corporation, the non-for-profit organization formed in concert with the SID.

According to its website, The New Journal Square operates within a city-designated Urban Enterprise Zone (“UEZ”), which allows for certain tax exemptions for both businesses and customers, and oversees an annual work plan, averaging ”close to 2 million dollars annually, funds district-wide advocacy for the improvement of the district as well as additional maintenance and security to supplement both private and public services to the district.”

In the late 1990s, the organization, in conjunction with Jersey City government, conceived and implemented an approximately five million dollar Capital Improvement Plan. Beginning in the fall of 1999, according to the organization’s website, “the major reconstruction project included a new pedestrian plaza, a spectacular central fountain new lighting fixtures, street signs, brick paved sidewalks, and landscaping throughout the district.”

With awareness, attention, and planning in the works for years preceding the official introduction of the original Journal Square Redevelopment Plan, the groundwork had been set for a comprehensive—and quite expensive—vision for the future of the neighborhood.

VISION

Whether you like it or not, walk around Journal Square right now and soak up the environment, because, if the vision becomes reality, most of the existing elements will be replaced with a fundamentally different atmosphere.

According to the Journal Square 2060 Redevelopment Plan, the focus for the approximately 211 acres in the project area—focusing on the Journal Square core, consisting of the block bounded by Summit Avenue, Sip Avenue, Kennedy Boulevard, and Pavonia Avenue—is on the pedestrian, with sprawling open plazas, multi-modal transportation choices (including trolley cars and required bike parking rooms within building) and a brand-new transit hub complete with a Hudson-Bergen Light Rail extension, and parking lot “interceptors” on the edge of the neighborhood (to limit the amount of passenger vehicles entering the area). Perhaps the most visionary within the existing concrete jungle is the nearly 10 acres of new park spaces that will link to a planned greenway from the Journal Square neighborhood to the waterfront. The planners also propose two mixed-use towers, thousands of residential units, and millions of square feet of office and commercial space.

The vision capitalizes on the existing high quality transit hub, with reduced parking requirements and minimal surface parking, as well as an “increase [in] building coverage, floor-areas-ratios, and a residential density, which can be supported near transit facilities,” according to the plan.

In October 2008, during the unveiling on the original iteration of the plan, Mayor Healey dubbed it “bold and visionary,” and with the pedestrian and transit clearly possessing the most power in the plan, Anton Nelessen, the world-renowned architect and urban planner/designer whose office co-wrote the plan, noted during the October 2008 presentation that “[the redevelopment area] is one of those place where people can literally live without cars.”

REACTIONS

Since the introduction of the plan in late 2008, concerns simmered and finally percolated during a February 25, 2009 public hearing on the original plan.  

Jersey City Independent’s Jon Whiten reported in a February 27, 2009 piece that “most speakers commended the idea of the plan, while taking issue with the plan’s specifics of how it was carried out.” Mr. Whiten also noted that the recurring themes included “fear of eminent domain, too much density, a perceived lack of citizen input and a strain on infrastructure and city services,” as well as fears of funding mechanisms.”

Others, however, including former planning board commissioner Jeff Kaplowitz stated that the city “can no longer expand horizontally,” and that the most appropriate area for taller buildings is above a transit hub.

The Journal Square 2060 Redevelopment Plan is the latest in a series of iterations, with revisions ordered due to public outcry over the original plan, which was tabled after the controversial February 2009 public hearing. Concerned about the plan destroying the character of the neighborhood, the planners went back to the drawing board, consulted neighborhood groups, and the result is a plan more sensitive to the desires of the community.

“Journal Square and its surrounding neighborhoods are not a blank slate,” the plan states. “Building types range from detached two-family homes with generous front yards, to 4 to 6 story apartment buildings, office buildings, and commercial uses. This variety of uses and building types are all interwoven at a fine scale. Some streets are quiet and narrow, while others have intensive retail uses. This diversity need not inhibit the city from drafting new development guidelines.” It continues: “This redevelopment plan balances the need for new development at higher densities with the existing context of diverse and varied neighborhoods.”

As noted above, the most recent iteration of the plan is more sensitive to the wishes of the current residents and now, perhaps as a result of stakeholder push back, states that redevelopment “shall be achieved without the means of condemnation.”

A UNIQUE VISION FOR JSQ

There’s not just one vision for Journal Square.

As noted briefly in the beginning of this piece, architecture graduate students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, as part of a Housing Studio, prepared over 30 public housing designs for the Journal Square neighborhood.

According to studio member Mr. Becker, all second year students in the Masters of Architecture program are required to undertake a semester-long studio project that focuses on a hypothetical project for public housing. “In the tradition of Columbia’s experimental nature,” Becker explained, “students are encouraged to rethink public housing and its role in the greater community.”

Yuval Borochov, a member of the studio a Becker’s design partner, said that the “main project of any studio from Columbia is to assess the greater issues of the desired program in the given site, and from there to produce a vision that is either serious or satirical.”

Granted a creative license with limited parameters, each Housing Studio team was sent to the drawing board to design around 2,000 housing units within the current Journal Square Transportation Center block.

“Individual studios decided where to invest their interest,” Becker said. “Some chose to be more practical, while others attempted to reinvent the way we dwell.” Centered on the Journal Square Transportation Center, the main charge, of course, was to design housing that is not just localized, but rather with transit opportunities—regionalized—connecting housing with opportunities beyond Jersey City.

When asked if the designs were intended to be implemented, Becker stated that “[n]one of [the] projects are intended to be constructed in any form, but rather to spark debate on the potential for public housing to reinvent its role and its integration [with] public housing.”

All varied, the student exhibits range from the abstract to the practical, yet still unlikely to be implemented—although as Becker said, that is not the point.

Becker and his studio colleague, Mr. Borochov, designed a program dubbed “Gondola Housing.”

“The intention was to reflect upon the socio-economic deficits in Jersey City’s urban condition,” Borochov said. “The solution we came up with is affordable and applicable specifically to the density and urban structure of Jersey City, starting with Journal Square.”

Especially with the current economic climate and, of course, the slumping housing market, Becker noted that “it seemed a more appropriate time than ever to address the issue of public housing.”

With the Gondola Housing idea, Becker acknowledges that it is a departure from what we typically perceive as public housing, “but that is the point,” he said.

“After the collapse of the housing market, it was obvious it was no longer appropriate to look at housing as a safe investment, as well as the idea that public housings should be able to provide a chance for lower income residents to rise out of poverty,” Becker said. “So if we look at housing as a source of income, rather than an investment, it has a chance to do just that.”

But how does this tie into the city’s official vision for the Journal Square neighborhood?

The intent is to recreate a neighborhood where the pedestrian is king, with easy access to multi-modal transportation choices, and somewhere where people can live, work, and play. Following this, all housing designs should tie in with the pedestrian/transit theme.

The Gondola Housing design is not only a solution, but it could actually function as a component of the transit system, Becker stressed, generating not only scaled efficiency for the transit system, but also a revenue source for residents.

“If the square footage of the housing unit (separate from the private elements) can be leased to a transportation network when unoccupied, that square footage can become the source of income [for the occupants],” Becker said.

He continues: “It also maximizes the efficiency of the space, allowing residents to shift the size of the house based on ‘to the minute’ needs, generating income off all the unused space.”

It is also organic and quite malleable, allowing housing to interact with the transit system at will, as it “adds a new pedestrian friendly transportation network to city that can grow and expand based on residential requirements,” Becker highlighted. And, it is is certainly a novel idea: with the housing units functioning as an element of the transit system, the city’s transportation network “can be built more efficiently, faster, and cheaper,” Becker stressed, therefore eradicating unnecessary construction deadwood, which is especially a salient concern in a rough economic climate. Additionally, beyond the monetary and transit maximization benefits, the Gondola Housing design highlights an innovative paradigm shift on how a home could function.

Thought provoking, yes; easily understood and politically feasible, probably not. However, it is a welcomed and mind expanding image of how housing and transit could co-exist in a symbiotic relationship, a paramount focus of the Journal Square 2060 Redevelopment Plan, which will, if adopted, create a world class, massive TOD in the heart of one of New Jersey’s oldest cities.

Perhaps gondola housing options will be absent from the adopted plan, but rest assured, realistic, cutting-edge innovations are on tap.

Stay up-to-date with the latest Journal Square news at The Jersey City Independent and New Jersey Land Use News.

Comments (View)
text

Meshing Hyperlocal News and Community Planning: “Just Cover It”

Here are some terms that probably resonate pretty well in the mind of the average person:

  • Hyperlocal
  • New Media
  • Media democratization
  • Self-publishers
  • Aggregated content

Merely a few years ago, these terms were non-existent. Now, they’re inescapable, and to some, irritating. If you are passionate about the power of the new media, the constantly evolving opportunities that are emerging in reporting and publishing on a seemingly daily basis, and the ultimate society altering abilities of this ongoing media democratization, then irritated people just, well, irritate you.

You can’t ignore new media. It’s all around you. People are publishing around you. They’re creating around you. And, it’s not just for them; it’s for everyone.

Jack Dorsey, a Twitter co-founder, famously tweeted this message in February 2007: “One could change the world with one hundred and forty characters.” Very simple, yet quite profound. Immensely powerful. It’s democracy in action. The new media patchwork has changed us.

Twitter is, in essence, a hyperlocal tool. There are countless third-party applications that allow you to track updates from your neighborhood. The power is with you. Along the same lines, with traditional advertising sources like your local newspaper and the phone book (remember that?) dead or quickly dying, hyperlocal publications have sprouted through the cracks of your web browser over the past few years. They have been disrupting the traditional channel of distribution, the newspaper, at an alarming rate.

Why?

Because there’s a market for itwe want local news, we want it now, and we’re not going to pay for it—and with a market comes the elusive advertising dollar. It’s a business model that works and is constantly adapting. You don’t have to be a news junkie to have an insatiable demand for information on crime in your neighborhood, battles at your local town council, or the new bar that just opened up down the block. With the power now resting with individual publishers (like you), independent hyperlocal outlets, and yes, hyperlocal sites that are owned by media conglomerates (yet which are still covering the car accident on your street), news comes in all shapes and forms. (Regardless, it’s still local news, and that is what essentially matters.)

Again, we want local news, and we want it now.

On this blog, I’ve covered innovative urban planning practices, emerging technologies, and tools that are reshaping our daily lives and communities, but what I haven’t discussed is why it is now absolutely critical that the new media embrace community planning issues.

To wit: here are some terms that probably do not resonate pretty well in the mind of the average person:

  • Density
  • Sprawl
  • Zoning
  • Land use
  • Master Planning

Ms. Smith down the block has surely heard of these terms and may have a cursory understanding of them, but does she really understand them? Does she need to understand them? Does she really care? Should she care?

It’s up for Ms. Smith to determine what to make of these standard planning terms. That’s not the media’s job. However, what is the media’s job is to report the news fairly and accurately so Ms. Smith can understand the issues, potentially develop an interest in changes in her community, and if she’s so inclined, take a stand.

In a nutshell, the relatively nascent new media has spawned a culture of self-creators and a brave new world of hyperlocal publications and news aggregation sites, resulting in a flood of highly localized information that is up-to-date. This is not just a theory, it’s reality, and it’s not going anywhere.

If my thesis is correct, local governments please listen up. Your community is going to change, and it’s going to change rapidly. The people are empowered. They’re listening to what their neighbors are saying on Twitter, writing about issues of local concern on their blog platforms, and reading hyperlocal sites—yes, some of which are not there for benevolence, but rather for the monetary benefits (which is perfectly fine, because if the publication is accurate, fair, comprehensive, and reputable in covering stories, it should deserve to make a buck). And, as an urban planner and someone who is interested in how technology impacts us at the margin, the new media is changing how I examine and understand communities.

Unfortunately, through my various search queries throughout the new media landscape, planning news does not normally take top shelf. Perhaps the terms density, sprawl, zoning, land use, and master planning are not sexy. That may be true. Sex (i.e. scandals, violence, and weather events) sells, and the third hearing on a master plan update just does not rise to that level. But again, it’s the media’s job to inform Ms. Smith. It’s not that she may not care about these issues, it’s because she’s not hearing about them.

Time to pay attention, publishers, and report on community planning stories. All community planning stories—not just the fascinating topical pieces, like the controversy brewing over the mixed-use project that is proposed on the edge of the downtown. Believe me, people do care; planning decisions impact their quality of life, their children’s schools, their roadways, and their overall levels of municipal services. Report on that seemingly mundane and wonky zoning debate. Go to the hearing, shoot footage, conduct interviews with stakeholders—just paint the picture and inform the public.

Yes, people do care, and they’re listening. Make them aware! Even if they’re not familiar with the planning terms above, all of the terms impact them, whether they know it or not, on a daily basis. Be innovative, cover the issues, and I promise that page hits will rise. With page hits, comes more revenue. Go for it. Expand that bottom line.

For self-publishers, I recommend doing the same. You’ll build your brand. In fact, you don’t even have to operate your own Twitter or blog platform. If you’re in New York City, you can see what’s happening in your neighborhood and likewise create and report your own content on the innovative Neighborhoodr, which is, according to the site, “a reader generated New York City blog network where anyone can quickly and easily post about what’s happening in their neighborhood.” Curious about where that odd noise is coming from? Check your nabe on Neighborhoodr, and the answer may be there. Again, the power is in your hands, and ultimately, it’s all linked to planning.

Ultimately, the overarching challenge that I propose herein is to mesh hyperlocal and community planning. Can it be done? Yes. The infrastructure is there. Both old and new media report on municipal planning issues, albeit nominally and usually on a simplistic level.

Today, journalism is beyond just copy in newspapers and magazines. It’s now a full multimedia endeavor. Make the stories come alive. People want a stake in shaping the future of their communities. Urban planning matters, and it deserves a voice.

Just cover it.

Related posts on The New Wave Planner:

Wake up, Local Government, and Supercharge Your (Weak) Web Presence

Once again, San Francisco’s City is Conducting the Innovation Train

Maintenance Concern in San Francisco? Tweet @SF311

Government 2.0: It’s Time

The New Wave of Interactions

New Jersey State Atlas: Making the Inaccessible Accessible

Social Web Developers: Urban Transformers

4 years ago

January 29, 2010  

Comments (View)
text

On gentrification and digital

Look around your hamlet, village, town, city.

Unless you live in an Utopian world (and sorry, I seek authenticity, not a sterile, perfect environment), odds are that there’s a section of your community that is struggling and rough around the edges, yet is still probably populated by a hearty bunch of people that cherish their neighborhood and are weary of any outside influence. Perhaps they’re longtime residents or recent migrants who relish the low rents, realness of the surroundings, and the beauty of distress.

To them, “progress” is a dirty world.

They’ll say, “How is it progress if you’re destroying my neighborhood and displacing me for the sake of shiny new buildings, young families with expensive strollers, and a cafes serving three dollar cups of coffee?”

They have a point, but…

For a municipality seeking reinvention, progress is defined as a new image, an influx of tax money into the coffers, and the possibility of becoming a local destination. Politically, it’s a winner, as it’s an ongoing story for the media, and revitalization is generally viewed by the community as a wise process.

If you haven’t seen it in your town or experienced it in your immediate neighborhood, you’ve certainly heard of it. It’s called gentrification, defined as just as I’ve explained it: a multitude of forces meshing together to transform a neighborhood.

Transforming old to new. Decay to vibrancy. Poor to rich. Again, who’s to say that “old” and “decay” are not aesthetics that some people love. They’re clearly subjective, but to the establishment, they both stand in the way of progress.

Without going into a detailed lecture about post World War II American life (cheap land, early suburbs, the construction of the interstate highway system, jobs and shopping centers chasing the population, and the gradual, sad decline of urban centers—once the engines of life), the stage for urban reclamation was set even before the first families started fleeing for the suburbs over fifty years ago.

However, people have been moving back to cities in droves in recent years, and per capita income has been expanding. Artists, bohemians, and the rest of the alternative culture have been back for decades (just look at Soho in the 1960s)—or perhaps never left—but in the past 10 to 15 years, cities have been morphing, shedding off the “depressed” skin of the past, and embracing hopes of a grand future. They’ve become entrepreneurial, competing with each other—and in larger cities like New York, competing internally—and attempting to re-brand themselves as meccas, where people can live, work, and play in peace and harmony.

Although the last paragraph was written with a bit of my tongue in my cheek (“peace and harmony,” for example, is a highly subjective term), Joe Q. Public will rarely view a urban revitalization as a bad thing.  The denizens of the previously “depressed” neighborhood, who have been summarily displaced from their homes, may not share the same sentiments, of course, and as fighters, will extol the evils of gentrification.

Alas, I’m not writing a post to distill the upsides/downsides of gentrification. (You be the judge.) The overall theme of this blog is innovation, change, and emerging technologies in the planning process—although I don’t necessarily think change is always the best route to achieve a goal—so the next post will review how a few communities are leveraging new media to achieve their progress goals.

Quite exciting.

Related posts on The New Wave Planner:

A Win For Urban Planning: Supermarkets Potentially On Their Way To New Jersey Cities

Innovation Is Now King, And It’s Perfectly Parallel With Obama’s Urban Policy Goals

A Vote For The New Jersey Economic Stimulus Act Of 2009 Is A Vote For Smart Growth And Economic Development

Backyard Chicken Coops? Urban Farming? There’s A Silver Lining To The Recession

NYC Planners: Zoning Bonuses Will Spur Healthy Eating And Economic Development

Once Again, The Baby Boomers Are Changing Housing

Save “Jersey Fresh” As We Know It

4 years ago

December 30, 2009  

Comments (View)
text

Save Our Sprawl? Evidence Suggests A Smart Growth Future

Low density housing, complete reliance on the automobile, isolation from goods and services, lack of recreational choices, and dull culture—all sprawl traits.

High density housing, multimodal transit choices, immersion in goods and services, overflowing recreational choices, and vibrancy—all urban traits.

Put the two traits side-by-side, show to one of my peers (highly educated, late 20s/early 30s, Northeast born-and-raised), and what will s/he probably pick as more desirable?

Without hesitation, the urban lifestyle.

It’s not just anecdotal evidence.

In a recently released report, Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2010, prepared by the Urban Land Institute and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, insight gleaned from almost 1,000 real estate industry professionals suggests that the future is bright for smart growth, while “sprawl investment” is on the decline. (Even though the overall tone of the report is gloomy for real estate as a whole.) This finding is consistent with recent data.

In an April 2009 NRDC post, Kaid Benfield cites a 2007 National Association of Realtors survey of registered voters that found:

  • 57% agree that “business and homes should be built closer together” so stores and shops are within walking distance;
  • 61% agree that new home construction should be limited in outlying areas and encouraged in very urban areas;
  • 81% want to redevelop older areas rather than building new;
  • 83% support “building communities where people can walk places and use their cars less”; and,
  • 88% support more public transportation.

In the same post, Benfield continues:

Arthur C. (Chris) Nelson, now at the University of Utah, and a scholar who knows more about these things than anyone else I know, has examined homebuyer preference surveys.  Nelson reports that fully three-fourths of Americans now prefer either attached housing (apartments, condos, townhouses) or homes on small lots of approximately one sixth of an acre or smaller.  25 percent express a preference for homes on larger lots above one sixth of an acre in size.

If the anti-sprawl sentiment continues (evidence does not suggest otherwise), expect a surge of density in our future, as the post World War II suburban boom—lasting over 60 years—may see a quick death, thanks to the economic downturn, shifting demographics, and new expectations.

From Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2010:

Next-generation projects will orient to infill, urbanizing suburbs, and transit-oriented development. Smaller housing units-close to mass transit, work, and 24-hour amenities-gain favor over large houses on big lots at the suburban edge. People will continue to seek greater convenience and want to reduce energy expenses. Shorter commutes and smaller heating bills make up for higher infill real estate costs.

In New Jersey, sprawl is still alive, yet planners have been promoting urbanizing suburbs for years, and real estate developers, pushed by recent economic prosperity and market demands, have acquiesced. While sprawl is still alive, it is under constant assault.

Why?

Excessive traffic, unconscionable property taxes, overflowing school systems, lack of mass transit, high energy costs, shifting demographics, and way too many unshared municipal services (too many local governmental bodies). Moreover, judging from my peers, many are eschewing the suburban lifestyle—even though they had enjoyed a comfortable suburban upbringing—and flocking to urban areas.

It’s not just NYC, Hoboken, and Jersey City, of course. To name a few, New Brunswick, Westfield, Asbury Park, Red Bank, and Collingswood—all struggling communities just a few decades ago—are booming with yuppies and DINKs (double income, no kids). These locales have benefited from state funding and market driven redevelopment, both of which flowed like water during the 1990s and most of this decade.

Even though some of New Jersey’s downtown districts are struggling during the ongoing recession, thanks to recent redevelopment, cultural shifts, and legislative action, expect them to rebound well. The real protector, however, is a vibrant housing stock.

The theory is quite fundamental; sufficient housing engenders a critical mass of people within a finite area, creating synergy. In a downtown, as logic dictates, the residents can therefore support the local businesses, whose owners not only see an influx of revenue, but also have an incentive to maintain and improve their uses, as competition becomes fiercer. Housing generates people, people spend money, and businesses benefit, resulting in a safer and aesthetically pleasing environment and an influx of monies into the municipal coffers.

The housing has been built, and the residents are there, propelling a symbiotic relationship between the residents and shop owners, which is currently helping to sustain newly revitalized downtown cores.

There is now an established urban culture in New Jersey, and the state is doing everything possible to protect this core.

In a July post about the New Jersey Economic Stimulus Act of 2009, I wrote that the bill “seeks to spur economic development, while also artfully promoting smart growth practices.” In essence, although the urban core has already been established, more urban development is necessary to ensure prosperity during economic recovery:

It’s clear: with rising costs of materials, the burgeoning green movement, and statewide and federal policy anti-sprawl policy, the new waves of development will take the shape of redevelopment in our urban areas, where the infrastructure exists and where people can live, work, and play without a heavy reliance on the automobile.

Provide the incentives now in the lean times to develop, and once the economy rebounds, the foundation will have already been established, thus lessening the cost and hurdle of future development projects. This is smart growth in action.

My peers want smart growth; protecting the urban core is sprawl kryptonite.

They want to establish roots in vibrant, dense urban environments, rather than  isolated suburban subdivisions devoid of soul. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most of my friends (and not just my urban planning buddies) are interested in planting roots in urban communities, even suggesting that they would like to raise children there. Of course, as highlighted above, empirical evidence backs my findings, too.

Quite simply, the suburbs will never “fail,” but they’re in trouble, especially since the ongoing economic downturn is radically change our culture. The urban foundation has already been set for Generation X/Y. When the economy does rebound, look for continued urban support from the government (smart growth will become even more salient), which will in turn spur market activity in areas slated for growth.

Urban planning practices will become even more sustainable, just like the rest of our economy. This sustainable outlook will therefore propel a fundamental urban lifestyle.

Count on it.

So yes, the suburbs are really in trouble. Growth is not only least needed there, but  our shifting culture will simply not stand for the continued destructiveness of sprawl.

Perhaps this is just one silver lining of the recession.

Related posts on The New Wave Planner:

A Win For Urban Planning: Supermarkets Potentially On Their Way To New Jersey Cities

Innovation Is Now King, And It’s Perfectly Parallel With Obama’s Urban Policy Goals

A Vote For The New Jersey Economic Stimulus Act Of 2009 Is A Vote For Smart Growth And Economic Development

Backyard Chicken Coops? Urban Farming? There’s A Silver Lining To The Recession

NYC Planners: Zoning Bonuses Will Spur Healthy Eating And Economic Development

Once Again, The Baby Boomers Are Changing Housing

Save “Jersey Fresh” As We Know It


4 years ago

November 11, 2009  

Comments (View)
text

Wake Up, Local Government, and Supercharge Your (Weak) Web Presence

It’s almost 2010, and everyone is on the internet. Your parents? Check. Your five year old godson? Check. That little coffee shop down the street? Check. Your grandparents? Check.

How about your local government? Check.

Odds are, your municipality has, at best, a minimal presence. But how about a website laden with multimedia: social networking tools, pictures, relevant information, and most importantly, the basic municipal documents that serve as the underpinnings of government functioning?

Probably not, and it’s inexcusable.

We live in a time when website design, publishing, and hosting are all simple. Gone are the days when establishing a web presence cost thousands of dollars, or when a digital presence was not imperative for branding, outreach, and information. Today, anyone with even nominal computer training can launch a comprehensive website, thanks to inexpensive—yet high quality—publishing services.

Just like for a consumer good, proper branding is essential for a municipality, especially one that is hopeful for redevelopment. At a time when foreclosures are rising and downtown businesses are disappearing, it is critical that our local governments establish open lines of communication.

It’s actually really straightforward.

A great municipal website is 1) an information portal and 2) interactive.

An informative website contains not just meetings dates, a trash collection schedule, and a photo of the governing body (all typical), but also the code and master plan, complete meeting minutes (video and/or audio, too), maps, budget, policies, and an up-to-date blog, chronicling happenings throughout the community.

A truly informed community has online access to all of these documents.

While a municipal website serving as an information portal is an obvious tool in serving constituents—yet still lacking all throughout New Jersey—interactivity is not, possibly because conventional wisdom holds that business should still be conducted face-to-face and phone-to-phone, rather than through the internet.

False. The continual employment of an old school communication platform is disservice to internet savvy constituencies.

There will always be a place for personal communication, but in reality, it is inefficient and a resource drain, especially in larger municipalities. Countless services should be online:

  • Filing a permit and receiving an approval;
  • Reporting broken street lights, potholes, or ongoing suspicious activity by placing a “pin” on an interactive map;
  • Communicating with municipal representatives via Twitter and Facebook;
  • Streaming municipal meetings live via an outlet with a chat function, allowing viewers to discuss issues in real-time and pose questions to the municipal representatives;
  • And, holding quarterly virtual town hall meetings.

These services are all easy and cheap to implement—even for a small municipality that may have financial issues.

Of course, with today’s ubiquitous and low-cost technology, there are countless examples of open government functioning, all of which dovetail nicely with President Obama’s transparency mandate.

So why are so many New Jersey municipal websites stuck in 1995, a time when the nascent internet was still inaccessible to the masses?

There is truly no good explanation.

Perhaps the legislature should pass a bill that requires municipalities to establish a web presence with at least some informational and interactive features? In theory, it’s a novel idea and seemingly a no-brainer, but in practice, it’s a potential political mine field.

New Jersey is a home rule state, meaning that the 566 local governments wield an enormous amount of self-governing power, so mandating open government compliance mechanisms is quite difficult. Everything is very political, so power struggles over such an issue (when soaring property taxes and unemployment are the issues du jour) are potentially inefficient and could alienate voters. Moreover, to some municipalities, open government is a dirty word, because it hinders power consolidation.

However, an informative and interactive municipal web presence—something so obvious in 2009—should not be a political issue. Rather, it’s a civic issue and actually quite elementary—something called “government serving the people,” a concept that we learned about in grade school.

My argument may seem so obvious. That’s true, and that’s the irony of the situation. It is obvious, but the actual implementation is so rare.

Get with the times, and empower the citizens.

It’s well overdue.

Once again, San Francisco’s City is Conducting the Innovation Train

Maintenance Concern in San Francisco? Tweet @SF311

Government 2.0: It’s Time

The New Wave of Interactions

New Jersey State Atlas: Making the Inaccessible Accessible

Social Web Developers: Urban Transformers

4 years ago

October 26, 2009  

Comments (View)
text

Once again, San Francisco’s city government is conducting the innovation train

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom formally announced today—via a post on Mashable, a leading social media blog—plans to open an application programming interface (API) for @SF311, the innovative initiative that allows the city’s tech savvy residents to report maintenance concerns via Twitter. (I covered the June announcement here.)

Dubbed the “Open 311 Platform,” the city is hoping that software developers will “build applications on top of [@SF311],” according to Mayor Newsom’s blog post, with the goals of “1) [getting] request data from the 311 system, and 2) [submitting] new service requests to city departments.”

The benefits are mutual. Developers will now have the ability to easily create a wide range of mash-ups and metric programs with the data, as well as applications that can be disseminated to the general public to report incidents directly back into @SF311. (Of course, there’s money to be made, so that’s a major incentive.) For the city, more reports and analytics will flow, resulting in a better product and enhanced responsiveness to citizen complaints.

While not built on a government API, software developers have already created applications that allow residents to report quality of life issues to municipalities, including New York City’s 311 Pix iPhone, Pittsburg’s iBurgh, and the District of Columbia’s DC 311. SeeClickFix, a privately developed application, is another example.

Introduced at TechCrunch50, the tech community is buzzing about CitySourced, an iPhone application that eases the maintenance reporting process, by allowing users to snap a picture of a problem (graffiti, for example), which is then routed directly to the municipality, via a user-friendly process. The difference between CitySourced and other iPhone applications is its robust metrics platform, as well as its scaling potential, with thousands of potential municipal clients. Think of it as crowdsourcing on a grand scale.

The beauty of the Open 311 Platform and the iPhone applications, which are not built on top of a government API, is the ability to quickly compile metrics to determine where the problem areas exist.  And, civic duty is now not only fun, but it’s also effortless; just tap on your iPhone.

The Open 311 Platform is not just a tool to stoke quality of life improvements. It’s also a revolutionary concept, and depending on its success (which, with the voracious start-up culture in San Francisco, all indications point to a resounding “yes”), it could become a model for cities everywhere. Provide the entrepreneurs with raw data, let them hack away, and wonderful applications will result.

Many cities gush about being “on the internet,” but there’s much more than just posting meeting announcements on an antiquated website. As I wrote in another post about @SF311, “there’s a substantial difference between being tech savvy and actively establishing open lines of communication.” In other words, show, don’t tell.

However, an impediment to such an initiative becoming mainstream is that a municipality will only follow Newsom’s lead if it intends to promote transparency and accountability in its functioning. Politically, “opening” government could be detrimental to elected officials if reported incidents are not being addressed—especially if logs are easily accessible to the public.

Although accessibility is a paramount objective of civic applications, a paradox emerges. Anecdotal evidence suggests that iPhone users are only a small percentage of mobile users, so the rest are naturally shut-out from using the technology. Nevertheless, as technology adapts, solutions should arise to combat this issue.

Hopefully, enough traction will build under these civic applications, resulting in citizens nationwide demanding that their governments participate. We’re almost a decade into the 21st century, so why not? Improve our communities, while concurrently keeping us civic-minded technologists happy.

I’ll reiterate the conclusion of my June @SF311 post:

After all, if you, Mayor of Anytown USA, have a question about the service, just simply send Newsom an @ reply message via Twitter.

Join the party.

Related posts on The New Wave Planner:

Maintenance Concern in San Francisco? Tweet @SF311

Government 2.0: It’s Time

The New Wave of Interactions

New Jersey State Atlas: Making the Inaccessible Accessible

Social Web Developers: Urban Transformers

5 years ago

October 14, 2009  

Comments (View)
text

Social Web Developers: Urban Transformers

My overarching focus on this blog has always been to cover and promote innovations in the diverse urban planning field.

As a catchall profession, urban planning tenets are applicable to all facets of daily life—above all else, as planners, our primary concern is to create healthy, sustainable, and happy communities. (If you’re somewhat perplexed about the planning practice, please read this post from May.)

With the advent of the Social Web, software developers—seeking the trifecta of personal, professional, and financial satisfaction—continually develop products that  promote healthy, sustainable, and happy communities.

I am talking about urban oriented applications in the iPhone App Store; web/mobile social networking applications (Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Foursquare, etc); Government 2.0/civic engagement applications (CitySourced); crowdsourcing forums (DIY City) and blogs (Neighborhoodr); and, purveyors of open source civic tools (The Open Planning Project).

There is a clear, natural linkage between the urban planning practice and the Social Web; they dovetail nicely, as the ultimate goal of both is to improve our quality of life.

As I wrote in a soon to be published piece about Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s social media outreach efforts, “…the growth of social media [is] parallel to successful city building, as in order to be successful at both, people must employ a multifaceted, transparent, and engaging approach.”

Online cities are growing, and it is only a nascent development. In just a few years, our virtual and concrete worlds have meshed.

On my personal blog, I recently mentioned venture capitalist Fred Wilson’s blog post, “Urban Architects,” in which he celebrates “the intersection between mobile, local, and urban life.”

I wrote:

[Wilson] argues that the advent of powerful internet applications, coupled with mobile phones, is transforming how we use our cities.

These “powerful internet applications” are also driving us into the Third Place, defined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg as “the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy,” or places like the coffee shop, the barbershop, or the local tavern.

In the same post, I cited the rise of Social Web applications to develop a counterpoint to Mary Newsom’s article, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” in which she, according to my original post, “argues against the notion that online communities have become the modern Third Place, defending the traditional ‘value of real places where real people meet, and the little-heeded but significant role they play in the life of our cities and towns.’”

In response, I argued that Social Web applications actually push us into the Third Place:

By nature, the social media vs. the Third Place issue is reconciled by the fact that mobile enhanced innovations … and the interactive hyper-locals that are spouting everywhere are all drawing us into the Third Place.

It’s a business model that works, and it’s generating more social and involved communities. Both can naturally co-exist and work together in community building.

While one can choose to shun the Third Place and huddle at home, the Social Web is making us even more social than ever in the real world—a boon, as I wrote, for “community building.”

That is the simple, yet profound, connection between urban planning and the Social Web, and if the just announced NYC BigApps Competition is any indication, we are just realizing how Social Web applications will change us, our communities, and create better communities—bringing the virtual world to the concrete world and back again.

Sponsored by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city of New York, the competition is seeking software developers “to create innovative online and mobile applications to serve New York City residents, businesses, and visitors,” as described in the blog post announcing the competition. (The software architecture is applicable to any location that has open data sets; so theoretically, the applications could also serve the world).

In the introductory blog post, Mayor Bloomberg wrote:

We have worked diligently to make a considerable amount of City data available on the new NYC.gov Data Mine (coming the afternoon of October 6th). The data will remain accessible upon conclusion of the NYC BigApps Competition for all New Yorkers.

NYC BigApps provides a competitive outlet for developers and encourages the general public to get involved as well. We welcome public comment on the process – indicate your support for the competition, share app ideas, and inform contestants on what type of app you’d like to see. “Popular Choice” winners will be selected through open voting on the site, so make sure to vote for your favorite app starting in December.

It is pure Government 2.0, although the private sector is driving progress—just like John Reiser is doing with the New Jersey State Atlas—but the goal is the same: use the emerging (virtual) technology community to improve our (concrete) communities, while concurrently spurring economic development.

In my September interview with Mr. Reiser, he commented that a significant impediment to municipal application development is the inaccessibility of raw data. Unlock the data vault, and a veritable goldmine will be available to innovative developers.

The NYC BigApps Competition has solved this problem by launching the “NYC Data Mine,” a clearinghouse that contains around 170 data sets (i.e., locations of all types of city facilities, as well as municipal tax data, inspection information, and traffic reports, among other sets) culled from over 25 city agencies.

It’s transparency in action.

To sweeten the deal, the competition is offering $20,000 in cash prizes, as judged by a panel of tech leaders. Even more valuable than the potential monetary windfall is the exposure applicants will get on tech blogs—TechCrunch, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, etc—and from venture capitalists, including the highly respected Fred Wilson, who, as a panel member, is obviously interested in innovative products by Urban Architects (and the programmers are no doubt interested in impressing him and the other VCs).

The stakes are high for everyone: the software developers who will create innovative applications, the panel who will judge the applications, and us, the citizens, who will use the applications to streamline our lives.

While Social Web developers are not classically trained urban planners, they are urban planners in their own right, by creating applications that will promote healthy, sustainable, and happy communities.

I’ll keep you abreast of the latest NYC BigApps Competition developments.

Related posts on The New Wave Planner:

Maintenance Concern in San Francisco? Tweet @SF311

Government 2.0: It’s Time

The New Wave of Interactions

New Jersey State Atlas: Making the Inaccessible Accessible

5 years ago

October 7, 2009  

Comments (View)
text

New Jersey State Atlas: Making the Inaccessible Accessible

We are well aware that the internet streamlines our lives on a daily basis. Whether it’s looking for a movie on Moviefone, scouring for hard to find items on Craigslist, sharing pictures with family and friends on Flickr, or checking out restaurant recommendations on Yelp, our lives are more informed, accessible, and most of all, organized.

Most of us, however, are not seeking publicly “available” data, and that’s good, considering that the generally status quo public sector lags far behind the innovative private sector.

The reason is simple.

Government will always exist, whether or not it is online, thanks to the taxpayers, while private enterprise needs constant injections of capital to survive. Especially in perilous economic times, innovation is key, and those who refuse to adapt, create, and implement are surely at an enormous disadvantage and subject to failure.

Since a government entity can generally ride the coffer train, there is no true incentive to challenge the status quo and innovate, and I think that is exceedingly clear as you travel around the internet and compare public and private sector websites.

At a time when technology is not only accessible, cheap (if not free), and most importantly, ubiquitous and commonly understood by the masses, our government should be open, readily share information to keep us informed, and embrace interactivity.

In an April post on The New Wave Planner about the online efforts of LaSalle, IL, I wrote:

Sadly, government has not embraced this emerging technology on a widespread basis, resulting in a deepening disconnect between the entity and its constituents, and frustrating interested parties whom have become accustomed to information on demand in their lives.

Up until May 2009, the “deepening disconnect” had not plagued LaSalle, thanks to the efforts of past City Engineer Pam Broviak (Ms. Broviak was not reappointed in the wake of a new political administration that did not share her vision; as such, the city’s social media outreach efforts have been greatly diminished), nor has it impacted San Francisco, an extremely wired government, which now allows its residents to report maintenance concerns via Twitter. They’re both symbols of the Government 2.0 (aka “Gov 2.0”) movement.

Gov 2.0, as I wrote in the LaSalle post, is “an evolving model to improve transparency, communication, and efficient and practical delivery methods between government and citizens.”

The movement is strong and building, but it’s still in its infancy, and government receptiveness is still relatively scarce.

In New Jersey, Gov 2.0 has gotten some traction in recent years. Many planning professionals are familiar with Monmouth County’s Tax Records search (which covers all 21 New Jersey counties), the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s iMap, and the various maps and data available from the Office of Smart Growth.

All three resources are critical to maximizing work efficiency and are thus invaluable to planners. Just a few years ago, planners had to spend valuable time in municipal buildings just to acquire simple information. Now, a lot of standard information is publicly accessible via the internet.

But beyond social media outreach and publishing general information and data, what becomes of the data (some common, some esoteric) that is rarely found on government websites, or is available in a raw or an unsearchable format?

This remains a problem, but in New Jersey, John Reiser is in the process of unlocking the government data vault and sharing the bounty with us in a multimedia, mashup format.

To a planner, this is pure gold.

Mr. Reiser operates New Jersey State Atlas, which is, according to the site, “an interactive website featuring multiple web maps” with a simple, straightforward mission:

Within New Jersey, there’s a massive amount of data that is inaccessible to many people. One of the goals of this website is to make that data accessible.

Mr. Reiser, a GIS specialist and instructor at Rowan University, has identified a problem (inaccessible data), devised a solution (mapping and other data outputs), and implemented the solution (created a publicly accessible website).

I recently discussed NJ State Atlas with Mr. Reiser, who as a mapper, a seasoned navigator of the statewide data sea, and a web publisher is excited about the future of easily accessible data delivery to the masses.

TNWP: Please give us an overview of NJ State Atlas.

JR: NJ State Atlas is web-based interactive atlas of New Jersey. The focus of the atlas is to make geographic data throughout the state accessible.

TNWP: Why did you create NJ State Atlas?

JR: Several of the maps on the site were developed out of my own frustrations with publicly available GIS data. At all levels, government has been a source and repository of massive amounts of information. Freedom-of-information acts have helped make that information easier to access, and the internet has reduced the cost of distribution; however, just making data available is not enough.

Data must also be accessible to members of the public. GIS specialists have no qualms about downloading a shapefile and taking a look; however, a local resident wanting to know more about his or her town may not be able to make sense out of a shapefile. The State Plan maps and the Journey to Work diagrams are a direct result of my desire to make difficult data understandable.

TNWP: What are the most popular features on NJ State Atlas?

JR: The one map that usually receives the most traffic is the DOT webcam mashup. Real-time incident data and live highway cameras are overlaid on top of Google’s traffic data. The page is highly ranked for searches dealing with New Jersey traffic, but I’ve found that people tend to stay on the page and use the map.  The State Plan maps and the USGS Topographic maps are usually second and third.

TNWP: Although your site is easily accessible for anyone, it is quite useful for planning professionals. Have planners been receptive to NJ State Atlas?

JR: Planners have been using the site. The journey to work map doesn’t seem to get many hits from search engines; much of it is direct referrals - people bookmarking the site and returning for information.

When I was still in NJ State Government, I would often hear that people were using the NJ State Atlas map over the official locator. The HMFA locator still uses ArcIMS and is intolerably slow. I hope planners will continue to use the site, and if there’s anything I can add to it that would help them do their work more efficiently, I’d love to know.

TNWP: What are some of the challenges you have faced in the creation of the site, and what type of challenges do you anticipate in the future?

JR: Well, the first challenge is that it’s done entirely in my spare time. I’d love to do more with the site, but usually I’m bound by time constraints. The other major challenge is that its run entirely on shared-hosting. Most other web mapping applications are hosted on dedicated servers. Most software out there expects the user has access to the entire server.

I’d love to do much more with the site, but it’s an uphill battle just getting the software to run without root access. It’s really run on a shoestring budget.

TNWP: Speaking of the future, if you don’t mind sharing, what are your future plans for NJ State Atlas?

JR: Given the challenges, I am still determined to add more to the site. I intend to keep the State Plan maps up-to-date and hopefully add some interesting data as the new State Plan is published. I recently worked with NJ OIT’s GIS office to develop a mashup that would allow the statewide school location data to be updated by volunteers. I’m thinking about other applications where members of the public can help update GIS data throughout the state.
Many of the interactive maps have come out of a discussion along the lines of: “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if this was mapped?” If there’s any data or some social issue out there that could benefit the public by being highlighted using an interactive map, I’m interested. I’m always open to suggestions.

TNWP: Do you think govt will begin to embrace the type of technology you have used to create NJ State Atlas, or should we just except more private developers (like yourself) to innovate and create products that are useful to the public?

JR: The federal government is moving in that direction. There are a few interactive maps on whitehouse.gov and recovery.gov using both open source and ESRI web mapping technology to highlight some issue of national importance.

Speaking specifically to New Jersey, I hope that those that support government adoption of new ideas and technology push for that adoption - internally and externally.

State government is in sad shape. There is no ability to retain staff, and any concepts outside of the norm are not likely to be considered until after the election. In the absence of State Government being able to provide such services, I hope that other private developers throughout the State will continue to produce high-quality, interactive data applications that are free to use by the public.

TNWP: You have recently relocated from the New Brunswick area to South Jersey. I’m wondering, though, why you didn’t choose a location with top lottery winners, which your “Geography of Luck" feature provides.

JR: Well, you know, it is just random chance. I was greatly surprised that the instant win lottery winners tend to cluster around the urban areas. Is it that you’re more likely to stop in a convenience store and play a scratch off in an urban area, or is there some unintentional bias?

Pitman has historically won more than Glassboro. I guess I’ll have to buy tickets over there. They’re luckier.

TNWP: Where do you work, and how do you spend your free time?

JR: I am currently the GIS Support Specialist for the Geography Department at Rowan University. I was previously a Planning/GIS Specialist at the Office of Smart Growth. I spend my free time riding my bike, playing games, and thinking about maps.

TNWP: You’re obviously well versed in all facets of GIS. Do you provide freelance consulting services?

JR: I do provide consulting services. If you’d like me to develop an interactive web map for you, feel free to contact me. (You can use john@njgeo.org or (856) 347-0047)

Thanks for your time, John.

Mr. Reiser is a prime example of someone who sees the value in making the inaccessible accessible. He is democratizing data.

Luckily, transparency in government has become a rallying cry, and a variety of data can be easily procured through government information requests and produced into a user friendly platform.

However, while we applaud Mr. Reiser’s efforts, our government bodies should be creating similar applications.

Is this likely? Probably not in the immediate future, but as Gov 2.0 evangelists continue to hammer their mission nails into our government agencies, accessibility improvements may arise.

Nevertheless, it appears that private industry will continue to trump governmental effort, and even though we may feel that public sector should deliver useful online products, as long as the innovations are being released, the source should not matter.

If the public sector refuses to innovate, we should rest assured that individuals like Mr. Reiser will continue to fill the void.

Related posts on The New Wave Planner:

Maintenance Concern in San Francisco? Tweet @SF311

Government 2.0: It’s Time

The New Wave of Interactions

5 years ago

September 10, 2009  

Comments (View)
text

A win for urban planning: Supermarkets potentially on their way to New Jersey cities

Walk through the streets of Newark, Jersey City, Camden, Paterson, Atlantic City, or even a smaller city like New Brunswick, and look for a supermarket. Surely, you will find an abundance of markets, but how about the modern, well-stocked supermarkets—where you can get nutritious food at fair prices—that are ubiquitous in the suburbs?

Rare. Your search will likely be a failure.

The reasons? Plenty.

Businesses rely on revenue generation, and the spenders are likely to be found in the suburbs, where shoppers can park, grab a cart, and stock that cart with an abundance of fresh foods. From the pure economic standpoint, those with cars are likely to spend more money than their walking/biking counterparts, since there is more cargo space in which to transport the goods.

The suburbs are also ground zero for supermarkets because in New Jersey, that is where the money resides. It would be a poor business decision to open and upkeep a supermarket in an area where incomes are low.

Other concerns, whether mere perception or not, include higher insurance premiums and a likelihood of criminal activity.

We cannot blame supermarket companies for their lack of presence in urban areas. After all, it’s a business, and scare resources must be allotted where the spenders live.

However, we can blame all levels of government for not scheming up some inducements to lure supermarket chains into our cities.

Want to change existing land uses in our cities?

Provide the incentive.

Outlay grants and tax abatements; work with, rather than fight, developers with solid proposals; and fast track applications that will benefit our urban areas.

The New Jersey State Development and Redevelopment Plan (SDRP) is long-standing policy, with the goal of pulling development potential out of the suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas and pushing it into the urban areas, where there is existing infrastructure and redevelopment is necessary. And, just recently, I wrote that the New Jersey Economic Stimulus Act of 2009, which is an omnibus bill aimed at generating development activity in urban areas, is completely consistent with long-term smart growth and economic development goals.

How do supermarkets fit in with the SDRP and the New Jersey Economic Stimulus Act of 2009? Just like why it is rare to find a supermarket in an urban area, there are plenty of reasons why they are needed in our cities.

The most important reason is access to healthy food options. With obesity and its concomitant health issues, it is imperative that city dwellers have the option of purchasing nutritious foods. I wrote about this need in a May 27 post, in which I cited a University of Alberta study that found that there is a direct linkage between land use and health problems.

The linkage is clear, according to Kim Raine, the lead author of the study:

When we reviewed the evidence we found, for example, that lower-income neighbourhoods were more likely to have greater access to sources of high-calorie foods, such as fast-food outlets, and lower access to supermarkets or other stores stocking healthy foods,” explained Raine. The report also found that a lower socio-economic status - which involves education level, income and employment - was often associated with increased obesity among both adults and children. “Lower personal income affects the affordability of food,” Raine said, “and that has been shown to have the most consistent influence on what people eat.

Therefore, logic dictates, the poorer you are in a city, the more likely that you will consume unhealthy foods and not have access to stores with nutritious food options.

What can be done from the land use perspective?

Recently, the New York City Department of City Planning, noting the dearth of healthy food options in economically depressed sections of the Five Boroughs, outlined a zoning strategy that removes Floor Area Ratio (FAR) controls on ground floor tenant space rented out to grocery stores.

In the same May 27 post, I wrote that the strategy “is an enormous financial benefit to landlords and developers,” as well as a “public health benefit,” since “granting zoning breaks to attract grocery stores is a huge (and obvious) step in combating against the daily junk food assault.” Moreover, there’s an economic development incentive, because grocery stores would not only benefit the existing residents, but they would also serve as a catalyst for a migration to the neighborhood and potentially new development.

Across the Hudson River in New Jersey, a nascent public-private partnership initiative is seeking to lure supermarket companies into urban areas, though low-interest loans funded by a seven million dollar contribution from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), four million dollars from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA), and a seven million dollar investment from TRF, an investment group, according to a July 22, 2009 article in the Press of Atlantic City.

In Atlantic City, city officials are mulling over “tax abatements as a financial incentive for A&P,” and the CRDA “may offer A&P a mortgage abatement of up to $100,000,” said the article.

Some more noteworthy points from the article:

Supermarkets generate jobs, serve as a catalyst for economic development and provide access to food at affordable prices, said Odis Jones, director of urban development for the Economic Development Authority.

Donald Hinkle-Brown, president of lending and community investment at TRF, said New Jersey will be the second state behind Pennsylvania to have such a supermarket program. TRF has leveraged $30 million in state funding from Pennsylvania for $116 million of total investment for 70 grocery stores in the Keystone State.

As someone who is concerned about access to healthy food options (especially in urban areas, since they are surefire economic development generators), beyond the May 27 post, I’ve written about the need to save funding for the “Jersey Fresh” program, as well as the spike in urban farming.

I’m a firm believer that by locating ample grocery stores in our urban areas through government inducements, residents will be healthier and our cities will be more vibrant and suitable for residential development—both goals of the SDRP.

Although more information is needed to assess the NJ public-private partnership initiative and its potential impact on our cities, on its face, it’s innovative, sensible, and much-needed, especially since it meshes well with the SDRP and the New Jersey Economic Stimulus Act of 2009.

5 years ago

July 22, 2009  

Comments (View)
text

Innovation is now king, and it’s perfectly parallel with Obama’s urban policy goals

Everything is looking up for innovation in America.

President Barack Obama, who holds the subject of urban issues “near and dear to [his] heart,” said during a White House urban affairs summit on Monday that he wants to “reinvent” our cities and formulate a “new, imaginative, bold vision” for federal urban policy.

The first in 30 years, the urban agenda will target every federal agency and identify how policies affect the urban environment, including those relates to housing, green development, infrastructure, etc.

As a component of the White House operation (and thus separate from Department of Housing and Urban Development control), the creation of the Office of Urban Affairs is clearly a watershed moment for intelligent urban planning and needed now, especially since “by the year 2050, 70 perfect of the world’s population will live in cities,” according to Adolfo Carrion, the director of the Office of Urban Affairs.

According to a July 14, 2009 article in The Washington Post, Obama is seeking to create a best practices manual of sorts, which will be accomplished by his staff pounding the pavement across America to find the most innovative practices that discourage urban sprawl:

Obama noted Denver, for its plans to build a public transit system to handle the city’s anticipated growth; Philadelphia, for its urban agriculture; and Kansas City, which has weatherized homes and built a ecologically minded transit system in one low-income neighborhood.

Importantly, Obama recognizes that the “urban condition” is no longer contained within our cities:

Even as we’ve seen many of our central cities continuing to grow in recent years, we’ve seen their suburbs and exurbs grow roughly twice as fast. It’s not just our cities that are hotbeds of innovation anymore, it’s our growing metropolitan areas.

For too long, federal policy has actually encouraged sprawl and congestion and pollution, rather than quality public transportation and smart, sustainable development.

It is refreshing to have an administration that is concerned about urban policy and its concomitant components. In fact, since Obama has made it clear that urban policy extends beyond city limits, this signals a new age of regional planning, a practice that is usually given short shrift in favor on implementing local planning initiatives.

But with a current economic crisis Public Enemy #1 in not just the White House, but also in our municipalities and households, is it the most appropriate time to strive for innovative urban practices?

Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, says “yes.”

In a December 15, 2008 report in The Wall Street Journal, Professor Christensen feels that the economic downturn “will have an unmitigated positive effect on innovation.”

Why?

It boils down to scarce resources, according to Professor Christensen, who feels that “the breakthrough innovations come when the tension is greatest and the resources are most limited.”

He continues:

[The current economic crisis] will force innovators to not waste nearly so much money.

One of the banes of successful innovation is that companies may be so committed to innovation that they will give the innovators a lot of money to spend. And, statistically, 93% of all innovations that ultimately become successful started off in the wrong direction; the probability that you’ll get it right the first time out of the gate is very low.

So, if you give people a lot of money, it gives them the privilege of pursuing the wrong strategy for a very long time. In an environment where you’ve got to push innovations out the door fast and keep the cost of innovation low, the probability that you’ll be successful is actually much higher.

How does this dovetail with federal urban policy?

Human capital and job creation

With limited resources (related to both project funding and personal finances) across the board, the playing field has been somewhat lowered, while simultaneously spiking competition. People are thinking, and the best ideas are carefully vetted, produced, and relate to what is most salient.

New industries, jobs, and an altered American culture will flow from the current “back to the wall” innovation mentality. Is it just a coincidence that cities are doing things a little bit differently now in their approach to constituent needs?  No. Just read about the explosion of backyard chicken coops.

With less consumption, there’s less waste, and this is a hopeful barrier from continued sprawl

The funding that does exist will now only flow to the most creative innovations that can have a longstanding impact on our society, forcing most innovators to work within the “do more with less” framework.

In doing so, the ultimate output is more lean, focused, and in tune with not just society’s needs (we obviously do not need more sprawl), but also White House policy, which will impact federal appropriation decisions in the coming years. While it’s different to contain congressional pork barrel spending, I’m quite sure that the days of appropriating for sprawl oriented projects are over.

We’re already seeing innovative practices on the most local—and simplest—levels

Case in point, a New York City based group, Macro-Sea Pools, has created a “cool” summertime neighborhood amenity within an empty Brooklyn lot by converting three commercial sized trash dumpsters into a swimming pool. Although it’s not open to the public (perhaps due to liability concerns), it’s just a small example of what innovative people are devising in this rough economy, and most importantly, it is consistent with Obama’s mission to “reinvent” our cities.

String together enough creative neighborhood experiments, especially those that involve adaptively reusing pieces of our cities, and we have spurred an innovative—and sustainable—environment.

Again, create more with less, and the benefits will be enormous.

Our president has already taken notice and sees the value of innovation within our country. However, while the orders may come from the top, it is important that the action comes from the people at the local level, even if funding is slight or non-existent. Professor Christensen says it can be done.

As Obama says, we need to reinvent America.

We can do it.

—-

Related Post:

The New Wave of Interactions

Comments (View)
text

A vote for The New Jersey Economic Stimulus Act of 2009 is a vote for smart growth and economic development

New Jersey is not coping with the current global recession too well, and according to a July 9, 2009 article in the Newark Star-Ledger, it is among the states with the most critical budget shortfalls:

The state had to dig itself out of a projected shortfall of nearly 30 percent, or $8.8 billion, before passing the 2010 budget last month. That was the seventh-biggest gap in the nation, after California, Arizona, Nevada, Illinois, New York and Alaska, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

It’s easy to blame the politicians, but in this current economic environment, that argument does not carry much weight, considering the budgetary conditions across the county.

Certainly, both Democrats and Republicans carry a share of the blame, but it’s well beyond statewide politics.

If blame is to be pinned on politicians, it should fall on those who supported bank deregulation practices, as ultimately the near collapse of the banking system is what almost brought our county to the brink of an economic apocalypse.

Beyond the appropriations issues, there is a garden variety of other economic concerns in New Jersey, most of which are tied to disappearing jobs, with a current unemployment rate of 8.8% (compared to 9.4% nationally). Due to the widening recession, businesses will continue to economize, meaning that weekly jobless claims should continue to rise at record rates.

Moreover, due to fears of looming pay cuts or job cuts, people are now beginning to save money, something many have not done since the boom times—flush with easy money—began.

Lastly, with the commercial real estate industry on the verge of collapse nationwide due to, according to Jon Greenlee of the Federal Reserve, an accumulation of $3.5 trillion worth of debt, the fears are real in New Jersey, with “for rent” signs popping up within sprawling office parks located just off many of the interstates. Take a ride through any office park in suburban Central and Northern New Jersey to see for yourself.

What does all of this mean?

People cannot spend money in our communities if the income faucet is not flowing. Without sales, this puts our retailers in jeopardy, which begins another domino effect of job losses and suffering.

An easy solution?

None exist.

A workable solution?

Yes.

The New Jersey Economic Stimulus Act of 2009, aka A-4048/S-2299, passed both the Assembly and Senate on June 25, 2009 and is now awaiting action from Governor Jon Corzine.

An omnibus bill, it is an important piece of legislation that, according to the preamble, concerns:

[E]conomic development, job creation, economic growth, affordable housing, urban transit hub tax credits, expanding capacity and facilities at our institutions of higher education, bonding in certain planning areas, and exempting certain taxes and energy charges of certain manufacturing facilities; authorizing certain taxes and fees to fund redevelopment; amending and supplementing various section of the statutory law; and making an appropriation [$15 million to the “New Jersey Affordable Housing Trust Fund.]

The New Wave Planner wholeheartedly supports this legislation.

Recognizing the severity of the current economic crisis and its trickle down effect, businesses need a significant stimulation—not just window dressing—in order to both retain and hire new employees.

We need economic development to spur job retention and creation, and with a deepening crisis that is expected to continue and a state unemployment insurance fund that is running on fumes, the legislature acted quickly and appropriately in passing this bill.

Let’s dig into the state stimulus package, specifically how it seeks to spur economic development, while also artfully promoting smart growth practices.

The over-arching intent is to spark developer activity in urban areas, or those areas in the Metropolitan (PA-1) and Suburban (PA-2) Planning Areas, as identified within the State Development and Redevelopment Plan (SDRP), though a cocktail of tax credits, an expansion of the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit, and a temporary relief from non-residential affordable housing fees.

Clearly, this stimulus has deep roots in smart growth policy, as dictated by the SDRP, the visionary document that is intended to shape the future development of the state by identifying where development should and should not occur.

Designated by “Planning Areas,” with 1 being the area in which the most development should occur and 5, of course, where the least should occur, the paramount goal is to balance development with the protection of open space and rural areas.

Therefore, the document encourages development in areas with existing infrastructure (urban and some suburban areas), so as to lessen the overall cost to municipalities, where access to public transportation is available and people have access to goods and services within walking distance of their homes—therefore, not having to rely on personal automobiles, thus reducing traffic and air pollution.

The problem, however, is actually stoking the development in portions of our urban communities (such as Newark, Paterson, Camden, and Trenton, to name a few), and without an inducement, especially in this economic climate with bank funding scarce, positive change is unlikely.

Luckily, this legislation contains the requisite inducement.

The most generous and innovative aspects of the stimulus legislation is the creation of the Economic Redevelopment and Growth Grant (ERGG) program for areas within the PA-1 and PA-2, with the purpose of, according to the bill, “encouraging redevelopment projects in [a municipality] through the provision of incentive grants to reimburse developers for all or a portion of the project financing gap for such programs.”

Coupled with the expansion of the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit program, which encourages economic development in nine urban communities within 1/2 mile of the train station, including Camden, East Orange, Elizabeth, Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, New Brunswick, Paterson, and Trenton, through tax credits up to, in some instances, 100% of capital improvements within a eight year period (subject to minimum employment thresholds), the state stimulus package is mindful of where the jobs are needed and should be located.

How will these grants be funded? Directly from the taxes generated from the new developments that will follow as a result of the stimulus. Inducement for redevelopment projects in the state’s urban areas, especially in this economic climate, must be derived from an innovative program, and ERGG helps to fulfill this mission.

Ironically, the properties that developers avoided during the boom times of the past decade or so may be the same ones that help turnaround the current statewide economic ills.

It’s clear: with rising costs of materials, the burgeoning green movement, and statewide and federal policy anti-sprawl policy, the new waves of development will take the shape of redevelopment in our urban areas, where the infrastructure exists and where people can live, work, and play without a heavy reliance on the automobile.

Provide the incentives now in the lean times to develop, and once the economy rebounds, the foundation will have already been established, thus lessening the cost and hurdle of future development projects. This is smart growth in action.

Critics have emerged, with contention ranging from environmental to funding to affordable housing concerns. With most of the attention geared toward development in urban areas, the environmental issues are minimal, as the SDRP dictates that most of the future development should occur within PA-1 and PA-2.

Affordable housing, always a hot button issue in New Jersey, will be protected, as the legislation appropriates $15 million into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund in order to recoup a portion of payments that will be lost to the temporary relief from non-residential affordable housing fee provision of the bill. Nevertheless, the office and commercial construction will invariably stoke residential construction, which will require 20% affordable housing set-asides or a payment into the municipal Affordable Housing Trust Fund per each new development.

While funding is an immediate concern, since grant money is to be paid through individual ERGG programs within municipalities, in the long-term, once the taxes are generated from new development, money will flow back into municipal coffers.

Naysayers have suggested that the ERGG will siphon money away from municipal services; however, by granting money to development projects within urban areas, consistent with the intention of the SDRP, this will stimulate growth throughout New Jersey’s municipalities, from the high-rise office building to the mom-and-pop shops dotting the business districts, thereby helping to pull the state out of the current economic mess

The New Jersey Economic Stimulus Act of 2009 will help us get through these tough times, ultimately stimulating job creation, new construction in our urban areas that are well served by infrastructure and transit, and fulfilling smart growth goals.

—-

Related Posts:

Once again, the baby boomers are changing housing

So what is age-targted housing?

5 years ago

July 9, 2009  

Comments (View)
text

Backyard chicken coops? Urban farming? There’s a silver lining to the recession.

ffff

Don’t be alarmed if you start noticing a sudden influx of “victory gardens” or new feathered residents in your urban neighborhood. It’s all just a great consequence of the current economic downturn.

Even prior to the near economic apocalypse last fall, Americans were already in the process of going green, rallying around practices like eating organically and locally produced food, purchasing environmentally friendly products, and even composing.

Is this the resurgence of the hippie?

Perhaps, according to New York Magazine, in which a June 21, 2009 feature, cleverly entitled “Back to the Garden,” is framed by this statement:

The hippies at Woodstock seem anachronistic, but look around. More and more city dwellers today are scrutinizing their food sources, buying eco-products, and composting their leftovers—they just wash their hair a little more often.

And why not?

While some may criticize the green movement as mere marketing, the benefits are clear, notwithstanding the incorrect perception that environmentally friendly living is expensive living.

I’ve always viewed the green movement as “going back to the basics,” meaning that not only will doing so benefit my health, but also the costs are not prohibitive. I hesitate to call my living practices acts of pure frugality, but my lifestyle actually results in spending less, since I mostly eat the food that is found along the perimeter of supermarkets and tend to ignore unhealthy options and unnecessary non-food products.

So, with people struggling across the county, the green movement may be acquiring new followers out of necessity, and those same people are looking to eat the staples that are found along the supermarket perimeter, or perhaps food right in their backyard. As promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama earlier this year, victory gardens are popping up everywhere (including in my backyard), but people are going much further.

Urban neighborhood and rooftop gardens, while somewhat recent trends as a reaction to needing some semblance of rural life in the city, as well as the virtuosity of providing healthy produce within the inner city where poorer residents may not have sufficient access to supermarkets, are now commonly known in the city vernacular.

But backyard chicken coops? They are certainly not ubiquitous city practices, but maybe they should be. In this recession, new rules are being generated everyday, so why not create some at the simplest level?

According to a June 15, 2009 article in the Los Angeles Times, backyard chicken rearing has been generating buzz throughout the county, in places like Madison, Wisconsin, Iowa City, Iowa, and even Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore, as people are searching for innovative ways to cut costs.

In Madison, the article states, “eight families in a three-block radius [of the article’s subjects that live in the heart of the city] and an estimated 150 families citywide [raise chickens].” And, according to the article, a well-known chicken supplier is getting slammed with orders:

Chick hatcheries say they can’t keep up with urban orders. Murray McMurray Hatchery, the world’s largest supplier of rare-breed chicks, has sold out of its “Meat and Egg Combo” collection of meat birds and laying hens. Customers hungry for a standard hen must wait: There’s a six-week backlog on orders.

Not only do the chickens serve an obvious public welfare purpose, from the sociological standpoint, they’re also helping to change the image of city life.

Take the existing urban gardens, mix in backyard chicken coops and some composting, and also add the farmer’s markets that are appearing with more frequency, and paradoxically, a city is not longer as wild as it once was. One can escape the hectic city life and reconnect back to nature in his/her backyard. In some instances, however, the “simpler times” argument doesn’t fly as easily.

Certainly, any type of livestock raising in a residential area requires reasonable zoning and health controls, protecting the integrity of neighborhoods and well-being of its residents, respectively. Common issues that must be considered include controlling wafting smells, ensuring proper sanitation, and regulating the design and placement of coops, in order to assuage fears of property devaluation in the neighborhood.

In Madison, WI, for example, households are permitted up to four hens, and a 25 foot separation is required between coops and neighbor’s homes. Reasonable.

Elsewhere, however, the slippery slope game is in full-force.

In New Haven, Connecticut, a recently proposed law permitting up to six hens per dwelling unit has drawn the ire of the community, with residents expressing fears of unsanitary conditions, avian flu, and the potential for more exotic forms of city farming should chicken roosts become legalized. Unreasonable.

In June, the Board of Aldermen’s Legislation Committee held a hearing on the matter—with testimony on the issue clocking in at a feather numbing three hours—with statements from residents, experts in the sustainability, public health, and medicine fields, and city planning officials.

The concerns ran the gamut, from fears of salmonella infection to just plain dirtiness associated with chicken rearing, and the proponents, backed by testimony from an immunologist, opined that the birds are good neighbors, as they eat bugs, will not spread avian flu, and promote a culture sustainability.

Due to open questions and outstanding debate regarding whether or not building permits should be required for chicken coops (since they’re not permitted now, residents must request a zoning variance), the Legislation Committee tabled the matter until this month.

The bottom line is that while many of the concerns are unfounded and backyard agriculture should be encouraged, to ensure equity throughout the remainder of the community, it should be regulated in a sensible fashion, just like in Madison, Wisconsin.

Let’s avoid the slippery slope arguments, allow our residents (many of whom are not as financially secure as they were just last year) to produce food in their backyards, and view it as a silver lining of this recession.

Is it the resurgence of the hippie? Woodstock Nation 2.0?

Maybe.

If it’s creating a more environmentally conscious culture, then why not?

—-

Sources:

Honeyman, Leonard J. “Feathers Fly; Chickens Still Caged” New Haven Independent 9 June 2009.

Huffstutter, P.J. “Backyard chickens on the rise, despite neighbors’ clucks” The Los Angeles Times 15 June 2009.

—-

Related posts:

NYC Planners: Zoning bonuses will spur healthy eating and economic development

Save “Jersey Fresh” as we know it


5 years ago

July 2, 2009  

Comments (View)
text

Maintenance Concern in San Francisco? Tweet @SF311.

Twitter is a powerful communication tool that has surged in popularity over the past year, and government agencies are beginning to utilize the social networking service for its public outreach and two-way communication capabilities.

Not surprisingly, in San Francisco—where Twitter is based—the municipal government is well represented on Twitter, with Mayor Gavin Newsom (@gavinnewsom) and City Attorney Dennis Herrera (@SFCityAttorney) actively keeping the world up-to-date on city activities.

In fact, Mayor Newsom formally announced his bid for governor through the triple-threat approach of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, and has raised cash quickly from his online outreach efforts. It’s a clever New Media strategy to attract younger, tech-savvy voters—one need just remember President Obama’s successful campaign tactics.

It is clear: San Francisco city officials are obviously well-versed in Government 2.0 outreach efforts.

However, the city government went above and beyond typical online outreach today in announcing @SF311, a service, in partnership with Twitter, that will allow residents to contact the city to report the need for “street cleanings, graffiti removal, pothole and sidewalk defects, abandoned vehicles, city garbage can maintenance, as well as general department information,” according to the city’s press release. (Here’s the FAQ on the service.)

Instead of having to place a call to report a maintenance concern, anyone can easily send a message, via his/her Twitter account, to @SF311 and log the issue—even as a picture message. Especially in San Francisco, a hotbed of startups, this service should become quite popular, as it actually makes reporting an incident fun. (I wrote about the need for government to leverage social media for everyday purposes here.)

Since @SF311 was seemingly quite easy to implement, other municipalities—regardless of size—should consider following Newsom’s lead.

After all, if you, Mayor of Anytown USA, have a question about the service, just simply send Newsom an @ reply message via Twitter.

I’m sure he’ll help you get up and running.

5 years ago

June 2, 2009  

Comments (View)
text

NYC PLANNERS: ZONING BONUSES WILL SPUR HEALTHY EATING AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

I’ve always eaten healthy food—fruits, vegetables, lean meats, etc,—and I am extremely fortunate that my parents set me on this path, as I’m a firm believer that healthy eating habits should be established at a young age. For this, I am eternally grateful.

Unfortunately, even if they want to eat well, millions of people do not even have the opportunity to procure nutritious food, and this is a pressing public health concern, with recent spikes in the rates of diabetes, obesity, and the health complications that flow from both diseases.

This is especially a problem in dense urban areas (especially lower income neighborhoods), where many people do not own cars to travel to supermarkets and are reliant on local markets—which may be insufficient—for sustenance. Suburbanites do not necessarily have this problem, because access to a wide variety of food usually just requires a short car trip.

It is easy to assume that there is a direct linkage between land use and health problems, but has it been proven? Yes, according to a University of Alberta study.

Kim Raine, the lead author of the report, states that the study analyzed both “economic environments and build environments” to determine if a linkage exists. The underlying problem, according to Raine (as published in a March 14, 2008 Medical News Today release), is quite obvious:

When we reviewed the evidence we found, for example, that lower-income neighbourhoods were more likely to have greater access to sources of high-calorie foods, such as fast-food outlets, and lower access to supermarkets or other stores stocking healthy foods,” explained Raine. The report also found that a lower socio-economic status - which involves education level, income and employment - was often associated with increased obesity among both adults and children. “Lower personal income affects the affordability of food,” Raine said, “and that has been shown to have the most consistent influence on what people eat.

New York City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden recently said that “people are spending their entire food budget at Duane Reade, and that means soda and chips,” according to a May 20, 2009 article in The Architect’s Newspaper, entitled “Zoning Out Junk Food.”

Both Raine and Burden raise obvious urban living concerns: without easy access to healthy food, this is creating a recipe for an ongoing health crisis.

On the other hand, even if those in suburban neighborhoods eat well, if neighborhood walkability is an issue, as well as a dearth of recreational opportunities, both may help to breed obesity.

Some hallmarks of walkability are increased residential density, mixed-use zoning and street connectivity,” said co-author John Spence from the U of A’s Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation [in the March 14, 2008 Medical News Today release]. “Conversely, factors such as urban sprawl, low intersection density, low residential density and low land-use mix tend also to favour sedentary behaviour and lower physical activity levels and promote obesity.

Therefore, applying these findings, an inference can be made that residents in dense, highly walkable neighborhoods, with access to recreational facilities and well-stocked markets, will be the most fit.

But how can urban planners compel landlords to rent to grocery stores?

They can’t.

However, through creative zoning techniques, urban planners can create certain inducements that will not only benefit the landlords and developers, but also the greater community.

Create the bonus, and as the theory goes, they will come.

I’ve seen zoning bonuses applied to affordable housing construction (higher density allowed for more affordable units), but I’ve never heard of it used to induce grocery store construction.

In the war against junk food, it makes complete sense.

According to The Architect’s Newspaper article, Commissioner Burden’s office is on the front line of this war.

With a new zoning strategy, Floor Area Ratio (“FAR”) controls—defined as the comparison between actual floor space and the lot size—will not apply to ground floor tenant space rented out to grocery stores.

From the business standpoint, this is an enormous financial benefit to landlords and developers, as it will allow the maxing out of a building’s floor area without necessitating a variance for FAR, thus spiking the ROIs for both the landlord and tenant. Of course, there’s also the public health benefit, since if developers take the bait and the tenants come, then the neighborhood would benefit from better food choices, beyond the soda and chips from Duane Reade.

The goal, according to Burden’s office, is to raise the current number of 15,000 square feet of grocery space per 10,000 people in a neighborhood to a “minimum of 30,000 square feet,” per The Architect’s Newspaper article. The targeted neighborhood include “diverse or high-growth areas like Washington Heights, Sunset Park, and Bushwick,” where access to quality food is lacking.

In addition, the city is taking additional steps to attract and retain supermarkets, and beyond just public health, this goes to long-term economic development strategies.

In a few strategically identified neighborhoods, such as Long Island City, Hunts Point, and St. George, “supermarkets are now permitted as-of-right, and the parking requirement is reduced for their use,” according to the City’s Planning Department. By creating these incentives, according to Burden’s office, locating supermarkets in undeserved areas “could keep up to $1 billion from seeping to suburban vendors as residents turn elsewhere to stock the pantry.”

I cannot think of a more straightforward “win-win” situation. In facing a nationwide health crisis, we need innovative thinking, and I’ve always felt that the most innovative strategies are those that are the most obvious. Granting zoning breaks to attract grocery stores is a huge (and obvious) step in combating against the daily junk food assault, as well as spurring economic development during tough times.

After all, we all need to eat, so why not eat well?

For some NYC residents, this may become a reality very soon.

Sources:

Appelbaum, Alec. “Zoning Out Junk Food.” The Architect’s Newspaper 20 May 2009.

"Rising Obesity Rates Influenced By Urban Planning." Medical News Today 14 Mar 2008.

5 years ago

May 27, 2009  

Comments (View)
photo D-E-N-S-I-T-Y
Shot: Quarry Bay, Hong Kong Island
via:
j-p-g:
age challenge (via * tathei *)

D-E-N-S-I-T-Y

Shot: Quarry Bay, Hong Kong Island

via:

j-p-g:

age challenge (via * tathei *)

5 years ago

May 15, 2009
reblogged via j-p-g
 

Comments (View)