Monday, November 28, 2011

Location Efficiency and Rethinking Sprawl

In the early 90s, I gave a talk to the newly formed Congress of the New Urbanism (CNU) that began like this: "My name is Clifton and I'm a child of sprawl." My reference to the first-name-only confessional format of twelve step programs was quite a bit more than superficial - growing up in sprawl in Southern California embedded in me a deep hatred of tract housing suburbs and all that they represented that remains today. It's probably not stretching it too much to say I was emotionally scarred by the deep sense of alienation that such environments facilitate, so questions about the future of sprawl- how to alleviate it, what to do with it, how will it help the economy and the nation- all have a very personal resonance with me.

In a recent article in New York Times, "To Rethink Sprawl, Start With Offices," Louise A. Mozingo, a professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at the University of California, Berkeley and author of “Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes” suggests three steps to rethinking sprawl and office parks in particular as one of its key drivers: halting agricultural land conversion, connecting dispersed employment centers with alternative transit, and encouraging downtown development. All are good and necessary, and I'd like to add more perspective to the picture.

It is true that office parks seem to represent the most intensively low-density, single-use, non-sustainable type of development in suburbia, but I'm not sure they're the primary driver for low density development. It seems to me that sprawl usually starts with low cost housing on the ever expanding fringes of high density urban cores that have jobs but not affordable housing. Office parks and retail follow the residential development, but all are beset by the problem of low "location efficiency," a term I'm loving lately for all that it implies. Before I address the concept of location efficiency is crucial to what to do about sprawl, I'd like review a bit of recent history around this issue.

Early on in the anti-sprawl movement, New Urbanism, New Urbanists and their ilk were envisioning not only how to hasten the death of sprawl but what to do with the "carcass" as it were- how to repurpose the vast sprawl infrastructure that has been visited upon the face of the earth since the advent of the automobile. New Urbanist Architects like Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and others did conceptual designs of parking lot infills and retrofitting parking garages that would surely someday be vacant and abandoned. These early studies were important but still focused on buildings: it's harder to envision what to do with the automobile-centric transportation infrastructure of roads and freeways that sprawl engendered.

New Urbanism deservedly recieved a lot of criticism for being in practice more like the "New Suburbanism," as many of the early key projects, such as Seaside in Florida, were "blank slate" efforts funded by developers catering to rich homeowners and unfettered by the exigencies of affordable housing, urban infill, and lousy existing street grids. The last condition is one of the hardest to overcome, and has a lot to do with why a blank slate approach was so attractive to early planners and architects. In settlement patterns, street grids are extremely difficult to change once they're laid down- I think of traffic engineers as, in a way, the real evil geniuses of sprawl.

New Urbanism also largely failed initially to address energy efficiency at all. Granted, the green movement was the next movement in architecture after New Urbanism, and many New Urbanist practitioners intuitively understood the energy efficiency of better land use and development patterns, but we did not yet really have the vital  public discourse on sustainability that we do today. What's been disappointing to me is that it's been mostly only in the past five years that green architects and planners and New Urbanists been talking to each other. The US Green Building Council (USGBC) and CNU been jointly developing LEED for Neighborhoods for several years, and the LEED standard and the Living Building Challenge both address transportation in their rating systems. But these standards largely address individual buildings, and there's no real metric for a crucial factor behind all sprawl: location efficiency, which measures the amount of fuel, time, and money one must spend to get to work and back.

Most of our operative economic models are based on a historical assumption of an unlimited supply of cheap energy, and  ignoring true transportation costs is one of the most important among many blind spots in these models. David Goldstein and Jennifer Henry of the NRDC have established a strong connection between high transportation costs and high home foreclosure rates in at least two U.S. metro areas: Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area, as indicated in a paper titled "Reducing Foreclosures and Environmental Impacts through Location-Efficient Neighborhood Design." For mortgage lending purposes, financial institutions are only just beginning to understand the value of energy efficiency investments and their ability to impact the operating costs of homes, but the actual cost of home ownership is never viewed as including transportation costs, which are much higher than water and electricity bills. Applying a location efficiency metric to housing and other building types, including commercial office space, as a decisive economic factor would serve to quantify the real costs of sprawl.

What would a location efficiency rating look like and what would be the implications of including it in economic models and financial lending practices? How would it help to alleviate, rethink, and reuse sprawl?

My first take on what the metric should represent is something like the average percentage of annual household expense that goes to transportation (which includes commuting, shopping, and daily tasks). The data for creating the metric is widely available- what remains to be done is aggregating it and analyzing it. The rating system could be developed and ratified by a consortium of financial institutions, developers, local and state governments, and NGOs like USGBC. Following the LEED model, it's probably most likely  that it be developed by an NGO, then migrate gradually to government policy. Location efficiency also has the advantage to data visualization in that it can tell a dramatic story quickly an effectively, much like the map based data first used to discover the cause and cure for cholera, and like GPS-based techniques used in law enforcement to combat crime. It would play well to us Americans, who usually measure things in relation to the automobile: miles per gallon, miles per hour, horsepower. It would be kind of like MPG for a house, where not only electricity and water are accounted for, but gas and time used in getting there. Consumers are already getting used to rating systems that tell us about the embedded energy in food and building materials- we're thinking a lot more about eating and buying local.

The global trend toward urbanization has many complex drivers, but high density development is happening because of market forces, mostly because the cities are where the jobs are. It's well understood that denser development increases the tax base and lowers the per capita cost of municipal services- water, sewer, power and many others. Affordable housing is a crucial factor in U.S. cities today, and including high location efficiency rating in financial models for affordable housing development in urban cores will help to facilitate its viability.

In her article, professor Mozingo suggests that municipalities drive a harder bargain with corporations who seek to build commercial office space in their towns, and ask for more concessions in the area of transportation infrastructure. I agree, but I wonder about how this will play out. In today's economy, so many towns are desperate for revenue that it's hard to believe there is the political will to do this, but if the location efficiency metric is factored in, it can be a bargaining chip that addresses the real economic factors that impact employees.

 A location efficiency metric will also help to quantify ROI for public transit projects. While rail based systems are highly desirable in many locations, they are very expensive compared to bus systems. Our overdeveloped road system means that bus systems are very affordable alternatives, and presenting these projects as sustainable and viable economically when characterized as improving location efficiency will help to overcome consumer preference roadblocks like the stigma of riding the bus. Good design can also help to overcome our resistance to buses. Curituba in Brazil is a model for bus transportation infrastructure, according to Urban Habitat.

Energy and water efficiency are highly desirable goals in improving building practice, unfortunately most building professionals look at one building at a time. Improving location efficiency has potential scale effects that compare very favorably with energy savings from more efficient buildings. What's best of course, is to improve efficiency across the board with regard to all resources- materials, water, energy, transportation, and infrastructure. Improvements in one area almost always have positive impacts in another.

Signs of sprawl's imminent death are not widely evident, but given the embedded energy costs, it's hard to imagine that sooner or later low density development won't suffer a collapse or a transformation. Should collapse occur eventually, it's fascinating to think what that would look like. Will wolves roam the tumbleweed haunted streets of Lancaster? Perhaps sprawl, like waste, can be thought of as a resource, especially given the amount of existing infrastructure. Municipalities, developers, architects, and planners certainly have a delightful challenge in store figuring out how to transform the hellishly alienated sprawl landscapes that cover much of our continent and others into livable and sustainable human habitat.

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