The Blog

To Make Your Community Healthier, Make It Denser

To Make Your Community Healthier, Make It Denser

By David Dixon FAIA, Leader, Stantec‘s Urban Places Group //

In the wake of 9/11, author Stephen Johnson wrote in Wired that “density kills” and advocated turning to the decentralized vision of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1939 Broadacre City as a way of protecting Americans in the future. As it turns out, he got it backwards: Density saves lives. The contemporary affinity for higher-density, mixed-use, walkable places in cities and suburbs alike arguably represents the single most significant contribution to public health — for those who can afford them — since World War II.

Healthy density

Five years before the Wired article, the Centers for Disease Control had already reported that inactivity and poor diet caused “300,000 deaths in the United States…second only to tobacco.” That landmark study placed much of the blame on low-density, typically suburban environments whose physical layout encouraged auto trips at the expense of walking, leading to increased rates of obesity, diabetes, and auto fatalities. Today, the health benefits of urban densities are compelling. The incidence of chronic health problems in walkable urban neighborhoods is generally lower than in typical suburban and exurban neighborhoods. A 2008 report by University of Utah researchers found that men who lived in walkable neighborhoods weighed 10 pounds less than men in low-density neighborhoods, a recent Journal of Transport and Health article links cities with more compact street networks to lower levels of obesity, diabetes, high bloop pressure and heart disease.

The data for auto fatalities are particularly stark — per-capita auto fatalities rise roughly 400 percent along a continuum of density from typical urban to typical suburban. Six decades of sprawl have helped give the United States a level of traffic fatalities three to five times higher than other developed countries. Today, auto fatalities represent the #1 cause of accidental deaths in the United States.

Walkability is not an automatic product of density, nor is it restricted to cities. “Walkable densities” outside of downtowns begin at roughly 40-60 units per acre, which translates into one to two thousand households within a five- to ten-minute walk of a neighborhood Main Street. Achieving these densities requires elected leaders willing to make the case for change and developers who understand mixed-use development. Zoning and other regulations, written to enable auto-focused development, often need updating to make denser and more walkable development possible. In many communities introducing walkable density also requires innovative public/private partnerships to work through financial gaps in still-recovering markets or to raise funds to transform brownfields. But even with these ingredients in place, a lingering fear of change — particularly in the form of density — often presents an additional hurdle. In these cases the process starts by engaging the community in planning for a healthier future by providing information and tools to understand the benefits and costs of well-designed density.

The payback from density extends beyond physical health. Walkable neighborhoods promote economic health by attracting knowledge workers and investment and promote environmental health by creating an inviting alternative to sprawl. From Dublin, Ohio, to Sandy Springs, Georgia, to Brampton, Ontario, suburban communities and their leaders increasingly recognize these benefits and have assembled the same ingredients to create a new generation of higher-density, mixed-use, walkable downtowns. However, even as we succeed in redirecting planning toward the creation of denser, healthier neighborhoods, one more task demands our attention.

Equitable density

The benefits of density generate an “amenity paradox” that threatens to translate America’s already egregious wealth gap into a widening health gap between rich and poor. Life-filled, walkable, transit-served neighborhoods have delivered the goods in ways that Jane Jacobs prophesized 50 years ago — with the glaring exception of diversity. Ten percent of U.S. households control 75 percent of all U.S. wealth. They, along with their slightly less affluent peers, are consuming walkable neighborhoods at a voracious rate. This demand is bidding up housing costs and forcing poorer residents into less healthy, car-dependent environments. For the first time in America’s history more poor people live in suburbs than cities. Clustered increasingly at the fringes of car-centric suburbs, yet often unable to afford a reliable car, they are isolated from access to health care — and jobs, education, and support networks.

Nor is this a passing trend. Demographer and economist Chris Nelson projects that over the next 30 years the U.S. will experience a growing shortage of transit-oriented housing. As we employ density to create healthy neighborhoods, we also need to employ it to create equity. The challenge is not market acceptance. Housing economist Laurie Volk points out that many people who choose urban lifestyles seek diversity. In a time of constrained public resources, the answer won’t lie in public dollars. Where possible, we need to tap the rising value of amenity-rich urban neighborhoods to fund the mixed-income housing that makes the concept of diversity real. Density bonuses in return for increased affordability, inclusionary zoning and public benefit agreements represent potential strategies. More are needed.

After decades of disinvestment, cities face an era of opportunity not seen since the Great Depression. To paraphrase that great urban planner, Spiderman, with opportunity comes responsibility. Heading the list of our responsibilities as a society is expanding access — for everyone — to environments that support healthier lifestyles.

About David Dixon

David Dixon FAIA is a senior principal at Stantec and leader of the firm’s new interdisciplinary Urban Places group. He recently published the second edition of Urban Design for an Urban Century: Shaping More Livable, Equitable, and Resilient Cities (Wiley, 2014), co-authored with Lance J. Brown.

Neighborhood Building in Memphis: A Strategy of Hope

Neighborhood Building in Memphis: A Strategy of Hope

By Jarrett Spence, J.D. Candidate, University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, Neighborhood Preservation Clinic  //

The Executive Inn
For years, one of the very first sights to greet people entering Memphis from our airport was the Executive Inn. This time last year, the hotel – which was owned by an anonymous corporation in another state – was one of the most pernicious blighted properties in town. The exterior walls had literally fallen off, revealing a three-story derelict dollhouse covered in graffiti and garbage.

This was hardly the first impression we wanted to give visitors to our city. Moreover, residents and businesses in the area were fighting a hopeless battle against this abandoned nuisance.

Today, the Executive Inn site is a blank canvass, ready for development, and no longer a hazard its neighbors. It fell to a wrecking ball following a lawsuit by the City of Memphis. As a law student in the University of Memphis’ School of Law’s Neighborhood Preservation Clinic, I was there to watch it happen – and I look forward making sure more abandoned, blighted properties have the same fate.

The Neighborhood Preservation Act
The sharpest tool in our legal toolbox is the Neighborhood Preservation Act (NPA), a Tennessee statute that allows citizens to bring lawsuits against the owners of blighted properties. The NPA compels property owners to appear in court, where a judge can order them to demolish or repair their property – or risk losing it to receivership. Derelict property owners are not released from court supervision until the problem is completely solved.

In Memphis, the law has been used aggressively by Mayor A C Wharton, Jr., who personally filed 138 NPA lawsuits against vacant, abandoned, and nuisance property owners in October 2010. The Downtown Memphis Commission, several area hospitals, and a myriad of neighborhood associations have also filed suits under the NPA, to tremendous effect. Abandoned houses are being renovated and restored to productive use. Dangerous, unsalvageable properties are being razed to protect people and property values.

We believe there are at least 10,000 abandoned single-family houses, 3,000 abandoned multifamily units, and 1,000 abandoned commercial structures in the City of Memphis. The next front in the battle to reclaim our neighborhoods is giving tomorrow’s lawyers the training they need today. That’s why the School of Law launched the Neighborhood Preservation Clinic this January. We’re being given hands-on experience in all facets of NPA cases – ranging from investigating property ownership and conditions of blighted properties all over Memphis, to working with code-enforcement officers, preparing civil lawsuits, and ultimately prosecuting negligent property owners.

The Neighborhood Preservation Clinic
I am one of eight law students prosecuting blight on behalf of the City of Memphis in the Neighborhood Preservation Clinic – the only one of its kind in the country. The long-term possibilities of this Clinic are truly inspiring. The scale of the problem in Memphis is immense, but every successful legal challenge only unlocks more and more enthusiasm for what we can do using the powerful legal tools at our disposal.

Blight is a cancer to our communities. Left untreated, it can infect the entire body. Recognized and addressed swiftly, a full recovery is usually possible.

As with any treatment, the patient needs support, patience, and positivity to surround them. When we use the law to hold nuisance property owners accountable, we not only remove a blighted structure from a neighborhood, we replace it with hope –the most powerful community development tool of all.

Photo credit: University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law

Increasing Economic Equality One City at a Time: Portland’s Story

Increasing Economic Equality One City at a Time: Portland’s Story

We asked Erin Flynn, Associate Vice President for Strategic Partnerships at Portland State University to speak with us about what Portland is doing to become more economically inclusive.

The Challenge:

Historically, Portland has been a predominantly white city with limited racial and ethnic diversity. But the city’s demographics are changing dramatically and business and civic leaders are grappling with the challenges and opportunities presented by growing diversity. While 80 percent of the population between the ages of 50 and 64 are white only 56% of the population between the ages of 5 and 19 are white. The majority of the non-white, youth population is Latino. While Portland has been a magnet for young, educated millenials, it faces a considerable challenge to educate and skill up its own minority, youth population. Forty-two percent of PSU’s freshman class this year is minority and/or first generation students.

The Question:
How does Portland “skill up” its next generation to ensure that they have the opportunity to move into the middle-class?

The Plan:
City leaders are working to increase income, education and access to city services for low-income and people of color in Portland. In fact, nearly every strategic plan coming out of the region focuses on social and economic equity right now. There is growing awareness among civic and business leaders that tackling issues of social and economic disparity are of paramount importance to regional health and prosperity. Part of the challenge is connecting strategy across jurisdictions to insure a coordinated and systematic approach.

There are multiple initiatives underway including:

  • The collective impact effort All Hands Raised is working on improving graduation rates in high schools in the county.
  • The Cradle to Career initiative, a partnership between the City of Portland, Portland State University, Community Colleges, and public schools, are working together to invest at key intervention points in youth education.
  • The Portland Development Commission has several initiatives, including a mini-micro revolving loan and PDX Challenge that are working to support minority owned small businesses. The organization also recently created a Neighborhood Prosperity Plan, looking to bring technical services into lower income neighborhoods.
  • Through the Portland Metro STEM Partnership, employers such as Intel are working to engage minority students in STEM fields, encouraging careers through hands-on tech and science learning.

Putting it All Together:
Because of her background designing and advancing complex, metropolitan agendas and building bridges between the public sector, private sector and higher education, Erin Flynn has been tapped to ensure economic inclusion initiatives are coordinated at a regional level through Greater Portland Inc., Portland’s regional economic development organization.

Working with colleagues across the region and in conjunction with CEOs for Cities, Portland business and civic leaders are building a “Business Case for Equity.” Erin has been working to bring together a diverse group of community and business leaders to define key metrics for moving the needle on economic inclusion through a unified framework

Much More to Come:
The regional effort to build an economic inclusion framework and agreed upon set of metrics will be included in Portland Metro 20/20, the region’s comprehensive economic development plan. We will check back in with Erin as the work progresses.

In the meantime, we hope that you will join us in Pittsburgh June 10-12, to talk with Erin and other community leaders working across the country to address issues of economic inclusion.


About Erin Flynn: Erin Flynn is Associate Vice President for Strategic Partnerships at Portland State University, Oregon’s largest and only urban-serving university. She leads university-wide community engagement and economic development initiatives to deliver on shared regional priorities including economic growth and inclusion, innovation and entrepreneurship, urban sustainability and cradle-to-career education reform. She is currently working with Greater Portland Inc. and municipal agencies across the region to synchronize myriad efforts that address social and economic equity.

Aligning Economic Incentives to Create REAL Smart Growth

Aligning Economic Incentives to Create REAL Smart Growth

By Rick Rybeck, Director, Just Economics //

If smart growth is so smart, how come there’s so much dumb growth?  Economic incentives for sprawl are partly to blame.  If we understand the economic incentives for sprawl, the remedies become clear.  Properly applied, these remedies can create jobs, enhance housing affordability and reduce tax burdens.

Today, infrastructure such as transit can be a double-edged sword.  We create it to facilitate development.  Yet, the resulting inflation in land prices near transit stations often drives development (particularly affordable development) to cheaper but more remote sites.  We then extend the infrastructure to these remote sites only to have the process repeat.  Thus infrastructure created to facilitate development ends up chasing it away.  We run after sprawl with more infrastructure, but never catch up.  This process destroys both the countryside and urban budgets as cities end up with much more infrastructure per capita than they would need if development was more compact.

Part of the problem stems from the ability of private landowners to appropriate publicly-created land values.  This is the fuel for land speculation.  Utilizing value-capture techniques can recapture publicly-created land values and return them to the agencies that created them (such as transit authorities).  In this way, infrastructure can become financially self-sustaining.

Additionally, if properly designed and implemented, value capture can actually encourage the development of high-value land.  High-value land, typically adjacent to urban infrastructure such as transit, is where we want development to occur.  The more we can accommodate development at these high-value locations, the more compact development patterns will become.  This will facilitate walking, cycling and transit while preserving rural areas for agriculture, conservation and recreation.

Some jurisdictions have accomplished this by transforming their traditional property tax into a value capture fee.  This is accomplished by reducing the property tax rate on privately-created building values while increasing the tax rate on publicly-created land values.

The lower tax rate on buildings makes it cheaper to construct, improve and maintain them, reducing rents for residents and businesses.  (The typical property tax on buildings is only 1% or 2%, but has the economic impact of a 10% to 20% sales tax on construction labor and materials.)   The higher tax on land values reduces land speculation and helps keep land prices low.  This reform concentrates development near transit and other urban infrastructure.  It promotes jobs by making it cheaper to improve and maintain existing buildings and by keeping business rents low. Check out Break the Boom and Bust Cycle.

Tackling Low Wages and Gentrification in a Livable City

Tackling Low Wages and Gentrification in a Livable City

By Jay Walljasper //

Asheville traveled pretty far down the same path as most American cities in the 1970s and 80s with a dwindling downtown and booming suburbs. All the boarded up buildings gave rise to a proposal to tear down eleven square blocks downtown and construct a state-of-the-art shopping mall. Plans fell through and the mall was build elsewhere, hurting downtown even more in the short run but setting the state for a remarkable revival.

Downtown Asheville today – with its wealth of restored art deco architecture and an almost absence of chain stores – rivals the Blue Ridge Mountains and Biltmore mansion as a tourist draw, says Robin Cape of the Asheville Buncombe Sustainable Community Inititative and former city council member. The historical buildings foster lively streetlife, plentiful small businesses and a flourishing arts scene. An old Woolworth store has been repurposed as Woolworth Walk – a collection of galleries featuring photography, paintings, jewelry and music. You can visit artists’ studios in the nearby River Arts District.

The congeniality and energy of this relatively small city (population: 85,000) explains why it lands near the top of many lists of the best places to live. That’s why New Belgium (the iconic brand behind Fat Tire Ale) is building a new brewery here and the Moog Music technology company relocated from New York. Asheville also hosts a cluster of businesses in a field that is unfortunately certain to grow in the coming years: climate change. The federal National Climate Data Center – the world’s largest depository of weather information – has been here for decades and is now joined by the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and The Collider Center for Climate and Resilience, which Robin Cape describes as a hub for scientists, entrepreneurs and artists working on solutions and adaptions to climate change.

With all that going for it, Asheville might seem to be the rare city that doesn’t need a cluster group to work on creative solutions to its problems across many sectors.

Not so fast, says Vice Mayor Marc Hunt. The average median earnings here are $25,000 and rising real estate prices mean many of the artists who give the city its identity worry about being priced out of town. “Average job growth and capital investment as well as wages are relatively weak here,” he says.

“What our CEOs for Cities Cluster is working on is how to leverage our unique, strong assets to grow and attract employers who pay higher wages. This is helping our civic leadership see how we can collaborate really well on this, and involve younger people who have not been at the table yet.”

Stay tuned for updates on Asheville’s efforts to tackle low wages and gentrification.

Harnessing the Power of CEOs to Make Cities Thrive

Harnessing the Power of CEOs to Make Cities Thrive

By Sam Williams, Business City Partnerships //

Metro cities are the drivers of our nation’s economy and will contain 80% of the population by 2020.  They are complex geographic, social, political and economic regions.  With a multitude of local governments, issues such as infrastructure, healthcare and economic development frequently bog down in political standoffs.

In The CEO As Urban Statesman, Sam Williams uses case studies including participant interviews and research from five cities to argue that business leaders can and should contribute to their communities by using their business skills to help solve public-policy problems.  Leading cross-sector coalitions, focusing on tipping point critical issues, each city has tapped the leadership of business to compliment, not replace, the role of government.  Backed by professional staff or consultants these coalitions operated in public meetings recruiting leaders from different viewpoints around the table and determining the facts in a case study method.  They then debated a short list of alternatives and focused on most likely solutions driving for consensus and eventual action.  It works and Williams tells how with personal interviews and insight.

In Atlanta, CEOs Pete Correll, Tom Bell and Michael Russell headed a successful biracial cross-sector task force to rescue Atlanta’s safety-net hospital from impending financial collapse.  They gained political approval to convert the hospital from government control to a not-for-profit with a private board and raised $350 million for improvements making it a national success story.  In Oklahoma City, CEO Ray Ackerman and part-time Mayor Ron Norick led a decade long coalition to restore the city’s pride by convincing voters to pay for redeveloping downtown, creating a canal from a dry riverbed that spawned an entertainment district and rowing venue.  In Houston, former astronaut and entrepreneur Mae Jemison headed a multi-jurisdictional task force to create an economic recovery plan from Hurricane Ike and a blue print for future disaster response.  Salt Lake City, after their Olympics, was choking on traffic and business wanted to accelerate a twenty year plan to expand transit and roads.  Banker Scott Anderson and former legislator and then chamber executive Lane Beattie assembled a metro alliance to support a regional transportation plan and led the campaign to approve funding.  Today the Wasatch Valley transit and road improvements are almost complete.  John Turner, a Columbus, Georgia executive worked for fourteen years to create the longest urban whitewater course in the world on the stretch of the Chattahoochee River that runs through downtown by working with two states, two cities, environmental activists, funders  and regulators.  Columbus State University located a campus downtown, loft housing was built, restaurants and entertainment flourished and the city became a magnet for millennials.

These projects are quite different from one another, but they share common themes.  This book explores each case in detail, extracts their salient characteristics and provides a list of best practices for public and private sector leaders who are interested in improving quality of life and growing jobs in metro cities.  In addition to the book, Williams helped create over 15 such coalitions in metro Atlanta during his tenure as President of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and now urban strategy consultant and professor at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

Tame Your Data With Metrics and Dashboards

Tame Your Data With Metrics and Dashboards

By Ryan Stanton, Smart Cities Leader, Schneider Electric //

From big data to open data, the discussion of digital data is a hot topic for cities right now. And for good reason, digital data promises to improve decision making by understanding the health of our cities while increasing transparency to citizens and stakeholders. While the use of data has long played a critical role in cities, new technology continues to enable previously unimagined sources and uses of data.

In fact, researchers at IDC report that between 2005 and 2020, the world output of digital data will increase by a factor of 300. Connected sensors now exist in all corners of our cities, providing an almost endless stream of information from smart buildings, traffic sensors, parking sensors, and even citizens themselves. And the pace of deploying connected sensors will only continue, yielding an unfathomable increase in data in just the next 5 years. Yet, the use of this additional data in decision-making doesn’t seem to have caught up.

The problem today lies not in the data itself, rather, in how it’s presented and to whom.

The promise of using tech-driven data to understand the health of cities, make better decisions, and increase transparency requires transforming incredibly complex datasets into simple and relevant information for everyone. In essence, digital data needs to be controlled and tamed in order to be helpful.

City dashboards and vital signs

This leads us to a topic of discussion at the upcoming CEOs for Cities 2014 National Meeting in Nashville: Metrics and dashboards. This panel discussion will be focused on the use of metrics and dashboards to benchmark and monitor progress in all areas of cities. Distilling data into usable, easy-to-understand, and actionable information requires not only thorough analysis, but a clear understanding of the audience.

For example, Schneider Electric uses digital metrics and dashboards to track our progress toward strategic business goals. Since our industry can change rapidly, it’s vital for us to have real-time data and watch metrics closely. To accomplish this, Schneider partnered with Salesforce to deploy a company-wide digital platform to track and report customer relationships, business opportunities, and sales.

This platform allows us to create customized metrics and dashboards for each audience, including management, operations, sales, and more. This way, each user can track what’s most important to them, dramatically increasing our visibility into the health of the business, while driving better decision-making.

Quite simply, we’ve undergone a transformation through the use of digital data.

The right dashboard for the right audience

Cities face similar challenges around the use of data. In the same way our finance department tracks different metrics than project managers, Mayors, department heads, and operational staff each has their own valuable metrics to monitor. Dashboards for each audience should give them relevant and easy to understand information.

The Mayor’s dashboard may feature big picture metrics such as operational costs and progress against the city’s annual goals. Dashboards for operational staff may include countdowns to scheduled maintenance, operating temperatures, and pressures. Meanwhile, the dashboard for citizens may feature the number of taxpayers’ dollars saved or which city building is the greenest.

For the City of Boston, Schneider Electric recently deployed an energy management system that includes a dashboard platform which provides configurable metrics for energy and sustainability data. In this way, the Mayor could see metrics that matter to him, like overall energy costs for the city, while department heads can create dashboards to compare the energy use of individual buildings at specific times.

The growth of digital data should empower decision-making and improve transparency. But without taming data into actionable metrics and information for each audience, the data you have can become a lost opportunity.

How to Leverage Design to Build the Digital City

How to Leverage Design to Build the Digital City

By Michael Martin, Place-Based Innovation Lead, HD MADE //

I left my job as a city planner and joined a digital creative agency. Why? Because I am certain that to make our future cities versatile, responsive, and engaging, we must combine citizen interaction with smart technology and design.

At HD MADE I lead our place-based initiatives, which include work with the Times Square Alliance and theAlliance for Downtown New York. We’re working with these clients to reimagine how they integrate digital into every part of their organization, programs, and neighborhoods.

How do you get there?

Digital roadmap
Before diving into implementing any tactical digital solutions, technology needs to take a spot alongside transportation, housing, and economic development in the strategic/master planning process. The roadmap needs to be forward thinking – next 18 months – and comprehensive;  it should include a full-scale analysis of all things digital, from a city’s social media strategy and website design to public wi-fi networks and open data policies.

Crowdsourcing ideas
The roadmap should include a plan to source the best possible ideas. Competitions soliciting for new ideas like like NYC Big Apps and the Market Street Prototyping Festival have proven to be effective at catalyzing innovation. They also allow citizens to have direct impact on the city while empowering them to be more involved.

Bringing in the right technology partners can also generate new ideas. With a partnership you can leverage your downtown’s built environment to test whether a given solution is right for you. Meanwhile the partner is happy to fund implementation to learn how their technology performs in the real-world.

Technology integration must be responsive to actual challenges experienced by people in your city. Solutions should solve real-world problems and incorporate research and citizen engagement. Thinking through the journey of the people who will access technology in regards to your city is imperative to effectively planning for a digital future.

What does it look like?

1) Location-based technology can deliver hyperlocal information about where a person is at the moment — events, a business, a new park, or even emergency services info.  Pairing location with time of day could drive even more contextual information (“What’s happening right now”). Meanwhile, beacons, tiny bluetooth-enabled devices, link to an app to push relevant notifications when a person passes within a given range of that beacon. Users must opt-in to trigger the device. Beacons could be used:

  • for interactive guided tours of a neighborhood or city
  • to engage people in a discussion while they are in a particular place
  • to push deal information from business association members

2) Integrate smart technology into infrastructural elements of your city to make them responsive and able to be communicated with it. For example:

  • Public digital displays that feature citizen-generated Instagram photos
  • Send a text to a building that is outfitted with a specific sensor, which then sends back that sensors information

What’s next?

Start exploring and start researching. The goal is not to be trendy but to be impactful; technology offers huge opportunities to cities — we must think deeply about the best way to cultivate new ideas, incubate them, and regrow our cities with a strong digital foundation.

About Michael Martin

Michael Martin leads Place-Based Innovation at HD MADE, a digital creative agency based in New York. He is an urban planner by trade, having formerly served as Executive Director of St. Claude Main Street in New Orleans, where he earned Louisiana’s Best Main Street Award in 2013. Now he lives in Brooklyn, walking around the boroughs various neighborhoods.