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Sunday reading 18 September 2016

Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week, we’re starting with two bits of authentic Kiwiana. First, in Stuff Henry Cooke reviews New Zealand’s best and worst town slogans. You’ve got to read the entire article for the full effect, but here were some of my favourite ones:

hutt-valley-slogan
MOST IMPROVED: THE HUTT

Someone once suggested a slogan for the wider Hutt area “Right up my Hutt Valley,” which sounds like a joke the marketing agency pitched by accident. Luckily, something closer to “Love the Hutt” or “I love the Hutt” has taken over the slogan game now.

dunedin-slogan

BEST SLOGAN: DUNEDIN

Dunedin, after years of enduring “I am Dunedin” and the much more fun “It’s alright here,” seems to have dropped the whole idea of a slogan altogether, instead branding the city as simply “dunedin” – but written in a gothic script so they look like a black metal band. In their brand story Dunedin notes the new logo is “irony-proof,” and, well – they’re not wrong.

Frankly, before the Hutt Valley gets another slogan it should consider renaming itself. Te Awa Kairangi could be a good alternative, but they’d have to scrub the toxic algae out of the river to make it worthy of the name…

Second, the Loading Docs initiative, which supports 10 filmmaking teams to create three-minute, creative documentaries that tell New Zealand stories, has put together a short video telling the story of two refugee migrants to New Zealand: How Mr. and Mrs. Gock Saved the Kumara. Pretty inspiring story:

Away from New Zealand, Jarrett Walker (Human Transit) tells the story of Barcelona’s “drunken metro and sober bus”. It’s an interesting story of good and bad public transport design, and the kludges that build up over time as networks expand:

Some simple math: In an optimal grid network, lines keep going more or less straight, and intersect each other more or less perpendicularly.  You change direction in this network by making a connection.  The perpendicularity maximizes the area of the city that each connection could take you to.

jarrett-walker-transit-grids

Transit grids can be standard or polar, but are almost always some subtle fusion of the two. The polar grid arises when there’s a huge center on which the network logically converges, because desirable destinations are packed most tightly there.

Once you recognize these patterns, you notice how coherent most metro networks are. Even those that are kludges to a degree have usually been patched as much as possible to create some appropriate fusion of radial and standard grid effects.

But among the metros I’ve encountered Barcelona’s metro network seems unusually chaotic in its network structure, often seeming to meander without intention.

barcelona-metro-slice

[…] Again, most metros are kludges to some degree.  It’s unlikely that anybody alive in Barcelona today deserves blame for the odd patterns of the metro’s flow.  There are always historical reasons for why things have ended up as they are.  If you want to follow that history, here’s a fun video.

But meanwhile:  Does your head contain some received wisdom along the lines of: “European metros are so fantastic that why would anyone take buses?” I can remember when many Europeans used to believe this, but today, bus network improvement is one of the most important of European trends. The need for a rational bus network may be even more urgent if your metro is staggering around drunkenly, unable to follow a straight line.

What’s great about the new Barcelona’s bus network then, is not just that it’s a grid, but that it really wants you to know that it’s a grid, and how straight its constituent lines are:

barcelona-new-bus-network

The new lines have numbers preceded by “H” or “V” for “horizontal” or “vertical”.  (Vertical is quite literal: not just up-down on standard maps like this one, but also up to the hills or down to the sea.)  These frequent lines are also numbered in logical sequence across the city, so that as you get to know the network, a number reminds you of roughly where in the grid each line sits, and thus what it’s likely to be useful for.

The idea is that people should be able to keep a sense of the whole grid network in their heads.  If you just remember what H and V mean, and the sequence in which they’re numbered, you have an enormous amount of information the whole system. When you see any bus numbered this way, you have a general sense of which way it’s going, or at least along which axis.  And when you hear a bus route number, you can easily form a general sense of where it is.

Jarrett’s an advocate for legible, user-friendly public transport systems that are accessible to a wide variety of people and transport demands. But our transport systems are often designed to meet different goals: to exclude and separate, rather than connect. Lena Groeger (ProPublica) explores the sordid history and present of “Discrimination by Design“:

You can’t talk about discriminatory design without mentioning city planner Robert Moses, whose public works projects shaped huge swaths of New York City from the 1930s through the 1960s. The physical design of the environment is a powerful tool when it’s used to exclude and isolate specific groups of people. And Moses’ design choices have had lasting discriminatory effects that are still felt in modern New York.

A notorious example: Moses designed a number of Long Island Parkway overpasses to be so low that buses could not drive under them. This effectively blocked Long Island from the poor and people of color who tend to rely more heavily on public transportation. And the low bridges continue to wreak havoc in other ways: 64 collisions were recorded in 2014 alone (here’s a bad one).

The design of bus systems, railways, and other forms of public transportation has a history riddled with racial tensions and prejudiced policies. In the 1990s the Los Angeles’ Bus Riders Union went to court over the racial inequity they saw in the city’s public transportation system. The Union alleged that L.A.’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority spent “a disproportionately high share of its resources on commuter rail services, whose primary users were wealthy non-minorities, and a disproportionately low share on bus services, whose main patrons were low income and minority residents.” The landmark case was settled through a court-ordered consent decree that placed strict limits on transit funding and forced the MTA to invest over $2 billion in the bus system.

Of course, the design of a neighborhood is more than just infrastructure. Zoning laws and regulations that determine how land is used or what schools children go to have long been used as a tool to segregate communities. All too often, the end result of zoning is that low-income, often predominantly black and Latino communities are isolated from most of the resources and advantages of wealthy white communities.

Discrimination by design is hardly a thing of the past. Many cities are going out of their way to put up barriers to building smaller, affordable dwellings that can meet the needs of people without a lot of money. On the Sightline Institute’s blog, architect and developer David Neiman explains the problems with Seattle’s recent effort to impose minimum apartment sizes:

Unfortunately for the many other Annas out there, eager to live close to good city jobs or to participate in city life, Seattle has now effectively outlawed micro-housing through the minutiae of policy and zoning rules. Seattle was the modern birthplace of micro-housing in North America. It went strong from 2009 to 2013, but building micro-housing projects has since become an uphill battle. In fact, the local war about micro-housing is over… and micro-housing lost.

[…] You buy a plot of land in an urban village to develop micro-housing, anticipating its future residents will benefit from nearby frequent transit, grocery stores, a library and park, and some local shops. Your goal is to provide homes at affordable rents in a desirable neighborhood for the most people that you can. You’d also like to participate in the MFTE program, which gives you a property tax break that covers the cost of dramatically lowering the rent for a share of your tenants as long as those tenants have low incomes.

You draw up plans to build 40 apartments of 175 square feet each. You estimate rent at $900 per month. That amount might sound expensive if you haven’t shopped for rentals in Seattle recently, but it’s a steal: conventional studios now go for $1,400 on average.

Not so fast. Some of the folks who live nearby are upset about what you have planned. So the City Council passes new rules bumping up your units to an average of 220 square feet, and then, in committee, adds some more rules that jack your average unit size further.

You redesign your project according to the new rules and find that you are now down to 27 units of 260 square feet each. Thirteen Annas just lost their housing, and the remainder saw their rent rise by a third, to about $1,200 per month. But at least you are in the MFTE program, so five of your apartments will offer a discounted rent of $1,020 per month to people whose incomes qualify. (You facepalm in disbelief, however, that whereas your original plan offered 40 units, unsubsidized, at $900 a month, your new version has just five units, subsidized, at $1,020.)

Hold on just a second, though, because your Plan B just ran aground. The City Council has decided that the MFTE deal is too good for you, and it adopts more-demanding program requirements, dropping MFTE-discounted rents to $618 per month. Some quick math tells you your property tax break will not come close to covering the rent subsidy.

On top of this, the Mayor’s Office decides to promote family-sized housing by bumping up your MFTE participation quota: you have to subsidize rents for a quarter, not a fifth, of your tenants. You’re baffled why the Mayor’s Office thinks that driving you out of the MFTE program is helping to build family-sized housing. You give up on the MFTE program. There will be no discounted units. The Annas will all have to pay $1,200 a month. Maybe their parents will chip in?

Nice try. The building department is concerned that your apartments are so small that they might pose a threat to life, health, and safety. (You groan in frustration. The National Healthy Housing Standard was revised by an expert panel in 2014 to radically reduce the emphasis on minimum space as a health and safety concern. Previous editions of this model US building code had, based on little empirical evidence, recommended space quotas that criminalized the living conditions of many low-income families, but the new codes, based on a thorough review of the research literature, suggest a minimum of just 70 square feet per room and eliminated all other references to crowding. Sightline’s research informed this change.) The building department publishes a new code interpretation that requires your SEDUs to have larger living rooms. You redesign your project again: Plan C. Three more Annas lose their homes. You are now down to 24 apartments of 290 square feet that rent for about $1,300 per month.

At this point, you realize you’re better off converting the units into small, conventional studios. Your unit size bumps up again, to a little over 300 square feet—Plan D—but at least conventional studios can rationally participate in the MFTE program because the required rent subsidy is lower, so 25 percent of your tenants will get an affordable rent.

Not quite. The building department has a follow-up memo. It turns out that the living room size problem doesn’t just concern SEDUs; conventional studios are now also in danger of sliding below the purported minimum threshold for human habitation. This new interpretation applies to all housing, so your studios have to grow yet again. Your units jump up to an average of 330 square feet, Plan E. Three more Annas lose homes. Your unit count drops to 21. Your rents are now at $1,400 per month. They are not micros. Micros are dead.

This is how Seattle micro-housing regulations have evolved in less than two years. Spread over dozens of proposed small unit development projects, this represents the loss of hundreds of affordable dwellings and a huge increase in average rents. How much?

Seattle’s micro-housing “fix” costs the city 829 affordable homes per year

How many affordable homes is Seattle losing due to its new thicket of rules against micro-housing? The graph below illustrates how the production of congregate housing (including pod-style) and SEDUs changed between 2010 and 2015.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

This is just a stupid catastrophe of a policy. Unbelievable. And remember: Auckland Council just decided to impose a more restrictive minimum dwelling size. While Seattle’s policy bans units with less than 330sq ft, or around 30m2, Auckland’s restricts anything under 35m2.

However, Auckland’s doing it right in other areas. Consider this article on Houston’s 1999 reform to its (minimal) zoning code, by John Ricco at Greater Greater Washington:

But in 1999, Houston enacted sweeping land-use reforms: it decreased the minimum residential lot size from 5,000 square feet [465m2] to 1,400 [130m2] in close-in neighborhoods. In effect, this reform legalized townhouses in areas with suburban-style houses on huge lots. Two or three houses could now take the spot of one.

The political significance of these reforms cannot be overstated. Single family zoning is somewhat of a third rail in American local politics; it’s exceptionally rare for residents of suburban-style neighborhoods to allow denser development. Urbanist commentators have noted that “missing middle” housingforms like duplexes and small multifamily apartments—has been regulated away in most American cities. Houston represents an important dissent from the notion that single family neighborhoods are to be preserved at all costs.

The results of these reforms have been remarkable. Areas that were once made up entirely of ranch-style houses, McMansions, and underused lots are now covered in townhouses… The infill process is typically incremental, with detached homes being replaced one at a time. This often leads to a diversity of housing styles on a single block:

Other blocks are unrecognizable in their transformation:

And in some parts of the city, this redevelopment process has gone hand-in-hand with light rail expansion:

(There are so many striking before-and-after images that I programmed a twitter bot, @densifyingHOU, that tweets one out every day.)

One major benefit of these townhouses: they’re cheap! Development at this scale uses cheaper construction methods than those of large buildings, and Houston’s straightforward permitting process reduces regulatory uncertainty and thus financing costs. A cursory search on real estate websites reveals luxury townhouses a mile from downtown from the low $300s.

Now, Houston’s approach does have its flaws. Parking is still mandated, setback requirements and inward-facing homes make for a lousy pedestrian experience, and some new houses are, frankly, ugly. In some areas, unhappy homeowners have lobbied successfully for block-level regulations that re-outlaw townhouses.

But the key insight here is that piecemeal densification is possible, and it works. Houston has found a way to add significant amounts of housing without sprawling.

I wrote about this process after visiting Houston a few years ago. To be clear: the public face of Houston, especially if you’re trying to walk somewhere, is ugly and inhumane. But the buildings are changing rapidly in response to a more liberal set of density controls, which is benefitting people trying to find housing.

The interesting thing is that Auckland has recently surpassed Houston when it comes to deregulating minimum lot sizes. The Unitary Plan drops minimum lot sizes to zero in three of four urban residential zones (Terraced Housing and Apartment Blocks, Mixed Housing Urban, Mixed Housing Suburban) that cover the majority of the city – albeit with a requirement to get a resource consent before building too many dwellings. And in the Single House zone minimum lot sizes are counterbalanced by a more permissive approach to granny flats. We will see how it goes.

Finally, University of Auckland statistician Thomas Lumley reviews his new electric bike. He seems to be enjoying it:

Q: So, it’s been about 11 months since you got your fancy electric-assist bike

A: Yes, that’s right

Q: Have you given up yet?

A: No, it’s still fun.

Q: Even with the rain?

A: Combining Doppler radar and the detailed weather forecasts has mostly kept me dry

Q: And getting killed by cars?

A: So far, still at less than 1 event.

Q: How do you feel about busy two-lane roundabouts?

A: I have a Theory.

Q: Do tell!

A: Busy roundabouts rely on informal negotiation over the details of the ‘give way to the right’ rule. Since cyclists are excluded from the negotiation, we inevitably offend either the drivers to the right or those behind us.

Q: Can’t they just four-letter-word themselves?

A: They are driving deadly weapons.

Q: Ah. Yes.

2 comments to Sunday reading 18 September 2016

  • Great comment from Thomas L. Further down in his blog he points out that Grafton bridge has a Trollbooth. aka, inductive lights that don’t work for bikes. grrrr

  • Stephen Davis

    How could an article on Kiwi town slogans fail to include the greatest of them all? “Foxton: The Fox Town Of New Zealand.”