Friday, October 7, 2011

Credible Utopias - A New Chinese Development Model


I came across a not so new planning and development strategy being used in China to create communities that can link urban and rural life styles. The architects of this new strategy are New York architect firm Tsao & McKown and  developer IMC Octave, which share a familial link through Calvin Tsao and Frederick Tsao who are brothers. IMC Octave is a large industrial conglomerate that started as a shipping company and now includes off shore drilling, ship building, industrial production and large scale comprehensive development.

Their concept attempts to link agrarian and urban living through new developments the size of most mid-sized cities. The concept papers note that they want their inhabitants to have easy access to all of the developments amenities and resources so that “one might work in a 100 story high rise during the day and then sleep under the stars listening the bleating of chickens after diner”.
Las Colinas, TX

I don’t think this is a new concept in urban planning. Since the turn of the twentieth century, and even before, corporations and politicians have dreamed of creating an ideal mix of urban and rural living in one place. This strategy of master planning entire new cities has not been attempted in the U.S. in more than 30 years (I’m excluding places like Celebration, but including Las Colinas, Texas). But the strategy might work in the highly organized and often authoritative society of China. I’m no expert on Chinese society, but I have to believe that hundreds of bureaucrats will have to approve this enormous undertaking, and staying true to the Tsao brothers concept will be hard to manage.

In the U.S. I also doubt that such a plan would be successful. For one, we don’t have large enough development companies that would be able to control all of the facets of developing a singular urban/rural concept project. We also live in a culture where community input and buy-in are critical to the success of such large scale projects. I’m not saying this as a negative, in fact I would have it no other way. But what would be the benefits of developing an entire city where environmental, employment, housing and recreational uses were all master planned from the beginning? I can only imagine that if the planning was good and no corners were cut, planning an entire city from the start could be a huge success.

In the end I hope that the Tsao brothers are successful. In China where they estimate that at least ten new metropolitan areas the size of New York are needed in the next ten year, the Tsao brothers may be right on target. Their ventures could create communities that are sustainable and useful in many more ways than discussed here. But only time will tell.


Monday, October 3, 2011

Smaller or Bigger - It really doesn’t matter

I read a great article on Bloomberg news the other day by Edward Glaeser, on how we, as a nation, might be able to move forward with government reform by focusing on quality rather than quantity. As Mr. Glaeser puts it:

“The important challenge today is to make government smarter and more effective, not slightly bigger or smaller.”

I agree whole heatedly. Unfortunately, my experience with government housing programs has proven to be a mixed bag in the “smarter and more effective” department. Having worked in a state housing agency and managed several contracts with both state and federal agencies I believe I’ve ran the full gambit of problems. These include unending paperwork, lack of clarity in regulations, changing interpretation of rules, and just plain bureaucratic morass (and that includes more “asses”, too).

But I’ve also experienced the hope that things can be better and more efficient at times. Unfortunately, these moment of hope are usually attributed to the work of a couple of really great people and not a systems change that will have wide spread impact on other programs or services. This doesn’t mean that there are no talented leaders in government agencies, rather that many of the system in place already are generally designed to quash the ingenuity and creativity that will bounce government programs out of their ruts.

This is where I turn to the nonprofit sector for hope. Nonprofits can be as bad as governments, especially when their leadership settles into a path that was successful yesterday, but may need to change today in order to maintain relevancy. One of my favorite thinkers on this subject is Dan Palotta.

Mr. Palotta recently wrote a great article the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and how they can improve customer service. about one of the first steps that government agencies can take in improving, customer service. Dan’s article on the TSA gave several simple tips on how the perception of the TSA would be greatly improved if they implemented several simple customer service tactics like not shouting at your customers, allowing employees to improve equipment to meet customer needs and creating a more relaxed and comforting atmosphere in security lines.

While I agree 100% with Dan, I’m really hopeful that the issues and ideas that Mr. Glaeser’s touches on can be used to create greater efficiency not only within government agencies, but for the customers they serve.  

Among my favorites it the consolidation, or at least cooperation and communication, among poverty related program. Mr. Glaeser in just a few words sets out a simple plan to improve the impact of our poverty support system that I believe would have an enormous impact.

“A 21st-century anti-poverty program would ensure that similar households would get similar levels of total benefits. It would look holistically at every household receiving public support, and determine whether a recipient is getting the right mix of financial support and aid in kind, such as housing vouchers or medical benefits. Is providing so much aid in the form of food stamps appropriate given the U.S. obesity epidemic?”

One piece of silver lining that I’ve seen recently is the plan by USDA, HUD and other federal agencies involved in affordable housing to consolidate rule and regulatory practices so that multiple agencies do not have multiple ways of collecting the same data or adhering to the same policy.  For example, USDA and HUD both require property condition assessments and appraisals when applying for funding to rehab older housing projects. For years now I have worked with developers that struggle to provide two separate reports in order to meet the different standards each agency has. The good news is that these agencies are now working on more than 20 similar issues to make their programs more accessible and efficient for clients and themselves.

Another of my favorites is the idea of charging for congestion on highways. I have to admit that this is one of the great proposals that Rick Perry had a few years back, and despite the political backlash, I am hopeful it will become the corner stone of new and improved highway systems across the U.S.

“Once upon a time, it was expensive to pay for roads with tolls, so we turned to gas taxes. But technology has made it easy to charge drivers without tollbooth personnel or even forcing users to slow down. Singapore, the second densest nation on earth, has free-flowing roads because drivers pay for the congestion they cause.”

Paying for infrastructure with user fees is the best model for rebuilding America because it eliminates bridges-to-nowhere and pushes us toward more economically valuable investments. The public sector still needs to help plan and coordinate infrastructure, but the actual road construction and maintenance can be done by properly regulated, privately funded entities.”

I agree. As an avid fisherman I’m happy to pay for access to public parks and for my annual fishing licence so that game wardens can monitor and protect our natural resources.  Maybe that’s not a good example, but I also love tolls roads, especially when they are generally better maintained and faster than the antiquated interstate highway system.