Thursday, October 23, 2014

Bicycle Libraries

Just a quick note. I came across a short article on bicycle libraries on Urbanful today and wanted to share. As part of a longer through process on informal development and community practices, I thought this one fit in nicely. While the practice of using bikes to delivery books to the poor or under served isn't new, The idea that we are recycling (pun intended) strategies from the 18th and early nineteenth century is exciting to me. 

If you do read this blog, please send along other ideas of similar happenings in your corner of the globe. 

Best aye, 


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Is deregulation really the answer for megacities?

Like a lot of people that like old cities and have an overly romantic ideal about Europe, whenever something pops up in my reading list that reinforces the idea i jump on it. But recently, I’ve read a collection of articles from slightly different views that point out how much work all of us (Europe, Asia and the USA) still have to do.

Karl Marx Hof, Vienna
Many months ago, I came across an old copy of Governing with a great article on public housing in Vienna, Austria. I was certainly jealous to read about how much of the market the Austrians had managed to corner and the great quality of housing that’s provided. Of course, this isn’t really a free market approach, and we’re talking about a city with more than 700 years of history. But all the same, it certainly helped feed my need to Euro-positive affordable housing appetite.

More recently, Next City has had a couple of articles about megacities and affordable housing. Janapese cities appear to be the most affordable of the megacities, included in the Demographia

The median price for a home in Tokyo and its surrounding three prefectures is 28 million yen, or around $270,000. With a price-to-income ratio (Median Multiple) of 4.4, it’s about as costly as Calgary, Nottingham or Sacramento. The greater Osaka area’s average home is just $180,000, giving it a Median Multiple of 3.5 and putting it in the same league as Chicago or Raleigh.

As a comparison, the three most expensive cities, according to Demographia, are Hong Kong (Median Multiple of 14.9, average home price of $4 million), Vancouver (10.3 and $670,000) and San Francisco-Oakland (9.2 and $705,000). The three most affordable are Pittsburgh (2.3, $116,00), Detroit (2.5, $130,000) and Grand Rapids (2.6, $136,000).

According to the report the driving factor for Japans affordability is continuing deregulation in the housing sector, which reduces development costs and provides the market more opportunities to meet the housing demands of ever growing megacities.

Now this goes against many of our common assumptions in the affordable housing field. For so many years we’ve talked about the need for governments and nonprofits to step into the market and meet the needs of low-income households that aren’t being met by purely market driven developers. In fact the concerns over affordable housing, at least in megacities, has even jumped onto the agendas of some Mayors for London and New York, among others.

But I’m not about to give up on all of my current opinions about how best to create affordable housing. I should note that the authors of the Demographia survey are not generally considered mainstream thinkers in affordable housing circles. In fact, Wendal Cox, runs a consultancy group that focuses on deregulating housing markets and pushes a car centric view of urban planning in general.

Regardless, the reports findings do point to some interesting facts that we should all consider in our planning and development work. Maybe the real question remains, what is the right balance between regulation and free market forces that will improve the affordability of housing for everyone?

Best aye,


Tiny Homes and Zoning

A few months ago I wrote a post about tiny homes and micro-units being considered by the City of Austin for addition to building codes. I’m still on the fence about whether or not allowing micro-units will help build more affordable or family inclusive neighborhoods, but a recent short documentary on Reason TV added a new dimension to my thinking about the tiny home movement.

I was drawn into watching the video through links on YouTube on other tiny home projects. The short titled Jay Austin's Beautiful, Illegal Tiny House, was more of a political statement about zoning regulation than the exploration of the benefits of tiny homes but there are a couple of interesting questions that came out of my viewing.
As a person trained in urban planning the idea that zoning is necessary has been drilled into my head. I’ve argued for zoning, design standards and neighborhood plans on many occasions. However, the film makes an interesting case for the ability of the market place and individual agreements to guide smart development without needing a formal zoning protocol that can limit creativity.
This argument rang true to me, especially given my recent reading on alternative community development actions. I’ve been studying and working on a new post about what some call guerilla community design, and I think that the tiny home movement falls under this category in a very direct and interesting way. In many ways I feel that overly burdensome development code should be simplified to free up individual creativity.
That’s not to say that I’m going to give up on zoning altogether. While the makers of the film over at Reason TV made several good points I also believe they overlooked many of the downsides of the planning and building regulation system, particularly in their model example Houston, Texas
Shifting fortunes across Houston   Houston Chronicle.pngSpecifically, when a system is guided only by covenants and deed restrictions there is a risk that those with more power can have more influence than those that have less power. While Houston may be one of the most inexpensive cities in the U.S. to build new homes, there is plenty of evidence that income segregation is also very high on the list of problems for Houston.
Additionally, in my work I’ve seen lots of examples where working class housing is place next to industrial setting, or vice-versa. Houston is also near a coastal area with plenty of land at or below the flood plain. More often than not the areas with the highest risk to flooding are developed for lower income neighborhoods.
So, is zoing good or bad? Does regulation protect our communities and neighbors from being sold homes in high-risk areas, or does it limit creative thinking and problem solving? I certainly don’t know the answers to these or many other questions about zoning, tiny homes and alternative community development. I hope to spend some more time over the next few months reading and writing about them all, in an effort to understand more.
Best aye,

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Designing a Better World - subpost

I’ve had several, more detailed, posts in the works, but wanted to post some links to great programs and projects that I’ve been reading about lately. Below are links and summaries of the groups I’ve been investigating for other posts.

Started by the amaxing minds behind the global design and innovation firm IDEO, IDEO.ORG is a nonprofit that utilizes the great talents within the for profit company to work on critical needs and failures of community design and program delivery for nonprofits focused on poverly elevation.  While there are plenty of think tank like groups out there, I have been following IDEO as a design group for many years and it excites me that they’ve decided to use some of the massive brain power over there to better the world.

Taking the concept of human centered design to scale has always been a struggle for large NGOs and governments. The folks over at HCD Connect seem to have figured out a way to disseminate best practices and raise critical funding for smaller groups wanting to tackle poverty and community development needs in more open and participatory ways.  I was really excited to see the breadth of their program and will continue to dive into their resource pages. Check it out for yourself and see if there’s something for your organization to use.

Is among the most well known DIY community development projects in the world. Started in 2005 by the guys and gals at Rebar who transformed a few parking spots in San Francisco to a temporary park. The project has evolved into a global movement with more than 1,000 parks in over 200 cities planned for this years event.  See if there’s a Park(ing) Day event near you, or start your own.

Best aye,


Friday, April 11, 2014

Do tiny homes build family neighborhoods?

Over the past year there has been an increasing amount of interest on the interweb about tiny homes. Whether its weekly videos from Fair Companies, blogs postings about cramped conditions in Hong Kong, or even the City of Austin’s attempt to consider building small to build affordable.  Each of these perspectives have something of value to share and I’ll admit that even I think about downsizing from my 1,700 sqft home from time to time.

But one of the issues at hand in the local debate here in Austin, at least from my perspective is;  

Does tiny mean family friendly?

On our neighborhood listserv there was a recent post about a new apartment community being built on Burnet Rd.  While I’m generally in support of increasing density in our urban core by building up (i.e. density), I was not happy to hear that the mix of units for this development would only include efficiency, 1 br and 2 br units.

Now many of the city planners and neighborhood advocates agree that keeping neighborhoods family friendly is one of their goals. Our neighborhood plan (that was approved over ten years ago) specifically states that we want to keep the neighborhood affordable, allow for more density, make it walkable and family friendly.  But I see a disconnect on the last point when our planners and building codes are permitting un-family friendly developments.

I’m not saying that some families won’t benefit from 2 bedroom units. Our 750 sqft house only had two bedrooms when we bought it and I think that fact that it only had two bedrooms made it affordable enough for us to get our foot into our great neighborhood.

But, higher density condos and multifamily rentals don’t provide the same opportunity to grow by adding on that our small home provided. Some might argue that if designed correctly that you can knock out walls and create bigger more family friendly units in these new multifamily projects. That might be true, but at what cost and will it be affordable to do so?

Other might argue, like the folks who are part of the tiny home movement, that families don’t need all the extra space that traditional homes have. I’m not going to argue against that either, but I do want to point out that market forces are at play here, and while the tiny home movement is growing I have not found a study or report that shows it is a statistically significant portion of our housing market.

I also feel that with majority of new units being added as 1 & 2 bedroom units a shift in household demographics towards singles and couples that don’t have kids will occur. That could be an assumption, but if true it will also drive businesses to adjust and may create less family targeted businesses.

I’m descending into a rant. So, let me just say this from an advocacy point.  I support the City of Austin’s efforts to development more dense and affordable housing. I want that housing to include enough variety so that families can live on RBT lines, so that singles can put a foot hold in neighborhoods that were once not affordable to them, and so that we can build the multi-use, multi-purpose and multi-generational communities that every bleeding heart liberal, like myself, desires. And, I really hope that our planners, leaders and neighborhood advocates take this kind of holistic view when creating new policies about how Austin grows and thrives.