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,