The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

CSY’s 2015 Was A Very Good Year

I hope everyone is having a wonderful Holiday season.  As we all know this time of year is a great time for celebration, reflection and remembrance, and I trust you’ve been using the season to do just that.  I know I have, and that’s in part why my blogging output has declined this month.  But overall, this has been a very good year for the Corner Side Yard.

As just about everyone does in some fashion at this time of year, I’ve put together a compilation of the most popular blog posts of 2015.  For anyone new to the Corner Side Yard, or even for longtime followers/admirers, this list is a great way to get a sense of the interests, range of topics and the type of analysis I engage in regularly.  Here we go:

“Gentrification, For Lack of a Better Word, Is Good”, January 9, 2015:

“I spent the first half of my planning career trying to catalyze the revitalization of impoverished communities. I sat across the table from developers, offering them everything we could to subsidize the most meager of developments, and they would frequently tell me no. I often heard the pleadings of neighborhood residents who said, “why can’t we have a nice sit-down restaurant in our neighborhood? Why is there no drugstore, or supermarket? What can you, Mr. Planner, do about that?”

In seeking an answer to that question, I found the other reason for that statement. In my career-long research of distressed communities, I found some subtle distinctions in them that gave me clues as to what was holding many of them back. There are some poor communities that are immigrant settlement points and have a transient nature to them. They rely on the continual influx of new residents and maintain a sense of vitality that often belies their economic status. Think of Pilsen or Little Village in Chicago. There are other poor communities that might not be an immigrant jumping off point but are no less poor or transient. Some working class neighborhoods, like Bridgeport, or Wicker Park from 25 years ago, fit that mold as well. Then there are communities that, once the poor moved in, the community stagnated. It declined. It collapsed. Why? Because no one came after them. The community lost its transience and in doing so lost its vitality.”

Dying Malls — A Sign of the Suburban Apocalypse, January 18, 2015:

“So what to do with these spaces? Scrap them. Let them die so they can live again. Begin the process of retrofitting the suburban mall landscape into the development fabric of the surrounding neighborhoods.

This will be tough for many suburban leaders to hear. Many cities have become so dependent on sales tax revenue from malls that they simply cannot envision a future without it. They become absolutely invested in finding ways to stabilize their cash cow. But it’s a fool’s errand.

Fortunately for suburbs, many cities whose downtowns are currently witnessing a resurgence learned lessons the hard way as the burbs were forging ahead with the wind at their backs. The strongest downtowns employed lessons during dark times that are paying dividends today.”

The “Five Midwests” Series, Part 1: Overview, March 15, 2015:

“It’s interesting to note that the major metropolitan areas of the Midwest are often located near the intersection of two, and sometimes three, subregions. The Twin Cities is almost perfectly situated at the intersection of the North Woods, Heartland and Plains subregions, while Kansas City similarly sits where the Heartland, Plains and Midland Valley subregions meet. To the east, Pittsburgh unites the Lower Lakes, Heartland and Midland Valley subregions, and in the middle of the Midwest Chicago brings together the Lower Lakes, North Woods and Heartland subregions. Other metros located wholly within one subregion seem to be capitals or commerical centers of them. Indianapolis and Columbus (Heartland) fit this description. Others, like Buffalo, Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis, seem to act as bridges to entirely different regions within the country — Buffalo to the East Coast, Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis to the South.”

Detroiters – Still Not Heeding the Lessons Before Them, March 18, 2015:

“Detroiters have missed out on the lesson of an extremely important moment.

A few days ago, the Detroit Free Press reported an update on “Walking Man” James Robertson, a Detroit resident who walked 21 miles a day round trip for his factory job in suburban Rochester Hills. His story was initially reported earlier this winter, and provoked tremendous outpouring from Detroiters. More than $360,000 was raised on Robertson’s behalf through a GoFundMe campaign, and a car dealership donated a 2015 Ford Taurus so he would never have to walk or take public transportation again.

What a typical Detroit response.

This was an opportunity for Detroit, city and suburbs, to face the issues that hamper its overall growth and development. And what did it do?

It doubled down on the Suburban Experiment and continued its decades-long turning of its back to the city. Get a car, move to the burbs, and your problems go away.”

Not Getting the Urbanist’s Message, May 26, 2015:

“As one who’s been in the planning profession for 25 years, I noted from the start of my career that New Urbanists and Smart Growth advocates likely had a willing ally among minority urban residents who were already living in the kinds of communities they sought to recreate. We agree, they’d say, and continue their focus on trying to improve the suburban landscape, to limited effect. Perhaps their biggest accomplishment was to educate millions of suburbanites on walkable communities, and encouraging them to seek those places out — without doing the same with longtime urban residents. As a group, blacks have largely missed that message and are therefore not a part of the movement.”

In Praise of “Streetcar Suburbs”, September 3, 2015:

“So what are streetcar suburbs? They are the predominant development type within American cities from about 1890-1930. It was the most widespread development type prior to the Supreme Court’s upholding of Euclidean zoning (Euclid v. Amber Realty) in 1926, which allowed municipalities to pursue greater separation of land uses as one of its powers…

Personally I love streetcar suburbs because they often have a mixed use character that places built after them lack. There’s also often a community or neighborhood connectivity within them that I find appealing; many streetcar suburb communities are full of proud, organized and vocal residents who advocate strongly on behalf of their community’s values.”

Streetcar Suburb Design, Illustrated, September 4, 2015:

“My preference for the streetcar suburb is rooted in its land use design, and should not be taken as a public transit call to arms. I like public transit, make frequent use of public transit, and believe public transit should play a big role in the development of metropolitan areas. But some comments I’ve received thus far assume that I’m advocating for bringing back the streetcar as well as the land use design, and that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, what I like about the design is that it is still fully functional long after the streetcar line tracks have been pulled up. Places like Birmingham, MI, outside of Detroit, do well despite losing the streetcar long ago. Some may argue that economics has more to do with that than land use design, but I maintain design is a significant factor.”

The Perils of Inner Ring Suburbs, September 17, 2015:

“There are a couple of different dystopian futures that face inner ring suburbs. One is the example of Ferguson, Missouri, which failed to acknowledge and adapt to the rapid socio-demographic changes of its community. Even I’ve written about that. That, admittedly, is a much more explosive scenario. Far more likely, in my opinion, is something seen in places like south suburban Cook County, Illinois, outside of Chicago, or in Prince George’s County, Maryland, outside of Washington, DC, or maybe south Fulton County, outside of Atlanta — flatlined housing prices, a general lack of vibrancy and dynamism, fewer retail and commercial options. All stemming from a greater marginalization from the larger metropolitan area.”

What White Population Growth in Detroit Means, September 22, 2015:

“Conventional wisdom has long been that Detroit’s fall from grace was due to its super-dependence on a collapsing auto industry, and it certainly played a role. But Detroit gained an enormous stigma over the same period as auto industry decline, and it became effectively walled off from society. A growing white population may signal that the wall of stigma is collapsing.

Most opinion drivers, when thinking of improving Detroit’s plight, have been seeking the economic catalyst that could reestablish demographic growth in the Motor City. Maybe that thinking is backwards. With the removal of stigma and the chance to achieve a more balanced economic profile, with the chance to create new business and social networks, perhaps new economic opportunities can emerge.”

As Goes Detroit, So Goes the Nation, September 29, 2015:

“There are two drivers at work in metropolitan areas. Suburbs continue to grow, largely due to increasing representation from minorities relocating from cities, particularly African-Americans and Latinos. City revitalization, however, is occurring and is real; white population growth in cities, after a half-century or more of white flight from our largest cities, is unprecedented. What’s allowing this to happen? On the suburban side, perhaps a relaxation of the strict controls that previously excluded minorities — exclusionary zoning that maintained high home prices and a lack of housing type diversity, or financial policies governing mortgages by banks. On the city side, however, I’d argue that the biggest factor is the erosion of stigma. Areas of cities that were viewed as forbidden as recently as 20 years ago are now hailed as revitalization success stories.”

True Housing Policy? It’s Us vs. Them, October 15, 2015:

“(O)ne can see how two seemingly contradictory housing policy truisms can peacefully co-exist for nearly a century.

In practice, it’s far more accurate to see American policy this way:

  • Use housing policy to keep home prices down. For them.
  • Use housing policy to keep home prices up. For us.

Definitions of “them” and “us” have changed over the years, but housing policy has been practiced and implemented in this way since the advent of the New Deal. Because of recent changes in how we live and what we prefer, the flaws of this arrangement have become evident.”

The Orthodoxy of Supply Side Urbanism: Wrong, December 2, 2015:

“Relaxing zoning will help the cities where the demand for housing is the greatest. Relaxing zoning in suburbs will add units to places that have artificially suppressed supply, particularly within metro areas that have a strong housing demand. However, I fail to see how it helps cities and metros that don’t have the red-hot housing demand of New York, or the Bay Area, or other areas.

Relaxing zoning in cities or metro areas with a lower housing demand, which is the case for much of the Rust Belt and many low density Sun Belt cities, in my opinion would lead to a concentration of new housing development in the most in-demand neighborhoods within them, at the exclusion of other neighborhoods and suburbs. It would serve the affluent, it would be clustered, and would potentially decrease affordability and further increase inequality.”

In addition to these twelve popular posts from 2015, there were three pieces posted this year that originally ran earlier but became much bigger hits the second time around:

Density No, Texture Yes, January 11, 2015 (originally posted November 5, 2013):

“Don’t get me wrong – I love density. I love the dynamism of cities, the joyful and serendipitous nature of the city. To me, one of the simple pleasures of living in a city is the ability to leave your home or office in search of a good lunch or dinner, having no clue where you are going, and still finding an excellent meal in a place you’ve never heard of.

But urbanists pushing for density have gotten the formula wrong. Density is an outcome, not a goal. A goal worth pursuing, yes, but it should be a marker of your city’s success, not an element of its strategy. Density does not produce serendipity; serendipity produces density.”

The Uniqueness of Detroit: A Housing Analysis, March 6, 2015 (originally posted July 6, 2014):

“Here, we find that Detroit has, by far, the highest concentration of housing units built between 1950-59 of all its peer cities. Nearly one in four homes in Detroit were built during this period. In fact, Detroit, along with Milwaukee and Toledo, occupies a strange space among Midwestern/Rust Belt cities. (Side note: the more I study Detroit against other Midwestern cities, the more I find that Detroit and Milwaukee are virtually the same city. And it doesn’t surprise me that Toledo, just 75 miles from Detroit, would share its characteristics as well). Detroit, Milwaukee and Toledo all added their greatest numbers of housing at the outset of the modern suburban development period, what I’ve called the Levittown Period in my so-called Big Theory of American Urban Development. This supports my thinking that if anyone was ever interested in establishing a Levittown-style national historic district, Detroit would be a good candidate. The Motor City has perhaps more small Cape Cod-style, three-bedroom, one-bath single family homes than any city in the nation.

How did Detroit get this way? Housing demolition likely had some role in a city that lost so much. Detroit likely lost older single family homes and multifamily buildings over the last few decades, leading to skewed numbers. The same is also true of Indianapolis, Kansas City and Columbus, cities that annexed large undeveloped areas after 1970 and built new housing there. Keep in mind, though, that Milwaukee and Toledo, Detroit’s comparables, may not have had the same level of demolition loss that Detroit had, yet they still match the Motor City well. That leads me to believe that a concentration of housing development at a unique time is a crucial piece in understanding Detroit’s housing stock.”

 Detroit’s Demographic Transition, September 25, 2015 (originally posted January 15, 2015):

“(I)t’s clear the demographic transformation of Detroit is underway. Whites, Hispanics and Asians all show strong growth in Detroit since 2010, while African Americans are still showing population decline. One caveat: whites, Hispanics and Asians show very strong growth, but start from small bases in a largely African American city. Slight numerical changes can have strong impacts, positive or negative, on percentage changes.

Also, let’s be clear — it’s too early to say whether the demographic transformation is leading to the economic transformation that the city desperately needs, or that the demographic transformation means that the economic transformation taking place now is any more or less real than previous cycles. It will be interesting to see how the current transformation plays out over the course of this decade; I’d be really interested in seeing what the 2020 Census says about Detroit.”

It is my pleasure to contribute to the ongoing — and rapidly growing — conversation of cities in America, and offering the unique perspective of an African-American Rust Belt native.  You’ll see much more from me in 2016.

Happy Holidays and see you soon.

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