General Urban Planning Thread

This is a thread for general discussion about urban planning and architecture. I’l try to focus on issues in Hawai’i, and I’ll use this thread as a repository for links. To start off, here’s a video on the effects of parking.

16 thoughts on “General Urban Planning Thread

  1. Interesting video, but take away the government regulations for parking and apply supply and demand. Who would move into a residential building that does have sufficient parking? That goes for double for businesses. A business will struggle to survive without sufficient parking.

    1. I just read How Parking Destroys Cities from Michael Manville in the Atlantic, and it may provide some answers to your question.

      For one thing, parking requirements can make development more expensive:

      Parking minimums take the cost of that space—a cost that should be borne by drivers—and push it onto developers, hiding it in the cost of building. Sometimes this means a project can’t be built at all. At other times, it makes projects more expensive: In downtown L.A., parking usually costs developers more than $50,000 per space to build. Walt Disney Concert Hall, a cultural landmark that is home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, cost $274 million to build. Of that total, the underground parking structure, which is not a cultural landmark (it’s an underground parking structure), accounted for $100 million.

      (emphasis added)

      It can also make transit and walking more difficult and unpleasant:

      Brownstone Brooklyn, after all, is largely devoid of parking; so is Boston’s famed North End. Zoning defenders might call this point moot, because those places are different—parking can be scarce because walking and using transit are easy. But walking and using transit are easy, in part, because parking is scarce. Transit thrives on density, which parking undermines, and parking and walking don’t mix. The short walk to a Manhattan subway stop will take you past attractive store windows, which come right up to a sidewalk largely uninterrupted by driveways. Walk along an L.A. boulevard, by contrast, and you’ll get a good view not of stores but of their parking lots, which means in turn that your walk must be careful rather than carefree—lest a car slide out, cross the sidewalk, and run you over. That pleasant experience comes courtesy of L.A.’s zoning.

  2. I think if the you removed mandatory minimum parking requirements it could possibly hurt existing businesses and owners of apartments and condos. However, here are some things that should be considered:

    1. The negative effect to these groups is a function of the popularity for driving cars. But driving is partly attractive because of drivers don’t have to pay for parking (when they can find parking spaces that resulted from the government policy). If you take away that policy, and replace manage on street parking using appropriate pricing, the appeal of driving would likely diminish. At the same time, the demand for other modes of transportation might increase. If more people walk, bicycle, or use mass transit, then businesses and those who own or live in apartments/condos may not suffer so much. I think this is basically applying the supply and demand principle. If parking is free and relatively plentiful, then the demand for parking and driving will be high. If parking is not free or plentiful, then demand for driving will decrease.

    One question to ask: To what degree do we want to accommodate (subsidize) and encourage driving? Currently, a lot of people like driving, but this is partly a function of policies we choose. Take away those policies and driving may lose some of its appeal. What’s the cost of accommodating and encouraging people’s desire to drive? There are health, environmental and even economic factors.

    With regard to the latter I’ll mention two things. The video mentions that the minimum parking requirements add costs to developers and sometimes prevent development. In terms of housing this is crucial as housing prices are function of supply and demand, and my understanding is that in many places like Honolulu, the supply is far from meeting the demand. The cost of having a car (or two) can be quite substantial for individual or family. Expenditures going to car and insurance payments as well as gas and maintenance could be used for other things.

    2. Removing mandatory minimum parking policy and finding appropriate on street parking could change the way we develop communities–building buildings closer together, making walking more attractive and practical, which will allow businesses to be viable without a lot of parking spaces.

  3. I think social infrastructure is underappreciated. It’s super important in my view. It is a difficult issue to address, but I think if more people understood it’s importance, this could create political momentum to bring about necessary changes.

  4. I’d love to live in a good urban place with minimal or no cars. I feel like doing something like this would also appeal to people in Hawai’i, depending on where it was done.

    One interesting thing in this article. Businesses complained about not being able to receive deliveries from trucks. A solution seems to be that during certain early hours in the day, delivery trucks are allowed into the city where cars are normally prohibited. (Emergency vehicles are also allowed.)

    1. Interesting. Are there other cities that you know like that?

      In terms of deliveries they could do what they do for Tokyo Station, which has hundreds if not thousands of stores. Every delivery is done to a central location and from there one company does the distribution to each individual shops. How does that help? The one company could schedule when trucks come into their facility and then organize how the deliveries are then sent out to each shop. I guess it does add another level of delivery cost, but it should be minimal because the original wholesaler would have to charge less since they are not delivering to the doorstep of the store.

      1. I think there are others, but I can’t think of them off hand. (There might be another in Spain.)

        Every delivery is done to a central location and from there one company does the distribution to each individual shops.

        I think that could work, but it seems like most deliveries are done in the morning, at least for supplies that businesses would need. For deliveries by Fed X, that’s another story. But I would think that wouldn’t really cause much of a problem.

  5. Don asked about other cities that were eliminating (or reducing) cars from certain sections of a city. Here’s a story on the way Barcelona is doing something similar:

    1. Thoughts and comments about this article:

      A study of Gracia before and after the superblocks found that foot travel in the area increased by 10 percent and bicycle traffic by 30 percent, while vehicle traffic declined by 26 percent in interior streets. Meanwhile, thousands of square meters of new shared public spaces were opened to residents, who quickly came to embrace them. No one ever suggests reintroducing automobile through traffic to Gracia.

      One of the main goals for the superblock was to prohibit through traffic, which I understand as vehicles traveling through an area rather than stopping at some destinations within it. I believe planners modify or create paths that cars, bicycles, and pedestrians share. I would expect doing things like this will lead to less use of cars and different modes of transportation to increase, and that’s seems to be what happened. Also, people seem to like this. For example,

      But it, too, has gentrified. Though it still has a robust middle-class population, there has been an enormous increase in tourism, which has brought more and more boutiques and real estate speculators. Prices are going up.

      Some lessons and takeaways from the article

      The government didn’t clearly communicate their plan to convert Poblenou into a superblock.

      Some efforts were made to let the neighbors know a superblock was coming, but they were fitful and inadequate. Flyers went out in July and the project was done in early September. Even the neighbors who read the flyers were not clear whether it was meant to be a temporary pilot project or something permanent.

      The implementation was also radical and abrupt, and it seems this stemmed from a disconnect with urban planner spearheading the project and the government.

      This lead to organizing by some people to oppose the superblock. Here’s the thing, though: I’m uncertain that better communication and planning would have eliminated protests. The change was going to be quite significant, and anytime that happens, some people will resist this.

      I think one way to mitigate this is if a project like this has already occurred, and people like the results. (This seemed to eventually happen.) The trick, of course, lies in starting the first project and making it succeed.

      “At the beginning of the superblock in Poblenou, it was a very shy way to use the space,” Echave says. “I can touch? I can walk? Somehow learning to make different kind of uses.”

      But as time passed, things began to change.

      “Thanks to the superblock, we started meeting each other, recognizing each other, and thinking, eh, we like this,” Casorrán says. “Why don’t we defend it? The people against it were making such a big noise.”

      “It was under attack,” Nebot says. “People got really crazy.”

      “Very, very emotional,” Casorrán emphasizes. “If some neighbors had not organized in favor of the project, it would have disappeared.”

      Takeaways: 1) It will take time for people to get accustomed to the changes and find a ways to make the spaces work; 2) Once that happens, I would expect a growth in social capital. To wit, interactions with people living in the area lead to building of relationships and positive behavior, including political and civic engagement.

      But things calmed down around six months in when, after intensive consultation with the neighbors, the city built a more permanent playground, planted several green areas, and put in the picnic tables.

      “Picnic tables change everything!” Nebot says. “They are the best idea ever, I think. You get the superilles and you put some picnic tables in and that’s it. That’s it.”

      “Even though [the Poblenou superblock] only has 1,800 people living there, it’s a very young population, with a lot of young families with little kids,” says Echave. “Once you have a safe space for your kids, you’re happy!”

      Takeway: great architecture and urban design aren’t always about building a great work of art. Instead, something simple, mundane, and unsexy can make a place come a live and really resonate with people, creating a strong emotional bond. When this occurs through design and planning, that should also be considered great architecture and design.

      The Poblenou superblock has not become a perfect urbanism postcard. It is, for lack of a better term, somewhat ragged. Swaths of the interior are still under development, with construction fencing at regular intervals, and the potted trees still give the whole affair a temporary feeling.

      A few of the streets are now empty of cars but also, most of the time, empty of people. Unlike Gracia, this area of Poblenou was not struggling with a traffic problem. With just 1,800 people, the nine-block area contains the population density of a single block of the Eixample. That’s why some critics were confused about the decision to slate this area for a superblock.

      “It was completely an ideological project,” says Campins. “They didn’t come here to solve anything.” His group is now filing a lawsuit, hoping to have a judge overturn the superblock — though he now admits he would prefer simply to make a few changes to the project rather than reverse it entirely.

      In a sense, Campins is correct about the ideological character of Poblenou. It very much reflects Rueda’s vision, which is coming to life through the urban plan.

      By “ideological,” I take them to mean that the decision to create a superblock in Poblenou fufilled a broader vision of the ideal city, which didn’t really solve specific problems.

      My reaction is that this kind of project should be pragmatic as well. (The politics involved can also interfere with this process, too.)

      To Sanz, the key lesson of Poblenou has to do with the necessary balance of “tactical urbanism” and “structural urbanism.”

      Tactical changes are fast, low-cost, and high-impact, things like changing the direction of a one-way street. Structural changes are more lasting, things like changing the level of pavement or installing a playground.

      The great advantage of tactical urbanism is that it can produce relatively large changes in behavior with relatively minimal investment of time and money. In Poblenou, it was used as a kind of low-level shock therapy, to kick-start the process. Poblenou residents were not asked if they wanted a bunch of new public space; they were confronted with it and asked what they’d like to make of it.

      The article goes on to mention that the tactical changes can lead to push back (which I suspect might be unavoidable).

      It also mentions that consulting residents at a later point and then implementing some of their requests helped. The question is, why didn’t this happen sooner? One possible reason is that if they asked citizens earlier a group would form to oppose the changes, regardless if their concerns had merit or not. While the tactical approach has pitfalls (some will react negatively), it does allow changes to be made quickly. This is important because if the changes have merit, the people will get to see and experience this right away, or at least see potentially good outcomes. My sense is that good architecture and planning has to be experienced–lived in, so to speak. Knowing both through images and language is very difficult, if not impossible. It’s something you feel as much as you appreciate through your eyes and intellect.

      Structural urbanism “is associated with importance,” Sanz says. “The more money you spend on a place … the better the transformation is viewed.” But she warns against moving from tactical to structural too quickly, before the community has figured out what it wants. “The thing is, if you spend a lot of money” on a permanent structural change, she says, “once it’s done, if you need to correct something, you just can’t.”

      Rueda is also keen for spaces to remain somewhat undefined at first. “It’s about spontaneity and self-organization, empathy and relationships between people,” he says. “You cannot plan that, but you need to create the space.” Building the more permanent features needs to be done “slowly in my opinion,” he says. “For me, it is a nervous process.”

      These two paragraphs make me think of both Christopher Alexander and Jane Jacobs. The creation of blank public space, plus tactical urbanist moves, makes me think of Alexander’s use of mock-ups when he designs and builds structures. Alexander doesn’t draw up architectural plans. Instead, he goes to a site and uses string and other cheap material to layout where everything will belong and how it will look. By actually being in the space, building with cheap materials that can be easily adjusted, he can create a structure that is a better fit for the environment and for people. This is consistent with the idea that architecture and planning is about feeling and experience, not just something visual and conceptual.

      Alexander also compares architecture to morphogenesis (I think that’s the term). When mammals start developing after the fertilized egg occurs, the organism begins in a “soft state” and eventually hardens. For example, bones are soft in the early stages and later hardens. Alexander applies this concept to building. This also makes me think of the transition from tactical urbanism to structural urbanism.

      This soft-to-hard process also has merit in another way. I believe both Alexander and Jacobs believe that great cities or spaces generally aren’t created whole cloth from the mind of an architect or planner. Instead, a great place isn’t just built instantly but finds its way over a long period of time, growing and changing, and this process is informed by the space and people who live and use that space. Again, I go back to Alexander’s way of building a structure. In some ways, one doesn’t know what is good architecture (for a specific place) util one actually sees and lives in it. There’s a trial and error element to this. (Alexander also uses universal patterns and principles to guide this process as well, but talking about this is beyond the scope of this post.)

      The tide of opinion is turning. Barcelona residents can see the superblocks now; they can witness a patchwork of pedestrian areas forming. They can visit the Sant Antoni market or have lunch on the Plaça de la Revolució in Gracia. They can walk through the Poblenou superblock, perhaps on the way to the Poblenou Rambla, a wide pedestrian avenue that runs the length of the neighborhood, lined with sidewalk cafes. They can begin to envision what their own neighborhoods might look like with fewer cars.

      And sure enough, Sanz says, “the model is already in demand.” At a recent festival in the Sarrià neighborhood, she says, residents sang city officials a song: “We want a superblock!”

      I mentioned this earlier, and this resonates with me. This is the type of reaction I’d expect. I think if we built one place like this in Hawai’i, and we did it well, we could see the same reaction here.

  6. This new book looks interesting.

  7. This is a better bike lane, then the ones that are essentially made by painting lines on the road. I would be a little concerned if there is heavy bike traffic, though.

    Interesting illustration below;

  8. Why Can’t We Build Infrastructure Cheaply, Quickly and Well? from

    Reason #1: Cutting the size of government

    The authors attribute to Republicans’ desire to save taxpayer’s money, and they cite two effects of this:

    1. The reduction in government staff, hinders the government’s ability to function well. This leads to farming out work to expensive private sector companies and consultants;

    2. Funding projects in a gradual way, saving money in the immediate term by paying for a project in installments–which, the article claims, is more expensive versus spending all or most of the money upfront.

    By the way, I would guess this includes paying repairs in a timely manner, even if forgoing this will save money in the short time, if these repairs will lead to savings in the long run. The same applies to paying more for better supplies or better service that actually save money because they last longer or don’t require services so quickly.)

    Reason #2: Emphasis on environmental protection

    This leads to a more extensive and lengthier review process, which can delay infrastructure projects. I think delays also lead to greater expense to these projects. (The authors, here, put the blame on Democrats.)

    In Hawai’i, we can also add concerns for preserving a certain lifestyle as well as respecting culture, specifically Native Hawaiian culture. Evaluating to determine a project’s effects on the environment and culture–and then mitigating negative impacts–is very important. However, it’s possible the process and mitigating factors can be unreasonably stringent, long, and costly. The goal is to find the right balance, and a thoughtful public discussion about this would be very welcomed.

    Reason #3: Inefficient use of Labor

    According to the authors, the U.S. isn’t paying workers more than other developed countries, but we are requiring more workers to do a job than other countries. They attribute this to inflexible unions, mentioning that Europe is more unionized.

    Reason #4: Coordination between State, Local, and Federal Governments

    The authors don’t write much about this, but I believe they’re referring to situations where infrastructure crosses over multiple jurisdictions. For example, some sections of a road may be on all three. This requires coordination from all three governments to build or maintain the road. The authors also claim that we have more trouble at this than other developed countries, but they don’t cite any evidence.

    Reason #5: Common-Law Legal System

    It’s easier to quote them:

    …our common-law legal system, which we inherited from Great Britain, pushes us to have overly detailed contracts while also using lawyers and lawsuits to work out disputes rather than accomplishing that through the governmental management process. Great Britain has higher infrastructure costs and slower construction times than most countries other than the United States, and common law is probably one reason.


    This was probably the most disappointing part of the article. In essence, the authors recommend examining and imitating developed countries that build infrastructure more efficiently. They also mention the following:

    Here’s another way to look at it. We should look for ways to align the interests of all of the parties responsible for infrastructure — the planners, politicians, designers, unions, construction companies and users — so that all of them are pulling in the same direction to create something quickly, well and of quality.

    They mention co-ops as a possible model to use, but I’m not familiar enough with co-ops, especially in the context of building and maintaining infrastructure to know grasp the way this would work.

    There is one problem that comes to mind with regard to imitating other countries. The system and processes we have for building infrastructure is highly complex. To make the changes to make our system more like another country’s may be too impractical. Our healthcare system makes me think of this notion. I think many health care experts understand the many of the problems and know solutions. If they had a chance to start from scratch the system would look really different. But how do we get from point A to Z? The problem isn’t just the cost, but the politics that is so difficult. I imagine something similar with changing the process for infrastructure.

    Having said this, like health care, we can still make incremental, but meaningful changes, and we should.

  9. Part I of a Governing article on the reasons building more roads isn’t a long-term solution to traffic congestion. (The article includes new research supporting this.)

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