Urban Notebook

Why We Shouldn't Let the Sharing Economy Kill Zoning

We used to work in offices. We used to stay in hotels. We used to eat at restaurants. But now many of us work at coffee shops, we stay in other people’s homes via Airbnb and we eat dinner in a chef’s home dining room thanks to emerging websites like Feastly.

The sharing economy is changing the way we do a lot of things. It’s also disrupting a lot of things, not least of which is how we zone. You can complain all you want about zoning being a tool of exclusion and a remarkable micromanager of the economy -- I’ve done so on many occasions -- but at its core zoning exists to protect people’s health and quality of life from, say, noxious industrial activities or excessive traffic. A complicated regulatory apparatus built up over a century, zoning was ruled constitutional 89 years ago by an extremely conservative Supreme Court. They concluded that modern urban life had become so complicated that restrictions on private property rights were warranted. READ MORE

Be Nice, It May Help Your City’s Economy

Houston’s “personality” became evident to me the first hour I spent there in November. It was around midnight, and I had just checked into my downtown hotel. I was looking for a bodega to pick up some beer. I couldn’t find one, and stopped a man to ask. Nothing was open, he said. But sensing my dilemma, he reached into his grocery bag and produced a can. Before I could pay, he had handed it over, waved me off and said, “Welcome to Houston.”

This encounter has played out again and again in different ways throughout my monthlong stay. Rather than fast-paced and impersonal, Houston has a friendly, small-town feel that is surprising for America’s fourth largest city. People hold doors, provide in-depth directions and smile at you on the street. Even in denser interior neighborhoods, it is common to greet passersby. READ MORE

When Less (Regulation) Is More

I don’t usually tell stories from my day job in this column, but I’m making an exception this time. Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, of which I am the director, recently did a parking study of a neighborhood business district near our office in Houston. Known as Rice Village, it’s a place where city residents have been complaining about parking for 35 years.

To find out if the district indeed needed more parking, we counted the parked cars at different times of the day and on different days of the week. We found that even at the busiest times, there were more than 1,000 vacant parking spaces within a quarter-mile of the area, concluding that the problem wasn’t parking supply but parking management. READ MORE

Puerto Rico’s Biggest City Is Its Biggest Problem

Several high-profile governments have approached fiscal collapse in recent years. Think Detroit, Greece and now, Puerto Rico. Internal mismanagement has factored into all these crises, and news reports about them have often been technical, detailing excess spending and debt. Less reported is how insolvency affects people at the street level. I recently had the opportunity to see firsthand how Puerto Rico’s default is impacting San Juan, the island territory’s governmental and cultural capital.

San Juan has long had lower living standards than mainland U.S. cities. But it’s particularly struggled since 2006, when Puerto Rico began its near-decade recession. That year, the U.S. ended the territory’s special tax breaks, and it was later hit hard by the banking and housing crises. Compounding this has been corruption and excessive bureaucracy. About 31 percent of the island’s population is government employed, another 3 percent collects from the Employees Retirement System and, before cuts in recent years, nearly 70 percent of the budget went to salaries and benefits. Puerto Rico has $72 billion in debt and $35 billion owed in unfunded pensions. Luckily, the city has opportunities to turn its fortunes around. READ MORE

To Help Poor Neighborhoods, Urban Planners Have to Do More Than Urban Planning

In San Diego, half the neighborhoods are inhabited by mostly poor residents. During my recent stint as director of planning and economic development there, residents would often ask me how I planned to revitalize those neighborhoods. I tended to give an alarmingly honest answer: I wasn’t sure.

Officials who work in urban planning use every tool at their disposal to improve neighborhoods and cities. We strive to make them more healthful, equitable and attractive places to call home. But no matter how many transportation or development investments we put into some struggling neighborhoods, we can’t do the one thing that would most improve residents’ lives: put money in their pockets. READ MORE