Urban Notebook

FHA Policies Discourage Density

After decades of suburban flight, the city is king again. Economists view it as essential for sparking innovation and growth. Environmentalists consider it key to getting people out of their automobiles. And urbanites, many of whom suffered through decades of decline in their cities, view it as a symbol of long-anticipated revitalization. 

But a key part of cities -- their density -- hasn’t always been encouraged by the government, particularly not at the federal level. In fact, many of today’s land use policies hail from the post-World War II era, when planners thought that decentralizing cities would generate middle-class prosperity. This led to policies that directly encouraged sprawl. But perhaps the most pronounced set of policies against density are those pushed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). READ MORE

Why Don't More Cities Sell Air Rights?

Public works projects often come at heavy expense. Whether it’s building new schools, municipal halls or other facilities, such projects produce not only upfront costs, but depending on their magnitude, long-term debts. There is, however, a way to mitigate costs, or even make a project more profitable: Sell off the air rights. 

This is an idea that, while holding vast economic potential, is used sparingly in America. Nowadays whenever cities build a central library, to name one example, they usually construct a single-use facility that is only a few stories tall, if that. But what if, before such libraries were built, the air rights -- the undeveloped space above the roofline -- were deregulated and sold off? In expensive and vertically inclined U.S. cities, private developers would pay governments enormous sums for the right to build a high-rise apartment complex or business space above public projects. This would lead to the broad maximization of public land values, and thus to enormous cash windfalls for local governments. READ MORE

How to Keep Construction from Killing Businesses

With all the new public works construction underway in my hometown of Charlottesville, Va., it can be tough avoiding traffic jams these days. The main thruway, the U.S. Route 250 bypass, can be a particular nightmare because of construction on an interchange. For a nearby retail center, though, the construction has been a downright business killer. An article in the local newspaper quoted a coffeehouse owner as saying he had lost customers and was cutting staff; other businesses’ sales have dipped by 40 percent.

Certainly, this is a common problem everywhere as growth leads to numerous infrastructure improvement and repair projects. But can anything be done to help affected businesses? READ MORE

Streetcars: The Transit System America Threw Away

In the 1951 sci-fi movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still," pedestrians are seen descending staircases on the edge of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. These days, the stairs are still there, but now they’re blocked off. They led to a once-busy 75,000-square-foot below-ground streetcar station built in 1949. The station has been closed since 1962.

Dupont Circle’s ghostly streetcar station is another reminder that America once had an extensive and efficient interurban transit system. Now, as cities from Buffalo to San Diego look to light rail -- today’s iteration of the streetcar, which itself evolved from the horse-drawn omnibus -- it’s worth thinking about the astonishing transit system we built and then threw away. READ MORE

How Zambian Cities Are Like American Suburbs

This story is part of Governing's annual International issue.

Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, is laid out a lot like many cities in sub-Saharan Africa. There’s an urban core dating back to the colonial era. Then on the outskirts there are dozens of ramshackle squatter settlements. The traditional urban planning response to these slums has been to demolish them, often in the middle of the night.  READ MORE