5 Simple Urban Fixes for Unpredictable Times

They don’t cost much.

My older brother John enjoys bicycling on back roads and through unheralded towns, and then writing about what he sees on his blog. Despite our typical sibling rivalry, I’ll admit that some of his observations have merit. When not admiring old modernist motels, John notes that much of the country looks like hell. He rolls on roads that are crumbling, over rusty bridges and past pretty much abandoned everything -- houses, strip malls, office parks, even entire shopping malls.

But there are some places he passes that he says look nice, even “over-funded.” Interestingly, most of these places have a connection to government. They include airports, universities, military bases, courthouses and medical facilities. Amidst the rundown places John bikes past, these stand out as islands of well-kept shrubbery and well-tended buildings.

So why do these places look so nice? Because, as Willie Sutton said about banks, that’s where the money is. The federal student loan program has indebted students but been a boon for universities. Post 9/11 security spending has fattened the military and related sectors. And health-care spending, while it has moderated under Obamacare, is still much higher here than in other advanced nations.

Are there lessons in any of this for public leaders who want to improve their communities? I’ve been pondering this for a while, and one idea is to explore ways to get money from rich sectors into areas that don’t have it, like the roads leading to these places. Maybe there could be new versions of the old “adopt a highway” programs, except with cold hard cash rather than volunteers picking up roadside trash. Or maybe a subdivision could fund a business improvement district.

I present this first idea -- pool the wealth -- as one of five that community leaders might contemplate as they face a federal government led by a new, unpredictable president and a similarly unpredictable political environment. In such times, it’s good to look for paths that can be pursued on the ground and that don’t require begging for big appropriations from the state or from Washington.

That brings us to Idea 2: Work with what you have. Sometimes leaders accomplish a lot not by finding new assets but by using the old ones in new ways. Mayor Jaime Lerner of Curitiba in Brazil famously did this when he decided he could get many of the benefits of building a subway much more cheaply by giving buses their own lanes and a train-like boarding infrastructure. Now bus rapid transit has been replicated all over the world, and it started with rethinking some of the building blocks of the city -- streets and buses -- and using them in new ways.

In New York City, former transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan did this when she sent crews out with cans of paint to stripe some streets for trial pedestrian plazas and bicycle lanes. In so doing, she sidestepped the elaborate institutional structure of commissions, the city council and the state legislature, and got a lot done. The projects really were trials: Some of the changes were scrapped, but most of them became permanent in one fashion or another.

By comparison, her boss at the time, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, personally spent millions of dollars and at least a year of political capital in an unsuccessful effort to get the state legislature to let him try charging people to drive into Manhattan, aiming to put in place congestion pricing like London’s. His traffic commissioner accomplished much more with some cans of paint and brushes.

Idea 3: Stop requiring parking spaces. Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking, suggests that municipal governments convert the parking space minimum they require of developers into maximums. This is a clever way of saying that we should eliminate parking requirements. And we should.

With some rare exceptions, developers will still build parking spaces for homes or businesses that want them. There is no need to require it. Nevertheless, most cities, even New York, still mandate a certain number of parking spaces per square foot. These laws push up the price of housing, eat up land and force people to drive more.

Idea 4: Eliminate most zoning. A planner colleague of mine theorizes that innovations like driverless cars are coming out of Silicon Valley at least partly as a response to the unwillingness of local cities like Mountain View and Cupertino to allow developers to tear down 1950s ranch houses and replace them with apartment buildings. It’s a solution for people looking for better ways to drive around a low-density suburb. But instead of relying on driverless cars, make it into a real city where goods and services are closer together.

The late urbanist Jane Jacobs said a half-century ago that one should regulate size, not function. This is still a pretty good rule of thumb. Making it easier for the content of a neighborhood or district to change doesn’t mean that anything goes. Height limits and setback rules have their place. But a three-story apartment building can exist quite harmoniously with a three-story colonial home.

Idea 5: Run for local office. It remains as true as ever that we pay most of our attention to the one election -- for the presidency -- that, absent war or other national cataclysms, affects our daily lives the least. But whether it’s trash pickup or the local business environment, municipal government has real power. Pay attention to it. Even better, be part of it.  

An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing. He can be reached at amcities@gmail.com or on Twitter at @Amcities.