A Terrific Review of Martin Krieger’s Urban Tomographies

My delightful colleague, Dowell Myers, brought to my attention that this issue of the Journal of the American Planning Program has terrific review by University of Texas Dean, Fritz Steiner of
of Martin Krieger’s Urban Tomographies

Dowell selected from terrific quotes from the review:

Some quotes that give Steiner’s frank opinion about the Krieger book:

“He presents a a fresh, well-identified, yet also open-ended method for reading urban landscapes through photography.”

“He is a terrific writer.”

and concludes with this final comment about

“…. the keen intelligence, careful observational skills, and sincerity that Martin Krieger exhibits in this excellent book.”

Where do urban planning and urban design belong?

Another old controversy in planning concerns whether the field is an art or a science–a useful distinction for people who believe that art and science are distinct things, with bright lines between them. Since I don’t, the dichotomy is less interesting.

More interesting is the idea of where design falls in urban planning, and whether urban planners in university programs should be housed with the architects or the social science people.

There are arguments either way; functionally, urban planners are going to be a minority regardless of whether you put them in social science or design, and being a minority discipline means disadvantage no matter where you go. Architects look down on planners, and economists and political scientists look down on planners, less because in fact they are all that much more rigorous than anybody else and more (largely) because a) it’s fun to feel superior because b) it allows you to ignore for the nonce the crippling weaknesses in your own discipline’s approaches and theories.

Planners, in general, have internalized this “we’re inferior” mantra from other disciplines, for reasons that escape me. My attitude is to go outpublish people, learn more, get more grants–and to tell any architect or economist who gets up all in my face to jump in the lake and get over themselves. In the hard light of honest evaluation, knowledge is painfully partial, everywhere; everybody has intriguing answers, even if they aren’t right, and nobody has all the answers.

The Journal of Planning Education and Research in a recent issue* takes up the question of where urban design belongs and where it should be taught.

The discussion begins with:

Edwards, M. M., & Bates, L. K. (2011). Planning’s core curriculum: Knowledge, practice, and implementation. Journal of Planning Education and Research. doi:10.1177/0739456X11398043

The discussion here shows that not that many planning programs among those surveyed has an active design component. At USC, we have been fortunate: We have had terrific design-oriented faculty associated with the program, including Tridib Banerjee, Clara Irazabal, Elizabeth Faletta, among others.

After, Michael Gunder opens a can of worms, which is, after all, a planning theorists’ job, with:

Gunder, M. (2011). Commentary: Is urban design still urban planning? An exploration and response. Journal of Planning Education and Research. doi:10.1177/0739456X10393358

This article considers the factors contributing to the recent international trend for a differentiation between planning and urban design. It considers these highly related fields from the perspective of neoliberalism, global competition, and the doxa of New Urbanism. The article argues that urban design needs to be retained as an important subset of planning practice, concerned with the physical design of cities, so that the core planning values of serving the public interest in the attainment of social equity, democratic civil society, and an ecologically sustainable future may be maintained in our city-building processes.

Gunders’ is a concern that I share; among many of the fields of planning, design has always been associated with something developers and cities purchase to add value to land.

The responses to Gunder come from USC’s own Tridib Banerjee, ASU’s Emily Talen, and UT’s Frederick Steiner. Steiner and Talen’s boils down to a defense of the New Urbanism in planning Talen notes that how many of its adherents argue for social justice–and, notably, that what New Urbanists want (walkable, mixed use environments) isn’t really asking all that much in terms of urban service provision. (I am “dueling” Talen in an upcoming issue in JAPA, and herein I think is a fundamental misunderstanding: I think few critics believe what the New Urbanists advocate for is sinister or “asking too much” of urban environments; the opposite, in fact.)

Banerjee’s response goes a bit deeper than others, but I may be biased due to my fondness for a wonderful colleague. The argument he makes confronts the idea that planning needs to control urban design as a movement and a greater comfort with interdisciplinary practice in urban design.

I’m obviously no designer, but whenever I see social justice critiques about it, it reminds me of Adrienne Rich’s fundamental question: can you use the master’s tools to take down the master’s house? Why is urban design any different from any other skill set? Use it for both public and private good, or use for exclusively private benefit. It’s the practice that counts. It’s hard for me to believe that James Rojas and his merry, joyful, and empowering set of urban blocks and models don’t open up and democratize design.

Finally, and well worth a read, is Anselin, Nasar, and Talen’s discussion of a survey they conducted of 108 faculty members in both design and non-design planning programs:

Anselin, L., Nasar, J. L., & Talen, E. (2011). Where do planners belong? Assessing the relationship between planning and design in american universities. Journal of Planning Education and Research. doi:10.1177/0739456X11402356

From their abstract:

This article assesses the performance of U.S. planning programs relative to their administrative location in design versus nondesign units. We use both archival data to compare program rankings between design and nondesign units and a survey of a random sample of faculty (108 at 61 accredited programs). The archival data show a higher publication performance of programs in nondesign units. The survey finds that faculty respondents from nondesign locations have more favorable evaluations of their programs than do respondents from design locations. Administrators and faculty differ: while faculty in design units score their programs dramatically lower, administrators have a moderate difference in the reverse direction.

Their sample has some problems (but I’ve yet to meet a sample that doesn’t), but it’s worth looking at their discussion. I have been both in a design college and in a social science unit, and I am much, much happier in the social science world, largely due to the emphasis and rewards to publication in social science units.

We should note, though, that design-oriented programs also have pretty big differences in course loads and contact hours in studio education. There’s also just the fact that the terminal degree in architecture tends to be the master’s, and so many, many good faculty instructors there may not be trained to publish research.

Finally, this issue of JPER shows some contradictions to the findings. Many of the design-oriented faculty featured in this issue are breath-takingly productive people: Talen, Steiner, Banerjee are all very well-published scholars (Steiner is a dean, too). There are others: Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Gail Dubrow, Renia Ehrenfeucht, and Ann Forsyth are very productive scholars, to name just a few. So there is clearly productivity in the urban design subfield.

*I am sorry that these are paid articles.

Jonathan Leavitt covering downtown Los Angeles for the Boston Globe

Unlike just about everybody who has ever written about Los Angeles for east coast markets–most of whom write with the single purpose of assuring New Yorkers of their innate superiority–Jonathan Leavitt has been writing and photographing Los Angeles for the Boston Globein terrific photo essay. Los Angeles is the type of city that requires you to get to know it. It unfolds like flower from a bud that, at first glance, seems merely squalid and prickly.

Go check it out.

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Pivo and Fisher on the Walkability Premium for Commercial Properties

Edited thanks to thoughtful commenter Derek Pokora:

The full article in per can be downloaded from Pivo’s academic page at the University of Arizona.

I always follow the work of Gary Pivo, and he and Jeffrey Fisher have a new manuscript in this (excellent) edition of Real Estate Economics. Because this is a scholarly publication, you have to pay for access, unfortunately. I will discuss it extensively here for those who can’t go read it themselves.

Here is the citation:

Pivo, G., & Fisher, J. D. (2010). The walkability premium in commercial real estate investments. Real Estate Economics. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6229.2010.00296.x

From the abstract:

This article examines the effects of walkability on property values and investment returns. Walkability is the degree to which an area within walking distance of a property encourages walking for recreational or functional purposes. We use data from the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries and Walk Score to examine the effects of walkability on the market value and investment returns of more than 4,200 office, apartment, retail and industrial properties from 2001 to 2008 in the United States. We found that, all else being equal, the benefits of greater walkability were capitalized into higher office, retail and apartment values. We found no effect on industrial properties. On a 100-point scale, a 10-point increase in walkability increased values by 1–9%, depending on property type. We also found that walkability was associated with lower cap rates and higher incomes, suggesting it has been favored in both the capital asset and building space markets. Walkability had no significant effect on historical total investment returns. All walkable property types have the potential to generate returns as good as or better than less walkable properties, as long as they are priced correctly. Developers should be willing to develop more walkable properties as long as any additional cost for more walkable locations and related development expenses do not exhaust the walkability premium.

The use regional, neighborhood, and building variables in their models. Among their building characteristics include: number of stories, a square of that, the property tax, and whether the property is within a half mile of rail transit station. For neighborhood characteristics, they have property crime rates, population density and Walk Scores. They also use a bunch of regional variables.

One of the nice parts of the paper is their discussion of the Walk Score and what it measures.

Ohhhhhhh how I wish they had had parking availability for this study. A walking premium holds with theory. But theory would also suggest that the sorts of designs that accommodate both parking and walking would be even more productive for the developer and the tenants. The big box world of large surface lots has become uninteresting to a lot of urban consumers. But think about all the urban Trader Joe’s out there that have four stories of parking underneath or above in addition to their street-level storefront. Those are the properties that I bet get a nice value boost, and there’s no way to glean that from their data or model.

The difference is huge for those who argue that walkable developments “take cars off the road.” These developments may do so, but they may also simply generate more trips overall–and that’s certainly not a bad thing from the developer’s viewpoint.

Pivo and Fisher find that apartment properties had little premium value associated with walking–rather, the major boost came to commercial property, and in particular, retail property. They argue that it may be that the Walk Score, reflecting multiple things, is also capturing what may be negative effects from proximity to busy commercial centers (noise, lack of privacy, etc). It could be that–Lord knows, plenty of the people who advocate loudly for urban living completely discount its inconveniences.

But I strongly suspect one of the reasons they don’t see more of an effect for the apartments is that there is just plain more variation in quality and individual building characteristics than they can really capture with the data they’ve got. So it’s not like there is no effect, it’s just really hard to suss here given the data and given, as they point out, the potential conflicting effects from the Walk Score.

They find a 0.18 coefficient for market value with regard to their 1/4 mile buffer, and it’s highly significant, for the rail access variable, but that variable correlates at 0.51 to the Walk Score, and they don’t really present any tests for this problem. The correlation is not the end of the world, but it’s just high enough, and it’s positive, that had I been a reviewer, I would have grouched at them to check on it more. When you are using a combined or index measure like a Walk Score, it’s important to help your reader understand how it may interact or correlate with other measures.

The proximity to transit variable tells an interesting story for urban theory. They have appreciation and income variables for outcomes, and these variables are all logged. They find, just as with the Walk Score, that rail transit access has the highest impact (all effects significant) for retail and commercial property. Retail gets a nice boost in operating income from a higher walk score and rail transit access.

However, the aggregate regressions show a positive value for appreciation and negative for income.

So what does this mean? Their interpretation, if I understand them, means that the value of the additional business you get from walking customers probably gets captured by landlords and property owners rather than businesses renting–that is, they pay higher rents for their location location location. Property owners benefit from walkability, but tenants should think twice if somebody asks them to pony up for walking improvements. It also suggests that the property tax is a good source of funding for walking improvements, given who financially benefits, even though we all know that expecting property owners to pay taxes is the equivalent of spitting on veterans and making cookies for Jane Fonda.

I don’t suppose I.M. Pei counts here

According to Joe Queenen at the WSJ, where I am pretty sure nobody vets stories anymore, there is an Iowan philanthropist willing to give $300 million to a city to build something, so long as they use an architect other than Frank Gehry:

A city planner who wishes to remain nameless for fear that he will be branded an enemy of iconoclastic swoopiness says that municipalities dread not having a Frank Gehry building somewhere within the city limits, even if it’s only a postmodern nursing home or a puckish, irreverent library.

Way too many unnamed sources for me to love this story, and yet I do love this story. As for people afraid to criticize Frank Gehry, there have been a lot of critiques of starchitecture and of Gehry before.

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Urban Tomographies by Martin Krieger

One of my wonderful colleagues has a new book out from the University of Pennsylvania Press: Urban Tomography by Martin Krieger.

From the book’s description:

Tomography is a method of exploring a phenomenon through a large number of examples or perspectives. In medical tomography, such as a CAT scan, two-dimensional slices or images of a three-dimensional organ are used to envision the organ itself. Urban tomography applies the same approach to the study of city life. To appreciate different aspects of a community, from infrastructure to work to worship, urban planning expert Martin H. Krieger scans the myriad sights and sounds of contemporary Los Angeles. He examines these slices of life in Urban Tomographies.

The book begins by introducing tomographic methods and the principles behind them, which are taken from phenomenological philosophy. It draws from the examples of Lee Friedlander and Walker Evans, as well as Denis Diderot, Charles Marville, and Eugène Atget, who documented the many facets of Paris life in three crucial periods. Rather than focus on singular, extraordinary figures and events as do most documentarians, Krieger looks instead at the typical, presenting multiple specific images that call attention to people and activities usually rendered invisible by commonality. He took tens of thousands of photographs of industrial sites, markets, electrical distributing stations, and storefront churches throughout Los Angeles. He also recorded the city’s ambient sounds, from the calls of a tamale vendor to the buzz of a workshop saw. Krieger considers these samples from the urban sensorium in this innovative volume, resulting in a thoughtful illumination of the interplay of people with and within the built environment. With numerous maps and photographs, as well as Krieger’s unique insights, Urban Tomographiesprovides an unusually representative and rounded view of the city.

Suing LEED over its monopoly–and potentially misleading–standards

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and its founders have been named as defendants in a class action lawsuit filed in federal court. Filed on behalf of mechanical systems designer Henry Gifford, owner of Gifford Fuel Saving, the lawsuit was stamped on October 8, 2010 at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Among other allegations, the suit argues that USGBC is fraudulently misleading consumers and fraudulently misrepresenting energy performance of buildings certified under its LEED rating systems, and that LEED is harming the environment by leading consumers away from using proven energy-saving strategies.

link: USGBC, LEED Targeted by Class-Action Suit – BuildingGreen.com

Ho boy. This is a can of worms, indeed.

Certifying buildings according to energy practices and design is one thing: making the connection between those practices and design and actual efficiency is a bigger deal.

For me, LEED and USGBC’s willingness to begin certifying neighborhood design in the same way they have certifying buildings–and we are nowhere near understanding how urban design really affects energy use, and the same problem with the building standards (imprecise estimates, compounded) can be much worse estimated across the neighborhood–or across a whole inventory of emissions sources.

At the same time, having one set of standards can be very important to developers so that they know what to aim for.

This will be interesting to see as it unfolds.

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