Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Jeff Speck in Cedar Rapids

"Walkable places are thriving places," says Jeff Speck (pictured above), architect, author and city planner. Speck, now based in Boston, was in Cedar Rapids to "re-communicate" the importance of safe street design, in hopes of spreading the word to a wider audience, and to sustain the energy behind important changes already begun by the city. He spoke to about 60 people at the new City Services Center on 15th Street SW.

The title of his talk was "The Safe Walk;" among the elements that make for a walkable city, he said safety--both real and perceived--is the factor most directly impacted by government action, specifically design of the street. He focused on downtown Cedar Rapids, saying it was the part of the city that has the greatest potential to be "truly walkable."
 Important design elements include:
  1. small blocks, allowing for two-lane streets, and resulting in far fewer traffic deaths.
  2. two-lane streets, which can easily handle 10,000 cars per day, including 1000 at peak hour. More lanes merely encourage cars to drive faster, and drivers to jockey lanes, which are less safe. Long left-turn lanes cost "a flank of parking."
  3. two-way streets, countering a trend in many cities beginning begun in the late 1960s to move to one-way streets. One way streets do move traffic more quickly, but at costs to safety and businesses.
  4. skinny streets, with lane widths 10 feet or fewer. 12 foot lanes common in newer neighborhoods are the same width as highway lanes, with predictable results: wider lanes encourage faster driving resulting in more deaths.
  5. bicycle lanes, to encourage biking. Results from Portland and New York City found more biking with fewer injuries and less speeding by drivers. Sharrows and "Share the road" signs do not have this effect.
  6. parallel parking, which creates a "barrier of steel" protecting the curb from moving vehicles, thus encouraging walking as well as al fresco dining.
  7. doing away with push-buttons at traffic signals, which are pretty well useless. He recommends going with a standard signal (pedestrians go when the cars go) or LPI (pedestrians get a slight lead). He prefers four-way stops, which in a Philadelphia study showed 24 percent fewer crashes and 68 percent fewer pedestrian injuries.
Speck's ideas have influenced a gradual redesign of downtown streets. He praised our city's "good bones," i.e. blocks of 300 square feet. But many of our downtown streets have for years been four-lane one-ways, and none carries more than 7000 cars per day. The redesign calls for slow conversion to two-way streets, with more angle parking and bike lanes (not in the same blocks, though!).

What about the rest of the city? Cedar Rapids resident Martin Smith asked about the strata of neighborhoods that lack sidewalks (in areas built between the time when they were customary and the current time when they are legally required). Speck said he'd noticed such a street near "the high school"--I think it could have been any one of the three high schools, but let's say Cottage Grove Avenue for starters--and said he'd start by asking if the street were wide enough to stripe a walking area or a "shared path." "Obviously," he conceded, the long-term goal is real sidewalks.

Speck was introduced by Dave Elgin (pictured at right, from linkedin.com), who is retiring at the end of the month after many years as Cedar Rapids's city engineer. In his remarks Elgin touted the city's newly-adopted comprehensive plan, Envision CR, and noted that public feedback continues to support and demand a vibrant, energetic city. He said Speck has been consulting with the Department of Public Works since 2012.
Jeff Speck's presentation is archived here. Thanks to Brandon G. Whyte at Corridor MPO for the link.
SEE ALSO: Ben Kaplan, "An Interview with Jeff Speck," We Create Here, 25 March 2014, http://www.wecreatehere.net/2015/03/25/an-interview-with-jeff-speck/

Jeff Speck's books include Suburban Nation (co-author), The Smart Growth Manual (co-author) and Walkable City

"What is a Complete Street?" 13 August 2014, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2014/08/what-is-complete-street.html
"Biking in the 21st Century," 28 June 2013, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2013/06/biking-in-21st-century.html

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Maple syrup time!

One of the pleasures of living in a place for awhile--one of the things that makes a community a community, and a place a place--is learning its calendar. An annual spring feature of life in Cedar Rapids is the Maple Syrup Festival at Indian Creek Nature Center.

This year's festival came the third weekend of March, instead of the first weekend as it's been in past years. They hoped for a slight improvement in the chances for good weather--and a nice day it was--as well as the opportunity to use this year's syrup because the trees would have more time to produce. There was certainly no problem getting a crowd. I guess the only problem was some of the usual volunteers were not around, having taken advantage of the public schools' spring break to flee the state.

We got there earlyish Saturday morning, and saw all this:

Volunteers making pancakes

Serving pancakes

Live music

Displays on sustainable living

Tapping demonstration

Syrup making demonstration

Gathering crowd lining up

Syrup and syrup-related swag

Walking sticks and willow garden towers for sale, too
Last year's post: "Maple Syrup Time," 1 March 2014

Cindy Hadish, "Photos: Maple Syrup Festival 2015," Homegrown Iowan, 22 March 2015, http://homegrowniowan.com/photos-maple-syrup-festival-2015/

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Envision CR II: Including the poor

If affordable housing is far from jobs, it creates as many problems as it solves(from Google Street View)
The word "poverty" does not appear at all in Envision CR, the comprehensive plan for the City of Cedar Rapids. (The word "poor" appears several times, but always to refer to the physical condition of facilities.) That doesn't mean that the poor won't benefit from fulfillment of some of the city's initiatives therein. But it does leave a concern that those who most need to benefit from the city's growth may not be positioned to do so, and the city may not be prepared to bring them along.

Poverty is a problem of long standing and great complexity, the subject of much research which has been published on a lot of paper. So you'll have to forgive a great deal of oversimplification when I say that, in a dynamic market-oriented economic system, today's American poor are thwarted by lack of access to two key things: economic opportunity and social structures of support. The obstacles are not completely removable, but cities can at least do some things to mitigate them.

In saying this, I am not unmindful that individual factors also affect poverty. There's not much a city or state can do to protect someone from the consequences of their bad choices. But--admittedly arguing here without data--surely some individual factors are exacerbated by systemic ones. In other words, lack of economic opportunity and/or access to social structures of support make it more likely that an individual will encounter stress, poor health, depression, alienation, and so forth, and so will make poor life choices. They also reduce the margin of error and increase the consequences of those poor individual choices.

The city could try to ignore the poor in its midst, and Lord knows, many have tried. But that means foregoing human resources, trying to go forward with portions of the city seriously under-productive, and tolerating a high level of potential instability. It seems prudent, not to mention moral, to be as inclusive as possible as the city charts its future.

US poverty rate over time; data from US Census Bureau, chart from topforeignstocks.com
The poverty rate is a highly flawed indicator, but it's the best we've got. The chart above shows that since the early 1970s, when the U.S. economy began to shift away from manufacturing employment, the poverty rate has stayed stubbornly around 15 percent. While recent decades have seen the rise of fields that were unimaginable fifty years ago, there have not been remunerative career opportunities on a mass scale to replace those lost manufacturing jobs. This has not only affected the 15 percent at the bottom, but many of those in the middle as well.

Cities can't bring back Joe Lunchpail, but all are trying to develop their economies by "creating" jobs. I argue that it's not only important that they do it, it's important how they do it. Cedar Rapids would, for example, like to take advantage of existing concentrations of tech and medical professionals by attracting more. Do it. Bringing more money into a city can benefit all its residents when that money circulates to support public facilities (the library, swimming pools, &c.) and local businesses. The city can make this happen (or not) by:
  • encouraging compact development (as opposed to sprawl): the closer people are to the action the more they are likely to benefit
  • encouraging local entrepreneurship (as opposed to colonization by out-of-town franchises and in particular big box stores): the more money that stays in the city the more likely it is that everyone benefits
  • connecting areas of concentrated poverty to the rest of the city: ghettos are the result of design, and can only be overcome by design.
Envision CR has a number of encouraging elements along these lines. In the "Strengthen CR" chapter, Goal 3 is "Adopt policies that create choices in housing types and prices throughout the city." This mainly involves ensuring a mix of different types of houses--including townhouses and multi-family units--and avoiding exclusionary zoning in the new developments the city anticipates at what are now the outskirts of town. Goal 4 is "Create a city that is affordable and accessible to all members of the community." Currently the city administers several affordable housing programs, including Section 8 Housing vouchers, Rebuilding Ownership Opportunities Together, and subsidies for senior and low-income housing projects; other potential initiatives are also listed.

Poverty may be most closely associated with core neighborhoods, but there are pockets in other parts of town that are inconvenient to pretty much everything. People will choose where they live for all kinds of reasons, but if the only apartment I can afford is at 34th and Pioneer far from everything, or at Cedarwood Hills which is up a steep hill in an unwalkable part of town, that's a problem the city needs to address.

In the "Grow CR" chapter, Goal 3 is "Connect growing areas to existing neighborhoods." This mainly is to ensure there aren't barriers between developments at the periphery and the rest of the city. But the principle could also be used to address existing neighborhoods where there are pockets of poverty. Development in downtown and MedQuarter (as well as Kingston Village and New Bohemia) can create economic opportunity in adjacent core neighborhoods, if they're designed to be connected rather than separated.

Finally, the business-oriented "Invest CR" chapter has four goals, all with potential to improve the lives of the poor.
  1. Expand economic development efforts to support business and workforce growth, market Cedar Rapids, and engage regional partners.
  2. Cultivate a skilled workforce by providing cutting-edge training and recruiting talented workers.
  3. Reinvest in the city’s business corridors and districts.
  4. Grow a sustainable, diverse economy by supporting existing businesses, fostering entrepreneurism [sic], and targeting industry specific growth.
The emphases on entrepreneurship and existing businesses and industries are particularly encouraging. Chasing after franchises (including casino franchises) would have been a less productive approach. (See Johnny, "Big Box Urbanism," Granola Shotgun, 12 March 2015.)

Cedar Rapids has big plans for development. Of course, every other city probably does, too; there's a gulf between having plans and realizing them. Envision CR anticipates that quite a lot of this development will occur at the periphery of the current city, albeit in the form of mixed-use neighborhoods and complete streets. Can Cedar Rapids sprawl intelligently? And if they do, could they do so in a way that improves economic opportunity for the poor? Keep in mind, too, that not everyone is going to possess the specific job skills in high demand at the moment.

Along with economic opportunities, the poor need social structures of support. Families, neighborhoods and civic institutions support individuals as they navigate the ups and downs of their lives. These structures are created in the private sector, of course, but government can help. They can partner with non-profit agencies, as Cedar Rapids has with Matthew 25's Block-by-Block home restoration program, to encourage their efforts. More importantly, traditional neighborhood development is more likely to engender these sorts of connections than suburban sprawl.

For many people in American society, the poor are simply invisible. Auto-oriented development, notes Eric O. Jacobsen (The Space Between, Baker Academic, 2012, p. 42), "has increased the distances at which we encounter one another.... And because of the large parking lots and wider streets that are needed to accommodate all of those cars even when we are engaged in the same activity in the same place, the distance between us has increased significantly." A more atomized society harms us all in some way or other, but has especially negative impacts on the lives of those at the margins.

Poor people obviously can't have access to economic opportunities if such opportunities don't exist. It does not, of course, follow that where economic opportunities exist, poor people will have access to them. Including the poor probably will require intentional action on the part of city government. Can they provide incentives to locate jobs that pay well near low-income areas, and discourage large campuses in remote locations? Or to encourage developers to build affordable housing near areas of economic growth? Can people reach out to help poor people access opportunities which they may not know about, or assume are out of reach?

There's a danger that the poor will remain as invisible in this unfolding process as they are in Envision CR.

Envision CR plan: http://www.cedar-rapids.org/government/departments/community-development/city_planning/Pages/default.aspx

Earlier post: Envisioning CR I: A 24-hour downtown

Next: Improving public transportation.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Adam Smith and the Road to Correctionville

US 20 in northwestern Iowa; photo by Tim Hinds, swiped from
The State of Iowa passed a 10 cent increase in the motor fuel tax late in February, to 31 cents (for regular unleaded) and 29 cents (for ethanol blends) per gallon. Signed by Governor Terry E. Branstad, it went into effect Sunday, March 1, exacerbating a recent rise in local pump prices from $1.899 to $2.459 per gallon.

The measure's quick and relatively easy passage reflects widespread concern that maintenance of roads and bridges has fallen dangerously behind schedule all across the United States, including Iowa. Majorities, albeit narrow ones, of both parties in each house of the Iowa legislature supported the bill, and Republican governor Branstad clearly supported it, saying: I believe that the leadership deserves credit for working together on a bipartisan basis to pass a piece of legislation that I think will be very beneficial to meeting the needs of the counties and cities as well as the state transportation network.

The tax increase is expected to raise upwards of $200 million dollars in additional revenue. The state will allocate 47.5 percent to the state Department of Transportation, 32.5 percent to counties, and 20 percent to municipalities. The belief that street repairs are funded through the gasoline tax is a common misconception, and now it won't entirely be a misconception. In Cedar Rapids, for example, the funds will increase the streets budget by about 10 percent over what is currently provided through local property taxes. On the other hand, the measure taketh away from cities by limiting their ability to issue their own bonds for transportation money. So much for the myth of local control.

Raising gasoline taxes can correct two types of market failures:
  1. As its advocates stressed in Iowa this year, gasoline tax revenues can provide a dedicated source of funding for highway maintenance, which is a "public good" because there does not appear to be incentive for private firms to provide this service. In fact, Adam Smith used public roads as the example of a public good, in The Wealth of Nations, book V.
  2. Gasoline taxes can address a "negative externality" of driving cars: The market price of gasoline does not reflect effects of driving such as air pollution, resource depletion, habitat destruction and fighting wars in the Mideast. Raising the price of driving discourages people from doing it so much, which reduces the amount of those bad things listed above. Moreover, it does so more efficiently than regulation and more effectively than gas mileage standards (which reduce the cost of driving and so encourages rather than discourages it).
Adam Smith, from Wikipedia
However, Smith cautions us that, while public officials can address problems that markets ignore (or even create), political processes lack the discipline the market imposes. Iowa's politicians now have $200 million more dollars a year, and constituents that seem (to them, anyway) to expect to receive all good things for free. So there's an undeniable temptation to spend the windfall on flashy new construction projects instead of maintaining the infrastructure we're having trouble keeping up with. (Remember why we passed this thing?)

So, while IDOT's final decision is a ways away, one of the first things likely to be on the to-do list will be to widen US 20 in northwest Iowa between Correctionville and Early from two lanes to four. Governor Branstad is squarely behind this: They are working right now on a stretch of Highway20 from Moville to Correctionville, so that leaves you with a small segment of 37 miles from Early to Correctionville that needs to be completed. (The Quad City Times notes the effort to make US 20 four lanes across the state is 50 years on. So what? We're not building highways for 1965, we're making decisions for now.) Locally, the Cedar Rapids Gazette suggested the increased revenue is likely to be used to add lanes to Collins Road, Interstate 380 towards Iowa City, and the two lane section of US 30 west of town.

One might object that if we're having difficulty maintaining and repairing existing infrastructure--insert John Oliver commentary here, particularly the orgy of ribbon cutting about 10:45 in--the answer is not to add more infrastructure. One would probably not get elected dogcatcher, either. But, sheesh... average daily traffic count on US 30 immediately west of US 218 in 2013 was 6500, and by the time you get to the county line it's 4190. In Ida County, where the picture above was taken, the last survey (2011) counted less than 3000 cars on US 20 except for a brief stretch immediately by the intersection with US 59, where it reaches 3750. That's comparable to Memorial Drive SE in Cedar Rapids. WHY ARE WE SPENDING MONEY TO WIDEN LONELY HIGHWAYS?

Another, only slightly tangential point: Given that our country's transportation budgets for the last 70 years have amounted to enormous subsidies for driving, one might also argue for using some of the new revenue to improve bus systems and to invest in commuter rail. One would, in that case, certainly not be an Iowa elected official. They all want to party like it's 1949.


Rod Boshart, "10-Cent Gas Tax Increase Starts Sunday," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 26 February 2015, 1A, 10A

Rod Boshart, "U.S. 20 May Be Iowa Gas Tax Hike Beneficiary," Quad City Times, 25 February 2015, http://qctimes.com/news/local/government-and-politics/u-s-may-be-iowa-gas-tax-hike-beneficiary/article_adaca84a-274c-5622-a8d4-f43c279cd683.html

B.A. Morelli, "Gas Tax Paves Way for Area Projects," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 26 February 2015, 10A

Erin Murphy and Dave Dreezen, "Branstad: Fuel Tax Hike to 'Fast-Track' Highway 20 Widening," Sioux City Journal, 26 February 2015, http://siouxcityjournal.com/news/local/a1/branstad-fuel-tax-hike-to-fast-track-highway-widening/article_e7295eb7-5997-5425-aff8-baef555549ce.html

William Petroski, "Gas Tax Takes Effect Sunday," Des Moines Register, 25 February 2015, http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2015/02/25/iowa-gas-tax-branstad/23990671/

NOT-TO-BE-MISSED VIDEO: "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Infrastructure (HBO)," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wpzvaqypav8&t=88

MY EARLIER ADAM SMITH-INSPIRED POST: "Is a Baseball Complex a Public Good?," 5 August 2014, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2014/08/is-baseball-complex-public-good.html

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Envisioning CR I: A 24-Hour Downtown?

"I'm gonna wake up in a city that never sleeps," sings Frank Sinatra (above) in his 1980 hit "New York, New York" (lyrics by Fred Ebb). That is one version of a 24-hour downtown--where the bars never close and the show never stops--but not the only one. No amount of planning is going to turn Cedar Rapids into Manhattan, and any effort to do so would be costly, ridiculous and futile.

Cedar Rapids can and should have a 24-hour downtown, though, if it means a place where people work, play and live. A surge of investment since the 2008 flood has brought an increase in occupied office space, restaurant and entertainment options, and condominium development from the pre-2008 era. (No numbers, sorry, just assumptions... but I'd be eternally grateful to anyone who has solid numbers.) Exciting parallel development is occurring about a mile to the south, in the New Bohemia district.

Prior to 2008 a fair number of people came downtown in the morning to work, and left in the late afternoon. And most days that would be it, until the next morning. Some nights there might be a show at the Five Seasons Center, Paramount Theater or TCR, which would bring a different crowd of people downtown for a few hours. The public library, not to be overlooked, was open til 9. But for much of the week, there wasn't a lot happening downtown. Which meant there wasn't a lot of reason to go downtown, most of the time, and that can lead to a vicious cycle of decreasing activity.

With enough people living downtown as well as working and attending events, there are always people out doing something. That adds to the energy of the area, which makes it an attractive place for people to go, and it adds to economic opportunities for businesses catering to all the people who are there at one time of day or another. Downtown Cedar Rapids has room to expand, too, with under-utilized space in the MedQuarter district to the east and the Taylor Area to the west (not to mention between downtown and New Bo), as well as planned development in Kingston Village across the river.

Given that one of the common criticisms of Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel, as he struggles towards re-election this year, is that he's put resources into downtown and neglected neighborhoods, it's a fair question to ask why I'm focusing on downtown Cedar Rapids. Theoretically, an energized clustering of people could occur any place in town, right? (Or even in a "new town," like one of those New Urbanist developments.) I think there are three reasons everyone should care about downtown that apply to all municipalities:
  1. A city's downtown is the civic space shared by all metropolitan residents, assuming there exists such a space in the region at all.
  2. Downtown is where sustainable, walkable urbanism is most likely to occur of any place in the metropolitan area, because most of the infrastructure is already there
  3. Economic success in such a compact area is more sustainable through the dips and sways of the economic cycle.
In Cedar Rapids, specifically, there's a fourth reason: the devastation of 2008 left a lot of room for infill development. I'm not saying we should rebuild with the naïve assumption that it will never flood again, but surely future flood dangers can be accommodated in building design.

EnvisionCR, the master plan the city adopted last month, doesn't have much to say specifically about downtown. But there are encouraging signs in other plans that have been developed for districts adjacent to downtown, such as Kingston Village and MedQuarter. While the content of the MedQuarter plan is more focused on out-of-town visitors than potential residents, which could lead to a real missed opportunity, the promising Kingston Village plan includes single family housing towards the south end, near 8th Avenue (see map, pp. 19-20). The plan states (p. 22):

The broad land-use designation identified for Kingston Village as a part of this study is that of a mixed-use neighborhood, where the key venues of daily life – places to live, shop, work, play and learn – are within easy reach of one another. A successful mixed-use neighborhood will provide choices for its residents and an aesthetic and energy that will draw visitors. It will accommodate mixed-incomes and purposefully include a variety of appropriate uses within walkable distances and consider the necessary density required to foster lively streets.
Yes! That's got it! This is a gospel I'd like to see spread around to the other edges of downtown.

Two things remain somewhat unclear for downtown's future direction. It isn't clear what the city can do to encourage a more well-rounded downtown, or how highly that rates on the list of priorities. Currently downtown is heavy on upscale restaurants and condominiums. A well-rounded downtown would have a variety of jobs, attractions and housing for people of various ages, income levels and family situations. To that end, the downtown area could use some basic stores (grocery, hardware, e.g.), and for families, a school and a park with a playground. Greene Square Park is ideally located between the public library and the art museum, but the renovation proposal seems better oriented for a showpiece ("Look at the size of that gol dang art installation!") than for a place for children to play.

Secondly, can the city find developers willing to buy into the vision? A city's plans are at the mercy of the market forces of supply (by house developers and builders) and demand (by homebuyers), and for suppliers profit margins remain highest for large lot subdivisions on the edge of town. I'm sure there are developers salivating at the positive externalities they presume will come from the construction of the Highway 100 extension. Cities that want to promote sustainable, walkable urbanity often need to reach out to specific developers who share that inclination. (California blogger Dave Alden notes cities can adjust builders' impact fees so they're higher on the suburban fringe and lower in the urban core. I didn't even know "impact fees" existed, so good on you, Dave.) So far, though, so good: Besides a number of condominium projects underway downtown and in Kingston Village, there are some single family dwellings--row houses? well, all right--under construction on 2nd St SW.
Once occupied, these new houses will add to the vitality of downtown...
...and land is being sold for more here...
...so, why not here?
Another possibility for long-term residence is the land that has been cleared for the (as yet unapproved by the State of Iowa) casino. The all-in-one pod that had been proposed would not have been at all integrated into its surroundings; some houses and small shops would be better, I think. Here I'm very much with Alex Ihnen, who argues on the NextStL blog that multi-million dollar big projects will do less for St. Louis than organic development.

And we could save this older house, which the city for some reason intends to tear down if they can't find someone to move it.

(Next: Including the poor.)


Dave Alden, "Changing the Ground Rules to Cease Subsidizing Sprawl," Where Do We Go From Here?, 2 March 2015, http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com/2015/03/changing-ground-rules-to-cease.html

Cindy Hadish, "Late-1800s Home Needs to Be Moved or Faces Demolition on Cedar Rapids Casino Site," Save CR Heritage, 20 February 2015, http://savecrheritage.org/late-1800s-home-needs-to-be-moved-or-faces-demolition-on-cedar-rapids-casino-site/

Alex Ihnen, "What's the Final Price Tag on a Vibrant Downtown St. Louis?," NextStL, 2 March 2015, http://nextstl.com/2015/03/whats-the-final-price-tag-on-a-vibrant-downtown-st-louis/

Alena Samuels, "Why Are Developers Still Building Sprawl?" City Lab, 24 February 2015, http://www.citylab.com/housing/2015/02/why-are-developers-still-building-sprawl/385922/

What is the future of Iowa's small towns?

Former Audubon County courthouse, Exira (Source: Wikimedia): county population has fallen from 8559 (1980) to 5578 (2017) A recent colum...