November 22, 2017 - From the November, 2017 issue

Getting Cities Right: ULI Leaders on Disaster Resiliency & Built Environment Challenges

At the Urban Land Institute’s 2017 Fall Meeting, five nationally renowned urban experts explored the role of planners and developers in helping cities become more resilient—to both natural disasters and economic disruptors—through the lenses of technology, inclusive development, climate adaptation, and building reuse. ULI Global CEO Patrick Phillips moderated the discussion, entitled “Getting Cities Right,” among Jonathan F.P. Rose, president of the Jonathan Rose Companies and author of The Well-Tempered City; Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar and author of Peers Inc.; James Murley, Chief Resilience Officer for Miami-Dade County; and Stephane Meeks, president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


James Murley

"Solutions that increase wellbeing, that are better for people and for cities, and that save everybody money along the way—those are the solutions that accelerate." - Jonathan F.P. Rose

Patrick Phillips (ULI Global CEO): In September, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman posed the question: Why can’t we get cities right?

I think a lot of things about cities are, in fact, going right. The revival of American cities, and particularly central cities, is one of the great public policy success stories of the last 50 years. But we’ve been reminded recently of the vulnerability of our cities, and of the connection between land use and urban resilience.

The resilience of the built environment (post the Houston and Florida hurricanes and Mexico City earthquake) has been front and center in the press. We’ve heard a lot about what is built, how it’s built, and where it’s built. We’re going to look today at how to create more resilient cities—how to conserve energy, how to conserve land, and how to build places that are healthier, more vibrant, and, as a result, more competitive. But let’s start here: What are cities doing right?

Stephanie Meeks (President & CEO, Trust for Historic Preservation): Given the situation in our country right now, city leadership has never been more important. From my perspective, historic preservation and the role of old buildings are gaining currency in a lot of cities across the country. At the National Trust, we think about resiliency, not only in terms of environmental sustainability and resilience to shocks, but also in terms of economic resiliency and social cohesion. Our research shows that our historic buildings are playing an important role in that regard.

Jonathan Rose (ULI Fellow; author, The Well Tempered City): To answer Krugman’s question, we have to understand what has gone wrong. What has gone wrong in the past is disintegration: the siloization of sectors. In the post-war era, we saw housing disconnected from transportation disconnected from jobs and so on.

What’s going right is that this is being reversed. We’re seeing cities connect much more with their regions. For example, 52 different cities and counties, and the whole region, got together to create the amazing light-rail system in the Denver metro area. Rather than centralize, we’re seeing cities distribute resources and connect. 

Robin Chase (Founder, Zipcar; author, Peers Inc.): My vote for what’s going right in cities is for multimodalism. Cities have become less car-dependent and made walking, cycling, and other transportation options viable and present, and that has built in the resiliency and redundancy that car-dominated cities do not hav. 

James Murley (Chief Resiliency Officer, Miami-Dade County): There are more than 5,000 local government in the United States, all trying to do it right. Historically, we’ve looked to the federal government for programs. Now, we look more to organizations and networks—like ULI, 100 Resilient Cities, the Historic Preservation Board, or LEED. Technology allows everybody to access and share information. We can find our peers through networks, and identify mutual issues and solutions with far less bureaucracy.

Jonathan Rose: With these networks of information James Murley references, we’re seeing the emergence of “coop-petition.” Cities are both competing and cooperating. That’s the way nature works evolutionarily. Nature also has a very energy-efficient information flow, and that’s what these organizations provide.

Patrick Phillips: Stephanie, tell us about the relationship between reuse of historic buildings and resilience.

Stephanie Meeks: Historic buildings contribute to fighting climate change because, as architect Carl Elefante said, “The greenest building is the one already built.” It is much more environmentally sensitive to reuse an historic building than to build a new one. It can take anywhere from 10-80 years to earn back the environmental costs of new construction—even LEED-certified construction. So, starting with a historic building is a very green choice.

Our research in 50 cities across the country also shows that blocks with a mix of old and new buildings have more women-owned businesses, more minority-owned businesses, more small businesses, and more affordable housing units. Historic buildings play a critical role in resiliency in terms of social cohesion and economic opportunity.

Unfortunately, there are still barriers to reuse of historic buildings, and the Trust has offered specific policy recommendations as to how they can be overcome—such as addressing zoning codes or parking requirements that were put in place 30-40 years ago.

Patrick Phillps: James, let’s turn to the impact of the recent storms and rising sea levels in Florida. In some cases, the impact of these events has already faded from the front pages, and even from the public consciousness. How do you sustain the focus, interest, and concern of elected leaders and the public at large? Are you able to advocate for structural changes in land-use planning provisions, zoning, or building codes?

 James Murley: Hurricanes are different from fires or earthquakes in that we know they’re coming. They’re embedded in our iPhones from the minute they leave the coast of Africa. This gives every one of our citizens a learning experience that builds along the trajectory of the storm.

The government understands that we need to use technology to help our systems during the event and in the immediate recovery, but also for long-term teaching. After all, sea-level rise is not one event. It’s an amplifier, or a force multiplier, for all other events. This means that we all need to worry, not just about the next hurricane, but about the next king tide.

Codes and plans take a long time to change, because, understandably, private property owners are worried about unintended consequences. So, as a large metropolitan county, we prioritize our infrastructure. When we upgrade our infrastructure, we spend the additional dollars to add sea-level rise and storm surge into the equation.

After a storm, there’s always a huge infusion of federal dollars. That helps us make a jump. But we’ve got to be thinking about resiliency 365 days a year. You can’t miss an opportunity: Every time you do a new pump station for the sewer lines, you’ve got to integrate resiliency measures.

Patrick Phillips: Robin, tell us your thoughts on the underpinnings of the sharing economy and how it’s likely to unfold in other domains going forward, and the notion behind your book, Peers Inc.

Robin Chase: The sharing economy represents a new organizational structure, which I think of as platforms surrounded by peers. Examples include Airbnb, a platform that enables homeowners to participate, or Uber, a platform that enables drivers to participate.

What’s remarkable about this structure is its resilience and redundancy. It enables hyper-localization, -adaptation, and -experimentation to a degree that could not have happened before. It gets us used to talking to our peers, building community and social resilience as well as physical resilience. And it gets us thinking about multi-purposing physical objects to bring out their excess capacity, and inviting the collaboration of others.

Patrick Phillips: Let’s turn to the impact of the real estate and development community on existing neighborhoods—i.e., gentrification.  Jonathan, you develop real-estate projects that are profit-motivated, but also desire a more cohesive, community-sensitive, sustainable, and resilient outcome. How do you see this debate playing out?

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Jonathan Rose: The debate is about an insufficiency of resources. There is not a single county in America—not in Alabama, Mississippi, or anywhere—where somebody working a fulltime minimum-wage job can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment, and there are only 16 counties where they could afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment.

In 1940, if you were born in the bottom quartile income in America, then by the time you were 26, there was a 90 percent chance you were earning more than your parents. You could afford, on one fulltime job, to buy a single-family home and a car. You could go to a great research university for an average of $353 a year, and be left with no debt. This was across races.

The debate now comes from a structural issue: the mismatch between incomes today and housing costs, plus the added costs of transportation, etc. It structurally does not work.

Large-scale structural solutions are needed that are beyond what I, as a single real-estate developer, can address. But what I can do, which we’re finding is very effective, is to build new or buy existing affordable housing in walkable, high-transit locations. That reduces the transportation burden on the income of the person.

We also bring healthcare onsite. It’s very simple to build one healthcare exam room onsite in partnership with local health institutions, who find it more cost-effective than centralized hospital healthcare. They deliver tri-part prescriptions—diet, exercise, and medicine. We have community gardens; we work with local food banks for healthy food; and we put exercise rooms in every one of our projects. We also provide afterschool education.

We’ve found that this integration of housing and health is a real sweet spot. It even results in significant economic savings to the health system. Solutions that increase wellbeing, that are better for people and for cities, and that save everybody money along the way—those are the solutions that accelerate. Unfortunately, the regulatory process is equally brutal on good projects as it is on bad projects.

Patrick Phillips: Robin, share your thoughts on the future of urban mobility, especially with respect to autonomous vehicles.

Robin Chase: I recently initiated a collaboration with 10 global NGOs in the transport and city space to come up with 10 shared mobility principles. The very first one is to think about buildings and transportation as a package deal, and build them together.

As we look ahead to the transition to autonomous vehicles, I’m struck by the fact that all the ways this transition could break our system stem from the things that are already broken now and that we refuse to fix. We refuse to do congestion pricing, so single-occupancy vehicles can run rampant and free, destroying our cities. We refuse to get rid of free and too-low-cost parking, and we’ll have to change our cities’ revenues from parking to curbside access for pickup. That is a scarce resource, and we aren’t letting the market do its work in very congested areas. We also need to transition to zero-emission vehicles in our cities, without question. Right now, cities don’t have the legal right to say that intensively used vehicles must be clean.

These are problems that exist today, and we need to fix them today—because if we don’t address them by the time self-driving cars come around, our lives will be hell and there will be cars everywhere. Think about this: When we get self-driving cars, the marginal cost to move them will be about $1 per hour. If that were the case, I would never pay for parking. I would sit here, taking my time, telling the car I called to just circle the block.

The OECD found that if, in dense urban areas, we all shared trips, we’d need only 10 percent of the cars we have on the roads today. I don’t think we’ll get to perfection, but I’d say we could get to 15 percent. Picture no on-street parking. All parking lots and garages could be put to better use, and regaining those green spaces would improve the quality of our lives.

I think of this as “the big do-over” for cities. If we get our priorities and goals straight, and if we get ahead of the game, we have a chance. If we just let it play out, it’s going to play out with the wrong economics and it will destroy us.

Patrick Phillips: James, green infrastructure is often cited as a key element of resilient strategy. What exciting innovations are you seeing in adaptive, resilient green infrastructure?

James Murley: We’re finding a whole range of things to further explore—some of which are right in front of us. Our county is about the size of Rhode Island in terms of geography. But in terms of urban history, most of that has been reserved as national parks and water management areas.

We used to think of these places as where international tourists go when they visit Miami. But that’s green infrastructure. We have to be involved in making sure that there’s a viable infrastructure there to help us deal with climate issues. For example, storing freshwater in greenways is an immediate benefit to us as we try to deal with saltwater intrusion.

The urban side of this equation is that we need to connect our wonderful city and county park system through greenways and the other variety of parks that a large urban area provides.

Finally, there’s the shoreline itself. That is where the high-energy interaction occurs on a daily basis, and it certainly intensifies during a storm. We’ve neglected the shoreline, but it holds great opportunity for the public sector and the private sector. For example, we can get out there and plant hundreds of mangroves to stabilize the shoreline. That adds greenery, and builds the dual benefit of protection.

David Abel (Audience Question): Jonathan, having written The Well-Tempered City, which chronicled thousands of years of the history of cities, address for cities wishing to advance the ball when “it” comes together and when “it” doesn’t come together. 

Jonathan Rose: We are at one of those inflection points now. When cities and civilizations grow to the point at which they maximize their resources—as we are currently maximizing our use of freshwater, fiber from forests, agriculture and fish, etc. around the world—and then the climate changes, then there is often collapse, and the collapse occurs in violence.

The cause of this collapse is income inequality and lack of social cohesion. Where there is social cohesion and a sense that we are all in it together—when everybody in the civilization feels like the civilization is working for them—then people are able to work together and transform the situation. Whether with new technology or a new governance system, they figure out how to get to the next level. Equality—and the perception of equality, as well as social cohesion and leadership—are the key links that can transfer us to the future.

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© 2018 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.