Green Source Conversation: Green and Urban Design
By Brandolon Barnett
Urban planner, designer, blogger, and D Magazine columnist Patrick Kennedy discusses the true meaning of livability, the value of the "green" label, sustainable urban living in North Texas, and more.
A rendering of the Wooddall Rodgers Deck Park in Dallas slated for completion in 2012.
The dream of many advocating for sustainable or “green” urban living is perhaps best summarized by the renderings developers commonly use to promote their hoped-for urban oases. If you’ve not seen them or can’t at the moment recall, imagine the ideal urban community. This is a picture of urban high density with a neighborhood feel. It’s a portrait of people walking their dogs, sitting at casual street cafes, buying street food, and generally filling the world of their neighborhoods and communities with the kind of street life that leaves many urban American visitors to cities as different as Paris and Tokyo in awe. In this week’s green conversation I corresponded at length with Urban Planner, blogger, and columnist Patrick Kennedy on topics of sustainable urban design, the true meaning of livability, the value of the “green” label, and successful (and less so) urban planning initiatives in the North Texas area.
Do you feel there's an adequate understanding among the general public about the intersection between 'Green' issues and more sustainable urban living?
What does 'green' even mean? Like anything turned into marketing-speak, it largely has lost all meaning. Any efforts towards being 'green' turn into half-hearted pat yourself on the back actions whether it is an individual homeowner that screws in a couple of LED bulbs but whose house is so full of leaks that all the AC is pouring out or an office or institutional campus that builds a LEED certified building but surrounds it with parking - which is mostly a locational necessity. So the location of the site is really the issue, which is predicated upon the public sectors planning and building of an infrastructural system that mandates car use. The infrastructure, the bones of the city, are the platform for a city to be sustainability or not. There has to be choice in order to live a "green" life and the cleaner, greener choice, in my estimation would be more desirable to many if it was available, but it is often competing on an unfair playing field. We look at those choices as cost-prohibitive, but the unfair playing field diminishes demand, which coincidentally doesn't drop prices in emerging fields, but keeps them inflated and noncompetitive due to lack of business innovation, willingness by entrepreneurs, industry, and financiers to venture into those markets, and increase supply of alternative, greener choices of whatever the market choice might be, whether it is housing market, transportation mode, or light bulbs.
Should there be an emphasis on collaboration between green organizations and organizations advocating for more sustainable urban planning (for example the CONGRESS of New Urbanism in North Texas?)
We at the CNU are working slowly to try and build more bridges to various related professional entities and advocacy groups, which is somewhat difficult for a variety of reasons, lack of time and resources, corrupted ideas of what the CNU stands for, and competitiveness amongst professional orgs to be THE thought leader, being the primary ones. But even if there was increased cooperation, what would that achieve? That is the question that must be asked and subsequently the goal worked towards. There has to be a broad rethinking of how all components of city building are practiced, what is valued, and where opportunity both the public and private sides to profit. Meaning the public would get a more sustainable (economically, environmentally, and socially) city, while the private side can make money building it that way. However, we think of those new ways as expensive. But the only thing that is cost prohibitive, or at least, a mental stumbling block is change. Once we start doing it right, we'll see that the the bang for the buck equation in terms of value created per cost of infrastructure is exponential. And the city has to start thinking this way in order to compete for talent and tax base.
A hot topic these days of high unemployment is clearly green jobs. While I recognize that you're an urban planner and not an economist per-se, what sort of jobs does better urban planning stand to create? Might one think of these as green jobs?
Call me an amateur economist then or don't since economists tend to only be able to explain the past, occasionally the present, but never the future. I tend to get more into the economic side of urban planning, both by interest and necessity, because if these ideas don't work economically, they're not worth pursuing. And by economically, as I suggested above, value can and should mean more than merely what we can accurately quantify. Some things are subjective and don't work into an equation. Unfortunately, those are the very things that get externalized from the discussion.
How does one value clean air, clean water, or education? The current economic mindset places these things as just costs. And you begin to see how the downward spiral begins. Those are costs, cut them. Or livability. What the hell does that even mean? Well, it necessarily means different things to different people. The more people that find a place livable to their own needs and means, the more livable a place is.
And some of these needs that I find to be absolutely necessary, beyond just the absolute basics of life (food, water, shelter) include how interconnected a place is, which promotes social and economic transactions. Furthermore, it promotes opportunity and entrepreneurism as highly interconnected places drive the demand for density.
In places like these, the competitive balance between national and international chains with their specific building prototypes, formats, parking requirements, etc., and local businesses is at the very least re-balanced. While those larger businesses can likely pay more for real estate costs, they have trouble fitting into smaller, more unique spaces.
There is a certain amount of flexibility in business models required in high activity, high demand places. I suspect there is an increased level of stewardship from local businesses in neighborhoods, as the business owners and employees are often a part of that neighborhood as stakeholders in the character and success of the neighborhood moreso than the shareholders of an international chain that who knows where they might be located. They don't care about any neighborhood, just gimme that dividend check!
Chains also employ less people at lower wages than do local businesses. Furthermore, local businesses keep more revenue within the community, possibly as much as 6x. We think we need chains to drive traffic. But we really need highly complex, ordered, spatial integration, which is the real demand driver that chains intuitively understand, putting themselves in high traffic areas. As we often do, we mistakenly identify various stratigraphy of urban emergence as the demand driver, when more deeply it is the hierarchy of crossroads of all types.
And lastly, since in healthy cities there is a direct relationship between interconnectivity, traffic (of forms other than all car), value, and density (all interrelated), there is increased tax base which can be put to other necessities such as a good school system, thus increasing opportunity for citizens to better themselves. Investing in human potential is really the best investment that can be made. To me that is really what the American Dream is, opportunity for upward mobility, not the PR picket fence nonsense.
So in terms of what specific jobs would be created, I wouldn't want to say, because my guesses would be necessarily contextual of which the context I don't know in a hypothetical situation. I would be as wrong as every single architectural competition vision of the future. Those jobs will be the outgrowth of the demand/opportunity driven by the citizens who freely chose to live in said hypothetical neighborhood for the specific characteristics of that neighborhood, thus giving the neighborhood its personality.
In your opinion what are the most successful sustainable (or can we call them green?) urban planning initiatives currently underway or in the works in North Texas?
Oh boy. Not many. Most are window washing. There are a lot of little things around the metroplex that have shown steady albeit localized improvements in certain, highly specialized areas, but very little has coalesced. Which, in many ways, is a bit allegorical for the development form and patterns of the metroplex. The one that has shown the most positive, self-sustaining reinforcement has been Fort Worth's Better Block which has quickly been capitalized upon by first the city of Fort Worth which moved to make the changes permanent and subsequently by the private sector, by way of investment in new businesses and new housing developments in the Magnolia Ave/Near Southside area. It's exactly how cooperative city building should work (even if the cooperation isn't specified or understood). I'm amazed every time I've been there. Entire families riding bikes to Magnolia to get a bite to eat or friends meeting there over a cup of coffee from a local, organic, fair trade coffee shop. They might pay more for the coffee (or not, I don't know), but I suspect they're willing to pay more because of savings from not driving so much combined with the enjoyable social aspects of the place. This is what I mean when I talk about sustainability from a three-point (at least) perspective, that is has to be environmentally, economically, and socially rewarding.
As someone concerned at heart with more sustainable living do you consider yourself a green advocate?
I guess so. But I never tell people how to live. I do try and reframe the entire picture of what city building and sustainability are and how we can and must re-wire the entire DNA of it so that each individual can make their own choices and the more desirable, rational choice would be technically "greener" I suppose. Which is exactly the point. I don't impose my viewpoint upon others, so don't impose your lifestyle upon me or anybody else. For example, if somebody's lifestyle entails polluting the air, clogging roads, utilizing artificially deflated gasoline prices on taxpayer dime, all the while potentially endangering the lives of others while putting on makeup or chatting on the phone on the highway, then there is a problem. There is a bigger problem when the public entities are responsible for this outcome and are ineffectual to alter the system either.
Can you point our readers to some resources to keep track of urban planning issues in the North Texas area?
I suppose my monthly column in D Magazine might be a good place to start. Fortworthology.com is another as well as getting involved with the Congress of New Urbanism either by signing up as a member or attending some of our events. Or if you happen to be a member of The Real Estate Council or Urban Land Institute or AIA, reaching out to us. Amazon.com never hurts. You have to be an educated citizen on the topics at hand before you can be an engaged citizen. Then, I would suggest anyone that is interested in being an active, engaged stakeholder, willing and wanting to improve their quality of life and better their neighborhood to seek out other stakeholders with shared interests. Typically, those would be your other neighbors. Meet them, talk to them, understand their issues and how they'd like to improve the neighborhood. Begin forming blocs of concerned citizens and take issues to their council people.
Patrick Kennedy is an urban planner and designer, partner with SPACE BETWEEN Design Studio, popular blogger, and author of D Magazine's Urban Affairs column. Brandolon Barnett is Assistant Editor & Interactive Communications Manager for Green Source DFW. You can send questions, comments, or story ideas to - firstname.lastname@example.org