Archive for the 'Urban planning and development' Category

Surprise, Central Planning is Still Stupid (Even in China)

shanghai housing construction china
(photo: 2 Dogs)

Modern China has a curious capacity to make otherwise very sensible capitalists instantly forget every experience they’ve ever had with government central planning. The Western businessman on a trip to Shanghai looks up and sees all those gleaming skyscrapers going up on the Yangtze, and he thinks massive state planning must be different somehow in the People’s Republic. It isn’t.


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Cuba Lifts Ban on Computers, Other Electronics

The Cuban government has lifted the ban on computers, dvd players, television sets, which were already on sale, electric pressure cookers and rice cookers, electric bicycles, car alarms and microwave ovens. It seems the move was allowed because of improving electricity generation. Surprising that the power structure could be so poor and weak that it can’t handle common every day electronics. So what changed with the power situation you might wonder? Did the communist state finally get more efficient and competent? Oh good heavens no. The communist state got a capitalist foreign company to do it for them.

All in all though, the more Cubans have access to today’s electronics and technology, the more information they receive. If only we could get them more cell phones, things might get really interesting.

More on Cuba here and here.

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Fundamentally there was no housing bubble?-Update

So claims Alex Tabarrok. Alex and his blogmate Tyler are two of my favorite bloggers, but on this matter I think Alex is wrong. Unlike for some, his argument doesn’t invite scorn from me, because humility should teach us that sometimes things are different, and we cannot always fully understand why, at least not until after the fact. Later people laugh at we fools for missing the obvious. It always seems obvious after the fact. A belief in uncertainty is a virtue in understanding markets, and history. That being said, I still think Alex is wrong.

The crux of his argument is this:

So if the massive run-up in house prices since 1997 was a bubble and if the bubble has now been popped we should see a massive drop in prices. But what has actually happened? House prices have certainly stopped increasing and they have dropped but they have not dropped to anywhere near the historic average (see chart in the extension). Since the peak in the second quarter of 2006 prices have dropped by about 5% at the national level (third quarter 2007).

Case Shiller All in One Index

Except the argument has never been that prices would decrease immediately or quickly. The consensus of those of us who have worried about this has been that it would be a transition which would take years. Housing doesn’t correct quickly as a rule.

Alex feels the market has shifted to a new higher equilibrium:

If we don’t see the massive drop back to “normal” levels then the run up in prices should be described as a shift to a new equilibrium – much as happened during World War II – see the chart. (It’s an important question to ask what changed and why?). In the shift to the new equilibrium there was some mild overshooting, especially due to the subprime over expansion, but fundamentally there was no housing bubble.

A History of Housing

I actually agree that in some markets we may see a new higher equilibrium, say California, but it will take a large drop first. Here is the chart showing price declines from above, but updated to reflect recent declines (Alex’s chart is old)

Updated-Case Shiller All in One Index


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Market failure

From Peter Gordon:

This morning’s WSJ op-ed (“Gas Taxes Are High Enough”) by Mary E. Peters, Secretary of Transportation, suggests that this appointment belongs on the plus side of the ledger. She is the highest-ranking federal transportation official to openly embrace electronic road tolls on major highways. Highway congestion is often cited as a market failure in the texbooks. But not pricing when the means to do so at low cost are finally here is clearly a policy failure.

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Baton Rouge’s Downtown Jewel

From The Baton Rouge Business Report we learn that one of the key linchpins in Baton Rouge’s rapid progress in revitalizing the downtown, the Shaw Center for the Arts, has been recognized by The American Institute of Architects:

The Shaw building is among 28 projects chosen from 800 entries for the award. Winners were recognized for excellence in the categories of exterior architecture, interior architecture, and regional and urban design. Thirteen of the winning projects were recognized in the architectural category largely for sustainability. Baton Rouge firm Schwartz/Silver Architects designed the Shaw Center project. According to AIA, “the architects combined two primary public venues, the Museum of Art and the performing arts theaters, to form a single structure that cantilevers over the historic rebuilt Auto Hotel. Clad in channel glass and aluminum, the building is designed to withstand major hurricanes, as demonstrated by weathering hurricanes Katrina and Rita shortly after it opened.”

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Private Infrastructure

Over at the Wall Street Journal’s Wealth Report, Robert Frank notes:

Government outlays on physical infrastructure have declined to 2.7 percent of the gross domestic product, he says, from 3.6 percent in the 1960s. Philanthropic giving, in contrast, has jumped to nearly 2.5 percent of GDP.

This leads him to wonder:

With privatization all the rage, why not take things a step further? Why not offer today’s rich some real incentives to strengthen the country’s infrastructure with naming rights. Rather than naming bridges, airports and roads after politicians (which is weird, given that taxpayers pay for them), they could be named after private benefactors. We could have the Bill Gates International Airport in Seattle, or Icahn Avenue in Manhattan. (I’d draw the line at the Trump Tunnel.)

I hate naming rights as much as the next guy. But if private money prevents our bridges and roads from from falling down, I don’t care what they’re named. Someday I might even be able to enjoy a faster, less-crowded subway ride aboard the Buffett Express.

Hmm…. Maybe we have a potential funding mechanism for Baton Rouge’s long sought after loop?

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Simple Urban Revival

While it is mentioned, it rarely gets as much coverage as more grandiose endeavors which feature urban planners and lots of government action, one of the most effective ways to revive a downtown is the arrival of a cinema. While not exactly the type of anchor that a Untied Artists 10 screen or more theater might be, this might fit baton Rouge’s downtown quite well:

A 75-seat movie theater that would play first-run movies and documentaries could be part of the Kress at Third & Main building. John Schneider, president of Cyntreniks of Baton Rouge, which is redeveloping the historic building, told the Downtown Development District Commission this morning that he’s looking at the financial viability and feasibility of putting a theater in the building.

Schneider says he wants to include a place in the building to screen documentaries about the lunch counter sit-ins that happened in the old Kress Department store and the redevelopment of the site. “We could also use this space to show first-run movies that might not come to Baton Rouge,” Schneider says. “And people who are shooting movies in the area could screen dailies in the theater.” The Kress building, which will include office and residential space, is scheduled to open in September.

That is an interesting mix of uses for the space, and would further diversify the entertainment and nightlife mix downtown maybe the question in the photo below isn’t so odd anymore. Of course, it still expresses the sense of insecurity which this city still possesses. The photo is from the deck at the top of the Shaw Center, an art museum, gallery, LSU school of Art, performance space, bar and restaurant, and more.

Here is a look at the center itself:

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The City Car

Very Cool:

The City Car, a design project under way at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is envisioned as a two-seater electric vehicle powered by lithium-ion batteries. It would weigh between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds and could collapse, then stack like a shopping cart with six to eight fitting into a typical parking space. It isn’t just a car, but is designed as a system of shared cars with kiosks at locations around a city or small community.

Admitting the problem, unlike many urban planners and transit advocates, leads to a potential solution:

“The problem with mass transit is it kind of takes you to where you want to go and at the approximate time you want to get there, but not exactly. Sometimes you have to walk up to a mile from the last train or subway stop,” said Franco Vairani, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT’s school of architecture. The City Car is his thesis, though it’s now a group effort involving many others at the school.

This isn’t intended as an individual vehicle, though I don’t see why it couldn’t be:

The City Car business model is akin to a shopping cart or a bike-share program where you return the item to a convenient location when you’re done with it. City Car users would be required to swipe their credit card as a form of deposit. The cars could also be tracked using GPS. To protect privacy, the GPS info could then be deleted once the car is safely returned to a kiosk.

It also is put together fundamentally different:

Unlike a regular car–or even another type of electric car–that has a central power system distributed to its wheels, the City Car is envisioned as a modular system. Each wheel base has its own motor, steering, braking, and suspension system. It then taps into a central system for power, computer control, and some mechanical linkage. These “electric robot wheels” as they are called, would allow the City Car to be collapsible, stackable, and spin on a dime for sideways movement and easier parking, according to Lark. “So you really treat this like a Lego brick you snap onto a cabin,” said Lark.

I like Lego’s.

H/T: Instapundit

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Housing and the Red State-Blue State Divide

A Tale of two Townhouses


Virginia Postrel makes a point I will be exploring in more detail over the next few months in her latest essay at The Atlantic, the reasons behind the vast disparities in housing prices in our country. More interestingly she notices something I hadn’t really considered, at least not in the way she does. The cultural and political impact on the country of the divide such a situation creates. That impact is surprising, but seems true. I can’t recommend it highly enough.


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Who Would Have Thought?

One of the more irritating aspects of debates on urban planning is the denial of what should be obvious. More people per square mile relative to the number of miles of roads means more traffic congestion. Yet “Smart Growth” and “New Urbanist” planners continue to act as if mass transit, urban design and increasing density can change this relationship. Amusingly they typically describe for we rubes Los Angeles as the hell we are all supposed to avoid.

There are two problems with that prescription. Los Angeles is the densest metropolitan area in the US and has the fewest per capita road miles. Unsurprisingly they lead the nation in congestion! Los Angeles isn’t an argument for increased density and allocation of resources away from increased road capacity, they are proof such a strategy doesn’t work! The latest report from the Texas Transportation Institute makes that clear as cities who have neglected road construction in favor of light rail and other solutions saw congestion increase faster than those which did not (small pdf.)



Funny how supply and demand works.

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Cities of Men

I have not touched on the subject of the often hostile turn our culture has taken towards men, especially when it comes to their relationships with children. It is not that I don’t agree that that is a concern, in fact quite the opposite. I have in deeply personal ways been effected by this cultural distrust. I have had employment denied specifically because I was male and the position involved being around children, I have had to run a business involving children under the constant worry of accusations or potential client discomfort. Thus this short post at Instapundit hit home. Here is the quote from Slate:

My younger, 13-year-old sister is having a slumber party for her birthday, and invited three or so of her 13- to 14-year-old girlfriends to our house. Shortly after, “Sara’s” mother suggested that my sister’s party should be held at “Tammy’s” house. Why? Because Tammy has a single mother. Sara’s mother is concerned that my father will be in his house during the festivities. There is no reason to be concerned about my father doing anything inappropriate to any of the girls (all the parents have met each other), but she is just uncomfortable about the idea of her daughter sleeping in the same house with another nonfamily man. She has also convinced the other parents that a change of venue would be a good idea. Although Tammy’s mother is willing to host the event, my family is offended that the situation has come to this. Since when is it a crime to have a happy two-parent household?

Been there, done that. Dr. Helen has had numerous posts on the topic, with this post being particularly relevant and her request worth considering:

The psychological damage to children of not having men around to interact with because of these scare tactics is never mentioned but something that should be considered by the Virginia Department of Health when they develop such ads. Surely, they can come up with something creative that would help make people aware of sexual predators but would not demonize men in general, most of whom are innocent.

Yes we are. I suffer from a particularly damaging affliction. I love children. I also am a very “physical” person. I am affectionate. I hug, pick them up, kiss, the whole bit. Not to be immodest, but kids like me. Teenagers, middle schoolers, toddlers. They like me. I have been able to get by in life while refusing to have to refrain from being myself, for doing things that a woman is admired for, but from a man are looked at with suspicion. Those traits are part of what I believe made me effective in my former career. I was a male figure who was able to be confidently male, and yet had the courage and position to be empathetic and even affectionate. Still, I had to be careful. While I have a few incidents I could relate, and may yet at some future date, and the issue is not unrelated to my eventual decision to change my career, others have covered that ground fairly well.

What I do think is that some aspects of how we have gotten to this point are somewhat unacknowledged, or rarely remarked upon for they are not born of hostility to men or some other easily identified grievance, but from attempts, often misguided, to accomplish other goals. One is the way modern schooling divorces children from the wider world around them, a world of adults and most specifically men, in favor of a milieu dominated by hundreds of children their own age (and is one reason I chose to home school my own children, to expand their social experience.) It goes beyond schooling however into the entire way in which we make space for children in our society in general. Like many aspects of studying modern life one of the first to really note this was Jane Jacobs in her seminal work from 1961, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

This work, one which every social reformer and policy maker should come to grips with, but few do except to use to justify what they want to do anyway, examines the particulars of city life and how the planning and social theories of the time were foundering upon the actual way that cities and their residents behave. One neglected observation appears on pages 83 and 84 of this great book:

Play on lively, diversified sidewalks differs from virtually all other daily incidental play offered American children today: It is play not conducted in a matriarchy.

Most city architectural designers and planners are men. Curiously, they design and plan to exclude men as part of normal daytime life wherever people live. In planning residential life, they aim at filling the presumed daily needs of impossibly vacuous housewives and preschool tots. They plan, in short, strictly for matriarchal societies.

The Ideal of a matriarchy inevitably accompanies all planning in which residences are isolated from other parts of life. It accompanies all planning for children in which their incidental play is set apart in its own preserves. Whatever adult society does accompany the daily life of children affected by such planning has to be a matriarchy…All housing projects are.

Men are not an abstraction. They are either around, in person, or they are not…men who are part of normal daily life, as opposed to men who put in an occasional playground appearance while they substitute for women or imitate the occupations of women.

The opportunity…of playing and growing up in a daily world composed of both men and women is possible and usual for children who play on lively, diversified city sidewalks. I cannot understand why this arrangement should be discouraged by planning and by zoning.

It is a shame that in all the discussion of this great work so little of it has been focused on this observation. Jacob’s was arguing against the tendency of reformers and planners to emphasize public spaces and parks, or in modern parlance, “green spaces” as opposed to the actual streets and homes in which children grew up. These public spaces, un-patrolled by people with any personal stake or ownership in the space were typically the most dangerous places in a city. Often denigrated, “the streets” were actually safer. Those streets were owned or supervised by the men who owned the establishments along them. By removing them, and their businesses, in favor of projects filled with parks and other commonly owned spaces amongst the residences, neighborhoods suffered from higher crime and removal of men from the lives of children.

Of course Jacobs’ work deals with cities, not suburbs or smaller towns. And Jacob’s missed emphasizing, as she should have, that it was the sense of ownership of the particular areas of the street which made such an arrangement work, not the mere presence of businesses. The breakdown in the sense that proprietors could say who and who could not occupy the spaces on those sidewalks rendered Jacobs’ observations less relevant. The point about our divorce from men as a regular part of children’s lives is important though. Field trips and mentoring cannot replace it. She describes in detail the shuffling off of children, in ways that are as applicable to suburbs today as they were then, to controlled activities. Scripted play, arts and crafts, athletics, libraries and assorted other activities developed top down to deal with youth that not only destroy much unscripted play, but are dominated by women and the values of women. Things which are more likely to appeal to boys, or involve being around men, are severely restricted. The kind of unscripted play, in the kind of places, which boys are likely to engage in are given the least room. Thus the popularity of The Dangerous Book for Boys. We all recognize this. What we don’t acknowledge is the loss from having the world of children so divorced from the world in which most men live, the world of work and business, in the first place.

I have no grand recommendation to make to fix this, such as reinstating apprenticeship or other traditional forms of workforce training, nor do I wish to encourage such social engineering. Many of the benefits of present arrangements should not be dismissed without thought. Yet the cordoning off of children has a cost, and as her point I put in bold above implicitly warned of, we have made men an abstraction, and it shouldn’t surprise us that it is a scary one.

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Urban Policy

I recently did an interview, about an hour and a half long, on the ongoing, and fruitful, efforts to revitalize downtown Baton Rouge. We discussed a wide variety of related topics to development; economics, regulatory barriers, the work of the great Jane Jacobs, new urbanism, smart growth, the arts, affordable housing, architecture and design, aesthetics and much more. Many readers of this blog will appreciate that the editor cut it down to a few paraphrases.

Unfortunately you may not be so lucky when I edit myself. More on this topic in coming weeks.

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