Northeast US Flooding and Possible Solutions

Written by Jeff on September 12th, 2011

I know it has been ages since I have blogged last, due to my current job I don’t have the time I used too, but after a recent trip up to New Jersey after Hurricane Irene I need to start getting some of my ideas out there, I’m sick of seeing the destruction every few years.

I left New Jersey five years ago in April 2006. That year we had snow melt plus a lot of rain in a short period of time that lead to quite a substantial flood in Central and Northern New Jersey. It wasn’t as bad as Hurricane Floyd in 1999 but it was close. At the time I was a firefighter on Middlebush Fire Co. in Somerset County and we pumped out numerous basements that day, almost too many to remember.

Most recently, after a trip to see friends in Cranford, a town that was hit hard by street flooding and basement flooding that now has streets lined with trash and ruined memories from every house, something needs to be done and what the cities, counties, and probably the US Army Corps plan to do is not what really needs to be done.

My idea to control flooding, so FEMA and insurance companies don’t have to pay out thousands per home every five years, revolves around individual river basins and increased stormwater capacity. I believe I have some ideas; this requires a holistic, multi-zone, regional solution. I would like to team up with a civil engineer and an environmental scientist, specifically one who understands fresh water rivers and streams. If you are interested please email me or leave a comment below and I will explain more to you and in the future I want to post it so others can share and build upon my revolutionary idea.

 

I Have A Job!!! Now Let’s Get You One.

Written by Jeff on November 12th, 2009

Links updated After 408 days of unemployment I finally have a job offer which I am going to accept.  It has been a long road but God is good and has seen my family through this tough time.

For this reason my blog will be mothballed indefinitely until I get settled in my new place and job. If I begin to find time to start posting again I will.

But, for all my fellow urban planners who are desperately looking for a job I want to share with you the list of my internet job searching resources specifically for planning.  You have probably hit many of these sites but I bet there are some you haven’t seen or thought of.  The best resource, and the site that led me to the place I found my new job, was www.jobster.com It crawls many newspapers and other job boards for any kind of job in any zip code.  I would search terms like “AICP”, “Urban Planner”, “Land Use”, “Urban Design”, and “Planning Director”.  You will find you have to refine your search to omit or add (using – or +) to get the detail you need.

Planning Specific Job Sites:

Similar Professions & Government Job Sites:

On Twitter follow these for job blasts several times daily:

  • @CUPPACareers
  • @GetUrbPlannJobs
  • @GreenBizJobs
  • @greenerjobs
  • @JobAngels
  • @EcoEmploy

Good Luck & Hang in there, I know it is tough and I’m here to talk to via email or twitter if you need some help, want a second set of eyes on your resume or cover letter, or even just a sympathetic ear.  I’m here.

 

Update: Hung Out to Dry, But Maybe Not For Long in Maryland

Written by Jeff on November 10th, 2009

Update to Original Post: Hung Out to Dry

I Saw a small side story on FoxNews.com today that probably slipped by most people and, as it seems, most other news outlets as well.  The State of Maryland, not exactly on the top of the heap when it comes to upholding property rights, had a bill introduced by State Senator Nancy King that would, “prohibit governing boards, community associations and landlords from banning outdoor drying at single-family homes and townhomes. It would allow rules about the time, location and manner in which homeowners or tenants use clothes lines or similar devices on their property.” The main driving point is the energy savings that is being prevented by HOA and Condo covenants.

This will be interesting to follow.  The article was unclear whether this would override existing covenants and restrictions.  I would like it to see it address existing HOA and Condo covenants, but that would probably open a legal can of worms that Maryland doesn’t open right now because of the legal ramifications it would carry.  The possibility would lie, and have to be decided by a judge, that all other covenant rules would be subject to future state overrides and mandates.  I think HOA documents need to evolve with the times and there are other issues other than clothes lines,  but that’s another topic for another blog post.

 

New Poll Feature!

Written by Jeff on November 5th, 2009

On the sidebar below my bio you will see a weekly poll called Monday’s Poll.  Each Monday there will be a new poll question and the results will be published the following week.  This week’s question is “What type of planning do you believe is most important in today’s current economic climate?”

Give it a try!

 

Will Fuel Efficient Cars Keep Sprawl Going?

Written by Jeff on October 29th, 2009

Chevrolet Sprint 1986

This article was written in the Fall of 2009, the data was current as of the time it was published, thank you for reading.

With the popularity of hybrid vehicles and increased availability of those silly little roller skates called Smart Cars, fuel efficient cars are as abundant as they were in the 1980′s.  What is so troubling is the fact that even though today’s vehicles as a whole are more fuel efficient than their counterparts were even 10 years ago overall models that capable of 40+MPG Highway have decreased.  There are seven models in 2009/2010 that get more than 40+ MPG highway; they are the Prius, Civic Hybrid, Insight, Smart, Audi A3 Diesel, VW Golf Diesel, & VW Jetta Diesel.  For comparison in 1986 there were 14 models of cars capable of 40+ MPG Highway. The Chevrolet Sprint led the way that year with a still jaw dropping 54MPG. Today the Toyota Prius leads the way at 48MPG.  The chart, compiled by myself, from data available at www.fueleconomydb.com and with 2009/2010 specs from www.fueleconomy.gov, shows the amount of vehicle models sold which got 40+ Miles Per Gallon (MPG), the amount which got 50+ if any, and the leading model for that year and its MPG.  As you can see the amount of 40+ MPG fuel efficient vehicles fluctuates yearly with the most being 1985 and a string of double digit models in the early 2000′s.  But what is most concerning to me is the steady decline in top end MPG, except for the Honda Insight, which too has been steadily declining.  Even today’s hybrid Prius’ can’t match the efficiency of the Geo Metro gas only cars of 20 years ago.  Where is our technological progress?

MPG Table


As you probably know, suburban sprawl has been fueled by the personal automobile and funded by the Federal Government.  As Lewis Mumford noted, “Far from supplementing public transit, the private motor car became largely a clumsy substitute for it.”  Using some quick math, the cost  of ownership excluding car payments but including fuel, regular maintenance, and insurance is around $2,500 – $3,000 per year per vehicle owned.  Keeping the costs in 2009 dollars, the cost of operating a top end fuel efficient vehicle from 1985 – now is about 50% higher.

Suburban sprawl is fueled by the automobile use and affordable, dare I say cheap, gasoline.  The cost of gasoline is the variable in the equation.  If gasoline rises by a given amount the total cost of operating a vehicle and cost per mile driven will naturally increase.  I believe it would be a fair assessment to say that if the cost of commuting and driving to a suburban home increases the attractiveness of a home closer to work and amenities increases as well. However, with the increase in fuel efficiency, and I’m not saying it is a bad thing, the cost per mile (barring a sudden spike in fuel costs as was seen the summer of 2008) should remain at the current low level.

Fuel efficient cars are important, I believe there is much more we can do and I do NOT believe the answer is hybrids or electric cars.  How did cars in the 1980′s with 1970′s technology go 50+ MPG but today we can only squeeze out 36MPG from a Toyota Yaris, the highest rated non hybrid in 2007?  I know every car now comes equipped with AC and power everything, but you cannot convince me that the gasoline technology hasn’t advanced in 25 years!?!

As for suburban sprawl, hybrids and fuel efficient cars are not advertised to shrink the suburbs but I fear an unintended consequence of increased fuel efficiency is the business as usual approach to green field subdivision construction and a lack of concentration on infill and compact downtown development which is also needed.  Again, I think increased fuel efficiency is great, and is a step in the right direction to reduce our consumption of foreign oil and greenhouse gas emissions, but the impact from an economic point of view on our landscape can be devastating unless we encourage compact development centered around public transit or places of employment to reduce our miles per vehicle as a whole.

 

Book Review – “Nimby Wars: The Politics of Land Use”

Written by Jeff on October 23rd, 2009

When I began pioneerplanning.com my intentions were to bring you new ideas in planning and also get my name out there.  I also joined Twitter (@pioneerplanning) and have found it to be a very positive move in generating interest in this blog, as well as enhancing my job search and professional reach. I have also met some interesting people along the way including Patrick Fox of the Saint Consulting Group.  I commented several weeks ago on a post of his and after a little professional back and forth he asked if I would be interested in reviewing their upcoming book NIMBY Wars. To say the least I was flattered and took the invitation.  The book arrived several days later and I read it over the course of five days this past week.

Nimby Wars

___________________________

NIMBY Wars:

NIMBY Wars is a swift read, clocking in at a quick 213 pages.  It’s available in hard cover only at a list price of $29.99, but available at BN.com for $23.99 ($21.59 for members).  The language used is technical but not overwhelming. It is evident that the authors tried spice up the wording to keep the reader interested, it worked for the most part, but a few times I found myself lost mid sentence wondering if they were talking about the same topic or person from earlier in the sentence.  If a young campaign manager, planner, or public advocate is interested in the political warfare that is zoning and land use approvals this book is a must read.  It gave me a good sense of the techniques and finesse needed to assure a positive result in the modern political realm of land use approvals.  However, I could not get over the sense that the book was one big advertisement for the Saint Consulting Group by touting all their successes.

Essential to reading NIMBY Wars is always remembering that “local land use approvals are subject to local politics” they are by definition political decisions and every decision by a planning board or elected council are therefore, politically motivated, and can be swayed by the public and influenced by constituents.  Remembering this throughout the book will help keep your mind on track.  Often I found my mind wandering and thinking that there had to be other types of decisions.  In some cases there are, but since the Saint Index, the Saint Consulting Group’s compilation of survey data compiled in 2005, showed Americans object to any new development and overwhelming 74% of the time (The Not In My Back Yard aka. NIMBY effect), getting the required votes for a new project requires more than a dazzling presentation or knowledgeable experts, it requires the help of political campaign managers, like the Saint Consulting Group.

The authors come across as battle tested veterans, and rightfully so, since the Saint Consulting Group has participated in over 1500 land use decisions in 44 states and 3 countries over the past 25 years.  However, one has to wonder if the reason land use decisions have become political is because of companies like Saint Consulting Group or if they are merely reacting to the changing political atmosphere.  In an email conversation with one of the authors, Patrick Fox, I learned that the Saint Consulting Group began as campaign managers for political offices and then branched into land use, which uses many of the same tactics.

I can say the book made me think differently about land use decisions, especially coming from my background as a public sector planner over the past 10 years.  I am one of the “influential planner(s)” who is “not necessarily [an] even-handed processor of land use applications” and  ”think they know better than the general public.”  Getting approval from planners and elected officials is not enough and most of the book discusses the need to win public support for, or in some cases against, a development or rezoning.  Few, if any, elected officials or planners would stand up to a room full of visibly angered constituents and vote for a project when it is clear they are against it.  This is where the Saint Consulting Group works and their methods and lessons learned are explained, though I would have liked a little more detail and data in the case studies.

This is not a How To book and shouldn’t be looked at for suggestions on how a firm could enter the land use politics arena.  It can, however, bring to light some examples and conditions that regularly arise when dealing with planning boards and city councils over development approvals.  The most important thing to remember is it is always political and to handle the situation correctly you want the right people in your corner.  Where we go from here even the author doesn’t know, but they expect more of the world to adopt Western style development approvals and the political fight to continue for quite some time, especially driven by the modern sense of entitlement that more and more residents are demonstrating.  The techniques and heads up knowledge explained in NIMBY Wars is invaluable for any developer, planner, or campaign manager making their first foray into the world of large scale development, redevelopment, or rezoning.

___________________________

I would like to thank the Saint Consulting Group and specifically Seth Cargiuolo and Patrick Fox for this opportunity and answering my many questions along the way.  I hope this is the first of many book reviews and as I get more offers to review books or pick up ones I think will be interesting I will bring you more. Thank you for your support in reading this article and please take time to email me or leave a comment if you feel so moved.

 

Upcoming Book Review- Nimby Wars: The Politics of Land Use

Written by Jeff on October 16th, 2009

Thank you for visiting www.pioneerplanning.com

I am very excited to announce that I have the opportunity to preview the book “Nimby Wars: The Politics of Land Use” by P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell, and Patrick F. Fox, members of the Saint Consulting Group.  The book’s website is nimbywars.com.  It arrived in the mail this week and isn’t due on shelves until its national release on October 28th.  I should have most of the weekend to work through it, it’s not that thick clocking in at just over 200 pages.  I don’t know what to expect yet but you can rest assured I will be honest.  I will be critical where I need to be critical, and offer praise where praise is needed.

Please check back mid next week for my full book review.  Looking forward to it!

 

Smaller Can Be Better – Smart Growth’s Other Half – Smart Decline

Written by Jeff on September 30th, 2009

Decline

To put it mildly for there to be winners in America there have to be losers.  For some cities to have rapid growth, growth that is almost too quick, there are cities that have rapid decline.  Many cities within the Rust Belt have been experiencing steady decline for more than 20 years.  Cities like Youngstown, Flint, Rochester, and even Richmond have been exploring the notion that they will not be growing over the foreseeable future.

I had the pleasure of virtually sitting in on an open discussion with Rutgers Bloustein School professor Frank Popper as he discussed Smart Decline, a term he and his wife coined in an article in Planning Magazine in 2002.  Smart Decline is still a new theory but it is beginning to pick up traction as some cities and regions realize they cannot continue to spend tax payer money and go into debt to promote growth and have been experiencing declining populations.

Derived from a German model of city management for dealing with the poorer more run down cities of the former Easter Bloc, Smart Decline deals with steps, both financial and physical, to deal with shrinking populations and tax bases.  Many cities first try to reinvent themselves to become more competitive in the knowledge economy.  But as mentioned in my post on Form Based Code, the knowledge economy will more than likely go where places are loved and beautiful.  Unfortunately, it is looked on as admitting defeat if a city does not reinvent itself and looks to contracting its services and control but planning on decline and meeting it head on is brave and should be applauded.

Smart Decline can take three different forms, Rural, Suburban, and Urban.  Rural Smart Decline can be seen by a return to either a natural state of land or a return to agriculture and livestock, especially native species.  Agriculture still provides some jobs and a small tax base but utilizes nearly no services.

Urban Smart Decline is evident in places like Flint, Michigan which was planning on growing to 350,000 in 1965, but topped out at almost 200,000, and now sits at 112,000, down 9% from the 2000 census.  In a city which has seen double digit decline for the past 40 years the city actually decided to help speed up the decline and get to a sustainable population.  A new Michigan Law permits the counties and cities to take over abandoned, foreclosed, and delinquent properties.  Flint’s solution is to concentrate any growth in a few neighborhoods and city centers and demolish and clear the properties in declining neighborhoods.  It is a tough pill to swallow, as these vacant homes get converted into greenspace and turned over to the local conservation land bank, but the city can save thousands of dollars a lot on garbage pick up and code enforcement.

The Suburban model, which hasn’t been identified in practice yet, is one of the toughest to implement.  The very nature of suburban sprawl has led most suburban cities and towns to rely on automobiles and when a place lacks a center but has decline everywhere where to you circle the wagons?  This is something I’m going to have to contemplate on more, and if an example of a place that could use Smart Decline Planning emerges or a government starts to take certain steps I will be glad to pass it on.

Ultimately the idea behind Smart Decline is finding the happy break even point for cities that have experienced decline.  Once that fiscally sustainable point is met a city can concentrate on where to go from there, but not until the bleeding has stopped, both fiscally and population.  A city should also be quick to realize they are in decline or at least a holding pattern, but they shouldn’t rely on census data for that.  Since the full count census only comes out every ten years decline could have been happening for five or more years prior.  This is where planners and city officials that have a good measure on the pulse of their communities will be able to see the first signs of decline.  From an increase in foreclosures, rental vacancies, and derelict properties a city should begin to do strategic planning for the health of the city.  If a city plans for the worst, but the decline doesn’t come as expected no one is worse off, better safe than sorry.  I believe Smart Decline is the marriage of proper strategic, contingency, and fiscal planning on the part of the community leaders and specific implementation tools and goals by planning departments.

As the United States continues into 2010 with a lingering recession many cities will either see decline increase or begin.  Cities such as Rochester, Buffalo, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Detroit should carefully consider Smart Decline for the immediate future, get back on their feet, pick up the pieces, and in a sense hit reset.  Likewise, cities such as Savannah, Atlanta, Nashville, Houston, Los Angeles and other Sun Belt cities should at least consider having a plan for decline just incase forecasts change and other unforeseen obstacles change the population shift in America.  Just consider Smart Decline another tool in a planner’s toolbox.

 

Counterpoint: Slums Aren’t the Answer to Sustainability, But Lessons Can Be Learned.

Written by Jeff on September 28th, 2009

I don’t subscribe to many magazines.  Besides Planning and Urban Land, which are included with my paid memberships, I only subscribe to two others, Smithsonian and Wired.  Wired is pretty much the most interesting magazine out there.  Packed with articles from the ordinary to the outlandish it can be read by everyone, not just geeks. In Wired’s October 2009 issue there is a series of small articles entitled, “The Smart List: 12 Shocking Ideas That Could Change the World”.   Occasionally Wired will delve into the world of urban planning or design, however the ideas are usually so far out there they are meant to stretch the reader’s thoughts, not to imply implementation… at least I hope.  One of the 12 Shocking Ideas was a suggestion by Stewart Brand, a long term sustainability author, to “Save the Slums“.

Initially suggesting “saving the slums” is a pure shocker, as it should be.  As proclaimed in the article the slums are havens for crime, as well as, rape, disease, and illiteracy.  But Brand suggests we treat slum dwellers as pioneers because of their minimal impact and their ability to be a stepping stone to formal economies of the area due to their creativity, necessitated by poverty, such as subsistence farming.  Recycling is also very important to the slums as demonstrated by the garbage city in Cairo.  Even United Nations research found that squatter cities may actually be a solution to poverty than the problem.  I would agree, slums are not the source of poverty but the place where poverty calls home.  However I would disagree that any slums are the ladder to the formal economies of the world, breaking out of the slums has to be one of the hardest tasks in life.

Though the notion that the slums are sustainable is pretty clear I believe there are other more important factors to consider before praising squatter settlements as the greenest solution around.  A year earlier (June 2008) Wired had another article called Inconvenient Truths, where the authors dispel common misconceptions of modern sustainability.  Living in cities with air conditioning is more sustainable than the colder suburbs while relying more on heating but what is more sustainable than that?  Taking that thinking to the ultimate degree one could see that slums with little to no electricity and no heating or AC could be considered the most green living situations.

However, there are certain human rights which should be sought for by all cultures.  In a time where the United States is arguing for health care access for all, there are shanty towns and slums where citizens have no access to healthcare, clean water, education, and edible food.  Though I may agree in principal that slums, shanty towns, and the like are built and conduct daily life in a sustainable method with little impact to the earth, I believe that it would be despicable to consider slums a good thing overall.  It is important to take care of our planet and reduce our impact, but on the backs of the already disenfranchise is not the way.  They are at the bottom of the human capital ladder already, and though lessons can be learned such as recycling and energy efficiency, efforts should be made to provide their residents with even basic safety and sanitation.

 

Recap: Form Based Code Workshop 9/22

Written by Jeff on September 23rd, 2009

Smart Code Transect

I had the pleasure of attending a Form Based Code Workshop put on by Nathan Norris of Placemakers and sponsored by the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors.  The presentation started at 6PM and went a full two hours, but it flew by.  Mr. Norris had an informative and entertaining PowerPoint presentation and since there were only about 30 in attendance there was a good dialogue throughout and especially at the end.

I’m always looking for places to further my knowledge of cutting edge planning (pioneer planning), and I wasn’t disappointed. I am familiar with Form Based Codes and hope to work for a progressive government that has embraced the flexibility and control of their own destiny.  Mr. Norris’ presentation gave me some more facts and real life examples to check out and familiarize myself with. Though the presentation was geared toward Mount Pleasant last night, Form Based Codes can be used anywhere.  What amazed me the most is the current leader in the public sector for Form Based Code is Montgomery, Alabama. Nathan Norris, who hails from a town near Montgomery, explained that, “even a city that hasn’t done much planning for the past 40 years was able to implement Form Based Code and make it mandatory in their downtown in just a few years process.”

Form Based Code is based on the 10 Principals of Smart Growth:

  1. Create distinctive places
  2. Promote walkable design
  3. Block size is important (*Most important)
  4. There needs to be a variety of transportation choices
  5. Development needs to be directed to existing places
  6. An appropriate mix of uses should be encouraged
  7. A wide range of housing options and affordabilities
  8. Compact design
  9. Preservation of Nature
  10. Encourage community input and participation

The importance of place and placemaking is more evident now more than ever. The new knowledge economy is more mobile than ever, especially due to the internet and high speed travel.  Place doesn’t matter when it comes to online collaboration, but it matters immensely when a company or firm is considering relocation.  If a company that relies on the knowledge economy can be based anywhere why wouldn’t they want to be somewhere nice and beautiful, with a high quality of living?  Cities need to concentrate on placemaking and giving the knowledge economy somewhere they want to be rather than have to be.

G.K. Chesterfield wrote, “Rome may be loved because it is great, but it is great because it was loved.”  This emphasizes the need for cities and places to have TLC from their elected officials and community.  Only when a place is loved first, shown some TLC, can a place begin to become great.  This is the main reason many developments that do not take into account the city and community around them do not add to the place, because they do not love, or add to, the place.

A memorable quote from Norris was, “Avoid Ego-driven mega projects.”  Many cities feel that if they could just get that convention center built, attract that lifestyle center, or build a new stadium, they will then be great.  But, cities must remember there is no silver bullet in making a place great.  Creating a place requires much more than a gimmick or being able to point at one thing.  The best places in this country have multiple reasons they are great but at the same time you cannot pick one thing out that is the greatest.  Norris also stated that it is time that cities stop saying “thou shall not” and start saying “thou shall”.  I agree, there is no reason a city shouldn’t be able to ask developers for what the city wants rather than relying on the private sector to magically read the city decision makers’ minds.  Now this isn’t to say that a city has the right to tell the developers what uses they want where, but instead what types of buildings and where those buildings should be, within stated limits.

This is where Form Based Code helps.  Traditional zoning regulates Use, Density, and Parking.  Form Based Codes take into account those three but also Design. Design is what really brings a city together and makes it memorable.  Norris gave a good example of multi-family housing and design.  Density can be done, and according to modern day codes this usually results in townhome communities or apartment complexes.  And though they may be dressed up, rarely score high on Visual Preference Surveys (VPS), with a shout out to a former Rutgers professor of mine Tony Nellesen, who invented the original VPS. He stated, “Density without design is objectionable.” Density isn’t the objective, design is the objective.  Multi-family units can be done right considering both density and design.  It always comes back to what it will look like.

As Form Based Code through the use of the Smart Code and Urban Transect become utilized more throughout the country, more municipalities will be willing to explore it.  Now that Smart Code is open source and modular, making it easier for cities to implement and personalize it, Form Base Code should become the type of planning for cities, nodes, and small area plans for the foreseeable future.