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Northeast US Flooding and Possible Solutions

Monday, 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.

Will Fuel Efficient Cars Keep Sprawl Going?

Thursday, 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 and with 2009/2010 specs from, 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.

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

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009


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.

Monday, 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

Wednesday, 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.

Back to the Basics: Urban Farming is Catchy, but Suburban Farming is Where it Began and Must Return.

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Community GardenUrban farming, urban gardening, urban agriculture or urban-ag seems to be all the rage today.  Every planning blog, sustainability organization and local news outlet has covered this issue, but I want to put it back into perspective. First off, I need to state that I think it is great we’re starting to farm rooftops, window sills, and even pickup truck beds; but I feel the hype over urban agriculture has gotten away from our modern history as city dwellers.  I do think being able to produce some food for yourself or your family while living in the concrete jungle is cute but it really isn’t going to make a dent in our current dependence on Big Ag.

If we take a historical look at how cities emerged through the 1800′s & 1900′s we’ll notice that the core city usually had a first ring suburb and then the farms. These farms were within a days drive or train trip.  This is how produce and meat originally made its way into the mouths of city dwellers.  However, with the advent of the truck, interstate highway system, and suburbs farmland has been pushed out further and further from the cities they originally served.  Now with Big Ag controlling much of what we eat the food on the shelves in the store can come from almost anywhere and why you can get strawberries in December in Boston or avocados in February in Los Angeles.  We will never return suburbia to farming so we must come up with alternatives, and that is why the urban agriculture movement is appealing and something almost anyone can get behind and support.

Rooftop or Community gardens are most likely the only viable urban farming that can produce enough goods to sustain several families.  Finding enough rooftops and community gardens that have access to enough light and water, or can take the weight of 200,000 pounds of top soil is tricky.  I found it difficult to get data on amount of crops produced per sq. foot in a garden but I did find an article that discussed cost.  The outcome was around $1.50(gross) per sq. foot. Therefore a 400 sq. ft garden could produce around $2,400(gross) of produce ever six months, depending on climate of course.

As catchy as urban farming is I believe there needs to be a return to suburban farming.  The typical suburban lot is anywhere from 1/4 – 1 acre.  The amount of square footage that can be devoted to a garden is much greater than downtown anywhere.  There is also readily available soil and most likely no permits necessary.  Granted the output per acre is much higher in a suburban setting the output per capital is much lower.  But why don’t you see many suburban gardens?  I don’t believe there is one in my neighborhood.  Many individuals take great care of their flower beds but I don’t think anyone has a garden consisting of more than a tomato plant or two on their patio.

Backyard Garden

I’m glad the urban farmers of the world are trying new things but the suburban farmers, or gardeners, need to make a come back.  Gardening during the 40′s and 50′s was much more prevalent than any other time.  My grandfather, at 91, still has a significant garden and I remember growing up and eating fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and goose berries.  I don’t know why you don’t see as many gardens as even 10 years ago.  Planning Magazine had a great article in the August/September issue about edible front yards.  This is an answer to inner ring suburbs with small yards.  There was plenty of unused space and sunlight in the front of the house.  The dual benefit of an edible lawn (or garden) is the produce it will yield and the mowing and lawn care it will cut out.

But how can suburban gardening make a comeback?  I have a couple of ideas that may work.

First is to use Home Owners’ Associations as a promotion tool to get communities interested in gardening, perhaps with a community garden.  Land Bank Colleges Extension Services could be used to educate key citizens within a subdivision as local experts.  One of the drawbacks to gardening is the fear of failing or wasting ones time.  Knowing when to plant certain crops or how to treat for insects or fungus naturally can be invaluable but often difficult to get good sound information, you think the guys at Home Depot know more than handing you a bottle of Ortho?

Second is the promotion of a community produce swap.  Every person and soil can produce different crops as a specialty.  Maybe I grow wonderful zucchini and you grow great tomatoes.  We could swap some of our crops with each other. This has always been done informally through family, church, or the office when someone with a garden has an extra yield of peppers and brings in the extra for everyone to take some if they want.  But what I vision is a larger, non-profit, organization located in the community that can promote and even certify the transfer of produce between willing participants.  Making access to local produce is obviously a good thing and any organization than can facilitate local gardeners trading their produce would make more individuals willing to put on the gloves and get out the watering can.

Third is along the lines of community education.  Instead of just grabbing seeds off a shelf and hoping they will grow why can’t a potential gardener go online, plug in where they live, the size of garden they want and how many of each crop they desire and get step by step guidelines on how to prepare the ground, when to plant, and how to care for their crops.  Daily or weekly emails could help them keep on watering, fertilizing, and what to expect.  This could be done relatively easy and at a low cost and could be maintained by the local coop or exchange program.

As urban farming is gaining interest I believe their suburban counterparts only need to begin to look to their back yards for an easy option to being green, sustainable, and saving hundreds of dollars a year; not to mention the satisfaction that you are providing for yourself and family with your own hands.

I’d be interested to hear any other suggestions to get suburban gardening going in newer communities and any cases that have worked around the world.

Hung Out To Dry

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

I came across this interesting article this week in USA Today.  In this era of economic and environmental consciousness it is amazing that many Home Owners Associations make the age old art of air-drying clothes against the rules.  I shouldn’t be too surprised, my own HOA has the same language almost all modern subdivisions do regarding clotheslines.  Considering that an average of 5%, or $80 dollars a year, of all household electricity goes toward drying machines it is a shame that families that wish to dry their clothes naturally cannot, without fear of fines or letters.

Project Laundry List (at is a non-profit organization aimed at “making air-drying and cold-water washing laundry acceptable and desirable as simple and effective ways to save energy.”

This issue has become so entangled that several states have been forced to step in over the past years and pass laws protecting homeowners right to clotheslines.

I remember growing up with jeans and shirts that weren’t the softest because my mom dried the laundry outdoors.  I remember having to help her get the clothes in quickly when a pop up rainstorm was coming and the laundry was still outside.  I remember neighbors hanging their laundry outdoors too.  But I never remember it being a problem.  I grew up in a suburban neighborhood with 1/4 – 2/3 acre lots but it never seemed to be a problem.

Today, HOA’s are put in place before a community is even built, by the home builder, to protect their investment before the neighborhood is complete.  Obviously when someone is looking to buy a new homes seeing someone’s undies might be a turnoff, but there are options that can appease everyone.  What is most amazing is the most unique clothesline options were found on Australian websites.

Retractable Clotheslines: retracting_options

Fixed Folding Frame Clotheslines: fd45401_

Freestanding Folding Frame Clotheslines: addaline33

As these options and others arise, energy costs increase, and environmental awareness becomes more mainstream I’m sure HOAs and neighborhoods will warm up to the idea of clotheslines again.

LED up the night

Friday, August 28th, 2009

Led LightCities and Counties in the United States spend over $1.3 billion a year to light up the night on public streets with over 13 million street lights (not including traffic signals). LED technology, which has been around since the 60′s but has gained a market share in the  lightbulb industry recently, has taken off.  LED lights last twice as long as high pressure sodium and over eight times longer than mercury vapor, both more typically found in street lights.  Power consumption is also considerably less in LED lights than conventional bulbs, often cutting power budgets in half.  On average it costs $800-$1000 a year to power one street light.  An LED light can do the same work for around $250.

Cities are getting wise to the savings, and though it means an upfront cost to change the electrical work and fixtures the lifetime savings is well worth the move.  Some cities are using stimulus money to fund these changes.  This would be a good use of stimulus money since it effects a cost savings for the municipality and lowers maintenance and replacement costs.  At a cost of about $2000 to retrofit a light the savings could pay for the change in less than four years.

As costs for electricity grow and cities attempt to reduce costs and their carbon footprints changing light fixtures and other energy consuming products will be necessary.  I hope the competition and recent breakthroughs in LED technology only lowers the costs more, and quickly.

Good Bonus Article: Columbia, Missouri and their street light issues

LED Lights

The New iHouse by Clayton Homes – Can it shake the manufactured house stigma?

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

iHouse FlexII Layout CIt’s the mobile home gone green. Actually that’s a manufactured home. Made by Clayton Homes in their Maryville, TN plan the iHouse was unveiled earlier this year and “built for the era of sustainable living”.  The base tab for a 2 bed/2 bath 1,291 square foot model with no upgrades is $129,087 or $99.99 a square foot. Compared to all other 1 story models that Clayton Homes currently sells it is the most expensive, exceeding similarly sized Classic models by $80,000. However, the iHouse, since it is built in a controlled environment creates only two garbage cans of waste as opposed to two skid dumpsters for a typical site constructed home.  What is appealing about the iHouse is the earth friendly options such as sustainable hardwood bamboo floors, no VOC paint, Low-E windows, and solar panel roofs, which will set you back an additional $14-$28k. But for even as futuristic as it looks the iHouse is still a manufactured house and these units carry both a stigma and zoning challenges around the country.  The length and width of a manufactured house is extremely different than even a stick built ranch style home.  The lot needed to fit an iHouse versus a similarly sized ranch would be very different.

I believe this may be the newest model for sustainable living and an attempt to make it affordable.  However, at $175,125 fully loaded out the door, with appliances included, the 1,291 square foot model seen above goes for a whopping $135 a square foot.  New homes in most markets can range from $80-$200 per square foot so at $135 the iHouse sits squarely in the middle of the pack and a little high for first time home buyers.  Also, the stigma of the iHouse looking like a mobile home isn’t going to help it’s acceptance in existing neighborhoods.  I like the angled futuristic look and the flex unit with the rooftop deck would be a great place for a garden if it can hold the weight.  I’m excited for Clayton Homes and I hope they see success with this type of construction which should increase awareness and sustainable design.  Hopefully this will create a market and an awareness for this type of product.