Michael Lewyn's blog

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.
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Thanksgiving

Since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I thought I would ask myself: what I am thankful for that is related to urbanism?

Why I fight

Occasionally, someone familiar with my scholarship asks me: why do you care about walkability and sprawl and cities? Why is this cause more important to you than twenty other worthy causes you might be involved in?

The answer: Freedom. I grew up in a part of Atlanta that, for a carless teenager, was essentially a minimum-security prison. There were no buses or sidewalks, as in many of Atlanta’s suburbs and pseudo-suburbs.  But in my parents' non-neighborhood, unlike in most American suburbs, there were also no lawns to walk on, so if you wanted to walk, you had to walk in the street - not a particularly safe experience in 40 mph traffic.

Fun with transportation statistics

 

A few days ago, I was looking at a regional planning document and saw something startling: an assertion that transit ridership in my region has been going down. Since transit ridership has been going up nationwide, I smelled a rat.

After digging around through a big pile of statistics, I realized that there are so many different ways of measuring transit ridership that one can easily prove either that ridership is going up or that ridership is going down. Some possible measurements include:

We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us

Last week, voters in San Francisco voted against a measure to compel the city to set aside $30 million for affordable housing. Opponents of the proposal argued that "the city already has spent more than $200 million on affordable housing in the past several years, and is building more units - some affordable, some not - than anytime in recent history." (1) San Francisco is not alone; government at all levels seeks to provide housing assistance for the poor. 

But at the same time, government zones and rezones property to protect "property values" (2) - in other words, to cause home prices to increase over time rather than decrease. So government makes housing expensive with one arm while trying to provide affordable housing with the other.

Is the bad economy good for cities?


A few days ago, someone asked a question on one of my listservs about the likely impact of America’s economic crises upon urbanism.

The best answer is: it depends.

A Planner's Prayer

A PLANNER’S PRAYER

Next week, Jews around the world (including myself) will spend the day in synagogue for Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.  On that day, we will pray for forgiveness for our sins.  One Yom Kippur prayer, the Al Chet (Hebrew for “for the sin”) lists a variety of sins, requesting Divine forgiveness for each. (One English translation can be found at www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/6577/jewish/Text-... )

Sprawl Hell and Sprawl Heck


Last Friday, I was in two different suburban environments in Atlanta. Both are sprawl by any normal definition of the term - car-oriented environments where residential streets are separated from commerce, sidewalks are rare, and densities are low. But the two places are as different as sprawl and new urbanism.

McCain, Obama, and urbanism

The battle for the White House has reached my inbox, as even listservs about urbanism crackle with endorsements and denunciations of Obama, McCain, Palin, etc.

But all of this frenzied activity assumes that what a President says or thinks is particularly relevant to urban issues.  But this need not be so.  The policy areas most relevant to sprawl and urbanism, land use and transportation, are not likely to be directly affected by the results of the presidential election.  

In particular, zoning and similar land use issues are generally addressed by state and local governments.  Even the most pro-urban president is unlikely to take on anti-infill NIMBYism (1), make strip malls more walkable. or make streets narrower.  

Culs-de-Sac and Grids: A Middle Ground (Or Two, Or Three)

Smart growth supporters tend to prefer grid systems to cul-de-sacs, for excellent reasons. A proliferation of cul-de-sacs artificially lengthens walking distances: if streets don’t connect to each other, you might have to walk a mile to go just a few hundred feet. In addition, cul-de-sacs increase traffic congestion by dumping most vehicular traffic on a few major streets. And because biking is less safe on busy, high-traffic streets, bikers benefit from a grid system as well.

Crime and urban design: Oscar Newman 36 years later

I recently read Oscar Newman’s 1970s book on crime prevention, “Defensible Space.”  In this book, Newman addressed the question of why some public housing projects are insanely dangerous, and others only moderately so.   Although Newman’s analysis is mostly confined to low-income housing, commentators of all stripes have relied on his work:  new urbanist commentator Laurence Aurbach asserts that Newman’s work supports new urbanists’ emphasis on heavily trafficked, walkable streets (1) while Randall O’Toole considers Newman to be a defender of single-use, cul-de-sac sprawl (2).                                                        

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