Michael Lewyn's blog

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

One way to protect bus riders

As gas prices keep rising, the public demand for buses and trains keeps growing. Yet in some cities, government is actually cutting back transit service, because rising gas prices make transit vehicles more expensive to operate.(1) But as a matter of substantive policy, service reductions are not only less desirable than service increases, but also less desirable than fare increases. As a bus rider, I’d rather pay $1.50 and know that my service is safe from fiscal crises than pay $1 and worry that my service might be reduced or canceled next month. Moreover, if fairness means spreading pain equally throughout the population, it is fairer to have everyone pay a little more than to have some neighborhoods be left without service.

Who fights for suburbia?

This morning, one of my listservs was aflutter with discussion of a new article by Joel Kotkin, attacking an alleged "war against the suburbs." According to Kotkin, this "war" consisted of Jerry Brown’s efforts to "compel residents to move to city centers." After reading Kotkin’s article, I couldn’t really figure out exactly what Brown was trying to do- and since I don’t live in California, it really isn’t that important to me.

However, it is important to realize that "smart growth" need not be the enemy of suburbs. Here’s why:

Why Kelo is not a blank check

Last week marked the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Kelo v. New London. The first time I read Kelo, I thought what many Americans probably thought: that any government could seize property for any reason, so long as it compensated prior owners.

But after having taught Kelo to law students several times over the past few years, I now realize that Kelo is much more complex. Kelo was a 5-4 decision, and Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a separate concurrence. Because Justice Kennedy was the “swing vote”, his decision predicts future Court decisionmaking more accurately than the Court’s primary opinion, because a taking which fails to satisfy Kennedy might not be able to get five votes in the Supreme Court.

Learning from exam schools

Yesterday’s Washington Post contained a list of elite public schools- schools where the average student SAT is over 1300. Since suburban schools generally have better reputations than urban schools, one might expect that all the schools on the list would be in prestigious suburban school districts. But in fact, this is not the case. Three New York City schools (Stuyvestant, Hunter College, Bronx High) and one school near downtown Richmond (Maggie Walker) are on the high-SAT list- despite the fact that the New York City and Richmond school districts, like nearly all urban school districts, have mediocre reputations.

Learning from my suburb


For nearly all of my adult life, I have lived in small towns or urban neighborhoods. But for the past two years, I have lived in sprawl. When I moved to Jacksonville two years ago, I moved to Mandarin, a basically suburban neighborhood about nine miles from downtown. As I looked for apartments in 2006, I noticed that in many ways, Mandarin is typical sprawl: our major commercial street (San Jose Boulevard) is as many as eight lanes in some places, and even most apartments are separated from San Jose’s commerce. [See http://atlantaphotos.fotopic.net/c872477.html for my photos of Mandarin and other Jacksonville neighborhoods.] I thought Mandarin would be a typical suburb: homogenously white and upper-middle class.

How to teach about sprawl

Today, I turned in my grades for my seminar on "Sprawl and the Law." It occurred to me that some readers of this blog might be academics, and might be interested on how one can teach a course on sprawl.

I began by defining the issue. As I pointed out in an earlier post (at http://www.planetizen.com/node/31063) the term "sprawl" has two common meanings: where we grow (city or suburb) and how we grow (pedestrian-friendly or automobile-dependent). Policies that affect the first type of "sprawl" need not affect the second (and vice versa).

The Case Against Flexibility

A few weeks ago, I was reading yet another think-tank paper arguing against new rail projects. Amidst the sea of technical detail, one assertion bothered me: the common claim that bus service is more “flexible” than rail.

Myth and Reality About European Sprawl

Some commentators argue that sprawl is an inevitable result of affluence, based on European development patterns. These pundits tell a simple story: European urban cores are losing population and becoming more automobile-dependent - just like American cities. So if Europe can’t beat sprawl, neither can America.

Two kinds of sprawl

Once every few semesters, I teach a seminar on "Sprawl and the Law." On the first day of the seminar, I ask students what "sprawl" is. After getting a variety of answers, I reveal the truth: most definitions of sprawl involve one of two separate definitions:

"Where we grow"- Sprawl as movement from the core to the fringe of a region.

"How we grow"- Sprawl as development oriented towards drivers as opposed to nondrivers.

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