Michael Lewyn's blog

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.
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Urbanism, Suburbs and Families: They Can All Go Together

A few weeks ago, I read an online comment suggesting that unnamed "planners" displayed no interest in suburbia, single-family housing or family life, and instead are only interested in improving downtown neighborhoods for single people. If by "planners" the author of this comment meant new urbanists or critics of the sprawl status quo, this claim is simply incorrect.

Over the past month, I have visited half a dozen new urbanist developments in Dallas and Denver (1). All of these developments have a few things in common: all include both retail and residential uses, and all strive for walkability by providing sidewalks and narrow, gridded streets. But the developments differ in two other respects: geography and housing type.

Judaism and Urbanism

After visiting Denver for the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) conference, I began to meditate on the relationship between Judaism and urbanism, and on how few cities accommodate both. In particular, I was impressed by how well-populated downtown Denver was compared to the southern cities where I have spent the past three years (Jacksonville) and this summer (Little Rock) - but I stll couldn’t imagine myself living in downtown Denver all that comfortably.

How walkable is it?


Recently, an acquaintance asked me how to measure the walkability of a place he was visiting.  

I could have told him to just look at Walkscore (www.walkscore.com).  Walkscore assigns scores to places based on their proximity to a wide variety of destinations.  So if a place has a high walkscore AND a walkable street design (e.g. narrow streets, a grid system, etc.) it is probably pretty walkable.

Walkable vs. Unwalkable Airports

I’ve read some airport-related planning literature about the interiors of airports and about their public transit connections. (For a good example of the latter, see http://www.planetizen.com/node/34842 ) But one other difference between airports relates to their exteriors: the difference between walkable airports and not-so-walkable airports.

When Spillover Parking Isn't So Bad

One justification for municipal minimum parking requirements is the danger of “spillover parking”: the fear that if Big Brother does not force businesses to build huge parking lots, that business’s customers will “spill over” into neighboring businesses or residential neighborhoods, thus reducing the parking available to the latter group.  For example, if Wal-Mart doesn’t build a thousand parking spaces, maybe Wal-Mart’s customers will park at Mom’n’Pop Groceries down the street, thus reducing the parking available to Mom’n’Pop customers.

Congestion, Pollution and Freeways

A common argument in favor of building sprawl-generating roads and highways is that if we just pave over enough of the United States, we can actually reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions by reducing congestion.  For example, a Reason Foundation press release cited a report by two University of California/Riverside engineering professors, “Real-World CO2 Impact of Traffic Congestion” (available online at http://www.cert.ucr.edu/research/pubs/TRB-08-2860-revised.pdf ).    But if you read the report carefully, its policy impact is a bit more ambiguous.

The Takings Muddle: A Brief Guide

The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment provides that government may not take private property without just compensation. The courts have held that this clause requires government to compensate landowners for losses caused by government regulation in certain situations- most notably when regulation leads to a permanent physical invasion of property (1) or makes property worthless (2).

A Pig In A Parlor

The state of Virginia’s decision to limit the use of cul-de-sacs in residential subdivisions(1) will no doubt create a torrent of commentary, both pro and con.  In the residential context, cul-de-sacs do have certain advantages: they limit traffic near homes, thus allegedly creating quieter environments for homeowners.    So perhaps there is a case for the residential cul-de-sac.

But in a commercial setting, the cul-de-sac may be the "right thing in the wrong place--such as a pig in a parlor instead of a barnyard.”(2)   In such settings, the cul-de-sac has the same disadvantages as the residential cul-de-sac, with few of the advantages.

One Way To Save Transit

In much of the United States, day-to-day transit service is under assault as never before; state and local treasuries have been depleted by the recession, and the federal stimulus package is unlikely to be helpful because federal dollars are more likely to flow into capital programs (English translation: shiny new railcars) than into preserving existing service (1). Thus, Americans will have the worst of both worlds: billions thrown at transportation while existing bus routes get whittled away.

Two bad words

Often, participants in public debates use words to mean things very different from their common-sense meanings, in order to manipulate the public’s emotions. Two examples in the field of urban planning come to mind.