As editors of Planetizen, we review several hundred planning and development news articles, reports, books, studies, and editorials each month. Many of our news articles are contributed by correspondents and readers, and we also track the popularity of each article. This provides us with unique insight into which issues urban planners, developers, and allied professionals consider important. Based on this understanding, we have selected the most important issues from 2005, along with links to some of the more popular or influential stories on each topic.
On June 23, 2005, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the Kelo v. City of New London case in favor of the city, leading to intense debate over the hottest issue of the year. How much power should cities have to take private property for public use? The Fifth Amendment allows the government to seize property for public use by paying "just compensation". While city and state officials have traditionally interpreted this rule as giving cities the power of eminent domain to appropriate privately owned property for public goods such as highways or sports arenas, in Kelo's case, the city planned to replace private homes with private development, arguing that although the new development would not be a traditional public good, the replacement would be essential to the city's economic development and well being. Some prominent organizations, such as the American Planning Association and the Brookings Institution, did defend the ruling, yet the most prominent reaction came from property rights advocates and concerned citizens who feared the decision went too far. Beginning soon after the decision and continuing into 2006, a widespread backlash to Kelo has citizens across the country debating eminent domain, with a number of bills to limit cities' powers in the works.
The catastrophic storm that pounded the Gulf Coast in September 2005 hit urban planning with equal force. What does it mean for city planners that one of the great American cities can be devastated by a hurricane in one day? What happened to New Orleans' flood protection infrastructure? What aspects of Gulf Coast politics, security, and environmental planning did Katrina expose? How will all the refugees be housed? Should New Orleans be rebuilt to its former capacity, and if so, how? Countless questions arose from this tragedy, generating a unique opportunity for planners to examine the past, present, and future of the storm-ravaged region and rethink the way cities in the United States are planned.
The failure of the levees in New Orleans may have exposed only the tip of the iceberg in terms of America's sagging infrastructure. Although not the most glamorous of issues, infrastructure represents an array of physical and social services heavily relied upon by cities. Yet from flood control to railroads, highways, canals, waterworks, and public schools, the nation's backbone is in some cases literally falling apart. In response to problems laid bare by Katrina and harped on by commentators across the country, a number of states are beginning to develop creative funding techniques, such as bond measures, in order to step up in areas where the federal government may be lacking.
McMansions. Since the slang architectural term became popular over the last few years, the construction of larger and larger -- some say "supersized" -- single-family homes has skyrocketed. But the trend is no longer limited to suburban greenfield development. Now inner-ring suburbs and older city neighborhoods too find infill demolish-and-rebuild projects clocking in at close to three times the size of the 963 square foot home average of 1950. While property rights advocates support homeowners' decisions to build bigger, a number of cities have established McMansion moratoriums, outlawing construction of large, out-of-scale homes in older areas. Across the country, concern with "overdevelopment" has citizens scrambling to stop the ballooning home building industry. Next on the horizon? What else -- the McLoft.
In recent years across the country, downtowns and inner-ring suburbs have shown signs of rebirth. But as businesses and residents return in increasing numbers, housing in already tight markets may become even less affordable, and "price out" older residents subsiding on low rents in previously depressed areas. Infill housing development of this kind often takes one of two forms: urban "lofts", which tend to offer increasingly smaller spaces in "converted" older office buildings for increasingly greater prices, or condominium conversions, which resell rental apartments by the complex as homeownership opportunities. This practice, now often referred to as "condofication", sometimes means, for example, that renters paying under $1,000 per month for a 700 square foot apartment may wake up one morning to find their same space on sale for $300,000 -- and if they can't (or don't want) to make the down payment, they have to get out. Whether profit-motivated, developer-led gentrification or a market-driven benefit to city economic development and property taxes, condofication appears here to stay, and will surely make a big impact on housing demographics across the country in years to come.
Released in 2005, Google Maps and Google Earth dramatically simplified and democratized the general public's ability to access maps of the places they care about, from a graphical display showing a local neighborhood, to a 3-D satellite image depicting the polar ice caps. In addition to allowing users to learn more about the land use patterns of the world around them, the technology continues to afford a number of tangible benefits for cities and concerned citizens alike. Police departments have used Google to map crime trends and target resources; homebuyers can use versions of the software to find pricing data; and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Gulf Coast residents used Google Earth to find out which neighborhoods were devastated, and which were accessible. One lucky Italian even used the software to discover an ancient Roman villa in his backyard.
Wi-Fi networks, or wireless internet networks that provide high-speed Internet access to the general public, caught on quick in 2005, led by Mayor John Street's pioneering wireless effort in Philadelphia. The development of wi-fi networks raised two provocative questions for cities: first, should the networks be free of charge, thus adding broadband to the list of required municipal services, or should taxpayers -- many of whom may not even own computers -- make a contribution? Second, with the service industry, technology, and creativity as the new currencies of economic development, are wi-fi networks essential to those cities wishing to remain economically competitive? In 2005 alone, over a dozen U.S. cities thought so, as they developed their own networks, many at a low cost or free of charge. As reported in one Planetizen post, "Cities are betting big bucks that low-cost Web access will attract tech-savvy businesses, encourage tourism and project a hip image capable of wooing young professionals."
In 2005, Richard Florida released "The Flight of the Creative Class", a follow-up to his widely acclaimed 2002 book, "The Rise of the Creative Class". While the new book has not done as well, its release cemented the popularity of creative class theory, which urges city leaders to do whatever they can to entice creative workers, who are the foundation of a new global economy, to live in their cities. In November, author and commentator Joel Kotkin, on the other hand, released a paper on "The New Suburbanism", essentially telling political leaders and policymakers that the dominance of suburbia is here to stay, and that economic development efforts should focus there, and not on the relatively lost cause of downtowns. Over the past year, the debate between Kotkin and Florida has heated up, with cities listening closely for ideas about how to remain competitive.
50 years ago, geophysicist Marion King Hubbert predicted that worldwide production of oil would reach a "peak", as the Earth's oil reserves depleted. With demand remaining steady but production dropping ever more dramatically, the price of oil would skyrocket and millions of people around the world, especially drivers, who depend on oil, would be forced to find alternative energy sources. Although estimating the exact amount of global oil reserves remains difficult, some observers believe that the peak came and went in December of 2005. Whether oil prices will spike in 2006 or gradually increase over the next few decades, clearly a nation "addicted to oil" has been forced to play catch up and think hard about developing alternative energy sources for a demanding citizenry.
In 2002 it was "The Flight of the Creative Class"; this year, it's the "High Cost of Free Parking". UCLA Professor Don Shoup's book, one of Planetizen's Top 10 for 2005, generated constant discussion about the problems of free parking and transportation planning that revolves around often arbitrary residential and commercial parking requirements. From increased idling leading to more air pollution to the hidden costs of parking provision incurred by the taxpayer, Shoup seems to have convinced most planners that change is needed. In addition to year-round national exposure, the book touched off more parking planning by the EPA and other smart growth advocates, leaving cities ripe for parking management reform in 2006.
Did we miss anything? Can you predict the top issues for 2006? Write a comment below and let us know.
David Gest is Planetizen's Managing Editor. Abhijeet Chavan and Chris Steins are co-Editors-in-Chief of Planetizen.