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Urban Planning

Getting to Know the Smart Location Database


Getting to Know the Smart Location Database


Earlier this fall, the US Environmental Protection Agency released the second version of its Smart Location Database (SLD), a GIS data resource for measuring "location efficiency" across the country.  Location efficiency refers to the idea that the urban context of a development - say, a suburban mall or a mixed use town center - influences the impact that development has on its environment, including things like travel behavior, energy consumption, and stormwater runoff.  Smart locations, then, are places where development impacts are minimized. Charlotte, NC: The SLD provides a consistent means of describing different locations across the city or across the country in terms of their built environment.

Renaissance led the development of the enhanced SLD, consisting of updating EPA’s original pilot version from 2000 to 2010 Census geographies, but also incorporating a number of new measures.  I had the privilege to work on developing many of the indicators included in the SLD update and wanted to share some of the highlights of this exciting data product.

What Data is Available and How Can it Be Accessed?

The SLD includes over 90 variables that describe the built environment at a given location, especially focusing on the growing list of "D's" attributes (density, diversity, design, distance to transit, and destination accessibility are specifically covered) that have garnered much attention in planning research.  All data are compiled at the census block group scale with nationwide coverage.  Casual users can view data online in an interactive map, while GIS practitioners can download data for a region of interest or the entire country and conduct in-depth analysis.

The immediately cool thing here is that the SLD provides one-stop shopping for data that would otherwise need to be cobbled together from several disparate sources.  Moreover, it comes packed with "value-added" data that would entail substantial analytical effort to develop independently, including :

  • assessments of areas that are protected from development;
  • a host of land use diversity measures;
  • detailed network and intersection density metrics; and my favorite:
  • regional accessibility by auto or by transit.  (Although the latter is limited to those places that shared Google Transit feed files on the GTFS data exchange, it still covers over 200 transit providers.)

Uses and Applications

Having these data available at the block group scale with nationwide coverage opens up a ton of analytical possibilities.   Right out of the box, users can compare the D's attributes of various places within a region of interest or aggregate data for comparisons across counties, regions, or states.  The clever cartographer can produce maps that display multiple variables, providing complex analysis at a glance.  Users in rural areas and small towns - places where local data are often scarce - can access a rich array of information quickly.

Access to jobs by transit compared to low wage residents and zero car households for Baltimore, MD.

EPA offers its own list of prospective uses of the SLD:

The Smart Location Database may be appropriate for use in local and regional planning studies when better local data is unavailable. Sample uses of the Database include:

  • Assessing and comparing neighborhood conditions
  • Identifying suitable locations for growth or investment
  • Scenario planning and transportation analysis

However, the SLD can be taken much further.  By providing a uniform set of measures, it introduces an open platform from which GIS developers can create powerful analytical tools.  These tools could measure how things like impervious surface area, vehicle miles of travel, or trips made by walking would be expected to vary based on where development occurs.  By lowering the costs of data development, the SLD would make such tools immediately deployable by planning professionals throughout the country.

The SLD can provide data to drive lightweight applications.  Here's an example of a simple spreadsheet tool I built to quickly predict travel behavior at two alternative development locations.  The example uses SLD data for two locations in the Salt Lake City, UT area.

Demonstrating this potential, EPA is currently using the SLD in a research study of workplace location efficiency, specifically examining how D's attributes at employment locations impact travel to and from work.  I'm excited to see what tools and methods of analysis will emerge from that study and how others will extend the utility of the SLD through custom geoprocessors and lightweight applications.

Accessing More Information Faster

Planners can always benefit from having faster, easier access to more information. The SLD contributes to a growing body of rich, readily available data that can help local and regional planners understand their communities more comprehensively and, in turn, serve those communities more efficiently and effectively.  I hope to share some additional, specific thoughts on how we can do that in the near future and perhaps provide more detail on using GTFS data to assess transit accessibility.  In the meantime, happy mapping.

Those who are interested in more detailed information on the data contained in the SLD, as well as the source data and methods used to develop it, should check out the SLD User Guide.

–Alex Bell, Cities That Work Blog


Minding Your Money - Should Planners Care About Revenue Per Acre?

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Minding Your Money - Should Planners Care About Revenue Per Acre?


Some revenue-strapped local governments and smart growth advocates are finding common ground on the subject of how new development can be more fiscally productive for the city or county budget. Planners are being advised to pay more attention to the revenue per acre (property tax primarily) of a property rather than its total revenue generated, because that signals a project that produces more revenue for every acre of land consumed. Studies from places as diverse as Asheville, North Carolina; Sarasota County, FL; and nine towns in four western states show mixed-use, higher density development in compact, walkable places like downtowns dramatically outperforming typical suburban development types like malls, big box stores and single-family housing. Source: Joe Minicozzi

What planner or budget director wouldn’t want more of the stuff on the right hand side of this chart? (Click on it to read the labels.) As a wake-up call to communities about the fiscal value of their downtowns, this sort of research and analysis is invaluable. It has similar value as additional support for developing new walkable, mixed-use places with higher densities than might be typical for a suburban locale. The financial crisis, recession and debates about government spending and debt have put financial issues to the forefront in public discussions, so being able to marshal such data to make the case for smart growth (or whatever you want to call it) is a good thing.

But as a planner with an undergraduate degree in economics who has spent much of his career dealing with the financial and real estate aspects of planning, I have a few observations about the substance and implications of this sort of analysis. Now that it is gaining national attention and being proposed as a tool for evaluating proposed development projects, the revenue-per-acre concept deserves some critical review.

Thoughts on the Theory

First off, some thoughts about the basic math and economics involved. If the focus is on revenue per acre, then obviously the more building space you construct on a parcel the more property taxes that parcel will generate. That means taller buildings and denser development. But there are natural limits to how tall and how dense you can build, and where you can build in such fashion. Just as trees don’t grow upwards forever, buildings can only go so high and downtowns can only expand so far according to a variety of factors determined by the local context. Tall buildings cost more to build, and thus must command higher prices in the market to be economically feasible. Downtowns, major employment centers, and other locations where people and businesses really want to be are going to be more valuable places to build, and thus able to support more-intense development and a greater range of uses (see Central Place Theory). Development that is farther out from these places uses more land and spreads out more for a reason: the land is cheap enough to do so. This is why a Target store on the Near North Side of Chicago can have three stories when the typical suburban store will only have one, and the one-story store has a big parking lot while the three-story store has a three-story attached parking garage. The density, intensity, and construction type reflects the land value and market demand.

Image Source:  Walsh Construction

So revenue per acre is a useful observation, but only up to a point. There are places where higher revenue per acre can be achieved, and those are the places we should protect, reinforce, and potentially expand using appropriate planning policies, and guide development toward using economic development tools. And there are places that are not as valuable, which host less-intense development and provide particular characteristics that are demanded in the market. Single-family neighborhoods are a good example of such places, as are the retail centers that serve those neighborhoods. These places may not produce as much revenue as a five-story mixed-use building on a per-acre basis, but they can produce as much revenue as the market will bear and are valuable components of a community’s tax base.

Turning the Diagnosis into a Prescription

The fiscal problem of suburban sprawl, as outlined in compelling fashion by the folks at Strong Towns, is that we have spent several decades building primarily lower-valued places, neglecting our existing higher-valued places, and not building enough new higher-valued places. And the infrastructure required to serve these lower-valued places is expensive enough that we are not getting enough return on our public investment. A community that consists mainly of single-family homes and strip shopping centers may not have enough revenue coming in to cover its capital costs when the time comes to replace its roads and utility infrastructure – and some towns are starting to have trouble already.

Looking at revenue per acre has helped us to diagnose the fiscal problem with our growth patterns, but we need to be cautious and thoughtful in how we turn that diagnosis into a prescription for better fiscal health. A deliberate policy to maximize the value of new development risks pricing out people who can’t afford it, because more-valuable property translates into higher home prices and commercial lease rates. A well-intentioned revenue strategy risks becoming a new form of the fiscal zoning policies that some communities have used to keep out low- and moderate-cost housing, rental apartments, and other uses deemed fiscally undesirable.

Planning for Fiscal Health

This is a new area of planning that is still developing its theoretical foundation and analytical tools, so it will be interesting to watch it evolve. The fact that we are having this discussion at all is a good sign of progress. My initial thinking is that broad-based, rigorous, and integrated planning that incorporates these fiscal and economic issues will be the best way to go. Calculating the public ROI of individual projects and reviewing them on that basis seems too close to fiscal zoning, and ignores the cross-subsidization between places in a community and the value that they create collectively. In a healthy community, downtown supports the outlying neighborhoods and vice versa – it’s not every property for itself. I’m more inclined to the approach laid out in this white paper that uses property value as an indicator for measuring neighborhood quality of life, and then directs financial resources to neighborhoods on a competitive basis. That way you are prioritizing your capital projects and other spending where it is most needed and most effective to improve the quality of life, which increases property values and ultimately revenue generation. Rather than prioritizing expensive development projects, let’s build better places where every property becomes more valuable.

–Dave Stamm, Cities That Work Blog

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Contemplating the Urban Oasis

keywest Harry Truman solved his problem. Seeking escape from the "White Prison" of Washington, D.C., he discovered the Little White House on Key West in 1946 as his oasis from the international post-WWII storms, political gamesmanship and scandal that roiled his first term as Roosevelt's successor.

He never liked the White House and its trappings, and endured more than his fair share of criticism as president while making critical and accountable decisions during years of crisis. "If you want a friend in Washington," Truman was to have said, "get a dog." After his initial foray to Key West in 1946 for doctor-prescribed R&R, he spent 175 days there during his 2nd term, mostly working in the company of aides and dignitaries, with an occasional poker game with the boys and a fishing trip when his wife and daughter visited.

Harry Truman understood the importance of down time. Between today's constant 24/7 pull of the Internet, social media, "breaking" news updates and demands for professional service and work deadlines, I find myself having a greater need for time spent alone, with family or in the company of friends in some type of public open space setting. The trouble is, it's getting harder to take the big two-week vacation, unplug and disconnect in some wonderful or remote setting. And the long, stressful days leading up to and immediately after that big event make it barely worthwhile. Rather, I've come to appreciate much more the snippets of time over a weekend or on a day here, half day there basis relaxing and recharging in some contemplative urban oasis amid dense foliage, rippling streams, walking paths and strong on-shore breezes perfectly made for contemplation.

Valuing Open Space

We often think of cities as great gathering places offering high levels of accessibility for people to interact and innovate by sharing ideas. But in addition to creating walkable, transit-oriented places, an important part of making cities livable is access to public parks and natural spaces. There is a growing body of research showing that public parks and open space reduce stress, improve health and contribute to economic prosperity of neighborhoods and local governments. While factors like distance and level of maintenance matter, a typical example is a recent study conducted in Greenville, SC, which found that small and medium parks have a positive influence on neighboring property values. This, in turn, can result in higher assessments and thus higher property tax revenues for local governments, potentially off-setting the capital and maintenance cost of greenways, parks and the like. It's certainly wise to try to monetize such benefits in this era of fiscal accountability, but let's not overlook the social and personal value of creating places for people to appreciate nature, get away from the constant marketing and the impersonal institutional surroundings of our daily lives. We all need our escapes.

The Morikami Experience

Buddha in repose at Morikami Gardens

A short drive west from I-95 in Delray Beach, FL amid sprawling six-lane roads and gated suburban enclaves, you'll find The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens. Dedicated in 1975 and maintained by the Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Department, the Morikami features 200 acres of scenic vistas, walking trails traversing six distinct sculpted natural gardens, and a fine Japanese café, museum and classrooms. The gardens provide ample places to stroll alongside streams or sit beside waterfalls and flowering tendrils of Firebush, Mexican Petunias and Alamanda.

A stream flows through the Morikami Japanese Gardens in Palm Beach County, FL.

Like many suburban communities, Palm Beach County has been slow to recognize the importance and value of streets as livable places. As with all of Florida's big urban counties, roads are public places ceded primarily to the speed and efficiency of private automobile travel. Residential and even commercial land uses are generally hidden behind dense buffers of vegetation or walled and gated barriers designed to separate the impersonal public realm from private enclaves. Amid the sprawl and "thou shalt not" feeling of restricted public right-of-way and private gated communities, the Morikami and places like it provide a valuable and rewarding respite of communal open space designed to transport people away from the cacophony of traffic and commercial striving.

Innovative Open Space

While the Morikami is a "drive to" garden oasis that is a true regional and even statewide resource, urban open spaces ranging in size from pocket parks of a few hundred square feet to a few hundred acres improve livability and walkability.

The Trust for Public Land has a nice report on "Shoehorn Parks," covering innovative strategies to squeeze green spaces out of crowded cities. My personal favorite is the use of cemeteries, which served as the principal open space in cities before parks as we know them today. Rooftops, school yards, stormwater channels and streets all can function as usable, enjoyable open space.

The Key West Cemetery dates to 1847 with 75,000 people interred on 19 acres in the "dead center" of Old Town.

The Key West Cemetery is an eclectic bit of history on 19 acres in the heart of Old Town built on the island's highest natural point. The cemetery dates to 1847 after a hurricane forced its reconstruction, and it includes markers commemorating the sinking of the battleship U.S.S. Maine in 1898 and graves of numerous other military veterans, as well as sections for Key West's Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Cuban residents. Even on a hot day in mid-summer, a late morning stroll through the cemetery provides a peaceful and fascinating view into the lives of so many different people. These urban places, both big like the Morikami or small like the Key West Cemetery or neighborhood pocket parks, offer a welcome respite from the stress and anxiety of everyday life, making our communities more livable.

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Talk Planner to Me


Talk Planner to Me


Millenium Park in Chicago Last week I had the pleasure of attending my first American Planning Association National Planning Conference in Chicago. The experience was invaluable and inspiring; with 5,000+ planners packed into one place, I felt right at home. It was a great opportunity to network, learn about the latest trends in planning, and listen to the renowned speakers who reaffirmed my passion for planning. Between all of the interesting session options and mobile workshops, not to mention the multitude of activities Chicago has to offer, my only regret is that I was unable to be in 10 places at once. In my free time I visited Millennium Park, The Art Institute of Chicago, and biked along the Chicago Lakefront Trail.

One of the sessions I attended was called “Fast, Funny and Passionate,” in which presenters were given seven minutes to present on a topic of choice, usually in a humorous way. Interestingly, three of the presenters discussed the misconceptions the general public has about the planning profession. I couldn’t help but laugh because when people ask me what I do and I inform them I am an urban planner, 90 percent of the time I receive the following response: a smile and head nod, followed by “So what exactly is that?”

As defined by the APA, planning “is a dynamic profession that works to improve the welfare of people and their communities by creating more convenient, equitable, healthful, efficient, and attractive places for present and future generations.” Great definition, but how does that translate into real life? One of the presenters in the Fast, Funny and Passionate session described planning as often intangible, then challenged us to make planning more tangible by spreading knowledge about what planning is and what it stands for. The following is a tiny snapshot of what planners do using brief examples of some of the interesting planning efforts and emerging trends I learned about while attending the conference.

What Do Planners Do?

Planners research and evaluate trends in demographics to determine the potential impacts on communities. A growing concern is the aging population and their ability to “age in place.” Renaissance’s Whit Blanton authored a White Paper on the subject that was presented during the Delegate Assembly, which addressed potential policy responses for the impact “Graying of America” will have on communities.

Planners develop design guidelines for transportation infrastructure. Renaissance’s Vlad Gavrilovic presented the Multimodal System Design Guidelines developed for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. The guidelines provide a framework for multimodal projects at the regional, community and corridor level, with a step-by-step process for implementing the guidelines.

Planners perform technical analyses to assess the possible impacts different plans and growth trends will have on the community, city, or region. Scenario planning is becoming a preferred method of this type of analysis, with nearly two-thirds of planning agencies having used scenario planning, as noted by Renaissance’s Kate Ange. That statistic comes from a survey Renaissance conducted for FHWA to assess the state of scenario planning as a tool for planning agencies. Additionally, more than 50 percent of respondents noted the need to engage stakeholders and citizens in long range planning as their main purpose for using scenario planning. The Cape Cod Commission embarked on a scenario planning effort called the Regional Wastewater Management Plan (RWMP) to alleviate wastewater problems occurring from septic tanks leaking into the watersheds of Cape Cod. The Commission used scenario planning in real-time at public workshops to quickly show the public the impact different wastewater treatment options will have on their communities and to allow them to decide what treatments their communities would receive.

Planners develop innovative funding strategies to improve their communities. To comply with California Senate Bill 375 to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions by 15 percent per capita by 2035, San Francisco implemented a grant program to tie transportation funding to focused development. The One Bay Area Grant (OBAG) is an incentive-based program that encourages compact growth by awarding transportation grant funds for projects located in Priority Development Areas (PDAs).

Planners address sustainability issues. Sustainable Jersey is a sustainability certification program for municipalities in New Jersey. Launched in 2009, the non-profit organization certifies communities that have taken specific actions to become more sustainable. Some of these actions include conducting energy audits for all municipal buildings, assessing the municipal carbon footprint, and adopting a water conservation ordinance. Points are awarded per each action and are added up to determine the level of certification achieved: gold, silver or bronze. The program also provides training workshops and priority access to grant funds.

Design Concept for Stormwater Management in Philadelphia Photo Credit: Philadelphia Water Department

Planners work to mitigate stormwater runoff that can harm lakes, rivers and streams. To address stormwater issues, the City of Philadelphia Water Department developed a 25-year plan to convert 9,564 impervious surface acres into greenland acres. The plan, called Green City, Clean Waters, implements green infrastructure systems that will reduce flooding risks, improve water quality, and enhance the aesthetics of Philadelphia by greening the city.

Why Planning Matters

The world is ever-changing. We have limited resources and limited space with a continuously growing population. A large portion of this population is aging and we must anticipate and plan for their changing needs. The sea-level is rising, forcing many communities to consider the impact this will have on their residents and economy. Lack of affordable housing in downtown areas has contributed to the reliance on the car; the reliance on the car has contributed to America’s obesity epidemic and dependence on unsustainable energy sources.

There are many interconnected issues that planning addresses, and those mentioned in this post only scratch the surface. To sum it all up, I leave you with a quote from APA President Mitchell Silver during his opening conference speech, which I think succinctly gets to the heart of planning: “We are the profession that addresses the uncertainty of the future.”


The New SimCity: Unleash Your Inner Planner


The New SimCity: Unleash Your Inner Planner


With the upcoming March release of its latest iteration of SimCity, Maxis seeks to stoke the inner city planner in all of us once again. The classic franchise, which started way back in 1989 with the release of the original SimCity, has always strived to make us all into mayors and chief planners of our own living, breathing cities. I played the original SimCity when I was 10 years old, and as crazy as it sounds -- the game had a lot to do with my career choice...and here I am almost 24 years later. [youtube]


You've Come a Long Way, Baby

Video games have come a long way since the '80s, and with each of its subsequent releases: SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4, Maxis increased the level of detail and control that mayors had on their cities. Their latest iteration, simply named SimCity, seeks to take sandbox gaming to an entirely different level.

The game still utilizes single-use zoning (residential, commercial and industrial) as its primary planning tool, but the interactions between these land uses are much more complex thanks to the new GlassBox simulation engine. While the previous versions of the game simulated high-level statistics and then created graphical animations to represent the simulated data, the new gaming engine replaces those statistics with agents. These agents are simulation units that represent objects such as water, power and individual workers. In previous versions a traffic jam animation would be shown to represent a traffic flow problem; the new SimCity will produce a traffic jam dynamically by masses of Sim agents that simulate travel to and from individual work locations. This is heady stuff! You can actually click on individual Sims in the game walking, riding the bus or driving their car and see in real-time where they live, where they work, where they are currently heading and even their individual happiness level.

Testing 1, 2, 3

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take part in the first closed beta period for the new game back in January. While I had not played SimCity in quite a few years -- since SimCity 4 -- it came back to me immediately, much like riding a bike. Instantly, I was transported back to the fond childhood memories that the previous versions had provided me. The closed beta began with a "Getting Started Scenario," which gave a quick overview, and then I was on my own to build and create my city. The beta was limited to a one-hour gameplay period, and then I was forced to start all over. In the limited time I was given, I was able to get a good idea of how the game played and just how much it has improved.


For starters, while SimCity 4 relied on a simple grid pattern much like the previous versions had, the new SimCity is much more free-form. This increases player control on the look and feel of their cities exponentially. For example, laying out a road in any shape and alignment desired will then determine the lot sizes and shapes accordingly to match. Another nice feature is that all of your infrastructure needs (power, water, sewage) are provided underneath the roads, which is a welcome improvement to those of us who were used to manually building power lines and water pipes to service our Sims.

You still have plenty of options when it comes to power generation. From coal, oil, wind, solar and even nuclear -- you get to make the decision, but must be wary of the upfront costs, lifespan and environmental concerns that go along with each. SimCity mayors have total control over what kind of city they want to build. You want a medium-density city? Fine. You want to legalize gambling and have a casino -entered economy? Go for it. However, be prepared to deal with the high-crime and other societal ills that may come along with that decision.

While my time with the beta was limited, Norman Chan wrote a great piece at -- where he tested different real-world development patterns including urban grid, radiating sprawl and cul-de-sac segregation to see how they fared in the new game.

Transportation Planning

As a transportation planner, the most intriguing aspect of SimCity to me is the transportation system. It has always been the most important part of the game for me since I was a child. From the early days of 2-lane roads only in the original SimCity, to the very detailed transportation options in SimCity 4, this newest version takes it to an entirely new level. The SimCity roadway network ranges from dirt roads to 6-lane boulevards with streetcar tracks. An interesting improvement of note is that now the type of roadway built determines the density of development that will occur adjacent to it. Want a high-density corridor like Manhattan's Avenue-of-the-Americas?  Build a grand avenue with lots of transit service to support it. That brings me to public transportation.

Good public transportation, long exclusive to large, dense metropolitan areas, is increasingly being looked to as a priority in many small to medium-sized American cities. This is no exception in SimCity, which includes bus and train (light and heavy) terminals, shuttle buses, streetcars, subways, park-and-ride lots, ferries and planes -- there are a multitude of options to get your Sims out of their cars and connect them to destinations both inside and outside your city.

Regional Planning or a Tale of Two Cities?

Probably the most important new feature of the new game is the multiplayer aspect. Playing with friends adds a new dimension to how SimCity is played. The decisions you make will affect not only your city, but the other cities in your region as well. "Thanks a bunch for opening up that new casino and bringing all that crime my way, Uncle Nick!"

But in all seriousness, planning has become increasingly more regional in nature over the past decade -- and the new SimCity is heading in that direction as well. Cities within a region can make deals for trash removal, power and water treatment in much the same way they do today. You may decide to take a neighboring city's garbage or provide them power for the extra income they can provide, but the problems that come with those deals are left for you to mitigate. Connecting your city to theirs via airports, seaports, rail terminals and highways gives you access to their population and employment. One must consider, however, that this also creates more competition for those denizens and their hard-earned simoleons (the national currency of SimNation).

In addition to regional planning, there is now a world economy. Prices of key resources like food and oil will fluctuate depending on the game's world supply and demand. So if players around the world are selling oil onto the global market, the price of the resource will go down -- of course the opposite is true as well. A little too real? I wonder if I zoom in far enough, will I be able to see my Sims grimace at the pump like I did this morning?



Realistic Expectations?


While SimCity does a great job at making us all mayors and planners of our own cities and regions, it unrealistically gives us unlimited power and control of the city budget, unlimited bulldozing power (eminent domain), and provides no legal hurdles to development. While this makes things much easier than reality -- it's most likely necessary as they probably wouldn't sell as many copies if you had to wait the weeks, months or even years for development to get through all of the public involvement, permitting and possible funding problems that occur in reality. Both gamers and developers alike want as much reality as possible, but not THAT much... SimCity does, however, realistically base population and economic growth on planning policy and documented economic theory, which is about as real as you're ever going to see in a video game.

I highly recommend that you pick up a copy when the game is released in a few weeks. Whether you want to build our own version of utopia or just need a break from the realities of urban planning. Whether you choose to emulate Daniel Burnham, Ebeneezer Howard, Andrés Duany or Robert Moses (I'd advise against the latter), the SimWorld is your oyster.