Sprinting Past the NIMBY-Climate Impasse
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Elite portions of the Bay Area (Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Pleasanton, and Marin County) adopt many leading-edge green policies but stumble when it comes to accommodating regional population growth. These areas fear the impacts of growth within their own boundaries and have difficulty empathizing with regional objectives. Their plodding multi-year comprehensive plan processes yield unimaginative results hampered by small and skewed public input.
“Design sprints” (week-long intensive problem-solving and brainstorming) and high-tech participatory democracy (a la California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsome’s book Citizenville) can shrink 48-month public processes down to one week, with more innovative outcomes, higher impact mitigation, richer quantitative analyses, and increased public participation, all at much lower cost.
Regional planning to protect the climate
In the past, states, regions, and cities passively experienced population growth without proactively shaping that growth. One-half of US states now have modest laws to reduce sprawl or promote infill development. The early outlier was Oregon’s 1973 law, that spurred impressive results in the Portland metro area. Maryland’s 1997 Smart Growth Areas Act (SGAA) spurred a wave of states to adopt regional smart growth policies, but these laws lacked an enforcement mechanism for cities. In 2011, Florida repealed their law. California may be starting another SGAA-sized wave, only this time with modest enforcement mechanisms.
In the past 20 years, California has gradually adopted commendable, if sometimes unpopular, planning policies to minimize GHG and traffic congestion. The two main planks are: 1) maximize mixed-use transit village apartments/condos (to produce one-fourth the carbon footprint and driving of single family homes), and 2) add housing where there is a jobs imbalance. Taken together, these two planks reconfigure the geometry of human settlement patterns, minimizing the distance/energy between home, work, and activities. Compared to single family homes, apartments and condos reduce “housing square footage per person,” reducing household energy consumption. UC Berkeley research finds adding housing next to jobs is a very effective strategy to reduce driving.
California State Housing and Community Development Department created a process for regions to forecast population growth and allocate growth to cities. Every seven years, cities are required by law to update their Comprehensive Plans and Housing Elements to plan for that growth. Some cities view this process, the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, as a profane four-letter word: RHNA (pronounced “reena”). Local slow-growth advocates anonymously comment “RHNA is central planning authoritarianism run amok cloaked in the language of compassion” and “The next time someone calls you a NIMBY, you can call him a DUMBTWIG — Developer Undermining My Beautiful Town With Insatiable Greed.”
State Senate Bill SB375 strengthened RHNA by further linking land use to climate protection. “Californians need to rethink how we design our communities.” Regions must “prepare a Sustainable Communities Strategy to reduce the amount of vehicle miles traveled and to demonstrate the region’s ability to attain its GHG reduction targets. Spending less time on the road is the single-most powerful way for California to reduce its carbon footprint.”
Specifically for Palo Alto, Palo Alto Weekly Editor Emeritus Jay Thorwaldson wrote a 1968 article on Palo Alto’s jobs/housing imbalance, with 2.4 jobs for every household in those days. Jay’s comment on Palo Alto’s current jobs/housing imbalance: “Well-intentioned and environmentally conscious Palo Alto has restricted housing to create a terrible environmental situation with long commutes wasting fuel. It’s an insoluble situation. Long commutes damage the social fabric and create lower quality of life. Workers are forced to commute (77 miles) from Manteca, etc. Palo Alto has a drawbridge mentality. Compounding the insolubility, objections raised by neighborhood associations are legitimate.”
The impasse is passionate and somewhat “religious” in nature. Both the pro regional climate protection and pro slow-growth sides perceive themselves as virtuous saviors battling the other side.
A comprehensive plan design sprint
City Comprehensive Plan updates to accommodate significant new residential growth are similar in complexity to algebraic systems of N equations (planning constraints) with N unknowns, requiring iterative calculations to generate optimized outcomes. Old-fashioned planning processes incorrectly compartmentalize analyses whereas modern processes treat planning scenarios holistically, allowing tradeoffs to be made between different planning variables. Modern processes can be characterized as “a massively parallel problem-solving supercomputer networking hundreds of human brains.”
In Citizenville, Gavin Newsome draws on his frustrations from his term as San Francisco’s Mayor. Within public processes, loud citizen voices drown out others. Feedback is monopolized by a small, passionate group of people with hours of free weeknight time to spend sitting through plodding public meetings. At these meetings, staff/electeds spend four times longer than normal to say half as much, in order to not to offend anyone. The views of the too-busy-to-attend silent majority are ignored in favor of more extreme views. Old-fashioned processes enable defensive, obstacle-seeking strategies, dampening problem-solving creativity.
According to Newsome, “new digital tools can dissolve political gridlock and transform democracy.” These tools address complex, messy, seemingly-intractable issues and augment citizen capacity to find ways through messy situations. Rapid-fire processes break down creative barriers.
According to Google Ventures Design Staff, “design sprints” produce predictably good results for startups and new products in only one week. Such sprints also promise to revolutionize city planning processes. Envision an elite city such as Palo Alto holding an intensive sprint week with objectives: 1) Create one or more “maximally mitigated” scenarios to add 12,000 new housing units to Palo Alto’s existing 27,000 by 2030. 2) Quantify impacts on city budget, school district budget, traffic, spillover parking, real-estate market segments, affordable housing, public facilities needs, infrastructure needs, quality of life, and regional GHG/VMT. 3) After exhausting all potential innovations, analyze whether the resultant numbers add up to a feasible or infeasible scenario. Determine if the region’s request can be accommodated or quantify the shortfalls.
Given such objectives, a planning sprint flow is provided below:
Before the sprint: Prepare
Prime your citizenry for innovation-seeking creativity by showcasing best practices and radical new ideas from other cities. Partner with local media to spread the word. Generate buzz in advance of the sprint week.
Get the people and things you need. Assemble a sprint team composed of multiple disciplines and perspectives: City/school/regional staff, planning commissioners, academics, neighborhood association members, local architects, large real-estate interests, design professionals, etc. By far the key person is a strong facilitator who can guide the Loud Voices into productive contributions, converting their “show stopper objections” into “constraints for creative problem solving.” Innovation-dampening voices (such as some City Attorneys) should not be allowed onto the team.
Develop cloud spreadsheets for sketch plan “what if” impact analysis. Share these spreadsheets with the public Newsome urges greater transparency combined with pushing data to hackers.
Develop 3D SketchUp models for quick visualization of new apartments/condos of different heights in different locations.
At 7PM each day of the sprint, the team should quickly “report out” results to a live video stream, soliciting mass smartphone vote-back on key issues. The daily report out shall also be packaged for 8PM to 9AM interaction featuring a youtube of the report out, a web survey for additional vote-back, and social network discussion. The discussion should require registered, real-name users and should be moderated to ensure respectful, facts-seeking discourse. A staffer shall prepare a next-day 9AM team briefing on the overnight feedback, ensuring 24 productive hours in each sprint day.
Package up the most unsolvable problems and submit to worldwide “community of practice” forums, to maximize creative solution input.
Day 1: Understand
Dig into the planning problem through staff reports, review of best practices from other cities, and team input. The first step is to get all of this latent knowledge out of people’s heads and into a visual representation so everyone can understand the extent of the problem. Next, dive in and get to work. Day 1 success can be characterized as “citizens favoring slow growth agree that their concerns have been integrated as constraints-to-be-solved within the process.”
Day 2: Diverge
Rapidly develop as many solutions/scenarios as possible.
Day 3: Select and Prototype
Choose the best scenarios and hammer out a “2030 resident experience” story. Build something quick and dirty that can be shown to citizens/users: A) Translate scenarios into quantified impacts that are shared via cloud spreadsheets. B) Render scenarios into 3D model birds eye views.
Day 4: Validate
Show the scenarios to folks outside of the sprint team and probe about what works and what doesn’t work.
Day 5: Refine and re-validate
Week 2: Report to Planning Commission and Council
The next step
Problem-solving to address the constraints from the Loud Voices will produce transformative innovations. Such breakthroughs can only occur if an elite area agrees to undertake an innovation-seeking design sprint. Success of this planning sprint with motivate future sprints in other locations.
Crowd-sourced city planning examples
San Francisco Gray Area for the Arts’ (GAFFTA) September 2012 Urban Prototyping Festival (‘teams create replicable digital and physical urban interventions that explore new possibilities in public space. Every project produced is open source, publicly documented, and replicable in any city in the world.’) applied the ‘maker ethos’ to city planning.”
Using Futurescaper, a Swedish project examines important trends and issues facing the future of mobility in cities, combining social gaming with crowdsourcing to create collaborative futures scenarios.
Calculations and references
Google Ventures Design Sprint: http://www.designstaff.org/articles/product-design-sprint-2012-10-02.html
Gavin Newsome’s Citizenville: http://citizenville.com/
A Guide to California’s SB 375, NRDC, June 2009, 32 pages. Includes chapters on Sustainable Communities Strategy and Regional Housing Needs Allocation. http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/sb375/files/sb375.pdf
Smart growth: 1/4 the per capita energy consumption of single family homes:
A 2006 study by Robert Cervero and Michael Duncan of the University of California, Berkeley, concludes that locating housing next to jobs is the most effective strategy in reducing vehicle mileage (and generation of carbon dioxide). Their conclusions are detailed in an article, “Which Reduces Vehicle Travel More: Jobs-Housing Balance or Retail-Housing Mixing?” in the Autumn 2006 Journal of the American Planning Association.
Jerry Brown to Pleasanton: Housing and Climate Change Are Connected
Menlo Park settles housing lawsuit: City commits to updating plan, finding affordable housing sites. http://almanacnews.com/news/show_story.php?id=11251
Palo Alto Planning Commission Slams ABAG’s Initial Vision Scenario of adding 12,000 new households by 2035, without empathy for regional objectives. http://paloalto.patch.com/articles/planning-commission-slams-abags-initial-vision-scenario
ClimateOne Slams Palo Alto on Housing: http://www.cities21.org/cms/index.php?page=climateone-zings-palo-alto-on-housing. Palo Alto is characterized as “murderous to future populations.”
Affordable housing is again a red flag in ‘green’ Marin County: The issue has long produced conflict in the eco-friendly county, California’s wealthiest. Officials are being urged to help workers find housing in a place where the median home price is $650,000. http://articles.latimes.com/2013/mar/31/local/la-me-affordable-marin-20130401 . “Marin is near the back of the pack in the nine-county Bay Area region when it comes to absorbing predicted population growth — and is the most unwilling, said Ezra Rapport, executive director of the Association of Bay Area Governments.”
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.