Thursday, August 25, 2005

Garden cities vs. backyards

At David Crossley's Livable Houston meeting yesterday at HGAC, David introduced us to a century-old conceptual model of an "ideal" garden city. The essence of the concept is to replace lots of small parcels of open space - essentially peoples' yards - by combining them into large blocks of parks, greenbelts, wilderness and farmland, while people would live in moderately high-density urban/town cores. The benefits are lots of large, accessible green spaces while making pedestrian and transit-based trips easier (because of the residential and commercial density).

While an interesting concept, I think it runs up against some very powerful desires people have for their own private backyards over public parks:

  • Safe place for the kids to play unsupervised
  • Makes owning a dog much less hassle (almost a quarter of all households)
  • Substantially fewer homeless and panhandlers
  • Backdoor accessibility
  • Privacy
  • Customizable to personal tastes (pool, hot tub, deck, fountains, plants, hammock, etc.)
  • Gardening is one of the most popular hobbies in the world (ironic that the widespread desire to garden would work against a "garden city")

As they would say in the marketing biz, the backyard is a product with a "compelling value proposition", which is probably why people are buying so many of them (aka "the suburbs"). Sure, there are plenty of people who consider a yard one big maintenance nightmare, and they're good candidates for high-density urban living with nice nearby parks (clearly a growing sentiment). But you have to wonder what the realistic long-term market share trends are.

24 Comments:

At 8:54 PM, August 25, 2005, Anonymous Tom Bazan said...

I am torn. If Houston were not infested with so many violent felons running free to rape, rob and pillage, the continuous garden concept has merit and many would likely consider it.

My wife has turned our modest-sized yard into a suburban wildscape for butterflies and hummingbirds.

The yard is now a certified Texas Wildscape, and recognized by the National Wildlife Federation as a Backyard Wild Life Habitat, and is an official Monarch Watch Monarch Waystation.

I just need to figure out how I can get our share of the limitless tax abatements, taxpayer-funded grants, create a single property TIRZ like Tillman did for his hotel across from the ballpark, and seek approval to issue millions in tax-exempt bonds for our comfort in perpetuity.

 
At 9:18 PM, August 25, 2005, Anonymous RedScare said...

I notice that some people, like a talk show host, will latch on to a theme and repeat it over and over. It doesn't matter if the theme fits the topic at hand. They shove it into the dialogue anyway.

So it is with Tom's diatribe about violent felons. It has nothing to do with the topic of a garden city, and moreover, it ignores the steadily declining crime rate or the fact that more pedestrian activity tends to discourage violent crime, since criminals prefer to work their craft without witnesses. But, that does not deter Tom from his never ending quest to denigrate anything that he doesn't like or think of.

The growing number of empty nesters and singles (they now comprise America's biggest demographic group) suggests that garden cities may come into their own. The number of pet owning homeowners is not necessarily a deterrent. Prior to the explosion of the suburbs, small dogs were the most popular pet. Labradors, currently the most popular dog, only became so in the last 20 years. As city dwellers increase, the dogs will get smaller.

In the end, I see the populace moving in two directions. The adventurous types will move closer to the city core for the amenities and those who think that bogeymen lurk on every corner will move further into the exurbs. The inner ring suburbs will be left to the poor and lower middle class.

 
At 9:45 PM, August 25, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

As a dog owner, I'd like to address Tory's dog comment.

When I lived in Charlottesville, VA, we were about a block away from a preserved natural area that was the de facto meeting place for all of the local dog owners. It was absolutely wonderful - we'd let our dogs off-leash, they'd run up the hills and through the woods, and we humans would walk together along the trails getting to know one another and one another's dogs. It really brought the neighborhood together. In almost any weather, we'd be there morning and evening.

So the idea of a garden city in my opinion is not necessarily a hassle for dog owners. Actually, I think it helps bring dog owners together.

 
At 9:46 PM, August 25, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I tend to agree with that last paragraph, RedScare, but I think it will be young singles/couples and a smattering of empty nesters in the core and families wanting good schools for their kids in the exurbs. The Internet makes working from a McMansion on a private estate in a distant exurb much more feasible, with only occasional trips into the city for meetings, flights/trips, and special events.

 
At 9:49 PM, August 25, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

RJ: parks - great for dog walking, not so convenient when they just need a quick trip to the yard to heed nature's call.

 
At 10:10 PM, August 25, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

RJ: parks - great for dog walking, not so convenient when they just need a quick trip to the yard to heed nature's call.

True. But whose to say you couldn't have a small low-fenced back garden area that then opens-up to communal space... and the dogs could just do their business in that garden area.

Regarding RedScare's comments about people fleeing to exurbia to hide from the bogeyman, the research of Prof. William Lucy of the University of Virgina finds that actually living in exurbia and suburbia is more dangerous than living in the city. Ironic, eh? I am posting below an article about this that appeared in American City and County Magazine in 2001:

*********************************

EDITOR'S VIEWPOINT/ It's scary out there in Suburbanland

Jan 1, 2001 12:00 PM
Janet Ward


Ever since the development of Levit-town on New York's Long Island, people have been rushing to the suburbs. They do this for myriad reasons: "better schools," "to get away from the stress of the city," "lower taxes." But the one overriding reason people move to the suburbs is: "It's safer than living in the city."

This drives Bill Lucy nuts. Lucy, a professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia, is making it his personal crusade to prove to suburbanites that they have made poor decisions about where to live. Lucy bases his belief on a series of studies he has done comparing crime rates in Virginia cities with traffic fatalities in their suburbs. If you live in the Richmond-Petersburg metropolitan area, Lucy says, you are way more likely to be killed in a car wreck on a suburban/exurban road than you are to be shot by a stranger downtown.

"You start with the fact that, nationwide, there are 2.7 times more traffic fatalities than homicides," Lucy says. "And the gap is growing. That is true even if you include all homicides, but it's particularly striking if you just include stranger-on-stranger homicides."

To people who argue that Lucy is comparing apples with oranges, he notes that "death is death. You could use other criteria, like bathroom accidents or fires. But my findings are related to what one encounters when leaving home."

Ironically, the people who live in those gated exurban subdivisions may be the most unsafe residents of a metropolitan area. The reasons for that are simple: People drive faster on rural roads, they are farther from help when they do crash, and, in many rural areas, slow trucks and farm equipment on roads with narrow shoulders and sharp curves make passing dangerous.

What really bothers Lucy is the fact that no one seems to take his studies seriously enough to incorporate their findings into local government policy. (Actually, one rural Virginia county, convinced that Lucy is right, jacked up its speeding fines.) Oh, there's the usual hue and cry just after a study is released, and Lucy gets called for the requisite local radio chat. Then, as he says, "the subject disappears for a few years until I repeat the study."

Pointing a finger at national organizations like the U.S. Conference of Mayors, National League of Cities and Sierra Club, Lucy says someone should be replicating his Virginia study on a nationwide basis. He's right.

All the national local government organizations decry the effects of sprawl. Lucy's figures show that it's not just inefficient; it's downright deadly. And he thinks that if people knew that, they might just make better decisions about where to live.

http://www.americancityandcounty.com/mag/government_editors_viewpoint_scary/

 
At 6:28 AM, August 26, 2005, Blogger John Whiteside said...

The garden city idea is one that seems a little strange if you've never lived in an urban setting, but once you try it, you start to see the benefits. I think it's a tough sell in Houston, which is relatively suburban, but could become very popular. I think you're right that the initial residents would be singles and empty nesters but I expect it would grow from there - especially as the economics of commuting long distances and acquiring land start to make suburbia more expensive.

 
At 7:46 AM, August 26, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I absolutely believe that traffic accidents are more deadly than homicides, but that doesn't take into account the vast bulk of all other crimes that make people feel unsafe: burglary, auto theft, carjackings, assaults, rapes and muggings. I personally don't feel the risk is substantial (although burglaries have gotten more common in our reasonably well-off Meyerland neighborhood), but I can see how the local TV news creates that perception.

 
At 9:05 AM, August 26, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

Tory,

I think you may be ignoring another big problem -- the tragedy of the commons. These massive public parks would take a great deal of public money to maintain, and if the city simply expected residents to "pitch in" and make them beautiful, you'd face the free rider problem with a vengence. On the other hand, individuals have ample incentive to maintain and improve their own yards since they are the ones who own and enjoy them.

The whole "garden city" concept just strikes me as naive and silly. It would never attract families because of the increased risk of crime (and the whole driving versus crime argument is silly, for reasons I won't go into here) and the loss of private space that public space can't make up for. People do WANT public parks, certainly, but they also demand some land for their own enjoyment. This is why the garden city concept has never really caught on.

 
At 9:50 AM, August 26, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The whole "garden city" concept just strikes me as naive and silly. It would never attract families because of the increased risk of crime (and the whole driving versus crime argument is silly, for reasons I won't go into here) and the loss of private space that public space can't make up for.

Go check out Greenbelt, Maryland. You'll find a story that refutes these notions.

 
At 9:59 AM, August 26, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

Owen -

RE: the whole driving versus crime argument is silly, for reasons I won't go into here

Go into it. Prof. Lucy is a brilliant guy, so I'm curious what part of his research you disagree with. What he's presenting is a combination of death statistics related to crime and vehicular accidents, and the results of the analysis shows higher death rates for those who live in suburban/exurban locations because of the types and amount of driving that they expose themselves to. Now as Tory pointed out, perhaps you're less like to have a break-in or something like that out in the 'burbs. Prof. Lucy's research is focused on fatalities.

 
At 10:25 AM, August 26, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

rj,

Fine. First of all, the analysis doesn't apply to all suburbs versus all urban areas; it is focused on the aggregate (and not everyone in the suburbs drives subtantially more). Secondly, it doesn't take into account a person's relative tolerance for lack of safety due to car travel and crime. People will generally tolerate a risk on the roads more, because it's largely something they can more easily control (i.e. by driving safely and driving less), and it's seen as more of an ordinary, less frightening risk. A less extreme disparity can be seen in perceptions of air travel versus cars -- people tend to be more frightened of a plane crash than a car wreck.

So the comparison is simply poor, and as Tory noted, it fails to take into consideration the harm caused by crime that doesn't involve fatalities.

 
At 10:36 AM, August 26, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

Go check out Greenbelt, Maryland. You'll find a story that refutes these notions.

A New Deal government project requiring massive capital expenditures that has high taxes. Ho-hum. This doesn't refute ANYTHING I said. You're talking about a small town (about 20,000 people is very small) that's about half-non families, and two-thirds unmarried.

 
At 10:40 AM, August 26, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 10:55 AM, August 26, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're talking about a small town...

...smack in the middle of the DC metropolitan area...

...that's about half-non families...

...and thus half familes (I thought you said it wouldn't atteact families)...

...A New Deal government project...

...built 70 years ago and still thriving (but I thought you said it would be crime-ridden)...

...that's about... two-thirds unmarried...

...which means one sixth are families who are unmarried, which is unacceptable to Owen.

[but it's] naive and silly

Oh. Well I guess I've been check-mated with that reasoning.

 
At 11:35 AM, August 26, 2005, Anonymous TomC said...

Great post, Tory, as usual. Lot's to consider. I would prefer garden city living if I could at least have some outdoor square footage-fenced-for my small gardening needs and for my cats.
Once again, poor Tom...isn't being certified as a Minority, Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (M/DBE) by the City of Houston enough of a tax break for him? I mean, c'mon, don't be so greedy there, Tom. ["pillage"? Do they still do that?]

 
At 12:05 PM, August 26, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

Owen -

Your criticisms of the study are really of things which the study is not.

No, it doesn't address people's tolerance for different kinds of death. Prof. Lucy's assumption, which is stated in the article, is "a death is a death." Maybe you'd much rather be killed by a drunk driver than by a random gunshot. He does not get into these sorts of preferences. Nor does he get into what might also be at the root of some people's fears, which is who is causing the death. (some may indeed find the idea of dying at the hands of drunk Johnny Football-Hero joyriding in Daddy's sportscar a bit more palatable than death from Johnny Drop-out sticking-up a liquor store to support a crack habit, even if the former is several times more likely than the latter to occur on an aggregate basis).

And no, it doesn't attempt to take into account harm caused by non-fatal crimes. This is about death, not whether some idiot is going to key your car or vandalize your mailbox or steal your wallet.

As for your comment that people are better able to control their risk of vehicle deaths (in suburbia) than crime deaths (in the city), I'm guessing that's false. 'Not driving' is not really an option in most suburbs, unless you want to be a shut-in. However, it's generally pretty easy to reduce your exposure to most crime deaths in most locations... You can stay away from drugs, not mix with a bad crowd, stay out of bar fights, and so forth. Common sense things, really. But avoiding speeding teens, drunk drivers, dangerous roadways, sleepy drivers, drivers talking on their cell phones, elderly drivers who shouldn't be driving... these are much more difficult to do.

What the study does do quite effectively is challenge the prevailing notion that people in the city are more likely to die from stranger-inflicted deaths than people in the suburbs. If you believe that by living in the suburbs you're less likely to have a stranger kill you in some manner or another, then this study shows that's incorrect by a wide margin.

 
At 12:53 PM, August 26, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

anonymous,

You're talking about a single, small suburb supported and built by the feds. You're talking about a suburb with a high cost of living, largely yuppie (thus proving my point). If you think this pathetic example refutes my overall argument, you need to come back down to earth. There may be some small market for this type of living, but it isn't widespread and it doesn't attract families. Most people want their own backyards, and they don't want to pay considerable taxes to maintain greenbelts as opposed to maintaining their own land.

 
At 1:04 PM, August 26, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

rj,

No, it doesn't address people's tolerance for different kinds of death. Prof. Lucy's assumption, which is stated in the article, is "a death is a death." Maybe you'd much rather be killed by a drunk driver than by a random gunshot. He does not get into these sorts of preferences. Nor does he get into what might also be at the root of some people's fears, which is who is causing the death.

Exactly. His study is lacking. Did the study distinguish between accidents caused by the driver and accidents caused by others? Did the study distinguish between, say, gang crime and crimes against innocents? These are questions that need to be answered in order to see if an individual's control is a factor. We are more fearful of that which we cannot control.

As for your comment that people are better able to control their risk of vehicle deaths (in suburbia) than crime deaths (in the city), I'm guessing that's false. 'Not driving' is not really an option in most suburbs, unless you want to be a shut-in. However, it's generally pretty easy to reduce your exposure to most crime deaths in most locations...

Why did you put "not driving" in quotes? I didn't say that. I said "driving less," which is an option (you can combine trips, even get a job closer to work). If you want to debate, debate me, not a strawman.

It is also true that you can reduce your exposure to crime, but in the end, the major fear of being in a crime-infested is that you'll be an unwilling victim of crime despite your efforts, and this is greater than the fear of getting in a collision (which, even when another driver is at fault, you can often avoid). It's just misleading to compare ordinary risks that people are more willing to expose themselves to (and thus do expose themselves to) to those risks which people try and avoid, even at greater cost.

What the study does do quite effectively is challenge the prevailing notion that people in the city are more likely to die from stranger-inflicted deaths than people in the suburbs.

How does it show that? Did it segregate out accidents that were unavoidable, and were the fault of another driver? I saw nothing about that looking over the article you cited. Let's not claim the "study" accomplishes more than it actually does.

 
At 2:07 PM, August 26, 2005, Blogger Andrew said...

The Garden city is nice some place else but not in Houston.
We like our own space so we can garden ourselves, let the dog do it's business, and to park our broke down rusty Honda!

 
At 2:54 PM, August 26, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

Owen -

Again, Prof. Lucy's assumption is "a death is a death".

Sure, many are irrationally more fearful of what they cannot control, and also think they have more control over situations in which they actually do not. Most people know at least one person who was killed in a car accident caused by someone else. Perhaps they thought they had control of their own cars, but they sure didn't have control of the vehicle that hit them.

This phenomena is played-out by how hysterical some people get about flying, and they'll opt for other modes that statistically speaking are far more dangerous - all in the name of safety! Well, Prof. Lucy's work is quite analogous.

The article that I posted is not s study, it's a short article that recaps Prof. Lucy's findings. You've launched an army of strawmen, but all this comes down to is whether or not you're dead.

 
At 4:38 PM, August 26, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're talking about a single, small suburb...

...tiny enough to have its own MetroRail station...

...supported [by the Feds]...

...over 50 years ago...

...and built by the feds...

...and by golly, where do they get-off building a community of affordable housing during the Great Depression? What was wrong with all the Hoovervilles?

You're talking about a suburb with a high cost of living...

...like the rest of the DC area...

...largely yuppie...

...which is a group of people I really don’t like, so I’m guessing they must live there, even though I don’t actually know. We’ve really got to stop them. Darn Yuppies. Grrrrrrr!

If you think this pathetic example refutes my overall argument, you need to come back down to earth...

...and be persuaded by words like pathetic. That works a lot better than reason – just look at AM talk radio!

There may be some small market for this type of living, but it isn't widespread and it doesn't attract families...

...except for the 50% of the residents of Greenbelt who are actually families, which is statistically right at the national average, but they must not be the right kind of families.

Most people want their own backyards, and they don't want to pay considerable taxes to maintain greenbelts...

...unless they live in master planned communities, where they often support greenbelts and green space through various fees in addition to owning backyards, which is all awful because they’re supposed to only want their own land rather than all this naïve silly pathetic yuppie silliness.

 
At 5:25 PM, August 26, 2005, Anonymous Tom Bazan said...

TomC said...

---snip---

Once again, poor Tom...isn't being certified as a Minority, Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (M/DBE) by the City of Houston enough of a tax break for him? I mean, c'mon, don't be so greedy there, Tom. ["pillage"? Do they still do that?]
______

First, having been certified by the city as a perticipant in a program that attempted to encourage the big dogs to share some scraps, is hardly a tax break.

Second, I attempted to try and access the HPD crime statistics but they are not easilly extracted (ms access db files) or able to be linked.

The term "pillage" is accurate.

 
At 9:12 PM, August 26, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ahh, TomC finds the Achilles heel...

 

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