Loeb 45 Journal: Cities are finding high ground, getting democracy right

True to the banner of “Grounded Visionaries” adopted by the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Loeb45–the Loeb Fellowship 45th Anniversary Celebration and Alumni Reunion–was a window on a future of sustainable and equitable city building. That future is now. In it:

Housing is all over the map. Harriet Tregoning (LF ’04) of HUD and Daniel D’Oca (design critic in urban planning and design) of Interboro Partners pointed outsome basic housing challenges. Mixed use has largely succeeded in cities but mixed income has not. Subsidies for single-family housing are entrenched in our tax system, yet we find it very difficult to subsidize low-income housing on any scale. Low Income Housing Tax Credits are just a beginning, and funding only gets more difficult in cities where the cost of land is skyrocketing. This, combined with old-fashioned NIMBYism, makes it almost impossible to overcome historic patterns of segregation. New and more modest scales of urban housing—in demand with younger adults and other groups—are hard to entitle and fit into existing neighborhood models. As new knowledge about patterns of inequity emerge, Tregoning urged Loeb Fellows not to ignore the power of negatives like shaming and enforcement. These can help to get cities the housing dollars they need to help keep up with demand for affordable housing and mix it up with market rate units.

“We built affordable housing where poor people live,” observed developer Jair Lynch (LF ’06). “We need to think about equity at the level of geography.”

On the positive side, the cost of supplying that housing over time can be driven down by sustainable construction and low operating costs. Also, smart investments in public infrastructure can play a huge role in making housing more affordable at the level of the household budget, lowering transportation costs and creating access to goods and services. While we continue to work toward supplying more housing, panelists reminded Loeb Fellows that it helps to remember the factors that are already at work to drive down demand. In addition to modest expectations, the sharing economy is already playing a role, especially for young people and immigrants.

As we reinvent the American Dream and reinvigorate the urban landscape, the cost of delivering affordable housing could swallow the budgets of even the most prosperous cities. The only answer, says Armando Carbonell (LF ’93), is value capture, a meta-strategy promoted by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and other think tanks for tapping the windfalls of landowners in growing cities, and transforming it into lasting value for everyone who lives there (landowners included).

Data gets democratized. Nigel Jacob of the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics neatly summarized frustrations about community meetings: combative residents and people who know nothing tend to talk too much. Others are bored, at best, and many are doubtful their desires and values will count at all in the end. “Community meetings are almost perfectly designed for conflict,” he said. One answer is to make it playful, and technology can help. One of his slides looks more like a gaming parlor than what it is, a church basement. He claimed that data gathering techniques based on computer gaming can win participation and yield support for public investments from pothole repairs to parks. When you walk in, “you immediately have to figure out the rules of the game. We saw a totally different kind of civic behavior,” he said.

And technology helps outside of meetings, too. “Mobile is now and it’s clearly in the future, said Antwi Akom, co-founder and executive director of ISEED. “The data is revving the engine. But the engine is in neutral until you shift it into action.” He’s got an app for that. Streetwyze is a neighborhood navigator designed to bridge the gap between local and professional knowledge. It does this by generating data that can help pinpoint investments in everything from sidewalk repair to healthier food, better bus stops and safer water fountains. He’s convinced it can help to redesign and reimagine our cities from the ground up. It’s based on real time, two-way communication, in a mobile SMS platform. Streetwyze offers a way to understand how people are experiencing cities, what they care about and just what is happening in the public realm. It turns input into actionable analytics so that investment impacts can be more accurately measured.

Architect Steven Lewis (LF ’07) supports the power of technology to deliver input from citizens who may not show up in church basements for community meetings. “That will allow all of the brilliance in this room to connect with the brilliance in these communities,” he said. “Mobile is now and it’s clearly the future.”

Mass incarceration meets restorative justice. Prison reform is moving along slowly under the Obama administration. Just in time to help a nation adjust, Oakland, CA, may become the first restorative justice city in the nation. Designers like FOURM Design Studio are at work on reentry campuses and opportunity networks there. A lot of the questions behind these projects, according to FOURM’s Deanna Van Buren (LF ’13), boil down to this one: “We don’t want to spend $300 million on a new prison. What shall we do?” She said Oakland is fighting not to become San Francisco, and spoke of “co-creative versus professional, hybridized justice, and trauma-informed education.” The beauty of all this is that prison reform and restorative justice can strengthen communities, not tear them apart. “The key is turning shouting to listening,” said Van Buren.

Inundation leads to innovation. Climate change means huge environmental impacts to everyone on the planet, but the biggest threat to coastal cities from Miami to Boston is rising sea levels. The Boston Green Ribbon Commission has found that as a result of global warming, Boston already gets 24 percent more precipitation annually, and over the next decades, it will inherit a climate much like Virginia. Groups like Boston Living With Water are looking for wide-ranging, sustainable solutions. Increasingly sophisticated mapping and modeling is part of the answer, and can lead to greater precision in anticipating change and finding sustainable solutions.

Author Tracy Metz (LF ’07) pointed out that fortunately American coastal cities can learn from engineers and policymakers in places like the Netherlands, which has lived below sea level for centuries and developed a number of effective strategies for holding the sea at bay. Julie Wormser of the Boston Harbor Association warned that in inundation zones, we may have to demand new ways of thinking about buildings and real estate. When high tides and storm surges combine with sea level rise over the long term, our coastal cities may have to follow the lead of Venice and be prepared to temporarily—or permanently—abandon their ground floor spaces.

Opportunities for infiltration and sustainable landscaping strategies around buildings show that we can create value around the subject, but getting funding into public budgets for these adaptations will be the biggest challenge. “We are going to have to sneak into this through recovery plans,” said Bud Ris of the Barr Foundation.

New York Times columnist and Loeb45 keynote speaker Michael Kimmelman noted that coastal cities are at unprecedented risk of rising tides and flooding, and this can be expected to collectively cost them $15 billion by 2030. But they may be up to it. This will be a huge challenge for even the most prosperous of cities, but fortunately they also have the willingness and the capacity to plan around climate change, map it, and design and implement strategies for dealing with inundation.

Cover photo by Clair Enlow
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