Sunday, December 19, 2010

Urban Science – Maybe we can Start Getting it Right

There was a line at the beginning of the movie Pi:

“1. Mathematics is the language of nature. 2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. 3. If you graph these numbers, patterns emerge. Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature.”

The New York Times carried an article about the work of Theoretical Physicist Geoffrey West – who pointed out the mathematical patterns at work in cities. West turned those patterns into a set of equations – a study that he calls Urban Science.

Urban Science is not Urban Theory. Urban Theory is an agglomeration of social theories that relate to cities. Urban Science uses mathematics to find the underlying forces that shape cities. It could become a hugely important field of study. These are the forces that we work with (or against) when we’re trying to improve cities and neighborhoods. We may use the tools and lessons we’ve learned from Urban Theory , but if we don’t understand the underlying forces, we’re shooting in the dark.

If there’s any doubt that we’ve been shooting in the dark: one has only to look at utopias gone terribly wrong. Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. Pruitt-Igoe in Saint Louis. These projects were based on cutting edge social theories of their time. But they were built without an understanding of the forces behind the problems they were meant to fix. As a result they became urban nightmares. One can’t help but wonder – will the New Urbanism suffer the same fate? It, too, was based in Urban Theory rather than Urban Science.

As an architect I may be the last one you’d expect to follow Geoffrey West. According to the New York Times, he has “little patience for the unconstrained speculations of architects.” But I’ve worked with neighborhoods. People know when there’s something wrong in their neighborhood – but they usually can’t put their fingers on why. Urban Science can give us answers. More importantly, once we’ve analyzed the underlying forces that shape cities – we can fix urban problems and know that we’re getting it right.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Down With HOAs – Long Live Civic Associations

Homeowners Associations need to be taken down a notch in Texas. As a Civic Association officer, I might be the last one you’d expect to say it, but I am a homeowner, too. And I’m as angry as the next guy at some of the things HOAs do. A woman in Northwest Houston bought her home at auction, only to face eviction when it was found that the Stone Creek Homeowners Association had wrongly foreclosed on the house. And we all know the story of Weinonah Blevins: the 80 year old widow who lost her home because she missed $800 in HOA fees; and wound up fighting a two-year legal battle to get it back.

Texas Law § 204.004 lumps them together, but in practice Homeowners Associations and Civic Associations are two totally different things. HOAs are often in newer suburbs. Civic Associations tend to be in older developments. HOAs have mandatory fees and membership, and they can levy fines and foreclose on your house if you don’t pay. Civic Association fees and membership are often voluntary, and we usually do not have the power to levy fines or foreclose on your house. HOAs often govern with an iron-fist, dictating things like the color of your garage doors. Civic Associations typically take a much more laissez-faire approach. HOAs hire professional services to maintain streets or even pick up trash. Civic Associations rely on the City or County to do these things – which they’re supposed to do anyway.

The HOA Reform Coalition held a rally in Houston, Texas. You can read their platform here. The Texas Homeowners for HOA Reform also has a set of goals. If they got their wishes, HOAs would start to look and act a lot like Civic Associations. That would be to everyone’s benefit, and I support both of them.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Follow Up on Crime in the Urban Discourse

A few months ago, I wrote about how crime concerns have been lost in the urban discourse. Urbanists aren’t studying crime and neighborhood safety the way they’re studying things like transit, walkability, and sustainability. published a study that shows just how important neighborhood safety is. They surveyed about 1,500 people. Over half (55%) said that a neighborhood’s safety rating was extremely important in choosing where to live. A whopping 92% put neighborhood safety in the top two concerns; the next closest in this category was proximity to shopping, at 60%.

As I’ve said before, it’s not enough for a neighborhood to be safe; it has to feel safe. 75% of respondents said that they would use a neighborhood’s general appearance to judge how safe it is. 75% of respondents also said that they would use word of mouth to judge how safe a neighborhood is. In other words, actual crime rates aren’t as important as the perception of crime.

I should thank Chronicle writer Nancy Sarnoff for bringing up this study in her blog. But she, too, wrote about house sizes rather than neighborhood safety. Let me once again call on my fellow architects and urbanists to revisit “Defensible Space” and the writings of Jane Jacobs. Let’s give neighborhood safety and crime their fair place in our discussions about cities.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Debunking the Myths about Proposition 1

If you live in Houston, you’ve probably heard about Proposition 1 – a piece of Municipal legislation on the November 8 ballot that would create a dedicated fund for the repair of Houston’s infrastructure. I moved here in 1998, and I’ve yet to see a more desperately needed piece of legislation.

Unfortunately, a groundswell of opposition has formed to Proposition 1, and they’re hard at work spreading misinformation about it. As a supporter, I feel it is my duty to correct them.

Myth # 1: Proposition 1 is just about drainage. Actually, Proposition 1 is about ALL infrastructure under the City’s control. That includes storm sewers, and ROADS. Our City is riddled with pot holes that do severe damage to vehicles.

I’ll pause and let the first myth sink in, because it really is the most important – and the one everyone overlooks (including four members of City Council). Whenever you drive over a pot hole or have to replace the shocks in your car, think about Proposition 1 and how nice it’d be if we could FIX HOUSTON’S ROADS.

Myth # 2: Proposition 1 is a tax. In fact, Proposition 1 is an assessment on impervious cover. You might own ten acres on the outskirts of Houston, but you’ll only pay for the part that’s paved over. The reason for this is that impervious cover contributes to flooding, and also requires curb-cuts for road access to your property.

Myth # 3: We already pay a tax for the Harris County Flood Control District; we shouldn’t have to pay an assessment for the same thing. Harris County Flood Control handles big, regional stormwater detention and drainage facilities. But those big facilities are fed by a network of smaller, City owned storm sewers, open ditches and culverts. The City does an abysmal job at maintaining these facilities – and usually their excuse is that they don’t have the money. Proposition 1 would take away that excuse.

Myth # 4: Proposition 1 will place undue burden on the poor. The fees are estimated at only $5 per month for an average house. Most of us spend more on coffee in a week. For commercial properties, it’s $92 per acre of impervious cover per month – less than the cost of printing up flyers for advertisement. Bear in mind that most small businesses are on far less than an acre of land.

Myth #5: The Mayor is behind Proposition 1. Actually Proposition 1 was spearheaded by City Councilman Stephen Costello and a non-profit group called Renew Houston. Our Mayor supports Proposition 1, but it wasn’t her idea.

Myth #6: Renew Houston is just a bunch of engineers who want money. It's true that Renew Houston was formed by engineers, but that's because engineers can see the full extent of the problem. Engineers understand the flood control and transportation needs of our City.

I don’t work for Renew Houston or Stephen Costello’s office. I am not being paid at all for writing this. I actually wish Proposition 1 weren’t necessary. But we can’t rely on the general fund to pay for road and drainage repairs. It's too easy for City Hall to raid the general fund for other things. We need a special fund that they can only use for roads and drainage, and that's exactly what Proposition 1 will provide.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Condo Complex Loophole: What it is, and why it needs to be closed.

People don’t realize it, but some of the worst “apartments” in Houston are actually condominiums. The infamous Candlelight Trails complex was condominiums; and there are countless others across the City.

If you’re familiar with how the City enforces its codes, this should come as no surprise. An apartment complex is a single property. If the property has code violations or other problems, there’s only one owner to go after. And go after them Houston has. They've used a combination of sticks and carrots to change apartment complexes. They've got a long way to go, but the improvements are starting to be seen.

In a condo complex, each unit is a separate property, and may have a separate owner. If there are problems, each of those owners has to be contacted. They all must agree on any repairs to be made. And if the complex needs to be condemned - as was the case at the Candlelight Trails - the City needs to sue each of the owners individually. It’s much more time consuming for the City, and expensive for the taxpayer.

I call it the Condo Complex Loophole, and slum lords use it to their advantage. They buy a controlling portion of a condo complex, and then rent them out to unsuspecting tenants. It’s a devilish way of avoiding City enforcement, and it can really hurt innocent owners. At the Candlelight Trails, a widowed mother of three was hit with $200,000 in legal fees - because of a Dallas based slum lord who took advantage of the Condo Complex Loophole.

Hopefully the City will do something to close the Condo Complex Loophole. It's hard to tell what they can do - they can't outlaw condominiums or sue owners without contacting them. But the Condo Complex Loophole protects slum lords. It’s unfair to neighbors, it’s unfair to tenants, and it’s unfair to honest owners.