Posts Tagged ‘vacant lots’

10 Things in the City that Separate People and Stop Community in its Tracks

Last week I wrote about 21 things that build community in a city. Today I want to talk about 10 things that separate people and stop community in its tracks. But first, let’s define community. What is community? According to the Google definition, community is both a thing and a feeling. It is “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common” and it is “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” In both definitions, the word “common” shows up. So really community is when people feel like they share something in common, and therefore bond around this commonality.

Why is building community important in cities? Like I mentioned in my last post, humans are social animals. However solitary some individuals may be, on the whole, humans seek companionship and seek to bond with other humans. So on a fundamental level, living in community fills a natural human need. But there are some other tangible benefits to living in community as well. One is that, when people feel in community with one another, they are more willing to help each other. Second, living in community encourages us to look out for the whole instead of just looking out for our interests. And third, we can accomplish more in community than we can as individuals. Civilization was built by communities of people, not by individuals.

As we established in the last post, there are lots of ways that the built environment can foster community. But there are also things in cities that actually separate people and stop community in its tracks. Below are 10 examples, in no particular order, of things that do just that.

1. Block fences

If you drive through many neighborhoods in the Phoenix region, you won’t see homes and front yards, you will see six-foot solid block fences. These walls are literally designed to create a boundary between people and end up being tools of division rather than building community. Peter Marcuse says in Nan Ellin’s Architecture of Fear, “walls that act as boundaries can suggest a particular set of relationships between those on the opposite sides of the boundary: separation, distance, fear, tension, hostility, inequality and alienation.” Having entire swaths of a city made up of these six-foot solid block walls creates an atmosphere of distrust, which is basically the kryptonite of building community.

2. Parking lots

Parking lots take up an inordinate amount of space in our cities. These huge spaces are essentially storage for metal boxes on wheels. They have nothing to do with people and everything to do with automobiles. You may argue that parking lots allow people to drive to their destination and provide a convenient place to drop off their cars. Parking lots are only activated with people who are walking to and from their cars to their destination in a strip mall or a big box store. And in this setting, it is very rare for people to actually exchange a glance, much less a friendly word. Furthermore, parking lots create a moat around the public domain – i.e. the sidewalk, and the stores or destination you are aiming to go to, making it very difficult for people not in cars to participate and patronize certain establishments.

3. Automobiles

Automobiles enable people to lead solitary and private lives. They allow people to go from their home, out their garage, to the office, and back to their garage at the end of the day without once seeing a single person in the public domain. They create a literal and figurative bubble around individuals, preventing them from interacting and forming bonds with people who coexist with them in their same neighborhood, city and region. No one can argue that automobiles are very convenient and have empowered people to cover a lot more ground then they ever could without them. And this is true. But as we’ve fallen in love with the automobile, we’ve also creates societies of loneliness, societies where you don’t see people on the streets and you forget that you are part of the human race. The only way to remedy this situation is to get out of your car and into the public domain, whether it be walking, on a bike, on transit, or just hanging out in a park. For every car trip you make, why not also make a public domain trip out of your car to inoculate yourself against the separation that frequent automobile use creates.

4. Highways

Highways are another manifestation of an element that is solely dedicated to automobiles, but this time not for storage, but for rapid movement through vast distances. They are anything but people spaces, with metal boxes on wheels hurtling down asphalt corridors at ungodly speeds. Sure there are people in these vehicles, but the speed is so great, there is hardly any time to even notice anyone else, much less interact with them. In essence, people are reduced to mere blurs in our peripheral vision. When highways are built in urban environments, they create severe boundaries and serve to fragment cities in ways that magnifies and exacerbates socioeconomic divisions.

5. Gated Communities

Some residential communities are preceeded by a gate that keeps everyone but residents and their guests out. They project an attitude of exclusivity and preclude the public domain from creeping into their territory. With the gate, a very clear and heavy line is drawn between public and private. In essence, gated communities are meant to keep the riff raff out. It sounds like a good idea in terms of safety, but in reality, fostering a greater sense of community is more effective in creating a safe environment than any gate is capable of. “Gates and fences are not impenetrable to serious criminals, and they do nothing to reduce crime arising from residents. They do not necessarily protect, and they often cause dissension and controversy,” say Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder of the National Housing Institute.

6. Streets with speeding cars

When a street is as wide as a highway and cars are speeding down it, people don’t want to be anywhere near. Not only is it simply dangerous to walk or bike on these streets, its also unpleasant and stressful. Wide arterials have no place in areas where people want to live close together, want to walk and bike and take transit. Traffic slowing mechanisms like planting lots of trees, narrowing the road or adding bike lanes or Light Rail means that automobile traffic will move slower but it also means that there will be people on the street.

7. Draconian laws

Draconian city laws that restrict things like food carts, sidewalk cafes, parking spot cafes stifle potential pockets of community from forming. In addition, draconian laws that always favor automobiles over transit, bicyclists and pedestrians also prevents a city from having community-oriented transportation system instead of an automobile-oriented transportation system.

8. Vacant lots

We usually think of spaciousness as a good thing. But when it comes to cities, there is such a thing as too much space. In particular, vacant, undeveloped lots create entirely too much space between destinations. Unless they are being used as community gardens or a food truck pod or some other temporary use, empty lots create a vacuum that suck the energy out of the city instead of contributing to its vibrancy. Vacant lots repel people and encourage them to stay in their cars and drive on by.

9. The suburbs

The suburbs are a classic example of too much space between buildings and destinations. The sprawling nature of the suburbs inherently makes them automobile-oriented and almost guarantees that the only place you will actually see another human being in the public domain is through their driver’s side window when you are stopped at a red light together.

10. Badly designed public spaces/plazas

This is a tough one. Public spaces/plazas are specifically designed to attract people, but there are plenty of completely desolate public spaces/plazas strewn all over a lot of American cities. Some public spaces/plazas just missed the mark in terms of being attractive spaces for people to hang out in. Maybe they are too vast and out of scale, maybe their materiality is all wrong, or maybe the way they fit into the rest of the city fabric is all wrong. The existing Margaret Hance Park, the Chase Tower Plaza and the former Patriot’s Park in Phoenix are all examples of public spaces/plazas gone wrong.

Photo Credit: Photo by Dolev (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

How to Change Tax Policy that Encourages Vacant Lots to Encourage Infill Development Instead

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Economist Harry Gunnison Brown equated speculative developers who hold onto to land without building on it to laborers who go on strike. “Has there ever been a strike — or a series of strikes — by labor, of such magnitude as this more or less perpetual strike by our owners of vacant land? And while workers hold back their own labor, owners of vacant land hold back from the use of others, a considerable part of the earth,” he consternates in the 1959 paper he wrote called Incentives, Vacant Lots and Your City.

Vacant urban land isn’t only a problem in Phoenix, it’s a problem all over the country, and actually in many parts of the world. But some cities have put in place some smart tax strategies to discourage vacant lots and encourage infill development.

The key to a tax strategy that incentivizes urban renewal is land value tax. Land value tax is an annual tax on the rental value of land based on permitted land use, not on current use. So if a piece of land is permitted for a 30-story high-rise, the land value tax would be levied as a percentage of that use. And so land value tax is a progressive tax falling most heavily where the benefit to the community is greatest and most lightly where the benefit is least.

Some cities across the country have adopted the land value tax philosophy as part of their property tax code in the form of a split-rate tax. Many cities, including Phoenix, tax vacant land at a much lower rate than developed land because its appraised value is lower. This incentivizes developers to keep their land vacant. Other cities, like Pittsburgh, have adopted a split-rate tax rate which does the opposite. The split-rate tax rate uses the concept of land value tax and taxes undeveloped land at a higher rate than land that is developed. This strategy incentivizes infill development and disincentivizes vacant lots, land speculation, and leap-frog development that results in sprawl.

Pittsburgh adopted the split-rate tax system as far back as 1913, where it taxed vacant land owners twice the rate it taxed owners of developed property. In 1979, they expanded the system where it now taxes vacant landowners a whopping 6 times the rate of owners of developed property. What are the results of this strategy? Pittsburgh has a more compact development pattern than many cities because its tax policy discouraged leap-frog development, which is what happened to Phoenix’s downtown. And as for those who think a split-rate tax system would hurt the economy, the opposite is true, as it encourages development. Pittsburgh had a 70.4% increase in building permits while the 15 city average decreased by 14.4% a decade after it expanded its split-rate tax system.

Benefits of the split-rate tax system include:

  • Land value tax is an additional source of public revenue.
  • Fewer vacant lots in urban areas. The higher tax rates on vacant land would make it more onerous for owners to just sit on land and wait for it to appreciate in value. It incentivizes them to either develop it themselves or sell it to someone who will.
  • Less sprawl. Land value tax encourages more infill development in urban vacant lots, making use of existing infrastructure. This decreases the need to build on greenfield land on the fringes of the city.
  • The boom and bust cycle is greatly mitigated. Land value tax makes it much harder to just speculate on land, which is the source of the real estate bubbles, and so it stabilizes the real estate market.

Image Credit: Image by Chris Wass and Derek Welte.