Could Northfield be the next Vancouver?

I’ve never been to Vancouver, BC, although it’s been on my “to go” list for a long time.  Now, even more, I’d like to visit.  Why?  Their transportation policy (and the cross country skiing in BC is excellent).

Here in Northfield, we’ve struggled to make even small changes in policy to help Northfield grow in ways which encourage active transportation, productive land use, and a viable transit system.  Even so, every policy gets challenged (or simply ignored) when a new small decision needs to be made.  Complete Streets?  Great, until a street project must be approved.  GreenStep Cities and sustainability?  Wonderful, but seldom considered.  Smart Growth Comprehensive Plan?  Super, until we try to take steps to implement it.

Vancouver, however, thinks big and has since 1997 when it approved an influential Transportation Plan which prioritized – rank ordered – modes of transportation.  Vancouver has just approved Transportation 2040 which affirms the priorities for moving people (for moving goods, etc. there are separate rankings): Walking, Cycling, Transit, Taxi/Commercial Transit/Shared Vehicles, and Private Automobiles.

The hierarchy is intended to help ensure that the needs and safety of each group of road users are sequentially considered when decisions are made, that each group is given proper consideration, and that the changes will not make existing conditions worse for more vulnerable road users, such as people on foot, bicycle, and motorcycle. Each time a new roadway is designed or an existing one changed, opportunities for improving walking and cycling will be reviewed…This is a general approach and does not mean that users at the top of the list will always receive the most beneficial treatment on every street. In highly constrained urban environments, it is not always possible to provide the ideal facilities for all users’ needs.

Even better, Vancouver links transportation and land use (“Use land use to support shorter trips and sustainable transportation choices”), does not flinch from saying the goal is to reduce auto-dependence (“Manage the road network efficiently to improve safety and support a gradual reduction in car dependence. Make it easier to drive less”) and understands that the economic vitality and emergency response must also be part of the overall plan (“Support a thriving economy and Vancouver’s role as a major port and Asia-Pacific gateway while managing related environmental and neighbourhood impacts. Maintain effective emergency response times for police, fire, and ambulance”).

Here in Northfield, we need to try to be more Vancouverish (at a scale appropriate for a community of our size/location) for the long term health (financial, physical, environmental) of the city.  

Have we outgrown zoning?

 Zoning is no longer appropriate, writes architect Roger Lewis in the Washington Post recently.  It is easy enough to agree – zoning is essentially segregation.  We put big houses here, little houses over there, multi-family housing way over there (check out some of the history of land use regulation and discrimination), industrial out there, and commercial on the highway.  The inappropriateness comes from both the inequities, but also the community costs in terms of excess infrastructure and unproductive development.

So, have we outgrown zoning?  Yes, but now what?  Here in Northfield, we have a pretty smart comprehensive plan which could use some updating and focusing.  Then we have some really lousy land use regulations which are slated for revision (and with some luck and leadership, for reform or replacement).  What a golden opportunity to move beyond putting things in their zones to plan and regulate for the long term health of the community.

Some inspiration (a very small selection):

Long term thinking, not easy short term answers: some thoughts from San Diego based Placemaker Howard Blackson.  Placemaking is rapidly becoming a planning buzzword which could become just as meaningless as “mixed use” (an oxymoron when you think about it), but I’d like to think of it simply as: identify and work with the specific characteristics of the place – Northfield – rather than overly generic solutions.  Here’s another good one from the Placemakers.

Don’t just ask the community “What do you want/like?” but also educate residents about the features, costs and benefits of various development choices.

Downtown is not a cute museum: work to reinvigorate downtown’s image as the vital and distinctive economic core of Northfield which generates significantly more tax revenue per acre than other areas.

Think local: Consider how supporting local businesses helps keep money in Northfield (some info about co-ops, infill and redevelopment) and how land use and related regulation can help rather than hinder local enterprises.

Streets are really, really important.  The street network helps define the density of a community, connects places within the city and the city to elsewhere, plays a huge role in safety, stormwater, municipal costs, economic development, and quality of life.  Street decisions are also long term and very hard to change. Indeed, how we manage car traffic is critical to thinking about other features of urban development.  Streets matter.

 

 

 

 

 

How much is that tree worth?

Don’t mess with the trees

Here’s the next installment of “What’s it worth?” – the dollarization of different community “items” (see the Zoo here and bicycling here): what are trees worth in Pittsburgh?  The iTree software tools (“Tools for Assessing and Managing Community Forests”) from the USDA Forest Service helps calculate what trees are worth by helping assess an areas’s urban forest composition and health, calculating the “eco-system services” trees are providing (pollution removal, stormwater management, and more), trees’ effects on building energy use, and assessing damage after large storms.

Great!  Having tools to help visualize and articulate the value of trees, bikes, art, sidewalks and other community goods can help demonstrate how these things do impact the community and raise awareness of their importance. In addition, since allocating scarce government resources means putting specific dollar amounts toward various goals in a principled, justifiable, accountable and transparent way such tools can help leaders at least approximate the apples to apples comparisons which can make the task possible.  

But not enough!  I am thoroughly pessimistic when it comes to policy-makers moving beyond the very specific issue on the table.  Or perhaps I am optimistic that elected officials will be distracted by details and staff will stay within their professional comfort zones.  Missing the forest for the trees, you might say.

These tools don’t touch the structural issues in city budgeting.  If a city spends more money on streets because those streets are wider than necessary, serve unproductive land use patterns which are insufficient to support the infrastructure that’s been built, then there will be less money for everything, including trees.  Considering how to maximize public investment in both gray and green infrastructure needs to happen in addition to tree-specific spending as an option at the end of the discussion.

Such tools can perpetuate isolating functions rather than integrating them.  Trees are an excellent example.  Ideally, trees and landscaping should be part of the basic planning for how streets (parks, parking lots, and more) are designed to manage both the traffic (multi-modal, of course), stormwater, energy use, utility management, etc. and not just an optional add-on at the end of the process.  Ideally, iTree would help make trees part of the larger discussion rather than creating a new department of tree management.

So, yes, please use iTree to assess and manage the community forest (I do like this term for its implication of shared benefit and responsibility – those are OUR trees out there), educate the public about the heavy lifting trees are doing, and strategically target spending where it will do the most good.  But keep the whole metaphorical as well as literal community forest in mind when talking about the trees.

Walkable urbanism and the future of the world

Whoa.  I’ve been trying to make the case that policy folks need to be thinking about the long term costs of some of our development strategies and not just the instant boost to tax capacity of new growth.  I’ve been thinking about the local sunk costs of late 20th century horizontal growth, but Foreign Policy’s Patrick Doherty takes it global with a New US Grand Strategy:

In the United States, the country’s economic engine is misaligned to the threats and opportunities of the 21st century. Designed explicitly to exploit postwar demand for suburban housing, consumer goods, and reconstruction materials for Europe and Japan, the conditions that allowed it to succeed expired by the early 1970s. Its shelf life has since been extended by accommodative monetary policy and the accumulation of household, corporate, and federal debt.

The upshot: the current path is unsustainable as the planet tries to accommodate 3 billion new middle class members (and the consumption that comes along with them), depletion of natural resources (see my previous post), “contained depression” (and not just a down business cycle or two), and a “resilience crisis” (the drivers of the US economy, crumbling infrastructure, and the soft infrastructure which connect us to markets is fragile).

So, we need a grand plan and the sketch provided includes reforming government, addressing climate change, and vastly improving resource productivity.  It’s a top down vision of national change, but I’m more curious about what state and local efforts can accomplish.  Atlantic Cities picked up on the walkable urbanism part of the solution, but what else could we do?

 

 

How much space do 7 billion people need?

How much space do 7 billion people take up? It depends.

Check out this infographic for a quick visual introduction to how population density and development pattern makes a huge difference in land consumption, among other things.  Per Square Mile points out that the simple visualization just shows the people, but does not indicate the amount of land needed to sustain the population in terms of food, water, transportation networks, building materials, etc. So here’s another image of the size of the footprint the world’s population would make depending on what country is used as a development model.

Density is one of the dirty words of development.  Higher density is equated with grim high rise apartment blocks, crime and overcrowding…although it is also linked to walkability, thriving urban cores, and lower infrastructure costs.  Mostly, though, density is very measurable on a project by project basis (number of housing units or people per acre is very countable and thus easy to administer).  See Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn’s criticism of density (and planners), too.

So, let’s not get distracted by density and think about productivity, land consumption and carrying capacity and ask: What patterns of development are more productive, consume land more slowly and enable us to live within our resources and how can we foster those patterns rather than the ones we have now?  

Dear Representative Bly

A very nice deck chair from the Titanic
Still a very nice deck chair from the Titanic

So, Senator Kevin Dahle’s tweet about LGA sparked a recent post and now my state representative David Bly’s newsletter has me blogging on a related issue.

Really, the issue is how can the public conversation begin to address the relationship between property taxes and their friends (LGA, tax relief of various kinds, business subsidies), the crumbling infrastructure and the services taxes must fund, and what spending decisions we can make to change this landscape for the better.  Perhaps Rep. Bly and Sen. Dahle understand these issues very well, but so far they are only choosing to write the quick and easy stuff for constituents.

Dear Rep. Bly,

Congratulations on your return to the legislature and thank you for your continued service. Just as I took your senate colleague Kevin Dahle to task over his tweet about increasing LGA in response to requests from district mayors, I’m writing to challenge you to consider and, even more important, talk about the larger picture.

In your weekly newsletter of February 8, you said:

I agree with the Governor on his assessment that we need to reduce property taxes. The consistent increase hits low and middle-income earners much harder. Middle class families have been squeezed too much in the last ten years. Wages have remained flat while the cost of living has steadily increased. Many Minnesotans are finding it harder to save for retirement and send their kids to college. As the Governor said, this is not the Minnesota we want to leave our children. We need Minnesota to be a state that invests in its people and provides quality, efficient services.

Your remarks indicate you are concerned about equity for middle and lower income families.  I agree, but question the strategy you endorse for achieving it.  As with my letter to your colleague Senator Dahle, I question whether you are going for the quick fix without even attempting to figure out how to improve the tax system in the longer term for a sustainable state budget.

In particular, the relationship among taxes, local government costs, and policy choices which have skewed the market and the landscape remains unexamined, but it is these structural issues which desperately need your attention. My vote in the next election for you or any politician depends entirely on your contribution to shifting the conversation from short term fix to sustainable policy.  In addition the issues I raised for Senator Dahle, I have these questions:

How regressive are MN property taxes?  A new report Who Pays? evaluates state tax systems for regressiveness; sales taxes are much more regressive than property taxes, but I urge you to take a look at Minnesota’s overall tax burden on its residents and how regressive it is.  Minnesota’s sales tax was created to fund property tax relief back in 1967; this seems like a very inequitable method for change.  Please also consider how previous legislatures have tried to shift the burden to commercial/industrial property with higher class rates and the state general tax; this shift creates superficial equity for homestead tax payers while imposing an obstacle to our economic drivers who, typically, require fewer city services.  Again, please evaluate how the system is balanced rather than simply reducing one component.

Property taxes, housing costs and location: The size of homes has been increasing since the 1950s and, as a result, so have the taxes.  Part of the housing and transportation cost equation depends on where we live relative to where we work, too.  Since your district has Northfield, Londsale and other communities which became more attractive to commuters to the metro area in the last decade, there are also many homeowners who pay a great deal in transportation plus housing.  “Drive ’til you qualify” may have yielded more house for the money for individuals, but also increased household costs. So, it is not too surprising to read that housing and transportation costs taken together are outpacing incomes.  If households are paying more of their income for housing and transportation, then property taxes will be more of a burden.  Before cutting taxes, think about how the incentives for more efficient and economical development can help reduce both government and homeowner costs.

How good is Governor Dayton’s plan?  I’m not impressed.  MinnPost’s Steve Dornfeld critiques the plan and finds 3 big issues: increased complexity (see the final report from the Property Tax Working Group, too), creating new inequities, and providing incentives for local governments to raise taxes in the future. I’d add that Gov. Dayton’s plan adds economic development policies which will continue to incentivize the race to the bottom which will continue to use tax dollars to lure business to Minnesota through tax abatement and infrastructure subsidies while also including new sales taxes for business services which follows the historical pattern of trying to offset property tax issues with sales tax.

As I said to Senator Dahle, I’m counting on your leadership to help develop policies which benefit all Minnesotans for the long term, not just the constituents yelling at you right now.  Of course, I also know that change happens incrementally as you work to build support and make compromises (and that’s just within the DFL) and that I am asking for a staggering amount of reform, but I am looking for you to shift the conversation away from reactive government to thoughtful, sustainable policy-making.  Good luck!

Sincerely,

Betsey Buckheit

Rarely economical disappointing development

First, the NY Times series on subsidies and now the Strib has Art Rolnick (former head of research at the Minneapolis Fed) and business writer Mike Meyers bringing the Times’ information back to Minnesota in the context of Governor Dayton’s tax plan in The Subsidy Bonanza.

A few highlights:

  • Stadium subsidies are “part of a national pattern of taxpayers subsidizing some of the richest people in America.”
  • Minnesota outpaces the nation in job growth, but is not a big subsidizer.  So adding more taxpayer money to lure companies hasn’t proven effective, although it is expensive even for the small players (about 1 cent of every dollar in the Minnesota state budget).  Yet, “Study after study has shown the education of Minnesota’s workforce has been the key to the growth of high-quality jobs for the last half-century.”
  • A catalog of the Twin Cities projects which have been subsidized and not delivered on the promises: Best Buy, stadiums, City Center, Lawson Software…

Rolnick also commented on the Mayo deal over in Minneapolis/St Paul Business Journal comparing Mayo to the Vikings stadium deal.

 

 

Dear Senator Dahle

With the power shift in the state legislature, I’m looking forward to the legislative session with a teeny tiny bit of hope and a whole lot of apprehension.  My apprehension level rose precipitously yesterday when I read my new state senator’s tweet (@KevinDahle) that he’d been meeting with a district mayor as part of working to increase local government aid.  Oh dear, Senator Dahle, but that’s starting at the wrong end of the policy process and so early in the session, too.

Dear Senator Dahle,

A very nice deck chair from the Titanic
A very nice deck chair from the Titanic

Congratulations on your election and the start of the new session!  As a recovering local government official, I know that the state legislature has a great influence on how cities can do their business. I write today to offer a few ideas about how the state could help rather than hinder local governments.  I encourage you (indeed my support in any future election depends on it) to look at the larger, longer term policy picture rather rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic ship of the state of Minnesota.

More than 20 years ago, the Citizens’ League published Remaking the Minnesota Miracle which studied the state/local fiscal system to determine what “realigning of responsibilities and revenue raising authority would have to occur” to finance state and local services and increase accountability.  Although the specific recommendations are interesting (the report calls for eliminating LGA), I hope you’ll consider the 4 principles for evaluating the fiscal system which seem very relevant and not time-bound:

Accountability: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entity that is accountable to the electorate, the recipient of the service, and the governmental unit or persons paying for the service

Effectiveness: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entity, public or private, that gets the job done well and measures for results.

Economy: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entity, public or private, that can supply the service at the lowest possible cost.  For instance, in developed areas, water treatment and sewage facilities can be provided less expensively on a regional basis than on an individual city basis.

Equity: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entities that can finance the service equitably and ensure equity in the delivery of services to all persons.

Certainly, almost any proposal will address some of these values strongly and others more tentatively or will demonstrate the tension between values.  Equity or accountability might strain economy, for example.  Still, these values can help think about what level of government or what private entity is best situated to deliver or fund services and, as a result, where decision-making control should reside.

I hope you have received a copy of the Property Tax working group’s report which also addresses what property taxes are intended to fund and to disentangle state control from local functions.  The history of the development of the property tax in Minnesota is well worth reading as “You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”

Finally, consider how other regulation affects the tax picture and how the state legislature can incentivize better spending strategies and foster innovation at the local level.

  • The “grow our way to prosperity” model must be reexamined to allow cities, counties and the state to maximize their existing investment in infrastructure rather than expanding infrastructure (and the obligation to maintain it) in the hope of attracting enough new business to pay for the existing system.  There is a burgeoning amount of data showing the cost of this strategy to local and state government.
  • Consider school siting philosophies which demand open space and favor new schools rather than renovation also make it harder for children to walk to school (adding busing costs and congestion).  
  • Think about how state government, with its larger scope, can help local entities work collaboratively (especially those outside the Metro Council’s jurisdiction) to deliver services efficiently and economically rather than pitting them against each other or forcing a sort of local protectionism.  We need to be able to develop shared solutions for transportation, land use, resource protection, and service delivery.
  • Transportation and infrastructure spending is a big deal at all levels of government.  Land use, environmental regulation, public health and quality of life are deeply intertwined with transportation policy; please try to see the whole landscape to make policy which helps local and state government invest wisely, support productive growth patterns, and build places where we want to live, work and invest time and effort.

Thanks for reading and I await your updates and other news of what’s happening in St. Paul.  I’m counting on your leadership to help develop policies which benefit all Minnesotans for the long term, not just the ones yelling at you right now.  Of course, I also know that change happens incrementally as you work to build support and make compromises (and that’s just within the DFL), but I am looking for the conversation to shift away from reactive government to thoughtful, sustainable policy-making.  Good luck!

Yours sincerely,

Betsey Buckheit

 

 

 

Revenue handcuffs on local government

Thanks, Minneapolis Fed!   Latest issue of FedGazette has a piece on unfunded mandates and other ways local government is burdened by the folks upstairs:

Even the most flexible, forward-thinking government can run into roadblocks not of its own making. Numerous local government sources said unfunded state and federal mandates often prevent cities, counties and school districts from cutting costs and becoming more efficient.

Don’t believe it? Here’s a simple example, born of tradition: Many states still require local governments to post meetings and other official news in a printed newspaper, when web posting is readily available, free and arguably more accessible to the public.

Northfield’s Council brought up the printed official newspaper problem at its organizational meeting a few weeks ago with the plan to follow up with state legislators, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Property tax class rates, sales tax paid by local government, local government aid (and levy limits), and more.  I hope state and federal legislators are listening and will attempt thoughtful reform, rather than continuing to balance state budgets on the backs of cities or simply adding regulations without considering the downstream consequences.

Getting the message out

Slowly, the problem of funding all the infrastructure we have already built has been spreading.  The latest from Governing called Fixing the Transportation Infrastructure We Have.  Still, there’s some cognitive dissonance in this column; Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett is quoted as saying “Transportation must be confronted as its own distinct and separate topic” because it’s too big to manage within the state budget.  I’d argue that transportation issues really need to be considered in concert with land use, environmental issues, housing and the other issues which affect how streets and highways are designed, where they go, how much infrastructure we really need, etc.