A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Urbanist Andres Duany Returns to Sarasota

Well, Andres Duany has been in town the past few days, escorted around town through a variety of speaking events and site tours, shepherded by a variety of people hoping he won't say something diametrically opposed to their own views on urbanism and dreams for Sarasota.

Duany combines encyclopedic knowledge gleaned from careful observation of hundreds of cities with a provocative style that swings from acerbic quips to brilliant insights. And just when people are about to conclude he's just on a prolonged slashing riff, Andres drops a compliment on some aspect of Sarasota and the audience experiences a warm glow.

Andres Duany addresses a joint
Sarasota City and County Commission meeting

I didn't get to all his presentations, but I do have eight pages of notes -- so what follows are some things I think are worth repeating:

Let's start with points he emphasized several times:

One Size Can't Fit All
Duany has long been into transects, arguing that it is debilitating folly to adopt the same standards across a wild variety of landscapes ranging from the urban core to the most natural areas.  He maintains that a lot of what is wrong is not that a solution is wrong per se, but that it is occurring in the wrong transect. My favorite example is the sidewalk on the north side of Highway 72 that stops about 1,000 feet shy of Myakka River State Park. That should probably be bridle trail until such time (shudder) as development may warrant a sidewalk. The solution is "declensions" -- six separate standards for virtually everything: lighting, landscaping, parking, stormwater, everything.

Little Mobs and NIMBYs
He believes that our current decision-making process "incites little mobs", by which he means that too often neighbors dominate land use policy decisions. And he used the recent Walmart decision as an example, which some took to mean that he thought that was a good spot for Walmart.

My sense was that he is no Walmart booster (later he suggested a downtown Target) but rather that he thought that if the answer was going to be "no" Walmart should have been able to learn that in less time and with less expense ( according to Duany: two and a half years and $1million).

First he criticized NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard), but then stated that their concerns are rational and are frequently legitimate -- their situations actually will be diminished by the proposed project. Yet he is convinced NIMBYism is destructive of public process -- creating a suspicion of growth. I don't think he wants neighbors to be muzzled or ignored - just that their proximal views should somehow be better  balanced with the thoughts of rest of the community that is not so immediately impacted.

Urban Permitting Needs to Change
A fundamental principle he keeps driving home is that if cities make redevelopment difficult then developers will head out to sprawlville where greenfield development is less problematic. That observation affirms City Commissioner Atwell's concerns about 2050. More broadly it raises the question of whether it makes any sense to revisit aspects of the villages of 2050 in the eastern county Village/Open Space RMA independently of the county ostensible commitment to redevelopment in the redevelopment and mixed use corridors Urban Suburban RMA (Resource Management Area).

One of his more powerful metaphors is the dashboard. He argues that drivers don't need to know how an engine works to drive - they just need to operate within a finite number of parameters that are easy to access on the dashboard. He longs for a comparable set of parameters that might allow developers to take responsibility for what they are doing without a lot of expensive governmental micro-managing. 

Rising Sea Level - the Carbonists vs the Hydronists
I was surprised to hear his take on rising sea level. Surprised because this is not some guy from Denver telling us not to worry -- Duany has extensive experience in Florida. I think he is correct to admonish environmentalists to ease off on tipping point hysteria. His argument is that if you tell people there is a point of no return, that once the point is reached, people will throw up their hands and decide to party while the ability of Earth's ability to support humans deteriorates. More provocatively, Duany believes the primary effects of rising sea level are nothing "adults can't handle". "Nothing you can't solve with galoshes."* Instead, he predicts things will get weird only when secondary effects kick in -- when coastal insurance or mortgages become unaffordable. These views are based on what he sees as two competing environmental sects in Florida: the "carbonists", and the "hydronists".

In this duality the carbonists worry about carbon leading to climate change and rising sea level (too much water) whereas the hydronists worry that the aquifers are being depleted and we are creating drought and desertification (too little water). His perception is that most of the nation (California for example) are carbonists, while Floridians are hydronists. Of course the two are intimately linked- power generation uses vast amounts of water and water supply and treatment results in lots of fossil-fuel burning and had John Lambie been there, he probably would have explained to Duany the complementary yin-yang roles of hydrocarbons and carbohydrates.

The hydronists stress hydraulic connectivity and greenways and, in the process, thwart greenway crossings thus "trumping the grid", which means thwarting the development of a complex road network.

It has never been easier to do the right thing
He argued that the suburbs are not well suited as residences for aging boomers because you have to drive everywhere. The result is a trend towards the elderly looking for urban settings where walking is more feasible. In addition, the millennials grew up in suburbs and are not all that impressed. So they are flocking to cities. They are not the same market, but this twin convergence is making it easier to do great things in the urban core.

Duany on Chickens
It is not surprising that Duany figured out that the ability to keep chickens exists along a transect sequence or declension -- roosters allowed in the rural zone, but hens only in suburban and general urban zones. He believes the decision about chickens should be at the block, and not the neighborhood, level.  I'm not sure what he means by the block level, but I suspect he is wrong.

To clarify, if people want chickens in the front yard, that probably should decided on be a block or neighborhood level, because chickens in the front yard affect the block and/or neighborhood. And why is that? Because just as there is a transect from urban core to natural areas that calls for different solutions, there is a transect from the middle of the street/road to the back yard. The street is a public space owned and managed by the public (government). Then there is typically a strip of right of way that is technically owned by the public, but which the homeowner has some ability to manage. That is followed by the front yard, which is owned by the lot owner, but which actually has some elements of a public, not private, space. Christopher Alexander explored all this in A Pattern Language, which incorporates a lot of transect thinking.

Just as male fiddler crabs wave their claws to communicate with neighbors, homeowners use their front yards to communicate with the neighborhood. Some of this is deliberate and some unconscious. One need not be John Stilgoe to infer vast quantities (some incorrect) about a household by witnessing the space from the front door to the street. Without ever meeting or seeing the owner, observant neighbors can discern facts about the age and number of occupants (number and model of cars, toys left in the yard) their drinking habits (recycling bin), political leanings (newspaper subscriptions, campaign yard signs), religion (holiday decorations, mezuzah) and there is a trove of information coded in the plants people place in the front yard landscape. [It takes a more sophisticated eye to decode some of this.] People's front yards convey the extent to which the occupants conform to neighborhood norms/values. This is why front lawns are such a big deal and why front yard native landscapes or vegetable plots are so controversial.

But the backyard is different and we are talking backyard hens. And why is the backyard different? Because there is an extensive list of residential behaviors that are normally exclusively backyard behaviors: swing sets, above-ground pools, trampolines, boat storage, vegetable gardens, barbeque grills, compost bins, dog kennels, clotheslines, treehouses, tool sheds, and (except for exhibitionists) sunbathing. These appurtenances and behaviors affect neither the block nor the neighborhood -- their impacts (if any) are limited to adjacent neighbors. And because they affect only neighbors, existing nuisance laws are sufficient to address any negative impacts. For more on this, check out this Sarasota CLUCK posting.

Random Duany Insights, Quips, and Observations

• Of 200 Main Streets that were converted to being all pedestrian, only 3 are working.

• The problem with the Black Olives on Main Street is that they interfere with awnings, which are needed in the subtropics.

• He sobers up audiences by observing that insufficient pension strategies and deferred infrastructure maintenance are placing all governments in a pickle.

• Despite being "impossibly thick and obtuse" 2050 "can be salvaged".

• Twenty cities, inspired by Seattle, built rotating restaurants on tall buildings - virtually all failed.

• "Panama is Miami where you can get a permit."

• He correctly points out that one of the main tools used to stop bad projects has been environmental arguments. (think Snail Darter and Tellico Dam) But rather than citing wetlands or listed species, Duany asked "Can't we just have good planning?"

• So many young people are becoming artists, "because art is the only thing you can do without a permit."

*For a contrasting view that seems to epitomize the "we're all gonna die" school of climate change that Duany is criticizing, check out Rolling Stone's Goodbye, Miami.