by James A. Bacon
During the depths of the Great Recession in 2008, hundreds of cars dropped off the Department of Motor Vehicle rolls in Washington, D.C. As then-director of planning Harriet Tregoning parsed the data, people were dialing back their expenses to make ends meet. Yes, that was a sign of economic hardship but it also was an indicator of Washington’s resilience. You see, people could sell their cars because the city had such a rich array of transportation options. The result: Washington had fewer foreclosures and experienced less economic distress than many other jurisdictions in the region.
Today, Tregoning is director of the Office of Economic Resilience at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s her job to think about how regions can prepare for economic uncertainty, globalization and restructuring, climate change and extreme weather. Speaking yesterday at the 2014 Congress for the New Urbanism in Buffalo, N.Y., she enumerated several key traits of the resilient city. The availability of transportation options was at the top of the list.
Some may attribute the strength of Washington’s economy during the recession to a surge in stimulus spending. But the local economy has remained vibrant even after sequestration began throttling the federal budget, Tregoning said. The city is gaining population by an average of 1,100 residents per month. Led by entrepreneurial start-ups, private-sector jobs have more than offset the decline in federal jobs.
Here are some of the ways, in Tregoning’s view, in which Washington cultivates resilience:
Transportation choice. Residents have numerous transportation options. Washington is served by buses and one of the nation’s largest Metro systems. The city is building a bicycle network and fostering a bicycle culture through its bike-share program. The city has taxis and taxi-like services such as Uber. Car-sharing services are making inroads. And, of course, Washington streets are highly walkable. The ability to live a car-free or car-lite lifestyle saves households in the range of $4,000 to $16,000 yearly per car.
Willingness to experiment, willingness to fail. Washington’s first shared-bicycle service was “an abysmal failure,” said Tregoning, who was a champion of the shared-bicycle concept. Rather than abandon the idea, the city figured out what it had done wrong and then launched a second enterprise that fixed the problems of the first. Capital Bikeshare has been highly successful. “Innovative cities have to experiment,” Tregoning said. They aren’t paralyzed by fear of failure. Getting things right is an iterative process. The city re-striped the bicycle lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue seven times before people were satisfied.
Pop-up plazas. Resilient cities abhor a vacuum, Tregoning said. They find temporary uses for vacant spaces such as pop-up parks or open-air food courts served by restaurants on wheels. Engage people by mocking up a plaza or other public space using paint, portable furniture and mobile landscaping. Allow people to visualize how the space could be different. If it’s a hit, follow with hard investment. If not, move on to the next experiment.
In the same spirit, I would add a couple additional criteria.
Housing choices. Just as people need transportation choices, they should have housing choices. By that, I don’t mean “affordable” housing as traditionally defined. Homeowners should be free to rent basement apartments, garage apartments or even single rooms to individuals (or even families) not in their household. Property owners could bolster income by an amount equivalent to what they would save selling an automobile; renters would enjoy a greatly expanded supply of housing choices, typically in far nicer neighborhoods than they could find in subsidized housing. Zoning restrictions severely curtail what homeowners can do with their property but resilient cities would give homeowners more flexibility to adjust their living arrangements as economic conditions dictate.
Fiscal sustainability. Cities supply a valuable service to citizens when they maintain buses, trolleys and trains. But municipal transportation enterprises invariably lose money, creating a burden on taxpayers. Here’s the big question: Can municipalities continue to maintain those subsidies in the event of an economic shock? A resilient city, I would argue, develops transportation systems that are financially self-supporting, thus less vulnerable to disruption by adverse economic conditions.
In sum, Tregoning makes excellent points. I hope to elaborate upon some of them — especially the emphasis on experimentation and the willingness to take small risks — in future blog posts. But I would expand the scope of what constitutes a resilient community.There are currently no comments highlighted.