Land use change in cities with AVs, new tech and TNCs. The importance of names for small neighborhoods, and more

In Futurism, The Conversation, 16 Oct 2017 by Tan Yigitcantar et al. 
Smart City Solutions

The convergence of technology and the city is seen as a possible remedy for the challenging issues of urbanisation. Autonomous vehicles are among the most popular of many smart city solutions. Also known as driverless car technology, it could reshape our cities.

One recent prediction is that by 2040 these vehicles will account for up to half of all road travel. A growing number of studies are exploring autonomous-vehicle-induced transport disruptions – “trip generation impacts.” It’s suggested these vehicles could:

  • decrease private motor vehicle ownership, congestion and air pollution;
  • increase ride sharing, road safety, access and mobility;
  • redesign or eliminate traffic signals; and
  • improve mobility for people who are “transport-disadvantaged.”

Less research has been done on the effects on urban landscapes and the development patterns of our cities. Every change in transport technology – from horse cart to coal-powered train to street car to automobile – has great impacts on our cities.

So, what might autonomous-vehicle-induced changes look like? What are their likely rebound effects on mobility?

Freeing up Road Space for Other Uses

Road networks on average occupy about 30% of a city’s land area in developed countries.

In theory, autonomous vehicles can use road networks more efficiently and thus free up some road space if trip generation rate and population growth are held constant. This space can be redesigned for a whole new spectrum of social functions, street trees, walkways or bike lanes.

However, it is likely these vehicles will enable previously suppressed trips to be taken. The resulting increase in traffic volume will reduce the potential to free up road space for other uses.

Turning Parking Lots Into Social Uses

Autonomous vehicles will reduce and potentially eliminate the need for the significant amount of space set aside for parking in high-demand urban areas.

In these areas of high-value property, mandatory parking supply requirements will have to change. A reduction in parking lots has the potential to transform urban cores, as these spaces can be used for other activities—such as parks, more high-value activities, or affordable housing.

Business uplift resulting from higher-density activities is then entirely feasible (akin to agglomeration economies in cities). This can create more mixed-use and transit-oriented development, accelerate a trend towards inner-city living and make these areas more efficient, productive and liveable.

Redesigning Building and Street Interfaces

With an autonomous-vehicle-dominated city, buildings and development will have to adapt to new patterns of traffic flow. They will need to be designed for door-to-door services – mainly accommodating the drop-offs and pick-ups at each and every site.

High-volume sites will need a bespoke interface for multiple autonomous vehicles, while lower-volume sites will no longer need kerbside parking for each development.

This scenario offers much potential to free up kerb space for other uses.

Transforming Fuel Stations Into New Land Uses

Autonomous vehicles are largely envisaged as electric vehicles charged at their overnight parking spaces. The implication is that eventually, once these vehicles dominate road transport, fuel stations will not be needed on the streets.

These locations will require remedial environmental treatment for conversion to other land uses. But once that’s done, this will open the way to alternative uses for the former fuel stations in all neighbourhoods—more convenience stores or online shopping click-and-collect locations?

This raises the question of what would be an optimal productive use for such high-profile, highly accessible sites.

Converting Domestic Garage Spaces in Suburbia

Some visions of pooled/shared ownership of autonomous vehicles suggest we will have no need to own private motor vehicles. So we will no longer need to park and garage vehicles in residential dwellings.

This could transform a substantial share of housing stock, with garages converted to other uses such as studios, rented short-term lodging, or granny flats.

In theory, driveways will no longer be needed either. These could be turned into greened front yards, spaces for children to play and residents to walk and meet their neighbours.

Alternatively, however, if the space once used for garages and access ways becomes available for buildings, this could exacerbate the trend toward larger environmentally inefficient homes.

Increasing Urban Sprawl

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to induce more urban sprawl, as more effortless travel becomes available to more people. This may lead to a rethinking of the convenience of proximity to the city and major employment centres.

Low-cost housing on the urban fringes has been a major driver of sprawl in cities.

By making travel cheaper and more convenient, autonomous vehicles might make the economics and practicality of sprawl more attractive.

Changing Property Values, Planning Controls and Land Supply

While “location, location, location” will remain relevant, autonomous vehicles should act to inflate property values in some neighbourhoods and depress values in others.

Easier commutes in particular will have an impact on residential property prices, and might shift preferences from properties in urban centres to those in suburban areas.

While suburbanisation might speed up, densification of urban cores might also be enhanced. We might see people with very distinctive lifestyles preferring these different locations.

Planning controls and land supply will be key instruments to control the balance between greenfield and infill developments. We need to consider how these controls are applied in this new environment to maximise social and economic benefits.

How Planners Will Manage the Disruption of Land Use

Through the convergence of automation, electrification and ride-sharing technologies, autonomous vehicles could significantly reshape real estate, urban development and city planning—as the automobile did in the last century.

This transformation also creates an opportunity for planners to make our cities more citizen-centred by bringing back the human-scale and walkable city practices that motor vehicle domination removed.

How well prepared are urban planners, however, to mitigate the disruptive impacts on our cities? Do we yet even understand what these disruptions and their implications are?

Urban planning as a profession is largely unprepared for autonomous vehicles. Planners need to be aware, smart and proactive about the potential impacts, particularly in terms of the potential for renewed urban sprawl.

A future involving widespread use of autonomous vehicles presents both land-use opportunities and challenges. Progressive outcomes will require an objective assessment of their complex land-use, economic and community influences on our evolving cities.

By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor Governing Magazine, Oct 2017 on the importance of naming small neighborhoods


Twenty years or so ago, working on a book about the Chicago of the 1950s, I spent some reporting time in Bronzeville, the neighborhood that had been the segregated but vibrant home base of the city’s African-American population from the 1920s through the 1960s. I was surprised to find that a friend of mine who had grown up nearby claimed not to be familiar with the name. “Bronzeville?” she said. “Don’t believe I’ve heard that one.”

Thinking about it some more, I began to understand how the name Bronzeville got lost. It was a symbol not only of segregation, but of the innumerable indignities that people of color were forced to endure in the Chicago of the early- and mid-20th century. When things started to open up in later years, and black people could live and shop and play pretty much where they chose, the last thing they wanted to be reminded of was the confinement they had just escaped from. If they knew the old name, which most of them probably did, they preferred not to use it. Bronzeville was a ghetto name. The ghetto was over.

Recalling all this, I find it comforting to see that in the new century, Bronzeville has sprouted back to life as an emblem of ethnic and community pride. There are guided tours, summer art fairs, blues festivals, and cool places to eat and drink, some of them trading on historical neighborhood themes. The name itself has been central to the neighborhood’s revival.

One of the many lessons to be learned from Bronzeville is that as generations pass, history that was once depressing can become the locus of community pride. Another is that what residents decide to call their community can make a great deal of difference to its economic fortunes and social cohesion.

That last point has come up repeatedly in the last few months in a battle over what name to use for a portion of Harlem, perhaps the only historic black community in America that is even more iconic than Bronzeville. It turns out that Keller-Williams, the giant real estate company with a heavy presence in Manhattan, had started marketing properties at the southern end of the neighborhood (between 110th and 125th streets) under the name SoHa, a sort of code name for “southern Harlem.” The company never gave a clear reason for why it was doing this, but local residents nearly all believed that it was an attempt to attract affluent white people who were uneasy about buying into Harlem’s dangerous reputation.

It didn’t take long for a storm of protest to develop. Street corner rallies were organized. Op-eds were published in the city’s newspapers. A state senator from Harlem, Brian Benjamin, introduced a bill in the legislature that would create a city office of neighborhood naming and punish businesses that “advertise a property as part of, or located in, a designated neighborhood that is not traditionally recognized as such.”

The Benjamin bill didn’t go anywhere, and likely would have encountered First Amendment problems if it had. But it served to reinforce the widespread belief that a neighborhood’s name belongs to its residents, not to the real estate industry. For outsiders to come in and give it a new name is insulting. The company caved. In July, it announced that it would be putting SoHa away in a drawer until further notice.

Insults and racism aside, however, New York City has been on a neighborhood rebranding binge since the early 1960s, when an urban planner named Chester Rapkin decided he could save a dingy old warehouse district in lower Manhattan by rechristening it SoHo, for “south of Houston Street.” Within less than a decade, warehouses once threatened with demolition were turned into condominium lofts, artists moved into them in droves and the whole place became a tourist attraction. Today, very few working artists can afford to live in SoHo.

Why a simple name change worked so well was never entirely clear, but it provoked a flurry of imitation. SoHo begat Tribeca (Triangle below Canal), Tribeca begat NoLita (north of Little Italy) and real estate brokers all over the city started trying to find similar magic in nearly every neighborhood where the market needed a boost. Not all of them succeeded: BoHo wasn’t a very attractive name for Bowery below Hudson, and SoBro for the South Bronx was too big a stretch for most tastes. It sounded like a bunch of jocks who had vowed to quit drinking. But the fad itself had staying power. Rapkin had proved, in the words of urban writer Kevin Deutsch, “that you can essentially call a neighborhood into existence with sheer will, imagination and a catchy acronym.”

Some of the new names teetered for years on the cusp of popular acceptance. Brooklynites who live “down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass” have grudingly come around to saying they live in Dumbo. But the most interesting of these involved a nondescript swatch of light industrial territory just north of Manhattan’s Madison Square Park. It had no history of neighborhood cohesion to speak of. In 1999, real estate brokers decided to name these few square blocks “NoMad.” The New York Times picked up on it, and headlined one article, “The Trendy Discover NoMad Land, and Move In.” The fad didn’t last. By 2001, the term had fallen into almost complete disuse. Local residents said it sounded too much like No Man’s Land.

But seven years later, an ambitious developer opened a hotel in the middle of the district, and to give his project a little pizazz, resurrected NoMad to describe the surrounding area. Within months, Britain’s Guardian newspaper was calling NoMad “a hipster hub in midtown Manhattan.”

This time, the name stuck. Within just a few years, NoMad had acquired an identity pervasive enough that its leaders decided to apply for historic district status. Sadly for them, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission turned down the application earlier this year. But it’s hard to escape Deutsch’s lesson that with enough effort, a name can create a community.

New York is clearly the rebranding capital of the United States right now, but the strategy has taken root in many other cities. A few months back, San Francisco, which coined a hit years ago by calling the area south of Market Street “SoMa,” spent $70,000 on a project to find a name and build a neighborhood identity for the cluster of downtown office buildings and high-rise condos known to residents mostly as “the area around the transit center.” The name the city came up with was East Cut. How this could be a prizewinner is a puzzling question, and some of the residents pointed out that the territory was once called “Rincon Hill,” and would be better off going back to that. But they didn’t prevail.

Over the yearsthere’s been a fair amount of research on neighborhood identity, and while there’s no consensus on what makes for a strong one, there’s general agreement that commonly accepted names and boundaries bring an enhanced sense of community and lead to a higher level of citizen engagement.

Chicago is often described as a city of neighborhoods, and that is a fair description. What’s less well known is that the city’s strong neighborhood identities are the product of work done by sociologists at the University of Chicago in the 1920s. They created a city map that delineated 77 precisely defined communities, each with a name that the residents could use to place themselves. Those names have been an important part of the city’s culture ever since. When Barack Obama was elected president, journalists reported that he owned a home in Hyde Park, a well-known neighborhood on the city’s South Side. But some locals pointed out that the Obama house wasn’t really in Hyde Park — it was in Kenwood, a half-block outside the Hyde Park border. People in Chicago know things like that.

Chicago’s neighborhood naming system has generated a few imitators, most notably an effort a few years ago by a citizens’ group in Indianapolis, one that included Governing columnist Aaron M. Renn. The group felt that the city was weak in neighborhood identity and, as a result, was lagging behind in civic participation. So it produced a Chicago-style map with precise boundaries and precise names. “Where there weren’t well-defined neighborhoods, we created them,” Renn told CityLab in 2012. The project didn’t carry official government sanction, but today the neighborhood map is posted on the wall in cafés and stores, and, in the words of principal mapmaker Josh Anderson, it has given cohesion to parts of the city once known only by “neighborhood diehards.”

The liveliest running debate about neighborhood identity, however, revolves around the question of what size the ideal neighborhood should be. The pioneering urbanist Jane Jacobs argued in the 1960s that most of them were too small, unable to muster the energy and clout they needed to negotiate with city government. But most current scholarly opinion is on the other side of this issue, arguing that smaller communities create more loyalty and cohesion. “The greatest deficiency in neighborhood names,” the urbanist David Boehlke wrote in 2013, “is that they refer to places that are just too large, places that people can’t identify with. … Neighborhood naming is a core aspect of economic renewal. It must be done with care.”

We all know what Shakespeare said about roses. You can call them anything you want and it won’t affect the fragrance. That’s probably true of a lot of things. It just doesn’t seem to be true of neighborhoods.