The LoBlows Did Me Again

One of the sub-plots of my life is that the University of New Mexico’s men’s basketball program exists only to break my heart.  I cannot count the number of times it has happened, but they have done so on the court and off the court, and while I was in Albuquerque and in Montgomery and in Auburn and in Chattanooga. Every time they dash my hopes and break my spirit, I swear off them and vow to never be seduced again. They got me again this year. We were good, we were finally really good. On Thursday night their game started well after my bedtime, but I stayed up to watch my brothers in cherry and silver. And what happened? They shit the bed.  More accurately, coach Steve Alford (1 day after inking a 10-year contract extension) shit the bed. His match-up strategy blew up spectacularly. I will spare you the details, but know that we checked Harvard’s two-guard Laurent Rivard (193 of his 210 shots this year were 3’s) with a glacially-paced four- and it did not end well. I handled the loss pretty well- certainly better than this guy. But I’m done with them now. My relationship with Alabama football is stronger, longer lasting and more fulfilling. I’ll never let the Lobos seduce me again…oh wait, did someone say that all of our starters are returning next year? Damn, they’re going to get me again…

As evidenced from last week’s post, a big component of this year’s Lobo seduction was statistical. Some say that numbers don’t lie, and others subscribe to the “Lies, damned lies, and statistics” model. A large (perhaps too large) part of the planning profession is dedicated to number crunching and statistical analysis. While I certainly recognize the value of the quantitative planning model, I tend to employ a more intuitive approach to analysis. As 2008 showed us, life has a way of playing messy tricks with statistical forecasts and projections. I respond well, however, to common sense statistical thinking. I’ve been fortunate to hear from the incomparable Donna Williams a couple of times in past few weeks and she makes a fantastic statistical point about our city- how many more Neidlov’s-eating, GreenLife-shopping, Microbrew-drinking, progressive, urban dwellers* exist who don’t already live in downtown? How do we increase population density downtown (which is the name of the game) if that particular demographic has already been exhausted? And how do we provide for the rest of the community?

If someone inquires as to the most affordable downtown neighborhood, the typical answer has been the Southside (and perhaps North Chattanooga). These days, you can’t get into a new house in the Southside for less than $250,000. To some, that’s affordable. The statistics say otherwise. The median house value in Chattanooga is $128,900 and the mean is $165,158. With our median household income of $35,333 a family can afford a house that costs $142,074. So a place in the Southside is nearly twice as expensive as an average Chattanoogan can theoretically afford. Please note that I’m not even talking about low-income housing- I’m talking about housing that a statistically average family with a statistically average income can reasonably afford to buy.

The trend is that homes are becoming more expensive down here- this is good from the standpoint of property values and tax generation, but bad from the standpoint of inclusivity. Appreciation of real estate value is one of the ways that people can improve their financial situation. That appreciation, however, creates a barrier for others trying to enter the market. Rising markets also have an impact on long-time residents who are either cash-poor or rent. A while back, I wrote about what was happening in my neighborhood of Jefferson Heights, and I’m afraid that trend has simply continued. So beyond providing for the average Chattanooga (which we are not), one could argue that it is the moral obligation of the community to ensure that we provide decent and affordable housing for all of our citizens.

[If you want to read two people who are smarter than me, sniping with each like school boys about this very subject read this, then this rebuttal]

As of now, only about 30% of Chattanooga households earn enough to qualify for that $250,000 house in the Southside. I suspect that there is a substantial cohort that would love to live downtown if only they could afford it. I suspect this group is younger and has an income closer to the median. To get the types of urban amenities we all crave, we need to find ways to increase population density in our core and find ways to enable anyone who wants to live downtown to have an option to do so. Maybe we haven’t fully tapped the progressive-with-six-figure-income demographic, but I suspect we’re getting close. It seems to me, the more prudent strategy would be to try to tap the 70% of our population that can’t currently afford to be here. Not only does this seem to be a sound mathematical strategy, it is also more consistent with a philosophy that downtown is for everyone.

*Those are my descriptors, not hers. Please note that those are not necessarily pejorative terms- I LOVE Neidlov’s and microbrews!


The Good 'Ole Days

It appears, for the weekend at least, that spring has sprung. Oh, the joys of warm weather. The boys had their first soccer games of the spring season (including the young one’s first ever game). The scene is also now set for the big dance. Not good news for the SEC (but the blow of ‘Bama’s burst bubble is softened by the Vols’ snub). Congratulations to New Mexico- Mountain West Conference regular season and tournament champs. I will argue, however, that my Lobos got hosed with a three seed. While at first glance that doesn’t seem so bad, a simple comparison makes my point. Gonzaga, the #1 team in the county is a #1 seed, look at how their numbers stack up against the Lobo’s:
     UNM's RPI (power ranking) of 2 is better than Gonzaga's at 9.

     UNM's number 3 strength of schedule is far better than Gonzaga's at 68.

     UNM's conference SOS (60) is also better than Gonzaga's (172).

     UNM has 8 RPI Top 50 wins  (highest #16). Zags have 5 with (highest #21).

     UNM has played 20 top 100 teams winning 16. Zags have played 12, winning 10.

     UNM has played only one team below 200 RPI. Zags have played 6.

Despite the fact that the Lobos have a solid argument for a 1 seed, they got dropped to a 3. While facts say the Lobos are superior, they are ranked significantly lower for a single reason- history. Gonzaga has shown over the course of a decade that they have the ability to go deep in the NCAA tournament. The Lobo’s have a strong record of under-achieving in the national spotlight. Neither team’s performance over the past couple of decades means a hill of beans during games this season, but fair or foul, this is the sole reason for the disparity of the rankings. So, basketball-wise, this is great and exciting time, but simultaneously a time to prepare for the fight. What happened to teams of the past shades the present, but that all goes out the window when it’s time to play new games. So it is in Chattanooga.

The excitement and good vibrations coursing the city now are almost tangible. Everything seems to be pointed in the right direction, and the city seems poised to blow-up (in the parlance of our times).  For those with interests in urbanism and design, the election went quite well. Only time will tell what our elected officials will actually do, but for the sake of argument, lets assume they will get stuck in and support the principles and design and urbanism that helped bring downtown back in the first place. If that happens, it’s game over right? We win and we’ll go build this magnificent urban Mecca that will be the envy of the civilized world, won’t we?

Clearly, the past eight years of (_______) have made us long for the good old days of Kinsey and Corker. Indeed, good days they were. During those times, both City and County Mayors understood and were supportive of good urban design. Ditto for those City Councils. From a staff standpoint, the city was in good shape: the public works directors were good (and in one case outstanding), parks and rec was in good shape, planning had a great director (then an adequate one), we worked around the myopic traffic folks, and of course the design studio was running on all cylinders (not too mention staffed by handsome, witty and athletic planners). Looking back, things were ideal weren’t they?

It’s funny how the mists of time and eight years of (______) can change our perception of the past. As good as the political leadership was, as good as the other elected officials were, as competent as city staff was, and as handsome as the design studio employees were, the urbanists never really had it all their way. In fact, as I recall, I felt like we were fighting an uphill battle both on projects and in education. There were outright wins like the 21st Century Waterfront and Coolidge Park, hard-fought wins like the MLKing/McCallie two-way conversion, and outright losses like Chili’s (which came before Littlefield and set the precedent for the Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings of the world). We never got our zoning code revised, we never got downtown parking needs and standards adequately addressed, and the list of unfinished business was just as daunting. So while I remember the good ‘ole days fondly, I try to always remind myself that it was never easy.

I am very happy to see a new mayor and a new council. I have no reason to believe that the new crew will be anything other than outstanding, and I am looking forward to their leadership.  But even if our new leaders turn out be reincarnated versions of Kevin Lynch and Donald Appleyard, there is no guarantee that the urbanists will win the day. We can be happy that everyone seems to be fired up and heading the right direction. We should be excited about the arrows in our quiver. We should not, however, assume that progress will be made without hard work and concerted effort. 


What Would Hari Do?

This past Friday I heard the term “Big Data” for the first time. During the course of the day, I came across it two other times. I guess I’ve always known that as we keep advancing technologically, massive amounts of data would be generated, but I never gave it much thought beyond that.  There are a number of very smart people in our community, however, who are devoting themselves to the exploration of what our new capacity means and how it can be employed to our advantage. I won’t trip- I know design and urbanism, I’m shit at math, and only know enough about technology to have a firm grasp on Adobe CS6. That having been said, from time to time I like to think about how new and emerging concepts could conceivably impact the form of cities.

Obviously, when we consider our smart grid, our internet capacity, and with the world fastest computer ninety miles away, Big Data has profound implications for Chattanooga. The ability to generate, store and analyze massive amounts of data concerning how people live and behave is truly exciting. Given enough data points, it’s possible to create predictive models for how large groups of people will react and respond to certain situations. This has far-reaching implications, from the efficient provision of electricity, to disaster preparedness plans, to buildings and districts that produce more than they consume, to the planning of how cities are built and in-filled. The question that then occurred to me, is that given enough data points about enough aspects of human activity, would it be possible to make more comprehensive predictive models for the future of society?

That’s when I had another “Simpson’s did it” moment.

The father of psychohistory

What I thought was an epiphany was nothing more than a latent, subconscious memory of something I read years ago. When I was in junior high, my stepdad introduced me to the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov (thanks, G!). It was, and remains, my favorite book series, but I haven’t read it for at least a dozen years. The premise is that a dude named Hari Seldon develops a type of mathematics called Psychohistory that uses statistics about human behavior to predict the future. The bigger the data set, the more accurate his predictions, but his tool is ineffective at predicting the actions of an individual. His calculations predict the decline of the Galactic Empire and a dark age that will last 30,000 years. His calculations also showed that while there was virtually no way to stop the decline the Empire, there was a way to shorten the dark age from 30,000 years to a mere millennium. Toward this end he established the “Foundation” that would, over time, make tweaks to society to change the course of history to shorten the oncoming dark age.

So what started off as deep thought about the role of emerging technologies in shaping the future physical form of the city ended with me spending most of my writing time downloading old books. But for now, let me say that we have the unequalled opportunity to improve the quality of life for Chattanoogans, those in the region and those around the globe. Beyond service strategies, and procedural protocols, the analysis of big data has the very real potential to inform how cities are physically organized and how spaces are designed. These are indeed very exciting times to be both and urbanist and a Chattanoogan. When I finish reading my pop fiction, maybe I’ll revisit the subject. Ciao for now.


Happy Birthday Chuck

I’m generally a pretty happy guy, but from time to time I can get moody. This is one of those times. I’m not sure if I should blame it on something I ate, or the fact that I feel like I haven’t seen the sun in a month. It’s in moments of weakness like these that I’m susceptible to making crotchety blog posts (but please note that by the time this actually goes live, I will likely be back to my normal cheerful self). This one is all over the place, so forgive me.

A couple of weeks ago, famed Alabamian Charles Barkley celebrated his 50th birthday. One of the sports channels ran a top ten list of Barkley’s best quotes (for a few more go here). My favorite: “I don’t care what people think. People are stupid”. But truthfully, I’m not one of those cynical folks that walks around expecting the worst of everyone. To the contrary, I think that individuals are more often than not reasonable with thoughts and actions influenced by their unique life experiences. But when considered as a whole, “people” are indeed stupid. (How else can one explain the popularity of some of our restaurants? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but for me, the dining options in this town are abysmal. It also seems that the more popular a place is, the worse the food is. On the bright side we are blessed to have Lindley and Niel).

I’m a designer, not a sociologist. I’m sure that somewhere there is a very smart person who can give you a thoughtful and reasoned explanation of why groups of folks act they way they do. I’ll leave that to the professionals, but as it relates to urbanism and design I don;t mind making a few observations.

Consider the city. For the past sixty years people in our country have flocked to the sub-urbs. This shift has been detrimental to our urban cores, has stratified society, has destroyed massive areas of viable farmland, has homogenized life experiences, has led to a rise in obesity, has led to the erosion family structure and has done so in a way that is not sustainable, that harms our air, water and land,  that is totally dependent on fossil fuels, and that requires them to surrender hours of their life every day to sitting in a car. These facts are self-evident, yet people still think that the sub-urbs are a great place. In fact it is nigh upon impossible to separate the development model from The American Dream.

Consider housing. “People” think that poor iterations of vernacular and/or classical architecture, poorly adapted to site, built in antiseptic sub-urbs in a way that is unresponsive to their actual needs, detrimental to the environment in which they live, and assembled of crap materials using poor technique is a good thing. Despite the fact that these “homes” are unhealthy, inefficient, wasteful, and generic, developers still build them, and people still buy them. In fact, the more unhealthy, inefficient, wasteful and generic a house is, the more desirable it seems to be (think gated community with monster McMansions).

I fully believe that just because a majority believe something or do something, that doesn’t make it right. Our mom’s asked: “if all of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”. I would ask: “if most people live in the suburbs, does that make it right?” As a group, “people” don’t understand good design- if they did our cities wouldn’t look the way they do. Therein lies my struggle with how a community works together to build the city. I firmly believe in robust civic participation. But if the citizenry doesn’t understand design (or is collectively incapable of embracing good design) how does that work? This is one that I’ve been grappling with from time to time over the past decade or so. I’ve made peace with the mechanics of how the two seemingly incongruous points can coexist on a case-by-case basis, but I have been unable to reconcile them from philosophical point of view.

If we look back at some of our successes, what can we learn? Miller Plaza enjoyed robust community involvement. However, I don’t think any member of the general public had input on Koetter’s deign guidelines. We had a ton of public involvement in the 90’s, but do you think Chermayeff was soliciting ideas for how the aquarium would look? The same could be said for any number of designed places in downtown. I suppose there is something to be said for the education of the public in bringing them along concerning what makes good design. I suppose there is also something to be said for establishing general directions and frameworks through public participation and fleshing out the details by the interpretations of individuals.

I think that it’s a good thing that we don’t design by committee or leave those types of decisions to the people. It is my belief that the public at large simply does not have to ability to produce good design. Chattanooga was lucky in that we had a Design Studio that was able to advocate on behalf of the people while dealing with design professionals. Perhaps this is a best-case scenario, where the voices of the people are heard, and designers are allowed to express their expertise (although not unchecked).

Further evidence that people are stupid: remember eight years ago when our friends and neighbors lost their ever-loving mind? Let’s not have that happen again – go vote.