When is it okay to fail?


Aerial Vignette – Katy, TX (Salon des Refusés, illustration by author)

As I ponder the flooding throughout south Texas this season, I recollect a New Urbanist design competition I had the good fortune to help propose a while back. One specific focus for this proposal was to show the unique stormwater management benefits of truly traditional urban development patterns.

In 2010 I was a member of an ad hoc design team backed by the environmental groups, Sea Grant Texas and the Texas Coastal Watershed Program. We pooled our resources in order to create a conceptual project for a design competition — for a piece of land in rural south Texas.

Called the Low Impact Development Design Competition, it was sponsored by the Land / Water Sustainability Forum of Houston, Texas. The purpose of the competition was, “… to develop a residential neighborhood with the look and feel of a master planned community in a market area where no other community of that type currently exists.” — that is, a Greenfield development project. But, unique to this project was its requirement that all design proposals demonstrate a reduction in storm water run-off from the pre-development 5-year, 10-year, and 100-year storm event. A laudable goal, to be sure, especially in a part of the country racked with significant soil erosion during its frequent torrential downpours.

Our team included a number of excellent designers, an out-standing civil engineer, and a number of urban activists. And yet, we knew we had no chance of winning the competition. Our conviction was so sure, we named our team (and our proposal) the Salon de Refusés — for we definitely felt our design was outside the bounds of the “Académie”.

Why we intentionally set out to fail

The competition organizer provided a set of plans for the proposed site; including the full 640 acre section’s plat survey, an earlier proposed Conventional Suburban Development (CSD) scheme, and a set of target housing typology criteria for the proposals. Interestingly enough, the organizer referred to their CSD concept as a Traditional Design — despite it presenting nearly every aspect of conventional suburbia, replete with embarrassingly low target parcel densities (with an average residential parcel density of 3.8 homes per acre). To put this figure in perspective, the average household density required to support a descent transit service is 7 homes per acre. To provide a little background on what CSD looks like, here’s a brief summary of the development type put together by the design firm Dover Kohl & Partners.

Conventional Suburban Development:


Meridian, Idaho (Google Earth image, accessed 2015)

1. Dispersed form with no distinct edge, disturbing the majority of the site’s buildable land;

2.Single-use pods, containing one kind of lot and building type in each (e.g. office parks, residential subdivisions, and strip shopping centers);

3. One way in and out of each pod;

4. Garage doors and garbage pickup facing the street;

5. Large blocks with irregular shapes and cul-de-sacs;

6. Open space in the residual “left-over” land between pods and around regulated wetlands; and

7. Strip shopping centers with big box retail and large parking lots between buildings and the street.

One other aspect of the organizer’s site was its massive 142 acre dedication to the local school district, on which would be built a very large high school, equally large junior high, and an elementary school. Now, I’ve written before about the inherent problems associated with large-scale schools — and the type of urban pattern they induce. But, the Land / Water Sustainability Forum would not permit any competition entrants to propose any alternative use for that 142 site, let alone any alternative configuration for the schools.

What we chose to design was contrary to almost every intent of the organizer. 1) We proposed a fundamental change to the proposed schools, 2) We proposed a housing typology that would actually support transit service, and 3) We proposed a pattern of development that was an integrated whole unto itself (without the dependencies typically demonstrated by conventional suburbia, i.e., bedroom communities).

So rather than this:


Ventana Lakes “Traditional” Design (Land / Water Sustainability Forum of Houston – 2010)

We proposed this:


Salon des Refusés (Competition Entry – image by author)

We took the 142 acre school site and proposed, instead, to build upon it an entire village. The village would not only still have a high school, junior high, and elementary school — but it would accommodate 1,480 homes (300 more than the organizer’s mandate) at an average density of 11.8 homes per acre. These homes would be built over a wide typology of forms (single-family detached homes, townhouses, and apartments). It also would have churches, a village square, pedestrian oriented commercial operations, even a grange for the local farmers and community members. The remainder of the site would support nearly 500 acres of truck and hand farms that would grow a substantial amount of the food consumed within the village.

And, oh, the entire site’s stormwater discharge (the Gold Standard for the competition’s selection panel) was zero. That’s right, not a single drop of stormwater would leave the site. This was not simply a reduction in discharge, as requested in the competition requirements, it completely eliminated all discharge.

How was this possible? In addition to our greatly reduced footprint, all the streets in our design were to use pervious pavement which would allow a portion of the stormwater to infiltrate the ground — and all the street profiles included a landscaped shoulder swale that would simultaneously convey excess stormwater toward a recreated wetland (while cleaning the runoff via biofiltration) and permit further infiltration of the stormwater.

And yet, as we suspected, our proposal was resoundingly rejected by the Sustainability Forum’s selection panel.

So why do it?

Our goal had always been to start a conversation about appropriate urban forms, and place-specific design. We were able to touch upon a number of community design subjects even Sustainability experts tend to ignore — and do so within a forum in which these experts were to be gathered.

In a way, this design competition became the perfect sounding board to critique a number of flaws that arise when organizations isolate their interests from each other.

Not only did we have the opportunity to highlight these subjects within the confines of this small competition, we took the conversation to the national level. After the competition, we took our proposal and submitted it to the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) for review as part of its annual Charter Awards recognition process. Fortunately for our purposes, the CNU granted our proposal a national Charter Award for our design.

We were able to take this award back to the Land / Water Sustainability Forum and its selection panel and re-engage in a substantive conversation about true sustainability.


Village Center View (Salon des Refusés – illustration by author)

Only through continued effort, even in the face of detractors, will it be possible to change the world in a positive way.

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I’m a (yawn) Planner

I hate to say it, but planning is so… well… boring.

“Duller than the dinner party bore” (Gareth Dunlop, http://www.fathom.pro/blog/2010/03/duller-than-the-dinner-party-bore/)

This isn’t to say planners themselves are boring people — though I’ve known a few who could put a meth-fueled gorilla to sleep with their talk of tax-increment financing and the fine points of inter-agency coordination.

Just one tired gorilla (Magic and Marvels blog, 2013 - http://magicandmarvels.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/justonetiredgorilla/)

Just one tired gorilla (Magic and Marvels blog, 2013 – http://magicandmarvels.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/justonetiredgorilla/)

No, planning seems to have wrapped around it a cloak of social invisibility. Maybe this is due to a lack of perceived cool-ness by the glitterati, or an unwillingness among practitioners to engage in a bit of socially relevant boat-rocking — but regardless, the profession has all the avant garde qualities of a meatloaf dinner at grandma’s.

Why can’t we be like architects?

Architecture, as a profession, is a bit different. Architects carry a certain social cache — people lie about being architects.

George Castanza as Art Vandelay, Architect (Seinfield,

George Castanza as Art Vandelay, Architect (Seinfield, “The Race”, 1994)

I don’t know anyone who lies about being a planner.

Yet Architecture, perhaps because of its cool-ness, has a personality problem. There’s a huge discrepancy between what actually goes on in an architecture firm, and what society thinks is going on. The public thinks most architects design beautiful buildings, have impeccable taste, live in gorgeous homes, travel to exotic locations, and make tremendous amounts of money (or, if they’re “poor” it’s because they’re choosing to suffer for their art). The reality is a quite a bit less glamorous; with careers choked with project schedules, pay applications, specification editing, and a myriad of management issues that leave most architects wishing they had switched majors when they were in undergraduate school.

But… there is a certain amount of success that comes with perseverance, and those architects who do succeed feel a kind of cultural pressure to justify their success by sponsoring and supporting more socially relevant work. So we see efforts like Sam “Sambo” Mockbee’s Rural Studio at Auburn University’s School of Architecture. The Rural Studio dedicates itself to providing architecture students a hands-on working experience as they design and build community-oriented projects in several poor counties in rural Alabama.

Also, there’s the DesignBuildBLUFF  program at the University of Utah’s College of Architecture. DesignBuildBLUFF provides an opportunity for architecture students to design and build sustainable architecture on a Navajo reservation; with an eye towards graduating more compassionate architects.

And then there’s Cameron Sinclair’s mothership of compassion, Architecture for Humanity. Architecture for Humanity serves as a type of clearing house that connects professional architects, designers, and contractors with communities in need; taking the position that “design is the ultimate renewable resource.

What we in the planning profession tend to lack are comparable outlets for our creative energies. Where are the university-based community-oriented efforts? Where are the connections to our under-served populations?

Is Tactical Urbanism cool?

Maybe this is why Tactical Urbanism is so popular in planning programs these days. Is it an effort to make planning as relevant as the planning students, and social activists, feel it should to be?

And maybe… just maybe… worth lying about at a dinner party?

To be clear, there are precious few academics pushing the subject of what Jaime Lerner calls Urban Acupuncture — and even fewer professional planners (lest they risk violating their AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct)

B2. We shall not accept an assignment from a client or employer when the services to be performed involve conduct that we know to be illegal or in violation of these rules.

B25. We shall neither deliberately, nor with reckless indifference, commit any wrongful act, whether or not specified in the Rules of Conduct, that reflects adversely on our professional fitness.

(AICP, Our Rules of Conduct)

But, for many reasons, it’s hard to draw equivalencies at the level of the profession between fully-supported academic programs like the Rural Studio and grassroots efforts like Tactical Urbanism. And, unfortunately for most planning students, such efforts are rarely led or initiated by professional planners.

But here’s the point — do most of us really need lessons on being a decent human being?

Isn’t planning, with all its homely charm, simply the act of being decent to each other?

Guy Guy Greg - Public Planner (http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/288059-good-guy-greg)

Guy Guy Greg – Public Planner (http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/288059-good-guy-greg)

So yeah, I’m rockin’ the boring.

Let me regale you with my ideas on tax revenue expenditures, on the finer points of public open space strategies, and the pernicious problems of urban sprawl.

Let’s go seed bomb an abandoned lot, paint an “illegal” bike lane, and share our stories about how we protested outside a public hearing.

Or while we’re working on the next bit of hacktivism with Code for America, building an app that’ll help kids catch their school bus or make it easier for folks to find the closest healthy food store, let’s discuss better ways to craft a long-range regional transportation plan. Maybe, we’ll push for broad municipal participatory budgeting, or work on a new mixed-use neighborhood plan.

How you doin'... I'm a Planner.

How you doin’… I’m a Planner.

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Getting Schooled on Walkability

Just as every neighborhood should have a reliable fire station, every neighborhood should have a good public school.

Diane Ravitch (The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, 2010)


A comparison between a walkable neighborhood school and an unwalkable sprawling campus (Lisc Institute for Comprehensive Community Development, 2011)

There has been a considerable amount of effort in recent years to build (or re-build) walkable neighborhoods. With professional organization like the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), the Urban Land Institute (ULI), the American Planning Association(APA), to the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy (LI) — all chiming in with their own advocacy efforts.

Most of the purported reasons for making a community walkable deal with reducing the miles needing to be driven by the residents of any town. This could, in turn, reduce the outlay of public resources needing to be spent on motor vehicle ways, and the amount of money the typical household would have to spend on owning and maintaining their vehicles. These two effects (the ability to reduce demands on tax revenue, and an opportunity to increase an individual family’s net disposable income) speak directly to both conservative and liberal values.

What’s driving walkability?

But, before we can draw any conclusions about the beneficial aspects of walkability we should look into our actual travel habits. This will help us to better understand the potential benefits of revising our public policies, by allowing us to focus our attention on the best avenues for improvement.


Traffic jam in America (Dan Chung, 2009)

The average American household, living in a single-family detached residence, makes just about 10 vehicle trips per day. And of all trips on public thoroughfares, only about 16-percent of them are work related (NHTS, 2009). The next largest percentage of trips are connected to getting kids to school or childcare (at ~10-percent) and shopping (primarily getting groceries) (at ~21-percent). In fact, there are more trips devoted to these latter two purposes than to all worked-related trips combined during any 24-hour period. Delving into these travel purposes a bit deeper, for the mandatory trips taken during the morning commute (equal to 80-percent of all vehicles on the road at that time) upwards of 19.5-percent are related to students driving themselves, or being driven to school. Let’s consider that figure for a moment — nearly a fifth of all peak morning mandatory traffic is related to kids getting to school. And, as we know, we design our roads to handle the peak traffic demands (not their 24-hour carrying capacity).

Why should we really want walkable communities?

This brings us to the single greatest reason any community should adopt walkability standards — to make our public schools walkable AND the center of every walkable neighborhood.

Unfortunately, the primary focus in most walkability publications has been on convincing the typical work commuter to either walk to their job, rather than drive — or take a bus to a centralized transit mall, then walk a short distance to their office. Even though the number of workers in a typical downtown’s central business district are nowhere near the total number of workers living in any one community. Most of these publications (and very few of the walkablity experts) have been looking at children’s travel habits — and very few analysts have been trying to understand the underlying reason why children have been walking (and biking) to schools less and less over the decades.

A notable exception has been the work of writers like Kaid Benfield with the Sustainable Cities Collective. In a recent post, Benfield artfully parsed the reason why our American schools have become increasingly less walkable and more dependent on private automobile use. Such writings more accurately frame the dire situation facing parents and children these days. So, rather than placing blame on the purported, ever-increasingly sedentary American lifestyle we should be investigating how the average American school has become increasingly less walkable since the late 1960’s (when these statistics were first being tracked).

As the typical American metropolitan area has grown less dense since WWII, the average American school district has adopted consolidation strategies, essentially super-sizing schools and their respective campuses. Since 1940 the average school in America has increased its enrollment by over 514% (Ehrich). This super-sizing effort has stripped the typical neighborhood of most school campuses, as school districts acquire outlying, inexpensive land to implement their larger consolidated programs. These massive school campus standards dwarf the campuses of yesteryear.


An example of unworkable public school campus placement from Loudoun County, Virginia (Google Earth, 2013)

As a result, families must either rely on buses, carpools, or personal vehicle to ferry their children to and from school. A startling statistic to keep in mind is that in 1969, approximately 41-percent of American students walked to school — but by 2001 that figured had dropped to less than 13-percent.

Do we need neighborhood public schools? I believe we do. The neighborhood school is the place where parents meet to share concerns about their children and the place where they learn the practice of democracy. They create a sense of community among strangers. As we lose neighborhood public schools, we lose the one local institution where people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors.

Diane Ravitch (The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, 2010)

Dr. Diane Ravitch, the Research Professor for Education at New York University and the former Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education in the George H.W. Bush administration, has been calling for the re-birth of the neighborhood school. She believes that every neighborhood should have at its heart a public school.

What is a “right-sized” school?

But let’s take a step back and ask what such a walkable school-centered neighborhood might look like. Since most studies indicate that the average person is willing to walk about five minutes to reach many of their trip destinations, it’s reasonable to consider a “walkable neighborhood” to be sized within a circumscribed area defined by a (roughly) quarter-mile radius — that is, a distance that the average person can walk in five minutes. This circumscribed area is also called a Pedestrian Shed. Although it would be unreasonable to claim that the center of that radius should be a magical job center that employs everyone that lives within that neighborhood, it is supremely reasonable to assert that an elementary school should rest at the center of every Pedestrian Shed. Why so?

Using the Boise School District’s Student Generation Rate (the number of children expected to come from each average household) of .67 students/household, we would expect to see 13 students generated out of every 20 households. These students would fill the following categories: seven students in kindergarten thru 6th grades, three student in 7th thru 9th grades, and three students in 10th thru 12th grades. If an elementary school were placed at the center of a five-minute pedestrian shed (which covers about 125 acres) — and with a net residential density of approximately eight dwelling units per acre — there would be enough elementary school-aged children to fill one 200 to 250 student elementary school.

Though this might sound like a much smaller school then we’re used to, it is right-sized to a walkable neighborhood — with one to two classrooms per grade. Three of these elementary schools feed into one right-sized junior high — with an enrollment of 600 to 750 students. While two of these junior highs feed into one right-sized senior high school — with an enrollment of between 1200 and 1500 students. Most important to these school metrics are their ability to form a central part of the lives of the residents in each neighborhood.


The scale-ability of right-sized Neighborhood Schools (image by author)

Additionally, the campus sizes for these schools must also be right-sized. A walkable neighborhood’s elementary school’s campus would be no more than two city blocks in size – between four to five acres – which would be large enough for the school building, a neighborhood playground, and a small grass field. A right-sized junior high school’s campus size would be about four city blocks in size – between eight to ten acres – larger enough for the school building, and a running track & football field. And, a right-sized senior high school’s campus size would be approximately six city blocks in size – between twelve to fifteen acres – large enough for the school building, a running track/football field, and tennis courts or baseball field.

One particularly helpful tool that communities and school districts can use to help assess their own policies in regard to walkable schools is Nathan Norris‘, Smart Growth Schools Report Card. This report card’s metrics rank communities along several dimensions and then applies an A-F grade for that community’s performance.

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How to have fun as a planner

I was lucky enough to serve up a heapin’ helpin’ of sarcasm this last April Fool’s Day.


The neighborhood converted into a multistory shopping arcade.

When my local weekly paper, the Boise Weekly, contacted me in March about a proposed article that would run on April 1st. I was happy to lend a hand. The article, titled “The Changing Face of Hyde Park: An iconic Boise neighborhood morphs into a shopping complex” would report on recent development efforts to change a beloved local historic district – loved by cyclists, neighbors, and preservationists.

The writer would publish under the pseudonym Roberta T. Axidea Ph.D, and I would provide the illustrative sketches to lend an air of authenticity to the story. My colorized contributions would be listed as coming from the Palo Alto-based architectural firm of Birdwel/Caar Meta-designs. This fake firm that was to coin the development’s name, “Hyde Park Commons: where neighbors come to see neighbors” – as original as any of the names created by this random real estate subdivision name generator. For those old-schoolers so inclined, one can simply insert the name of the thing the development will obliterate and add a glowing adjective: Happy Glen, Green Meadows, Sunshine Creek, etc., etc., etc.


The proposed development (in the background) connected to the local park and hiking trail by a new urban gondola.

The fake project showed how the ersatz developer was buying up properties with an eye towards converting the district into a shiny new, suburban-like lifestyle center – replete with vaguely familiar sounding “local” retail outlets and historic pastiches.


A local shop co-opted to sell curios to hipsters and wannabes to promote their uniqueness.

What neither the author nor I expected was the hue and cry from locals. When the story was published it generated a considerable number of calls into the community’s development services department from citizens voicing their opposition to the project.


A beloved cafe and brewpub re-branded as an outlet to sell sunglasses.

Neighbors promised to launch a petition and conservationist rallied to protest the developer’s business. Even a professor teaching in the local university’s planning department expressed outrage over the “author’s” supposed bona fides. Soon, the story was picked up by other news agencies, and the Twittersphere erupted with comments.


A local cobbler, a business dating back to 1863, re-envisioned as a tennis shoe shop.

Only a few realized the connection between the publication date and the story.

The following week, the paper’s editor felt compelled to issue a statement that the whole story was a hoax. Well, it was fun while it lasted 😉

Sustainable Public Education in Idaho

Idaho is a place with a highly educated population; which is recognized as the key to economic development and long-term employment stability. Idaho Sustainability Vision Statement

Idaho School DistrictsThe following link is to a paper providing an overview of the conditions facing public education in Idaho. It provides a snapshot into current conditions, makes specific recommendations for improvement, and ties the subject into the broader subject of sustainability within the state.

Though the general presumption concerning educational excellence revolves around the funding issues facing primary, secondary and higher education institutions within the state (and those expenditures that have a direct impact on those constraints, primarily teacher/student ratios); when the subject is viewed through the lens of sustainability the matter becomes more deeply integrated into the financial and employment concerns facing each community within Idaho. This paper will attempt to draw a correlation between each community’s educational resources, and its ability to foster an environment for long-term economic and employment stability.


The paper lays out the argument for a reduction in school campus size, and campus placement criteria, that would more fully integrate primary schools into each neighborhood.

Sustainable Size

Hailey: A Town Square for Every Season

As the small mountain resort community of Hailey, Idaho has grown, the lack of a centrally located place for residents to gather and celebrate has become a stumbling block for community participation.

Hailey Quote

This research project was undertaken to in a effort to plumb the depths of public sentiment regarding a new Town Square, and to assemble a set of programmatic design criteria for such an urban open space. These criteria fell into three distinct categories of attributes; Adjacencies, Activities, and Amenities. Additionally, the research lead to a prioritization of a list of potential sites in the downtown area that could support a new Town Square.

Unlike the conventional urban design approach of deliberating upon the appropriate Form and Function of a public open space, the author included the range of acceptable “adjacencies” for such a space. This permitted the community members to express their preferences for types of land uses and spaces that should be located next to their unique town square.

Here’s a link to the Executive Report for the project (on the author’s Academia page):


The research effort involved authoring and conducting a modified charrette effort that engaged key community stakeholders in the creation of a set of three-dimensional maquettes; which modeled their preferences for the three categories of attributes. This detailed information was then used to constructed a public survey for the community (a population that included all residents, business owners, and employees). These preferences were then used to develop a set of architectural programmatic criteria for a new Town Square – with these criteria then being used to prioritize a set of potential sites for this public open space.

This report was presented back to the mayor and city council on June 1, 2015.