Town Hall is putting on an event tomorrow night that Cola readers (we're sponsoring it) will eat up. It's about "sustainable urbanism." Seven fellows from UW's Runstad Center for Real Estate visited Hong Kong to learn firsthand about Asian urban models. They'll be presenting a slide show and a discussion of their conclusions titled: "Is a Denser City a Better City?"
Here's a preview from three of the fellows: Scott Wolf, A.P. Hurd, and Mark Huppert.—Eds.
Peter Drucker famously said, “You make what you measure.” As shapers of our built environment, we’re pretty good as planners, elected officials, architects, builders, developers and owners at measuring our successes, but often we ignore or significantly undervalue the damages that are done in the process of achieving those results. Choosing to measure only part of the equation yields incomplete (at best) or truly misleading (at worst) results. Unintended consequences can result from diligently pursuing a too-limited set of metrics. A more holistic view is needed. And it’s really pretty simple—in any ratio, there are only two ways to achieve a greater result: 1) increase the numerator, or 2) decrease the denominator.
In the built environment, we’ve done a pretty good job lately at increasing the numerator-- at least when it comes to buildings. Green building efforts like LEED or Built Green are examples of programs that recognize environmental successes and can be quantified in terms of financial benefit. These programs have been gaining wide acceptance and are being used to reach laudable targets of energy and resource efficiency in many of today’s projects. But that only tells part of the story. In Seattle, we continue to face challenges on the land use front. When we consider increases in urban zoning to accommodate regional economic and population growth, the programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, a tool to understand the impact of these changes, tends to focus only on measuring and mitigating the negatives of urban density. We know that there are considerable economic and environmental costs to continuing cities' encroachment into rural and working lands, but our metrics for evaluating urban land use don't seem to reflect the potential benefits that increased urbanization can bring to our neighborhoods and to our region.
Our effort to make informed decisions about our environment, especially in the areas of land use and transportation, are guided by a procedural overemphasis on the denominator—the damages that such investments bring—and not a complete picture of the whole ratio.
Our team went to Hong Kong expecting to find unqualified success in these areas: after all, Hong Kong has some of the most efficient land use and transit in the world. The skyscrapers, thriving retail, and mixed-use rail stations that typify the city were created by policies that maximized financial success for individuals, business and the government treasury. The reality however, is that their successes have come with a set of collateral damages: poor air quality, lack of personal space, environmental impacts associated with land reclamation and displacement of established economic and social communities to make way for more intensive redevelopment. From our perspective, Hong Kong seems to be suffering from too much of an emphasis on the numerator—a victim of its own success.
Reflecting on Hong Kong and Seattle, we are impressed with the necessity of defining success broadly. In other words, we need to be aware of both the numerator and the denominator of the Success:Damage ratio when we're setting goals for the city, or evaluating the impacts of different plans. We can't keep ignoring externalities: there is nothing external to the real world. "Externalities" is just a term used to make us feel better about ignoring the complete impact of our actions.
At the end of the day, it’s the same ratio that differentiates value from price: price is what you pay; value is the ratio of what you get, divided by what you paid. So it is that we should also look at public goals and public policy metrics: what we want, divided by what we have to sacrifice to get there.
Scott Wolf is a Partner at The Miller Hull Partnership, A. P. Hurd is a Vice President at Touchstone Corporation in Seattle, and Mark Huppert is the Co-founder of Solarsmith, LLC. They are Affiliate Fellows of the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington. The interdisciplinary group of seven Fellows recently returned from a research trip to Hong Kong. Read more about their findings on their blog.
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