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Monday 22 April 2019
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Laws of physics, economics in cities

Planning for revitalisation (Part 2)

Revitalising a city like Port of Spain primarily involves an increase in its residential population. Remember, years of wide-ranging policies encouraging and subsidising population decentralisation have skewed the real estate market towards low-density, suburban development.

One can justifiably infer that our zoning regulations are based on treating parcels of land almost as self-contained entities. In other words, each parcel provides its owner with ample yard for recreation; privacy through generous physical separation of houses from neighbours and the public life on the sidewalk – rooted in a questionable ideology that the nuclear family, and not community, is the foundation of society; and on-site parking.

These concepts may, debatably, prove feasible in suburban and rural towns, but not in cities where land is scarce and expensive. Here, using land efficiently is key, as is the necessity of a somewhat intimate sharing of space and amenities.

For a city, it’s not advisable to simply "scale up" such regulations through allowances for density and building height increases.

Consider the neighbourhood of Woodbrook – a contentious urban area with a declining residential population. Land is extremely expensive, primarily owing to limited supply, a strategic location and encroaching commercial activity. Zoning regulations, as an initial step, should be crafted to facilitate and incentivise the construction of housing, given the economic and physical realities of cities.

Firstly, yes, the allowed residential density should be attractive enough to deter the proliferation of fully commercial uses, and to allow for the feasible development of housing by land owners and developers.

Suppose land is purchased for $2 million. If a developer can build four residential units, the cost of each unit to the developer is $500,000 owing to the land cost alone. If ten units were built however, the land cost per unit would drop to $200,000.

Secondly, a major limit on the number of residential units that can be built on a typical Woodbrook lot is the provision of on-site parking. The reality is that efficient use of land and on-site parking are antithetical notions. Just two parking spaces, plus the aisle for circulation, are the size of a studio apartment. A painful lesson that cities all over the world are confronting by abolishing or significantly reducing parking requirements.

The viable alternatives include some combination of well-managed on-street parking, leased parking in shared parking garages (which can be built by the government or private sector in strategic locations), and measures which reduce the need for car ownership such as improved public transportation, ride-sharing services, walking and cycling.

Parking is not free. It costs the developer money, either through the inability to build more units, the acquisition of extra land, or the construction of basement or above-ground parking. That cost is included in the price of the housing.

Attached row houses in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Image Source: Corcoran Real Estate NYC

Allowing parking to be handled on-street, or leased as needed, means that the cost of parking is decoupled from the cost of housing. You can pay for parking as needed, if at all, as opposed to its being automatically built into your housing cost whether you own a car or not.

Thirdly, other regulations should also be appropriate for this urban setting. In a place with smaller lots, in 2019, there is little reason why regulations still require side setbacks between adjacent residential buildings: that is, they aren’t allowed to touch. The spread of fires, or privacy or light issues, shouldn’t be major impediments, since firewalls have been in use for decades, and we already comfortably live in townhouses and apartments.

The maximum residential building footprint, that is, the percentage of the lot area that can be covered by a building (currently 40 per cent), should also be reasonably increased for urban areas. Larger building footprints are a component of efficient land use. Depending solely on increasingly tall buildings for efficiency can be problematic; for instance, taller buildings can have higher per square foot construction costs.

Excess runoff of water can be compensated for by roof systems that capture and store rainwater, public infrastructure such as bioswales, or detention ponds and other engineering methods.

But people have to live somewhere, right? And proximity to the city is valued. The outcome of unnecessarily stymieing development, in such development-appropriate locations, is likely an increase in demand on the nearby surrounding hillsides, resulting in loss of vegetative cover – which is really the major cause of the excess runoff of water in the first place, no?

Zoning regulations should facilitate the efficient development of average-sized urban lots, without necessitating risky, large-scale projects that require the acquisition of multiple lots to make a project viable, and therefore only to large, intrepid, capital-rich developers.

Ryan Darmanie is an urban planning and design consultant (facebook.com/darmanieplanningdesign) with a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers University, New Jersey, and a keen interest in urban revitalisation.

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