Category Archives: Urban Policy

HOTMA Expands Opportunities for Low-Income Families

hud-logoLow-income families have historically struggled to access low-poverty neighborhoods through federal housing programs. They have been challenged by a number of barriers, from transportation to discrimination, and have been left with no other alternative but to move into areas of concentrated poverty. But with HOTMA, there is hope.

H.R. 3700, the Housing and Opportunity through Modernization Act of 2015 (HOTMA), has unanimously passed both the House and the Senate. President Obama is expected to sign this bill that updates several components of the nation’s low-income housing programs. Among other changes, the bill boosts an effective tool to serve low-income families: project-based vouchers. Continue reading

Our Winter 2015 Print Journal is Here!

Our new print edition is out! After months of hard work, the Sanford Journal of Public Policy is proud to announce that our Winter 2015 print journal is ready to go, and we couldn’t be more proud of it.

Sanford Journal Spring 2015 Print Journal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Syracuse U. President Under Fire for Community Investment

 

By Chris Marsicano, Staff Editor

The historical purposes of a University include providing cutting-edge research and educating the next generation of world leaders. But what about community development?  Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor has recently come under fire for her consistent focus on building “the Public Good” throughout the City of Syracuse, instead of bettering the academic standing of the university.

Cantor’s leadership of Syracuse coincides with a consistent slide in US News and World Report list of top colleges and universities from 52nd in 2007 to62nd in the most recent rankings.  Also, this past year Syracuse left the highly-regarded honor roll of research universities, the Association of American Universities, seemingly before being “kicked out.” However, her leadership also coincides with a trend of increasing numbers of low-income students and students of color as a percentage of the university’s student body.  Furthermore, the university’s commitment to community building has drawn great support from faculty, staff, and alumni at Syracuse and other institutions of higher learning.

Cantor’s whirlwind presidency shows the difficulty college and university leaders face in balancing the needs of their constituents, especially when pushing for innovation in the structure of higher education institutions.

Look to the Sky for an Answer

by Amy Kochanowsky, staff editor

A new solution to feeding the world’s burgeoning urban population in a sustainable way may be the introduction of vertical farms. A vertical farm is essentially a skyscraper that largely makes use of hydroponic techniques to support crops. Dickson Despommier, a Columbia University professor and main force behind the movement, touts the benefits in his recent book, the Vertical Farm.

Planting food in a central urban area can minimize the amount of land that needs to be converted to farmland. It can also reduce food transportation costs and associated emissions. Vertical farms limit water, pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer use, thereby eliminating agricultural runoff. In addition to these primary benefits Dr. Despommier mentions, there are other important implications of vertical farming.

Vertical farms can help bring people closer to their food in a literal and figurative sense. As people have moved from rural to urban areas and our society has become less agrarian-based, people lack an understanding of where their food comes from.  The ability to watch food grow and observe agricultural techniques used in the vertical farm can generate curiosity and encourage people to understand the source of their food.

Vertical farms can also solve another persistent problem in urban areas: food deserts. The term “food desert” describes an area where food is not available, not healthy, or not affordable to the people living there.  Cities – and poor neighborhoods in particular – are littered with convenience stores and fast food restaurants with high prices and low quality.  These areas tend to have relatively few full-service grocery stores or fresh produce markets.  Developing vertical farms in these residential neighborhoods can help to eliminate food deserts.

I applaud Despommier’s vision of a more sustainable future and his ability to inspire innovation. However, this concept is still in a nascent stage and there are many details to be worked out before any designs could be successfully implemented. In addition to designing the technical details of the optimal building structure, the biggest question left unanswered is who pays? While Despommier seems overly optimistic about the success of vertical farms, he also admits that there are financial issues with his plan.

Amid budget shortfalls in every level of government, a cost of $20-30 million per farm makes this project prohibitively expensive to replicate throughout the country.  There is no hint that such a farm will be profitable, so the private sector has little motivation to invest. A combination of government grants or subsidies and pure philanthropy will be necessary to pilot the vertical farm concept.

Thanks to this type of innovative thinking, our cities will undoubtedly be greener in the future. It may be in the form of large vertical farms in every city, or made by adapting portions of vertical farm concept and, for example, developing more rooftop gardens. This idea has certainly captured the imagination of many Americans.

Who Sets the Standards? Dillon’s Law and Municipal Green Building

By Blake Holt, staff editor

“Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control.”      —John Forrest Dillon, 1868

Dillon’s Law is one of the cornerstones of municipal government in America. As stated in the quote above from Justice John Forrest Dillon, Dillon’s Law limits the scope of municipal legislation to matters in which it has been granted authority by the state legislature.

Compliance with Dillon’s Law has jeopardized Durham County’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% in the private sector by 2030. The North Carolina State Constitution prohibits municipalities from establishing laws in areas that have been addressed by existing state law. As North Carolina already has statutes establishing building codes for the private sector, Durham is unable to mandate private green-building standards that exceed state codes and can only set standards for public buildings.

This deference to state legislation effectively ignores the different challenges that urban and rural municipalities in North Carolina must address. Urban counties have large existing building stocks that have energy inefficiencies built into them. Durham County, for instance, has about 110,000 private buildings, meaning that Durham’s public building standards can only make a small dent in overall building efficiency. Rural counties, with their smaller amount of inefficient buildings, do not face the same challenges.

Of the 100 counties in North Carolina, 13 are categorized as urban and 87 are rural. Current standards thus effectively impose rural standards on urban areas. Allowing municipalities to set their own private building standards would empower each county to address greenhouse emissions in the way that is best suited to the challenges they face.

Critics of county-specific building standards may argue that state standards provide needed consistency across the state. What, one could ask, would prevent some counties from enacting lax building codes in order to attract construction contracting business? It seems that this “race to the bottom” could be easily avoided by requiring all counties to meet minimum standards established by the state. Prohibiting counties from exceeding those standards, however, only serves to limit the ability of municipal officials to craft solutions that are appropriate for their community.

Book Review: Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change

by Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley, and Heather Boyer

Reviewed by Trey Akers

Academic colleagues Peter Newman (Curtin University, Australia) and Timothy Beatley (University of Virginia) team with Island Press Senior Editor Heather Boyer to share personal experiences of sustainable urban policy as a response to risks posed by peak oil and climate change. For the first two authors, this work emerges out of crucial events surrounding the 1970s oil crisis, circumstances that shocked each as social disarray and a loss of individual freedom that transformed economic, political, and social relationships across society. Along with Boyer, a 2005 Loeb Fellow at Harvard University, the authors draw upon direct encounters with innovations in city design. More than sustainable design solutions, however, a desire to create places—settlements that strengthen human connectedness and bonds to the natural landscape—drives the authors’ impetus to restructure cities. They believe transformative progress will be locally- and regionally-based, but will entail global implications regarding energy use, ecosystem management, and social prosperity. As such, the authors eschew any sweeping policy recommendations in favor of identifying and promoting best practices for incorporation in community and metropolitan-wide planning.

“These are not simple changes, however, and there is little question that the transition will be difficult. This transition has been referred to as the Sixth Wave of industrialism because it is a complete reorientation of industrial society to a different set of technologies and a rethinking of how we organize cities” (52).

The 1956 National Interstate & Defense Highways Act redefined the modern industrial era, providing a federal framework that responded to the threats of the day (Cold War security concerns), expanded the scope of new technological advancements (the internal combustion engine), and indelibly altered settlement patterns for the next 60 years (bolstered suburbs at city center expense). Most strikingly, the legislation delivered a coherent, defining public policy. Yet today, we face risks born of this system and unprecedented challenges related to energy and climate. We need tools to address these issues as well as a means to enact the desired changes. Resilient Cities offers a compelling review of practices both current and future that will enable the fundamental reordering of urban areas in response to increasing uncertainty surrounding climate patterns and energy production. By understanding the implications of our actions, the authors believe we can devise and implement alternative economic, transport, and land use patterns that will establish vibrant, enduring cities in spite of energy constraints. Resiliency, the term employed by the authors to describe the necessary sociopolitical “resolve” and adaptable infrastructure of new cities, provides the basis for this re-constitution. While strong on vision, the work proves short on an explicit policy framework to guide implementation. Nevertheless, the book catalogues innovative practices from around the world, often reading like an encyclopedic narrative.

Before surveying these practices, the authors provide an overview of the need for dynamic, long-term urban policies through a look at the current and projected state of metropolitan affairs. They examine resource consumption habits, land use patterns, and forecasted energy trends while detailing the unsustainable nature of conventional energy development and use. Comparisons such as the annual per capita gasoline needs in Atlanta (782 gallons) versus Barcelona (64 gallons) highlight the importance of land use and transportation policies in driving energy demand [7]. Similarly, detailed analysis of energy production, anticipated declines, and unbridgeable supply gaps all lend credibility to the need for revamped policies, but passing shots at political actors minimally support their argument [36, 111]. Overall, the evidence is clear:  conventional energy will become more expensive and difficult to access, and even full-scale incorporation of alternative fuels will not compensate for rising demand.

As a response, the authors offer four potential scenarios of the future decline or renewal of urban areas:  Collapsed, Ruralized, Divided, or Resilient Cities. Collective fear and lack of resources characterize both Collapsed and Divided City scenarios, resulting in an ungovernable state or restricting economic prosperity to a few. The Ruralized City, based on individual farmsteads akin to Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian vision for the colonies, proves equally unsustainable, the authors conclude. Importantly, though, this model emphasizes that the metropolitan connection to adjacent agricultural lands and the selective cultivation of peri-urban areas (abandoned and peripheral city spaces) are critical components of the Resilient City. But the authors contend that agriculture is not the chief function of the city [44] and instead envision Resilient Cities of technological advances, business innovations, distributed energy systems, and sustainable transport that will foster prosperity for all.

Against this backdrop, the authors propose seven paradigm-shifting principles to remake cities (56). The measures range from renewable energy and photosynthetic capabilities to sustainable transport, carbon neutrality, and place-based community design. Ambitious and broad, the authors support each proposal with specific international practices already underway. These citations survey a range of policy initiatives, enlightening readers as well as provoking ideas related to transferability and local application. In different spots, the authors establish connections to policy, identifying possible indicators of resilient city progress [98, 118]. Examples include an urban Chicago farmers’ co-op; community-based social marketing programs in Perth, Australia; and realigning subsidies to compare more equitably renewable energy sources with conventional “top-up” supplies [127]. The distance of a development from the city center; the density; the fuel consumed; the quality of transit service; and the miles of roadway converted from auto-use to pedestrian/green spaces represent worthwhile urban sustainability indexes but not direct policy practices. Most examples remain in the realm of neat ideas, meant to inspire action but steer clear of specific recommendations. What the discussion lacks is a path to implementing such practices in each community.

However, such ambiguity may strengthen the book’s scope. As the authors assert, “the really important initiatives have to begin at the city level because there is great variation in how cities cope within any nation” [5]. The authors discuss scores of novel local initiatives:  distributed-renewable energy systems, horticultural districts, and place-based development principles (see “5 percent social infrastructure policy,” [99. There are many exciting tools being tested, refined, and implemented at various scales, and this book showcases a number of them. In this regard, its ideas serve as a launch pad, a point from which to depart and seek greater information.

The book concludes with Ten Strategic Steps for implementation, iterative learning, and the targeting of public assets as archetypes to drive sustainable growth. For example, cities could use public parking decks with vegetative roofs and ground-level retail shops to reduce the number of surface-lot parking spaces needed at transit stops (targeting public assets). This practice frees more land for higher-intensity development; improves water quality and concurrently lessens energy demand through green roof design; reduces private sector parking costs, creating an incentive that supports transit-oriented development; and encourages walking by limiting parking supply and concentrating uses. Designing a strategy to assess parking capacity, prioritizing sites, and establishing a funding stream for infrastructure financing represent implementation steps, while constructing a metric to gauge the strategy’s effect on walkability (and revising the approach based on the results) demonstrates iterative policy learning. As this case illustrates, the Sixth Wave comprises many tools and practices ready to meet the most pressing challenges. In fact, the Sixth Wave might most appropriately be described as the reconstitution of new technological capacities towards sustainable community aims. Widespread construction of green roofs, enhanced multi-modal transit opportunities, and distributed energy systems will no doubt change the shape of the metropolitan landscape. But unlike the federally-mandated 1956 Highways Act, the difference will be the scale of implementation—with the greatest innovations occurring at the local level. And while this book does not convey a comprehensive framework for policy formation and execution, it provides a compendium of useful elements to inform public policy and assist readers, practitioners, and leaders in crafting a robust, adaptive plan to guide their city toward prosperity in a new energy future.


Trey Akers holds a Master of City and Regional Planning degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He earned his Bachelor’s degree from Davidson College in 2006. Akers currently works as a transit-oriented development planner with the Triangle J Council of Governments in Research Triangle Park. Akers previously served as an urban designer implementing sustainable design principles in the Davidson, NC, office of the The Lawrence Group.