Blog Entries

3-D Printing and the Shape of Cities 

City of Louisville KY

The Motley Fool sent me a tantalizing email the other day titled “The little shop that's putting China out of business.”  The email invited me to link to a video on the next new technology poised to upend the global economy.  The video is one of those breathy, "get in now" pitches, but the prospect of customizing everything I now buy at a store has appeal. 

I kind of knew where they were going, but they really had me when they said 3-D printing would change transportation.   Since land use and transportation are intimately linked, it seemed right to ponder the various changes if “Made in China” were a thing of the past.

3-D printing (see other post here) is also called additive manufacturing or rapid prototyping.  A machine that is a bit bigger than a paper copier squirts out material in successive layers to create an object, like a wrench or cabinet knob or a kidney.  This post assumes they are rightly predicting massive change.

Others have written on the pros of 3-D printing for cities (realistic models of proposed buildings) and the cons (guns).  But I have not seen much written on what happens when the goods production, movement and consumption woven into the fabric of urban design and economic development unravel.  Here are some thoughts about what might change if 3-D printing pokes holes in that fabric.

Land Use Categories – Most American cities are still locked into rigid land use designations for individual parcels.  For non-residential uses, these categories tend to be largely grouped as industrial, manufacturing, retail, office, restaurant/bar and institutional.   But what happens when light manufacturing shifts into individual retail stores, hospitals and offices?  When does a desktop 3-D printer used to make supplies count as manufacturing?  Is there a threshold above which a retail establishment is considered manufacturing?  Do medical centers need to pull use permits for printing “replacement parts” for people?  What matters – production amount?  Materials used?  Are there uses that actually need local safety regulations like food or medical uses?

Transport and Delivery– At the national scale, one can begin to consider demand decline for ports, warehouses, DHL, and Amazon’s distribution centers.  But what about local circulation?   What happens when shipments of dolls, party favors and appliance parts are replaced by boxes of 3-D printer cartridges and filament?  The volume of stuff shipped will shrink dramatically, since packaging is reduced and since 3-D printing uses far less material than conventional methods.  How will this affect loading dock sizes, elevators, and even delivery vehicle design?  Will architects be able to reduce – or eliminate – loading dock space needed as smaller trucks use curbsides for deliveries?

Material– The material used in the printing process is both promising and a bit scary.  On the one hand, entrepreneurs are experimenting with recycled goods as material.  Landfills might attract a new generation of prospectors.  Eliminating the need for the horrific process of siting a new landfill is a planner's dream come true.  But what happens when goods made from natural metals and materials are replaced with resin and composite materials?  Still, this seems like the most promising area of growth as researchers find ways to use all manner of materials.  It might also stop the pillage of third world countries sitting on mineral deposits now at the bottom rung of production.

Economic Development – Localities are already sorting through the fallout of the global recession and its implications for the work force.  3-D printing adds another wrinkle.  Regions may no longer have to compete for big box stores as in-house manufacturing takes root, and individual companies may create new positions for 3-D printing staff.  But automated technology is infamous for creating fewer higher paying jobs.  What kind of training programs should chambers of commerce, community colleges and local economic development corporations develop?  Is the rush to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) paying enough attention to design and its role?  This matters because 3-D printing is only as good as the design driving the arm that squirts stuff out.

Local Governments’ Economic Role– Local governments are often the biggest local economic force, particularly for small and rural communities.  What if they establish their own manufacturing units?  What happens to vendors, distributors and suppliers who now rely on the reliable stream of business?   Local governments often adopt local preference clauses after heavy lobbying by suppliers.  Would the same merchants also rise up when local governments try to save money with a DIY supply chain?

Retail & Tax Base– Retail deserves special attention, in part because of its role in community balance sheets.  The problem is not just reduced sales for retail giants like Target, but also the reduction in sales taxes. If you buy something from Target or Staples, you pay sales tax.  But if you make your own household items, the taxable items are the printer and the materials you use for printing. States may start taxing the computer program templates used to create stuff, but they are pretty much open source right now.  It’s unlikely the sales tax for three ounces of resin would come close to the tax on a fancy branded ladle. For small and local business, the future is unclear.  Some may go out of business while others will find ways to incorporate printed components into creative products. 

To me, the reduction in sales tax is the biggest and least studied aspect of 3-D printing for cities.  Fab Labs are great, but there are serious financial implications for local jurisdictions dependent on sales tax. 

I love 3-D printing in an admittedly slavish kind of way.  Here are twitter links to faves:

@shapeways (maker site)

@boingboing (snarky news site that covers lots of tech)

@AdditiveMFGUG (association-ish)

@techreview (MIT tech review)

@medialab (MIT Media Lab)

@louisvillemayor (Mayor Greg Fischer uses 3-D printing to prototype planning)




The Arlington Way Forward

Last week, longtime Arlington County Commissioner Chris Zimmerman unexpectedly announced his retirement from the County Board.  He is always the smartest guy in the room, and his departure is both a loss and a time for serious reflection.

Something feels shaky.  Sure, development is still booming and people still want to live and work here, but Arlington is not immune to changes that are both underway and predicted.  The federal budget, demographics, the role of the military, views on home ownership, and the mass upheaval of how people work may indeed hit Arlington harder, not softer, than anywhere else. 

It’s time to stop beginning every sentence with “County leaders made a bold decision 40 years ago,” and move on.  Instead, what will the region look back on and say “Wow, what they did in 2014 was really smart?”  It’s time to stop looking at vanity metrics like how many Millennials live here and how many Metro stations we have and start asking hard questions.

What does that look like?  I don’t know.  But here are some tips on how to get there.

A Giant Community SWOT Analysis – Why should businesses have all the smart tools?  Imagine a community-led Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats exercise.  Everyone here needs to be on the hook – residents, businesses, tourists, students … everyone.  This is a good way to get people invested in both problems and solutions. You can't point out a weakness without also offering what you like best.  Let the whiners hang out in the comments section of ArlNow

Vision – Let’s get serious about 40 years from now based on what we learn from the SWOT.  Portland Oregon did this back in 2007.  Instead of automatically updating their Comprehensive Plan, the city embarked on a two year quest to articulate a shared vision.  The Portland Plan was approved in 2012, a full five years after the quest began.  But every step was a case study in genius.  My favorite: steering committee members had to apply for the job, thus allowing fresh voices (as well as respected elders) to the table.  Second favorite: they gave grants to non-profits instead of consultants or staff to do the outreach for them.

Retool the Arlington Way – I know many civic leaders have been working on how to get more people involved, particularly with use of social media.  But if we are going to hack civic participation, we need to hack what matters.  The official neighborhood positions are made at neighborhood meetings.  I am willing to bet that the bylaws that govern those votes were written in the 30’s and 40’s, long before the internet.  This exacerbates the tendency of having votes dominated by “people with time.”  

The New Skill Set– The corridors turned everybody in Arlington into planners.  But we are moving from addressing corridors to addressing a network of neighborhoods – and away from installing smart growth to maintaining it.  We need to articulate The New Skill Set.  What we know about metro station areas will not apply to arterials, but what will?  What do residents need to learn as we move from land development to economic development?  How do we collect input from renters in a way that is as meaningful as homeowners (fellow homeowners – I am looking at you).  How do we enhance smart growth in areas where sidewalk installations have become an unwitting symbol of the tension between young families and older generations? 

Most of all, taking a time out and asking these questions is not a sign of weakness, but strength.  Thoughts?


Image: Portland Oregon


New Media and Urban Planning

Steve Mouzon's book "New Media for Designers + Builders"

Urban design enthusiasts and professionals often don’t view themselves in the business of marketing.   But we are.  Even if you are not in private practice, we are in the business of marketing ideas, innovation, whimsy and life in the commons.

The first book, “Average is Over, How to get Past the Great Stagnation” is by George Mason University economist Tyler Cowan.  Professor Cowan pens the popular blog Marginal Revolution and often steps into planning and planning-related concepts. “Average is Over” is a follow-up to “The Great Stagnation”  where Cowan describes the upheaval in today's post-recession & tech influenced economy.

“Average is Over” takes an in-depth look at pressing economic themes: technological change, worker displacement, and inequality.  Perhaps the most curious chapter is on marketing and employment. Marketing reflects one of those areas that can’t be delegated to a computer or algorithm. To compete in a world of technology, success will come from working with technology rather than being displaced by it. Here is an interesting Q and A in with insights:

Q: One area you do see a lot of potential for is coaching and marketing. Explain first what you mean by marketing.

A: Coaching and marketing, they are both forms of motivation, and one thing I think computers are not good at is motivating us. So you can write a program to send yourself text messages and that does a bit, but what really motivates us is what inspires us, human role models, examples, stories, narratives--things that are quite powerful emotionally. ….

There will just be that much more competition for (your audience's) attention, because attention is still scarce. But they'll have a lot more money. So in competing for their attention, basically in different ways we'll all be doing more marketing. ….. And I see marketing as really the single biggest growth sector of the future, viewed in these somewhat unusual terms.  And that will become more scarce, because the number of hours in a day will not really go up.

So how do planning professionals work with technology?  This is where Steve Mouzon’s new book, “New Media for Designers + Builders” goes straight to the intersection of marketing and urban planning. 

This is not just a book, but an on-going experience (website here).  Here are the reasons you have to get this book – and refer to it often:

1) Planning (like everything else) is changing.  My career in planning policy does not exist anymore. Rather, employers are looking for scrappy, solution-oriented, tech-savvy workers.  In part, this is a triumph as we move from the “Big Convince” to on-the-ground work.  But this requires a new skill set.  New Media addresses a big part of that new skill set. 

2) Your Media Set – this includes the suite of digital options and how to use them.  It seems like a crowded world of new media, but you have to know which ones are particularly good for your planning niche and how to harness them in tandem.   I particularly like the idea of “Idea Cards” in addition to business cards.  Brilliant.

3) Virality - This is what everyone is looking for: how can I get my stuff in front of as many people as possible?  This is a new (and constantly shifting) world, but the most important.  Steve covers concepts like Search Engine Optimization, tags, retweets and chiclets. 

4) My Favorite - Section 11 on Communities – this is the essence of what we do and worth the $10 alone.

I offer areas of criticism lightly; Steve's book is intended to be an on-going body of work and he likely has a queue of great stuff.  But here are things worth mulling for the future:

1)  Photos and Permission – Visual, social sites have made content sharing almost mindless.  But therein lies one of the most mine-laden areas related to the use of images as Steve suggests: copyright.   I hope future iterations include guidance on the shifting world of permissions, copyright and image sharing.

2) Graphic Design – The exploding attention to graphic design has gigantic benefits for designers and planners.  Whether it's personal branding and web work or explaining complex information to varied audiences, graphic design can help. 

3)  Advertising - Steve mentions the sensitivity of using affiliate links (hyperlink referral fees) and advertising on non-profit and for-profit sites.  I find the planning community is way too allergic and apologetic about advertising and marketing.  If the future of planning is diffuse one-person firms, they need to make money. 

The other thing is we tend to criticize "gizmo green" so broadly we may miss solutions.  Steve is right: gizmos can't be band aids to underlying poor practice (Section 4 on speaking).  But with the explosion in "maker" innovation and tech, many solutions for urban ills - from noise to stormwater to transportation - are items that are bought and sold.  We can't be all "Rah Rah" about tech and cities, but deny innovators the most lucrative sales channels - Designers +Builders. 


What can urban planning learn from the Lean Startup movement?

At first, it seemed a lot like new wine in an old bottle.  The lean startup cycle of Build-Measure-Learn sounds a lot like the continuous improvement model's Design-Implement-Evaluate.  

But if the new wine is good, who cares where it came from?  Eric Reiss, the author of the Lean Startup  is making everyone rethink processes in a world that is not only crawling out a recession, but facing massive shifts in demographics, technology, innovation and employment.

So what are the main concepts in lean, as it is called?   There is a lot going on in the book – and in the spin-offs created by entrepreneurs who are applying lean to practically every enterprise.  Here are the essential points that apply to public planning processes:

Stating the Problem – Startup pitch sessions start by answering the question “What problem are you trying to solve?”  A lot of discussions related to architecture and urban design are less about problem solving and more about critique.  All too often, critique is not focused on an ultimate solution or learning opportunities.  It’s high-minded bitch and moan.  For comprehensive plans, updates can feel like sentence tweaks rather than a needed examination. By solving problems, you not only drive towards a solution, but motivate people when they see stark problems that thoughtful planning can address. 

“Get Out of the Building” –Articles and presentations on lean contain an oft-repeated bullet point: this can’t be solved from a desk.  Planning directors may recoil: a planner at a desk is a planner who is working.  Instead, managers might want to designate one day a week to getting out of the building, and then chart the feedback from interviewees.

Metrics that Matter – Until recently, a lot of planning objectives were considered unmeasurable.  As such, planning tended to address that which is measurable like traffic counts or how many people attended a public workshop.  These are important numbers, but fail to provide a snapshot of quality of life.  Traffic counts won’t tell you anything about comfort for pedestrians or overall mobility choice. If the meeting attendees are the same 20 people, are you really advancing?  Tech startups likewise chase vanity metrics such as likes on Facebook that give a rosy picture, but don't help uncover difficult truths that can disrupt the process later or result in a poor plan, public process or code.

Validated Learning – Lean also focuses attention on stating not only the problem, but the hypotheses and assumptions about customers and how a product (or plan) will be used. 

Pivot – This is the most helpful concept for the planning profession.  For planners, city managers and elected official, failure is not an option.  Increased public scrutiny has created a climate where any mis-step is cause for reprimand.  But innovation is built on learning from mistakes, and urban design is no different.  We are in an environment where planning has to change because standards and zoning that date back to the 1950’s are suffocating communities.  Admitting pivots are a part of the planning process can manage expectations and allow experiments to go forward. 

Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – In some ways, tactical urbanism is planning’s version of the minimum viable product.  But there are two types of tactical projects.  Some tactical projects are small interventions that by themselves add value.  But planning also needs a separate set of MVPs to test concepts that are intended to scale.  These projects combine all of the lean concepts of customer engagement, metrics, pivots and scale.  This article covers Mike Lydon’s work and the transformation of Times Square in New York City

But wait – aren’t pilot projects our profession’s MVP?  As Howard Blackson of Placemakers has noted, pilots as we know them are not delivering.  Budgets and plans often fail to integrate and scale the successes, and no one wants to take ownership of projects that fall short of expectations.   

Lean – Planning tends to run on 100+ page reports.  The agony over wording press releases and fact sheets can stop anything from going out at all.  Multiple spreadsheets are needed to capture every complexity.   Introducing the Lean Canvas.  The canvas below was modified by the firm Enspiral for a non-profit, and there are other changes I would add (the mission statement and elevator speech for any planning effort).  The idea is to get an efficient snapshot of a project, product or plan on a page.

 Likewise, the validation canvas can help plot pivots and next steps


The Powerhouse Community Planning Conference with the Funny Name

Next week I’ll be attending Stormcon in South Carolina.  Yes, Stormcon does not immediately suggest community planning, resilience, green infrastructure or public engagement.  But that is exactly what happens here.

My relationship with Stormcon goes back about 12 years now.  At the time, my colleagues at EPA and I viewed the conference suspiciously given its heavy emphasis on proprietary devices.  These commercial devices are installed to filter and store stormwater runoff.  We believed that devices gave communities a pass to tear down trees and sprawl as much as they wanted to because there were always gadgets available.  

However, all conferences have exhibitors and have to cover costs.  Moreover, the move towards “tech in the city” includes a lot of gadgets for tight urban areas.  The real action is in the workshops and sessions.  This is where both the Stormcon conference sponsors and the magazine StormWater reached out to get material in the hands of their audience and readers. 

That audience tends to be engineers and consultants who rarely attend planning and smart growth conferences.  Stormcon is basically doing a lot of work for better planning and I think this point deserves attention in the planning world.  Moreover, as engineers, they are focusing on data and effectiveness.  Now that “big data” is big, they are important allies in a field that we frankly don’t know as well as they do.

I will write more on individual sessions, but it is worth noting several of the tracks assembled and what they mean. From the program page (emphasis mine):

Green Infrastructure: This track—previously called the Low-Impact Development track—includes low-impact development (LID) techniques as well as smart growth and other green infrastructure practices.

Coastal Protection Symposium: This specialty symposium, taking place concurrently with StormCon, focuses on infrastructure protection in coastal cities, ports, and industrial complexes in the face of sea level rise and potential shoreline changes. (This is big because engineers tend to be conservative by nature. If climate change and resilience professionals were smart, conservative coastal engineers would be a powerful pool of spokespeople to talk to climate deniers and fence-sitters).

Advanced Research Topics This technical track includes academic research; methods for testing the effectiveness of best management practices and comparing different Best Management Practices (BMPs); and topics and trends in stormwater research, such as standardizing testing protocols and standards for measuring the effectiveness of BMPs.

Of note, the keynoter is Ed Rendell, former Governor of Pennsylvania.  According to the conference program, “After 34 years of public service, he continues to pursue many of the same issues he was passionate about while serving: making America a cleaner, more efficient place and fostering investment in our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.” 

I realize the topics are REALLY technical, but given the giant role stormwater regulations play in community form, everyone in planning needs to dig deeper into the concepts of TMDLs, erosion control, nutrient control, and retention.

Even if you cannot attend this year, take a look at the program - it is helpful to see how leaders in various disciplines are framing and tackling overarching topics.  If your head starts hurting, just pay attention to the Green Infrastructure and Coastal Protection tracks.  In addition, Stormwater magazine is free and allows that dive into water quality planning. 

Follow tweets at #stormcon or follow @stormcon.  For a good introduction to TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Loads), see this Citizens Guide to the Chesapeake Bay’s TMDL