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Mapping as an Infill Tool
Alex Steffen, 3 Apr 06

map.jpg We need a bright green future, but the future we are actually building sometimes looks more dark gray. Particularly in North America, we still employ a whole suite of outmoded designs and technologies which we know are destabilizing the climate, undermining living systems and exacerbating social inequalities. It's hard to pick a favorite in this category, really -- coal-fired power plants? SUVs? manicured lawns? -- but in terms of its long-term impacts, it may be hard to beat suburban sprawl. Among its many other contributions to unsustainability (longer driving distances, social stratification, wasted government subsidies) sprawl is one of North America's leading destroyers of healthy farmland and natural areas.

If we're going to build truly sustainable cities, we need to start turning urban growth inward -- using the demand for more housing to rebuild and restore urban places. Such "infill" housing is almost inherently bright green, promoting as it does density, which is one of the best energy efficiency strategies we have and preserving rural lands.

There's one big catch -- infill housing is harder to develop profitably. One of the hang-ups is that finding land suitable for infilling can be a really burdensome process, involving a lot of leg work and records-checking.

But, as we discuss frequently here, mapping tools and other geospatial technologies are changing the game quickly. Case in point? The California Infill Parcel Locator, a pilot program of Berkeley's Institute of Urban and Regional Development (IURD). The parcel locator is pretty simple: it measures the ratio between the assessed value of a plot of land and the assessed value of the structures and improvements on that land, and then overlays the results onto a street map.

A ton of caveats apply, of course: not every parcel identified should be redeveloped, zoning codes may vary or changes, etc. But what's exciting about this is that it is a relative simple tool which facilitates a key step in the redevelopment process, and illustrates how much better we can do at making available data about the cities in which we live useful for those actually doing the hard work of rebuilding them.

(Thanks, Rob!)

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Comments

This is very cool. For those of us that don't know the local geography, can you suggest a place to look at? I can't seem to see any dots on my maps!


Posted by: Daniel Haran on 3 Apr 06

Hmmm. Not sure quite what you're asking, but you might try focusing on urban areas where a larger number of parcels are likely to fit the criteria: the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and San Diego are all good bets.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 3 Apr 06

D'oh... I assumed it would work like other mash-ups, displaying data right away rather than require people to press "Find parcels."


Posted by: Daniel Haran on 3 Apr 06

What a beautifully simple and elegant solution.

This makes me wonder how many similar solutions - once mentioned during dinner conversations - were prefixed with "If only we had a way to ...". No doubt there are plenty of older, experienced people out there with amazing ideas floating in their heads. Only they're not yet aware that there is now, perhaps, a technology that could bring that idea to fruition.

Reminds me of some old story about a family long ago, an old grandfather, a bad harvest and a hard winter. The old man, who many villagers believed to be an unproductive mouth to feed, winds up saving their lives by using the knowledge he's accumulated during his long life.

Maybe one of the things we should be doing is educating the older generations to the new possibilities. We could all use more of this sort of thing.


Posted by: csven on 4 Apr 06

I'm a big supporter of urban infill projects, but I also understand it's limitations. It is not as easy as just ripping down an existing structure and putting up high density housing (or better yet converting an existing building to housing).

The first major problem is ensuring that the infrastructure is there to support housing in the area. Is there the water and sewer capacity and if not, how far away is there available capacity that could be built to? Are there enough schools locally? Are there grocery stores and other convenient areas for shopping? Are there enough police and fire fighters?

The next major problem is demand for urban, high density housing. There is a reason we continue to push out into the farms and wild areas, the American Dream still consists of a single family house. You can't make single family units in an urban infill project. However, the demand in cities for multi-family housing is increasing and prices go up, especially for the younger generation trying to buy their first home.

Another problem is that high density housing is often resisted by the community. Many cities have put higher density units in the wrong places, such as right next to single family homes, in the past so residents are leery of all high density projects. Even though infill projects aren't generally next to neighborhoods, there is still resistance to them.

While finding a parcel to develop is important, it's really the easy part. A much more useful map would be one that shows excess sewer capacity. But even then, the hard work is convincing cities that high density urban infill is a good thing for their community


Posted by: Grant Henninger on 4 Apr 06

I just checked my immediate, high-density multifamily residential area in Santa Monica. Along my street within a block or two of my residence there were a handful of properties identified by the locator. But these properties are already very high density; I believe that the basic methodology employed by the locator is fundamentally flawed. It seems to be based on the dollar valuation difference between the value of the land and the value of improvements, but in an older, rent-controlled multifamily area there are likely to be very many high-density, old buildings with poor building valuations but high land valuations (since the ability to construct high-cost condominiums, even at lower densities, has such enormous potential in these areas). This does not make the buildings candidates for replacement with high-density buildings. I must say that as an architect, I'm quite disillusioned with the inaccuracy of this locator. I believe the basic flaw in it is the effort to quickly use statistical data without any input that captures the economic context.


Posted by: Dan J on 4 Apr 06

Well, on purely market terms, it might be that older high-density is a candidate for replacement construction, and that's all this mapper is designed to show.

The point is certainly NOT that this is the perfect tool. The point is that this illustrates the kind of thing that could be done, better, and would be quite useful.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 4 Apr 06

What would make this a much more excellent tool is if it filtered out parcels where the number of current dwelling units were at the zoned limit. A lot of the parcels highlighted in my neighborhood (Mar Vista, in western Los Angeles) are zoned R1-1 and aren't good candidates for infill.


Posted by: Pete on 4 Apr 06

Here in Auckland NZ infill has been 'used' as a tool to house increased density.

It turned into a nightmare. Infrastructure groans under increased demand. The urban forest has suffered badly as people chop trees down to make way for houses, and to stop them from dropping leaves into their gutter. Roads became clogged. No compensating public open space was found to offset increased density. Heritage and/or character homes were demolished to put 3 units on a site.

If you are going to use infill as a tool, make sure the infrastructure can handle increased density, and that improvements are made BEFORE infill occurs. That's BEFORE, not during and certainly not after. That's the major problem.

Having said that, I wish this tool had been around in the early 1990s when we started infilling. Would have at least, with information about hard and soft (trees, water) infrastructure, have helped avoid some of the horrors that are hidden here in Auckland down rights of way.


Posted by: Christopher on 5 Apr 06

I'm not sure that it would be useful or practical to attempt to compare the built densities to the applicable zoning codes. Partly because that information is site-specific and not available in a large, standardized format, and partly because the zoning can be changed (albeit not easily) to allow for higher density development.

The biggest weakness of this particular app at the moment is just that the data has gotten old (I believe it's 2002-2003), due to the delay in getting the site live.

I completely agree with Alex that the benefit of this tool comes from its presentation of existing, hard to find and use data in an accessible, visual format.

Oh, and I also agree with the infrastructure comments as well. Christopher and Grant point to many valid issues that infill bumps up into and that aren't often mentioned in the same breath by those pushing sustainable infill.


Posted by: Kevin on 6 Apr 06



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