This is the first of our COO Michelle Drouse Woodhouse's Suburban Mom series about placemaking - and the State of (Suburban) Place(s). In the first installment in this series, Michelle reflects back on her very urban, spontaneous life sans-kids and how both the introduction of her two daughters and her move to the suburbs of Detroit have influenced her understanding of place and the importance of mobility, inclusivity, and choice.
Wow, we cannot believe it's been four years since we published the Brookings Study that established the link between walkability and economic value! Today, we're happy to share that we're close to wrapping up development of our software beta that quantifies the power of place. Our aim is to empower cities and developers struggling to make the case for walkability to tell their own data-driven (economic) stories. We want to help them gain support for their development proposals and visions and help them identify improvements that will produce the biggest bang for their buck. We're currently gathering feedback on our software - if you're striving to enhance walkability and increase qualify of life, we'd love to talk to you and get your perspective on the software:
Enabled by funding from the National Science Foundation's Small Business Innovation and Research Grant program, State of Place is developing a predictive urban data analytics platform that ties place to economic value, launching this summer!
To date, we have spoken with over 50 cities and developers to better understand the challenges they face addressing the ever increasing demand for walkability. Among their biggest pain points is convincing stakeholders (lenders, residents, developers, tenants, and staff) that an investment in walkability is actually worth it - both in terms of dollars and cents and quality of life.
We've since been hard at work on a solution to help cities and developers not just heed the fact that walkability is now key to economic competitiveness - but capitalize upon it!
We are now looking to speak with additional cities and developers who are striving to create walkable, livable places and gather their perspectives and advice on our solution. We have also collected a lot of market intelligence that we believe cities and developers would find useful and would like to share those insights.
If you are interested in joining us for a quick 20-minute chat in the next week or two, please book a time with us below.
Looking forward to connecting.
Mariela Alfonzo, Ph.D.
Founder & CEO
ULI 40 under 40
(Or Why You Must Stop Saying, Build It And They Will Come!)
By now, I hope you're as excited as I am about the potential for Lean Placemaking™ to resuscitate zombie cities.
- Lean Startup for Cities - Lean Placemaking™ - can help make planning and economic development processes more efficient and effective
- Cities need to "get out of the building" and engage with the public - and the place - before spending time "inside" planning, designing, building
- Lean Placemaking™ greatly increases the chances of creating successful, dynamic places and establishing harmonious, equitable public participation
So far, we've gotten through the three of the five key Lean Startup processes, below:
- Customer Discovery
- Pivot or Persevere
On tap today - Pivot or Persevere:
To pivot or persevere, that is the question - one startups tend to avoid at all (or exceedingly high) costs. Confronting this question head on and answering it with the help of the scientific method (Learn, Measure, Build) is an integral part of the Lean Startup approach. Eric Ries describes pivoting as a "structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth." The three previous steps in the Lean Startup process all lead - and help - us to answer this question. Startups must decide whether or not to move forward with their initial concept, move on to a different iteration of that concept, or, in some cases abandon the concept altogether.
A pivot should occur when or if a hypotheses is unverified. A pivot can mean addressing a different customer segment, modifying the problem you are solving, altering the solution, shifting markets, or adapting your growth model(s) (reflecting the three sets of startup hypotheses). Many famous companies have pivoted toward success: YouTube actually started as a video dating site and Flickr started as a video game with an inbuilt feature that allowed gamers to share photos. The list goes on and on. The list of those that didn't pivot when they should have...well, it's likely longer, but not easily "Googleable."
Pivoting for Cites?
Let's pick up last week's example. A city hypothesizes that adding pocket parks (solution) will address residents' belief that there are not enough green spaces within walking distance of their neighborhood (problem). They conduct customer interviews and validate both of these hypotheses. They create an MVP (minimum viable project): a pop-up pocket park in two parking spaces that the customers who they interviewed helped create. But they don't meet the minimum threshold of people they hypothesized would use the pop-up pocket park - in fact, the overwhelming majority of the folks that used the pop-up pocket park are those with whom they conducted the interviews. Do they pivot or persevere?
We Built it But They Didn't Come
You're probably thinking, why wouldn't people use a perfectly good pop-up pocket park? Here's a little story to help answer that question.
Last week, I was in desperate need of getting out of my own building and taking a long walk (as a walkability expert, I lose serious cred if I tell people I haven't left the house in three days!). The question was, where? I needed to clear my head and wasn't up for an urban walk. I had recently heard there was some sort of promenade along the East River that was part of the park in which I'd learn to ride a bike for the first time two years ago. I had no idea how to access it, where it led, how long it was, if it was just for bikers, etc. In my case, I turned to a trusty app, Localeikki (which my amazing friend co-founded), which crowdsources recommendations for great, local places to play outdoors (run, hike, bike, walk, etc.). I figured out the necessary logistics and was deeply rewarded with a majestic - and therapeutic - walk that perfectly balanced urban and green, passive and active. If you had asked me if these types of spaces were missing from my neighborhood, I would have answered with a resounding yes. But the problem wasn't that this type of amenity was missing. The problem was I didn't know about it - or enough about it to feel comfortable using it. The solution wasn't more green spaces. The solution was, well, Localeikki - which turns out is a lot cheaper than creating a new park (cities, take heed)!
From Project to Pivot
Back to our example. During the time the pop-up pocket park was - popped up - the city spoke with the folks that showed up, including the original customers they interviewed. They sought to "learn" why their MVP wasn't working. Were there enough places to sit? Was there enough shade? Did it need a food element? By now you know the answer to all of these questions was no. The only reason their interviewees had come was because they now knew about it - especially since they had been involved in the process of creating it. And the non-interviewees? Most simply came across the space by chance. But one couple there - longtime area residents - described a somewhat hidden, luscious park on the other side of a large intersection that cut across their neighborhood, which they frequented often. The others couldn't believe there was such a gem lurking in their midst!
THE PIVOT: while the problem had been properly validated - residents didn't think there was enough green space within walking distance - the key word was *think*. The City, of course, knew about the park; they just didn't think of it as hidden, assumed residents knew about it, and thought that despite its presence, residents still felt they needed more green space (they had sort of fallen in love with their solution). In creating the MVP and refining the problem, they realized that the solution wasn't more green, but better wayfinding, safer pedestrian crossing across the large intersection, and involving the community in creating appropriate programming for the space. And of course, an app like Localeikki to make the experience more user friendly and welcoming!
While the fifth step in the process, Repeat, is relatively self explanatory, the next blog posts in the series will dive deeper into how to execute - and replicate - this process, including how to structure experiments, including creating good hypotheses and conducting good interviews (which was a contributor to the longer path to pivoting in this example); establishing good metrics; designing MVPs; case studies, and of course, how State of Place streamline Lean Placemaking!
Stay tuned to learn how create optimal placemaking strategies that maximize success - both for the producers and the users.
In the meantime, get out of the building!
And in the meantime, if you have a question about applying Lean Placemaking™, State of Place™, or urban design or walkability in general, just grab some time with me and we can personally chat about your needs or situation!
Cities have a lot in common with startups:
- The majority of cities are increasingly bootstrapping
- Nearly all have limited resources and yet have seemingly endless responsibilities and goals to accomplish.
- Many have failed or are failing, relative to meeting their established missions
- But perhaps more precisely, and more distressingly, many cities are effectively “zombies” – not the revolting, mindless corpses kind depicted in Night of the Living Dead (or in less dated terms, Zombie Apocalypse), but the startup kind – “an organization or company that’s operating, but not growing;" one that is "in a state of limbo: not dead, yet not exactly alive.”
A key difference, however, is that in light of their high failure rate, many startups have pivoted (more on that term in the next blog), adopting a fundamentally different business development method – the Lean Startup Methodology. Sparked in large part by Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany and Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, this movement has become absolutely infectious, in a good way! Based on Eventbrite data, the number of registrants of the annual lean startup conference went up by 51% from 2012 to 2013; there are over 1350 lean startup Meetup groups with a total of nearly 350k members in over 460 cities across 70 countries; and over 80k members are part of the Lean Startup Circle, a global grassroots organization of Lean Startup practitioners!
It’s time for the lean startup epidemic to spread to Cities. It's time for Lean Placemaking™.
This blog series will explore why and how lean startup for cities – or Lean Placemaking™ – should be used to disrupt cities’ status quo, the same way lean startup has done for startups. I aim to build upon previous writings on this topic by laying out a parallel structure that cities can use to integrate a lean startup approach – in other words, to outline a Lean Placemaking™ framework, which integrates some of the principles espoused by DIY urbanism, tactical urbanism, pop-up urbanism, and lighter, quicker, cheaper strategic approaches. (Note that Lean Placemaking™ is not the same as what has been recently coined as lean urbanism.)
Before I define the term lean startup, and lay out its methodology’s key tenets, let’s walk through what the typical startup development process has been like historically: 1. Get a brilliant idea 2. Run numbers/Craft a business plan 3. Convince others to give you money for the idea 4. Spend (too much) time building out the product (e.g. technology, infrastructure, design, etc.) to bring the idea to life 5. Market to customers 6. [Try to] sell idea 7. Sell too few ideas 8. Idea (startup) dies, 9 out of 10 times
Now, let’s walk through what the typical city/planning process has been like historically: 1. Get a brilliant idea 2. Run numbers/Craft a conceptual plan, master plan, comprehensive plan, RFP [insert planning mechanism here], etc. 3. Convince others to give you money for the idea/Budget for the idea 4. Spend (too much) time building out the product (e.g. infrastructure, real estate development project, design, etc.) bringing the idea to life 5. Present idea to public/Engage public 6. [Try to] sell idea 7. Sell too few ideas/Face public resistance 8. Idea dies/Idea gets implemented but fails (to meet expectations)
That’s quite the stark parallel, right? I swear it even surprised me as I was writing this out! It’s no wonder why this typical top-down, insular process fails (or dissatisfies) so often. It’s broken.
So what is the lean startup solution to this problem? Actually, one of lean startup’s most significant contributions has been to diagnose the root cause of the problem: The biggest reason for #8 is the fact that #5 is #5 and not #2, or ideally, #1; it’s just too late in the game to bring in the "customer" - or the public. This process increases the likelihood that a startup will fail, and worse, that the startup fails late in the game, after a lot of time and money has been spent on the process and/or product.
The solution then – the Lean Startup – is to implement a “scientific approach to creating and managing startups [to] get a desired product to customers' hands faster” (and of course, involving the user as soon as possible). Several books, handbooks, blogs, and workshops, including of course Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, have fleshed out a number of concepts and key tenets of the Lean Startup Methodology. I summarize these below and explain how they can be applied to cities via “Lean Placemaking™”:
Lean Startup Mission: Create value for customers Lean Placemaking™ Mission: Create public value
Lean Startup Key Objective: Don’t spend time building something nobody wants Lean Placemaking™ Key Objective: Don’t spend time (and money) building something nobody (or only a select few) wants – or needs. Optimize limited resources.
Lean Startup Meta-principle: Feedback loop of (Idea) Build, (Product) Measure, (Data) Learn Lean Placemaking™ Meta-principle: While some argue it’s a matter of semantics, I’ve altered the order of the feedback loop (as have others) to start with: (Idea) Learn, (Data) Measure, (Product) Build as outlined below.
Lean Startup & Lean Placemaking™ Framework: Running experiments. To implement the lean meta-principle, startups, and cities alike, must test their various assumptions using the framework laid out in the scientific method.
1) To validate an idea, learn through customer discovery. Example: A city thinks creating pocket parks is a good idea. Before beginning to scope out where these pocket parks could be located, the city must validate this idea – it must “Get out of the building!” This is a key lean startup tenet. Startups must interface with potential customers, and in the cities’ case, users, to make sure they are meeting their key objective – not building (or planning) a pocket park no one needs or wants. I’d add that cities must also interface with the physical community itself to understand existing conditions (maybe there are already plenty of pocket parks, but they are not being used because they are not well maintained). This, of course, is part of what we do with State of Place™ -- more on that in the next blog.
2) Measure/Test customer validation & acquisition models: While getting out of the building is a key step in the customer discovery and lean startup process, this doesn’t mean a city should just randomly ask people if they do or do not want a pocket park. Instead, the city must engage in Hypothesis Testing to address three key assumptions, as outlined by Ash Maurya in Running Lean:
a) Problem/Solution Fit: Does the idea for a solution address a significant problem for potential users? Hypothesis: Five out of 10 residents feel there are not enough green spaces within close walking distance to their homes. Hypothesis: Six out of 10 residents believe that pocket parks would address their desire for green spaces within close walking distance to their homes b) Product/Market Fit: Do enough people want or need your solution? Hypothesis: Seven out of 10 potential users indicated that a solution like pocket parks would satisfy their need for more green space within walking distance to their homes c) Scale/growth model: How can I implement this solution citywide (or within all communities in which this problem exists)? Hypothesis: Eight out of 10 potential users would be willing to help build and maintain their community pocket parks.
All hypotheses must be “falsifiable” – you must be able to prove or disprove them. They must be specific and testable. Not Falsifiable: Residents love pocket parks Falsifiable: A “pop-up” pocket park (that’s hard to say out loud!) will attract > 300 residents over the weekend
I will further flesh out these concepts, cover the remaining steps (3-5) in the process (outlined below), and introduce other key lean startup tenets and methods (including structuring customer discovery interviews and defining appropriate metrics) that can be applied to cities as part of a Lean Placemaking™ framework in the subsequent posts in this series. I'll also discuss State of Place™'s key role in this method! Stay tuned!!
3) Build MVP approach
4) Pivot or Persevere
In the meantime, I hope you’re just as excited as I am for the potential of Lean Placemaking™ strategies to disrupt city design and planning!
Xin Nian Kuaile! Happy Chinese New Year!
As I sit here in my 19th-floor French Concession flat, still recovering from the shock and awe of the apocalyptic-like display of Lunar New Year fireworks I witnessed this week, I wonder what the year of the horse has in store for China.
According to Feng Shui practitioner, Raymond Lo: "The upcoming horse year is also a 'yang wood' year, when people will stick to their principles and stand firm. So it is hard to negotiate or compromise as there are more tendencies for people to fight for their ideals."
Granted, I’m no firm believer in the Chinese zodiac (or Western astrology for that matter) and my home is far from having good “feng shui,” but this prediction worries me. China is facing serious health threats in the year of the horse, and beyond. It is not the time to stick with the status quo.
As of 2013, 12% of China’s population had diabetes, making it not only the country with the highest number of people with the disease, but also the highest diabetes rate, surpassing that of the US and India. This epidemic has spread rapidly; in 1980, only 1% of China’s population had the disease. Worse, it’s poised to rise dramatically, with more than 50% of Chinese showing signs of pre-diabetes.
The diabetes epidemic is tied to expanding waistlines (over 11% of Chinese are obese and over 34% are overweight), which also increases the risk for other chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke, and cancer. While nutrition is certainly a significant factor in the spread of obesity, diabetes, and other non-communicable diseases, we know that sedentary behavior and lack of physical activity – tied partly to living and working in auto-oriented environments that lack walkability – is also to blame.
Now add unprecedented pollution levels to the mix. Just a couple of months ago, Shanghai experienced record-breaking pollution during the “airpocalypse,” with off the charts AQI levels, topping off somewhere just over 600 (the maximum was 500). The negative health consequences of air pollution are staggering: in 2010 alone, 1.2 million premature deaths were attributed to air pollution. In November, China reported the youngest on-record cancer patient – an 8-year-old girl from nearby Jiangsu province. While air pollution is caused by a variety factors, the swell in the number of automobiles (China lays claim to the world’s largest car market) – from just over 3200 in 1982 to over 100 million today – is indeed a contributor.
China’s seemingly insatiable appetite for cars along with the proliferation of cities better suited to four-wheeled inhabitants – other contributing factors not withstanding – will continue to exacerbate China’s mounting health issues. Facilitating walkability and more active transport is one way to lower the risk of chronic disease and combat pollution in China.
As part of my Fulbright work, I've sat down with several architects, planners and developers to discuss existing barriers to walkable development in China and potential solutions to overcome them. My discussions have been decidedly grim: the notion of overcoming the myriad political, cultural, and educational obstacles standing in the way of a more walkable, sustainable China has been met mostly with cynicism. (Stay tuned for future blog posts regarding this sadly, long list of challenges). The most hopeful response I’ve gotten thus far was more of a thinly veiled skeptical one: "Yes, China needs to change. They know they need to change. It will take a long time."
But China simply doesn’t have that "time." Urbanization is happening now. Over 54% of China’s population resides in cities; 60% will do so by 2018, two years ahead of schedule. By 2025, urban China – with its 350 million new residents – will be, for all intents and purposes “built out,” with the urbanization rate slowly stabilizing over the following two decades. This means new auto-centric cities – over 50 of them, each with 1+ million in population – are proliferating, now. Their mega-blocks are being planned and laid out, now. Their 10+ lane roads are being paved, now. Their towers in the park are being erected, now. The West has begun to accept that this type of vision for "tomorrow" was a misguided dystopian one; they are paying a hefty price to retrofit its byproduct into more human-scaled, sustainable places that people want and value. And yet China seems to be standing firm, determined to make these mistakes themselves, because, well, they can and they believe they have the right to so.
I certainly understand why China's knee-jerk reaction is to rebuff what can come across as pedantic Western "advice," but just as China doesn't have the luxury of time, it cannot afford (for its own sake) a "whatever, I do what I want" approach to urbanization. Once the urban fabric (block patterns, streets, building footprints, etc.) of new cities and suburban neighborhoods are laid out, it's dreadfully difficult to fix. Don’t get me wrong, strides have been made toward advancing sustainability. For example, China has acknowledged its pollution problem (admitting there’s a problem is the first step, right?); it’s even gone as far as to release data detailing the extent of its problem. But China has yet to do much about the fact (or realize) that the built environment – or the form that urbanization takes on – impacts individual, environmental, and even fiscal health and affects its State of Place moving forward.
My wish for China during this year of the horse is for it to mimic its moniker - to gallop its way toward change instead of holding firmly to its current stance. It must swiftly revise outdated auto-oriented, single-use zoning codes; expeditiously reconsider its land-lease as economic development strategy; forthwith begin to think long term; and feverishly work to establish interagency partnerships so that transportation, planning, and housing policies and practices all work in tandem toward curating a sustainable future. (More on these solutions in forthcoming blog posts!). In other words, China must change its approach to urbanization just as quickly as it has been urbanizing.
I hope that next year at this time, as we are celebrating the year of the sheep, that the horse has given the typically anxious sheep little to worry about, and that we can celebrate the many strides taken toward building a healthier China and improving its State of Place. Perhaps this is merely wishful thinking, but you could say the horse was one of the first sustainable forms of transport - when better to trek toward this type of change? I can say that as a horse myself, I’ll put all of my effort into seeing my research leads to a dynamic and productive horse year. First trot, a trip to Guizhou’s Center for Disease Control in two weeks to speak about walkability…
Happy New Year to you and happy four-month Shanghai-versary to me!
Time flies when you are walking hard for a living! Right before Thanksgiving, I posted a gratitude blog outlining five Shanghai placemaking features for which I was thankful. I promised you a second post the following week detailing five NYC built environment features that I'd come to herald even more after my time in Shanghai. Embarrassingly, I'm six weeks late! In my defense, I have since been to Beijing (twice), Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Bangkok; have given three talks; attended too many meetings to count; cooked a Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) feast, complete with Cuban beans, pork and mojo; and, oh, hosted my in-laws in Shanghai (they bought up the whole city, including an extra suitcase in which to lug it all back with them!). It's exhausting just writing that sentence - no less living through it - but the good news is it provided much fodder for future blog posts. Do stay tuned. But without further ado, today's blog post:
Top five NYC placemaking features (that I hope I can import to Shanghai - and China)
1. Walking on "terra firma"
Seems pathetic that my time in Shanghai has me longing for the simple pleasure of being able to walk firmly on the ground. Across many Shanghai districts and in most large Chinese cities, it is a luxury to feel the earth beneath you when traversing large intersections. Some argue that pedestrian overpasses help promote safety. I counter loudly - at best, they are bestial eyesores; at worst, they are bastions of the auto-dependent landscapes that have become more ubiquitous than smart phones in China. These pedestrian bridges are inconvenient, often unkept, and help perpetuate the ethos that cars are better and have more rights than pedestrians.
2. Eight is [more than] enough
It was difficult to find a photo that properly relayed the ridiculous largeness of the intersections in China. They are so wide that it is impossible to fully capture them in one single frame. While the US has its share of highways passing for streets, transportation engineers in China have had their way - and then some - designing streets so wide that only Olympic sprinters can cross them in the time allotted! Pedestrians are instead forced to wait mid intersection, on a ped island that amounts to little more than a life vest in shark-infested waters - if you're lucky enough to even have one. The widest road I ever came across in Manhattan had six lanes, two of which were parking lanes (and it was one of the most hated streets in the borough). Perhaps we have good ol' Robert Moses - the "Master Builder of New York" - to blame for that one. Unfortunately, in China, there are too many Robert Moseses - each with multiple mega roads under his belt - to count.
3. These "streets" are made for walking
Here, the challenge was choosing only one picture! By far, my growing image bank documenting the fruits of my labor is dominated by photos of streets with pedestrian barriers. Barriers come in as many shapes and sizes as dumplings in China. You can find them on most streets. Poles, scaffolding, construction, motorcycles, cars, street vendors (yes, as much as I love them, they are often guilty of blocking the sidewalk), consulate barricades, more poles, and even the occasional dynamite explosions (this happened right in front of me while leading my very first Walk & Talk meetup group!) all contribute to the consummate obstacle course that is walking in China. While scenes like this particular one could be chalked up to "cultural differences," I won't give China a pass on the other countless physical barriers (and psychological - see # 1 on this list) that pedestrians must navigate in order to safely and conveniently use the most sustainable (and oldest) form of transportation available to us. While weekly trash disposal and oft-narrow sidewalks do pose pedestrian barrier issues in NYC, in comparison to the myriad, egregious sidewalk barriers in China, they are small, eye-roll-inducing nuisances - perils of city living (that of course, still need to be addressed!).
4. Apples with apples
Yes, that's a car attempting to drive onto the sidewalk, via the curbcut, right in front of my Walk & Talk meetup group! Unfortunately, I was unable to get the guy guiding the driver through this whole process in the same shot! I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried. To safely walk as a pedestrian in China, you need eyes in the back of your head. Seeing as humans have yet to evolve that particular body part, for now that means you have to look right, left, right again, peer over your shoulder, lean back, lean forward, all before crossing the street in China - heck, you need to do this while you're walking on the sidewalk! Motorized vehicles - from cars to e-bikes, trucks to scooters, buses to make-shift I don't know what - all take precedence over pedestrians. You have to look out for them at every turn - and step. Being in a constant state of high-alert is taxing and can take the joy out of walking. I'm not saying that NYC drivers are the most obedient stock, but at least you know you're not going to all of a sudden encounter a car whizzing by you on the sidewalk in NYC!
5. The prince of Fresh-air
Ok, fine, Will Smith lives in LA, not NYC, but you get the picture. This is my DIY filter after two days of near-record breaking AQI (air quality index) in Shanghai. That is not a shadow. That is filth. That filth was in the air. Inside my apartment. The scariest part is that a few weeks after this picture was taken, we indeed broke the record for the worst AQI in Shanghai since they began recording it. The readings were off the charts. Anything above 300 is considered hazardous; 500 was the maximum. During the Shanghai "airpocaplyse," the AQI topped 600. I cannot quite describe how trapped I felt during this time. Confined to my apartment, I actually longed to engage in the taxing battle that is pedestrian life here. Give me your ugliest most imposing pedestrian overpass, your most morbidly obese intersection, your most steadfast barrier. I'll gladly duck aggressive cars, silent ebikes, and motorbikes with their lights off in the game of frogger this country calls walking. Just let me out. Let me breathe fresh air. The kicker is, in China, the lack of the first four urban design principles outlined here is linked to the lack of the fifth. I will never again take for granted my beautiful, peaceful, clean air-filled walk from my NYC apartment to my beloved Tompkins Square park.
While this post may seem more like I'm bemoaning China's bad urban design and less like a list of what I love (or miss most) about NYC, it's actually part of my wish list for China. It's part of the change I want to see in China. It's part of the change I'm here to help impart. I have lots in store to help me achieve that aim. In the meantime, please keep walking along with me!