Lean Urbanism and Why Small Steps are Necessary for Urban Change
This week we interviewed Brian Falk. Brian is the Director of the Project for Lean Urbanism and the Center for Applied Transect Studies. He Co-edited the Transect Urbanism: Readings in Human Ecology and Lean Code Tool: Incremental Zoning Repair. Brian also lectures internationally on the topic of Lean Urbanism and offers technical assistance to municipalities.
Here is the podcast. You can find a transcript below (lightly edited for clarity).
Intro: Hey look, it’s the Doublewide Dudes.
Alberto Piña: All right. Welcome back to another episode of the Doublewide Dudes. Today we’re with our guests, Brian Falk. Brian, thanks for joining us.
Brian Falk: Thank you for having me. It’s good to talk with you.
Alberto Piña: Yeah, I’m excited about this one. For our audience, Brian is the director of The Project for Lean Urbanism in the Center for Applied Transect Studies, and the co-editor of Transect Urbanism Readings in Human Ecology, and Lean Code Tool: Incremental Zoning Repair. So a lot of new things that I’ve never heard of that I’m excited to learn more about. And I’m sure our audience is as well. For starters, Brian, what is Lean Urbanism?
Brian Falk: Lean Urbanism is a campaign for small-scale economic development and neighborhood revitalization. It’s focused on not only small-scale economic development, but also it’s focused on the local level, and not at the state level or at the federal levels. And it’s intended to unleash the power of small-scale economic development to strengthen local economies. It allows more people to participate in building their homes, their businesses, and their communities. And this community-driven growth has some important aspects to it, some important benefits. It provides local jobs and it keeps money in the local economy, it provides housing at lower prices. I know that’s the focus of our conversation today. It builds income and wealth for the neighbors, for the residents. And it also lets those residents determine what kind of community they want to live in. And The Project for Lean Urbanism, it’s a nonprofit organization and it has the mission of making small possible. We raise awareness of the value of small-scale economic development and the burdens that it faces. And we provide free tools and low-cost solutions and technical assistance to level the playing field for these small projects.
Alberto Piña: Well, that’s awesome. We might be a little bias, we’re a big fan of small businesses being that we are one and we continue to work around a bunch of other small businesses. In San Antonio, there’s been all sorts of development and growth right where we office out of, but it does look like it’s predominantly larger, more funded corporations. Is it a building code thing? Do building codes favor the more well-funded corporations?
Brian Falk: It’s all kinds of things. It’s every aspect of the system that governs development, every aspect of the system favors big projects and disproportionately burdens the smaller projects. One of the things that’s crucial to understand at the very beginning is that if we have the same requirements for big and small projects, that they create disproportionate burdens for the smaller ones.
Alberto Piña: Right.
Brian Falk: We have to understand that and we have to recognize it first and then we have to set about changing it. So as I said, if we look at the system, you’ve got zoning codes, you’ve got building codes, as you said, you’ve got permitting processes, you’ve got fees, financing, all of these privilege the big projects and therefore disproportionately burdened the smaller ones. So that has a lot of consequences, it means that that small projects are more difficult, they’re more expensive, they’re more time consuming than they should be.
Brian Falk: It also means that we get fewer of those small projects and more of the big projects. It also means that only the big corporations with the deep pockets are the ones who can participate. It’s also expensive for the big projects, it’s also difficult, it’s also time consuming for them as well. And so, even most of the big projects now require public subsidies, whether it’s a public-private partnership, it’s free land, tax abatements, what have you, that even the big ones require subsidies now. And Lean Urbanism focuses on small, the local projects, like I said, but also on the un-subsidized projects.
Alberto Piña: Yeah. I think we’re seeing firsthand now just how time consuming and expensive small projects are. We’re in the middle of opening up three new show centers across Texas. And it’s certainly something we couldn’t afford to do four years ago. I mean, just engineering alone was way outside of our budget. And so I can imagine when you’re doing subdivisions or office parks, anything like that, is even more expensive than a mobile home show center. Is there a big business bias in these requirements or is that just an unintended consequence of some of these city planning rules?
Brian Falk: It’s a combination actually. So there is some regulatory capture to use a specific technical term, that the larger companies that are able to lobby, that have the money and the access to lobby, sometimes do change regulations to favor bigger projects to reduce competition for themselves, but a lot it is just unintended consequences.
Alberto Piña: Got you.
Brian Falk: We make rules, and a lot of small rules and they just add up over time, and it’s death by a thousand cuts or however you want to call it. It’s just over time, you get so many. And also because they add up slowly, people don’t necessarily recognize what’s happening. The other analogy is boiling a frog, you just turn the water up bit by bit, and eventually it’s too late. And that’s what has happened to us, we’ve gotten to a point where it’s almost impossible, it’s so much more difficult for the small projects. And we also have to remember that small projects are what built this country over the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries… Sorry, 1700s, 1800s, when we were expanding across the country, it was mostly individuals, small groups, small projects, building small towns, that’s how our country was built. We’ve gotten to a point now where they’ve been pushed out.
Alberto Piña: Yeah. In some of these city planning meetings we’ve been going to for these new dealerships, it seems like on their end, just anecdotally, they know it’s a death by a thousand cuts, and we’ve heard sorry a number of times, it is what it is for a parking lot or for this, that, and the other. One thing we’re seeing in San Antonio, and I know a lot of other larger areas across the country are seeing is this growing urban sprawl where people need to live close enough to work, but now with the price of housing, it’s almost this drive until you qualify kind of thing going on right now. How does Lean Urbanism affects sprawl in specifically affordable living in a community?
Brian Falk: I think the easiest way to look at that is that Lean Urbanism prioritizes places that are already close to jobs and services, and that already have infrastructure. These are the places that were built when these towns and cities were founded. And very often they’ve come in since then and they’ve written a new zoning code sometime from the ’60s through the ’80s or ’90s, they created a whole new zoning code and it actually made redevelopment of those early properties impossible, sometimes actually illegal. And at the very least they’ve made it more difficult and more expensive. And so, builders, developers and home buyers as well drive until they qualify, like you were just saying, it’s easier and it’s cheaper to go out into the far reaches of a region. Of course, most people don’t count the cost of transportation, which really adds up, especially for families when they all have to have cars, but Lean Urbanism focuses on the places that can be redeveloped.
Brian Falk: Very often, these are places that, as I said, already have infrastructure. So, it doesn’t cost the city to open them up for redevelopment to make it possible for businesses and homes to be built there. Once they are, people can live there and maybe not live car-free, but maybe can live car-light and reduce the expenses of their travel, be able to more easily get to jobs and services and schools and so forth that they need.
Alberto Piña: Very cool. You know, in San Antonio where we office out of now, I think the Rand Building we’re in is almost 150 years old. It certainly didn’t look like this when I was growing up, actually this entire area didn’t look like this when I was growing up in Weston Urban, and in Graham. And the city have done a good job of making this a place where people want to work, but particularly you mentioned the walkability, it is just not only convenient to be able to walk to a restaurant or walk to a park, it’s also really nice to get away, especially when we’re on Zoom calls all the time, right? To get away and just go to a park and walk.
Alberto Piña: I just did two laps around the park right out in front of us before our call, just to loosen up and get a break in the day. Now, when our marketing team was doing some research to get us ready, they mentioned something called the pink zone, and just like Lean Urbanism, I had never heard of any of this. So I’m curious, what is that and how does that apply to this conversation?
Brian Falk: Well, a pink zone is the primary tool of Lean Urbanism. Pink zones are places where Lean Urbanism strategies are implemented. They’re areas where red tape is lightened and where barriers to entry are lowered. They’re places where it’s easier, it’s faster, it’s cheaper to create small businesses and develop small properties, build homes. Again, I know that’s the focus of our conversation. They’re typically small, carefully defined locations with mixes of homes and businesses. And that small size is easier for a city to administer, to create a pink zone. It’s easier to concentrate resources and to energize businesses and residences and get them involved in the redevelopment of an area. Pink zones have three phases. The first is an assessment. The purpose is to identify the obstacles to small-scale entrepreneurship and development, also to identify assets that can be used, usually in an area that needs a redevelopment, there are a lot of underutilized assets.
And also that assessment identifies a location for a pink zone. Then the second is a workshop. That’s where the relevant parties come to the table and they agree on strategies to employ, to address those obstacles that were identified to utilize the assets, to come up with new protocols that allow small-scale development. And then the third phase is implementation. And that’s where those strategies, those solutions are put into effect. They apply them to projects, whether it’s businesses opening or places being renovated or built new, and of course, to evaluate them and see what works and what doesn’t. And the idea is that not only do you spur redevelopment in an area and spur economic development, but also that you learn strategies that work and can be applied either in new pink zones, or maybe even citywide.
Alberto Piña: Very cool. Yeah. Affordable housing is really near and dear to our heart, but this affordable office space and just an affordable city also ties into that, right? As a business, if you can pay less for an office space, because it costs less to develop, well, then that means we can pay more or hire more, which in turn allows people to become homer owners. So it really all ties together, right? It sounds like this is all about creating more inventory of all sorts of things, office space, residential, whatever it is, to solve some of these problems we have universally as a country, we need to build more stuff and help ourselves get out of our own way. Now, when you mention these pink zones and knocking back some of the regulation, we’re not necessarily talking about building things that aren’t safe, we’re 100% not talking about that, we’re talking about building it maybe a little bit smarter and keeping it safe. So what are some of the workarounds in this Lean Urbanism that allow for that?
Brian Falk: Thank you for pointing that out. We never recommend anything that jeopardizes health and welfare. What we’re looking for is just alternative means of meeting these requirements. That’s really all we’re talking about, things that are easier to do and less expensive and take less time to do, to meet these health and safety requirements. So you were asking about workarounds, and the workarounds are really just ways to get things done to meet these regulatory requirements. So, they could be strategies and they could be sharing existing knowledge. An example of strategies for a workaround is how to fix your zoning code to allow small projects without completely having to rewrite it, without meeting a complete overhaul. So you mentioned the Lean Code Tool at when you were introducing me, and that’s what that tool is for. So rather than have the planning department completely overhaul and rewrite their zoning code, which is a years-long process, really intense, really time consuming and onerous, and also difficult to do politically, this Lean Code Tool suggests issues that are common in zoning codes that make it difficult to build small projects.
And it suggest strategies for targeted repairs of those parts of the zoning codes rather than having to overhaul it. I also mentioned knowledge, a type of workaround. Knowledge might be more related to building codes, how to satisfy FHA requirements for handicap access, for example, without including an elevator. Elevators are incredibly expensive, especially for small projects. And sometimes that cost can be the difference between whether a project is feasible or not. In addition to workarounds, we also talk a lot about thresholds. And a threshold is something you want to stay under, something you want to stay below. A strategy for example, might be to make buildings up to a certain size exempt from some requirements and fees. An example of knowledge might be to let builders and developers in the area know that up to four units can be financed with a residential mortgage, you don’t have to go and get a commercial loan to do that. Residential mortgages can even cover small mixed-use buildings, for example, with a certain amount of commercial use down below them.
Another example of that knowledge for a threshold might be to stay under a certain number of stories, and you don’t need to have an elevator installed. For fire access for example, keep all units no more than X number of feet from a fire exit, and you don’t have to build a second staircase.
Alberto Piña: Yeah. Knowledge, I think is one of these things that’s overlooked in things like this, but you mentioned four-unit homes that could be financed through FHA, and heck, I’ve been doing this, Brian, 13 years, I didn’t know that until about two months ago when we had a guest on the podcast from Fannie Mae that told us that. And there’s a lot of little things and sometimes learning the hard way when you’re developing, stuff’s very expensive.
Brian Falk: Absolutely. And we talked about… I said an example might be to share that knowledge with builders and developers, but also property owners. It might be that people who aren’t interested in getting into the business, but are interested in lowering their own housing expenses. So you can reduce the cost of housing by lowering the expense of building it. And we can’t affect materials price, and we can’t affect labor price, but hopefully we can reduce the cost and difficulty of regulations and bureaucratic procedures, make that easier, less expensive and faster so that these small projects are possible. And that’s one way of reducing the cost, but another maybe to actually raise income.
And that might be by owner occupancy of one of these multiunit buildings, whether it’s a duplex or whether it’s a single-family home with an accessory dwelling unit behind it, whether it’s a triplex or fourplex or one of these small mixed-use buildings that I talk about, where you live above and either have your own office or someone else’s down below, this allows people to use a residential mortgage, for example, with a lower down payment and to get income from these other sources to defray their costs of providing housing for them and their family. And also hopefully increasing income and building wealth as they’re doing it, which not only helps them, but also helps the whole community.
Alberto Piña: And some of this stuff, you would think these are new ideas, but I remember my Nana talking about… Her parents owned a shop, and the shop was below the house that they lived in. And to them, that was just normal, that’s what they did, right?
Brian Falk: Right.
Alberto Piña: It seems like in a lot of ways, this is encouraging a lot of small steps to the positive, and pilot projects instead of… One thing we’ve seen in Austin, they’ve really been attacking some zoning changes for a couple years, but as you pointed out, it’s a political firestorm and they’re just going nowhere with it. Whereas this is, “Let’s do little things that make sense here and there and get to that,” instead of, “Let’s do it all at once.” Is that the goal or is that just how this developed into?
Brian Falk: No, it is the goal, it’s the fundamental approach. And it applies, by the way, from the top down as well as from the bottom up. What I mean is that we’re talking about small things, incremental changes that municipalities can make to their approvals processes, to the way they administer their zoning and building codes, but also to the codes themselves to make these small projects easier. But we’re also talking about what can be done from the bottom up. So an example is house hacking. So like I was just describing to you, someone who owns a home or maybe a duplex or something, and wants to live in it and help pay the mortgage by renting out a room or another unit in a multiunit place. This is bottom up efforts where enabling things to be done from the bottom up.
And one of the tools that we have is a house hacking catalog to help people understand what types of buildings work well with that, and what types of rental situations work well, for example, but we’re also talking about property owners. These small steps that you talked about, very often in these neighborhoods that need redevelopment, you have a lot of empty properties, whether they are a vacant land or abandoned houses or commercial spaces, very often the property owners have made a pretty rational decision to just leave it be and wait for the market to improve in that area, because the market doesn’t currently justify the investment to renovate it or to build something new. The problem is that that rational decision is binary. It’s on or it’s off. It’s like they are going to do 100% of the vision they have for that property, or they’re going to do zero and wait.
And waiting, and having those places empty keeps the market deflated. And it’s too hard to get the market to improve when everyone is just waiting, doing nothing. And so you were talking about the small steps. And one of the things that we found when we started doing pilot projects was that we need to make it possible for property owners, business owners to also take these small steps. So, it might be that someone who owns a vacant commercial property might just start with tents and tables in a market on a weekend, or it may be that if they want to have a restaurant there, that what they have to start with is a food truck.
I might be that if they want to build this larger commercial building, that they have to start with a smaller, less expensive, just one-story building. But the point is that it’s not zero or 100, that there are steps along the way that can be taken to activate properties to improve the market like we were talking about, to gain knowledge of how these things work so that they can be better business owners and so that they can raise the value of their properties as well.
Alberto Piña: Yeah. I love that. ADUs just got approved for the city of San Antonio, and I believe Austin as well, which, if you’re a downsizing baby boomer on fixed income, that’s critical to get somebody in your backyard, helping you pay the rent and allow you to keep living in your home or even first-time home buyers.
Brian Falk: So when I was talking about the small steps, I should have gone in a little bit more to what we call meantime uses. And meantime uses are things that can be done in the meantime. So we talked about people waiting, and because they can’t do 100%, they do 0%. And for commercial spaces, commercial uses also, but primarily for residential, bring in inexpensive modular homes, they could be cottages. Of course, we need to also make tiny homes legal in cities, the tiny houses on wheels, as well as the modulars that are just going to sit on an inexpensive foundation, but you can bring those in and start with those. Now this is great, for example, for a municipal-owned land that’s just sitting empty. A city needs housing, they want to offer lower-cost housing. It’s a great way for the city to activate, to really use this property.
You bring in inexpensive modular homes. You arrange them in a way that is attractive for the non-residents as well as for the residents. And you offer less expensive rents to people, because the cost of the land is so much less, perhaps even free, and because the cost of the building is so much less. And because they’re modular, they can be moved.
Alberto Piña: Right.
Brian Falk: The city comes up with a new use, some developer says, “Okay, now I’m ready.” Because this property was activated and it was made more attractive, developer comes in and says, “I’d like to offer you a worthwhile price for this property,” those places can be moved.
Alberto Piña: These small steps for property owners. And we’ll have to get your house hacking book. I’m just super interested to see what else you got in there. Specifically to affordable housing, the availability of that, how does one lead to the other? How does Lean Urbanism lead up to more affordable housing in a community?
Brian Falk: Primarily, it’s reducing the cost of housing. And one way is that it enables people to develop properties for themselves, that if they’re going to live there, then they don’t need to make a profit off of themselves. So that’s one way of reducing part of the cost. We’ve also talked about making smaller projects possible. First of all, just possible, but second, by reducing the costs that come with these regulatory and bureaucratic obstacles. And so, if you can level the playing field for the smaller projects, then those require less money and less time and also less expertise. And so, people can do this themselves, that’s part of it, but even for the professionals, working at a small scale, it’s going to require less of them and they can hopefully pass on that savings to others as well.
Another is that it makes more properties feasible for development. We talked about these older areas that need redevelopment. Very often, properties are empty, buildings are abandoned because they can’t be rebuilt. It’s actually literally illegal. The zoning code does not allow these places to be rebuilt because they’re non-conforming lots. And so just opening up new possibilities, it adds to the supply as well, and therefore reduces the cost.
Alberto Piña: Yeah, I’d say supply is… If there was one unifying factor across all the conversations we’ve had in the last year or two, it all comes back to, we need more supply of everything in our communities.
Brian Falk: But that’s not a panacea, by the way. Adding more housing is not going to solve all of the affordability problems, but it’s critical, we can’t it without that.
Alberto Piña: Yeah. We’ll have to figure out how to get this house hacking out to our audience as well, because that’s a big part of it too. You can afford more if you’re able to generate income and have a place for yourself to stay, which seems to be a big part of this.
Brian Falk: Absolutely, yes.
Alberto Piña: It sounds like the key to a lot of this is having the experts do what experts do, but also bringing in non-experts and equipping them to make a difference.
Brian Falk: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Alberto Piña: Why are these, I guess, small-time developers or non-experts so critical to this Lean Urbanism?
Brian Falk: Well, it’s a really big hole in the market. We used to have a market that included them, and now we don’t. That’s the big problem, we’ve created this system where so much expertise is required. I mean, even the experts have to hire experts to navigate this difficult system. So, we need to make it possible for the non-experts to participate. They’ve been shut out. And Lean Urbanism is a way to make it possible for them to do that. You get more hands involved and you’re going to have more success.
Alberto Piña: I was just cracking up when you said that. Our engineers are super smart, working on these projects with us. And then one, they had to hire a contractor to do a traffic study. And I’ve been around that area for a decade, there is no traffic. I don’t know why we need to hire people to tell us that, but there is no traffic, but it’s one of those things we had to do and it certainly ran the cost up a little bit, but-
Brian Falk: And that’s not only a matter of expertise, but it’s also a matter of cost, as you just said, and time.
Alberto Piña: Yeah, 100%.
Brian Falk: You’re carrying a note, you’re carrying a loan. You’re paying interest on that loan while you’re waiting for an expert to come in and tell you something that you don’t need an expert to know.
Alberto Piña: Exactly. Yeah.
Brian Falk: Sometimes you do need experts when it gets to, for example, the permitting processes, how to navigate this, it’s like a maze for some. And even the more experienced, deeper-pocketed companies and projects have to hire the experts to navigate through the system.
Alberto Piña: Yeah. Especially permitting, we’ve done it without, and we’ve done it with, and those guys are worth every penny there. Part of y’all’s non-profit in your mission is helping more people do more of this, create more pink zones, get more of these non-experts making a difference in their communities. In terms of resources, what is it that you and your team offer that our audience, if they’re interested, could take advantage of?
Brian Falk: Well, they can go to leanurbanism.org and find these free tools. They’re free, by the way. We have a kit that we’re developing right now. There are a couple that are in the late stages of development, and they’re not quite available on the website yet, but will be very soon. One that is, is that lean house hacking catalog that we talked about. People can go to YouTube, they can go to Amazon and buy books about it, there’s a lot of information about house hacking, but there isn’t a lot of info, we found, that talks about what specific types of buildings are good for house hacking. There’s not a lot of discussion about what type of rental situations they should get into, long-term, short-term, Airbnb, commercial rentals if they’re going to build commercial spaces, we also talk about construction types, whether it’s an existing building or a new construction.
We also cover issues to understand, related to financing and evaluating properties, and maintenance, how to find a good house to hack, things like that. We also have the Lean Code Tool, which you mentioned at the beginning, which is intended to help cities repair their codes rather than have to overhaul them entirely. It focuses on targeted, strategic repairs, things like identifying parts of the code that currently inhibit Lean Urbanism. An example might be off-street parking requirements or minimum lot size. Those two together often mean that a home physically can’t be built on an existing lot. There was a home there, there isn’t now, or maybe it needs to be renovated, or someone wants to add to the back or another story to it. And it’s not possible to build that. So, we help them identify places in their own codes that are inhibiting Lean Urbanism, and then we offer strategies to make targeted repairs rather than overhauling it. [Editor’s note: you can find all of the Lean Urbanism resources on their website “publications” page.]
Alberto Piña: That’s awesome.
Brian Falk: Related to codes, another tool that we have coming up soon is a Lean Comp Plan Tool. And cities and regions are often required by states to create comprehensive plans. And it’s also, a very drawn out, difficult process. And so we’re offering guidance on how to lean that process, to streamline it, so that it’s easier and faster to do, but also so that it allows Lean Urbanism. So you include in your comprehensive vision for your plan for a region that you want Lean Urbanism to be possible. And then we also offer guidance about how to connect that down to their local zoning codes to actually make it operational, and actually legal.
Alberto Piña: That is awesome.
Brian Falk: But the final and the most important tool that we’re offering that will be available any day now on the website, is the Pink Zone Manual. And we have created this so that people and municipal staff can actually create pink zones in their communities.
Alberto Piña: Very cool. Well, I was going to ask how can listeners get involved in their communities, but it sounds like they just need to wait a couple of days, go to your website, and then it’s all going to be there, right?
Brian Falk: They can. And one other resource that we offer is technical assistance. So we created this Pink Zone Manual, for example, so that people, maybe it’s a neighborhood association, or maybe it’s a chamber of commerce, or economic development office, or the planning department in a city, can create a pink zone, but we’ve heard back from quite a few of these people that they would like the help to actually create these zones in their cities. And so, we’re offering the technical assistance to help them with that as well. So you asked about how people can learn about it. Well, if they want to actually get involved in this in their communities, they can create a pink zone, like I was just saying, they can go to the website and learn about Lean Urbanism, they can find a couple books. There are a couple that I think people would be interested to read.
One is called The New Pioneers, it’s written by J.P. Faver, they can find it on Amazon, for example, it’s a series of stories that we commissioned a journalist to travel around the country and investigate these stories that inspired us when we were creating Lean Urbanism. And so the book tells those stories about people who are rebuilding their cities despite the obstacles that are in the way. Another book is called DIY City, is written by Hank Dittmar. And I co-wrote a chapter that’s in there about Lean Urbanism, so they can read more that way. So learn about it, share it with neighbors and local officials. They can invite me if they want to have me come in and speak. Currently, of course, it’s going to have to be a webinar, but as soon as we’re able to travel, I go around and speak about the value of small-scale economic development and these tools that help reduce the burdens. And as I said, if they want us to come and help with technical assistance, we’ll offer that too.
Alberto Piña: That is so cool. I learned such a tremendous amount today. And now you’ve got the wheels in my head turning, how can we apply some of this to solve some problems in our community? So I’m going to check out that house hacking. I got to read that book about the stories you mentioned. And more than anything, thank you so much for joining us and helping us all learn a little something today.
Brian Falk: Thank you for having me. I enjoyed talking with you.
Alberto Piña: Yes sir. Well, that does it. Another episode of The Doublewide Dudes podcast, appreciate y’all tuning in and we’ll catch you on the next one.
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