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Measuring Urban Sustainability: Evaluating the APA’s New Sustainability Accreditation Criteria

Posted on by Charisma Acey
Filed under: IURD

 Last Spring, the students in my undergraduate Planning for Sustainability class embarked on a project to analyze the American Planning Association’s new Comprehensive Plan for Sustaining Places, and our project has already received the attention of planning professionals across Northern California.[1] This initiative aims to integrate sustainability into the general plans of municipalities through the creation and dissemination of quantifiable sustainability standards and indicators. The APA proposed three types of standards:

  1. Principles- overall goals for comprehensive plans aimed at achieving sustainable communities. These include: livable built environment, harmony with nature, resilient economy, interwoven equity, healthy community, and responsible regionalism.
  2. Processes- standards for participation and implementation activities in comprehensive planning for sustainable communities.
  3. Attributes- standards for the content and characteristics of comprehensive plan documents for sustainable communities.

The indicators under each standard are ranked on a scale from -1 to 3.[2]  As their final project, students applied these standards to the general plans of eleven Bay Area cities and measured these indicators. The cities studied included: Berkeley, Dublin, Emeryville, Fremont, Mountain View, Oakland, Petaluma, Richmond, San Francisco, San Jose, and San Rafael. The main objective was to determine how comprehensive the sustainability criteria are, how useful the evaluation method is, and how consistent the ratings were across students.  Working with Master of City Planning students Hannah Clark and Emily Alvarez, we developed a framework to test the inter-coder reliability among each group using Krippendorf’s Alpha. The statistic provides a coefficient that essentially measures whether two or more raters are evaluating the same thing, which is to say, whether the indicator is reliable.

Ultimately, the students found the APA Standards to be a solid basis for understanding sustainability principles and policy guidance.  However, they also had some ideas about how the standards could be improved. Students recommended the elimination of sustainability jargon that may prove confusing both to those trying to implement the plans and to the broader public.  They also recommended simplifying and refining the point system in order to make it clearer which criteria are most important and exactly how much each criterion affects the overall sustainability of the plan. Each group’s Alpha scores revealed that students often would score the indicators very differently than members of their own teams, which indicates the amount of subjectivity that goes into such metrics. They observed that professional planners or an outside team applying the criteria to a city might have scores that reflect higher levels of agreement. However, this raised the question of the relevance and inclusivity (with respect to public engagement) of the evaluation process. Moreover, the local context for sustainability planning in various cities is quite different, and different sets of indicators will be of higher priority for each city, which the standards do not address.

In addition, the students identified some strengths and weaknesses in the cities’ general plans.  Most cities did very well in areas of eco-efficiency[3], greenhouse gas reduction measures, and livable built environments; most cities performed poorly on standards related to interwoven equity, accountable implementation, and healthy communities. The students also critiqued the disjointed manner in which sustainability is addressed in the plans. They recommended that plans be written to integrate sustainability criteria throughout, rather than separating it into its own section.

With these improvements, in both standards the general plans overall, students concluded that the standards have the potential to be a powerful tool for the advancement of sustainability at the municipal scale.  Professionals in the field welcomed the fresh perspectives and new ideas from students. A number of students asked, for example, how cities could be rewarded for being more ambitious in their sustainability efforts, versus evaluating how well they meet strict standards, which might be thought of as minimum criteria for sustainability.

Another discussion during class (and one common in professional circles) is how best to integrate sustainability into the comprehensive planning process. While most cities have various sustainability related initiatives and action plans, there is great variety in how well these efforts are reflected in general plans. The state of California is in the process of issuing new General Plan Guidelines, the document issued by the Governor’s Office for Planning and Research that explains the legal requirements of a general plan. The updates include new guidance to directly integrate sustainability into the general plan, addressing issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, climate adaptation, renewable energy use, infill development, public health, and regional planning. In my next Planning for Sustainability class, we will continue to explore planning for sustainable communities and cities and how to integrate local objectives with goals for regional sustainability.


[1]The APA chapter’s magazine, Northern News, featured an article on the student’s findings. Student projects can be found on the Chapter’s website


[2] After our class, the official APA scoring matrix was revised to a scale from 0 to 3.


[3] In this context, eco-efficiency is measured by the number and quality of municipal programs undertaken to reduce energy consumption, conserve natural resources, balance land uses for population growth and green the economy.



On housing, good news for families and communities

Posted on by Carol Galante
Filed under: IURD

President Obama’s announcement that the Federal Housing Administration will lower the cost of its home loans by one-half of a percentage point (.50 basis points) should be very welcome news. Home loans will now be within reach for many more hard working and responsible families who have been left on the sidelines of the economic recovery.

This cost reduction is good for homeowners and would-be homeowners, communities still struggling to recover from the recession, and the economy more generally. The National Association of Realtors reports the first-time homebuyer has been largely absent during the economic recovery. The inventory of homes at the lower end of the price spectrum — those traditionally accessed by the first-time homebuyer — are the most difficult to find

Further, low- and moderate-income borrowers, and black and Hispanic households in general, have a particularly hard time obtaining mortgage credit today.* The lower cost of credit for FHA borrowers moving forward means that more homes will be affordable for more people. That means an average annual savings of $900 on a typical FHA loan of $180,000 — meaning that up to a quarter million new home buyers will now, for the first time in a long while, be “in the money” to purchase a home.

This also means that over the next several years, two million homebuyers will save on their monthly housing expense, enabling them to invest more in other aspects of their families’ future, such as education. Not only will individual families benefit from this new housing affordability, but a virtuous cycle is created that will begin to further stabilize neighborhoods and strengthen the overall economy.

As a result of many actions over the past six years, the economy and housing market have made significant progress. Now is the time to share those gains and opportunities more broadly with the American people, while at the same time continuing to strengthen the housing market recovery.

All of this is possible now because of the foundational changes to the housing-finance system initiated post-financial crisis by the Obama Administration. As a prime example, the Consumer Finance and Protection Bureau has put in place rules of the road that mean the dangerous and predatory lending products that led to the crisis can no longer be offered.

And FHA took its own steps to ensure prudent underwriting standards were put in place, along with a strong risk-management culture that has been embedded into the operations of the agency. FHA actions included raising mortgage insurance premiums to be sure that anticipated losses, plus reserves for unanticipated costs, are accounted for. Even after the reductions announced by the President, FHA mortgage premiums will remain 70 percent higher than before 2009.

Further, because of underwriting and other policy changes made, the performance of loans being insured today (and in the last several years) is far stronger. FHA will still be charging more for much better loans than in the years before the crisis. All this means FHA can reduce costs for borrowers, while continuing to add substantially to its reserves and financial health.

I know firsthand how hard it is to make rapid and complex changes to a large and important government agency like FHA. I am extremely proud of the work that has been done that enables these mortgage insurance premiums to be lowered. And I am even more proud of the FHA team that made it happen. Their work is government service at its best.

A strong FHA can now, in turn, strengthen families, communities and the economy.

— Carol Galante, I Donald Terner Distinguished Professor in Affordable Housing and Urban Policy, and former Assistant Secretary for Housing/FHA Commissioner

* Sharygin, C. A. (2013). Class and Color in the Credit Crunch. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Innovations for Communities Working to Address Foreclosure Crisis

Posted on by Carolina Reid
Filed under: IURD

An iconic image of the 21st century recession is a boarded up house with a foreclosure notice pinned to its front door. The nationwide mortgage crisis, which began in 2008, has left behind thousands of evicted families and empty homes across the United States. If a foreclosed property was the image of the recession, now theoretically over, what is the post-recession’s photograph?

In reality, while the economy is growing again and home prices are rebounding, many foreclosed properties remain unoccupied, and vacancy and blight continue to plague communities across the country. Beyond the impact of foreclosure on the families themselves, the neighborhood effects of vacant and foreclosed homes are numerous. Blight poses a threat to a neighborhood’s social fabric, public safety, and aesthetics, and large numbers of vacant properties can lead to a reduction in city service delivery and infrastructure maintenance.  Research also shows that concentrated foreclosures can reduce the property values of surrounding homes, leading to a loss of community wealth as well as stability.

Earlier this year, I edited a volume of the Community Development Investment Review, a publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, which seeks to provide guidance to communities and non-profit organizations eager to tackle this nationwide challenge in their neighborhoods. The volume explores innovative solutions and strategies for neighborhood stabilization and shares lessons learned from the Housing Partnership Network’s (HPN) 2011-2013 Innovations in Neighborhood Stabilization and Foreclosure Prevention Initiative.



With limited dedicated funds for neighborhood stabilization and a volatile housing market, taking foreclosed properties and putting them back to use is a complex challenge requiring nimble response and creative solutions. The articles in the Review offer important findings for policy and practice, including the critical role that housing counselors play in foreclosure prevention and the value of integrating counseling directly into servicing practices; the need to establish distressed asset disposition approaches that are sensitive to residents and the surrounding communities; and the need to pay more attention to single-family rental housing as a vital part of the nation’s affordable housing inventory. The issue also highlights the role of nonprofit organizations in bridging the public and private sectors and ensuring that investments serve the interests of the communities and residents

As communities and organizations continue to work to address the impacts of the foreclosure crisis on low-income and minority communities, the articles in this volume provide a wealth of insight and information derived from the actual practice of neighborhood stabilization. What will it take to produce an image of post-recession America that shines brighter than that of a boarded up home? One key is learning from nonprofit practitioners who are on the frontlines helping neighborhoods to restore occupancy and use of foreclosed properties. 

Is there common ground between planners and tea party, property rights, and other activists?

Posted on by Karen Trapenberg Frick
Filed under: IURD

On the heels of this recent election season, it is a good time to reflect deeply on how we are running public participation processes. How do legislative requirements like those for the SB 375 regional planning process in California help or hinder meaningful public engagement? What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for public engagement going forward? My research on the issue sheds some light on these questions.

Public process design is critical when participants are ideologically divided and do not trust each other or the public agencies in charge. It can be important to seek out areas of common ground. For example, all of us in a process may not able to agree on whether climate change exists, but we might be able to agree that hybrid vehicles should pay their fair share for road costs. We may not be able to agree on whether high density housing is beneficial in most circumstances, but we could do joint fact-finding to assess impacts on property rights, property values and public services like schools, police and fire departments.

My research on contested regional planning issues in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Atlanta, Georgia reveals surprising areas of convergence.

In the Bay Area, Tea Party and property rights activists came in force to block regional planning meetings run by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments to develop the region’s first Sustainable Communities Plan, known as Plan Bay Area. Importantly, these activists were not alone in opposition, as plaintiffs from across the political spectrum filed four lawsuits against the plan: two with some connections to property rights activists, one brought by the Building Industry Association Bay Area, and one by environmental organizations. And in the progressive left stronghold of Marin County, citizens not affiliated with Tea Party or property rights groups have voiced objections to the regional plan and to city plans that include higher density development areas in order to access regional funds available through the plan.

In Atlanta, Tea Party and property rights activists led the opposition to a regional sales tax proposal before the voters in 2012. The measure would have dedicated half of the estimated funds generated to public transit projects. An unlikely coalition of strange bedfellows emerged: Sierra Club and NAACP leaders joined the opposition, in part because they felt the proposed transit projects were not the ones the area needed. Although it is hard to say what impact the coalition had on the measure, the tax failed badly with 63% of the votes in opposition.


When examining the two contentious regions, I found four points of convergence between conservative activists I interviewed and planners, largely over transport policy and process matters, that warrant planners’ attention. These align generally with progressive activists’ positions even though the divergent sides come to planning from different vantage points. The four points of convergence were:

  • Some support for vehicle miles traveled fee (Atlanta)
  • Nuanced considerations about transit (Atlanta + Bay Area)
  • Skepticism of authenticity of planning process (both regions)
  • Opposition to sales taxes (Atlanta + Bay Area)

For more context on these areas of convergence, click here.



A way forward for planning efforts when the citizenry are divided along ideological lines could begin with participants seeking to find areas of common ground like the ones outlined above.

Participants could draw from the political theory of agonism to reframe their approach to civic engagement. In agonistic contexts, actors come to consider their opposition as legitimate adversaries rather than as enemies unworthy of engagement. In such moments, actors retain their core values and identities but may also find limited common ground with others, or agree to disagree. Group consensus is not a goal, but compromise through bargaining and negotiations may occur.

While challenging, it may be worthwhile to incorporate processes that facilitate transitioning from highly antagonistic, counterproductive encounters to interactions of agonistic debate. Current law and practice push regions to adopt plans that can be vulnerable to lawsuits if they are supported only by weak consensus. Such plans may be barely able to hold together over time. We wouldn't ship a package long-distance in crumpled wrapping and fraying tape. Likewise, we need solid community negotiations to keep plans from coming apart.


For more on the research discussed above, see Dr. Karen Trapenberg Frick's papers in the Journal of the American Planning Association at and in Urban Studies at


This article first appeared in longer form in California Planning & Development Report at here.

The blocked market for density and affordable housing

Posted on by Karen Chapple

Modified from the City of Santa Cruz’s ADU Manual, available at

Around the globe, many cities are experiencing a housing affordability crisis. There are few places this crisis is more pronounced than San Francisco and Los Angeles. California’s strict land use regulations hinder us from producing enough housing, particularly infill development, or new buildings on vacant or underutilized land in the urban core.

Yet, with 200,000 units in the pipeline, the San Francisco Bay Area’s housing construction is near its historic pace. The question is, how can the region produce more affordable housing?

The crisis will only get worse as we plan for a more sustainable region. With two million new residents expected in the Bay Area by 2040, the region is proposing to channel 80% of its future growth into 5% of regional land area. To help, cities will get transportation funding and relief from environmental regulation. But that may not be enough to counteract the challenge of finding appropriate sites or even just paying for high-rise residential buildings outside of the region’s major downtowns (San Francisco and San Jose). Rising land prices in the core will also mean higher housing costs. At the same time, the vast majority of new jobs expected in the Bay Area are expected to be low-wage, exacerbating the need for affordable housing.

What if the solution is actually in our own backyards?  My study with University of Texas-Austin Professor Jake Wegmann, published recently in the Journal of Urbanism, shows that based on the availability of underutilized or vacant land, about half of our infill development in built-up areas like San Francisco’s East Bay should occur in the form of accessory dwelling units, or self-contained, smaller living units, attached or detached from the main home. With relatively low costs (as low as $100,000) and short build time (less than six months), backyard cottages can increase density more efficiently than multifamily projects. They rent for much less, often providing affordable units within affluent neighborhoods and diversifying the housing stock. We calculate that a backyard cottage strategy could yield as many as six times as many affordable units as conventional infill.

The question then becomes, what is hindering homeowners from building more cottages? Even in Berkeley, a city that welcomes accessory units, the number of permit applications for home additions still dwarves that for cottages. We argue that the market is blocked largely because of restrictive zoning regulations, particularly parking requirements. One solution has appeared in the form of intermediaries that help homeowners navigate city regulations and manage construction. But the market for these intermediaries is mostly a niche of wealthy elderly homeowners seeking to age in place alongside younger generations.

To address the affordable housing crisis while making our regions more sustainable, a mass market for small-scale infill must emerge. But to create such a market requires a fundamental shift in the conversation. Just as in the debate over climate change, we can argue endlessly on the merits and the means, but in the end, the game-changer will be the costs of inaction – a deepening of the already devastating housing crisis.

Banks currently don’t allow current or prospective homeowners to use income from accessory units to qualify for mortgages. That means that only the homeowners with substantial equity in their homes who can finance the construction of accessory units. Developing a mass market means helping low- and moderate-income homeowners to build – and purchase – homes with accessory units as well. As Wegmann has written, state and national housing finance agencies could adapt their existing programs to provide new mortgage products for new permitted spaces. Eligibility for the loans could be predicated on the home city easing zoning regulations for accessory units.

It took a revolution in mortgage finance to spur the suburbanization of America. It will take a new revolution to make affordable infill possible.

For more information, see “Yes in My Backyard: Mobilizing the Market for Secondary Units,” "Hidden Density in Single-Family Neighborhoods: Backyard Cottages as an Equitable Smart Growth Strategy," “We Just Built It:” Code Enforcement, Local Politics and the Extralegal Housing Market in Southeast Los Angeles County, Chapter 3 in Planning Sustainable Cities and Regions: Towards More Equitable Development, and five related IURD working papers.

Welcome to the IURD Blog!

Posted on by Community Editor
Filed under: IURD

Photo: Sara Draper-Zivetz

In the history of the Institute for Urban and Regional Development, which celebrates its 52nd birthday this year, the issues with which we are most deeply engaged have never been in such national and international focus. The conversation around the planning, design and development of cities and regions advances daily, and new ideas about resiliency, equity, and innovation are emerging from every corner of the globe.

Here at the IURD, we have a team of world class faculty researchers immersed in these issues. We are producing first-rate research, adding to this national and international dialogue on issues from wealth inequality to data analytics, transportation to youth engagement, health disparities to local policy, all through the stimulating, and ever critical, lens of urban and regional development.

We’ve turned to the blogosphere to join the virtual conversations already happening around these issues, and provide a portal into our own contributions. As one of the oldest urban think tanks in academia in the country, our library of research and resources is extensive and rich. This blog will be a gateway into what we’ve already learned, and an opportunity to learn about the newest research and ideas as they emerge. As a platform for engagement, this space is above all a conversation starter. We encourage you to get involved, share your thoughts, and connect with us.

To start, we invite you to check out our centers webpages, follow us on twitter (@IURDBerkeley) or send us an email: We look forward to hearing from you!