A Formula for Culture

I’ve had the privilege of traveling all over our country as well as overseas. Specifically with the Deep Ellum Market and with the P&G (rest in peace), my objective had been to take things I enjoyed in my travels and bring them back to my home town. In the attempt to bring new concepts to Dallas, I have consistently run crossways with local culture, or the habits that people are accustomed to. Given this experience, I’ve come up with a formula for culture: culture=habitsxtime.

Google search of the term ‘culture’ yields various results from scientific to artistic, but for me, it’s more useful to apply a quantitative metric for culture in order to dig deep into an otherwise nebulous term. Instead of trying to define ‘Dallas culture’ or assign it some definition, we can look at a certain subset of people who maintain particular habits and analyze the cause and effect of those habits in an effort to understand that group. Ultimately, if we want to affect change in people’s eating or commuting or even hygiene, we have to understand what needs to change in their habits and how to sustain those changes over a period of time. This is the only way to reform culture.

Bike lane, no bikes in Salt Lake City via Google Maps

I observe cycling culture when I travel. From Oakland to Milwaukee, I see many American cities implementing more shared and separated bike lanes, but I don’t see many people riding in them. I fear the same thing in Dallas, that if we build bike lanes, would people actually bike more? Would it be worth the investment to build infrastructure before understanding how we want to affect people’s habits first?

I share similar misgivings about Dallas’ car culture. While it’s easy to say that our city will always be a car-centric, if we look deeper into the habits of commuters, we find that road rage occurs more often than we care to admit. Could it be that we love our cars, but we hate to drive in traffic?

If we are to have a multi-modal transportation network, we have to consider the daily habits of what we want that culture to yield and do everything we can to make those habits as viable, convenient, and dignified as possible. If we’re able to maintain this over a long period of time, our commuting culture will build value for the city.

My intention is not to render culture heartless by assigning it a formula, but rather to gain a better understanding of how we use the word and a deeper perspective of how people behave. It’s fun to observe brunch culture, voting culture, development culture, and even cell phone culture. After all, our habits define our behavior, which defines our identity, which we often share with other people. If we can look at the behavior that we’ve maintained over time, we can find better solutions for ourselves and our city, provided we’re willing to improve our habits.

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Strategies to Allow More Small Development

I love downtowns, not only the one here in Dallas, but other ones in the surrounding suburbs and all around Texas. The thing is, we don’t make downtowns anymore, despite our mixed-use attempts. If you haven’t read the previous blog, feel free to read the reasons why. We know we collectively love walkable, diverse, and interesting places, but we’ve rendered them illegal and impossible to develop. This entry will suggest strategies to enable more developers to create places we know we love so that the “downtown” environment isn’t secluded to the oldest and most expensive sections of our city.

A question I’ve been asking myself lately is who should build downtowns and where would they be built? Because the diversity of buildings appeals to me in a downtown setting, naturally we need to allow for a diversity of ownership as well. Rather than investing in a single family home in Little Elm, what if Dallas’ development policy incentivized a financially responsible person to develop Casa View’s empty parking lots instead? What if we made it more favorable for plumbers, professors, and computer engineers to develop three-story walk-ups that could house their families as well as other tenants? What if you could build a legacy instead of just building debt?

In order to create value in our empty spaces and build wealth in our communities, development policy needs to be both profitable, so that lenders can make a money by financing through normal home building loans, and simple, so that accountants, dentists, and restaurant owners can develop downtowns themselves out of our aging strip-malls and empty parking lots. The idea is to relieve the traffic that floods Lowest Greenville, Bishop Arts, and Deep Ellum by creating more places with character, gathering spaces, and opportunity in areas that lack these things.

Forest and Webb Chapel via Google Maps

Here are a few strategies that may help to enable people to develop on their own:

  1. Split up large properties – Keep it difficult to consolidate parcels of land, but make it easier to split up larger properties. For example, strip mall parking lots are too big and no one wants to be there. People will come if you allow others to invest in small plots where they can build downtown style apartments and a legacy onto the next generation. Re-dedicate space for cars into space for people, which will create value where there is little and increase the tax base for the city.
  2. Pre-approve 6-10 designs of buildings – I have no idea the implications for liability, as architects absorb much blame in development, but we should have a handful of designs that can be green-lit as soon as possible. We can have standard designs for 1/2, 3/4, or 1 acre lots that will be quickly approved, provided the developer follows the plan exactly. This can help reduce the risk of lending, as long as we can make it work with local banks. If banks can free up money, then developers will come following. If we standardize the construction, then that can lead to more cost predictability for builders, since wholesalers will know what to stock and contractors will know what to build.
  3. Land value transparency – In the State of Texas, you don’t have to disclose real estate sales prices, but this is one of the mechanisms that fuels land value speculation, specifically when new zoning is approved. If there’s the possibility of “up-zoning” in an area, the market value of the land jumps up, making development that much more expensive. I’m not too knowledgeable about economics, but knowing how much people pay for a product may stabilize prices by exposing that product’s true value.
  4. Power to the Precinct – Change is difficult. People are difficult. And voter turnout is abysmal. So much seems out of people’s control, so give people’s vote more meaning and power in order to bring them to the polls. Because the county already organizes us into precincts of about 8000 people each, we can give power to the precinct by allowing them to decide whether or not they want a particular rule in their area. So if a precinct in Dallas is 8000 people, then 480 people will vote, therefore if you’d want change, 241 people would have to vote in favor of it.

As stated in the previous post, policy is the only thing normal citizens can affect in their communities that isn’t market-based. Good policy can unlock markets by establishing new rules in the investment game. The strategies that I suggest are meant to invite more developers, more banks, more builders, and more citizens to participate in the game, since development in Dallas today is confined to the few who can afford the high price.

If our goal is to foster wealth in our communities, we have to create opportunities with the resources we have in Dallas right now, which are random empty plots of land, sprawling parking lots, and a desperate foreboding of the future. Unfortunately, there are many obstacles that make traditional downtown development difficult and expensive to pursue, however our municipal policies that govern development can be the tools citizens use to build downtowns in their communities, whether on Webb Chapel or on Henderson Ave.

Henderson Ave via Google Maps