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Sustainable cities need good schools in the center 

With the battle lines drawn and insults flying in the war over the Wake County school system, it was time Saturday for the annual Urban Design Forum in Raleigh, a collaboration of the N.C. State University College of Design and the city's department of planning. "Designing for Resilient Cities" was the order of the day. What's a resilient city?

First, it's a city able to claw its way through and out of the economic recession and emerge stronger than before. To do so, such cities must have good schools, a note that one of the excellent featured speakers, Washington D.C., economics consultant McDuffie (Mac) Nichols, hit repeatedly. Nichols can be forgiven if he doesn't know—or didn't until Saturday—that the best schools in Wake County are in Raleigh, the center city. In most of the country, including D.C., the worst schools are in the cities, families with children and money having fled to the surrounding suburbs—and their very separate school systems.

It's a fate Raleigh's avoided thus far, one reason Raleigh (or Raleigh-Cary) is on nearly every list of the fastest-growing, best-to-live-in cities in America.

The best Wake schools are in Raleigh, however, not because middle-class families aren't raising their kids in Cary, Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs or Wendell. The best schools are in Raleigh because Cary, Fuquay et. al., don't have separate school systems—not yet, anyway. And the magnet schools in Raleigh are good enough that kids from Apex to Zebulon choose to attend them, the lengthy bus rides notwithstanding.

Still, the Wake war's genesis is in the fact that middle class housing mushroomed at the county's edges during the boom from the 1990s through 2008, congesting the roads and stretching the bus rides. Meanwhile, the middle class was priced out of housing in much of Raleigh, except for the low-income, historically minority neighborhoods.

Looking for a nice house with at least three bedrooms, two baths and, if not its own swatch of backyard grass, at least access to a nearby park where the kids can play? Not in the $200Ks. Not in the better parts of Raleigh. Try Garner.

It's no accident, then, that the reddest of the red-hot Republican school board majority members out to whack the Wake school system into "zones" live in Garner (John Tedesco), Apex (Ron Margiotta) and Wake Forest (Chris Malone). The other majority members, too, live outside of downtown Raleigh in Cary (Debra Goldman) and North Raleigh (Deborah Prickett).

They want their own schools—"community" schools.

Saturday's keynote speaker was Shelley Poticha, a longtime urban and transit activist—head of the Congress for the New Urbanism and co-chair of Transportation for America—who now occupies high office in the Obama administration. From her post as senior advisor at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Poticha is coordinating an effort by HUD, the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House called the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. Its goal is to reverse decades of federal neglect and make cities once again a place not just for people to work but for families to live.

Living efficiently in cities, Poticha argued, is critical to our ability to remain competitive in a world economy. The suburban lifestyle is nice but incredibly wasteful.

Thus Poticha is working to focus buyers—and mortgage lenders—on the fact that, while houses in a city like Raleigh may cost more up front, they can save their owners a lot of money compared with buying in the suburbs because the transportation costs are much cheaper.

In the Triangle, she said, the average cost of housing plus transportation in the "core areas" (Raleigh, Durham) is between 34 and 38 percent of household income. In the outer regions (Holly Springs, Zebulon), the cost can run as high as 75 percent, leaving very little to live on.

The difference: the high cost of commuting from Holly Springs to Raleigh in a car.

The real estate industry, Poticha said, used to run on an idea known as "drive 'til you qualify"—that is, the farther out from a center-city you went, the lower housing prices were (and hence, the better your chances of qualifying for a mortgage).

But with data from the housing collapse showing the highest foreclosure rates in the "outer" suburbs, that "drive 'til" mantra needs to be replaced with one that takes transportation costs into account, along with the mortgage payment.

True enough. But changing the calculation will not, all by itself, open up downtown Raleigh to the middle-class families with children who would obviate Wake's need for magnet schools and "diversity" assignments.

Throughout the day, she and other speakers emphasized that the biggest savings for families in cities come when they can get along with one car instead of two, or no car at all. But that requires a high-quality transit system that Raleigh, so far, doesn't have.

The high cost of downtown land also tends to price housing out, except for condos marketed to singles and empty-nesters, who by definition supply no kids to the schools. To attract kids and their families, cities must arm themselves with a variety of development tools that Raleigh has so far avoided like the plague, including land trusts and inclusionary zoning.

The former is a way of bringing down housing prices by using public funds to buy (and hold) the land. The latter requires developers to reduce the price of some units—those sold to families, for example—to qualify for density bonuses.

"Promote equitable and affordable housing choices" was one of Poticha's key principles for a vibrant city. As she spoke, the best example of it in Raleigh was hanging on a wall beside her. Some College of Design students, finalists in a national competition, had devised a "Family Oriented Development" plan for a six-block urban area in a marginal city neighborhood. It featured dense housing with family-sized units around a park.

Unfortunately, the competition, and the students' plan, was for a six-block area in San Diego, not Raleigh. But the lessons apply.

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