How to Series: Creating a Community Vision.

26 Jun

Urban designers and planners are passionate about bringing new life to those special parts of the city that have lost their heart and identity. Whether it was through urban flight, a change of industry, or the loss of public transportation, neighborhoods that were once the gems of our cities seem easily forgotten. Urban designers and planners are continuously working to return that glory to our city centers.

As a designer myself, I understand how easy it can be to get swept up in the physical design of a place. Being able to vision what a place will look like and how it will function comes as second nature. However, the most important part of redevelopment is to remember that ultimately design is about people. No matter where you are in the city, that neighborhood, street, or public space belongs to people. It affects how they live their life and it informs their identity. The best urban design should reflect the vision of the community, not a designer’s.

Identifying the vision of a community is easier said than done. People have different dreams, desires, and priorities for their neighborhoods. One of the biggest responsibilities urban designers and planners have is to define a cohesive vision that can guide development. How is this done?

One way to identify a community vision is through a series of workshops with the community. CNU Tampa Bay, the regional group of the Congress for the New Urbanism, had the opportunity to run a Visioning Workshop for Franklin Street in the Tampa Heights neighborhood. Right outside of Tampa’s urban center, this section of Franklin Street was once one of the most popular commercial and retail streets in the City. Served by the streetcar, it was a hub of entertainment. Now, there are a small collection of historic buildings that still define the street among a much larger group of abandoned structures and surface parking lots. A couple of cafes and small local businesses are the highlight of Franklin Street today, and with their commitment to the neighborhood, are starting to bring some life and most importantly passion into revisioning the once bustling street that is so important to Tampa’s identity.

Franklin Street and the Rialto Theatre: Now and Then.

Franklin Street and the Rialto Theatre: Now and Then.

Given the important responsibility of helping the citizens of Tampa Heights to define their vision for Franklin Street was quite a responsibility. We accomplished it through a series of interactive and creative exercises that allowed the community to explore their vision in different ways: discussion, polling, answering questions, drawing and map exercises allowed all participants regardless of their comfort level to be integrated into the visioning process. Here are the steps below for creating a successful visioning workshop.

1) Ask participants how they would describe a place now, and how they would like to describe it in the future. 

These are simple questions that are easy for people to answer that will identify a large group of priorities, concerns, and opportunities for a place.

VisioningBoards

Visioning Boards

2) Ask people what they like.

The majority of people always have an opinion and they love to be able to share it. Sometimes its hard for them to know how to articulate how they  see the appearance and operation of a place. A great way to make this process easier is to create a visual preference polling activity. In this case, we identified urban design elements that are important to placemaking along a street: architectural character, building frontage, building scale, public realm activity, parking options, bike facilities, and street furniture; and provided pictures of many different options for each. Using stickers, participants voted for pictures they liked best for Franklin Street. As you can see below, a very visual and easily understandable result occurs. This allows people to comprehend how others in their community see a place quickly and clearly.

Visual Preference

Visual Preference

3) Identify what works and what doesn’t.

Small group discussion is an effective way to make sure every participant has a voice. In large groups or in public activities, not everyone feels comfortable sharing their opinion. A compelling activity to do in small groups is a table map exercise where participants can identify the positive assets of a place, as well as its biggest opportunities. Participants can mark these on a map and identify the physical location where appropriate. This helps define the priorities of a community and can show insight into those important elements of a place that can serve as a foundation for building a new identity.

Small Groups

Small Groups

4) Ask people to visualize.

For half of the people in the room who have a left brain, creating an opportunity for them to visualize their ideas can be the most effective way to identify the future vision of a place. Whether it’s the design of a street, site, or neighborhood asking people to draw can inspire creativity. Even the most unconventional ideas can identify the most unique design solutions. For Franklin Street, we asked participants what it should look like and gave them a list of potential elements they could include in the right-of-way. While everyone’s designs will be different, common and recurring elements and themes can be identified.

Street Visioning

Street Visioning

5) Report back.

It’s very important that participants in a visioning workshop walk away from the process knowing they have contributed to a meaningful process. Having small groups report back to the larger group about their top priorities for a place is the first step to showing participants that an agreed vision is starting to form. This is also a helpful summary process for urban designers and planners.

6) Process and follow-up.

Urban designers and planners will walk away from the  visioning process with a plethora of information and data. It is their responsibility to make conclusions and identify clear themes on which to help a community build their vision. Depending on the scope of the project and the next steps, these conclusions may the basis for further public involvement or neighborhood events. Or it might be appropriate to publish results publicly in a report, online, or through social media. Either way, there must be follow up steps with members of the community.

A community workshop is just one way to identify a vision for a place. Depending on the scale or goals of a project there might be more appropriate and more extensive processes to reach a conclusion. However, even the smallest scale of design projects should be based off a conclusive direction from the public. A simple workshop with 6 interactive steps is an efficient and very effective way to identify the goals, passion, and vision of people and place.

 

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Andres Duany’s Lean Urbanism.

8 Feb

This week at the CNU Florida Summit in Sarasota, Andres Duany presented a follow-up to the “New, New Urbanism” that he first introduced at the statewide meeting last year. Previously, he has spoken about the importance of Tactical Urbanism and Mike Lydon’s work for the “Next Gen” of New Urbanism. As an example of why the future of the movement must now be flexible and affordable in the face of the new normal, Duany has spoken of simplifying the planning profession as most of us know it, and going back to the basics of incremental urban growth.

LeanUrbanism

“Lean Urbanism” fills the gap between Tactical Urbanism and the CNU Charter

Duany has spent the last 12 months refining these ideas and developing his vision for the future of the New Urbanism movement. New Urbanism, as Duany explains it, has two extremes: CNU the powerful, and CNU the tactical. Last year Andres Duany fessed up to the boom-time New Urbanism being bloated, inflexible, and powerful. CNU as a national organization over its last two decades of existence has grown into a power that is lobbying those in DC with its unapologetic principles and mantras. On the other end of the spectrum is the growing Tactical Urbanism movement by the next generation of new urbanists. It is quite the opposite with purposeful irreverence to policy.

Duany’s newest vision has filled the gap between the two with something he’s calling “Lean Urbanism.” He argues that development has reached an unbelievable level of red tape and regulation that has made it virtually impossible and unaffordable for small  and incremental growth to occur. Professionals of his generation evolved aside these growing regulations, so much so that they have become experts at navigating them. However, Duany has witnessed a younger generation of urbanists, who have become so bogged down by the red tape they tend to ignore it all together. These young, or tactical urbanists, do things quickly and effectively, but sometimes bail when things get sticky. That perhaps is the greatest gift and one of the biggest challenges of Tactical Urbanism.

“Lean Urbanism” will reform the system of development so that he, as one of the older urbanists, can leave New Urbanism in the hands of the Next Gen “first-rate minds.” If New Urbanism can’t adapt from the powerhouse on Capitol Hill, Duany explains that it might become irrelevant. First rate minds of younger generations will not hang around to administer what people like him have already achieved – they will want to achieve something in their own right.

To better illustrate his concept, Duany described the succession of the development process. First the “risk oblivious” or “bohemians” find value in a place because it is affordable, and easy to develop and personalize (such as Miami’s Wynwood District that he has previously heralded as a model.) Small, simple projects are completed that over time give the place value and an identity that becomes attractive to the “risk aware” or developers. Larger, more expensive, and often less unique projects lead to gentrification that eventually waters down the identity that it was built on in the first place. And then, the “risk averse” move in (the dentists from New Jersey Duany joked), so boring and uncool, that the “bohemians” go and find the next cool place. This cycle has occurred in Brooklyn, and now it’s just beginning in cities like Detroit.

Why Detroit? Detroit is so bankrupt that it can’t afford to regulate itself. Millennials are starting businesses there without permitting and regulation. It’s an affordable model (a fraction of the cost of development in Brooklyn by the way), that allows more people at greater income levels to hop on the development food chain. Instead of other cities subsidizing companies to come to their city to retain their millennial population, companies are moving into Detroit unsubsidized because their workforce is already there. In the new normal, lean is what works.

The “Lean Seam” is where Tactical Urbanism and classic New Urbanism meet. Going forward, Duany hopes to daylight the bloated codes and regulations in our cities. Often times manuals are so over complicated, that the most simplistic version of the regulation is implemented. Instead of understanding the context and flexibility of code that might permit variation, absurd and impractical solutions win out for a lack of understanding. First putting a spotlight on the problem will show the absurdity of the development process. For example, for the last 5 years regulations require 120 megs of power in buildings. Historic buildings were originally wired for 30 megs, but were easily updated to 60 because the same conduit could support the upgrade. Now that 120 is required the same conduit can’t be used, which in a multifamily building would require the unrealistic tearing up of multiple units. Essentially, an overbearing electrical code has just blighted older units that will never be able to be “modernized” to code, even though a household is easily supported by previous regulation.

Instead day-lighting the ways to “get around” regulations will help the “bohemian” or “risk oblivious.” Duany told the story of visiting a school in San Diego that did just that. As he was visiting their studio he noticed it had no insulation or fire proofing on its exposed steel columns. When he asked why not, he was told he was in fact standing on a terrace with “shade protection”. It met the codes for a terrace in California perfectly, but instead acted as a building for the young school. This is an example of what Duany hopes to achieve by pulling apart the regulations with a fine tooth comb.

Second, Duany will identify thresholds in which professionals or developers can “opt out” of the regulation. A certain square footage, certain uses, certain context, etc. can all determine what codes are necessary or which ones can be realistically “opted out” of. In the last decade that Duany has taken a break from architecture to focus on urbanism, the amount of required drawings have increased by 10 pages. By producing these pages, which most people will never read, architects are taking full liability for the result of their design and are required to implement it exactly as drawn on site. Instead of being able to make small adjustments during construction that would actually make it more successful or safe, architects are being held in a straight jacket of liability. The truth is, no matter how many pages of drawings are completed, it’s the architect, not the official who approved them, who will be held liable. In fact, Providence, RI is so poor that it allows its architects to opt out of many of these required drawings because they don’t have the workforce to review them. Duany’s goal is to establish certain thresholds based on many factors where these “opt outs” are reasonable. This will allow the small, vernacular, and incremental development to happen affordably and quickly to incubate the creativity of young developers.

Duany and team will now go across the country studying the states with the most bloated regulations. He will begin in California, move to Florida, and continue in New England to expose the red tape that paralyzes development by the “Next Gen” of urbanists in hope of leaving his movement in the hands of first-rate minds who feel as though they have the ability to incrementally change cities and neighborhoods without having to resort to the impermanence of Tactical Urbanism.

Playoff Fever: The Downtown Stadium Debate.

11 Jan

If you’re like me you’ll be glued to the TV this weekend to celebrate the NFL playoffs. With a dog in the fight this year, I’m more excited than ever. Paying close attention to the hype my home city is getting leading up to the big home game (first since 2008), I can’t help but think about that unending urban design debate: should stadiums be downtown?

The argument is a simple one: don’t build such a huge structure in the middle of the city that only hosts 8 games a year. At first thought, this seems to be a pretty reasonable argument. NFL stadiums are huge and when it’s not a game day they’re pretty quiet. You could call them Sleeping Giants.

After years of neglect, downtowns are attracting residents and visitors. Employment, entertainment, and tourism have become stronger in cities, and while the number of residents is increasing, 24/7 mixed-use downtowns are still something of the future. I’m a strong believer that any activity is better than no activity. For many people, their NFL team is what connects them to their city more than anything else – why send the team to the suburbs instead of using it as a tool to strengthen the downtown?

The Physical

Downtown stadiums are usually very well planned and in locations least likely to compete against potential development. In Charlotte, Bank of America stadium is nestled at the intersection of the interstate and active freight train line. Even after two decades, there are still numerous redevelopment opportunities downtown that are more attractive than the stadium’s location. The edges of an interstate and train track are dead with no potential to influence human activity. Now a beautiful stadium buffers those edges. While it’s only in full swing 8 times a year for NFL games (in addition to hosting a few other sporting events), it provides a wide sidewalk shaded by mature canopy trees that is sometimes used as a route for pedestrians and cyclists. A space that was once vacant, now hosts a landmark upon arrival to Charlotte’s downtown.

Bank of American Stadium, Charlotte, NC

Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC

Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver is similar. Located at the intersection of two interstates it buffers the surrounding urban fabric. M&T Stadium in Baltimore sits next to the interstate and a waste treatment plant, once again buffering a downtown entertainment district.

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Stadiums in Denver and Baltimore

Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte is especially sensitive to its context. Instead of taking land to build large surface parking lots, it uses existing lots and garages not used on Sundays to meet the parking requirement. It also takes advantage of its location close to light rail and premium transit.

The Financial

When people go to a game, the spend money. At hotels, restaurants, bars, gas stations – everywhere. Undoubtedly it’s better for that money to be spent downtown instead in the suburbs. On particularly big games, like playoff games this weekend or college bowl games it brings immeasurable publicity. It makes the city relevant to the rest of the country and puts it on the map.

In Green Bay, Charlotte, and Baltimore there’s buzz in the press.

The Emotional

There is nothing that pulls at my heartstrings more than sitting in the upper level and seeing my city in such a unique perspective. And I’m not alone. Being able to see your city while your team runs 73 yards for a touchdown undoubtedly can reinforce city pride and emotional connection to place.

Charlotte skyline from Bank of America stadium

Charlotte skyline from Bank of America stadium

View of Seattle skyline from Century Link Field

View of Seattle skyline from Century Link Field

Most importantly, having an NFL stadium downtown gets people in the habit of actually going downtown. Unless they work there, some people choose never to go downtown, instead creating emotional ties with their suburban environment. Hopping on the light rail or spending the day downtown builds relevance for the city with those it might not otherwise reach.

So where will the best parties be this weekend? Fans will leave stadiums in downtown Charlotte, Seattle, and Denver and boost the local economy with some post game celebration. Patriots fans – enjoy leaving this parking lot:

Gillette Stadium Parking Lot

And then sitting here for another hour.

Stadium Traffic

Stadium Traffic

A “Place” in the Queen City.

26 Dec

As an urban designer and planner, I’m always excited to return to my home city of Charlotte to witness the “next big project.” I recognize that a city is always changing and evolving – it’s a living organism – but the urban core of Charlotte has transformed drastically, possibly faster than any other major city. Perhaps it’s because I long to return to my beloved Queen City and I’ve gotten a bit nostalgic, but there is a noticeable and excitable shift in the urban core of Charlotte. It has become a true place, or shall I say, series of places, that makes a unique and livable city.

Development for development’s sake is one thing. If we look around our built environment the change in the urban form over years in many places is too drastic to even document. Subdivisions, apartments, retail centers all sprout up in cities across America, often without any discernible meaning. Development has its benefits, such as an increase in tax revenue, affordable housing, and neighborhood services to name a few, but the real achievement is encouraging investment through placemaking.

In my opinion there is no better investment than one in public space. The direct and quantifiable correlation between public and private investment is a difficult one to prove – but there is no doubt that in the right place at the right time investment in public spaces can create immeasurable socio-cultural and economic value for a city.

The center city of Charlotte has benefited recently from huge investments in the public realm: The Levine Avenue of the Arts and the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, albeit very different in their purpose, are just two that contribute to a growing network of public spaces. The most recent gem, however, is the newly opened Romare-Bearden Park, a public park in Uptown Charlotte that offers a finely-tuned symphony of places in one public space.

Sugar Creek Greenway and Levine Avenue of the Arts

Sugar Creek Greenway and Levine Avenue of the Arts (Source: Go Carolinas, Meetup, Charlotte in 2012, CharMeck)

Uptown Charlotte, like other cities that flourished during the heyday of the automobile, has long suffered from the thief of urban life: the surface parking lot. Of all the neighborhoods in Uptown, the Third Ward has endured the longest. Most recently an entire block of surface parking was transformed to one of the best urban neighborhood parks I have witnessed. What made this special was that the urban designer was able to transform an entire city block, not just into a park, but into a series of places for people.

BeardenPark-082913

(Source: Charlotte Center City Partners)

Romare-Bearden Park: Before and After (Source: Land Design)

Romare-Bearden Park: Before and After

One of the country’s most well-respected landscape architects, Michael Van Valkenburgh, has designed hundreds of public spaces and parks, the most recent being Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. In an article discussing Valkenburgh in the “Urban Landscaper”, the project was described as follows:: “it is clear that what Van Valkenburgh most cared about in this park – perhaps the most prominent project of its kind under way in the United States – is people and their daily experiences.” In each part of the very large park, careful attention was paid in ensuring a series of unique and emotionally moving experiences as one journeyed from space to space. He describes “landscape architecture (as being)… inspired by the disorder of cities themselves, where you enjoy not knowing what’s around the next corner.”

This was the exact same experience I had in my first journey through Romare-Bearden Park. Romare-Bearden is a series of unique places, each offering a different experience, organized along a continuous spine that meanders from one side of the park to another. A large green for events, a children’s interactive area, an herb garden, a more intimate courtyard with pergola, a formal sitting area, an arbor,  and at the center a dynamically lit waterfall, all make this park usable by many different people for a variety of purposes at all times of day. Please check here for more information about the themes and experiences of Romare-Bearden.

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1. The Evocative Spine; 2. Big Moon Green; 3. Interactive Water Fountain; 4. Childhood Muse Area; 5. The Formal Oval and Arbor; 6. The Gardens

Just walking through this park on any given day, you will find a diverse group of people using these spaces in different ways:  kids playing tag and throwing the football on the green, small children playing the chimes and dancing in the water, people sitting at a table having lunch, or a couple meandering through the garden. The change in elevation hides the spaces from one another, so that each of these activities feels intimate and special. People spending time in such a place is the catalyst for the success of an open public space. Romare-Bearden is becoming the community gathering space for the growing population of residents downtown.

Private development adjacent to Romare-Bearden Park

Private development/multi-family housing adjacent to Romare-Bearden Park

So what is the art of placemaking? Here are a few qualities that Romare-Bearden Park accomplishes to make it a meaningful space in the city:

  • A Physical Connection – The Evocative Spine is oriented to connect the linear park from S. Tryon and the orientation of the spine from The Square (intersection of Trade and Tryon Streets). This serves as the distinct center of the urban core with Bank of America stadium, the newly constructed BB&T Ballpark, and newly constructed multi-family residential development. One of the challenges in keeping a large public space safe is maintaining robust citizen activity. By accommodating and enhancing a natural and heavily used pedestrian route through the park, the public space becomes more relevant to its users. Elements like the cascading linear steps along the street and a linear promenade connecting the park with Tryon Street integrates the public space and Third Ward with the entire urban core.
  • Our Heritage – The entirety of the design is themed and routed in Romare Bearden, an African American artist and writer born only blocks from the park. Educated and practicing in both New York City and Paris, his work was rooted in his Southern identity. The honoring of a great legacy to the city through public space provides the opportunity for citizens to be aware and to connect emotionally with their heritage.
  • Sense of Place – The journey along the Evocative Spine is anchored constantly by overarching views of the skyline, perched perfectly in the users’ cone of vision. When you are in Romare Bearden Park, you are constantly reminded that you are in the center city of Charlotte.
  • Enhances the Senses – Experiencing Romare Bearden Park is enhanced by all of the senses: the cascading water on the skin, the scent of herbs, and the bright colors of flowering plants. Natural materials and local plants enhance the identity of the public space. Above all else, the constant element of “play” experienced by dancing and playing the chimes in the Muse Area and climbing on the boulders that frame each unique space creates constant fun!

The Romare-Bearden Park achieves a true sense of place in a growing center city neighborhood that endeavors to establish an identity – perhaps more than any other part of the urban core. The investment in public space not only has been instrumental in attracting private development and bringing more residents downtown, it will also serve as the “living room” of a growing community and will enhance the growing network of public spaces in the center city. As a native Charlottean with roots in the city that span over seven decades, I am ecstatic by the commitment of resources to transforming our urban core into a true place that continues to build the identity of the city locally, regionally, and nationally, as a livable and walkable city.

The Calabash Collage (1970), Library of Congress. Romare Bearden.

The Calabash Collage (1970), Library of Congress. Romare Bearden.

Sports. Food. Cities.

4 Nov

It’s that time of year: the World Series just wrapped up, NFL and college football are in full swing, and the NBA and college basketball are kicking off. If you’re a sports fan you’re in ESPN heaven. As I was watching my Cardinals fight for glory and my Panthers pound towards the playoffs this past week, I began to think of the importance of sports and food to our cities.

I only spent 4 years in St. Louis. I can make a long list of why I appreciate the city, but only a few of those really pull at my heart-strings and make me LOVE the city. At the top of that list right above the St. Louis Cardinals is Provel cheese, toasted ravioli, and frozen custard. I can assure you that most St. Louisans share that same love list.

st louis food

I don’t often think about these food staples of St. Louis and if you’ve never been, you probably haven’t ever heard of them. But as I was watching the Cardinals on television last week I felt myself yearn for night on the Hill followed by dessert at Ted Drewes. Concurrently, I have never loved St. Louis more.

It turns out I’m not the only one who associates baseball with food. The Missouri governor bet a four-pack of Cardinal Cream Soda from Fitz’s Bottling Company, a box of Bissinger’s Chocolates, and baked goods from the Missouri Baking Company in St. Louis and the Massachusetts governor bet New England Clam Chowder, drinks from Polar Beverages, and baked good from Dancing Deer Bakery and Co. in Boston. Luckily for him, Governor Patrick is enjoying the best cream soda he’ll ever have.

And hey – how many of us love peanuts in the grand stand? There’s just something about sports, food, and the love for our cities.

The characteristics that make us love our cities are ones that touch the core of our humanity: those things that we don’t just enjoy, but need to survive. Peter Kageyama wrote a book called, For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Our Places. The main premise of this book is view people and their built environment as a relationship of humanity. Kageyama defines four simple elements that makes a place lovable: play, fun, traditions, and social capital. These elements are at the heart of sports and often revolve around food.

The unplanned moments of our lives are the emotional bedrock of our personal relationships with cities. These often result in playful and fun moments. The unknown of who will knock if out of the park, who will pitch a no-hitter (and if a game will end in an obstruction call!)  makes watching how it all plays out fun!  Also, there is nothing more traditional than playing 7 games of great baseball to determine the glory of being World Champions. And when you’re in play off-season, how many times have you  high-fived someone in the street or talked to a stranger about last night’s game in the line at the grocery store? Sports and food build camaraderie (or social capital) on the streets of every city in this country.

It’s a wonderful feeling when we can connect with the most consumable things that make us love our city. In all the stress of life there is perhaps nothing more centering than cracking open a Bud in Busch Stadium. After all, there’s nothing better than being in love.

 

 

LEED-ND Series: Determining Gaps in the Rating System

22 Jul

Around 2006 most of us were doing the same thing…no, not Borat impressions and wearing skinny jeans…we were getting LEED accredited. The US Green Building Council (USGBC) introduced the LEED rating system in 2000 and with the boom of construction came a boom in the popularity of energy-efficient buildings. Professionals, young and old, in every architecture firm were required to pass the exam – it was expected. In 2008 the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) was established and shortly following were LEED AP specialities that include Building Design + Construction, Operations + Maintenance, Interior Design + Construction, Homes, and Neighborhood Development. These were introduced continuous with the crash and it can be argued that the LEED Rating Systems still haven’t recovered. LEED certification costs developers money, and in the “new economy” every penny counts. With the expansion of specialties, has the LEED rating system been spread too thin? Which rating system should we use and which one has enough marketing power to be worth the cost?

One of the last LEED specialities introduced was LEED for Neighborhood Development, around the same time I entered graduate school in 2009. I was interested to see if the design framework that had become so popular with buildings could translate to urban design. Energy efficiency in buildings was an easier sell and more understandable than how the urban form contributed to energy savings and health.

What does a LEED ND project look like? Stapleton in Denver, CO is attempting to achieve certification. (Image courtesy of Planetizen)

LEED ND is quite innovative in its own right and is the first time that urban design principles have been translated into quantitative standards. This excited me because principles and guidelines that focused on placemaking and livability were often overlooked in preference of the value engineering of a project, or a misunderstanding of the demands of the market. We’re over budget? Cut out some trees! What disturbs me even more is the constant argument by developers that they are only providing what the market wants and that investment in placemaking won’t sell their homes quicker than any other suburban development. The truth of this argument is that consumers can only purchase products that they’re offered. With new urban neighborhoods few and far between compared to the typical development types you see on the edge of our cities, they are often priced out of the majority of homebuyers’ budgets. Supply and demand wins out and the accuracy of “what sells” in America isn’t realistically represented by developers or the banks they borrow money from.

Because of this and other reasons, even the most well-intentioned plans and designs are often not implemented, despite best intentions. USGBC was the first to attempt to quantify the ultimate end-result that urban designers had been trying to achieve for decades. There was a lot at stake – and a lot to gain.

The LEED ND requirements cover a breadth of space and depend greatly on the project’s context: street connectivity, transportation systems, overall location, etc. Which means, unlike any other LEED rating system, a project’s certification is not-self contained but depends on surrounding factors. When taken at face value this means that it could be harder to achieve LEED ND certification than the LEED framework we studied in 2006.

LEED ND was written in part by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and because of this a significant portion of development that would possibly apply for certification, would also identify as New Urbanism. I was interested to see at the nascent of the framework how the most recent New Urbanism developments stacked up to it. The economic downtown was a perfect time to critique the LEED ND framework. After all, it hadn’t really been put to the test so if there were certain gaps between the rating system and what had been most recently built on the ground, they could be addressed. This would help ensure that LEED ND was achievable, and therefore wasn’t put at risk for becoming irrelevant. The general belief that LEED-ND was already becoming meaningless in the face of status-quo development in certain part of the country had already started to find ground among planners and built environmental professionals.

The research I conducted examined a suburban, green field development that identified itself as New Urbanism, that was finished right before LEED ND was released. While there are certainly projects that might better meet LEED ND certification, I chose this example because I felt like it represented the more typical suburban development that happening in the majority of the country. I examined it against each prerequisite and credit to see how it stacked up to the framework. In retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that not only did it not meeting requirements, it was no where close.

Vermillion, NC

New Urbanism on suburban Charlotte, NC. (Image courtesy of Active Rain)

The neighborhood succeeded on issues that were in the developers control, after he chose its overall location. Streets had wide sidewalks and were tree-lined, different housing types were in close distance to community space and playgrounds, and the streets formed a connected grid. Unfortunately it failed on some underlying issues including its greater location and access to community resources, mixed-uses and transportation. This close analysis helped to identify the largest gaps in the framework, and strategies that could be put in place to make LEED-ND a more realistic and necessary choice for developers in the future.

In the next three posts I will focus on each of the largest gaps identified and associated strategies that could make the LEED ND Rating System not just sustainable over time but given a marketable force and therefore preferred by developers and built environment professionals. Hopefully, as USGBC continues to evolve LEED ND, it will take in to account ways to make it more realistically implementable. Concurrently, hopefully planners, designers, engineers and the like will become advocates for measurable standards that could result in consistent quality of place. Only when consumers are given multiple choices in affordable neighborhoods exemplifying sustainable and traditional development will those we have the money and the power abdicate that the market does want walkable, dense, and mixed-use communities.

And after all – this is America – the market reigns.

Erin’s Google+

Trees and Trains: Tampa’s Downtown in the Next Decade.

18 Jun

This past Thursday the Tampa Downtown Partnership hosted their 27th Annual Meeting and Luncheon for board members, officers, members, and the general public. This year, the Partnership introduced a twist to the usual program: a panel of mid-career men and women to discuss what Tampa needs to and should become in the next decade. The “Fast Forward” panel that included myself of Tindale-Oliver & Associates, Brandon Hicks of Twelfth Street Studio, Brian Seel of The Beck Group, and Ann-Eliza Taylor of the Yates Law Firm was moderated by Shaun Drinkard, the Director of Placemaking with the Partnership. Incoming Chairman, David Smith of Gray Robinson, introduced the panel to offer a different perspective than the more mature and experienced speakers at the usual meetings, and represent the shift he hopes to make in the organization: expansion of membership and more leadership from young professionals.

fast forward panel tampa

The TDP Fast Forward Panel

The Tampa Downtown Partnership serves as an advocate of downtown Tampa, focusing on the physical and economic development, cultural activities and events, and continuing public and private partnerships among stakeholders. The Partnership promotes the downtown community by fostering vibrant and diverse multi-use neighborhoods and plays a key role in creating an urban center where people can learn, live, work, and play. Each panelist is committed to the same objective, and works within different organizations within the community to enhance the vibrancy of Tampa’s downtown and it’s surrounding neighborhoods.

The “Fast Forward” panel discussion revolved around four questions, each providing a different insight into the challenges and triumphs in Tampa’s future. Conversation focused on the hopes and commitments for Downtown Tampa over the next decade, the hurdles encountered and opportunities used to overcome them, and the momentum for future change. From the diverse experiences of the panel, themes emerged from the discussion as the most important for moving Downtown Tampa forward.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!

Arguably the largest priority necessary to make Tampa a first-class city is to be able to attract industry and workforce, and be able to retain it. There is no doubt a host of reasons why Tampa is challenged to compete with cities like Charlotte, Houston, or Raleigh/Durham, but two of the most influential are how the city is perceived and what people can find when they get here.

The Florida reputation will be a hurdle to overcome in attracting industry. Among the most talented young professionals in the country, many silo Florida off into three categories: Miami, Disney and retired people. Unfortunately, Tampa easily can be put in the last category, especially since the Tampa Bay area does host a large number of tourist destinations that draw retirees and snowbirds. Tampa isn’t seen as a place that attracts a large number of young professionals on a national scale, and therefore industries are less likely to move here. They want to establish themselves where young professionals will want to stay indefinitely.

Furthermore, the talent that Tampa is able to attract is easily lost later to more competitive opportunities nationwide. Because of the sometimes-limited industry growth it is hard for employers to promote and develop their employees at the pace expected. When that great opportunity comes up in Charlotte or Atlanta – they take it.

The question becomes – how to we evolve Tampa to be a competitive force for industry and jobs on a national scale?

Pirates, Not Palms

The first is to change the conversation. We need to shift our focus from the Floridian identity of palm trees and sunshine, to what makes Tampa real. Defining a city’s identity on what makes it unique is crucial in its competitiveness. The two things that set apart Tampa from any other American city is its Cuban culture and Gasparilla season.

Ybor City was mentioned numerous times by the panel and was a driving force in attracting at least two of us to live and stay in Tampa. Ybor City is where Tampanians can most easily emotionally connect with the Cuban heritage. The cigar factory architecture, ethnic clubs, cigar shops and bars, and restaurants like The Columbia communicate palpably the cultural heritage that makes Tampa unique.

The Gasparilla festival season that runs for the majority of the winter months exhibits the rich arts character of the city. The art, music, and film festival put Tampa on the map as a culturally relevant city. The fun devotion and commitment to the invasion of pirates during Gasparilla is a refreshing exercise that identifies Tampa as a creative, fun, and interesting place.

Let Clearwater sell the palms – let’s change the conversation to what no other city in the country can offer. We’re already very proud of our Cuban and Gasparilla culture, we just need to communicate and market it more effectively.

7th Avenue Tampa

7th Avenue, Ybor City, Tampa (Image: Steve Minor)

Trees and Trains

The second way to make Tampa competitive on the national scale is to build our way into offering the lifestyle that young professionals want and expect out of their home city. The reason why Mayor Buckhorn sets up Charlotte as perhaps our main competitor is because they have been able to attract a lucrative industry and enhance an urban environment based on walkability and transit. Professionals, who might normally choose Manhattan or Chicago to work and live, are now choosing Charlotte because it offers the foundation of urbanity for a more affordable price.

As a native Charlottean, I believe the city did two things that I believe have led to its transformation in a relatively short amount of time. The first is that Charlotte made a commitment to be a green city. It has arguably the best urban design and complete street guidelines in the country. Every time a street is repaved or redeveloped, where appropriate, its lanes are narrowed, bicycle facilities are included, sidewalks are widened, and planting of mature trees creates a street canopy. The result is that most of the streets in the city center are a comfortable, safe, and attractive place where people want to spend time.

Secondly, Charlotte embraced very early that it could not increase the capacity of its roads indefinitely. It committed itself to developing a premium transit system in a part of the country that had very little. At times it wasn’t understood or seen as necessary by local residents. But the light rail system opened to great success – it’s expansion and the introduction of the streetcar and BRT are following close behind. While the transit system is not expansive yet, it is extremely effective in the territory it does serve. The result is a small, but high quality urban center that has attracted many factors that create a livable environment.

What has followed both of these investments in public infrastructure is economic development. Building along the light rail corridor exploded, even through the recession, to transform a historically industrial area to a dense, connected, and lively part of the city. Furthermore, hubs of walkability have popped up in central neighborhoods throughout Charlotte where significant amounts of residents can access local retail and entertainment along redesigned and pedestrian oriented streets. A 24 hour environment that offers a place to live, work, and play is becoming clustered in neighborhoods throughout the city.

Tampa has the perfect opportunity to emulate the city that has been labelled countless times as its competition. Tampa has benefited from some projects of the highest design quality in the past decade that has already had a large influence in developing Tampa’s downtown into a neighborhood. Curtis Hixon Park, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Riverwalk, and the Tampa History Museum are new additions that enhance its existing cultural identity built by the Tampa Theatre and Franklin Street. With the addition of two boutique hotels and a new residential tower, Tampa will have even more destinations downtown.

What Tampa doesn’t do well enough is connect these assets together. The city’s gem is the TECO streetcar line that connects Ybor City, the Channel District, and Downtown. It is failing, with little funding, poor operation hours, and inadequate support by local government. It should be revived and rebranded to be seen as a viable choice in public transportation instead of a tourist attraction, and be expanded to connect multiple urban neighborhoods like Hyde Park, the Heights, and the west bank to the urban core. This is imperative to building the type of city that young professionals expect – economic development will follow.

Streetcar Tampa

The TECO Streetcar, Tampa (Image: lightrailnow.org)

Additionally, Tampa suffers from roads that are far too wide and lack the facilities and the character required to make a pedestrian feel comfortable or safe. If Tampa could make a commitment to rebuilding the streets just in the very core of the city by taking back right-of-way from the automobile, it would communicate to current and potential residents that the city is committed to becoming a more livable place. What will result will be a more active public realm that attracts the 24-hour lifestyle that so many on panel called for.

A video was shown at the event where eleven community members shared their vision of downtown in ten years from now, including a Rampello School second grader who wants more trees, and trains like at Disney where you can get on and off all the time.  Olga is right – ‘Trees and trains’ will create the type of urban culture that is wanted and expected by the following generations. Tying the assets of downtown together with high quality public realm design and infrastructure is crucial to making Tampa competitive on the national scale.

A Grassroots Vision

The “Fast Forward” panel was asked how momentum could be built to see real change in Tampa over the next 10 years. The most notable was that the process must be a grassroots effort. The city has just gone through an extensive masterplaning process that has established a vision that reflects the priorities of Tampa citizens and stakeholders. While many feel like it doesn’t adequately address the need for extensive transit in the city, it does call for many enhancements in public infrastructure, including streetscape redesign. Many Tampanians work through community and non-profit organizations constantly to implement this vision. The entire panel agrees that more could be done to bring them together to be more effective in guiding the biggest changes that need to occur. Tampa certainly needs to capitalize the work of young professionals.

Second, Tampa and those involved in the community need to do a better job of owning our vision and “selling” it to each other. Many residents of the city aren’t aware of the culture, physical, and natural assets that Tampa has to offer. The question was raised – How to we sell the city to others when we can’t sell it to ourselves?

Third, while it’s important to focus on the future, the city and its champions should identity the elements of the city that already exemplify Tampa’s newly defined vision. If we can communicate the past successes, no matter how small, to Tampa’ neigh-sayers, we will be well on our way to changing it’s perception on a national scale.

The Mayor’s Mantra

Also in attendance was the Honorable Mayor Bob Buckhorn. In office for just over two years, he has committed his work to making Tampa the economic engine south of Atlanta. This has meant facilitating milestone projects like the last segment of the Tampa Riverwalk, the renovation of Tampa’s historic federal courthouse as a boutique hotel, the planned construction of a riverfront residential tower, and the completion of the Invision Tampa Downtown Master Plan. In continuation of the themes identified by the panel, the Mayor focused building upon Tampa’s biggest strength: diversity. The mayor’s speech focused on the investment in the built environment, especially through enhancing the city’s relationship to the water and expanding the downtown core to the west bank of the river. He stated this is necessary to create a strong economic climate worthy of attracting the best talent in the country.

The “Fast Forward” panel was an informative process in changing the conversation around Tampa’s Downtown. In addition to their usual program, the Tampa Downtown Partnership will continue to have more community conversations through the hard work and leadership of Tampa young professionals over the coming year. Competitiveness, marketability, livability, and communication are sure to remain as the themes that continue to move Tampa “forward.” Stay tuned…

Panelists

Erin Chantry, LEED AP, CNU-A is a Senior Urban Designer with Tindale-Oliver & Associates, Inc. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MS in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment. Erin is the author of At the Helm of the Public Realm, has written articles for Next City, New Geography, and served as a journalist for the national organization of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Erin serves on the executive committee of CNU Tampa Bay, the local chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Brandon Hicks, RA, LEED AP is a licensed architect for the state of Florida and a LEED accredited professional with the U.S. Green Building Council. After tenures with award-winning firms in Gainesville and Tampa, Brandon co-founded the firm Studio Independent with his extremely patient and understanding wife and is currently a Principal in the Channel District-based architecture and design firm, Twelfth Street Studio. Brandon has been fortunate to be integrally affiliated with the headquarters for the South Tampa agency SPARK Brand, the New York City-based video installation ThruLines.

Brian Seel is a Senior Project Engineer with The Beck Group where oversees large commercial constructions projects. A Tampa Bay native, Brian graduated with a degree in political science and real estate from the University of Florida. He earned a Master’s degree in Construction Management from Georgia Tech. He has been actively involved in a number of community groups. He is the Chairman of Emerge Tampa Bay. He also serves as a representative in the Tampa Heights Civic Association and as Secretary of Connect Tampa Bay. He was named an “Up and Corner” by the Tampa Bay Business Journal in 2011 and a Next Generation Leader by 83 Degrees Magazine.

Ann-Eliza Taylor is an attorney with the Yates Law Firm and a co-founder of Philanthropic Young Tampa Bay. Ms. Taylor has been a member of the artist collective Experimental Skeleton since 2002 and is currently a board member of Hampton Arts Management and Tempus Projects. She lives in Ybor City with her husband, visual artist Brian Taylor.

Erin’s Google+

CNU 21: The Mormon Influence.

10 Jun

Unfortunately I was not able to attend the national CNU conference this year in Salt Lake City, but I followed the media coming from it closely. Of course the conference appeared to provide interesting material as always with conference tracks based on livability, transportation and infrastructure, sustainability, and finance. Nature and Urbanism (the title of the opening plenary), as well as, agrarian urbanism were important topics. The CNU National Conference is designed for the host city to imprint upon its structure, and therefore the Mormon influence was a recurring theme throughout the week.

Nature, livability, and agriculture are all exemplified in Salt Lake City’s urban form, layout, and structure – certainly in the intent of the original design. An example of Zionic design based on biblical principles, the planning of Joseph Smith is not what the founder of the Mormon Church is best known for. But when examining the perfectly squared blocks (the largest in the country at 660′ x 660′ and 10 acres each) formed by streets (160′ right-of-way) oriented neatly along the north-south and east-west axis, it is obvious that this city was planned carefully and meaningfully. To learn more about the blocks original design, check out this great post on Salt Lake City Digs.

salt lake city original form

The urban form of Salt Lake City used for it’s original intention of self-sustaining agriculture. (Courtesy: Andres Duany via Salt Lake City Tribune.)

“The Plat of Zion” was intended as a template for all Mormon towns. In fact, the Mormons established 534 towns in 50 years, something that no other group has done. The large blocks accommodated garden plots large enough to grow crops. Water supply was carried along the roads, approximately where the modern day curb and gutter reside. The roads separating the blocks were designed to be very wide so that a “wagon team” could turn around easily. Within the right-of-way was open space to serve the block’s uses, with a wagon path only where necessary. Salt Lake City was modeled on a utopian, agricultural society of self-sustainability.

The city hasn’t exemplified its original intentions well under the pressure of urban expansion based around the automobile. As a contemporary city not dependent on sustaining itself any longer, Salt Lake City’s form, originally sized for farms and wagons, is now an inefficient use of land with vast roads inhospitable to pedestrians. But not all hope is lost, as stated by Andres Duany and Steve Mouzon, both heavy hitters in the New Urbanism movement.

Salt Lake City blocks

A few examples of the inefficient land use of Salt Lake City’s blocks. (Courtesy: The Great American Grid.)

Andres Duany, one of the father’s of the new urbanism movement, actually applauds the Mormon Grid for it’s support of Agrarian Urbanism. This is a movement embraced by many, including Mouzon, who wrote The Original Green. Both led a CNU 21 Session called Agrarian Urbanism and the Mormon Block. Duany described Agrarian Urbanism as “a concept that involves food not as a means of making a living, but as a basis for making a life and structuring the places in which we live. The shift in focus from “agricultural urbanism” or “urban agriculture” to the more encompassing term of “agrarian” refers to a planning initiative promoting a type of sustainable community that intensifies agricultural activity whilst promoting the associated economic, environmental and social benefits.” With a need to shift cities to be more self-sustaining and provide local and healthy subsidence for people of all socio-economic classes, the Mormon Block can accommodate small farms and community gardens better than another other block network in the country.

Unintentionally, the Mormon’s created a city around one of the most important principles of urban design: adaptability. The Mormon Block can be divided into smaller blocks to promote walkability, it can accommodate an entire university or business complex, or it can structure buildings around important public and civic spaces. Adaptability in urban form is a quality that is often overlooked. When I immersed myself in the urban design profession in America, I was surprised that larger blocks weren’t praised for the ability to change over time depending on new uses. Instead, small blocks were championed for creating tight, connected cities and an walkable form. Portland is often mentioned for it’s “perfectly-sized” 200 x 200 block. In actuality, while that size might work for some uses like residential, for others is is suffocating and can prohibit development and adequate pedestrian facilities. For instance, in my current city of Tampa, it’s downtown blocks are so small (approximately 235′ x 240′) that it is a constant challenge to provide an adequate building footprint for modern construction and maintain appropriate pedestrian facilities that encourage an active public realm. So in fact, blocks that should be very walkable, often aren’t because space for people can be sacrificed for development.

portland blocks tampa blocks

Portland city blocks (200′ x x 200′) and Tampa city blocks (235′ x 245′) – both are unadaptable.

So, Salt Lake City is blessed with the Mormon Block and its ability to constantly adapt, now and in the future. However, with this ability comes great responsibility – the challenge lies in adapting the sometimes inhospitable urban form that exists now, into a livable form based on social, economic, and environmental sustainability. If the city returns part of the 160′ right-of-way back to the uses of the block as originally intended, requires high-quality development based on urban design principles, and continues to grow around public transportation, Salt Lake City will grow into the “Zion” that Joseph Smith envisioned.

What lies ahead in the future? Along with CNU 21, The Great American Grid hosted a design competition to redesign a Mormon Block. Urban designers from all over the nation, including myself transformed the 10 acre site into a block that exemplifies the principles of New Urbanism. See the results of the competition here.

Erin Chantry’s design for the Mormon Block. The concept is to show how the block can accommodate the four most popular housing types, while being organized around walkable roads and communal green space that can serve as a community garden and a part of a greater multimodal network.

Erin’s Google+

Guest Post: West Side Story.

19 May

One of the most wonderful things about urban design is that every one of us understands the city, because we live, work and play there. On some level everyone can articulate their feelings about why they love their neighborhood and community, and how it should be transformed or changed for the better. I want this blog to be a platform not just for urban designers and planners, but for everyone to learn about the issues that face our cities today. I have asked my father, Joseph McGirt, who is a  teacher, lawyer, businessman, blogger and long-time Charlottean to reflect on his experience with his home town. Perhaps his story will make you think of your own city stories – feel free to share them in the comment section.

Additionally, as my father is a blogger-extraordinaire and has his own blog based on higher education, called the Academic Exchange. I have written a guest post on his blog as well. Although it is more education related I do discuss how the current education system has and will affect the field of urban design… check it out, here!

West Side Story … with apologies to Leonard Bernstein (and I guess Shakespeare). I have a story of unrequited love, abandonment and neglect, all followed by the passion of reconnection and unity. The heroic catalyst of this narrative is a commitment by my hometown, Charlotte, NC to finally unify the urban communities surrounding its center into the fabric of the city. Specifically I am referring to the notorious West Side of Charlotte, the long neglected and misunderstood neighborhoods at the cusp of the developed town center and the renewal and change created by the Gateway Plaza development in the center city in the early 2000s.

I guess my point of view of this story is shaped by a variety of experiences. It is centered on the experience of my family and myself in connecting to our neighborhood and community, but not to the city I still call home. Over time my perception was shaped by my years in the military, a financial and management career that included real estate development and financing, a legal career interacting with developers, city planning and zoning boards and of course, politicians. My most recent career stop has been all about higher education and the role it plays in improving and enhancing our community. Lately my ideas have included the philosophy of my daughter, Erin Chantry, an Urban design specialist in Tampa, Fl.

I was born in a family residing in West Charlotte almost 70 years ago. Although my memories are generally positive of that experience, I can now remember many issues that confronted our neighborhood. Of course this predated the urban explosion that occurred a bit later, and there were no shopping centers, malls, belt-loops or super highways. If we needed something we could walk to the local grocery or take a bus to the center city, called “downtown” in those days. Everything was in the city and we could reach it all on foot. The serial movies and western heroes were the high spot of my weekly visit, followed by a stop at the dime store and an OJ at Tanners. The city was designed to accommodate bus transit and foot traffic and it was terrific. I loved my trips downtown and all the activities it included.

The Open Kitchen - a landmark restaurant on the West side of Charlotte

The Open Kitchen – a landmark restaurant on the West side of Charlotte

I loved my neighborhood. We all went to the neighborhood elementary school and played in the neighborhood park. We played in the neighborhood during summer evenings until 9 pm with no concern of trouble or crime. Of course we were all poor, but at least we were generally comparable in background and family. But to be honest, our low economic level directly translated to NO POLITICAL POWER. There were no advocates for our community and no one who saw we got our fair share. The infrastructure was not maintained. I remember digging our long drainage ditches because the city would not respond to our request for relief from flooding from the streams. Our Community Center, our Elementary School, our local roads were not maintained to the level as neighborhoods on the more affluent side of town. Visiting one of those schools for an away sports game was an education in how the city and its leadership was shifting resources away from the West Side and into the affluent neighborhoods. This was the basis of my relationship with my neighborhood and city. Over time the disconnect between the City and the West Side grew.

Community retail in West Charlotte

Community retail in West Charlotte

The West Side continued to decline as the income levels and wealth of inhabitants persistently decreased. The small, well maintained cottages deteriorated and the problems with crime began to grow. My family eventually left as the neighborhood became worse. The City’s efforts to help were largely ineffective. As the number of car owners surged and road traffic increased, a major interstate was built through the neighborhood. A major connector was built to enhance the driver’s experience, but did little for the neighborhoods. My old neighborhood became a major crime area. The baseball diamond where I played baseball became a leading site for drug deals. No inhabitants, especially children, ventured out after dark.

Over the years, as the West Side continued its decline, the City of Charlotte was booming as an economic center of the Southeast. The government built roads and more roads, feeding residential and commercial development in all directions, except the West Side. All these sections of the center of town developed high end residential space for the ever growing downtown business community, except the West Side. I remember standing in my wife’s old neighborhood, then mostly run down, slum like buildings, that overlooked a glorious urban skyline. Those views were priceless in other sides of town, but worthless in the West Side.

But as the City moved into a new century, a truly transformational decision was made that has completely changed the attitude toward the West Side. It began with strong business and financial leadership. The Bank of America, the biggest lessee of office space in the center city, was expanding its space needs again. The decision was made to move the data processing operation out of the center city towers into a new campus like development on the western edge of the center city. The real estate in the area was underutilized and unattractive for new development. But the bank saw beyond that. The City Urban Planning apparatus joined the effort to became an early partner in the process to build an “outpost” on the West Side and plans came together. The West Side Community Leadership was fully involved as new plans were created and vetted among the players. The Chamber of Commerce moved quickly to step up its recruiting for businesses to become tenants and financial institutions to supply capital. There was an early success, developing a partnership to bring the main campus of Johnson and Wales, a leading Culinary College, to this development, now called the Gateway Plaza. But that couldn’t occur without government assistance in the form of tax relief. This meant that local, county and state officials had to work together to structure a regulatory and taxation benefit program that would close the deal. It happened.

The result? The West Side is now being more fully integrated into the city. Development has continued along the western corridor, with a hotel, restaurants and shopping expanding. The recent recession was a negative blow to the process as it was everywhere, but the tide is now turning. Residential development has seen the rehabilitation of hundreds of classic older homes, modernized for a new generation. My wife’s old neighborhood has been transformed from a slum to a “National Historic Neighborhood”. New housing is being developed and transit service improved.

A rehabilitated house in West Charlotte

A rehabilitated house in West Charlotte

More importantly, I believe, is the further unification of the city. Residents of the West side can finally see their rightful role in the structure and fabric of the City. As more and more activities move to the Center City, like Pro Sports, Fine Arts and museum attractions, the West Side residents are able to reunite more fully with their city. It is a win for the West Side, but a greater win for the Center City.

What is ahead? It’s not hard to see large segments of property stretching out to the West, ripe for development. The international airport is further to the west and is spurring growth back toward the city. It is clear to me that the only way to change our attitudes and vision for urban living is by working together. After 7 decades of hit and miss, it took a concerted partnership among Urban Planners, Developers, Corporations, the Financial Community, Government and political interests, including community representation, to make a real difference and reach success. My fear? We are in a terrible historic period of ideology and philosophical rigidity, which greatly impedes the use of the one catalyst that can bring success – COMPROMISE.

I believe we will rise to the occasion, and avoid the fate we saw visited on the Jets and the Sharks – the only way to avoid the rumble is to put aside our difference and focus on the vision of Urban unification.

Saving Main Street: Creativity in Retail.

15 Apr

It may have been a really long time since you’ve visited a handfull of the remaining American main streets. Perhaps if you live in a small town far away from a city or suburban sprawl, or if you have gone on vacation recently to a place where people spend good money to walk down one of these “endangered species”, you may be lucky. But if you are like the majority of Americans and live in a city or suburban sprawl it has probably been months. The truth is that when retail started to the meet the demands of the automobile instead of the demands of the pedestrian, main streets throughout America were given a death sentence. Ever since we realized the placemaking, urban design, and historical value of these lost elements of our urban fabric, we have been trying to recreate them through our new urbanist and lifestyle center developments.

We lost our main streets a while ago, but other countries have been behind the curve. As many of you know I’ve spent some time practicing in the United Kingdom, and visit often. In some cases, it feels like England is 30 years behind us in their advancement in commercial and retail environments. And I mean that as a complement. In most places in England you can still go to the butchers, the bakers, and the newsagents. For us, these are the dreams of Mayberry. But what has become more in jeopardy over the past decade is England’s high streets.

A typical American main street and English high street.

A typical American main street and typical English high street. (Image: Atlantic Cities and GOOD)

There are many threats that high streets face now, especially during the economic downturn. Even in an environment of more sustainable planning based on limiting sprawl and centralizing development around strong transit links, high streets are losing to out-of-town superstores and American-like super-sized shopping malls. While I have not researched this issue thoroughly, I have spent enough time in the UK to witness some of the biggest offenders: Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent, Lakeside in Essex, Metro Centre in Newcastle and the Trafford Centre in Manchester. All four of these easily attract regional shoppers through an abundance of free parking, direct transit links from the center of nearby towns, and a large collection of the nations most popular retailers. The building form is typical: large structures surrounded by a sea of parking with poor (if any) pedestrian links to anywhere. High streets serving local populations with the daily necessities don’t stand a chance – and soon the butcher will become an extinct species just as it has in America.

Bluewater, Lakeside, Metro Centre, and Trafford Shopping Centres in England (Images: Webb Aviation, Above All Images, The Telegraph)

Bluewater, Lakeside, Metro Centre, and Trafford Shopping Centres in England (Images: Webb Aviation, Above All Images, The Telegraph)

But on the other hand, other cities have used modern shopping malls as a redevelopment tool for their center cities and high streets. In Reading, 36 miles west of London and Birmingham, in the middle of the country, two shopping malls have brought economic vitality and social activity. These two well-planned retail developments can serve as an example of how America can breath new life into the main streets that still remain.

These shopping malls accomplish two things in their urban form while bringing economic health to the center of the city:

  1. Enhance the health and vitality of the High Street
  2. Enliven public spaces in the center of the city

The Oracle Shopping Centre

The Oracle in Reading is a 22 acre site completed in 2000 that increased the retail square footage in the town centre by a third. Its shape and interior path is part of a “leisure trail” that goes through town. Instead of locating it anywhere in the middle of the city centre, the main entrance of the shopping mall was integrated into the street wall of the high street. The interior shopping area of the mall provides a natural pedestrian connection between the River Kennet, the high street, and other outdoor shopping streets. Instead of taking away pedestrian traffic from the high street, the Oracle instead enhances it and allows it to be the primary retail access point in the city centre.

Also, the Oracle doesn’t turn its back on the rest of the city, but instead creates outdoor public spaces along the River Kennet, celebrating its heritage and returning it to a central role in the Reading. Active ground floor spaces enliven the public spaces, creating a place for festivals and events throughout the year. The design of the Oracle achieves all of this in the urban form, while meeting the modern retail standards and proving the shopping experience demanded of the market.

A diagram of the Oracle Shopping Centre and how it relates to the high street and the River Kennet.

A diagram of the Oracle Shopping Centre and how it relates to the high street and the River Kennet.

The main entrance to the Oracle Shopping Centre, enhancing the street wall of the high street.

The main entrance to the Oracle Shopping Centre, enhancing the street wall of the high street.

The Oracle Shopping Centre along the River Kennet (Image: Trip Advisor)

The Bullring – Birmingham

The Bullring in Birmingham replaced one of England’s original indoor malls in 2003 and hosts 36.5 million visitors a year. Its design is unique by offering over 1,300,000 square feet of modern retail space, while maintaining a physical pedestrian connection between the high streets and a historic public space, The Bullring, which has served as a market square since the middle ages and is the home of St. Martin’s Church, located here since 1263. This site is historically sensitive, and instead of maintaining the segregation between the outdoor shopping streets and the market square as the older mall had done, the Bullring restored the original pedestrian connections through the site. The new structure nestles one level underground and splits the upper level in two parts. Here, the high streets continue between the buildings, maintaining the scale of the surrounding urban form.

Behind the mall, the high street slopes towards St. Martin’s Church and the structure provides active ground floor spaces that brings activity and vibrancy to the once forgotten public space. Transforming the historic center of the city to a place of entertainment 24 hours a day, has restored it as one of the main identities of the city.

A diagram of the Bullring Shopping Centre and how it relates to the high streets and the historic public space, The Bullring.

A diagram of the Bullring Shopping Centre and how it relates to the high streets and the historic public space, The Bullring.

The main entrance to the Bullring Shopping Centre is a continuation of Birmingham's high street.

The main entrance to the Bullring Shopping Centre is a continuation of Birmingham’s high street.

The Bullring Shopping Centre creates activity in the public plaza and celebrates the city's landmark historic church.

The Bullring Shopping Centre creates activity in the public plaza and celebrates the city’s landmark historic church. (Image: The Daily Mail)

American cities in most cases do not have the large scale, architecturally rich, and well-established main streets as those in England. The United Kingdom continues to make our same mistakes, but a couple of cities have saved their high streets as a result of foresight in urban planning and good urban design. These should act as an example to planners in the United States who continue to try to enliven our historic main streets through programming. While these programs are valuable in their own right, planners should consider not trying to save what we have in its current form, but instead transforming main streets to meet the modern retail demands of shoppers and developers. Let’s take a page from Reading and Birmingham’s book, and make a conscious effort to locate the uses that drive unsustainable suburban sprawl in the city center in a well-designed way that enhances the historic fabric that we have preserved. Let’s put Main Streets back where they belong…

Urbanism on Tap: Helping Shape Tampa’s Vision.

19 Mar

The regional chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU Tampa Bay) and The Urban Charrette have launched Urbanism on Tap, a series of community events in which citizens can engage in constructive conversations about current issues facing the Tampa Bay metropolitan region. Presented in an open-mic format, the events will be a bi-monthly source of free-flowing discussion about how Tampa can continue to grow as a progressive, competitive and vibrant city. Presented in a series of three events at a time, the goal is provide a forum for diverse members of the community to work together to address issues in our city.

Urbanism on Tap

The first series of events called Rival Cities is focused on understanding Tampa’s vision for the future and how that compares to other vibrant communities throughout the country. The first event of the series, held March 12 at the Tampa Museum of Art, outlined the vision recently established by Invision Tampa, a downtown master plan completed for the City of Tampa. Then the mic was turned over to the audience, which included city commissioners, city officials, business owners, designers and interested citizens. They discussed questions like: What do you think about this vision? What’s missing? and How do we start to make it a reality?

Participants had a lot to say, but’s let’s step back and consider why is it important for a city to talk about vision. Economies now span across regions, countries and the globe. Cities play a different role today: Instead of just providing for its citizens, cities must attract new professionals, industries and services that allow it to be on the world economy stage. If a city can’t compete with similar cities, it will lose out on growth and subsequently a larger tax base. Less money in a city means less of an ability to maintain its infrastructure and provide the daily necessities of living. Every city wants to grow, and grow sustainably. Uncontrollable growth can lead to negative effects that plague cities for decades; example in point, the growing suburbs of the last half of century that have left cities and counties struggling financially. So if a city has a vision that will attract the right type of investment, that will lead to the right type of growth that will contribute to the city’s livability and health the city will be a player in the world economy.

So what is Tampa’s vision? According to Invision Tampa, “Center City Tampa will be a community of livable places, connected people, and collaborative progress that embraces and celebrates its river and waterfront.” The plan states that it “should help address and make downtown Tampa the people’s downtown for the next 20 years, responding to the ideas and needs of the community.” In discussing this vision, The Urbanism on Tap team asked event participants to define what these terms mean to them.

Urbanism on Tap participant's definition of the terms included in the Invision Tampa vision statement.

Urbanism on Tap participant’s definition of the terms included in the Invision Tampa vision statement.

Defining the Terms

The Invision Tampa vision statement carries a familiar message to residents of Tampa. The Tampa Downtown Partnership’s Vision and Action Plan and the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Sustainable Design Assessment Team: Connecting Tampa Plan established similar visions in 2005 and 2008. Both call for more walkable neighborhoods with local amenities built around a vibrant downtown core with active public places along the riverfront.

The Urbanism on Tap discussion of this vision focused on a strong economy, strong neighborhoods, transportation, urban places/urban design, livability and citizen participation. Visit CNU Tampa Bay’s website to continue the Urbanism on Tap discussion and to see more detailed participant comments on Tampa’s vision. A few suggestions include Tampa’s need for a primary target industry, neighborhoods with communal space that can be accessed by walking, cycling and public transportation, the best technology in efficient mass transit, safe and secure public spaces, and individual responsibility to demand action.

The next installment of the Rival Cities series will examine other cities that are Tampa’s direct competition on the global economy stage. Invision Tampa mentions San Diego and Charlotte as cities to emulate for their expertise in economic development and transportation livability, respectively. While Charlotte is no doubt a competitor, we can look a little closer to home: Orlando is perhaps our largest investment competitor with similar industries, climate, population and geography. Stay tuned to CNU Tampa Bay and The Urban Charrette for the announcement of the date of the next Urbanism on Tap event, as well as an announcement of which cities we consider Tampa’s rival cities.

Spoiler Alert

The first Urbanism on Tap event established that the lack of mention of Tampa’s streetcar in the Invision Tampa plan is a missed opportunity for achieving a more efficient mass transit system, which was identified in the Invision Tampa public involvement process as the most important thing the city must do. As one of the oldest streetcar systems in the U.S. revival of streetcars, Tampa’s system has suffered a lack of funding and political support that systems like Portland (just one year older) have enjoyed. Since their inceptions in 2002 and 2001, respectively, Tampa has remained at 2.7 miles, while Portland has grown to over 9 miles.

The word cloud from the Invision Tampa Issues and Opportunities Report (November 2012) that shows the public's input of what the city must do over the next 15 years.

The word cloud from the Invision Tampa Issues and Opportunities Report (November 2012) that shows the public’s input of what the city must do over the next 15 years.

While the Invision Tampa plan mentioned cross river transit and an urban form that could support it, it didn’t set forth a vision for a mass transit system that would bring competitive investment to Tampa, as well as serve the desires and needs of the community. Some more food for thought? Rival cities like San Diego, Charlotte and Orlando have invested in premium transit — San Diego in a streetcar, light rail and commuter rail; Charlotte in light rail and a streetcar; and Orlando in commuter rail. Transit talk and discussion around Tampa’s streetcar will certainly be a topic of conversation at the next installment of Urbanism on Tap. Stay tuned.

Tampa TECO streetcar

Erin Chantry is an urban designer and executive committee member of CNU Tampa Bay, the regional chapter of The Congress for the New Urbanism. She is also the author of the urban design blog, At the Helm of the Public Realm. With a BA in architecture, an MA in urban design and an MS in urban planning, she has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.

Erin’s Google+

The Tale of Two Targets: Design Principles in Achieving TOD.

18 Feb

Density. For planners and urban designers helping to create transit-oriented developments (TODs), density is the crucial factor in achieving a critical mass for ridership and a mixed-use walkable environment that will entice people out of their cars. In many cases if planners can’t reach that threshold of density than transit is the baby that gets thrown out with the bath water.

Density continues to be extremely important to the success of transit, and in looking at the largest cities in the U.S., residential and employment density correlate strongly with the percentage of transit modal share. But increasingly, physical access and the walkable environment of a TOD are getting face time in the transit debate. Reconnecting America, arguably the organization taking the lead in TOD, highlights street design, public space design, and connectivity to transit as must-dos. Even if the density threshold is met, in many cases if these urban design principles aren’t used in land use planning, premium transit won’t acquire its maximum ridership.

In working on a corridor plan in southeast Florida, I, along with my project team, are thinking extensively how to retrofit the land use design along a large arterial, that for the majority of its length traverses a low density suburban context. Through our short-term and long-term land use recommendations, we hope that it will be retrofitted to provide better access to the public transportation it currently has, as well as be able to easily become a transit-oriented corridor (TOC) in the near future. In preparing this corridor for its birth as a TOC, we are employing four design principles that I would argue are most effective in creating an environment supportive of transit-oriented development: connectivity, enhancements to the public realm, site orientation, and ground floor design and use.

Connectivity

Connectivity is the degree of which streets, roads, and pedestrian routes are joined together. The more connected the street network through a site, the more access and circulation options are provided. If an urban fabric has a high degree of connectivity, it provides many ways for users to navigate their environment and, in the process, reduces the extent to which all travelers must rely on one route.

Increasing the number of multimodal routes that connect with transit-oriented corridors will have many benefits, most notably:

  • alleviate automobile congestion by providing more navigational choices to users to reach destinations more efficiently,
  • allow the corridors to maintain their current width or be narrowed through a road diet to accommodate multimodal forms of transportation , and
  • create a physical environment that is conducive to mixed-use development and increase transit ridership.

Public Realm Enhancements

The “public realm” refers to space that is publicly owned, accessible, and maintained. Design enhancements to the public realm along major corridors provide more appropriate facilities for transit, transit-users, and the mixed-uses supportive of transit. Alterations to the public realm along transit-oriented corridors can include improvements to buffers such as landscaping and lighting, enhancement of pedestrian-dedicated space such as sidewalks, and allowance of space for outdoor commercial activities.

Enhancing the public realm along transit-oriented corridors will have many benefits, most notably:

  • encouraging uses to access transit through direct and efficient routes to station facilities,
  • providing space for station facilities and supporting public space required of premium transit,
  • creating a comfortable environment along the corridor for transit users in between transfers, and
  • creating the active public space required for a healthy mixed-use environment

Site Orientation

Site orientation is how buildings are located on a site in relationship to the public realm. In the past few decades, especially along commercial corridors that are designed-oriented for the automobile, parking lots have taken precedence over the building’s relationship to the street. In more urban environments that were developed before mainstream use of the automobile, buildings are located adjacent to the street and parking is accommodated on the street or by more modest lots the rear of the building.

Traditional site orientation along transit-oriented corridors has many benefits, most notably:

  • creating a sense of enclosure along the street that helps contributes to a comfortable environment for pedestrians,
  • achieving a building height-to-street ratio of at least 6:1 to achieve an urban character along the corridor,
  • allowing the overlooking of public space, which is instrumental in creating safe environments for people, and
  • creating an efficiency in travel for transit users and pedestrians between destinations

Ground Floor Design and Use

Instrumental in creating an urban environment that is conducive to transit-oriented development is an active public realm. Regulating the design and use of the ground floor of buildings adjacent to pedestrian space and transit facilities can have an enormous effect or the safety, comfort ability, and commercial success of the corridor.

Active ground floor spaces can have many benefits, most notably:

  • an overlooked a safe environment for pedestrians and transit users
  • creating an appealing space with a strong identity that attracts people and business, ie: “placemaking”

A co-worker  made the observation that many of the sites that host the low density retail product that we were charged with retrofitting along this corridor often shared the same context, plot size, and density. In our research of the design alternatives for traditional big box sites locally we stumbled across two Targets, one in Tampa and one in Orlando, that illustrate the importance of design principles in development along future transit-oriented corridors.

Target - Dale Maybry Highway, Tampa, FL and Target - Orange Avenue, Orlando, FL

Target – Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, FL and Target – Orange Avenue, Orlando, FL

The Target located on Dale Mabry Highway and I-275 in Tampa was welcomed by many when it was built in 2005. By building stores adjacent to a multi-story parking deck, the design included three times the amount of parking and stores located on the same site. A higher density of development was certainly achieved. It was a different alternative to the typical suburban development that had been seen for the past 4 decades. In this case, I believe “different” might have been substituted with “good,” and for lack of a better example, even considered “urban.”

Target - Dale Maybry Highway, Tampa, FL

Target – Dale Maybry Highway, Tampa, FL

  1. Connectivity: The site design does not include any streets through the site and therefore the one access road to the north of the shopping center is congested, contributing to traffic along the corridor
  2. Public Realm Enhancements: There is no public realm dedicated to pedestrians or cyclists at all in the development, which encourages car usage
  3. Site Orientation: Instead of orienting the buildings on the site so that the liner building in front of the parking garage fronted the corridor, a surface parking lot and out parcel buildings were placed along the road. The result is a poor quality pedestrian environment with no clear connections to transit
  4. Ground Floor Design and Use: Solid walls bordering circulation space and inactive uses like a parking garage contribute no activity to the public realm and creates an inhospitable walking environment

The Target located on Orange Avenue in Orlando however, achieved the same program and density (even more actually) while addressing its urban context and properly employing the four design principles. The difference in the quality of place and access to the urban corridor is absolutely staggering.

Target - Orange Avenue, Tampa, FL

Target – Orange Avenue, Tampa, FL

  1. Connectivity: The site design includes two north-south and one east-west through-roads that disperse circulation throughout the site and alleviates congestion on the corridor. This also makes the mixed-uses included in the development more accessible to bordering neighborhoods
  2. Public Realm Enhancements: Sidewalks in the development and adjacent to neighborhoods are comfortable for pedestrians. Proper buffering is provided by vegetation and on-street parking
  3. Site Orientation: Instead of placing suburban outparcels along the corridor, buildings are placed directly fronting the sidewalk. While they do not achieve a density desired on a TOD corridor they do create a more urban and walkable character.
  4. Ground Floor Design and Use: Solid walls are avoided where possible. Facades that face the public realm are majority fenestration and provide active uses adjacent to open space.

These two development examples illustrate how important required design standards are in achieving a land use and pattern required of transit-oriented design. While many design principles could be put in place along designated transit-oriented corridors, requiring connectivity, a well-designed public realm, active ground floor uses, and site orientation will achieve a high-quality level of development. The below picture shows from a site planning perspective how easily the higher quality development in Orlando could be achieved on the same site in Tampa.

Dale Maybry, Tampa, FL

Dale Mabry, Tampa, FL

In fact, we realized that this is the case among many Targets, including the one on our corridor in Hollywood, FL.

Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, FL

Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, FL

And the Target in my home town of Charlotte.

Charlottetowne Avenue, Charlotte, NC

Charlottetowne Avenue, Charlotte, NC

We need to remember that “different” doesn’t always mean better. And while we are making progress in achieving a higher density and more program on a site, we could make even a bigger difference on many of our future transit-oriented corridors if we are just aware of how cities as close as an hour away are integrating the same big box products. While density certainly lays the foundation for a rich TOD, its optimal success is dependent on the quality of place achieved by traditional urban design.

The New, New Urbanism.

27 Jan

Lean. Guerilla. Incremental. Vernacular. Tactical.

These are all words Andrés Duany used to describe the “new New Urbanism” at the CNU-FL Statewide meeting this past week at the University of Miami. The room fell silent as people waited with bated  breath to see what Duany—a founder, and arguably the most influential member of the Congress for the New Urbanism—would say this time. After all, it’s usually inspiring and challenging when he takes the podium and, as a man of opinionated flamboyance, it is, at the very least, entertaining and humorous.

And what came next left me surprised and speechless, and with a greater love for New Urbanism: Andrés Duany fell on his sword. He acknowledged that five years ago, he had it made. People came to him and he always had the answers. He never acted in doubt, and he was confident that the answers lay in the principles that he, in part, had developed—namely, the SmartCode and Urban/Rural Transect, upon which New Urbanism had become structured in its 30-year history. With the shift in the economy, he took a year for study and reflection to determine the future of planning and New Urbanism.

Duany identified two conditions that should dramatically shift the practice of all planners and urban designers: pervasive impoverishment and the psychological shifts of impending climate change.

Duany learned that, on the other side of the economic downturn, or at least a good way through it, the future of New Urbanism was in the ability for the organization and its professionals to be adaptable, incremental, and minimal. In other words, he said, “An urbanist does the least necessary and lets everyone else naturally do the rest.” The result of the recession is what he calls “national impoverishment” and what many others call the “new normal.” People have less money, and that will not change, and even if it were to change, people will remain in a mental state of frugality. Therefore, if we are going to plan, we need to listen when people say “We don’t have any money” and figure out a way to make a difference for much less.

Climate change has become a hot political topic, and most people who believe real science (if they do the math) will see that big events, including disasters, are inevitable. One member of the audience commented that America’s only hope is that the “Chinese choke themselves before we flood.” The meat behind that statement is that climate change is an international issue, and if even one country could have the cultural and technological shift to mitigate against resulting natural disasters, there would be 10 other countries that could not. Duany’s point was that one day soon, the majority of the people in our country will realize that climate change is impending, we won’t be able to mitigate our way out of it before the tipping point, and disasters will occur. The reaction will be to shift into survival mode. He described it as a “circling of the wagons” mentality. The most valuable trait in the planning profession will become adaption—we must start practicing it now to be relevant in the near future.

These two factors—impoverishment and climate change—which Duany believes should shape the future of planning and urban design—specifically, new urbanism—can be addressed with tactical urbanism. Tactical urbanism is an urban design movement in which small and short-term actions lead to long-term change. This has been practiced all over the country by new urbanists (and many other urban designers and planners), most notably Mike Lydon, who wrote a two-volume guide on its implementation. Returning parking spots to parks, painting road intersections, and plastering the city with bumper stickers are all examples of how urban designers are taking back their city for the people.

Examples of tactical urbanism across the country where people are taking back their public space.

Examples of tactical urbanism across the country where people are taking back their public space.

An example that Duany gave to show how small, incremental changes can transform a whole neighborhood is the Wynwood Arts District in Miami. The well-known developer, Tony Goldman, transformed an industrial area devoid of any activity or culture into a thriving neighborhood. With little investment, he painted the interiors of all the buildings white, asked talented graffiti artists to paint the outside, and filled the spaces between with a fine aggregate asphalt. He filled them with lighted chain-link fences and tractor tires as furniture. The industrial buildings become a perfect place for budding artists to exhibit their work. The result was that, over time, the real estate market followed, and it became one of the hottest places in town; adjacent development proved it. The neighborhood’s ability to redevelop through adaption with small incremental change is an example of how our industry must shift to address the changing priorities of the future planning profession.

Wynwood Miami

Wynwood, Miami (Image: http://www.ninunina.com)

Let me be clear that Andrés Duany’s ideas are not revolutionary in and of themselves. Whether it’s tactical urbanism or pop-up urbanism, movements have been around for years that examine the exact same concepts. They haven’t always benefited from the recent notoriety and fame, however, but they’ve been around, which makes Duany look like he’s showing up a bit late to the party. Many critics of Duany might immediately comment on the fact that it is very convenient for the New Urbanist to change his tune after he’s gained his fortune, fame, and elite professional status. Fair point. However, from the inside, as someone who has a fair and balanced judgment of the CNU organization (after all, Duany is just one man,) the most exciting thing about his revelation and wishes for the future of New Urbanism is that they make the movement more relevant and applicable while, in turn, refuting its major criticisms.

Personally, Duany’s comments made me more secure in my identification as a new urbanist. Truthfully, in the past, the criticisms of the movement that have irked me the most were based on what he created and defended. I’ve written about the criticisms of New Urbanism, but they are well known: over-priced products, green field developments, a traditional architecture rut, and a lack of understanding of the reality of retail. However, I was always able to rationalize or accept them for the greater good of the organization. CNU is made up of many great minds. It just happens that Duany and DPZ’s genius in Seaside and everything that came from it has always been the front man. If you read the CNU Charter—the very heart of the organization—it proclaims nothing but the benefits of traditional urbanism. And it is one of the few organizations that does that, and perhaps is the only one that does it with such conviction. Based on the facts, there has never been a discernible difference between new urbanism  and good urbanism. However, by Duany proclaiming that his “heavy, armored brigade” idea of urbanism (i.e., the rules, guides, and strict formulas) has become irrelevant, he has immediately made New Urbanism more relevant to my beliefs as an urbanist.

One might ask the question, Does this make CNU and New Urbanism as a whole irrelevant? My answer would be, absolutely not!  First and foremost, the “heavy, armored brigade” did have its place within the movement, and that approach accomplished a lot by putting sustainable development on the map in a time when every developer was paving over the American countryside. Second, on many occasions, these rules are necessary and very beneficial. Proclaiming the benefits of traditional principles such as connectivity, legibility, and walkability will never become irrelevant. Third, it is from the CNU organization that a lot of these new ideas that Duany proclaims came to fruition. Lydon is currently one of the go-to experts of tactical urbanism, and the Next Gen CNU group is leading the way in how we design our cities today. People need to realize that New Urbanism has grown much larger than Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Ellen Dunham-Jones, Peter Calthorpe, Leon Krier, and James Howard Kunstler (to name a few of the greats) … it’s about us now.

So, as Duany said, we now need to arm ourselves with our bumper stickers, t-shirts, picket signs, and burning bras and ensure that we continue to become relevant and adaptable to our changing profession and culture shift. And, finally, maybe some of the critics will be silenced ….

Erin’s Google+

Why Your Gas Tank Matters: An Alternate View to Public Transportation.

7 Dec

I’m sure it’s been beaten into your head by now that driving your car is bad, and that the more enlightened choice is to take public transportation. We’ve all heard the stats of pollution and we know that the built form being designed around the car has destroyed a walkable environment based on nuclear neighborhoods. We’ve abandoned the charm and livability of almost all of our cities, and it will take centuries to get them back. The car does take a lot of the blame.

As an urban designer I’ve been battling with this guilt, especially in a city that offers some of the worst public transportation option in the country. In addition, we have the third highest rate of pedestrian fatalities in the country. And of course, professionally, I’m expected to want to use public transportation, cycle, and walk. It’s so inconvenient and inefficient, that for me (like most Americans) it is not an option. And I certainly don’t want to use it in its current condition.

From my years living in England, I know what really good public transportation looks like: headways of 5 minutes, perfectly timed with trains, and mixed-use walkable downtowns. You could go almost anywhere in the country on your own two feet. But it cost a hefty price, and in many cases for me, became unaffordable. And as cliché as it sounds, Americans do enjoy their “freedom,” which for many is synonymous with their car. This culture shift is a way of life, and changing it is a battle I don’t think we will see in our lifetime without an enormous federal commitment to projects that we haven’t seen since after World War II. I don’t know about you, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.

So where does that leave us? Last week at a red light, I looked down at my gas tank and it occurred to me I hadn’t filled it up in 2 months. I realized that even in a city that is the most auto centric place I have ever lived, it is possible to not get out of your car and have a very tiny carbon footprint.

The Land Use Perspective

Urban designers and planners strive for perfect development: walkable, tree-lined streets, beautiful public spaces, and a car-free lifestyle. We search for this in our own personal lives, and in most cases we come up shorthanded. Unless you live in New York, Chicago, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco (our country’s gems) we often feel unsatisfied. However, I believe you can stay in your car (gasp!) and choose just as valuable of a sustainable lifestyle.

Choose to live near your work, or second place.

I hate commuting.

At its worst my commute was an hour and fifteen minutes one way, and at the end of the day I felt depleted. I promised I would never do that to myself again. So, when I moved to Tampa, I chose to live 2 miles from my work place, which is located Downtown. My other criteria was that I’d like to be able to walk to get a cup of coffee. As a result, I live in a denser neighborhood (made of mostly single-family homes) that is built on a connected street grid and is in close proximity to other neighborhoods that surround the downtown core. Each of these neighborhoods has a small commercial center that has the basics: grocery store, restaurants, coffee shop, etc. A few of the other necessities (Target!) are located on major arteries on the outside of these neighborhoods. I travel in between these mid-town neighborhoods and downtown. Granted we live a geographically small life and look for little entertainment outside of going to the movies and having a nice dinner, we are able to fill our gas tank up very infrequently. The following graphic shows the Tampa city limits in orange, and in blue, is the part of the city I actually use.

Tampa city limits downtown

Tampa city limits vs. the part of the city I actually live use

I’ve chosen to live in a slightly smaller house on a smaller lot. I’ve chosen to redefine “what I need” and really look at what influences my life the most. I put a lot higher value on not commuting then I do housing square footage. Life is a game of tradeoffs, and just through my daily life preferences, I have defaulted in choosing the “land use” option to sustainability.

Almost any time I go anywhere (except to get a cup of coffee of course,) I get in my car. And I don’t feel bad about. I drive in an entire week, what some of my colleagues might drive one way to work in a morning. While I can’t access what I need by public transportation, all of my needs are in close proximity.

This illustrates that land use must be considered along with transportation. I live in an older part of the city where development is denser. Large subdivisions and enormous shopping centers don’t exist. So for a Tampanian, who might be waiting on efficient public transportation for a very long time, the other option is to make choices in your life so that you don’t NEED to feel guilty about not using it.

And of course, my lifestyle, while by no means always occurs along those walkable, tree-lined streets, demonstrates how important density and diversity of uses is on the environment. Worse than the invention of the car and the pollution it creates in itself, is the land use form that followed it. Its disconnected street grid, single-use, and large size made public transportation impossible, and even travelling in a car inefficient.

Now of course in some of the largest cities, living near your work is unaffordable, or perhaps the public schools are not of an acceptable quality. And that might be the case. My lifestyle of choice would not be possible everywhere. And this is why transportation modes like BRT and light-rail are crucial to every American city. Slowly, and in some cases very slowly, we are making small progress to get there. But in the meantime, planning policy can ensure that we require mixed-uses in close proximity to new development at the densities required for a sustainable lifestyle.

In the meantime, walk or cycle if possible, if you want to. But if you live a geographically small life, and you want to stay in your darn car – don’t sweat it and sleep soundly at night. You are one of the good people.

Erin’s Google+

Urban Designer Series: Jane Jacobs, The Mother of Urban Design

18 Nov

In the first post of my Urban Designer Series I wrote about Robert Moses, the man whose urban planning philosophy was the precipice for the modern-day urban design profession. It was from his staunch modernist dogma that some of the greatest urban designers we know, such as Jane Jacobs who will be discussed in this post, responded so passionately to his beliefs. To any who have studied urban design, it’s been made clear that without the fundamental disagreement between the modernist planning beliefs centered on the automobile and urban renewal, and those that wished to return urban planning back to humanity and people, urban design would not be a profession today. We all still would be urban planners. The truth is that the automobile and planning principles accompanying it were instrumental in creating a demand for human-centered design.

(Source: Jane Jacobs Walk)

Jane Jacobs was not a trained urban planner. She was a writer and an activist. As a concerned citizen she was able to see the negative and devastating impacts modern planning was having on communities and neighborhoods in New York City. She believed that a city was like an ecosystem that depended on a mix-of uses and planning based on community. This fundamental belief made her a tough critic of slum cleaning and high-rise housing, both practices that were becoming popular in New York in the 1950s. She was an instrumental catalyst in ground-up protest and activism, which undoubtedly saved many of the most loved parts of Manhattan today. However, it is her seven books, especially The Life and Death of Great American Cities, that propelled her an international scholar in planning; or as I call her, “The Mother of Urban Design.”

The Death and Life…

The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1961 at the arguable height of the modernist urban renewal movement. This book is considered by many as the number one most influential work in American planning history.

(Source: The Planning Issue)

Zoning laws that accompanied the urban renewal being practiced my modern planners separated uses (residential, commercial, industrial, institutional, etc.) from one another leaving places void of diversity and in many cases eradicating their identity. The Death and Life presents a lot in 458 pages, but perhaps most influentially advocates “four generators of diversity:” mixed uses, permeability, variety in the built environment, and high density that should determine the character of the city. She discusses how these effect the social and economic vitality of place.

The entirety of this work is based fundamentally on the fact that urban planners should discover the complexities and unique characteristics that determine how places work and enhance them, instead of write policy and design large projects that determine how a city should work. That argument: that places should be unique and reflect the identity of the people who live there instead of places answering to lofty academic principles of homogeneity is a fundamental core of urban design.

Throughout this book, Jacobs uses her own neighborhood, Greenwich Village, as a model for a healthy and active neighborhood. It is ironic that immediately following the book’s release Robert Moses was at the forefront of the project that would put a highway right through the middle of it, sacrificing Jacob’s own home. Here begins the battle of Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses.

Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses

Robert Moses was focused on the automobile. His belief was that “cities are created by, and for traffic,” and in his love to move cars he had built tunnels, bridges, and highways to Manhattan, connecting Long Island to the city. It was his dream however to build three highways through Manhattan: the Lower Manhattan Expressway the first to be constructed. A small group of Greenwich Village residents were going to fight the Goliath of engineering and planning, and they chose their neighbor, Jane Jacobs to be David. Off the release of her book that was quickly climbing to fame, Jane Jacobs led a movement that rapidly grew, bringing different types of people together from throughout the city. The result was a strong and active coalition that appeared at every public hearing, wrote articles, protested in the streets, and counter-planned a healthy rehabilitation project for the neighborhood.

Plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (Source: The Bowery Boys)

Moses’ only argument was that Jacobs and her coalition were simply too stupid to understand his plans and visions for the city. That this backlash was simply a case of nimbyism (“not in my back yard.”) And that when his projects were completed and the greater good was achieved that they would all be thanking him.

He did not have that chance. On December 11, 1962 the City Commission rejected the Lower Manhattan Expressway in favor of the argument that to Moses, expressways were more important than people and more than often his dreams turned out to be instead nightmares for the city. With this battle all over the media throughout the entire country it had become a political hot potato that every politician was forced to have an opinion on. Jane Jacobs not only ended the Lower Manhattan Expressway; it can be argued that she also ended Robert Moses’ career. His “super projects” lost favor politically. The notion that just because an idea was new, that it was good was soon dismissed by the power brokers in New York. Legend has it that Moses’ ego never recovered from not accomplishing his dreams in Manhattan.

Jacobs won another battled three years later on April 19, 1965 when the Landmark Preservation Commission was established. While it was two years too late to save Penn Station that fell victim to another Moses project, it has saved many buildings, districts, and neighborhoods that make New York City the place it is today.

Take a look at this great video summarizing the Jacobs vs. Moses battle.

Her Legacy

Of course Jane Jacobs went on to write more works, solidifying herself as the “Mother of Urban Design,” including The Economy of Cities, which she herself believed should have been much more influential then the Death and Life. Because of her work (mostly) alone, the urban planning profession was forced to abandon it’s focus on what a city should be instead what a city was. Unfortunately it took a couple of more decades for profession to slowly come around to where the majority of professionals recognize that planning must have a bottom-up approach.

Today, every project must have an element of active public involvement and consultation. Meetings, hearings, charettes, and workshops are all funded through every project, with the belief that a plan is only as strong as the community that it serves. Buy-in from the public is perhaps one of the most sought after elements in urban planning. While this might seem as routine in the profession now, this would have been revolutionary to Jane and her coalition.

In addition, Jane Jacobs was able to look outside her front door and through nothing more than her humanity, define the four of the most important urban design principles that guide the development of many of the healthiest places in this country, and the world.

  • Permeability – the belief that roads and pedestrian routes should be very-connected and intersect often to allow people an abundance of choice and efficiency in how they navigate an urban environment
  • Mixed Uses – different uses (residential, commercial, institutional, etc.) in the same place strengthens the identity of a place and those that live there
  • Density – the close proximity of the mixed uses to one another strengthens the economy of place and allows people to travel less distance for their daily needs
  • Natural Surveillance – when the built environment is built at a human scale with buildings bordering public spaces, people watch them in their daily activities, which creates safe urban environments where people will feel welcome. The resulting active urban places foster a strong community.

Jane Jacobs also realized that these principles alone cannot create a healthy place, but actually they are interdependent on each other and act as a complex puzzle, than when put together correctly produce a unique identity each time.  She broke down the building blocks of what urban planning should be, and these now form the toolbox of every urban designer – simply by watching the urban dance, or “ballet” that was on show just outside her front door. Jane Jacobs’ legacy has no doubt not only helped shaped cities across the globe, but made New York City arguably the best city in the world. Much to Robert Moses’ dismay I am sure, New York is one of the few places you can live in America without a car.

However, while the shift in urban planning has been shifting for more than four decades now, I often witness policy and projects that do not honor the Jane Jacobs’ legacy. She said she could see the whole city from her doorstep. Today, even in the biggest cities in the country that is not a truth. We still are alive and well in the zoning and separation of use planning culture that Jane fought so hard against. And there is no doubt that we are still entrenched in the world of the automobile. As streets are continually widened at the detriment of the pedestrian, and historic structures are demolished in favor of the bigger and better, we often times continue to build the world that Jane Jacobs fought so hard against.

Perhaps it’s because she stepped outside her gender role at a time where she was supposed to be doing nothing but cooking for her family and raising her children, or because she was short and slightly plump with an amazing fashion sense, or because she was a woman who never gave up on what she knew was right – she serves as a daily inspiration for me in my career. As an urban designer she is my hero and everyday I hope to spot the Robert Moses’ out there so I can make a fraction of the difference that she has in my industry and in my city.

(Source: Treehugger)

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