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CNU20: Final Reflections.

19 May

It’s been one week since I started out on my first CNU journey, and overall it was a wonderful one. I am still wallowing through all my reflections on my week in West Palm Beach and have been able to express many of them through posts I’ve written. I have believed in the movement and adhered to the CNU Charter in my own way since I wrote my MA dissertation on “New Urbanism in Suburban America: Strategies for the Implementation of LEED-ND” a few years ago. I’ve long considered myself a New Urbanist, but this was my first interaction with the organization. Here are a few final reflections on my experience:

Perhaps one of the most impressive things about my time at CNU20 were the people I met at the heart of the movement – not necessarily what they said, or how they said it, but their surrounding energy. I was most impressed with Ellen Dunham-Jones: I already knew her ideas, they are great, but that’s not what impressed me this week. What impressed me was her keen sense of natural leadership. She is kind, articulate, impassioned, and respectful with an air of carefree positivity. I immediately felt like she was the type of person who would be my mentor, as I am sure she is to many at Georgia Tech. I almost applied there after attending Georgia Tech Architecture Career Discover Camp the summer of 1999, but didn’t. This week, spending time with Ellen, made me seriously regret it.

Similarly, Victor Dover welcomed us with such a kindness, that even though he was speaking to a room of hundreds, I immediately felt important to the New Urbanism movement. I can only assume he was a commanding leader of the Board after all, the acceptance of diversity and warmth that he embodies is at the heart of good leadership. I am looking forward to getting to know him better as I become more involved in CNU.

Another thing that struck me about the CNU was the diversity that it carries in its mission. It was Solomon’s calm, yet striking comments and Duany’s passionate rebuttal that immediately made me realize that while this is a professional organization, it is very much steeped in academic debate. There is no doubt that I love to learn for learning’s sake, so this culture immediately felt like a forum in which to develop my career. I was so impressed with the tracks offered, and felt torn in many directions. I could easily see myself in The Incremental, Entrepreneurial City, Architecture and Placemaking, and Sustainability and Livability, but it was the Mobility and the Walkability track where I spend most of my time because of the commitment I have made in my career to integrate land use with transportation planning.

I really enjoyed the mobility track, especially because of Rick Hall, Eric Dumbaugh, and Peter Norton. Peter presented an extremely interesting and enlightening historical background of our “car loving” behavior, Rick spoke about the importance of working with Functional Classification to create complete streets, and Eric Dumbaugh addressed bike safety among a host of other topics. Each presented with an equal amount of conviction and entertainment. All three were extremely knowledgeable and passionate about what they do, and I have to say it was contagious. My experience confirmed for me that integrating land use and transportation is the most effective way to bring change to the large amount of the population whose lives are reined by the automobile. I am certainly where the action is: while the CNU needs members concentrating on all initiatives, transportation is the underlying foundation that will determine the success of economic development, placemaking, sustainability, and livability of a place.

There is no doubt that the magical matchmaking I felt with CNU, hit a stumbling block with Leon Krier’s plenary session. I will not elaborate here, but you can read my past post on the topic. And while it is challenging to identify myself with people like him, and those that champion him, we become better people, writers, designers, and professionals by being around others that test us and our beliefs. It will undoubtedly lead to passionate debate, exasperation, and sometimes even despair, but then we come out on the other side of it more clearly understanding our principles and how we apply them to our work better. New Urbanism makes room for me, and it makes room for him.

Going forward as a more active member of CNU, it will be my mission to help make the Congress the most relevant and applicable to real world scenarios. As important as I think it is to debate for our personal development, it is the work on the ground that is most influential in seeing change in our built environment. While theologians like Solomon certainly contribute to the success of the organization, people like Rick Hall and Andres Duany have made me realize the importance of speaking the language of those that mold the development of our cities. Whether its code, functional classification, or design guide standards, they are the vehicles in which New Urbanists will make change. While there has been a shift in the demands of the market and the expectations of local government organizations, if the design of the new Walgreen’s on the corner in my neighborhood is any indication, I still think we screw up our built environment more than we improve it. Until that scale tips in the other direction, we cannot afford to wait for people to figure out what we’re preaching, we have to apply it to what they already know.

Thanks to everyone who made my CNU journey possible, enjoyable, challenging, and informative. I will see you next year.

This article can also be found at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc 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.

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Reflections on My Morning with Leon Krier

19 May

I was on a pretty big CNU high until this past Saturday morning when Leon Krier brought me back to reality.

Leon Krier is a described neo-traditional architect and architectural theorist who has been a consistent influence on the New Urbanism movement, from his hand in developing the Seaside master plan to his planning of Poundbury, the most well-known New Urbanism development in the United Kingdom. Introduced as the “Godfather of New Urbanism,” he was also described as the intellectual backbone of the movement. The plenary session focused on two issues that he believes the CNU leaves unresolved:  the limit of high density and the architectural style and construction of buildings.

Building Height and Density

Krier argues that there should be a limit of 3-4 floors on all buildings. Buildings higher than that alienate people from their community, take an enormous amount of energy, and distort the elegance of traditional architecture. The height of skyscrapers, he explained, also minimize the significance of civic buildings in their context. Tall = important; short = less important. The argument against vertical density has some good points to consider. The comparison between the residential tower and the cul-de-sac is a powerful one. They do say it’s lonely at the top and I am confident it’s lonely at the end of a cul-de-sac. It is true that tall buildings do consume an enormous amount of energy and as we become more dependent on our resources they will become harder to maintain. Fair enough, but I would argue that green construction systems like LEED by the USGBC mitigate a lot of the environmental impacts of tall buildings. As far as the height distorting vernacular and traditional architecture, see below.

To illustrate this point, Leon Krier showed one of the most impactful and unnerving diagrams I have ever seen:

Leon Krier Cartoon : 3-4 Storey Theory.

Leon Krier’s articulation of his 3-4 storey theory (Source: Leon Krier)

He made his point well, although I would argue that he made it insensitively. It was even a bit of a stretch to connect his theory to terrorism. He said he couldn’t get his diagram published in America; it was apparent to me why.

His argument on building heights, while strong, is very unrealistic. Using his World Trade Center analogy, it is silly to suggest that the density of the Twin Towers could be achieved in 3-story buildings in the heart of Manhattan. It is true that incentives and the fear of risk in the banking industry have led to tall buildings being built in context where they don’t belong. I can look out my office window and see them in Tampa, and I know they exist in my hometown of Charlotte. But to suggest that all buildings taller than 3 stories be prohibited from being built in a country that claims the skyscraper as its only architectural movement is not only unrealistic, it’s a waste of time.

What we really need to get right is how the buildings meet the ground. The disaster of high-rise residential buildings like Pruitt Igoe and Cabrini Green failed, not because of their height, but the design of the ground floor and the land use around it. City grids and mixed-uses were wiped from communities, taking along with them activity in the public realm. I am aware of many people who live in high rises and love them. Their buildings, often in cities like New York and Chicago, exist in a rich urban environment and an active community. The result of which is from good urban design and city planning, not architecture.

Architectural Style

First, let me preface this by saying that I am a graduate of one of the architectural schools that Leon Krier (and Andres Duany) so passionately slams. I was taught to be an architect from the perspective that every design decision must answer to a higher conceptual idea. Every building is a functional piece of art that can alter people’s experience of life. Inherent in this belief is that architects must look forward, and not back, to find this creativity. Architecture has been marked by movements where people thinking outside the box moved the profession forward theoretically by creating a new form of beauty. There is nothing higher than this respect and it remains the carrot to the rabbit throughout an architect’s career. Andres Duany is correct in saying that this can be frustrating to an architect in the real world profession; it certainly was for me and was a big influence in my move to urban design and planning. Regardless, I believe wholeheartedly that it is the architect’s prerogative to continue to push that conventional envelope through their design.

Leon Krier - architecture school education cartoon

Leon Krier’s commentary on architecture school education (Source: Leon Krier)

The biggest reason I believe this is because most buildings last an average of 40 years. This is not a long time compared to block structure and street design that remains for centuries. I think Leon Krier would agree with me that street design is perhaps the greatest thing to get right. It determines the social, environmental, and economic sustainability potential a place has, and getting it wrong can lead to a destruction that is impossible to turn away from. When we get buildings wrong, we get to knock them down and start over. Don’t get me wrong, buildings contribute enormously to the health of our public realm and their demolition and construction have a big effect on our carbon footprint. But if we’re going to get creative, the building level and public space is the arena in which to do this.

So, I can say here that one of the reasons that Leon Krier’s passionate epilogue didn’t resonate with me is that I don’t think architectural style is that important or important at all. I know, grand words coming from the mouth of a former architect. I’ve written in the past about places like St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, Florida. Known for its walkability, its unique urban form, and interesting mix of uses, it is one of the healthiest urban places I’ve ever witnessed. However, there is no architectural style or quality in the construction of its buildings. When you look closely, the buildings are quite horrifying, but no one seems to notice. The reason for this is that even though there is no architectural quality to the buildings they are functioning to the highest degree by providing a huge amount street activity and interaction.

If you want to understand Leon Krier’s argument on traditional architecture, I invite you to read his literature because it is very in-depth and well-explained through some beautiful drawings. Let me touch upon his explanation of “traditional” architecture, which I did find very interesting. Krier says “traditional” does not equal “historic,” and that through vernacular materials specifically it can still be relevant and contemporary. This resonates with me because I feel the same thing about urban design. I am a “traditionalist” when it comes to urban design principles and design, but I believe they are the answer in addressing modern and contemporary problems in society.

However, the contemporary challenges in urban design and urban planning have a lot more to answer for than the contemporary challenges in architecture. They determine economic stimulation and the growth of industries, transportation systems and mobility, the health of future generations, and the environmental sustainability of our society. What is the consequence of the architectural style of a building if it is “modern” versus “traditional” and still contributes activity to the public realm? None.

I will further say that while he might be correct in the definition of “traditional architecture,” it is a term that means something else to a much larger population. If used among architects, students, planners, politicians, designers, and almost anyone in the built environment profession, they will say that “traditional architecture” is historic. Leon Krier began by saying that you can never please everyone and that the CNU should never compromise its beliefs in order to be successful, gain membership, or have more influence in the industry. While at first I thought this was self-assurance, I soon learned that it was arrogance. Leon Krier could benefit from listening to people like Richard Florida, who says that creativity and open-mindedness leads to success, as well as his friend, Andres Duany, and Richard Hall, who have learned to speak the language of the people who will make the biggest influence in the work they are trying to achieve. Confidence can make change happen, but arrogance can be dangerous.

I will finish by saying that people like Leon Krier and his acceptance by the New Urbanism community is holding back the movement from being at the forefront of influence in the architecture, planning, and urban design professions. While some of the founders of the CNU are traditionalists, many of the people they are trying to influence are the opposite. Having gotten my MA in Urban Design and MSc in Planning and Regeneration in England, I am aware that Poundbury, one of the few projects that Krier has actually built, is ridiculed as a bastardization of traditional planning by the profession and many members of the general public. It has caused the New Urbanism movement to lose an enormous amount of respect internationally, due in large part to Leon Krier.

Poundbury Dorset UK from the sky.

Poundbury, Dorset, England (Source: The Telegraph)

Also, in my opinion the CNU Charter doesn’t need to answer for everything. That it does not address architectural style and building heights allows it to be more relevant to places like Manhattan and middle-American rural towns. It also allows for demands in the market; like Daniel Solomon says, it is best to avoid the straight jacket that the movement has the possibility to create. Leon Krier’s beliefs are one straightjacket I don’t see worth wearing.

This article can also be found at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc 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.
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Clearer Thinking: Urbanism + Transit.

15 May

Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, told us he was at CNU20 to preach a little fire and brimstone:  transportation planner to new urbanist. While I wouldn’t call it brimstone, he definitely spoke passionately about real issues that need to be considered in enriching people’s lives. While I certainly subscribe to most New Urbanist principles, and am a card-carrying member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, I appreciated Walker’s candid challenge of the art behind the movement. He began his lecture by saying, “You know all those little people you draw in pastel and watercolor? Well, they are citizens of society, not going where you think they will, but where they want to.” That was a straight shot on the idealistic “if you build it, they will come” mentality that exists among some members of the CNU. Him, you, me…all of us…want to feel in control and active in how we navigate our built environment.

An example of those people we draw who are not going “where we want them to” (Source: Calgary-Canada Lands Comany)

One of the great things about the New Urbanism movement is that its principles are very relevant to many sectors of the built environment and has, therefore, welcomed members with many different views and beliefs. From his delivery, I don’t think Jarrett Walker would call himself a new urbanist, but he and I share the same priorities on transit.

Prior to Walker’s presentation as part of Clearer Thinking: Urbanism + Transit, G.B. Arrington of Parsons Brinckerhoff / Placemaking gave us “5 Things New Urbanists Need to Know about Transit,” which laid a foundation for the rest of the session. Three of them stand out in particular. The five points are as follows:

  1. Transit Is Not What It Used to Be About – Transit is not about the work trip, the relief of congestion, or brief interventions. Transit is now relevant to all trips, all purposes, and community building.
  2. Distance Matters Differently Between Users – Different users are willing to travel different distances using transit before they resort to their automobile. The most connections should be made within 600 feet. Past that, users drop off quickly (between 1/4 mile and a 1/2 mile riders drop by 50%) so placing retail and office uses within this distance is most important.
  3. The Land Use Gap - Built environment professionals are responsible for designing transit-ready neighborhoods based around connected and complete streets. Other built environment professions are responsible for planning the transit system. The gap is that there is no one responsible for merging the two together.
  4. Lifecycles in Planning – The planning cycle for transit oriented development and the planning cycle for a rail system can have a difference of a decade, which is longer than a typical market cycle.
  5. Mode Is Not As Important as You Think – Let the land use/corridor determine the mode. What matters much more is the location, market, and frequency of service.

Built upon this foundation was Walker’s argument:  abundancy = efficiency. What matters is lots of service going where you need it to go and the ability for users to be spontaneous in their use of the system. This is the benefit of the car and it is required of our public transportation system to compete. That is the first and most important requirement in making transit a viable alternative in America.

Walker said that the goal of abundant transit requires thinking about how transit can be useful to many kind of trips, not just a few specialized movements such as downtown commutes or senior citizen needs.  Instead, we need to design services that are useful to many different people at once.  Moving bus stops further apart, for example, imposes some inconvenience on some seniors but dramatically improves the usefulness of service for the city as a whole, by increasing its speed.

Secondly, Walker suggests that New Urbanism is really hung up on rail as the only way to support transit oriented development (TOD), but that where rail’s capacity (passengers/driver) is not required, the most efficient mode of transportation is the bus. Perhaps the reason for the obsession with rail is that the alternative is identified with a huge social stigma in the U.S. Issues of race and poverty overshadow the bus system. We have to change this stigma to be able to use effectively our most abundant and, therefore, efficient mode of transit.

Thirdly, we must combine our modes seamlessly in order to achieve the optimal amount of efficiency. Walker told the story of his experience of using public transit in Germany. When he arrived at the train station in Heidelberg, he was told he needed to take the 32. He found the appropriate platform, which was beside a set of tracks. He expected a streetcar to arrive, but instead a bus pulled over the tracks. He then transferred to a streetcar, where he could not distinguish between the inside of the two. A perfect and seamless integration of the modes meant that it didn’t matter if you were on a bus, streetcar, train, etc. They were all getting you where you needed to go.

Jarrett Walker’s Journey Heidelberg

Jarrett Walker’s Journey in Heidelberg: Bus 32 acted as a streetcar in a seamless multimodal transportation network. (Source: Jarrett Walker)

Geneva Rail For The Valley

Efficiency in abundancy and the seamless integration of modes. (Source: Rail for the Valley)

Most importantly, Walker makes the point that transit needs to become more transparent, efficient, and functional so that people can take responsibility for where and how they live. He has developed a software tool that shows from any location in Portland where you can get within a certain amount of time on transit systems. The results are blobs on a map in varying degrees of hues, representing periods of time. Not surprisingly, the blobs are bigger and darker the closer the location to the city center. Reproduced for the entire country and made accessible to all, similar to the effect of providing nutrition facts on food packaging, people will be able to make responsible transit decisions that will give them greater control of their mobility.

These achievements in transit will allow people to live freely, abundantly, and spontaneously, which in turn will enrich our lives and our communities. While I believe there is value in making transit use enjoyable, pleasant, comfortable, and even fun, I believe more strongly in Walker’s opinion that more than the “color of our seats,” we care about getting where we want to go faster.

This post can also be found at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc 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.
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Building a Culture of Bike Safety.

15 May

In my career I’ve spent so much time thinking about cars, that I’ve overlooked the bicycle…until now.

After joining Tindale-Oliver & Associates as an urban designer this year I’ve become involved in the Multimodal Transportation Planning Team that designs bicycle and pedestrian master plans. It has been enlightening to understand the technical and data analysis that is required to make sure cyclists can get where they need to go safely. There are many factors to consider, including facilities, context-sensitivity, implementation, funding, and regional and local policies. It is a much more complicated process than you would expect.

Simultaneously, I have been settling into my life in Florida and have found myself for the first time using a bicycle as a form of transportation instead of a form of leisure activity. When I made this shift, my requirements and expectations as a cyclist completely changed. I have felt empowered to have been given the opportunity in certain parts of my city to be able to ride my bike from one destination to the other while feeling safe doing it. However, despite my increased interest in cycling, and my awareness of the detailed planning behind it, there is one gap that I believe still exists in bike planning, at least in Florida: actual safety vs. perceived safety.

This was an issue touched upon some at the CNU20 conference in sessions like “From Balanced Roads to TOD” and “Beyond the Bike Lanes: Building a Culture of Bike Safety,” but I felt it was not covered quite enough. The concept of perceived safety vs. actual safety  is a concept that filters through all layers of urban design. Similarly, pedestrians might be actually safe walking along a city street alongside lifeless buildings with blank walls. But they probably won’t feel safe because people need other people in close proximity when they are in a public space to feel comfortable. Therefore they won’t walk there. Similarly, while I might be actually safe riding my bike down a collector road in my neighborhood since I have a dedicated bike lane and two 10′ lanes of traffic, I do not feel safe. Therefore, I do not ride.

As it turns out, I am not unique. While cycling has become a big grass-roots movement through organizations like Pro Walk/ Pro Bike and The National Center for Bicycling and Walking, and is becoming a more expected form of transportation, there is an enormous gender gap among users. Nearly all the new riders on the U.S. roads in the last 20 years have been men between the ages of 25 and 64. Considering the demographics of U.S. citizens, that is a relatively small constituency that we are currently designing our streets for. So for all the investment made in making our streets more “complete,” how can we do this in a way that reaches out to more users?

A 2009 article in Scientific American states that there are two reasons for the gender gap: 1) women are more averse to risk than men, and 2) cycling to work will impede on women’s ability to conform to social norms, including makeup, hair, and hairstyles. The second reason is a big bite to chew, so let me concentrate on the first. I will say, however, that there are lots of ponytail wearing women (like me), who would hop on a bike if they felt safe. Jan Garrard, a senior lecturer in planning states, “If you want to know if an urban environment supports cycling, you can forget about all the detailed ‘bikeability indexes’—just measure the proportion of cyclists who are female.” I personally can’t remember the last time or if I’ve ever seen a woman on a bicycle on the Tampa streets.

Bicycle Lane - Woman Cycling to work

This cycle track is a less-risk-averse way to travel by bike. (Source: Monica Bradley) The second picture shows a woman cycling to work despite her need to comply with professional norms. (Source: kilthebird via Grist)

The first step is to substantially lower the risk of cycling, which will be done mostly through a change in infrastructure. Cycle tracks like the above example in New York City are becoming more popular in certain cities across the country. Because of the complete physical separation from the threat of cars, all users will perceive a lower threat to their safety. The problem besides the constant challenge of funding, is finding the right-of-way to accommodate them, especially in a car-centric culture like Florida. There will have to be evidence of a high enough level of ridership to justify cutting out a lane from a congested street. What we have is a chicken and the egg conundrum: there is not the required ridership now because a majority of 50% of the population doesn’t feel safe. A good compromise to this is allowing room for a physical separation between a one way bike lane and car traffic. Creative medians and plantings used in Denver is one example of this, and simply placing parallel parking between car traffic and the bike lane is another. (See photos below) And then, of course, there is the hope that as towns and cities go on the increasingly popular “road diets,” that they will provide scope for these facilities in addition to placemaking and pedestrian elements. With the right-of-way space to spare, hopefully these can serve as good evidential examples for more congested cities that are hesitant to turn that car lane over.

safe cycling infrastructure in the right-of-way

Examples of safe cycling infrastructure in the right-of-way (Source: Live Downtown Denver, Streetsblog.org)

Many might say that building a bike culture is more than just infrastructure. And they would be right. But Billy Hattaway from the Florida DOT said to me this past week that infrastructure is an integral piece, and if we don’t improve bike lanes to cater to a larger part of the population, we might lose the justification to have bike lanes at all. I agree with him.

The second step is to get more riders. In “Beyond the Bike Lanes: Building a Culture of Bike Safety,” with Wesley Marshall from the University of Colorado, he showed that evidence proves that the more cyclists there are, the more safe it is to bike. There is a belief by some transportation planning engineers that more cyclists and users in the road will make it unsafe, but “safety in numbers” is true. This is for a couple of reasons: 1) people feel more comfortable doing an activity that they see other people doing, and 2) drivers are more aware of cyclists since they see them more often, in other words, they are on the lookout for them. Of course, infrastructure supportive of biking culture will play a part in this, but Marshall argues what’s even more important are land use patterns.

This takes us to the third step. Land use is instrumental in making cycling or walking a viable and efficient transportation choice for users. First of all, people will only choose cycling as a mode of transportation if it is convenient and efficient. Ridership in parts of the city without mixed-uses and with low density will be low compared to more urban areas with many commercial/residential/institutional uses nearby and close together. Riding to a local grocery store to get a gallon of milk is realistic. Riding to a Wal-Mart for your weekly shopping is not. But Marshall’s research showed that the biggest aspect of achieving bike safety is the intersection density. The more intersections there were in a development, the safer it was for riders. At first thought this might go against common sense because intersections are the sites of many crashes, but more connectivity = slower speeds = more awareness. Connectivity also allows for more mixed-uses and higher densities. Many cities put their resources into developing recreational cycling trails. While this is very admirable, as a “wanna-be” cyclist, I’d be a proponent of putting those funds into street design instead. Putting the infrastructure on routes where people go in their everyday lives, will lead to the most increase in ridership.

And the fourth step, although, I happen to think it’s the least important, is encouraging people to cycle by making it a pleasant experience. I mention this only because William Lindeke, a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, summarized his research quickly in the session “From Balanced Roads to TOD” as part of the CNU20 conference. When he interviewed regular cyclists about their favorite thing about choosing cycling as a form of transportation, their responses were: “I like to see how long I can go without holding the handlebars” and “I love the sound of my tires crunching acorns beneath my tires.” I will add to that by saying my favorite thing about riding my bike down Bayshore Blvd. is feeling the wind hit my face when it’s hot outside. Many people ride for many different reasons. This research is definitely worth being aware of when planners design cycling infrastructure.

So there are a lot of factors that need to come together to increase ridership and bridge the gender gap in cycling. As someone who would love to ditch my car in favor of my bike on my daily commute, the risk aversion holds me back. I think Billy Hattaway’s warning is very relevant in the future of bike/ped planning. Providing the lane along the side of the road is not enough: we must examine the evidence and psychology behind riding in order to make it a real choice for the majority of the population or we will find ourselves losing the justification to provide them at all.

This article can also be found at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc 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.

Functional Classification to Realizing Complete Streets for Everyone.

15 May

“Who the heck invited the DOT?”

This was John Moore’s question to the audience this past week at CNU 20 during the presentation he entitled, “Not Your Grandfather’s DOT,” as part of the Balanced Roads to Transit-Oriented Development session. His question to the audience was humorous because traffic engineers have gained the reputation in the past as being insensitive and unaware to the many street design qualities required by the CNU Charter and the Complete Streets movement. Moore from District 5 of the Florida Department of Transportation wasn’t the only one creating buzz about how the DOT is moving forward to complete streets. Billy Hattaway, the Secretary of District 1, was also present at CNU20, speaking about the Transit Oriented Development (TND) Chapter in the Roadway Design Green Book that goes live today. Hattaway’s continual presence at CNU and Moore’s presentation show that there is a shift that is beginning to occur within the transportation engineering community.

Moore began by laying out the four challenging issues that the DOT is increasingly facing and are creating a new challenge in Florida and the United States. These are acting as the foundation for the direction in which the DOT is shifting its policies.

1. Funding

A diminishing reserve of funding and a decrease in revenues shows DOT that its current operation plan is not sustainable. Low densities often equal low tax revenues, which don’t meet the demands of maintaining infrastructure and public facilities. Affecting them even more is the reductions in gas tax due to the decrease in VMT as gas prices have risen, as well as the amended CAFÉ standards and the influx of hybrid vehicles that have improved fuel economy. There is a consensus that this unsustainable trajectory needs to shift.

2. Safety

Our roads are becoming increasingly unsafe. The top four metropolitan areas in the U.S. with the most pedestrian deaths by vehicle are all in Florida: Orlando, Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach top off the list. To name a few, here are some sobering facts provided by Transportation for America’s Florida Overview between 2000-2009:

  • 5,613 pedestrians were killed in Florida
  • 67% of pedestrian fatalities occurred on roads that are eligible to receive federal funding
  • 60% of pedestrian fatalities occurred on roads 40 mph or higher
  • 15% of pedestrians have a chance of surviving a collision with a car travelling 40 mph
  • 40% of collisions occurred where no cross walk was available and 10% of fatalities occurred inside a cross walk

3. Decrease in Drivers

The exponential cost increase of driving has made it more unpopular. When I was 14 years old, I counted down the days until I got my learner’s permit. It was a rite of passage and a representation of personal freedom that is desired by all teenagers. I was astounded to see that there is a big culture shift that is beginning. Moore provided these stats:

  • People now spend a 1/5 of their yearly income on transportation costs
  • There has been a decrease of 23% in young drivers with their VMT on a downward trend
  • 1/3 of Americans don’t drive due to age and affordability

4. Land Use

Out of the 40 projects that request funding from MetroPlan Orlando, 23 are multimodal. There is an understanding at the DOT that land use is integral to the success of multimodal systems. The most important quality in achieving the optimal realization of a transportation system is a connected street network and land use patterns. For all modes to connect, they need to be easily accessible and intersect often. Here are some stats the DOT is becoming more aware of:

  • 66% of people want more transportation options to allow more freedom in accessing their built environment
  • 73% of people feel like they have no choice but to drive
  • 57% of people want to spend less time in their car

It was refreshing and encouraging to have such committed representatives from the DOT in attendance at CNU20. I am an urban designer at Tindale-Oliver & Associates in Tampa that has traditionally been known for its transportation planning and engineering practice. As a member of the newly formed Urban Design and Community Planning team, it is my team’s responsibility to integrate land use planning and design into the many projects we do. It has been a wonderful learning experience so far, and with the commitment of my firm and people like Moore and Hattaway at the DOT, I see an encouraging future of change in how we design and build our streets. To quote John, “Move people, not cars.” It’s going to be really exciting to be at the lead of that shift and incrementally change how Florida and the rest of the country address the four issues above.

While John Moore did a nice job spelling out the challenges that the DOT faces in realizing its commitment to complete streets, Richard Hall’s presentation as part of the Functional Classification: The Least Interesting Policy that Dominates Most Everything session offered a realistic solution that I believe can have a great impact on getting DOTs there faster.

First and foremost, Hall was just funny. At the beginning of what potentially could have been the most boring discussion in CNU history, he demonstrated the irony of the land use world we live in. We give our suburbs names like “Town and Country Estates.” Well is it a town or is the country? Hall suggested it might be Middle Earth. He also defined “street” and “road.” Many use these terms interchangeably when really they are very different. A street is a place that fosters community activity and relationships with people. They are important elements for the social and economic health of the public realm. Roads, on the other hand, are primarily for moving people and cars quickly and provide access to get places. Take the phrases “A product is hitting the street” and “Hit the road, Jack.” You would never exchange the two terms in these phrases. They would lose their meanings, because they are not the same. This is certainly a humorous and easy way to define the two. Read more about the difference between roads and streets here.

A Visual Definition of Road vs. Street (Sources: Future Communities and Walk Sydney Streets)

Hall was involved in the development of Seaside and has committed to New Urbanism ever since. In his quest to see more complete streets built, he realized, just like the master planner, Andres Duany, that in order to see change, he must speak the language of the people capable of making change. Enter the DOT. As a former employee, he knew that the Functional Classification System was so imbedded in the U.S. transportation culture that he needed to adapt it to consider land use, contextual character, and multimodal uses.

In addition to his Walkability Index, which can be seen here, he designs roads and streets based on Augmented Functional Classification. Traditionally, arterials, collectors, and local roads are defined by certain characteristics of speed and right-of-way despite the changes in urban context that they are in. The traditional DOT focus has been on safety = less congestion = moving cars quickly. While the traditional system defines a lot, along with establishing this belief, it doesn’t clearly demarcate the difference between suburban, rural, and urban. In many cases, the system defaults to rural and suburban, resulting in large roads devoid of place. Hall’s new system manipulates the speed and design for the same road type based on the context. This system can also serve as a guide in block size and connectivity based on the graphic below.

A visual representation of Richard Hall’s Augmented Functional Classification

It’s going to take creative conceptual thinking by consultants to work within the transportation planning culture that is rooted deep in engineering. Hall’s innovative reconfiguration of the Functional Classification system is an example of how all transportation planners can approach a more open DOT culture. There is no doubt that even if it is small, there is a shift in engineering culture within the public and private sectors to change the way we design our roads. The change will be slow, but with the help of good urban designers who understand the art of placemaking and the constraints of transportation engineering, we can make change happen faster.

This post can also be found at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc 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.

Why Did We Stop Walking and How Do We Start Again?

13 May

As you may know, the CNU20 conference was organized around tracks which allowed you to focus on your particular interest and how it related to New Urbanism. I spent most of my time on the “Mobility and Walkable City” since that is where my concentration lies. There is no doubt that the best breakout session of this track was “Why Did We Stop Walking & How Do We Start Again? The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City” presented by Eric Dumbaugh, Richard Hall, and Peter Norton.

I came into this session with a heightened awareness of this topic after concentrating on Tom Vanderbilt’s series, The Crisis in American Walking in Slate magazine last month. I wasn’t expecting to learn much more. I mean, what was there to learn? We started building our streets around the car because more people started driving, right? I couldn’t have been more wrong. As it turns out there was a blatant social, economic, and political shift that taught us to change the way we used our streets. This was not a natural change in priorities, but a direct result of media propaganda.

Now, we always hear that we can’t blame our problems on our past. Our choices are ours alone. If we choose to get into our automobile and drive to the grocery store instead of walk this afternoon, its our own responsibility. Yes, there is truth in that. But just as we might discover in a personal therapy session that there are reasons we make the choices we do in our every day lives, this session enlightened me into why Americans behave the way they do.

I encourage you all to read Fighting Traffic by Peter Norton to get all the gory details, but for me the brainwashing media campaign that two generations before me suffered, culminated in the TV show Merrily We Roll Along, narrated by Groucho Marx, as part of the weekly series DuPont Series of the Week, in 1961. While the campaign against the pedestrian started forty years prior, it was this show that coined the phrase “American’s love affair with the automobile.” In it, Groucho Marx narrated that we love our cars and would do anything for them. Essentially, we can’t help any destruction or negative impacts they leave in their wake because we love them too much. The analogy was made between cars and women, i.e. “we can’t live with them, we can’t live without them.” Man was the driver, the car was the woman. Americans were helplessly in love.

And what a surprise! Pierre DuPont had a controlling stock in GM (General Motors) from 1914 to 1957 (until he was forced to sell to keep from monopolizing the market as part of the Clayton Antitrust Act), was the GM board chairman for a significant amount of time, and was appointed president of GM in 1920. Americans didn’t decide they had a love affair with the automobile, the DuPont family and Groucho Marx did, and we have believed it ever since.

Of course the media campaign by the car industry started way before in the early 20s. Peter Norton showed us this picture that was taken in Detroit, “The Motor City” in 1917:

Woodward Avenue at Monroe Avenue, Detroit, 1917 (Source: Detroit News)

In one of the busiest intersections of this big city, all users are sharing the street. Pedestrians and streetcars navigate around each other carefully. This was normal and nothing was thought of it. The street belonged to people and it was completely safe to let your children play in the street. Shift to 1923 when the number of automobile fatalities increased to 15,500 from 5oo in 1907, most of them children 4-8 years old. People were in an uproar at cars, drivers, and the automobile industry. Sensing a threat to their growing business, the industry went into a high gear (no pun intended) “educational,” or I might say, brainwashing, media campaign. “Jaywalking,” which wasn’t even a word in the American dictionary, was invented and then associated with a ridicule of anyone who did. Clowns were hired to dress up like buffoons, or “jaywalkers,” and then ridiculed in public on the streets. The auto industry realized the power of social norms, and used them. In Cincinnati, when the local government tried to cap car speed off at 25 mph on any streets. This was the media response:

Advertisement by Citizen’s Committee, 1923. (Source: Cincinnati Post)

The ordinance failed.

I think it’s important to mention here that while Americans did need convincing to give their streets up to the automobile, they were simultaneously driving more themselves. As the car became more financially accessible and the streetcar was put out of business (by the automobile), it was perhaps easier to understand the messages that the industry was feeding them. After all, the growing number of drivers didn’t want to be blamed for the death of children. It was much easier to blame their parents for letting them play in the street. It is true that the car was empowering and expressive: it could take you wherever you wanted to go, when you wanted to go, and however you wanted to go. Pierre DuPont and Groucho Marx might have had an audience waiting on them, but there is no doubt that without the media campaign they might have not gone so willingly or blindly into the destruction that the automobile caused.

We all know the destruction that the automobile has caused in our relationships with community and the environment, but the media shift to loving the automobile is still very much alive today. I wrote about the Raquel Nelson case last month (read it here). In case you are not familiar, this woman was charged for the death of her own son when he was struck by a drunk driver crossing a busy arterial in Marietta, Georgia. This was not the first time this has happened. Peter Norton made the case that streets now belong to the car, and anyone that gets in the way of the car is at fault. His point was made clear when he presented data collected by transportation departments in monitoring safety. The data list the reasons for pedestrian deaths in a manner that inherently blames the pedestrian, ie: “death due to disability.” As if this person could control the fact that they were disabled. While many people think that this is absurd, the shift back to streets belonging to people has simply not happened. The AASHTO guide clearly equates higher car speed with safety. Higher speed = street design for the automobile = life threatening conditions for anyone else trying to use the street.

The shift from blaming the driver to blaming the pedestrian: Baltimore’s memorial to child accident victims during its 1922 dedication by the mayor (Source: National Safety News) and the media coverage of Raquel Nelson in 2012 (Source: Huffington Post)

Holy cow, knowing this made me so sad. It would be one thing if the destruction we had caused to our built environment was a natural progression of ignorant behavior, but it was due in large part from the manipulations of the corporate media. Heartbreaking. It makes me feel helpless, because it shows how easily our human nature is swayed. GM held our hands into what could be argued as one of the most destructive relationships of the 20th century: man and car. Who knows what long-term destruction will be caused by the manipulation of the media today.

But then Eric Dumbaugh made a very opportunistic thought: this media campaign worked once, it can work again. We were so easily influenced to believe that the death of our children was worth our “love affair” with the car. This is evidence that convincing people of anything is possible. Of course behind the media campaign of the first half of the 20th century was a multi-million dollar industry. Just like the tobacco industry that followed in its footsteps, its influence was motivated by profit, not the betterment of mankind. So this is our challenge: who will take the lead this extremely expensive media campaign when the government is has just pumped $27 billion dollars into GM?

Eric Dumbaugh also made the point that we need to know our past to understand our future. All built environment professionals need to read Fighting Traffic to fully understand how to move forward in reclaiming our streets. Thanks to Peter Norton for his extremely enlightening research into why we are the way we are today. So much has been explained, the enlightening result will help move forward to building streets where our children can play again.

This post can also be found at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc 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.

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Space, The First But Not Final Frontier: Analyzing Space, Uses, and Transportation.

13 May

When I chose this breakout session, I didn’t really fully understand the title, but I was confident that with “space” and “transportation,” it had to be up my alley. It turned out to be a presentation of four of the latest and greatest research papers conducted in the New Urbanism field. As they were discussed, it was a little challenging to string them together with one theme, but when the question and answer session started, it became very clear to me very quickly. This was a discussion on connectivity—more specifically, how connectivity was dependent on the clear distinction between public and private space.

The two most interesting papers presented were New Urbanism Transportation in an AASHTO World by Wesley Marshall and the Legal Aspect of City Planning and Urban Design by Paul Knight. The former concentrated specifically on the street design of Stapleton in Denver, Colorado, while the latter focused on the extinct Master Street Plan that used to be instrumental in our planning culture. Between the two, a problem was clearly identified and the challenge to overcome it was set in motion. Moderator Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk summed it up nicely when she said that the most crucial element in the development of greenfield land or in urban infill is the clear distinction between private and public space. Without it, true connectivity with the surrounding urban context is impossible.

Ever since I became an urban designer, I have been a champion of connectivity. I also have been aware of the importance and benefits of clear separation between public and private space. Perimeter blocks creating the clear separation allows for overlooking opportunities and a safe public realm. They also create the highest concentration of activity in open spaces, which contributes to placemaking and identity-building initiatives. Finally, the distinction of public and private space leads people to better maintain and emotionally connect to their property. But never had I made the association between public vs. private space and connectivity.

This is most likely because my urban design and urban planning education took place in England. While this provided a unique and challenging educational context that I cherish, I can be a little foggy on my American planning history. I got a phenomenal history lesson in the Zoning Enabling Act of 1924, which was a zoning plan of private space, and the City Planning Act, which was a master street plan of public space. I learned that in the early 20th century both of these worked together to create a holistic planning system that focused on the separation of public and private space. A 1947 Supreme Court case led to the eradication of the Master Street Plan, which reduced the zoning plan to a comprehensive plan, which acted as a land use map for both public and private space. Let the chaos ensue.

The result was that the private sector, not the government, became responsible for building streets … and we actually trusted them to do so. Prior to the eradication of the Master Street Plan, developers, planners, city officials, and the public knew where the public rights-of-way would be, providing a seamless integration of phased development. Paul Knight gave the example of Manhattan, which was built over 130 years, but appears to be constructed all at once because, aside from Central Park, it adheres religiously to the street master plan. With the loss of this organization, there is no incentive for the road network to be consistent.

The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811: The Street Master Plan that was honored until its completion 130 years later. (Source: Got Geoint)

Along with many flawed aspects of street design in New Urbanism developments due to satisfying AASHTO demands, the main takeaway from Wesley Marshall’s discussion on Stapleton was that the lack of a Street Master Plan results in “lollypop connectivity.” On a site that will eventually accommodate 30,000 people, there is only one east/west, north/south axis that connects it to the rest of the city. The rest of the grid stems off of these arteries. While the interior grid is connected in itself, its lack of contextual connectivity results in arteries that are sometimes six travel lanes wide with a lack of development on either side. The result is an uncomfortable and perceived unsafe place to be. “Lollypop connectivity” is the direct evidence of the challenges that urban designers face in retrofitting suburbia or sprawl repair: zoning had led to a jumble of private and public space with few options to change it. The cost for city government to buy private land in order to connect the road network/alleviate congestion/narrow roads is so high it is unrealistic.

True Connectivity vs. “Lollypop” Connectivity

While Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk’s reaction to the conundrum that this has left us in today was heavily on the hopeless side, she did offer the example of Miami 21, the zoning code written by DPZ. While they were very, very close to convincing the Public Works department to allow street design and construction to go to public hearing, they did not succeed. DPZ was able to ensure a one-mile grid requirement within the Miami city limits. If this were in place in Denver when Stapleton was built, there is no doubt that the development would operate and appear radically different.

Repairing sprawl has increasingly become a popular topic within New Urbanism circles, and there is no doubt that it is one of the most important tasks for my generation of urban designers. Plater-Zyberk says the most powerful thing we can do is create that division between public and private space. This was a strong and effective realization for me in my fight for connectivity. These two powerful pieces of research presented by academics and professionals in their 20s demonstrate that with a little help from our regulatory systems, we can make a big difference in the sustainable development of the future.

You can also check out this post at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc 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. 

Looking Forward: New Urbanism and the New World.

12 May

This morning when I walked into the West Palm Beach convention center, I was very excited to be able to meet and brainstorm with the thinkers at the forefront of my profession, or at least the people who share in the same urban design theology. I had heard rumblings about the culture of the Congress of New Urbanism and certainly knew that the founders of the movement were opinionated and outspoken. I have always admired this about them and was interested to see the vibe that the conference would have. The attraction and numbers of attendees have way outgrown the close dinner group that began New Urbanism more than 20 years ago, but the heavy hitters like Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Ellen Dunham-Jones, and John Norquist, to name a few, no doubt still have a big hand in the direction and focus of the movement. With the combination of professionals who have the reputation for being devotees to their beliefs and fresh new blood like me, anything was possible.

I knew there was the possibility that CNU20 would be an exercise in brainwashing. After all, the movement certainly has this reputation from its critics. But I was pleasantly surprised to find just the opposite. The morning started off with the plenary session, Looking Forward: New Urbanism and the New World with Daniel Solomon and Andres Duany. The result was an introduction to New Urbanism with a debate on theology between two very prominent urban designers, which set the tone of challenging our own and each other’s beliefs in what New Urbanism is and should be. We were off to a good start, and I felt satisfied in my defense of the movement after all these years. It was clear that there was room for many ideas here.

Andres Duany vs Daniel Solomon

Daniel Solomon vs. Andres Duany (Source: Seaside Institute)

This session was so powerful for me because the arguments that both Daniel Solomon and Andres Duany made, while contradicting each other, both resonate with me. After studying New Urbanism for my master’s-level urban design thesis, I knew that the movement was becoming water-downed by every Tom, Dick, and Harry development calling itself “New Urbanist“ even though the result on the ground, as far as I could tell, didn’t represent the CNU Charter in the least. The result was that the movement was unfairly being criticized for work that people thought was “theirs“ but that they had no right to claim. My research proved that there needed to be prescriptive direction and implementation techniques established so that New Urbanism would stay true to its promises. You can imagine my delight when the LEED-ND framework, which was written in large part by CNU, came on the scene. Finally, there was a standard by which to measure the principles found in the charter.

However, on the flip side, I had weathered what is hopefully the worst economic downturn I will ever see. There is almost no New Urbanism development happening at all, which has caused the movement to stall. Would people forget about New Urbanism? When the market picks back up will developers and planners condemn the stringent LEED-ND framework all together? New Urbanism has always been about ideas—were they getting lost?

Daniel Solomon thought so—in fact, he said that LEED-ND “strangles and sucks the life out of the American economy.” Solomon’s lecture, which he humorously named “My Dinner with Andres,” challenged the prescriptive and code-based turn New Urbanism had taken. He lamented the loss of when the movement revolved around the big discussions he used to have sitting around the dinner table, and pretty much blamed that on Duany’s Smart Code and Manual. Solomon described Duany as a man who was rigorous and defiant in his beliefs and simultaneously as a man who questioned his ideas constantly. My favorite quote of the whole day was, “Andres Duany creates an intellectual straightjacket that others wear, but that he won’t even put one arm in.” This made me ask the question: If Duany doesn’t wear his straightjacket, why should we? I think I understand why people gravitate towards concrete codes and manuals: they provide answers. We’re living in an uncertain time full or challenges for the future of our built environment. There are big problems that await us and, in response, people feel comforted by a set of rules that they can follow to solve them. Here’s a problem, and if I follow this, I can fix them. This equals confidence and control for urban designers and planners. Sitting around discussing ideas without offering solutions can be over overwhelming.

But perhaps Solomon’s most compelling argument was that this “reductive certitude” in New Urbanism was no different that Le Corbusier’s Athens Charter. Just the mention of this document makes planners shudder. It is blamed for some of the biggest idealistic planning screw-ups our country has ever seen. Solomon’s argument was that, like Duany’s smart code, it was written with certainty with what appeared to be little room for questioning. In my opinion, it was a quite a slam to compare Andres Duany, the founder of the very movement that all in attendance prescribe to, to Le Corbusier, the described destroyer of city life. Solomon questioned Duany’s theology, power, and influence. Man, were we in for a rebuttal.

And we got one.

I should go back and say that I was eagerly watching the first row for the response of some of these “heavy hitters” as I call them. Ellen Dunham-Jones leapt up immediately cheering and loudly applauding Solomon’s speech. It was obvious that there was a divide in this union, but it existed in a context that welcomed it.

Duany came out on fire in defense of his “straightjacket,” stating that the code allows for local calibration and adaption. But his real argument focused on the fact that the real world is a world of laws, not a world of opinions and ideas. The same system that was used to destroy the urban form is the same system that can be responsible for fixing it. He eradicated the notion that people think that if there is no code, then they will be free. The reality is that the default setting for the United States is one of code. It’s not going away and we need to use it to make change. In short, don’t fight the system, but use it to your advantage. Duany explained that the smart code planned—and is necessary—for complexity. While Solomon’s speech made me fantasize, Duany’s speech brought me back to the real world. But I found myself wanting to sit somewhere in the middle.

What really caught my attention was when Duany defended those that love the suburbs. This I was not expecting, and I have to acknowledge that he is right and I respect him for it. He described public involvement research exercises that involved scenario development. They would show people a picture of an idealistic, New Urbanism development and a picture of typical suburban sprawl. The former usually contained a compact, dense cottage with a picket fence and beautiful streetscape. The latter contained a plain house with garages for front doors sitting on large, empty streets, void of life. Despite the obvious attempt to sway opinion, 30% of people still chose the suburbs as their optimal place to live. Now, I don’t know who these people are (I certainly have never met them), but Duany assures me that they exist. The mature and admirable stance that he takes is that this is a free country and these people’s freedom to choose suburban wasteland must be protected; his smart code provides for that.

Duany continued by explaining his fascinating work in New Orleans, which will have to be the topic for another post in the future. His observations and respect for the culture of the city was extremely admirable. While he started off his talk with a passionate and sometimes angry rebuttal, I soon realized he was just in this reaction. The man is brilliant. I don’t think any of us need to ever where a straightjacket of ideas. Solomon is correct in that it can be very dangerous intellectually. But if we have to ever wear one, I’m confident I would wear Duany’s with pride.

I challenge you to watch the session here and ask yourselves the same questions of New Urbanism that these men do. If we prescribe ourselves to the beliefs this movement is based on, Solomon is right that we constantly question ourselves. My introspective journey has begun, and I look forward to sharing with you my response to the other sessions at CNU20 this week. Stay tuned….

You can also check out this post at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc 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. 

CNU20: The New World in West Palm Beach.

29 Apr

In 9 days, a lot of us will be traveling to West Palm Beach in Florida for the CNU20 conference to celebrate and learn more about New Urbanism. I have been invited by CNU to attend as a member of the press. I will be there to represent my blog and my employer, Tindale-Oliver and Associates. Honored and excited, I will be posting live throughout the week on the Plenary and Breakout sessions I attend daily. To get updates from CNU20 as I post them, please sign up for email alerts on the right hand side of this page. Also check me out on Twitter @helmpublicrealm. I will surely be tweeting a lot that week. I can’t wait to get writing and share what will no doubt be an exciting time with you. For those new to this blog, catch up on my previous posts by selecting a topic on the right or click the title at the head of the page to visit the home page.

Below are the sessions I will be writing about daily:

Plenary Sessions:

Looking Forward: New Urbanism and the New World with Andres Duany, Peter Calthorpe, and Others

Friday Night Plenary with Richard Florida

Saturday Morning Plenary Featuring Leon Krier

Break Out Sessions:

Space, the First but Not Final Frontier: Analyzing Space, Uses, and Transportation

Why Did We Stop Walking& How Do We Start Again? The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City

From Balanced Roads to Transit Oriented Development

Florida Mobility Policies: Regional Rail to Enhance Mobility

Clear Thinking: Urbanism + Transit

Functional Classification: The Least Interesting Policy That Dominates Most Everything

Realizing Streets for Everyone, and Getting Someone Else to Pay for Them: Funding, Designing and Implementing Complete Streets

Beyond Bike Lanes: Building a Culture of Bicycle Safety

You might notice the sessions I am attending are mostly transportation oriented. There are two reasons for this: The first, and most straightforward is that I am an urban designer at what traditionally has been a transportation planning and engineering firm in Florida. As the planning demands and expectations for a more sustainable built environment have shifted, it is undeniable that transportation planning and land use design are required to be more integrated. Secondly, and most importantly, the last few years of my career have made it clear that a real change in behavior from people requires public transit. Without it, it is unlikely that you will be able to peel us away from our cars and large parking lots. The result will continue to be devastating. Therefore, it is my commitment as an urban designer to become as knowledgeable as I can about how to make public transit a reality throughout the entire country. I want every individual to easily be able to access a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, light rail, a streetcar, or safe cycling lanes (and I want them all to be connected to one another), in my lifetime. Let the challenge begin…

My regular readers out there will know that I am a fan of the Congress for the New Urbanism, because unlike many of us, they have figured out a way to market (and even make trendy) traditional urban design principles, sustainability, and my favorite: connectivity. They did not reinvent the wheel, they did not come up with huge new ideas. They took traditional urban design principles that every place was built around before the introduction of the automobile, and repackaged them to make them relevant for our modern-day challenges. In short: genius. Often built environment professionals try to figure out the difference between TOD, TND, New Urbanism, mixed-use developments, etc. My answer is: not much. They are all variants on introducing the same age-old traditional urban design principles to the way we develop land today. What all these movements have done is brand themselves around that slight variant. Power to them, and anything that makes traditional urban design principles popular and easily understood, I am in support of. So  in short, yes, I have officially jumped on the CNU bandwagon.

No matter where my journey as an urban designer has taken me I have always met some critics of the movement, and let me address those here before we get this CNU20 party started.

Some of the most famous examples of New Urbanism: Seaside, FL; Celebration, FL; Kentlands, MD: Mesa del Sol, NM

(Source)(Source)(Source)(Source)

One of the most popular criticisms of CNU is that the developments appear as if they are stuck in the past, and not addressing what is contemporary and relevant. This trait is mostly identified by the very traditional architecture that in some cases shadows the true beauty of historic styles. The argument: shouldn’t a movement that is addressing the most critical and relevant concerns appear to be modern? My response: Yeah, that’s a totally fair argument.

Another criticism is that some of the big thinkers of the movement do not properly understand the economic impact that the design of New Urbanism developments can have, or at the very least, there is not a clear correlation between physical design and economic impact. They are accused of not realizing that mixed uses are extremely difficult to achieve in some locations, that the development’s “town centers” are often way to small and cannot grow and adapt over time, and commercial uses are often located where they are promised to fail. My response: Once again, I can see this point and in some cases it is warranted.

Finally, one of the last criticisms of New Urbanism developments is that they’re often being built on greenfield sites. This wastes more land instead of retrofitting the acres and acres of suburban wasteland. Umm….yeah, this is partly true.

But here is my response to all of those, and it is very simple. The urban design process is built on layers, the first being the most permanent, the last being the most transient. The first layer (the Underlying Landscape) is the terrain that we have been given. While it can be morphed through some expensive engineering work, it for the most part is very permanent and rarely changes. The second layer (the Street Network), often lasts for centuries. Many of the most used streets in Europe were built by Romans. Of course they have been modernized, but the actual route was first determined by the Roman Empire. When we build roads, we lay very expensive and complicated infrastructure. In reality, the street network we build will always be there. The third layer (Plots), is the way we divvy up the blocks made by the street network. These get tied up in legally and don’t change a whole lot. However, developers come along all the time and acquire lots for their projects. Compared to the first two, plots can change much easier. The fourth and fifth layers (Buildings and Public Spaces) can change comparatively easily and all the time. While we cherish our historic buildings, the average structure has a lifespan of only 40 years. So when we build that buildings that kills the life of the urban realm all around it, don’t worry it can be knocked down, and it often is.

I take the time to explain this, because a lot of the New Urbanism criticism is hung up on the fourth and fifth layers. My point is, is that we have so royally screwed up the second layer and in some cases the third, that we have bigger fish to fry. The connectivity and design of our street network is SO important in creating social and economic opportunities, not to mention allow a public transportation system to run efficiently, that we have to get that right. I love New Urbanism because it makes connectivity, grids, and perimeter blocks trendy. And in almost all the cases New Urbanism developments are very connected with beautiful streetscapes. I honestly don’t really care about the buildings that are being built within them. Because in 100 years they’ll probably all be gone, but that street network will still be going strong.

And yes, it’s not so great that greenfield sites are still being rampantly developed, but this is not New Urbanism’s fault. Development along highway exits will happen in this free market society until there is an enormous shift, it might as well be connected, permeable, and not a bunch of cul-da-sacs. One day when we sort out our public transportation, New Urbanism developments will be able to adapt and therefore be more successful than auto-centric developments.

So there are my two cents on New Urbanism. It ain’t perfect, but what is? The part that is done right, is the most important. I can’t wait to get to West Palm Beach and hear the biggest fore-thinkers in our profession speak. It will be a huge joy to write about it and hopefully see this blog turn into a place for lively discussion. I am honored to be in attendance, and I will no doubt leave as a better designer….and with a suntan!

West Palm Beach – the location of CNU20. Tough life right!? (http://miamiagentmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/west-palm-beach.jpg)

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine alone and do not represent those of Tindale-Oliver & Associates, Inc.

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