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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.

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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+

The Olympic Legacy…First Hand.

12 Aug

With all the talk and excitement flying around about the London 2012 Olympics, I couldn’t help but weigh in with my experience at the games last week. My husband and I were fortuitous enough to attend the games in person this summer, and experience all that came along with it, including transportation, access, etc. I tried to soak in as much of the probably once-in-a-lifetime event as I could, shuffling myself between venues.

I love the culture and excitement of these 2 weeks as much as the next spectator, but of course, as an urban designer and planner, the question most on my mind is what will the legacy be for the Olympic Park? Its design was promised to transform the east side of London, desperately in need of redevelopment. It was entirely on this argument that London won the bid, showing the derelict and blighted conditions of East London, while Paris focused on what made it glorious, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre.

Future London 2012 Olympic Park

Rendering of the future of London 2012 Olympic Park (Image: London Legacy Development Corporation)

So with a big promise, London 2012, now has a big job ahead of them. As the Games came to a close this past weekend we need to ask, how does London ensure that its Olympic site will be a catalyst for regeneration and sustainably revive an entire part of the city?

I should say my Olympic experience is limited. London was my first visit to the Olympics, however, I did visit the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys in Barcelona in 2005, 13 years after it hosted in 1992. My trip to Barcelona set the status quo for the challenge that cities have in sustaining the life in their Olympic sites. We arrived to an abandoned site, locked from any passing visitors. Perched on a hilltop separated from the city, the tram that we took to the top ran infrequently and was empty. We took some pictures next to Calatrava’s Communication Tower (the most eloquent structure by far), and left disappointed by the experience. In truth, after the whole world attached a physical place with so much glory, how is it ever to live up to the same excitement again? … it can’t.

Other cities have programmed the life out of their Olympic sites to try to keep them alive. Atlanta transformed its venues for every day use well, and Sydney has added accommodation and entertainment venues to make it more of an attraction. It’s website portrays a healthy and active place. Perhaps these two cities have had more time to transform their parks, because the documented current conditions of Athens and Beijing have been not so successful.

Both Athens and Beijing Olympic Parks currently suffer from lack of investment and maintenance. Venues have fallen into disrepair and calls for development have been made. It appears that there was little consideration for a legacy.

Run Down Olympic Venues Athens Beijing

The top pictures show the dilapidated conditions of the Athens Olympic Park, the bottom showing the poorly maintained conditions of Beijing’s venues. (Images: SF Gate and Yahoo Sports)

From all appearances, London has made the wise choice to not preserve the Olympic site as it is, but instead transform it to what it needs to be. The venues that did not serve a purpose for the community were built to be temporary; the ones that were needed received the highest quality of design and construction. This strategic urban and site planning, allowed them to concentrate funding where it would matter the most, and plan the temporary venues in locations that could be transformed with the most ease.

That was very apparent when I visited the Olympic site. A large park lining a canal served as the spine that gave structure to the rest of the site. It clearly was very well-funded, and intelligently planted with indigenous plant and wild flowers, which require little maintenance. The venues that would serve the community after the Games, were beautifully designed. The Velodrome that I affectionately call the “Pringle,” is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen.

Also, beautifully designed was the Aquatic Center. While the community needed a swimming facility, they did not need one that was large enough to accommodate an Olympic audience. Therefore, the center was designed to be transformed and reduced in size after the Games. Attached to each end, were large temporary stands. The distinction between the two structures was apparent.

The same is true of the fate of the Olympic Stadium. Commonly preserved in its Olympic state, stadiums can often suffer from not having a common use after the Games. Like the stadium in Atlanta, which was turned over to the Atlanta Braves, the stadium in London will be turned over to a professional soccer team, most likely Westham United. It will be restructured, reduced in size, to accommodate the appropriate sized audience.

London 2012 Venues

The “Pringle,” permanent segment of the Aquatic Center, and the Olympic Stadium.

Other venues were apparently very temporary. The Riverbank Hockey Centre and the BMX track were nothing but glorified scaffolding. Some studios and support buildings were made out of stacked shipping containers. When I turned to corner, or looked a little too closely, I could see the inter-workings of the games barely hidden behind some slipped canvas on a fence.  The basketball arena, even though beautifully designed, will be taken down and rebuilt in Rio for the 2016 Olympics.

Shipping Containders London

TV studios and office made from shipping containers.

The result, at least for me, was that it did not feel magical. It did not feel like the Olympic site was designed to create a perfect experience for the Olympic visitor. There were holes and gaps in the perfection.

That was refreshing.

Below are two site plans, the right as it is now, and the left, how it will transformed. The heart of the Olympic village that surrounds the park will be preserved, and the parts of the site that border existing neighborhoods will be redeveloped as mixed-use developments. This will serve as a buffer between parts of the city that are in the most desperate need of redevelopment and the uniqueness of the remaining Olympic venues. While it is still to be determined how sustainably designed these neighborhoods will be, the site plan is promising.

At the very least, the largest mall in Europe and a world-class international high-speed train station that will soon overtake the famous Victoria station in trips, ensure the Park will be well-visited and benefit from good access. The site planning strategy and greater regional planning by London will ensure the Park’s legacy and future success.

London 2012 Olympics Legacy Master Plans

Right: London 2012 Olympic Park designed for the Olympic Games; Left: the Park transformed after the Games (Image: London Legacy Development Corporation)

In addition to the physical design of the site, it is also programmed for the following uses:

  • Part of the East London Tech City Technology hub.
  • The largest urban park in Europe, designed specifically to enrich local ecology through wetlands and native species.
  • A new university will be founded that will specialize in sport science, digital media, and green technology.
  • The facilities will be open to the public.
  • The Olympic Village will be converted to apartments.
  • Allotments will be reinstated and created.

London creatively used other existing venues throughout the city, and south of the country, to minimize the size and impact of the Olympic park. The most exciting Olympic experience might have been watching beach volleyball in temporary stands in the heart of Horse Guards Parade. London had enough foresight to take advantage of the beautiful architecture filled in the city…why build a stadium, when a historic building would be more beautiful.

Not only did this allow funds to be used appropriately to ensure the Olympic site’s legacy, it also made the games run more sustainably and efficiently. With events spread out throughout the city, public transportation never became to crowded or bogged down. We could walk, train, and drive everywhere we needed to go with ease.

Horse Guards Parade London 2012

The beautiful back drop of the beach volleyball venue at Horse Guards Parade in London.

Only time will tell if London’s Olympic Park will suffer the same fate as Beijing and Athens, or the redevelopment success of Atlanta and Sydney. However, from a first hand experience of the Games, it is clear that the foundation for greatness has been set. Investment, maintenance, and a commitment to the legacy the city has promised will determine the future of East London.

Erin’s Google+

Mayberry: Is Small Town America a Myth?

14 Jul

It’s true that the American icon of Mayberry was well before my time, but as a native North Carolinian it certainly has been indoctrinated into my personal culture and maybe even identity. Fictional Mayberry, North Carolina was in almost every American’s living room for nearly a decade, and many more years after through syndication. Even as a young child, I knew the whistling theme tune. In my house The Andy Griffith Show was revered, and in my own mind, I made the assumption that what had made it so special had to some extent been lost in pop culture. On July 3rd, Andy Griffith passed away, and I questioned myself: has Mayberry been lost?

In the wake of Andy Griffith’s death I came across the BBC article, Is the ideal of small-town America a myth?. Author, Rob Dreher believes that Mayberry has always been a myth and therefore it was impossible for it to have been lost. While this fictional world often led to idealised story lines I am sure, after hearing stories of my parents and grandparents’ generations growing up in the South, I find it hard to believe that places like Mayberry never existed, or perhaps, I am happier living in denial that perhaps it can’t be recreated. But Andy Griffith said himself, even though it was based on his own experiences in North Carolina, that Mayberry was a myth.

What shocked me most about the BBC article was, “We are instructed to spite Mayberry as a kind of ironic inoculation against the supposed unreality of a traditional, square way of life. You can’t go back to Mayberry, they say, by which they mean forget it, small-town and rural life is over, and was a lie in the first place.” I’ve never been told or sensed in American culture that we are instructed to spite small-town America, in fact, with movements like New Urbanism, etc., I think as a planner I am instructed to feel just the opposite. One could argue that whether it is through television, country music, or an urban planning movement, the community and culture that goes along with small towns is revered and should be recreated.

As a bit of research I asked my father about how he felt watching The Andy Griffith Show when it first aired in the 1960s and what it meant to him. His first comment was, “it represented the way I wished it was.” He commented that Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith’s character), represented a rational and quiet calmness that was a breath of fresh air in the midst of the Equal Rights Movement. It seems that even in during the 1960s, one of America’s most challenging times, small town culture might have already been lost. While my father lamented the fact that Mayberry represented a lost culture where everyone tried to help everyone else, he did say that the physical urban character was a very accurate depiction of what it was like to live in a small, agricultural, American town. The Main Street served as the center of the town, and most residents walked everywhere, and children rode their bikes. Even when The Andy Griffith Show was aired, the urban form of small towns hadn’t yet been lost.

Today, or at least before the bust, marketing campaigns like the one below  (a development masterplanned by the New Urbanism firm, DPZ), for a new housing development was common. The New Urbanism movement has clearly shown that small towns and all the preconceived notions that come with it, sells houses. In my opinion, it’s not that people miss living in a small town, necessarily, but they miss the sense of community. With marketing tag lines like “A Place Where Yesterday Meets Today,” for The Vermillion development in North Carolina, some people believe that if they can leave their subdivisions, cul-de-sac, and Escalades behind they might feel like they belong to a place and the people who live there.

The New Urbanism Marketing Campaign

New Urbanism Marketing Campaign (Image: http://www.newvermillion.com/home.htm)

I am a strong believer in the marketing of smart growth and sustainable development, and on some level, believe that anything that sells these important design principles should be championed in the development profession. But I can’t help but think that thousands of people have moved to these “small town” developments, and turn up to find they just can’t fit their escalade in their back alley…and nothing much else. I have to agree to some extent with the BBC reporter, Dreher, that the cultural ideals that are represented by small town America have been lost. Mass globalization, automobiles, cultural and national events, and technological evolution can pretty much take responsibility for the loss of places like Mayberry. Of course, with these things, have come very positive contributions to our world that we would never trade back.

I may assume from the limited research into my father’s mind, that the sense of community and neighborly friendliness left America and their small towns, well before the physical urban form changed. So, therefore even if we design our urban form to answer to traditional design principles, we may not be able to bring that back. Not all hope is lost however… There are numerous other reasons to design and build places that adhere to urban design and smart growth characteristics that New Urbanism often embodies. Climate change, public health, and social equality are just a few. New Urbanists, developers, and everyone else who is trying to sell sustainable smart growth based on what community meant in the past, needs to find a new argument. Otherwise, one day, people will catch on to the fact that they are being sold something that doesn’t exist and can’t be recreated. Let’s stop living in the past, cherish what we have now in our culture, and try to figure out what “community” means for us in society today.

Mount Airy Mayberry

Mount Airy, NC today. Andy Griffith’s hometown and what many think was the inspiration for Mayberry. (Image: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2477/3844702155_f909e86718_z.jpg)

Erin’sGoogle+

Building Smarter Cities…In the Year 2060.

29 Jun

When my colleague put an article on my desk today with the subtitle, “Climate change will drive people to urban areas. How will urban planners accommodate them all?” it caught my attention, not because of the topic, but because of the double spread striking image of the “flat tower” proposed by architect Schirr-Bonnan. With an opening line of “The world’s population will top nine billion by 2060,” I read on.

Paul-Eric Schirr-Bonnan's Flat Tower building

Paul-Eric Schirr-Bonnan’s “Flat Tower” building (Image: Bryan Christie in Popular Science, July 2012)

These huge nebulous buildings house 40,000 people, as well as offices, recreational areas, and transportation hubs. They spread across acres of the city, hovering over green spaces like a web. My first reaction to this piece of architecture was fear. This “flat tower” concept reminded me of Le Corbusier’s City of Tomorrow and more terrifyingly (since they were actually built), American public housing failures like Cabrini Green in Chicago and Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis. This is all very ironic because the architect defends his design by saying, “the conventional skyscraper model- a tower surrounded by green space- leads to the isolation of communities from one another. A greenbelt area under the building would encourage communities to interact.” Even more ironic, is that “interacting community” is the exact same argument architects used to promote the green space that surrounded towers. As I sat pondering the article, it baffled me how organizing people in massive structures that covered green space was any different from towers sitting in it. My conclusion: they are the exact same.

Public housing towers have gone down in history as one of the largest architectural failures in America for many reasons. One of the largest, I believe, is mostly because the architectural design of the building separated people from public space. By only providing shared public space, it meant that no one supervised it, took care of it, or cared one bit about it. It also disconnected people from the human scale. Quite simply, when you do this, it makes people feel less human. The architect of Pruitt Igoe, Minoru Yamasaki, simply stated about its failure: “I wish I had never built it.” That kind of sums up what a massive failure the last City of Tomorrow vision was.

Visions are great, don’t get me wrong. They are better than great, they are necessary. Without vision, change is not possible and it is very clear to accommodate the enormous growth of cities into the year 2060 we will certainly need it. However, sometimes visions go bad – like Le Corbusier’s and the modernism movement that followed. But this is where John Powell’s famous quote, “the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing” pops into my head. And then the fear sets in. This “visionary” idea by Schirr-Bonnan, will no doubt have the same segregation and community-killing effects that modernist architecture did. These mixed-use webs separate people from their built environment at an inhumane scale and create public spaces that are unclaimed and unsupervised.

Minoru Yamasaki - hallways of Pruitt Igoe

A sketch showing Minoru Yamasaki’s vision for the hallways of Pruitt Igoe vs. the reality before demolition. (Images: When Art History Goes Bad Blog)

I have said it before, but it bears repeating: the real vision in urban planning lies not in revolutionary reorganization of how people live or interact, but using traditional design principles to address the most challenging issues of our day, like climate change, obesity, and social exclusion. Just as every “vision” into the future, whether its Orwell’s 1984, 2001 Space Odyssey, or The Jettson’s, has not come to fruition, neither will a world where we have to abandon our most human need: sense of community. So lets stick to our dense residential townhouses and live/work units and mixed-use mid-rises. We know they work; they have for centuries. The proof is in the pudding. No “vision” required.

As this article is in Popular Science, I shouldn’t be surprised by its futuristic, or should I say, far fetching ideas. However, most in this article weren’t. MIT professor Dennis Frenchman, says the most important factor is accommodating a huge influx of population into cities is efficiency. Transportation networks, city locations for manufacturing firms, power generation, and food production, and mixed-use buildings are solutions to cut down on commuting and pollution. Now these are ideas I can get on board with.

We have our work cut out with these issues that are relevant to today. These are not challenges of 2060, but challenges of 2012. While a summary of solutions, which include “community-shared electric cars, neighborhood nukes, hyper-efficient housing, really local eats, all-in-one recycling, and multifunctional buildings” have varying degrees of reality, they all require a massive cultural shift in people’s behavior.

While most of this article creates an enormous level of fear that comes from reorganizing human nature, one idea is an exciting indulgence in the visionary future: the LO2P Recycling Center, envisioned by Gael Brule and Julien Combes. A turbine harnesses wind power to run a recycling plant in the building, while carbon dioxide from the plant reacts with calcium to become lime in mineralization baths. Pipe dream? The process is already being used to make the lime in cement.

Certainly is food for thought. Take-away: revolutionize technology, not human nature.

LO2P Recycling Center

The LO2P Recycling Center (Image: Bryan Christie in Popular Science, July 2012)

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High Demand for Transit and the Consequence of Little Supply

16 Jun

What happens when you provide something that everyone wants?

When there is a huge demand for something prices are high, and usually markets answer with a large supply. As a result prices lower. Supply and demand…we all learned about it in high school. But in the case of housing along transit lines, in many places across America that demand is never met. With gas prices rising, commutes getting longer, obesity levels increasing, and quality of life deteriorating, the demand for accessible and efficient transit has never been higher. No matter what sector of society you are in, most people add to that demand. However, building high speed rail, light rail, and commuter rail require an oftentimes insurmountable level of funding.

So, when rail is built and housing is constructed along it, the cost per unit is through the roof. It is not unusual for rail to traverse deprived parts of town as a result of taking advantage of existing infrastructure and actively trying to revitalize areas most in need. Therefore the result is often gentrification: people who have lived in one neighborhood for years are forced to move because they can no longer afford it. For people in the later years of their life this uprooting can be devastating.

Architectural style and building form is indicative of gentrification - Andrew Smith

A familiar site of redevelopment along transit lines. Architectural style and building form is indicative of gentrification (Image courtesy of Andrew Smith) http://seattletransitblog.com/2012/05/23/gentrification-the-cause-of-and-solution-to-displacement/

Gentrification is arguably the worse effect of urban redevelopment and it certainly has been the most debated for decades. The debate lies in the nobleness of improving the quality of the built environment, which has enormous effects on the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of a city, versus the inevitable result of people being displaced from their homes and neighborhoods after decades of living there, because of the growing unaffordable cost of living. Is there a way to reap the benefits of redevelopment while avoiding the natural effects of the economic markets?

The June 2012 issue of Better Cities and Towns, explores how Los Angeles will try to avoid displacement as a result of the “largest transit expansion in the United States.” In the Reconnecting America last month, it was reported that the city will get 42 additional transit stations as a result of the $40 billion ballot measure approved by voters in 2008. LA County will benefit as well.

So, in a city where the average family spends 28% of their income of transportation, how will LA curb the negative effects of growth that have plagued planners for decades? Unsurprisingly, the instruments have not been completely identified, but will most likely focus on:

• Acquiring key properties for long-term preservation and development.

• Coordinating existing tools that can be used to keep buildings intact and reasonably priced.

• Anticipating the behavior of property owners and aiming outreach and enforcement activities at owners and tenants.

Is this government overreaching into the market? Are these practices sustainable and effective over time? Will restricting development hinder the spillover effects of regeneration? Doesn’t a larger amount of the population than you are protecting need and deserve access to public transportation?

These are questions that the LA Housing Department, with the support of Reconnecting America, will be hard-pressed to answer and defend. I will be interested to see how withholding land from development and preserving lower rents affects the lives of the gentrified. I am weary that these few measures will be effective. My gut tells me they will restrain the positive benefits of TOD development, while not prohibiting, what years of redevelopment has shown to be the inevitable. I do have to applaud the city for maintaining the restraint of social responsibility instead of succumbing to the giddy attractiveness of an exponentially growing tax base and re-branding of their city. This is important because “approximately 70 percent of workers who commute by transit earn less than $25,000 a year.” That is a sobering piece of data…

In the Next American City article, “Why We Struggle to Talk About Gentrification,” author Christine McLaren suggests that the unquantifiable result of gentrification makes it impossible to integrate in policy. After all policy is based on provable data, not anecdotal evidence. As a result the conversation of gentrification has become misguided: do we focus on the gentrified or the gentrifiers? Does perception lie in human right issues or social and commercial diversity?

Also, like other societal issues that are often oversimplified to one of race, the debate on gentrification is reduced to a black vs. white issue constantly. In another Next American City article, “Gentrification: Not Only About White People,” Matt Bevilacqua focuses the conversation back to socio-economics and reports on stronger ties to education level and weaker ties to race. With the challenge of collecting accurate data and standing against hot topic debate, the gentrification conversation constantly loses its way and is very difficult to control through policy.

Poor Redevelopment: Loss of culture and identity

The devastating effect of insensitive redevelopment = a loss of culture and identity. (Source: DToronto) http://media.photobucket.com/image/recent/dtoronto/b6.jpg

As an urban designer who has studied gentrification case studies of the past and witnessed it on the ground..I don’t know the answer. And I’m confident no one does.

Through our public finance work at Tindale-Oliver & Associates, I come across counties that suffer from a tax-base that has nose-dived as a result of the recession and crumbling infrastructure that they cannot afford to repair, much less expand. Facilities like fire stations, schools, libraries, etc. are burning a hole in local government’s pockets because low densities cannot support them. So I get it, and as a planner, I want to help these places redevelop themselves to be self-sustaining and healthy environments. And perhaps the best catalyst for growth and redevelopment to higher densities is transit.

I think until we can collect the data to be implemented into policy, redevelopment and regeneration should be done sensitively using the following tactics:

• Require high levels of funding for public involvement to ensure local communities are instrumental in the planning process.

• Preserve the physical structures and urban form that contribute to the historical identity of a neighborhood and design sensitively around them.

• Incentivize high levels of public and affordable housing as part of the development.

Sensitive redevelopment, preservation of urban form.

Sensitive redevelopment = preservation of urban form, character, and identity. (Image: http://www.rhiz.eu/artefact-52197-en.html)

Will generation still occur using these tactics, probably. Will it be done more sensitively with the result of preserving it’s identity? Probably. Gentrification is no doubt a hot topic that after decades has appeared to be inevitable, but many projects demonstrate that the level of destruction that it causes can be curbed. As long as we are constantly aware of everyone’s lives we are affecting as planners, including those who might suffer loss as a result of gentrification, we can have a clean conscience while we continue to debate.

All eyes will certainly be on LA as they actively try to maintain the current population along the future transit line and 40+ future stations. While they will certainly have the luxury of providing a higher supply, for what is guaranteed to be a high demand, hopefully they can set an example of how policy can control gentrification without controlling the market.

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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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Walking: Is it Just for Charity?

20 Apr

This made me laugh…uncontrollably.

There was an absolutely wonderful series written by Tom Vanderbilt in Slate last week titled, American’s Pedestrian Problem. In it he lamented that whenever he went on a walk for utilitarian purposes, people responded with “Are you doing it for charity?” How hilarious, and how sad. But it’s the truth. Today when people go on long walks it’s usually for breast cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, aids, or most ironically, diabetes. We act like going for a walk, the most instinctual human behavior, is something so unique and special that people give money for it.

America’s Pedestrian Problem by Tom Vanderbilt

While I found the data and science of pedestrian behavior and determining the walk score of my new neighborhood (82 out of 100 baby!) extremely interesting, valuable, and entertaining, the last series, “Learning to Walk” struck me the most. What first caught my attention was the title. How ironic that as a 28-year-old car owner, I am not dissimilar from my 8 month old nephew preparing to take his first steps. But what really struck a chord was that this article stressed what urban designers have been taught at the center of their practice, and what very few planners, especially transportation planners, don’t understand: people are inherently lazy (or perhaps call it evolutionary smart), ie: we make the easiest choice.

Perfect example? The little worn paths across the quads on your college campus. Mr. Vanderbilt makes a great point: college students carry the stereotype of having the most leisurely travel times and distances compared to your typical Manhattaner for instance. And boy are there pathways galore across a college campus (perhaps the most pedestrian oriented places on earth), and yet you will still find those little worn paths. Diagonally across the quad, at the corner where two paths meet, and directly up to the “do not walk on grass” sign. If my memory serves me correctly I think I was subject to work-study if I walked on the grass at my boarding school leading up to the prestigious graduation ceremonies. This is the perfect evidence that people choose the easiest path, even if it’s making one of their own.

So why do some planners think shepherding pedestrians a quarter of a mile down a busy arterial to cross at an intersection instead of allowing them the shortest distance between their location and their destination reasonable? And why do they always blame a person for doing any differently? Because at the end of the day, if those planners had to walk in the same conditions (which they most likely don’t…at all), they would probably make the same choice. We must step away from “if we build it, they will come” and move towards designing the built environment to reflect human behavior…as it naturally exists.

A common occurrence: pedestrian barriers. I have actually walked in the street to avoid these to take the shortest route. (twango.com)

Mr. Vanderbilt tells an absolutely heart-braking and infuriating story as an illustration that no doubt will haunt me as the reality of how this country, especially the part I live in, is moving so painstakingly slowly in its progress. Along Austell Road in Marietta, Georgia, a woman who was crossing the street with her four children was charged for manslaughter for the death of her own son…wait for it, instead of the car driver, in possession of a hit and run record, who hit him. You got it, she wasn’t behind the wheel. But because she jaywalked instead of walking her whole family, with 8 short little legs, an additional 2/3 of a mile out of the way of their home, she was first sentenced to more time in jail then the driver.

Holy cow. Any one else furious?

Mr. Vanderbilt’s other interesting tidbits include explanations of why we see narrow sidewalks up against roads with 6 lanes of traffic…transportation engineers wanted to protect drivers from hitting the trees that often lined them to protect pedestrians. So now? Pedestrians are up for a good mow down. I guess the plus side for drivers is that unlike trees, pedestrians have a slight chance of jumping out of the way. This mindset turned into a nasty cycle: because people no longer felt comfortable walking along roads, they stopped, and the lack of pedestrians encouraged some planners to eradicate sidewalks all together. Even today with such a large culture shift in the profession, when shown how concepts of shared space and other pedestrian-oriented street designs significantly improve safety for all users versus bollards and flashing lights that try to corral humans like cattle, some planners still focus on the liability of drivers.The culture of having to make room for people, instead of having to make room for cars, is alive and well… Unfortunately.

Culture shifts take ages, absolute lifetimes. It’s my belief that we will make more of an impact if we stop telling people what not to do, and start encouraging them to make the right decisions. As I have said before, urban design and the built environment is about providing people with choice. When people have a choice, it empowers them, and the result is that they will often chose the right one just by being given it. Telling people what to do and threatening them with big flashing lights and big signs on the side of the road can encourage them to do the opposite. Barbara McCann, a pioneer of the Complete Streets concept, states in this article, “The road itself should send signals. If you have a road with 12-foot lanes and clear zones, it’s safe for you to open up the throttle and you see the pedestrian scuttling across the road and think ‘they’re in my way.’ ” But add a raised crosswalk, trees, and narrow the road, says McCann, and “this is signaling to you, without a stop sign, that there are going to be all these other users, that you need to pay attention.”

Mr. Vanberbilt’s series is full of many great observations, but I will end with this one. There is a difference between providing facilities and providing facilities that will actually be used. As part of a public consultation exercise in a very auto-centric part of Florida recently, a planner for the Department of Transportation was complaining that when people beg for sidewalks in places, DOT builds them, and then they don’t get used. Other planners think that just by providing a bike lane that it will get used. Peter Lagerway, formerly a transportation engineer with the city of Seattle, explains there is a “three-legged stool” required to make walking desirable: safety, accessibility, and aesthetics. If the public realm doesn’t achieve these three things, people will not want to walk there. Just because there is a sidewalk, doesn’t mean that it is pleasing or safe for a pedestrian. The same is true for bicycle lanes. It is a mistake to assume that a cyclist is as hardened as a driver. I would be happy to ride a bike on my short 1.5 mile commute to work if my own lane was shielded from drivers by a physical and aesthetic barrier, but there is no way I’m tangoing with the some of the worst drivers in America.

As a novice cyclist what I want my cycle lanes to look like vs. what they actually look like. Shout out to Denver and Boulder for getting this right.

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

I think after reading Tom Vanderbilt’s enlightened series, you might feel a little downtrodden. There is no doubt that the final installment shows how far we must go as a country to provide our citizens with the basic human right of using their own two feet, but there should be encouragement found in the second and third articles. There has been a huge increase in the knowledge of human science and behavior, as well as an increase in walkability in some of the most auto-dependent cities. The awareness is here, mostly, and admitting that we have a problem is the first step to recovery.
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Local Series: The War Over Walmart.

28 Jan

I wrote a post a week ago about how important communication is in achieving high quality urban design. It included the example of Independence Boulevard in Charlotte, which has been transformed from a main road to a highway. This week, along this road, where many local businesses once were, a new Walmart had its grand opening. It has received a lot of local press, and everyone is asking the same question – is this good for the area?

Of course, my gut reaction is no. Absolutely not. Walmart is never good for a neighborhood. While the local media asked the question, they continued to paint the issue in a mostly positive light. Check out a clip here: http://swfs.bimvid.com/bimvid_player-3_2_7.swf?x-bim-callletters=WCCB Jobs, convenience, tax money, increased property values, and advertisement are all arguments. Educated in urban regeneration, and very much aware that bringing new life to an area is extremely challenging, I had to think: am I missing something? Is it possible for a big box store to be a good thing for a local community and the city?

So my husband and I went to a check it out. A grand opening of Walmart is something I never saw myself attending, but I did, and wasn’t surprised to see the parking lot packed. I assume people were at Walmart for the same reason they always are: a big selection at the lowest prices. There is a whole argument that underlies this debate that I will not go into here. But unlike other big box retailers, Walmart creates a debate over workers benefits and rights, specifically unionization and healthcare. Let’s just say boycotting was the thing to do in college. I never did, but never really set out to shop there either. I definitely received a stink eye or two for not jumping on the band wagon. So now, when I hear that Walmart is providing jobs for the area at the very least I’m skeptical.

What I really care about is how a store like Walmart affects the local neighborhood and city from a physical standpoint. Here are the given urban design and planning disadvantages of having a store like Walmart in your community, no matter where it is:

A Killer of Local Business

It is impossible for local stores to stay in business anywhere near Walmart. It sells everything for way less expensive that any independent business could ever compete with. It succeeds on the economy of scale: huge amounts of cheap goods made in China with lower overall overhead costs. Local and family owned businesses that have been at the heart of communities all over America are put to death within months of a Walmart opening their doors. Some might say this is progress. I say it is taking away the unique identity, heart, and economic stability of a neighborhood. Instead of profit being put back into the community, it goes to Walmart headquarters in Arkansas and manufacturers in China. Local businesses are something we should always fight for.

A Killer of the Environment

The carbon footprint of Walmart has to be enormous. The shipping of products across the globe and their distribution across the country rely on fossil fuels. The farther products have to travel, the more environmentally unfriendly an organization is. The large size of the store and even larger size of the parking lot is, in many cases paving over green fields and adding, and at the very least, maintaining the heat index and water runoff issue that over-urbanized environments create.

A Killer of the Pedestrian Streetscape

You can not walk to Walmart. Well you can, but not comfortably. There are very few pedestrian connections to their surroundings, the parking lot is usually too big, and customers are encouraged to buy large amounts, which means they can’t carry their shopping home. A Walmart in a neighborhood encourages more people to drive to purchase their daily necessities, even if they could walk. More driving = less walking = poorer health.

A Charlotte resident might say to me…Erin, there weren’t any local businesses there before it was built. Isn’t something better than nothing? No, what’s best is to get it right. I have watched Independence Boulevard go from a busy road lined with business after business to deserted buildings and plots of land. Some of these businesses were chains, but many were local. Part of this transition was because investment moved to other parts of the city, as they often do. I personally believe that the introduction of new urbanism and mixed-use commercial shopping destinations was partly responsible for this. After all, Independence Boulevard has been very car centric.

A before an after of the Amnity Gardens Shopping Center that was booming in 1961 and had fallen dilapidated by the early 1990s. The new Walmart has replaced it. (http://planningpool.com/2009/09/transit-oriented-development/walmart-anchor-transitoriented-development/)

But the city of Charlotte missed an opportunity that made sure that businesses never had the ability to ever prosper along Independence Boulevard again…they turned it into a highway. Such a missed opportunity, and so sad. The city has permanently segregated neighborhoods from each other and killed the possibility of a mixed-use, pedestrian environment that could serve local residents in an environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable way. They were short-sighted. Being patient and committing investment into this Charlotte artery could have revived the whole area to be the new “it place” in the city. It was before, it could have been again.

I was shocked to find that the city of Charlotte planning department designated this area as a transit-oriented and mixed-use development in its 2009 Independence Boulevard Concept Area Action Plan. TOD cannot work, and certainly not reach its full potential next to a highway with no tram line and pedestrian routes. Additionally, there is no way that a Walmart is an example of a business that can help foster a TOD development. Click here to read more. The city has certainly let the city and local neighborhood down.

So yes, there were no local businesses there before this Walmart. But with the fate the highway has sealed, I would argue it would have been better for the community to be planted with local tree specimens and turned into a green lung along the highway and a park for local residents. Something is not better than nothing. Independence Blvd. should have been revived as a true boulevard…a tram line, buses, cars, pedestrians, and cyclists together. This Walmart will only suck business away from local stores across the entire area, including Monroe Road, Eastway Drive, and Central Avenue.

When I visited the Walmart, it was like every other Walmart. But here are some particular urban design details I will share. Some make me laugh…my favorite? The sidewalk to nowhere.

The Independence Blvd. Walmart fails on all three counts: environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and economical sustainability.

Finally, here is a shout out to my favorite local business on Independence Blvd. As one of the last long-standing Charlotte landmarks, it is where my parents used to date in the early 60s. Good ole’ South 21 Drive In. We haven’t had to seal its coffin just yet…

South 21 Drivein at 3101 E. Independence. Blvd. (http://www.south21drivein.com/)

The Grid…200 Years On.

4 Jan

The Greatest Grid: the Masterplan of Manhattan, 1811-2011 is an exhibit now showing at the Museum of the City of New York that details what the New York Times calls “a landmark in urban history and a defining feature of the city:” the grid. Starting north of the oldest part of the city all the way past Harlem, the strict grid of avenues crossing with streets defines how New Yorkers live their every day life. I wanted to write about the Manhattan grid following the post on connectivity yesterday because New York City is perhaps one of the most connected and permeably designed cities in the world.

Original Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/03/arts/design/manhattan-street-grid-at-museum-of-city-of-new-york.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1 Also check out this awesome interactive map that shows the growth of New York City over time http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/03/21/nyregion/map-of-how-manhattan-grid-grew.html?ref=design

Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times columnist, mentions some classic urban design elements defined by the strict grid:

  • Legibility: It’s simplicity and orientation allows the city to easily be grasped by users, even tourists who have been there for a few hours.
  • Flexibility: The planners originally thought that the population of New York City would be moving east and west to waterside parks. When the city’s orientation changed to north and south, the grid was able to handle the shift in movement. The grid also was able to adapt to the inclusion of a Central Park, which was introduced to the masterplan later in its development.
  • Economic Vitality: Because there was ease in navigating the grid and made the growing city so accessible to users, property values soared and began what some consider the beginning of the property market in America.
  • Sociability: The permeability of the grid’s design makes the entire city feel like it belongs to everyone. Equality and social inclusion are a result. It is easy to run into your neighbor or become a regular at your corner diner. Kimmelman gives the examples that consistency of its design allows the public realm to become a “public theater.”

What Mr. Kimmelman hasn’t realized in this article is that the above positive characteristics are not because of the grid, but because of the connectivity that the grid offers. Connectivity can be achieved with many different designs, which can be seen from the street layouts of cities above. The organic nature of London, or the intricate network of Paris, are both very connected in a different way and both provide the same benefits of the New York grid. These three cities all feel completely different. One might say the way the way a person feels in a city is down to a matter of opinion. Let me offer mine…

There is no doubt there is a culture associated with being a New Yorker. I know many New Yorkers and they have more pride in the place they come from than almost any other person I have met. I have always admired this about them. An emotional connection to place is growing more rare as technology and poor planning has begun to define our sense of community. Having said this…I just don’t get New York, which I 100% believe is because of its grid. I understand that “the city that never sleeps” has the most amazing cultural and artistic offerings of any other city in the world. You can’t get any better in that respect. But while it has tugged on my heart-strings it has never done so in a positive way.

I have never immediately felt like a New Yorker like Mr. Kimmelman claims. Unlike him, born and raised in Greenwich Village, I’ve always felt the opposite: an outsider. I think it’s a mistake to think the strict design of the grid allows everyone to personalize the urban environment or feel at home in New York. I agree with Frederick Law Olmstead, one of the greatest American landscape architects, that the New York grid is monotonous, and I would further say…heartless. We are lucky that the culture of New York that has developed has given it its huge heart. Mr. Kimmelman is correct in saying that its the New Yorkers’ constant attempt to break the grid that actually gives it its character.

My experience in a city like London is a breath of fresh air. While it might take a little longer to get your bearings it is still very legible. It’s organic layout is even more flexible than the strict grid and can constantly shift. It’s so connected any development can easily tie back into the contextual urban fabric. It has gorgeous public spaces where “street theater” can be witnessed by hundreds. But the real difference for me as I walk the streets of London is that every turn of a corner is a surprise! Whether its a landmark, a pocket park, or a beautiful streetscape, I am always left pleasantly surprised by every step I take. The diversity in street design easily lets the city dissect itself into neighborhoods, each with their own very distinctive character.

Don’t get me wrong, there is no doubt that Manhattan’s grid was a tremendous act of urban planning that must be congratulated. The gung-ho attitude required by city planners to survey an enormous space and reorganize privately owned land for the betterment of society and the city is a huge task. As Kimmelman states, and I agree, this is an attitude our urban planners could use a little more of in the face of issues such as global warming and sprawl.

In the New York Times article John Reps, an urban historian at Cornell, is quoted saying that the city commissioners “were motivated mainly by narrow considerations of economic gain.” Even if money was the motivation behind the grid and not creating a beautiful place with “squares and boulevards,” the grid’s connectivity allows enormous benefits over the design of the majority of America’s development. It allows for a density that makes New York City one of the greenest places on earth and the most active public realm that I have ever witnessed. With little public space, aside from Central Park that is centralized, the excitement and surprise of human nature is in front of you wherever you go…there is no space for it anywhere else.

But here’s the food for thought. The grid works because the street network is very permeable and connected, not because of the design itself. Connectivity, while it is the first step in creating a development, doesn’t take away the ability for urban planners to design it well.

The IKEA Neighborhood?

29 Dec

IKEA, I love it. Who doesn’t? When this pre-fab, affordable furniture store landed near me in 2006 I became its biggest fan. I can spend hours there and my whole apartment is furnished by it. So you can imagine my reaction when I heard LandProp, IKEA land developers, were designing a neighborhood as part of the 2012 Olympics’ site legacy. Saying I was excited was an understatement. The question everyone is asking is Will this be a new era in Urban Design? My questions in response are Do we really need a new era? and Will their one size fits all approach to housing be healthy for a community?

Original articles: http://popupcity.net/2011/11/ikea-urbanism-a-new-era-in-urban-design/ and http://realestate.yahoo.com/promo/ikea-is-assembling-its-own-london-neighborhood.html

IKEA Neighborhood

The IKEA neighborhood site as part of the 2012 Olympic legacy development. http://www.megastrak.com/magazine/wp-content/postimages/Plan-for-IKEA-neighborhood-Stratford-500×250.jpg

Certain professions within the built environment require a New Era. Planning? Absolutely. We always need to be thinking of more creative solutions in land use and environmental sustainability, bringing equality to housing and community facilities, and learning the best ways to monitor development. Architecture? Absolutely. Architects should always be looking to establish new designs that challenge the way people experience their visual environment. Urban Design? It’s arguable.

For centuries places were designed the same way. When people needed some buildings they built some more next to the ones already built. Since cars hadn’t been invented everything was compact, accessible, and organized neatly in a clear network of roads and paths. After all, because you had to walk, there was no reason to go further than you needed to. The most loved public spaces and cities in the worlds are like this. People spend thousands of dollars to visit them and love them for their vitality and culture. Since the early to mid century and the boom of the automobile we changed the way we’ve developed land. Social inclusion and community, the environment, and economic sustainability of place have all suffered. Now through movements like New Urbanism we are trying to create the places that we so quickly go rid of. So its begs the question, “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

Of course we can not judge IKEA now on this project because the design really will be in the details: how buildings meet the street, how different users are allowed to use the spaces, how public space is integrated and how the street network connects with its urban context. But I do think its safe to say- Let’s not get too excited. While there are exciting elements of this project, such as waterside living for most of the residents in London’s “Mini-Venice,” the 130 foot sculpture featured in the second article is hugely out of scale and possibly inappropriate for a neighborhood. However, it’s the one size fits all approach to IKEA’s affordable housing shown in the examples below that are the most worrying.

IKEA housing design

IKEA housing design: a statement of homogeneity and catering to the automobile. http://popupcity.net/2011/11/ikea-urbanism-a-new-era-in-urban-design/

First and foremost, this cluster of housing is designed to cater to the automobile, not the pedestrian. Instead of the building addressing the street they are focuses around an auto court, which takes activity off the public streets and therefore away from the community. This along with the unclear distinction between public and private space prohibits the overlooking of land, which can lead to more crime. The confusion over what land belongs to who could lead to poor management in the future. The architecture design of the buildings could land them in absolutely any part of the UK, or Europe even. They wouldn’t even look too out of place in America. By looking at the conceptual site plan above here’s hoping this housing model won’t be present, but the fact that IKEA’s LandProp chose to highlight this as their crowning success of housing stock doesn’t inspire high hopes for attention to detail in how their buildings will meet the street.

Creating a “Mini-Venice” in this part of London where a historic canal system is a predominant feature is appropriate and celebrates the heritage of its industrial past. This development has the potential to create a legacy of the 2012 Olympics that will be socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable for centuries. I just hope that the managing director of LandProp, Harald Muller, will worry less about creating “a new hot spot in London” and more about designing a neighborhood that respects its culture and surrounding heritage while creating its own identity and strong community. Remember Harald…design is in the details!

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