The Legacy of Levittown.

15 Oct

After finishing Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights by David Kushner, I have spent the past week educating myself in the Levitt Brothers and their enormous contribution to housing, land use, and race relations in America.

By David Kushner

The Levitt family were a team of three men: Abraham (father), and William and Alfred (sons.) Historian Kenneth Jackson described them as,”The family that had the greatest impact on postwar housing in the United States…who ultimately built more than 180,000 houses and turned a cottage industry into a major manufacturing process.” Veterans returning from World War II met an enormous shortage of affordable housing. Having served in the military himself, Bill encouraged Abraham and Alfred to invest in over 4000 acres on Long Island and use innovative building techniques to meet the housing needs of veterans. They built the first Levittown in New York in 1947, the second in Pennsylvania in 1952, and two more in New Jersey and Puerto Rico. Alfred designed homes that could be built on an “assembly line” as such. Pieces of the home would be delivered to the site and over two dozen construction teams would move from house to house, doing just one task (ex: installing windows, painting walls, etc.) This allowed the Levitts to build 30 houses a day, and sell them for very affordable prices. William marketed these towns not just for their attractively priced homes, but for their strength in community. With the FTA subsidizing mortgages, Levittown in New York and Pennsylvania, were extremely popular and offered a “lifestyle” to young families. As seen in the video below, this was revolutionary home building:

The “legacy of Levittown” is huge. In addition to the innovative construction techniques that builders are challenged to match today, these developments were America’s first suburbs – William Levitt has been coined as the “Father of Suburbia.” The Levitts developed a construction/marketing machine that saw a massive consumption of countryside, quickly. They sold a lifestyle where commuting 40 miles one way was not only acceptable, but desirable. In a way, the Levitts helped build the foundation of suburban sprawl that we have today.

construction of Levittown

The delivery of housing materials to the building site waiting for construction. (Source:University of Illinois at Chicago)

Perhaps the Levitt’s legacy that is not as well-known, and certainly not celebrated, is racism in the housing industry. While racial segregation in housing was not unknown during this time, the Levitts put in place a restrictive covenant that only allowed houses in Levittown to be rented or sold to a member of the Caucasian race. He believed that higher property values were related directly to the developments being all-white. Unfortunately, so did the people who bought the houses. They all used that defense in preserving the restrictive covenant, even when the federal government enforced integration with cases like Brown vs. the Board of Education. David Kushner’s book, Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights, details the Myers Family who bought their house Levittown, PA, despite the restrictive covenant, from a man desperate to sell. The result was months of violence against not only the Myers, but their next door neighbors, the Wechslers, a Jewish, equal rights activist couple. The case, especially after involvement from the KKK, gained international recognition. The endurance of Daisy Myers and her family against non-stop threats and violence, coined her the “Rosa Parks of the North.” Below is a condensed summary of a documentary made at the time, chronicling this civil rights struggle. Definitely pick up David Kushner’s book to get a personal account of the story, it truly is fascinating.

My book club had the great pleasure of speaking with the author, David Kushner, via Skype. When I asked him what the urban planning legacy of Levittown is, in addition to the obvious, he suggested the innovative design of architect Alfred Levitt. While Levittown, PA offered 6 different house models for purchase, Levittown, NY only provided two. However, they were designed in a way that allowed personalization and extension over time. Alfred recognized that his clients would be looking for the most affordable home immediately after the war and offering only two models would achieve this. He also realized that over time, those people would become more financially secure and would want a larger house. By designing the models in a way that could be easily adaptable, people with emotional ties to Levittown could remain, strengthening the community, and the identity of the town would evolve, adding to the place’s character. David Kushner was right -  this is revolutionary in it’s own right.

Levittown two model houses

The two house models offered in Levittown NY: the colonial and the ranch. (Image: University of Illinois in Chicago)

The result is that now, Levittown, PA remains almost identical to its 1950s self. Homes were not adaptable, and in combination with what is perhaps little regional growth, the town has not evolved to offer the lifestyle required of contemporary living. Property values did drop, not because of racial integration, but because the town’s lack of ability to remain relevant. It has also suffered from crime, and even acquired the reputation of being the “meth-lab of America.”

Levittown, NY, however, transformed over time and remains a healthy suburb. No doubt it’s proximity to Manhattan is responsible in part, but it is impossible not to attribute some of its success to Alfred’s design. As he had imagined, practically none of the original model homes can be found in the town of 6,000 houses. They have all been adapted, not demolished, over time. The fact remains, that while now Levittown, PA only offers 6 types of houses, Levittown, NY offers an infinite number.

Suburban development in America has definitely happened in waves. White flight, followed by returning vets and the contemporary suburbs we have today. They do not share the same physical characteristics: Levittown was built on a connected street network and modern development is organized around disconnected cul-de-sacs. In addition, houses in Levittown were modest in size, while McMansions today sprawl across large lots. Even though this great book was primarily based on the civil rights struggle in Levittown, as I read, I kept looking for those correlations between suburbs through time.

As soon as David Kushner stated that the greatest urban planning legacy of Levittown was Alfred Levitt’s allowance for personalization, I realized that this was the connection I had been searching for. It appears that through the evolution of suburbia, we’ve actually designed it in progressively more destructive ways. Most recently, property values in modern suburban developments have been the least able to sustain the economic recession, in comparison to urban neighborhoods.

One characteristic that modern suburbia most has in common with the Levitt’s less successful town in Pennsylvania, is it’s lack of personalization. Personalization is important to the physical, economic, and social sustainability of a place, as I detail in this earlier post: Holy HOA. The ability for people to personalize their own house, can cause them to not only be more committed to maintaining their property, but feel more emotionally connected to their neighborhood and neighbors. It can also enliven the public realm, and be one of the most influential factors in contributing to a neighborhood’s character. When we’re in Chinatown we know it, when we’re in New Orleans’ French Quarter, we know it. When we’re in the Manhattan’s Lower East Side we know it. Residents here have a personality, and they show it. Today, when we’re in a gated community off a belt loop interstate, we could be anywhere in America. And when you’re standing on a street corner in Levittown, PA, you could be on any street corner in the town. Anonymity = unimportant. This is not an unreal correlation to make.

Houses in Levittown NY

Houses that have been personalized over time in Levittown, NY

Therefore, in light of Levittown, NY’s climb to a town of pride and Levittown, PA’s descent to mediocrity, as well as their seemingly similar physical characteristics and social, historical context, it is not unreasonable to attribute the difference in their success on the ability, or lack thereof, of properties to evolve.

It’s ironic that after decades of similar suburban development, we fail to make the correlation between their design and the effects that they have on society. Today in the most recent developments, where cost of production and sale price is as important as it was to post-war growth, customers still pick their house out of a pattern book. Lack of personalization is still one of the biggest plagues of sprawl.

There is no doubt that the Levitt Family received credit where credit is due in their influence on American housebuilding. While this is mostly painted in a positive light I am devastated at the little publicity of the racism that served as the foundation for their all-white communities. The same week as I was finishing up David Kushner’s book on Levittown, I watched Bill O’Reilly defend his hometown as the product of American entrepreneurship at it’s finest. He put the Levitts on the pedestal where they seem to remain in the media long after their passing.

After reading, Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights, it’s hard to look past the misery that the Levitts created for two brave families, and an entire race. As an urban planner, it’s hard to look past the propagation of urban sprawl and unsustainable growth, that set a norm for development in our country for decades. But instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I propose we try to find the positive in the Levitt’s contributions. It seems ironic that the brother that took the least credit for his family’s success, Alfred Levitt, is the man whose vision is the most relevant to the urban design challenges we face today.

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Tampa City Spotlight: Providing Transportation Options in Downtown

10 Oct

In a series of posts part of the Congress for the New Urbanism‘s City Spotlight Series, members of CNU Tampa Bay will examine the current conditions of Tampa, urban trends and the initiatives (or lack thereof) put in place by the city, and how CNU can meet these needs. In this third post of the series, Jared Schneider, a planner in Tampa will examine transportation networks within downtown Tampa.

What makes cities great? In my opinion, many of the great cities of today are what they are because of an innate desire to change the status quo. It comes from the passion, caring, and vision of good leaders as well and residents to say, can we make our city better? It comes from the investment and civility of the business community. It is this attitude and culture of caring, I believe, that makes many cities great.

Often the tough decisions involve transportation related issues within downtown areas that have an impact on the linkages between the surrounding built environment and open spaces. In particular, many great cities have invested in a wide range of transportation choices to provide a holistic transportation network as well as to instigate redevelopment and provide improved connectivity. CNU has focused on this topic through its Project for Transportation Reform. Specifically, I feel that CNU’s Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares and Transportation Networks initiatives can help serve as guides to providing transportation options in downtown Tampa.

Previous articles in this spotlight series have highlighted Tampa’s transportation challenges as a City of Corridors and Tampa’s past as a bustling urban center dependent upon a robust streetcar system. This article will focus on downtown Tampa and the challenges of providing a suitable transportation network for pedestrians, bicyclists and automobiles. The article will also highlight recent transportation advancements in downtown Tampa.

Downtown Tampa Aerial

Photo of downtown Tampa and surrounding areas courtesy of Bing Maps

Similar to many downtowns throughout the country, the transportation network in downtown Tampa mainly functions to move cars in and out as quickly as possible. There are a number of wide, higher-speed roadways and an abundance of surface parking lots, indicating to visitors and residents that the automobile is a priority and pedestrian and bicycle activity is secondary. This has had a dramatic influence on land use and the built environment in downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. That being said, many of the greatest cities in the world have wide roadways as well, but where some of the most famous cities differ is that they provide a balance of transportation options and often do a great job of providing parking opportunities that don’t adversely impact urban form.

Similar to a number of other downtowns, Tampa has seen resurgence in recent years in new residential developments in the downtown area – the developments of Channelside and Encore, as well as the Skypoint and Element Towers. The success of these developments will rely on providing a balance of transportation options to support the population increases in the downtown area.

One of the things that I have experienced while walking around downtown Tampa over the last 7 years have been the missed opportunities to make some considerable enhancements to the existing transportation network. It makes financial sense to hold off on making major design improvements until they can be coupled with scheduled roadway maintenance or planned infrastructure upgrades such as stormwater/drainage improvements, landscaping improvements, and roadway re-surfacing projects. Yet in many cases over the last few years, these projects have been completed without taking the opportunity to improve the design of the roadway by enhancing pedestrian mobility, adding facilities for bicyclists, or to improve the downtown from a landscaping or placemaking standpoint. From the perspective of local government, a lot of this is easier said than done, especially considering the current economic condition and challenges faced when funding projects.

Tyler Street Tampa

Pedestrians crossing Tyler Street in Downtown Tampa between John F. Germany Public Library and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts

When these opportunities arise, thought should be given to whether or not the current condition can and should be changed. When capital projects are identified and programmed, we should be asking what we can do to build a more connected network of sidewalks or bicycle facilities. An overall transportation vision should already be adopted and in place when capital projects are contemplated or when new development is proposed. This vision should include providing safer, convenient connections and crossings for pedestrians and bicyclists as well as access to public transportation. Last year, the City of Tampa embarked on a master planning process for downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Much of the public feedback received throughout this effort revolved around livable transportation and placemaking. This vision should be built upon and specifics should be developed for how roadways in the right context should be improved when the right opportunity arises. If the opportunity presents itself to improve roadways that have been identified as focus areas, the basic strategies for how to redesign them will already be in place.

pedestrian crossings tampa

Long pedestrian crossings

While attending the Mobility and the Walkable City sessions at CNU 20, it was interesting to hear how several cities have been able to fund and implement pedestrian and bicycle projects. One discussion in particular that stuck with me was how many of the mayors or public works departments implementing these projects have a directive to review all resurfacing or maintenance projects for the feasibility of road dieting to better accommodate bicyclists or pedestrians. It was refreshing to see how these places have a proactive culture to provide more transportation options. These cities understand that resurfacing projects are opportunities to create something better, rather than maintaining the status quo. There were specific projects being implemented or that have already been constructed as evident by the number of bicycle tracks or improved pedestrian facilities such as wider sidewalks or improved crossings which have actually been built.

One of the positive initiatives that has been discussed earlier in this series is the City of Tampa Walk-Bike Plan developed by the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization.  The Tampa Walk-Bike Plan identifies several projects in the downtown area, as well as a host of other projects throughout the city, in existing public rights of way. The purpose is to “complete the City’s bicycle and pedestrian grid” by enhancing connectivity and safety for bicyclists and pedestrians. There are two main types of projects identified: “Complete Streets” and Stand-alone projects. The purpose of Complete Streets projects is to better incorporate bicycle, pedestrian, and transit modes by reviewing the possibility of road dieting. Stand-alone projects are the “low hanging fruit” – and constitute minor adjustments that can be made without changing the existing roadway geometry, often including the construction of sidewalks or modifying pavement markings to designate bicycle lanes. This initiative is a good step in the right direction because it provides a cost-effective way to enhance bicycle and mobility on the interim. The more expensive “Complete Streets” projects will be considered whenever an “arterial, collector, or neighorhood collector roadway is widened or resurfaced” through a multi-governmental coordination process.

Similar to other industrial cities, Tampa has historically turned its back on its waterfront. Downtown Tampa is surrounded by water on three sides yet appears to be so disengaged from its geography – most waterfront parcels are privately owned and public spaces and parks face inward. Historically, the Hillsborough River was used to provide transportation and drive the local economy. At the turn of the 20th century, wide channels were dredged to bolster Tampa’s growing shipping industry. A century later and things have changed; industry is mainly moving out of the area and downtown Tampa is reinventing itself as a regional entertainment destination and urban neighborhood. A major initiative to reinvigorate downtown Tampa is the completion of the Riverwalk.

historic tampa river

Historic picture of the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa Courtesy of the University of South Florida

With the last few segments of the Tampa Riverwalk underway, the city has been turning its focus to its riverfront. The first discussions about enhancing public access to the waterfront location began in the 1970’s and the first design standards were set in 1989. As several developments came to fruition such as the Straz Center for Performing Arts and the Tampa Convention Center, the first pieces of the Riverwalk’s waterfront promenades were built. Over the years the discussion has continued with new ideas to engage the waterfront. One unique effort has been [re] Stitch TAMPA that is an international design completion that included proposals from designers from around the world, including locally, for how to engage the waterfront and establish urban open spaces.

riverwalk downtown tampa

Tampa River Walk near the Straz Center for the Performing Arts

Recently it was announced that the city will receive an $11 million federal grant to finish two smaller, more expensive gaps in The Riverwalk. Once completed it will provide an uninterrupted 2.4-mile connection for pedestrians and bicyclists from the Straz Center for the Performing Arts on the north, to the Channelside district to the southeast, and will include several museums, open spaces, and other landmarks along the way.

tampa riverwalk map

Courtesy of usacanadalionsforum.org

Another interesting development is the “Zack Street Promenade of the Arts”. The project reclaimed nearly two full automobile lanes to provide widened sidewalks, improved street crossings, and landscaping for pedestrians with the intent to integrate Public Art into the streetscape.

pedestrian crossings downtown tampa

Zack Street Downtown Tampa

Top left Zack Street before improvement courtesy of Google Streetview. Top Right and Bottom pictures of Zack Street after improvement

While the Zack Street Promenade has room for improvement, it will serve as a fantastic gateway to the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park located by the Riverwalk. The waterfront park has become the heart of downtown with major events held on a weekly basis. It is also edged by the newly constructed Glazer Children’s Museum and the Tampa Museum of Art. The Promenade will connect the waterfront park to several other cultural amenities such as the Tampa Theatre as well as to an old federal courthouse that has been announced as a future boutique hotel. By connecting to the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park an important pedestrian connection across Ashley Drive will be provided which is one of the major roadways in and out of downtown that provides a barrier. Visions for redesigning Ashley Drive have been discussed and should continue to be a focus. The high-speed traffic funnelling directly off two interstate ramps does not complement the built environment of downtown, and is a safety hazard for pedestrians and cyclists on a daily basis. While not technically a highway, the road could benefit from many of the principles enlisted in the CNU’s Project for Transportation Reform “Highways to Boulevards” program.

Curtis Hixon Park Downtown Tampa

Courtesy of macdillhappenings.com

While the transportation network in downtown Tampa is still heavily automobile dominated, pedestrian and bicycle activity is increasing. Providing options through pedestrian and bicycle mobility will be important as downtown Tampa continues to grow as a residential and commercial destination. The Project for Transportation Reform’s Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares and Transportation Networks initiative has applicability in certain contexts in downtown Tampa. The city has made strides in recent years and should continue to look for ways to build momentum through improving its transportation network where feasible.

Jared Schneider is a planner and project manager in Tampa and is currently pursuing a Master of Planning in Civic Urbanism degree from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. He is also a member of CNU Tampa Bay, which is a local chapter of Congress for the New Urbanism.

Please visit:
http://groupspaces.com/CNUTampaBay/ and
https://www.facebook.com/CNUTampaBay to learn more!

Tampa City Spotlight: A Transit Past – But is There a Future?

24 Sep

In a series of posts part of the Congress for the New Urbanism‘s City Spotlight Series, members of CNU Tampa Bay will examine the current conditions of Tampa, urban trends and the initiatives (or lack thereof) put in place by the city, and how CNU can meet these needs. In this second post of the series, Stephen Benson, a transportation planner, will examine Tampa’s transit past and if its holds potential for its rebirth in the future.

Creating great urban places relies heavily on providing reliable and efficient mass transit. A pedestrian or cyclist can only get so far on foot or on bike. In this article I will discuss Tampa’s lost love affair with the streetcar, how suburbanization deprived Tampa’s urban core of 60 years of economic growth, and how Tampa’s lack of reliable, efficient transit service has left it a second-tier city.

Tampa began as a blue-collar manufacturing town – industrial, urban, and extremely diverse. Unlike nearby St. Petersburg, Tampa was not a vacation haven for rich northerners. It was a testament to the melting pot of cultural diversity and hard work that personifies what it meant to live in early twentieth century America. Immigrants from all over the world came here to work in and support the booming cigar industry.  My great grandparents came to Tampa from Spain and Cuba to work in factories. My grandparents ran a restaurant that catered to working class cigar rollers. For most of the 20th century, Tampa’s historic Ybor City district was dubbed the Cigar Capital of the World – rolling out millions of cigars every year. This rich history of manufacturing left its physical mark on the city and makes Tampa’s roots unique to most places in Florida, and the world.

Cigar Workers in Tampa

Photo courtesy of Burgert Brothers Collection, Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library

As Erin Chantry discussed in the first post of this series, Ybor City and early Tampa were well planned. A connective street grid supported walkability. The more remarkable urban amenity of the city was its robust streetcar system. In its heyday, Tampa’s streetcar boasted over 50 miles of track and had 190 vehicles in operation, running from 4:30 AM to 2:00 AM everyday. The system reached peak ridership in the 1920s – with almost 24 million riders in 1926. My grandmother recounts a common saying about the Tampa streetcar – “if you can’t get there for a nickel, its not worth going.”

Streetcar in Tampa

Photo courtesy of Burgert Brothers Collection, Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library

map of tampa's streetcars

Photo of vintage Tampa streetcar map courtesy of The Heights Tampa

The rise of the automobile and subsequent conversion to motorized bus systems led to the streetcar’s demise in Tampa, as it did in many other cities throughout the US. Some historians cite conspiracy on the part of the automobile industry as causing the unpopular transition from streetcar to bus. One by one, the automobile industry gained control of popular streetcar systems and dismantled them, promising more efficient (and profitable) gas-powered bus lines. Suspicious locals complained of bribery, spotting elected officials driving new Cadillacs shortly after voting in favor of the transit system’s conversion. Tampa’s documented history of corruption and mob influence supports this theory. To learn more about why this happened, read Internal Combustion by Edwin Black.

Tampa’s last streetcar ran on August 11, 1946. This began a journey on the path of suburbanization and sprawl that supported growth and industry for many years. Now, it plagues the city’s economy, culture and built environment, as it necessitates the use of a car, which to many is quickly becoming financially burdensome.

The modern bus system that eventually replaced the streetcar – today called Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) – has never come close to the streetcar’s peak ridership in 1926 – almost a century and over 4 Million people in growth later.

While the merits of the transition from streetcar to bus to automobile can be debated, the impact on the urban form of Tampa and nearly every American city is undeniable. During the second half of the 20th century, Tampa grew outward instead of upward. The popularity of the automobile and the availability of cheap far-flung land led to widespread low-density suburban development, severely diminishing the small-scale urbanism of the historic central city, which fell into blight and disrepair. Urban renewal demolished much of Ybor City, made big promises for urban redevelopment and instead delivered a sea of vacant lots. In the 1960s, the interstate highways were expanded through Ybor City and West Tampa, destroying existing communities and disconnecting the urban core even more.

Central Tampa Aerial

Photo of central Tampa courtesy of Google Maps

Like the rest of the nation, anti-urban sentiments lured residents to suburbs outside of town. As a result, the City of Tampa’s population has seen little growth since the 1960s– only about 20%. In the same time, surrounding unincorporated Hillsborough County has tripled in population and neighboring Pasco County’s population has increased tenfold. In 1988, the City of Tampa annexed 24 square miles located 15 miles to the north of downtown and dubbed it ‘New Tampa.’ Originally, this newly incorporated area was discontinuous from the rest of the city, but the state legislature later passed a requirement mandating municipalities to maintain a contiguous land area. To comply, the City annexed a small strip of land to connect New Tampa with the rest of the city, near the University of South Florida (USF) campus. The image below depicts the current gerrymandered city boundaries.

Tampa CityLimits

Photo of Tampa city limits courtesy of Southern Spaces

Aerial of New Tampa

Photo of New Tampa courtesy of Google Maps

Today, the Census Bureau estimates the population of the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater Metropolitan Statistical Area at 4.2 million, making it the 17th most populous in the nation and the 15th largest in land area. Yet, it doesn’t even make it into the top 100 for population density. Even with several walkable urban activity centers, the surrounding metro area’s nearly 1,000 square miles of established suburban development is gargantuan. Serving the metro area with efficient transit service is nearly impossible without a staggering financial investment and strong, coordinated political will across the region. Even then, with residents spread so thinly, bus routes would have to criss-cross the county like a tightly-spun spider web.

In 2010, a one percent sales tax increase referendum, to fund transportation improvements (including light rail between Downtown Tampa, Tampa International Airport, and the USF campus) in Hillsborough County failed. Abysmally. The reason? A combination of confusion and distrust of government. Generally speaking, most of the major improvements (including light rail) would have been implemented within the City of Tampa limits and the more urban parts of the unincorporated county.  But the resounding question among more suburban county residents was “what’s in it for me?” Transportation planners failed to clearly and accurately answer that question to the general public.

Sure, you’re building light rail over in Tampa, but what about that nasty pothole on my cul-de-sac? The typical suburban-versus-urban dynamic is alive and well in West Central Florida.

Post-referendum reports cite that over 70% of residents think something needs to be done to improve transportation. Where they disagree is what to do to fix it, and how to pay for it. Local leaders have failed to effectively explain that improvements to the overall transportation system don’t only benefit those who regularly use it, but they help grow and support the economy of the entire region, attracting businesses and residents alike. Traffic congestion impacts the entire region, not just the specific neighborhood or road where it occurs. Wasted time and fuel as a result of congestion trickles down to higher costs for goods and services for consumers. Improving regional transportation is a win-win for everyone.

Suburban residents can’t rationalize walking a half-mile through winding, indirect subdivisions to get to a bus stop, and wait 30 minutes for a bus to arrive. When they moved in, they never intended to use transit and without any major infill and redevelopment they likely never will.

This doesn’t change the fact that building a premium transit system to support the walkable urban core will create a more prosperous region. The economic benefits will positively impact outlying suburbs by preserving their quality of life, and potentially alleviating some of the choking congestion they encounter. At some point, cities like Tampa must choose between a transit system that serves everyone equally across a region, or a system that supports more intensive future urbanism by effectively and reliably serving the urban core. Without an effective transit system, any significant level of density, activity, or growth, is impossible. Sure, Tampa is on the map. But is it somewhere worth going? After all, “if you can’t get there on a nickel…”

Stephen Benson is a transportation planner and third-generation Tampa native. He is also a member of CNU Tampa Bay, which is a local chapter of Congress for the New Urbanism. Please visit  http://groupspaces.com/CNUTampaBay/ and https://www.facebook.com/CNUTampaBay to learn more!

Tampa City Spotlight: A City of Corridors

17 Sep

In a series of posts part of the Congress for the New Urbanism‘s City Spotlight Series, members of CNU Tampa Bay will examine the current conditions of Tampa, urban trends and the initiatives (or lack thereof) put in place by the city, and how CNU can meet these needs. In this first post, I will examine Tampa’s network and condition of arterial roadways and how they are relevant to CNU’s Project for Transportation Reform.

I have written and preached a lot to the importance of a connected road network in a city. I grew up in North Carolina where suburban sprawl is vast, often with roads that end in cul-de-sacs or that are lined with gated subdivisions. I believe that if a city’s roads are built on a connected grid, traffic will permeate more freely through an urban area and streets will maintain a human scale that is appropriate for all users, including pedestrians and cyclists. Connectivity is often a necessary condition to foster social, economic, and environmental sustainability. I have always thought that if a city is well connected it had won most of the battle of making room for cars without sacrificing the streets as public space for people. Similarly, CNU’s Designing Walkable Thoroughfares (part of the Project for Transportation Reform) mostly stresses this point as well with their slogan, “Connect Your Streets. Connect Your Communities.”

When I moved to Tampa just this year, I was relieved to see that it is a very well connected city. Blocks may vary in size and form, but every urban neighborhood is woven together in a tight grid. The assumption was that the city could be a fertile ground for mixed-use walkable areas. However, I soon learned, despite my urban design training, experience, and education, that connectivity is not everything.

TampaMap

A map showing Tampa’s connected street grid. (Source: http://www.hillsclerk.com)

TampaTypicalRoad

A typical corridor in Tampa. (Source: Sprinkle Consulting)

In addition to connectivity and a consistent investment in infrastructure, land use development is also crucial to making thoroughfares walkable. While other connected roads in Tampa are still host to older and historic buildings that once formed small pockets of pedestrian-oriented mixed-uses, most of modern commercial development along the afore mentioned corridors are auto-oriented. The result is that large surface parking lots line roads with low-density buildings set back far from the sidewalks. Not only does this deprive the corridors of an easily accessible pedestrian network and an in scale building height to street ratio, it makes uses separated at a distance that is unwalkable. Even in the most urban neighborhoods, new development still often follows this form. The lesson learned is that connectivity cannot lead to change alone. Tampa is one of the most connected cities I have ever lived in, but the adherence to Functional Classification and poor land use development, creates corridors  inhospitable to pedestrians.

ParkingLotDaleMaybry

An example of typical land use along Tampa’s corridors. (Source: Loop.net)

How is the city fixing it? Slowly. Perhaps the best example is the Kennedy Overlay District project along Kennedy Boulevard, which the city has recognized as a gateway into the city. Carrying traffic from nearby St. Petersburg and Clearwater, as well as Tampa International Airport, Kennedy is a very important corridor to the city. It also plays an enormous role in the social sustainability of the city by connecting a large number of historic neighborhoods together, some healthier than others. The City describes it: “Providing a form-based, aesthetic framework that promotes development that creates a sense of interest and promotes a physically attractive, functionally integrated environment is essential. Additionally, provisions are introduced that establish pedestrian and transit friendly design standards for this corridor.” (City of Tampa, 2012.) Essentially, new development requires a private investment in a much wider sidewalk with street trees and most importantly that buildings front the street. The result over time is a multimodal corridor that serves as a spine of sustainability for the city.

Tampa Kennedy Boulevard Design

The City’s vision for the Kennedy corridor (Source: tampagov.net)

Progress has moved slowly along the corridor, in part I am sure to the economic downturn. Some successful examples do exist however, that show a much-improved future for Tampa pedestrians. The best example is a Starbucks that provides a widened sidewalk enhanced with brickwork, street trees, outdoor seating against the public realm, a small parking lot to the side of the building instead of in front, and a curb cut entrance on a side street to maintain a consistent streetscape on Kennedy. The difference is very noticeable when compared with the development next to it. With eight similar overlay districts along its corridors, Tampa is making a slowly growing commitment to adopting more urban and sustainable standards.

Kennedy Boulevard Starbucks Tampa

Starbucks, Kennedy Boulevard (Source: jrts on Flickr)

Another project that is improving the use of Tampa corridors by all users is the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Walk/Bike Plan. In summary, “the Walk‐Bike Plan identifies bicycle and pedestrian mobility projects which can be constructed within existing roadway alignments and other public rights‐of‐way that provide a basic accommodation for walking and bicycle mobility. As the plan is implemented, elements such as landscaping/streetscaping and other enhancements may be considered to improve the quality of the cyclist/pedestrian experience and to incentivize private investment within Walk‐Bike Plan project corridors.” (City of Tampa Walk/Bike Plan, 2011.) In essence and its implementation to date, as regular maintenance and repaving of roads occur striping is amended to include thinner lanes, on-street parking, and a connected network of bike lanes. This project is admirable because it can make a large difference in a street’s safety and comfortability, without requiring an increase in funds. This is particularly important in today’s economic climate. On streets where restriping has occurred, traffic has slowed and the number of cyclists have increased.

Swann striping Tampa

Swann Avenue, Tampa: an example of Tampa’s Walk/Bike Plan (Source: Bicycle Stories)

However, while these are admirable advances by a city that is cash-strapped in a recession (like many), a much larger shift in theory and commitment in practice are required to make a noticeable difference along Tampa’s corridors. At the recent CNU20 Conference in West Palm Beach, I attended the Mobility and the Walkable City track, which explored many of the issues that face the implementation of walkable thoroughfares.

I very impressed with new urbanist, Rick Hall’s adaptation of Functional Classification to New Urbanism’s transect. In his quest to see more complete streets built, he realized that to see change, he must speak the language of the people capable of making change. As a former employee of the DOT, 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. 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 Augmented Functional Classification manipulates the speed and design for the same road type based on the land use context.

Instead of a corridor maintaining the same design despite whether it is in the suburban or urban, which occurs constantly in Tampa, Hall’s system suggests that road design change based on the land uses along it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the street would carry less traffic, but curb/gutter, sidewalk and public realm design, cycling facilities, and crosswalks would adapt throughout the city. The result would be a more walkable street when it was required.

New Urbanism Functional Classification

Rick Hall’s Augmented Functional Classification (Source: Rick Hall, CNU20)

While this new urbanist idea requires more research, development and implementation before it can be fairly judged as a solution to the adaptation of Tampa’s many deficient corridors, it is this “big idea” thinking that is required to make an impact for pedestrians and cyclists for my city, and many others in Florida. And while a “big idea” can’t be applied consistently to every corridor in the city, one is required to be a catayst for a large change. Therefore, Tampa could benefit greatly from adopting a new framework in corridor retrofits.

Many roads in Tampa, despite it’s connected grid network, are a mess and pose a huge threat to the mixed-use walkable development that is at the heart of CNU’s Charter and core mission. While the city is making small steps to improve it’s corridors over time, Tampa is a perfect testing ground for the Project for Transportation Reform and big ideas like Rick Hall’s Augmented Classification.

Erin Chantry is an urban designer and writer of At the Helm of the Public Realm. She is also a member of CNU Tampa Bay, which is a local chapter of Congress for the New Urbanism. Please visit  http://groupspaces.com/CNUTampaBay/ and
https://www.facebook.com/CNUTampaBay to learn more!

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+

Urban Designer Series: Robert Moses

3 Aug

In an attempt to dive a little deeper into what urban design is, and how it became the important profession that it is today, I have decided to start an “Urban Designer” series. Periodically, I will look at the most well-known urban design writers, scholars, and professionals throughout history and contemporary society. Some will have created the most influential of design movements, some will have created controversy, some will have answered the challenges created by those, some will answer the most pertinent issues of today. Most importantly with this series, I hope to paint a picture of the vast array of opinions and views of built environment professionals, but highlight the fact that the greatest focus on very similar principles.

There are many urban designers that this series could begin with like Kevin Lynch, Gordon Cullen, or Jane Jacobs : many are considered great in our history. However, I am beginning with the man whose urban planning philosophy was the precipice for the modern-day urban design profession. Without him, and the fore mentioned people who responded so passionately to his beliefs, I am not sure that I would have the career I do today.

Robert Moses

Robert Moses (Image: wikimedia)

His Philosophy and Work

Robert Moses began his career as an urban planner/highway engineer at the exact same time as the automobile was gaining favor and abundancy in America. Many would argue that it is no coincidence that his urban planning philosophy, in turn, was so car oriented. Moses came from a time when driving a car, was just not seen as utilitarian, it was seen as entertainment. As it became common place, planners shifted their focus from the experience of the pedestrian or the community, the experience of the driver. Robert Moses was not alone in his view, he just happened to be perpetuating it in the most high profile city in the world: New York City.

Moses was instrumental in the construction of the Triborough, Throgs Neck, Bronx-Whitestone, Henry Hudson, and the Verrazano Narrows bridges, as well as the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Staten Island Expressway, the Cross-Bronx Crossway, the Belt Parkway, and Laurelton Parkway, just to name a few. Later in his career, the design of these roads shifted from a well-landscaped and beautified design, to the utilitarian highways we know today.

Moses was also a very political man, and had placed himself of a position of great influence. He was the Construction Manager in New York City after WWII and found himself in great favor with mayors and those who funded large construction projects. These bridges and highway systems he had masterminded made lots of money for the city, and in turn, he had power among other planning projects in the city. He also prohibited the creation of a city-wide Comprehensive Zoning Plan already underway, that would prohibited a majority of the visionary projects he had planned for New York City. With policy, funding, and politics in his corner there was little stopping him…New York was his.

No doubt influenced by other planners’ philosophy of the time, like Corbusier, Moses favored the eradication of “blight” and the construction of high-rise public housing projects. Historic neighborhoods and communities were bulldozed to make way for idealized and controlled housing plan across New York City. At the time these places were considered ghettos by many, and eradication was viewed as an improvement.  It’s been reported that unlike other public housing authorities, at least those planned by Moses were high-quality construction. And many of them still stand today. Robert Moses built 28,000 apartments based on Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” design scheme. With the separation of people, especially pedestrians, from cars and ground floor activity, an idealized design of the concentration of residents surrounded by green space was favored. If you look at the east side waterfront of Manhattan, the housing projects from 14th street to the Brooklyn Bridge are the result of Moses’ work.

Jacob Riis

Robert Moses’ Manhattan public housing (Image: The Age of Nepotism)

His Legacy

Later, after duplicates of Moses’ work popped up all over the country, and led to worse blight than existed in the first place, his philosophy and work was questioned. Many cities today regret and constantly suffer from the social and economic impacts that have resulted from the highway segregation through urban fabric. Unpredicted by Moses, this is just one large negative impact that modernist urban planning had on communities. Moses would later witness that tower public housing led to the worse crime and ghetto conditions that cities had ever seen.

Some people have great respect for Robert Moses (many call him the Master Builder,) but if you ask most urban designers about him, they will quickly mention  Jane Jacobs. I will write about Jane Jacobs in the next post in this series, but it was her realization of the negativity of Moses’ practices (revolutionary at the time) and her direct and explicit opposition to his projects and political gusto that set the foundation for the urban design profession today. Quite simply, if there were no Robert Moses, there might not be a Jane Jacobs as we know her, and there might not be urban design.

Robert Moses was one of the most politically active members of the modernist planning movement, and perhaps implemented more of the ideas than anyone on the ground. And for this reason, he is a famous character in the fruition of urban design. The sacrifice of the pedestrian in favor of the car, and the eradication and segregation of existing communities (no matter how blighted or poor) was a unique urban planning view. Since the car was a new invention, until then planning was based on the most traditional principles: people. This major shift in planning philosophy changed the way people lived everyday of their life because of large changes in their built environment. This new way of thinking was adopted long enough for there to be a large transformation in many of America’s largest cities, including New York City.

This questioning of Robert Moses’ beliefs and some of his personal actions led to the end of his era of planning. Many would argue it began with his encouragement to demolish the historic Penn Station (a New York landmark) in favor of a much less impressive development. Subsequently, he proposed that Greenwich Village and Soho be eradicated for the construction of a highway. This met so much opposition, it never occurred. Finally, he committed political suicide when he went up against governor, Nelson Rockefeller, who wanted to use toll money from one of Moses’ bridges to fund public transportation. No longer having the mayor’s trust and allegiance, Moses’ project ideas fell on deaf ears.

Old Penn Station NYC

The original Penn Station before demoltion (Image:Architecture Here and There)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s is when urban design really became a vocation and later evolved into a profession. Before, that term truly wasn’t recognized. There was no need to return to traditional urban planning because it hadn’t been abandoned. Today, most urban designers (or at least everyone I’ve worked with) continue to work against the philosophy of Robert Moses. While most planners realize the destruction his work had on the city, its heritage, and communities, there is still a huge dependence on automobiles that still must be considered in policy making and development every day.

Robert Moses does have a positive legacy with his development of Long Island and the New York State Park system. Unfortunately that is often ignored due to the result of the 13 highways in New York City that have resulted in the eradication in the city’s character. There is no doubt, despite his ideas, that he was a huge influence in the creation of the urban design profession, which has been instrumental in sustainable design and development. And for that, we can be grateful for his career.

Erin’s Google+

Outdoor Space and Public Housing: How Do We Design it?

20 Jul

I have written about the history of public housing a few times on At the Helm of the Public Realm. Studying it as an urban designer and as an architect, has given me many different views on how developments like Pruitt Igoe and Cabrini Green got it so wrong. It seems that every built environment professional has learned their lesson: out of scale, brutalistic structures surrounded by vast amounts of shared, open space fails.

But what we discuss much less often, is how to get it right. The blog post, Housing Design Outdoors on Polis last month gives an overview of what the necessary principles are to create a housing development. The article while written by a planner, Peter Sigrist, who concentrates his research in public housing. While planning is important, the fact that his research yielded results that are so design oriented, proves to me that urban design is one of the most dominant contributors to a successful public housing development.

public housing mixed uses

Public housing and the importance of proximity and accessibilty to mixed-uses. (Image: Wired NYC)

In his own words, the author provides this list of necessary principles for designing space around buildings in a public housing apartment complex as follows:

  1. Proximity between buildings
  2. The sense of Enclosure in outdoor spaces
  3. The Scale of buildings
  4. The Accessibility of buildings to residents, and of residents of local amenities
  5. Additions of items and facilities between buildings (including trees, parking, and places of leisure)
  6. Materials that improve aesthetic quality and maintenance
  7. The Style and the architectural elements of a space

What has the greatest influence on the design of public spaces are the buildings that form them. Therefore, if we get the building form, scale, and interior spaces wrong, their isn’t much hope for what surrounds it. Consequently, while Sigrist says these principles are about the design of public space, he is actually listing architectural principles of building form.

The first 3 principles, proximity, enclosure, and scale, while slightly different, are very much integrated with one another. Proximity between buildings is important, because it provides a human (and comfortable) scale of open spaces. Buildings have to be close enough to one another, so that the entirety of the space between them can be overlooked for safety purposes. Enclosure of outdoor spaces, which should also be at a human scale, is directly affected by the proximity of the buildings that form them. What Sigirst doesn’t explain, is that the sense of enclosure that makes humans feel comfortable needs to be formed by “active edges” to a building, whether its retail or residential openings in the facade. This once again allows overlooking of the enclosed space. Blank walls and fences make people feel unsafe and uncomfortable and should be avoided despite enclosure. If these are unavoidable, it should only be in private and physically secure spaces.

Finally, scale is the principle that completely determines the first two. Sigrist is right on when he says, “Higher buildings result in cavernous settings when grouped together, and conspicuous voids when spread apart. Longer and wider buildings can impede walkability and reduce green space. Expansive façades highlight repetition, monotony and decay. Smaller buildings tend to be associated with comfort around housing, perhaps because of the psychological effects of less-polarized differences in scale.” The end and short of it is that people’s comfort is tied to their human nature, which scale directly reflects. When people are disconnected from the elements that reflect their humanity (such as trees, for example), they have the tendency to lose it.

Open Space Public Housing

A comparison between the overlooked, public space designed at the human scale, and the negative effects of the opposite in public housing (Image: Studio Engleback and The Affordable Housing Institute)

Accessibility between residents and community mixed-uses, such as transit, retail and schools, are just as important as the form of open public spaces. Public space can only be healthy if it is actually used. If people do not use it as a pedestrian route from their home to local destinations, it may become less used, less loved, and less looked-after. One of the largest issues in public housing complexes is the maintenance of open space. One of the largest reasons is because people can feel like it doesn’t belong to them. If people have an emotional connection to a place, they will want to care of it. Level of activity is crucial to the success of public spaces, which is directly dependent on a development’s location to its surrounding neighborhood and strong physical connections with its context. If a development is within a hot climate, trees (as the author states), are crucial in providing a micro-climate in which people can still use a space all year round, which is imperative to maintaining activity. However, while Sigrist says that hedges are acceptable despite their disconnecting effect of residents from the public realm, I completely disagree. Not only do they impede access, they prevent overlooking and harbor unsafe places.

While the last two principles, material and style, certainly contribute to the health of open, public spaces, they are not necessary; if we achieve the first 4 we have fought 99% of the battle. This research shows that the success of public housing, or any housing for that matter, is dependent on their location in relation to mixed-uses, the human scale of the architecture, and defining the relationship between buildings.

The takeaway of this research is that the issue of public space must be considered at the nascent of the planning process…some benches can’t fix what is already broken. Also, the slight difference and fine minutia that differ between an urban designer and an urban planner discussing the same issue is evidence that the built environment is a challenging and complicated professional sector. If we learn to work together, and fill in the gaps that our expertise leaves, we can create big change and solve even the most challenging problems….So, an architect, a planner, and an urban designer walk into a bar…

Can Emerging Nations Avoid the US Path?

17 Jul

Erin Chantry:

When I visit emerging or even European countries, I am saddened by seeing mistakes on the ground that America has made three decades before. Why can’t we learn from each other? Is it because people and cities are so giddy with new found wealth that they can’t resist the temptations of over-development, sprawl, or car use? I stumbled across this blog entry that attempts to answer this question and thought I’d share. Please enjoy!

Originally posted on Dom's Plan B Blog:

By Dom Nozzi

Since the emergence and rapid spread of car ownership and use in America since the early part of the 20th Century, the United States has taken a large number of ruinous, unsustainable actions to make life happy for cars rather than people.

While it is true that car travel initially resulted in many positive improvements in our society, those improvements are now increasingly overwhelmed by negatives, as the continued provision of infrastructure, programs and finances to promote car travel is now experiencing severely diminishing returns that started later on in the 20th Century.

We are now at a point that each “improvement” for car travel – an “improvement” that is increasingly unaffordable – provides fewer and fewer benefits. And the costs of such “improvements” provide increasingly enormous decimation. A classic case, in other words, of diminishing returns.

Tragically, the US is largely trapped in this downward spiral…

View original 1,279 more words

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+

Guest Post: “Invisioning Tampa” Through Public Involvement

7 Jul

Hi everyone! I hope you had a wonderful July 4th holiday. I apologize for being a little MIA this week. I was busy studying for the LEED-ND exam, which I thankfully passed this morning. While I had my head buried in prerequisites and credits, my fellow designer, Garrett Honeycutt wrote a great piece about his experience with a prominent public involvement project funded by HUD in Tampa: Invision Tampa. Enjoy!

Tampa recently began a planning process to create a master plan for Tampa’s city center. The area in consideration stretches from downtown to Ybor and up Nebraska Avenue. This planning process includes a major public involvement aspect, which allows Tampa’s residents to get involved and share their ideas about how to improve the community. The public involvement process includes public meetings at the convention center, neighborhood walking tours, and two websites—one of which is designed to allow the public to share their own ideas.

Invision Tampa area

The Invision Tampa study area. (Image: Invisiontampa.com)

The first experience I had with the planning process began at the main web page, invisiontampa.com, where I watched a video of Mayor Bob Buckhorn speak about the plan and how it would include the public perspective, “…we need your thoughts, your ideas, your experiences, and your voice,” said Bob. So, I perused the website and followed the links to read about the project, and how to get involved. Under the ‘get involved’ link is where I discovered the Mindmixer website. The title reads, “Inspire Your Community Through Virtual Idea Sharing.”

youinvisiontampa.com, the idea sharing website, was created by a company named Mindmixer whose websites are designed to encourage public participation using a points system based on participation. The points are given to users when another person agrees with their idea, when the user posts an idea, when the user comments on someone else’s idea, and when a user seconds someone else’s idea.

As of now, there are 286 users who have shared 455 ideas total on 26 different topics. The ideas people have been posting revolve around transportation, economic development, housing / retail / entertainment development, neighborhood connectivity, parks, and street design. Right now the most popular idea-post in the most popular chat room, under the most popular topic, is about urban design and urban housing. The first couple of sentences from JoAnne F1’s post reads: “If I had a magic wand for Tampa I would wave it twice. Once for more urban housing and revitalized downtown neighborhoods and another to help everyone understand that good urban design must be a priority for our city.”

So far, JoAnne F1 has had 20 seconds, and 11 comments from other users around Tampa. A lot of the comments are about the idea of creating minimum density zones in and around the city center in order to create high enough densities to support local business and public transportation, as well as encourage redevelopment in surrounding, low density ,neighborhoods.

Some of the ideas I posted became popular as well, and some are now marked as “Under Consideration.” The idea under consideration with the most Seconds that I posted is titled “Encourage Restoration of Buildings Along Franklin Street.”

It reads: “We should give incentives to renovate historic buildings along Franklin Street and encourage economic diversity in order to continue to create a kind of pedestrian oriented outdoor mall. We should also extend the street-car line up Franklin Street north of the new CAMLS building.”

Historic Franklin Street Tampa

Tampa’s Franklin Street (Image: All Posters)

Another idea I posted, which received a lot of Seconds but was not labeled Under Consideration is titled “Boats Along Bayshore.” It reads, “Sometimes I look out over Tampa Bay from Bayshore Boulevard and imagine sailboats coming in from the Caribbean to port. If Tampa had a youth sailing club and facility, across from Tampa General Hospital where the vacant boat docs are, the already dynamic Bayshore atmosphere would become even more so. Tourist would come from all over to see the longest continuous water front walkway in the world. Lets enhance Tampa’s great atmosphere along Bayshore with a youth sailing club.”

This and the previous idea were just two of the 11 ideas I posted, proving the website to at-the-least, catch my attention.

Boats Hillsborough Bay Bayshore

Boats in Hillsborough Bay along Bayshore (Image: Garrett Honeycutt)

In addition to the websites, the new master plan process reaches out to the community through walking tours. The walking tours were two-in-one public involvement meetings organized around the Tampa Bay area and promoted on the InVision website. The first part being a walk around the area of discussion, and the second being an idea sharing charette about the area in question. These walking tours were created for 8 different neighborhoods around Tampa: Ybor Heights, Tampa Heights, North Downtown, Old West Tampa, the Channel District, North Hyde Park, Historic Ybor, and Seminole Heights.

Personally, I attended the Channel District neighborhood walking tour, which proved to be very useful for collecting the public point of view, but not very effective at answering some of the more nitty-gritty questions. What are the limitations of the new master plan? Would it be possible to develop the land directly on the channel even though it is currently privately owned by the ship yard? Could the city give some type of incentive to convince the port it would be more profitable for them to develop the land into housing and retail than it would be to keep it as a ship yard? Questions like these seemed less interesting to the tour guides than questions about the public realm. Perhaps these ideas would be addressed at the final leg of the public involvement aspect of the InVision Tampa master plan, the Knowledge Exchange meetings.

The Knowledge Exchange meetings were held at the convention center and were designed to alternate between lectures from AECOM staff and table exercises from the audience.

At the Knowledge Exchange on May 30th sitting at a table 15 minutes before the meeting, Pete Sechler, the project manager and a principal at AECOM, asked me what I think should be priority for Tampa’s downtown master plan.

So, remembering my experience at the Channel District walking tour, and how developing private lands seemed to be more challenging than some other opportunities for improvement, I suggested that we should determine how difficult each idea would be to implement, in order to help rank priorities. He must have thought that was a good idea because he mentioned it and our conversation when he spoke to the room. He also spoke generally about how the project has been coming along with the website feedback and he talked about the success of the walking tours , then he said how important it was for us to get the word out and come to the next Knowledge Exchange meeting. The other speakers were very interesting and the table exercise were pointed and engaging.

So, between the news coverage with Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the two websites, the walking tours and the Knowledge Exchange meetings, I feel the master plan process was very successful in hearing the people’s point of view. In all there were 485 ideas contributed, from the Mindmixer site about how to improve Tampa’s city center, virtually hitting every aspect conceivable. I feel the public involvement process was a big success and the Tampa community should feel their ideas were at least taken note of. However, as successful as the process was, there were some frustrating limitations, almost as if the people in charge could not tell us the truth, the bad news, what usually happens with master plans once all the big ideas the public had become hopeful of achieving are spilled out and left in the hands of whoever. What happens next? Are the people who had high hopes for Tampa achieving big ideas through this master plan just getting their hopes up only to be let down?

One of the speakers at the Knowledge Exchange meeting saw Chattanooga Tennessee’s downtown planning process from beginning to end, and he emphasized how much time these things take, it was a common theme in his speech.

He saw Chattanooga riverfront development-plan implemented, changed, redesigned and implemented again for over 30 years into what it is today, and again, he said these things take time—information that would have been helpful on the walking tours, and information that should have been emphasized throughout the whole process.

So, I guess, if there is any criticism to Tampa’s master planning process so far, it would be that the public should be made more aware and better educated about how these things work and how exactly change happens. The public should not only know where the funding for the master plan came from, but also and more importantly where the future funding will come from in order to make these grand, but equally necessary, changes to Tampa’s city center into realities. The planning staff should be more informed and equipped to answer these tough questions, or if they are capable of answering the tough question they should not be discouraged to share incite with the public. The walking tours should have been more give-and-take, designed to gather public opinion and inform the public about what types of changes are likely to come sooner through the planning process and which changes would take more time, and how much time different ideas usually take, and what kind of ideas may just simply be out of the question.

If the intent was to inspire the public without discouraging, or discriminating between ideas, I feel the Mindmixer website did a sufficient job in doing this, and that the walking tours should have been a little more informative.

In all, the entire experience was fun and collaborative, but I wish it were a little more informative. I am hopeful and excited to see where the InVision Tampa master plan takes us from here.

Garrett Honeycutt has a Bachelor of Architecture from Florida Atlantic University and works as a designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Team at Tindale-Oliver & Associates in Tampa. 

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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Semantics: Redevelopment vs. Regeneration.

21 Jun

I received my urban design and planning education in England, which sometimes leads to little, yet awkward, misunderstandings. It has been a slight challenge to get comfortable in the drastic differences between the two planning systems, but mostly I have made peace with the translations. However, one term: regeneration, which is often substituted with redevelopment in America does not sit well with me. People see my specialization: “Urban and Regional Regeneration” and they ask me, “what is regeneration? Is like redevelopment?”

The answer is yes, and no. They overlap quite a bit, and while the number of anomalies are few, they are so distinctly different, that the terms are more dissimilar than at first glance. In its simplest form, to redevelop, is to develop again, which implies doing it over completely. While regeneration most directly means “rebirth or renewal” of something, implying that the entity remains throughout the process. In my experience these simple definitions distinctly describe the difference in the urban planning context.

The American Planning Association (APA) defines redevelopment as “one or more public actions that are undertaken to stimulate activity when the private market is not providing sufficient capital and economic activity to achieve the desired level of improvement. This public action usually involves one or more measures such as direct public investment, capital improvements, enhanced public services, technical assistance, promotion, tax benefits, and other stimuli including planning initiatives such as rezoning.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) defines regeneration as “a holistic process which aims to reverse the economic, social and physical decline of places where market forces alone will not suffice. The planning process provides the opportunity to enhance the role and capacity of communities as well as balancing community, business, environmental and individual needs. Effective regeneration requires active and meaningful long-term community engagement and involvement, as well as changes to the physical environment.”

The slight difference in definition is that redevelopment focuses on monetary investment and physical changes. Regeneration focuses on the existing community and “social decline” of a place, equally with the economic and physical factors. It even goes further to say that it addresses “holistically,” “individual needs.” Of course there are many redevelopment projects that do address the community, but because the APA distinctly says that “the private sector may initiate redevelopment projects without any active public involvement beyond the government’s traditional regulatory role,” I would argue that it is not enough to measure against the social investment of regeneration.

Perhaps the distinct difference in the responsibility to act directly on behalf of existing residents versus the primary goal of monetary investment is that England’s planning system is much larger and more politicized (and therefore receives more federal funding.) Of course, this comes with its own hindrances, but in this case social decline being put on equal footing is well worth what some call the overreaching arm of the government. While in America, gentrification might be seen as an inevitable and therefore an accepted side effect of redevelopment, in England, I would argue it is seen as sometimes inevitable and therefore tragic side effect of regeneration.

To illustrate this point, let me give you an example of the power behind a true regeneration project: Angell Town in Brixton, London.

Angel Town, Brixton

Angell Town Brixton Estate - Improvements

The urban design and physical improvements made at Angell Town Estate.

Problem (courtesy of Rudi):

  • Lack of public space for social interaction – derelict communal areas were unused.
  • The garages provided were dark and unsurveyed, and therefore, never used.
  •  The estate was perceived as crime ridden as the multiplicity of bridges and walkways provided ideal escape routes for criminals, often from outside the estate itself.
  • Litter accumulation resulted from removing the bridges (which gave access to the waste removal pick-up points), in an attempt to reduce crime
  • The estate came to epitomize neglect and decline
  • The estate became stigmatized a sink estate.

Solution – A summary of simple urban design changes:

  • The first main part of the scheme involved re-orientating the existing deck-access housing into a more “normal” street format, based on terraced dwellings which related to the street through individual entrances.
  • Each dwelling was given an individual, recognized identity (surveillance on the street was improved, as windows now faced directly out
  • Terraced housing replaced the monotonous, unsafe corridors of entrances.
  • The pedways, which were perceived as unsafe, were removed so that the houses could be extended to face on to the street.
  • New central grassed areas were defined as focal points for the houses. These areas were separated from the new vehicular perimeter roads by railings, enabling children to play, away from the danger of traffic and dogs.
  • The un-used garages on the ground floors were replaced with shops and community facilities, such as a bar, cafe, workshops, and even a recording studio in one area – to provide the previously, much lacked social amenities. This design measure also helped transform dark and bleak spots into animated facades of street level activity.

Instead of looking at this place, and only seeing its problems, the urban designer, planners, and architects looked at them as opportunities to build on the strong community that had lived there for decades. The project improvements didn’t eradicate every trace of the place that had become their home, but committed a large investment to renovate the buildings they could and design the new ones to complimented the existing so well you had to look hard to tell the difference between the two. Members of the community could still look and see where they came from, in other words, it still felt like home, but most importantly they could look again a little harder and see their bright future. This might sound like I’m laying it on a little thick, but the success of this regeneration stunned so many nationwide, and contental-wide, that intense project documentation occurred, including resident interviews. The members of the community realized what so many times planners don’t: they looked to their physical environment to define their identity. With the existing bones of the original Angell Town Estate still in existence, they easily correlated the physical improvements to be improvements in themselves.

This outstanding result came from an intense and time-consuming community consultation process (another distinctly different term than public involvement). The lead urban designer was so involved with the community that he actually lived there are the weekends in a flat. While this is rare in either country, it certainly is to be commended.

Perhaps the most powerful item in Angell Town now are the benches that poetically are made from the rubble from the demoed parts of the old buildings, caged, with a stone seat atop them. People can actually sit on the physical representation of what was destroying their community: a poorly designed public realm. This was recited by residents often as what made the biggest difference to them. Don’t ever underestimate the power of poeticism.

Caged Rubble Wall

Caged rubble representing moving forward to a healthy and safe community.

I will let you make your own observations and would love for you to share them on this blog. But I invite you now to look at redevelopment projects that have occurred in similar conditions (public housing sites) in America:

So, what will it be redevelopment or regeneration?

Magnolia Street New Orleans Louisiana

The Magnolia Street homes that were demolished even though they were listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance as an early federal housing effort in New Orleans….replaced with “traditional” suburban housing. (Images: CoLab Radio and McCormack Baron Salazar)

Mission Hill Boston Design

What does it say to a community when you eradicated everything that was their home and build it back with sub par architectural crap? (Mission Hill, Boston) (Images: Affordable Housing Institute)

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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.

Erin’s Google +

A New Urbanist’s Pilgrimage (Part II): Seaside.

6 Jun

After I wallowed in Duany’s crowning achievement for 4 days, I finally headed down the 30A to spend a day where it all started. I of course was aware of Seaside’s legacy, celebration, and the bouts of criticism its endured over the last few decades (even by its own creators.) I knew I couldn’t properly form a critical opinion in just one day, so I decided to go with an open-mind and a youthful excitement. That’s right, second best to a critic: a tourist (after all, I did buy a t-shirt.)

However, despite accepting my role of tourist, I couldn’t help think of something that Duany said about Rosemary Beach… that he was given the once in a lifetime gift to an architect: to be given the exact same project twice, and having the good fortune of time and perspective to get right the second time what he didn’t get right the first. He had been given a do-over. So as I drove down the 30A, I knew that I would not be entering the utopia that the Truman Show or the critics of New Urbanism have Seaside portray.

Here are some reflections and impressions of my time in Seaside:

The town center was a big disappointment. As I approached the overpowering buildings by Daniel Solomon and Steven Holl, which I instinctively knew were out of place, my stomach kind of sunk a bit. As an afterthought this is surprising. Steven Holl was my favorite architect in architecture school after I spent 4 weeks studying his Stretto House. It was perfection, these buildings were not.

The magic that Rosemary Beach embodied so perfectly disappeared. For all the talk of this urban code, where the heck did it go? It must have been lost, or the code must not have been strict enough. Having said that, these buildings were designed to support the public realm by maximizing the transparency on the ground floor. They did this well except along the 30A where it was completely ignored. But I wanted to be lounging on the front porch of Sundog Books and having a drink on the deck at the Great Southern Cafe, not wandering underneath the comparatively cold arcades of Solomon.

Seaside Florida - Sundog books and The Great Southern Cafe

The striking contrast between the Solomon/Machado and Silvetti buildings vs. the vernacular Sundog Books and Great Southern Cafe. (Sources: Real Photo Stock, Sister Schubert, TripAdvisor)

Finally, some legibility. After being frustratingly and permanently lost in Rosemary Beach for the weekend, I learned my way around Seaside in about 10 minutes. A street hierarchy with emphasized channels of movement (Seaside Avenue, the Lyceum, and Ruskin Place) and a clear block structure made Seaside accessible and permeable. I believe that because of this, in stark comparison to Rosemary Beach, Seaside felt more like a true town and much less like a resort. Making it easy for everyone to pass through the streets of Seaside is the epitome of social sustainability.

Snooty? No thank you. In stark contrast to Rosemary Beach’s mansions on the beach, Seaside had a strip of commercial activity on the waterfront. While you couldn’t access the beach unless you were a resident you could watch it while eating “seaside” (no pun intended), shop, or have a cup of coffee. With commercial uses intended for those who live outside of Seaside, the very civic central square made the place feel welcoming to everyone. Funny thing was, is they were never meant to be there.

Instead of worrying about keeping people out, the design of Seaside concentrates on bringing people in. The street network connects seamlessly with existing residential streets. As we were exploring, we left pinkish colored streets and postcard architecture and found ourselves on a dirt road with 1950s ranches. So we turned right, and right again, and we were back in Seaside. This was by far the most surprising discover of my trip. If you don’t know it by now…I love connectivity!

Pop Up Urbanism If someone took you blindfolded to Seaside’s Central Square at the 30A, and you suddenly opened your eyes you might think you were in Portland. The most unique and creative food trucks line the road. Not only do they serve the function of creating an urban identity for the town, they give structure and intimacy to what would otherwise be a gaping hole of a public space. If you haven’t visited it already, please have a look at Pop Up City. This website explores some of the best temporary items that can have the largest influence on public spaces. This was certainly the case here.

Food Carts in Seaside, Florida

Seaside food truck row. Pop up urbanism at its best. (Source: Lauren Taylor)

Some charm lost? I love trees, and there is no doubt that they are instrumental in creating an urban place, especially in Florida. But somehow Seaside has been eaten by them. I had seen the photographed, clean and simply designed streets of Seaside for years and those are the ones I have admired. I was constantly challenged to sometimes see and experience the place behind the forest that has firmly established itself in the streetscape. The below picture that is my favorite of Seaside is now unrecognizable. It’s just not what I expected, and the trees certainly muddle up the iconography of early Seaside.

Seaside Florida Then and Now

The iconographic image of early Seaside vs. the reality of it today. (Source: Coastal Family Living)

Don’t be fooled. Watercolor is not Seaside. Watercolor is a master planned community by Cooper, Robertson & Partners, directly west of Seaside. While the architectural style is very familiar, the similarities appear to stop there. While there are some great urban design achievements in Watercolor like the street cross-section of 30A and what appeared to be a cyclist’s dream connection with Western Lake, it got very suburban, very fast, and did so with very little magic that DPZ was able to create in Seaside and Rosemary Beach. Perhaps it was the reappearance of the curb and therefore the strict definition of space, but the streets very much became roads: they belonged to the car, and not the pedestrian. Cyclists could be found riding their bikes on the roads closer to the community core of the development. But the farther you went from it, the houses got bigger, the density got lower, the roads got wider, and the speed increased…tell tale signs of suburbia.

I finished up with a swing by my mate, Leon Krier’s house, the Truman Show house, and the Seaside Chapel. It was a whirlwind day in Seaside. And while I had the pleasure filled task of trying to explain to a 7, 5, and 3-year-old (my awesome nieces and nephew) why we were missing an afternoon at the pool to simply walk around and “experience a place,” I think they forgave me when they got ice cream.

In lieu of some of my own critical thought, here are a few quotes on Seaside from the best:

“Seaside’s influence has been helped along by criticism that it is “not a real town” – that it is a resort…Yes it is precisely as a result of the rental program that hundreds of thousands of people have been able to experience what it means to live in a compact, diverse, and walkable community…As a resort, Seaside strives for an ideal. Resorts are compelled to be even better utopians…a full-time community of everyday living cannot be as effective. The criticism of Seaside being a resort we understand, but we also approve of its destiny as a demonstration project.” - Andres Duany

‘The first time I saw Seaside, my heart sank. I already knew so much about her, felt so inextricably connected to her fate, that I approached our first meeting with high anxiety. For years I had heard about her impeccable ancestry, her good values, and noble things she championed, her fame, her notoriety, and all the rest. Then suddenly, there she was, in the flesh. Oy, oy, oy, I thought – too much makeup; she spoke too loudly; she smoked. Were all those nasty critics from the other camp really right? Could I ever really love her? The short answer to that complicated question is – yes. I saw what a great companion she makes; I learned how much fun she is to be with; and I grew to understand that she really has a soul…” - Daniel Solomon

“Over the years, Seaside has endured quite a lot of abuse and objurgation from various quarters. The “cuttingedgista” architects denounced it for being nostalgic that is; for attempting to make people feel comfortable in their surroundings instead of fibrillating them with anxiety. It was sneered at as “elitist” by the political progressives who send their kids to private boarding schools and vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Pretty much everybody else got it, though, and showed their admiration by bidding up the prices of the building lots…Seaside definitely started something. The great achievement of Seaside was to demonstrate in three dimensions that we weren’t a nation of clowns after all, that we were actually capable of building something in our time, and of our time, that was worthy of the human spirit.” - James Howard Kunstler

Truman Show Seaside, Florida

Sorry, couldn’t resist. (Source: The Daily Balance)

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A New Urbanist’s Pilgrimage (Part I): Rosemary Beach.

1 Jun

This Memorial Day weekend I had the opportunity to go the hotbed of New Urbanism on the 30A coast in the Panhandle of Florida. Of course I was thrilled to finally see what many consider to be the foundation of New Urbanism and the development that catapulted Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) into architecture and urban planning fame: Seaside. (Post to follow…) Of course a few others have popped up along the same county road, including Rosemary Beach, where my family and I stayed for 4 days. That’s right – I was livin’ it up, New Urbanism style.

This was my first visit to a Duany designed community. To really understand the movement, I felt like I needed to witness the founders’ work, especially that of the most active in getting New Urbanism on the ground. I wanted to spend the 4 days immersing myself in the world that they created for me, and try to remain a critical observer based on my urban design expertise. Do these guys really live up the CNU Charter and all the hype that exists around them in the profession? The following are my unbiased observations, and an attempt to answer that question.

Placemaking at It’s Finest

The public realm design at Rosemary Beach was the finest I’ve seen in any new place. There is just as a strong “sense of place” in old New England fishing villages and small midwestern towns, but what was so impressive about Rosemary was that it was just built out in the last 1-2 years. While other places have had decades to develop their identity, Rosemary Beach has done it relatively quickly. While many factors contribute to its stellar placemaking, which will be discussed further, the foundation that holds it all together is its public realm plan.

Rosemary Beach Design - Public Spaces

A Rosemary Beach public realm masterplan emphasizing the public spaces of the development. (Image: Richard Sexton)

The public realm design is a wonderful result to meeting the 100′ setback requirements on the 30A county road. With the human scale of the development relying in part on the height of the buildings, this was a threat that could have ruined the project. Instead Duany and Co.used the restraint as a design inspiration by incorporating an angled green corridor through the heart of the project that fulfills the setback requirement while serving as a hub for community events and playtime. What I like about it most is its poetic angled form that appears to funnel people into the town center where it is anchored by a fountain and another public green space that runs perpendicular. This creates an axis of public realm for the town center to form around, and guides people to the waterfront where they will find another beautiful public space.

Communal green spaces are continued throughout the development, the most influential periodically placed along the Gulf. More intimate spaces, such as small gathering places, are nestled along the pedestrian boardwalks between homes. There is never a want for a communal place. However, there also isn’t so many public spaces that they lose their influence or meaning to the identity of the development.

Rosemary Beach Florida Parks

Arguably the three most predominant public spaces in Rosemary Beach.

Finally, Rosemary’s cherry on the sundae is the Town Hall and Post Office which sit smack dab in the middle of the town center, acting as a node between Main Street and public open space. As a landmark, it makes the statement that the public space is civic and belongs to the people. Atop is a bell that rings hourly. It was amazing to me how something so simple as a bell unified everyone together who heard it.

Rosemary Beach Town Hall and Rosemary Post Office

Rosemary Town Hall and complimentary Post Office, designed by Scott Merrill.

Pedestrian Paradise

There ain’t a curb in this place (well almost)…and it had a marvelous effect. From recent memory this is the only place I have ever been to where the streets belonged to the people, and cars were allowed to borrow them. Walking and cycling was the norm in Rosemary and cars felt out-of-place and driving was very uncomfortable. This was because of a few reasons including diversity of uses and high densities, and a large number of users, but I think the most influential was the design of the streets. Unmarked pavement, wide enough for two cars to slowly pass, was bordered by brick on-street parking, a planting strip, and a walking path. All were on the same level with no divisions, which allowed the street to be flexible: space was differentiated when it was necessary, and could act as one otherwise. Humorously, the only markings on the street were crosswalks, which I didn’t see observed once.

During a moment on Saturday afternoon, I stepped back and realized that my niece and nephew were playing in the middle of the street. And no one seemed to mind. They didn’t need to, they were perfectly safe. The only place people needed to pay attention to cars for their safety was at the crossing of the 30A. With no curbs in place, even then pedestrians walked comfortably across the county road. Instead of it dividing the town center in half, it was so seamlessly integrated into the streetscape that people paid little attention to it.

Interwoven with a very pedestrian safe street network, there is a beautifully boardwalked pedestrian/cyclist system that is as predominant in navigating the town. This is the case because some of the nicest houses front onto it and are only accessible by car from the back alleys. What makes the system so well-used is not necessarily its design, but its abundancy and efficiency in navigation.

Rosemary Beach 30A - Rosemary Avenue

The crossing of the 30A, Rosemary Avenue, the hidden pedestrian network, and the unnecessary crosswalk.

Architectural Character

While I don’t usually give architectural design the time of day, Rosemary Beach proved that after you achieve the appropriate land use design, architectural quality and style can have an enormous effect on the placemaking and identity of a place. DPZ’s strict urban code had 12 building types that established the character of the development. While each home is unique, the code ensured a “harmony and architectural integrity” through the town. Rosemary Beach’s architectural design was based on regional examples like St. Augustine, the West Indies, New Orleans, and Charleston. Deep eaves are used to provide shade and high ceilings and porches on the first floor draw breezes.

Honestly, I have been doubtful of the necessity for Duany’s urban code, and while I do not think it is necessary in every, or most urban conditions, I certainly have a respect for what it can achieve. While you might think that the code would result in monotony and boredom, it instead encourages unique, creative design form in the quest to be different. The result was pretty spell-binding.

Rosemary Beach Architecture and design

The unique architectural character of Rosemary Beach as a result of the DPZ urban code.

Is this Reality?

While I am very impressed with the placemaking, street design, and architectural quality of Rosemary Beach, I constantly question if it was a real place. It is so well done and feels so unlike any place I had every been before, I can’t quite grasp it as a real urban solution.

And I think that is perhaps its downfall.

This post has taken me so long to write, because I have been struggling with how to respond to something being so perfect its wrong. Surely that’s not possible? Urban designers and architects create something that is perfect and then we hang them for it? Because of its Walt Disney beginnings, critics say that Celebration is “too Disney” but in reality Rosemary Beach felt WAY more “Disney-like.” Walking down Rosemary Beach’s Main Street doesn’t make me feel dissimilar to walking down Magic Kingdom’s Main Street. It is so magical of a place that as soon as I did get in my car and drive 1/8 of a mile to the west my heart sank as I returned to a real-world architectural mess.

Socio-Economic Fail

Of course one of the reasons why Rosemary Beach feels so unreal, is because it doesn’t address the socio-economic context that real places have to consider. Rosemary Beach accommodates one type of person: white and wealthy. It is because of the generosity of my brother and sister-n-law that I was able to enjoy it – my husband and I couldn’t afford it ourselves, and we are securely middle class. In part, this is not necessarily DPZ’s fault because of Rosemary Beach’s beach side location. It defaults to a resort town that attracts a specific demographic. However, from my still growing knowledge of Duany’s urban code, it does not adequately address the socio-economic housing requirements of the people who might otherwise want to live there. Perhaps this is the reason that Rosemary Beach prices out the majority of the population.

Or perhaps it is because “magical” places like Rosemary Beach are so few and far between its enormous price tag is a result of supply and demand. If more places looked and felt like it, and provided a more diverse mix of housing, I am certain the cost of living (or visiting I should say) would drop.

A Few Other Observations

Rosemary Beach has zero legibility, especially to the north of 30A. I was there 4 full days and got lost every day. In plan it looks simply designed and easy to navigate. On the ground, with no street hierarchy or clear grid arrangement, it is a plethora of confusion. Alleys are used to hide cars and act as access points for housing, but they are designed at the same width and in almost the same style as the main streets. With very few through streets in the town, users have to thoughtfully weave around unclear of what direction they’re traveling. With most buildings looking similar outside of the town center, there are no landmarks to guide you on your way.

While this street network is confusing, it is extremely connected. I haven’t counted, by the intersection/per sq. mile must be through the roof. However, while it is permeable within itself, it is completely disconnected from the development to either side of it. While DPZ were constrained by the number of access points on US98, there was no effort to connect with Seacrest Beach adjacent. While the cynic in me can’t help but assume this was done on purpose to keep the “riff raff” out and eradicate through traffic, it does a disservice to the greater civic community.

Final Thoughts

If you take Rosemary Beach for what it is (a resort) it is perfection.

The problem lies in that New Urbanism provides real solutions, but the firm who are building the most genuine New Urbanism developments (or at least those that are most well-known,) are not building “real” urban places that address BIG issues like socio-economic equality and transportation. The most talked about DPZ projects like Rosemary Beach, Seaside, and Windsor have a majority of housing that sells for well over a million dollars on average. Therefore, a substantial amount of critics and built environment professionals believe that the Charter does not offer real solutions. Rosemary Beach works because on vacation people don’t need to drive to work or school, they have the time to leisurely fill their day with bike rides and walks to the beach.

However, having said that, I believe that one day far, far away, a town like Rosemary Beach with a greater mix of housing can be a real solution. If there were an extensive public transportation network that eradicated people’s want and need to drive their car, pedestrian oriented streets, high densities, and mixed uses will be the natural form of urban development. Even today in many traditional neighborhoods where kids ride their bikes in the street, curbless, shared space can be an everyday solution.

The big take away from my time living the life that Duany created for me is that for the CNU and New Urbanism to become the mainstream way of designing for all urban conditions, it must start producing more well-known and cherished places that are more relevant and accessible to the majority of people. In part this will come from clients’ willingness to pay for what I am sure is an expensive planning process, but also for people like Duany and Plater-Zyberk to loosen up a bit on the perfection. In creating a place that is not seamless in its architectural perfection, they will contribute more to reality and less to “Disney.”

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