Tag Archives: CNU

Andres Duany’s Lean Urbanism.

8 Feb

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

LeanUrbanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LEED-ND Series: Determining Gaps in the Rating System

22 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vermillion, NC

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

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

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

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

Erin’s Google+

The New, New Urbanism.

27 Jan

Lean. Guerilla. Incremental. Vernacular. Tactical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wynwood Miami

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

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

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

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

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

Erin’s Google+

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 +

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)

Erin’sGoogle+

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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CNU20: Final Reflections.

19 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.

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Reflections on My Morning with Leon Krier

19 May

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

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

Building Height and Density

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

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

Leon Krier Cartoon : 3-4 Storey Theory.

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

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

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

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

Architectural Style

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

Leon Krier - architecture school education cartoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poundbury Dorset UK from the sky.

Poundbury, Dorset, England (Source: The Telegraph)

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

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

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.
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Clearer Thinking: Urbanism + Transit.

15 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jarrett Walker’s Journey Heidelberg

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

Geneva Rail For The Valley

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

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

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

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

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.
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Building a Culture of Bike Safety.

15 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bicycle Lane - Woman Cycling to work

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

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

safe cycling infrastructure in the right-of-way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.

Functional Classification to Realizing Complete Streets for Everyone.

15 May

“Who the heck invited the DOT?”

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

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

1. Funding

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

2. Safety

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

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

3. Decrease in Drivers

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

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

4. Land Use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A visual representation of Richard Hall’s Augmented Functional Classification

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

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

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.

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

13 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ordinance failed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.

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CNU20: The New World in West Palm Beach.

29 Apr

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

Below are the sessions I will be writing about daily:

Plenary Sessions:

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

Friday Night Plenary with Richard Florida

Saturday Morning Plenary Featuring Leon Krier

Break Out Sessions:

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

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

From Balanced Roads to Transit Oriented Development

Florida Mobility Policies: Regional Rail to Enhance Mobility

Clear Thinking: Urbanism + Transit

Functional Classification: The Least Interesting Policy That Dominates Most Everything

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

Beyond Bike Lanes: Building a Culture of Bicycle Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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