Tag Archives: urban planning

How to Series: Creating a Community Vision.

26 Jun

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

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

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

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

Franklin Street and the Rialto Theatre: Now and Then.

Franklin Street and the Rialto Theatre: Now and Then.

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

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

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

VisioningBoards

Visioning Boards

2) Ask people what they like.

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

Visual Preference

Visual Preference

3) Identify what works and what doesn’t.

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

Small Groups

Small Groups

4) Ask people to visualize.

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

Street Visioning

Street Visioning

5) Report back.

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

6) Process and follow-up.

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

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

 

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Andres Duany’s Lean Urbanism.

8 Feb

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

LeanUrbanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CNU 21: The Mormon Influence.

10 Jun

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

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

salt lake city original form

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

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

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

Salt Lake City blocks

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

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

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

portland blocks tampa blocks

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

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

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

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

Erin’s Google+

Guest Post: West Side Story.

19 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community retail in West Charlotte

Community retail in West Charlotte

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

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

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

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

A rehabilitated house in West Charlotte

A rehabilitated house in West Charlotte

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

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

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

Saving Main Street: Creativity in Retail.

15 Apr

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

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

A typical American main street and English high street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Oracle Shopping Centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bullring – Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 Feb

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

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

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

Connectivity

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

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

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

Public Realm Enhancements

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

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

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

Site Orientation

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

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

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

Ground Floor Design and Use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Target - Dale Maybry Highway, Tampa, FL

Target – Dale Maybry Highway, Tampa, FL

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

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

Target - Orange Avenue, Tampa, FL

Target – Orange Avenue, Tampa, FL

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

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

Dale Maybry, Tampa, FL

Dale Mabry, Tampa, FL

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

Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, FL

Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, FL

And the Target in my home town of Charlotte.

Charlottetowne Avenue, Charlotte, NC

Charlottetowne Avenue, Charlotte, NC

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

The New, New Urbanism.

27 Jan

Lean. Guerilla. Incremental. Vernacular. Tactical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wynwood Miami

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

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

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

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

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

Erin’s Google+

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

7 Dec

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

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

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

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

The Land Use Perspective

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

Choose to live near your work, or second place.

I hate commuting.

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

Tampa city limits downtown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erin’s Google+

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

18 Nov

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

(Source: Jane Jacobs Walk)

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

The Death and Life…

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

(Source: The Planning Issue)

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

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

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

Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Source: Treehugger)

Erin’s Google+

The Legacy of Levittown.

15 Oct

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

By David Kushner

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

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

construction of Levittown

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

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

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

Levittown two model houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Houses in Levittown NY

Houses that have been personalized over time in Levittown, NY

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

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

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

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

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!

Urban Designer Series: Robert Moses

3 Aug

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

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

Robert Moses

Robert Moses (Image: wikimedia)

His Philosophy and Work

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

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

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

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

Jacob Riis

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

His Legacy

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

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

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

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

Old Penn Station NYC

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

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

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

Erin’s Google+

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

20 Jul

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

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

public housing mixed uses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Space Public Housing

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

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

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

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

Can Emerging Nations Avoid the US Path?

17 Jul

Erin Chantry:

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

Originally posted on Dom's Plan B Blog:

By Dom Nozzi

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

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

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

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

View original 1,279 more words

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