When I chose this breakout session, I didn’t really fully understand the title, but I was confident that with “space” and “transportation,” it had to be up my alley. It turned out to be a presentation of four of the latest and greatest research papers conducted in the New Urbanism field. As they were discussed, it was a little challenging to string them together with one theme, but when the question and answer session started, it became very clear to me very quickly. This was a discussion on connectivity—more specifically, how connectivity was dependent on the clear distinction between public and private space.
The two most interesting papers presented were New Urbanism Transportation in an AASHTO World by Wesley Marshall and the Legal Aspect of City Planning and Urban Design by Paul Knight. The former concentrated specifically on the street design of Stapleton in Denver, Colorado, while the latter focused on the extinct Master Street Plan that used to be instrumental in our planning culture. Between the two, a problem was clearly identified and the challenge to overcome it was set in motion. Moderator Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk summed it up nicely when she said that the most crucial element in the development of greenfield land or in urban infill is the clear distinction between private and public space. Without it, true connectivity with the surrounding urban context is impossible.
Ever since I became an urban designer, I have been a champion of connectivity. I also have been aware of the importance and benefits of clear separation between public and private space. Perimeter blocks creating the clear separation allows for overlooking opportunities and a safe public realm. They also create the highest concentration of activity in open spaces, which contributes to placemaking and identity-building initiatives. Finally, the distinction of public and private space leads people to better maintain and emotionally connect to their property. But never had I made the association between public vs. private space and connectivity.
This is most likely because my urban design and urban planning education took place in England. While this provided a unique and challenging educational context that I cherish, I can be a little foggy on my American planning history. I got a phenomenal history lesson in the Zoning Enabling Act of 1924, which was a zoning plan of private space, and the City Planning Act, which was a master street plan of public space. I learned that in the early 20th century both of these worked together to create a holistic planning system that focused on the separation of public and private space. A 1947 Supreme Court case led to the eradication of the Master Street Plan, which reduced the zoning plan to a comprehensive plan, which acted as a land use map for both public and private space. Let the chaos ensue.
The result was that the private sector, not the government, became responsible for building streets … and we actually trusted them to do so. Prior to the eradication of the Master Street Plan, developers, planners, city officials, and the public knew where the public rights-of-way would be, providing a seamless integration of phased development. Paul Knight gave the example of Manhattan, which was built over 130 years, but appears to be constructed all at once because, aside from Central Park, it adheres religiously to the street master plan. With the loss of this organization, there is no incentive for the road network to be consistent.
Along with many flawed aspects of street design in New Urbanism developments due to satisfying AASHTO demands, the main takeaway from Wesley Marshall’s discussion on Stapleton was that the lack of a Street Master Plan results in “lollypop connectivity.” On a site that will eventually accommodate 30,000 people, there is only one east/west, north/south axis that connects it to the rest of the city. The rest of the grid stems off of these arteries. While the interior grid is connected in itself, its lack of contextual connectivity results in arteries that are sometimes six travel lanes wide with a lack of development on either side. The result is an uncomfortable and perceived unsafe place to be. “Lollypop connectivity” is the direct evidence of the challenges that urban designers face in retrofitting suburbia or sprawl repair: zoning had led to a jumble of private and public space with few options to change it. The cost for city government to buy private land in order to connect the road network/alleviate congestion/narrow roads is so high it is unrealistic.
While Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk’s reaction to the conundrum that this has left us in today was heavily on the hopeless side, she did offer the example of Miami 21, the zoning code written by DPZ. While they were very, very close to convincing the Public Works department to allow street design and construction to go to public hearing, they did not succeed. DPZ was able to ensure a one-mile grid requirement within the Miami city limits. If this were in place in Denver when Stapleton was built, there is no doubt that the development would operate and appear radically different.
Repairing sprawl has increasingly become a popular topic within New Urbanism circles, and there is no doubt that it is one of the most important tasks for my generation of urban designers. Plater-Zyberk says the most powerful thing we can do is create that division between public and private space. This was a strong and effective realization for me in my fight for connectivity. These two powerful pieces of research presented by academics and professionals in their 20s demonstrate that with a little help from our regulatory systems, we can make a big difference in the sustainable development of the future.
You can also check out this post at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.
Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.