In a series of posts part of the Congress for the New Urbanism‘s City Spotlight Series, members of CNU Tampa Bay will examine the current conditions of Tampa, urban trends and the initiatives (or lack thereof) put in place by the city, and how CNU can meet these needs. In this first post, I will examine Tampa’s network and condition of arterial roadways and how they are relevant to CNU’s Project for Transportation Reform.
I have written and preached a lot to the importance of a connected road network in a city. I grew up in North Carolina where suburban sprawl is vast, often with roads that end in cul-de-sacs or that are lined with gated subdivisions. I believe that if a city’s roads are built on a connected grid, traffic will permeate more freely through an urban area and streets will maintain a human scale that is appropriate for all users, including pedestrians and cyclists. Connectivity is often a necessary condition to foster social, economic, and environmental sustainability. I have always thought that if a city is well connected it had won most of the battle of making room for cars without sacrificing the streets as public space for people. Similarly, CNU’s Designing Walkable Thoroughfares (part of the Project for Transportation Reform) mostly stresses this point as well with their slogan, “Connect Your Streets. Connect Your Communities.”
When I moved to Tampa just this year, I was relieved to see that it is a very well connected city. Blocks may vary in size and form, but every urban neighborhood is woven together in a tight grid. The assumption was that the city could be a fertile ground for mixed-use walkable areas. However, I soon learned, despite my urban design training, experience, and education, that connectivity is not everything.
In addition to connectivity and a consistent investment in infrastructure, land use development is also crucial to making thoroughfares walkable. While other connected roads in Tampa are still host to older and historic buildings that once formed small pockets of pedestrian-oriented mixed-uses, most of modern commercial development along the afore mentioned corridors are auto-oriented. The result is that large surface parking lots line roads with low-density buildings set back far from the sidewalks. Not only does this deprive the corridors of an easily accessible pedestrian network and an in scale building height to street ratio, it makes uses separated at a distance that is unwalkable. Even in the most urban neighborhoods, new development still often follows this form. The lesson learned is that connectivity cannot lead to change alone. Tampa is one of the most connected cities I have ever lived in, but the adherence to Functional Classification and poor land use development, creates corridors inhospitable to pedestrians.
How is the city fixing it? Slowly. Perhaps the best example is the Kennedy Overlay District project along Kennedy Boulevard, which the city has recognized as a gateway into the city. Carrying traffic from nearby St. Petersburg and Clearwater, as well as Tampa International Airport, Kennedy is a very important corridor to the city. It also plays an enormous role in the social sustainability of the city by connecting a large number of historic neighborhoods together, some healthier than others. The City describes it: “Providing a form-based, aesthetic framework that promotes development that creates a sense of interest and promotes a physically attractive, functionally integrated environment is essential. Additionally, provisions are introduced that establish pedestrian and transit friendly design standards for this corridor.” (City of Tampa, 2012.) Essentially, new development requires a private investment in a much wider sidewalk with street trees and most importantly that buildings front the street. The result over time is a multimodal corridor that serves as a spine of sustainability for the city.
Progress has moved slowly along the corridor, in part I am sure to the economic downturn. Some successful examples do exist however, that show a much-improved future for Tampa pedestrians. The best example is a Starbucks that provides a widened sidewalk enhanced with brickwork, street trees, outdoor seating against the public realm, a small parking lot to the side of the building instead of in front, and a curb cut entrance on a side street to maintain a consistent streetscape on Kennedy. The difference is very noticeable when compared with the development next to it. With eight similar overlay districts along its corridors, Tampa is making a slowly growing commitment to adopting more urban and sustainable standards.
Another project that is improving the use of Tampa corridors by all users is the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Walk/Bike Plan. In summary, “the Walk‐Bike Plan identifies bicycle and pedestrian mobility projects which can be constructed within existing roadway alignments and other public rights‐of‐way that provide a basic accommodation for walking and bicycle mobility. As the plan is implemented, elements such as landscaping/streetscaping and other enhancements may be considered to improve the quality of the cyclist/pedestrian experience and to incentivize private investment within Walk‐Bike Plan project corridors.” (City of Tampa Walk/Bike Plan, 2011.) In essence and its implementation to date, as regular maintenance and repaving of roads occur striping is amended to include thinner lanes, on-street parking, and a connected network of bike lanes. This project is admirable because it can make a large difference in a street’s safety and comfortability, without requiring an increase in funds. This is particularly important in today’s economic climate. On streets where restriping has occurred, traffic has slowed and the number of cyclists have increased.
However, while these are admirable advances by a city that is cash-strapped in a recession (like many), a much larger shift in theory and commitment in practice are required to make a noticeable difference along Tampa’s corridors. At the recent CNU20 Conference in West Palm Beach, I attended the Mobility and the Walkable City track, which explored many of the issues that face the implementation of walkable thoroughfares.
I very impressed with new urbanist, Rick Hall’s adaptation of Functional Classification to New Urbanism’s transect. In his quest to see more complete streets built, he realized that to see change, he must speak the language of the people capable of making change. As a former employee of the DOT, he knew that the Functional Classification System was so imbedded in the U.S. transportation culture that he needed to adapt it to consider land use, contextual character, and multimodal uses. The traditional DOT focus has been on safety = less congestion = moving cars quickly. While the traditional system defines a lot, along with establishing this belief, it doesn’t clearly demarcate the difference between suburban, rural, and urban. In many cases, the system defaults to rural and suburban, resulting in large roads devoid of place. Hall’s new Augmented Functional Classification manipulates the speed and design for the same road type based on the land use context.
Instead of a corridor maintaining the same design despite whether it is in the suburban or urban, which occurs constantly in Tampa, Hall’s system suggests that road design change based on the land uses along it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the street would carry less traffic, but curb/gutter, sidewalk and public realm design, cycling facilities, and crosswalks would adapt throughout the city. The result would be a more walkable street when it was required.
While this new urbanist idea requires more research, development and implementation before it can be fairly judged as a solution to the adaptation of Tampa’s many deficient corridors, it is this “big idea” thinking that is required to make an impact for pedestrians and cyclists for my city, and many others in Florida. And while a “big idea” can’t be applied consistently to every corridor in the city, one is required to be a catayst for a large change. Therefore, Tampa could benefit greatly from adopting a new framework in corridor retrofits.
Many roads in Tampa, despite it’s connected grid network, are a mess and pose a huge threat to the mixed-use walkable development that is at the heart of CNU’s Charter and core mission. While the city is making small steps to improve it’s corridors over time, Tampa is a perfect testing ground for the Project for Transportation Reform and big ideas like Rick Hall’s Augmented Classification.
Erin Chantry is an urban designer and writer of At the Helm of the Public Realm. She is also a member of CNU Tampa Bay, which is a local chapter of Congress for the New Urbanism. Please visit http://groupspaces.com/CNUTampaBay/ and
https://www.facebook.com/CNUTampaBay to learn more!