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Building Smarter Cities…In the Year 2060.

29 Jun

When my colleague put an article on my desk today with the subtitle, “Climate change will drive people to urban areas. How will urban planners accommodate them all?” it caught my attention, not because of the topic, but because of the double spread striking image of the “flat tower” proposed by architect Schirr-Bonnan. With an opening line of “The world’s population will top nine billion by 2060,” I read on.

Paul-Eric Schirr-Bonnan's Flat Tower building

Paul-Eric Schirr-Bonnan’s “Flat Tower” building (Image: Bryan Christie in Popular Science, July 2012)

These huge nebulous buildings house 40,000 people, as well as offices, recreational areas, and transportation hubs. They spread across acres of the city, hovering over green spaces like a web. My first reaction to this piece of architecture was fear. This “flat tower” concept reminded me of Le Corbusier’s City of Tomorrow and more terrifyingly (since they were actually built), American public housing failures like Cabrini Green in Chicago and Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis. This is all very ironic because the architect defends his design by saying, “the conventional skyscraper model- a tower surrounded by green space- leads to the isolation of communities from one another. A greenbelt area under the building would encourage communities to interact.” Even more ironic, is that “interacting community” is the exact same argument architects used to promote the green space that surrounded towers. As I sat pondering the article, it baffled me how organizing people in massive structures that covered green space was any different from towers sitting in it. My conclusion: they are the exact same.

Public housing towers have gone down in history as one of the largest architectural failures in America for many reasons. One of the largest, I believe, is mostly because the architectural design of the building separated people from public space. By only providing shared public space, it meant that no one supervised it, took care of it, or cared one bit about it. It also disconnected people from the human scale. Quite simply, when you do this, it makes people feel less human. The architect of Pruitt Igoe, Minoru Yamasaki, simply stated about its failure: “I wish I had never built it.” That kind of sums up what a massive failure the last City of Tomorrow vision was.

Visions are great, don’t get me wrong. They are better than great, they are necessary. Without vision, change is not possible and it is very clear to accommodate the enormous growth of cities into the year 2060 we will certainly need it. However, sometimes visions go bad – like Le Corbusier’s and the modernism movement that followed. But this is where John Powell’s famous quote, “the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing” pops into my head. And then the fear sets in. This “visionary” idea by Schirr-Bonnan, will no doubt have the same segregation and community-killing effects that modernist architecture did. These mixed-use webs separate people from their built environment at an inhumane scale and create public spaces that are unclaimed and unsupervised.

Minoru Yamasaki - hallways of Pruitt Igoe

A sketch showing Minoru Yamasaki’s vision for the hallways of Pruitt Igoe vs. the reality before demolition. (Images: When Art History Goes Bad Blog)

I have said it before, but it bears repeating: the real vision in urban planning lies not in revolutionary reorganization of how people live or interact, but using traditional design principles to address the most challenging issues of our day, like climate change, obesity, and social exclusion. Just as every “vision” into the future, whether its Orwell’s 1984, 2001 Space Odyssey, or The Jettson’s, has not come to fruition, neither will a world where we have to abandon our most human need: sense of community. So lets stick to our dense residential townhouses and live/work units and mixed-use mid-rises. We know they work; they have for centuries. The proof is in the pudding. No “vision” required.

As this article is in Popular Science, I shouldn’t be surprised by its futuristic, or should I say, far fetching ideas. However, most in this article weren’t. MIT professor Dennis Frenchman, says the most important factor is accommodating a huge influx of population into cities is efficiency. Transportation networks, city locations for manufacturing firms, power generation, and food production, and mixed-use buildings are solutions to cut down on commuting and pollution. Now these are ideas I can get on board with.

We have our work cut out with these issues that are relevant to today. These are not challenges of 2060, but challenges of 2012. While a summary of solutions, which include “community-shared electric cars, neighborhood nukes, hyper-efficient housing, really local eats, all-in-one recycling, and multifunctional buildings” have varying degrees of reality, they all require a massive cultural shift in people’s behavior.

While most of this article creates an enormous level of fear that comes from reorganizing human nature, one idea is an exciting indulgence in the visionary future: the LO2P Recycling Center, envisioned by Gael Brule and Julien Combes. A turbine harnesses wind power to run a recycling plant in the building, while carbon dioxide from the plant reacts with calcium to become lime in mineralization baths. Pipe dream? The process is already being used to make the lime in cement.

Certainly is food for thought. Take-away: revolutionize technology, not human nature.

LO2P Recycling Center

The LO2P Recycling Center (Image: Bryan Christie in Popular Science, July 2012)

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Semantics: Redevelopment vs. Regeneration.

21 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angel Town, Brixton

Angell Town Brixton Estate - Improvements

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

Problem (courtesy of Rudi):

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

Solution – A summary of simple urban design changes:

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

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

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

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

Caged Rubble Wall

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

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

So, what will it be redevelopment or regeneration?

Magnolia Street New Orleans Louisiana

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

Mission Hill Boston Design

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

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High Demand for Transit and the Consequence of Little Supply

16 Jun

What happens when you provide something that everyone wants?

When there is a huge demand for something prices are high, and usually markets answer with a large supply. As a result prices lower. Supply and demand…we all learned about it in high school. But in the case of housing along transit lines, in many places across America that demand is never met. With gas prices rising, commutes getting longer, obesity levels increasing, and quality of life deteriorating, the demand for accessible and efficient transit has never been higher. No matter what sector of society you are in, most people add to that demand. However, building high speed rail, light rail, and commuter rail require an oftentimes insurmountable level of funding.

So, when rail is built and housing is constructed along it, the cost per unit is through the roof. It is not unusual for rail to traverse deprived parts of town as a result of taking advantage of existing infrastructure and actively trying to revitalize areas most in need. Therefore the result is often gentrification: people who have lived in one neighborhood for years are forced to move because they can no longer afford it. For people in the later years of their life this uprooting can be devastating.

Architectural style and building form is indicative of gentrification - Andrew Smith

A familiar site of redevelopment along transit lines. Architectural style and building form is indicative of gentrification (Image courtesy of Andrew Smith) http://seattletransitblog.com/2012/05/23/gentrification-the-cause-of-and-solution-to-displacement/

Gentrification is arguably the worse effect of urban redevelopment and it certainly has been the most debated for decades. The debate lies in the nobleness of improving the quality of the built environment, which has enormous effects on the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of a city, versus the inevitable result of people being displaced from their homes and neighborhoods after decades of living there, because of the growing unaffordable cost of living. Is there a way to reap the benefits of redevelopment while avoiding the natural effects of the economic markets?

The June 2012 issue of Better Cities and Towns, explores how Los Angeles will try to avoid displacement as a result of the “largest transit expansion in the United States.” In the Reconnecting America last month, it was reported that the city will get 42 additional transit stations as a result of the $40 billion ballot measure approved by voters in 2008. LA County will benefit as well.

So, in a city where the average family spends 28% of their income of transportation, how will LA curb the negative effects of growth that have plagued planners for decades? Unsurprisingly, the instruments have not been completely identified, but will most likely focus on:

• Acquiring key properties for long-term preservation and development.

• Coordinating existing tools that can be used to keep buildings intact and reasonably priced.

• Anticipating the behavior of property owners and aiming outreach and enforcement activities at owners and tenants.

Is this government overreaching into the market? Are these practices sustainable and effective over time? Will restricting development hinder the spillover effects of regeneration? Doesn’t a larger amount of the population than you are protecting need and deserve access to public transportation?

These are questions that the LA Housing Department, with the support of Reconnecting America, will be hard-pressed to answer and defend. I will be interested to see how withholding land from development and preserving lower rents affects the lives of the gentrified. I am weary that these few measures will be effective. My gut tells me they will restrain the positive benefits of TOD development, while not prohibiting, what years of redevelopment has shown to be the inevitable. I do have to applaud the city for maintaining the restraint of social responsibility instead of succumbing to the giddy attractiveness of an exponentially growing tax base and re-branding of their city. This is important because “approximately 70 percent of workers who commute by transit earn less than $25,000 a year.” That is a sobering piece of data…

In the Next American City article, “Why We Struggle to Talk About Gentrification,” author Christine McLaren suggests that the unquantifiable result of gentrification makes it impossible to integrate in policy. After all policy is based on provable data, not anecdotal evidence. As a result the conversation of gentrification has become misguided: do we focus on the gentrified or the gentrifiers? Does perception lie in human right issues or social and commercial diversity?

Also, like other societal issues that are often oversimplified to one of race, the debate on gentrification is reduced to a black vs. white issue constantly. In another Next American City article, “Gentrification: Not Only About White People,” Matt Bevilacqua focuses the conversation back to socio-economics and reports on stronger ties to education level and weaker ties to race. With the challenge of collecting accurate data and standing against hot topic debate, the gentrification conversation constantly loses its way and is very difficult to control through policy.

Poor Redevelopment: Loss of culture and identity

The devastating effect of insensitive redevelopment = a loss of culture and identity. (Source: DToronto) http://media.photobucket.com/image/recent/dtoronto/b6.jpg

As an urban designer who has studied gentrification case studies of the past and witnessed it on the ground..I don’t know the answer. And I’m confident no one does.

Through our public finance work at Tindale-Oliver & Associates, I come across counties that suffer from a tax-base that has nose-dived as a result of the recession and crumbling infrastructure that they cannot afford to repair, much less expand. Facilities like fire stations, schools, libraries, etc. are burning a hole in local government’s pockets because low densities cannot support them. So I get it, and as a planner, I want to help these places redevelop themselves to be self-sustaining and healthy environments. And perhaps the best catalyst for growth and redevelopment to higher densities is transit.

I think until we can collect the data to be implemented into policy, redevelopment and regeneration should be done sensitively using the following tactics:

• Require high levels of funding for public involvement to ensure local communities are instrumental in the planning process.

• Preserve the physical structures and urban form that contribute to the historical identity of a neighborhood and design sensitively around them.

• Incentivize high levels of public and affordable housing as part of the development.

Sensitive redevelopment, preservation of urban form.

Sensitive redevelopment = preservation of urban form, character, and identity. (Image: http://www.rhiz.eu/artefact-52197-en.html)

Will generation still occur using these tactics, probably. Will it be done more sensitively with the result of preserving it’s identity? Probably. Gentrification is no doubt a hot topic that after decades has appeared to be inevitable, but many projects demonstrate that the level of destruction that it causes can be curbed. As long as we are constantly aware of everyone’s lives we are affecting as planners, including those who might suffer loss as a result of gentrification, we can have a clean conscience while we continue to debate.

All eyes will certainly be on LA as they actively try to maintain the current population along the future transit line and 40+ future stations. While they will certainly have the luxury of providing a higher supply, for what is guaranteed to be a high demand, hopefully they can set an example of how policy can control gentrification without controlling the market.

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

6 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

Seaside Florida - Sundog books and The Great Southern Cafe

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

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

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

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

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

Food Carts in Seaside, Florida

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

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

Seaside Florida Then and Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truman Show Seaside, Florida

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

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

1 Jun

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

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

Placemaking at It’s Finest

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

Rosemary Beach Design - Public Spaces

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

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

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

Rosemary Beach Florida Parks

Arguably the three most predominant public spaces in Rosemary Beach.

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

Rosemary Beach Town Hall and Rosemary Post Office

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

Pedestrian Paradise

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

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

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

Rosemary Beach 30A - Rosemary Avenue

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

Architectural Character

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

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

Rosemary Beach Architecture and design

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

Is this Reality?

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

And I think that is perhaps its downfall.

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

Socio-Economic Fail

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

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

A Few Other Observations

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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Guest Post: Stepping Off the Curb and Into the Sunshine

23 May

Let me introduce to you Stephen Benson. I first met Stephen on my first visit to Tampa while interviewing for my current position. I could tell from his suave style and haircut that he was much more than your typical urban planner…and I was right! Please enjoy the following article on Florida’s pedestrian problem.

In recent years, the Sunshine State bore the brunt of national criticism regarding roadway safety due to our alarming record of pedestrian fatalities. While it’s true that we carry the highest pedestrian fatality rate when compared to our population, headlines seem to ignore the fact that this pedestrian safety problem is not unique to Florida. According to the 2011 ‘Dangerous by Design’ report released by Transportation for America, 9 of the top 10 states with the highest pedestrian fatality rates are “Sun Belt” states. The superficial response to this statement is that our beautiful, mild climate is the cause; sunshine and flat terrain promotes recreational demand and increases pedestrian activity. However, while mild climate certainly influences the lifestyles of this region, this conclusion falsely implies that nothing else can be done to improve pedestrian safety. Indeed pedestrian activity is influenced more by culture and the built environment than by the weather. This explains why densely populated northern cities like Seattle, New York, Boston and the District of Columbia have some of the nation’s highest walking, biking, and transit-riding populations, despite their harsh winters and challenging topography. Since pedestrian activity is high, it’s not a surprise that these denser urban centers experience more annual pedestrian fatality counts. But when population is factored into the equation, northern cities fare from low to about average in pedestrian fatality rates, and southern cities and states jump to the top of the list. The real curiosity comes when you consider that even the largest metro areas in the South – Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, Miami – are still largely suburban in nature and thus dominated by automobile travelers. This begs the question, how is it that states with relatively low pedestrian activity generate higher pedestrian fatality rates when normalized by population?

The answer lies in the built environment and its impact on mobility. The complex pattern is more evident when approached from a macro perspective. The pedestrian fatality problem can be traced to three primary trends: overwhelming levels of (suburban) growth since the 1960s, large communities of economically disadvantaged citizens with lower educational attainment, and higher proportions of transportation disadvantaged persons (children and the elderly). These land use and socio-economic conditions heavily influence the transportation system – and directly impact pedestrian safety issues.

The vast majority of growth in the South since 1960 has been typically suburban in nature – characterized by an intentional separation of land uses and hierarchical street systems with low connectivity and wide 6-lane (or more) arterial roadways. This type of built environment is simply not conducive to pedestrian travel because walking distances are much farther and wide roadways are more challenging for pedestrians to safely cross. Very often, pedestrians choose to cross mid-block simply because it is easier to evaluate fewer automobile movements at once. Major arterial intersections may be built precisely to engineering standards and possess upgraded pedestrian features, but if a pedestrian feels intimidated by an intersection they will choose to cross elsewhere. Suffice it to say that transportation disadvantaged and economically disadvantaged populations – who rely on transit, walking, and bicycling to get around – are often overwhelmingly present in these areas and are forced to use a system that might not have been designed with their mobility in mind.

Neighborhood design has a direct impact on pedestrian safety and the overall pedestrian experience. One of the most important factors lies in crossing distances – generally the fewer lanes a pedestrian must cross, the better. With each additional travel lane comes higher auto-travel speeds and a greater crossing distance for a pedestrian. This translates to a higher safety risk. If a protected median is not present to provide a safe place to pause when crossing, pedestrians must evaluate and avoid automobile traffic traveling in both directions – a task that is often impossible to do while crossing one hundred feet of asphalt on a 6-lane (or more) roadway. In the South, these wide suburban roadways are far more common than in the North, and southern suburban development patterns provide fewer alternate routes along safer “side streets” more common in the street grids of northern cities. Most northern metro areas were built out well before 1950, and their built environments are uniquely characterized by denser development patterns – mixed-use zoning and gridded street systems. While at the heart of some southern cities lay pockets of relatively dense street grids, these southern pre-industrial neighborhoods are quite small, and usually house a miniscule proportion of metro populations. Southern metro areas were built out much later in the 20th century – at the height of suburbanization – and are largely characterized by these development patterns. Even in the small dense urban centers of the south, we have worked tirelessly to redesign existing urban transportation infrastructure to meet new suburban roadway design standards – widening to eleven-foot travel lanes, busting curbs to increase turning radii at intersections, installing continuous right-turn lanes, etc. Only recently have transportation professionals begun to consider “context sensitive” roadway design solutions and develop standards for implementation.

Pedestrian Crossing Not At Intersection

Pedestrians often perceive crossing mid-block as safer than crossing at an intersection no turning movements and no intersecting roadway. (Source: CURBED) Would you feel safe crossing the street at this location? Would you allow your child to? (Source: Steve Roos)

According to a 2010 report released by Brookings on ‘Suburban Poverty,’ over the last decade poor populations in major American metropolitan areas increased by nearly 6 million and the vast majority of that growth occurred in suburban areas. Furthermore, over the last few years the metro areas with the highest increases in poverty rates were “Sun Belt” cities throughout Florida and California. It’s no coincidence that Florida and California are also the top two states for pedestrian fatality rates. Indeed pedestrian safety is not only a transportation problem, but a fundamental social justice issue. The passing of the American’s with Disabilities Act adopted national standards for pedestrian mobility in the name of civil rights. It is our responsibility as planners to recognize the significance of pedestrian mobility and safety in our daily work.

The long-term solution lies in the way we plan, design and redesign the built environment. This calls for a reevaluation of fundamental land use and transportation principles that have guided development patterns for the last half-century. Indeed, denser mixed-use areas with smaller roadways and more street connectivity have societal benefits from many perspectives – public health, urban design, public utilities and services, and affordable housing. But, these places also tend to be safer for pedestrians. Ensuring that new development follows these pedestrian-friendly guidelines will be the challenge of the future.

The short-term solution to pedestrian safety requires a holistic approach that reaches across many professions and disciplines. The first step begins in identifying the top five corridors in your area that carry the most severe-injury pedestrian crashes and fatalities. The challenge is then to implement aggressive educational outreach, law enforcement activities and innovative engineering strategies to reduce pedestrian crashes based on the individual crash patterns on these corridors. Every community has unique safety challenges and a sustained, coordinated multidisciplinary approach is the best strategy to solve these problems. However, nearly every community has a handful of roadways that combined carry the majority of the pedestrian crashes. Focus on making the largest impact on these corridors.

Good planning and good design includes planning for a safe pedestrian environment.

Good planning and good design includes planning for a safe pedestrian environment. (Source: Greater Greater Washington and Urban Review STL)

Florida’s pedestrian safety problem is not simply another statistic to lament over, or a problem for “the engineers” to fix, and it’s certainly not a side-effect of too much sunshine. As planners, we are guided by the AICP Code of Ethics: “We shall seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration. We shall urge the alteration of policies, institutions, and decisions that oppose such needs.” Addressing pedestrian safety should serve as another opportunity for us to promote building better communities that truly serve everyone. It is not simply our job to plan for the needs of society, but it is our duty to take action, be proactive, and do everything within our ability to ensure these needs are fulfilled.

This article was originally printed in the Winter 2012 issue of Florida Planning Magazine, published by the Florida Chapter of the American Planning Association.

Stephen is a transportation planner for Tindale-Oliver & Associates in Tampa, Florida. He holds a BA in Geography and a master’s degree in Urban & Regional Planning from the University of South Florida. His expertise includes transportation safety and planning for bicyclists and pedestrians. He is currently interested in examining the relationship between transportation safety and land use patterns, and identifying coordinated multidisciplinary strategies to mitigate the consequences of urban sprawl.

CNU20: Final Reflections.

19 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflections on My Morning with Leon Krier

19 May

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

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

Building Height and Density

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

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

Leon Krier Cartoon : 3-4 Storey Theory.

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

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

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

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

Architectural Style

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

Leon Krier - architecture school education cartoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poundbury Dorset UK from the sky.

Poundbury, Dorset, England (Source: The Telegraph)

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

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

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

15 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jarrett Walker’s Journey Heidelberg

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

Geneva Rail For The Valley

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

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

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

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

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

15 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bicycle Lane - Woman Cycling to work

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

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

safe cycling infrastructure in the right-of-way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Functional Classification to Realizing Complete Streets for Everyone.

15 May

“Who the heck invited the DOT?”

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

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

1. Funding

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

2. Safety

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

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

3. Decrease in Drivers

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

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

4. Land Use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A visual representation of Richard Hall’s Augmented Functional Classification

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

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

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

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

13 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ordinance failed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Space, The First But Not Final Frontier: Analyzing Space, Uses, and Transportation.

13 May

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.

The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811: The Street Master Plan that was honored until its completion 130 years later. (Source: Got Geoint)

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.

True Connectivity vs. “Lollypop” Connectivity

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. 

Looking Forward: New Urbanism and the New World.

12 May

This morning when I walked into the West Palm Beach convention center, I was very excited to be able to meet and brainstorm with the thinkers at the forefront of my profession, or at least the people who share in the same urban design theology. I had heard rumblings about the culture of the Congress of New Urbanism and certainly knew that the founders of the movement were opinionated and outspoken. I have always admired this about them and was interested to see the vibe that the conference would have. The attraction and numbers of attendees have way outgrown the close dinner group that began New Urbanism more than 20 years ago, but the heavy hitters like Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Ellen Dunham-Jones, and John Norquist, to name a few, no doubt still have a big hand in the direction and focus of the movement. With the combination of professionals who have the reputation for being devotees to their beliefs and fresh new blood like me, anything was possible.

I knew there was the possibility that CNU20 would be an exercise in brainwashing. After all, the movement certainly has this reputation from its critics. But I was pleasantly surprised to find just the opposite. The morning started off with the plenary session, Looking Forward: New Urbanism and the New World with Daniel Solomon and Andres Duany. The result was an introduction to New Urbanism with a debate on theology between two very prominent urban designers, which set the tone of challenging our own and each other’s beliefs in what New Urbanism is and should be. We were off to a good start, and I felt satisfied in my defense of the movement after all these years. It was clear that there was room for many ideas here.

Andres Duany vs Daniel Solomon

Daniel Solomon vs. Andres Duany (Source: Seaside Institute)

This session was so powerful for me because the arguments that both Daniel Solomon and Andres Duany made, while contradicting each other, both resonate with me. After studying New Urbanism for my master’s-level urban design thesis, I knew that the movement was becoming water-downed by every Tom, Dick, and Harry development calling itself “New Urbanist“ even though the result on the ground, as far as I could tell, didn’t represent the CNU Charter in the least. The result was that the movement was unfairly being criticized for work that people thought was “theirs“ but that they had no right to claim. My research proved that there needed to be prescriptive direction and implementation techniques established so that New Urbanism would stay true to its promises. You can imagine my delight when the LEED-ND framework, which was written in large part by CNU, came on the scene. Finally, there was a standard by which to measure the principles found in the charter.

However, on the flip side, I had weathered what is hopefully the worst economic downturn I will ever see. There is almost no New Urbanism development happening at all, which has caused the movement to stall. Would people forget about New Urbanism? When the market picks back up will developers and planners condemn the stringent LEED-ND framework all together? New Urbanism has always been about ideas—were they getting lost?

Daniel Solomon thought so—in fact, he said that LEED-ND “strangles and sucks the life out of the American economy.” Solomon’s lecture, which he humorously named “My Dinner with Andres,” challenged the prescriptive and code-based turn New Urbanism had taken. He lamented the loss of when the movement revolved around the big discussions he used to have sitting around the dinner table, and pretty much blamed that on Duany’s Smart Code and Manual. Solomon described Duany as a man who was rigorous and defiant in his beliefs and simultaneously as a man who questioned his ideas constantly. My favorite quote of the whole day was, “Andres Duany creates an intellectual straightjacket that others wear, but that he won’t even put one arm in.” This made me ask the question: If Duany doesn’t wear his straightjacket, why should we? I think I understand why people gravitate towards concrete codes and manuals: they provide answers. We’re living in an uncertain time full or challenges for the future of our built environment. There are big problems that await us and, in response, people feel comforted by a set of rules that they can follow to solve them. Here’s a problem, and if I follow this, I can fix them. This equals confidence and control for urban designers and planners. Sitting around discussing ideas without offering solutions can be over overwhelming.

But perhaps Solomon’s most compelling argument was that this “reductive certitude” in New Urbanism was no different that Le Corbusier’s Athens Charter. Just the mention of this document makes planners shudder. It is blamed for some of the biggest idealistic planning screw-ups our country has ever seen. Solomon’s argument was that, like Duany’s smart code, it was written with certainty with what appeared to be little room for questioning. In my opinion, it was a quite a slam to compare Andres Duany, the founder of the very movement that all in attendance prescribe to, to Le Corbusier, the described destroyer of city life. Solomon questioned Duany’s theology, power, and influence. Man, were we in for a rebuttal.

And we got one.

I should go back and say that I was eagerly watching the first row for the response of some of these “heavy hitters” as I call them. Ellen Dunham-Jones leapt up immediately cheering and loudly applauding Solomon’s speech. It was obvious that there was a divide in this union, but it existed in a context that welcomed it.

Duany came out on fire in defense of his “straightjacket,” stating that the code allows for local calibration and adaption. But his real argument focused on the fact that the real world is a world of laws, not a world of opinions and ideas. The same system that was used to destroy the urban form is the same system that can be responsible for fixing it. He eradicated the notion that people think that if there is no code, then they will be free. The reality is that the default setting for the United States is one of code. It’s not going away and we need to use it to make change. In short, don’t fight the system, but use it to your advantage. Duany explained that the smart code planned—and is necessary—for complexity. While Solomon’s speech made me fantasize, Duany’s speech brought me back to the real world. But I found myself wanting to sit somewhere in the middle.

What really caught my attention was when Duany defended those that love the suburbs. This I was not expecting, and I have to acknowledge that he is right and I respect him for it. He described public involvement research exercises that involved scenario development. They would show people a picture of an idealistic, New Urbanism development and a picture of typical suburban sprawl. The former usually contained a compact, dense cottage with a picket fence and beautiful streetscape. The latter contained a plain house with garages for front doors sitting on large, empty streets, void of life. Despite the obvious attempt to sway opinion, 30% of people still chose the suburbs as their optimal place to live. Now, I don’t know who these people are (I certainly have never met them), but Duany assures me that they exist. The mature and admirable stance that he takes is that this is a free country and these people’s freedom to choose suburban wasteland must be protected; his smart code provides for that.

Duany continued by explaining his fascinating work in New Orleans, which will have to be the topic for another post in the future. His observations and respect for the culture of the city was extremely admirable. While he started off his talk with a passionate and sometimes angry rebuttal, I soon realized he was just in this reaction. The man is brilliant. I don’t think any of us need to ever where a straightjacket of ideas. Solomon is correct in that it can be very dangerous intellectually. But if we have to ever wear one, I’m confident I would wear Duany’s with pride.

I challenge you to watch the session here and ask yourselves the same questions of New Urbanism that these men do. If we prescribe ourselves to the beliefs this movement is based on, Solomon is right that we constantly question ourselves. My introspective journey has begun, and I look forward to sharing with you my response to the other sessions at CNU20 this week. Stay tuned….

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. 

CNU20: The New World in West Palm Beach.

29 Apr

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

Below are the sessions I will be writing about daily:

Plenary Sessions:

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

Friday Night Plenary with Richard Florida

Saturday Morning Plenary Featuring Leon Krier

Break Out Sessions:

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

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

From Balanced Roads to Transit Oriented Development

Florida Mobility Policies: Regional Rail to Enhance Mobility

Clear Thinking: Urbanism + Transit

Functional Classification: The Least Interesting Policy That Dominates Most Everything

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

Beyond Bike Lanes: Building a Culture of Bicycle Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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