Tag Archives: Urban Design

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

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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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Film Review: Urbanized

25 Apr

Tonight I had the awesome pleasure of hanging out with some friends to watch the documentary, Urbanized by Gary Hustwit. Just recently released on DVD in 2012, this was my first opportunity to see this inspiring film about world-famous architects’ and planners’ strategies for urban design solutions in cities across the globe.

Urbanized The Book Review

First, let me start with a side note. My husband and I got bikes this past weekend. How could we not? With perfect weather, a well-connected neighborhood with pleasant streetscapes, and always feeling like we’re on vacation, it would seem wrong not to. While I’ve always been a fan of cycling for leisurely purposes, tonight I did something I’ve never done before: I cycled for mobility purposes. One might think this is pretty bad since I am an urban designer, but this is the first city I’ve lived in where all the factors have come together to make it possible…well for me. Charlotte = disconnected, very few mixed uses, and spread out; Boston = umm, 4 feet of snow?; St. Louis = dense college campus easy to walk around and not particularly needed; Baltimore = anyone seen The Wire?; England = umm, rain…all. the. time.

So how suitable that on the way to see Urbanized, we practiced urbanism at its best. Because our destination had little and paid parking, and was easily accessible with bike paths, we made a choice (because it was available), to ride our bikes. So as a disclaimer, I started watching this film in a very empowered state. It was a wonderful feeling to be given the option to make a sustainable and healthy choice, and then choosing to make it.

This film was inspiring, empowering, and motivating at many times. As we watched some of the greats: Ellen Dunham-Jones, Amanda Burden, and my all time favorite, Jan Gehl, do their usual thang, there were some other characters that really shined: Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Candy Chang, an artist who uses public space to share information, and Yung Ho Chang, an architect in Beijing. This film made my love affair with the former continue to grow, and with the latter, blossom.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, Jan Gehl etc.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, Amanda Burden, Jan Gehl, Enrique Penelosa, Cindy Chang, and Yung Ho Chang.

This film made me feel two things: inspired and a citizen of the world. Perhaps it was because I was watching it with five young people who share the same goals and belief that they can make a change, and a loving husband who is always committed to learn more about my passions. Or perhaps because this film reconfirmed for me that I have chosen the career where my talents and passions most meat the needs of the world. Or perhaps because I was watching the rock stars of my profession say things that made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

I felt like a citizen of the world because the film concentrated on cities all over the globe, some of which I was completely unfamiliar with. As Americans we sometimes find it hard to look beyond our boundaries to how other countries handle the same problems. This of course is not unique to us. As a planning student in the classroom and local councils in England there was no time or energy to look beyond the new planning system policies. And of course there is this view by some, that we live in one of the greatest countries with the most educated visionaries in the world. We got ourselves into this mess, can’t we fix our problems on our own?

That may be true, but enter Enrique Penalosa of Bogota, Colombia. Who would think to look to Bogota as an example of cycling culture? Amsterdam? Yes. Copenhagen. Sure. Bogota? Not Really. This guy is awesome. With a population of over 6 million people, Bogota had the growing problem of maintaining infrastructure and traffic congestion. To fix the latter, he recognized the stigma associated with traditional buses (also alive and well here in America), and introduced a bus rapid transit (BRT) system to strengthen ridership. Acknowledging the more affordable cost versus rail and its necessary adaptability of routes in the future it was a perfect solution (and one that should be used WAY more often here.) But what was really creative was that the stations appeared and felt more like a subway stop than a bus stop. Elevated platforms, automated ticket machines, and flashy stations made taking this bus modern, relevant, professional, and cool.

In addition Penelosa put money into a very complex and extensive dedicated cycle network throughout the city. As opposed to linear routes favored by American cities along well-used corridors, Bogota has a mesh grid of paths that infiltrate the city making cycling the favored choice of citizens to get, well, anywhere. Amazing right? Penelosa made clear that first money went to the bike paths, and then to the roads. The film showed cars navigating bumpy dirt roads full of potholes, while cyclists zoomed by on their bikes. Penelosa made Bogota put their money where their mouth is…he got shi*t done in who knows what political opposition. The result of having state of the art, first-world cycling routes, and in some occasions third-world car lanes is inspiring.

Bogota Urban Design and Planning - Enrique Penelosa

Enrique Penelosa, former mayor of Bogota’s lasting contributions: BRT and cycle network.

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Another of my favorites was Candy Chang who works in New Orleans. As she passed delapidated and abandoned buildings throughout the city, she had the idea of using the boarded up windows as a means of communication. Leaving name tags simply stating, “I wish this was a…” and a sharpie she was able to communicate with the whole city. But what really struck a chord with me was that she said “today it is easier to reach out to the entire world, then to communicate with your own neighborhood.” Man, how true this is. And how I wish it wasn’t this way.

Any finally there was Yung Ho Chang who simply shared his memories of taking walks with his parents around the city as a child and running into his friends. As Beijing is viewed as a thriving and healthy city by most, he sadly stated that Beijing has lost its liveability…and that it didn’t need to happen. Perhaps what struck me most about Chang was that when he said this you could see in his eyes that he was mourning the loss of his city as he once knew it.

Finally, Urbnized addressed the controversy of Stuttgart 21 in Germany. While I am sure with a little research I could write a whole blog series (and probably more well-balanced) on this one topic, what almost brought me to tears was watching hundreds of people put themselves in harms way to desperately, carelessly, and heartfully try to stop the demolition of a group of hundred year old oak trees. It was heartbreaking to watch a grown man wipe his tears as he watched them pulled down in seconds by a bulldozer. After all, even during WWII when the city was desperate for firewood to stay warm, they never dared touched those trees. The film left it unexplained, but I imaged that they stood defiantly representing the beauty of nature in the country’s most uncertain times.

Stuttgart 21 Protest Trees

The heartbreaking attempt of protesters to try to save the beloved trees in the way of Stuttgart 21.

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Based on your mood this film will pull at your heart strings and turn you into a sappy mess, or pull at your “brain strings” and challenge you intellectually, and in time as I recover from my inspiring and empowering evening, will probably do both.

Walking: Is it Just for Charity?

20 Apr

This made me laugh…uncontrollably.

There was an absolutely wonderful series written by Tom Vanderbilt in Slate last week titled, American’s Pedestrian Problem. In it he lamented that whenever he went on a walk for utilitarian purposes, people responded with “Are you doing it for charity?” How hilarious, and how sad. But it’s the truth. Today when people go on long walks it’s usually for breast cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, aids, or most ironically, diabetes. We act like going for a walk, the most instinctual human behavior, is something so unique and special that people give money for it.

America’s Pedestrian Problem by Tom Vanderbilt

While I found the data and science of pedestrian behavior and determining the walk score of my new neighborhood (82 out of 100 baby!) extremely interesting, valuable, and entertaining, the last series, “Learning to Walk” struck me the most. What first caught my attention was the title. How ironic that as a 28-year-old car owner, I am not dissimilar from my 8 month old nephew preparing to take his first steps. But what really struck a chord was that this article stressed what urban designers have been taught at the center of their practice, and what very few planners, especially transportation planners, don’t understand: people are inherently lazy (or perhaps call it evolutionary smart), ie: we make the easiest choice.

Perfect example? The little worn paths across the quads on your college campus. Mr. Vanderbilt makes a great point: college students carry the stereotype of having the most leisurely travel times and distances compared to your typical Manhattaner for instance. And boy are there pathways galore across a college campus (perhaps the most pedestrian oriented places on earth), and yet you will still find those little worn paths. Diagonally across the quad, at the corner where two paths meet, and directly up to the “do not walk on grass” sign. If my memory serves me correctly I think I was subject to work-study if I walked on the grass at my boarding school leading up to the prestigious graduation ceremonies. This is the perfect evidence that people choose the easiest path, even if it’s making one of their own.

So why do some planners think shepherding pedestrians a quarter of a mile down a busy arterial to cross at an intersection instead of allowing them the shortest distance between their location and their destination reasonable? And why do they always blame a person for doing any differently? Because at the end of the day, if those planners had to walk in the same conditions (which they most likely don’t…at all), they would probably make the same choice. We must step away from “if we build it, they will come” and move towards designing the built environment to reflect human behavior…as it naturally exists.

A common occurrence: pedestrian barriers. I have actually walked in the street to avoid these to take the shortest route. (twango.com)

Mr. Vanderbilt tells an absolutely heart-braking and infuriating story as an illustration that no doubt will haunt me as the reality of how this country, especially the part I live in, is moving so painstakingly slowly in its progress. Along Austell Road in Marietta, Georgia, a woman who was crossing the street with her four children was charged for manslaughter for the death of her own son…wait for it, instead of the car driver, in possession of a hit and run record, who hit him. You got it, she wasn’t behind the wheel. But because she jaywalked instead of walking her whole family, with 8 short little legs, an additional 2/3 of a mile out of the way of their home, she was first sentenced to more time in jail then the driver.

Holy cow. Any one else furious?

Mr. Vanderbilt’s other interesting tidbits include explanations of why we see narrow sidewalks up against roads with 6 lanes of traffic…transportation engineers wanted to protect drivers from hitting the trees that often lined them to protect pedestrians. So now? Pedestrians are up for a good mow down. I guess the plus side for drivers is that unlike trees, pedestrians have a slight chance of jumping out of the way. This mindset turned into a nasty cycle: because people no longer felt comfortable walking along roads, they stopped, and the lack of pedestrians encouraged some planners to eradicate sidewalks all together. Even today with such a large culture shift in the profession, when shown how concepts of shared space and other pedestrian-oriented street designs significantly improve safety for all users versus bollards and flashing lights that try to corral humans like cattle, some planners still focus on the liability of drivers.The culture of having to make room for people, instead of having to make room for cars, is alive and well… Unfortunately.

Culture shifts take ages, absolute lifetimes. It’s my belief that we will make more of an impact if we stop telling people what not to do, and start encouraging them to make the right decisions. As I have said before, urban design and the built environment is about providing people with choice. When people have a choice, it empowers them, and the result is that they will often chose the right one just by being given it. Telling people what to do and threatening them with big flashing lights and big signs on the side of the road can encourage them to do the opposite. Barbara McCann, a pioneer of the Complete Streets concept, states in this article, “The road itself should send signals. If you have a road with 12-foot lanes and clear zones, it’s safe for you to open up the throttle and you see the pedestrian scuttling across the road and think ‘they’re in my way.’ ” But add a raised crosswalk, trees, and narrow the road, says McCann, and “this is signaling to you, without a stop sign, that there are going to be all these other users, that you need to pay attention.”

Mr. Vanberbilt’s series is full of many great observations, but I will end with this one. There is a difference between providing facilities and providing facilities that will actually be used. As part of a public consultation exercise in a very auto-centric part of Florida recently, a planner for the Department of Transportation was complaining that when people beg for sidewalks in places, DOT builds them, and then they don’t get used. Other planners think that just by providing a bike lane that it will get used. Peter Lagerway, formerly a transportation engineer with the city of Seattle, explains there is a “three-legged stool” required to make walking desirable: safety, accessibility, and aesthetics. If the public realm doesn’t achieve these three things, people will not want to walk there. Just because there is a sidewalk, doesn’t mean that it is pleasing or safe for a pedestrian. The same is true for bicycle lanes. It is a mistake to assume that a cyclist is as hardened as a driver. I would be happy to ride a bike on my short 1.5 mile commute to work if my own lane was shielded from drivers by a physical and aesthetic barrier, but there is no way I’m tangoing with the some of the worst drivers in America.

As a novice cyclist what I want my cycle lanes to look like vs. what they actually look like. Shout out to Denver and Boulder for getting this right.

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I think after reading Tom Vanderbilt’s enlightened series, you might feel a little downtrodden. There is no doubt that the final installment shows how far we must go as a country to provide our citizens with the basic human right of using their own two feet, but there should be encouragement found in the second and third articles. There has been a huge increase in the knowledge of human science and behavior, as well as an increase in walkability in some of the most auto-dependent cities. The awareness is here, mostly, and admitting that we have a problem is the first step to recovery.
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8 Apr

Love this candid reflection of a city dweller now living in the suburbs. It goes to show that our built environment dictates more than just our actions…it also affects how we think.

I admit it.  I used to judge people that lived in the suburbs.  Who wouldn’t?  I was a twenty something living in Chicago.  I had no kids, no car and no utilities coupled with cheap rent and a resilient liver.  My biggest worry was catching the next train or if my music was too loud.  I could walk out the front door of my apartment building to endless opportunities for entertainment, food and friends.  When I thought about the suburbs, I would shiver as the theme song from Weeds would start coursing through my veins.  It was all very vanilla.  And that was not the flavor I was seeking as a twenty something.  And yet, despite all of my judgment, I moved to the suburbs.  

 When I compare the city to the suburbs, there are pros and cons to both.  But what gets me the most (and makes me…

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Travel Series: Ahh, the Places We Love…

3 Apr

That place. That place where when you arrive you feel immediately calm, centered, and most like yourself.

That place for me is Hilton Head Island, SC. I left my true home in Charlotte when I was 16. My parents sold our childhood home in the city and moved to the suburbs. It was devastating and at the time I attributed this to the loss of my actual house, but in retrospect it was the loss of my neighborhood and community. Ever since then, when I needed to find a place that provided the same security and sense of love to me, Hilton Head has stepped up to the plate.

Perhaps it’s because it’s the only place I can go to and feel the memories that I had as a child. Perhaps it’s because its been the only place throughout the entirety of my life that I return to consistently. Perhaps it’s because I went there right after my grandmother’s passing to mourn. Perhaps it’s because I took my first steps in Hilton Head. It’s always been there, I love this place.

My favorite places in Hilton Head: Pirates’ Island Adventure Golf, South Beach, the beach at Palmetto Dunes, the Omni Hotel, the Crazy Crab, the Oyster Factory, Harbor Town, and Shelter Cove.

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So when I drove almost a 14 hour round trip for a day and a half on the island this past weekend, I am pretty sure some of my fellow Floridians thought I was crazy. After all, we have the fourth nicest beach in the world 35 minutes away. It was only when I arrived there that I realized how much I needed it. I am a trooper; I went to boarding school when I was 15 and since then, I have had many new beginnings in my life. My move to Tampa and beginning a new job has been amazing and everything that I’ve worked for my whole life. But it’s still a transition, and when I crossed that bridge at 11:40 pm on Friday night, Hilton Head reached its arms around me like it has my entire life and I felt at peace.

There is one special place on the island that means more than all the others…I just have to share it. Charles Fraser, the original developer of Hilton Head Island, was committed to saving an ancient oak that stood in the middle of his planned harbor. He designed it and the rest of Harbor Town, one of the most beloved places on the island, around its preservation. Every night in the summer a children’s singer by the name of Gregg Russell (shout out to Gregg here), sings. He even has little children come up on stage to sing with him. My brother sat on that stage of children before I was born, then myself, and now my nieces and nephews. This show is a foundation for our family. Gregg Russell a great entertainer for sure, but why I love going to his shows decades later is the place where it is held. There is nothing more beautiful than sitting under an oak tree that is hundreds of years old with the moonlight shining through it.

This is all very ironic because Hilton Head Island actually has pretty appalling urban design. Hilton Head has a long history steeped in Native American, African-American slavery, and Civil War culture, but most of what you see on the ground was built in the 1960s and after. It was developed as a resort town, and therefore is divided up into “plantations.” The name, given the island’s history, is very irksome. As a result more than 70% of the island is in gated, private communities. The public can enter many of these plantations, but for a cost and at the discretion of security. Unfortunately, this pretty much goes against everything that I believe our built environments should represent. The result is that the island feels very exclusive…and I hate to say, upper/middle class.

While Hilton Head has a very active cycling culture, it is impossible to be a pedestrian for utilitarian purposes. Sure, you can take a stroll down the beach, or walk to the tennis courts, but if you want to actually leave your plantation you are pretty, well, screwed. The island’s land uses are organized around one arterial highway. It has a completely disconnected street network (but remember, they wanted it that way), and uses that are very spread out. It’s not a big enough place where you couldn’t tackle it on your bike, but these rides are always saved for leisure purposes, not trips to the grocery store. In fact the majority of land along this arterial doesn’t provide a sidewalk at all.

I do have to say Hilton Head did achieve one crowning glory. They saved their trees. As a result the island is for the majority under tree cover, and I a mean beautiful hundred year oaks with hanging moss. They also have strict town ordinances of very little public lighting and natural wood carved signage. I tell you, that is one classy McDonald’s. As a result there is a distinct character, so much so that I can be any where in the United States and say “hey that’s Hilton Head architecture.” It’s not really, it’s just that Hilton Head is very much representative of the early 70s. And yes, they managed to make that charming, trust me.

So yes, there are some great things about Hilton Head and most people who go there love it. But from an urban design and planning perspective it can be very damaging. And there is no doubt that it has, especially early on in its history. It’s resort identity and associated development pretty much forced an entire, quite healthy African-American culture and community from its shores. Even today, if you aren’t among the more well-off visitors you strive to find adequate public beach access or really experience some of the most naturally beautiful parts of the island. As I became an expert in urban design, this has always haunted me…

…but hey, sometimes you can’t help who (or should I say where) you love.

Holy HOA.

30 Mar

My husband and I recently moved into a great townhouse that is part of a Home Owners Association. It is the first time I’ve ever lived where one of these was present and didn’t really think twice about what it would be like. Of course I’ve always known the purpose of them: to manage communal property and open space while maintaining a pleasant environment. And of course I’ve heard the horror stories of power crazed individuals making people’s lives hell. I’ve never really had a reason to have an opinion, until now. After almost a month in our new home I thought I’d give a quick review.

On Wednesday morning after the first HOA meeting since we’ve lived here, I walked outside to find our small garden flag moved to another position in our small 2 ft. x 5 ft. green space in front of our home. It had been turned 45 degrees so the homeowners across from us wouldn’t have to look at it when they walked out their door. Now instead of using this post as a personal rant (which is tempting, trust me), I thought I would explore HOAs in the context of some urban design principles. That, I think, would be a lot more productive 🙂

In my opinion, the number one purpose of urban design is to empower people. Building a pleasant and connected environment gives people the greatest amount of choice in accessing their built environment. Making choices in our lives, is by far, the thing that empowers us the most. Deciding whether to take the bus or take the train, instead of having to sit in traffic, should be a choice. Deciding to walk or ride a bike to get a gallon of milk, should be a choice. Being able to afford to live in a neighborhood close to your work and school, should be a choice. Urban designers work everyday to make these real choices for people.

According to Responsive Environments, one of the founding books on urban design, personalization is one of the seven qualities that empower people in their urban context. The ability for people to personalize their own space, can cause them to not only be more committed to maintaining their property, but feel more emotionally connected to their neighborhood and neighbors. It can also enliven the public realm, and be one of the most influential factors in contributing to a neighborhood’s character. When we’re in Chinatown we know it, when we’re in New Orleans’ French Quarter, we know it. When we’re in the Manhattan’s Lower East Side we know it. Residents here have a personality, and they show it. Personalization at its best? Christmas lights.

So, HOAs…

Yes, they have many wonderful qualities I am sure. They probably have a huge role in maintaining higher property values and thwarting those with less than great taste from turning their front yard into “gnomes gone wild“. But in some cases, like mine, they strip people of power. Power to use the 2’x5′ patch in front of their front door to make their house feel like home. When I walked out the door and saw my personal property had been altered, I honestly felt dis-empowered. While I only live in a development of 10 units, my HOA will not have a huge impact on my neighborhood. But when HOAs strictly dictate the house colors, height of fences, and mailbox designs in a development of 4oo houses, that development will suffer for it. Multiply that by thousands, and you have the bland vanilla that is suburbia.

In great defiance and at risk of being equally passive aggressive, I moved my small garden flag back to its 45 degree position – because I refuse to let myself be dis-empowered by my built environment.

The personalization of private property at its best!

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Local Series: Architecture Isn’t Everything…

28 Mar

But it’s something.

As a trained architect, I understand the influence that buildings can have on urban design. They connect people with their heritage, they give a place a unique identity, and they help create hustle and bustle in cities and neighborhoods. They can also be works of art. There are some buildings by the greatest architects, my favorite being Daniel Libeskind, that take my breath away and actually alter the way I look at the world. The greatest architecture speaks to a higher conceptual idea, and every design element of the building answers to it. Buildings have the power to truly affect people’s emotions and contribute to their lives…but they are not necessary.

This was evident in my visit to Sarasota this past weekend. My weekly explorations of my new state took me to Saint Armands Circle, which was developed by John Ringling of….you got it!…the Ringling Brothers Circus. Turns out that in addition to juggling and eating fire, John Ringling designed and built one of the most loved parts of Sarasota. After travelling to Italy, he was inspired to create a “people friendly place of broad boulevards, beautiful homes, classical statues, lush landscaping, elegant shops and restaurants, and a central park for musical performances.” In 1917 he began his vision, which grew until the Great Depression. It took another two decades after that for his neighborhood to be complete.

An aerial of Saint Armand’s Key with the circle in the center of the island. (www.thesaundersblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/SAC-Aerial.jpg)

Saint Armands Circle was a very successful piece of urban design. It’s ample and pleasant pedestrian environment thrives despite it being wrapped around a road carrying high volumes of traffic. Multiple users were able to share the public realm comfortably and safely. Angled and paralleled parking protected the pedestrian further. In fact, there was parallel parking around the traffic circle, which baffled my English husband (we know how the English are about their roundabouts…) But in fact, it was perfectly safe. People were so concerned about not being able to park on the curve that they did so very carefully and slowly, further protecting pedestrians. The mixed-use area hustled and bustled on this Saturday afternoon, while the central park was quaint and quiet. The pedestrians crossings were very short and very wide. They were interjected so often by median parks that their short distance was almost cute. If a pedestrian crossing can be cute, these certainly were. It truly was charming, I didn’t want to leave.

But what really struck me about this part of the city was the lack of architectural integrity in the buildings. Some buildings were nothing more than a storefront that seemed to be held up by the structures on either side. Others were built from the cheapest materials, playfully mimicking Greek and Italian style. It was laughable, and yet it really didn’t matter. No one noticed the buildings, no one cared. People just loved sitting at the sidewalk cafe people watching, eating ice cream in the shaded park, and window shopping. The activity and interaction with people is what made people love this space. And I have to say, I think that is the case of most well-loved places. Buildings do not have to be beautiful, conceptually designed, and breathtaking to make a difference.

What made Saint Armands Cirle work so beautifully was how the fabric was constructed around one central point. Connected streets and perimeter blocks with dense, mixed use buildings, like so many other most-loved places, created the structure for the community and visitors to flock to it for decades.

John Ringling certainly has brought us all a lot in our lives. For most of us its tricks, animal performances, and trapeze acts found only at the oldest and most successful circus in the world. We’ve all been, and it was magical. But for the lucky residents of Florida he gave us a perfect piece of urban design, which serves as a sustainable example of how to continue to construct our built environment.

And remember, it’s not all about the architecture people.

The Great Divide: What Urban Design Can’t Accomplish.

18 Mar

Urban Design certainly can accomplish a lot and have an enormous effect on how people live their lives. The built environment can give people choice to live a healthy, community-oriented, and an environmentally friendly lifestyle – or the opposite. But research shows that physical interventions can only accomplish so much. There are obviously hugely influential societal factors, such as race, class, and years of oppression (or privilege) that can have an enormous and sometimes a seemly irreversible effect on neighborhoods.

I came across a BBC video that explores this issue in a Saint Louis neighborhood called The Loop. Please check it out here. This video explores how one street can divide two demographics so intensely. I couldn’t help but share it because I spent four years living right next to the street in question while studying architecture at Washington University in Saint Louis. On one side is a predominately affluent, white neighborhood, with gorgeous stately homes and the home of a top 12 university. On the other, is what can be described most simply as the ghetto.

I was surprised that the video didn’t touch upon the total revitalization of Delmar Boulevard, or The Loop as it is known. The 5 block stretch of this area acts as the retail and entertainment heart for both sectors of society. Here you can see people of all eccentricities and identities having fun harmoniously. In 2007 the American Planning Association recognized it as “One of the 10 Great Streets in America.” (Read about it here.)

I spent many weekends at Blueberry Hill, where Chuck Berry still to this day performs his trademark duckwalk monthly. I also witnessed the younger generation performer Nelly, film his music video on Delmar. With the lyrics “I’m from the Loop and I’m proud” there is no doubt that the street plays a part in everyone’s self-identification. Having said that, as students we were told never to cross Delmar Boulevard. As a result, embarrassingly, I rarely experienced and witnessed some of the conditions documented in this video.

The famous St. Louis institution and home to Chuck Berry, Blueberry Hill, attracts a diverse demographic and generates lots of activity in the public realm. (http://cache.virtualtourist.com/15/2056706-In_Front_of_Blueberry_Hill_Saint_Louis.jpg)

Delmar Boulevard got the nickname “The Loop” from the now-retired streetcar route. The turn-around point right at end of this part of the street, gave it its name. By the 1930s, the Loop was booming with retail, entertainment, offices and apartments. It was accessible and popular with many St. Louisans. Like so many main streets across America it suffered from the suburban mall movement, and by the time the streetcar system was terminated in the 1960s it was deserted and dilapidated. Luckily for all of us, the city had enough sense to preserve the historic character of the area, including the store-fronts and instill zoning changes that required all then-future ground-floor vacancies to be filled by commercial uses.

Enter the entrepreneur, Joe Edwards, in 1972. There is no greater story of one individual having more effect in one neighborhood. He in himself is a success story. His is well-known in St. Louis and there is no doubt his passion, commitment, and business savvy made The Loop’s regeneration happen. He opened Blueberry Hill when few healthy businesses existed on the street, and set up a Business Improvement District (BID), that funneled money into the streetscape and public realm. He opened more unique businesses such as an old-style bowling lounge, a concert-venue, and restored independent movie theater. He also funded the St. Louis Walk of Fame, which placed stars in the pavement for famous St. Louisans. He is now instrumental in bringing the street trolley back to Delmar, which will connect the entertainment district with Forest Park and the museum district.

Joe Edwards’ crowning achievements in addition to Blueberry Hill: The restored Tivoli Theater, The Saint Louis Walk of Fame, The Pin-Up Bowl, and The Pageant music venue.

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

The main point of me telling you this story, is that Delmar Boulevard has achieved an extremely high level of urban design. It is walkable, overlooked, has an active public realm, and a strong economic presence in the area. The light-rail system, MetroLink, connects the area with the rest of the city. The street network on each side is well-connected, creating a grid that allows multiple connections into this thriving part of town. The eccentricity and affordability of the businesses and corridor identity is all-inclusive and welcoming to all.

Yet, still, it is segregated. Just as the video shows, the surrounding context north of Delmar continues to suffer from poor education, employment, crime, and drug use. As an urban designer, we have to realize that in some situations that improving physical conditions can only go so far, and social and political interventions are required. It is up to the city and community groups to give these people the training and education that can help to start improve people’s lives who have long suffered. Of course, this takes time. And I would bet my bottom dollar that if given the right support, The Loop and its surrounding neighborhoods would improve faster than other parts of the city that aren’t able to tap into such a thriving and strong heart, serving as a foundation for so many people’s self-identity.

People might then ask, “well what’s the point of urban design, if it can’t create change?” Well, we already know that it creates an enormous amount of change and any resident of the area will tell you that Joe Edwards and the Loop’s revitalization has had an effect on people’s self-identity and quality of life. What this example does show, is that there is a limit to what urban design can achieve, especially those that are the most severe situations.

Local Series: Celebration.

11 Mar

I have been a supporter of New Urbanism ever since I was educated enough to understand traditional urban design principles and the effects they can have on people’s lives and local businesses. I wrote my first masters dissertation on the New Urbanism movement, mostly because I realized there was a a disconnection between the CNU (Congress for New Urbanism) Charter, and what was actually being built on the ground. I was witnessing a fourth and fifth wave of New Urbanism developments being built where I lived, and saw little to no direction on the how CNU’s principles should be implemented, or any measure on which to judge them. Developments were being built, that in my opinion, weren’t properly embodying the movement; my research proved that this was the case.

Since moving to Florida I have been itching to make it to Celebration and Seaside, two of the most well-known examples of New Urbanism. Yesterday I had the opportunity to check out Celebration, and I took it! I have to say, overall I was very pleasantly surprised. But this was a reaction I wasn’t expecting. Reports of people who have been weren’t stellar, and time has provided lots of criticism of the movement.

The main criticism of New Urbanism on the public, national scale is the architectural design often used in these developments. It is almost always traditional and sometimes lacks design detail. The result is that buildings can look unsubstantial, almost like a movie set. Which is ironic, since the New Urbanism development of Seaside was used as just that for The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey. For a movement that is supposed to be so forward thinking addressing the modern issues of society, critics ask why does it appear to be stuck in the past?

After visiting Celebration my answer to this question was confirmed: because architectural style is the least important issue of New Urbanism, and it ticks almost every other box pretty well. A very wise professor pointed out to me the great responsibility that urban designers have, that architects don’t. Urban designers design the public realm, which will remain for thousands of years. When we design a street, millions of dollars of public infrastructure will be designed along with it. In Europe the busiest of roads were designed and built by Romans – they are still there. Buildings on the other hand are a very transient layer of the built environment. While they are of course instrumental in giving a piece of town its unique identity, they last a comparatively short amount of time; demolished and rebuilt on the average of a 40 year cycle. My point is that street network and design is more important to contributing how we can navigate our world in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.

The majority of the architectural design of Celebration was very traditional, but also very nice. The truth of the market speaks: we are in Orlando, FL, not southern California where modernism and post-modernism is the accepted architectural style. However, the developers, which of course was Disney, backed up Celebration with some big architectural heavy hitters. Michael Graves, Phillip Johnson, and Robert A.M. Stern all designed civic buildings in the Celebration town center. ‘Nough said.

My own personal criticism of New Urbanism is that it often focuses on the small-scale design details, such as streetscape and pedestrian experience. While of course these are crucial, larger and arguably more influential factors like connectivity with its urban context are sacrificed. Of course you hear me harp on about connectivity like I’m a broken record, but it’s so important to being able to use our built environment in an environmental sustainable way. While Celebration is very permeable within itself, with perimeter blocks and connected streets, it is not connected to its greater context. Of course that in part is because there is nothing much to connect to; it’s location like a traditional subdivision, is off the side of a highway with no efficient mode of public transportation.

And this is where the greater conclusion of my research on New Urbanism comes in: it’s worth it anyway. Because one day I truly believe that we will get our acts together (out of necessity instead of choice I’m afraid), and provide our citizens with an efficient, accessible, and extensive public transportation network. And when that happens, developments like Celebration will best be prepared to accommodate it without any alterations. Like the most ancient towns built around the same traditional urban design principles, it will be the most flexible and sustaining.

If you can look beyond the architectural design or the fact that on the large-scale it isn’t accomplishing large environmental change like the movement aims to do, Celebration does so much right. Mixed uses that include retail, commercial, residential, office, educational, and institutional truly allow residents to not have to leave the town for days on end. Perimeter blocks allow public spaces to be completely overlooked. Opportunities are provided to connect with nature, including fishing in the town center lake, an active/play water feature, and natural corridors that make room for wildlife. A true mix of housing is provided: small apartments, townhouses, small and dense single-family homes, and large mansions with water and wooded views means a family can be accommodated their entire lives. Celebration is very legible: landmarks galore create place identity unique to the town. While of course Celebration has the weather in its favor, the public realm is very active. Ground level spaces create lots of hustle and bustle on the main streets, filled with people doing my favorite activity: people watching. This is evidence of a healthy public realm.

Above all else, it is extremely walkable with a stunning pedestrian environment. I saw one of the most beautiful streets I’ve ever seen in Celebration. It was proportioned perfectly with a stream and wildlife corridor down the center, one lane of traffic with a one bay of parallel parking on each side. Intermittently it was crossed by beautiful, arching bridges to provide a connected street network. A welcome arch of shade over the sidewalk is created by a line of trees. Kudos…it was perfect.

Water Street, Celebration, FL

Finally its important for me to say there was not one trace of Mickey mouse in this whole place. While it might have been developed by the Walt Disney World corporation, it will sustain itself as a town in its own right for sure. It has matured well, and grown into its own over the last two decades. Celebration was the first, younger generation example of New Urbanism I got to witness first hand, and what a treat it was. If the New Urbanism developments built in later years, and those still to come can adhere to the CNU principles as well as Celebration did, we can perhaps start to see some real change in our suburban built environment.

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Campus Planning…What’s the Deal?

29 Feb

After graduating from my masters programs this past August I made a dive into the job market and came across a lot of firms and professionals that specialized in campus planning. Some of these made a big distinction between campus planning and town and city planning, and often only concentrated on one type or the other. Often times I would hear, “you obviously have experience in urban planning and design…but what about campus planning?” This question first baffled me, but of course there are logistical reasons for this separation, mostly a difference in the development process. Universities and colleges have private ownership of large amounts of land, different funding processes, and a sometimes intricate growth and space organization plans that differ greatly from more traditional projects. Even after learning more about the campus planning process, I still have to ask, why the distinct separation between campus planning and land-use planning?

This issue lies in a great debate of what urban design actually is and what scope it covers. I think there is an assumption among many, that urban design is at a very small-scale and deals primarily with the design of streetscape and placemaking. I couldn’t disagree more. As I’ve written before, urban design is based around certain principles that can be applied across many different situations and scales within the built environment. Campus planning is a perfect example of how urban design principles such as connectivity, legibility, variety, and adaptability, to name a few, can be applied on the large and small scales: looking at how a campus connects with its greater context vs. how a person feels in one small space.

Let me interject here to tell you a personal anecdote. I have always had a huge appreciation for the importance of campus design. I have spent a majority of my life on campuses: my elementary and middle schools were on a 122 acre campus, my high school was designed and built in the early 1800s, and my college was once part of the 1904 World’s Fair. Alternatively my graduate school lacked identity and legibility. It operated more as a collection of buildings. On graduation day there wasn’t even a place to take a picture. I have always been acutely aware of how campuses have operated, but more importantly how they have made me feel and in turn, how they have contributed to my personal identity.

Nothing warms my heart more than seeing the Phillips Academy Andover clock tower appear in the tree tops as I make a turn on Massachusetts Highway 28. That is the urban design principle, legibility, at it’s best. That clock tower is practical: it lets you know where you are on campus and what direction you need to walk in, and its emotional: it is a landmark for the school and your experiences there. But what Andover really was to me, was a home. Its sprawling greens, intimate courtyards, and building space planning created the backdrop of my adolescence.

The social implications of urban design are very much related to place identity, social inclusion, and community cohesion. In no other place than campuses are these more important. Today, as the urban and suburban continues to grow, how campuses connect and reference their local neighborhoods and cities are becoming increasingly relevant. Should campuses be walled off for exclusivity like Duke? Or completely integrated like NYU? Or perhaps somewhere in between like Harvard?

Duke University, Harvard University, New York University

Duke University’s campus is self-contained surrounded by private property. It is accessible on private roads. (Source) Harvard University fits within Cambridge’s block structure, but is organized around courtyards and quads. While it is clear that these very much “belong” to the school, they are open to the public. (Source) New York University and New York City are one in the same. Campus open spaces are city public spaces, which can confuse the place identity of the institution. (Source)

While the answer to these questions varies based on context, I think in most cases a university should never segregate itself from the world around it. In doing so, they could keep their students from the real life learning experiences that surround them, and could instill a sense of eliteness and social exclusion within the community. But because the edges where campus meets the city are becoming increasingly crucial to how institutions and the city relate to one another, I believe it is a detriment for campus planning and greater land-use planning/design to be separated. On the large design scale, they are one in the same, and urban design principles apply to both. Hopefully as the urban environment continues to expand and be retrofitted, our private and public worlds can meld together a little more seamlessly. In my opinion, there are only good implications in creating a connected and well designed boundary between the two.

Hello Cigar City!

22 Feb

At the end of next week Tampa, Florida will become my new home. My husband and I are excited for this new adventure, and I certainly can’t wait to get started in my new job as an urban designer for a transportation planning firm. Anytime I move to a new city it’s important to me to understand how, when, and why it is there, and who helped build it. That will be my heritage, and as I have mentioned before, that is critical in continuing to develop a place with the utmost meaning in people’s lives. My home city of Charlotte, NC was developed around a trading post where two Native American trading paths crossed. I have always felt comfort in knowing how my built environment originated. I wanted to learn the heritage of my new city, and I thought we could do it together.

Of course Tampa has a long Native American and Spanish history, but who really caught my attention in the development of Tampa as part of the 4th largest metropolitan area in the Southeast, was Mr. Henry B. Plant. For those who live in Florida or have studied transportation history in America, Mr. Plant is a well-known character. But I must admit, the story of Mr. Plant’s contribution to the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in the late 1800’s was new to me.

South Florida Railroad (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1888_SFRR_north.jpg)

The Plant System is an intricate system of railroads that begin in Savannah and extend throughout Georgia and Florida. While obviously there were some towns established in Florida, like Tampa, Mr. Plant’s railroad not only caused those cities to boom in population, it was a catalyst for brand new development. It also started entire industries for Florida, including tourism. Mr. Plant was a businessman and knowing that his railroad allowed Americans to travel to the state for the first time, he built a series of hotels along the line. On the edge of the tropics, Florida offered sunlight, constantly warm weather and fresh air believed at the time to treat breathing disorders. People came in the masses, filling his rail cars and hotels.

The Tampa Bay Hotel (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Old_Tampa_Bay_Hotel.jpg)

The Tampa Bay Hotel still stands today as the Henry B. Plant Museum on the campus of the University of Tampa. Preserved in its original Moorish Revival style, it is literally breathtaking in person. Henry Flagler, another railroad tycoon, built hotels in Miami, St. Augustine, Daytona, West Palm Beach, and Key West. With an extensive railroad transportation system and luxurious places to stay, Florida development boomed.

Hav a Tampa! (dailycapitalist.com/2009/06/24/adios-have-a-tampa/)

You might ask where the cigars come in to play. It’s simple, when Tampa was connected to the rest of the state, the southeast, and country by Mr. Plant’s railroad, it allowed a gentleman by the name of Vincente Martinez Ybor, a cigar maker of Spanish descent, to move his cigar company from Key West to Tampa. An industry was born. A neighborhood directly north of downtown Tampa was filled with warehouses that produced Cuban cigars for decades. Today this neighborhood, abandoned after the U.S. Embargo against Cuba, is being revived as an entertainment hub in those same warehouses. My godfather clued me in on the phrase “Hav-a-Tampa!” A non-smoker myself I was completely unaware that an entire product was named after the city in which it was created.

The biggest lesson learned from this story is that transportation in the key. Of course, I have become very aware of this in the present day, but what is disheartening and hopeful at the same time, is that we have fore-thinkers like Mr. Plant as an example. Building transportation before there was anything to be transported to currently is a completely revolutionary idea, when in fact it’s not revolutionary at all. There were no thriving industries or development to build a railroad to, but Mr. Plant built one anyway, and in doing so, he created them.

My wish for us as Americans and our country is that we can have the forethought to learn from our predecessors like Mr. Plant. We are at the turning point, the precipice, or whatever you want to call it. Right now we have to put the investment into our built environment that will allow us to stop polluting the earth, depriving our health, and tearing apart our communities. Public transportation must happen. And when it does, only positive benefits will ensue. What new industries will be created? How will we rebuild our relationships with each other?

Starting next week as I pass the glorious Tampa Bay Hotel and eat dinner in an old Ybor City warehouse, I will remember Mr. Plant and be inspired by his gutsy and brave commitment to changing the world he knew. I hope I can do the same.

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