OCPG member, and videographer Aurelio Ocampo (Red Sky Productions – www.RedSkyPro.com), recently released this brilliant short video on the Downtown Oxnard Vision Plan Charrette process. Aurelio clearly and beautifully documents the Charrette event that took place over a 5 day period in January of 2016. Enjoy!
Innovators at summit brainstorm ways the city can further transform itselfBY BETTINA BOXALL
When Michael Maltzan visited Los Angeles in the 1980s with a group of architectural students, he was comfortable in a way that many of his fellow travelers were not.
L.A. conveyed the same low-density, car-friendly vibe that he grew up with in the Long Island suburbs — the sense that “you could just go,” he recalled Friday.
Los Angeles, in some ways, still clings wistfully to that identity even as it grows up instead of out, builds light rail instead of freeways and transforms its long-neglected downtown into a cultural center and home to tens of thousands.
The challenges and promise of that transition were the focus of discussion at the Los Angeles Times Summit on the future of cities, held at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
“I think there’s a psychological change,” said Maltzan, the founder of Michael Maltzan Architecture. There “is more anxiety, fear around development,” than decades past, when L.A. just kept pushing out and out.
Now the city is folding back on itself, ind the boundary pushing has to come by way of architecture and innovative infrastructure projects that wire density into commercial thoroughfares without overwhelming neighborhoods, he said.
Instead of a bridge having one use, it can be equipped with solar panels to generate electricity and collect stormwater — as Maltzan has proposed for a reimagined Arroyo Seco Bridge in Pasadena.
“For me that’s the future of infrastructure,” said Maltzan, whose firm designed the One Santa Fe apartment complex in the downtown Arts District and the Sixth Street Viaduct that will span the Los Angeles River.
Paul Schimmel, partner at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, said the international arts gallery found its inspiration in the past, in the form of a more than century-old flour mill in the Arts District.
“It was really the space,” that allowed his firm to transform the building into an enormous gallery space that is fast becoming a community hub with its courtyard and restaurant.
For much of its modern history, Los Angeles was obsessed with private space — the joys of a backyard, a single family home and a solo drive down an open freeway.
But now there is a hunger for walkable public areas, a need that is reflected in plans for the Los Angeles River corridor, downtown’s Grand Park and the popularity of neighborhoods like the Arts District.
“We’re returning to a sense of community,” Schimmel said, adding that the city needs to improve access to pedestrian areas.
“Maybe do a little work on the streets,” he said wryly.
As to whether $6 coffees and upscale apartment construction were driving artists out of the Arts District, Schimmel said he suspected the neighborhood was too expensive for artists before the arrival of bars and restaurants.
But the transformation was much slower than he expected. “In the early ’80s I thought it would be the next Soho,” he said.
“People love the idea of what it was” — a gritty creative community, Schimmel said. Though some of the grit has been scrubbed off the downtown arts scene, “it seems to have roots,” he added.
Moreover, the messy sprawl of the L.A. Basin still offers plenty of relatively cheap industrial space that artists can turn into studios, Schimmel said, citing moves to warehouses in the Interstate 10 corridor.
He also suggested it was time for Santa Monica, an arts incubator in the 1970s and 1980s, “to make its next big move … This is a community that needs to step up again and take the leadership it has in the past.”
Other panelists discussed a more disturbing change in the Los Angeles landscape: the explosive growth in homelessness.
In 1980, people were not living on the streets, said Tanya Tull, founder and CEO of Partnering for Change and an expert in family homelessness.
“Just about everything we’ve done” to address the homeless problem nationally, Tull said, “we’ve done wrong.”
Funneling most funding into supportive housing for the mentally ill will not end homelessness, she argued. “We cannot build ourselves out of this.”
Rather, Tull said, rent subsidies are critical to countering the spiraling cost of housing in Los Angeles that has driven families and individuals to the streets and kept them there, sometimes for years.
She also said local government should be more open to nonconventional housing, such as the “teensy” apartment units San Francisco is experimenting with.
“Don’t you think it’s better to have a tiny apartment than a tent?” Tull asked.
Brian Lane, a principal of Koning Eizenberg Architecture, which designs affordable housing projects, argued that L.A. needs to shed the notion that a neighborhood always equals single-family homes.
The city has “miles and miles” of single-story commercial strips that can be rebuilt with greater density and create neighborhoods around transit hubs, he said.
Sam Polk is a former hedge-fund trader on Wall Street who is working on another shortage — healthy fresh food in poor city neighborhoods that he calls “food deserts.”
Polk founded the nonprofit Groceryships, which does educational outreach to improve eating habits in parts of the city dominated by fast-food restaurants.
He also co-founded Everytable, which prepares meals in a central kitchen and then sells them to go in storefronts.
The prices vary according to what a neighborhood can afford.
Someone living in South L.A., for instance, pays $4 for the same meal that costs a buyer $8 on the Westside.
“Healthy food is a human right,” Polk said, pointing out that it simply took some innovative thinking to develop the Everytable business model.
In perhaps the most optimistic prediction uttered at the Summit, he declared: “We are on the verge of becoming one of the great cities of the world.”
THE NATIONAL POLITICAL dialogue is suffused with substantive issues like Benghazi, beauty pageants, and the best debate memes. But the biggest bugbear in neighborhood politics just got some serious side eye from the Obama administration: Parking.
It sounds bitty and trivial, but parking is a very big deal in city halls and neighborhood associations. Even dense cities like New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, have long required developers to cough up enough parking to serve the residential projects they hope to build.
If you live in the neighborhood, this makes sense—you don’t want n00bs taking your spot. But as cities impotently scrabble to keep housing affordable, requiring developers to provide off-street parking feels like dead weight. The cost—up to $60,000 per underground spot—can kill projects before they even start. And you could argue that it’s better to use that land for bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms, not hunks of metal that spend most of the day sitting still. Don’t forget that in 2013, more than a quarter of US renters spend over 50 percent of their monthly incomeon housing. Affordability is a huge problem.
Indeed, says the White House. In a Housing Development Toolkit released Monday, the Obama administration calls off-street parking minimums an affordable housing no-no. “When transit-oriented developments are intended to help reduce automobile dependence,” it says, “parking requirements can undermine that goal by inducing new residents to drive, thereby counteracting city goals for increased use of public transit, walking and biking.”
Granted, the toolkit is merely a list of recommendations, with no teeth. And cities control zoning laws that dictate things like off-street parking. But the Obama administration is reiterating what urban planners have long said: Parking ain’t great for your city. And cities are finally listening.
Death to the Parking Lot
People have written tomes detailing the downsides of the urban parking lot, but let’s lay out the case against it real quick. By investing in cycling infrastructure, sidewalks, and bikeshare programs, dense cities have made it clear they don’t want people driving. But requiring developers to provide parking incentivizes car purchases—along with congestion and pollution. UCLA urban planner Donald Shoup found that people searching for parking in one 15-block stretch of Los Angeles burn 47,000 gallons of gas and produce 730 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Parking requirements are especially nonsensical in a real estate landscape where buyers pay a premium to live near transit and not have a car. In fact, the requirements effectively tax those who don’t want or can’t afford a car, by passing that cost on to them. And don’t forget that the cost of parking often prevents affordable housing development.
Building parking lots to reduce the demand for on-street parking doesn’t actually work, says Michael Manville, an urban planner who studies land use and traffic congestion at UCLA. “The street is an unpriced commons, which is why you have a shortage of parking,” he says. Cities once thought they could protect free parking and make existing residents happy by passing the hidden costs of those spots on to new residents. But the free spots will always be full—thanks, Econ 101. Manville says any city worried about parking should do the smart but unpopular thing: require permits or install meters.
The Very Slow Death of the Parking Lot
Into this lake of evidence wades the White House. It isn’t the first to do so. People like Manville have been warning anyone who will listen about the downsides of off-street parking minimums for at least 15 years. And cities have been getting in on the anti-parking lot regs for almost a decade. Seattle relaxed requirements for developments within a quarter-mile of mass transit in 2012. New York City and Denver did much the same for low-income housing. Other cities aregranting developers waivers to parking requirements, but they aren’t making it easy.
You can attribute the change in part to a growing shortage of affordable housing, says Stockton Williams, the executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing. And you can expect such policies to become more popular as the affordable housing crisis reaches ever further into the middle class. “Affordability is increasingly understood to be a problem that affects people beyond those in the lowest income bracket,” says Williams. Even tech workers feel the squeeze.
Of course, hitting parking where it hurts is no panacea. The White House toolkit points out other important policy adjustments—like taxing vacant land, zoning for density, and letting homeowners build additional dwellings in their backyards—that will promote affordable housing. All of them must be enacted together to keep everyone housed.
But the White House has said its piece. “Obama’s a lame duck, but as [his administration is] heading out the door, they can choose to make bold statements on any number of fronts. The fact that one of the fronts they chose to make a statement on is zoning, I think, is symbolically important,” says Manville, the urban planner.
Symbols serve their purpose, so go sleep in your nearest parking lot tonight.
Think about it. In the years prior, the term “placemaking” wasn’t even in common use by developers, designers and planners. Nor were terms such as form-based code, new urbanism, smart growth, transect,charrette, visual preference survey, traditional neighborhood development, transit-oriented development,sprawl repair/suburban retrofit, return on infrastructure investment analysis, tactical urbanism,WalkScore, complete streets, context sensitive thoroughfare design, LEED-ND, light imprint infrastructure,WalkUP, the original green, lean urbanism, the high cost of free parking, etc.
What has not changed over the last 25 years is that decisions regarding the growth and development of our communities are still being made by community leaders who might be experts in politics, but do not have an adequate understanding of placemaking principles.
Uninformed decisions can lead to bad results. You are familiar with the types of poor policy decisions that spring from this uninformed position— all road widenings are “improvements,” all density is bad, the public works department should treat an urban area exactly the same as a suburban area, etc. For those of us who are focused on improving our communities through competent urban design, this is a source of great frustration.
So here are my Top 10 Techniques for Educating Community Leaders about Placemaking. If you find yourself similarly frustrated, consider the following tools for those you believe are open to enhancing their knowledge (not everyone is).
1. Lunch. Lunch is rarely adequately leveraged because it is viewed as nothing more than… lunch. But your placemaking initiatives are essentially political issues, and if you want political support you need to build trust with leaders. Whether it is lunch, breakfast, dinner or drinks, start building the relationship and along the way view it as an opportunity to provide valuable information that will help the leader make more informed decisions. And budget for it.
2. Speaker Series. Establish a formal speaker series that brings compelling practitioners to town to speak about your community’s hot topic issues. If you need to gain a lot of ground in a short amount of time, try to put together a monthly series that lasts one year like Chad Emerson did in Montgomery, Alabama. The value in that program was not simply found in the speakers, but in the periodic gathering of community leaders where placemaking issues were the focus. Also consider finding partner organizations who can sponsor or co-sponsor stand-alone events at least once a year like the annual “Smart Growth Luncheon” series that the Independent publishing group has facilitated for the past eleven years in Lafayette, Louisiana.
3. Private Meetings with Speakers/Consultants. When a speaker or consultant comes to town, do not rely upon public events to connect with community leaders. Rather, schedule private meetings where frank discussions can occur without the fear of media coverage. Try to schedule these meetings over a meal if possible. When I conduct Smart Growth Workshops for a local association of the National Association of Realtors, the private meetings are oftentimes more important than the public workshops themselves.
4. Local or Regional Conferences. The Center for Planning Excellence has hosted the multi-day Louisiana Smart Growth Summit in Baton Rouge for the past ten years. It brings national speakers to town, and this recurring dialogue has dramatically improved the quality of projects in the region and state. The Institute for Quality Communities in Oklahoma is another regional organization that is making a differencewith this tool.
5. National Conferences. While joining a community leader at the annual Congress for New Urbanism, or the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference or the International Downtown Association Conferenceis an outstanding way to enhance the knowledge of that community leader, the truth is that it is very hard to do this because most community leaders are unwilling to take the three or four days away from their busy schedules to attend unless they are already fully on board with your placemaking initiatives.
6. CityBuilding Exchange. The CityBuilding Exchange is designed to overcome the objections to other national conferences by compacting the content into two days, limiting participation to 100 registrants, holding the event in a place filled with placemaking lessons (this March it will be in New Orleans), and focusing the content on the tools and ideas that community leaders need to understand from the nation’s leading practitioners.
7. Field Trips/Walking Tour. A field trip with community leaders to a place that can serve as a model for where you want to go (or where you do not want to go) as a community is a highly effective educational tool because it permits the conversation to get real. After attending a SmartCode Workshop in 2003, Texas Representative Mike Krusee facilitated a field trip of all of the mayors in the Austin region to visit Washington, D.C. so that those leaders could better understand how transit oriented development could improve the quality of life in the Austin region. In 2004 Austin approved its first commuter rail referendum. Note that the field trip also permitted the building of relationships between community leaders that can form the basis of working together in the future. Finally note that a walking tour can be incorporated into a field trip (or be a stand alone event in your community) where an expert in urban design can take community leaders on a walk down a street and talk about the urban design elements that are working as well as those that are not working. Once again, these trips bring to life the concepts in a way that gets beyond the platitudes on placemaking.
8. Personal Emails. National news articles, local news stories or the release of a new study on an important placemaking topic can serve as an opportunity for you to email a community leader with your perspective on an issue. Instead of simply forwarding the information to the community leader, make sure that you clearly and succinctly state how the information relates to making your community better.
9. Webinar/OnLine Video Presentations. Watching webinars (whether new or old) or online video presentations together with community leaders can be a difficult sale, but it is worthy of your consideration — especially if you set it up as a “lunch ’n learn” event or even have end of the day cocktails. This tends to work better with community leaders who are on city staff as opposed to elected politicians.
10. Books, Web Sites, Blogs and eNewsletters. Provide resources to community leaders so that they can learn more on their own. Your efforts should focus on two basic approaches. First, buy a book or series of books that are particularly relevant to your community, then loan or give those books to community leaders. In my community, I use Jeff Speck’s book, Walkable City as the introductory primer on placemaking. Second, have a very, very, very short list of resources such as websites, blogs, a LinkedIn Group or e-newsletters that you can recommend as an ongoing source for information.
Quality Information, Patience and Persistence = Success. Regardless of the tools you choose to use, remember that the mission will not be accomplished in a day. But, if you exercise patience and persistence, you will improve your community by arming your community leaders with the information they need to make better decisions.
Since 1981, approximately 600 form-based codes (FBCs) have been prepared for communities across the US, and 362 of them have been adopted. Most of the adoptions have taken place in the past 10 years. But as exciting as that may be, what’s more exciting is that these numbers are miniscule when you think about how many communities exist in the US. If this reform of conventional zoning is increasingly gaining acceptance and being applied to larger areas, why are there still so many misconceptions?
Despite a wide variety of improvements in how form-based codes are strategized, prepared, and used, many of the planners, planning commissioners, elected officials, members of the public, and code practitioners I meet continue to harbor misconceptions or misunderstandings about these codes. Here are the ones I encounter most:
FBC dictates architecture. Some of these codes do prescribe details about architecture, but most do not. Perhaps because many of the early codes were for greenfield projects where strong architectural direction was needed or desired, the perception is that a FBC always regulates architecture. Yet the majority of codes I’ve prepared and reviewed (30 authored or co-authored, 10 peer-reviewed, 9 U.S. states, 2 foreign countries) do not regulate architecture. I’ve prepared codes where regulation of architecture (style) was important for a historic area, but those requirements did not apply anywhere else. The “form” in form-based codes may mean architecture, but not necessarily. Form can refer to physical character at many different scales—the scale of a region, community, neighborhood, corridor, block, or building.
FBC must be applied citywide. To my knowledge, Miami, and Denver are the only US cities that have applied form-based coding to all parcels within their boundaries. In general, FBCs are applied in two ways: to a site to implement a development project or to several areas as part of a zoning code amendment or update. This second category sometimes involves reconfiguration of the zoning code to retain a set of conventional zones for “automobile-oriented suburban” patterns while adding form-based zones for “walkable-urban” patterns. This is called a hybrid code because it merges the conventional zoning and form-based zoning provisions under one cover, in one set of procedures.
FBC is a template that you have to make your community conform to. Untrue. Conventional zoning, with its focus on separation of uses and its prohibition of ostensibly undesirable activities, often conflicted with the very places it was intended to protect. Perhaps what some refer to negatively as a form-based code’s “template” is the kit of parts that repeats from one community to another—the streets, civic spaces, buildings, frontages, signage, and so forth. But a form-based code is guided by how each of those components looks and feels in a particular community. The FBC responds to your community’s character.
FBC is too expensive. FBCs require more effort than conventional zoning—but then, conventional zoning doesn’t ask as many questions. FBCs reveal and thoroughly address topics that conventional zoning doesn’t even attempt. Some communities augment conventional zoning with design guidelines; those guidelines aren’t always included in the cost comparison, and in my experience they don’t fully resolve the issues. A FBC has the virtue of ensuring that your policy work will directly inform the zoning standards. Further, the the upfront cost of properly writing a FBC pales in comparison to the cumulative cost of policy plans that don’t really say anything, zoning changes that require the applicant to point out reality, hearings, and litigation over projects.
FBC is only for historic districts. FBCs can be applied to all kinds of places. Granted, they are uniquely capable of fully addressing the needs of a historic district because of their ability to “see and calibrate” all of the components. Such a FBC works with not instead of local historic procedures and state requirements. This is in contrast to conventional zoning’s focus on process and lack of correspondence with the physical environment it is regulating. While a FBC can be precise enough to regulate a very detailed and complex historic context, that same system can be fitted with fewer dials for other areas.
FBC isn’t zoning and doesn’t address land use. If your FBC doesn’t directly address allowed land uses or clearly rely on other land use regulations, it is an incomplete FBC. Some early FBCs were prepared as CC&Rs (covenants, conditions, and restrictions) because of particular development objectives, and some well-intended early FBCs oversimplified use restrictions. Since then, FBCs have augmented or fully replaced existing zoning, including land use requirements.
FBC results in “by-right” approval and eliminates “helpful thinking by staff.” With so much emphasis on how FBCs simplify the process, it’s understandable that this perception has caused concern. Throughout the FBC process, focus is placed on delegating the various approvals to the approval authority at the lowest level practical. I’ve seen few codes that make everything “by right” over the counter. The choice of how much process each permit requires is up to each community. Through a careful FBC process, staff knowledge and experience does go into the code content through shaping or informing actual standards and procedures.
FBC results in “high-density residential.” FBC does not mandate high-density residential.” Instead, it identifies housing of all types—from single-family houses to quadplexes, courtyards, rowhouses, and lofts over retail—and explains their performance characteristics. Density is one of many such characteristics. Through the FBC process, communities receive more information and decide which kinds of buildings they want and where. FBCs enable higher density housing—where it is desired by the community—to fit into the larger context of the community’s vision.
FBC requires mixed-use in every building regardless of context or viability. Conventional zoning has applied mile upon redundant mile of commercial zoning, resulting in an oversupply of such land and many marginal or vacant sites. By contrast, FBCs identify a palette of mixed-use centers to punctuate corridors and concentrate services within walking distance of residents and for those arriving by other transportation modes. FBCs identify the components; it’s up to the community to choose which components fit best and are most viable in each context.
FBC can’t work with design guidelines, and complicates staff review of projects. Because conventional zoning doesn’t ask a lot of questions, most planners have had to learn what they know about design on the job, and need design guidelines to fill in the gaps left open by the zoning. That’s how I learned. A well-prepared FBC doesn’t need design guidelines because it explicitly addresses the variety of issues through clear illustrations, language, and numerous examples. However, we are not allergic to design guidelines; the key is to make sure that the guidelines clarify what is too complex, variable, or discretionary to state in legally binding standards.
I’m enthusiastic about FBC and regard it as a far better tool than conventional zoning for walkable urban places. However, it’s still zoning, and it needs people to set its priorities and parameters. It needs people to review plans and compare them with its regulations. Having a FBC will require internal adjustments by the planning department and other key departments, such as Public Works.
Form-based coding began in response to the aspirations of a few visionary architects and developers who wanted to build genuine, lasting places, based on the patterns of great local communities. Unresponsive zoning regulations often erected insurmountable barriers to these proposals and made proposals for sprawl the path of least resistance.
From its outset 35 years ago, form-based coding exposed the inabilities of conventional zoning to efficiently address the needs of today’s communities. Today, form-based coding is a necessary zoning reform—one of several important tools that communities need to position themselves as serious candidates for reinvestment.
Many residents express concern over the kind of growth they are experiencing, but few realize that this growth has not occurred in a vacuum. Transportation policies, lending practices, funding priorities, and consumer preferences have all had a profound impact on the shape of our communities. Even more significant, however, are local government zoning and development regulations, which often mandate the very development patterns that many lament, while making anything else illegal.
In order to change the physical design of neighborhoods, towns, and cities, and realize the visions of diverse community-based plans, zoning and development regulations (collectively known as “codes”) must change. However, the ability to implement a new design plan is not the only reason to change existing codes. For one thing, current regulations are often the result of many years of individual text amendments and ordinances, and internal inconsistencies are common in amended regulations. In some communities, codes are even unwritten, but have been applied for so long that nobody questions whether or not they are still valid.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to updating codes. Different communities have different visions, staffing resources, and regulatory priorities. Additionally, different parts of the existing code may work perfectly fine, while others are grossly inadequate. After careful review, one community may benefit from creating minor amendments to existing codes, while others may wish to throw the whole thing out and start from scratch. Not surprisingly, most coding projects fall somewhere in between these two options.
The work begins by reviewing the existing codes and pinpointing how well they do or do not align with the master plan and other public policies. The ability of the governmental staff to administer the codes is always key to this phase. The process leads to a determination of where changes are needed and what they should entail. Typically, these include expanding permitted housing types and uses, addressing the relationship between building facades and the public realm, revising density standards, incorporating streetscape requirements, modernizing parking requirements and much more. The next step is to work closely with local stakeholders to actually write and adopt the necessary code changes.
Once a new code is adopted, some communities transform gradually, while others have dramatic opportunities to redefine themselves. This is the case with the City of Doraville, Georgia—a suburb of Atlanta—where, for decades, much of the commercial and residential development supported the city’s General Motors assembly plant. When the plant was slated to close, city leaders saw the opportunity to create a master plan for a model mixed-use area centered on the city’s public transit station. The plan is designed to improve connections and encourage pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development (see regulating plan and rendering, below).
Doraville’s traditional code primarily supported single-use development and had to be rewritten to allow increased density to support a vibrant community center and ensure multiple transportation options. The new code has been dubbed, “The Livable Community Code,” and it is already attracting developers eager to participate in Doraville’s renaissance.
It doesn’t always take a major event like Doraville experienced to galvanize a community to envision and bring about positive change. Woodstock, Georgia—a more distant Atlanta suburb—is a great example. The railroad town was chartered in 1897, but in recent decades, the surrounding strip shopping centers and malls drew business away from Main Street. By the 1990s, it looked like a town that time had passed by.
After studying what had been accomplished in other communities, city leadership brought in a team to recommend how to best revive the town center without losing its history and character. Numerous community meetings were held to solicit input, and from there, a vision was created using the Atlanta Regional Commission’s LCI (Livable Centers Initiative) program.
Because of the LCI, developers were attracted to the city, and ultimately a team of commercial, retail and residential specialists worked together to shape the town. It quickly became apparent that the new vision could not become a reality under the city’s existing codes, so our firm, TSW, wrote new zoning codes to allow and encourage the higher-density, mixed-use development envisioned by the town’s leadership and citizens. Woodstock’s elected officials also worked with downtown churches to loosen the existing alcohol restrictions to make the town more appealing to restaurants.
The 32-acre area was officially named Woodstock Downtown. Historic buildings were renovated into shops and restaurants and a new five-story residential building with retail on the ground floor was designed to blend into its historic surroundings (see photo at top of article). New homes of various sizes now surround the downtown area. And, throughout the process, the vision and redevelopment stayed true to Woodstock’s roots as a historic railroad town.
These are but two communities where newly-adopted codes have already started to lay the foundation for a better tomorrow. And, best of all, the new codes not only allow the cities and towns to move forward with today’s vision, but they have paved the way for the communities to grow organically over time to meet the future needs of the new generations who will one day live, work and play there.
If we’re going to curb climate change, urbanism — developing sustainable cities and metro regions — will have to lead the way.
So says Peter Calthorpe, an architect, urban planner, and one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
In his latest book, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, he argues that green technology and alternative energy alone won’t mitigate climate change, but that they will need to integrate with smart urban planning and development to really make a difference. I talked with Calthorpe about what that looks like in practical terms, how urbanism is the cutting edge of environmentalism, why sustainable cities are more than just a fad, and more.
SmartPlanet: You say in your book that Americans must reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions to 12 percent of their current output. Briefly paint the picture of a city that is designed to reach that goal?
Peter Calthorpe: It’s not a simple – either you live in the suburbs or you live in the city. We used to have things called streetcar suburbs that were very walkable, in California they were built around bungalows, and people walked more and they biked more and they used transit more in those areas.
You basically have to get to a situation where you reduced your dependence on the automobile, and your car is very efficient – 55 mpg. But perhaps more important, you’re only driving it 5,000 miles a year instead of 30,000.
You’re getting around otherwise by walking to local destinations, using you bike, and using local transit networks. You’re probably also living in a townhouse or an apartment where the building is very efficiently built, and demands very small amounts of energy. There’s not a lot of water being used because you don’t have a big yard, but there’s a really cool park nearby. And you tend to eat a little more organic, a little more local, and a little less meat. And the power grid for your region is based at least 60 percent on renewables.
It’s a combination of all those things. But at its foundation is the more compact, walkable, urban environment, because it is what reduces demand. It reduces demand so much that you then begin to satisfy the demand with renewables.
SP: You’re saying that the question shouldn’t be, “do you live in a city or not?” but if you live in a community with these qualities?
PC: Right. And we almost had a perfect system before World War II in the U.S. We had great cities, people loved to live in them, and they were very walkable and transit oriented.
But we had suburbs that were also walkable and transit oriented, they were called streetcar suburbs. There were massive streetcar systems all around the United States. They were torn up after WWII by a consortium of GM, Standard Oil, and Firestone, and they were all replaced with buses, which became less and less desirable as they got stuck in the same traffic as cars. We transitioned away from a pattern that was pretty healthy.
The two compliment each other: the city center, in its higher urban forms, and the streetcar suburbs – what we now call transit-oriented development – really help each other.
Part of the mistake that the right-wing makes here is that they think in order to be ecological, everybody has to be forced into the same lifestyle, and that’s just not true.
More and more we live a regional life. Not just a life in a city or a town. Our economic opportunities, our social and cultural lives are regional and almost all of our environmental issues are regional: air quality, water quality, transportation. All these things are regional issues that can’t be dealt with by a single city or town.
SP: Is the urbanism that you described — sustainable cities — is the most plausible solution to climate change?
PC: I call it the foundation. If you don’t get the lifestyles to a healthier place, the amount of technology that you’re going to have to deploy is going to be really problematic. It’s conservation first. Reducing demands before you start talking about supplies. Too much of the discussion around climate change and carbon seems to focus on technology before it even begins to think about how people’s lifestyles can change.
Of course a more urban lifestyle, whether it’s a streetcar suburb or city, is just healthier and more affordable. It’s a win in many dimensions.
For example, we have an obesity crisis in the United States. Part of that is driven by the fact that we’re too sedentary, we don’t walk. Our communities have less of that natural policing that happens when people live more in the public domain. And more time in the streets and cafes, and less time in their cars. Safety gets in there, air quality is impacted, the household economics.
You can forget about saving the environment, what about just living affordable lifestyles? In America today it costs $5,600 a year to own a car. If you want to own a new one it’s like $8,000. So in American where the median household makes $50,000, and half of that is spent on transportation and housing, you can see how two cars immediately eats into a pretty big chunk of the household budget.
We’ve been able to demonstrate, here in California, as part of our implementation of AB 32, that you not only save the environment, but you save your pocketbook, and you create healthier people and stronger communities.
SP: You make a convincing argument that urbanism has a positive impact on health, economics, safety, and has other co-benefits. Are you saying you can be an urbanist without necessarily being an environmentalist?
PC: People like to live in cities not just because they’re environmentalists, but by living in cities and walkable towns they’re at the cutting edge of environmentalism. That’s the good news.
It should never be a single issue movement. Trying to design healthy sustainable communities impacts so many dimensions of our society that you should never just look at carbon or oil or even land consumption. But it succeeds on all those levels.
In California we looked at a more compact future that only had 30 percent of the new housing in apartments and 55 percent in townhouses and bungalows, with the end result still being over 50 percent of the housing in California being single family. Yet, the difference in land consumption was monumental. It went from something like 5,000 square miles down to 1,800 square miles.
That huge urban footprint, that savings there of 3,500 square miles of building over farmland, and habitats, that’s a very important component to many people, not just environmentalists.
SP: You talk about the history of urbanism with the rise of the suburbs in the 1950s and now a return to the city in the 2000s. Is urbanism and talk of sustainable cities just a fad or do you think there is a paradigm shift taking place?
PC: It’s a fundamental fact of demographics. When we gave birth to the suburbs we were pushing towards 50 percent of households were a married couple with kids. Now only 23 percent of households are married with kids. The other 75 percent have other needs, other priorities other than a big yard on a cul-de-sac. Whether it’s young single people or older empty-nesters or single moms struggling to make ends meet, there’s a whole different set of needs that revolve more around costs and a lot of issues.
When you get to a point where you either don’t want to drive a lot because you’re older and/or you can’t afford to drive a lot, you need places that work for those parts of the population. So this change isn’t just about a fad or a sentiment, it’s fundamental demographics and economics.
And the good news is that it helps us with our environmental challenge.
SP: In the book you say that we need more interconnected whole system fixes, where engineers are working with urban planners, and vice versa, to design a successful communities. What are some examples of this that you have seen successfully play out?
PC: Well, urbanism came along in the early 90s and has now demonstrated a huge number of successes in trying to think holistically about the design of neighborhoods and communities. They range from really large projects — like we did the reuse of the old airport in Denver, Stapleton. There are 10,000 units of housing there; it’s walkable, it’s mixed-use, and it’s very mixed-income.
One of the most radical things that happened there is that we ended up being able to put in one neighborhood the very high-end housing and the most affordable housing a block and a half apart. Whereas the development community had been operating for decades on the notion that you have to segregate income groups.
I think that there’s a lot [of benefits] for the society, for the strength and coherence and the basic sensibility and investment we have in each other to not live in isolated enclaves.
At the other end of the spectrum, the New Urbanists helped Henry Cisneros, when he was head of HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] to execute the Hope VI program, which was to tear down the worst of the public housing projects and build in their place mixed-use, mixed-income communities that really fit with their surroundings. They were no longer a stigma dragging huge sections of the city down.
There are a lot of success stories out there and a lot of good examples. So much so that the development community, and its leadership – for example the Urban Land Institute – has completely signed on to all of these precepts.
The models, the paradigms are there and once we come out of this great recession I think we’re going to be able to move in a much healthier direction.
SP: Do you think when we come out of the recession that there will be less single family home development and sprawl?
PC: The interesting thing is that the development community understands that the marketplace that’s going to come next is much more compact, walkable communities. The question is: are they going to be allowed to build it? Therein lies the big problem.
All of our zoning codes are still focused back into the hindsight, into single-use homes and low density. So all zoning needs to change, which of course is a huge political hurdle.
Then you have the problem of NIMBYs [not in my backyard], and a bunch of them actually use environmental alibis. They’re people who just don’t want infill, they don’t want density, they don’t want townhouses near their large lot, they don’t want commercial in the neighborhood, even if they could walk to it. Because fundamentally they don’t want change.
That creates a very perverse situation where even when the developers want to build the right thing, they don’t get the chance.
SP: Is that the biggest hurdle for building more walkable, dense communities?
PC: Absolutely. NIMBYs – it’s interesting to watch how many of them use environmental issues as alibis – are the biggest problem. Of course there’s infill parcel-by-parcel along an arterial, and there are also big infill sites which really scare people: old army bases, large industrial areas, and things like that that can be converted. People are frightened by the scale of change. But what they have to realize is that the end result is that development gets pushed farther and farther to the regional periphery where there’s less transit and fewer jobs.
[Along with zoning codes] there’s a third leg here, and that’s that our departments of transportation have a real strong addiction to building roads rather than transit. There are really three shifts [that need to take place]. We have to reframe the infrastructure and put more money into transit than roads, we need to redo the zoning codes, and we need to find a way to overcome local opposition to infill.
The problem is always that infill does cause local impacts, there’s no question. But when you’re looking at it holistically, it’s a much more environmentally benign way to grow. But on someone’s block it doesn’t look that way.
I live here in Berkeley, California. And I think downtown Berkeley is a prime example of this. We have BART, we have the university, we have jobs, we should be building high-rise residential right there, right at a transit node, right at the doorstep of a great university. But there are a lot of environmentalists here who just say, “no that’s not the right thing to do.” In the end what it means is people get pushed farther and farther out to the suburbs and commute greater and greater distances because there just isn’t enough housing close to the jobs.
SP: Most of your book is from a US perspective. But climate change is a global problem. Are there places around the world that are getting urban design right? Is the rest of the world going in the right direction?
PC: There are many northern European countries that are really getting it right. The Scandinavian countries are doing a fabulous job of putting the brakes on autos and really orienting towards biking and walking. Copenhagen is a great example of that. And in Sweden over 50 percent of all trips are on foot or bike, and it is a cold, wet climate. And they have, on a per-capita basis, higher incomes than we do. They could afford to drive everywhere, but they don’t. It’s the cityscape and it’s the culture. Those are good models.
I’m doing a lot of work now in China where they’ve got three of the four things you need to make good urbanism. They have density, traditionally they have very mixed-use environments – they have small shops everywhere. And they invest heavily in transit.
But they’re getting their street network all wrong, and they’re building super blocks that really defy the pedestrian and the biker. So you find these huge drop offs in pedestrian and bike mobility in China. What they need to do is reconfigure the way they design their street networks back to small blocks and human-scale streets. And if they do that they’ll really be a model.
Let’s make “10 not 12!” a new mantra for saving our cities and towns.
When state DOTs bring streets through cities, they apply highway standards (above, Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach, Florida). (Screenshot via Google Maps)
A friend of mine heads an office in the White House. I never see him anymore, except at the occasional black tie design dinner, where he is always good for a couple of gin and tonics as the crowd disperses. At the last such event, he asked me a question. Or maybe he didn’t. But I answered it.
“What’s the number one most important thing that we have to fight for?” I said. “You mean, besides corporations being people and money being speech?”
“Well that’s easy: 10-foot lanes instead of 12-foot lanes.”
And so I did, brilliantly. So brilliantly that the White House issued an Executive Order the very next day. Or so I imagined; such is the power of gin.
Sobered by my now palpable failure, I have steeled myself for the task of explaining here, in a manner that can never be disputed or ignored, why the single best thing we can do for the health, wealth, and integrity of this great nation is to forbid the construction, ever again, of any traffic lane wider than 10 feet.
(Before beginning, let me thank the traffic engineers Paul Moore and Theodore Petritsch, who taught me most of this stuff. Yes, there are some good ones out there. This article borrows heavily from an article by Petritsch, “The Influence of Lane Widths on Safety and Capacity: A Summary of the Latest Findings.”)
A little background: First, we are talking only about high-volume streets here. Neighborhood streets can have much narrower lanes. The classic American residential street has a 12-foot lane that handles traffic in two directions. And many busy streets in my hometown of Washington, D.C., have eight-foot lanes that function wonderfully. These are as safe and efficient as they are illegal in most of the United States, and we New Urbanists have written about them plenty before, and built more than a few. But what concerns us here are downtown streets, suburban arterials and collectors, and those other streets that are expected to handle a good amount of traffic, and are thus subject to the mandate of free flow.
Second, you should know that these streets used to be made up of 10-foot lanes. Many of them still exist, especially in older cities, where there is no room for anything larger. The success of these streets has had little impact on the traffic-engineering establishment, which, over the decades, has pushed the standard upward, almost nationwide, first to 11 feet, and then to 12. Now, in almost every place I work, I find that certain streets are held to a 12-foot standard, if not by the city, then by a state or a county department of transportation.
States and counties believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are dead wrong.
In some cases, a state or county controls only a small number of downtown streets. In other cases, they control them all. In a typical city, like Cedar Rapids or Fort Lauderdale, the most important street or streets downtown are owned by the state. In Boise, every single downtown street is owned by the Ada County Highway District, an organization that, if it won’t relinquish its streets to the city, should at least feel obliged to change its name. And states and counties almost always apply a 12-foot standard.
Why do they do this? Because they believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are dead wrong. Or, to be more accurate, they are wrong, and thousands of Americans are dead.
They are wrong because of a fundamental error that underlies the practice of traffic engineering—and many other disciplines—an outright refusal to acknowledge that human behavior is impacted by its environment. This error applies to traffic planning, as state DOTs widen highways to reduce congestion, in complete ignorance of all the data proving that new lanes will be clogged by the new drivers that they invite. And it applies to safety planning, as traffic engineers, designing for the drunk who’s texting at midnight, widen our city streets so that the things that drivers might hit are further away.
The logic is simple enough, and makes reasonable sense when applied to the design of high-speed roads. Think about your behavior when you enter a highway. If you are like me, you take note of the posted speed limit, set your cruise control for 5 m.p.h. above that limit, and you’re good to go. We do this because we know that we will encounter a consistent environment free of impediments to high-speed travel. Traffic engineers know that we will behave this way, and that is why they design highways for speeds well above their posted speed limits.
Unfortunately, trained to expect this sort of behavior, highway engineers apply the same logic to the design of city streets, where people behave in an entirely different way. On city streets, most drivers ignore posted speed limits, and instead drive the speed at which they feel safe. That speed is set by the cues provided by the environment. Are there other cars near me? Is an intersection approaching? Can I see around that corner? Are there trees and buildings near the road? Are there people walking or biking nearby? And: How wide is my lane?
When lanes are built too wide, pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don’t fit.
All of these factors matter, and others, too. The simplest one to discuss, and probably the most impactful, is lane width. When lanes are built too wide, many bad things happen. In a sentence: pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don’t fit.
In the paragraphs that follow, I will lay out the evidence against 12-foot lanes, evidence compiled by traffic engineers, for traffic engineers. When presented with this evidence, DOT officials will face a mandate: provide conflicting evidence, or give in. In over a year of searching for conflicting evidence, I have failed to find any. The closest I came was the following conversation, with a DOT district commissioner in a western state, which I recorded faithfully within moments of it taking place:
“Yeah, you’ve got your studies that say that 10-foot lanes are safer than 12-foot lanes. But I’ve got a pile of studies this high,” he insisted, waving at his hip, “that say the opposite.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “May I see them?”
“No. They’re from the early days. I threw them out.”
Emboldened by that exchange, I will again present the evidence at hand. First, we will investigate what the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Green Book, the traffic engineers’ bible, has to say on the subject. Then we will review the very few studies that compare crash statistics and driver speeds on lanes of different widths. These will allow us to draw some clear conclusions about safety.
Consulting the Green Book
For traffic engineers, AASHTO is the keeper of the flame. Its “Green Book,” thePolicy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, is the primary source for determining whether a road design is an accepted practice. As such, it is useful in protecting engineers against lawsuits; if something is in the Green Book, it’s “safe.”
Given the protection it affords, nobody questions the Green Book. Never mind that very little of it is evidence-based, and that there are no footnotes justifying its pronouncements. I mean, does the Bible have footnotes?
Whether or not it reflects reality, the Green Book’s position on lane widths is more than relevant, since the engineers need its blessing to modify a standard. Theodore Petritsch relates this position as follows:
For rural and urban arterials, lane widths may vary from 10 to 12 feet. 12-foot lanes should be used where practical on higher-speed, free-flowing, principal arterials. However, under interrupted-flow (signalized) conditions operating at lower speeds (35 MPH or less), narrower lane widths are normally quite adequate and have some advantages.
Here, the takeaway is clear: AASHTO says that 10-foot lanes are just fine—for what it’s worth.
The Studies: Rare but Conclusive
A number of studies have been completed that blame wider lanes for an epidemic of vehicular carnage. One of them, presented by Rutgers professor Robert Noland at the 80th annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, determined that increased lane widths could be blamed for approximately 900 additional traffic fatalities per year. Unfortunately, Noland is a mere Ph.D. and not a practicing engineer. His evidence apparently didn’t mean squat to the TRB. If you don’t have short-sleeved white shirt and a pocket protector, you may as well stay home.
Happily, it turns out that engineers have conducted studies of their own. Two of these deserve our rapt attention. The first study, called “Effective Utilization of Street Width on Urban Arterials,” was completed by the TRB itself. It found the following:
… all projects evaluated during the course of the study that consisted of lane widths exclusively of 10 feet or more [rather than 12 feet] resulted in accident rates that were either reduced or unchanged.
So far so good. A second study, called “Relationship of Lane Width to Safety for Urban and Suburban Arterials,” was conducted by the conservative Midwest Research Center. Comparing 10- to 11-foot lanes to 12-foot lanes, it found:
A safety evaluation of lane widths for arterial roadway segments found no indication, except in limited cases, that the use of narrower lanes increases crash frequencies. The lane widths in the analyses conducted were generally either not statistically significant or indicated that narrower lanes were associated with lower rather than higher crash frequencies.
It is clear, then, that at the very least, 10-foot lanes cause no more accidents than 12-foot lanes, and may cause fewer. But what about the severity of these accidents, a subject on which these studies appear to be mute?
Here we can make use of another study and some common sense. We all know that people drive faster in wider lanes, but we need the engineers to say it. Fortunately, the Texas Transportation Institute, as old-school as they come, has done just that. They state:
On suburban arterial straight sections away from a traffic signal, higher speeds should be expected with greater lane widths.
Granted, this study covers only one type of road, but there is no reason to expect opposite results on, for example, straight urban roads. The same logic would apply, although perhaps less dramatically: people drive faster when they have less fear of veering off track, so wider lanes invite higher speeds.
To conclude this radical thought experiment, we need to confirm another commonsense assumption, that higher-speed crashes cause more injuries and deaths than lower-speed crashes. This has been amply demonstrated to apply to all road users, especially pedestrians. According to a broad collection of studies, a pedestrian hit by a car traveling 30 m.p.h. at the time of impact is between seven and nine times as likely to be killed as one hit by a car traveling 20 m.p.h. This tremendously sharp upward fatality curve means that, at urban motoring speeds, every single mile per hour counts.
All of the above data, studies, and pronouncements, collected and disseminated by the mainstream traffic engineering establishment, point to the following conclusion: 10-foot lanes cause no more accidents than 12-foot lanes, and they may cause fewer. These accidents can be expected to be slower, and thus less deadly. Therefore, 10-foot lanes are safer than 12-foot lanes.
Before finishing, we need to investigate the carrying capacity of different width lanes, since traffic volume remains a legitimate concern. If safety were the only goal of traffic planning, all streets would be one-lane wide—or better yet, zero lanes wide. The fact that they are not means that we, as a society, are more than willing to sacrifice lives for automobility. So, what’s the data?
Here, as again reported by Petritsch, a thorough literature search conducted by the Florida DOT yielded these findings:
The measured saturation flow rates are similar for lane widths between 10 feet and 12 feet. … Thus, so long as all other geometric and traffic signalization conditions remain constant, there is no measurable decrease in urban street capacity when through lane widths are narrowed from 12 feet to 10 feet.
It is striking to hear this news from FDOT, the agency that may preside over the greatest pedestrian massacre in U.S. history. Four out of the five deadliest American cities for walking are currently in Florida. This is by design: in no other state has the DOT had such a powerful influence on the design of urban streets.
Alarmed by its horrifying safety ranking—and the barrage of resulting bad publicity—FDOT has taken bold measures to improve pedestrian safety. It released just last year a 44-page Florida Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Safety Plan. Unfortunately, while this document talks plenty about such things as driver, cyclist, and pedestrian education, only two of its pages deal remotely with the real culprit, traffic engineering. Here, we are told that FDOT intends to “implement pedestrian and bicycle best practices,” a phrase that is fairly meaningless without further definition.
To its credit, the plan advocates for the application of a “complete streets” policy to benefit cyclists and pedestrians. But such policies, as we have learned, make sure that some streets include bike lanes and sidewalks, but rarely require the dimensional properties that make them safe. Nowhere in the entireStrategic Safety Plan are lane widths discussed, or any other design feature of the roadway that might encourage deadly speeds.
In fact, you can learn all you need to know about this effort by glancing at the cover of the report, which is stamped with the project motto: “Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow.” Think about that statement, and what it implies. In an encounter between a car and a pedestrian, whose life is at risk? Who, then, is expected to reform her behavior? Certainly not the driver—and most certainly not any engineers who endanger their populations with 12-foot lanes.
A Test Case
I believe that FDOT—and every DOT—is capable of reform, but experience suggests that this will only happen when enough people make a stink. In Florida, we will be able to gauge the DOT’s willingness to enter the reality-based community by how it responds to a proposal recently made to restripe Okeechobee Boulevard, a deadly state highway that cuts through downtown West Palm Beach. Its nine lanes separate the Palm Beach County Convention Center from everything that conventioneers walk to, and are a nightmare to walk across or beside. These lanes, of course, are 12 feet wide.
What would happen if these lanes were reduced to 10-feet wide, as proposed? Three things. First, cars would drive more cautiously. Second, there would be roughly eight feet available on each side of the street for creating protected cycle lanes, buffered by solid curbs. Third, the presence of these bike lanes would make the sidewalks safer to walk along. All in all, an easy, relatively inexpensive win-win-win that DOT could fund tomorrow.
But will they? Only if they are capable of reform. Let’s find out. The agency’s bike and pedestrian coordinator, Billy Hattaway, is one of the good ones. But does he have the power to move FDOT to a 10-foot standard?
Moving beyond Florida, the task is clear. Our lives are currently being put at risk daily by fifty state DOTs and hundreds of county road commissions who mistakenly believe that high-speed street standards make our cities and towns safer. In my most considered opinion, these agencies have blood on their hands, and more than a little. There are many standards that they need to change, but the easiest and most important is probably the 12-foot lane. Armed with the facts, we can force this change. But only if we do it together.
It’s time to push this discussion to its logical conclusion. Until conflicting evidence can be mustered, the burden of proof now rests with the DOTs. Until they can document otherwise, every urban 12-foot lane that is not narrowed to 10 feet represents a form of criminal negligence; every injury and death, perhaps avoidable, not avoided—by choice.
In the meantime, I welcome evidence to the contrary. We’ve shown them our studies; now let them show us theirs. Unless, of course, they’ve thrown them out.
When you think of “affordable housing,” what’s the image that comes to mind? For lots of people, including many of those most in need of it, the picture is not a pretty one: it’s a scene of dreary, deteriorating high-rises or shabby, poorly constructed “garden” apartments with no garden in sight. Moreover, the projects come with lots of safety concerns, placed in “the wrong part of town.” Environmentally, they may be plagued with poor air quality, peeling paint, energy inefficiency, unkempt grounds, and litter.
There’s an unfortunate stigma associated with affordable housing in the US, particularly with publicly subsidized housing; and, if the reality frequently isn’t as awful as the reputation, I’m afraid the reputation is also grounded in more than a little truth in more than a few places. The stigma has been well-earned over time. What you are likely not thinking about, when you think of affordable housing, is state-of-the-art green design that would appeal not just to people of limited means but to others as well, and that’s unfortunate.
That’s the bad news.
But the good news is that I am beginning to see some new-generation developments that, if they foretell a trend, could put the stigma to rest. These new projects are not just better than expectations; they are enviable. They include subsidized units priced to be affordable to low-income renters, to be sure, but they also have high-quality design and features and amenities that could appeal to just about anyone in the market for apartment living. Even better, they are as green as they come, healthy for both people and the planet.
Affordable housing and design
Before I tell you about three of these great new developments, let’s begin with some background: affordable housing is a subject dear to my heart. In fact, I was born into post-World War II public housing in Hickory, North Carolina, where I lived with my parents until they could afford a private (but still affordably priced) apartment, along with employment, in the nearby city of Asheville. I was well into my twenties before I experienced any way of living, really, other than “affordable housing.” That said, I should stress that in our case affordable meant small but it did not mean unpleasant; I have a lot of happy memories from those days.
Indeed, even with respect to public housing I tend to think that the authors of government programs have tried to do their best for their clientele. But budgets have been tight, and some well-meaning concepts have not stood the test of time. Subsidized housing hasn’t been a failure, in my opinion – millions of Americans have enjoyed decent lives because of it – but it hasn’t been a universally rousing success, either.
In particular, great design – to say nothing of great green design – has not frequently been a feature of affordably priced developments. Writing a few years ago in what is now known as CityLab, Allison Arieff unsparingly criticized the dreary approach frequently associated with public housing:
“This soul-sapping approach to aesthetics is par for the course for affordable housing, which is meant not only to look low-budget but also low-effort. Conventional thinking on affordability proceeds from the misguided premise that anything well-designed will be, and look, expensive so it follows that design should not be a priority. Further, the argument goes, anything well-designed will be too appealing to eligible tenants, thus discouraging them from ever leaving. So affordable housing should not only be cheap, it should look cheap. As a result, much affordable housing is more punitive than homey, by design.”
That’s a brutal assessment. While I tend to think substandard design in affordable housing has come about more by inattention and a mass-production approach than by intent, there is little doubt that the results have often been lacking. Even worse, the effects of substandard design are frequently compounded by substandard maintenance over time, creating a “wrong part of town” even if things didn’t start out that way.
We need new models, and we need them fast. We especially need them in distressed neighborhoods to catalyze green, inclusive revitalization. Fortunately, I’m here to report that they are indeed on their way. I have seen quite a few over the last decade, but none more aesthetically and environmentally impressive than these three.
The Rose, Minneapolis
Let’s start with a super-green apartment complex in Minneapolis. I first came across The Rose in an Urban Land Institute email several weeks ago and took notice right way because of a stunning rendering and the project’s ambitious aspiration of achieving recognition under the Living Building Challenge, the most demanding of the green building performance rating programs.
According to ULI’s case study, the project comprises 90 apartments in two buildings. Significantly, it does not consist solely of affordable units but, rather, is mixed-income: 47 of the apartments are offered at subsidized rates to qualified residents, and 43 are market-rate; the two categories are indistinguishable with regard to finishes and appearance. Of the subsidized units, seven are set aside for residents who have experienced long-term homelessness; 15 are “section 8” apartments where tenants pay 30 percent of monthly income for rent. (Section 8 of the federal Housing Act of 1937 authorizes a federal rental assistance program administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.)
The Rose’s affordable and market-rate homes are interspersed throughout the project, which also includes among its outdoor features a 5,000-square-foot community garden. Additional outdoor amenities for all residents include a courtyard with “a lawn, a play area, a play surface that meets Americans with Disabilities Act standards, a rain garden, a patio with grills, a fire pit, and seating.” Indoor features include a fitness center, a yoga studio, and resident lounges, with floor-to-ceiling glass to maximize light and views. The units all have porches and, in the case of ground-floor apartments, access from the sidewalk as well as from the courtyard.
Green performance of any development is highly related to its location, generally the more central with respect to the metropolitan region the better. The Rose does impressively well on this score, its 2.3-acre site situated in an older, transit-accessible neighborhood just south of downtown Minneapolis. Simply put, people who live there don’t have to drive very much. The wonderful Abogo calculator from the Center for Neighborhood Technology estimates that households in the development’s neighborhood, on average, would generate only about 45 percent of the carbon emissions from transportation typically generated by households in the Twin Cities region as a whole.
The project enjoys a Walk Score of 86 (“most errands can be accomplished on foot”), a Transit Score of 76 (“transit is convenient for most trips”) and a Bike Score of 96 (“flat as a pancake, excellent bike lanes”). I wish there weren’t freeways nearby, but one can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the very, very good.
The Rose is designed to be 75 percent more energy-efficient than required by regional industry standards. Solar thermal panels are arrayed on the south side of each building and provide 35 percent of hot water needs. All stormwater will be captured and treated on-site, and all landscaping irrigation will be provided by graywater collected in cisterns with a combined 500-cubic-feet capacity. There is much more detail about the project’s green features (as well as its financing) in ULI’s case study.
The Rose was developed jointly by Aeon, a “nonprofit developer, owner and manager of high-quality affordable apartments and townhomes which serve more than 4,500 people annually in the Twin Cities area,” and Hope Community, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit headquartered in The Rose’s neighborhood and whose mission is inclusive revitalization of distressed neighborhoods. The developers consciously undertook the project as a model that, while aspirational, would be built on a foundation of replicable components and processes that could be applied elsewhere. Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle of Minneapolis provided the project’s architecture.
Paseo Verde, Philadelphia
I have a small connection to my second example: Several years ago, my employer (at the time) Natural Resources Defense Council partnered with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and a number of local community development corporations to work on green neighborhood revitalization. We wanted to build on the investment we had made over more than a decade as a founding partner of both the LEED green building rating system and one of its most exciting offshoots, LEED for Neighborhood Development (which we had developed alongside the US Green Building Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism). Our thinking was that the standards of LEED-ND in particular could serve as guidelines for helping low-income communities and CDCs improve their own neighborhoods.
One of that revitalization program’s first undertakings was to advise the planning for a new affordable housing development in Philadelphia. The site was a bleak surface parking lot at the intersection of 9th and Berks Streets in a part of town that had suffered severe disinvestment over the years. But the location had some major assets, including an adjacent regional rail transit station and Temple University, just a couple of blocks to the west. It was the kind of urban neighborhood that, while perhaps not impressive at the time, was well situated to improve with the right kind of investment.
Little did we know then that Paseo Verde, as the new mixed-income development would be named, would become one of the greenest neighborhood-scaled developments in the US, earning platinum ratings from both LEED-ND and LEED for Homes.
An article posted on ULI’s Philadelphia blog site describes the transformation:
“Paseo Verde is a keystone development that connects an ethnically diverse, low-income neighborhood to the adjacent train station and to Temple University. Before the development, commuter trains hurried past a drab station and a dingy, fenced-in parking lot, shadowed by public housing on one side and blighted rowhouses on the other.
“Today, the same trains pull up alongside a mosaic of bright green panels, with tree-shaded roof gardens peeking through. A health clinic that had been hidden inside a public housing complex now announces its presence with a campanile, its wide windows facing a broad sidewalk bustling with pedestrians. Above are 120 environmentally sustainable homes—affordable for downtown commuters, university students, and families leaving public housing, all of whom enjoy green views and healthful amenities.”
As with The Rose, Paseo Verde is mixed-income: sixty-seven of those 120 units – all rental apartments – serve as market-rate housing while 53 are subsidized to be affordable to residents earning between 20 and 60 percent of the area median income. There is also a little more than 30,000 square feet of commercial space and a 994-square-feet community room.
Again, an appraisal of the development’s green features must start with its centrally located, highly transit-accessible and walkable site. Abogo estimates that households in the neighborhood generate, on average, only about 40 percent of the carbon emissions from transportation generated by households in the Philadelphia region as a whole. Paseo Verde’s Walk Score is 82; its Transit Score is 88; and its Bike Score is 72.
ULI’s case study on the development provides details on Paseo Verde’s many green features, and stresses that many of them double as amenities that help to market the project. Green infrastructure to control stormwater runoff, for example, includes “rain gardens, wide sidewalks with permeable paving, and green-roof courtyards that permit private decks for some apartments.” Indeed, the roofs are not only green in the sense that they are vegetated but also “blue,” collecting rainwater in specially designed fixtures that then release it gradually.
Energy efficiency measures include high-performance appliances within the individual homes (which are also individually metered) and rooftop solar panels that supply electricity to some of the development’s common areas. As in the case of The Rose in Minneapolis, great attention was paid to large windows to daylight both residences and common areas, providing tenants with views of green space and trees from every apartment and from the complex’s fitness room and inviting stairways.
Paseo Verde was developed by an equal partnership between the Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (Association of Puerto Ricans on the March), a Latino-based community development corporation with extensive experience in and a deep commitment to the project’s neighborhood, and Jonathan Rose Companies, a nationally known “mission-based, green real estate policy, development, project management and investment firm” headquartered in New York City. Architecture was provided by Wallace Roberts & Todd. In 2015 Paseo Verde was named project of the year by the US Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes program.
Via Verde, New York City
Finally, twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, one would have been hard pressed to name a more unlikely place for state-of-the-art green design than the south Bronx in New York City. Indeed, throughout the latter decades of the 20thcentury, the area stood as a national symbol of severe urban decay, best known for high rates of crime, gang-related drug violence, abandoned and decaying properties, and even an arson epidemic. It represented everything that had gone wrong in American cities.
But today the South Bronx is turning around, in some neighborhoods dramatically, and there is no better representative to illustrate that rebirth than what is probably so far the most celebrated of all US green affordable housing developments: Via Verde.
The blockquoted passages below have been excerpted and updated from my 2011 review of Via Verde, while the project was nearing completion:
Via Verde has some elements in common with The Rose and Paseo Verde but is much denser, befitting its New York location. It provides 151 rental apartments affordable to qualifying low-income households and 71 co-op ownership units affordable to middle-income households, all on a 1.5-acre site. The ownership homes comprise a diversity of types including single-family townhomes, duplex units, and live-work units with a first floor work/office space. There is also some 9,500 square feet of retail and community space.
As with the Minneapolis and Philadelphia developments, Via Verde’s location alone supplies a great head start on green performance, but in the case of Via Verde the numbers are even more dramatic. In particular, the New York City region as a whole has relatively low carbon emissions per household for transportation, but households in Via Verde can expect to generate only 12.5 percent of that already-low regional average, according to the Abogo calculator. The project’s Walk Score is a striking 98 (“walker’s paradise”); its Transit Score is 97 (“world-class”); and its Bike Score is 72.
What makes Via Verde especially noteworthy, though, is that the architectural and development team has created a distinctively innovative approach to green and healthy urban living: this begins with a spectacular stepped architectural form that creates 40,000 square feet (roughly an acre) of resident-accessible green rooftop terraces at varying heights. Intended to integrate nature with the city, the rooftops provide functioning green infrastructure that can harvest rainwater, grow fruits and vegetables, and provide open space for residents. The garden level in particular is intended to provide both an organizing architectural element and “a spiritual identity for the community,” according to the Rose Companies’ web site. (Like Philadelphia’s Paseo Verde, Via Verde was developed by a partnership including Jonathan Rose Companies.)
Other amenities that contribute to the project’s theme of healthy living include open air courtyards; a health education and wellness facility operated byMontefiore Medical Center; a fitness center; and bicycle storage areas.
Beyond health benefits, Via Verde also exceeds LEED Gold standards for building energy and performance. Along with the green roofs, which provide natural cooling in warm weather, the project utilizes low-tech strategies like cross ventilation, solar shading, and smart material choices, along with more tech-based strategies such as photovoltaic panels, high-efficiency mechanical systems, and energy-conserving appliances.
In one particularly innovative measure, the building’s design places some of the solar panels on the side of the building, not the roof as is customary; others are placed on canopies that provide shade for the garden areas. As a result, the roofs remain free for green space.
The project, which opened in 2012, was built by co-developers Phipps Housesand Jonathan Rose Companies, in partnership with Dattner Architects andGrimshaw Architects, pursuant to a commission won via the New Housing New York Legacy Competition. That competition was specifically intended to “re-engage design with the issue of affordable housing,” as former New York Housing Commissioner (and current federal budget director) Shaun Donovantold New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman.
The importance of leadership projects
Returning to Allison Arieff’s point that affordable housing has been “meant not only to look low-budget but also low-effort,” these three projects suggest that there is indeed a better way, with housing designed from the start to be and look impressive, and to be and look impressively green. And, while all three might be described as leadership projects and thus somewhat atypical, the fact is that low-income housing is becoming better and greener right before our eyes, in part because of their examples (and the many additional examples being set by nationally-active investors such as Enterprise Green Communities and LISC’sBuilding Sustainable Communities program).
Indeed, I’ve been in this line of work long enough to spot an emerging trend when I see it. Is it too much to believe that the results so far portend well for what could become a new ethic in the way that we as a nation approach affordable housing? In his review of Via Verde, Kimmelman wrote eloquently about the importance of leadership projects:
“Higher costs for green construction have, over recent years, come to be accepted as investments in long-term savings. But spending extra for anything as intangible as elegance or architectural distinction? In Via Verde’s case maybe 5 percent more, by [Jonathan] Rose’s estimate, went into the project’s roof and its fine, multipanel, multicolor facade, with big windows, sunshades and balconies. What is the value of architectural distinction? How, morally speaking, can it be weighed against the need for homes?
“In terms of equitability and self-worth Via Verde does more than just aim to provide decent housing that fits noiselessly into its neighborhood. It aims to stand out, aesthetically, formally, as a foreground building, not another background one: to anchor the urban hodgepodge around it and make the area look more coherent, which in this case entails not echoing its context but redefining it. What is that worth? . . .
“[A]rchitecture doesn’t solve unemployment or poverty, and neighborhoods rise or fall as decent places to live on the quality of their background buildings, which do and should predominate. But they’re distinguished by their landmarks, by the buildings and places that people come to love.
“The greenest and most economical architecture is ultimately the architecture that is preserved because it’s cherished. Bad designs, demolished after 20 years, as so many ill-conceived housing projects have been, are the costliest propositions in the end.”
I couldn’t agree more. All three of these projects give me hope, and not just for affordable housing.
Will Calle Ocho become a “complete street”? Or remain a highway?
Miami’s 8th Street, also called Calle Ocho, is flanked by stout, boxy buildings on either side: gas stations, pawn shops, ACE hardware stores, supermarkets, and the occasional Cuban bakery with cafecito, croquetas, and pastelitos. The street is home to some significant cultural landmarks—jazz bars like Hoy Como Ayer and Ball and Chain, for example, and Versailles, everyone’s favorite Cuban restaurant. Around 15th Avenue, tourists pour out of buses and peer into Domino Park, hoping to catch elder Cuban exiles cursing out opponents over a game. Nearby stands the beautiful art deco Tower Theater, where Cuban immigrants would go to get their fix of American films back in the day.
While this last stretch has seen some improvements recently, 8th Street as a whole leaves a lot to be desired. The throughway is, essentially, a one-way, three-lane highway connecting Downtown’s Brickell neighborhood to the Western suburbs. It has pinched, dilapidated sidewalks. And crossing the road, locals say, is like playing Frogger.
“It’s not elevated, it’s not sunk; it’s a scar,” says Juan Mullerat, who is a resident of Little Havana and director at Plusurbia, a Miami-based urban design and architecture firm. “It allows for cars to move at high speed through a historic neighborhood.”
But now, the Florida Department of Transportation is kicking off a new study into the revitalization of 8th Street and its westbound sister, 7th Street. “As the study progresses, the vision for the corridor will begin to take shape with the input we receive from the public,” Ivette Ruiz-Paz, the media outreach specialist for FDoT told CityLab via email.
But local urbanists, developers, investors, city officials, and even city Mayor Tomás Regalado aren’t quite sure that FDoT’s vision is in concert with their own. “There will be a before and after for this project,” Mullerat says. “Question is, what is the after? Is it a ‘complete street’? Or does it remain a highway?”
Turning Calle Ocho back to a “main street”
Before launching into the project development and environmental study it’s doing now, FDoT completed a planning study of the corridor from Brickell Avenue in the East to 27th Avenue in the West (the area in the map above). From the report’s summary:
This part of the city has seen significant growth in the last decade, especially within the Brickell area, where current and future major developments are expected to impact the study corridor with increased travel demand.
To be fair, FDoT’s report mentions that the purpose is to create “a pedestrian-friendly corridor with improved safety, overall traffic operations, and mobility for transit, bicycle, pedestrian, and automobile users.” But the focus on improving access to the Brickell area has raised concerns that the rest of the street—especially the parts that run through Little Havana—will be an afterthought.
“What I hope is that the DOT can see Calle Ocho not just as a facilitator for traffic but as a beautiful boulevard,” Mayor Regalado told the Miami Herald.
To represent the interests of their neighborhood, Mullerat and his colleagues at Plusurbia have created an alternative plan for the street. The aim of this pro bono project is to present a vision of Calle Ocho as a “main street,” just like it was before it was refashioned into a high-speed vehicular conduit in the 1950s (pictured above, left).
For one, that means turning the street back to two-way. They also propose narrowing driving lanes, designating lanes for public transportation and bikes, and adding curb extensions or “bulb-outs.” Plusurbia also imagines shady trees and curbside seating lining the street.
Carlos Fausto Miranda, a real-estate broker and local property owner in Little Havana, has long been a proponent of mixed-use, mixed-income, medium-density urban development. Miranda says he’s on board with the suggestions in the plan, which “undeniably, unquestionably fits into the movement of new urbanism.”
He and other urbanists, however, differ on some of the finer details. Miranda, for example, would like 7th and 8th Streets to be considered together. That way, 7th street could be the main commuting throughway with bike and transit lanes, and 8th could have roomy sidewalks “for people to meet and interact.”
Andrew Frey, the executive director of the urban planning nonprofit Townhouse Center, has been fighting to make the city more walkable for a long time. He also likes Plusurbia’s general idea, but feels that bike lanes and parallel parking don’t mix. His other preference would be for the trees and street furniture to be along the curb, so that sidewalk space is clear for walking.
Generally, there’s consensus that Plusurbia’s plan, and the accompanying petition, is an invitation for everyone to participate in a much-needed conversation about the street. “I’m glad Plusurbia and other stakeholders are trying to insert neighborhood voices” into the planning process, Frey says via email. These voices aren’t often audible, he says. And when they are, they’re not always heeded.
The spillover benefits of the plan
Bill Fuller’s grandparents lived in the Shenandoah neighborhood, which isn’t far from where his office in Little Havana is now. Fuller has been investing in the neighborhood since 2001, and taken on a number of restoration and civic-engagement projects there. He recently restored and reopened Ball and Chain, for example, and organizes the Viernes Culturales art festival, which draws both tourists and locals to the neighborhood.
Fuller represents the new generation of Cuban immigrants trying to reclaim a neighborhood that, for many reasons, has been neglected over time. He wants to make sure that Little Havana reflects the past as well as the present of Miami’s Cuban-American, pan-Latin culture: It must be authentic and modern, but not tacky or cookie-cutter. “We’re trying not to create an Epcot version of Cuba,” Fuller says.
But Calle Ocho, in its current form, has been a persistent impediment to achieving that vision. Because it has been developed as a car-reliant throughway, it attracts car-oriented businesses with expansive parking. The businesses that aren’t drive-through don’t really get foot traffic. And because the street is an eastbound one-way, prospective patrons zip by in a hurry to get to work during the morning rush hour instead of stopping. On their return commute, they take 7th Street, and miss these businesses altogether.
If a version of PlusUrbia’s two-way, pedestrian-friendly plan were implemented, commerce in that corridor could really thrive, supporters say. Locals and visitors alike could stroll down the street, window-shop at small businesses, and experience the work of local artists and artisans. The makeover would usher in a better quality of life for the locals and allow the street to become a real destination for tourists.
“The principal street is the draw, [but] it’s going to have a spillover effect for the neighborhood,” Francis Suarez, City Commissioner of District 4 (which includes the area south of Calle Ocho) tells CityLab. And given that Little Havana is the densest neighborhood in the city—and an incredibly diverse one—the per-capita impact of the revitalization would be immense
The push to revitalize Calle Ocho comes as Little Havana experiences changes that locals believe threaten its character. The National Historical Preservation Trust put the area on its list of 11 most endangered sites in 2015 because of its dilapidated architecture. As housing prices elsewhere in the city skyrocket, Little Havana’s aging housing stock makes its residents vulnerable to displacement. Plusurbia’s plan, however, would only foster and conserve economic and cultural diversity, the firm says.
“Everyone benefits by a blend of people,” Steve Wright, president of marketing communications at Plusurbia, tells CityLab via email. “No one benefits from monoculture.”
A small step for Calle Ocho, a giant leap for Miami?
The arguments for a pedestrian-friendly street that Plusurbia is putting forth aren’t new, but they’re certainly novel to Miami, which has made forays intowalkability and high-density, mixed-use development relatively recently. The question now is, will the Calle Ocho redesign take the city forward or backward with respect to urban design? And if it is forward, would that urge city and state officials to consider such updates to other, less visible neighborhoods?
The answers to those questions are coming, but one thing’s for sure: Calle Ocho is long overdue for a change.
“I often use the analogy of neighborhoods in the city being like siblings in a family. You love them all, but none of them are the same,” Mullerat says. “Little Havana is one of the oldest children in the family, who was neglected for a long time. And now it needs to become something more.”
A recently published report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials includes insights from dozens of officials and practitioners across North America.
The Loop Link design project in Chicago. (Nate Roseberry, courtesy of NACTO)
Not all urban planners or city governments agree on what kind of street designs are best. But one thing remains clear: Cities who want to plan for the future must prioritize transit accessibility.
To aid this process, the National Association of City Transportation Officials has devised a Transit Street Design Guide, which contains insights from 18 different transit agencies, as well as officials and practitioners in 45 North American cities.
The guide functions as a one-stop shop for designers, city planners, and all those interested in improving the safety and efficiency of their streets. While it serves as more of a toolbox than a prescriptive rule book, here are some of the main takeaways:
Separate transit from standard traffic. Both downtown streets and major corridors have the challenge of accommodating many different modes of transportation. One way to improve safety and efficiency in these high-density areas is to ensure that public transit remains separate from standard traffic. “Transit is often faced with automobile congestion at exactly the time when it needs to be running at the highest frequency and in the most reliable way,” says Matthew Roe, the director of NACTO’s Designing Cities Initiative. “By giving buses and trains their own space on the street, we can make transit work extremely well at exactly the times when people need it the most.”
To help accomplish this, the guide recommends designating certain lanes as “transit only.” According to Roe, the Bronx’s Webster Avenue, along with many streets in San Francisco, are fitting examples of transit-only lanes that have improved both safety and travel times.
In those areas where buses and trams already share the street with cars, Roe says there are “a number of other treatments” that can reduce interactions between cars and transit, including boarding islands and in-lane stops. In Seattle, one-lane streets in each direction even allow bicycles to travel behind bus stops, thereby improving bus travel times.
Don’t forget about pedestrians. “All across the United States and the world, there are bus systems that run on streets that were not designed to be walkable,” Roe tells CityLab. “It’s critical that, as we strive to increase transit ridership, we examine how these major streets work for pedestrians.” One way to accomplish this, according to the guide, is to increase the number of pedestrian crossings at intersections and shorten the distance between crossings. Along edgefront streets (those that run along waterfronts, parks, or campuses), for instance, there is little to no space for vehicles to cross on one side. This presents an opportunity to install extended transit lanes that separate pedestrians from car traffic, as shown in the image below.
Maximize speed and efficiency. By allowing transit vehicles to pull up within two inches of the platform or side of the street, transit curbs have a huge impact on speed and efficiency. These curbs should be clearly marked, over six inches high, and can be either concave or rectangular (the design standard), according to the guide. If possible, they should also be tapered at the point of entry and exit to minimize boarding time. As an alternative, the guide suggests installing a rubber rail or plastic bumper to allow buses to hug the curb.
Another important measure for improving efficiency is to include contraflow transit lanes in a city’s design plans. These lanes are designed for streets with one-way traffic, and are typically reserved for bicycles or buses. According to the guide, they allow for shorter travel times by reducing encounters with nearby traffic. A 1999 study from San Francisco’s Department of Parking and Traffic confirms these findings by looking at the success of the first contraflow bus lane in downtown San Francisco. After examining four intersections at various times of day for an entire month, the authors found that buses along this lane saved up to 8 minutes in travel time after the lane was installed.
Prioritize design over the mode of transit. Despite controversies surrounding recently built streetcar systems, the guide focuses on creating the right designs rather than installing the right form of transit. “Whether it’s a bus or a streetcar or full-scale light rail, what really matters is that transit gets the time and space it needs,” says Roe, noting that the St. Charles Streetcar—the world’s oldest continuously operating streetcar—is an essential part of the New Orleans transit network, and still boasts a hefty ridership.
Don’t just design for downtown. “For a long time, a lot of cities have had transit networks that were designed primarily to give downtown office workers an alternative way to get to work besides taking a car,” Roe says. “[But] when you look at cities like Houston that have redone their bus network to serve all the neighborhoods in the city, sometimes that means doing a grid rather than a hub-and-spoke model focused on downtown. When you do that kind of work and really examine where people are going, you find really large increases in ridership.”
In addition to downtown areas, neighborhood streets face their own set of obstacles. While these streets only suffer from moderate pedestrian or bicycle traffic, their limited width and capacity make it difficult to accommodate a community’s public transit needs. To address this, the guide recommends improving transit stops to include designated spaces for pick-up and drop-off, and installing “boarding bulbs”—or sidewalk extensions—so that buses can stay in their traffic lane without having to pull up to the curb. The guide also highlights the need for reasonably-priced curbside parking.
Make streets accessible for all. Already, the U.S. Access Board outlines various requirements for making streets accessible for wheelchair users. And yet Roe still finds that “there has been a significant gap in detailed guidance on how to make bus boarding wheelchair accessible in new configurations of streets.” In addition to the basic standards developed by the Access Board, the guide outlines its own recommendations for designers and city planners.
“One of the critical things about accessibility is that there a lots of ways to make a bus stop or a rail stop accessible,” Roe says. “When you strive for universal design and make a stop inherently accessible through its design, you can speed up the boarding process for everybody.” A number of cities currently rely on ramps or low-floor or kneeling buses instead of outmoded lifts to provide wheelchair access. These small changes can make all the difference when it comes to speeding up the boarding process.
Emphasize sustainability. Green transitways, or large green areas along or between bus or rail tracks, are a cost-effective way to make an environmental impact, according to the guide. In addition to improving the aesthetics of a neighborhood, these planted areas also help to manage stormwater. One promising example is the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Transit Project, which created an “eco-track” to collect stormwater runoff and prevent it from entering the sewer system. Small initiatives like this can make a huge difference for cities today and well into the future.
Models matter. Let’s design more streets like the streets we already love.
When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when you’re a traffic engineer, it seems, everything looks like a highway.
If traffic engineers did not control the design of so many of our public spaces, this might not be a problem. But they do—and that’s especially true here in the U.S. Even when traffic engineers have the best intentions, too many simply lack the tools to make successful places. In the typical American city, asking a traffic engineer to design a walkable street is like asking a hammer to insert a screw.
In my last article for CityLab, 18 months ago, I wrote about over-wide driving lanes, and how they encourage speeding and make our streets more deadly. That piece, others like it, and the labors of many have helped to bring about a change in the way that U.S. engineers think about lane widths. While the war is by no means won, many transportation departments are beginning to accept narrower standards. The profession had shown itself capable of reform.
This gives me hope, and prompts me to take the conversation to a higher level. What is the next urgent battle to be fought in the name of more walkable, livable streets and communities? So many things come to mind: the value of trees, the need for parallel parking to protect the sidewalk, the epidemic of unnecessary traffic signals, the mandate for truly buffered bike lanes. . . the list goes on. But what if there were one category that managed to include all the others?
I believe there is, and it goes like this: models matter.
In other words, pay attention to precedent. So, you’re designing a street? Great! What street do you want it to be like? Does it look like that street? Not really? Why not? Where is there a street like the one you just drew? Is it any good?
Sounds obvious enough, right? Then why does it seem to happen so rarely? Are plans that hard to read? Why is it that engineers, planners, citizens, and the media all regularly don’t ask these questions?
Case in point: consider this recent example from Lowell, Massachusetts, a city with a great history of urban wisdom. Thanks to several decades of pro-planning public servants and a great non-profit called The Lowell Plan, the city has reinvented itself as a smaller, less expensive Boston, a place that now attracts residents and businesses to its great urbanism, focus on higher education, and commitment to historic preservation and the arts. Its once-abandoned downtown mills are now full of middle-class lofts, and a third wave of redevelopment is well underway.
Lowell is a city I know intimately, having lived there for some time in 2010 as I completed an “evolution plan” for the downtown. That plan is now being implemented and has, among other things, reverted a confusing and speedy network of one-way streets back to calmer two-way traffic. Lowell is a city that gets things done.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across an article earlier this month about the city’s plans for its southern gateway, the Lord Overpass. This site is particularly important to Lowell, being an area of major redevelopment as well as the key link from the train station (at right in the image below) to downtown (beyond the canal to the left). This collection of streets—a squared traffic circle floating above a highway—is due for reconstruction, and the city came up with the smart idea of putting the depressed highway back up at grade to create more of an urban boulevard condition.
At the level of intention, this seemed a wise plan. It is hard to find a pleasant urban place with two levels of streets, unless the lower level is completely hidden, and it was beyond the budget here to fully cap the highway. There are many good examples of surface boulevards that handle as much traffic as this section of road does, and replacing highways with boulevards is something that U.S. cities know how to do at this point. It turned out that, for the $15 million price tag of rebuilding the bridges, the city could just as easily truck in enough dirt to fill the hole. So far, so good.
But then came the plan, and my reason for writing this article. Picture in your mind a classic large urban street, one that will attract pedestrians while also moving a lot of traffic. Perhaps you are imagining Paris’s Avenue Marceau, Barcelona’s Passeig de Gràcia, or Washington’s K Street? Now look at the image below.
Not quite what you had in mind? Yeah, me neither. I have to reach the conclusion that the distinctions between the two models of boulevard and highway are actually more subtle than I am suggesting, because this drawing was created by a skilled engineering team, embraced by the City Council, local non-profits, and newspaper, and presented this month to resounding applause from neighborhood residents.
So, let’s zoom in and describe what we see:
- Four lanes dedicated to motion straight through, just like the now-submerged highway;
- Three lanes dedicated to turning motions, two of which swoop around the edges in great curves;
- Two dedicated bus lanes, each about 17 feet wide, curb-to-curb. (A bus is 8 1/2 feet wide, so perhaps the goal is to squeeze two past each other?);
- Bike lanes that are partly protected, partly unprotected, and partly merged into the bus lanes;
- A collection of treeless concrete wedges, medians, and “pork chops” directing the flow of vehicles;
- No parallel parking on either the main road or any of the roads intersecting it; and
- Green swales lining the streets, resulting in set-back properties to the one side and open space to the other. (Note that the open space at the bottom of the drawing is too shallow to put a building on.)
Not listed above, but perhaps of the greatest concern, is the issue of precedent. While there exist a growing number of locations in America with street configurations like this one, it is impossible to name one with street life. Swoopy configurations like this design are found mostly in suburban drive-only locations out by the mall, not in cities. If no attractive place can be found with a similar configuration, then a design should not pass the street-planning smell test.
The comparison of drive-only suburbia with walkable cities then allows us to make this critique of the approved plan:
- Walkable streets do not have swoops, slip lanes, pork chops, and other features that encourage drivers to make fast turns;
- Walkable streets have narrow lanes, typically 10 feet wide—even for buses;
- Walkable streets place continuous shade trees in any medians;
- Walkable streets have parallel parking along every curb, to protect pedestrians (and potentially bikes) from moving traffic; and
- Walkable streets are lined by buildings that give them life, and in urban locations these buildings are tall and sit directly against the sidewalk.
All of the above criteria, in addition to making pedestrians feel welcome, contribute to an environment in which cars drive more safely. Students of urban form will recognize that they all come from studying the proper model, the classic boulevard.
If the goal is to move lots of traffic in a walkable urban environment, there is only one time-tested model. As so well described in The Boulevard Book by Alan Jacobs, all successful boulevards follow certain rules, including those above. Since we know that proper boulevards make successful places, a respect for precedent gives us clear direction here.
So, what would this stretch of road look like as a boulevard? I took a stab at it above. To satisfy the car counters—because they always win—I even added a lane, to match the current condition. This proposal, one of many possible solutions, includes a 4-lane, high-volume center flanked by two 2-lane side roads. One of the lanes on each side can be dedicated to buses, if so desired. Each side road is flanked by parallel parking, and protected bike lanes are placed in the outer edge of the sidewalk, European style. All intersecting streets maintain parallel parking on both sides, and corners are tight, with no swoops. Street trees fill both medians, aligned with the trees in the sidewalks.
Nothing is wider than it needs to be, and the whole facility hugs the properties to one side, with no swales or setbacks. This leads to something surprising: free land. Three large and valuable building sites are now available in what is planned to remain wasted space alongside the railroad. This is great news, for two reasons. First, because the sale of this land—more than an acre of prime real estate—can be used to defray the costs of the project. Second, because a street is only as good as its edges. Without the spatial definition, activity, and supervision provided by buildings against the sidewalk, a boulevard is not complete.
This design was done quickly and could no doubt be improved. It is presented with the confidence that it follows a well-established model, and its outcomes can be predicted. Sadly, the current proposal that it hopes to replace also follows a well-established model, with predictable outcomes. These outcomes are a far cry from those currently anticipated by the good people of Lowell.
City planning is not just an art, but also a profession, and like in the professions of law or medicine, its practitioners have a responsibility to learn from past successes and failures. Study of precedent makes it clear that boulevards create street life and enhance real estate value, while highways obliterate street life and sunder real estate value. It is not too late for Lowell to embrace a model that will transform this site from a place that is easy to get through to a place worth arriving at. Similarly, all of our cities, as they contemplate expensive reconstruction of obsolete roadways, have two models to choose from, one led by engineering, and another led by precedent: the study of places we love.
As a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, I’ve now attended twenty of the organization’s annual conferences. This month’s event may have been my favorite yet, mostly thanks to its location in downtown Buffalo, a place that reminds us so poignantly of both the successes and failures of city planning, as first lovingly practiced and later ruthlessly perpetrated across America.
Most of the local residents in attendance — and there were many — seemed to enthusiastically embrace New Urbanism’s ethos of redesigning our cities around people rather than cars, recognizing how the auto age had perhaps done as much damage to downtown Buffalo as its devastating loss of industry.
But there are always exceptions. In the Buffalo News’ only prominent review of the event, art critic Colin Dabkowski wrote an “open letter to the New Urbanist movement,” that centered upon a damning critique of my community lecture there and also of my book, Walkable City, which he seems to have read in part.
The thoughts that follow are my response to Dabkowski’s review. The Buffalo News worked with me to craft this article as an Op-Ed for Sunday’s paper. Then, three hours from press time, they demanded that I remove most of my references to Mr. Dabkowski’s error-loaded text. Not excited by that prospect, I am sharing my comments here instead.
I suppose that my biggest surprise in reading the Buffalo News article came from the fact that I had been expecting to hear such a critique sooner. In the eighteen months since Walkable City came out — and over more than 100 reviews — all but the most sympathetic critics seem to have been largely silent. I was waiting for comments like these, but eventually gave up.
The reason I was waiting is because two of the book’s central arguments — “Downtowns First” and “Urban Triage” — imply winners and losers, and I have seen at least the first argument anger people in the past. Folks who don’t live in downtown are often resentful seeing money spent there, whether they find their homes in cash-strapped slums or wealthy suburbs.
I have come to this Downtowns First strategy not as a social critic or even as a social scientist, but as a professional planner who learned from Jane Jacobs to think of cities as ecosystems that thrive or decline holistically. With some difficulty, and along with many of my colleagues, I have reached the conclusion that a healthy metropolis requires a vibrant center city to hold it together. Our experience suggests that, without a strong downtown core, investments in non-downtown areas are likely to provide only fleeting benefits. Both are important, but the downtown more so.
Urban Triage, on the other hand, is a complex concept, and one that is easily misunderstood. But I can’t begin to fathom how Mr. Dabkowski came to think that Urban Triage suggests “infrastructure investment should go largely to a city’s densest and most-prosperous neighborhoods at the expense of outlying areas.” That could not be further from anything that we New Urbanists have ever said or written.
Urban Triage is not a technique for choosing among neighborhoods for investment. It is a technique for, within any given neighborhood, discerning among more walkable and more automotive environments, so that walkability investments may be made in those corridors where walking has a chance of taking root. Urban Triage says that the road between the mall and the office park, lined by auto dealers, is a worse place for new streetscapes than the street between the bus station and the stadium, lined by struggling storefronts. It aims investment not at prosperity, but at possibility.
Ultimately, what I think has happened is that Mr. Dabkowski has confused the two different arguments in his mind. Downtowns First is a macro argument. Urban Triage is a micro one. Downtowns First favors walkable, urban areas, whatever their demographics, because we believe that cities depend on them for long-term success. Urban Triage forces us to be realistic about where such walkability is possible, again, within neighborhoods, not among them. If he had finished my book, I think this confusion would not have occurred.
How do I know that Mr. Dabkowski didn’t finish my book? Well, he says that I am an “outspoken critic of… any structures that lack traditional details of the kind you see in buildings by H.H. Richardson or Louis Sullivan.” Where in the world did he get that idea? Has he seen my modernist house? In any case, I would direct him to the second-to-last chapter of Walkable City, where I celebrate the high tech Pompidou Center in Paris, and note: “What matters is not whether the details were crafted by a stone carver or a cold extruder, but whether they exist at all.” I believe that architecture needs small-scale details to engage the pedestrian. Beyond that, style is irrelevant.
There are too many other errors in the piece to address them all, and I fear annoying readers with inside baseball, but let me just mention one. Mr. Dabkowski’s statement, almost libelous, that I blithely suggest “a city’s most intractable problems” should be put off for “another decade,” bears no relation to what he would have read in Walkable City. What I suggested putting off was, again, streetscape improvements in “the auto zone,” roadways “lined by muffler shops and fast-food drive-throughs.” The automotive commercial strip is rarely the location of a city’s toughest problems — indeed, they are usually zoned out of it.
When I am brought to a city, it is often by the Office of Human Rights or some other group that understands that our nation’s poor and disabled are disproportionately represented among the ranks of pedestrians and cyclists. They walk, bike, roll, and take transit, often because they have no choice in the matter. They rely on walkable downtowns and neighborhood centers because they are largely incapable of entering the auto zone.
I find it troubling that my experience advancing the interests of these disenfranchised communities could somehow be considered “trickle-down,” “dismissive,” or “exclusive” by a critic, but the work of revitalizing our cities is a complex business, and prone to misunderstanding. I guess I can take some solace in the fact that it took so long for this particular misunderstanding to occur.
Jeff Speck, AICP, CNU-A, LEED-AP, Honorary ASLA, is the Principal of Speck & Associates, a city-planning firm based in Washington, DC, and the author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.
Bundling parking with living space structurally raises the cost of urban life.
There’s no question that Generation Y loves the city, but demographers and urban planners can’t help but wonder how long that love will last. Given their lower income relative to previous generations, many urban Millennials favor small-footprint living: studios, a few one bedrooms, some congregate housing, and micro-units. But what happens as they age and have family? Will the need for two or three bedrooms force them to the suburbs, or will cities create the types of family-oriented units to keep them in place?
Families need at least two bedrooms (and preferably more) to be comfortable. Ideally they would have separate (or semi-private) rooms for teenagers of different genders, or for relatives who come to visit. They want yards and access to safe places for their children to play. Many cities want to encourage the production of family-sized apartment units, but few two and three-bedroom apartment units are being built. Most new apartment projects continue to be developed primarily with studios and one-bedroom units.
So how can cities meet these needs and encourage the private sector to build affordable urban housing for families? Well, they can start by changing their parking policies.
Urban affordability and parking policy are closely connected. In urban apartment and condo projects, parking is almost always required, and because of the high price of urban land, typically that parking is provided underground. Below-grade parking costs up to $35,000 per stall, while in many places wood-framed apartments cost about $100,000 to $120,000 to build (excluding the price of land). That means that for every parking stall we don’t require developers to build, we can save 25 to 35 percent of the cost of rent, right off the top.
So why do cities require developers to build parking and bundle it with apartments? Because people in surrounding neighborhoods don’t want the residents of new apartments using up “their” street-parking spots. It’s as if we were trying to get people to eat healthy affordable meals then forcing them to bundle it with an order of French fries because we don’t want to upset the potato lobby.
If cities are really committed to affordable housing, they need to look harder at their land use and building code requirements—such as bundling parking with living space—that structurally raise the cost of urban life. If parking becomes more scarce as a result, cities could implement systems that require residents to pay for street-parking permits, such as those in Toronto and Boston. Properly priced street parking allows cities to generate more revenue, reduce subsidies for cars, and distribute street space more equitably among all residents—not just those who lived there first.
Another change that could dramatically increase the ability of families to live in the city is shared outdoor space that’s both visible and easily accessible. Many newer apartment buildings are incorporating outdoor amenity spaces, such as shared roof-top decks, and this is a good start. But a roof-top deck that isn’t visible from the third floor is ill-suited to families with school-age children, since they can’t go out and play semi-supervised the way they would in the yard of a single family house.
One of the best urban forms that can adequately meet this need is called perimeter block housing, where row-houses are built continuously around a central courtyard. The kitchens and living spaces are on the ground floor facing the courtyard,allowing a free flow of children and parents between the indoor and outdoor spaces. The cost of perimeter block housing is very competitive with apartments and often less expensive than townhouses.
This kind of housing has been successfully developed in many European countries, but one of the main reasons the private sector hasn’t built much of it in North American cities comes back to parking. Perimeter block housing doesn’t accommodate vast parking lots, and building underground parking is prohibitively expensive, so any parking must be kept on surroundings streets. That’s not a tough adjustment for Millennials (many of whom have never owned cars) to make, especially if the neighborhood is near transit service or a mixed-use walkable area. In other words, what’s really limiting this type of housing is not necessarily parking demand but the minimum parking requirements imposed by cities.
Even in cities where the zoning does allow perimeter block housing, it’s usually grouped with dense residential buildings rather than with single-family zones, which it more closely resembles in typology, demographic, and customer demand. In practice, this means that two- or three-story, small-footprint perimeter block housing can only be built in zones where four- or five- or six- story apartment buildings are also allowed. Given a certain cost for the land, it will always be more profitable to build to the maximum height and density in these zones, thereby making perimeter block housing the least profitable option. Allowing perimeter block housing within single family zones, where it would be the most profitable form in that zone, would result in much more of it being built.
So if cities truly want to encourage more close-in housing that’s affordable to middle- and working-class families, both now and in the future, parking and zoning policies are the place to start. The challenge for growing cities in North America is great and the demand for urban housing is only likely to increase while infrastructure dollars are on the decline. Cities can’t solve the affordability problem with just taxes or public dollars—they need to change the rules of the game to allow more housing to be built that truly meets the needs and wants of today’s families.
Every time a new building includes space for cars, it passes those costs on to tenants.
Seattle’s smart new plan to give tenants transit passes instead of parking spaces should help housing stay more affordable down the line. To get a sense just how much money renters might save, the city relied on a 2012 study of how parking impacts affordability from its neighbor in the Pacific Northwest, Portland. That work is striking for both its clarity and its conclusions, so let’s took a closer look.
Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability modeled what happens to unit prices when a building developer decides to include parking. A few specs if you’re into that sort of thing: the sites were 10,000 square feet (so, about 4 stories tall), zoned for mixed-use (so, shops on the ground floor), with units averaging 550 square feet (so, depending on your persona, cozy or cramped).
The report looked at several types of parking, including a surface lot, podium (a partial cut of ground floor) style, mechanical lifts that maximize space, or underground parking. All are compared to a 50-unit development option with no parking at all. The low-end rents assume developers make a 7 percent profit on the project; the high-end assumes 10 percent.
Charting the data on cost, we can see rents climb as the parking options become more complex, and thus expensive for the developer. A low-end rent in a building with no parking comes to $800 a month. Rent in the same unit in a building with the cheapest parking option, surface spots, comes to $1,200—a 50 percent jump. In a building with underground parking, the low-end rent hits $1300, a spike of 62.5 percent.
Of course, more parking in a building doesn’t just mean higher unit rents—it means fewer units, period. Below we chart the rental units that are sacrificed to various parking types. Again, in the no-parking scenario, a building can have all 50 possible units. This time the underground lot actually fares best among the parking options, since it preserves all but 3 units. The surface lot removes 20 potential homes—that on top of whatever commercial development space it might lose on the ground floor.
So we see how parking (especially surface parking) becomes a scourge on a city. Residential lots and spaces make individual units less and less affordable for tenants. They also result in fewer units as a whole, meaning the supply of housing across the city takes a hit. That too jacks up rents over time, as neighborhoods run out of sites to develop, and families run out of places to live.
For decades, cities have required developers to include parking as part of their building plans, a “minimum” standard that’s only now starting to relax in places. That shift in focus does create new challenges: cities must find other places for parking (ideally, shared facilities), or better yet, craft programs that discourage residents from driving in the first place (like Seattle’s). But for metros struggling to make housing more affordable, rethinking parking policy is a clear place to start.
US DOT and FHA website on roundabouts:
Roundabouts and Mini Roundabouts
Roundabouts: An Informational Guide
Caltrans Mission Statement
- Old: Caltrans improves mobility across California
- New: Provide a safe, sustainable, integrated and efficient transportation system to enhance California’s economy and livability
Capacity and delays
The capacity of a roundabout varies based on entry angle, lane width, and the number of entry and circulating lanes. As with other types of junctions, operational performance depends heavily on the flow volumes from various approaches. A single-lane roundabout can handle approximately 20,000–26,000 vehicles per day, while a two-lane design supports 40,000 to 50,000.
Under many traffic conditions, a roundabout operates with less delay than signalised or all-way stop approaches. Roundabouts do not stop all entering vehicles, reducing both individual and queuing delays. Throughput further improves because drivers proceed when traffic is clear without waiting for a signal to change.
Roundabouts can increase delays in locations where traffic would otherwise often not be required to stop. For example, at the junction of a high-volume and a low-volume road, traffic on the busier road would stop only when cross traffic was present, otherwise not having to slow for the roundabout. When the volumes on the crossing roadways are relatively even, a roundabout can reduce delays, because half of the time a full stop would be required. Dedicated left turn signals further reduce throughput.
Roundabouts can reduce delays for pedestrians compared to traffic signals, because pedestrians are able to cross during any safe gap rather than waiting for a signal. During peak flows when large gaps are infrequent, the slower speed of traffic entering and exiting can still allow crossing, despite the smaller gaps.
Studies of roundabouts that replaced stop signs and/or traffic signals found that vehicle delays were reduced 13–89 percent and the proportion of vehicles that stopped was reduced 14–56 percent. Delays on major approaches increased as vehicles slowed to enter the roundabouts.
Roundabouts have been found to reduce carbon monoxide emissions by 15–45 percent, nitrous oxideemissions by 21–44 percent, carbon dioxide emissions by 23–37 percent and hydrocarbon emissions by 0–42 percent. Fuel consumption was reduced by an estimated 23–34 percent.
Statistically, modern roundabouts are safer for drivers and pedestrians than both traffic circles and traditional intersections. Roundabouts are safer than both traffic circles and junctions—experiencing 39% fewer vehicle collisions, 76% fewer injuries and 90% fewer serious injuries and fatalities (according to a study of a sampling of roundabouts in the United States, when compared with the junctions they replaced). (Though, a more ideal metric would be a comparison to nearby similar intersections, since a need for replacement may be a confounding factor.) Some larger roundabouts take foot and bicycle traffic through underpasses or alternate routes. Clearwater Beach, Florida’s multi-lane roundabout has reduced its previously high cyclist death rate to zero since its construction.
At junctions with stop signs or traffic lights, the most serious accidents are right-angle, left-turn or head-on collisions where vehicles move fast and collide at high impact angles, e.g. head-on. Roundabouts virtually eliminate those types of crashes. Instead, most crashes are glancing blows at low angles of impact.
An analysis of the New Zealand national crash database for the period 1996–2000 shows that 26% of cyclists reported injury crashes happened at roundabouts, compared to 6% at traffic signals and 13% at priority controlled junctions. The New Zealand researchers propose that low vehicle speeds, circulatory lane markings and mountable centre aprons for trucks can reduce the problem.
The most common roundabout crash type for cyclists, according to the New Zealand study, involves a motor vehicle entering the roundabout and colliding with a cyclist who already is travelling around the roundabout (50%+ of cyclist/roundabout crashes in New Zealand fall into this category). The next most common crash type involves motorists leaving the roundabout colliding with cyclists who are continuing farther around the perimeter. Designs that have marked perimeter cycle lanes were found to be even less safe, suggesting that in roundabouts, cyclists should occupy a vehicle lane rather than a special lane. The researchers advised that drivers be forbidden from overtaking cyclists (as well as other vehicles) while in the circle.
“It’s the American expectation that’s creating the problem,” says parking guru Donald Shoup.
Parking lots at Trader Joe’s: Like a case study in primate aggression, an elaborate car insurance fraud scheme, or proof that evil really is banal.
A recent Buzzfeed article bore witness to the emotional freight shoppers carry (no doubt in reusable bags) as they navigate the otherwise beloved grocer’s notoriously cramped parking provisions. Some sample tweets:
It’s been 7 days, 15 hours and 3 minutes since we entered the Trader Joe’s parking lot. Tell my family I love them.
— Hana (@HanaMichels) March 10, 2016
I’m like 99% certain when you go to hell you just have to find parking in a Trader Joes parking lot for all eternity. 🔥
— Lily Williams (@lwbean) May 24, 2015
When I have some free time I like to hop in my car and just cruise the trader joes parking lot. U know add to the confusion and mania
— Cornell Reid (@CornellReid) January 14, 2016
So, Trader Joe’s, why all the narrow spaces, the hairpin turns? I know, I know: As the planning blog Strong Towns points out, less parking keeps overhead costs to a minimum, which translates to lower food prices. But is there something else going on? Some social commentary, some demonstration of consumer psychology?
I asked Trader Joe’s reps to provide an explanation, but was told repeatedly that they do not comment on “real estate or business practices.” So I asked Donald Shoup, the UCLA scholar of transportation and economics widely renowned as the “rock star” of parking. He lives in L.A. and shops at the Trader Joe’s in Westwood. In his view, all that frustration is the fault of American drivers’ expectations—not of Trader Joe’s.
Donald, speculate with me: Costs aside, why are Trader Joe’s parking lots the way they are?
I have thought about this. And as you say, this is speculative. But as I understand it, Trader Joe’s is owned by a German family, which also owns Aldi. So I think they have a lot of experience in the grocery business. In Germany, their grocery stores aren’t surrounded by acres of asphalt. They come from a different tradition where, with urban stores in dense areas, you don’t give free parking to everyone. It would be a strange idea.
It’s the American expectation that’s creating the problem. The expectation that there will be free parking and plenty of it, and if there isn’t, there’s something wrong.
So even though Trader Joe’s has always been based in the U.S., its owners continue to operate by non-American parking standards.
That’s right. You know, Trader Joe’s has to comply with the same minimum parking requirements that all other stores have. But what’s different is that they have a lot more customers. They’re such a good store. They have more sales per square foot than other chains. They could respond to this by providing more parking, but that’s not their style. So they’re successful at creating a problem for drivers who expect to find free parking. I think it’s the driver’s problem.
Is Trader Joe’s secretly pushing an active-transit agenda?
No, I don’t think so. I just think they don’t want to buy a lot of extra land and pave it with asphalt and raise prices in the stores. I don’t think it would be fair to force Trader Joe’s to buy more land around their stores and demolish houses or shops so that people can park for free. That wouldn’t be fair to those who don’t drive. And maybe it would make Trader Joe’s a less special place.
I do think people who are willing to walk or bike or carpool or take transit certainly get a better deal there. And I think the world would be a better place if more places were like Trader Joe’s, with lower prices and less free parking. For walkable neighborhoods and environmental purposes and food security and a lot of other reasons, they’ve made the right decisions.
Any other lessons to take away from the Trader Joe’s parking experience?
Just because parking is free doesn’t mean no one has to pay for it. And Trader Joe’s has made a decision to not make more parking than the city requires. They have a different business model, which is why people go. People like the benefits of Trader Joe’s. They’re are so happy when Trader Joe’s comes to their neighborhoods. It’s usually in dense areas, not in suburban locations. It couldn’t be that way if the stores were surrounded by acres of asphalt.
And by the way, if you don’t like Trader Joe’s, you can always shop elsewhere. You can go to Whole Foods or Ralph’s, where usually there are lots of empty parking spaces. If that’s what you prefer then you should shop there. But if you want Trader Joe’s lower prices and different products, that comes with more crowded parking. I don’t see why we should object to that.
The 8 Principles for Better Streets and Better Cities
- WALK | Develop neighborhoods that promote walking
- CYCLE | Prioritize non-motorized transport networks
- CONNECT | Create dense networks of streets and paths
- TRANSIT | Locate development near high-quality public transport
- MIX | Plan for mixed use
- DENSIFY | Optimize density and transit capacity
- COMPACT | Create regions with short commutes
- SHIFT | Increase mobility by regulating parking and road use
ITDP aims to deliver a higher standard of living and quality of life for citizens of cities around the world. Through our transportation projects, we work to reduce human impact on natural resources and ecosystems, and to ensure that we develop in a way that benefits us all, both today and in the future.
Our vision of sustainable cities is one in which there is a high concentration of people living in an environment that is pleasant and provides good social infrastructure through good physical infrastructure. Cities where people are put before cars, and residents, workers and visitors young and old, can safely walk or cycle to their daily activities. Cities where jobs and services are a bus ride away, and the time and money spent driving can be used productively elsewhere. These are the kinds of cities that are attractive to us today – cities with less congestion, less pollution, fewer accidents, and healthier, safer, more productive communities. To achieve this, there are 8 principles which guide our approach to sustainable transport and development. These principles inform the TOD Standard, a guide and tool to help shape and assess urban developments.
If you’re an automaker, now might be the time to drastically rethink not only your target audience, but also the fundamentals of how vehicles are designed, manufactured and marketed.
Forces like global urbanization, the growth of electric vehicle infrastructure and shared mobility services — ridesharing, carsharing, bikesharing, etc. — are dramatically changing the sustainable transportation landscape.
To help make sense of it all, GreenBiz spoke last week with mobility designer Dan Sturges about the outlook for personal cars and the market forces reshaping the suto industry.
This week, in and interview edited for length and clarity, Sturges shared his thoughts on what our future cars might look like, and how all of these factors might combine to reshape our sense of place.
GreenBiz: What might the new constellation of vehicle options for businesses and consumers mean for the future?
Dan Sturges: To me, both Silicon Valley and Big Auto are not very focused on the massive opportunity that comes with a broader selection of optimized vehicle designs in the future of shared mobility. Today, we generally use two classes of mobility.
One, mainly, is our cars and light trucks to drive us each day around our cities and metropolitan regions. The second is the airplane that we fly to far-away cities and countries. What has been missing is a third tier — one focused on local transportation. That would be a travel environment for walking, bicycles and a wide range of upcoming micro-mobility (powered) vehicles.
GreenBiz: So you’re saying our current local transportation patterns are unsustainable?
Sturges: Let me be very clear. We currently have an automobile monoculture on this planet, and it’s not good for us.Today, the billion cars and light trucks we have on the planet look virtually the same when looking down on them. They are rectangles with four wheels in the corners and roughly the same size. They are constructed out of 25,000 parts and cost $32,000, on average, in the US. Why would anyone need all that to travel a mile or two for a meeting at a coffee shop?
GreenBiz: And you see an opportunity to simplify?
Sturges: Nearly 50 percent of our trips in urban areas are less than three miles, and 28 percent are one mile or less. Our cars are over-engineered for nearly every trip we take in them. It’s overkill. It’s like killing a roach with a shotgun. We could not do anything about this before the auto tech revolution, but now we can.
The centerpiece of the local mobility future is the bicycle. While auto mobility develops in the future with the cars we drive, autonomous vehicles or other inventions, we will be redesigning our cities to offer amazing pedestrian, bicycle and active mode facilities first and foremost.
GreenBiz: What if you’re not into biking or walking all the time?
Sturges: For those of us that want more than a bicycle for a nearby trip, we will choose from a growing array of local vehicles. This will include electric bikes, e-scooters, senior mobility scooters, golf cars, Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEVs), and a likely wide array of new types of near cars.
All of these vehicles require far less land and energy than a car, and cost far less to own, share, or operate than our cars of today. They are optimal vehicles for a short trip.
GreenBiz: What about longer trips?
Sturges: Think about a metropolitan area divided into two vehicle categories: the local vehicles I am talking about, and the far cars – the conventional vehicles we know and use already today by the billion.
It’s helps to think of the neighborhood you live in as a small island, maybe two square miles. Let’s say you live in Palo Alto, California and you are a telecommuter, so your needs for an automobile are already really reduced. You might use a new-type of local shuttle service, ridesharing, carsharing, bike or walk to get around Palo Alto.If you’re a commuter, there will be another option: a narrow car. The Nissan Land Glider concept vehicle paints a picture of a new type of car to drive around your region. Cities encouraging the right-sizing of personal vehicles will benefit by reducing traffic congestion, along with reducing the amount of land needing for parking.
GreenBiz: Are there existing templates for how all of this might come together in real cities?
Sturges: In European cities moving toward a car-free model, like Madrid, new urban shuttles — a mix of autnomous and driver-controlled — will offer frictionless use for consumers.
GreenBiz: But retrofitting entire cities at scale would be a massive challenge.
Sturges: It’s difficult to get a city saturated with big cars and trucks to clear an appropriate amount of space for a healthy local mobility zone. The car is still considered king, and cities like LA are having big fights with citizens about removing even a few car parking spaces for bike lanes.
This drives me crazy — LA plans to fund its much-needed biking infrastructure over a 20-plus year period. I think that’s absurd, given the climate crisis, economic challenges, terrible traffic and so on. Many people like little e-scooters and NEVs, but they don’t feel safe operating them around a sea of giant SUVs.
I don’t blame them. In addition, hardly any citizens have been introduced to this type of new vision for a shared-use and right-sized metropolitan mobility future. If you don’t know something is available, how are you going to even want it, and seek government to support it?
GreenBiz: Long term, how do you see this potential convergence influencing the way we build our cities?
Sturges: Did you ever see Otis Elevator’s dual-dimensional elevator concept from the early 1970’s? It was super cool. The elevator not only went up and down, it could travel horizontally as well.
Small electric vehicles are about the same size of some elevator cars. They have zero emissions and will actually be able to drive into a building and right into one’s condo in the future. The design opportunity of this convergence of architecture, local mobility, and the Internet of Things (IoT) is very exciting to me.
GreenBiz: What sorts of applications do you think about for urban settings?
Sturges: Upcoming automated, local mobility technologies will enable all new types of futuristic smart communities and cities to be created, as well as informing the retrofit process of our existing cities.Have a look at Kiva Systems. Their remarkable warehouse movement robots can now be applied to a number of important new urban living applications.
This technology enables new types of cities and futuristic smart communities to be built, that park cars on the edge and offer large non-motorized zones for people, as well as a secondary micro-sized, high-tech automated movement systems for both people and goods.