In celebration of the upcoming CNU 25.Seattle, Public Square is running the series 25 Great Ideas of the New Urbanism. These ideas have been shaped by new urbanists and continue to influence cities, towns, and suburbs. The series is meant to inspire and challenge those working toward complete communities in the next quarter century.
“Neighborhoods should be compact, pedestrian-friendly, and mixed-use,” and “many activities of daily living should be within walking distance,” according to the Charter of the New Urbanism. A quarter century ago this idea was not common planning practice, and new urbanists needed a way to measure a compact neighborhood to organize plans and communicate to the public. The answer was the “pedestrian shed,” a distance that can be covered in five minutes at a normal walking pace—typically shown on a plan as a circle with a quarter-mile radius.
If the built environment is appealing and human scale, the theory is that most people will walk at least five minutes rather than get in a car. The idea is embedded in a thousand new urban plans and incorporated into zoning codes now. Although the quality of the built environment can expand or shrink the distance people will walk, the quarter-mile pedestrian shed remains an influential and useful idea for designing neighborhoods and building complete communities. Public Square editor Robert Steuteville interviewed urban planner and architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, co-author of Suburban Nation, and urban planner Jeff Speck of Speck & Associates, former director of design of the National Endowment for the Arts and author of Walkable City and co-author of Suburban Nation, on the subject of the 5-minute walk and what that means to cities and towns across America.
Both of you co-authored, along with Andres Duany, the book Suburban Nation that introduced America to the neighborhood and the pedestrian shed. Can you tell me how planning and development has changed as a result of this idea?
Plater-Zyberk: When we first started talking about walking, everybody was saying, “Oh, nobody’s going to walk anywhere.” We knew about the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) studies in San Francisco, which had surveyed people and discovered that the 5-minute walk was a reasonable expectation for transit. Peter Calthorpe and others have said a 10-minute or more walk is okay for transit. But when the new urbanists were honing in on this, it was not contemporary knowledge. We had never heard of the 1929 regional plan for New York or that 5-minute diagram [by Clarence Perry]. We discovered that much later and it was a kind of confirmation. But I would say these were rediscoveries. Many of the historical experience that we now call on, including maybe even the terminology pedestrian shed, had to be rediscovered because it was lost to most planning and design knowledge.
Speck: By the time I first started working at DPZ, which was the summer of ’87, you guys had incorporated the five-minute-walk into your planning. So by the time of my first encounters with you all, it had been established, and you were aware of the 1929 (Perry) diagram.
Plater-Zyberk: Yes, but the first few years, all of that was being rediscovered. Now, how has it affected the planning since then? People have put that dimension of a five minute walk or some pedestrian shed distance into zoning codes. You might have less parking required if you are within a certain distance of a transit line or stop. It’s always in discussion. Is this a single circle with one node, or is it running along the line of transit? A leader in the talks about pedestrian distance, Walk Score, has emerged. And although it’s not changed the world entirely in great geographic measure, it’s definitely become part of the overall goals of making better urbanism. And I would say most planning now makes some reference to pedestrian sheds in goals and regulations.
Speck: I’ll be even bolder than Lizz and say that this idea, which was first popularized, or most effectively popularized, by Lizz and Andres [Duany], is now one of the foundational concepts in planning. I just want to distinguish between planning theory that is taught in school and how most of America and most of the world is still being built. The planners have figured it out but, of course, the challenge now is the great disconnection between what planners know and what developers are building, which is still mostly wrong.
Do all urbanists agree now on the five-minute walk, or is there disagreement there?
Speck: There might be nitpicking around the edges, but I don’t think there are any urbanists or planners who would question a comfortable walking distance measure as a means for structuring community. Would you agree, Lizz?
Plater-Zyberk: I think anybody who’s concerned about the scale of urban design and community beyond one building at a time could agree that this is a good goal.
This may be jumping ahead a little bit, but you’ve mentioned it, Jeff. Why hasn’t this had more of an impact on the America that you see as you drive around?
Speck: Well, that’s been our discussion for so many years. All the professions that work together to create the American-built environment have certain conventions. And every profession has written into its practices, or at least used to, the organization of the landscape around Euclidean zoning—large areas of single-use with nary a thought to pedestrian access. So it’s a huge ocean liner to turn around, and no one expected it would happen quickly.
Plater-Zyberk: I would add or maybe stress one component of that, which is the scale of economic activity that has emerged as a result of the prevalence of automobile mobility—the big box, the number of brands that rely on drive-ins, fast food, and so on. The scale of the economy is really a very difficult counterpoint. That said, I have spent a bit of time in France in recent years and it is interesting to see big box developed on the outskirts of the walkable city. So there is an understanding that there are places where daily life goes on and you can walk to work and school, and then there are areas for trucks and giant roads. It’s one or the other, not the mess we have tended to allow in the United States.
Speck: We have a development industry that’s made principally of people who are either single-family housing developers, multi-family housing developers, retail strip developers, big box developers, office park developers, and the like. And if you give one of them a piece of land, no matter how big the piece of land is, they’re going to develop what they know how to do. And to no small measure, it’s been the dissection of the development industry into these branches that has made it very hard to get the development industry to start doing mixed-use again.
Plater-Zyberk: You might call it the tyranny of specialization. CNU has talked about specialization and the fact that that it generates bigness.
Do you just give up on things like big box stores, or can they be incorporated into the pedestrian shed?
Plater-Zyberk: Well, Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City is a big box. It’s a multi-story big box. They took the whole block. And I think that’s one of the best examples of the fact that big box stores used to be part of the city. Market Street in Philadelphia had four department stores, and other stuff in between. I guess New York is pulling them back in, the Walmarts and the Targets.
Speck: Yeah, that’s the urban model. Then there’s the suburban model which DPZ helped develop, and you see it in play at Kentlands, where you have big boxes that are accessed from the highway in an automotive way, and accessed from the town in a pedestrian way—and you better believe that folks who live in Kentlands are walking to the big boxes on the edge of town. The question is how do you handle the integration of the building into the streetscape that approaches it? And new urbanists have developed ways to do that.
Do you think that people who have the most influence over the built environment, the planning commissioners—the city councils, the developers— do they now understand the concept of a pedestrian shed? Is it something that has sunk in?
Speck: Many planning commissioners particularly in smaller communities have no training in planning whatsoever, and many developers have no training in planning whatsoever. To the degree that they’ve never really studied planning or made an effort to learn best practices. No, they have very little idea about it, but there are, of course, many who do.
Plater-Zyberk: So let’s say it’s not a household word. But whenever we give Suburban Nation to a newly elected person, for instance, they come back and say, “Oh, yeah, I get it.” So it’s not a rocket-science idea, but it hasn’t permeated. And that’s primarily because most people don’t think about the built environment; they’re just victims of it, and they take it the way it comes.
How is this idea used in current planning and how it can be applied most effectively in the future?
Plater-Zyberk: There’s two aspects to it. The pedestrian shed is essentially a dimension or a description of an area that enables pedestrian accessibility. But that’s not just measuring dimension in quantity, but quality. How frequent are the intersections? How mixed are the uses? What are you accessing? Is the central focus the destination, or it is where you’re starting from—your house, for instance?
Speck: In my experience, it’s only the new urbanists who, when confronted with a large area of land, their first step is to start drawing pedestrian sheds as a foundational way of organizing property. When I begin a planning effort, I make that move to lay circles on the acreage, like we did at Cornell, outside of Toronto, to create neighborhood units that break the landscape up into constituent parts. And I find that people are really surprised to see that and they say, “Oh, what a great way to organize property.” But I honestly don’t think that that has permeated the planning culture yet. I don’t think this concept of dividing large properties into neighborhoods as a foundational move is practiced that far beyond the new urban circles, no pun intended.
Plater-Zyberk: Now that was a very important point, Jeff. I think this correlation between pedestrian shed and neighborhood is important because that describes the quality of what’s going on inside the pedestrian sheds. I would add that it might be useful to think about it in terms of new places and old places. Jeff’s description of laying the circles on the paper is the way a greenfield project might be laid out; you structure it according to neighborhoods that are circumscribed by pedestrian sheds. And there may be a larger town center shed that several neighborhoods aggregate to. Of course, we’ve always been involved in remaking places too. And when you remake urban places, you often find that there was a pedestrian shed and maybe it’s fallen apart. The built environment is deteriorated. But when you look at the infrastructure and the buildings that are there you can rebuild that pretty easily. And then there’s suburban sprawl that we built during the last century. You can come in and identify the places where you might be able to retrofit and make a compact pedestrian focus area and the single-family sprawl will remain around it. Very often that’s an office park or shopping center or something that’s under some coherent ownership that it can be remade. So you could talk about it in terms of new places, pre-existing cities, and then how do you repair the structureless suburbs.
This is basic to the way new urbanists approach planning. Could you talk about some of your current projects and how the pedestrian shed relates to that project and is influencing what’s happening there?
Speck: I would say that, as Liz suggested, when you’re working in an existing place you have to respect the existing neighborhood structure. Discovering the underlying neighborhood structure can be eye-opening. I remember when we were looking at Syracuse we found neighborhood structure in some of these inner city neighborhoods that have been undermined and almost obliterated by auto-centric development. And a big part of what we did was to let people know where their neighborhood centers were so that policy could be oriented around understanding where those centers are.
Plater-Zyberk: DPZ has been working with some hospital systems to help them plan their property. They often own pieces of property outside their main buildings. The Presence Health system in Chicago, for instance, had two close-by hospitals, and everyone got in their cars to go from one to the other. We showed them that the two pedestrian sheds from their front doors intersected, and if they made improvements in the path between them that people really could walk back and forth, and that they could use those parking lots to make a piece of city that would connect them better. Also, two shopping malls in suburban Salt Lake City, Cottonwood and University Mall, were in the midst of a classic suburban vehicular intersection. We showed them how to remake those malls and their surroundings by adding a mix of uses within the pedestrian.
It seems incredibly hard for people to get the concept of a pedestrian shed when you are in the suburbs, where everything is on an automobile scale. How do you get people to understand that when you’re working in the suburbs?
Plater-Zyberk: This is where the illustrations for new urbanist ideas are so important because people can’t visualize it at all. The first drawings that started to convince people to try something new were done by Charles Barrett, bless his heart, he is no longer with us. The kind of charm and hope that those drawings represent are such an important part of what we do. It’s not the diagram—that circle with the arrow from the center to an edge—that will never convince anyone. But the beautiful illustrations, the idea that the architecture might be great, that the street will be appealing, the sidewalk will be wide, there will be trees, and you can take your child out by the hand, or walk a dog on your way somewhere, is what tugs at people’s hearts. (Note: See the illustration by Steve Price at the top of this article)
They can picture themselves within a pedestrian shed, doing something?
Plater-Zyberk: That’s exactly right.
Speck: The biggest challenge that we face in the suburbs is that it’s not really a pedestrian shed unless it’s accessing mixed use. And, for most of us, a town square at the center, perhaps with some sort of civic structure, even if it’s nothing more than a barbeque shack, isn’t enough to achieve the lifestyle changes that the New Urbanism hopes to provide for humans living in its places, and we always say that, at the bare minimum, you want to have a corner store, and the corner store depends on a certain number of rooftops. I heard once from (planner and retail expert) Bob Gibbs, you’ve got a thousand homes to make one corner store function. To get that density in a 160-acre pedestrian shed has been the fundamental challenge to New Urbanism.
Plater-Zyberk: If there aren’t enough houses for the corner store, then your neighborhood—this pedestrian shed—may join another one. And there may be a kind of congregation of them around a village center or town center that is supported by multiple neighborhoods.
This may seem like a strange question, but as we are speaking, a new president is being inaugurated. So do you have any thoughts on the new administration, Donald Trump, federal programs, and whether this relates to planning on the neighborhoods scale?
Speck: As someone who worked in the federal government, there’s only a limited way in which the federal government has ever exerted much influence on the details of planning. But when it has, like with the Hope IV program, which is based entirely on urbanist principles, it certainly had a profound impact. You’re not going to see those sort of programs under this sort of administration. But more to the point, the latest talk is about abolishing all transit funding which, of course, is going to be entirely disruptive to any notions of walkability.
Nevertheless, the pedestrian shed has survived many eras and planning ideas. It should survive the next four years, don’t you think?
Plater-Zyberk: It will survive. Fortunately, there’s so much literature now that the profession will not lose track of it again the way we did in the last century. We’ve kept it alive in so many ways through building and through literature.
Speck: One of the helpful oversimplifications that I say in my presentations is that the five-minute walk was developed historically. You’re getting it from Jericho on, and it was only undermined by the advent of suburbia where we introduced automobile-based zoning. But in fact, if you look at the towns in the early 20th century, that the new urbanists are always pointing at for its successes, such as the Coral Gables, and the Shaker Heights, and Beverly Hills, and all these amazing developments that some refer to as the apex of American planning, none of these really have a five-minute walk pedestrian shed at their core. They have concentrated retail areas and huge areas of residential land. And I think one of the great achievements of New Urbanism is to take the other tremendous intelligence from those plans, the other great techniques that are present in those plans, and combine them with the neighborhood unit, which actually is missing in most of them.
Plater-Zyberk: I like to focus on the things that worked that we can use. Even if you don’t have the corner store but if you have something that’s defined by its edges and some kind of central place, a neighborhood, even it isn’t highly mixed-use, it still gains a sense of community, identity, and the potential of interdependence among a group of people that is beneficial. There’s a great deal of hope with regard to the retail component. A new generation of entrepreneurs, in places like Detroit and Miami, are looking for walkable places to [open businesses]—whether it’s the coffee shop or the beer joint or a restaurant or a gallery or whatever they’re doing. I think there’s an ever-growing economy of small business that will look to old city places or to remaking of suburbs. The physical organization of pedestrian sheds in neighborhoods speaks to this generation in the way that setting up a business in a suburban shopping center does not.
Note: CNU intern Benjamin Crowther helped to produce this interview and article.
Humans are social, yet this primary fact of life is oddly absent as a core consideration in modern urban development regulations. To ignore the social needs of our species is to lose sight of one of the most positive drivers for shaping sustainable urban form. Providing for the satisfactions of community counters sprawl. Yet conventional land-use zoning disperses people and strips social life from the landscape. This is where form-based codes come in. They are the tool par excellence for guiding development in a socially sensitive way, configuring buildings and streets to enliven social life.
A remarkable and growing body of literature in contemporary social research is telling us that healthy, well functioning communities need face-to-face meeting, interaction, and communication among their members, something that electronic “social media” cannot replace. And it requires high quality physical space.
This has been known from ancient times by city builders and philosophers who recognized humans’ basic social nature, but didn’t have the science to back the assumption up. We are now living in an era in which this subject is now under the lens of the scientific community. But let’s start with Aristotle, then consider insights from contemporary research, and finally see how form-based codes fit into it all.
Being together is in our blood
Aristotle observed that all animals are most alive when living at the top of their form—“thriving” is the word that Kaiser Permanente currently uses. “It is the excellent employment of his powers that constitute his happiness, as the reverse of this constitutes his misery,” according to Aristotle. For him the great value of cities is not that they are economic engines rather they are valuable because they allow us to live fully alive to our nature—in itself good for the bottom line. At the core of human nature is sociality. A human “is a social being, and by nature adapted to share his life with others … Now if he is solitary, life is hard for him; for it is difficult to be continuously active by one’s self, but not so difficult along with others.” If the built landscape deprives us of stimulation and isolates us, it forces us into a lower gear. Social deprivation underlays issues of poverty, health, and environmental degradation.
Loneliness is social deprivation in its most obvious form. Loneliness is a topic that is a bit embarrassing for Americans. It connotes social failure and personal inadequacy—not something you want to air in public. It’s considered tragic—a lonely person is someone to pity. It is about emotion—too tender-minded for public policy debate. Yet if the numbers of socially isolated people grow, it becomes a critical public health issue.
Emerging science and public surveys demonstrate that loneliness is no longer just a preoccupation of philosophers, poets, and novelists. Research on this topic is growing in medicine, neuroscience, and sociology. Social deprivation, “as with pain, thirst, hunger, or fear, triggers the fight or flight response that induces a whole host of health risks,” says Kimberley Brownlee of the University of Warwick. A recent Time Magazine article was entitled “Why Loneliness May Be the Next Big Public-Health Issue.”
Despite the rise in social media, the headline is not unexpected, according to Susan Pinker. Facebook accounts, iPhones, and text messaging are pale proxies for natural face-to-face life, she says in her book, The Village Effect. She reports on the research of Leslie Seltzer and Seth Pollack at the University of Wisconsin, which shows how mothers calm their children after stressful events. Mammals secrete the hormone oxytocin when giving or receiving physical affection, a hormone implicated in mediating social life in general. Parents talking in a supportive tone with children raise their own and their children’s oxytocin levels and drop the child’s stress hormone cortisol. Mothers who comforted their children with Instant Messaging had no affect on their children’s oxytocin or cortisol levels. Participants of online cancer support groups remain depressed (92 percent) from the experience, while most attendees in face-to-face groups found the experience positive.
Clearly sociality is not just in our heads, it’s in our blood. The more physically present we are to each other, the more fully biologic is our social response. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2015) reveals how oxytocin works to reward social experience. Oxytocin elicited by social encounters drives anandamide signaling that activates cannabinoid receptors in the brainthe same pleasure receptors activated by marijuana!). When we interact with others we in effect self-medicate—assuming that we have access to other people.
In spite of the biological imperative, the classic places for young people to gather, see each other, and be with other age groups—downtowns and mixed-use neighborhood centers—are challenging to build and revitalize nowadays. These were the lively places where teens ate ice cream, saw movies, went bowling, visited museums, and hung out. Being in public settings in view of other people moderated their behavior. The allure of sex, drugs and vulgar popular culture tends to increase for bored teens who lack access to vital public gathering places.
Just as bad, teens today are retreating into the world of smartphones as a social alternative. It desensitizes them in a deep way to the real, physical basis of human interaction, to the subtle emotional signals of the human face. Shelly Turkle of MIT in her book Reclaiming Conversation cites a study that shows a 40 percent decline in empathy as measured by standard psychological tests among digitally savvy college students over the last 20 years.
The New Urbanism’s under-emphasized factor
Satcher, Okafor, and Dill of the Morehouse School of Medicine applaud the increasing amount of research on the intersection of the built environment and physical health. But they lament that research on the built environment’s impact on mental health and sexual behavior trails far behind. They stress that we need to examine our zoning codes and transportation plans in light of these social and psychological concerns. It is becoming clear that human sociality should be a primary consideration when writing urban development regulations.
Let’s look at the link between city life and social well being more deeply. Based on data from the General Social Survey, the number of Americans who said that they have no one to turn to during difficult times tripled from 1985 to 2004. When asked how many confidants they have, zero was the most common response. With the exception of having wives, men’s lives are especially lacking in confidants. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, founder of the field of social neuroscience, cites research showing lonely people as disproportionately inactive and overweight. The obesity epidemic is not just caused by Americans’ sedentary lifestyle.
Loneliness also tends to make people cranky—hard on themselves and others. Given that the single-person household is the fastest growing household type in the United States, so many solitary people can affect politics. “Not only are we at the highest recorded rate of living alone across the entire century, but we’re at the highest recorded rates ever on the planet,” said researcher Tim Smith at Brigham Young University. Widespread loneliness can be disruptive of the civil discourse necessary for a Democracy to work. With an aging population living in an auto-oriented landscape devoid of public gathering places, the problem could get worse.
The year 2015 averaged a mass shooting a day, most committed by solitary young men. Widespread loneliness is not only sad but also dangerous. These were acts that took other lives, but were also acts of self-destruction. The Center for Disease Control in a 2012 study reported dramatic spikes in the suicide rates of middle-age baby boomers, a generation that in particular resisted social connections that would tie them down. As they age they will find their rootlessness not serving them well.
In October of this year a study done by two economists at Princeton reported a dramatic spike in the mortality of white middle-age less-educated people. New urbanists often talk about the health benefits of walkable urbanism—walking reduces the incidence of diabetes, heart disease and even some cancers. But Nobel laureate Angus Deaton and Anne Case reported that the surge in deaths was caused by poisonings, suicide and cirrhosis of the liver, deaths more associated with states of mind than physical inactivity. Several commentators have attributed these deaths to the over-prescription to whites of opioid pain relievers. This may be partially true for poisonings, but ignores the rising rates of suicide and cirrhosis of the liver.
Data over the years from the General Social Survey seem to indicate that Americans are generally happy with their lives, although, outside of large fluctuations during economic recessions, the trend line has declined slowly decade by decade since 1970. Aside from the question of whether having confidants or not affects happiness, living alone affects physical health. According to recently published research at Brigham Young University (2015), living alone increases mortality by 32 percent even for those who self-report that they are not lonely. This is on par with being obese.
Bolles and Nelson (What Color is your Parachute? For Retirement) argue that we tend to be oblivious to our social world and its effect on us. Through many of life’s stages we benefit from Automatic Relationship Generators that give us social connections with little conscious initiative on our part. Parenting, schools, colleges, work, and public spaces naturally immerse us in social fields. For most people human sociality does not register as a moment-by-moment force in their lives—until they divorce, get fired, lose a spouse, find themselves stranded far from home, find themselves ostracized, or get old and infirm. Then the presence or absence of people in their lives becomes painfully apparent. Bolles and Nelson say that neighborhood design that encourages social connection is critical for older people. This is because retirement is often a time in which Automatic Relationship Generators are not a certain part of their lives.
Urbanism is a natural expression of what humans are
Animals that are social congregate. Humans are different from most other social animals in an important respect, though. We congregate in defined physical spaces. Bison are content to drift as a herd across the prairie. Even our primate cousins like to keep moving. Humans stake out a physical location to live. The Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson calls this unique kind of settled sociality eusociality. Bees do it. Ants do it. Among mammals only humans and a couple species of rodents in Africa do it.
Humans early on settled at campsites. Since they had to tool up to cook their food and couldn’t just walk away from their waste like bison, settling unleashed a neural load on the human brain: functional assignments of space, waste disposal, divisions of labor, and communication. Our brains got bigger to deal with it all.
Humans don’t generally congregate in the middle of empty fields. We are drawn to social spaces defined by walls, trees, or facades of buildings—spaces limited in size. We like those places because—whether we choose to or not—getting to know people there looks doable. Neighborhood main streets are usually just one to three blocks long. Historically, these social centers usually constituted 5 to 10 percent of the area of a neighborhood.
For as long as humans have settled, the marketplace was where social life was most robust. Commerce is more than just the exchange of goods and services for money—commercial centers can also be places of cultural, social, intellectual, and emotional exchange. For communities with strong physical identities, the commercial streets are still the beloved public face. With the automation, digitization, and auto-orientation of commerce in recent decades, much of the social content of our commercial centers has been stripped out. People may be attracted to convenience and inexpensive goods, but the social satisfactions are weak. Nevertheless, creative urban design can revive a forgotten main street, or convert a dead shopping center into a walkable town center. Every community, whether new or historic, needs to proactively take charge of its own social destiny by developing plans for new walkable social spaces and safeguarding its historic centers.
Coding for community
Many cities are reforming their zoning in response to various performance metrics: CO2 emissions, energy consumption, water use, and vehicle miles traveled are examples. Social connectedness is harder to reduce to a metric. It may never be measurable as a dynamic parameter that provides feedback on development form, unless we wire everyone in a developing community with oxytocin and cortisol meters!
The good news is that when most people are made aware of their own social feelings they recognize its importance. They see evidence of longing and belonging everywhere and recognize how places make them feel. This may be enough to inspire communities to draft urban form regulations to shape the social realm.
Until recently it was a rare community that drafted form-based codes, which take more imagination and thought than conventional land-use zoning that simply colors an area on a map as “commercial.” It requires a willingness to intently study a place—walk, measure, and discuss it with community members, learn about the physical interventions that make other places socially successful, and then draft the plans and codes to bring about desired change.
Coders, planners, and designers need to feel the urgency of social design in their bones as they shape places. Making interventions to improve walkability needs to be informed by these feelings. Many a street has been buffed up with decorative street lamps and banners, trees, bike racks, street furniture, landscaping, and the like, yet remains socially dead as the image below shows.
Conventional zoning focuses on land-use of private property, rarely concerning itself with the street or the relationship of buildings to the street. In effect it has given up on the shape of the public realm, treating streets as primarily vehicle corridors. Form-based coding sees streets as public social spaces that need to be shaped; it regulates buildings and rights-of-way together as one place. Therefore main streets and downtowns can be vitalized with form-based codes that are attentive to the social implications of how buildings and streets work together. Concerns about how wide sidewalks are, how close buildings are to sidewalks, whether the frequency and transparency of windows imply that buildings are inhabited, how inviting ground floor frontages are, whether street lighting serves pedestrians, whether business signage can be read from the sidewalk, and how well people can see and read the faces of others, are all powerful features of good form-based coding.
Communities considering drafting form-based codes, but worried about the cost, should consider human sociality as a measure that helps set priorities and scope. Communities could start small by coding neighborhood centers. This makes sense because local governments are usually more agreeable to making community improvements when a relatively modest area, such as a three-block main street, is involved. As a center socially flowers, neighborhood identity and pride will increase. More people will want to reside nearby. Vehicle miles traveled and residents’ carbon footprints will decrease as people find social satisfactions in their own neighborhoods. Further planning and coding can build out from these revitalized cores, enhancing walkability and social vitality of more and more of a town or city.
Of course, a socially supportive urban form will not bring about the complete eradication of loneliness. Loneliness is a signal from our body that we need other people—as valuable a signal as hunger, fear, or exhaustion. People will always have feelings periodically of loneliness, but physically dispersing people and degrading public spaces, as the sprawl of recent decades does, make the condition harder to alleviate. As more and more research is showing, this is a serious and growing public issue.
The poet John Donne said four hundred years ago, “No man is an island.” Shouldn’t this be acknowledged in our development regulations?
Note: This article was created with the assistance of the Form-Based Codes Institute.
Why we code
Andres Duany offers more than 20 reasons why urban design coding is necessary—and he hopes that someday it will no longer be needed.
Within the last half-century, some 30 million buildings have degraded cities and reduced landscapes. Must we tolerate this comprehensive disaster in exchange for the, perhaps, three thousand great buildings that great architects have produced? Such a win-loss ratio is as unacceptable in architecture as it would be in any other field. We are compelled to intervene and have found that codes are the most effective instruments of reform.
We must code because the default setting in contemporary design is mediocrity and worse. Those who object to codes imagine that they constrain architectural masterpieces (their own, usually). But great buildings are few and the more likely outcome is kitsch. Codes can assure a minimum level of urban and architectural competence, even if in so doing they constrain certain possibilities.
We use codes because those who are charged with designing, supervising and building communities tend to ignore education and avoid exhortation, but they are accustomed to following codes. It was the achievement to the mid-century generation of planners to have embedded codes in the political and legal process. We must take advantage of this.
We code because ours is a nation founded on law. We prefer to work within known rules rather than be subject to the opinion of boards, politicians and bureaucrats.
We code because bureaucracies cannot be (have never been) dismantled. They will however, willingly administer whatever codes are in hand. This has a potential for reform more efficient than education.
Codes are currently pervasive. Replacing them with a void is legally unsustainable. It is for us to re-conceive the codes so that they result in better places to live.
We must code so that the various professions that affect urbanism will act with unity of purpose. Without integrated codes, architects, civil engineers and landscape architects can undermine each others intentions. Without integrated codes, the result of development is never more than the unassembled collection of urban potential.
When architects do not control the codes, buildings are shaped by fire marshals, civil engineers, poverty advocates, market experts, accessibility standards, materials suppliers and liability attorneys. Codes written by architects clear a field of action for typological and syntactic concerns.
We code because unguided towns and cities tend, not to vitality, but to socioeconomic monocultures. The wealthy gather in their enclaves, the middle-class in their neighborhoods, and the poor in the residue. Shops and restaurants cluster around certain price-points, offices find their prestige addresses and sweatshops their squalid ones. Some areas uniformly gentrify, while viable neighborhoods self-segregate and decay. This process occurs in historical cities no less than in new suburbs. Codes can secure that measure of diversity without which urbanism withers.
We make use of codes as the means to redistribute building design to others. Authentic urbanism requires the intervention of many. Those who would design all the buildings themselves produce architectural projects – monocultures of design – but they are not involved in the practice of urbanism.
We must code so that buildings cooperate towards a spatially defined public realm. This no longer occurs as a matter of course unless coded to be otherwise. The demands of parking and the arbitrary singularity of architects tend to create vague, sociofugal places that undermine the possibility of community.
We must code so that private buildings achieve the modicum of visual silence which is a requisite of an urban fabric. Conversely, codes must also protect the prerogative of civic buildings to express the aspirations of the institutions they accommodate and also the inspiration of their architects. This is the dialectic or urbanism.
We code to protect the character of specific locales from the universalizing tendencies of modern real estate development.
We code because the location of the urban and the rural is of a fundamental importance that cannot be left to the vicissitudes of ownership. Codes and their associated maps address the where as well as the what.
We must code to assure that urban places can be truly urban and that rural places remain truly rural. Otherwise, misconceived environmentalism tends to the partial greening of all places; the result being neither one nor the other, but the ambiguous garden city of sprawl.
We must code so that buildings incorporate a higher degree of environmental response than is otherwise warranted by conventional economic analysis.
We must code so that buildings are durable, and also mutable, in proper measure. This is crucial at the long-range time-scale of urbanism.
Without codes, older urban areas tend to suffer from disinvestment, as the market seeks stable environments. The competing private codes of the homeowners associations, the guidelines of office parks, and the rules of shopping centers create predictable outcomes that lure investment away from existing cities and towns. Codes level the playing field for the inevitable competition.
We must prepare the new private association codes of developers because it is they who have built our cities and continue to do so. The profit motive was once capable of building the best places that we still have. Codes can assist in the restoration of this standard.
We code in defiance of an avant-garde culture that prizes the alternating extremes of unfettered genius and servility to the zeitgeist. There are positions between. Urbanism intrinsically transcends the limits set by our time. We know that it is possible to affect the current reality and we accept the responsibility.
We code because we are not relativists. We observe certain urbanisms that support the self-defined pursuit of happiness (the stated right of Americans). We also observe other urbanisms that tend to undermine that pursuit. Through codes we attempt to make the first a reality.
We prepare codes because it is the most abstract, rigorous and intellectually refined practice available to a designer. And because it is also verifiable: by being projected into the world, codes engage a reality that can lead to resounding failure. In comparison, theoretical writing is a delicacy that survives only under the protection of the academy.
We code because codes can compensate for deficient professional training. We will continue to code, so long as the schools continue to educate architects towards self-expression rather than towards context, to theory rather than practice, to individual building rather than to the whole.
We look forward to the day when we will no longer need to code.
The Imperial Building is part of a community-wide commitment to the revitalization of the downtown urban core and provides the neighborhood with affordable housing, retail and restaurants, underground parking, a rooftop garden, and a new grocery store. For more information about this project, visit www.dpsdesign.org/what-we-create/imperial-building.
In less than 4 minutes Joe Minicozzi shows the very high value of mixed-use downtown development,
“Joe Minicozzi, Principal of Urban3 highlights the value of downtown development and the implications of different growth patterns on city coffers.”
More Joe Minicozzi: The Cash Flow of Urbanism:
Housing advocates and developers rightfully claim that discretionary review processes are contributing to housing crises across the country by increasing the cost and delivery rate of housing, and often directly preventing needed housing from getting built. President Obama, Governor Brown of California and the State of Massachusetts have joined the “by-right zoning” bandwagon, and here at Opticos, we’re on board, too.
However, residents, environmental groups and others are rightfully upset about the idea of by-right zoning because it often seems that the discretionary review process is their only tool to prevent inappropriate and out-of-scale development. Their zoning codes are too blunt to provide the needed control, so they cling to discretionary review as their only protection. Admittedly, in some cases, this may be NIMBY’s refusing to allow more or certain people into their communities. However, in many other cases, it’s community members from all walks of life who want walkable neighborhood living rather than city living. They feel they have no other tools to compel developers to be respectful of their cherished places. From this perspective, by-right zoning may have Jane Jacobs rolling in her grave.
Conventional zoning is too blunt for a by-right process
So, isn’t zoning supposed to define what can be built in our communities? The answer is yes, but conventional zoning is plainly flawed. Here are some of the reasons conventional zoning doesn’t work well to regulate our walkable neighborhoods:
Without fixing these problems, removing the discretionary review process in cities and towns with conventional zoning could detrimentally impact our walkable neighborhoods.
The win-win of form-based codes and a by-right process
Fortunately, we have a proven solution: Form-Based Codes (FBCs). FBCs regulate the form of the buildings in a prescriptive manner and at a sufficient level of detail so that the outcome is predictable. This renders the design review process unnecessary, enabling by-right review. FBCs work like this:
1. Create a detailed community vision
First, the community comes together to create a physical vision for their places, including important details about how the buildings must be built to contribute to the public spaces that are our streets and plazas. The community can dial up or down the level of detail they include based on what they want to allow or require in their neighborhoods.
Importantly, the visioning should also include a community discussion and decision-making about how much and what type of housing is needed and where to put it, preventing later project-level battles. This is the best time and place for communities to show leadership in advocating for all constituents’ right to decent, affordable, walkable housing options, and for neighbors to consider their desires for their own neighborhoods within the context of how many families are homeless or paying too much of their income for housing and transportation.
2. Write prescriptive regulations
Once these decisions are made, the FBC is written to prescribe what can be built, mostly by focusing on the form of the buildings as they shape the public space, although also including simplified use regulations. Examples include regulating front build-to lines—rather than setback lines—and maximum footprints to prevent buildings that are too large for the neighborhood character. All of these regulations are carefully written to reflect the context—the regulations for a downtown main street will be different than for a streetcar suburb or for a large city center. They are also written to regulate only what is truly necessary, removing unnecessary or obsolete standards.
Because of the prescriptive and simplified nature of FBCs, the community can more easily understand what the code is allowing and can work with city staff to vet the code to ensure the prescribed outcome is appropriate for the neighborhood. In other words, everyone can actually understand the code and its intention, so everyone can help make sure it’s right.
3. Enable a by-right approval process
Once the desired outcome is prescribed appropriately in the FBC, the code can then include a by-right review process. A discretionary process is no longer necessary because the community can be confident that what will be built will be appropriate.
The by-right review process then enables developers to know all of the requirements before they start the design process, so they can create a more accurate pro forma to determine whether the project will be viable. They will also only have to design the building once, saving the cost of multiple redesigns. The lower cost and lower risk of development under a by-right process will contribute to making projects more viable, leading to more housing being built, and to lowering the cost of that housing. In addition, this lower risk on all of their projects within FBC areas can enable developers to lower their profit margin thresholds, since their profit margin will not need to cover the cost of projects that did not survive a risky discretionary review process.
By-right zoning is needed, so let’s get it right
By-right zoning is critically important to increase housing affordability at all levels of the housing spectrum. To get it right, conventional zoning codes need to be updated to FBCs to effectively prescribe the outcome desired by the community, enabling communities to confidently let go of discretionary review. FBCs with by-right zoning contribute to housing affordability, ensure that development meets the community’s vision, and help to provide housing options for everyone who wants to live in a walkable neighborhood.
This article first appeared on Logos Opticos, the blog of Opticos Design.
Administration calls for local laws to allow accessory dwelling units and denser development and eliminate off-street parking requirements, among other changes.
The Obama Administration is calling on cities and towns to reform land-use regulations to allow denser development by right while recommending actions that new urbanists have long supported.
The administration released a “toolkit” on housing development that recommends eliminating off-street parking requirements and allowing accessory dwelling units.
The toolkit also calls for more “high-density and multifamily zoning,” “streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines,” and allowing “by-right development,” which are consistent with many form-based codes and new urban reforms.
Antiquated land-use regulations, often dating from the 1970s or earlier, are holding back economic growth and increasing housing costs across America, says the administration.
“Significant barriers to new housing development can cause working families to be pushed out of the job markets with the best opportunities for them, or prevent them from moving to regions with higher—paying jobs and stronger career tracks. Excessive barriers to housing development result in increasing drag on national economic growth and exacerbate income inequality,” the report says.
On the other hand, “Cities like Chicago, Seattle, Sacramento, and Tacoma and states like California and Massachusetts have already begun to foster more affordable housing opportunities by removing restrictions, implementing transit-oriented-oriented zoning ordinances, and speeding up permitting and construction processes,” according to the Housing Development Toolkit.
The report marks a first—at least going back several decades—that the White House has made local zoning and land-use regulations a national issue.
“City zoning battles usually are fought block by block, and the president’s involvement will create friction, particularly among environmental groups and the not-in-my-backyard crowd,” notes a Politico report. “But the White House jawboning is welcome news to many others, including mayors and builders increasingly foiled by community opposition to development.”
The report is backed up by a fiscal year 2017 budget proposal to spend $300 million on Local Housing Policy Grants to help cities modernize housing regulatory approaches. However, the Administration’s lame duck status means budget priorities could radically change with whoever is elected in November.
Nevertheless, land-use reform could win support across the political spectrum—from mayors and smart growth advocates to developers and pro-business groups.
“It’s important that the president is talking about it,” Mark Calabria, director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute, told Politico. “Local restrictions on housing supply are a crucial economic issue. I would say it’s one of the top 10.”
In addition to previously mentioned priorities, the Toolkit recommends:
· Taxing vacant land or donate it to non-profit developers
· Establishing density bonuses
· Employing inclusionary zoning
· Establishing development tax or value capture incentives
· Using property tax abatements
While lifting federal funding restrictions on stem cell research President Obama said, “we will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse.” Notwithstanding the political rhetoric, are standards different than strict guidelines? Can guidelines be rigorously enforced? In common usage, the terms “guidelines” and “standards” are frequently used interchangeably. However, within the development regulatory framework, a guideline is a helpful suggestion — you don’t have to follow it, but it is recommended. On the other hand, standards are legal and mandatory requirements.
Guidelines are explanatory and interpretive recommendations that encourage, not require, its use. Administered through appointed design review committee, commission, or advisory board, guidelines are created to fit a wide range of situations, but not all. Guidelines are typically attractive to cities that are not politically ready to enforce design standards. Guidelines are also preferred by designers who have little tolerance for any standard that tends to limit their creative expression. Good judgment is needed in deciding where and how to apply design guidelines.
The problem with design guidelines is that their application is skin deep and fails to breathe life and soul into a place. The diagram (to the right) illustrates the differences between conventional zoning, design guidelines, and form-based codes. The building block (top image) complies with typical zoning controls such as land use, FAR, and height. This block is not likely to create walkable urbanism. At best, design guidelines (middle image) can recommend articulation and openings to the building’s facade. In contrast, Form-Based Codes (bottom image) conceptualize a public realm by pulling together the individual elements: the diverse street types, variety of public and private open spaces, and contextual building types into a complete, cohesive, and memorable place.
A key barrier to protecting and creating distinctive places is lack of clear and precise place-based standards and a predictable review process. Design guidelines are difficult to apply consistently. They offer too much room for subjective interpretation. Design guidelines are difficult to enforce. A developer can legally refuse to comply putting at risk the larger collective investments of neighboring properties. Design Guidelines require oversight by discretionary review bodies, leading to a protracted and politicized planning process that can cost time and money.
Form-Based Codes (FBCs) are clear and precise standards that offers predictability. The FBCs are developed to create a specific place that the citizens desire. Both the vision and FBCs are developed with citizen input. The citizens have a higher comfort level with the end result the standards is likely to produce. City staff gets a streamlined and easy to administer review process. FBCs also create more choices, more opportunities and options for the property owner. Typically, developers borrow money to pursue pre-construction work. For developers, time is money. The biggest incentive that cities can offer is not money, but clear and predictable development standards. Most developers are willing to build to higher standards if the rules are clear and the process is predictable. By offering adjacent predictable environment FBCs reduce risks where banks in this credit-starved economy may be more willing to loan construction money.
Design Guidelines can be added to complement Form-Based standards to address certain discretionary items such as architectural style and historic preservation. The Denver Commons Form-Based Code, recognized with the 2009 Form-Based Codes Institute’s Driehaus Award, includes both standards and guidelines. The mandatory standards address the critical form related aspects that shape the public realm, while the guidelines provide further suggestive recommendations for enhancing the public realm experience by encouraging creativity in a flexible manner.
Louis Kahn called a street “a room by agreement.” The agreement, in the form of binding standards, is an implicit consent between the architects and their buildings to not ignore the street but to bring forth a collective etiquette and a minimum capability to pull together buildings to shape and enhance the public realm.
By itself, the guidelines simply fail to deliver great places. The terms “strict guidelines” fail to inspire compliance. The “abuse and misuse” continues with discretionary review and unpredictable outcome fueling NIMBY sentiments and discouraging economic development. Design guidelines work best only when they are paired with form-based codes.
A very narrow range of variety may at first appear to be very similar to no range of variety because the range is so small, but they are actually polar opposites: great variety is the opposite of no variety, even when (or especially when) the range is narrow. The narrow range is necessary, because it is only by editing things out that you make a place distinctive. Allow anything, and it could be anywhere. Narrow the range, and you have taken the first step towards creating a sense of place.
People judge the vitality of a place by the amount of variety. Create everything out of five standard models, and it will appear dead. Allow things to vary slightly from one building to the next, and the place starts to live. So the narrow range is necessary to define the character of a place, while the wide variety is necessary to make it live. Combine both, and you have a chance of creating what Christopher Alexander calls “the character without a name.” Or put another way, a narrow range without great variety creates mechanical objects; great variety without a narrow range creates disconnected randomness. Combine the two, and you have a chance of creating a living thing.
What’s the difference between these places shown in photos below? Why do millions from around the world visit the second, while the first has never had a single tourist, and never will? The architecture in both places has variety and the urbanism is similar on both streets. But look closely at the architectural variety: one place has precisely the variety within the narrow range that makes it live and be loved for centuries: the same idea created all the bay windows, all the eaves, all the gables, etc., but no two are identical. The other has five standard models that are built out of precisely the same details: the same eaves, the same siding, the same columns, the same foundations, etc. This is fake variety of the worst sort. If there is any doubt as to whether the customers understand this or not, look at the price of real estate in each place.
So how do we go about making living settings with an identity of place? The best method is a vernacular mechanism, in which place-making wisdom is held by everyone in a culture, rather than just the architects, and we trust the people again to make the sequential little decisions that created the “most-loved places.” We’re working toward that, but it won’t happen overnight.
The first step is to build by coding rather than building by designing. In other words, tell many people what to do and let them do it rather than designing it all yourself. One person cannot possibly think of as many variations as many people can, nor will one person consider it efficient to draw a thousand details, whereas a thousand people will naturally create the variety by simply doing what they each naturally do. As the code grows into a living tradition over time, the engines of the vernacular mechanism will rumble back to life.
Place Des Vosges
The best example I have ever seen of a coded place with great variety in a narrow range is the Place Des Vosges in Paris (see photo at the top of the article). As a matter of fact, it could be a Rosetta Stone of sorts, unlocking secrets of living variety for code-makers today. It is Paris’s oldest square, dating from the early years of the 17th Century, and is a bridge between the medieval city and its building methods and the later Renaissance city. The specific code or plan used to create the Place Des Vosges has apparently been lost over time. Popular sources have Baptiste du Cerceau as the likely designer, but not even that is totally certain. So the most useful question to ask isn’t “what did the lost code look like?” but rather “how can we accomplish the same thing?”
Look carefully at the photos below. They represent a few of the 39 houses ringing the Place. Because of the tight quarters inside the fence of the central square, these shots include only the upper bodies of the buildings, although the arcade exhibits a similar variety. At first glance through the desensitized lenses of our post-industrial architectural vision, these buildings might appear to be all the same. They all are four-bay brick structures of exactly the same width and eave line, with hipped & dormered slate roofs of the same slope surmounting a two-story body on a stone arcade. But somehow, it feels right… it feels alive. Nothing like the buildings we extrude today, like toothpaste out of a tube. What’s the difference?
Look closely at one element at a time, such as the outer circular-roofed dormers. Or the balconies and their railings. Or the window heads. Or the central dormers. Each varies slightly, from one house to the next, like leaves on a tree; no two are exactly the same. How did they do this?
It is hard to imagine that Baptiste du Cerceau (or whoever) scenographically designed each elevation with slightly different details. So if not, then how? The simplest rational explanation is that the builders of each pavilion were given verbal instructions, at most accompanied by very simple drawings laying out the important characteristics (eave lines, etc.) of the Place, leaving the minor details to the master builder of each of the houses.
Form-based codes of today can, in theory, do precisely this. But the built products of many current form-based codes either devolve into sterile sameness when the developer decides to “be efficient,” or devolve into chaos when lot-purchasers demand to do “my thing.” In other words, too little variety or too big a range. So what are techniques that might help create great variety in a narrow range with today’s most common building delivery methods?
Custom-designed houses on lots sold directly to homeowners are usually designed in too wide a range. Responsibility for this usually falls at the feet of the architects; few except dedicated new urbanist architects understand the value of coherence in a place. The most effective tool for developments marketed this way is a good pattern book, which is a set of instructions to designers intended to produce coherence. Any bona-fide New Urbanist pattern book is a huge step in the right direction for a custom-built development, but there is an intriguing new type of book that resolves many of the problematic issues of pattern books to date.
A more recent idea in pattern books is principle-based books (as opposed to the earlier style-based books) which code for the best architecture for the regional conditions, climate, and culture rather than for a collection of historical styles. Because they code for low, medium, and high settings of a single architecture rather than for many styles, they can drill down much deeper into the patterns of the architecture. And they explain the rationale for each pattern. Instead of the style-based books’ unspoken premise that “thou shalt do this because I have better taste than you…” that produces compliance at best, the new books explain “we do this because…” allowing everyone to think again.
Developments that sell houses rather than lots were once in the minority of new urbanist developments, but today, developments as high-end as Alys Beach primarily sell houses rather than lots. Many house-selling developments (not including Alys Beach) tend to value efficiency, producing many iterations of a stock design, which produces a range that is too small.
One solution might be to do schematic drawings (stock-plan-level detail at most), then allow the small variations that occur between framing crews, trim crews, and masonry crews to naturally occur. The problem here is that the detail departures of today’s subcontractors cannot be trusted because they default to the horrible details that produced American suburbia. Here there is no substitute for direct education of the subcontractors. The core tool is a good set of drawings by an architect familiar with the principles of the New Urbanism, including “let the street have the ‘street appeal’ and allow the buildings to be calmer.” Beginning there, every framer, mason, and trim carpenter should have a copy of a good syntax code that explains the basic Do’s and Don’ts of traditional construction. Beyond that, builders workshops are extremely helpful because when construction workers see proper details built before their eyes, they realize that “I can do that,” and they never get it wrong again. Workers have literally come to builders’ workshops in the morning knowing they would be wood-butchers or brick-throwers the rest of their lives and have left at the end of the workshop realizing that they can be craftspeople, building details correctly in their hometown for the first time in a hundred years.
Partially- or wholly-manufactured buildings (panelized, modular, or manufactured) have their own set of challenges. Assembly lines exist to churn out large numbers of identical items without retooling, in order to get the price and time down. That objective seemed irresolvable with the idea of making each building slightly different. The best you could have is the “five standard options.” Yet it has been discovered recently, and quite by accident, that if you manufacture houses that seem just a bit too simple, but that are easily modifiable, people will make weekend projects out of customizing them to their own preferences. The modifications can be minor: adding capital trim to a square wood post, adding brackets to a porch beam, adding trim around a door, etc. The key is that the buildings are simple enough to encourage owner modification, and that they are built of materials that allow modification — meaning that they can be sawn into and nailed onto, then painted.
This article first appeared in New Urban News, later called Better Cities & Towns. For more on Steve Mouzon’s ideas about variety within a narrow range, watch this video from the City Building Exchange of 2016.
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.
California’s Bay Area housing disaster tells Southern Californians that our housing crisis will only get worse and doing nothing is both an irrational and irresponsible response. We are faced with deciding to have more neighbors or pay more taxes as we desperately need money to fix our city’s crumbling infrastructure. The conundrum is that we despise taxes and the mere mention of ‘density’ polarizes any discussion into either demands for no new growth or building tall towers.
I believe answers to meet San Diego’s housing demand are found in the following two-tier approach:
The first tier is a baseline ‘Beach Density.’ An existing housing model found in our older, traditional beach neighborhoods that fills our need for the ‘missing middle’ types of housing. This model is essentially a residence or shop with three (3) to five (5) units on each lot that are no more than two (2) to three (3) stories tall. All of these homes and businesses are mixed together every few blocks or so. By allowing every lot in San Diego’s urbanized areas to have up to five (5) units’ by-right, we have the opportunity to solve for our critical housing and infrastructure financing deficiencies without dramatically altering our city’s character. Ultimately, the entire city can enjoy and benefit from our healthy, outdoor lifestyle that this Beach Model provides us.
The second tier is more precisely located ‘Climate Action Zones.’ Per its recently adopted Climate Action Plan, the city of San Diego is required to take actions to “Implement transit-oriented development within Transit Priority Areas,” and to “[a]chieve better walkability and transit-supportive densities by locating a majority of all new residential development within Transit Priority Areas.” In combination with the Beach Density’s baseline housing bump, these Climate Action Zones are intended to achieve our city’s legally binding Climate Action Plan within a reasonable timeline.1 We cannot expect the city to complete it all at once, but it can accommodate for an urban acupunctural approach… pin pricks at key points to make great change.
These ‘zones’ will require updated and new city policies, including community plan updates, to facilitate increases of land use intensity near our region’s transit investments. Fortunately, we have one of our nation’s first and best Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) guidelines written by planning guru Peter Calthrope in 1992 that have sat neatly on a shelf in the city’s Planning Department over these many years, having been emasculated by our currently suburban and convoluted parking regulations. We should dust these off, as they’ve been proven throughout the world – as well as Portland – to increase transit ridership. In addition, we should manage our off-street parking and simplify one space per unit to permit transit, walking, and biking to be as advantageous as driving.
A ‘tower’ in San Diego is a building over 7 stories, and are only appropriate in one or two areas beyond downtown. However, 4 – 6 stories have been built in our old streetcar neighborhoods since their founding 100 years ago, as this height is a ‘walk up’ and appropriate in ‘walkable’ neighborhoods. Climate Action Zones should be located on the 4 to 8 blocks (600 feet radius) around primary intersections with cross-street transit service, currently built as 60’s era gas stations, drive-thrus, and strip centers.
Data shows that the majority of trips within 600 feet of a transit station are made by transit, bike or foot. These zones would permit mixed-use, up to 7 stories/90 feet tall max, using our TOD guidelines that allow for shared parking ratios with limited Community Plan conformance reviews in order to ensure transition steps to protect neighbors. Rather than waiting to build another Rancho del Rancho on our suburban periphery, these retrofitted intersections will be the focus of new development for the next 15-years. Successful case studies include Salt Lake’s Commuter, Light Rail (LRT), and Streetcar corridor economic engine, Dallas’s new LRT stations and Klyde Warren Park and Historic Streetcar value explosion, and Denver’s new infill coding success.
It is untenable to keep century old urban communities from change. But we know change brings fear to local citizens, which is why this two-tier approach makes very clear that new housing can fit comfortably within our current lifestyle if we explicitly plan for what we need using San Diego proven models. Finally, we have to plan for the change we want in order to fix our infrastructure, add public spaces, and to continue to be relevant to working economies by providing attainable housing, accessible transportation, and our unique outdoor lifestyle.
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.
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:
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:
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.
The 8 Principles for Better Streets and Better Cities
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.