New recognition of the health and safety benefits of parks is changing how the public and leaders view green spaces.
For generations, parks were viewed simply as an amenity, a way to beautify a city. Whether they were planned for gardens, sports, or picnicking, parks were rarely seen as central to public safety and health. But that is beginning to change.
As cities around the world continue their growth, the role of parks is shifting. Parks are no longer seen as something nice to have, but rather as a vital system within the city’s overall network of infrastructure. These hard-working public spaces are probably the biggest untapped resource for cities in this century. Why? Livable, sustainable cities must balance density with open space for the health of their residents, their environments, and their economies.
From physical and mental health, to economic development, to resilience and sustainability, parks offer myriad tangible benefits. New York City’s parks, which attract more than 130 million visits a year, model those benefits to the world. For example, our parks are crucial to the city’s resiliency efforts: NYC’s shoreline parks in the Rockaways and Coney Island are being rebuilt since Hurricane Sandy to withstand rising sea levels, storm surges, and to protect waterfront communities. And thanks to our collaboration with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, our parks have become sites of crucial green infrastructure like rain gardens and storm water-collecting bioswales.
Alongside their environmental benefits, parks have demonstrated time and time again their ability to stabilize communities and drive economic development. According to the Trust for Public Land, well-maintained parks add 15 percent to the value of homes within 500 feet. Our experience in New York bears that out. For example, in under a decade the world-famous High Line has brought more than two billion dollars in new real estate investment to the surrounding community –an enormous return on investment for a $153 million park. An older but well-loved landmark can also drive value: Central Park generates $1 billion dollars of economic benefits annually.
Now we’re working to bring the benefits of well-maintained parks to all New Yorkers, with our $285 million Community Parks Initiative, which will completely rebuild more than 60 historically underserved parks across the five boroughs.
New York is the city I know best, and I am proud of the progress we have made. But as I have traveled, I have seen many cities begin to take parks seriously as part of their urban infrastructure. Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park, for example, was created a century ago to control the flooding of local waterways and to provide a recreational area for the city. Now, it is one of the nation’s finest urban parks –and a core element of Houston’s water management infrastructure. On the other side of the globe, Singapore’s spectacular Gardens by the Bay not only offer Singaporeans an awe-inspiring new public space, but they are built to clean and filter water and cultivate biodiversity of flora and fauna.
Lawmakers, designers, and planners the world over are learning that well-designed, well-maintained open spaces makes cities work. As our urban centers become more dense, let’s make sure that our investments—and innovation–in city parks matches their importance in our lives.
The authors of Global Cities, Local Streets make a case for preserving small-scale retail.
In the few short months that I’ve lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, two new bars have opened within a block of my apartment. The neighborhood, once notorious for violent crime, is in the midst of what The New York Timesdescribes as a “renaissance.” New restaurants, cafés, and boutiques draw people from all over the borough, mostly to one street: Franklin Avenue.
“The shopping and commercial activity on a street, whether it’s done by locals or not, really defines how we understand the changes taking place in a neighborhood,” says Phil Kasinitz, a sociology professor at the CUNY Graduate Center. Kasinitz, along with Sharon Zukin of the CUNY Graduate Center and Xiangming Chen of Trinity College, is the author of the new book Global Cities, Local Streets: Everyday Diversity from New York to Shanghai (Routledge, $32).
In the book, the authors examine 12 shopping streets in six cities—New York, Shanghai, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Toronto—to demonstrate how global and cultural shifts play out in local enclaves.The authors discovered patterns across the sites: chain stores invading shopping streets at the expense of mom-and-pops; bars, coffee shops, and art galleries cropping up as harbingers of what the authors call “gentrification by hipsters”; immigrants from around the world establishing small businesses in neighborhoods where they may not live, creating a “super-diversity” that reflects and informs shifts taking hold in cities.
Change at the neighborhood level, Kasinitz says, is often quantified through residential data. But it’s local shopping streets, Zukin adds, that function “as the public face of communities.” In Global Cities, Local Streets, the authors argue that these streets are essential for cities’ character.
CityLab caught up with Kasinitz and Zukin to discuss shopping streets and how communities should preserve them.
What did you look for in selecting the streets to research for the book? What purpose do they serve?
ZUKIN: We were searching for streets that were important in terms of neighborhood identity, but weren’t central business corridors or necessarily well-known on a broader scale. These are normal, local marketplaces, surrounded by residential areas, where people supply themselves with the everyday necessities of life. In New York, we chose Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, which has a tradition of small-scale bargain shopping, over, say, Fifth Avenue. In the book, we quote a passage from E.B. White’s Here is New York, where he describes the city as a patchwork of neighborhoods, marked by the repetition of these local shopping streets. It’s a beautiful way of representing what feels like the soul of any big city: this village-like nature. Local shopping streets enable interactions between strangers; it’s a respite from some of the alienation and anonymity of the city.
One of the main points you make throughout the book is how, despite their local specificity, these streets reflect globalization. How so?
KASINITZ: In big, modern cities, local shopping streets, when they work well, strike a balance between neighbors and strangers. They’re cosmopolitan spaces. In working with colleagues all over the world on this book, it was surprising to learn that the owners of small shops on local streets are usually outsiders in some sense: they’re often ethnic minorities, immigrants, or out-of-towners. They may not live in the area themselves, but they become the pillars of the neighborhood because they spend more of their waking hours there than many of the residents do.
Small businesses are often under threat in cities. What’s at stake for neighborhoods if these local streets are not sustained?
KASINITZ: It’s a story you hear over and over again: In major cities that are growing increasingly expensive, landlords will raise the rents dramatically at the end of long leases, forcing out mom-and-pop tenants because they know they can make more money by brining in a chain store, like a Starbucks or a Duane Reade. But if everyone’s thinking along those lines, then the street becomes homogenous—there’s no reason to come back to it anymore. It’s the greater-fool theory at work. Right now, huge rent increases encourage instability, which means that landlords will continue to charge more to factor in a period of vacancy every few years. When people hear commercial rent regulation, they compare it to the residential system and freak out, but there has to be a way for cities to discourage massive rent increases and diminish the turnover of small businesses.
What other steps can cities take to preserve local shopping streets?
KASINITZ: You don’t want to preserve the streets like a fly in amber. We’re not advocating that every mom-and-pop be granted some landmark status that can’t be changed; cities are functional, living things, and local streets respond to that.
ZUKIN: You can’t just host a “shop local” campaign to raise awareness about the need for these businesses. There has to be conversation between stakeholders and city council members, in all places across the globe, to discuss legal solutions that are both constitutional and effective. In many places, you can’t prohibit certain kinds of businesses, like chain stores, from opening, but the size of a store can be legislated. Keeping the scale of shops on these streets physically small and economically small is something that can be done—the Manhattan borough president, Gail Brewer, limited the size of storefronts along Amsterdam Avenue to effectively stop big banks from taking over.
And there also needs to be consideration for the factors that sustain the diversity of these streets—class, race, and immigration. If cities continue to permit these expensive changes on local streets, they’ll shut out immigrant entrepreneurship and abet the upscaling of neighborhoods to benefit only more affluent people. In many cities, demographic shifts along the shopping street don’t align with the residential population. City governments could offer apprenticeship systems or financial support to potential owners, who could oversee the next generation of small businesses serving local communities.
Do you think that local shopping streets will continue to survive in major cities?
ZUKIN: At least in the United States, we have an advantage: we’ve gone over the hump of modernization. We’ve had supermarkets, we’ve had transnational chains, and we’ve started to move away from completely embracing those models. Now, I think there’s a growing culture of appreciation for specificity; people are again seeing the value of small shops.
Global Cities, Local Streets, $32 at Amazon.
THE NATIONAL POLITICAL dialogue is suffused with substantive issues like Benghazi, beauty pageants, and the best debate memes. But the biggest bugbear in neighborhood politics just got some serious side eye from the Obama administration: Parking.
It sounds bitty and trivial, but parking is a very big deal in city halls and neighborhood associations. Even dense cities like New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, have long required developers to cough up enough parking to serve the residential projects they hope to build.
If you live in the neighborhood, this makes sense—you don’t want n00bs taking your spot. But as cities impotently scrabble to keep housing affordable, requiring developers to provide off-street parking feels like dead weight. The cost—up to $60,000 per underground spot—can kill projects before they even start. And you could argue that it’s better to use that land for bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms, not hunks of metal that spend most of the day sitting still. Don’t forget that in 2013, more than a quarter of US renters spend over 50 percent of their monthly incomeon housing. Affordability is a huge problem.
Indeed, says the White House. In a Housing Development Toolkit released Monday, the Obama administration calls off-street parking minimums an affordable housing no-no. “When transit-oriented developments are intended to help reduce automobile dependence,” it says, “parking requirements can undermine that goal by inducing new residents to drive, thereby counteracting city goals for increased use of public transit, walking and biking.”
Granted, the toolkit is merely a list of recommendations, with no teeth. And cities control zoning laws that dictate things like off-street parking. But the Obama administration is reiterating what urban planners have long said: Parking ain’t great for your city. And cities are finally listening.
Death to the Parking Lot
People have written tomes detailing the downsides of the urban parking lot, but let’s lay out the case against it real quick. By investing in cycling infrastructure, sidewalks, and bikeshare programs, dense cities have made it clear they don’t want people driving. But requiring developers to provide parking incentivizes car purchases—along with congestion and pollution. UCLA urban planner Donald Shoup found that people searching for parking in one 15-block stretch of Los Angeles burn 47,000 gallons of gas and produce 730 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Parking requirements are especially nonsensical in a real estate landscape where buyers pay a premium to live near transit and not have a car. In fact, the requirements effectively tax those who don’t want or can’t afford a car, by passing that cost on to them. And don’t forget that the cost of parking often prevents affordable housing development.
Building parking lots to reduce the demand for on-street parking doesn’t actually work, says Michael Manville, an urban planner who studies land use and traffic congestion at UCLA. “The street is an unpriced commons, which is why you have a shortage of parking,” he says. Cities once thought they could protect free parking and make existing residents happy by passing the hidden costs of those spots on to new residents. But the free spots will always be full—thanks, Econ 101. Manville says any city worried about parking should do the smart but unpopular thing: require permits or install meters.
The Very Slow Death of the Parking Lot
Into this lake of evidence wades the White House. It isn’t the first to do so. People like Manville have been warning anyone who will listen about the downsides of off-street parking minimums for at least 15 years. And cities have been getting in on the anti-parking lot regs for almost a decade. Seattle relaxed requirements for developments within a quarter-mile of mass transit in 2012. New York City and Denver did much the same for low-income housing. Other cities aregranting developers waivers to parking requirements, but they aren’t making it easy.
You can attribute the change in part to a growing shortage of affordable housing, says Stockton Williams, the executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing. And you can expect such policies to become more popular as the affordable housing crisis reaches ever further into the middle class. “Affordability is increasingly understood to be a problem that affects people beyond those in the lowest income bracket,” says Williams. Even tech workers feel the squeeze.
Of course, hitting parking where it hurts is no panacea. The White House toolkit points out other important policy adjustments—like taxing vacant land, zoning for density, and letting homeowners build additional dwellings in their backyards—that will promote affordable housing. All of them must be enacted together to keep everyone housed.
But the White House has said its piece. “Obama’s a lame duck, but as [his administration is] heading out the door, they can choose to make bold statements on any number of fronts. The fact that one of the fronts they chose to make a statement on is zoning, I think, is symbolically important,” says Manville, the urban planner.
Symbols serve their purpose, so go sleep in your nearest parking lot tonight.
Last year the Institute of Museum and Library Services offered a catchy statistic: the United States has more museums than all the Starbucks and McDonald’s combined.
It’s easy to understand why cities will leap at the opportunity to invest in new structures: “Starchitect”-designed buildings, from the Santiago Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum to Brooklyn’s undulating Barclays Center, could add an iconic image to the cityscape and garner positive media buzz.
However, such massive public investments in permanent structures (what I’ve dubbed “concrete culture”) are bad deals and bad policy for urban economic development. Once the hoopla fades, cities can be saddled with millions in debt and mixed results. Take, for example, Charlotte’s NASCAR museum. Built in 2010 at a cost of US$160 million, the facility has not met attendance projections and, according to the Charlotte Observer, is losing $1 million a year.
Given the economic costs and risks, why do museums, stadiums and other “concrete culture” receive such a privileged place in urban development? After spending the past 10 years conducting research on the topic, I’ve found that this privilege should end; as an alternative, cities should champion music festivals as a cheaper, adaptable way to bolster urban communities.
The cracks of concrete culture
America – as Pacific Standard says – “has a stadium problem.”
From 1990 to 2010, over 100 sports stadiums opened across the country. Economists have long argued that these are dreadful public investmentsfor myriad reasons: they’ve been shown to stall economic growth, become underused eyesores and fleece local taxpayers. Billionaire sports team owners profit immensely from sports stadiums and – in many cases – don’t spend a dime on their construction.
While museums and performing arts centers are often nonprofits, they require cobbled-together funding from a variety of sources, ranging from corporate philanthropy to federal, state and local governments. These, too, have come at a cost. The University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center found that a whopping 725 arts and cultural facilities were built in the U.S. from 1994 to 2008. Construction didn’t just greatly outpace demand; it also overextended public resources. Though they cost over $15.5 billion to build, only 12 percent of the cultural institutions that were surveyed for the report saw increases in attendance.
Museums, stadiums and other permanent structures purport to revive deteriorating parts of the city. In some cases they do. In other cases, rosy expectations aren’t met. Museums struggle in recessions, while stadiums like Washington, D.C.’s Washington Coliseum and Houston’s Astrodome are left derelict. The New York Times notes that, with the NFL’s St. Louis Rams’ relocation to Los Angeles, St. Louis dodges a fiscal bullet by not having to sign a bad stadium deal. The city wins by losing.
Meanwhile, invasive “mega events” like the Super Bowl, the Olympics and the World Cup can be economic and cultural calamities for their communities as well. Economist Andrew Zimbalist’s book “Circus Maximus” notes that, beyond prestige and perhaps some tourist revenue, these events create concrete cultural infrastructure that monopolize scarce real estate, leaving spaces underutilized for decades.
A cheaper, more equitable path
There is a cheaper, more equitable path toward creating culturally vibrant cities, one that requires less public funding and much less steel and glass.
Festivals, both big and small, are becoming a more prominent feature of our cultural landscape. These events range from small street fairs to extravagant events that inhabit a city’s downtown area for a long weekend. They include Austin’s massive South by Southwest (SXSW), Boston’s smaller Jamaica Plain Music Festival, Manhattan’s mainstream Governor’s Ball and Brooklyn’s two-day AfroPunk Fest.
Music festivals have become popular for three reasons. First, musicians and music labels are eager to perform live to offset declining record sales. Next, today’s music fans are seeking out more and more live performances. And third, municipalities – in an era of intense urban branding and competition for tourists – are becoming amenable to developing music- and event-friendly policies.
Unlike permanent stadiums and museums, festivals are nimble; they’re able to switch venues and change up programming if necessary. They’re also much more inclusive. Many are free to the public, utilize existing public spaces and cultural assets, spark interactions among community members and nurture positive images of urban areas, especially neighborhoods that might need a boost.
A model for the 21st-century city
Recognizing the value in cultivating events, cities like Nashville and Austin have learned to promote a festival-friendly environment over the last decade. Both cities established entertainment zones that balance relaxed noise ordinances with affordable, mixed-use housing. At the same time, these cities champion their distinctive character and communities by embracing their festivals as “signature events.”
These cities have made it easier to hold cultural events by streamlining the permitting process and allowing public parks to be used. Even their city halls have designated offices devoted to culture and music that wield bureaucratic influence and act as liaisons with local arts organizations. Some cities have even established a new position: night mayor.
In Austin, SXSW coordinates with some local nonprofits and artistic groups to better serve the local communities by offering legal, health and housing services for working musicians.
Now other cities are following their lead.
In New England, a burgeoning scene of club owners and musicians congregate each year at Newport’s Jazz and Folk festivals, where they leverage local resources to attain international notoriety. Up-and-coming musicians have a voice in the festival’s planning as members of the Newport Festival Advisory Board. They can also influence resource distribution by directing fundraising to targeted local groups.
Replicating these successes can be challenging. Research has indicated that festivals sometimes exclude local residents, and many events become vulnerable to overcommercialization. Brands, for example, often flood the visual landscape of these festivals. When I began conducting research at the Newport Folk Festival, it was the Dunkin’ Donuts Newport Folk Festival, and nearly every surface of the facility seemed to be sheathed in corporate pink, orange, and brown. (The festival has since become a 501c3 nonprofit corporation, and now brands have a more muted profile at the event.)
Carefully articulated policies around short-term events need to highlight community input and assessment, including greater representation of marginalized groups.
Some might wonder if it’s worth investing in something that leaves after only a few days. But the impermanence of festivals is a feature, not a flaw. Festivals are adaptable, using spaces that might otherwise go unoccupied, and they can act as platforms for existing local artistic groups.
As Toronto Mayor John Tory noted in his introduction to the 2016 Canadian Music Week’s Music City Summit, building buildings can be risky.
“We should build the events,” he said, “and maybe a building will follow.”
This is a brilliant article on Placemaking by CNU-CA’s Howard Blackson. It’s a short easy read if you skim it – it’s a deep tretis on Placemaking if you think about each of the C’s and how it applies to your daily civic meanderings and our city. How does Oxnard compare to the 5 C’s – does it work? And where does it not work and what would it take to make it work? – OCPG
I live in a city that is currently updating its Community Plans. This is an historically difficult planning job because Community Plans transcend both broad policy statements (such as the amorphous “New development should be in harmony with surrounding development…”) and specific development regulations (“Front yard setbacks shall be 25 feet deep from property line…”). An issue with updating Community-scaled plans is the personal sentiment people feel for their homes and the difficulty we have in expressing such emotion within conventional 2D planning documents. The source of most conflicts and confusion I see occurring during these updates is due to the confusion over the scale and size difference of a ‘Community’ versus a ‘Neighborhood’ unit.
A community is defined as, “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.” Many places have different communities inhabiting them, such as an elderly, or arts, or ethnic community living and/or working in close proximity to one another. Even the internet can be considered a place inhabited by many diverse communities. So the scale, parameters, and character of a community-scaled planning effort is difficult to define.
Usually, community planning areas are defined by political boundaries, or historic development plats and, in some deplorable cases, old insurance red-lining practices that gave a city its initial zoning districts. This being the case, I contend that the neighborhood unit is a better tool to define, plan, and express policies and regulations necessary to preserve, enhance and, yes, build great places.
The neighborhood is a physical place — varied in intensity from more rural to more urban — that many different communities inhabit. At its essence, whether downtown, midtown or out-of-town, its health and viability (in terms of both resilience and quality of life) is defined by certain basic characteristics. Easily observable in neighborhoods that work, these characteristics have been articulated a variety of ways over the years — most notably for me by Andrés Duany and Mike Stepnor. Combined, they form what I like to call the 5 Cs:
Great neighborhoods host a mix of uses in order to provide for our daily need to live, work, play, worship, dine, shop, and talk to each other. Each neighborhood has a center, a general middle area, and an edge. The reason suburban sprawl sprawls is because it has no defined centers and therefore no defined edge. Civic spaces generally (though not always) define a neighborhood’s center while commerce tends to happen on the edges, on more highly traffic-ed streets and intersections easily accessible by two or more neighborhoods. The more connected a neighborhood is, the more variety of commercial goods and services can be offered, as not every neighborhood needs a tuxedo shop or a class ‘A’ office building.
The 5-minute walk from center to edge, a basic rule-of-thumb for walkability, equates to approximately 80 to 160 acres, or 9 to 18 city blocks. This general area includes public streets, parks, and natural lands, as well as private blocks, spaces and private buildings. This scale may constrict in the dead of winter and/or heat of summer, and expand during more temperate months. Compactness comes in a range of intensities that are dependent upon local context. Therefore, more urban neighborhoods, such as those found in Brooklyn, are significantly more compact than a new neighborhood located, for example, outside Taos, New Mexico. Remember, the ped-shed is a general guide for identifying the center and edge of a neighborhood. Each neighborhood must be defined by its local context, meaning shapes can, and absolutely do, vary. Edges may be delineated by high speed thoroughfares (such as within Chicago’s vast grid), steep slopes and natural corridors (as found in Los Angeles), or other physical barriers.
Great neighborhoods are walkable, drivable, and bike-able with or without transit access. But, these are just modes of transportation. To be socially connected, neighborhoods should also be linger-able, sit-able, and hang out-able.
Great neighborhoods have a variety of civic spaces, such as plazas, greens, recreational parks, and natural parks. They have civic buildings, such a libraries, post offices, churches, community centers and assembly halls. They should also have a variety of thoroughfare types, such as cross-town boulevards, Main Streets, residential avenues, streets, alleys, bike lanes and paths. Due to their inherent need for a variety of land uses, they provide many different types of private buildings such as residences, offices, commercial buildings and mixed-use buildings. This complexity of having both public and private buildings and places provides the elements that define a neighborhood’s character.
The livability and social aspect of a neighborhood is driven by the many and varied communities that not only inhabit, but meet, get together, and socialize within a neighborhood. Meaning “friendly, lively and enjoyable,” convivial neighborhoods provide the gathering places — the coffee shops, pubs, ice creme shops, churches, clubhouses, parks, front yards, street fairs, block parties, living rooms, back yards, stoops, dog parks, restaurants and plazas — that connect people. How we’re able to socially connect physically is what defines our ability to endure and thrive culturally. It’s these connections that ultimately build a sense of place, a sense of safety, and opportunities for enjoyment… which is hard to maintain when trying to update a community plan without utilizing the Neighborhood Unit as the key planning tool.
Let’s make “10 not 12!” a new mantra for saving our cities and towns.
When state DOTs bring streets through cities, they apply highway standards (above, Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach, Florida). (Screenshot via Google Maps)
A friend of mine heads an office in the White House. I never see him anymore, except at the occasional black tie design dinner, where he is always good for a couple of gin and tonics as the crowd disperses. At the last such event, he asked me a question. Or maybe he didn’t. But I answered it.
“What’s the number one most important thing that we have to fight for?” I said. “You mean, besides corporations being people and money being speech?”
“Well that’s easy: 10-foot lanes instead of 12-foot lanes.”
And so I did, brilliantly. So brilliantly that the White House issued an Executive Order the very next day. Or so I imagined; such is the power of gin.
Sobered by my now palpable failure, I have steeled myself for the task of explaining here, in a manner that can never be disputed or ignored, why the single best thing we can do for the health, wealth, and integrity of this great nation is to forbid the construction, ever again, of any traffic lane wider than 10 feet.
(Before beginning, let me thank the traffic engineers Paul Moore and Theodore Petritsch, who taught me most of this stuff. Yes, there are some good ones out there. This article borrows heavily from an article by Petritsch, “The Influence of Lane Widths on Safety and Capacity: A Summary of the Latest Findings.”)
A little background: First, we are talking only about high-volume streets here. Neighborhood streets can have much narrower lanes. The classic American residential street has a 12-foot lane that handles traffic in two directions. And many busy streets in my hometown of Washington, D.C., have eight-foot lanes that function wonderfully. These are as safe and efficient as they are illegal in most of the United States, and we New Urbanists have written about them plenty before, and built more than a few. But what concerns us here are downtown streets, suburban arterials and collectors, and those other streets that are expected to handle a good amount of traffic, and are thus subject to the mandate of free flow.
Second, you should know that these streets used to be made up of 10-foot lanes. Many of them still exist, especially in older cities, where there is no room for anything larger. The success of these streets has had little impact on the traffic-engineering establishment, which, over the decades, has pushed the standard upward, almost nationwide, first to 11 feet, and then to 12. Now, in almost every place I work, I find that certain streets are held to a 12-foot standard, if not by the city, then by a state or a county department of transportation.
States and counties believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are dead wrong.
In some cases, a state or county controls only a small number of downtown streets. In other cases, they control them all. In a typical city, like Cedar Rapids or Fort Lauderdale, the most important street or streets downtown are owned by the state. In Boise, every single downtown street is owned by the Ada County Highway District, an organization that, if it won’t relinquish its streets to the city, should at least feel obliged to change its name. And states and counties almost always apply a 12-foot standard.
Why do they do this? Because they believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are dead wrong. Or, to be more accurate, they are wrong, and thousands of Americans are dead.
They are wrong because of a fundamental error that underlies the practice of traffic engineering—and many other disciplines—an outright refusal to acknowledge that human behavior is impacted by its environment. This error applies to traffic planning, as state DOTs widen highways to reduce congestion, in complete ignorance of all the data proving that new lanes will be clogged by the new drivers that they invite. And it applies to safety planning, as traffic engineers, designing for the drunk who’s texting at midnight, widen our city streets so that the things that drivers might hit are further away.
The logic is simple enough, and makes reasonable sense when applied to the design of high-speed roads. Think about your behavior when you enter a highway. If you are like me, you take note of the posted speed limit, set your cruise control for 5 m.p.h. above that limit, and you’re good to go. We do this because we know that we will encounter a consistent environment free of impediments to high-speed travel. Traffic engineers know that we will behave this way, and that is why they design highways for speeds well above their posted speed limits.
Unfortunately, trained to expect this sort of behavior, highway engineers apply the same logic to the design of city streets, where people behave in an entirely different way. On city streets, most drivers ignore posted speed limits, and instead drive the speed at which they feel safe. That speed is set by the cues provided by the environment. Are there other cars near me? Is an intersection approaching? Can I see around that corner? Are there trees and buildings near the road? Are there people walking or biking nearby? And: How wide is my lane?
When lanes are built too wide, pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don’t fit.
All of these factors matter, and others, too. The simplest one to discuss, and probably the most impactful, is lane width. When lanes are built too wide, many bad things happen. In a sentence: pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don’t fit.
In the paragraphs that follow, I will lay out the evidence against 12-foot lanes, evidence compiled by traffic engineers, for traffic engineers. When presented with this evidence, DOT officials will face a mandate: provide conflicting evidence, or give in. In over a year of searching for conflicting evidence, I have failed to find any. The closest I came was the following conversation, with a DOT district commissioner in a western state, which I recorded faithfully within moments of it taking place:
“Yeah, you’ve got your studies that say that 10-foot lanes are safer than 12-foot lanes. But I’ve got a pile of studies this high,” he insisted, waving at his hip, “that say the opposite.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “May I see them?”
“No. They’re from the early days. I threw them out.”
Emboldened by that exchange, I will again present the evidence at hand. First, we will investigate what the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Green Book, the traffic engineers’ bible, has to say on the subject. Then we will review the very few studies that compare crash statistics and driver speeds on lanes of different widths. These will allow us to draw some clear conclusions about safety.
Consulting the Green Book
For traffic engineers, AASHTO is the keeper of the flame. Its “Green Book,” thePolicy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, is the primary source for determining whether a road design is an accepted practice. As such, it is useful in protecting engineers against lawsuits; if something is in the Green Book, it’s “safe.”
Given the protection it affords, nobody questions the Green Book. Never mind that very little of it is evidence-based, and that there are no footnotes justifying its pronouncements. I mean, does the Bible have footnotes?
Whether or not it reflects reality, the Green Book’s position on lane widths is more than relevant, since the engineers need its blessing to modify a standard. Theodore Petritsch relates this position as follows:
For rural and urban arterials, lane widths may vary from 10 to 12 feet. 12-foot lanes should be used where practical on higher-speed, free-flowing, principal arterials. However, under interrupted-flow (signalized) conditions operating at lower speeds (35 MPH or less), narrower lane widths are normally quite adequate and have some advantages.
Here, the takeaway is clear: AASHTO says that 10-foot lanes are just fine—for what it’s worth.
The Studies: Rare but Conclusive
A number of studies have been completed that blame wider lanes for an epidemic of vehicular carnage. One of them, presented by Rutgers professor Robert Noland at the 80th annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, determined that increased lane widths could be blamed for approximately 900 additional traffic fatalities per year. Unfortunately, Noland is a mere Ph.D. and not a practicing engineer. His evidence apparently didn’t mean squat to the TRB. If you don’t have short-sleeved white shirt and a pocket protector, you may as well stay home.
Happily, it turns out that engineers have conducted studies of their own. Two of these deserve our rapt attention. The first study, called “Effective Utilization of Street Width on Urban Arterials,” was completed by the TRB itself. It found the following:
… all projects evaluated during the course of the study that consisted of lane widths exclusively of 10 feet or more [rather than 12 feet] resulted in accident rates that were either reduced or unchanged.
So far so good. A second study, called “Relationship of Lane Width to Safety for Urban and Suburban Arterials,” was conducted by the conservative Midwest Research Center. Comparing 10- to 11-foot lanes to 12-foot lanes, it found:
A safety evaluation of lane widths for arterial roadway segments found no indication, except in limited cases, that the use of narrower lanes increases crash frequencies. The lane widths in the analyses conducted were generally either not statistically significant or indicated that narrower lanes were associated with lower rather than higher crash frequencies.
It is clear, then, that at the very least, 10-foot lanes cause no more accidents than 12-foot lanes, and may cause fewer. But what about the severity of these accidents, a subject on which these studies appear to be mute?
Here we can make use of another study and some common sense. We all know that people drive faster in wider lanes, but we need the engineers to say it. Fortunately, the Texas Transportation Institute, as old-school as they come, has done just that. They state:
On suburban arterial straight sections away from a traffic signal, higher speeds should be expected with greater lane widths.
Granted, this study covers only one type of road, but there is no reason to expect opposite results on, for example, straight urban roads. The same logic would apply, although perhaps less dramatically: people drive faster when they have less fear of veering off track, so wider lanes invite higher speeds.
To conclude this radical thought experiment, we need to confirm another commonsense assumption, that higher-speed crashes cause more injuries and deaths than lower-speed crashes. This has been amply demonstrated to apply to all road users, especially pedestrians. According to a broad collection of studies, a pedestrian hit by a car traveling 30 m.p.h. at the time of impact is between seven and nine times as likely to be killed as one hit by a car traveling 20 m.p.h. This tremendously sharp upward fatality curve means that, at urban motoring speeds, every single mile per hour counts.
All of the above data, studies, and pronouncements, collected and disseminated by the mainstream traffic engineering establishment, point to the following conclusion: 10-foot lanes cause no more accidents than 12-foot lanes, and they may cause fewer. These accidents can be expected to be slower, and thus less deadly. Therefore, 10-foot lanes are safer than 12-foot lanes.
Before finishing, we need to investigate the carrying capacity of different width lanes, since traffic volume remains a legitimate concern. If safety were the only goal of traffic planning, all streets would be one-lane wide—or better yet, zero lanes wide. The fact that they are not means that we, as a society, are more than willing to sacrifice lives for automobility. So, what’s the data?
Here, as again reported by Petritsch, a thorough literature search conducted by the Florida DOT yielded these findings:
The measured saturation flow rates are similar for lane widths between 10 feet and 12 feet. … Thus, so long as all other geometric and traffic signalization conditions remain constant, there is no measurable decrease in urban street capacity when through lane widths are narrowed from 12 feet to 10 feet.
It is striking to hear this news from FDOT, the agency that may preside over the greatest pedestrian massacre in U.S. history. Four out of the five deadliest American cities for walking are currently in Florida. This is by design: in no other state has the DOT had such a powerful influence on the design of urban streets.
Alarmed by its horrifying safety ranking—and the barrage of resulting bad publicity—FDOT has taken bold measures to improve pedestrian safety. It released just last year a 44-page Florida Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Safety Plan. Unfortunately, while this document talks plenty about such things as driver, cyclist, and pedestrian education, only two of its pages deal remotely with the real culprit, traffic engineering. Here, we are told that FDOT intends to “implement pedestrian and bicycle best practices,” a phrase that is fairly meaningless without further definition.
To its credit, the plan advocates for the application of a “complete streets” policy to benefit cyclists and pedestrians. But such policies, as we have learned, make sure that some streets include bike lanes and sidewalks, but rarely require the dimensional properties that make them safe. Nowhere in the entireStrategic Safety Plan are lane widths discussed, or any other design feature of the roadway that might encourage deadly speeds.
In fact, you can learn all you need to know about this effort by glancing at the cover of the report, which is stamped with the project motto: “Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow.” Think about that statement, and what it implies. In an encounter between a car and a pedestrian, whose life is at risk? Who, then, is expected to reform her behavior? Certainly not the driver—and most certainly not any engineers who endanger their populations with 12-foot lanes.
A Test Case
I believe that FDOT—and every DOT—is capable of reform, but experience suggests that this will only happen when enough people make a stink. In Florida, we will be able to gauge the DOT’s willingness to enter the reality-based community by how it responds to a proposal recently made to restripe Okeechobee Boulevard, a deadly state highway that cuts through downtown West Palm Beach. Its nine lanes separate the Palm Beach County Convention Center from everything that conventioneers walk to, and are a nightmare to walk across or beside. These lanes, of course, are 12 feet wide.
What would happen if these lanes were reduced to 10-feet wide, as proposed? Three things. First, cars would drive more cautiously. Second, there would be roughly eight feet available on each side of the street for creating protected cycle lanes, buffered by solid curbs. Third, the presence of these bike lanes would make the sidewalks safer to walk along. All in all, an easy, relatively inexpensive win-win-win that DOT could fund tomorrow.
But will they? Only if they are capable of reform. Let’s find out. The agency’s bike and pedestrian coordinator, Billy Hattaway, is one of the good ones. But does he have the power to move FDOT to a 10-foot standard?
Moving beyond Florida, the task is clear. Our lives are currently being put at risk daily by fifty state DOTs and hundreds of county road commissions who mistakenly believe that high-speed street standards make our cities and towns safer. In my most considered opinion, these agencies have blood on their hands, and more than a little. There are many standards that they need to change, but the easiest and most important is probably the 12-foot lane. Armed with the facts, we can force this change. But only if we do it together.
It’s time to push this discussion to its logical conclusion. Until conflicting evidence can be mustered, the burden of proof now rests with the DOTs. Until they can document otherwise, every urban 12-foot lane that is not narrowed to 10 feet represents a form of criminal negligence; every injury and death, perhaps avoidable, not avoided—by choice.
In the meantime, I welcome evidence to the contrary. We’ve shown them our studies; now let them show us theirs. Unless, of course, they’ve thrown them out.
For decades, city and state governments have seen contracting as a cost-saving panacea. But past experience has left some of today’s policymakers more skeptical.
A few years ago, Chicago residents accustomed to parking on the street got a rude shock. Parking-meter rates had suddenly gone up as much as fourfold. Some meters jammed and overflowed when they couldn’t hold enough change for the new prices. In other areas, new electronic meters had been installed, but many of them didn’t give receipts or failed to work entirely. And free parking on Sundays was a thing of the past.
The new meter regime sparked mass outrage. People held protests and threatened to boycott. But there was little recourse: The city had leased its 36,000 meters to a private Morgan Stanley-led consortium in exchange for $1.2 billion in up-front revenue. The length of the lease: 75 years.
If the meter situation seemed like a bad deal for Chicago’s parkers, it would soon become clear that it was an even worse one for the city’s taxpayers.
An inspector general’s report found that the deal was worth at least $974 million more than the city had gotten for it. Not only would the city never have a chance to recoup that money or reap new meter revenue for three-quarters of a century, clauses buried in the contract required it to reimburse the company for lost meter revenue. The city was billed for allowing construction of new parking garages, for handing out disabled parking placards, for closing the streets for festivals. The current bill stands at $61 million, though Mayor Rahm Emanuel has refused to pay and taken the case to arbitration instead.
How did this happen? The meter deal passed the city council just four days after then-Mayor Richard Daley—desperate to fill a recession-caused budget hole—presented it. There were no public hearings, and the aldermen never saw the bid documents. Afterward, some aldermen who voted for it said they wished they’d known more of the details, but it was too late. “We’re stuck with it for the next 71 years,” Alderman Roderick Sawyer told me recently.
Sawyer, a South Side Democrat who was not in office when the meter deal passed, is trying to ensure similar proposals will get more scrutiny in the future. He has introduced an ordinance that would require more transparency, including public hearings and a comprehensive economic analysis, for any proposed city partnership with a private entity.
An estimated $1 trillion of America’s $6 trillion in annual federal, state, and local government spending goes to private companies.
“This is just about the process,” Sawyer said. “We’re not saying all privatization deals are bad. But if we’re going to do this, let’s be honest with the public and let them know what’s going to occur: It’s going to save this much money, it’s going to cost this many jobs.”
Sawyer is not alone. In states and cities across the country, lawmakers are expressing new skepticism about privatization, imposing new conditions on government contracting, and demanding more oversight. Laws to rein in contractors have been introduced in 18 states this year, and three—Maryland, Oregon, and Nebraska—have passed legislation, according to In the Public Interest, a group that advocates what it calls “responsible contracting.”
“We’re not against contracting, but it needs to be done right,” said the group’s executive director, a former AFL-CIO official named Donald Cohen. “It needs to be accountable, transparent, and held to high standards for quality of work and quality of service.” Cohen’s organization, a national clearinghouse exclusively devoted to privatization issues, is the first advocacy group of its kind.
Doing it right, according to Cohen, means ensuring that contractors are subject to standards of transparency and accountability. Private companies doing government work and their contracts should be subject to open-records laws: In 2011, the city of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, hired a contractor to videotape city meetings, then claimed the tapes weren’t public records. (A state appeals court eventually ruled otherwise.) Companies should be held responsible for cost overruns, and governments should be making sure they’re actually saving money: Many private prisons cost more to operate than public ones, the group claims.
“We are definitely seeing a wave of states and some cities passing laws to get control of contracting,” Cohen said. “There’s still a lot of pressure to outsource, but the trend we see is people trying to fix the process and do it better, because of some of the high-profile failures at the federal and state levels.”
The vogue for privatizing government began in the Reagan years, experts say, when an ascendant conservative ideology painted the public sector as a callous and sluggish bureaucracy and the private sector as inherently more innovative and efficient. The trend accelerated in the ’90s, and today, Cohen estimates that $1 trillion of America’s $6 trillion in annual federal, state, and local government spending goes to private companies.
Yet the public impression of privatization as a panacea for the inherent inefficiency of government has been tarnished in the intervening years. From Halliburton to Healthcare.gov to private prisons and welfare systems, contracting has often proved problematic. Perhaps mindful of these high-profile debacles, lawmakers are now more likely to view privatization and contracting proposals with skepticism. “The ideological fervor for privatization has ebbed,” according to John D. Donahue, an expert on privatization at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“If there’s anything Texans hate, it’s big government and cronyism, and toll roads deliver both.”
Donahue, who has studied the issue since 1988, sees privatization as inherently neither good nor bad. Academic studies paint a mixed picture, he said. The private sector can deliver efficiencies when the task being sought is well defined, easy to measure, and subject to competition—mowing public parks, perhaps, or collecting trash.
But when the goals are fuzzier or competition is lacking, the picture gets cloudier. Is the purpose of municipal parking meters to maximize revenue, or is it to provide a low-cost amenity to citizens and the businesses they patronize? How do you value the various objectives of a prison system—justice, rehabilitation, social order—when the financial incentive is to lock more people up? In many cases, Donahue said, privatization and contracting save governments money not through increased efficiency but by undercutting public-sector wages and pensions or, as in the case of the parking meters, by effectively robbing the future to pay for the needs of the present. (By mid-2011, the city had spent all but $125 million of the $1.2 billion parking-meter payment.)
These are the kinds of questions policymakers are demanding answers to as they evaluate government contracts with an eye to getting the most bang for the taxpayer’s buck. In Oregon, the legislature this month approved by overwhelming margins a bill tightening oversight of information-technology projects. It was an easy sell in the wake of the failure of the state’s healthcare-exchange website, which was such a disaster it made Healthcare.gov look successful by comparison. To this day, Cover Oregon’s website cannot accept online applications, forcing Oregonians to use paper applications or go through an insurance agent instead.
The new legislation will require third-party reviews of the quality of IT contractors’ work. One of its sponsors, Representative Nancy Nathanson, a Democrat from Eugene, believes such a requirement might have prevented the exchange debacle had it been in place while the site was being developed. “I think it’s important when you’re spending public money, whoever is doing the work needs to have their books open,” she told me. “We need to see how the money is spent. We need to see performance measures to determine whether something is working. We need accountability.” In the next legislature, Nathanson plans to continue her push on contracting issues, she said.
Most of the privatization skeptics are Democrats, who tend to be sympathetic to the labor unions fighting to save public-sector jobs. (In the Public Interest is partly funded by unions, though Cohen said it has other funding sources, mainly foundations, and operates independently.) When California Governor Jerry Brown proposed, in his latest budget plan, to “reduce [the state’s] reliance on contractors” by bringing formerly outsourced functions back in-house, critics largely saw the move as a sop to labor.
But some Republicans have also turned against privatization out of a desire for fiscal responsibility. In Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich recently abandoned his push to lease the Ohio Turnpike to a private operator, deciding instead to have the state issue bonds backed by future toll revenue. The decision may have been influenced by the experience of nearby Indiana, which leased a 157-mile state road to an Australian-Spanish consortium and drew public criticism when toll rates doubled in five years. As with the Chicago meters, the government quickly spent most of its lump-sum payment and now faces decades bound by a restrictive contract that gives it little control over a major roadway.
“Privatization has potential rewards, but a lot of it is really just about shifting money around for political reasons,” said Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and author of a report on toll roads called Private Roads, Public Costs. “There are a lot of dangers in terms of loss of control over public policy, not getting enough revenue for these assets, as well as a lack of transparency.”
Many of the ideological proponents of privatization are libertarian conservatives who believe tasks like operating roads and schools are better performed by the private sector. But in Texas, one of the most prominent activists against private toll roads is a San Antonio Tea Party activist named Terri Hall. She has started a petition to change the city charter to require that any toll project be put to a vote, and she blogs relentlessly on toll-related issues. “If there’s anything Texans hate, it’s big government and cronyism, and toll roads deliver both,” she wrote recently.
A worry about handing over American public assets to foreign companies also crosses partisan lines. Last month, the Republican-dominated Nebraska legislature passed, and Republican Governor Dave Heineman signed, a bill to increase transparency in state contracting by requiring contractors to report where the money was going—whether the goods and services the state was purchasing were coming from Nebraska, from other states, or from foreign countries.
“We’re spending close to $2 billion on contracts out of a roughly $8 billion budget,” said Heath Mello, the Democratic state senator who authored the bill. “The public and the legislature need to know where our contracting dollars are going and whether the state of Nebraska is seeing any economic benefit.” Nebraska lawmakers may also be warier of privatization since the state’s effort to privatize its foster-care system fell apart amid scandal in 2012.
Privatization proponents say contracting horror stories are overblown. Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform for the free-market Reason Foundation and editor of its comprehensive Annual Privatization Report, noted that other cities, such as Indianapolis, followed Chicago’s lead by privatizing their parking meters without a problem. (On the other hand, other cities, such as Pittsburgh, shied away from privatizing their meters.) “Is privatization a magic wand? Is it always going to come in and save you money? No,” Gilroy said. “You have to do this well. You have to do your due diligence. You have to do a good contract and then you have to monitor and enforce that contract.”
In this, Gilroy would seem to be on the same page as advocates of “responsible contracting.” But he suspects that the real agenda of In the Public Interest and the recent state legislative initiatives isn’t to improve contracting but to make it more difficult by creating bureaucratic obstacles. He pointed to the group’s collaboration with unions on a resolution that recently passed the California Assembly. Though nonbinding, the resolution’s decree that the body “opposes outsourcing of public services and assets” drew an outcry from businesses and local governments, including the California League of Cities.
“What seems to be underlying this is an outright hostility to outsourcing,” Gilroy said.
In Chicago, Alderman Sawyer’s accountability ordinance has yet to advance out of the Rules Committee. Emanuel criticized the parking-meter deal during his mayoral campaign and promised “an era of reform,” but as mayor, with the power to push the bill forward, he has yet to take a position on it. Sawyer says he has had “fruitful conversations” with the mayor’s administration and is hopeful Emanuel will back the measure soon. Emanuel’s office refused a request for comment on the ordinance.
Even if the ordinance goes nowhere, Sawyer believes Chicago may have learned its lesson about privatization. Prior to the meter deal, the city was one of the country’s most enthusiastic proponents of privatization. Daley leased the Chicago Skyway toll road for $1.8 billion and privatized city functions from towing to lawnmowing. But in the five years since the parking fiasco, Chicago policymakers have become more skeptical: A proposal to privatize Midway Airport—which would have made it the first privately run major airport in the country—went down after it was subjected to aggressive scrutiny.
“They analyzed the deal themselves,” Sawyer said. “And they determined that it was not worth doing.”
U.S Forest Service facts and figures and new traffic safety studies detail many urban street tree benefits. Once seen as highly problematic for many reasons, street trees are proving to be a great value to people living, working, shopping, sharing, walking and motoring in and through urban places.
For a planting cost of $250-600 (includes first 3 years of maintenance) a single street tree returns over $90,000 of direct benefits (not including aesthetic, social and natural) in the lifetime of the tree. Street trees (generally planted from 4 feet to 8 feet from curbs) provide many benefits to those streets they occupy. These trees provide so many benefits that they should always be considered as an urban area default street making feature.
With new attentions being paid to global warming causes and impacts more is becoming known about negative environmental impacts of treeless urban streets. We are well on the way to recognizing the need for urban street trees to be preferred urban design, rather than luxury items tolerated by traffic engineering and budget conscious city administrators.
The many identified problems of street trees are overcome with care by designers. Generally street trees are placed each 15- 30 feet. These trees are carefully positioned to allow adequate sight triangles at intersections and driveways, to not block street luminaries, not impact utility lines above or below ground. Street trees of various varieties are used in all climates, including high altitude, semi-arid and even arid urban places.
The science of street tree placement and maintenance is well known and observed in a growing number of communities (i.e. Chicago, Illinois; Sacramento, Davis, California; Eugene, Oregon; Seattle, Redmond, Olympia and Issaquah, Washington; Charlotte, N.C.; Keene, New Hampshire and Cambridge, Mass). Although care and maintenance of trees in urban places is a costly task, the value in returned benefits is so great that a sustainable community cannot be imagined without these important green features.
Properly placed and spaced urban street trees provide these benefits:
Increased motorized traffic and pedestrian safety (contrary to engineering myths). See below article for details on mode safety enhancements. See especially the compilation of safety benefits detailed in, Safe Streets, Livable Streets, by Eric Dumbaugh Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 71, No. 3, Summer 2005. One such indication of increased safety with urban street trees is quoted from this document:
“…Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the inclusion of trees and other streetscape features in the roadside environment may actually reduce crashes and injuries on urban roadways. Naderi (2003) examined the safety impacts of aesthetic streetscape enhancements placed along the roadside and medians of five arterial roadways in downtown Toronto. Using a quasiexperimental design, the author found that the inclusion of features such as trees and concrete planters along the roadside resulted in statistically significant reductions in the number of mid-block crashes along all five roadways, with the number of crashes decreasing from between 5 and 20% as a result of the streetscape improvements. While the cause for these reductions is not clear, the author suggests that the presence of a well defined roadside edge may be leading drivers to exercise greater caution.”
US DOT and FHA website on roundabouts:
Roundabouts and Mini Roundabouts
Roundabouts: An Informational Guide
Caltrans Mission Statement
- Old: Caltrans improves mobility across California
- New: Provide a safe, sustainable, integrated and efficient transportation system to enhance California’s economy and livability
Capacity and delays
The capacity of a roundabout varies based on entry angle, lane width, and the number of entry and circulating lanes. As with other types of junctions, operational performance depends heavily on the flow volumes from various approaches. A single-lane roundabout can handle approximately 20,000–26,000 vehicles per day, while a two-lane design supports 40,000 to 50,000.
Under many traffic conditions, a roundabout operates with less delay than signalised or all-way stop approaches. Roundabouts do not stop all entering vehicles, reducing both individual and queuing delays. Throughput further improves because drivers proceed when traffic is clear without waiting for a signal to change.
Roundabouts can increase delays in locations where traffic would otherwise often not be required to stop. For example, at the junction of a high-volume and a low-volume road, traffic on the busier road would stop only when cross traffic was present, otherwise not having to slow for the roundabout. When the volumes on the crossing roadways are relatively even, a roundabout can reduce delays, because half of the time a full stop would be required. Dedicated left turn signals further reduce throughput.
Roundabouts can reduce delays for pedestrians compared to traffic signals, because pedestrians are able to cross during any safe gap rather than waiting for a signal. During peak flows when large gaps are infrequent, the slower speed of traffic entering and exiting can still allow crossing, despite the smaller gaps.
Studies of roundabouts that replaced stop signs and/or traffic signals found that vehicle delays were reduced 13–89 percent and the proportion of vehicles that stopped was reduced 14–56 percent. Delays on major approaches increased as vehicles slowed to enter the roundabouts.
Roundabouts have been found to reduce carbon monoxide emissions by 15–45 percent, nitrous oxideemissions by 21–44 percent, carbon dioxide emissions by 23–37 percent and hydrocarbon emissions by 0–42 percent. Fuel consumption was reduced by an estimated 23–34 percent.
Statistically, modern roundabouts are safer for drivers and pedestrians than both traffic circles and traditional intersections. Roundabouts are safer than both traffic circles and junctions—experiencing 39% fewer vehicle collisions, 76% fewer injuries and 90% fewer serious injuries and fatalities (according to a study of a sampling of roundabouts in the United States, when compared with the junctions they replaced). (Though, a more ideal metric would be a comparison to nearby similar intersections, since a need for replacement may be a confounding factor.) Some larger roundabouts take foot and bicycle traffic through underpasses or alternate routes. Clearwater Beach, Florida’s multi-lane roundabout has reduced its previously high cyclist death rate to zero since its construction.
At junctions with stop signs or traffic lights, the most serious accidents are right-angle, left-turn or head-on collisions where vehicles move fast and collide at high impact angles, e.g. head-on. Roundabouts virtually eliminate those types of crashes. Instead, most crashes are glancing blows at low angles of impact.
An analysis of the New Zealand national crash database for the period 1996–2000 shows that 26% of cyclists reported injury crashes happened at roundabouts, compared to 6% at traffic signals and 13% at priority controlled junctions. The New Zealand researchers propose that low vehicle speeds, circulatory lane markings and mountable centre aprons for trucks can reduce the problem.
The most common roundabout crash type for cyclists, according to the New Zealand study, involves a motor vehicle entering the roundabout and colliding with a cyclist who already is travelling around the roundabout (50%+ of cyclist/roundabout crashes in New Zealand fall into this category). The next most common crash type involves motorists leaving the roundabout colliding with cyclists who are continuing farther around the perimeter. Designs that have marked perimeter cycle lanes were found to be even less safe, suggesting that in roundabouts, cyclists should occupy a vehicle lane rather than a special lane. The researchers advised that drivers be forbidden from overtaking cyclists (as well as other vehicles) while in the circle.
If you’re an automaker, now might be the time to drastically rethink not only your target audience, but also the fundamentals of how vehicles are designed, manufactured and marketed.
Forces like global urbanization, the growth of electric vehicle infrastructure and shared mobility services — ridesharing, carsharing, bikesharing, etc. — are dramatically changing the sustainable transportation landscape.
To help make sense of it all, GreenBiz spoke last week with mobility designer Dan Sturges about the outlook for personal cars and the market forces reshaping the suto industry.
This week, in and interview edited for length and clarity, Sturges shared his thoughts on what our future cars might look like, and how all of these factors might combine to reshape our sense of place.
GreenBiz: What might the new constellation of vehicle options for businesses and consumers mean for the future?
Dan Sturges: To me, both Silicon Valley and Big Auto are not very focused on the massive opportunity that comes with a broader selection of optimized vehicle designs in the future of shared mobility. Today, we generally use two classes of mobility.
One, mainly, is our cars and light trucks to drive us each day around our cities and metropolitan regions. The second is the airplane that we fly to far-away cities and countries. What has been missing is a third tier — one focused on local transportation. That would be a travel environment for walking, bicycles and a wide range of upcoming micro-mobility (powered) vehicles.
GreenBiz: So you’re saying our current local transportation patterns are unsustainable?
Sturges: Let me be very clear. We currently have an automobile monoculture on this planet, and it’s not good for us.Today, the billion cars and light trucks we have on the planet look virtually the same when looking down on them. They are rectangles with four wheels in the corners and roughly the same size. They are constructed out of 25,000 parts and cost $32,000, on average, in the US. Why would anyone need all that to travel a mile or two for a meeting at a coffee shop?
GreenBiz: And you see an opportunity to simplify?
Sturges: Nearly 50 percent of our trips in urban areas are less than three miles, and 28 percent are one mile or less. Our cars are over-engineered for nearly every trip we take in them. It’s overkill. It’s like killing a roach with a shotgun. We could not do anything about this before the auto tech revolution, but now we can.
The centerpiece of the local mobility future is the bicycle. While auto mobility develops in the future with the cars we drive, autonomous vehicles or other inventions, we will be redesigning our cities to offer amazing pedestrian, bicycle and active mode facilities first and foremost.
GreenBiz: What if you’re not into biking or walking all the time?
Sturges: For those of us that want more than a bicycle for a nearby trip, we will choose from a growing array of local vehicles. This will include electric bikes, e-scooters, senior mobility scooters, golf cars, Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEVs), and a likely wide array of new types of near cars.
All of these vehicles require far less land and energy than a car, and cost far less to own, share, or operate than our cars of today. They are optimal vehicles for a short trip.
GreenBiz: What about longer trips?
Sturges: Think about a metropolitan area divided into two vehicle categories: the local vehicles I am talking about, and the far cars – the conventional vehicles we know and use already today by the billion.
It’s helps to think of the neighborhood you live in as a small island, maybe two square miles. Let’s say you live in Palo Alto, California and you are a telecommuter, so your needs for an automobile are already really reduced. You might use a new-type of local shuttle service, ridesharing, carsharing, bike or walk to get around Palo Alto.If you’re a commuter, there will be another option: a narrow car. The Nissan Land Glider concept vehicle paints a picture of a new type of car to drive around your region. Cities encouraging the right-sizing of personal vehicles will benefit by reducing traffic congestion, along with reducing the amount of land needing for parking.
GreenBiz: Are there existing templates for how all of this might come together in real cities?
Sturges: In European cities moving toward a car-free model, like Madrid, new urban shuttles — a mix of autnomous and driver-controlled — will offer frictionless use for consumers.
GreenBiz: But retrofitting entire cities at scale would be a massive challenge.
Sturges: It’s difficult to get a city saturated with big cars and trucks to clear an appropriate amount of space for a healthy local mobility zone. The car is still considered king, and cities like LA are having big fights with citizens about removing even a few car parking spaces for bike lanes.
This drives me crazy — LA plans to fund its much-needed biking infrastructure over a 20-plus year period. I think that’s absurd, given the climate crisis, economic challenges, terrible traffic and so on. Many people like little e-scooters and NEVs, but they don’t feel safe operating them around a sea of giant SUVs.
I don’t blame them. In addition, hardly any citizens have been introduced to this type of new vision for a shared-use and right-sized metropolitan mobility future. If you don’t know something is available, how are you going to even want it, and seek government to support it?
GreenBiz: Long term, how do you see this potential convergence influencing the way we build our cities?
Sturges: Did you ever see Otis Elevator’s dual-dimensional elevator concept from the early 1970’s? It was super cool. The elevator not only went up and down, it could travel horizontally as well.
Small electric vehicles are about the same size of some elevator cars. They have zero emissions and will actually be able to drive into a building and right into one’s condo in the future. The design opportunity of this convergence of architecture, local mobility, and the Internet of Things (IoT) is very exciting to me.
GreenBiz: What sorts of applications do you think about for urban settings?
Sturges: Upcoming automated, local mobility technologies will enable all new types of futuristic smart communities and cities to be created, as well as informing the retrofit process of our existing cities.Have a look at Kiva Systems. Their remarkable warehouse movement robots can now be applied to a number of important new urban living applications.
This technology enables new types of cities and futuristic smart communities to be built, that park cars on the edge and offer large non-motorized zones for people, as well as a secondary micro-sized, high-tech automated movement systems for both people and goods.
The Oxnard Community Planning Group advocates for visionary practices in planning, design, and development that will lead to a more livable and prosperous city.
The Oxnard Community Planning Group envisions a city that grows wisely, preserves farmland and open space, drives smart economic development, welcomes vertical density, cherishes our past, and boldly anticipates our future.
The Oxnard Community Planning Group believes in a city that works to meet the needs of all our residents: young, old, people with disabilities, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists; even people who don’t go anywhere. We strive to be open-minded, welcome thoughtful discussion, and are willing to invest our time and efforts towards bringing these beliefs into being.
The OCPG has come to realize that the difficulty with density and parking and other issues relating to a walkable Oxnard Boulevard in our downtown and corridor areas is that our current zoning does not allow true urban placemaking.
For instance, current Oxnard zoning in the downtown allows 39 units per acre…which means that the living units must be 3 and 4 bedrooms. We need higher density to accommodate the empty-nesters, Millennials and others who are interested in living an urban lifestyle and want singles or 1 bedroom units. Form Based codes allow a broader range of options in specific overlay areas.
Zoning in Oxnard’s residential areas will not change. Form based codes are generally applied in very specific overlay areas do not replace existing zoning.
Below is a copy of the Form Based Code section of our Resources page – click the Resources tab above to view all our great place-making and urban design links.
Form Based Codes
“Why form-based codes? Because our current laws tend to separate where we live from where we work, learn, and shop, and insist on big, fast roads to connect them all. Roads that are unfriendly to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit. As a result, North Americans spend more hours in their cars than anyone on earth, and a growing number of communities are working to do something about it.” [ PlaceMakers.com ]
- Wikipedia – Form-based code
- Form-Based Codes Institute
- What Are Form-Based Codes?
- Mesa, Arizona – Form-Based Zoning Code
- Conventional Zoning vs. Form-based Code
- The Sustainable Cities Institute – Form-Based Codes
- Puget Sound Regional Council – Form-Based Zoning
- Sample Form Based Codes
- Ventura – Sample Codes
- SmartCode Modules
The SmartCode differs from some other form-based codes in that its community-scale and block-scale articles are written explicitly for zoning. Zoning reform is essential to allow walkable mixed-use neighborhoods, thereby combatting sprawl, preserving open lands, and reducing energy use and carbon emissions.
- Form-Based SmartCode
Looking to curb sprawl with a form-based alternative to conventional zoning? No need to reinvent the wheel. The SmartCode is a model ordinance that’s customized to reflect local context, character and goals. And best of all, it’s open source and free.
More on Form Based Codes from the Form-Based SmartCode website:
The SmartCode is a model, form-based unified land development ordinance designed to create walkable neighborhoods, towns and cities across the full spectrum of human settlement, from the most rural to the most urban, and incorporating a transect of character and intensity within each. The SmartCode was originally developed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company. It now exists as shareware and typically serves as a foundation from which it is then customized to address specific municipal goals. It can be leveraged as a tool towards both aspirational and preservationist ambitions.
[The long version:]
The SmartCode is a unified land development ordinance for planning and urban design. It folds zoning, subdivision regulations, urban design, and optional architectural standards into one compact document.
Because the SmartCode enables community vision by coding specific outcomes that are desired in particular places, it is meant to be locally customized (also known as “calibrated”) by professional planners, architects, and attorneys.
The SmartCode is not a building code. Building codes address life/safety issues such as fire and storm protection. Examples of building codes include the IBC, IRC, and ICC documents.
The SmartCode supports these outcomes: community vision, local character, conservation of open lands, transit options, and walkable and mixed-use neighborhoods. It prevents these outcomes: wasteful sprawl development, automobile-dominated streets, empty downtowns, and a hostile public realm. It allows different approaches in different areas within the community, unlike a one-size-fits-all conventional zoning code. This gives the SmartCode unusual political power, as it permits buy-in from stakeholders of diverse interests and concerns.
The SmartCode is considered a “form-based code” because it strongly addresses the physical form of building and development. Conventional zoning codes are based primarily on use and density. They have caused systemic problems over the past sixty years by separating uses, making mixed-use and walkable neighborhoods essentially illegal.
The SmartCode is also a transect-based code. A “transect” is usually seen as a continuous cross-section of natural habitats for plants and animals, ranging from shorelines to wetlands to uplands. The specific transect that the SmartCode uses is based on the human habitat, ranging from the most rural environments to the most urban environments. This transect is divided into a range of “Transect Zones,” each with its own complex character. It ensures that a community offers a full diversity of building types, thoroughfare types, and civic space types, and that each has appropriate characteristics for its location.
The six T-Zones are: T-1 Natural, T-2 Rural, T-3 Sub-Urban, T-4 General Urban, T-5 Urban Center, and T-6 Urban Core.
The Transect is a powerful tool because its standards can be coordinated across many other disciplines and documents, including ITE (transportation), and LEED (environmental performance). Thus the SmartCode integrates the design protocols of a variety of specialties, including traffic engineering, public works, town planning, architecture, landscape architecture, and ecology.
The SmartCode addresses development patterns at three scales of planning (thus it may replace a number of other documents):
> The Sector (Regional) Scale
> The Community Scale
> The Block and Building Scale
If stronger architectural guidelines are desired, a community may further adopt supplemental regulations or a pattern book.
Let’s talk about dollars spent. Millions of dollars. 7.2 million dollars specifically, of which 5.5 million came directly from the local economy. The goal? At least according to local leadership, it was to increase quality of life via improved walkability.
First, a caveat: This isn’t going to be one of those pieces denouncing government spending as inherently bad. But neither will it be one that suggests all is well when spending gets characterized as an investmentrather than a mere expenditure.
After all, investment itself is a neutral term. There are good investments and bad ones. Smart investments and, well, not so smart ones.
So let’s look at some specifics.
A fairly typical context
South Dekalb County, Georgia, is not all that different from a lot of places. Originally rural and agricultural, it began developing after World War II in the typical suburban pattern of the day — separated uses, subdivisions and strip commercial, and dendritic networks of local, collector, and arterial roads.
Then, in the 60s and 70s, it suffered the scourge of white flight and has been dealing with the challenges of disinvestment — and commensurate efforts to turn it all around — ever since.
Many of these efforts have been rooted in infrastructure improvement. Local leadership calls them investments in the future, which makes for a nice sound bite but also invites the question: How good of an investment is it?
One particular instance
Let’s look at one example, a 3.7 mile stretch of GA-155, also known as Candler Road, that’s ripe for a renaissance local officials have been courting for years. Like in 1999, when adjacent property owners were offered grants of up to $55,000 to construct new buildings or renovate existing ones.
But still, the area has struggled. So when the prospect is raised to spend 7.2 million dollars to spruce it up and make it more walkable, it sounds like a win. The suggestion is that nicer pedestrian infrastructure will make the corridor more inviting, renewed interest will lead to new investment, and new investment will pay off in the form of an improved tax base.
But the devil, at least in my experience, is absolutely in the details. Because investing in pedestrian infrastructure and making a place more walkable are not necessarily the same thing.
Let’s take a look
The investment took the form of new sidewalks, road striping and repaving, landscaping for medians, decorative hardscape, and street lamps.
Local leadership has specifically stated that the money was being spent to improve quality of life by making the corridor more walkable so it makes sense that the results be evaluated according to that ambition. It’s not particularly difficult. Fairly easy, actually, because encouraging walkability is not an arbitrary endeavor. It’s been studied for some time now and the contextual characteristics that contribute to it are well known.
Perhaps the definitive text on the matter is Walkable City by Jeff Speck. My colleague, Kaid Benfield, summarized Jeff’s 10 steps of walkability on his blog a few years ago. Let’s consider the example at hand through that lens:
1. Put cars in their place. This endeavor contains no reconfiguration of traffic lanes to reduce width and, with it, speed. It does nothing to remove or redistribute lanes either. In fact, the width of public right of way devoted to automotive throughput is identical to what it was before the $7.2 million was spent.
2. Mix the uses. The county’s physical overhaul of the corridor did not include any modifications to the surrounding zoning. It remains single use, auto-dependent commercial.
3. Get the parking right. The Candler corridor has always been over-parked and new development remains subject to a development code whose default outcome is set back strip or pad retail with parking in the front.
4. Let transit work. As a primary corridor, Candler features a MARTA bus route. But none of this pedestrian upgrade, as best I can tell, included bus stop infrastructure or other means of improving the transit experience.
5. Protect the pedestrian. These infrastructure investments do include some features that draw attention to pedestrians, such as crosswalks, but they include no changes that actually privilege pedestrians over surrounding vehicles.
6. Welcome bikes. As mentioned previously, Candler’s lane configuration remains the same. No bicycle facilities have been added.
7. Shape the spaces. Outside of a few spots dating back to the 40s, the present conventional zoning ensures that any future development will include parking setbacks. There is no expectation that street-fronting retail or other space shaping arrangements will materialize.
8. Plant trees. The Candler corridor upgrade includes some ground level median plantings but nothing in the pedestrian realm.
9. Make friendly and unique [building] faces. This is kind of a moot point because there is no expectation of street facing development. With no pedestrian oriented buildings there are no contributing details to consider.
10. Pick your winners. Speck is known for advocating a triage approach to pedestrian infrastructure, wherein ped-related investment is directed specifically to walkable or potentially walkable places where the most good can be done. The Candler corridor fails to meet this standard.
So what’s the point?
When political leadership justifies an expenditure of $7.2 million by saying it will make a place more walkable and yet the completed project, even generously assessed, fails to meet even one of the ten steps towards achieving walkability, it deserves scrutiny.
If I were to ask, I’m sure I’d hear all kinds of reasons why — reasons I acknowledge constitute very real and very common obstacles. It’s a state route and the DOT strong-armed the design (while covering just 24% of the cost). Long term changes to zoning are a separate initiative that may or may not come to pass. Etc. Etc.
Yet ultimately, these enhancements were intended to leverage walkable quality of life to secure new investment and an increased tax base. When that doesn’t come to pass, will leadership answer by saying, “Well, the important thing is that we tried. We had no way of knowing it wouldn’t work”?
I hope not. Because if they do, I’ll feel obliged to point them to this study from Wei Li and Kenneth Joh that explored the financial returns of walkability investments in different scenarios. Consider this:
We found that the highest premiums for walkability are in the most walkable neighborhoods: a 1 percent increase in walkability yielded a $1,329 increase in property values; a 1 percent increase in sidewalk density generated a $785 increase in property values. Homes in neighborhoods that are at least somewhat walkable and very walkable also experienced premium increases, although correspondingly less. In contrast, increasing walkability and sidewalks in car-dependent neighborhoods did not have any significant impact on property values. (emphasis mine)
D’oh! That’s awkward.
So, if we’re not going to pursue walkability in a meaningful, systemic way based on the principles that actually deliver results, and we have the data available showing that pedestrian lip service in car dependent places has no appreciable impact on property values, then exactly why are we — or any of the countless places around the country doing similar projects — spending millions of dollars anyways?
Your guess is as good as mine.
A major barrier to human-scale, complete streets appears ready to fall. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is proposing to drop 11 of 13 mandatory standards for streets under 50 miles per hour, which will help in the design of federally owned urban streets.
“It is definitely a step in the right direction that FHWA is finally responding to the overwhelming amount of research showing little safety benefit to most of their controlling criteria,” says Wes Marshall, associate professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Colorado.
Wider lane width is one of the crucial criteria for urban streets that has been shown to have no safety benefit. A series of studies (link, link) have shown that in urban places 12-foot lanes—which have been used on arterial streets since the middle of the 20th century, are less safe than narrower lanes because they encourage speeding. For comparison, Interstate lanes are 12 feet wide.
“We have made great strides in recognizing that urban conditions require more flexibility in design guidance, and the ITE/CNU manual as well as the NACTO guides have certainly given engineers the ability to design for context and walkability,” says Wade Walker, an engineer with Alta Planning + Design. “This proposal by FHWA can make the process much simpler by eliminating the need for design exceptions on many design proposals for these type streets.”
New urbanist engineers have long argued for “decision-making that encourages engineered solutions rather than relying on minimum, maximum, or limiting values found in design criteria,” notes Peter Swift, an engineer in Gold Hill, Colorado. “This, in itself, is a remarkable admission that competent engineers are finally taken seriously!”
But dropping these standards is no panacea. “It is also worth pointing out that they still expect design speed to be a controlling criterion for streets under 50 mph,” says Marshall. “Given that the selection of a design speed is often left to the discretion of an engineer, you could still theoretically end up with streets signed for 25 mph being designed for 45 mph design speeds.”
State DOTs, which determine design on key arterials, and local DOTs and engineers, will not be directly affected by this proposal. “Until the direction is embraced by not only the state DOT’s and local staffs we will continue to run into resistance for creating truly walkable urban streets,” Walker says. Yet state and local engineers may take their cues for the federal authorities. “I can definitely envision these benefits eventually extending to state DOT and local guidelines,” says Marshall.
This proposal is part of a culture shift that is taking place at FHWA, which long supported highway standards applied to urban places. A little over a year ago, the administration gave the seal of approval for engineers to use the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Design Guide, which shows dimensions and standards for tighter urban streets with bike lanes and pedestrian facilities. The proposed changes can be thought of as another domino that is falling.
As of yet, the changes are just a proposal. They must go through a comment period that ends December 7. Supporters of complete streets can read the details of the changes here and support them with a comment here.
Robert Steuteville is editor of Better Cities & Towns and senior communications advisor for the Congress for the New Urbanism.
A fascinating Internet discussion makes the case for solving congestion problems using economic, rather than engineering, strategies. But urban design should also be considered.
Two blogs (traffic engineer Simon Vallee and City Observatory) describe how traffic engineers exclude human decision-making from their road construction decisions. Roads are simply pipes and drivers are fixed inputs. This view generally leads to road widenings in response to predictions of possible overload. Those decision leads to more driving, less walking, and the cycle continues. Recognizing that most trips are economic decisions and that people have choices puts a whole new spin on roads and traffic. As Hertz of City Observatory says:
“The economic, or behavioral, approach brings back humans—and with them, the idea that given amount of vehicle trips isn’t just a feature of the natural world, but the result of decisions by actual people who want to get somewhere in order to do something. The question then changes in a subtle but profound way: not how to speed vehicles through a road most efficiently, but how to best connect people with the places they want to go.”
“Bringing humans back into the question also allows you to acknowledge that people have desires that aren’t directly related to transportation. Safety, for example. Reducing the number and length of vehicle trips translates straight to fewer car crashes, and fewer avoidable serious injuries and deaths. Making streets a pleasant place to walk and gather—something that’s difficult when sidewalks have been narrowed to make room for speeding cars just feet away—can pay serious economic dividends and help establish a sense of community. In the economic or behavioral approach to transportation policy, all of these goals suddenly become fair game.”
Viewing congestion as an economic problem may also get transportation engineers to recognize that congestion is often good. The bad kind of congestion is when people are just sitting in traffic and little economic activity is taking place. But in a mixed-use downtown, congestion is a sign of life. A downtown without congestion is dead. Similarly, now that we know there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, how would we feel if our doctor tried to eliminate all cholesterol? We’d get a new doctor.
Bringing human beings into the thinking of traffic engineering is a big step forward, but engineers need to bring real places into the equation as well. Traffic congestion decisions determine the shape of public places, so they are an urban design problem. The engineering approach belies tens of thousands of miles of urban streets that function exceptionally well with vastly different design than what engineers recommend. This study showed that spatial characteristics of streets—factors not considered by either the engineering or the economic approach—have a dramatic impact on safety and livability.
Engineers typically don’t study streets with strong spatial definition to see why and how they work.
An economic approach to solving traffic problems would vastly improve the traffic engineering profession. An understanding of urban design would be even better.
Robert Steuteville is editor of Better Cities & Towns and senior communications advisor for the Congress for the New Urbanism.
We have many NEW resources on our Resources Page.
For instance we recently added four links about infill housing, with several great Myths vs Facts articles plus a Infill Design Tool Kit.
There are several new articles about Economic Development and City Planning and Urban Design.
This website is becoming the go-to venue for planning issues and education in Oxnard, CA.
“We had to create a new kind of Place” 1:30
“No local tax dollars” 1:50
“We knew the City did not have the money, and that if we had to wait for the City to come up with the money – this project would never happen” 2:10
“We were able to raise money because we did not talk about this as an infrastructure project, we talked about it as a Quality of Life and Economic Development project” 2:20
In May (2013), the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, a protected bike & pedestrian trail connecting some of Indy’s most popular cultural institutions, had it’s long-awaited public coming out with a ribbon cutting and celebration. It could be the biggest bicycling infrastructure achievement in North America and yet it’s still practically a secret. Hopefully after experiencing our Streetfilm, that will change.
As you’ll see it runs eight fantastic miles through the heart of the downtown and features beautiful stone work, green landscaping and bioswales for containing stormwater runoff. There is great signage and design with an eye for maximum safety. In many places along the trail, parking and/or a car travel lane was converted to fit the lanes in. But most importantly, the trail features ample room for both cyclists and pedestrians (most of the time in separate environments) to move about in a major city whether they are commuting, exercising, running errands or just going for a afternoon jaunt.
It’s fun and very safe and people of all ages using it. It’s the kind of thing Gil Penalosa’s 8-80 Cities organization preaches to the world.
Across the U.S. we have cities such as NYC, Chicago and San Francisco doing tremendous work installing many innovative miles of protected lanes with inexpensive materials. Although the Cultural Trail cost quite a bit, it’s nice to imagine that in the near future we’ll want to make these lanes more permanent and rideable. And for that we need not look to Europe, we can go check out Indianapolis.
Note: Please don’t miss our associated Streetfilm on Indy Mayor Greg Ballard AND a short looking more in-depth at the bioswales and storm water management system along the Cultural Trail.
The vice president of design and marketing at Landscape Forms calls on the outdoor-furniture industry to build the collaborations that will shape the metropolitan experiences of tomorrow.
The MultipliCITY collection designed by Yves Behar and fuseproject
Images courtesy Landscape Forms
All of us treasure our time in outdoor spaces. So why do we devote so little of our attention to their design?
As a designer in the site-furniture industry, I am always curious about the value people place on the outdoors. I like to ask people I meet to describe a great city like New York, Chicago, or Paris and what they most remember about being there. Or I ask them, if they won $25,000 to spend on a dream vacation, where they would go and what they would do. Their fond memories of a celebrated city or an escape into the wild often have little in common, except for one thing: Their most memorable and meaningful experiences almost always revolve around the outdoors.
We have studies showing that people tend to be healthier and happier, and can enjoy longer lives, in areas where they have access to nature, including green urban spaces. Outdoor spaces are some of the least expensive to create and can pay some of the highest returns on investment—in terms of community life, health and wellness, and the generation of economic activity in surrounding areas. As more people—from young professionals to retirees—move back into cities, green public spaces and vibrant streetscapes are often cited as key factors for attracting residents and businesses.
Despite this, we do not give outdoor spaces the same value and financial support that we give to buildings and interiors. We calculate the square-foot dollar value of buildings and interiors but don’t do the same for a square foot outdoors. We have not made a strong business case for designed outdoor spaces—we can and should be making this case. I also believe that design and innovation in public and privately owned outdoor space is lagging—and the first step to address that challenge is to better leverage the skills and talents of landscape architects, the professionals best prepared to design them.
In collaboration with landscape architects and other design professionals, all of us in the site-furniture industry can elevate awareness and promote greater investment in outdoor spaces that create memory and meaning.
This is a time in human history when landscape architecture has something really important to say. We should listen. Landscape architects practice a discipline rooted in holistic thinking. They understand the natural environment, the built environment, and the interface between them. And they are ideally prepared to take leadership in shaping outdoor spaces and framing public awareness about them.
Recent high-profile projects such as the High Line and Millennium Park have achieved placemaking of the highest order, and the star landscape architects responsible for them have captured public attention. But there is a whole legion of talented, inspired landscape architects out there who should also be at the center of envisioning and designing outdoor space.
Central Park Conservancy Recycling System designed by Landor Associates
This is also a time when industry can play a constructive role. Those of us who provide the site elements that help shape and activate these spaces need to do our part, and I’m excited about taking on that challenge, researching methods to make the case for the return on investment for well-designed outdoor spaces measured in terms of community, identity, well-being, environment, and dollars spent. I am focused on driving innovation with new types of scalable solutions that go beyond the standard litter bin, bike rack, and bench, to help people enjoy great outdoor experiences. The outdoors starts only a half-inch outside the door, so we need new ideas for spaces adjacent to buildings. We also need to integrate technology in public spaces, but in ways that respect the special qualities of the environment.
I am excited by the work and believe that, in collaboration with landscape architects and other design professionals, all of us in the site-furniture industry can elevate awareness and promote greater investment in outdoor spaces that create memory and meaning. We can make a real difference in the urban landscape that is our future.
Kirt Martin is the vice president of design and marketing at Landscape Forms, leading the company’s creative teams for product development, marketing, and marketing communications. Martin is an award-winning industrial designer, and previously directed design activities at Turnstone, a division of Steelcase.