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.
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 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.
The Downtown Oxnard Vision Plan Charrette was held in Oxnard between January 29th and February 2nd 2016. The Charrette was organized by the City of Oxnard, the Oxnard Community Planning Group (OCPG), and the Congress for the new Urbanism – California Chapter (CNU-CA). The Charrette, lead and created for Oxnard by the CNU-CA, was a resounding success – bringing together many stakeholders from the Oxnard community.
The Administrative Draft report is the culmination of 5 days of community input and dedicated and creative work by the more than 20 distinguished planning professionals of the CNU-CA.
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.
What has not changed over the last 25 years is that decisions regarding the growth and development of our communities are still being made by community leaders who might be experts in politics, but do not have an adequate understanding of placemaking principles.
Uninformed decisions can lead to bad results. You are familiar with the types of poor policy decisions that spring from this uninformed position— all road widenings are “improvements,” all density is bad, the public works department should treat an urban area exactly the same as a suburban area, etc. For those of us who are focused on improving our communities through competent urban design, this is a source of great frustration.
So here are my Top 10 Techniques for Educating Community Leaders about Placemaking. If you find yourself similarly frustrated, consider the following tools for those you believe are open to enhancing their knowledge (not everyone is).
1. Lunch. Lunch is rarely adequately leveraged because it is viewed as nothing more than… lunch. But your placemaking initiatives are essentially political issues, and if you want political support you need to build trust with leaders. Whether it is lunch, breakfast, dinner or drinks, start building the relationship and along the way view it as an opportunity to provide valuable information that will help the leader make more informed decisions. And budget for it.
2. Speaker Series. Establish a formal speaker series that brings compelling practitioners to town to speak about your community’s hot topic issues. If you need to gain a lot of ground in a short amount of time, try to put together a monthly series that lasts one year like Chad Emerson did in Montgomery, Alabama. The value in that program was not simply found in the speakers, but in the periodic gathering of community leaders where placemaking issues were the focus. Also consider finding partner organizations who can sponsor or co-sponsor stand-alone events at least once a year like the annual “Smart Growth Luncheon” series that the Independent publishing group has facilitated for the past eleven years in Lafayette, Louisiana.
3. Private Meetings with Speakers/Consultants. When a speaker or consultant comes to town, do not rely upon public events to connect with community leaders. Rather, schedule private meetings where frank discussions can occur without the fear of media coverage. Try to schedule these meetings over a meal if possible. When I conduct Smart Growth Workshops for a local association of the National Association of Realtors, the private meetings are oftentimes more important than the public workshops themselves.
4. Local or Regional Conferences. The Center for Planning Excellence has hosted the multi-day Louisiana Smart Growth Summit in Baton Rouge for the past ten years. It brings national speakers to town, and this recurring dialogue has dramatically improved the quality of projects in the region and state. The Institute for Quality Communities in Oklahoma is another regional organization that is making a differencewith this tool.
6. CityBuilding Exchange. The CityBuilding Exchange is designed to overcome the objections to other national conferences by compacting the content into two days, limiting participation to 100 registrants, holding the event in a place filled with placemaking lessons (this March it will be in New Orleans), and focusing the content on the tools and ideas that community leaders need to understand from the nation’s leading practitioners.
7. Field Trips/Walking Tour. A field trip with community leaders to a place that can serve as a model for where you want to go (or where you do not want to go) as a community is a highly effective educational tool because it permits the conversation to get real. After attending a SmartCode Workshop in 2003, Texas Representative Mike Krusee facilitated a field trip of all of the mayors in the Austin region to visit Washington, D.C. so that those leaders could better understand how transit oriented development could improve the quality of life in the Austin region. In 2004 Austin approved its first commuter rail referendum. Note that the field trip also permitted the building of relationships between community leaders that can form the basis of working together in the future. Finally note that a walking tour can be incorporated into a field trip (or be a stand alone event in your community) where an expert in urban design can take community leaders on a walk down a street and talk about the urban design elements that are working as well as those that are not working. Once again, these trips bring to life the concepts in a way that gets beyond the platitudes on placemaking.
8. Personal Emails. National news articles, local news stories or the release of a new study on an important placemaking topic can serve as an opportunity for you to email a community leader with your perspective on an issue. Instead of simply forwarding the information to the community leader, make sure that you clearly and succinctly state how the information relates to making your community better.
9. Webinar/OnLine Video Presentations. Watching webinars (whether new or old) or online video presentations together with community leaders can be a difficult sale, but it is worthy of your consideration — especially if you set it up as a “lunch ’n learn” event or even have end of the day cocktails. This tends to work better with community leaders who are on city staff as opposed to elected politicians.
10. Books, Web Sites, Blogs and eNewsletters. Provide resources to community leaders so that they can learn more on their own. Your efforts should focus on two basic approaches. First, buy a book or series of books that are particularly relevant to your community, then loan or give those books to community leaders. In my community, I use Jeff Speck’s book, Walkable City as the introductory primer on placemaking. Second, have a very, very, very short list of resources such as websites, blogs, a LinkedIn Group or e-newsletters that you can recommend as an ongoing source for information.
Quality Information, Patience and Persistence = Success. Regardless of the tools you choose to use, remember that the mission will not be accomplished in a day. But, if you exercise patience and persistence, you will improve your community by arming your community leaders with the information they need to make better decisions.
Beach density and climate action zones offer a proven, two-tier approach to fitting housing comfortably within our current lifestyle.
Source: Howard Blackson
California’s Bay Area housing disaster tells Southern Californians that our housing crisis will only get worse and doing nothing is both an irrational and irresponsible response. We are faced with deciding to have more neighbors or pay more taxes as we desperately need money to fix our city’s crumbling infrastructure. The conundrum is that we despise taxes and the mere mention of ‘density’ polarizes any discussion into either demands for no new growth or building tall towers.
I believe answers to meet San Diego’s housing demand are found in the following two-tier approach:
The first tier is a baseline ‘Beach Density.’ An existing housing model found in our older, traditional beach neighborhoods that fills our need for the ‘missing middle’ types of housing. This model is essentially a residence or shop with three (3) to five (5) units on each lot that are no more than two (2) to three (3) stories tall. All of these homes and businesses are mixed together every few blocks or so. By allowing every lot in San Diego’s urbanized areas to have up to five (5) units’ by-right, we have the opportunity to solve for our critical housing and infrastructure financing deficiencies without dramatically altering our city’s character. Ultimately, the entire city can enjoy and benefit from our healthy, outdoor lifestyle that this Beach Model provides us.
The second tier is more precisely located ‘Climate Action Zones.’ Per its recently adopted Climate Action Plan, the city of San Diego is required to take actions to “Implement transit-oriented development within Transit Priority Areas,” and to “[a]chieve better walkability and transit-supportive densities by locating a majority of all new residential development within Transit Priority Areas.” In combination with the Beach Density’s baseline housing bump, these Climate Action Zones are intended to achieve our city’s legally binding Climate Action Plan within a reasonable timeline.1 We cannot expect the city to complete it all at once, but it can accommodate for an urban acupunctural approach… pin pricks at key points to make great change.
These ‘zones’ will require updated and new city policies, including community plan updates, to facilitate increases of land use intensity near our region’s transit investments. Fortunately, we have one of our nation’s first and best Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) guidelines written by planning guru Peter Calthrope in 1992 that have sat neatly on a shelf in the city’s Planning Department over these many years, having been emasculated by our currently suburban and convoluted parking regulations. We should dust these off, as they’ve been proven throughout the world – as well as Portland – to increase transit ridership. In addition, we should manage our off-street parking and simplify one space per unit to permit transit, walking, and biking to be as advantageous as driving.
A ‘tower’ in San Diego is a building over 7 stories, and are only appropriate in one or two areas beyond downtown. However, 4 – 6 stories have been built in our old streetcar neighborhoods since their founding 100 years ago, as this height is a ‘walk up’ and appropriate in ‘walkable’ neighborhoods. Climate Action Zones should be located on the 4 to 8 blocks (600 feet radius) around primary intersections with cross-street transit service, currently built as 60’s era gas stations, drive-thrus, and strip centers.
Data shows that the majority of trips within 600 feet of a transit station are made by transit, bike or foot. These zones would permit mixed-use, up to 7 stories/90 feet tall max, using our TOD guidelines that allow for shared parking ratios with limited Community Plan conformance reviews in order to ensure transition steps to protect neighbors. Rather than waiting to build another Rancho del Rancho on our suburban periphery, these retrofitted intersections will be the focus of new development for the next 15-years. Successful case studies include Salt Lake’s Commuter, Light Rail (LRT), and Streetcar corridor economic engine, Dallas’s new LRT stations and Klyde Warren Park and Historic Streetcar value explosion, and Denver’s new infill coding success.
It is untenable to keep century old urban communities from change. But we know change brings fear to local citizens, which is why this two-tier approach makes very clear that new housing can fit comfortably within our current lifestyle if we explicitly plan for what we need using San Diego proven models. Finally, we have to plan for the change we want in order to fix our infrastructure, add public spaces, and to continue to be relevant to working economies by providing attainable housing, accessible transportation, and our unique outdoor lifestyle.
Participants in Decatur’s Porchfest take over the streets. Source: Instagram user oakhurstporchfest.
It seems everywhere I turn lately I stumble my way into a conversation on creative placemaking — people looking at the activation of public space as a way to further their personal and collective passions and pursuits.
It’s heartening. I’m a firm believer that our taking of emotional ownership over the spaces in between the stuff we build and buy pays critical dividends towards a lot of the things we purport to care about: community, our children, the environment, even various spiritual and religious callings many hold dear.
In short, public space is the world we share. And it’s better when it reflects the whole of who and what we are.
The role of government
Given that public space is the purview of local government, it’s unsurprising that much of the creative placemaking conversation is taking place in our city halls and public meetings. And what I’ve found, even among the most progressive governments who actually want to foster a culture of creative initiative, is a sense of discomfort with exactly what role to play.
By definition, governments are in a position to lead. They set and enforce rules. They manage municipal funds. They decide what is and isn’t going to get done. But, driven as they are by elected officials, they’re also very adept at following. What politician hasn’t checked to see which way the wind’s blowing at least a time or two before taking a position?
Leading and following. They’re good at it. They’re set up that way.
But that’s the rub. Because when it comes to human expression and the activation of space, neither role produces particularly good results. They may lead to a parade being organized or a festival being produced or a mural being decided upon and painted— all of which are valuable things — but they will never engender our innate, and ceaselessly attractive compulsions to do, make, create and share.
For those things to happen in an unbridled, chaotic and indisputably authentic way, government needs to do the one thing it’s most uncomfortable doing: get out of the way.
A difficult mindset
I was reminded of this fact recently at a presentation by Aaron Friedman, the founder of Make Music New York now taking his ideas to other communities as the executive director of the nonprofit Make Music Alliance. He was in Atlanta exploring how folks from the arts and from local governments and other institutions might start working together to launch a Georgia version of the event.
For nearly an hour he detailed what Make Music Day is all about, which I’ll try to paraphrase: An international holiday where people take to the streets in a freeform celebration of music and public space.
Fostering that, he detailed the behind-the-scenes work typically required — permitting, securing good performance spots, doing matchmaking between musicians and venues — to make such a vision become real and allow people a genuine sense of freedom that they’re able to express themselves musically in whatever way they feel.
Closing his remarks he opened the floor to questions, and that’s where things got a little bit weird. Because so many of the questions were a variation of this: “How do you prevent people from doing such and such?” Or “how do you ensure people participate in the appropriate way?”
Aaron was very patient and answered each question with some variation of “You don’t.” It was all very amicable and necessary to a group of people finding some common footing towards a shared endeavor but it really reminded me that the challenge being faced is not just one of government. We’re all conditioned to think the same way. Who’s in charge? What’s the program? What are the parameters?
All the questions that typically deflate the true essence of creation.
So it’s a challenge. Government plays a very big role in physical placemaking. They drive the construction of physical infrastructure. If a plaza gets built, it’s typically the work of city hall and, if not, it’s still most likely the work of large and powerful forces.
Once it’s built, what I often see among spirited souls within the system is the questioning of how to thenactivate the space. And that’s a totally logical concern when you think systematically. But lately I’ve been increasingly convinced that the best approach is the opposite one: you don’t.
It’s not the time for government to do more. It’s the time for it to do less.
The mandate should not be that we’re going to build and activate a space. The mandate should be that we’re going to build the right space, that embodies the values and aspirations of the community, and then we’re going to get out of the way and allow community to flourish within it in whatever way people choose to do so (within your basic health and safety parameters, obviously).
The Strong Towns way
None of this is any great revelation to followers of Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns movement, but I mention Chuck because, in addition to conversations about placemaking, we’ve also had a number of exchanges about our kids. And that’s the analogy that really seems to fit here:
Know when to let go.
We love our kids. We create them, we nurture them, we help mold them, hopefully, into people of character and conviction. But then we reach the point where our role is done. And even though we know, if we’re honest with ourselves, just how clueless they actually are when compared to the wisdom they’ll gain over time, and just how likely it is that they’ll stumble and do mindless, idiotic things as they grow and mature, we let them go.
And you know what? More often than not, they end up amazing us with what they do. Or make. Or create. Or share.
That’s the relationship government needs to have with creative placemaking. Inspire an active citizenry. Create supportive infrastructure. Invest in public space.
But then set people free to be who they are. You just might be amazed by what happens.
Several common assumptions about new urban codes fail to stand up to scrutiny.
Form-bases codes encourage a wide variety of housing types, such as quadplexes—not just high-density residential units.
Since 1981, approximately 600 form-based codes (FBCs) have been prepared for communities across the US, and 362 of them have been adopted. Most of the adoptions have taken place in the past 10 years. But as exciting as that may be, what’s more exciting is that these numbers are miniscule when you think about how many communities exist in the US. If this reform of conventional zoning is increasingly gaining acceptance and being applied to larger areas, why are there still so many misconceptions?
Despite a wide variety of improvements in how form-based codes are strategized, prepared, and used, many of the planners, planning commissioners, elected officials, members of the public, and code practitioners I meet continue to harbor misconceptions or misunderstandings about these codes. Here are the ones I encounter most:
FBC dictates architecture. Some of these codes do prescribe details about architecture, but most do not. Perhaps because many of the early codes were for greenfield projects where strong architectural direction was needed or desired, the perception is that a FBC always regulates architecture. Yet the majority of codes I’ve prepared and reviewed (30 authored or co-authored, 10 peer-reviewed, 9 U.S. states, 2 foreign countries) do not regulate architecture. I’ve prepared codes where regulation of architecture (style) was important for a historic area, but those requirements did not apply anywhere else. The “form” in form-based codes may mean architecture, but not necessarily. Form can refer to physical character at many different scales—the scale of a region, community, neighborhood, corridor, block, or building.
FBC must be applied citywide. To my knowledge, Miami, and Denver are the only US cities that have applied form-based coding to all parcels within their boundaries. In general, FBCs are applied in two ways: to a site to implement a development project or to several areas as part of a zoning code amendment or update. This second category sometimes involves reconfiguration of the zoning code to retain a set of conventional zones for “automobile-oriented suburban” patterns while adding form-based zones for “walkable-urban” patterns. This is called a hybrid code because it merges the conventional zoning and form-based zoning provisions under one cover, in one set of procedures.
FBC is a template that you have to make your community conform to. Untrue. Conventional zoning, with its focus on separation of uses and its prohibition of ostensibly undesirable activities, often conflicted with the very places it was intended to protect. Perhaps what some refer to negatively as a form-based code’s “template” is the kit of parts that repeats from one community to another—the streets, civic spaces, buildings, frontages, signage, and so forth. But a form-based code is guided by how each of those components looks and feels in a particular community. The FBC responds to your community’s character.
FBC is too expensive. FBCs require more effort than conventional zoning—but then, conventional zoning doesn’t ask as many questions. FBCs reveal and thoroughly address topics that conventional zoning doesn’t even attempt. Some communities augment conventional zoning with design guidelines; those guidelines aren’t always included in the cost comparison, and in my experience they don’t fully resolve the issues. A FBC has the virtue of ensuring that your policy work will directly inform the zoning standards. Further, the the upfront cost of properly writing a FBC pales in comparison to the cumulative cost of policy plans that don’t really say anything, zoning changes that require the applicant to point out reality, hearings, and litigation over projects.
FBC is only for historic districts. FBCs can be applied to all kinds of places. Granted, they are uniquely capable of fully addressing the needs of a historic district because of their ability to “see and calibrate” all of the components. Such a FBC works with not instead of local historic procedures and state requirements. This is in contrast to conventional zoning’s focus on process and lack of correspondence with the physical environment it is regulating. While a FBC can be precise enough to regulate a very detailed and complex historic context, that same system can be fitted with fewer dials for other areas.
FBC isn’t zoning and doesn’t address land use. If your FBC doesn’t directly address allowed land uses or clearly rely on other land use regulations, it is an incomplete FBC. Some early FBCs were prepared as CC&Rs (covenants, conditions, and restrictions) because of particular development objectives, and some well-intended early FBCs oversimplified use restrictions. Since then, FBCs have augmented or fully replaced existing zoning, including land use requirements.
FBC results in “by-right” approval and eliminates “helpful thinking by staff.” With so much emphasis on how FBCs simplify the process, it’s understandable that this perception has caused concern. Throughout the FBC process, focus is placed on delegating the various approvals to the approval authority at the lowest level practical. I’ve seen few codes that make everything “by right” over the counter. The choice of how much process each permit requires is up to each community. Through a careful FBC process, staff knowledge and experience does go into the code content through shaping or informing actual standards and procedures.
FBC results in “high-density residential.” FBC does not mandate high-density residential.” Instead, it identifies housing of all types—from single-family houses to quadplexes, courtyards, rowhouses, and lofts over retail—and explains their performance characteristics. Density is one of many such characteristics. Through the FBC process, communities receive more information and decide which kinds of buildings they want and where. FBCs enable higher density housing—where it is desired by the community—to fit into the larger context of the community’s vision.
FBC requires mixed-use in every building regardless of context or viability. Conventional zoning has applied mile upon redundant mile of commercial zoning, resulting in an oversupply of such land and many marginal or vacant sites. By contrast, FBCs identify a palette of mixed-use centers to punctuate corridors and concentrate services within walking distance of residents and for those arriving by other transportation modes. FBCs identify the components; it’s up to the community to choose which components fit best and are most viable in each context.
FBC can’t work with design guidelines, and complicates staff review of projects. Because conventional zoning doesn’t ask a lot of questions, most planners have had to learn what they know about design on the job, and need design guidelines to fill in the gaps left open by the zoning. That’s how I learned. A well-prepared FBC doesn’t need design guidelines because it explicitly addresses the variety of issues through clear illustrations, language, and numerous examples. However, we are not allergic to design guidelines; the key is to make sure that the guidelines clarify what is too complex, variable, or discretionary to state in legally binding standards.
I’m enthusiastic about FBC and regard it as a far better tool than conventional zoning for walkable urban places. However, it’s still zoning, and it needs people to set its priorities and parameters. It needs people to review plans and compare them with its regulations. Having a FBC will require internal adjustments by the planning department and other key departments, such as Public Works.
Form-based coding began in response to the aspirations of a few visionary architects and developers who wanted to build genuine, lasting places, based on the patterns of great local communities. Unresponsive zoning regulations often erected insurmountable barriers to these proposals and made proposals for sprawl the path of least resistance.
From its outset 35 years ago, form-based coding exposed the inabilities of conventional zoning to efficiently address the needs of today’s communities. Today, form-based coding is a necessary zoning reform—one of several important tools that communities need to position themselves as serious candidates for reinvestment.
A Georgia suburb seizes the opportunity of a closed GM factory to plan for a town center.
A park in Woodstock Downtown, which is a model for Doraville’s new town center.
Throughout the US, discontent is growing over the state of our cities and towns. Frustrated by traffic congestion, a lack of transportation and housing choices, and places that increasingly resemble nowhere in particular, many elected officials, business leaders, and residents are coming together to envision communities that are often strikingly different from conventional suburbia.
Many residents express concern over the kind of growth they are experiencing, but few realize that this growth has not occurred in a vacuum. Transportation policies, lending practices, funding priorities, and consumer preferences have all had a profound impact on the shape of our communities. Even more significant, however, are local government zoning and development regulations, which often mandate the very development patterns that many lament, while making anything else illegal.
In order to change the physical design of neighborhoods, towns, and cities, and realize the visions of diverse community-based plans, zoning and development regulations (collectively known as “codes”) must change. However, the ability to implement a new design plan is not the only reason to change existing codes. For one thing, current regulations are often the result of many years of individual text amendments and ordinances, and internal inconsistencies are common in amended regulations. In some communities, codes are even unwritten, but have been applied for so long that nobody questions whether or not they are still valid.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to updating codes. Different communities have different visions, staffing resources, and regulatory priorities. Additionally, different parts of the existing code may work perfectly fine, while others are grossly inadequate. After careful review, one community may benefit from creating minor amendments to existing codes, while others may wish to throw the whole thing out and start from scratch. Not surprisingly, most coding projects fall somewhere in between these two options.
The work begins by reviewing the existing codes and pinpointing how well they do or do not align with the master plan and other public policies. The ability of the governmental staff to administer the codes is always key to this phase. The process leads to a determination of where changes are needed and what they should entail. Typically, these include expanding permitted housing types and uses, addressing the relationship between building facades and the public realm, revising density standards, incorporating streetscape requirements, modernizing parking requirements and much more. The next step is to work closely with local stakeholders to actually write and adopt the necessary code changes.
Once a new code is adopted, some communities transform gradually, while others have dramatic opportunities to redefine themselves. This is the case with the City of Doraville, Georgia—a suburb of Atlanta—where, for decades, much of the commercial and residential development supported the city’s General Motors assembly plant. When the plant was slated to close, city leaders saw the opportunity to create a master plan for a model mixed-use area centered on the city’s public transit station. The plan is designed to improve connections and encourage pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development (see regulating plan and rendering, below).
Doraville’s traditional code primarily supported single-use development and had to be rewritten to allow increased density to support a vibrant community center and ensure multiple transportation options. The new code has been dubbed, “The Livable Community Code,” and it is already attracting developers eager to participate in Doraville’s renaissance.
It doesn’t always take a major event like Doraville experienced to galvanize a community to envision and bring about positive change. Woodstock, Georgia—a more distant Atlanta suburb—is a great example. The railroad town was chartered in 1897, but in recent decades, the surrounding strip shopping centers and malls drew business away from Main Street. By the 1990s, it looked like a town that time had passed by.
After studying what had been accomplished in other communities, city leadership brought in a team to recommend how to best revive the town center without losing its history and character. Numerous community meetings were held to solicit input, and from there, a vision was created using the Atlanta Regional Commission’s LCI (Livable Centers Initiative) program.
Because of the LCI, developers were attracted to the city, and ultimately a team of commercial, retail and residential specialists worked together to shape the town. It quickly became apparent that the new vision could not become a reality under the city’s existing codes, so our firm, TSW, wrote new zoning codes to allow and encourage the higher-density, mixed-use development envisioned by the town’s leadership and citizens. Woodstock’s elected officials also worked with downtown churches to loosen the existing alcohol restrictions to make the town more appealing to restaurants.
The 32-acre area was officially named Woodstock Downtown. Historic buildings were renovated into shops and restaurants and a new five-story residential building with retail on the ground floor was designed to blend into its historic surroundings (see photo at top of article). New homes of various sizes now surround the downtown area. And, throughout the process, the vision and redevelopment stayed true to Woodstock’s roots as a historic railroad town.
These are but two communities where newly-adopted codes have already started to lay the foundation for a better tomorrow. And, best of all, the new codes not only allow the cities and towns to move forward with today’s vision, but they have paved the way for the communities to grow organically over time to meet the future needs of the new generations who will one day live, work and play there.
If we’re going to curb climate change, urbanism — developing sustainable cities and metro regions — will have to lead the way.
So says Peter Calthorpe, an architect, urban planner, and one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
In his latest book, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, he argues that green technology and alternative energy alone won’t mitigate climate change, but that they will need to integrate with smart urban planning and development to really make a difference. I talked with Calthorpe about what that looks like in practical terms, how urbanism is the cutting edge of environmentalism, why sustainable cities are more than just a fad, and more.
SmartPlanet: You say in your book that Americans must reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions to 12 percent of their current output. Briefly paint the picture of a city that is designed to reach that goal?
Peter Calthorpe: It’s not a simple – either you live in the suburbs or you live in the city. We used to have things called streetcar suburbs that were very walkable, in California they were built around bungalows, and people walked more and they biked more and they used transit more in those areas.
You basically have to get to a situation where you reduced your dependence on the automobile, and your car is very efficient – 55 mpg. But perhaps more important, you’re only driving it 5,000 miles a year instead of 30,000.
You’re getting around otherwise by walking to local destinations, using you bike, and using local transit networks. You’re probably also living in a townhouse or an apartment where the building is very efficiently built, and demands very small amounts of energy. There’s not a lot of water being used because you don’t have a big yard, but there’s a really cool park nearby. And you tend to eat a little more organic, a little more local, and a little less meat. And the power grid for your region is based at least 60 percent on renewables.
It’s a combination of all those things. But at its foundation is the more compact, walkable, urban environment, because it is what reduces demand. It reduces demand so much that you then begin to satisfy the demand with renewables.
SP: You’re saying that the question shouldn’t be, “do you live in a city or not?” but if you live in a community with these qualities?
PC: Right. And we almost had a perfect system before World War II in the U.S. We had great cities, people loved to live in them, and they were very walkable and transit oriented.
But we had suburbs that were also walkable and transit oriented, they were called streetcar suburbs. There were massive streetcar systems all around the United States. They were torn up after WWII by a consortium of GM, Standard Oil, and Firestone, and they were all replaced with buses, which became less and less desirable as they got stuck in the same traffic as cars. We transitioned away from a pattern that was pretty healthy.
The two compliment each other: the city center, in its higher urban forms, and the streetcar suburbs – what we now call transit-oriented development – really help each other.
Part of the mistake that the right-wing makes here is that they think in order to be ecological, everybody has to be forced into the same lifestyle, and that’s just not true.
More and more we live a regional life. Not just a life in a city or a town. Our economic opportunities, our social and cultural lives are regional and almost all of our environmental issues are regional: air quality, water quality, transportation. All these things are regional issues that can’t be dealt with by a single city or town.
SP: Is the urbanism that you described — sustainable cities — is the most plausible solution to climate change?
PC: I call it the foundation. If you don’t get the lifestyles to a healthier place, the amount of technology that you’re going to have to deploy is going to be really problematic. It’s conservation first. Reducing demands before you start talking about supplies. Too much of the discussion around climate change and carbon seems to focus on technology before it even begins to think about how people’s lifestyles can change.
Of course a more urban lifestyle, whether it’s a streetcar suburb or city, is just healthier and more affordable. It’s a win in many dimensions.
For example, we have an obesity crisis in the United States. Part of that is driven by the fact that we’re too sedentary, we don’t walk. Our communities have less of that natural policing that happens when people live more in the public domain. And more time in the streets and cafes, and less time in their cars. Safety gets in there, air quality is impacted, the household economics.
You can forget about saving the environment, what about just living affordable lifestyles? In America today it costs $5,600 a year to own a car. If you want to own a new one it’s like $8,000. So in American where the median household makes $50,000, and half of that is spent on transportation and housing, you can see how two cars immediately eats into a pretty big chunk of the household budget.
We’ve been able to demonstrate, here in California, as part of our implementation of AB 32, that you not only save the environment, but you save your pocketbook, and you create healthier people and stronger communities.
SP: You make a convincing argument that urbanism has a positive impact on health, economics, safety, and has other co-benefits. Are you saying you can be an urbanist without necessarily being an environmentalist?
PC: People like to live in cities not just because they’re environmentalists, but by living in cities and walkable towns they’re at the cutting edge of environmentalism. That’s the good news.
It should never be a single issue movement. Trying to design healthy sustainable communities impacts so many dimensions of our society that you should never just look at carbon or oil or even land consumption. But it succeeds on all those levels.
In California we looked at a more compact future that only had 30 percent of the new housing in apartments and 55 percent in townhouses and bungalows, with the end result still being over 50 percent of the housing in California being single family. Yet, the difference in land consumption was monumental. It went from something like 5,000 square miles down to 1,800 square miles.
That huge urban footprint, that savings there of 3,500 square miles of building over farmland, and habitats, that’s a very important component to many people, not just environmentalists.
SP: You talk about the history of urbanism with the rise of the suburbs in the 1950s and now a return to the city in the 2000s. Is urbanism and talk of sustainable cities just a fad or do you think there is a paradigm shift taking place?
PC: It’s a fundamental fact of demographics. When we gave birth to the suburbs we were pushing towards 50 percent of households were a married couple with kids. Now only 23 percent of households are married with kids. The other 75 percent have other needs, other priorities other than a big yard on a cul-de-sac. Whether it’s young single people or older empty-nesters or single moms struggling to make ends meet, there’s a whole different set of needs that revolve more around costs and a lot of issues.
When you get to a point where you either don’t want to drive a lot because you’re older and/or you can’t afford to drive a lot, you need places that work for those parts of the population. So this change isn’t just about a fad or a sentiment, it’s fundamental demographics and economics.
And the good news is that it helps us with our environmental challenge.
SP: In the book you say that we need more interconnected whole system fixes, where engineers are working with urban planners, and vice versa, to design a successful communities. What are some examples of this that you have seen successfully play out?
PC: Well, urbanism came along in the early 90s and has now demonstrated a huge number of successes in trying to think holistically about the design of neighborhoods and communities. They range from really large projects — like we did the reuse of the old airport in Denver, Stapleton. There are 10,000 units of housing there; it’s walkable, it’s mixed-use, and it’s very mixed-income.
One of the most radical things that happened there is that we ended up being able to put in one neighborhood the very high-end housing and the most affordable housing a block and a half apart. Whereas the development community had been operating for decades on the notion that you have to segregate income groups.
I think that there’s a lot [of benefits] for the society, for the strength and coherence and the basic sensibility and investment we have in each other to not live in isolated enclaves.
At the other end of the spectrum, the New Urbanists helped Henry Cisneros, when he was head of HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] to execute the Hope VI program, which was to tear down the worst of the public housing projects and build in their place mixed-use, mixed-income communities that really fit with their surroundings. They were no longer a stigma dragging huge sections of the city down.
There are a lot of success stories out there and a lot of good examples. So much so that the development community, and its leadership – for example the Urban Land Institute – has completely signed on to all of these precepts.
The models, the paradigms are there and once we come out of this great recession I think we’re going to be able to move in a much healthier direction.
SP: Do you think when we come out of the recession that there will be less single family home development and sprawl?
PC: The interesting thing is that the development community understands that the marketplace that’s going to come next is much more compact, walkable communities. The question is: are they going to be allowed to build it? Therein lies the big problem.
All of our zoning codes are still focused back into the hindsight, into single-use homes and low density. So all zoning needs to change, which of course is a huge political hurdle.
Then you have the problem of NIMBYs [not in my backyard], and a bunch of them actually use environmental alibis. They’re people who just don’t want infill, they don’t want density, they don’t want townhouses near their large lot, they don’t want commercial in the neighborhood, even if they could walk to it. Because fundamentally they don’t want change.
That creates a very perverse situation where even when the developers want to build the right thing, they don’t get the chance.
SP: Is that the biggest hurdle for building more walkable, dense communities?
PC: Absolutely. NIMBYs – it’s interesting to watch how many of them use environmental issues as alibis – are the biggest problem. Of course there’s infill parcel-by-parcel along an arterial, and there are also big infill sites which really scare people: old army bases, large industrial areas, and things like that that can be converted. People are frightened by the scale of change. But what they have to realize is that the end result is that development gets pushed farther and farther to the regional periphery where there’s less transit and fewer jobs.
[Along with zoning codes] there’s a third leg here, and that’s that our departments of transportation have a real strong addiction to building roads rather than transit. There are really three shifts [that need to take place]. We have to reframe the infrastructure and put more money into transit than roads, we need to redo the zoning codes, and we need to find a way to overcome local opposition to infill.
The problem is always that infill does cause local impacts, there’s no question. But when you’re looking at it holistically, it’s a much more environmentally benign way to grow. But on someone’s block it doesn’t look that way.
I live here in Berkeley, California. And I think downtown Berkeley is a prime example of this. We have BART, we have the university, we have jobs, we should be building high-rise residential right there, right at a transit node, right at the doorstep of a great university. But there are a lot of environmentalists here who just say, “no that’s not the right thing to do.” In the end what it means is people get pushed farther and farther out to the suburbs and commute greater and greater distances because there just isn’t enough housing close to the jobs.
SP: Most of your book is from a US perspective. But climate change is a global problem. Are there places around the world that are getting urban design right? Is the rest of the world going in the right direction?
PC: There are many northern European countries that are really getting it right. The Scandinavian countries are doing a fabulous job of putting the brakes on autos and really orienting towards biking and walking. Copenhagen is a great example of that. And in Sweden over 50 percent of all trips are on foot or bike, and it is a cold, wet climate. And they have, on a per-capita basis, higher incomes than we do. They could afford to drive everywhere, but they don’t. It’s the cityscape and it’s the culture. Those are good models.
I’m doing a lot of work now in China where they’ve got three of the four things you need to make good urbanism. They have density, traditionally they have very mixed-use environments – they have small shops everywhere. And they invest heavily in transit.
But they’re getting their street network all wrong, and they’re building super blocks that really defy the pedestrian and the biker. So you find these huge drop offs in pedestrian and bike mobility in China. What they need to do is reconfigure the way they design their street networks back to small blocks and human-scale streets. And if they do that they’ll really be a model.
Planners call them Accessory Dwelling Units—plus the inevitable acronym, ADUs. What they mean are the granny flats and in-law apartments sprinkled throughout cities and towns across the land, the finished basements, above-garage studios, rehabbed carriage houses, and other outbuildings on parcels generally zoned for single-family homes.
But here’s what they really are: an instant source of affordable housing, if only they could be freed from extensive restrictions that cities and towns have in place that tightly limit who can live there.
When I was at the Office for Commonwealth Development under Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, we tried to increase the supply of new multi-family housing at smart growth locations, in town centers or by transit stations. Yet it quickly became apparent that there were thousands of existing homes already, in the form of Accessory Dwelling Units. The trick was just to open them up.
This was no small task, as it turned out. Fueled by NIMBYism and concerns about density and school enrollment and parking and congestion, cities and towns wrote reams of codes requiring that property owners prove any occupants of ADUs were actually related. If not, owners could expect to be visited by inspectors checking out separate entrances and working kitchens and evidence of occupation, and brace for a fine. Eagle-eyed neighbors spotting a second mailbox or satellite dish were more than happy to alert the authorities.
In the face of this kind of code paralysis and regulatory over-reach, it’s understandable that reformers would just give up, and try to change policy in other ways. But in recent years, a sensible program of disentanglement has emerged from an unlikely place—the small city of Durango, Colorado, just north of the New Mexico border.
Conjured in the era of railways and mining, Durango has become a visitor destination, close to national parks, monuments, and forests, the Mesa Verde cliff-dwellers World Heritage Site, skiing, mountain biking, and whitewater rafting. It doesn’t quite have the affordability problem of Aspen or Telluride, but housing is a major issue for the array of incomes in the population of nearly 17,000.
From 2009 to 2013, confronting development pressures and concerned about housing, Durango overhauled its Land Use and Development Code, which called out Accessory Dwelling Units as an acceptable component of housing stock. A predictable process with reasonable standards was put in place for building new ADUs: a limit on the number of occupants (no more than five unrelated people), rules about how small the living space could be (550 square feet), an owner-occupied home requirement (no absentee landlords renting out both the home and the ADU), a ban on short-term vacation rentals such as through Airbnb, and design guidelines for balconies, window placements, and exterior staircases.
The big problem, however, was what to do with existing ADUs.
Since many of these homes were technically illegal, a form of “ADU Amnesty” was launched. Starting with two neighborhoods as a pilot program, the city asked owners to come forward about ADUs on their property. Residents could fess up in three categories—pre-1941, when there were essentially no rules about ADUs; 1941 to 1989, when ADUs could be considered legal but non-conforming use; and 1989 to the present, when tighter zoning was in place.
If somebody established an ADU completely under the radar, they were asked to pay the fee they were supposed to pay, ranging from $2,000 to $9,000, and the property got logged into the city’s inventory database. Owners signed affidavits on basic structural safety, and filled out forms on the number of occupants, age of the structure, and the utilities in place, and furnished a photo.
Getting the transactional details on the record was basically a process of regularizing what was a robust informal economy. And with the existing ADUs thus inventoried, and the rules in place for new ADUs, the city was all set, right? Not exactly. Opposition was fierce, and clever.
Rebellion in the pilot neighborhoods organized as CHEN: Citizens for Healthy Established Neighborhoods, which churned out letters to editors, op-ed essays, and leaflets with a red slash across “ADU.” The question was posed: affordable housing, or slums? One resident mapped her neighborhood and came up with hundreds of units already there, and hundreds more that would be enabled. That didn’t take long to make the front page.
City Hall and the planning office got mercilessly picketed, and somebody placed an ad in the local newspaper touting free building lots—listing the telephone number of the planning office as the place to call for more information.
The planners held firm, making a few minor adjustments, but not compromising on the basic principles of the program. They also launched a public education campaign, producing a video, Know Your ADUs. Amid the dark talk about slums, they kept it light and accessible—even fun, to the extent that was possible, what with lexicon like “legal non-conforming use” being part of the conversation.
The leaders of the effort, the planners Vicki Vandegrift and Scott Shine, shared a game at their presentation at the American Planning Association National Planning Conference last month in Phoenix. Yes, it was time to play “Unit or Not a Unit?”—a series of photographs that demonstrated how some single-family homes look like ADUs, while many ADUs are attractively woven into the urban fabric. (As the quiz went along, we all got better at spotting the dead giveaways—double meters and two street numbers, for instance).
One thing is certain, and that’s the number of communities across the nation confronting this very same issue. The APA session, theatrically titled Accessory Dwelling Units: The Durango Experience, was packed. A long line formed at the microphone for questions. Granny flats and in-law apartments are rising to the top of the affordability conversation from Boston to Seattle.
There may be no secret sauce for getting this done, but demonstrating the benefits—to owners, and to the community at large—is surely a centerpiece. Planners need to be flexible, but not compromise. And above all, stay positive. Even if they’re forced to change their telephone numbers.
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.
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.
… 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.
A safety evaluation of lane widths for arterial roadway segments found no indication, except in limited cases, that the use of narrower lanes increases crash frequencies. The lane widths in the analyses conducted were generally either not statistically significant or indicated that narrower lanes were associated with lower rather than higher crash frequencies.
It is clear, then, that at the very least, 10-foot lanes cause no more accidents than 12-foot lanes, and may cause fewer. But what about the severity of these accidents, a subject on which these studies appear to be mute?
Here we can make use of another study and some common sense. We all know that people drive faster in wider lanes, but we need the engineers to say it. Fortunately, the Texas Transportation Institute, as old-school as they come, has done just that. They state:
On suburban arterial straight sections away from a traffic signal, higher speeds should be expected with greater lane widths.
Granted, this study covers only one type of road, but there is no reason to expect opposite results on, for example, straight urban roads. The same logic would apply, although perhaps less dramatically: people drive faster when they have less fear of veering off track, so wider lanes invite higher speeds.
To conclude this radical thought experiment, we need to confirm another commonsense assumption, that higher-speed crashes cause more injuries and deaths than lower-speed crashes. This has been amply demonstrated to apply to all road users, especially pedestrians. According to a broad collection of studies, a pedestrian hit by a car traveling 30 m.p.h. at the time of impact is between seven and nine times as likely to be killed as one hit by a car traveling 20 m.p.h. This tremendously sharp upward fatality curve means that, at urban motoring speeds, every single mile per hour counts.
All of the above data, studies, and pronouncements, collected and disseminated by the mainstream traffic engineering establishment, point to the following conclusion: 10-foot lanes cause no more accidents than 12-foot lanes, and they may cause fewer. These accidents can be expected to be slower, and thus less deadly. Therefore, 10-foot lanes are safer than 12-foot lanes.
Before finishing, we need to investigate the carrying capacity of different width lanes, since traffic volume remains a legitimate concern. If safety were the only goal of traffic planning, all streets would be one-lane wide—or better yet, zero lanes wide. The fact that they are not means that we, as a society, are more than willing to sacrifice lives for automobility. So, what’s the data?
Here, as again reported by Petritsch, a thorough literature search conducted by the Florida DOT yielded these findings:
The measured saturation flow rates are similar for lane widths between 10 feet and 12 feet. … Thus, so long as all other geometric and traffic signalization conditions remain constant, there is no measurable decrease in urban street capacity when through lane widths are narrowed from 12 feet to 10 feet.
It is striking to hear this news from FDOT, the agency that may preside over the greatest pedestrian massacre in U.S. history. Four out of the five deadliest American cities for walking are currently in Florida. This is by design: in no other state has the DOT had such a powerful influence on the design of urban streets.
Alarmed by its horrifying safety ranking—and the barrage of resulting bad publicity—FDOT has taken bold measures to improve pedestrian safety. It released just last year a 44-page Florida Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Safety Plan. Unfortunately, while this document talks plenty about such things as driver, cyclist, and pedestrian education, only two of its pages deal remotely with the real culprit, traffic engineering. Here, we are told that FDOT intends to “implement pedestrian and bicycle best practices,” a phrase that is fairly meaningless without further definition.
To its credit, the plan advocates for the application of a “complete streets” policy to benefit cyclists and pedestrians. But such policies, as we have learned, make sure that some streets include bike lanes and sidewalks, but rarely require the dimensional properties that make them safe. Nowhere in the entireStrategic Safety Plan are lane widths discussed, or any other design feature of the roadway that might encourage deadly speeds.
In fact, you can learn all you need to know about this effort by glancing at the cover of the report, which is stamped with the project motto: “Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow.” Think about that statement, and what it implies. In an encounter between a car and a pedestrian, whose life is at risk? Who, then, is expected to reform her behavior? Certainly not the driver—and most certainly not any engineers who endanger their populations with 12-foot lanes.
A Test Case
I believe that FDOT—and every DOT—is capable of reform, but experience suggests that this will only happen when enough people make a stink. In Florida, we will be able to gauge the DOT’s willingness to enter the reality-based community by how it responds to a proposal recently made to restripe Okeechobee Boulevard, a deadly state highway that cuts through downtown West Palm Beach. Its nine lanes separate the Palm Beach County Convention Center from everything that conventioneers walk to, and are a nightmare to walk across or beside. These lanes, of course, are 12 feet wide.
What would happen if these lanes were reduced to 10-feet wide, as proposed? Three things. First, cars would drive more cautiously. Second, there would be roughly eight feet available on each side of the street for creating protected cycle lanes, buffered by solid curbs. Third, the presence of these bike lanes would make the sidewalks safer to walk along. All in all, an easy, relatively inexpensive win-win-win that DOT could fund tomorrow.
But will they? Only if they are capable of reform. Let’s find out. The agency’s bike and pedestrian coordinator, Billy Hattaway, is one of the good ones. But does he have the power to move FDOT to a 10-foot standard?
Moving beyond Florida, the task is clear. Our lives are currently being put at risk daily by fifty state DOTs and hundreds of county road commissions who mistakenly believe that high-speed street standards make our cities and towns safer. In my most considered opinion, these agencies have blood on their hands, and more than a little. There are many standards that they need to change, but the easiest and most important is probably the 12-foot lane. Armed with the facts, we can force this change. But only if we do it together.
It’s time to push this discussion to its logical conclusion. Until conflicting evidence can be mustered, the burden of proof now rests with the DOTs. Until they can document otherwise, every urban 12-foot lane that is not narrowed to 10 feet represents a form of criminal negligence; every injury and death, perhaps avoidable, not avoided—by choice.
In the meantime, I welcome evidence to the contrary. We’ve shown them our studies; now let them show us theirs. Unless, of course, they’ve thrown them out.
When you think of “affordable housing,” what’s the image that comes to mind? For lots of people, including many of those most in need of it, the picture is not a pretty one: it’s a scene of dreary, deteriorating high-rises or shabby, poorly constructed “garden” apartments with no garden in sight. Moreover, the projects come with lots of safety concerns, placed in “the wrong part of town.” Environmentally, they may be plagued with poor air quality, peeling paint, energy inefficiency, unkempt grounds, and litter.
There’s an unfortunate stigma associated with affordable housing in the US, particularly with publicly subsidized housing; and, if the reality frequently isn’t as awful as the reputation, I’m afraid the reputation is also grounded in more than a little truth in more than a few places. The stigma has been well-earned over time. What you are likely not thinking about, when you think of affordable housing, is state-of-the-art green design that would appeal not just to people of limited means but to others as well, and that’s unfortunate.
That’s the bad news.
But the good news is that I am beginning to see some new-generation developments that, if they foretell a trend, could put the stigma to rest. These new projects are not just better than expectations; they are enviable. They include subsidized units priced to be affordable to low-income renters, to be sure, but they also have high-quality design and features and amenities that could appeal to just about anyone in the market for apartment living. Even better, they are as green as they come, healthy for both people and the planet.
Affordable housing and design
Before I tell you about three of these great new developments, let’s begin with some background: affordable housing is a subject dear to my heart. In fact, I was born into post-World War II public housing in Hickory, North Carolina, where I lived with my parents until they could afford a private (but still affordably priced) apartment, along with employment, in the nearby city of Asheville. I was well into my twenties before I experienced any way of living, really, other than “affordable housing.” That said, I should stress that in our case affordable meant small but it did not mean unpleasant; I have a lot of happy memories from those days.
Indeed, even with respect to public housing I tend to think that the authors of government programs have tried to do their best for their clientele. But budgets have been tight, and some well-meaning concepts have not stood the test of time. Subsidized housing hasn’t been a failure, in my opinion – millions of Americans have enjoyed decent lives because of it – but it hasn’t been a universally rousing success, either.
In particular, great design – to say nothing of great green design – has not frequently been a feature of affordably priced developments. Writing a few years ago in what is now known as CityLab, Allison Arieff unsparingly criticized the dreary approach frequently associated with public housing:
“This soul-sapping approach to aesthetics is par for the course for affordable housing, which is meant not only to look low-budget but also low-effort. Conventional thinking on affordability proceeds from the misguided premise that anything well-designed will be, and look, expensive so it follows that design should not be a priority. Further, the argument goes, anything well-designed will be too appealing to eligible tenants, thus discouraging them from ever leaving. So affordable housing should not only be cheap, it should look cheap. As a result, much affordable housing is more punitive than homey, by design.”
That’s a brutal assessment. While I tend to think substandard design in affordable housing has come about more by inattention and a mass-production approach than by intent, there is little doubt that the results have often been lacking. Even worse, the effects of substandard design are frequently compounded by substandard maintenance over time, creating a “wrong part of town” even if things didn’t start out that way.
We need new models, and we need them fast. We especially need them in distressed neighborhoods to catalyze green, inclusive revitalization. Fortunately, I’m here to report that they are indeed on their way. I have seen quite a few over the last decade, but none more aesthetically and environmentally impressive than these three.
The Rose, Minneapolis
Let’s start with a super-green apartment complex in Minneapolis. I first came across The Rose in an Urban Land Institute email several weeks ago and took notice right way because of a stunning rendering and the project’s ambitious aspiration of achieving recognition under the Living Building Challenge, the most demanding of the green building performance rating programs.
According to ULI’s case study, the project comprises 90 apartments in two buildings. Significantly, it does not consist solely of affordable units but, rather, is mixed-income: 47 of the apartments are offered at subsidized rates to qualified residents, and 43 are market-rate; the two categories are indistinguishable with regard to finishes and appearance. Of the subsidized units, seven are set aside for residents who have experienced long-term homelessness; 15 are “section 8” apartments where tenants pay 30 percent of monthly income for rent. (Section 8 of the federal Housing Act of 1937 authorizes a federal rental assistance program administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.)
The Rose’s affordable and market-rate homes are interspersed throughout the project, which also includes among its outdoor features a 5,000-square-foot community garden. Additional outdoor amenities for all residents include a courtyard with “a lawn, a play area, a play surface that meets Americans with Disabilities Act standards, a rain garden, a patio with grills, a fire pit, and seating.” Indoor features include a fitness center, a yoga studio, and resident lounges, with floor-to-ceiling glass to maximize light and views. The units all have porches and, in the case of ground-floor apartments, access from the sidewalk as well as from the courtyard.
Green performance of any development is highly related to its location, generally the more central with respect to the metropolitan region the better. The Rose does impressively well on this score, its 2.3-acre site situated in an older, transit-accessible neighborhood just south of downtown Minneapolis. Simply put, people who live there don’t have to drive very much. The wonderful Abogo calculator from the Center for Neighborhood Technology estimates that households in the development’s neighborhood, on average, would generate only about 45 percent of the carbon emissions from transportation typically generated by households in the Twin Cities region as a whole.
The project enjoys a Walk Score of 86 (“most errands can be accomplished on foot”), a Transit Score of 76 (“transit is convenient for most trips”) and a Bike Score of 96 (“flat as a pancake, excellent bike lanes”). I wish there weren’t freeways nearby, but one can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the very, very good.
The Rose is designed to be 75 percent more energy-efficient than required by regional industry standards. Solar thermal panels are arrayed on the south side of each building and provide 35 percent of hot water needs. All stormwater will be captured and treated on-site, and all landscaping irrigation will be provided by graywater collected in cisterns with a combined 500-cubic-feet capacity. There is much more detail about the project’s green features (as well as its financing) in ULI’s case study.
The Rose was developed jointly by Aeon, a “nonprofit developer, owner and manager of high-quality affordable apartments and townhomes which serve more than 4,500 people annually in the Twin Cities area,” and Hope Community, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit headquartered in The Rose’s neighborhood and whose mission is inclusive revitalization of distressed neighborhoods. The developers consciously undertook the project as a model that, while aspirational, would be built on a foundation of replicable components and processes that could be applied elsewhere. Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle of Minneapolis provided the project’s architecture.
Paseo Verde, Philadelphia
I have a small connection to my second example: Several years ago, my employer (at the time) Natural Resources Defense Council partnered with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and a number of local community development corporations to work on green neighborhood revitalization. We wanted to build on the investment we had made over more than a decade as a founding partner of both the LEED green building rating system and one of its most exciting offshoots, LEED for Neighborhood Development (which we had developed alongside the US Green Building Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism). Our thinking was that the standards of LEED-ND in particular could serve as guidelines for helping low-income communities and CDCs improve their own neighborhoods.
One of that revitalization program’s first undertakings was to advise the planning for a new affordable housing development in Philadelphia. The site was a bleak surface parking lot at the intersection of 9th and Berks Streets in a part of town that had suffered severe disinvestment over the years. But the location had some major assets, including an adjacent regional rail transit station and Temple University, just a couple of blocks to the west. It was the kind of urban neighborhood that, while perhaps not impressive at the time, was well situated to improve with the right kind of investment.
Little did we know then that Paseo Verde, as the new mixed-income development would be named, would become one of the greenest neighborhood-scaled developments in the US, earning platinum ratings from both LEED-ND and LEED for Homes.
“Paseo Verde is a keystone development that connects an ethnically diverse, low-income neighborhood to the adjacent train station and to Temple University. Before the development, commuter trains hurried past a drab station and a dingy, fenced-in parking lot, shadowed by public housing on one side and blighted rowhouses on the other.
“Today, the same trains pull up alongside a mosaic of bright green panels, with tree-shaded roof gardens peeking through. A health clinic that had been hidden inside a public housing complex now announces its presence with a campanile, its wide windows facing a broad sidewalk bustling with pedestrians. Above are 120 environmentally sustainable homes—affordable for downtown commuters, university students, and families leaving public housing, all of whom enjoy green views and healthful amenities.”
As with The Rose, Paseo Verde is mixed-income: sixty-seven of those 120 units – all rental apartments – serve as market-rate housing while 53 are subsidized to be affordable to residents earning between 20 and 60 percent of the area median income. There is also a little more than 30,000 square feet of commercial space and a 994-square-feet community room.
Again, an appraisal of the development’s green features must start with its centrally located, highly transit-accessible and walkable site. Abogo estimates that households in the neighborhood generate, on average, only about 40 percent of the carbon emissions from transportation generated by households in the Philadelphia region as a whole. Paseo Verde’s Walk Score is 82; its Transit Score is 88; and its Bike Score is 72.
ULI’s case study on the development provides details on Paseo Verde’s many green features, and stresses that many of them double as amenities that help to market the project. Green infrastructure to control stormwater runoff, for example, includes “rain gardens, wide sidewalks with permeable paving, and green-roof courtyards that permit private decks for some apartments.” Indeed, the roofs are not only green in the sense that they are vegetated but also “blue,” collecting rainwater in specially designed fixtures that then release it gradually.
Energy efficiency measures include high-performance appliances within the individual homes (which are also individually metered) and rooftop solar panels that supply electricity to some of the development’s common areas. As in the case of The Rose in Minneapolis, great attention was paid to large windows to daylight both residences and common areas, providing tenants with views of green space and trees from every apartment and from the complex’s fitness room and inviting stairways.
Paseo Verde was developed by an equal partnership between the Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (Association of Puerto Ricans on the March), a Latino-based community development corporation with extensive experience in and a deep commitment to the project’s neighborhood, and Jonathan Rose Companies, a nationally known “mission-based, green real estate policy, development, project management and investment firm” headquartered in New York City. Architecture was provided by Wallace Roberts & Todd. In 2015 Paseo Verde was named project of the year by the US Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes program.
Via Verde, New York City
Finally, twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, one would have been hard pressed to name a more unlikely place for state-of-the-art green design than the south Bronx in New York City. Indeed, throughout the latter decades of the 20thcentury, the area stood as a national symbol of severe urban decay, best known for high rates of crime, gang-related drug violence, abandoned and decaying properties, and even an arson epidemic. It represented everything that had gone wrong in American cities.
But today the South Bronx is turning around, in some neighborhoods dramatically, and there is no better representative to illustrate that rebirth than what is probably so far the most celebrated of all US green affordable housing developments: Via Verde.
The blockquoted passages below have been excerpted and updated from my 2011 review of Via Verde, while the project was nearing completion:
Via Verde has some elements in common with The Rose and Paseo Verde but is much denser, befitting its New York location. It provides 151 rental apartments affordable to qualifying low-income households and 71 co-op ownership units affordable to middle-income households, all on a 1.5-acre site. The ownership homes comprise a diversity of types including single-family townhomes, duplex units, and live-work units with a first floor work/office space. There is also some 9,500 square feet of retail and community space.
As with the Minneapolis and Philadelphia developments, Via Verde’s location alone supplies a great head start on green performance, but in the case of Via Verde the numbers are even more dramatic. In particular, the New York City region as a whole has relatively low carbon emissions per household for transportation, but households in Via Verde can expect to generate only 12.5 percent of that already-low regional average, according to the Abogo calculator. The project’s Walk Score is a striking 98 (“walker’s paradise”); its Transit Score is 97 (“world-class”); and its Bike Score is 72.
What makes Via Verde especially noteworthy, though, is that the architectural and development team has created a distinctively innovative approach to green and healthy urban living: this begins with a spectacular stepped architectural form that creates 40,000 square feet (roughly an acre) of resident-accessible green rooftop terraces at varying heights. Intended to integrate nature with the city, the rooftops provide functioning green infrastructure that can harvest rainwater, grow fruits and vegetables, and provide open space for residents. The garden level in particular is intended to provide both an organizing architectural element and “a spiritual identity for the community,” according to the Rose Companies’ web site. (Like Philadelphia’s Paseo Verde, Via Verde was developed by a partnership including Jonathan Rose Companies.)
Other amenities that contribute to the project’s theme of healthy living include open air courtyards; a health education and wellness facility operated byMontefiore Medical Center; a fitness center; and bicycle storage areas.
Beyond health benefits, Via Verde also exceeds LEED Gold standards for building energy and performance. Along with the green roofs, which provide natural cooling in warm weather, the project utilizes low-tech strategies like cross ventilation, solar shading, and smart material choices, along with more tech-based strategies such as photovoltaic panels, high-efficiency mechanical systems, and energy-conserving appliances.
Returning to Allison Arieff’s point that affordable housing has been “meant not only to look low-budget but also low-effort,” these three projects suggest that there is indeed a better way, with housing designed from the start to be and look impressive, and to be and look impressively green. And, while all three might be described as leadership projects and thus somewhat atypical, the fact is that low-income housing is becoming better and greener right before our eyes, in part because of their examples (and the many additional examples being set by nationally-active investors such as Enterprise Green Communities and LISC’sBuilding Sustainable Communities program).
Indeed, I’ve been in this line of work long enough to spot an emerging trend when I see it. Is it too much to believe that the results so far portend well for what could become a new ethic in the way that we as a nation approach affordable housing? In his review of Via Verde, Kimmelman wrote eloquently about the importance of leadership projects:
“Higher costs for green construction have, over recent years, come to be accepted as investments in long-term savings. But spending extra for anything as intangible as elegance or architectural distinction? In Via Verde’s case maybe 5 percent more, by [Jonathan] Rose’s estimate, went into the project’s roof and its fine, multipanel, multicolor facade, with big windows, sunshades and balconies. What is the value of architectural distinction? How, morally speaking, can it be weighed against the need for homes?
“In terms of equitability and self-worth Via Verde does more than just aim to provide decent housing that fits noiselessly into its neighborhood. It aims to stand out, aesthetically, formally, as a foreground building, not another background one: to anchor the urban hodgepodge around it and make the area look more coherent, which in this case entails not echoing its context but redefining it. What is that worth? . . .
“[A]rchitecture doesn’t solve unemployment or poverty, and neighborhoods rise or fall as decent places to live on the quality of their background buildings, which do and should predominate. But they’re distinguished by their landmarks, by the buildings and places that people come to love.
“The greenest and most economical architecture is ultimately the architecture that is preserved because it’s cherished. Bad designs, demolished after 20 years, as so many ill-conceived housing projects have been, are the costliest propositions in the end.”
I couldn’t agree more. All three of these projects give me hope, and not just for affordable housing.
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.”
Will Calle Ocho become a “complete street”? Or remain a highway?
Miami’s 8th Street, also called Calle Ocho, is flanked by stout, boxy buildings on either side: gas stations, pawn shops, ACE hardware stores, supermarkets, and the occasional Cuban bakery with cafecito, croquetas, and pastelitos. The street is home to some significant cultural landmarks—jazz bars like Hoy Como Ayer and Ball and Chain, for example, and Versailles, everyone’s favorite Cuban restaurant. Around 15th Avenue, tourists pour out of buses and peer into Domino Park, hoping to catch elder Cuban exiles cursing out opponents over a game. Nearby stands the beautiful art deco Tower Theater, where Cuban immigrants would go to get their fix of American films back in the day.
While this last stretch has seen some improvements recently, 8th Street as a whole leaves a lot to be desired. The throughway is, essentially, a one-way, three-lane highway connecting Downtown’s Brickell neighborhood to the Western suburbs. It has pinched, dilapidated sidewalks. And crossing the road, locals say, is like playing Frogger.
“It’s not elevated, it’s not sunk; it’s a scar,” says Juan Mullerat, who is a resident of Little Havana and director at Plusurbia, a Miami-based urban design and architecture firm. “It allows for cars to move at high speed through a historic neighborhood.”
But now, the Florida Department of Transportation is kicking off a new study into the revitalization of 8th Street and its westbound sister, 7th Street. “As the study progresses, the vision for the corridor will begin to take shape with the input we receive from the public,” Ivette Ruiz-Paz, the media outreach specialist for FDoT told CityLab via email.
But local urbanists, developers, investors, city officials, and even city Mayor Tomás Regalado aren’t quite sure that FDoT’s vision is in concert with their own. “There will be a before and after for this project,” Mullerat says. “Question is, what is the after? Is it a ‘complete street’? Or does it remain a highway?”
Turning Calle Ocho back to a “main street”
Before launching into the project development and environmental study it’s doing now, FDoT completed a planning study of the corridor from Brickell Avenue in the East to 27th Avenue in the West (the area in the map above). From the report’s summary:
This part of the city has seen significant growth in the last decade, especially within the Brickell area, where current and future major developments are expected to impact the study corridor with increased travel demand.
To be fair, FDoT’s report mentions that the purpose is to create “a pedestrian-friendly corridor with improved safety, overall traffic operations, and mobility for transit, bicycle, pedestrian, and automobile users.” But the focus on improving access to the Brickell area has raised concerns that the rest of the street—especially the parts that run through Little Havana—will be an afterthought.
“What I hope is that the DOT can see Calle Ocho not just as a facilitator for traffic but as a beautiful boulevard,” Mayor Regalado told the Miami Herald.
To represent the interests of their neighborhood, Mullerat and his colleagues at Plusurbia have created an alternative plan for the street. The aim of this pro bono project is to present a vision of Calle Ocho as a “main street,” just like it was before it was refashioned into a high-speed vehicular conduit in the 1950s (pictured above, left).
For one, that means turning the street back to two-way. They also propose narrowing driving lanes, designating lanes for public transportation and bikes, and adding curb extensions or “bulb-outs.” Plusurbia also imagines shady trees and curbside seating lining the street.
Carlos Fausto Miranda, a real-estate broker and local property owner in Little Havana, has long beena proponent of mixed-use, mixed-income, medium-density urban development. Miranda says he’s on board with the suggestions in the plan, which “undeniably, unquestionably fits into the movement of new urbanism.”
He and other urbanists, however, differ on some of the finer details. Miranda, for example, would like 7th and 8th Streets to be considered together. That way, 7th street could be the main commuting throughway with bike and transit lanes, and 8th could have roomy sidewalks “for people to meet and interact.”
Andrew Frey, the executive director of the urban planning nonprofit Townhouse Center, has been fighting to make the city more walkable for a long time. He also likes Plusurbia’s general idea, but feels that bike lanes and parallel parking don’t mix. His other preference would be for the trees and street furniture to be along the curb, so that sidewalk space is clear for walking.
Generally, there’s consensus that Plusurbia’s plan, and the accompanying petition, is an invitation for everyone to participate in a much-needed conversation about the street. “I’m glad Plusurbia and other stakeholders are trying to insert neighborhood voices” into the planning process, Frey says via email. These voices aren’t often audible, he says. And when they are, they’re not always heeded.
The spillover benefits of the plan
Bill Fuller’s grandparents lived in the Shenandoah neighborhood, which isn’t far from where his office in Little Havana is now. Fuller has been investing in the neighborhood since 2001, and taken on a number of restoration and civic-engagement projects there. He recently restored and reopened Ball and Chain, for example, and organizes the Viernes Culturales art festival, which draws both tourists and locals to the neighborhood.
Fuller represents the new generation of Cuban immigrants trying to reclaim a neighborhood that, for many reasons, has been neglected over time. He wants to make sure that Little Havana reflects the past as well as the present of Miami’s Cuban-American, pan-Latin culture: It must be authentic and modern, but not tacky or cookie-cutter. “We’re trying not to create an Epcot version of Cuba,” Fuller says.
But Calle Ocho, in its current form, has been a persistent impediment to achieving that vision. Because it has been developed as a car-reliant throughway, it attracts car-oriented businesses with expansive parking. The businesses that aren’t drive-through don’t really get foot traffic. And because the street is an eastbound one-way, prospective patrons zip by in a hurry to get to work during the morning rush hour instead of stopping. On their return commute, they take 7th Street, and miss these businesses altogether.
If a version of PlusUrbia’s two-way, pedestrian-friendly plan were implemented, commerce in that corridor could really thrive, supporters say. Locals and visitors alike could stroll down the street, window-shop at small businesses, and experience the work of local artists and artisans. The makeover would usher in a better quality of life for the locals and allow the street to become a real destination for tourists.
“The principal street is the draw, [but] it’s going to have a spillover effect for the neighborhood,” Francis Suarez, City Commissioner of District 4 (which includes the area south of Calle Ocho) tells CityLab. And given that Little Havana is the densest neighborhood in the city—and an incredibly diverse one—the per-capita impact of the revitalization would be immense
The push to revitalize Calle Ocho comes as Little Havana experiences changes that locals believe threaten its character. The National Historical Preservation Trust put the area on its list of 11 most endangered sites in 2015 because of its dilapidated architecture. As housing prices elsewhere in the city skyrocket, Little Havana’s aging housing stock makes its residents vulnerable to displacement. Plusurbia’s plan, however, would only foster and conserve economic and cultural diversity, the firm says.
“Everyone benefits by a blend of people,” Steve Wright, president of marketing communications at Plusurbia, tells CityLab via email. “No one benefits from monoculture.”
A small step for Calle Ocho, a giant leap for Miami?
The arguments for a pedestrian-friendly street that Plusurbia is putting forth aren’tnew, but they’re certainly novel to Miami, which has made forays intowalkability and high-density, mixed-use development relatively recently. The question now is, will the Calle Ocho redesign take the city forward or backward with respect to urban design? And if it is forward, would that urge city and state officials to consider such updates to other, less visible neighborhoods?
The answers to those questions are coming, but one thing’s for sure: Calle Ocho is long overdue for a change.
“I often use the analogy of neighborhoods in the city being like siblings in a family. You love them all, but none of them are the same,” Mullerat says. “Little Havana is one of the oldest children in the family, who was neglected for a long time. And now it needs to become something more.”
L.A. and San Francisco are two of America’s leading urban economies. The Bay Area is the world’s leading center for startups and new technologies, and the home of companies like Intel, Apple, Genentech, Google, Twitter, and Uber, while L.A. is the center of film, entertainment, and pop culture. But when it comes to income, wages, and other key metrics for economic development, San Francisco has done far better than L.A. over the past several decades.
In a recent book, The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies, the economic geographer Michael Storper—along with his colleagues Thomas Kemeny, Naji P. Makarem, and Taner Osman—explores why and how San Francisco has performed so much better than L.A. Storper is one of the world’s leading urbanists, and has conducted definitive research on both regions in addition to authoring some of the most important books and articles on urban development of the past few decades.
In their book, Storper and his colleagues examine several key factors that shaped the different growth trajectories of these two cities and metro areas and what that means for their ongoing development. I spoke with Storper to find out more about this, and what other lessons we can take away from the diverging pathways of San Francisco and L.A.
In 1970, L.A. and San Francisco were virtually similar in terms of their incomes, wages, productivity, and living standards. Yet, by 2010, there was nearly a one-third difference in their income levels. Your book unfolds like a detective story that seeks to explain why San Francisco became so much more prosperous than L.A. One obvious difference is their industry structures. To what degree to these industry differences matter, and what other factors come into play?
Industry differences are essential. The Bay Area captured key New Economy industries such as information technology and biotechnology, and greater L.A. did not. But this is where the mystery starts, because if we were to look forward to the New Economy in 1970 or even 1980, L.A. had stronger endowments of new economy skills than the Bay Area did. It had the biggest pool of PhD engineers—including electrical engineering and computing and communications—in the U.S., and a higher proportion of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workers than the Bay Area. Why was one region able to take its endowments and transform them into New Economy ecosystems and the other region much less able to do so?
We hear so much about the high cost of housing in San Francisco, but L.A. is also a very expensive place to live and becoming more so every day. You find that, even when housing costs are taken into account, people still tend to make out better economically in San Francisco than in L.A. But do you also think that high housing prices will affect the economic growth of either city going forward?
The Bay Area’s high housing costs are largely a sign of its success in the sense that they are generated by demand on the part of a high-income labor force that must live in the Bay Area to do its work. But most Bay Area workers have more income after comparing housing costs than people in greater L.A. Going forward, both L.A. and San Francisco are facing high housing demand and a new geography of housing demand. In both areas, people now want to live in key centers. Because many have irregular working hours, there is high traffic congestion and people want to live closer to work. As a result, both regions need to expand housing supply, and they need to do so with more density. To do this, they need to tie the region’s centers together with much better public transit.
L.A. is in the midst of the country’s most ambitious urban rail expansion. Hopefully this will allow the city to make its employment centers denser, which facilitates the kind of interaction that New Economy industries require. But transit and dense housing alone do not generate high-wage, high-skill economic development. It is vital to remember this, because urban planners often fall into the belief that if you change the physical environment, it will automatically change the economic environment. This is a trap both regions must avoid, all while making necessary planning and infrastructure changes.
Your book devotes a whole chapter to leadership structures. To what degree have differences in their growth coalitions, leadership networks, and strategies played a role in the different growth trajectories of the two regions?
This is where the physical planning leaves off and the human infrastructure of the region becomes critical. What L.A. lacked as the New Economy came into being was the interconnections between different groups that would have allowed it to transform its pre-existing skills and organizations into New Economy industries. Even though L.A. had amazing technology endowments going into the New Economy, the existing firms were not pushed to do technology differently. They stayed with their old client, the Defense Department, and with making elaborate big technology systems (some of the best in the world).
In the Bay Area, different technology communities came together and transformed the pre-existing communications industry (also Pentagon-oriented) into the user-friendly IT industry of tomorrow. This had to do with the Bay Area’s networks of technologists, dreamers, and also a crisscrossing leadership structure that was brought together through the region’s key organization, the Bay Area Council. The council didn’t “plan” the future, but they facilitated a conversation about how the Bay Area had to become a skill- and technology-based economy. Meanwhile in L.A., the key regional leadership organizations were fragmented and backward-looking. They kept thinking that they could get land and labor costs down and go back to the “good old days” of the Old Economy. So they had the wrong conversation.
Some people would say that San Franciscans have perhaps a more cerebral, lower-key lifestyle, while L.A. tends more toward celebrity culture and materialism. Even the perception of this might turn off some firms or talent. Do such cultural differences factor into their different development trajectories?
Of course L.A. has celebrity culture, but that is one of its strengths. The entertainment industry was a New Economy ecosystem way back in the 1960s, and it has met every challenge of technology and markets brilliantly since then. L.A. has a bigger share of the nation’s entertainment industry than ever before. The problem is that there were no networks for Hollywood to “speak” to the technology communities and other communities of Southern California.
L.A. has had some hard economic times, but there is no doubt that it is an increasingly worldly city with an effervescent artistic and intellectual culture. What L.A. needs is to harness these advantages to better fundamentals: better and denser leadership structures, more connectedness among economic communities, more employment density, better basic education, and a focus on skills.
The Bay Area has a history of bohemianism and sophistication that is now melding with a technology-driven culture. One hopes that the Bay Area will not become a one-horse town, but will retain the mix of culture, criticism, eccentricity, and hard-driving entrepreneurship that has made it so dynamic for so long.
Much of the growth of both regions, especially in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, has been seen as a product of the suburbs. High technology, according to many, was an outgrowth of the Silicon Valley’s sprawling corporate campuses and “nerdistans.” But L.A.’s downtown has been attracting artists and creatives, and more venture capital and high-tech startups are being generated in downtown San Francisco than in the Silicon Valley. What might this back-to-the-city shift portend for these two regions?
In San Francisco, the new wave of IT development is urban, and spilling over to downtown Oakland. In L.A., there are stirrings of a tech belt known as Silicon Beach, centered on Santa Monica and Venice, which is more urban and separate from the sprawling tech areas of the defense industry along the ocean south of LAX airport and Orange County. L.A.’s downtown is emerging as a core of the L.A. arts and culture renaissance, but also as a center of L.A.’s corporate renaissance. If things continue at this pace, L.A. will have one of America’s biggest urban centers in the near future. I think this parallels what is happening in the world’s big cities in general, where the kinds of sectors that generate high wages and urban population growth require density. And that’s where both San Francisco and L.A. are on parallel tracks.
Way back when, the geographer Jean Gottmann theorized that our regional future would be “mega-regions” like the broad Boston-New York-Washington Corridor. Right now, greater San Francisco and greater L.A. form two separate mega-regions. Is it possible they might ever grow together like the Bos-Wash Corridor? Will high-speed rail help make that happen?
I think that’s a long way off, because the population densities are not there. But high-speed rail would have, at its core, a two-hour ride between Silicon Valley and the movie studios (San Jose to Burbank). This would effectively increase interaction between two essential 21st century industries. The greater interactivity would make the two even more dynamic by reducing travel times and increasing the frequency of exchange.
What are the biggest challenges that these two cities face moving forward? How might L.A. go about boosting its wages and overall economy, and how can San Francisco deal with housing affordability and ensure long-term prosperity?
There is a warning for the Bay Area: In the past, just when regions were on top of their major industries is often when those industries start to decline or to move away. Up to now, the Bay Area has avoided this fate by pioneering wave after wave of innovation within the IT sector, and now moving into biotechnology. It’s important that the Bay Area continue to do this, because it will face an ongoing loss of its more routine and cost-sensitive functions, no matter what it does to ease the cost of housing.
L.A. has different challenges. In L.A., the key is to make it function like a more integrated and inter-connected region. This is not just about transportation. It is even more so about the human networks of the region. The business and political leadership of Orange County, L.A. County, and the City of L.A. do not talk much to one another—they are rivals. There are historical reasons for this, but L.A. needs both the informal and formal networks that would allow it to combine its extraordinary resources to capture new markets. All of the organizations in greater L.A. need to understand that there is no turning back the clock. There are no policies that can make L.A. cheap again, and able to compete with Phoenix, Mexico, or China for cost-sensitive production. So L.A.’s future is as a skilled, high-wage region.
A recently published report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials includes insights from dozens of officials and practitioners across North America.
The Loop Link design project in Chicago. (Nate Roseberry, courtesy of NACTO)
Not all urban planners or city governments agree on what kind of street designs are best. But one thing remains clear: Cities who want to plan for the future must prioritize transit accessibility.
To aid this process, the National Association of City Transportation Officials has devised a Transit Street Design Guide, which contains insights from 18 different transit agencies, as well as officials and practitioners in 45 North American cities.
The guide functions as a one-stop shop for designers, city planners, and all those interested in improving the safety and efficiency of their streets. While it serves as more of a toolbox than a prescriptive rule book, here are some of the main takeaways:
Separate transit from standard traffic. Both downtown streets and major corridors have the challenge of accommodating many different modes of transportation. One way to improve safety and efficiency in these high-density areas is to ensure that public transit remains separate from standard traffic. “Transit is often faced with automobile congestion at exactly the time when it needs to be running at the highest frequency and in the most reliable way,” says Matthew Roe, the director of NACTO’s Designing Cities Initiative. “By giving buses and trains their own space on the street, we can make transit work extremely well at exactly the times when people need it the most.”
To help accomplish this, the guide recommends designating certain lanes as “transit only.” According to Roe, the Bronx’s Webster Avenue, along with many streets in San Francisco, are fitting examples of transit-only lanes that have improved both safety and travel times.
In those areas where buses and trams already share the street with cars, Roe says there are “a number of other treatments” that can reduce interactions between cars and transit, including boarding islands and in-lane stops. In Seattle, one-lane streets in each direction even allow bicycles to travel behind bus stops, thereby improving bus travel times.
Don’t forget about pedestrians. “All across the United States and the world, there are bus systems that run on streets that were not designed to be walkable,” Roe tells CityLab. “It’s critical that, as we strive to increase transit ridership, we examine how these major streets work for pedestrians.” One way to accomplish this, according to the guide, is to increase the number of pedestrian crossings at intersections and shorten the distance between crossings. Along edgefront streets (those that run along waterfronts, parks, or campuses), for instance, there is little to no space for vehicles to cross on one side. This presents an opportunity to install extended transit lanes that separate pedestrians from car traffic, as shown in the image below.
Maximize speed and efficiency. By allowing transit vehicles to pull up within two inches of the platform or side of the street, transit curbs have a huge impact on speed and efficiency. These curbs should be clearly marked, over six inches high, and can be either concave or rectangular (the design standard), according to the guide. If possible, they should also be tapered at the point of entry and exit to minimize boarding time. As an alternative, the guide suggests installing a rubber rail or plastic bumper to allow buses to hug the curb.
Another important measure for improving efficiency is to include contraflow transit lanes in a city’s design plans. These lanes are designed for streets with one-way traffic, and are typically reserved for bicycles or buses. According to the guide, they allow for shorter travel times by reducing encounters with nearby traffic. A 1999 study from San Francisco’s Department of Parking and Traffic confirms these findings by looking at the success of the first contraflow bus lane in downtown San Francisco. After examining four intersections at various times of day for an entire month, the authors found that buses along this lane saved up to 8 minutes in travel time after the lane was installed.
Prioritize design over the mode of transit. Despite controversies surrounding recently built streetcar systems, the guide focuses on creating the right designs rather than installing the right form of transit. “Whether it’s a bus or a streetcar or full-scale light rail, what really matters is that transit gets the time and space it needs,” says Roe, noting that the St. Charles Streetcar—the world’s oldest continuously operating streetcar—is an essential part of the New Orleans transit network, and still boasts a hefty ridership.
Don’t just design for downtown. “For a long time, a lot of cities have had transit networks that were designed primarily to give downtown office workers an alternative way to get to work besides taking a car,” Roe says. “[But] when you look at cities like Houston that have redone their bus network to serve all the neighborhoods in the city, sometimes that means doing a grid rather than a hub-and-spoke model focused on downtown. When you do that kind of work and really examine where people are going, you find really large increases in ridership.”
In addition to downtown areas, neighborhood streets face their own set of obstacles. While these streets only suffer from moderate pedestrian or bicycle traffic, their limited width and capacity make it difficult to accommodate a community’s public transit needs. To address this, the guide recommends improving transit stops to include designated spaces for pick-up and drop-off, and installing “boarding bulbs”—or sidewalk extensions—so that buses can stay in their traffic lane without having to pull up to the curb. The guide also highlights the need for reasonably-priced curbside parking.
Make streets accessible for all. Already, the U.S. Access Board outlines various requirements for making streets accessible for wheelchair users. And yet Roe still finds that “there has been a significant gap in detailed guidance on how to make bus boarding wheelchair accessible in new configurations of streets.” In addition to the basic standards developed by the Access Board, the guide outlines its own recommendations for designers and city planners.
“One of the critical things about accessibility is that there a lots of ways to make a bus stop or a rail stop accessible,” Roe says. “When you strive for universal design and make a stop inherently accessible through its design, you can speed up the boarding process for everybody.” A number of cities currently rely on ramps or low-floor or kneeling buses instead of outmoded lifts to provide wheelchair access. These small changes can make all the difference when it comes to speeding up the boarding process.
Emphasize sustainability. Green transitways, or large green areas along or between bus or rail tracks, are a cost-effective way to make an environmental impact, according to the guide. In addition to improving the aesthetics of a neighborhood, these planted areas also help to manage stormwater. One promising example is the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Transit Project, which created an “eco-track” to collect stormwater runoff and prevent it from entering the sewer system. Small initiatives like this can make a huge difference for cities today and well into the future.
Models matter. Let’s design more streets like the streets we already love.
When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when you’re a traffic engineer, it seems, everything looks like a highway.
If traffic engineers did not control the design of so many of our public spaces, this might not be a problem. But they do—and that’s especially true here in the U.S. Even when traffic engineers have the best intentions, too many simply lack the tools to make successful places. In the typical American city, asking a traffic engineer to design a walkable street is like asking a hammer to insert a screw.
In my last article for CityLab, 18 months ago, I wrote about over-wide driving lanes, and how they encourage speeding and make our streets more deadly. That piece, others like it, and the labors of many have helped to bring about a change in the way that U.S. engineers think about lane widths. While the war is by no means won, many transportation departments are beginning to accept narrower standards. The profession had shown itself capable of reform.
This gives me hope, and prompts me to take the conversation to a higher level. What is the next urgent battle to be fought in the name of more walkable, livable streets and communities? So many things come to mind: the value of trees, the need for parallel parking to protect the sidewalk, the epidemic of unnecessary traffic signals, the mandate for truly buffered bike lanes. . . the list goes on. But what if there were one category that managed to include all the others?
I believe there is, and it goes like this: models matter.
In other words, pay attention to precedent. So, you’re designing a street? Great! What street do you want it to be like? Does it look like that street? Not really? Why not? Where is there a street like the one you just drew? Is it any good?
Sounds obvious enough, right? Then why does it seem to happen so rarely? Are plans that hard to read? Why is it that engineers, planners, citizens, and the media all regularly don’t ask these questions?
Case in point: consider this recent example from Lowell, Massachusetts, a city with a great history of urban wisdom. Thanks to several decades of pro-planning public servants and a great non-profit called The Lowell Plan, the city has reinvented itself as a smaller, less expensive Boston, a place that now attracts residents and businesses to its great urbanism, focus on higher education, and commitment to historic preservation and the arts. Its once-abandoned downtown mills are now full of middle-class lofts, and a third wave of redevelopment is well underway.
Lowell is a city I know intimately, having lived there for some time in 2010 as I completed an “evolution plan” for the downtown. That plan is now being implemented and has, among other things, reverted a confusing and speedy network of one-way streets back to calmer two-way traffic. Lowell is a city that gets things done.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across an article earlier this month about the city’s plans for its southern gateway, the Lord Overpass. This site is particularly important to Lowell, being an area of major redevelopment as well as the key link from the train station (at right in the image below) to downtown (beyond the canal to the left). This collection of streets—a squared traffic circle floating above a highway—is due for reconstruction, and the city came up with the smart idea of putting the depressed highway back up at grade to create more of an urban boulevard condition.
At the level of intention, this seemed a wise plan. It is hard to find a pleasant urban place with two levels of streets, unless the lower level is completely hidden, and it was beyond the budget here to fully cap the highway. There are many good examples of surface boulevards that handle as much traffic as this section of road does, and replacing highways with boulevards is something that U.S. cities know how to do at this point. It turned out that, for the $15 million price tag of rebuilding the bridges, the city could just as easily truck in enough dirt to fill the hole. So far, so good.
But then came the plan, and my reason for writing this article. Picture in your mind a classic large urban street, one that will attract pedestrians while also moving a lot of traffic. Perhaps you are imagining Paris’s Avenue Marceau, Barcelona’s Passeig de Gràcia, or Washington’s K Street? Now look at the image below.
Not quite what you had in mind? Yeah, me neither. I have to reach the conclusion that the distinctions between the two models of boulevard and highway are actually more subtle than I am suggesting, because this drawing was created by a skilled engineering team, embraced by the City Council, local non-profits, and newspaper, and presented this month to resounding applause from neighborhood residents.
So, let’s zoom in and describe what we see:
Four lanes dedicated to motion straight through, just like the now-submerged highway;
Three lanes dedicated to turning motions, two of which swoop around the edges in great curves;
Two dedicated bus lanes, each about 17 feet wide, curb-to-curb. (A bus is 8 1/2 feet wide, so perhaps the goal is to squeeze two past each other?);
Bike lanes that are partly protected, partly unprotected, and partly merged into the bus lanes;
A collection of treeless concrete wedges, medians, and “pork chops” directing the flow of vehicles;
No parallel parking on either the main road or any of the roads intersecting it; and
Green swales lining the streets, resulting in set-back properties to the one side and open space to the other. (Note that the open space at the bottom of the drawing is too shallow to put a building on.)
Not listed above, but perhaps of the greatest concern, is the issue of precedent. While there exist a growing number of locations in America with street configurations like this one, it is impossible to name one with street life. Swoopy configurations like this design are found mostly in suburban drive-only locations out by the mall, not in cities. If no attractive place can be found with a similar configuration, then a design should not pass the street-planning smell test.
The comparison of drive-only suburbia with walkable cities then allows us to make this critique of the approved plan:
Walkable streets do not have swoops, slip lanes, pork chops, and other features that encourage drivers to make fast turns;
Walkable streets have narrow lanes, typically 10 feet wide—even for buses;
Walkable streets place continuous shade trees in any medians;
Walkable streets have parallel parking along every curb, to protect pedestrians (and potentially bikes) from moving traffic; and
Walkable streets are lined by buildings that give them life, and in urban locations these buildings are tall and sit directly against the sidewalk.
All of the above criteria, in addition to making pedestrians feel welcome, contribute to an environment in which cars drive more safely. Students of urban form will recognize that they all come from studying the proper model, the classic boulevard.
If the goal is to move lots of traffic in a walkable urban environment, there is only one time-tested model. As so well described in The Boulevard Book by Alan Jacobs, all successful boulevards follow certain rules, including those above. Since we know that proper boulevards make successful places, a respect for precedent gives us clear direction here.
So, what would this stretch of road look like as a boulevard? I took a stab at it above. To satisfy the car counters—because they always win—I even added a lane, to match the current condition. This proposal, one of many possible solutions, includes a 4-lane, high-volume center flanked by two 2-lane side roads. One of the lanes on each side can be dedicated to buses, if so desired. Each side road is flanked by parallel parking, and protected bike lanes are placed in the outer edge of the sidewalk, European style. All intersecting streets maintain parallel parking on both sides, and corners are tight, with no swoops. Street trees fill both medians, aligned with the trees in the sidewalks.
Nothing is wider than it needs to be, and the whole facility hugs the properties to one side, with no swales or setbacks. This leads to something surprising: free land. Three large and valuable building sites are now available in what is planned to remain wasted space alongside the railroad. This is great news, for two reasons. First, because the sale of this land—more than an acre of prime real estate—can be used to defray the costs of the project. Second, because a street is only as good as its edges. Without the spatial definition, activity, and supervision provided by buildings against the sidewalk, a boulevard is not complete.
This design was done quickly and could no doubt be improved. It is presented with the confidence that it follows a well-established model, and its outcomes can be predicted. Sadly, the current proposal that it hopes to replace also follows a well-established model, with predictable outcomes. These outcomes are a far cry from those currently anticipated by the good people of Lowell.
City planning is not just an art, but also a profession, and like in the professions of law or medicine, its practitioners have a responsibility to learn from past successes and failures. Study of precedent makes it clear that boulevards create street life and enhance real estate value, while highways obliterate street life and sunder real estate value. It is not too late for Lowell to embrace a model that will transform this site from a place that is easy to get through to a place worth arriving at. Similarly, all of our cities, as they contemplate expensive reconstruction of obsolete roadways, have two models to choose from, one led by engineering, and another led by precedent: the study of places we love.
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.”
Downtown District Master Plan - Oxnard Downtown Design Guidelines
"In 1996, the City of Oxnard approved the Oxnard Downtown District Master Plan to foster downtown revitalization."
"The intent of the Oxnard Downtown District Master Plan is to "...create a District of great buildings and streets, scaled and oriented particularly to the pedestrian. All urban and architectural design within the District must contribute to the accommodation and delight of people outside their cars walking around, exploring, shopping and meeting their neighbors in a public place." To accomplish this, design review is required for building changes and new signs."
"The Master Plan envisions retail buildings along specific street frontages to create an outdoor "room" of pedestrian interest and excitement. Retail store fronts on both sides of Fifth Street in the Downtown and along Meta Street, Oxnard Boulevard, as well as A, B and C Streets from Fourth to Sixth Street. City design review will ensure quality improvements."
Since the time of this document planning staff has not kept the promise of possibility to the people, and has not implemented the recommendations in good faith. Yes there is a Downtown Design Review Committee that is currently gutted and never had the expertise or teeth to make a difference.
The OCPG hopes that current planning staff (Circa 2016) will not follow in the footsteps of Oxnard's planning predecessors and instead work to raise the bar. The OCPG urges Oxnard City Planning staff to give up on outmoded text based zoning and other antiquated rules so Oxnard's downtown can become a vital and alive place for people.