May 202016
 

Place Making.

Writing about successful neighborhood planning, my friend and colleague Howard Blackson used the term “placeshaker” as a catch-all for the grass roots engagement efforts that empower, but don’t necessarily define, placemaking.

That got me thinking. Even though our firm is called PlaceMakers and our blog, PlaceShakers, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the distinction between the two. Is there a difference and, if so, is it a meaningful one?

I’ve decided there is. And defining the distinction is an important step in our shared pursuit of stronger, more endearing, more economically and environmentally viable places to live.

Bottom line, you need both.

Placemaking

First and foremost, placemaking is about making places so, by default, it favors certain roles and disciplines: planners, urban designers, code writers, economists, municipal leaders, architects, engineers, artists, engaged citizens, developers, and the construction trades.

That’s the nuts-and-bolts of it, but what is the consistent theme that ties them all together? I think it’s this: At least in north America, placemaking typically doesn’t exist in the absence of political will and all the assets (financial and otherwise), permissions, and community support that come with it.
By definition, placemaking’s a constructive, political effort, bringing change to the landscape. To make it happen, things need to be planned and agreed upon, then built or assembled, and that takes will — in the form of consensus, money and legal authority.

So, my partners and colleagues? Placemakers. City officials embarking on master planning or zoning reform? Placemakers. Artists changing the nature of space through installations or murals? Placemakers. Citizens in a roundtable meeting, exploring opportunities and spelling out how they might be better served by their city? Placemakers. See the photo at the top of this article for an illustration of that concept.

And the advocates, instigators, rabble rousers and the like? Well….

Placeshaking

More often than not, political will doesn’t just exist. It emerges. It morphs and grows through some amorphous combination of shoe leather, influence, and persistence. And that means placemaking doesn’t just happen. In political terms, placemaking represents the ends, not the means. It’s the tangible payoff to seemingly endless political skirmishes.

And the way to get there? Placeshaking.

Every time someone puts a “Slow Down” sign in their yard, or throws down some sod and lawn chairs in a city parking space, or rallies to give a downtrodden block a temporary facelift, they’re placeshaking.

Every time a group of neighbors starts hounding their commissioner to improve a park, or cyclists show up en masse at a commission meeting to validate the scope of their support, or a college student circulates an idea on how to leverage abandoned rail corridors for transit, recreation and green space, they’re placeshaking.

Place Shaking. Source: Build a Better Block, via Next City.

Placeshaking is about connecting with networks of shared interest and rattling cages. It’s about phone calls and rallies and blog conversations and demonstration projects. It’s about all the things that need to be done, just so we can begin the hard work of placemaking.

For all the cool stuff coming out of the Tactical Urbanism movement, it tends (at least in our estimation) to appeal primarily to the young. How can we expand the idea to be appealing to more types of people?

Maybe placeshaking is it. Maybe placeshaking is the umbrella under which Tactical Urbanists, Build-a-Better-Blockers, neighborhood activists, cyclists, pedestrian rights advocates, carbon reducers, yarn-bombers, community gardeners, aging-in-placers, and countless others looking to effect meaningful change through concentrated action, can find a sense of shared purpose.

I don’t know, as movements and monikers are a tricky thing to pin down. But I think the distinction between placemaker and placeshaker is coming clear, as is the relevance and role of each. Some may find themselves in one camp, some in the other, and some bouncing back and forth, wearing different hats at different times.

Two sides of the same coin, united in a joint quest for a better place to call home.

What about you? Where do you plug in? And what skill set is presently most needed where you live?

Original article.

May 202016
 

Source: Mary Black Foundation
A cornerstone of new urbanist practice, charrettes are often hard to finance: Here’s a guide to making them work on a tight budget.

Note: This article was written as part of the Project for Lean Urbanism and edited for Public Square.

Over the past decade, even as there has been a growing fascination with the benefits of charrettes as a tool for planning and public engagement, there has been a constant complaint that charrettes are too expensive. This complaint has become more common and more urgent in recent years, with shrinking budgets and tightening competition among firms for a smaller pool of available work.

The first step in Leaning the charrette process is a matter of shifting the scope and focus of the projects themselves to which the charrette is being ap­plied, and re-configuring the roles played by consultants, planning staff, appointed and elected officials, and citizens. In the context of the Lean Urbanism, the appro­priate version of the charrette would indeed be less expensive, but also more readily deployed as a tactical response in a pragmatic setting. We are looking for processes that leverage community capabilities, that can be mobilized with minimal expense, that can be mobilized quickly in timely response to cir­cumstances, and that are oriented to mobilizing social capital in order to get the most impact on the quality of the urbanism with the least in­vestment of either financial or political capital.

A Leaner charrette would be more focused on a specific piece of an incremen­tal process, would be facilitated by a smaller team less focused on the final documentation and more on building community relationships, and would leverage the available social capital more consistently with respect to shared learning, consensus building, and ultimately practical action.

There are five key dimensions of the charrette process that we would want to maintain in the context of a Lean charrette.

1. Multi-disciplinary and integrative approach. Special­ized expertise is often useful or even necessary, but can also be an obstacle to arriving at an op­timal response to more complex planning and design projects.

2. The benefits of efficiency and continuity associated with the compressed time frame. The scheduling of char­rette-related activities should sustain a sense of engagement in a process that moves from big ideas to practical action, that addresses prob­lems systematically but pragmatically, and that respects the time and contributions of all par­ticipants. When the process is spread out over a longer period, there is a real danger of losing that sense of continuity and purpose as stake­holders are engaged.

3. Transparency in decision making. Participants in a charrette process have the opportunity to see (and understand) the reasons behind choices that comprise any particular scheme, any particular solution.

4. Constructing a common narrative. The story of a process that is purposeful and continuous allows clear understanding of the transition from values to practical action/the motivations of actors, through a pattern of listening and responding.

5. The hybrid nature of the forum. The charrette process is not dismissive of stakeholders’ concerns or their local knowledge, but gives local knowledge standing in relation to the general knowledge of experts. Considerations that might not otherwise be heard are given the opportunity to make a difference. Professional expertise has tendency to screen information through specialized knowledge— it is, as Kenneth Burke once observed, a way seeing that is also a way of not seeing. Both the multidisciplinary and the hybrid nature of the forum offered by the charrette opens up the process in ways that both allows for more complex and robust solutions, and provides a basis for building consensus.

One way to begin breaking out the functions typ­ically involved in a charrette is to distinguish be­tween the design process and the public engage­ment process. First, it is a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach that produces complex re­sponses to complex planning challenges. Second, it is about the shared learning necessary to build consensus around those complex responses. Fi­nally, there is the focus on the ability to generate a basis for post-charrette action.

Components of a Lean charrette process

The following is an example of a way the process might be organized in order to be both relatively inexpensive and more capable of being precisely tailored for a Lean Urbanism project.

Step 1: Collaborative project start-up. It is all too often the case that the client and consultant team involved in a charrette tend to feel their way into a charrette through a process of negotiation that does not always involve clear communication. Part of the National Charrette Institute (NCI) approach involves an initial pro­cess of team building and project definition that outlines the scope and parameters of the project, enabling project partners to get very clear about the purpose and limits of their collaboration. This approach to project start-up would involve a small team facilitating a process that enables project partners and key stakeholders to establish clear framework for the project. Much of the fo­cus would be on clarifying the precise scope of the project, identifying the resources necessary for the design and planning process (base data, ex­pertise), and establishing the relationship between the design process and stakeholder engagement.

In the case of preparing for a Lean charrette, the most important aspect of this would be setting in motion a process that builds social connections, establishes shared knowledge, and leverages exist­ing community assets to build the foundations for clear decisions and precisely targeted, strategical­ly meaningful action. An example of this kind of process is the Lean Scan, developed by Hank Dit­tmar and the Prince’s Foundation for Community Building. The Lean Scan “is a new tool for find­ing latent opportunities in a town, a district or a corridor and leveraging under-used assets in a way that unlocks synergies between built, financial, so­cial and natural resources.” The collaborative project start-up would set in motion this kind of exploration of “latent opportunities” and unrealized capabilities in the community, preparing the ground not just for planning but for a robust implementation strategy.

Step 2: Practical vision workshop. Many times, what people call “charrettes” are essentially just “visioning” exercises. What distinguishes a char­rette process, however, is that it moves from the big ideas that might be articulated during such a workshop to the specifics of design and plan­ning proposals. The purpose of this workshop is to establish those common understandings that might enable a community to act outside usual regulatory channels. Often resistance to change is manifested in defense of procedural and tech­nical restrictions — not because they matter in themselves to the defenders, but because they are points of leverage that allow activists to obstruct a project. In a community of sophisticated activ­ists, it can be very hard to move efficiently past bureaucratic regulation for this reason. A vision workshop could be focused, in particular, on es­tablishing the principles and goals of immediate practical action. In a community that is interested in Lean Urbanism, such a workshop might pro­vide a locally grounded manifesto that establishes the framework for a series of Lean projects. This visioning might well be coupled with something like a Tactical Urbanism workshop.

Step 2a: Discovery process. Charrette team lead­ers facilitate a process that enables stakeholders to participate in gathering relevant information, organizing a process of shared learning, prepar­ing for the design process to come. This process needs to be geared to the specific conditions and assets of a community, but the key is that it is pri­marily an exercise in community organizing, as well as information gathering. Whereas it might simply be a matter of carrying out some pre-char­rette interviews with stakeholders, it would have the greatest impact to the extent that it involves mobilizing social capital, engaging both allies and potential opponents in building the foundation of local knowledge to feed into the design process. This could either be part of the vision workshop or an immediate follow-up to it, as the circum­stances might require.

Step 3: Design charrette. Once the founda­tional conditions have been established by the prior efforts, it is then possible to stage a 3 to 4 day process, involving a small multidisciplinary team working in collaboration with stakeholder representatives who have been prepared for this collaboration by the previous process. The char­rette could focus on design and spend less time on the vision and learning process that takes place in conventional charrettes. The precise scope of de­sign, principles, constraints, aspirations would be part of the previously established consensus, mak­ing it possible for a smaller multidisciplinary team to work through the iterative process of design in collaboration with organized representation of stakeholder interests. Because much of the shared learning, relationship building, and consensus building would be systematically organized ahead of time, the design charrette can be more focused on the design work, building on the foundations of pre-established understanding.

Conclusions

With an understanding of what it is about the charrette process that gives it the ability both to produce robust, adaptive and integrated solutions to complex problems, and to build support for those solutions, it becomes possible to distribute the functions of the charrette throughout a pro­cess that requires less concentrated application of financial resources (although more extensive application of community capacities that can be identified and mobilized through this process). The result is that one can do more with less in the way of financial resources. If one calculates a budget with respect to the number of days and team members required to accomplish the work, it is arguably possible to accomplish the planning and design pieces of the project for a half to a third of the budget that might be required for a fully staffed seven-day charrette. Perhaps most im­portantly, however, the outcomes of the charrette process would be more consistently oriented to active intervention rather than simply producing a plan or a report.

With particular regard to Lean Urbanism, there are two most significant considerations. First, it is a matter of getting the right people in the room as a way to cut through the structural obstacles set up by bureaucracy and the division of labor. The “right people” (in this case) includes the key decision makers but also key stakehold­ers who can share ownership of the initiative. To move efficiently, however, requires a certain amount of pre-established agreement with respect to values, goals, and some important limits to be respected. For example, a previous set of discus­sions and workshops might have established and branded a Lean project, linking it to a diverse set of interest and allies. Whatever the specific project might be at hand, it can be conceived as a manifes­tation of that initiative and thereby benefit from what is hopefully a diverse collection of allies.

Second, it is a matter of focusing the discussion with respect to scale, time frame, and, in some cases, reversibility. The charrette works because it allows for participation in a detailed “enquiry by design” (to borrow the phrase from the Prince’s Foundation). Tactical Urbanism works because it functions effectively as a kind of inquiry by prac­tice. A Lean charrette would be a way to mobilize strategically meaningful interventions that might have some of that tactical spirit, but be aimed at a cumulative and sustainable outcome, of a sort that might require somewhat more systematic applica­tion of expertise.

Original article.

May 202016
 
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.

Now what?

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.

Original article.

May 202016
 

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.

Original article.

Apr 262016
 

Will Calle Ocho become a “complete street”? Or remain a highway?

Image Courtesy of Plusurbia

PlusUrbia rendering of Calle Ocho with designated bike and trolley lanes. (Courtesy of Plusurbia)

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 cafecitocroquetas, 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”

(Courtesy of FDoT)

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.

(Courtesy of PlusUrbia)

“What I hope is that the DOT can see Calle Ocho not just as a facilitator for traffic but as a beautiful boulevard,” Mayor Regalado told the Miami Herald.

To represent the interests of their neighborhood, Mullerat and his colleagues at Plusurbia have created an alternative plan for the street. The aim of this pro bono project is to present a vision of Calle Ocho as a “main street,” just like it was before it was refashioned into a high-speed vehicular conduit in the 1950s (pictured above, left).

For one, that means turning the street back to two-way. They also propose narrowing driving lanes, designating lanes for public transportation and bikes, and adding curb extensions or “bulb-outs.” Plusurbia also imagines shady trees and curbside seating lining the street.

Carlos Fausto Miranda, a real-estate broker and local property owner in Little Havana, has long been a proponent of mixed-use, mixed-income, medium-density urban development. Miranda says he’s on board with the suggestions in the plan, which “undeniably, unquestionably fits into the movement of new urbanism.”

He and other urbanists, however, differ on some of the finer details. Miranda, for example, would like 7th and 8th Streets to be considered together. That way, 7th street could be the main commuting throughway with bike and transit lanes, and 8th could have roomy sidewalks “for people to meet and interact.”

Andrew Frey, the executive director of the urban planning nonprofit Townhouse Center, has been fighting to make the city more walkable for a long time. He also likes Plusurbia’s general idea, but feels that bike lanes and parallel parking don’t mix. His other preference would be for the trees and street furniture to be along the curb, so that sidewalk space is clear for walking.

Generally, there’s consensus that Plusurbia’s plan, and the accompanying petition, is an invitation for everyone to participate in a much-needed conversation about the street. “I’m glad Plusurbia and other stakeholders are trying to insert neighborhood voices” into the planning process, Frey says via email. These voices aren’t often audible, he says. And when they are, they’re not always heeded.

The spillover benefits of the plan

Bill Fuller’s grandparents lived in the Shenandoah neighborhood, which isn’t far from where his office in Little Havana is now. Fuller has been investing in the neighborhood since 2001, and taken on a number of restoration and civic-engagement projects there. He recently restored and reopened Ball and Chain, for example, and organizes the Viernes Culturales art festival, which draws both tourists and locals to the neighborhood.

Fuller represents the new generation of Cuban immigrants trying to reclaim a neighborhood that, for many reasons, has been neglected over time. He wants to make sure that Little Havana reflects the past as well as the present of Miami’s Cuban-American, pan-Latin culture: It must be authentic and modern, but not tacky or cookie-cutter. “We’re trying not to create an Epcot version of Cuba,” Fuller says.

But Calle Ocho, in its current form, has been a persistent impediment to achieving that vision. Because it has been developed as a car-reliant throughway, it attracts car-oriented businesses with expansive parking. The businesses that aren’t drive-through don’t really get foot traffic. And because the street is an eastbound one-way, prospective patrons zip by in a hurry to get to work during the morning rush hour instead of stopping. On their return commute, they take 7th Street, and miss these businesses altogether.

If a version of PlusUrbia’s two-way, pedestrian-friendly plan were implemented, commerce in that corridor could really thrive, supporters say. Locals and visitors alike could stroll down the street, window-shop at small businesses, and experience the work of local artists and artisans. The makeover would usher in a better quality of life for the locals and allow the street to become a real destination for tourists.

“The principal street is the draw, [but] it’s going to have a spillover effect for the neighborhood,” Francis Suarez, City Commissioner of District 4 (which includes the area south of Calle Ocho) tells CityLab. And given that Little Havana is the densest neighborhood in the city—and an incredibly diverse one—the per-capita impact of the revitalization would be immense

The push to revitalize Calle Ocho comes as Little Havana experiences changes that locals believe threaten its character. The National Historical Preservation Trust put the area on its list of 11 most endangered sites in 2015 because of its dilapidated architecture. As housing prices elsewhere in the city skyrocket, Little Havana’s aging housing stock makes its residents vulnerable to displacement. Plusurbia’s plan, however, would only foster and conserve economic and cultural diversity, the firm says.

“Everyone benefits by a blend of people,” Steve Wright, president of marketing communications at Plusurbia, tells CityLab via email. “No one benefits from monoculture.”

A small step for Calle Ocho, a giant leap for Miami?

The arguments for a pedestrian-friendly street that Plusurbia is putting forth aren’t new, but they’re certainly novel to Miami, which has made forays intowalkability and high-density, mixed-use development relatively recently. The question now is, will the Calle Ocho redesign take the city forward or backward with respect to urban design? And if it is forward, would that urge city and state officials to consider such updates to other, less visible neighborhoods?

The answers to those questions are coming, but one thing’s for sure: Calle Ocho is long overdue for a change.

“I often use the analogy of neighborhoods in the city being like siblings in a family. You love them all, but none of them are the same,” Mullerat says. “Little Havana is one of the oldest children in the family, who was neglected for a long time. And now it needs to become something more.”

Original article.

Apr 252016
 

A recently published report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials includes insights from dozens of officials and practitioners across North America.

Image Nate Roseberry, courtesy of NACTO
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.

“Bus only” lanes. (NACTO)

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.

Edgefront steet with pedestrian intersections. (NACTO)

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.

Contraflow transit lanes. (NACTO)

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.

Neighborhood transit stops. (NACTO)

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.

Center boarding island. (NACTO)

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.

Original article.

Apr 252016
 

Models matter. Let’s design more streets like the streets we already love.

Image Sergei Klambotski / Shutterstock.com
The Parisian Boulevard offers a time-tested model for the high-volume urban street. (Sergei Klambotski / Shutterstock.com)

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.

The current state of Lowell’s Lord Overpass. (Via Bing Maps)

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.

Rendering of option 3 for the Lord Overpass reconstruction. (Courtesy City of Lowell)

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.

The devil is in the details. (Courtesy City of Lowell)

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.

A typically swoopy suburban intersection near the Mall of America in Minnesota. (Via Bing Maps)

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.

A quick and dirty proposal based on the traditional urban boulevard. (Courtesy Jeff Speck)

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.

Original article.

Apr 232016
 

22 Benefits of Urban Street Trees by Dan Burden

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.”

22 Benefits of Urban Street Trees by Dan Burden

Apr 232016
 

Meet the U.S. Forest Service scientist putting a dollar value on urban forests.

Image REUTERS/Carlos Barria
A man rides his bicycle in Rock Creek Park in Washington D.C. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

David Nowak whittles down 30 years of studying the economic value of forests to this advice: If you can only plant one tree, plant it in a city.

After all, in an era of overwhelming need for urban infrastructure improvements, trees offer cities some of the best bang for their buck. Trees remove carbon dioxide, filter air pollution, and produce oxygen. They absorb rainwater, UV radiation, and noise. They slow down traffic, improve property values, and reduce human stress and mental fatigue. And they provide shade, which means we have to use less energy to cool down.

“Trees help us avoid emissions in the first place, in addition to taking out carbon,” says Nowak, a lead researcher at the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Syracuse, New York. “It’s a big problem that they help us solve.”

Nowak is one of the founding developers of the Forest Service’s free software program i-Tree. Using GIS and a complex set of algorithms, it allows communities and researchers to produce detailed inventories of their urban canopies, and calculate their dollar value. A recent i-Tree analysis of Austin, Texas, led by Nowak, estimated that trees save that city nearly $19 million annually in reduced building-energy use, some $5 million in reduced carbon emissions, and account for about $16 billion as standalone physical assets. Past that, they’re worth $3 million per year in their reduction of air pollution (based on avoided respiratory health problems), and nearly $12 million per year in the amount of carbon they sequester.

Since it launched in 2006, i-Tree has grown to include all of these different ways of assessing arboreal worth. But there are still more proven benefits yet to be translated into cold, hard numbers. Right now, some of Nowak’s work is focused on calculating the dollar value of the reduced air temperatures and absorbed UV radiation that trees provide. “We have the math to show how temperature reductions are based on tree cover,” he says. But the next step, converting that into value, is really difficult. “You have to look at how how overall temperature changes, and peak temperature changes, have different impacts on human mortality,” says Nowak, “which depends on where your body is physiologically adapted from.”

If that sounds challenging, it’s a cake-walk compared to another tree-driven phenomenon Nowak is trying to quantify: Reduced stress. “Lower cortisol is given off when you see green,” he says. Using satellite imagery and i-Tree’s analytical tools, “we want to develop an index of how much green you can see from any given point in a city, how your body reacts to it, and what the economic value is,” he says. Nowak dubs this index the “green force potential,” and adds that it’s very challenging to separate out trees’ effects from other social forces that play into urban stress. “This is going to take some time,” he says. “But we think this is the next frontier of our work.”

(U.S. Forest Service)

That work matters. Tools like i-Tree and others that have followed have helped cities around the world to think more strategically about the health and sustainability of their canopies. In the U.S., Culver City, Santa Monica, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Tampa are all in the process of developing urban forest master plans that make use of such quantified values.

But all of that isn’t enough. Recent Forest Service research (also led by Nowak) has found that urban tree cover in the U.S. is declining at a rate of roughly four million trees per year. (That’s about 150 times the number of trees in Central Park.) Canopies are giving way to buildings and parking lots. Insects, diseases, and severe weather events are destroying their trunks and leaves—forces that climate change will compound. In many cities, tree-maintenance budgets have been stripped. Often, humans don’t easily recognize all that trees provide us.

Putting a price on urban canopies seems to be helping, though. “Money drives decisions,” Nowak says. “It’s the necessary evil of the game.”

Considering all their benefits, it seems money really does grow on trees. But given all the forces against them, trees also grow on money.

Original article.

Oxnard Planning Documents

 
Mar 012016
 


Many streets in the oldest part of Quebec City are car-free much of the time. It is one of the most extensive car-free areas in North America. (CarfreeCities)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about car-free cities. Need a primer? Catch up here.

J.H. Crawford is the author of “Carfree Cities” and “Carfree Design Manual,” and publisher of Carfree.com.

We must first remember that all cities were car-free little more than a century ago. Not all cities responded to the advent of automobiles with the same enthusiasm as the cities of the United States. In fact, some cities never did adopt the car. Venice was unwilling to destroy itself in order to build streets wide enough for cars, and therefore has never had them except in a sliver near the mainland. The same situation exists in the Medina of Fez, Morocco, and several other North African cities. These districts are usually the most vibrant parts of their cities.

Cars were never necessary in cities, and in many respects they worked against the fundamental purpose of cities: to bring many people together in a space where social, cultural and economic synergies could develop. Because cars require so much space for movement and parking, they work against this objective — they cause cities to expand in order to provide the land cars need. Removing cars from cities would help to improve the quality of urban life.

[How jaywalking became a crime]

Transport modes have always exerted a strong influence on the basic arrangement of cities. The current form began to emerge in the 15th century, when the advent of horse-drawn carriages led to a demand for wide, straight streets. This requirement was adopted by Renaissance planners in most of Europe, and most urban plans of the past 500 years have straight streets that are relatively wide and corners that accommodate turning carriages. In many ways, this change was a harbinger of the automobile.

Transport, however, is not the only important use of streets. Streets are also our most important public social spaces. Most cities in Europe now acknowledge the terrible damage cars have done to this use, which is why cities all across Europe are discouraging automobile use in favor of walking, cycling and public transport. This is most clearly illustrated in Oslo, the first European capital to announce that its downtown core will soon be made car-free in order to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality, as well as to improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.

[Other perspectives: Transit is dead. Let’s prepare for the next mobility revolution.]

Battery-powered and driverless cars do not affect this situation to any great degree. They still demand too much street space for their movement and use too much energy. The movement of significant numbers of cars through the streets will always damage streets’ social use, regardless of how quiet and safe the cars may be. Only when people can stop in the middle of the street to talk without fearing what may be bearing down on them will we have fully restored the social function of streets.

Good public transport coupled with fast, safe, pleasant walking and bicycling can easily meet the need for movement within our cities. It is true that buses and streetcars do intrude on the main streets to an appreciable degree, but many streets will be entirely free of this annoyance. In the ideal case, public transport systems are constructed underground. (Ideally, transport systems should never be elevated, because of the ugliness, intrusion and noise that that causes.) This will not be practical in many existing cities because of the cost, and some burden of street traffic will have to be endured.

[Are Americans leaving cars behind?]

A more serious objection to the car-free city is the movement of freight. When building a city, it is a simple matter to arrange delivery of shipping containers to the places they are needed without impinging on streets. In existing cities, freight delivery systems will have to be arranged on a case-by-case basis. Amsterdam could, with little difficulty, deliver freight using its canal network. Cities that adopt streetcars for passenger service can use the same infrastructure to deliver freight at night.

Removing vehicles from our streets would make urban life cheaper, safer, quieter and more pleasant. Repurposed parking spaces and, in some cases, travel lanes would provide ample land for walking and cycling, plus any essential street-running public services, such as light rail, trash collection and emergency services. The surplus land can be devoted to public purposes — imagine Manhattan with sidewalks 15 feet wider and room for sidewalk cafes.

Governments should welcome the change. The cost of supporting car traffic far exceeds the revenues generated by user fees. In Europe, it is the densest places that are first made car-free, and the pedestrian traffic generated by these places is the heaviest in the city. Stores and restaurants thrive in these areas.

I believe that the social benefits alone entirely justify the change. Imagine a busy city that is calm, quiet and beautiful. Venice, which comes closest to meeting this test, is visited by 20 million people a year, the most of any Italian city. Other car-free areas are immensely popular with residents and tourists alike. Shopkeepers have often opposed these changes, only to discover that their business improved once cars were gone.

It is true that a certain degree of convenience must be sacrificed for this change. However, the benefits are large, and we can expect significant improvements in public health as people return to more active modes of transport. The noise reduction alone is a significant public health benefit.

The car century was a seductive mistake. It’s time to move on.

Original article.

Feb 282016
 

A conversation with Jonathan R. Wynn on his new book, Music/City.

Image Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock.com
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock.com

From Coachella, Glastonbury, and Stagecoach to Governors Ball, Lollapalooza, and Ultra, music festivals clearly play a role in the economies of cities. They bring in huge numbers of tourists and revenue, attract large audiences, create significant platforms for musicians, and help to build city brands.

In his new book, Music/CityAmerican Festivals and Placemaking in Austin, Nashville, and Newport, Jonathan R. Wynn—a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst—explores the rising “festivalization” of our culture. (Disclosure: I liked an early version of the book so much, I agreed to blurb it.) Wynn estimates there are now some 250-plus music festivals in the U.S. alone, which run the gamut from popular to niche genres. His book, however, focuses on three of the most iconic music festivals—Austin’s South by Southwest, Nashville’s Country Music Association festival, and Newport’s long-running Folk Festival, where Bob Dylan famously went electric.

In preparation for Music/City, Wynn developed his own participant observations by visiting these cities and festivals and conducting over 100 interviews with musicians, festival promoters, city leaders, and more. To delve deeper into his findings, I talked to Wynn about music festivals and what they mean to cities.

Your book centers on the “festivalization” of cities and society. How big of a phenomenon is “festivalization,” and what seems to be driving it?

Spectacles in cities have ancient roots, from seasonal rituals to exhibitions of corporal punishment. Festivals have likely been around just as long. However, there does seem to be a newfound need for cities over the last three decades to offer consumable experiences: short term events often drawing heavily from the images and cultures of local communities. Festivalization is the idea that urban placemakers develop event-based cultural policies in response to increasing post-industrial consumption, urban tourism, intense inter-city competition, and place branding. I argue that the success of festivalization is in the impermanence of events: Ephemerality is a feature, not a flaw.

Why choose to focus on three music festivals in three cities? What is special about these three, and what in particular can we learn from them?

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. (AP Images)

Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles are three exceptional American cities, with robust economies and a surfeit of culture. I was interested in comparing a triad of slightly smaller metros and their festivals because they seemed very different in their histories, culture, and senses of place. (Austin is the 35th largest metro in the U.S., Nashville is 36th, and Providence—which incorporates Newport—is 38th.) At the same time, these cities were each working to leverage their local cultural communities into distinctive signature brands. Many cities can learn from the successes and missteps of a mid-sized city like Nashville as compared with the more unique and complex cultural economies of a place like Chicago.

You note that certain types of music are deeply rooted in certain cities—blues in Chicago, jazz in New Orleans, country in Nashville, and so on. But from what I can tell, only a few festivals reflect the musical history and tradition of their city. To what degree do festivals showcase local artists as opposed to big name bands and acts?

Many festivals try to be of two minds in regard to local versus national acts. Marquee-level headliners draw outsiders and sell tickets, while local talent keeps a festival symbolically tied to place. (Booking local acts has a more practical function: they cost less.) Music can be deeply rooted, sure. But music is also wondrously mobile and adaptable. Jazz, for example, moved from Harlem to Shanghai with ease. Similarly, there might be something valuable about the Chicago Blues Festival—some would call it authenticity. But is that event truly better than a more intimate, yet less rooted, Blues festival in a place like Calgary? I wouldn’t say so.

It’s often said that there is little money left in selling recorded music, and that musicians either live or die on the road. How do festivals fit in with this broader shift in the music industry?

Musicians, record executives, talent bookers, and festival organizers all told me that festivals, with their sizable guarantees, serve as “anchors” along a tour. Interviews with mid-career and up-and-coming musicians repeatedly highlighted another key feature of festivals: They are opportunities to win new fans and, importantly, gain national or even international media attention. High-paying festivals might allow a band to book gigs in smaller venues in the hopes of broadening audiences in new markets.

The Band Perry at Nashville’s 2015 CMA Music Festival. (Al Wagner / AP Images)

You talk about three kinds of festivals—“citadel” festivals like Coachella, which consolidate events within a single space; “core” festivals like Nashville’s CMA Fest, which span convention center sports stadiums, large and small music venues, and include both paid and free events; and “confetti” festivals like Austin’s SXSW, which span multiple venues across a city. It would seem to me that a confetti festival might be the best kind to showcase a city.

In the book, I try to highlight the costs and benefits of each. “Confettied” festivals like Pop Montreal or Fête de la Musique creatively embed events in curious and varied places. Such a pattern of activity increases accessibility and spontaneous and unscripted interactions, but might lack the large media impression of a more focused event. Conversely, a “citadel” festival has the potential for high impact, high visibility, and manageable risk, but also lacks accessibility. The “core” festival might be the “Goldilocks” of the three, being neither “too hot,” nor “too cold” by holding smaller, more intimate events as well as higher profile spectacles.

Your book focuses on the connection between music festivals and city-building. Who are the local groups that push for music festivals? Are they the same boosters and growth coalitions that argue for stadiums and tax breaks? Or are they part of the arts and cultural establishment, i.e. the board members of the symphony, arts, and ballet?

Festivals arise due to different constellations of actors, and flourish or fail thanks to a variety of factors. Newport’s Jazz and Folk festivals were founded by wealthy benefactors and managed and sustained by a strong-willed impresario from Boston, George Wein. That case might best echo the cultural boosterism you are thinking of. Ticket sales and corporate sponsorships, more than wealthy benefactors, support the other two events I studied. The CMA Fest (once called ‘Fan Fair’) was founded and is maintained by the country’s first genre-based trade organization, the Country Music Association, after fans kept infiltrating their annual DJ convention. A few of Austin’s local alternative media and music people founded SXSW as a way to encourage label reps from Los Angeles and New York City to come see local musicians. Then there are festivals that use public funds, more like Canadian or European festivals: Chicago’s Blues Festival and Seattle’s Bumbershoot (which started as the “Mayor’s Arts Festival”).

It’s no secret that festivals bring their own set of problems to cities: traffic congestion, garbage, drugs, crime, to name a few. At times, this can lead to conflicts between festivals and neighborhood groups. Which cities and festivals are best at dealing with this? What are the best ways to cope with these inevitable tensions and conflicts?

When a young man drove through a SXSW crowd in 2014, it refueled arguments over the excesses and scale of the festival. SXSW developed some strategies for dealing with the unintended consequences of their success. For example, they recently offered free concerts with high-profile acts across the lake and away from the smaller venues. This reduced the pressure on the business-side of the festival, lessened congestion in the downtown area, and “gave back” to the community.

Concerns aren’t just logistical. There is often apprehension over what these “signature events” can and should represent. Nashville’s festival is a great example of this: In interviews, local bluegrass and folk musicians bristled when I asked about the CMA Fest because it showcases a relatively narrow view of what country music is, and in so doing obscures the more robust music scene in “Music City, U.S.A.,” which includes alternative rock (e.g., Black Keys, Jack White) and a large Christian music industry.

You argue that music festivals are often better at revitalizing communities than other kinds of initiatives. “Festival programming,” you write, “can more fluidly respond to the changing needs of the city, its residents, and the audience that attends.” I’m sure our readers will want to know more about this.

I compare contemporary festivals to two similar cultural forms. The first is the “mega event” like the Super Bowl, the Olympics, and the World Cup—most of which are economic and cultural calamities for their communities. The second is what I call “concrete culture”: the museums, performing arts centers, and sports stadiums. A report from the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center notes that our construction of such institutions over the last few decades has far outpaced interest. I propose that events like festivals, so long as they are sufficiently responsive to their communities, are much better investments due to their comparatively low cost and high malleability. One way to ensure this kind of responsiveness is significant public funding of the events, as they do in Canada and Europe.

Feist at the 54th edition of the Newport Folk Festival. (Joe Giblin / AP Images)

You argue that festivals are collective, placemaking events. Some festivals like Burning Man even erect temporary cities. What forces in our culture and society are behind this desire for community and place?

The drive towards connection and co-presence is certainly deep in our social unconscious. People love sharing experiences and seeing performances. I’ve seen even the most cynical music executive become spellbound by a great performance set in place. The recorded music industry, as you mention, is in trouble, but musicians will always perform, and people will always be there to listen.

At the end of the book you argue that festivals are part and parcel of an age-old human inclination for “occasions.” Whether it is a wedding or a music festival, these are rituals that people not only participate in, but remember, recall, and talk about long after. Why are festivals such an important part of our occasions today, and what does this mean for cities?

Occasions are transcendent, wherein people become more than themselves either in celebration or in anger. They become effervescent landmarks in memory. In my book on tour guides in New York, I suggested that our stories about cities are a series of events, like pearls on a string. More than anything else, I would say that we think about cities through those effervescent experiences.

Original article.

Feb 262016
 

Urban planners are finally recognizing that streets should be designed for people, not careening hunks of deadly metal.

After over a hundred years of living with cars, some cities are slowly starting to realize that the automobile doesn’t make a lot of sense in the urban context. It isn’t just the smog or the traffic deaths; in a city, cars aren’t even a convenient way to get around.

Traffic in London today moves slower than an average cyclist (or a horse-drawn carriage). Commuters in L.A. spend 90 hours a year stuck in traffic. A U.K. study found that drivers spend 106 days of their lives looking for parking spots.

Now a growing number of cities are getting rid of cars in certain neighborhoods through fines, better design, new apps, and, in the case of Milan, even paying commuters to leave their car parked at home and take the train instead.

Unsurprisingly, the changes are happening fastest in European capitals that were designed hundreds or thousands of years before cars were ever built. In sprawling U.S. suburbs that were designed for driving, the path to eliminating cars is obviously more challenging. (And a few car-loving cities, like Sydney, Australia, are going in the other direction, and taking away pedestrian space on some downtown streets so there’s more room for cars).

Here are a handful of the leaders moving toward car-free neighborhoods.

MADRID

Flickr user Mispahn

Madrid has already banned most traffic from certain city streets, and this month, the car-free zone will expand even further. Stretching over more than a square mile, the area will still allow neighborhood its own residents to drive, but anyone else who enters will be hit with a fine over $100. It’s one step in a larger plan to completely pedestrianize central Madrid in the next five years. Twenty-four of the city’s busiest streets will be redesigned for walking, not driving. Before the street layouts change, cars will also be discouraged in another way: Now the dirtiest, most polluting cars in the city have to pay have to pay more to park.

PARIS

Flickr user Luke Ma

Last year, when smog levels spiked in Paris, the city briefly banned cars with even-numbered plates. Pollution dropped as much as 30% in some areas, and now the city plans to start permanently discouraging cars. In the city center, people who don’t live in local neighborhoods won’t be able to drive in on weekends, and that rule could soon roll out to the whole week.

By 2020, the mayor plans to double the number of bike lanes in the city, ban diesel cars, and limit certain high-traffic streets to electric cars and other ultra-low-emission vehicles. The number of drivers in the city is already starting to drop. In 2001, 40% of Parisians didn’t own a car; now that number is 60%.

CHENGDU

Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

A new satellite city planned in Southwest China could serve as a model for a modern suburb: Instead of a layout that makes it necessary to drive, the streets are designed so any location can be reached by 15 minutes on foot.

The plans, designed by Chicago-based architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, don’t call for completely banning cars, but only half of the road area will allow motorized vehicles. The city will also connect to the larger, nearby city of Chengdu with public transit. Out of an expected population of 80,000 people, most will be able to walk to work in local neighborhoods. The project was originally planned for completion in 2020, but that may be delayed—it’s currently on hold because of zoning issues.

HAMBURG

Flickr user Peter Gutierrez

Though Hamburg isn’t planning to ban cars from its city center (as has been misreported elsewhere), the city is making it easier and easier not to drive. A new “green network,” which will be completed in the next 15 to 20 years, will connect parks across the city, making it possible to bike or walk anywhere. The network will cover 40% of the city’s space. The city is also covering up sections of the infamously crowded A7 autobahn with parks—so neighborhoods that were once hard to cross on foot will soon be more inviting.

HELSINKI

City of Helsinki

Helsinki expects a flood of new residents over the next few decades, but the more people come, the fewer cars will be allowed on city streets. In a new plan, the city lays out a design that will transform car-dependent suburbs into dense, walkable communities linked to the city center by fast-moving public transit. The city is also building new mobility-on-demand services to streamline life without a car. A new app in testing now lets citizens instantly call up a shared bike, car, or taxi, or find the nearest bus or train. In a decade, the city hopes to make it completely unnecessary to own a car.

MILAN

Flickr user Chris Yunker

The smoggy city of Milan is testing a new way to keep cars out of the city center: If commuters leave their vehicles at home, they’ll get free public transit vouchers. An Internet-connected box on the dashboard keeps track of a car’s location, so no one can cheat and drive to work. Each day someone’s car stays at home, the city sends a voucher with the same value as a ticket on the bus or train.

COPENHAGEN

Flickr user Daniel

Forty years ago, traffic was as bad in Copenhagen as any other large city. Now, over half of the city’s population bikes to work every day—nine times more bike commuters than in Portland, Oregon, the city with the most bike commuters in the U.S.

Copenhagen started introducing pedestrian zones in the 1960s in the city center, and car-free zones slowly spread over the next few decades. The city now has over 200 miles of bike lanes, with new bike superhighways under development to reach surrounding suburbs. The city has one of the lowest rates of car ownership in Europe.

None of these cities are planning—yet—to go completely car-free. And it’s possible that may never happen; it’s likely that future cities will have at least a small fleet of self-driving electric cars on hand that can eliminate some of the current challenges around parking, congestion and pollution. But it’s also clear that urban planners are finally recognizing that streets should be designed for people, not cars.

Original article.

Feb 252016
 

New data from Zillow shows that average urban home prices in the U.S. now surpass those of the suburbs.

Image Heide Hellebrand / Shutterstock.com
Heide Hellebrand / Shutterstock.com

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, urban and suburban homes in the U.S. used to be worth about the same on a per-square foot basis. But since the mid-2000s, urban homes have been worth more per square foot. Today, as a fascinating new report from Zillow on the shifting geography of American home values explores, urban homes nationwide are now valued at roughly 25 percent more than suburban ones on a per-square foot basis ($198 versus $156 per square foot).

What’s more, by the end of 2015, the average value of an urban home exceeded that of its suburban counterparts by 2 percent ($269,036 compared to $263,987). As the chart below shows, this overturns a long-held pattern of suburban homes having higher values than homes in urban areas—and this despite the fact that suburban homes tend to be considerably larger than urban ones.

This trend is clearly being driven by the extremely high price of urban homes in talent and knowledge hubs such as San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C. In Boston, for example, urban and suburban homes were each valued at around $100 per square foot in 1997. By 2015, Boston’s urban homes were worth nearly $400 per square foot compared to nearly $250 per square foot for suburban ones.

In Washington, D.C., urban and suburban home values also started off at around $100 per square foot in 1997. By 2015, urban values exceeded $300 per square foot compared to around $225 per square foot for suburban homes. And in San Francisco, urban and suburban homes were each worth about $150 per square foot in 1997. But by 2015, urban homes commanded nearly $700 per square foot compared to nearly $500 per square foot in the suburbs.

In some metros, urban and suburban values have in fact grown more or less in tandem. In L.A., for example, urban and suburban home values started off at roughly the same level (around $120 per square foot in 1997) and by 2015, both were worth roughly $400 per square foot.

Detroit, unsurprisingly, bucks all these trends. Back in 1997, both suburban and exurban homes there were valued at around $85 per square foot, compared to nearly $70 per square foot for homes in urban neighborhoods. Today, exurban homes command the highest prices per square foot—roughly $115—compared to $105 per square foot for suburban homes and just $55 per square foot for homes in urban neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, home values per square foot for metros like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Cleveland are in fact highest in suburban areas today, followed closely by rural ones.

Still, while the pattern of rising home values in the U.S. certainly differs by location, the overall trend does appear to signal a growing preference for urban living over the past decade. Zillow’s report built upon the economist Jed Kolko’s methodology for identifying urban, suburban, rural areas based on ZIP code density, and one of its most striking findings is that between 2010 and 2015, growth in the value of urban homes nationwide far outpaced that of the suburbs. Over this period, average urban home values increased by more than 28 percent, compared to just 21 percent for suburban homes. Last year alone, urban home values nationwide grew by 7.5 percent, compared to 5.9 percent for those in suburban areas.

As the Zillow report puts it, “The suburban home—long a symbol of success, stability and the American Dream—appears to be losing some of its luster as the appeal of city living gains steam and urban homes grow in value more quickly.”

Original article.

Video

 

The Oxnard Community Planning Group has assembled some of the best video on walkable community and sustainable downtowns. If you have a suggestion for a video that might be included here – click the contact link above – and let us know.

Jan 182016
 

For three generations, the American Dream was largely defined by continual suburban expansion. The dream was based on exclusivity and “keeping up with the Joneses.” Driving was so essential that all other means of getting around became practically impossible. Privacy was everything.

A new America Dream has emerged in recent years. It is based on social and cultural diversity and the idea of community. This dream is more about great streets than highways. You can drive if you want, but you can also walk, ride a bike, take transit, or join carshare. In this dream, the things you are connected to are more important than who you are separated from.

The old American Dream has not gone away, but it has been eclipsed. Here are 10 reasons why the new dream is here to stay, in a countdown list:

10) Driving has been declining for 10 years. “Our national flower is the concrete cloverleaf,” wrote Lewis Mumford in 1961. Driving per person continued to rise steadily for 43 years after that, and then it stopped. Automobile miles per capita have declined every year since 2004. Also, those concrete cloverleafs have become expensive maintenance problems. One could say the national flower has begun to wilt.

9) Millennials want urban place. Today’s young adults – the Millennials — were the first generation to be born and raised mostly in communities where the indoor mall was the main street and the parking lot was the town square. As adults, this generation rejected the isolation and generic character of drive-only suburbs. Millennials aren’t the only people today embracing compact, mixed-use neighborhoods — but a dramatic shift in youth preference points to a long-term trend.

8) Walkable places help you climb the ladder of success. The story of ambitious young people going to the city to make something of their lives appears again and again in our literature, movies, and theater. This story is not just a literary device, according to a 2013 study. Social mobility is higher in compact urban places, Arizona State University researchers found. The more walkable the census block — as measured by Walk Score — the more likely someone from the bottom fifth of income will reach the top fifth in their lives. It is no wonder then that New York City — America’s most walkable city — is a magnet for immigrants and other folks pursuing the American Dream.

7) Productivity and innovation thrive as density rises. Studies in recent years have shown that in compact places with good transit, economic activity rises due to more face-to-face contact with knowledgeable people (linklink).

6) You are more likely to be famous if you are born in an urban place.Tiger moms take note! If you want your children to be successful enough to be profiled in Wikipedia, the odds rise substantially if you raise them in a big city — or small city anchored by a university. The New York Times came to that conclusion in a geographical analysis of Wikipedia biographies. Ironically, for several generations, parents have moved to distant suburbs to give children a better chance of success. Notes the Times, “growing up near ideas is better than growing up near backyards.”

5) You are less likely to die in a pool of blood if you are raised in an urban place. Parents have long moved to quiet suburbs for safety. Some are questioning whether this quest for safety has gone too far. The entire culture of childhood has changed, according to a recent article in The Atlantic. Children no longer have their own places to roam and explore. Moreover, a 2013 University of Pennsylvania/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) study challenges the entire notion that suburbs are safer. The study examines, for the first time comprehensively, all kinds of accidental and violent deaths in America. Contrary to conventional wisdom, urban streets are significantly safer than leafy suburbs and rural areas. While counterintuitive at first glance, the finding is not hard to fathom if you think about it. The number one US cause of death from ages 5 to 34 is automobile crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Deadly automobile crashes are far less likely on lower-speed urban streets.

4) Bicycles: The new status symbol. A generation ago, bicycles were considered to be a child’s toy. Now they are a status symbol for communities. As Jeff Speck writes in Walkable City, “A bold green stripe down the side of a street — or many streets — tells residents and potential residents that a city supports alternative transportation, healthy lifestyles and cycling culture, and that it welcomes the sort of people who get around on bikes. For the most part, those people are the millennials and creatives who will help a city thrive.”

3) McMansions are losing their luster. In the 1990s, a McMansion was the ultimate symbol that the homeowner had “made it.” Inside, the house was luxurious. But the chief selling point was the message it sent from the curb: The owners, and all of their neighbors, have enough money that they can afford to be wasteful on lawn and landscaping, excessive architectural details, pointless variety in rooflines and materials, and general bloat. Today, we have endured a Great Recession and climate change is an ongoing concern. The McMansion’s underlying message of wasteful spending, poor taste, and big carbon footprint projects a less flattering image on homeowners. As Billy Joel once said, “Is that all you get for your money?”


Photo by Lee Sobel

2) Downtown and in-town neighborhoods are home to the “creative class.” Coming up with this term has made the career of author, academic, and researcher Richard Florida. Whether urban or suburban, big city or small, communities want the educated people that provide the economic spark — known as the “creative class.” Seeking the creative class, businesses have begun moving back into town from suburban campuses.

And the number one reason why we have a new American Dream:

Would you rather have this?


Van Buren Street, Phoenix, today. Image courtesy of Duany Plater-Zyberk.

Or this?


Van Buren transformed, by Steve Price of Urban Advantage, for Reinvent Phoenix. Concepts for the street retrofit were via Duany Plater-Zyberk and Crabtree Group.

The first image, a commercial strip arterial, has one big advantage: It is legal.

The second image is not technically difficult to achieve. Most zoning codes and the automobile-oriented practices of departments of transportation stand in the way. This new American Dream has the market on its side, but will require coalitions in local communities to muster the political will for reform.

I could come up with 10 or 20 more reasons for the new American Dream. Could you?

Robert Steuteville is executive director and editor of Better! Cities & Towns, dedicated to communications, competence, and coalitions for better cities and towns.

Original article.

Recommended Reading

 
Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

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Powells

A Best Book of the Year according to Planetizen and the American Society of Landscape Architects

Jeff Speck has dedicated his career to determining what makes cities thrive. And he has boiled it down to one key factor: walkability.

Making downtown into a walkable, viable community is the essential fix for the typical American city; it is eminently achievable and its benefits are manifold. Walk-able City―bursting with sharp observations and key insights into how urban change happens―lays out a practical, necessary, and inspiring vision for how to make American cities great again.

The Smart Growth Manual

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Powells

Everyone is calling for smart growth…but what exactly is it? In The Smart Growth Manual, two leading city planners provide a thorough answer. From the expanse of the metropolis to the detail of the window box, they address the pressing challenges of urban development with easy-to-follow advice and broad array of best practices.

With their landmark book Suburban Nation, Andres Duany and Jeff Speck “set forth more clearly than anyone has done in our time the elements of good town planning” (The New Yorker). With this long-awaited companion volume, the authors have organized the latest contributions of new urbanism, green design, and healthy communities into a comprehensive handbook, fully illustrated with the built work of the nation’s leading practitioners.

“The Smart Growth Manual is an indispensable guide to city planning. This kind of progressive development is the only way to fully restore our economic strength and create new jobs, new industries, and a renewed ability to compete in the first rank of world economies.” — Gavin Newsom, Mayor of San Francisco

“Authors Andres Duany, Jeff Speck, and Mike Lydon have created The Smart Growth Manual, a resource which not only explains the overarching ideals of smart growth, but a manual that takes the time to show smart growth principles at each geographic scale (region, neighborhood, street, building). I highly recommend [it] as a part of any community participant’s or urban planner’s desktop references.” — LocalPlan.org

Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change

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In the twenty-first century, cities worldwide must respond to a growing and diverse population, ever-shifting economic conditions, new technologies, and a changing climate. Short-term, community-based projectsandmdash;from pop-up parks to open streets initiativesandmdash;have become a powerful and adaptable new tool of urban activists, planners, and policy-makers seeking to drive lasting improvements in their cities and beyond. These quick, often low-cost, and creative projects are the essence of the Tactical Urbanism movement. Whether creating vibrant plazas seemingly overnight or re-imagining parking spaces as neighborhood gathering places, they offer a way to gain public and government support for investing in permanent projects, inspiring residents and civic leaders to experience and shape urban spaces in a new way.

Tactical Urbanism, written by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, two founders of the movement, promises to be the foundational guide for urban transformation. The authors begin with an in-depth history of the Tactical Urbanism movement and its place among other social, political, and urban planning trends. A detailed set of case studies, from guerilla wayfinding signs in Raleigh, to pavement transformed into parks in San Francisco, to a street art campaign leading to a new streetcar line in El Paso, demonstrate the breadth and scalability of tactical urbanism interventions. Finally, the book provides a detailed toolkit for conceiving, planning, and carrying out projects, including how to adapt them based on local needs and challenges.

Tactical Urbanism will inspire and empower a new generation of engaged citizens, urban designers, land use planners, architects, and policymakers to become key actors in the transformation of their communities.

Jan 052016
 

A conversation with Gabriel Metcalf on his new book, Democratic by Design.

Image REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
A construction worker builds framing at a housing construction project in San Francisco.(REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)

“Things aren’t right in America today”: In his important new book on social innovation, Gabriel Metcalf—executive director of the urban policy think tank SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association) and a CityLab contributor—opens with this all-too-familiar sentiment. Rising inequality, deepening segregation, and increasingly unaffordable housing are just a few of the many problems currently plaguing the U.S. These issues are no more evident than in America’s dense, large urban communities, which boast some of the greatest technology and innovation in the world, but also some of the harshest economic and class divides.

St. Martin’s Press

To make things right, Metcalf argues in Democratic by Design, we need to make more and better use of alternative institutions like cooperatives and community land trusts to help build more sustainable, socially responsible, and prosperous communities. Drawing from his experience as an urbanist and one of the founders of the car-sharing movement in North America, Metcalf documents how a range of alternative institutions—which operate outside of traditional government agencies and differ from traditional companies—can help U.S. cities tackle some of the major issues they face today.

To delve deeper into this, I put a series of questions to Metcalf about exactly how he sees these alternative institutions helping to build better and more sustainable cities in the future.

When do alternative institutions actually succeed at becoming the new normal? What is the secret sauce to making that happen?

The idea is to create living examples of a better society, which can be studied, improved on, and hopefully scaled up. The book profiles some very successful examples, but it also tries to look honestly at failures. Based on the case studies, I identify a few key ingredients that are essential for success:

First, organizers have to pick the right institution—something that can work within the world as it is today, while also opening up possibilities for a different world.

Second, I think it’s really important to be oriented toward engagement with the broadest possible set of people—to recruit, in other words—rather than treating alternative institutions as a means of escape from the dominant society. The hope is that the alternative institutions can actually grow and outcompete the mainstream institutions, and this can only happen if the organizers have a real commitment to connecting with new people.

Third, the most successful examples of an alternative institution strategy involved the creation of networks. Alternative institutions work best when they are embedded in a broader progressive movement, and when they are linked up with other alternative institutions.

Your experience with co-founding San Francisco’s City CarShare informs many of your insights on sustainable living. What was the impetus for starting the program, and what do you think it achieved in the city of San Francisco?

We got the idea for City CarShare from the Berlin car-sharing co-ops in the early 1990s. As a group of young sustainable city activists, it had a lot of intuitive appeal. If nothing else, reducing the number of cars that have to be stored inside urban areas would free up real estate for better uses—parks, housing, whatever. We also understood the so-called “love affair with the automobile” as a cultural pattern that was deeply ingrained with oil wars and suburban sprawl and a very destructive form of settlement pattern, so we thought anything we could do to re-position the meaning of the car in American society would be helpful.

We had a lot of big dreams for this project. And some of them came true. I think it’s amazing to see how much young people today are doing everything they can to avoid the hassles of car ownership. But we have a long way to go.

How has the concept of alternative institutions evolved since credit unions and co-ops first came on the scene?

Howard Sandler / Shutterstock.com

There have been several big waves of alternative institution-building in the United States. Some of the most long-lived institutions date from the New Deal era—credit unions, rural electricity co-ops, and the like. The New Left of the 1960s launched a wave of free clinics, organic food co-ops, and alternative newspapers. I’ve personally gotten very interested in attempts to develop new ways to manage and allocate the “big resources”—land and capital—so I spend a lot of time on those.

You describe city-building as a “layering of history” in which “each generation builds to solve the problems it faces.” What does the role of alternative institutions look like in our future cities? 

Cities are almost never built from scratch. Part of what I’m trying to do is unpack the political intention behind city building—to make the goals and ideals visible. And I think that one of the ways we achieve abstract goals like promoting sustainability or resilience or equity or community is through devising different physical arrangements and different institutional forms for our cities.

There is a major role for alternative institutions in our future cities. This includes a lot more experimentation with physical form and infrastructure—more ecologically benign buildings, a reinvention of public space, a rethinking of mobility systems, and an embrace of new models for providing renewable energy. It also includes a new wave of experiments with place-based economic development. And most fundamentally, it involves the creation of new institutions of land ownership and stewardship.

Your book cites some examples of current efforts that have a lot of potential. Which of them stands out to you as particularly exemplary?

Some of the alternative institutions I am most excited about today include community land trusts (I profile the Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington), attempts to link anchor institutions to local economic development strategies (the Evergreen workers cooperatives in Cleveland), and efforts to redeploy capital to socially responsible firms—both non-profit and for profit—to enlarge the space for high-road enterprises.

One of the interesting parts of the book is the “Appendix,” where you develop a sort of intellectual history of the idea of alternative institutions. What were the most important influences on your thinking as you put that together? 

The Appendix is actually one of my favorite parts of the whole book, because that’s where I get to give credit to some of the thinkers who mattered most to me. I draw on everything from deToqueville and Putnam on voluntary associations, to the social anarchists of the 19th century, who wanted to “prefigure” the way a society would work in their ideal world. Gar Alperovitz of the Democracy Collaborative has done a lot of the most practical work developing and supporting alternative institutions and thinking through a theory of how they can lead to widespread social change. One of my own teachers, the late Murray Bookchin, was a major influence on me in his writings about democracy, cities, and alternative institutions. I hope that my book helps give this strategy a higher profile, and that other people—both theorists and activists—will pick up the ideas and develop them in new ways.

Original article.

Jan 052016
 

“We don’t know what the hell to do about it,” says one planner. “It’s like pondering the imponderable.”

Image AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File
AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File

Self-driving cars have the potential to be the most transformative force in American cities since the development of the interstate system. And yet when it comes to preparing for the future of autonomous travel, urban planners have been largely idle. Just how idle? As of mid-2013, just one of the 25 largest metropolitan planning organizations in the U.S. had so much as mentioneddriverless cars in its long-term regional plan.

This bleak preparatory record comes courtesy of University of Pennsylvania planning scholar Erick Guerra, who reports the findings in the Journal of Planning Education and Research. Federal law requires MPOs to produce regional plans every four years that look at least 20 years out—a horizon that could easily coincide with the mainstream arrival of self-driving cars. But when Guerra combed these plans for signs of autonomous vehicles, he came up virtually empty.

That lone mention, for the record, came from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which guides Philly’s greater metro area. It was tucked away in what Guerra describes as a “brief sidebar.”

In other words, none of the planning organizations looking after America’s 25 biggest metros had incorporated self-driving cars into their urban development outlook in a substantial way, even looking ahead two decades. The timeline is unsettling, as is the scope: together, these 25 areas make up 40 percent of the national population. And if these MPOs weren’t on top of things, writes Guerra, it stands to reason that smaller cities haven’t prepared much for driverless cars, either.

So what’s the holdup here? To get a better sense, Guerra interviewed some of the planners in the MPOs whose reports he’d explored.

“Pondering the imponderable”

It’s not for lack of awareness. Local planners obviously know about driverless cars, and many who discussed them with Guerra used technical jargon like “Level 4,” which describes a fully autonomous vehicle. Nor is there any lack of technological faith. Guerra found the planners to be “cautiously optimistic, rather than skeptical” that self-driving cars would not only emerge in the coming years but have a big impact on travel behavior, safety, and urban land use—the very mandates of MPO existence.

The biggest factor, then, is not uncertainty about whether or not self-driving cars will change urban transportation. Rather, it’s uncertainty over just what those changes will look like, and how these shifts will impact major planning investments already underway. One planner put it bluntly: “We don’t know what the hell to do about it. It’s like pondering the imponderable.”

Fair enough. No one knows for sure what types of social changes will come with driverless cars, and the possible outcomes can vary dramatically. On one hand, if people buy their own autonomous vehicles, they might also choose to live farther away from work, knowing their commute will be less stressful and likely more productive. On the other hand, if people partake in shared networks of robotaxis—buying mobility by the drink instead of the bottle, as Princeton’s Alain Kornhauser puts it—they might double down on the convenience of central city life.

But even the MPOs interviewed by Guerra recognize that too much hesitation over imponderables becomes its own sort of planning decision. Take a basic highway expansion plan that’s in the works. Local officials might go through with the project, only to discover that the extra lanes are unnecessary in an age of driverless cars, which can safely operate closer together and thus serve as a de facto road expansion by themselves. There’s only so much road money to go around: using it for expansion instead of maintenance can be a big mistake.

Here’s Guerra:

Several interviewees worried that a number of currently planned investments might be unnecessary if driverless cars increase effective roadway capacity.

Worse yet, if the planners who best understand local transportation networks don’t set their sights on a driverless world, politicians with particular agendas will do it for them. Just look at the case of Pinellas County, Florida. Last fall, one local official used the promise of self-driving cars to oppose increased bus service and a new light rail system for the area, based on the (highly debatable) presumption that autonomous technology would make public transportation obsolete.

It’s not too soon, but getting late

There are understandable reasons why some MPOs are reluctant to engage with planning changes of this magnitude. MPOs are conservative and largely reactive by nature. Insofar as their jobs guide the wise use of limited taxpayer funding, they’re wary of pushing piles of public money toward speculative ends. Self-driving cars are but one of many potential transportation game-changers (Philly’s long-range plan lists 31 others). It’s impossible to prepare for every one with equal intensity.

And it’s not as if MPOs are doing nothing. Planners told Guerra they hold plenty of meetings about self-driving cars. Some try to model it. San Francisco, Seattle, and Atlanta, for instance, have tested out different scenarios of driverless life. Nearly all those analyses expect driving (as measured by vehicle miles traveled) to go up, a finding that’s in keeping with academic research. At the same time, MPOs don’t feel confident enough in the existing models to rely on them for planning purposes—a fear that, per Guerra, is both sensible and risky:

Unfortunately, the extent and direction self-driving cars’ impacts, particularly if transformative, are unlikely to be fully understood until they have already started to happen.

For his part, Guerra offers several suggestions to MPOs. He urges them not to envision a perfect future where the technology totally or immediately eliminates huge problems like congestion, crashes, or pollution. He also pushes for adaptable plans that evaluate “a range of potential outcomes,” as opposed to one-size-fits-all plans that have become the norm. And he encourages MPOs to pursue investments that make sense with or without driverless cars: bridge repairs or pedestrian projects, for instance, will remain relevant in any foreseeable future.

Along those lines, it also makes sense for planners at all levels to look for areas where existing patterns and driverless possibilities converge. Parking policy is a clear example. As more and more cities realize the problems with excess parking—namely, higher rents and worse traffic—they’re eliminating or reducing their developer parking requirements. In a driverless age, when people can either send their cars home or hop in a robocab, dedicating lots of public space to parking makes less sense still.

Some federal guidance would help. There’s been little of it to date. The U.S. Department of Transportation has explored connected technology that can coordinate travel patterns among cars, roads, and traffic infrastructure, but autonomous vehicles can operate without these intelligent networks in place. The DOT just announced a $40 million contest for the midsized city that crafts the most tech-savvy transportation plan, but major metros aren’t eligible. The new transportation bill did set aside a little funding for autonomous vehicle research, but it’s probably less than what tech start-ups spend each year on pita chips.

Whatever it takes to get MPOs and local governments thinking about the impact of driverless cars on urban development, the better. At this point, given the pace of planning operations, there’s probably no such thing as too soon. But there’s definitely a too late.

Original article.

What is a Charrette?

 

Origins of the term “charrette” (Wikipedia):
The word charrette is French for “cart” or “chariot”. In the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 19th century, it was not unusual for student architects to continue working furiously in teams at the end of the allotted term, up until a deadline, when a charrette would be wheeled among the students to pick up their scale models and other work for review while they, each working furiously to apply the finishing touches, were said to be working en charrette, in the cart. Émile Zoladepicted such a scene of feverish activity, a nuit de charrette or charrette night, in L’Œuvre (serialized 1885, published 1886), his fictionalized account of his friendship with Paul Cézanne. The term evolved into the current design-related usage in conjunction with working right up until a deadline.

The following description of the word ‘charrette’ pertaining to the urban planning processes is from Wikipedia:

The word charrette may refer to any collaborative session in which a group of designers (plus stakeholders and the public) drafts a solution to a design problem.

While the structure of a charrette varies, depending on the design problem and the individuals in the group, charrettes often take place in multiple sessions in which the group divides into sub-groups. Each sub-group then presents its work to the full group as material for further dialogue. Such charrettes serve as a way of quickly generating a design solution while integrating the aptitudes and interests of a diverse group of people.

Charrettes take place in many disciplines, including land use planning, or urban planning. In planning, the charrette has become a technique for consulting with all stakeholders. This type of charrette typically involves intense and possibly multi-day meetings, involving municipal officials, developers, and residents.

A successful charrette promotes joint ownership of solutions and attempts to defuse typical confrontational attitudes between residents and developers. Charrettes tend to involve small groups, however the residents participating may not represent all the residents nor have the moral authority to represent them. Residents who do participate get early input into the planning process. For developers and municipal officials charrettes achieve community involvement, may satisfy consultation criteria, with the objective of avoiding costly legal battles. Other uses of the term “charrette” occur within an academic or professional setting, whereas urban planners invite the general public to their planning charrettes. Thus most people encounter the term “charrette” in an urban-planning context.


The following description of a charrette event and process is from the National Charrette Institute, with edits and additions by the Oxnard Community Planning Group, and describes in general the process and goals of the CNU-CA charrette for Downtown Oxnard:

(More on the CNU-CA CNU-By-Design Annual Charrette can be found below.)

“A charrette is a multiple-day, collaborative design workshop. It harnesses the talents and energies of stakeholders and all interested parties to create and support a feasible plan that represents transformative community change.

  • A five consecutive days, with three design feedback loops
  • An open process that includes stakeholders and all interested parties
  • Focused on producing a feasible plan with minimal rework

A charrette is a holistic, collaborative planning process during which a multiple-day charrette is held as the central transformative event.

Compared to conventional planning processes that take years of endless meetings, a charrette can:

Save time and money through

  • Reduced rework via short design feedback loops
  • Time-compressed work sessions
  • Creation of broad support from community members, professionals, and staff

Increases probability for implementation through

  • An integrated team design process
  • Early focus on engineering and finance
  • Bringing all decision makers together for a compressed period of time

Promotes trust between citizens and government through

  • Meaningful public involvement and education in which input may effect the outcome
  • The building of long-term community goodwill
  • Broad stakeholder involvement – no one takes over

Results in the best sustainable design through

  • Integrating all viewpoints throughout design
  • Uninterrupted, focused team design sessions
  • Design based on shared guiding principles

The CNU charrette is a collaborative design event spanning 5-days. The goal of the charrette is to produce a feasible plan with minimal rework that benefits from the support of all stakeholders through its implementation. This support is facilitated by the ability of the charrette to transform the mindsets of the stakeholders.

A multidisciplinary charrette team, consisting of CNU consultants and sponsor (City of Oxnard) staff, produces the plan. Stakeholders – those being anyone who can approve, promote or block the project as well as anyone directly affected by the outcomes – are involved through a series of short feedback loops or meetings. Most stakeholders attend two or three feedback meetings at critical decision-making points during the charrette. Note that stakeholders are not at the charrette all the time. These feedback loops provide the charrette team with the information necessary to create a feasible plan. Just as importantly, they allow the stakeholders to become co-authors of the plan so that they are more likely to support and implement it.

A major reason the charrette needs to last at least 5-days is to accommodate 3 feedback loops, the optimal number for gaining stakeholder understanding and support.

Charrettes take place in a charrette studio situated on or near the project site. While the event may vary the CNU charrette generally follows the following format. The charrette team first conducts an open public meeting to solicit the values, vision, and needs of the stakeholders. The team then breaks off to create alternative plans or scenarios, which are presented in a second public meeting usually a day or two later. The team then synthesizes the best aspects of the alternatives into a preferred plan that is developed in detail and tested for economic, design and political feasibility. The charrette concludes with a comprehensive presentation at a final public meeting.

After the charrette, the project enters into the document creation phase. During this phase the charrette team tests and refines the charrette plan. Communication with stakeholders also continues through e-mail, websites, blogs, and possibly social media. During a follow-up public meeting, held about 6-weeks after the charrette, the refined plan is presented for another feedback session. The results and process of all 3 charrette system phases are summarized in a final project report ready for agency approvals.

Work collaboratively

All interested parties must be involved from the beginning. Having contributed to the planning, participants are in a position both to understand and support a project’s rationale.

Design cross-functionally

A multi-disciplinary team method results in decisions that are realistic every step of the way. The cross-functional process eliminates the need for rework because the design work continually reflects the wisdom of each specialty.

Compress work sessions

The charrette itself, lasting five days, is a series of meetings and design sessions that would traditionally take months to complete. This time compression facilitates creative problem solving by accelerating decision making and reducing unconstructive negotiation tactics. It also encourages people to abandon their usual working patterns and “think outside of the box.”

Communicate in short feedback loops

During the charrette, design ideas are created based upon a public vision, and presented within hours for further review, critique, and refinement. Regular stakeholder input and reviews quickly build trust in the process and foster true understanding and support of the product. A feedback loop occurs when a design is proposed, reviewed, changed, and re-presented for further review.

Study the details and the whole

Lasting agreement is based on a fully informed dialogue, which can only be accomplished by looking at the details and the big picture concurrently. Studies at these two scales also inform each other and reduce the likelihood that a fatal flaw will be overlooked in the plan.

Produce a feasible plan

To create a feasible plan, every decision point must be fully informed, especially by the legal, financial, and engineering disciplines. The focus on feasibility brings a level of seriousness and rigor to the process for everyone involved.

Use design to achieve a shared vision and create holistic solutions

Design is a powerful tool for establishing a shared vision. Drawings illustrate the complexity of the problem and can be used to resolve conflict by proposing previously unexplored solutions that represent win/win outcomes.

Hold the charrette on or near the site

Working on site fosters the design team’s understanding of local values and traditions, and provides the necessary easy access to stakeholders and information. Therefore, the studio should be located in a place where it is easily accessible to all stakeholders and where the designers have quick access to the project site.”


More about the CNU Charrette (with edits and additions by the Oxnard Community Planning Group):

“Beginning in 2013, the CNU-CA started a program to host a CNU-By-Design Annual Charrette (“the Charrette”) as a Board led program that provides educational and membership outreach opportunities statewide.”

“The CNU-CA Charrette is designed to advise a city, with the benefit of the CNU-By-Design Annual Charrette, to envision mixed-use, walkable places for a city with CNU’s principles and processes, such as public Charrettes. Our board’s selection of an Annual Charrette project is based upon the request (Oxnard) relevance to CNU initiatives and expertise, such as Transit-Oriented Developments, Form-Based Codes, Sprawl Retrofits, and Tactical Urbanism.”

“A typical charrette week is organized as follows:

Day 1: Arrival, Orientation, Sponsor Briefing, Opening Public Event (Educational)
Day 2: Stakeholder Interviews, Design Interventions/Alternatives Produced
Day 3: Alternatives Vetting, Stakeholder Interviews, Public Workshop (Dialog)
Day 4: Preferred Design Interventions; Report Design/Illustration Production
Day 5: Draft Report Production, Final Public Presentation (Dialog/Education)”