*Schedule subject to change based on guest speaker availability.
In celebration of the upcoming CNU 25.Seattle, Public Square is running the series 25 Great Ideas of the New Urbanism. These ideas have been shaped by new urbanists and continue to influence cities, towns, and suburbs. The series is meant to inspire and challenge those working toward complete communities in the next quarter century.
“Neighborhoods should be compact, pedestrian-friendly, and mixed-use,” and “many activities of daily living should be within walking distance,” according to the Charter of the New Urbanism. A quarter century ago this idea was not common planning practice, and new urbanists needed a way to measure a compact neighborhood to organize plans and communicate to the public. The answer was the “pedestrian shed,” a distance that can be covered in five minutes at a normal walking pace—typically shown on a plan as a circle with a quarter-mile radius.
If the built environment is appealing and human scale, the theory is that most people will walk at least five minutes rather than get in a car. The idea is embedded in a thousand new urban plans and incorporated into zoning codes now. Although the quality of the built environment can expand or shrink the distance people will walk, the quarter-mile pedestrian shed remains an influential and useful idea for designing neighborhoods and building complete communities. Public Square editor Robert Steuteville interviewed urban planner and architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, co-author of Suburban Nation, and urban planner Jeff Speck of Speck & Associates, former director of design of the National Endowment for the Arts and author of Walkable City and co-author of Suburban Nation, on the subject of the 5-minute walk and what that means to cities and towns across America.
Both of you co-authored, along with Andres Duany, the book Suburban Nation that introduced America to the neighborhood and the pedestrian shed. Can you tell me how planning and development has changed as a result of this idea?
Plater-Zyberk: When we first started talking about walking, everybody was saying, “Oh, nobody’s going to walk anywhere.” We knew about the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) studies in San Francisco, which had surveyed people and discovered that the 5-minute walk was a reasonable expectation for transit. Peter Calthorpe and others have said a 10-minute or more walk is okay for transit. But when the new urbanists were honing in on this, it was not contemporary knowledge. We had never heard of the 1929 regional plan for New York or that 5-minute diagram [by Clarence Perry]. We discovered that much later and it was a kind of confirmation. But I would say these were rediscoveries. Many of the historical experience that we now call on, including maybe even the terminology pedestrian shed, had to be rediscovered because it was lost to most planning and design knowledge.
Speck: By the time I first started working at DPZ, which was the summer of ’87, you guys had incorporated the five-minute-walk into your planning. So by the time of my first encounters with you all, it had been established, and you were aware of the 1929 (Perry) diagram.
Plater-Zyberk: Yes, but the first few years, all of that was being rediscovered. Now, how has it affected the planning since then? People have put that dimension of a five minute walk or some pedestrian shed distance into zoning codes. You might have less parking required if you are within a certain distance of a transit line or stop. It’s always in discussion. Is this a single circle with one node, or is it running along the line of transit? A leader in the talks about pedestrian distance, Walk Score, has emerged. And although it’s not changed the world entirely in great geographic measure, it’s definitely become part of the overall goals of making better urbanism. And I would say most planning now makes some reference to pedestrian sheds in goals and regulations.
Speck: I’ll be even bolder than Lizz and say that this idea, which was first popularized, or most effectively popularized, by Lizz and Andres [Duany], is now one of the foundational concepts in planning. I just want to distinguish between planning theory that is taught in school and how most of America and most of the world is still being built. The planners have figured it out but, of course, the challenge now is the great disconnection between what planners know and what developers are building, which is still mostly wrong.
Do all urbanists agree now on the five-minute walk, or is there disagreement there?
Speck: There might be nitpicking around the edges, but I don’t think there are any urbanists or planners who would question a comfortable walking distance measure as a means for structuring community. Would you agree, Lizz?
Plater-Zyberk: I think anybody who’s concerned about the scale of urban design and community beyond one building at a time could agree that this is a good goal.
This may be jumping ahead a little bit, but you’ve mentioned it, Jeff. Why hasn’t this had more of an impact on the America that you see as you drive around?
Speck: Well, that’s been our discussion for so many years. All the professions that work together to create the American-built environment have certain conventions. And every profession has written into its practices, or at least used to, the organization of the landscape around Euclidean zoning—large areas of single-use with nary a thought to pedestrian access. So it’s a huge ocean liner to turn around, and no one expected it would happen quickly.
Plater-Zyberk: I would add or maybe stress one component of that, which is the scale of economic activity that has emerged as a result of the prevalence of automobile mobility—the big box, the number of brands that rely on drive-ins, fast food, and so on. The scale of the economy is really a very difficult counterpoint. That said, I have spent a bit of time in France in recent years and it is interesting to see big box developed on the outskirts of the walkable city. So there is an understanding that there are places where daily life goes on and you can walk to work and school, and then there are areas for trucks and giant roads. It’s one or the other, not the mess we have tended to allow in the United States.
Speck: We have a development industry that’s made principally of people who are either single-family housing developers, multi-family housing developers, retail strip developers, big box developers, office park developers, and the like. And if you give one of them a piece of land, no matter how big the piece of land is, they’re going to develop what they know how to do. And to no small measure, it’s been the dissection of the development industry into these branches that has made it very hard to get the development industry to start doing mixed-use again.
Plater-Zyberk: You might call it the tyranny of specialization. CNU has talked about specialization and the fact that that it generates bigness.
Do you just give up on things like big box stores, or can they be incorporated into the pedestrian shed?
Plater-Zyberk: Well, Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City is a big box. It’s a multi-story big box. They took the whole block. And I think that’s one of the best examples of the fact that big box stores used to be part of the city. Market Street in Philadelphia had four department stores, and other stuff in between. I guess New York is pulling them back in, the Walmarts and the Targets.
Speck: Yeah, that’s the urban model. Then there’s the suburban model which DPZ helped develop, and you see it in play at Kentlands, where you have big boxes that are accessed from the highway in an automotive way, and accessed from the town in a pedestrian way—and you better believe that folks who live in Kentlands are walking to the big boxes on the edge of town. The question is how do you handle the integration of the building into the streetscape that approaches it? And new urbanists have developed ways to do that.
Do you think that people who have the most influence over the built environment, the planning commissioners—the city councils, the developers— do they now understand the concept of a pedestrian shed? Is it something that has sunk in?
Speck: Many planning commissioners particularly in smaller communities have no training in planning whatsoever, and many developers have no training in planning whatsoever. To the degree that they’ve never really studied planning or made an effort to learn best practices. No, they have very little idea about it, but there are, of course, many who do.
Plater-Zyberk: So let’s say it’s not a household word. But whenever we give Suburban Nation to a newly elected person, for instance, they come back and say, “Oh, yeah, I get it.” So it’s not a rocket-science idea, but it hasn’t permeated. And that’s primarily because most people don’t think about the built environment; they’re just victims of it, and they take it the way it comes.
How is this idea used in current planning and how it can be applied most effectively in the future?
Plater-Zyberk: There’s two aspects to it. The pedestrian shed is essentially a dimension or a description of an area that enables pedestrian accessibility. But that’s not just measuring dimension in quantity, but quality. How frequent are the intersections? How mixed are the uses? What are you accessing? Is the central focus the destination, or it is where you’re starting from—your house, for instance?
Speck: In my experience, it’s only the new urbanists who, when confronted with a large area of land, their first step is to start drawing pedestrian sheds as a foundational way of organizing property. When I begin a planning effort, I make that move to lay circles on the acreage, like we did at Cornell, outside of Toronto, to create neighborhood units that break the landscape up into constituent parts. And I find that people are really surprised to see that and they say, “Oh, what a great way to organize property.” But I honestly don’t think that that has permeated the planning culture yet. I don’t think this concept of dividing large properties into neighborhoods as a foundational move is practiced that far beyond the new urban circles, no pun intended.
Plater-Zyberk: Now that was a very important point, Jeff. I think this correlation between pedestrian shed and neighborhood is important because that describes the quality of what’s going on inside the pedestrian sheds. I would add that it might be useful to think about it in terms of new places and old places. Jeff’s description of laying the circles on the paper is the way a greenfield project might be laid out; you structure it according to neighborhoods that are circumscribed by pedestrian sheds. And there may be a larger town center shed that several neighborhoods aggregate to. Of course, we’ve always been involved in remaking places too. And when you remake urban places, you often find that there was a pedestrian shed and maybe it’s fallen apart. The built environment is deteriorated. But when you look at the infrastructure and the buildings that are there you can rebuild that pretty easily. And then there’s suburban sprawl that we built during the last century. You can come in and identify the places where you might be able to retrofit and make a compact pedestrian focus area and the single-family sprawl will remain around it. Very often that’s an office park or shopping center or something that’s under some coherent ownership that it can be remade. So you could talk about it in terms of new places, pre-existing cities, and then how do you repair the structureless suburbs.
This is basic to the way new urbanists approach planning. Could you talk about some of your current projects and how the pedestrian shed relates to that project and is influencing what’s happening there?
Speck: I would say that, as Liz suggested, when you’re working in an existing place you have to respect the existing neighborhood structure. Discovering the underlying neighborhood structure can be eye-opening. I remember when we were looking at Syracuse we found neighborhood structure in some of these inner city neighborhoods that have been undermined and almost obliterated by auto-centric development. And a big part of what we did was to let people know where their neighborhood centers were so that policy could be oriented around understanding where those centers are.
Plater-Zyberk: DPZ has been working with some hospital systems to help them plan their property. They often own pieces of property outside their main buildings. The Presence Health system in Chicago, for instance, had two close-by hospitals, and everyone got in their cars to go from one to the other. We showed them that the two pedestrian sheds from their front doors intersected, and if they made improvements in the path between them that people really could walk back and forth, and that they could use those parking lots to make a piece of city that would connect them better. Also, two shopping malls in suburban Salt Lake City, Cottonwood and University Mall, were in the midst of a classic suburban vehicular intersection. We showed them how to remake those malls and their surroundings by adding a mix of uses within the pedestrian.
It seems incredibly hard for people to get the concept of a pedestrian shed when you are in the suburbs, where everything is on an automobile scale. How do you get people to understand that when you’re working in the suburbs?
Plater-Zyberk: This is where the illustrations for new urbanist ideas are so important because people can’t visualize it at all. The first drawings that started to convince people to try something new were done by Charles Barrett, bless his heart, he is no longer with us. The kind of charm and hope that those drawings represent are such an important part of what we do. It’s not the diagram—that circle with the arrow from the center to an edge—that will never convince anyone. But the beautiful illustrations, the idea that the architecture might be great, that the street will be appealing, the sidewalk will be wide, there will be trees, and you can take your child out by the hand, or walk a dog on your way somewhere, is what tugs at people’s hearts. (Note: See the illustration by Steve Price at the top of this article)
They can picture themselves within a pedestrian shed, doing something?
Plater-Zyberk: That’s exactly right.
Speck: The biggest challenge that we face in the suburbs is that it’s not really a pedestrian shed unless it’s accessing mixed use. And, for most of us, a town square at the center, perhaps with some sort of civic structure, even if it’s nothing more than a barbeque shack, isn’t enough to achieve the lifestyle changes that the New Urbanism hopes to provide for humans living in its places, and we always say that, at the bare minimum, you want to have a corner store, and the corner store depends on a certain number of rooftops. I heard once from (planner and retail expert) Bob Gibbs, you’ve got a thousand homes to make one corner store function. To get that density in a 160-acre pedestrian shed has been the fundamental challenge to New Urbanism.
Plater-Zyberk: If there aren’t enough houses for the corner store, then your neighborhood—this pedestrian shed—may join another one. And there may be a kind of congregation of them around a village center or town center that is supported by multiple neighborhoods.
This may seem like a strange question, but as we are speaking, a new president is being inaugurated. So do you have any thoughts on the new administration, Donald Trump, federal programs, and whether this relates to planning on the neighborhoods scale?
Speck: As someone who worked in the federal government, there’s only a limited way in which the federal government has ever exerted much influence on the details of planning. But when it has, like with the Hope IV program, which is based entirely on urbanist principles, it certainly had a profound impact. You’re not going to see those sort of programs under this sort of administration. But more to the point, the latest talk is about abolishing all transit funding which, of course, is going to be entirely disruptive to any notions of walkability.
Nevertheless, the pedestrian shed has survived many eras and planning ideas. It should survive the next four years, don’t you think?
Plater-Zyberk: It will survive. Fortunately, there’s so much literature now that the profession will not lose track of it again the way we did in the last century. We’ve kept it alive in so many ways through building and through literature.
Speck: One of the helpful oversimplifications that I say in my presentations is that the five-minute walk was developed historically. You’re getting it from Jericho on, and it was only undermined by the advent of suburbia where we introduced automobile-based zoning. But in fact, if you look at the towns in the early 20th century, that the new urbanists are always pointing at for its successes, such as the Coral Gables, and the Shaker Heights, and Beverly Hills, and all these amazing developments that some refer to as the apex of American planning, none of these really have a five-minute walk pedestrian shed at their core. They have concentrated retail areas and huge areas of residential land. And I think one of the great achievements of New Urbanism is to take the other tremendous intelligence from those plans, the other great techniques that are present in those plans, and combine them with the neighborhood unit, which actually is missing in most of them.
Plater-Zyberk: I like to focus on the things that worked that we can use. Even if you don’t have the corner store but if you have something that’s defined by its edges and some kind of central place, a neighborhood, even it isn’t highly mixed-use, it still gains a sense of community, identity, and the potential of interdependence among a group of people that is beneficial. There’s a great deal of hope with regard to the retail component. A new generation of entrepreneurs, in places like Detroit and Miami, are looking for walkable places to [open businesses]—whether it’s the coffee shop or the beer joint or a restaurant or a gallery or whatever they’re doing. I think there’s an ever-growing economy of small business that will look to old city places or to remaking of suburbs. The physical organization of pedestrian sheds in neighborhoods speaks to this generation in the way that setting up a business in a suburban shopping center does not.
Note: CNU intern Benjamin Crowther helped to produce this interview and article.
Humans are social, yet this primary fact of life is oddly absent as a core consideration in modern urban development regulations. To ignore the social needs of our species is to lose sight of one of the most positive drivers for shaping sustainable urban form. Providing for the satisfactions of community counters sprawl. Yet conventional land-use zoning disperses people and strips social life from the landscape. This is where form-based codes come in. They are the tool par excellence for guiding development in a socially sensitive way, configuring buildings and streets to enliven social life.
A remarkable and growing body of literature in contemporary social research is telling us that healthy, well functioning communities need face-to-face meeting, interaction, and communication among their members, something that electronic “social media” cannot replace. And it requires high quality physical space.
This has been known from ancient times by city builders and philosophers who recognized humans’ basic social nature, but didn’t have the science to back the assumption up. We are now living in an era in which this subject is now under the lens of the scientific community. But let’s start with Aristotle, then consider insights from contemporary research, and finally see how form-based codes fit into it all.
Being together is in our blood
Aristotle observed that all animals are most alive when living at the top of their form—“thriving” is the word that Kaiser Permanente currently uses. “It is the excellent employment of his powers that constitute his happiness, as the reverse of this constitutes his misery,” according to Aristotle. For him the great value of cities is not that they are economic engines rather they are valuable because they allow us to live fully alive to our nature—in itself good for the bottom line. At the core of human nature is sociality. A human “is a social being, and by nature adapted to share his life with others … Now if he is solitary, life is hard for him; for it is difficult to be continuously active by one’s self, but not so difficult along with others.” If the built landscape deprives us of stimulation and isolates us, it forces us into a lower gear. Social deprivation underlays issues of poverty, health, and environmental degradation.
Loneliness is social deprivation in its most obvious form. Loneliness is a topic that is a bit embarrassing for Americans. It connotes social failure and personal inadequacy—not something you want to air in public. It’s considered tragic—a lonely person is someone to pity. It is about emotion—too tender-minded for public policy debate. Yet if the numbers of socially isolated people grow, it becomes a critical public health issue.
Emerging science and public surveys demonstrate that loneliness is no longer just a preoccupation of philosophers, poets, and novelists. Research on this topic is growing in medicine, neuroscience, and sociology. Social deprivation, “as with pain, thirst, hunger, or fear, triggers the fight or flight response that induces a whole host of health risks,” says Kimberley Brownlee of the University of Warwick. A recent Time Magazine article was entitled “Why Loneliness May Be the Next Big Public-Health Issue.”
Despite the rise in social media, the headline is not unexpected, according to Susan Pinker. Facebook accounts, iPhones, and text messaging are pale proxies for natural face-to-face life, she says in her book, The Village Effect. She reports on the research of Leslie Seltzer and Seth Pollack at the University of Wisconsin, which shows how mothers calm their children after stressful events. Mammals secrete the hormone oxytocin when giving or receiving physical affection, a hormone implicated in mediating social life in general. Parents talking in a supportive tone with children raise their own and their children’s oxytocin levels and drop the child’s stress hormone cortisol. Mothers who comforted their children with Instant Messaging had no affect on their children’s oxytocin or cortisol levels. Participants of online cancer support groups remain depressed (92 percent) from the experience, while most attendees in face-to-face groups found the experience positive.
Clearly sociality is not just in our heads, it’s in our blood. The more physically present we are to each other, the more fully biologic is our social response. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2015) reveals how oxytocin works to reward social experience. Oxytocin elicited by social encounters drives anandamide signaling that activates cannabinoid receptors in the brainthe same pleasure receptors activated by marijuana!). When we interact with others we in effect self-medicate—assuming that we have access to other people.
In spite of the biological imperative, the classic places for young people to gather, see each other, and be with other age groups—downtowns and mixed-use neighborhood centers—are challenging to build and revitalize nowadays. These were the lively places where teens ate ice cream, saw movies, went bowling, visited museums, and hung out. Being in public settings in view of other people moderated their behavior. The allure of sex, drugs and vulgar popular culture tends to increase for bored teens who lack access to vital public gathering places.
Just as bad, teens today are retreating into the world of smartphones as a social alternative. It desensitizes them in a deep way to the real, physical basis of human interaction, to the subtle emotional signals of the human face. Shelly Turkle of MIT in her book Reclaiming Conversation cites a study that shows a 40 percent decline in empathy as measured by standard psychological tests among digitally savvy college students over the last 20 years.
The New Urbanism’s under-emphasized factor
Satcher, Okafor, and Dill of the Morehouse School of Medicine applaud the increasing amount of research on the intersection of the built environment and physical health. But they lament that research on the built environment’s impact on mental health and sexual behavior trails far behind. They stress that we need to examine our zoning codes and transportation plans in light of these social and psychological concerns. It is becoming clear that human sociality should be a primary consideration when writing urban development regulations.
Let’s look at the link between city life and social well being more deeply. Based on data from the General Social Survey, the number of Americans who said that they have no one to turn to during difficult times tripled from 1985 to 2004. When asked how many confidants they have, zero was the most common response. With the exception of having wives, men’s lives are especially lacking in confidants. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, founder of the field of social neuroscience, cites research showing lonely people as disproportionately inactive and overweight. The obesity epidemic is not just caused by Americans’ sedentary lifestyle.
Loneliness also tends to make people cranky—hard on themselves and others. Given that the single-person household is the fastest growing household type in the United States, so many solitary people can affect politics. “Not only are we at the highest recorded rate of living alone across the entire century, but we’re at the highest recorded rates ever on the planet,” said researcher Tim Smith at Brigham Young University. Widespread loneliness can be disruptive of the civil discourse necessary for a Democracy to work. With an aging population living in an auto-oriented landscape devoid of public gathering places, the problem could get worse.
The year 2015 averaged a mass shooting a day, most committed by solitary young men. Widespread loneliness is not only sad but also dangerous. These were acts that took other lives, but were also acts of self-destruction. The Center for Disease Control in a 2012 study reported dramatic spikes in the suicide rates of middle-age baby boomers, a generation that in particular resisted social connections that would tie them down. As they age they will find their rootlessness not serving them well.
In October of this year a study done by two economists at Princeton reported a dramatic spike in the mortality of white middle-age less-educated people. New urbanists often talk about the health benefits of walkable urbanism—walking reduces the incidence of diabetes, heart disease and even some cancers. But Nobel laureate Angus Deaton and Anne Case reported that the surge in deaths was caused by poisonings, suicide and cirrhosis of the liver, deaths more associated with states of mind than physical inactivity. Several commentators have attributed these deaths to the over-prescription to whites of opioid pain relievers. This may be partially true for poisonings, but ignores the rising rates of suicide and cirrhosis of the liver.
Data over the years from the General Social Survey seem to indicate that Americans are generally happy with their lives, although, outside of large fluctuations during economic recessions, the trend line has declined slowly decade by decade since 1970. Aside from the question of whether having confidants or not affects happiness, living alone affects physical health. According to recently published research at Brigham Young University (2015), living alone increases mortality by 32 percent even for those who self-report that they are not lonely. This is on par with being obese.
Bolles and Nelson (What Color is your Parachute? For Retirement) argue that we tend to be oblivious to our social world and its effect on us. Through many of life’s stages we benefit from Automatic Relationship Generators that give us social connections with little conscious initiative on our part. Parenting, schools, colleges, work, and public spaces naturally immerse us in social fields. For most people human sociality does not register as a moment-by-moment force in their lives—until they divorce, get fired, lose a spouse, find themselves stranded far from home, find themselves ostracized, or get old and infirm. Then the presence or absence of people in their lives becomes painfully apparent. Bolles and Nelson say that neighborhood design that encourages social connection is critical for older people. This is because retirement is often a time in which Automatic Relationship Generators are not a certain part of their lives.
Urbanism is a natural expression of what humans are
Animals that are social congregate. Humans are different from most other social animals in an important respect, though. We congregate in defined physical spaces. Bison are content to drift as a herd across the prairie. Even our primate cousins like to keep moving. Humans stake out a physical location to live. The Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson calls this unique kind of settled sociality eusociality. Bees do it. Ants do it. Among mammals only humans and a couple species of rodents in Africa do it.
Humans early on settled at campsites. Since they had to tool up to cook their food and couldn’t just walk away from their waste like bison, settling unleashed a neural load on the human brain: functional assignments of space, waste disposal, divisions of labor, and communication. Our brains got bigger to deal with it all.
Humans don’t generally congregate in the middle of empty fields. We are drawn to social spaces defined by walls, trees, or facades of buildings—spaces limited in size. We like those places because—whether we choose to or not—getting to know people there looks doable. Neighborhood main streets are usually just one to three blocks long. Historically, these social centers usually constituted 5 to 10 percent of the area of a neighborhood.
For as long as humans have settled, the marketplace was where social life was most robust. Commerce is more than just the exchange of goods and services for money—commercial centers can also be places of cultural, social, intellectual, and emotional exchange. For communities with strong physical identities, the commercial streets are still the beloved public face. With the automation, digitization, and auto-orientation of commerce in recent decades, much of the social content of our commercial centers has been stripped out. People may be attracted to convenience and inexpensive goods, but the social satisfactions are weak. Nevertheless, creative urban design can revive a forgotten main street, or convert a dead shopping center into a walkable town center. Every community, whether new or historic, needs to proactively take charge of its own social destiny by developing plans for new walkable social spaces and safeguarding its historic centers.
Coding for community
Many cities are reforming their zoning in response to various performance metrics: CO2 emissions, energy consumption, water use, and vehicle miles traveled are examples. Social connectedness is harder to reduce to a metric. It may never be measurable as a dynamic parameter that provides feedback on development form, unless we wire everyone in a developing community with oxytocin and cortisol meters!
The good news is that when most people are made aware of their own social feelings they recognize its importance. They see evidence of longing and belonging everywhere and recognize how places make them feel. This may be enough to inspire communities to draft urban form regulations to shape the social realm.
Until recently it was a rare community that drafted form-based codes, which take more imagination and thought than conventional land-use zoning that simply colors an area on a map as “commercial.” It requires a willingness to intently study a place—walk, measure, and discuss it with community members, learn about the physical interventions that make other places socially successful, and then draft the plans and codes to bring about desired change.
Coders, planners, and designers need to feel the urgency of social design in their bones as they shape places. Making interventions to improve walkability needs to be informed by these feelings. Many a street has been buffed up with decorative street lamps and banners, trees, bike racks, street furniture, landscaping, and the like, yet remains socially dead as the image below shows.
Conventional zoning focuses on land-use of private property, rarely concerning itself with the street or the relationship of buildings to the street. In effect it has given up on the shape of the public realm, treating streets as primarily vehicle corridors. Form-based coding sees streets as public social spaces that need to be shaped; it regulates buildings and rights-of-way together as one place. Therefore main streets and downtowns can be vitalized with form-based codes that are attentive to the social implications of how buildings and streets work together. Concerns about how wide sidewalks are, how close buildings are to sidewalks, whether the frequency and transparency of windows imply that buildings are inhabited, how inviting ground floor frontages are, whether street lighting serves pedestrians, whether business signage can be read from the sidewalk, and how well people can see and read the faces of others, are all powerful features of good form-based coding.
Communities considering drafting form-based codes, but worried about the cost, should consider human sociality as a measure that helps set priorities and scope. Communities could start small by coding neighborhood centers. This makes sense because local governments are usually more agreeable to making community improvements when a relatively modest area, such as a three-block main street, is involved. As a center socially flowers, neighborhood identity and pride will increase. More people will want to reside nearby. Vehicle miles traveled and residents’ carbon footprints will decrease as people find social satisfactions in their own neighborhoods. Further planning and coding can build out from these revitalized cores, enhancing walkability and social vitality of more and more of a town or city.
Of course, a socially supportive urban form will not bring about the complete eradication of loneliness. Loneliness is a signal from our body that we need other people—as valuable a signal as hunger, fear, or exhaustion. People will always have feelings periodically of loneliness, but physically dispersing people and degrading public spaces, as the sprawl of recent decades does, make the condition harder to alleviate. As more and more research is showing, this is a serious and growing public issue.
The poet John Donne said four hundred years ago, “No man is an island.” Shouldn’t this be acknowledged in our development regulations?
Note: This article was created with the assistance of the Form-Based Codes Institute.
The Imperial Building is part of a community-wide commitment to the revitalization of the downtown urban core and provides the neighborhood with affordable housing, retail and restaurants, underground parking, a rooftop garden, and a new grocery store. For more information about this project, visit www.dpsdesign.org/what-we-create/imperial-building.
In less than 4 minutes Joe Minicozzi shows the very high value of mixed-use downtown development,
“Joe Minicozzi, Principal of Urban3 highlights the value of downtown development and the implications of different growth patterns on city coffers.”
More Joe Minicozzi: The Cash Flow of Urbanism:
Housing advocates and developers rightfully claim that discretionary review processes are contributing to housing crises across the country by increasing the cost and delivery rate of housing, and often directly preventing needed housing from getting built. President Obama, Governor Brown of California and the State of Massachusetts have joined the “by-right zoning” bandwagon, and here at Opticos, we’re on board, too.
However, residents, environmental groups and others are rightfully upset about the idea of by-right zoning because it often seems that the discretionary review process is their only tool to prevent inappropriate and out-of-scale development. Their zoning codes are too blunt to provide the needed control, so they cling to discretionary review as their only protection. Admittedly, in some cases, this may be NIMBY’s refusing to allow more or certain people into their communities. However, in many other cases, it’s community members from all walks of life who want walkable neighborhood living rather than city living. They feel they have no other tools to compel developers to be respectful of their cherished places. From this perspective, by-right zoning may have Jane Jacobs rolling in her grave.
Conventional zoning is too blunt for a by-right process
So, isn’t zoning supposed to define what can be built in our communities? The answer is yes, but conventional zoning is plainly flawed. Here are some of the reasons conventional zoning doesn’t work well to regulate our walkable neighborhoods:
Without fixing these problems, removing the discretionary review process in cities and towns with conventional zoning could detrimentally impact our walkable neighborhoods.
The win-win of form-based codes and a by-right process
Fortunately, we have a proven solution: Form-Based Codes (FBCs). FBCs regulate the form of the buildings in a prescriptive manner and at a sufficient level of detail so that the outcome is predictable. This renders the design review process unnecessary, enabling by-right review. FBCs work like this:
1. Create a detailed community vision
First, the community comes together to create a physical vision for their places, including important details about how the buildings must be built to contribute to the public spaces that are our streets and plazas. The community can dial up or down the level of detail they include based on what they want to allow or require in their neighborhoods.
Importantly, the visioning should also include a community discussion and decision-making about how much and what type of housing is needed and where to put it, preventing later project-level battles. This is the best time and place for communities to show leadership in advocating for all constituents’ right to decent, affordable, walkable housing options, and for neighbors to consider their desires for their own neighborhoods within the context of how many families are homeless or paying too much of their income for housing and transportation.
2. Write prescriptive regulations
Once these decisions are made, the FBC is written to prescribe what can be built, mostly by focusing on the form of the buildings as they shape the public space, although also including simplified use regulations. Examples include regulating front build-to lines—rather than setback lines—and maximum footprints to prevent buildings that are too large for the neighborhood character. All of these regulations are carefully written to reflect the context—the regulations for a downtown main street will be different than for a streetcar suburb or for a large city center. They are also written to regulate only what is truly necessary, removing unnecessary or obsolete standards.
Because of the prescriptive and simplified nature of FBCs, the community can more easily understand what the code is allowing and can work with city staff to vet the code to ensure the prescribed outcome is appropriate for the neighborhood. In other words, everyone can actually understand the code and its intention, so everyone can help make sure it’s right.
3. Enable a by-right approval process
Once the desired outcome is prescribed appropriately in the FBC, the code can then include a by-right review process. A discretionary process is no longer necessary because the community can be confident that what will be built will be appropriate.
The by-right review process then enables developers to know all of the requirements before they start the design process, so they can create a more accurate pro forma to determine whether the project will be viable. They will also only have to design the building once, saving the cost of multiple redesigns. The lower cost and lower risk of development under a by-right process will contribute to making projects more viable, leading to more housing being built, and to lowering the cost of that housing. In addition, this lower risk on all of their projects within FBC areas can enable developers to lower their profit margin thresholds, since their profit margin will not need to cover the cost of projects that did not survive a risky discretionary review process.
By-right zoning is needed, so let’s get it right
By-right zoning is critically important to increase housing affordability at all levels of the housing spectrum. To get it right, conventional zoning codes need to be updated to FBCs to effectively prescribe the outcome desired by the community, enabling communities to confidently let go of discretionary review. FBCs with by-right zoning contribute to housing affordability, ensure that development meets the community’s vision, and help to provide housing options for everyone who wants to live in a walkable neighborhood.
This article first appeared on Logos Opticos, the blog of Opticos Design.
OCPG member, and videographer Aurelio Ocampo (Red Sky Productions – www.RedSkyPro.com), recently released this brilliant short video on the Downtown Oxnard Vision Plan Charrette process. Aurelio clearly and beautifully documents the Charrette event that took place over a 5 day period in January of 2016. Enjoy!
When Michael Maltzan visited Los Angeles in the 1980s with a group of architectural students, he was comfortable in a way that many of his fellow travelers were not.
L.A. conveyed the same low-density, car-friendly vibe that he grew up with in the Long Island suburbs — the sense that “you could just go,” he recalled Friday.
Los Angeles, in some ways, still clings wistfully to that identity even as it grows up instead of out, builds light rail instead of freeways and transforms its long-neglected downtown into a cultural center and home to tens of thousands.
The challenges and promise of that transition were the focus of discussion at the Los Angeles Times Summit on the future of cities, held at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
“I think there’s a psychological change,” said Maltzan, the founder of Michael Maltzan Architecture. There “is more anxiety, fear around development,” than decades past, when L.A. just kept pushing out and out.
Now the city is folding back on itself, ind the boundary pushing has to come by way of architecture and innovative infrastructure projects that wire density into commercial thoroughfares without overwhelming neighborhoods, he said.
Instead of a bridge having one use, it can be equipped with solar panels to generate electricity and collect stormwater — as Maltzan has proposed for a reimagined Arroyo Seco Bridge in Pasadena.
“For me that’s the future of infrastructure,” said Maltzan, whose firm designed the One Santa Fe apartment complex in the downtown Arts District and the Sixth Street Viaduct that will span the Los Angeles River.
Paul Schimmel, partner at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, said the international arts gallery found its inspiration in the past, in the form of a more than century-old flour mill in the Arts District.
“It was really the space,” that allowed his firm to transform the building into an enormous gallery space that is fast becoming a community hub with its courtyard and restaurant.
For much of its modern history, Los Angeles was obsessed with private space — the joys of a backyard, a single family home and a solo drive down an open freeway.
But now there is a hunger for walkable public areas, a need that is reflected in plans for the Los Angeles River corridor, downtown’s Grand Park and the popularity of neighborhoods like the Arts District.
“We’re returning to a sense of community,” Schimmel said, adding that the city needs to improve access to pedestrian areas.
“Maybe do a little work on the streets,” he said wryly.
As to whether $6 coffees and upscale apartment construction were driving artists out of the Arts District, Schimmel said he suspected the neighborhood was too expensive for artists before the arrival of bars and restaurants.
But the transformation was much slower than he expected. “In the early ’80s I thought it would be the next Soho,” he said.
“People love the idea of what it was” — a gritty creative community, Schimmel said. Though some of the grit has been scrubbed off the downtown arts scene, “it seems to have roots,” he added.
Moreover, the messy sprawl of the L.A. Basin still offers plenty of relatively cheap industrial space that artists can turn into studios, Schimmel said, citing moves to warehouses in the Interstate 10 corridor.
He also suggested it was time for Santa Monica, an arts incubator in the 1970s and 1980s, “to make its next big move … This is a community that needs to step up again and take the leadership it has in the past.”
Other panelists discussed a more disturbing change in the Los Angeles landscape: the explosive growth in homelessness.
In 1980, people were not living on the streets, said Tanya Tull, founder and CEO of Partnering for Change and an expert in family homelessness.
“Just about everything we’ve done” to address the homeless problem nationally, Tull said, “we’ve done wrong.”
Funneling most funding into supportive housing for the mentally ill will not end homelessness, she argued. “We cannot build ourselves out of this.”
Rather, Tull said, rent subsidies are critical to countering the spiraling cost of housing in Los Angeles that has driven families and individuals to the streets and kept them there, sometimes for years.
She also said local government should be more open to nonconventional housing, such as the “teensy” apartment units San Francisco is experimenting with.
“Don’t you think it’s better to have a tiny apartment than a tent?” Tull asked.
Brian Lane, a principal of Koning Eizenberg Architecture, which designs affordable housing projects, argued that L.A. needs to shed the notion that a neighborhood always equals single-family homes.
The city has “miles and miles” of single-story commercial strips that can be rebuilt with greater density and create neighborhoods around transit hubs, he said.
Sam Polk is a former hedge-fund trader on Wall Street who is working on another shortage — healthy fresh food in poor city neighborhoods that he calls “food deserts.”
Polk founded the nonprofit Groceryships, which does educational outreach to improve eating habits in parts of the city dominated by fast-food restaurants.
He also co-founded Everytable, which prepares meals in a central kitchen and then sells them to go in storefronts.
The prices vary according to what a neighborhood can afford.
Someone living in South L.A., for instance, pays $4 for the same meal that costs a buyer $8 on the Westside.
“Healthy food is a human right,” Polk said, pointing out that it simply took some innovative thinking to develop the Everytable business model.
In perhaps the most optimistic prediction uttered at the Summit, he declared: “We are on the verge of becoming one of the great cities of the world.”
THE NATIONAL POLITICAL dialogue is suffused with substantive issues like Benghazi, beauty pageants, and the best debate memes. But the biggest bugbear in neighborhood politics just got some serious side eye from the Obama administration: Parking.
It sounds bitty and trivial, but parking is a very big deal in city halls and neighborhood associations. Even dense cities like New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, have long required developers to cough up enough parking to serve the residential projects they hope to build.
If you live in the neighborhood, this makes sense—you don’t want n00bs taking your spot. But as cities impotently scrabble to keep housing affordable, requiring developers to provide off-street parking feels like dead weight. The cost—up to $60,000 per underground spot—can kill projects before they even start. And you could argue that it’s better to use that land for bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms, not hunks of metal that spend most of the day sitting still. Don’t forget that in 2013, more than a quarter of US renters spend over 50 percent of their monthly incomeon housing. Affordability is a huge problem.
Indeed, says the White House. In a Housing Development Toolkit released Monday, the Obama administration calls off-street parking minimums an affordable housing no-no. “When transit-oriented developments are intended to help reduce automobile dependence,” it says, “parking requirements can undermine that goal by inducing new residents to drive, thereby counteracting city goals for increased use of public transit, walking and biking.”
Granted, the toolkit is merely a list of recommendations, with no teeth. And cities control zoning laws that dictate things like off-street parking. But the Obama administration is reiterating what urban planners have long said: Parking ain’t great for your city. And cities are finally listening.
Death to the Parking Lot
People have written tomes detailing the downsides of the urban parking lot, but let’s lay out the case against it real quick. By investing in cycling infrastructure, sidewalks, and bikeshare programs, dense cities have made it clear they don’t want people driving. But requiring developers to provide parking incentivizes car purchases—along with congestion and pollution. UCLA urban planner Donald Shoup found that people searching for parking in one 15-block stretch of Los Angeles burn 47,000 gallons of gas and produce 730 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Parking requirements are especially nonsensical in a real estate landscape where buyers pay a premium to live near transit and not have a car. In fact, the requirements effectively tax those who don’t want or can’t afford a car, by passing that cost on to them. And don’t forget that the cost of parking often prevents affordable housing development.
Building parking lots to reduce the demand for on-street parking doesn’t actually work, says Michael Manville, an urban planner who studies land use and traffic congestion at UCLA. “The street is an unpriced commons, which is why you have a shortage of parking,” he says. Cities once thought they could protect free parking and make existing residents happy by passing the hidden costs of those spots on to new residents. But the free spots will always be full—thanks, Econ 101. Manville says any city worried about parking should do the smart but unpopular thing: require permits or install meters.
The Very Slow Death of the Parking Lot
Into this lake of evidence wades the White House. It isn’t the first to do so. People like Manville have been warning anyone who will listen about the downsides of off-street parking minimums for at least 15 years. And cities have been getting in on the anti-parking lot regs for almost a decade. Seattle relaxed requirements for developments within a quarter-mile of mass transit in 2012. New York City and Denver did much the same for low-income housing. Other cities aregranting developers waivers to parking requirements, but they aren’t making it easy.
You can attribute the change in part to a growing shortage of affordable housing, says Stockton Williams, the executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing. And you can expect such policies to become more popular as the affordable housing crisis reaches ever further into the middle class. “Affordability is increasingly understood to be a problem that affects people beyond those in the lowest income bracket,” says Williams. Even tech workers feel the squeeze.
Of course, hitting parking where it hurts is no panacea. The White House toolkit points out other important policy adjustments—like taxing vacant land, zoning for density, and letting homeowners build additional dwellings in their backyards—that will promote affordable housing. All of them must be enacted together to keep everyone housed.
But the White House has said its piece. “Obama’s a lame duck, but as [his administration is] heading out the door, they can choose to make bold statements on any number of fronts. The fact that one of the fronts they chose to make a statement on is zoning, I think, is symbolically important,” says Manville, the urban planner.
Symbols serve their purpose, so go sleep in your nearest parking lot tonight.
Administration calls for local laws to allow accessory dwelling units and denser development and eliminate off-street parking requirements, among other changes.
The Obama Administration is calling on cities and towns to reform land-use regulations to allow denser development by right while recommending actions that new urbanists have long supported.
The administration released a “toolkit” on housing development that recommends eliminating off-street parking requirements and allowing accessory dwelling units.
The toolkit also calls for more “high-density and multifamily zoning,” “streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines,” and allowing “by-right development,” which are consistent with many form-based codes and new urban reforms.
Antiquated land-use regulations, often dating from the 1970s or earlier, are holding back economic growth and increasing housing costs across America, says the administration.
“Significant barriers to new housing development can cause working families to be pushed out of the job markets with the best opportunities for them, or prevent them from moving to regions with higher—paying jobs and stronger career tracks. Excessive barriers to housing development result in increasing drag on national economic growth and exacerbate income inequality,” the report says.
On the other hand, “Cities like Chicago, Seattle, Sacramento, and Tacoma and states like California and Massachusetts have already begun to foster more affordable housing opportunities by removing restrictions, implementing transit-oriented-oriented zoning ordinances, and speeding up permitting and construction processes,” according to the Housing Development Toolkit.
The report marks a first—at least going back several decades—that the White House has made local zoning and land-use regulations a national issue.
“City zoning battles usually are fought block by block, and the president’s involvement will create friction, particularly among environmental groups and the not-in-my-backyard crowd,” notes a Politico report. “But the White House jawboning is welcome news to many others, including mayors and builders increasingly foiled by community opposition to development.”
The report is backed up by a fiscal year 2017 budget proposal to spend $300 million on Local Housing Policy Grants to help cities modernize housing regulatory approaches. However, the Administration’s lame duck status means budget priorities could radically change with whoever is elected in November.
Nevertheless, land-use reform could win support across the political spectrum—from mayors and smart growth advocates to developers and pro-business groups.
“It’s important that the president is talking about it,” Mark Calabria, director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute, told Politico. “Local restrictions on housing supply are a crucial economic issue. I would say it’s one of the top 10.”
In addition to previously mentioned priorities, the Toolkit recommends:
· Taxing vacant land or donate it to non-profit developers
· Establishing density bonuses
· Employing inclusionary zoning
· Establishing development tax or value capture incentives
· Using property tax abatements
Mismatch between current US housing stock and shifting demographics, combined with the growing demand for walkable urban living, has been poignantly defined by recent research and publications by the likes of Christopher Nelson and Chris Leinberger and the Urban Land Institute’s publication, What’s Next: Real Estate in the New Economy. Let’s stop talking about the problem and start generating solutions!
Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as adding more multi-family housing stock using the dated models/types of housing that we have been building. Rather, we need a complete paradigm shift in the way that we design, locate, regulate, and develop homes. As What’s Next states, “it’s a time to rethink and evolve, reinvent and renew.” Missing Middle housing types, such as duplexes, fourplexes, bungalow courts, mansion apartments, and live-work units, are a critical part of the solution and should be a part of every architect’s, planner’s, real estate agent’s, and developer’s arsenal.
Well-designed, simple Missing Middle housing types achieve medium-density yields and provide high-quality, marketable options between the scales of single-family homes and mid-rise flats for walkable urban living. They are designed to meet the specific needs of shifting demographics and the new market demand and are a key component to a diverse neighborhood. They are classified as “missing” because very few of these housing types have been built since the early 1940’s due to regulatory constraints, the shift to auto-dependent patterns of development, and the incentivization of single-family home ownership.
The following are defining characteristics of Missing Middle housing:
A walkable context. Probably the most important characteristic of these types of housing is that they need to be built within an existing or newly created walkable urban context. Buyers or renters of these housing types are choosing to trade larger suburban housing for less space, no yard to maintain, and proximity to services and amenities such as restaurants, bars, markets, and often work. Linda Pruitt of the Cottage Company, who is building creative bungalow courts in the Seattle area, says the first thing her potential customers ask is, “What can I walk to?” So this criteria becomes very important in her selection of lots and project areas, as is it for all Missing Middle housing.
Medium density but lower perceived densities. As a starting point, these building types typically range in density from 16 dwelling units/acre (du/acre) to up to 35 du/acre, depending on the building type and lot size. It is important not to get too caught up in the density numbers when thinking about these types. Due to the small footprint of the building types and the fact that they are usually mixed with a variety of building types, even on an individual block, the perceived density is usually quite lower–they do not look like dense buildings.
A combination of these types gets a neighborhood to a minimum average of 16 du/acre. This is important because this is generally used as a threshold at which an environment becomes transit-supportive and main streets with neighborhood-serving, walkable retail and services become viable.
Small footprint and blended densities. As mentioned above, a common characteristic of these housing types are small- to medium-sized building footprints. The largest of these types, the mansion apartment or side-by-side duplex, may have a typical main body width of about 40-50ft, which is very comparable to a large estate home. This makes them ideal for urban infill, even in older neighborhoods that were originally developed as single-family but have been designated to evolve with slightly higher intensities. As a good example, a courtyard housing project in the Westside Guadalupe Historic District of Santa Fe, New Mexico sensitively incorporates 6 units and a shared community-room building onto a ¼ acre lot. In this project, the buildings are designed to be one room deep to maximize cross ventilation/passive cooling and to enable the multiple smaller structures to relate well to the existing single-family context.
Smaller, well-designed units. One of the most common mistakes by architects or builders new to the urban housing market is trying to force suburban unit types and sizes into urban contexts and housing types. The starting point for Missing Middle housing needs to be smaller-unit sizes; the challenge is to create small spaces that are well designed, comfortable, and usable. As an added benefit, smaller-unit sizes can help developers keep their costs down, improving the pro-forma performance of a project, while keeping the housing available to a larger group of buyers or renters at a lower price point.
Off-street parking does not drive the site plan. The other non-starter for Missing Middle housing is trying to provide too much parking on site. This ties back directly to the fact that these units are being built in a walkalble urban context. The buildings become very inefficient from a development potential or yield standpoint and shifts neighborhoods below the 16 du/acre density threshold, as discussed above, if large parking areas are provided or required. As a starting point, these units should provide no more than 1 off-street parking space per unit. A good example of this is newly constructed mansion apartments in the new East Beach neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia. To enable these lower off-street parking requirements to work, on-street parking must be available adjacent to the units. Housing design that forces too much parking on a site also compromises the occupant’s experience of entering the building or “coming home” and the relationship with its context, especially in an infill condition, which can greatly impact marketability.
Simple construction. The days of easily financing and building complicated, expensive Type-I or II buildings with podium parking are behind us, and an alternative for providing walkable urban housing with more of a simple, cost-effective construction type is necessary in many locations. What’s Next states, “affordability—always a key element in housing markets—is taking on a whole new meaning as developers reach for ways to make attractive homes within the means of financially constrained buyers.” Because of their simple forms, smaller size, and Type V construction, Missing Middle building types can help developers maximize affordability and returns without compromising quality by providing housing types that are simple and affordable to build.
Creating Community. Missing Middle housing creates community through the integration of shared community spaces within the types, as is the case for courtyard housing or bungalow courts, or simply from the proximity they provide to the community within a building and/or the neighborhood. This is an important aspect, in particular within the growing market of single-person households (which is at nearly 30% of all households) that want to be part of a community. This has been especially true for single women who have proven to be a strong market for these Missing Middle housing types, in particular bungalow courts and courtyard housing.
Marketability. The final and maybe the most important characteristic in terms of market viability is that these housing types are very close in scale and provide a similar user experience (such as entering from a front porch facing the street versus walking down a long, dark corridor to get to your unit) to single-family homes, thus making the mental shift for potential buyers and renters much less drastic than them making a shift to live in a large mid-rise or high-rise project. This combined with the fact that many baby boomers likely grew up in similar housing types in urban areas or had relatives that did, enables them to easily relate to these housing types.
This is a call for architects, planners, and developers to think outside the box and create immediate, viable solutions to address the mismatch between the housing stock and what the market is demanding–vibrant, diverse, sustainable, walkable urban places. The Missing Middle housing types are an important part of this solution and should be integrated into comprehensive and regional planning, zoning code updates, TOD strategies, and the business models for developers and builders who want to be at the forefront of this paradigm shift.
Once blighted and overlooked, these small streets are transforming into community and sustainability hotspots.
An art walk art walk through Seattle’s Nord Alley. (mirastories)
The alley is dark no longer.
In the United States, these almost-accidental spaces between buildings have existed in a sort of limbo: not quite streets, but still thoroughfares; not private, but not public enough to feel protected; backdrops to crime, or filled with trash heaps.
But as cities grow increasingly strapped for space, neglecting these narrow streets is no longer a viable option. Cities from Los Angeles to Baltimore to Seattle are rethinking their alleyways and transforming dead ends into into places of connectivity and productivity.
In other parts of the world, the size or location of a thoroughfare did not dictate its utility in the same way it did in the U.S. Daniel Toole, an architect and blogger at Alleys of Seattle, previously told CityLab that in European cities like Paris, Rome, and Barcelona, beautiful alleys are vital pedestrian passageways. In Kyoto and Melbourne, they’re retail hubs.
Even the names alleys are called around the world, Toole said, suggests their different functions: in Japan, they’re calledroji, or “little street”; in Australia, they’re “laneways,” suggesting, to Toole, a more pedestrian-friendly figuration.
However, in America, Toole said, alleyways were specifically set aside as infrastructure. Originally conceived as service access to buildings, they were a place to conduct activities considered unfit for the main street—hence today’s association with garbage collection. “It’s really messy,” Toole said. Imagine loading docks for construction, piled-up trash, exposed gas conduits.
For places that were meant to be unseen, alleys take up a not-insubstantial amount of space. A 2011 report by Mary Fialko and Jennifer Hampton, graduate students at the University of Washington*, found that in Seattle, there are 217,000 square feet of public alley space downtown, 85 percent of which are underused. The report estimated that reinvigorating alleyways could increase the number of total public space in the city by 50 percent.
Alleys, too, are vital players in a city’s overall ecosystem. As the need for cities to rely on more sustainable approaches has become more pressing, the proliferation of trash and flooding in alleyways has come to be seen not only an aesthetic blight, but an environmental one.
And as Daniel Freedman of the Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative says, there’s a lot of crossover between sound environmental practices and livability. Revitalizing an alleyway creates an opportunity to introduce green infrastructure, but also, Freedman says, it invites the surrounding community to collaborate on improvements and make use of the space.
Across the U.S., cities’ approaches to their alleyways have been varied and specific; at their core, however, are fundamental practices that can be considered and applied universally.
In 2006, Chicago took stock of its 13,000 alleys—among the country’s vastest—and saw a problem. Decades previously, most of the city’s 3,500 acres of alleys were paved with impermeable asphalt or concrete, and stormwater drained through grates at the center. As those systems fell into disrepair through lack of maintenance, flooding became commonplace.
In response, the city pioneered the Chicago Green Alley Program, among the first in the United States to bring sustainable building practices to a network of alleyways. According to Gizmodo, over 100 of the city’s alleys have since beencovered with permeable surfaces that redirect stormwater into the ground and away from Chicago’s “overtaxed” sewer system, reducing flooding and recharging the surrounding soil.
A privately funded initiative in Detroit has taken a similar approach. Peggy Brennan of the Green Garage told Gizmodo that Detroit’s resulting Green Alley incorporates permeable surfaces and gardening space, and has transformed a space once filled with mattresses and hypodermic needles into a community gathering place.
Los Angeles expects that a new network of green alleyways will help the city meet its goal of increasing stormwater capture to 50 billion gallons by 2035; currently, the city saves 8.8 billion gallons annually, The New York Timesreported. The newest alley in the network centered in the city’s South Park neighborhood is projected to capture 700,000 gallons per year.
In Baltimore, the issue was trash. Leanna Wetmore, the community coordinator for the Baltimore Waterfront Parternership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative, had been trying to figure out a way to engage the local communities in her organization’s goal of having a fishable waterway. “But it’s hard to talk to people about clean water in our city, when there are a million other important issues,” Wetmore says.
So she decided to focus on the garbage pileup in neighborhood alleys. The trash that piles up there filters down through the storm drains and into the harbor; getting the community on board with getting rid of the trash, Wetmore thought, would bring people together and start to free up the water. The Healthy Harbor Initiative’s Alley Makeover Program brings communities together to clean up their alleyways, then implement some “small, cheap improvements that reset people’s expectations of what an alleyway can be,” Wetmore says. Through a $30,000 grant from the Rauch Foundation, 20 alleyways in six neighborhoods are now covered in murals and artwork; they’re filled with block parties and cleared of trash.
Seattle decided in 2008 to clear its alleys of dumpsters, moving instead to a trash-bag collection model of waste management. The same year, theInternational Sustainability Institute (ISI), based in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, partnered with Gehl Architects on a survey of downtown Seattle’s public spaces, which identified the newly dumpster-free alleys of Pioneer Square as a a potential asset. Pioneer Square, says Liz Stenning, the public realm director for the Alliance for Pioneer Square, had fallen on hard times: it was mostly devoid of retail, office workers left after closing hours, and the streets were quiet.
Inspired by the feedback from the Gehl report, ISI cleaned up the alley adjacent to its office, and hosted a party. It was a rainy night, Stenning says, and the festivities weren’t much more than a local musician and some folding chairs, but people stayed. Since then, ISI has partnered with Stenning’s organization, the Alliance for Pioneer Square, to revitalize alleyways throughout the neighborhood; they now play host to anything from projecting World Cup games from the back of a U-Haul truck, to cat adoptions, to revolving art installations. “We were just trying to do things that change people’s perspective on being in an alley,” Stenning says.
It wasn’t long before local businesses caught on. In Pioneer Square, Back Alley Bike Repair opened its doors in 2011 onto the 700-square-foot Nord Alley; independent restaurants have moved in and capitalized on the 15 or so revitalized passageways as outdoor seating areas.
When it opened in 2012, the East Cahuenga Alley in Los Angeles swiftly drew crowds. The brainchild of a member of the Hollywood Business Improvement District, the plan for the lane—once known as “Heroin Alley”—re-imagined it as a pedestrian space filled with outdoor dining and an artists’ market on Sundays. The Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative compiled an extensive report on the space, Freedman says, to “put a spotlight on what happened in one community, to show what could be possible for others.”
Though Freedman’s organization focuses primarily on the Los Angeles area, the success of the East Cahuenga Alley model has radiated out to other cities. The Z Block office and retail development is slated to open in Lower Downtown Denver next year; the developer on the project told The Denver Post that the alley bisecting the site was as much a focus as the buildings themselves. While previous alley activations in Denver were limited to one-offs, the Z Block alley will play permanent host to a distiller, a chocolatier, a coffee-bean roaster, and an ice-cream shop, all of which will open out onto the small street.
Historically, Freedman says, urban alleyways were often places of dangers or sources of shame. But in the places where these spaces have been revitalized and repurposed, there’s a particular delight in their new use. The success of these projects, Freedman says, “shows how it’s possible to take a space that was once a liability, and turn it into a resource.”
This is a brilliant article on Placemaking by CNU-CA’s Howard Blackson. It’s a short easy read if you skim it – it’s a deep tretis on Placemaking if you think about each of the C’s and how it applies to your daily civic meanderings and our city. How does Oxnard compare to the 5 C’s – does it work? And where does it not work and what would it take to make it work? – OCPG
I live in a city that is currently updating its Community Plans. This is an historically difficult planning job because Community Plans transcend both broad policy statements (such as the amorphous “New development should be in harmony with surrounding development…”) and specific development regulations (“Front yard setbacks shall be 25 feet deep from property line…”). An issue with updating Community-scaled plans is the personal sentiment people feel for their homes and the difficulty we have in expressing such emotion within conventional 2D planning documents. The source of most conflicts and confusion I see occurring during these updates is due to the confusion over the scale and size difference of a ‘Community’ versus a ‘Neighborhood’ unit.
A community is defined as, “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.” Many places have different communities inhabiting them, such as an elderly, or arts, or ethnic community living and/or working in close proximity to one another. Even the internet can be considered a place inhabited by many diverse communities. So the scale, parameters, and character of a community-scaled planning effort is difficult to define.
Usually, community planning areas are defined by political boundaries, or historic development plats and, in some deplorable cases, old insurance red-lining practices that gave a city its initial zoning districts. This being the case, I contend that the neighborhood unit is a better tool to define, plan, and express policies and regulations necessary to preserve, enhance and, yes, build great places.
The neighborhood is a physical place — varied in intensity from more rural to more urban — that many different communities inhabit. At its essence, whether downtown, midtown or out-of-town, its health and viability (in terms of both resilience and quality of life) is defined by certain basic characteristics. Easily observable in neighborhoods that work, these characteristics have been articulated a variety of ways over the years — most notably for me by Andrés Duany and Mike Stepnor. Combined, they form what I like to call the 5 Cs:
Great neighborhoods host a mix of uses in order to provide for our daily need to live, work, play, worship, dine, shop, and talk to each other. Each neighborhood has a center, a general middle area, and an edge. The reason suburban sprawl sprawls is because it has no defined centers and therefore no defined edge. Civic spaces generally (though not always) define a neighborhood’s center while commerce tends to happen on the edges, on more highly traffic-ed streets and intersections easily accessible by two or more neighborhoods. The more connected a neighborhood is, the more variety of commercial goods and services can be offered, as not every neighborhood needs a tuxedo shop or a class ‘A’ office building.
The 5-minute walk from center to edge, a basic rule-of-thumb for walkability, equates to approximately 80 to 160 acres, or 9 to 18 city blocks. This general area includes public streets, parks, and natural lands, as well as private blocks, spaces and private buildings. This scale may constrict in the dead of winter and/or heat of summer, and expand during more temperate months. Compactness comes in a range of intensities that are dependent upon local context. Therefore, more urban neighborhoods, such as those found in Brooklyn, are significantly more compact than a new neighborhood located, for example, outside Taos, New Mexico. Remember, the ped-shed is a general guide for identifying the center and edge of a neighborhood. Each neighborhood must be defined by its local context, meaning shapes can, and absolutely do, vary. Edges may be delineated by high speed thoroughfares (such as within Chicago’s vast grid), steep slopes and natural corridors (as found in Los Angeles), or other physical barriers.
Great neighborhoods are walkable, drivable, and bike-able with or without transit access. But, these are just modes of transportation. To be socially connected, neighborhoods should also be linger-able, sit-able, and hang out-able.
Great neighborhoods have a variety of civic spaces, such as plazas, greens, recreational parks, and natural parks. They have civic buildings, such a libraries, post offices, churches, community centers and assembly halls. They should also have a variety of thoroughfare types, such as cross-town boulevards, Main Streets, residential avenues, streets, alleys, bike lanes and paths. Due to their inherent need for a variety of land uses, they provide many different types of private buildings such as residences, offices, commercial buildings and mixed-use buildings. This complexity of having both public and private buildings and places provides the elements that define a neighborhood’s character.
The livability and social aspect of a neighborhood is driven by the many and varied communities that not only inhabit, but meet, get together, and socialize within a neighborhood. Meaning “friendly, lively and enjoyable,” convivial neighborhoods provide the gathering places — the coffee shops, pubs, ice creme shops, churches, clubhouses, parks, front yards, street fairs, block parties, living rooms, back yards, stoops, dog parks, restaurants and plazas — that connect people. How we’re able to socially connect physically is what defines our ability to endure and thrive culturally. It’s these connections that ultimately build a sense of place, a sense of safety, and opportunities for enjoyment… which is hard to maintain when trying to update a community plan without utilizing the Neighborhood Unit as the key planning tool.
Think about it. In the years prior, the term “placemaking” wasn’t even in common use by developers, designers and planners. Nor were terms such as form-based code, new urbanism, smart growth, transect,charrette, visual preference survey, traditional neighborhood development, transit-oriented development,sprawl repair/suburban retrofit, return on infrastructure investment analysis, tactical urbanism,WalkScore, complete streets, context sensitive thoroughfare design, LEED-ND, light imprint infrastructure,WalkUP, the original green, lean urbanism, the high cost of free parking, etc.
What has not changed over the last 25 years is that decisions regarding the growth and development of our communities are still being made by community leaders who might be experts in politics, but do not have an adequate understanding of placemaking principles.
Uninformed decisions can lead to bad results. You are familiar with the types of poor policy decisions that spring from this uninformed position— all road widenings are “improvements,” all density is bad, the public works department should treat an urban area exactly the same as a suburban area, etc. For those of us who are focused on improving our communities through competent urban design, this is a source of great frustration.
So here are my Top 10 Techniques for Educating Community Leaders about Placemaking. If you find yourself similarly frustrated, consider the following tools for those you believe are open to enhancing their knowledge (not everyone is).
1. Lunch. Lunch is rarely adequately leveraged because it is viewed as nothing more than… lunch. But your placemaking initiatives are essentially political issues, and if you want political support you need to build trust with leaders. Whether it is lunch, breakfast, dinner or drinks, start building the relationship and along the way view it as an opportunity to provide valuable information that will help the leader make more informed decisions. And budget for it.
2. Speaker Series. Establish a formal speaker series that brings compelling practitioners to town to speak about your community’s hot topic issues. If you need to gain a lot of ground in a short amount of time, try to put together a monthly series that lasts one year like Chad Emerson did in Montgomery, Alabama. The value in that program was not simply found in the speakers, but in the periodic gathering of community leaders where placemaking issues were the focus. Also consider finding partner organizations who can sponsor or co-sponsor stand-alone events at least once a year like the annual “Smart Growth Luncheon” series that the Independent publishing group has facilitated for the past eleven years in Lafayette, Louisiana.
3. Private Meetings with Speakers/Consultants. When a speaker or consultant comes to town, do not rely upon public events to connect with community leaders. Rather, schedule private meetings where frank discussions can occur without the fear of media coverage. Try to schedule these meetings over a meal if possible. When I conduct Smart Growth Workshops for a local association of the National Association of Realtors, the private meetings are oftentimes more important than the public workshops themselves.
4. Local or Regional Conferences. The Center for Planning Excellence has hosted the multi-day Louisiana Smart Growth Summit in Baton Rouge for the past ten years. It brings national speakers to town, and this recurring dialogue has dramatically improved the quality of projects in the region and state. The Institute for Quality Communities in Oklahoma is another regional organization that is making a differencewith this tool.
5. National Conferences. While joining a community leader at the annual Congress for New Urbanism, or the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference or the International Downtown Association Conferenceis an outstanding way to enhance the knowledge of that community leader, the truth is that it is very hard to do this because most community leaders are unwilling to take the three or four days away from their busy schedules to attend unless they are already fully on board with your placemaking initiatives.
6. CityBuilding Exchange. The CityBuilding Exchange is designed to overcome the objections to other national conferences by compacting the content into two days, limiting participation to 100 registrants, holding the event in a place filled with placemaking lessons (this March it will be in New Orleans), and focusing the content on the tools and ideas that community leaders need to understand from the nation’s leading practitioners.
7. Field Trips/Walking Tour. A field trip with community leaders to a place that can serve as a model for where you want to go (or where you do not want to go) as a community is a highly effective educational tool because it permits the conversation to get real. After attending a SmartCode Workshop in 2003, Texas Representative Mike Krusee facilitated a field trip of all of the mayors in the Austin region to visit Washington, D.C. so that those leaders could better understand how transit oriented development could improve the quality of life in the Austin region. In 2004 Austin approved its first commuter rail referendum. Note that the field trip also permitted the building of relationships between community leaders that can form the basis of working together in the future. Finally note that a walking tour can be incorporated into a field trip (or be a stand alone event in your community) where an expert in urban design can take community leaders on a walk down a street and talk about the urban design elements that are working as well as those that are not working. Once again, these trips bring to life the concepts in a way that gets beyond the platitudes on placemaking.
8. Personal Emails. National news articles, local news stories or the release of a new study on an important placemaking topic can serve as an opportunity for you to email a community leader with your perspective on an issue. Instead of simply forwarding the information to the community leader, make sure that you clearly and succinctly state how the information relates to making your community better.
9. Webinar/OnLine Video Presentations. Watching webinars (whether new or old) or online video presentations together with community leaders can be a difficult sale, but it is worthy of your consideration — especially if you set it up as a “lunch ’n learn” event or even have end of the day cocktails. This tends to work better with community leaders who are on city staff as opposed to elected politicians.
10. Books, Web Sites, Blogs and eNewsletters. Provide resources to community leaders so that they can learn more on their own. Your efforts should focus on two basic approaches. First, buy a book or series of books that are particularly relevant to your community, then loan or give those books to community leaders. In my community, I use Jeff Speck’s book, Walkable City as the introductory primer on placemaking. Second, have a very, very, very short list of resources such as websites, blogs, a LinkedIn Group or e-newsletters that you can recommend as an ongoing source for information.
Quality Information, Patience and Persistence = Success. Regardless of the tools you choose to use, remember that the mission will not be accomplished in a day. But, if you exercise patience and persistence, you will improve your community by arming your community leaders with the information they need to make better decisions.
California’s Bay Area housing disaster tells Southern Californians that our housing crisis will only get worse and doing nothing is both an irrational and irresponsible response. We are faced with deciding to have more neighbors or pay more taxes as we desperately need money to fix our city’s crumbling infrastructure. The conundrum is that we despise taxes and the mere mention of ‘density’ polarizes any discussion into either demands for no new growth or building tall towers.
I believe answers to meet San Diego’s housing demand are found in the following two-tier approach:
The first tier is a baseline ‘Beach Density.’ An existing housing model found in our older, traditional beach neighborhoods that fills our need for the ‘missing middle’ types of housing. This model is essentially a residence or shop with three (3) to five (5) units on each lot that are no more than two (2) to three (3) stories tall. All of these homes and businesses are mixed together every few blocks or so. By allowing every lot in San Diego’s urbanized areas to have up to five (5) units’ by-right, we have the opportunity to solve for our critical housing and infrastructure financing deficiencies without dramatically altering our city’s character. Ultimately, the entire city can enjoy and benefit from our healthy, outdoor lifestyle that this Beach Model provides us.
The second tier is more precisely located ‘Climate Action Zones.’ Per its recently adopted Climate Action Plan, the city of San Diego is required to take actions to “Implement transit-oriented development within Transit Priority Areas,” and to “[a]chieve better walkability and transit-supportive densities by locating a majority of all new residential development within Transit Priority Areas.” In combination with the Beach Density’s baseline housing bump, these Climate Action Zones are intended to achieve our city’s legally binding Climate Action Plan within a reasonable timeline.1 We cannot expect the city to complete it all at once, but it can accommodate for an urban acupunctural approach… pin pricks at key points to make great change.
These ‘zones’ will require updated and new city policies, including community plan updates, to facilitate increases of land use intensity near our region’s transit investments. Fortunately, we have one of our nation’s first and best Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) guidelines written by planning guru Peter Calthrope in 1992 that have sat neatly on a shelf in the city’s Planning Department over these many years, having been emasculated by our currently suburban and convoluted parking regulations. We should dust these off, as they’ve been proven throughout the world – as well as Portland – to increase transit ridership. In addition, we should manage our off-street parking and simplify one space per unit to permit transit, walking, and biking to be as advantageous as driving.
A ‘tower’ in San Diego is a building over 7 stories, and are only appropriate in one or two areas beyond downtown. However, 4 – 6 stories have been built in our old streetcar neighborhoods since their founding 100 years ago, as this height is a ‘walk up’ and appropriate in ‘walkable’ neighborhoods. Climate Action Zones should be located on the 4 to 8 blocks (600 feet radius) around primary intersections with cross-street transit service, currently built as 60’s era gas stations, drive-thrus, and strip centers.
Data shows that the majority of trips within 600 feet of a transit station are made by transit, bike or foot. These zones would permit mixed-use, up to 7 stories/90 feet tall max, using our TOD guidelines that allow for shared parking ratios with limited Community Plan conformance reviews in order to ensure transition steps to protect neighbors. Rather than waiting to build another Rancho del Rancho on our suburban periphery, these retrofitted intersections will be the focus of new development for the next 15-years. Successful case studies include Salt Lake’s Commuter, Light Rail (LRT), and Streetcar corridor economic engine, Dallas’s new LRT stations and Klyde Warren Park and Historic Streetcar value explosion, and Denver’s new infill coding success.
It is untenable to keep century old urban communities from change. But we know change brings fear to local citizens, which is why this two-tier approach makes very clear that new housing can fit comfortably within our current lifestyle if we explicitly plan for what we need using San Diego proven models. Finally, we have to plan for the change we want in order to fix our infrastructure, add public spaces, and to continue to be relevant to working economies by providing attainable housing, accessible transportation, and our unique outdoor lifestyle.
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.
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.
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.
When you think of “affordable housing,” what’s the image that comes to mind? For lots of people, including many of those most in need of it, the picture is not a pretty one: it’s a scene of dreary, deteriorating high-rises or shabby, poorly constructed “garden” apartments with no garden in sight. Moreover, the projects come with lots of safety concerns, placed in “the wrong part of town.” Environmentally, they may be plagued with poor air quality, peeling paint, energy inefficiency, unkempt grounds, and litter.
There’s an unfortunate stigma associated with affordable housing in the US, particularly with publicly subsidized housing; and, if the reality frequently isn’t as awful as the reputation, I’m afraid the reputation is also grounded in more than a little truth in more than a few places. The stigma has been well-earned over time. What you are likely not thinking about, when you think of affordable housing, is state-of-the-art green design that would appeal not just to people of limited means but to others as well, and that’s unfortunate.
That’s the bad news.
But the good news is that I am beginning to see some new-generation developments that, if they foretell a trend, could put the stigma to rest. These new projects are not just better than expectations; they are enviable. They include subsidized units priced to be affordable to low-income renters, to be sure, but they also have high-quality design and features and amenities that could appeal to just about anyone in the market for apartment living. Even better, they are as green as they come, healthy for both people and the planet.
Affordable housing and design
Before I tell you about three of these great new developments, let’s begin with some background: affordable housing is a subject dear to my heart. In fact, I was born into post-World War II public housing in Hickory, North Carolina, where I lived with my parents until they could afford a private (but still affordably priced) apartment, along with employment, in the nearby city of Asheville. I was well into my twenties before I experienced any way of living, really, other than “affordable housing.” That said, I should stress that in our case affordable meant small but it did not mean unpleasant; I have a lot of happy memories from those days.
Indeed, even with respect to public housing I tend to think that the authors of government programs have tried to do their best for their clientele. But budgets have been tight, and some well-meaning concepts have not stood the test of time. Subsidized housing hasn’t been a failure, in my opinion – millions of Americans have enjoyed decent lives because of it – but it hasn’t been a universally rousing success, either.
In particular, great design – to say nothing of great green design – has not frequently been a feature of affordably priced developments. Writing a few years ago in what is now known as CityLab, Allison Arieff unsparingly criticized the dreary approach frequently associated with public housing:
“This soul-sapping approach to aesthetics is par for the course for affordable housing, which is meant not only to look low-budget but also low-effort. Conventional thinking on affordability proceeds from the misguided premise that anything well-designed will be, and look, expensive so it follows that design should not be a priority. Further, the argument goes, anything well-designed will be too appealing to eligible tenants, thus discouraging them from ever leaving. So affordable housing should not only be cheap, it should look cheap. As a result, much affordable housing is more punitive than homey, by design.”
That’s a brutal assessment. While I tend to think substandard design in affordable housing has come about more by inattention and a mass-production approach than by intent, there is little doubt that the results have often been lacking. Even worse, the effects of substandard design are frequently compounded by substandard maintenance over time, creating a “wrong part of town” even if things didn’t start out that way.
We need new models, and we need them fast. We especially need them in distressed neighborhoods to catalyze green, inclusive revitalization. Fortunately, I’m here to report that they are indeed on their way. I have seen quite a few over the last decade, but none more aesthetically and environmentally impressive than these three.
The Rose, Minneapolis
Let’s start with a super-green apartment complex in Minneapolis. I first came across The Rose in an Urban Land Institute email several weeks ago and took notice right way because of a stunning rendering and the project’s ambitious aspiration of achieving recognition under the Living Building Challenge, the most demanding of the green building performance rating programs.
According to ULI’s case study, the project comprises 90 apartments in two buildings. Significantly, it does not consist solely of affordable units but, rather, is mixed-income: 47 of the apartments are offered at subsidized rates to qualified residents, and 43 are market-rate; the two categories are indistinguishable with regard to finishes and appearance. Of the subsidized units, seven are set aside for residents who have experienced long-term homelessness; 15 are “section 8” apartments where tenants pay 30 percent of monthly income for rent. (Section 8 of the federal Housing Act of 1937 authorizes a federal rental assistance program administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.)
The Rose’s affordable and market-rate homes are interspersed throughout the project, which also includes among its outdoor features a 5,000-square-foot community garden. Additional outdoor amenities for all residents include a courtyard with “a lawn, a play area, a play surface that meets Americans with Disabilities Act standards, a rain garden, a patio with grills, a fire pit, and seating.” Indoor features include a fitness center, a yoga studio, and resident lounges, with floor-to-ceiling glass to maximize light and views. The units all have porches and, in the case of ground-floor apartments, access from the sidewalk as well as from the courtyard.
Green performance of any development is highly related to its location, generally the more central with respect to the metropolitan region the better. The Rose does impressively well on this score, its 2.3-acre site situated in an older, transit-accessible neighborhood just south of downtown Minneapolis. Simply put, people who live there don’t have to drive very much. The wonderful Abogo calculator from the Center for Neighborhood Technology estimates that households in the development’s neighborhood, on average, would generate only about 45 percent of the carbon emissions from transportation typically generated by households in the Twin Cities region as a whole.
The project enjoys a Walk Score of 86 (“most errands can be accomplished on foot”), a Transit Score of 76 (“transit is convenient for most trips”) and a Bike Score of 96 (“flat as a pancake, excellent bike lanes”). I wish there weren’t freeways nearby, but one can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the very, very good.
The Rose is designed to be 75 percent more energy-efficient than required by regional industry standards. Solar thermal panels are arrayed on the south side of each building and provide 35 percent of hot water needs. All stormwater will be captured and treated on-site, and all landscaping irrigation will be provided by graywater collected in cisterns with a combined 500-cubic-feet capacity. There is much more detail about the project’s green features (as well as its financing) in ULI’s case study.
The Rose was developed jointly by Aeon, a “nonprofit developer, owner and manager of high-quality affordable apartments and townhomes which serve more than 4,500 people annually in the Twin Cities area,” and Hope Community, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit headquartered in The Rose’s neighborhood and whose mission is inclusive revitalization of distressed neighborhoods. The developers consciously undertook the project as a model that, while aspirational, would be built on a foundation of replicable components and processes that could be applied elsewhere. Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle of Minneapolis provided the project’s architecture.
Paseo Verde, Philadelphia
I have a small connection to my second example: Several years ago, my employer (at the time) Natural Resources Defense Council partnered with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and a number of local community development corporations to work on green neighborhood revitalization. We wanted to build on the investment we had made over more than a decade as a founding partner of both the LEED green building rating system and one of its most exciting offshoots, LEED for Neighborhood Development (which we had developed alongside the US Green Building Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism). Our thinking was that the standards of LEED-ND in particular could serve as guidelines for helping low-income communities and CDCs improve their own neighborhoods.
One of that revitalization program’s first undertakings was to advise the planning for a new affordable housing development in Philadelphia. The site was a bleak surface parking lot at the intersection of 9th and Berks Streets in a part of town that had suffered severe disinvestment over the years. But the location had some major assets, including an adjacent regional rail transit station and Temple University, just a couple of blocks to the west. It was the kind of urban neighborhood that, while perhaps not impressive at the time, was well situated to improve with the right kind of investment.
Little did we know then that Paseo Verde, as the new mixed-income development would be named, would become one of the greenest neighborhood-scaled developments in the US, earning platinum ratings from both LEED-ND and LEED for Homes.
An article posted on ULI’s Philadelphia blog site describes the transformation:
“Paseo Verde is a keystone development that connects an ethnically diverse, low-income neighborhood to the adjacent train station and to Temple University. Before the development, commuter trains hurried past a drab station and a dingy, fenced-in parking lot, shadowed by public housing on one side and blighted rowhouses on the other.
“Today, the same trains pull up alongside a mosaic of bright green panels, with tree-shaded roof gardens peeking through. A health clinic that had been hidden inside a public housing complex now announces its presence with a campanile, its wide windows facing a broad sidewalk bustling with pedestrians. Above are 120 environmentally sustainable homes—affordable for downtown commuters, university students, and families leaving public housing, all of whom enjoy green views and healthful amenities.”
As with The Rose, Paseo Verde is mixed-income: sixty-seven of those 120 units – all rental apartments – serve as market-rate housing while 53 are subsidized to be affordable to residents earning between 20 and 60 percent of the area median income. There is also a little more than 30,000 square feet of commercial space and a 994-square-feet community room.
Again, an appraisal of the development’s green features must start with its centrally located, highly transit-accessible and walkable site. Abogo estimates that households in the neighborhood generate, on average, only about 40 percent of the carbon emissions from transportation generated by households in the Philadelphia region as a whole. Paseo Verde’s Walk Score is 82; its Transit Score is 88; and its Bike Score is 72.
ULI’s case study on the development provides details on Paseo Verde’s many green features, and stresses that many of them double as amenities that help to market the project. Green infrastructure to control stormwater runoff, for example, includes “rain gardens, wide sidewalks with permeable paving, and green-roof courtyards that permit private decks for some apartments.” Indeed, the roofs are not only green in the sense that they are vegetated but also “blue,” collecting rainwater in specially designed fixtures that then release it gradually.
Energy efficiency measures include high-performance appliances within the individual homes (which are also individually metered) and rooftop solar panels that supply electricity to some of the development’s common areas. As in the case of The Rose in Minneapolis, great attention was paid to large windows to daylight both residences and common areas, providing tenants with views of green space and trees from every apartment and from the complex’s fitness room and inviting stairways.
Paseo Verde was developed by an equal partnership between the Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (Association of Puerto Ricans on the March), a Latino-based community development corporation with extensive experience in and a deep commitment to the project’s neighborhood, and Jonathan Rose Companies, a nationally known “mission-based, green real estate policy, development, project management and investment firm” headquartered in New York City. Architecture was provided by Wallace Roberts & Todd. In 2015 Paseo Verde was named project of the year by the US Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes program.
Via Verde, New York City
Finally, twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, one would have been hard pressed to name a more unlikely place for state-of-the-art green design than the south Bronx in New York City. Indeed, throughout the latter decades of the 20thcentury, the area stood as a national symbol of severe urban decay, best known for high rates of crime, gang-related drug violence, abandoned and decaying properties, and even an arson epidemic. It represented everything that had gone wrong in American cities.
But today the South Bronx is turning around, in some neighborhoods dramatically, and there is no better representative to illustrate that rebirth than what is probably so far the most celebrated of all US green affordable housing developments: Via Verde.
The blockquoted passages below have been excerpted and updated from my 2011 review of Via Verde, while the project was nearing completion:
Via Verde has some elements in common with The Rose and Paseo Verde but is much denser, befitting its New York location. It provides 151 rental apartments affordable to qualifying low-income households and 71 co-op ownership units affordable to middle-income households, all on a 1.5-acre site. The ownership homes comprise a diversity of types including single-family townhomes, duplex units, and live-work units with a first floor work/office space. There is also some 9,500 square feet of retail and community space.
As with the Minneapolis and Philadelphia developments, Via Verde’s location alone supplies a great head start on green performance, but in the case of Via Verde the numbers are even more dramatic. In particular, the New York City region as a whole has relatively low carbon emissions per household for transportation, but households in Via Verde can expect to generate only 12.5 percent of that already-low regional average, according to the Abogo calculator. The project’s Walk Score is a striking 98 (“walker’s paradise”); its Transit Score is 97 (“world-class”); and its Bike Score is 72.
What makes Via Verde especially noteworthy, though, is that the architectural and development team has created a distinctively innovative approach to green and healthy urban living: this begins with a spectacular stepped architectural form that creates 40,000 square feet (roughly an acre) of resident-accessible green rooftop terraces at varying heights. Intended to integrate nature with the city, the rooftops provide functioning green infrastructure that can harvest rainwater, grow fruits and vegetables, and provide open space for residents. The garden level in particular is intended to provide both an organizing architectural element and “a spiritual identity for the community,” according to the Rose Companies’ web site. (Like Philadelphia’s Paseo Verde, Via Verde was developed by a partnership including Jonathan Rose Companies.)
Other amenities that contribute to the project’s theme of healthy living include open air courtyards; a health education and wellness facility operated byMontefiore Medical Center; a fitness center; and bicycle storage areas.
Beyond health benefits, Via Verde also exceeds LEED Gold standards for building energy and performance. Along with the green roofs, which provide natural cooling in warm weather, the project utilizes low-tech strategies like cross ventilation, solar shading, and smart material choices, along with more tech-based strategies such as photovoltaic panels, high-efficiency mechanical systems, and energy-conserving appliances.
In one particularly innovative measure, the building’s design places some of the solar panels on the side of the building, not the roof as is customary; others are placed on canopies that provide shade for the garden areas. As a result, the roofs remain free for green space.
The project, which opened in 2012, was built by co-developers Phipps Housesand Jonathan Rose Companies, in partnership with Dattner Architects andGrimshaw Architects, pursuant to a commission won via the New Housing New York Legacy Competition. That competition was specifically intended to “re-engage design with the issue of affordable housing,” as former New York Housing Commissioner (and current federal budget director) Shaun Donovantold New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman.
The importance of leadership projects
Returning to Allison Arieff’s point that affordable housing has been “meant not only to look low-budget but also low-effort,” these three projects suggest that there is indeed a better way, with housing designed from the start to be and look impressive, and to be and look impressively green. And, while all three might be described as leadership projects and thus somewhat atypical, the fact is that low-income housing is becoming better and greener right before our eyes, in part because of their examples (and the many additional examples being set by nationally-active investors such as Enterprise Green Communities and LISC’sBuilding Sustainable Communities program).
Indeed, I’ve been in this line of work long enough to spot an emerging trend when I see it. Is it too much to believe that the results so far portend well for what could become a new ethic in the way that we as a nation approach affordable housing? In his review of Via Verde, Kimmelman wrote eloquently about the importance of leadership projects:
“Higher costs for green construction have, over recent years, come to be accepted as investments in long-term savings. But spending extra for anything as intangible as elegance or architectural distinction? In Via Verde’s case maybe 5 percent more, by [Jonathan] Rose’s estimate, went into the project’s roof and its fine, multipanel, multicolor facade, with big windows, sunshades and balconies. What is the value of architectural distinction? How, morally speaking, can it be weighed against the need for homes?
“In terms of equitability and self-worth Via Verde does more than just aim to provide decent housing that fits noiselessly into its neighborhood. It aims to stand out, aesthetically, formally, as a foreground building, not another background one: to anchor the urban hodgepodge around it and make the area look more coherent, which in this case entails not echoing its context but redefining it. What is that worth? . . .
“[A]rchitecture doesn’t solve unemployment or poverty, and neighborhoods rise or fall as decent places to live on the quality of their background buildings, which do and should predominate. But they’re distinguished by their landmarks, by the buildings and places that people come to love.
“The greenest and most economical architecture is ultimately the architecture that is preserved because it’s cherished. Bad designs, demolished after 20 years, as so many ill-conceived housing projects have been, are the costliest propositions in the end.”
I couldn’t agree more. All three of these projects give me hope, and not just for affordable housing.