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!
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
CBE 2015 Geoff Dyer
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.
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.
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.
Legacy Oxnard Planning Documents
New data from Zillow shows that average urban home prices in the U.S. now surpass those of the suburbs.
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, urban and suburban homes in the U.S. used to be worth about the same on a per-square foot basis. But since the mid-2000s, urban homes have been worth more per square foot. Today, as a fascinating new report from Zillow on the shifting geography of American home values explores, urban homes nationwide are now valued at roughly 25 percent more than suburban ones on a per-square foot basis ($198 versus $156 per square foot).
What’s more, by the end of 2015, the average value of an urban home exceeded that of its suburban counterparts by 2 percent ($269,036 compared to $263,987). As the chart below shows, this overturns a long-held pattern of suburban homes having higher values than homes in urban areas—and this despite the fact that suburban homes tend to be considerably larger than urban ones.
This trend is clearly being driven by the extremely high price of urban homes in talent and knowledge hubs such as San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C. In Boston, for example, urban and suburban homes were each valued at around $100 per square foot in 1997. By 2015, Boston’s urban homes were worth nearly $400 per square foot compared to nearly $250 per square foot for suburban ones.
In Washington, D.C., urban and suburban home values also started off at around $100 per square foot in 1997. By 2015, urban values exceeded $300 per square foot compared to around $225 per square foot for suburban homes. And in San Francisco, urban and suburban homes were each worth about $150 per square foot in 1997. But by 2015, urban homes commanded nearly $700 per square foot compared to nearly $500 per square foot in the suburbs.
In some metros, urban and suburban values have in fact grown more or less in tandem. In L.A., for example, urban and suburban home values started off at roughly the same level (around $120 per square foot in 1997) and by 2015, both were worth roughly $400 per square foot.
Detroit, unsurprisingly, bucks all these trends. Back in 1997, both suburban and exurban homes there were valued at around $85 per square foot, compared to nearly $70 per square foot for homes in urban neighborhoods. Today, exurban homes command the highest prices per square foot—roughly $115—compared to $105 per square foot for suburban homes and just $55 per square foot for homes in urban neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, home values per square foot for metros like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Cleveland are in fact highest in suburban areas today, followed closely by rural ones.
Still, while the pattern of rising home values in the U.S. certainly differs by location, the overall trend does appear to signal a growing preference for urban living over the past decade. Zillow’s report built upon the economist Jed Kolko’s methodology for identifying urban, suburban, rural areas based on ZIP code density, and one of its most striking findings is that between 2010 and 2015, growth in the value of urban homes nationwide far outpaced that of the suburbs. Over this period, average urban home values increased by more than 28 percent, compared to just 21 percent for suburban homes. Last year alone, urban home values nationwide grew by 7.5 percent, compared to 5.9 percent for those in suburban areas.
As the Zillow report puts it, “The suburban home—long a symbol of success, stability and the American Dream—appears to be losing some of its luster as the appeal of city living gains steam and urban homes grow in value more quickly.”
“We don’t know what the hell to do about it,” says one planner. “It’s like pondering the imponderable.”
Self-driving cars have the potential to be the most transformative force in American cities since the development of the interstate system. And yet when it comes to preparing for the future of autonomous travel, urban planners have been largely idle. Just how idle? As of mid-2013, just one of the 25 largest metropolitan planning organizations in the U.S. had so much as mentioneddriverless cars in its long-term regional plan.
This bleak preparatory record comes courtesy of University of Pennsylvania planning scholar Erick Guerra, who reports the findings in the Journal of Planning Education and Research. Federal law requires MPOs to produce regional plans every four years that look at least 20 years out—a horizon that could easily coincide with the mainstream arrival of self-driving cars. But when Guerra combed these plans for signs of autonomous vehicles, he came up virtually empty.
That lone mention, for the record, came from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which guides Philly’s greater metro area. It was tucked away in what Guerra describes as a “brief sidebar.”
In other words, none of the planning organizations looking after America’s 25 biggest metros had incorporated self-driving cars into their urban development outlook in a substantial way, even looking ahead two decades. The timeline is unsettling, as is the scope: together, these 25 areas make up 40 percent of the national population. And if these MPOs weren’t on top of things, writes Guerra, it stands to reason that smaller cities haven’t prepared much for driverless cars, either.
So what’s the holdup here? To get a better sense, Guerra interviewed some of the planners in the MPOs whose reports he’d explored.
“Pondering the imponderable”
It’s not for lack of awareness. Local planners obviously know about driverless cars, and many who discussed them with Guerra used technical jargon like “Level 4,” which describes a fully autonomous vehicle. Nor is there any lack of technological faith. Guerra found the planners to be “cautiously optimistic, rather than skeptical” that self-driving cars would not only emerge in the coming years but have a big impact on travel behavior, safety, and urban land use—the very mandates of MPO existence.
The biggest factor, then, is not uncertainty about whether or not self-driving cars will change urban transportation. Rather, it’s uncertainty over just what those changes will look like, and how these shifts will impact major planning investments already underway. One planner put it bluntly: “We don’t know what the hell to do about it. It’s like pondering the imponderable.”
Fair enough. No one knows for sure what types of social changes will come with driverless cars, and the possible outcomes can vary dramatically. On one hand, if people buy their own autonomous vehicles, they might also choose to live farther away from work, knowing their commute will be less stressful and likely more productive. On the other hand, if people partake in shared networks of robotaxis—buying mobility by the drink instead of the bottle, as Princeton’s Alain Kornhauser puts it—they might double down on the convenience of central city life.
But even the MPOs interviewed by Guerra recognize that too much hesitation over imponderables becomes its own sort of planning decision. Take a basic highway expansion plan that’s in the works. Local officials might go through with the project, only to discover that the extra lanes are unnecessary in an age of driverless cars, which can safely operate closer together and thus serve as a de facto road expansion by themselves. There’s only so much road money to go around: using it for expansion instead of maintenance can be a big mistake.
Several interviewees worried that a number of currently planned investments might be unnecessary if driverless cars increase effective roadway capacity.
Worse yet, if the planners who best understand local transportation networks don’t set their sights on a driverless world, politicians with particular agendas will do it for them. Just look at the case of Pinellas County, Florida. Last fall, one local official used the promise of self-driving cars to oppose increased bus service and a new light rail system for the area, based on the (highly debatable) presumption that autonomous technology would make public transportation obsolete.
It’s not too soon, but getting late
There are understandable reasons why some MPOs are reluctant to engage with planning changes of this magnitude. MPOs are conservative and largely reactive by nature. Insofar as their jobs guide the wise use of limited taxpayer funding, they’re wary of pushing piles of public money toward speculative ends. Self-driving cars are but one of many potential transportation game-changers (Philly’s long-range plan lists 31 others). It’s impossible to prepare for every one with equal intensity.
And it’s not as if MPOs are doing nothing. Planners told Guerra they hold plenty of meetings about self-driving cars. Some try to model it. San Francisco, Seattle, and Atlanta, for instance, have tested out different scenarios of driverless life. Nearly all those analyses expect driving (as measured by vehicle miles traveled) to go up, a finding that’s in keeping with academic research. At the same time, MPOs don’t feel confident enough in the existing models to rely on them for planning purposes—a fear that, per Guerra, is both sensible and risky:
Unfortunately, the extent and direction self-driving cars’ impacts, particularly if transformative, are unlikely to be fully understood until they have already started to happen.
For his part, Guerra offers several suggestions to MPOs. He urges them not to envision a perfect future where the technology totally or immediately eliminates huge problems like congestion, crashes, or pollution. He also pushes for adaptable plans that evaluate “a range of potential outcomes,” as opposed to one-size-fits-all plans that have become the norm. And he encourages MPOs to pursue investments that make sense with or without driverless cars: bridge repairs or pedestrian projects, for instance, will remain relevant in any foreseeable future.
Along those lines, it also makes sense for planners at all levels to look for areas where existing patterns and driverless possibilities converge. Parking policy is a clear example. As more and more cities realize the problems with excess parking—namely, higher rents and worse traffic—they’re eliminating or reducing their developer parking requirements. In a driverless age, when people can either send their cars home or hop in a robocab, dedicating lots of public space to parking makes less sense still.
Some federal guidance would help. There’s been little of it to date. The U.S. Department of Transportation has explored connected technology that can coordinate travel patterns among cars, roads, and traffic infrastructure, but autonomous vehicles can operate without these intelligent networks in place. The DOT just announced a $40 million contest for the midsized city that crafts the most tech-savvy transportation plan, but major metros aren’t eligible. The new transportation bill did set aside a little funding for autonomous vehicle research, but it’s probably less than what tech start-ups spend each year on pita chips.
Whatever it takes to get MPOs and local governments thinking about the impact of driverless cars on urban development, the better. At this point, given the pace of planning operations, there’s probably no such thing as too soon. But there’s definitely a too late.
Take it from Caltrans: If you build highways, drivers will come.
Whenever a road project gets announced, the first thing officials talk about is how it’s going to reduce traffic. Just last month, for instance, the Connecticut DOT reported that it would be widening Interstates 95 and 84, a project that would result in major economic benefits from “easing congestion”:
The analysis found that adding a lane in each direction border-to-border will save I-95 travelers well over 14 million hours of delays by the year 2040. Likewise, the widening of I-84 will save travelers over 4.7 million hours of delays during the same period.
Never mind that it’s unclear whether major highway projects actually provide an economic boost (many of the supposed new benefits are simply a relocation of existing business activity). Congestion relief itself is a dubious claim when it comes to road expansions. Transportation experts have repeatedly found that building new roads inevitably encourages more people to drive, which in turn negates any congestion savings—a phenomenon known as “induced demand.”
So it’s refreshing—and rare—to see the California DOT (aka Caltrans) link to a policy brief outlining key research findings from years of study into induced demand. The brief, titled “Increasing Highway Capacity Unlikely to Relieve Traffic Congestion,” was compiled by UC-Davis scholar Susan Handy. Here are the highlights:
- There’s high-quality evidence for induced demand. All the studies reviewed by Handy used time-series data, “sophisticated econometric techniques,” and controlled for outside variables such as population growth and transit service.
- More roads means more traffic in both the short- and long-term.Adding 10 percent more road capacity leads to 3-6 percent more vehicle miles in the near term and 6-10 percent more over many years.
- Much of the traffic is brand new. Some of the cars on a new highway lane have simply relocated from a slower alternative route. But many are entirely new. They reflect leisure trips that often go unmade in bad traffic, or drivers who once used transit or carpooled, or shifting development patterns, and so on.
What’s significant about the Caltrans acknowledgement is that induced demand creates something of a mission crisis for transportation agencies that spend most of their money on building new roads. (The same can be said for peak driving.) A 2014 assessment of Caltrans, conducted by the State Smart Transportation Initiative, specifically cited induced demand as a research finding that had yet to filter down “into the department’s thinking and decision making”:
For example, despite a rich literature on induced demand, internal interviewees frequently dismissed the phenomenon.
Ronald Milam of the transportation consultancy Fehr & Peers tells CityLab that Caltrans has recognized the shortcomings of traditional traffic models and tried to improve its analyses to better account for induced demand. In response to new state laws designed to reduce vehicle miles traveled and thus climate emissions—namely, Senate bills 375 and 743—the agency is updating and broadening that effort. New guidelines are currently in the works.
Eric Sundquist of SSTI said via email that it’s “notable” to see Caltrans link to the policy brief, but adds that some DOTs have started to address induced demand whether they call it that or not. The big question, he says, is what policies get put in place to deal with its effects. Pennsylvania’s DOT during the Ed Rendell administration, for instance, “basically stopped building new highways and diverted resources to upkeep and non-car modes,” Sundquist says.
That culture change isn’t so easy. Connecticut officials also seem to understand that expanding roads won’t resolve the state’s traffic problems. “You can’t build your way out of congestion,” Tom Maziarz, chief of planning at the state DOT, recently told the Connecticut Post. And yet the interstate widening project moves forward.
The severely scaled-down units are neither a utopia nor a dystopia. In fact, they expand housing options across many demographics.
It’s like Yoda once said: “Size matters not.”
Put aside for the moment the size of the units in Carmel Place, a new multifamily housing development that just went up in New York City. Here are a few numbers that matter more than the square footage: Carmel Place is a nine-story development that includes 55 units. Of those, 33 units are designated market-rate; eight of the 22 units slotted for affordable housing are reserved for very-low-income renters.
Sounds good, right? Moreover, as Co.Design notes, the building’s designer, nArchitects, didn’t skimp on the details. These prefabricated units come with hardwood floors, storage lofts, Juliet balconies, the works—everything you’d expect from an upscale housing development in Manhattan.
So what’s all the fuss? That last detail—the average unit size—was hard fought. Under former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city waived a zoning rule that required apartments to be no less than 400 square feet in size. The building is the winning design for adAPT NYC, a program to build a pilot for prefabricated micro-housing in New York. Units in Carmel Place range from roughly 250 to 350 square feet, and the market-rate ones will rent for up to $3,000 per month.
Micro-apartments are finally starting to arrive. There are (at least) 11 different micro-apartment developments in the works, according to a report from Curbed, from the Ivy Lofts in Houston to the Patterson Mansion in Washington, D.C. Or put another way, there are a dozen new apartment buildings headed for markets where some buyers or renters appear to want to live in them.
The problem is that some other buyers or renters in those markets do not want people buying or renting units in these buildings. That’s why a story that otherwise overwhelmingly showers the Carmel Place project with praise takes such a grim headline (“Micro Apartments: Utopia or Dystopia?”). Taken broadly, residents who dread micro-housing fear that micro-units will displace family housing, that young renters will overwhelm available infrastructure, or even—as The Atlantic suggested in 2013—that micro-housing poses a health risk to inhabitants.
But the NIMBYs are wrong about micro-apartments. The people who fear micro-housing mistake the symptoms of the disease for the cure.
When renters can’t find individual units, they take up family units
Families often complain that there isn’t enough housing to suit their needs, especially for large families. They’re right. In Seattle, for example, just two percent of market-rate apartment units have three or more bedrooms, according to a 2014 report by the Seattle Planning Commission. The last thing that these families need—especially low-income families and larger families of color—is to compete with single, young professionals for that limited housing stock.
Yet zoning for approximately 65 percent of Seattle’s land area is designated single-family, meaning that the options across much of the city are restricted to what’s already been built. That’s good news for incumbent homeowners, but bad news for people who want to move to Seattle. The city’s not an outlier in this regard, of course: Low-density zoning spurs young renters to rent group houses (or “stealth dorms” as the case may be) all over the nation. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but when single renters can’t find good options in a growing job market, chances are that renting families won’t find them, either.
“As supply-and-demand skeptics are fond of pointing out, real estate is not an undifferentiated commodity, but in fact is a variety of products tailored to a wide range of tastes and requirements,” writes Martin H. Duke of the Seattle Transit Blog. “The housing shortage cuts across all parts of the market, but it’s hardest to see a simple solution for large households,” he adds.
And that’s right—except that single renters do not differentiate between housing that is “for” them and other housing that is “for” families. One way to ensure that the housing market meets the demands of both is to permit zoning that allows cities to meet more kinds of demands—and in the context of the ongoing affordable housing crisis, that means upzoning.
Banning micro-units doesn’t make them go away
Take a tour of San Francisco’s bunk-bed listings for a vivid illustration of the point. In a very extreme shortage of affordable housing, renters may (apparently) make the transition from group houses to group bedrooms.
Incidentally, making sure that housing is legal, affordable, regulated, and, well, available is one way to guarantee against any truly adverse health effects from shared living. The alleged increased health costs specifically associated with micro-housing … well, I don’t want to say that they’re not bad. But they can’t be any worse than the health costs of unaffordable housing. It’s arguable that the stress of unsafe, uncertain, or unsustainable living situations—housing insecurity, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it—outweighs the potential crowding-related stress of micro-apartment living.
And if it’s true that 30- and 40-year-olds respond poorly, psychologically, to sharing common spaces (I do), then one way to guarantee against such dire ends is to permit the kind of zoning that meets demand so that they aren’t competing with 20-year-olds for housing in the first place.
Micro-housing isn’t a trend in search of a problem
Mark Hogan, a San Francisco–based architect, made an invaluable contribution to the culture earlier this year when he posted the dispositive case against shipping-container housing. A brief gloss: Acquiring or proofing existing shipping containers isn’t as cheap as folks might guess, and it’s not cheaper than manufacturing prefabricated housing units. The work it takes to turn shipping containers into housing fit for humans makes this option cost prohibitive. And while they may look cool in renderings, they’re not sized for living spaces for people.
Hogan’s critical point is this one: “Housing is usually not a technology problem.” It’s not as if shipping-container homes improve upon normal homes or that normal homes have some fault that shipping containers don’t. The issue is that shipping containers are a trend that appears (quite mistakenly) to be a type of free housing that we are ignoring or a type of improved housing that we never had before. Neither of those things is true.
It’s certainly the case that micro-housing looks trendy, in part because it is presented in savvy renderings by smart architectural firms such as nArchitects. But micro-apartments are also not a type of new housing we’ve never seen before. They’re apartments. Advances in technology and interior design make micro-housing possible without requiring that micro-apartments be tenements, boarding houses, or single-room-occupancy hotels. But the concept of multifamily living is preserved (even if the division of amenities changes).
Further, shifts in demographics—and in justice, labor, technology—make multifamily housing more desirable than the detached homes once sought by nuclear families. Or, if not more desirable, then fairer and more sustainable. Micro-housing is neither a utopia nor a dystopia. It’s just creating smaller-scaled places for living that suit the times.
A new book offers case studies and tips on creating quick and effective urban interventions.
Guerrilla gardening. Pavement-to-parks. Open streets. These are all urban interventions of a sort – quick, often temporary, cheap projects that aim to make a small part of a city more lively or enjoyable. These types of projects have grown in popularity in recent years, and they even have a new name: tactical urbanism, as in tactics used to improve the urban environment. These tactics tend to be replicable across cities, and in certain instances have become worldwide phenomena.
A newly updated guidebook seeks to spread these good ideas and to give more people the know-how to bring them about in their own communities.
Tactical Urbanism 2: Short-Term Action, Long Term Change [PDF] was created and offered for free download by the Street Plans Collaborative, an urban planning, design and advocacy firm. Mike Lydon is one of the firm’s principals and lead author of the guidebook. He says that despite its fancy, academic-sounding name, tactical urbanism is not particularly exotic or extraordinary.
“Really, tactical urbanism is how most cities are built. Especially in developing nations,” Lydon says. “It’s step-by-step, piece-by-piece.”
These small-scale interventions are characterized by their community-focus and realistic goals. Maybe the most widespread of these tactics is the annual Park(ing) Day, in which parking spaces are turned into temporary park spaces.
The first iteration of the guidebook was released free online in the spring of 2011, and quickly hit the 10,000 download limit of the web service hosting it. Since then, Lydon and his colleagues found new ways of sharing the document, and also found new projects worth mentioning. “The point of the first one was ‘Hey, look: here’s all these cool things that are related to this longer-term change that’s happening.’ It was very appropriate with the way economy was,” says Lydon. “In this second volume, we’ve decided to go deeper into the history of the movement, creating a continuum of different types of interventions.”
The first edition includes 12 tactics like the aforementioned guerrilla gardening and open streets projects. The new edition includes an additional 12, including intersection repair, ad-busting and depaving – a Portland-born volunteer project to improve storm water treatment by removing unneeded driveways and concrete ground cover.
“We’re noticing more and more of these tactics that are popping up and leading to longer term change, so we wanted to keep that conversation going,” Lydon says.
Of course, not every tactic is a world changer.
“When you’re yarn-bombing something, it’s a really cool and interesting piece of public art and it can have some social and political commentary that goes along with it, but the intent generally is not to create a longer term physical change,” Lydon says. “Most of the things that we include in the guide generally are aiming at doing something larger. They’re not just for the sake of doing it. And of course in a lot of ways, to make that work, you need to have whatever you’re doing to become sanctioned or supported, either with funding or with being allowed by the municipality.”
And this is a key element of the guidebook: making things work. The goal is not to simply do a cool project that will get cleaned up by the city or thrown away, but to make something – even something temporary – that will change how a place works and is perceived. And once that change has been made, to figure out how it can be made again or made permanent.
The tactics in the guide are those that have gone through this process. They’ve had enough iterations in sometimes very different places to know what works and how to maneuver through the realities of municipal governance to make something stick.
“For every one of these tactics that’s in here, you probably have several failed versions,” says Lydon. “But when you hit a nerve at the right time with the right group of people and you have enough people watching, you can really help transition these things into larger initiatives.”
And though many of these projects can and have worked in cities across the country (and world), Lydon cautions that not every project is right for every place. What’s needed and wanted in one neighborhood can be wildly different from what would work or be accepted in another. Knowing and responding to locals needs is paramount.
“When it comes down to it, you’ve got to figure out what these projects can mean, and how you can do them yourself or with your government or with your neighbors,” Lydon says.
If the community is where you start, a good second step could be within the pages of this guidebook.
The Congress for the New Urbanism views disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society’s built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge.
We stand for the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.
We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.
We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive physical framework.
We represent a broad-based citizenry, composed of public and private sector leaders, community activists, and multidisciplinary professionals. We are committed to reestablishing the relationship between the art of building and the making of community, through citizen-based participatory planning and design.
We dedicate ourselves to reclaiming our homes, blocks, streets, parks, neighborhoods, districts, towns, cities, regions, and environment.
We assert the following principles to guide public policy, development practice, urban planning, and design:
The Region: Metropolis, City, and Town
- Metropolitan regions are finite places with geographic boundaries derived from topography, watersheds, coastlines, farmlands, regional parks, and river basins. The metropolis is made of multiple centers that are cities, towns, and villages, each with its own identifiable center and edges.
- The metropolitan region is a fundamental economic unit of the contemporary world. Governmental cooperation, public policy, physical planning, and economic strategies must reflect this new reality.
- The metropolis has a necessary and fragile relationship to its agrarian hinterland and natural landscapes. The relationship is environmental, economic, and cultural. Farmland and nature are as important to the metropolis as the garden is to the house.
- Development patterns should not blur or eradicate the edges of the metropolis. Infill development within existing urban areas conserves environmental resources, economic investment, and social fabric, while reclaiming marginal and abandoned areas. Metropolitan regions should develop strategies to encourage such infill development over peripheral expansion.
- Where appropriate, new development contiguous to urban boundaries should be organized as neighborhoods and districts, and be integrated with the existing urban pattern. Noncontiguous development should be organized as towns and villages with their own urban edges, and planned for a jobs/housing balance, not as bedroom suburbs.
- The development and redevelopment of towns and cities should respect historical patterns, precedents, and boundaries.
- Cities and towns should bring into proximity a broad spectrum of public and private uses to support a regional economy that benefits people of all incomes. Affordable housing should be distributed throughout the region to match job opportunities and to avoid concentrations of poverty.
- The physical organization of the region should be supported by a framework of transportation alternatives. Transit, pedestrian, and bicycle systems should maximize access and mobility throughout the region while reducing dependence upon the automobile.
- Revenues and resources can be shared more cooperatively among the municipalities and centers within regions to avoid destructive competition for tax base and to promote rational coordination of transportation, recreation, public services, housing, and community institutions.
The Neighborhood, The District, and The Corridor
- The neighborhood, the district, and the corridor are the essential elements of development and redevelopment in the metropolis. They form identifiable areas that encourage citizens to take responsibility for their maintenance and evolution.
- Neighborhoods should be compact, pedestrian friendly, and mixed-use. Districts generally emphasize a special single use, and should follow the principles of neighborhood design when possible. Corridors are regional connectors of neighborhoods and districts; they range from boulevards and rail lines to rivers and parkways.
- Many activities of daily living should occur within walking distance, allowing independence to those who do not drive, especially the elderly and the young. Interconnected networks of streets should be designed to encourage walking, reduce the number and length of automobile trips, and conserve energy.
- Within neighborhoods, a broad range of housing types and price levels can bring people of diverse ages, races, and incomes into daily interaction, strengthening the personal and civic bonds essential to an authentic community.
- Transit corridors, when properly planned and coordinated, can help organize metropolitan structure and revitalize urban centers. In contrast, highway corridors should not displace investment from existing centers.
- Appropriate building densities and land uses should be within walking distance of transit stops, permitting public transit to become a viable alternative to the automobile.
- Concentrations of civic, institutional, and commercial activity should be embedded in neighborhoods and districts, not isolated in remote, single-use complexes. Schools should be sized and located to enable children to walk or bicycle to them.
- The economic health and harmonious evolution of neighborhoods, districts, and corridors can be improved through graphic urban design codes that serve as predictable guides for change.
- A range of parks, from tot-lots and village greens to ballfields and community gardens, should be distributed within neighborhoods. Conservation areas and open lands should be used to define and connect different neighborhoods and districts.
The Block, The Street, and The Building
- A primary task of all urban architecture and landscape design is the physical definition of streets and public spaces as places of shared use.
- Individual architectural projects should be seamlessly linked to their surroundings. This issue transcends style.
- The revitalization of urban places depends on safety and security. The design of streets and buildings should reinforce safe environments, but not at the expense of accessibility and openness.
- In the contemporary metropolis, development must adequately accommodate automobiles. It should do so in ways that respect the pedestrian and the form of public space.
- Streets and squares should be safe, comfortable, and interesting to the pedestrian. Properly configured, they encourage walking and enable neighbors to know each other and protect their communities.
- Architecture and landscape design should grow from local climate, topography, history, and building practice.
- Civic buildings and public gathering places require important sites to reinforce community identity and the culture of democracy. They deserve distinctive form, because their role is different from that of other buildings and places that constitute the fabric of the city.
- All buildings should provide their inhabitants with a clear sense of location, weather and time. Natural methods of heating and cooling can be more resource-efficient than mechanical systems.
- Preservation and renewal of historic buildings, districts, and landscapes affirm the continuity and evolution of urban society.
The Ahwahnee Principles for Resource-Efficient Communities, written in 1991 by the Local Government Commission, paved the way for the Smart Growth movement and New Urbanism. These principles provide a blueprint for elected officials to create compact, mixed-use, walkable, transit-oriented developments in their local communities. Cities and counties across the nation have adopted them to break the cycle of sprawl. If you like the newly emerging downtowns across the nation – full of people, activities and great public spaces – that’s the Ahwahnee Principles in action.
Existing patterns of urban and suburban development seriously impair our quality of life. The symptoms are: more congestion and air pollution resulting from our increased dependence on automobiles, the loss of precious open space, the need for costly improvements to roads and public services, the inequitable distribution of economic resources, and the loss of a sense of community. By drawing upon the best from the past and the present, we can plan communities that will more successfully serve the needs of those who live and work within them. Such planning should adhere to certain fundamental principles.
- All planning should be in the form of complete and integrated communities containing housing, shops, work places, schools, parks and civic facilities essential to the daily life of the residents.
- Community size should be designed so that housing, jobs, daily needs and other activities are within easy walking distance of each other.
- As many activities as possible should be located within easy walking distance of transit stops.
- A community should contain a diversity of housing types to enable citizens from a wide range of economic levels and age groups to live within its boundaries.
- Businesses within the community should provide a range of job types for the community’s residents.
- The location and character of the community should be consistent with a larger transit network.
- The community should have a center focus that combines commercial, civic, cultural and recreational uses.
- The community should contain an ample supply of specialized open space in the form of squares, greens and parks whose frequent use is encouraged through placement and design.
- Public spaces should be designed to encourage the attention and presence of people at all hours of the day and night.
- Each community or cluster of communities should have a well-defined edge, such as agricultural greenbelts or wildlife corridors, permanently protected from development.
- Streets, pedestrian paths and bike paths should contribute to a system of fully-connected and interesting routes to all destinations. Their design should encourage pedestrian and bicycle use by being small and spatially defined by buildings, trees and lighting; and by discouraging high speed traffic.
- Wherever possible, the natural terrain, drainage and vegetation of the community should be preserved with superior examples contained within parks or greenbelts.
- The community design should help conserve resources and minimize waste.
- Communities should provide for the efficient use of water through the use of natural drainage, drought tolerant landscaping and recycling.
- The street orientation, the placement of buildings and the use of shading should contribute to the energy efficiency of the community.
- The regional land-use planning structure should be integrated within a larger transportation network built around transit rather than freeways.
- Regions should be bounded by and provide a continuous system of greenbelt/wildlife corridors to be determined by natural conditions.
- Regional institutions and services (government, stadiums, museums, etc.) should be located in the urban core.
- Materials and methods of construction should be specific to the region, exhibiting a continuity of history and culture and compatibility with the climate to encourage the development of local character and community identity.
- The general plan should be updated to incorporate the above principles.
- Rather than allowing developer-initiated, piecemeal development, local governments should take charge of the planning process. General plans should designate where new growth, infill or redevelopment will be allowed to occur.
- Prior to any development, a specific plan should be prepared based on these planning principles.
- Plans should be developed through an open process and participants in the process should be provided visual models of all planning proposals.
Authors: Peter Calthorpe, Michael Corbett, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Moule, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Stefanos Polyzoides
Editor: Peter Katz, Judy Corbett, and Steve Weissman
(Adopted in 1991)
Cities everywhere are facing similar problems – increasing traffic congestion and worsening air pollution, the continuing loss of open space, the need for costly improvements to road and public services, the inequitable distribution of economic resources, and the loss of a sense of community. The problems seem overwhelming and we suffer from their consequences every day. City character is blurred until every place becomes like every other place and all adding up to No Place.
Many of our social, economic and environmental problems can be traced to land use practices adopted since World War II. In the late 1940’s we began to adopt a notion that life would be better and we would all have more freedom if we planned and built our communities around the automobile. Gradually, rather than increasing our freedom, auto-oriented land use planning has reduced our options. Now, it takes much more time than it used to carry out our daily activities. We must go everywhere by car – there is no other option. We must take a car to the store for a gallon of milk, drive the children to Little League practice, even spend part of the lunch hour driving to a place to eat. And as roads become increasingly clogged and services further from our home, we spend our time as anonymous individuals waiting for the traffic light to change rather than chatting with friends at the corner store or playing ball on the lawn with the neighborhood kids.
Rather than designing towns so that we could walk to work or to the store, we have separated uses into homogeneous, single-use enclaves, spreading out these uses on ever-increasing acres of land. Housing of similar types for similar income levels were grouped together. Retail stores were clustered into huge structures called malls, surrounded by endless acres of parking slots. Businesses imitated the mall – creating “business parks”, usually without a park in sight, and with people working in clusters of similar buildings and parking spaces. At the same time, public squares, the corner store, main street, and all the places where people could meet and a sense of community could happen were replaced by the abyss of asphalt.
Even people are segregated by age and income level. And those who cannot drive or who cannot afford a car face an enormous disadvantage. In the words of Pasadena’s Mayor Rick Cole, “there’s a loss of place, a loss of hope, and it’s killing our souls.”
The effects of single- use, sprawling development patterns are becoming increasing clear. And, with that has evolved arealization that there is a better way. Towns of the type built earlier in this century – those compact, walkable communities where you could walk to the store and kids could walk to school, where there was a variety of housing types from housing over stores to single-family units with front porches facing tree-lined, narrow streets -these towns provided a life style that now seems far preferable to today’s neighborhoods. Thus we have seen an increasing interest in a number of concepts that would bring us back to a more traditional style of development and a style of planning that would be more in tune with nature including “neotraditional planning”, “sustainable development”, “transit-oriented design”, the “new urbanism”, and the concept of “livable” communities.
In 1991, at the instigation of Local Government Commission staff-member Peter Katz, author of the New Urbanism, the commission brought together a group of architects who have been leaders in developing new notions of land use planning: Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Stefanos Polyzoides and Elizabeth Moule, Peter Calthorpe, and Michael Corbett. These innovators were asked to come to agreement about what it is that the new planning ideas – from neotraditional planning to sustainable design- have in common and from there, to develop a set of community principles. They were then asked how each community should relate to the region, and to develop a set of regional principles. Finally, they were charged with defining how these ideas might be implemented by cities and counties. The architects’ ideas were drafted by attorney Steve Weissman into a form which would be useful to local elected officials and provide a vision for an alternative to urban sprawl. A preamble, topics of specific ideas, community principles, regional principles and implementation of the principles was presented in the fall of 1991 to about 100 local elected officials at a conference at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. There they received both a highly enthusiastic response and their title- the Ahwahnee Principles.
The community principles define a community where housing and all the things needed to meet the daily needs of residents are located within walking distance of one another. They call for returning to historic population densities around transit stops to provide the critical mass of people and activities in these areas needed to make transit economically viable. They call for housing which provides places to live for a variety of people within a single neighborhood instead of separating people by income level, age or family situation.
The Ahwahnee Principles state that development should be compact but with open space provided in the form of squares or parks. Urban designer Michael Freedman describes this as space-making rather than space-occupying development. Rather than surrounding buildings in the center of unusable landscaped areas (space-occupying development), Freedman says we should use buildings to frame public space (place-making design).
Freedman holds that to plan for more livable communities, local government officials must understand the human scale – that is, the basic relationship of people to the environment in which they live. In neighborhoods, for example, we must recognize the relationship of the house to the front door to the street. In doing so, we will create the sorts of places which bring people together and create a vitality, a sense of community. By framing open space with buildings which open onto it, there are more eyes to look upon the area and that creates places that feel more safe. And with that design solution comes more compact development – development which has less costly infrastructure requirements, and development which is more walkable and more easily served by transit.
Further, the principles call for an end to the monotony of contiguous, look-alike building by separating each community with a well defined edge, such as an agricultural greenbelt or wildlife corridor, so that we can actually see where one community ends and another begins. From a transportation standpoint, one of the most important principles is that all parts of the community should be connected by streets or paths – no more dead end cul de sacs, fences, or walls which prevent us from going directly from one point to another. Narrow streets, rather than wide streets, are recommended because they help slow traffic and make it safer for pedestrians and bicycles. Narrow streets also create more attractive, more people-friendly neighborhoods and shopping districts.
Finally, the community principles call for more resource-efficient land use planning – the preservation of the natural terrain, drainage and vegetation; and the use of natural drainage systems and drought tolerant landscaping and recycling. They ask that buildings be oriented properly, (as required by the California solar rights act) so that they can take advantage of the sun for heating and natural breezes for cooling.
The regional principles call for the land-use planning structure to be integrated within a larger network built around transit rather than freeways, with regional institutions and services located in the urban core. A perfect example of this can be found in the City of San Jose where city planners chose to locate a new sports stadium in the downtown area, close to several rail stops rather than off a freeway. The surrounding restaurants and shops are benefiting from the increased number of passers-by before and after games, and freeway travel is not as clogged as it otherwise would have been.
The architects noted that regions should be distinct from one another rather than fading into one another as they largely do today. Each region should be surrounded by a wildlife corridor or greenbelt and the materials and methods of construction should be specific to the region. Santa Barbara and Santa Fe come forward as two excellent examples of communities who have followed these principles and who have realized that there are economic as well as aesthetic advantages of doing so. Both of these cities have implemented strict design guidelines for their downtowns which preserve the historical architectural styles of their regions. Because these cities have retained a very special and distinct sense of place, they have become highly popular both as places to live and as tourist destinations.
The implementation strategy forwarded by the planners is fairly straightforward and simple. First, the general plan should be updated to incorporate the Ahwahnee Principles. Next, local governments should take charge of the planning process rather than simply continuing to react to piecemeal proposals.
Prior to any development, a specific plan or a precise plan should be prepared based on the planning principles. With the adoption of specific plans, complying projects can then proceed with minimal delay. The developer will know exactly what the community wants. There should be no more costly, time-consuming, guessing games.
Finally, the architects put forth the most critical principle of all, “Plans should be developed through an open process and participants in the process should be provided visual models of all planning proposals.” Without involving citizens from every sector of the community, including developers, the political viability of a new plan may be limited. Citizens must be getting what they want and care enough to be vigilant about it so that the plan cannot be changed by a single property owner with a self interest.
But the stability of planning policies is not the only advantage of citizen participation. Bringing together citizens to create a common vision for the community has more benefits than just the creation of a good plan that will be upheld through time. The process itself can create a sense of community and an understanding between previously warring factions.
However, it is difficult for citizens to visualize what a new planning scheme is going to look like after it is built if they see only a one-dimensional sketch or read about the plan in a six-inch thick planning document. There are a number of techniques which have been developed to address this problem. The visual preference survey, where participants are provided an opportunity to express their likes and dislikes through judging slides, allows citizens to actually see concrete examples of their options. Another useful technique is computer simulation where the visual results of a physical plan can be created on the computer. Another method involves taking participants on a walk through their own town to determine which portions of the community look good and function well and which do not.
Implementing the Ahwahnee Principles
The concepts embodied in the Ahwahnee Principles are being implemented by cities and counties throughout the nation, with most of the activity occurring on the east and west coasts. In Pasadena, the participation of 3,000 residents from all sectors of the community resulted in a general plan with a guiding principle which states, “Pasadena will be a city where people can circulate without cars.” The plan lays out where growth should occur – primarily along light rail stations and in neighborhood commercial areas within walking distance of residences. The city is now preparing specific plans to guide what that growth should look like. One of the projects, a mixed-use housing development near a downtown rail stop, is already complete.
In San Jose, the City has produced, under the guidance of citizen advisory groups, a total of four specific plans for infill sites in various parts of the City covering a total of almost 1,000 acres. Their goal is to assure that new development will occur as compact, mixed use neighborhoods located near transit stops. The City of San Diego has adopted “Transit-Oriented Development Design Guidelines” for the purpose of redirecting existing patterns of building within the City and helping reduce the community’s dependence on the automobile. The planning staff has completed the first public review draft of a comprehensive zoning code update that will create zoning designations to implement the guidelines.
In Sacramento, Walnut Creek, Santa Barbara and San Diego, city officials have broken new ground by siting new shopping malls downtown, near transit, rather than off a freeway. The benefits include both a new surge of economic activity for downtown businesses and a reduction in auto use and the associated negative air quality impacts. The California Air Resources Board has noted that over 60% of the people arriving at San Diego’s downtown mall, Horton Plaza, arrive via transit or walking.
Developer-proposed, large-scale, new development is also reflecting the influence of the Ahwahnee Principles. The one-thousand acre, Playa Vista infill project in Los Angeles will include the preservation of 300 acres of wetlands. As it is designed now, the development will feature moderately-dense housing built small neighborhood parks. Large offices, small retail stores, restaurants, grocery stores and small telecommuting offices will be integrated, allowing residents to walk when they go to work, shop, or go out to dinner. A bicycle and pedestrian esplanade will link the town with the beach. Rialto’s Mayor John Longville is working with the developer of a 3,000 acre development near the Ontario airport to incorporate the concepts of the Ahwahnee Principles in that project.
With the assistance of urban designer Michael Freedman, the City of Cathedral City is no longer focusing solely on density and the control of uses as a means of guiding their future growth. At a joint meeting of the city council, planning commission, and architectural review committee, Freedman presented the Ahwahnee Principles and the key role of local government in future planning and general plan development. Cathedral City adopted the Ahwahnee Principles by resolution and has started to incorporate them into their general plan. With only 50% of the city built out and development plans on the table, the city council acknowledged the importance of having planning guidelines. An innovative city in the desert region, Cathedral City understands that the best way to deliver good planning principles is to work both with the community and the building industry to develop a comprehensive strategy of planning more livable neighborhoods
Even the US government has embraced the Ahwahnee Principles. Architect Peter Calthorpe reports that the planning concepts outlined by the Ahwahnee Principles have been written into a guidance document recently published the federal government. Calthorpe was a coauthor of the document, Vision/Reality produced by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for local government officials interested in applying for Community Development Block Grant program and other funds.
A number of city planners believe that if they can just solve the problem of traffic, they can solve the major problems of their cities. Yet the simple needs of the automobile are far more easily understood and accommodated that the complex needs of people. The Ahwahnee Principles outline a set of ideas for planning more livable communities built for people, not just cars, and provide a vision for an alternative to urban sprawl. This new vision will lead to neighborhoods where people no longer live in a house with an isolated rear yard. They will live in a home with a comfortable relationship to the street which is part of a neighborhood. Tree-lined sidewalks with narrow streets will induce cars to drive more slowly. Children will be more safe when they play in the neighborhood and the sense of community will add a feeling of security. When they need to go to school, to the store, or to baseball practice, children will be able to walk or ride a bike rather than being dependent on someone driving them there.
The top down, traditional planning of yesterday is no longer an acceptable means of making cities. The people served must be involved. When people come together and openly discuss their visions for the future, a sense of community will result. Bringing citizens into the process of developing and revising the general plan will also result in new development which both serves the needs of the community and is used and respected by the residents it serves. To make better, more livable cities, local governments must take charge of the process of planning while involving and utilizing its bet asset, the people who work, live and play in our communities.
About the Architects
The architects who gathered in 1991 to develop the Ahwahnee Principles are all internationally known for their inspirational work and innovative ideas. Peter Calthorpe, is one of the leaders of the “New Urbanism” movement and was cited by Newsweek Magazine as “one of 25 innovators on the cutting edge.” Michael Corbett, a former Mayor of the City of Davis, has received international recognition for his design of the resource-efficient Village Homes development in Davis, a project often cited as the best existing example of sustainable development in the world. The husband-wife team of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, made headlines with their wildly successful Seaside development in Florida and have become highly acclaimed architects and planners of neotraditional communities. Stefanos Polyzoides is an associate professor of architecture at the University of Southern California. He and his partner, Elizabeth Moule, are the architects of Playa Vista in Los Angeles, a model application of the Ahwahnee Principles.
Authors/Editors: Peter Calthorpe, Peter Katz, Michael Corbett, Judy Corbett, Andres Duany, Steve Weissman, Elizabeth Moule, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Stefanos Polyzoides.
The Oxnard Community Planning Group advocates for visionary practices in planning, design, and development that will lead to a more livable and prosperous city.
The Oxnard Community Planning Group envisions a city that grows wisely, preserves farmland and open space, drives smart economic development, welcomes vertical density, cherishes our past, and boldly anticipates our future.
The Oxnard Community Planning Group believes in a city that works to meet the needs of all our residents: young, old, people with disabilities, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists; even people who don’t go anywhere. We strive to be open-minded, welcome thoughtful discussion, and are willing to invest our time and efforts towards bringing these beliefs into being.
The OCPG has come to realize that the difficulty with density and parking and other issues relating to a walkable Oxnard Boulevard in our downtown and corridor areas is that our current zoning does not allow true urban placemaking.
For instance, current Oxnard zoning in the downtown allows 39 units per acre…which means that the living units must be 3 and 4 bedrooms. We need higher density to accommodate the empty-nesters, Millennials and others who are interested in living an urban lifestyle and want singles or 1 bedroom units. Form Based codes allow a broader range of options in specific overlay areas.
Zoning in Oxnard’s residential areas will not change. Form based codes are generally applied in very specific overlay areas do not replace existing zoning.
Below is a copy of the Form Based Code section of our Resources page – click the Resources tab above to view all our great place-making and urban design links.
Form Based Codes
“Why form-based codes? Because our current laws tend to separate where we live from where we work, learn, and shop, and insist on big, fast roads to connect them all. Roads that are unfriendly to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit. As a result, North Americans spend more hours in their cars than anyone on earth, and a growing number of communities are working to do something about it.” [ PlaceMakers.com ]
- Wikipedia – Form-based code
- Form-Based Codes Institute
- What Are Form-Based Codes?
- Mesa, Arizona – Form-Based Zoning Code
- Conventional Zoning vs. Form-based Code
- The Sustainable Cities Institute – Form-Based Codes
- Puget Sound Regional Council – Form-Based Zoning
- Sample Form Based Codes
- Ventura – Sample Codes
- SmartCode Modules
The SmartCode differs from some other form-based codes in that its community-scale and block-scale articles are written explicitly for zoning. Zoning reform is essential to allow walkable mixed-use neighborhoods, thereby combatting sprawl, preserving open lands, and reducing energy use and carbon emissions.
- Form-Based SmartCode
Looking to curb sprawl with a form-based alternative to conventional zoning? No need to reinvent the wheel. The SmartCode is a model ordinance that’s customized to reflect local context, character and goals. And best of all, it’s open source and free.
More on Form Based Codes from the Form-Based SmartCode website:
The SmartCode is a model, form-based unified land development ordinance designed to create walkable neighborhoods, towns and cities across the full spectrum of human settlement, from the most rural to the most urban, and incorporating a transect of character and intensity within each. The SmartCode was originally developed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company. It now exists as shareware and typically serves as a foundation from which it is then customized to address specific municipal goals. It can be leveraged as a tool towards both aspirational and preservationist ambitions.
[The long version:]
The SmartCode is a unified land development ordinance for planning and urban design. It folds zoning, subdivision regulations, urban design, and optional architectural standards into one compact document.
Because the SmartCode enables community vision by coding specific outcomes that are desired in particular places, it is meant to be locally customized (also known as “calibrated”) by professional planners, architects, and attorneys.
The SmartCode is not a building code. Building codes address life/safety issues such as fire and storm protection. Examples of building codes include the IBC, IRC, and ICC documents.
The SmartCode supports these outcomes: community vision, local character, conservation of open lands, transit options, and walkable and mixed-use neighborhoods. It prevents these outcomes: wasteful sprawl development, automobile-dominated streets, empty downtowns, and a hostile public realm. It allows different approaches in different areas within the community, unlike a one-size-fits-all conventional zoning code. This gives the SmartCode unusual political power, as it permits buy-in from stakeholders of diverse interests and concerns.
The SmartCode is considered a “form-based code” because it strongly addresses the physical form of building and development. Conventional zoning codes are based primarily on use and density. They have caused systemic problems over the past sixty years by separating uses, making mixed-use and walkable neighborhoods essentially illegal.
The SmartCode is also a transect-based code. A “transect” is usually seen as a continuous cross-section of natural habitats for plants and animals, ranging from shorelines to wetlands to uplands. The specific transect that the SmartCode uses is based on the human habitat, ranging from the most rural environments to the most urban environments. This transect is divided into a range of “Transect Zones,” each with its own complex character. It ensures that a community offers a full diversity of building types, thoroughfare types, and civic space types, and that each has appropriate characteristics for its location.
The six T-Zones are: T-1 Natural, T-2 Rural, T-3 Sub-Urban, T-4 General Urban, T-5 Urban Center, and T-6 Urban Core.
The Transect is a powerful tool because its standards can be coordinated across many other disciplines and documents, including ITE (transportation), and LEED (environmental performance). Thus the SmartCode integrates the design protocols of a variety of specialties, including traffic engineering, public works, town planning, architecture, landscape architecture, and ecology.
The SmartCode addresses development patterns at three scales of planning (thus it may replace a number of other documents):
> The Sector (Regional) Scale
> The Community Scale
> The Block and Building Scale
If stronger architectural guidelines are desired, a community may further adopt supplemental regulations or a pattern book.
Urbanism is an old idea with new recognition about how cities worked before the auto became the dominant planning idea for the way cities have been designed since about 1945.
Here are a few links to help us understand what this new Urbanism is and how to achieve a people and place oriented city instead of car dominated cities:
A General Theory of Urbanism
by Duany et all. PDF
Urbanism Making Places for People
An urbanism oriented presentation for Ventura County at a recent VCOG meeting by Sargent Town Planning out of LA. PDF
A major barrier to human-scale, complete streets appears ready to fall. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is proposing to drop 11 of 13 mandatory standards for streets under 50 miles per hour, which will help in the design of federally owned urban streets.
“It is definitely a step in the right direction that FHWA is finally responding to the overwhelming amount of research showing little safety benefit to most of their controlling criteria,” says Wes Marshall, associate professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Colorado.
Wider lane width is one of the crucial criteria for urban streets that has been shown to have no safety benefit. A series of studies (link, link) have shown that in urban places 12-foot lanes—which have been used on arterial streets since the middle of the 20th century, are less safe than narrower lanes because they encourage speeding. For comparison, Interstate lanes are 12 feet wide.
“We have made great strides in recognizing that urban conditions require more flexibility in design guidance, and the ITE/CNU manual as well as the NACTO guides have certainly given engineers the ability to design for context and walkability,” says Wade Walker, an engineer with Alta Planning + Design. “This proposal by FHWA can make the process much simpler by eliminating the need for design exceptions on many design proposals for these type streets.”
New urbanist engineers have long argued for “decision-making that encourages engineered solutions rather than relying on minimum, maximum, or limiting values found in design criteria,” notes Peter Swift, an engineer in Gold Hill, Colorado. “This, in itself, is a remarkable admission that competent engineers are finally taken seriously!”
But dropping these standards is no panacea. “It is also worth pointing out that they still expect design speed to be a controlling criterion for streets under 50 mph,” says Marshall. “Given that the selection of a design speed is often left to the discretion of an engineer, you could still theoretically end up with streets signed for 25 mph being designed for 45 mph design speeds.”
State DOTs, which determine design on key arterials, and local DOTs and engineers, will not be directly affected by this proposal. “Until the direction is embraced by not only the state DOT’s and local staffs we will continue to run into resistance for creating truly walkable urban streets,” Walker says. Yet state and local engineers may take their cues for the federal authorities. “I can definitely envision these benefits eventually extending to state DOT and local guidelines,” says Marshall.
This proposal is part of a culture shift that is taking place at FHWA, which long supported highway standards applied to urban places. A little over a year ago, the administration gave the seal of approval for engineers to use the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Design Guide, which shows dimensions and standards for tighter urban streets with bike lanes and pedestrian facilities. The proposed changes can be thought of as another domino that is falling.
As of yet, the changes are just a proposal. They must go through a comment period that ends December 7. Supporters of complete streets can read the details of the changes here and support them with a comment here.
Robert Steuteville is editor of Better Cities & Towns and senior communications advisor for the Congress for the New Urbanism.
A fascinating Internet discussion makes the case for solving congestion problems using economic, rather than engineering, strategies. But urban design should also be considered.
Two blogs (traffic engineer Simon Vallee and City Observatory) describe how traffic engineers exclude human decision-making from their road construction decisions. Roads are simply pipes and drivers are fixed inputs. This view generally leads to road widenings in response to predictions of possible overload. Those decision leads to more driving, less walking, and the cycle continues. Recognizing that most trips are economic decisions and that people have choices puts a whole new spin on roads and traffic. As Hertz of City Observatory says:
“The economic, or behavioral, approach brings back humans—and with them, the idea that given amount of vehicle trips isn’t just a feature of the natural world, but the result of decisions by actual people who want to get somewhere in order to do something. The question then changes in a subtle but profound way: not how to speed vehicles through a road most efficiently, but how to best connect people with the places they want to go.”
“Bringing humans back into the question also allows you to acknowledge that people have desires that aren’t directly related to transportation. Safety, for example. Reducing the number and length of vehicle trips translates straight to fewer car crashes, and fewer avoidable serious injuries and deaths. Making streets a pleasant place to walk and gather—something that’s difficult when sidewalks have been narrowed to make room for speeding cars just feet away—can pay serious economic dividends and help establish a sense of community. In the economic or behavioral approach to transportation policy, all of these goals suddenly become fair game.”
Viewing congestion as an economic problem may also get transportation engineers to recognize that congestion is often good. The bad kind of congestion is when people are just sitting in traffic and little economic activity is taking place. But in a mixed-use downtown, congestion is a sign of life. A downtown without congestion is dead. Similarly, now that we know there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, how would we feel if our doctor tried to eliminate all cholesterol? We’d get a new doctor.
Bringing human beings into the thinking of traffic engineering is a big step forward, but engineers need to bring real places into the equation as well. Traffic congestion decisions determine the shape of public places, so they are an urban design problem. The engineering approach belies tens of thousands of miles of urban streets that function exceptionally well with vastly different design than what engineers recommend. This study showed that spatial characteristics of streets—factors not considered by either the engineering or the economic approach—have a dramatic impact on safety and livability.
Engineers typically don’t study streets with strong spatial definition to see why and how they work.
An economic approach to solving traffic problems would vastly improve the traffic engineering profession. An understanding of urban design would be even better.
Robert Steuteville is editor of Better Cities & Towns and senior communications advisor for the Congress for the New Urbanism.