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
While lifting federal funding restrictions on stem cell research President Obama said, “we will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse.” Notwithstanding the political rhetoric, are standards different than strict guidelines? Can guidelines be rigorously enforced? In common usage, the terms “guidelines” and “standards” are frequently used interchangeably. However, within the development regulatory framework, a guideline is a helpful suggestion — you don’t have to follow it, but it is recommended. On the other hand, standards are legal and mandatory requirements.
Guidelines are explanatory and interpretive recommendations that encourage, not require, its use. Administered through appointed design review committee, commission, or advisory board, guidelines are created to fit a wide range of situations, but not all. Guidelines are typically attractive to cities that are not politically ready to enforce design standards. Guidelines are also preferred by designers who have little tolerance for any standard that tends to limit their creative expression. Good judgment is needed in deciding where and how to apply design guidelines.
The problem with design guidelines is that their application is skin deep and fails to breathe life and soul into a place. The diagram (to the right) illustrates the differences between conventional zoning, design guidelines, and form-based codes. The building block (top image) complies with typical zoning controls such as land use, FAR, and height. This block is not likely to create walkable urbanism. At best, design guidelines (middle image) can recommend articulation and openings to the building’s facade. In contrast, Form-Based Codes (bottom image) conceptualize a public realm by pulling together the individual elements: the diverse street types, variety of public and private open spaces, and contextual building types into a complete, cohesive, and memorable place.
A key barrier to protecting and creating distinctive places is lack of clear and precise place-based standards and a predictable review process. Design guidelines are difficult to apply consistently. They offer too much room for subjective interpretation. Design guidelines are difficult to enforce. A developer can legally refuse to comply putting at risk the larger collective investments of neighboring properties. Design Guidelines require oversight by discretionary review bodies, leading to a protracted and politicized planning process that can cost time and money.
Form-Based Codes (FBCs) are clear and precise standards that offers predictability. The FBCs are developed to create a specific place that the citizens desire. Both the vision and FBCs are developed with citizen input. The citizens have a higher comfort level with the end result the standards is likely to produce. City staff gets a streamlined and easy to administer review process. FBCs also create more choices, more opportunities and options for the property owner. Typically, developers borrow money to pursue pre-construction work. For developers, time is money. The biggest incentive that cities can offer is not money, but clear and predictable development standards. Most developers are willing to build to higher standards if the rules are clear and the process is predictable. By offering adjacent predictable environment FBCs reduce risks where banks in this credit-starved economy may be more willing to loan construction money.
Design Guidelines can be added to complement Form-Based standards to address certain discretionary items such as architectural style and historic preservation. The Denver Commons Form-Based Code, recognized with the 2009 Form-Based Codes Institute’s Driehaus Award, includes both standards and guidelines. The mandatory standards address the critical form related aspects that shape the public realm, while the guidelines provide further suggestive recommendations for enhancing the public realm experience by encouraging creativity in a flexible manner.
Louis Kahn called a street “a room by agreement.” The agreement, in the form of binding standards, is an implicit consent between the architects and their buildings to not ignore the street but to bring forth a collective etiquette and a minimum capability to pull together buildings to shape and enhance the public realm.
By itself, the guidelines simply fail to deliver great places. The terms “strict guidelines” fail to inspire compliance. The “abuse and misuse” continues with discretionary review and unpredictable outcome fueling NIMBY sentiments and discouraging economic development. Design guidelines work best only when they are paired with form-based codes.
Variety within a narrow range gives distinct character to the Place Des Vosges in Paris. Photo by Steve Mouzon.
The most-loved places are comprised of buildings with an endless variety of details within a limited range of architecture, giving distinct and recognizable character.
The most-loved places around the world vary enormously. At first glance, there seems to be no common thread, because it is the uniqueness of each of these places that makes them notable. Further observation, however, yields at least one common thread: each of them exhibits great variety within a very narrow range. And it is precisely the narrow range that gives them their identity. Look at the photos below. Is there any doubt as to what part of the world in which each is built? Many people can probably name the town and maybe even the neighborhood at a glance.
A very narrow range of variety may at first appear to be very similar to no range of variety because the range is so small, but they are actually polar opposites: great variety is the opposite of no variety, even when (or especially when) the range is narrow. The narrow range is necessary, because it is only by editing things out that you make a place distinctive. Allow anything, and it could be anywhere. Narrow the range, and you have taken the first step towards creating a sense of place.
People judge the vitality of a place by the amount of variety. Create everything out of five standard models, and it will appear dead. Allow things to vary slightly from one building to the next, and the place starts to live. So the narrow range is necessary to define the character of a place, while the wide variety is necessary to make it live. Combine both, and you have a chance of creating what Christopher Alexander calls “the character without a name.” Or put another way, a narrow range without great variety creates mechanical objects; great variety without a narrow range creates disconnected randomness. Combine the two, and you have a chance of creating a living thing.
What’s the difference between these places shown in photos below? Why do millions from around the world visit the second, while the first has never had a single tourist, and never will? The architecture in both places has variety and the urbanism is similar on both streets. But look closely at the architectural variety: one place has precisely the variety within the narrow range that makes it live and be loved for centuries: the same idea created all the bay windows, all the eaves, all the gables, etc., but no two are identical. The other has five standard models that are built out of precisely the same details: the same eaves, the same siding, the same columns, the same foundations, etc. This is fake variety of the worst sort. If there is any doubt as to whether the customers understand this or not, look at the price of real estate in each place.
So how do we go about making living settings with an identity of place? The best method is a vernacular mechanism, in which place-making wisdom is held by everyone in a culture, rather than just the architects, and we trust the people again to make the sequential little decisions that created the “most-loved places.” We’re working toward that, but it won’t happen overnight.
The first step is to build by coding rather than building by designing. In other words, tell many people what to do and let them do it rather than designing it all yourself. One person cannot possibly think of as many variations as many people can, nor will one person consider it efficient to draw a thousand details, whereas a thousand people will naturally create the variety by simply doing what they each naturally do. As the code grows into a living tradition over time, the engines of the vernacular mechanism will rumble back to life.
Place Des Vosges
The best example I have ever seen of a coded place with great variety in a narrow range is the Place Des Vosges in Paris (see photo at the top of the article). As a matter of fact, it could be a Rosetta Stone of sorts, unlocking secrets of living variety for code-makers today. It is Paris’s oldest square, dating from the early years of the 17th Century, and is a bridge between the medieval city and its building methods and the later Renaissance city. The specific code or plan used to create the Place Des Vosges has apparently been lost over time. Popular sources have Baptiste du Cerceau as the likely designer, but not even that is totally certain. So the most useful question to ask isn’t “what did the lost code look like?” but rather “how can we accomplish the same thing?”
Look carefully at the photos below. They represent a few of the 39 houses ringing the Place. Because of the tight quarters inside the fence of the central square, these shots include only the upper bodies of the buildings, although the arcade exhibits a similar variety. At first glance through the desensitized lenses of our post-industrial architectural vision, these buildings might appear to be all the same. They all are four-bay brick structures of exactly the same width and eave line, with hipped & dormered slate roofs of the same slope surmounting a two-story body on a stone arcade. But somehow, it feels right… it feels alive. Nothing like the buildings we extrude today, like toothpaste out of a tube. What’s the difference?
Look closely at one element at a time, such as the outer circular-roofed dormers. Or the balconies and their railings. Or the window heads. Or the central dormers. Each varies slightly, from one house to the next, like leaves on a tree; no two are exactly the same. How did they do this?
It is hard to imagine that Baptiste du Cerceau (or whoever) scenographically designed each elevation with slightly different details. So if not, then how? The simplest rational explanation is that the builders of each pavilion were given verbal instructions, at most accompanied by very simple drawings laying out the important characteristics (eave lines, etc.) of the Place, leaving the minor details to the master builder of each of the houses.
Form-based codes of today can, in theory, do precisely this. But the built products of many current form-based codes either devolve into sterile sameness when the developer decides to “be efficient,” or devolve into chaos when lot-purchasers demand to do “my thing.” In other words, too little variety or too big a range. So what are techniques that might help create great variety in a narrow range with today’s most common building delivery methods?
Custom-designed houses on lots sold directly to homeowners are usually designed in too wide a range. Responsibility for this usually falls at the feet of the architects; few except dedicated new urbanist architects understand the value of coherence in a place. The most effective tool for developments marketed this way is a good pattern book, which is a set of instructions to designers intended to produce coherence. Any bona-fide New Urbanist pattern book is a huge step in the right direction for a custom-built development, but there is an intriguing new type of book that resolves many of the problematic issues of pattern books to date.
A more recent idea in pattern books is principle-based books (as opposed to the earlier style-based books) which code for the best architecture for the regional conditions, climate, and culture rather than for a collection of historical styles. Because they code for low, medium, and high settings of a single architecture rather than for many styles, they can drill down much deeper into the patterns of the architecture. And they explain the rationale for each pattern. Instead of the style-based books’ unspoken premise that “thou shalt do this because I have better taste than you…” that produces compliance at best, the new books explain “we do this because…” allowing everyone to think again.
Developments that sell houses rather than lots were once in the minority of new urbanist developments, but today, developments as high-end as Alys Beach primarily sell houses rather than lots. Many house-selling developments (not including Alys Beach) tend to value efficiency, producing many iterations of a stock design, which produces a range that is too small.
One solution might be to do schematic drawings (stock-plan-level detail at most), then allow the small variations that occur between framing crews, trim crews, and masonry crews to naturally occur. The problem here is that the detail departures of today’s subcontractors cannot be trusted because they default to the horrible details that produced American suburbia. Here there is no substitute for direct education of the subcontractors. The core tool is a good set of drawings by an architect familiar with the principles of the New Urbanism, including “let the street have the ‘street appeal’ and allow the buildings to be calmer.” Beginning there, every framer, mason, and trim carpenter should have a copy of a good syntax code that explains the basic Do’s and Don’ts of traditional construction. Beyond that, builders workshops are extremely helpful because when construction workers see proper details built before their eyes, they realize that “I can do that,” and they never get it wrong again. Workers have literally come to builders’ workshops in the morning knowing they would be wood-butchers or brick-throwers the rest of their lives and have left at the end of the workshop realizing that they can be craftspeople, building details correctly in their hometown for the first time in a hundred years.
Partially- or wholly-manufactured buildings (panelized, modular, or manufactured) have their own set of challenges. Assembly lines exist to churn out large numbers of identical items without retooling, in order to get the price and time down. That objective seemed irresolvable with the idea of making each building slightly different. The best you could have is the “five standard options.” Yet it has been discovered recently, and quite by accident, that if you manufacture houses that seem just a bit too simple, but that are easily modifiable, people will make weekend projects out of customizing them to their own preferences. The modifications can be minor: adding capital trim to a square wood post, adding brackets to a porch beam, adding trim around a door, etc. The key is that the buildings are simple enough to encourage owner modification, and that they are built of materials that allow modification — meaning that they can be sawn into and nailed onto, then painted.
This article first appeared in New Urban News, later called Better Cities & Towns. For more on Steve Mouzon’s ideas about variety within a narrow range, watch this video from the City Building Exchange of 2016.
Missing middle housing types and their location between single-family and mid-rise buildings. Opticos Design
Mismatch between current US housing stock and shifting demographics, combined with the growing demand for walkable urban living, has been poignantly defined by recent research and publications by the likes of Christopher Nelson and Chris Leinberger and the Urban Land Institute’s publication, What’s Next: Real Estate in the New Economy. Let’s stop talking about the problem and start generating solutions!
Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as adding more multi-family housing stock using the dated models/types of housing that we have been building. Rather, we need a complete paradigm shift in the way that we design, locate, regulate, and develop homes. As What’s Next states, “it’s a time to rethink and evolve, reinvent and renew.” Missing Middle housing types, such as duplexes, fourplexes, bungalow courts, mansion apartments, and live-work units, are a critical part of the solution and should be a part of every architect’s, planner’s, real estate agent’s, and developer’s arsenal.
Well-designed, simple Missing Middle housing types achieve medium-density yields and provide high-quality, marketable options between the scales of single-family homes and mid-rise flats for walkable urban living. They are designed to meet the specific needs of shifting demographics and the new market demand and are a key component to a diverse neighborhood. They are classified as “missing” because very few of these housing types have been built since the early 1940’s due to regulatory constraints, the shift to auto-dependent patterns of development, and the incentivization of single-family home ownership.
The following are defining characteristics of Missing Middle housing:
A walkable context. Probably the most important characteristic of these types of housing is that they need to be built within an existing or newly created walkable urban context. Buyers or renters of these housing types are choosing to trade larger suburban housing for less space, no yard to maintain, and proximity to services and amenities such as restaurants, bars, markets, and often work. Linda Pruitt of the Cottage Company, who is building creative bungalow courts in the Seattle area, says the first thing her potential customers ask is, “What can I walk to?” So this criteria becomes very important in her selection of lots and project areas, as is it for all Missing Middle housing.
Medium density but lower perceived densities. As a starting point, these building types typically range in density from 16 dwelling units/acre (du/acre) to up to 35 du/acre, depending on the building type and lot size. It is important not to get too caught up in the density numbers when thinking about these types. Due to the small footprint of the building types and the fact that they are usually mixed with a variety of building types, even on an individual block, the perceived density is usually quite lower–they do not look like dense buildings.
A combination of these types gets a neighborhood to a minimum average of 16 du/acre. This is important because this is generally used as a threshold at which an environment becomes transit-supportive and main streets with neighborhood-serving, walkable retail and services become viable.
Small footprint and blended densities. As mentioned above, a common characteristic of these housing types are small- to medium-sized building footprints. The largest of these types, the mansion apartment or side-by-side duplex, may have a typical main body width of about 40-50ft, which is very comparable to a large estate home. This makes them ideal for urban infill, even in older neighborhoods that were originally developed as single-family but have been designated to evolve with slightly higher intensities. As a good example, a courtyard housing project in the Westside Guadalupe Historic District of Santa Fe, New Mexico sensitively incorporates 6 units and a shared community-room building onto a ¼ acre lot. In this project, the buildings are designed to be one room deep to maximize cross ventilation/passive cooling and to enable the multiple smaller structures to relate well to the existing single-family context.
Smaller, well-designed units. One of the most common mistakes by architects or builders new to the urban housing market is trying to force suburban unit types and sizes into urban contexts and housing types. The starting point for Missing Middle housing needs to be smaller-unit sizes; the challenge is to create small spaces that are well designed, comfortable, and usable. As an added benefit, smaller-unit sizes can help developers keep their costs down, improving the pro-forma performance of a project, while keeping the housing available to a larger group of buyers or renters at a lower price point.
Off-street parking does not drive the site plan. The other non-starter for Missing Middle housing is trying to provide too much parking on site. This ties back directly to the fact that these units are being built in a walkalble urban context. The buildings become very inefficient from a development potential or yield standpoint and shifts neighborhoods below the 16 du/acre density threshold, as discussed above, if large parking areas are provided or required. As a starting point, these units should provide no more than 1 off-street parking space per unit. A good example of this is newly constructed mansion apartments in the new East Beach neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia. To enable these lower off-street parking requirements to work, on-street parking must be available adjacent to the units. Housing design that forces too much parking on a site also compromises the occupant’s experience of entering the building or “coming home” and the relationship with its context, especially in an infill condition, which can greatly impact marketability.
Simple construction. The days of easily financing and building complicated, expensive Type-I or II buildings with podium parking are behind us, and an alternative for providing walkable urban housing with more of a simple, cost-effective construction type is necessary in many locations. What’s Next states, “affordability—always a key element in housing markets—is taking on a whole new meaning as developers reach for ways to make attractive homes within the means of financially constrained buyers.” Because of their simple forms, smaller size, and Type V construction, Missing Middle building types can help developers maximize affordability and returns without compromising quality by providing housing types that are simple and affordable to build.
Creating Community. Missing Middle housing creates community through the integration of shared community spaces within the types, as is the case for courtyard housing or bungalow courts, or simply from the proximity they provide to the community within a building and/or the neighborhood. This is an important aspect, in particular within the growing market of single-person households (which is at nearly 30% of all households) that want to be part of a community. This has been especially true for single women who have proven to be a strong market for these Missing Middle housing types, in particular bungalow courts and courtyard housing.
Marketability. The final and maybe the most important characteristic in terms of market viability is that these housing types are very close in scale and provide a similar user experience (such as entering from a front porch facing the street versus walking down a long, dark corridor to get to your unit) to single-family homes, thus making the mental shift for potential buyers and renters much less drastic than them making a shift to live in a large mid-rise or high-rise project. This combined with the fact that many baby boomers likely grew up in similar housing types in urban areas or had relatives that did, enables them to easily relate to these housing types.
This is a call for architects, planners, and developers to think outside the box and create immediate, viable solutions to address the mismatch between the housing stock and what the market is demanding–vibrant, diverse, sustainable, walkable urban places. The Missing Middle housing types are an important part of this solution and should be integrated into comprehensive and regional planning, zoning code updates, TOD strategies, and the business models for developers and builders who want to be at the forefront of this paradigm shift.
Once blighted and overlooked, these small streets are transforming into community and sustainability hotspots.
An art walk art walk through Seattle’s Nord Alley. (mirastories)
The alley is dark no longer.
In the United States, these almost-accidental spaces between buildings have existed in a sort of limbo: not quite streets, but still thoroughfares; not private, but not public enough to feel protected; backdrops to crime, or filled with trash heaps.
But as cities grow increasingly strapped for space, neglecting these narrow streets is no longer a viable option. Cities from Los Angeles to Baltimore to Seattle are rethinking their alleyways and transforming dead ends intointo places of connectivity and productivity.
A brief history of alleys
In other parts of the world, the size or location of a thoroughfare did not dictate its utility in the same way it did in the U.S. Daniel Toole, an architect and blogger at Alleys of Seattle, previously told CityLab that in European cities like Paris, Rome, and Barcelona, beautiful alleys are vital pedestrian passageways. In Kyoto and Melbourne, they’re retail hubs.
Even the names alleys are called around the world, Toole said, suggests their different functions: in Japan, they’re calledroji, or “little street”; in Australia, they’re “laneways,” suggesting, to Toole, a more pedestrian-friendly figuration.
However, in America, Toole said, alleyways were specifically set aside as infrastructure. Originally conceived as service access to buildings, they were a place to conduct activities considered unfit for the main street—hence today’s association with garbage collection. “It’s really messy,” Toole said. Imagine loading docks for construction, piled-up trash, exposed gas conduits.
The case for transformation
For places that were meant to be unseen, alleys take up a not-insubstantial amount of space. A 2011 report by Mary Fialko and Jennifer Hampton, graduate students at the University of Washington*, found that in Seattle, there are 217,000 square feet of public alley space downtown, 85 percent of which are underused. The report estimated that reinvigorating alleyways could increase the number of total public space in the city by 50 percent.
Alleys, too, are vital players in a city’s overall ecosystem. As the need for cities to rely on more sustainable approaches has become more pressing, the proliferation of trash and flooding in alleyways has come to be seen not only an aesthetic blight, but an environmental one.
And as Daniel Freedman of the Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative says, there’s a lot of crossover between sound environmental practices and livability. Revitalizing an alleyway creates an opportunity to introduce green infrastructure, but also, Freedman says, it invites the surrounding community to collaborate on improvements and make use of the space.
Across the U.S., cities’ approaches to their alleyways have been varied and specific; at their core, however, are fundamental practices that can be considered and applied universally.
The “green alley” approach
In 2006, Chicago took stock of its 13,000 alleys—among the country’s vastest—and saw a problem. Decades previously, most of the city’s 3,500 acres of alleys were paved with impermeable asphalt or concrete, and stormwater drained through grates at the center. As those systems fell into disrepair through lack of maintenance, flooding became commonplace.
In response, the city pioneered the Chicago Green Alley Program, among the first in the United States to bring sustainable building practices to a network of alleyways. According to Gizmodo, over 100 of the city’s alleys have since beencovered with permeable surfaces that redirect stormwater into the ground and away from Chicago’s “overtaxed” sewer system, reducing flooding and recharging the surrounding soil.
A privately funded initiative in Detroit has taken a similar approach. Peggy Brennan of the Green Garage told Gizmodo that Detroit’s resulting Green Alley incorporates permeable surfaces and gardening space, and has transformed a space once filled with mattresses and hypodermic needles into a community gathering place.
Los Angeles expects that a new network of green alleyways will help the city meet its goal of increasing stormwater capture to 50 billion gallons by 2035; currently, the city saves 8.8 billion gallons annually, The New York Timesreported. The newest alley in the network centered in the city’s South Park neighborhood is projected to capture 700,000 gallons per year.
Making space for the community
In Baltimore, the issue was trash. Leanna Wetmore, the community coordinator for the Baltimore Waterfront Parternership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative, had been trying to figure out a way to engage the local communities in her organization’s goal of having a fishable waterway. “But it’s hard to talk to people about clean water in our city, when there are a million other important issues,” Wetmore says.
So she decided to focus on the garbage pileup in neighborhood alleys. The trash that piles up there filters down through the storm drains and into the harbor; getting the community on board with getting rid of the trash, Wetmore thought, would bring people together and start to free up the water. The Healthy Harbor Initiative’s Alley Makeover Program brings communities together to clean up their alleyways, then implement some “small, cheap improvements that reset people’s expectations of what an alleyway can be,” Wetmore says. Through a $30,000 grant from the Rauch Foundation, 20 alleyways in six neighborhoods are now covered in murals and artwork; they’re filled with block parties and cleared of trash.
Seattle decided in 2008 to clear its alleys of dumpsters, moving instead to a trash-bag collection model of waste management. The same year, theInternational Sustainability Institute (ISI), based in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, partnered with Gehl Architects on a survey of downtown Seattle’s public spaces, which identified the newly dumpster-free alleys of Pioneer Square as a a potential asset. Pioneer Square, says Liz Stenning, the public realm director for the Alliance for Pioneer Square, had fallen on hard times: it was mostly devoid of retail, office workers left after closing hours, and the streets were quiet.
Inspired by the feedback from the Gehl report, ISI cleaned up the alley adjacent to its office, and hosted a party. It was a rainy night, Stenning says, and the festivities weren’t much more than a local musician and some folding chairs, but people stayed. Since then, ISI has partnered with Stenning’s organization, the Alliance for Pioneer Square, to revitalize alleyways throughout the neighborhood; they now play host to anything from projecting World Cup games from the back of a U-Haul truck, to cat adoptions, to revolving art installations. “We were just trying to do things that change people’s perspective on being in an alley,” Stenning says.
The next frontier for retail
It wasn’t long before local businesses caught on. In Pioneer Square, Back Alley Bike Repair opened its doors in 2011 onto the 700-square-foot Nord Alley; independent restaurants have moved in and capitalized on the 15 or so revitalized passageways as outdoor seating areas.
When it opened in 2012, the East Cahuenga Alley in Los Angeles swiftly drew crowds. The brainchild of a member of the Hollywood Business Improvement District, the plan for the lane—once known as “Heroin Alley”—re-imagined it as a pedestrian space filled with outdoor dining and an artists’ market on Sundays. The Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative compiled an extensive report on the space, Freedman says, to “put a spotlight on what happened in one community, to show what could be possible for others.”
Though Freedman’s organization focuses primarily on the Los Angeles area, the success of the East Cahuenga Alley model has radiated out to other cities. The Z Block office and retail development is slated to open in Lower Downtown Denver next year; the developer on the project told The Denver Post that the alley bisecting the site was as much a focus as the buildings themselves. While previous alley activations in Denver were limited to one-offs, the Z Block alley will play permanent host to a distiller, a chocolatier, a coffee-bean roaster, and an ice-cream shop, all of which will open out onto the small street.
Historically, Freedman says, urban alleyways were often places of dangers or sources of shame. But in the places where these spaces have been revitalized and repurposed, there’s a particular delight in their new use. The success of these projects, Freedman says, “shows how it’s possible to take a space that was once a liability, and turn it into a resource.”
It’s easy to understand why cities will leap at the opportunity to invest in new structures: “Starchitect”-designed buildings, from the Santiago Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum to Brooklyn’s undulating Barclays Center, could add an iconic image to the cityscape and garner positive media buzz.
However, such massive public investments in permanent structures (what I’ve dubbed “concrete culture”) are bad deals and bad policy for urban economic development. Once the hoopla fades, cities can be saddled with millions in debt and mixed results. Take, for example, Charlotte’s NASCAR museum. Built in 2010 at a cost of US$160 million, the facility has not met attendance projections and, according to the Charlotte Observer, is losing $1 million a year.
Given the economic costs and risks, why do museums, stadiums and other “concrete culture” receive such a privileged place in urban development? After spending the past 10 years conducting research on the topic, I’ve found that this privilege should end; as an alternative, cities should champion music festivals as a cheaper, adaptable way to bolster urban communities.
From 1990 to 2010, over 100 sports stadiums opened across the country. Economists have long argued that these are dreadful public investmentsfor myriad reasons: they’ve been shown to stall economic growth, become underused eyesores and fleece local taxpayers. Billionaire sports team owners profit immensely from sports stadiums and – in many cases – don’t spend a dime on their construction.
While museums and performing arts centers are often nonprofits, they require cobbled-together funding from a variety of sources, ranging from corporate philanthropy to federal, state and local governments. These, too, have come at a cost. The University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center found that a whopping 725 arts and cultural facilities were built in the U.S. from 1994 to 2008. Construction didn’t just greatly outpace demand; it also overextended public resources. Though they cost over $15.5 billion to build, only 12 percent of the cultural institutions that were surveyed for the report saw increases in attendance.
Museums, stadiums and other permanent structures purport to revive deteriorating parts of the city. In some cases they do. In other cases, rosy expectations aren’t met. Museums struggle in recessions, while stadiums like Washington, D.C.’s Washington Coliseum and Houston’s Astrodome are left derelict. The New York Times notes that, with the NFL’s St. Louis Rams’ relocation to Los Angeles, St. Louis dodges a fiscal bullet by not having to sign a bad stadium deal. The city wins by losing.
Meanwhile, invasive “mega events” like the Super Bowl, the Olympics and the World Cup can be economic and cultural calamities for their communities as well. Economist Andrew Zimbalist’s book “Circus Maximus” notes that, beyond prestige and perhaps some tourist revenue, these events create concrete cultural infrastructure that monopolize scarce real estate, leaving spaces underutilized for decades.
A cheaper, more equitable path
There is a cheaper, more equitable path toward creating culturally vibrant cities, one that requires less public funding and much less steel and glass.
Festivals, both big and small, are becoming a more prominent feature of our cultural landscape. These events range from small street fairs to extravagant events that inhabit a city’s downtown area for a long weekend. They include Austin’s massive South by Southwest (SXSW), Boston’s smaller Jamaica Plain Music Festival, Manhattan’s mainstream Governor’s Ball and Brooklyn’s two-day AfroPunk Fest.
Music festivals have become popular for three reasons. First, musicians and music labels are eager to perform live to offset declining record sales. Next, today’s music fans are seeking out more and more live performances. And third, municipalities – in an era of intense urban branding and competition for tourists – are becoming amenable to developing music- and event-friendly policies.
Unlike permanent stadiums and museums, festivals are nimble; they’re able to switch venues and change up programming if necessary. They’re also much more inclusive. Many are free to the public, utilize existing public spaces and cultural assets, spark interactions among community members and nurture positive images of urban areas, especially neighborhoods that might need a boost.
A model for the 21st-century city
Recognizing the value in cultivating events, cities like Nashville and Austin have learned to promote a festival-friendly environment over the last decade. Both cities established entertainment zones that balance relaxed noise ordinances with affordable, mixed-use housing. At the same time, these cities champion their distinctive character and communities by embracing their festivals as “signature events.”
These cities have made it easier to hold cultural events by streamlining the permitting process and allowing public parks to be used. Even their city halls have designated offices devoted to culture and music that wield bureaucratic influence and act as liaisons with local arts organizations. Some cities have even established a new position: night mayor.
In New England, a burgeoning scene of club owners and musicians congregate each year at Newport’s Jazz and Folk festivals, where they leverage local resources to attain international notoriety. Up-and-coming musicians have a voice in the festival’s planning as members of the Newport Festival Advisory Board. They can also influence resource distribution by directing fundraising to targeted local groups.
Replicating these successes can be challenging. Research has indicated that festivals sometimes exclude local residents, and many events become vulnerable to overcommercialization. Brands, for example, often flood the visual landscape of these festivals. When I began conducting research at the Newport Folk Festival, it was the Dunkin’ Donuts Newport Folk Festival, and nearly every surface of the facility seemed to be sheathed in corporate pink, orange, and brown. (The festival has since become a 501c3 nonprofit corporation, and now brands have a more muted profile at the event.)
Carefully articulated policies around short-term events need to highlight community input and assessment, including greater representation of marginalized groups.
Some might wonder if it’s worth investing in something that leaves after only a few days. But the impermanence of festivals is a feature, not a flaw. Festivals are adaptable, using spaces that might otherwise go unoccupied, and they can act as platforms for existing local artistic groups.
The Downtown Oxnard Vision Plan Charrette was held in Oxnard between January 29th and February 2nd 2016. The Charrette was organized by the City of Oxnard, the Oxnard Community Planning Group (OCPG), and the Congress for the new Urbanism – California Chapter (CNU-CA). The Charrette, lead and created for Oxnard by the CNU-CA, was a resounding success – bringing together many stakeholders from the Oxnard community.
The Administrative Draft report is the culmination of 5 days of community input and dedicated and creative work by the more than 20 distinguished planning professionals of the CNU-CA.
This is a brilliant article on Placemaking by CNU-CA’s Howard Blackson. It’s a short easy read if you skim it – it’s a deep tretis on Placemaking if you think about each of the C’s and how it applies to your daily civic meanderings and our city. How does Oxnard compare to the 5 C’s – does it work? And where does it not work and what would it take to make it work? – OCPG
I live in a city that is currently updating its Community Plans. This is an historically difficult planning job because Community Plans transcend both broad policy statements (such as the amorphous “New development should be in harmony with surrounding development…”) and specific development regulations (“Front yard setbacks shall be 25 feet deep from property line…”). An issue with updating Community-scaled plans is the personal sentiment people feel for their homes and the difficulty we have in expressing such emotion within conventional 2D planning documents. The source of most conflicts and confusion I see occurring during these updates is due to the confusion over the scale and size difference of a ‘Community’ versus a ‘Neighborhood’ unit.
A community is defined as, “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.” Many places have different communities inhabiting them, such as an elderly, or arts, or ethnic community living and/or working in close proximity to one another. Even the internet can be considered a place inhabited by many diverse communities. So the scale, parameters, and character of a community-scaled planning effort is difficult to define.
Usually, community planning areas are defined by political boundaries, or historic development plats and, in some deplorable cases, old insurance red-lining practices that gave a city its initial zoning districts. This being the case, I contend that the neighborhood unit is a better tool to define, plan, and express policies and regulations necessary to preserve, enhance and, yes, build great places.
The neighborhood is a physical place — varied in intensity from more rural to more urban — that many different communities inhabit. At its essence, whether downtown, midtown or out-of-town, its health and viability (in terms of both resilience and quality of life) is defined by certain basic characteristics. Easily observable in neighborhoods that work, these characteristics have been articulated a variety of ways over the years — most notably for me by Andrés Duany and Mike Stepnor. Combined, they form what I like to call the 5 Cs:
Great neighborhoods host a mix of uses in order to provide for our daily need to live, work, play, worship, dine, shop, and talk to each other. Each neighborhood has a center, a general middle area, and an edge. The reason suburban sprawl sprawls is because it has no defined centers and therefore no defined edge. Civic spaces generally (though not always) define a neighborhood’s center while commerce tends to happen on the edges, on more highly traffic-ed streets and intersections easily accessible by two or more neighborhoods. The more connected a neighborhood is, the more variety of commercial goods and services can be offered, as not every neighborhood needs a tuxedo shop or a class ‘A’ office building.
The 5-minute walk from center to edge, a basic rule-of-thumb for walkability, equates to approximately 80 to 160 acres, or 9 to 18 city blocks. This general area includes public streets, parks, and natural lands, as well as private blocks, spaces and private buildings. This scale may constrict in the dead of winter and/or heat of summer, and expand during more temperate months. Compactness comes in a range of intensities that are dependent upon local context. Therefore, more urban neighborhoods, such as those found in Brooklyn, are significantly more compact than a new neighborhood located, for example, outside Taos, New Mexico. Remember, the ped-shed is a general guide for identifying the center and edge of a neighborhood. Each neighborhood must be defined by its local context, meaning shapes can, and absolutely do, vary. Edges may be delineated by high speed thoroughfares (such as within Chicago’s vast grid), steep slopes and natural corridors (as found in Los Angeles), or other physical barriers.
Great neighborhoods are walkable, drivable, and bike-able with or without transit access. But, these are just modes of transportation. To be socially connected, neighborhoods should also be linger-able, sit-able, and hang out-able.
Great neighborhoods have a variety of civic spaces, such as plazas, greens, recreational parks, and natural parks. They have civic buildings, such a libraries, post offices, churches, community centers and assembly halls. They should also have a variety of thoroughfare types, such as cross-town boulevards, Main Streets, residential avenues, streets, alleys, bike lanes and paths. Due to their inherent need for a variety of land uses, they provide many different types of private buildings such as residences, offices, commercial buildings and mixed-use buildings. This complexity of having both public and private buildings and places provides the elements that define a neighborhood’s character.
The livability and social aspect of a neighborhood is driven by the many and varied communities that not only inhabit, but meet, get together, and socialize within a neighborhood. Meaning “friendly, lively and enjoyable,” convivial neighborhoods provide the gathering places — the coffee shops, pubs, ice creme shops, churches, clubhouses, parks, front yards, street fairs, block parties, living rooms, back yards, stoops, dog parks, restaurants and plazas — that connect people. How we’re able to socially connect physically is what defines our ability to endure and thrive culturally. It’s these connections that ultimately build a sense of place, a sense of safety, and opportunities for enjoyment… which is hard to maintain when trying to update a community plan without utilizing the Neighborhood Unit as the key planning tool.
What has not changed over the last 25 years is that decisions regarding the growth and development of our communities are still being made by community leaders who might be experts in politics, but do not have an adequate understanding of placemaking principles.
Uninformed decisions can lead to bad results. You are familiar with the types of poor policy decisions that spring from this uninformed position— all road widenings are “improvements,” all density is bad, the public works department should treat an urban area exactly the same as a suburban area, etc. For those of us who are focused on improving our communities through competent urban design, this is a source of great frustration.
So here are my Top 10 Techniques for Educating Community Leaders about Placemaking. If you find yourself similarly frustrated, consider the following tools for those you believe are open to enhancing their knowledge (not everyone is).
1. Lunch. Lunch is rarely adequately leveraged because it is viewed as nothing more than… lunch. But your placemaking initiatives are essentially political issues, and if you want political support you need to build trust with leaders. Whether it is lunch, breakfast, dinner or drinks, start building the relationship and along the way view it as an opportunity to provide valuable information that will help the leader make more informed decisions. And budget for it.
2. Speaker Series. Establish a formal speaker series that brings compelling practitioners to town to speak about your community’s hot topic issues. If you need to gain a lot of ground in a short amount of time, try to put together a monthly series that lasts one year like Chad Emerson did in Montgomery, Alabama. The value in that program was not simply found in the speakers, but in the periodic gathering of community leaders where placemaking issues were the focus. Also consider finding partner organizations who can sponsor or co-sponsor stand-alone events at least once a year like the annual “Smart Growth Luncheon” series that the Independent publishing group has facilitated for the past eleven years in Lafayette, Louisiana.
3. Private Meetings with Speakers/Consultants. When a speaker or consultant comes to town, do not rely upon public events to connect with community leaders. Rather, schedule private meetings where frank discussions can occur without the fear of media coverage. Try to schedule these meetings over a meal if possible. When I conduct Smart Growth Workshops for a local association of the National Association of Realtors, the private meetings are oftentimes more important than the public workshops themselves.
4. Local or Regional Conferences. The Center for Planning Excellence has hosted the multi-day Louisiana Smart Growth Summit in Baton Rouge for the past ten years. It brings national speakers to town, and this recurring dialogue has dramatically improved the quality of projects in the region and state. The Institute for Quality Communities in Oklahoma is another regional organization that is making a differencewith this tool.
6. CityBuilding Exchange. The CityBuilding Exchange is designed to overcome the objections to other national conferences by compacting the content into two days, limiting participation to 100 registrants, holding the event in a place filled with placemaking lessons (this March it will be in New Orleans), and focusing the content on the tools and ideas that community leaders need to understand from the nation’s leading practitioners.
7. Field Trips/Walking Tour. A field trip with community leaders to a place that can serve as a model for where you want to go (or where you do not want to go) as a community is a highly effective educational tool because it permits the conversation to get real. After attending a SmartCode Workshop in 2003, Texas Representative Mike Krusee facilitated a field trip of all of the mayors in the Austin region to visit Washington, D.C. so that those leaders could better understand how transit oriented development could improve the quality of life in the Austin region. In 2004 Austin approved its first commuter rail referendum. Note that the field trip also permitted the building of relationships between community leaders that can form the basis of working together in the future. Finally note that a walking tour can be incorporated into a field trip (or be a stand alone event in your community) where an expert in urban design can take community leaders on a walk down a street and talk about the urban design elements that are working as well as those that are not working. Once again, these trips bring to life the concepts in a way that gets beyond the platitudes on placemaking.
8. Personal Emails. National news articles, local news stories or the release of a new study on an important placemaking topic can serve as an opportunity for you to email a community leader with your perspective on an issue. Instead of simply forwarding the information to the community leader, make sure that you clearly and succinctly state how the information relates to making your community better.
9. Webinar/OnLine Video Presentations. Watching webinars (whether new or old) or online video presentations together with community leaders can be a difficult sale, but it is worthy of your consideration — especially if you set it up as a “lunch ’n learn” event or even have end of the day cocktails. This tends to work better with community leaders who are on city staff as opposed to elected politicians.
10. Books, Web Sites, Blogs and eNewsletters. Provide resources to community leaders so that they can learn more on their own. Your efforts should focus on two basic approaches. First, buy a book or series of books that are particularly relevant to your community, then loan or give those books to community leaders. In my community, I use Jeff Speck’s book, Walkable City as the introductory primer on placemaking. Second, have a very, very, very short list of resources such as websites, blogs, a LinkedIn Group or e-newsletters that you can recommend as an ongoing source for information.
Quality Information, Patience and Persistence = Success. Regardless of the tools you choose to use, remember that the mission will not be accomplished in a day. But, if you exercise patience and persistence, you will improve your community by arming your community leaders with the information they need to make better decisions.
Beach density and climate action zones offer a proven, two-tier approach to fitting housing comfortably within our current lifestyle.
Source: Howard Blackson
California’s Bay Area housing disaster tells Southern Californians that our housing crisis will only get worse and doing nothing is both an irrational and irresponsible response. We are faced with deciding to have more neighbors or pay more taxes as we desperately need money to fix our city’s crumbling infrastructure. The conundrum is that we despise taxes and the mere mention of ‘density’ polarizes any discussion into either demands for no new growth or building tall towers.
I believe answers to meet San Diego’s housing demand are found in the following two-tier approach:
The first tier is a baseline ‘Beach Density.’ An existing housing model found in our older, traditional beach neighborhoods that fills our need for the ‘missing middle’ types of housing. This model is essentially a residence or shop with three (3) to five (5) units on each lot that are no more than two (2) to three (3) stories tall. All of these homes and businesses are mixed together every few blocks or so. By allowing every lot in San Diego’s urbanized areas to have up to five (5) units’ by-right, we have the opportunity to solve for our critical housing and infrastructure financing deficiencies without dramatically altering our city’s character. Ultimately, the entire city can enjoy and benefit from our healthy, outdoor lifestyle that this Beach Model provides us.
The second tier is more precisely located ‘Climate Action Zones.’ Per its recently adopted Climate Action Plan, the city of San Diego is required to take actions to “Implement transit-oriented development within Transit Priority Areas,” and to “[a]chieve better walkability and transit-supportive densities by locating a majority of all new residential development within Transit Priority Areas.” In combination with the Beach Density’s baseline housing bump, these Climate Action Zones are intended to achieve our city’s legally binding Climate Action Plan within a reasonable timeline.1 We cannot expect the city to complete it all at once, but it can accommodate for an urban acupunctural approach… pin pricks at key points to make great change.
These ‘zones’ will require updated and new city policies, including community plan updates, to facilitate increases of land use intensity near our region’s transit investments. Fortunately, we have one of our nation’s first and best Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) guidelines written by planning guru Peter Calthrope in 1992 that have sat neatly on a shelf in the city’s Planning Department over these many years, having been emasculated by our currently suburban and convoluted parking regulations. We should dust these off, as they’ve been proven throughout the world – as well as Portland – to increase transit ridership. In addition, we should manage our off-street parking and simplify one space per unit to permit transit, walking, and biking to be as advantageous as driving.
A ‘tower’ in San Diego is a building over 7 stories, and are only appropriate in one or two areas beyond downtown. However, 4 – 6 stories have been built in our old streetcar neighborhoods since their founding 100 years ago, as this height is a ‘walk up’ and appropriate in ‘walkable’ neighborhoods. Climate Action Zones should be located on the 4 to 8 blocks (600 feet radius) around primary intersections with cross-street transit service, currently built as 60’s era gas stations, drive-thrus, and strip centers.
Data shows that the majority of trips within 600 feet of a transit station are made by transit, bike or foot. These zones would permit mixed-use, up to 7 stories/90 feet tall max, using our TOD guidelines that allow for shared parking ratios with limited Community Plan conformance reviews in order to ensure transition steps to protect neighbors. Rather than waiting to build another Rancho del Rancho on our suburban periphery, these retrofitted intersections will be the focus of new development for the next 15-years. Successful case studies include Salt Lake’s Commuter, Light Rail (LRT), and Streetcar corridor economic engine, Dallas’s new LRT stations and Klyde Warren Park and Historic Streetcar value explosion, and Denver’s new infill coding success.
It is untenable to keep century old urban communities from change. But we know change brings fear to local citizens, which is why this two-tier approach makes very clear that new housing can fit comfortably within our current lifestyle if we explicitly plan for what we need using San Diego proven models. Finally, we have to plan for the change we want in order to fix our infrastructure, add public spaces, and to continue to be relevant to working economies by providing attainable housing, accessible transportation, and our unique outdoor lifestyle.
Writing about successful neighborhood planning, my friend and colleague Howard Blackson used the term “placeshaker” as a catch-all for the grass roots engagement efforts that empower, but don’t necessarily define, placemaking.
That got me thinking. Even though our firm is called PlaceMakers and our blog, PlaceShakers, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the distinction between the two. Is there a difference and, if so, is it a meaningful one?
I’ve decided there is. And defining the distinction is an important step in our shared pursuit of stronger, more endearing, more economically and environmentally viable places to live.
Bottom line, you need both.
First and foremost, placemaking is about making places so, by default, it favors certain roles and disciplines: planners, urban designers, code writers, economists, municipal leaders, architects, engineers, artists, engaged citizens, developers, and the construction trades.
That’s the nuts-and-bolts of it, but what is the consistent theme that ties them all together? I think it’s this: At least in north America, placemaking typically doesn’t exist in the absence of political will and all the assets (financial and otherwise), permissions, and community support that come with it.
By definition, placemaking’s a constructive, political effort, bringing change to the landscape. To make it happen, things need to be planned and agreed upon, then built or assembled, and that takes will — in the form of consensus, money and legal authority.
So, my partners and colleagues? Placemakers. City officials embarking on master planning or zoning reform? Placemakers. Artists changing the nature of space through installations or murals? Placemakers. Citizens in a roundtable meeting, exploring opportunities and spelling out how they might be better served by their city? Placemakers. See the photo at the top of this article for an illustration of that concept.
And the advocates, instigators, rabble rousers and the like? Well….
More often than not, political will doesn’t just exist. It emerges. It morphs and grows through some amorphous combination of shoe leather, influence, and persistence. And that means placemaking doesn’t just happen. In political terms, placemaking represents the ends, not the means. It’s the tangible payoff to seemingly endless political skirmishes.
And the way to get there? Placeshaking.
Every time someone puts a “Slow Down” sign in their yard, or throws down some sod and lawn chairs in a city parking space, or rallies to give a downtrodden block a temporary facelift, they’re placeshaking.
Every time a group of neighbors starts hounding their commissioner to improve a park, or cyclists show up en masse at a commission meeting to validate the scope of their support, or a college student circulates an idea on how to leverage abandoned rail corridors for transit, recreation and green space, they’re placeshaking.
Placeshaking is about connecting with networks of shared interest and rattling cages. It’s about phone calls and rallies and blog conversations and demonstration projects. It’s about all the things that need to be done, just so we can begin the hard work of placemaking.
For all the cool stuff coming out of the Tactical Urbanism movement, it tends (at least in our estimation) to appeal primarily to the young. How can we expand the idea to be appealing to more types of people?
Maybe placeshaking is it. Maybe placeshaking is the umbrella under which Tactical Urbanists, Build-a-Better-Blockers, neighborhood activists, cyclists, pedestrian rights advocates, carbon reducers, yarn-bombers, community gardeners, aging-in-placers, and countless others looking to effect meaningful change through concentrated action, can find a sense of shared purpose.
I don’t know, as movements and monikers are a tricky thing to pin down. But I think the distinction between placemaker and placeshaker is coming clear, as is the relevance and role of each. Some may find themselves in one camp, some in the other, and some bouncing back and forth, wearing different hats at different times.
Two sides of the same coin, united in a joint quest for a better place to call home.
What about you? Where do you plug in? And what skill set is presently most needed where you live?
Over the past decade, even as there has been a growing fascination with the benefits of charrettes as a tool for planning and public engagement, there has been a constant complaint that charrettes are too expensive. This complaint has become more common and more urgent in recent years, with shrinking budgets and tightening competition among firms for a smaller pool of available work.
The first step in Leaning the charrette process is a matter of shifting the scope and focus of the projects themselves to which the charrette is being applied, and re-configuring the roles played by consultants, planning staff, appointed and elected officials, and citizens. In the context of the Lean Urbanism, the appropriate version of the charrette would indeed be less expensive, but also more readily deployed as a tactical response in a pragmatic setting. We are looking for processes that leverage community capabilities, that can be mobilized with minimal expense, that can be mobilized quickly in timely response to circumstances, and that are oriented to mobilizing social capital in order to get the most impact on the quality of the urbanism with the least investment of either financial or political capital.
A Leaner charrette would be more focused on a specific piece of an incremental process, would be facilitated by a smaller team less focused on the final documentation and more on building community relationships, and would leverage the available social capital more consistently with respect to shared learning, consensus building, and ultimately practical action.
There are five key dimensions of the charrette process that we would want to maintain in the context of a Lean charrette.
1. Multi-disciplinary and integrative approach. Specialized expertise is often useful or even necessary, but can also be an obstacle to arriving at an optimal response to more complex planning and design projects.
2. The benefits of efficiency and continuity associated with the compressed time frame. The scheduling of charrette-related activities should sustain a sense of engagement in a process that moves from big ideas to practical action, that addresses problems systematically but pragmatically, and that respects the time and contributions of all participants. When the process is spread out over a longer period, there is a real danger of losing that sense of continuity and purpose as stakeholders are engaged.
3. Transparency in decision making. Participants in a charrette process have the opportunity to see (and understand) the reasons behind choices that comprise any particular scheme, any particular solution.
4. Constructing a common narrative. The story of a process that is purposeful and continuous allows clear understanding of the transition from values to practical action/the motivations of actors, through a pattern of listening and responding.
5. The hybrid nature of the forum. The charrette process is not dismissive of stakeholders’ concerns or their local knowledge, but gives local knowledge standing in relation to the general knowledge of experts. Considerations that might not otherwise be heard are given the opportunity to make a difference. Professional expertise has tendency to screen information through specialized knowledge— it is, as Kenneth Burke once observed, a way seeing that is also a way of not seeing. Both the multidisciplinary and the hybrid nature of the forum offered by the charrette opens up the process in ways that both allows for more complex and robust solutions, and provides a basis for building consensus.
One way to begin breaking out the functions typically involved in a charrette is to distinguish between the design process and the public engagement process. First, it is a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach that produces complex responses to complex planning challenges. Second, it is about the shared learning necessary to build consensus around those complex responses. Finally, there is the focus on the ability to generate a basis for post-charrette action.
Components of a Lean charrette process
The following is an example of a way the process might be organized in order to be both relatively inexpensive and more capable of being precisely tailored for a Lean Urbanism project.
Step 1: Collaborative project start-up. It is all too often the case that the client and consultant team involved in a charrette tend to feel their way into a charrette through a process of negotiation that does not always involve clear communication. Part of the National Charrette Institute (NCI) approach involves an initial process of team building and project definition that outlines the scope and parameters of the project, enabling project partners to get very clear about the purpose and limits of their collaboration. This approach to project start-up would involve a small team facilitating a process that enables project partners and key stakeholders to establish clear framework for the project. Much of the focus would be on clarifying the precise scope of the project, identifying the resources necessary for the design and planning process (base data, expertise), and establishing the relationship between the design process and stakeholder engagement.
In the case of preparing for a Lean charrette, the most important aspect of this would be setting in motion a process that builds social connections, establishes shared knowledge, and leverages existing community assets to build the foundations for clear decisions and precisely targeted, strategically meaningful action. An example of this kind of process is the Lean Scan, developed by Hank Dittmar and the Prince’s Foundation for Community Building. The Lean Scan “is a new tool for finding latent opportunities in a town, a district or a corridor and leveraging under-used assets in a way that unlocks synergies between built, financial, social and natural resources.” The collaborative project start-up would set in motion this kind of exploration of “latent opportunities” and unrealized capabilities in the community, preparing the ground not just for planning but for a robust implementation strategy.
Step 2: Practical vision workshop. Many times, what people call “charrettes” are essentially just “visioning” exercises. What distinguishes a charrette process, however, is that it moves from the big ideas that might be articulated during such a workshop to the specifics of design and planning proposals. The purpose of this workshop is to establish those common understandings that might enable a community to act outside usual regulatory channels. Often resistance to change is manifested in defense of procedural and technical restrictions — not because they matter in themselves to the defenders, but because they are points of leverage that allow activists to obstruct a project. In a community of sophisticated activists, it can be very hard to move efficiently past bureaucratic regulation for this reason. A vision workshop could be focused, in particular, on establishing the principles and goals of immediate practical action. In a community that is interested in Lean Urbanism, such a workshop might provide a locally grounded manifesto that establishes the framework for a series of Lean projects. This visioning might well be coupled with something like a Tactical Urbanism workshop.
Step 2a: Discovery process. Charrette team leaders facilitate a process that enables stakeholders to participate in gathering relevant information, organizing a process of shared learning, preparing for the design process to come. This process needs to be geared to the specific conditions and assets of a community, but the key is that it is primarily an exercise in community organizing, as well as information gathering. Whereas it might simply be a matter of carrying out some pre-charrette interviews with stakeholders, it would have the greatest impact to the extent that it involves mobilizing social capital, engaging both allies and potential opponents in building the foundation of local knowledge to feed into the design process. This could either be part of the vision workshop or an immediate follow-up to it, as the circumstances might require.
Step 3: Design charrette. Once the foundational conditions have been established by the prior efforts, it is then possible to stage a 3 to 4 day process, involving a small multidisciplinary team working in collaboration with stakeholder representatives who have been prepared for this collaboration by the previous process. The charrette could focus on design and spend less time on the vision and learning process that takes place in conventional charrettes. The precise scope of design, principles, constraints, aspirations would be part of the previously established consensus, making it possible for a smaller multidisciplinary team to work through the iterative process of design in collaboration with organized representation of stakeholder interests. Because much of the shared learning, relationship building, and consensus building would be systematically organized ahead of time, the design charrette can be more focused on the design work, building on the foundations of pre-established understanding.
With an understanding of what it is about the charrette process that gives it the ability both to produce robust, adaptive and integrated solutions to complex problems, and to build support for those solutions, it becomes possible to distribute the functions of the charrette throughout a process that requires less concentrated application of financial resources (although more extensive application of community capacities that can be identified and mobilized through this process). The result is that one can do more with less in the way of financial resources. If one calculates a budget with respect to the number of days and team members required to accomplish the work, it is arguably possible to accomplish the planning and design pieces of the project for a half to a third of the budget that might be required for a fully staffed seven-day charrette. Perhaps most importantly, however, the outcomes of the charrette process would be more consistently oriented to active intervention rather than simply producing a plan or a report.
With particular regard to Lean Urbanism, there are two most significant considerations. First, it is a matter of getting the right people in the room as a way to cut through the structural obstacles set up by bureaucracy and the division of labor. The “right people” (in this case) includes the key decision makers but also key stakeholders who can share ownership of the initiative. To move efficiently, however, requires a certain amount of pre-established agreement with respect to values, goals, and some important limits to be respected. For example, a previous set of discussions and workshops might have established and branded a Lean project, linking it to a diverse set of interest and allies. Whatever the specific project might be at hand, it can be conceived as a manifestation of that initiative and thereby benefit from what is hopefully a diverse collection of allies.
Second, it is a matter of focusing the discussion with respect to scale, time frame, and, in some cases, reversibility. The charrette works because it allows for participation in a detailed “enquiry by design” (to borrow the phrase from the Prince’s Foundation). Tactical Urbanism works because it functions effectively as a kind of inquiry by practice. A Lean charrette would be a way to mobilize strategically meaningful interventions that might have some of that tactical spirit, but be aimed at a cumulative and sustainable outcome, of a sort that might require somewhat more systematic application of expertise.
Participants in Decatur’s Porchfest take over the streets. Source: Instagram user oakhurstporchfest.
It seems everywhere I turn lately I stumble my way into a conversation on creative placemaking — people looking at the activation of public space as a way to further their personal and collective passions and pursuits.
It’s heartening. I’m a firm believer that our taking of emotional ownership over the spaces in between the stuff we build and buy pays critical dividends towards a lot of the things we purport to care about: community, our children, the environment, even various spiritual and religious callings many hold dear.
In short, public space is the world we share. And it’s better when it reflects the whole of who and what we are.
The role of government
Given that public space is the purview of local government, it’s unsurprising that much of the creative placemaking conversation is taking place in our city halls and public meetings. And what I’ve found, even among the most progressive governments who actually want to foster a culture of creative initiative, is a sense of discomfort with exactly what role to play.
By definition, governments are in a position to lead. They set and enforce rules. They manage municipal funds. They decide what is and isn’t going to get done. But, driven as they are by elected officials, they’re also very adept at following. What politician hasn’t checked to see which way the wind’s blowing at least a time or two before taking a position?
Leading and following. They’re good at it. They’re set up that way.
But that’s the rub. Because when it comes to human expression and the activation of space, neither role produces particularly good results. They may lead to a parade being organized or a festival being produced or a mural being decided upon and painted— all of which are valuable things — but they will never engender our innate, and ceaselessly attractive compulsions to do, make, create and share.
For those things to happen in an unbridled, chaotic and indisputably authentic way, government needs to do the one thing it’s most uncomfortable doing: get out of the way.
A difficult mindset
I was reminded of this fact recently at a presentation by Aaron Friedman, the founder of Make Music New York now taking his ideas to other communities as the executive director of the nonprofit Make Music Alliance. He was in Atlanta exploring how folks from the arts and from local governments and other institutions might start working together to launch a Georgia version of the event.
For nearly an hour he detailed what Make Music Day is all about, which I’ll try to paraphrase: An international holiday where people take to the streets in a freeform celebration of music and public space.
Fostering that, he detailed the behind-the-scenes work typically required — permitting, securing good performance spots, doing matchmaking between musicians and venues — to make such a vision become real and allow people a genuine sense of freedom that they’re able to express themselves musically in whatever way they feel.
Closing his remarks he opened the floor to questions, and that’s where things got a little bit weird. Because so many of the questions were a variation of this: “How do you prevent people from doing such and such?” Or “how do you ensure people participate in the appropriate way?”
Aaron was very patient and answered each question with some variation of “You don’t.” It was all very amicable and necessary to a group of people finding some common footing towards a shared endeavor but it really reminded me that the challenge being faced is not just one of government. We’re all conditioned to think the same way. Who’s in charge? What’s the program? What are the parameters?
All the questions that typically deflate the true essence of creation.
So it’s a challenge. Government plays a very big role in physical placemaking. They drive the construction of physical infrastructure. If a plaza gets built, it’s typically the work of city hall and, if not, it’s still most likely the work of large and powerful forces.
Once it’s built, what I often see among spirited souls within the system is the questioning of how to thenactivate the space. And that’s a totally logical concern when you think systematically. But lately I’ve been increasingly convinced that the best approach is the opposite one: you don’t.
It’s not the time for government to do more. It’s the time for it to do less.
The mandate should not be that we’re going to build and activate a space. The mandate should be that we’re going to build the right space, that embodies the values and aspirations of the community, and then we’re going to get out of the way and allow community to flourish within it in whatever way people choose to do so (within your basic health and safety parameters, obviously).
The Strong Towns way
None of this is any great revelation to followers of Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns movement, but I mention Chuck because, in addition to conversations about placemaking, we’ve also had a number of exchanges about our kids. And that’s the analogy that really seems to fit here:
Know when to let go.
We love our kids. We create them, we nurture them, we help mold them, hopefully, into people of character and conviction. But then we reach the point where our role is done. And even though we know, if we’re honest with ourselves, just how clueless they actually are when compared to the wisdom they’ll gain over time, and just how likely it is that they’ll stumble and do mindless, idiotic things as they grow and mature, we let them go.
And you know what? More often than not, they end up amazing us with what they do. Or make. Or create. Or share.
That’s the relationship government needs to have with creative placemaking. Inspire an active citizenry. Create supportive infrastructure. Invest in public space.
But then set people free to be who they are. You just might be amazed by what happens.
Several common assumptions about new urban codes fail to stand up to scrutiny.
Form-bases codes encourage a wide variety of housing types, such as quadplexes—not just high-density residential units.
Since 1981, approximately 600 form-based codes (FBCs) have been prepared for communities across the US, and 362 of them have been adopted. Most of the adoptions have taken place in the past 10 years. But as exciting as that may be, what’s more exciting is that these numbers are miniscule when you think about how many communities exist in the US. If this reform of conventional zoning is increasingly gaining acceptance and being applied to larger areas, why are there still so many misconceptions?
Despite a wide variety of improvements in how form-based codes are strategized, prepared, and used, many of the planners, planning commissioners, elected officials, members of the public, and code practitioners I meet continue to harbor misconceptions or misunderstandings about these codes. Here are the ones I encounter most:
FBC dictates architecture. Some of these codes do prescribe details about architecture, but most do not. Perhaps because many of the early codes were for greenfield projects where strong architectural direction was needed or desired, the perception is that a FBC always regulates architecture. Yet the majority of codes I’ve prepared and reviewed (30 authored or co-authored, 10 peer-reviewed, 9 U.S. states, 2 foreign countries) do not regulate architecture. I’ve prepared codes where regulation of architecture (style) was important for a historic area, but those requirements did not apply anywhere else. The “form” in form-based codes may mean architecture, but not necessarily. Form can refer to physical character at many different scales—the scale of a region, community, neighborhood, corridor, block, or building.
FBC must be applied citywide. To my knowledge, Miami, and Denver are the only US cities that have applied form-based coding to all parcels within their boundaries. In general, FBCs are applied in two ways: to a site to implement a development project or to several areas as part of a zoning code amendment or update. This second category sometimes involves reconfiguration of the zoning code to retain a set of conventional zones for “automobile-oriented suburban” patterns while adding form-based zones for “walkable-urban” patterns. This is called a hybrid code because it merges the conventional zoning and form-based zoning provisions under one cover, in one set of procedures.
FBC is a template that you have to make your community conform to. Untrue. Conventional zoning, with its focus on separation of uses and its prohibition of ostensibly undesirable activities, often conflicted with the very places it was intended to protect. Perhaps what some refer to negatively as a form-based code’s “template” is the kit of parts that repeats from one community to another—the streets, civic spaces, buildings, frontages, signage, and so forth. But a form-based code is guided by how each of those components looks and feels in a particular community. The FBC responds to your community’s character.
FBC is too expensive. FBCs require more effort than conventional zoning—but then, conventional zoning doesn’t ask as many questions. FBCs reveal and thoroughly address topics that conventional zoning doesn’t even attempt. Some communities augment conventional zoning with design guidelines; those guidelines aren’t always included in the cost comparison, and in my experience they don’t fully resolve the issues. A FBC has the virtue of ensuring that your policy work will directly inform the zoning standards. Further, the the upfront cost of properly writing a FBC pales in comparison to the cumulative cost of policy plans that don’t really say anything, zoning changes that require the applicant to point out reality, hearings, and litigation over projects.
FBC is only for historic districts. FBCs can be applied to all kinds of places. Granted, they are uniquely capable of fully addressing the needs of a historic district because of their ability to “see and calibrate” all of the components. Such a FBC works with not instead of local historic procedures and state requirements. This is in contrast to conventional zoning’s focus on process and lack of correspondence with the physical environment it is regulating. While a FBC can be precise enough to regulate a very detailed and complex historic context, that same system can be fitted with fewer dials for other areas.
FBC isn’t zoning and doesn’t address land use. If your FBC doesn’t directly address allowed land uses or clearly rely on other land use regulations, it is an incomplete FBC. Some early FBCs were prepared as CC&Rs (covenants, conditions, and restrictions) because of particular development objectives, and some well-intended early FBCs oversimplified use restrictions. Since then, FBCs have augmented or fully replaced existing zoning, including land use requirements.
FBC results in “by-right” approval and eliminates “helpful thinking by staff.” With so much emphasis on how FBCs simplify the process, it’s understandable that this perception has caused concern. Throughout the FBC process, focus is placed on delegating the various approvals to the approval authority at the lowest level practical. I’ve seen few codes that make everything “by right” over the counter. The choice of how much process each permit requires is up to each community. Through a careful FBC process, staff knowledge and experience does go into the code content through shaping or informing actual standards and procedures.
FBC results in “high-density residential.” FBC does not mandate high-density residential.” Instead, it identifies housing of all types—from single-family houses to quadplexes, courtyards, rowhouses, and lofts over retail—and explains their performance characteristics. Density is one of many such characteristics. Through the FBC process, communities receive more information and decide which kinds of buildings they want and where. FBCs enable higher density housing—where it is desired by the community—to fit into the larger context of the community’s vision.
FBC requires mixed-use in every building regardless of context or viability. Conventional zoning has applied mile upon redundant mile of commercial zoning, resulting in an oversupply of such land and many marginal or vacant sites. By contrast, FBCs identify a palette of mixed-use centers to punctuate corridors and concentrate services within walking distance of residents and for those arriving by other transportation modes. FBCs identify the components; it’s up to the community to choose which components fit best and are most viable in each context.
FBC can’t work with design guidelines, and complicates staff review of projects. Because conventional zoning doesn’t ask a lot of questions, most planners have had to learn what they know about design on the job, and need design guidelines to fill in the gaps left open by the zoning. That’s how I learned. A well-prepared FBC doesn’t need design guidelines because it explicitly addresses the variety of issues through clear illustrations, language, and numerous examples. However, we are not allergic to design guidelines; the key is to make sure that the guidelines clarify what is too complex, variable, or discretionary to state in legally binding standards.
I’m enthusiastic about FBC and regard it as a far better tool than conventional zoning for walkable urban places. However, it’s still zoning, and it needs people to set its priorities and parameters. It needs people to review plans and compare them with its regulations. Having a FBC will require internal adjustments by the planning department and other key departments, such as Public Works.
Form-based coding began in response to the aspirations of a few visionary architects and developers who wanted to build genuine, lasting places, based on the patterns of great local communities. Unresponsive zoning regulations often erected insurmountable barriers to these proposals and made proposals for sprawl the path of least resistance.
From its outset 35 years ago, form-based coding exposed the inabilities of conventional zoning to efficiently address the needs of today’s communities. Today, form-based coding is a necessary zoning reform—one of several important tools that communities need to position themselves as serious candidates for reinvestment.
A Georgia suburb seizes the opportunity of a closed GM factory to plan for a town center.
A park in Woodstock Downtown, which is a model for Doraville’s new town center.
Throughout the US, discontent is growing over the state of our cities and towns. Frustrated by traffic congestion, a lack of transportation and housing choices, and places that increasingly resemble nowhere in particular, many elected officials, business leaders, and residents are coming together to envision communities that are often strikingly different from conventional suburbia.
Many residents express concern over the kind of growth they are experiencing, but few realize that this growth has not occurred in a vacuum. Transportation policies, lending practices, funding priorities, and consumer preferences have all had a profound impact on the shape of our communities. Even more significant, however, are local government zoning and development regulations, which often mandate the very development patterns that many lament, while making anything else illegal.
In order to change the physical design of neighborhoods, towns, and cities, and realize the visions of diverse community-based plans, zoning and development regulations (collectively known as “codes”) must change. However, the ability to implement a new design plan is not the only reason to change existing codes. For one thing, current regulations are often the result of many years of individual text amendments and ordinances, and internal inconsistencies are common in amended regulations. In some communities, codes are even unwritten, but have been applied for so long that nobody questions whether or not they are still valid.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to updating codes. Different communities have different visions, staffing resources, and regulatory priorities. Additionally, different parts of the existing code may work perfectly fine, while others are grossly inadequate. After careful review, one community may benefit from creating minor amendments to existing codes, while others may wish to throw the whole thing out and start from scratch. Not surprisingly, most coding projects fall somewhere in between these two options.
The work begins by reviewing the existing codes and pinpointing how well they do or do not align with the master plan and other public policies. The ability of the governmental staff to administer the codes is always key to this phase. The process leads to a determination of where changes are needed and what they should entail. Typically, these include expanding permitted housing types and uses, addressing the relationship between building facades and the public realm, revising density standards, incorporating streetscape requirements, modernizing parking requirements and much more. The next step is to work closely with local stakeholders to actually write and adopt the necessary code changes.
Once a new code is adopted, some communities transform gradually, while others have dramatic opportunities to redefine themselves. This is the case with the City of Doraville, Georgia—a suburb of Atlanta—where, for decades, much of the commercial and residential development supported the city’s General Motors assembly plant. When the plant was slated to close, city leaders saw the opportunity to create a master plan for a model mixed-use area centered on the city’s public transit station. The plan is designed to improve connections and encourage pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development (see regulating plan and rendering, below).
Doraville’s traditional code primarily supported single-use development and had to be rewritten to allow increased density to support a vibrant community center and ensure multiple transportation options. The new code has been dubbed, “The Livable Community Code,” and it is already attracting developers eager to participate in Doraville’s renaissance.
It doesn’t always take a major event like Doraville experienced to galvanize a community to envision and bring about positive change. Woodstock, Georgia—a more distant Atlanta suburb—is a great example. The railroad town was chartered in 1897, but in recent decades, the surrounding strip shopping centers and malls drew business away from Main Street. By the 1990s, it looked like a town that time had passed by.
After studying what had been accomplished in other communities, city leadership brought in a team to recommend how to best revive the town center without losing its history and character. Numerous community meetings were held to solicit input, and from there, a vision was created using the Atlanta Regional Commission’s LCI (Livable Centers Initiative) program.
Because of the LCI, developers were attracted to the city, and ultimately a team of commercial, retail and residential specialists worked together to shape the town. It quickly became apparent that the new vision could not become a reality under the city’s existing codes, so our firm, TSW, wrote new zoning codes to allow and encourage the higher-density, mixed-use development envisioned by the town’s leadership and citizens. Woodstock’s elected officials also worked with downtown churches to loosen the existing alcohol restrictions to make the town more appealing to restaurants.
The 32-acre area was officially named Woodstock Downtown. Historic buildings were renovated into shops and restaurants and a new five-story residential building with retail on the ground floor was designed to blend into its historic surroundings (see photo at top of article). New homes of various sizes now surround the downtown area. And, throughout the process, the vision and redevelopment stayed true to Woodstock’s roots as a historic railroad town.
These are but two communities where newly-adopted codes have already started to lay the foundation for a better tomorrow. And, best of all, the new codes not only allow the cities and towns to move forward with today’s vision, but they have paved the way for the communities to grow organically over time to meet the future needs of the new generations who will one day live, work and play there.
If we’re going to curb climate change, urbanism — developing sustainable cities and metro regions — will have to lead the way.
So says Peter Calthorpe, an architect, urban planner, and one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
In his latest book, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, he argues that green technology and alternative energy alone won’t mitigate climate change, but that they will need to integrate with smart urban planning and development to really make a difference. I talked with Calthorpe about what that looks like in practical terms, how urbanism is the cutting edge of environmentalism, why sustainable cities are more than just a fad, and more.
SmartPlanet: You say in your book that Americans must reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions to 12 percent of their current output. Briefly paint the picture of a city that is designed to reach that goal?
Peter Calthorpe: It’s not a simple – either you live in the suburbs or you live in the city. We used to have things called streetcar suburbs that were very walkable, in California they were built around bungalows, and people walked more and they biked more and they used transit more in those areas.
You basically have to get to a situation where you reduced your dependence on the automobile, and your car is very efficient – 55 mpg. But perhaps more important, you’re only driving it 5,000 miles a year instead of 30,000.
You’re getting around otherwise by walking to local destinations, using you bike, and using local transit networks. You’re probably also living in a townhouse or an apartment where the building is very efficiently built, and demands very small amounts of energy. There’s not a lot of water being used because you don’t have a big yard, but there’s a really cool park nearby. And you tend to eat a little more organic, a little more local, and a little less meat. And the power grid for your region is based at least 60 percent on renewables.
It’s a combination of all those things. But at its foundation is the more compact, walkable, urban environment, because it is what reduces demand. It reduces demand so much that you then begin to satisfy the demand with renewables.
SP: You’re saying that the question shouldn’t be, “do you live in a city or not?” but if you live in a community with these qualities?
PC: Right. And we almost had a perfect system before World War II in the U.S. We had great cities, people loved to live in them, and they were very walkable and transit oriented.
But we had suburbs that were also walkable and transit oriented, they were called streetcar suburbs. There were massive streetcar systems all around the United States. They were torn up after WWII by a consortium of GM, Standard Oil, and Firestone, and they were all replaced with buses, which became less and less desirable as they got stuck in the same traffic as cars. We transitioned away from a pattern that was pretty healthy.
The two compliment each other: the city center, in its higher urban forms, and the streetcar suburbs – what we now call transit-oriented development – really help each other.
Part of the mistake that the right-wing makes here is that they think in order to be ecological, everybody has to be forced into the same lifestyle, and that’s just not true.
More and more we live a regional life. Not just a life in a city or a town. Our economic opportunities, our social and cultural lives are regional and almost all of our environmental issues are regional: air quality, water quality, transportation. All these things are regional issues that can’t be dealt with by a single city or town.
SP: Is the urbanism that you described — sustainable cities — is the most plausible solution to climate change?
PC: I call it the foundation. If you don’t get the lifestyles to a healthier place, the amount of technology that you’re going to have to deploy is going to be really problematic. It’s conservation first. Reducing demands before you start talking about supplies. Too much of the discussion around climate change and carbon seems to focus on technology before it even begins to think about how people’s lifestyles can change.
Of course a more urban lifestyle, whether it’s a streetcar suburb or city, is just healthier and more affordable. It’s a win in many dimensions.
For example, we have an obesity crisis in the United States. Part of that is driven by the fact that we’re too sedentary, we don’t walk. Our communities have less of that natural policing that happens when people live more in the public domain. And more time in the streets and cafes, and less time in their cars. Safety gets in there, air quality is impacted, the household economics.
You can forget about saving the environment, what about just living affordable lifestyles? In America today it costs $5,600 a year to own a car. If you want to own a new one it’s like $8,000. So in American where the median household makes $50,000, and half of that is spent on transportation and housing, you can see how two cars immediately eats into a pretty big chunk of the household budget.
We’ve been able to demonstrate, here in California, as part of our implementation of AB 32, that you not only save the environment, but you save your pocketbook, and you create healthier people and stronger communities.
SP: You make a convincing argument that urbanism has a positive impact on health, economics, safety, and has other co-benefits. Are you saying you can be an urbanist without necessarily being an environmentalist?
PC: People like to live in cities not just because they’re environmentalists, but by living in cities and walkable towns they’re at the cutting edge of environmentalism. That’s the good news.
It should never be a single issue movement. Trying to design healthy sustainable communities impacts so many dimensions of our society that you should never just look at carbon or oil or even land consumption. But it succeeds on all those levels.
In California we looked at a more compact future that only had 30 percent of the new housing in apartments and 55 percent in townhouses and bungalows, with the end result still being over 50 percent of the housing in California being single family. Yet, the difference in land consumption was monumental. It went from something like 5,000 square miles down to 1,800 square miles.
That huge urban footprint, that savings there of 3,500 square miles of building over farmland, and habitats, that’s a very important component to many people, not just environmentalists.
SP: You talk about the history of urbanism with the rise of the suburbs in the 1950s and now a return to the city in the 2000s. Is urbanism and talk of sustainable cities just a fad or do you think there is a paradigm shift taking place?
PC: It’s a fundamental fact of demographics. When we gave birth to the suburbs we were pushing towards 50 percent of households were a married couple with kids. Now only 23 percent of households are married with kids. The other 75 percent have other needs, other priorities other than a big yard on a cul-de-sac. Whether it’s young single people or older empty-nesters or single moms struggling to make ends meet, there’s a whole different set of needs that revolve more around costs and a lot of issues.
When you get to a point where you either don’t want to drive a lot because you’re older and/or you can’t afford to drive a lot, you need places that work for those parts of the population. So this change isn’t just about a fad or a sentiment, it’s fundamental demographics and economics.
And the good news is that it helps us with our environmental challenge.
SP: In the book you say that we need more interconnected whole system fixes, where engineers are working with urban planners, and vice versa, to design a successful communities. What are some examples of this that you have seen successfully play out?
PC: Well, urbanism came along in the early 90s and has now demonstrated a huge number of successes in trying to think holistically about the design of neighborhoods and communities. They range from really large projects — like we did the reuse of the old airport in Denver, Stapleton. There are 10,000 units of housing there; it’s walkable, it’s mixed-use, and it’s very mixed-income.
One of the most radical things that happened there is that we ended up being able to put in one neighborhood the very high-end housing and the most affordable housing a block and a half apart. Whereas the development community had been operating for decades on the notion that you have to segregate income groups.
I think that there’s a lot [of benefits] for the society, for the strength and coherence and the basic sensibility and investment we have in each other to not live in isolated enclaves.
At the other end of the spectrum, the New Urbanists helped Henry Cisneros, when he was head of HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] to execute the Hope VI program, which was to tear down the worst of the public housing projects and build in their place mixed-use, mixed-income communities that really fit with their surroundings. They were no longer a stigma dragging huge sections of the city down.
There are a lot of success stories out there and a lot of good examples. So much so that the development community, and its leadership – for example the Urban Land Institute – has completely signed on to all of these precepts.
The models, the paradigms are there and once we come out of this great recession I think we’re going to be able to move in a much healthier direction.
SP: Do you think when we come out of the recession that there will be less single family home development and sprawl?
PC: The interesting thing is that the development community understands that the marketplace that’s going to come next is much more compact, walkable communities. The question is: are they going to be allowed to build it? Therein lies the big problem.
All of our zoning codes are still focused back into the hindsight, into single-use homes and low density. So all zoning needs to change, which of course is a huge political hurdle.
Then you have the problem of NIMBYs [not in my backyard], and a bunch of them actually use environmental alibis. They’re people who just don’t want infill, they don’t want density, they don’t want townhouses near their large lot, they don’t want commercial in the neighborhood, even if they could walk to it. Because fundamentally they don’t want change.
That creates a very perverse situation where even when the developers want to build the right thing, they don’t get the chance.
SP: Is that the biggest hurdle for building more walkable, dense communities?
PC: Absolutely. NIMBYs – it’s interesting to watch how many of them use environmental issues as alibis – are the biggest problem. Of course there’s infill parcel-by-parcel along an arterial, and there are also big infill sites which really scare people: old army bases, large industrial areas, and things like that that can be converted. People are frightened by the scale of change. But what they have to realize is that the end result is that development gets pushed farther and farther to the regional periphery where there’s less transit and fewer jobs.
[Along with zoning codes] there’s a third leg here, and that’s that our departments of transportation have a real strong addiction to building roads rather than transit. There are really three shifts [that need to take place]. We have to reframe the infrastructure and put more money into transit than roads, we need to redo the zoning codes, and we need to find a way to overcome local opposition to infill.
The problem is always that infill does cause local impacts, there’s no question. But when you’re looking at it holistically, it’s a much more environmentally benign way to grow. But on someone’s block it doesn’t look that way.
I live here in Berkeley, California. And I think downtown Berkeley is a prime example of this. We have BART, we have the university, we have jobs, we should be building high-rise residential right there, right at a transit node, right at the doorstep of a great university. But there are a lot of environmentalists here who just say, “no that’s not the right thing to do.” In the end what it means is people get pushed farther and farther out to the suburbs and commute greater and greater distances because there just isn’t enough housing close to the jobs.
SP: Most of your book is from a US perspective. But climate change is a global problem. Are there places around the world that are getting urban design right? Is the rest of the world going in the right direction?
PC: There are many northern European countries that are really getting it right. The Scandinavian countries are doing a fabulous job of putting the brakes on autos and really orienting towards biking and walking. Copenhagen is a great example of that. And in Sweden over 50 percent of all trips are on foot or bike, and it is a cold, wet climate. And they have, on a per-capita basis, higher incomes than we do. They could afford to drive everywhere, but they don’t. It’s the cityscape and it’s the culture. Those are good models.
I’m doing a lot of work now in China where they’ve got three of the four things you need to make good urbanism. They have density, traditionally they have very mixed-use environments – they have small shops everywhere. And they invest heavily in transit.
But they’re getting their street network all wrong, and they’re building super blocks that really defy the pedestrian and the biker. So you find these huge drop offs in pedestrian and bike mobility in China. What they need to do is reconfigure the way they design their street networks back to small blocks and human-scale streets. And if they do that they’ll really be a model.
Planners call them Accessory Dwelling Units—plus the inevitable acronym, ADUs. What they mean are the granny flats and in-law apartments sprinkled throughout cities and towns across the land, the finished basements, above-garage studios, rehabbed carriage houses, and other outbuildings on parcels generally zoned for single-family homes.
But here’s what they really are: an instant source of affordable housing, if only they could be freed from extensive restrictions that cities and towns have in place that tightly limit who can live there.
When I was at the Office for Commonwealth Development under Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, we tried to increase the supply of new multi-family housing at smart growth locations, in town centers or by transit stations. Yet it quickly became apparent that there were thousands of existing homes already, in the form of Accessory Dwelling Units. The trick was just to open them up.
This was no small task, as it turned out. Fueled by NIMBYism and concerns about density and school enrollment and parking and congestion, cities and towns wrote reams of codes requiring that property owners prove any occupants of ADUs were actually related. If not, owners could expect to be visited by inspectors checking out separate entrances and working kitchens and evidence of occupation, and brace for a fine. Eagle-eyed neighbors spotting a second mailbox or satellite dish were more than happy to alert the authorities.
In the face of this kind of code paralysis and regulatory over-reach, it’s understandable that reformers would just give up, and try to change policy in other ways. But in recent years, a sensible program of disentanglement has emerged from an unlikely place—the small city of Durango, Colorado, just north of the New Mexico border.
Conjured in the era of railways and mining, Durango has become a visitor destination, close to national parks, monuments, and forests, the Mesa Verde cliff-dwellers World Heritage Site, skiing, mountain biking, and whitewater rafting. It doesn’t quite have the affordability problem of Aspen or Telluride, but housing is a major issue for the array of incomes in the population of nearly 17,000.
From 2009 to 2013, confronting development pressures and concerned about housing, Durango overhauled its Land Use and Development Code, which called out Accessory Dwelling Units as an acceptable component of housing stock. A predictable process with reasonable standards was put in place for building new ADUs: a limit on the number of occupants (no more than five unrelated people), rules about how small the living space could be (550 square feet), an owner-occupied home requirement (no absentee landlords renting out both the home and the ADU), a ban on short-term vacation rentals such as through Airbnb, and design guidelines for balconies, window placements, and exterior staircases.
The big problem, however, was what to do with existing ADUs.
Since many of these homes were technically illegal, a form of “ADU Amnesty” was launched. Starting with two neighborhoods as a pilot program, the city asked owners to come forward about ADUs on their property. Residents could fess up in three categories—pre-1941, when there were essentially no rules about ADUs; 1941 to 1989, when ADUs could be considered legal but non-conforming use; and 1989 to the present, when tighter zoning was in place.
If somebody established an ADU completely under the radar, they were asked to pay the fee they were supposed to pay, ranging from $2,000 to $9,000, and the property got logged into the city’s inventory database. Owners signed affidavits on basic structural safety, and filled out forms on the number of occupants, age of the structure, and the utilities in place, and furnished a photo.
Getting the transactional details on the record was basically a process of regularizing what was a robust informal economy. And with the existing ADUs thus inventoried, and the rules in place for new ADUs, the city was all set, right? Not exactly. Opposition was fierce, and clever.
Rebellion in the pilot neighborhoods organized as CHEN: Citizens for Healthy Established Neighborhoods, which churned out letters to editors, op-ed essays, and leaflets with a red slash across “ADU.” The question was posed: affordable housing, or slums? One resident mapped her neighborhood and came up with hundreds of units already there, and hundreds more that would be enabled. That didn’t take long to make the front page.
City Hall and the planning office got mercilessly picketed, and somebody placed an ad in the local newspaper touting free building lots—listing the telephone number of the planning office as the place to call for more information.
The planners held firm, making a few minor adjustments, but not compromising on the basic principles of the program. They also launched a public education campaign, producing a video, Know Your ADUs. Amid the dark talk about slums, they kept it light and accessible—even fun, to the extent that was possible, what with lexicon like “legal non-conforming use” being part of the conversation.
The leaders of the effort, the planners Vicki Vandegrift and Scott Shine, shared a game at their presentation at the American Planning Association National Planning Conference last month in Phoenix. Yes, it was time to play “Unit or Not a Unit?”—a series of photographs that demonstrated how some single-family homes look like ADUs, while many ADUs are attractively woven into the urban fabric. (As the quiz went along, we all got better at spotting the dead giveaways—double meters and two street numbers, for instance).
One thing is certain, and that’s the number of communities across the nation confronting this very same issue. The APA session, theatrically titled Accessory Dwelling Units: The Durango Experience, was packed. A long line formed at the microphone for questions. Granny flats and in-law apartments are rising to the top of the affordability conversation from Boston to Seattle.
There may be no secret sauce for getting this done, but demonstrating the benefits—to owners, and to the community at large—is surely a centerpiece. Planners need to be flexible, but not compromise. And above all, stay positive. Even if they’re forced to change their telephone numbers.
Let’s make “10 not 12!” a new mantra for saving our cities and towns.
When state DOTs bring streets through cities, they apply highway standards (above, Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach, Florida). (Screenshot via Google Maps)
A friend of mine heads an office in the White House. I never see him anymore, except at the occasional black tie design dinner, where he is always good for a couple of gin and tonics as the crowd disperses. At the last such event, he asked me a question. Or maybe he didn’t. But I answered it.
“What’s the number one most important thing that we have to fight for?” I said. “You mean, besides corporations being people and money being speech?”
“Well that’s easy: 10-foot lanes instead of 12-foot lanes.”
And so I did, brilliantly. So brilliantly that the White House issued an Executive Order the very next day. Or so I imagined; such is the power of gin.
Sobered by my now palpable failure, I have steeled myself for the task of explaining here, in a manner that can never be disputed or ignored, why the single best thing we can do for the health, wealth, and integrity of this great nation is to forbid the construction, ever again, of any traffic lane wider than 10 feet.
A little background: First, we are talking only about high-volume streets here. Neighborhood streets can have much narrower lanes. The classic American residential street has a 12-foot lane that handles traffic in two directions. And many busy streets in my hometown of Washington, D.C., have eight-foot lanes that function wonderfully. These are as safe and efficient as they are illegal in most of the United States, and we New Urbanists have written about them plenty before, and built more than a few. But what concerns us here are downtown streets, suburban arterials and collectors, and those other streets that are expected to handle a good amount of traffic, and are thus subject to the mandate of free flow.
Second, you should know that these streets used to be made up of 10-foot lanes. Many of them still exist, especially in older cities, where there is no room for anything larger. The success of these streets has had little impact on the traffic-engineering establishment, which, over the decades, has pushed the standard upward, almost nationwide, first to 11 feet, and then to 12. Now, in almost every place I work, I find that certain streets are held to a 12-foot standard, if not by the city, then by a state or a county department of transportation.
States and counties believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are dead wrong.
In some cases, a state or county controls only a small number of downtown streets. In other cases, they control them all. In a typical city, like Cedar Rapids or Fort Lauderdale, the most important street or streets downtown are owned by the state. In Boise, every single downtown street is owned by the Ada County Highway District, an organization that, if it won’t relinquish its streets to the city, should at least feel obliged to change its name. And states and counties almost always apply a 12-foot standard.
Why do they do this? Because they believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are dead wrong. Or, to be more accurate, they are wrong, and thousands of Americans are dead.
They are wrong because of a fundamental error that underlies the practice of traffic engineering—and many other disciplines—an outright refusal to acknowledge that human behavior is impacted by its environment. This error applies to traffic planning, as state DOTs widen highways to reduce congestion, in complete ignorance of all the data proving that new lanes will be clogged by the new drivers that they invite. And it applies to safety planning, as traffic engineers, designing for the drunk who’s texting at midnight, widen our city streets so that the things that drivers might hit are further away.
The logic is simple enough, and makes reasonable sense when applied to the design of high-speed roads. Think about your behavior when you enter a highway. If you are like me, you take note of the posted speed limit, set your cruise control for 5 m.p.h. above that limit, and you’re good to go. We do this because we know that we will encounter a consistent environment free of impediments to high-speed travel. Traffic engineers know that we will behave this way, and that is why they design highways for speeds well above their posted speed limits.
Unfortunately, trained to expect this sort of behavior, highway engineers apply the same logic to the design of city streets, where people behave in an entirely different way. On city streets, most drivers ignore posted speed limits, and instead drive the speed at which they feel safe. That speed is set by the cues provided by the environment. Are there other cars near me? Is an intersection approaching? Can I see around that corner? Are there trees and buildings near the road? Are there people walking or biking nearby? And: How wide is my lane?
When lanes are built too wide, pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don’t fit.
All of these factors matter, and others, too. The simplest one to discuss, and probably the most impactful, is lane width. When lanes are built too wide, many bad things happen. In a sentence: pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don’t fit.
In the paragraphs that follow, I will lay out the evidence against 12-foot lanes, evidence compiled by traffic engineers, for traffic engineers. When presented with this evidence, DOT officials will face a mandate: provide conflicting evidence, or give in. In over a year of searching for conflicting evidence, I have failed to find any. The closest I came was the following conversation, with a DOT district commissioner in a western state, which I recorded faithfully within moments of it taking place:
“Yeah, you’ve got your studies that say that 10-foot lanes are safer than 12-foot lanes. But I’ve got a pile of studies this high,” he insisted, waving at his hip, “that say the opposite.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “May I see them?”
“No. They’re from the early days. I threw them out.”
Emboldened by that exchange, I will again present the evidence at hand. First, we will investigate what the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Green Book, the traffic engineers’ bible, has to say on the subject. Then we will review the very few studies that compare crash statistics and driver speeds on lanes of different widths. These will allow us to draw some clear conclusions about safety.
Consulting the Green Book
For traffic engineers, AASHTO is the keeper of the flame. Its “Green Book,” thePolicy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, is the primary source for determining whether a road design is an accepted practice. As such, it is useful in protecting engineers against lawsuits; if something is in the Green Book, it’s “safe.”
Given the protection it affords, nobody questions the Green Book. Never mind that very little of it is evidence-based, and that there are no footnotes justifying its pronouncements. I mean, does the Bible have footnotes?
Whether or not it reflects reality, the Green Book’s position on lane widths is more than relevant, since the engineers need its blessing to modify a standard. Theodore Petritsch relates this position as follows:
For rural and urban arterials, lane widths may vary from 10 to 12 feet. 12-foot lanes should be used where practical on higher-speed, free-flowing, principal arterials. However, under interrupted-flow (signalized) conditions operating at lower speeds (35 MPH or less), narrower lane widths are normally quite adequate and have some advantages.
Here, the takeaway is clear: AASHTO says that 10-foot lanes are just fine—for what it’s worth.
The Studies: Rare but Conclusive
A number of studies have been completed that blame wider lanes for an epidemic of vehicular carnage. One of them, presented by Rutgers professor Robert Noland at the 80th annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, determined that increased lane widths could be blamed for approximately 900 additional traffic fatalities per year. Unfortunately, Noland is a mere Ph.D. and not a practicing engineer. His evidence apparently didn’t mean squat to the TRB. If you don’t have short-sleeved white shirt and a pocket protector, you may as well stay home.
… all projects evaluated during the course of the study that consisted of lane widths exclusively of 10 feet or more [rather than 12 feet] resulted in accident rates that were either reduced or unchanged.
A safety evaluation of lane widths for arterial roadway segments found no indication, except in limited cases, that the use of narrower lanes increases crash frequencies. The lane widths in the analyses conducted were generally either not statistically significant or indicated that narrower lanes were associated with lower rather than higher crash frequencies.
It is clear, then, that at the very least, 10-foot lanes cause no more accidents than 12-foot lanes, and may cause fewer. But what about the severity of these accidents, a subject on which these studies appear to be mute?
Here we can make use of another study and some common sense. We all know that people drive faster in wider lanes, but we need the engineers to say it. Fortunately, the Texas Transportation Institute, as old-school as they come, has done just that. They state:
On suburban arterial straight sections away from a traffic signal, higher speeds should be expected with greater lane widths.
Granted, this study covers only one type of road, but there is no reason to expect opposite results on, for example, straight urban roads. The same logic would apply, although perhaps less dramatically: people drive faster when they have less fear of veering off track, so wider lanes invite higher speeds.
To conclude this radical thought experiment, we need to confirm another commonsense assumption, that higher-speed crashes cause more injuries and deaths than lower-speed crashes. This has been amply demonstrated to apply to all road users, especially pedestrians. According to a broad collection of studies, a pedestrian hit by a car traveling 30 m.p.h. at the time of impact is between seven and nine times as likely to be killed as one hit by a car traveling 20 m.p.h. This tremendously sharp upward fatality curve means that, at urban motoring speeds, every single mile per hour counts.
All of the above data, studies, and pronouncements, collected and disseminated by the mainstream traffic engineering establishment, point to the following conclusion: 10-foot lanes cause no more accidents than 12-foot lanes, and they may cause fewer. These accidents can be expected to be slower, and thus less deadly. Therefore, 10-foot lanes are safer than 12-foot lanes.
Before finishing, we need to investigate the carrying capacity of different width lanes, since traffic volume remains a legitimate concern. If safety were the only goal of traffic planning, all streets would be one-lane wide—or better yet, zero lanes wide. The fact that they are not means that we, as a society, are more than willing to sacrifice lives for automobility. So, what’s the data?
Here, as again reported by Petritsch, a thorough literature search conducted by the Florida DOT yielded these findings:
The measured saturation flow rates are similar for lane widths between 10 feet and 12 feet. … Thus, so long as all other geometric and traffic signalization conditions remain constant, there is no measurable decrease in urban street capacity when through lane widths are narrowed from 12 feet to 10 feet.
It is striking to hear this news from FDOT, the agency that may preside over the greatest pedestrian massacre in U.S. history. Four out of the five deadliest American cities for walking are currently in Florida. This is by design: in no other state has the DOT had such a powerful influence on the design of urban streets.
Alarmed by its horrifying safety ranking—and the barrage of resulting bad publicity—FDOT has taken bold measures to improve pedestrian safety. It released just last year a 44-page Florida Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Safety Plan. Unfortunately, while this document talks plenty about such things as driver, cyclist, and pedestrian education, only two of its pages deal remotely with the real culprit, traffic engineering. Here, we are told that FDOT intends to “implement pedestrian and bicycle best practices,” a phrase that is fairly meaningless without further definition.
To its credit, the plan advocates for the application of a “complete streets” policy to benefit cyclists and pedestrians. But such policies, as we have learned, make sure that some streets include bike lanes and sidewalks, but rarely require the dimensional properties that make them safe. Nowhere in the entireStrategic Safety Plan are lane widths discussed, or any other design feature of the roadway that might encourage deadly speeds.
In fact, you can learn all you need to know about this effort by glancing at the cover of the report, which is stamped with the project motto: “Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow.” Think about that statement, and what it implies. In an encounter between a car and a pedestrian, whose life is at risk? Who, then, is expected to reform her behavior? Certainly not the driver—and most certainly not any engineers who endanger their populations with 12-foot lanes.
A Test Case
I believe that FDOT—and every DOT—is capable of reform, but experience suggests that this will only happen when enough people make a stink. In Florida, we will be able to gauge the DOT’s willingness to enter the reality-based community by how it responds to a proposal recently made to restripe Okeechobee Boulevard, a deadly state highway that cuts through downtown West Palm Beach. Its nine lanes separate the Palm Beach County Convention Center from everything that conventioneers walk to, and are a nightmare to walk across or beside. These lanes, of course, are 12 feet wide.
What would happen if these lanes were reduced to 10-feet wide, as proposed? Three things. First, cars would drive more cautiously. Second, there would be roughly eight feet available on each side of the street for creating protected cycle lanes, buffered by solid curbs. Third, the presence of these bike lanes would make the sidewalks safer to walk along. All in all, an easy, relatively inexpensive win-win-win that DOT could fund tomorrow.
But will they? Only if they are capable of reform. Let’s find out. The agency’s bike and pedestrian coordinator, Billy Hattaway, is one of the good ones. But does he have the power to move FDOT to a 10-foot standard?
Moving beyond Florida, the task is clear. Our lives are currently being put at risk daily by fifty state DOTs and hundreds of county road commissions who mistakenly believe that high-speed street standards make our cities and towns safer. In my most considered opinion, these agencies have blood on their hands, and more than a little. There are many standards that they need to change, but the easiest and most important is probably the 12-foot lane. Armed with the facts, we can force this change. But only if we do it together.
It’s time to push this discussion to its logical conclusion. Until conflicting evidence can be mustered, the burden of proof now rests with the DOTs. Until they can document otherwise, every urban 12-foot lane that is not narrowed to 10 feet represents a form of criminal negligence; every injury and death, perhaps avoidable, not avoided—by choice.
In the meantime, I welcome evidence to the contrary. We’ve shown them our studies; now let them show us theirs. Unless, of course, they’ve thrown them out.
When you think of “affordable housing,” what’s the image that comes to mind? For lots of people, including many of those most in need of it, the picture is not a pretty one: it’s a scene of dreary, deteriorating high-rises or shabby, poorly constructed “garden” apartments with no garden in sight. Moreover, the projects come with lots of safety concerns, placed in “the wrong part of town.” Environmentally, they may be plagued with poor air quality, peeling paint, energy inefficiency, unkempt grounds, and litter.
There’s an unfortunate stigma associated with affordable housing in the US, particularly with publicly subsidized housing; and, if the reality frequently isn’t as awful as the reputation, I’m afraid the reputation is also grounded in more than a little truth in more than a few places. The stigma has been well-earned over time. What you are likely not thinking about, when you think of affordable housing, is state-of-the-art green design that would appeal not just to people of limited means but to others as well, and that’s unfortunate.
That’s the bad news.
But the good news is that I am beginning to see some new-generation developments that, if they foretell a trend, could put the stigma to rest. These new projects are not just better than expectations; they are enviable. They include subsidized units priced to be affordable to low-income renters, to be sure, but they also have high-quality design and features and amenities that could appeal to just about anyone in the market for apartment living. Even better, they are as green as they come, healthy for both people and the planet.
Affordable housing and design
Before I tell you about three of these great new developments, let’s begin with some background: affordable housing is a subject dear to my heart. In fact, I was born into post-World War II public housing in Hickory, North Carolina, where I lived with my parents until they could afford a private (but still affordably priced) apartment, along with employment, in the nearby city of Asheville. I was well into my twenties before I experienced any way of living, really, other than “affordable housing.” That said, I should stress that in our case affordable meant small but it did not mean unpleasant; I have a lot of happy memories from those days.
Indeed, even with respect to public housing I tend to think that the authors of government programs have tried to do their best for their clientele. But budgets have been tight, and some well-meaning concepts have not stood the test of time. Subsidized housing hasn’t been a failure, in my opinion – millions of Americans have enjoyed decent lives because of it – but it hasn’t been a universally rousing success, either.
In particular, great design – to say nothing of great green design – has not frequently been a feature of affordably priced developments. Writing a few years ago in what is now known as CityLab, Allison Arieff unsparingly criticized the dreary approach frequently associated with public housing:
“This soul-sapping approach to aesthetics is par for the course for affordable housing, which is meant not only to look low-budget but also low-effort. Conventional thinking on affordability proceeds from the misguided premise that anything well-designed will be, and look, expensive so it follows that design should not be a priority. Further, the argument goes, anything well-designed will be too appealing to eligible tenants, thus discouraging them from ever leaving. So affordable housing should not only be cheap, it should look cheap. As a result, much affordable housing is more punitive than homey, by design.”
That’s a brutal assessment. While I tend to think substandard design in affordable housing has come about more by inattention and a mass-production approach than by intent, there is little doubt that the results have often been lacking. Even worse, the effects of substandard design are frequently compounded by substandard maintenance over time, creating a “wrong part of town” even if things didn’t start out that way.
We need new models, and we need them fast. We especially need them in distressed neighborhoods to catalyze green, inclusive revitalization. Fortunately, I’m here to report that they are indeed on their way. I have seen quite a few over the last decade, but none more aesthetically and environmentally impressive than these three.
The Rose, Minneapolis
Let’s start with a super-green apartment complex in Minneapolis. I first came across The Rose in an Urban Land Institute email several weeks ago and took notice right way because of a stunning rendering and the project’s ambitious aspiration of achieving recognition under the Living Building Challenge, the most demanding of the green building performance rating programs.
According to ULI’s case study, the project comprises 90 apartments in two buildings. Significantly, it does not consist solely of affordable units but, rather, is mixed-income: 47 of the apartments are offered at subsidized rates to qualified residents, and 43 are market-rate; the two categories are indistinguishable with regard to finishes and appearance. Of the subsidized units, seven are set aside for residents who have experienced long-term homelessness; 15 are “section 8” apartments where tenants pay 30 percent of monthly income for rent. (Section 8 of the federal Housing Act of 1937 authorizes a federal rental assistance program administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.)
The Rose’s affordable and market-rate homes are interspersed throughout the project, which also includes among its outdoor features a 5,000-square-foot community garden. Additional outdoor amenities for all residents include a courtyard with “a lawn, a play area, a play surface that meets Americans with Disabilities Act standards, a rain garden, a patio with grills, a fire pit, and seating.” Indoor features include a fitness center, a yoga studio, and resident lounges, with floor-to-ceiling glass to maximize light and views. The units all have porches and, in the case of ground-floor apartments, access from the sidewalk as well as from the courtyard.
Green performance of any development is highly related to its location, generally the more central with respect to the metropolitan region the better. The Rose does impressively well on this score, its 2.3-acre site situated in an older, transit-accessible neighborhood just south of downtown Minneapolis. Simply put, people who live there don’t have to drive very much. The wonderful Abogo calculator from the Center for Neighborhood Technology estimates that households in the development’s neighborhood, on average, would generate only about 45 percent of the carbon emissions from transportation typically generated by households in the Twin Cities region as a whole.
The project enjoys a Walk Score of 86 (“most errands can be accomplished on foot”), a Transit Score of 76 (“transit is convenient for most trips”) and a Bike Score of 96 (“flat as a pancake, excellent bike lanes”). I wish there weren’t freeways nearby, but one can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the very, very good.
The Rose is designed to be 75 percent more energy-efficient than required by regional industry standards. Solar thermal panels are arrayed on the south side of each building and provide 35 percent of hot water needs. All stormwater will be captured and treated on-site, and all landscaping irrigation will be provided by graywater collected in cisterns with a combined 500-cubic-feet capacity. There is much more detail about the project’s green features (as well as its financing) in ULI’s case study.
The Rose was developed jointly by Aeon, a “nonprofit developer, owner and manager of high-quality affordable apartments and townhomes which serve more than 4,500 people annually in the Twin Cities area,” and Hope Community, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit headquartered in The Rose’s neighborhood and whose mission is inclusive revitalization of distressed neighborhoods. The developers consciously undertook the project as a model that, while aspirational, would be built on a foundation of replicable components and processes that could be applied elsewhere. Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle of Minneapolis provided the project’s architecture.
Paseo Verde, Philadelphia
I have a small connection to my second example: Several years ago, my employer (at the time) Natural Resources Defense Council partnered with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and a number of local community development corporations to work on green neighborhood revitalization. We wanted to build on the investment we had made over more than a decade as a founding partner of both the LEED green building rating system and one of its most exciting offshoots, LEED for Neighborhood Development (which we had developed alongside the US Green Building Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism). Our thinking was that the standards of LEED-ND in particular could serve as guidelines for helping low-income communities and CDCs improve their own neighborhoods.
One of that revitalization program’s first undertakings was to advise the planning for a new affordable housing development in Philadelphia. The site was a bleak surface parking lot at the intersection of 9th and Berks Streets in a part of town that had suffered severe disinvestment over the years. But the location had some major assets, including an adjacent regional rail transit station and Temple University, just a couple of blocks to the west. It was the kind of urban neighborhood that, while perhaps not impressive at the time, was well situated to improve with the right kind of investment.
Little did we know then that Paseo Verde, as the new mixed-income development would be named, would become one of the greenest neighborhood-scaled developments in the US, earning platinum ratings from both LEED-ND and LEED for Homes.
“Paseo Verde is a keystone development that connects an ethnically diverse, low-income neighborhood to the adjacent train station and to Temple University. Before the development, commuter trains hurried past a drab station and a dingy, fenced-in parking lot, shadowed by public housing on one side and blighted rowhouses on the other.
“Today, the same trains pull up alongside a mosaic of bright green panels, with tree-shaded roof gardens peeking through. A health clinic that had been hidden inside a public housing complex now announces its presence with a campanile, its wide windows facing a broad sidewalk bustling with pedestrians. Above are 120 environmentally sustainable homes—affordable for downtown commuters, university students, and families leaving public housing, all of whom enjoy green views and healthful amenities.”
As with The Rose, Paseo Verde is mixed-income: sixty-seven of those 120 units – all rental apartments – serve as market-rate housing while 53 are subsidized to be affordable to residents earning between 20 and 60 percent of the area median income. There is also a little more than 30,000 square feet of commercial space and a 994-square-feet community room.
Again, an appraisal of the development’s green features must start with its centrally located, highly transit-accessible and walkable site. Abogo estimates that households in the neighborhood generate, on average, only about 40 percent of the carbon emissions from transportation generated by households in the Philadelphia region as a whole. Paseo Verde’s Walk Score is 82; its Transit Score is 88; and its Bike Score is 72.
ULI’s case study on the development provides details on Paseo Verde’s many green features, and stresses that many of them double as amenities that help to market the project. Green infrastructure to control stormwater runoff, for example, includes “rain gardens, wide sidewalks with permeable paving, and green-roof courtyards that permit private decks for some apartments.” Indeed, the roofs are not only green in the sense that they are vegetated but also “blue,” collecting rainwater in specially designed fixtures that then release it gradually.
Energy efficiency measures include high-performance appliances within the individual homes (which are also individually metered) and rooftop solar panels that supply electricity to some of the development’s common areas. As in the case of The Rose in Minneapolis, great attention was paid to large windows to daylight both residences and common areas, providing tenants with views of green space and trees from every apartment and from the complex’s fitness room and inviting stairways.
Paseo Verde was developed by an equal partnership between the Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (Association of Puerto Ricans on the March), a Latino-based community development corporation with extensive experience in and a deep commitment to the project’s neighborhood, and Jonathan Rose Companies, a nationally known “mission-based, green real estate policy, development, project management and investment firm” headquartered in New York City. Architecture was provided by Wallace Roberts & Todd. In 2015 Paseo Verde was named project of the year by the US Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes program.
Via Verde, New York City
Finally, twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, one would have been hard pressed to name a more unlikely place for state-of-the-art green design than the south Bronx in New York City. Indeed, throughout the latter decades of the 20thcentury, the area stood as a national symbol of severe urban decay, best known for high rates of crime, gang-related drug violence, abandoned and decaying properties, and even an arson epidemic. It represented everything that had gone wrong in American cities.
But today the South Bronx is turning around, in some neighborhoods dramatically, and there is no better representative to illustrate that rebirth than what is probably so far the most celebrated of all US green affordable housing developments: Via Verde.
The blockquoted passages below have been excerpted and updated from my 2011 review of Via Verde, while the project was nearing completion:
Via Verde has some elements in common with The Rose and Paseo Verde but is much denser, befitting its New York location. It provides 151 rental apartments affordable to qualifying low-income households and 71 co-op ownership units affordable to middle-income households, all on a 1.5-acre site. The ownership homes comprise a diversity of types including single-family townhomes, duplex units, and live-work units with a first floor work/office space. There is also some 9,500 square feet of retail and community space.
As with the Minneapolis and Philadelphia developments, Via Verde’s location alone supplies a great head start on green performance, but in the case of Via Verde the numbers are even more dramatic. In particular, the New York City region as a whole has relatively low carbon emissions per household for transportation, but households in Via Verde can expect to generate only 12.5 percent of that already-low regional average, according to the Abogo calculator. The project’s Walk Score is a striking 98 (“walker’s paradise”); its Transit Score is 97 (“world-class”); and its Bike Score is 72.
What makes Via Verde especially noteworthy, though, is that the architectural and development team has created a distinctively innovative approach to green and healthy urban living: this begins with a spectacular stepped architectural form that creates 40,000 square feet (roughly an acre) of resident-accessible green rooftop terraces at varying heights. Intended to integrate nature with the city, the rooftops provide functioning green infrastructure that can harvest rainwater, grow fruits and vegetables, and provide open space for residents. The garden level in particular is intended to provide both an organizing architectural element and “a spiritual identity for the community,” according to the Rose Companies’ web site. (Like Philadelphia’s Paseo Verde, Via Verde was developed by a partnership including Jonathan Rose Companies.)
Other amenities that contribute to the project’s theme of healthy living include open air courtyards; a health education and wellness facility operated byMontefiore Medical Center; a fitness center; and bicycle storage areas.
Beyond health benefits, Via Verde also exceeds LEED Gold standards for building energy and performance. Along with the green roofs, which provide natural cooling in warm weather, the project utilizes low-tech strategies like cross ventilation, solar shading, and smart material choices, along with more tech-based strategies such as photovoltaic panels, high-efficiency mechanical systems, and energy-conserving appliances.
Returning to Allison Arieff’s point that affordable housing has been “meant not only to look low-budget but also low-effort,” these three projects suggest that there is indeed a better way, with housing designed from the start to be and look impressive, and to be and look impressively green. And, while all three might be described as leadership projects and thus somewhat atypical, the fact is that low-income housing is becoming better and greener right before our eyes, in part because of their examples (and the many additional examples being set by nationally-active investors such as Enterprise Green Communities and LISC’sBuilding Sustainable Communities program).
Indeed, I’ve been in this line of work long enough to spot an emerging trend when I see it. Is it too much to believe that the results so far portend well for what could become a new ethic in the way that we as a nation approach affordable housing? In his review of Via Verde, Kimmelman wrote eloquently about the importance of leadership projects:
“Higher costs for green construction have, over recent years, come to be accepted as investments in long-term savings. But spending extra for anything as intangible as elegance or architectural distinction? In Via Verde’s case maybe 5 percent more, by [Jonathan] Rose’s estimate, went into the project’s roof and its fine, multipanel, multicolor facade, with big windows, sunshades and balconies. What is the value of architectural distinction? How, morally speaking, can it be weighed against the need for homes?
“In terms of equitability and self-worth Via Verde does more than just aim to provide decent housing that fits noiselessly into its neighborhood. It aims to stand out, aesthetically, formally, as a foreground building, not another background one: to anchor the urban hodgepodge around it and make the area look more coherent, which in this case entails not echoing its context but redefining it. What is that worth? . . .
“[A]rchitecture doesn’t solve unemployment or poverty, and neighborhoods rise or fall as decent places to live on the quality of their background buildings, which do and should predominate. But they’re distinguished by their landmarks, by the buildings and places that people come to love.
“The greenest and most economical architecture is ultimately the architecture that is preserved because it’s cherished. Bad designs, demolished after 20 years, as so many ill-conceived housing projects have been, are the costliest propositions in the end.”
I couldn’t agree more. All three of these projects give me hope, and not just for affordable housing.