Skip to content

Posts from the "Quality of Life" Category

4 Comments

The Defense Department’s Embrace of Livability Will Save Money — and Lives

On Tuesday, we wrote about the Defense Department’s new rules for the design of their bases and installations. These rules make smart growth the law of the land on hundreds of vast military installations in the U.S. and abroad. There’s more to the story: In this post we examine how a smart growth development model will bring wide-ranging benefits to the defense complex.

Pendleton Avenue at Joint Base Lewis-McChord is being transformed into a complete street, following strategies in the new Unified Facilities Criteria for Installation Master Planning that call for compact infill development, transit, and safe pedestrian access. Image courtesy of the Urban Collaborative, LLC

Many of the benefits of smart growth are clear enough. By mixing uses, clustering destinations together, and improving transit, sidewalks, and bike facilities, a city — or military base — makes driving less necessary and encourages other ways to get around, like walking. That, in turn, reduces congestion, improves health, and gives people back the time they might otherwise spend in their cars.

It can also save lives.

The epidemic of suicide in the military is growing much faster than in the general population. “DoD is suffering from some of the highest rates of suicide ever,” said University of Oregon professor Mark Gillem, the former Air Force architect and planner who helped rewrite the rules that govern master planning on military bases, which were published last year. “And I believe part of that is because our installations have become office parks and not communities.”

When families live scattered around, 30 minutes from base, Gillem said, they don’t have the “esprit de corps” that used to exist.

“And when families live off base, the on-base amenities that used to serve them — the theaters and chapels and community centers — no longer have the patronage, so they have to shut down,” Gillem said. “So there are very few places people can go to be amongst their friends and colleagues. And I think that hurts, especially with our high operations tempo and consistent deployments. When you have a spouse that’s hanging out in the middle of nowhere, alone, that’s very hard.”

Gillem’s work to bring walkable development patterns to military bases is partly based on his conviction that by designing better, more attractive and livable installations, the military can lure families back on base, bringing a return to the kind of community that not only builds friendships, but saves lives.

The military uses another rationale to explain its turn away from sprawl and toward smart planning: Walkable development saves a ton of money. The Unified Facilities Criteria [PDF] – the document that mandates the new rules — focuses almost exclusively on cost when listing the benefits of the new model. It starts with lower initial costs during planning and construction and moves on to lower life cycle costs (less energy consumption, less pavement), reduced maintenance costs, general efficiency, and, of course, safety – which has its own economic benefit.

Read more…

4 Comments

Do You Have Car-Free Streets? A New Resource for North American Ciclovias

Pop quiz: Where was the first ciclovia?

I bet you said Bogotá. But, surprisingly, you’d be wrong.

An open streets initiative in Minneapolis. Photo credit: Bethany Heemyer.

Sure, the Colombian city is widely credited with popularizing the concept of ciclovias, which temporarily close streets to cars to liberate the roads for people. For several hours every Sunday, more than a million citizens in Bogotá take advantage of 70 miles of car-free streets to bike, walk, dance and participate in a variety of creative non-motorized activities.

But while South America has certainly set the standard for ciclovias — or open streets — around the globe, it wasn’t the birthplace. Starting as early as 1965, open streets initiatives in Seattle, New York City and San Francisco pre-dated Colombia by nearly a decade.

In fact, North American cities have played a significant role in the open streets movement and, in the past six years alone, the number of initiatives has grown from 11 in 2005 to more than 70 in 2011.

To keep those numbers ticking up and to make current initiatives even better, the Alliance for Biking & Walking and the Street Plans Collaborative just released a new resource that highlights examples and compiles best practices from 67 initiatives from across the continent.

The Open Streets Guide, released last week, features an introduction to open streets, a summary of the initiatives in North America and case studies of 67 initiatives from across the continent. The guide breaks down U.S. and Canadian initiatives into seven model types, based on how they’re funded and who’s in charge, and zeroes in on best practices taken from initiatives in North and South America. It also includes some fascinating statistics, like average route length (3.95 miles), population served (28 percent of open streets occur in cities of less than 100,000 people) and funding (52 percent of open streets initiatives are paid for by a public-private partnership).

Read more…

1 Comment

Mounting Transportation and Housing Costs Devour Household Budgets

In the Phoenix region, the yellow areas meet CNT's threshold for affordability, while the blue areas do not. Image: CNT

On Monday we wrote that Americans can’t afford a transportation bill that locks households into the expenses of car dependence. Yesterday the Center for Neighborhood Technology hammered the point home, releasing new data showing how communities are getting less and less affordable nationwide.

Only 28 percent of American communities meet CNT’s definition of “affordable,” which accounts for both housing and transportation costs. Today American families are paying more for housing and transportation than they did in 2000, according to CNT’s analysis:

Median housing costs, as reported by the US Census, have increased by nearly 37 percent nationwide, while the national median income has increased by approximately 22 percent. Average transportation costs in the geographies covered by both Indexes increased by more than 39 percent or $318 per month.

CNT attributes the growing burden of these basic costs to development in “location inefficient” places, where households have no choice but to shell out for an expensive mode of transport — driving. The findings come amid a Republican-led effort to pass a highway-centric, sprawl-favoring transportation bill, and a presidential campaign season where candidates are tripping over themselves to pander about gas prices without stating the obvious: reducing car dependence saves money.

CNT, a Chicago-based urban research think-tank, has long held that “affordability” shouldn’t be based on housing costs alone, but must incorporate transportation costs as well. Rather than following the conventional practice of dubbing housing affordable if it accounts for less than 30 percent of household income, CNT adds in transportation costs and sets the combined threshold at 45 percent, which changes the picture dramatically.

The result busts the “drive-till-you-qualify” myth that has driven suburban sprawl for decades, because the money saved on housing is often wiped out — and then some — by the costs of a longer commute, especially when that commute is dependent upon — and therefore sensitive to — the price of gasoline.

Read more…

1 Comment

With Help From a Republican Governor, Michigan Moves Toward Livability

Though he was swept into office in the same class as Scott Walker, John Kasich and Rick Scott, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has set himself apart in a couple of important ways.

While his Republican contemporaries were eschewing money for high-speed rail, Snyder welcomed the funds. Just last week, his state received an additional badly needed $200 million cash infusion.

Michigan's Rick Snyder: A rational voice for Republican governors in the Midwest. Photo: Annarbor.com

Now, once again, Rick Snyder is displaying a level of pragmatism — and frankly, vision — that recalls a less acrimonious political era, at least with respect to transportation. Earlier this spring, Snyder issued a directive to state agencies on the importance of “placemaking” in economic development. The document — one in a series of statements that lays out his administration’s priorities — puts forward a plan for state agencies to cooperate to build a more livable, less car-dependent state, with strong urban centers.

“Neighborhoods, cities and regions are awakening to the importance of ‘place’ in economic development,” Snyder said in the document. “They are planning for a future that recognizes the critical importance of quality of life to attracting talent, entrepreneurship and encouraging local businesses.”

In March, Streetsblog featured a letter from a Detroit area business owner who said the region’s sprawl mania was making it impossible to attract talent. Letter-writer Andrew Basile said “There’s a simple reason why many people don’t want to live here: it’s an unpleasant place because most of it is visually unattractive and because it is lacking in quality living options other than tract suburbia. Some might call this poor ‘quality of life.’ A better term might be poor ‘quality of place.’”

Snyder’s directive seems to take a page directly from Basile’s recommendations. It calls on 10 state agencies, including MDOT and the state’s economic development agency, to collaborate and innovate with an eye toward making Michigan more livable. Although the document makes no direct reference to transportation reform, it stresses the importance of healthy cities.

“In this global economy, cities and urban areas are crucial to the economic vitality of any region or state,” said Snyder. “Michigan succeeds when Detroit succeeds.”

Read more…

4 Comments

First Lady’s Childhood Obesity Task Force Calls For Transportation Reform

michelle.png(Chart: LetsMove.gov)
The White House's inter-agency task force on childhood obesity, developed under the stewardship of First Lady Michelle Obama, today released a 124-page report recommending dozens of policy shifts in health care, community development, and transportation that it estimates can bring down obesity rates among kids by 5 percent over the next 20 years.

During the February launch of the task force, Mrs. Obama noted the public health benefits of promoting biking and walking among U.S. kids, but today's report goes into far more detail about the link between non-motorized transportation, local land use, and children's rate of physical exercise. Among the task force's recommendations are an addition of "complete streets" design rules to the next long-term federal transportation bill and expanding the Safe Routes to School (SRtS) program to include high schools.

"Children’s ability to be physically active in their community depends on whether the community is safe and walkable, with good sidewalks and reasonable distances between destinations," the report states in a section entitled 'The Built Environment' that got an early plug from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

A chart featured in the White House report, viewable above, mirrors the assessment of a recent SRtS release that found ample opportunities for families to transition their children from school commutes via auto to trips by foot or bicycle.

The task force also encourages local governments to conduct "Health Impact Assessments," or HIAs, before building new developments. The HIA concept, similar to environmental reviews of federally funded transport projects that are currently mandated by law, would evaluate the effect of construction and land-use decisions on the physical activity of community residents.

The first lady's group also took a notably holistic approach to the effect of neighborhood quality on children's health. In a lengthy section on the findings of a recent socioeconomic study published in the journal Health Affairs, today's report states:

Read more...
No Comments

Detroit Residents Press EPA for Stronger Air Pollution Monitoring

In Washington, "grassroots lobbying" is more often associated with industry-funded issue campaigns than ground-up local advocacy. But residents of Detroit's industrial southwest neighborhoods took the term back to its roots on Friday, getting a personal visit from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials after a groundswell of complaints about decaying air quality.

sm_DSC01515.JPGCyclists in southwest Detroit. (Photo: Detroit Synergy)
From the Detroit Free Press' report:
Environmental Protection Agency officials watched intently Friday as a computer that measures air pollution on the spot showed spikes around industrial plants in southwest Detroit. ...

Next to the plants in the 48217 ZIP code and nearby areas are whole neighborhoods boxed in by oil recycling plants, asphalt makers, a steel plant, a stinky composting yard, a salt factory and an expanding oil refinery.

"This is what we live with," said [Jayne] Mounce, who lives near Marathon's oil refinery and petroleum terminals.

This week, Mounce said she had taken her own air samples with the help of national environmental monitoring group Global Community Monitor and found lead-laden dust, which could come from a steel mill nearby. A few months ago, similar sampling found a dangerous chemical in the air -- methyl ethyl ketone, a gas that can cause numbness, tremors and gait problems.

The story notes that EPA officials have "fewer than 50 air monitors" in the entire state of Michigan, where the industrial base has shrunk in recent years but remains a prime economic mover -- and generator of air pollution. Nonetheless, the Detroit residents' plea for stronger air quality standards is an unusual sight compared with the more common practice of localities seeking more lax rules or more time to comply with EPA pollution limits.

Methyl ethyl ketone, the gas found in local air sampling, is commonly found in manufacturing plant emissions as well as specific products such as industrial glue and the exhaust of cars and trucks, according to the Centers for Disease Control's toxic substances registry. In 2005 it was removed from the list of hazardous air pollutants regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act after a federal appeals court ruling that endorsed the move.

8 Comments

Gillibrand Offers $1B Plan Backing Up White House on Local Food Outlets

Her approval rating on the rise amid a difficult election battle, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) joined the president's campaign against childhood obesity this week by proposing $1 billion in loans and grants to build healthier neighborhood grocery stores and farmers' markets.

food_desert_1.jpgThe view from one type of "food desert." (Photo: Springfield Institute)
Gillibrand's legislation, co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), aligns with the $400 million healthy food plan included in the 2011 White House budget. Both programs would follow the template of Pennsylvania's Healthy Food Financing Initiative by offering loans and grants to help construct new grocery stores, farmers' markets, and other food outlets in historically under-served neighborhoods.

The bill aims to eradicate the growing phenomenon of "food deserts," the moniker advocates have bestowed on lower-income areas -- in New York and Chicago as well as in more rural areas -- where the lack of access to fresh food leaves residents dependent on sugary, fattening fast-food alternatives.

Traveling outside a food desert is often impossible without a car, an option out of reach for many of the neighborhoods' most needy residents.

Research on travel behavior conducted by the University of California-Davis' Susan Handy found that in areas where markets and other stores were one-fifth of a mile or less from most homes, 87 percent of residents regularly walked to run errands. When that average distance between home and market increased to three-fifths of a mile, the share of even periodic foot travelers dropped to one-third.

Gillibrand's office also highlighted the job-creation potential of healthier food access, estimating in a release that the $1 billion grant program would create 200,000 new jobs nationwide and 26,000 in New York City.

No Comments

EPA Declares Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal a Superfund Site

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today named Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal a Superfund site, putting the waterway on the list of the nation's most polluted waste areas and paving the way for a years-long cleanup process that could upend city officals' plans to redevelop the neighborhood.

24gowanus_600.jpgBrooklyn's Gowanus Canal, now a federal Superfund site. (Photo: NYT)
In a statement on the Superfund designation, the EPA noted that contamination was found along the entire length of the 1.8-mile canal, which runs through the Carroll Gardens and Red Hook areas of Brooklyn. Among the toxic materials found in the Gowanus' sediment were polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and heavy metals.

“After conducting our own evaluations and consulting extensively with the many people who have expressed interest in the future of the Gowanus Canal and the surrounding area, we have determined that a Superfund designation is the best path to a cleanup of this heavily contaminated and long neglected urban waterway,” EPA regional administrator Judith Enck said in a statement.

“We plan to continue our work with the same spirit of inclusion and involvement that has already been demonstrated, and thank everyone for their focus on this pollution problem.”

The New York Times reported last year that New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg was opposing the prospect of  Superfund status for the canal, proposing instead to use federal and local funds for an alternative Gowanus cleanup plan that would not put new development and rezoning at risk.

The EPA's decision effectively puts federal officials in charge of restoring the canal to health, a task that can take more than a decade. Of the 1,620 local sites added to the EPA's Superfund roster over the past three decades, 341 sites have been removed following successful cleanups.

Two op-eds published last spring in the Gotham Gazette offer a point-counterpoint debate on what the Gowanus designation might mean for local residents. The EPA also announced a public meeting on the Gowanus site, to be held this Thursday, March 4th, from 7 pm to 9 pm at P.S. 58, located at 330 Smith Street in Brooklyn.

2 Comments

D.C., VA, MD to Apply for Federal Aid as Snow Eats Into Transport Budgets

4348010010_e4fdbe6a68.jpgThe scene in D.C. this week. (Photo: thisisbossi via Flickr)
Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia are set to apply for federal disaster aid to offset the costs of cleanup from this month's record-breaking mid-Atlantic blizzards, according to the Washington Post reports today. But the so-called Snowpocalypse could dent more than just worker productivity -- already crunched transportation budgets are also on  the line.

In Virginia, new Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) warned before yesterday's second round of storms that the state would have to use part of its road maintenance and repair budget to pay for highway plowing and extra police duty.

Virginia had already sliced $893 million from its long-term transportation budget in its most recent round of belt-tightening, bringing the state's total cuts to $4.6 billion ... or the equivalent of running six years of transportation programs with five years of funding.

Maryland, among the first states to set up a dedicated transportation trust fund, is not in as dire of a budget situation as its southern neighbor. Yet budget analysts in the legislature are pressing for about $60 million a year to be taken from that trust fund to cover Maryland's general budget shortfall.

Meanwhile, the state transportation secretary acknowledged that if snow removal costs grow too burdensome this year, spending on capital projects (such as the proposed new Red Line transit system) may need to be diverted.

Finally, though the capital's $6.2 million snow-clearing budget was already exhausted by a massive Christmas-week blizzard, D.C.'s transportation department has offered few details on where any extra funds would come from. A "reprogram" of money from other accounts has been mentioned, but city officials appear to be putting their hopes in a successful appeal for assistance from Congress.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a longtime supporter of D.C.'s Metro transit system, summed up the region's sense of urgency this way in a statement to the Post:

Read more...
2 Comments

White House Pitches $400M for Healthier Neighborhood Food Outlets

The connection between walkable development and grocery shopping may not seem immediately apparent -- until you consider studies conducted in cities from Austin to Seattle that showed the share of trips taken by foot or by transit rises as local food outlets move closer to residential areas.

31193700_386561bcbd.jpgThe White House budget envisions a new investment in urban farmers markets' such as this one, which served D.C.'s low-income Anacostia area for two years. (Photo: DC Food for All)
Even in transit-rich New York, a highly touted new Costco is laying off employees as shoppers avoid its not-too-walkable location. On the flip side, farmers' markets are seeing new growth and serving more lower-income shoppers in Milwaukee, Oakland, and other areas.

Now the White House is getting in on the action, with $400 million included in its fiscal year 2011 budget to support development of new food outlets in urban communities where the nearest grocery store is often a half-mile or more away -- the neighborhoods that policymakers call "food deserts."

The White House proposal is modeled after a Pennsylvania effort that has steered more than $57 million in grants and loans to develop 74 local food markets in lower-income areas of the state. The Obama administration's version would be anchored by $250 million in New Market Tax Credits, which give developers incentive to launch new projects in economically distressed areas.

While the $400 million budget plan is not being directed through the U.S. DOT, it could have a significant upside for urban transportation officials looking to improve access to transit and create new opportunities for walkability.