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Walkable Development Is on the Rise in Michigan

michigan_walkability

The share of rental apartments built in walkable areas of Michigan is rising rapidly. Chart: Smart Growth USA

As the cradle of the car industry, Michigan built out its cities and suburbs exclusively for the automobile after WWII with a fervor that few other states could match.

Today the pendulum of public preference is swinging back toward walkability, but much of Michigan’s housing stock is stuck in the old model. Just 8 percent of homes in the state’s seven principal metro areas are in walkable places, and just 4 percent of homes built since 1960. Meanwhile, Michigan also leads the country in job sprawl, with 77 percent of Detroit-area jobs located more than 10 miles from downtown.

These patterns aren’t going to last forever, though.

A new analysis of walkable development in Michigan by Chris Leinberger and Patrick Lynch of the George Washington University School of Business (in conjunction with Smart Growth America and its real estate developer caucus, LOCUS) shows that things are changing [PDF]. In the 1990s, only 6 percent of new income property development occurred in walkable urban areas. Now, that number is 22 percent.

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Here’s How 45 Firms Explained Why They’re Moving Downtown

Two or three decades ago, the standard criteria for choosing an office location was often, “Where does the boss live?” says land use strategist Christopher Leinberger. And the boss inevitably lived in a car-oriented suburb.

core_values_reportBut the tide’s been shifting for a while now, with more American companies ditching suburban office parks for downtown locations. In 2013, Zappo’s chose to head to the center of Las Vegas, setting up shop in the former City Hall building. Biogen, a global biotech firm, tried out the Boston suburbs for four years before moving back to the heart of Cambridge in 2014. In downtown Raleigh, software firm Citrix recently took over an abandoned warehouse just three blocks from the Amtrak station.

Smaller companies are doing it, too, in smaller urban areas. In Conway, Arkansas, this year, Big Cloud Analytics opened a two-person office, pinning their company’s expected growth to the downtown’s projected resurgence.

A new report from Smart Growth AmericaCore Values: Why American Companies Are Moving Downtown” [PDF], takes stock of this trend over the past five years and seeks to understand what motivates these companies to choose central locations.

George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis and the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield surveyed 500 companies that made the move downtown and interviewed executives at 45 of them. It was like a “giant focus group looking at why people are doing this,” said Leinberger, who helped guide the report. An interactive map shows where these companies are relocating.

The survey identified a few key factors underlying the move downtown. The biggest one is an increased ability to recruit and retain employees — companies are finding they get a competitive edge with an office in an accessible, walkable location.

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Study: Annual Cost of Sprawl in America Adds Up to $4,500 Per Person

Those living in sprawling areas require more road infrastructure, helping account for the increased total costs. Image: New Climate Economy.

Those living in sprawling areas require more road infrastructure, which is just one aspect of the cost of sprawl. Graph: New Climate Economy

A new study confirms what we already know too well: Sprawl is expensive. The New Climate Economy’s latest report [PDF] attempts to put a figure on it and it’s pretty staggering: more than $1 trillion a year nationwide.

That figure accounts for higher costs to individuals and communities associated with sprawling development patterns, including transportation infrastructure, less efficient city services, increased pollution, greater vehicle expenses, more traffic collisions, and reduced health outcomes.

In order to arrive at those figures, researchers separated U.S. communities into five groups, based on how relatively sprawling they were. At one end of the spectrum, where development was most dense, there were about 9.5 residents per acre. The third quintile represented average U.S. housing density, while the fifth was the most sprawling, at less than two residents per acre.

Researchers compared the costs borne by those in the most sprawling communities to those in the least sprawling. Existing studies estimating the increased costs of sprawl were used as the basis for the economic comparisons. For example, they found that infrastructure costs per capita were $502 in the smart growth quintile but $750 per capita in the most sprawling. The report also estimates that those living in the most sprawling areas spend an additional $5,000 per year on vehicle costs compared to those in the most compact.

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Livable Streets or Tall Buildings? Cities Can Have Both

Chicago's 17-story Monadnock building provides pedestrians with an interesting architectural experience and retail amenities at their eye level, despite being almost 200 feet tall. Photo: ##http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monadnock_Building#mediaviewer/File:Monadnock_Building_East_Facade.jpg##Wikipedia##

Chicago’s 17-story Monadnock building provides pedestrians with an interesting architectural experience and retail amenities at their eye level, despite being almost 200 feet tall. Photo: Wikipedia

Kaid Benfield’s new blog post on density is getting a lot of buzz over at NRDC’s Switchboard blog. Benfield, a planner/lawyer/professor/writer who co-founded both LEED’s Neighborhood Development rating system and the Smart Growth America coalition, has some serious street cred when it comes to these matters. And on this one, he’s with Danish architect Jan Gehl, who says wonderful places are built at human-scale density — three to six stories.

Benfield’s low- to mid-rise ideal is a great fit for smaller cities and towns trying to become more walkable and less car-dependent. And in most of America, building walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods out of three story buildings would be vastly more dense than the typical low-slung, single-use development pattern that predominates today. But it won’t work everywhere.

With demographers expecting the U.S. population to grow by 100 million people over the next 35 years, we’re going to need to build smarter and more vertical. In some cities, housing is already maxed out and unreasonably expensive. In those places, building up is often the only way to go. Can taller buildings engage people on foot and work at street level? It can be done. Just ask a million and a half humans living in Manhattan, or the 600,000 residents of Vancouver, or the residents of other cities where street life and skyscrapers coexist.

Benfield allows that taller buildings can be designed well for pedestrians, but his enthusiasm is for density-without-height, not how to integrate height into the pedestrian environment. He cites a study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab that concluded neighborhoods with smaller and older buildings are more successful urban places than those with larger, newer buildings. They tend to have greater densities of both population and businesses and have higher Walk Scores and Transit Scores. And the street life in those older districts tends to continue later into the night. (Again, Manhattan might want to speak up here.)

I get it. I tend to like living in a neighborhood with the “eyes on the street” security and community spirit that comes from front porches and stoops. But there are probably a lot of factors at play in that study by the Trust aside from building size.

Preferences differ and not all neighborhoods are the same. “Eyes on the street” can come from simply having a sidewalk full of people — or from the lower stories of a tall building. Architects and designers who care about the pedestrian environment have figured out how to create streets and public spaces that attract people amid towering skyscrapers. Even the shadowy caverns of Lower Manhattan, built before zoning codes mandated building setbacks, appeal to some people — the area has been undergoing a residential boom for years.

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Trading Cars for Transit Passes “in the Middle of the Corn and Soybeans”

The Champaign-Urbana managed to boost walking, biking and transit rates. Photo: Wikipedia

The Champaign-Urbana region managed to boost walking, biking, and transit rates. Photo: Wikipedia

This post is part of a series featuring stories and research that will be presented at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference September 8-11 in Pittsburgh.

If Champaign-Urbana can make it easier to leave your car at home, any place can. That’s what local planner Cynthia Hoyle tells people about the progress her region has made over the last few years.

With great intention and years of work, this region of about 200,000 has reversed the growth of driving and helped get more people biking and taking transit. Since 2000, Champaign-Urbana has seen a 15 percent increase in transit ridership and a 2 percent decrease in vehicle miles traveled. The percentage of the population biking to work is up, and the percentage driving alone is down. Champaign-Urbana tracks its progress toward these goals on a publicly available report card.

“What I tell people is that if you can do it out here in the middle of the corn and soybeans, you can do it too,” said Hoyle, a planner with Alta Planning + Design who helped lead the process. “Everyone thinks this kind of stuff just happened in places like Portland.”

Hoyle outlined a few key steps along the region’s path toward more sustainable transportation:

1. Coordinate between government agencies to create walkable development standards

Champaign-Urbana’s sustainable mobility push began with the adoption of a long-range plan in 2004. The plan was part of a collaborative effort by local municipalities, the regional planning agency, and the local transit authority.

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Will Julián Castro Follow Shaun Donovan’s Smart Growth Path at HUD?

Losing Shaun Donovan at the helm of HUD was a blow for urbanists. This afternoon President Obama formally announced the nomination of San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro to replace Donovan as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. What will the transition mean for the agency, which under Donovan championed smart growth and the integration of transportation and housing programs?

If confirmed as the next HUD secretary, will San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro continue to steer the agency toward smart growth? Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/nowcastsa/5540637814/in/photolist-9rBdAb-6ryGLR-6ryGRP-6cfGst-9z3Xvb-68zf6P-67nK56-67nJ92-67nKCe-68zeQc-68zfbi-67rWrb-67rWeY-dPpFG8-dPpG5k-dPpFQM-dPvjtQ-dPvjm7-dPpFZD-dPpG9P-91Vg8L-ecs8DK-edGVCL-edBghz-edBg1r-97CV67-67rX3J-68zfCD-68DuaJ-68zeUT-68zf1g-67rX9u-67nJ3B-68DukL-67nKaM-68zfQc-68DsNS-68DurY-67nHKa-68zeDx-68zfHp-gqNDkw-6rCQBu-cdyAHh-cdyApw-cdyz6A-bWcg7D-cdyBad-cdyzMG-bWcgLp##NOWCastSA##

If confirmed as the next HUD secretary, will San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro continue to steer the agency toward smart growth? Photo: NOWCastSA

At HUD, Donovan was known to chastise the federal government for policies that encourage sprawl and disconnection. At a 2010 smart-growth conference, he emphasized one firm solution: “America must find a way to connect housing to jobs.” Under Donovan’s watch, HUD launched its Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, which works with DOT and EPA to ensure that all three agencies mesh — rather than clash — in their decisions.

With Donovan now expected to take a larger role in Obama’s administration with the top spot in the Office of Budget and Management, Castro is next in line for HUD.

Now in his fifth year and third term as San Antonio’s mayor, Castro, 39, has risen to national prominence in Democratic circles. This isn’t even his first chance at a cabinet role — he turned down a chance to become transportation secretary last year and has talked with Obama about the education post.

Clues for how Castro would fare at HUD come from his record governing the country’s seventh-largest city. A San Antonio native of Mexican descent, the Harvard Law grad first joined the City Council in 2001 at age 26 — the youngest person in the city’s history to do so. He took over as mayor in 2009, presenting a bold policy vision to shape the next decade of the city’s growth.

The fundamental goal of Castro’s SA 2020 plan is to transform San Antonio into a lively, economically competitive “brainpower community.” The plan aims to revitalize the downtown core and improve the streets, transit, and walkability.

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Omaha Developer Sells “Walkable Main Street” of Parking Lots

This development in Omaha is being as a "walkable" "Main Street." Image: Lockwood Development via Strong Towns

This development in Omaha is being billed as a “Main Street.” The white space is parking. Image: Lockwood Development via Strong Towns

As the downside of sprawling development becomes better understood, some developers are getting better at greenwashing sprawl.

Here’s a pretty great example from Omaha, Nebraska. Charles Marohn at Strong Towns came across a story about Lockwood Development’s new office park in the Omaha World-Herald. And he was so taken aback by the disparity between the rhetoric and the actual design, he had to write about it:

It uses all the current buzz words….

Mixed use. Redevelopment. Independent living. Walkable. Main Street.

Do those words mean anything? Sadly, Omaha’s Sterling Ridge Development — a so-called “Main Street” concept — is not even a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is a wolf in wolves’ clothing.

My favorite quote from the article, where words are simply objects with no real meaning, is this one: “The architects said the idea is for the multipurpose campus to be a walkable community where people work, live, play and worship.”

How quaint.

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Book Excerpt: “Dead End,” a Look at Sprawl and the Rebirth of Urbanism

Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism” is a new book by Ben Ross, longtime president of Maryland’s Action Committee for Transit and a frequent contributor to Greater Greater Washington. This excerpt is preceded by a section describing the post-war expansion into the suburbs and the surrender of public space to automobile traffic. Highways proliferated, congestion worsened, children’s play was prohibited in the street and often in the sidewalk, and pedestrians were engineered out of the roadway. 

There was a subtle but profound alteration in the way street corners are built. Curbs no longer meet at right angles; they swing around in broad curves. It became standard even in cities for the curb to start bending back 25 feet from the cross street. On busy suburban roads, the bend begins even farther from the corner. Those on foot must choose between dangerous crossings of broad asphalt expanses and annoying zigzags to where the road narrows. Cars round the turn at highway speed. The simple act of walking down the street is so perilous that pedestrians are sometimes warned to wear reflective clothing, as if they were in the woods during hunting season.

As cars and highways proliferated far outside the city limits,  the roads became increasingly hostile to pedestrians -- especially children playing. Photo: ##http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2009/Aug/27/after-long-span-footbridge/##U-T San Diego##

As cars and highways proliferated far outside the city limits, the roads became increasingly hostile to pedestrians — especially children playing. Photo: U-T San Diego

These changes were no mere whim of car-loving traffic engineers. Behind them stood the lobbying might of the trucking industry.

The truckers had fought for decades to put bigger vehicles on the roads, but they were long stymied by the railroads. A major battleground was Pennsylvania, where the Pennsylvania Railroad held sway over the legislature and limits on trucks were especially strict. A few weeks before the 1950 election, the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association divided $76,000 between the chairpersons of the state Democratic and Republican parties. It was, the association’s treasurer later conceded under oath, like betting on both teams at a baseball game, but he countered that “nothing was hidden, it was all out in the open.”

The truckers gained ground in the 1970s as their old antagonists weakened. But they still faced strenuous opposition from local governments and the American Automobile Association. Even highway engineers objected; they worried that bridges weren’t built to carry the weight of big trucks. Just before the 1974 election, the Truck Operators Nonpartisan Committee made last-minute campaign contributions to 117 congressional candidates from both parties. Six weeks later, the House of Representatives reversed an earlier vote, and weight limits were raised on interstate highways.

In December 1982, the truckers won full victory. The Reagan administration agreed to their demands in exchange for the industry’s acceptance of a tax increase that hit trucks harder than autos. Weight limits were raised again, and state limits on the length and width of trucks were overruled. Tractor-trailers could have trailers up to 48 feet long; soon the limit in most places was 53 feet.

A key provision, not fully understood by critics when the law was rushed through a lame-duck Congress, legalized the big trucks on many local roads as well as on the interstates. Road-builders had a new justification for designs that encourage cars to speed; pedestrians, ignored when the issue was under debate, were the victims. Lanes grew wider; curbs were pushed back at intersections so that extra-long vehicles could make the turn. And, because it was written into the statute, the neighbors had no way to object.

*****

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How Hartford’s Bet on Cars Set the Stage for Population Loss and Segregation

Since the 1960s, most of the Hartford region's population growth has been in formerly rural towns beyond the inner-ring suburbs. Image: ##http://metrohartfordprogresspoints.org/##Metro Hartford Progress Points##

Since the 1960s, most of the Hartford region’s population growth has been in formerly rural towns beyond the inner-ring suburbs. Image: Metro Hartford Progress Points

Hartford, Connecticut, has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. The urban renaissance that has visited so many cities hasn’t arrived there. Housing is still cheaper in the city than in the suburbs, and although suburban poverty is growing alarmingly fast, it’s nowhere near the levels seen in the city.

There are multiple complex factors that have contributed to Hartford’s woes. But one of them, clearly, is the degree to which the city enabled car-centric infrastructure to proliferate.

As Payton reported last week, Hartford tripled its downtown parking capacity between 1960 and 2000 while squeezing everything else onto 13 percent less land. Avert your eyes if you have a weak stomach:

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Why Is America Falling Farther Behind Other Nations on Street Safety?

The United States has fallen behind peer nations in reducing traffic fatalities. Image: International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group

The United States continues to fall farther behind peer nations in reducing traffic fatalities. Image: International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group

Vox, the much-anticipated Ezra Klein/Matt Yglesias/Melissa Bell reporting venture, launched earlier this week to wide fanfare, and one of the first articles explained that “traffic deaths are way, way down” in the United States.

It was exciting to see Vox show an interest in street safety, but writer Susannah Locke missed the mark with her take on the issue.

Locke called a decades-long reduction in traffic deaths to 33,561 in 2012 “a major public health victory.” What we’re talking about here is that only 11 of every 100,000 Americans were killed in traffic that year, which, she rightly points out, is a dramatic improvement compared to the 1970s, when the fatality rate was 27 per 100,000 people.

But compared to our international peers, the United States is still doing a poor job of reducing traffic deaths. Rather than hailing the decline in traffic fatalities in America, we should be asking why we continue to fall behind other countries when it comes to keeping people safe on our streets.

Americans are killed by traffic at an appalling rate compared to residents of peer nations, as shown in a review of dozens of countries by the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group [PDF]. In Japan, the traffic fatality rate is much lower — 4.3 deaths per 100,000 people in 2011. In Germany, the rate is 4.9 per 100,000. In Sweden, 3.4 per 100,000. And in the United Kingdom, just 3.1. If the United States had a comparable street safety record, tens of thousands of lives would be saved each year.

What’s shocking is not only that those countries have much lower rates of traffic deaths — it’s that they’ve also reduced those rates at a much more effective clip than the United States. The streets of our peer countries are becoming safer, faster.

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