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Posts from the "Urban Design" Category

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Arlington Strikes Walking Gold in a River of Highways and Pentagon Sprawl

Urbanists have long told tales of the success story of Arlington, Virginia. Named a gold-level walk-friendly community by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, this Washington, DC suburb made the smart decision in the 70s to develop along the metrorail line. Because of that, Arlington workers drive alone at a rate 25 percent lower than the region as a whole and take transit more than twice as much. With 11 Metro stations in its jurisdiction, Arlington has more transit ridership than the rest of Virginia combined. Five percent walk or bike to work and carpooling is at three times the regional rate [PDF].

Wikipedia uses this picture of Ballston to illustrate its entry on transit-oriented development. But the Pentagon City neighborhood presents more challenges to walkability.

But it wasn’t written on the clouds that Arlington would develop this way. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a community with more obstacles to overcome on its way to smart growth — and yet, it’s doing it.

Arlington County, at just 26 square miles, is the smallest and densest county in the nation. But it’s far from homogenous. The main-street-style Arlington with wide brick sidewalks, cute cafes and indie bars — the part people are usually thinking of when they’re lauding the city for its smart development — exists along the orange line in the dense, mixed-use neighborhoods of Rosslyn, Clarendon, and Ballston. These neighborhoods have taller apartment and office buildings than are allowed in DC, creating a lot of density and a semi-urban feel — even though those tall buildings line wide arterial streets with lots of fast-moving traffic.

The parts of Arlington just south of the Pentagon, on the blue and yellow Metro lines, don’t get as much “walking-gold” spotlight. The Pentagon is the country’s largest office building, and it’s a fortress, disconnected from the community by a mess of highways. The “community” on the other side of those highways is a constellation of shopping malls on either side of a wide arterial road. Still, Arlington’s Director of Transportation Dennis Leach said this area has the best mode split in the county, with 20 percent car-free households, and is making more major infrastructure changes than any other part of the county — against all odds.

I was there last week on a walking tour as part of the National Walking Summit. Several Arlington planners were on hand to tell us about the streetcars, green bike lanes and café seating we’d soon be seeing along Hayes Street, but for now, it’s a car-centric hellscape. We stood outside a metro station with covered bike parking, yelling over the engine noise of an idling charter bus sitting outside the Fashion Centre shopping mall. Planner Kate Youngbluth admitted the multimodal project in Pentagon City is still in its “ugly duckling phase.”

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NACTO Urban Street Design Guide Sets Out to Change the DNA of Our Cities

Innovative street designs like this low-cost pedestrian plaza in lower Manhattan can provide more space for people and protect them from vehicle traffic. Photo: NACTO

In a direct challenge to the long-standing authority of state DOTs to determine how transportation infrastructure gets designed, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) yesterday launched its Urban Street Design Guide.

NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide has already empowered cities around the country to embrace protected bike lanes and other innovative designs that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has shied away from in its engineering bible, known as the “green book.” The Federal Highway Administration has even endorsed NACTO’s guide, and the agency is currently drafting its own bicycle facilities guidance, which will likely fall somewhere in between.

The Street Design Guide goes much further, giving engineering guidance on everything from crosswalks (zebra-striped, please, for greater visibility) to parklets (go ahead, usurp a few parking spots!) and from contra-flow bus lanes (bicycles optional) to slow zones (speed humps, tables, and cushions). As NYC DOT Commissioner and NACTO President Janette Sadik-Khan said, it’s a new DNA for city streets.

Those are treatments you won’t find in AASHTO’s green book. “Most of the design guidance that we work with on the city side is really targeted toward suburban areas and rural areas and is not really designed to meet the challenges of our streets,” Sadik-Khan told a standing-room-only crowd last night at the Newseum in Washington, DC. “So many things have changed in 50 years, but our streets haven’t, and our design guidance certainly hasn’t.”

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Crawlable Urbanism: Cities Are for Kids, Too

All of a sudden, I feel like all anyone is talking about is whether it’s a good idea to raise kids in the city. I’m raising a kid in the city. I feel great about it when she has a blast on the back of the bike, or makes friends on the bus, or gets excited about pressing the beg button at the corner. I feel a little less certain when we toddle down the sidewalk and come upon guys peeing on the dumpster or passed out on the stoop. When I look at the test scores for our neighborhood schools, I get a knot in my stomach.

You knew I was going to post a picture of my kid in this story, didn't you? There's Luna at the fountain in Columbia Heights.

A few days ago I visited my friends’ new home in Potomac, a wealthy, second-ring suburb with enviable schools. Their new house sits on two acres with a pool and a basketball court. After a few hours sipping beer in their landscaped yard and watching our children frolic in the pool, I had to do some mental gymnastics to remind myself why I didn’t pick this path for myself.

This City? Childless?

But the fact is, despite its obvious allure, that path is being chosen by fewer and fewer people. Even among families with kids, many who could afford 5,000 square feet with a pool are increasingly opting for a smaller house, a pool club membership, a shorter commute, and transit access.

In the current issue of City Journal, Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres pretty much erased this reality — my reality, mind you — with their silly article, “The Childless City”:

Even the partial rebirth of American cities since [the 1960s] hasn’t been enough to lure families [with kids] back. The much-ballyhooed and self-celebrating “creative class” — a demographic group that includes not only single professionals but also well-heeled childless couples, empty nesters, and college students — occupies much of the urban space once filled by families. Increasingly, our great American cities, from New York and Chicago to Los Angeles and Seattle, are evolving into playgrounds for the rich, traps for the poor, and way stations for the ambitious young en route eventually to less congested places. The middle-class family has been pushed to the margins, breaking dramatically with urban history.

Joel Kotkin's idea of city life. Woo-hoo! Photo: Splash News/Corbis via City Journal

“The Childless City” is illustrated with a picture — I’m not kidding you — of “the casts of The Real World and Jersey Shore party[ing] it up at a New York nightclub.” That, to them, illustrates the modern city.

I’d like to take Joel Kotkin on a child’s-eye tour of Washington, DC, a city emptied out a few decades ago by crack and riots and mayhem. Talk about a rebirth.

I’d bring him along to the bilingual story hour at the local library, which is walking distance even for my toddler. I’d show him parents taking the bus with their kids down to the National Mall to see dinosaur skeletons and war planes in our world-class museums. I’d encourage him to play in the fountain in the plaza of the transit-oriented neighborhood of Columbia Heights along with scores of wet, shrieking children of all colors and incomes. And after he got his soak on, I’d even buy him frozen yogurt, Chilean empanadas, vegan cupcakes, or Central American fried chicken from the establishments lining the plaza.

All of these child-friendly urban amenities are invisible to Kotkin. “We have embarked on an experiment to rid our cities of children,” he declares. The rent is too high, the yards are too small, the schools are too bad, the neighbors are too sketchy.

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How Mayor Mick Cornett Fought Oklahoma City’s Brain Drain and Weight Gain

Part One of this interview was posted yesterday.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett (R) has made it his mission to make his city healthier and less obese, in part by improving its walkability. The city lost a million pounds during his weight-loss campaign — and then they took a freeway out of the middle of downtown and overhauled its built environment.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett is doing some revolutionary things in a conservative city. Photo: Flickr

I interviewed Mayor Cornett last week when he was in Washington, DC for the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors. In the first installment, posted yesterday, Cornett described the excitement among city officials when the rules changed and they were asked to think outside the car-centric box. He said they built sidewalks and parks and bike trails with locally-raised funds, even over the objections of the fire and police unions. And while he welcomes federal money for projects like these, he’s at peace with other Oklahomans who see things differently — though he worries that less federal funding will result in less equality among cities.

So now you’re all caught up. Here’s Part Two.

Tanya Snyder: It seems like there are more and less successful ways of talking about [livable cities] with different people. You have a pretty conservative constituency. Does it hurt the cause that Michelle Obama is out in front on obesity, and does it hurt the cause that walkability is associated with sustainable development, is associated with Agenda 21, is associated with climate change initiatives — what you’re doing is nonpartisan, you’re just trying to get people fit and healthy.

Mayor Mick Cornett: There is some pushback about — as you mentioned, Agenda 21 and anything that comes out of the White House. But at the end of the day, people elect mayors to get things done. You might elect a Congressman to go up and stop something. But you don’t elect a mayor to stop things form happening. You elect an executive branch person — a mayor, a governor, a president — to do things.

I close with this: “We’re creating a city where your kid and grandkid are going to choose to live.” And they know it’s true.

So I’ve never let that slow me down. I will say that one secret to our success is that we’ve been able to convince the suburbanite that their quality of life is directly related to the intensity of the core. And so they have continually passed initiatives to support inner-city projects, sometimes at the expense of the suburbs.

TS: How did you do that?

MC: Here’s what I do. I try to win an intellectual argument. I stand toe-to-toe with a lot of retired suburbanites who don’t like downtown, don’t like me, are tired of funding taxation. I’m serious, they have more negativity than you could possibly imagine.

And when I’ve lost on every turn and every argument in this debate that takes place in neighborhood after neighborhood I close with this: “We’re creating a city where your kid and grandkid are going to choose to live.”

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Study: Shorter Blocks May Be the Key to Cutting Traffic in Small Cities

It’s well-established that density and mixed-use development reduce driving. Right? But strategies like those don’t work the same way everywhere, according to new research published in the Journal of Transport and Land Use. While in major cities, denser development is linked to lower rates of driving, researchers found that in smaller cities it might not have much effect at all. The research suggests that for smaller cities, a focus on reducing block sizes and improving street connectivity may be the most effective way to cut down on driving, though the authors caution that more research is needed to draw universal conclusions.

According to new research, block sizes help explain why some people drive less than others in Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Joey Sheely, Wikimedia

The research team, sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration, sought to drill down and identify how urban characteristics affect driving levels in different types of places. They looked at four different case studies: Seattle, WA; Richmond-Petersburg and Norfolk-Virginia Beach, VA (grouped together as one case study); Baltimore, MD; and Washington, DC. Using travel surveys and land use information, they modeled the impact on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) of five factors: residential density, employment density, mixed-use development, average block size (which they use as a stand-in for “measuring transit/walking friendliness”), and infill development (or distance to city center).

While the authors knew from previous research that these five factors all contributed to reducing VMT, they found that the Virginia regions didn’t follow the same patterns as the other three. In the smaller urban areas of Richmond-Petersburg and Norfolk-Virginia Beach, they found, mixed-use development did not have a significant impact on reducing driving.

“This is probably because in smaller urban areas, even those living in neighborhoods with well mixed land development may still need to travel far to reach work and non-work destinations,” the researchers write. “In other words, mixed development areas are less likely to be self-sufficient in smaller urban areas.” Mixing uses proved to be a good way to reduce driving in the larger metros.

These findings would seem to show a major weakness of New Urbanist-style “town centers” developed in otherwise suburban areas. A small walkable area isn’t enough to actually spark a real shift in transportation habits – the urban area has to be big enough that most people’s needs can be satisfied without a car. But lead researcher Lei Zhang said the findings don’t warrant that conclusion. “The paper has a small sample size,” Zhang said. “I wouldn’t want to generalize the results to other places.”

Zhang and his team are working on another paper that broadens the scope of their analysis to 20 urban areas. They hope this bigger data set will help planners evaluate land-use plans and how those decisions affect driving rates in different types of places.

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DIY Urbanism: No Permits, No Red Tape, No Going Back

You have dreamed about striping your own bike lane on your most-traveled routes. You got your street closed off for a block party. Maybe you even spent the afternoon feeding the meter on Park(ing) Day.

Go ahead. Do It Yourself. Photo: Building Green

You just may be the next tactical urbanist to join the ranks of those who make it their business to make their cities better. These aren’t necessarily the ones who sit in community meetings and focus groups, hashing out city-drawn plans that will sit on the shelves a few years (or decades) longer. Tactical urbanists are the doers. Some transportation chiefs like Janette Sadik-Khan and Gabe Klein are doers, but you don’t need to have a top job in a major metropolitan transportation department to transform your street. You just need to be a bit of a badass.

Mike Lydon of the Street Plans Collaborative is sort of the godfather of the tactical urbanism movement. Some people can’t visualize change until they see it themselves, he told a packed forum yesterday at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. But once they see it, they don’t want to go back.

Well, you may be thinking, it’s all fine and good to get your ya-yas out for a day by doing some guerrilla gardening or what have you. People who are serious about improving their cities are just going to have to suffer through those community meetings and go through the proper channels. But Lydon says DIY urban improvement isn’t just immediate – it can be lasting, too.

In fact, most of the time, these overnight streetscape changes are made to get the attention of officials with the power to make them permanent. Even Portland’s Depave group, which literally takes a jackhammer to asphalt they don’t like, now gets funding from the city. Is there a danger of cooptation when the government starts funding and partnering with these guerrilla movements? No, Lydon says: Most of the time, getting the attention and support of people in power is the whole idea.

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USA Today: Homebuilders Pass On Garages, Build Front Porches

USA Today reported today that more and more homes are being built without garages or carports. That stands to reason, as developers are (belatedly) building what the market wants: denser housing in walkable urban centers near transit. Copious parking and driveway curb cuts simply don’t mesh with that model.

My front porch. Photo: Tanya Snyder

At the peak of the housing boom in 2004 — when the exurbs were still thriving — 92 percent of new homes had a car shelter. By 2010 it was down to 87 percent, and held steady in 2011. National Association of Home Builders’ Stephen Melman told USA Today it was a positive sign “about public transportation if new construction is starting to be built closer to employment centers or transit.”

Almost as exciting: Front porches are making a comeback. “Two-thirds of new homes built in 2011 had a porch,” write USA Today’s Haya El Nasser and Paul Overberg, “a trend that has been on a steady rise for almost 10 years, according to a Census survey of construction.”

Impressively, they don’t take this trend at face value, assuming it’s nothing more than a housing fad. They dig deeper into emerging consumer preferences for how we want to live and what kind of society we want — one with “smaller houses and dense neighborhoods that promote walking and social interaction.”

Bingo! Using real estate prices as a guide, developer and walkability guru Chris Leinberger shows that walkable urban places, which he calls WalkUPs, have tremendous and growing appeal. Dr. Green admitted he was surprised by how high the premiums are for walkable neighborhoods. Office space in WalkUPs can (and does) command a 75 percent premium over the drivable suburbs. And residential rents are 71 percent higher in walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods.

The increased sociability of those sought-after neighborhoods may have something to do with the fact that porches are displacing back decks as the outdoor hangout of choice. Despite overwhelming evidence that what Americans want most is privacy, more and more people are opting to face the street and see their neighbors, rather than hide behind hedgerows.

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Leinberger: Walkable Urbanism Is the Future, and DC Is the Model

Chris Leinberger wears too many hats to count – real estate developer, George Washington University professor, Brookings fellow – but he has one message: “Walkable urbanism is the future.”

Capital Bikeshare riders under DC's Chinatown arch. Photo: DC: The WalkUP Wake-Up Call

For years now, Leinberger has been preaching the gospel that the postwar era of automobile-oriented “drivable suburbanism” is over – and urbanism is the new wave. He’s even developed his own lingo for it: He now refers to walkable urban places as WalkUPs.

In a report released this week called DC: The WalkUP Wake-Up Call [PDF], Leinberger explores the six different kinds of “regionally significant” WalkUPs, using Washington, DC as the model. Indeed, he claims DC is the model of walkable urbanism, a pioneer of the trend.

Of the six types of WalkUPs in Leinberger’s framework, three are urban and three are suburban. Cities have the traditional downtown, “downtown adjacent” neighborhoods like Dupont Circle or Capitol Hill, and “urban commercial” areas like Adams Morgan or H Street. Suburbs have their own town centers like Bethesda, strip commercial redevelopment like White Flint, and greenfield development, like Reston.

Most growth over next 30 years will happen in strip commercial redevelopments, according to Leinberger, and at the vanguard is Tysons Corner – “the world’s largest drivable sub-urban concentration of commercial enterprises” — now on its way toward walkable, transit-oriented urbanism.

Indeed, Leinberger’s brand of urbanism largely looks outside central cities. It’s Washington’s suburbs that have really caught his attention. Of the 43 WalkUPs he identifies in the DC area, “a surprising 58 percent are in the suburbs,” comprising 51 percent of the square footage.

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Governors Get on Board With Smart Growth

From left: former Gov. Chet Culver (D-IA), NPR editor Christopher Swope, former Gov. Parris Glendening (D-MD), former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman (R-NJ), former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, former Gov. Tom Ridge (R-PA) -- at yesterday's launch of the federal collaboration with the Governors' Institute on Community Design. Photo: Tanya Snyder

As yesterday’s post about Oklahoma City’s fight to replace a downtown highway with a real urban boulevard illustrated so well, cities are often at the vanguard of smart urban planning and transportation choices while state-level agencies can be laggards. So it’s nice to see some governors and ex-governors stepping forward to emphasize the value of smart growth policies.

The Governors’ Institute on Community Design isn’t a brand new undertaking — it’s been around since 2005 — but it’s just gotten some high-profile support which could catapult it to a different level.

Yesterday, a bipartisan group of six governors and ex-governors celebrated the new support of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities – the collaboration of HUD, DOT, and EPA — for the Governor’s Institute. This kind of collaborative work, among federal agencies and with the states, is “common sense writ large,” said U.S. DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari at the event. “But it wasn’t done in the past.”

States are where the rubber hits the road, he said, and the federal government needs to help them take smart action.

The Institute’s staff advises states on everything from agriculture and economic development to transportation and housing. They hold workshops in states, hosted by the governors themselves, to give specific advice tailored to the needs and particularities of that places.

Its prescriptions are well grounded in the smart growth philosophy. For example, the Institute’s 14 policies for transportation include strategic planning, a “fix-it-first” approach, and complete streets. They evaluate communities based on street grid connectivity and transit-oriented development, not old-school criteria like vehicle level-of-service.

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Separate But Eco: Livable Communities for Whom?

New plans and developments, such as the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Plan pictured above, are great for the environment, but what impact does it have on the community it's placed in? Image via City Planning

Note: The authors are active advocates in the urban sustainability movement, focusing on non-motorized transportation in low-income urban areas. As mixed race women of color, we believe that we are in a unique position to bridge the advocacy communities trying to better conditions for the urban poor and for the environment. In this series, we draw on our experiences in the bicycle and environmental movements to shed light on the unfortunate divides we have noticed between urban sustainability communities and low-income communities of color.

When environmental advocates talk about urban sustainability, we often focus on how people use space and how we can encourage design that has a lesser impact on the environment.  How do people get around, are there single or mixed use developments, how can we minimize commutes between work, the grocery store, and home? Rarely do we mention class differences in who lives in the same neighborhoods or, crucially, the issue of segregation and how discrimination has shaped where Americans live and with whom they associate.

Surely we’re aware of the legacies of 1950’s white flight and urban redevelopment, where cars enabled Americans to flee the supposed contamination of newly integrating city centers. We know about the subsequent trend where city agencies labeled those neighborhoods left behind as “blighted slums” ripe for redevelopment. And yet we remain silent about the parallel between these twentieth century traumas and our current interest in promoting urban sustainability in these same areas through large scale economic redevelopment. Because race and class inequalities have been left out of the conversation, eco-friendly developments that aim to increase property values and, consequently, reduce affordable housing stock, get promoted as the key to urban sustainability.

Sustaining the ethnic and cultural diversity of our shared spaces should be an explicit priority of the environmental movement, and this means confronting the trend toward making “eco-friendly” neighborhoods primarily exclusive enclaves of wealth. We have seen this in countless neighborhoods in Los Angeles, New York, and Portland, where bike lanes often get striped in “up and coming” neighborhoods only after more affluent residents move in.

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