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Posts from the "Urban Planning" Category

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Talking Headways Podcast: I’m Not a Scientist

podcast icon logoDo you ever think about the ecology of the city you live in? Not just the parks and the smog. Scientists are starting to examine urban ecosystems more holistically: the trees and the concrete, natural gas lines and soil, water pipes and rivers. The natural and the synthetic feed off each other in surprising ways. We’re not scientists, but we found it interesting.

Then we move from the ecosystem to the highway system — specifically, the argument made by Evan Jenkins in The Week to abolish the National Highway System. Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns thinks it’s a good idea. Jeff and I aren’t so sure. Could rail really pick up the slack? Would states make better decisions? What funding source would replace the federal gas tax?

Enjoy this, our 42nd episode of Talking Headways. Find us on the Twitters already. And oh yeah, also on iTunesStitcher, and the RSS feed.

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Fixing a Blank Wall Streetscape With Storefront Retrofits

Every city has places where the buildings present a blank face to the sidewalk. A dark, recessed arcade deadening the pedestrian environment or a soulless concrete wall fronting a windswept plaza.

Consultant Brent Toderian, formerly the planning director for the city of Vancouver, pointed out a cheap and easy solution to this problem. He calls them “blank wall retrofits,” storefronts that can be inserted over blank walls to add sidewalk-facing retail. He tweeted this great example in Calgary, Alberta: 

This retrofit fits between the lobby and plaza of the brutalist Westin Calgary and the sidewalk.

“It’s a great technique for dealing with fundamentally flawed architecture that presents blank walls to streets and public places,” Toderian says. ”Unlike ‘make-up on a pig’ — e.g. murals — this fundamentally changes the street edge condition. The pig is no longer a pig. It potentially changes un-urban to urban.”

We reached out to our readers to find more success stories. Here’s what they sent us.

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TransitMix: A New App for Your Fantasy Map

I’m a little intimidated by sharing my first fantasy transit map with an audience that I know to include some ardent and accomplished fantasy transit mappers. But here goes: my first attempt.

38 starfighter

It’s a little circuitous, but it connects neighborhoods that don’t have great connections right now. I didn’t bring it all the way into downtown, which is only another few blocks south, but they’re slow blocks, and everything already connects to downtown. Now that I think about it, I could probably start the route a little south of Takoma Park and shave off a little time. When I increased frequency and weekend night service, the cost jumped. As you can see, I’m beginning to realize the tradeoffs that go into transit planning.

I made this map using Transitmix, a new tool from Code for America. By the way, the route name and number — 38 Starfighter — were their idea, and better than anything I would have come up with.

Here’s what a more talented fantasy mapper than myself designed for Seattle:
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Talking Headways Podcast: Crown Prince of Fresh Air

podcast icon logoWhat would you think of a city planner, out ruffling feathers with his bold ideas about density and urbanism — who commutes to work an hour each way from his ranch way outside the city? Ironic — or hypocritical? That’s the question we wrestle with in our discussion of Brad Buchanan, the head honcho at Denver’s Department of Community Planning and Development.

And then we head from Denver to Dallas, where MPO chief Michael Morris has unilaterally declared that the plan to convert I-345 into a boulevard is going nowhere. Trouble is, he doesn’t actually have the authority to say that, and his facts are wrong. But by asserting it, will he make it true?

Say your piece in the comments. And subscribe to this podcast on iTunesStitcher, or our RSS feed.

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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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What Can an Algorithm Tell Us About How People Perceive Streets?

This map of perceived safety of New York City streets capes was developed using an algorithm by researchers at MIT. Click to use the interactive map.

This map of perceived safety of New York City streetscapes was created using an algorithm developed by researchers at MIT. Click to use the interactive map.

What makes people feel that a street is safe, and what do those perceptions tell us about different streets? A group of researchers at MIT have developed a formula designed to approximate people’s subjective reactions to the way streets look. They hope it will help chart shifts in the quality of city environments over time and prove useful to urban planners and architects seeking to better understand what makes streets appealing.

Based on survey responses from almost 8,000 people, the research team developed an algorithm they are using to rank the perceived safety of every streetscape image provided by Google Maps in New York, Boston, Chicago and Detroit. Using the algorithm enables the MIT researchers to rate many more streets than if they had relied on human surveys. They hope to eventually make maps like the one above available in every city in the Northeast and Midwest. They call the tool Streetscore.

The MIT team says their algorithm is a reliable mimic of how humans perceive visual cues in urban environments. Using a 1 to 10 scale, 84 percent of the time it can successfully predict whether real people will rate a street on the low end (less than 4.5) or the high end (more than 5.5). The factors incorporated by the algorithm are not public at this time.

The perception of “safety” that Streetscore approximates is defined vaguely, since the survey doesn’t explicitly distinguish between traffic violence and violent crime. But the researchers say they have found a correlation between homicide rates and Streetscore ratings in New York. Meanwhile, a look at the New York City map reveals that some streets with high rates of traffic injuries and fatalities, like Queens Boulevard, rate poorly, while others, like the leafier Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, rate well. Industrial zones and streets under elevated highways stand out as some of the lowest-scoring streets in New York.

The researchers note in their report [PDF] that “suburban houses with manicured lawns and streets lined with trees” tend to score highly. However, the New York City map shows that several extremely dense urban streets, such as Manhattan avenues, also get very high scores.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Poor Door Von Spreckelsen

podcast icon logoIn this week’s podcast, Jeff and I take on the infamous New York City “poor door,” designed to keep tenants of affordable units segregated from the wealthy residents that occupy the rest of the high-rise at 40 Riverside. In the process, we take on the assumptions and methods that cities use to provide housing, and by the time we’re done, we’ve blown a hole in the whole capitalist system.

Then we investigate the reasons behind the assertion that “restaurants really can determine the fate of cities and neighborhoods.” We determine that food is mostly a proxy for other needs people have related to where they live, but we do love a good pupusa.

And finally, we wrestle with the paradox that if we love nature, we should live in cities.

Argue with our take on urbanism, economic justice, and burrito justice in the comments. Subscribe on iTunesStitcher, or our RSS feed.

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Talking Headways Special Episode: Walt Disney, City Planner

In the fifties, Walt Disney became more interested in making places than making movies. Photo: ##http://blogs.disney.com/insider/articles/2014/04/06/60-years-ago-disneyland-starts-journey-from-dream-to-reality/##Disney Insider##

In the 1950s, Walt Disney became more interested in making places than making movies. Photo: Disney Insider

While most people know Walt Disney as the creator of lovable characters like Mickey Mouse and movies like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Fantasia,” Disney doesn’t get as much credit for his design of Disneyland. Turns out Disney made himself an expert on the subject.

This podcast isn’t a typical Talking Headways conversation. It’s a 45-minute special feature episode, produced by Jeff for the Overhead Wire, on one topic: the history and ideas of Walt Disney the planner. Guests Sam Gennawey, an urban planner and author of three books on Walt Disney, and Tim Halbur, director of communications for the Congress for the New Urbanism, discuss in detail Walt’s focus on planning places for people in Disneyland, Disney World, and even Celebration, Florida.

We hope you’ll take a listen and enjoy. We’ll be back next week with your regular dose of news and banter from Talking Headways.

As always, you can subscribe to the Talking Headways Podcast on iTunes or Stitcher or by signing up for our RSS feed, and we always love hearing from you in the comments.

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New Urban Love and Loathing in Buffalo: Jeff Speck Responds

Larkin Square's Food Truck Tuesdays are one example of Buffalo's recent successes in revitalizing its urban core. Photo: ##http://www.larkinsquare.com/##Larkin Square##

Larkin Square’s Food Truck Tuesdays are one example of Buffalo’s recent successes in revitalizing its urban core. Photo: Larkin Square

As a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, I’ve now attended twenty of the organization’s annual conferences. This month’s event may have been my favorite yet, mostly thanks to its location in downtown Buffalo, a place that reminds us so poignantly of both the successes and failures of city planning, as first lovingly practiced and later ruthlessly perpetrated across America.

Most of the local residents in attendance — and there were many — seemed to enthusiastically embrace New Urbanism’s ethos of redesigning our cities around people rather than cars, recognizing how the auto age had perhaps done as much damage to downtown Buffalo as its devastating loss of industry.

But there are always exceptions. In the Buffalo News’ only prominent review of the event, art critic Colin Dabkowski wrote an “open letter to the New Urbanist movement,” that centered upon a damning critique of my community lecture there and also of my book, Walkable City, which he seems to have read in part.

The thoughts that follow are my response to Dabkowski’s review. The Buffalo News worked with me to craft this article as an Op-Ed for Sunday’s paper. Then, three hours from press time, they demanded that I remove most of my references to  Mr. Dabkowski’s error-loaded text. Not excited by that prospect, I am sharing my comments here instead.

I suppose that my biggest surprise in reading the Buffalo News article came from the fact that I had been expecting to hear such a critique sooner. In the eighteen months since Walkable City came out — and over more than 100 reviews — all but the most sympathetic critics seem to have been largely silent. I was waiting for comments like these, but eventually gave up.

The reason I was waiting is because two of the book’s central arguments — “Downtowns First” and “Urban Triage” — imply winners and losers, and I have seen at least the first argument anger people in the past. Folks who don’t live in downtown are often resentful seeing money spent there, whether they find their homes in cash-strapped slums or wealthy suburbs.

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Lakewood, Ohio: The Suburb Where Everyone Can Walk to School

The inner Cleveland suburb of Lakewood (population 51,000) calls itself a “walking school district.” Lakewood has never had school buses in its history, and kids grow up walking and biking to school.

Mornings and afternoons are a beehive of activity on streets near schools, as kids and parents walk to and from classrooms. You can feel the energy. The freedom of being able to walk and socialize with friends is incalculable.

According to city planner Bryce Sylvester, Lakewood strives to design neighborhoods so that all children are within walking distance of their school. These decisions have paid off financially, saving the city about a million dollars annually, according to Lakewood City School District spokesperson Christine Gordillo.