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Posts from the "Congress for the New Urbanism" Category

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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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FHWA Endorses Engineering Guide for Walkable Urban Streets

A new engineering guide gives transportation professionals design standards tailored for urban streets. Image: CNU.org

Urban streets serve a much different purpose than rural ones: They’re for walking, socializing, and local commerce, not just moving vehicles. Unfortunately, American engineering guides tend not to capture these nuances.

That can lead to a lot of problems for cities. Wide roads appropriate for rural areas are dangerous and bad for local businesses in an urban setting.

But there’s change on the horizon. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Engineers’ “Green Book,” the so-called bible of transportation engineering, has some new competition specially designed for urban places.

Last month, the Federal Highway Administration gave its stamp of approval to two new engineering guides: the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ bikeway design guide, which features street treatments like protected bike lanes, and Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach, designed to help cities build streets that are walkable and safe for all users.

The urban thoroughfares guide, produced by the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the Congress for the New Urbanism, is based on the concept of “context sensitive solutions,” which seeks to balance the movement of vehicles with other objectives, like promoting active transportation and fostering retail businesses. Both guides are now recommended by FHWA as companions to AASHTO’s guide.

Jeffrey Tumlin, a consultant with Nelson\Nygaard and an adviser to the development of the urban thoroughfares guide, said the revolutionary thing about it is the engineering guidance about the important ways urban “arterials” differ from rural highways. Problems can arise when the Green Book is applied to cities because it is written by the organization of state DOTs, which are mainly concerned with highway building, not local streets.

“While AASHTO guidelines do accommodate a broad array of street designs, where they are weak is providing designers with information about the way in which local streets are very different,” said Tumlin. “Engineers need more thorough guidance on the ways in which urban arterials are distinct from rural highways and ways in which to design those arterials to prioritize a wide variety of objectives.”

The new ITE guide instructs engineers to “use performance measures that benefit all modes,” and to consider the surrounding area — the character of the community — when designing streets.

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Petitioning U.S. DOT to Recognize That City Streets Should Prioritize Walking

The FHWA applies the same design standards to city streets as to suburban arterial roads.

The Federal Highway Administration classifies roads as either “rural” or “urbanized.” But the “urbanized” label is deceptive, because it applies suburban street design standards to any street that isn’t rural. So if you live in, say, downtown St. Louis, the FHWA applies the same standards to your streets as to the streets in Orlando’s most distant suburbs. This contributes to a horrendous mismatch: Many city streets where walking should take precedence are in fact designed for moving massive amounts of traffic.

Now there’s a petition drive underway to change that. John Massengale, Victor Dover, and Richard Hall — a team of planners and architects that are involved with the Congress for New Urbanism — are circulating asking U.S. DOT to develop more city-friendly standards.

The trio recommends establishing separate standards for urban and suburban streets, introducing new priorities that place pedestrians first on city streets. From their letter to U.S. DOT:

The new standards for Urban Areas would be fundamentally different than the current Urbanized standards. Two-way streets, narrow traffic lanes, bicycle sharrows, and a prohibition on slip lanes and turn lanes would be the norm. In large cities, faster urban routes might be limited to broad boulevards and parkways. Small-town residential streets and Main Streets would be similarly transformed, according to their context.

The team calls their proposal a “simple but powerful idea could transform America’s streets and make our neighborhoods, cities and towns more walkable.” As of this afternoon, the petition needs only about 60 signatures to reach the goal of 500 supporters.

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Freeways Without Futures: CNU Is Taking Nominations!

Image: iStockphoto/Diverstudio via Salon

We’re suckers for a good contest and here’s a great one: Congress for the New Urbanism is seeking video submissions to determine the most hopeless disaster of a freeway in America.

Do you have a highway in your community that deserves to be torn down? An antiquated beast of vehicle throughput cutting residences off from services and jobs? A six-lane nightmare bisecting a community with no safe way across except in a car? CNU wants to know about it. Tell them what impact the road has on the community and what you’d replace it with — in three minutes or less.

The initial deadline for the video contest was March 3 but they’ve extended it until April 29. That gives you just over a month to identify the worst dinosaur roadway near you and put together a creative little video about it. (Yes, creative: They’re looking for creativity, originality, and relevance, in equal portions.)

Do it for the glory, do it for the street cred, and do it for the cash: First place gets $500, second place gets $250, five runners-up get free CNU memberships. The rest of you just get the glory.

We’ll post the winning videos here on Streetsblog when they’re announced.

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Federal Housing Administration Clears Way for More Walkable Development

Over the last five years America has seen an historic housing downturn, but the prevailing trend hasn’t sapped demand for walkable, urban development, especially in many larger metros.

This walkable development in Atlanta was denied FHA funding, under antiquated restrictions, because plans contained too much retail. Photo: Congress for the New Urbanism

Until recently, however, Federal Housing Administration regulations made it difficult for developers to provide the kind of housing consumers are demanding. Now, thanks in large part to the efforts of groups like Congress for the New Urbanism and the National Association of Realtors, the feds are revising outdated regulations that have hampered the growth of mixed-use housing.

Last month, FHA loosened a restriction that forbade government-backed loans from supporting condominium projects that contained more than 25 percent commercial space. New rules will allow credit to flow to projects with up to 35 percent commercial space — or 50 percent in certain cases where the developer applies for an exemption.

“This is one indication that FHA is making big strides,” said CNU spokesperson Benjamin Schulman. “We view this as the first step in this long process to reform the regulation.”

Next CNU would like to see the commercial share threshold raised for multi-family housing projects administered by HUD, he said.

Better Cities and Towns reports that the restrictions on commercial space were grandfathered in from the 1930s, when mixed-use buildings were placed in a higher-risk category. Since then, a “form follows finance” phenomenon, led by federal agencies like FHA, helped turn America into a nation of  suburban, single-family-housing dwellers.

According to the LA Times, the new rules could be a big boost for the nation’s condo market, which has been performing well below expectations.

Streetsblog LA 1 Comment

CNU Hones Its Transportation Agenda in Long Beach

CNU Transportation Summit - PWPB 2012

Long Beach engineer Rock Miller, standing beside League of American Bicyclists president Andy Clarke, discussing the first test case of cycle-track facilities in the city with the CNU Bikeway Networks groups.

Preceding the start of the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference this week, the Congress for the New Urbanism met at the Renaissance Hotel across from the Long Beach Convention Center to convene their annual CNU Transportation Summit. At the summit, CNU develops its transportation agenda, including new and existing projects. Having caught the new urbanist bug in Florida at CNU 20, I was eager to have another opportunity to both learn and contribute to their dialogue.

The summit is organized in a manner similar to the “open source” sessions of the full CNU conference each year. Smaller breakout groups, with a leader for each, split off to tackle various topics in a close circle of collaboration. The summit groups included: Transit Networks, Highways to Boulevards, Transportation Reform Modeling, Regional Policy & Functional Classification Reform, Transportation Reform Research Agenda, Street Vitality Index, and Bikeway Networks. Behind many of the big ideas, reports and documents distributed by the CNU and its membership over the years, there were first small groups hashing things out together on note pads. Read more…

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12 Freeways to Watch (‘Cause They Might Be Gone Soon)

If you make your home on the Louisiana coastline, upstate New York or the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, chances are you live near a highway that really has it coming. It’s big. It’s ugly. It goes right through city neighborhoods. And it just might be coming down soon.

New Orleans' Claibourne Overpass is this year's Congress for New Urbanism choice for "Freeway without a Future." Photo: CNU.org

Last week the Congress for New Urbanism released its updated list of “Freeways Without Futures” — 12 transportation anachronisms that are increasingly likely to meet the wrecking ball.

This year’s top finisher was New Orleans’ Claiboure Overpass — a 1960s-era eyesore that replaced a thriving, tree-lined commercial street at the center of the city’s oldest, most culturally vibrant black neighborhood. The teardown for this highway has some real traction; a master plan to remove the elevated portion is expected to be endorsed by City Council shortly, according to CNU.

The Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx is runner up, the same position it held in CNU’s 2008 Freeways Without Futures list. This riverfront disaster was bestowed by the master highway builder himself, Robert Moses. Residents of the Bronx have successfully fought off two separate proposals to expand the Sheridan, which runs right along the Bronx River. A coalition of community groups and advocates called the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance has led the charge to replace the freeway with housing and parks, and a group of cities agencies are now examining teardown scenarios with the help of a federal TIGER grant.

The third-place finisher is New Haven’s Route 34 (the Oak Street Connector), which is slated for demolition. New Haven received TIGER funds to convert the road into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard and local officials are currently haggling over the design details — there’s a chance they’ll opt to replace a highway with a road that feels like a highway.

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New Urbanists Release Principles for Sustainable Street Networks

At the Transportation Research Board’s 91st annual meeting here in DC, it’s hard to miss the booth handing out copies of a bright blue pamphlet filled with illustrations of busy tree-lined streets, where bicyclists and buses work their way through a bustling urban bazaar. The booth is the Congress for New Urbanism’s “occupation” of TRB, and the pamphlet is their new illustrated Sustainable Street Network Principles, a document aimed at explaining in very basic terms what’s wrong with America’s streets — and how to fix them.

The new illustrated edition of CNU's Sustainable Street Network Principles debuted this week. Image: CNU

The goal of the Principles is to promote development patterns that add value to communities. The way to do that, said CNU President John Norquist, is to design streets to play three simultaneous roles: that of a transportation thoroughfare, a commercial marketplace, and a public space. “Typically, U.S. DOT and State DOTs tend to look at roads only in the dimension of movement, and even in that one dimension, their rural-style forms fail in the city,” Norquist says.

The principles are a plain-language counterpart to the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ “Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares,” a collaborative effort with CNU which came out in March 2010 and is written in “engineerese” according to Norquist. By contrast, “the Principles are very readable,” he said, “and can be used to encourage local public works authorities or departments of transportation to do something in cities that adds value to neighborhoods.”

Those authorities don’t always have a very good record in that department. For decades now, government transportation policy has been geared toward speeding up long trips, while ignoring issues of walkability and the corresponding value added to neighborhoods. “If one person has to cross the street to get to work, and another drives 25 miles to work in the same building, the government is obsessed with helping the guy who drives, even though the guy who walks contributes more net value [by using fewer resources, spending less time in traffic, etc.]” Norquist told Streetsblog. “If you look at the little blue book, it’s designed to challenge that idea.”

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Federal Regulations at Odds with Demand for Urban Housing

Despite growing demand, developers of mixed-used development face an additional hurdle thanks to outdated federal regulations. Photo: CNU

The real estate market is undergoing the most rapid period of change in a generation — and the shift is decidedly urban. A succession of recent studies have found there is an under-supply of urban-style housing — attached and small-lot, single-family homes — on the scale of about 13 million units. On the other hand, there is an estimated oversupply of detached housing in the car-based suburbs of about 28 million units.

Public policy hasn’t quite caught up with the market, say the experts at the Congress for the New Urbanism. The Federal Housing Administration and its subsidiaries, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are discouraging urban-style housing developments.

HUD lending standards dictate that the total value of mixed-use development projects can’t be more than 15 to 20 percent retail. Fannie caps retail share at 20; Freddie at 25 percent. And these standards set the tone for the private market — a tone that is consequently skewed toward single-family housing, and away from the pent-up demand for urban development with walkable amenities.

“It’s really disrupting the market,” said John Norquist, president of Congress for the New Urbanism. “It’s making it hard to developers to finance good projects.”

CNU is seeking reform. The organization has built a broad coalition including the National Association of Homebuilders, the National Association of Realtors, the National Town Builders Association, and the Center for Neighborhood Technology. Together, this reform group is planning to initiate discussions with Shaun Donovan, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development; Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), of the House Committee on Financial Services; and the U.S. Treasury.

“Our sweetest dream is that the Obama administration — the Treasury Department and HUD — would say, ‘Let’s change this before the end of the year,’” Norquist said.  “The secretary of HUD, Shaun Donovan, has said very favorable things about this. He recognizes it.”

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Moving Beyond the Automobile: Highway Removal

In this week’s episode of “Moving Beyond the Automobile,” Streetfilms takes you on a guided tour of past, present and future highway removal projects with John Norquist of the Congress for the New Urbanism.Some of the most well-known highway removals in America — like New York City’s West Side Highway and San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway — have actually been unpredictable highway collapses brought on by structural deficiencies or natural disasters. It turns out there are good reasons for not rebuilding these urban highways once they become rubble: They drain the life from the neighborhoods around them, they suck wealth and value out of the city, and they don’t even move traffic that well during rush hour.

Now several cities are pursuing highway removals more intentionally, as a way to reclaim city space for housing, parks, and economic development. CNU has designated ten “Freeways Without Futures” here in North America, and in this video, you’ll hear about the benefits of tearing down the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx, the Skyway and Route 5 in Buffalo, and the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans.

Streetfilms would like to thank The Fund for the Environment & Urban Life for making this series possible.