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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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Will Montgomery County Botch the Streets in a Model Suburban Retrofit?

Old Georgetown Road in White Flint today. Photo: Dan Reed/flickr via ##http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/24343/how-a-road-in-white-flint-is-like-a-ski-area/##GGW##

Old Georgetown Road in White Flint today. Montgomery County doesn’t want to add safety improvements for biking and walking until people change their travel habits. Photo: Dan Reed/Flickr via GGW

Four years ago, White Flint, a neighborhood of North Bethesda, Maryland, most known for its shopping mall, caught the attention of urbanists around the nation with a proposal to reimagine car-oriented suburban streets as a walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhood. Montgomery County adopted a plan for the town that would narrow its wide arterial roadways and make them safe and accommodating for transit riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians. It was hailed as a model for other suburbs around the nation looking to become less sprawling and more walkable.

But now, the county is quietly trying to undo much of the good work in the 2010 plan — namely, the street designs. The most recent design shared by the Montgomery County DOT showed a reversal of previous promises. Rather than bring Old Georgetown Road down from six car lanes to four, adding curbside bike lanes on each side as well as a bike/pedestrian path that fits into a larger trail loop, the new plan would actually make the road wider by adding turn lanes for motor vehicles. The bike lanes or shared-use path are scuttled as well.

Ramona Bell-Pearson, assistant chief administrative officer with the Montgomery County Executive, assured Streetsblog, “Everything that’s required in the master plan for Old Georgetown Road is what’s being designed.” But the plan specifies that that segment of the street will be four lanes wide and have bike lanes and a shared-use path. Bell-Pearson wouldn’t confirm that those elements will be in the final plan.

The county insists that the master plan is still under development and that the street design recently shared with stakeholders is far from final. Meanwhile, county and state officials say that the land use changes have to precede any overhaul of the streets. State Highway Administration studies say the wider configuration is still needed to avoid “Christmas-time traffic backup.”

Andy Scott, director of the Maryland DOT’s Office of Real Estate, grew up in nearby Rockville. He says a lot of White Flint still looks like it did in the eighties, when he was in high school, working at an Erol’s video store in a strip mall on Old Georgetown Road. To grab a bite across the street, he had to traverse “acres of asphalt parking lot and cross a busy highway.” He tried it on foot one time, and it was so unnatural he never did it again. The redevelopment will change all that.

Scott says the concern about Old Georgetown Road is just a “hiccup,” a miscommunication in what’s otherwise a visionary project. The streets will change, he says, but in a certain sequence. ”There’s a balance in building out the transportation infrastructure and the development that’s going to shift people to walking, biking, transit ridership — but it doesn’t happen overnight,” Scott said. “It was carefully phased both on the development side and the transportation infrastructure side.”

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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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State DOTs Let Roads Fall Apart While Splurging on Highway Expansion

States spend more than half their money on new construction. Image: Smart Growth America

States spend more than half their road money on adding lanes and new highways. Image: Smart Growth America

Even though 33 percent of its roads are in “poor” condition, West Virginia spends about 73 percent of its road budget building new roads and adding lanes. Mississippi spends 97 percent of its road money on expansion. Texas, 82 percent.

Smart Growth America reports that the 50 states and the District of Columbia, combined, devote 55 percent of their road spending — $20.4 billion a year — to expansions, according to data states provide to the Federal Highway Administration. In 2011, that investment added 8,822 lane miles to the nation’s highway system — meaning that more than half of states’ road dollars were dedicated to less than 1 percent of their roads.

Meanwhile, states spent $16.5 billion annually, or 45 percent of their total road budgets, maintaining and repairing the other 99 percent of the nation’s roads.

In total, 21 percent of America’s roads are in “poor” condition, based on an international index that measures ride quality and surface smoothness. And the condition of the nation’s roads is getting worse. The last time Smart Growth America checked in, in 2008, 41 percent were in “good” condition. By 2011, that figure was down to 37 percent.

“States are adding to a system they are failing to maintain,” said Steve Ellis of the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which co-funded the study, in a webinar hosted by SGA this morning. “Every new lane mile is a lane that will eventually have to be repaired.”

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Warning Signs From Columbus About America’s Big Suburban Housing Glut

The Columbus, Ohio region could support the construction of more than 1 billion square feet of commercial development on existing parking lots alone, a recent study found. Image: Richard Webner via Streetsblog

The Columbus, Ohio, region could support the construction of more than a billion square feet of mixed-use development on existing parking lots alone — but only if planners get their act together, says researcher Arthur C. Nelson. Photo: Richard Webner

Columbus, Ohio, is a convenient microcosm of the United States as a whole.

Demographically, Columbus closely resembles America. That’s one reason the city ends up being a battleground for presidential candidates every four years, and why fast food chains like to test new menu items there.

Because Columbus is so, well, typical, the city also has a lot to teach us about where the average American city is headed. Esteemed urban affairs researcher Arthur C. Nelson recently took a look at Columbus as part of a report for te Natural Resources Defense Council, and he found that the city is on course for “sweeping demographic changes” that could transform the local housing market.

The demand for single-family housing on large lots is expected to plummet, leaving the region with an oversupply. Image: NRDC

The demand for single-family housing on large lots is expected to plummet in the Columbus region, while demand for more compact dwellings is expected to swell. Image: NRDC

Columbus is growing at nearly the same rate as America as a whole. By 2040, the region will have added roughly half a million people, bringing its population to about 2.2 million.

But those new households will look a lot different than today’s, and that will have huge implications for the local housing market. New households will be older and much more likely to be childless than current households.

Between 1990 and 2012, for example, about 78 percent of population growth in the Columbus area was among households headed by people between 35 and 64 years old. That stage of life is the period of “peak housing demand,” when homeowners favor detached houses on large lots. But by 2030, that age group will make up just 22 percent of population growth — while homeowners over 65 will make up 56 percent of new households. Many of these older homeowners will want multi-family housing or single-family homes on small lots, according to Nelson.

It turns out that Columbus’s current housing stock is woefully mismatched to future needs. By 2040, as much as 40 percent of the demand for housing could be for attached, multi-family units, and another 30 percent will be for single-family homes on small lots, Nelson estimates.

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Q&A With Robert Grow: How Utah Decided to Embrace “Quality Growth”

Envision Utah didn’t tell Utahns they should build light rail, says Robert Grow. Utahns expressed their hopes and desires for the future, and plans for transit construction arose from those values. Photo: Visit Salt Lake/Eric Schramm

If you’ve ever wondered how a deep-red state like Utah has managed to build some of the most ambitious transit expansions in the country, the short answer is: Envision Utah.

Starting in the late nineties, the non-profit Envision Utah brought together an incredibly broad spectrum of interests, including plenty of people without a specific stake in the process, to explore how the 10-county region surrounding Salt Lake City, known as the Greater Wasatch Area, should cope with anticipated population growth. Organizers showed people what would happen if the region carried on with business-as-usual development, then outlined the ramifications of three other potential scenarios with scientific rigor. The extraordinarily thorough process involved hundreds of public meetings, leaving no one out and turning every participant into a problem-solver. Along the way, Envision Utah pioneered a new approach to regional planning, bringing together transportation and land use decisions in unprecedented fashion.

Robert Grow says he didn't tell Utahns what to do; they told him what their values were and they came up with a plan together, Photo: Envision Utah

Robert Grow. Photo: Envision Utah

It would be fair to say that after this effort, nearly the entire state was on board with the vision that came out of the process: nearly the entire state was on board with the vision that came out of the process: Quality growth with compact, mixed-use development, multi-modal transportation options, and untouched wild and agricultural spaces.

If you have some time, this history of Envision Utah will hold your attention like no other planning document. (If you have a little less time, you can get the basics in this PDF.)

Robert Grow was the founding chairman who guided Envision Utah through its formative stages. He returned to the helm last year as its president and CEO. In the interim, he helped bring lessons from the Envision Utah model to 80 regions around the country. After a recent swing through the East Coast where he shared the Envision Utah story at an event organized by Transit Center, I called up Grow to see what the rest of the country can learn from his home state.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Envision Utah gets a lot of attention for having done this process and instilled these values in a place where people wouldn’t have expected it. You don’t talk about “smart growth,” you talk about “quality growth.” I was curious where that phrase came from.

It came from the fact that this was Utahns deciding how Utahns wanted to grow, and therefore we gave it our own name: “quality growth.”

If you look at many of the goals — transportation choices, housing for everyone, spending infrastructure money smart, preserving water, making sure we have clean air — people across the country have differences, but also have common things they really want. They want to have personal time and opportunity; they don’t want to be stuck in traffic and waste their lives. They want to get home for dinner with their kids or spend time with their friends. The things we value actually drive that quality growth strategy in Utah.

So we did not, quote, “instill” those values. Those values are the ones Utahns already had. So the goal was to understand not how to manipulate or push people toward an outcome but to listen to them in a way that we understand what they really wanted. And then to show them, through the scenarios, the choices.

Envision Utah has absolutely no authority. So we just show people, if you choose this, this is the outcome, but if you choose this, that’s the outcome.

What other language changes or thematic adaptations did you have to make when taking on a quality growth mission in a place where people are deeply skeptical of government, deeply skeptical of planning, deeply skeptical of urbanism?

I’m not sure they’re skeptical of all those things. Their values are their values. When they see choices and they choose how to grow, those strategies may look like strategies other places but adopted by Utahns. We used the words that Utahns used.

This values study approach which we used is not a poll. It involved almost 100 multi-hour interviews, laddering people — and laddering is a term I could describe but essentially saying: What are the attributes of living here? How does that affect your life in a functional way? What is the emotional quotient of that — how does it make you feel? And how does that attach to your values?

By value laddering you learn what people want, but you also learn why they want it. And knowing why they want it and the words to describe it, when you present scenarios you can present them in Utah words. And so Utah is here to keep Utah “beautiful, prosperous, neighborly and healthy” for future generations. We added “healthy” a few years ago. Those were Utah’s words for a prosperous economy.

Those are Utahns’ words for things you might say in completely different words somewhere else. But we didn’t pick the words. Utahns picked those words.

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Study: Kids Who Live in Walkable Neighborhoods Get More Exercise

A study published this month in the American Journal of Preventive Health finds that children who live in walkable places — “smart growth neighborhoods,” to use the authors’ phrase — get significantly more exercise than their peers who live in suburban environments designed for driving.

Kids who live in a community planned for walkability got significantly more daily physical activities than those who lived in sprawling places. Image: American Journal of Preventative Medicine

Researchers from UC Berkeley monitored the activity of 59 children living at The Preserve — a planned community near Chino, California, designed to be more walkable than conventional subdivisions — using GPS tracking monitors and accelerometers worn on the waist. They were compared to a control group of 88 kids from eight nearby “conventional” communities, with similar demographic and income characteristics. All the children were between ages 8 and 14.

The research team found that children living in the smart growth neighborhood got ten more minutes of physical activity per day than kids in the more sprawling communities. That translates to 46 percent more exercise for children in walkable communities.

“We were surprised by the size of the effect,” lead author Michael Jerrett, Ph.D., professor in the School of Public Health at Berkeley, told Science Daily. “Ten minutes of extra activity a day may not sound like much, but it adds up.”

The research team said developing smart growth communities and retrofitting existing neighborhoods for greater walkability could be key to helping kids get the recommended level of physical activity. The Centers for Disease Control recommend 60 minutes of daily aerobic activity for children. In America, only 42 percent of children ages 6 to 11 meet this threshold. Among children ages 12 to 19, only 8 percent get recommended levels.

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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.

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New Pentagon Mandate: Make Military Bases Livable, That’s an Order!

This article is the first in a series about the U.S. military’s new embrace of smart growth planning.

Military installations around the world are in the midst of a livability revolution. Here's a plan to add transit at Washington's Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Image: Urban Collaborative

“The largest redevelopment opportunity in the world is at the Department of Defense.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer wasn’t exaggerating when he uttered those words to an audience of smart-growth developers earlier this month. While U.S. DOT, the EPA, and HUD get all the glory as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities – which celebrated its fourth anniversary this week – it may be the Defense Department that has the most potential to reinvent the way land is used in the U.S. and abroad. The Pentagon is now using smart growth planning models to re-design the vast amounts of land it controls at its bases. And the military chain of command is bringing its full authority to bear on the matter: Livability is mandatory.

Even before a 2009 executive order mandating sustainability practices within the federal government and a 2008 report that sounded the alarm about the military’s dangerous reliance on oil, the Pentagon was making big changes. One of the largest institutional energy consumers in the world, DoD started increasing its investment in clean energy in 2006 and then set about taking a long, hard look at how it uses land.

It was inspired, in part, by former Air Force architect and planner Mark Gillem, now a professor of urban design at the University of Oregon. Gillem wrote a book in 2007 about the Pentagon’s practice of exporting inefficient suburban development to its bases abroad. U.S. military bases, in this country and elsewhere, are often entire cities unto themselves, and they’re often cities that suffer from auto-centric sprawl that limits connectivity and makes for unappealing living environment. It’s the kind of development the free market is rejecting wholesale these days — but the military is no free market.

It wasn’t always this way.

“The military, back in the 20s and 30s, led the way in creating compact, walkable communities,” Gillem told Streetsblog. “Our historic army posts – Fort Sill, for example, in Oklahoma; F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming; Randolph Air Force base in San Antonio — these all follow the principles that have great sustainability benefits, and they just abandoned it, like most of America abandoned it.”

In order to be a better neighbor overseas and to use resources more wisely, Gillem counseled the military to stop wasting valuable land. He recommended a shift away from low-density, auto-oriented development on military bases toward a more compact, walkable, urbanist model.

So the military hired him to rewrite its planning rules.

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William Fulton on Why Smart Growth Pays and Sprawl Decays

Downtown Ventura, California. Photo: Sargent Town Planning

Earlier this week, Smart Growth America released an important study that illustrates how walkable development results in huge savings and significantly better returns for municipalities compared to car-centric development.

The analysis of 17 case studies found that walkable, mixed-use development produces 10 times more local tax revenue per acre than sprawl. In addition, SGA found that smart growth reduces infrastructure costs by more than a third, on average, and cuts operating costs like police and trash service by almost 10 percent.

William Fulton, vice president of Smart Growth America and former mayor of Ventura, California. Image: SGA

Streetsblog got in touch with the study’s lead author, William Fulton, Smart Growth America’s vice president for policy development and implementation and the former mayor of Ventura, California, to further discuss the implications for local communities.

Here’s what he had to say.

Angie Schmitt: What is the takeaway for communities that are maybe a little more suburban in nature at this point?

William Fulton: Smart growth is not beneficial just for big, urban cities. A community of any size — even communities that are mostly suburban in nature — can benefit fiscally from smart growth. Smart growth patterns even in small and mid-sized cities can have a tremendous influence on the budget. For example, the study from Champaign, Illinois, we cite in our report suggested that a smart growth approach to future expansion in that mid-sized Illinois city could turn a $19 million deficit into a $33 million surplus.

Even taxpayers who live in single-family homes stand to benefit from smart growth. If their communities approve conventional suburban development that generates a deficit, they will be faced with pressure for increased taxes. Smart growth can alleviate that pressure so that even people who live in single-family homes will be able to keep their taxes low.

Sooner or later if you’re a local government… you have to have the next hit from the next suburban development. Eventually you’re like a crack addict.

AS: Despite the public savings associated with smart growth, many communities offer tax incentives to big box stores and that type of development. What does this study say about that?

WF: All kinds of developments see some type of public investments. Conventional suburban developments depend on highway interchanges and other very, very expensive infrastructure.

These retail projects are attractive to local governments because you put money into it, and you see this immediate sales tax “pop.” But there’s no guarantee you’re not cannibalizing your other retail.

A smart growth development that has a lot of well-connected housing and retail will be a far more reliable source of revenue. Generating property tax is a much more stable source of revenue for local governments.

Some hot new retailer comes in and 10 years later they’re out of business. Depending on sales tax is a very risky proposition compared to the very reliable revenue that will come out of a smart growth development.

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