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Posts from the "Urban Design" Category

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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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This Valentine’s Day, Declare Your Love For the Most Beautiful Street

Vote for which street is the most beautiful.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, here is a new and interesting way to compare streets. At www.beautiful.st, you can compare 200 randomly selected streets in Philadelphia, plucked from Google Street View, two at a time. Vote for the most beautiful and two more images pop up for you to compare.

The site was designed by OpenPlans (disclosure: OpenPlans is Streetsblog’s parent organization), which hopes to use variations on this tool as a dynamic way to get community input about street designs. Planners and community organizations could ask not only which street is more beautiful, but which one looks safer or more appropriate for a particular neighborhood.

In the meantime, it’s a semi-addictive way of thinking about urban design. How will you compare, say, a lushly wooded parkside avenue with the dense and bustling commercial area?

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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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The Upside of Cuomo’s Convention Center Plan: Urbanism on the West Side

Most of the Javits Center site is devoted to a single superblock that divides Hell's Kitchen from the waterfront. Image: Hell's Kitchen Neighborhood Association

After Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address last week, Streetsblog looked a little closer at the governor’s plan to build the nation’s largest convention center at the Aqueduct racino in Ozone Park, Queens. Counting on a huge convention center near JFK airport to deliver economic development seemed like a dubious proposition, but the other side of the plan — converting the Javits Center site on the West Side of Manhattan into a mixed-use neighborhood — has a lot to recommend it.

The Javits Center, built in the 1980s, controls 18 acres on the far West Side, from 33rd Street to 40th Street. Most of the site is an enormous superblock occupied by the main convention center building. The only cross street that provides access to the waterfront and Hudson River Park is 34th Street. (39th Street, while not part of the main building, is barricaded off to serve the facility’s needs.)

The Hell's Kitchen Neighborhood Association proposes an integrated street grid with housing, parks, and a mix of other uses at the Javits Center site.

“You look down the street and all you see is a black wall,” said Meta Brunzema, an architect and professor at the Pratt Institute who chairs the planning committee of the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association. “It’s very difficult for the community to have waterfront access.” Meanwhile, the area around Javits never caught on as a retail environment, said Brunzema, because the convention center is empty 100 days out of the year.

Cuomo’s plan to redevelop the Javits site using “the Battery Park City model” — presumably by offering long-term leases piece-by-piece to different developers, working from a set of planning guidelines — could create a cohesive district on the western edge of the neighborhood and finally reconnect city streets to the waterfront. “It’s really important that the Javits site be an extension of urban fabric, with a critical mass of residences, commercial uses, cultural facilities, and parks,” said Brunzema, noting that Hell’s Kitchen is also divided by bulky, traffic-choked approaches to the Lincoln Tunnel. “The neighborhood is completely fragmented.”

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Rail~volution: Will New Americans Fuel Smart Growth or Suburbanism?

This year’s Rail~volution conference — the annual gathering of livability advocates, urban sustainability coordinators, and transit agency officials – kicked off today with remarks by Chris Leinberger of the Brookings Institution and Manuel Pastor, who teaches demographics and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

Is this the new image of walkable urbanism? Photo: WekeRoad

Leinberger noted that Hollywood does more consumer research than anyone else, and it portrays what audiences aspire to. So, we can see in the difference between TV shows of past decades and current shows the evolution of tastes in the U.S. Where we had I Love Lucy, Dick Van Dyke, and The Brady Bunch, all set in the suburbs, we now have Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex in the City – all set in cities.

Indeed, Leinberger often talks about the increased demand for urbanism, especially among young people, but he also noted the downsizing trend as baby boomers move out of big houses to smaller spaces in more walkable, urban neighborhoods. And he credited the trend of people having fewer children with the expansion of the demand for walkable urbanism: Only 25 percent of households have children now, as opposed to 50 percent in the 1950s. Singles and couples without children are the “target market” for walkable urbanism, he said, and that constituency is only growing.

At the same time, Manuel Pastor argued that the main catalysts of walkable urbanism in the future are going to be the people with the highest fertility rate in the nation, having the most children: Latinos. (Latina women have an average of three children each, while each white woman has an average of 2.1.)

Pastor said the age gap between whites and “non-white Hispanics” (Latinos) – the median age among whites is 41; among Latinos it’s 27 – is causing significant tension. The state with the largest age gap between whites and Latinos is Arizona, which notoriously passed (what was then) the country’s most repressive anti-immigrant law last year. The gap is also responsible for low levels of per capita spending on education, since older whites “don’t see themselves” in the younger generation using the schools. And good urban schools are key to keeping families in cities as their children grow up.

Even with their big families and many children, Latinos prefer to live in cities, Pastor said. New arrivals, especially, disproportionately use transit. The walkable urbanism in immigrant neighborhoods is characterized by “taquerías, not cappuccino bars,” Pastor said. Latinos simply don’t follow the same trends as white Americans when it comes to suburban flight when kids come into the picture.

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Eyes on the Street: Brand New Pop-Up Café on Sullivan Street

Photos: Ian Dutton

Reader Ian Dutton sends these shots of the pop-up café that just went up at “local” — a coffee shop on Sullivan Street in SoHo. Ian says owners Craig and Liz Walker worked hard to make this public space enhancement happen. Among other things, they had to bring a crew of supporters with them to Community Board 2 when their application to DOT’s pop-up café program came up for a vote. Their bid was the only one of six applications to withstand the onslaught from local reactionary Sean Sweeney.

Ian reports that the seats filled up just about instantaneously after the installation was finished this afternoon:

In related news, a new pop-up café also went up at Ecopolis in Cobble Hill today.

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Rezoning to Encourage Street Life on Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue

With a curb cut, surface parking along the street frontage, and no retail use on the ground floor, the pedestrian-hostile design for the "Le Bleu" hotel wouldn't cut it under newly proposed zoning rules for Brooklyn's Fourth Avenue. Photo: Ben Fried.

When the Department of City Planning put forward its rezoning of Park Slope in 2003, one of the earliest of the now 111 rezonings under Mayor Bloomberg and City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, it was intended to help turn Fourth Avenue into “a grand boulevard of the 21st Century.”

The sought-after residential development has started to take place, but at street level, there’s been widespread disappointment with the results. Instead of providing a healthy pedestrian realm, the ground floor of many new developments has been taken up by ventilation equipment and even a surface parking lot.

In response, the Department of City Planning has put forward a new set of rules intended to ensure that as Fourth Avenue develops further, it does so in a way that invites people to walk along the street.

At least half of the ground floor frontage of each new building along Fourth would be required to be retail, and parking wouldn’t be allowed anywhere along the ground floor street frontage. Requirements for a certain amount of glass storefronts would provide opportunities for window-shopping, while strict restrictions on curb cuts across Fourth Avenue sidewalks will give pedestrians more space and comfort.

With the endorsements of local Council Members Brad Lander, Stephen Levin and Sara González, the plan is likely to move relatively smoothly through the land use review process over the next few months.

The underlying zoning, including bulk, use, and parking requirements, will remain the same along Fourth. However, many of the worst offenders of the last development cycle would not be up to code under the new regulations.

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Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change

Image © Peter Calthorpe & Marianna Leuschel

Image © Peter Calthorpe & Marianna Leuschel

Editor’s note: Today we are very pleased to begin a five-part series of excerpts from Peter Calthorpe’s book, “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change.” Keep reading this week and next to learn how you can win a copy of the book from Island Press.

I take as a given that climate change is an imminent threat and potentially catastrophic—the science is now clear that we are day by day contributing to our own demise. In addition, I believe that an increase in fuel costs due to declining oil reserves is also inevitable. The combination of these two global threats presents an economic and environmental challenge of unparalleled proportions—and, lacking a response, the potential for dire consequences. These challenges will in turn bring into urgent focus the way our buildings, towns, cities, and regions shape our lives and our environmental footprint. Beyond a transition to clean energy sources, I believe that urbanism—compact, diverse, and walkable communities—will play a central role in addressing these twin threats. In fact, responding to climate change and our coming energy challenge without a more sustainable form of urbanism will be impossible.

Many deny either the timing or the reality of these challenges. They argue that global demand for oil will not outstrip production and that climate change is overstated, nonexistent, or somehow not related to our actions. Setting aside such debates, my book, “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change,” accepts the premise that both climate change and peak oil are pressing realities that need aggressive solutions.

Responding to climate change and our coming energy challenge without a more sustainable form of urbanism will be impossible.

The two challenges are deeply linked. The science tells us that if we are to arrest climate change, our goal for carbon emissions should be just 20 percent of our 1990 level by 2050. That, combined with a projected U.S. population increase of 130 million people,1 means each person in 2050 would need to be emitting on average just 12 percent of his or her current greenhouse gases (GHG)—what I will call here the “12% Solution.”2 If we can achieve the 12% Solution to offset climate change, we will simultaneously reduce our fossil-fuel dependence and demonstrate a sustainable model of prosperity. Such a low-carbon future will inherently reduce oil demands at rates that will allow a smoother transition to alternative fuels—and the next economy.

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Public Tells Planning Commission They Want a Walkable Riverside Center

Image: Extell Development.

The drawings released by Extell Development don't draw attention to the blank walls and curb cuts that would disrupt the sidewalk at Riverside Center.

A hearing on the Riverside Center mega-development yesterday revealed a popular hunger for a more walkable West Side and perhaps some interest from the City Planning Commission in the same. Extell Development is looking to build a housing and retail complex, including 1,800 parking spaces, on this waterfront site equivalent in size to two Manhattan blocks. Public testimony called for a slew of urban design improvements to their plan, including reducing the amount of off-street parking, integrating the site with the surrounding streetscape, and working towards burying the elevated Miller Highway.

As chair Amanda Burden and the other commissioners now deliberate over the approvals the project needs, they have the power to determine whether this block on Manhattan’s West Side will be dominated by the automobile or develop into a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, in line with the goals of PlaNYC.

Efforts to better integrate Riverside Center with the surrounding neighborhood and streetscape got the most play yesterday. In Extell’s plans for the project, retail faces the inside of the development and passersby would see largely blank walls rising from the sidewalk, with the streets sloping down to the waterfront and the buildings stationed on an elevated platform. That wall would be interrupted by a slew of curb cuts to enter Extell’s proposed 1,800-space parking garage and auto showroom and service center.

“The development turns its back on the street,” said Brian Cook, the land use director for Borough President Scott Stringer. “It systematically ignores the rich context of the area,” explained Community Board 7 chair Mel Wymore.

The City Planning Commission appeared receptive to this critique. “Does one see an auto showroom as something that enlivens the edge of the project?” Burden asked Extell president Gary Barnett after he testified. “What is going to energize the sidewalk and the street life at the front of this project?”

Other commissioners pressed the developers and architects about the effect of driveways, retail, stairways, and platforms on the pedestrian environment. The developer, in turn, outlined a few minor steps to address the issue, such as changing a staircase to 59th Street into a slope.

But one underlying cause of the streetlife-deadening platform is the excessive amount of parking that Extell is seeking to build, according to Ethel Sheffer, a CB 7 member and former president of the New York American Planning Association chapter. The platform “is there in large part because it satisfies an extensive request of 1,800 parking spaces on two levels,” she said.

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“Our Cities Ourselves”: Imagining the Future of Urban Transport

newyork_terreform.jpg"Brooklyn Bridge Remix/Redux," by Terreform and Michael Sorkin Studio
Today, Manhattan's AIA Center for Architecture debuted an exhibition that envisions a new era of sustainable mobility. For "Our Cities Ourselves," the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy invited architects to take on the evolving transportation needs of the world's cities, which in two decades are expected to be home to 60 percent of the global population.

In the middle of the 20th century, cities across the United States were redesigned to accommodate the car. As people flocked to the suburbs, cities were retrofitted with highways and parking lots. Roads expanded, public transit declined and so did our cities. In the decades that followed, cities around the world imported this auto-dominant urban design and began to suffer from its devastating impact. Our Cities Ourselves proposes an exciting alternative path.

The aim is to think about what sort of cities we want to live in, the sort of street we want to walk along, and the sort of future we want for ourselves and our children. Looking ahead, how will each of us help create our cities for ourselves?

Though the program focuses on cities in developing countries, New York is among the 10 represented. For its contribution, Manhattan firm Terreform proposes road pricing for Lower Manhattan, bike lanes on the lower level of the Brooklyn Bridge, and public space in place of the FDR.

"Our Cities Ourselves" runs through September 11. Admission is free. Hours, location and other details are here.