Monthly Archives: October 2009

Smart Food Access: The key to healthy weight

Since obesity prevalence is chiefly associated with both food and exercise, one of the key areas of research in obesity studies deals with the point at which those two variables intersect: the proximity of grocery stores and restaurants to neighborhoods.  The most recent study on the subject has come out of my home department at the University of Utah.  You can read about the study below:

http://www.unews.utah.edu/p/?r=102609-2

This study is very interesting because of the distinction it makes between the needs of people with different income levels.  It is extremely important for low-income neighborhoods to have easy and close access to grocery stores that offer healthy foods.  The study shows 10% less obesity prevalence in low-income people who live in communities with easy access when compared to other low-income people who live in communities without access (called “food deserts”).  At the same time, people with higher incomes may not need such easy access to grocery stores because they are more likely to be able to afford personal vehicles and would drive those vehicles to obtain groceries whether the stores are within walking distance or not.  There does, however, seem to be a significant difference in obesity prevalence among higher-income people when considering walkable access to restaurants, even fast food restaurants.  Without the need to carry bags of food home, as is necessary when walking from the grocery store, people with more disposable incomes are more likely to walk than drive to restaurants within a half-mile of their homes.

The results of this study could have a great influence on how we develop our three main cities in the Lehigh Valley.  As a Bethlehem resident without access to a car, I distinctly understand the value of accessible food.  I obtain most of my groceries from the Giant on Union and Pennsylvania, a good ¾ mile from my home; and I must walk it in the rain, snow (not yet, but soon!), or sunshine.  This is challenging in the summer because of the heat and humidity, yet it is equally challenging as the weather turns cold.  But I am not the only person in Bethlehem with an access problem.  There are a noticeable lack of grocery stores in both the downtown North side and downtown South side of Bethlehem.  There are what amount to corner stores here and there, but fresh produce literally does not exist in these lower-income areas.  In general, the people of my neighborhood are of middle- or upper-incomes, and West Bethlehem is laid out in an urban pattern that would seem to promote walkability from home to restaurants and other destinations, yet no restaurants exist within a half-mile from where I live.  This situation amounts to the requirement that, even in walkable West Bethlehem, residents must get in their cars for anything that they need.

This discussion is a good reminder that the design of our streets to promote safe and enjoyable walking is not effective when there is nothing worth walking to.  Even in Bethlehem’s two mixed-use downtowns, the mix of uses is not adequate to create the kinds of healthy and active communities that we are aiming for.  We must begin or (in the case of South Bethlehem) continue to consider how to bring food establishments to both low-income “food deserts” and high-income “restaurant deserts” (my term).  Do you live in one of these “deserts?”  What are your suggestions for improved access?

Morning Call: H1N1 Outbreak Placing Strain on Local School Districts

Today’s Morning Call has an article on how the current H1N1 crisis is placing a huge burden on local school districts. The article points out that while schools are doing their best with the available resources, a key problem is that Lehigh Valley school districts in areas without a local health department (that is, all districts located outside of the cities of Allentown and Bethlehem) are having to respond to a flood of calls seeking information and referrals; up-to-date data on H1N1 cases (data that generally is not available); and vaccines themselves. As the article states, this is not a role that school districts should play.

Schools do have some help from the state Department of Health, which has offered to staff H1N1 clinics for schools that want to host them. Some schools have decided to offer the vaccine. Others, such as Easton, have decided cost, staffing and other factors would keep them from doing so for the time being.

[Bangor School District Superintendent John] Reinhart said Bangor registered for the vaccine, but he doesn’t know when it will arrive or how many doses are coming. Once the district gets a shipment, setting up the clinic will take a major deployment of school personnel, Reinhart said.

That deployment will cost taxpayers, who will pay for a refrigeration unit to preserve the vaccine and for staff overtime to guard the vaccine and run the clinic, he said.

For Reinhart, it’s a clear example of why the area needs a regional health department. The joint Lehigh-Northampton county health department, formed earlier this year, is still not completely operational.

”This absolutely should not be the responsibility of school districts,” Reinhart said. ”I think that everyone who pays taxes in Lehigh and Northampton counties really has to look this over and see this as a rehearsal to perhaps a bigger health scare and problem that could be coming.”

You can read the full article here.

T4PA Report Back from One-Day HSR Summit

Transportation for Pennsylvania’s blog yesterday featured a report back from Monday’s summit in Washington, D.C., entitled Rebuilding the Corridors of Prosperity: High Speed Rail and Transportation Investment in the Northeast and Midwest. The summit was put on by the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition, in coordination with the Northeast Midwest Institute, 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, and Smart Growth America. The purpose of the meeting was to bring high-speed rail advocates together from the Northeast and Midwest states as a means of determining which steps will have to be taken to bring rail into these areas (as part of an interconnected network). Here is an excerpt from the T4PA blog:

Judy Schwank, President of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania described why this effort is important for Pennsylvania. “Pennsylvania has the important and strategic distinction of straddling two mega-regions, the Northeast and the Great Lakes. Linking to these markets is a critical component for the state’s economic prosperity. Investment in rail systems, both passenger and freight, has been and will be important to the cities and towns of Pennsylvania. As we determine the next federal transportation authorization we need to ensure that investments support communities and integrate with existing networks.”

Karen Rae, Deputy Administrator of the Federal Rail Administration, and Roy Kienitz, Under Secretary for Policy at the US Department of Transportation, talked about the role of rail to create more transportation alternatives across the country.

“There needs to be an intersection between rail planning and activities occurring on the ground. Having city to city connections will drive ridership,” Karen Rae added. She emphasized that creating an integrated high speed rail system is a challenging project; however, a step by step approach is needed to build the will and momentum to make it a reality.

To continue the momentum of the event, 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania plans to identify and convene key leaders in critical transportation corridors within Pennsylvania that connect the Great Lakes and the Northeast. The organization will continue to educate and build awareness and support for advancing a federal transportation reauthorization that links regions and builds better communities.

To read more about this effort, visit the T4PA blog, and check out the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition website.

What are your thoughts on channeling rail development into these states? How should the government (or any other decision-making body) prioritize which corridors should be first in line for receiving funding for high-speed rail development?

Can Transportation Be on the Agenda in PA’s 2010 Governor’s Race?

Given that the  long, budget-impasse-dominated summer of 2009 in Harrisburg only recently drew to a close, it’s hard to imagine that we’re already hearing that next year’s budget deliberations may be even more contentious. But that’s the way it looks to play out. Consider what’s in store: State revenues are not expected to rebound much, and there won’t be another large federal stimulus package available to help paper over some of the spending cuts. Add to this an open governor’s race and the whole House and half the Senate facing reelection,  and the potential for another budget stalemate is great.

Given all this–and the prospect for the budget as a whole to dominate political discussions–is there a chance to inject the issue of transportation into the governor’s race? There’s certainly the need to put this issue into play. Even if Pennsylvania’s resubmitted application to toll I-80 is approved by the federal government, the Commonwealth faces challenges as to adequately funding transportation for the long term and in ways that keep existing infrastructure in a state of good repair while also advancing a balanced, sustainable approach to transportation.  And if the I-80 tolling proposal is not approved down in Washington, then the state transportation funding situation next year essentially goes off the cliff, with a $500 million hole on the revenue side.

A recent post on Streetsblog Capitol Hill discusses what transportation advocates can learn from the experience in this year’s governor’s race in Virginia, where transportation policy has become a major issue. For those of us in Pennsylvania, a key part of the story rings true: Virginians  recognize the need for a viable way of funding transportation, yet there is no appetite for transportation-related taxes as means of paying for it. (We constantly hear that an increase in the state’s gas tax has no chance in Harrisburg.)

Still, Streetsblog report Ryan Avent stresses that transportation advocates shouldn’t back down from pushing for new levels of support for transportation. The key, he suggests, is mobilizing public support (or at least enough to get the attention of elected officials or those seeking to be) by linking increased transportation investments with tangible improvements in how people get around. Relatedly, it is crucial to connect specific local/regional needs and priorities–for instance, related to economic development, environmental conservation, or quality-of-life issues–to what the transportation-funding picture looks like at the state and federal level.

Transportation for Pennsylvania (T4PA), a statewide coalition being facilitated by 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania (and a partner in the national Transportation for America campaign), is working on both these fronts: linking stronger state policies on transportation funding to a real-life vision for transportation in the Commonwealth, and involving regional partners (RenewLV among them) as a means of building grassroots support while understanding what’s needed at the local level.

The key for 2010 will be generating enough public and media interest so that the question that has surfaced again and again during this year’s gubernatorial race in Virginia–“What is your plan for the state’s transportation system?”–can be put into play here in Pennsylvania. Were transportation to become an issue here in 2010, a number of more Pennsylvania-specific questions for the candidates would naturally follow: What is your vision for how Pennsylvania can work with USDOT to implement an integrated rail system in the Commonwealth? (Note: PennDOT’s state rail plan will be completed by early 2010.) Will you continue the important work of the  “Smart Transportation” initiative started by PennDOT Secretary Biehler? How can Pennsylvania promote transit-oriented development as an economic driver in older core communities?

In the end, putting transportation on the gubernatorial agenda next year will be–as ever–a challenge. But the experience of Virginia this past year suggests that it’s not only possible, but in fact necessary given transportation’s deep impact across an array of issues, such as urban revitalization, economic growth, jobs, climate change, health, and others.

To get involved with RenewLV’s work on transportation issues–including our Sustainable Transportation Initiative–email us at smartgrowth@renewlv.org.

Turning Suburbia into Neighborhoods

On NRDC’s Switchboard blog today, contributor Kaid Benfield (Co-founder of Smart Growth America) discusses the planning concept of the “20 minute neighborhood.” This type of community design creates a place where one’s needs (meaning, access to services and amenties) can be met in 20 minutes by walking. Benfield speaks to the positive (even enviable) aspects of such a neighborhood – for example, increased productivity and savings. This is significant, as the Texas Transportation Institute recently reported that Americans waste an average of $87 billion a year on lost time and fuel.

Mike Larabee is cited within the entry, stating, “The people who design your streets, transportation systems, parks and sewer hope to bring the concept of the 20-minute neighborhood to areas outside the city core.” The goal is then to create neighborhoods and a sense of community within the outerlying region of the center cores – places where, often, the car is king.

I invite you to check out the full blog post on the topic, with more detail about where the concept was created and what brought the firm to create it. Do you think that a 20-minute neighborhood concept could be implemented into the Lehigh Valley’s townships and boroughs?

“Back-In” Angled Parking: Efficient and Safe

back in angled parking 2In an effort to increase parking within the city and do so in a safer and more efficient manner, Bethlehem recently converted several parallel parking spaces into angled spots. Bethlehem is yet another city that is implementing this type of approach, as multiple regions across the country have already many “back-in” angle spots near commercial and retail centers. And though many of the shoppers appreciate the increase in parking, some of the local businesses have complained that the parking spots will create traffic problems, which deter people from coming into the area.

One of the biggest positives of this type of approach, besides creating more parking, is increased safety stemming from “back-in” component of the spots. Bethlehem Public Works Director, Michael Alkhal, commented in an Express-Times story that such parking increases visibility, because “you’re already facing the front.” Through the increased visibility, it becomes easier to spot other vehicles, and – more importantly – pedestrians and bicyclists.

The biggest complaint regarding the back-in angled spaces, thus far, has been that of decreased convenience – that is, forcing drivers to back into the spots holds up traffic. However, when the issue boils down over safety versus convenience, I would much rather choose safety, especially if it is safety of commuters who are not driving a vehicle. What are your thoughts on the new parking design in Bethlehem?

LEED-ND Receives Expansion Approval, But Does it Have Shortcomings?

UPDATE: See below post commentary for corrected information and clarification on this topic.

In this month’s issue of the New Urban News, it was reported that the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) program has been approved by all of the groups that were asked to decide the fate of the program. The Center for New Urbanism, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Smart Growth America, and the US Green Building Council have voted to advance the program into a full-scale operation; prior to this approval, the program was only in its pilot stage. The program, started by the US Green Building Council, is a certification system, aimed at transforming the way buildings and communities are designed by encouraging more sustainable, environmentally-friendly features.  The LEED-ND ratings system is used nationwide on over 35,000 projects, noteworthy as the program was launched only about a decade ago.

While the LEED-ND program has been used widely, the question that stands is: “Has the ratings system promoted better development?” Admittedly, that’s a complicated question to answer. Does better development mean the use of more sustainable building materials? And, in general, what sort of criteria must be satisfied in order for something to be considered a ‘good development?’ While the question is complex, undoubtedly, it is linked to land-use planning. Reid Ewing of the University of Utah recently tackled this issue by connecting the LEED program to urban planning (his article is in the October 2009 issue of Planning Magazine, put out by the American Planning Association). Specifically, his concern centered on the physical (on-the-ground) outcomes of a LEED-ND certified building. When Ewing was working on a brownfield redevelopment project in California, his team conducted a traffic assessment study, completely independent of the LEED-ND program. The findings suggested that the mixed-use building that was being analyzed would not have a significant impact on automobile congestion in the region, because the design and neighborhood promoted walkability. But this aspect was not factored into the LEED-ND ratings system – as mentioned, the study was conducted independently. Does this suggest that the LEED-ND program has room for improvement? What other features or aspects should be included in the LEED certification program?

Transit Oriented Development (TOD): Weathering the Economic Storm

Transit oriented development is great for all sorts of reasons. It fosters community, efficiency, conservation, walkability, and mobility, while still promoting development. Two recent news stories help to articulate another valuable component. Transit oriented development is also becoming more recognized as a strategy for weathering economic downturns, even when they come in the form of a severe recession.

The first is an article in the New York Times from October 6th, highlighting the economic success of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, a great example of transit oriented, mixed-use development in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington. The article discusses the astonishingly low vacancy rates in the corridor despite increases in vacancy rates across the country.

Tying together this 3.3 mile corridor of what Terry Holzheimer, Arlington County’s director of economic development calls, “urban villages,” is the metro system which runs from one end of the corridor all the way into D.C. The result is a corridor which attracts residents, businesses, and consumers with all projections pointing towards continued development and success.

For more information on the history of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, including a link to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor video, visit this Smart Growth America blog post.

The second story, aired on NPR’s Morning Edition last week, is about a developer in Phoenix, Arizona, who is buying up foreclosed properties near mass transit lines. Phillip Beere, of Green Street Developers, buys foreclosed properties and then remodels, modernizes, and makes those properties more energy efficient. The idea is to sell the properties to people, young professionals and others, who want to avoid the costs of suburban living, including energy efficiency and the Phoenix commute, which averages one hour roundtrip. Because the properties were foreclosures, they can be resold at a reasonable price, even after the remodeling. Beere’s claims that the properties will offer a walkable community where people can live comfortably, and walk just a short-distance to catch the light rail to work each day.

Although Pheonix is well-known as a “sprawling metropolitan area,” Philip Beere’s sees this project as an investment. Another developer interviewed in the segment discusses the shift in focus from living spaces that “impress” with size and amenities, to living spaces that are functional, efficient, and that meet a person’s budget. In a time when people are learning the value of efficiency and the risks of budget-stretching, many believe that there will be a real market for the project despite the Phoenix development paradigm.

Check out Ryan Champlin’s blog post for commentary about funding problems common to transit oriented development initiatives.

RenewLV Brown-Bag Session on Community and Transportation, November 6th, in Easton

RenewLV is pleased to announce the second session in our series of “brown-bag” discussions that touch on a variety of topics related to urban development and revitalization, smart growth, and regional collaboration. This series aims to provide an informal setting in which community members can discuss where the Lehigh Valley is making progress on these fronts, and examine the key challenges and opportunities.

This session will be Friday, November 6th, from noon to 1:30 p.m. in the Gold Room at the Grand Eastonian Suites and Hotel, 140 Northampton St in Easton. The topic for this session will be community and transportation, focusing on the Pennsylvania Community Transportation Initiative (PCTI) projects underway in Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, and Hellertown. Our panel includes:

  • Becky Bradley, Director, Department of Planning & Codes, City of Easton
  • Darlene Heller, Director of Planning and Zoning, City of Bethlehem
  • Charlie Luthar, Hellertown Borough Manager
  • Joyce Marin, Director of City of Allentown Department of Community & Economic Development
  • Ronald Young, District Press Officer for PennDOT, District 5-0
  • The session is free and open to the public. We hope you’ll consider bringing a lunch and joining us (perhaps grabbing a take-out lunch from one of Easton’s dining establishments). If you’d like additional information or have any questions, email us or call 484-893-1062. Also, we’d be interested in hearing any ideas for future topics for these sessions–leave a comment here or email them to us. We hope to see you on the 6th!

    Lending Based on Parking

    In many areas of the country, zoning codes make transit-oriented development (TOD) impossible.  In other areas, planners are open to changing codes, but there is a significant lack of local political support for such changes.  In almost all areas, however, there are two barriers that continue to stand in the way of a full-fledged movement toward TOD: money and parking.  The Salt Lake Tribune recently ran a story describing planners’ frustrations regarding bank lending practices because of outdated concepts of parking minimums:

    http://www.sltrib.com/news/ci_13529914

    As a recent former Salt Laker, I can assure you that the planning and political support for TOD is alive and well in most parts of the Salt Lake valley.  The light rail system, called TRAX, is continually found to be more popular than estimates predicted, and the FrontRunner commuter rail line has been a welcome addition.  These two expanding rail systems make the area ideal for dense development located within walking distance of the rail stations.  It seems obvious that such development oriented toward transit access would reduce the need for parking spaces, yet the banking industry, by and large, has not caught on to this yet.  They describe TODs as a “risk” that may not be what the market wants.  However, they overlook the massive popularity of TRAX in the downtown area where restaurants, retail, offices, condominiums, and cultural venues densely abound alongside and despite a noticeable lack of “adequate” parking.  If banks were to actually pay attention to the areas of the city in which TOD and less parking already exists (downtown and some areas of 4th South), they would see that there is actually a very strong market for it, even in suburban areas.

    Though many of us recognize the benefits of TOD, it will probably take quite an epiphany for banks to begin to buck the industry standard of about 1 parking space for every 250 square feet of building space (which works out to about 15% more parking lot surface area than floor area at a cost of $30,000 per parking space [or about $50,000 per for structure parking], a cost that banks have no problem financing).   How can we move banks toward a better understanding and appreciation of TOD in the Lehigh Valley and elsewhere?  What will it take for Banks to begin to take that “risk?”

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