Category Archives: Regions
Smart growth isn’t simply a matter for cities to discuss and work toward, it can be used at the township and borough level to encourage sustainable suburbs. In more rural regions, Traditional Neighborhood Development has taken hold in the planning process for smart communities.
The PA Municipalities Planning Code defines Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) as follows:
“Traditional neighborhood development, an area of land developed for a compatible mixture of residential units for various income levels and nonresidential commercial and workplace uses, including some structures that provide for a mix of uses within the same building. Residences, shops, offices, workplaces, public buildings, and parks are interwoven within the neighborhood so that all are within relatively close proximity to each other. Traditional neighborhood development is relatively compact, limited in size and oriented toward pedestrian activity. It has an identifiable center and a discernable edge. The center ofthe neighborhood is in the form of a public park, commons, plaza, square or prominent intersection of two or more major streets. Generally, there is a hierarchy of streets laid out in a rectilinear or grid pattern
of interconnecting streets and blocks which provide multiple routes from origins to destinations and are appropriately designed to serve the needs of pedestrians and vehicles equally.”
Traditional neighborhoods have several physical features that are recognizable: short front yard setbacks, street walls, and multiple transportation choices (cars, bicycling and walking). Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But what are the objectives?
Communities utilize TND to address concerns in several fields: transportation, safety, sociability, housing access, visual character and identity. For transportation, TND’s reduce the number of commuter miles because of access to public transit and biking which also leads to decreased traffic congestion. TNDs see less crime within their communities because of the secure areas that can easily be surveilled. These neighborhoods promote socialization across diverse groups of people and build a sense of community. One of the most important aspects of TNDs is the variety and affordability of the units. Housing types often associated with TNDs include apartments built over garages and apartments over stores or offices. These scattered units can help meet the needs for rental units without overwhelming an area with massive apartment complexes. The opportunity for creating more affordable housing arises from the higher densities found in TNDs and by the inclusion of rental units and ownership housing units, like condominiums and single family attached housing, in the housing mix.
To learn more about Traditional Neighborhood Development or to see pictures of Lehigh Valley TNDs, check out the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission’s report here. This fall, Renew Lehigh Valley will be hosting a conference on smart growth and our keynote speaker will be urban planner and specialist in Traditional Neighborhood Design, Tom Comitta. Look for more information soon about registering for the conference!
Transit oriented development (TOD) promotes building, developing and redeveloping community resources and employment centers around transit centers, whether those are bus or train. We don’t have that here in the Lehigh Valley.
Here’s the official definition:
“Development concentrated around and oriented to transit stations in a manner
that promotes transit riding or passenger rail use. The term does not refer to a
single real estate project, but represents a collection of projects, usually mixed use,
at a neighborhood scale that are oriented to a transit node.”
TOD doesn’t mean the construction of a bus stop near an office park, but a holistic approach to making communities accessible for those who don’t have or choose not to use a personal vehicle. This promotes equitable access to resources and employment, but also has positive environmental consequences. If fewer individuals are taking personal cars and opting to take the bus or train, carbon emissions will decrease.
In their 2012 report, the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission outlines the requirements for TODs:
The Planning Commission even produced a map of potential TODs in the Lehigh Valley:
Making it easier for people to get where they want to go is an idea that’s hard to argue with, but new development and providing the infrastructure and support for public transit can become expensive. DC Streets Blog examines this problem and offers suggestions for convincing developers to invest in TOD. These recommendations include:
- Public subsidies, like transit oriented development promotional grants or tax incentives
- Educating developers about the costs to them in automobile dominated communities
- Reform land use policies, for example loosening or eliminating single-use designations
- Educate and engage employers
- A new approach to looking at costs. While a building in a TOD community may cost more, it may also provide more affordable housing and increase the efficiency of workers.
- Walkability is also TOD. Land use policies that encourage walkability are also likely to improve TOD in communities.
- Connect the suburbs to TOD. This increases the size of the potential workforce for any given company, which increases the value of TOD to them.
It takes Lehigh Valley residents an average of 25 minutes to get to work and The Lehigh Valley Transportation Study (LVTS) long range plan estimates a $1.7 billion shortfall for funding needed through 2030. As part of the Envision Lehigh Valley project, LANta is producing a study on Transit Oriented Development and Bus Rapid Transit. Stay tuned for more information on that report as it is expected to be unveiled very soon!
We’ve all seen the copious quantities of garbage cans that line our streets and trash closets on collection day and it seems almost impossible that anyone could run out of garbage but it’s happened to Sweden. The country has actually run out of trash.
Cities in Sweden burn garbage for the energy to power their buildings and plants; nearly half of the structures in Oslo are powered by the burning of garbage. Sweden’s use of garbage for fuel, coupled with their extensive and popular recycling programs leaves only 4 percent of their solid waste going to landfills. What percent of household trash from the United States ends up in a landfill, you ask? An estimated 50 percent. In fact, one garbage burning plant owner in Oslo has expressed interest in purchasing American garbage. They’re already paying neighboring countries for their trash.
Available data for landfill use in the United States is a little bit old, but nevertheless startling. In 2003, Americans landfilled 2.46lbs of garbage…per person….per day. We have 3,091 active landfills across the states and while we are in no danger of running out of fill, we should consider that we may run out of land.
In the Lehigh Valley, there has been some discussion about the necessary expansion of the IESI Bethlehem landfill that operates off of Applebutter Road in Lower Saucon Township. The expansion would require a rezoning of the nearby area to accommodate waste, but the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission voted against this redesignation. So, where is the trash to go? The United States recycles 34.7 percent of its Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), burns 11.7 percent of it and discards 53.7 percent. With our population and rate of consumption, this leaves us with a lot of stuff packing our landfills while our municipalities are opposed to expanding landfills.
Should we start burning our trash for energy like Sweden? Try to recycle more? Or should we sell our trash?
What do you think is the SUSTAINABLE solution for the Lehigh Valley?
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Currently a township, Whitehall is considering the requirements and consequences for their designation as a city, and from the rapid growth in its population it looks like Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton may have a new member in the city-club of the region.
Whitehall is a first class township and is eligible to change their designation to third-class city after a voter referendum and a council change to their home charter rules. Their population, at the time of the 2010 census, was 26,738 just below Easton’s population of 26,800. Although their population nearly mirrors a neighboring city, there are other considerations in changing a municipality’s designation. There are many benefits in Pennsylvania to becoming a city. For example, only cities are eligible for certain tax incentive programs from the state like the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) and the Community Revitalization Improvement Zone (CRIZ). Cities have more departments and authorities, like their own independent housing authority, which Whitehall Mayor Ed Hozza has said would be an important element to the now-township. The increase in size and scope of municipal government that comes with a change from township to city obviously isn’t free. The idea to change Whitehall into a city is still in its early stages and the cost to taxpayers is a major consideration right now.
The proposed change in Whitehall’s designation will hopefully spark an interesting conversation in Pennsylvania about the nearly unparalleled fragmentation and silo-like nature of the state’s local governance. The process of turning into a city may cause other municipalities to consider joining in a merger with Whitehall. The city of Bethlehem is the product of several borough mergers. Bethlehem was first formed in the Borough of South Bethlehem, a separate Borough of West Bethlehem. Decades later, the Borough of West Bethlehem joined with the Borough of Bethlehem (in Lehigh County). Finally, in the 20th century, the City of Bethlehem merged with the Borough of South Bethlehem to create the City of Bethlehem that we have today. Whitehall Township has several neighboring boroughs that may benefit from a merging with Whitehall Township to become the City of Whitehall. One such borough that could benefit is Coplay. With a population of under 5,000, a shared physical border and a combined school district, their merge makes sense and wouldn’t result in a decrease of services to Coplay residents. Another benefit to the merge is eligibility for a CRIZ. The CRIZ mandates a population over 30,000 which Whitehall Township doesn’t have on its own but would with the addition of Coplay residents.
If you’re a regular reader of the Renew Lehigh Valley blog here (which you should be!), you may have already heard of the hollowing out of the urban cores in our region as the population left cities in favor of new, sprawling second class townships. This was highlighted by a 2003 Brookings Report called Back to Prosperity. Some of the contributing research for this report detailed the excessive, small-box government that plagues Pennsylvania. There are 2,562 municipalities in the Keystone State each with their own municipal governing body. They range in size from 1.5 million in Philadelphia to the Borough of Centralia with 8 residents at the time of the 2010 Census.
In this state, they are broken down into cities, townships, boroughs and one town (Bloomsburg). Within those classifications there are first class cities (Philadelphia is the only one), second class cities (Scranton is the only one) and third class cities. There are first and second class townships and unclassified boroughs.
The Lehigh Valley alone has 62 municipalities (Northampton and Lehigh Counties). This fragmentation and duplication of efforts and services promotes sprawl and inhibits regionalism. Municipalities in Pennsylvania are permitted to create their own comprehensive plans and are not bound to formally adopt the regional comprehensive plan that is written by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. Changes in state policy that would encourage smaller municipalities to merge with their neighbors would increase the efficiency of service provision, minimize redundancies and create a more amenable environment for regional efforts.
The Millennial Generation comprises those who were born from 1980 to the early 2000s and now represents America’s young professionals who are graduating from college, getting their first and second jobs and buying homes. We’re now seeing where they want to live: downtown.
For the first time in decades, the population of American cities has grown at a faster rate than the suburbs. There is some speculation that this is a result of the recession, with urban dwellers remaining in place instead of moving to the suburbs with low and unpredictable home prices. Alternatively, there is evidence to suggest that the migration to the cities is more intentional for this generation.
Young professionals are now seeking different communities than the suburbs that their parents and grandparents had coveted for generations. Walkable, mixed-use communities are on the rise. A developer in Cleveland seized this trend and built one of the most desirable blocks in the entire city. Ten years ago, the Maron family bought up an entire block of the city where restaurants had gone out of business, retailers had failed, crime rates were high and there was little hope for residential use.
The block is thriving with outdoor seating, apartment buildings at capacity and successful retail. The project wasn’t immediately accepted by other entrepreneurs though; the Maron’s opened their own restaurants when others weren’t willing to take another chance on the neighborhood. By the time they opened a 224 unit apartment building on the block, the area was so popular that the building filled almost immediately.
Perhaps they’ve read The Creative Community Builder’s Handbook (by Tom Borrup).
The term creative community building describes efforts to weave multiple endeavors and professions into the never-ending work of building and rebuilding the social, civic, physical, economic and spiritual fabrics of communities. Creative community building engages the cultural and creative energies inherent in every person and every place.
Looking at the above picture of the block, it certainly seems like they’ve done that. This vibrant community in downtown Cleveland captures what many Millennials are looking for as they begin to live on their own. The area is walkable, there are residential options, dining and retail. It’s high-density, efficient land use with a markedly decreased rate of crime and it’s actually pretty cool.
After years of financial distress, Detroit filed for Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy late last week. It becomes the first major city in United States history to do so.
Detroit has debt totaling $18 million. The unemployment rate in the city recently peaked at 28 percent and while it is has been declining, it remains at over 16 percent. The rate of crime is high and the industrial plants that used to populate the city are folding or leaving the city. Detroit is also facing grossly underfunded pension obligations and they will argue that the court should relieve them of these pension obligations. Naturally, their retirees and unions are beginning to launch a fierce battle against this.
While Pennsylvanian cities and municipalities are not yet facing the degree of financial strife that plagues Detroit, its distressed areas are met with similar considerations. Should Detroit be relieved of their pension obligations, it will set a precedent relevant in Pennsylvania where municipalities are mandated to fulfill the pension promises they have made to police and firemen under PA Act 111. They can receive financially distressed status under PA Act 47, which allows them to restructure their debt and consolidate or merge with neighboring municipalities to ease their individual burden. There are many municipalities who are now realizing the enormity of their pension obligations, and have very few choices except bankruptcy. Twenty municipalities in the state, including its capital, already have Act 47 designation that has helped them stabilize their financial status, but hasn’t provided stable, long term solutions to their economic problems.
While Act 47 allows municipal consolidation, there needs to be better understanding of the benefits of merging. A financially failed municipality with heavy debt and pension obligations is not a promising merge partner for a healthy, neighboring municipality. However, the possibility of shared services and decreased cost in service provision to the stronger municipality should be used as a selling point in these consolidation discussions. Both municipalities can benefit from consolidation and eventually provide higher quality, lower cost services to their constituents while one emerges from Act 47, distressed status.
If these negotiations and state laws are your interest, keep your eyes open for more information on Renew Lehigh Valley’s smart growth conference coming this fall. One of the available workshops will focus exclusively on Act 47, Act 111 and municipal bankruptcy in Pennsylvania with an expert panel featuring Fred Reddig from Pennsylvania’s Local Government Commission and Tom Baldridge of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce.
How does the protection of farmland correlate to the health of a community? Kane County, Illinois is working to find out.
Over the past ten years, their farmland protection program has preserved over 5500 acres of farmland in the county and they are currently considering a new amendment to broaden investments in local food production. New investments would include small farms and organic farmers producing fruits, vegetables and meats, intended to increase availability of fresh produce in schools, farmers markets, corner stores, and other sites in the community.
Enter the Health Impact Project. HIP is a project funded by the Pew Charitable Trust and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to fund Health Impact Assessments (HIA) that will be used to inform policies at any level of government. Kane County won funding from this project and is expected to produce their HIA next month with measurements from their community. The HIA will assess the ways in which their new amendment could affect the health of local residents through, for example, changes in availability and price of fresh fruits and vegetables, food safety, and economic changes resulting from increased food production in the region.
HIAs are conducted by a panel of stakeholders in the community to ensure that they are engaged in considering health and health disparities with any given policy. The assessment is completed in six steps:
A Health Impact Assessment has six steps:
- Screening: Determines the need and value of a HIA;
- Scoping: Determines which health impacts to evaluate, the methods for analysis, and the work plan for completing the assessment;
- Assessment: Provides: a) profile of existing health conditions, and b) evaluation of health impacts;
- Recommendations: Provides strategies to manage identified adverse health impacts;
- Reporting: Includes development of the HIA report and communication of findings and recommendations; and
- Monitoring: Tracks impacts of the HIA on decision making processes and the decision, as well as impacts of the decision on health determinants.
Kane County hopes to use this assessment to inform the debate surrounding their new amendment, hoping that they will find it could lead to improved health.
The Health Care Council of the Lehigh Valley is doing similar work much closer to home. They created a forum process where they engaged stakeholder organizations from the Valley to discuss their input on community health, and held two series of meetings. In the second set of meetings, they were able to bring back results and analysis from the first round. Participants in the forums were asked what they thought the biggest health concerns in the region were, what would help their community become healthier and what leads to health problems in their area. They were asked follow up questions to these in the second round of meetings.
In these public meetings held last fall, they found that the health care system and services are fragmented, that there is a lack of communication and connection between the community and care providers as well as poverty, lack of jobs and language differences being barriers of access to medical resources. There were also positive findings, the community responded that the local health care providers care about the community and were willing to listen to their needs as well as looking for short and long term solutions to improve community health. Their Community Health Profile breaks down their findings and the particular issues in each city, and can be found here.
For a long time, there was Princeton, NJ the borough and Princeton, NJ the township – not anymore. In 2011, residents voted to consolidate the neighboring municipalities and their merger took effect on January 1, 2013.
To coordinate the process, the new municipality created a task force. The Transition Task Force is comprised of twelve members: Five voting members each from the Borough and Township, and one alternate each. The Task Force also includes both the Borough and Township administrators. The Task Force is being assisted by the State Department of Community Affairs and other outside experts. This consolidation represents the joining of a relatively developed and economically stable borough, and a much more rural township. Despite their cultural differences, the merge was seen as having huge potential in cost-saving for both municipalities.
The two municipalities are in the process of overcoming budgeting differences, as they had previously allocated funds through different channels and were not able to merely combine their revenues and cut out the redundant departments. In order to make sure that the service and fiscal planning would aptly serve the new municipality, subcommittees were formed from the Transition Task Force and included Facilities, Finance, Infrastructure, Personnel and Public Safety. The state of New Jersey was also helpful in the transitional phases, offering 20 percent of cost reimbursement and funding an upgrade in the police information system. Special consideration went into ensuring that consolidation would not yield a decline in the services provided by either municipality. These services consist of trash collection, financial reporting, police staffing and relocating public facilities, among others.
In Pennsylvania, it’s been difficult to undertake such huge projects, but Renew Lehigh Valley has been advocating for consolidation since its inception and there has been some success. Right here in the Lehigh Valley, we have seen consolidation of police departments with the Colonial Regional Police Department that provides law enforcement services to Bath Borough, Hanover Township, and Lower Nazareth Township all in Northampton County.
Courage to Connect in New Jersey is holding a public meeting on June 5 to examine the case of Princeton, below is their information on the event:
This has been a remarkable year in NJ with the implementation of the Princeton Consolidation.
You are invited to:
Be Inspired by the success of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough becoming ONE town.
Learn from elected officials from around the state about their experience with school, police, fire and municipal consolidation.
Connect with innovative leaders in NJ, making a difference!
When: Wednesday June 5, 2013 from 8:00 AM to 12:30PM
Where: Princeton University
Robertson Hall, Dodds Auditorium
Prospect Ave at Washington Rd
8:00 – 8:45 a.m. Registration and Continental Breakfast
8:45 a.m. Welcome and Introduction
Gina Genovese, Executive Director, Courage to Connect NJ
8:50 – 10:00 a.m. Princeton: A Road Map to Follow
Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert
Princeton Councilwoman Heather Howard
Princeton Administrator Robert W. Bruschi
CGR President and CEO Joseph Stefko
10:00 – 10:15 a.m. A Path to Success
Former Princeton Township Mayor Chad Goerner
10:30 – 11:30 a.m. Elected Officials Discuss their Experiences with Consolidation
Senator Bob Gordon – NJ District 38
Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli – NJ District 16
Freeholder Rob Walton – Hunterdon County
Mayor Paul Fernicola – Loch Arbour
11:30am – 12:30pm Benefits of Police and Fire Consolidation
President and CEO of Public Safety Solutions, Les Adams
Princeton Police Captain Nicholas Sutter
Princeton Police Lieutenant Christopher Morgan
Since our inception, Renew Lehigh Valley has been committed to smart growth and revitalizing our core communities by advocating smart governance, open space preservation and establishing an environmentally and economically sustainable region for all its residents.
Making “smart growth” a reality in the Lehigh Valley must involve broad-based regional collaboration and the participation of individuals and organizations across the region’s various communities. RenewLV seeks to catalyze action focused on creating a vibrant region characterized by strong core communities, abundant open space, and regional thinking.
Of course, all of that sounds great – but what tenets do we adhere to in advocating for smart growth and sustainability? The New Urbanism school of thought breaks it down into this friendly, numbered list.
-Most things within a 10-minute walk of home and work
-Pedestrian friendly street design (buildings close to street; porches, windows & doors; tree-lined streets; on street parking; hidden parking lots; garages in rear lane; narrow, slow speed streets)
-Pedestrian streets free of cars in special cases
-Interconnected street grid network disperses traffic & eases walking
-A hierarchy of narrow streets, boulevards, and alleys
-High quality pedestrian network and public realm makes walking pleasurable
3. Mixed-Use & Diversity
-A mix of shops, offices, apartments, and homes on site. Mixed-use within neighborhoods, within blocks, and within buildings
-Diversity of people – of ages, income levels, cultures, and races
4. Mixed Housing
A range of types, sizes and prices in closer proximity
5. Quality Architecture & Urban Design
Emphasis on beauty, aesthetics, human comfort, and creating a sense of place; Special placement of civic uses and sites within community. Human scale architecture & beautiful surroundings nourish the human spirit
6. Traditional Neighborhood Structure
-Discernable center and edge
-Public space at center
-Importance of quality public realm; public open space designed as civic art
-Contains a range of uses and densities within 10-minute walk
-Transect planning: Highest densities at town center; progressively less dense towards the edge. The transect is an analytical system that conceptualizes mutually reinforcing elements, creating a series of specific natural habitats and/or urban lifestyle settings. The Transect integrates environmental methodology for habitat assessment with zoning methodology for community design. The professional boundary between the natural and man-made disappears, enabling environmentalists to assess the
design of the human habitat and the urbanists to support the viability of nature. This urban-to-rural transect hierarchy has appropriate building and street types for each area along the continuum.
7. Increased Density
-More buildings, residences, shops, and services closer together for ease of walking, to enable a more efficient use of services and resources, and to create a more convenient, enjoyable place to live.
-New Urbanism design principles are applied at the full range of densities from small towns, to large cities
8. Green Transportation
-A network of high-quality trains connecting cities, towns, and neighborhoods together
-Pedestrian-friendly design that encourages a greater use of bicycles, rollerblades, scooters, and walking as daily transportation
-Minimal environmental impact of development and its operations
-Eco-friendly technologies, respect for ecology and value of natural systems
-Less use of finite fuels
-More local production
-More walking, less driving
10. Quality of Life
Taken together these add up to a high quality of life well worth living, and create places that enrich, uplift, and inspire the human spirit.
These principles make sense and should be central in smart growth planning, but they can be a bit vague and nebulous. Bill Adams from UrbDeZine in San Diego has 10 new principles that he thinks will make smart growth smarter if they are put into practice.
1. Purge the term NIMBY from your language and your thinking. It stultifies any further understanding of community concerns, or how to reach a compromise. Every criticism or opposition to a high density project is now labeled as NIMBYism, with little further discussion of community concerns. Community stakeholders typically have great knowledge of their neighborhoods though they may not use formal planning terms.
2. Respect community planning. Recognize that many community development regulations are the result of lengthy and thoughtful public planning processes. Community stakeholders often have years of volunteered time and effort invested into the local planning process. Modern smart growth occurs best through this planning process, not through ad hoc project variances. Large variances rarely create good results. Increased density via the community planning process allows the community to “buy in.” Developments that require spot zoning under the smart growth or TOD banner are usually wolves in sheeps clothing. See Smart Growth Principles #9 & #10
3. Integrate with the surrounding community. A project which becomes an island or erects barriers to the existing neighborhood may cause nearby businesses to close or nearby residents to move away, which causes blight and loss of density. A successful smart growth project recognizes the existing desirable and undesirable neighborhood patterns, and works to fit in with the former and tweak the latter. In this way, it is most likely to be part of a walkable and sustainable community. See Smart Growth Principles #4 & #5
4. In transit oriented developments (TODs), transit orientation should exceed auto orientation. Projects are passing as TOD simply because they are near retail establishments and transit routes. However, they are usually just as close to major thoroughfares, imbued with ample off-street parking facilities (usually required by the municipality), and pedestrian deterring exteriors. These project rarely enhance walkability, and the convenience of public transit is offset by equal or greater auto amenities and convenience. Recent studies have found mixed evidence of public transit relieving traffic congestion. One contributor to this mixed result may be that TODs have yet to significantly coax people from their cars. Several cities are taking the next step to shift the transportation paradigm by eliminating or reducing minimum off-street parking requirements for new construction. This step also helps to lower construction costs and make housing more affordable. However, most cities remain daunted by anticipated opposition from businesses and residents (as can be seen in Portland, a leader in reducing off-site parking requirements, from adjacent residential areas fearing increased load on street parking) or long held perceptions of the need for off-site parking. Creating communities that encourage a walking and transit lifestyle requires a holistic and integrated approach, as well as bold vision and courage from municipal leaders.
5. Respect neighborhood character & identity. A positive neighborhood identity helps to sustain densification. Lack of identity or a negative identity makes increasing neighborhood density difficult. A development that challenges or changes a community’s identity architecturally or in terms of land use can undermine the very thing that attracts residents to the neighborhood. Diversity of land uses is good but incompatibility is not. Preserve historic resources and urban fabric. See Smart Growth Principle #7
6. Increase density incrementally. A lot of increased density can be achieved incrementally. Reduce setback requirements. Allow “granny flat” construction. Small lot infill should be given preference over block-clearing projects. These incremental methods are especially important in communities that are not blighted or depressed. The height and mass of buildings in the community are usually closely related to its character and identity. On the other hand, a small lot project can rise higher without negatively impacting the community than a full block project. Large scale developments tend to trigger large scale transitions. Large scale transitions usually have uncertain outcomes, which can as easily result in blight and lost density as increased density and walkability. Even if the end results are increased density, such transitions can result in interim abandonment of existing uses, demolition, empty lots, and surface parking, as property owners clear or “bank” their land in anticipation of new development, leading to interim lost density. Don’t let maximizing density become the enemy of increasing density.
7. Conform to existing “smart” retail corridors and centers. Don’t set up competition for such corridors or centers, or confuse a community’s existing smart growth layout. Most traditional retail districts were established before auto-convenience dominated development in the 60s & 70s. Examples of large scale mixed use projects which negatively impacted resurging nearby traditional retail districts include the following: CityPlace in West Palm Beach FL caused a regression in the revitalizing Clematis St. Horton Plaza in San Diego CA set back the resurgence of historic Gaslamp Quarter and helped relegate it to restaurant and bar uses. Park Station, a proposed project for La Mesa, CA threatens its traditional main street commercial district. A successful smart growth project doesn’t add a large amount of retail space on the periphery of an existing successful or resurging commercial district. This principle is especially important in this era of shrinking or plateaued “brick and mortar” retail. See Smart Growth Principle #7
8. Look for opportunities to narrow (verb) streets and vanquish parking lots. The antithesis of smart growth and the trademark of sprawl are wide streets, dispersed development, and parking lots. Revitalizing older commercial districts too often feel compelled to try to compete with suburban shopping centers by providing equally ample parking. However, such districts attract customers by providing the walkability, human scale, diverse architecture, narrow streets, and historic attractions absent from master planned commercial districts. They’ll never be able to compete on convenience. Parking lots and wide streets directly undermine the attraction. Conversely, people come to successful traditional commercial districts despite the auto inconveniences. Auto inconvenience means pedestrian orientation. Look for opportunities to do more with less parking through better parking management, e.g., negotiating arrangements with private parking facilities to make them available to the public at certain times. Never base the supply of permanent parking on capacity for special events.
9. Prioritize non-auto transportation by creating unique or exclusive pedestrian and bicycle amenities. The health and quality of life detriment of auto-oriented living is well documented. However, too often cities strive to simply add pedestrian and bike amenities alongside its auto amenities. In these circumstances, placement and route selection is for the benefit of the car with pedestrians and bikes an afterthought. However, communities built before auto orientation often have amenities for pedestrians (and sometimes available to bicyclists) that give the latter an advantage or shortcut unavailable to autos. A perfect contrast exists in the author’s own community. One of its better known features are three sets of stairs that vertically ascend/descend a hill supporting a residential neighborhood. In contrast, cars must follow streets which zig zag up the same hill due its steepness. The three sides of the hill with stairs were developed in the first half of the 20th century. (Incidentally, this neighborhood also has narrow streets and minimal setbacks, resulting in a both densely developed yet quaintly scaled neighborhood). However, the fourth side was developed from the 1960s through 2007. This newer side of the hill contains wider streets with sidewalks on both sides (on the older sides of the hill, sidewalks are less extensive and contiguous) but no hillside stairs. As a result, pedestrians must take long and circuitous routes on the sidewalks to get to destinations at the base of the hill, such as the neighborhood park. It is frustrating to see the missed opportunities of direct and short pedestrian shortcuts to the park that could have been built on the newly developed side of the hill, as they were on the older sides. Even though the new neighborhood has more sidewalks, they are less useful, making the neighborhood less walkable. Real smart growth means building pedestrian and bicycle amenities as a priority, not simply as an adjunct to road building.
10. Design for human nature, honed over millions of years, rather than efficiencies and logic, decided upon during the course of design. Such design is often counter-intuitive. This concept is exemplified in the attraction of people to small spaces, crowded rooms, and long lines. William H. Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center (1988), is a masterpiece of counter-intuitive conclusions about such things as appropriate sidewalk width and use of urban plazas. New “shared space” street design, often involving removal of “safety features” such as traffic lights, are also having a counter-intuitive traffic calming, hence safer, effect. In contrast, much of the inhospitable, dangerous, and unhealthy design of post-war communities came about in an era with the most planning, in which travel efficiencies, privacy, and safety concerns were given the highest consideration.
Smart growth, new urbanism, densification, transit oriented development, and related concepts are in danger of triggering a backlash from heavy handed application. One can already see localized backlashes across the country. These backlashes may develop into a more coalesced national backlash if local opposition to projects is routinely dismissed as NIMBYISM and densification is achieved with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel. Ironically, the “rules” postulated above are not really new. Rather they expound on existing smart growth principles that often seem forgotten. Smart growth and new urbanism have always emphasized the importance of respecting neighborhood planning, character, and scale. Hopefully this article will help to refocus attention on these principles and serve as a reminder that smart growth involves much more than simply higher density and proximity to transit.
Addendum (bonus rule!):
11. Preserve and enhance existing density and urban fabric. Avoid demolition for lower density uses (e.g. parking), or as “interim” or anticipatory demolition, (e.g. before project funding). Pursue adaptive reuse, including partial preservation when full preservation or adaptive reuse is not feasible. Allow or encourage adaptive reuse which modifies non-historic structures (or non-historic components of historic structures) to achieve increased density.
What do you think of the New Urbanism principles? What about UrbDeZine’s? Did they miss anything? Can we utilize both sets of principles concurrently for the best chance of smart growth?