Category Archives: Trends

Smart Growth Book Club 5:30 this evening

Come tonight to the Veteran’s Sanctuary, 24 S. 5th Street, Allentown, to share your ideas about how we can make the Lehigh Valley more liveable and walkable for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. No need to read! Click here for more info and to register (optional).
Smart Growth is the best framework to contain almost every area of life:  housing, food, community, families, work, the economy, entertainment, transportation, conservation, education, art, public safety, social equity, worship, health care, fitness, even time management. During the last 69 years, we have forgotten a fact that mankind knew for millennia – that our built environment deeply affects our psyche in many ways.

Smart Growth Book Discussion Club tomorrow – You’re invited!

We look forward to seeing more of you at our second meeting at 6:30 pm on Tuesday, December 17 in the mezzanine at the Allentown Brew Works, 812 Hamilton St. You can use the parking garage behind the Holiday Inn where the Smart Growth Summit was held, or there is a lot behind the building across Hamilton St. from the Brew Works for no charge.

The discussion between the four of us at the first meeting was lively and promising. This time the plan is to actually discuss Kunstler’s ideas in Home from Nowhere. Click here for his article (excerpted from the book) in The Atlantic Monthly.

Again, if you can’t read the book, come anyway with your ideas, or to network, listen, or learn. We need you!

If possible, sign up on Facebook, or email Joanne Guth at joguth@live.com to let me know you’re going.

Spread the word!

Intro to Traditional Neighborhood Development

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 Disoriented in the Lehigh Valley

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:

TOD charts

The Planning Commission even produced a map of potential TODs in the Lehigh Valley:

TOD map

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 are full of garbage

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?

The City of Whitehall?

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.

How to attract a Millennial

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.

Here’s what it looks like now:

If You Build It, They Will Come: How Cleveland Lured Young Professionals Downtown

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.

The Darkest Shades of Sprawl

We’ve known for awhile that sprawl is poor land use policy; it’s inefficient and unsustainable, but there is new evidence to suggest that it is correlated to social mobility. Citizens living in sprawling cities are less likely to improve their socio-economic standing.

The rigidity of social status is greatly affected by accessibility to employment and other resources. Cities with higher degrees of sprawl are less accessible, and while they may provide job opportunities for the majority of their citizens, the transportation to those places of employment is hindered by their wasteful land use. Last week, The Equality of Opportunity Project (research done by professors from Harvard and UC Berkeley) released a study showing a map of the United States, colored according to a scale of upward social mobility. Below are the best and worst cities in the country:

Rank Odds of Reaching Top Fifth
Starting from Bottom Fifth
 Rank Odds of Reaching Top Fifth
Starting from Bottom Fifth
1 Salt Lake City, UT 11.5% 41 Milwaukee, WI 5.6%
2 San Jose, CA 11.2% 42 Cincinnati, OH 5.5%
3 San Francisco, CA 11.2% 43 Jacksonville, FL 5.3%
4 Seattle, WA 10.4% 44 Raleigh, NC 5.2%
5 San Diego, CA 10.4% 45 Cleveland, OH 5.2%
6 Pittsburgh, PA 10.3% 46 Columbus, OH 5.1%
7 Sacramento, CA 10.3% 47 Detroit, MI 5.1%
8 Manchester, NH 9.9% 48 Indianapolis, IN 4.8%
9 Boston, MA 9.8% 49 Charlotte, NC 4.3%
10 New York, NY 9.7% 50 Atlanta, GA 4.0%

While this is an interesting study and list, the researchers did not find any convincing data for causation although they pointed to causation in factors including religiosity, family structure, size of the middle class and measurements of racial discrimination, but this week in an article for the New York Times, Paul Krugman looks at their data on the physical segregation and distances between socio-economic groups.

In the cities where expensive housing was a great physical distance from lower income housing, social mobility suffered. Atlanta was a good example. Atlanta is very spread out, which makes public transit very difficult. Jobs aren’t as accessible to individuals without personal vehicles. There has been a hollowing out of urban core communities, and the consequences are very serious.

Atlanta may seem very far away to Lehigh Valley residents, but it wasn’t long ago that The Brookings Institute found many of the same faults in our region. In 2003, Brookings authored a report entitled “Back to Prosperity: A competitive Agenda for Renewing Pennsylvania.” The report featured a profile of the Lehigh Valley where they saw the population sprawling away from cities, towns and older suburbs. This hollowing out contributed to several trends that are highlighted in the report, including the growth of rural townships, decentralization of employment, lagging job growth and slow income growth. Through the 1990s, the Lehigh Valley lost more farm land than any other large metropolitan area and home values in urban areas rapidly declined. Due to the decline in value, tax rates for these municipalities increased. By 2000, racial and economic segregation had taken hold in the Lehigh Valley. During the 1990s, more than 26,000 white residents left Allentown, Easton and Bethlehem while over 27,000 racial minorities moved in. Employment decentralization has continued and further isolated the city population from jobs.

Sprawl is poor land use policy for a multitude of reasons: decrease in  home values, increase in tax rates, racial segregation, prohibitive lack of access to resources and employment and ultimately a rigidity in social class that is incongruous with the country’s promise of equal opportunity.

What Detroit means to Pennsylvania

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.

The Future of Cars

Owning and driving a car, once deemed a core aspect of any American’s life, is now on the decline in this country.

A recent New York Times article titled, “The End of Car Culture” examines how Americans are “buying fewer cars, driving less and getting fewer licenses.” The hypothesis is that the country has passed its peak driving period and that different modes of transportation are now edging their way into the transportation market that had previously been inundated with personal cars. Even the percentage of individuals that have a drivers license in their teens, 20s and 30s has declined significantly since 1983.

The data that the article used was adjusted for population and found that the quantity of miles driven by Americans peaked in 2005 and has declined since. While some have speculated that the decline in cars purchased and miles driven was a cause of the recession, those declines actually began two to three years prior. There are also other theories to the cause of this trend.

“Different things are converging which suggest that we are witnessing a long-term cultural shift,” said Mimi Sheller, a sociology professor at Drexel University and director of its Mobilities Research and Policy Center. She cites various factors: the Internet makes telecommuting possible and allows people to feel more connected without driving to meet friends. The renewal of center cities has made the suburbs less appealing and has drawn empty nesters back in. Likewise the rise in cellphones and car-pooling apps has facilitated more flexible commuting arrangements, including the evolution of shared van services for getting to work.

Reduced use of personal vehicles has positive results for the environment and carbon emissions. Transportation is the second leading source of carbon emissions (power plants are first). New York’s bike sharing program is growing in popularity as tolls increase and funding that promotes car ownership decreases.

To further support the idea that this trend is more than economic, the age group of those most likely to purchase a car and to have a license is increasingly the elderly. The youth are expressing less interest in cars and more interest in living in communities where a car is unnecessary and the public transit is satisfactory.

The article mentions Bay Area Rapid Transit, a transportation system in San Francisco that optimizes bus routes by looking at frequency of use and land use in the area. Our very own LANta is in the process of studying Bus Rapid Transit for the Lehigh Valley. Their report is part of the Envision Lehigh Valley project and will be released soon. The trend across the country points to the need for multimodal transportation options and this is an important step by LANta. As our population increases in city centers, there is less need for a personal car but short bus routes and safe biking paths are still important transit developments. All of these options are environmentally promising and are sustainable alternatives to individuals relying solely on their personal car.

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