Category Archives: Urbanism
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?
Through their website, Envision Lehigh Valley received a total of 1,118 completed surveys as well as feedback from 47 public meetings that were held through the fall. The breakdown of the participants represented an accurate cross section of our regional population on the characteristics of race, age, income and location.
In the 47 focus groups that were held during the public meetings, Lehigh Valley residents appeared to be most interested in discussing economic development, which they saw as a positive thing for the region.
They mentioned large projects currently being undertaken across the Lehigh Valley. Participants discussed projects such as the hockey arena, casino, and ArtsQuest. Projects involving specific companies, including Ocean Spray, and the Lehigh Valley Hospital Expansion, were mentioned as well as more generic business expansions like the Allentown waterfront project, the P&P Mill, and new hotels and retail space in various locations.
Focus group participants were generally dissatisfied with the types of jobs available to Lehigh Valley workers and didn’t believe the job market matched the qualifications most workers have.
The groups also examined other topics; citizens talked 652 times about housing, 549 times about fresh food access, and 378 times about climate and energy.
One of the most interesting findings to come out of the focus group analysis is that the overall interests and topics of discussion varied very little in the different cities, boroughs, and townships where they were held. These commonalities suggest that quality of life factors in the Lehigh Valley are important across the valley, not just in one or two communities.
The phrase “smart growth” has a liberal connotation, but that label is unfairly given. Smart growth policies benefit everyone. It is not a partisan issue; at least it shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Conservatives often attack smart growth policies, but I think this is a result of a misunderstanding of the impact smart growth policies can have on a community.
David Goldstein wrote a blog post highlighting the reasons why conservatives should support smart growth policies, namely “economic freedom, limited government, and responsibility.” (Read the blog post here.) He brings up many good points that should appeal to both sides of the political divide. He sums up his argument perfectly when he writes:“Smart Growth looks at these issues in a holistic way. It does not advocate eliminating land use planning, nor letting anyone borrow money regardless of their ability to repay. But in many ways it does reduce the heavy hand of government and other big bureaucracies to tell you what to do.” (emphasis original)
Smart growth policies will benefit our entire community, but we must join together in the effort to establish these policies in our communities first. Liberals, conservatives, and independents alike should stand together to implement these changes to improve our communities. No matter the demographics or political affiliations, smart growth will benefit us all.
Smart growth has gotten a bad rap as a “liberal” plan that inhibits development and economic growth, while it forces people to live in overly densely populated areas through restrictive policies. Some opponents have cited the intrusive policies proposed in the United Nations Agenda 21, which was presented at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and subsequently adopted by all attending nations. Agenda 21 is a lengthy document that presents many goals and strategies but was meant as a “comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally, and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts the environment.” (A comprehensive look at Agenda 21 can be found at: http://www.un.org/esa/dsd/agenda21/.) Those who oppose these strategies believe the adoption of such policies would overly expand the role of government and interfere with personal choice, local flexibility, and community and economic development.
Well, Renew Lehigh Valley is here to say that this simply is not true. Smart growth is not and should not become a partisan issue. Policies utilizing smart growth planning are meant to reinvigorate a community and provide for wise and effective economic development. Rather than letting a piece of land be developed in any way, why wouldn’t a community want certain boundaries to ensure that the development enhances the economy, benefits the community, and brings jobs to the area for the long term? “Planning” shouldn’t be considered a bad word; it’s smart. And it has the community’s best interest at heart.
Smart growth does not force people to live on top of each other either. We all like a little personal space, but that doesn’t mean that we need to spread out and misuse open land for housing or development. This type of development only increases sprawl, which puts a strain on natural resources, infrastructure, local governments, and the community. Density, in itself, is not a bad thing. It’s overcrowding that should be avoided. Smart development of apartments and other dense living spaces can be functional and quite comfortable. Open space is then preserved in order to keep our natural resources pristine and to maintain the aesthetic beauty we all appreciate. Smart growth communities offer comfortable, walkable neighborhoods with plenty of green space. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
If policy aligns with smart growth planning and development, it will only enhance the community. The government will not overstep its boundaries infringing upon personal liberties. Zoning laws aligned with smart growth policy and smart growth development are intended to preserve a community’s character while encouraging its strengths and improving its weaknesses. Communities that align their policies in such a way have proven to be revitalized and reinvigorated. Who wouldn’t want to live in a community with a thriving economy and a downtown that attracts visitors (which in turn attracts business and money!)?
Smart growth is not a nasty phrase or a terrible policy choice. It is a smart decision for our communities. This isn’t about politics; it’s about making the Lehigh Valley a successful, desirable community together.
Interested in learning more? Register for the second annual State of the Lehigh Valley event through our website: www.renewlv.org. Join in the discussion!
Unless this is the first Crossroads article that you have read (in which case, welcome!), I assume that you’ve noticed a trend throughout many of our posts on smart growth: studies show that average people want it, local mayors and town boards aim for it, small businesses benefit from it, and neighborhoods thrive on it. We’ve written about studies that demonstrate how various principles of smart growth benefit the economy, the environment, and public and private health. Lately, we’ve been able to blog about how the nation is seeing more and more of it.
But all too often, the overwhelming evidence of local and nonpartisan support for smart growth feels a bit…lacking. Sure, a survey of 2,071 people from the United States shows that 77% of them support smart design programs. Yeah, an analysis of how local transportation money has been spent proves that complete streets are spreading both in major cities like New York and San Francisco and in small towns in Idaho. But what does that mean for us? These are local efforts, and while they demonstrate a trend, we have yet to feel that “woah…Smart Growth is awesome” moment for ourselves in the Lehigh Valley.
But let’s say that this is your first visit to Crossroads. Have you ever heard of “smart growth” before?
Even if you do not know the term, chances are pretty good that you are familiar with the principles it represents. You wish it was easier to use mass transit, you’ve heard of “urban revitalization,” and you’ve noticed at some point in your life that it feels safer to walk on a sidewalk than on a poorly lit street on which cars routinely try to shatter the sound barrier. You want to feel safe letting your kids ride their bikes to friends’ houses, and you wish you could walk around the corner when you need one or two things for dinner, instead of having to jump in the car.
The guiding phrase itself is far less important than the practices it stands for. While the common word is a useful way to connect with like-minded groups and succinctly refer to a varying collection of thoughts, to the average person “smart growth” changes nothing — but the installation of sidewalks does.
Using and spreading the obscure phrase will not help us promote “smart growth” among the average people (all of us) who stand to benefit from it. Only two things that can do that. One, as I mentioned before, is the “woah” moment. Imagine, after having lived in Allentown for the past 10, 20, or 30 years, leaving. Imagine returning five years later. Imagine coming back to find a thriving downtown. Fantastic, affordable, safe places to live, just blocks from restaurants, bars, and your office. Drastically less traffic on the streets. Unobtrusive bike racks on curbs, for you, your neighbors, and your coworkers. A healthy, vibrant, safe, happy community.
If we continue to move forward, that’s coming. But it might take a bit of time, and it will definitely take a bit of work.
Until that moment, we rely on the second thing to promote the movement: the making mainstream of principles included in “smart growth.” While we try to work towards that through Crossroads, Facebook, and Twitter, we are clearly biased. What we need is institutional acknowledgment of Smart Growth.
Fortunately, we have lately begun to see this on the federal level. The EPA supports sustainable development. The President and the Department of Transportation and the continue to push for mass transit and alternative transportation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development sponsors many programs consistent with Smart Growth.
There’s also the Centers for Disease Control.
While economic and environmental benefits are frequently touted by the smart growth community, public health benefits are sometimes mentioned as an afterthought. They’re just as important, just as easy to prove, but somehow, they tend to take a backseat. RenewLV has made an effort over the past year or so to bring public health to the forefront of our push for smart growth in the Valley, both through the inevitable health benefits that come from other policies (such as walkability and mass transit), and through the establishment of a Regional Health Department (see here for more information about this campaign).
The federal government appears to see the health benefits of smart growth, as well. The CDC has a page dedicated to “community design.” It echos the public health arguments that RenewLV has made:
Community design refers to all the elements of a community that are human-made and form the physical characteristics of that community. It includes:
- buildings, such as schools, workplaces, and homes,
- parks and recreation areas,
- transportation systems, and
- places to buy food.
Well-designed communities can improve public health. The design and maintenance of our communities may be related to:
- chronic diseases,
- injury rates,
- mental health, and
- the effects of climate change.
Through design, communities can attempt to offer residents:
- opportunities to incorporate routine physical activity into our everyday lives,
- cleaner air,
- lower risk of injury from vehicle accidents, and
- decreased effects of climate change.
According to the page, the CDC actively tracks data on community design as it relates to public health concerns including “types of transportation to work, air quality (ozone and PM 2.5), childhood lead poisoning, and motor vehicle-related fatalities.”
The page is not promoting anything specific, nor does it represent the transformation of the CDC into a leading “smart growth” advocacy group. It simply represents an acknowledgment that Smart Growth has real effects: this is not some crazy scheme based on theory and fantasy. Smart Growth is real, it benefits everyone in many different ways, and it can be successful in any urban community.
Sure, we all know that regular exercise and eating well are essential components of a healthy lifestyle and are important in fighting obesity. But rather than just telling people to go to the gym, how can we make physical activity a more realistic (and exciting!) option that will encourage people to abandon their sedentary lifestyles?
The authors and collaborators of the NYC Active City Guidelines propose active urban design as the key to promoting more physical activity and fighting the obesity epidemic. The Guidelines are the product of a collaborative effort between NYC public health professionals, architects, urban designers, and urban planners.
The Guidelines are grounded in the idea that the design of the built environment can have a crucial and positive influence on improving public health.
They propose interesting strategies as to how planners can transform the built environment to encourage more active lifestyles for its residents and visitors through stair climbing, walking, bicycling, transit use, active recreation, and healthy eating.
While they focus ostensibly on New York City, the Guidelines can also be applied to other cities and communities.
These are my ten favorite suggestions, and perhaps the ones most pertinent to communities in the LehighValley:
1. Consider shared-use paths in areas with viewing attractions.
- Check out Allentown’s plans to encourage active transportation: This Morning Call article discusses the plan to connect local bicycle and walking trails.
2. Explore bicycle share programs to increase access to bicycles for both city residents and visitors.
3. When designing sites that include parking, consider how the provision of parking can affect the use of more active modes of travel such as walking, bicycling, and public transit. In general, when parking is available, people use it. Research in California indicates that increased parking supply may result in reduced active transportation and public transit use. Design car parking so as to reduce unnecessary automobile travel, particularly when walking, bicycling, and public transit are convenient alternatives.
4. Locate new projects near existing public and private recreational facilities and encourage development of new facilities, including indoor activity spaces.
5. In the design of parks and playgrounds, create a variety of climate environments to facilitate activity in different seasons and weather conditions. For example, include sunny, wind-protected areas for use in the winter and shaded zones for use in the summer.
6. Design plazas that allow for diverse functions. Plazas can accommodate physical activities like dance and volleyball, passive activities like sitting and chess, and cultural events such as concerts, exhibits, and historical celebrations. Plazas can also provide space for café style seating and farmers’ markets. When programming plazas, consider the needs of users with varying mobility levels. Seek partnerships with community groups to maintain and program plazas.
7. Incorporate temporary and permanent public art installations into the streetscape to provide a more attractive and engaging environment. Seek collaborations with local arts organizations, philanthropic institutions, or other nongovernmental groups to create and help maintain the artwork.
8. Provide safe walking and bicycle paths between densely populated areas and grocery stores and farmers’ market sites.
9. Further develop Greenways—alternative routes that are integrated into the regional park system. Greenways feature relatively few intersections, many plantings, and a dedicated bicycle right of way. These routes can serve as commuter corridors during the week and recreational paths on the weekend. Connect Greenways to street bikeways.
- Join the Support Allentown Greenways facebook group to help transform Allentown into a biker and pedestrian friendly city!
10. Design stairs to be more visible, in order to encourage their everyday use.
In case the National Association of Realtors report from last month wasn’t enough, a new analysis by the National Complete Streets Coalition gives more evidence for the rising popularity of smart growth. Kaid Benfield of the NRDC writes: “While the prospects for transportation policy reform appear stagnated at the federal level, more and more state and local governments across the country are adopting strong ‘complete streets‘ measures.”
Benfield, citing a press release from the Coalition, points out that the number of complete streets policies has nearly doubled in each of the last three years. The Coalition’s Executive Director, Barbara McCann, claims that:
Recent polls show that voters’ top priority for infrastructure investments are safer streets for our communities and children. Our report shows that this commitment is not only wide, but deep: community leaders and transportation practitioners are rolling up their sleeves and working together in small towns and big cities, in almost every state in the nation, to pass policies that will ensure that future transportation investments create complete streets.”
Complimenting the NAR and NCSC reports is a study out of London, which, according to This Big City, found that “making a street more walkable can add up to £30,000 to the average property price in that street.” Walkability improvements include “widened pavements, extra trees, improved lighting, and new wayfinding signs.” Furthermore, shops located on walkable streets in commercial or mixed-use areas can expect to make a greater amount of money.
People want smart growth, complete streets policies are exploding in popularity on the local level, and walkability enhancements are proven to benefit property values and local business profits. This is all fantastic to see, but let us not grow complacent. While these studies and surveys certainly represent a victory for the larger smart growth community, there is still much work to be done — particularly here in the Lehigh Valley. To be truly effective, smart growth/smart design programs require a long-term investment of resources and effort, and a willingness to push for all, not just some, of the necessary projects.
As Jon Geeting of the Lehigh Valley Independent reminded us late last week, we still have a long way to go to bringing these improvements to the Valley. Accessible public transit is as important as walkability; unfortunately, transportation planners from Bucks and Montgomery Counties, who have been working to restore SEPTA rail service in those areas, have scaled back the proposed Lansdale-Quakertown rail corridor. While previous proposals set the rail line to reach very near the Lehigh County line, it now stops in the Pennridge area of Upper Bucks. Geeting writes:
Extending SEPTA to the Lehigh Valley is a no-brainer. If it cost $1 billion it would still be a no-brainer. Washington and Harrisburg need to get serious about transportation and raise the gas tax to get this done. This would put lots of people to work in the short term, and the long-run economic benefits would definitely outweight the short term costs.
I couldn’t agree more. I am happy to see the national trend toward smart growth. Now it’s our turn: Let’s make it work here.
The essential elements of livable cities can be boiled down into just three central characteristics, according to ThisBigCity:
1) Resilience is about the ability of a city to ‘invent’ or ‘re-invent’ itself through shocks and stresses, to harmoniously accommodate old a new values, and to adapt the functions and requirements of the city.
2) Inclusiveness is about creating social integration and cohesion.
3) Authenticity is the ability to maintain the local character of the city, the local heritage, culture and environment.
Enhancing Inclusiveness in Bogota, Colombia
If you haven’t seen it already, check out these three elements in action in this amazing Streetfilms video that focuses on innovative ciclovías (bike paths) that have been instrumental in making Bogota, Colombia a more livable — and integrated — city. One of the interviewers, Karla Quintero, sums up well the role of these bike lanes in improving social integration:
Every time we referred to it as a large scale street closure event, they would always correct me and say that, no, it’s totally more than that. It’s about social integration. It’s about giving people an opportunity to see their city, to know their city, and to connect with parts of their city that they would otherwise be isolated from because of the streets.
Connecting the Allentown Community Through Bike and Pedestrian Paths
Adopted by the Allentown City Council, the Connecting Our Community plan will connect Allentown’s parks and people through a network of bicycle and pedestrian trails, both on and off street. From allentownpa.gov:
The first phase of implementation will include improvements along Linden and Turner streets – a priority corridor linking Center City and Cedar Creek Parkway with the neighborhoods, schools, parks, businesses, and cultural institutions in between. All other on-street projects will stem from this important corridor.
Want to make Allentown a safer place to for pedestrians and bicyclists? Share your opinion at the Connecting Our Community meeting on April 27th. It will be held at Central Elementary School on 829 Turner St (in the Cafeteria) from 7pm-8:30pm.
Sustainable Cities Collective has an intriguing post by John Reinhardt about one possible consequence of rising gas prices. While some in the smart growth community have been writing about increased transit ridership as a result of high energy costs, Reinhardt asks whether those costs might “pique interest in community gardens.”
As food prices rise alongside gas prices, Reinhardt notes that some people may be inspired by the benefits of urban gardening (within the context of high energy costs):
- It saves money on food. Some of the gardeners in the Dollar Stretcher community estimate that they save up to $500 per year growing and preserving their own veggies — and eating much better produce at that!
- It saves money on gas. A walk to the balcony or backyard to harvest vegetables saves the gas money spent driving to the grocery store.
- It saves petroleum. By growing locally (and presumably organic), you’ll be eating vegetables that haven’t been produced and transported with large amounts of petroleum. In this way, you’re indirectly reducing the demand for petrol and gas.
Urban community gardens have been rising in popularity over the past decade, as Reinhardt notes in his post. Here in the Lehigh Valley, a community garden initiative has been growing for several years.
SUN*LV, which was formed in 2009, “works with organizations and residents to help support existing community gardens and to assist in the creation of new community gardens in neighborhoods across the Lehigh Valley.” They offer a number of resources through their website, including training, a list of gardens in the Valley, and opportunities to support their efforts.
Community gardening is part of a larger local-food movement. Eating local is known to have many benefits — for the environment, for local economies, and for health. Locally grown produce can be sold and consumed quickly after being harvested, instead of being shipped hundreds of miles and left on shelves or in stockrooms for days. Therefore, there is less of a need to use artificial chemical preservatives. In addition, the elimination of those shipping periods means that, unlike with commercial farms, local produce is not harvested until it is fully grown and ripe, and at the peak of its nutritional potential.
Whether the current rise in gas prices will directly lead to an increase in urban gardening remains to be seen. However, community gardens offer a number of benefits — a rise in popularity of such gardens could be a good thing to come out of a bad situation.
Although I currently live in Allentown, attending Muhlenberg College, I am originally from the New York City area. Therefore, I follow a smattering of NYC-based blogs, newspapers, and Twitter accounts. Over the past year or so, particularly the last few months, I’ve watched a furious debate engulf the city. The impassioned arguing and intense ideological clashes have reminded me of heated arguments over the most complex hot-button political topics. Surely, something revolutionary, dreadful, life-changing, must be happening in the city, right?
Wrong. The issue driving New Yorkers to take up positions on opposing front lines? Let’s say it’s as simple as riding a bike.
While bicycling is by no means a new phenomenon to urban centers, it has recently become the focus of renewed attention in New York. This is largely due to Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City’s transportation commissioner. In her four years in that position, Ms. Sadik-Khan has gained international fame for her aggressive attempts to “transform the car-clogged streets of New York” by making the city more navigable for cyclists and pedestrians. She has directed the addition of about 250 miles of bicycle lanes and added pedestrian plazas in parts of the city, including Times Square. Keep in mind: bike lanes are installed only with the consent of local community boards. In other words, if there is a bike lane, elected officials approved it.
While many are elated with the increased focus on biking and walking, some are opposed. The controversy in New York City comes down to the usual obstacles that progressive policies run into; a resistance to change in the status quo, and political posturing.
For example, New Yorker columnist John Cassidy wrote an essay applauding the anti-bike lane lobby and supporting those who frequently drive within the city. Cassidy, who rode a bike when he lived in the East Village in his 20s, reminisces that:
Those days, there were few cyclists on the roads, and part of the thrill was avoiding cabs and other vehicles that would suddenly swing into your lane, apparently oblivious to your presence. When I got back to my apartment on East 12th Street, I was sometimes shaking.
Meanwhile, politicians have chosen to use the issue of bicycling in an attempt to gain support. Representative Anthony Weiner, who ran for mayor in 2005, considered doing so again in 2009, and will likely run again in the future, is quoted in the New York Times as telling Mayor Bloomberg last year that:
“When I become mayor, you know what I’m going to spend my first year doing? I’m going to have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes.”
Representative Weiner, a Democrat who has previously positioned himself as a progressive, has been a staunch critic of Mayor Bloomberg, and has been known to reach out to conservatives in the past.
Meanwhile, legislation has been introduced by a NY City Councilman and a NY State Assemblyman to require adult cyclists to carry licenses, register their bikes, and even add license plate. The bill proposing the last measure was eventually withdrawn.
By now, you’re probably wondering why Crossroads, a Lehigh Valley blog, has published a post focusing on a different city.
While New York City is over a hundred miles away, with a very different political and social climate from the Lehigh Valley, the virtual culture war that has erupted over urban biking has major implications for smart growth around the nation, including right here in the Valley.
RenewLV supports the idea of “complete streets;” streets that are “for everyone, whether young or old, motorist or bicyclist, walker or wheelchair user, bus rider or shopkeeper.” Such streets are vital for the rise of vibrant, healthy urban core communities. A strong city, even a strong neighborhood, allows residents to easily get around, whether to go to school, work, shopping, to meet friends, and so on. A sole reliance on cars inhibits these neighborhoods: roads become over-congested with traffic, parking spaces run out quickly, and an abundance of inattentive drivers leads to accidents.
While I am not necessarily arguing for bike lanes to be installed throughout the Lehigh Valley, I strongly support efforts to make biking a more practical method for navigating the cities, which can include the installation of bike-friendly infrastructure. In addition to a handful of recreational cycling groups, there are a few area organizations which promote biking as a means of transportation.
Bike Allentown advocates “city planning that ensures that all residents can cycle and walk safely through their neighborhoods and communities.” The group supports various efforts including the strategic placement of bike racks in and around Allentown, shared lane markings to alert drivers of cyclists, and a “Safe Routes to School” initiative. The organization also supports the proposed Greenway plan which will, among other actions, connect bike trails in the city’s public parks to streets, in order to make safer biking routes.
The Coalition for Appropriate Transportation is a Bethlehem organization which encourages alternative transportation throughout the Northampton-Lehigh county areas: specifically, walking, biking, and use of LANTA busses. CAT supports a complete streets approach; their website has a wide range of resources for walkers, bikers, and riders — definitely worth a look.
If you support cycling in the Lehigh Valley, try reaching out to one of these groups. Everyone, including motorists, can benefit from an emphasis on safe biking and complete streets. Bike Allentown has a meeting tonight (Tuesday, 3/22), 7:00 PM, at Ringer’s Roost. Newcomers are welcome; if you can, stop by!
Update, 3/23: John Cassidy has come under fire from all corners of the blogosphere for his New Yorker blog post (cited above), but the criticism from economists is perhaps the most acute.
Cassidy, an economics writer, uses brief, vague cost-versus-benefits arguments against the bike lanes. Here are two articles countering Cassidy’s flawed reasoning with their own economic analyses: a blog post by Olaf Storbeck, an international economics reporter (thanks to Matt Tuerk of the AEDC for the link), and a blog post on The Economist‘s site.