Category Archives: Urbanism
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.
Today’s post draws on the work of Nina Izábal over at ThisBigCity. OpenCities, an innovative project presented at the UNESCO/UN-HABITAT seminar focused on enhancing inclusiveness for international migrants in cities, acts on the idea that migrants are important contributors to city development and enrichment. After analyzing various indicators (such as perception and inflow of international population), areas, and policy ideologies in 26 different cities, OpenCities reached the conclusion that cities that attract new populations are more competitive than those that do not.
Thus, the project revealed an important implication: migrants enhance cities by adding cultural enrichment, which in turn puts these cities at a competitive advantage. Not only do migrants bring cultural diversity, but they also make necessary contributions to business and innovation that encourage city growth and progress. “Cities are dynamic by definition and new residents change the urban landscape,” Ismael Fernandez Mejía from ISOCARP points out in the seminar.
How is this relevant to the Lehigh Valley? You may have found 2010’s State of the Lehigh Valley report particularly revealing in terms of the trends in population demographics. While in 2009 and 2010 the Lehigh Valley had a lower percentage of Black residents than in the rest of Pennsylvania, the US Census Bureau data in the report indicates a greater percentage of the Lehigh Valley reported being Hispanic than in the rest of the state.
The Lehigh Valley has steadily attracted more residents; from 2000-2009, the population in both Northampton and Lehigh Counties grew significantly. According to this report, recent population growth in the Lehigh Valley has been primarily due to the influx of foreign immigrants: “The principal component of population change in the last decade has been in-migration from other countries, not other states.”
Given the population trends in Lehigh Valley, the OpenCities’ approach will help to identify ways to make our cities more open and integrated. What exactly does “open” mean in this context? As defined on their website, openness is “the capacity of a city to attract international populations and to enable them to contribute to the future success of the city.”
What are organizations in the Lehigh Valley already doing to allow for more “openness”? To name a few, AEDC has a strong focus on fostering urban manufacturing and entrepreneurship, and is working to engage the diverse communities of Allentown. In addition, LVEDC provides business assistance for minority-owned businesses. Among other initiatives, CACLV provides individualized assistance and entrepreneurial training to new and existing business owners through their Start Your Business course.
I’ll leave you with some food for thought: What can we do to make cities in the Lehigh Valley more “open”? And what are some practical ways we can better foster inclusiveness to encourage smart growth?
As the new year approaches us quickly, we wanted to thank all of our supporters and community members in the Lehigh Valley. We’ve had a great year, filled with many opportunities, as well as many challenges. If you haven’t had a chance to do so yet, check out our End-of-Year Message.
As many of you know, I am leaving the Lehigh Valley and moving to warmer weather down south. Sadly, this means that today is my last day with Renew Lehigh Valley. It’s been a fantastic ride and I feel so lucky to have been part of the RenewLV team.
I will continue blogging on the Crossroads blog as much as possible. Some of these updates will be ones about smart growth in Panama. Yes, Crossroads is going international.
If you haven’t already done so, please add us to your RSS reader. By doing so, you’ll never miss any of our posts.
Happy holidays and a great New Year!
A slew of transportation improvement projects were approved for funding on Monday. PennDOT officials and members of the Lehigh Valley Transportation Study chose 10 projects out of a proposed 24 to receive a share of $3.3 million in available money. These funds come from the Transportation Enhancement Program, which aims to fund projects that will improve transportation connections and provide much-needed improvements to our network. Dan Hartzell of the Morning Call reports:
TEP funds normally are awarded for improvements apart from direct road or bridge construction work, said Joseph Gurinko, chief transportation planner for the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. These include sidewalks, pedestrian crosswalks and related work, bicycle safety projects, street lighting, rail trails and other park improvements.
Better connectivity means more livable communities, so I’m thrilled to see that this important program is still around and still funding such crucial projects.
The Express Times posted the full list of projects:
^ $500,000 to Lehigh County to restore Manassas Guth covered bridge in South Whitehall Township
^ $499,100 to Allentown for pedestrian lighting along Seventh Street
^ $497,835 to Freemansburg for Main Street enhancements
^ $488,750 to the D& L National Heritage Corridor for trail construction from Hokendauqua to North Catasauqua
^ $449,500 to Whitehall Township to develop Jordan Creek greenway
^ $439,875 to Fountain Hill for pedestrian enhancements to Delaware Avenue
^ $434,654 to Hellertown for streetscape work at the government complex off Route 412
^ $243,600 to the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation for bicycle education for cyclists and law enforcement
^ $172,500 to Allentown for a safety/crosswalk project for Muhlenberg College students
^ $158,485 to Community Bike Works for bicycle safety and maintenance classes
Great to see that Hellertown received funding to continue it’s street enhancement project. Sure sign that this community will continue thriving (go visit if you haven’t yet — I recommend the restaurant at the Crossroads Hotel, and not just because our blog shares the name with it).
Much of RenewLV’s work focuses on the revitalization of the cities in the Lehigh Valley. In part, we examine the structural issues that are in place that prohibit the redevelopment of brownfields and vacant lots in the cities and we work toward solutions to the challenges. But lately we’ve been realizing that the problem is not just affecting the cities anymore. The so-called inner-suburbs have also suffered a decline over the past two decades. In fact, this is the very issue that the Southeast Pennsylvania First Suburbs project works on and a significant part of the Building One Pennsylvania movement.
Urbanophile writes about this issue in a recent post, mentioning the huge unfunded liabilities that one generation lays in place for the next one to pay. They write:
It is a huge incentive for politicians and residents to vote for immediate gratification with the bill – infrastructure costs, pensions, redevelopment costs, or what have you – pushed out 25-30 years. Then these people or their children simply move to a greenfield and start the process over again.
And here is where the realization comes in:
If you think about it, we spend virtually all of our time in the planning process thinking about the upfront side of the development. We charge impact fees to mitigate road needs from new development and such. We go through an extensive review process to make sure there are no adverse impacts on the surroundings. But we spent little time thinking about the back end of the project, of its end of life, and the types of negative externalities that occur there as people can simply abandon homes and malls and go elsewhere.
One suggestion for how to plan for this, as mentioned by Urbanophile, is to mandate redevelopment insurance on the developer. Sure, it might serve as a disincentive to develop if only certain municipalities or states did this, but if it was mandated uniformly across the nation, then we would all be in the same boat. Read more about this idea on the original Urbanophile post.
Could this be one way that we could ensure that our communities don’t die? Essentially, what the decline of the inner suburbs has shown us is that, given the way we’ve been planning and developing in this nation, no community is safe from falling into distress. It’s happening all across Pennsylvania. And we have to do something about it.