The Brookings Institition released a report last week by Alan Mallach (Senior Fellow) entitled Facing the Urban Challenge: The Federal Government and America’s Older Distressed Cities. The report focuses on the federal role in helping out former industrial powerhouses that have been losing populations and jobs since the end of World War II, triggered by “suburban flight, deindustrialization and automobile-oriented sprawl.”
While some cities have rebounded, others continue to struggle today. The report stresses that these cities should focus on the goals of: strengthening core areas by building on key assets, preserving viable residential neighborhoods and housing, and identifying long-term “non-traditional and green uses” for vacant/abandoned lots and buildings.
Mallach argues that the federal government needs to play a stronger role in passing policies that help distressed communities achieve these goals. His recommendations for the federal government include:
- Providing support for new comprehensive planning efforts.
- Helping cities plan and carry out land management strategies.
- Pursuing opportunities for investment in transformative projects and already-established assets.
- Expanding the Neighborhood Stabilization Program.
- Focusing on retaining middle income households within these cities.
Overall, the message that I received from the report is that there is an absence of a coherent strategy and lack of coordination on the federal level for assisting distressed municipalities. Federal policies that promote more comprehensive land-use planning (and reward regions that participate in such planning efforts) would go a long way in providing the tools that some of these municipalities need to bounce back.
You can read the full report on the Brookings website. If you’re interested in keeping up to date on all news related to land-use planning, make sure to join our e-mail list by visiting RenewLV’s Join Us page.
The American Conservative has an interesting blog post up by Austin Bramwell about the role of government in promoting sprawl. It seems that his claim that “government planning makes sprawl ubiquitous” was challenged by libertarian Randal O’Toole, who claims that “developers generally have no trouble getting zones reclassified…Euclidean zoning operates in practice as a licensing regime rather than a flat prohibition on varying land uses.” In other words, O’Toole is arguing that one method of government planning – Euclidean zoning, which segregates by residential, commerical, and industrial uses – is not actually prohibitive, but merely limiting.
Let’s concede the Euclidean zoning does not cause sprawl; let’s even concede (as seems unlikely) that it has no actual effect on land use whatsoever. Euclidean zoning is still just one set of strands in the vast network of laws mandating sprawl. To produce the opposite of sprawl — that is, the walkable neighborhood — the government needs to let developers do a lot more than just mix uses.
Bramwell concludes that his position against sprawl comes to the simple matter of providing choices for people.
Check out the full post here for the in-depth back and forth in this debate. Post your thoughts below.
A major focus of RenewLV’s work is on regional collaboration (particularly with regard to governance). Indeed, all of RenewLV’s current initiatives aim at creating a region characterized by strong communities, which, undoubtedly, requires some type of collaborative approach between the local municipalities. As many of our readers are aware, the issues related to development and smart growth are not issues that often abide by jurisdictional boundaries. As is often the case with land and water (and, as we have seen, public health) policy, concerns related to these topics do not stop at municipal or county borders.
On Planetizen last week, Matthew McKinney discusses how regional governance is needed in addressing many of these concerns. He reports that the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy at the University of Montana has been working with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and, from this coalition, it has become apparent that there is a clear “need to fill a governance gap…short of erasing existing political and jurisdictional boundaries, citizens and officials need to develop the capacity to work across boundaries according to the ‘problem-sheds’ of the land and water issues we face in the 21st century.”
Check out Toward an Ethic of Place: Experiments in Regional Governance to read more about some models for regional collaboration (networks, models, and institutions) and the attempts that are being made to address the gap. After reading this piece, what are your thoughts on regional collaboration efforts? What type of model of cooperation could be used in the Lehigh Valley?
For updates on regional collaboration and urban revitalization efforts in the Valley, visit RenewLV’s Join Us page to sign-up as a supporter.
Transit oriented development is great for all sorts of reasons. It fosters community, efficiency, conservation, walkability, and mobility, while still promoting development. Two recent news stories help to articulate another valuable component. Transit oriented development is also becoming more recognized as a strategy for weathering economic downturns, even when they come in the form of a severe recession.
The first is an article in the New York Times from October 6th, highlighting the economic success of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, a great example of transit oriented, mixed-use development in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington. The article discusses the astonishingly low vacancy rates in the corridor despite increases in vacancy rates across the country.
Tying together this 3.3 mile corridor of what Terry Holzheimer, Arlington County’s director of economic development calls, “urban villages,” is the metro system which runs from one end of the corridor all the way into D.C. The result is a corridor which attracts residents, businesses, and consumers with all projections pointing towards continued development and success.
For more information on the history of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, including a link to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor video, visit this Smart Growth America blog post.
The second story, aired on NPR’s Morning Edition last week, is about a developer in Phoenix, Arizona, who is buying up foreclosed properties near mass transit lines. Phillip Beere, of Green Street Developers, buys foreclosed properties and then remodels, modernizes, and makes those properties more energy efficient. The idea is to sell the properties to people, young professionals and others, who want to avoid the costs of suburban living, including energy efficiency and the Phoenix commute, which averages one hour roundtrip. Because the properties were foreclosures, they can be resold at a reasonable price, even after the remodeling. Beere’s claims that the properties will offer a walkable community where people can live comfortably, and walk just a short-distance to catch the light rail to work each day.
Although Pheonix is well-known as a “sprawling metropolitan area,” Philip Beere’s sees this project as an investment. Another developer interviewed in the segment discusses the shift in focus from living spaces that “impress” with size and amenities, to living spaces that are functional, efficient, and that meet a person’s budget. In a time when people are learning the value of efficiency and the risks of budget-stretching, many believe that there will be a real market for the project despite the Phoenix development paradigm.
Check out Ryan Champlin’s blog post for commentary about funding problems common to transit oriented development initiatives.
Yesterday, members of RenewLV’s staff attended a Transportation for Pennsylvania coalition meeting to discuss some of the upcoming challenges in transportation funding affecting the Commonwealth. The meeting also allowed regional smart transportation advocates to receive the latest updates from Transportation for America, as the organization’s regional organizer was able to join us in person before heading back to Washington, D.C. for the T4A Health Summit.
The T4A Summit – co-hosted by T4A, the American Public Health Association (APHA), and PolicyLink – brought together public health experts with transportation policy-makers as a means of underscoring the important connection between these two areas. The link between health and commuter choices is one that has been commented on at length on this blog. Just this past Monday, RenewLV’s Community Fellow, Alex, wrote a great entry that highlighted a new study examining transportation choices and the effect of said choices on obesity rates. Alex also provided his personal perspective on the matter, given his recent trip to Europe and his observations of the health of residents in less car-dependent communities.
The policy briefing at the Summit, titled “Get Moving! Mobilizing for a Healthier Transportation System,” focused on the topics of accessibility, safety regulation, and the link between transit choices and physical health. Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director of the APHA, stressed the need for collaborative solutions within transportation and health policy, stating “We really are at a transportation crossroads. Without transformational change in our priorities, we will perpetuate a transportation status quo that puts our health at risk, exacerbates health inequities and clouds our future.” With continued focus on the link between these issues, it’s only a matter of time before municipal planners, transportation officials, and public health advocates will begin working together in implementing smarter community design and providing more transit choices.
A number of smart transportation advocates and organizations have used the data compiled by The American Community Survey in determining rankings for the best cities for commuters, bikers, and pedestrians. I decided to look over the Lehigh Valley data today after reading a Wash Cycle post on bike sharing, which susbequently brought my attention to a 2007 Commuting Trends entry on the Bike Pittsburgh blog.
I compared the statistics for the 15th Congressional District, which encompasses Northampton County and a majority of Lehigh County (it also includes small parts of Berks and Montgomery Counties), to the data in the greater Philadelphia County region, as well as the region around the city of Pittsburgh. Specifically, I focused on the Means of Transportation to Work by Selected Characteristics, and measured up the Vehicles Available percentages between the three regions. The comparison wasn’t too surprising, as I expected the car-dependence to be higher in the Lehigh Valley than in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh (two regions with comprehensive rail networks). Nevertheless, the results were still significant.
In the greater Lehigh Valley region, most workers have access to more than two vehicles (over 43% of workers), while less than 3% of workers do not have any vehicle available. Compare this last statistic to the Pittsburgh area, where more than 11% of workers do not have access to a car, and, additionally, to the greater Philadelphia area, where a whopping 22% of workers do not have a car, and it becomes clear that the Lehigh Valley is very much a car-dependent region.
Given this data comparison, I want to ask: Would a more robust public transportation in the Lehigh Valley translate into less car dependence? How does land-use planning impact these statistics?
Earlier today, RenewLV staff attended the meeting of the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition (RVRC), in Westfield, NJ. As mentioned in a previous Crossroads post, the RVRC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to facilitating safety and service improvements on the Raritan Valley line of the New Jersey Transit Rail Network. A large chunk of today’s meeting was devoted to project updates, including the ongoing Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) Mass Transit Tunnel project. The new Mass Transit tunnel under the Hudson River will provide another much-needed connection between New Jersey and New York. The tunnel is expected to relieve some of the mass congestion that occurs in the so-called “trans-Hudson rail bottleneck,” and, moreover, provide an opportunity for the Raritan Valley line to connect directly to New York (currently, passengers on that line must switch trains at Newark, NJ).
While the meeting focused heavily on the potential for improving commuter connections between New York and New Jersey, the capital planner from NJ Transit offered a brief update on the transit study examining the congestion along the I-78 corridor. Part of this study is looking at the feasibility of extending the Raritan Valley line west from High Bridge, NJ, to Phillipsburg. Once the study findings are released later this year, it will be interesting to see how (and whether) the construction of the Mass Transit tunnel will impact transportation in western New Jersey and in the Lehigh Valley. Some speculate that the improved access to New York City will encourage New Jersey Transit to extend some of its rail lines, though NJ Transit officials have not made any formal statements on this matter.
What do you think will be the biggest advantage of the ARC Tunnel project? How (and why) do you think it will impact the Lehigh Valley? Post your comments below, or send us an e-mail.
Given that the Lehigh Valley is home to many higher-education institutions, it’s important to consider the role that these schools have in the broad effort to promote better development practices in this region. This connection is one that has been considered in other regions and states, including Maryland, where public universities have to update their master plan every six years – and it is one that Richard Layman, an urban design consultant based out of Washington, D.C, is examining in-depth. While his latest blog post focuses on public universities, it made me wonder how private institutions can fit into local land design and planning practices.
Here in the Valley, most of the private, four-year universities and colleges are located within the cities, providing the urban revitalization component of sustainable development. Moreover, the city locations allow for a close proximity to local businesses, adding to economic growth within the region (particularly, in the areas that need it the most). And, of course, there is the aspect of greater mobility; because the schools are located in busy corridors, pedestrian access and public transportation are readily available.
The question that remains, then, is: How can the local private universities and colleges have a stronger (and more direct) role in shaping growth patterns in the Lehigh Valley? Should they be required to draft master plans, like some public universities? How else could the local schools contribute to the smart growth movement here in the Lehigh Valley? Post your comments, questions, and thoughts below or shoot us an e-mail.
Since land-use planning connects closely to all of RenewLV’s initiatives, a story that aired during NPR’s Morning Edition on WDIY 88.1 last week sparked my interest. The story covered the effort to improve energy efficiency in the city of Houston, TX. The current mayor, Bill White, has been working toward encouraging better development projects that incorporate energy-saving features. Unfortunately, the effort has hit a few snags.
A new multi-use development project has been resisted by local residents, who insist that the building would bring in additional traffic. The developer’s goal was to decrease the number of cars on the road, by providing a restaurant and office space in a residential complex. The idea here is that proximity to resources (such as work and recreational activities) would cut down on driving to destinations and help in reducing overall energy use. Because of complaints from the neighbors, the city refused to grant a building permit without the developer restricting the project to residential dwellings.
Some are saying that the city officials have little experience with urban planning, and are not exerting enough power over development decisions. For example, the city has not provided many incentives to build along the light-rail line, and complex zoning ordinances have actually deterred developers from considering the region as a worthwhile investment. Such setbacks have been pivotal in showing the impact that land-use planning has on transportation, community design, and – at least in the case of Houston – energy consumption.
Yesterday, I had a chance to attend the Harrisburg Open House meeting for PennDOT’s Intercity Passenger and Freight Rail Plan. The event presented the vision and goals for the rail plan in Pennsylvania for the next 25 years. In this draft plan, PennDOT put forward an ambitious vision for rail, stating that “by 2035, the intercity passenger and freight rail system [will] provide seamless transportation for residents, visitors and businesses between the various cities of Pennsylvania with convenient connections to the national transportation network.” The presentation at the open house included maps for proposed rail corridors, in addition to the criteria list that is being used to determine the corridors. The open house was part of a series of public meetings that PennDOT and the project’s consultants are holding across the state, as a means of receiving input on the draft plan. That is, the presentations at these meetings were not THE finalized plan, but were meant as an opportunity to provide feedback and potential revisions. (Attendees were even given a chance to actually draw corridors onto a map).
On the big picture scale, the plan aims to identify possible service enhancements, priority investments, performance measures, and funding mechanisms. One of the striking features (at least for me) of the plan elements and proposed criteria was the connection that was made between rail and land use planning. The project consultants seemed especially sensitive to those issues often addressed on this blog: transportation-oriented development, increased multi-modal access, greater mobility for all people, environmental sustainability, and land use implications. Moreover, the goals outlined in the plan touched upon the crucial link of transportation investment to economic development, in regard to both passenger rail (cost-effective access to jobs and resources) and freight rail (cost-effective transport of goods). As mentioned above, the proposed corridor maps for freight and passenger rail were still in their draft versions, but, nonetheless, a Lehigh Valley corridor was included in these preliminary plans.
Because the plan is still being revised, it has not been posted online yet, but RenewLV staff is following up with the project planners and consultants to see if we can obtain electronic versions of the documents presented at the meetings. Make sure to subscribe to the Crossroads RSS feed to receive updates on this project.