Monthly Archives: November 2008

Green Building Bright Spot on Cloudy Day…Month…Year…???

Holly shared her experience at the US Green Builder’s Council in an earlier post.  Here’s another take on the issue of green building from the Urban Land Institute’s blog “The Ground Floor” (yes, they have a catchier name than we do…any suggestions?):

Green building is the bright spot in an otherwise tough economy. U.S. Green Building Council members report green building to be less affected by the down market compared to nongreen building, and homebuyers are willing to pay more for a green home.

Perceived economic benefits are driving green building, including higher revenues, lower lifecycle costs, and lower operating costs, but builders and buyers are also motivated by health benefits, new government regulation, and pressure from global competition.


Why is a Californian 15x’s more likely to be killed in a road fatality than a Norwegian?

Take two sample sets of California cities.  One group of cities has an average population density of 5,736 people per square mile.  The other group has an average population density of 2,673 people per square mile.  One group of cities experiences 3.2 road fatalities per 100,000 people per year.  The other group experiences 10.5 road fatalities per 100,000 people per year.  How do the stats and groups match up?

City Beautiful Street Grid

City Beautiful Street Grid


The rate of road fatalities in the group that is twice as dense is 1/3 the rate in the less-dense group.  In other words, residents in the less-dense group of cities are 3 times more likely suffer a road fatality than those in the denser group of cities.  This may seem counterintuitive. Shouldn’t the denser cities have higher rates of road fatalities?  Why don’t they?

Norman Garrick has an answer to that question: street networks and street design.  Garrick is Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Connecticut and Director of UCONN’s Center for Transportation and Urban Planning. Dr. Garrick is also a member of the national board of The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and co-chair of CNUB”s Transportation Task Force.

“One of the most important but least understood aspects of architecture and urban design is the extent to which the design and layout of residential streets determines the character and quality of communities. Some patterns create a sense of neighborhood and community, while others foster feelings of separateness and isolation. Some nurture social activities and children’s play, while others lead to heavy traffic and degradation of the environment.” (Southwick & Ben-Joseph, Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities, 1997).

Those are not Garrick’s words, but they’re a good intro to his presentation on “Networks, Placemaking and Sustainablility.”  It answers the questions above and discusses the research conducted on those two groups of CA cities.  Thanks the Congress for the New Urbanism, you can look at Garrick’s slideshow and listen to audio of his presentation.  The links follow.

(PDF Version of Slideshow)

(Audio of Presentation)

Sprawl Limits Personal Freedom: A Law Professor’s Perspective


Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, FL.  Among other courses, he teaches a seminar on sprawl and the law.  He blogs at Planetizen and recently contributed the following post explaining his interest in sprawl.  There are multiple compelling reasons to be concerned about issues related to sprawl (no shortage of related/interconnected issues either), but Lewyn gets at a very fundamental and personal issue – FREEDOM –  its relevance to smart growth.

Occasionally, someone familiar with my scholarship asks me: why do you care about walkability and sprawl and cities? Why is this cause more important to you than twenty other worthy causes you might be involved in?

The answer: Freedom. I grew up in a part of Atlanta that, for a carless teenager, was essentially a minimum-security prison. There were no buses or sidewalks, as in many of Atlanta’s suburbs and pseudo-suburbs.  But in my parents’ non-neighborhood, unlike in most American suburbs, there were also no lawns to walk on, so if you wanted to walk, you had to walk in the street – not a particularly safe experience in 40 mph traffic.

So I was essentially trapped in my parents’ house. (1)  Long before I started thinking of street design as a public policy issue, I began to think: This is outrageous! I shouldn’t have to live this way. And when I grew up, I began to think: maybe other people shouldn’t have to live this way either.

And as a grownup, I took jobs in places like Cleveland and St. Louis. Before I moved to St. Louis in 1990, I asked a friend where to live. He said: “I do not recommend the city.” Since Atlanta contains plenty of upper-class areas (primarily because it annexed a big chunk of suburbia in 1954), I was shocked. And I asked myself: how could things have gotten to this stage? How come I can’t live in a city without living five blocks from the corner of Ghetto and Gang? And I started to read and to learn about sprawl.

Now, I live within the city limits of a relatively healthy city (Jacksonville, FL) and my city even has some well-off areas near downtown. But even here, I see things that trouble me. For example, I had an appointment at a regional planning agency yesterday. The planning agency was located in a suburban office park. I decided to experiment with the municipal bus system (which I usually take to work, but had never taken to this destination).

I was surprised and yes, shocked when I learned that I couldn’t walk the thirty-minute distance to the bus stop closest to my job. Why not? Because the office park was cut off by one limited-access highway to the south and another to the west, so there was simply no way to reach the bus stop without getting on another bus that served one of the highways and then changing buses. (2) Again, I was basically deprived of the freedom to walk to my destination.

Some people worry about sprawl primarily because they are worried about air pollution or global warming. To me, the issues is freedom. Bad street design means that in some places, you just aren’t free to move around on foot (or bike, or even bus in some areas). And urban decay and out-of-control sprawl mean that if your job or family takes you to the wrong metro area or the wrong side of town, you have to live or work in one of those places.


Green Build

I cannot tell you the boost I got this week from attending the US Green Builders Councils annual conference: Green Build Expo. Perhaps it was the 30,000 other attendees who all were like minded (YES, I said thirty thousand!). Perhaps it was the opening address from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Laureate. Perhaps it was the thought that in a conference that big there was no GARBAGE- seriously organic local food served on biodegradable plates. There were no garbage bins.  Compost bins? Yes.  Recycle bins? Yes.  Garbage? Nope!

In Boston all new buildings over 50,000 sq. ft MUST be LEED Certified.  For a definition of LEED see: Can you imagine if the Lehigh Valley adopted a policy like that?  It would put us on par with New York City, Boston, LA and the state of Washington, to name a few.  It would mark the valley as truly forward thinking. It would move us forward! This is not such a crazy idea.

The LV has many professionals trained to meet the challenge.  Engineering firms, architects, and land planners with LEED certification are in every firm in the valley. We have developers motivated to build here ( a bit more slowly this year, perhaps).  We have a region with a growing environmental conscience.  It’s all good.

I went to the conference to find numbers to prove to our local development community that building green makes sense.  I got those numbers.  In many cases upgrades to achieve LEED are no more costly then other upgrades.  AND on the whole LEED properties rent for $6/ sq ft more!  Don’t even ask me about the resale value on LEED vs. not LEED!

One more thing…  Archbishop Tutu thanked us…. all Americans…. for doing what we did on Nov. 4th.  He, admittedly presumptuously, thanked us on behalf of the world and God.  I guess being a global figure for peace and being and Archbishop gives you that right.  I tend to agree.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Energy alternatives and infrastructure investment are likely to be important domestic policy issues in the coming year at the national level.  When the Lehigh Valley addresses the issue of land-use and transportation planning, it will be important that the discussion be honest and wholistic.  There will surely be plenty of statistics tossed about.  In anticipation, here’s an excerpt from a post by (law prof.) Michael Lewyn at Planetizen:

After digging around through a big pile of statistics, I realized that there are so many different ways of measuring transit ridership that one can easily prove either that ridership is going up or that ridership is going down.

Similar statistical games can be played with highway transportation. If you want to “prove” that not enough of America has been paved over, compare the number of lane miles built to the number of vehicle-miles traveled. So if lane miles increase 300% in Sprawl City and vehicle-miles increase 400%, you can argue that we haven’t built enough roads- even if your region is honeycombed with expressways, every major street has eight lanes, and there is nary a bus or train in sight. Of course, this technique tends to create a kind of unending circle of construction: more highways mean longer commutes from new suburbs that the highways have opened up for development, which means more miles traveled, which in turn can be used to justify more highways.

On the other hand, if you want to argue that America has already been paved to death, focus on the raw number of miles built, or compare lane-miles to population. So if lane miles have increased by 300% in Sprawl City while population has only increased by 50%, obviously the highway lobby is out of control.

In sum, you can prove a lot with numbers- as long as you are careful which numbers to use.

This may not provide much in the way of clarification, but it highlights the importance of requesting sources of information/statistics and of understanding (or at least trying to understand, often in my case) how a particular set of numbers was calculated.

What Will This Election Mean for America’s Metropolitan Agenda?


(BENFIELD) Here’s a little about what this week’s historic election may mean for smart growth, sustainable development, and metropolitan America, based on Barack Obama’s statements and literature.  There is ample reason to believe that the president-elect has a better understanding of these issues than any other modern president.

The effect of land use on transportation & oil

First, his campaign’s position paper on oil security and energy independenceexplicitly recognizes the benefits of smart growth:

“Over the longer term, we know that the amount of fuel we will use is directly related to our land use decisions and development patterns, much of which have been organized around the principle of cheap gasoline. Barack Obama believes that we must move beyond our simple fixation of investing so many of our transportation dollars in serving drivers and that we must make more investments that make it easier for us to walk, bicycle and access transportation alternatives.”

Importantly, Obama has also stressed that energy conservation should be made one of the explicit goals of the transportation planning required of metropolitan regions in order to secure federal dollars for roads, transit, and related projects.  And he has indicated his support for leveling the tax subsidies afforded to employers who now may spend and deduct twice the amount, per employee, for automobile parking that they may spend on transit, carpooling or vanpooling. 

The new metropolitan reality

Beyond the campaign literature, Obama gave a major address to the US Conference of Mayors in June, during which he showed that he gets it about the challenge of addressing growth at the metropolitan scale:

“The change that’s taking place today is as great as any we’ve seen in more than a century, since the time when cities grew upward and outward with immigrants escaping poverty, and tyranny, and misery abroad. Our population has grown by tens of millions in the past few decades, and it’s projected to grow nearly 50% more in the decades to come. And this growth isn’t just confined to our cities, it’s happening in our suburbs, exurbs, and throughout our metropolitan areas.

“This is creating new pressures, but it’s also opening up new opportunities – because it’s not just our cities that are hotbeds of innovation anymore, it’s those growing metro areas. It’s not just Durham or Raleigh – it’s the entire Research Triangle. It’s not just Palo Alto, it’s cities up and down Silicon Valley. The top 100 metro areas generate two-thirds of our jobs, nearly 80% of patents, and handle 75% of all seaport tonnage through ports like the one here in Miami. In fact, 42 of our metro areas now rank among the world’s 100 largest economies.

“To seize the possibility of this moment, we need to promote strong cities as the backbone of regional growth. And yet, Washington remains trapped in an earlier era, wedded to an outdated ‘urban’ agenda that focuses exclusively on the problems in our cities, and ignores our growing metro areas; an agenda that confuses anti-poverty policy with a metropolitan strategy, and ends up hurting both . . .

“Yes, we need to strengthen our cities. But we also need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution. Because strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America. That is the new metropolitan reality and we need a new strategy that reflects it . . .”

Infrastructure, transit, and rail

In the same speech, Obama also endorsed some good ideas about transportation:

“I’ll also launch a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that will invest $60 billion over ten years, and create nearly two million new jobs. The work will be determined by what will maximize our safety, security, Greater Greater Washington, creative commons license)and shared prosperity. Instead of building bridges to nowhere, let’s build communities that meet the needs and reflect the dreams of our families . . .

“Let’s invest that money in a world-class transit system. Let’s re-commit federal dollars to strengthen mass transit and reform our tax code to give folks a reason to take the bus instead of driving to work – because investing in mass transit helps make metro areas more livable and can help our regional economies grow. And while we’re at it, we’ll partner with our mayors to invest in green energy technology and ensure that your buses and buildings are energy efficient. And we’ll also invest in our ports, roads, and high-speed rails . . .”

(See also Matthew Iglesias’s commentary on this speech.)

While a lot of people, including yours truly, have been advocating these things, it’s worth noting that no other candidate this year, Democrat or Republican, addressed them this directly.  One has to go back to Al Gore’s speech at Brookings ten years ago to find a candidate (and Gore was not yet a candidate at the time) wanting to take on the issues of growth, development, and livable communities in a major address.

Recognition for Portland

In May, at a huge rally in Portland, Obama also served notice that he is aware of that region’s leadership on energy and transportation issues:

“If we are going to solve our energy problems we’ve got to think long term. It’s time for us to be serious about investing in alternative energy. It’s time for us to get serious about raising fuel efficiency standards on cars. It’s time that the entire country learn from what’s happening right here in Portland with mass transit and bicycle lanes and funding alternative means of transportation. That’s the kind of solution that we need for America.”

More on transportation has a very good and succinct summary of the president-elect’s views on transportation issues, drawn from various campaign statements, papers, and press reports.  It includes the following:

  • Obama’s position paper on urban policy includes plans to create a White House Office on Urban Policy, facilitate funding for strengthening urban infrastructure, restore funding for public works projects, and re-evaluate the transportation funding process with an eye toward smart growth.
  • Obama has favored continued government funding for Amtrak, which constantly comes under attack from opponents of subsidies for transit (never mind that the same politicos continue to support subsidies for highway expansion).
  • Obama wants to require states to create more bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly roads. He also proposes government funding to encourage the development of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. The president-elect’s views are outlined in his fact sheet on transportation.

(As a non-partisan organization, NRDC does not endorse candidates.  But, now that we know who will be taking office on January 20, we can begin to look forward, at the environmental implications of the voters’ decisions.)