Monthly Archives: April 2013

How to make smart growth smarter

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.

1. Walkability
-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

2. Connectivity
-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

9. Sustainability
-Minimal environmental impact of development and its operations
-Eco-friendly technologies, respect for ecology and value of natural systems
-Energy efficiency
-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?

What’s Going On At The Bethlehem Eastern Gateway?

In 2002 the City of Bethlehem and Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem (CADC-B) embarked on a 10-year mission to revitalize the neighborhoods of South Bethlehem. The guiding master plan, South Side Vision 2012 (now Southside Vision 2014), is an action plan for physical, economic and community development. It originated as a companion to the Southside Bethlehem Master Plan completed in 2001, which focused on strategies for commercial development in the core retail and commercial district of south Bethlehem adjacent to Lehigh University. These strategies focus on:

  • Create a strong open space network, with new and improved parking opportunities
  • Concentrate new commercial and retail establishments on the existing commercial areas of East Fourth Street, as well as developing positive recreational activities for the youth
  • Improve the gateways leading into Bethlehem, especially the Eastern Gateway where home ownership and home improvement is encouraged

Since the origination of the Southside vision 2012 plan, much has changed in South Bethlehem. The Southside has experienced a renaissance, with major development projects such as the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, ArtsQuest’s SteelStacks and Lehigh Valley Industrial Parks VII campus. Public/private partnerships and hard work have enabled us to attain many of our Southside Vision 2012 initiatives including a new greenway and a new skate plaza, and charming streetscapes linking all of these together.

The Southside energy is palpable here; there is no doubt south Bethlehem is now an exciting urban destination. Our present challenge is how to enhance the Eastern Gateway, which is not only a primary entrance to the City and all of these projects, but an ethnically diverse residential neighborhood. We want a strategy to integrate components of the original Southside Vision plan – possibilities for reuse of buildings and land, parking challenges, youth recreation, and suggestions for concentrated commercial establishments. But we need these to be combined with new concepts for marketing the neighborhood, suggestions for and renderings of possible streetscape amenities, and signage and wayfinding ideas to fit our new identity.

Here’s what it looks like:

Eastern Gateway

The Eastern Gateway in Context

An entrance to South Bethlehem, the Eastern Gateway is a gateway from all sides for visitors arriving from the east, it is a gateway to the residential and commercial core of South Bethlehem, including the Four Blocks International area; for locals, it is a gateway to the future development and jobs of the Lehigh Valley Industrial Park (LVIP) to the east; the academic community of Lehigh University and the wooded slopes of South Mountain to the south; and the entertainment and arts district of the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem (Sands) and the SteelStacks complex (on the former Bethlehem Steel site) to the north.

In addition, it is a local and regional transportation connector with easy access to I-78 and the developing South Bethlehem Greenway, which will eventually connect the regional recreation and green space networks. What all this tells us is that the Eastern Gateway is not just a gateway for any one group or location, but rather it has the potential to be the node at the center of these diverse and growing activities and communities. It is a crossroads – physically, socially, culturally, and economically – more than a gateway to any one thing.

The Eastern Gateway is also a gateway in more than just the physical sense. The entire Southside neighborhood itself, has and continues to function as a “gateway” community. Whether we are talking about steel workers arriving in Bethlehem from overseas at the turn of the last century, students arriving to attend Lehigh University, or new workers arriving to staff the SteelStacks complex or filling tech jobs in the growing Lehigh Valley Industrial Park, the area has, for generations, been a community of opportunity, where people arrive in Bethlehem. Now new arrivals mix with families who have lived in the Southside for generations, creating a vibrant and dynamic, historically rich community culture in the Southside. This is the community that development in the Eastern Gateway must serve.

The Eastern Gateway Vision Plan

The Eastern Gateway Vision Study was selected as Bethlehem’s component of the Regional Sustainability Plan because it addresses an area of the city that is currently in a critical time period of transition. The Study addresses opportunities for more transportation choices, includes market analysis to determine the neighborhood’s market potential and competitiveness, analyzes and promotes the area’s opportunities for infill housing units that meet neighborhood need and ties the neighborhood goals and objectives to those of the surrounding development. The Vision Study was supported by substantial public input. It is clear that the heart of the Eastern Gateway is the people themselves. It is the community’s desires for a long-term vibrant and viable community that drives this vision.

An Emerging Vision

The South Bethlehem Eastern Gateway is an active, dynamic, lively public space that serves as a hub – not just a gateway – of the City of Bethlehem. It reflects the Southside’s history, culture, and community and builds on its physical landscape and infrastructure. The Eastern Gateway is a strong neighborhood-oriented mixed-use district that serves existing and new residents, employees, and other stakeholders wishing to take part and invest in the long-term success of the neighborhood.

This past weekend, a plethora of events were held in the area: Earth Days on the Greenway, Spring on 4th – What’s on 3rd? and the Chili Cookoff! Foot traffic in the Southside continues to grow as these events are held in the revitalized region.

For more information on the Southside Vision, go to their website right at this link. Envision Lehigh Valley also provides information on the Eastern Gateway project as it has become part of their 3-year sustainable communities grant from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

What is sustainability?

The word ‘sustainability’ is thrown around over and over again, by environmentalists, nonprofits, corporations and United Nations conspiracy theorists but we rarely pause to define the principle. Turning to the dictionary isn’t helpful either in the context we’re looking at (the ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.)

At Renew Lehigh Valley, we focus on promoting smart growth and smart governance in order to revitalize our core communities, preserve open space, and establish an economically and environmentally sustainable foundation for our region’s future growth.

A picture is worth 1,000 words, and sometimes a 2 minute video is even better. The Green Meeting Industry Council made such a video where they focus primarily on the environmental aspects of sustainability, but the principles are applicable to every realm of sustainability.

Do you agree with their definition of sustainability? Are there more principles that they miss? What does sustainability mean to you?

The transcript of the video is below:

Sustainability means that things can keep going, can sustain themselves, can continue into the future and go on forever. from a human perspective, sustainability means that our planet can continue to do what it was designed to do: provide fresh air, clean water, produce food and allow us all to have a high quality of life forever. Unsustainability means that it cannot and that is where we are now

20 years ago, scientists in Sweden developed a definition of sustainability with four basic principles. these can be seen as the care instructions for our planet, and if we follow them – it is good for our planet and because we are part of a system that includes our planet, it is good for us too.

The care instructions are as follows:

  1. Reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and heavy metals
  2. Reduce our dependence on synthetic chemicals 
  3. reduce our destruction of nature
  4. Ensure that we are not stopping people globally from meeting their needs

Demand for the earth’s services (air, water, food) increase as the population increases and living standards rise but the Earth’s ability to provide these services is declining because of the way we are living. In our search for prosperity, growth and success, we are destroying the system that we as humans are completely dependent on – nature. We, as humans, have become a threat to our own way of life. The Earth is a system and everything is connected: society, environment and economy.

To live sustain-ably we need to follow the 4 care instructions and apply them to everything we do at home and at work. If we follow these care instructions, we can work together to be sustainable  we will all have a better quality of life, waste less, pollute less and create more things we value in society while improving our planets chances of providing us with the very things that we need to survive.   

What’s up with public transit?

On Tuesday morning, Amtrak announced record high ridership in the first six months of the 2013 fiscal year. October, December and January each boasted all-time highs for those particular months. Ridership on their longer routes, like Chicago to New Orleans, also saw huge increases.

“The continued ridership growth on routes across the country reinforces the need for dedicated, multi-year federal operating and capital funding to support existing intercity passenger rail services and the development of new ones,” Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman said.

The Lehigh Valley is also in the process of examining its comprehensive public transit, through funds from the Envision Lehigh Valley grant directed toward LANTa. They’re going to be looking at a variety of transit modes, including their popular bus program. LANTa is currently looking at Bus Rapid Transit, and have done a lot of research in creating more efficient routes for their riders.

A key component to the quality of life of the Valley in the future will be the level of access to alternative modes of transportation like public transit, walking and biking.  Currently, we face two major challenges in terms of access to public transportation.  The first is the overall level of public transportation service available to residents of the Lehigh Valley.  As part of the Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority (LANta) 2008 study Moving LANta Forward, a peer group review was performed comparing LANta and the Lehigh Valley to transit systems in similarly sized metropolitan areas throughout the country.

The second challenge is that many areas of the Valley have not been developed in a manner that facilitates the use of transit.  For transit to be feasible, residents must be able to safely and conveniently access bus stops to board the bus as well as their final destination once leaving the bus.  This requires a comprehensive and safe network of sidewalks, marked crosswalks and pedestrian phases at traffic signals.  In addition, our neighborhoods, office parks and retail centers must be designed or retrofitted in a way to allow people to walk into, out of and throughout the developments in a safe and convenient manner.  These types of improvements and changes to development patterns will not only facilitate the use of transit but will also facilitate and encourage more walking and biking throughout our communities.

Envision Lehigh Valley’s Public Meeting Results Are In!

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.

Read the full report, including  survey results and focus group discussions, right here!