Blog Archives

Why Should We Have a Smart Growth Book Club?

1. Some people have never heard of smart growth. What a pity it is to be unaware that we’ve been sold an inefficient way of life, and that there’s a beautiful, simpler, less expensive way to live. This book club is a vehicle to raise awareness and do our part to build a critical mass in society that will effect change that will improve air quality, our health and create stronger communities.
2. It’s a forum for smart growth devotees to network and share information. Meeting together is an enjoyable and easy way to learn. We blog face-to-face, if you will, and get to know who else is out there striving for common sense in our communities. Smart growth is about community, right?
3. Together, we may brainstorm ways to practically make the Lehigh Valley a better place to live, work, play, and worship.
4. We can make ourselves available to help one another recalibrate our own communities. For example, we may share ordinances and codes which have worked, or even attend each others’ township meetings.
5. It is hoped that this will lead to local, bi-partisan community support, and commonsense behavior. Smart growth is a broad-based cause that I believe is supported by everyone who understands it. Conservatives ought to be behind it because it aids families and the economy and saves money. Liberals should back it since it is a framework for better social parity and environmental sustainability. The need for it reaches every person’s life.
6. And of course, the book club is an excuse to better educate ourselves and thus make better choices.

To date we have held two meetings, and the conversation has been enjoyable, enlightening, and encouraging. We’re still working through James Howard Kunstler’s Home from Nowhere, an engaging book that will draw in the novice as well as give talking points to the experienced. Our December meeting “covered” only the book’s first half, so in order to do it justice, let’s discuss the second half in January. As always, if you can’t read the book, you won’t be left out in the cold; your presence is important. We hope to see you at The Allentown Brew Works at 6 pm on Tuesday, Jan. 21! Please spread the word.
If possible, sign up on Facebook, or email Joanne Guth at to let me know you’re going.

Smart Growth Book Discussion Club tomorrow – You’re invited!

We look forward to seeing more of you at our second meeting at 6:30 pm on Tuesday, December 17 in the mezzanine at the Allentown Brew Works, 812 Hamilton St. You can use the parking garage behind the Holiday Inn where the Smart Growth Summit was held, or there is a lot behind the building across Hamilton St. from the Brew Works for no charge.

The discussion between the four of us at the first meeting was lively and promising. This time the plan is to actually discuss Kunstler’s ideas in Home from Nowhere. Click here for his article (excerpted from the book) in The Atlantic Monthly.

Again, if you can’t read the book, come anyway with your ideas, or to network, listen, or learn. We need you!

If possible, sign up on Facebook, or email Joanne Guth at to let me know you’re going.

Spread the word!

Social and Health Implications of What We Build

It’s been difficult to think about the future since the recession began late in 2007.  And, even though economists assure us that this seemingly bottomless downturn ended in 2009, the aftershocks and adverse effects are still very evident.  Recovery, slow though it may be, allows us to envision a future once again for ourselves and for our communities.  As we refocus we notice changes that have occurred while we were busy coping with endless bad news, and we begin to consider again what we want to happen for our ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.

Last week, my colleague, Professor Tom Hammond, showed me Sanford Insurance Company maps of the Lehigh Valley dating as far back as 1885.  Anyone who thinks that the changes are over should study this series of maps– better yet, visit the new Broughal Middle School in Bethlehem, the Overlook Park neighborhood in Allentown, or the Silk Mill project in Easton.  While we once thought of community architecture as a matter of aesthetics or economics (what could we build?), as we look forward we see stunning health, social, and economic benefits that are possible when communities are designed in thoughtful ways.

New interdisciplinary research on the Built Behavior and Health is being conducted by teams of urban planners, architects, developers, social and health scientists, economists and others, and is funded by the federal government.  The findings from this research reveal significant relationships between the design of the built environment and multiple health and social outcomes, including obesity, asthma, mental illness, cognitive functioning, educational attainment, and all-cause mortality.  Further, we are beginning to understand how to strengthen “social capital”, or the fundamental sense of “community”,  at the same time.  How we design our future community, then, will undeniably affect our well-being.  Moreover– when input from residents, stakeholders, and cultural groups is considered in community design and redesign, results are even more beneficial.  Collaborative events, called “charrettes”, are increasingly common and involve a series of design-input-revision sequences that seek diverse perspectives– even from the children who live in a community– about what is most needed.

In sum, we can think about the future in ways that will benefit our children, our elders, our health, and our economic well-being if we consider evidence and findings from this new field of inquiry.  As we continue to pull ourselves out of the economic downturn, we can turn our attention back to the social and health implications of what we build.  The benefits will be tangible.

Our guest blogger, Dr. Arnold Spokane, is a Professor of Education and Psychology at Lehigh University.  Dr. Spokane specializes in the transdisciplinary study of person-environment interaction in work and urban community settings across cultures.  A long-time contributor to the vocational psychology literature, he is increasingly working in the field of public health psychology, disaster mental health, and the nature of individual and culturally-driven responses to both extreme and damaged environments.  Contact Dr. Spokane at

Abogo Measures True Costs of Transportation

I found this interesting online tool the other day, thanks to CEOs for Cities/Carol Coletta’s Twitter account (@ccoletta). Interesting not only on a personal, eye-opening level, but also on a policy-influencing level.

The tool is called Abogo and it calculates the average total transportation costs in your area. More often than not, if we own a vehicle, we don’t pay much attention to the true cost sof our transportation. Sure, we may keep track of what we spend on gas, but we often forget about the various maintenance costs that can quickly add up. And if our home is far away from not only our work, but also stores, doctors, recreational activities — well, the costs tend to rise due to the constant reliance on our cars.

How does Abogo do this? From their website:

We estimate total transportation costs for an average household from your region living in your neighborhood, including commuting, errands, and all the other trips around town. We count money spent on car ownership and use, as well as public transit use.  For CO2 emissions, we count car use only.

It’s still in beta and going through constant revisions, but, in the near-future, they “plan to introduce more personalization in the calculation that will give a better estimate for you.”

I plugged in my address and was told that average transportation costs in my neighborhood are $941 a month — the highest in the region. Understand that these are average household costs — these are not individual costs. Still, that number is steep. What are your average costs?

Downtown Easton Redevelopment Efforts Recognized

I love reading articles praising redevelopment efforts in the cities of Lehigh Valley. The Express-Times editorial board published such a piece today, highlighting how far downtown Easton has improved over the last few years. The article spotlights the growing businesses in the center city district, the facade restorations on Northampton St, and the work of Lafayette College in the revitalization efforts.

The editors urge those individuals who haven’t ventured into Easton in some time to come by and take a second look, declaring that “Something is happening in downtown Easton. Something worth seeing.” And I completely agree.

I can’t exactly recall my first visit to Easton, but I fell in love with the downtown city almost instantly. I have become even more enamored with it after taking part in an Urban Land Institute tour of Easton, led by its mayor (and smart growth advocate) Sal Panto, Jr. Easton has some fantastic redevelopment projects in the works currently – such as the Silk Mill project and the Nature Nurture center – and the revitalization effort is due in large part to the mayor’s work, and the work of other key employees of the city.

I have had the pleasure of spending a few fun evenings in Easton since moving to the Lehigh Valley, and I encourage all residents of the region (and those living outside of the region) who haven’t explored Easton’s downtown to rush there as soon as possible. From the fantastic restaurants, to the amazing art galleries (such as Connexions on Northampton St), and the entertaining State Theater shows, there’s something for everyone.

West Hartford, Connecticut: A Case Study for Smart Growth

Growing up in West Hartford, Connecticut, I suppose I took for granted the “walkability” that I, along with many other residents, enjoyed. Recently I came across an article in the Hartford Courant discussing real estate value based on proximity to “walkable” communities. As I read the article, and thought back to West Hartford, I began to realize what a great job they have done at developing the town center into an ideal walkable community. When I grew up there, we had the West Hartford Center. The Center is a square half-mile of small shops, restaurants, town buildings, libraries and museums. It was the place to be after middle school, the place to go on dates in high school, and the place to go when I return home now to meet up with friends or just walk and enjoy the environment. The point is, the Center has something for everyone and you can find just about anything you need there. What’s more is that it is located in the densest residential area in West Hartford. So, many people live within walking distance and walk in and out regularly for various purposes. This is very evident if you walk or drive through. The roads are not clogged with cars but the sidewalks are always busy.

Recently, West Hartford took a great step towards establishing itself as a great example of smart growth planning and mixed use development. Blue Back Square was a topic of great debate before it was built in the four or five square blocks adjacent to the West Hartford Center. People worried it would look out of place, compete with the Center businesses, and draw in too much traffic. Now, it is a thriving, complementary neighborhood. It is home to retail shops, department stores, Whole Foods, restaurants, bookstores, museums and more. On top of those establishments are condominiums and apartments for sale/rent. It is even rumored that one of the Boston Celtics bought a condo and lives there in the off season. The whole area is thriving and people walk everywhere. In fact, there is very little room to drive in the area.

This is an interesting case study to think about and almost an ideal to picture and keep in mind when thinking about the possibilities. Smart growth isn’t about stifling development; it is about encouraging the creation of thriving communities and neighborhoods built by mixed use buildings and accessibility. As a side note, West Hartford also has an effective bus system in and out of the Center as well as into Hartford. This adds to the effectiveness of their model. On top of all of this, if the article is accurate, and young adults are drawn to these areas and real estate values increase with accessibility, isn’t that good also? On the joint website for the West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square, they have this map which shows the layout of the area with a complete list of businesses.

Take a look around at the websites and see what you think of the West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square. Is there anything in this example that seems to be missing in the Lehigh Valley? Is this type of development the key to drawing in more young adults as the article implies? Are there any downsides to this type of development?

LEED-ND Receives Expansion Approval, But Does it Have Shortcomings?

UPDATE: See below post commentary for corrected information and clarification on this topic.

In this month’s issue of the New Urban News, it was reported that the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) program has been approved by all of the groups that were asked to decide the fate of the program. The Center for New Urbanism, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Smart Growth America, and the US Green Building Council have voted to advance the program into a full-scale operation; prior to this approval, the program was only in its pilot stage. The program, started by the US Green Building Council, is a certification system, aimed at transforming the way buildings and communities are designed by encouraging more sustainable, environmentally-friendly features.  The LEED-ND ratings system is used nationwide on over 35,000 projects, noteworthy as the program was launched only about a decade ago.

While the LEED-ND program has been used widely, the question that stands is: “Has the ratings system promoted better development?” Admittedly, that’s a complicated question to answer. Does better development mean the use of more sustainable building materials? And, in general, what sort of criteria must be satisfied in order for something to be considered a ‘good development?’ While the question is complex, undoubtedly, it is linked to land-use planning. Reid Ewing of the University of Utah recently tackled this issue by connecting the LEED program to urban planning (his article is in the October 2009 issue of Planning Magazine, put out by the American Planning Association). Specifically, his concern centered on the physical (on-the-ground) outcomes of a LEED-ND certified building. When Ewing was working on a brownfield redevelopment project in California, his team conducted a traffic assessment study, completely independent of the LEED-ND program. The findings suggested that the mixed-use building that was being analyzed would not have a significant impact on automobile congestion in the region, because the design and neighborhood promoted walkability. But this aspect was not factored into the LEED-ND ratings system – as mentioned, the study was conducted independently. Does this suggest that the LEED-ND program has room for improvement? What other features or aspects should be included in the LEED certification program?

Rail and Right-of-Ways

Tonight, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is hosting the second of three open houses to present the Intercity Passenger and Freight Rail Plan, a combined state freight and rail plan. The event aims to provide a blueprint for Pennsylvania’s rail investments, while accounting for the interests of both freight and passenger rail. PennDOT hopes to receive input from Pennsylvania residents, as a means of working toward a more efficient and effective approach to intercity rail transportation within the Commonwealth. Tonight’s open house starts at 6:00 p.m and is held in Harrisburg, at the C. Ted Lick Wildwood Conference Center (One HACC Drive Harrisburg, PA 17110).

Relatedly, while doing some research on state rail plans, I came upon a TransportPolitic post that touches upon the highway-transit connection that some states are implementing in determining right-of-ways for new rail infrastructure. In the most basic terms, a right-of-way is a strip of land that is allocated for transportation use. Since it is often very difficult to acquire a right-of-way for both highway projects and rail projects, some states have turned to using one right-of-way for both rail and roads. It’s the old adage at work: killing two birds with one stone. And while this might seem as a model of efficiency for some planners, the TransportPolitic writer believes it to be a matter of “political expediency,” rather than good planning. Rail stations on lines that run along a highway corridor must be placed along the highway, often in the median – not offering the most pedestrian-friendly access. While the rail line is a step in the right direction for reducing the amount of cars on the road and increasing mobility for more people, the access to the stations still serves the auto driver. The writer of the post poses a question: Is there any surprise that American cities have trouble attracting transit users, even after we spend billions building new lines?

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