Blog Archives

Smart Growth Book Discussion Club 6 pm Monday

Come to the Allentown Brew Works at 6:00 Monday, March 31, when we’ll begin discussing Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. If you’ve no time to read, please come anyway to listen and share about ways to make the Lehigh Valley more walkable, sustainable…doable!

RSVP here.

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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 joguth@live.com 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 joguth@live.com to let me know you’re going.

Spread the word!

How to attract a Millennial

The Millennial Generation comprises those who were born from 1980 to the early 2000s and now represents America’s young professionals who are graduating from college, getting their first and second jobs and buying homes. We’re now seeing where they want to live: downtown.

For the first time in decades, the population of American cities has grown at a faster rate than the suburbs. There is some speculation that this is a result of the recession, with urban dwellers remaining in place instead of moving to the suburbs with low and unpredictable home prices. Alternatively, there is evidence to suggest that the migration to the cities is more intentional for this generation.

Young professionals are now seeking different communities than the suburbs that their parents and grandparents had coveted for generations. Walkable, mixed-use communities are on the rise. A developer in Cleveland seized this trend and built one of the most desirable blocks in the entire city. Ten years ago, the Maron family bought up an entire block of the city where restaurants had gone out of business, retailers had failed, crime rates were high and there was little hope for residential use.

Here’s what it looks like now:

If You Build It, They Will Come: How Cleveland Lured Young Professionals Downtown

The block is thriving with outdoor seating, apartment buildings at capacity and successful retail. The project wasn’t immediately accepted by other entrepreneurs though; the Maron’s opened their own restaurants when others weren’t willing to take another chance on the neighborhood. By the time they opened a 224 unit apartment building on the block, the area was so popular that the building filled almost immediately.

Perhaps they’ve read The Creative Community Builder’s Handbook (by Tom Borrup).

The term creative community building describes efforts to weave multiple endeavors and professions into the never-ending work of building and rebuilding the social, civic, physical, economic and spiritual fabrics of communities. Creative community building engages the cultural and creative energies inherent in every person and every place.

Looking at the above picture of the block, it certainly seems like they’ve done that. This vibrant community in downtown Cleveland captures what many Millennials are looking for as they begin to live on their own. The area is walkable, there are residential options, dining and retail. It’s high-density, efficient land use with a markedly decreased rate of crime and it’s actually pretty cool.

Federal Role in Revitalizing Older Communities

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.

Government Planning and Sprawl: One View

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.

Bramwell responds:

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.

Filling the Governance Gap

Saucon Creek near Hellertown Northampton

Saucon Creek

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 (TOD): Weathering the Economic Storm

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.

T4A Event Focuses on Link Between Health and Transportation Policy

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.

To read more about this event, visit T4A’s website. To receive more updates on smart growth, land-use planning, and public health, sign-up as a supporter on RenewLV’s Join Us page.

Car Dependence in the Lehigh Valley

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?