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

Transit Disoriented in the Lehigh Valley

Transit oriented development (TOD) promotes building, developing and redeveloping community resources and employment centers around transit centers, whether those are bus or train. We don’t have that here in the Lehigh Valley.

Here’s the official definition:

“Development concentrated around and oriented to transit stations in a manner
that promotes transit riding or passenger rail use. The term does not refer to a
single real estate project, but represents a collection of projects, usually mixed use,
at a neighborhood scale that are oriented to a transit node.”

TOD doesn’t mean the construction of a bus stop near an office park, but a holistic approach to making communities accessible for those who don’t have or choose not to use a personal vehicle. This promotes equitable access to resources and employment, but also has positive environmental consequences. If fewer individuals are taking personal cars and opting to take the bus or train, carbon emissions will decrease.

In their 2012 report, the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission outlines the requirements for TODs:

TOD charts

The Planning Commission even produced a map of potential TODs in the Lehigh Valley:

TOD map

Making it easier for people to get where they want to go is an idea that’s hard to argue with, but new development and providing the infrastructure and support for public transit can become expensive. DC Streets Blog examines this problem and offers suggestions for convincing developers to invest in TOD. These recommendations include:

  • Public subsidies, like transit oriented development promotional grants or tax incentives
  • Educating developers about the costs to them in automobile dominated communities
  • Reform land use policies, for example loosening or eliminating single-use designations
  • Educate and engage employers
  • A new approach to looking at costs. While a building in a TOD community may cost more, it may also provide more affordable housing and increase the efficiency of workers.
  • Walkability is also TOD. Land use policies that encourage walkability are also likely to improve TOD in communities.
  • Connect the suburbs to TOD. This increases the size of the potential workforce for any given company, which increases the value of TOD to them.

It takes Lehigh Valley residents an average of 25 minutes to get to work and The Lehigh Valley Transportation Study (LVTS) long range plan estimates a $1.7 billion shortfall for funding needed through 2030. As part of the Envision Lehigh Valley project, LANta is producing a study on Transit Oriented Development and Bus Rapid Transit. Stay tuned for more information on that report as it is expected to be unveiled very soon!

More Walkable & Livable ‘Edge Cities’

The case for walkability seems to be easy to make — more walkable neighborhoods lead to less time spent in cars and that’s rarely something that is cause for complaints. The Wall Street Journal covers the story of how ‘edge cities’ — which, confusingly, they deem as part of suburbia — are turning their outdated strip malls and abandoned office parks into more walkable communities, with green space or mixed use developments.

For WSJ, Richard Florida writes:

Walkable suburbs are some of America’s best places to live, and they provide their sprawling, spread-out siblings with a model for renewal. Relatively dense commercial districts, with shops, restaurants and movie theaters, as well as a wide variety of housing types, have always been a feature of the older suburbs that grew up along the streetcar lines of big metro areas.

Some of the edge cities mentioned by Florida include Hoboken, NJ and Brookline, MA, two places that I am very familiar with (and that I would never consider to be suburbs). What is notable about both of these is their tremendous push to disincentivize driving into the neighborhoods. I almost always avoid driving into Hoboken, as the public transportation is so excellent and parking (at least low-cost parking) is scarce.

While we presumably do not have any edge cities here in the Lehigh Valley (not in the sense described in the WSJ story), I think that many of these projects could pop up in Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton — and the residents of the Valley would wholly embrace a more walkable environment.

To learn about RenewLV’s Sustainable Transportation Initiative, visit our webpage.

Transit Begets Transit

Or so is the hope of some in Charlotte, NC. Apparently, Charlotte’s light-rail network has been so effective at bringing on a development boom that some are now worried that the skyrocketing property prices are discouraging small businesses from opening up. Streetsblog covers the story today, picking up on a posting on the Overhead Wire. Here’s an excerpt:

You want to know why that property becomes so valuable? Because it is scarce! Contrary to popular belief, there is not enough supply of urban housing to meet the demand, so the speculators come in and jack up the prices…So if regions are feeling for local businesses and the skyrocket land values around transit, the escape valve that creates greater opportunities in places that want to change is to build greater transit networks. More escape valves means greater distribution of different development and less pressure and speculation.

This makes me wonder how the housing market is doing in Charlotte right now. Anyone have any good resources/links on this?

TOD and Community Investment

The new issue of Community Investments focuses on transit-oriented development (TOD) and the impact such development has on communities. The article that caught my eye? The Role of Transportation Planning and Policy in Shaping Communities. Naomi Cytron describes the ways in which transportation policies over the past decades have led to socioeconomic (and, in turn, racial) segregation — even exacerbating the problem.

But the suburban migration that ensued left behind minority households in particular, who were unable to leave central cities for the suburbs due to discrimination in housing and mortgage markets. For example, exclusionary zoning practices and racially restrictive covenants barred minorities from living or purchasing property in newly developing suburban neighborhoods. And as late as the mid-1960s, minorities were largely unable to qualify for federally guaranteed mortgages, greatly limiting their ability to purchase new homes being built in the suburbs.

Cytron writes that much of that is now changing, as the long commutes have led to a severe deterioration in quality of life (who wants to be in a car 3 hours a day?) and increased unaffordability. TOD is providing more families with choice and moving us toward a more equitable society. Of course, as Cytron rightly points out, “TODs are not a panacea.” But they certainly are moving us in a direction that feels a bit better.

Improving Streetscape

With the City of Allentown considering a Complete Streets policy and RenewLV’s Regional Transportation Forum drawing near, I thought it would be interesting to highlight some innovations in urban corridor planning. The National Complete Streets Coalition reported that the American Society of Landscape Architects helped draft a resolution to designate the fourth week in April as “National Streetscaping Week.” Supported in part by the Transportation for America coalition (of which RenewLV is a regional partner), the resolution would “promote the development of safe, attractive, and environmentally sustainable communities by urging federal, state, regional, and local policy-makers to fund and support streetscape improvement projects.”

Streetscape improvements go a long way in the implementation of complete streets policies. Physical improvements can change the overall feeling of a neighborhood and encourage alternative modes of transportation. Looking at the renderings below (drawn for the city of Houston, TX), you can see how a street can go from being merely auto-friendly, to being people-friendly.

Some Lehigh Valley communities have already changed the landscape of their streets to increase livability (even without an on-the-books Complete Streets policy). Walk around in the downtowns of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton, and you’ll see what I mean.

This topic is sure to come up at RenewLV’s upcoming Regional Transportation Forum on the evening of April 19th. Hope to see you all at Hotel Bethlehem for a lively discussion!

RenewLV Regional Transportation Forum, April 19 at Hotel Bethlehem

Have you heard? Renew Lehigh Valley is hosting a Regional Transportation Forum on Monday, April 19 at the Historic Hotel Bethlehem (437 Main Street, Bethlehem).

The program begins at 6:30 p.m. with an informal reception at 5:30 p.m.

This community forum is an opportunity to learn about the prospects for restoring passenger rail service in the Lehigh Valley, as well as to discuss how a balanced, multimodal transportation system can help promote economic development, the continued revitalization of the region’s core communities, and sustainable growth in the Lehigh Valley.

The keynote speaker for the forum is David Taylor, Senior Vice-President and National Director for Sustainable Transportation Solutions at HDR. A member of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), Mr. Taylor has worked with communities across the United States, and he has more than 35 years of experience in transit and transportation planning, transit-oriented development, regional planning, and sustainability and economic development.

The forum will include a Presentation of Findings from the New NJT/SYSTRA Regional Transportation Study (commissioned by the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation and the two counties), followed by a Panel Discussion and Q&A on how the Lehigh Valley Moves Forward on Transportation and Transit-Oriented Development. Moderated by RenewLV Co-Chair Deana Zosky, the panel will include:

  • David Taylor – Senior Vice-President, National Director for Sustainable Transportation Solutions, HDR
  • Bob McNamara – Senior Policy Representative for Smart Growth, National Association of REALTORS
  • Armand Greco – Executive Director, LANTA
  • Joe Gurinko – Chief Transportation Planner, Lehigh Valley Planning Commission
  • Adam Krom – Philadelphia-based Transportation Planner

This event is presented by the National Association of REALTORS and the Lehigh Valley Association of REALTORS (LVAR). Event sponsors also include the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation and the Lehigh Valley Partnership.

The event is free and open to the public. RSVP is suggested, but not required.

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact Beata Bujalska at bbujalska@renewlv.org or 484.893.1062.

We hope you’ll be able to join us for the informal reception at 5:30 p.m. in the balcony of the Grand Ballroom, followed by the full program in the Grand Ballroom at 6:30 p.m.

New Tool for Mixed-Income, TODs

The Federal Transit Administration rolled out its new Mixed-Income Transit-Oriented Development Action Guide. Created by the Center for Transit-Oriented Development, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff states,

The goal of this guide is to help communities start an inclusive mixed-income TOD planning process in their jurisdiction and help stakeholders be better equipped to know the right questions to ask, where they can find the answers, and what tools and strategies might be available to address their community needs.

A joint venture between the FTA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the guide aims to better coordinate transportation and housing programs to promote affordable housing near transit. While the guide was written for practitioners, other stakeholders might find it useful in advocacy and outreach campaigns.

The website can be accessed at www.fta.dot.gov/livability/mitod. Thoughts on this new guide?

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.