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

Urban Design that Fights Obesity and Promotes Physical Activity

Sure, we all know that regular exercise and eating well are essential components of a healthy lifestyle and are important in fighting obesity. But rather than just telling people to go to the gym, how can we make physical activity a more realistic (and exciting!) option that will encourage people to abandon their sedentary lifestyles?  

The authors and collaborators of the NYC Active City Guidelines propose active urban design as the key to promoting more physical activity and fighting the obesity epidemic. The Guidelines are the product of a collaborative effort between NYC public health professionals, architects, urban designers, and urban planners.

 The Guidelines are grounded in the idea that the design of the built environment can have a crucial and positive influence on improving public health.

They propose interesting strategies as to how planners can transform the built environment to encourage more active lifestyles for its residents and visitors through stair climbing, walking, bicycling, transit use, active recreation, and healthy eating.

While they focus ostensibly on New York City, the Guidelines can also be applied to other cities and communities.

These are my ten favorite suggestions, and perhaps the ones most pertinent to communities in the LehighValley:

1. Consider shared-use paths in areas with viewing attractions.

  • Check out Allentown’s plans to encourage active transportation: This Morning Call article discusses the plan to connect local bicycle and walking trails.

2. Explore bicycle share programs to increase access to bicycles for both city residents and visitors. 

3. When designing sites that include parking, consider how the provision of parking can affect the use of more active modes of travel such as walking, bicycling, and public transit. In general, when parking is available, people use it. Research in California indicates that increased parking supply may result in reduced active transportation and public transit use. Design car parking so as to reduce unnecessary automobile travel, particularly when walking, bicycling, and public transit are convenient alternatives.

4. Locate new projects near existing public and private recreational facilities and encourage development of new facilities, including indoor activity spaces.

5. In the design of parks and playgrounds, create a variety of climate environments to facilitate activity in different seasons and weather conditions. For example, include sunny, wind-protected areas for use in the winter and shaded zones for use in the summer.

6. Design plazas that allow for diverse functions. Plazas can accommodate physical activities like dance and volleyball, passive activities like sitting and chess, and cultural events such as concerts, exhibits, and historical celebrations. Plazas can also provide space for café style seating and farmers’ markets. When programming plazas, consider the needs of users with varying mobility levels. Seek partnerships with community groups to maintain and program plazas.

7. Incorporate temporary and permanent public art installations into the streetscape to provide a more attractive and engaging environment. Seek collaborations with local arts organizations, philanthropic institutions, or other nongovernmental groups to create and help maintain the artwork.

8. Provide safe walking and bicycle paths between densely populated areas and grocery stores and farmers’ market sites.

9. Further develop Greenways—alternative routes that are integrated into the regional park system. Greenways feature relatively few intersections, many plantings, and a dedicated bicycle right of way. These routes can serve as commuter corridors during the week and recreational paths on the weekend. Connect Greenways to street bikeways.

10. Design stairs to be more visible, in order to encourage their everyday use.

Health and Urban Planning: Looking at the Let’s Move Campaign

The one thing that I took away from yesterday’s so-called “Snowpocalypse” is that I wish I lived in a walkable neighborhood. Though my home was sufficiently stocked up with all the necessary amenities, and, thankfully, I wasn’t one of the many households that had to deal with a power outage, it still would have been nice to walk to local coffeeshop to hang out with the rest of the neighbors (I heard that some Allentown residents did this at Brew Works).

Needless to say, good urban design is key – especially when you’re stuck in a snowstorm.

On this point – urban design – I was under the impression that the new federal “Let’s Move” campaign (launched yesterday), spearheaded by Michelle Obama, would have included some ties to land-use and urban planning. And I’m not alone in my impression. Megan from The City Fix was also expecting this, but just like me, she was surprised that there was not much explicit focus on this matter within the campaign. She writes:

There have been brief mentions of “small changes” families can take to encourage their children to be more active, including walking to school and urban farming. During her launch remarks, Mrs. Obama acknowledged that “urban sprawl and fears about safety often mean the only walking [kids] do is out their front door to a bus or a car.”


However, all of these “small changes” related to designing better cities and providing better transportation are far from central in the “Let’s Move” campaign.

Indeed, given my brief research on public health, it seems that this component (land design) should have a bigger role in this campaign. What are your thoughts on this?

New Report by T4A: Dangerous by Design

Transportation for America (a coalition of which RenewLV is a partner), jointly with the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, released the results of a pedestrian safety study earlier this week. The report, Dangerous by Design, ranks metropolitan regions by the ratio between the average pedestrian fatality rate and the percentage of pedestrian commuters. While the Lehigh Valley was not ranked in the official report, because the metropolitan area (Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, excluding our immediate neighbors in New Jersey) does not exceed 1 million residents, the Greater Philadelphia region is listed in the report. This part of the state (which includes Wilmington, DE and Camden, NJ) ranked 38 out of 52 , with a Pedestrian Danger Index (PDI) of 44.3.

One of the most notable aspects of this report is the connection made to public health. T4A reports:

While it is still unnecessarily dangerous for pedestrians to walk, health experts are making the case that it can be just as deadly not to walk. Even as these preventable deaths mount, there has been a growing recognition that walking and bicycling – what many now refer to as “active transportation” – are critical to increasing levels of healthy exercise and reducing obesity and heart disease.

The report calls on Congress to adopt better federal policy toward safer streets and more walkable neighborhoods. For this reason, I urge you to contact your Congressional representatives’ offices to make them aware of the report.

Lending Based on Parking

In many areas of the country, zoning codes make transit-oriented development (TOD) impossible.  In other areas, planners are open to changing codes, but there is a significant lack of local political support for such changes.  In almost all areas, however, there are two barriers that continue to stand in the way of a full-fledged movement toward TOD: money and parking.  The Salt Lake Tribune recently ran a story describing planners’ frustrations regarding bank lending practices because of outdated concepts of parking minimums:

As a recent former Salt Laker, I can assure you that the planning and political support for TOD is alive and well in most parts of the Salt Lake valley.  The light rail system, called TRAX, is continually found to be more popular than estimates predicted, and the FrontRunner commuter rail line has been a welcome addition.  These two expanding rail systems make the area ideal for dense development located within walking distance of the rail stations.  It seems obvious that such development oriented toward transit access would reduce the need for parking spaces, yet the banking industry, by and large, has not caught on to this yet.  They describe TODs as a “risk” that may not be what the market wants.  However, they overlook the massive popularity of TRAX in the downtown area where restaurants, retail, offices, condominiums, and cultural venues densely abound alongside and despite a noticeable lack of “adequate” parking.  If banks were to actually pay attention to the areas of the city in which TOD and less parking already exists (downtown and some areas of 4th South), they would see that there is actually a very strong market for it, even in suburban areas.

Though many of us recognize the benefits of TOD, it will probably take quite an epiphany for banks to begin to buck the industry standard of about 1 parking space for every 250 square feet of building space (which works out to about 15% more parking lot surface area than floor area at a cost of $30,000 per parking space [or about $50,000 per for structure parking], a cost that banks have no problem financing).   How can we move banks toward a better understanding and appreciation of TOD in the Lehigh Valley and elsewhere?  What will it take for Banks to begin to take that “risk?”

The Borrowed Park

A friend recently forwarded Allison Arieff’s latest post to me from her New York Times blog, By Design.  The entry touched upon private, for-profit land banking, a practice that involves a developer acquiring land in an underdeveloped region, usually for the purpose of gaining profit through reselling at a much higher value. The rise in value of the land is mostly attributed to an increase in population growth within the surrounding region, resulting in the demand for development. In its public form, land banking has been an effective tool in fighting blight, preserving open space, and implementing many other smart growth ideals. But in the case of private land banking, it has often led to the creation of uninviting, empty lots and blank pavement – hardly the type of scene that people like to frequent.

But a new approach to dealing with these vacant lots is spreading throughout the country, partly thanks to an initiative that began in San Francisco called “Pavement to Parks.” The general idea is that new, low-cost features are added to the empty pavement, as a means of transforming the space into a welcoming, recreational environment. On each project, community residents come together to beautify the landscape in different ways – sometimes adding large potted plants, other times painting the asphalt.

Arieff highlights a few reasons for why these projects are so successful. First, they are swift and require little cost; volunteers come together for an afternoon and provide small transformations to the area. Second, the projects create a sense of community by not only creating a gathering space, but also by bringing local residents together for a common cause. Finally, the private developer does not lose out, as the space is leased out to the municipality for an alloted period of time. The newly-created park is, in a sense, borrowed.

Post your thoughts about this concept below or send us your comments through e-mail.

Health and Smart Growth Are Related Issues

As perhaps the newest Smart Growth advocate in town, I wanted to introduce myself to the Crossroads readers.  My name is Ryan Champlin, and I am the new planner at the Community Action Committee.  I just recently graduated from the University of Utah with a Master of Science in Family Ecology, a not-so-aptly name for a degree that focuses on the intersections of sustainable urban planning and social issues.  As a new transplant to the Lehigh Valley, I have taken a special interest in my new environment, one that is especially significant for me because I am here without access to an automobile until my wife moves here in December.

My transportation situation, policy interests, and desire to write have combined to prompt me to start a blog: Bethlehem By Foot.  I have not done a particularly good job in sticking with issues that are specific to the Lehigh Valley, but I try to relate everything I discuss to either pedestrians in general or larger social, transportation, land use, and infrastructure policies.  The main point of the blog is to share my experiences as a pedestrian, raise issues that impact pedestrians, and generate discussion about larger policies that impact the way our cities grow.  I hope that my involvement with Crossroads will help me focus more on issues the especially impact the Lehigh Valley, and I hope my perspective can assist RenewLV in furthering their purpose for this blog.

When Steven Bliss, Executive Director of Renew, asked me to contribute to Crossroads, I took some time to think about what my unique contribution could be to the blog.  After becoming familiar with Renew’s focus on the interconnected issues of regional health and Smart Growth, I realized that my own academic and personal interest in the relationship between land-use and transportation design and human and environmental health would be something that Crossroads readers might also be interested in.  On my own blog, I spent an entire week writing a series about the obesity – design connection, so I thought I would begin my tenure on Crossroads by directing readers to this series.

My posts on Crossroads will be much less frequent than on my own blog, and I intend to make them much more research-based than my usual writings.  I not only want the information I present to be factual, but I also want the conclusions reached to be practically applicable.  This will be a challenge, but it is one that I look forward to.