American Makeover Episode 1 – SPRAWLANTA

I probably should have plugged this a long time ago considering that I actually gave these guys money (and anyone who knows me knows I’m not loose with cash), but better late than never.  The creators of last year’s award-winning short film Built To Last have taken their efforts to the next level, creating American Makeover, a series of videos on sprawl in different parts of the city and efforts that are being made to overcome it.  Their first episode, SPRAWLANTA, looks at Atlanta, Georgia and how it has developed, taking special care to highlight Glenwood Park, a growing New Urbanist development there.

To continue their work, these guys need your help.  They are quite a bit shy of the funding goal that they need to achieve to continue this project.  I gave them a small contribution and got my name put at the end of SPRAWLANTA, so feel free to donate either out of interest in the project or self-interest, just help these guys to continue making great videos.  Here is SPRAWLANTA, for your viewing pleasure.


City Council approves cars on K Street

Ben Adler brings us this story on Sacramento‘s recent decision to reopen the K Street Pedestrian Mall to cars.  K Street, as with many similar projects across America, died when it was closed off to vehicle traffic, losing shoppers and gaining criminals.  This is actually a great decision and will hopefully reinvigorate the area.  Even though I don’t use a car myself, I and many other New Urbanists realize that cars still play a very important role in cities.  Most people still travel by car, and if you don’t allow cars at all then you don’t allow a large segment of your population.  Cars are good for retail because it allows more people to see street signs and to take part in commerce.  It also puts more eyes on the street, reducing crime.  Parked cars along streets add to pedestrian safety, creating somewhat of a wall between pedestrians and fast-moving cars.  The problem comes when people plan for cars only, allowing them to go at lethal speeds, providing too much parking, and diminishing the pedestrian scale of a place, making it boring and dangerous for people walking or biking.  Good communities need to plan both for cars and for people, and to give precedence to people, because as long as they are able, the cars will still come.

New USDOT Report Identifies Win-Win Transportation Emission Reduction Strategies

Considering my recent uptick in searches related to Todd Litman, win-win emission reduction strategies and federal implementation of New Urbanism, some of you may have already heard about this.  Nonetheless, here is Todd Litman’s latest Planetizen article on the US Department of Transportation‘s Earth Day release of their report, Transportation’s Role in Reducing US Greenhouse Gas Emissions.  This shows a shift in policy away from simply advocating the creation and buying of more energy-efficient vehicles, since this has little long-term effect on emissions and none on other problems such as congestion, accidents, and sedentary living.  This report evaluated the net costs of implementing different transportation strategies, and found the following to be most effective:

Not only do these save money in reducing carbon emissions, but they also reduce congestion, parking costs, consumer costs, accidents, energy costs, and sprawl, while improving public health and mobility for non-drivers.  Litman says that the savings estimates may be conservative, because the study relied on out-dated data about how much can be saved by vehicle reductions and the benefits of pay-as-you-drive insurance.  Even with these conservative estimates though, it is exciting to see the federal government recognizing the importance of transportation and planning policy in reaching other goals.

How Urban Planning Can Improve Public Health

This story by Jonathan Lerner tells us about smart growth as a public health tool.  Scientific studies are quantifying how our built environment affects our health.  Depression, for example has been traced to a lack of open space, suburban isolation, and a lack of transportation options.  Cars pollute the air and trap people alone for long periods of time, as well as causing accidental injuries and deaths.  They have also contributed to our sedentary lifestyle, which can lead to obesity, diabetes and other conditions.  Car-dependent development patterns destroy farmland, contributing to a lack of local food, aiding industrial farming, and forcing those who live in the suburbs to have multiple cars.  Planning was originally implemented as a public health endeavor, to get people away from polluting factories, but the two have become divorced in our time.  They need to come back together.

One example of this reunion is the joint effort of CNU and the CDC to put on CNU’s most recent conference, “New Urbanism: Rx for Healthy Places.”  A number of past efforts by CNU leaders, such as the Ahwahnee Principles, have also related to public health, while the CDC’s new Healthy Community Design initiative shows a new interest in planning issues.  Recent studies have also shown that mixed-use, walkable communities have higher levels of physical activity and lower levels of obesity, as do areas with good transit and access to parks.  Exposure to nature also may have a positive effect on ADHD.  Hopefully these new numbers can help turn theory into policy.  Other important studies show that compact communities have lower overall emissions and that people who live near major roads and highways are more prone to emissions.

More studies are needed to investigate the effect of communities and buildings on mental health and social capital.  Walkability needs more study, since a five-minute walk for a young athlete is different than a five-minute walk for an elderly person.  Parks need more research to determine whether it is better to have one large park, many small parks, or a mixture of the two.  Urban and suburban farming could address local food issues as well as take better care of vacant land.  Planning is also beginning to address issues of aging in place, or planning for all age groups, who may have different mobility and land use needs.  These improvements to public health, however, need to be accepted by a broader range of professionals and decision makers, as well as be accepted by a public that is often averse to change.  Planning needs to be recognized in a more holistic manner, addressing health, social, political and environmental issues, as well as many others.  Some municipalities are implementing health impact statements, similar to the environmental impact statements that have been required for major development since the 70’s.  But to really change the way cities and health interact, we need to make drastic changes to our transportation infrastructure and our land use patterns.

Back to the City

Ania Wieckowski of the Harvard Business Review brings us this article on why companies are returning to downtown locations.  United Airlines and Quicken are moving downtown (to Chicago and Detroit, respectively), and Walgreens is buying Duane Reade, a New York City drugstore chain, indicating their interest in inner cities.  These companies are ahead of the upcoming transition away from suburbia and toward cities, and companies and municipalities that don’t understand this shift will be left behind.  Whereas the suburbs where the exciting new frontier in the 1950’s and cities were dirty, run-down places that everyone wanted to leave, cities are the center of new and exciting developments and will continue to be for many years.

This change is partially due to taste, but mostly due to the exposure of the shortcomings of the suburbs.  Wieckowski cites the suburban link to obesity and the negative mood created by commuting.  She mentions the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and their work to combat these ills, partially by putting uses closer together and by creating places for pedestrians and cyclists.

Companies should invest in cities to make them more attractive to talented workers.  Wieckowski specifically mentions that funding education in a city can lead to massive profits.  She also indicates that many corporations that are used to strip mall operations would need to update some of their plans to compete in cities.  Buildings should be designed without parking and highway visibility as a priority and instead adapt to smaller blocks, building on multiple stories.  As far as marketing, branding is less important than creating connections with customers and the community.  This is also indicative of the shift to the experience economy.  We can hope that more businesses will have the necessary forethought to begin reinvesting in cities.

Clean, affordable light rail also delivers economic lift

Greg Gormick brings us this story on the future of light rail in Toronto.  He says that the debate over Toronto’s Transit City light rail transit plan has been between critics who don’t know the benefits of light rail and supporters who have been unable to articulate those benefits.  He explains the differences between streetcars and light rail.  The later evolved from the former in European cities after WWII, when transit started losing ridership to cars.  Light rail became a mid-capacity system between high-capacity subways and low-capacity buses.  Light rail became larger, smoother, quieter, farther spaced, and faster, and had priority signaling and their own right-of-way.  At the same time, European cities embraced transit-oriented development, controlling sprawl and creating vibrant new neighborhoods.  They also embraced a concept known as lateral segregation, which gives transit users, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians their own part of the road adapted to their specific needs.

The effects have been economically and socially stimulating, and a number of cities that tore out streetcar systems have either replaced them with light rail or are in the process of doing so.  Edmonton was the first North American city to adopt light rail in 1978.  Since then, in places such as San Diego, Dallas and Portland, light rail has gotten people out of their cars, acted as an economic catalyst, and revived failing neighborhoods.  He argues that those who oppose the plan, who say that a new light rail line will have exactly the opposite effect, are fighting against historic precedent.  Light rail is also much cheaper than subways, an alternative supported by some, and can generally be built faster.  Building a new light rail system would make Toronto more competitive, more environmentally friendly, and more economically robust.

Taking Oak Cliff’s “Better Block” to Atlanta and the Congress for the New Urbanism

Robert Wilonsky of Unfair Park brings this awesome story on an urbanism technique that should be replicated in every small town and suburb in America.  Instead of coming up with a fancy proposal full of glossy architectural renderings and lofty language about the future, The Better Block Project simply took a block near the intersection of West 7th Street and North Tyler Street in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas and just made it right, overnight.  They installed a bike lane protected from the street by parking, narrowed the street by just setting up plants as bollards, and turned the reclaimed street section into cafe seating.  They added a little bit of paint to the buildings and voila, awesome little block.  What’s really amazing about this was that it was fast and relatively cheap–no new infrastructure, just some paint and some plants, but it still ended up being really cool.  This project has been squeezed into the CNU 18 schedule at the last minute due to its sheer awesomeness.  Check out the video.