On this Earth Day Anniversary: Hints of Convergence

Green meets Smart Growth meets Healthy Communities 

earthdayAs 21st century crises and concerns began stacking up, it had begun to look as if Smart Growth priorities were going to have to compete for attention and resources with other burning issues. Such as: Climate change, peak oil, community affordability, health care costs, and now the struggling global economy. But on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, it was impossible not to notice how these apparently parallel concerns are beginning to overlap. Which is good news for a movement like New Urbanism that assumes the interdependence of challenges and opportunities and promotes comprehensive solutions.

Thanks to the work of organizations like the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the T4America initiative from Smart Growth America and its partners, connections between transportation planning, community affordability, and healthy communities were already getting more attention. Now, as the frenzy for all things green increases, coupled with the reawakening of the Environmental Protection Agency under a new presidential administration and a similar invigoration of public health policy, we’re seeing a dramatic convergence of strategies with broad implications for community planning. Here are three key components of that convergence:

The increasing interest among environmental scientists in the advantages of compact, walkable, communities. For instance: Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies recently included on its website an analysis by Bruce Stutz called “The New Urbanists: Tackling Europe’s Sprawl”. Here’s the blurb associated with the post: “In the last few decades, urban sprawl, once regarded as largely a U.S. phenomenon, has spread across Europe. Now an emerging group of planners is promoting a new kind of development — mixed-use, low-carbon communities that are pedestrian-friendly and mass-transit-oriented.”

The explosion of green building interest in the private sector. Best example: The ever-multiplying territory of Greener World Media, Inc., which operates www.greenbiz.com and other sites linking business with green building, climate change,  and other environmental issues once considered the domain of environmental wonks. Because they’re aimed at the ROI crowd, the company’s websites, surveys, research, and newsletters have a no nonsense feel that is likely to significantly advance the green discussion with economic development types and others who aren’t sympathetic to warm and fuzzy arguments for environmental responsibility.

The intersection of public health policy, environmental concerns, and urban planning. The overlap was always clear to many professionals working in the field,  but now it’s beginning to feel embedded in the thinking of policy makers. By far the biggest stride towards connecting the dots is the EPA’s just-announced intention to consider regulating greenhouse gas emissions because of their threat to public health. The move is considered a nudge to Congress to act before the Executive Branch writes the regs. So the battle is joined.

Also: Consider this video of Dr. Howard Frumkin, national director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Dr. Frumkin appeared before architects and planners at the National Building Museum, using part of his time to caution them against making scientific-like claims for community design without the backing of sound scientific research. Yet most of the presentation feels like a New Urbanist guide to creating and sustaining compact, walkable communities.

For more specific references to community design and public health, take a look at:

A recent study from the University of British Columbia on a correlation between riding transit and fitness. (Thanks to Laurence Aurbach for this tip.)

A source for research into opportunities for addressing obesity with neighborhood design.

And a recent New York Times column on social netwoks and community health.

– Ben Brown

DPZ Promotes Mall Makeovers

Firm Suggests Model Legislation in Florida

Will Florida put the “suburban retrofitting” movement on the fast track?

Making it easier to do something about this.

Making it easier to do something about this.

Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. (DPZ) is providing state officials with a legislative template to do just that. On April 20, the Miami-based design and planning firm submitted to Florida’s Division of Community Assistance a suggested draft for a State of Florida Sprawl Repair Act. It’s intent: To enable, among other things, “the retrofit of shopping malls and shopping centers into dense, walkable, mixed-use town centers.”

In an appendix, the document even provides a list of 48 enclosed shopping malls that may be ripe for retrofitting. The effort, says DPZ principal Galina Tahchieva,  “is about stirring ideas about how to incentivize the private sector through easier permitting and infrastructure funding.” And the hope, of course, is that other states embrace similar initiatives.

“The repair, retrofit, and repurposing of commercial nodes — these malls and shopping centers — should be the first in a number of sprawl interventions,” says Tahchieva. That’s because they promise maximum bang for the investment buck.

“These nodes command the largest monetary and real estate investments in suburbia, and in most cases, they’re still under single ownership,” she says. What’s more, if dead or dying malls are redeveloped and intensified as complete town centers with residential and office components to supplement the retail, “transit between these intensified nodes will then start making sense.”

The next target, says Tahchieva, “should be the failing residential subdivisions.  The choices are: evolution into mixed use neighborhoods, if they are lucky with location and have potential for intensification and leadership, or devolution, abandonment or conversion to park or agricultural land. The future growth of Florida is dependent on such actions.”

Tahchieva headed a DPZ design team that, during a February charrette in Atlanta, explored design alternatives for an out-of-date mall in the city’s northern ‘burbs. See our coverage here.

The broader retrofitting initiative is already influencing form-based coding efforts. The Center for Applied Transect Studies is working on a SmartCode module for suburban retrofitting – and, incidentally, for the emerging “agricultural urbanism” movement. See CATS’s new modules here.

– Ben Brown