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

An Urban Fix for Suburbia? Tackling Growing Problems Through Retrofits

Watching Andres Duany go through images at the final presentation of the Lifelong Communities charrette in Atlanta, it quickly became clear how many of the goals of the ambitious planning effort could be lumped under one category: retrofitting suburbia.

“In one way or another,” said DPZ principal Galina Tahchieva, “all of the interventions we suggested were suburban retrofits.” They involved connecting street networks, creating town or neighborhood centers, “completing” neighborhoods with the missing components of mixed-use, and providing for transit interconnections.

Emerging evidence suggests the retrofitting phenomenon is going to grow in importance. Credit Georgia Tech School of Architecture director Ellen Dunham-Jones and City College of New York/CUNY professor June Williamson for getting out a book that explains it all.

The retrofitting movement is likely to benefit by a broader trend of redevelopment in close-in neighborhoods, including central city neighborhoods. Read about the EPA’s most recent research in the trend here.

At the Atlanta charrette, Tahchieva oversaw DPZ’s ideas for bringing new life to Gwinnett Place Mall in the northeastern suburbs. Expanding the study area to adjacent strip malls and offices, DPZ created three designs for a site totaling 900 acres. It’s a big enough parcel to accommodate something like a third of the projected growth of the county over the next 20 years, provided the declining single-use mall converts to an urbanized, mixed-use community with a town center.

“We were after a visionary sort of retrofit that could be a successful intervention,” said Tahchieva. Her team offered three alternatives. Two assumed adaptive reuse of at least some of the existing mall structures and the addition of residential and office components to the retail.The core of the mall would become either a public square or a Main Street.  “The interiors of malls such as this provide the best public space,” said Tahchieva. “So why not build on that?”

The third option went in the opposite direction, assuming a devolution of intensity to what would essentially become a medieval-style village surrounded by farmland. In his presentation of the options, Duany pointed to the canal that encircled the retrofitted site to help manage stormwater: “Here’s the moat.”

Tahchieva, Duany, and the authors of Retrofitting Suburbia make the case for malls as ideal places for second chances at urbanism on the metro edge. They are often large enough to make walkable mixed use viable; they have intact infrastructure; already sited at key transportation cross-roads, they connect easily to transit; and they are typically owned by one entity, which streamlines the planning and entitlement process.

Duany added one other advantage: “Since they’ve already decimated the natural ecosystems of the original site, there’s not going to be an environmental issue. Whatever you do, you’re likely to improve the environment.”

- Ben Brown

Atlanta’s Lifelong Communities Charrette Delivers the Goods

Atlanta’s landmark charrette on planning for “Lifelong Communities” wrapped on February 17, with an Andres Duany presentation to a downtown auditorium packed with some 500 people.

A crowd of nearly 500 gathers for the Lifelong Communities charrette closing presentation.

A crowd of nearly 500 gathers for the closing presentation of the ARC's Lifelong Communities charrette.

On February 11, the opening night of the weeklong event,  Kathryn Lawler, who coordinated the ambitious project for the Atlanta Regional Commission, explained that one key goal for the charrette was to explore this question: “What does a community look like that does not have barriers to growing older?”

See her introductory remarks and Duany’s opening presentation here.

During the week, Duany’s DPZ team expanded the borders of their assigned model projects in five Metro locations and added a sixth, a retrofitted town center for a dying suburban mall. The core strategy was New Urbanism 101, “completing” neighborhoods with street connections, parks and plazas, and provision for node-to-node transit links. The idea, Duany told his audience, is to reassemble the fabric of community scattered by suburban planning and coding and give back to residents of all ages and incomes the full range of choices that make for quality of life.

“Suburbia is full of false choices,” said Duany. “It provides only the illusion of choice. Everybody drives everywhere.”

Ben Brown, up close and technological with Andres Duany.

Ben Brown, up close and technological with Andres Duany.

What gave the DPZ/ARC/AARP charrette its distinction was in the way Duany’s team turned talk about the convergence of livability principles into actual plans for implementing them in actual places. The first days of the Atlanta charrette were devoted to hearing from experts not only on design, planning, and coding, but also specialists in public health, physical accessibility, aging issues, and demography. For a day-by-day report on those presentations, go here.

One of those who wanted to make sure her group’s views were reflected in the convergence was accessibility advocate, Eleanor Smith, founder of Concrete Change. “Most planners think of the ‘disabled and elderly’ as a clump of existing people who need a new place to live. Which is true to a certain extent,” said Smith, “but the big fact not taken into account by current planning and housing construction is that the way disability usually happens is that formerly able-bodied people who live in inaccessible houses have to move because their houses and neighborhoods can no longer accommodate them.”

There’s likely to be a growing sense of urgency for addressing aging in place. The graying of the Boomer generation will assure that. Already signs of nervousness are emerging among older Americans in existing neighborhoods. In a recent survey by Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends, researchers found people generally satisfied with the places in which they lived. But the demographic category most likely to register dissatisfaction was the senior demo.

The effort to fit so many priorities into unified approaches was not without conflict. Pressed for time and space, the Atlanta Regional Commission and DPZ restricted studio access and risked alienating those who saw proposals sketched for their neighborhoods without their participation. Atlanta-area urban planner Don Broussard was among those who were bothered by at least some of the ideas he saw.

“The prototype dwellings for the elderly displayed by Andrés showed great merit,” said Broussard. “Also, the plans for at least three of the six charrette sites (Mabelton, Conyers, and Gwinnett Place Mall) provoked little controversy, since they create little if any potential for displacement of existing residential neighborhoods. The new thoroughfares planned by DPZ for the towns of Mabelton and Conyers could be accomplished under existing subdivision laws gradually over time and therefore involve willing sellers or owners of private lands desiring to redevelop. In contrast, Williamsburg [ed: the DeKalb site at Toco Hill] involves elderly renters at the mercy of a single landlord who wants to redevelop now.

“How can a plan that wipes out hundreds of affordable apartments in a decent landscape accommodate ‘aging in place’? It can’t,” said Broussard.

In his final presentation, Duany answered critics by acknowledging the limitations of a format designed to turn out provocative concepts in record time. While the proposals provide realistic options for real places, said Duany, they were created without consideration for the broader context best accommodated in an entirely open charrette.

“If you want us to take these ideas to the next level,” he said, “we would want to come back and do real charrettes,” with residents in attendance. And if adopted plans displaced residents, he added, “there must be a way of returning them to the community” when it’s redeveloped.

Check back here often. We’ll continue to follow news on the integration of aging in place with neighborhood planning around the country. And let us know about how your community or your project addresses the aging of the population. Email us at ben(at)placemakers.com.

- Ben Brown

Atlanta, AARP, DPZ Attack Challenges of Aging in Place

The New Urbanist mantra for neighborhood planning is to go for compact, connected, and complete. Well, one critical component of completeness, that of making communities comfortable – and practical – for residents of all ages, has been sort of assumed by NU planners. Yet it’s taken an effort by the nation’s primary advocacy group for seniors, AARP, to make the idea of “Livable Communities” for aging in place a planning priority.

Can community design impact one's ability to age in place? The ARC is examining how.

Can community design impact one's ability to age in place? The ARC is examining how.

Integrating that priority into master planning for real places is getting its first major test with a Lifelong Communities Charrette in Atlanta, Feb. 9-17. The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), which coordinates planning for the 10-county metro region, is behind the project, with AARP as one of its partners. Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. (DPZ), led by Andres Duany, will provide the design and planning expertise. Together they hope to make solid headway on an issue that will only loom larger moving forward.

The charrette targets five sites in the region, selected for their potential to represent typical challenges to aging in place and for communities’ willingness to embrace walkable, mixed-use, mixed-generational solutions to those challenges. How DPZ approaches the project and the plans that emerge from it are likely to provide models for similar efforts in other places. Lots of other places. Here’s why:

In 2008, the oldest members of the Baby Boom Generation became eligible for Social Security. The whole generation, 76 million strong, will have turned 70 by 2034. And if we’re not able to reverse the dominant trend of suburban sprawl and its near exclusive reliance on automobiles for mobility, we will make aging gracefully at home in America difficult for even well-off seniors and all but impossible for the majority of older people.

Flunking the aging-in-place test not only means an increased burden for family care-givers and public programs (and therefore tax-payers); it also means the loss of good neighbors and productive citizens who could live independently longer in their own homes and neighborhoods if their communities planned for walkability, diverse housing choices, and mixed-use.

In addition to AARP, healthcare and public safety experts have been connecting the housing issue with aging in place challenges for most of the last decade. You can read working papers from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies here. Included among those papers is one on “Aging in Place: Coordinating Housing and Health Care Provision for America’s Growing Elderly Population” by Kathryn Lawler, who’s one of the planners of the Atlanta Regional Commission project.

We’ll follow the ARC/DPZ charrette in blog posts to follow. In the meantime, care to shake this story up a little?  Then share your comments below.

- Ben Brown

Will Economic Woes Stall the Green Movement?

When we got a note from colleagues in Chattanooga, Tennessee, letting us know that that their city had not only crafted a Climate Action Plan but was also set to create a new office of sustainability, it got us to thinking: Is the competition for funding in the deepening recession going to kill momentum for this sort of focused effort for green planning and building?

Not in Chattanooga, obviously. City forester Gene Hyde, who chaired the 14-person committee that crafted the Climate Action Plan, says momentum was easy to sustain, thanks to the participation of folks “representing a cross-section of viewpoints from the business, industrial, environmental, and academic communities. In addition, the opinions of more than 500 citizens and 100 subject-matter experts were factored into the final plan.”

When the Chattanooga mayor signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement in 2006, committing to planning for lower carbon emissions, there were 235 signatories to the Agreement. Now there are more than 800. That’s good news for keeping the green going, right?

So this would be a good place for a “Not so fast” interjection and a bulleted list of all the reasons we’re doomed anyway. And there will be room for a little of that in future posts. The sustainability of sustainability is going to be a recurring theme for us all. In the meantime, let’s give Chattanooga and other cities moving forward on green initiatives the bows they deserve. And let’s indulge ourselves with news with a positive green spin. To wit:

  • Designer/Planner Doug Farr’s Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature has gone into multiple printings and is already used as a guiding text for design seminars. Doug has also developed a sustainability module for the form-based SmartCode.
  • Global Green Building Trends: Market Growth and Perspectives from Around the World,” a 2008 survey by McGraw-Hill Construction Analytics, reported high expectations for green from worldwide construction pros. A majority predicted that at least 60 percent of their projects over the next five years would focus on green building. Eighty-five percent of the firms said they expected rapid or steady growth in sales and profit levels associated with green building. Solar power, already in use by 52 percent of the firms, is expected to be used by more than 75 percent in five years, Wind power is expected to be in use by 57 percent of the firms by 2013, compared to 20 percent in 2008. And geothermal power is expected to double in use from 2008 levels to 45 percent in 2013.
  • Across the Atlantic, the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment hosted a November, 2008, summit that “brought together a cross section of industries that see ‘smart growth’ as the way to a sustainable future. A line up of leading figures from property investment, insurance and sustainable development industries guided the debate.” Their presentations have just been posted here.

- Ben Brown 

“Just Building Sprawl” is Over, But How?

When President Obama declared, before an audience in Ft. Myers, Florida, on Feb. 10, an end to “just building sprawl forever” (fast-forward to around 58:58 for the money quote), it may have signaled a change of venue in the battle over how the stimulus package is interpreted and applied.

President Obama addresses residents of Ft. Myers, Florida, declaring "The days where we're just building sprawl forever, those days are over."

President Obama addresses residents of Ft. Myers, Florida, declaring "The days where we're just building sprawl forever, those days are over."

Up until Obama left Washington for town meetings in Florida and Indiana, the debate seemed paralyzed by partisan politics at the national level. Democrats and Republicans retreated to familiar corners, debating the effectiveness of tax cuts vs. spending initiatives as if the issues were purely academic. The national media, as usual, were captivated by the food fight. By changing the stage for the debate from the floors of Congress to communities already hard-hit by the recession, Obama was able to bring back into focus the sense of urgency for action and likely targets for effective stimulus funding.

The American Society of Civil Engineers had already done some of the homework for Obama, giving a grade of “D” to the nation’s infrastructure and calling for $2.2 trillion in repairs and upgrades over the next five years. And even if Obama had not taken to the road, bottom-up politics was likely to overwhelm Congress before long.  See this February 8 Chicago Tribune story suggesting a growing tension between conservative elected leaders and their constituents over the need for immediate investment in communities.

City, county, and state governments were not likely to sit on the sidelines for long, either (note Florida’s Republican Gov. Charlie Crist standing on the dais next to Obama in the Ft. Myers video). In the short term, government spending at all levels is likely to be the source of most new investment. So the faster funds begin moving out of Washington, the better.

A recent conference hosted by Governing magazine on the “Outlook in the States and Localities” was full of sobering presentations about spending cuts and lay-offs. According to a survey by the National Association of Counties, 91 percent of those polled said they were cutting spending, and 64 percent predicted lay-offs. A similar survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures suggested 40 states have budget gaps in the current fiscal year and 24 are already predicting shortfalls in 2010.

The signal Obama sent with his end-of-sprawl message in Ft. Meyers is likely to be welcomed by counties and municipalities, many of which have Smart Growth vision plans in place and have a pretty good idea how to use economic stimulus money. With transportation planning at the center of the infrastructure debate, here’s a good place to watch how the process plays out: www.t4america.org. Also, The Alliance for Innovation, a public-sector collaboration that includes the International City/County Management Association, is monitoring 11 municipalities and how they’re coping with the current economic environment. The group is producing a wiki report called Navigating the Fiscal Crisis: Strategies for Local Leaders. Much of the advice, taken from lessons learned in other downturns, is about resisting the temptation to sacrifice long-term strategic goals for short-term savings.

- Ben Brown

What We’re Reading: A Legal Guide to Urban and Sustainable Development

It probably won’t surprise most folks that the pursuit of more traditional (and sustainable) urban patterns is often thwarted by…  lawyers! But here’s a refreshing change: Two of them – Dan Slone and Doris Goldstein, with Andy Gowder – have just released A Legal Guide to Urban and Sustainable Development for Planners, Developers and Architects, a wellspring of practical solutions for beating them at their own game.

Put the power of lawyers to work for <em>you</em>.

Put the power of lawyers to work for you.

From planning and zoning to development and operations, this richly illustrated resource lays down the law on all aspects of smart growth and development: incorporating good urban design into local land regulations, overcoming impediments in subdivision and platting, structuring community associations for mixed-use projects, maneuvering the politics and, yes, surviving litigation.

In a solid nod of approval, it’s perhaps equally unsurprising that the book’s foreword is provided by Andres Duany, who’s spent a career running the gamut of these legal and political hurdles – some successfully, others not.

And in a not-too-shabby September 2008 review, The New Urban News says, “Immensely practical, this guidebook is loaded with techniques that can enable New Urbanism to jump hurdles erected by the legal system, the political apparatus, and the day-to-day difficulties of community life.” Finally, Law of the Land, in an October 2008 post, summarizes, “Justice Brennan: ‘If a policeman must know the Constitution, then why not a planner?’ is a perfect lead-in to a wonderful new book.”

We agree. Get your own copy here.

- Scott Doyon

Preservation Through Beauty

A recent New York Times article, examining struggling efforts to preserve the architecture of the New Deal, raises an interesting question: Why do some attempts at preservation capture broad-based attention and support while others wither away as fringe acts of desperation?

The answer might have a lot to do with beauty. Because, while we’ve come to accept as truth that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, it really doesn’t.

The dimensions and proportions of "beauty" reflect far more agreement than we'd like to admit.

The dimensions and proportions of "beauty" reflect far more agreement than we'd like to admit.

In a 2003 paper, V. Patnaik and others examine the human face and demonstrate how we culturally establish a shared understanding of beauty, concluding it’s the “relational proportion of our physical features that is the primary factor in determining the perception, conscious or subconscious, of beauty.”

More simply, certain proportions and arrangements are more pleasing than others. Not as a matter of personal opinion but as a collective, cultural agreement. We may not, as a nation of individuals, want to admit that we essentially view beauty in the same light, but tough luck. We do.

That’s why it’s not such a leap to conclude that our buildings and infrastructure work the same way. Most would agree that, at some point, our built environment stopped responding to a shared, cultural understanding of what’s beautiful and started expressing – at the upper end – the personal artistic ambitions of its designers and – at the lower end – the need to cut costs.

Either way, the result has been buildings and places that often lack the one thing most likely to ensure their preservation – the ability to be loved and valued by the everyman. As architect Steve Mouzon says often, “Any serious conversation about sustainable buildings must begin with the issue of Lovability.”

We can agree on what’s beautiful. We have met the beholder and it is us. The big question moving forward, especially as the financial floodgates of the stimulus package begin to open, is what are we going to do about it?

- Scott Doyon

Gluttony and Glut: Finding the New Normal

An evening cross section of Atlanta's Atlantic Station.

An evening cross section of Atlanta's Atlantic Station.

How serious is the implosion of the once-booming urban condo market? And what does the downturn say about the prospects for housing in urban centers?

A piece in the business section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution seems to say it all. Desperate to unload some units in “a stagnant market,” says the sub-headline, an Atlantic Station  developer will auction off some 40 units, with bids starting at 56 percent off list price. A similar story about the stalled condo market in Chicago appeared in a Feb. 3 New York Times story.

Well, welcome to the New, New Normal. Just don’t read too much into implications for the future of multi-family housing in these places.

To be sure, fire sales aren’t great news for developers caught in the current pinch, or for investors, including condo owners who bought into a project at the old list price. But it seems to us that the only environment in which this sort of mark down is seen as a disaster is one in which folks deny the realities of the real estate marketplace. It’s not a marketplace unless prices go up and down depending upon what buyers are willing to pay, right?

For what we now recognize as an unsustainable period of speculator insanity, prices of detached single-family homes and condos soared, particularly in desirable cities and desirable climates. The period lasted long enough for a lot of folks – buyers, builders, developers, and real estate brokers, to name just a few – to believe the aberration was the New Normal. For a look at how a misguided sense of entitlement played out in the lives of real people on Florida’s southwest coast, check out George Packer’s story in the Feb. 9/16 New Yorker – it’s called “Ponzi State,” and for good reason – and then take a look at his video. And for a west coast take, watch this video from the Associated Press.

The remnants of that sense of entitlement persist in many of the conversations about “stabilizing” home values by artificially propping up prices in a market still seeking a bottom. New Urbanist developer Vince Graham explained how it’s time for a get-real approach to home values in one of our previous posts.

But it’s just as dangerous to assume an opposite marketplace trend, that advocates for downtown mixed-use development got it all wrong.  The current shakeout is not about whether or not there’s a market for condos and rental apartment options in downtowns; it’s about the nature of that market, particularly about how diverse the housing choices have to be and how well integrated is the planning for truly mixed use opportunities.

One of the best overviews of demographic and marketplace trends is the 2008 report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. And for a glimpse at how Americans rank places they’d like to move to – including places like Atlanta and Tampa that have experienced the greatest housing market downturns – see this recent survey from Pew Research. 

- Ben Brown