Thursday, April 30

Remembering "Busytown"

Herein, your humble author engages in an amateur childhood psychology self-diagnosis ...

While drinking my morning cup of coffee today, I suddenly had a flashback of all sorts of different animals dressed in human clothing bustling around a cartoon town, some carrying ladders and others dressed in lab coats with stethoscopes dangling from their necks. They were all rushing back and forth throughout the dense, mixed-use streetscape in buses, cars, bikes, and walking in all directions. Every shopfront window in every building had some crazy scene on display, and the whole town seemed to be pulsating with life. Then (I have no idea how I did this) the name Richard Scarry just popped into my head. This was a Richard Scarry drawing.

I spent hours as a child pouring over Richard Scarry books, focusing in on every little detail and how it all seemed to hold together in one town. I wanted to be that construction worker on the scaffolding waving to the police officer walking by. In many ways this was an ideal vision of life in community and a well-functioning economy, and millions of children in my generation were captivated by these images. Sure the vibrant colors and fuzzy animals didn't hurt, but I can't help but think we saw something good about human society all thrown together in the jumbled diversity of "busytown."

For many years, I completely forgot about Scarry's utopian (but so normal) urban vision, but I suppose these crazy illustrations, that had tapped into my childhood pysche, may have left a lasting impression. Perhaps Scarry's world is not so unattainable after all. Except for the anthropomorphic mammals, of course.

Sunday, April 26

Many uses of public space

I pulled this picture out of some old photos in my iphoto library. It's of a plaza in el peatonal, a network of pedestrian streets in the heart of downtown Cordoba, Argentina.

When William H. Whyte embarked on a mission to record the regular use of small public spaces, he found that ledges and steps were often used for sitting. I love all of the different combinations of people moving and being still; some standing alone, others walking in a group, some groups circling around as if they have converged from different angles, an older couple walking together. Everyone has their own intentions, yet they play off of each other. The whole scene fits together nicely.

Monday, April 20

Make no little (high speed rail) plans

President Obama quoted Daniel Burnum, "make no little plans," to conclude his address on high-speed rail last Thursday. The 11 minute video is certainly worth watching.

Already $8 billion has been allocated to HSR as part of the stimulus bill, and Obama has asked for $5 billion more. In the address, Obama calls it "just a first step." As people from other areas use the infrastructure, political will to expand across the country could be developed. He says, "we know this is going to be a long-term project."

Obama even hits on one of the greatest benefits to cities of an HSR network, that the lines will connect the hearts of cities to each other, eliminating the need for a car trip to the airport. The local public transportation infrastructure will be readily at hand, and the traveler can be brought right to the block of their destination.

The blog TransportPolitic dissects the plan with more detail.

Thursday, April 16

The Beatles teach pedestrian safety

  1. When in a group, proceed one at a time. While common social mores may lead certain groups to walk side-by-side in order to converse more effectively, this is actually the most dangerous formation possible. Instead one person ought to cross, with each following member of the group staggering the crossing time by roughly 5 seconds. An evenly distributed line dramatically increased pedestrian visibility.

  2. Group leader must wear reflective clothing. John Lennon’s double-piece white suit maximizes nighttime visibility. The white shoes are the critical piece of the ensemble, as they draw attention to the oscillating walking movements of his feet. George Harrison, being the fourth to cross, is free to dress casually in as much denim as he wishes.

  3. Do not panic, but stay completely calm. The Beatles know in their back of their minds that their lives are one drunken driver away from ending, yet they have mentally trained themselves to keep their fears at bay. A panicking pedestrian is susceptible to erratic behavior, but Paul McCartney shows that you can be so calm as to have a cigarette dangling from your fingers.

  4. Walk in precisely the center of the zebra stripes. Studies have shown that for every 6 inches away from the median of the crosswalk, a pedestrian increases his chances of being hit by 7%. The Beatles, on the other hand, have leveraged symmetry to their advantage. By using peripheral vision, they have perfected their positioning without at all being distracted by looking down.

  5. With proper training being a pedestrian can be fun. Paul McCartney shows off a little by leaving his shoes by the side of the road. While this is not certainly recommended for novices, it demonstrates that with enough practice and razor-sharp reflexes pedestrians can feel free to express themselves in a unique way.
Update: Alright, excuse the silliness on this one. I've got so many projects and presentations in the real world to prepare for, I didn't have it in me to come up with a serious post. But at least I've already got two hits from a "Paul McCartney" google search. Score! Welcome, Beatles fans.

Monday, April 13

Two innovative policies from Charleston and Savannah

As I mentioned before, I've just returned from a reconnaissance mission (ok, more of a vacation) in two great southern cities, Charleston and Savannah. I'd like to share two interesting policies these towns have initiated, in order to deal with specific problems they have faced. Both policies are relatively new, and, as far as I can tell, completely without precedent in the United States. I imagine that other cities with similar concerns will be interested to see whether these ideas have worked.

1. Vacation Homes in Charleston

The old homes in downtown Charleston have come a long way since they were considered slums in the 1930s. For the last couple of decades, they have been purchased and renovated in droves, bringing many new residents downtown. However, as property values began to rise, the vitality started to drain as the homes were increasingly bought up by out-of-towners looking for an historic "trophy home" to visit once or twice a year. According to the Historic Charleston Foundation,

"Sections of the historic district began to change from healthy neighborhoods full of children and activity into sterile environments, which were beautiful to see, yet devoid of real people living there on a full-time basis."

I asked my wife the same question as we walked down the picturesque streets, "I wonder how many of these houses are lived in?"

The Foundation decide to act. They already had extensive experience with the use of historic preservation easements, so they decide to create a "Primary Residency Easement." This is a voluntary deed-restriction that requires the homeowner to spend a set number of days in the home a year. According to the New York Times, the mayor was pushing it, but it's not clear to me that any public investment has been made.

These easements are estimated to drop the market value of the house by about 20%, but if the owner has no intention of leaving, this drop has the benefit of potentially decreasing the property tax assessment for the year. As intriguing as this idea is, the Foundation only lists one house with such an easement. It looks like some more carrots might be necessary to give it a fair shake.

2. Church parking lots in Savannah

The Savannah Development and Renewal Authority was created in 1992 to "renew, revitalize, and beautify distressed areas of Savannah." A couple of years ago, the SDRA began partnering with local churches to help them develop underutilized parking lots into affordable housing or other community services. Planetizen picked up on this approach last year, which is where I first heard of it.

The churches in the program can form Community Development Corporations CDCs to receive federal funding for land uses that benefit the surrounding neighborhood. Faith-based CDCs have been established for years all around the country, but the approach Savannah has taken toward the specific issue of church parking lots is interesting to me. Perhaps churches and local governments alike can pick up lessons from this intitiative in how to meet the special parking needs that urban churches face in a mutually beneficial way.

Saturday, April 11

Parking from space

Downtown Crozet, Virginia

Sometimes the introduction of new technology has the ability to shift cultural perceptions. I wonder if widespread use of Google Earth will help us perceive something that has been a reality for the last four decades, that the majority of land in our urban areas is reserved for the storage of automobiles. Off-street parking is the dominant feature of most towns and cities across the United States.

Pictured above is the downtown of Crozet, Virginia with all off-street parking and other non-public vehicle access areas depicted in red (the area within the blue line is industrial). To me, this is a striking image. I'm using Crozet as an example because it's small enough to draw easily, and the 2004 Crozet Master Plan specifically calls for the downtown to function as a compact urban hub. I don't mean to suggest that Crozet, in particular, is "overparked." At least according to the standard measuring rod planners use, Crozet is probably right on target. I just wonder who is measuring the measuring rod according to a wider standard of common sense and wise use of limited resources.

Donald Shoup has estimated that the total amount of off-street parking in the United States is roughly equivalent to the State of Connecticut, and this is often some of our most valuable land in the hearts of cities and towns. Using the satellite imagery to view this from far above allows us to back up for a moment and ask some critical questions about what we value. If the ancient Chinese had the Great Wall and the prehistoric residents of modern Peru had the Nazca Lines, we have a parking lot the size of Connecticut. That's what we look like from space.

Wednesday, April 8

Charleston, a model or a niche?

Charleston, South Carolina
I've just returned from a tour of Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, the two southern cities that are clearly models of good urban design in my opinion. The historic downtowns of both cities are full of public squares, mixed-use vitality, a broad range of beautiful architecture from classical to Georgian styles, the use of distinctive native vegetation, and accessible waterfronts. People pour in from all over for the sole purpose of walking around Charleston and Savannah.

On the other hand, all of these good assets do lend a certain degree of artificiality to the cities. Neither Savannah nor Charleston are Disneyworld or Las Vegas, but there are sections and seasons of each when they might feel a little like it. On Savannah's popular riverfront walk, I found three separate places where I could purchase Harley Davidson merchandise, one of which was called a "neighborhood shoppe." Yet, is this a problem with Savannah or a problem with everywhere else in the country? If other cities were as livable as downtown Savannah, maybe more folks would just enjoy walking around their own town.

But a second point is more puzzling to me. There is a fairly high level of wealth concentrated in these areas, particularly the southern portion of downtown Charleston. Is it possible for a wide range of income levels to enjoy a living environment like downtown Charleston or is this only possible when sustained by an upper-class tax base and a constant flow of tourist dollars? In other words, are these towns replicable elsewhere or are they niches in our national economy? I don't know if I have a good answer for these questions.

Savannah, Georgia
When I think through the tremendous amount of resources used by average towns and cities on a regular basis, I wonder whether a Charleston-like downtown really is attainable with a shift in priorities. Public roadways and private automobile ownership and operation are not cheap, yet a walkable life is possible in Charleston. The average suburban house is certainly as large as even the more opulent Charleston homes, and they require more land ownership and lawn care. Our nice dinner wasn't any more expensive than Outback Steakhouse. Creating a Charleston would not be cheap, but would it be any more expensive than American suburbia already is?

Thursday, April 2

One month, four pedestrians down

Charlottesville is a relatively small city, so when four pedestrians are struck on city streets within one month it causes eyebrows to raise. What's going on here?

The Hook newspaper has done a fine public service by calling attention to each of these cases, even if the details are sometimes not available. On the 7th day of March, a truck hit a pedestrian by the Omni hotel, right off the downtown mall. On the 16th day, a pedestrian was hit in the Belmont neighborhood on Hinton Street. On the 21st day, A 50-year old man was struck on US 29. And on the 27th day, a 63-year old man was killed right outside of his house on Avon Street.

For other incidents within the last year: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here.

As far as I can tell from the reports, no charges were filed against the motorist in any of these cases.

I know that infrastructure is an important part of this discussion, and the City has committed $700,000 to pedestrian safety improvements, but I'd like to address the issue of culture here. It is perversely fascinating to me to read the comments on these news reports. Angry motorists, under the internet cloak of anonymity, immediately point fingers - often when the post provides no relevant facts about the incident whatsoever.

A sampling for your reading pleasure:

  • "People attempting to cross US-29 on foot is just one more example of stupid."
  • "If you step out in front of a car (or train), you deserve to get hit."
  • "Most people’s attitudes seem to be “Go ahead and hit me! I’ll sue you for all your worth!” But when you run out in front of a car, you should expect to be hit!"
  • "Hey peds - get this — you don’t have all the protection you think you do. If you step off of a curb into my path and I can’t stop or swerve its your ass — and your fault."
  • "If you’re stepping out in front of vehicles because they “can” stop, what makes you think they always “will”?"
Apparently there is a rash of suicidal pedestrians "hopping out in front" of cars all across the city. Of course, some people were defending the rights of pedestrians to be on the streets, and casting their blame on inattentive and harried drivers. Of all the comments, one insight by someone named Cecil seemed to transcend the blame-hurling:
"I try to abide by the general rule that whenever I am in a position of greater power over someone else (like, when I’m driving a big steel car and there’s a pedestrian or a biker), I have a responsibility to watch out so that I don’t injure the weaker party. That means I slow way down if there’s a biker in front of me and I wait until I can safely pass him or her, even if that means I’m going slower than the speed limit."
I'll throw my own anecdote in to illustrate the power differential Cecil speaks of. Last week, I waited for my turn to cross the downtown Market Street. When the walk signal flashed on, noting that there were no cars coming, I stepped out into the crosswalk. A lady in an SUV pulled out across from me at the same time, to make a left-hand turn across my path. She apparently didn't see me in the intersection at first, because she looked very startled as she started to approach me.

Then, instead of slowing down she put her hand in the air, signaling for me to stop, and continued to make her left turn across my path. At this point, I have a decision to make. Either I assert my legal right-of-way (like those angry commenters intend to do) or decide not to risk my life and stay put. I stayed put.

This asymmetry is why the blame-hurling does not resonate with me. A hunter and a hapless hiker, however uniformed, are not on a level playing field. The hunter needs to apply extreme caution at all times. And aren't we trying to encourage people to get out of their cars to take some strain off of tax-payer's expenses? Threatening to run them over, does not exactly communicate this message.

The amazing thing about respectful driving is that it is contagious. This has been my experience and I've heard it repeated by others as well. Some cities have generated whole cultures of respectful drivers, where it is simply understood that you ought to stop if you see a pedestrian waiting to cross. Why does this kind of culture sprout in some places rather than others? And what practical steps does it take to build this?

I'm just thankful that people like Cecil live here.

Wednesday, April 1

A century of growth in Charlottesville-Albemarle

I thought this U.S. Census data of all of the counties in the Thomas Jefferson Planning District tell and interesting story of the last century. I've matched the growth trends up with certain events that may help put the population characteristics into historical context.

I'll let the pictures speak for themselves, other than noting the obvious nexus in 1970. It looks like the pre-1970 centripetal force switched to a centrifugal force right around this time.

Update: I should have pointed out that the 2007 numbers are estimates the Census Bureau made based on sampling certain metrics. Daily Progress reports today that Charlottesville is gearing up for the 2010 census. Better numbers are on their way ...