Tuesday, May 26

Exploring Richmond

The wife and I were joking that whenever we visit some city, all we ever do is walk around and eat. It's true. A little like hiking, only a different setting and much better food. Our last day trip was to Richmond, Virginia. Here's the annotated journey of an outsider taking a peek in.

The downtown is not much different than many other mid-sized cities' downtowns. Lots of steel and glass, parking lots and garages. Richmond was chopped into pieces with Interstates, leaving historic neighborhoods like Shockoe Bottom with an almost eerie I-95 overpass towering above it. The ornate Main Street train station is still served by AMTRAK, and it's set to host a new high-speed rail line in the near future.

What's great about Richmond are its many walkable neighborhoods. We meandered around Carytown, the Fan, and Oregon Hill. Each of these neighborhoods have an eclectic combination of row houses and detached houses of all architectural variety. The streets are quiet and nicely treed, with a central commercial strip never far away. Boulevard Street is actually a real boulevard. My general impression is that at least many parts of these neighborhoods are mixed-race, although I know none of them are in the predominantly black sections of town.

This pedestrian bridge to Belle Isle Park is tucked away under Highway 301 across the James River. Given that it wasn't completely obvious how to get from the neighborhoods to the bridge, I was amazed at how popular it was on an overcast day. The whole area is a fascinating combination of industrial grittiness and natural beauty.

Belle Isle itself was loaded with all kinds of people playing on the rocks in the James. Most people were there to lounge around, but mountain bikers and kayakers were well represented too. The Richmond side of the waterfront is not very accessible - cut off by rail and highway - but the city has compensated by opening up a couple of islands for use. Brown island to the east of Belle Isle is host to Friday night concerts in the summer.

Short Pump isn't Richmond, but it's in the metro area. Just barely. Yet an incredible amount of mixed-use density is being built out here off the intersection of highways 64 and 295, and a new-fangled "towne centre" style mall. If some tangible connection with the city of Richmond were ever established, this node of development may have promise. Some of the design here is nicely done in my opinion. However, the required automobile is only thinly hidden from view.

Thursday, May 21

True freedom or lead weight around the neck?


  1. Pew Research Center asked Americans, "Do you pretty much think of this as a necessity or do you pretty much think of this as a luxury you can do without?" Released April, 2009.
  2. AAA estimates average automobile costs of $8,095 per year, including ownership and operation. Released April, 2009.
  3. American Community Survey records a mean vehicle availability of 1.78 per household in the United States for 2005-2007.
  4. The other costs are personal estimates, assuming 10-year life span for appliances and 3-5 year life span for electronics and minimal financing.

Wednesday, May 20

Following the law. kind of

For the life of me, I can't figure out what purpose there would be for short segments of sidewalk, with a yellow pad right in the middle, only on the corners of each intersection. This whole suburban development in Crozet is spotted with these things. Do they make pedestrians safer? Do they add some aesthetic value to the street? Doubt it. My guess is that the literal interpretation of the zoning code only requires the developers to put sidewalks on the corners. So that's what they did.

Monday, May 18

Cities and Libertarianism(s?)

I’m not a libertarian, but I really appreciate the way libertarians think. I happen to not accept many of the assumptions they make about human nature and human aspirations, but the fact that they accept a set of common assumptions at all allows them to apply rigorous logic to any problem. This makes for good, smart conversation in my opinion, and they’ve got to be at least partially right.

I found one such conversation on The Volokh Conspiracy last week (by way of Market Urbanism) entitled, “Do We Need More Government Planning to Create "Walkable" Living Environments?” What really intrigued me was the long stream of comments that followed this post. A clear rift seemed to develop between those who defended a low-density suburban lifestyle in its own right and those who believed the market alone should determine development patterns.

How could a conversation among libertarians, all conducted under a common language, worldview, and set of assumptions, arrive at such opposite poles? It occurred to me that maybe this was Frank Lloyd Wright versus. Milton Friedman, a personal liberty expressed spatially versus a personal liberty expressed through economic choices. Here is my attempt to profile the two categories these commenters fell into - not necessarily an informed evaluation of either Wright or Friedman themselves.

The Wright Group

The Wright group sees the owned single-family detached home in a quiet suburban or rural neighborhood as the libertarian ideal. Homeownership is a much preferable situation to a tenant-landlord arrangement. Individually owned private property distributes power evenly to each household, and it creates an incentive for the homeowner to maintain and enhance the value of the property. Accordingly, Homeownership ought to be encouraged by society.

The Wright group has a specific conception of home. Houses without any connected walls and with generous setbacks of yards on all sides allow the inhabitants to enjoy a high level of individual autonomy. The home is the castle, the one sure segment of life entirely under personal control. Unlike denser living environments, social interactions in a single-family suburban or rural property can be maximally managed. Neighborhood relationships of any degree of intimacy do not need to be entered into involuntarily.

The Wright group seems to favor strict single-use zoning measures to prevent any external intrusions into private property. Other uses mixed with residential use interfere, whether by adding traffic and noise or altering aesthetics, with the homeowner’s control of private space. Furthermore, if zoning can spatially separate socio-economic groups, it allows homeowners the freedom to purchase a home among people they choose to associate with. Neighborhood change is undesirable, because it alters the homeowner’s investment-backed expectations.

The automobile is the optimal mode of transportation. Public transportation is viewed as collectivist, burdening individuals with the need to coordinate schedules and trips among a large number of people. It is not a coincidence that communist regimes have heavily invested in public transportation systems, while the free world has embraced the automobile. Walking and bicycling are fine, but access is limited to a small area. Maximum mobility in the form of efficient personal automobile travel is something that should be encouraged by society.

The Friedman Group

The Friedman group believes that the spatial distribution of development ought to be determined by a free market. There are many different preferences for living arrangements in society, and these preferences change through time. The market does the best job matching the supply of housing and transportation with demand in any particular region. It is best to let the spatial arrangement of a city emerge from a multitude of individual choices, rather than to be shaped by the predetermined selection of a preferred type and tenure of housing, and mode of transportation.

Their view of homeownership is more ambiguous. While there are benefits, mortgages do create inflexibility in the labor market, making it harder for regions to adapt to changing conditions. Instead of using tax incentives and other programs to encourage homeownership, the federal government should stand back and let the market determine the optimal balance between renting and owning.

The Friedman group continually points out that the Wright group’s ideal living arrangement essentially requires governmental intervention at all levels. The automobile-oriented transportation the Wright group prefers is highly dependent on the federal Interstate system and road-building at the state and municipal level. Contrary to this arrangement, the Friedman group believes that if the costs of driving are fully realized by users of the infrastructure, a diversity of transportation options would naturally arise to meet a diversity of needs.

At the local level, land use controls, such as the separation of uses, minimum parking requirements, and mandatory low densities through zoning, are considered to be unwanted interventions into the market. The same is also true for “smart growth” policies intended to concentrate development in particular locations.

The Friedman group insist that low-density living arrangements should be an option, but that they should not be required, or even subsidized, by government. The externalities of low-density living, including costs of public services and infrastructure, ought to be incorporated into the cost of living for individual homeowners and tenants as much as possible. Doing so will allow the market to allocate scarce resources, particularly land, most efficiently. This is presumed to shift the balance of development toward cities.

Two Libertarianisms?

The Wright group seems to favor optimizing individual autonomy through spatial living arrangements even if doing so requires centralizing economic and political authority to some extent. The Friedman group seems to favor optimizing individual autonomy through market decisions even if doing so results in more people living in situations where full control over private property is compromised in some way.

Thursday, May 14

Jeff Mapes' Pedaling Revolution

I'm trying to decide whether the title of a new book, Pedaling Revolution is an overstatement or not. The onset of bicycling as a serious transportation option certainly has not been as cataclysmic as, say, the Bolshevik revolution or as comprehensive as the industrial revolution. Bicycles rarely make front page news, and in hard statistics the number of bicycle commuters in the U.S. is still quite small. Yet somehow, over the course of the last several decades, this humble mode of transportation has catalyzed an entire subculture, developed political muscle in some cities, and built a slow wave of momentum particularly in recent years. Mapes is a worthy tour guide through every epicenter and every eclectic character of this movement. Hailing from Portland, he seemed to find his way into the thick of it all.

Mapes catalogs everyone from mothers letting their elementary school children ride to school for the first time to organized booze-soaked naked bike rides through city streets. There are proud law-breakers and certified safety instructors. There's the carefully-crafted advocacy for more transportation options, and the critical mass rides sometimes resulting in violent clashes with police. He takes us to some of the pioneering U.S. cities - Davis, Portland, New York - but also throws in anecdotes from some of the more challenging cycling environments. Mapes manages to respectfully engage, and even ride along with, each of these very different cohorts.

If I could pull out one theme from the book, the one largest obstacle for American cycling, it would be safety - and maybe even more so the perception of safety (it's at least possible that its more dangerous to drive than to bike, due to the increased health risks from lack of exercise). Sure, the rushing cars and busy intersections do attract some, mostly young males, to ride for the sheer adrenaline, but for cycling to ever have a significant travel mode share it will have to attract the more risk-adverse among us. This is how European cities like Amsterdam can get half the population on a bike on any given day - without helmets nonetheless. The street environment is quiet and safe.

So what do we do? There are different strategies floating around the cycling community, some of them in contradiction with each other. The hard-core cyclists insist on maintaining vehicular speeds and riding right in the middle of traffic. Bike lanes are useless to them, or, even worse, a subversive attempt to get them off the street. There is definitely some logic to their point of view. The more you act life a car, the more cars know what to expect. And its just faster - that is if you can stomach the traffic.

The other side argues that cycling will never become a mass movement unless bikes can effectively be removed from the streets and onto a different network entirely. They want separated cycletracks to be developed thoughout American cities, but some american engineers worry about the intersections of the car and bike network. In between, are a whole host of planning solutions from bicycle boulevards to bike boxes which give cyclists a head start at intersections. All evidence shows that even imperfect strategies do get more people on bikes.

The strongest safety variable of all is strength in numbers, which Mapes thinks helps explain the evangelistic fervor many cyclists have to increase the numbers of their fold. Having more cyclists on the road could literally save your life. Cars grow accustomed to looking for you, and more political will is generated to enhance infrastructure. This is the hopeful place Pedalling Revolution leaves us. Each new person contributes to the positive cycle of making the streets that much more inhabitable for the next person. However small the numbers of bicycle commuters are now, there may be a tipping point looming out there for many American cities.

Monday, May 11

Three short films and one not-short film

I've run into some great, short videos out there in the last week, so I thought I would collect a few and share.

This one was made for Kansas City as part of a City-wide ImagineKC campaign. I found it via Worldchanging and was immediately impressed by the potential this medium has for visualizing urban Transit-oriented Development projects anywhere. Made me want to move there, for sure.

Imagine KC from Arnold Imaging on Vimeo.

This video, from the good people at StreetFilms, describes the habitat of the Zozo, an endangered purple creature that used to inhabit the streets of New York. They have been driven out by cars, but new efforts to restore livable streets may help restore the Zozo population. I love how they got Kenneth Jackson involved on this. I hope this is just the first in a series ...

This video just won the 2009 video contest for the Congress for New Urbanism conference.

Finally a not-so-short film (52 minutes)
"Have you ever thought of Metro as a tool for transformation? Well five decades ago, Arlington did ..."
Arlington County, VA has just produced a well-done documentary on the very intentional path they took toward becoming a model transit-oriented development community. I found this film via Smart Growth America, who also has some good background figures on the county.

Why Cherry Avenue isn't happening

I'd like to indulge in one hyper-local post - it's about my neighborhood of Fifeville - but I think it does touch on some broader urban design themes. In fact, I'd love it if someone out there with more knowledge of good streetscape design weighed in to let me know if I'm on the right track or not. Beyond a quick skim of Allan Jacob's Great Streets, I only have my personal experience to work with here. I have a hunch for why Charlottesville's plan to redevelop the Cherry Avenue corridor, which runs through the heart of Fifeville, after eight years has not had any success.

As part of the 2001 comprehensive plan, The city conducted several corridor studies and made some pretty visionary recommendations. Cherry Avenue was envisioned to become a mixed-use corridor with ground-floor retail and residential or office space above. The whole streetscape was to be reoriented around pedestrian access and attractiveness. The buildings were to be pushed up to the sidewalk, and parking would be put behind. These have all become best practices in urban design, but in 2001 this was fairly innovative. Two years later, a rezoning was passed that put some regulatory force behind the plan.

But then nothing happened on Cherry. No developers bought in. By 2006, a Fifeville neighborhood plan declared, "Cherry Ave commercial district should be the center, but is now woefully underutilized." A year later, the 2007 Comprehensive plan also acknowledged that the mixed-use corridor just wasn't happening. Today, although there are now some developments planned on the edges of the corridor, the main drag of Cherry still has vacant lots, underused parking lots, and abandoned stores scattered throughout.

Sure, there are always many factors involved, but I think the street itself may be what is holding things up. The section of Cherry Avenue within the corridor is a three-lane road with no shoulder at all. The speed limit is 35 mph, which is higher than the other corridors in town (with the exception of Preston). I don't think it's realistic to expect a mixed-use corridor to sprout up around this kind of street.

Here it is on Streetview:

View Larger Map

What if the street were repainted to turn it back into a two-lane street with on-street parking?

The parking would automatically create a traffic calming effect, making the street more hospitable to pedestrians. Businesses would not have to meet all of their parking needs with expensive off-street spaces, and parking would most likely be more convenient for customers. The City Parks and Recreation department thinks the popular Tonsler Park lacks enough parking. This would solve that problem as well without having to pave over more greenspace or remove a basketball court.

I know the center lane is supposed to enhance traffic flow by allowing easy turns onto the side streets, but from what I've seen it's not used much at all. With the exception of the major intersection between Cherry and Ridge, all of the turns are for small side streets or parking lots. For most of the stretch, this is really a wasted lane. The extra space of pavement only encourages drivers to speed.

So what about this? Easy low-cost solution or a meaningless tweak to a hopeless corridor plan?

Friday, May 8

Urban Places, Rural Spaces

Photo credit: Robert Llewellyn
I stopped by the Urban places, Rural Spaces exhibit at the Charlottesville Community Design Center on the Downtown Mall. Very nice.

The exhibit demonstrates how creating vibrant urban areas and protecting beautiful and productive rural areas are hardly mutually exclusive goals. This is a great message that, for all its simplicity, I think is not understood very well.

I noticed that Albemarle County planners are leading a discussion as part of the exhibit on the evening of May 14th. Wouldn't it be cool if this was joint led by City and County planners? That would be a tangible representation of the city-county cooperation that is truly necessary to work toward enhancing both of these very different living environments.

Tuesday, May 5

LEED-ND needs you

LEED for Neighborhood Development has just opened up their second public comment period. It will continue for 45 days until June 14. I learned this from Kaid Benfield, who has just highlighted the first LEED-ND platinum neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area on his must-read blog. In reality, some stellar examples to point to are probably just as important for getting LEED-ND off the ground as fine-tuning the language. As long as it gets built, I'd definitely say this one qualifies. The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

I haven't brought up LEED-ND here yet, but I really am fascinated by the whole experiment - and I do believe it is still in the experimental stages at this point. The goal is to develop an objective, even quantifiable, measure for good, sustainable urban design. Just as the more popular LEED rating system allocates points to buildings for energy-efficient insulation, passive solar design, reuse of materials, and other green building elements, LEED-ND seeks to put those buildings into a wider context. As many have pointed out, even a platinum-certified building does little good sitting on the exurban fringe, only accessible by a long automobile commute. This is an attempt to capture the broader elements of green design. I'm eager to see if it works.

USGBC seems to be going about this the right way, very methodically, through a guided public participation process. An early pilot program put the concept out there to see what sort of results it would yield. While the standards were first written in-house, they were submitted for a public comment period earlier in the year, revised according to the comments, and now opened up for a second round of public comment. After this, members of USGBC will vote on the final document. What a smart process. It's like the masses of Wikipedia and the experts of Encyclopedia Britannica putting their heads together.