Tuesday, May 25

Variety of American Grids

I wanted a nerdy planning-related poster for my wall (other than the periodic table of city planning), so I made one this week. I scoured Google Earth and measured that quintessentially American grid in about fifty downtowns around the country. Of course, there are variations in block proportions within downtowns, but I tried to pick cities that had more uniformity than average to come up with a single prototype. Here's an image of it, or shoot me an email if you want a poster-quality version. (I personally don't have the web space for it right now).

Exploring these grid proportions messed with my preconceptions. I assumed the more western and newer cities would have larger grids than the more eastern and older cities, but no obvious pattern is discernible to me. Mobile, AL, settled by French colonists in the early 18th century, Tulsa, OK, a 19th century farming town, and Anchorage, AK, a 20th century frontier town, all share the same 300' x 300' internal block (street widths vary a little). What compelled the early settlers of these towns to choose, say, 220' over 440' lengths? I can't say I have any idea right now.

Manhattan is also a curious story. According to Witold Rybczynski, the expanding nation unequivocally chose the 1811 Commissioner's Grid of New York City over L'Enfant's baroque-influenced plan for Washington, DC as the model for new towns. While this is surely true, it begs the question: why are New York's long and skinny blocks not found anywhere else in the country? You would think at least one group of western settlers would seek to emulate their home town of New York more exactly.

I'm leaving aside the interesting value questions around block size. Ever since Jacobs, conventional wisdom has held that smaller blocks are preferable for walkability, but urban designer Fannis Grammenos challenges this somewhat in a recent Planetizen post.

Saturday, May 22

How might rail shape Charlottesville?

When Amtrak introduced new rail service between Washington DC and Lynchburg last fall, they hoped to meet an annual ridership projection of 51,000. Virginia DRPT was ready to start investing in intercity passenger rail, and this was the initial pilot project. Supporters were hopeful, but the less than ideal schedule for the daily train made some nervous

Now, actual ridership has blown these projections out of the water. Halfway through the year, the service had already exceeded both revenue and ridership goals for the whole year. As more people become aware of the new transportation option, monthly ridership growth is set to accelerate. March was the best month yet.

This exciting news prompts me to speculate about where this trend may be leading. So I'd like to engage in a little futurism here, some hypothetical storytelling. If I turn out to be right, I can point to this timestamped post and claim prophetic powers, and if I'm wrong this all will just float off into blogging oblivion where it belongs. So here goes ...

After the three-year pilot project is complete, DRPT decides to implement another daily trip leaving Charlottesville around 8:30 in the morning, as the Piedmont Rail Coalition is now recommending. Fares can be lowered on both services, because the high ridership levels easily offset the fixed fuel and labor costs of operation. With the help of expanded federal funding in the next Transportation Reauthorization bill, rail alignments are updated throughout the corridor, allowing for increased speed and reliability. All of these improvements together kick off a virtuous cycle of substantial growth in ridership and more options.

Charlottesville is able to tap into new economic possibilities just pushed over the tipping point. AMTRAK installs Wi-Fi on all services, allowing workers to be productive during the trip back and forth. Firms from DC decide to open a smaller office in downtown Charlottesville, where they can tap into the labor market and establish a connection with the University. Some consulting firms base themselves out of Charlottesville completely.  Many employees work remotely from Charlottesville, traveling to the main offices in DC a couple times a week, and businesses like OpenSpace thrive by catering to them. Tourism grows, as urban residents in DC realize they can get away to Charlottesville for a weekend without needing a car. The Landmark hotel gets built. At the same time, stronger connections are made between the downtowns of Charlottesville and Lynchburg.

A major debate arises over what to do with the existing train station. One side says the old station on West Main is no longer large enough to meet demand for parking, and a new station needs to be built in Albemarle County north of town. This would serve as a park-and-ride for automobile commuters throughout the region. The other side insists on expanding the facilities in place. They advocate building a parking garage and greatly bolstering local transit options to grant more access to the station without a car. This goes on for many years, and in the meantime the market responds by spurring a large amount of building activity right around the station. City planners carefully zone the area to encourage attractive transit-oriented development. Before long, many people start walking to the station anyway, and AMTRAK decides to keep it in the center of town.

The Charlottesville metro area, which had started as a rail town and then became a highway town, is gradually transformed into a rail-highway hybrid town. New tracks a laid between Richmond and Staunton, allowing additional east-west connections. Motorcars are still used to access much of the existing uses outside of urban areas and concentrated corridors, but a robust regional network of transit is also built that spreads out from the core train station. Walkable hubs are grown around stations throughout the US-29 corridor up to Hollymead/Airport and Ruckersville, and westward to Crozet. All of the new compact development relieves pressure on growth in the rural areas, thus the primary political challenge shifts from stopping sprawl to maintaining adequate affordable housing in the growth areas.

Wednesday, May 19

Planning for adaptive post office reuse

Mixing public and private uses in St. Louis' Old Post Office. Flickr: Kodamakitty
The author of the blog Connecticut Yankee Out West has raised an intriguing question. Recognizing an art deco post office for sale in Eugene, Oregon, he notes:
"Unfortunately, the United States Post Office is going to sell hundreds of buildings like these because the USPS just isn’t going to need as much capacity going forward. Yet, these structures are strikingly unique and immediately recognizable symbols of our civic culture."
He wants to know who's looking ahead of this transition to make sure these important buildings not only remain in existence but continue as civic institutions and public amenities. Post offices have tended to be toward the very center of cities in prominent locations, and in some very small towns the post office practically is the city. The best use of the space into the future probably will not be sorting and distributing physical letters and parcels. But what will it be?

Because post offices are federal property, their resale is governed differently than just any other historic building. The federal General Service Administration is in charge of the process, called the Real Property Disposal progam, and they have the obligation to offer the sale to other government agencies, non-profits, or homeless use before putting it out for a general auction. According to the GSA, about a third of the $3 billion in sales has, in fact, been transferred to such "public benefit" uses.

Ever since reading his posts, I've been rummaging around for some post office adaptive reuses that have maintained public use in some way. Here's a few I've found:
  • The Old Post Office in St. Louis was redeveloped over the last decade by a public-private partnership and is now used as Webster University, a state Court of Appeals, plenty of retail and food service, some non-profit offices, and other offices for public agencies.
  • Of course, there's the Moynihan Station. With a boost from stimulus funds, the old Farley Post Office will be redeveloped into a train station in New York City. 
  • A former post office in Natchez, MS was converted into an African American History Museum in the 1990's.
  • A former post office in Devil's Lake, ND is being used as a heritage center and for special community events.
  • A former post office in Charlottesville, VA is in use as a downtown library.
  • This is a little different, but the U.S. Courthouse and Dallas Post Office will retain the post office on the ground floor and reuse upper floors for a hotel, office, or condos.
  • The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in Brooklyn had always contained both USPS and courts, but in the 1990's the building was renovated to take space away from the shrinking post office and reallocate it to the expanding courts.
  • A couple of former post offices are being used for school administration offices, but I can't find any reuses as a school itself (probably because of tight requirements for school design).
There has to be hundreds of other configurations that have been attempted. Are there any other creative ideas out there?

Sunday, May 16

The future does need to be paid for

This month's Atlantic is a special Future of the City edition with a number of thought-provoking features and essays. Before getting into the actual material, I just have to say ... it's interesting how cities have always been associated with the future, and countryside the past. We picture the gleaming skyscraper and the quaint red barn, when, in reality, today's farms are as tricked out in chemicals and high-tech machinery as a heavy pharmaceutical plant and cities are a repository for layers and layers of cultural artifacts. Still there's something about cities that stoke the imagination, and countryside a nostalgic sense of comfort. This seems appropriate to me.

Anyway,  Chris Leinberger writes a follow-up to his landmark The Next Slums? piece from 2008. As a real estate developer, he knows that the old model of building housing as quickly and cheaply as possible on the metropolitan fringe is no longer viable. On the other hand, building the kinds of walkable urban neighborhoods that are in demand (and in short supply) is difficult to do given the infrastructure and local regulatory systems currently in place. To roll with this paradigm shift, rail lines have to be built and zoning has to be reformed to open up the ensuing development potential.

His solution for doing this is simple,

"Transportation drives development, so development can and should help pay for transportation"
To me, Leinberger's argument has echos from 19th century economic reformer Henry George, only told in reverse. George noticed an injustice in the way the benefits from public improvements were distributed throughout society. Selected landowners, because they possess a natural monopoly over a particular geographical space, are able to capture much of the value of new infrastructure, parks, and other public amenities, when they have not put in the labor to produce this value. Essentially, they are just lucky or well-connected. George advocated a land value tax to redistribute the benefits back to the community, and Leinberger is saying the "landowners" should be the ones paying for the improvements in the first place.

Financing transit with private capital will certainly be complicated. In the days when a streetcar line could be extended out into fresh greenfields, it made sense of the fields owner to foot the bill for the transportation in order to bring people to his land. But retrofitting a rail system on top of existing development requires a much more complex financial calculation and enough buy-in from numerous property owners, some of whom are more interested in redeveloping than others.

Still there's lots of smart people thinking about this financing strategy. Here's a 2008 report from Reconnecting America, Capturing the Value of Transit. Another from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in 2009, The Value Capture Approach To Stimulating Transit Oriented Development And Financing Transit Station Area Improvements. Finally, a 2009 report to the Minnesota Legislature from a group including David Levinson, Value Capture for Transportation Finance.

Thursday, May 13

Portable shelter for Grandma

Credit: MEDcottages
A really cool idea out of Blacksburg has just won over the Virginia General Assembly. It's called the MEDcottage. Kenneth Dupin, a Methodist pastor, devised a portable housing unit for elderly people who need special medical facilities. Instead of being sent off to a nursing home, grandma or grandpa can set themselves up in their children's backyard with a high-tech fully equipped temporary shelter. It would be leased for about $2000 a month, and the family can ship it away once it's no longer needed.

I don't believe much of the design work has been completed yet, but there are all sorts of ways to make these units attractive. Modular and adaptable housing is getting a lot of attention from architects these days, and I'm sure there are no shortage of designers who would like to hook up with this new company. Trailer homes are certainly not what they used to be.

In urban and suburban areas, Accessory Dwelling Units like this are often severely regulated by local zoning ordinances, written to appease neighbors who do not believe they fit the character of their living environment. But the MEDcottage may be different. Because the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against necessary provisions for disabled individuals, Dupin makes the case that local zoning codes may have to allow them. At any rate, the General Assembly's decision will supersede local codes, at least under certain conditions. This may open up a door of opportunity for creative densification, diversification, and intergenerational bonds in neighborhoods throughout the state.

Wednesday, May 12

Learning from Savannah

Eric Orozco has been mining some valuable lessons from the City of Savannah for over nine months now, making his blog series one of the longest-running and insightful I've read. My only experience with Savannah consists of a three-day stay in an historic district Bed and Breakfast, filled with hours of wandering and eating and more wandering. I came away with a fascination for the city and the intangible sense of magic everyone attributes to it. Eric's posts help me put words on some of this.

I don't have much to add beyond attempting a general summary of the posts thus far, in hopes they will keep coming!

(By the way, read the posts and expect to be drawn from Savannah into meaty philosophical dialogue and then back again.)

1. Odonomia and the Garden of Good and Evil.  When it comes to shaping cities, we like to classify our approaches as either form-based or use-based, when in reality this taxonomy breaks down on a number of levels. Most of the activity of real city building happens "illicitly," that is outside of the neat taxonomy we envision and apply in advance to a place. The unique wards of Savannah are an example of a rigid order that exhibits a wonderful diversity in both form and function in it's application throughout the city. I can't resist the money quote:
"It is as if the Platonic pattern from the mind of Oglethorpe (conceived for reasons very different than Savannah's needs today) was dropped into a fecund soup and allowed to copulate with the wonderful imaginations of every square district."
2. Savannah's Kind of Blue. Miles Davis, like the city itself, creates beauty by improvising on theme.

3. The Invisible Signs of Savannah. One of the aspects of Savannah's attractiveness is what it lacks: street signals and signs. Compared to a similarly connected street grid in Charlotte, a much lower percentage of Savannah's intersections have signs or signals. Instead, this city allows "the intimate scales of its fine-grain environment to dictate traffic control."

4. What the Savannah Square can do better than the Roundabout. While roundabouts have been a trend over the last few years for regulating traffic flow at intersections, the Savannah square is a similar alternative better suited for multimodal and urban settings. This is a brilliant post with diagrams that just needs to be read in it's entirety. The conclusion,
"Consider employing the Savannah square-flow strategy as smarter way to handle traffic flow while promoting a density-efficient land use mixture and bike and pedestrian friendliness. I would only use a roundabout when at least one of the intersecting streets (preferably both) is a thoroughfare or high-volume traffic street. Otherwise, I'd prefer to square it."
5. Admiring a Beauty. Like the medieval penchant for systematic order, the street grid of Savannah holds together nicely while creating a truly immersive experience for those traveling through it.

6. From Savannah to the Burbs: The American Art of Subdivision.The American suburb presents a puzzling question. How did a country that praises non-conformity and individual expression end up with an overall landscape of sameness? And what drives us to cluster around people like ourselves? The large-scale repetition of form has deep roots in American culture, and Savannah itself has its origins in a strictly egalitarian subdivision of land. Every settler was given a "tything" of 10 lots of 60' by 90' each, compactly arranged in town and a 45-acre allotment parcel for farming outside of town.

Savannah was built specifically to reproduce itself in a cellular fashion at a regional level,
"Carefully inspecting the arrangement of the 45-acre farm tracts, however, one can discern that they were arranged in a manner to encourage the future formation of hamlets and townships in the countryside, suggesting a fractal strategy of expansion for the entire colonization scheme of Georgia."
 7. "Not For Us But For Others" -- The Humanitarian Roots of America's First Subdivision. The original planners of Savannah must have had Chistopher Wren's London in mind as they laid out the street pattern. The British Enlightenment led to forms of city planning that were open to various possibilities of adjustment yet tightly geometric at the same time.

One difference between Savannah and the contemporary subdivision is the altruistic intent that the original trustees committed to while engaging in design. The town was explicitly for the poor and religiously persecuted.
"We would not be exaggerating to claim that Savannah is veritably America's first planned "habitat for humanity". The city was founded to give down-and-out British folks a second chance at life and prosperity."
The original Savannah had no center. Each of Oglethorpe's wards stood alone, and no hierarchy existed between them, keeping with the underpinnings of England's nascent movement toward liberalism. Interestingly, Oglethorpe himself never accepted a permanent lot, preferring to reside in tent directly along the river. He truly wanted it to be a city "not for us but for others."

8. John Locke's Savannah. The form of Savannah is not only shaped by the liberal ideals of equal opportunity for everyone, but also the everyday give and take of trades and services inherent to a dense urban marketplace. This type of human interaction should make us cautious about criticism of the suburbs on the basis of appearances of homogeneity and segregation. The real driver of community is not merely proximity of homes to each other - some urban areas can be as stratified as any suburb - but the existence of real people who serve as connectors across social groups. These connections can be surprisingly active in many of today's suburbs.

Following the lead of Savannah can help planners retrofit existing suburbs and, at the same time, help our urban areas become friendlier to the demographic conventionally attracted to suburbs. The city can teach us how to mix equal economic opportunity with truly vibrant community.

Monday, May 10

The setting of a food revolution

After getting recommendations from three friends independently I felt obliged to check out Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution (It's still on hulu until June 5th). Definitely well worth the 4+ hours. You've got the drama of clashing personalities and the group hug scenes perfected by a decade of reality TV, but this show simply has the traction to carry real change beyond the scope of the show itself. I've decided it's not actually reality TV at all, but a documentary of a grassroots movement in progress.

Could this be a revolution that is televised after all? (that is, if you can look passed the irony of sponsorship from Healthy Choices pre-packaged dinners). The prize selection committee at TED seemed to think so, and Jamie Oliver's acceptance speech is a good introduction to what he's up to.

Pullman Square in Huntington, West Virginia. Flickr Credit: Sarah.WV
What I'm interested in is the deeply place-based strategy he has taken. He recognizes that eating well is not only an individual choice, but it's also profoundly influenced by the structure of the community you find yourself in. Do the markets stock healthy food at reasonable prices? Can you get to them? Do schools serve genuine food? Is there an overall culture of self-reliant food preparation? Seeing the problem this way naturally lends itself to picking one place, Huntington, West Virginia, getting every local institution on board, building enthusiasm and the synergy of community action, and finally creating a model city.

This movement needed a physical space to launch from. It needed Jamie's Kitchen (now Huntington's Kitchen) to be, not only a useful space for gathering, but an architectural expression of the whole idea. It is noteworthy that he chose the very center of the city, right off the beautiful Pullman Square on 3rd Avenue, for the location.

When I drove across the country the summer before last, I made a point to ask everyone I met this question: "where is the very center of your town?"

View Larger Map
In some towns, people would be puzzled by the whole concept. There was nothing to latch on to. Maybe the Walmart, but probably not. In other towns, the response would be immediate, and it was always some place they were proud of. It was a public living room for the whole community. I stopped briefly in Huntington but unfortunately never had a chance to talk to anyone.  I have a feeling they may have said Pullman Square if I had.

Jamie also knows that public space is the lifeblood of any grassroots movement. He closed down the street out in front of the kitchen and set up forty tables for one big cooking lesson. He organized a flash mob in the central gathering area of Marshall University to drum up interest from students. Once again, the center counts. The airwaves and cables could get his message into every private living room and every driver's seat, but the true source of energy happened when crowds united in one place. The fact that this occurred outside on public streets meant the whole city was the arena.

Right, I know the show is really about food. But it's also about place. These are the questions that I'm naturally asking while I watched. How can we physically structure our communities so that someone like Jamie can come in and have a fighting chance at starting a revolution?

Tuesday, May 4

Two responses to the terrorism question

Both the New York response and the Washington response to security threats just happen to be on display in the same week ...

The New York response to terrorism has been "see something, say something." These were the words that the T-shirt vendor who alerted a mounted police officer of the smoking SUV told reporters as he stepped into a taxi cab. As Fred Kaplan points out in Slate, this is not unlike the message of the great New Yorker Jane Jacobs.

"Jane Jacobs observed that sidewalks and their users are "active participants in the drama of civilization versus barbarism" (by "barbarism," she meant crime) and that a continuously busy sidewalk is a safe sidewalk, because those who have business there—"the natural proprietors of the street"—provide "eyes upon the street...
This may explain why busy areas like Times Square aren't attacked by terrorists more often. The crowds make them tempting targets: lots of people mean lots of potential victims and subsequent media attention. But those same crowds—especially the regulars, who are always looking out on the street—make an attack harder to conceal and, therefore, to pull off."
The Washington response is the opposite. It is to keep people out of sensitive areas entirely. This is what happened yesterday when the decision was made to close the front doors of the U.S. Supreme Court. Now the public will have to enter through a secured underground entrance to the side. Justices Breyer and Ginsburg were not amused.
"To many members of the public, this Court’s main entrance and front steps are not only a means to, but also a metaphor for, access to the Court itself.
This is why, even though visitors will remain able to leave via the front entrance, I find dispiriting the Court’s decision to refuse to permit the public to enter. I certainly recognize the concerns identified in the two security studies that led to this recent decision (which reaffirmed a decision made several years ago). But potential security threats will exist regardless of which entrance we use. And, in making this decision, it is important not to undervalue the symbolic and historic importance of allowing visitors to enter the Court after walking up Gilbert’s famed front steps."
I'm not trying to suggest that one is better than the other. How would I know? Times Square is a target because of its many people, and the Courthouse is a target because of its symbolism (and the Justices themselves). It makes sense that different questions would yield different answers.

American [new urbanist] Makeover

Excellent video series. It's a viral self-fundraising campaign that depends on building support as more episodes are filmed. I'm looking forward to its continuation. (ht Smart growth America)

"American Makeover is a six-part web series on new urbanism, the antidote to sprawl. We need backers - please make a donation to help greenlight this series!  Episode 1 was filmed on location in Atlanta, Georgia and Glenwood Park, a new urbanist influenced neighborhood near downtown Atlanta."