October 29, 2005

Walkable Manhattan

With its towering skyscrapers, congested traffic and acres of concrete and asphalt, theoretically you might not think of Manhattan as a pedestrian paradise. But in fact it's one of the greatest urban walking environments in America, and not only because of density of population combined with difficulty in driving/parking.

The Manhattan streetscape is extraordinarily interesting, with countless intriguing and unique shop windows designed to attract the passer-by on foot. Even the street vendors, whom some city officials complain hinder walking activity by taking up valuable sidewalk square footage, actually help the pedestrian environment by offering more points of interest aimed at appealing to walkers.

Blocks are varied, windows are close to and looking out at the street, there's usually a good buffer between pedestrians and traffic (on-street parking works for this) -- and ironically, the fact that traffic generally crawls through Manhattan makes the walking environment even better. The faster multiple lanes of traffic are whizzing by, the more of a barrier you need between pedestrians and the roadway. And you're almost never walking by acres of parking - real estate in Manhattan is simply too valuable for that. Nor are buildings set back so far that they divorce themselves from the streetscape.

There are numerous destinations within walking distance, and a robust public transit system to get countless other places. Many new buildings are required to have public space within them, offering yet more potential destinations.

Oh, and I doubt zoning rules in Manhattan allow for hotels to co-opt the sidewalk for valet-parking purposes.

If you haven't heard, there's a controversy brewing over hotel plans at 500 Atlantic Avenue in Boston, where developers plan to break up the sidewalk along the post-Big-Dig Greenway in order to allow drive-up valet parking. UGH. The advocacy group WalkBoston has been involved in trying to get the plans reconsidered, supported by an editorial in the Boston Globe:

The Rose Kennedy Greenway above the Central Artery tunnel will never live up to its promise as a promenade and pedestrian connector between downtown and the harbor if its design does not invite walkers. Making sure it does has been a goal of state, city, and community group planners from the beginning. That is why it is so disappointing that the city has gone along with a hotel's request for a parking pullout at its entrance that would force pedestrians to detour around idling cars and under the building's portico as they make their way on Atlantic Avenue.

There's an extremely easy solution to this issue, which you can see at the Hilton hotel on 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue in New York -- two parallel sidewalks, one for the pedestrians walking down 6th Ave., and another for those getting out of taxis or private cars. I'll try to see if I can get a photo of it sometime before I head out.

October 26, 2005

From Contaminated Steel Mill to Trendy Urban Address

"The opening of Atlantic Station's retail and entertainment district Thursday will be the final milestone marking the nine-year trajectory of a project that transformed a former steel mill into one of the region's hottest addresses," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this month. "On land where barrel hoops were made in 1901, more than 1,000 people now live a short hop from Midtown's trendy restaurants, the funky shops on Huff Road and attractions in downtown Atlanta. On the exact site where the old steel mills spewed hazardous wastes, bank executives and lawyers peer from their office tower at a movie theater and shopping district."

Atlanta is often held up as one of the nation's worst examples of sprawl. However, Atlantic Station was designed to be a "pleasant place to walk," the article notes. "...[T]he retail district is laid out in a grid pattern, with wide sidewalks and narrow streets passing brick buildings lined with glass windows that let people gaze inside the shops. Parking is in underground decks, so streets should be mostly free of vehicles." Ah, that all-important attention to a pedestrian-friendly streetscape!

Widening and landscaping a bridge was also part of the development deal.

And while it is a largely upper income neighborhood, one-fifth of the residential units were reserved for the middle class, and some stores like Ikea are affordable for average wage-earners.

The transformation of an industrial site to mixed-use residential and commercial appears to have been good for the city's treasury. "The site paid about $300,000 a year in property taxes when it was a steel mill," the Journal-Constitution notes. "This year, it will pay about $8 million, and payments are expected to reach up to $25 million a year in 2010."

October 25, 2005

Improving Suburbia

If you missed it, Globe West Weekly had a piece last week on Tearing Down the Walls That Separate Us, focusing on ways to make suburbia more friendly and less isolating. Focusing on Dave Wann's book Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods, reporter Kristen Green outlines a broad range of Wann's suggestions, such as getting out and introducing yourself to neighbors, creating a neighborhood newsletter, or more radically tearing down backyard fences to make large common spaces.

The issue of neighborhood design is absolutely critical to making friendlier neighborhoods. If people are always out and about walking, and other people's homes are near the street with windows and front porches facing the sidewalk, interaction is going to be a lot more likely. Kristen interviewed me for over half an hour for the story, although none of my design comments made it into the piece (fortunately, the director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance is quoted discussing this critical issue). But I'm glad one important point of mine made it in there: You don't have to completely give up your privacy in order to achieve better neighborhood design, whether we're talking about private yards or density of development.

Sure, there could be more optimal density and usage mixes. But we can start right now with the uses and densities we have and make better neighborhoods, by simple changes to how buildings are designed and sited. Put the "strip malls" up to the sidewalk with parking in the rear, make a more appealing streetscape with buffers between traffic and walkers as well as variations of how windows front the street (think the bay windows along Newbury Street in Back Bay instead of one long boring flat wall), and you'll have a much more appealing suburban street for pedestrians. Make front yards an attractive part of the public streetscape and you can still have private yards in the back.

October 24, 2005

Sacramento State ‘University Village’ In Works

A University Village featuring mixed-use housing, community center, shops and restaurants is planned for a 25-acre site near Sacramento State, the college's faculty and staff newsletter reports:

The concept features a “Main Street” with shopping and restaurants on the lower level, loft-style apartments above and a tree-lined esplanade down the center. ...

The Village will also be designed to limit the need for faculty and staff to drive to campus. A planned bike- and pedestrian-friendly extension of Ramona Avenue would go from campus across Folsom to the new Village development. And the University’s planned Bus Rapid Transit line route would be designed as a direct link between the campus and the village.

It's a great disappointment that there is no such bustling pedestrian-friendly village around Framingham State College. The closest to that would be Framingham Centre, which is a less-than-pleasant walk across Rte. 9 from campus. And while it's great there's a pedestrian bridge over Rte. 9, that bridge dumps you off in front of the street feeding onto Rte. 30, which is still a difficult route to cross on foot.

It's just not a well-integrated whole. And even more disappointing is that there's not a walker-friendly village center right on Union Avenue at the campus.

Framingham State isn't a rural, pastoral setting that requires being separated from the rest of the town. Not every university can spawn a Harvard Square environment, but there are plenty of examples of better synergy between campus and surrounding streets than what we have in Framingham.

October 19, 2005

Tips for Pedestrian & Bicycle Advocacy (conference coverage cont.)

Representatives from MassBike and WalkBoston wrapped up today's Moving Together 2005 conference breakout sessions with some suggestions on how to best advocate for better walking and cycling environments.

For pedestrian issues:

Sponsor local guides walks, whether featuring community attractions (history, nature, etc.) or issues walks focusing on things that need to be done. "Get people excited about walking," advised Wendy Landman, executive director at WalkBoston. Note: Despite its name, the group lobbies on statewide issues and offers advice and expert comment on projects and programs outside the city of Boston. They're willing to help other communities figure out how to help put together walks that will appeal to local residents.

Produce local walking maps. Show people available community resources - even something as simple as working with major employers to show workers where they can walk to on their lunch breaks.

Get Central Transportation Planning Staff assistance for a community walkability audit (alas, I couldn't seem to find any Framingham officials willing to request such an audit this year in town. But there's always next year.)

Include walking as part of local festivals and other events (such as the historic walks as part of Discover Saxonville).

The goal here is to get more people enthusiastic about walking - and thus interested in improving the pedestrian environment.

Likewise for cyclists, MassBike's Dorie Clark suggested working with local bike shops, offering training materials to local police department on bicycle laws and sponsoring bicycling classes.

People often become activists because of "negative conditions," Clark noted; and when people call asking how they can get a trail fixed or roadway improved, "the answer is sometimes a little scary and offputting" -- issues of jurisdiction, funding and legal requirements can sap the enthsiasm of potential citizen advocates. MassBike needs to work to help their volunteers feel productive and that they're making a difference, she said.

It doesn't take too many calls and letters on most issues to make an impact with local officials and legislators, Clark said, urging people to get involved in big-picture state issues as well as local concerns. When she worked for a legislative office, five calls and letters could often be enough to bring an issue to the forefront.

As for the state of pedestrian and bicycle advocacy in the Commonwealth, the two pointed to some recent advances such as MBTA plans to buy bike racks for buses, federal money for safe routes to school programs and creation for a Mass. bicycle and pedestrian advisory board (the first time we've had one in more than a decade). "The government has really been making progress," Clark said.

MassBike currently has about 1,600 members -- an all-time high -- while WalkBoston has 600 members (I suspect the number would be higher if more people understood that the group was a state-wide pedestrian advocacy group and not merely serving Boston). A member of the audience today expressed frustration that the various advocacy groups did not have as strong a presence and force as they should, considering the large numbers of cyclists and walkers in Massachusetts. The two responded that organization officials regulary talk and cooperate on issues. And, a relatively new local group, the Livable Streets Alliance, is aiming to get various advocacy groups to work together.

Some additional Web resources:

America Walks

National Center for Bicycling and Walking

Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center

Walkability Case Study: Springfield Walks (conference coverage continued)

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has branched out from its initial mission to work on Springfield (Mass.) Walks, a program to "make it easier, safer, and more enjoyable to walk in the Springfield area."

The program, still in its early stages, aims to create an interpretive walking trail and a linear park throughout four neighborhoods in the Mason Square area of downtown Springfield.

The interpretive trail would be something along the lines of the Freedom Trail - one where you don't need a brochure to find your way, but can simply follow an existing trail. Planners envision using sculpture and other art from local artists to point out important sites, instead of simply conventional markers; and seeking input from the neighborhood as to features they'd like to highlight. There will also be health information, highlighting such things as distance walked on the trail and what benefits that brings.

Why was Springfield chosen? It had one of the state's highest rates of cardiovascular disease, three possible rail corridors (one existed already as a trail project needing work), an existing and active Springfield Health Coalition including about 80 organizations (around 20 active regularly, from local organizations to the American Heart Association), a lot of walking groups and church organizations interested in physical activity, and a low-income minority community that could greatly benefit from such an addition to the community, Betsy Goodrich from the Rails toTrails Conservancy told an afternoon session of the Moving Forward 2005 conference going on now.

The Link Between Sprawl and Health Issues (conference coverage cont.)

B.U. will soon be publishing a paper showing that on a sprawl index from 1 to 100, the risk of obesity goes up about a quarter of a percentage point for each 1 point increase in a region's rating, Boston University research assistant professor Russ Lopez said this morning. (To give you an idea of how the index works, New York City is rated 5 while Atlanta is a 90).

Local factors also make a difference. In a study of eastern Massachusetts "from Worcester to the ocean," he said, the built environment from zip code to zip code makes a difference - even controlling for other factors such as age and education.

If there's a supermarket in your zip code, for example, you're 20% less likely to be obese. If there are a lot of intersections in your neighborhood - a sign of street connectivity and continuity - you're less likely to be obese. And, not surprisingly, the more time people spend in their cars, the more likely they are to be obese.

One of his most interesting points came during the question and answer period, when he made this intriguing remark: Homes and neighborhoods built before 1975 tend to be substantially more walkable than those built afterwards. "That's when we went over the cliff," he said - he's not sure why - and tilted overwhelmingly toward auto-centric planning at the expense of walkable communities.

Impact of Community Design and Transportation on Health

"Driving," says Boston University School of Public Health research professor Russ Lopez, "is bad for your health."

I couldn't agree more!

Speaking right now at the Moving Together 2005 conference in Boston, Lopez added: "Technology is not going to solve the basic problem of driving." Sure, it could help pollution problems, but is "not going to solve the problem of people sitting doing nothing and getting stressed out."

Of course, pollution from auto emissions are a critical public health issue. It's a key contributor to smog, which accounts for 400,000 asthma attacks, 1 million other respiratory problems and 15,000 premature deaths annually. Emissions aggravate everything from respiratory and cardiovascular disease to cancer; there's also the problem of global warming.

But cleaner-burning vehicles won't solve the critical problem of declining activity since we're spending so many more hours in our cars. Incredibly, in the last generation, we've gone from taking 66.9% of our trips by car and 10.3% byfoot in 1960, to a whopping 87.9% of our trips by car in 2000 and only 2.9% by foot.

In fact, Americans use cars for between 82-93% of our trips. In many other developed countries with high standards of living, percentages are much lower: Germans use cars for 48% of their trips, British 45%.

In U.S., 25% of all trips are under 1 mile, yet 75% are made by car.

Is it any wonder that 25% of Americans are obsese and one-third are overweight?

[more to come]

October 18, 2005

Mass. Pedestrian/Bicycling Conference Tomorrow

I've taken a day off from work and am signed up for tomorrow's Moving Together 2005 conference in Boston, "people from across the Commonwealth working to improve bicycling and walking conditions locally, regionally, and statewide."

Workshop topics I hope to attend:

  • Building Healthier Communities: The Health Impacts of Transportation and the Built Environment

  • Springfield Walks: A Collaborative Community Effort to Promote Physical Activity and Health

  • Identifying and Mobilizing Local Bicycling and Pedestrian Advocates

I'm not sure if I'll be dragging my laptop into town, hoping to use the Marriott Courtyard Tremont Business Center during breaks, or waiting to write it up tomorrow evening, but I do hope to have plenty to report.

Reminder: Any of the following URLs will work for this blog


October 16, 2005

Roanoke Downtown Plan Has New Urbanist Imprint

New Urbanist consulting firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. recently sketched out ideas for Roanoke's downtown that include adding outside balconies to buildings, putting farmers market stalls in a structure running down the center of a main street "like a spine," and turning the anchor market building "inside out, so the existing enclosed food court restaurants would face the outside, complete with new glass doors so dining activity could be seen from the street,"the Roanoke, Va. Times reports. "The renderings and initial ideas for a spruced-up downtown were drawing rave reviews late in the week."

The ideas are all aimed at creating a more vibrant pedestrian streetscape, as opposed to a downtown center designed primarily for cars, and a special sense of place that will draw people there.

While some worried about having enough parking, planner Tom Lowe said an attractive enough downtown would make people willing to park in garages or on the fringes of the downtown business district.

As I've said before, a downtown business district can never compete with a mall for easy access and plentiful acres of adjacent parking. However, few malls can compete with a great downtown business district for sense of place and appealing pedestrian streetscape. Going to the Natick Mall is simply a different experience from going to Newbury Street or the North End in Boston. Spending an afternoon in Concord Center is different from an afternoon at the Burlington Mall.

Downtown business districts shouldn't try to mimic the mall experience; they need to exploit what makes them attractive, dramatic and appealing.

Do Zoning Codes Make Sprawl Inevitable?

"Many of Connecticut's developers and designers would love to create sociable, dense urban communities with open space set aside in perpetuity, a practice generally known as New Urbanism," writes Chad Floyd, a partner with Centerbrook Architects and Planners, in the Hartford Courant. "Unfortunately, there are many obstacles - the biggest, baddest and most entrenched of which are the state's antiquated zoning codes, which make sprawl all but inevitable."

Floyd notes that some communities purchased entire zoning codes from third-party companies such as MuniCode, which supplied simiar regulations to many other towns across America. "This is but one of many ways the character of our special places erodes," he argues. "Eventually every place begins to look like every other place. ... Sprawl in Connecticut is advanced almost every time somebody pulls a zoning permit."

Case in point:

In my town of Essex, as in most Connecticut towns, it would be impossible to use the town's zoning code to build anew the very hometown Essex citizens love. Few aspects of urban density that make Essex village special are allowed by the town's zoning code. In a new Essex, buildings would be too far apart, and they would be placed too far from the sidewalk. There would be too much space around each building. Houses would be too far back from the water. The streets would be too wide, and houses wouldn't be tall enough to have the elegant proportions of those built in the 18th, and especially the 19th centuries.

Would most Massachusetts suburban zoning codes allow Concord center and its surrounding neighborhood to be built as it is? I doubt it.

There is usually "knee-jerk, negative reactions" to proposals for more dense neighborhoods, Floyd says, which are dispelled "only after tremendously involved presentations have been made. ... We have a very long way to go to relearn the art of making sociable, humane neighborhoods."

October 15, 2005

Details Matter

Hundreds of planning professionals are in Biloxi, Mississippi this week, working on recommendations for rebuilding areas of the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. The goal: Not simply reconstruct, but improve.

New urbanism pioneer Andrés Duany, who is spearheading the sessions at the invitation of Mississippi's governor, emphasized the need to un-do some errors of the past decades. "People know that this took a wrong turn somewhere," Duany said, according to the New York Times. "People know this has become honky-tonk, and this is the chance to get it right. ...

"This place has lost its neighborhood structure over the last 50 years. This is a chance to rezone it ... so people can walk to the corner store, kids can walk to school."

The task is formidable, covering 11 communities severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina; and time is short, since some rebuilding efforts are already underway. "Among the other issues being considered here this week are how to integrate the behemoth casinos that line the coast with the neighborhoods they share; how to create small-scale, high-density streets so that poor people with limited access to cars can meet their daily needs; and how to build hurricane-resistant structures that are not prohibitively expensive," the Times notes.

But planners are focusing not only on grand designs, but small yet critical details such as parking, building setbacks and landscaping. "There are the kind of trees that support retail," Duany said. "You plant the wrong tree, people won't shop, because it blocks the signage."

Whether you're looking at rebuilding entire communities or just a single home or business, those details matter.

Drive-Through? Not Downtown

The Lincolnwood, Ill. Plan Commission has wisely recommended against drive-through windows in its downtown business district, even via special permit. Such facilities have a negative impact on creating a pedestrian-friendly streetscape, officials concluded - and not only because they encourage people to stay in their vehicles.

"The facilities require additional curb cuts for driveways that cross sidewalks to provide access to the site," Village Planner James Cox told the Lincolnwood Review. "This not only creates additional vehicle conflict points with pedestrians, but it also breaks holes in the continuous building facade of the downtown street, creating open gaps and a streetscape which is less appealing to pedestrians."

Ah, lucky Lincolnwood, to have planners who understand the importance of aesthetics in creating a walker-friendly streetscape. There's a lot more to it than simply assuring the presence of well-maintained sidewalks.

October 11, 2005

When Boosting Traffic Flow Kills Off Your Downtown: West Palm Beach

"In the 1980s, community leaders in West Palm Beach, Florida, did everything they could to promote a high level of service for motor vehicles," the Active Living Resource Center notes in a short case study. "The result? Cars sped through the downtown area without stopping. People with a choice moved out and businesses closed. Vacant buildings and lots became a hotbed for drug dealing and prostitution."

City planners had taken actions like widening lanes for cars by narrowing sidewalks and eliminating on-street parking, as well as synchronizing traffic lights to speed traffic through downtown. Great for creating traffic sewers; not so great for creating a sense of place where people want to come, stroll, shop and linger.

It's a classic mistake of downtown revitalization: After looking at what helps suburban malls succeed, local officials think that designing easy-as-possible access, optimal traffic flow and maximum parking will help a neighborhood business district. But downtown business centers can NEVER compete with suburban malls in those areas. Instead, such actions help destroy downtowns' chief asset, a pedestrian-friendly sense of place. After years of decay, West Palm Beach planners finally understood that.

Over time, a new vision for West Palm Beach emerged, one that recognized that thriving cities are built for people. The city narrowed its streets to slow the traffic, widened sidewalks, and added amenities for pedestrians. Businesses returned, and private investment increased. Residents began to choose to come back into the downtown area.

West Palm Beach now has a thriving downtown and is considered a desirable place to live, work, and shop.

"The City of West Palm Beach has adopted an innovative approach to transportation planning, with an emphasis on traffic calming. This has helped stabilize and revive the downtown and several older, challenged neighborhoods. The intent is to reestablish the quality of life and improve resident and visitor perception of the built environment," says a presentation posted on the U.S. Conference of Mayors Web site, one of several traffic safety best practices. I love this quote from Mayor Graham:

Urban streets can be safe and friendly if and only if the streets are designed to physically and emotionally foster apt behavior by all their users. Conventional engineering theories be damned, the true test of success for urban streets is if a child pedestrian can independently get there from here safely and pleasantly. Unfortunately, most urban streets fail by design.

This is an important cautionary tale as Framingham officials begin investigating the possibility of depressing Rte. 126 under the railroad tracks downtown.

October 9, 2005

Curbing Growth Through A Water-Hookup Moratorium

For more than three decades, Bolinas, California "has refused to authorize a single new water meter, needed for hooking up to the town water supply," the New York Times reports in quite a fascinating article on an unusual way of controlling growth.

The meters have become so valuable in the town, 20 miles from San Francisco, that one was recently auctioned off for $310,000. That's right, $310,000 just for "the right to hook up to the municipal water supply." Money went to the nonprofit Bolinas Community Land Trust.

The moratorium is a somewhat extreme solution to the basic conundrum faced by communities around San Francisco, New York, Boston and other cities where home prices have cracked the stratosphere: Is there any way to create affordable housing AND maintain a non-urban quality of life when demand for housing so severely exceeds supply?

October 5, 2005

Concrete Processing Plant Sought For Framingham

Boston Sand & Gravel is attempting to open a Concrete Batch Plant next to a conservation land on Old Connecticut Path in Framingham, according to an e-mail I receieved today.

The site, at 597 Old Connecticut Path, "is in close proximity to the Oaks Neighborhood and its many families and residents, Reardon Park, the Cochichuate Rail Trail, an Cochichuate Brooker Reservation conservation land and water. The property also abuts a residential zoned area." The special permit calls for "a 75-foot tall silo to house their hazardous concrete dust, concrete block borders, and heavy machinery," the e-mail says.

If true, very bad idea, and I hope the special permit is denied. As it is, there's a delicate mix of office space and residential in that area, and there's going to be a heavy increase in traffic nearby as the Village of Danforth Farms and its many hundreds of new residences come online. Adding heavy industrial activity to the area is unwise. Appealing mixed-use zoning does NOT mean sticking a concrete factory next to a residential neighborhood and conservation land.

October 2, 2005

Missing In Most Of Suburbia: An Outdoor “Third Place”

When it's a gorgeous autumn day in suburbia and you want to spend the day outside, what do you do? Where do you go? If you don't want to hang out in your own backyard or head out for a nature day hiking or a sports activity, what are your options? Where can you head to, to enjoy the day and just BE, in a public place with some family or friends?

I'm talking about what's known in planning circles as a "third place" - besides your home and your job, a third place where you can regularly and reliably go to spend time. To many, the ideal is something like those places portrayed on TV shows such as Cheers or Friends (the Central Perk coffee shop). But communities also need outdoor "third places" to have that sense of place, that soul, that make some cities and towns so appealing and others feel somewhat sterile.

For me in Framingham, it's often the beautiful Garden in the Woods, a wonderful place to take a hike or a stroll in nature. But the Garden's mission isn't first off to be that kind of third place, and it really isn't. Although they run occasional programs, the New England Wildflower Society is primarily a natural and educational area. It's not like Geneva's botanical garden, which also has an outdoor cafe where you can sit outside and have lunch, or a snack, or a glass of wine/beer (although there are plenty of benches along the trails if you want to stay and relax).

Great cities have a number of outdoor third places. In Boston, there's the Commons and Public Garden, as well as parks along the waterfront, not to mention Newbury Street - a place to stroll, shop and sit out at a cafe to chat and people watch. In Montreal, the small neighborhood park in St. Louis Square features a place selling ice cream, drinks and other snacks as well as tables to sit, eat and linger.

In the U.S., though, it's relatively rare for suburbs to have such spaces, and that's a pity. In Europe, even small towns usually have a town square where there's a cafe and/or other places people not only can hang out outside for an afternoon - they do. Creating such outdoor third places in our suburbs would truly add to quality of life - if properly designed. What you don't want is some useless "open space" set off from the rest of the community, where you're more likely to get underage kids drinking beer that a cross-section of residents out enjoying the weather and each other's company.

Striking That Balance Between Big Government and No Government

Since 1990, Minneapolis neighborhood groups "have received some $200 million to improve houses, schools, parks, and commercial boulevards," writes Archon Fung, who teachers at Harvard's Kennedy Schol of Government, in today's Boston Globe magazine. In Boston, meanwhile, there's still what he sees as a "relative lack of collaboration with neighborhood associations."

Because neighborhood associations [in Minneapolis] were empowered to make investment decisions, many residents became involved. The funds also allowed these groups to hire staff to keep the organizations going. As a result, even the very poorest have functioning community organizations. These groups use their money and mobilize thousands of volunteer hours on countless community projects that enhance the quality of the city's neighborhoods.

Fung's key point is that the "social network" including families, houses of worship and community organizations are criticial in disasters like Hurricane Katrina - government alone can't address all problems. He's annoyed that "many people still want government to be the sole savior." (He doesn't express the same annoyance that our federal appointed hacks don't seem to want their agencies to take any responsibility for adequately providing any services, beyond taking care of their cronies, but that's a rant for another time).

However, in general, it's a good and often overlooked point that the best service delivery - whether for local education, disaster relief or community planning - is a balanced partnership between government and non-government local entities. Simply funneling tax dollars to local community groups, which might or might not have planning and financial expertise, is not necessarily the best approach. But neither is the government coming in and deciding what's best for a neighborhood, without local input (as the demolition of Scollay Square for the hideously designed Boston City Hall Plaza makes clear).

That's one reason I was happy to hear that Framingham is considering creating a citizen's advisory group as part of a plan to investigate feasibility of depressing Rte. 126 under the railroad tracks downtown. Done well, such a project could theoretically ease downtown traffic snarls while helping revitalize the surrounding business district. Done with only automotive traffic in mind, a resulting traffic sewer could kill off any hope of creating a vibrant business community there. (It's nice that people think there could be for Framingham's version of a Little Dig massive capital project, while rebuilding our substandard branch library or actually putting pavement as opposed to crushed gravel on our roads is apparently too expensive, but that also is a rant for another post.)

October 1, 2005

New Urbanists To Share Vision For Southern Mississippi

"Andres Duany is heading a team of more than 100 new urban experts - architects, planners, transportation specialists - from across the nation who hope to show South Mississippi one possible vision for the future in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," SunHerald.com of Biloxi reports. Duany, one of the founders of the New Urbanism movement - and co-author of one of my all-time favorite books on planning, Suburban Nation - says the Congress of New Urbanism will be sending teams of planners to many damaged communities, where residents can decide if they want to incorporate tents of smart growth when they rebuild.

Obviously, no one wants to have their community destroyed in order to get better planning and design. However, in the wake of the vast damage from Hurricane Katrina, area residents will have a chance to decide whether they want a new vision for their towns, or to try to rebuild as it was.

My guess is that many communities won't want the full New Urbanist concept of higher density, mixed-use development. However, if they take some of the ideas to ensure walkability and sense of place instead of sprawl, they'll benefit from the planners' work.