January 17, 2009

Another Herbert Hoover legacy: Soul-less zoning

Many of us have Herbert Hoover on our minds these days, wondering whether our economy is once again on the precipice, as it was during the Hoover administration. However, I didn't know until today that Hoover, along with his economic infamy, was also a key player in creating zoning regulations that outlawed great community development patterns.
"As Commerce Secretary, he championed the Standard Zoning Enabling Act to address 'the moral and social issues that can only be solved by a new conception of city building,' " writes Rick Cole at Citiwire.net.

"In 1926, the Supreme Court upheld zoning to protect health and safety by 'excluding from residential areas the confusion and danger of fire, contagion and disorder which in greater or less degree attach to the location of store, shops and factories.' The quite sensible idea that people shouldn’t live next to steel mills was used to justify a system of 'zones' to isolate uses that had lived in harmony for centuries."

The end result? Neighborhoods where you can't walk anywhere. Notes Cole:
"Take any great place that people love to visit. You know, those lively tourist haunts from Nantucket to San Francisco. Or those red hot neighborhoods from Seattle’s Capital Hill to Miami Beach’s Art Deco district. Or those healthy downtowns from Portland, Oregon to Chicago, Illinois to Charleston, South Carolina. What do they all have in common?

The mix of uses that gives them life are presently outlawed by zoning in virtually every city and town in all 50 states."

I'm not sure if I'd go quite that far -- even Framingham recently allowed housing and retail again downtown -- but it is true that a large number of communities would not allow building patterns that were used to create great neighborhoods like Back Bay in Boston.

January 16, 2009

Bike, urban planning events of note at the Boston Public Library

The first annual "Boston Bikes Update report" by the city's director of bicycle programs, Nicole Freedman, takes place Thursday, Jan. 29, 7 pm at the Boston Public Library main branch (Copley Square) Rabb Lecture Hall. Focus is on what steps are needed to create a "world-class bicycling city.

Also at the Boston Public Library: Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia and leader in urban thinking, comes to Boston for a series of events titled “The Future of Transportation: People, Professionals, Politics”.

There will be several opportunities to hear him, including a lecture onThursday, February 5, 6:30PM Rabb Lecture Hall. (Thanks to Craig Della Penna for the tip).

January 2, 2009

Better community design makes happier citizens

Public spaces that bring people together in congenial activity produce happier citizens than those – like traffic jams – that spur animosity and aggression, says [University of British Columbia professor emeritus John Helliwell, who studies economics and human well-being.] . . .

That's just one of many fascinating nuggets of info in an article about the transformation of Bogota, Columbia: From Living Hell to Living Well. The city's former mayor realized that improving people's economic standard of living was a difficult, long-term prospect. So, he looked at ways to improve other factors in their quality of life.

Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa
"increased gas taxes and prohibited car owners from driving during rush hour more than three times per week. He also handed over prime space on the city's main arteries to the Transmilenio, a bus rapid-transit system based on that of Curitiba, Brazil.

"Bogotans almost impeached their new mayor. Business owners were outraged. Yet by the end of his three-year term, Mr. Peñalosa was immensely popular and his reforms were being lauded for making Bogota remarkably fairer, more tolerable and more efficient."

The mayor's overall results? Rush hour traffic moves three times faster than before. The murder rate plunged 40%. Traffic deaths are down. There are 1,200 new parks.
" 'A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can't be both,' the new mayor announced. He shelved the highway plans and poured the billions saved into parks, schools, libraries, bike routes and the world's longest "pedestrian freeway." . . .

" 'Before Peñalosa, mayors were terrified to take on the issue of auto-dominated public space, for fear that motorists would rebel politically,' says Walter Hook of New York's Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). 'But he not only challenged auto dependency, he succeeded politically. He's given other politicians the courage to follow. And other mayors have realized that they can't build their way out of congestion.' '

Despite economic challenges, Bogota's mayor helped "to transform a city once infamous for narco-terrorism, pollution and chaos into a globally lauded model of livability and urban renewal."

We may not be living in the Third World, but there are good lessons here about what local officials can do in an era of constrained finances. Here in Framingham, sadly, we're heading the wrong direction, with an announcement that one of the first things to be cut back is sidewalk plowing.