Archive for the ‘Smart Growth’ Category

Urban sprawl in an arid landscape near Near the Central Valley, California / EcoLibrary

Urban sprawl in an arid landscape near near the Central Valley, California / EcoLibrary

Not only does sprawl increase the distance between people’s homes and jobs, a new study by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate found that it also costs the American economy more than $1 trillion annually. These costs include increased spending on infrastructure, public services, and vehicles. The most sprawled-out American cities spend an average of $750 on infrastructure per person each year, while the least sprawled cities spend closer to $500. Compared with smart growth communities, which are denser, walkable developments, sprawl typically increases per capita land consumption 60-80 percent and motor vehicle travel by 20-60 percent.

The study found that sprawl also affects about two-thirds of city expenses, “by requiring longer road and utility lines, and increasing travel distances needed for policing, emergency response, and garbage collection.” Some of the largest costs are associated with city government vehicle travel.

According to the study, much of Americans’ preference for sprawl is rooted in underlying social and economic factors — “such as the perceived safety, affordability, public school quality, prestige and financial security of suburban neighborhoods” — rather than the physical features of sprawl. The 2013 U.S. National Association of Realtors’ community preference survey found that most Americans prefer single-family homes and place a high value on privacy. However, interestingly, they also desire the convenience of walkable, mixed-use communities with shorter commutes and convenient access to public services found in cities. As the U.S. continues to grow and urbanize, cities will have to expand to accommodate new people but also reconcile these conflicting desires.

Looking to the future, the study defines three categories of cities that will each need to address sprawl differently:

Unconstrained Cities

Unconstrained cities, such as most American and African cities are surrounded by “an abundant supply of lower-value lands” and have room for significant expansion. According to the study, these cities should maintain strong downtowns surrounded by higher-density neighborhoods with diverse, affordable housing options. Excessive vehicle use should be discouraged by creating streets that include adequate sidewalks and crosswalks, bike infrastructure, and bus systems.

A 2010 study found that Baton Rouge, Louisiana is the most sprawling urbanized area in the U.S.

A 2010 study found that Baton Rouge, Louisiana is the most sprawling urbanized area in the U.S. / NOLA.com

Semi-constrained Cities

Semi-constrained cities, mostly found in Europe and Asia, have a limited ability to expand. These cities should expand through a combination of infill development and modest expansion along major transportation corridors. New housing should consist of townhouses and mid-rise multi-family housing, which can reduce the costs of sprawl. Similar transportation policies to those suggested for unconstrained cities, which can help further discourage car use, should also be implemented in semi-constrained cities.

Constrained Cities

Constrained cities are those that cannot significantly expand, such as city-states like Singapore and Hong Kong. In these cities, most new housing will be multi-family, and fewer households will own cars. These cities require strong policies that improve livability in dense neighborhoods, including: “well-designed streets that accommodate diverse activities; adequate public green space; building designs that maximize fresh air, privacy, and private outdoor space; transport policies that favor space-efficient modes; and restrictions on motor vehicle ownership and use, particularly internal combustion vehicles.” Seoul has already demonstrated that with good planning, high density neighborhoods can offer a good quality of life.

A dense urban neighborhood in Singapore / NUSdeltares

A dense neighborhood in Singapore / NUSdeltares

Developing cities in Asia and Africa are poised to establish more sustainable transport and land use development patterns, avoiding the mistakes made by the U.S. Although sprawl-related costs may appear to lower in developing countries — due to lower incomes and land prices — their share of household and government budgets, and their relative impacts on economic development, are greater. Emerging cities must implement policy reforms that result in better walking and cycling conditions. Improving public transit services in developing country cities is particularly important.

The study maintains that in order “to increase economic productivity, improve public health, and protect the environment,” dense, urban neighborhoods need to be considered just as safe, convenient, and attractive as their suburban counterparts. In all types of cities, ensuring that neighborhoods are livable and cohesive is crucial. Designing attractive, multi-functional streets and public parks and providing high-quality public services are all major components of reaching this goal.

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Broadway and Flushing Ave under the JMZ subway lines / Krisanne Johnson for the Design Trust for Public Space

Broadway and Flushing Ave under the JMZ subway lines / Krisanne Johnson for the Design Trust for Public Space

During the early and mid-twentieth century, New York City constructed a massive transportation system, layering elevated highways, subway tracks, and rail lines to create the complicated web we are familiar with today. While this network has undoubtedly contributed to NYC’s physical and economic growth, it has also provided an untapped public asset: 700 miles of unused space (nearly four times the size of Central Park) beneath the city’s elevated transportation infrastructure.

In a comprehensive new report resulting from a two-year-long study, the Design Trust for Public Space and NYC Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) highlight sustainable ways to rethink these residual spaces. Addressing complex problems such as noise, safety, and lighting, the new study builds off of the success of the Design Trust’s 2002 study, Reclaiming the High Line (“the study that catalyzed efforts to save and reprogram the decommissioned rail line”). The result is a comprehensive document intended to inspire public and private investment in some of the city’s most neglected public spaces.

In an introductory essay that discusses New York’s elevated railways (or “els”), Thomas Campanella, an associate professor in Cornell University’s city and regional planning department, frames the importance of the study, stating: “The demesne of the elevated— I’ll call it “el-space” here— is neither tranquil nor serene, but it’s not without poetry. The root of its allure is the close juxtaposition of human life and heavy industrial infrastructure.”

Going Home Near Bloomingdales, 1946 / Lionel S. Reiss via the Collection of The New York Historical Society

Going Home Near Bloomingdales, 1946 / Lionel S. Reiss via the Collection of The New York Historical Society

In many ways, the elevated railroad is a relic of an age before zoning when people, especially the poor, were forced to live in hazardously close proximity to the factories where they worked. And while the els remains popular today — particularly in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx — Campanella claims that the fact that el-space “is almost universally described as dark and oppressive is an inaccurate cliché.” The quality of light beneath elevated tracks can be “exquisite” and the sense of enclosure created by the columns “yields an effect reminiscent of an avenue of mature trees … a kind of sturdy steampunk Elm Street.” Such sentiments are the first inklings of design inspiration the study provides.

Third Avenue Elevated Railway at 18th Street in 1942 / Marjorie Collins via The Design Trust for Public Space

Third Avenue Elevated Railway at 18th Street in 1942 / Marjorie Collins via The Design Trust for Public Space

Focusing in on elevated train lines rather than elevated highways, which are more relevant in other U.S. cities, the Design Trust for Public Space first assessed the inventory of existing el-space to identity opportunities and constraints. Surprisingly, these opportunities and constraints have largely remained unchanged since the 1960s when Jane Jacobs called attention to them in her seminal book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities. These physical structures divide low-incomes neighborhoods and produce noise, darkness, and dirt; on the other hand, the els have also brought people, commerce and cultural vibrancy to these areas. The call is the same now as it was then: Reconnect communities divided and affected by elevated infrastructure and turn these el-spaces into a positive resource.


Map of Elevated Transit Infrastructure in New York City / The Design Trust for Public Space

So, in 2014, 146 year after the construction of the first el, is NYC any closer to reclaiming these spaces? The study explores the potential uses of el-spaces from site strategies to their associated policies, relying heavily on research and case studies from across the country to inspire designers, planners, and policymakers to action. The good news is that many of these spaces are already being reclaimed for a variety of public uses. Potential uses highlighted in the study include:

Environmental Sustainability

In Flushing, Queens, the Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) System, invented by DLANDstudio, uses a low-cost, flexible, plant-based system to collect and filter stormwater from drainpipes on the elevated highways that run through Flushing Meadows Corona Park. This system absorbs and filters pollutants such as oil, heavy metals, and grease out of the water that drain off of the elevated highways, leading to cleaner runoff entering the city’s waterways. The system’s ability to retain water during heavy rain events also helps reduce flooding.

Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) Systems to collect and filter storm water from highway scuppers / dlandstudio

Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) Systems to collect and filter storm water from highway scuppers / dlandstudio


In 2002, the redesign of Queens Plaza was one of the first comprehensive el-space improvement projects in New York City. A group of designers and engineers was selected to transform Queens Plaza into Dutch Kills Green, a new park with well-lit green pathways in the heart of the Long Island City commercial district. In an article for Urban Omnibus, the project’s landscape architect, Margie Ruddick, ASLA, says that “rather than using a harsh, urban language, we tried to find a language through which lushness and beauty could coexist with the hard edge of infrastructure. The linear landscape of medians and streetscape meet in Dutch Kills Green, and this convergence, for me, challenges the notion of an urban park because its surroundings are so inhospitable. This juxtaposition would have seemed inappropriate several years ago. But these days it’s becoming more prevalent.”

Dutch Kills Green / The Design Trust for Public Space

Dutch Kills Green / The Design Trust for Public Space


In 2011, the New York City Economic Development Council (NYCEDC) and the City Council combined forces to modernize underutilized market space, add new retail space, and construct a kitchen incubator underneath the Park Avenue elevated train station between 115th and 116th Streets in El Barrio. Despite significant public investment in the area, “the new La Marqueta has struggled to attract visitors and retain retailers.” Yet just a block north of La Marqueta at 116th Street, salsa dancers have congregated under the tracks every Saturday evening in the summer months for years. In an attempt to revive the informal spirit the market once had, City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito launched La Marqueta Reto (La Marqueta Reblooms) in 2014, an initiative to bring street vendors, a farmers market, and other community events back into the space.

Children sit in front of the entrance of La Marqueta, in East Harlem / Epoch Times

Children sit in front of the entrance of La Marqueta, in East Harlem / Epoch Times


Before New Lots Triangle Plaza in East New York, Brooklyn, was completed in 2011, subway riders exited from the train onto a narrow sidewalk with minimal protection from oncoming traffic. NYC Department of Transportation worked with the New Lots Avenue Triangle Merchants Association to join an 800-foot traffic triangle with nearby sidewalks and the exit of the three elevated train lines to create a 3,800-square-foot public space that is protected from traffic by decorative planters. According to the NYC DOT, the plaza has made the area safer for pedestrians and created “an immediate impact on business by encouraging pedestrians to linger longer in the area and visit businesses, boosting the local economy.”


New Lots Triangle Park / Streetsblog NYC

In a dense city like New York, residual spaces under elevated transportation infrastructure can no longer be an afterthought — and these spaces in NYC are only a small piece of the more than 7,000 miles available for reclamation in cities across the country. The Design Trust for Public Space report further emphasizes the need for adaptive reuse of these spaces, looking at the infrastructure that gets us from point a to point b and creating a much-needed public space as point c.

Purchase the report.

Several years ago ASLA created an animation to introduce people to the concept of reusing transportation infrastructure as public spaces, including underpass parks. The video, which is a part of Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes, a project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), can be viewed below:

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Core Values: Why American Companies are Moving Downtown / Smart Growth America

In the past several years, small businesses and Fortune 500 companies alike have said goodbye to suburban office parks and moved their headquarters back to city centers. Attempting to cater to a new generation of Millennial urbanites, this trend represents a “marked shift in the preferences of American companies,” who are now choosing to invest in more walkable locations, according to Core Values: Why American Companies are Moving Downtown, a new study by Smart Growth America.

The study, which was accompanied by kickoff panel discussion at the Newseum in Washington D.C., examines the motives and preferences of companies that have moved to more walkable downtown locations between 2010-2015. The launch event supplemented the study, hosting business and planning experts from cities across the country who discussed both sides of the issue: Why are companies choosing downtown locations? And how can cities create the kinds of places these companies seek?

In the late 1960s and 70s, companies across the country began leaving downtown cores for suburban office campuses. By 1996, on average, less than 16 percent of jobs were located within three miles of a traditional city center. In recent years, however, this trend is showing signs of reversing. According to the study, “between 2007 and 2011, job growth in city centers grew 0.5 percent annually on average, while the city peripheries lost jobs, shrinking 0.1 percent annually.” By 2013, 23 percent of jobs were located within 3 miles of a city’s downtown. While the majority of American jobs are still located outside of central business districts, businesses are slowly moving back to cities.

Why? Many companies are finding that downtown locations can help them better recruit employees, particularly Millennials, which are defined as people between the ages of 18 and 34 in 2015. According to Vishaan Chakrabarti’s, A Country of Cities, 62 percent of Millennials prefer to live and work in the type of mixed-use neighborhoods found in urban centers where they are in close proximity to a mix of shopping, restaurants, and offices.

In the report, Adam Klein, the chief strategist of American Underground in Durham, North Carolina, said “we wanted to be in an amenity-rich environment where our employees could walk to get a cup of coffee and participate in arts, music, and the excitement of downtown. We’re able to show potential employees a cool office in the middle of downtown and that has definitely helped us recruit people.”


American Underground moved to the campus of the former American Tobacco factory in Durham, NC. / Scott Faber Photography via Smart Growth America

As Mike Deemer, the executive vice president of business development for the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, echoed at the launch event, “It’s not enough to create a great space and take a ‘if you build it, they will come approach.’ We need to activate spaces and draw people in.”

While great office spaces tend to be plentiful in downtown locations, the surrounding neighborhood mix is equally, if not more, important. The study found that providing live/work/play neighborhoods with places to see and things to do is important for attracting Millennials, “who are now the largest generational segment of the American workforce, with 53.5 million people making up 34 percent of all workers — more than either Gen Xers or Baby Boomers.”

According to the study, companies chose vibrant, walkable neighborhoods where people want to both live and work. “Our younger employees don’t want to go to a suburban office park. It’s boring as all get out out there. Here, they walk outside and see cool stuff and it’s fun. I wanted to be where they wanted to be,” said Reg Shiverick, President of Dakota Software in Cleveland, Ohio.

Millennials also behave differently when it comes to transportation and are generally more likely to commute by biking, walking, or public transportation. Thus, walkability and access to public transportation are also cornerstones of this shift to downtown locations. Matin Zargari, principal at Gensler’s Oakland, California office, explained that “being so close to the 19th Street BART and many other city bus lines gives our staff the opportunity to get to work easier from all over the East Bay. Our employees like our new location and, in addition, many of our clients and projects are within walking distance of our office. That’s been a game changer for us.”

According to Jim Reilly, vice president of corporate communications at Panasonic, when Panasonic moved its headquarters from a suburban corporate campus to urban Newark, New Jersey, “the percentage of employees commuting via public shifted transportation from 4 percent of employees to 57 percent of employees.” While the environmental impacts of such a shift generally fall outside the scope of the study, a decreasing reliance on automobiles is sure to mitigate some of the negative environmental effects of suburbanization.

A key takeaway from the study is that any city can learn from companies that have moved back to central business districts. While many cities already have the kinds of neighborhoods these companies are looking for, many do not. But taking the steps to draw companies into cities provides a mutually-reinforcing smart growth strategy: Companies will invest in walkable, safe downtown environments, allowing cities the opportunity to create great, quality neighborhoods that benefit businesses and residents alike.

Read the full report.

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Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Courtesy of Billy Michels via Metropolis

Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Billy Michels via Metropolis

From a pool of applicants from 40 communities in 26 states, Miller’s Court in Baltimore was awarded the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence (RBA) gold medal and a $50,000 prize. Four other projects were awarded silver medals and $10,000 each.

Since 1987, the biennial award has recognized “urban places distinguished by quality design and contributions to the social, economic, and communal vitality of our nation’s cities.” The 2013 gold medal was awarded to Inspiration Kitchens in Garfield Park, Chicago.

This year’s winning project, Miller’s Court, is a “renovation of a vacant historic tin can manufacturing building, into an affordable and supportive living and working environment for school teachers and education-focused non-profits.” Located in an economically and culturally diverse neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, the project, which was conceived and developed by Seawall Development Company with Mark, Thomas Architects, was completed in 2009.

The LEED Gold-certified complex includes “40 rental apartments and 30,000 square feet of office space and shared meeting rooms with contemporary, loft-like interiors.” Other features include a teacher resource center and a cooperatively owned independent café, which has become a popular meeting place for teachers, tenants and even President Obama, who visited in January.

miller's court

Miller’s Court / Seawall Development Corporation

One of the project’s crowning achievements is generating additional investment in the surrounding community. At the urging of several building residents, Seawall purchased and renovated 30 vacant neighboring houses to create Miller’s Square. Baltimore public school teachers and police officers are eligible for $25,000 grants toward homes there. Read more about the project in Metropolis.

Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square / Courtesy of the Bruner Foundation

Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square /
Bruner Foundation

Four other projects were recognized with silver medals and $10,000 each:

Located in the center of downtown Greenville, South Carolina, Falls Park on the Reedy is an urban oasis thanks to the transformation of a forgotten 40-foot tall waterfall and overgrown river valley into a 26-acre park. Development of the park, which opened in 2006, included replacing a four-lane vehicular bridge built directly over the falls with a pedestrian suspension bridge designed by Rosales+Partners. The bridge appears to float above the river, offering a dramatic overlook of the falls. Learn more about this project at Metropolis.

IMAGE 1 Falls Park Signature Image

Falls Park on the Reedy in Greenville, South Carolina / Rosales+Partners via Metropolis

Grand Rapids Downtown Market is a new public space in one of West Michigan’s most challenged neighborhoods. The market “promotes local food producers, entrepreneurship, and education about nutrition and healthy lifestyles” by linking urban communities with the 13,000 farms in 11 surrounding counties and attracting a diversity of customers to the southern edge of downtown Grand Rapids. The state-of-the-art facility, designed by Hugh A. Boyd Architects, is the first LEED Gold–certified public market in the country. Learn more about the market at Metropolis.


Grand Rapids Downtown Market / Grand Rapids Downtown Market

Quixote Village, in Olympia, Washington, is a two-acre community of tiny houses that provides “permanent, supportive housing for homeless adults, including people suffering from mental illness and physical disabilities and recovering from addiction.” Since its completion in December 2013, Quixote Village has attracted the attention of many interested in tiny houses including nonprofits and private developers, as well as The New York Times. Learn more about the project at Metropolis.

nytimes quixote village

Tiny house in Quixote Village / Courtesy of Jeremy Bittermann for The New York Times

Located three miles south of downtown Cleveland, Uptown District is the “redevelopment of a corridor that links surrounding neighborhoods with art, educational, and healthcare institutions, producing outdoor gathering spaces, retail shops and restaurants, student and market-rate housing, and public transit connections in the process.” The development has transformed two previously underused city blocks between two of the city’s most iconic cultural institutions into a “community gateway.” Learn more about the project at Metropolis.


Uptown District in Cleveland, OH / Stanley Saitowitz, Natoma Architects Inc. via Metropolis

The 2015 RBA selection committee included: Mayor Mark Stodola, Little Rock, Arkansas; Rebecca L. Flora, Sustainable Practices Leader, Ecology & Environment, Inc.; Larry Kearns, Principal, Wheeler Kearns Architects; India Pierce Lee, Program Director, Cleveland Foundation; Mia Lehrer, FASLA, President, Mia Lehrer + Associates; James Stockard, Lecturer in Housing, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Learn more: A blog series on Metropolis’ web site is chronicling the 2015 RBA process and case studies of the winning projects.

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Heavenly Water Service Center / DuoCai Photography

Amid Drought, The West Is No Place For a Lawn, As Nevada Has LearnedThe Los Angeles Times, 5/1/15
“When Gov. Jerry Brown ordered that California rip up 50 million square feet of lawns to conserve water amid the West’s deadening drought, the Golden State gasped. Meanwhile, the Silver State yawned. Desert denizens have already been there and done that — since 1999, in fact.”

Sprawling Wetland Structures by HHD_FUN Host Chinese Horticultural Show Dezeen Magazine, 5/5/15
“Beijing-based architecture studio HHD_FUN undertook two landscape architecture projects on the vast 23,000-square-metre site in Qingdao, a region in the eastern Chinese Shandong Province. The site was part of the International Horticultural Exposition, which was held between April and October last year.”

An Architectural Tour of … Parklets?The San Francisco Chronicle, 5/6/15
“Say what you like about Parklets — and there are detractors as well as devotees — they are now an established part of the scenery not only in San Francisco, but beyond.”

New Plan Would Revamp Heart of Downtown – The Baltimore Sun, 5/12/15
”New designs for McKeldin Plaza would fuse the brick space to the Inner Harbor promenade, transforming one of the busiest and most prominent intersections in the city into a 2.8-acre park, with grassy slopes and a curtain-like translucent fountain.”

An Incredible Time-Capsule View of One Downtown’s DevelopmentThe Atlantic, 5/13/15
“Exactly 50 years ago, Fresno was celebrating the inspiring opening of Fulton Mall. Can tearing up a noted artistic zone be a path to civic success? City leaders say yes, while some of their citizens say no.”

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Portland Urban Growth Boundary / Portland Metro via regional governments.org

Urban growth boundaries are held up as one of the most effective tools for limiting sprawl. But do they actually constrain unplanned development? Three urban growth boundaries — in the metropolitan region of Portland, Oregon; King County, Washington; and the metropolitan area of Denver, Colorado — were examined in a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Seattle. A few interesting points came out of the discussion: growth boundaries are flexible and constantly being renegotiated. When they succeed, it’s because there is widespread political support for limiting growth and directing it to urban centers. Redevelopment and infill development in the cores relieve pressure on the outer boundaries, and offering incentives to those outside the boundary to limit development can work.

Portland’s Bipartisan Boundary Holds

Ted Reid, a planner with Portland city government, explained how Oregon became the first state to adopt urban growth boundaries in 1973. “It was a rare moment of bipartisanship.” Governor Tom McCall, environmental groups, and farmers together persuaded legislators to pass Senate Bill 100, with the goal of protecting Oregon’s natural splendor from sprawl. Every community then had to develop its own long-range plan for managing growth, with the Portland area creating its urban growth boundary in 1979. Since then, the population of the Portland metro area has grown 60 percent, while the urban growth boundary has expanded just 14 percent.

The organizational structure to administer the growth boundary was deliberately set up to distribute powers among multiple players. There’s a metro planning organization, which is a land-use planning authority; an elected Metro Council that oversees the growth boundary for the greater region; and three county governments, with 25 city governments within these units. Inside metro Portland’s boundary, there are 406 square miles, with 1.5 million people and 775,000 jobs. Outside the boundary, “there are 36 miles of urban reserve, which is suitable for further urbanization. If the area inside the boundary can’t reasonably accommodate development, the growth boundary can expand,” explained Reid. And it has expanded: 32,000 acres have been added, just in the 2000s. But then a 415-square-mile rural reserve around the city acts as a strict greenbelt to limit sprawl.

Portland’s 2040 growth concept designated urban centers, “where growth is supposed to happen.” And it has largely worked: “94 percent of growth has occurred in the original 1979-established zone. There has been tremendous activity in central Portland, with many changes in close-in locations.” For example, along North Mississippi Avenue, there was a complete overhaul in about 7 years, with transformational infill development. But, Reid also argued that some things have worked less well. Some of the tacked-on land that has expanded the boundary is still vacant. Land becomes open to development, but plans fall through. “Land readiness — not land supply — is our region’s biggest growth management challenge.”


North Mississippi Avenue Street Fair / Travel Portland

Every 6 years, the Metro Council for the Portland area does a “range forecast, looking out 20 years.” Reid admitted that “some expectations for the future will be wrong. Things can go sideways.” But as of now, Portland’s city government expects to add 400,000 people, 200,000 homes, and 300,000 jobs in the next 20 years. “We anticipate 76 of growth will be in likely redevelopment areas.” For now, Portland is not expanding its boundary.

King County’s Smart Use of Transfer Development Rights

King County’s urban growth boundary is not a straight line, it zigs and zags, explained Karen Wolff, a senior planner with the King County government, which includes Seattle and 38 other cities. The county is the 13th largest in the U.S., with 2 million people in 2,100 square miles. It has a 460 square mile growth area. In 1964, the area created its first comprehensive plan, and in 1990, there was a bipartisan agreement that led to the growth management act, which down-zoned two-thirds of the county from development areas to rural land, agriculture, and forests. In 2008, the county adopted Vision 2040, which “redefined the urban growth boundary and rewrote county planning policies. The county is now responsible for the urban growth boundary.”

seattle growth

King County Land Use / King County

With the growth management act, there are now just three land uses — urban, rural, and resource. “No more suburban half-acre or 1-acre lots.” However, much of the pre-development suburbs were grandfathered in, and they continue in their current suburban form. From 1994 to 2004, there have been many changes to the urban growth boundary. “Some land was taken out of the boundary and turned into agricultural productivity areas,” while some areas that were designated rural have become urban parkland. To date, 98 percent of growth has been in the urban growth boundary though, with 86 percent in the cities. “We have maintained the acreage of the resource and rural lands.”

Like Portland, King County is directing development to urban centers. Cities decide how they are going to increase density. But “our green wall prevents expansion.” One way this green wall has held up is King County has allowed the transfer of development rights from rural areas to inside the growth boundary. This has provided some benefits to the farmers who wanted to redevelop their land. “It was a pressure release valve. Now there’s less demand to subdivide.” Farmers sell to the city center, creating a nexus, a relationship between the city and farms that has lasted. “Farmland is protected, the cities are a little denser, and now we have farmers markets.”


Seattle’s Pike Place Farmers Market / Philly Magazine

Wolff explained that King County’s success is rooted in widespread public concern about sprawl and local politicians who have listened, taking the “long view.” Geography has also helped — with bodies of water and mountains acting as natural boundaries. And preserving views of these natural wonders has also been a motivation. King County’s model has become the model for Washington State’s growth management act. But she added that “not everything is great: edge cities are looking to expand into green fields; there is growing pressure to expand from within the boundary out; and there are still some farmers who want to subdivide.”

Denver Uses Peer Pressure

According to Andy Taylor, a senior planner with Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), explained how 9 counties have come together to create a 980-square-mile urban growth boundary. His group is an “advisory regional planner” that helps facilitate regional consensus. In the 1990s, Denver was facing “increased traffic, loss of open space, reduced water supply that put our quality of life at risk.” To respond, in 1995, a metro vision was created, with a set of key principles and preferred scenarios. In 1997, that resulted in Plan 2020, and a urban growth boundary. This boundary wasn’t “mandated by the state or federal government; its voluntary, bottom-up.” One place where the counties discuss how development should occur is through DRCOG, which is comprised of elected officials from member governments who award allocations for development. Member jurisdictions then decide on how they will use those allocations. Staff of this organization track changes.

In 1997, at the start of the boundary, the Denver regional area boundary was 700 square miles, but over the years it has continued to grow. By 2002, it was up to 750 square miles. Then, the base changed and it jumped up to 971 square miles by 2007. In 2009, it reached 980 square miles. Counties use a “flexible approach, and can self-certify changes.” While Denver’s boundary seems to just continue to expand unabated, Taylor argues that there are success: from 2006 to 2014, density has increased 7 percent and 770 square miles of open space around communities has been protected.


Colorado open space / Great Outdoors Colorado

“Peer pressure has led to tangible results. Nobody wants to be seen as a bad actor.” Counties adhere to the principles, but there are massive changes coming to the area that may put pressure on this voluntary system. Apartment vacancy rates are already at just 4.7 percent. “There is low home inventory.” A 50-mile rail system is coming online. By 2016, most of these lines will open, resulting in a 150 percent increase in the rapid transit system and a 175 percent increase in dense, mixed-use urban development.


Map of rail transit plans, Denver / Denver Urbanism

Denver plans to continue to focus development in the region’s urban centers, with a majority of new housing coming in there. But an already limited water supply — Denver gets just 15 inches of rain per year — means there are broader existential issues. “The erosion of the water supply is a roadblock for developers. It puts a limit on growth.”

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Ellsworth Commons, Malta, New York / Fun Saratoga Blog

As more sprawled-out suburban and rural communities attempt to turn abandoned, outdated shopping malls and other underused spaces into walkable downtown destinations, the chances of things going wrong seem to rise. Developers may fail to understand context and the appropriate scale needed for a new mixed-use development. At the 2014 ASLA Annual Meeting in Denver, Ian Law, ASLA, Place Alliance, explained how even the best laid plans for retrofitting suburbia can go haywire.

According to Law, it’s particularly challenging to create a comprehensive plan that can sustain a dense, walkable downtown if there are many small landowners in a community. Ideally, “one developer will be in control of the entire development.” Also important is that “the goals of the developer are in synch with the goals of the community.”

Even with a single developer in synch with the community, things can go awry though. Some common errors made by developers are “a disregard for context and creating downtowns out of scale.” If a community tries to add too much retail but has a low-population density, those stores are bound to fail, making the entire place much less appealing. If a development doesn’t fit the existing structure and organization of a community, it will also feel isolated and out of scale.

As perhaps a cautionary tale, Law explained the story of Malta, a small community of 25,000 in upstate New York. The community realized it needed to update itself to accommodate a new silicon chip plant that will bring in 2,000 jobs. However, they ended up creating an overly ambitious downtown revitalization plan. Instead of one downtown to replace what wasn’t working, they ended up creating three, said Law. These isolated, disconnected developments had “too much retail for the scale of Malta.”

One mixed-use development, Ellsworth Commons, broke ground, which created “lots of optimism,” but this “5-story  development that looked like it fell into a field” was destined to have problems. “There was no complete package.” While New Urbanist principles were applied — the building fronted the street — the street, in this case, was a multi-lane highway. The sidewalk ended just a few feet from the building. “There is no place to go. It’s a pretend Main Street. The sidewalks don’t connect.”

Furthermore, the entire development has “poor height ratios,” meaning the entire place feels out of scale. “With the lack of detail in implementation, there is no vibrancy, so people are missing.” Just 4,000 square feet out of the 70,000 square feet of retail planned is now being used, for a coffee shop and frozen yoghurt shop.

Law said this was a case of a developer and community out of synch: the developer could make money just from rental apartments, so they are focused less on the success of the development’s ground-level stores.

In its three downtowns, Malta is planning for some 2 million square feet of retail, which Law argues is out of scale with its current population and organization.

Law and Rosemary Wallinger, ASLA, Place Alliance, then pointed to some successes in retrofitting suburbia. Mizner Park in Boca Raton, Florida; Belmar in Lakewood, near Denver; and Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, all show “how good urbanist principles can lead to success.”

Mizner Park succeeded because a “single developer had control over the whole parcel.” What was once a tired mall is now a haven of stores, restaurants, and condos. “It has become the cultural center of Palm Beach, with many connections to the surrounding neighborhoods.” What is critical for Mizner Park is the surrounding context: there are some 170,000 people within five miles of the new development. As a result, the developers can make money off of the nearly 270,000 square feet of retail space built.

Belmar in Lakewood, Denver, is now the largest retrofit of a mall in the U.S. Some 104 acres were turned into 1,300 apartments set within 9 acres of open space. There’s also 700,000 square feet of retail. Again, the surrounding population of nearly 150,000 and broader Denver population of 3.2 million made this possible.

While Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod doesn’t have the high density population immediately around it, the 20-acre development, which created a new outdoor shopping center, works because everyone driving from Boston to the Cape passes right by it. “It’s a drive-to-walk Mall.”

As rural and suburban areas with lower density attempt to revitalize their town centers, it’s important to note that “these places need the population to support the context and scale. Not all of suburbia will see growth.”

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ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The High Line, Section 2 by James Corner Field Operations / Iwan Baan

ASLA President Mark Focht, FASLA, first deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Parks department, invited the heads of four allied organizations to speak to the ASLA board and chapter leadership last week about what they perceive to be future opportunities and challenges.

Patrick Phillips, CEO of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) — who was trained as a landscape architect but ended up going into real estate economics — said ULI will continue its focus on both the global and the local. They will further expand overseas, “bringing our non-ideological perspective to urban development” to Asia and Africa, while also strengthening their local councils, which focus on the issues of immediate concern to communities. At this scale, Phillips said “education — reaching out to thousands of local high schools — is a priority.”

Long-time friend of landscape architects, Paul Farmer, CEO of the American Planning Association (APA), said “our collaboration with ASLA has been excellent.” Farmer, who is retiring from APA this summer, said “planning is about outcomes, using a open and transparent process to create what people want: livable neighborhoods and clean air and water.” Farmer said APA will increasingly focus on the “social side of sustainability — the equity side. Most organizations are too focused on the environmental or economic side of sustainability.”

He said APA is now providing direct assistance to around a third of its chapters to fight anti-planning efforts led by the Tea Party movement. “There are draconian bills coming up in legislatures, but only the one in Alabama passed.” Farmer was dismayed by this development, as “just a few years ago, smart growth was an issue both Democrats and Republicans could agree upon. Now everything is totally polarized. So our assistance is defensive. But polls still tell us that there is tremendous public support for planning.”

Barbara Tulipane, National Parks and Recreation Association (NRPA) outlined her group’s new approach to communications. She said when speaking with public officials, “we have to sell them on the many benefits of parks — how parks save us money or make us money — but when NRPA is focused on reaching the public, we use common language.” Parks are about forging “a real emotional connection with nature.” As an example, she pulled up a quote from one happy park-goer: “that was the best day of my life!”

With 40,000 members, NRPA will focus on “ensuring 300 million Americans have access to a place to play and connect with nature and each other.” Half of members are professionals and the other half are park-lovers. “So we are not about the profession of park management but the parks.” Tulipane said “parks are essential to smart growth. Parks are a solution provider, offering benefits in terms of conservation, health and wellness, and social equity.”

Randall Over, head of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), said ASCE will ramp up efforts on dealing with climate change as an engineering challenge. “There, I said it, we openly talk about climate change. Climate change has changed our design standards. We need to design more resilient infrastructure. We need to focus on the social side of resilience, too, including who will operate and maintain infrastructure in the case of a serious climatic event.”

To encourage more “sustainable horizontal infrastructure,” ASCE will soon roll out Envision, a new rating system. “Some two out of every three projects that have been certified are landscapes.” Another 25 pilots are in the pipeline.

ASCE will also continue to get a lot of out of its well-known infrastructure report card. The U.S. has gone up from a D to a D+. “We do this to get action.” Over also mentioned a $15 million fundraising campaign now underway to finance an IMAX movie about the wonders of engineering.

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Yuelai Eco-city / Calthorpe Associates

Urbanization in China is the single biggest human migration in history. To accomodate the millions coming in from the countryside each year, China’s cities are tearing down their old human-scale, socially-rich neighborhoods, with their meandering, bicycle-friendly streets, and putting in highways and incredibly isolating towers set amid vacant-feeling “super blocks.” These are places only Le Corbusier could have loved. Or at least that’s the image some see in the West. At the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia, a group of innovative Chinese urban planners explain how some of the latest “eco-cities” as well as design interventions in existing cities may help some Chinese mayors see the wisdom of sustainable urban development and taking those super-blocks down to size.

Dongquan He, with the Energy Foundation, said China now has more than 660 cities, with 20,000 more towns under construction. Over the next 25 years, 400 million more Chinese will move into cities. And by 2050, China will be 75 percent urban.

As China grows at incredible rates, its cities have created very wide streets that connect super blocks. “These have just a single function, moving from A to B. You really have to use a car to get around.” These planning decisions have also resulted in signficant environmental damage. The air in so many Chinese cities is basically unbreathable because cars have been let loose. He said: “China’s development problem is the super block.”

The Energy Foundation has come up with a whole set of criteria to explain urban sustainability to China’s mayors. The principles are well considered: places should be walkable; bicycling should be prioritized; networks of streets should be dense; public transit should be high-quality; developments should be mixed-use; and parking should be regulated.

To test these idea, He and his team became involved in a new thousand-hectare eco-city in Yuelai, Chongquing, one of the country’s mega-cities (see image above). He’s group worked with Calthorpe Asssociates and the eco-city developers to preserve the existing landscape. “We didn’t violate the natural systems.” They then created a plan that reduced the size of the average Chinese super block, allocating density near transit, creating small town-centers with public space every 500 meters, and also smaller grid spaces that fit high-rise, mid-rise. and low-rise buildings together in a dense, walkable street network. Parks and greenways connect people to the harbor, and a custom-designed streetcar system will also improve mobility. But He admitted that with this kind of huge development, “it’s hard to created the small spaces people like.” Indeed, in these images, the blocks still look a bit super.


Yuelai Eco-city / Calthorpe Associates

Yang Liu with the China Sustainable Transportation Center outlined his organization’s work with the Chenggong New Town, in Kunming, which is in China’s southwest. He and his team are tackling “super blocks that didn’t feel safe crossing.” They helped increase the road network density by narrowing the streets and sidewalks considerably to improve the human fabric. Development is also now clustered around transit stations.

For EMBARQ China’s director, Haitao Zhang, the aim is to transform Qingdao, a major city in the northeast, through his Qingdao Low-carbon Sustainable Transportation study. Zhang has worked on reconnecting land use and transportation planning, putting stations where there is demand, and breaking the siloed approach to the problems of sprawl in the local government. EMBARQ is also planning a slew of “small-scale urban interventions” to improve the streetscape, turning super blocks into outdoor cafes and pedestrian-friendly plazas.

To learn more about the state of China’s cities, see a new report presented by Shi Na, with UN Habitat and the Urban Planning Society in China.

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One of the biggest studies of income and inter-generational mobility, the Equality of Opportunity Project, a new research initiative by economists at Harvard University and the University of California-Berkeley, has found the metropolitan area you live in can either help or hurt your chances for upward mobility. In a review of the research in The New York Times, David Leonhardt writes: “Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, the data shows, with the odds notably low in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains and West, including in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and large swaths of California and Minnesota.” In other words, denser communities may do better than sprawled-out places in turning poorer classes into wealthier ones over the years.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winner and op-ed columnist for The New York Times, said there have been many studies of social mobility across countries and all have found that the U.S. actually has more of an “inherited class system than other advanced nations.”

Analyzing the data from this study, one of the first major comparative reviews of metropolitan areas in the U.S., he said “in San Francisco, a child born into the bottom fifth of the income distribution has an 11 percent chance of making it into the top fifth, but in Atlanta the corresponding number is only 4 percent.”

He asks, “So what’s the matter with Atlanta?,” a city where it seems to be particularly difficult to move up. “The city may just be too spread out, so that job opportunities are literally out of reach for people stranded in the wrong neighborhoods.”

In interviews with residents of Atlanta, The Times highlights how difficult it is in both time and expense for poorer Atlantans to get to job opportunities in wealthier areas. One telling example: “Stacey Calvin spends almost as much time commuting to her job — on a bus, two trains and another bus — as she does working part-time at a day care center. She knows exactly where to board the train and which stairwells to use at the stations so that she has the best chance of getting to work on time in the morning and making it home to greet her three children after school.”

Krugman states the obvious about the situation for Calvin and so many others: “Atlanta is the Sultan of Sprawl, even more spread out than other major Sun Belt cities. This would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t. As a result, disadvantaged workers often find themselves stranded; there may be jobs available somewhere, but they literally can’t get there.”

The way out of this sprawl-trap may be smarter growth. “The apparent inverse relationship between sprawl and social mobility obviously reinforces the case for ‘smart growth’ urban strategies, which try to promote compact centers with access to public transit.”

While smart growth seems to offer benefits for income mobility, mixed-income development may also help, too. Upward mobility occurred more often when poor families were included with other income groups in mixed communities, as opposed to isolated in ghettos.

In Slate, Matthew Yglesias, who calls this research “groundbreaking,” adds that this study shows the “merits of mixed-income neighborhoods” and how they “strengthen the case against zoning out the poor with minimum lot size requirements, rules against apartment buildings, and trailer park bans.” Indeed, the current debate in smart growth circles is how to make densification more equitable and better enable that mix of income levels in gentrifying communities.

Initially, the researchers looked at millions of pieces of data about incomes, organized by geography, to determine how “different local and state tax breaks might affect inter-generational mobility.” They found that “larger tax credits for the poor and higher taxes on the affluent seemed to improve income mobility only slightly. The economists also found only modest or no correlation between mobility and the number of local colleges and their tuition rates or between mobility and the amount of extreme wealth in a region.”

Still, the data may also confirm what many other researchers have said about the value of strong social ties gained through family connections and affiliations with broader social and community groups. Inter-generational mobility was also found to be higher in areas with “two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.”

To note, the researchers only found correlations among the data and do not present the inter-connections as causal relationships.

Explore the data and see how your city ranks.

Image credit: Atlanta traffic / CLATL

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