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Archive for the ‘Sustainable Transportation’ Category

Cities Safer by Design, a report by the World Resources Institute

Cities Safer by Design, a report by the World Resources Institute / WRI

Globally, 1.24 million people are killed in traffic accidents every year, with more than 90 percent of these deaths occurring in low and middle-income counties. Traffic-related incidents are the eighth-leading cause of death worldwide, and the number-one leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15-29. A response to the United Nations’ declaration to create a “Decade of Action” on improving traffic safety, Cities Safer by Design, a new report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, offers urban design best practices and real-world case studies both developed and developing world cities can use to put an end to traffic deaths and injuries.

Cities Safer by Design presents five basic urban design elements that create safer travel environments: block size, connectivity, lane width, access, and population density.

Block Size

Safe urban design is about reducing motor vehicle speeds. The faster a driver goes, the more difficult it is for him or her to avoid hitting a pedestrian in their path. Due to less frequent interruptions, larger blocks allow vehicles to accelerate more freely. More junctions means more places where cars must stop and pedestrians can cross. According to the report, to improve safety and walkability, blocks should be 75-150 meters long. If blocks are any larger than 200 meters, mid-block pass-throughs with signals or raised crossings should be added every 100-150 meters.

Smaller block sizes have been successfully implemented in central areas of Shanghai, such as Xin Tian Di, to create more walkable neighborhoods. More Chinese cities that had mistakenly built “super blocks” are starting to apply the same approach.

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A street for pedestrians in Shanghai / Jamie Sinz

Connectivity

The report recommends increasing connectivity to multiples modes of transit in order to decrease travel distances and improve access to destinations. Creating multiple routes for pedestrians and cyclists also helps disperse traffic, discourage car use, and reduce travel time.

Mexico City has also created walkable urban landscapes around its Metrobús bus rapid transit (BRT) system that enables safe bicycle and pedestrian access.

Bikers and BRT passengers outside of the Mexico City Metrobus / EMBARQ by  Alejandro Luna

Bikers and BRT passengers outside of the Mexico City Metrobus / EMBARQ by Alejandro Luna

Vehicle Lane Width

The amount of a street devoted to vehicles shapes the amount of street available for pedestrian crossings, bike lanes, parking lanes, and landscape curb extensions. Reducing street widths creates a safer pedestrian experience, because they shorten pedestrian crossing distance and exposure to cars and also slow traffic by “increasing drivers’ perception of impediments.” Again, slower traffic mitigates the potential severity of crashes.

According to the report, evidence from Mexico City shows that as the maximum pedestrian crossing distance at an intersection increases by 1 meter, the frequency of pedestrian crashes increase by up to 3 percent. Other studies highlighted in the report show the most significant relationship to injury crashes is street width and street curvature. As street width widens, crashes per mile per year increase exponentially.

Access to Destinations

According to the report, neighborhoods should be designed to include transit, parks, schools, and stores within walking distance, which is defined as 0.5-kilometers. Having a variety of destinations in neighborhood clusters encourages people to meet close to home, decreasing the need for vehicular travel and improving overall safety.

In the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City, the prevalence of shops and public spaces encourage walking while discouraging vehicular traffic. Recalling an earlier area before sprawl took over the city, Coyoacan’s cobbled streets lead to garden plazas where street vendors gather.

Santa Catalina Plaza and Church located on Avenida Sosa in the Coyoacan borough of Mexico City / Thelmadatter

Santa Catalina Plaza and Church located on Avenida Sosa in the Coyoacan borough of Mexico City / Thelmadatter

Population Density

A 2009 study cited in the report found that for an increase in density of 100 persons per square mile, there was a 6 percent reduction in injurious crashes and a 5 percent reduction in all crashes after controlling for vehicle miles traveled, street connectivity, and land use. In contrast to more sprawling cities, high-density cities not only reduce the need for vehicle travel, but also reduce the need for their associated infrastructure, such as roads and sewers.

Tokyo has successfully developed high-density mixed-use neighborhoods near rail and bus stations. According to the report, Tokyo has a traffic fatality rate of 1.3 per 100,000 residents. Compare this rate to Atlanta, Georgia, one of the most sprawled-out cities in the U.S., which has 9.7 traffic fatalities per 100,000 residents.

Street in Jiyugaoka,Tokyo

Street in Jiyugaoka, Tokyo / Cozyroom_mimi (Flickr)

With the percentage of the world’s population living in cities expected to hit 70 percent by 2030, reducing traffic fatalities from unsafe streets should be a priority. Safer streets also increase the quality of life for urbanites, particularly for those in developing countries. WRI’s report shows policymakers, urban designers and planners, and landscape architects what works: designing for pedestrian safety means improving urban health and sustainability overall.

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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.

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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

Parks

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

Markets

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

Transportation

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.”

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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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Mia Lehrer, FASLA, advocates for Silverlake Reservoir / Mia Lehrer Associates

We work in a small, but timely profession. Our potential to impact the neighborhoods, communities, and cities where we work is huge. Though landscape architecture professionals make up just a small fraction of the design field, ours is the work that is the first to be seen. Ours is the work that brings function and beauty to parks, plazas, campuses, institutions, and transportation corridors. Ours is a profession that blends the power of design with ecological principals and environmental justice. And because we are few and far between, we have to advocate for what we know.

The responsibility is on us to make our voices heard, not for our own betterment, but for the sake of our communities.

Public awareness is growing around a range of big issues, from humanity’s need for nature to improve our health, to watersheds, drought, and climate change. And yet, those in our profession most able to speak intelligently on these issues, to guide our communities towards thoughtful solutions, remain silent too often.

Those who fill the void may be knowledgeable in some respects, but often they simply have a good sound bite. The media won’t know to ask a landscape architect for a solution, suggestion, or comment if they don’t know what landscape architects can do. And most of them don’t.

We need to educate our media, politicians, and the public on the issues we care most about. In addition to keeping each other informed about lessons learned from the field, landscape architects need to write letters to the editor, speak at city council meetings and land-use committee meetings, and join non-profit boards and advisory groups. We need to present ideas to civic groups, garden clubs, and parent groups. And we’re not talking about advocating for the profession: we’re talking about advocating for our quality of life.

We urge you to:

  • Advocate for regionally and micro climate-appropriate design that minimizes resource use while maximizing benefits;
  • Speak out to conserve existing habitat and create new parks, wildlife habitats, and greenway corridors;
  • Call for nature playgrounds and natural systems in our schools, parks, and institutions to increase human access to nature and its physical, mental, and educational benefits;
  • Ask for more flexible policies to support rainwater capture, graywater reuse, and recycled water use and reduce unnecessary use of potable water;
  • Fight to ban plastic materials, such as bags, bottles, furnishings, and grass, to stop the incessant addition of toxins into our oceans and food chain;
  • Advocate for more transit and pedestrian and bicycle options and mixing land uses to cut our need for automobiles;
  • Specify local, non-toxic, reclaimed, and reclaimable natural materials;
  • Educate the public about the need to design with plants that provide food for pollinators and people.

Our firm is widely known in Los Angeles, and beyond, for being vocal. We go to public meetings about water conservation, school sites, citizen science, agriculture, forests, and the Los Angeles River. We go to lectures about climate change, drought, food deserts, park poverty, water quality, and environmental justice. We listen, form opinions, speak and write. We get our voices heard.

We might annoy you. And that’s okay. Because we believe we can make a difference in where we live and how we live to make a better future for all of us. And we hope you do, too.

This guest op-ed is by Mia Lehrer + Associates, an internationally-known, award-winning firm made up of landscape architects, urban designers, environmental planners, and a team of multidisciplinary designers based in Los Angeles. Read their recent op-ed in The Los Angeles Times.

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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.”

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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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Aga Khan Park / Darren Calabrese, The Globe and Mail

Minneapolis, St. Paul Tie for Title of Best City ParksThe Star Tribune, 5/20/15
“For the third straight year, Minneapolis has been judged to have the best city parks in the country. But this year, it’s sharing that distinction with a familiar rival: St. Paul.”

We Are What We Landscape Psychology Today, 5/21/15
“What messages do we see in a lawn? Some scholars believe that the attraction is primal. Lush green foliage requires water and so do we. Perhaps the visage of a lawn with shrubs and trees gives us comfort because it signals that we can survive in this place.”

Toronto Receives New Addition to Cultural Mosaic: The Aga Khan Park Global News, 5/26/15
“The 6.8 hectare urban park is the newest part of a complex that also hosts The Aga Khan Museum and The Ismaili Centre.  Both of those buildings were opened to much fanfare eight months ago.  Together they complete a project that broke ground five years ago on the site of the former Bata Shoe headquarters.”

The $6.5 Billion, 20-Year Plan to Transform an American CityFast Company, 5/26/15
“That’s an audacious 20-year plan by Rochester, the Minnesota state government, the Mayo Clinic, and their private partners to spend more than $6.5 billion on a kind of real-life version of SimCity, designed to turn Rochester into a global biotech hub, and double its population in the process.”

The City Feeding the City: Urban Orchard Bears Fruit – The Australian Financial Review, 5/28/15
“Green space, on its own, is definitely worth adding to a cityscape. But a green space that is used to grow food is even better.”

Why Aga Khan Park Risks Becoming a White Elephant The Globe and Mail, 5/28/15
“Will the delights of this place eventually outweigh its disadvantages? Let’s hope so, because this rich museum and its gracious park bear many of the characteristics of a white elephant.”

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Tactical Urbanism / Island Press

Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, a new book by urban planners Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia is the first book to really organize all the small fixes that seem to have spontaneously sprung up in so many communities in a way that everyone can understand. These fixes — some temporary and others long-term — aim to address common problems in communities today, often in streets and public spaces: a lack of safe sidewalks or crosswalks; the absence of clear signage; the dearth of neighborhood parks and plazas, and, more broadly, the lack of community connection and solidarity. Shedding its perception as an illegal or “guerrilla” approach, tactical urbanism is becoming a method of choice for innovative local governments, developers, or non-profits as well. What one learns from the book is that it’s now an approach happening everywhere, not just in New York City, with its transformation of Times Square and other car-only places into pedestrian plazas, or San Francisco, with its Pavement to Parks program, which led to the explosive growth of parklets everywhere. These types of small, yet potent interventions are going mainstream because they work — at least at fixing some problems.

As Lydon and Garcia explain in a great overview that provides deep historical context, “tactical urbanism” isn’t new. Since humans have lived together, they have been involved in city-making. The first urban street in Khoirokoitia, on the island of Cyprus, built sometime around 7,000 BCE, was 600 feet long and connected residents and merchants at different elevations, through a series of steps and walkways. “Without any formal, overarching government structure, Khoirokoita’s reidents were not only responsible for the creation and maintenance of the street. They understood its importance for the survival of the village.”

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Khoirokoita, Cyprus / Ophelia2 via Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Island Press

Leaping forward thousands of years, Lydon and Garcia explain the woonerf, Dutch for “living yard,” which came out of a local citizen’s action in the Dutch city of Delft to slow down car traffic in a residential area. The residents tore up the street themselves in the middle of the night so cars would be forced to more carefully navigate their neighborhood. Their streets then became safe for bicycling, playing, and walking — not just a through-lane for cars. At first, the municipal government ignored the woonerf, but, seeing it succeed and spread as a model, they decided to advocate for it. In 1976, the Dutch parliament passed regulations incorporating woonerven into the national streets code. The authors identify many other planning, landscape architectural, and architectural innovations that sprouted up and spread — like the urban grid itself.

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Dutch woonerf / Dick van Veen

Lydon and Garcia do an excellent job of defining what tactical urbanism is and isn’t, and the various forms it takes. As they define it today, tactical urbanism is a “an approach to neighborhood building using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions and policies.” For citizens, “it allows the immediate reclamation, redesign, or reprogramming of public space. For developers or entrepreneurs, it provides a means of collecting design intelligence from the market they intend to serve. For advocacy organizations, it’s a way to show what is possible to garner public and political support. And for government, it’s a way to put best practices into, well, practice — and quickly!” Tactical urbanism efforts are largely targeted at “vacant lots, empty storefronts, overly wide streets, highway underpasses, surface parking lots, and other under-used public spaces.”

The authors differentiate tactical urbanism from all the other related terms that have, well, popped-up, too — “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) urbanism, pop-up urbanism, user-generated urbanism, insurgent urbanism, guerilla urbanism, and urban hacking.” They argue that “not all DIY urbanisms efforts are tactical, and not all tactical urbanism initiatives are DIY.” For example, yarnbombing, eye-bombing, and other fun, eye-catching DIY artistic happenings in the public realm can’t be considered tactical because most “usually aren’t intended to instigate long term change;” they are instead “opportunistic placemaking.”

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Yarnbombed tree / Made in slant

And they explain how not all tactical urbanist projects are illegal, carried out in the middle of the night (although many still are). Tactics run along a spectrum ranging from unsanctioned to sanctioned.

On the unsanctioned end are projects like Build a Better Block, by Streetscape Collaborative and landscape architecture firm SWA Group, which won an ASLA 2011 Professional Communications Honor Award. This first project transformed an urban street in Dallas, Texas, just for a day. “An entire block was restructured and transformed by placing new rows of street trees and a ‘median’ created of shrubs. The new open spaces created by these trees accommodated café seating and areas for vendors to sell their wares.” It gave the community a glimpse into what a more people-friendly street would do for their community. The model quickly spread to many other cities, showing many what’s possible.

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ASLA 2011 Professional Communications Honor Award. Build a Better Block / Jason Roberts, David Thompson

In the middle of the spectrum are initiatives like Park(ing) Day, which was founded by landscape architecture firm Rebar and conceived by landscape architect John Bela, ASLA, and has become a truly global movement. Each Park(ing) Day, residents turn parking spaces into pint-sized parks, highlighting not only how so much of our streets are given over to cars, but also all the other potential productive uses these spaces offer. This past year, more than 1,000 parking spaces were turned into mini-parks.

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Park(ing) Day, Onward State

And Park(ing) Day showed one responsive city, San Francisco, that people are demanding more out of their streets, which resulted in the city government making a policy shift. On the sanctioned end: the San Francisco city government created a permanent Pavement to Parks program, which has resulted in more than 50 parklets. As John King, urban critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, points out, though, five years on, not all parklets have been successful: “They are as varied and problematic as the city itself.” Still, the parklet model has since spread to many other major cities, including Vancouver.

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San Francisco Parklet / Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates

One of the only criticisms of this thoughtful, informative book is there is no candid assessment of where tactical urbanism has gone wrong. What would have been useful is a few examples of where tactical urbanism projects have failed and what can be learned from their mistakes. Surely, not all projects are the result of supportive, inclusive coalitions (what about the naysayers in every community? Are they just left out?) Not all bottom-up community improvements are beloved. Not all parklets are well-used. Not everyone likes food trucks crowding out storefront businesses. Pop-up vegetable gardens that aren’t well maintained can quickly become eyesores, or, worse, attract rodents. No matter how well-intentioned, too few contemporary projects have shown signs of successfully spurring long-term permanent change, but perhaps it’s too soon to tell.

Also, in his intro Garcia speaks to “how dysfunctional the public planning process has become.” He describes the arduous process of creating a more progressive zoning code in Miami, Florida. “The project had gone through hundreds of public meetings and was significantly better than its predecessors, yet was still attacked for being drafted behind closed doors.” He goes on about the “dozens of land-use attorneys, developers, and lobbyists” and how “the approval meetings were a dizzying circus of opposition.” He concludes that “I began to see small-scale changes as part of the answer to the stalled momentum of large projects.”

While everyone who has been involved in the depths of a bruising multi-year battle can agree with this, urban planners, developers, and landscape architects need to continue to fight the big fights for those large-scale, transformational projects, too. Lawsuits and well-funded opposition are just part of the territory these days with any major project where there are winners and losers; it’s part of the democratic process.

As Lydon and Garcia make very clear throughout, tactical urbanism can’t solve all problems. These projects are really about building community sustainability, empowering neighborhoods to push for pedestrian-friendly improvements. Community building can lead to new coalitions that yield real improvements in quality of life and replicable models that spread. The methodology for bottom-up empowerment and change is valid.

But it’s not clear whether all efforts can be replicated everywhere. Times Square’s revamp as a pedestrian plaza, which seemed more like a top-down project, is the result of a unique set of factors, like smart, willing leadership. Will other cities follow NYC’s lead? Furthermore, can these efforts help solve our cities’ most intractable problems?

Planners and landscape architects — really, everyone shaping the built environment– need to continue to push for the comprehensive plans that improve walkability on the broad scale; grand, permanent parks that yield big environmental and social returns; complex multi-use infrastructure; and mixed-use developments that can enable “live, work, play,” all of those major investments that can grow and sustain livable communities, while also experimenting at the small scale. We are in the era of lawsuits and opposition.

Read the book.

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Madison, Wisconsin / Spontaneous Tomatoes

Over the past few years, AARP has become a much more vocal advocate in Washington, D.C. for walkable, affordable communities for seniors, and, well, everyone, but they have recently put the full weight of their 38-million-member organization behind livability, with their new Livable Communities Index, which was announced at the American Planning Association conference in Seattle. Given how powerful AARP is on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures around the country, this is a boost for all of us focused on reducing the real social, economic, and health costs of car-dependent, sprawled-out communities. At all levels, AARP is pushing for policies that support aging in place, which is what their research tells them 80 percent of seniors want to do.

AARP argues that a livable community has “affordable and appropriate housing, supportive community features and services, and adequate mobility options, which together facilitate personal independence and engagement of residents in civic and social life.” Furthermore, a livable community is a place where “please can get to go where they want to go, living comfortably and in good health, and being able to remain active and engaged.” With this new focus on livable communities, AARP argues that what is good for older Americans is for good for all. For example, a recent report produced by Smart Growth America, with AARP and ASLA, called Dangerous by Design examined how the lack of safe sidewalks in so many communities has lead to the unnecessary deaths of 47,000 both young and older Americans. Good sidewalks benefit everyone.

The new livability index, which measures communities capacity to offer these elements, is rooted in a national survey of 4,500 Americans 50-plus, which found that older Americans want the following things the most: a strengthened police presence, improved schools, more walkable streets, better transportation options for seniors and the disabled, and more high quality parks. Using the survey responses, a team of experts selected 60 factors across seven categories — housing, neighborhood, transportation, environment, health, engagement, and opportunity — to create the index, which weighs data from 50 sources.

This result is an easy-to-use tool that enables anyone to plug in an address or zip code to determine how livable their community is. According to AARP, the average community scores a 50. When I typed in my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., it got a score of 60, barely in the green or livable section. My neighborhood scored poorly on a few metrics, like the number of days with bad air quality and heavy street-level car pollution, the lack of affordable housing, and the high rates of inequality. After exploring the metrics, users can look into whether their neighborhood or community has policies that improve livability. For example, for my neighborhood, the index reported that there are no local housing accessibility or affordability laws. Urban planners, landscape architects, and policymakers can further customize the tool, weighing some factors more heavily than others.

AARP also released their list of the 10 most livable neighborhoods, and 30 most livable cities in the country, separated into large, medium, and small-sized cities. For their respective categories, the top cities are San Francisco, California (70); Madison, Wisconsin (68); and La Crosse, Wisconsin (70). Running a number of their top-ranked neighborhoods through the index, it appears that a top score is around 70. As AARP says in their video above, almost every community has a ways to go to meet their definition of livable.

See more resources from AARP.

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normal

Uptown Normal Circle / Pinterest

Normal, Illinois, doesn’t sound like a typical spring break destination—but for me, it was the perfect getaway. Along with fellow urban planning students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I visited Normal in March 2010. We started our day with a walking tour of Uptown Normal and ended it by biking to its neighbor, Bloomington, via the Constitution Trail. The highlight of the tour was the town traffic circle (yes, a traffic circle!) called Uptown Circle, designed by Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, which is a gathering place that captures and filters stormwater and simplifies a complicated intersection. On a sunny afternoon in 2010, it was easy to see why it’s the heart of the district.

Normal invested more than $90 million in this neighborhood, spending about half of its investment ($47 million) on a Complete Streets approach that considers all users—people traveling by foot, bicycle, transit, or car—of all ages and abilities. They widened and repaired sidewalks, reconstructed Constitution Boulevard, and built Uptown Circle and Uptown Station, a multi-modal transportation center.

Today, more than 40 percent of all trips in Uptown Normal are by foot or bicycle. Since these improvements, it experienced a boost in retail sales (46 percent) and attracted more than $160 million in private investment.

Perhaps the best outcome of all? “People love Uptown Normal,” said Normal Mayor Chris Koos. “They ride the bus, they bike the trail, they shop, they socialize, and they recreate in a wonderful urban center.” This project shows how Complete Streets principles can transform a place.

But neither Normal’s approach nor its results are unique. More than 700 cities, regions, and states have made a commitment to use a Complete Streets approach.

As a recent analysis by Smart Growth America’s National Complete Streets Coalition demonstrates, using a Complete Streets approach is one of the best transportation investments a community can make.

Examining before and after data from 37 projects redesigned with Complete Streets goals, this study found:

Streets were safer: Automobile collisions declined in 70 percent of projects, and injuries declined in 56 percent of projects.

Safety has financial value: Each collision that a safer street helps to avoid represents avoided costs from emergency room visits, hospital charges, rehabilitation, and doctor visits, as well as the cost of property damage. Within our sample, Complete Streets improvements collectively averted $18.1 million in total collision costs in just one year.

Complete Streets encouraged multi-modal travel: The projects nearly always resulted in more biking, walking, and transit trips.

Complete Streets are remarkably affordable: The average cost of a project was just $2.1 million—far less than the $9 million average cost of projects in state transportation improvement plans. And 97 percent of Complete Streets projects cost less per mile than construction of an average high-cost arterial.

Complete Streets play an important role in economic development: These findings suggest that these projects were supportive of higher employment, new business, and property values. Several projects saw significant private investment since their completion.

Particularly striking is what the projects achieved with a small public investment. For example, Portland, Oregon, spent $95,000 to re-stripe the streets, add plastic bollards, and new signage to NE Multnomah Boulevard. This project created 34 new automobile and 12 bicycle parking spaces. Cycling along the corridor increased 44 percent, and the number of vehicles exceeding the speed limit fell by half.

For some projects, the cost-savings from safer conditions alone justified their costs. For instance, after Reno, Nevada, added bike lanes in each direction and widened sidewalks along Wells Avenue, collisions fell by about 45 percent. The value of Reno’s safer conditions within one year’s time ($5.8 million) is more than its entire project cost ($4.5 million).

The before and after data shows the extraordinary effect low-cost, thoughtful street design can have on local communities. As more communities implement Complete Streets policies — with an explicit aim to make travel by foot, bike, and transit convenient and safe — we should measure our progress toward those aims and make sure we invest accordingly.

Read the full report, Safer Streets, Stronger Economies: Complete Streets.

Ready to get started on measuring your community’s Complete Streets work? Check out the Coalition’s latest guide: Evaluating Complete Streets: A Guide for Practitioners.

This guest post is by Laura Searfoss, Associate, National Complete Streets Coalition.

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A runner crosses the Rosemont Bridge as the sun rises over downtown in Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston / The Dallas Morning News

Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston / The Dallas Morning News

What Dallas Can Learn From Houston’s Buffalo Bayou for the Trinity River ProjectThe Dallas Morning News, 3/1/15
“How do you transform the flood plain of a neglected urban waterway into a grand public park and metropolitan gateway? Dallas has been struggling with this challenge for more than 20 years, making incremental progress on the Trinity River corridor while debating whether to burden it with a toll road. Houston has spent that same time successfully remaking a 10-mile stretch of the Buffalo Bayou into precisely the kind of urban amenity Dallasites have long imagined for themselves.”

Stunningly Beautiful Private Gardens of Paris  – Fox News, 3/5/15
“Paris has many famous, beautiful public gardens and even more exquisite private ones tucked behind the walls of its private houses and on the terraces and rooftops of its apartment buildings. A selection of these come beautifully to light in In & Out of Paris: Gardens of Secret Delights, a new book written by Zahid Sardar and photographed by Marion Brenner.”

A Plan to Turn Melbourne’s Elizabeth Street into a Rainforest Canal WA Today, 3/7/15
“The man who turned Melbourne’s neglected and decrepit laneways into a globally renowned attraction has another radical idea to improve the city. His proposal: rip up Elizabeth Street, currently a pretty tired and uninspiring CBD thoroughfare, and incorporate and revitalize the hidden waterway under it that runs down to the Yarra River.”

Google Plan for Mountain View Campus Shuns Walls, Roofs, Reality The San Francisco Chronicle, 3/7/15
“Google’s proposal comes with a laudable list of proposed community and environmental benefits. The design team is earnest, with a strong contingent of local firms who know the terrain, such as landscape architect CMG and Sherwood Design Engineers.”

What the New Memorial Park Could Look Like The Houston Business Journal, 3/11/15
“The master plan for Memorial Park is complete, and, if approved, Houston’s largest park will get a major makeover. The project would potentially cost $200 million over the next two decades, Sarah Newbery, project manager for the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, told the Houston Business Journal.”

Q&A with Landscape Architect Martha SchwartzNewsweek, 3/11/15
“The profession has grown immensely. It is the fastest-growing design profession in the U.S. Many schools of landscape architecture have opened. The field is booming.”

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russellsquare

Russell Square, London / Ali Amir Moayed.com

“Just as all parts of an ecosystem must be healthy if the system is going to work,” an environment for people — a “people habitat” — must have “homes, shops, businesses, and an environment that fit in a harmonious way,” said urban thinker and author F. Kaid Benfield at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. For the past 50 years, “we have not been living in harmony with our environment.” To undo the damage, Benfield proposes a wiser approach, set out in his new book People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities. He covered a few ways to achieve these healthy environments in his talk:

Focus on Regions and Neighborhoods, Not Cities: Regions, Benfield argues, actually define the way we live today. Cities extend far beyond their jurisdictional boundaries. For example, “the functional region of Atlanta is 12 times the size of the city of Atlanta.” Only city governments and cartographers care about boundaries. “The environment, commerce, transportation, and people all cross borders.”

Neighborhoods, at the other end of the spectrum, are the center of people habitats and the agents of change on the ground, as they are where people spend much of their time.

Create Walkable Places: “Americans don’t walk much, and I don’t blame them.” Among a list of 20 plus developed countries, America ranks dead last in the amount they walk. Just 26 percent of Americans want often or sometimes. In 1969, Benfield says 48 percent of children walked to school; in 2009, it’s just 13 percent. There’s are many reasons for this, but the built environment is a major culprit.

Think of all those cul-de-sac neighborhoods designed for cars, or strip malls without sidewalks or crosswalks. There, people take their own lives into their hands going out for a walk. Why don’t kids walk anymore? It’s because so many suburban schools are now “bigger than Disneyland,” isolated and disconnected. Showing photos of the typical suburban school, Benfield wondered if it was a school, mall, or prison.

The death of walking has had negative ripple effects as well: It’s no surprise that places where you cannot walk face an epidemic of obesity. “Weight-related diseases are connected to a lack of walkable environments.” Today, many states’ obesity rates top 30 percent.

Integrate Nature into Cities: Benfield believes in the power of urban parks, particularly small neighborhood parks, to improve the health of a community. As an example, he pointed to Russell Square park in London (see image above), which is “big enough so you known you are in nature, but small enough so you know you are in a city.” He strongly believes that “bringing the function and beauty of nature into a neighborhood” has many positive benefits, including a boost in our health and well-being. “When we are immersed in nature, our blood pressure goes down and our mental acuity increases.”

Consider the Whole System of Energy Use and Emissions: “What is called green development in many places really isn’t green.” When examining the sustainability of a residential development, for example, we need to look at that development’s energy use and carbon expenditures vs. the amount of energy used and carbon expended by transportation getting to and from that place.

Using Prairie Ridge, a “net-zero development” outside Chicago, Benfield showed how the use of the term “net-zero” there is a misnomer because the community failed to consider the whole system of energy use and carbon emissions. While the development may produce as much energy as it consumes, its residents are expending huge amounts of energy and creating a lot of pollution getting there. This is because Prairie Ridge’s Walk score is literally zero. “It’s next to a corn field.” Residents of Prairie Ridge expend four times the amount of carbon as those in downtown Chicago.

For city after city, Benfield showed how different the carbon profile of people can be depending on where they live. “If you are living on the fringe of a city, you are driving longer distances.” In contrast, people living downtown are putting far less carbon into the atmosphere getting around.

Preserve the “Continuity of Places”: “If a place has a sense of continuity, it has a calming, reassuring effect.” In contrast, a place without it can be jarring, “disorientating.” Places treated with respect are the result of a slow accrual of layers, carefully thought out so they fit into a harmonious whole. These kinds of places spur “cultural engagement,” they invite us to “use our imaginations.” And they are the places with the most “civic vitality.” They are mixed-use and feature building of different sizes and ages.

On a related theme, Benfield argued that preserving the continuity of old buildings is also important: “the greenest building is the one already built.” Even replacing an inefficient older building filled with embedded energy with a new “green building” means starting at zero with carbon emissions. “It will take years for the new building to make up for the carbon emissions.” Benfield argued that “we have forgotten about the energy efficiency of thick old walls, solar orientation, windows, air, the basic principles. Now, it’s about gizmo green.”

Take Advantage of the Future Trends Here Now: “The future will be different from the past.” To be successful, communities need to take advantage of some emerging trends. First, cities are sprawling less today. “Greenfield development peaked in the 90s.” Second, Millennials prefer to live in the core of cities twice as much as other generations. Some 2/3 want walkable places, even in suburbs. “They value density, connectivity, and convenient access to jobs.” Third, people are driving less. The vehicle miles traveled per person per year has been falling since 2005 and staying down. Today, 46 percent of 18-year-olds don’t have a driver’s license. The miles driven by 16-34-year-olds has also fallen 40 percent in the past decade. Lastly, among all generations, bicycle use is up 24 percent and walking 16 percent.

Invest in Lovable Places: “People will take care of places they love, which makes them sustainable” (read more on this). Lovable places can be complex, like Quincy Market in Boston, or simple, like a small street cafe in Barcelona. They can be old or modern, but lovable places — like the French Quarter in New Orleans — always have culture. While many in the smart growth movement have focused solely on density and connectivity, Benfield argued that these projects ultimately fail because “they are not great places.” Great places need green spaces to attract people. “We can have both compact development and green spaces together. We can have it both ways.”

Read People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.

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