The 2010 E.P.A. Awards for Smart Growth Achievement were announced at a ceremony at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Among the planning winners working at an urban or regional scale, all are guided by bottom-up coalitions of local organizations or multiple city or regional organizations using collaborative approaches, which help ensure smart growth planning efforts enjoy broad support. The winning buildings and landscape projects reclaim or reuse public space, taking back space away from cars and creating new formations of public space that strengthen local communities in the process.
Introducing the winners, Lisa Heinzerling, Associate Administrator of the E.P.A., said smart growth has an enormous positive impact on the environment. While environmental rules and regulations will always be important to boost air, water, and land environmental quality, “codes, taxes, and subsidies do more to affect the environment than anything else.” Heinzerling added that sustainable smart-growth approaches to development needs to rolled-out “town by town, street by street.”
The E.PA.’s new thinking on smart growth
The Associate Administrator briefly outlined the E.P.A’s latest thinking on the environment. “In the past, the E.P.A. has viewed pollution atomistically, but we are moving toward viewing pollution holistically.” An atomistic view “prevents us from understanding the multiple benefits of policies.” Smart growth actually enables holistic approaches because there are multiple benefits in the form of health and environmental improvements. A holistic approach may also be more efficient — it means an end to adding green to the end of projects. “Smart growth is about the beginning of the pipeline. It’s beginning of the pipe at its core.” In addition, smart growth approaches connect with people on a deeper level. “Show me any deep human impulse and I can show you people will care about smart growth and sustainable communities.”
Heinzerling called famed Chicago planner Daniel Burnham the “patron saint of smart growth.” In his historic master plan for Chicago, Burnham tried to ensure “every citizen to be able to situated within walking distance of a park.” He also believed that cities and communities should “make no little plans,” but Heinzerling instead believes that “these little plans are important. We need to take every little step we can.”
Smartest Growth: The Big Apple
For overall excellence in smart growth, “Smart.Growth at NYC: Policies and Programs for Improving Livability in New York City,” a program launched through an innovative cross-organizational partnership among the NYC Department of Transportation, City Planning Commission, and Departments of Health, Design and Construction, won for its cutting-edge approach to smart growth. To achieve the goals laid out in PlaNYC, which outlines 127 programs for creating a “greener, greater New York City,” Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and Amanda Burden, Chair of the City Planning Commission, realized that they needed to roll-out tangible improvements that can enable smart growth in the short-term. This work took the form of the new Street Design Manual, the Active Design Guidelines, the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program, and new bicycle networks and parking amendments.
On biking, Sadik-Khan said the city has found “protected bike lanes” that have sidewalk curbs one side and parking on the other “reduce traffic accidents by 50 percent.” Burden added that New York City also now has the “strongest indoor parking rules in the U.S.” Surveys found that this was one of the key issues holding back increased bike use, so now all residential and commerical buildings need to have some form of indoor bike parking.
Overall, Sadik-Khan said PlaNYC is really the “true smart growth strategy,” but we had to “speed the design changes at the street level so it makes sense to people. People had been waiting decades for changes to happen. Short-term actions help build long-term plan buy-in.” Burden noted that 108 neighborhoods are in the process of being rezoned. “So far, 9,000 blocks have been rezoned to ensure every new development is a transit-oriented development (TOD). 87 percent of new building permits are a ten minute walk from a subway station.” For New York City’s innovative planners, it’s about “changing the use of existing space.”
Smart Policies and Rural Planning Projects
The City of Portland, Oregon, won in the programs, policies and regulations category for its “Making the Greatest Place” plan, which aims to lay out a path for sustainable growth while accomodating an extra 600,000 people by 2030. Metro, the 25 or so elected regional governments that make up the Portland region, came together to forge the plan, which focuses on “multimodal transportation infrastructure investments, the adoption of urban and rural reserve designations in an effort to exclude some areas from development, and local policy and investment commitments.” As one of the winners noted, this broad-based, collaborative approach among regional governments that make up the Metro council is innovative in itself and should be replicated elsewhere. Portland officials added that the U.S. Federal partnership on Sustainable Communities is also serving as a model for local action because it encourages local governments how to cross organizations to create plans. “More local communities need to do this.”
In the category of rural smart growth, the Gateway 1 communities and Maine Department of Transportation won for the Gateway 1 Corridor Action Plan, which aims to take back Route 1, the main highway that goes through Maine and ensure it serves local communities’ economic development efforts. A coalition of 20 communities worked with the Maine DOT to create the plan, which was also seen as an “innovative planning process.” The 20 towns met in workshops and town meetings to create a “community-centered corridor” development plan that aims to reduce traffic congestion, establish public transportation as an option, and reduce commercial strip development in favor of preserving rural lands and habitat. As one local official noted, “it’s about ease of access.”
Reclaiming Spaces and Rehabilitating Communities
Miller’s Court in the Charles Village neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland, won in the smart growth and green building category. The project turned a brownfield site and decrepit buildings that had been abandoned for 20 years into new office and residential spaces designed for local educational and cultural institutions and teachers. A representative from the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development said the new building was surrounded by “strong communities” that help anchor the new building and its budding community. Marks, Thomas Architects, the designers of the new building, added that the goal of the project was to “make life better, more affordable for teachers. We need to keep our teachers in Baltimore because education is our best investment for economic development.”
Lastly, Mint Plaza, which turned an old alley into a new public park in San Francisco, won for the civic places category. Made possible through a “smart bond” approach that meant the city only had to spend $150,000 for the $3.2 million 18,000-square foot project, the new urban plaza shows how city governments “without cash on hand” can create vibrant public spaces. The plaza, designed by CMG Landscape Architecture, not only works for well for the local people, but also features an innovative green infrastructure system: Gently sloping gradients mean waters flows into an “infiltration gallery” that cleanses and slowly releases the water into the ground. “The private developer partnered with the city, but the landscape architecture firm led the way, creating a viable place with invisible water infiltration,” said one city official.
The representative from the City of San Francisco also added that “there are many good smart growth designs, but few good ways to fund these projects.” Still, the city found the seed funding and used an innovative city bond approach to turn the privately-financed space into public land because the project was “plain economic self-interest. Converting space for public use creates economic value.”
Image credit: Mint Plaza, San Francisco / SF Weekly